Wake-Robin Ridge Prologue
Wake-Robin (Trillium erectum): A species of flowering plant native to the east and northeast of North America. Named for its deep red bloom, the wake-robin is among the first flowers to pop up in the spring, covering the shady forest floors of the Blue Ridge Mountains with carpets of wine-colored blossoms.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 22, 1965
WAKE-ROBIN RIDGE, NORTH CAROLINA
LLOYD CARTER CRIED OUT, sending a startled white-tailed doe wheeling off through the dark woods. “No, Papa! Please don’t! I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Mama? Mama, help me! Please? Please, Mama!” But Mama looked away. She always looked away, and then the strap would come down, over and over, crisscrossing his bare back with fire, and ripping scream after scream from his throat.
Lloyd was curled in his sleeping bag, knees drawn up to his chest, and arms wrapped tightly around them. He was awake now, but still whimpering with fear. The nightmare always reduced him to his ten-year-old self, helpless, as his father whipped him with a narrow leather strap cut from a horse bridle. It had been “Papa’s Instrument of Atonement,” and he had used it for the slightest infraction, leaving rows of bloody stripes behind. Lloyd’s youthful transgressions had called for a lot of atonement in his father’s eyes, and his back still bore the scars after all these years.
Shivering and choking back tears, he sat up in his small tent, waiting for his breathing to slow down, and his fear to turn to rage, as it always did. A slow anger built, consuming him, and burning away the lingering reminder of childhood trauma.
Bastard! Damn, stinkin’ bastard! And her no better! Why’d you let him do it, Mama? You could’ve stopped him! Why’d you hate me so much, always turnin’ away like that?
He closed his eyes, shutting away the last memories of the searing pain, and let his hate take control. Hatred and anger were old friends to him. They hadn’t let him down, yet. Snarling, he laced his boots, ignoring both the terror of the nightmare, and the bleak misery of his childhood.
It don’t matter, now. Neither of you matter anymore. You’re both dead and gone, and no one the wiser on that score.
He thought about how easy it had been to fool people when the “big tragedy” happened. A few pitiful tears and a scared, wide-eyed look of confusion, and they couldn’t do enough to comfort him. He had been twelve—just a skinny, baby-faced kid—but a kid with a box of matches can be as deadly as a man with a gun.
So sad, Papa. So sorry, Mama. You two are gone to glory, but guess what, Papa? Guess what, Mama? I’m still here. And guess what else? Nobody raises a hand—or a whip—to Lloyd Carter these days an’ gets away with it. Nobody!
Lloyd crawled out of the tent and stretched his muscular arms over his head, shivering in the pre-dawn air. The icy chill of a January night in the North Carolina mountains cut right through him. He glanced at his duffel bag, and smiled. Good thing I came prepared for everything, isn’t it? And I do mean everything!
He pulled on his heavy parka, and made a cup of instant coffee over a small, single burner camping stove. Sipping the scalding liquid, his lip curled up into a nasty sneer, as bloody visions of what he planned snaked through his mind.
I know at least one more person who’s gonna learn pretty soon that you hadn’t oughta screw with me, an’ I’m gonna have fun teachin’ her that lesson, too! He shivered again, this time in anticipation.
Packing up his small knapsack with beef jerky and a couple of granola bars, he clipped a canteen of water to his belt, then selected two of his sharpest knives from his duffel bag. He tucked those inside the knapsack as well, and grabbed a deadly looking machete to carry along.
Might need this baby for hacking away vines … or limbs. Yeah, limbs. That’s a good one. Sniggering to himself, he hid everything else inside the little tent, then pulled on a warm pair of gloves. Just as the dim shapes of tall pines became faintly visible, he set off through the woods, following the same route he had checked out when he arrived at his hiding place late the day before.
A slow, cold mile later, he could see the faintest hint of dawn through the trees just ahead, and knew he was approaching the clearing. The trick was to get close enough to see without being seen. He found a spot behind some thick but low-growing bushes. It was a perfect place to hunker down and wait. In the gray light of early morning, he pulled out his favorite filleting knife and a small whetstone, spat on the stone, and began to slide the knife back and forth across the surface. Falling into a rhythm, eyes half closed, he continued to hone the knife, metal caressing stone again and again. His excitement rose as he thought about the damage the razor-sharp edge was going to do, slicing deep into tender flesh, and releasing spray after spray of coppery-scented blood into the air. He smiled, already hearing the terrified pleading and the screams that would follow.
The soft noise of blade on stone kept him company as time passed. At last, morning broke in full, and spilled pink and gold daylight into the world, but his thoughts were not on the beauty of the new day opening in front of him. Instead, his hatred morphed into a cold fury as he thought about the full extent of the treachery committed against him, and the bloody revenge he planned to extract.
Lloyd crouched low in the bushes, peering at the little cabin in the clearing. This is what she chose to do with his money? Hide out on a deserted hillside in a stinkin’ little wooden shack that looked like it should have belonged to the Beverly Hillbillies, before they struck it rich? God, he could kill the bitch. “Oh, that’s right,” he said. “I’m going to.”