TV biologist, Jasmine Heydon, escaped Bitterwood once. She was 16 and run out of town by the cops for the crime of being born on the wrong side of the tracks. Ten years later, she’s changed a lot but Bitterwood hasn’t. The town’s only claim to fame is the legend of the River Man, a murderous creature who first killed a century ago. Back in town to film a show about the River Man, Jasmine plans to put the mystery to rest once and for all.
Bitterwood’s favourite son, Gil Easton, has never forgotten Jasmine, and he’s never forgiven his father, the chief of police, for running her off. But now Jasmine is back, stirring things up. This time, Gil is determined to stand by her even when the locals want her silenced.
As Gil works to unearth the truth, Jasmine tries to understand her own childhood sighting of the monster. As the threats escalate, the search for the truth grows dangerous … because the River Man is killing again.
Gilbert Easton smelled the corpse before he saw it. He’d been hunting with his father enough times to know the stink of death and blood. But this wasn’t a fresh kill. There was the added sour layer of decay.
‘This was reported this morning. I thought you’d want to take a look.’ The ranger led the way to the riverbank. An area had been taped off and a young cop was standing guard over the body.
Gil didn’t really want to be looking at any bodies, but the committee had nominated him to go because of his police connection, meaning his father.
‘Photos would have been fine.’ One dead deer three days out from the biggest festival in Bitterwood’s calendar, and the only reason tourists came to the town, shouldn’t be a problem. The moment the ranger had called the mayor and the mayor had told Gil to get out there, Gil had known why.
This wasn’t roadkill or a hunter losing his quarry.
His chest tightened and he glanced at the river. The water was perfectly still. A hundred yards up was where a man had been disembowelled twenty years ago.
Gil knew what he was going to see, and his stomach wasn’t ready.
‘I’m guessing it was killed yesterday … probably dusk. That’s about right, isn’t it?’ the cop said.
Gil swallowed and wished he didn’t have to breathe. ‘Yeah.’ He wasn’t sure when the River Man made his kills, but it was easier to agree.
‘Look, I wouldn’t have said anything to the mayor, but there are footprints and the cuts on the body don’t look like anything an animal would make.’ The ranger lowered his voice. ‘It’s the River Man, isn’t it?’
The ranger, who wasn’t a Bitterwood local, seemed almost excited … or was it worry? Either way there was an edge to his voice and a gleam to his eye that Gil found unsettling.
Gil didn’t say anything straight away. He stared at the deer. Its legs were twisted and broken, and the eyes were gone. The crows would have done that. ‘The heart missing?’
Deer had been turning up dead with their hearts ripped out on a more frequent basis over the last decade. It was a disturbing new turn in the local legend—a legend that was becoming less mythical and more real.
‘Ripped clean out,’ the ranger agreed. ‘Never seen anything like it, except here.’
It certainly appeared like a River Man kill. It wouldn’t be the first deer, or cow or pig that he’d killed, but it had been twenty years since he’d killed a person.
Gil didn’t want to speculate. He was supposed to help shush up anything that would disrupt the festival. ‘Maybe it was tourists, hoping to whip up some drama.’
The ranger looked at him like he wanted to ask if Gil had been hit in the head recently. ‘If a person did this it’s pretty cruel.’
If the River Man did it, then the timing was too perfect. Was he trying to scare people or stir up interest in the festival?
‘I think it would be best for everyone if this was quietly cleaned up. Given the number of people in town, we don’t want them traipsing all along the river looking for clues and getting into trouble. We don’t need wannabe sleuths.’ No, they had professionals coming for that, and they’d want to know all about this.
Jasmine would want to know.
She was coming back.
He hadn’t seen or heard anything from her in ten years. Then the mayor had announced that a TV show that specialised in cryptids was coming to Bitterwood for the festival. Gil had watched a few bits out of curiosity and had recognised her in a few seconds.
She was hard to forget. Their parting still made him cringe with residual teenage embarrassment. But she wasn’t Jasmine Thorpe anymore. She was Jasmine Heydon. She was someone else’s Jasmine now. He may not have forgotten her, but he was sure that he was a distant memory to her. When she’d left town, she hadn’t looked back.
He hoped that her coming back wasn’t to make the town look dumb on her TV show—not that anyone else had recognised her, so he’d kept that fear to himself. It was his job to make sure that Bitterwood came out looking good and that more people wanted to come to the festival next year. The mayor saw the TV show as free promo.
Gil pulled out his smartphone and took some pictures of the deer and the footprints that led back into the river. This would be all the TV show got. Bitterwood didn’t need people coming in and telling them it was all a hoax when they’d lived with the mysterious deaths for a century.
He shivered. Hoaxes didn’t last for over a hundred years. Even though he’d been born and raised in Bitterwood, he couldn’t quite believe that there was a creature that lived around the river eating the occasional heart. He glanced at the deer. The deer would probably disagree with him.
‘That’s it? Just dispose of it?’ The ranger’s eyebrows lifted.
Gil sighed. ‘What do you want to do? Full forensic testing? Question everyone in town? It’s a deer. Plenty get hunted and no one bats an eye.’
‘Hunters use bullets.’ The ranger jerked his chin at the young cop. ‘What about you? You’re the cop. What are we looking for?’
‘Um.’ The young man’s voice wavered. He looked at the river, then the deer and then the scrub behind him that gave way to forest. He looked like he was straight out of high school and still terrified of the local legend. ‘I think … I mean it looks like the River Man’s work.’
‘There you go; the cops are on to it. They’ll hunt down the River Man and put him in the zoo.’ Gil forced a smile. The cops would do nothing. There wasn’t anything they could do, and they wouldn’t be wasting limited resources on a deer when there were hundreds of extra people in town.
The ranger crossed his arms. ‘So we’ll pretend this didn’t happen, just like the last one. Don’t want to spoil the party.’
‘That’s pretty much what I was told.’ Gil shrugged. He didn’t like it either. They should be gathering evidence. Maybe if they did, they’d eventually have something.
Jasmine read the list in front of her. Batsquatch, pterosaurs and the River Man. She had three weeks in Washington State tracking down the local legends. There was nothing ordinary about her job as the biologist on the television show Cryptid or Hoax? She read the list of cryptids again and tried to ignore the flutter of fear the River Man caused.
It was a hoax. It had to be. There was no such thing as amphibious humanoids.
Logically she knew that, but her six-year-old self who’d seen it fighting with her uncle wasn’t convinced. She was sure that a psychologist would say she’d taken this job to soothe her inner child. The reality was being a TV zoologist paid better than anything else she’d found, and she needed the money to pay off her giant student loans. She owed more money than her parents had ever earned.
And now she was going to have to see those parents for the first time in ten years. It would be hard to avoid them, given that the River Man hung around Bitterwood. She doubted its population of five thousand had grown while she’d been away. She glanced at Luke Melrose, who researched the local lore, and the host Calvin LeRoux, who could make anything sound interesting. As colleagues and travel buddies they were great, but they also thought she was from Seattle. No one knew that she was a backwater Bitterwood brat so far from the right side of the track that she couldn’t even see the train.
Now probably wasn’t a good time to start sharing. No one liked an over-sharer.
‘We’ll be there for the River Man Festival,’ she said, trying to sound enthused. If that wasn’t an excuse to listen to bad local music and get drunk, nothing was. When she’d lived there, even being underage hadn’t stopped her. If she hadn’t been caught with her hands all over the local Chief of Police’s son ten years ago, she might still be living in Bitterwood doing exactly that this weekend.
Gilbert Easton was the other reason she didn’t want to go to Bitterwood. He was unfinished business—quiet literally as she’d been hauled half naked out of the car and told to get out of town. She wasn’t stupid, so she took the chief’s fifty-dollar note and took off like the devil was on her tail, only stopping when she landed on her aunt’s doorstep in Seattle. Fortunately, her father’s side of the family was a touch more respectable and her aunt hadn’t thrown her out.
She really owed the chief a thank you.
She wasn’t sure what she owed Gil—possibly that BJ she never got to finish. She bit back a grin. He was probably married to some local girl from the right family who didn’t know how much he liked to get his hands dirty. He’d always been the town’s favourite son and she’d always wanted to knock his halo off.
‘Think of the interviews. The potential eye witnesses.’ Calvin loved the local angle … especially if it was female and wanted to love him back.
Jasmine smiled. He had no idea what Bitterwood was like.
Luke walked over with the keys to the rental SUV in his hand. ‘Got our ride. Ready?’
Nope. But she never would be. Bitterwood was the last place she wanted to go. She’d rather visit the Arctic to do a special on Santa Claus. Hell, she’d rather analyse scat for bone fragments to determine what the local wolf population was eating.
She smiled. ‘Can’t wait.’ Kill me now.
‘How are you going to dress this one up in a lab coat?’ Luke nudged her. He definitely had the easy job.
‘There must be old photos from the crime scenes … claw marks, footprints and tracks. I can talk for hours.’ She made each word slower. ‘He has kills going back a century. Not scared, are you?’
Her heart beat faster, reminding her that she was afraid. She’d seen it. It had been dusk and she’d been playing hide and seek with her brother and cousin. They hadn’t found her—she’d thought it was because she was good at hiding, turned out at ten they were just real good at getting into her uncle’s weed—she’d wished they would find her as the monster appeared. She’d squeezed her eyes shut and stayed there until it was dark. By the time she opened her eyes, the monster and her uncle were gone, the field near the river was empty except for a few stranded car bodies that had been there for as long as she could remember. She’d run home expecting to tell her tale, but her uncle was talking to her mother as though nothing had happened and she’d stayed silent.
Luke shook his head. ‘Myths don’t kill.’
‘Cryptids do.’ Calvin’s eyes narrowed as he thought about the possibilities. ‘This could be legit.’
‘Nope. It has to be a hoax.’ A hoax was something man-made to draw attention and trick people. A myth, on the other hand, had no real substance, just some sightings and a place in the collective consciousness. A cryptid was something that couldn’t be explained. It had one foot in myth and another in reality. Sometimes they came across stuff that could be based on fact … but the story grew bigger than the actual creature. Much like when guys went fishing and the size of the catch went up with every beer and retelling.
There was no way the River Man was real. She refused to believe that. Science wouldn’t let her believe that.
‘A hundred-year-old hoax? Nah, back then they believed in the boogie man,’ Calvin said. ‘Would’ve started with some feud and someone not wanting a murder charge.’
‘His last murder was twenty years ago.’ Every so often the River Man would kill a human instead of a deer. Most of the mysterious creatures they investigated had allegedly killed at least once. They didn’t keep coming back. The River Man was an anomaly. Maybe it was a giant lizard? A family of alligators?
She didn’t want to go to Bitterwood and find out the truth.
‘Cool, that means there will be people alive who remember it.’ Calvin was looking far too happy.
He’d probably be thrilled to know that she was one of those people. It was going to be best to keep her mouth shut and hope that no one in Bitterwood recognised her. They probably all thought she was dead.
A few hours later, they reached the orchards that marked the edge of town. It was such a familiar sight. Her throat closed for a moment as they went over the bridge. She looked left toward what had been a popular spot to park as teenagers—it was now a picnic area.
Not much else in town seemed to have changed. Maybe there were a few new buildings. They drew in closer to the town centre, past the primary school and one of the churches. The fire station. It was all so familiar and so small. After living in Seattle and travelling all over the States in search of the weird and wonderful, Bitterwood seemed so … dull. She couldn’t believe that once she’d thought the town was everything, and that she’d never belong anywhere because she couldn’t belong here.
Calvin parked the SUV out the front of the motel. It was the good motel, she noted with a small measure of relief. Or it had been the good motel, maybe it wasn’t anymore.
Unlike her aunt she’d never come back, not even for Christmas, even though she knew her mother would want to see her. She’d always been worried that if she came back, she wouldn’t be able to get free again. If it wasn’t for work, she wouldn’t be coming back now.
Her stomach tightened and she wished she hadn’t had that greasy double bacon with extra cheese burger for lunch, or the large coffee to wash it down with. There was no way she was going to be able to avoid running into people that she knew. No, but she could pretend not to know them.
After ten years, she didn’t know them.
And they didn’t know her.
She wasn’t the same person she’d been when she’d lived here, but she knew that wouldn’t stop them from thinking that they knew her. Her aunt was still that kid who ran away to join the Navy, abandoning her family and leaving her mother to look after four younger children—like it was somehow Tricia’s responsibility as the eldest to be the second mother to them. Over forty years since she’d left and her aunt still wasn’t forgiven.
Jasmine sighed and undid her seatbelt. ‘I’ll check us in, if you bring in the stuff.’
It was the usual deal. This time she was reluctant to leave the safety of the SUV, but the guys would notice if she started acting weird, so she had to get on with it. She got out of the SUV, pulled a face at them and raised her hands in claws. They did the same.
This job was so much better than working in a lab.
She turned away from the vehicle and drew in a deep breath. The air was damp from the river and there was the scent of the orchards that surrounded the town. Did her brother still work at the cannery? Was her mom still a cleaner at the school? She doubted her dad was doing much more than he used to, which was very little. He’d done odd jobs and helped her uncle out a few times. Her parents had argued about that. There was some kind of rift between Mom and her brother.
Families. They were way more drama than she needed. It would be at least another ten years before she came back again.
With her back straight, she walked into the motel. She spent half her life on the road and these days they all tended to look the same. It was only the very bad or very good that stood out. This was neither. It was beige and bland. Vending machine to one side, a few tourism brochures and a poster about the River Man Festival. She paused to look at it. There was a sketch of the monster, details of the bands that would be playing, cake stalls, a performance by the high school and a friendly game of baseball between the fire and police departments. It was now a three-day festival. It had grown while she’d been gone.
‘You here to see the River Man?’
The man’s voice made her jump. She turned around and fixed a smile, she didn’t recognise him. Good start. ‘Yep.’
God I hope not.
He nodded. ‘This year is extra special. I think he knows about our festival.’
‘Really?’ Was the River Man going to walk into town and sign autographs? Had people stopped fearing him? She couldn’t imagine the town changing that much.
‘Mutilated deer was found near where that hunter Jim … Jimmy Nebbit was killed. That must be a couple of decades ago. His mom just passed.’
She fought to keep her smile fixed and look curious, not terrified. The River Man was still actively killing.