The trail had gone cold. That was the frustration which James Newton was feeling. He saw the target disappear into the woods but the trail went cold as soon as they hit the rocky cliff. If he had been more steadfast into making the jump down the steep incline, he would’ve had him. He could’ve then bargained for the woman whom they all knew was going to be harder to catch. Five long seconds of indecision and he lost his chance. He knew it. But, he wasn’t as desperate.
James was squatting over his boots and staring down at the muddy trail, squinting for any signs of fresh tracks. The wellpacked hiking path was smooth as a consequence of the water cascading from the nearby hillsides eroded any signs of footprints in the drenched dirt. He knew they were close. He could feel it. Maybe it wasn’t this trail. Maybe they’re only a few feet off course and they’ll come up to the trailhead where the paths diverged. There might be signs of them there.
He turned around and spotted Thomas “Tommy” Russell stealthily stepping over the mud trail onto the side of a nearby embankment. His short stature and lanky build made him easy to lose in the thick forest. The camouflage was working. It also helped that Tommy had smeared mud to further obscure his appearance. Two nights ago that seemed like a good idea, but he was starting to regret it. In the brief breaks between bouts of intense precipitation, insects would swarm near his eyes and mouth. Leaves would stick to his skin. It made him look like a walking pile of foliage; real textbook Ranger School stuff, he thought to himself.
James then spotted Robert Todd, playing sentry over the scene, sweeping the area from atop the hill depositing water onto the trail where James was resting.
The fourth and final man was nowhere in sight. They might have thought that they’d lost him but could hear his footsteps. Unlike Tommy, Henry Walker was somewhat heavier on his feet. At 6’ 11”, north of 300 lbs., he was also larger than the other men. It was a major consideration in the decision to call him in to tag along in the search for the couple that ran into the woods.
Visibility had dropped as the cold humidity made the air thick with fog masking the ungodly stench of four men desperately in need of showers. They knew they were close. As unbearable as the weather had been the last few nights, the rain was letting up and with it, they’d have a better chance at tracking them. At least that’s what James was telling himself.
Robert started his slide to join Tommy and James on the trail, swiftly making his way down the hill, slowing his descent by keeping his body low and grabbing onto the limbs of every tree that would bear his weight. He finally arrived near James, stopping short of the trail which both men were careful to avoid.
Tommy joined them a moment later.
“Another night and I still don’t have that bag,” he mused aloud.
James looked at Robert for signs of shared frustration.
Tommy quipped stoically, “At least you look rested.”
Tommy looked back at Robert, possibly nonplussed. Any other day he’d be easier to read but his muddy face masked any facial expressions. James couldn’t help but crack a smile.
Tommy looked far from rested. His usual wiry behavior was curbed only by his obvious sleep deprivation. There was two possible outcomes for the end scenario. Both of them involved sleep. One was just slightly more permanent than the other.
“We’ll sleep when we’re dead. And I’m dead if we don’t get that bag,” James said. “Let’s keep moving. We’re close.”
A large mass approached from the direction they had come from, shuffling up the trail that they all so carefully sought to avoid spoiling. It was Henry who had staggered up. Tommy held out his hands palms up questioning the logic of coming directly up the trail.
“What are you doing,” James asked.
“I found them,” Henry responded, pointing back down the trail, drawing shapes as he spoke, panting, short of breath.
“They’re huddled under an embankment, thing, under a tree, near the river. They were huddled together.” It was enough for Robert to break character and look excited.
“And the bag,” Tommy shot back.
Henry nodded in acknowledgement.
James hurriedly stood up with a renewed sense of purpose. He turned his body towards the trail before the force of someone latching onto his arm pulled him backwards. It was Robert, his grip tightly holding James’s arm.
“We’re not going to hurt them,” he reaffirmed.
James begrudgingly nodded in agreement before jerking himself away.
Tommy looked back at Robert and then back at the ground then wondered out loud to no one in particular, “What happens if it’s gone?”
“If it’s gone, we’ll reconsider,” Robert answered.
The moon was bright. Brighter than it had been the better part of that week. It even forced itself through pockets of cloud cover from time to time. But, it still wasn’t enough to break through the heavy fog that’s synonymous with a cooler than usual early spring in a temperate forest. The crisp air coming from the mountains did little to move it. It felt stuffy at times. Most times, they were just as happy that they all had jackets. The weather could easily take a turn for the worse and they were lucky that the worst they were feeling was a little numb in their extremities.
The trees swayed as they walked up the path. Robert was able to catch a glimpse of the river beyond an outcropping. Ahead of them, the path went parallel with the waterway. Soon it would all be over. They’d have the bag, its contents intact. This would absolve Robert of any notion of misconduct, simultaneously clearing James’s debt.
They all had enough time to think about how they allowed it to happen and how a moment of inattention subjected them to this.
Just three days ago they peacefully liberated the bag from James’s acquaintance. That morning, James, Robert, and Tommy arrived in the industrial park where they were to make the drop. Tommy’s bright red, late 90’s model Oldsmobile Cutlass’ had seen better days. The paint was peppered with rust where it wasn’t peeling. It’s plastic body panels were cracked and scratched from years of bumps and scrapes, exhibiting signs of downright neglect. Its fatigued suspension nearly bottomed out as they pulled into the lot of a trucking company. But, it ran and that made it a reliable car in Tommy’s mind.
James had the small black duffle bag on his lap in the backseat. He compressed it like an accordion while leaning forward, directing his question at Robert, “You ready.”
Robert checked the mirrors and looked out over the lot filled with shipping containers of various sizes and colors. He thought for a moment about how this was the only time in his life where a situation didn’t warrant a weapon and how strange that had felt.
The drop was routine; as routine as a drop can be for a few seasoned criminals. The recipient was a trusted accomplice whom Robert had known for years. They didn’t really need three men, to be honest. Robert knew that but he trusted Tommy to be the driver.
For Robert, it was all about making things right. It was he who introduced James to the game. As his mentor, Robert felt that James needed to be set straight but shouldn’t bear the brunt of the consequences that could be directed at a criminal that can’t make good on their word. Trust, after all, is the bedrock of the lax criminal code. He wasn’t too worried. Robert’s experience gave him the audacity to feel relaxed in the moment.
James was a bit more anxious, “What if they don’t show?”
Robert opened the passenger door and stepped out. He gestured for James to get out. James scooted to the passenger side and opened the door. He initially thought about taking the bag. “Leave it,” Robert instructed as he walked towards the street. James threw the bag through the open window onto the passenger seat next to Tommy and warned, “Guard this with your life.”
Tommy shooed him away, turning the key in the ignition to accessory mode. He tuned the radio to a station that was going to calm him. He was also feeling a bit more anxious than usual.
James joined Robert in the street.
“What have we learned,” Robert asked.
“There’s easier ways to make money. I didn’t think it’d get this far, Robert. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Once they get it back, you’re going to be fine,” Robert reassured him. “Leave that shit to the professionals. You’re getting off lucky.”
In the car, Tommy readjusted his mirrors so that he could see Robert and James in the street. They looked to be 50 feet back, he estimated. He turned to his right and looked at the bag within arms’ reach to reassure himself. It’s right where James had left it. He took a deep breath as the mere sight of the bag triggered a strong cigarette craving. Reaching into the inside pocket of his olive jacket, Tommy began anticipating the quick hit of nicotine destined to calm his nerves. Getting the cigarette was easy but in the time he went back to reach for the lighter he had droped the ciggarette onto the floor. Looking to the floor, past the steering wheel and making way with his knees, he realized that he’d have to contort himself to feel out where it had fallen.
James looked at a car slowing down a block away, near an old brick warehouse. He couldn’t make out the make or model; something classic looking, maybe mid 60’s with a teal and white paint job, with white wall tires. It couldn’t be newer than that, he thought. It didn’t look like a car that belonged in an industrial park.
Tommy continued looking for the dropped cigarette. He laid the back of his hand flat against the floor mat and began to sweep.
“Is it them,” James asked.
“I don’t think so.”
Behind them, a short, skinny blonde woman in jeans and a red hoodie crept up to the passenger side of the red Oldsmobile. She slowly reached inside the open window, her eyes fixed on Tommy still searching for the lost cigarette. As soon as he turned towards her, she ripped the bag out of the car window and began running.
Tommy shot up, “Hey!”
James and Robert turned to see the woman running deeper into the shipping yard.
Tommy nearly kicked the driver door open with his knee and gave chase. James instinctively followed while Robert turned back to the car mid way down the block only to see it slowly make a right hand turn. It wasn’t their car. Robert gritted his teeth before involving himself in the pursuit of the bag thief.
The woman made her way between the rows of empty truck trailers, appearing and disappearing behind each meticulously parked 52’ long monstrosity. She eventually arrived at the gatehouse on the other side of the lot before throwing the bag over the fence as one might throw a grenade. Almost instantly after letting it go, she turned right and continued sprinting.
Why did she just ditch the bag? No sooner had Tommy asked himself that question then he realized the bag landed at a distance that appeared to be well out of reach. He beelined for the fence, coming to an abrupt stop and gripping the chain links to counteract its pushback.
James eventually caught up.
By now, Tommy had realized that this side of the lot had a mechanized sliding gate. This wasn’t a particularly helpful observation because he instinctively knew he wouldn’t be able to trigger it. He frantically looked for a safe spot to climb the nine feet it would take to make it to the other side. It didn’t exist. The top of the fence was tightly wound with barbed wire.
James turned his attention to the woman making her way past a field of debris on the side of the adjacent warehouse. It was a tight corridor with brick on both sides. Her red sweatshirt made her easy to follow as she weaved around multicolored barrels, heaps of scrap metal, and unused sheet metal panels. He saw her climb up a stack of wooden pallets in the corner and quickly noticed a green blanket folded over the barbed wire where the brick wall met an adjacent building.
As she carefully positioned herself belly side down, sliding over the fence and disappearing out of view, a matte golden coupe with powdered black rims screeched to a halt shielding the bag from Tommy and James’s view. It looked like some type of import, Tommy noted.
Within a moment, the driver accelerated while simultaneously opening the door to pick up the woman at the other end of the street. She got in, and like that it was over. They had been had.
Tommy started to violently hit the fence with his palms, kicking and exclaiming obscenities.
Robert ran up in time to see James grab his head with both hands and drop backwards against the gatehouse, sliding down while shaking his head in disbelief. His first reaction was to get on his phone and call in what happened. They were expected to be at the drop point and now they didn’t even have the bag.
He spoke with a sense of focus and authority, “You’re not going to believe what happened. You’re going to have to take my cut of the next one and I’ll make good on it. I appreciate it.”
James would’ve felt relieved that Robert was covering for him, if his mind wasn’t spinning from the fear caused by losing something so valuable.
“We’re going to get that bag back. It’s your ass, James,” Robert pointed out.
They had to find the golden colored car with black rims. It was a deceptively easy task. They were in a part of the country that didn’t care much for imports. Of course, this was only a consideration if luck was on their side and the offending party didn’t already start to skip town. Robert was sincerely hoping that wouldn’t be the case.
Upon returning to the car, Tommy let out another bout of emotion. He began yelling at the top of his lungs and kicking nearly everything on the driver side of his car. He reached in and grabbed the cigarette from the under the brake pedal on the mat and threw it angrily on the ground while Robert and James settled back in the seats dejected. They entered with the package and now it was gone.
By the early afternoon, Tommy and James had split from Robert. He in turn enlisted the help of his close friend Henry to aid in the search. The search party now had two cars to canvas the area. They frantically drove up and down every street in the small mountain town. This was the only option. If they had driven out of town, there was very little they can do to track them down. They knew that they needed to get lucky. They had to try.
Night blanketed the valley. The street lights turned on to aide travellers before the skies opened up. In the nicer neighborhoods, asphalt absorbed the water into a mirror finish, reflecting lights from street lamps and those of nearby houses as the tracking party made their ways up and down their streets. Dogs wailed to inform their inattentive owners that they’d like back in and the town soon fell quiet.
It was the longest day of James’s life. And to no one’s astonishment it began to feel like it might be his last.
The second round of driving through one of the poorest areas proved profitable.
Tucked away in the middle of a pothole filled street, in a driveway lush with overgrowth from miskept bushes, they had found something.
The car was parked in the driveway of an unassuming rundown white Colonial house with white paint chipping off its centuries old cedar clapboards. The grass on this house seemed higher than that of its neighbors. It looked particularly abandoned. Perhaps they were squatting here.
James waited for Tommy to acknowledge him as he shook his head in stunned disbelief. What are the odds, he wondered. Tommy made his way back up the street and parked a few houses down a vacant lot. He turned off his lights and killed the engine before calling Robert.
“We found the car. Edgewood St.,” he directed. The two sat dormant until a car pulled up behind them and Robert emerged from the passenger side.
He approached James while keeping his eyes trained on the car, it’s warm colored paint accentuated by the glow from nearby light poles. The house itself was dark. Robert went to investigate motioning for James and Tommy to stay put.
He made his way up to the side of the house opposite the driveway, checking to see if there was any window showing signs of someone residing inside. He crouched down as he approached the backyard, noting to himself how the lot seemed to open into the abyss of a dense forest. At the back of the house there was nothing except a rickety deck in bad need of repair.
The driveway terminated in a garage which was a freestanding structure. Its roof was incomplete, missing shingles in places and appearing as pliable as a wet rag draped over the ribs of its rafters. The walls were a dark gray wood, with their horizontal boards highlighted by green moss, saturated in water. Nature continued to reclaim them, simultaneously undermining their structural integrity. Water could be seen making it’s way through a channel in the cracked concrete slab that was once its foundation. There was no way they could be in there.
Robert walked up the driveway making sure to look in the car. He eventually made his way back to the street holding his hands up. James was out of the car calmly walking in the rain towards Robert. Tommy rolled down his window to say, “Nothing?”
As if on queue, something in the back made a loud crashing noise. Robert turned back and ran towards the backyard; James followed.
It was hard to make out the details but Robert spotted two shadowy figures heading into the forest. As they ran past a light on the neighboring property, Robert spotted the red hoodie diapering into the rainy night. That feature was unmistakable. They had found them.
They splashed through puddles made fresh by the April rain besieging the forest. They ended up running up to a small cliff. Robert let James run ahead of him. He was quicker and seemed to have a lot less trouble finding footing over the dense underbrush. They were also quick, but James had the tenacity of a man whose life was on the line. He ran stride for stride with them.
They came across a small ravine with a creek running through it. James ran in and quickly made his way up the other side. His legs burned at this point and he became conscious of his breathing. As he crested the hill, he nearly slipped on the fresh mud, steadying himself with one hand and pushing through to get up a kneehigh limestone ledge. As he came up, he noticed he now only saw one of the figures and continued the chase until he watched them disappeared over the edge of a cliff. He paused and waited to watch whom he assumed was the man slowly getting up after taking a spill near the bottom of the ravine. He paused and waited. This moment of inattention would come back to haunt him.
Robert got a phone call. He relayed the bad news, “He’s not taking the deal. He wants what you owe him, James. He said this wasn’t what he planned with you. If we don’t get it, we’re all screwed.”
The hours turned into days as the pursuit of the couple with the bag progressed. They picked up a trail of footprints and followed it to the river’s edge. Eventually they all fell out of contact from the outside world. Henry was the last to complain about his phone battery dying. Not having slept or eaten for days had begun to toll. All of them were cold and wet. But, they took solace in knowing that the targets were in the same predicament.
The water was rushing down from a nearby stream that fed the river. It felt wild. Each of the men was too tired to consider their fortunes. They had found the car in time pursue the bag thieves. But now, perhaps most improbably, had successfully tracked their whereabouts inside a vast wilderness during the grips of a multihour cold, unrelenting rainstorm.
Henry was at the head of the group. He turned back and whispered, “About 3 minutes away.”
“I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do when I see them,” James said turning to Robert. “Wait, how do we get the bag?”
“There’s a way we can drop in on them. If two of us wait deeper in, we can chase the one with the bag,” Henry explained. “They have to be just as tired as we are.”
“What if they have a weapon,” James asked.
“They haven’t used one, yet. They’re scared. But, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Robert said.
Henry slowed his walk and began crouching. He started using arm gestures to tell the other three men to stop.
At the end of a bend in the river sits a tree with the soil around its roots all but eroded away. The rocky shore caught the roots which after finding purchase created a stable enough foundation to support its weight. A bit of ancient limestone carved smooth by the water was jutting out in an overhang, simultaneously adding support for the tree and shielding the couple from the elements. The woman in the red hoddie and her male accomplice lie huddled together, and save for their shallow breathing appear almost motionless.
The mans jacket was draped over them like a makeshift blanket. But from this distance, it was still hard to make out facial features.
Tommy began making his way to the incline behind the tree, trying desperately to steady his footing over the wet roots. Robert and James began moving to one side of the river bank while Henry dug in from the direction that they originally came. They were using the element of surprise to their advantage. It mattered very little to any of the men which one got the bag. What seemed to take priority in the minds was how to expel the least amount of energy to achieve that outcome.
The closer that Tommy was to the overhang, the more slippery the ground became. He tried in vain to find traction a handful of times but with the next step, he slipped into an unrecoverable slide. He dropped onto his side and began an uncontrolled descent, watching the ground rush up to meet him.
He made impact a mere six feet from the woman, instantly waking the couple. They have lost the element of surprise.
The woman turns, too groggy to realise what’s happening. Next to her, her male counterpart quickly springs to life and makes Tommy. He reaches for the bag and begins to stand on his feet as Robert uses the velocity of his entire two hundred pound frame to smash him into the wall of limestone. He flew out of nowhere, causing his target tremendous discomfort.
The woman attempts to withdraw as far away from the scuffle by scooting backwards. Robert has complete leverage over the man and grabs the bag. He gets up and looks at the man now holding his hands up. From here, he can clearly see his face; a kid, no more than fifteen years old. He just looked larger from a far.
“No,” the boy begins begging, “Please!”
Before he could say another word James slides in swinging at his face. Robert’s knocked to the side as James lands a punch on the nose, causing a spray of blood. Before he can swing again, Robert locks his forearm around James’s neck in a submissive hold. James struggles to squeak out a few vague threats as he’s losing his breath, his face turning red.
Robert jerks him back to the ground before stepping over his body and pointing his finger at him in a scornful manner, “You don’t get to do that!”
The boy begins crawling towards the girl, holding his nose, pleading back to Henry and Robert.
“Please, we’re sorry. Please don’t. Please.” The boy becomes more and more incoherent as the tears and emotion cut into his speech.
Henry helps Tommy to his feet.
“Leave him be,” Tommy says to James, panting while staring at the ground.
Henry looks at the two kids huddled together. He shoots back at Robert amused.
“You let these two do this to you? What kind of master criminals are you?”
Tommy is clutching his side as he begins to make sense of the situation. Robert grabbed the bag with one hand while helping James up with the other. He opened it to inspect its contents. It was all there. Everyone had questions, but it was probably best to just walk away.
Curiosity got the best of James, “Why did you take the bag?”
His query was met with brief silence. The boy had continued wiping his nose into the sleeve of his longsleeve cotton shirt drenched in water, saturated with tears, and stained red with blood. He was shivering. It was either the cold, or the adrenaline, or both, James thought.
“We didn’t know,” said the girl.
The boy continued in a nasally voice, “We followed you after we saw you take it. It was stupid. We’re sorry.”
“Why did you stay out here,” Tommy asked. This is a question the men often asked of themselves as their stay in the woods continued.
“We figured you’d watch the car,” she answered.
“We wanted to leave but couldn’t get gas. We didn’t want any trouble. We were so stupid.”
The four men looked at each other and just now acknowledged that watching the only getaway vehicle would’ve probably been a good idea.
“So stupid,” she repeated as she continued sobbing, “We’re sorry, please.”
James was livid. But the adrenaline and sleep deprivation was doing a good job of keeping him even keeled.
“Let’s go,” Robert said.
“Let’s get some sleep and clear this up. We have the bag.”