Chapter seven, part 1
That encounter marked the start to the longest chase of my life.
Early summer passed and before long, the hottest period of the year had arrived. Every morning, I’d get up an hour earlier than normal for my morning jog. The sun would barely be up, and both my parents would still be very fast asleep. Those mornings consisted of only me, the silent streets of Appaloosa Plains, a few morning birds… and one other person.
That other person was the reason why I had decided to get up so insanely early. After a brief period of trial and error, I had found out that the woman I’d so miserably failed to catch up to was on a training schedule, as well. Every morning, she’d pass the center of town and set off towards the edge of the village, where she then vanished. Every morning, she would slow down at a certain point, waiting for me to show up. Every morning, she smirked at me until I went after her in pursuit.
And every single morning.
Catch up to her.
I knew that I was more athletic than my classmates, even more so than most Wanderers, but this woman was insane. She would jump over fences, walls and even parked cars with the greatest ease. She could run faster than a damn horse. She would turn a corner, only to vanish entirely in the few seconds it took me to round the corner as well and pop up a few yards away, almost out of my line of sight entirely. I just could not keep up, and it was maddeningly frustrating.
Weeks later. I had chased her around for twenty minutes straight. Not once had I gotten closer, instead being forced to stare at her back as she eluded me. My lungs felt like they were on fire. My knees were weak.
At my limit, I finally gave up and came to a halt. Exhausted, I leaned on my knees and panted. A ways in the distance, the woman also stopped. With a blank expression, she looked back at me and slowed down to a walking speed. Even at that speed, I was too worn out to follow. But even so, I did not want to give up yet.
So I yelled at her, making the woman halt in her tracks.
She turned around slowly, the blank expression still on her face. I didn’t care. At least she’d stopped for me, which was more than she had done in weeks.
‘At least… at least tell me your name,’ I wheezed. The woman shook her head, making a few loose strands of black hair swirl around her caramel face. With a low, foreign-looking accent that sounded vaguely familiar, she answered:
‘Nah. That would be too easy.’
‘Oh, come on,’ I managed to say, still panting heavily. ‘I’ve been chasing you around for six weeks now. Give me a break!’
Her smile widened. It was a nice smile, but I tensed, as her smiling tended to lead to the woman taking off a second later. I had to throw her a bone, quick.
‘My… my name’s Chase.’
‘How fitting,’ she snickered. ‘Tell you what, Chase. You catch up to me, and I will tell you mine.’
With that, she was gone. Just like that. One second she was standing there facing me, and the next, she had jumped the fence of someone’s backyard and vanished. I did not follow. Still panting, I leaned on my knees for support.
Damn, she was fast.
My daily morning frustration wasn’t the only thing that had become a routine in my life. Somehow, the one free horse riding lesson that I’d given Evelyn had turned plural. Every Saturday, she’d show up at my house for another lesson. And with that I meant every Saturday. And not really with my full consent, but I decided not to mind. The girl was enthusiastic, you could give her that. In all those weeks, she hadn’t missed a day yet. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in passion.
It was a good thing that Evelyn had a lot of passion, too. I would never say it to her face, but the girl was horrible at horse riding. Absolutely disastrous. I feared that, even with a professional teacher, Evelyn would only get so far. But she seemed to be having fun, so I kept my mouth shut. In the end, as long as you were having fun, who cared if you were good at something or not?
‘Who did a good job today? You did, you big fluffball.’
She had completely gotten over her initial nervousness around Angus, too. After the wolf incident, Brink was still taboo for the girl, but she had gotten to be quite friendly with my other horse. They were good buddies now. If it had been one of my dogs, I’d probably be jealous.
‘Can I put him back in his stable, Chase?’
‘Uh, sure,’ I replied. ‘Don’t forget to take off his reigns, okay? Angus doesn’t like wearing those in his stable. He’ll start scratching his head all over the wall, and then we’ll have to buy new reigns all over again.’
I spoke from experience; it had happened before. Twice. Dad had not been happy.
Evelyn nodded enthusiastically. As she opened the door to Angus’s stable, I turned around to gaze out of the window. Brink was out in the meadow, busy playing the part of a living lawn mower. Other than that, it was just us. Mum and dad had left to go shopping right after I’d come back from my jog, and hadn’t yet returned.
As I looked at Brink, the event from that night and the wolf attack rose up in my memory again. That’s right, I hadn’t actually told my parents anything about it. Maybe it was time that I did? They could know something.
When I turned back around, Evelyn was standing right behind me with a victorious glimmer in her eyes. I smiled at her.
‘Good job. Looks like you can handle yourself around horses pretty well now.’
‘You think so?’ she replied happily. ‘That’s all thanks to you, then, and all the lessons you’ve given me. They’re the best part of the week for me, really. Thanks again, Chase.’
‘No problem. Can’t have the newest member of our group not know the ways of Appaloosa Plains, after all.’
‘And that’s horses?’ Evelyn smirked.
‘Yeah. Here everyone either has a horse, a farm, knowledge of mechanics or a very large family. Have any one of those, and you’re part of the community.’
She laughed. ‘Well, if the horse part doesn’t work out, I could always get a large family as a back-up plan.’
‘You’ll fit right in!’ I joked along with her. ‘I could point you to some willing suitors already, if you want. You’re quite popular around here, Evelyn.’
‘Oh? Like who?’
‘Well, there’s every other guy in our class.’
‘Nah, I’m not interested in them.’
‘Liu from the Travelers has a thing for you, too. He’s quite handsome, you know,’ I replied. Evelyn shook her head.
‘I’m not interested in Liu, either, Chase.’
‘Who, then? You’ve got your pick. Anyone that you want me to introduce you to?’
‘Actually… I’ve already met someone that I like.’
As the conversation progressed, I gradually started feeling uncomfortable. I wasn’t stupid. Evelyn was subtly hinting at something, and I had a pretty good idea of what it was. During our riding lessons, I had more than once gotten the feeling that Evelyn had more in mind than being friends. She’d even shown up at my house with freshly made lasagna once. It had tasted amazing, but that was beside the point. I had carefully avoided her subtle hints, only responding in a friendly manner. That in its own should have been a big red flag for her. But apparently the girl did not pick up on the same hints that easily.
As I remained silent, Evelyn gave me that look. Big, hopeful eyes, looking at me dreamily. I’d received that look from multiple girls before, so I knew exactly what it meant. The conversation that followed was not one I wanted to have with Evelyn. I had to cut her off, before feelings got hurt. But I was too late. As I was still pondering in my head what to say to her, Evelyn had filled the silence instead.
She looked down, a shy smile on her face.
‘I’ve been waiting for the right moment to tell you,’ she spoke softly.
‘Ever since you saved my life I’ve… felt this way. You’re an amazing guy, Chase. I really like spending time with you. You make me feel safe, and happier than I’ve ever been before moving here.’
A few seconds of silence fell, in which she seemed to brace herself.
‘I guess what I’m trying to say is… I like you, Chase. A lot. I know we’ve only known each other for a couple of months now, but… I was wondering if you’d like to go out with me?’
There it was. Any idea of settling this without hurting her feelings was instantly erased as she said those few sentences. Evelyn rose her head, looking me straight in the eyes with a hopeful expression on her face. I took a deep breath…
and destroyed that hope.
‘I’m sorry, Evelyn. You’re a beautiful girl, but… I don’t feel the same way.’
A silence fell. Evelyn still had a tiny smile on her face. Only her eyebrows had moved down a little, turning her face into a look of confusion.
‘You… you don’t?’
Her large, emerald eyes seemed to be pleading with me. It was painful to look at. It almost made me retract my words, but I caught myself at the last second. The cold truth was that I just did not feel attracted to Evelyn. Exotic as she looked, she’d been just as easy to get close to as all the other girls in my class. There had been no challenge involved, and it was an instant turn off for me. To lie about that would just end up hurting her more.
‘No. You’re a good friend, Evelyn, and I would like you to stay that way. But I just don’t feel that way about you. I’m sorry if I made it seem otherwise.’
I tried my hardest to not make my words sound cold. Previous experiences had taught me how easy it was to make girls cry because of a rejection. Most of those girls had started crying almost immediately. I did not like tears. They made me feel guilty.
As the meaning of what I’d just said finally processed, Evelyn broke eye contact and looked at her feet. I fully expected there to be tears. After all, it always happened. I expected Evelyn to hide behind her bright, red hair, and see a single teardrop slide down her freckled cheek.
But she surprised me. Instead, the same small smile from before reappeared on her lips.
‘Any chance that I could change your mind about that?’
When she spoke, her voice did not waver. Other girls might have run away by this point. But not her. I suddenly realized that Evelyn was a very strong person. In a strange way, she reminded me of Bobby. I instantly respected her for it. A smile appeared on my face, and I softly shook my head.
‘I’m afraid not, red. I’m sorry. But I wasn’t kidding when I said you were popular around town, you know. A nice girl like you won’t have any problem finding a partner… even if it’s not me.’
She nodded to me, still avoiding eye contact. I could feel that she needed some time to process, even with her calm strength. It was time to leave her alone, for a while.
‘I’ll be out. Twelve o clock next Saturday, red. Don’t forget. Angus will be waiting for you.’
That made her smile, at least a little. Taking it as my cue, I decided to make my exit. I left Evelyn there, exiting the horse barn by myself.
That had gone… better than expected.
Meanwhile, in the Appaloosa Plains police station…
‘What do you mean, you’ll take no action?! This is the third time this week! Something has to be done!’
The officer behind the counter sighed tiredly. His name was Matthew. He was aging, already in his mid-fourties, with greying hairs and dull brown eyes.
‘I’m sorry, mister Racket, but your neighbour cannot be held accountable for parking his car on the designated parking spots. ’
‘So you’re saying that there is no penalty to that man for nearly blocking my driveway? Thanks to him, I was more than thirty minutes late for work this morning!’
This conversation had been going back and forth for a while now. In fact, mister Racket had a habit of showing up at least twice a week, with a complaint about something or other. His way of entertaining himself, the officer reckoned. Normally he did not mind. But today’s visit was taking a little too long, and the aging policeman had just about had enough. There were more important things to be working on than a blocked driveway.
That high school girl’s disappearance, for example. As Racket ranted on, the officer’s eyes dwelled to the missing poster that was on his desk. Charmaine Greenwood, that was her name. A second-year high schooler. A few days ago, she had disappeared without a trace. That alone was no reason to worry- teenagers vanished during summer holidays all the time, to party or go drinking in the big cities. But after a little digging, they had found out that Charmaine did not own a car nor had a driving license. The bus driver of the only bus out of Appaloosa Plains had no recollection of her boarding. And she had vanished in the middle of the night. Put all that together, and they had reason enough to start worrying. Appaloosa Plains needed all available officers to partake in the search. Time was of the essence, if they wanted to find the girl before it was too late.
The aging officer named Matthew wanted to help search. But instead, he was stuck here, with Racket ranting on and on about his neighbour’s car . Even Matthew had his limits, and the man’s ranting was approaching said mental limits quickly.
‘Listen, Racket, if you refuse to build a bigger driveway for your vehicle, then there is nothing that I can-‘
‘You can’t just ignore-‘
Both of them were cut off from their discussion by the harsh sound of a door opening violently. Matthew’s partner, a younger, raven-haired man in his twenties came barging in. His face was pale and there was a look in his eyes that officer Matthew had never seen before. The man seemed to be really shaken up about something.
‘Back early, are you, Jack? What’s going on?’
But his partner took one look at Racket and silently shook his head. Matthew understood him right away. This was not something that they wanted civilians to know. He beckoned his partner to join him behind the counter, before fishing a single paper sheet out of his desk drawer.
‘Here, mister Racket. Fill in this form, please, and describe the assault on your driveway in detail.’
‘Now we’re talking! I told that dastard Becks I’d get him this time. I told him!’
Racket’s ravings went ignored. Jack quickly joined his partner and started whispering to him in a soft, low voice.
‘Come with me. ’
‘What happened?’ Matthew replied softly. ‘Did they find the Hoppen girl?’
‘They did. You’re going to want to see this.’
‘You’re kidding, right? They found her at a junkyard?’
Jack nodded once, but stayed silent otherwise. The incident had him just as shaken as Matthew. As the two officers made their way across the messy junkyard, Matthew let his thoughts run free. This just wasn’t normal. Dissapearances and murders never happened in Appaloosa Plains. Everyone knew everyone, even the gypsies. Matthew could not imagine any of them having anything to do with this.
Though, if he thought about it… the gypsies did start sheltering a new group a few months ago. Maybe they did have something to do with this.
It did not take the two long to reach the body. She had been unceremoniously abandoned on the ground, between a dead tree and the docking place of a sunken rowboat. Her lifeless body reflected the pitiful state of the things around her. Dead, broken, and no longer needed.
‘I fear to think what kind of sick mind would use that kind of symbolism,’ Matthew thought out loud.
‘You think that she was placed here deliberately?’
‘Probably. Maybe the perpetrator thought that no-one would find her here for a while, and he wanted to hide her. Or maybe the junkyard was used because that’s what it is for… the disposal of unwanted things.’
‘That’s horrible!’ Jack responded. He was acknowledge with a single nod from Matthew.
‘It would be. But even a possible motive behind the placement of a body tells us something about who might have done this.’
‘Go set the perimeter, and see if there are any footprints in the mud around here.’
As officer Jack walked away to do as he was told, Matthew took a second look at the body. Her feet and legs were fine. But from the waist and up, she was covered in cuts and bruises. Almost as if she’d been assaulted by something… something tall enough to reach above her waist.
And that wasn’t the only strange thing. Though the Greenwood girl was full of cuts and scratches, there was sparsely any blood. A few small stains on her shirt, that was all. But in her face and neck, she was incredibly pale. Matthew was sure that her cause of death would be determined to be excessive blood loss.
But if she died from blood loss, then why wasn’t there more of it on her clothes?
Matthew frowned. He had a bad feeling about this. A nagging feeling in his gut, warning him. He couldn’t put his finger on it… but it was there. Telling him to be cautious.
Telling him that this was not going to end with one body.
Something was about to happen in Appaloosa Plains.
And it couldn’t be good.