A plume of dust settled onto the hood of Ladd Reedy’s 1963 Dodge W200 pickup, turning the normally turquoise surface into a combination of brown and Mississippi clay red. Shutting off the engine, he reached back and ran his fingers through Baxter’s soft fur, netting him a slobbery kiss.
Hopping out of the truck, Ladd tossed his hardhat inside and grabbed his favorite ball cap. Several years ago, it had borne the insignia for his squad, but the letters had long faded. It was old, worn and ragged, but he wouldn’t part with it for the world. He’d wear it until it fell apart, and then it would be put away with all his other memories – both the good and the bad. Quickly he jammed it onto his brown hair and adjusted it.
Opening the back door of the truck, he tapped his thigh. “Come on, Bax, time to get to work.”
Obediently, the sixty-pound mixed hound hopped down and sat at Ladd’s thigh, gazing up at him in complete adoration. Ladd reached inside the truck and pulled out a bright yellow backpack with orange stripes down the side. Immediately, Baxter’s tail began wagging, and he yipped happily.
“That’s right, we’re going hunting,” Ladd told him then squatted down. Taking out a vest of the same bright yellow and orange, he pulled it over Baxter’s head and fastened the straps around his chest. Across the side, MSART stood out in bright, reflective letters. Ladd attached the lead then gave the dog another scratch behind the ears. He stood, put on his own vest, and then the backpack. Closing the door, he led Baxter to a small tent where several people gathered.
“Ladd! Good, glad you could come. We’re going to need Baxter’s nose. Do you know if anyone else from MSART is coming?” Sheriff Thomas Holliway called out.
Tom and Ladd had attended the same high school in the small town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi just north of Vicksburg. However, they hadn’t operated in the same circles. Tom had been a couple of years ahead of Ladd and a jock whereas Ladd never cared much for sports, opting for working with his hands. Nonetheless, it was good to work with someone he at least knew at these things.
“Hey, Tom. Yeah, Josh is bringing Rugby, and I’m pretty sure Amanda and Cassidy are on the way with horses. I haven’t heard from the rest. I did see Nicole and her drone team are already here.”
“Yes, I already talked to her. She’s setting up by the house,” Tom answered. “I’m glad she could make it. It’s going to be slow going on foot because of the thick undergrowth.” He pointed to the forest behind him. “You know how it can get out in the county. Lots of kudzu to worry with.”
“A little kudzu can’t stop Bax.” Ladd crouched down and scratched Baxter’s head. “Right, boy?”
The dog barked in agreement before leaning into his ministrations.
Tom chuckled and turned his attention back to the business at hand. Motioning to the map taped to the side of a van, Tom pointed to an area outlined in red. “This is our search zone. Aggie Bennet is a seventy-five-year-old woman with dementia. Her daughter woke up this morning to find her missing and the back door unlocked. We found a house-shoe about twenty yards away from where the woods start.” He turned around. “I can’t express the importance of finding Mrs. Bennet as quickly as possible. The temperature today has hovered in the upper eighties. She has no shelter, no water and dehydration can set in quickly. Not to mention, the snags and rocks can turn an ankle or break a leg. We’re going to do a grid search starting directly behind the house and working our way outward. Stay in visual contact with the people on each side of you; we don’t want to miss any areas. Be careful of snakes – they’re bad this year. Each team has their radio and GPS on and calibrated? Okay, people, let’s get out there and find her. You each have your team number and grid areas. Ladd, I have some of Mrs. Bennet’s things for Baxter.”
The crowd dispersed, breaking up into teams, each following a deputy into the forest. Immediately, calls of, “Aggie Bennet” filled the air as the searchers disappeared into the woods.
Tom brought out a plastic bag containing a house shoe and a shirt. The two men walked to the edge of the woods and stopped. “Here’s where we found the shoe.” Pulling the items out, he handed them over. “Really glad to have Mississippi Search and Rescue Team on this one. I have a bad feeling if we don’t find her soon, it’s not going to be good.”
Ladd nodded. “Yeah, this heat is bad. Mississippi humidity can wither a strong man in hours. Can’t imagine how bad it is for her.” He took the items and let Baxter smell them. “You got the scent? Do ya, boy?” Baxter sneezed and started sniffing around. Ladd handed the items back. “I’ll let you know if we find anything. When Rugby gets here, have him start around front. She may have meandered around.”
Quickly, he removed the lead and lifted Baxter’s head, looking into his eyes. “Let’s go find the nice lady, Bax. Hunt!”
Immediately, Baxter put his nose to the ground and began smelling around. Ladd followed as the dog meandered all over the area, chasing one lead and then another. Finally, he stopped a few feet into the brush and smelled the ground several times. Lifting his head, he barked then took off as quickly as he could with Ladd in tow.
The brush was thick, just as Tom promised, full of roots, fallen branches, and dense bushes. Ladd shook his head sadly. Once the mid-summer heat baked this area, all of this tinder would be ripe for a wildfire. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
Turning his mind back to the task at hand, he watched Baxter as he fought his way through the rough brush and brambles. How did an elderly lady get through this? It made no sense, yet Baxter’s nose was never wrong. After several moments, Baxter began to move in circles – a sure sign he had lost the trail. Damn.
“Check-in,” the radio clipped to Ladd’s side chirped.
“Search one, negative.”
“Search two, negative.”
Each of the search teams reported their findings. “MSART one, negative,” Ladd answered at the end.
“MSART two, negative,” Josh’s voice came over the radio.
“MSART three, negative,” Amanda’s sing-song voice answered.
Hearing his friends helped loosen a bit of the tension between his shoulder blades. The more searchers there, the better the chances were of finding Aggie alive.
Crouching, Ladd rubbed Baxter’s head then gave him a drink of water in a collapsible bowl. When he finished, Ladd dumped out the remains and stowed the bowl. Taking a swig from the bottle, he returned it to his pack. Standing, he looked down at the dog. “Break’s over. Baxter, hunt!”
With tail wagging, Baxter put his nose to the ground and sniffed. Moving in ever-widening circles, he soon disappeared into the undergrowth.
After a half hour, the radio crackled to life again. “There’s something about two miles in,” Nicole reported. “One of the drones has eyes on what looks like a shack. MSART one, you’re closest. I’m sending you the coordinates. Can you check it out?”
“Roger,” Ladd replied. “Baxter, heel.”
Immediately, the brush in front of Ladd moved and swayed. Baxter’s nose poked from under a huge honeysuckle vine. Tongue lolling out, he yipped happily at Ladd then sat at his feet.
Snapping on the lead, he checked the coordinates then led Baxter through the woods to the spot one of the drones had found. It took several minutes to traverse the terrain, and Baxter’s lead got tangled up more than once, but after a while, they arrived on the scene.
The building, if one could call it that, was little more than a ten-foot square box with no windows and one door. The roof was made of rusted tin, and the walls of ancient wood weathered to a light gray. Thorns and vines meandered up the sides and roof, making it blend into the background. A lightly worn path led to the door that hanged on rusted hinges opened less than an inch.
Every hair on Ladd’s neck and arms shot straight up as a chill ran up his back. At his side, Baxter had taken a spot between his master and the building, hackles up and growling softly. Whatever was inside had them both on edge. Ladd prayed if it were Aggie, they had gotten there in time.
Placing his hand on the door, Ladd started to push when the silence was shattered by Josh’s excited voice. “Target’s found! Repeat, the target’s found! She’s alive. Sending coordinates.”
The radio blasted the good news from his belt. Pulling it off, he waited until chatter died down. “Congrats, Josh. Rugby getting a steak tonight?”
“You betcha. See ya’ll back at the command post.” Ladd could almost hear his friend grinning through the airwaves.
“All teams return to base,” Tom commanded.
Each team acknowledged. Turning around, he started walking back the three miles to command, but stopped abruptly when the lead didn’t move. Looking over his shoulder, Baxter was still eyeing the building, on point, and growling.
For the first time, his best friend and search partner ignored him.
Swearing under his breath, he returned to the dog’s side. “What’s got you all riled up?” He tried to soothe the ruffled fur, but Baxter wasn’t having it. Instead, he took a step closer to the building and growled louder.
“Alright, we’ll take a look,” Ladd muttered as he pulled a flashlight out of his backpack. “Baxter, heel.”
This time, the dog stood next to Ladd’s leg but kept his eye on the building. Together, they approached the door and gently pushed it open.
“Hello? Anyone in here?” Ladd called out. “Mississippi Search and Rescue Team.” He knocked on the door for good measure.
There was no answer. Looking down at Baxter, he noticed the fur on his hackles was still up; however, the growl was almost non-existent. Pushing the door open more, he stuck his head in, “Hello?”
The floor of the shack was made of concrete still white enough to look freshly poured. The walls were white as well and made of some type of stucco. Overhead, the ceiling was made of drywall, carefully painted white as well. In the center of the ceiling, an elaborate chandelier hung dripping with crystals that reflected the flashlight into a thousand tiny rainbows. In one corner, a new generator sat along with several containers of what looked to be gasoline.
Ladd frowned. Why would someone take the time to create such a clean and cozy interior for a rundown shack in the middle of the woods?
Stepping inside, he swung the flashlight around, trying to understand the building, when the light caught on something hanging on the wall next to the door. Turning around, he stared at the item. What was this? Scrutiny turned to shock when realization dawned on him. There were faces – at least a dozen all set in some sort of acrylic or resin. The faces themselves were gray and grainy, like made from sand or ash, but each one was framed on each side by a set of ears - human ears, perfectly preserved in the medium. At first, he thought they were painted or maybe sculpted, but a closer inspection disproved that idea. There were pores and tiny fine hairs. Chills flew up his spine as he realized these were human remains. Looking down, he noticed a narrow table with several items on it, including a jar of the gray sand-like stuff, a white block with indentions in it and a small box containing some murky liquid. Shining his light inside, he drew back in horror when he recognized two more ears settled on the bottom.
A stream of curses flew from his mouth as he hurried Baxter out of the building. Leaning against the corner of the shack, he swallowed hard to keep from losing what was left of his lunch. Taking several minutes to get himself together he took a few breaths. With trembling fingers, he pulled his radio off.
“Tom? Tom, are you there?”
“Roger, MSART one. What’s your position?”
“Tom, Get over here. Bring people.”
“Where? Get who?”
“Anyone. Everyone. Geezus, Tom, it’s a nightmare. You need to send every damn person you can.”