Chapter 1 The Midges and Me
It was like standing under a waterfall. My rain hat was battered down around my ears by the plus size raindrops. Water plunged off the rim, struck the front of my poncho, and pinged back up at my face. Both my shoes and my spirits were not just dampened, but sodden. Water cascaded down my rain pants, bypassed my trail gaiters, and went directly into my hiking boots. Once inside, it did not seep out. Not quite what I’d had in mind when I’d purchased the expensive waterproof footwear.
To top it off, I was surrounded by a swarm of midges, tiny vampire bugs that had no business being out in a downpour. They hung there, inches from my face, waiting for my DEET to wash off. One thing for sure, I wouldn’t be sending any selfies back to friends from this hike.
I had definitely chosen the wrong friend and the wrong season for a hiking trip to Scotland. Sophie’s been my best friend since high school. She and I had decided it would be fun to explore some remote hills and lochs in Scotland, maybe venture into the Highlands region. We’d planned to spend most of our time on day hikes, staying in what we envisioned to be quaint villages along the way. We had our passports in hand, our reservations set, our schedules adjusted, pet care arranged, and I had even purchased a satellite communicator with 100% global coverage. But at the last minute, Sophie wanted to postpone. Why? Because Sophie has men issues.
When we were younger Sophie went through men like there was an endless supply. She didn’t have a “type.” She liked variety. After a disastrous marriage in her twenties, she went back to playing the field. I gave up trying to remember names and labeled each one “Sophie’s latest.” That continued into our thirties, until she hit thirty-five. Then she started looking for “the” one, the one she intended to spend the rest of her life with. And, unfortunately, she met her most recent potentially perfect someone a week before we were scheduled to take off on our adventure, and she didn’t want to risk leaving during this “critical time” in their relationship. She was sorry and hoped I understood. I did, but I was also angry. So, I damn well decided to go on the trip without her.
How was I to know Scotland had a midge season? Sophie had done most of the planning. Not only had she failed to mention the midges, she had also omitted the fact that we would be hiking in an area the guidebook referred to as “one of the wettest places in Scotland.” Okay, so I should have helped more with the itinerary. But Sophie is a take-charge kind of woman, and I’d been more than happy to let her handle the details.
So, there I was, hiking by myself in the rain, regretting that I hadn’t had the good sense to read the guidebooks before I’d hopped on the plane.
After slogging up a steep incline for about fifteen minutes, I stopped to catch my breath at the edge of a deep, narrow ravine. Although the landscape seemed barren compared to what I was used to back home, the hillside was covered with a tangle of bracken and plush groundcovers. At the bottom a few stunted trees hugged a stream that ran through the middle of the gorge and disappeared around a bend to my left. Directly below were some huge boulders that looked like they had been tossed there by a giant as ravine art.
There was also something else down there. Something that didn’t quite belong.
I blinked the rainwater out of my eyes and peered through the veil of bugs. Just this side of one of the large boulders was something that looked suspiciously . . . like a person. A person sprawled on the ground. And the angle of repose did not look natural.
“Dammit,” I said. Why me? Why had I stopped and looked down at those boulders? Now I was morally bound to find out what or who I was looking at. But dammit all, the last thing I wanted to do in a downpour was climb down a steep hillside to check out what could turn out to be a pile of clothes someone had tossed over the edge. On the other hand, if that was a person down there, they were either injured or dead. That was certainly a lot worse than being wet and buggy.
On the off chance there were fellow hikers nearby, I shouted: “Anybody there? Can anyone hear me?”
Not surprisingly, no one responded. I hadn’t seen another human being since I left the car park. Even the car park had been nearly empty. Anyone with an ounce of sense was safely in their home or a hotel room or in a pub, relaxing in a comfortable chair, dry and warm, with the midges hovering outside instead of scant inches away. There wasn’t anyone else; it was all up to me. I had to find a way down. And clearly it wasn’t going to be easy. Perhaps even dangerous. I could fall and end up next to whoever or whatever it was down there. Damn, damn, damn. Why me I asked myself again.
Before starting the descent, I checked my cell just to verify there was no reception. It didn’t really matter; there was no one to call for advice, and I had a satellite communicator. But I didn’t want to use my satellite communicator until I knew what kind of help was needed, if any. If my “person” turned out to be a dump site, I wouldn’t need to call the Mountain Rescue Team. And if there was an actual person down there, I needed to know what the situation was before making the call.
Damn. I’d already broken cardinal rule #1 – never hike alone in an isolated area. Now I was about to break rule #2 – always stay on well-defined paths. But what choice did I have?
Reluctantly, I started down on a traverse, as if I were skiing instead of making my way through a mass of slippery rocks and wet foliage. In my head I could hear my mother’s voice telling me that you didn’t avoid doing the right thing just because it was difficult. “All right, Mom,” I said as I waved my arms to ward off the midges. “I’m on my way.”
Slowly, I angled back and forth, clinging to any shrubs that I didn’t trip on, using the occasional rock to keep from sliding sideways. My thighs protested against the strain of maintaining my balance on the steep slope, but I somehow managed to stay on my feet and make slow but steady progress.
It seemed to take forever. The midges hovered even closer, as if preparing to devour my corpse as soon as the opportunity presented itself. I was so relieved to finally reach the bottom that I relaxed my vigilance too soon and promptly caught the toe of my shoe on a vine, falling face first in some moss studded with brambles. It’s surprising how hard moss can be with a 25pound pack pressing you down, a pack filled with the hiking essentials Sophie had insisted we needed to have with us. Meanwhile, she was back in Seattle, warm and dry, thousands of miles away from the nearest midge. I lay there for a few minutes, cursing Sophie, the rain, the midges, and myself for being there in the first place.
As I struggled to my feet, I thought I saw movement in the stand of pines to my right. Of course, between the rain pounding my hat and my own ragged breathing, I wouldn’t even have been able to hear a herd of wild sheep thundering by. I only had one sense to rely on. So, I stood there watching, waiting for something or someone to burst out from the greenery. But nothing happened. Were there deer in the area? Or something more dangerous, like bears? Or was my imagination working overtime?
Finally, I gave up waiting for something to emerge from the trees and started walking toward what, as I drew nearer, looked more and more like a body. Although I was still hoping it wasn’t. For me as well as for the potential victim.
The rain suddenly let up and most of the midges vanished with it. I didn’t question why; I just reveled in the reprieve as I approached the figure that had lured me to the bottom of the ravine. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t blinking. His brown knit cap had a tear on the side with dark stains around the gap. If there had been more blood earlier, the rain had washed it away. He was wearing a green windbreaker, jeans and sneakers, his body twisted to one side with his right leg stuck out at an awkward angle. I had no doubt he was dead but forced myself to kneel down and check his neck for vitals.
His backpack was on the ground about five feet away. That struck me as an odd, but not impossible scenario. It could have fallen off toward the end of his descent, landing nearby. Maybe he had been taking something out of it when he fell, holding on until just before he slammed up against the boulder. The impact could have caused it to fly out of his hands. Or maybe an animal dragged it away.
I got up and went over to the charcoal grey backpack. It was damp but not damaged as far as I could see. The small compartment in front was partially unzipped. Kneeling down, I unzipped it the rest of the way and looked inside. There was a wallet and keys. I hesitated for a moment, wondering whether I should be going through his belongings. Then I decided it was more important to find out the identity of the backpack’s owner than to worry about his privacy. I removed his driver’s license and stared at the picture. It was a perfect match for the young man lying next to the boulder. I had found the body of Jared Blaine. Male, 5-11, 175 pounds, brown eyes. Then I noted his address.
He was from Seattle.
Amazing. What were the odds of finding the body of someone from your hometown on another continent?
There were a few business cards in the second slot in his wallet. I put his driver’s license back and slipped one of the business cards out, then froze. My back was to the stand of trees. It was quiet now that the rain had stopped, and I thought I’d heard something. Just what, I wasn’t sure. I waited a few seconds and didn’t hear anything more. But something felt wrong. And I had a long time ago learned to act on instinct. I quickly put the wallet back in the pack and slipped the business card into my pocket. Then I got up and casually looked around before starting off in the direction of where the stream disappeared around the bend.
Trying not to appear as though I was running away, I didn’t look back until I reached the cover of a stunted pine tree. Then I casually glanced over my shoulder, just a hiker checking where they had come from, not someone who feared they were being followed.
No humans or animals appeared to be stalking me. There was nothing between me and the body but an expanse of ground-hugging greenery. I felt foolish for getting spooked. But not so foolish that I’d changed my mind about continuing on. Jared Blaine would still be dead when I felt comfortable enough to stop and contact the authorities.