The hills in eastern France were chilly and misty as Tom began his morning pre-backpacking ritual. He had been here for almost two months now, contracted to survey the area for the building of several strip malls for his company back home. He had all but completely covered the assigned area, an area called Bois de la Motte. The heavily-treed area was just east of Pontarlier, close to the Swiss border.
Most of the people in Pontarlier were very accommodating. The hotel clerk was an older, sheepish man who spoke English amazingly well and helped Tom with some of the local French dialect. The robust lady at the car rental place happily answered questions Tom had about the routes and countryside of the area. Even the man at the petrol station was always willing to strike up a conversation about shows like American Idol and cars like the Ford Mustang.
The hooker he was with last night was probably the most accommodating, doing anything that Tom’s liquor-fueled aggressions demanded. He was surprised to see her petite figure still sleeping when he left earlier. Since he paid in full before the night’s events, he took everything else of value that he possessed and stuck it in the backpack before departing. Can’t be too careful, but let her sleep. She earned it.
Since no one back in the states volunteered to work this contract job, Tom had to work alone. While the skills of triangulation were not overly-complicated, two people made the job considerably faster than one. With a partner, he would have been back in Philadelphia by now, frequenting the strip bars on South Street again. Flushing his money down the toilet again. Which suited him just fine.
He made his way to the hotel lobby, stealing a glance at the morning paper lying on the front desk. The picture was of a new church that was constructed on the north side of town. The young girl behind the desk gave Tom a curt nod and walked back to the office as the fax machine gave the indication of a new arrival.
He walked outside, secured his backpack, and packed it into the rental car. The short drive east from the hotel was committed to memory now. He had one more square mile to plot before the job was done – a plot just southeast of the D47 road. And come hell or high water, he’d be back on a plane to Philly tomorrow. Cashing his check for this excursion the day after.
He finished the crepe he scooped off the plate by the entrance to the hotel with a satisfying belch as he parked the car near the tree-line. Opening the door, he lit a cigarette and moved to the rear of the car to remove his gear.
He began his trek toward the trees, stomping his cigarette into a patch of wet leaves. He walked about 100 meters into the woods and, using the GPS coordinates on his device, began setting up the tripod for the first location. After minutes of fumbling with the equipment to account for the desired azimuth, he finally had the correct plots to shoot to the next location. He heaved his backpack and began the trek south by southwest.
After minutes of walking, Tom stumbled upon something odd – a light green-colored lake. He hadn’t seen it when he initially took photographs of the area so many weeks before. From his vantage-point, it seemed to be kidney shaped with the curved ends pointing away from him – westward. Between the curves, on the other side of the lake, he caught the movement of what must had been an animal stopping for a drink. Whatever it was disappeared almost as quick as Tom spotted it.
He began to walk slowly southward along the perimeter of the lake, checking his GPS coordinates again. As he did, he noticed that his next plot was inexplicably on the kidney-shaped lake, not 20 meters away from him. Did his supervisors just happen to miss the fact that all this water was here? Did they not know that this gear was not water-fucking-proof? He briefly looked at his reflection in the green water, the slight ripples distorting his face ever so slightly. For a split second, the ripples even concealed his nose, giving him the look of a lost cousin of Kermit the Frog.
“For Christ’s sake,” Tom muttered to himself, giving the berth of the lake one last glance. He began to make his way back to the first tripod. As he walked, the thought of his cat, Bella, entered his mind. He had phoned the kennel weekly since he had been abroad to check on her status. The manager said that although Bella seemed afraid at first, she was adapting well to the surroundings. And that that was the way every cat seemed to act when brought in. The lady had a silky foreign accent. Arabic? Pakistani?
Tom reached the tripod and set the backpack on the ground. He produced a cigarette, lit up, and reached for the bottled water he had pilfered from the hooker’s purse. After taking a drink he noticed movement from his left. A figure approached through the sun-touched mist about 50 meters north, then stopped. Tom squinted to see; the figure tilted its wispy head to the side and silently walked away, disappearing the way it came.
There were some houses north of the road; maybe someone was walking their dog, Tom thought. He ousted the cigarette and packed up his gear, preparing to return to the hotel to give his boss an earful.
He took a few steps and caught a slight glare from the ground just in front of his foot. Crouching, he looked closer and saw it was a photograph. Picking it up and studying it, he saw it was a photograph of the hooker tied tightly to each corner of the bed; bruises and cuts riddling her body. Her head was in mid-turn and blurred; as if she was struggling and turning her head as the photo was taken. He knew it had to be her. Although he was pretty drunk last night, he could remember the black orchid tattooed on her upper left leg – the same one in the photo. And he never hit a woman in his life except for the occasional ass-slap in bed.
He flipped the photograph with mounting panic to see if there was a time-stamp, as a bead of sweat began creeping down the edge of his receding hairline. It was dated yesterday and the time said “11:02 pm”.
“She was sleeping and unmarked when I left,” Tom whispered with a sinking feeling.
“Hello? What the hell?” Tom shouted to the direction of the figure he saw earlier. He was met with silence.
He dropped his backpack and went into a full sprint back to the rental car. He immediately recognized the group of rocks near where his car was parked. It was sunnier now outside of the woods; most of the mist had finally conceded. He looked to the house on the other side of the street and began running toward it.
After two sets of knocks, a tall, middle-aged and bearded man answered the door, producing a shotgun to greet Tom’s face. From the heat radiating from the barrel coupled with the aroma, Tom knew instantly the gun had recently been fired. Tom backed up a few steps, hands in the air.
“Descendre ma propriété! Vous ne pouvez pas m'arrêter!” the man shouted.
Although Tom couldn’t understand this particular French statement, the word “propriété” made two and two go together.
“Look, monsieur, I’m sorry for trespassing. Just wanted to use your phone. I think a girl might be in dang…,” Tom said as he was answered by the turn of the shotgun to under the man’s chin, and the telltale sound of buckshot. The way the man fell in relation to where Tom was standing made it so that Tom caught the shotgun in mid-air before the headless corpse hit the floor.
The bizarre suddenness of the suicide erased any thought of the hooker's safety. Tom ran to his car, yelling incoherently, still gripping the shotgun in his right hand.
Tom decided to go back to the hotel. He started the car, put it into gear, but as he did he glanced at the shotgun in the passenger-seat.
“Fuck!” Tom said in frustration. His fingerprints were all over the thing. He would have a tough time explaining that he somehow caught the gun in mid-air to the French authorities. He grabbed a rag and the gun, then made his way back to the dead man’s house again. After a few minutes of rubbing off fingerprints, he placed the weapon, lopsided, in a pool of blood next to the man. He placed it a good distance too, since a close-range shotgun blast like that would have had enough report to fly away a good distance.
On the way back to his car he self-checked himself to make sure no blood was on him. Miraculously, there was not.
He began his trek back to the hotel, still trying to make sense of the morning’s bizarre events. Wiping his sweat-soaked brow with the back of his hand, he whispered a curse. He shifted uncomfortably as he felt something jabbing his right ass-cheek. He slid his hand down and noticed a large lump in his back pocket. Reaching into it, he produced several stacks of hundred-dollar American bills.
He reached for his backpack to stash the money, remembering as he did, that his backpack was left in the woods. Where did this money come from? How did the photograph find him in the woods? How could he be so careful with that gun, yet be so fucking stupid to leave his incriminating gear so near the man’s house?
By the time he reached the hotel, sweat was soaking through his clothes. He shoved the money into his jacket and parked the car near the entrance.
As he walked into the lobby, he caught another glimpse of the morning’s paper. Except the front page was different. Although his French was admittedly bad, he could make out the headline. He pieced it together as saying that the police were still investigating a string of murders throughout eastern France. The man’s house that Tom was at not even fifteen minutes ago was on the front page.
“What? It doesn’t make any sense,” Tom whispered to himself as he looked around the lobby. It was deserted.
Forsaking the telephone call to the authorities, he slid into the elevator and began the ascent up to his room. As he approached his room, he couldn’t help but notice the enticing scent of perfume as he unlocked the door. When he stepped inside, he wasn’t quite prepared for what he saw. The hooker was fixing up her makeup in the bathroom mirror, completely naked.
With not a scratch on her.
“You already paid for one night,” she said slowly in the best English she could. “I give you full package, no? Like you paid for”.
“What the fuck is going on?” Tom said as he slammed the door, startling her. He reached into his pocket, ready to produce the photograph he had found. It was gone.
“The lake. That photograph. Everything! What kind of shit are you trying to pull on me? Did you drug me?” Tom yelled as he walked toward her.
“I was just getting ready for the next client. He is in the room down the hall. I figured you were gone and I would use your watercloset. I’m sorry,” she said quickly, the look of rising concern now chiseled in her gorgeous face.
“Explain where this came from then,” he said as he reached for the stack of bills. Fortunately, they did not vanish along with the photo. He took a few steps toward the girl.
“I don’t know! You already paid! I should go now,” she said as she reached for her undergarments and other possessions that were set near a corner of the room.
“Not until I get answers on who is trying to fuck with me!” Tom said as he violently slapped the woman across the face, knocking her unconscious to the bed. He glanced out the hotel window. Why was it starting to get dark already?
He glanced at his digital camera sitting on the coffee table. Why was it here? Tom thought he packed it before he left, but must have overlooked it. He quickly picked it up, scrolled through, and noticed several pictures of strangers with their heads blown off; much like the older man he saw earlier. Some pictures were taken months ago, followed by the more recent pictures of the foliage Tom captured for his work a few weeks ago. The last group of pictures was of the woman now lying unconscious on the hotel bed. They had been taken progressively.
The first was of her as she was now – lying on her side. It wasn’t just a close approximation of how she was now laying, but an exact copy. From her position to the way the shadows in the room were.
The next one was the photo that Tom had discovered in the woods; her limbs being stretched to their limits to the four corners of the bed.
The next group showed her being progressively (and quite literally) picked apart and sexually tortured; the remains of jellied small intestines trailing through the ribbon-like remains of her vagina. The tattoo that was on her leg was now sheared off; the camera flash light dotting points of ligament and sinew.
The final ones showed her with all of the skin on her face completely peeled back and stapled to the top of her head; the pillows under her head a wet, crimson mess. These pictures probably shocked him the most, as her eyeballs were looking to different points, indicating that she was still very much alive somehow.
He dropped the camera in disbelief. He noticed it was completely dark outside now, and he tried to remember the time-stamp on back of the photograph he discovered in the woods.
He looked the girl up and down, lying unconscious on the bed. He then glanced at the clock on the nightstand.
It said “10:47 pm”.