Jack Dolan has spent almost thirty years solving homicides in Denver, his uncanny ability to speak to the dead learned from his aged mentor whom other cops refer to as Old Grim because of his incredible solve rate. For almost as long, Jack has repressed his sexuality, fearing discovery and likely ostracism from his fellow cops…except for one with whom he long ago severed a loving relationship. When Jack retires to the mountains of Colorado, he discovers the bodies of two young men, naked and bludgeoned to death in a recess off a rutted horse path which he eventually refers to simply as The Place. All of his training, everything he learned from Old Grim is put to the test to find out what happened to the young men… including a call to the man he once loved.
Late spring and through the first summer that Shy had taken up residence on Jack’s seven acres, the Pinecone Lodge horse wrangler named Tyler showed up at about four p.m. three days a week. During the first few visits, he made sure the geld had healed, and then he began to deal with the horse’s temperament, which wasn’t good. Tyler had already schooled Jack on feeding and basic care and had helped construct a metal round pen for training, cautioning Jack that the horse wasn’t a puppy dog and shouldn’t be treated like one.
“He’s fearful, is all,” Tyler had said after the first time he’d managed to get a rope halter on Shy and dealt with the nervous squeals, stomps, rearing, and tugging on the lead rope. Tyler dug his heels into the ground while calmly saying, “Whoa now. Whoa…”
Jack watched it all, and during subsequent sessions, Tyler patiently and without a word raised in anger, dealt with Shy’s left and right side fears and anxiousness to the point, by the dog days of August, Shy was walking, trotting, cantering on cue, and coming to Tyler when he pursed his lips and kissed.
“You got to work both sides of him separately,” Tyler told Jack when he brought him into the round pen with him and Shy for the first time. “Horse brain works that way. They kinda won’t put two and two together ’til they see it from both sides.”
And so, as the summer passed into fall, as the aspens shivered their leaves to reds, oranges, and golds, and as the land whispered of the freeze to come, Shy’s coat began to thicken until later when the first snowfall arrived, he appeared shaggy and stout. Tyler had yet to allow Jack to sit the horse, saying that would come in the spring.
“Get through the winter, exercise him in the round pen and walk him on the trails when you can. You’ll be on him by July.”
And by July, Jack was atop him, just walks at first in the round pen, and then walks along the flat trail that led to Piney Lake. By mid-July, Tyler had Jack trot Shy for the first time with Jack on his back. He was able to stay on, and Shy seemed comfortable with him. And thereafter, every day, Shy and Jack would leave early in the morning and pass the nearby campgrounds spotted here and there with campers in tents who had yet to rouse themselves from the prior night’s campfire nightmare stories and drinking binges. They’d ride past Piney Lake and along the trails headed east toward the slopes of the Gore Range that peaked with Mount Powell, jagged as a saw’s edge.
Heading home one day at not yet nine in the morning, they came down the trail from a meager summit where Jack halted Shy to look at the scenery below. Piney Lake shone as a blue-green jewel surrounded by the upsweep of purely green pine intertwined with the brown decay of beetle destruction. As they passed a small clearing to their left, half-hidden by the overlap of pine boughs, Shy sidestepped off the trail, then stopped and stood dead still, raised his head, curled his lip, and tasted the air about him. Jack tried to rein him back onto the path, but Shy was determined to keep his distance from the shrouded entrance to the clearing and had turned his head away from it.
Jack had come to respect Shy’s judgment when it came to going one way or the other on trails they’d never explored. A horse’s sense of things in the natural world seemed to Jack to be a reflection of what God had given to the horse: a discernment of sorts that Jack possessed only when laying his hands upon the dead. Shy had saved them from stepping into waist-deep muck within the valley, unstable rocks on the hillsides, and the presences of critters not likely to look kindly upon their passing.
Now, as Jack swung his leg off Shy and tied the reins to the limb of a felled tree, he knew caution was what Shy had shared with him. He stepped to the clearing and looked in. The sun shined directly overhead and lit the interior of the place as though a spotlight beamed a circle upon it. Jack thought he saw something not human, perhaps rag-stuffed dummies both facedown—the legs bent wrong, and the arms unnaturally splayed. The blood, though, spoke its own truth, as it lathered the bodies’ backs and buttocks, the arms, legs, and heads. The blackness of the ground near one’s head and the other’s chest were witness that the bodies had bled mostly from those places. But there wasn’t enough blood to determine if this had actually been the killing ground. The shapes of the bodies, the small hips, the broad shoulders, even the blood-encrusted hair, told Jack these were young men, maybe even teenagers.
Jack stepped into the clearing, taking care to keep to the periphery of the five-foot circle he’d mentally drawn beyond the immediate area where the bodies lay. The urge to touch them was nearly overwhelming, but he knew he could not disturb the scene. He would touch them later. He would speak to them and hope they spoke back. But for now, he kept to the edge of the circle he’d established and slowly stepped around it, a full three-sixty, his eyes focused on anything that might prove helpful in answering the questions he, and he was sure the Eagle County sheriff’s crew as well, would have when he later led them up here. Jack could see signs of blunt force and skin-piercing trauma. But it was the way the limbs spread anywise that he knew this would be an image like no other he would forever hold on to.
Jack sat on his haunches at the end of his three-sixty, looked up at the circle of sky and sun above, then looked back down at the bodies. “We’ll figure this out,” he whispered. “Bless you, boys. I’ll be coming back.” He then stood up, stretched out the kink in his back, and stepped from the place. He knew a search of the hillside, maybe even a search of the valley as well. One hundred yards in all directions was critical, but his call to the sheriff was more critical, and that is what he had to do.
Brian Hill and Mark Harris were both twenty-two, and as they danced upon a floor bathed in the colors of the rainbow, the other revelers moved about them while the music boomed with heavy bass and wild treble, the diva’s voice pleading for a never-ending love to come their way. For Brian and Mark, it had, or so they thought. The strobes flashed, and both boys watched the other’s robotic movements with wonderment and smiles. It had been Friday night, and the world had shriveled to this moment, this place of fantasy.
They had met almost a year before, both emigrants from Midwest flatlands to the mile-high promise of Denver and the call of the mountains to the west. They knew their degrees from obscure schools were as marketable as water in a deluge, so they opted instead to move into a Colfax Avenue two-room walkup where the bed folded down from the wall, and the bathroom was the second room. They waited tables at an upscale Denver Lodo eatery where they wore white shirts, black vests and pants, and red bowties. In midautumn, they packed their 2000 Mazda and headed west to Vail where their credentials saw them placed in an even more exclusive restaurant that specialized in red-runny steaks, crispy shrimp, fine wines, and luscious desserts served on crystal plates. Their mornings free until eleven, they skied the slopes of Vail, and their late nights were often spent among other gay boys and girls in the few bars and bistros that welcomed them. They had moved into a single-wide trailer in Avon, only fifteen minutes from Vail. After experiencing their first taste of the mountains, their decision was easy. They would stay there and not return to Denver or anywhere else when the ski season was over. They had what they wanted at this time in their lives—an uncomplicated existence that was more or less a fantasy come true.
One Friday night in late spring, Brian and Mark sat at a table in a bar in Vail, sipped beer, and watched two other boys do the same at a table across the room. They were clearly cowboys or something akin to that, and Brian and Mark were intrigued. The other boys were watching them, too. Pretty soon they were all sitting at the same table, getting to know one another and trading tidbits of their histories. The other boys worked about an hour and a half north of Vail, one at the Pinecone Lodge as a wrangler of horses, the other as a fishing and hunting guide, and they both lived at the Whisper River Ranch a few miles west of the lodge. One thing led to another that night, and all the boys ended up at the single-wide where they got to know each other even better. Intimately, in fact.
But by July, after three more encounters with the wrangler and the guide in Vail, Brian and Mark decided they’d drive up to the lodge on their day off and ride the horse the wrangler had offered them. As they were leaving the lodge’s compound after their ride, the wrangler took them aside and discussed the proposition he had for them. It would be worth two hundred and fifty dollars each if they’d do it. “Just kind of a hide and seek kinda thing,” the wrangler said them, and he mentioned to them, too, that he’d be there to make sure nothing got out of hand.
“We’re not really into that,” Mark told the wrangler.
“Don’t worry,” the wrangler said. “I’ve got their promise nothing heavy will go down. We’ll get you set up at a campsite and, other than the hour or two you’ll be…playin’ the game, you can just take it easy—camping, hiking, anything you want to do.”
Brian and Mark thought about that and decided it might be fun. They’d have to take a couple days off work, but that was no problem. Besides they’d be making money while having some time off.
“Okay, we’ll do it,” Brian said after discussing it with Mark.
“Good. You’ll enjoy it,” the wrangler said. He told them he’d pick them up and take them back so they wouldn’t have to worry about driving.
The evening, a Sunday, of Brian’s and Mark’s great adventure was spent in a gray domed tent with the wrangler, Tyler, and the guide, Ben. They drank some, fooled around some, and then shortly after midnight, Tyler and Ben took Brian and Mark to where the game would commence. Tyler told the boys to be aware of where the trail was at all times, and Ben gave them some flashlights so they could see where they were going.
“But the idea is not to be seen,” Tyler told them. And they all agreed Brian and Mark would not turn on their flashlights unless they absolutely needed to and were sure nobody was around at the time.
“You’re sure you’ll be out there somewhere if we need you?” Brian asked.
“A course,” Tyler said. “Just give us a shout, and we’ll hear you.”
And Tyler and Ben stood at the foot of the trail and watched the boys disappear up the hill on a half-moon night.