In the heart of the untamed wilderness lies Craven Fork, a North Carolina state park teeming with ancient mysteries and concealed dangers. Park ranger Owen Sinclair thought he knew every trail and shadow of his domain, but when a teenage hiker mysteriously vanishes without a trace, he is thrust into a perilous quest to unravel the enigmatic secrets that lurk beneath the forest canopy.
As Owen delves into the investigation, he finds himself entangled with an eccentric fly fishing guide who seems to know more than he lets on, a reality show star with a penchant for danger, and the ominous history of Craven Fork itself. The picturesque landscapes of the park belie a darkness that threatens to consume everything it touches.
In this gripping and atmospheric novel, the line between ally and enemy becomes indistinguishable, and Owen must confront not only the dangers that lurk in the depths of the forest but the demons that reside within himself. Welcome to Craven Fork, where the beauty of nature hides a darkness that will leave you breathless.
By the time the paramedics arrived in the “mule,” an old Toyota 4X4 modified with a lift kit and off-road tires, making it capable of accessing most of the trails in the park, I had applied some antiseptic from the first aid kit to a superficial cut on the woman’s face. Basic paramedic training came with the job and I decided the head injury likely wasn’t life-threatening; the helmet had done its job and taken the brunt of the impact. The fact that it was one of the best models money could buy probably didn’t hurt. The shoulder, though, was a different story. She had done some damage there; probably broken the collarbone and ripped up the connecting tissue. As the paramedics began the descent down the mountain to their ambulance with Sarah strapped to a stretcher in the mule’s bed, the radio attached to my belt squawked. What now, I thought, but responded, “Sinclair.”
“We need you at the station, Owen. ASAP. We have a missing hiker.”
“Peachy,” I muttered to myself before acknowledging the request.
Craven Fork State Park encompasses nearly 15,000 acres of wooded land in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Although it is part of the Appalachian range, the mountains of the park are younger, exposed as the softer soil and stone eroded away over the eons. Known as monadnocks, they are, in essence, immense boulders gently rising from a scree of eroded granite and diorite. While the dozen or so reports of missing hikers we received each year were all taken seriously, the fact is it would be pretty hard to stay lost for long in a park the size of Craven Fork. If they did what they are supposed to and hunkered down the minute they realized they were lost, they would almost certainly be found within an hour or two, and even if they tried to find their way out on their own, the park is so criss-crossed with well-marked trails that walking in any direction would put them back on track in short order. In the 30 months I had served at the park, the sun had never set on a lost guest.
Back at the ranger station, which was attached to the back of the visitor center, I parked my truck and walked toward an assemblage huddled near a round picnic table where on-duty rangers often took a quick lunch. Two of the other five rangers on duty that afternoon were hovering around a middle-aged couple. The husband—another assumption, but I felt confident in this one—was pointing to a spot on a topo map that was unfolded on the table and weighed against the wispy April breeze with a couple of rocks, an unopened can of Pepsi and a coffee cup with dime-size chip in the rim. The wife, a neatly coiffed brunette who looked completely out of place in a faux (or so I chose to tell myself) fur jacket, was nodding her head and occasionally dabbing her eyes with a brown paper towel that I recognized as coming from the visitor center bathroom.
“Hey, Owen,” Bobby Walls offered in way of greeting. Bobby was the park superintendent, a 20-year veteran of the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation and rapidly sneaking up on his 50th birthday, but was new to Craven Fork, having transferred in from Bight of Souls, on the coast, over the winter. The other ranger was Sam Collins. Sam had come to Craven Fork a year ago, a go-getter right out of ranger school and ready to prove she could do anything a man could. The truth is, I wasn’t entirely sure whether she was a man or a woman for the first few days. She wore her hair close-cropped, closer, in fact, than mine with my tendency to go a week too long between trims. In the pressed khaki ranger uniform shirt whatever figure she might have had was completely obscured. And while her voice wasn’t exactly deep, Owen had known many men who spoke a quarter octave higher.