I flipped the keyring around, using the designated key for cabin number eight to unlock the front door. I pushed it open and gave a cursory inspection of the room. “Not bad,” I said, turning to look behind me.
My friend, coworker, and right-hand man, Leo Terrel. “Why not say not good? That’s what it is. It isn’t good. Pigs. Truly, who leaves their garbage scattered around? Pigs.”
I chuckled, putting down the cleaning caddy I carried on checkout days. I pulled on a pair of blue neoprene gloves and pulled out a garbage sack. “You shouldn’t call our paying guests pigs,” I lectured.
“Calling it like I see it,” he mumbled, pulling on his own gloves. “I won’t be sad to see this group go. Why do people like that even book a place like this?”
It was a rhetorical question, and I knew he didn’t expect an answer, but I would give him one anyway. “Because they wanted to do some teambuilding. Getting out into nature is a great way to do that.”
“They’re car salesmen. Don’t they hate each other by nature?”
I laughed. “I don’t know. Judging by the fight I had to break up last night, I didn’t get the feeling they loved each other.”
He made a choking sound. “I’m glad your big ass was there. I was ready to let them fight to the death.”
“Pretty sure that would be a liability issue,” I replied. “And my big ass could have used some help.”
“You did just fine. You towered over all three of them. Plus, you have that rugged thing that scared them into submission. We should have you greet them at the door wearing a loincloth and carrying a club, really play up that caveman thing you have going on.”
“I do not look like a caveman,” I retorted.
“If you let your hair grow out, you would.”
“Excuse me!” a woman’s high-pitched voice cut through the silence of the cabin we were cleaning up. It was a lot like nails on a chalkboard. I visibly cringed, trying to bring my shoulders to my ears to save them from the assault of her voice. “Help me! We need help!”
I dropped the trash bag, realizing something was horribly wrong. “What happened? Is someone hurt?”
I feared the worst. Bears should be hibernating, but they didn’t exactly play by the rules and didn’t have a calendar. If a bear attacked one of my guests, I was screwed. My small business would never recover. City dwellers were afraid of nature. I couldn’t have their worst fears coming true. My retreat was supposed to offer a safe place to commune with nature. People-eating bears were not acceptable.
“No,” she wailed. “I don’t know.”
I looked at Leo, who rolled his eyes. “Why are you shrieking?” he asked her.
She frowned at him. “I’m not shrieking!” she shrieked.
I stepped in front of her, my six-three stature towering over her petite size. “Miss, what’s happened?” I asked, using my natural voice that I had been told was very calming.
“My friend—well, not really my friend,” she said, suddenly no longer panicked. She waved a hand with nails that looked like they could strip metal from a building. “She works at the dealership in the office and we sometimes go out for drinks.”
Leo made a big show of clearing his throat. The woman looked at him and scowled. I had to look away to keep from bursting into laughter. The woman was a drama queen.
“What happened?” I asked again, holding on to the last shred of patience.
“She didn’t come back last night!” she wailed.
That got my attention. “What do you mean she didn’t come back?” I checked my tactical watch. It was after eight. I looked at the temperature display and was already calculating exposure time and hypothermia.
“Well, last night, we had a few drinks and she was flirting with Lonnie from the finance department,” she explained.
“And?” Leo snapped, cutting her off.
“And I went back to the cabin. She decided to visit him at his cabin. I talked to him about ten minutes ago and he said she left around three. Can you believe he’s just packing up and leaving? He’s not even worried!”
I looked at Leo, quietly telling him to deal with the hysterical friend. It was my job to find the missing party. I left them in the cabin, rushing back to my own cabin and grabbing my pack. I always kept a bag ready in case of an emergency—like the one I was dealing with.
I slipped on my parka, stuffed my walkie into the side pocket of my pack, and headed out. I hated that someone was in danger, but I wasn’t going to deny I loved the thrill of the hunt. I pulled my bright orange beanie low over my ears and took the trail that led behind the cabins. If I were having a clandestine affair, I would use the small trail to avoid the walk of shame in the morning.
My eyes studied the trail, looking for signs the woman had encountered a wild animal. I shook my head with disgust. “I warn them,” I muttered under my breath. “I warn them, and they ignore me. This is the woods, not the fucking mall.”
My retreat was relatively isolated, but it wasn’t like we were miles from civilization. My retreat offered the illusion of off the grid, but we had all the perks to keep the city folk happy, including a high-speed internet connection. I kept the trails of my forty-acre property well groomed. There were signs along each trail directing people on the way back.
“And still they get lost,” I mumbled.
I went deeper into the trees, searching for any sign of the missing woman. I stopped walking, the crunch of the fallen leaves stopping. I cocked my head to the side. Something had caught my attention, but I couldn’t place it. My ears strained to hear the sound that had brought me to a full stop. There it was again. It sounded like a growl. But not a growl. I had studied nature most of my life. I knew every sound in the forest. It was my job to know it.
I started moving, confident it wasn’t a snarling animal. I followed the sound, going off the trail and into an area of thick shrubs and little sunlight. I saw a shiny, silver pump lying on the ground. Fear raced through me as I moved around the thick shrubs. I looked down at the sleeping woman, snoring like a train.
She was sprawled out, lying in dried leaves, dirt, and what looked a lot like deer shit. “Hello,” I said. “It’s time to get up.”
There was another snort. She rubbed a hand over her nose. “Five more minutes,” she mumbled.
“Five more hours and you’d be hypothermic. Five degrees less overnight and I’d be picking up your dead body.”
She blinked, looking up at me with confusion. “Where am I?”
“In the woods,” I said with irritation.
“Why am I in the woods?”
I reached out my hand to help her up to a sitting position. “Are you hurt?” I asked.
She groaned, rubbing her head. I reached for a branch tangled in her platinum-blonde hair and tossed it to the ground. “My head hurts. Does that count?”
“No. You need to get up. We have to get you back to the cabin and warmed up.”
“Why am I in the woods?” she asked again.
I helped her up, fetching her shoe and letting her use me for support while she put it back on. “My guess is you had a little too much to drink. When you tried to find your cabin, you got lost and ended up out here.”
“You really need to put up lights or something. Seriously, why aren’t there lights?”
I sighed, escorting her back to the trail. “There are lights. They aren’t streetlights. This is a retreat. If I lit it up like the city, it wouldn’t be quite as serene. It would scare off the wildlife.”
“I could have been eaten by a bear,” she snapped in a haughty tone.
“Bears are hibernating,” I told her. “At least, I think they are.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh my god! I knew it was a mistake to come here.”
I didn’t verbally agree with her, but I was thinking the same thing. I got her type all the time. My retreat was designed to be a teambuilding opportunity for small groups. Unfortunately, the bar tended to get abused and the last night of a getaway always turned into a drunkfest. Adults acting like teenagers was not a pretty sight.
“If you would have been here a month later, you’d be dead. You would have died in the temperatures.”
She shot me a dirty look. “And you would have been sued.”
“I can’t be sued for stupidity,” I told her.
“You’re not being very nice to me,” she pouted. “I almost died.”
“Yes, you did. I hope you’ve learned a lesson.”
Judging by the look on her face, she was not pleased with my assessment. Thankfully, Leo saved me from getting a tongue lashing by the ungrateful woman.
“You found her!” he exclaimed.
Several of her coworkers were gathered together in a circle. Leo’s proclamation got their attention. They all rushed forward, hugging the woman and coddling her. The woman played it up, bursting into tears and telling a rather elaborate story about barely surviving.
Her boss made her way to where Leo and I were standing and witnessing the scene. “I want to thank you for finding her,” he said, shaking my hand. “I hate to think of how things could have turned out if it wasn’t for your quick thinking and excellent tracking skills.”
I smiled and looked at Leo, who gently nodded, silently telling me to go along with whatever story he had spun. “She’s going to be okay,” I assured him. “I’m glad I was here to help.”
The woman who had alerted us to the disappearance rushed me, throwing her arms around me and sobbing. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re my hero.”
I awkwardly patted her back. “You’re welcome.”
Leo winked at me before gently grabbing the arm of the woman and pulling her away from me. “Let’s get you all some hot cocoa before you get on your way.”
I extracted myself from the situation, leaving the group in Leo’s capable hands. I made my way to my office. I did have a problem on my hands. I couldn’t have drunken women stumbling about in the woods. It was nature. Nature could be dangerous for those who didn’t respect it. I hated to think I needed to provide personal escorts to every guest and then lock them in their cabins, but I had to do something.
I stepped inside my small office and closed the door behind me. Paperwork was my least favorite part of the job. I sat down at my desk and turned on the computer that was probably about ten years too old. I didn’t spend a lot of time using the damn thing and couldn’t justify the cost of buying a new one.
I pulled up the booking program and checked to see when the next group was coming. I wanted to have new safety protocols implemented by then. I had two weeks before the next large group. I was going to take the woman’s suggestion to heart and install a few more lights around the cabin area. I refused to disrupt the animal habitat areas. They didn’t deserve to have their worlds disturbed because people couldn’t follow simple rules and stick to the paths I worked so hard to keep up.
I opened a new window and did a quick search for lighting. After twenty minutes of searching, reading reviews, and looking for the best price, I made the purchase. I hated spending money on something I didn’t feel was necessary, but obviously, it was.