Again, apologies if you’ve read this before. I’m rearranging chapters of Victor & Hugo
Hugo sat in Charlene’s office, arms crossed with his chin down on his chest. Charlene was slouched in her chair, staring out the window. The pistol that was by the skeleton lay on the desk between them. Hugo raised his head and looked at Charlene. This woman, who he genuinely admired, and for whom, he had to admit, he had a bit of a crush; this wonderful woman had shocked and disappointed him.
“I’m just gonna say it,” he said. “I don’t understand what made you to take the gun.”
Charlene shrugged. “Neither do I.”
“Were you going to show Larry? I mean, why show me? What are you going to do with it? I…” Hugo paused, “Shit. I don’t know.”
“Oh, c’mon! Don’t be angry,” Charlene pleaded. “Yes, it was stupid, but it’s not like I tampered with a murder scene, or something.”
Hugo put up a hand as he stood up, “Hey, you know, whatever. All I gotta say is, it’s a good thing Larry isn’t here.” He started to make his way to the door, but stopped. “I just don’t…Charlene, I don’t want you to get in trouble, is all.”
“Nobody’s getting in trouble.”
“You don’t know that,” Hugo cautioned. He let out a loud sigh and started again for the door.
“Hey, now wait,” Charlene said, suddenly desperate to stop Hugo from walking out on her. She hated herself for letting him down.
“OK, you’re right,” she said. “You’re absolutely right. I should go back up there and put it back.”
Hugo nodded, “Agreed.”
“OK. I’ll put it back. Of course,” she said. “But, can this stay just between us?”
“Sure. You bet,” Hugo quickly replied. “I still don’t get why you took it in the first place, but sure. I won’t say a thing to anyone.”
“Right. OK, then. Thanks. I appreciate it. And I’ll put it back,” Charlene concluded. “I’ll take it with me tonight and on my way in tomorrow, I’ll go back up there and put it back exactly where I found it.”
Hugo smiled. “Better yet,” he said, looking at his watch, “it won’t be sunset for a couple or more hours, so if we leave now, we can make it there and back before it gets too dark. C’mon. We’ll take my truck.”
They drove for a while lost in their own thoughts before Charlene opened up. “Ya know, Hugo, I don’t think we will be able to use finding this old skeleton for our purposes.”
Hugo was confused. “Why not?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s smart to get the agency all wrapped up in some long, drawn out legal whateverness. I know Larry’d agree with me.”
“But, isn’t that the point? I mean, if they prove the skeleton is that man who had the title way back when, and they go to court, and it’s this long legal battle like the Sheriff said, doesn’t that keep Hixon from going ahead with their plans for the mine?”
“Yes, but, it’s not the ideal way to go for us. It’d be better if we came up with something lasting, that can’t be contested, like we originally planned. We really ought to keep with the endangered or threatened species angle.”
“OK, I mean, it’s yours and Larry’s call, but it seems like time’s running out.”
“Well, then we better hope that skeleton turns out to be Ol’ Vic Samuels, ‘cause that’ll buy us some time to keep looking.”
Hugo shook his head. “I don’t know. If that is Ol’ Vic, and if they all end up in court duking it out, you can bet none of them are going to allow folks like us, or anyone else for that matter, up there pokin’ around.” Hugo paused. “We’d just be going up against the owners instead of Hixon, is all.”
Hugo turned to look at Charlene, who was gazing at him with a big smile. He blushed a bit and quickly returned his attention to the road to hide his own smile.
“So,” Charlene said, “let’s not waste any time! Let’s get back to the original plan and hope we find something we can use before anything else happens.”
Hugo drove farther up the logging road than he had the day before, figuring they could shave some time off their hike if he parked his truck as close as possible to the marker pile of rocks. When he and Charlene agreed to drive out here, it seemed like a good idea, but since then Hugo questioned his wisdom. Hikers and climbers with far more experience than they had gotten themselves lost in these woods before, and neither he nor Charlene could be considered anything more than a couple of outdoor enthusiasts. Furthermore, neither of them was wearing warm clothes, or were equipped with anything other than a couple of standard-issue flashlights. So, the quicker they completed their mission, the better. If they kept up a good pace on the way there and back, and kept their focus on the task at hand and didn’t dink-around, they’d have just enough sunlight to make it back to the truck before it turned to dusk.
As they hiked up the foothill, Charlene became increasingly aware of the weight of the gun in her backpack. Had she not gone and done this stupid thing in the first place, they’d not be in this situation, working against waning sunlight, trying to put things right with the hopes no one would ever know what she had done. More importantly, she would not have damaged Hugo’s good opinion of her. She liked him, perhaps more than a boss should an employee. He’d been quick to forgive her, but she hoped her poor judgement had not ultimately changed the dynamic between them.
As they came to the final crest that looked out over the clearing where Hugo found the skeleton resting against the tree, they abruptly stopped, just as they had that morning with the Sheriff and the Deputy, only this time it was because they didn’t see the skeleton, nor the rifle or the whiskey bottle. None of it was there.
They flew into a panic. “Check your coordinates,” Charlene snapped, “are you sure we’re in the right spot?!”
“Yes, yes! Totally sure! I know this is the place. Has to be!” Hugo looked around. “I mean, it’s gotta be! Look,” he said pointing over to their left, “there’s that old mother log,” and, pointing a little to their right, “there’s that boulder.” Hugo walked over to the boulder to peer around it. “Exactly! There’s a little drop-off right on the other side.”
He walked back to Charlene, who stood dumbfounded, wildly casting her eyes all over the clearing. “Do you think someone came back here and took everything already? You know, to examine it?” Charlene asked.
“I don’t know. That seems awfully fast. Sheriff didn’t say anything about who they’d call, but I don’t think there’s anyone in this county qualified to do a proper forensic investigation. They’d have to call up to Boise, or Spokane,” Hugo thought aloud. “I mean, usually, when someone is found dead, it seems like I usually read in the paper that the Sheriff’s office brings in one of the city investigation teams.”
Charlene’s eyes were wide and desperate, “But you are absolutely sure we’re in the right spot. We couldn’t have veered off one way or the other. Maybe we should go a little ways over there,” she said pointing back left, “just to make sure.”
“I’m really sure we’re in the right spot. I know I saw that log and this boulder,” Hugo stated reassuringly. “These are the coordinates on the GPS.”
If Hugo was absolutely sure they were in the right place, then none of it made any sense. Who would take the skeleton? Maybe the Deputy or the Sheriff told someone from one of the families. Or, maybe they came back and cleared everything out so no one could prove who the skeleton was. But, why the hell do that when Charlene and Hugo are witnesses who saw it?
She looked up at the sky. The sun was low, but still high enough. “Let’s take a moment to look around, just here, in the immediate area, see what we might be able to find.”
“What are we looking for?” Hugo asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” she said. “Something. Anything that indicates the skeleton was here, I guess.”
“And what do we do with the pistol?”
“I don’t know. I can’t think. Just…help me look.”
They started wandering around the site, their eyes focused on the ground and the spot against the tree where Hugo found the skeleton. The dirt, pine needles, pine cones and bits of grass looked strangely undisturbed.
Hugo looked at the section of the tree where the rifle had been propped up. Trees are curious things. If a foreign object gets in its way as it grows, like a big rock, or a knife that someone stabbed into the trunk and left there because they couldn’t get it back out, the tree will simply grow around the object, incorporate it as part of itself, as if it was slowly trying to swallow it. For a rifle to have been leaning up against a tree for over 100 years and not fall over while the tree grew, meant there would have to be some clear evidence that some of the trunk had grown around at least part of it. Hugo looked all around the base of the tree, but the bark bore no special marks, cracks or breaks exposing the wood underneath, as it would if something had been ripped from it.
He then moved to the spot where he’d seen the whisky bottle. That bit of ground surely would have grass burn, or be free of forest floor debris. It definitely would be teaming with bugs, and the soil would be a damp from decades of trapped water under the bottle. But he found nothing. No obvious evidence that something, anything had been lying there for 100 years.
“Charlene, it’s getting too dark,” Hugo said, his voice strained with stress. “These rinky-dink flashlights I had in the truck aren’t going to do a helluva lot of good on our way back. We’ve got to go before it gets any darker.”
“Yeah, OK.” Charlene hesitated. “What the fuck do I do with the pistol?”
“Leave it. Just set it down by the tree,” Hugo urged. “Let’s wipe in down, just in case, and…”
“No! That’ll make it even more obvious, if we remove a century’s worth of dirt and whatever else would be on it!”
Hugo stepped right into Charlene’s face and took a firm grasp on her arm. “I’m just going to say this. You already saw to it to make things obvious when you decided to take the gun in the first place. You’ve probably shaken all that residue off already, taking it in and out of your backpack.”
Hugo kept his gaze steady on her. Charlene was too startled by his sudden commanding presence to respond. Sensing her confusion, Hugo backed off a bit.
“Please, Charlene, I’m feeling very, very weird about all of this. The fact that the skeleton is gone, that there’s absolutely no evidence it was here in the first place, that it’s already too dark to make it all the way to back to the truck with any hope there’ll still be some twilight to help us find our way….Please, wipe the damn thing off or not, whatever, but please, please, just leave it by the tree and let’s get the fuck out of here. Now. We can discuss what to do next on the drive back.”