CHAPTER 1 Raley pulled open the rusty screen door, its hinges squealing. "Hey! You in here?" "Ain't I usually?" A curl of faded red paint flaked off when the wood frame slapped closed behind Raley as he stepped into the one-room cabin. It smelled of fried pork and the mouse-gnawed Army blanket on the cot in the corner. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness and find the old man. He was sitting at a three-legged table, hunched over a cup of coffee like a dog guarding a hard-won bone, staring into the snowy screen of a black-and-white television. Ghostly images flickered in and out. There was no audio except for a static hiss. "Good morning." The old man snorted a welcome through his sheaves of nasal hair. "He'p yourself." He nodded toward the enamel coffeepot on the stove. "Can't recommend the cream. It curdled overnight." Raley stepped over the three hounds lying motionless on the floor and went to the refrigerator that was jammed between an antique pie safe, which served as a pantry, and a drafting table, which served no purpose whatsoever except to collect dust and further reduce the floor space in the crowded cabin. The handle on the fridge door had broken off, probably decades ago, but if you pressed your fingers just right into the soft rubber sealant in the crack, you could pry it open. "I brought you some catfish." Raley set the newspaper bundle on one of the rusty wire shelves, then quickly shut the door against the mingled odors of cream gone bad and general spoilage. "Much obliged." "You're welcome." The coffee probably had been boiled several times and would be the consistency of molasses. Without cream to dilute it, Raley thought it better to pass. He glanced at the silent TV. "You need to adjust your rabbit ears." "Ain't the rabbit ears. I turned off the sound." "How come?" The old man replied with one of his customary harrumphs that said he couldn't be bothered to answer. A self-proclaimed recluse, he had lived in voluntary exile ever since "the war," although which war had never been specified. He had as little as possible to do with otherHomo sapiens. Shortly after Raley had moved into the vicinity, the two had come upon each other in the woods. Raley was staring down into the beady eyes of a dead opossum when the old man came crashing through the underbrush and said, "Don't even think about it." "About what?" "About taking my possum." Touching the bloated, flyblown, limp body with the pink, hairless tail and horrible stench was the last thing Raley intended to do. He raised his hands in surrender and stood aside so the barefoot old man in stained overalls could retrieve his kill from the metal jaws of the small trap. "Way you been stampin' 'round out here, it's a wonder to me it ain't you caught in this trap 'stead of the possum," he grumbled. Raley wasn't aware that anyone lived within miles of the cabin he'd recently purchased. He'd rather not have had a neighbor of any kind, but especially one who kept track of his comings and goings. As the old man stood up, his knees protested in loud pops and snaps, which caused him to grimace and mutter a string of curses. With the carcass dangling from his hand, the old man looked Raley over, from his baseball cap and bearded face to the toes of his hiking boots. Inspection complete, the old man spat tobacco juice into the dirt to express his opinion of what he saw. "Man's got a right to walk in the woods," he said. "Just don't go messin' with my traps." "It would help me to know where they are." The old man's cracked lips spread into a wide grin, revealing tobacco-stained stubs that once were teeth. "Wouldn't it though?" Still chuckling, he turned away. "You'll find 'em, I'm bettin'." Raley could hear his laughter long after he disappeared into the dense foliage. Over the ensuing months, they'd accidentally bumped into each other in the woods several times.Brown, Sandra is the author of 'Smoke Screen' with ISBN 9781416563068 and ISBN 1416563067.