After returning from Olsen’s greenhouse and Mom settled, I had just enough time to make it to the park. As I drove, my stomach churned and throat tightened. What was I so nervous about? It would still be daylight and along a busy stretch of highway. I’m simply returning a backpack and then going home.
When I pulled into the park’s lot, I noticed a single blue sedan in with no one near it. A lone woman stood by a historical plaque. Cora set the time for five minutes from now. I parked at the opposite end of the small lot and waited.
Six minutes passed and no more cars arrived. That had to be her. I grabbed the backpack and began walking in her direction. When I was about halfway to her, she turned my way and shouted, “Are you Mike?”
“Yeah,” I called out and raised the backpack.
She began walking in my direction and I towards her. A few yards apart, I heard a click near my right ear. I froze. My blood felt icy in my veins. Are they going to kill me and dump me in the lake? I don’t want to go like this.
A gloved hand reached from behind and yanked the backpack away. “Is it his?” Cora asked the unseen person. “Good.”
The only movements I made were swallowing hard and shallow breaths as I willed my heart rate to slow. My legs felt numb. How am I going to get out of this?
The unseen person held the backpack out to Cora. She snatched it away and turned it over, checking it from all angles. “Why did you set Alex up? Who do you really work for?”
“I’m a self-employed graphic artist. I didn’t set anyone up. Instead, it seems that I’ve been set up.” I was rewarded with a tap on the side of the head.
She crossed her arms and frowned. “Alex was taken to the hospital by BWCA security. He has poaching charges against him. That vehicle and its owner were with Alex,” she said, pointing to my SUV. “You were with Alex in the restricted area of the BWCA, where the ‘Miracle Trees’ first appeared.”
I tried to speak, but had no words. She moved closer; the unseen person pushed the barrel of a firearm against my head. “Who do you really work for?”
“Myself.” My voice squeaked like a fourteen-year-olds. I cleared my throat and then let the words spill out. “Alex kept telling me the forest had been overrun by these new trees and causing damage. I didn’t believe him. I wanted to prove him wrong. He told me where to drive and when to stop.
“I didn’t see anyone following us. I had no idea that part was off limits. Some men showed up, separated us, made a mess of my SUV, and wrestled with Alex. They found seeds on him and said he was poaching. I told them that Alex needed help.”
Cora snorted and started pacing. She pointed at me. “How did you get his backpack? Did you go through it? How did you get my email address?” The one with the gun nudged the side of my head.
“Alex forgot it in my SUV. The guy who went through my vehicle didn’t take it but manage to spill most of the contents.” My heart pounded harder. Think. I can’t say how I really got her email. How can I get them to see that I’m not a threat?
“Your email was on a scrap of paper. I shoved everything back into the backpack and emailed you. And those men told me I might be charged as an accessory to Alex’s poaching.”
She looked at her accomplice and then back to me. Clearly frustrated she demanded, “Give me your keys. Slowly.”
I hesitated and felt another nudge. I pulled the keys from my pocket and held them up. Cora snatched them and threw them as far as she could towards the lake. They landed before hitting the water.
“Get on the ground face down.” I obeyed. “Wait until you hear drive away, count to one hundred, and then go find your keys. This never happened. Got it?”
By the time I found my keys, it was nearly dark. The entire way back to Mom’s, I kept checking the rearview mirror. No one was following.