Five minutes ago I hoped to drop the kennel cleaning into the rookie’s lap.
Then we got the call.
Dispatch told us to get the dogs and meet up, with the search party at Devil’s Peak. “Shit.” I instantly knew this was going to be a bad night. The rookie was going to have his baptism by fire. “Another kid?” I asked but didn’t need to. The calendar answered before dispatch could confirm. Full moon. “Damn.” The rookie got my gaze and stood up. “On our way.” I hung up.
I fed the fire in the stove, with the rest of my Scotch. We could use every helping hand. Rookie stepped behind me and looked confused. “Why did you do that?” He didn’t know how to persuade luck to cross your path. There were a lot of things Frank needed to learn.
“Superstition,” I answered. To be honest, I didn’t tell him, because there was no time and no simple way of explaining, that I just called the goddess of stove fire and the fire spirits for help with the search.
Outside, the wolf dogs howled. Patience, my beauties. I had the feeling, they already knew. “Get the gear, I get the dogs. Haul ass!” White as bone, he scrambled to get the backpacks, the ropes, and equipment we’d need in the forest.
I went to the kennel, to the back of the cabin. Two huge shadows, with resin colored eyes, waited for me. Both black wolf dogs were double the size of any usual malamute. Not that anybody needed a special invitation to think they were normal wolf dogs. Which they weren’t. There wasn’t even much dog, or wolf in them to begin with.
“Ennoia, Meme, my beauties. Let’s go hunt.” The animals let me enter and get my special knapsack. “It’s a kid again,” I told them. Ennoia approached me and I let her sniff. I called Meme over too. The wolf dogs snuggled up, licked my face and hands as if comforting me. I thought of my rookie. Frank only had to deal with wild campers and a stolen car. No bears, no mountain lions… That would change today. This was going to be a hard night for him.
I leashed them on and we met rookie at the car. Meme sashayed. “We howl Frank,” I commanded. He just stared at me in disbelief. “It’s a tradition. Don’t spoil it.” He rolled his eyes. “First she,” I point at Ennoia, “then we roll with it.” As if on my mark, the animals howled. I unleashed my inner beast next and hoped rookie would join in. It didn’t matter though.
We had a good howl to start the hunt. The woods at Fletcher’s Point even answered in a distant ghost of acknowledgment. Frank’s flabbergasted expression made me chuckle. “You… You just sounded,” he swallowed. Nobody told poor Frank, I was more than an ordinary ranger. I’m sure he has been warned about me and my methods.
I let the dogs in the backseat and buckled them up. I heard the passenger side door slam shut. Rookie scoffed and turned around in his seat. I got into the driver seat and started the engine. Up we went the dirt road.
A weight settled on my chest as we reached the parking lot at the Upper Liberty Trail. Devil’s Peak was five miles to the north. I took a parking space nearest to the exit of the lot. A group of more than twenty people greeted us, and Frank whistled. “That’s a lot of people.” He couldn’t understand the despair. I saw he was no parent. He couldn’t feel the powerful need to turn the world inside out, to shake it, till your kid fell out.
“Not nearly enough.” I got out and led the dogs. They sat down, beside me, allowing for me to take the leashes. I relaxed and breathed. This is going to be a bright and awful night. “Follow my lead.”
Frank just got out of the car with our gear and nearly bumped into a man. It was the sheriff, who wasn’t overly happy to see me. Nevertheless, he came to greet us, with a map of the area. He spread the paper on the hood of our pick-up. He even attempted small talk. “Hey, Mark. I hoped we didn’t need you guys. But this case has your name written all over it. Who’s the new guy?” His short nod and stern voice didn’t hide, that he’d rather have no weird bullshit, not from me, or the search party, or the woods, or from the mountain itself.
That was the spirit. “This is Frank, my rookie. Sheriff, let’s save daylight.” He seemed relieved and started briefing us.
A small kid, male, aged five disappeared from the trail, just as his mom turned to talk to his dad. He was just two steps ahead when he turned into thin air. This happened in the morning. They contacted police, the sheriff came and found nothing. As if there hadn’t been a kid with them in the first place. His mom found the kids favorite plushie on a boulder near the trail. Someone put it there. The first search party found footprints of a child that size. Strange thing was, that the footprints raced in a perfect circle some way ahead on the path, without marks leading to it, or away from it.
Commotion picked up the volume, and Meme growled. A woman screamed and wailed, a man shouted “do something,” on the top of his lungs. The parents were frantic.
The sheriff stiffened. I knew he had twin daughters. His hands remained by his side, but I could see his fingers, bones, and sinew forming white balls of helplessness. He stared at the map, jaw muscles working. “I will do all I can to find the kid.” His dark eyes locked on mine. Begging. Relieved. Wishing well, but suddenly confused, he coughed.
“You know, Mark. I know the family.” He looked away ashamed. He has shown his soft spot. “They’re good people, poor but hard-working, always helping others out, never asking for anything in return,” he sighed and shook his head. “They did not merit any of this.”
“Nobody does,” I answered, and walked over to the parents, dogs by my side. The crowd parted silently. As the parents laid eyes on me, they froze. I scared the mother right out of her mind. The father was intimidated too, but so was everybody else. They hadn’t heard of me, I could tell. “Please. I need your son’s plushie.” My outstretched hand hovered like half of a bridge towards the parents. She hesitated. “For the scent,” I added trying to look peaceable. Another heavy moment passed till she gave me the toy.
I let Meme sniff, then Ennoia. They immediately sat down, fixing me with their eyes. They had the scent, so I gave the toy back. The mother nearly snatched it out of my hand, pressing it to her chest, crying softly.
I waved Frank to follow me. He gave me one of the walkie-talkies, and I let my beauties from their leash. They waited for my consent. I nodded and they took off like bullets. “Wait! Aren’t they supposed to lead us to the boy?” I felt the giddy thrumming of big paws on the trail ahead, and I heard them breaking into the undergrowth. They had their own ways. I motioned Frank to stop. “No,” I answered.
Before entering the trail, I turned around and hollered across the parking lot. “Everybody hang back! Don’t get in the way! The dogs hunt, and they won’t stop for anybody.” The mother wailed. A murmur went through the crowd. The sky above the trees was still as if the rising moon listened to me too. It was still bright, but not for long though. “Give us thirty minutes head start.” Rookie stared more confused than ever. The sheriff nodded to me and called the search party over to the pick-up.
My eyes locked on Frank’s. “We brought the dogs to hunt it down. They only need the scent to keep away from the kid. Rescuing is my task.” His face fell. If he thought this was revealing, he was going to get the shock of his life. I took my backpack from him and loosened my shoelaces. “Consider yourself warned.” I heard him swallow, but he still didn’t understand. My shoes went bye-bye into my bag. From the knapsack, I took a flask and handed it to the Frank. “Drink. Not water.” He drunk as if he drunk motor oil, but surprisingly tasty motor oil. I took a sip too and let the liquor warm me from the inside. I walked up the trail and heard his footsteps follow me. Unsteady in movement, he asked. “Why barefoot? What if a-”
“No. All animals keep clear.” Letting him catch up, I grabbed his arm. “They are smart. We’re not. Don’t wander off, don’t take a leak, without telling me.” His expression turned into a question, but before he opened his mouth, I interrupted. “Things will get weird. When I tell you to wait, you freeze. And whatever you do, don’t run, don’t back away, don’t blink. When I tell you to grab dirt, you kiss the trail. ” His gasp was a barely audible question mark.
“You say it as if you know who, or what abducted the kid.” He looked surprised. I nodded. “WHO?” His mouth was faster than his brain. “Tell me!” I didn’t answer right away. He had to see for himself.
“The closest thing to it is a parasite.” I started walking. That didn’t mean he could brace himself, at least I gave him heads up. Frank was by my elbow. ” A hungry thing, feeding on fear, anger, insecurity, lust… It’s an ancient entity, that learned, that men and women lived in their heads. A sin eater.” I looked at him. He thought of something, but couldn’t grasp it.
“Sin-eater? I heard that one before…,” he mumbled.