Five minutes ago I hoped to drop the kennel cleaning into the rookie’s lap, but 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. My palms itched, my neck tingled and burned. 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 shrugged. 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. It was enough for him, he shrugged right back. “Get the gear, I get the dogs. Be in five outside.” He scrambled to get the backpacks, the ropes, and equipment we’d need in the forest.
I left the station and breathed in the scented summer air. The afternoon still looked friendly, but the night won’t be. My dogs howled. Patience, my beauties. I had the feeling, they already knew what was up. They always did. I went to the kennel, to the back of the station. Two huge shadows, with resin colored eyes, waited for me. Both black dogs were double the size of any usual malamute. Not that anybody needed a special invitation to think they were normal dogs, which they weren’t. Their origin had nothing to do with dogs or wolves. They were something different, something complicated.
“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 nodded slowly and approached me. I called Meme over too. The dogs snuggled up, I hugged them back. They licked my face, neck, and hands as if comforting me. Ennoia brought me my sack. She was all business again, and she was right. We had to hurry. “Thank you, love.”
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. We left the kennel and walked up to the truck. I leashed the dogs on, and we met rookie at the car. Meme sashayed. Oh, this was going to be fun.“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 and I unleashed my inner beast next and hoped rookie would join in. It didn’t matter though, but it would have been nice.
We had a good howl to start the hunt. The woods at Fletcher’s Point even answered in a distant recognition. Frank’s flabbergasted expression made me chuckle. “You… You just sounded,” he swallowed the rest of his question. His jawline tightened visibly. 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 me to take the leashes. I relaxed and breathed. This is going to be an awful night.
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 marked map of the area. “Hey, Mark! I hoped we didn’t need you guys. But this case has your name written all over it.” He spread the paper on the hood of the nearest truck. He even attempted small talk. “Who’s new guy?” His short nod and stern voice didn’t hide, that he’d rather have nothing to do with me, the dogs, or the mountain itself. That was the spirit.
“This is Frank, rookie ranger. Sheriff, let’s save daylight.” He seemed relieved and started debriefing us. “Small boy, aged five, disappeared from the trail, just as his mom turned to talk to his dad. He was two steps ahead when he turned into thin air. This happened in the late morning hours. They contacted the sheriff’s office right away. We came and found nothing.” He made a vague gesture with his hands. “As if there hadn’t been a kid with them in the first place.” The sheriff sighed. “His mom found the kid’s favorite plushie on a boulder near the trail. Someone put it there. The first search party found child-sized footprints. Weird thing was, they went in a 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,” I told him. His dark eyes locked on mine. Sad, helpless. Hopeless. Begging.
“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.” I poked the map and nodded towards the boulder field where the plushie was found.
“Nobody ever does,” I squeezed the sheriff’s shoulder. “Let me work my magic,” I 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, she went paler than before. 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 until 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? Nevermind.” 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.
Before entering the trail, I turned around and hollered across the parking lot. “Everybody hang back! 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 job.” 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. I heard him swallow the questions he wanted to ask desperately. My shoes went bye-bye into my bag. From the knapsack, I took a flask and handed it to Frank. “Drink.” He sniffed it suspiciously. He took a sip as if drank surprisingly tasty motor oil. I drank 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-”
“No. This is the way I work.” Letting him catch up, I grabbed his arm. “Listen. This is important. 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.”For now, this has to suffice. I will tell you everything later.”
“You say it as if you know who abducted the kid.” He looked surprised. I nodded. “WHO?” His mouth was faster than his brain. I didn’t answer right away. He had to see for himself.
“It’s 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, ancient, older than the villages here. A being feeding on fear, anger, insecurity, lust… It learned, that men and women lived in their heads.” I looked at him. “A sin-eater.”
He thought of something, but couldn’t grasp it. “Sin-eater? I heard that one before…,” he mumbled.