Over-ambitious entrepreneur Cat Banks didn’t want to turn her mother’s death into a business opportunity but the abandoned gold mine that Cat stands to inherit will go a long way to paying off salaries and defaulted loans. The development will destroy the land her mother spent her life protecting but what else is Cat supposed to do?
Teaming up with her mother’s lover, John McFadden, who is as eager as Cat to develop the deposit he has coveted for two decades seems like a good idea. Together they face off against Cat’s sister Liz and the local environmentalists who not only want to protect the land but to contain the curse they believe resides in the abandoned shafts.
Cat is willing to do whatever it takes to save her company, but when questions arise over how her mother died and Liz disappears, Cat isn’t fighting for gold anymore. She’s fighting for her life.
This is my first (as yet unpublished) novel. Enjoy!
Cat Banks stood at the edge of Crag Lake Road, the wind biting at her legs and pushing through her thin wool blazer. The wind’s insistence irritated her already raw nerves and she pulled her collar tighter around her throat but it did no good. Trying to protect the small core of warmth, she hunched her shoulders and drew inward, even as a finger of wind wriggled up the back of her jacket and spread its cold touch across her rigid muscles.
“What are we doing here?” she asked, impatient that they were not at the cemetery. She had hoped it would be a quick burial.
Her sister Liz stood in the centre of the pavement, her long legs straddling the faded yellow line, maintaining the distance she had kept since Cat got off the plane that morning. The rift between them remained as much a barrier as the swollen ditch, the water clogged with brittle cattails and decaying vegetation.
A gust rushed across the marsh towards them, turning the water a dark slate beneath it. Liz squared her shoulders, lifted her chin and let the air flow over her. Cat turned her head when it struck.
“Do you know?” Cat asked John. He leaned against the hood of the VW, his brylcreem laden hair unmoving.
John turned his head and Cat followed his gaze up the steep hill they had just descended. The space for the narrow road had been blasted from the rock outcrop that rose like an ancient beast out of the surrounding marsh. Sparse trees clung to the rock’s edge, their roots searching for enough purchase in the pockets of soil to stay alive.
“Would someone answer me?!” She was tempted to stamp her foot in the gravel, looking and sounding like a spoiled child, but she didn’t care. She had been asking the same question since they passed Rose Hill Cemetery where even now the mourners would be gathering around Esther’s grave.
A truck crested the top of the hill and John straightened. It had been John, not Liz, who had called to inform her of her mother’s death.
“I’m sorry,” he had said and all she had managed to respond was, “When?”
Esther Banks, aged 56, died early on the morning of November 26 after a short battle with stomach cancer. John McFadden, her partner for ten years, was with her when she died.
The rusted red and white pickup pulled onto the shoulder in front of them, a loosely tied blue tarp flapping in the box. The driver hopped out of the cab and walked the length of the truck bed. He wore a blue ball cap inscribed with The Town of Crag Lake and it was difficult to see his face but there was no mistaking who he was. Rangy and strong like a wild animal when she had left, Thomas Harley’s shoulders were broader, his legs thicker, and the black hair that had hung to his shoulder-blades was cut short beneath the cap. She had seen the truck parked at the exit of the funeral home; she just hadn’t known it was him.
He greeted John and Liz with a nod and reached his hand out to shake Cat’s. Three fingers were missing; only part of an index finger and most of a thumb were still intact. Scarred, pink flesh stretched over the deformed stump. Cat didn’t even need to ask how it had happened. Thomas had loved explosives, drawn to them like some children are drawn to the danger of swollen rivers. She felt sadness at the sight of a beautiful statue disfigured. For Thomas had always been beautiful.
“Good to see you,” she said, the words slick and pat from too many sales meetings.
John banged on the top of the tailgate before opening it. Releasing her hand, Thomas pulled the blue tarp off from the side of the pickup, revealing a long, freshly built plywood box. It was two metres long with the lid nailed down in four places. The plywood was new, the edges still rough where it had been cut and Cat knew instantly what it contained. She backed away from the box and her ankle turned as her heel sunk into the gravel. She stumbled, catching herself on the cold steel of the VW’s bumper.
“What is that doing here?” said Cat. John held onto it like a life raft and Liz leaned against the tailgate watching Cat.
“Thomas works at the funeral home,” said Liz as if that explained it.
“You can’t just put bodies wherever you like,” said Cat. Her ankle throbbed.
Thomas exchanged a look with Liz as if to say I told you so.
“She wouldn’t have come,” Liz replied, standing as Thomas handed her the bunched up tarp. She lifted the lid of the truck’s storage box and stuffed it inside.
The coffin scraped along the ribbed metal bed as John pulled it towards the tailgate. A piece of dried mud fell to the gravel as Thomas moved to help him.
“You can’t do this,” said Cat, staying where she was. Her hands had started to tremble. She had avoided the visitation, telling John she hadn’t been able to get a flight on short notice.
“It’s where she belongs,” said Liz, moving to take her place beside John.
“As dinner? For the coyotes?”
“The grave is plenty deep,” said Thomas.
“There’s a grave?”
“Of course there’s a grave. Did you think we’d just throw her out into the forest?” said Liz.
Cat hadn’t thought anything. Hadn’t imagined this was even a possibility.
“Can we get on with this?” Liz said. “I don’t want to be out here any longer than necessary.” As if summoned by Liz’s words, a car crested the hill. All of them moved in towards the coffin forming a protective, shoulder-to-shoulder semi-circle as the car passed in a roar of engine and skittering gravel.
“This is crazy,” said Cat, stepping back, the bite of the wind more acute outside the circle. A sole hawk alighted on the top of a branch-less, rotted ash tree, its expansive wings flapping in a powerful V. The car disappeared around the bend.
“This is what she would have wanted,” said Liz, with increased impatience. “And this way she can still protect the property.”
“Isn’t that your job now?” said Cat. A body buried six feet under, if the grave was six feet, wouldn’t be protecting anything.
Liz yanked the coffin towards them so suddenly Cat jumped back to avoid being struck.
“What was that?”
Liz didn’t respond, her gaze fixed on the lid of the coffin. All three of them had their hands on the lid as if they could feel the connection to Esther’s remains; the shrunken, depleted muscle and bone of what had once been a force of nature.
“Everyone is going to need to take a corner,” said Thomas. He had the coffin partially levered off the tailgate, the lack of fingers not appearing to affect his use of the hand. “John, you and I can take the front and Cat and Liz can look after the back.”
Churned up water, thick with silt and rotted leaves, broke against the road’s retaining wall, the icy tops of the waves spraying onto Cat’s cheeks.
“Are you in or out?” said Liz.
Cat wiped away the drops and reminded herself of her quiet, ordered apartment in Toronto. She stepped into the remaining spot next to Thomas.
Cat had carried newborn kittens in cardboard boxes when she was young, the struggling warmth of their bodies detectable through the thin walls though they had been too weak to survive. There would be no heat to feel through these plywood walls.
“Ready?” Thomas said.
Liz and Cat faced each other as the coffin dropped onto their hands, its weight all the proof Cat needed of what lay inside. She forced herself to hold on.
The ditch separated the road from the tangled brush and twisted trees of their mother’s property. A NO TRESPASSING sign had been nailed to an uprooted jack pine along with a NO HUNTING sign posted on a bent poplar at the entrance to the old trail.
They maneuvered down the slope and across the rotted bridge before following a single, narrow track through the woods. The coffin was awkward and heavy and during longer, straighter stretches they lifted it to their shoulders. For narrow openings, they held the box between them. Cat’s strained hands threatened to open each time they changed position and she slipped and tripped on the muddy path, her heeled boots not made for the uneven terrain.
“How much farther?” she asked after her ankle turned again on an unseen root. It wouldn’t surprise her that Liz had planned this just for her.
Thomas answered but his words were muffled by the side of the coffin.
They had gone directly north from the entrance, veering west to avoid the ridge that acted as a natural barrier for anyone intent on discovering what the property had to offer. Cat could have saved them the trouble: murky lakes, sucking swamps, mutant black flies, and rocks. You couldn’t forget the rocks, even if you wanted to.
Her phone buzzed once. Twice. Her arms already fatigued, she shifted the edge of the coffin on her shoulder and matched Thomas’s stride.
“We need to lower it through here,” he said. “We’ll lift it up and catch it on the way down.”
They lifted together as they had before but with little strength left in her arms Cat undershot and her corner rose lower than the others. The box twisted in the air. Thomas lunged too late to stop what had become a vicious projectile. The end of the box cracked into a pair of birch trees before the whole coffin rolled towards her and the front smashed onto a rock with a sickening crunch.
In horrific slow motion, the coffin opened. A green sleeve and an impossibly thin hand fell into Cat’s lap. She scrambled back as the hand fell further, the palm opening to the sky.
“Get it off!” she screamed.
John reached across the broken coffin and grabbed the loose board, trying to lever the lid back into place but the arm had come out too far. He tried once, the board butting into the soft flesh, and then again, each time pulling harder as if force alone could return Esther to her proper place.
“Stop!” said Thomas. But John wouldn’t or couldn’t and in his panic continued to hammer against Esther’s arm.
Cat turned her head and threw up onto an oak sapling.
“Christ,” said Liz.
The banging stopped. Thomas held John’s arms but there was no recognition in John’s eyes and Cat had no doubt he would continue if Thomas released his hands. Liz leaned against a crumbling granite rock face several feet away, a gaunt, pale silhouette against the rock.
“We have to reposition her,” said Thomas to John, trying to sound calm. “That’s all it takes.”
Cat met Thomas’s unsettled gaze. Liz looked equally rattled.
Cat pulled in her knees, wiped her mouth, and using the rock cut for leverage, staggered to her feet. She forced her gaze down to the coffin. Her phone buzzed again, an unrecognizable sound from another world.
She kneeled, the cool hardness of the dirt beneath her knees. As if tucking clothes in a drawer, she stuffed the escaped arm back in and slid the board into place. She swallowed against the taste of bile as she slammed the heel of her hand twice against the top to secure it in place. She stood, her hands shaking, her ears roaring hollow like the inside of a seashell. It was several ragged breaths before she could speak. “We’re good.”
Liz nodded to Cat with a grudging thanks as everyone resumed their positions. On his way past, Thomas slowed beside her.
“You okay?” He slipped his hand briefly into hers and squeezed, the warm touch so fast as to have been almost not there. “Won’t be much longer now.”
They moved in silence, accompanied by their short intakes of breath and the scrape of their feet on rock. Cat’s awareness of Esther’s body grew as she tuned to the smallest shift as the coffin tilted. A near-black blue crept from east to west across the sky, the black filling in as the sun set.
“Step up,” said Thomas. “Watch the branch.” The path weaved and dipped along the north ridge just out of reach of the sharp ledges and broken boulders at its base. At the end of the ridge, where the rock descended back into the earth, they crowned a rounded slab of granite and descended into a denser cluster of birch and oak trees. Blisters that had formed on Cat’s heels stung and a scrape on her thigh began to ache. She felt as if she were caught in an adventure burial, like some gruesome reality TV show.
A large mound of freshly dug earth on their left half-buried a low-lying juniper bush.
“Slow it down…okay…lower. Nice.”
Muddy water streamed down the sides of the dirt pile, gathering in grimy pools before overflowing the edge and falling into a deep trench. A weakening rush bled into Cat’s arms and legs as she stared into the roughly dug hole. Esther’s hand may have fallen into her lap but the darkness in that gaping pit was a different kind of horror.
She stepped away from the edge, putting the coffin between her and the stench of long buried earth. The roughly cut box looked tiny next to the hole, its pale wood like the bareness of naked skin. It would be no match for the mud that had the strength and consistency of cement, its thin walls providing no protection for Esther’s frail limbs.
She looked up to see if the others understood this and found she was alone. The wind droned in the tree tops and with the beginnings of dusk the area between the rock cut and the stand of alders grew smaller. She should be able to hear John and Thomas’s low voices or Liz’s footsteps. Did they expect her to bury Esther on her own? She would carry the coffin back to the seeming safety of the cemetery before she would do that.
She waited at the top of the coffin, near what she thought was Esther’s head and shoulders. Already the mud seeped into the plywood that touched the ground and a splash of dirt had smeared on the lid. She leaned down to brush it away and had a sudden vision of a frenzy of coyotes scraping at the box until it offered up its contents, a set of jaws clamping onto Esther’s lax hand. How had she ever agreed to this?
As easily as they had disappeared John and Thomas returned, carrying shovels and a roll of red webbing. Liz leaned against the rock outcrop, her chin tucked into her collar, as if she had been there all along. Had they left her on purpose?
They lowered the coffin between them, hot streaks of pain shooting through Cat’s palms as the webbing slipped. The box landed with a soft thud.
“Did you want to do the honours?” Thomas asked, extending the two shovel handles to Liz and Cat.
“Shouldn’t we say something?” asked Cat. “Rest in peace, go with God. That kind of thing.”
Liz shook her head. “The only God she believed in was Mother Earth.”
“We can talk to her then,” said Cat.
The gray light of the lake reflected through the trees as they took their places around the grave.
What the hell was she going to say? She and her mother didn’t – hadn’t – gotten along, Cat having been too undisciplined and reckless to meet her mother’s strict moral standards. That had been Liz’s job and this should be too. She looked over her shoulder but Liz had retreated back to her outcrop, her hands shoved deep in her pockets.
“Good afternoon,” Cat began, sounding like she was starting a presentation. She took a deep breath, feeling the shakiness at the end of it. Sales meetings were way easier than this.
“My mother never forgot my father.” John shifted across from her. “In fact she spent her whole life protecting others from the force she believed caused his death. Whether it was greed or the curse of this place, the need to keep others from the same fate obsessed her. It consumed pretty much her whole life. And ours too. Well, Liz’s anyways.”
Cat adjusted her footing in the mud, trying to ease the growing trembling in her knees, hands and chest. A gust twisted leaves around her feet, a few from the bottom of the swirl dropping into the pit.
“She will be missed. If for nothing else than the compass she provided for all of us. If we’re ever not sure of a decision we can all think of what Esther would have done. It won’t be the easy route – ever – but you can be sure that you’ll be firmly planted on the moral high-ground.”
Her gaze fell to the coffin. Esther wouldn’t have developed the gold deposit that lay beneath the property. She would have found a holistic and environmentally friendly solution for Cat’s overdue payroll and defaulted loans. Cat clasped her hands and squeezed but it didn’t stop the shaking.
“Esther died too soon.” She lifted her head and met John’s stare, the force of the anger in it like a physical blow to her chest. She was doing a shitty job but what had they wanted her to talk about? The close connection between Esther and herself and the hole her death would leave in Cat’s life? As if. A shiver started at the base of Cat’s spine and ran up to her shoulders, convulsing muscles that Cat barely had enough energy to move. She wanted this to be over.
“We bless this earth and hope that it will protect her as she has protected it. It, along with her, are truly unique and while there are many who want this place as their own it will continue to be hers with the strength of her soul to protect it. We give her our strength to help her in her task – forever. Amen.”
The sun disappeared below the western ridge and the air grew cooler. Cat needed to sit down.
“How very touching,” said Liz, appearing silently beside her. “You would almost think you cared.”
Cat picked up the shovel and, turning her back to Liz, tossed the first scoop of dirt into the grave.