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Where the Scavengers Feed—crime thriller, first six pages. Introduces protagonist, supporting character (the dog) two secondary antagonists, creates protagonist sympathy, introduces first goal, MacGuffin (silver compass) setting, tone. . .

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Primal longing is often conceived in the cage of civilization, where the danger of the wilderness can lay shrouded by a puerile enthusiasm to escape and melt into solitude.

Baker County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Coordinator, Dylan Stoke, had experienced the full gambit of enthusiastically ignorant decisions made by the out-of-their-element city dweller. Most of the time, the mishaps affected only those that deserved a little discomfort, and his SAR team could easily rectify those with a tow truck, a cup of hot liquid, or a splint. Sometimes, however, the poor decisions and lack of preparation endangered the innocent.

The hinges of Stoke’s jaw retreated into his stubble forested neck like a bowstring drawn to a nose, as he stared at the tiny pearls of hot grease capering from beneath the venison backstrap medallions sizzling in his cast iron skillet. He pinched his phone between shoulder and cheek, lifted a misshapen and half-melted plastic spatula from the chipped disco orange countertop and flipped the meat. “How old is he?”

Sheriff Negan’s office administrator, Wendy, paused, and Stoke heard papers shuffling through the phone. “He’s six.”

Stoke’s lashes fluttered, and his lids sunk to the bottom of his slight blue eyes. Malignant regret rushed into his lungs, each inhalation tattooed with images of death, swirling and taunting him from beyond the realm of now. A familiar deluge of tremors buffeted his numbing hands as the dirt-smudged face of a child near the age of six shimmered from the folds of his mother’s chādor and into the folds of Stoke’s mind. Propelled by a forsaken desert wind, the boy floated into the vacant Iraqi street and paused in the path of Stoke’s Humvee. A delicate hand rose into the air, bony fingers spread wide in an attempt to halt the convoy.

Paralysis slithered into Stoke’s right hand like the oil from a freshly cast chunk of fish bait, swirling across the surface of a mountain stream. The spatula fell to the floor and clattered across avocado green linoleum. He squeezed his eyes trying to force the memory back into a secret chamber within his mind. The place reserved for dead children.


“I’m here. How long has he been missing?”

“That’s a good question,” Wendy said, “we are getting differing accounts from the parents. The mom insists it was late morning, and the dad is convinced it was early afternoon. Deputy Malone is pretty sure the dad is drunk. I know you’ll want to talk to the parents when you get up there, but I can give you the basics.”

Stoke’s tremors intensified. Only this time triggered by anger at the mention of Malone, not the memory of a martyred child. He and Malone had a rough history and a strong dislike for one another. Everyone in the department knew it, including Negan, who’d usually go out of his way to keep them apart. “Deputy Malone?”

The first deputy on scene should’ve been the undersheriff, Phil Whitaker, whose dual role as emergency manager placed him on every search. “Where’s Phil?” Stoke asked.

Wendy chuckled. “Where have you been? You know what this coming weekend is, right?”

Even with the debilitating effects of Stoke’s darkest memory and the loathing of Malone clouding his thoughts, it didn’t take much concentration to recall the opening day of rifle buck season.

The dropped spatula clattered again and Stoke shifted his gaze to the floor and his Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Sonny, whose broad pink tongue frantically licked up grease.

“The sheriff gave him the day off.” Wendy said. “Something about setting up his hunting camp. Now I expect you to play nice with Malone.”

Stoke did his best to maintain professionalism and ignored the comment while glancing at his grandmothers Schwarzwald eight-day cuckoo clock hanging above his dining table. 5:15. “What time did the mom say the boy went missing?”

“Around 11:30.”

Stoke did a little mental math and turned the burner off. “Good God. That was over five hours ago.”

“I know, but they spent some time looking for him before they hiked back out to the trail head.”

“All right.” Stoke said. “Tell me everything you know.”

More papers shuffled before Wendy spoke again. “Riley Jeffries, age six, four-foot one inch, brown and blue. Last seen wearing blue jeans and an orange hoodie.”

Stoke had a glint of excitement at the mention of an orange hoodie. Since the tamarack needles or aspen leaves hadn’t yet changed, the brightly colored clothing would stand out amongst the deep green landscape.

Wendy continued as Stoke pulled a Ziploc bag from a drawer and dumped the backstrap in.

“Since the father may be unreliable, we’ll go with the mother’s account. According to her, they left the campground at 10:00 this morning, drove to the trailhead west of Monument Rock for a short hike and noticed the boy missing around 11:30.”

Stoke flicked his eyes to Sonny and grinned while the scent of garlic seasoned meat still hanging among the silver ribbons of smoke-filled air swirled into his flaring nostrils. His mouth salivated, though not nearly as much as Sonny’s who had a two-foot-long string of shiny drool dangling precariously from his chin in anticipation of more deliciousness falling from the counter. He bent down, picked up the spatula and patted the dog’s ribs before continuing.

“So, how’d they lose him? I assume they were hiking together?”

“Deputy Malone thought it was strange too, but he doesn’t sense any foul play. Both parents seem genuinely concerned. He thinks maybe they just weren’t paying attention when the boy wandered off.”

Boy, that’s some fine parenting. Stoke mused.

“All right, Wendy. I think I have enough. I assume you notified the team?”

“Yes, so far, you have six ground pounders, the ATV team, two radio operators and Paula is on her way to the campground with Lucy.”

“Okay, I’m on my way. Radio Malone, and tell him to keep the foot traffic in the camp to a minimum. I’m going to want to get a look at the boy’s tracks.”

Stoke clicked off and reached for the refrigerator door, his eyes settling on a glossy photograph held up by a sun-faded Dallas Cowboys magnet. The picture of his ex-girlfriend, Lucinda, holding a rainbow trout in one hand and a telescoping fishing rod in the other and the mud-covered Sonny sitting at her feet, belligerently reminded him of better days and the raw emptiness of his current life.

He tossed his half-cooked dinner on the top shelf of the fridge next a six pack of beer and carefully placed the spatula on top of the Jenga like tower of dirty dishes in his sink. He grabbed a protein bar from a box on the counter and patted his stomach, his fingers sinking into his flesh a few inches. He turned the protein bar in his hands and began reading the label. When he got to the net carbs listing, he shook his head.

You better be careful, fat ass, or pretty soon you’re going to look like Sheriff Negan.

He tossed the bar back on the counter with a flourish and shuffled to his bedroom, the layer of crumbs and dirt scattered across the linoleum crunching under his bare feet with each step.  

By the time he’d changed into a khaki shirt and BDUs, donned his flo green SAR coat and did a cursory inspection of his go-bag, Sonny had sprinted through every room in the house, bouncing off the furniture. Apparently, he was fully aware of the impending mission and the subsequent butt sniff from Paula’s German Shepard, Lucy.




Six-year-old Riley Jeffries had been pumped when his dad decided it was time to leave Portland for a weekend camping trip in the mountains. Riley’s best friend, Lucas Parker, thought the whole idea was stupid. “You’re going to hate it. There’s nothing out there but mosquitos and mean animals. Dumb. Your mom will make you eat hot dogs, and beans in a can. Yuck! And no Wi-Fi. You’re gonna be bored.” 

At first, Riley couldn’t wait to be out of the city, or off the grid, as his dad put it. Beans and hotdogs didn’t seem bad either, even though he wanted to be a vegan like his teacher. Now, several hours after leaving the hiking trail to go into the cave he’d spotted up a hill, Riley wished more than ever for his phone to work.

He pulled his phone from a pants pocket for the tenth time and his eyes got blurry as he looked at the empty place on top of the screen where the lines were supposed to be.

It still won’t work.

He didn’t know how he lost the trail. It was right below the cave. He walked back the same way he’d come. Or at least he thought so. He also didn’t know why his mom and dad left him. He told them he was going to the cave.

They never listen to me.

Riley reached into his other pocket and pulled out the shiny metal and glass round thing that had been his grandpa’s. His dad called it a cump— a cumpmask? Riley didn’t exactly remember the name.

If you get lost, this will help you find your way.

He stared down at the floating thing under the glass and turned all the way around. The floating thing stayed in the same place as he moved. A black arrow pointed in one direction. He looked the way the arrow pointed and stared at some bushy trees.

I went through bushy trees.

He turned around again. The arrow still pointed at the trees.

"Maybe this thing really works."

He held the cumpmask in front of him and moved through the trees. Branches poked at his clothes and scratched his arms. Spider webs touched his cheeks. He ran.

When he got to the other side, a loud whistle, and some growling sounds came from the trees above him. The animal, if it was that, was answered by another one down the hill.

Riley stopped running, his ears listening for other sounds. Pictures of snarling black wolves with red eyes and blood dripping from their fangs ran around in his head.

He looked for a place to hide in case whatever made the noises got closer. A stick snapped behind him and a rock rolled down the hill.

Riley ran again. He stumbled as he pushed down the hill. A few feet from the bottom, he tripped and fell. A sharp rock ripped through a pants leg and cut his knee. He rolled onto his back and grabbed at his leg, pulling it to his chest. Tears dripped down his cheeks, and his body shook. His clothes were wet with sweat, and his teeth chattered as a tiny whine slipped out.

“I just want to go home.”




“OK Mr. Sonny. I need you to listen carefully.” Stoke reached across the tattered front seat of his Ford F-350, tugged on Sonny’s left ear and gently ran his thumb across the furless bottom. “I expect you to behave yourself when we get there. That means no running around bothering people, especially Paula and Lucy.”

The dog lazily opened his Oreo eyes, stuck his tongue out in a gaping yawn and smacked his floppy lips, obviously uninterested in the instructions he’d just been given.

Stoke smiled at his best friend who’d already fallen back to sleep and stepped on the brakes. He turned into the mostly deserted Yellow Pine campground and easily spotted his team in the last row of campsites near the bathrooms. He pulled up behind several Baker County Sheriff vehicles parked in a half circle around a green Subaru Forester. He rolled to a stop near the side door of the SAR command trailer, scratched Sonny under the ear again and stepped into the crisp fall air, leaving his door open.

A stiff breeze washed through the upper boughs of the old-growth ponderosa pines sparsely growing around the campground and swirled into a downdraft, before skipping across the ground and gently curling around Stoke’s legs. His pant cuffs fluttered like the wings of a pheasant as the scent of wild Fennel and sage tickled his nostrils, causing him to inhale deeply.

He grabbed his tracking stick from the bed of the pickup, turned the collar up on his jacket, and glanced at the sun, only a few hours from setting. The temperature in town had been dipping into the forties at night and near the summit of the Blue Mountains, where he now stood, it was much colder.

He thought if the boy’s clothes stayed dry, and he could find a place to curl up out of the wind he’d most likely survive the night.

Stoke walked around the camp for a few minutes, trying to find a child-sized set of footprints. The ground had been churned and trampled by several people, making the possibility of getting a clear print, or the child’s length of stride impossible.

What part of don’t disturb any tracks didn’t you understand, Malone?

Stoke did his best to sluff off the anger he felt at Malone’s carelessness so he could focus on what mattered, returned to his truck, and tossed the tracking stick in the back. It clanked and rattled across empty beer cans, causing several pairs of eyes to turn his direction. Stoke ignored the stares and pulled his black leather notebook from an inside jacket pocket. He flipped to a blank page and walked toward Deputy Malone and the twenty-something woman with raven hair and chin nearly touching her chest.

He eased up beside her and rested a hand on her shoulder. “My name is Dylan Stoke. I’m the Baker County search and rescue coordinator. We’re going to do our best to find your son, ma’am, but I need to ask you a few questions first.”

Stoke’s breath caught, and a lump settled in his throat as the young mother raised her tear-streaked face and nodded. He did his best to ignore the mascara clumped lashes and swollen red eyes. “Can you tell me your son’s name and what he was wearing?”

She nodded again; her eyes seemingly locked on Stoke’s chest. Before she could answer a man in a green REI fleece vest and light blue Teva Trail sandals, jumped from the bench of a picnic table, knocked Malone aside and staggered toward Stoke. The smell of beer and sweat reached Stoke’s nose a full two seconds before the bearded face of the man, who Stoke assumed must be the father, came to a halt at eye level. He reminded Stoke of a younger version of Captain Obvious from the Hotels dot com commercials.

Malone, now recovered from being jostled, took a step toward Captain Obvious, his hand resting on top of his service weapon.

Stoke held out his hand, stopping Malone and narrowed his eyes into a do-it-and-I’ll-kick-your-ass glare.

Malone stopped advancing and returned the glare as Stoke turned his attention back to Captain Obvious, who’d begun speaking, a few drops of spittle spraying from his mouth. “Riley, his name is Riley, but we already talked to him.” Captain Obvious thrust a bony thumb in the direction of Malone. “I’m not sure why you’re wasting time. All you need to know is he’s six, he’s all alone, and it’ll be dark soon. Now do your job.”

Stoke had dealt with scared and angry parents before, and it wasn’t uncommon a day or two into a mission for alcohol to come into play as a coping mechanism. Stoke hoped the noticeable inebriation of Captain Obvious at the beginning of the search wouldn’t turn out to be a problem.

He forced a reassuring smile to his face and fought the anger welling up in his chest, as he leaned in. Sonny, who’d obviously forgotten the rule of not leaving the truck until called, trotted up and took a defensive position at Stoke’s feet. A muted growl slipped from his throat.

Cool it, Sonny. You’re as bad as Malone.

Stoke reached out his hand and broadened his smile. “My name is Dylan Stoke. I’m here to make sure everything possible is done to bring Riley back safe, but I have to ask these questions. It will help in the search.”

Captain Obvious alternated stares between Stoke’s outstretched hand and the brown dog with bared teeth, standing two feet away. After a few tense seconds, he reached his clammy hand out and gripped Stoke’s.

“Vance, Vance Jeffries.”

At a touch from the guy in charge of finding his son, Vance’s angry facade began to crack. His shoulders sagged, and his breath hissed from his lungs. “I’m sorry. It’s just that. . . He’s never been to the mountains.” Tears swam into Vance’s eyes. “I just wish I would’ve noticed he wasn’t behind us earlier. He has a habit of getting distracted and wandering away from us. He’s so darn curious about everyth—”

Prompted by the anguish coloring Vance’s words, a sliver of sympathy pushed away a portion of Stoke’s anger. “Now’s not the time to start assigning blame. You said it yourself, Vance. Riley is curious. Show me a young boy who isn’t. Now, can you tell me what kind of shoes Riley is wearing?”

Vance scratched at his hairline, a puzzled expression swanning across his face. He turned toward his wife and shrugged.

Mrs. Jeffries dabbed tears from her cheeks with a shirt sleeve and pointed at Vance’s feet. “Those. He was wearing those. I bought us all a pair last week at Pacific Crest Adventure. Riley was so excited to have hiking shoes just like his da—” A choking sob cut her words off.

Stoke looked down at Vance’s shoes, more appropriate for a stroll along a city sidewalk than a hike in the mountains, and pointed at them. “Do you mind if I get a look at the bottom of your shoes, Vance?”

Vance lifted his left foot and Stoke scratched out the tread pattern in his notebook. Satisfied with his drawing, Stoke addressed Mrs. Jeffries again. “Do you have an article of clothing Riley wore in the last couple of days? Preferably a pair of socks or underwear. It will help Lucy there, get a lock on Riley’s scent.” Stoke pointed at Paula who’d just gotten out of her pickup and the German Shepard Lucy bouncing around her feet.

He waved at Paula as Mrs. Jeffries walked across the campsite and crawled into a tent.

Sonny had also noticed Paula and Lucy. His paws tapped in the dust, his tail wagged, and his head trembled while squeaking whines slipped from his throat. Stoke held his hand out in front of Sonny, palm down as Paula walked over and Mrs. Jeffries returned with empty hands. Paula held an open paper bag out, and Mrs. Jeffries looked at it as though it contained deadly snakes or spiders. “He’s still wearing the clothes he had on when we left Portland.”

Stoke glanced at Paula then back at Mrs. Jeffries. “That’s OK, we can still get a scent lock from your car. Can you show Paula and Lucy which seat Riley sat in on your drive to the trailhead?”

A puzzled look swirled over Mrs. Jeffries’s face, and Stoke did his best to explain the request, without getting into detail about scent cones and skin rafts. He also decided to leave the explanation about needing to cut some of the seat away to Paula.

Stoke watched them walk toward the car for a few seconds, then turned back to Vance. He placed a hand on the father’s shoulder and smiled again. “We’re going to do our best, Vance. Just sit tight here, and we will let you know if we find anything.”

Without waiting for a reply, Stoke headed for the command trailer, and ducked his six-foot two-inch frame through the six-foot-tall door. After grabbing a radio from the row of charging ports just inside, Stoke clipped it to his belt and hung the mic from his shirt collar as more of his team arrived. When the inside of the trailer was packed to capacity, and Sonny had crawled under the radio counter to hide, Stoke briefed his team and handed out assignments.

The majority of the search would start at the west trailhead where the family’s hike began. The ATVs would travel all of the spur roads bordering the wilderness boundary. Ground pounders would go in groups of two, each team covering a one-mile grid off the trail. Paula and Lucy would stay on the trail and follow the scent.

Stoke assigned himself a solo mission. With the majority of his team starting on the west side, he needed to go in on the opposite side, in case the boy had found the trail again and headed the wrong direction. Stoke could’ve sent someone else, and would have sent another K-9 team if they were available but for safety reasons decided to do it himself. He would of course take Sonny, just to keep him company. While his best friend had a proficiency for blood trailing wounded elk or deer, he wasn’t a trained search dog.

When the briefing concluded, Stoke opened the dry foods cupboard near the command desk, fished out two envelopes of powdered hot cocoa mix, and stuffed them into his pack before his standard last minute pep talk.

“All right. Listen up people. As you all know, the subject is six-year-old Riley Jeffries. He’s been missing for about seven hours. He’s all alone, probably cold, and guaranteed to be terrified. We need to find him, and we need to move fast. Be methodical and stay in your lanes. Don’t go off script and step on each other’s toes. If you find any sign, mark it and radio the comms trailer. That boy is counting on us and so are his parents. Don’t forget why we do this.”

Stoke cupped a hand behind his right ear and turned his head sideways toward the group of volunteers who were giving up their evening. In unison they stood tall, raised their heads and shouted out. “That others may live!”



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A marvelous, delectable opening sequence. The writing is superb and the stakes could not be clearer.

By the time I reached the final paragraph, when Stoke reminds everyone why they chose the path of law enforcement"That others may live!"I was hooked. 

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2 hours ago, Jeff said:

A marvelous, delectable opening sequence. The writing is superb and the stakes could not be clearer.

By the time I reached the final paragraph, when Stoke reminds everyone why they chose the path of law enforcement"That others may live!"I was hooked. 

Very kind words, Jeff. Not sure if I would go as far as delectable. I know I have more work ahead of me, but feel like I have at least found my direction of travel for the journey. 

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17 hours ago, Wendy Tatum said:

Immediately immersed. Detailed settings, questionable characters, and rising tension pulled me right into the search for little Riley. Look forward to reading more. 

Thank you, Wendy. Your opening pages have hooked me as well. Looking forward to saying hello next week.

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