“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat,” Caleb said, eyeing the practically suicidal move Liam made in the hearts game. Nearby, the dying fire cracked and popped, orange embers sparkling, then fading away. The smell of wood burning surrounded the campsite.
“What’re you on about? Of course it counts,” Liam picked up the Queen of Spades he had just put down and slapped it on the table with greater emphasis. “This game’s been goin’ on for ages. If I want to make a daft move, I’ll make a daft move, all right?”
The night crept into the early hours of the morning, blackness around them, a blanket of stars above. It was a cool autumn night on top of Mount Tennant, enveloped in the Appalachian Mountains near their highest point in North Carolina. In addition to Caleb, eight hikers took part in this four-day backpacking excursion into the Shining Rock Wilderness. Their first day had been a success, no injuries or mishaps, everyone getting along, enjoying themselves, and rationing their food and water appropriately. Their first camping site was there atop the mountain, where they all anticipated rising to greet the sunrise, which promised to be spectacular.
Liam McKenzie and his wife, Monika, organized the trip. Caleb and the McKenzies lived near one another in Brevard, a cozy little town nestled at the mouth of the Pisgah Forest. He joined the trip as soon as Liam told him about it, smiling at Liam with all the friendship he had fabricated over the last year, ever since the Brit and his wife showed up down the street from Caleb’s home, rubbing his nose in their happiness.
“You know you’re going to eat that,” Caleb nodded at the Queen of Spades, sitting solitary in the center of the fold-out table.
“Yes, I know. That’s why I played it,” Liam said.
“You make winning too easy.”
“Stuff winning. I’m bored, and in desperate need of a decent night’s sleep,” Liam said. He turned to the camper on his left. “Your move.”
“Who knows? He could end up shooting the moon,” another camper said.
“No, he can’t. I’ve already racked up points,” Caleb held up his stash of hearts, mixed in with a few harmless clubs and diamonds. “Monika broke hearts on the second hand, remember?”
“She does that a lot, doesn’t she? Always breaking them hearts,” Liam winked at his wife, who rolled her eyes.
“Right, that’s me done,” Liam collected the cards on the table and counted them up. “I’m well over twenty-six points.”
“Have you ever shot the moon in this game?” Monika asked.
“Only accidentally,” Liam laughed. “Funny, that. I can shoot the moon when I’m not trying, but if I actually do try, it ends in disaster. What do you reckon that says about me?”
“It says you coast by on dumb luck. But when it comes to tactics or skill, you’re hopeless,” Caleb said, his tone and facial expression too serious amid the joviality of his fellow campers.
“Right. And, on that note, I’m off to bed. Join me soon, won’t you?” Liam said, massaging Monika’s shoulders.
“I can’t rest until I’ve won at least one game,” Monika replied, eyes fixed on her hand of cards. The other hikers laughed. Caleb, still stone-faced, said,
“It’s a wonder how the two of you wound up together.”
“Oh, opposite sides of the same coin and all that,” Monika said.
“Or maybe it’s just more of that dumb luck of mine, eh, Caleb?” Liam said, smiling. He then returned to his tent, Caleb glaring after him as Monika shuffled and dealt the cards.
“Let’s make this the last round,” Monika said. “Prepare to lose.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Caleb said, smiling. “I’ve never lost anything in my life, if I could help it,” he met Monika’s eyes, in which he read the silent truth: that he had lost her.
Long before Liam McKenzie set foot on American soil, back in the innocent days of college, he had been the one holding Monika’s hand, shuffling through the snow together to and from the university’s library, running together, hiking up these very mountains. Both of them passionate and ambitious, he studied politics, she studied law. When she passed the LSAT, they went to dinner, he proposed, and she turned him down. She claimed not to be interested in any of that—husbands, children, security—she claimed that she thrived on independence and adventure. So Caleb lost. Now, a decade later, here she was, Mrs. Liam McKenzie, with three perfect children—Stella, 6, Milo, 3, and Aidan, 1—and three perfect dogs, all smug in their cozy little house that Liam built himself, suddenly back in cozy old Brevard, North Carolina after years living in DC, back under Caleb’s nose, who was left to wonder what that limey bastard had to offer that Caleb didn’t. Dumb luck, that was it.
And dumb luck always ran out in the end.
As soon as he could that morning, over the campfire breakfast of packaged oatmeal and instant coffee, Caleb offered Liam an apology.
“I’m over-competitive and I always end up saying things I don’t mean,” Caleb said. “It didn’t help that I was exhausted and headachy.”
“Ah, nonsense, mate,” Liam smiled and clapped Caleb on the back. Like most fools, he trusted people far too easily. The lack of a challenge almost bored Caleb, but then he had never done anything on this scale. His thirst for revenge, his desire to prevail, had never taken him quite this far. Even for him, the plan was extreme, but he would see it through to the last, as he did with every challenge he faced. And, like every challenge he faced before, he intended to succeed with this one. Liam McKenzie and Monika Chadha would learn their lesson before the sun dipped below the horizon.
The hikers trudged five miles before stopping for lunch. One of the hikers, Sophie, was moving slowly thanks to an old rib injury that started acting up again. As the organizers and trip leaders, Monika and Liam acted as lead and sweep, with Monika at the front and Liam in back. Caleb kept to the back of the group, with Liam and Sophie. They hiked up to another bald along the way, stopping for lunch on the summit.
“It’s amazing how much better food tastes after a hike, innit? I mean, you’ve got your standard PB&J here, don’t ya? And yet it tastes like bleedin’ filet mignon, know what I mean?” Liam said, chomping down on his sandwich while the hikers chuckled and agreed.
“I’m looking forward to a nice, cold beer once we finish,” Monika said. The plan was to check out a local brewery after emerging from four days in the wilderness, sweaty and smelly and dirty.
“Me and all,” Liam agreed.
On the way down the mountain, Sophie needed to pee. Caleb and Liam waited beside the trail while she sought a private, shaded area. There was a decent amount of forest to the left of the trail, where Sophie went, and to the right, Caleb noted, was nothing but a steep drop.
“You can go on if you want, mate,” Liam said.
“No, no, I’ll stay with y’all. Actually, I didn’t want to say anything, but I didn’t pack my backpack very well this morning. The brain’s been driving me crazy,” Caleb said, making a show of dropping his pack to the ground and kneeling beside it to rearrange the items in the brain. Too easy, he thought, smiling to himself as he watched the backs of the hikers in front of them disappear around the bend and down into the forest.
Oblivious novices, Caleb shook his head. Monika, though, was no novice, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before she noticed three hikers were missing. Time was short.
“Nice day out,” Caleb said.
“It’s dead nice, yeah,” Liam agreed. “We’ve been lucky. Looks like we might get to the next campsite without any serious thunderstorms, touch wood.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Caleb glanced over his shoulder into the forest. Sophie was no longer in sight, but they could hear her shuffling around. Caleb turned back to Liam, who was sitting atop his backpack, chomping on an energy bar.
“You’re a runner, aren’t you?” Caleb asked.
“When I’m in the mood, yeah,” Liam said.
“Didn’t you run a marathon with Monika? I think she was telling me about that yesterday,” Caleb said, seeking his opening. His body ached to just do it, to finish him, but his brain held him in check. Calm and cool is the way to go. Stay in control.
“We did, yeah. The Marine Corps, when we were living in DC. That’s sort of how we got together, actually. Comparing notes during training and that,” Liam said.
“Yeah, so she said. It’s a nice story. One for the grandkids,” Caleb said.
“Too right,” Liam chuckled. “What about you, mate? You a runner?”
“Oh, yeah, of course I am. Six-time marathoner,” Caleb said.
“Yep. And I’ve beat my personal record each time. Actually, Monika and I ran our first marathon together,” Caleb said.
“Is that right?” Liam mumbled, looking at his dirty fingernails.
“Yep. We’d be out there at the crack of dawn each morning, seeing who could go farthest, fastest. Everything was a competition with us.”
“Maybe that’s why things didn’t work out between yas,” Liam said, wiping sweat from his brow and stifling a yawn.
“Oh, no. Don’t you know your wife at all? Monika loves a challenge, and so do I. No, we just grew apart, as people do. She wanted more than our little mountain town could offer. Wanted to go off to the big city up north—well, Washington, DC, anyway—and I didn’t want that. I prefer to be a big fish in a small pond,” Caleb said.
“I bet you do,” Liam mumbled, poking at his hiking boot with a stick. Caleb observed him, Mr. Friendly, always smiling with a joke and a kind word for everyone. The first strains of exhaustion and irritability were finally making themselves evident in that pasty white face.
“What about Boston?” Caleb asked, taking pleasure in pressing on the sensitive nerve he had evidently found.
“What about it?” Liam asked.
“Have you run it?”
“Oh, no, I’d never qualify. Too slow, me. I reckon you have?”
“Twice. Monika has, too,”
“Yeah, I do know that, ta,” Liam said, irritation seeping into his voice. Caleb smiled. He watched Liam drink from his water bottle and scan the mountains in the distance.
“How long does it take to piss?” Liam glanced over his shoulder to the shaded side of the trail, where Sophie had traipsed off at least ten minutes earlier.
“Maybe she had to do more than that,” Caleb shrugged.
“Seems that way, doesn’t it?” Liam scratched the back of his head and cleared his throat. He looked back into the forest, then back to the wilderness in front of them—a wide, deep canyon surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains in the distance. “Listen, mate, could we cool it on all the Monika talk?”
“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Caleb asked. Game.
“A bit, yeah,” Liam replied. Set.
“Is that because you know she’s too good for you?” Caleb said. Match.
“Don’t be daft.”
“Well, hey, if the shoe fits. Clearly, it bothers you, knowing that she’s the successful one in your relationship. I mean, think about it. She’s the breadwinner. She’s out working while you sit around playing househusband with your offspring. How could that not bother you?”
“Maybe because I’m not a sexist chav?” Liam said, all pretense at friendliness gone.
“You know, I lied earlier.”
“Did ya? What, you only ran five marathons, not six?”
“I didn’t break up with Monika. She ended things with me. Do you know why?”
“I can’t imagine,” Liam said.
“She left me because she didn’t want marriage. She didn’t want a family. She ran off to pursue her dreams, then suddenly she’s back in town with a ring on her finger and a baby on her hip. How do you explain that?”
“I dunno what to tell you, mate. People change.”
Caleb knelt beside his backpack, blind with determination. He had to act now, if he was going to act at all. He had already taken too long, taking too much enjoyment out of ruffling Liam’s feathers. He pulled out his knife and stood, laughing when Liam’s face drained of color at the sight of the weapon.
“Wh—what’re you doing?”
“You see, I’m a bit of a sore loser.”
“I’m not your mate,” Caleb snapped, touching the tip of the blade to Liam’s shirt.
“Okay. Sorry. It’s only a phrase,” Liam held up his hands, his eyes wide with fear. He swallowed hard and said, “listen, why don’t we put the knife down and talk this through? There’s no need for violence, all right? I’m sorry if Monika hurt you, but you were both younger then. Maybe she only meant she didn’t fancy marriage and family then. But, look, she isn’t the only woman in the world, know what I mean?”
“See, that’s the problem. And that’s why you don’t deserve her. To me, she is the only woman in the world. And you? Well, you, mate, are just an obstacle to get rid of,” Caleb grinned, stepping forward. Liam stepped back, off the main trail and into the grass. One more step back, and he would fall over the edge to the depths of the forest far below.
“Right, and how would killing me solve anything?” Liam panted. His cheery, laidback confidence replaced with primal fear. Fear of death, fear of pain, fear of Caleb and his capabilities. “Do you think Monika will fall into your arms after you’ve murdered me? She won’t. She’ll want nothin’ to do with ya.”
“Don’t you think I thought of that? It’s simple,” Caleb sliced through the surface of his hiking shorts, leaving a superficial gash in his thigh, the pain suppressed by power and adrenaline.
“You are off your head!” Liam said. Caleb laughed, then held the bloodied knife against Liam’s chest again.
“We were all held up by a madman in the woods. Happens now and then in these parts. Rednecks, hillbillies, you know the sort. I made it out with some scrapes, but poor old Liam,” Caleb clicked his tongue and shook his head, looking down at the ground. Liam’s hiking boots were lost in the overgrown bushes, the heel of his left foot seconds from slipping. “We’ll just have to see how that dumb luck of yours holds up against plans and strategy.”
Liam grabbed Caleb’s wrist and tried to shove past him, back to the trail, but Caleb was stronger. He grabbed Liam and pushed him closer to the edge of the mountainside, his left hand clutching Liam’s shirt while his right dug the knife into his abdomen. Liam let out a childish whimper.
“You know, Liam, I came so close to just grabbing you by the backpack and shoving you off the side there. Quick and easy, you know. No hassle, no blood. But it’s better this way. I like seeing the terror in those baby blues. I like to know that you know what’s coming, and that you’ve lost. Hey, thanks for inviting me on this little backpacking trip. It’s been fun,” Caleb pushed Liam over the edge. He went silently, falling through the air until he disappeared below the tree line. There was no trail down there. It was untouched wilderness. The forest rustled behind him. Caleb turned to see Sophie emerging from the woods, clutching the rib that had been bothering her all morning.
“Where’s Liam?” Sophie asked. Caleb closed his eyes and sighed. She would be dealt with, too.
“Sorry, Sophie,” Caleb put a hand on Sophie’s shoulder. “Got nothin’ against you.”
It was easier the second time. The knife slid into her stomach, soft and easy. She didn’t attempt to fight back in her shock, giving Caleb ample time to manhandle her and push her over the edge. She let out a tiny, lonely cry, and that was it. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, hands shaking as he threw the knife into the distance, sending it as far west as he could from where Liam fell.
Already, the story played out in his head. Someone, some crazy man wielding a knife, attacked the three of them. Sophie was first to fall, as she was already injured. Liam rushed to her aid and was taken down. In the scuffle, Caleb got away. And he would be there to comfort Monika, to hold her when she cried, to listen as she poured out her heart.
About a mile past the actual site of their demise, Caleb dropped his pack, along with Liam’s and Sophie’s, which he dragged along with him. He hung Liam’s baseball cap on a tree branch extending over the edge of the mountainside. He opened the backpacks and took Liam’s wallet and a pendant from Sophie’s bag. The robbery, after all, had to have an element of realism. Finally, Caleb planted his walking stick in the dirt, marking the fabricated location of the attack.
He didn’t doubt Liam and Sophie would be found eventually, but the further astray he could lead the authorities, the better. He adjusted his hat atop his head and cleared his throat before heading down the trail, a smile spreading across his face as he went.
When he caught sight of the other hikers sitting near the trail, evidently waiting for Caleb, Liam, and Sophie to catch up, Caleb worked himself into a state, panting and afraid, and ran to the group, exclaiming about the attack. Ahead, Monika stood from her perch on a rock, her face contorted in confusion and shock.
It was over. Caleb had won.