Prologue: Thursday, May 25th, 1995
The path wound through spring foliage, the ground underfoot soft as a damp carpet. Dusk to evening transition, the gurgling song of marsh wrens surrendering to the rubbery-throated barks of tree frogs. Full night would bring the bird-like cries of boreal toads, sweet and lonesome—as evocative as the whistle of a flycatcher.
The slough neared, the yellow blooms of skunk cabbage glowing iridescently in the gloom, their stink mingling with the fetor of low-tide, a primordial mud and blossom stench irresistible to scavenging flies and beetles—especially with the heat generated by the skunk cabbage flowers. Recent warm days had brought out swarms of gnats, easy to miss in the post-sunset gloaming. If she’d been walking for pleasure she’d have watched out for them, waved them out of her way. But with her mind racing, she got a mouthful and coughed, stumbled and got a poke in the back.
“Just keep going.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“You know why.”
The ground buckled up suddenly, and she slipped, grasping a fistful of huckleberry bush stems, thin and yielding. She fell to a knee.
The gloved hand on her shoulder, pinching. “Get up.”
“Stop this. Just stop it.”
Forward to the edge of the fresh water tidal basin she’d relished standing near the last few months, the reason she’d taken the rental in the first place. The forest of hemlock and cedar transposing to red alder and willow, transposing again to sedges and bulrushes, sweet grass and cinquefoil—and, of course, the bright yellow leaves of skunk cabbage.
“Kneel down. Right there.”
The last flicker of dusk gave up its fight with sunset. A three-quarter moon softly lit the slough, where the sharp fingers of the Willapa River’s South Fork cut the reeds and grasses into isle-like tufts, surrounded at mid-tide by black muddy channels. She’d seen bittern and great blue heron fish here, and listened to cedar waxwings and yellow warblers.
“Please,” she begged. “Don’t murder me.”