We’re pleased to present our next excerpt from The Chromatic Court – an exclusive look at Logan Noble’s “The Matron in the Wood.”
Nick loved it. Every square inch of it. Every patch of dirt. Every lake. Every fat mosquito buzzing at his ear. Michigan. He never thought he’d come back. It had been ten years since he’d last set foot in his home state, which, as far as he was concerned, was ten years too many.
The entire trip from Chicago to his brother Anthony’s hunting cabin would take about seven hours. With his cruise set to 80, Nick was making good time. Before too long, the tree line on his left dropped away, revealing the dark body of Lake Michigan. Deep forest unfurled beside the road. A majority of the Upper Peninsula was made up of state forests like the one to his right, massive stretches of uninterrupted forestry, often extending for over fifty miles.
Nick peeked into the back seat. His hunting rifle was there, along with a bag of clothes for the long weekend. Three days of hunting at his brother Anthony’s cabin. Though it had been a few years since they’d met up for their hunting trip, Nick couldn’t wait. Bruce was flying in from upstate New York to meet up with them. Anthony had been in his cabin now for a couple of months, doing God knows what, in the rural area that served as their home town.
He hadn’t seen Anthony since the funeral. Nick grimaced. Anthony had married a woman named Laura that worked with him at their architecture firm. They’d been married for about three years before she’d developed a bad case of cancer. He couldn’t help but feel bad for his own behavior after that. Nick never drove up to visit. He’d never called. He’d created wild narratives to rationalize his behavior. That’s why he’d been relieved (if not a bit apprehensive) when Anthony had called him up to invite him to the cabin.
The highway eventually bled into dirt. The road curved and Nick slowed. There, among the wilderness, was Anthony’s hunting cabin. It was a true beauty. It was outfitted with an enormous porch and a back balcony, along with huge picture windows and a full kitchen. It was a far cry from the kind of hunting cabins they’d grown up in.
Nick shoved his car into park and grabbed his rifle and bag from the back seat. When he got out of the car, the thick forest air swallowed him up. He smelled pine and cedar. Crickets and other insects chittered. With his eyes set on the front porch light, he made his way across the yard. Parked off to the side were Anthony and Bruce’s vehicles, a massive Chevy (Anthony) and a nondescript Subaru (Bruce). He gave the front door a knock before turning the knob and pressing in.
Just as he did, Bruce stepped out of the hallway. Bruce was an old family friend. He’d also grown up in their hometown of Carpenter’s Landing and, much like the Maynard boys, had moved on to greener pastures when given the chance. He was a college professor at some microscopic liberal arts school just south of Buffalo. He was married and had three kids, each more ginger-haired and green-eyed than the last. When Bruce saw him, he threw up his hands.
“Nick! Glad to see you, man!” Bruce walked across the room and the two men gave each other a hug. “How was the drive?”
Nick shrugged. “Long. I’m worn out.”
“I bet! Is it like 8 hours?”
“More or less,” Nick looked around the lodge again. “Where’s Anthony?”
Bruce adjusted his glasses. “That’s a good question. He ran off into the woods somewhere. He keeps saying something about a big surprise that he can’t wait to show us.”
Nick raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know if I like that.”
Bruce chuckled. “Yeah. You want a beer?”
After they cracked open the cans, they settled in at the card table, quickly falling back into their easy rapport. They talked about the good old days. Getting drunk on cheap beer. Bonfires by the lake. A couple of brushes with the law. Then they talked about everything else. How Bruce’s kids were doing (the older one is playing soccer, though she really isn’t very good). How their jobs were getting along (‘same old, same old’ and ‘they don’t pay us enough, but we have to go anyway’). The two of them finished off three beers apiece before Bruce belched and trundled off down the hallway to turn in for the night.
Nick fetched his jacket off the back of one of the leather couches and stepped outside. He dug out his Marlboros and lit one up, leaning on the railing to look out into the forest. If he squinted, he could just make out the break in the trees where their hunting path began. That path wound for acres and acres into Anthony’s dense land. He’d built stands in the trees for each of them, basically dividing their hunting area into three parts.
Nick took another deep puff from the cigarette just as he saw his brother’s unmistakable shape emerge from the mouth of the trail. Anthony’s wide frame solidified in the limited light as he got closer.
When Anthony reached the porch, Nick got a better look. He was dressed in a heavy jacket and blue jeans, his hair hidden beneath a wool cap. He looked older. Haggard.
“Well, hello, Nick,” Anthony said, stomping up the stairs. “When did you get in?”
Nick flicked some ash off the end of his cigarette. “Few hours ago. I’ve just been hanging here with Bruce,” Nick motioned at the forest with his cigarette. “What are you doing out there so late?”
Anthony flashed his trademark grin. “I’m working on something. A surprise. I think you and Bruce are going to be impressed.”
“You building a big birdhouse?”
His brother shrugged and went to the door. “Something like that,” with that, Anthony pushed open the front door and vanished into the darkness of the entranceway.
Well, Nick thought, someone is being mysterious. He took one last puff from his cigarette and dropped it off the porch.
Nick made his way back into the quiet cabin. Anthony, though he’d just went in, was nowhere to be found. Nick wandered down the hallway toward the bedrooms. Anthony always stayed in the final room at the end of the hall. His door was shut tight. Soft light spilled out beneath it. Burning the midnight oil. It always surprised him how little things actually change.
A knock at his door. Nick sat up in bed, the blanket a tangle around his legs. He looked around the room, his eyes heavy. His bag sat on the floor beside a small bedside table. A window, with the blinds drawn but slotted, showed that it was still dark outside. He didn’t remember going to bed. He must have been exhausted. The knock came again.
“Hey, dummy. Wake up. We gotta’ kill some stuff,” Bruce’s voice, muffled on the other side. Nick cleared his throat.
“Yeah. I’ll be out in a minute.”
Nick kicked the blankets off and rolled out of bed, stretching. His muscles felt taut and sore. He dug out a clean tee-shirt from his bag and shrugged it on. He finished getting dressed and stepped out into the hallway. Though they were just out of sight, Nick could hear Anthony and Bruce talking. Muffled laughter. The clink of silverware. And, above it all, the smell of eggs.
Anthony and Bruce turned to him when he entered. Bruce was at the stove, one hand on a large pan and the other around a coffee mug. Anthony grinned at him over his coffee.
“Look who decided to wake up.”
“I figured I should probably get up to make sure you old men would be ready,” Nick said.
Bruce snorted. “I’m still young enough to rearrange your teeth.”
Nick waved his comment away and walked into the kitchen, grabbing a coffee mug from the nearest cabinet. He poured himself a cup and found his seat at the table.
“So what’s the plan? Same positions as always?”
Anthony shook his head. “Slightly different this year.”
Bruce brought two plates and set them in front of Nick and Anthony. “What do you mean? We can’t buck tradition!”
Anthony glared at Bruce. “This year, we are. I don’t want you two getting a peek at what I have planned.”
Nick and Bruce shared a look. Bruce rolled his eyes and went back to fetch the scrambled eggs.
“Soon as we eat, we’ll head out. We have to try and beat the sun.”
The morning air was brisk. As they walked across the dead yard toward the forest path, Nick thought about the way his brother had emerged from the opening the night prior. What the hell is he doing all the way out there? Whatever it was, he was playing it close to the chest.