Edition 11: Finders Keepers by John W. Dennehy
A simple snowshoeing trip leads Jack and his daughter Keelin to a payload of money. How has it lain so long undisturbed in the wilderness? Best leave mysterious money caches. Unfortunately, human greed is such a grasping need. SY
The woods were quiet as Jack and his ten-year-old daughter trudged down the trail. A blanket of fresh snow draped over the forest, cleaving to bare branches and evergreens. Lost in contemplation of the woodland, their peaceful sojourn seemingly left behind adversity from the outside world.
While unloading their snowshoes from his aging Volvo wagon, little Keelin had hesitated about heading off into the shaded woods. Jack encouraged her to forge ahead. And as they busied themselves fastening the snowshoes to their boots, she appeared content about the venture.
Jack could only hear the sound of their snowshoes crimping the trail and an occasional swishing of Keelin’s snow pants as they plodded forward. Keelin quietly plugged along beside him, up and down steep hills, and around bends flanked by bubbling brooks and old stone walls.
Snow had cascaded over the smooth boulders enveloping the earth at the base of the walls. And the brooks trickled with crystal water, causing ice to form only at the edges of the streams. Nobody had yet traversed the pristine trail, crisp from recent snow. Occasionally, Jack had to stop and ascertain the course of their path.
They also paused to look at tracks near the brooks and along the trail. At times, the two trekked off after interesting prints: deer, fox and coyote.
Keelin pointed to a patch of displaced snow.
“Looks like a predator chased something here,” Jack said. “Want to check it out?”
Keelin nodded with a serious countenance.
Following the displaced snow and spattering of tracks, they wound around a clump of evergreens and found themselves on the edge of a steep ridge. It overlooked a valley with a stone wall running down the middle of it, and beyond that lay a dark mossy forest. Sunlight poked through shedding light upon the valley.
Jack took it all in with Keelin beside him. The brown hair of her bob cut and parka hood with its little visor partly shielded her face. He knelt down to look at her. Keelin’s rosy cheeks and soft nose peeked out from the hood, her blue eyes wide with interest. “Look,” he said pointing at the tracks. “I think it was a fox chasing a squirrel.”
Keelin inspected the tracks closely and then nodded in agreement.
They glanced around trying to discern the outcome of the pursuit. Down by the stone wall, Jack saw an old safe in the snow askew. A corner of it seemed to be sunken into the earth. The finish was marred, the paint chipped and peeling. A patch of snow lay on top, and some had drifted against the sides.
They removed their snowshoes and planted them sticking out of the snow. As they began to descend the hillside, he felt Keelin tug on his sleeve. He glimpsed at her. Keelin shook her head, a frightened quiver shown in her bright eyes.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Let’s go check it out.”
“It doesn’t belong out here,” she said.
Jack knelt down and peered at her. She seemed scared. “Listen,” Jack said softly, “you’re right. It doesn’t belong out here, and that’s what makes it interesting.”
She looked at him dubiously.
He grinned and took hold of her little mitten.
She smiled back. “Okay,” she said.
Together they made the awkward descent down the steep hillside. “Do you think bank robbers put it there?” she asked.
“Maybe,” Jack said grinning. “More likely, thugs stole it from a small business some time ago. And they brought it out here to open it.”
Approaching, he noticed that the dial of the combination lock was popped out and the door partway open. Snow had whisked inside.
Standing alongside the safe, Keelin pulled on his hand. “I don’t like it,” she said.
Intrigued, Jack didn’t respond but instead kneeled in the snow to inspect the safe. The door was open about an inch. He could see inside and surprisingly it wasn’t empty. Jack slipped his hand into the crack and pulled on the door. It didn’t budge.
He sat back and looked the safe over. Still enticed, he pulled off his gloves, and slipped both hands into the crevice.
Keelin stood a few paces back, mute.
Heaving with all his might, the door creaked open. Jack gave it a kick and the door flung wide open, revealing the contents inside.
A few canvas bags protruded from the snow drifted interior.
He popped one open. It was full of soggy cash.
Jack sat back, perplexed. He pondered why someone would go through all the trouble of bringing the safe out here, breaking it open, and then leaving the loot behind.
He reached into the bag and pulled out a stack of bills clinched together with a rubber band. Flipping through them like shuffling a deck of cards, Jack saw that they were all five notes. He put them down and reached for another. After checking a few of them, he surmised that the canvas bags held three to five thousand dollars.
He looked at Keelin. “Should we take them?” he said.
She shook her head deliberately.
Jack considered the dilemma of raising a child to do what’s right and the prospect of the influx of cash. “It’s not stealing,” he reasoned. “This money has been abandoned a long time ago.”
“Don’t take it Dad,” she said vehemently. “It’s bad.”
“Honey, it’s not bad,” Jack said. “This is just paper with ink on it. Someone left it behind a very long time ago.”
Keelin stared at him indignantly.
As he reached for the canvas bags, she grabbed his coat at the shoulder and pulled with a startling amount of force. Jack rocked backward and plopped into the snow. “Gee,” he said smiling at her.
Keelin didn’t smile back.
He realized that she wouldn’t change her mind about it. “Listen,” he pled, “if Mommy was here she’d take it to pay some bills.”
“No she wouldn’t,” Keelin said sternly. “It’s bad.”
“Why do you keep saying that it’s bad?” Jack said perplexed. “It’s just some old money.”
“It’s bad,” she repeated pointing. “That has to do with bad men.”
Jack shook his head.
She crossed her arms and pouted.
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Keelin stood still, staring at the money strewn in the snow. Jack scooped up the bills and tossed them into the safe. Landing with a soggy thud against the steel interior, the bills slid into the drifted snow alongside the canvas bags.
Turning, they began to ascend the steep hill leading back to the trail. Jack figured that he could return for the money before dark. As they climbed, Keelin jammed the toes of her boots into the slope like he taught her, making a snowy ladder as she worked her way up. Jack had more difficulty because the snow wasn’t icy enough to support him. So he grabbed hold of a jagged rock protruding from the hillside.
Pulling on the cragged rock for support, it broke loose from its resting place. Jack tumbled down the slope and the stone plummeted after him. He clasped his hands around his head for protection. Eventually toppling to the bottom, Jack came to rest near the old stone wall. The dislodged rock flopped end over end until it lost momentum a few feet away. It displaced a few smaller stones that cascaded upon him, bruising his sides, and a large smooth stone the size of a bowling ball rolled down toward him.
Jack braced for the impact, but when the stone hit him, the impact was mild. While Jack fumbled to sit upright, Keelin trudged back down the slope. He looked himself over. Apparently intact, Jack glanced toward her and laughed.
Keelin pointed toward the stone next to him. It was a human skull with a hole in the forehead half an inch wide.
He picked it up. As Jack perused the skull, Keelin removed her mitten and placed her tiny hand on it, partly touching Jack’s glove. Everything grew dark.
Disoriented, Jack slowly became cognizant of his circumstances, and felt as though he were riding along in a car. The car seemed to float over the road, the smell of stale smoke hung heavily in the air.
The darkness gradually gave way to a dim vision, a grim and hazy view of his surroundings. The dashboard was made of steel and the compartment of the car spacious, an old station wagon. The man behind the wheel seemed gaunt but rugged, a cigarette stuck to his lower lip. His hair was receded and graying.
The car barreled along a country road with the heat cranked up; the headlights showed a deserted road, lined with three-foot high snow banks. Jack and the driver were both wearing jeans and tattered flannel shirts.
“We’re almost there Timmy,” the driver said.
Jack looked at him confused.
“Been watching Don’s Country Store for a month now,” he said grinning with a mouthful of decaying teeth. “Makes all his deposits on Friday afternoons.”
“Really,” Jack said.
“Yup. And word is that he doesn’t put it all in the bank,” the driver said. “Trying to get around the IRS or something.”
The big car swung onto a rural highway, double yellow lines down the middle and an occasional farmhouse along the road. A copse of trees or fields divided the properties. They cut around a bend and then the driver whipped the car into the store parking lot. An old clapboard New England country store with diagonal parking spaces out front and a couple of old fashioned gas pumps to the side, tall and narrow. A prodigious Gulf sign hung above the pumps from a metal post.
Easing past the storefront, the big engine rumbled and the hood vibrated. They maneuvered down a narrow driveway toward the back of the store. The big wagon lurched forward, then the driver grabbed hold of the shifter on the steering wheel and mashed it into reverse. The car lunged toward the back steps and came to an abrupt halt.
“This is it Timmy.”
“Let’s go,” the driver said swinging his door open. He stepped to the passenger door, opened it and retrieved a crowbar.
Jack instinctively walked toward the rear of the station wagon.
“Get the tailgate open,” the driver said.
As the driver mounted the back steps, Jack fumbled with the tailgate, and finally got it to drop down. He wanted to stop right there and head down the road. But something was driving him forward, compelling him to acquiesce to the driver’s commands.
He watched as the driver used the crowbar to shimmy the back door. It swung open with the cracking of the doorjamb.
“The office is in the back to the left,” the driver said as they entered the store. His work boots scuffed along the plank floors as he led the way.
Then headlights shone into the storefront.
“Shush up,” the driver said to Jack coming to an abrupt halt.
Jack took another step before he stopped, a floorboard creaking under his foot. The driver waved at Jack impatiently. As the two stood frozen, the headlights remained pointed at the store. It wasn’t just someone turning around.
“Stay put,” the driver whispered.
Paralyzed by trepidation, panic ridden thoughts raced through Jack’s mind. He feared being arrested, caught up in some robbery, not even understanding how he came to be here.
The driver gently stepped into the storefront, the crowbar clenched in his hand. He ducked behind shelves packed with grocery items and peered out the windows.
The headlight beams moved, and then whipped away. The store fell into darkness again. While plodding back, boots thumping heavily on the floorboards, the driver swung the crowbar menacingly back and forth. He stormed up to Jack with his rotten teeth clenched in anger. “That was close,” he bellowed while raising his fist.
He boxed Jack in the head and everything became blurry for a moment. Despite the blow, Jack didn’t feel any pain. As though he was merely looking through the eyes of another.
“Next time,” the driver added, “keep quiet!”
Jack nodded in submission.
The driver headed to the office and Jack schlepped after him.
“There it is,” the driver said, pointing. The office was small with a desk propped against a wall and everything in disarray. The safe was shoved into a corner with ledgers and scraps of paper on top. Same as the safe in the woods, only the combination dial was in place and the paint wasn’t marred and peeling.
Maneuvering the heavy safe from the corner would be as difficult as getting it to the car. In a moment, the driver observed the situation and trundled off without saying a word. Jack heard rousing from the back of the station wagon.
Then he heard clumping in sync with the driver’s boots thumping on the backstairs. The sound continued over the plank floorboards until the driver appeared dragging a board behind him. Raising his chin and motioning toward the safe, “We’ll tip it back and drop it on the board,” he said. “And then shimmy the damn thing out of the corner.”
Jack nodded understanding.
“Heck,” he continued, “we can just drag that damn thing to the car on that board.” The driver cackled. “Easier than carrying it.”
They tipped the safe back and then the driver kicked the board under it. Letting it go, the safe dropped with a loud thud onto the board. “Heave!”
Jack yanked the board as told and the safe skipped forward. They repeated the task until it was at the steps. Being next to him, Jack could see the wrinkles set in the driver’s emaciated face and a tired look in his eyes. “Almost there,” the driver said with a weak smile. Then he placed the board on the steps.
“You stand at the bottom with the toe of your boot holding the board in place,” he said. “I’ll tip the safe on its side and slide it down.”
Jack did as he was told and watched as the driver began tipping the safe. It slipped from the driver’s hands and dropped, walloping as the safe struck the board. With the safe plunging toward him, Jack stepped aside and watched it collide with the pavement, sparks flying as the steel edge gauged the asphalt.
The driver hurried down the steps, and Jack shied away worried about another blow. “Don’t just stand there,” the driver said picking up the board.
He placed it against the tailgate, creating a ramp. They slid the safe into the back of the wagon, the rear sinking from the load. Jack tossed the board inside and closed the tailgate, never feeling the slightest strain from the task. They climbed in. The driver started the big engine and it hummed to life, and then he carefully turned around without the headlights on.
The wagon eased down the little driveway then the driver cut on the headlights and pulled onto the rural highway. He pressed the gas pedal and soon they were on their way, the snow banks seeming to whisk by as the car barreled along.
Jack felt a tinge of relief as the driver turned off the rural highway and drove like hell down the desolate road.
A few minutes later, the driver pulled into a plowed out parking area off the road surrounded by dense woods. Jack noticed a sign indicating that it was a state forest.
They used the board to unload the safe. The driver grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment and gave it to Jack. They put the safe on its side and dragged the board over the snow, the driver grasping a corner of the board with one hand, holding the crowbar with the other.
“We’ve got to get far into the woods,” he said. “So if anyone hears us, they won’t know where the sound came from.”
They pulled and pulled, dragging the board up and down hills in darkness. Moonlight shining on the snow provided some guidance as they trudged along. The flashlight bobbing this way and that didn’t help much. Eventually, they ventured off the trail and seemed a ways from the station wagon.
“Isn’t this far enough?” Jack asked.
“A little further,” the driver said.
Suddenly, the path dropped off beneath them and they tumbled down a steep hillside, the safe gliding along the snow in-between them.
Jack found himself back where he started. The safe came to rest on its side with a mound of snow plowed up around it. And this driver, a total stranger, was rising up from the snow-packed valley floor. The driver kicked his leg.
“Get up,” he said agitated.
They tilted the safe upright, the ground beneath it uneven so it sat slightly askew. The driver picked up the crowbar and jammed it between the metal door and combination dial. He pried the dial slightly. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small wad of paper wrapped over a powdery substance with a short fuse sticking out. It resembled a cherry bomb but Jack knew that it was a homemade explosive, something the driver cooked up in his barn.
The driver placed the explosive in the crevice he’d made. “Better get back from this one,” he said, sneering while flicking a dinged-up Zippo lighter.
Back peddling, Jack covered his ears and watched as the driver lit the fuse and hustled away from the safe, slightly hunched over as he ran.
Even with his ears covered, the explosion boom was excruciating, ringing his ears and rattling all thought. He smelled smoke. Jack looked at the safe and saw a wisp of discharge dissipating from the blast, the dial popped loose.
“Look at that,” the driver said smiling. His eyes were bright with greed as he hurried to the safe. Kneeling down he fiddled with the door until at last it swung opened. The driver seemed consumed by his glee, shuffling through canvas bags loaded with money.
The driver stood, “Got to be three thousand dollars in there,” he said turning toward Jack smiling widely.
Then the grin vanished.
Jack could see the revolver in his own hand. Then he heard a crack and the driver was down, blood trickling from his head.
Legs thrashing at the snow, Jack dropped the skull with the bullet hole and glanced up at Keelin as he gasped for breath.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said standing up.
As they ascended the slope together, Jack looked back at the safe, the door was ajar and he glimpsed the canvas bags and a couple bundles of cash. That was just a chimera from the past. Nothing would happen if he came back alone he thought.
They reached the spot where the rock had dislodged from the hillside. Jack watched Keelin scratch away at some snow, revealing another skull. She pressed his hand to it, holding hers on top.
Jack saw the driver’s accomplice hastily move toward the safe, trip on the crowbar, and crack his head on the stone wall. Dark fluid ran into his eyes until the vision became opaque, and then totally ceased altogether.
Removing his hand from the skull, Jack looked at Keelin. “Okay,” he said, “it had to do with bad people. But that was a long time ago.”
She pointed toward the crevice. The top of another skull protruded from within. This one was matted with hair and grimy. He pulled off his glove and touched the gooey sphere. Keelin held his other hand.
This time it was fall and leaves tossed around the parking area and the trail head. An early model SUV was parked by the state park sign, an orange Scout International. Two men alighted from the Scout, dressed in 1970s style clothes and longer hairstyles. One of them, the driver of the SUV, stuffed a cellophane sandwich bag full of marijuana into his coat pocket as they sauntered down the trail.
Then the two men were standing over the safe, arguing about which one had found it. Neither was willing to share, convinced that finders keepers rules applied to stolen loot. The one with the dope in his pocket pushed the other, a smaller man, who fell into the leaves. He thrashed about in the leaves in panic, trying to get his balance, arms flailing as his companion kicked him.
All of a sudden, his eyes grew confident and the scrambling abruptly ceased. He rose up with a rusted crowbar, and swung it madly, caving in the other man’s skull. The bigger man fell with a thud, landing motionless in the leaves. And then he leaned over the dead man and fished through his pockets for the keys. Finding purchase, he took the driver’s keys to the SUV and started to flee from the woods.
He got to the crest of the steep incline and glanced back at the dead body, a spattering of blood covered some of the leaves, along with bits of bone with gooey hair matted to it. Beyond the body was the safe, sitting askew on the forest floor, the door wide open and the canvas bags of money beckoning him.
Rushing back down the steep slope, he stumbled and began wheeling bottomward, kicking up small rocks and leaves as he descended. Something metal was stirred in the tumbling, and then there was a loud bang. He rolled to a stop alongside his companion, staring into the frozen eyes of death, knowing the same was coming soon as his gut wound slowly bled out.
Jack stood up. “Let’s go,” he said.
“It’s too late,” Keelin responded meekly.
Busy trying to ascend the steep snow covered hillside, Jack paused realizing that Keelin was not doing the same. “Come on,” he said. “We need to get a move on.”
“It’s too late.”
“Why do you keep saying that?”
“I told you that this place was bad.”
“You were right,” Jack said. “And we’re not going to take the money.”
“But it’s too late.”
Jack froze. The voice was not meek. He recognized it though, and turned to look at Keelin. Her eyes were cold. And the voice, it was that of the driver’s companion that helped bring the safe out to the woods.
She held a rusted revolver.
“It’s too late.”
Then he heard the bang.
John William Dennehy is a writer of dark fiction, including horror, supernatural suspense thrillers, and mystery/suspense thrillers.
He grew up in a small cottage on a lake in New Hampshire. After graduating from Pinkerton Academy, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines serving with MALS-26 Patriots. John went on to study English/Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington, and earned his law degree at Suffolk University Law School.
Over a number of years, John worked at developing various short stories, novellas and novels, which he is currently releasing to the public, as well as new works of fiction. His story Cast Out was published in Sanitarium Magazine. In addition to being a writer, he works as a Litigation Partner in a Boston law firm.