Carmody Peak, Northern Coast Range
The words drifted through Dave Garvin’s head, a whisper as faint as the breeze. In all his years of roaming the Pacific Northwest, he had never hiked through woods this still, this quiet. No birds flitting overhead. No squirrels or chipmunks darting across his path. No distant rustlings. Just the crunch of his footsteps, and the flicker of his shadow across the narrow trail whenever the late spring sun managed to work its way through the trees.
He stopped and adjusted the straps of his backpack, then untied the bandanna from around his neck and wiped his face. Heat had come early to northwest Oregon, settling over the Northern Coast Range like a wool blanket, thick and smothering. Unfortunately, no rain had hitched along for the ride.
Garvin plucked a browned leaf from an overhanging bigleaf maple branch and crumpled it to powder. Drought. It was hard to associate that word with what most folks still thought of as the PacNorWet. But the last few years had been dry, the threat of forest fires rising with the temperature. If he spent the night on the mountain, he would keep his flints and tinder in his backpack. He already risked getting arrested for trespassing. No way did he want to add a charge of arson as well.
He unhooked the water bottle from his belt and drained it, shaking out the last few drops. I have two more liters in my pack. But according to the route he’d worked out, he still had at least a ninety-minute hike ahead. At this rate, he would run out of water before he reached Jericho.
Slow down. Nerves—he always drank more when he felt nervous. He dragged off his backpack and stuffed the empty bottle inside, then pulled out a full one and clipped it to his belt. He back over his shoulder at the trail, a tunnel of low-hanging branches and hazy air that angled downward so steeply that if he threw a stone, it would fall the base of the mountain.
Garvin removed his GPS unit from the side pocket of his pack. He always checked his location every so often, like most hikers did when they roamed the backcountry. The signal served as your lifeline.
He reached for the power button, then stopped. Just because there’s no fence doesn’t mean there’s no guards. That meant no GPS. No phones or tablets, either. Aging golden boy Andrew Carmody seldom visited the family compound on the other side of the mountain, but he kept it staffed year-round with the sort of humorless bastards who handled security for high-profile multimillionaires. That meant scanners, jammers, tracers, and every other sort of electronic tracking device known to man. Carmody’s got his own little kingdom up here. NSA-type stuff. The best money can buy.
Then other voices ran through his head. The warnings from friends. That strange things happened at Jericho.That he shouldn’t go. But if he did, he shouldn’t go alone.
So of course, Garvin had done both.
He once again looked back the way he had come. Get out of here. He flinched as his own voice sounded in his head. No photo’s worth it.
He stuffed the GPS unit back into his pack. “Wanna bet?” After a moment’s thought, he pulled out his camera and hung it around his neck, readied it in case he spotted something interesting on the trail. Then he shouldered his gear and continued his climb.
Misplaces . . . Noplaces . . . . Garvin pondered names for his new website as he trudged. Abandoned had already been done to death. Lost. He wanted something different, a single word that unsettled, that told the visitor that this wasn’t just another display site filled with creepy photographs of unexplored woods and decrepit houses. No, this site would offer things that no one else had, images as disquieting as the name. After so many failures, this site would finally make him some money.
Nowheres . . . Neverwheres . . . Nehalem.
He stopped. Nehalem. He knew it was the name of a river, a town, a Native American people indigenous to the region. But it always flipped into Nephilim in his head. Something he picked up as a kid, at the Bible study classes his parents had sent him to.
Funny, the things you remembered.
Nephilim. The name cropped up in horror movies and television shows whenever they needed some biblical reference to make it all seem real. “Nephilim.” Garvin said the word aloud, then shook his head. Too obscure. Besides, the Nephilim were people—well, sort of, at least—not places.
He took a swig of water, then looked up through the trees to see if he could get a glimpse of the sun. But the sky had hazed over as cooler Pacific air mingled with the mountain heat, dropping the temperature and causing fog to form. He imagined chill mist brushing his sweaty face, sighed, and glanced at his watch. It felt as though only minutes had passed, but he had walked for well over an hour.
I shouldn’t have come by myself. His mind wandered when he hiked alone. He should have paid attention to his surroundings instead of thinking about business. If he had, he would have noticed the point at which the woods around him changed, the hemlock and bigleaf maple giving way to towering spruce and fir, the moss now thick beneath his feet. Old growth. Forest primeval.
Gorgeous. Garvin brushed his hand over a spruce bough, then jerked back as something sharp jabbed beneath his fingernail. It felt like an insect sting but proved to be a dried needle, jammed in deep enough to penetrate.
“Dammit.” He tried to brush the thing out it failed to budge. He had no choice but to take hold of it and pull it out, as blood welled around his cuticle and dripped to the ground. Fucking needles. They didn’t have to be made of metal to get you.
Garvin licked the wound clean. Then he dug a chocolate bar out of his pack and ate a few squares to get rid of the taste of blood. Took a few deep breaths to settle himself, then wiped his brow with his sleeve. Even with the mist and shade, it felt no cooler, as though the trees trapped the heat and blocked any breeze. His head ached—he blew his nose to try to ease the pounding, then paused as he caught the faint whiff of vanilla.
He checked his camera settings as he hurried up the trail, tweaking and adjusting to compensate for the half-light. Rounded a steep bend, and stopped.
The trail overlooked a small clearing shaded to dusk by low-hanging boughs. Against the darkness, strange plants shimmered, tapered stalks studded along their lengths with inch-long blooms. White as candle wax from top to bottom, from the leafless stems to the small, curled petals. Only the centers of the flowers held any color, tiny daubs of butter-yellow bright as brass against the pale.
Phantom orchids. Garvin had never seen more than a small cluster in one place before, but here they carpeted the ground, hundreds of plants, upright as ghostly tin soldiers, filling the air with a scent like holiday cookies. Chlorophyll. They contained none. Saprophytes. That meant they lived off decaying matter. But how much rot did it take to feed so many?
Garvin snapped photo after photo as all the old gossip flitted through his head. Fernanda di Montaldo Carmody, wife of Andrew, mother of his teenage daughter. Ex-supermodel, sometime actress, full-time party girl. Forever corpse? Last seen arguing with her husband outside a Portland restaurant. Then she drove off in an Italian sports car that cost more than the average house, out of the Pearl District and into oblivion.
Ten years ago this month. Garvin pondered the eerie orchids. Is this where you buried her, Andy? But even if Carmody had murdered his wife and stuck her here, would enough of her still be around after a decade to feed the flowers?
“Way to get morbid, Dave-O.” Garvin took one last shot, then resumed his hike. “Fernanda.” The name flowed off the tongue like honey from a spoon. Brazilian by birth, she had been in her mid-twenties at the time of her disappearance, with a face that was the near occasion of sin. Tits like melons. Legs that went on forever, and hip-length hair like an ebony waterfall.
Some guys have all the luck. Garvin looked back at the orchids wondered if there were times when that wasn’t enough.
He saw more phantom orchids as he continued his climb, small clusters that marked his way like beacons in the shaded gloom. Sweat runneled into his eyes, stinging, blurring his vision. His wounded finger throbbed, and his feet ached. Just when he thought he had somehow taken the wrong trail and needed to turn back, he spotted the first stumps at the top of a rise, the remains of the trees used in Jericho’s construction. Old, they were, grayed and split, the bark long since fallen away.
Garvin stepped off the trail into the knee-high grass and snapped image after image. Then he stopped, sniffed, swallowed hard. A different smell here, one that set the back of his neck to prickling. The tang of meat just gone to rot.
He bent close to one of the stumps and hunted until he found the source. Shelf fungus, jutting from the dead wood, silvery-white as a fish’s belly. He ran a finger along the edge of one of the outgrowths, then jerked his hand away, rubbed his fingers over and over on his pants leg to erase the sensation. Spongey slickness, like raw liver, and cool to the touch despite the heat.
He held his breath as he took more pictures. Orange—all the shelf fungus he had ever seen had been orange. Chicken-of-the-woods. He had eaten some once on a dare, hacked it up and stewed it. As the name implied, it tasted just like chicken.
This wouldn’t. Garvin choked back the acid that rose in his throat and tried not to think how this moist, stinking mess might taste.
He took one last photo, then paused. The camera’s soft shutter hiss seemed to echo, as though he stood in a bare-walled room instead of a forest. Then a fly buzzed past, circling his head before zipping away, A beat later, he heard rustlings in the shrubbery.
Garvin looked around spotted ferns shuddering some distance down the trail. Just a critter. Something small, a squirrel or fox. Finally. He felt his shoulders loosen realized how much the silence had disturbed him.
He continued his trudge, his new escort following at a distance.
The second sign of Jericho appeared around the next bend, a tumble of old logs and rusty hinges that had once been a gate. A few yards past that, in a clearing at the top of another rise, were the remains of a small shed or guard shack, jutting upward like a broken tooth.
Garvin entered the shack, took a few pictures, then hunted through the weeds that poked up through the floorboards. People often left behind the damnedest things when they abandoned a place—photographs, books, bits of clothing. Not much would have survived the years and the elements and animal predation given that Jericho had been abandoned in the early 1900s. But maybe he would get lucky.
He took it for a shadow at first, the darkness in a far corner of the ruin. Only as he drew closer did the detail emerge. Feathers. The remains of a small bird, tufts of white and gray fluff settled in a circle around a pile of bones.
Garvin bent closer, driving away a few flies that had settled. No, not a pile. Someone had arranged the bones with care, setting the longest, the wing bones and spine, to form a square. They had then layered the rest according to size from largest to smallest, rib and leg, scapulae and breastbone, then capped the tiny pyramid with the bird’s skull. Those empty eye sockets—they stared at him now. The tiny beak gaped wide, like a nestling begging to be fed.
What. The fuck. He touched the feathery circle, then flinched as it tumbled apart and scattered in all directions. The bones still showed pink and red in spots, remnants of ligaments glistening—whatever it was, it sure as hell hadn’t been there since the early 1900s. Someone had assembled it more recently.
Garvin brushed the down back into place, then photographed the . . . whatever it was. A shrine? A sacrifice? He then tried to resume his search, but the mound of bones kept drawing him in. He debated burying it, giving the poor bird a proper send-off. But every time he bent down to pick it up, the voice in his head stopped him. And so he backed off, even as he wondered what in hell he had to be afraid of. He had encountered death before during his explorations, stumbled over human remains more than once. There was no earthly reason why something small enough to fit in his hand should bother him like this.
He edged into the doorway of the shack once more thought about turning around and taking the long, sweltering hike back to his truck. If he started now, he could make it back to Portland before dark, maybe drag the gang out to dinner.
And pay for it how? Garvin felt the all-too-familiar clench in his gut. That was what this little jaunt was about, after all. A couple of the cable crime shows had scheduled updates about Fernanda Carmody’s disappearance over the next several weeks—he could ride the wave, sell weird photos of Jericho to them, or to one of the tabloids.
But timing was everything. He needed to start hawking photos as soon as possible or he would miss the window of opportunity. But if he hit it right? With a little luck, he might even get competing bids. But for that he needed more than photos of a dead bird, no matter how creepy.
Garvin looked everywhere but at the pile of bones. Rechecked the camera settings, made sure the battery still held enough charge. Then, for the first time since childhood, he made the sign of the cross, and resumed his hike up the rise.
Ten paces, and the remains of a half-dozen cabins and a scatter of smaller outbuildings came into view. They formed a rough circle around a large rectangular structure. A meetinghouse of some sort, or a dormitory for lumberjacks.
Garvin stared. The other buildings were half-collapsed tumbles of rotted wood but the dormitory still stood intact, the roof in one piece, sunlight shining off window glass. No way had it stood empty for more than a hundred years. It’s been repaired. He started down the hill toward it then stopped and reminded himself to use the damn camera. He took shot after shot, adjusting the settings when the windows flashed reflected sun in his face. His headache had vanished. And soon his unpaid bills would do the same. I’ve got it now. Almost all the pieces. The Carmodys’ history of scandal and secrecy. The bird shrine. And now this place. All he needed was to find one spooky thing inside, a scratched date on a wall or a water stain in the shape of a cross or, oh if it were possible, another bird pyramid.
And if he didn’t find one, well, maybe he could make it himself.
In the middle of a shot, Garvin stopped. Lowered his camera. Listened. It sounded louder than it had at any time during his climb, the rustling. But there was something new this time. Clicking, like the rolling of dice or the tap of a keyboard. He turned, saw the shuddering in the bushes at the foot of the rise. His unseen .
“Don’t worry, little buddy. I’m not interested in you.” He smiled. “It’s the guy who owns this place who’ll have to worry.” He hesitated, then shook his head. The guy was a public figure with a sordid past—hell, his daughter had just been released from rehab for what, the third time this year? Whatever happened, Carmody had no one to blame but himself.
Garvin headed down toward the building, then slowed when he saw the steel door, the shiny new knob. It’s probably locked. He would be lucky if that’s all it was. NSA-type stuff. As soon as he opened it, some hidden device would transmit a signal back to the house. They would know he was there.
He scanned the clearing. No sign of a road, but Carmody’s goons might not need one—a Land Rover or a Jeep would make short work of the underbrush. He hiked through knee-high grass to the far edge of the site, searched for any sign of old tire tracks. Instead he found the rotted remains of railroad ties, a few yards of rusted track. No surprise there—a lot of the old logging sites installed their own railways to transport timber. The important thing was that it couldn’t be used now.
He turned and headed back toward the dormitory. Stopped at the door, counted to three, then braced his shoulder against the panel. Grabbed the knob and twisted and pushed—
—and stumbled forward as the door swung open. He held out his arms to break his fall, but his backpack shifted and he tumbled sideways onto his left shoulder, cried out as the pain shot up his arm and across his upper back.
“Fuck fuck fuck.” Garvin undid the backpack straps and eased out of the harness, then worked into a sitting position as stars glimmered before his eyes. He gagged, turned his head just as he vomited, missed his camera but nailed his pants leg instead. He shuddered through a bout of dry heaves, then sat slumped and cradled his injured arm to his chest.
Time passed. The pain got no better, but it didn’t get worse, either. He maneuvered to his knees, then ever so slowly to his feet. Dislocation? Separation? He twitched the arm an inch or so. Maybe just a sprain? Except it didn’t matter what it was, did it? His mobility had just been shot to hell. Nothing for it but to bind his arm as best he could and head back down the mountain. Can’t afford the ER. Not that he would go, anyway. All white coats and needles and blood— He pushed that thought from his mind.
Garvin waited until the pain settled down to a manageable throb, then rummaged through his pack for the extra bandannas he always carried, tied them together with his good hand and his teeth, then looped them around his neck to form a makeshift sling. He found that if he moved slowly, he could still use the arm.. If he lifted the camera just right, he could snap photos one-handed.
He took deep, slow breaths to steady himself as he scanned the room for something, anything, that would make this disaster worthwhile. It looked a large space, maybe ten feet by thirty, with a low, beamed ceiling and plank floor and windows on three sides. Walls of rough tongue-in-groove. No furniture, no sinister altars or statues. No lighting of any sort. Just a shell.
He edged along the wall to the far end, which was windowless and cast in shadow, saw nothing until he stood in the darkness himself. Only then did he spot the small pile in the near corner.
“Bingo.” Garvin adjusted his camera and headed toward the arrangement of bones. Then he stopped, straightening so quickly that his shoulder cramped. Took a step back, and studied the floor. One section appeared lighter than the rest, faded by sun and age.
But that fade line is pretty damn straight. Garvin bent as low as he dared, brushed his hand across the floor until he felt it. A narrow groove, almost invisible to the eye, engineered to blend with the edges of the boards.
It’s a fucking trapdoor. He brought up the camera with a shaking hand. One photo, another, the light of the flash bringing the difference between the color of the door and the rest of the flooring into sharper relief.
Garvin’s heart stuttered, then pounded, as adrenaline kicked in. The pain in his shoulder eased. His mind raced. He had to get that door open. He hoped like hell that there were steps or a ladder leading down to whatever lay beneath, but he knew that he would leap into the darkness if he had to.
What’s down there? He swallowed hard. Who’s down there? An image flashed in his mind. A heartbreaking face, half-hidden behind a wave of ebony hair.
Garvin stepped around the trapdoor, searched for a latch or handle. Then he paused. Raised his head and sniffed. His senses were on the alert now—he picked up smells that he had missed before. The herbal sharpness of incense. The rank saltiness of sweat.
Then he heard it. The clicking, growing louder, getting closer.
You should have run when you had the chance, Dave-O.
Garvin tensed. It was the voice in his head again, yes.
You should have paid attention to your surroundings.
Except that it wasn’t his own voice.
He turned toward the door just as it swung closed. Heard the dead bolt slide into place.
You never pay attention.
Shadows flitted across the floorboards, converging in the middle of the room. Like steam escaping through cracks in a pipe, darkness streamed out from between the planks, tumbling into round shapes that massed around Garvin.
Then the shapes formed hands that scrabbled at his clothes and pinched his skin. Nails scratched, leaving bloody, burning tracks in their wake, like wasps stinging over and over.
Garvin tried to run, but pain knifed through him and he stumbled. He swung his backpack at the things, but the weight knocked him off-balance and he careened into them instead. Arms wrapped around him, squeezing the air from his lungs, crushing and twisting his injured shoulder. Faces pressed close, black and bristly with eyes like a thousand mirrors and round mouths rimmed with teeth.
Then came the buzzing. It filled his ears and rattled his bones until his whole body vibrated.
Blackness closed in. The roar in his ears drowned out his cries. The stench enveloped him, filled his nose and flowed into his mouth and down his throat, thick as syrup, as the room spun faster and faster and the walls curved and the floor opened and narrowed into a tunnel that led down, down, down into the dark.
A white-clad arm reached out to him.
“Don’t fight it, Mr. Garvin. It will all be over soon.” A beat of silence. “Blood, is it?”
And that last word, that clawed his ears, and drew one last, silent scream.