The oversized tires obliterated the rural roadway before the large truck came to an abrupt stop. The driver stalled the engine. Dust rose in a curious flowering cloud, swirling in front of the vehicle’s hood and creeping toward the back of the camper shell. When the surrounding vicinity finally cleared, a dense forest landscape emerged. The truck overlooked the sheer cliff and rugged scenery that had become a permanent roadblock. The usual silence of the deserted region was interrupted by the incessant and rhythmic sound of a cooling engine. Tick… Tick… Tick… The vehicle remained parked. No one moved inside the cab or got out. The truck stayed immobile as if an unlikely statue in the vast wilderness—a distinct contrast between nature and manufactured steel. The truck sat at the ideal vantage spot, which was both mesmerizing and terrifying for any spectator; but still the occupant chose to wait. The intense high beams pierced ahead into the picturesque hills, leaving a hazy view of the area above the massed trees. When the driver’s door finally opened, a man stepped out, his steel-toed leather work boots hitting the dirt. They were well-worn, reflecting the many miles he had walked and the many hours he had labored. Swiftly the door shut as the man, medium build and wearing only a plain dark T-shirt, walked to the back of the truck and, with a loud bang, released the lift gate. He moved with purpose and with a calm assertiveness, as if he had performed this particular task many times before.
His weathered hands, calloused from years of working with heavy tools and machinery without the protection of leather gloves, had a certain agility and speed. He grasped two well-used shovels, a large arching pick, and a bulky utility garbage bag. As he tossed the bag onto the ground, the top burst open and several medium-sized teddy bears spilled out. Their smiling faces accentuated the brightly colored ribbons tied around their necks, contrasting with the muted shades of their surroundings. The man pushed the floppy bag aside with the toe of his boot. He worked in quiet solitude, no humming, no whistling, and no talk. He flipped on the flashlight fixed to his baseball cap. Straight ahead and slightly arced, the large beam illuminated his path while he strode steadily toward a particular wooded area. The surrounding thickets and trees remained still without any wind to rustle the leaves. The only audible sound was the man’s quick footsteps—never with any hesitation.
He walked with the gait of a young man, despite his stature of someone older. He hesitated as if he had forgotten something, standing motionless with his arms down at his sides and his head hung forward as he shone the bright light at the ground and the tops of his boots. He still held firmly to the tools. He mumbled a few inaudible sentences of a memorized prayer, which sounded more like a warning than a passage from the Bible, then he raised his head and continued to walk into the dense forest. Dropping his tools, he carefully pushed a pine branch aside and secured it with a worn piece of rope that had been left for the purpose. An opening was exposed—a tunnel barely large enough for a man to enter. He grabbed his digging tools once again and proceeded. The flashlight on the front of his cap brightened the passageway as it veered to the right. He followed, only ducking his head twice before the path opened to an area with several boulders sticking out of the cliff. Clusters of unusual rock shapes, some sharp, some rounded, made the terrain appear more like a movie set or backdrop.
A narrow dirt path of crude, sloping man-made steps dropped fifteen feet to a landing jutting out from the rock formation. A small yellow flag was stuck into the earth, marking a spot. A slight evening breeze picked up, causing the flag to flutter. The man balanced the shovels and pick against the hillside and pulled a hunting knife from a sheath attached to his belt. Pressing the bone handle tight against his palm, he drew the blade through the packed dirt to mark a rectangular pattern on the ground. He stared intently at the soil, then retrieved the pick, gripping it tight, and swung it hard against the dry, heavily compacted earth. It dented the surface, spewing chips of dirt in every direction. A few small rocks buried in the soil since the beginning of time hampered his progress, but after several more arced swings, the ground began to crumble, exposing the fresh earth. The heavy pick was exchanged for one of the shovels. Soon there was a small pile of California soil, comprised of sand, silt, clay, and small rock.
The repeated movements of dig, scoop, and deposit continued for more than forty-five minutes at a brisk pace. The hard work of manual labor didn’t deter him. It only made him more determined to create a work of genius—his ultimate masterpiece. At last he stepped back and admired his handiwork, perspiring heavily through his shirt from the effort. Exhilaration filled his body, keeping his muscles flexed and his heart pumping hard. He leaned against the shovel, a smile forming on his lips as he waited for his pulse to return to normal, and marveled at the unmistakable outline of a freshly dug grave. ONE FOUR YEARS LATER The enemy waits for the perfect moment to attack, when you least expect it. An unknown force seems to decide whether it’s time to die or time to move on—yet by the grace of God, I continue to survive. The rattling overhead compartments and sudden roller-coaster drop in altitude shook Katie Scott awake. She sat straight up in her seat, absently wiping the slight perspiration from her forehead and upper lip.
Her stiff muscles and sore back from sleeping in the same position for a couple of hours made her exhale loudly. She stretched her arms above her head, relieving some of the tension in her neck and shoulders. With sleepy eyes, she glanced to her left and saw a dark-haired young man sitting next to her who looked as if he would vomit at any moment. His terrified fixed stare, ashen complexion, dry lips, and white fingers gripping the armrests were obvious characteristics of a fearful flyer. Katie thought she might give him some gentle advice on how safe commercial flights were, especially compared to the flights she had experienced during the past two years, three months, twelve days, and nine hours in the army. In fact, all her military transportations had been dangerous, whether on foot or riding in military vehicles. Whereas it was highly unlikely that the young man would die on this particular flight—it was not his time, at least not today. Taking a deep breath and settling back again, she decided to keep her comments to herself. She closed her eyes. She hadn’t slept in a real bed with fluffy pillows in months and looked forward to going home to enjoy all the things most people took for granted.
Her mind wandered to the loaded double cheeseburger with French fries, onion rings, and a double dark chocolate milkshake that was going to be one of her first meals. But as much as she looked forward to going home, there was the dreaded question looming. What was she going to do now? The airplane rattled and thumped with a little more intensity, but Katie remained comfortable and relaxed. It felt to her almost like a gentle movement designed to lull her to sleep. Still, murmurs from concerned passengers filtered through the cabin. She opened her eyes and casually scanned the people around her. A baby cried and fidgeted in its mother’s arms. Two women sat up straight in their seats as if they were preparing for a crash landing. Flight attendants made sure everyone was comfortable, something they did a million times during their careers. The seat-belt light appeared in bright letters to keep everyone secured in their seats until further notice.
Katie adjusted her body and inched closer to the window in case her fellow passenger decided to puke up his last meal. She stared at the scattered clouds in the mid-morning sky as the early sun permeated the horizon. It never grew boring to watch the beginnings of a new day. Katie liked to think of each one as a blank script and a way to begin again; to make things right—or just better. Her eyes grew heavy and she shut them again. Since joining the army, she had rarely slept more than a few hours at a time, never the luxury of seven or eight continuous hours, and was used to frequent catnaps to gain renewed energy. Most times after she closed her eyes, she relived the many patrols she had experienced over the past two years, the unmistakable sights and sounds ingrained in her memory. Revving engines. Gunfire leaving a foul taste in your mouth. Extreme dust clouding your vision.
Every footstep in brutally hot conditions, and the long, exhausting hours of stress were permanently etched into her DNA. She had already recalled those days and weeks hundreds, if not thousands, of times. After Katie’s initial seventeen weeks of intensive training, she had become part of a working K9 team. Her primary duty was to find explosives. She usually took the point position and led the others forward to complete their assigned orders, which meant finding bombs and gathering intelligence, as well as searching out explosive devices. Katie and Cisco, an eighty-five-pound black German shepherd, who was assigned his second tour with her, were the only thing keeping the soldiers from being blown up or ambushed. As such, they were often targeted specifically. Being part of a military dog team was something Katie had always wanted to do. Even as a young girl she had trained her own dogs, and daydreamed of helping others someday—finding the bad guys, or locating missing people. It was so important to her that she took an open-ended leave of absence from the Sacramento Police Department to travel across the world into unknown enemy territory to fulfill that dream.
The sudden death of her parents had left a raw void in her life, so it was more important than ever to step out and do something to serve others. The airline pilot interrupted her thoughts, announcing in a deep, well-rehearsed voice over the intercom, “We should be out of this weather in another few minutes and begin making our descent into the Sacramento International Airport. Thank you for your patience. Please remain seated until we come to a complete stop. Our destination is a mild sixty-nine degrees, with winds at fifteen miles per hour.” Katie’s excitement and enthusiasm for going home was mingled with growing anxiety the closer the plane got to the airport. She felt caught between two worlds—civilian and military—something she had never experienced before. Things were different, changed, and no matter how hard she tried to make herself believe it was okay, nothing would ever be the same. The aircraft changed gears, the engines raced, and there was a grinding underneath the belly of the cabin before they began the steady descent toward the airport runway. Katie stared out the small window, watching the familiar landscape.
Buildings, cars, and the outlines of recognizable geographical features came into focus. She heard a sigh and looked at the passenger on her left. Now that he knew he was almost on the ground, he appeared to have managed to calm his nerves, leaning back and releasing his death grip on the armrests. For the first time, Katie felt conspicuous wearing her army pants, combat boots, and olive-green T-shirt, even though everything was freshly laundered, with precise creases. It had never bothered her before, but now, as she looked at her masculine boots, she realized it made her an outcast. It represented being different—not in an empowering way, but in a distancing way. The sudden urge to run to the exit to be the first to escape overwhelmed her. Instead, she smoothed her long dark hair back into a neat ponytail. Everything she had trained for and experienced counted for something, and she was determined to make her skills work in a positive way to move into the next aspect of her life. The landing gear touched down with a quick, uneventful rumble as the aircraft decelerated along the long runway, the engines slowing its speed until the plane taxied to the appropriate gate.
As it came to a complete stop, passengers readied themselves for the usual mass exodus. Katie remained seated, staying in the moment, as others grabbed their carry-on luggage and pushed their way into the aisle, forming a bottleneck in the process. She was going to wait, happy to be one of the last to exit, but an older man with sparse gray hair stopped and smiled, then backed up a bit to allow her to merge into the line. She returned his smile and quickly grabbed her backpack from the overhead compartment. It was obvious that the man had served in some area of the military; it was common for those who had shared these experiences to extend polite courtesies. Finally out of the plane, Katie followed the other passengers through the plastic tunnel towards the baggage area. Then, loaded up with her backpack and duffle bag, she made her way to the airport entrance, where crowds of people were rushing about in a myriad of directions. Standing near the sidewalk, waiting patiently, was a tall, striking man of moderate muscular build, with a grayish speckled crew cut, and a neatly trimmed mustache. His face instantly lit up when he saw Katie exiting through the automatic doors, and he moved toward her, giving her a big bear hug. “We’ve missed you so much,” he whispered.
“We prayed every day that you would be safe. Your parents would have been so proud. You know that, right?” Katie nodded while emotions welled up inside her. “We’re all proud of you,” he added. “It’s great to see you, Uncle Wayne,” Katie said, relief filling her voice. It comforted her to be in her uncle’s arms. “Where’s Aunt Claire?” she asked, looking around. “She wanted to be here to greet you, but she had an emergency with the women’s auxiliary club. You’ll see her later.” “So how did you get the department to let you come in person?” she asked curiously.
He picked up her duffle bag and said with some humor, “That’s one of the perks of being the sheriff.” “Of course, I almost forgot,” she said. She grabbed her backpack and followed her uncle to the short-term parking area. The fresh, crisp air and the familiar distant rolling hills soothed her. She was finally home. Her uncle stopped suddenly. “Oh, I have a surprise for you.” Katie was puzzled. “What do you mean?” “You know… a surprise?” he emphasized. “Uncle Wayne, I’m not ten anymore.
What is it?” He smiled, and the lines crinkling around his eyes gave him a concerned, fatherly look. “I cannot begin to understand what you’ve been through, Katie. I know it was the toughest thing you could ever experience.” He paused a moment before continuing. “So that’s why I did everything I could to make this happen. I hoped it would be done before you came home. And as the good Lord is my witness, it is.” “Now you’ve really got me thinking…” “C’mon,” he ordered. As they rounded a corner, passing several sedans and trucks, Katie saw her familiar black Jeep Wrangler. Inside, jumping from window to window and barking with pure joy, was a large black German shepherd.
She dropped her backpack, ran to the car, and opened the door. “Cisco!” she exclaimed, choking back tears. The dog whined, spun around several times, then licked her for several minutes, before repeating the whole process again. His joy was clearly evident. “I don’t understand,” Katie said, looking at her uncle teary-eyed. “How did you get him home so quickly? I thought I was going to have to fight for months to have him released to me.” “I got started when you first told us that you were making arrangements to come home. I know about all the red tape and politics involved with the military. Cisco had already had two tours, so I just made a few calls, and then a few more, and the next thing you know, I received a phone call to pick him up at the military naval base in Concord.” “How? Why would they? Never mind.
Thank you so much for bringing this guy home. He saved countless people, including me,” she explained, still hugging the dog. Wayne opened the back of the Jeep to load Katie’s luggage. “Let’s just say a friend of a friend knows someone in the White House administration. And it helps that they are all dog lovers,” he laughed. “I guess you’ll never tell me the real details, but that’s okay, because this is the best surprise I could ever hope to receive.” Her uncle shrugged his shoulders, grinning. “C’mon, get in. I’m driving. You just sit back and relax.
” The drive to Pine Valley took more than an hour and a half. Katie gave her uncle some updates at first, but otherwise the ride was mostly a quiet one. The excitement of having Cisco home made Katie the happiest she thought she could be under the circumstances. Optimism crept in and she anticipated that things could get back to normal—maybe even better. After an hour, she drifted off to sleep and allowed the gentle motion of the road to keep her relaxed and comfortable. “Hey,” her uncle said gently. “Wake up, Katie, we’re here.” He had parked next to his large white SUV. Katie opened her eyes to see her familiar yellow house with its white trim. It always made her smile and reminisce about all the memories of growing up.
It reminded her of long summer days and the many good times she had had with her friends and family. Heavy breathing and several licks accosted the side of her face as Cisco seemed to pick up on her enthusiasm. “Yeah, buddy, this is your home too,” Katie said. “Sorry, Uncle Wayne, I really conked out.” “No apologies necessary. You’ll need a few days to rest up and get back on Pacific Standard Time.” Her uncle grabbed her bags out of the Jeep. “Oh,” he said, and stopped. “What?” “Actually, I have a bit of bad news.” “What?” Katie repeated, this time with trepidation.
They walked up to the porch, and her uncle paused before inserting the key in the lock. “Last year we had some record rainfall, and…” Dread overwhelmed Katie. “And?” “Well, your house sprung a leak—actually, several leaks—in the roof. Before I checked on it that week, there’d already been a fair amount of water damage. I know you haven’t had time to address home repairs, and I’ve been so busy…” Katie’s thoughts went to her things: her parents’ furniture, the photographs, and her huge collection of crime and forensic books. “How bad?” she asked. “Well, we’ve fixed everything and salvaged what we could.” He opened the door. To Katie’s surprise, most of the furniture, except a couple of pieces, still sat in the usual places. The smell of fresh paint lingered in the air.
She noticed a few new things: some throw rugs and artwork. “There are still some things drying out at home, and other things being professionally restored,” her uncle said. “The good news is that the roof is completely fixed. It should last you a good ten to fifteen years.” Cisco ran around the living room, sliding on the newly refinished wooden floors, then headed to the kitchen. Within seconds, she heard him noisily lapping up water. “Well…” she managed to say. “What about—” He finished her sentence. “Your books?” Katie nodded, holding her breath. “Believe it or not, most didn’t get a drop of water on them.
” She heard herself let out a sigh of relief. Her uncle led the way to the kitchen. “We did do some updates,” he explained, “and got you a new refrigerator and stove. Basically updated them into this century. And you’ll love this, a safe area for Cisco to run and play. A bunch of the guys pitched in to help.” Katie went to the glass doors and saw that there was a huge dog enclosure. “Wow, that’s really nice.” She turned to her uncle. “Thank you, Uncle Wayne, for everything.
” “It’s our pleasure. Claire stocked up the fridge with some things you can just put in the oven, and some of that girlie food you like—fruits, veggies, and some kind of weird seeds.” Motioning to a large basket on the counter, he added, “And she packed some soaps, lotions, toothpaste, and other stuff so you wouldn’t have to immediately go to the store.” Katie laughed and kissed his cheek. “Thank you,” she repeated softly. “That reminds me. Art gallery and lunch next week?” he asked. “Oh, of course. I look forward to it.” Katie and her uncle had an ongoing arrangement to enjoy a gallery and have lunch together at least once a month—just the two of them.
It had long been their way of spending time together. Wayne headed to the front door. “Sorry I have to run, but I want you to report to me at headquarters at 0730 hours sharp on Monday. We’re going to keep you busy until you decide what you want to do. Nothing better than hard work…” He gave a quick wave before he got into his SUV. Cisco sat in his standard heel position next to Katie’s left thigh, with his ears perked forward and his gaze targeted, actively searching for anything out of the ordinary. Katie continued to stare out the window until her uncle’s vehicle disappeared down the driveway. Then she rubbed Cisco’s head, scratched his ears, and sighed. She was alone again.