(This short story originally appeared in the anthology Serial Sleuths—Volume I: Haunted)
The rocks skittered beneath my feet and bounced off the cliff below me as I climbed the last of Blue Dog Mountain. The cold October wind howled like a wounded bloodhound and tore viciously at my thermal jacket, my tentative grip on the narrow ledge close to being a memory. What the hell had I been thinking? I risked a glance at the valley floor and was hit by a nasty case of vertigo.
My arm shook as I focused a few feet above the ledge—the only thing between me and a fall to my death—and concentrated on the divot in the rock before me. Just a little bit further, Kate, I thought, finding solace in the repetitive sound of my voice as I inched closer to my goal.
Seventeen long minutes later, I dragged my body over the last of the unforgiving rock and gained a painful reminder of my hasty morning departure, when I donned a light t-shirt that refused to stay tucked into my summer-weight pants. The abrasion on my stomach, though painful, wasn’t deep. I’d been damned lucky I’d decided to throw my jacket in the back of the Jeep at the last minute, in case the weather turned to shit.
You know better than this, Kate. I’ve been a guide with Hard Rock Country Jeep Tours out of Durm, Arizona for years and have taken tourists on hikes and four-wheel-drive trips every day. I’d yet to lose anyone to hypothermia or other related disasters. I should’ve thrown my climbing gear into the Jeep, as well. Then I wouldn’t have had to free-climb the steep mountain face in the middle of a squall.
I rolled over and sat up, and dusted the deep red earth from my clothes. Legend had it that the daughter of an Indian chief, after learning her lover, Blue Dog, had been killed in battle, jumped to her death from the mountain. To honor her, the spirits commanded the dirt to bleed red. There were all sorts of legends in the high country, and I never tired of learning them.
Living them, on the other hand, wasn’t my idea of a good time.
The wind continued to howl, but at least now I had secure footing. I checked my compass to get my bearings and leaned into the gale, headed due west.
My hand closed around the letter in my pocket—the source of my anxiety and the reason I’d just climbed a desolate, vertical cliff in Navajo country in northern Arizona in the middle of God Knew Where without careful preparation.
I took a swig of water from my canteen, closed the top and reattached it to the carabineer hooked onto my belt loop. Angry clouds scudded across the darkening sky and lightning cracked in the distance. The minor dilemma of how I would make it back down Blue Dog Mountain occupied my brain for about half a second before it moved on to other concerns. Chief among them being how to find my friend Rana from the cryptic letter she’d sent me.
The well-worn path to the cave entrance materialized several yards ahead of me, carved into the earth by generations of seekers. I stopped to compose myself and took a few deep breaths before I walked inside.
The smell of smoke from a well-tended fire assaulted my nose and I stifled the urge to cough. My eyes watered and I cleared my throat as I tried to acclimate myself to the change in atmosphere. The wind’s howl diminished as I neared the cave’s core, my footsteps an odd echo due to the cavern’s conical shape. For me, caves conjured a sense of the surreal, as though they assumed responsibility as a portal for the spirit world.
Anything could happen in the deep unknown.
I rounded a bend and came upon an elder I knew to be a descendent of both the Hopi and Navajo nations, dressed in a flannel shirt, hunter’s jacket and jeans. He rocked back and forth near a crackling fire in the middle of an antechamber of the cavern, wind-weathered face directed upward as he chanted the words of an ancient prayer. I paused in my single-minded objective and respectfully waited just outside the glow of firelight.
The medicine man finished his prayers and grew silent. I shifted from one foot to another. Rushing a medicine man wasn’t usually a good idea. They tended to ignore anyone who refused to play by old-school rules. I closed my eyes and slowed my breath, and attempted to ground myself as I waited for his signal to approach.
“I have not seen you for some time, my friend.” The old one’s voice echoed through the hollow cavern.
I let out a sigh of relief. Apparently, he didn’t hold my last visit against me. I took his acknowledgement as my cue to move front and center.
“Yes, father. It has been long since I’ve needed your wisdom—”
His chuckle almost qualified as a guffaw. “From what others have told me, you required my guidance many times, yet did not seek it.” His eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. “In any case, I’m glad you are well. Sit.” He indicated a space across the fire. I did as I was told, and sat cross-legged on the hard dirt floor.
He filled his pipe with tobacco, lit it with a disposable lighter and inhaled deeply. The plume of blue smoke he exhaled mingled with that of the fire, and we watched it rise and dissipate. A look of deep contentment appeared on his face. I relaxed with him and almost forgot why I was there.
He returned his gaze to the fire, then looked into my eyes. The familiar sensation that he could read my thoughts returned and reminded me of our first encounter. I’d come to him to exorcise the bad spirits identified by a shaman I’d met in Mexico, in the hope I’d rid myself of the string of ill-fated encounters I experienced since I left there. The medicine man had been able to access old memories I tried to shove deep, but informed me I still had work to do before this bad luck would consent to leave me in peace. Angry, I’d argued with him and explained I’d already been through enough and would he please just get rid of the damned spirits? Apparently, this was bad form, and he refused to continue our session.
“You seek your friend. A woman,” he said. I snapped back to the present. “She is in danger and needs your help. May I see the letter?”
I walked over and handed him the paper, then returned to my seat on the floor. How he knew about the letter, I had no idea, but I’d learned long ago that questioning these things rarely got me anywhere and it was better to just run with it. The spirit world had its own way of operating.
He held it for a moment, eyes closed, then nodded and tossed it into the fire before I could protest.
“You will know the devil’s hand. Spirits will align with you as long as your intention is clear. Begin at the gas station.” He then opened his eyes and re-lit his pipe with a contented smile.
“That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? Begin at the gas station? Which gas station?” I asked, although we both knew which one he meant. The place had been abandoned years before—the windows boarded up with plywood, dry tumbleweeds the only sure population. I needed more information. He’d said Rana was in danger and needed my help. “Where is she? At least tell me that.”
The old man shook his head. “That is enough information. Go.”
I stood and dusted off the back of my pants, and placed an iTunes gift card in the basket in front of him as payment. Fine. Cryptic holy men appeared to be the norm in my life. “Thank you for your help, father.” I bowed, hands held in prayer pose. He nodded, signifying our conversation had come to an end.
Crap. I walked out to the cave’s entrance. The wind had diminished—in its place fell cold, stinging rain. With a groan, I made my way to the edge of the cliff and looked down at the valley below. Small, scrubby pines were barely discernible in the encroaching darkness. I couldn’t make out the path I’d taken earlier. With a sigh, I dropped to all fours, grabbed onto the thick root of a contorted tree stunted by the relentless rain and wind, and lowered myself carefully as I searched for that all-important first foothold.
By the time I reached my Jeep, the mountain behind me had all but disappeared in the darkness. The squall passed and a gorgeous full moon surrounded by diamond-lit stars appeared on the horizon. Night in the high country is deeper than any I’d experienced elsewhere, even with a full moon, and tonight was no exception. Whenever I traveled through the area my imagination took over with the legends and stories I’d heard over the years. People in this part of the country would tell you weird things happened at night. Inexplicable things.
Most stayed indoors when evening fell.
With that in mind, I made sure to roll up the windows and lock the doors to my Jeep before I pulled onto the dirt road and headed for the gas station. I’d gone about five miles when the back of my neck started to tingle and I noticed a subtle shift in atmosphere. Alert, I checked my cell phone for service. No bars. That was another thing about Navajo country. You were on your own.
I drove a little further with no incident and started to relax. I’d just rounded a corner when the dark shadow of an animal appeared briefly in the headlights. I stomped on the brakes and winced as the Jeep fishtailed and shuddered from the impact. A loud thump was followed by a yelp and a snarl. Instant remorse coursed through me. I twisted in my seat to look out the back. Swathed in dust from the Jeep, a pair of eyes glowed at me from the roadside. Heart in my throat, I shifted into park and reached under the front seat for the semiautomatic I always carried. I hoped the animal wasn’t mortally wounded, necessitating a bullet.
I waited for the dust to clear before I approached the spot where I’d made contact, but whatever I’d hit had disappeared. I strafed the area with my flashlight and checked the gravel for signs of blood, but found none.
Accompanied by a rapid heartbeat, I searched the area. There were no tracks, no evidence that anything had been there, let alone been hit by my Jeep. I stopped to listen. A distant coyote’s call punctuated the stillness. With a deep sigh, I assured myself I hadn’t killed anything, that whatever I’d hit had recovered and was now on its way back to its family. I returned to the Jeep and put the gun under the seat.
As I drove away, I glanced in the rear view mirror. The road disappeared behind me in a dusty rooster tail churned up by the Jeep’s tires. No glowing red eyes stared back. I headed for the gas station on the old county road, unable to shake my sense of unease.
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled into the weed-filled parking lot of the abandoned station. I retrieved my gun from under the seat and slid it into my waistband. I rarely went anywhere without my nine since I was on a Mexican drug lord’s hit-list. Or should I say, shit-list. Assassins tended to show up at the most inconvenient times.
Watchful for clues to Rana’s whereabouts, I explored the perimeter of the gas station. I had no idea what I was supposed to find; yet another cryptic memo I had to decipher from beyond. The whole ‘message from the spirit world’ thing was getting old. Not that I minded help from unexpected sources, but just once, couldn’t it be easy to decipher? Moonlight glinted off a broken beer bottle nestled in the middle of a bunch of other garbage. Not much to go on. Disappointed when I found nothing remotely clue-like, I narrowed my focus to the structure itself.
Plywood covered the large windows, the broken glass scattered below on a buckled concrete walkway. The front door remained intact although heavily pitted and cracked, as if someone tried to break in but gave up. I walked over to it and tried the handle.
The reflection of a man, his forehead painted blood red and his eyes rimmed in black, appeared in the glass. My hand froze and my breath caught. I willed myself to inhale, slid my gun free, and spun around.
And stared at an empty lot. My heart raced like a stock car sprinting for the finish line as I sank against the door. The wind kicked up from the east in a dust eddy. An old, plastic grocery bag launched into the air and floated with phantom-like ease. Either I’d inhaled way too much smoke from the medicine man’s fire, or I wasn’t alone.
I raced to the Jeep, got in and slammed the door shut. My hands shook as I turned on the overhead light and checked the map for the best route to the highway. With one last, furtive glance at the gas station, I threw the Jeep into gear and started for Hok’ee. I’d already tried to get information in town earlier that morning, but came up empty. That’s when I’d decided to visit my old friend the medicine man. Maybe this time I’d find someone who’d seen Rana or possibly even talked with her.
I’d met Rana soon after she moved to Arizona and liked her immediately. Originally from Turkey, she’d sold everything to come to the U.S. to search for her idea of the American dream: a successful husband, two-point-four kids and a tidy little Colonial in the ‘burbs. Her naiveté and belief that everything would turn out right was a nice change from my jaded world view. Now, it looked like she’d trusted one person too many.
She mentioned in her letter that the wonderful man named Tony she’d told me about a few months back had turned out to be not so wonderful, and she was afraid of what he’d do if she left him. He’d gotten involved in some kind of black-magic cult and it sounded like she was being held against her will. She ended the letter cryptically, saying they were on their way to a place near an area she and I had hiked the spring before. The letter was postmarked Hok’ee, a small town several miles to the west, near Monument Valley.
Hok’ee’s population of 3,500 kept alive three fast-food restaurants, a tiny grocery store with a butcher, a post office and two churches—one Pentecostal, one Catholic. Additions were rare, and the populace remained in slow decline. I pulled into the parking lot of the Diné Diner, a family-owned restaurant that served stellar fry bread.
The place was a testament to Native American art: impressive pottery, gorgeous Navajo blankets, stunning silver jewelry. Mysterious, stylized paintings lined every wall. Too bad my knees still shook from the close encounter back at the gas station, or I would’ve taken more time to admire the work.
I chose a table near the front of the restaurant and ordered a cup of coffee with cream and a plate of fry bread. One of the owners, Luci, came by with a full pot of coffee. Long, dark hair pulled back in a thick ponytail, she wore a distinctive, silver squash-blossom necklace with earrings to match. Two men, locals judging by their familiarity with Luci, sat at an adjacent table, each with a cup of coffee and a piece of pie in front of them. One wore a bright yellow ball cap, while the other had placed his blue one on the table in front of him. They appeared to be friendly types, so I asked the guy with the yellow cap if he was from around there.
He smiled as he took a leisurely sip of his coffee. “Yep. Lived here all my life. Gary here has, too,” he said, as he nodded at his companion. “Where’re you from?”
“Durm. I used to guide Jeep tours down the way.”
Yellow Cap appeared to ponder this as he took a bite of pie. “What’re you doin’ in this neck of the woods, you don’t mind my asking?”
“Not at all,” I replied. Luci placed a plate of fragrant fry bread and a squeeze bottle of honey in front of me. My mouth watered as I cut into the warm, doughy goodness and wolfed down a bite. “I’m looking for a friend, Rana Celik. She mentioned she was in Hok’ee the last time I heard from her.”
Yellow Cap frowned and looked at the other guy. “What’s she look like?”
“Around five-four, medium build with dark hair, brown eyes, and a Turkish accent. She would have been with a guy named Tony,” I added with a smile. I didn’t know if these guys were friends of Tony’s and didn’t want to tip them off I was worried.
Gary sat forward in his chair. “Yeah, there was a couple here two days ago. The woman matches your description. Turkish, huh?” I nodded and he continued. “They picked up supplies at the grocery store. Said they were going camping.”
“Did they say where?” Two days. I’d have to step up my game to find Rana before the trail went cold.
“Nope. But he had some weird-ass things for a camping trip in the back of his pickup. Witchy stuff, you ask me.”
“Witchy stuff?” I shifted uneasily in my chair.
“You know, stuff for ceremonies an’ shit. He asked if Manny had any blood from a hog he just butchered. When he said no, the guy got pissed off and stormed out of the store. Your friend apologized for him and followed him out.”
“He Navajo?” Yellow Cap asked his friend.
“Nah. A wannabe, maybe. I never seen him around.”
“What kind of ceremony?” I had a bad feeling about Tony’s quest for blood.
Gary glanced at Yellow Cap and shrugged. “It’s probably nothin’.”
Yellow Cap seemed particularly interested in the last bite of his pie. Luci walked over with the coffee and topped off everyone’s cup.
“He’s talking about yee naaldlooshii. A Skinwalker,” she said.
Yellow Cap cleared his throat.
“Aren’t they like shapeshifters?” I asked, ignoring his apparent attempt to silence Luci.
Luci nodded and set the coffee pot on the table. “Usually coyotes, but they can turn into any animal. I’ve heard they can even take over another person’s body. Only thing is,” she glanced at the two men at the table. “To become a Skinwalker, you have to be initiated.”
“Which means,” I prompted.
She took a deep breath before continuing. “Which means your friend is probably in danger. In order to gain power, they’re supposed to kill someone close to them.”
“Now, Luci. You’re gonna scare the daylights out of the poor gal.” Yellow Cap turned to me, his dark-brown eyes almost black. “The story my grandfather told me about Skinwalkers isn’t so spooky.”
Luci started to interrupt, but he held his hand up. “He told me Skinwalkers were originally scouts who dressed in animal skins and sneaked up on the enemy to find out how many there were, what kind of weapons they had, that kind of thing. They weren’t witches or evil men.” Yellow Cap gave Luci a meaningful look before he continued. “True, some strayed from the path because there’s power to be gained and there are men who will abuse the opportunity. But some Skinwalkers are said to be guides to those who have passed on. You can tell them by the blood-red paint on their forehead and white on the rest of their face, with their eyes surrounded in black.”
My heart skipped a beat. “I saw one at the old gas station on Route Fifty-nine. Or I should say the reflection of one.”
Yellow Cap and Gary exchanged glances. “That’s pretty rare,” Yellow Cap said. “They don’t generally show themselves to white folks, from what I understand.”
“Yeah. That’s real strange,” Gary agreed.
I shrugged off the anxiety that twisted my stomach and turned to Gary. “Is there anything else you can remember about Rana and the guy? If he’s for real and wants to become a Skinwalker, I have to find her, now.”
Gary shook his head. “I wish I did, but that’s all I know.”
“It’s said that the ceremony needs to take place to the north of an ancestor’s Hogan. Since he’s probably not a member of the Nation I wouldn’t worry about a Hogan, but you could start in the north,” Yellow Cap suggested.
“Remember, they have the power to become whatever they want,” Luci added. “Don’t look them in the eyes.”
I rose to leave, but stopped. “A medicine man told me to start at the abandoned gas station and I did, but I can’t believe he sent me there to have the shit scared out of me by a Skinwalker. Can you think of why he would send me there?”
Yellow Cap leaned his head back and looked at the ceiling for a moment as he considered my question. Then he nodded. “Could be he wanted you to see the ancient drawings on the rocks behind the station.”
“Petroglyphs?” I asked.
“Yeah. If I remember correctly, they’re right behind the station, about eye-level.”
I picked up my pack and slung it over my shoulder. “Thank you. I appreciate your help.”
“I wouldn’t go back there if I were you,” Luci warned.
“I have to if I’m going to find my friend,” I said. “You didn’t tell me if Skinwalkers had any vulnerabilities. How do you stop them?”
“They’re hard to kill,” Gary said.
“Invincible,” Yellow Cap added.
Luci rolled her eyes at the two men. “Now who’s scaring her?” She patted my arm. “There is one way. You have to dip the bullets you’re going to use in white ash and shoot them when they’re in human form.”
“Great. And how do I know if the guy’s a Skinwalker before I shoot?”
“You don’t, unless you see them actually change from an animal to a human.”
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen,” I said.
The two men nodded their heads, grave expressions on their faces. I took one last sip of my coffee in the hopes it would relieve my dry mouth. It didn’t. I reached into my pocket for a few bills and some change and left the money on the table.
“Be safe,” Yellow Cap said, as I walked out the door.
I returned to the abandoned gas station and followed the gravel path that ran behind it, my flashlight directed at the rock face a few yards away. Gun in my other hand, I ignored the queasy sensation in my stomach. About a third of the way up, right where Yellow Cap said, I found a series of drawings faded into the rock. One of the figures resembled a man wearing the skin of an animal, surrounded by several smaller figures on their knees. A bolt of lightning zigzagged across the sky above their heads, and led to an odd shaped formation in the background. It was similar in shape to the Rain God Mesa in Monument Valley except for an odd spire to its left. I didn’t recall having seen the formation nearby.
Discouraged, I searched further in case I missed another clue, then returned to my Jeep to check the area map. It listed only well-known mountains and mesas in the area. None came close to the one depicted on the petroglyphs.
Ancient travelers could have stopped to rest there and drawn a scene from their home to mark their progress. Or, the mesa shown on the drawing could be tucked away somewhere in a canyon, unknown to all but the most intrepid traveler. I thought about waiting until daylight before I attempted to look, but I didn’t want to lose more time than I already had. Besides, the full moon would light my way.
The hair on the back of my neck did its stand-up routine again, so I locked the driver’s side door and scanned the area. Something flashed to my left, but it happened so fast, I didn’t get a good look at what caused it. I slipped my hand around the gun in my lap and waited. When nothing materialized, I buckled my seatbelt and started the Jeep.
A few hours later, my search hit a dead end. Tired and frustrated, I decided to give up and check into a hotel for the night. I drove several miles down an unidentifiable dirt road with only the Jeep’s headlights for company. Without warning, a deer leapt in front of the hood. I stood on the brakes and held my breath. The Jeep spun sideways, spitting rocks. My heart in my throat, I eased my foot off the brake and steered into the spin.
The Jeep skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust. I shifted into park, sucked in a lungful of air to calm myself and looked for the deer. It grazed calmly on a bush a few yards away.
Do these animals all have a death wish out here, or what? I shook my head, relieved I hadn’t made contact and glanced out the windshield. Surprised, I leaned forward in the seat.
The full moon glowed with a feral intensity and illuminated a swath of valley floor as bright as though it were the middle of the day. In the center of the valley sat the shadowy outline of a large rock formation with an odd spire to its left.
The mesa from the petroglyph. In disbelief, I shifted into gear and crept toward the mesa. Glad for the four-wheel-drive, I maneuvered slowly along the deeply rutted road. It was further than it looked. By the time I’d reached the base of the huge rock, I’d gotten over my initial surprise. I parked, grabbed my gun and got out of the car, making sure to lock the door. I didn’t need any surprises when I got back.
I walked along the base of the mesa, flashlight aimed ahead of me. Several yards in I came across a cairn—a stack of stones traditionally left by hikers to mark a trail. Past the cairn, a well-worn path jutted through a pair of large rocks and headed toward the top of the mesa.
I took a tentative step forward, then spun around at a rustle in the shrubs behind me. The tail-end of a coyote disappeared into the shadows.
Probably wanted to see if I might be a good snack. I took a deep breath and released my death grip on the gun, and followed the trail, making an effort to muffle my footsteps. No sense announcing my arrival if this was the right place and Rana’s boyfriend lurked nearby.
The trail continued to gain in elevation and turned steep. A coyote howl punctuated the darkness, this time from nearby. I assumed it was the same one I’d seen at the start of the trail and hoped he wasn’t calling a buddy to help him take down the odd, two-legged animal headed for the top of the mesa.
The temperature had plummeted, but the effort to climb the steep trail kept me warm. An owl hooted directly above me. Startled, I stopped to watch as it swiveled its head, perched on the branch of an ancient mesquite, large eyes yellow in the moonlight. Apparently it spotted its next meal—the large bird unfolded its enormous wings and propelled itself off the tree branch, becoming airborne with several giant flaps. I ducked as the tips grazed the top of my head.
Heart in my throat, I walked further along the trail, fighting a deep unease. Though the rest of my body perspired, my hands were cold and clammy. Navajo legends of the spirit world flooded my mind. Every shape and shadow was a ghost or witch or Skinwalker come to suck my soul dry.
As I crested the mesa the sound of chanting floated through the air, and I dropped to a crouch. An icy shiver skittered along my spine as I listened to the unnatural recitation; a series of groans punctuated by moaning and nonsensical words sung to a peculiar, discordant melody. When the cadence continued uninterrupted, I eased forward, careful not to reveal my location.
I came to a large boulder and peeked around the side. The orange glow of a campfire licked at shadows cast by remnants of ancient limestone formations. In the center of the natural enclosure stood a man dressed in a coyote skin. The coyote’s head was intact and covering the man’s skull, complete with paws and claws dangling from lifeless fore and hind legs. He gazed skyward and raised an irregular-shaped bowl filled with dark liquid above his head, chanting in a language I didn’t recognize. The words, though indecipherable, lent a cold chill to an already bitter night.
I watched for a moment, mesmerized, before I snapped back to reality and scanned the rest of the enclosure for Rana. A multi-room tent stood in one corner, next to a two-burner camp stove atop a nearby metal table and several containers of different sizes.
If this guy was Tony, then Rana was probably inside the tent. I stepped into the shadows behind the boulder and started to formulate a plan to get inside without Tony noticing. I didn’t remember Rana mentioning her new boyfriend was Diné, or Navajo, and I didn’t figure many of the People would let a white man in on their most sacred ceremonies, so I assumed he was making it up as he went along. I needed to distract his attention long enough to get inside that tent.
The chanting stopped. I peeked around the boulder a second time. The enclosure was empty. I waited. Blood rushed through my ears.
“Who the hell are you?”
I froze at the sound of the man’s voice behind me. He’d been quiet.
Like a ghost.
“I—I’m lost…” Yeah, that’s gonna fly.
“Turn around slowly, and give me the gun,” the voice directed.
I pivoted and relaxed my grip on the semi-automatic. Coyote man stood a few feet away. My mind raced for a good reason to be near his campsite. For the life of me, I couldn’t think of a thing. He stepped forward, snatched the gun from my fingers and hurled it into the darkness beyond.
“Hands behind your head,” he commanded. He aimed a forty-five at my chest so I did what he asked.
He stared down at me, a man-sized coyote with a gun. Furry, pointed ears topped a narrow snout with a black nose, which dipped low on his forehead. Sections of hide cradled his face. A dark tattoo surrounded his right bicep.
“Walk to the fire.” He waved his gun toward the enclosure.
“People know where I am. They’ll come looking for me—”
“I’ll be long gone by the time anyone misses you.”
We reached the orange glow of the bonfire and he kicked the back of my knees. I fell to the ground, hands flailing to regain my balance.
“I said hands behind your head,” he ordered.
He moved to the far side of the enclosure, keeping the gun aimed at my head, and rummaged through one of the plastic containers. He appeared to find what he was looking for and walked back behind me.
When I hesitated, he grabbed my wrist and wrenched my arm behind me. My muscles screamed in protest. I was thankful he didn’t use enough force to dislocate my shoulder.
“The other one.”
Reluctantly, I dropped my free hand. He seized it and proceeded to wrap duct tape several times around my wrists. A forty-five is hard to argue with.
A freak-boy in a coyote-suit, even harder.
Before he could stop me, I rolled onto my back and kicked at the gun. My aim was off and I hit his crotch. He exhaled with a groan and bent over at the waist. I rolled forward onto one knee and planted the other foot, intending to run. He grabbed my hair and yanked me backward to the ground, hard. My scalp burned as I landed on my elbows. With a growl, he jammed the barrel of the gun against my temple.
“You try that again and you won’t see morning.” His breathing labored, he kept pressure on the forty-five as he reached inside the coyote skin and produced a narrow cylinder about the size of a pen. He brought it to his mouth and blew.
I winced at the pain in my neck. “What the hell was that?” A wave of dizziness washed over me.
He ignored my question and bent to wrap the duct tape around my ankles. Then he hauled me up by the armpits and dragged me across the enclosure. He dropped me on my side in the darkness, facing the fire.
“You can be my backup,” he said, teeth bared in a malicious smile.
What the hell does that mean?
“Your name’s Tony, right? Where’s Rana?” Another surge of light-headedness fluttered through me, followed by a wave of nausea.
“You know my Rana?”
His face morphed from grotesque to demonic in the firelight. His long, narrow nose resembled that of the coyote draped across his head. He’d painted his face, but had only used white. Apparently he didn’t get the memo. It brought out the red in his bloodshot eyes.
“It’s fortuitous one of her friends will be here to witness the ceremony.”
He walked back to the fire and threw several pieces of wood onto the flames. The bonfire grew until the enclosure began to resemble a miniature Hell. He turned to stare, his icy expression matching his grimace. A moment later he disappeared into the tent.
The dizziness continued to worsen. I tested the tape on my wrists, but he’d used too much and I knew from experience it was useless to try and free my hands from behind. Still on my side, I worked to push my rear end through my arms and bring my hands around to the front. Still nauseated from the drug or poison or whatever it was, I took deep breaths as I worked, one eye on the tent for his return. I strained my neck and shoulders until the side of my face was scraped bloody from the rocky ground. Finally, I squeezed my lower body through the gap in my arms.
I rocked to a sitting position and brought my hands to my face, using my teeth to tear through the tape. I’d managed to gnaw a third of the way through when I spotted movement near the tent. I dropped to my side, curling into a fetal position and hoped the shadows hid my body enough so he wouldn’t see what I’d accomplished. By this time, the dizziness had progressed to a horrendous case of vertigo and I realized I wouldn’t be able to do much more until the stuff wore off.
Or killed me. Whichever came first.
Tony appeared with a large bundle draped in a blanket in his arms. Rana. Her head lolled backward, eyes closed, dark hair splayed like a waterfall, her arms limp as wet leaves. Was she still alive? Had he drugged her? Fear squeezed my chest as I fought through the panic. From what I’d learned at the diner, what he intended to do didn’t involve prancing unicorns or puppies.
He placed her gently atop a slab of limestone to the left of the fire. The blanket fell open around her and he began to chant, this song different from the one I’d heard him perform earlier. His voice crescendoed as he raised what looked like a dagger in both hands above his head. I struggled to sit up, but the world shifted and I slammed back to the ground. I can’t let her die. Rana—you have to wake up…now.
The faint but unmistakable sound of footsteps fell to my left. I rolled my head to the side to see what stumbled upon this bizarre scene and blinked to clear my focus.
A large coyote circled the fire, head and tail low to the ground, teeth bared. It walked on three legs, dragging its back one as though broken. I wondered briefly if it was the animal I’d hit with the Jeep.
Canis latrans let out a low growl. Tony lowered the dagger and raised his head. He turned slowly and faced the animal.
As the two squared off, it occurred to me this was probably a hallucination caused by the dart. I held my breath and waited.
Features lit by firelight, Tony lunged with the dagger, his face a grotesque, shadowy mask. The coyote sprang forward with a snarl, its paws and forelegs lengthening into the arms and hands of a man. I watched, stunned, as the rest of its body transformed from canine to human, the broken leg bent at an odd angle. They grappled for control of the knife. His leg obviously a factor, it looked like the coyote-man would fail. A moment later, he latched onto Tony’s wrist, bent it backward and forced the dagger toward his chest. A vortex of dust and dirt churned skyward from the ground, obscuring their struggle. From within the cloud, a bone-chilling scream shredded the night, then cut short. When the air cleared, one man stood with his back to me.
It wasn’t Tony.
The coyote-man pivoted and I caught my breath. His body glowed in the red-orange firelight, dark eyes rimmed in black, his ghost-white face a stark contrast to the blood-red paint on his forehead. The tattoo on his bicep looked eerily similar to Tony’s and his leg appeared unhurt. I stared, mesmerized, and took shallow breaths, my heart banging in my chest. He watched me for a moment, and then was gone.
I squeezed my eyes closed, then opened them and tried to focus on the empty spot where he’d stood. The scene before me wavered, then faded to black.
I swam toward consciousness as someone shook my shoulder. The side of my face stung and my shoulders ached. Hands gripped my elbows from behind and pulled me to a sitting position.
Still groggy, I shook my head to clear it. The bizarre events of the evening started to drift back as I took stock of my surroundings. The fire now burned to embers, smoke drifting lazily upward as the gray stillness of dawn washed the enclosure in a watery light. Yellow Cap stood next to Rana and gently patted her face in an attempt to get her to respond. Gary came around and squatted in front of me with a small hunting knife. He rolled his sleeves back before he began to cut away the duct tape on my wrists, concern evident in his eyes. I stared at the dark tattoo on his arm.
“Me an’ Jim thought we’d better try and follow you, but we lost you after you left the gas station.” He grunted as he moved to my ankles. “We figured you’d come to Spinner’s Mesa, since that’s what was on the petroglyphs. Looks like we missed the party.”
“Yeah,” was the only word I could manage.
Gary glanced in my eyes, his expression impassive. “Looks like you been drugged. Your pupils are bigger than a couple of Oreo cookies.” He finished cutting through the tape on my ankles and sat back. “What’d we miss?”
I considered his question for a moment before answering, resisting the urge to let on that I’d seen the exact same tattoo earlier, first on Tony, then on Coyote-man. Best to let that knowledge disappear with the sunrise. Gary offered me his water canteen. I drank some and handed it back to him.
“I can tell you one thing for sure. Tony won’t be a problem.” I said, as I checked out Gary’s legs. They looked fine. No breaks that I could tell. Gary grunted in answer, but didn’t ask questions, which seemed odd.
Rana groaned and Jim/Yellow Cap braced his arm behind her to help her sit up. I sighed with relief. As she caught sight of me, the ghost of recognition appeared on her face before she turned back to Jim and took a drink from his canteen. I glanced at his arms and wondered if he had the same tattoo hidden under his sleeve.
I looked back at Gary and caught him watching me, eyes narrowed, as if trying to figure out what I knew. I smiled and took another drink from the canteen.
Sometimes you just have to let sleeping dogs lie.