Dark Side of Noon
She ran. Even though she couldn’t see it, she had no doubt it hunted her. Something. The sounds of whispers, the smell of sweet breath and smoke, engulfed her when she stopped to stare from the overlook to the valley below. Spinning around, she could feel its presence. Waiting. The hair on her neck stood up, and goose bumps formed down her body covered in perspiration from the strenuous hike. She noticed nothing but the tops of the pine trees bending, as if someone might be parting them to glare down at her.
A light touch landed on her shoulder. She spun around and found herself alone. A flock of birds flew up from the ridge behind the trees, screaming a warning. A breeze swept in and toyed with her ponytail as she pivoted toward the trail. Then it appeared, standing in the trees. A shadow moved forward the moment she decided it was time to try and escape.
No matter how hard she ran, it followed. If she stopped, so did the unknown presence. The whispers of a language she couldn’t understand began, and the invisible touch of caution slipped icy fingers of possession around her throat to cut off the scream she tried to force from deep inside her.
The trailhead came into view, giving her hope her final sprint might be enough to survive. Her labored breath drowned out the rolling thunder echoing throughout the forest she’d left behind. She splashed through a mud puddle as the trail dipped, throwing her balance off, causing her to spill face-first through scattered gravel often found in the area. Blood trickled down the side of her face and out of her nose. Her palms burned from the implanted gravel pieces. Jumping up, a glance over her shoulder determined the strange thing that pursued her had evaporated.
Sucking in the last gulp of air she’d take, she turned and ran into the body of a creature she’d never have a chance to describe to authorities.
~ ~ ~ ~
Wind Dancer stared out the windshield of Jacque Marquette’s slightly used SUV. He remained rigid and embodied the image of a wooden Indian Jacque had seen at a rib-and-fries joint in Oklahoma City a day earlier. He hadn’t said a word since breakfast. There were times, like now, when his Pawnee friend creeped the hell out of him.
Jacque reached across and touched the seat-belt lock to make sure it was secure. “You okay, buddy?”
Wind Dancer turned an icy glare on him and nodded. “Okay, buddy.” He returned to staring into the mile after mile of desert.
A little over a year earlier, Jacque discovered there really were boogeymen, ghosts, and a parallel universe where a Pawnee could slip across into the twenty-first century. He’d been followed by an Osage bent on revenge. A pretty doctor named Cleopatra Sommers stood between Chicago being wiped out by smallpox and a skinwalker who tried to kill him. Thanks to Wind Dancer, and a large dose of mumbo-jumbo spiritual traditions, he tricked the scariest things he’d ever known into returning to the hell from where they came.
Acclimating a person from the 1800s to modern life would be hard on anyone. Make that person an Native American who had enough superstitions and practices to scare even Stephen King, and a small grasp of the English language, and Jacque found himself torn between laughing his head off or trying to keep his friend from getting into trouble. Sometimes it felt like he babysat a toddler who had a propensity to want to play in traffic.
Jacque pulled into a gas station. The gauge said half full but, out here, who knew when there would be another chance to fill up?
“Want to take a break?” Jacque opened the car door and eased out to stretch stiff legs.
“What do you want me to break for you, Jacque?” Wind Dancer pulled at his seat belt.
Jacque groaned, reached in, and pressed the release. “Click this next time. I told you that yesterday.”
“I am sorry. I will remember.” He exited the car and stood motionless for a few seconds.
“That’s what you said yesterday and the day before.”
“Jacque, does your car have magic to protect us?” He stuck his head inside then out several times. “Your car feels like the cave where I crossed over to this time. But I see no open holes to travel.”
He felt amusement playing at the corners of his mouth but decided not to toy with the Pawnee. “It’s the air-conditioning. I turn it on, and we keep cool. Part of the car. Not magic. I didn’t have to use it until today. If you see one of those holes, you’re always talking about, it better not be in this car. I spent way too much money on it. I’ll want a refund if that happens.”
“Refund. Does that mean you will have fun for another time?”
“No. It means they will return my money.”
Wind Dancer raised his chin in understanding before shutting the car door. “Understand. Now, what did you want me to break?”
Jacque waved him away as he began to pump gas. “Never mind. Go take a leak or something.” He could see a question forming in the confused Pawnee’s face. Jacque moved to the front of the car to point down at his privates. “Understand?”
The pump failed to print a receipt, sending Jacque inside the small convenience store to get one. He scanned the store, trying to locate Wind Dancer. When he didn’t see him, he turned in a complete circle and moved to areas he couldn’t see from the front.
“Ah. My friend came in here to use the men’s room. Tall. Native American?”
The chubby woman with a full head of hair the color of a fire engine leveled an arthritic finger toward a side door. “He didn’t pay for the drinks.”
He spotted Wind Dancer standing on the edge of the parking area, staring toward the mountains. “How much?” Taking his observation off the Pawnee wasn’t an option. The whole toddler thing always loomed in his subconscious. If anything happened to him on this trip, Dr. Sommers might decide to administer an untraceable poison to Jacque’s coffee. A man in his line of work could drop with a heart attack at any minute.
“Eight dollars,” she said flatly.
Jacque jerked around and frowned at the woman who had already started to watch The Price Is Right on her small TV, propped over the cigarette shelves. “Just how many drinks did he buy?” He fished out his credit card, and the woman quickly completed the transaction then licked her fingers after taking a bite of a jelly donut. A dribble of red filling clung to the corner of her chapped lips.
“Have a nice day.” She had already focused on the TV again when he started out the door.
“Wind Dancer,” he growled. “What the hell are you doing? Where are the drinks?” Wind Dancer continued to concentrate on the vastness of New Mexico. “Hey. Are you listening to me?” Jacque stormed up to a foot from the Pawnee. “What’s up with you anyway?”
The Pawnee spoke in a whisper, “Let them pass, and all will be as it should be.”
His body froze in place then he registered the rattle. A four-foot-long snake curled around one of Wind Dancer’s boots. As another rattlesnake slithered away and toward Jacque, he yelled out and hopped backward. He stepped on a pebble sending him in a downward spiral to the ground. The snake pursued him.
He tried to scamper up but slipped once more as the Pawnee reached down and grabbed the snake on his boot and pulled its head off. He stepped lightly and calmly toward the advancing snake and snatched him up in a manner similar to an Afghan tribesman grabbing a headless goat in a game ofBuzkashi. With one twist of the snake’s head, it was no longer a threat. Another plus to having a Pawnee with super strength.
“Holy Mother of God, Joseph!” he yelled as the Pawnee took his hand and pulled him up. Jacque pivoted away from him and headed to the car, mumbling curse words he’d probably have to explain later. A sudden gust of wind sent a cloud of brown road dust into his face. “That’s just great,” he fumed, squeezing his eyes shut as the particles covered his clothes. “Now I’m dirty.”
“We go now.” Wind Dancer brushed past him and opened the hatch.
“Whoa. What are you doing? Don’t put those rattlesnakes in my car,” he warned.
“We can eat the meat tonight over our first campfire. I will use the skins later.”
“No.” Jacque slammed the hatch shut. “I’m not eating anything that got us thrown out of the Garden of Eden.” He shooed him toward the trash can that appeared about to burst with debris. When he complied, Jacque returned to the driver’s side and opened the door.
“Where is this garden? We should get vegetables. Cleopatra says we need to eat more vegetables and less meat. I want to please her.”
They got in and started the car. “Yeah. Well, by the expression on her face the other morning when I picked you up, I’d say you’re doing okay in the pleasing department. Now, where are those drinks?”
“I poured them on my boots. The snakes didn’t like it.”
Jacque pulled out onto the highway after a semi roared by. “You didn’t use any of that animal whisperer stuff?”
“No. Snakes do not have ears.” Wind Dancer clicked his seat belt then landed a fist against Jacque’s arm. “I guess Chicago detectives don’t interrogate many snakes.” He laughed. A rare occurrence.
“Easy, buddy. You don’t know your own strength.” When Wind Dancer crossed over from the 1800s, his strength and hearing had increased. Add in his ability to communicate with animals and other weird behaviors, and Jacque spent a lot of time trying to figure his partner out.
“Some of your friends must know we are here.”
“Huh?” Jacque adjusted the mirror and noticed flashing red lights. He pulled the car over, hoping the police car would keep going, but it pulled up behind them.
“Hello, officer,” Jacque said with driver’s license in hand. “What seems to be the problem?”
“You were speeding.” The officer took the card then leaned down and appeared to evaluate Wind Dancer who had taken to staring out the windshield again. “Who’s he?”
“Ah, this is Joseph Wind Dancer. He works at the Field Museum in Chicago. On a little vacation.”
“Mr. Wind Dancer?” the officer asked. “Are you okay?”
He nodded and poked Jacque. “Yes. Jacque is a detective. He is my friend.”
“A cop?” The officer examined the license again. “Sorry about this.”
Wind Dancer withdrew his hand, now covered with dust. “Jacque is a dirty cop.”
The officer observed Jacque and used his index finger to move his cowboy hat off his forehead. “Is that right?”
Several hours passed in police headquarters in the town of Sunset Rock, New Mexico. The smell of a pine air freshener mixed with stale coffee and body odor irritated the already disgruntled Chicago detective with an upset stomach. He and Wind Dancer had been escorted in by two squad cars without flashing lights to have a friendly conversation about their vacation plans. Jacque understood they were only being cautious and figured they got a lot of strange types coming through here with drugs as well as questionable characters trying to live off the grid.
Considering the way Wind Dancer had introduced them, they were lucky they hadn’t been told to assume the position. That could have gone sideways pretty fast considering his Pawnee friend would have taken offense and turned into something akin to the Incredible Hulk. He was pretty protective of him and Dr. Sommers. Protecting the doctor, he understood, but there were times he felt a little embarrassed at how he stepped in to keep danger at bay.
A woman appeared at the front desk and spoke quietly to a young officer. After she sent a glance his way, Jacque decided maybe having to sit here for two hours would turn out to be a plus. Dressed in a dark suit and white tank top, she reminded him more of FBI than local PD, but what did he know? New Mexico wasn’t Chicago. A few hairs freed themselves from the bun on her neck to frame her oval face. She appeared to be Hispanic or maybe Native American.
“She smells good, like Cleopatra.” Wind Dancer elbowed him and smiled. He’d barely spoken since they arrived. He’d taken to evaluating new situations in silence. Most people took offense at his inappropriate comments or observations.
“You can smell her from here?” Jacque whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
“And everyone else. I think the woman over there, the one with snakeskin boots, has not stood in the bathroom waterfall in a while.”
“We call it a shower, Joseph.”
“Yes. A shower. I think maybe she doesn’t know about how to get one.”
“Quiet.” Jacque stood as the woman in the suit moved in their direction. Her chocolate-colored eyes, shaped like large teardrops, paralyzed him with indecision. Should he be cavalier and witty with their first introduction. Or aloof and macho?
“Detective Marquette.” Her red lips parted into a friendly smile he guessed to be a rehearsed expression. She extended a slender hand which he took, surprised at her grip. “I’m sorry you had to wait. I’m Police Chief Perez.”
“I have not met a woman chief,” Wind Dancer announced as he walked around her for his inspection.
“Sit down, Mr. Wind Dancer, so I can talk to your partner.” Her eyebrows were arched and her voice icy. “I’ll deal with you in a minute.” She switched to a language Jacque didn’t understand, but Wind Dancer sat down and crossed his arms across his chest. “Thank you.”
He nodded and commenced with the frown of a man who’d been put in his place.
“Sorry. He doesn’t understand a lot of our ways. He’s been—”
Perez held up her hand to stop his attempt at making a good impression. “I know all about you and Mr. Joseph Wind Dancer.”
“Is that right?” Jacque chewed on his words, trying to sound more like John Wayne than a Chicago cop with an attitude.
“You two were involved in the terrorist attack on Chicago.”
Jacque pursed his lips, deciding it was better to listen at this point. He doubted she knew the depth of that nightmare.
Her attention shifted from Jacque to Wind Dancer for a few seconds before returning to him. “Care to take a ride?” She tilted her chin up and sounded like he might not have a choice.
“What did you say to him?” Jacque asked, concerned the Pawnee might not like taking orders from someone he thought was a female chief.
“I told him in the Zuni language to wait his turn. You didn’t know he understood Zuni?”
Jacque rolled his shoulders and fended off the appearance of surprise. “Of course I did. Wasn’t sure anyone around here spoke it, though, especially you.”
“Let’s head out.” She didn’t wait for an answer. “If you don’t mind, you can drive. I left my car there earlier.”
Jacque tugged on the Pawnee’s shirt and tilted his head toward the door. “Don’t screw this up,” he warned and slapped the Pawnee’s chest. It only mildly concerned him when he received a thumbs-up. “I didn’t know you spoke other languages.”
“Much you don’t know about me, buddy.”
Jacque made sure Wind Dancer got in the back seat of his SUV so Perez could ride up front. He pulled out onto the highway before starting to talk.
“I’d like you to take a look at this for me.” Perez clicked her seat belt then glanced at the detective.
“Sure. What’s this about?” Jacque answered.
“When I checked you out online a warning appeared, so I called my contact at the FBI in Albuquerque.” She glanced over at him then to the road. “He suggested I contact a friend of yours by the name of Agent Farrentino.”
“Well, it might surprise you, but I don’t have any friends at the FBI, so whoever you talked to is probably yanking your chain.”
“Yeah. He thought you might say that. Hey, I’m jammed up. With the government shutdown, we have been playing catch-up with things around here.”
He pulled into a paved parking lot, the first one he’d seen since Santa Fe.
Perez said, “This is our crime lab and morgue.” The building appeared modern rather than the pueblo style like everything else for hundreds of miles.
When he’d parked and powered the windows down, Perez turned in the seat to face Jacque. “Two weeks ago, a woman went missing in Kewa National Park, same area as Carson National Forest. Her roommate reported her missing when she didn’t return from a scheduled two-day hike.”
“She did this alone?” He never understood why people would go off alone without leaving a detailed plan in case they didn’t return. “Just a hunch, but I’m guessing since we’re here, it didn’t turn out well.
“Right. There were actually three other grad students with her. That morning they headed out and this girl, Karla, decided she wanted to remain there for a couple of hours to write in her journal and enjoy the last few hours alone.”
“Did they check out?”
“Yes. Even had a few texts and a video she posted on social media before she started the last few miles out. The other three drove to Santa Fe and let the roommate know the change in plans. I figure if they killed her, they wouldn’t have bothered to tell the roommate. Give the wild animals a chance to take care of any evidence.”
“I also thought maybe Mr. Wind Dancer might share his intuition about this kind of thing.”
They exited the car and headed inside. What the outside of the building lacked in Western décor, the inside more than made up for. Turquoise mosaics of turtles and lizards dressed the walls, along with a shadowy person playing a flute. Pictures of pueblos and Native Americans hung on the lobby walls, and cowhide chairs sat empty with only a receptionist waiting to help them.
No one checked badges, IDs, or anything to ensure protocol and security was followed. If this were Chicago, by now they would have been in lockdown mode for entering a restricted area.
“I had Karla’s body moved out of her locker so you could see for yourself.” Perez opened the door and let them enter.
A young girl with short brown hair lay ghost-like on a metal table. It never got easy for him. A kind of rage always welled up inside him when he knew a life had been cut short in someone so young and full of promise. He moved toward the table and noticed Wind Dancer standing near the door. “Everything okay?”
Wind Dancer frowned and rushed to pull him and Perez away from the table. “She has been touched by the man who walks tall with long steps.” He tugged harder on Perez’s arm, which she jerked free. “You are in danger.”