Thick fog moved in off the Alabama River about half an hour after the mysterious stranger left me in the protective circle I’d made with salt. The fog was so thick that I couldn’t see more than 10 feet from the spot where I stood, but the dark woods began to lighten a little with the rising sun. Oddly, the sounds of the birds and insects returned almost the instant the man passed over the top of the slope.
My wristwatch chimed the hour of 6 a.m. and even though I couldn’t see the sun, I knew it had risen a bit over the horizon. Emboldened by the new light and the feel of the loaded Beretta in my hand, I took one last look around and stepped out of the circle of salt. The fog had thinned, but visibility was still limited. I looked around for what felt like a long time, shouldered my backpack and retraced the stranger’s path.
I walked up the hill as quiet as I could manage, but it was difficult because of the thick leaves under foot. I saw no sign of the stranger’s passage but had a general idea of which way he’d gone. A couple of minutes later, I reached the top of the hill and surveyed the area.
The woods stretch off into the distance, and even though I couldn’t see it, I knew that my truck sat beside the road about a quarter-mile to the southeast of where I stood. The fog was thinner here, and I couldn’t help but feel that something was a little off. I felt certain that I was being watched, and I scanned the woods for several minutes in search of anything out of the ordinary.
Suddenly and without warning, a riverboat let loose with a long low blast from its foghorn and sent a jolt of uneasy surprise down my spine. It was in that moment that I glanced over my shoulder to the left, and something in the distance caught my eye. Whatever it was, it was about 50 yards away and obscured by the fog.
The object that caught my eye was at the base of a large oak tree. Even when I walked right up to it, it took me a few seconds to wrap my mind around what was before me. Propped against the tree’s trunk was an old walking stick. Its handle was made from a brownish-white deer antler, and the tip of the cane also appeared to be made from animal bone.
On the ground at the base of the tree were a pair of eyeglasses, some clothes, a single boot and a billfold. The clothes consisted of what looked like a clean pair of pants and a shirt, and they were neatly folded at the base of the tree. I picked up the billfold, saw that it didn’t contain any cash and fished out the owner’s driver’s license. Even though I should have suspected it, I was surprised to read that the wallet belonged to Dr. Albert Gruner, the biology professor who’d gone missing over a week ago.
As I thought about the $10,000 reward his wife had issued for information about his disappearance, another item that I hadn’t immediately noticed caught my eye. I squatted, picked the object up with a small stick and dropped it back to the ground when I realized that it was someone’s dentures. They were shiny clean.
I stood, threw the stick aside and brushed off my hands. An instant later, I jumped with a start when my ears were met by the sound of a cocking revolver and a deep voice behind me in the fog that ordered me to drop my Beretta. “Claiborne police. Make one wrong move and I’ll blow your head off,” the voice said.
(All rights reserved. This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.)