The fog was so thick you could slice it with a knife and serve it up a la mode.
Will Hawbaker scrambled over fallen logs, wading through a sea of saw palmettoes as
deep as his waist. The maritime forest was nearly impenetrable, with boggy patches of ground to
catch the unwary in its earthen grip, sucking the boots right off your feet if you weren’t careful.
Will paused, shining his flashlight around, the beam a feeble weapon against the
moonless night. It was hours yet until daybreak, when the sun would burn off the fog like the
wispy vestiges of a bad dream.
And this was definitely a bad dream. One Will wished he could wake up from.
Even at this time of night the air felt like a slow cooker, baking him from the inside out.
Sweat rolled down his temples, his back, causing his shirt to cling and his hair to drip salty tears
on the fanned leaves of the nearest palmetto. Mosquitoes droned just outside the protective zone
of the repellent he’d applied, black clouds swirling through the white.
Nearby, an owl hooted.
This was an uncomfortable environment for an adult, even one who was accustomed to
putting himself in danger.
For a child, it had to be terrifying.
“Sam!” Will called out, listening as his voice seemed to be absorbed by the soup-like air.
He heard barking, but couldn’t tell if it was coming closer to him or moving away. The
team from the Sheriff’s Department with the bloodhounds had set out at the same time he had,
but they’d all headed in different directions.
They had a lot of forest to cover, and not a lot of time. The twenty-four hour window,
that critical time after an abduction, was closing fast.
Hearing something – had that been a whimper? – off to his left, Will turned the flashlight
Even though no response was forthcoming, Will began moving toward the sound. If the
child was hurt, he may not be able to answer. If he was frightened – and why the hell wouldn’t
he be? – he may be too terrified to make his hiding spot known.
“Sam!” Will called as he shoved a small sapling out of his way. “I know you must be
scared, buddy, but I’m here to help you.”
And because the kid probably didn’t believe jack shit coming from adults right now,
especially adults he was supposed to be able to trust, Will didn’t bother to mention anything
about being a cop. That wasn’t quite the vote of confidence it once was, anyway. Better to try
something on the boy’s level.
“I hear you like dogs,” he said, his voice radiating calm even as he viciously kicked at
a vine that wanted to tangle him up in its thorny grip. “Do you hear the dogs barking? They’re
looking for you, too.”
Fingers of fog tickled the back of Will’s neck, teasingly cool against his overheated flesh.
Mother Nature was definitely female, Will thought sourly. Soothing and confounding at
the same time.
“I like dogs,” Will said conversationally, because what the hell. If nothing else, maybe
the boy would get sick of hearing him yapping and tell him to shut up. “You hear those
bloodhounds barking? They’re out here looking for you, too. Kind of like Timmy and Lassie.”
Will paused, wondering if the kid even knew who that was. Given that this was the age of
animated sponges living in undersea pineapples, probably not.
“That was an old show I used to watch, about this awesome collie that was always saving
this kid Timmy’s butt. I thought it would be cool to have a dog that could get help when you did
something dumb like fall down a well, but I couldn’t have one when I was a kid. My mom didn’t
want one. She thought it would mess up the house and was too much responsibility.”
His mother didn’t particularly want him or his siblings either, for much the same reason.
But that was beside the point.
“Your mom told me that you’ve been asking for a dog.” Will stopped, shone his
flashlight toward the base of the enormous oak tree off to the right. Was that a flash of red he’d
“But that you two had been debating about that responsibility thing, too. And that line
about a boy who can’t even pick up after himself not being responsible enough to take care of a
dog? I heard that one too, and it sucks. But the thing is, your mom is kind of right. I think she’s
willing to give you a chance though. She told me that when you get back home, safe and sound,
she’s taking you to the pound, first thing.”
Will froze. It had been the merest whisper of sound, ephemeral as the fog itself. He half
thought it was wishful thinking on his part.
“Now, I’ve got no reason to pull your leg about that, son. Dogs are a pretty serious
business. A lot more serious than putting away your Legos and getting your dirty clothes in the
hamper. You’ve got to make sure you feed them and water them and take them for walks… but
maybe you’re not ready for all that responsibility.”
That was definitely no figment of his imagination.
Covering his relief with a look of exasperation, Will followed the voice with the beam of
Nine-year-old Sam Bryant peered back at him from one of the branches of the oak tree.
“Pretty good climber, are you?”
The kid looked terrified, but defiant. “Yes. But my mom…” his voice trembled on the
word “tells me that I’m going to fall and break my head.”
“Your head looks pretty hard to me.”
“He…” the kid’s whole lower face started to quiver. “He said my mom was dead. So
you’re lying about the dog.”
Will swallowed the curse he wanted to say, but silently wished all the seven plagues to
be visited upon the man in question. Hopefully while he was naked. And staked out on a fire ant
mound. Why the hell would he say such a thing?
“He lied,” Will told the boy. “He’s the liar.”
He was Matthew Hastings, Sam Bryant’s mother’s boyfriend. After a particularly nasty
argument over Hastings’ belief that Sam’s mom was coddling him too much because she was
squeamish about Sam learning to hunt, Hastings decided to take the kid out into the woods
anyway while his mom was at work. He’d abandoned him there, with no food, no water, and
little hope of finding his way out. Apparently this was meant as an illustration of the importance
of developing survival skills.
Luckily they’d managed to track Hastings car to this area, a stretch of uninhabited
woodland used primarily for a hunting club.
Hastings seemed to have abandoned his car along with the boy, which meant he was in
the wind somewhere. But the important thing was that they’d found Sam, alive and in one piece.
At least he looked to be in one piece.
“Sam, I need you to listen to me, okay? Your mom is fine. She’s worried sick, but she’s
fine. But I need to know if you’re hurt anywhere.”
“I’ll just bet.” The kid had been alone in the woods for almost eighteen hours. Given the
fact that it was August in South Carolina, dehydration was a given. Will pulled a bottle out of the
pocket of his cargo pants.
“Lucky for you I brought some water with me. Now, I have to contact the other people
who are looking for you, so that everyone knows you’re okay. Can you climb down from there,
or do you need help?”
“I can do it.”
“Good man.” But because Will didn’t want to take any chances, he moved closer
to the base of the tree even as he thumbed on his radio. “Found him,” he said, and gave his
approximate coordinates. “I’ll give you a status report on his condition just as soon as I have a
chance to check him out.”
Fog swirled, obscuring his view of the boy, the tree, and Will moved his flashlight around
in an attempt to see through it. “Sam?” he said, but received no answer.
“Sam?” he said again. “Be careful climbing down.”
That would be just what they needed at this point, for the kid to fall out of the tree and
actually break his head.
Concern niggled. “Sam? Maybe you should just stay put, buddy, and let me help you.”
Will closed the final distance to the tree, but he tripped over an exposed root near the
base and nearly went sprawling.
“Some help I am,” he muttered. “Pretend you didn’t see that,” he called out. But still the
boy didn’t respond.
“Sam?” Will aimed his flashlight toward the branch of the tree where he’d last seen the
kid sitting. Empty. He started moving the beam lower.
“Sam!” he said one more time when he saw no sign of the boy on any of the branches.
The nerves that had so recently calmed began to jump beneath his skin. Shit. Had the boy fallen?
He shone his flashlight at the ground, the boiling fog making it nearly impossible to distinguish
shapes, around the side, back toward that root he’d tripped –
“Oh Jesus. Oh no.” Will stumbled the two steps that would take him to where the boy lay,
dropping down on his knees beside him. How could he have fallen without Will hearing a thing?
“Sam?” Will reached out, turned the boy over.
And felt the blood drain out of his head.
The boy hadn’t fallen. He’d been shot.
And he’d been dead for quite some time.