An excerpt from
The Flagler Hunt
Emerson Kirkheimer was overwhelmed with a deadly sense of irony. Ironic that this idyllic mountain forest should instill such fear in him. Ironic that the place he’d chosen as a refuge from his enemies might well become his grave.
Despite his need to keep moving, he was forced to stop again, hands on knees, trying to catch his breath in the thinning mountain air. A lifetime of studying rare manuscripts and artifacts had not prepared his body for arduous physical labor such as this. His tennis shoes, rarely used for aerobic activities in his sedentary lifestyle, were poor substitutes for the hiking boots he should have worn. More than once an ill-placed step had painfully turned his ankle.
Whoever decided that this hellish obstacle course should be designated a “trail” deserved to be slapped in the face with a dictionary. Trails were nice walking paths from which one could enjoy nature’s beauty without getting lost in the woods. This was a series of crags and boulders perched over one precipitous drop after another, each yawning chasm deeper and wider than the last. If he managed to get out of here alive, he would have a serious talk with the park service about the dangers of false advertising.
As he rounded a corner, the canopy overhead opened up again, allowing him a view down the mountain. The blue sedan was still there, parked by the roadside thousands of feet below. Parked directly behind Kirkheimer’s own rental. His pursuer wasn’t being subtle. Out here, he could afford to be bold. And the overweight antiquities dealer was hardly a match for whatever the man in the blue sedan brought to bear.
It had started yesterday morning, when he discovered that his office in the St. Louis antiquities firm he co-owned had been ransacked. His office was his sacred space, the one place he felt completely empowered and in control. Now that was destroyed, ripped to shreds by some unknown enemy. Wondering how bad the overall damage was, he opened the office of his longtime friend and business partner, Geoff Vogt, and found an even more shocking scene. Not only was Geoff’s office equally destroyed, with sheaves of paper and shards of priceless Ming vases strewn across a swath of broken furniture, but buried underneath a pile of bloodied documents and a toppled filing cabinet had lain the murdered body of his partner.
After vomiting profusely on his own shoes, Kirkheimer ran from the office, forgetting to lock up. He had never been one for spy thrillers or police procedurals, preferring to ferret out the mysteries of the past from the safety of his office, but he knew he had to learn how to go on the run very quickly. Someone was after him. Someone who wanted something he and Geoff had, some priceless artifact perhaps. Maybe they had already gotten what they wanted from one of their offices. Maybe they would leave him alone now. But no, people who did things like what had happened to Geoff didn’t leave loose ends. And Kirkheimer was a loose end.
Tempted at first to go home and pack a bag, Kirkheimer realized that would be the next most obvious place for his faceless pursuers to look for him. He could buy more clothes when he got to wherever he was going.
He stopped by an ATM and withdrew as much as his bank would let him, then he used his smartphone to book the soonest flight out of state he could find. Burlington, Vermont. He’d always wanted to visit the Green Mountain State but had always been too preoccupied with work to find the time. Now all that had changed.
Hours later, he was on a plane to Burlington. He realized that Burlington was just a short drive from the Canadian border. He didn’t have his passport with him, which had prohibited him from taking an international flight out of St. Louis, but perhaps he could sneak across the border with just his Missouri driver’s license. He rented a car at the Burlington airport, then, choosing a route on his phone’s maps app, he realized how many mistakes he had already made. Even if Canada would let him in with just his license, the authorities would surely make a record of his crossing. Just like his flight to Burlington and his car rental would show. Like bread crumbs for Geoff’s murderers.
He powered down his phone—he vaguely recalled seeing a 60 Minutes episode where a fugitive was tracked down using GPS data from his cell phone—and headed out of town and onto I-89 South, away from the Canadian border. Perhaps he could use Burlington’s proximity to America’s northern neighbor to bluff his pursuers into thinking he’d left the country. Regardless, heading north would eventually limit his options as he butted up against the border. His salvation, if it was to be had, lay to the south.
An hour later, he reached the turn-off for Waterbury Center and Stowe. His parents had gone on a ski trip to Stowe years before Kirkheimer was born. It was late October now, that dead time between the brilliant displays of fall foliage and the first snows of winter. An off-season resort town, miles off the highway and tucked between the state’s highest mountains, could be just what he needed to hide long enough to figure all this out.
But it hadn’t bought him nearly enough time. He’d spent the previous night at the cheapest motel he could find—paid for in cash—and returned after a walk this morning to find out that a man had been inquiring after him. Tall, solidly built, red hair, and driving a blue sedan was the only description the concierge could offer, but it didn’t matter. They’d found him. He didn’t know who the man was, but he knew his respite was over. Even this remote mountain town wasn’t safe anymore. He had to hide. The man had apparently gone back into town to make further inquiries, and a rock slide had closed off the road through Smuggler’s Notch, the narrow passage to the other side of the mountains that got its name from nineteenth-century fur traders who had used the isolated pass to circumvent tariffs on goods going to and from Canada. There was only one place to hide.
Kirkheimer drove to the base of Long Trail, a miles-long path that traced a circuitous route up the mountain—theoretically ideal since he wasn’t so much focused on a particular destination as he was being inaccessible to bad guys—and began hiking. The hours drained away as he trudged up Mount Mansfield, the tallest peak in a state named for them. Fellow hikers passed him, many speaking Quebecois, offering the briefest of nods as they continued their ascent. Before long, most of his fellow travelers were coming down the mountain past him. And shortly thereafter, they dwindled down to nothing.
The sun was starting to dip behind the towering mountains above, and he had now left Long Trail for the aptly named Profanity Trail, a theoretical shortcut that seemed like less of a trail and more like a mostly dry waterfall. He had seen rock walls that were less arduous than that purported trail, and every time he slipped and banged his knee, hip, or elbow, he let loose with an increasingly vehement string of expletives.
It was then, lying on his rear after yet another tumble, that he caught his first glimpse of the blue sedan far below. How long had that been there? How long had his mysterious pursuer been following him? Was he still miles behind at the base of the mountain? Or was he right on his tail?
The gondola. That was Kirkheimer’s only hope. According to the map he had seen miles back, he had to make his way to the top of the mountain, cross along Cliff Trail, and reach the gondolas that ran back to the base. Normally more active during the ski season, the gondolas gave visitors easy access to a mountaintop restaurant and a viewing station, but the dearth of tourists in late October meant the gondolas would be closing soon. And shortly thereafter, the cold dark of night. If he could pull an end run on his pursuer and get back to his car while the red-haired man was still ascending the mountain, Kirkheimer could leave town and find another hiding spot—or even turn himself in to the police and beg for protection. It was his best chance yet, and it had to work. If not…
Now clambering from rock to rock on the treacherous Cliff Trail, trying not to let fear or panic turn his exhausted limbs to rubber, Kirkheimer caught another glimpse of the red-haired man, ascending through switchbacks with a much easier gait than the rotund historian’s own bedraggled pace. Kirkheimer had the lead, though. He just had to keep it.
Encountering another short slope far too steep to walk down without plummeting face-first off the mountain when reaching the end, Kirkheimer sat down and scooted along for a minute, his muscles grateful for the short break from stretching across chasm after chasm. Reaching the end of the slope, he rounded a boulder to find another series of rock pillars floating over deep pits. Wonderful.
He took a moment to wipe the sweat from his face, cold and clammy in the alpine air as the sun continued to crawl behind the mountain, stealing its warmth and light with it. Not much farther, he told himself, though in reality he had no idea how far he still was from the gondola. He didn’t know how much longer his aching muscles and screaming lungs could take.
Climbing across the first two boulders was tough, but nothing he hadn’t done several times already since embarking on this ill-advised journey. But the gap between the second and third boulder was too far to just reach across. He would have to jump.
Planting his feet, he took a deep breath and leapt. His feet hit the other boulder, but his ankle buckled on the landing. Not good.
He could see it in slow motion, forced to experience it in excruciating detail while powerless to do anything to stop it. The pain shooting through his ankle. His body tilting to one side. His hands reaching, scrabbling for any sort of purchase against the rock. The world turning upside down, disappearing from view as he tumbled down into the crevice below. And then, the shockwave of all-consuming pain washing over every sinew of his being as he slammed into, then wedged against, the tight walls of the pit that might well become his tomb.
He was stuck lying at an angle, his girth pressed against the rocks on either side, with at least fifteen feet of tightening crevasse below him. His left arm was behind him, immovable other than his quickly numbing fingers. He tried to wriggle his other arm free, prying it from the rock. Immediately he started to slip farther down the chasm. He shoved his arm back against the wall. One thing was inexorably clear: he was in big trouble.
“Help!” he screamed, praying that one of the hikers he had seen earlier—or perhaps even one of the park rangers or staff operating the gondolas—would hear his cries and come to his rescue. He tried to control his breathing, feeling a panic attack coming on. And justifiably so, he reasoned subconsciously. He was going to die here.
He cried for help again and again, his pleas punctuated by sobs that racked his trapped body and sent new waves of pain through him. Surely someone would hear him. The gondolas couldn’t be that far off. Darkness was fast engulfing the mountainside, with the temperatures dropping precipitously. He had no doubt that the combination of the elements and whatever injuries he’d sustained in his fall—not to mention whatever bears, wolves, or other predators that lived on the mountain—could very well mean he wouldn’t live to see sunrise.
“Hello?” called a voice in the near distance.
Had he just imagined he’d heard it? Was his situation plunging him into delirium? Or was he about to be saved after all?
“Help! Down here!”
A few moments later, a silhouetted figure darkened the opening of the chasm twenty feet above.
“Are you okay down there?” the voice, a man’s, asked.
“I’m not dead, but I hurt all over. And I’m stuck. Please, I need help to get out of here, and fast.”
“All in good time, Mr. Kirkheimer.”
A chill ran down Kirkheimer’s spine. The red-haired man.
“Help!” he screamed, hoping someone, anyone, would show up and save him from his worsening predicament.
“No one can hear you, Mr. Kirkheimer. No one else is on the mountain. It’s just you and me.”
Kirkheimer swallowed, realizing how parched he had become. He had no idea if the man was telling the truth, but he suspected he was. The darkening skies told him all the sensible hikers—and the gondola operators—had long since gone home.
“Here’s how this is going to work,” the man said. “I’m going to ask you a few questions. You’re going to answer them honestly and completely. And once I’m satisfied, I’ll help you out of there. Heck, I’ll even call the rangers to help you off the mountain.”
“You killed Geoff, you monster.”
“Your partner was more recalcitrant than he should have been. I hope you’re smart enough to avoid the same mistake.”
Kirkheimer said nothing, seething inside yet cognizant that he was out of options. He would do what he had to in order to get out of here. Otherwise, he would be dead before morning.
“Last week, you appraised a piece, a wooden container holding a wax cylinder. Who purchased that particular item?”
“I can’t tell you that. Our clients’ privacy is paramount in this trade.”
The man laughed, a nasty, evil sound that made Kirkheimer’s skin crawl.
“I’m sure even your most reclusive client would make an exception considering your current position. Who bought it, Mr. Kirkheimer?”
He had no choice. But wouldn’t he be putting his client in danger? Could he really do that to another person?
“What do you want with the piece?” he asked.
“That’s really of little concern to you. Suffice it to say that it’s a piece I have a great deal of interest in. A very specific interest. And whoever your client is, I can offer him a great deal of money.”
“Or you can just kill him, like you did Geoff.”
“Again, Mr. Vogt brought his fate upon himself by being unnecessarily stubborn. He refused my offer of money, though I suspect your client will not. And, of course, I can offer you something far more important than money.”
His freedom, of course. The only way out was through this murderous antiquities junkie. A devil’s bargain. But the only bargain around.
“My patience is wearing thin,” the man said. “And I’m pretty sure the wolves will want their evening meal soon enough. A terrible way to go, I’m told.”
“Tristram Bouvier, in St. Augustine,” Kirkheimer blurted out, the prospect of being devoured alive by wolves too much to bear. “Ancient City Antiques, on Aviles Street.”
“St. Augustine, Florida?” the man said as though to himself. “Of course.”
Kirkheimer felt his other arm growing numb. He had to extricate himself as soon as possible, lest he risk even worse long-term damage. “Now, please, let me out.”
“One final question,” the man said. “Did you listen to the wax cylinder? Did you hear what was on the recording?”
“No,” Kirkheimer lied, suspecting he knew why the man was after the piece. It was bold and outrageous and exactly the kind of insanity treasure hunters like this monster would love to pursue. But telling him he’d listened to the recording would make him a liability. He had little doubt that the man would leave him here to rot if he knew Kirkheimer was onto his plan. “Geoff appraised the cylinder. I did the case.”
“Good to hear,” the man said. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
“Wait!” Kirkheimer yelled. But the man was gone. He thought he could hear the howl of a wolf carried by the wind, but he tried to convince himself it was just his overactive imagination. He had given the man the information he needed. Sold out Bouvier for his freedom. But he was still stuck. And night was falling.
Moments later, he heard footsteps above. A park ranger? Another hiker? Or the red-haired man?
“Hello?” Kirkheimer called. “Is someone up there?”
“Me again, Mr. Kirkheimer. Sorry to keep you waiting.” The red-haired man’s silhouette was less pronounced now as the light behind him had dwindled in the intervening minutes. But there was something different about it. Kirkheimer just couldn’t say what.
“What took you so long?” Kirkheimer said. “Help me out of here already.”
“You helped me out, so it’s only fair that I return the favor, huh?”
“Exactly. Please, it’s getting cold.”
The moon must have come out from behind a cloud, because the man’s face was suddenly bathed in pale illumination before the light dimmed once more.
“Wait a minute,” Kirkheimer said. “I know you.”
“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers, Mr. Kirkheimer,” the man said. “I’m not as bad as people say I am. I’m going to save you from a nasty death at the hands of a pack of wolves, after all.”
Then the silhouette changed, and Kirkheimer saw the shape of something large and vaguely round lifted above the man’s head.
“Know that your client and his recent acquisition are in good hands.”
“Wait!” Kirkheimer yelled, realizing too late what was happening. “We had a deal! You—”
The last word was snuffed out as Kirkheimer’s teeth, along with the rest of his face, were smashed in by the impact of the massive rock thrown from above. He was dead as soon as the stone struck his skull, unable to see his murderer skulk back down the moonlit mountain to his next victim, and his ultimate prize.
A treasure beyond imagination. Paid for in blood.