And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.
Sunday, December 14
The dogs sit alert and rigid at the cusp of twilight, unmoving silhouettes cut from stone. Their breathing has settled after the miles-long chase through the woods, and they pay no mind to the keening wind overhead, the whipping tree-tops, the winter storm that has finally caught us.
Here, in the deep woods of the Olympic Peninsula, one might be forgiven for mistaking them for wolves, these hard hunters with bodies so similar to those of their wild ancestors. One might even feel a chill, a touch of terror at their presence, if not for the quiet presence of their handlers crouched next to them.
With unimaginable discipline, the heads of the police K-9s remain fixed and unflinching as their sensitive noses sample the air, smelling the runner, smelling his nervous fear. Their eyes never leave the rectangular shadow resting among the trees ahead, a place of humans, though long abandoned.
With their handlers—their alphas—beside them, the exhausted dogs feel peace and satisfaction—even joy. The long hunt is almost over. Their prey lies just ahead, injured and exhausted. They smell the blood. They wait now for the command, the human word that will send them to finish the hunt.
Like coiled springs they sit, patient and focused.
The cabin is ancient, a relic from a different era now battered and decrepit.
From our concealed position a hundred feet behind it, I can see the thick green blanket of moss draped over the roof like a half-made bed. The empty window casings are hollowed out, resembling the sunken eyes of an ancient man looking upon his final days. The remnants of wooden shutters, where they still exist, hang at an angle, reduced by time and weather. Even the planks used in the construction of the cabin speak of a different era, a time when sawmills ripped lumber into long wide slabs that both sealed a building and served as siding.
The thickness of the slabs is likely the only reason the cabin still stands.
"One room, maybe a hundred and fifty square feet at most," whispers Detective Sergeant Jason Sturman as he studies the dark openings through the thermal scope of a borrowed sniper rifle. "Probably an old hunting cabin from the thirties or forties."
Despite the storm, we keep our voices low, knowing the howling wind could ebb at any time and catch one of us in midsentence, giving away our presence.
"Do you think it's his?" asks my partner, FBI Special Agent Jimmy Donovan. "Or did he just stumble upon it?"
"Stumbled upon it would be my guess," Jason replies quietly. "If it was his I'd expect it to be in better shape." He gestures at the structure. "One heavy snow and it's going to be nothing but a crumpled pile of mossy tinder. The only reason anyone would hole up inside is if they had nowhere else to go. Desperation makes you do stupid things."
"Sounds like our guy," I mutter.
My name is Magnus Craig, but everyone calls me Steps, even my mom. I'm a man-tracker for the FBI's Special Tracking Unit, and my partner and I have done four searches here in Clallam County: two missing hikers, a bank robber, and a bona fide murder suspect. The last search was eight months ago—the bank robber—and I only remember that because it was part of the briefing before we left our office at Hangar 7 in Bellingham this morning.
I have a hard time with names and faces.
We travel to so many places and meet so many people that it really is impossible to keep them all straight, at least for me. Faces blur together; names morph; personalities flatten out. Or maybe my mind just processes information differently and anything deemed no longer of value gets purged, a scrubbing of the hard drive, so to speak.
Jimmy always remembers names and faces.
When Detective Sergeant Jason Sturman and Detective Nathan Critchlow met us on the tarmac this morning as we disembarked from Betsy, the Special Tracking Unit's Gulf-stream G100, Jimmy immediately recognized both Nate and Jason, and greeted them with genuine enthusiasm. We've worked with these guys twice before, and they're hard not to like.
The Clallam County Sheriff's Office only has four detectives, so the odds of us ending up with Nate and Jason again were fifty-fifty. I like to think they volunteered when they heard we were coming.