Tears for Lucifer
by Wes Blalock
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Ranger Birdie McLaren adjusted her boonie hat, pushing the floppy brim so that it propped up above her forehead. Her eyes wide, she tilted her head a bit and scanned the meadow. The hot summer sun quelled any movement other than the blowflies buzzing over the nightmare before her.
The remains of Benjamin Martinez, age 42, lay strewn about like a study in carrion distribution. The hiker who had found the remains was standing off the trail in the shade. He’d already lost his lunch and sent his girlfriend back to the ranger station for help while he waited.
Birdie instinctively tightened her grip on her late father’s hunting rifle and advanced on what appeared to be a left leg, from disarticulated hip to red sneaker. She’d been told this was a possible mountain lion attack, but it couldn’t be, she thought.
Glancing at the driver’s license she had found in the hydration pack lying on the ground, Birdie tried to make sense of the scene. She remembered Benjamin being six feet, four inches and 240 pounds of lean muscle, the owner of a thriving running-trail business, organizing 5Ks and 10Ks throughout the park. Birdie had interacted with him several times during these events, always impressed by his quick, friendly wit and bright, salesperson’s smile that hid a sharp business acumen. None of this was recognizable, however, from the parts of him littering the ground.
“Cary Valley Base,” Birdie said into the radio, hoping for a good transmission. She looked over at the hiker under the tree and waved to acknowledge him.
“Go for Cary Valley Base.”
Birdie gathered her thoughts. She’d never seen a mountain lion make this kind of mess. Once before, she had seen the aftermath of a pack of feral dogs that had attacked several deer, killing randomly and viciously without need or regard for hunger. One of the rangers who hunted the dogs said that their instincts and learned behavior failed to reconcile, like they’d lost their minds. So, a pack of feral dogs maybe, but not a mountain lion.
“Cary Valley, I have a confirmed fatality up here. Possible animal attack.”
“Copy, backup is coming in by helicopter.”
The trail ran into a field of tall grasses, yellowed by the summer heat and surrounded by ghost pines. The meadow covered about two acres, more than enough room to land a helicopter, but it would disrupt evidence.
“There’s a clearing about a half mile southwest of my position, if you could put them there,” she advised.
The dispatcher acknowledged her.
“Hey,” Birdie called to the hiker, “come here.” She dropped her backpack and lowered the hunting rifle onto it. Digging through her bag, she produced a camera and stood up. The hiker approached, still glancing nervously at the leg and other pieces of Benjamin in the dirt.
“Birdie McLaren, National Park Service,” she said to him, extending her hand.
“Yeah, the ranger uniform gave you away.” He took her hand. “Al Garrett.” He paused and looked around. “I... I’ve never seen anything like this before. Ever.”
“Neither have I, Mr. Garrett.” Birdie took digital photographs of the area and of Benjamin’s remains. “Did you see any other animals out here? Coyotes, buzzards, raccoons, anything moving the remains?”
“No, nothing but all these flies.” Garrett swatted at a half-dozen black dots buzzing around his head.
“Everything’s the way you found it?” she asked, examining the dirt for tracks.
“Yeah, except for my puddle of vomit over there. I added that later.” Garrett fidgeted, still anxious.
“When the helicopter gets here, we’ll evacuate you to the village.” Birdie noticed a shape on the ground in her peripheral vision. She stood, letting her eyes relax to see all of the scene at once, and it appeared to her suddenly, like the reveal of a magic trick: a massive print in the earth. Cat print. She knelt down and measured it with her hand, fully encompassed by the track. “Are you sure you didn’t see any large animals out here?”
“No, nothing.” Garrett shook his head.
Birdie took several more photographs and then stood up. She scanned the field and the forest and then looked toward the sun, about four hours from sunset. A soft, metallic tinkling sound reached her ears, like a wind chime. The oddness of the sound made the hair on her arms and back of her neck stand up.
“What the hell is that noise?” Garrett asked. “I’ve been hearing it all afternoon.”
“Shhh.” Dropping the camera into her backpack, Birdie zipped it shut. Her ears rang from the increased blood flow in her arteries and nervous sweat dripped down her face. She lifted the backpack and put it on, then crouched to pick up her father’s hunting rifle. Her legs vibrated in preparation to flee as her fingers grasped the walnut stock of the Remington 700. Standing slowly, she manipulated the bolt of the rifle, forcing a 7mm round into the chamber.
“What is it?” Garrett whispered. “Has it been watching me the whole time?”
“Turn and walk up the trail,” Birdie said, softly and firmly. “Don’t run. Walk.”
Garrett turned and walked away, nonchalantly, as Birdie told him, but his eyes were wide with fear. Walking backwards behind him, Birdie watched the grass for movement. The metallic bell sounded again, for just a second, then disappeared in the wind.
They reached the edge of the woods and Birdie crouched down, even though her amygdala sent electronic signals arcing into her cortex, whispering, “Run!”
“Keep going until you get to the next clearing,” she told Garrett. “Flag down the helicopter when it arrives.”
“You got it,” Garrett sprinted down the trail through the trees.
Birdie scanned left and right and then she saw it, something displacing the brush, accompanied by the wind chime sound. It grabbed Benjamin Martinez’s leg and pulled it into the foliage. Birdie wanted to run screaming into the woods. She raised the rifle and peered through the scope, but saw nothing more than waving grass. Taking a tentative step forward, she thought better of it, stood, and backed away from the clearing.
Birdie met up with Garrett and saw that he was beside himself, fretting and shaking and unable to stand still.
“How long until the helicopter gets here?” he asked. “I think I’ve already done my part in being a good citizen. I’d like to be rescued now.”
“Pretty soon, Mr. Garrett.” Birdie hoped rescue would arrive shortly for both of them; she felt eyes watching from the grass.
She pulled her satellite phone from her backpack. She had bought her own, like a few other rangers she knew, but normally only used it when her radio didn’t reach. However, this was not information she wanted to put out over the radio. She dialed and waited.
“Tracey?” Birdie asked.
“Hey, Birdie. What’s going on?” the dispatcher asked.
“Tell the boss that it’s not a mountain lion. I don’t know what it is, but it’s enormous, and it’s still out there. We shouldn’t go back without an army,” she said, quietly so that Garrett wouldn’t hear her.
“You don’t know what it is?” Tracey sounded astonished.
“It’s a giant cat track, but no way it’s a mountain lion. Do we know if any big cats like lions or tigers have escaped from zoos near here?”
“I haven’t heard of any. You’d think you’d hear about that, but I’ll check. Looks like you’ve got a state wildlife officer, a sheriff’s deputy and Mark Reed coming to help.”
Her direct supervisor, Reed, had been her earliest mentor at Cary Valley and possessed more law enforcement experience in the parks than anyone she knew, but the knowledge that he was coming did little to assuage her fear. “Well, that doesn’t feel like an army,” she sighed. “Tell the helicopter I’m at the landing zone and just look for me.”
Forty-five minutes later, when the park helicopter appeared over the top of the forest and dipped into the clearing, Garrett was a flop-sweat, paranoid mess. Birdie, who had watched the tree line purposefully for the entire wait, bit her lower lip. She stepped out into the field and signaled the helicopter to land. It dropped into the grass and deposited three people and gear. Birdie ran Garrett to the helicopter, put him on board, and leaned in to signal the pilot that he was clear to take off.
Nearing sixty and retirement, Supervising Law Enforcement Park Ranger Mark Reed limped in Birdie’s direction carrying a large backpack. She ran up and gave him a quick hug.
“Oh that hat,” Mark said with disappointment. “You have got to get rid of that thing. You’re going to get us both in trouble.”
Birdie put her hand on her head and smiled. “It’s my lucky hat. It always gets me out of trouble when I wear it.”
Reed sighed. “That’s only because you’re always in trouble. So, what do we have?” he asked as they walked toward the other two officers. She fell in beside him, comfortably, as if she was walking the forest with her own grandfather.
Permanent damage to Reed’s left knee caused Birdie to reduce her pace to remain in step with him. Reed refused to discuss it, and no one asked him how the injury occurred, but the current gossip suggested either a golf cart accident or a gunfight with smugglers bringing illegals over the border. She ran through what she had seen and the photos she had taken and finished with the fact that the apparent killer was still nearby. He nodded and hmm-hmmed until she was done. Looking up at him, Birdie stopped. “Mark, I think we need a bigger boat.”
Mark stared out across the forest. Birdie watched him thinking and evaluating as he chewed his lip, looking like a cowboy from an old John Ford movie, the classic, flat Stetson shading his eyes.
“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath and letting it out. “This is certainly a long way from that first murder investigation we worked together. Let’s meet the help.”
In Birdie’s experience, wildlife officers came in two flavors, cops and animal lovers; this one was neither. This wildlife officer wore a uniform that appeared too small across her bosom, but not because she seemed to have outgrown it. The buttons on the front of her shirt screamed for relief. Black cowboy boots peeked out from beneath the olive green pant legs and she placed a broad Stetson, curled up on the sides, over bright, blond curls before grabbing her lever-action rifle.
The sheriff’s deputy, probably a SWAT guy, looked more like a soldier, wearing a Sequoia County Sheriff’s t-shirt, military-style pants, and desert combat boots. He stared at her through dark aviator glasses that seemed to match his rich, cocoa skin and his muscles stretched out the t-shirt in a way that made Birdie’s face hot.
The cowgirl sashayed over, her hand extended and blonde hair bouncing in the sunlight. “Maureen Carter, California Fish and Wildlife.”
The deputy didn’t stand up from his gear while he loaded a heavy assault rifle and slung it over his shoulder. “Lonnie Shaw.” He reached up and shook her hand from his squatting position, still almost as tall as Birdie’s five-foot-two frame.
Trying to convey her fear without appearing scared, Birdie introduced herself and told the others what she had seen. “So it was called in as a mountain lion attack, but it’s not. This thing, whatever it is, is massive. And it’s still there.”
“I’m sure it’s just a big mountain lion,” Carter said, dismissively, prepping her rifle. “Or a bear.”
Shaw looked up. “If you think it’s a bear, you’re gonna want a bigger rifle. You’re gonna need to be pretty close for that .30-30 to cut it.” He glanced over at Birdie, lowered his glasses so that she could see his eyes, and winked, making her ears burn.
With a “humph,” Carter disregarded him and continued arranging her pack.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Wes Blalock