DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.


Skinwalker
by
Linda S. Maclaren (Mackie)

.

(Note: This virtual episode takes place early in September. Please adjust your mindset accordingly!)

Act I

The City of Cascade had grown a hundred-fold since its founding a century and a half ago. Wealthy timber and mining dynasties rose from the wilderness and were soon followed by fishing and shipping magnates. Then came the railroad, and the city grew into a center of genteel civilization by the dawn of the 20th Century.

Poorly executed surges of modern urban growth scarred some of the historic charm of the city, and two world wars all but destroyed the original waterfront in the rush to create a harbor capable of handling warships and massive cargo vessels. Still, the occasional wisdom of civic leaders resulted in many of the old, historic buildings being saved and ultimately restored to their former glory.

Such was the case with the original courthouse. Built in 1883, it was a massive edifice of marble and granite standing proudly at the crest of a gentle slope of manicured gardens. Growth had necessitated the addition to the court system of equally massive but far less charming buildings, but they were tucked safely out of sight behind the original courthouse and a narrow band of trees.

However, for all their utilitarian plainness, the newer wings had all the modern conveniences: heating in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, comfortable lounges where the various participants of the judicial system could wait until they were called into the courtroom.

The same could not be said for the old courthouse. Its sprawling slabs of marble and granite only gave the illusion of being a sturdy buffer against the elements. In the winter, frigid draughts whispered through the broad, stone halls; in the summer, guilty and innocent alike sweated while waiting their turn to state their case. Its soaring ceilings made even quietly spoken words sound like a cacophony, a sad fact many lawyers learned to their chagrin.

Jim Ellison sat on a hard wooden bench in the hallway outside Courtroom 3. Frustrated after a long day of waiting to testify, he tugged his tie loose and shrugged out of his suit jacket. He'd listened unabashedly to the lawyers in conference with the judge inside the courtroom and knew yet another postponement had been granted. His testimony wouldn't be heard for at least another three weeks. He'd wasted another day.

Still, he had to wait for the official announcement, so he sat impatiently and chafed at the interminable delays plaguing this case. A bit farther down the hallway and on the opposite side sat a small contingent of the defendant's family.

Unwillingly, his eyes were drawn to the matriarch of the group. She was a dark-skinned, gnarled little figure dressed in black wool. She should have been sweating, but her skin was dry as old bones. Her hands, swollen with arthritis, looked like misshapen talons at the ends of stick-like arms. Small, deep-set eyes glared blackly at him from beneath nearly hairless brows.

Frankly, she spooked the hell out of him. To Jim, who didn't think of himself as fanciful, she looked as wizened and dried as the mummy on display at the Museum of Archaeology over at the U. And the way her claw-like fingers worked rhythmically in her lap as if she were handling a string of prayer beads just plain gave him the willies.

She hadn't stopped glaring at him since his first day in court.

If she hoped to jinx his testimony, however, she would have to wait another three weeks.

The bailiff called everyone back into the courtroom, where they sat down to hear the judge confirm what Jim's heightened sense of hearing had already told him: a three-week continuance was being granted to the defense.

With a sigh, he rose to head back to the station. Turning into the center aisle, he nearly bumped into the old woman, who stood her ground and glared up at him with all the vehemence her five feet of bowed frailty could project.

A vulture. That's what she reminded him of, he realized as he stepped back to let her precede him. The two young men with her hastened to get the door. Like the woman, they hadn't spoken a word in the weeks this trial had dragged on.


The precinct building was newer than the old courthouse, and it had air conditioning. However, the tepid air wafted around by the ancient system barely qualified as cool, and Jim was thoroughly disgruntled when he finally got back to his desk.

Blair Sandburg read the signs. "What happened?"

Jim flopped into his chair and stretched his long legs beneath the desk. "Another postponement. Three weeks, this time."

"Sorry, man." Blair sighed in sympathy. "At least you don't have to face those hard benches for a while."

"Or that crazy old woman," Jim added.

"She's related to the defendant, isn't she?"

He tried to figure out the various branches of the family tree he'd been assembling in his head. "Great aunt. Her name is Esther Delgadillo. Part Apache, part wicked witch of the west."

Blair grinned. "Maybe she is."

"Is what?"

"A witch."

Jim groaned. "If anyone could make me a believer, she could."

Blair sat back in his chair and stared thoughtfully toward the ceiling. "I don't know if the Apache believe in witches and shapeshifters, but a lot of the tribes of the plains and the southwest have numerous tales about good and bad witches."

"That's okay. I don't need to know any more than I do already." Jim stabbed reluctantly at his computer keyboard, which responded with an irate beep before the monitor flashed the dreaded blue screen of death. "Damn. It's doing it again." He looked hopefully at his partner.

"Forget it. I couldn't fix it last time. Call tech support."

They were saved from this recurring argument by the arrival of Captain Simon Banks, who paused to glare with disapproval at Jim's monitor. "Screwing up your computer again, Ellison?"

"I don't know enough about it to screw it up," Jim protested, hitting the reset button with ferocity.

Simon's scowl deepened. "I have something that will spare your pc your tender ministrations for a while."

Jim's eyebrows rose in a silent question, and Simon looked down at the sheet of paper in his hand. "Special Agent Neil Portman, Shiprock, Arizona."

Blair bounced in his chair. "That's right outside the Navajo Reservation."

"Near as damnit," Simon agreed.

Jim groaned. "I'm surrounded by Indians."

"That's Native Americans to you, Mr. Sensitivity," Blair retorted with a cheeky smile. He looked back at the captain. "I take it this has something to do with the case Jim's testifying in?" The case, involving a nationwide smuggling ring, was really FBI jurisdiction. Most of the contraband had been moved via big-rig across reservation lands stretching from Florida to Washington. The gang, consisting of several dozen Native Americans and a few Caucasians, had a sweet operation in place until Jim and Blair had almost accidentally uncovered the Cascade end while they'd been investigating something else entirely.

The Feds had stepped in to take over the bulk of the investigation, and the ring had slowly collapsed as more and more of its links were broken. The Cascade DA, however, sensing a bit of political mileage, had stubbornly clung to his small portion of the spoils.

Jim figured the DA was regretting that decision as each new delay brought more unfavorable press, always a bad thing when elections loomed.

Simon shushed them both with a look. "Part of what the FBI has uncovered seems to pertain directly to your case. The DA wants you to fly down there and check it out."

"Cool!"

Blair's enthusiasm was enervating, and Jim slouched even lower in his chair. "Is 'cool' going to be the operative word, Chief?"

His partner shrugged in sympathy. "September in the Arizona desert. You figure it out, Jim." He brightened. "But the nights will be cooler. With the low humidity, the heat of the day bleeds off quickly. None of this sticky mugginess we have around here."

Jim didn't feel particularly appeased. "That's something, I guess."

Simon slapped two airline ticket folders down on the desk. "You leave tomorrow morning. Go home and get packed."


The following morning, Jim and Blair caught an early-morning flight to Phoenix, Arizona, where they scrambled to make a puddle-jumper connecting flight to Page. The lower altitude of the commuter prop-job gave Jim an excellent view of the vast openness of the great Southwest. His eyes were accustomed to seeing expanses of forest or jungle; he now saw the clean, stark lines of striped rhyolite and the softer curves of red sandstone thrusting up from the pale green of the desert floor. Monoliths, mesas, and steep escarpments sculpted by millennia of wind and water, the sweeping vista was an eloquent testament to the beauty of Nature's handiwork.

Ahead, a huge lake looked like an unnatural swath of azure winding through the red and ochre. "That's Lake Powell?"

Blair's mouth turned down in disapproval. "Yeah, that's it."

Jim turned away from the window to study his partner. "Something wrong?"

Blair shrugged dismissively, shaking off his mood. "The lake was formed by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Glen Canyon was one of the great natural wonders of this continent, probably the whole world, and sometime back in the early 60s, some mentally moribund idiots in Washington decided Los Angeles needed more hydro-electric power. The miracle that was Glen Canyon is buried under hundreds of square miles of evaporating water."

Jim nodded. "Okay, I hate Lake Powell, too."

Blair grinned. "Thanks. Another convert to the cause."

"Just don't expect to turn me into one of your tree-hugging environmentalist whackos."

"I dunno -- the thought of you handcuffed to a redwood has a certain perverse appeal."

"In your dreams, Sandburg." The plane lost altitude as it entered the landing pattern and Jim winced. "Man, I don't know if it's the bumpy ride or that mystery meat we had on the flight to Phoenix, but my stomach is getting queasy."

Blair was immediately concerned. "Is it bad?"

Jim shook his head. "No. I'll grab a couple of antacids out of my bag after we land."

"I'll get it out of the overhead for you," Blair said, starting to unbuckle his seat belt.

Jim stayed him with a gentle hand. "No, we're almost down. There's no point in getting chewed out by the flight attendant."

Blair settled back in his seat and looked forward at a young man in the uniform of the commuter airlines. "You're right. Still, if he was a she, it might have been worth it."

A few minutes later, the plane landed at the small airport. A gangway was rolled up to the hatch, and the passengers were allowed to disembark.

The intensity of the sun was a surprise after the cool air conditioning of the plane. Heat waves shimmered off the tarmac and distorted the distant view of low mountains.

Jim and Blair hurried inside to the coolness of the terminal building, then paused while Jim fished out a bottle of antacids from his carry-on and chewed them with a grimace of distaste. "Man, I think I preferred the plain chalk to this flavored stuff."

"You could always try some of my herbal remedies," Blair returned without sympathy.

"Are you kidding? The last herb you gave me tasted like road tar." He took a long drink from a nearby drinking fountain. "Okay, let's find the car rental desk."

One positive feature of small airports was the closeness of its various services. There were only two car rental agencies, and their check-in desks sat side by side near the terminal exit.

Unfortunately, the lateness of their reservation resulted in a singular lack of transportation choices.

"It looks like an unmarked police car," Blair murmured as they stepped outside to gaze at the plain Ford sedan they'd been issued.

"We never should have mentioned that we were going to the Reservation." Jim opened the trunk and tossed their carry-on bags inside, then waited patiently while Blair fussed inside his backpack to locate the bottled water and snack food he'd brought for the long, hot drive. "We might have gotten the Chrysler."

"Either way, it's too bad they didn't have a sport utility available. Then again, we're supposed to meet Special Agent Portman on the Rez, so the FBI probably has what we need."

Jim tossed him the keys. "Mind taking the first turn?"

"Of course not. Is your stomach getting worse?"

"Not really." Jim climbed into the passenger seat while Blair slid behind the wheel. "Still a bit queasy, that's all."

Blair organized the drinks and snacks for easy access, adjusted the seat, then started the car and turned on the air conditioning. "I hope you're not coming down with something. The Holiday Inn in Kayenta is not the place I'd choose to recover from a bout of flu." He put the car in gear and headed away from the airport.

Jim pushed his seat all the way back and lowered the backrest until he was somewhat reclined. "Kayenta. That's on the Reservation, right?"

"Right. I stayed there once as an undergrad with a team from the University. We called it The Horrible Inn because of the food."

"Isn't there anyplace else?"

"We could go all the way into Shiprock, in New Mexico, or Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, but Simon said Kayenta is close to what Agent Portman wants to show us, if anything on the Big Rez can be called 'close' to anything else."

"Kayenta it is, then," Jim said.

The highway wound through a low range of hills and past the spewing concrete towers of the Navajo power station.

"We're on the Reservation already?"

Blair nodded. "The Big Rez takes up the whole northeast corner of Arizona, with the Hopi Reservation smack in the middle of it. In land area, it's bigger than a lot of states, but the population is relatively small."

Jim watched as the sprawling sandstone hills gave way to wide-open desert. Sagebrush and grass baked under the relentless sun. "Weird to think we've entered what amounts to sovereign territory."

"Yeah, and we'll have to get permission from the local tribal authorities if we want to venture off the beaten track. Then again, the Feds will know what we'll need. Tourists aren't welcome in many parts of the Rez."

They passed a sign welcoming them to the Navajo Nation. In fine print were warnings against transport or use of alcoholic beverages and the required use of seatbelts.

The miles rolled by, and Jim began to understand what Blair had meant. The sprawling emptiness stretched all around them, and yet he knew there were people living and working here, farmers and ranchers and laborers who made their livelihood from this inhospitable land.

As time passed, he dozed off, lulled by the hum of the engine and the gentle rocking motion of the car. He awoke a while later when Blair braked at an intersection.

Blair smiled at him. "You slept all the way through the major attraction of Kaibito."

Jim yawned without apology. "Did I miss much?"

"Nah. Out here, one town is pretty much like another." Although there wasn't another car in sight in either direction, Blair double-checked. Distances were deceiving, and reckless drivers were a normal hazard on the long stretches of open highway. He turned left, then carefully set the cruise control on 65.

"You're being unnaturally observant of the speed limit."

"Trust me," Blair said, "you do not want to get a speeding ticket on the Rez."

"Ah, like that, is it?"

Blair glanced at him. "How are you feeling?"

"Great. I feel fine now. It was just the airplane food."

Blair couldn't resist a gibe. "Or a case of motion sickness."

Jim's snort revealed what he thought about that notion. "You want me to drive?"

"No. We'll be in town in less than a hour."

"Hmmm, for the middle of nowhere, we're certainly getting there in a hurry."

"Exactly. It's getting out of the middle of nowhere that seems to take more time."

"I'm sure there's some Sandburg logic in there somewhere." Jim straightened his seat back and tried to appreciate the miles of desert surrounding them. It was beautiful in a stark, minimalist sort of way. Low-growing brush and grasses added touches of green and gold to the miles of reddish earth. Mountain ranges rose in the distance, and he remembered Blair telling him of the four sacred mountains that featured prominently in the Navajo religion. They passed another turnoff. "Navajo National Monument?"

Blair nodded. "There are some great Anasazi ruins there. I once spent a night in the campground. It was the dead of winter, and I was the only camper. My flashlight batteries were dead, and all I had was a backpacking tent and a sleeping bag. It was so dark, I literally couldn't see my hand in front of my face, but the stars looked close enough to touch. It was incredible."

Jim couldn't recall the last time he'd seen the night sky free of light pollution from a nearby city. Mexico. No wonder he hadn't remembered. "Maybe you can take me up there sometime."

"Yeah." Although Blair sounded enthusiastic, there was also an undercurrent in his tone that regretted the visit probably wouldn't happen during this trip, and the likelihood of them returning to the Reservation in the near future was slim.

Jim wished he were driving instead of riding. The monotonous journey was making him sleepy again. As the conversation lagged, he dozed off.

Events happened quickly, but their order remained clear in his mind. First was an unnatural waft of frigid air across his face, and the almost ethereal snarl of a jungle cat warning him of danger and yanking him toward awareness. Then Blair's startled curse, and the solid thump as the big sedan struck something in the roadway.

The car took on a life of its own, fish-tailing from side to side. Blair fought the wheel.

Jim could do nothing except hang on and cringe at the sight of the steep gully waiting to receive them just off the road.

Expertly working brake, accelerator, and steering wheel, Blair almost had the sedan under control when an ominous snap of breaking metal sent them careering helplessly off the pavement.

The engine stalled. A fine cloud of dust stirred up by their precipitous arrival settled around them, and in the stillness that followed, the ping of the cooling engine sounded unnaturally loud.

Blair clutched the steering wheel in a death grip, his wide-eyed gaze locked straight ahead.

Jim coughed as dust entered through the air vents. "Nice stop. You okay?"

Blair shook himself out of his shock. "Yeah. You?"

"Fine." He tried the door, and it swung open reluctantly, its bottom edge scraping the ground. "This doesn't look good for getting unstuck in a hurry."

They climbed out and surveyed the scene. The sedan had come to rest a dozen feet off the highway, its wheels mired in sand. A tow truck would be required to shift it regardless; the unnatural angle of the front left wheel indicated that the car had broken a tie rod. That Blair had managed to control the car at all to get them past the treacherous ditch was something of a miracle.

Jim walked the few steps back to the highway and gazed back along the pavement. "What did we hit?"

"A dog," Blair said, his voice shaky. "It came out of nowhere." He walked up beside Jim and frowned. "Man, I know I creamed it."

Jim started walking along the gravel shoulder, Blair behind him. "There's no sign of it." In fact, there was little evidence that anything untoward had happened. The anti-lock braking system on the sedan left no trace of skid marks, although the car's wild swerving had deposited some short streaks of tire rubber here and there.

But there weren't any mangled, bloody remains of a dog to be seen either on the pavement or the surrounding dirt.

Jim kept walking. "Maybe you imagined the dog -- you know, a mental association or something when the tie rod broke."

Blair scowled. "Sure, I imagined a three-legged mongrel that had a torn ear and was blind in one eye."

"Blind?"

"Yeah, one of its eyes was opaque white."

Either his partner had a vivid imagination... No, Jim's recollection of events was certain: Blair's surprise, the dull thump of metal against flesh, the wild fish-tailing, and then the crack of the tie rod breaking.

But there weren't any signs of a dead dog.

"What's this?"

They'd reached the spot where the pavement crossed the gully that could have resulted in a much more tragic ending to their accident if not for Blair's skillful driving. Just off the highway at about the point where Jim guessed Blair had seen the dog was a small, burned patch of ground hardly larger than the remains of a campfire.

"Weird place to build a fire."

He crouched down and studied the site more closely, trailing his fingers through the cold ashes. "There are some fragments of something here. Feels like bone."

Blair's voice was sharp with sudden alarm. "Bone?"

"Yeah."

The stern, hard tone of a stranger's voice jarred both men.

"Get away from there!"

Continue on to Act II...


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This page last updated 11/28/01.