Chapter Two
First To Find
An Online Mystery/Suspense Novel by ThePharmGirl

Dr. Henry "Hank" Briggs, D.D.S., was having lunch in his private office at Main Street Family Dental when the email notification arrived.   He was slouched in his supposedly ergonomic high-backed chair, browsing pages of a catalogue from his wife's favorite department store, attempting to conjure up some divine inspiration for an anniversary present.   He chastised himself for procrastinating so long.  He picked up the sandwich lovingly made by his wife of eighteen years (tomorrow), took a bite, and furrowed his distressed brow as he flipped another page.   He casually glanced up from the unbearably drab magazine when he heard the soft ding of his computer announcing an incoming email.  He nearly dropped both the catalogue and his sandwich when he saw the sender name and familiar subject line.  He quickly tossed his forgotten baggage haphazardly on the desk and sprung forward, newly awakened.  Clawing at the computer mouse, expectantly staring at the monitor, he clicked on the new message.

There were few things that could excite Hank as much as a geocache notification.  And the one he was staring at now announced a new treasure hidden a mere 3.8 miles away, placed by his best friend and arch nemesis Matt Mason, also known as CuckooCacher, the trail name reflecting his occupation restoring antique clocks.  Hank's eyes lit up with eager anticipation and his heart began to race.  No time to lose!  Frenzied, he reached over the half-eaten sandwich on his mahogany desk to connect his beloved Garmin 60CSx GPS receiver to the USB cord snaking its way from the hard drive.  In the second it took to download the cache coordinates to his device, he glanced up to spy the clock on the wall, hanging between framed artsy photos of smiling pearly whites.   12:40 p.m.  He had a one o’clock appointment.   Four miles?  He could make it. 

It was a no-brainer for Hank.  After all, there was a reputation to maintain.  He was the infamous Dr. FlossnGloss.  Everybody in the local game knew him--or knew of him.  He was currently sitting at 999 FTFs—code for First to Finds—and the next virgin cache would give him a major and nearly unmatchable milestone.  But he had to hurry.  There would be other players racing him.  A recent surge of new geocachers in the area nearly guaranteed it.   It had once been just a geek’s game, but now it was a trendy hobby for anyone with a GPS system, which was just about everyone these days.   At least most of the seriously gung-ho cachers would be at work right now, not that it stopped him.   But he’d still have other players to contend with.  Normally, that would include Matt.  Hank thoroughly enjoyed the friendly competition, but lately, it seemed Matt’s sole mission was to rob him of this momentous milestone.   He had beaten Hank to the last ten caches.   But now, with this newly published cache, Matt had practically thrown down the gauntlet with a "come get me" dare.  

Hank scooped the GPS unit from the desk and grabbed his prepared caching bag from its designated hook on the coat rack.  As an afterthought, he ran back to his desk to grab the last half of his sandwich for the road then briskly waltzed out of the room.  He spotted his hygienist, Mindy, talking with the other office hygienist in his path down the hall.  Uh oh.  No way to avoid her.  Spying him with the Garmin and well-known and well-used backpack, she stopped her conversation wide-eyed and slack-jawed mid-sentence. 

"Uh uh, no way!  You have a one o'clock," she practically screeched as she pointedly tapped her watch.

"It's an emergency!" He flashed what he hoped was an endearing smile.

Her eyes narrowed and her hands landed on her hips in stern judgment.   “One. Oh. Clock.” she slowly repeated with extra emphasis and menace in her voice, as if a new tone would get a different result.

He avoided eye contact as he passed her, determinedly striding down the hall.  "It’s a quickie.  I'll be back in five," he shouted back over his shoulder, shoveling the rest of the sandwich in his mouth and rushing out the door before she had a chance to protest.   He had bent the truth a bit.  A typical CuckooCacher hide was usually anything but a “quickie.”  Still, twenty minutes should be sufficient.  He hoped.

Hank drove quite a bit faster than the law allowed as he navigated his car out of town and sped toward the cache coordinates.  It was a risk he was willing to take.  It was definitely a high, the thrill of the hunt.  He loved the chase.   He had gotten into geocaching five years ago when he heard about it on public radio.  After only a few caches, he was hooked.  His wife often said it was more an obsession than a hobby.  She was probably right.   She never really understood his rabid fascination with finding Tupperware stashed in the woods.  Neither did his staff.  They wrote it off as a mid-life crisis of sorts.  He didn't see it that way.  In fact, he felt healthier and more invigorated than he had in years.  He had given up trying to defend and explain the hobby a long time ago.  It was just one of those things you had to physically try before you gained true appreciation.

Thinking of his wife reminded him of the anniversary gift he had yet to procure.  Although she couldn't grasp his addition to the hobby, she generously gave him the freedom to pursue it.  It was more than most wives would tolerate, he knew.  How many times had he skipped dinner to chase after a cache?  How many nights had she patiently waited for his return after an all-day cache hunt?  How much time and money were spent creating and hiding his own caches for people to find?  It was more than he wanted to admit, definitely more than she had bargained for.  He knew it had an all-consuming grasp on his life.  She deserved better.  He loved geocaching, but he loved his wife more.  He made a mental note to make sure she knew that.  His brow wrinkled as he tried to force an idea to the surface.  If only thinking up a meaningful present was as easy as finding a cache.

His thoughts were abruptly halted by a familiar singular beep from his trusty Garmin, alerting him that he was approaching the cache coordinates.  Hank reflexively sat more upright and honed his alertness, his hunting instincts kicking in.  He gave a skeptical cursory glance to his surroundings.  The coordinates had led him to the State Marsh Area.  Terrific.  Marsh caches were usually more difficult and time-consuming, requiring hip waders or a willingness to get wet and muddy.  He hadn't brought his hip waders, but he always kept a change of clothes in his car, just in case.  He hoped this wouldn’t get too difficult.  Mindy would be royally pissed if he was late for another appointment.

He looked down at his GPS screen to check the distance to the cache.  356 feet.  395 feet.  438 feet.  Increasing.  Shit.  He slammed the brakes and glanced in the rear view mirror as an afterthought.  Nobody there, thank goodness--a benefit of a little-used country road.  Annoyed with himself, he threw the car in reverse and backed up to enter the dirt driveway he overshot, easy to miss amid the cattails and tall swamp grass, fully grown now in the fall season.

The driveway led to an empty gravel parking area hidden from the road's view, just large enough for three or four cars at most.  The empty lot was encouraging, but he still felt the same nervous energy as he did before every search.  His heart rate was probably through the roof right now.   As if anybody could have beaten him there—impossible!  He had left his office within mere minutes of the email notification.   This find would be so overwhelmingly gratifying.  The fact that his First-To-Find milestone would be on one of Matt’s caches was a special bonus.  He felt like all the stars were aligned today.  He was already mentally composing the epic log he would post on the online cache page.  1000th FTF, here I come, mused Hank.  

He hastily parked and eyed his Garmin's screen—only 125 feet between him and the hidden treasure.  Clutching his GPS unit and consulting the directional arrow, he expertly and efficiently scanned the landscape as he jumped out of the car and slammed the door shut.  Bearing east, he estimated, would place the coordinates at a large gnarly-looking tree—a typical and obvious hiding place.  No match for a pro like Dr. FlossnGloss.  Best of all, it looked dry; he probably wouldn't even have to get dirty.

It was easier than he could have imagined—almost too easy.    Hank smiled in disbelief as he reached into a hollow hole at the bottom of the old dying tree and grasped an empty peanut butter jar wrapped in camouflage duct tape.   Hank felt giddy as he unscrewed the lid, inwardly praying that he was its first visitor.  “This is it!” he breathlessly announced to the universe.

A puzzled look crossed Hank’s face when he surveyed the contents.  There was no log book.   A lonely laminated card was all that resided.    He plunged his hand to the bottom of the jar to retrieve the card and examined its message.  It was another set of coordinates.  A surprise multi-stage cache?!  Hank groaned and gritted his teeth, cursing the audacity of that evil CuckooCacher.  He should have known that Matt would make him work for it, that stinker.  

Now he had a dilemma.  Just how many stages were involved? How time-consuming would this be?  He really needed to return to the office.  He was a professional with a responsibility to his patients.  Then again, Mindy was more than capable of starting the cleaning without him if necessary.  She would be furious, but he could manage her wrath.  He’d already come this far.  He would kick himself if it was a two-part cache and he quit now.   Maybe he should call Matt and ask.   Hmm, and give him the satisfaction of knowing Hank needed assistance?  No way.  He wanted Matt to learn about his achievement when he logged it online.  There was still time to visit one more set of coordinates, he assured himself.      

Hank typed the new set of coordinates into his GPS receiver and sighed with the realization that he’d have to bushwhack 325 feet through the swamp grass, the dense stalks towering a few inches higher than his head.    Resolutely, he swiftly plowed ahead, parting the grass with his hands and stepping around areas that looked too wet or muddy.  Half-way to the cache, he felt his foot sink into ankle-deep swamp water and he swore loudly as mud enveloped his shoe.  At least he’d have a story to tell when he wrote about this adventure; that much was certain.  He smiled, thinking about all the tales and adventures he’d told in his thousands of online logs.  It was almost his favorite part.

The tall, dense forest of swamp vegetation prevented Hank from seeing much of anything, but when his Garmin’s distance calculator descended to 20 feet, he spotted it immediately.  The stripped skeleton stump of an old tree stood a couple feet tall, and it was obviously hollow.  Hank couldn’t help but grin when he peered over the rim and saw a green metal .50 cal ammo can.   He felt his heart dance as he lifted the cache container out of the stump.  The autumn wind seemed to celebrate with him, whooshing and whipping the surrounding grass in grand orchestration.  Barely able to contain his joy, Hank set the can on the ground and squatted beside it.  He deftly lifted the lid and pulled out the plastic bag holding the log book.   He paused and stole a breath of air.  Unable to keep the suspense any longer, he exhaled and opened the book to the first page.   

He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard the man’s voice from behind. 

“First to find.  Congratulations.”

Hank reached for the notebook that had tumbled to the ground before turning his head to identify the intruder.  It was too late.  Before comprehension was even remotely possible, Hank felt the man’s violent grip crush his forehead and his head being thrust back with crude force.  In the next horrifying moment, he felt his throat slashed by something sharp and his breath abruptly stolen.   Desperately clutching his neck, futilely attempting to stop the river of blood pouring through his fingers, Hank despondently thought of his wife.  The clouds in the sky began to fade, and as his head fell forward, the blur of the cold, hard ammo can was the final sight of his life.       

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