Rosemary Dexter huddled in the root cellar of an abandoned cabin hidden in a thick forest hollow in the shadows of the leeward side of the mountain. Outside, a storm raged. In this part of the country, the mountains trapped storms. What lasted a few hours in the lowlands often persisted for days. Daylight in this hollow was at a premium even on the longest day of the year because of the height of the mountain and the way it cantilevered over the hollow like a tree whose trunk had rotted on one side.
The air in the root cellar was thick with the smell of earthworms and other burrowing creatures, thick with the odor of potatoes black with age that had been abandoned uneaten by the cabin’s last permanent occupant. A faded calendar pinned to the inside of the cabin’s one door suggested it may have been as long as twenty-three years since anyone lived in it or used it during hunting season. Dexter hoped she would not become desperate enough to eat the potatoes.
She had failed to report for universal conscription when ordered and where ordered, and she was being hunted by mercenaries. Everyone who failed to report was. Hunted. Caught. Executed. Few escaped, less than one-tenth of 1%. While the government lied about many things, Dexter doubted it lied about this. The government posted the names of the fugitives on a web site, the dates apprehended, the dates executed. Independent auditors verified the identities of the dead. Calculating the escape rate was basic math. The government mandated teachers use it to teach students how to calculate percent. And in civics classes to teach the duty of every person, citizen or not, to report when ordered and where ordered. Dexter had studied both when she was in the fourth grade, the fifth grade, the sixth grade.
If she could cross the international border, she would be safe. The most direct route, a trek of two or three days, and the riskiest, was through the scrub just off the shoulder of the highway. Trees and shrubs stunted by global warming offered meagre cover. A safer route, a week because of the mountains, lakes, villages, and towns, one or two cities depending on how one defined a city, and farmers willing to turn fugitives in for the bounty.
Dexter wrapped herself in a silver thermal blanket, a souvenir from the year she represented the nation in the Olympic marathon for women. She had finished fourth, missing a bronze medal by a fraction of a second, a gold by twelve. The shiny side of the blanket had the five ring Olympic symbol and a cartoon image of the official mascot for those Olympic games, a dolphin surfing the crest of a wave. She shivered; her clothes wet from the storm. Shivering was an early sign of hypothermia. She didn’t know if the thermal blanket would make her easier or harder to be caught, but she’d be damned if she’d die of hypothermia. Mother Nature would not be her executioner.
It would be dark in a few hours, a moonless night if her calculations were correct, no natural light to reflect off the thermal blanket. If the storm broke, with luck she would reach the safehouse on the underground railroad before dawn. From there, the border was less than two hours. By midnight the following night, free at last. If not, she would bide her time. Weather was a more fearsome adversary than any bounty hunters the government might deploy.
Leto Harvey positioned another split of oak on the fire and coaxed it into flames with a leather bellows. Fire mesmerized her and she would stare at the flames for hours the way lesser people stared at tropical fish. She had overpaid for her town house because of its fireplace; a seventeenth century cooking fireplace built into the wall, tall enough to stand in. She hung the bellows from one of the jamb hooks hammered into the wooden frame bordering the brick opening. The fire ruddied her face. Its heat reflected by the shallow draft and cast-iron fireback watered her eyes. Her shadow, distorted by the lambent flames, danced on the walls, the ceiling. She knelt and poked at the fire, flames flashing as she rearranged the logs. She had been tasked with tracking Rosemary Dexter, apprehending her, and returning her for execution after a summary trial.
A pocket of moisture inside the wood popped, a short, sharp sound, like the sound of bones, especially the vertebrae of the neck, snapping. Leto added another piece of wood to the fire, then banked some coals in a ceramic curfew. The fire would burn hot long after she had fallen asleep on the hearth, long after the sun had risen the next morning. It would still be warm when she awoke that afternoon, still glowing as she showered, dressed, outfitted herself for the hunt. She had grown so wealthy on the bounties paid for apprehending people who ignored their summonses, money was now secondary to her. She lived for the hunt, the pleasure of the chase.
Dexter had been sighted heading north. According to aerial photographs, an abandoned cabin deep in the woods a few miles south of the border was the only shelter from the storm within miles. Leto made a bet with herself she would find Dexter there. Steak and lobster with a well-aged single malt if she were right; gruel and water if she wasn’t. She ate her steak rare.
Doug Mortimer studied the same aerial photos as Leto and reached the same conclusion. Dexter would wait out the weather in the abandoned cabin. A shallow cave in the cliff face overlooked the cabin. Because of undergrowth, it was not visible in the photos. If he arrived before Leto and established his position, she wouldn’t know he was there. He needed an edge to prevail against someone as savage and uncompromising as Leto. The surprise of an ambush would be it. Like her, he was not in it for the money. Unlike her, he was not in it for the thrill of the hunt. Winning or losing was all that mattered to him, a tally he maintained with the emotion of an accountant balancing someone else’s books. He lived by a simple categorical imperative: the wins had to outnumber the losses.
Mortimer mixed a solution of distilled water with a slightly diluted midazolam concentrate formulated to work within a minute of injection, rather than the usual five to ten minutes for standard medicinal doses. For Leto, he altered the ratio of concentrate to water by reducing the amount of water by one half. A minute was too risky a delay. The symptoms of overdose were ideal for his purposes: drowsiness, confusion, problems with balance and movement, slowed breathing and heartbeat, and loss of consciousness. He loaded several tranquilizer darts.
Mortimer packed both an air gun and a crossbow. He was trained in each and practiced both regularly. Both fired darts with comparable force. Bullseyes were common with each, but with the air gun a little closer to the center than with the crossbow. The tradeoff was the air gun had greater accuracy; the crossbow made less noise. His choice of weapon would depend on how close he got to his target. He traveled light, allocating little space to changes of clothes, socks, underwear, and gloves only, but packing enough food and water for several days. He left room for rappelling gear.
Shrouded in morning fog, a remnant of the storm, Leto refreshed her coffee from a thermos as she waited for Dexter to emerge from the cabin. As the morning lengthened, the sun burned off the fog in the upper air, evaporating the moisture, but not at ground level. She retreated behind a trio of pine trees growing out of a common stump wedged between two large boulders. The benign beauty of the storm’s aftermath created an aura of serenity as ephemeral as the day’s weather. Clear afternoons often produced fog-bound mornings. Seasons changed daily, sometimes hourly. What summer begat, winter withdrew. And winter did not beget. It devoured.
Through binoculars, Leto watched the cabin. Nature had covered its exterior walls with moss. Creaking in the breeze, its door hung by a single hinge. Pine needles, matted by the rain but undisturbed by footsteps or the tracks of squirrels, foxes, or racoons, blanketed the ground around the cabin. Somehow, Dexter had erased all evidence of her movements. Leto respected that. The more skilled the quarry, the more erotic the hunt.
The breeze died out. Leto sensed something, someone, sizing her up the way a great cat did a herd of wildebeest, searching out the one too old or too young or too lame to escape. A sixth sense bred from years of experience alerted her; she was being stalked. Another bounty hunter, perhaps. Competition between bounty hunters was fierce. Poaching was endemic. Being murdered by a fellow bounty hunter was not uncommon. A growing number worked only in pairs. Leto did not believe in partnerships.
Or, maybe, a member of the underground. It no longer limited itself to helping fugitives escape. It had a trained squad of assassins who pursued bounty hunters in the field as aggressively as the bounty hunters pursued their prey. Leto had seen a wanted poster with her image, offering a substantial reward, dead or alive. She wasn’t flattered. She thought she was worth twice the amount, if not thrice.
Leto inched down the gully toward the edge of the woods, minimizing the dust she raised, the sound of the drag of her boots. An experienced hunter, whether of fugitives or deer, would be able to detect her. She approached the cabin from the windward sided. Dexter, if she knew what to listen for, would know she had company.
From a shallow cave in the cliff face that overlooked the cabin, Mortimer monitored Leto through high-powered field glasses. He figured fifteen minutes to work his way along the rock face to the top of the cliff, another ten minutes through the woods to the clearing. He slipped the field glasses into their case and loaded the magazine of his dart gun with tranquilizer darts. He strung his crossbow.
Leto squatted beneath the cabin’s one window. She rested her fingers lightly against the moss-covered exterior wall. If Dexter was inside, she was as still as a house cat asleep in a window. The stillness worried Leto. The louder the noise, the safer she felt.
Untying the kerchief from around her neck, Leto poured water from her canteen over it, then wrapped it around her nose and mouth. She covered her eyes with goggles, overlapping the top of her kerchief under the bottom of the goggles. With her eyes and nose protected, she tossed a sulfur grenade into the cabin. It bounced once. Mustard colored fumes, as noxious as they were ugly, filled the cabin and spewed from its door and window as if the cabin were vomiting to purge itself of a disease. The cloud rose into the trees. Droves of squirrels fled the upper branches like animals fleeing a fire.
Hanging from the rock face, less than a foot from the top of the cliff, Mortimer anchored the toe of his boot on a narrow ridge. He blinked away the tears forming in his eyes. Sulfur. He squeezed his eyes closed and pressed his cheek against the rock face hoping the breeze would pick up and the fumes would quickly dissipate. He counted to thirty, then slowly opened his eyes. With his fingertips, he wiped away the moisture. When his vision cleared, he studied the rock face searching for handholds. Finding one, he reached above his head and wedged his fingertips into a crack.
As Mortimer pulled himself upward, his movements as precise and controlled as a gymnast’s, footsteps echoed in the cabin, staggering, uneven, like a drunk who’d lost control of all motor functions. Dexter staggered through the door and collapsed on the pine needles, coughing, her eyes bloodshot and tearing, her lips and tongue swollen and red.
“I’ve come for you,” Leto said.
She looked deep into Dexter’s eyes. The moment of recognition, the moment her quarry realized who she was, why she had come, that was the moment Leto lusted after. Dexter’s eyes were bloodshot with defiance. Defiance excited Leto in a way cowardice or resignation didn’t. She yanked Dexter to her feet and dragged her away from the yellow cloud that still hovered around the cabin.
Dexter gulped fresh air. Phlegm dripped from her nose. She twisted her neck and wiped her nose on her shoulder. A shift in the breeze blew a wisp of yellow cloud toward them. Leto began to tear. She handcuffed Dexter, hands behind her back.
Mortimer circled around the edge of the clearing so he could avoid the sulfur cloud. The cloud weaved its way in and out of the lower branches of the trees like a ribbon. If it was the pale white of an early morning ground fog, it would make a perfect picture postcard. Mortimer watched as Leto whipped Dexter with the butt end of her gun. Dexter’s left eye closed. The blood covering her cheeks glistened in the sun. Her nose was pulp. She slumped against the cabin’s wall. Pine needles tarred and feathered her face. Leto had a reputation; or, at least, a rumor of a reputation. She brought her quarry back alive, but injured through falls or other unavoidable accidents. Mortimer was the first to witness one of these falls. From his vantage point, he couldn’t tell whether Dexter was still alive.
He positioned himself for a clean shot. The air gun because his comfort level with it was higher than the crossbow. Even with its altered formula, the tranquilizer would take several seconds, enough time for Leto to draw her gun and fire one or two rounds. He had anticipated this contingency, prepared for it by recording the growls of several black bears on his smart phone. He rested his forefinger lightly on the Play button, cupping his hand to smother the faint tap which his fingertip would make. With even pressure, he depressed the button, collapsing the dome of his hand to muffle the click. Leto’s head snapped in his direction. The growls of black bears rumbled through the clearing. Two darts burrowed into the fleshy areas of Leto’s neck.
Mortimer flattened himself against the ground. Leto drew her handgun, then dropped to a crouch, pivoting in a full circle, her gun extended before her. She extracted the darts. Dizzy, she fell back on to the pine needles. With effort, she rolled over on her stomach, supporting herself on her elbows, and squeezed off several rounds without aiming. Her head sagged. She passed out before she could fire additional rounds.
From behind Leto, Mortimer inched his way into the clearing. After cuffing Leto, he leaned her against the wall of the cabin and checked her vital signs. Pouring water from his canteen into the shallow of his palm, he wet Dexter’s lips. He drenched a handkerchief and pressed it against her mouth. She opened her mouth and sucked at the moisture. He searched Leto for the keys to the handcuffs, but didn’t find them. With a single shot, he severed the chain linking them. He replenished the water in the handkerchief, then retrieved his phone. A van with the logo of a package delivery service soon arrived. With the help of the driver, Mortimer lifted Dexter into the van, then loaded Leto, chaining her hands and feet even though she was unconscious.
Climbing into the passenger’s seat, Mortimer winked at the driver and said, “Time to go home.”
S. Frederic Liss, a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize, St. Lawrence Book Award, and Bakeless Prize, has published more than 55 short stories in inter alia The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Two Bridges Review, Hunger Mountain, The Florida Review. His first novel was published by Adelaide Books in July 2020 and his second novel will be published by Adelaide Books in May 2022.