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A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
The Hopi Reservation.
Okay, so technically not Arizona. Sorta. Why now?
There's something I need.
Mattie, we spent two years traveling around the country looking for things you needed. Remember? Upstate New York? North Dakota? Minnesota? You don't even have a connection to the Hopi. Your people come from the northern plains.
It's something that came up while you were away.
You make it sound like I took a vacation.
I'm sorry. I know you don't want to.
No, it's okay. I've been feeling like it's a good time to get out of town.
As a private investigator, I've had plenty of experience at finding people. I find people who don't want to be found. I've found a few who were being hidden by their friends or their enemies. I've found a few dead ones.
But I'm the special one out of those.
You're definitely the best conversationalist, Mattie.
Old folks are the worst. They're not plugged into the system like young people are. That means you can't sit back at your desk and locate the average geezer on Google or Facebook. Geezers require legwork.
The particular geezer in question was requiring legwork that took us most of the way across the country. Alexander Roan was not exactly a young man thirty-five years ago when he carved a longhair Katsina that he gave as a gift to Laurena Ives and her daughter Mattie.
Guy was probably dead and buried. Not that that necessarily precluded a conversation.
What could preclude a conversation was the fact that the dead native girl who wanted to have the chat was about to go blundering onto the Reservation in a white dude's body. This had the potential to get awkward real fast. The kind of awkward that could get me shot.
But since there were no records of Alexander Roan floating around the internet, it was time for some detective work.
It was also a convenient time for me to get out of New England. Melissa let me know that the DA in Massachusetts had called again. This time it was about the Dietrich murder. I was probably about to become a "person of interest." Again. That's the problem with hanging around places where dead bodies turn up. Sooner or later you start to look like a suspect.
I was driving a rented Ford Focus north on a road that was empty to the horizon in both directions. I'd been assured by a woman in a souvenir shop that this area of northern Arizona wasn't actually a desert. This was plateau. But it was empty and dusty, and even in October the afternoon sun turned the valley into a clay oven. I kept the AC on and only got out of the car when I needed to.
You're kidding. I didn't want to argue. Not while driving.
The driveway led to a gas station and rock shop, both long abandoned. The place was a mess. The roof over the shop has fallen in and burned. The old gas pumps were something straight out of a Route-66 nostalgia collection.
Okay, why are we here?
Then I noticed the buzzards circling.
We've got turkey buzzards back home in New England, but out here the sky is just so empty that their dance becomes hypnotic. A towering holding pattern, seemingly effortless, that hangs over the plateau inviting every rubbernecker for miles around to come have a glimpse of death.
Who died, Mattie?
I don't know. I sensed something. Shock, fear. He's not talking. Still processing what happened. It was recent.
I was unarmed, of course. Had to go through airport security. Besides, even after everything that's happened, I don't normally carry.
I popped the trunk, shifted my suitcase off the spare tire cover and dug out a tire iron.
One of the buzzards had perched at the top of the wall, looking down through where the roof had fallen in. Probably waiting his turn. The door was off its hinges, leaning against its frame, and I gave it a hard shove with my shoulder to knock it through to the inside.
Nobody home. Just two more buzzards.
Drinking from a pool of blood in the dirt floor.
Mattie froze up. That had never happened before, and I damn near fell over when I tried to take a step.
What the hell?
The buzzards stretched their wings, regarded me with an annoyed glance, and flapped their way back up to the wall, where a couple of their fellows had now gathered.
What happened? What's going on here?
I panicked. Pulled away. Makes it hard to balance. I found that out.
Yeah, when I was away. I get that part. What the hell is this?
I took another step closer to where the buzzards had been eating... no, drinking. A hole a foot deep had been dug in the dirt floor, and it looked like the dirt had been packed down firm to keep it from draining too fast. It was full of blood.
My mother studied mythology.
This is some crazy Indian thing?
No. Scottish. Dunters.
Wait. Didn't Nancy once mention something about...
"'Redcap: A malevolent, violent spirit of the mythology of the English-Scottish border region. Said to haunt abandoned castles and...'"
"Nancy, just skip to the important stuff. You know, what the hell are their weaknesses? Things like this always have weaknesses." I was on the phone with Nancy Mateo back in Worcester, hoping the shaky cell phone signal would hold out long enough to get some decent information while I drove north across the plateau and deeper into the Hopi Reservation.
"They have to keep eating. Or rather, they have to keep killing. If the blood they dip their hats in dries up, then they shrivel up as well."
"That is not helpful, Nancy. What the fuck can I hit one with?"
"Cold iron. Maybe." She didn't sound very sure.
"Maybe?" I asked.
There was a gas station up ahead. A working one. Maybe they still had payphones out here.
Why wouldn't they have a payphone?
Because we all use cell phones now. And they all work perfectly. All the time. Everywhere.
"Chess? Chess? You still there?" Nancy was still on the line.
"Yeah. Still here. What did you mean by maybe?"
"I got the cold iron bit out of a role-playing rulebook."
"Oh." I almost laughed. Almost. "Well, that's reassuring. Anything else?"
"Sacred objects. Or quote bible verses at them. Look, Chess, Katy ran into some of these a couple years ago. These are like the hired thugs of the occult world. This is not something you want to mess with."
I leaned on the wheel and pulled into the gas station.
"Wait. How did Katy handle them?"
"She ran away, Chess."
"No shit! Really? Okay, now I'm worried."
The place had a little lunch counter attached to the filling station office, and beside it a rock shop. A couple of big petrified logs flanked the door, and I was pleased to see a pay phone mounted on the wall above one of the stone logs.
"I'm gonna get back to you on a landline. Calling collect. I'm good for it," I said. I folded up the cell phone.
Cold iron, huh? I retrieved the tire iron from where I'd thrown it beneath the passenger seat and got a good grip on it as I opened the car door and took a step in the direction of the rock shop.
The window to my right shattered and a body bounced off the hood of my car before landing at my feet.
Neither of us hesitated.
The place was a mess. Five or six guys down. Broken glass everywhere. Blood spilled onto people's lunch dishes.
And four guys in biker leather and baseball caps who were putting the steeltoe boots to the couple of patrons who still looked like they were capable of getting back up.
There was a girl behind the counter, flat against the wall trying not to be noticed and the closest one of the three was just reaching for her when I yelled from the doorway.
"Hey bitch! Come get some!" I had about enough time to realize that this had to be one of the dumbest things I'd ever done.
Then everything happened at once.
The girl ducked down and came up with a pistol. She was fast. The bad guy was faster. He smashed her wrist on the counter and broke her nose faster than I could follow. He hurt her again, but I didn't see what he did because I was keeping my eyes on the gun.
The gun bounced twice on the counter and landed a foot in front of me after leaving the girl's grip.
I scooped it up and took aim.
The redcaps, whose caps were actually a dull brown because that's what blood looks like when it stains cloth, now gave me their full attention. I took aim at the closest one's head.
Behind me, a gun cocked.
I didn't turn to look. If it was one of the bad guys I was dead anyway.
The lead redcap grabbed a handful of broken glass and slowly brought it to his mouth and started crunching it in his teeth. Blood began to drip out of the corners of his mouth.
His buddies came to his side and pulled him back a step, whispering to him.
And they kept their eyes on me as they went out the back door. Motorcycle engines started up, and then faded as they rode off.
I slowly raised my gun to show it, and then placed it on the counter in front of me, and then turned around with my hands in the air.
The deputy sheriff was a short, barrel-chested Indian who'd had a lifetime of sun on his face.
"I'm on your side," I told him. "But you wanna go ahead and arrest me, then do your thing."
He shook his head. "Got better things to do. Make yourself useful, or get the fuck out. Your choice."
I made myself useful. I've got Red Cross first aid training. And Mattie was a Girl Scout, apparently.
Miraculously, nobody was dead. Nobody here anyway.
"They did a home invasion before they trashed this place and looted the rock shop." Deputy Cardoza gave me bits of information between talking on his cell phone and talking to the victims who could talk. "One dead there. Old guy."
I knew before he said it.
"Let's go." Cardoza looked up from a text message on his cell.
I was still taping up broken bones and patching cuts with the supplies from the gas station's first aid kid.
"Go?" I asked.
Outside, three pickups were pulling into the gas station. There were men in the backs. And guns. A lot of guns.
I stopped Cardoza at the door.
"Wait. These aren't normal guys you're dealing with," I warned.
He looked at me a second, sizing me up.
"They won't be dealing with normal guys this time either. Fuckers have no idea how far from home they are or what they're fucking with. And the only reason I'm even telling you that is that you got yourself an invitation."
Cardoza spoke over his shoulder as he walked out the door. "Alexander Roan. Before he died, he told us you were coming. Just stay out of the way when we take them down."
I got passed off to a skinny kid, maybe sixteen or seventeen. He was clutching a .22 hunting rifle and wearing a Nine Inch Nails shirt, and he filled me in on what the redcaps were doing as the truck we were riding in bounced and jostled up a dirt road.
"They're taking relics. My uncle's carvings. Some stones with the old pictures on them. The peace-stone. That was what they took from the rock shop. That's what really pissed the deputy off. It was his father's."
"Peace-stone?" I asked.
"A couple of families ended a blood feud years back. They mixed their blood on the stone and smoked together. Ever since then, someone borrows it when they wanna end some grudge."
These dunters only end grudges one way, Chess. And it's not by sharing a toke.
Yeah. I could already see this wasn't going to end well.
The sun was low, but as we came over a ridge there was no question about where we were going.
It looked like every buzzard in the state of Arizona was circling over the rocks ahead.
And the guys in the trucks with me were wearing masks all of a sudden.
"Stay out of the fight. It isn't your fight." The voice sounded distant behind the Nine Inch Nails shirt and the mask. "Recover my uncle's katsina doll. This is owed to you. Nothing more."
Our truck was last in line. The shooting had already started when we arrived and the sun had slipped beneath the horizon.
The redcaps were making a run for it. I saw one go down shot, but he scrambled back up and kept moving. The Indians spread out, taking their time, hunting them, driving them.
The terrain turned rocky and the redcaps tried to double back and ambush their attackers. A man went down screaming. Shots rang out.
Down in a ditch. A bag dropped in the fight. I scrambled down loose rocks and uncovered the slender wooden figurine wrapped in a towel. The longhair katsina.
It was here after so long. I didn't believe it was real.
A rock hit the back of my head and my face hit the side of the ditch.
The redcap kicked me in the face and the ribs and my mouth filled up with blood and puke. He reared back for another kick and a rifle bullet knocked him back against the side of the ditch.
But the kid in the t-shirt came too close and the redcap was on the kid, ripping the gun away, clawing at his neck.
Nancy's words came back to me.
I closed my fist around the katsina doll.
But Mattie didn't stop me and when I smashed the soft wood into the redcap's face he screamed like he'd been burned.
He stumbled back from the kid and both barrels of Cardoza's shotgun put him down for good.
One got away. Apparently, he took the peace-stone with him. I tracked him to a small airport near Flagstaff where he had boarded a chartered Learjet for parts unknown. I promised Cardoza that I'd try to pick up the trail back east. I was pretty sure that was the direction he'd flown in.
Alex Roan's nephew had been training as his apprentice. Just before I left for home, he pressed a small bit of wood, wrapped in a cloth, into my hands.
I slipped away and let Mattie trace the slender figure of the longhair Katsina figurine. It wasn't carved exactly in Alex Roan's style, but Mattie hadn't expected that. On the plane ride home, Mattie told me it had spoken to her.
What did she tell you?
That she knows I'm tired. That her strength will be mine.
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I've never rested well on airplanes. Besides, it was all I could do to try to forget about the last two redcaps.
One of the remaining three redcaps died in the fight, his head nearly blown off by a shotgun at point-blank range. Two had survived multiple gunshot wounds.
The last time I saw them, they were tied down to stakes, guarded by silent masks. Their bonds were steel cable, and Deputy Cardoza only wanted to know one thing.
"How are you supposed to kill one?"
"You shot one in the head and he died," I said. I wanted no part of what I knew was coming.
But Cardoza insisted. He didn't want to know how you could kill one. He wanted to know how it was supposed to be done. So I told him.
The land where those poor bastards were tied down is a plateau.
But in the noontime sun, it's a desert.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2009