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    Libby Drew
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Keeper of the Rituals - 3. Chapter 3

This is actually chapters 3 and 4, but as chapter 3 is extremely short, you get both today.
Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

CHAPTER 3

Billie greets me in Maskóki, by my ceremonial title, not my boyhood name. A man’s ceremonial honorific is never shared outside the tribe. I’ve only broken that rule once.

I’ve never been able to guess Billie’s age, and, if rumor is to be believed, the exact date of his birth is unknown. He might be sixty. Or one hundred and sixty. Very little in his face and demeanor give solid clues. Fine wrinkles fan out from the corners of his eyes. His skin appears stretched thin in places, but underneath this fragile shell, he retains the strength of a young man. His nimble mind and sharp sense of humor show no signs of deterioration. He is ageless. Timeless. Preserved by magic and medicine very few understand.

Despite the rising heat of the day, he wears heavy denim pants, perfectly creased. His patchwork shirt is immaculate. I return the formal greeting. “Uiyik imijosi.” Medicine Grandfather. His expression carries not a hint of dismay that I’ve arrived filthy and obviously distressed, and he hands me the small basket of herbs he’s been collecting from the tidy garden beside his house.

“Sweet bay leaves, Michael. And snakeroot.”

And then he leaves me. I can’t explain the stab of despair at his abandonment, except that it’s a clear sign I’m in a weakened state. Emotionally compromised. My old therapist in Clewiston enjoyed using the phrase ‘emotionally compromised.’ As if I needed reinforcement of its existence. She wasn’t a bad person. I realize that now. But as a young teen, I resented her poking and prodding into the stinking pit of memories I’d repressed.

Billie’s cement box of a house has no right to feel homey, yet it does. It’s one of thousands like it in this part of the state, built solidly but with no thought to aesthetics. Shaded by a towering live oak, it can be nearly invisible at times, blending into the scrubby landscape. The mottled gray exterior does it no favors. Nor does the rutted, dirt driveway that leads to its weathered front door. But to one side, under the canopy of the oak, is a sturdy chickee. Various dried herbs and plants hang upside down from the exposed rafters, and a colorful rug adorns the floor. Billie’s bike leans against the tree trunk. The pungent scent of herbs float on the layers of hot air. It’s all this, and perhaps the spirit of the medicine man within, that gives warmth to the home.

Billie’s herb garden sits on the southern side of his abode. I trudge toward it, stepping over a dripping hose. I’ve arrived just after the morning watering. The earth around the plants is dark and moist, and the foliage sparkles with fine droplets of water. I kneel in the dirt without a passing thought to how the mud will cling to my jeans. This isn’t the time for petty discomforts and worries.

Seminole medicine doesn’t rely on semantics. We harness the forces of nature for healing. I do this now, desperate for respite. Settling alongside a row of basil plants, I sift soil through my fingers and stretch out my senses. The exercise calms me. My heartbeat stutters, then takes up the rapid beat of a stray feline moving through the grasses behind the house. The cat stalks a mouse, wholly focused on its prey and unaware of me. In the canal beyond the field, a snowy egret wades in the shallows. She stretches out one bright yellow foot to probe the mud for an easy meal. Pleasantly distracted, I turn my attention to the assigned task. Medicinal herbs must be taken from the north and east side of a bush. Leaves are never taken from either the south or the west. To do so is extremely bad luck. I orient myself, pick bay leaves and snakeroot and drift, floating from one creature to another until I hear Billie say my name from the open doorway of his kitchen. Calmed, I rise and join him in the shaded, fan-cooled room.

“Good, Michael.” He takes the basket and hands me an earthen mug. I surreptitiously sniff. Black Drink, and a healthy serving at that. “Finish that,” Billie says. “Then we’ll talk.”

I do as I’m told. Black drink is serious business. I feel honored for the effort it took to brew it. Not many can. Properly, anyway. Billie says the ways of the medicine man may soon be forgotten. The children of the tribe learn English before Maskóki these days. There is much of the old ways that will not translate and not many come to him to learn. Yet the tribal customs must survive. His responsibility weighs on him.

“Now,” he says when I set the empty mug on the table. “Tell me.”

I relay the incident, minus my blackout, tracing scratches in the scarred wood table as I speak. My finger follows the whorls, made by decades of pestle work, round and round through a maze that has no beginning or end. The ritual calms me as it always has. Billie crushes bay leaves between his fingers as he listens. “A wolf will always be a wolf,” he says. “Tamed, untamed. They are all beasts, ruled by instinct. You cannot blame Kane.”

“I don’t. Not really. But I have to be honest. I would have placed bets on Porridge attacking a person before Kane would.”

We both glance at Billie’s cat, an orange monstrosity who loves everybody he meets on sight and demonstrates that fact with copious amounts of shedding and purring. He blinks at us and yawns.

Billie inclines his head, silently agreeing. “Have you asked the others what happened?”

He doesn’t mean the other people. Billie’s faith in my ability is sacred, but he’s teasing me now. I don’t answer. Mostly because to ask the wolves what happened would have been the smart thing to do, but I was too off-balance earlier to consider it. It’s for the best, I decide. Another aspect Billie has never understood about my tribal gift is just how much can be lost in translation. Or inserted erroneously—and I won’t risk coloring the facts with my emotions or theories. The mystery, if indeed there is one, will be Burke’s to solve.

“And your Sam?”

I roll my eyes at that. “He’s not my Sam, Billie. We were never…” Never what? I ponder as my voice trails off. Serious? In love? Billie knows I don’t take lovers indiscriminately, but I do take them. I’m attracted to a myriad of qualities, and I’m human. But we weren’t meant to be forever, Sam and me. I know what I’m looking for. Who I’m looking for, though I’ll never find another like him. If I could stop searching, comparing, I would. But some ghosts won’t lie down.

Sam was a pleasant distraction. I tell Billie so. His soul ran deeper than his selfishness suggested. He was kind, though too easily influenced. Quick to laugh and very sweet in bed. I didn’t approve of his recreational drug use, but he never brought his habit around the refuge. Entitlement was his ship, his grandmother’s fortune his paddle. Backed into a corner, he fought for his integrity and his friends. “He was a good person,” I say.

“So, when you broke it off…”

I shrug. There hadn’t been tears on either side. No acrimony either. Sam’s ego has...had a short refractory period. “He didn’t act like it was a big deal. Went out partying the same night. Came to work the next day, like always.”

Danny had been more of a problem. He’d bled jealousy when Sam and I were together, then accused me of being a heartless bastard when we broke up. The kid genuinely has more issues than I do.

Sam’s friends were an odd lot. A mix of childhood buddies and newfound besties, with nothing in common except the central tenet of their existence: a culture of parties, alcohol and drugs. It was a condemnable offense to most responsible, law-abiding citizens. Not to me. Each soul has the right to live as they choose, as long as they own the consequences of those choices. And no harm comes to others in the meantime, Billie’s voice sounds in my head. Or more likely, Burke’s, considering the direction of my thoughts.

But Danny. I give a tremulous sigh. If anyone lives by the adage “No Fear,” it’s Danny. He fights poisonous emotions like they’re dragons. I wondered, when he took an instant dislike to me, if my serenity offended him. Slaying emotional demons isn’t exactly my forte. My own battle back from the brink has been long fought and hard won, and isn’t truly complete, if I want to be honest. I empathize with Danny’s struggle and tried to tell him that once.

He told me to fuck off.

Billie’s jaw swings back and forth. His first sign of disquiet. “When did you end things with Sam?”

“Two, maybe three months ago?” Our romance hadn’t lasted the spring. “Why?”

“Do I need a reason to ask?”

I bow my head, chastised. Billie shifts in his chair. It creaks and Porridge lifts a sleepy head at the sound. I sense his passing curiosity, his tentative sniff at the air. Without the scent of food to entice him to his feet, sleep lures him away again. Chin on paw, he closes his eyes and his consciousness fades from mine.

“Something else troubles you,” Billie says.

There’s no sense hiding it. I’ve come to seek peace, and it won’t come without confrontation. To slither and slide around a subject solves nothing. “I had a panic attack,” I say. “It came on quickly, and I’m…” I’m scared. I’m angry. But most of all, I’m ashamed. Billie has dedicated hundreds of hours to healing my PTSD. I can’t help but believe a better man would have conquered his demons after nearly twenty years.

Billie dispels this notion with a sharp smack to the back of my hand. “Michael, we respect the wildness of the wolf, but we are not wolves. Carnage disgusts a good man. It will challenge his strength on every level and send his spirit flying for safety.” Billie leans forward, deep into my personal space, and touches my knee. His hand is warm. Heavy. An anchor. “You saw something incredibly disturbing this morning.”

I nod. My throat is too tight to speak.

“You lost time?”

“Yes.” How much I’m not sure. Enough for Rory to find me and call Burke. I have no memory of what occurred during that time. I never do when I black out. But I remember how it started. With my mother screaming. The scent of smoke. Cruel laughter.

“Your spirit is strong, Micco. A beacon. Never mistake wounds for character flaws. It is not enough to recognize this distinction in other people. You must also see it in yourself. Or you will never be the powerful medicine man I know you can become.”

I sag in my chair, felled by an insidious fatigue that I’ve fought for hours. I want nothing more than to sleep. I hear Billie say, “Ahwethus,” and I rise on command. He directs me into the small living area, nudges Porridge from the sofa, and lays me down. It’s the second time that day I’ve had to be led like a child, but I have no pride to hurt this afternoon. No yearning for respect. I’ve lost two brothers and may never know why.

I must have spoken this last part out loud, because a hand presses against my forehead and Billie’s grim voice echoes in my ear. “If we are meant to know the truth, it will find us. Whether we want it to or not.”


~*~

 

TROPICAL STORM ARLENE: NOAA SPECIAL DISCUSSION 1200 PM FRI JUN 16 2023

AN AIR FORCE RESERVE HURRICANE HUNTER INVESTIGATING TROPICAL DEPRESSION ONE REPORTED 925 MB FLIGHT-LEVEL WINDS OF 46 KT ABOUT 90 NM EAST OF THE CENTER. BASED ON THIS THE DEPRESSION IS UPGRADED TO TROPICAL STORM ARLENE WITH AN INITIAL INTENSITY OF 35 KT. THE INITIAL MOTION REMAINS UNCERTAIN. ARLENE IS FORECAST TO INTENSIFY AS LONG AS IT REMAINS OVER WATER.

~*~

I ride a wave of peace and serenity until the next morning. Much of that time is spent in surprisingly dreamless sleep. My slumber is so restful, I miss the dawn and surface to strong sunlight piercing the window of my room. Unaccustomed to being in bed during the day, I blink the disorientation away. It must be at least eight o’clock, hours past when my circadian rhythm would normally wake me.

A sunbeam catches the mirror propped above my dresser. The glass edges are black with age and a thin crack runs diagonally across its surface. I’ve meant to throw it away more than once. I never use it. This morning, however, the angle of reflective glass and sunlight produce an eerie, wavering illusion in its depths, like mist rising off the swamps in cooler winter months. A shadow moves within the fog, coalesces into a figure. For a moment I think it might be… but no. It’s not him. Damn my subconscious to hell.

This figure appears female, full skirt billowing around slender legs. She lifts an arm toward me, then snaps out of existence as a cloud passes overhead and disrupts the shaft of sunlight. I remain perfectly still, barely breathing. I’ve received omens before, but this one is too ambiguous to discern. I don’t let it trouble me for long. Spirits have their own agendas, and we are rarely given the opportunity to influence them. What will be will be.

This tentative hold on my emotional clarity evaporates slightly as I turn into the parking lot of the refuge. Too many cars occupy the space for the early hour. I see Martina’s dusty BMW sedan—thank God. Burke’s Explorer. Rory’s metallic blue Corolla. And a dark Cadillac Escalade with Hillsborough County plates. Curious visitors from Tampa aren’t unheard of at our little operation, but they’re rare. I sit in the car for a long moment before getting out. Are the animals alarmed? I don’t sense their anxiety. Only my own. With a deep breath, I head inside.

I see Rory first. Hunched on a stool behind one of the counters, she nibbles at her thumbnail, a compulsive habit she claims she wants to break, though I’ve noticed little progress. Her eyes dart around the room, landing on me as I step through the door. She sits taller. Tries for a smile. I do my best to return it and award us both points for effort, if not honesty.

Martina rushes me as I close the door. She’s five and a half feet of Irish spitfire, a forty-year-old who looks thirty on a bad hair day. Truly stunning. My surrogate mother, though she never knew me as a child. A good thing, considering. I came to work for her a decade ago. A young man with ambition, but no direction. Never a good combination. She may have saved my life. I’ve given the idea more than a passing thought over the years. “Oh, honey,” she says now, a whisper in my ear. “I’m so sorry. So, so sorry.” Her hands slide up and down my arms. “I rushed back as soon as I found out.”

“I appreciate that.”

“You shouldn’t have been alone last night. Especially considering…well, Sam. We’re family, sweetheart. I’m here for you. No matter what.”

I nod, choking up.

“You should’ve come over. Called at least.”

“Martina, no.” I try to extract myself, but she clings. “I’m okay.” And I’m not a child, I don’t add even though I’m thinking it. I don’t need a babysitter.

This role reversal creates a disquieting deja vu. When Martina’s husband died unexpectedly last winter, another healthy adult lost to Covid, she put on a brave face. Said all the right things. Grieved properly, at least to the untrained eye. She never fully recovered though, I think. Jacob’s passing altered her. Left her with a melancholy antithetical to her cheerful nature. It hadn’t stopped her from celebrating his life as her heritage demanded. We held a proper Irish wake in this very room. A night of merriment, singing and crying. Between the extremes of tears and laughter, heartfelt poetical lamentations and boisterous songs, there were debates and friendly arguments. Martina deemed them traditionally necessary, a sentiment I respect.

I hug her close, relishing how easily she can siphon off my apprehension. “I’m okay. Thanks. I’m sorry too.” For what, I can’t easily say, but I don’t struggle to verbalize it. She understands.

We share a long stare before she leans close once more under the pretense of another hug and whispers in my ear, “We’re here, Michael. Don’t worry. Matthew and I are here for you.”

It’s a curious thing to say. I can tell Burke thinks so too. He’s standing several feet away but has the hearing of a cat. His brow furrows at her words. My unease ratchets up a notch.

“Michael.” Burke steps forward. His eyes swing to the man approaching from the other side of the museum’s main room. Small and slight of build, the stranger glides across the floor in his polished wingtips. He extends his hand. I take it. “This is Special Agent Jeff Calhoun, with the FBI,” Burke says.

Special Agent is a title reserved for criminal investigators. I’ve had enough beers with Burke over the years to know this. “Okay,” I say.

Special Agent Calhoun looks primed, ready to jump in when I ask why he’s here. I have an uncharacteristic urge to annoy him, so I don’t. We stand in a loose circle for several awkward seconds before Burke breaks the stalemate. His lips quirk, and I swear I see him give me a lightning quick wink. “The FBI has jurisdiction over certain crimes if they occur on the Rez. Even though we have our own tribal police.”

I nod. I know this too. Calhoun begins to bounce on his toes. “I apologize,” he laments, “for not being familiar with your ways. I’m new to the Tampa field office. But my partner, I hear, is well acquainted with your, ah, traditions and, ah, beliefs. He should be here shortly.”

He’s not trying to be insulting. I’ve encountered this unintended prejudice many times. Like a hit song that’s played every hour on the radio, it’s as tired as it is familiar. Calhoun’s voice slides from his lips like molasses, a sleepy southern drawl, and carries a hint of creole. I know the accent. I succumb to the devil on my shoulder and slump casually against a glass case. It contains our collection of molted snakeskins. Appropriate for our special guest. “Do you miss New Orleans?”

He covers his surprise by ducking his head. “Yes. I have to say I do a bit.” Voice low and sad, he leaves it at that. One hand reaches up to stroke the tips of his handlebar mustache. His skin is ghost-pale and smooth, the nails buffed and shiny. Not a hand used for manual labor. It’s difficult for me to respect a man who won’t lift a finger, except to point it at others.

“How can I be of service, Special Agent Calhoun?” I ask.

“Ah, yes. Well, I would prefer to wait for my partner, if you don’t mind, before we get started. He had some personal business to attend to this morning.” His eyes track over the room. “Perhaps you would like to show me around in the meantime.”

I’d rather stick a needle in my eye. “Of course.” I gesture him toward our display of traditional Seminole clothing. My mask is perfect, and I silently thank Burke for suggesting I spend the previous day with Billie and his calming influence. The FBI has come about Sam’s death, obviously. Questions have been raised. By what or by whom, I have no idea. How it will affect me remains to be seen. What I do understand, with the clarity of a wolf scenting a trap, is that whatever SA Calhoun and his partner from Tampa want, it will breed danger and trouble.

~*~

“And what do we have here?” Calhoun stops in front of our scale model of the new sanctuary. The five by five square foot representation sits under glass in the center of the room. Our pride and joy. It’s a beautiful, lush idea that is finally seeing fruition.

When Martina and her husband opened Brother Wolf Refuge, they did so on trust land. Tax free but worthless as collateral, since the Tribal Council can revoke the lease at any time. But in ten years, our population of rescue animals has exploded, and cramming so many creatures into a four acre space isn’t ideal. Martina has been looking for a solution for a long time. “Six months ago,” I tell Calhoun, “we received a very generous donation. Because of it, the Council agreed to lease us new land. Almost twenty acres for next to nothing. With the donated funds, we can build roomier enclosures. A more tourist-friendly environment. Not to mention a safe, secure hurricane shelter.” I point to the large cement structure near the center of the model. Various enclosures extend out from it, full of trees, rock formations, water features, and vegetation. As near to nature as we can get for our charges.

“Very impressive. Ms. Landis’ dedication to her, ah, calling is to be commended.”

“Yes. She and Jacob put everything they had into this place.”

“Jacob?”

“Her husband. He passed last year. Covid.”

“I’m very sorry. I’ll be sure to give her my condolences.”

I hear honest compassion in his voice. And a ring of something else. Commiseration. “Did you lose someone?” I ask.

Calhoun’s mustache twitches as he chews on his answer, but swallows the words and peers more closely at the model. His breath fogs the glass. “What are your current hurricane contingency plans?”

I grimace. “We have one older building near the rear of this property. It’s not far enough above the flood zone for my liking, and not large enough to house all the animals safely in the event of a storm.”

“I see.”

Somehow I doubt that. I banish the thought of that dank, windowless place. The volunteers here are strangely superstitious of its existence, as neighborhood kids might be about an old, abandoned house. Luckily, it sits off the main paths, away from our wolves. For the most part, it stays out of sight, and by extension, out of our thoughts.

“And who, may I ask, was your generous benefactor?”

I open my mouth to say. Close it again. Calhoun arches an eyebrow. It makes no sense to hold the information back. He’ll find out if he wants to. “Sam’s grandmother, actually,” I say. “She left the sanctuary some money when she died.”

That gets his attention. Mine, too. It seems a malicious coincidence and leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

“Some?”

Eight million. I won’t be sharing that. He can do the work to find out on his own if he’s curious. “Enough,” I reply.

Burke interrupts us by stepping through the glass doors from the refuge. “Car pulling up.”

Since we’re expecting only one person, I assume this is Calhoun’s partner who is ah, familiar with our ways. I prepare myself for what I assume will be a grueling round of questions about Sam, but the man who walks through the door erases every thought from my head, pulls the breath from my lungs, and renders me unable to speak.

Because it’s Chase.

~*~


“Leave me alone,” were the first words I ever uttered to Chase, and I said them while curled into a ball, shaking, face hot and wet with tears.

“I would,” he replied. “But you’re on my front porch.”

It’s a moment I remember more clearly than most. The heat that day had been heavy, the air thick with the drone of insects. Heart galloping, screams still ringing in my ears, I squinted up at him. Chase. All shaggy blond hair and ice-blue eyes, scabbed knees and sunburned, freckled nose. I had no idea who he was, or where I’d ended up after my blackout. He had every right to demand I leave. Most other ten year old kids who’d found a stray boy on their property would have.

An old soul, Billie had always called him. With a complex spirit.

“It’s okay,” he’d said, and lowered himself to the cement beside me. A tanned hand reached out and touched my trembling shoulder. “You’re okay. My name’s Chase. I’ll take care of you.”

~*~

A few seconds is all I need. Just a few moments to pull myself together before Calhoun notices how my world just turned upside down. I might get it too, since he’s turned away from me toward his tardy partner.

No luck. Equally dumbstruck, Chase ignores him and simply… stares. Calhoun’s gaze flicks between us. “Ah, you two know each other?”

At one point we had. Intimately. Never in the physical sense, of course, but in the way of two people who share everything else. Dreams. Stories. Experiences. Happiness. Heartbreak. Blood, sweat, and tears. Chase swallows heavily, pulls himself straighter. “When we were children. It’s fine.” He smooths a hand across the front of his jacket. “Sir,” he says by way of greeting to Burke. “You look well.”

“You always were a lousy liar, Chase,” Burke replies. Which lie he’s referring to is anyone’s guess.

“Chase?” Calhoun inclines his head at his partner and with a last, lingering look in my direction, Chase follows to engage in whispered conversation. His suit is a deep navy and impeccably tailored. I hate that I notice.

Burke takes the opportunity to visit my corner of the ring. “You okay?”

“Hell, no,” I say.

“All right.” Burke pats my shoulder. “Me either. As long as we’re being honest.”

I have competing impulses to laugh and cry, and I’m definitely ‘emotionally compromised.’ Calhoun and Chase’s conversation escalates, turns more heated. Desperate for the world to stop spinning, I close my eyes and reach for the wolves. Oddly, I find Dagger instead. Perched high in a branch of her cypress tree, she’s watching Saffron bat and chase their hanging rope. I sense amusement and fond exasperation. It lightens my mood, just a tiny bit.

Chase breaks off and approaches us. I suppose to an outsider he appears composed. Cold, even. Perhaps I’m the only one here who can read him, who sees the same turmoil in his eyes and body language as I’m feeling. Knowing we share this, that we still share something, gives me the final push of courage I need to face him.

He stops in front of me. “Micco—”

“It’s Michael now.” You don’t get to call me that, I tell him with my flat gaze. Not anymore.

He blinks. “Michael. I’ve assured Special Agent Calhoun that our prior acquaintance won’t pose a conflict of interest. Do you agree?”

“Do I agree?” I know I sound incredulous, and his eyes flash a warning. It’s that hint of danger that reins me in. We’ve been separated for fifteen years, but Chase’s first instinct was always to protect me. To trust him opens doors I’ve kept locked for over a decade. Is that truly what I want?

At the periphery of my consciousness, Dagger leaps to the ground and stalks toward her water trough. She bumps Saffron’s face as she passes, nuzzles her ear. So be it. I sigh. “Yes. I agree.”

~*~

We settle in the small office. Martina has placed another chair beside the other two. This one is hard, with a straight back. As I’m the first through the door, I choose one of the comfortable, padded ones for myself. Calhoun lays claim to the second. No surprise there. Chase closes the door behind him and takes the stiff plastic chair without the slightest hint he cares one way or the other. He probably doesn’t. The Chase I remember wasn’t addicted to physical comforts. Even traditional Seminole use air-conditioning and Wi-fi these days. The time of sacrifice and hardship is past. Yet Chase would sit for hours in the heat with Billie and me, watching alligators swim along the shores of the canals. He would spread mud on his skin to ward off mosquitoes and although technically disallowed to repeat ceremonial chants, would listen to me sing them for hours without complaint.

He unbuttons his suit jacket as he sits, revealing more of the crisp white button-down he wears underneath. It stretches across his chest as he squares his shoulders. I look away fast.

From within the folds of his jacket, Calhoun produces a black iPad mini. Chase, in contrast, reaches into the same pocket of his suit and extracts a raggedy palm-sized spiral notebook and a mechanical pencil. It’s so him, I nearly smile.

“Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Mr. Garrett.” Calhoun scratches the tip of his nose, then uses the same finger to swipe across the screen of his tablet. “Please tell us, as best you can remember, and in as much detail as possible, what happened yesterday morning.”

Another curious turn of phrase. I have no idea what happened. Only what I saw when I arrived. Recounting it takes only a few minutes. The experience itself felt much longer, but I disobey and don’t give Calhoun every detail. For many reasons. One, he has no right to know of my connection with the animals, and two, the details of my extreme reaction to the situation have no bearing. It’s less about being embarrassed and more because of Chase. I won’t give him the chance to feel sorry for me. To feel anything for me.

It doesn’t matter what I want. He does feel something, and I can’t help but notice it. His head remains bowed throughout my recounting, and he makes the odd note here and there, impassive as a court reporter, but I know him. Oh, do I know him. The slight tightening of his fingers around his pencil and his slow, deep inhale when I speak of facing Kane belie his indifference.

Calhoun has a habit of stroking his mustache while he’s thinking. “What reason,” he asks as he raises his gaze to the ceiling, “would Mr. Kincaid have to enter an animal’s enclosure alone? It’s my understanding that the refuge has strict rules against it.”

“We do.” I shift in my chair and try to unravel Sam’s carelessness for what feels like the thousandth time in twenty-four hours. “I don’t know.”

“You’re sure?”

Chase’s pencil pauses over the page at Calhoun’s question, but he doesn’t interrupt. He may be the local boy here, but he’s clearly not the senior agent.

“I’m sure.”

“Not even a tiny idea?”

I pride myself on being a tolerant individual, but SA Calhoun is starting to tick me off. “It was a serious lapse in judgment,” I say. “I don’t understand it.”

“Could he have been high?”

A casual, but loaded question. I don’t suppose the consequences of an honest answer will do Sam any harm at this point. “He used drugs sometimes. But never here.”

Calhoun answers this with a blank stare. I return it.

“What kind of drugs?” His attention returns to his screen. His fingers tap tap tap.

“Cocaine.”

“Expensive habit,” Calhoun remarks with a cluck of his tongue.

“He could afford it.”

“Do you also use drugs, Mr. Garrett?”

“No.”

Calhoun lets my answer sit in the air for several seconds. I say no more. Eventually, with an exaggerated swirl of his finger, he puts the tablet to sleep and folds the cover back over the screen. We’re done? I don’t fight the sweet relief that rushes in and unclenches the muscles in my neck and shoulders.

“Sam was your boyfriend, wasn’t he?” Calhoun smiles through the question, intent on how its sudden delivery affects me, so he misses the way Chase’s head shoots up. I don’t.

“No,” I say.

“No?” Calhoun folds the tablet open again. Makes a show of consulting some notes. “I was led to believe you were seeing each other.”

Chase is off his game, any pretense of aloofness gone. His body tilts forward in his chair, and his eyes are a complex swirl of emotion. Why he cares how I answer is a mystery. He finds my sexuality distasteful and made that clear when we were fifteen. Calhoun’s questions aren’t unexpected, but the way Chase reacts is. I have to swallow twice before responding. “We dated for a couple of months earlier this year.”

“Ah.” Calhoun nods, smiles at some secret joke I’m not privy to. “And who precipitated your break-up?”

That’s not exactly a fair question. I answer anyway. “I did.”

“Why?”

I smile tightly. “Is that relevant?”

With exaggerated casualness, Chase brings a hand to his left ear, tugs on the lobe, and I’m transported back in time. The two of us are crab-crawling through the underbrush behind Billie’s house. Chase is pressed close to my side. I can smell the fabric softener his mother used on his clothes and the orange juice he spilled on his shirt at lunch. There’s swamp mud in his hair and dirt caked under his fingernails. He says, “Okay, so when I pull on my ear, like this, that means stop. Got it?”

Is this really the time for boyhood secret signals? In answer, I dig into my pocket for my leather tie and pull my hair together at the base of my neck. While my hands are hidden from Calhoun, I give Chase the finger. I think he remembers what that means.

“Was your parting contentious?” Calhoun asks.

I chew on that. “Contentious.”

“Yes. It means—”

“I know what contentious means.”

Chase’s gaze rolls toward the ceiling. Adults who knew us as kids will say Chase was the reckless one. He exuded a Tom Sawyer vibe, acted cocky and irreverent, and got labeled as such. In reality, I stirred up the most trouble, got us into the worst messes. Chase’s expertise was extraction.

I can tell Calhoun is waiting for an answer. He won’t get one. My recklessness is running high. After a tense silence, he leans forward in his chair. “Can you give me any information on Mr. Kincaid’s other friends or acquaintances?”

With difficulty. They tended to blend together. I spit out some names. “Danny Parks,” I say at the end. “He and Sam were close.”

“Close?” Calhoun prompts, lips curling up into his mustache.

I get the impression Calhoun is one of those people who assumes gay equals promiscuous. “Yes.”

“How do you mean?”

“Close. They hung out together a lot. Dated for a while, I think.” That’s honestly all I know. If they want a blow by blow of Danny and Sam’s affair they can tap Danny for that information, although I doubt he’ll appreciate the FBI knocking on his door. He’s wound a bit tight, in my opinion, which might endear him to Calhoun, actually. Like souls and all that jazz.

“When you and Mr. Kincaid were dating, Mr. Garrett, did you spend much time at his house?”

“Some.”

“And what would you do there?”

“This and that.”

Calhoun’s smile thins enough that his lips are invisible. “Use drugs?”

“He would sometimes.”

“Have sex?” He hopes to shock me, but I’ve been shocked by worse and more terrible things. Much worse.

“Sometimes.”

“Just sometimes?”

“Sometimes we’d talk about having sex.”

Calhoun’s cheeks puff outward. “Mr. Garrett—”

“Why don’t you let us chat for a few, Jeff?” Chase dredges up that all-American good boy smile for his partner, but he’s angry. He still has that tic in on the right side of his jaw, I see, and it’s pulsing wildly. “I can finish up here. Then maybe Michael and I can reminisce a bit.” He winks.

Calhoun laps up the transparently obvious cloak and dagger maneuver. “I don’t see the harm. Ms. Landis has ah, agreed to take me on a private tour of the sanctuary. I’ll admit I’ve been looking forward to it. Hope to see some of the creatures up close.”

He won’t get his wish. The wolves will keep their distance. Calhoun smells of subterfuge and city life. He’s not even interesting enough to eat, let alone gawk at.

Then we’re alone, Chase and I, and it’s far more intimidating and dreadful than Calhoun’s personal and invasive questions. Chase shuts the door behind his partner, but doesn’t sit back down. Instead he paces from bookcase to desk, a journey no more than ten feet across. It’s striking just how much he hasn’t changed in fifteen years. I make it a rule to listen to my instincts, but they are treacherously prompting me to comfort my old friend, and I’d sooner give Calhoun a play by play of my sex life than open myself to Chase. Ever again. For any reason.

Chase scrapes golden hair off his forehead and throws himself into the other cushioned chair. Temper tantrum over. “Still no sense of self-preservation, I see.” he says, linking his hands over his stomach.

Or not. “Do you remember,” I ask before I realize what I’m saying, “how we used to play this exact game when we were kids?” We had, all the time. Chase had been obsessed with dark mysteries where P.I.’s unraveled complex plots and saved the day. “Only,” I continue when Chase doesn’t answer, just drinks me in, “back then, you were always the bad cop.”

A long, loaded silence stretches between us.

“Jesus, Micco,” Chase says. He starts to speak, stops, then swears under his breath and shoots to his feet. He’s met his quota of pacing for the day, so he stares out the window at the refuge, back to me and all my issues, past and present. It’s fascinating to watch him put himself back together. I taught him how. Opened his mind to the earth and its balancing forces. When he next speaks, his voice is even. Hard, even. Billie would be proud.

“Michael, Samuel Kincaid was mauled by your wolf, but he was dead or nearly dead when that happened.”

I take that in. An overdose, is my first thought. “Was it cocaine?”

Chase spins around slowly. “No. He was struck on the back of the head.”

The statement is said with grim finality, as though it answers all outstanding questions. For me all it does is confuse the mystery. I shake my head. “What?”

“The coroner filed a report last night. We were called early this morning.”

Of course. Because the alleged crime—one of the few under the FBI’s jurisdiction on the reservation—is homicide. I don’t realize how sharply my fear has spiked until Dash begins to howl in commiseration. She’s a shining white light in the dark, and I stretch my mind to meet hers. Accept her comfort.

Chase watches. Says nothing. His gaze flicked to the window when she began to cry, then back to me. He knows of my gift. It was a source of worship for him when we were young. Now, I realize, it could be a source of information. The thought sickens me. I close my eyes against a wave of nausea.

“Micco.”

That voice. I screw my eyes shut tighter. The darkness strips away the years, and we’re both fifteen again. Bubbles of memory rise, break the surface. I recall long days of perfection and laughter. I thought we’d be young forever. “Micco,” Chase repeats.

“What?” I whisper.

“My gut is telling me this is drug-related. Maybe even a tragic accident. But until we know for sure…”

He doesn’t finish the thought. He doesn’t need to. I understand.

I’m a suspect in a murder case.

Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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I hope you enjoyed the chapter. 
Thanks for reading!
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3 hours ago, Anton_Cloche said:

The "fullness of time"? Never been a fan of that phrase. When exactly does that occur? You can't set your watch to it. It's not as 'reliable' as time zones, or the 'spring forward' and 'fall back' artificial 'adjustments' (which governments have been trying to get rid of for years, without agreement ergo no success). Einstein said it best when he said "time is relative ... based upon your frame of reference."

Oops, time for a break. :whistle:.

the-persistence-of-memory-1931.jpg!Large

I hate it too @Anton_Cloche. I was being a little facetious when I wrote it because I am by nature very, very, very impatient and I did not want to upset Libby by putting any unrealistic demands on her of wanting to know, NOW Libby NOW.

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I got to this chapter late....but the comments have said anything I could.  As usual, wonderful writing!

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11 hours ago, Anton_Cloche said:

The "fullness of time"? Never been a fan of that phrase. When exactly does that occur? You can't set your watch to it. It's not as 'reliable' as time zones, or the 'spring forward' and 'fall back' artificial 'adjustments' (which governments have been trying to get rid of for years, without agreement ergo no success). Einstein said it best when he said "time is relative ... based upon your frame of reference."

Oops, time for a break. :whistle:.

the-persistence-of-memory-1931.jpg!Large

Hello Dali?

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On 9/17/2023 at 2:55 AM, Anton_Cloche said:

"...and his eyes flash a warning. It’s that hint of danger that reins me in. We’ve been separated for fifteen years, but Chase’s first instinct...". 
Regular flash like raised eyebrows? Flash like a wolf's bright yellow before reverting to normal color?

Nope, just a regular flash. 😏

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On 9/17/2023 at 2:45 PM, Lt.Mac said:

At this point my favorite character in the story is dead (and when he was alive, he wasn't human). I can sympathize with some of the other characters, and I want to find out who done it, but I want to know more about Kane. As to who done it...there's an inkling of an idea sneaking around in the back of my mind. 

Poor Kane! But he has many wolf friends left behind who will play a part in what's to come. 

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On 9/18/2023 at 1:14 PM, pvtguy said:

I got to this chapter late....but the comments have said anything I could.  As usual, wonderful writing!

Thank you, as always!

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