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The memory keeper, p.13
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       The Memory Keeper, p.13

           Lisa Stowe

  Chapter 13

  Back at the gas station Cody watched Rachel pull out, feeling like she had been abandoned. Matt locked the door to the forest service Bronco parked next to her.

  “Shouldn’t Jess be here, too?” Cody asked as they walked behind the station to the trailhead. “We could wait for her.”

  “Jess is a city girl,” Matt said. “She doesn’t hike. It’s why she went into police work instead of the forest service.”

  “I don’t think this is going to help any.”

  “You’d rather be hanging around Florence scarfing her baked stuff?” Matt asked as he held up the caution tape for Cody to bend under.

  “We weren’t scarfing,” Cody said.

  “Yeah, right. I’ve had Florence’s cooking before. And I’ve watched how much Rachel can put away.”

  “So are you and Jess hoping I’ll have some sort of epiphany when we get up there? Like I’ll suddenly remember seeing someone standing in the trees holding a smoking gun?”

  “Don’t be obnoxious,” Matt said, ducking under the tape. “Jess thought coming back up here might trigger a memory. Personally I think it’s a waste of my time.”

  With no further words birthing between them, the woods filled the void with rustling breezes and leaves falling, foreshadowing the dance of snowflakes. Matt led the way up the now familiar trail, and Cody struggled to keep up, wishing she’d turned down the second cinnamon roll.

  “What did you come up here for anyway?” Matt asked, holding back a golden tamarack branch until she caught it. “That first time. This isn’t on the normal tourist routes.”

  “My grandfather hunted a cougar up here when he was a boy. He told me about it and I wanted to see it.”

  “He get the cougar?”

  “No, some Italian did.”

  Matt stopped abruptly and swung around. “I know that story. Big bounty, small boy. Cougar tracking the boy back down the trail.”

  “Yes!” Cody said, flooded by so many confusing emotions they tangled around her heart. Here was a thread to tie together memories of her grandfather, to prove he had lived. Someone else to remember him besides herself.

  “Don’t you know the name of this trail?” Matt asked.


  “Bounty Track. Lots of people know that story. My grandfather was a boy then,” Matt said. “He said it was why he went into the forest service when he grew up. He saw the cougar die and didn’t want to let it happen again. He was a big softy for wild animals. More so than he was for people. Gramps thought the Italian should have paid the boy the fee though.”

  Cody touched a tree branch. Bounty Track. Her grandfather’s place, in a way. “Is your grandfather still alive?”

  “No.” The word was sudden in its curtness, and silence fell heavily.

  Cody excused his brusqueness because he had unwittingly handed her an important connection to her grandfather. After several minutes of hiking steadily and silently, he stopped in the trail, not looking back at her.

  “My grandfather and father died on Desolation. They were trying to help a climber. Gramps was too old to be there, and my dad had just retired from the forest service, but both of them were too damned stubborn to wait until I got there with gear and help. The fools thought they were immortal.”

  Anger split through the words, and Cody could think of nothing to say. What was it about family, that it created such twisted bonds of devotion and responsibility? She groped for words to fill the uncomfortable emptiness between them.

  “My grandfather said an avalanche wiped out the Italian’s windows,” Cody said finally, her words sounding lame and worthless as she tried for something less emotional. “The Italian hired him to fix them.”

  “Gramps thought the boy started the rockslide. He’d laugh when he’d tell my dad and me the story." The anger was gone, Matt’s voice deflated and as devoid of life as the leaves falling around them.

  “Did you go into the forest service because of them?” Cody asked as Matt started back up the trail.

  “Yeah,” he responded, hunching his shoulders as if shielding against her words. “I have three uncles who were all miners, and when I was a kid, I wanted to be like them. But after the Sunshine fire, they never went back underground, and when I talked about it, they laid down the law, even though years had passed. No mining. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do so it was easier to give in to dad and granddad’s pushing.”

  This was the closest they had come to a normal conversation, and Cody shied away from it, afraid she’d mess it up, like May always told her she did. She was awkward enough talking to Rachel, let alone to a man. And Matt seemed content to let silence return.

  Cody’s jeans and jacket were soon damp from brushing past long dead grass and leafless branches still heavy with dew. In under the trees like they were, the sun wouldn’t reach ground until late afternoon. She struggled along as Matt climbed steadily, and was surprised when he passed the spot where Nate and Kelly had fallen. Cody stepped reverently through the area. After the passage of a few days no one coming up the trail would ever know two people had died here. How easily tragedy washed away. How long until even the memory was gone?

  “We’re not stopping?" It seemed almost sacrilegious to not pause.

  “No,” Matt answered. “Thought we’d go to the clearing you were at. Retrace your route. See if things look different coming down the trail.”

  “If I’d known we were going all the way to the clearing I’d have told you to go jump in a lake.”

  “You want to jump in a lake I’ll tell you how to get to Fool’s Lake. Good swimming.”

  “Ha,” Cody said trying to find enough breath to talk and hike at the same time. “You aren’t the only one with connections to the Forest Service. I know all about Fool’s Lake. My grandfather worked in the fire towers one season, and he even signed the log book.”

  “All the logs are filed at the Ranger Station after each season,” Matt said absently. He stopped abruptly and Cody nearly ran into his back. “We’re here. What did you do that day?”

  Would he think her crazy if she told him she had stood in the quiet woods looking for her grandfather?

  “Nothing special. Hung around, sat on a rock.”

  Wind ran exploratory fingers through empty branches and remnants of rain dripped. Somewhere nearby a squirrel scolded them for trespassing, and as Cody’s breathing slowed she could hear the soft whisper of a stream back in the trees. All sounds that belonged in the woods. No memories of someone now gone.

  Pinching the bridge of her nose, she felt lost, the earlier connection from Matt’s words abandoning her. Charles was gone, and she didn’t believe anything existed after death. She knew logically she was alone. She just felt that more acutely now, since she’d had a brief taste of what it might have been like, had Charles found her sooner. She was wasting time, foolishly dreaming she might find something left behind of a man few remembered.

  Matt crossed the clearing, walking away from her, and Cody felt no need to follow. Instead, she found the same boulder she had used before, and sat down again, rubbing her temples, where the seeds of a headache were germinating.

  It saddened Cody to think she might end up with just the memory of a few weeks spent in Charles’s company. She didn’t want to look too closely at the vision looming on the horizon, of her slipping back into the old routine of caring for her mother. Instead she tried to distract herself by watching Matt circling back toward her, eyes fixed on the ground.

  “Find anything?”

  “Nothing,” he said finally.

  “What did you expect?” Cody asked, depressed and irritable. “It’s not like they made it up this far.”

  Matt didn’t bother responding. Instead he headed back for the trailhead and Cody reluctantly stood.

  “I guess this means break time is over?” she called after him.

  “Someone who’s been sitting on a boulder doesn’t need a break.”

  “I was thi
nking, not just sitting,” Cody said.

  Roughly halfway back to where Kelly and Nate had died, Cody stopped to stretch out a sudden cramp in her calf muscle. She watched Matt pause several yards ahead of her, move, stop again, and retrace his steps. Squatting, he fingered through layers of old pine needles, and only then did she see what looked like scuff marks going back into the trees. An animal trail most likely, she thought, joining him as he studied signs so subtle and faint they became invisible if she looked directly at them. As she tried to see what he saw on the damp ground, he straightened and left the trail. Following closely, she stumbled into him when he stopped, and he looked over his shoulder as if wondering where she came from.

  “Boot tracks,” he said, pointing to the muddy ground.

  The tracks headed out toward the main path and even to Cody’s inexperienced eyes she could tell they weren’t fresh. Filled with the remains of rainwater, the edges softened and crumbling inward, the prints were a mere shadow of the man who had passed.

  Cody questioned the wisdom of following this narrow lead deeper into the forest, and wondered if she should point out to Matt the killer might still be around. But he moved forward again, paralleling the faint prints.

  “Don’t walk on the tracks,” he said, slipping out of his backpack.

  Unzipping a pocket, he pulled out a digital camera and focused it on the old boot tracks, snapping off several shots.

  “We’ll see what’s up ahead and then I’ll radio this in. If we can get a casting of the tracks, we should be able to find out if they match Nate’s. If they don’t, then a casting might help us match to the shooter.”

  “Of course if the killer is up ahead you won’t have to worry about matching old boot tracks to anything,” Cody couldn’t help saying.

  “If you’re scared go sit on your rock.”

  She was nervous, but there was no way she was going to admit it. Matt bulldozed his way upward and she followed, catching at branches to keep from slipping. Eventually the land leveled, opening to a small rough clearing, neat but cluttered with camping gear. Obviously new, the rawness of freshly cut branches opened up space for a battered one - man tent and a ring of blackened flat rock that had been used for a fire pit.

  “Hello? Anybody home?” she called loudly, merely to spite Matt, who didn’t react.

  Even with nothing to identify the owner, Cody still believed they had found Nate’s camp, and Matt must have been thinking along the same lines as he pulled out his radio, keying it open and calling for a team.

  “Don’t go any closer,” he told her after he finished the transmission.

  “No kidding,” Cody responded in her mother’s dripping sarcasm. “Want me to go back out and show them where we left the trail?”

  “Sure,” Matt said, sounding distracted as he took more pictures.

  It was obvious he didn’t care where she went, and so she retraced the new path they had broken until she was back at the main trail. It seemed to take a long time for more uniforms to show up, and the sight of them brought back memories of when they had come for Nate and Kelly. Feeling isolated in the group and unexpectedly sad and drained, she pointed the way and left them to their job. Hiking out alone, she paused at the spot where Nate had died, lifting her face to the chill breezes.

  Whoever he had been, she wouldn’t let him be forgotten.

  When Cody reached the gas station she debated whether to walk back to the motel, or to hang around in case Matt still wanted her to do something. While she tried to think what that something might be, Jess pulled up, squeezing the patrol car into an already overfull lot. Cody walked over as Jess got out, arcing her back in a graceful stretch. Her thick black braid sucked in sunlight and reflected it in a deep sheen.

  “Cody. Hear you two found something.”

  “A camp. Matt seems to think it might be Nate’s.”

  “Stands to reason. Anything else come of the hike?”

  “Besides sweat?” Cody asked. “Not really.”

  “Too bad." Jess shut the car door. “Guess I can’t put off going up the trail then. Did you see Hailey bouncing her way up there?”

  “No. I’m surprised she wasn’t shadowing Matt.”

  “I haven’t seen her in a few days. I need to find out what she’s been doing. I don’t trust her to keep us in the loop. And Matt’s been running down so many threads he hasn’t had time to baby sit her. You want a lift back to the motel?”

  “No thanks. I need to walk after being at Florence’s. I don’t think the hike was enough to counterbalance cinnamon rolls.”

  “Fine then. Leave me no more reasons to delay hiking. I’ll check in with you later.”

  Cody walked to the corner of Bank Street where she stood waiting for the crosswalk sign to change. There was a little more traffic today, and it took her a moment to realize it was Saturday. The town seemed to have come out of its slumber for the weekend. As the light changed, she saw a man step off the curb on the other side, and as she neared the center of the road she recognized the mountain man look. The man who had argued with Cell. What had Jess said his name was? Jake. Jake Conrad.

  “You,” he said when they neared each other in the crosswalk. “I heard you were down here. Got a minute?”

  “Not really,” Cody said, trying not to back up.

  “I’m not going to bite your head off. We can talk right here in the middle of the street if you’re nervous.”

  “Only if you stand back out of reach.”

  He backed up a few steps. “Far enough or you want me to shout?”

  “I guess you’re okay." A car came down the street and obligingly went out around them.

  “You’ve messed stuff up for me, telling Jess I was arguing with Cell.”

  “I suppose you’re going to say you weren’t arguing?” Cody asked.

  “Hell no. I was arguing. I always end up yelling at him. He drives me bat shit.”

  “There’s anger management classes for that kind of stuff you know." Cody rubbed her fingernails against her palms.

  “Like I’ve never heard that before. But that’s not why I’m here. I want to know what you saw up there. On the trail.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Just what I said. What’d you see? What happened?”

  “They think we found Nate’s camp. That’s about--”

  “Not today,” Jake said. “When you first went up there.”

  “Nate and Kelly were shot, that’s what happened,” Cody said, feeling the warmth of unwanted anger moving. “They died, that’s what happened. And I don’t think I want to talk to you anymore.”

  “Damn it, I know they died. I don’t care about that. Well, I do, but that’s not what I’m asking. Ah hell.” He pulled off his hat, slapped it against his thigh and clamped it back on. “Look. Kelly and me? We didn’t like each other. But not enough I shot him. Believe me, if I killed someone, they wouldn’t be found afterwards.”

  “Is that supposed to be reassuring?” Cody asked. “Because it’s not.”

  “I want to know if Kelly was holding anything. Or if he said anything about me or logging.”

  “I only spoke to him briefly on my way up the trail. When I came down he was already dead. I didn’t see anything. But then I wasn’t exactly looking.”

  Cody turned at the sound of a car engine and saw a forest service Bronco pull up against the curb.

  “Shit,” Jake said.

  Cody silently agreed as Hailey got out.

  “I understand there’s a situation up the trail,” she said. “Fill me in.”

  “No,” Cody said. “I mean, you’ll have to go up there to see what’s going on. I don’t know.” Cody clenched her teeth. She wanted to follow Rachel’s advice and start standing up for herself, but every time she tried, she ended up backpedaling.

  “Why aren’t you under arrest, Conrad?” Hailey said. She stepped closer to him than Cody would ever have dared, planting fists on her narrow hips.

  “Maybe becau
se there’s nothing to arrest me for,” Jake said.

  “I disagree. I saw the autopsy reports. I’ve spent the last couple days following up on some leads from that report. And if I were you I’d be making sure I had money set aside for bail.”

  “Go to hell,” Jake said, and shoved past Hailey.

  Cody watched him go, feeling like he’d thrown her to the wolves.

  “Is Matt up the trail?” Hailey stared after Jake, sounding distracted.

  “Yes.” Cody answered quietly, not wanting Hailey’s attention to return to her. But Hailey swung back to stare at her anyway.

  “So you do know what’s going on up there.” Her hands planted on her hips again. “I keep telling you this will get solved sooner if you cooperate with me. I’m not the enemy here. I’m trying to keep you safe. But I guess I was wrong in thinking you might want to catch the person who did this.”

  “Trying to make me feel guilty won’t help,” Cody said. Hailey had no idea Cody had been manipulated by those emotions all of her life. And that manipulation had been done by an expert.

  “Have it your way then,” Hailey said, yanking open the Bronco’s door. “I’ve got to get up the trail. I have a job to do. One word of advice. Stay away from Jake Conrad. Jess is going to have to arrest him once I get my new information to her.”

  Hailey didn’t leave Cody time to reply, and Cody wasn’t sure what she would have said anyway. She walked toward the motel thinking there were distinct disadvantages to being in a small town. Like running into people you didn’t want to see.

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