DO NOT ENTER
Normally, the stenciled warnings nailed to every other tree would have sent Nathan Shields walking away. Not tonight. Behind him, his Toyota stood guard on the shoulder of the road. Shouldn’t he hide it somewhere? He pulled his phone from his pocket and cursed. No time.
He was late, but that was hardly his fault.
“Hurry,” Kevin had said. “And bring a shovel.”
“Right now? It’s a four-hour drive.” After a long day of babysitting middle-school musicians, Nathan wanted to veg on his couch, maybe get lost in a little Bob Ross or “I Love Lucy.” No more true crime dramas, though. Those were starting to freak him out. He was convinced half the kids in his fifth-period ensemble were serial killers in a state of incubation. And not just the drummers and tuba players. That was the problem with serial killers, they were the ones you’d least expect.
“It’s more like four-and-a-half,” Kevin had said. “And take the back road. There’s a game tonight. Cops will be everywhere. Remember, you owe me.”
That’s why Nathan had come. To pay a debt. He sighed, expelling a cloud of frustration into cold air. After tonight, he and Kevin would definitely be even. He planted his shovel into the steep bank for support and stepped over the “CAUTION” tape. Trying to focus on anything but cops, or serial killers, or his fifth-period ensemble, Nathan ignored the signs and ventured into the woods.
Less than a mile away, the University’s stadium glowed in the night sky and echoed with the muted roar of a crowd and pulse of a marching band. Nathan trekked deeper into the forest and soon lost the halo of lights in a tangle of tree limbs. A branch snapped somewhere in the darkness. Nathan swung his light side to side, painting an eerie strobe across the knotted foliage lining the path.
“Kevin?” Nathan whispered. “Kevin, is that you?” What if it wasn’t? What if it was the cops? Nathan’s heart hit full accelerando as cold sweat coated his palms and upper lip. Before the night was over, he’d be starring in his own true-crime drama, drinking stale coffee in a dingy room while some bald guy with bad teeth grilled him. Trespassing, destruction of property, theft. What was the statute of limitations for all that? He was no serial killer. But if they knew what he and Kevin did back in the day, then, oh Lucy, he’d have some ‘splainin’ to do. Not to mention the other thing. You owe me.
Eternal seconds passed as Nathan tried to avoid going completely non compos mentis. Deep breaths. Just like the nice therapist lady taught him. Deep breaths. His ears became radars, analyzing every sound, searching for bogies in the night. Nothing. Faint cheers and the fight song of his alma mater floated through the trees. Six points for the home team. Finally, his beats per minute slowed to a brisk allegro—not quite andante, but he’d take it—and Nathan pressed on.
“Freeze! Campus Security!”
A wall of white light materialized from behind a nearby tree.
Nathan screamed and threw his hands in the air. The flashlight and shovel crashed at his feet as he turned to the side and hiked his leg in a sort of standing fetal position. “Don’t shoot! Please, God. Don’t shoot!”
The light fell, and Kevin Vargas stepped out of the shadows. “Hey, man. It’s just me. Don’t wet your pants.” Kevin laughed and threw his hands in the air. “‘Don’t shoot!’ Seriously. Since when do you know Campus Security to carry guns, let alone shoot people?”
“That’s not funny.” Nathan had not wet his pants, but he checked just in case.
“Oh, it’s funny alright,” Kevin said. “Hilarious, actually. Here’s your shovel. Now, relax.”
Nathan snatched it. “Relax? What if we get caught? I can’t afford to show up on the front page tomorrow morning.”
“Front page?” Kevin leaned on his shovel. “Nathan, you’re a divorced band director from a 2A county school four hours away. You’re hardly front-page material.”
“Four-and-a-half, remember? And thanks for the pep talk.”
“Come on,” Kevin said. “You know what I mean.”
“You said cops were everywhere.”
“Sure, over there. Every campus cop—every city cop for that matter—is at that ballgame breaking up fights between drunk frat boys. There’s nothing to worry about.”