Here’s an excerpt from a work-in-progress, The Yew Tree. In this scene Charles Little, a Whatcom County (Washington state) detective, is hiking in the back-country towards a murder scene.
The drive up 542 to Canyon Lake takes less than an hour. The access road is slow going, but I’m at the trailhead by 11am. Bill’s car is there, with the big “K-9” on the side. I call him on the radio. He sounds more irritable than usual.
“This guy’s big,” he says. “We’re gonna need a chopper to get him out of here.”
“Just don’t touch anything.” I always say this, and they always touch something. “Where are you?”
“Near the top of the Old Growth trail. It’s a good walk – about 7 miles, all of it uphill.”
He gives me the exact GPS coordinates and I enter them into my iPhone.
“Hey Charlie – can you bring some extra water? Carny is thirsty and I didn’t bring enough.”
“I’ll see what I can find,” I say, and get off the radio. Typical Hitchens – not thinking ahead.
I pop the trunk, get out of the car, and stretch. In addition to Bill’s police car there are two other vehicles parked at the trailhead; a burly black Ford pickup and a gray Prius. My emergency gallon jug of water is still in my trunk, looking heavy. I put on my pack and try carrying the water jug in one hand and the metal detector in the other. I end up leaving the metal detector.
The first few miles are easy. The cool air opens up my lungs. A few sections of the trail are washed out and muddy but otherwise the mossy earth is springy beneath my boots. I’m immersed in an evergreen paradise, kept cool by the needle canopy above. A plethora of ferns gives the forest an ancient, prehistoric feel, even though this part of the forest has a history of timber use and replanting – there are no ancient trees here.
I walk for hours. The water jug feels like it weighs twenty pounds, and I switch hands more and more frequently, cursing Hitchens. I stop to rest and drink some of the water – lighten my load – and eat some food.
Halfway through my PB&J, sitting on a fallen log, I realize that I’ve entered the old-growth forest. The giant trees (mountain hemlocks, mostly, but also yellow cedar and Pacific silver fir) are chaotically spaced. Giant deadwood snags have created gaps in the canopy; rays of light cut through, illuminating the dense undergrowth.
Off of the main trail, the forest floor is a jumble of fallen wood covered with various mosses, lichens, young shoots, and mushrooms. One large yellow clump looks just like a sea coral. A cluster of brown fungals disks growing horizontally on my own log prompt me to scoot slightly away.
I think about the life of my grandfather’s father. He was the last generation to hunt and fish in a forest like this. Our main village was only about a hundred miles southeast of here, near the Sauk and Suiattle prairie deltas. A cluster of cedar longhouses, torched by white settlers in 1884.
I laugh at myself, getting riled up about something that happened over a century ago. I’m not a victim of anything, I say. In fact, I say it out loud.
A hiker has snuck up on me in the midst of my reverie. He’s one of the oddest looking human beings I’ve ever seen.
I can’t tell what ethnicity he is, or even what color his skin is. His features are sharp and defined, his large eyes sky blue, his skin pale, but somehow tinged with shades of yellow, brown, reddish-brown, and even green. I half expect him to blend into the greenery like a chameleon.
The hiker is dressed in worn, close-fitting untanned rawhide – deerskin from the looks of it. He’s carrying a tall, slightly curved wooden staff, thick in the middle and tapered at each end. A black wool cap is pulled low on his ears. Gold-blonde hair sticks out unevenly from all around cap. This guy looks like he cuts his hair with a knife.
He’s staring at me intensely, with those freaky washed-out eyes, and I suppress an impulse to reach for my gun.
“Hey there. Just talking to myself,” I say.
He doesn’t say anything, just keeps staring.
“You coming down from the ridge?” I ask. There’s a rawhide bundle slung over his back, something long and rolled up. A real backwoods character. Without answering my question, he turns away and heads down the trail, towards the trailhead. I watch him for awhile but he doesn’t look back.
After another hour of hiking, I reach the scene of the crime. Bill Hitchens is sitting on a log, whittling. Carny growls at me.
“Shut up Carny,” says Bill.
“Did you train your dog to be racist or is that just part of her natural character?”
“My dog isn’t racist. She just doesn’t like you.”
“Now there’s gratitude,” I say. “I haul this damn jug of water all the way up the hill and now the bitch wants to bite me.” I put the water jug down and take a look at the decaying pile of flesh lying a few yards off the main trail.
Bill has taped off the area even though there’s nobody else up here. Amazingly, the scene looks relatively undisturbed. The body looks four or five weeks out; well past the bloating stage. Classic Stage 5 decomposition. The area smells strongly of cheese – that’s the butyric acid. The ground surrounding the victim is covered with a thick carpet of mold. Much of the corpse’s flesh is missing, including his face, but at first glance it’s hard to tell if that’s from scavengers or bugs. The flies are pretty much done with it but wasp and beetle larvae are still chewing on the partially desiccated meat.
There is a large clump of yellow mushrooms growing next to (not on) the body, near the throat. Maybe some kind of chanterelle. Near the mushroom clump, the ground is free of mold.
The general dimensions of the remains indicate an adult male, but not much else. His damp, decaying clothing consists of dark green work pants, a brown and red long-sleeve plaid shirt, and heavy brown mud-encrusted work boots. Logger wear. His neck is flung back at a disturbing angle. There is a large gash or tear across the trachea, though the flies and beetles have excavated the flesh to such a degree that it’s difficult to tell what caused the wound. Maybe a large knife or a machete, but I can’t immediately rule out the possibility of an animal bite (cougar, most likely – I’ve never heard of a black bear going for the throat).
I should take pictures first but I’m too curious. Instead, I grab a stick and push the head to one side so I can get a better look at his hair. Crew cut, salt-and-pepper. That, and the size of the pants (38 inch waist at least), point to a man past his prime. Late forties or early fifties.
“Anybody come by?” I ask Bill.
“Nope.” He’s pouring water from my jug into a plastic water bowl. The German Shepherd immediately begins lapping it up.
“No hikers? I saw a guy coming down the trail – he must have passed by here.”
“Nobody’s been by. I would have seen them.”
Bill Hitchens is sure of himself; I’ll give him that much. He’s five years my junior but looks ten years younger – not an extra ounce of fat on him. Tan, rugged face, clean-cut with short hair. Handsome racist bastard.
Bill stretches and looks me up and down. “Took you a long time to get up here, detective. You get tired?”
Bill squints noncommittally. “So who killed our man?”
“Who or what,” I say. “Can’t rule out an animal attack.”
Bill grunts, clearly skeptical, and goes back to his whittling. He’s slowly transforming a thick stick into something that resembles an Easter Island head.
I don a pair of latex gloves from my pack and go back to the corpse. Holding my breath, I gently place one foot onto the moldy area near the body, dislodging a green cloud of spores. I kneel down and closely examine the hands. Much of the flesh around the fingers has been gnawed away (some by foxes probably, the rest by maggots and beetle larvae) but all ten fingernails are still attached. No obvious defensive wounds.
I notice a small tear in the victim’s shirt, just under the ribcage. I call Bill over.
“Did you see this?”
Bill leans down and takes a closer look. “There you go. Bullet hole?”
“Nope. Look, it’s a vertical tear.”
“Maybe he just tore his shirt.”
I gently open up the gap in the mildewed flannel. There’s also a tear in the undershirt below.
“Puncture wound. Non-trivial sharp-edged object.” I gently probe the wound my latex-wrapped finger. I feel something hard and jagged. “There’s something in there. Either that or he’s got a shattered rib.”
Bill sniffs. The temperature is dropping. “Think he was stabbed? Then they cut his throat?”
I check the victim’s pockets. Some change and one loose key. No wallet, no phone.
Bill circles around me and idly kicks a stump a few feet away from the victim’s head. It’s a medium sized stump, maybe ten inches across, cut low the ground with a chainsaw. The cut looks relatively fresh.
It takes me a second to process. “Why is there a fresh stump in a protected old-growth area?”
Bill looks down and shrugs. “Poaching, I guess.”
“How old do you think that tree was?”
I get up and take a closer look, then shake my head. “Pacific Yew. That tree was probably over two hundred years old.”
Bill examines the densely packed rings and then looks up at me, surprised. We’re thinking the same thing but he says it first.
“You think some kind of environmental nutcase did this? This guy was the tree thief and some crazy Greenpeace hippie took him out?”
“Could be a motive. Gotta find out who this guy is.”
I get my camera from the pack and take about fifty pictures of the body and the scene. The sun is getting low but the Canon is a beast and the pictures have plenty of detail. Next I take skin, hair, and fingernail scraping samples from the victim, as well as soil samples from the man’s boots and from the surrounding area. His fingers are too far gone to yield any useful prints. Dental records are going to take a long time – the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office is understaffed and way backed up. Hopefully Harlan has made some progress. I check my phone but there are no bars up here.
“You’re dreamin’,” says Bill, grinning. In the minds of hicks like Bill, iPhones are gay. I might as well slap a rainbow flag sticker on the bumper of my Chevy.
“Let’s pack it up,” I say, more sharply than I mean to. “We’ve got a long walk down the hill. It’s getting late – our friend here will have to wait until tomorrow for the chopper.” I start running the logistics in my head – how in the hell are we going to get this guy out of here? The Sheriff’s Office aviation unit has been grounded for years – budget cuts. Maybe Customs & Border Protection can help us out – their Bellingham branch has a couple helicopters. If not, we’ll have to hire a chopper from one of the logging or tour companies. I’m not squeamish, but I don’t envy the extraction team, having to load this rotting pile of flesh onto a stretcher. Hopefully I won’t be on it.
On a whim, I take a sample of the bark from the Pacific Yew stump, as well as one of the yellow-capped mushrooms growing near the victim’s throat. Bill observes but says nothing. The dog whines.
“Fuckin’ hippies,” says Bill. He’ll jizz his pants if we can pin this one on a eco-type.
I do a quick search of the area, wishing I had my metal detector. I find a few more mushrooms but that’s it. I know I’m doing a half-assed job – I should really be doing a thorough grid search – but I’m tired from the hike and it’s getting late and it’s a long walk to the trailhead. I tell Bill we’re done.
He looks at the body. “You’re just gonna leave him like that?”
“You think one more night out here is gonna hurt him?”
Bill shrugs. “Your call.”
*** END EXCERPT ***
Comments and feedback welcome. The photographs are from a hike I took in Schmitz Preserve Park in Seattle.