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TURK GAP TRAIL, SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VA
Maxwell Cho enjoyed the hushed stillness of the Shenandoah Mountains. Even his wolfish dog, Kona, sensed the need to rein in her boundless energy as she walked quietly by his side. Max took a deep breath and leaned back to stare up at the thick canopy of copper and gold foliage in the cool morning sun.
“I think we’ve reached peak autumn, girl.” The off-duty FBI agent spoke softly, not wanting to break the spell. He’d been waiting months for a day off and could practically feel the stress melting away. He loved living in the vibrant grittiness of Washington, D.C., but he sure as hell missed the mountains sometimes.
Max was about to continue along the steep trail when Kona froze. She stood at full attention, nose working furiously in the air.
He froze as well. He knew damn well enough to trust his dog. Plus, there’d been a few bear sightings nearby.
“What is it, Kona?”
He scanned the rocky bluff rising above the treetops to the north. Along the thick woods to the east.
But then Kona barked. Not the deep ruff she was trained to use when they were on a live search, this was the sharp bark, tail straight out behind her, that she used when she scented a dead body.
Her human-cadaver alert.
“We’re not working. Let’s keep moving.” He waved the dog onward, but Kona alerted again, refusing to budge. As an FBI Human Remains Detection K9 Team, Max and Kona specialized in finding lost people, dead or alive. And she seemed firmly convinced that they were suddenly on duty.
Max stopped and sighed. So much for a late lunch with his mom after a long hike in the mountains. She was probably already cooking a banquet just for him and there would be hell to pay if he had to cancel.
“You really smell something?”
Kona barked again and then did something Max had never seen in their four years working together—she whimpered.
Apprehension tickled the nape of his neck.
“Hold up. Let me call this in before we go off on some wild-goose chase.”
Max pulled out his phone and dialed.
“Shenandoah National Park, how can I direct your call?” a woman asked with a deep Southern twang.
Max recognized the voice and paused for a long moment, rethinking his strategy. He knew practically everyone in the area, having grown up in Rockfish Gap, not twenty miles south of where he was. When he’d come back from Iraq, there was a damn good reason he joined the FBI rather than the local police force. But he couldn’t let old wounds get in the way of doing his job.
“Piper, it’s Max Cho.”
“Max! So great to hear your voice. How’ve you been? You in town visiting your mom?”
“Yeah, I was planning to see her later today, but I’m actually calling to report something. I’m up here hiking near Turk Mountain and my Human Remains Detection dog just alerted.”
“Aw, hell. Like one of those dogs that can smell dead people? You think there’s a body up there?”
“Could be. I’ve never seen her false-alert, and something’s definitely got her spooked. You have any missing folks in the area?”
Max held his hand up flat, signaling Kona to hold. She danced in place, desperate to hunt down whatever it was that she smelled.
“No one right now,” the park ranger said.
“Okay. I’ll let my dog search it out and will let you know if we find anything.”
“You want me to send a ranger out to help?”
Max watched Kona. She stood rigid, so focused on the scent she could barely hold her body still. “Nah, my dog’s about to come out of her skin, so I’m betting whatever it is, is close. Let me find it first so we know exactly what we’ve got here.”
As Max spoke, Kona’s hackles rose. Every alarm in Max’s body went off.
“Well, why don’t you at least tell me where you are so I can let someone know that they’ll need to head your way soon?”
Max read his coordinates from his phone and said softly, “I’ll call you when I find it.”
“You be careful out there in the big bad woods,” the park ranger gently teased.
Max clicked off and jumped slightly when Kona alerted again. He wondered when he’d lost the bravado of youth. Hell, he used to jump out of helicopters behind enemy lines. Here he was now, spooked by the thought of a dead body somewhere out here in the Virginia woods.
“Kona, go find!” He gave the sign, flinging his hand outward.
With a bark of excitement, Kona shot off like a black comet.
In search mode, she made sweeping arcs back and forth, using the scent cone wafting on the air to guide her. Kona led Max up a steep incline, through a field of oat grass, and into a stand of maple trees. The sun moved higher, bringing a welcome bit of warmth to the crisp fall air. The scent of dew-damp soil filled Max’s nose as they moved farther and farther from the trail.
Kona’s arcs began to narrow, a sure sign they were nearing their target.
They climbed a rocky bluff and emerged at the top of an overlook with a view of the entire river valley. Max slowed to take in the sight of the lazy Shenandoah River meandering among the rolling mountains blanketed in fiery red and orange.
Up ahead, Kona growled. Then, without warning, she took off at full speed, careening down into the woods below.
Max sprinted to keep up. The foliage grew thicker as they dropped in elevation. Branches whipped his face while he blindly crashed through the underbrush.
“Hey!” he called. “Kona, stop!”
For the first time ever, Kona ignored his command.
Something was seriously wrong.
Unable to see her, Max frantically chased the sound of his hundred-pound dog hurtling through the woods like she was on the devil’s tail. He broke through the foliage into a clearing halfway down the mountain, where Kona ran in circles, alerting over and over. Max had never seen her act this way.
High trees shaded a large rocky area gently sloping down toward a drop-off. He moved slowly, scanning the ground for any sign of what had Kona so agitated.
“Go find!” he commanded, hoping she could narrow down her search.
Kona whimpered and sat, confused. A working dog to the core, Kona was upset that she couldn’t pinpoint the location of whatever she smelled.
Max carefully made his way across the craggy clearing until he stood next to Kona, who sat on a small boulder. No sign of anything other than rocks and a few patches of low grass. Nowhere to hide a body.
“What on earth? This your first false alarm, girl?” He reached out to give her an encouraging scratch.
As he leaned forward, the ground shifted.
Though it had been years, his old training kicked in and he dove to the side. But it was too late.
In a torrent of soil and stone, the ground gave way beneath him.
Limbs flailing, Max fell into the darkness below.
He torqued his legs around just in time to slam down onto his feet. He grunted in pain, knees buckling as they took the brunt of the impact.
Max covered his head and waited as loose dirt and crumbled rock rained down on him. Far above, Kona frantically barked at the sudden disappearance of her human.
When the cascade stopped, Max called up, “I’m okay, Kona. Everything’s okay.”
The sound of his voice calmed the dog a little and she shifted to a steady whine. Max stood, wiping a layer of grit from his face, and tried to figure out where the hell he was. As his eyes adjusted in the dim light, he could just make out a small cavern. The round chamber was no larger than his bedroom, and the only visible opening was a long horizontal slit along the opposite wall. The hole he fell through was a good twenty feet directly above him, too far to climb.
“Looks like I just fell in a damned sinkhole,” he said to no one in particular. He pulled out his phone, but no signal. “Hey, Kona,” he said in a calming voice. “I’m going to try to find another way out.” He squinted toward the low crack in the far wall of the cavern. He would have to lie down and scoot sideways up the narrow slot, but he thought he could see faint light filtering from the other side.
Kona still paced back and forth above him and Max worried she would jump. “You stay, Kona. Stay.”
The dog huffed with disapproval but plopped down on the rim of the opening to stare down.
Copyright © 2019 by Ellison Cooper