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GRIEF AND GUILT ARE THE GHOSTS THAT HAUNT YOU when you survive what othervs do not. Mercy Carr survived, and so did Sergeant Martinez’s dog. Nearly a year after her best friend died in Afghanistan, she rose at dawn and took Elvis on another long hike through the Vermont woods. A tired dog was a good dog. At least that’s what the sergeant used to say.
Good was a relative term. Mercy was not Martinez, and Elvis knew it. The bomb-sniffing Belgian shepherd missed his handler and his mission. Just as she did. Every morning they marched off their grief mile after mile in the mountains, where the cool greens of the forest could chase away the dark ghosts of the desert, at least until night fell.
But not today. Today the wilderness held a hush that unnerved her, the same sort of hush that Martinez always called a disturbance in the Force when they went out on patrol. Bad things usually followed.
The dog didn’t seem to notice. He raced ahead of her and plunged through a swollen stream, a streak of damp camel-colored fur disappearing into a thicket of small spruce. Mercy considered going after him, but like most soldiers she preferred her feet dry. She hoped he’d circle back to her shortly, as he’d been trained to do. And would have done for his sergeant, no problem.
She sighed. They’d hiked nearly a third of the way up to Lye Brook Falls, following the old bed of a logging railroad, which rose along a steady 20 percent incline for some two and a half miles up to the falls. The woods were blessedly calm and empty of people so early in the day. Towering birches, beeches, and maples in full leaf draped the trail in shade. A downpour the night before had left muddy puddles in its wake, and her boots were smudged with dirt. She tramped on, dodging the worst of the mud and taking care not to slip on the wet rocks, her eyes on the slick stone-ridden path and her mind off her future, which loomed ahead of her with no clear goal in sight.
After that last deployment, the one where Martinez got killed and she got shot and Elvis got depressed, Mercy and the dog were both sent home. Still, even though Martinez’s last words to her had been “Take care of Elvis,” she’d spent six months pulling strings to persuade the private defense contractor into letting her adopt the dog. In the end she prevailed, and they entered retirement together. Two former military police—one twenty-nine-year-old two-legged female Vermonter with an exit wound scar blighting her once perfect ass and one handsome five-year-old four-legged male Malinois with canine PTSD—reclaiming themselves in the backwoods one hike at a time.
The terrain grew rougher, steeper, tougher. She adjusted her pack, which at less than fifteen pounds barely registered on her body, once burdened by nearly one hundred pounds of gear. She whistled.
In Afghanistan, Elvis’s job had been to walk in front of his sergeant and their unit, scouting ahead and alerting them to danger. The only dangers here in the southern Green Mountains were the ubiquitous clouds of biting deerflies—and the occasional bear. Still, after about a quarter of a mile, she paused to listen for the sound of a lively dog diving into the scrub, scampering over downed trees, racing up the rocky trail—but all she heard was the rush of the nearby brook, the warble of wood thrushes, and the skittering of red squirrels.
She stopped and closed her eyes, remembering one of Martinez’s many stories from his parents’ native Mezquital Valley in Mexico. This one was about a devout monk who lived in a cave and drew murals of saints and sinners on the walls. One day he painted a picture of the serpent Satan that seemed so real it literally scared him to death, the whisper of El Salvador on his dying lips. “Don’t let your demons scare you,” the sergeant told her. “Wait for the real devil.”
Wait for the real devil. Mercy whistled again and waited.
The Belgian shepherd darted out of the scrub onto the path, his fawn fur stippled with dark splotches of sludge, his black muzzle muddy. Even dirty he was a pretty dog, a standard-bearer of his breed, far sleeker and smarter than any German shepherd, according to Martinez.
Elvis skidded to a stop right in front of her and jangled his head. In his mouth he held what looked like one of his squeaky toys.
“Drop it.” She held out her hand.
The dog obliged, releasing the canary-yellow object into her open palm, his bright eyes on Mercy and his new plaything. She held it up and examined it in the light filtering through the trees.
“I think it’s a baby teether,” she told him. About five inches long, the teether was shaped like a plastic daisy with a thick stem, the better for a baby’s grip, and a flower-shaped lion’s head blooming at the top. Apart from dog drool, the little lion toy was clean, so it wasn’t something that had been abandoned in the woods for long. She bent over toward Elvis, holding the teether out to him. “Where did you get this?”
Elvis pushed at her hand with a cold nose and whined. With another quick yelp he leapt back into the underbrush. Mercy tucked the baby toy into one of her cargo pockets and followed the dog, as he obviously meant her to do. She cursed under her breath as she sank into a marshy patch, mud seeping into the tops of her boots as she stomped through the mire after him.
Sometimes Elvis behaved erratically. Over the past few months, she’d learned to anticipate his triggers—slamming doors, thunderstorms, fireworks—at least most of the time. At other times, like today, the triggers eluded her; they were scents, sounds, and situations known only to the dog. But baby teethers had never been among them.
He barreled through the tangle of bracken and brushwood to a stream that paralleled the trail, a fast tumbling of water over a bed of rocks. He jumped, clearing the six-foot-wide current easily. Mercy splashed after him, not willing to risk breaking a leg or twisting an ankle in a poorly landed leap. The cold water came up to her knees. Elvis waited for her, his triangular ears perked and his dark eyes on her.
She clambered out of the brook and stumbled over the stones into a thick copse of young birch trees. There he dropped down on his haunches in the middle of a large blowdown area littered with tree limbs. This was his alert position, the posture he assumed when he sniffed out weapons or explosives. IEDs were his specialty.
“What you got there, buddy?” She squatted down next to him. Elvis looked at her as if to say, Okay, my job here is done. Where’s my reward?
But Mercy wasn’t sure if he’d earned it. She examined the ground in front of his paws. The forest floor was thick with dead leaves and twigs and pine needles, as well as mushrooms and moss and ferns and what looked like poison oak. No evidence of trespass here. No evidence of explosives. As far as she knew, Elvis wasn’t trained to alert for babies—not that there was any evidence of a baby here, either. They’d glimpsed babies on the trail before, bouncing along on their parents’ backs like giggling bags of potatoes, but not this morning.
On the other hand, the sniffer dog had an excellent track record. Martinez bragged that Elvis’s was the best nose of any dog he’d ever met, either in training or in action. Elvis had rarely been wrong before. What were the odds he was wrong now?
“Good boy,” she said, scratching that favorite spot between his ears. She slipped a treat out of her pocket and held it in her open palm, and Elvis licked it up.
If they’d been on a mission, the sergeant would have called in the team responsible for bomb disposal. He and Elvis never touched anything; the Explosive Ordnance Disposal techs took it from there. But here there was no team trailing them; they weren’t wearing flak or body armor. Mercy wasn’t even sure Elvis had alerted to explosives. Who would plant explosives in a forest?
Or maybe the shepherd had alerted to fireworks. It was the week of the Fourth of July holiday, after all. Apart from sparklers, fireworks were illegal in Vermont. Even supervised public fireworks displays required a permit. But if someone had bothered to bury fireworks in the woods, surely they would have dug them up by now.
Mercy rose to her feet and stood in the middle of the blowdown, wondering what to do. Elvis leaped ahead of her and darted into the brush. She headed out after him.
And that’s when she heard it. A thin cry. Followed by another. And another, growing in volume with each wail. Sounded like her mother’s cat Sabrina back in Boston, meowing for breakfast.
But she knew it was no cat.
Copyright © 2018 by Paula Munier