Haden Wolf heard an animal growl. Serafina Wolf y Padilla heard a baby squall.
Without exchanging a word, they raced off along the path through the underbrush in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They ran in the direction of the commotion. Serafina, short and lithe, built for both speed and endurance, was in the lead. Haden, tall and muscular, pounded along behind his wife, watching for hazards on the trail that Serafina avoided instinctively. He also made sure the Winchester he carried didn’t discharge accidentally.
The Wolfs had gone out at dawn to gather Rocky Mountain Brookmint. Made into tea, the herb was used to settle stomachaches and colic in young children. It was also helpful at the beginning stages of a cold, and because of its pleasant taste children accepted it easily.
Haden was a pediatrician who came from a family with a long tradition of folk healing. Serafina taught cultural anthropology at the University of New Mexico and was the daughter and the granddaughter of curanderos. Both Haden and Serafina believed in the efficacy of sympathetic magic.
Not that sympathetic magic was the only kind they practiced.
Among Haden’s forebears, there were conjurers as well as healers.
A number of Serafina’s aunts were brujas.
The Wolfs took a pragmatic approach to life: whatever worked.
Reaching a clearing, Serafina came to an abrupt stop, forcing Holden, who required a greater braking distance, to dodge to his wife’s right to avoid a collision. As he came to a halt, Holden raised the carbine to his shoulder. He didn’t fire, not yet.
He sensed Serafina creep forward. She laid a hand on her husband’s back. If the time came when she thought a shot should be taken, she would give him a pat. Just hard enough to be felt, not so forceful as to disrupt his aim.
Less than ten feet from the couple was a crudely constructed six-foot high scaffold. Four upright posts with forked tops had been set into the soil. Side poles had been laid into the forks; cross poles had been placed over the side poles. The structure was a crude but effective example of aerial sepulture: committing a person’s remains to the sky instead of the earth.
Only the infant on the scaffold, a newborn wrapped in a T-shirt, was far from dead. Its cries rang louder in the Wolfs’ ears not only because they were closer now, but because in some fashion the child must have sensed that help was near and this chance for survival was the only one it would have.
Haden and Serafina had to agree.
Pacing back and forth beneath the scaffold, its manner both proprietary and defensive, its growls deeper and more threatening than before, was the largest coyote either of them had ever seen. The animal considered the morsel on the scaffold to be its meal, and was not going to yield it to others without good cause.
The coyote feigned a charge at Haden and Serafina. When they didn’t budge, it retreated, resumed pacing under the scaffold, trying to think of a new strategy. The coyote extended its neck, raised its head directly under the infant and howled for all it was worth.
If the big creatures couldn’t be frightened into moving, maybe the small creature could.
The baby did react with a sense of increased threat. Its bawling grew in intensity, heightened in pitch. Too young and too constricted by the T-shirt to coordinate any movement resembling flight, it nevertheless began to rock side to side. Even these small efforts made the crude scaffold begin to shake.
The coyote saw what was happening above its head, understood its strategy could succeed, and seemed, to Haden and Serafina, almost to smile. The animal raised its head as if to howl again, hoping to bring its prey within reach. Once that was achieved it would snatch the prize in its jaws and be gone before the slow-footed creatures standing nearby could do anything about it.
Just as the coyote opened its mouth to terrify the child further, a stone hit its snout a stinging blow. The animal’s head whipped around to face Haden and Serafina. Magic was all well and good, but there were times when a blunt object thrown with force and accuracy had a more immediate effect, and Serafina had another rock in hand.
Haden had the animal in his sights. Neither he nor Serafina wanted to kill the coyote if it gave them a choice, but if the animal even feigned a charge them again, it would be met by .44 caliber rounds as well as a rock. For a heartbeat, the beast looked as if it would sacrifice itself for a chance to sink its fangs into one or both of the thieves who sought to steal its meal.
Then reverting to its characteristic wiliness, the coyote pivoted and slammed a shoulder into the nearest upright of the scaffold. The baby shrieked as it felt the platform on which it rested collapse. The Wolfs were already in motion.
Serafina hit the coyote in its hindquarters with the rock she threw, and then she caught the Winchester Haden had lobbed to her. Haden’s only college sport had been wrestling, but he dived and stretched out like a wide receiver going for a football in a corner of the end zone. He had his eyes on the baby and he never blinked.
The coyote froze for just a second. The animal saw the meal that should have been its about to fall into its mouth. So close. So ready to be devoured. But approaching at even greater speed was a monstrous creature many times its size, big enough to block out the rising sun. The coyote darted clear before it was crushed.
Haden caught the baby mere inches above the ground. He rolled to disperse the force of the impact on his body as he cradled the baby to his chest. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the coyote from a worm’s-eye view. From that vantage point, the damn thing, not ten yards away, was all snarling teeth and glowing eyes.
The animal, Haden was sure, was about to make one last try for the baby, but then two shots in quick succession kicked up dirt on either side of the animal.
Persuaded now that it was overmatched, the coyote turned and dashed up a nearby brush-covered rise. As it came to the crest it turned to take one last look at the humans now clustered below. Haden had passed the baby to Serafina who cooed into the child’s ear.
Haden had taken the Winchester back. He thought the coyote’s aggression was spent, but he kept the weapon ready in case he was wrong. For that matter, as far as Haden knew, the coyote wasn’t the only predator nearby. He’d brought the carbine along that morning because mountain lions liked to hunt at dawn and dusk.
The coyote seemed almost to be studying the thieves who had stolen its meal, as if to memorize their faces, theirs and that of its lost prey. The animal’s anger was clear. If it had had any means to strike back, the fight would not be over.
“Sonofabitch is mad,” Haden told Serafina.
The coyote wasn’t the only one whose temper was up. Serafina pressed one side of the baby’s head to her breast and covered the child’s other ear with her hand.
“Show him what happens when we get angry,” she said.
Haden snapped off a shot that made the coyote flinch; it must have felt the round pass by. It yelped and disappeared into the brush. Haden and Serafina both admitted later that their mercy toward the coyote might have been misplaced. The wiser choice might have been to kill it.
At the time, though, a more important thought occupied their minds.
“You think the child’s mother saw what happened just now?” Haden asked.
Native American women were ones who mourned their dead.
The departed, much less those not yet dead, were never simply abandoned.
The Wolfs took the child they’d found, a boy, home.
Austin, Texas — July 8th, the present
It wasn’t every day, or any time in the eleven years of life that Amos Blake and his best friend Malachy Sampson had known, that they saw a great big lake, one in which they used to swim and on which they had planned to learn to water ski that summer, just up and disappear. However, that was just what the heck had happened. Lake Travis had about vanished.
There was still some water left. Not enough to wet a fisherman’s line, Mal said, much less enough to have any serious fun in. Large sections looked as if someone had planted grass seed in the lake bed and a new prairie was taking over. Other areas, though, were nothing more than large empty stretches of cracked mud. Businesses that had depended on a full, healthy lake had collapsed, as had the market for lakeside homes.
Even so, Amos and Mal, in the spirit of boys their age, saw unrivaled opportunity.
To explore. Because, after all, they were naturally curious.
Their interests in the area of exploration had yet to turn to girls.
“You know what my Uncle Bob dropped in Lake Travis?” Mal asked.
“Your Aunt Dottie,” Amos said with a grin.
Mal laughed. His aunt and uncle were always fussing, even when the family went boating, and one time his uncle had tossed his aunt overboard, thinking it might cool her down, though things hadn’t worked out that way.
Amos had heard that story about a hundred times from his friend.
“I mean accidentally,” Mal said. “It was his football team ring from TCU. He took it off to show my dad it was real gold or something and he dropped it into the lake. He went in right after it, but he never did find it. Maybe now that the lake is dried up we could find it.”
Amos thought about that a minute. “I told you my Grandpa Hank came down to Texas from Chicago, right?”
“Because he didn’t want to shovel no more fuckin’ snow,” Mal said, putting on what he imagined to be a Chicago accent. He knew Amos’s stories as well as his friend knew his.
“Yeah, but when he was a kid up there he went to see baseball games at the ballpark where the Cubs play. Grandpa said he always made sure he was the last one out of the place after a game. The ushers would get mad and chase him out.”
“Why’d he want to stay so long?” Mal knew Amos was going to make a point but he didn’t see it yet.
“He told me he stayed because people always dropped or forgot stuff they brought to the game with them. Everything from their wallets to binoculars to a bible.”
“A bible?” Mal asked.
“Grandpa said the Cubs needed all the prayers they could get.”
That was kinda funny, but more important Mal saw now where Amos was going.
“What you’re saying,” he told Amos, “is lots of people must’ve dropped all sorts of stuff off their boats into Lake Travis. Not just my Uncle Bob one time with his ring.”
Amos nodded. “Right.”
“Your grandpa ever find anything good up there in Chicago?”
“Said he put himself through his first year of college with what he found.”
Amos and Mal both grinned.
They were sure their parents would have forbidden them from exploring the dried lake bed if it had ever occurred to them their sons could be so foolish as to try that, but it hadn’t. Amos and Mal set off on their bikes to see what they could find.
What they found was a skeleton sticking up out of the mud.
Amos saw the skull first. That was after they’d found all sorts of trash. The only thing of value they had discovered up to that point was a gold earring with a large blue stone that both boys hoped was an actual gem. Mostly, though, what they’d come across was a bunch of junk. It was disgusting the way people had thrown so much garbage overboard.
So when Amos spotted the skull he thought it had to be plastic.
With a great big crack running down the middle of the forehead.
“Look,” he said, pointing it out to Mal, “somebody was playing Halloween out on the lake.”
Mal cracked a grin. “Probably some high school guy brought it along to scare his girlfriend, ‘Boo!’ She got pissed and threw the thing in the water.”
Mal’s theory held up only until the boys got closer to the skull.
“That thing’s real,” Amos said, his stomach starting to knot.
“Look,” Mal said. “Is that a foot?”
Projecting from a crack in the mud not far from the skull were metatarsal bones.
It was no great feat of imagination for both boys to guess what connected Point A to Point B beneath the mud: the rest of a skeleton. They were scared now — had never expected to find a body — but they were fascinated, too. Had the skeleton once been a kid like them, someone who’d fallen off a boat, drowned and never been found?
The skull proved more worthy of their attention than the foot.
“Wow,” Mal said. “I bet this guy’s brains leaked right out through that hole in his head.”
Amos nodded, and a thought occurred to him: You don’t get your head bashed in from drowning. Then he saw something that made him moan. That scared the hell out Mal.
“What? What’s wrong?” Mal’s voice was high and tight.
Amos pointed at a loop of rusted metal sticking halfway out of the mud just below the skull. “What’s that look like to you?”
Mal had good eyesight but he squinted anyway. “I don’t know. What the hell is it?”
“It’s a link in a chain.”
Amos said, “I think so. I remember on a trip to Dallas we passed a flatbed truck. It had this big piece of steel on it, held in place by great big chains.”
Mal bent over for a closer look. “I think you’re right.” He knelt on the lakebed and looked up at Amos, “Let’s do a little digging and make sure.”
Amos yanked his friend to his feet, shook his head and said, “Don’t.”
“My dad says not to. You never touch someone who was killed.”
“You think this guy was killed?” Mal asked.
Amos gave him a cutting look. “He’s got a chain on him. What’s that tell you?”
Mal caught on. “He’s got a hole in his head, too. That’s not good either. You gonna call your dad?”
Amos took out his cell phone and nodded.
“You know our mamas and daddies aren’t gonna like us being out here,” Mal said.
“I know. But my dad should know about this. He’s always tells me, ‘When in doubt give me a shout.'”
“Thinking about it now, I ain’t got much doubt,” Mal said.
“Me either,” Amos agreed.
Nonetheless, he called his father, homicide detective Darton Blake of the Austin Police Department.
Darton Blake was at his desk in the homicide unit when he took the call from his son. He listened closely and remained calm. He told Amos that he and Mal should stay right where they were. They’d done the right thing not to touch anything, and they should continue to stand clear of the body, but they had to keep it in sight. He didn’t want to have to go looking for it.
He told Amos to keep his phone on and not to worry. Officers from a patrol unit would be joining him and Mal directly. After a moment of reflection, Darton stayed on the phone with his son until the uniforms got to the scene. They confirmed the presence of skeletal remains and what looked like a link in a chain.
The detective told the patrol officers to stand clear, too. Then he informed Lieutenant Ernie Calderon, the homicide unit’s CO of the situation and headed out to Lake Travis. He was accompanied by a crime scene team, and a doc from the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office. Everyone on the scene came to the same conclusion: They had a murder victim on their hands, and they could use additional expert help.
Darton placed a call to the University of Texas and wrangled the help of an archaeologist, a physical anthropologist and a gaggle of grad students. They arrived at the scene, set up a large tent around the remains, set up portable lights inside and positioned three video cameras. With the preliminaries accomplished, they proceeded very carefully to unearth the last vestiges of a human being who had been dumped into Lake Travis.
Lieutenant Calderon put in an appearance to observe the work. At that point, responsibility for the investigation belonged to the Austin PD. Only an hour into the excavation, though, the archaeologist found and bagged a turquoise amulet and a silver chain that had been worn around the neck of the victim. Darton Blake thought the amulet looked like a piece of Native American jewelry, the sort that could be found almost anywhere in the Southwest.
Ernie Calderon stepped in for a look just as Darton turned the plastic bag around to inspect the back of the amulet. Engraved there were the words RANDY MATO CHANTE.
The homicide unit’s commanding officer wrinkled his brow.
“Randy I kill Chante,” Calderon said, as if translating the words from Spanish.
Darton had another idea. “Native American jewelry, could be a Native American tongue.”
“Yeah, could,” his boss said. “You handle it. I’ve got other things to do.”
Darton called UT again. Fine school that it was, he reached a research librarian who could help him. After only five minutes of consulting her tomes, or databases as the case may be, she said, “Randy Mato Chante is a name: Randy Bear Heart. I checked on that name, and do you know who that man is?”
Darton didn’t tell her she was using the wrong verb tense.
“Sorry to say I don’t, ma’am,” he replied.
“Well, he isn’t a very nice person. In fact, he’s a federal fugitive.”
And that was how the FBI got involved.
Them and John Tall Wolf.
Austin, Texas — July 9th, the present
SAC Gilbert Melvin and three FBI underlings had flown to Austin from Washington and were on the scene by the following morning. Four feds from headquarters showing up was a measure of Randy Bear Heart’s significance. In 1985, he had gone on a brief but bloody rampage robbing three banks, two in North Dakota one in South Dakota, and killing three cops, with the same geographical distribution. In addition to those crimes, he was suspected of kidnapping a woman and a child from the Mercy Ridge Reservation. He’d been one of the FBI’s most wanted men ever since.
The temperature that morning had already reached 99 degrees and inside the enclosure, even with the flaps up, the air was a good ten degrees hotter. The heat didn’t move Gilbert or his men to loosen their ties or drape their suit coats over their arms. Darton Blake wore a short sleeve shirt, Dockers and Chuck Taylor Low-Tops.
He’d dressed down for the weather and for the occasion.
The skeleton had been completely, painstakingly uncovered by the UT team. The doc from the ME’s office had defined the hole in the victim’s skull as an edged-surface trauma, but would need more than an eyeball look to tell whether it was accidental or homicidal. She’d also allowed for the possibility that such a determination might not be possible if the body had been in the water for a period measured in years.
The medical examiner wanted to have the remains transported to the county morgue, but Darton thought it would be a good idea to let the feds get a look at the skeleton in situ. The ME approved of his Latin if not his decision.
SAC Melvin bent over the remains and asked, “You think the blow to the head killed the guy before he went in the water?”
He hadn’t addressed the question to anyone in particular.
His head swiveled when an unfamiliar voice answered, “Maybe, maybe not.”
Melvin and the other cops on hand, federal and local, turned to the guy who’d given the ambiguous answer: a big, Indian-looking guy, all lean muscle, neat haircut, wearing a black polo shirt, nicer khakis than the local dick wore and silver-gray aviator sunglasses.
A tall man in Ray-Bans. He was way too big to miss, but he hadn’t been in the enclosure a moment ago. Melvin straightened up to eliminate as much of the height difference as he could.
Still came up a half-foot short.
He asked Darton, “This guy one of yours? You kind of dress alike.”
The Austin PD detective just shook his head.
“So who the hell are you?” Melvin wanted to know.
The Austin detective was on hand strictly as a courtesy, and his uniformed colleagues outside the enclosure were supposed to keep reporters away. So how’d this big guy get in, and who the hell was he? Someone his size couldn’t sneak —
He said, “My name is John Tall Wolf.”
So he was an Indian.
“And who said you could join the party, John?” Melvin asked.
“The Great White Father.”
Darton Blake cracked a smile, but SAC Melvin didn’t like smart-ass from anyone.
He said, “Which great white father would that be?”
“The one with the place on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
“The president sent you?”
“Through the offices of the agency I work for.” John showed his ID. “I’m a fed, too. BIA.”
It took Melvin a moment, then the acronym registered. “Bureau of Indian Affairs?”
“Office of Justice Services,” John said. “Of the three cops Randall Bear Heart killed, two were Caucasian, but one was a Native American, a Mercy Ridge Reservation cop. That part of the case is my responsibility.”
“Shit,” Melvin said.
“A great big pile with a cloud of flies,” John agreed.
Melvin hated this development, and he wasn’t crazy about the Indian’s attitude either. The FBI had been given responsibility for major crimes committed on Indian reservations, but since the 1975 killing of two special agents on the Mercy Ridge Reservation, the Bureau had come to accept the wisdom of letting BIA agents, inevitably Native Americans, carry part of the load. The BIA had authorization to conduct concurrent investigations on reservation related crimes.
Bank robberies, however, were the exclusive domain of the FBI.
So it was time to let the Indian know who was boss.
Melvin told John. “You’ll coordinate all your efforts through me.”
“I’ll conduct my investigation as I see fit,” John said.
Before the federal pissing match could go any farther, Darton Blake asked, “Special Agent Tall Wolf, what makes you think Mr. Bear Heart might have been alive when he went into the water?”
John took his eyes off Melvin and looked at the Austin detective.
“I worked a case in Minnesota. Guy was thrown out of a powerboat wearing chains, but he was still conscious. He tried to kick his way to the surface. Almost made it. The bad guys, though, circled back to check their work. The propeller on their boat clipped the victim’s head. Did damage that looked a lot like that.”
John gestured to the crease in the skeleton’s skull.
All the cops present took another look.
It wasn’t hard to imagine John might be right.
Melvin, still displeased, said in a snide tone, “Or it could have been a tomahawk made that wound.”
John considered the possibility and nodded. “Maybe. Anybody find one?”
“The case I worked,” John continued, “I found the boat before the bad guys could ditch the motor. The damaged propeller blade was a dead-on fit to the wound.”
Melvin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He didn’t like competition, but he wasn’t dumb enough to overlook a potentially valuable resource. So he choked back a little pride.
He said to John, “How about you liaise with me? That too much to ask?”
John said, “I’ll talk with the detective here.” He nodded to Darton. “You’re nice to him, maybe he’ll share with you.”
Darton Blake smiled. He’d just been made a relevant member of the team.
The detective said to Melvin, “We casual Friday guys have to stick together.”
None of the FBI men sweating up their business suits so much as grinned.
“I can coordinate with the FBI,” Darton said to John. “If they’re nice to me.”
The feds didn’t think that was funny either.
But Melvin still managed to nod in agreement and lead his men outside.
Once they’d gone, Darton asked John, “How’d you know I’m a detective.”
“I asked your guys outside who was inside. You dress a little different than an FBI agent.”
Darton smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I do. So do you. You’ll have to pardon me if I don’t know the extent of your authority. This is the first time I’ve ever worked with someone from the BIA. You have any special legal powers I should know about?”
“You know how James Bond has that license to kill?” John asked.
Grinning, feeling something good was coming, Darton said, “Uh-huh.”
John told him, “I’ve got one to take scalps.”