2010-12-24: Blazing Trails



Guest Starring:

Tobias and Petunia

Date: December 24th, 2010


The team of Maggie, Laurie, Tobias and Petunia find their way to the hunters' hideout to puzzle out the last puzzle.

"Blazing Trails"


Daring escapes, wild west gold robbers, highwaymen — there's not much evidence of the area's distant past the way Maggie takes the truck off the highway, but it's easy to imagine the history of the long, lonely trails, even though Laurie's tourism is cut short long before they get to the historical Cheyenne-Deadwood marker itself.

Cheyenne is left behind, Echo is left behind, every intervening little town is left behind in favour of those wide, open spaces of more nothing and the mountain ranges beyond bearing canyons filled with adventurous tales out of reach.

After three dead-end searches for the mysterious structure they're looking for going off of slightly vague instructions — by which time Tobias has caught up, trailing behind in his squad car — it's now a less dead-flat ridge overlooking a wooded area and dusty plains, swept clean of all but patches snow by Mother Nature, that Maggie drives toward. "This pair sure doesn't mind traveling." It is important to note that drive toward, in this instance, means that the driver takes a vacation from her careful, straight-forward on-road tactics and veers straight off the road without warning, sending the binoculars on the seat flying. "Hooold on to your horses…" The old truck lurches up over rockier terrain, steered like a pro and forced up the hill; the deceptively rickety-looking gearshift is tightly gripped under a leather glove and shoved about like it's second nature. If Maggie's calm navigation of the rough absence of road is any indication, they're in no danger, but it's sure no pleasure cruise. Petunia thinks it's a blast.

Down below, Tobias cuts his losses and stops at the bottom.

As the truck — half behind the cover of trees at the top of the ridge — nears the view, a wooden structure bounces into sight. It's a run-down shack that couldn't quite be called a cabin, nestled against the trees — out of sight from the road on the far distant other side of the road, and here, blocked by the very ridge Maggie and Laurie can spy upon it from. A few faded signs mark it as a historical building once upon a time long passed.

Whatever this shack was before it was forgotten, it's certainly been taken over for another cause. Inside, it's empty — at least of the suspects, though for awhile there it was up in the air. It's close quarters and protected not at all from the elements; wind whips through every crack, but the makeshift hunting cabin seems lived-in. A tiny table is messy with food wrappers that obscure the nature of the large, many-times-folded sheet of paper marked with red.

Extra camping equipment is shoved into one corner. Tents, sleeping bags, blankets… some crumpled on the floor, used. In another, hunting gear— all anyone could ever need in the way of camouflage and outdoorsman equipment, and a veritable arsenal of extra ammunition and rifles… almost. The gun rack is missing two weapons.

Just as worrying, if not more, is the wall to the left.

Every hunter takes trophies of their kills. These ones are no different.

At first glance, it's not too unusual — the smugly smiling face of Bradley Curtis in a collage of photographs tacked on a giant board, posing in hunting gear alongside dead animals. Bucks, elk, coyotes… but if you look a little closer…

Maggie stands in the little shack careful not to touch a thing. Her rigid stance places her as reluctant to even be here, yet her eyes eat everything up avidly, and her fingers curl into her palms as if to prevent her from rifling through the place. A fierce gleam comes to her eyes as she stands studying the trophy board… looking a little closer. "Guys…"

Amidst the typical hunting photos, some of the prey is less typical. They're women, held up proudly just after death by their killer in front of a backdrop of wilderness. In total, there are four of these photographs, taking special residence at the top of the board.

Alice isn't one of them. So far.

Maybe it's that conclusion that whips Laurie's gaze so quickly back and then away from the photo array; or else the appeal of some other portion of the room. Having given the structure a once-around, balancing once in a while on one foot in order to nudge wrappers here and there with his other boot toe, he's since centered himself, hands in pockets and eyes roving. He's able to stay empty-handed this way, and with Petunia's honorable position as look-out; she's been leashed up by the door to keep from her own brand of rifling. Laurie, he could be surveying the place for possible renting — though it's the gun rack that gets more than the fair share of glances.

Tobias is the second guard-dog, keeping watch through the window. He looks more somber than he ever has. A wrist rests on top of his holstered pistol, and he also looks like the officer that he is. It will be quite some time yet before the police arrive, so if someone approaches, it's bad news. As yet, the outdoors beyond is empty.

Maggie swallows dryly as she regards the picture board with an increasingly unsettled gaze. "Do you think they're out hunting?" she ventures with a glance of her own to that gun rack. It catches on Laurie afterward, waiting for input. No answer is going to be particularly heartening. "Or just chasing," she adds as a grim afterthought, moving purposefully to the table, studying its contents.

"Sick bastards," Tobias adds helpfully.

A few scraps of garbage are ultimately less important than what lies beneath, and she carefully nudges wrappers aside until a configuration of red circles are revealed between a few jagged lines. Someone certainly has a cryptic way of organizing things, and by the jagged lines that appear on Maggie's forehead, she's not exactly sure what it means anymore than the spots on Laurie's arms.

She looks to him again, keeping track of him … more than of his location in the shack. Her study of the table stops to regard Laurie, and she tenses as if to approach him; she remains. "Miles?"

Empty, but nothing's silent as it should be. Ripped portions of walls, and cracks, streaming wind through, the haphazard piles, general disorganization versus strictly plotted dot puzzles, the heavily prepared arsenal — surely what will show the most signs of care in the whole joint, but the lazy toss of blankets, left to wrinkle without discipline: there's life in all of it. Temporary, antsy, life, clinging to nothing but its own thrill.

Even the worn floor, constantly seeing tracks of mud and other assorted elements in from the outside, whose mirroring holes like the walls let in questionable noises — and now… the telltale creak of other footsteps. Thick booted, steel-toed, stomping with upmost confidence into their domain; tromp, tromp, they move unheeded past Petunia, Tobias, camouflaged hands warming the well-worn muzzle of a shotgun and lowering the sight…

"What?" Laurie bursts back into himself with the same indignation of a man surprising trespassers; briefly, he's an intruder in his own body, but when the sensation fades, not all the tension does out of his forehead. Distracted, he looks for Maggie by the photos and, not finding her there, arcs the glance until she's spotted the not far distance to the table. And the paper, and those circles in red; the stress vanishes in an instant. "Oh, what's this…" but don't say, he's already on his way over, himself.

"I'm… not sure," Maggie admits, stepping aside to let Laurie get the best look at the thing. A paper so big its corners flop off the edge of the table. Red circles like bull's-eyes, lines like dividers. It's not exactly abstract art, though, is it; there's a purpose to every stroke of red pencil. Primary red stands out here and there from paler red faded by time. "It looks sort of familiar…" But, with a tilt of her head, and a furrow of her brow, the familiarity isn't so quick to spring to the surface. One option comes and goes: "It's not the same as those other marks." She determinedly works at reasoning an explanation out of the paper, although her study of the pattern is shared with a rather close eye on Laurie. She's not the only one; called to attention by Laurie's sudden query moments ago, Tobias follows him around with a puzzled eye, but soon returns to keeping watch, wandering to another window.

This is the second sheet that's folded off the edges of its table that Laurie's examined in less hours, lending the initial comparison to him leaning over its width, hands at his waist sweeping back his jacket to make sure its long edges don't brush anything out of place. There's a few scuffles of tossed wrappers here and there where Laurie readjusts. From here, the markings appear like an optical illusion in a studybook, asking if one circle is smaller than the other; but their sizes are determined with a glimpse and then discarded to the side. Circles highlight; lines direct; closed shapes define. That shape the lines make is isolated with a concentrated stare that excludes all else, including what stares he receives in turn. Each, in turn… each… he's seen these same ones before — recently. They light up like gold in front of his eyes as they each begin to correspond with a recovered memory just a long truck drive from here.

"Maybe…" he voices with breezy contentedness, this egoless side of smug. Unhooking one hand from his side, he fetches the marker from inside his pocket and, hovering for a lone instant, brings it to settle inside the lines. "Because we're standing right here." A bit specific for the broad spectrum of the map, but accuracy is for once sacrificed to dramatic cue.

Marker slides sideways, trekking an invisible path towards one of the crisply done circles. "And this is where the first victim was found…" He glances upwards, preceding the marker following there — following to — "And the second…"

Slow, steady, building… sudden! Realization. Mouth slightly open, her gaze only hardening, Maggie juts out a leather-clad finger to point, catching on. "And the third." Once she sees it, she can't not. "A map. Those are county lines." She's spurred by Laurie and the spots he pointed out upon the paper, she quickly steps closer again and all but leans over the table, prevented only by not wanting to disturb it. Her whole presence, however, hovers over it intensely, all her concentration now seeming to be on the lines and circles that have shifted from abstract to familiar with questions in-between.

"There's so many of these points … more points than bodies." The detective tears her gaze away to look at the trophy board; it snaps back almost instantly. "… human bodies, anyway … or … " Her serious study of the red and white resumes, gesturing over it. "None of the places the victims were found were just dumpsites; they weren't just holes in the ground, they were built, they were… hidden, not buried. They're structured to fall right into. They're hunter's traps." Maggie waves a hand over the whole slew of red circles. "It's one thing to know they've made this whole area their hunting ground… it's another to see their territory mapped out like this." A territory which, P.S. — they're standing in.

"Not very sportsmanlike," Tobias adds from his post.

"No…" Maggie dimly agrees over the map, troubled by it. "The problem is," she says, "women only show up in these circles when they're dead."

"And then little Nell…" Laurie is muttering through the time of Maggie coming up to speed, pushed forward by her taking over the third crop-circle of horrors. His forefinger expanded down nearly the length of the marker, he steers it in a smooth line to another landmark of his mind. "Here's her body, post-bear…" Blue eyes flicker up from red drawings at the new tangent; he pauses there, hovered as strongly as she; the both of them casting their shadows over the land like gods. A distant shot up to the ceiling precedes him recalling the images of the structures she refers to, then aligning to the page that warns of their operation. "That fits in with the shotguns," he postulates far more emotionally detached then the material calls for, that these are women, daughters, falling prey. "Driving your target to a specific spot is the ultimate test of control, but requires far less precision of weapon when you can also use the environment, and the mere suggestion of threat."

His marker has managed to hold strong. Tapping Nell's gruesome trip resumes, his hand stretching out, then his left coming around to help, thumb curling down near what is, on the paper, entirely unmarked. "There's a sizable cave here, where Ursa could've come from…" That hand's pointer finger spans out, tempting the reach of his hand to nudge at another unnoted area. "Here, too, in keeping with a grizzly's typical territorial needs this time of the season." Handless, he can follow only with his eyes to the red circle between his two indicators: the trap that did in the waitress. More to have everything labeled, the information is throwaway, and he begins to straighten away from the task when he pauses, eyeing his expanded fingers with an almost pouted lip, nagged with feeling.

"Six…" his mutter is nearly inaudible, "four… or— five…" Laurie suddenly shoots up from the table, twisting for the window, his freed hands giving several insistent snaps; where is— Tobias is not there. Why isn't Tobias there where he wanted him to be. Aborting before he can really try to locate the officer, the consultant turns this all important message to Maggie, piping off as if on in CB. "Ten, nine."

Everything is followed by Maggie, everything — whether she knows where she's going or not, she's there at every turn with Laurie, her eyes alight with her sharp intelligence and determination to understand as fast as possible the initially madcap mumblings of the consultant. Under the zipped-up collar of her jacket, her neck has twisted away from her intent lean to watch him, his process.

Past Laurie, the officer stands by the other window — Tobias who has briefly abandoned his lookout to stare agape with a sort of realization frozen on his own bearded face vying for top place with confusion. Petunia has come to life on Laurie's snaps, alert, expectant as everyone else.

Ten, nine. A blue gaze quick-moving with thought considers Laurie; and from him, it sweeps the map spread out before them and back again. "All right." Maggie waves a hand very slowly over the table. "Miles," she advises — or reminds — lifting her eyebrows up as she gives a little instructing nod, "… stop talking in numbers."

She's mirrored; eyebrows lift to match hers, and for a beat there's only high-browed staring. Laurie's epiphany is barred by a lower realization that he hasn't brought everyone else to quite the right stop. After this second of pause, a flurry of movement. Marker tossed between teeth, left arm overturning, and right digging away at the jacket sleeve and then the sweater one. He's leant himself over the map again by the time the speckle of unconnected dots is visible from beneath layers of clothes. "Hin, nnew." Oops. The marker is grabbed up and tossed, stuffed; he doesn't keep track, just returns his right hand to point out the meant marks this time. "Ten," there it is on his arm; now here it is on the map, "Nine," the same with that one, corresponding with where his fingers had previously hovered.

"Hold on, hold on…" a wave of his hand dispels this new imagery. At least until he can summon some to mind. Maggie's form blurs as, in front of his face, the red circles and lines rise up. Over them are transposed the very dots from his arm, to scale, and then, below, he begins to funnel through memories of maps upon maps — tourist highlights, no. Natural landmarks, not quite; a couple of hits. There. Geological formations. On a map nobody else would ever think to peruse for fun, much less memorize, he finds the most complete matches.

"Alright, so I'm almost positive," he declares to Maggie, who focuses back into existence. His hands drop to the edges of the table, bending a bit of the paper where they grip, his inner arms both turned out as he leans in. "That those dots all represent the entrances to caves. Furthermore— " a beat, his head tilting, teeth biting lip as he summons up, again, the two puzzling maps together. "… caves that make starting points for several of the circles." He gives a vague hop, expelling excess energy before, hovering like a punchline: "Kind of wish it was actually aliens yet?"

Maggie gives the question an intense consideration — or, the likely reality, such a focused expression evidence of her continued thought. Still, she answers.

"Yes— " " — No." Maggie and Tobias look at each other suddenly for their opposing answers — a moment of near suspicion between them verging on the not quite serious — before the weight of the case comes crashing down around Maggie again and she flattens her hands on her thighs and leans even further down toward the table.

"If that's true, they're using one of these caves to keep Alice in … what, between hunts…" Her sights drill down into the newest instances of the red circles, standing out on the paper like bright like beacons. "These look newer. If that's true, that leaves only a few places she could be." Giving the shack a distrustful eye, Maggie eases up until she stands straight as an arrow. "Let's go hunting."

The table creaks as Laurie accepts his own weight, rising to his full height amongst the garbage and scattered lifestyle of the hunters now in their scope. His face a mask of solemnity this situation has become; find a trapped woman… before her prospective killers do— but the mask is fragile, cracking under the pressure of the snort he can't contain to show the humor underneath. "… yeah, okay, Caruso."

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