One: Murder in the Forest


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Spence heard voices shouting in the woods ahead.

He crept up to a pile of two foot diameter boulders in Mount Luojia’s long, meandering ridge line, knelt down in the leaf strewn dirt and peered over the gray rocks.

About 50 yards away, a young man squirmed in the choke hold of an older man. Five paces away with their backs toward him stood a group of three.

The older man barked an order to the three. They shouted an answer and shook their heads.

That’s Cantonese, he thought. After a week in Wuhan China and hearing both in the class he taught, Spence could tell the difference even if he didn’t understand the words.

Spence looked down at the cell phone’s display in his right hand. The Geocache app said Serpent’s Smile, the first of three he’d planned for Saturday, was a half mile beyond the ugly confrontation ahead.

That would have to wait. Spence pocketed his phone and looked over the rock again.

The older man was about 50 in dark clothing, solid colors. His hair was either clipped short or outgrown from a recent shave. Most striking, his eyes were too far apart. He had a narrow, thin lipped mouth below little black dots for nostrils. He was asian but had a darker, almost muddy, complexion compared to the others.

Malay, Spence wondered?

They were all dressed like the college students in his class with bright plaid and striped shirts, blue jeans and brown leather shoes for the males, and a navy skirt and black shoes for the one young woman. Everything looked new.

The man drew a long machete from the scabbard on his right hip and pressed the blade against his prisoner’s throat.

The young man’s eyes stretched wide and began to dart about. He struggled harder but the old man’s arm around his neck had him firmly imprisoned. A dark stain appeared at the crotch of the victim’s jeans. It spread down the inside of each leg.

The older man shouted again at the trio.

They shook their heads.

The man raised his left elbow and arm higher to expose his captive’s throat.

Spence gasped and clutched at the rock in front of him.

The older man’s eyes flared as he began to draw the machete to the right. Blood shot out in a bright red stream and the young man’s arms and legs flailed. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came out.

Where the blade cut, a dark gap appeared and widened as the knife continued, blood running down and dripping from the point.

The three students cried out at once. One of the young men lunged forward, his arms out, pleading as he fell to one knee. The other young man and woman turned away and covered their faces.

Held with his feet in the air by the arm around his neck, the victim’s arms waved and tried to grasp something, anything, but his killer twisted back and forth to stay out of reach.

He’s going to die, Spence knew. Right now, right here. Too far to reach and too late to help, every muscle in Spence’s body tightened. His stomach rose high into his throat, gagging him, and his heart pounded in his head.

The first cut complete, the killer started the knife back across. A new stream of blood arced out, shorter than the first. The black cut across his neck widened, like a second mouth also trying to scream.

That’s two, Spence heard part of his mind say.

My God, he told himself, don’t count this, surely not this!

But Spence could not stop his compulsion. He counted things, terrible things, good things, meaningless things. He counted steps to cross a room. He counted stairs and then recounted the same ones each time up or down. It was how he coped with boredom and insolvable problems. It was his escape. Only sex, alcohol, and target shooting stopped the counting, the first two by chemistry, the latter by force of will and long practice.

But here on the mountain he was powerless.

So, he counted.

Left to right. One.

Right to left. Two.

Each pass, he counted while another part of his mind cataloged the details of direction, blood distance, twists and kicks, how the hands clawed at the arm holding him helpless.



Halfway through the fifth cut, the victim’s body fell away and collapsed straight down. It piled in a heap, sat there for a moment, and then slumped to the side.

The head still sat atop the killer’s left arm in a now pointless choke hold. The eyes were frozen wide and round in horror, the mouth had a cruel grimace that revealed stark white teeth.

Blood dripped from the severed neck onto the killer’s shirt. Spence could see each breath the killer took as the shirt, stuck to his chest and stomach, rose and fell in shudders.

He wiped the bloody machete on his pants leg and put it back in the scabbard. Then using both hands, he set the head upright on the ground taking care to aim the dead face and eyes toward the trio.

There was a long pause.

Finally, the student that had earlier raised his arms did so again and said, “Sartaq?”

Spence heard it quite clearly.

The killer stared, unmoving and silent.

Again, “Sartaq?”

The killer shook his head and waved a hand as if dismissing a servant. He continued to stare, again motionless.

The students looked to each other and, a moment later, turned toward the killer and slowly nodded.

One by one, they began shambling down the hill toward the campus.

The killer watched them leave.

Alone, the killer grabbed the ankles of the headless body and dragged it to the top of a cleft where he put his foot under the waist and rolled it over the edge. The body disappeared out of sight in the leaves.

Returning to the severed head where it sat on the ground, he looked at the face for a moment before placing the toe of his right shoe on the forehead. He rocked it a little like he was toying with a soccer ball. He then pulled his leg back and kicked it so hard the head bounced into the air, vaulted over the edge of the ridgeline and started tumbling down the slope.

Spence counted one, two, three bumps before there was a loud, ’Thump!”

Silence returned.

The killer turned, as if preparing to leave, but when he reached Spence’s direction, he froze.

The killer was looking at him.


Spence ducked behind the rock.

The adrenaline, already filling Spence’s body, shot up even higher.

Run, it said. Run!

Spence pushed away from the rock and, squatting, he hobbled a few steps.

Run, his mind screamed. Run!

Spence straightened up and ran as fast as he could back along the ridge he’d used earlier.

But then, hoping there would be safety in a crowd, he veered to the shortest line to the campus. He plunged into the thickest part of the woods and down the hillside. As it steepened, he started bounding and leaping ten, twenty feet at a time. He flew, midair, through limbs and branches that knocked him about and raked his face and arms. Several time he fell, fought to regain his legs and continued the helter-skelter flight.

He never looked back. All he knew was, Run!

The campus came up without warning. He sailed out of the woods midair and his feet landed in the drainage ditch alongside the campus walkway. His knees buckled with the force and he crashed forward, face and arms down, into the paved walkway.

He skidded to a painful stop on the asphalt.

Two students immediately across the path jumped up and started toward him.

Face down, Spence rolled to one elbow and looked behind into the forest.

He saw nothing.

Weak and off balance, he started to fall backward but the two students arrived and caught him.

His lungs heaved as he shifted left and right to get a clear look back into the woods.

Still nothing.

Did I get away?

His chin ached. When he brought a hand up, he felt a burning sensation. Looking at the hand, it was bloody. But it was also scraped and bleeding on its own.

Part of his mind wanted to say, “Help me,” Another part wanted to plead, “Let me go.” And “Run!” was also trying to get out.

In the fight for his tongue, only a confused gibberish emerged.

His two helpers started speaking again but he couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was Cantonese or Mandarin but he didn’t care which.

He held up a bloody hand and they stopped.

He took a deep breath and blew it out.


He scanned the forest.


Another breath. In. Out. Two.

One more. In. Out. Three.

He knew he should say, “Police!” but he didn’t. That would start a lot of questions, hours and hours, he was sure. First, the language and, perhaps more so, the different cultures were a problem. And the adrenaline, his panic, and now the throbbing in his chin and hands …

I need time, he thought.

I need to recover. I need to get my mind working again. I need to think things through so I don’t leave anything out. Remembering Megyn’s advice on the airplane, he told himself, I’ll avoid American expressions that can’t be literally translated. And I’ll choose simple, direct words.

He forced a meager smile, pointed up the path and said, “Hotel.”

“You OK?” one of the students asked in English. “You need hospital?”

Spence shook his head.

“No. I just need to go to the hotel.”

With the students help, he tried to get to his feet. Both knees screamed and, for a moment, he thought he was going down again but the students held solid and he made it up.

Pausing, he scanned the forest again.

Still, no sign of the killer.

I don’t understand, Spence shook his head. He felt relief after seeing no one come out of the forest. But the killer had seen him watching from behind his rock. The killer would be after him.

Maybe I really did get away? Is that possible?

Limping and taking baby steps at first, Spence and his two student helpers started toward the hotel. As they made their way, Spence continued to search the woods to the left, the path ahead and the campus to the right.

We made eye contact. I’m sure of it. He saw me. I don’t look Chinese. He’ll know I’m not from around here. He’ll know I’m not a college student.

But wait, Spence stopped abruptly.

The killer’s shirt — dark green — soaked up a lot of the blood. I saw how it stuck to him. And the blood is going to be on his pants, too. He wouldn’t dare come out into a public place like this campus looking like that.

Spence stood a little straighter as he started walking again, the helper on each side keeping him steady.

But then again, he rationalized, the killer could suddenly jump out from hiding, hack the three of us to death and then pop back into the forest or down some dark alley and be gone from sight in a few seconds.

Spence resumed his careful search as they walked.

The half mile walk back to the Fengyi hotel passed the elementary school where each morning, he’d heard calisthenics barked out the loudspeaker in Mandarin. The school was empty on Saturday and make a good place to hide, Spence decided.

He paused to check, his helpers asking if he needed to rest.


“No, just checking. Let’s go on.”

They passed through a residential area next. At each building, Spence paused to scan the doorways and shadows. He examined every side street and alley.

Still nothing.

When they reached the busy six lane avenue across from the hotel, he slowed to scan the little shops on this side of the street. Each had a roll-up, steel shuttered front. They were all open for business but no one jumped out at them.

They waited for the light to cross.

Trying to hurry, Spence and his two helpers lurched and stumbled across the street before the barely controlled traffic resumed.

Safe on the other side, they crossed the paved area in front of the hotel and then climbed the six steps up to the main entrance.

“Thank you,” he told his helpers. “I’m OK now. I can take it from here.”

Entering the hotel alone, he started hobbling across the lobby without support. His legs, arms and hands shook. He thought of his bloody chin and hands and how he must look.

Sure enough, he saw that everyone in the lobby had stopped what they were doing to watch.

He should go to the front desk and have them call the Police. But, no, he wasn’t ready for that. Besides, the guy at the front desk barely understood English when he’d checked in, when was that, less than a week ago?

Fifteen minutes, he thought. I’ll call the Police in fifteen minutes. They’ll have someone that understands English.

So he continued through the lobby trying to ignore all the people watching him.

Turning the corner, an empty elevator was waiting, it’s automatic doors open. He almost fell in.

He pushed the button for the 11th floor and the doors slid shut.

To Spence, it was like the world outside had suddenly disappeared. He was alone, secure where no one could reach him. He took a deep breath.

But then, the memory of what he’d seen, the young man, his arms flailing in terror, the knife going back and forth — five times — the blood, the body falling like a rag doll, the eyes …

Spence pitched over and vomited in the elevator.

Seconds later, still gagging and wiping his mouth, he heard a chime. The elevator doors opened.

Peering out, the hallway was empty.

He limped to 1132, his room.

Key in. Turn. Push door. Go in. Key out. Shut. Bolt.

Spence collapsed on the bed and in a few seconds, tears started running down his dirty face as he sobbed “Oh God” over and over.

Seconds passed in a mindless, animal reaction. His hands pulled at anything they could grasp. He groaned and thrashed about on the bed.

A couple of minutes passed.

He again became aware of his surroundings.

He was on his left side. Opening his eyes, he saw a dim yellow-white glow. He exhaled and felt warm air across his face. It was his own breath. Trying to raise a hand, he found it was wrapped up in something. It was soft and puffy.

He realized it was the gold polyester bed cover. He’d wrapped his head and arms inside and was seeing the light from outside, filtered through the cover, too close for his eyes to focus.

Now that he knew where he was, he stopped questioning.

His breathing, deep and smooth, calmed his nerves.

He was safe in a warm space.

His mind quieted.

He rested.


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2 thoughts on “One: Murder in the Forest

  1. Thank you to a reader who wishes to remain anonymous for the tip about what effect severing the spinal cord will have on the body — it goes instantly limp. I’ve made the edits.

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