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The Bitterroots: Mystery Short Story

IN THE May 20 ISSUE

FROM THE 2017 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Maddi Davidson

Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.

Jake swore loudly as he tripped over a rock and nearly fell. His legs felt like rubber, his back ached from carrying a fifty-pound backpack, and he had lost track of how many hours they had been hiking. Pausing to catch his breath, he watched Alicia bounding ahead of him on the path as assuredly as a mountain lion stalking her prey. She hadn’t even looked back to see how he was doing; she just shouted over her shoulder once in a while, exclaiming at the sight of a golden eagle, a ruffled grouse, or some other dumb bird he couldn’t give a flying flip about. “Cold-hearted bitch,” he said under his breath.trail

When Alicia finally halted in a small clearing, Jake had barely enough energy to unbuckle his pack and slide it to the ground. Drenched in sweat, he collapsed, his throbbing legs crumpling under him. He leaned his head against a convenient boulder and watched Alicia clear the area of debris while she hummed to herself. She dropped the large branches she had collected and an axe at his feet. “Chop the kindling for the fire,” she said and abruptly turned away. Jake’s resentment boiled just below the surface as he grabbed the axe and attacked the wood.

The trip had been all her idea, of course. “We’ll hike the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area,” she said, “no one but us, Mother Nature, and her creatures. It’ll be awesome. You can’t say you hate Idaho when you haven’t seen what it has to offer.” She was always badgering him to do some outdoor activity: skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking… God, why had he ever agreed to move to Boise? But he knew why; he’d fallen for Alicia, hard. She wanted to move, and at the time, he needed to leave Seattle. Now she was keeping him here until he repaid her damn loan.

“Feeling better?” Alicia said after they had dinner—canned crap she heated over the fire—and were drinking tea. He wasn’t, but he nodded. Best if she thought he was happy.

“First day is always tough,” she said. “Tomorrow will be better. We’ll head up to the ridge line where the views are spectacular.” She nattered on about the beauty of the wilderness and various other inanities. Jake tuned her out, deep in his own plans for the next day. The glow of the fire, crackling of the wood, and glory of the star-kissed sky above painted a restful scene, yet Jake’s growing tension persisted into a stuttering sleep.fire

Jake shadowed Alicia the next morning, adrenaline overcoming his aching muscles. Alicia enthused that he had finally found his hiking legs. He nodded and concentrated on staying near her on the steep trail. When the path narrowed to traverse the face of a cliff, Jake drew nearer to Alicia and shoved her, hard.

Unlike his dreams of the night before, Alicia didn’t scream and plummet to her death. Instead she’d grabbed onto a protruding rock as she’d fallen forward. Arms at full stretch, Alicia dangled over the abyss. Her eyes, wide with shock, found his.

Jake sneered. “Because you’re just like Krystal and Jenna. And I don’t let bitches stand in my way.”
CLIF

With an enormous effort, Alicia swung her right leg up and her boot hooked over the edge. Despite the weight of the backpack, it appeared she just might be able to leverage herself to safety. Jake grabbed a loose rock and pounded at Alicia’s fingers until she lost her grip. Only then did she scream, her cries stopping abruptly.

Jake lay flat on the path, gripping the earth,
his heart pounding. He peered over the edge. A ledge had arrested Alicia’s fall, and she lay on her back like a broken doll, her arm bent at an impossible angle. Unmoving and unmoved, Jake stared at Alicia, searching for any sign of life. A half-hour passed before he was confident she was dead, or soon to be. He shuddered in relief. Having no rope and no head for heights, he didn’t know what he would have done had she survived the fall. Jake edged his way back down the path until he left the cliff trail behind and could breathe easily.

He could hardly wait to get the hell out of there and back to civilization. Not to Boise; California. He was done with Idaho. Alicia hadn’t wanted to leave, and now she was part of the landscape she had loved. He could move on… and keep her money.

Despite his eagerness to escape the wilderness, Jake set a leisurely pace; if he’d made a mistake and Alicia was still alive, it would be better if help arrived late—very late. Alicia had assured him the path they were on was little known––indeed, they’d encountered no one––but that night he placed his sleeping bag well off the trail. wilderness

The next evening, Jake stopped at a small stream he recognized. From here, it was a two-hour walk to the trailhead—or would be if he weren’t shuffling with blisters and fatigue.

“Gut time,” he said to himself. He knelt down, took one of the rocks from the stream, and lifting it overhead, smashed it down on his left foot. Jake swore for five minutes, only stopping to take a drink from his bottle to wash down two Advil. He wished he could have waited until he was within sight of the SUV, but for verisimilitude his injury couldn’t appear fresh. Without removing his shoe, he slipped into his sleeping bag, ate a couple granola bars, and slept badly.

The next morning Jake limped the final stretch to the SUV, using a dead tree branch he’d found as a crutch. When he drove into Stanley to report Alicia’s death, exhausted and in pain, he looked every inch the part of a man overwrought by the loss of his beloved.

At first, things went well. Granted, Jake had been unnerved when Search and Rescue had found no trace of the body on the ledge or in the river below, but no one questioned his account of the accident.

Jake asserted that Alicia was well ahead of him when he’d heard her scream. While running to reach her, he smashed his foot on a rock and was lucky not to go over the edge himself. “Of course, I tried to climb down to her, but I couldn’t manage it with my foot. And I didn’t have any rope. I called and called, but she didn’t answer. Had I thought she was still alive,” he said tearfully, “I would have walked and crawled all night to get help.”

The memorial service was short and sparsely attended: a few neighbors and Alicia’s buddies from the Boise Hiking Club. There were no relatives because Alicia had never mentioned any. “I never look back because I’m not going that way,” she had said frequently.

One week after Alicia’s memorial service, a special agent from the Forest Service and a detective from the Boise Police showed up at Jake’s front door. An anonymous caller to the police had made some assertions about Jake’s involvement in Alicia’s death. They needed to ask him a few questions.

Of course, it didn’t look good that two suitcases and several half-packed boxes sat in Jake’s living room. Jake explained he was moving to California. “Too many sad memories in Idaho,” he said. suitcase

Although they didn’t have a search warrant, Jake agreed the men could look around. “I’ve nothing to hide.”

Detective Gardiner asked desultory questions about Alicia while the Forest Service agent, Winners, rummaged around the apartment. In less than five minutes, Winners emerged from the spare bedroom saying he’d found an axe with the camping gear. The axe was spotted with a dried substance that appeared to be blood. Gardiner apprised Jake that he could either give them permission to remove the axe, or he would leave Winners there while he obtained a search warrant. Jake knew there was nothing in the apartment to link him to Alicia’s death. He told them to take anything they wanted. They took the axe and several days later they took Jake.

#

Jake Caster claimed he was being framed, but the evidence against him was damning. His fingerprints were on the axe and the DNA of the blood matched that of the hair from Alicia Wilborn’s brush. There was an unexplained transfer of significant funds from Wilborn’s bank account to his several months earlier. And, Wilborn had told members of the Boise Hiking Club that Caster hated hiking and that he had never accompanied her on as much as a day hike. Yet, Caster had agreed to a strenuous trek in a remote wilderness area and a week before the hike had paid the first and last month’s rent on an apartment in San Jose, California.

The Idaho Statesman learned that an anonymous caller to the police had mentioned Caster was connected to the deaths of two other women, subsequently revealed as Krystal Washington and Jenna Westlake.

The Statesman reported that the young, vivacious Washington lived in the same communal house in Los Angeles as Caster. Other members of the household said they’d been intimate. Washington, an aspiring actress who worked several jobs, vanished one night after finishing her shift at a bar in a sketchy part of town and no trace of her had ever been found. Caster had told the police that Washington had been afraid of drug dealers in the area. bar

Westlake had lived with Caster in Seattle for several months before her drowning. Westlake’s friends recalled that Caster pressured her to invest in his video game idea and the couple split. Jake moved out. Weeks later, Westlake’s small sailboat was found abandoned on Lake Union and her body washed up on shore. At the time, it was thought she’d gone for a solo midnight sail and had fallen overboard after having too much to drink.

Eighteen months after the disappearance of Alicia Wilborn, the jury in the federal court for the District of Idaho found Jake Caster guilty of her murder.

#

The woman smiled broadly, closed the window on the Idaho Statesman website, logged off the computer, and left the Rangeley Public Library. She moved a bit stiffly now, after she’d been sitting for any length of time. Other than that, she felt good.

She’d been shocked when Jake had shoved her over the cliff. Had he known she planned to get rid of him on the hike? She had awakened in agony, but lucky to be alive; the backpack had absorbed the bulk of the impact. It was a struggle to pop her dislocated right shoulder back in place and bandage her broken fingers. With one arm practically useless, she couldn’t pull herself up the cliff, so she edged along its face, finding small footholds and grips, the driving need for revenge overcoming the pain.

Framing Jake for her death had been the only option. She couldn’t directly accuse him; Jake would deny it and any digging by the police would reveal that Alicia Wilborn was an alias, and she was a woman with a shady past.

She’d swiped the axe over her bleeding wounds, pressed the blade into the open cut on her thigh to accumulate a few skin cells––painful, but a small price to pay for nailing the SOB––planted the evidence, and called the police from a prepaid cell phone. She almost enjoyed it.

Then she’d left Idaho behind. Maine offered the outdoor activities she so enjoyed, and the people weren’t nosey. The last eighteen months had been great, but now… It was clear her live-in boyfriend Derek was getting ready to dump her. She couldn’t have that. She really couldn’t. It was time she took Derek for a long hike, deep in the wilderness.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Maddi Davidson is the pen name of Mary Ann and Diane Davidson. They are the authors of the Miss-Information Mystery series: Outsourcing Murder, Denial of Service and With Murder You Get Sushi. Their short stories have appeared in Mystery Times 2015, Chesapeake Crimes Storm Warning, and Mystery Weekly. They live on opposite coasts and enjoy surfing, skiing, and hiking, all of which are background material for their mysteries. Their author website is: www.maddidavidson.com.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Doward WilsonNo Gravatar May 23, 2017 at 6:42pm

What a surprising twist. Really enjoyed your story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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