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IT WAS STILL dark, forcing Jim to pick his way through the treacherous thistles and spiderwebs by the narrow beam of his flashlight. He stumbled once, his boot caught in an overgrown rut, and then he found the dirt track that ran along the shoreline. Even though the season had just opened and this morning was one of the lowest tides of the year, he realized he was completely alone on the path, and he thought, Maybe Maren was right—maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

He’d left his wife in the warm bunk back in the camper, but he knew she was only pretending to sleep; they’d argued the night before, and now she was giving him the well-honed Maren Silent Treatment. She’d read an article in the paper last week about two divers who had been attacked by a shark while abalone hunting. One man’s arm had been ripped off, and he’d bled to death in the boat before they’d made it back to shore.

“It says this happened about twenty minutes from Fort Ross, north of San Francisco,” Maren had told him. “It’s where we go, Jim.”

“Honey, you know I don’t dive,” he’d tried patiently to remind her.

“You wear a wet suit.”

“You’ve been with me, Maren. We go at low tide and shore-pick. I’ve never been in water deep enough for a shark.”

“But you always go alone, Jim. It’s not safe.”

Maren had already decided that she didn’t want him to go, though, and the argument had ended very badly. She’d come with him on the winding three-hour drive from San Jose, but he knew she wouldn’t make the two-mile hike down to the cove in the predawn chill, and he hadn’t asked her to. He just hoped that when he returned to the campground with a full limit of the rare shellfish, when they’d been cleaned and it was her turn, the sweet scent of the delicacy frying in butter would cause her to forget the argument.

It’d happened before. Too many times.

When they’d married, he’d made it clear that he was a hunter. Sure, he had a job, family, friends, other interests—but his life was about that oldest and most sacred of sports. Nothing made him feel so connected, so pure, as putting meat on the table, meat he’d taken with his own hands. The hunt was usually difficult, sometimes even tedious, but that always made the final victory that much more satisfying. In fact, Jim could have said that when he was out in the field, in pursuit of his prey, was the only time he really felt alive.

Maren had endured his hunting trips, but she never actually picked up a gun or fishing pole or catch bag. He supposed it was just the difference between men and women; men were by nature the hunters, women the gatherers. Still, he was constantly left mystified by her desires. Maybe a child … but when he’d suggested that, she’d told him she wasn’t ready. He didn’t understand what she was ready for. After five years of marriage, he still didn’t understand.

He tried to stop thinking about Maren and their failing marriage as he hiked another mile along the thin dirt lane worn between the weeds. The sound of the surf was somewhere off to his left, and its quiet, without the pounding of an incoming tide, soothed him. The path veered to the right, but Jim spotted the fallen gray tree limbs that he used as a signpost. He left the trail behind, once again picking his way through nettles and dying grass. He knew from experience that he would walk about two minutes before he came to the cliff, and he moved slower now, swinging the flashlight beam until he spotted the edge.

That was another thing Maren had argued with him about—the difficulty of reaching Black Mill Cove. After a three-hour drive on hairpin curves along the frightening Highway 1, the cove was still another forty-minute trek from the campground. It was bounded by steep cliffs on three sides and open sea on the fourth; only one narrow ravine, half hidden by brush, offered a way down that didn’t involve actual climbing. Jim liked to hunt alone; what if he got hurt down there, couldn’t get back up? He’d tried to tell her, of course, that the cove’s isolation was what made it ideal. In the three years since he’d found Black Mill Cove, he’d seen only one other hunter working it, and he’d been scuba diving. He knew he could always get his limit of the elusive abalone in the small cove.

By the time he pulled up at the cliff top above the sea, all thoughts of Maren had fled his mind, as he focused on the task before him. First he had to make his way cautiously along the edge until he spotted the patch of shrub that he knew marked the ravine. He stepped carefully around the brush, and lowered himself down onto a boulder three feet below it. He was in the ravine now, and he knew he’d have to find the rest of the way down by touch alone. He put the flashlight into his belt, and started down.

The ravine was choked with boulders that formed a natural, although steep stairway down, and he made it to the bottom without incident. The pungent smells of salt and exposed seaweeds and the volume of the surf noise, amplified here by the cliff walls, hit him as soon as he left the ravine, and he pulled the flashlight out again. By its light he saw the tide pools a few feet ahead of him, black water surrounded by encrusted rocks and gleaming, slippery kelp. He felt the thrill of the hunt gathering in him as he quickly lowered the backpack onto a hip-high flat rock, took off his outer hiking boots, checked his catch bag and iron, and, lastly, turned off his flashlight.

There was just the faintest hint of gray in the sky as he began picking his way over the slimy rocks and slick kelp. He heard tiny scuttlings around his feet, and the occasional sharp pop as he stepped on a floater bulb in the exposed seaweed. His eyes were already beginning to sting from the salt spray, so he lowered his mask, ignoring the snorkel. He walked until he thought he was about forty feet from shore and could just make out the darker shade of a large pool to his left. He lowered himself into the water until it was up to his waist, then began feeling under the rocks.

His gloved fingers brushed past spiny urchins and sucking anemones, and within minutes he was rewarded with the feel of a large shell. The creature was wedged several feet under the water, and to reach it with the iron he’d have to either hold his breath or use the snorkel. He decided to try the former, took a gulp of air, got a good heft on the iron, and ducked beneath the water.

He chipped the abalone’s shell getting the iron under it, but finally jammed it under and began to pry. The abalone was strong and the position precarious, and his lungs were about to burst before he felt the strong shellfish foot give way. The abalone fell into his waiting hand, and he threw his head up out of the water.

It turned out to be only a medium-sized abalone, but it didn’t pass through the gauge, and he knew it was a keeper. With a feeling of satisfaction he placed the creature into his catch bag, and then continued hunting.

The first pool revealed no more treasures, and so he clambered to the next. This one was separated from the ocean by only a thin wedge of rock and weed, and it was a large, promising pool. He entered it, and began feeling under the outcroppings, keeping one hand on the exposed rock near his head. He didn’t flinch when a crab as big as a salad plate sidled across his fingers.

He had found nothing under the first rock, and now turned to the next. This one had a long underwater slope away from him, and the water was up to his chin as he struggled to reach the back. He was working his way left to right when he felt something that was long, thick, with jointed shreds on one end.

It felt, in fact, like a bony human arm.

He jerked back as if bitten, his breath catching. He’d felt what he’d sworn were wristbones, then fingers, with some flesh still attached.

That was ridiculous. A severed arm in a tide pool? It had to be a strange weed, or driftwood branch, trapped there at the last high tide. Or it could be (shark)—

He looked around, panicked for a moment, suddenly wishing he’d waited until sunup to come down here. No, he’d wanted to be hunting while the tide was still going out, before it began its mad rush back to land. He’d had to come down here in the pre-dawn salty blackness. Alone.

It was just light enough now so that he could make out his own fingers, if he held them up close before him. He pulled the mask away, squinted painfully until tears welled and washed the brine from his eyes, then he forced himself to reach back under the rock.

He found the thing again, got a good grip around it, and pulled. After a brief struggle it came free, and he brought it up out of the water, held it up before his eyes.

It was, without question, a human arm.

He cried out involuntarily and dropped the thing. It was mostly bones, just a few tatters of skin or tendon still attached. The fingers seemed to be complete, and it ended about where the elbow would have started.

He backed frantically out of the pool, and up onto the rocks, his heart pounding, eyes tearing. He tried to scramble back more and fell flat as his feet slid on the kelp. The impact with the crusty rock, the pain as his gloves tore on the sharp facets of limpets and barnacles, jarred him enough to make him stop and consider the situation.

What the hellhow didthat get here?!

It had to be Maren’s shark, right? He suddenly looked around and realized he was on the ocean side of the tide pool, peering out into barely seen, gently sluicing waves. Seaweed and driftwood bobbed here and there in the surf, sometimes breaking the surface like a head coming up out of the water. Or a fin.

He scrabbled backward on all fours and into the pool again. The plosh of his own body hitting the water startled him, and with fresh panic he realized the arm was in this pool—wasn’t that it brushing against his ankle? He cried out, throwing himself at the nearest rock and hauling himself up over the edge of it, then turning to the shore and crawling toward it.

He crawled a few feet before he was calm enough to think again, then he stopped to catch his breath (fuck, I’m about to pass out!), and think.

Okay, obviously I’ve gotta get back to the camper, wake Maren up, and drive to the campground offices. They’d tried their cell phones before from the campground, but there was no signal out here. Then, he supposed, he’d have to come back here and show the authorities where he’d found the arm. Of course the tide would be in by then, and they’d probably have to send out their own divers.

He hoped they had shark protection.

He had a plan; he knew what he had to do. He realized he’d somehow gotten to the far left edge of the cove, and from here the easiest way back to shore would be to simply wade through several large pools.

Several large pools that could hold more pieces.

He knew instantly he couldn’t do it. What if the next pool held something worse than an arm—like a head, a half-skeletal head with a terrible grin …

He forced himself to think again. By the dreary light he could just barely pick out a path back to where he’d left his backpack—and the flashlight. He told himself to move slowly and cautiously, but he was shaking and it was harder to keep his balance—

His foot slipped and one leg went down into a pool.

Even though it was only up to his ankle, he snatched his foot back up as if it’d been thrust into liquid fire. He found himself peering into the water, then at the rocks around him. Any of those lengths of stripped, whitened wood could have been bone instead, those broken shells, bits of nail, or teeth …

He tried to stop shaking, but couldn’t. Instead, he reached for a large driftwood branch (too big to be anything human!), which would serve as a walking stick. Using his newly acquired staff, he thrust into tricky patches of kelp or rock before setting foot there, and so finally came to the bottom of the ravine.

He let himself fall onto the flat rock as he threw the makeshift staff away. For a moment he just lay there, feeling relieved, feeling safe and alive. After a moment, he stopped shaking. He was away from the tide pools and the terrible secrets he’d found there. He only had to climb the ravine, and he’d be safe.

He sat up, quickly opened the backpack long enough to get a towel to wipe his agonized eyes with, and was briefly surprised to see a black patch on the white towel; he was bleeding badly from a cut in his hand. He wrapped the towel around his palm, then pulled on his hiking boots, thrust his arms through the backpack straps, and started up the ravine.

It was light enough overhead now to see the top of the cliff as he clambered up over the rocks. He stopped occasionally to orient himself, then went on to the next rock. He was almost to the top when something blocked the light overhead. He looked up—

—and saw the shadow of a man standing there.

He started to call out, grateful for the presence of another (living) human being, but then something froze the shout in his throat, and he just stared instead.

The man overhead was carrying something, something big. It was black, and Jim thought it was probably a forty-gallon plastic trash bag, the kind Maren used as a liner at home. Except this bag was stuffed, bulging with something.

What the hell, is this guy dumping his goddamn trash out here?!

The man hefted the bag, and Jim saw that it was obviously very heavy.

And then he knew.

Oh my God. Oh Jesus fuck, fucking hell

The bag was full of body parts.

And the man was stepping down into the ravine with it.

Jim didn’t know if the man knew he was there; he thought he didn’t, yet. Jim’s ascent had been quiet, and he was in the shadow of the ravine, in a black wet suit. But if the man hadn’t seen him yet, he would certainly discover him in the narrow ravine—

—because he was coming down now, and was only five feet above Jim.

Jim instinctively began scrambling down backward. There was no place to hide in the ravine, but maybe if he could get to the cove, to a boulder or a tide pool …

At least maybe he could reach the thick branch of driftwood he’d thrown aside, the one that had made a nice staff … or club.

The man above him was moving slowly, trying not to rip the overfilled bag, and that gave Jim a slight advantage, even though he was moving in reverse. He reached the big, flat rock where he’d rested only moments before, dropped beside it in a crouch, and felt around until his fingers closed on the reassuring bulk of the branch. Then he started working his way to the left, pressed against the rocky slope of the cliff.

He heard a small rattling of pebbles and jerked to a stop, his stomach in his throat, until he realized the sound had come from the other man, losing his footing and tearing a few pebbles loose from the wall of the ravine. He heard the man curse under his breath, then saw him emerge from the ravine, stepping onto the large, flat rock and setting the bag down there to rest.

Jim’s heart was pounding in his ears as he dropped to a crouch, although there was no boulder to hide him. He could see the man because he was outlined by the sky, and because the man had now removed his own small penlight from a pocket. If the man turned the penlight in Jim’s direction …

He didn’t. He turned the ray on the tide pools before him, hefted the bag, and stepped off the rock, evidently intent on his task.

Jim knew he had two options now; the classic dilemma of fight or flight. He could try to wallop the man with his branch, but if the guy heard him and was armed, Jim would be dead. Or he could try to make it up the ravine before he was discovered; he knew that if he waited much longer, the lightening sky would point him out like a spotlight. He had to choose quickly.

He decided to opt for the latter, but thought he should wait until the man was as far away from the ravine as possible. Jim was young, and could probably outrace the man even if he were discovered, but again—if the man were armed … It was the only real choice. Jim slid out of the cumbersome backpack, since it would slow him down. Then he waited, kneeling beside the cliff wall, his eyes riveted to the man with the bag as he picked his way down to the first large tide pool. Once there, he set the bag down, reached in, pulled something out—

(oh Jesus it’s a leg, it’s a fucking leg)

—and put it carefully down into the tide pool. Once he’d placed it there, he reached behind him, and Jim guessed he was finding another rock to use as a weight, to hold the limb down under the water. Where it would be when the tide came again, bringing with it the sea creatures that would quickly and efficiently dispose of the evidence, leaving only a few bones that would probably never be found in this isolated cove …

Jim suddenly sprang to his feet and ran for the ravine.

It was a bad, clumsy run, and he knew it, knew it with the same certainty that told him he was about to die. Still, he had a chance, clumsy didn’t matter if he was just quiet—He slipped sideways and banged against a rock. The forgotten abalone dying in his catch bag rattled loudly, so loudly.

As Jim scrambled desperately to his feet, the penlight beam flickered across him.

For a moment he was paralyzed, and the only thought in his head (deer in the headlights!) was ridiculous. Then he realized the man was turning toward him, trying to run across the unstable tide pools. The man was also reaching into a pocket, and the penlight flickered across—not the barrel of a gun, but a knife blade.

Of course he has a knife. You don’t carve people up with a gun.

Jim started to run, but saw he’d never make the ravine in time. So he stopped and hefted his club up in both hands—

—and the man advancing on him stopped.

Jim had only one brief second of surprise before the man seemed to reevaluate him, and started forward again. Suddenly the penlight beam stabbed into his eyes, blinding him. He nearly reached up to block the light, but instead swung the branch blindly.

And felt it hit something solid. He heard a grunt of painfully exhaled air from the other man, and a clatter as the man went down. But when he heard the man curse (“Fuck!”), he knew he hadn’t knocked him out, and the man would be on him in a second, with that knife.

Jim backed away—toward the tide pools, since the other man had fallen between him and the ravine—and raised the branch again.

The other man turned off the penlight now and tossed it aside, and Jim realized there was enough light now that he could make out some of the man’s features. He was slightly older than Jim, but not much, and was wearing dark sweats and sneakers. His most noticeable feature, of course, was the knife in his hand.

Suddenly he jumped forward, and Jim stepped aside, the knife slicing the air where Jim’s body had just been. Jim tried to swat at the man with the branch, but he missed and was thrown off balance. He caught himself just as the other man came down above him, and Jim tried to roll aside but wasn’t fast enough. The knife caught him in the shoulder.

The pain was immense, but not paralyzing, and Jim swung the branch at the other man’s feet. The branch connected and the man was thrown sideways. He went down in a jumble of rocks, and groaned. Jim got to his own feet, teeth clenched against the pain in his tom shoulder, and he staggered backward. Then his boots caught on something and he went down—

—into the plastic bag.

He cried out as the bag burst around him, releasing an acrid stew of gore and limbs. He batted and kicked and clawed his way back from the gruesome mess, and this time was grateful when he fell into a tide pool of cleansing salt water. He splashed up out of the pool as he saw the other man rise. He wasn’t sure, but he thought there was something black on the man’s head that might have been blood.

He started to heft the branch, and realized, with fresh horror, that it had cracked somewhere along the line and was nothing but a useless foot-long piece of lightweight driftwood. He tossed it aside and frantically looked around for something else he could use—another branch, a boulder, even a sharp piece of shell …

And then the other man was on him.

Jim caught his arm as he swung it down with the knife, and they both went down on the rocks, Jim’s back colliding painfully with a grapefruit-sized boulder. Their elbows slipped on a length of kelp, and the knife blade drew sparks as it ground along an outcropping. Jim found enough strength to throw the other man off, and his hand found a weight at his side, a weapon he’d forgotten about: the abalone iron. When his opponent regained his feet, Jim was waiting. He brought the iron down on the man’s head as he rushed Jim. There was an especially gratifying crack!, and the man went down.

This time he didn’t groan or move, and Jim knew that, at the very least, his blow had knocked the man out, maybe killed him.

He didn’t wait to find out.

He took off for the ravine, regardless of how many times his feet slipped or stumbled. He reached the ravine and forgot about his backpack or his wounded hand and shoulder. He hauled himself up out of the ravine, and before he knew what had happened he was running down the dirt track toward the camper, out of breath but aware that he’d made it.

He paused long enough to turn, to be sure the man wasn’t behind him. His lungs were burning, and when he saw that there was no pursuit, he stopped, doubled over to catch his breath. And before he knew or understood, he was laughing. He laughed at the sheer sense of relief, of victory. This time he’d been the hunted, and he’d escaped. He’d confronted death and lived to tell Maren about it.

Maren … wait until he told her. He turned and started running for the camper again, a smile still creasing his face.

Maybe I’ll be a hero. Maybe there’s a reward. Won’t Maren love that, when her friends see my picture in the paper…?!

He finally turned and ran unthinkingly through the brush, heedless this time of stinging nettles and grasping roots. He saw the campground in the dawn light, his camper truck the lone resident.

“Maren!” he started calling, even though he knew he was still too far for her to hear.

“Maren!” he called again, as he jogged up to the truck and around the driver’s side to where the camper door was.

And then he staggered and stopped.

The camper door was hanging open, creaking slightly in the morning breeze, and there was blood. Lots of it, great gouts around the door and the step-down and the pavement. A thick swath of it led off a few feet and then disappeared. After that there were only a few bloody footprints leading off into the brush, footprints made by a pair of men’s sneakers.

Jim couldn’t bring himself to look inside. It wouldn’t do any good, because he knew Maren wasn’t in there—at least, not most of her. He knew where she was, and what had happened to her.

And as he realized just how badly he’d lost, he began to scream in the chill morning air.

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