Standing Dead

CHAPTER ONE

 

Carl Mueller pulled to the side of the narrow road and parked his pickup as far off the pavement as he dared without landing in the ditch. He was thirty miles from the Maine coast as the crow flies and there were few houses here, just seemingly endless woods on all sides.
    Carl had parked nearly a mile away from Derwin Denton’s woodlot and he walked the distance briskly, barely raising a sweat in the cool, dry morning air.
    Carl checked for any passing cars before he slipped around one of Denton’s No Trespassing signs and moved into the woods. Safely out of sight, he pulled out his handheld GPS and began to walk a methodical search pattern through the woodlot. The property had a mile of frontage on the road, and extended two miles back into empty woodland, so there was a lot of ground to cover.
    Carl walked roughly parallel to the road, zig-zagging back and forth as he worked his way from the front of the property towards the back.
    The cool mid-September air, absence of mosquitos, deer flies, and other insect annoyances made for an ideal day to hike in the woods. Carl was in his forties, blond, tanned, and athletic, someone who could comfortably cover fifteen miles in a day—which was what he planned to do.
    September not only signaled the end of summer, but the end of Derwin Denton’s woodlot as well. Even now, Carl could hear the sound of distant chainsaws—Jack Fournier and his crew, cutting on the neighboring lot a couple of miles up the road.
    He pushed his way through a section of overgrown brush and young trees, moving ever deeper into the woods as he watched the GPS unit in his hand. He guessed that the area where he was standing had been cut over within the last ten years. Most of the trees were small, little more than saplings, and the young undergrowth made it impossible to see more than a few dozen yards.

 

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As luck would have it, Carl’s truck, with its “SOCC” logo on the door, was spotted almost immediately. The stalker knew what Carl was up to, which made it easy to prepare a suitable reception.


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A sudden crashing sound nearby made Carl jump—just a deer, browsing on the small trees and brush and startled by Carl’s approach. He’d spent much of his life hiking in the woods, but today he felt strangely uneasy, the brush closing in on him, hiding unknown dangers.
    Clambering up a rocky ledge, he suddenly found himself in a stand of huge, old-growth pines. The brush had long since been shaded out by the towering trees, leaving the space open, the ground soft with pine needles. The air was hushed and still, as though the great, silent trees had absorbed all of the life force from the air and taken it to themselves.
    The heavy quietness of the place felt like the inside of an ancient church, with its feel of timelessness and unseen power.
    No, not a church, Carl decided, moving on. He hurried his pace.
    A little further into the pine woods, he was jolted by a place where the forest floor had been torn and slashed to mud by an ATV trail. Kids, probably. He wondered how old man Denton would feel about having his woodlot torn up by joyriders, though it would look a lot worse when the place was cut over.
    He checked the GPS, changed course a bit, and found himself moving into thick, brushy woods again. A squirrel shot up a Spruce tree next to him, scolding as it went.
    Carl had worked his way about a quarter of a mile in from the paved road, having covered some three miles of back-and-forthing, when he came upon the cedars, Northern White Cedars, Thuja Occidentalis, to be exact.
    It was a small stand of trees, an acre or so, in a patch of boggy ground. Most of the trees were small, but there were three remarkably big specimens for Maine, though nothing like the giant Red Cedars on the west coast.
    Different people find beauty and inspiration in different places. For some, it might be the loveliness of a woman, the sleek lines of a sports car, the magnificence of a piece of music, the radiance of a painting. For Carl it was the glory of a cedar tree. This was why he loved his work, and why he was here.
    At their bases, the trunks bore the marks of blue spray paint—a forester’s death sentence.
    He gazed up at the mature trees, entranced by their clean, sweeping trunks, their velvety bark, their sprays of foliage reaching up to the sky, a delicate tracery of green on blue. He craned his neck, trying to see the top of the biggest cedar, but it was lost above the canopy. He stepped back, trying to get a glimpse, and discovered with a shock that the top had broken off.
    “You do know this land is posted.”
    The voice behind him nearly made Carl jump out of his skin. “It is?” he replied blandly.
    The stranger shrugged. “So, now you’ve found the stand of cedar.”
    “I’d heard about it anyway,” Carl replied.
    “And you’re going to spend the whole day tramping around looking for more cedars?”
    “That’s what we do at SOCC,” Carl said.
    “Bunch of damn fools. I’d call the cops if there was cell phone coverage out here.” The stranger shrugged again. “You looked up ahead, near the property line? I’ll save you some walking, so you don’t spend all day trespassing.”
    Carl followed his companion across the remains of an overgrown tote road and through a patch of thick woods until they suddenly came out to a place where a great slab of ledge lay just below the surface, making a natural clearing where only stunted trees and brush could clung to the thin soil.
    “Take a look at this,” the man said walking a few yards into the clearing to where a large tree, the only one that had managed to reach any size on the mossy, rocky ground, stood alone.
    “It’s an old beech tree,” Carl said, wondering what this had to do with cedars. “The bark is diseased,” he added noting the rough, wart-like surface. Carl looked up. “That’s probably what killed it, that and the bad soil. Been dead for years.”
    “Look at those roots, spread out all over, right on the surface. Hard to see how a tree can stay standing without any soil to speak of.”
    “Are you suggesting that SOCC doesn’t have a leg to stand on?” Carl said, as he studied the gnarled, twisted roots, which looked as though they were desperately trying to burrow into the ledge. “Why should I care about a standing dead beech—”
    The blow caught Carl on the back of his head, driving him to the ground.

 

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Carl could remember walking through the woods, the cathedral stillness of the big old pines, but why was he lying here? He tried to rise, but waves of pain and nausea forced him down.
    He rested for a while, feeling the cool ground against his cheek, trying to grasp what had happened, waiting for the dizziness to pass, listening to the distant chain saws.
    The trouble was, they didn’t sound all that far away. Where was he? How long had he been here? Panic seized him.
    Overhead, the dead beech swayed slightly, as though cringing from the saw’s bite. Slowly, reluctantly, it began to lean.
    Carl’s world drifted in and out of focus as he fought for consciousness, trying to crawl across the ledge like a crippled bug.
    The tree was tilting farther now, hinging on the remaining narrow strip of wood. While Carl crawled in slow motion, the tree leaned faster and faster until it crashed with a thud that shook the rocky ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Lawrence Rotch