An Excerpt from Chapter One of “Shadows Walking: A Book of Hours”
copyright 2010 Robert John Burke
Sunset in Southern Arizona.
A dry wind pushed clouds of dust across barren rock, impeded only by the irregular shapes of a few scattered buildings to the south, the much more modern silhouette of Tucson far to the northeast, and a few scrubby bushes that would have been embarrassed to call themselves flora. The rest of the landscape blended together in shades of orange and red, a child’s fingerpainting of a sunset splashed across a lunar surface.
The eight-year-old girl who might have painted the sunset sat near a knot of bushes at the edge of a worn dirt path, holding an animated conversation between two dolls. It seemed that one of them thought the view could use more cacti, perhaps some purple ones, while the other felt that was ridiculous, and the best thing for really sprucing up the setting would be a herd of giraffes. Although they took this debate very seriously, their conversation kept turning to an upcoming royal ball, where a fairy-tale prince would be marrying the winner of a reality show's singing competition. It all got very involved, very quickly, and probably the girl was the only one who could have kept it all straight.
To the north, the rocks gave way to Armistead Ravine, a dust-flecked crevasse, not impressive or deep by local standards. Some of the old-timers said if you stood on the edge of the Ravine on a night lit by the full moon and embraced the call of the Sonoran desert, your eyes would be opened to... the same damn things you'd see by day, some coyote tracks and maybe a scorpion. Also you'd be a moron who thought he could talk to desert. So there wasn't much to be gained from standing on the edge of the Ravine, by the full moon or any other moon. The girl, whose name was Tina Delacroix, had been warned to keep away from it; she knew she was closer than she should have been, but not close enough to get in trouble yet. Not really.
Trouble was on its way, if she didn't start home soon. She lived just off the path, in a spacious home on the other side of the bushes, ten minutes' walk away. If she waited until dusk, ten minutes would become fifteen or thirty and her cellphone would light up with angry calls from a mother who was tired of holding dinner. If she waited longer, she ran the risk of having the ball delayed on account of Charlie. That would be bad.
Just a little longer, Tina thought. We're not even having anything good for dinner. It's stupid eggplant.
As she turned back to her dolls, trying to decide whether the blonde would look better in pink or yellow, something caught her eye. The waning sunlight illuminated something shiny at the edge of the Ravine, where there had been nothing before.
Maybe somebody dropped a quarter, she thought. “What do you think, Sara? Mandi?”
Neither doll objected, so she decided to go and see. Tina brushed sand off the hem of her school dress and secured her backpack strap. If she lost anything or got too dirty, Charlie would start yelling about the cost of her clothes, not that he wouldn't find something to yell about anyway. He always grumbled ominously on the nights when he wasn't late getting back from the dealership. When he focused on something that was Tina's fault, the grumbling turned especially loud, so Tina felt strongly it should be someone else's fault.
When she'd deferred as much blame as possible, she secured her dolls and inched toward the Ravine, mesmerized by the shiny light. She stopped ten feet away, still unable to guess what it was.
Her mother's echo warned Tina not to get closer to the edge; but even big trouble paled beside curiosity. Whatever she'd found was brighter than a quarter; it might even be stray jewelry that would properly outfit Sara and Mandi for the ball.
She placed her dolls on the ground. They were too little to get near the Ravine. She wouldn’t have anyone saying she was a bad parent.
“Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
Tina stood up, studying the shimmering light and the Ravine like a boxer sizing up her foe. She’d do this as carefully as possible, in case anybody was watching. A tattletale could start Charlie grumbling, too.
Her cellphone rang, startling her. Dinner was ready ahead of schedule, and her mother would be upset. Why was eggplant always early?
I’m coming as fast as I can...
Close now, she shaded her eyes, squinting to get a better look...
She gasped. The flashing light moved. She’d clearly seen it jump, and now it hovered in midair. It couldn’t be a mirage, not when everything around was dull and uniform. There wasn’t anything to trick her eyes with.
Maybe it’s an angel...
The thought intrigued her. She remembered her father talking about angels; when he went away, he said he'd send one to watch out for her, so they'd always be connected no matter where she was. When Tina asked what it would look like, he'd said “just like the fireflies.” Her mother said that was silly, there weren't any such things as angels and certainly her worthless ex-husband didn't know any. Charlie agreed with her mother, which gave Tina another reason to take her father's side, because she never liked to agree with Charlie about anything. He'd laughed at her, said her father was a loser, and dared her to find a firefly that wasn't just a firefly. Tina had tried for months to prove him wrong. She never could.
She'd never seen a firefly so bright.
The cellphone chimed again. The caller I.D. said Charlie's phone was calling. Tina's pulse pounded; of course he picked tonight of all the stupid nights to come home early. In another minute, he'd be outside looking for her, and that would mean the end of the ball, not to mention yelling at everyone. Tina wanted to cry. She hated herself for wanting to cry.
Not this time. This time he won't laugh at me. This time I'll prove my daddy's right, and he's just a big bully. That's what I'll do; I'll show him a real angel. He can't yell about that.
Tina crept forward by inches. The flickering light almost looked hollow, like there was nothing but the light. That wasn’t possible, was it? Her mother said everything could be explained if you knew where to look, but Tina couldn't think of anything that would make a light like that. It had to be an angel.
“Hello?” she said. “My name's Tina Delacroix. Can you hear me? Are you... well, what are you?”
Come and see.
Tina jumped. The word in her mind hadn’t been her own. It just appeared there, accompanied by a whispering breeze, like a soft breath. She almost ran away.
“You understood me! I knew you could! Will you... listen, will you come with me? I want to show you to someone. It's not far.”
She thought she heard the angel laughing. Just when she thought she wouldn't get any other response, more words appeared: I'll come if you can catch me.
It danced close to the edge. Tina reached toward it. The light flickered silver, then blue, then green. If she brought up her other hand really fast, she could catch it...
The angel skipped away. She’d never had a chance to move. Now the light hovered a couple of feet past the lip of the Ravine. Tina sighed; she couldn't catch it now, unless she could lure it closer. All she had in her backpack was a half-eaten package of strawberry-flavored fruit snacks. Would it like those? Did angels eat?
She dug into her backpack for a handful of gummy candies, proffering them at arm’s length. The light shuddered, but didn’t come any closer.
“Did my daddy send you? I'll bet you're tired. Do you want something to eat? Look, these are all I have. See? They're yours. You just have to... um, come a little closer.”
She whistled like she did for the dog. That seemed to annoy the angel; it skipped further away. Tina winced and took another step...
“You're a weird angel. That's okay, Charlie says I'm a weird kid. That's probably the only thing he's right about. I'll prove him wrong about angels, though. Help me, please?”
She whistled again, softer and lower, a lullaby she remembered from kindergarten. The angel seemed to like that. It weaved a bit closer, moving sideways more than forward. She started another chorus, and they crept toward each other.
“Almost got you...”
She stretched out her arm, the sinking in her stomach telling her she was partially over the Ravine. Much too close, but the angel was coming. She almost had him.
“Please? I need your help. Daddy said you'd help me. Just... please, a little closer?”
The angel shimmered and danced and said nothing, all but taunting her. Tina bunched her hands on her hips.
“Come on, tell me what you want. I know you can talk.”
Can't everyone? the half-imagined voice replied. I can't come to you. You must come to me.
Tina thought over what it had said and scrunched up her face.
“I can’t come closer. I can’t fly. See? I'm just a girl.”
She flapped her arms, showing her lack of plumage. The angel danced just out of reach. She thought it wasn’t going to answer, but then it did, its light changing to a warm pink color.
Just a little closer.
Tina looked down at the Ravine. Her feet were almost on the edge. Her mother and Charlie would be furious, and there were a lot of rocks down there. It looked like a bad fall.
She waited, and so did the angel. Then, with something like a sigh, it bolted straight up. Two feet over her head... three...
“No, wait! Don’t go!” Almost involuntarily, she jumped and snatched with both hands, and landed on the edge of the Ravine. She wheeled her arms, caught her balance, and gasped. That was scary. She exhaled, long and slow, now quite annoyed.
“You're not an angel. You're mean. Angels aren't mean.”
She heard a laugh inside her head, and the breeze tickled the back of her neck. Afraid the not-angel thing had somehow gotten behind her, she twisted and lost her balance. Her feet tangled; one of them skidded out from under her. She lurched, flailing at the edge of the Ravine.
“Help me! Help!” she cried.
Poor girl, said the voice, and the tickling sensation felt like laughter. Of course angels are mean. That's why they cast me down...
Her other foot gave way, the rock crumbling beneath it, and Tina Delacroix fell. She screamed and snatched for a handhold, but there was none. Her stomach flipped; she tumbled head over heels. Her head connected with something sharp, and the sky turned black.
In the last light of evening, beneath a Gambol oak that had shielded him from the sun through the heat of an Arizona day, Otis Moreland engaged in a battle to the death. His opponent
kept laughing at him.
A big, broad-shouldered fellow with weathered brown skin that faded into shadow, Otis would have made a formidable opponent for any man, and a spectacularly poor target for mocking. On many occasions throughout the span of his life, he had made men regret that mistake. By now, he thought he'd earned a little respect, and he generally got it from people. Rainbow trout, on the other hand...
Otis took a deep breath, sighed, and cast his line again. A mortally wounded worm skewered on the hook plopped soundly as it submerged in water fifty feet away. Otis adjusted his waders and scratched his short hair and generally wished he knew how to pass up a challenge once in a while, or at least change his approach. Thinking back, that stubborn lack of flexibility often proved his undoing.
Fishing proved analogous to life. The fly fishermen who came and went through Rose Canyon Campground, thirty miles northeast of Tucson, had been reeling in shimmering rainbow trout all day. The talkative fellow who'd set up camp on the opposite bank, the one with the fancy assortment of lures who kept making Otis fantasize punching him in the throat, had caught three big ones before lunch. Otis' poor offering had received barely a nibble.
They weren't biting on worms today. Sometimes that happened; a man's tackle or his choice of bait didn't sit right with the fish, owing to some combination of weather and water temperature and mysteries known solely to the ichthyoid population, and they passed him up on the chow line. When that happened, a smart angler changed his approach.
Otis never did. A friend had introduced him to fly fishing once, decades past in the Tennessee mountains; in his opinion it was a lot of wasted effort and showmanship that obscured the all-important
purpose of nabbing dinner. Lures didn't sit right with him, either; he preferred fishing as he remembered it, with a simple hook and a simple worm and a simple life generally. He used to fish that way on the banks of a big, muddy river, might have been a hundred years ago. The date didn't matter; time stood still when you were fishing. That was one thing Otis liked about it.
He took slack out of his line and waited. He wasn't naturally good at waiting; he'd taken up fishing to master the talent. After so much time, he still tended to fidget. His hands remained steady, but he'd shift his weight and toy with his line and splash around on the bank. An excellent way to go without a meal.
Otis stretched his tired back and yawned. Come on, I'm tired of this game. You've been jumping around this stretch of lake like you're on a damn pogo stick. What's it take?
He thought the fish content to snicker at him. But what was that? A tremor on the line, barely perceptible. Otis caught his breath, waited... had he really felt it? The wait might have been another thousand years. No action; could have been nothing...
There! A definite tug! Otis jerked the head of his rod, set the hook, and cranked the reel. A 18-inch rainbow trout leaped from the water, all brilliant colors and flashing scales, attached to the business end of his line. Otis hollered at the top of his lungs, heedless of fellow anglers and people in the nearby campground. What mattered decorum, as compared to his triumph? If stubbornness constituted a tragic flaw, seeing it rewarded was still pretty damn satisfying.
He kept the head of the rod up, fighting the fish, working it toward the bank. Sliding around in muddy waders, he groped around his tackle box and bucket, tossed aside the cellphone he'd left powered off, and seized his trusty net. (The implement was well-worn and had developed a large hole in the netting from years of service, but Otis thought calling it “trusty” made it sound like a noble weapon, painting its owner in a heroic light. Given his occasional lapses of heroism, he'd take all the flattering light
he could get.)
The fish pulled straight down, straining his line to the breaking point, but Otis was too experienced and much too famished to let his meal slip away. He played it tight, saw the trout's black eyes peering out of the water in accusation, and reached down with the net...
His ringtone chimed. Otis gasped, slipped in the mud, and lost his net. His rod hit the drink, and he snatched for it...
The fish used its reprieve to good advantage; the line fell depressingly slack. Otis threw it halfway across the lake and swore with gusto. Then he turned on his cellphone, jabbing a finger at it.
“I turned you off! You bastard! How did...”
Otis frowned. The cellphone was still turned off, its faceplate barely visible in the gathering darkness. Someone else's phone? The campground wasn't near enough; the sound had been right behind him.
Struggling and fuming, Otis clawed his way up the bank and collapsed at the base of the Gambol oak. As a point of pride, he hadn't brought a sandwich in his cooler. Now he faced a grim ride to the nearest diner.
He snatched the cellphone and snapped it open. It kept silent. Otis glared; if lures bothered him, modern communications technology occasionally gave him fits, but he knew whether a damn button was switched on or off. He toggled the switch, and the phone's display lit up in neon blue...
With one text message waiting. Otis checked it, chased the wrong menu path only once, and frowned. He didn't recognize the sender. He did recognize the message. He gripped his phone hard enough to crack the casing.
The message said: 1 More 4 Me. 2 long since hamelin. C U soon.
Otis stared at the words for a long time, hoping they would disappear When they didn't, he squeezed until the case shattered and threw what remained in after his rod. Another satisfying plop. Otis huddled under the tree, staring at muddy fists.
“Son of a bitch,” he declared. Then, in the direction of the submerging phone, “Your grammar used to be a lot better!”
Nobody answered. Otis hadn't expected it. If they were playing this game again, there would be rules. There would be an order of things to come. There would be a familiar resolution. He tried not to feel too much affinity for the trout on the hook.
The barfly swung the bottle clutched in his hairy fist, missing his target but shattering his weapon against the wall. It cut the ear of the Pima County sheriff's deputy riding herd on him and drenched her in cheap-smelling booze. Rachel Navarro kneed him in the groin, twisted his arm behind his back, and slammed him against the same wall. She thought the night was progressing well.
“Calm down,” she said in the big man's ear. “Do it now, or I Taser you. I don't think either of us wants this going viral on the Internet.”
“Bitch!” The man pushed with all his considerable might, knocking Rachel backward. She hit a table, flipped over it, and broke her fall with a chair, or rather, broke a chair with her fall.
She lay on the ground in a puddle of drool, only some of it hers. A wiry woman in her mid-thirties with perpetually unkempt dark hair and high cheekbones from the Tohono O'odham part of a mixed heritage, Rachel didn't look dangerous until she got angry: then her green eyes would flash, transforming in point-seven seconds from a genetic fluke passed down by her Caucasian mother and some long-forgotten white ancestor on her father's side to a harbinger of Terrible Doom.
But it wasn't Terrible Doom time yet. It was just another Saturday. Admittedly, a Saturday from which her dumbass partner was mysteriously absent, but that was his Terrible Doom, not the barfly's, and she never liked to hand those out to the wrong people.
Rachel felt herself pulled off the floor; her benefactor turned out to be Lonnie, the bartender. He was half again as wide as the barfly, but his fringe of red beard made him look like a giant leprechaun auditioning for the role of Santa Claus, an extremely non-threatening image. His persona fell into line.
“Seen Jim anywhere?” she murmured as the big man steadied her.
“You mean Junior? He left in the company of a sultry wench in a low-cut blouse. But her green eyes weren't nearly as pretty as yours.”
“Thanks,” Rachel said, and she squared off with the barfly again. She reached into her pocket and touched the silver butterfly medallion tucked away there; the charm was her good-luck piece, and right now she needed it. She peered at Lonnie from the corner of her eye. “Little help?”
“Oh, you're doing fine.”
“Thanks,” she repeated, and reached for her Taser.
The barfly rushed her, swinging the jagged half-bottle in his fist like a Viking club. Rachel did a quick bit of mental calculus and sidestepped as he arrived. She yanked one of the remaining chairs away from the table she'd slid across, leaving it squarely in his path. He tripped over it, went airborne, and slammed into the bar face-first.
Lonnie winced sympathetically. Rachel was all out of sympathy, so she shrugged and gave her butterfly charm a little squeeze. Then she addressed the small, thin, white-faced fellow the big man had been targeting with his beer bottle.
“As I was saying,” Rachel said, “you started the fight, and you should definitely apologize when he wakes up. You can pay for what he smashed, and maybe bring him a pie with a file in it when he's awaiting prosecution. Also, I'm gonna need to see a chiropractor, and that's on you. Comprende?”
The white-faced man nodded in a manic sort of way. Rachel turned and handcuffed her kayoed giant to the bar.
“Shall I carry him out for you?” Lonnie asked.
“Where was that initiative while I was getting killed?” Rachel pointed at the back door. “Jim went thataway?”
“Last I saw. Thanks, Rach. I thought they'd dismantle the place that time.”
Rachel tossed words over her shoulder on the move. “Might not happen if you'd stop serving drunks. The next time you let a patron get that intoxicated, we'll have one of those little talks you love so well.”
“Don't let anybody near him!”
“Why not?” the bartender's fading voice asked. “He's becoming a gate attraction...”
The back door of Lonnie's tavern led to the alley behind the bar, which led straight out to main street, which simply led into the desert. There wasn't anything too complicated in this stretch of arid land between South Tucson and the San Xavier Reservation. That was precisely how Rachel Navarro liked her life; uncomplicated, with a raucous bar fight now and then providing atmosphere.
Her partner was leaning against the wall on the far side of the alley. Rachel marched toward him, agitated.
“Hey, Sullivan! I realize you're new in town and maybe we didn't go over things like we should have, so let me give you a few pointers. First, we bust hookers, we do not transact with them. Second, if you do have a questionable encounter... and hell, who hasn't? If so, you don't do it while I'm getting my ass kicked! You get my point, hermano? Not saying I don't enjoy it, but as a matter of fair play, when you ride with me, you take ass-kickings in proportion to mine! Now, I'll cover for you this time, but damn, Jimmy, you'd better have some kind of great excuse! Where is your head?”
Just then, Rachel Navarro rounded the corner and spotted the obvious problem: Jim Sullivan's head was on the opposite side of the street, having been severed from his body. Upon inspection, the rest of him was pretty well carved up, too. What remained was propped up against the pawn shop next to Lonnie's in a casual pose, as though it had been standing on the corner people-watching and was mildly surprised to encounter its own disembodied head. It had nothing on Rachel's surprise. A steady tapping on her shoulder made her recoil and look up: blood dripped from the pawn shop's overhang, with not a little bit of Sullivan up there, too.
“Okay,” she murmured, “that's a pretty good excuse...”
TO BE CONTINUED
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase “Shadows Walking” by Robert John Burke in paperback or Amazon Kindle format.