First to Find
By: Morgan C. Talbot | Other books by Morgan C. Talbot
Published By: Red Adept Publishing
ISBN # 9781480022034
Word Count: 63680
Available in: Epub, Mobipocket (.mobi)
About the bookDeath is the hardest puzzle to solve.
Margarita Williams escaped death at a young age, but its shadow has followed her all her life. Now, amidst the chaos of a new Australian roommate and mysterious, menacing neighbors, Death has set the puzzlemaker a puzzle of her own. Someone is killing her fellow geocachers, one by one.
Supersmeller Bindi Ryan left Australia to marry a man who abandoned her the minute her plane landed in Oregon. When thieves steal a local sculpture and a teenage friend is blamed, Bindi and her nose must prove him innocent and find the real culprits. But are she and Margarita working on two mysteries, or one?
If they can’t solve the final puzzle, the killer will strike one final, deadly blow.
An excerpt from the bookChapter 1
Margarita awoke from her recurring nightmare with a gasp. If it hadn’t been for the loud, metallic clang, Death’s skeletal hand would have reached into Margarita’s chest, bony knuckles brushing her ribs as he sieved her soul while she lay, sweaty and helpless, panting on the hospital cot. She sat up and slapped a hand atop her pink enameled alarm clock, which slid sideways across the bedside table’s dark, glossy wood and jostled a paperback onto the floor. The pale mosquito netting from her dream faded to the edges of her mind’s eye, replaced with the cool October darkness of her bedroom.
Darkness? Margarita frowned. She hadn’t set her alarm to go off this early. What had woken her?
Another thought excitedly invaded, overwhelming her mind with eager anticipation. The new geocache. Was it active yet? Margarita threw aside her covers and padded down the hall, struggling to dismiss the last shreds of her nightmare. Death had failed to kill her sixteen years ago in Myanmar, but he’d haunted her ever since. Her own personal nemesis, the specter had struck others in her life—one of her brothers, the man she’d loved, her father—stealing them away from her, and there was nothing she could do to stop him. Death: the world’s most successful serial killer.
Margarita entered her computer room—or as her new Aussie roommate, Bindi, called it, the entertinement room—flicked on her laptop, and impatiently drummed her fingers as she waited for the system to boot. She brought up her favorite website, clicked a couple of hyperlinks, and was rewarded with the sight of a new geocache listing.
“Captain Muggle’s Revenge, eh? My mystery cacher made me a pirate cache for Halloween.” Who the cache’s owner really was, she couldn’t tell. The name was a throwaway account with exactly one cache to its credit, and no geocache finds. She scanned the geocache’s difficulty and terrain ratings. This one would be easy. Better still, the map told her that the cache was within walking distance of her house. And best of all, its Last Found date read: Not Yet.
If she hurried, she might even beat the rabid FTFers to it. She knew both Graham and Eddie, better known as HPGeek4Life and FastEddie1942, were early risers. They might already be at the cache site—her cache site, if its mysterious creator was to be believed.
She dared not take the time to fetch her GPS unit from her bag, return upstairs, and download the coordinates into it. She scratched the last three numbers of the latitude and longitude coordinates on a scrap of paper and left the room at a trot, hoping to avoid waking Bindi. She ran to the top of the stairs leading down to the front door and jammed her bare feet into her tennis shoes, then bolted down the steps to the tiny foyer and ripped open the door to the coat closet. Pulling on her blue windbreaker with one hand, she used her other to grab her lightweight geocaching backpack from its hook on the back of the door.
Running down the single block of her dead-end street with her swag bag over one shoulder, Margarita barely had time to notice that her new neighbors in the other half of the duplex she owned had left their garage door open. The three renters were an odd group, and Margarita hadn’t pieced together their relationship dynamic yet, but they’d been peaceable enough thus far.
She turned on her Amerigo GPS unit and fumbled for the scrap of paper containing the cache’s coordinates. Thumbing them into the coordinates field, she spared a sliver of irritation for the neighbors’ carelessness and hoped no opossum would skitter inside and make its home in a dark garage corner. That had happened last month, and her first renter, a retired Home Ec teacher who had lived unmolested by opossums for a year in the other half of the duplex, had been so terrified that she’d moved out the next weekend, despite the swift response by Animal Control.
Coordinates entered, destination selected. Margarita crossed Finland Street at the T intersection and ran quietly along the gravel-and-bark-dust path bordering Mrs. Yeats’s yard, then slipped between a pair of waist-high cement pillars into Riparia Park, which lined both sides of the Santiam River for a quarter of a mile. She checked her Amerigo and angled to the east, still at a jog. Her swag bag thumped against her shoulder, its contents clinking in time with the muted thuds of her tennis shoes on the trail. Oak trees, half their leaves fallen to the ground, twisted their limbs up to the dark sky all around her. The towering elms were nearly bare as well. Fir trees blocked even the dim glow of the clouds as she passed beneath them. Though it hadn’t rained yesterday—a rarity for an autumn day in the Willamette Valley—the river’s proximity lent a dankness to all she smelled.
Her unit beeped: she had closed to within a hundred feet of the cache coordinates. Slowing, she fished a small flashlight out of her bag and twisted it into the ‘on’ position. Like many geocachers, Margarita enjoyed the odd night cache, but she had found that the headlamps favored by the majority of her fellow cachers washed out her close-up vision and failed to adequately illuminate areas more than ten feet away, so she used her free hand to light her way. It was either that, or admit she might have an eye deficiency, and not yet being thirty, Margarita wasn’t even close to being ready to accept such a failing. So she stuck with vitamin A supplements and handheld flashlights.
The cache area was populated by old, twisting trees and dense clumps of shrubbery, away from the areas that flooded when the Santiam got frisky in the spring. The online cache page had listed the container’s size as regular, so she knew its hiding places were limited, but nothing messed with satellite accuracy like tree cover, especially for her Circum-made Amerigo, which was otherwise perfectly adequate. She peeked under shrubbery and checked hollows in trunks—standard hiding spots in the thick Northwest forests—moving in an orderly pattern from right to left around the area her unit indicated as ground zero. While her eyes searched, her mind turned back to the issue of the cache’s existence.
Someone had created a brand new account on the international geocaching website and sent her a private message a few days ago. The mysterious poster, SecretCacheSanta, had written that he—she assumed it was a man by the way he wrote—was putting out a tribute cache in honor of the many excellent puzzle caches she’d created in the year since she’d moved to Silver Creek. He’d warned her to keep checking the site for newly approved caches, as if purposely pitting her against the local pair of cachers who vied with each other to claim the cacher title of First to Find on every new cache placed within twenty miles of Silver Creek. Margarita had narrowed the list of suspects down to six, all active cachers she’d met regularly at local event caches and new cache locations as everyone turned out to log each new find in the first day or two. One of them was, in fact, one of the FTFers: HPGeek4Life. On more than one occasion, Graham had been vocal about the pleasure he got from solving her puzzles. “Keeps the Alzheimer’s at bay,” he told her.
In the dimness, Margarita noticed a likely hiding spot. A pair of trunks grew from the sides of an old fir stump, whose hollow top looked broad enough to accommodate a regular-sized cache. She stepped closer and aimed her light down inside, seeing at first only rotting stump debris. Something seemed off, though, and a closer examination showed an inverted cone of bark-patterned camouflage cloth decorated with actual stump chunks and fragments. Feeling around the top edge of the stump, Margarita found a metal ring hidden by loose debris. Lifting the ring, she peered beneath the bowl of cloth and spotted a dark brown ammo can studded with cheap plastic stick-on jewels.
Captain Muggle’s treasure awaited.
She grasped the handle and lifted the old military surplus .50 caliber ammunition box. An odd metallic rattling caught her ears, but before she could discern its source, the cache container jerked to a halt. Margarita staggered against the stump in surprise, and her eyes widened at the sight of a skeletal arm grasping a second handle welded onto the back of the ammo can. For a split second, her nightmare returned, invading the real world. Then she saw the metal bolts that attached a short length of chain from a metal plate deep in the hole to the arm’s radius and ulna bones.
“Captain Muggle’s revenge, indeed.” She grinned at the macabre joke. “No worries, Captain. You can keep your container. I’m just here to sign the log and trade you some swag.” Balancing the ammo can on the stump’s edge, she levered the lid open and looked for the ubiquitous Ziploc bag that protected all logbooks from the Willamette Valley’s infamously damp weather. She found no Ziploc bag, no logbook.
“Are you kidding me? You plant this cache just for me, but you forget the logbook?” Margarita swiped a hand down in the darkness at the bottom of the stump. No logbook, but she did find a small teddy bear, its plush black fur hiding it from sight but not touch. “Mine, then, Captain. Fair game. It wasn’t in your swag box.”
Stuffing the bear into her backpack, Margarita looked around. The toy was dry and clean and might have sat there for mere minutes, rather than a day or so in damp Oregon weather. Maybe she hadn’t been the first one there after all. Raising her voice, she called, “Graham? Fast Eddie? You can have the FTF, guys. I just want to sign the log. Come on.”
Margarita shone her light around once more, focusing on the areas she hadn’t searched yet. A small gleam of white on the far edge of a low, leafy clump of salal caught her eye. In a less jovial mood than when she’d begun her search, she approached the white object. Rounding the twiggy shrubbery, she gasped at the scene her beam illuminated.
Graham Arthur, gray-haired and lanky, lay sprawled on the ground. His eyes were closed, and his head rested atop a low, smooth rock that rose above the leaf litter. A trickle of blood stained the rock’s pale surface. Graham’s left hand clasped a miniature composition book. Neat permanent ink lettering on the cover read Captain Muggle’s Revenge by SecretCacheSanta.