My goal is to have this available for Kindle, Nook, etc. by May. Please note, this is uncorrected copy. Please do not redistribute. Copyright 2011 Anthony Izzo.
by Anthony Izzo
They were coming home.
The men stood on the bluff, careful to stay out of sight. They watched the three SUVs pass down the winding road going to The Hollow.
There was prey in those cars, fresh meat. It had been twenty years, but now the men were home. The biggest of the three, who weighed two hundred eight pounds, motioned for the other two to follow him. He opened the rear of the rusted panel truck and showed them the tools he had bought and stolen. There were drills, saws, icepicks, blowtorches. Also weapons. Knives, hatches, machetes.
The other two men smiled at this, satisfied that the big man had gotten the tools they needed.
It was early in the day, around eleven a.m. The beginning of November, and a chill had filled the stark woods.
The campers – if the were headed to the Hollow – had no idea what was in store for them. The men had stayed in the Hollow's cabins for the past few weeks, using them for shelter. The youngest of their, group, no more than a boy, really, liked to butcher small animals. He usually started with cutting off the limbs.
The young man told the two others he wanted to try his skills on bigger things.
They would give him the chance. Soon.
Liz Mallory couldn't help the prickly feeling that danced on the back of her neck. She didn't like the woods, and attributed the strange feeling to her dislike of their location, but she couldn't shake it. Like they were being watched.
Liz was driving the second vehicle in the three car caravan, a blue Ford Excursion. Jamie, her seventeen-year-old daughter, sat in the passenger seat. They were off for a weekend camping trip with some of Liz's old college friends, who were in the vehicles in front and behind.
“You're quiet, mom,” Jamie said.
“Woods. Don't like them.”
“Afraid of a bear?”
“Rabid squirrels. They terrify me.”
“Your sense of humor terrifies me sometimes,” Jamie said.
Liz cracked a smile.
“We'll be fine. We're staying in cabins. I wonder if they'll have a fireplace?” Jamie said.
“Said online they did. They just reopened this place.”
Jamie said, “Oh yeah?”
Liz nodded, but didn't tell her daughter why the cabins had been closed for the past nineteen years. “Doing renovations.”
She was being jittery, which wasn't like her. The trip would be good for them. The divorce from Ken had been painful. She'd spent the better part of last year fighting with him and his lawyers, with Jamie caught in the middle. Her daughter had the strength of a grizzly, and had held up well through the ordeal. Even when Ken had called Liz a filthy whore in Jamie's presence. Liz had though Jamie was going to go for her father's throat when he'd said that. Maybe now they could start putting thing behind them, unwind. There was a twelve pack of Sam Adams in her cooler to help with that.
“Look's like Uncle Matt's stopping,” Jamie said.
“There's the cabins, that's why.”
They came around a bend and saw three cabins perched up on a hill. They had new vinyl windows, and each had a porch out front made from knotted logs. They looked cozy to Liz, and she envisioned herself in front of a fireplace, feet up, beer in hand. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
Her friend Hannah, and Hannah's husband, Matt, were in the lead SUV. Liz had known Hannah since college. Liz's other best friend from her days at the University of Buffalo was Sonya, who was in the rear vehicle with her fiancee Kevin.
They'd planned this trip for a month, hoping to make it an annual thing.
Liz pulled to the side of the road, parked, and got out. Jamie stayed in the Expedition.
“We're here,” Hannah said. Hannah was blond and slim, and today she wore too-tight jeans and a pink sweater that looked like it'd been painted on. But it worked for her, evidenced by the number of looks Hannah got from guys whenever her and Liz went out.
“Thank you, queen obvious,” Liz said.
“I was just telling you,” Hannah said.
Matt was already striding up the hill that led to the cabins. Liz buttoned her wool coat as the wind nipped at her.
Sonya came up beside her. Sonya, petite and dark skinned, had bundled herself in a puffy blue coat, hat and scarf. Kevin joined them. He was a big guy with a face that always reminded Liz of Droopy the Dog. Sweet guy, though.
“What's our fearless leader up to?” Sonya said.
“Probably building us a shelter and starting a fire,” Liz said.
Hannah said, “Quit mocking my man. He's a take charge guy.”
Matt appeared at the top of the hill. “C'mon up.”
The rest of the group walked up to the cabins, which were arranged around a small clearing with a fire pit in the middle. They found Matt reading a piece of paper, a quizzical look on his face.
Hannah said, “Something wrong, hon?”
“I don't think these are our cabins,” Matt said.
“Uh oh Matt, you're slipping,” Sonya said.
Matt frowned. Liz knew he wouldn't like potentially looking like he was wrong.
“Well it's this goddamned printout. This says Cabin Area C, but the cabins are marked D-1 through D-3. I think we're in the wrong area. But the campground map says this should be it.”
“I'll call the manager,” Liz said, and took a printout from her pocket that had the campground info on it.
“Now just wait,” Matt said.
“You wait. I'm freezing,” Liz said, and taking out her cell, dialed the manager's office. A gruff voice answered and said he'd be right down to help them.
Fifteen minutes later, a Ram pickup truck with the words The Hollow Campgrounds on the door pulled up. A stick-thin man of about sixty got out of the truck. He wore a flannel jacket and khakis and moved with the stiffness Liz associated with an arthritic.
He came over and said, “Who called?”
“I did,” Liz said.
“We need our cabins,” Matt said.
“Name's Lee Cordo,” the man said, and offered his hand to Liz.
She shook it. “Liz. Seems we're confused about our cabins.”
“Lemme see your printout,” Lee said, holding his hand out.
“Hope this gets straightened out,” Matt said.
Liz handed the printout to Lee, who looked it over.
“They did it again, damned website. We use a third party website for our reservations. These are the D cabins, but they used to be C. You want to be in the new C area. I'll take you down there,” he said, and handed the printout back to Liz.
“Easy enough fix,” Sonya said.
Matt said, “Okay, let's go then,” and hurried towards his SUV.
“What's the matter,” Lee said, “he have a hot date.”
Hannah said, “My husband likes being in charge. We're doctors. Kind of used to it.”
“All right then. Follow me.”
Liz got back in the Expedition to find Jamie with earbuds plugged in her ears. Liz didn't know what kind of music she was listening to, but it was loud enough to be heard through the earbuds. She let it go. Liz had listened to Def Leppard full blast in her room and remembered how annoyed she would get when her mom would tell her to turn it down.
They pulled out, Lee's truck in the lead.
He led them down the road a few miles and turned right down a road that sloped into the woods. Darkness seemed to close in around the Expedition, and the little bit of sun they had was blocked by clouds.
The road continued downward for several miles into an area containing three more cabins arranged around a clearing, much like the C area cabins
They pulled into the driveway that looped through the cabin area, and Liz saw the stark difference in the cabins. These cabins were built of dark wood and seemed to blend with the woods. The paint on the windows was peeling, and moss grew on the roofs. The cabins up top had seemed cozy and cheery, where these seemed forgotten.
“This is dreary,” Jamie said.
“Maybe it won't be so bad.”
They parked the vehicles, got out, and gathered around Lee near the fire pit.
“These are older, but they're serviceable. All have fireplaces and running water.”
Kevin, who had been silent until now said, “This is kind of a downgrade from the other cabins.”
“Yeah,” Matt said. “These look pretty rough.”
“You're camping,” Lee said. “You were expecting the Hyatt Regency?”
Kevin looked to Matt, whose forehead had knitted into a frown. “We want a discount. This isn't what we paid for.”
“No discounts,” Lee said.
Liz said, “Matt, these will be fine.”
Hannah was rubbing Matt's arm, telling him to let it go.
“Hell of a way to run a railroad, right Kevin?” Mat asked.
“Maybe these won't be so bad,” Kevin said. “It's just for the weekend.”
“Look,” Lee said. “I can offer you a refund if you really don't want them.”
“Nah,” Kevin said. “We drove two hours to get here and there's nowhere around to stay.”
Matt went to the nearest cabin and started looking it over, as if performing a home inspection.
Liz looked at Sonya, who rolled her eyes. “We'll take them,” Liz said.
“Good,” Lee said. “Liz, right? I talk to you for a second?”
He motioned for her to follow him, and she did, ending up at his truck. Lee leaned against the door and crossed his arms. “You know what happened here?”
“We don't get much call for these cabins. My maintenance people don't even like coming down here. If you want a refund, take it now. I won't offer again.”
“I said we'll take them,” Liz said.
“Just making sure. Some people are funny about stuff like that,”
“I'm not superstitious. It was twenty years ago.”
“Okay then.” He gave a brief nod and got in his truck.
The interior of the cabin wasn't much of an improvement. Upon entering, Liz smelled must combined with the smell of old campfires. The floorboards creaked, and when Liz flipped the light switch, some dim yellow bulbs came on.
Liz and Jamie brought in their bags and the coolers. The cabin had a kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms.
“Any preference on the bedroom?” Liz asked.
Jamie lugged her bag into to one of the bedrooms and Liz heard hear shriek and ran into the bedroom. “What's the matter?”
“On the floor,” Jamie said, pointing in the corner.
Liz saw what had disturbed Jamie: an animal, or what was left of one. Its red muscle was exposed, and its eyeballs bulged, as if they'd been squeezed. It's head hung at an odd angle, indicating to Liz its neck had been broken.
“It's been skinned,” Liz said.
“Gross,” Jamie said.
Liz wondered if the poor thing had been alive when someone skinned it. Why would someone do this?
Liz noticed the creature – it was hard to tell exactly what it had been – left a trail of intestines behind it. Liz told Jamie to wait in the kitchen and went to the Expedition, where she kept a small snow shovel for emergencies. After grabbing the shovel, she went in the bedroom, scooped up the remains, and carried it outside. She went into the woods and tossed it, glad to be rid of the stinking carcass.
Hell of a way to start a camping trip, she thought.
Back in the cabin, she found Jamie seated at the table. Liz went over, put a hand on her shoulder. The girl was trembling. “You okay?”
“That was freaky,” Jamie said.
“Probably some kids,” Liz said, realizing that sounded lame.
“Some kids are. Let's try and forget about it, start unpacking. Okay? I'll take that bedroom,” Liz said.
“It'll get smoother from here on in,” Liz said.
Hannah watched Matt unpack, taking sleeping bags, pans, pots, and assorted camping gear. He did this in silence, operating with precision, as he did when he replaced knees or repaired slipped discs. She admired his surgical skills, but could never be a surgeon. Her practice as a pediatrician allowed her to talk to people up close, be personal. Surgeons were the auto mechanics of the medical world. Fix it, bring in the next one, fix it again.
Her stripped bare ovaries also had something to do with it. She loved the kids that came into the office, even the ones that puked on her.
As she entered the bedroom, something crunched under her feet. Hannah looked down and saw chicken bones. There was still meat and gristle on them, and they had a greasy shine to them. That told her they'd been consumed recently.
“What's up,” Matt said from behind her.
“Chicken bones. Looks like someone ate them recently.”
“Probably a raccoon,” Matt said.
“Why would it come in the cabin? They usually live underneath places like this.”
“Whatever. Want me to clean them up?”
“No,” Hannah said. “ I got it.”
Using a plastic bag to cover her hand, she picked up the bones, wrapped the bag around them, and tossed them in one of the Hefty bags they'd brought.
Half-an-hour later, they were unpacked, and Matt was sitting at the kitchen table reading a New England Journal of Medicine. Hannah grabbed herself a bottled iced tea from their cooler.
“Those bones still bother me,” Hannah said. “Like someone was here..”
“Animals, babe. Trust me.”
“Even if they were here, it was before we came.”
“Even if who was here?” Matt asked.
“The chicken bone eaters.”
“You mean the raccoons?” Matt said, still reading his magazine.
There would be no changing Matt's mind about it. “I'm going to text Sonya, see if she wants to take a hike.”
“Sounds good. I'll hang back. Me and Kevin can get wood together for a fire.”
“You're not coming?”
“These trails aren't much of a challenge,” Matt said. “But if you want to try them out, go ahead.”
Thinking it foolish to text her friend, Hannah walked over to Sonya's cabin and knocked on the door. Kevin answered, a smile on his bulldog-like face.
“Help you ma'am.”
“You going to invite me in?”
“I suppose,” he said, and stepped aside.
Sonya was standing in the kitchen, pulling a second sweater over her first.
“Chilly?” Hannah asked.
“Freezing. That back window was left open. A penguin walked by,” Sonya said.
“Last campers must've left if open.”
Sonya said, “You'd think the staff would've noticed an open window. They usually do an inspection before you check out, make sure there's no damage in the cabin.”
She didn't share her uneasiness about the chicken bones with Sonya. “I'm sure it's fine. Probably an oversight.”
“Want to take a hike while our men get the fire going? I'm thinking hot dogs over the fire for dinner.”
“Sure. Let's grab Liz, too.”
After grabbing Liz, the three women hiked up a trail that ascended behind the cabins and wound through the dense woods. Sonya had been chilled in the cabin, and even with two sweaters, gloves, and a furry hat, she still shivered. Kevin would keep her warm tonight, placing a big, hairy arm around her while they were sleeping. She'd hoped to surprise him by coming to bed with a pair of see-through bra and panties, but thought she might shiver too hard.
The three of them reached the crest of a hill and went down the other side before stopping.
“I found something weird in our cabin,” Liz said.
Sonya said, “Our window was open.”
“Dead animal,” Liz said. “Skinned.”
“Ugh,” Hannah said. “I found chicken bones that'd been eaten. They were fresh.”
“Maybe we had some squatters. Hikers or kid screwing around,” Sonya said.
Liz wandered away from the group, said, “Look here.”
Sonya and Hannah joined her. Sonya saw burnt logs and stones arranged around them. Her nose wrinkled in disgust as she saw something next to the campfire. A cat, its head severed from the body, its eyes removed.
Liz hunkered down and took a closer look. “These have been burned recently.”
Sonya was beginning to wonder if they shouldn't have canceled the reservations and gone elsewhere. Like the Hilton, where they had heat. And no mutilated animals.
Hannah said, “Let's call the owner.”
“Cops might be better,” Sonya said. “Maybe we should go home, eat the money on the cabins.”
“Matt won't go. Too stubborn.”
Sonya said, “Kevin will do what Matt does.”
Liz said, “Well, we could always leave them here. They could keep each other warm at night.”
“Thanks for putting that image in my head,” Sonya said.
Lee Corvo locked up the manager's office at The Hollow and climbed into his pickup truck. His wife, Maggie, was making beef stew for dinner, which was one of his favorites. And apple pie. She would never tell him she made one, but if there was beef stew for dinner, the pie always followed.
He pulled away from the office and down the road leading out of The Hollow. Switching on the radio station, he found a sports station, the host discussing the NFL's latest rule change on blows to the head.
He drove ahead, almost to Route 16, which would take him home. There was a truck pulled to the side of the road, its hazard lights flashing.
A man the size of a small truck stood near the van. He waved his arms frantically, wanting Lee to stop. Looked like a workman's truck, maybe a plumber or carpenter. Lee'd been helped by passing motorists, one time running out of gas on Interstate 90 and having someone pull over and drive him to a gas station. Why not?
He pulled the truck over and got out. “Need a hand?”
The man motioned him closer but said nothing. Lee approached, the guy standing still, arms hanging at his sides.
“What's the trouble?”
The man stood silent. Lee got the feeling like he might be walking into something bad. A raw jolt of adrenaline pumped through his system, and he stopped. The large man still hadn't said a word, and this worried Lee more than he could have articulated. The man hadn't threatened him in any way, but this was somehow more terrifying to Lee.
Lee backed up toward the truck. The man stood still, and Lee bumped against the grill of the truck.
Something bit into his arm, a hot pain, and he turned to see another guy, this one with a face like carved granite, holding a machete. He was aware of blood leaking from his arm and drenching his shirt.
The man swung the machete again but Lee managed to get his arm up and block the blow. From there, he ran, off the road and into the woods, not knowing where he was headed. He hadn't looked at the wound, just knew it was bleeding heavily.
He heard the man grunting behind him, as if he were an animal tracking prey.
Lee stumbled through the woods, branches scratching his face. The cold air burned his lungs. He thought about not getting his beef stew and pie.
His legs began to cramp and he slowed down. Turn and fight, he thought.
Leaning on a tree for support, he turned around to see the man closing with the machete.
Before he could get his arms up to defend himself, the man swung the machete low and chopped into his leg. The pain was enormous, and he collapsed to the ground.
He looked up to see the man staring at him with eyes that were nothing more than hard slashes in his face. The man wasn't even out of breath.
Lee heard another voice in the distance say, “Keep him alive.”
Lee raised his hand, as if to ward the man off. The man swung the machete and clipped off three off Lee's fingers. Lee stared at the stumps, now jetting blood. His head swimming, darkness began creep into view, shrinking his peripheral vision. Lee knew he didn't have long to live.
The man with the machete called for the fat man. The old man's body was near a tree, and he'd bled to death within a few minutes.
The fat man said, “You shouldn't have chopped off his fingers. We could've kept him alive.”
“He's just a warm-up,” The man with the machete said. “Help me drag him.”
The killers dragged the old guy's body through the woods. The machete man went to the step truck, cleaned the machete with a rag, and grabbed a few shovels. While he was getting the shovels, the fat man pulled the old man's pickup truck off the road and left it. They dragged the old guy into the woods and buried him. The man with the machete was barely winded, but sweat poured off the fat man and soon he began to stink.
“I was hoping to catch a woman on the road,” the Fat Man said.
“Well we didn't,” the man with the machete said.
“Get in the truck. We should get off the road.”
They covered the fresh grave with leaves and walked back to the truck.