Burning Without Knowing

by Mike Mallow

Innocence is lost early and only its illusion masks the darkness burning deep within, ensured to rage on by the sins of our fathers. For Shawna, the untimely demise of a southern West Virginia copper thief spirals her life out of control. The death forces her into a world of corrupt officials, psychotic criminals, and vindictive women blazing a trail of violence. Will the price of her father’s sins force Shawna to make new ones of her own? Sins that will pull her deeper into the bottomless chasm of her own darkness.


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Chapter 1 - SHOCK (excerpt)

There was treasure in the mountain and Wally Pike could sense it. Huffing, he ascended a steep hillside that led to his destination in the deep woods. The cover of night masked his activity and kept others from sniffing out his path.

The older, grizzled gentleman was in search of the new West Virginia gold. It was not the treasure of folklore. A legend had claimed Native Americans buried gold and other riches within the hills. No. This bounty was one buried by modern utility workers. The potential fortune could be found in abundant strands just under the mountain’s face, sandwiched between the sod and the coal seams.

Wally was in search of a dormant cable system that had long fallen into disrepair. It had been abandoned and replaced by newer fiber optic lines, once the state finally got around to upgrading its infrastructure.

The copper left behind had become valuable in the decades since it had been buried and forsaken. As the scavenging became profitable, more people went searching for an easy buck, and those hunters evolved into an organization.

Ultimately, deveining the lands of their lost treasures was not enough and the group turned to crime, swiping any precious metals that were laid out in plain sight or in abandoned structures.

When precious metals weren’t enough, opioid and meth distribution became king and had remained so for the better part of the prior decade. Copper theft seemed to be the gateway crime that led to harder and more serious things. Though he couldn’t prove it, Wally suspected some in his group had dabbled in murder in the name of maintaining the secrecy of the growing organization.

Wally did not want to be that kind of criminal. He did not wish to participate in the activities that resulted in the harm of other people’s lives, so he stuck to cable mining. Though still criminal, Wally harvested the abandoned cable under the justification that it was simply litter in need of clearing. It was his civic duty, or so he rationalized.

Until recently, copper harvesting wasn’t as popular as it used to be. In the early 2010s, stripping wires was the trendy scheme that could earn rural scoundrels an influx of cash. The drop in price for the semi-precious metal in the years that followed pivoted illicit activities away from the ground and precipitated the turn to harder crime. A spike in copper prices in recent times created a new push by lawless laypersons to find what of the snaky fortune remained in the West Virginia hills.

Even though he personally disapproved of the illicit drug activities, Wally quietly operated within the group as their de-facto secretary. He kept notes of everything tucked in locked cabinet drawers. Detailed financial notes, traffic on what drug and where it flowed throughout the state, and names of the group members were mentioned within these files. He even had some scribbled notes on whom in the group he believed to be murderers. Wally was well aware that his own murder would be added to the list if anyone found out he maintained such thorough information.

He was harshly reminded of the stakes after a break-in at his home a week earlier. Fortunately, the squeal of his security system’s alarm kept the intruders from only grabbing what was loose on his desk. A couple of silver coins were taken along with a folder he had been working on, which would have normally been located in a secure drawer. The file contained his records about their counterparts in eastern West Virginia. The eastern group appeared in disarray and therefore was rarely interacted with among the group. In fact, the recent squabbles from the east caused Wally to realize it had been a decade or more since he had last updated their file. The loss of those old, out of date notes wouldn’t be of any consequence at all, so long as the thief wasn’t one of their own.

Wally shook his head free of those thoughts and focused back to the task at hand, looking for the new West Virginia gold. The arteries of the old cable system remained plentiful but were difficult to find by those not knowing where to look. In populated towns the thick cords were abundant in the yards and places where new utilities had already been replaced; however, it was the simplest places to find them that were also the easiest places to arouse suspicion.

To Wally’s literal fortune, he had remained a long-time pal with a gentleman by the name of Bob Farrow. Bob had worked with the area cable company during the time when the early cables were laid; he once had a keen memory of where they were hidden in the country weeds. A half-century later found Bob in poor health. He was nearing life’s finish line and his mind was a few steps ahead. Regardless, Wally would return to him regularly in search of leads, though the reliability of the information withered as the low-hanging fruits of Bob’s memory were plucked.

Bob would still throw out a gem every now and then though, and Wally learned to recognize which of Bob’s musings were accurate and which were a fleeting memory of something else.

The latest tidbit from Bob that seemed the most plausible was a clue that Wally had not been given for a while. According to the ramblings, there was a stretch of abandoned cable that ran from the city of Logan to a radio tower on the mountain adjacent to downtown.

The transmission tower had been there for some time and previously had many different corporate overlords. Wally prognosticated that there would likely be a trove of forgotten treasures as a result. And, as always, it was the lure of those copper fortunes that got him outside on nights like this one.

After climbing halfway up the hillside, he began looking for the sweet spot between the city of Logan and whatever rudimentary security system was currently used to guard the tower property. The aging bandit finally chose a clearing over-looking the town that was encircled with pine trees. Wally flashed a quick beam of his small flashlight at the clearing to confirm there had been path there once. Now overgrown, the line of identical trees paired along the site gave him an affirmative that there had once been more pines present. It was clear they had been cut away for a utilitarian purpose. Trying to avoid shining his light again, he relied on the low light of the moon hanging on the eastern horizon to see. He could make out a grass path where the ground appeared slightly uneven in the places where tires would have once traveled. The ruts were long eroded, but the slight divots that remained still gave evidence to their existence.

Wally assumed the line would have run directly downhill from there and centered his body between the evergreens to make a best guess of where the derelict cable had been planted.

Satisfied with his positioning, Wally dropped his rucksack to the ground and retrieved a digging tool – a small tactical shovel that was unfolded after being removed from the bag. The spade clipped into place with a metallic clack and Wally swiftly went to work, stabbing the ground to loosen the stubborn overgrowth. He did the work blindly. Although his eyes were fully adjusted to the night, they could not adjust for the shadowy dirt he moved. The grass and the shadows were too long to give him a clear view of his toils, so he opted to keep his eyes closed. He pressed a hand against the mounds of soil he removed from the ground.

A few feet down he hit a snag, and he knew immediately by the ropey feel that Bob’s addled guesses were correct.

There was copper in them thar hills!

He flashed a quick light to examine the cable and judged it to be much thicker than the dormant cables he was used to extracting.

Pulling himself upright, Wally looked uphill and scratched behind an ear. Based on what Bob had told him, there was a time that the cable signal was beamed into the tower site from big satellite dishes that roosted along the mountaintop.

“This was the mainline?” Wally speculated aloud to convince himself the trip was not for nothing. The big cable leads to the hub in town and is portioned out to the smaller lines, he imagined.

If it were the mother-lode, he would need to return on another night with a better way to haul it down the mountain. The saucer-sized spool he had attached to his belt would not suffice to carry such a thick line. Wally decided instead to cut the cable and remove a sample to take to his brethren in crime. Perhaps they would aid him on the later extraction and could share the wealth equally.

He removed a multifunction knife from a case on his belt and folded the silver tool to access the straightedge blade. The knife had hacked sheathing away from many wires during its time in service, but tonight would be its last time in use.

The livewire popped and sprayed sparks across the clearing and over the treetops, which could be spotted by several on the streets of Logan that night.

The shock Wally felt must have been comparable to the shock that went across the community when it learned of the unnecessary demise of a copper thief. The irony of a wire stripper having his life stripped by a wire was amusing to those who did not know him; however, to those who were close to Wally, they viewed the news with consternation for a myriad of reasons.


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