Here's the excerpt. It's uncorrected copy. Please don't redistribute. Copyright 2012 Anthony Izzo.
Jess Armstrong pulled her Dodge Durango into a slanted parking slot at the Forgotten Diner. It was a low-slung white building. The lights inside glowed bright, given the restaurant the qualities of a beacon in the dark night. It was along the town's main drag and she got out of the Durango and walked inside.
The counters continued with the theme of gleaming white. She'd expected to inhalde the aromas of meatloaf and fresh coffee, but she smelled nothing of the sort. The front counter was empty, and there were a dozen red vinyl stools lined up. She had driven all night to get here and her stomach ached from hunger. There was a piece of pie in a clear glass pie case sitting on the counter. That and a cup of coffee would do it.
She took a seat at the counter. A greasy menu was tucked between two napkin holders on the counter. She took it out and looked over it. If the grill wasn't closed, a burger actually sounded good, something with bacon and blue cheese that wouldn't help her abs one bit.
She'd come here working a case. A private investigator, she'd been hired to track down a missing college student, a kid named Martin Vega. Two weeks ago, she'd gotten a call from a tearful woman asking for a meeting. She'd agreed to meet with Emily Vega and discuss the case.
Her office was in an old feed mill that had been converted into offices. The heavy beams and ductwork had been left after the renovation, giving the building an industrial feel. Emily Vega entered Jess' office, a slim Latino woman in a down vest and jeans. Her eyes were red-rimmed and she carried a crumpled tissue in her hand.
“Are you good at finding missing persons?” Vega asked.
“I've done it before,” Jess said, taking out a yellow legal pad and gel pen. “Who are you looking to find.”
“What's his name?”
“Martin. He's a student at The University of Buffalo. He called and told me he was taking a break from college. He wanted to be a photographer,” she said, wiping her nose with the tissue. “He liked to photograph abandoned places.”
“So he cut class to go take pictures?”
“When's the last time you heard from Martin?”
“Three days ago. He called from a town called Forgotten. It's in Montana.”
“A long way from home,” Jess said, noting the name of the town. “What did he say?”
“He was going into an abandoned mining town to take pictures.”
“How do you know he's gone missing?”
She shifted in the chair, reached in her pocket, and took out a cell phone. She flipped it open and punched in a code. Then she put it on speaker.
A young man's voice said:
“Mom, there's someone after me. I'm up in the mountains. I'm lost. I called the cops up here and they told me to stop bothering them. Call for help if you get this.”
“Did you call the police up there.”
She folded the phone back up and stuck it in her pocket. “They said there was nothing they could do. The local police said there wasn't enough to make them think he was missing.”
“So you came to me.”
“Mrs. Vega, I'm sorry.”
“Will you do it?”
“I get half my fee up front. The other half when I find him.”
“So you'll find him?” she asked.
“I'll do my best.”
So here she was, halfway across the country in Big Sky Country, hoping to find a college kid who decided to blow off school. Before she looked for Martin Vega, she needed something to eat. “Hello?”
No answer came from the diner, so she went behind the counter and entered the kitchen. The counters were spotless and free of food. It didn't have that lingering greasy smell that seemed to linger in every diner. “Anybody?”
A door slammed shut in another part of the kitchen and a gaunt kid in white cook's clothes appeared. His t-shirt hung on his bony frame. “Customers aren't allowed in the kitchen.”
“I was looking for a waitress.”
“The sign said open. Plus your lights are on.”
“Doesn't matter. We're closed. Now leave.”
“I've come a long way. How's about a piece of pie out there?”
“It's no good. I need to throw it out.”
“I'll buy it.”
“Do I need to call the Sheriff? I said we're closed, you dumb bitch.”
Jess felt her temples start to throb. At thirty-one, she didn't have high blood pressure, but she could feel her blood start to cook. It was apparent she wasn't getting a meal. “So much for small-town hospitality.”
She left the kitchen, feeling the kid's gaze on the back of her neck. As she moved through the diner, she was half-tempted to grab the piece of pie, but she didn't. Might need the local law to cooperate. As she climbed into the Durango, the kid was standing in the doorway of the diner, his stare boring into Jess. If looks could've killed, she would be pushing up daisies.
She arrived at the Three Pines lodge. The lodge was constructed of logs, a main building in the center and two wings jutting off to each side. A stuffed grizzly bear on hind legs stood outside the door. After getting her bag from the rear of the Durango and making sure her shoulder rig was concealed, she went inside. Looking around, she saw the walls were lined with the heads mounted animals. Deer. Elk. The head of another bear. Maybe it was the other bear's relative.
A red-haired woman stood at the front desk, which was constructed of a polished piece of rough wood built on top of logs. She was typing something on a keyboard.
“I have a reservation,” Jess said.
Jess told her. The woman checked her in, swiping her credit card. She gave Jess a room key. “Two eighteen. I'm sure you'll find it.”
“Thanks for the hospitality. Is there a restaurant in the lodge?”
“There is. It's closed. If you're hungry, there's vending machines over there.”
“Doritios for dinner. I've had worse,” she said, gathering her bag and key. She stopped at the vending machine and purchased a package of Oreos and a bag of chips. Then she went up to her room, intent on having the gourmet dinner provided by the Lodge.
After stumbling around in the woods, Ray found his way back to their campsite. The fire had died down to a dull orange. The cold bit through his clothes and his body ached from the tumble down the hill. He didn't know what to do, so he could at least gather more wood for a fire.
He threw some more wood on the fire, but it only smouldered, refusing to light. He scanned the woods, looking for any sign of Pete. There was only darkness.
He didn't know what he'd do if he lost the boy. Pete had grown into a good young man. Gone were the days when he idolized Ray, when the simple act of Ray fixing a broken toy truck was deemed heroic. But they still had moments: like going to the occasional Buffalo Bills' game, the two of them grilling steaks in the lot before kickoff. It made his chest ache to think Pete might be gone.
He cursed himself for coming back to the campsite. Should be out looking for Pete. Ann Marie's voice echoed in his head, his wife sometimes exhibiting an almost casual cruelty: Maybe someday you'll find your spine, Ray. He shouldered his pack. If he died out there, at least he would die searching for Pete.
Heading in the direction of the footprints, he managed to find the trail. They certainly were fucking strange. Some type of animal. He continued into the pines, trying to follow the general path of where the footprints might have gone. He was rewarded by finding snapped brush and branches, meaning something large had come through.
After moving through the woods, the moonlight his only companion, he spied a shiny object on the ground and hunkered down: it was Pete's pocket knife.
There was no blood on it, and he found that somewhat comforting.
He continued to follow the footprints as they wound through the broken branches left by Pete's abductor.
After travelling another couple hundred yards, he came to a clearing. In the clearing was a domed structure constructed of sticks and leaves. It stood around ten feet high and gave the impression of a makeshift shelter.
Circling around it, Ray listened to determine if anyone was inside. There was an opening tall enough to admit a man of seven feet tall. He took out Pete's pocket knife and clicked the blade open, thinking some weapon was better than nothing.
The same sour, musky smell that he noticed before Pete's abduction came from the doorway of the thatched structure. Ray crept inside, the ground spongy under his feet.
He squinted to see, the darkness near total. He didn't hear anyone inside. “Pete?”
This place was empty. But who the hell built it?
As he turned to go, he stepped on something squishy and wet. He kicked at the unseen object and it clung to his foot and he stumbled out the door. He managed to unstick the mess from his shoe, and in the moonlight he got a better look at it: pinkish gray and slicked with blood. The rest of it trailed inside the shelter and he realized it was a loop of entrails.
He fell to his knees and fought the urge to vomit. Jesus, please don't let that be Pete.
Stomach churning, he stood. His hands shook and he looked at the viscera on the ground at his feet. What if Pete's clothes were inside? There was only one way to tell.
He ducked back into the shelter and felt around, crawling back and forth on the ground. He found no clothes but did manage to stick his finger in something. He was glad it was dark.
When he climbed out of the shelter, he wiped his hands on some leaves. “Maybe it's from an animal.”
He continued through the woods, following the broken branches until he came to a cliff. From down below came the gurgle of water. Ray looked at the ground and saw the footprints ended at the cliff. He peered over the edge and saw the cliff went down to the riverbed. There were a series of rock shelves on the way down. It was possible someone could climb down, resting on each shelf.
The footprints definitely ended here.
The first shelf was about twenty feet down and he figured it was the only route the abductor could have taken. He lowered himself, belly pressed against the rocks. He found some footing and managed to climb down to the first shelf, sweating and panting.
He searched the rocky shelf for any sign of Pete but found nothing.
After another ten minutes of climbing, he reached the next shelf down. This time he found Pete's brown leather wallet. Still no blood on it, which he took as a good sign.
Climbing to the floor of the ravine, with resting, took him another forty-five minutes, and when he reached the bottom, he was minus half the nail on his right fingernail. He sucked on the wounded nail as if it would help but was rewarded only with the tastes of blood and dirt.
His throat felt as if he'd sucked dirt through a straw and swallowed. The water was long gone.
He knelt at the riverbank, scooped up some water, and swished it in his mouth. Then he spit it out, the water silty and brackish.
After searching the riverbank, he found the footprints. They headed down river and he follwed them for another quarter mile.
As he slogged along the riverbank, the hairs on his neck prickled. He got a tight feeling in his guts, like he might let loose in his drawers. Fear. Someone watching him.
As a shriek echoed through the woods, he took out the pocketknife.