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Continue Reading A Single Shot

If you missed Part I of the excerpt from A SINGLE SHOT, start reading here.

He loses sense of time and objectivity. He sits down on a small rock next to the body and, as the sun heats his naked back, declares himself a murderer. For the moment, he forgets that the body is even there. He focuses only upon his act of killing another human being. He would like to spread the blame around, but can find no one else to fault, not even the dead girl for wearing tan and white in the woods, because it’s not even hunting season and John, after all, is a trespassing poacher.

He picks a small stick up from the quarry floor and doodles with it in the dirt. The blue jays perched above him begin to sing again. A red fox wanders into the quarry, stops and sniffs the deer carcass, then, possibly sensing John’s presence, turns and bounds out again. A hog snake slithers over the dead girl’s feet. The crows caw, alerting others to the death.

John thinks about how he has grown up in and around these woods—on the Nobie side of the mountain—and, like his father and grandfather, has hunted them since he was a boy, and though they fought in wars and he didn’t, he is the first among them to kill someone. He thinks that if his father hadn’t lost the Moon family farm, with its rolling meadows and three hundred acres of game-rich forest, John would not have to trespass and poach to feed his wife and son. They might even still live with him. He looks at his watch. Almost an hour has passed. His left shoulder throbs. His shirt is damp around the wound, but the bleeding, for the most part, seems to have stopped.

He forces himself to stand up, walk over to the dead girl, look down at her lying in the grass like a rag doll casually tossed aside. Boiling with black flies, wine-colored blood slowly oozes from her open chest. John reaches down, brushes several of the flies away, then pulls back his hand wet with blood starting to congeal. He thinks of the hundreds of animals he has shot, gutted, and cut into strips of meat. All the blood he has seen. The wounded deer that he chased for miles to kill. Blood is blood, he thinks, wiping the girl’s on his pants. And dead is dead.

He moves his gaze from her chest to her face. She is beautiful, he thinks, not like a greenhouse flower, but like a wild rose raised in bright sunshine, bitter cold, torrential rain. Sun-chapped lips, parted as if to speak, a bent nose, slightly running, make her seem still alive. A tiny anchor-shaped birthmark mars her right cheek. Kneeling down near her head, John smells orange-blossom perfume, the same three-dollar-a-bottle fragrance he used to buy for his wife. What is your name? he silently asks her. Where are you from? What were you doing in the quarry by yourself? He bends forward and tenderly kisses her lips, then, shocked at his own behavior, quickly rears back and glances around the canyon, up the rock walls, into the white-pine and cedar-tree forest orbiting the upper rim, as if someone might be watching him. Suddenly John feels certain someone is. The thought hits him like a punch: she wasn’t alone. He sees nothing to substantiate this, though. He reaches down and with his index fingers gently closes the girl’s eyes.

He stands up, walks over to the blue satchel, picks it up, carries it back over to the rock where he had been sitting, sits down again, then opens the satchel. Inside he finds a woman’s pink bikini underpants, matching gray socks adorned by galloping horses, a T-shirt with a winding, white-capped river on its front and, on back, “Ride the Wild Snake,” a wax-paper bag containing a partially eaten tuna-fish sandwich, a half-filled plastic water bottle, two rolled marijuana cigarettes, an open box of Kools, a nylon tan wallet, and a jackknife.

John takes the items from the satchel, places them in a neat circle on the ground between his feet, and, for several minutes, sits there looking at them, feeling as if he’s opened a door to the dead girl’s life and not sure he’s up to walking through it. Again he’s hit with the uneasy feeling that he’s not alone, that someone is watching to see what he’ll do next. When he hears a small plane fly over the mountain, he wonders, for a panicked moment, if someone might be searching for the girl. He looks up, shielding his eyes from the sun. The plane is so high it’s only a silvery dot marring his vision. Beneath it, a hundred or so yards above the quarry, a large pair of turkey vultures casually circle. John silently screams, “Why’d you put her here today, God, of all days?”

He doesn’t get an answer.

He picks up the wallet, flips it open, and sees, enclosed in plastic, a photograph of the dead girl sitting with two others about the same age on a large boulder near a waterfall. Smiling, her arms around the others’ shoulders, each girl is holding up three fingers of one hand. John pulls the photograph out of the plastic, turns it over, and sees, in a looping scrawl, “All for one, one for all. The Three Senoritas—Man, Tools, and Germ—6 /94.” Behind the first picture are two others, one of a couple who look to be in their fifties, he burly, with horn-rimmed glasses and a large drinker’s nose, she plumpish and smiling in a pantsuit that’s too small. The other is of the dead girl again, this time arm in arm with a heavyset man in his late twenties or early thirties, with slick black hair, dark eyes, and tight lips curled upward at the corners in a grudging half smile.

John slips the pictures back into the plastic, then searches the rest of the wallet, and finds fifty-two dollars, two condoms in tinfoil, and a book of stamps. There is no driver’s license; no credit, membership, or social security cards; nothing at all with the girl’s—or anyone else’s—name or address on it. John drops the wallet and for several seconds sits there, the enormity of the situation sweeping like a tidal wave over him, thinking, “Why me?” And, “She couldn’t have just dropped out of the sky.”

He stands up and walks several fast, tight circles around the rock, stops and kicks it, then hurries back over to the dead girl. He bends over, thrusts a hand into her pants pocket, groping for whatever’s there, but finds the pocket gone and his fingers kneading a thigh so warm, soft, and lifelike that he half expects the girl to giggle, moan, or cry out. Panting as if he’d just run a race, he quickly pulls back his hand and shakes it. “Son of a bitch!” he hisses, then quietly to the dead girl, “Sorry. Weren’t your fault.”

Gritting his teeth, he leans down and rolls the cadaver toward him, causing it to exhale and loudly break wind. John, gasping, feels he ought to apologize to the girl again, but instead goes ahead and searches her other pocket, finding in it several coins, a pencil stub, and a folded piece of paper that he unfolds and discovers is a half-written, unaddressed letter to the girl in the photograph named Tools. Standing over the cadaver, John reads the letter, written in the same awkward scrawl as the note on the back of the photograph.

Dear Tools:

By now I guess you know I’m gone. I couldn’t take it no more—not so much Daddy’s drinking and losing his temper and Ma pretending nothing was wrong as me bein fraid I’d end up like em which is dead inside. Like a pair of corpses. I wish I could have said goodbye but there weren’t no time and that you’d of got to know Waylon’s goodside (well, not too well!) He’s sweet and treats me better than all them grabass highschool boys (like Donnie LaTrec—the pig!) plus the way he loves me—for the first time I know what all the fuss is about (wow!)—and is smart but got in trouble from bad breaks. Talk about childhoods—you ought to hear bout his! Anyway, I don’t hold it gainst him he was in jail—he calls it his college education. And it weren’t for naught. He’d kill me if I told you—or even found out I was writing you as he made me throw out my address book—but soon as Waylon gets back tonight we’re heading somewhere starts with an H where there’s ocean, good weather, lays and coconuts (remember—wasn’t me who told you!) I can’t say no more, only that it’s like we always talked about—I can’t believe it’s been hardly a week since passing notes in geometry class! I’m not sure how it’s going to end up, Tools, and sometimes that scares me but it’s like Waylon says, better to go out like a Roman Candle than a wet log. All I know is for the first time ever I feel like I’m really living stead of—I got to stop for awhile, Tools—you won’t believe what just come hobbling in here with me, poor, dear thing, looks shot or something…

 

John refolds the letter, shoves it into his hip pocket, then, having decided what he must do—and quickly, before Waylon returns—glances down uneasily at the dead girl, half fearing she will open her eyes and say, “There’s the life you took from me and now you’re doing with me worse than you would a shot deer!”

Bending over, John grabs the girl under the arms and starts hauling her toward the near end of the bushes, the cadaver emitting noises like a couple of drunks eating beans around a campfire. John is so embarrassed for her that his cheeks burn and he thinks if the whole world could see itself dead there’d be no vanity left. Near the end of the bushes, one of her sneakers comes off. John stops and puts it back on, and her foot, in a baby-blue socklet, is so warm and alive he suddenly wishes he had known her when she was, a thought too disturbing to dwell on. He hurriedly picks up the corpse again and starts dragging it across the quarry floor, making a trail of blood, urine, and matted grass, toward the small pond and dug-out place on the far side, thinking, “The first thing is to get her hid somewhere, so I can think.”

He is halfway across the field when, from directly behind him, comes a loud hiss and a hollow thumping sound. With a startled yelp, he drops the cadaver and wheels around and there, over the dead buck, their huge wings flapping and red wattles trembling, hover the two turkey vultures. John runs at them, waving his arms and sibilating, and the birds, in their lumbering, unhurried way, fly off, one with deer meat dangling from its beak.

John walks back to the girl, bends to pick her up, and is shocked to find her staring straight at him. Her head banging against the ground must have caused her eyes to pop open. “It won’t do nobody,” John loudly blurts out, “you, your boyfriend, your family wherever they are, me, or my little one countin’ on me to feed ’im—one bit a good for me to go to jail which is jis’ what’id happen if the law found out ’bout this and even did accept it was an accident!” He reaches down, pushes her eyes shut again, then drags her the rest of the way across the quarry’s rock floor, through which grass and weeds sprout, past the water hole, to the opening in the wall, a dynamited cavern maybe four feet high and twice as deep, from which, years before, Old Man Hollenbach mined slate.

Breathing heavily, John lays the girl down on a bluestone slab in front of the opening, its floor marred by raccoon droppings, bat shit, and two or three cigarette stubs. John bends down, picks up a stub, sniffs it, and smells recently burned tobacco. “What the hell?” he thinks. He drops to his hands and knees in front of the cavern, carefully examines the entrance, and sees several crushed weeds, their broken stems oozing fresh fluid, and a large patch of imploded grass.

He glances at the dead girl, thinking of the Kools in her duffel, then at the cavern, where, past the entrance, it’s pitch dark. He looks at the shovel and pick against the near wall, tools left from Old Man Hollenbach’s days, and, as he had right before he’d discovered the dead girl, wonders why they are standing, as if recently placed there, rather than lying haphazardly on the ground. He reaches out, grabs the shovel, and sees rust everywhere but at the tip, which is shiny and chipped. He looks at the pick and sees the same thing. He wonders why, other than for the reason he had planned to, anyone would be digging in the cave.

He sticks his head a foot or so into the cavern. Along with the dankness, he smells the faint odor of smoke. He’s not sure it’s tobacco smoke. It smells more like gunpowder. He thinks of the thousand tons of dirt and stone above him, and suddenly remembers why, as a child, he had never dared enter the cave. “I ought to make me a flare,” he thinks. He starts to back out of the opening and his right hand lands on a coil of thick flesh that, from experience, he knows will instantly strike or slither away. It does neither. John, his pulse resonating in his injured shoulder, ears, and belly, gingerly picks the thing up, backs out of the cave, drops it at his feet, and sees a timber rattlesnake, fat as his fist, several feet long, with most of its head blown off.

“What the hell have you all been up to?” John says aloud, glancing down at the dead girl, then disgustedly kicking the snake away from the opening. He runs past her and from beneath a bush near the pond picks up a short stick of ironwood, then glances around for something to make a flare with, but, other than the girl’s clothes or his own, can’t find anything, so runs back across the quarry toward the lean-to, realizing as he traverses the gruesome trail left by the dead girl that everything he’s done since reaching into her pockets has further undermined his credibility with the law should he get caught or decide to turn himself in, the latter option, under the circumstances and with his prior record, one he’s pretty far from considering.

Without hesitating, he pulls back the plastic strip covering the front of the lean-to and plunges inside, hoping to find among the abandoned tools and moth-eaten recliner he knows are there a dry piece of cloth to make his flare with. He is struck first by the smoke-filled air, then by the pungent smell of marijuana smoke mixed with beer and sweat. A few articles of clothing and an open newspaper lie atop a zipped sleeping bag stretched out on one side of the ground. John at first thinks someone is in the bag, until he sees protruding from its top the furry head of a large stuffed lion, the sight of which, when he realizes who must have owned the toy, causes in him a despondent pain, worse even than when he first discovered the dead girl. He pictures her nestled comfortably in the sleeping bag—like John’s own son nestled beneath the covers of his crib—cheek to jowl with the lion, smiling and dreaming about her future, and he feels like going out right then, getting his gun, and shooting himself.

Instead, he sits down on the sleeping bag and, breathing in that putrid air, thinks of his little boy, Nolan, being raised in town without him, and what it would feel like for the kid to learn when he grows up that his father had killed a young girl, then killed himself, and how no one would be there to cast any light on the situation, to put a positive spin on the old man, certainly not his wife, who, from John, wants only child support and an uncontested divorce. This train of thought transports him deeper into self-pity, where he mentally bemoans all he has lost and had taken from him in his thirty years, beginning with his birthright, the family farm, on which he had planned, like his father and grandfather, to raise his family, and followed shortly thereafter by his father, whom John remembers near the end, when the banks were starting to foreclose, grim-faced and determined one day, angry and violent the next, getting thinner, smaller, paler, until, to his sixteen-year-old child, he vanished like a ghost, as if he never was, and John thinks he wouldn’t mind dying, but he doesn’t want to be a ghost in the mind of a son who never knew him. “The girl is dead,” he emphatically tells himself as he stands, “and my bein’ so too—or goin’ to jail—won’t bring her back!”

From the sleeping bag he picks up a T-shirt—a man’s size 42—wraps it twice around one end of the ironwood, and ties it securely. Then, suddenly thinking the girl ought to have some company in that dark hole, he reaches down for the stuffed lion and, in lifting it, pulls back the sleeping bag to reveal inside a cone-shaped flashlight, a carton of 9-millimeter shells, and a Luger pistol. “This ain’t here for shooting rattlesnakes,” thinks John, picking the pistol up and hefting it in his hand. He ruefully wonders if here is what the girl might have been running for when he shot her, but thinking of the stuffed toy and her half-written letter, he can’t fathom it. Then he thinks, “Whoever this Waylon character is, I don’t want to be here when he gets back.” He drops the gun on the pillow, where it lands with a metallic thud.

John looks at the pillow, bulky and misshapen, thinking he’s had enough surprises for one day and he ought to just leave, but like a man falling downstairs who can’t stop his own descent, he reaches down and with his knuckles lightly taps it. The pillow is hard. John pushes it. It barely moves. He grabs the closed end of the pillowcase and vigorously pulls it until he’s holding in his hands just the case and gazing down at a dented, dirt-stained, large metal container. Feeling like a tumbleweed caught in a tornado whose eye is his own tragic act, John bends down next to the container. Fumbling with trembling hands to open the rusted latch, he hears a voice in his head say every life has a defining moment; here comes your second. He opens the case, looks inside, and sees piles and piles of haphazardly stacked bills in various denominations.

Copyright 1996 by Matthew F. Jones