RISING: Book One of The Adept Cycle (Shanan Winters)

Chapter 1

The heavy scent of pine and wet autumn leaves stirred memories I’d suppressed for fifteen years. The unearthed body, dotted with evidence markers and splayed out like a science experiment, added an array of offensive odors that didn’t help my nervous stomach. I was used to gruesome crime scenes. It was for other reasons entirely that I’d tried to avoid returning to the Pacific Northwest to the point of nearly losing my job.

“Special Agent St. James,” I said, taking the hand of one of the detectives milling around the scene.

“Detective Rick Schild.” He met my eyes and gave a firm handshake. He stood my height, and a ring of mouse-brown hair circled his balding head. That and his ruddy cheeks added to his overall appearance of roundness. A slightly plump belly resting at his belt line indicated that this was probably more action than his unit typically saw.

“I’m sorry we have to move in on your investigation,” I said, taking in the scene with my customary stoicism. Horse flies and cops swarmed the body in equal numbers. “We typically don’t get involved in murders, but I guess you guys found someone we care about.”

“The more eyes on this one, the better,” Schild shook his head as if he was trying to rid himself of the horror before him. He lifted the crime scene tape and I stepped underneath.

“Don’t get a lot of these around here?”

“No, the Key Peninsula is a farily quiet area. We spend most of our time bagging speeders; occasional drug op; broke up a drunken teenage party a few weeks ago.” He chuckled. “This is the first murder I’ve encountered on the force here. Don’t remember any from when I grew up here, either.”

Wet leaves squished underfoot. A chill ran the length of my spine. No matter how many homicides I’d investigated, the first sight of a badly mangled body is never easy to process.

“The victim was found in a shallow grave by the landowner's kid and dog,” Schild continued, wringing his hands. “Poor kid’s going to need years of therapy.”

A petite woman in jeans and a plaid, flannel shirt stooped next to the body, scraping at a long gash on the victim’s forearm with a scalpel. There were similar wounds raked in parallel patterns of threes or fours across the man’s chest, legs and arms. His relatively unmarked face made identification pretty easy. I had seen that face, smiling and full of life, on a campaign sign on the drive in: Senator William F. Mansfield.

“Do you know what the senator was doing out here?” I asked, turning to face Schild. “The Key Peninsula is a pretty isolated area, isn’t it?”

“He made an appearance at the Halloween masquerade at the Civic Center a couple weeks ago. Right before the election. Campaign push, I guess. Reelection, and all that. We don’t get many celebrity guests out this way. It was a pretty big deal. Most of the KP showed up. Lots of suspects.” Schild’s voice trailed off at the thought.

“Well, we can work together.” I smiled for a second before my lips set back into a grim, thin line. “I’ll be handling your public relations, too.”

“I heard you were coming in from remote?”

“Yes,” I said, scanning the surroundings. The dense, pine forest closed in around the scene, giving the clearing the feel of a small room. Salal and blackberry bushes snarled under the trees, broken here and there by trails only the youngest of deer could squeeze through. Stark white alders, their last leaves of gold and brown clinging to mostly bare branches, stood out against to the pine groves that seemed to suggest twilight even at noon. Memories long suppressed threatened to come to the surface. I swallowed hard. “I’m from the San Francisco field office, but my uncle used to live out here. We used to visit a couple times a year.”

“Here? On the KP?"

I nodded.

"Don’t we have bureau up here?” Schild asked.

“Seattle, yeah. I’ll be working with them. They’re sending out a profiler. Haven’t been to the office yet.”

“Too bad you couldn't just come relive some good memories." He nodded toward the body.

My mind spun at the involuntary recall of running, my heart hammering in my chest, with my cousin outdistancing me, despite his lack of athletic ability. Adrenaline and fear crept up my spine, and I shoved it down hard. It was a stupid prank. Had to have been.

"Where about did your uncle live?" Schild asked, filling my silence.

I forced a smile. “His house was about three miles from here. He’s long since moved, though. Down to Oregon.”

“Small world, huh?”

“Yeah, never thought I’d have to come out here again.” I shifted uneasily at the accusatory look Schild flashed, and quickly added, “It is beautiful, though.”

The forensic analyst stood, zipping shut an evidence bag, and faced us. The nappy, auburn bun atop her head frayed like old rope. Freckled cheeks crowned her full lips, and her emerald green eyes reflected hues of the forest floor. The badge clipped to her shirt read Jan Stevens.

“There’s hair in his wounds,” Stevens said in a high voice, holding up the bag for inspection as if it was a prize. “Particles of skin, too, I think. The hair’s not his. It’s longer and darker. Hopefully we’ll get a DNA match and make this an easy case.”

“That would be great,” Schild’s voice sounded hopeful for the first time since I arrived.

“That could help with suspects,” I agreed, “but it could also be his wife’s hair. Or his pet’s. Let’s just start with what we know, and start pulling in suspects. Take video from the Halloween party. Put out a public notice asking for pictures, video, and volunteer witness accounts. Set up an anonymous hotline. We need to narrow this down. We can’t start with a suspect base of...” I looked at Schild.

“Roughly fifteen thousand.”

I heaved a sigh, “Yeah, we need to narrow this down.”

A car door shut behind us, and I turned to see a familiar black government cruiser. The driver was tall with thick, dark hair. He wore jeans and a standard-issue FBI jacket. Sunglasses covered his eyes, even though it was overcast and threatening to rain. He walked with long, confident strides toward us.

He pulled off his glasses and extended a hand to Schild. I felt like a ton of bricks slammed me in the chest. My heart raced. It was Danny. My mind’s eye saw him drawing his bow, loosing the arrow, and striking whatever it was that was chasing me. I gulped down the memory; I had to get a grip.

“How’s it going, Rick?” he asked, taking Schild’s outstretched hand. The two exchanged broad smiles.

“Good to see you, Danny!” Schild grabbed Danny’s hand and clapped him on the back.

“And you would be Special Agent Kessa St. James from San Francisco, yes?” He turned toward me. The twinkle in his ice-blue eyes told me he remembered exactly who I was.

“Seattle field?” I asked dumbly.

“Agent Danny Harmon, at your service.” He smiled, performing a half-curtsy, half-bow. “Let’s get a look at our late senator.”

He squatted down next to the body and pulled a purple latex glove from his jacket pocket with a flourish. Holding his hand high, he wiggled his fingers as he snapped the glove in place. The effect was like bad TV comedy, and I immediately thought prostate exam. Fifteen years later, and he was still as dramatic as ever.

I moved around the body to stoop down opposite Harmon. Getting in close is never fun. Iron mixed with salt mixed with feces assaulted my nasal passages. Harmon’s mouth set in a hard frown.

“You sure this wasn’t an animal attack?” He looked up, directly at me.

“I don’t think so,” said forensic analyst Stevens from behind him. “Maybe a rake or a garden trowel?”

“The patterns aren’t consistent. Some wounds are three gashes; some are four.” He pointed to various lacerations on the body, poking a gloved finger into a spot on the victim’s sternum. “And they’re jagged like they could be claw marks.”

“There are no bite marks,” Stevens continued. “If it was a coyote or bear...”

“Or a wolf,” Harmon interrupted, flashing me a searching look. I suddenly took great interest in the wounds covering the victim’s left hand.

“Or a wolf,” she continued, “there would be bite marks, too.”

“A wolf wouldn’t bury its victim,” Schild added dryly.

“True,” Harmon conceded with half a nod. He continued toying at the wound on the sternum.

“What’s so interesting there?” I asked.

“This one is much deeper. Like a puncture before the claw mark. I think this is probably the one that did him. Bled out through the aortic. I'm going to hazard a guess that cause of death was exsanguination.” He flashed a sideways smile back at Stevens, "Though you should probably still perform your autopsy."

“That would have to puncture the solar plexus,” Stevens countered.

“It would, and I think you’ll find that it did. I think this claw mark…”

“Or rake mark,” Stevens interjected.

Harmon traced a finger across the senator’s chest, cocking his head to the side, “…is covering a puncture wound of some sort.”

“If so,” I said, pulling a glove on my own hand, “then we definitely don’t have an animal attack.” Harmon shot me a questioning glance, and I added, “Animals don’t use piercing implements, as a general rule.”

Schild chuckled, “That would be something, though. The bear did it in the woods with the samurai sword.” He shook his head and wandered away from the body to where a pair of investigators emerged from the woods. Stevens followed behind him, holding up her bag of bloody hair.

“You know what this is,” Harmon said in a low voice, pulling off his jacket. He wore a short-sleeved, black polo shirt, seemingly unaffected by the cold November air.

I just looked at him. His eyes still held the piercing quality they had when we were kids. His black hair clung to his temple, only the last time I’d seen him, it was plastered on his face from the rain. Now he had it expertly gelled to one side and cropped short in the back. He had filled out over the years; lean, muscular arms indicated a lot of training. Straight teeth replaced a smile full of braces.

“You can’t be serious, Harmon.” I scoffed, studying the puncture wound.

“Call me Danny, please.”

I ignored him. “But you’re right about this puncture. It’s deep, and he definitely bled out. Which means he was also cleaned up. It also explains the missing shirt. Probably removed because it was blood-soaked. Might even identify the murder weapon. Maybe we’ll be lucky and it’ll turn up.”

“You still good in a fight?” Harmon asked. I met his eyes. He smiled with his entire body.

“Look, if you think it’s funny to bring up some stupid prank played by my cousin on a murder scene, I’ll have your badge.”

“You still have fight in you, that’s for sure,” he said, his smile turning down into a flash of a frown, before resuming an expression of puppy-dog playfulness.

“This is a serious case, Harmon.” I indicated the senator. “We don’t get pulled in on these cases—I don’t get pulled in—unless there’s some serious shit going down. And this is serious.” I punctuated my words with fingers pointed at the victim before us.

“Serious,” he said, forcing the smile from his lips, “Yes.”

I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me, or if he was actually trying to be professional. I guessed the former.

A moment of tense silence crept on between us. I finally broke it. “We should interview the family of the boy who found the body.”

“Yes, we should.” Harmon held eye contact with me until I felt discomfort creep across my skin.

“Something on your mind?” I asked, with more challenge in my voice than was intended.

He looked at me, his face a question mark, “You know this could have been us, right? As kids, we were this close...” he held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, right in front of my face, “—to winding up just like the senator.”

“Harmon, that’s ridiculous,” I scoffed, pinching my brow. “If there is some crazed, lunatic wolf-man running around, why is this the first attack—ever—out here?” He started to answer, but I held up my hand. “No, on second thought,” I said, “don’t answer that.”

He darted glances around the scene and lowered his voice to nearly a whisper. “Like I said before, you know what this is.”

“Harmon...”

He cut me off with a wave of a hand. “I know. You don’t want to believe me. You don’t want to remember. You think it was a kid’s game and a well-played prank. Let me convince you otherwise.”

I stood up, and he rose with me, locked onto my eyes all the way.

“I’m going to go interview the family,” I said, crossing my arms. “You can come with me, but keep your local legends to yourself. I have a murder to solve.”

Schild tapped me on the shoulder, and I spun on my heel, startled. “Find anything?” I asked after catching my breath.

“Nothing of use. But we’re getting a dog team out here to search.” He handed me a card. “Here’s my cell; give me a call if you find anything, and I’ll do the same.”

“We’ll be in touch, detective,” Harmon said, handing him a card of his own before I could produce mine. I shot him a glare. He pretended not to notice.

###

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The Moondead (L.A. Mascone)

1     A DEATH IN THE STREET

Wednesday, close to midnight, February 6

It was late and a half moon, high in the sky, offered little light to the two walking into the dark. Laughing, they shadowboxed with each other on their way home from a late shift; they were young, but talked like they were older. An overhang of olive trees carved even stranger shapes into the sidewalk; two streetlights were out. The boys hastened their steps but something was wrong up ahead; a shaft of light from the open door of San Paolo’s church revealed a struggle...two men, one fell to the ground. Ramos looked at his friend...did they want some of this? Both broke into a run when they heard Father Villa cry out.

Closer now, they could better see the assailant; the hood of a monk’s robe hiding his eyes, he bending over his victim and wielding a zip blade. They were too late...the stranger was slitting his throat. Stones scattered all over the street told of more than a knife fight. There was ritual here; in some archaic way, someone had tried to stone Father Villa to death. The two skidded to a halt and later admitted they had no idea why they froze, recalling how the stranger raised his head and, with menacing eyes glared through an unusual half mask of gold...it was elegant, shimmering, something one might see at a Mardi Gras Ball or on Dia de los Muertos, but certainly not for a killing. More sinister now, he slowly rose to his feet as if growing out of the pavement. Acting like he’d time to spare, the man wiped the blade on his sleeve then pointed at them like they were next.

Carlos backed off. “Demonio!”

“No, he’s not.” Ramos lunged at him. “Oye, vato, estas muertos!”

But the man lashed out at the boy with his knife and with almost supernatural agility, posed his victim in the form of a cross then bolted into the alley. Someone was waiting, gunning an engine; a truck spun its wheels in the gravel and sped off, but the killer clung to the door, laughing as he struggled to crawl through the window. It was Carlos who heard the hard, shrill laugh of the driver...a woman. “Bruja…ay Dios mio!” He punched in 9-1-1 on his cell, knowing too well the Fifth Precinct’s slow response in this part of town.

With no headlights on, the vehicle vanished into the dark but the boys caught sight of it under a streetlight. “That’s one tricked-out red Mercedes, damn! Who’s got wheels like that around here?” Ramos shouted into the night: “Asesinato! Ayuda! Our padre’s dead!”

But in this part of town, families heard cries like this in the night all the time. Shaken, the two stood over their priest like not so brave guardian angels. Carlos stared up at the sky and looked for the moon...a cloud had passed over it. He sank to his knees, closed the priest’s eyes; he’d seen it done in the movies. “La luna muerta...our padre’s one of them now.”

It was happening more often; talk in the street was all about them. Elders talked of things they’d only whispered about. There was no man in the moon but a woman with night eyes who watched all they did, even when it wasn’t her turn to be up there. They would soon say she was the one killing holy ones, nuns and priests in their city. Some called her a bruja looking for trouble when she dipped low over the city and lately she’d found it. People were dying under a full moon when she supposedly looked her loveliest...si, Carlos was thinking, la luna muerta. His abuela had been whispering something about the moondead, good souls, soon to be going to God violently. It had begun.

In hushed voices, old women, shucking their corn or peeling potatoes warned everyone...those who died with a moon overhead would be blessed in the next life. With the sign of the cross, they had whispered: “Beware to the rest of us....” Their spirits, they said, would walk the streets of L’Arroyo on every full moon thereafter. Still no one...Carlos again pulled out his cell; the boy called his mother. But then, from a humble casita, crept an old woman, who howled like a lobo at the moon when she saw her priest, bloodied and still. The sound of it set off the neighbors who poured from their homes and a wail rose up so loud, it drowned out the sirens. In an eerie contradiction, men stood like sentinels in a circle around the body. Though outsiders had been called on to help, they were thought to be trampling on something sacred. And there was the ever-present reality of who would be blamed and swept up in a van; this was gang turf; certain things understood.

But this time, the Fifth Precinct was rattled as well...Father Villa, well known for his wisdom and holiness here in the barrio, was down; an EMV on two wheels turned the corner with a fire truck close behind it. Those guarding the fallen priest finally stepped back when paramedics pushed through the crowd with a gurney and women whispered among themselves. Some ran to the church, the door still wide open. Father had apparently rushed from the church when someone called out his name in the street. His breviary still lay open on the communion rail and a woman kissed it then placed it on the main altar. Ramos and Carlos had followed them and silently watched from the back of the church. They’d often sat with their priest alone in the night; it had been his custom to pray through the night and remain in the church to listen to all in need. Briefly, matter-of-factly, the police had already questioned them, taking their names and half-listening, said they’d be in touch; the two were even more on edge. It was Ash Wednesday.

+++

Thursday, near two in the morning, February 7

At the convent of San Miguel in downtown L’Arroyo, a nun, unable to sleep, sat by her window, looking into the garden below. Moments ago in the shadows, she’d seen a hooded figure kneel briefly by an altar of stone; oddly, a tall cross of wood covered in thorns seemed to grow from its center. She thought it beautiful and her eyes traced the dirt path up the slope to the rear wall of the Cathedral and a moon-garden, its white blossoms glowing eerily in the night. But dearest to her were a dozen angels of marble, rising like standing stones from the lush undergrowth at their feet; one more beautiful than the other. They too silently contemplated the darkness. On the other side of the bishop’s private retreat was his imposing residence, still now, as if watching over the enclosure.

Glancing up at a waxing moon, Sister Magdalen smiled a little; new to the parish of San Miguel, she was more curious than apprehensive about the unspoken mystery here. Within days of her arrival, the enigmatic Bishop Santo Cantera had appointed her sacristan of his Cathedral. Tasked with the care of holy vessels and vestments, altars and liturgies, the sacristy would become her second home. But what a strange place this was; yesterday, she’d heard some intrigue...she liked intrigue. Her altar servers had been trading tales of urban legend and lore about an unseen L’Arroyo, a silent, shadowy network of tunnels under the city, some going nowhere, others leading from beneath the Cathedral itself to below the Plaza and beyond to the archeological museum’s storage bays for new acquisitions.

Rumor had it...an unusual shipment had arrived from Egypt; her art history students had mentioned as much only yesterday that there were several large pods from Cairo looking quite mysterious. But how would they know...these lay under the city and what, in God’s name, were they doing down there? She would learn the more adventurous were taking some chances, poking about in the tunnels at night just for the thrill of it.

Magdalen loved the night and dark places and secretly envied them but she feared for their safely and chided them. Had she not all this in Egypt? Recently she’d told them the moon tides intrigued her. They’d been discussing Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, how he’d painted it while in the asylum of Saint Remy-de-Provence; she kindly stated the man had some personal problems. “See how erratic and frenzied the brush strokes hit the canvas?”

But they had only some concern for his ear...and what about Egypt? The boys were remembering that other discussion they’d started yesterday; forget this crazy, old red haired Impressionist. The girls had hushed Ben and his cohort and said Van Gogh had been brilliant. But what about Egypt...they wanted more. Magdalen had quickly said it might bore them but they insisted and she walked to the window of her second-floor classroom overlooking the Plaza. “You’ve told me you love that obelisk in the middle of the square over there. People who started this city must have liked Egypt, too. Look at the public buildings, their architecture is magnificent...it’s Egyptian Revival, see how their surfaces are covered in scarabs and lotus. There’s a crescent moon in our painting... but the moons in Egypt were huge and full of all kinds of mystery, the night sky larger, stars brighter.” She turned to them. “You have the same here in the Sonoran.” They smiled. “The moon over the desert is stunning.” And the nun spoke more of her studies.

“Sister, what’s up with all that death and mummies and stuff?”

“Stuff. Antonio, you know better. Be more specific.” They laughed.

The boy shook his head. “I can’t. I don’t know enough. You tell us, Sister.”

“We don’t say can’t in here…give me something, anything!”

A quiet girl in the front seat raised her hand. “King Tut was young like us when he was murdered.” Others joined in with what they had learned from fourth grade and the Discovery Channel; forget freshman year and World History class.

Ben said Julie was right: “King Tut got offed, plain and simple; he was too young to die. He got punked big-time.” Some laughed.

Magdalen pushed on. Wired on carbs and not wanting to be there, the class after lunch had always proved problematic. But she’d reeled them in; Van Gogh could take second chair to King Tutankhamen at least for a day. She pointed to a topical map, places that spoke to death and dying, entombment and ritual. Mortuary archeology had brought her to Egypt for graduate studies and she spoke to them of necropolei and unusual passage tombs. It all sounded thrilling. There were actually people called Egyptologists; they all wanted to be one.

“Your English teacher, Miss Howard, told me you’re reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Berenice Bobs Her Hair.” The girls smiled, the boys didn’t. “Did you know the Egyptian Queen Berenice inspired him?”

The girls were ecstatic, the boys not so much.

Ben surprised everyone. “I’d never have left Egypt.”

Their nun had a faraway look. “Well, Ben, I almost didn’t, but life calls…you know all about that; you’re upperclassmen and know everything.” The boys hooted; Magdalen quieted them, describing how the work had consumed her, leaving her forever curious.

“About what?” someone asked.

“Things hidden. Mysteries are everywhere if you have the sight to see them.”

They glanced at each other. “You’ve come to the right place, Sister.” Ben again. “You’ve got all that here in L’Arroyo.” Some rolled their eyes, shook their heads.

Others said it was so when Danny suggested: “You got to come with us; there’s something you need to see.” Magdalen pondered all they were saying; yes, she’d need to investigate Danny’s ossuary church of Saint Rita’s; he’d called it the Church of Bones. She surmised from their description, it was a cavern of sorts, a reliquary under a now defunct church condemned by the city. She’d seen it, was curious about such a holy place left in a state of such disrepair; it had looked haunted and lost. Would she come with them? “I’d like to hear about some of your adventures.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t know Danny Bellati.” They laughed; he looked annoyed but was used to it and no, she did not know the boy, but had been keeping her eye on him.

“No matter. Danny, your Church of Bones…I’m interested. Will you take me there soon?” They all spoke at once. Danny was pleased...this was a first; a nun was taking an interest in someone like him from a family who had history with the police; his father, a local bookmaker with a reputation and betting parlor. “Make a list of what you want me to see in the city and let’s talk! But it must have something to do with the making of art, a studio or museum, a gallery, some sculpture or architecture or even a graveyard full of carved tombstones, and definitely something about the past and maybe…a mystery.”

That was a lot to cover, they said. The bell rang for change of class and they groaned...that was a first. But how curious... Ben, a boy who loved football and monster trucks, had said here in L’Arroyo, she had all the mystery she needed and Danny was warming up to her finally. There was Julie, a junior, who sat in the front of the class looking up at her everyday. “May I do a report on Queen Berenice?”

Why did the ones who had straight A’s always ask to do extra credit? Magdalen smiled…Egypt works. It was a start. Her students had sensed the same; she wondered if there would be more mystery than ministry here? It would seem she had replaced the Sahara with the Sonoran, perhaps one culture of death for another...muertos.

An unexpected and overheard conversation between two older nuns ha confirmed this when Magdalen’s curiosity was even more set afire with whispers concerning a graveyard hidden under the bishop’s residence? She needed answers now, this minute. Sister Patrice in her kitchen was always good for a chat about things not to be said. “Ay, the Garden of Gethsemane cemetery, now defunct, as they say. You’ll find out soon enough; our good Father Pena’s the one who hid it from view when he built his house over the top of it, if you can believe it. And that happened only after he tried to exorcise it of demons.” She paused in the telling and lowered her voice. “There’d been a desecration there, luv.” Sister put her finger to her lips. “Something to do with that Patti Devlin, the rich lass from Darby Hill. The dear man was never sure he’d done it, you know.” Demons, a graveyard, a rich girl...Magdalen would try to keep up.

“Done what?”

“Father was never quite certain he’d scared the bejeezus out of the Devil’s minions. He performed an exorcism, yes, he did...or tried to.” She made the sign of the cross. Minions, exorcism...what?

“And the interred?”

“Some say a few of the dead may be resting there still…” She hurried about the kitchen. “But no, I’m almost certain all were exhumed and reinterred elsewhere.” How macabre was that? “And the bishop’s family mausoleum is still intact down there; it’s a stunner, I’m told. Heard it was grand; the Canteras had it all.”

And this lay under the bishop’s house? Perhaps L’Arroyo’s first cemetery was waiting for someone to go there and listen, just listen; it had a story. Her thoughts were racing. Magdalen could do this; she liked stories. But she wondered how Bishop Cantera could live happily above such a place. It was time and a mystery to solve would suit her just fine; she’d been too long without one.

The archeologist-turned-nun could do with some convent noir.

But she’d let it go for tonight and gazed at a mist-covered moon high in the sky. Magdalen would have much to unwrap in L’Arroyo but for now, she’d let the earth go its way with her prayers.

Across the garden, a lamp still glowed in the bishop’s study, its light dusting the tops of mesquite and acacia below; but the night-blooming cereus stood poised, as if waiting. Magdalen shuttered…it was back, that seventh sense, a gift of knowing she had possessed longer than she could remember, pointing to something amiss, an unholy act.

A soft knock at the door made her jump; no one had done this before in the night.

Her visitor was pale; Sister Petra wasn’t herself. The woman was generally placid, contained, but not now. She rushed to Magdalen’s window. “Did you see it?”

Magdalen smiled a little.

Ah, good something to wonder about. “The monk, you mean?”

“Is that what I’m seeing? What do you think we have here?”

“I assumed you’d know…someone who lives at the bishop’s residence?”

“Oh, no. Only His grace and the monsignor are there. They don’t do that.”

“Do what?” Silence. ”Never mind…you’re upset; let’s put you to bed. I’ll figure it out.”

“You’ll do this for me?”

“Trust me…I love a good mystery.”

The convent director smiled weakly. “You’ve come to the right place.” Hadn’t her students said that? “May I sit?” Magdalen pointed to a chair at her table covered with books and manuscripts. Petra hesitated, glanced out the window again. “I’ve wanted to speak to you about...about things not spoken of here at San Miguel.” She had Magdalen’s attention. “You’ll understand soon enough.” Had Patrice not said as much?

“That sounds ominous…what is it?”

In a rush of words, she said all Patrice then asked: “Tell me about this gift you possess.”

Magdalen wasn’t surprised. “It goes back to Egypt but at the time, I didn’t get it.”

She described an observant professor who told her she had the gift. “He insisted I use it.”

But Petra explained she had the same sense of things she did...a gift of knowing as well, an uncanny understanding and ability to discern the human heart of an individual through what they said, the word spoken. She studied Magdalen for a moment. “You’re missing all that, I mean Egypt, your research, aren’t you, Sister.”

“Yes, but mostly no, though I admit to being restless. But truly the Life means more to me than all that.” For years, she said, she’d suffered from unusual forebodings, the knowledge of dark deeds happening at that very moment somewhere else. “I agonize over what I can’t stop and it’s more than what the Jesuits call discernment of spirits.”

“Surely you’re not responsible; don’t even think it.”

But this was no comfort. “After Cairo and a few digs in Italy, I returned to the states and worked for my uncle, a sheriff.” She described how a year before entering religious life, she’d consulted on a case; a dozen monks had been murdered. “I was a mortuary archaeologist and didn’t work random crimes but consulted on those that revealed premeditation and religious obsession...ritual.”

“And you’re thinking something as horrible as that has happened here in our city.”

“Why, yes...I believe so.” She felt powerless.

“My dear…we will see. My gift allows me to read people’s thoughts, discerning the anguish or goodness inside them. I hear other things in the words they say, the tone of their voice. I simply know things.” She was silent for a moment. “Your training however could be helpful. The Life doesn’t always give us space to run an hunch as you’ve done in the past, but I need you to do some of that here.” The archaeologist-nun assured her she was no miracle-worker. Regardless Petra lowered her voice as if they weren’t alone, proposing she play detective, without shirking her duties or neglecting her prayer. “Nothing desperate or alarming now; there’s no time tonight to share my list of intrigues but I trust you, Magdalen.” But before saying good night, Petra surprised her. “I’m so glad you’re my second assistant. God has brought you to me.”

“Sister Agnes though is your first and she is so conscientious; I’m not always that.”

They walked to the door. “Conscientious is good and so is Sister Agnes. I need her, but the dear woman thinks only in black and white. To survive San Miguel, one must perceive things in pastels with a much broader palette.” Petra had her own way of saying things. “As for me, you must know I’m not always well and still suffer some weakness from a bout of polio I endured as a child though...” And she smiled. “I made the final cut in the city ballet after high school, thank you very much.” They laughed. “I trust you will be there for me. And that other thing; investigate a bit, but only with caution.” Magdalen said that she would but...that “other thing” would allow her to snoop around a bit. “You’re here for a reason! Forgive my intrusion. But it’s to bed now.”

Magdalen returned to the window overlooking the garden. She smiled a little. Petra’s proposal had stirred a fire inside her. Her Welsh-born uncle, Sheriff Wilem John Williams, liked to call it Sherlockian, then viola! Cause and effect, dilemma, solution; all would be neatly tied in a bundle. But she sensed Petra had not told her everything. When she had asked about a former convent director, Sister Viviana, she had paled, fallen silent. Apparently some mysteries were off limits and that too was a mystery.

She seated herself at the table and set to work, arranging her papers and pens...not wanting to sleep. Finally weary, she gazed one more time at her beloved angels of stone who stood silent and watchful as if waiting for something to happen. Magdalen prayed her last prayer of the day and eyed the old altar, covered in cat’s claw and jasmine. Patrice had mentioned a door cut into the side of it, the gardener’s tool shed hidden inside it and in which another door gave access to a tunnel within the north wall. This posed a serious problem for Magdalen: where would such a passageway take the curious or someone with darker intent? Had the shadowy figure disappeared under the altar? Undoing the braid at the nape of her neck, she leaned back in her chair and considered who it might be.

There were several possibilities, most likely the bishop himself. Santo Cantera was an eccentric man, charismatic nonetheless; ah well, it’s his garden; this should be interesting.

She finally reclined on her narrow bed with the simple, brown coverlet. At least for the moment, what more did she need than this humble room with its desk and chair and old wooden bookshelf overflowing with theology books and bound studies on art history and archaeology. On a worktable by the door was her basket of Saint Brigid’s crosses; she had a talent for weaving strips of fabric and reeds together, replicating the medieval saint’s handcraft from centuries ago. The Cathedral gift shop had even taken an interest; parishioners were requesting “Magdalen’s crosses” now.

She closed her eyes content, that after years of searching, she’d chosen this uncluttered life. The nun fell asleep; but what she’d seen in the garden, would change forever the lives of the Sisters asleep in their beds.

The following day heads turned when she passed through security; a female detention officer approached. “Your students have not been charged, Sister.”

Magdalen brushed passed her. “How could this happen?” Yesterday before the last bell of the day, she’d pointed to the handcuffs the police had placed on two of her students.

“You couldn’t have waited until you were off campus?” The detective, an arrogant man, had entered her classroom with two officers and removed Carlos Guerrera and Ramos Robles; they had been hustled out to a waiting police van. Magdalen demanded the detective’s name.

“Dan Mason, at your service; Sister. I’m giving an assist to the Fifth Precinct. They’re swamped these days with this kind of kid.” This kind of what...what had he said? She wanted to pounce on his remark but with obviously no sense of boundaries, he had leered at her. The boys took offense. Ben stood up and pushed back his desk. The detective glared at him but extended his hand to Magdalen; she declined.

After he left, her students voiced their upset at his way with their nun. “We’ll kick his ass for you, Sister.” Dear Ben.

“Language please; there will be no kicking of anything...but thank you for being so gallant.” They had grinned and then rushed to the windows and stared down at their friends.  Carlos and Ramos had endeared themselves to the nun with their humor and stories, coming often to her for help with their studies. Now they were being whisked away and trying to be stoic. After school, Petra gave Magdalen the keys to the convent SUV and she was gone.

A throwback to the early fifties, the juvenile detention center was huge, dark and Dickens-like; it looked out-of place in the Sonoran and stood in sharp contrast beside the new Palm Street City Jail. The setting seemed fitting: one of her students had taken his life, ended it. Carlos Guerrera was dead.

Walking the yard, he’d suddenly bolted and thrown himself into an electric fence; Ramos, unable to stop him, had witnessed his friend’s self-execution. Believing he’d sinned at not having done enough to save the life of his priest, he was deserving of hell. The boy, urged on by his own guilt, had ended it. Sadly, neither boy knew they had been cleared and, as the officer would admit, through an administrative error, they had been placed in the yard with more hardened youth and been threatened. Word spread quickly: they’d killed a priest...even in their world there were limits. Ramos made it clear: “Gangsta’ or not, that’s something you don’t do, Sister.”

She understood and a devastated Magdalen sat down, finding some relief in the empathy of an officer overseeing the visiting area. Sgt. Jesús Marcus whispered he was even more frustrated than she, that happily this was his last day on the job; he’d been re-assigned to Lt. John Padric’s unit as if she should know who he was. She would learn later the sargeant had studied for the priesthood, attended the seminary; they would become friends over the next month.

“My name is Magdalen, Sister Magdalen. Thank you for speaking with me but when might Mrs. Guerrera see her son’s body, take him home?”

The female officer, already annoyed by the nun, retorted: “Sister Magdalen, is it?” Magdalen did not respond. “You can’t see we’re short-staffed, overcrowded? Your boys were not the only two who walked through our doors yesterday.”

“But one of my boys will never walk out.” The two women locked eyes.

###

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Valley of Long Shadows (John Hansen)

1

DEATH OR CONSEQUENCES

2:17 a.m. Not since Vietnam had Otis seen the likes of it: a car, wrecked and shot to pieces, rear window blown out, bullet holes in the dash, a dead white female slumped onto the steering wheel, a dead black male adult lying face-up on the rear floor, his face bloody from bullet wounds, a double-barrel shotgun lying on his chest, an unconscious white female being hastily eased from the front passenger seat into an ambulance by two attendants. With a patrol car escort, the ambulance sped Code Three for the ER, their sirens striking up a chorus like wolves howling in the night.

Otis saw for himself that Hitchcock and Sherman were uninjured before he reported to Sergeant Breen.  

“Before she lost consciousness, the survivor told us the dead guy is Tyrone Hatch,” Breen told him. “she also told us Hatch is holding a missing woman from Everett, named Claudia, prisoner in the house they came from. She said it’s a small dark brown house within a block of Eastgate Chevron. Find it and see if the woman is there. I’ve notified King County; it’ll be in their jurisdiction.”

Arriving in the neighborhood in minutes, Otis quickly found a house matching the description. He radioed the address to Sergeant Breen before he approached.

Drapes closed; lights on in the front room; front door locked. The doorbell didn’t work. Otis pounded on the door; no response. The garage door opened easily; a white older model Lincoln was inside, its interior empty, its engine warm. He radioed Breen after he ran the plate.

“Sarge, lights are on inside, no one answers the door. A white Lincoln registered to Tyrone Hatch is inside the garage. It’s the one described in the Seattle PD bulletin. The door from the garage to the kitchen is unlocked. Request permission to enter the house under exigent circumstances.”

“Proceed, Three Zero Seven,” authorized Breen.

Otis drew his revolver and stepped into the kitchen and stopped.  He immediately detected a faint but familiar odor.

“Police officer! Anybody home?” he shouted. No reply. Stacks of dirty dishes and stale food on the counter weren’t the source of the smell. He moved to the edge of the hallway and stood stock-still, his back against the wall, listening intently. Nothing. The odor led him down the hall. All his senses were on full alert. The house was quiet. The first two bedrooms were open and empty. The third bedroom was locked.

Otis kicked the door open. The smell was here. He swept the room with his flashlight.  The body of a naked woman lying face down in a single bed pushed against the wall, partly covered with a sheet, her face was turned to the wall. She was young and white, had long brown hair and very dead. The splotches of early stage post-mortem lividity on her skin indicated the time of death was about two hours ago. He holstered his weapon and flipped the light switch. He lifted her wrist: it was limp; no rigor mortis yet; skin cool to the touch. The hall thermostat read sixty-five degrees. He returned to his car to report.

“Three Zero Seven to Four Twenty, Channel Two.”

“Four Twenty on Two, Three Zero Seven. Whatcha got?”

“A deceased white female appears to be in her twenties in bed in one of the bedrooms. Early stages of lividity. No rigor yet. Probable time of death within two-three hours. No obvious injuries.”

“Ten-four,” Breen replied. “Secure the scene. I will update County and the Medical Examiner. Stay there until they no longer need you.”

City photographer Frank Kilmer arrived and surveyed the bloody wreckage of close quarter battle. Known for his dry gallows humor, Kilmer chuckled as he twisted one end of his waxed handlebar mustache. “Well, well. This’ll pull some heads out of the sand at City Hall— ah, let me correct that—it will jerk some heads out of the sand!” An experienced professional, Kilmer methodically took preliminary Polaroid shots of the car, the exterior, its location, the bodies inside, the bullet holes, and the bloody interior before switching to 35 mm roll film and flash. 

The ME investigator arrived. He bagged the hands of the woman driver in brown paper sacks, sealed at the wrists with tape. He found a driver’s license in her purse, identifying her as Mae Driscoll. Two detectives helped him remove her body from the driver’s seat. The back of her clothing and the seat fabric were drenched with blood. Rain resumed as they placed her body on a gurney, covered it with a sheet, and slid it into the investigator’s van.

The dead man in the back seat had gunshot wounds to the head. After Kilmer finished taking photographs, detectives removed the shotgun and the medical examiner’s investigator bagged and sealed the man’s hands in brown paper bags and removed a wallet from the man’s pants pocket, finding sixteen hundred dollars in denominations of twenties, fifties and hundreds. A Washington driver’s license identified him as Tyrone Hatch.

Kilmer handed the wallet to one of the detectives. “I’ll photograph the money and the serial numbers, but you should record everyone anyway in case my shots aren’t clear enough,” he said.

When they lifted Hatch’s body from the car, one of the detectives noticed a small blue automatic pistol lying on the right rear floor.

“Hello! Look at this, Frank.”

After Kilmer photographed the pistol, the detective lifted it with gloved hands, removed the magazine and a live round from the chamber, placing each in small paper evidence envelopes.

“Don’t put your camera away yet, Frank. Look at this,” the detective said, pointing at another spent shell casing on the back seat.

“Aha. Bet this little gun fired this little shell, tonight,” Kilmer speculated.  He snapped more photographs.

Using tweezers from his evidence kit, the detective placed the spent shell case into a coin envelope and sealed and marked it. He didn’t mind the duty of evidence collection on this call-out. He was new to detectives. It was good training. To protect the chain of custody, he alone gathered, marked and documented the recovery of each evidence item. At the end of his assignment he approached Hitchcock and Sherman, carrying two evidence envelopes.

“Roger and Tom, I’ll need you to give me your guns for ballistic tests, then head to the detective office to write your statements. You’ll be issued temporary replacement weapons before you go back on duty.”

Outside the hospital emergency entrance, Dr. Rhonda Kringen and a nurse shivered in the cold as the ambulance arrived. “Who is this girl?” she asked no one in particular as she checked her vital signs.

“ID in her purse says she’s Linda Ogilvie,” Officer LaPerle answered.

“Gunshot wounds to the thorax. Get her into surgery now!” Orderlies whisked her to the surgery room.

“Let’s get these clothes off her,” Dr. Kringen said to no one in particular as she rolled the victim side to side to remove her coat and scissor away her blood-saturated clothing. An intern wiped the blood from Ogilvie’s abdomen, revealing two bullet entrance wounds, one to the lower left rib cage, another in the center of the abdomen.

A nurse struggled to find a vein in Linda’s arm large enough to receive an IV. Another nurse placed an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth while Dr. Kringen drew a blood sample and handed it to a nurse. “Get this to the lab for typing - fast – we could lose her!” 

Dr. Kringen assessed the damage as she helped roll the gurney into x-ray.  “She’s lost a lot of blood for someone so small. I hope a bullet didn’t nick her aorta. Get the on-call thoracic surgeon on the phone.”   

X-rays revealed one bullet mushroomed and lodged intact at the tip of the lower aorta; the other pierced her liver and spleen.

“She’s O Positive,” a nurse reported.

“What happened to this girl, Officer?” Rhonda asked LaPerle as she worked.

“She made the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with wrong people. She was passenger in a stolen car with two armed felons. Two officers recognized the car and tried to pull it over. The car crashed in an attempt to flee, the felon hiding in the back ambushed the officers as they walked up to the car, but they killed him. Before she lost consciousness, this gal told us the driver shot her. The driver is dead, too. I’m here to receive clothing and any bullets you remove as evidence.” 

Rhonda’s hands stopped at the news. She looked at LaPerle, fearing the answer to her next question: “Where did this happen?”

“In Eastgate. The officers were Hitchcock and Sherman.”

Rhonda’s knees buckled. She caught herself in time but her blood seemed to run to her feet. “Is Roger … I mean … are they …“

LaPerle smiled reassuringly. “Not to worry, Doc. Neither has a scratch. They’re probably at the station now, writing reports before they go home. “

It was past 6 a.m. when Hitchcock and Sherman finished writing their statements. Hitchcock remembered firing his weapon only once; yet six empty shell cases were recovered from where he dumped them to reload. He remembered only one shotgun blast, not two, and feeling a light spattering on his chest; seeing a man aiming a shotgun at him from the back seat and shooting to stop him from firing again. He remembered thinking he and Sherman must have killed him.

Total exhaustion hit Hitchcock all at once. The detective lieutenant wanted him to write a second statement. “More detail will come to mind with the second statement,” he urged.

“Sorry, I’m out of steam. This is all I can remember now. I can hardly stay awake; haven’t been this tired since the Army. I’m going home while I can still drive. If you need another statement I’ll do it after I get some sleep.”

“We’ll get you an appointment with a psychologist,” the detective lieutenant announced.

Hitchcock stopped and looked back. “A shrink? What for?”

“For you and Sherman, of course. Good Lord, Roger, you guys killed two people at point-blank range. Aren’t you bothered?”

Hitchcock shook his head no. “There’s nothing complicated about it, lieutenant. The guy ambushed us as we walked up on a stolen car but we killed him first. Besides, Sergeant Breen saw the whole thing. Tell the city to save its money. See you in a few hours.”

Jamie was waiting for him in the driveway, rain-soaked, tail a-wagging, when he arrived. Forgetting the shooting, Hitchcock happily brought Jamie inside, toweled and fed him, got out of his uniform, poured a glass of Old No. 7 with ice, put his feet up and rubbed Jaime’s head with one hand as he drank. 

Gray daylight seeped through the windows of his digs. His body demanded sleep but he mustered the energy to dial Gayle’s number. Without her help, a cop, or maybe two, either here or in Seattle would probably be dead this morning.     

 “Hello?” she answered sleepily.

“It’s me, Roger.”

“Hi.”

“Sorry to wake you but I’m calling to let you know Hatch tried to kill me and another officer last night. Hatch and Mae are both dead. I wanted you to know before you hear it on the news. You saved lives last night, and I am grateful.”

He could hear Gayle sit up with a gasp. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine and so is Tom Sherman, my partner last night. I’ll call you after I get some sleep. There’s nothing to worry about—no one knows who you are.”

As soon as Hitchcock settled into his covers the phone rang.

“Hi Roger, its Eve. I heard it on the news this morning. Are you all right? You aren’t hurt, are you?”

“I’m okay, trying to get some sleep.”

“Sleep! How could you sleep after shooting somebody?”

“I’m very tired, Eve. We’ll talk later. I appreciate your calling me and the other tip you gave me.”

“Ohhh yeah,” said Eve. “There’s more coming in. The nasty little lieutenant is busy. But we’ll talk later,” she promised. Hitchcock unplugged his phone, and quickly drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Less than an hour later a persistent pounding on his sliding glass door awakened him. “Roger! Get up! Let me in!”

He opened the slider. Rhonda threw her arms around his neck, shaking. He put his arms around her waist, noticing she wore her hospital scrubs—She must have left work to check on me. How about that? he observed with satisfaction.

“I tried calling you, but got no answer. You’re not hurt, are you? How did it happen?”

“I unplugged my phone. No, I’m not hurt, neither is my partner, Tom Sherman.”

“Tell me what happened, Baby.”

“We made a stop on a stolen car.”

Rhonda took a step back, keeping her hands on his shoulders. “Stolen car!” she gasped. “Come on! I treated the survivor, she’s been shot twice and is unlikely to live, and the news says it’s more than a stolen car—a lot more. The officer at the hospital told me the guy who was killed was hiding in the back and fired at you guys first. I can hardly believe neither of you are hurt!” 

“Rhonda, I need sleep. I …“

“Of course,” interrupted the physician in her. “You’re coming down from a major adrenalin rush. Get all the sleep you can. I’ll check back on you later. They better give you and Tom some time off,” she said, kissing her knight fully on the lips.

Rhonda left. Hitchcock sat on the edge of his bed. Maybe I should stay awake to see who shows up next—probably Mom, Joan, or Jean, he speculated. He wondered if Ruby would at least call to see if he is alright. He stretched out on his bed and drifted into a deep nothingness.

* * *

Tom Sherman left the station when Hitchcock did. He had reached the early stages of shutting down. Two hours ago he called his wife to say he would be home late because of some reports he had to write, giving no other details.  Karen heard the news on the radio while fixing breakfast for the kids.  After taking the kids to school she returned home and called her boss to say she wouldn’t be in due to a family emergency.  When Sherman came through the door, he was in the same gentle, friendly mood some interpreted as shallowness. But Karen knew better. She could read Tom better than anyone; he was her man.

“Hi Hon,” he greeted her with a grin which couldn’t mask his exhaustion. “Not going to work today?”

Karen stood in front of him and shook her head, running her hands over him, looking him over for signs of injury. “Nope, told ‘em I’m not coming in today,” she finally replied.

Sherman took her in his arms to ease her fears, but inside he felt withdrawn. “How come?” He asked as if he didn’t know.

 “I heard the news, Tom. Someone shot at you again. But this time you’re home, not in the Army, not in Vietnam. This time I’m here.”  She held him tightly. “My man needs his woman, and this woman needs her man.” With trembling she led him to the bedroom. “Hold me, Tom. Someone tried to kill you, and I’m angry and scared.”

Winning in deadly, close-quarter combat produced the primitive, hormonal rush Sherman experienced in Vietnam. The conqueror in him demanded physical, gratifying intimacy to complete his conquest. The action exhilarated him and he wanted only Karen. Sleep could wait.

Eight a.m. The station. Sergeant Breen had turned in all written reports to the detectives. The last man of his squad to leave was Otis.  He noticed Lieutenant Bostwick looked worried as he passed him in the hallway. Breen thought Bostwick wanted to ask about the officers in the gunfight. Not so…

“Jack, it seems I left my office door open when I left here on the weekend. Some papers are missing from my desk. Do you know anything about it?”

After the city’s first officer involved shooting in which people died, Bostwick couldn’t even ask if the officers were okay. Breen’s gallows humor of the previous night came back into play. He couldn’t resist toying with Bostwick the way a cat toys with a frightened, cornered mouse.

“Yes, Rowlie. I saw your door was open and papers and reports on your desk which the janitor or anyone else could read. As I didn’t know when you’d be back, I thought I would do you a favor—I gave them to Captain Delstra when he came in yesterday morning. ”

Bostwick turned pale and his jaw went slack. “You-you gave them to—who?”

Off duty Breen was a top poker hand; his ability to bluff was unmatched, but this time it was tough for even him to keep a straight face.

“I gave them to Captain Delstra, of course, to keep it going up the chain of command, you know. I didn’t know when you’d be in again.”

Looking like he might as well commit suicide, Bostwick numbly walked into his office, shut the door, plopped into his chair and blankly stared at the wall, paralyzed with fear. He knew Delstra didn’t like him and is nobody to mess with. This spelled doom for his career. Add the misplaced papers to the gunfight early this morning, and the secret plans being laid on the third floor for the department were up in smoke. What will happen to me now? Bostwick wondered.

After five minutes Breen softly knocked on Bostwick’s door. He had a large manila envelope in his hand. “Excuse me, but I’m forgetful after the long shift last night. I completely forgot where I put your papers for safekeeping. Here they are. Sorry for any confusion I may have caused.”

Like a drowning man who had finally been thrown a life ring, Bostwick gulped “You mean you didn’t give these papers to Captain Delstra?”

“Captain Delstra hasn’t laid eyes on these papers, Lieutenant. I kept them in my locker all weekend.” No, you scumbag traitor, I gave copies to Delstra and he’s on to you, Breen thought as he looked at Bostwick in the manner a prison guard looks at a prisoner on death row.

“Thank you, thank you, Jack. You’re a friend indeed,” Bostwick said, sighing in relief.

Breen smiled as he left; holding his laughter in check until he reached the privacy of his car, headed for home. 

Bostwick’s phone rang after Breen left. It was his contact on the third floor.

“Yes, of course,” Bostwick replied smoothly.  “There isn’t a shooting review board provision in place because we’ve never had a shooting before, but I’ll get to work creating one right away and make sure I’m on the panel. I can’t guarantee it, but I’ll do my best. I wouldn’t miss this chance for anything.”

###

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Whisper Among the Ruins (Lori Hines)

Chapter 1

The two-inch-long tarantula hawk wasp, blue-black metallic body with orange wings, grabbed a plate-sized tarantula by one of its hairy front legs, flipping it over in a split second. The large wasp carefully probed its victim’s abdomen then crawled onto the spider’s stomach. A few seconds later, the tarantula’s legs stopped moving.

The wasp sat atop its victim, drinking the viscous fluid oozing from the spider’s recent wound. A minute later, the tarantula hawk climbed back down onto the ground and began to drag the spider away by its abdomen from the location of the attack.

Lorelei Healy, psychic medium and paranormal investigator, watched within two feet of the surreal scene, her long blonde hair falling around her while she leaned in to observe.

“That’s only the beginning,” Joe said.

Lorelei jumped. Joe Luna, Native American shaman and FBI agent, approached from behind, intently watching the morbid play between insects unfold.

Ian’s son Paul, a very grown up eleven year old, walked around inside a ceremonial kiva, part of Cutthroat Castle group of ruins. The three of them had escaped to the Four Corners from Phoenix, each running from their own monsters and memories.

“The female tarantula hawk stung and paralyzed the tarantula. But that’s only the beginning. She’s going to take her victim back into her own burrow to lay a single egg on the spider’s body and seal her underground chamber. When the wasp larva hatches, it will rip a small hole in the spider’s abdomen, then plunge into its belly, feeding voraciously, yet avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep it fresh. After several weeks, the larva pupates. Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, and tears open the spider’s belly to get out.”

Joe looked over at Lorelei. His dark facial features serious, eyes fervid. “All while the tarantula is alive.”

She shuddered.

The tarantula hawk continued to drag its victim toward a circular, partially collapsed stone tower, part of the Cutthroat Castle unit of ruins at Hovenweep National Monument in Colorado; one of six prehistoric Puebloan-era villages spread over a twenty-mile expanse of mesa tops and canyons along the Utah-Colorado border on a portion of the Great Sage Plain known as Cajon Mesa.

Lorelei thought of Shannon, who would have run screaming from the encounter with the arachnid. Shannon, Joe’s ex-girlfriend, had turned out to be a goddess of the Universe named Galiena. Shannon had forgotten her true identity on her many years on earth, until Mattie, Annie and Dagon had returned for her the same day of Lorelei and Ian’s wedding six months ago. None of them had gotten over losing her, especially Joe. He had planned on proposing to Shannon the very night Dagon returned for her.

Joe’s gaze became solemn as it diverted from pinion-juniper forest scattered throughout the ancestral Puebloan towers and kivas to the blue sky and cotton ball-like cumulus clouds. He must have been thinking about Shannon again. Perhaps hoping she might return.

Her husband Ian Healy, Wiccan, healer and paranormal investigator, placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

Joe turned and smiled. A half-hearted, forced smile.

Joe and Ian followed Lorelei from a partially collapsed round tower to Cutthroat Castle. A unit of ruins built on top of a boulder, with a circular tower in the center and two square buildings on either side. Smaller pueblos had been built underneath the shade of the massive boulder, surrounded by pinion, juniper and prehistoric rubble.

She knew most of these structures, located at Cajon Mesa in the northwest quadrant of the San Juan River Basin, were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. A variety of shapes and sizes, including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings and many kivas, subterranean ceremonial chambers, abound throughout the various sections of the monument.

There were many theories regarding the use of the striking towers at Hovenweep, which archaeologists thought to be associated with kivas. Or they might have been celestial observatories, defensive structures, storage facilities, civil buildings, homes or any combination of the above. 

Lorelei noticed Paul approach a two-foot-wide crack between two boulders on which Cutthroat Castle had been built. He stepped closer, staring down into the darkness. His gaze transfixed, Paul leaned forward, inch-by-inch. 

Misty tendrils reached up from the darkness. The dark grey shape moved carefully, deliberately in the direction of Paul.

“Paul, be careful.” Ian raced out of one of the Cutthroat Castle structures to catch Paul before he could fall in.

The mass had formed fingers, grabbing for Paul’s arm. “Ian, hurry.”

The three of them were tied together in ways most people couldn’t imagine. Since Lorelei had been kidnapped by Paul’s stepfather, the trio had occasionally been able to communicate without being around each other. Paul had been trying to deny his dream reality and bizarre ties to Lorelei and Ian, but unfortunately, spirits didn’t care. This could be an attempt from the afterlife to connect with Paul.

Seeing through Paul’s eyes, Lorelei could see the rubble of remains below the boulder where Cutthroat Castle had been built. Ian removed his hand from her waist. A three-inch piece of pottery lay just outside the air intake. Dark orange lines extended the length of the potsherd. She recognized the object as a brilliant three-inch piece of Tsegi Orange-Ware pottery created by the Anasazi around A.D. 1050.

Breathless, Lorelei stood in front of the circular tower, opposite the crevasse where Paul stood. He stared intently into the dark aperture, trembling violently.

Paul wouldn’t move. Lorelei realized it wasn’t that he didn’t want to. He couldn’t move.

Ian approached him from behind and pulled him back to safety. “Hey, buddy. You need to be more careful. What are you picking up on?”

Lorelei threw her backpack on the ground and jumped across the split in the rock.

“Ian, something has a hold of him.” She tried to shake him out of his possessed state, but his body was stiff and unresponsive.

Paul’s eyes were wide, his body shook and his face was ghostly pale. Lorelei gazed into Paul’s eyes. They weren’t his usual brown. They were a dark green. And his eyes weren’t as round and bold as they should be.

“Oh, Paul,” she whispered. She gently took his hand in hers. A few seconds after she touched him, a brief but fierce breeze blew through her. She gasped. The force threw her toward the chasm where Paul had been staring.

Ian grabbed for her. She desperately reached out, but something pulled her backward. She could feel arms around her waist as she slid through the mysterious aperture of Cutthroat Castle.

The last thing Lorelei noticed before she lost sight of Paul, Ian and the ruins of Cutthroat Castle was Paul’s eyes had transformed back to beautiful, big and brown.

* * *

“Dad!” Paul screamed, as Lorelei vanished from his view.

“I saw! Get away from here!”

Paul ran past the round tower and another small pueblo next to it. His father took a big leap off the Cutthroat Castle boulder.

Ian and Paul raced around the bottom of the boulder where Lorelei had fallen, but she wasn’t there. They both looked around frantically.

Joe quickly ran into the remnants of a tiny pueblo under Cutthroat Castle. He came out a few seconds later, throwing his hands in the air.

“Where the hell could she be?” Sweat accumulated on Ian’s forehead. His shaky right hand wiped it off in frustration as he slipped between the two boulders. “She fell right here.”

Ian hugged Paul fiercely and placed firm hands on either side of Paul’s shoulders. “I’m so glad you’re all right. But I need to know. What did you see down in the crevice?”

Paul could see the tendrils reaching for him and hear the whispers emanating from the opening between boulders. Yet he couldn’t react or move away.

“I didn’t see anything. One minute I was looking around, and the next I felt totally different, like someone else. Dad, I’m sorry!”

Paul knew Lorelei attracted many spirits, both bad and good. He wondered if a spirit from the other side wanted to lure him to get to Lorelei. Or if it could have something to do with Peter and his mother. Even though they were no longer of this world, could they somehow be trying to obtain revenge because Lorelei had a big part in ending Peter and Emily’s plan to steal Lorelei’s powers?

Paul glanced up at his father. He couldn’t bear the thought of Lorelei disappearing again and he knew his dad wouldn’t be able to either. And it would be Paul’s fault.

Joe shook his head and placed his hand around Ian’s arm. “Let’s look around the rest of the ruins.” Joe slipped through the opening that had transfixed Paul and taken Lorelei.

Paul knew Joe was using his shaman abilities to try to get a sense of what might have happened to Lorelei. His father held Paul close to him; so close Paul could feel his father’s desperate heartbeat.

A few minutes later, Joe re-emerged, brushing dirt and debris off his jeans. He slowly stood up and turned to face them.

“I’m picking up on a rather strong sense of desperation. Someone wanted attention and if they couldn’t get it from Paul, they were going to steal Lorelei. I have no idea where she’s gone though.”

“What?” Ian yelled. “She has to be somewhere.”

“I don’t know.” Joe removed his cowboy hat with a turquoise bolo tie on the front. “Someone, or something, has taken her on a journey to another plane.”

###

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