Aaron Elkins: The Dark Place

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Aaron Elkins The Dark Place
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    The Dark Place
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The Dark Place

Aaron Elkins


Prologue

With a curse that echoed weirdly through the dripping forest, Eckert sat heavily down on a spongy, moss-covered log. Then he stood up again and shrugged out of the backpack he wore under his poncho, heedlessly letting it slip to the sodden ground. He rubbed his shoulders and stood staring at his moisture-blackened boots, listening to the never-ending soft rain that rustled in the tall trees and pattered on the plastic hood of his poncho like a thousand spidery, scrabbling insects.

He was tired: tired in the base of his spine, and the muscles of his thighs, and the ligaments of his knees. And he was tired of being wet, unutterably sick of the dark, glistening forest with its green, under-the-sea light, ghostly and dim. For two days and nights the rain had floated down in a mist, never slackening, never increasing; just enough to keep him continuously wet, cold, and miserable.

The trail he had been on since eight was too new to show on the map, but the Park Service sign had said NORTH SHORE, TEN MILES. That saved five miles and would put him under a hot shower and into dry clothes two hours sooner than the old trail. But now he wasn’t sure of exactly where he was, and that made him uncomfortable. Still, it couldn’t be more than two or three miles more; it just couldn’t be.

He continued to stare at his boots. The thought of taking the right one off to get at the pebble that seemed to be lodged beneath his little toe was almost more than he could bear: untying the tight knot with his chilled fingers, undoing all that wet lacing, taking the boot off, then the outer sock, then the inner sock, putting them on, tying the boot up again-and all in that drenching, bone-chilling fog.

He looked up suddenly at the sound on his left. Twenty feet away, veiled in the mist, a figure had stepped out of the brush, its right hand raised above its head. In the hand was a strange object, hard to make out in the lowering fog. A long, jointed stick? A whip?

"Wait," Eckert said.

The figure’s arm plunged down. There was a clacking noise and a whir. Eckert’s heart seemed to explode, and the green world turned red and then went black.


On the gravel bar at the bend in the river, Hartman hunched over in the misty rain, trying to focus on the hook and line. He blinked twice and protruded the tip of his tongue in a bleary effort to concentrate. If he didn’t watch out, he’d cut his thumb open. Too much brandy. He’d finished most of the pint-his total three-day supply-in the past hour. But it was getting wet and cold, and if he was going to have to spend the night there, he might as well be as comfortable as he could.

He must have taken the wrong turn at the junction where the signpost had been torn out. He’d meant to continue on the Tletshy trail over the divide and out of the rain forest without stopping, but this must be the new Matheny trail, which meant that it was Big Creek he was fishing in, or trying to fish in. He’d have to return to the junction in the morning. It was only a walk of a few hours, but he didn’t want to do it in the dark.

He took another swig from the bottle and looked glumly around him. Actually, he didn’t dislike the rain forest, but it wasn’t anyplace he wanted to spend the night. Still, with the brandy, and maybe with a trout cooked over the propane stove, it wouldn’t be so bad.

The hell it wouldn’t, he thought; it’d be miserable. The rain forest was getting creepier as it got darker, and he’d be clammy and uncomfortable all night, and wake up in the morning soaked and aching. He hadn’t thought to bring a rain fly for the tent, damn it. And of course it would still be raining. Goddamn it, it should have been the Tletshy that branched to the right.

It was growing dark quickly. Hartman wiped the moisture from his eyebrows, shifted his haunches on the sharp pebbles, and frowned again at the hook in his hand.

He was startled by a sudden splash at his side. A limb must have fallen from a tree. He looked up. There were no trees overhead; the gravel bar extended far into the bend of the creek, thirty feet away from the forested bank. Frightened, he looked again at the object in the shallow water. It was too straight to be a tree limb, and it had stuck into the stream bed like a javelin. The angle told him someone had thrown it at him from behind.

He jumped and spun around. He could see only a few feet into the dull green mist of the forest. Nothing moved. The only sounds were the gurgle of the creek over the stones and the steady, light patter of the rain. With his heart pounding, Hartman ran for the tent, where his knife lay next to the stove.

He didn’t get there. Just as he scrambled from the slippery stones of the bar to the earthen bank, something reared up horrifyingly out of the brush directly in front of him. Hartman stared unbelievingly into a pair of fierce, mad eyes. He tried to stop and turn, but he skidded on the wet stones and fell on his side at the figure’s feet. He looked up to see a black silhouette edged with awful clarity against the sky’s dying light, its right hand raised high, holding what could only be, incredibly, a heavy, rough stone hammer, a caveman’s stone club. Hartman flung his left arm across his face as the hammer came crashing down.

Excerpt from the Peninusla Daily News, April 2, 1976:

SEARCH FOR HIKERS ENDS

QUINAULT, WA-Olympic National Park authorities to day announced abandonment of the search for two hikers believed lost last month in the park’s Quinault area. Clyde Hartman, thirty-eight, of Portland, Oregon, and Norris Eckert, twenty-nine, of Seattle, disappeared within a few days of each other in early March, apparently in the dense rain forest northwest of Lake Quinault. Senior investigator Claude Gerson said that the search had been "the most exhaustive one ever made" in the Olympic National Park, and there was "simply no trace of them."

One investigator told reporters: "There’s just no way. That’s jungle in there. You’d need a machete to get through. They could have been six feet off the trail, and we’d never have found them."

Excerpt from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 1, 1982:

HIKER LOST IN OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK GIRL MISSING IN "DISAPPEARANCE VALLEY"

National Park investigators are combing the Quinault Valley for eighteen-year-old Claire Hornick of Tacoma, who was reported missing late Tuesday when she failed to re join fellow campers at the Graves Creek campground near Lake Quinault after taking a solitary hike. According to companion Gary Beller, twenty-two, also of Tacoma, Miss Hornick had gone into the rain forest "to be alone for an hour or two," along the Quinault River Trail.

The Quinault Valley received nationwide notoriety as "Disappearance Valley" six years ago, after a month-long search failed to find any sign of two hikers separately reported missing there. The two have never been found.

Chapter 1

Dr. Fenster pressed his lips into a tight little bud. He wasn’t a bone man, had never cared for bones. Too much guesswork, especially after they’d been in the ground a while. They shrank, they warped, they were inconclusive cause-of-death indicators, they gave unreliable tissue types. Give him some blood, on the other hand, or semen, or saliva, or best of all a major organ, and you really had something. A pathologist could get his teeth into something like that, so to speak.

He sighed noisily and rearranged the bones on the oak table again, this time in a neat row, but Lau could see he wasn’t getting anywhere. After waiting politely for the older man to speak, Lau said, "What do you think, Dr. Fenster? Is it one of them?"

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