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Dark Justice -- Chapter One

Well, everyone wants to try fiction at some point in their life. Here is Chapter One of my first effort, first published in serial form in The Connecticut Law Tribune a couple years ago. I have had two requests to reprint it here. Neither request was from my mother. I will post a chapter every so often. Warning: The whole shebang is about 100,000 words in length.

Dark Justice

One

Dead bodies weigh a lot, they smell and they are hard to hide. But there are a few good places to stash them. The Appalachian Trail is one.

How many corpses are scattered along the trail? Snaking its way up the East Coast from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, the trail has certain attractions for those seeking an informal and unheralded disposal.

First, it is remote enough so that a hiker or two can haul a dismembered corpse in a couple of backpacks for three or four miles without attracting much attention. Second, it is not so remote that there won’t be dozens, if not scores, of persons passing through most points every week or so. Plenty of suspects if a decomposed body is found. And almost everyone looks more or less the same: fatigued, grungy and possessed of the faraway stare of the long-distance hiker or professional killer.

Peter Petrine tried to remember the trail’s attraction as he dragged one foot after the other in the midmorning mist. In his pack, a torso and a head, each wrapped separately, of course, in plastic and doused in disinfectant. Both parts had been crisped up some in a furnace. At the bottom of the pack some lime to spread over the body. He’d seen bodies covered in it on the television in some war-torn corner of the globe. He couldn’t tell you why lime, but if it was good enough for CNN it was good enough for him.

Walking 20 or so paces ahead of him was some kid he’d spotted outside a convenience store in Bennington. Petrine, or Petey P to his friends, had offered the kid $50 to pack in with him. Petrine told him he was muling supplies in to a church youth group. The kid actually praised Jesus – twice – and offered to carry the pack for free. Talk about luck. It turns out he was some sort of Pentecostal. Mentioned that he spoke in tongues, and, by the way, had Petey P been anointed by the spirit? Petey P nicknamed the kid Jesus I, as in Earth to Jesus I, come in please.

Jesus I carried arms and legs, which were, like the torso and head, wrapped in plastic and charred. It had been an ordeal getting the legs into the pack. Hacking away at the back of each knee was hard work. A chainsaw would have been helpful. It is not easy to break a leg in two. Once the tendons dry, they are like iron bands. The hands were easier to detach; a blunt swing of an axe and off they popped. Odd how the right hand hadn’t burned that much.

"Twenty-one hundred miles of trail, and I picked the one spot straight uphill," Petey P muttered.

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Cardone," Jesus I said. Petey P tried to avoid ever giving his real name. Why? A lifetime of cautious habits born of the need forever to cover his tracks.

"Nothing. Man, this trail is a killer." Petey P was working hard to keep the F-word from seasoning each sentence. The perfect utility word, capable of service as noun, verb, adjective and adverb, it was also the perfect interjection. Of course, Petey P could not parse a sentence. But he knew how to blow off fucking steam. No point in offending Jesus I, though. Avoiding the word made him feel like some mope on a late-night FM radio talk show.

Petey P was leaning against a refrigerator-size boulder, pulse pounding and sweat pouring. He imagined his heart popping right out of his chest and dancing a spasmodic jig right there on the trail. It could happen, he could just feel it pounding to get free.

The first half-mile of path heading South off Route 9 in Vermont is a rock-tossed scramble belched out by some creature with neither thighs nor the need for oxygen.

"Don’t worry. It flattens soon." Jesus I waited politely. He hadn’t even broken a sweat and his breath was as even as a sleeping baby’s. Petey P already despised the unctuous little creep.

The weather report had promised intermittent sunshine; the day itself delivered a steady drizzle. Although it was August, it was damp and chilly. A verdant canopy served as an umbrella of sorts, until a stiff breeze unloosed each leaf’s burden, and it poured cold, drenching rain. Petey P was wet, miserable, and tired.

Two hours later the trail leveled some, as Jesus I had promised, although it was far from easy walking. Roots cris-crossed the path, and sharp foot-sized rocks were everywhere. Petey P’s ankles hurt, and the big toe on his left foot was about to explode.

Petey P and Jesus I had seen only one other hiker. A gaunt-looking thing about five and half feet tall glided past them, eyes sunken. It took a moment for Petey P to discern the thing’s gender. She grunted hello, and kept gliding down the trail. Jesus I figured she was hiking the whole trail, a through hiker. Why not just kill yourself? Petey P wondered. A bullet is quicker.

Jesus I passed Petey P a water bottle, and then headed into the woods.

"I gotta take a leak," he said.

"Wait up," said Petey P. "Hey, what’s that behind the rock?" Petey P pointed with a shaky left hand. "I could swear something moved."

Petey P walked into the woods, with Jesus I a step or two behind them. Each walked quietly.

Twenty yards off the trail a Volkswagen-shaped boulder sat beneath a fallen beech tree. Petey P stepped behind the rock.

"Hey, come here and look at this," he said.

Jesus I padded over.

"Look, would you look at that?" Petey P pointed down, and then he leaned to touch a wet leaf. "I’ve never seen anything like this."

Jesus I was puzzled. He didn’t see anything.

"Look," Petey P said, as he stood. "Feel it."

Jesus I knelt and touched the leaf. As he was about to turn his head something smelled funny and pounded into the back of his head. Two quick bronco kicks. He fell forward, suddenly seeing, smelling or hearing nothing.

Petey P’s pistol smoked. A silencer transformed the retort into a modest "poof, poof." He rolled Jesus I over to check his pulse. Finger over the carotid artery. Nothing. Double checking on the other side of the neck. Still nothing. Good. Good and dead.

He walked back to the trail and listened for the sound of other hikers. He heard nothing but the patter of rain on the forest canopy. The scent of gunpowder hung in the air, and he waved his arms in some crazy expectation that he could drive away death’s perfume.

One last check to make sure Jesus I wasn’t planning to rise from the dead. Jesus I lay in the cruciform pose in which Petey P had left him. For no good reason at all, Petey P then shot him once in each palm. He chuckled. A neat 22 caliber bore piercing each bloodless palm.

It took him a good hour to gather together enough rocks to build a crude cairn over Jesus I’s body. He built a separate one for the body parts. His chest ached, and sweat stung his eyes. His hands hurt and quickly became chapped as he heaved ragged rocks. Soon he was huffing and puffing and thinking of nothing so much as a hot bath. His mind wandered to the night that he killed the dismembered kid. Something close to a smile traced his lips as he wiped sweat from his face with the handkerchief he carried in his hip pocket.

He spread the 10 pounds of lime he had in the bottom of his pack over the bodies before constructing each mound. No one passed by as he did so. He then checked to make sure each pack was empty, and stuffed one into the other to walk out. He figured he’d burn the packs later in Max’s kiln.

As he walked back down the trail, he suddenly realized that only one thing had gone wrong. When he gathered the charred remains of the body, the right hand was missing, the one that had not burned up much in the furnace. He thought of walking back to double check on whether it was there, but darkness was falling. The trail frightened him, and he was cold, wet and hungry.

"Aw, fuck it," he said, happy now to speak freely. "Maybe I’m just tired and it was there all along."

Petey P was tiring fast, and feeling like a pro. Jesus I was an easy kill. Another notch. He was getting good at killing. "Piece of fucking cake," he said. Soon he focused merely on setting one foot ahead of the other, and finding a cheap motel.

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