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Scott Nicholson

The Gorge

CHAPTER ONE

Shoulda ditched the bitch back in Marietta.

Ace Goodall was tempted to open his fist and let her tumble down the ravine. She was dead weight, dragging him down, same as any woman. That’s all they were good for, except on those cold nights when they opened their legs and gave up their heat the way God intended. It was September, and the nights had definitely taken a turn toward chilly in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. So she might be worth keeping for a little while, despite being a bitch.

He pulled, wrapping his other arm around a maple sapling for balance. She barely weighed a hundred pounds, though she was nearly as tall as he was. Five feet five inches, not much rump to speak of, knockers the size of peaches but not nearly as fuzzy. Her hair was black and stringy, but considering she hadn’t bathed since the last rain a week ago, she looked pretty good. Plus she was rich, or had been once. Not that money was much use out here in the wilderness.

He squeezed her wrist a little harder than needed as she scrambled for purchase on the leaf-covered loam. Clara Bannister. An uppity fucking name if there ever was one.

“You think they saw us?” she whispered.

“No, but they sure as hell are going to hear us if you don’t shut that trap.”

She couldn’t. Figured. Anyway, the river throbbed in the background with a white wash of sound, so they weren’t likely to be heard.

“Was it some of them?”

“Don’t rightly know. It’s not like they wore dark suits and sunglasses like the spooks on TV.”

“Who else would be way out here on a weekday?”

Ace wondered that himself. They’d encountered a few serious hikers, and those were pretty easy to spot with their worn leather boots, sweaty bandannas, and oily hair. Most had fancy backpacks with aluminum framework, far superior to the ratty Army-surplus canvas jobs that he and Clara carried. He’d been tempted to pull out his Colt Python and ask politely if one of the Greenpeace freaks cared to trade, but then he’d probably end up shooting somebody. Word would get around, and the peaceful back-to-nature bit would go all to hell.

Hikers were no trouble, because even if they knew about Ace Goodall’s track record, they would never expect to meet him face-to-face, especially thirty miles from the closest convenience store. Normal people had a hard time believing Ace’s kind existed, and probably slept better that way. They didn’t understand that Ace was toiling on their behalf, doing The Lord’s dirty work himself because they lacked the balls and faith and outrage. No, hikers wouldn’t give him a second glance.

These last two had been different. Sure, they packed all the right brand-name gear, sported a touch of stubble, and bore that gritty-eyed look of men who had recently slept under the stars. But something wasn’t right. Maybe their steel-toed Timberlands weren’t scuffed enough, or their gaits were too precise, like soldiers on a field exercise. They didn’t droop. They stood upright, alert, as if paying close attention to their surroundings. More like hunters than hikers.

If Ace and Clara hadn’t been resting on a slight rise, under the shade of a lightning-charred oak, they probably would have bumped into the pair on the trail. Ace trusted his instincts, what he called his “little messages from above,” and his gut reaction had been that these guys were trouble. Not trouble like Ace, who could cut you open and count your ribs from the inside before your heart stopped beating, but trouble of the long-armed-law variety.

“Something ain’t right about them,” he said, wiping sweat from the back of his neck. Though the nights had hinted at frost, it was still Indian summer during the day. The woods were rich with the smell of goldenrod, daisies, and ironweed, as well as the ripe odor of rotting leaves.

“They didn’t see us, though.” Clara gave him a smile, and those neat white teeth irritated him, a reminder of his own upbringing. His family couldn’t afford dental care. Though Ace had just crossed that hallowed ground into his thirties, he’d already lost three adult teeth, only one of them from a fistfight. Some of the others were black, and a cavity in his bottom left molar had hit the roots and tongued him with hellfire.

“I told you, The Lord’s looking after us. It’s holy work.”

“I believe you.”

“Sometimes I feel like I could drive right up to the biggest police station in the South, park right out front in a handicapped spot, wave my pecker around, and they’d never even give me a ticket.” Ace forgot to keep his voice down. A prison chaplain had once explained to him about “religious mania,” but though Ace had a fondness for crazy people, he didn’t cotton much to maniacs. Besides, the two hikers were probably a mile away by now.

“What do we do now?” Clara asked. “If we go back to the trail, we might run into them.”

“We got an hour or so before sundown.” Ace squinted through the sparse foliage of the treetops to the smeared patch of purple sunset in the west. “Let’s just stick to the ridge and then set up camp when we find a flat spot.”

He turned and walked between the towering hardwoods, knowing she would follow without question. The river pulsed with a constant dull roar below them, a white noise that washed over the sounds of birds and small animals. The force of the river made the ridge vibrate. Ace could dig that raw power. Like the bombs in his knapsack. Ace wasn’t much of a nature freak, but he’d learned the best way to evade attention was to go where no one else bothered. If that meant hiding out for a while in the ass end of Possum Paradise, then so be it.

They had been following the Unegama for three days, though the trail sometimes meandered away from the river’s course because of the steepness of the grade. Ace had seen the foaming brown-green water and, even from a safe distance, he could visualize it churning around rocks and making its mad dash for the Atlantic Ocean. He bent, kicked up a fist-sized stone, and hurled it into the gorge. If he had bigger balls, he’d stand on the rocky ledge and take a piss. Nothing like heights to make a man want to arc a yellow rainbow. But he figured water made its way downhill no matter what, and eventually it all ended up in the same place.

They came to a group of jagged gray stones protruding from the black dirt like the fingers of a premature burial victim. A fine, chilly spray added weight to the air. The trees thinned and Ace could make out the walls of the gorge. Off-white rock plunged eighty feet down, worn smooth by aeons of running water that had probably started as a ridgetop trickle and then cut its way deep into the skin of the Earth. The rock bore the stubble of twisted, stunted balsams, and veins of quartz crystal glittered in the dying daylight. Though they were fifty feet from the ledge, Ace got vertigo from the yawning space of the gorge.

A section of the ledge had recently given way, judging by the dirt clinging to the upturned roots. The rocks were different, too, not worn and splotched with gray moss like those across the rest of the ridge. Clara had told him the Appalachian chain was the oldest stretch of mountains in the world, which Ace thought was dumb, because the Book of Genesis set down the creation date of the heavens and Earth as all at once. So how could one mountain be older than another? At any rate, Ace didn’t like the thought of standing anywhere near that ledge. The walls of the gorge looked like so many stacked pieces of rock, anyway, and if a piece kicked out somewhere near the bottom, the whole ridge might tumble down.

He moved away from the ledge, heading into the woods. It would be time to camp soon. Clara stood a moment longer, looking out over the ripples of soil and trees that spread as far as the eye could see before vanishing into a soft, blue haze on the horizon. Ace waited for her footsteps in the leaves behind him.

“Haircuts,” he shouted, loudly enough to be heard over the river.

“Huh?” Clara’s pretty pink mouth was hanging open. If he were a violent man, he’d backhand her for looking like an idiotic mouth-breather.

“Haircuts. That’s what was wrong with them. Trimmed above the ears, the kind that don’t need no comb.”

She nodded, finally closing her mouth. Ace unclenched his fists and rubbed a palm over his own greasy,

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