The Whistler in the Dark (Short Fiction)

This percolated for a while before I felt it ready for any form of wider exposure. While it hopefully serves as a standalone tale of suspense, it also may be a character study for a longer piece…

 

Danny Lone Eagle felt the burning of the bile in his throat and had just enough presence of mind to lean over as he vomited the cheap beer and remnants of a convenience store microwave burrito onto the highway’s cooling surface. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and heaved for air, his pulse racing, heartbeat thundering in his ears.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. An evening cruise on the Mescalero Apache Reservation with his buddies Leon Horsekiller and Thomas Martinez, trolling the switchbacks and rutted dirt roads of the rez proper before cutting over to Route 70 to see what kind of action could be had. Sure, there was alcohol involved, nothing new in Indian Country. It was easy for outsiders to criticize, to point to the stereotypical “drunken Indian” caricature and condemn weakness of character, or a genetic predisposition to drink, or for the guilt-ridden white liberal types, to excuse such escapist behavior as a perfectly understandable reaction to a few hundred years of marginalization, exploitation and outright theft by the European invaders of the continent.

Whatever. Truth was, lots of people drank to forget who they were, and some others because it was frankly the easiest thing to do. But tonight things had gone sideways. Like a dead federal agent lying in a pool of his own blood on the side of the road, all because Leon not only had to tie one on but then had the bright idea to flash a goddamn gun when a good Samaritan (now deceased) had pulled over behind their broken down shit box of a car to render assistance.

Danny knew Leon sometimes liked to wave the damn Hi-Point around, especially after a heavy bout of drinking, but he never thought he’d actually pull it on someone.  Even now, minutes after the fateful event, the moment seemed unreal, even though he knew in his heart that his life had just irrevocably changed for the worst.

“What’d you do, man? What’d you just do?” Thomas wailed in the background.

“I didn’t know he was a cop. I saw his piece and I freaked out!” Leon said, his voice rising, on the verge of hysteria. He anxiously paced the shoulder of the highway, the Hi-Point still gripped in his sweaty palm. In his other hand, he absently clutched the lawman’s badge, which he had failed to spot residing on the agent’s belt before firing the fatal shots at nearly point-blank range.

Danny was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. Like it or not, he and Thomas were now unwitting accessories to murder. Of a law enforcement officer. Talk about a bad turn of events. In his mind, Danny fantasized about somehow magically rolling back time, of somehow altering the evening’s progression from drunken frivolity and teenagers blowing off steam to what in a best case scenario would be manslaughter.

Why did this stupid cop have to stop? Why couldn’t he just leave the poor, drunk Indians by the side of the road?

“We gotta get out of here!” Leon barked, darting off the shoulder of the highway and into the foothills, beating tracks for the surrounding mountains. Danny hesitated, looking momentarily to Thomas, who collapsed to his knees, sobbing. Whatever choices he had, none of them looked promising.

He turned and ran.

***

Special Agent Gabriel Shepherd of the FBI pulled his government issued ride into the parking lot of the Mescalero Apache Tribal Police headquarters. He killed the motor and listened to the engine tick as the first tendrils of dawn crept into the sky, banishing the darkness and all that it contained. He thought about what lay ahead and subconsciously shook his head.

More lives tragically pissed away. Just another day in paradise on the Rez.

Gabe had actually looked forward to his assignment to the Albuquerque field office. His first assignment, in Los Angeles, had proved interesting enough as a first posting but he had never quite come around to the star-worshipping, celebrity-driven culture and underlying sense of frustrated and thwarted ambitions which seemed to linger over the city, even as the dreams of some came true.

His decision to join the FBI had been one that was somewhat spontaneous; truth be told, a career in law enforcement hadn’t occurred to him while majoring in Mechanical Engineering as an undergraduate, or during his first year of law school, when he was still contemplating getting his J.D. and making a living as a patent attorney, possibly with an international practice focus. It wasn’t until he fully began to experience the soulless grind of law school that he realized being chained to a life of briefs and filings wasn’t going to be terribly fulfilling. Almost on a whim he had begun the application process for several federal agencies and perhaps it was his good fortune to find himself upon graduation headed to Quantico while many of his peers buckled down for the Bar exam.

The most interesting aspect of New Mexico was the blend of cultures, where Anglo met Hispanic met American Indian. This could lead to a lot of interesting fusions, a lot of rich and diverse culture, and even more miscommunication, mistrust and friction. Gabe had occasionally been called out to the Mescalero Apache reservation, and even the Jicarilla Apache reservation up north, during his posting, and found the experiences eye-opening and at times unnerving. Amid the poverty and hopelessness which plagued many of the inhabitants, there was also a sense of simmering promise of things to come which didn’t necessarily seem so dark and foreboding. Ancestral memories of a vanished way of life still lingered like phantoms in the recesses and hidden corners of the landscape, hovering just out of view but making their presence known.

From the moment he had been awakened by the phone call from the grizzled, pushing retirement age Mescalero Apache Tribal Officer Albert Cruz, shortly before 3:00 AM, Gabe knew he was headed for a mess of sordid proportions. What he did know was that three young tribal members, the eldest recently turned 20, had apparently shot to death an ATF agent who had stopped to render aid upon spotting their broken down car. The senseless death of a good man trying to lend a bit of humanity was bad enough, the fact that he was leaving behind a widow and two young children who would be deprived of memories they had every expectation of making.

So far as could be told at this preliminary stage of the investigation, the killing was not premeditated and the agent was not targeted because of his law enforcement status or participation in any current investigations, but was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. That would be little consolation to his family and friends.

We all have a date with Destiny. Except, in this instance, she isn’t some stripper claiming she’s paying her way through nursing school.

Adding to the complications of what otherwise might be a fairly pedestrian (once you got past the death of a promising law enforcement officer) case, reservation politics aside, was the curious aftermath, resulting in what at the moment appeared to be the “death by misadventure” of one of the suspects.

Apparently, after fleeing on foot from the scene, he and one of his companions had taken off cross-country, working their way into the Sacramento Mountains. Details at this point were murky, but according to the hysterical account of his fellow fugitive, something had scared the wits out of them and while fleeing, the decedent had taken a header and broken his neck in a fall off a rocky ledge. Karma could be a bitch, but Albert’s reticence and reluctance to say anything further over the phone had left a nagging and unsettling feeling in Gabe that he had failed to shake in his commute to the tribal headquarters.

Some kid who knows whatever limited future he might have had just was pissed down a rat hole by a series of really bad decisions gets spooked, falls off the side of a mountain, and the locals start whispering about spirits in the night?

Gabe stepped out of his G-ride and inhaled the dawn air, enjoying a moment of respite before the onerous task ahead. With a heavy heart, he entered the building, badged the duty officer, and was buzzed through a secure door where he was greeted by Albert, looking drawn and pensive.

“Thanks for getting here in short order, Gabe,” Albert said.

“I’m sorry I have to catch up with you this way,” Gabe replied.

Albert shrugged. “We all play the hand we’re dealt.”

“This one sounds ugly.”

Albert hesitated. “They aren’t bad kids, Gabe. They made some bad decisions, and Lord knows they’re gonna pay for those real hard, but they aren’t monsters.”

He paused, then spun on his heel and began walking towards the station’s interrogation room, Gabe striding beside him.

“I’m not here to judge. Just to establish the facts and the government’s interest given the unexpected permanent unavailability of one its employees,” Gabe said.

“You want oversight of Indian land, you take the good with the bad,” Al responded. He cracked a faint smile, which reminded Gabe of a wolf or coyote barring its teeth. “Remember, this is occupied territory, kemo sabe.”

“You’re not playing the race card on me, are you?” Gabe said, momentarily taken aback.

“Look, I know you’re not one of those Dances with Wolves Anglos who only have eyes for the inscrutable and stoic Noble Savage. One of the things I always liked about you is you treat us like real people. Like everyone else. Not like some re-enactors.”

Gabe stopped, grabbing Albert’s arm. The tribal policeman tensed and Gabe quickly released it.

“What’s eating you? You seem pretty rattled.” Gabe asked quietly.

“Listen to the kid’s story and then we’ll talk. But you’ve got to make me a promise.”

“Sure, so long as it doesn’t compromise any objectivity.”

“Just keep an open mind, that’s all. There’s things you maybe can’t or won’t understand, but that doesn’t negate what he has to say.”

***

Seventy-three minutes later, Gabe found himself struggling to keep his rational mind in check after hearing Danny Lone Eagle’s tale. And a tale it certainly had to be, as in the “make believe” variety, because little else made any sense. Even despite the fact that Gabe made him repeat it three times, searching for inconsistencies in the narrative. He already knew from Albert’s middle-of-the-night briefing that the other surviving suspect had been picked up sobbing in the backseat of the broken down vehicle, when a patrolling tribal unit had seen the fallen agent lying on the side of the highway. And that he was not witness to whatever fate had subsequently befallen his two fleeing buddies.

There was no doubt that the kid was scared. Terrified even. But what disturbed Gabe was that Danny Lone Eagle seemed as much petrified by events following the shooting as the shooting itself.

The long and short of his accounting was that Danny Lone Eagle and the apparent shooter (forensics were still pending, although Gabe was confident that Danny Lone Eagle was not the triggerman, as he repeatedly claimed), one Leon Horsekiller, had fled into the foothills off the highway and begun climbing, trying to outrun the long arm of the law, which they knew would be coming. It was during their panicked and ill thought out flight in the very early morning hours, scrambling over the rough and unforgiving terrain with no particular destination in mind, that they heard an eerie whistling, followed by what Danny Lone Eagle described as “horrible screams” like a woman being murdered, which in turn panicked them even more.

Probably a close encounter with a mountain lion, Gabe thought. Some of their cries were reported to sound like a human.

Unfortunately, the interpretation of this possible close encounter with an undeniable dangerous apex predator was not shared by the locals. That was made clear when Gabe broached his hunch to the kid, who shook his head, tears spilling from his eyes.

“It wasn’t no panther,” he insisted.

It took several attempts for Gabe to coax something further from Danny Lone Eagle, and when he finally did, he wasn’t sure if he was simply frustrated or for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate, somewhat unsettled.

As it turned out, the Apache, despite their deserved reputation as fearsome and relentless warriors once upon a time, had certain prohibitions, and took these very seriously.  Among these was an absolute avoidance of whistling at night, for fear of what might answer back. Apparently, the “what” was a local boogeyman, a creature referred to in hushed tones as Kensah and greatly feared by a tribe whose courage and tenacity was legendary. Unable to fully restrain his skepticism, Gabe had Googled the term on his smart phone and ascertained that he was dealing with a long held tribal belief in what was now referred to in popular culture as “Bigfoot” or by one of the many Indian names for the legendary beast which had entered the vernacular, “Sasquatch.”

Wonderful. On top of a senseless loss of two lives we’re invoking some elusive hairy monster to add to the mix. Could this day possibly get any crappier?

Gabe was all too convinced that his disbelief had registered not only with Danny Lone Eagle, but Albert as well. Sure, he was familiar with at least some of the stories, and certainly the iconic grainy footage shot in the 1960’s by some down on his luck cowboy and his friend which purported to show a female example of the creature, pendulous breasts and all, striding across a dry creek bed as it fled the camera. And while by some accounts the footage still defied attempts to definitively declare it a hoax, it just seemed too fanciful to believe.

What made the situation worse in Gabe’s mind was that Albert grimly and quietly sat through the account, nodding his head at certain details. It wasn’t until another officer entered the room and escorted the manacled and emotionally drained suspect from the room, leaving Gabe and Albert alone, that the taciturn Indian officer leaned back in his chair, carefully unwrapped a Jolly Rancher and popped it into this mouth, then broke his silence.

“You probably think he’s just some dumb Indian, scared of his own shadow.”

“Albert, he’s a scared kid who’s looking at a beef as an accessory to the murder of a federal law enforcement officer. For all we know his buddy slipped, or hell, maybe Danny Lone Eagle pushed him in a fit of sudden conscience.”

“I was up there a few hours ago. To recover the body,” Albert said. “Found some partial tracks on a ridgeline above where Leon was recovered.”

“Okay.”

“They weren’t cat tracks.”

“Okay… then what exactly were they?” Gabe asked, sipping on a cup of lukewarm coffee he had been nursing throughout the interview.

“These prints were big, Gabe. Not just long, but pretty damn wide. And deep. Five toes and all,” Albert said.

“So maybe a bear,” Gabe offered.

“They damn well weren’t no bear either.” Albert settled back in his chair. “I seen bear tracks. And the bears that made ‘em. And I know damn well that bear prints can sometimes resemble a human foot. But whatever made these wasn’t walking on four legs.”

“You take any impressions?”

“I put some plastic over ‘em. Figured you’d ask about that and since you’re a ‘show me’ kind of guy, I’m prepared to take you up there to have a look yourself.” Albert absently spun his own empty coffee cup on the table, glancing up at Gabe as he absently toyed with the mug.

Gabe studied his colleague. Albert was a straight shooter, and in his estimation, wasn’t the type to play games with a fellow law enforcement officer.

“I hope you don’t mind me being direct, but I’m under the distinct impression that you’re giving credence to Danny’s account.”

“Let’s kit up and I’ll fill you in on the hike.”

***

Albert followed Gabe to his car and watched him pop the trunk to retrieve a tactical vest, small day pack integrated with a hands-free hydration system, and an M-4 carbine with a few spare magazines.

“All you got is that poodle shooter?” Albert asked.

“Got a 12 gauge as well. But I figure humping that would be a lot less fun.”

Gabe shut his vehicle’s trunk and grinned.

“Just keep an open mind,” Albert said.

 

***

The ride over to the trailhead from which they would access the secondary crime scene (if that indeed was what it was) was conducted mostly in companionable silence, both men lost in their own thoughts as Albert steered his 4×4 truck to their destination. After they parked, Gabe watched with some amusement as Albert retrieved his own hiking gear from his unit’s trunk, including a scoped bolt-action rifle with Limbsaver recoil pad fitted to the wooden stock, which Albert removed from a hard shell case.

Gabe watched as the Indian officer opened a box of cartridges and thumbed the soft point hunting cartridges into the rifle’s magazine.

“Expecting trouble?” Gabe asked to lighten the tension.

“I want to be prepared if it comes to it. It’s a .338Win Mag.”

“That’s a big round.”

“Sure is. Kicks like an angry mule too. But I’d just as soon have more gun then less,” Albert said.

“You hauled that up with you earlier this morning as well when you first saw these tracks?”

“Nope. But there was more than two of us, and I didn’t know what I was going to find,” Albert responded.

“So why not bring along some others?”

“Because nobody who was up here this morning has any intention of coming back. And those who heard about it have no interest in seeing for themselves.”

He finished loading the rifle and stuffed the remainder of the 20-round cartridge box into his jacket, along with another full box of cartridges.

“Are you having second thoughts?” Gabe asked.

“Let’s start walking and I’ll tell you about my uncle.”

The men began walking. It was already well into daylight hours, the warmth of the sun as it rose higher in the sky dispelling the deeper chill of the night. The chattering of birdsong accompanied a soft breeze playfully blowing the unmistakable scent of mountain foliage. Gabe took a few deep breaths, inflating his lungs with the crisp mountain air. The crunch of their footsteps on the loose scree as they began climbing into the foothills provided a rhythmic accompaniment to their steady, ascending pace. Gabe noted that the tracks left from the passage of Albert and other investigators were still discernable, captured by the substrate upon which they had tread.

As if reluctant to break the otherwise seeming normalcy of a fine autumn late morning, Albert finally began talking, sharing with a white man something he had rarely shared with anyone else.

“My Uncle Russ was a Marine in World War II. He was with the 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division. Fought on Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. None of those was easy. Earned a bunch of decorations, including a Silver Star, and way I later heard it from some of the men who were there, it probably ought to have been a Navy Cross at least.”

“That’s quite a pedigree.”

“He practically raised me, as my father ran off when I was little and my mother died in a roll-over coming home after a week of working double shifts,” Albert said.

Gabe looked sympathetically to Albert, whose legs churned, seemingly with little effort, over the difficult terrain even as he continued his narrative. Despite the three decades or so that the Indian had on him, he didn’t seem tired or even particularly out of breath as he talked.

“My uncle liked coming up here. He’d hunt to put food on the table, but he wouldn’t kill anything we couldn’t eat. He’d had his fill of killing in the war. At any rate, this was in ’68, ‘cause I was over in Nam trying not to get my red ass shot off, something he encountered up here scared him so bad he wouldn’t come here no more. He went from carrying his favorite lever action .30-30, which he always thought was plenty of gun for anything he was fixin’ to hunt, to never coming into these mountains without a .405 Winchester, which no less a hunting enthusiast than Teddy Roosevelt said was his ‘Big Medicine’ gun.”

“So what did he tell you he saw?” Gabe asked.

“Uncle Russ never claimed that he saw anything. It was what he heard. Out here early one morning before work. It was still pretty damn dark, and he said he knew something was different that day.”

Albert paused. Removed his hat and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Gabe took the opportunity to suck down some water from his Camelback hydration system, waiting for his colleague to continue.

“Anyhow, Uncle Russ said he felt he was being watched, and it was creepin’ him out. Not so different than when they were flushing the Japs out of the jungles and caves on some of them islands. But what really got him was when he heard the damn whistle. It was real loud. And what made it even worse, off in the distance he could hear a reply.”

“So what’d he do?” Gabe said, as the men resumed their hike.

“Said he focused on not crappin’ his pants. Said he was doing fine too until the whistle came again, and this time it was a lot closer. And then came the screaming.”

Although the sun was high overhead, Gabe found himself scanning the terrain. Much as he didn’t like to admit it, the Indian’s story was starting to spook him.

Albert continued. “He said whatever was makin’ the noise was damn big and was deliberately toyin’ with him. He could hear its footfalls but never saw it. But he knew it was the kensah, and he knew that if it wanted, it could have taken him at any time.”

“With all due respect, there are other credible explanations,” Gabe said, the words sounding lame and unconvincing even as he spoke them.

“I know it. We got screech owls, we got bear, and from time to time people see panther. Or to tell the truth, they find panther sign. Seeing those sneaky bastards is a whole ‘nother thing. And you don’t have to tell any Indian who’s got a lick of woodcraft that screech owls are night flyers and make all kinds of whistles, or that panther screams can sound like something out of a horror movie,” Albert said.

“But you believe your uncle.” It was a statement. Not a question.

“Some things you know to be true. Maybe that doesn’t fly in the white man’s world, where everything can be rationalized away, but it’s true in ours.”

***

The men continued on for nearly an hour, Gabe marveling at how two scared teenage boys had managed to cover a not insubstantial distance over rough, broken ground. Although Albert had grown silent, he could feel the man’s watchfulness grow the further they moved into the mountains. And despite the comforting warmth and feeling of security provided by the sun, now high in the sky as the day crept well into the afternoon, the angle was now casting harsh shadows across the landscape where unseen, preternaturally canny and stealthy creatures might very well lurk.

Nice job, Gabe. Campfire tales got you rattled.

Gabe adjusted the sling of his rifle and thought about the case as it was shaping up. With the alleged triggerman dead, whether by misadventure or something else, his two erstwhile friends would be left to take the full weight of the prosecution. Dead federal agents tended to raise the ire of federal prosecutors, and there wasn’t a lot of leeway for the likely public defender the boys would probably be assigned.

Maybe, just maybe, if in an act of mercy the charges were reduced to involuntary manslaughter, with circumstances that would be deemed criminally reckless and negligent, Danny Lone Eagle and the other suspect, Thomas Martinez, were looking at a few years of hard time. In a federal pen with mostly unrepentant and perhaps even irredeemable criminals. Where young, naïve kids would be literally and liberally passed around like party favors, and come out more broken and embittered than when they went in the stir.

Alternatively, it wasn’t out of the question that the boys would be prosecuted at minimum for voluntary manslaughter or murder in the second degree, especially if prosecutors could prove there was intentional malice. That would significantly raise the length of their sentences with a successful prosecution, and Gabe had been on the job long enough to understand that Justice wasn’t blind, but often willfully less concerned in issues of impartiality with those without the means to pay for expensive legal representation.

There was simply no getting around the fact that due a series of escalating bad decisions, the young Indian teens had made their already challenging, hardscrabble lives all the more challenging.

Gabe’s reverie was broken by Albert pulling up short.

“We’re just about at the ridgeline. Where I found the prints.”

“Wait, you found more than one?” Gabe asked.

“There’s a track line. Not very long, but it’s there. Some prints were only partials, but I cast at least a couple of good ones.”

The pair made their way to the ridgeline, scrambling up some steeper embankments, casting a wary eye for rattlers that might be sunning themselves in the heat of the day. Amid the scrub brush and loose scree, Gabe noticed plastic laid out over widely dispersed tracks that ran for about half a football field’s length. What was immediately evident to the eye, based on the spacing between the various pieces of plastic pinned down with rocks, was that whatever made the tracks had an impressive stride length.

Albert turned and glanced at Gabe.

“Still think that’s a bear?”

“Let’s have a closer look,” Gabe said, shrugging off his mounting unease.

“Suit yourself.”

As Albert pulled a water bottle from his pack and casually stood back, Gabe knelt beside one of the plastic protected impressions, carefully peeling back the plastic to reveal the sign. He had to admit, the revealed print did seem to present a vaguely human aspect, so far as featuring a rounded heel and an absence of obvious claw marks on what appeared to be five distinct toes. Still, the whole idea seemed absurd…

Gabe startled as Albert’s shadow suddenly loomed over him.

“Even in daylight, makes you jumpy, doesn’t it?” Albert drolly said.

Gabe arose and proceeded down the track line, stopping to inspect the prints. They were undeniably deeply set, as if whatever made them was quite substantial in mass. Or maybe even moving at a run.

“Speaking of daylight, there isn’t going to be much of it left,” Albert continued.

“Is that a problem?”

“You know the problem with your type, Special Agent Shepherd? You like to fit everything into neat, rational explanations. Order the world just so, because God forbid you admit there may be things that aren’t so easily explained away.”

Gabe rose from his crouch. He glanced around at the surrounding mountains, crevices and draws increasingly hidden in shadow as the sun continued to sink in the western sky.

“Look, Al, I respect where you’re coming from and I’m trying to be sensitive to the local culture. And I’m not an expert tracker by any means but this is at best circumstantial.”

“So you’ll bend the facts to fit a convenient theory?”

“That’s not fair. I don’t have a theory at this point. We’ve got two kids, they’re drunk and scared out of their wits, they know they killed a cop and all they can think about is running away as far and fast as they can. The fact that one of them managed to fall in the darkness and break his neck – or, hell, maybe he was even pushed – well, that doesn’t require the presence of some legendary creature to start making sense.”

“Have you seen what you wanted to see?” Albert asked brusquely.

***

Gabe and Albert retraced their path back down the mountain, the sun rapidly setting, the shadows growing longer and the night’s chill settling over the landscape.  The chatter and cries of both prey and predators active in daytime receded, the creatures following some well understood primal instinct to retreat to the perceived safety of their nests and burrows. Even in the gloaming, those that foraged and hunted by night held sway over their counterparts that moved about in daylight.

It was during that silent retreat, still in the tree line, the space between two men pregnant with unspoken recriminations, that the piercing whistle erupted. Followed immediately by a screech like nothing Gabe had ever heard, raising the tiny hairs on the back of his neck.

A screech owl sitting silently on a nearby branch took off in an explosive burst, nearly causing Gabe to unload the full magazine of his M-4 as he instinctively swung the muzzle in the raptor’s direction. As the owl climbed rapidly into the night sky and another piercing cry responded to the first, Gabe and Albert looked at each other and in unspoken accord, broke into a headlong run…

 

THE END

(c) 2018 Jonathan Samuel Ross

All rights reserved

 

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