You’ve probably never seen a man die. To watch the very life flow from a human being, like so much sand in the top of an hour glass. To watch the eyelids flutter with fading energy, while the eyes are alive with death’s surprise.
I’ve seen it far too many times and every time it hurts me. As if I’m reexperiencing the sadness in a unique way each time. If I ever get used to it, then I know my self-imposed exile has truly cut me off from the world of men, and I shall be ready for what lies beyond my life in the Pines.
But there is only pain and suffering past these wooden boundaries. I know, for I am a devil and devils can see beyond the sad little facade of your reality. Past the world which hangs so tenuously by a thread that you take for granted.I am the 13th of the 13th...
“G’day, Guv,” Nate greeted, as he floated out of the stream.
I had been staring into a crystal clear creek, in the shady embrace of an elder cedar. Watching the water ripple over moss-covered sandstone and as minnows darted to and fro, looking for pools of calm. You would not be able to see Nate, of course, but the minnows sensed his presence, hesitated, then darted away as his apparition floated by.
“Mornin’ Nate,” I greeted without feeling.
“Mornin’? It’s at least 3 in the PM, guv. You’ve been starin’ into that stream too bloody long.”
Nate was a mover, a shaker. Even almost 300 years after Captain Kidd cut off his head, you could still hear it in his voice. Searching for an angle, looking for a scheme and trying to keep on top of things to the point of annoying me. Afterall, how much is there to keep track of in the middle of the woods?
“Coupla right nice snatches back at the camp ground, mate. I watched ‘em shower all mornin’. Lovely things. You ought to go over there and ‘ang about. Might not ‘ave ta sleep with the bleedin’ squirrels for a change.”
“Snatches” was Nate’s word for women. I assumed it was some sort of pirate slang. I almost cracked a smile at his suggestion.
“First of all, the camp ground is at least a half day’s walk. Secondly, I think in my current mode of dress I would be more likely to get arrested for vagrancy, than to talk my way into bed. And, thirdly, why are you so anxious to see me get laid?”
“A change o’ bloody pace, is all!”
Nate gestured angrily, dropping his head into the stream. I let him fumble about for it as he ranted.
“God! You must be dead from the neck up and down! Take advantage of some bloody tail why ya can, guv. I know I miss it.”
I stood and walked toward the direction of the camp grounds.
“That’s the spirit, guv! Give ‘er one fer me!”
“I’m going to the fire tower. You can come, if your quiet.”
A few paces down one of the many winding trails of the pines and I was rid of the ghostly pirate. At least for now. Of course, I really hadn’t intended on going to the fire tower today. It would probably dark when I reached it, but the sky was grey and the air was a tingle with the possibility of storm. And even a devil hates sleeping in the rain.
As I walked, I found myself thinking of the camp ground. I wonder what the camper’s reaction would be? My jeans were ripped and beginning to wear even at the seams. My shirt was in tatters and despite a wash in the stream, it was still stained with the grease of a roadside repair. I wore a bandanna around my neck, just in case I ran into somebody, but if they took the time to look they’d notice the staff and the word “TRUTH” carved into it. The local cops don’t know who I am, but they’ve heard the rumors. A few well-placed calls to the police and they’d be looking for me again, but not if I was careful.
Six hours later and I had still not reached the tower. During my walk, a fat pine snake crossed my path, so I stopped for a quick meal, then decided to cook the rest for later. (Starting a fire from scratch can be time-consuming.) The sun set behind a blob of orange and gold hue. I soon found myself walking in the darkness.
You should not walk in the Pines at night. There are many footfalls, branches and animal burrows to slip into. If you take your time and you know the area, you can traverse through the moonlight at a steady pace. I tend to let my guard down in this darkness, letting the safety of its mystery embrace me. It’s one of my few joys.
“Taylor?” a woman’s voice suddenly asked.
I stopped dead in my tracks hoping she hadn’t seen me. Could I be this close to the camp ground?
“Is that you? Who is that?”
Stooping behind a blueberry bush, I peered into the next clearing. A dark skinned woman, maybe 20, was fumbling to get her pants up, while she knocked a roll of toilet paper off the stump where she had placed it. As she stood, a streak of moonlight illuminated her face and shoulder-length auburn mane.
God, she’s beautiful.
“Taylor, you weirdo!”
I set my staff in a pile of leaves near my feet. She looked as if she was going to go back to wherever she came from, but she suddenly veered toward me. I stood up.
“Ah, ha!” she began to say, as if she recognized me. Unfortunately, as soon as she got close enough, she realized her mistake and reeled back. “Wh-who the Hell are you?!”
She screamed before I could answer, then turned and stumbled over a dead tree. Her foot got caught in a root and she pulled on it hard enough to twist her foot off.
“I-- I didn’t mean to startle you...” I mumbled, trying to appear harmless. “I was just on my way to the fire tower.”
She just glared at me in disbelief. I gently knelt down and pulled the tree root so her foot would come free.
“You were watching me!” she insisted.
“I-I’m sorry,” I said embarrassed. “But you were in the middle of the road.”
She looked around and was surprised to see the two parallel paths of sand, the tell-tale sign of a Pine Barrens path.
“Oh, my God, I took a dump right in the middle of the road,” she said even more embarrassed.
Suddenly, there was a rustling in the bush nearby. A man, I assumed Taylor, came charging out of the woods armed with a campers shovel. The woman screamed for him to stop, even as he swung. I quickly ducked and the blade smacked soundly against the tree behind me. I tried to maneuver out of the way, but was blind-sided by a third person, who tackled me so hard, I went head first into a tree.
When I came to, I was lying on top of a sleeping bag, in a small camp some distance away. There was a campfire, two tents and the smell of canned raviolis. Someone had bandaged my head and pulled my bandanna down. I pulled it up as I began to sit up. Taylor ran to my side.
“Try not to move,” he instructed. “You probably have a concussion. Paula! He’s awake!”
Paula came out of the tent with a blanket and a bottle of water in her hands.
“Are you all right, sir?” she asked desperately. “Do you feel any nausea?”
“No. Who are you people? And who tackled me?”
“That was Mike, my boyfriend. I’m Paula Gulacy and this is Taylor Lupin. We’re doing a study on the horned owls for our zoology class. Mike’s such a thickheaded jock, he thought you were attacking me. He’s really sorry.”
“Why isn’t he here to apologizing to me?”
“He felt so bad, he put on his pack and went to get help,” explained Taylor.
“You should’ve stopped him, he could be blundering around in the dark all night if he doesn’t know his way,” I grumbled, feeling the bump on my head. “And if really thought I was hurt, you shouldn’t of moved me. I could’ve had a neck injury.”
“I knew it!” Taylor snapped, throwing his arms into the air. “He’s going to sue us!”
Taylor was a medium-sized, skinny college student, with dark kinky hair. His glasses looked a little too big for his face and he seemed all wound up from some previous confrontation. He was wearing stylish camping gear, that looked like he bought it more for the style than the actual function. I bet he paid a fortune just for the boots.
“I’m not going to sue anyone,” I lamented, testing my neck. I’d probably be a little sore, but otherwise, I seemed to be fine. “You’re not allowed to camp here. Your fire is too close to the trees.”
I took the bottle out of Paula’s hand and put the fire out. It almost when completely dark, save for the flashlight in Taylor’s tent. He cursed, then went inside the tent and brought it outside.
“What do you like to be in the dark?” he asked, agitated.
“Calm down, Taylor,” Paula chided.
“If you turned off all the lights, you might be able to see your friend’s flashlight in the distance. Then we can stop him, so he doesn’t hurt himself,” I explained.
Actually, I could care less if this “Mike” walked off the cliff. I just didn’t want the Park Ranger or anyone of authority seeing me. Reluctantly, Taylor shut of his light. In the great distance, in the darkness, we could see Mike’s flashlight bouncing as he walked. Taylor turned his light back on, started to walk, but then looked at Paula.
“I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “God, you almost killed him.”
Taylor cursed, then started his trek into the darkness. Paula found her portable floodlight and lit the camp up again.
“So,” she said, tired of waiting for me to introduce myself. “Are you a park ranger or something?”
“Something like that,” I answered, non-committal.
“What’s with the bandanna?” she asked, gesturing to the black and red logo.
“I have allergies.”
“Do you have a name, or do I have to guess?”
I was almost tempted to make her guess. She smiled. She had a beautiful smile.
“My friends call me, J.D.”
“Oh, like the drink. You want something to eat?”
“You gonna eat the rest of that?”
She shook her head and gave me the pot of ravioli. I tossed in the rest of the pine snake and mixed it around.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Pine snake. Want to taste?”
“Are you crazy?! Those snakes are endangered!”
“Sorry,” I shrugged. “I was hungry. I’m not going to eat them all.”
“Well, since you already killed it...”
She took a bite, chewed it thoughtfully, then nodded in approval.
“You said you and your friends were studying the owls...” I started, shifting the topic away from me.
Paula began telling me about their study. She and Taylor were students at Stockton College and were in the middle of a project for their Junior zoology class. Mike was Paula’s boyfriend, who studied at a New York college and played football. He was a business major and had come down for the weekend just for the camping trip.
As Paula talked, I became momentarily enraptured by the sound of her voice. It was light and airy, like the shrill of a songbird. The sort of voice that made anything it pronounced sound interesting. Unfortunately, at the same time, Mike had just reached a clearing in the woods. He could hear the sound of a car and spotted some headlights in the distance. Thankful for the sign of civilization he ran toward a group of people standing on the other side of the car.
“Hey! Hey, over here!” he called.
When he reached the light of the limousine, he could see the strange group standing there. There were four men in tailored suits, while a fifth was on his knees with his hands tied behind his back. A large, swarthy man with a toothpick held a gun to the back of his head, while a shorter, fat man rested his hands on the kneeling man’s shoulder as if to steady him. The other two men cradled holstered guns, just inside their jackets. Mike was so surprised at the scene, his brain couldn’t process the information fast enough.
It was a fatal mistake.
Taylor, some distance behind, had just reached the edge of the clearing. The large man, without hesitating, jammed his gun in Mike’s direction and fired. The shot shook Taylor from his complacent gaze, and he stood transfixed by the scene. In the distance, he could hear the men shouting.
“What the fuck did you do that for, Gino?” said the fat man.
“He seen us, what did you want me to do, Al?”
Taylor turned to run, but at the same time, I put the light out in Paula’s camp.
“What did you do that for?” she whispered at me.
“That was a shot. They can’t shoot what they can’t see.”
“Are you sure? Maybe it was just a car backfiring.”
“The highway is at least 15 miles away. Did you bring any weapons?”
At the same time, Gino and Al were debating on what to do.
“We can’t kill him here now,” insisted the one with the grey hair.
“What the fuck’s the difference, Tommy?” the one with the sunglasses added.
“Let’s just do him and be done,” Gino insisted.
“No! This is not the way we do things, Gino! You know that!” shouted Al.
Taylor had broken out in a cold sweat. He’d stop listening to the men. Suddenly, he saw them walk around to the other side of the limo. They were picking up Mike’s body to bury it, but he thought they were coming to get him. In a panic, he bolted into the woods, making enough noise to alert them.
“Hey! HEY!” shouted Al.
“Turn the limo over there!” ordered Gino.
By the time Tommy got back into the car, Taylor was pretty far into the woods. Al, Gino and Joe, the one with the sunglasses, fired a few rounds in Taylor’s direction. Al screamed for Tommy to move the car forward, but when he did, he failed to notice a slight dip in the path. The heavy limo sunk into the Pine Barrens sand soundly and Tommy immediately realized they were stuck.
“Fuck!” he cursed, shifting gears.
Their real target, a Mr. Salvatore Zeezi, took the opportunity to hop to his feet and run blindly into the woods. He wisely choose not to run in the direction of the headlights and was almost instantly lost in the darkness of the woods. Gino turned his gun in that direction, but Al pulled his hand down.
“No, no, no!” he insisted. “We can’t pop Sal here now! Tommy and Joe, you go after him. We’ll take care of the hiker.”
Bleeding and without his glasses, Taylor stumbled his way back to the camp, finding the light, which Paula had lit again. I grabbed him, put Paula’s knife to his throat and pulled him into the darkness, muffling his scream.
“What happened?” I hissed.
“Some guys back there,” he ranted. “I think they killed Mike!”
“Shhh,” I hushed. “C’mon.”
I had to practically drag Taylor back to the spot where I left Paula.
“Taylor?” she whispered immediately.
“He’s all right,” I said. “But I think you boyfriend may have been shot or killed.”
“What?!” she cried, but then immediately lowering her voice. “I thought there weren’t any hunters back here.”
“Listen to me,” I ordered. “You two have to keep your mind clear, if we’re going to live through this. Taylor, what did these men look like?”
“I think there were four of ‘em. Wearing suits...”
“Suits? They sound like gangsters,” said Paula disbelievingly.
“The Pines is one of their favorite dumping grounds,” I explained. “It takes a long time to find a body out here. Just stay here and don’t make a sound.”
“Where are you going?” begged Taylor, almost on the verge of hysterics.
“Stay quiet!” I whispered harshly. “I’m going to make them leave.”
By this time, Gino was a good hundred feet ahead of Al. He stood in the center of the camp, examining the belongings. Huffing and puffing, Al stopped to catch his breath on a stump.
“Looks like there’s four of ‘em!” Gino shouted back to him. “They’re not going to get far without their packs. You see ‘em?”
“No!” Al replied, trying to keep his lungs from bursting.
He took his own pulse, then, satisfied with the results, looked up. Gino was gone.
He was lying behind Paula’s tent unconscious. I had knocked him out with a rock, then took his gun and ran into the woods before he noticed. Al took a few steps toward the camp, then I came up behind him. He turned around just in time to get a kick in the face. He fell against a tree. I used his own jacket to time him down.
By this time, Tommy and Joe had completely lost Salvatore. They got lost and decided to head towards the light of the limo. Unfortunately, they were heading for Paula’s camp and instead, blundered into where Taylor and Paula wer hiding. Paula got up to run, but Tommy pushed her down.
“Please, don’t kill us!” begged Taylor.
“Sorry,” smiled Joe. “You left your campfire unattended and Smokey asked us to enforce it strenuously.”
Before Joe could cap Taylor, I hurled Paula’s knife into his wrist. He dropped the gun and yelped in pain. Tommy whirled around, but I already had the bead on him.
“Who the fuck are you?” he said upon seeing me.
“I live here,” I informed him, kicking the gun out of his hand. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t blow your head off?!”
“Because,” said a voice from the darkness. “I’ll do the same to you.”
A short, fat, balding old man stepped out of the woods and aimed a gun at my back. His calm demeanor and silent approach told me he was the smartest, the leader. He gestured for Tommy to take my gun and he did so. Tommy forced me to my knees and the leader knelt near me.
“These people aren’t anything to you,” I insisted. “Just let them walk away.”
“I don’t think so, friend,” he replied, calmly lighting a cigarette. “You look like you do live here, so you know these woods. The man we drove out here to kill is somewhere out there. You find him, you kill him and then I let your friends go.”
He took a drag, then blew it into my face. He pointed to his watch, then smiled at me sinisterly.