Bo Kaier's cover for Drabblecast episode Woods for the Trees

On this week’s Drabblecast, Dendrology meets Criminal Psychology. A story by Harley Carnell. Art by Bo Kaier.

Woods For the Trees

by Harley Carnell

On the second day of our search for John Shaw, John Shaw joins our search party.

Frustrated after years of incompetence and inaction from the authorities, and after Shaw recently committed a particularly brutal murder, we are combing the woods where he is known to operate and suspected to be hiding. I am trailing behind everyone else, not having realised when I volunteered both how unfit I was and how deceptively strenuous it is to walk through a forest. It’s as I begin walking a little quicker, trying to make up ground on the main group, when I hear footsteps crunching behind me. I turn, and there is Shaw.

“Hey, man,” he says, giving me a nod and a little raise of his eyebrows.

“What’d I miss?”

For a second, I’m stunned. This is John Shaw – the John Shaw. That I’m surrounded by twenty of the toughest guys in town, all fuelled by adrenaline and seething with a burning hatred for Shaw, does nothing to quell my terror. For a moment, I’m convinced I’m not going to be able to speak, but luckily I find my voice.

“Hey!” I call out. “Everyone, it’s…it’s him…it’s John Shaw.”

Footsteps and conversations stop dead, and everyone turns around.

“What’s that, Mike?” Paul, the impromptu leader of our group, shouts back.

“It’s him,” I repeat. “John Shaw. He’s here.” I point at him.

“Hey,” Shaw says to the group, “just come to help you guys look. Sorry I’m late.”

Paul stares at him for a few seconds, and then nods.

“No worries, man. Appreciate the help. We’re in a bit of a rush here so can’t give you the briefing I gave everyone else, but just want to let you know what you’re in for. John Shaw is a highly violent, highly dangerous motherfucker.

Physically, or morally, he’d have no problem snapping your neck like a twig.

Also, he knows these woods like I know the back of my cock. We’re all here, and we’ll do what we can to protect you, but it’s not impossible he could just come out from behind a tree and grab you before any of us’d even noticed.

Just so you know what you’re getting yourself in for.”

“I understand,” Shaw says solemnly. “It’s worth the risk, though. We have to catch the bastard.”

Paul laughs heartily.

“There, that’s the spirit! Right, come on everyone, let’s keep moving. It’s gonna be dark soon.” And with that, we’re on the move again.

As we walk, thoughts are running through my head. Had they misheard me?

Unlike Paul or Max or one of the other guys, I speak quietly. Was I just inaudible when I spoke?

As for not recognising Shaw…well, that’s a little more inexplicable. But, as Paul said, it’s getting dark. And there’s something about walking through the woods – the endless repetition of leaves and trees; the low, late-afternoon sun glinting through the trees and flicking into your eyes – that plays havoc with your sight. Perhaps them not seeing Shaw is like a mirage in reverse.
To my left, John Shaw says something to me.

“Sorry?” I say.

“How long you guys been looking?”

“A day. This is the second.” I don’t know why I answer him, and am barely conscious of doing so. All I know is that this is John Shaw. If I don’t answer his questions, I am worried I might annoy him, and annoying John Shaw in John Shaw’s woods is the very last thing you’d want to do.

He nods.

“Hopefully we’ll catch him,” he says.

I stare at him, incredulous.

“Although, just between you and me, I wouldn’t be too hopeful of that,” he continues. “Not to piss on the picnic or anything, it’s just that these woods, they’re,” he shrugs, “well, they’re big. Can’t put it no simpler’n that. You forget that sometimes. There’s whole countries smaller than these woods.

I’m not saying geography’s my strong point or nothing, but I reckon you could fit the whole UK into these woods, no problem. But hey, I guess if all of us are looking, we’ve got as good a chance as any of catching him. Oh, shit, my manners. My ma’d turn over in her grave. John Shaw.”

He stretches his hand out and, mesmerised, I shake it. He has a firm grip. For a moment I’m convinced he won’t let me go, but then he releases me.

We carry on walking in silence. I take a quick look over at him as we walk. As I do, I see his notorious scar, a present left by Julie Smith, the only one of his victims to ever escape. Even in the low-light, it is distinctive. It gives me an idea. Taking a deep breath, and clearing my throat, I call out.

“Hey! Hey, everyone!”

“What the fuck is it now, Mason?” Paul shouts. He’s calling me by my last name. That’s not a good sign.

“It’s John Shaw. It’s John Shaw. Look, the scar. Take him. Arrest him.”
Paul sniffs, and then rubs the back of his hand across his mouth. He spits on the floor. My heart leaps. He’s livid, finally realising that John Shaw is here.

“Mason,” Paul says, his mouth tight, “we’re all glad that you’ve come to help out, and I know it’s been a long day, but you’re starting to piss me off now. Either shut the fuck up and carry on walking, or you can piss off, do you understand?”

“But – ”

“Do you understand?” he says, taking a step forward.

“Yes,” I say, quietly.

He swears under his breath, and then gestures for us to all keep walking.

“They go on, too,” John Shaw says to me, as we keep going.

“What?” I ask after a moment, distracted.

“These woods. They just go on and on. It’s trees after trees after endless trees. They all look the same. You think you’re walking around in circles, like they say you do in the desert, but it’s not that. You’re not in the same places, you’re just in different places that look exactly the same. And that’s worse, if you think about it. That’s to most people anyway. Once you get to know these kinds of places, you can spot the differences – branch formations, leaf patterns, things like that. But to a normal person, you’d have no idea where you are or what you were doing. It’s a magical place, almost. It can hypnotise you, if you’re not careful.”

I shake my head, and laugh incredulously.

“You’re John Shaw,” I say.

“Awful,” he says, bowing his head penitently. “An awful, evil man.” He pauses. “You know what I think? You’d have to be a real sick bastard to do things like that. I dunno, maybe there’s something about a fucked-up childhood or something wrong with your brain or whatever, I dunno. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I don’t sympathise and all that. But once you start killing people, and doing all those sorts of sick things, my sympathy’s gone. All I’m thinking at that point is that I want that guy either behind bars or dead.”

There is a silky, sonorous quality to Shaw’s voice. Hypnotic, just like he described the forest.

“But you’re him. You’re the one who did all those things.”

“You just wonder, sometimes,” Shaw says, “what goes through people’s heads. You think, ‘how could someone do that?’ Take good, innocent people and butcher them. Kill them in such despicable ways. It’s all about human capability though, isn’t it? What humans are capable of. Just some sick people out there. It’s a fucked-up world we live in. One fucked-up world.”

Although I have known dark is impending for some time, now is the first time that this truly hits me. In town, it is never really dark, not with the streetlights. Out here, we’re surrounded and shrouded by trees, so it’s never really light, even in the day. Soon, it will be so dark that I won’t be able to see anything. I will be here, among the endless trees, in the endless dark, walking with John Shaw in John Shaw’s woods. The thought galvanises me, and allows me to speak louder and clearer than I thought possible.

“What the fuck are you all doing?” I shout so loud that a couple of the guys jump. “This is John Shaw, this guy here, next to me. Look at his scar. We’ve been out looking for him for two days. He’s here right now. You have to –”That’s enough,” says Paul, firmly. He walks right up to me. “I don’t know if you’re tired, or dehydrated, or, hell, you just woke up this morning and thought, ‘you know what, today I’m going to fuck up the search party’. But I don’t care. You’re done, Mason. I’m not taking your bullshit anymore.”

“Listen, Paul, you don’t – ”

Paul leans in closer.

“This is your last warning. I’m being nice to you right now, believe me. Don’t make me lose my sense of generosity.” He turns back to the group. “Anyone wanna do a good deed? Hate to lose one of you, but we can’t have him walking back through the woods to town by himself.”

No one answers. Then, behind me, I hear the now-familiar hum of John Shaw:

“I’ll do it.”

“Hey, man,” says Paul, “that’s real nice and everything, but these woods – ”

“Know ’em like the back of my hand. I can’t count how many hours I’ve spent in here over the years. I’ll take him to where he needs to go.”

“That’s great man, thanks. Really appreciate it,” says Paul. “And thanks for coming out, too. Sorry this – ” he goes to call me something, but stops himself. “Sorry you had to leave early.”

“Wait!” I call out, but Paul ignores me, responding only with a final look of disgust. The rest of the group have already started walking. It takes only a few seconds for them to seep into the darkness and disappear. Now only able to hear the sound of their fading footsteps, I feel a firm hand on the top of my shoulder.

“Looks like it’s just you and me,” John Shaw says. “We better get going. We’ve got a long way to go yet, my friend.”