A Walk in the Park by Wes Blalock
A Walk in the Park by Wes Blalock
Katie Reynolds rushed out of the Cary Valley National Park ranger station, taking the thick, redwood stairs two at a time, her paramedic bag slung over her shoulder. She landed running, chasing after a white, Park Service Chevy Tahoe, hoping to reach it as it pulled away from the curb. Her heavy work boots clumped along as she jogged to the passenger side and knocked on the window. Ranger Birdie McLaren stopped the car and looked at her quizzically, unlocking the door. Katie climbed in, dropping the paramedic bag at her feet.
“You’re going to get a medical call,” Katie told her, breathless.
“And you’re going with me?” Birdie asked.
“I need to maintain my certificate. I don’t get to go on medical calls very often and Tracey caught me to see if I wanted to go.” Katie smiled. With a degree in Natural History, she worked as an interpretation ranger, leading nature hikes and educational programs, teaching people to become more in tune with the surrounding California mountain ecosystems. But Katie always stood in awe of Birdie, a law enforcement ranger who had hunted down a bunch of armored car robbers, rescued a protected witness from hired guns, and arrested rapists and murderers. Birdie was not just her roommate and best friend, she was her hero, a bad-ass motherfucker, with a gun on her hip and a hunting knife in her boot. Today, Katie was going to run a call with the Birdie McLaren, full-time law enforcement ranger and the Paiute Warrior Woman to many of the locals, while Katie was just “Ranger Katie” to church groups, middle-schoolers, and tour bus occupants.
“Well, where are we going?” Birdie asked.
Katie put on her seatbelt. “Somewhere up the Vaughn Trail. Sounds like someone fell and broke an arm.”
Birdie smiled and used the car radio to get the details before turning to Katie. “So you don’t get enough time with me at the house?”
“Are you kidding? I never run calls with you. This will be exciting!” Katie told her, rolling down the window.
“It’ll be a walk in the park.” Birdie grinned and pulled away from the curb. She headed north and turned on the overhead light bar, accelerating up the main road. Katie glanced over and not for the first time, admired her friend’s olive skin and her simple, straight, black hair cut short to her collar. Especially as Katie had to wrestle her own curly red hair into a bun that fit beneath her Stetson ranger hat and prepared to slather gobs of sunscreen onto her own pale white and freckled skin, which only darkened in the sun.
Driving for forty-five minutes, they paused only for vehicles to pull to the right until they could pass, fall foliage and evergreens whipping by. Katie was impressed with Birdie’s seemingly innate ability to find the right roads to lead them further into the mountains toward the location of their call.
“There,” Katie said, pointing to the remote trail head. A man stood nearby, waving to them, his forest colored clothes blending into the background. Birdie stopped the car, snapped off her seatbelt, jumped out, and threw on her backpack. She hiked up her gunbelt as Katie hopped out with her paramedic bag.
“Where’s our patient?” Birdie asked. “How far up the trail?”
The man stood smiling, about six feet tall and solidly built, wavy blond hair cascading to his shoulders. Katie noticed a small video camera in his hand, pointed at them.
“He’s right behind you,” the man said, pleasantly.
Katie and Birdie turned to see a taller, more ruddy man, emerge from the forest, holding a shotgun. Birdie’s hand went directly to the butt of her pistol, but the second man pointed the shotgun at Katie.
“She’ll be the first to go,” he told her. “Hey, Skip. Looks like we got two for the price of one.”
“That’s funny. All that research to make sure we got a female ranger alone, and she brings a friend.” Skip stepped forward and held out his hand. “Ranger, I need your car keys.”
Katie stood frozen, her mind a tug of war between fleeing and fainting. Birdie pulled the Chevy keys from her pocket, weighing them for a second before winding up and throwing them into the forest as far as she could, whispering, “Fuck you.”
“God dammit,” the other man shouted, striking Birdie in the head with the barrel of the shotgun. “Now what do we do?”
Katie screamed and immediately ran to Birdie to check her head, now bleeding above her left ear. “What the hell do you want?” she demanded.
“We want you,” Skip told her then turned to his compatriot. “Calm down, Buster. Stop damaging the merchandise, you’re going to reduce her value. And keep the gun on Red while I take the belt off Pocahontas here. If she does anything, shoot Red.”
Katie stepped back and saw Birdie’s face darken, even as she raised her hands while Skip reached down and fumbled with her gunbelt, until it finally fell away from her waist. Skip took it and slung it over his shoulder before taking Birdie’s handcuffs from the belt. He ordered the women to place their hands behind their backs and cuffed them both.
“We’re never going to find those keys,” Buster grumbled.
Skip picked up the paramedic bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Can’t very well look like a kidnap scene. We’ll take everything with us. And, since we can’t drive your truck away from here, we’ll take a little walk.” Skip pushed Birdie from behind.
Birdie marched up the trail with purpose, the men lagging behind as they argued. Katie struggled to keep up, her body throbbing in time with her pulse. She thought her heart might beat out of her chest and she couldn’t figure out how to wipe the nervous sweat from her forehead with her hands behind her back. Keeping in step with Birdie, Katie leaned into her.
“Are we going to die?” Katie whispered.
Birdie glanced back and saw that the two men had fallen behind having their own conference, their plans now altered by Birdie’s impulsive act. “We were dead the moment I turned off the ignition.”
Katie saw Birdie look at her with hard, distant eyes. Suddenly light-headed, Katie felt something in her stomach fall. She felt tears start to rise and the tightness in her throat threatened a full blown cry.
“It’s only a matter of how we can make them pay for murdering us,” Birdie said, then glanced back. “They didn’t search me.”
Katie started, suddenly hopeful. “What does that mean?” she asked.
Birdie shook her head and looked back at the two men, still arguing, all because Birdie had screwed up their plan.
“We wait for our moment. Create a distraction. Act on it,” Birdie whispered.
Katie started to say something, but saw a single tear roll down Birdie’s cheek. If bad-ass Birdie was scared, what hope was there for Katie? But Katie saw that Birdie’s jaw was set, her almond eyes burning with rage.
“I imagine that rape and torture is part of the deal here, so we need to be prepared for it mentally,” Birdie told her. “Come to terms with it, so it doesn’t control us. We can fall apart later.”
“How are you so cool?” Katie asked her, still fighting back tears.
“Loss, anger, and a lot of therapy,” Birdie said, softly.
“Enough talking,” Buster shoved Katie, taking her by surprise. Katie lost her footing and crashed to the forest floor. Unable to stop her fall with her hands, she landed with a painful jolt to her shoulder and rolled onto her back trying to relieve the pressure.
“Enough of that, you two.” Skip said, laughing. But he turned to Buster and quietly reprimanded him. “Stop that. You’re going to ruin their value. You want to hurt them, that’s fine, but do it on camera, for the client.”
“Why do you keep talking about clients? What’s going on?” Birdie asked, walking again.
“None of your business.” Skip told her.
“Just tell them,” Buster said. “They’re not going anywhere. Maybe it’ll get them in the mood.”
Katie struggled to her knees and pushed her feet under herself to stand again.
“I’m a filmmaker,” Skip told them. “Buster is the talent.” He brushed some of the detritus away from Katie’s face. Her paralyzing fear was ebbing allowing her German temper to flow freely.
“We have special clients that pay me to film Buster having sex with women,” Skip explained, matter-of-factly.
“And what happens to the women when you’re done?” Birdie asked.
“Well, we let them go, of course,” Skip said, then winked at Buster.
Birdie looked at Katie and their eyes locked. Katie saw the nearly imperceptible shake of Birdie’s head; the men had no intention of letting them go. Can’t have any witnesses, Katie thought. Butterflies flooded her stomach again and she felt her face go hot.
The Limbic System, Katie told herself, pushing the analytical scientist to take over, is responsible for the four f’s; feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual intercourse. The lizard brain. Tame it, keep it in check. These men were counting on that primitive brain reaction, expecting that the women would feel overpowered and overwhelmed, that they would be paralyzed with fear. Birdie was only here because of Katie. If Katie hadn’t had the gun pointed to her head, Birdie would have beat them to the draw and shot these fuckers down. Birdie would have survived the shootout because she’s a bad-ass. But Katie screwed it up by coming along and being the perfect hostage, frozen in fear, useless.
Fairly quickly, Katie noticed that while she and Birdie were acclimated to the altitude and exercise, the two men were getting winded and their pace slowed. About an hour into their hike, Skip looked around and said, “This looks like a good spot. Let’s start with Red. She seems softened up.”
Skip dropped the paramedic bag, then set down the gun belt and took the shotgun from Buster, leaning it against the tree. Skip took out his camera again and began filming. Buster roughly pushed Birdie into the dirt, at the far end of the clearing. She rolled into her backpack and used it to push herself up until she squatted by the trail, balancing on the balls of her feet.
“Don’t move from there,” Buster told her and Birdie looked down at the ground, avoiding his stare.
Katie waited to be pushed to the ground as well, but Buster turned her to face him, placed both hands on her shoulders and pressed her to her knees in front of him.
Oh no, she thought, panic rising. This can’t be happening. Just as Birdie said. How was she going to handle this, how was she going to do this?
Buster stripped off his clothes and Katie saw only muscle on a predatory animal, like watching a lion at the zoo. When his pants came off, Katie’s panic arose again. His cock was enormous erect. The thought of hurting her clearly excited him and that scared her even more.
“Looking good, Buster,” Skip said, peeking over the top of his digital camera’s screen. “Red, why don’t you look a little more scared? The client is paying for you to be scared. Why don’t you start crying? Do I need Buster to make you cry?”
Buster slapped the side of her head with a massive hand making her ears ring. Katie’s vision spun a bit, but the contact left her with shock instead of the intended fear. She looked up trying to comprehend the blow. The pain eased and she winced. Buster waved his erection in front of her face and smiled. Quickly, anger replaced fear and she had a dangerous thought.
“Give him a little kiss, Red.” Buster moved closer.
Bite, she thought. Bite, bite, bite. Thick bands of tissue won’t make it easy. Bite, tear. It would also be filled with blood. Bite, tear, spit. Bite, tear, spit. Katie willed herself to focus on the man in front of her. Her brain disassociated from what was happening, making her feel as though she was watching from a distance as it happened to someone else. The rigid cock moved closer until the funk of sweat, urine, and smegma struck her sinuses causing her to recoil.
“Open up, baby. It’s about to happen.” Buster reached down to hold her head.
Katie opened her mouth wide, trying to close her nostrils to the smell, ready to bite, tear, spit. She was unprepared for the eruption of vomit that spewed out. Gut-wrenching spasms launched a torrent onto Buster’s cock, hands, belly, and legs.
“What the fuck?” he shouted.
Katie’s eyes closed involuntarily as she emptied her stomach in fits. She hung her head forward as the throes subsided and she caught her breath. Slowly, she opened her eyes and saw the pool of discharge on the ground in front of her, some still dripping from her open mouth. Oddly, beside the vomit, lay a pair of chrome handcuffs with a key sticking out of the lock. Katie’s eyes scanned upward to see Birdie’s body pressed against Buster’s naked one, her face tilted up, eyes half-closed, lips pursed, as if she were leaning in for a kiss. Scanning back down, Katie saw Birdie’s hand on the hilt of her hunting knife, the six inch blade buried completely between his ribs. As Katie watched, Birdie twisted the knife; a fine mist of blood spraying out as she exposed the fragile lung tissue to the atmosphere. Buster’s face was frozen in shock, his hands limply clawing at Birdie. She gave him a push and he fell backwards into the dirt, eyes open and mouth gasping for air, small wheezing noises escaping his throat.
Katie watched Birdie sprint toward Skip as he made a mad dash for the shotgun. But Birdie was faster, barreling into him and knocking him to the ground. For all his bravado, Skip screamed, dropped his camera and renewed his race to the guns, Birdie hot on his heels. Katie watched as Birdie scrambled up his back, grabbing his head in both hands and pushing forward until she drove him into the ground like she was wrangling a steer. The impact dislodged Birdie and Skip jumped up to escape her, but she latched onto him, wrapping her legs around his. Skip punched at her, most of his strikes landing on her arms.
Birdie needs me, Katie thought. She fell forward, landing in the vomit, and searched behind her with her hands. Hunching her body, she struggled to maneuver herself around until she felt the steel beneath her fingertips. She heard a low grunt that she recognized as Birdie’s voice in pain, accompanied by the sounds of flesh and bone colliding. She heard Birdie cry out followed by Skip screaming again, this time more high pitched than the last. Katie wanted to rush, but forced herself to slow down and manipulate the key from Birdie’s discarded handcuffs and try to get it into her handcuffs. From her position, she couldn’t see Birdie, but she could hear the shouting between her and Skip as they fought. She saw Skip stand and fall again, presumably Birdie taking him down. It seemed to take forever for the key to slide into the lock and turn until the handcuff released her left wrist.
Katie pushed herself up onto all fours and stood unsteadily looking for Birdie. Birdie clung to Skip’s body, even as he tried to pry her fingers loose. Birdie leaned forward and bit into Skip’s hand until he let go of hers. Skip screeched and slapped at her head, landing the occasional blow as he shouted panicked slurs. Katie’s feet carried her zombie-like, forcing herself to walk past Skip, resisting the urge to attack him. Birdie’s bloodied face watched her pass, nodding visibly. Katie reached the shotgun, propped against a tree and pulled it up, resting the butt against the soft pocket in her shoulder, just as her father had taught her. Aiming at Skip’s back, Katie pulled the trigger, but it wouldn’t move. Dammit, she thought, what was she doing wrong? Katie turned the shotgun sideways to see the safety still engaged.
Pressing the safety, Katie settled the shotgun back up to her shoulder and placed the sight in the middle of Skip’s back. Breathing out, she eased back the trigger. The shotgun banged against Katie’s shoulder in an explosion of noise and smoke. Skip screamed and rolled around on the ground. Katie lowered the shotgun and watched, surprised that Skip was still alive, half-expecting him to be propelled a dozen feet away, like in the movies. He rolled onto his back, gripping his right arm, covered in blood. Stepping closer, she saw that the arm ended just above the wrist in a ragged stump of wet tissue and bone.
“Huh,” Katie said out loud, her brain processing slowly, like walking through syrup. Birdie pushed away, kicking at Skip as she scooted backwards.
“You fucking bitch!” he shouted. “My hand, my fucking hand!” Tears streamed down his blood-spattered face, growing pink as they mingled with his blood.
“Great shot!” Birdie mumbled through the blood running from her nose as she flopped onto her back in the detritus.
“I was aiming for center mass,” Katie said, keeping the barrel pointed at the man squirming on the ground.
Birdie made a laughing, coughing sound and rolled onto her side, trying to push herself up, but failed. “I’m just going to lie here until help arrives.”
Katie glanced over and saw that Birdie’s face was swollen and starting to bruise. Birdie closed her eyes and Katie realized that she was the only one standing, that Birdie was in no position to save her. Closed head trauma, Katie thought, kneeling down beside her friend and discarding the shotgun. Birdie was able to answer questions, reassuring Katie of her mental status, but Katie remained worried. She ran and grabbed Birdie’s backpack then rolled Birdie over and slipped the backpack beneath her knees, raising her feet. Pulling some supplies from the paramedic bag, Katie cleaned Birdie’s face of blood and wrapped some gauze around her nose, although the bleeding appeared to have stopped. Finally, she popped a chemical ice pack and placed it on Birdie’s face. Katie stood and glanced over at Skip who continued to scream and bleed.
The part of her that was his victim wanted to leave him bleeding, let his life force ebb into the dirt, but the paramedic in her wouldn’t allow that. She was responsible for him now, even though she felt her skin crawl as she reached for him.
“Hey,” Katie yelled at Skip. “Don’t move, I have to stop your bleeding.” She caught his uninjured arm and twisted it, rolling him on his side. Unbuckling his belt, Katie pulled it like the starter cord on a lawn mower, unconcerned with the torque she applied to his body, then used it to tie a tourniquet tight around his right arm, below the elbow. Pulling the paramedic bag closer to Skip, she turned to see Buster struggling to his feet, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water, small noises coming from his throat. He glanced up at Katie and she saw raw terror in his eyes.
Katie strode toward Buster and he tried to crawl away from her in panic, blood foaming on his lips. “What?” she shouted, anger rising to the surface. “You think you can outrun me like that?”
Katie walked up behind him, placed her boot on his ass, and pushed, knocking his naked body back to the ground, the knife still sticking from his ribs. He fell on his side, his face forming a silent scream, but only a bubbly whistling noise and a soft groan emitted from Buster’s mouth.
Katie leaned in close to his face and waited until he looked at her, her hands shaking with fury. “What to do?” Katie asked herself out loud. “What to do? What to do? Do I let you bleed to death out here in the woods where there are no witnesses? Do I see how many holes I can make in you? What are you most afraid of me doing to you, Buster?”
She stared hard at him, then calmed herself.
“Stay down,” she told him, straightening up and brushing at her uniform. “And don’t touch that knife, you’ll bleed out.” Buster rolled onto his back, cowering and protecting his face with his hands. With the medical supplies, Katie went back and wrapped up Skip’s stump, then carried the bag to Buster and placed a thick, waxy bandage around the blade of the knife, making an airtight seal. Buster silently screamed with every rough touch to his wound. Working professionally, she tried to push her emotions away, allowing her to patch them up without throwing up again. She then took Buster by the foot and dragged him across the dirt until he was lying beside Skip, so she could watch them both easily.
Katie saw that Birdie was looking at her and waving her hand to bring Katie closer.
“How many?” Birdie asked.
“What?” Katie leaned closer to hear her better.
“How many women have they done this to?” Birdie said, her words slurred by the swelling of her lips.
Katie sat back on her feet. She had forgotten. Remembering that there had been other women suddenly sent a chill down her spine.
Katie stood up and grabbed the shotgun. She took a few steps until she stood over Skip. “How many women have you done this to?” she asked.
“Fuck you.” Skip spat at her.
The cold that had stabbed into her heart released a ball of anger. Racking another round into the chamber, Katie pointed the shotgun at Skip’s right foot. Pulling his feet beneath him, he curled into a fetal position, squealing, “No.”
“I’ll take both your feet, if I want,” Katie growled. “How many women before us?”
Birdie turned her head to see.
“Thirty-one,” he whimpered.
Katie’s index finger moved from the side of the trigger guard onto the trigger, settling the butt of the shotgun into her shoulder. She pointed the barrel at Skip’s face, close enough that she knew she couldn’t miss. She wanted to pull the trigger, with all her heart, but she glanced at Birdie and their eyes locked. She lowered the long gun and Birdie nodded.
Katie took a deep breath.
“Call for help,” Birdie said, in an oddly calm voice.
Katie went to Birdie’s gun belt and pulled the radio from its holder. She called Cary Valley Base a few times until she received a response. Relieved, Katie asked for emergency medical crews, additional rangers, park investigators and the FBI. Katie’s voice seemed to be coming from someone else, the words so far away she almost couldn’t hear them.
Radio still in hand, Katie leaned the shotgun against a tree and set the gun belt down beside it. Sitting down next to Birdie, Katie took her roommate’s hand and held it.
“I’m sorry,” Katie told Birdie.
“What are you sorry for?” Birdie mumbled through her swelling.
“I threw up.” Katie lowered her head.
“I thought you did that on purpose,” Birdie sounded surprised. “As a distraction.”
“No, I didn’t even know I was going to throw up.” She rubbed her face with her hands.
“Were you planning on doing something?” Birdie asked.
“I was going to bite his dick off,” Katie told her.
Birdie made a gagging noise. “No wonder you threw up.”
“Thirty-one women before us. And none of them fought back?” Katie asked.
“And if they did? They were normal women, alone, outnumbered and outgunned,” Birdie responded. “What chance did they have?”
“But you’re no normal woman,” Katie said. “You’re a bad-ass motherfucker, they never had a chance with you. I’m sorry I held you back.”
“How did you hold me back?” Birdie looked at her, her brows knitted with concern. “And stop calling me a bad-ass motherfucker.”
“When they first took us, you would have done something, but they kept the gun on me. If you did anything, they would have killed me,” Katie explained.
Birdie shook her head. “If you weren’t here, I would have been killed in a shootout at the very beginning. I couldn’t allow them to take me alone.” Birdie turned her head toward Katie. “I’m a normal woman, too, but because you were with me, I was never outnumbered, never outgunned. I only survived because you were here.”
Katie started to cry as the realization that she was safe washed over her. Her body shook with sobs.
“I know,” Birdie told her, gripping her hand tightly. “I know.”
The rest of the afternoon became a blur of activity with rangers arriving, accompanied by sheriff’s deputies and park investigators, and finally FBI agents in suits. Katie walked beside Birdie as rangers wheeled her in a litter to a clearing where a helicopter took them both to the Sutter Health Trauma Center in Modesto, to be treated. While Katie waited, lying on a bed in the triage area, stripped of her uniform and covered by heated blankets, a short, thin man in a slim fit suit, properly tailored and impeccably kept, pulled aside the curtain and asked if he could come in.
“Sure,” Katie told him.
“Ranger Katie, I presume,” he said, extending a hand. “I’m Special Agent Rodney Webster, FBI. I read your statement.”
“How can I help you, Agent Webster?” Katie asked, hesitant. Knowing that Birdie had stabbed a man in the lung and that she, herself, had blown a man’s hand off with a shotgun gave her pause, wondering who was actually being investigated here.
“I had stopped in to give Ranger McLaren an update, but she seems a little out of it.” The agent shrugged his shoulders. “She kept talking to me about feeding her dog. That’s not my area.” He laughed awkwardly.
Katie didn’t laugh, just stared at him until he stopped. Webster coughed and cleared his throat. “I thought you should know that we have agents searching Bobby Curtis’s condo. The guy who called himself ‘Skip.’ So far, they’ve found videos labeled with the names of his victims. The other man, ‘Buster,’ is Drew Burton, a personal trainer. We haven’t found his residence yet. We’ve connected these men to eleven active homicide investigations and at least seventeen missing persons reports.” Webster put his hands in his pockets, signifying that he had run out of information.
Katie nodded. “And what does this mean for me?” Her expression blank, trying to give her best poker face.
Webster’s eyebrows raised as his eyes widened. “It means that you and Ranger McLaren are a pair of bad-ass bitches, no offense, and I wouldn’t want to go up against the pair of you without a SWAT team.” He shook his head. “You’ve solved twenty-eight murders, that we know of, possibly more once we dig into Burton’s past. Expect a commendation from my director.” He turned to go, but paused. “I hope you and Ranger McLaren feel better soon.”
Katie fell back into the bed and stared at the ceiling. Videos of thirty-one women, maybe more made her heart ache. She rolled onto her side and felt a tear fall across her cheek to the bed. She wasn’t sure if it was for the victims or because it turned out that today, she was a bad-ass motherfucker, just like Birdie.
Copyright Wes Blalock 2020