First Degree Mudder
Fort Vancouver National Park
Old Army Barracks
My feet squished inside my drenched kicks as I limped through the damp grass. I’d like to give Billy a swift kick in the shins, I thought cranking the volume on my phone to high. Maybe Dean Martin’s “King of the Road” would give me a final boost. Doubtful. I didn’t feel like the king or queen of the road. Quite the opposite.
The rest of my Mind Over Mudder teammates were nowhere in sight. Thank God. I checked behind me twice, just to make sure. I probably could have taken the shortcut straight to the barracks, but I didn’t want to risk being seen. That might have been a mistake. The historic grounds gave off an eerie aura, especially the dilapidated army hospital Building 614, to my left. It was rumored to be haunted. I understood why. Built in 1904 during an influenza outbreak, the three-story brick building had served hundreds of infantry men over the decades.
I shuddered to imagine the torture some of them must have endured. Was that a moan? A prickly feeling ran down my spine.
I think that’s a moan, I said aloud as I glanced up at the broken top story windows. Something ghoulish floated past.
I willed myself forward, ignoring the blisters on my heels or the chafing under my sports bra. It felt like I was breathing under water. I didn’t care. I crested the hill and turned onto Evergreen Boulevard.
Relax, Meg. It’s just your mind playing tricks on you. I had read one too many ghost stories when researching the history of Fort Vancouver and its surrounding grounds. The hospital had been abandoned for years, but people swore that things were amiss. Faucets were said to turn on in the middle of the night, bathroom doors banged shut for no reason, faces, like the one I’d just seen, appeared out of nowhere in the windows. The place was haunted. Definitely haunted.
You’re fine now, I told myself, slowing my pace.
I followed the flour on the sidewalk that marked the route of our pre-dawn run. It took us past the Fort’s parade grounds complete with an old-fashioned bandstand and Officer’s Row—a row of stately Victorian officer’s houses. That’s when I saw the creepy old lady again. I’d seen her watching us from her ground floor apartment before. The twenty-two stately mansions that make up Officer’s Row were now used for a variety of purposes. The Grant House had become one of Vancouver’s premier restaurants and the Marshall House a favorite spot for weddings. The remaining properties had been converted into commercial and residential space.
Yesterday when I jogged past the creepy old lady’s apartment she peeled back one lace curtain and watched me and my teammates. It was unsettling to say the very least.
I stopped to tie my shoe under an ancient oak. Its leaves looked parched from summer’s endless sun. My throat commiserated with the tree. I could use an ice-cold glass of water right about now. Pushing myself to standing all the hairs on my arms stood at attention as a creaking sound came from the creepy old lady’s front door. She appeared out of nowhere on the wraparound porch.
Were my eyes playing tricks on me? Where had she come from? I jumped back in surprise. Her glassy eyes bore into me. She wore a faded pink bathrobe and appeared to have been old enough to be one of the original members of the Hudson Bay Company.
“Hi.” I offered a tentative wave.
She didn’t move.
I tried again. “Good morning.”
Her eyes remained locked on me, but she gave no indication that she’d heard my greeting.
Was she a ghost?
I had no intention of waiting around to find out. I plowed ahead, crossing Evergreen Boulevard, and practically hurdling the waist-high wooden fence that ran the length of the grassy parade grounds. My feet revolted as I stumbled down the hill. It felt like someone was sanding my heels with sandpaper.
Pick up the pace, Meg.
The only thing that kept me upright was the promise of a hot shower and the fact that a ghost might be in hot pursuit. I needed to get to the barracks and get out of these shoes. Mud and sweat oozed from every pore. Thankfully, I’d learned my lesson after the first day on the training course and ditched my cute pink tank top and capris for old raggedy sweats and a t-shirt. Everything ended up discolored from the mud. There was no point in trying to look cute while under Billy the Tank’s watchful eye and blaring bullhorn.
I cut through the grass, something Billy definitely frowned on. “Reed!” he bellowed in his bullhorn when he caught me sneaking around the back of the barracks last week. “When you take a shortcut you’re only cheating yourself.”
That was fine by me. I happily owned cheating on myself.
There was a single light on in the otherwise deserted collection of buildings down the hill. The reserve encompassed three hundred and sixty-six acres of land. It included Fort Vancouver, Pearson Airfield and Museum, the barracks, Army hospital, Red Cross building, Officer’s Row, an old chapel, stables, and non-commissioned officer’s houses. The grounds are considered the Pacific Northwest’s most important historical site. And this morning I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were whispers from the past surrounding me.
My target was the barracks’ building where the single light glowing golden yellow looked like a welcoming beacon. Billy and his business partner Dylan had leased the barracks to use as base camp for their three-week intensive training class Mind Over Mudder. They promised that by the end of the session (If you survived, which at the moment looked doubtful for me) that not only would you be in “fighting shape” to finish a mud run, but that you’d also drop pounds and pant sizes. So far the scale hadn’t budged when I stepped on it, and I was so exhausted at the end of the day that I felt like dropping dead.
Using the wooden railing, I placed one hand over the other and slowly hauled my body up the ramp. The rotting wooden slats buckled. Please hold, I said a silent prayer to the Universe. The last thing I needed was to crash through the ramp.
Compared with the other buildings the barracks were in great shape. Everything had sat empty since the army abandoned its post in Vancouver decades earlier. The National Park, along with a trust, had begun renovations on the massive site. The barracks were first on the list, and Mind Over Mudder the first and only tenant at the moment. A sharp splinter lodged itself in my palm. It protruded from my mud-chapped skin. I stopped and yanked it free. Ouch!
Yet another reason to love this training program, I sighed as I opened the front door and stumbled inside. Every muscle in my body quaked. Billy had promised us that muscle pain was a sign that our metabolism was revving up and we were replacing fat with muscles. “Embrace the quakes” was his motto. Easy for him to say. Billy aka “the Tank” was the fittest person I’d ever met. That was saying a lot given that I write for Northwest Extreme Magazine and am constantly surrounded by hard bodied adventure junkies.
Billy instructed us to call him Tank on the first day of training. He looked like a tank. His stout body bulged with muscle mass. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on his body. Let’s just say that he was a bit intimidating when he sounded the whistle around his neck, wearing skin tight army shorts and a sleeveless shirt specifically designed to show off his enormous muscles.
I scanned the dimly lit hallway to make sure the Tank wasn’t there. By my estimate the rest of my teammates should be on the course for another thirty minutes. That should give me ample time to shower, soak my aching soles, and hightail it out of here before anyone was the wiser. I clicked off my music, tugged my earbuds out, and clutched my phone in the hand without the splinter.
The barracks have an ominous vibe even when they’re packed with my teammates and coaches. Shuffling down the long empty hallway made it feel even creepier. Like the army hospital the barracks are said to be haunted. The top floor was used for gun testing. There are still bullet holes in the walls upstairs, and it was said that you could hear phantom gun shots.
A loud thud sounded below.
I jumped and let out a scream.
My heart pounded in my chest. Relax, Meg. Maybe one of my teammates had the same idea.
I continued on, checking over my shoulder to make sure no one was behind me. The locker rooms were located in the basement. Not exactly where I wanted to be at the moment, but I hobbled down the hardwood stairs anyway.
When I was a few feet away from the locker room doors, they swung open nearly smacking me in the face.
I jumped again.
Was it the ghost? How were the doors opening? One of the rumors that I’d heard about the haunted buildings was that doors were known to open and close at will.
I backed up.
At that moment someone barreled through the doors and knocked me off my feet.
“Hey!” I caught myself on the wall.
The guy leaped over me and raced down the hallway before I could get a look at his face. I had a pretty good guess who it was. Tim Baxter, one of my fellow teammates. I recognized his bulk and black hooded sweatshirt. What was he doing in the locker room and why was he in such a hurry?
I pushed to standing. “Tim, where are you going?”
He paused at the front doors.
I noticed a package under his right arm. “Tim!” I called again. “What’s going on?”
He froze. I thought maybe I’d made a mistake. My contacts were thick with sludge. I don’t see distances very well even when my contacts are perfectly clear. Dirt had formed a thick filmy layer, making my vision blurry. I blinked twice.
The door slammed shut. Tim, or whoever had run into me, was gone
I brushed myself off and continued into the locker room. Steam enveloped the front area where three massage tables sat empty. Long mirrors stretching the length of the room were completely fogged over. It smelled like stale sweat, moldy wood, and eucalyptus. Someone, probably Tim, must have left the steam room doors open.
Using my hands as I shield to avoid tripping over a bench I made my way past the massage tables and into the shared steam, sauna, and whirlpool room. Doors on either side of the room lead to the men’s and women’s changing rooms and showers. Originally the barracks only housed men, so when Mind Over Mudder renovated the basement locker room they’d had to get creative with the design. The actual changing areas and showers were private and on opposite sides of each other, but the steam room and hot tub were coed, which meant that bathing suits were always required.
My cheeks burned with heat. Muddy sweat dripped onto the floor. The wet air filled my lungs, making me cough.
I fumbled through the dense layer of steam. My hands landed on the cedar steam room door, which was indeed wide open. Someone had propped it open with one of the locker room benches. Really weird. I pushed the bench away. It made a sound like nails on a chalkboard on the tile floor.
My feet slid across the wet floor. I landed on my tailbone as the steam room door swung shut. Awesome. Two falls in a matter of a few minutes. That had to be a new record for me. At least my phone was safely secured to my arm. I just got a new phone after a little accident with my old phone. Smart phones aren’t cheap, especially for a girl on a tight budget. I couldn’t risk damaging this one, so I undid the Velcro strap around my arm and placed my phone and earbuds on a bench nearby.
Steam billowed from underneath the door. It reminded me of dry ice on Halloween. Whoever turned it on must have cranked the heat to full blast. I braced myself as I opened the door to shut it off.
I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I knew where the dials controlling the heat and steam were. The steam room and I had become besties over the past few days. Nothing soothed my training aches and pains like the moist warm air.
I found the thermostat and switched it off. I know I shouldn’t have, but I climbed onto the cedar slatted bottom bench and drank in the steam. Billy would be furious if he caught me wearing my muddy clothes in the hot humid room, but I couldn’t help it. I was freezing. Just five minutes, Meg, I told myself as my breathing steadied and I sunk onto warm bench. This is exactly what I needed, I could almost feel my muscles begin to relax.
Within minutes the steam began to evaporate and the air began to thin. I opened my eyes. My contacts were like glue. Blinking as hard as I could, I tried to loosen their grip. It didn’t work. They felt like sand. I might have to ditch them, I thought as I stood up.
The small cedar room came into soft focus. Someone else was in here with me. I blinked again. “Billy?”
Billy was laying on his back on the top bench with his eyes closed. Why hadn’t he said anything? He must be pissed that I snuck out early.
“Listen, Tank, I’m really sorry I took the shortcut. My feet are killing me this morning. I have like a thousand blisters.”
Billy didn’t respond.
“Tank, I’m a reporter, remember. I’m here for a story. It’s not like the rest of my teammates.” I stood. Spots danced in my vision.
Again Billy didn’t respond. I moved closer. Suddenly, I knew why he wasn’t responding. Billy wasn’t resting.
As I came closer, a horrific sense of dread came over my entire body. Billy was dead.
Murders past and present get mixed in the mud as Meg sloughs through a challenging training in search of a story and the truth.I read this as a stand alone but my gut is telling me that this murder mystery, focused on Meg's training leading up to a Mud Race challenge, pales in intrigue to the evidence uncovered regarding Meg's father's death. I am positive that is where the juicy story lies.
I am hoping that, as with several popular television crime dramas, that investigation will be drawn out over multiple books, giving additional insight, but keeping the readers curious and craving more. By this book's end, I still had unanswered questions.
In First Degree Mudder several story lines entwine. Meg has always desired to be a top notch journalist. It is in her blood, inspired and encouraged by her Pop. She has a strong sense of intuition, perhaps inherited from her Gram, although like most young people, Meg doesn't always give it due diligence. She has two best friends who are also pursuing their dreams and new careers. Emotions exert strong influence in events and actions.
As a main protagonist, Meg gives us much to appreciate. She's curious, enthusiastic, generous and dedicated. We also feel she's on the verge of growing pains.
I want to know more about Gram and Meg's relationship with her mother. There is room for all sorts of emotional turmoil between Meg and her gentlemen friends. And Portland is ripe with characters to meet and be entertained by, oh- those hipsters!