This man is not my father. Arly had repeated it to herself so often that it had become a mantra. He’s not my father. He’s not my father. He’s not my father.
She needed it, she felt. Because Pete had scared her. Made her fear that she wasn’t quite as “recovered” and “whole” a person as she wanted to believe.
“Somethin’ on your mind, chere?” Saint asked.
“No.” Arly wiped her lips in case she had ketchup on them. *Yes. I’m afraid of these woods.*
“You’ve got worry lines on your forehead,” Saint said. “That’s what my mama used ta’ call ’em, ‘worry lines.’ ‘Them cause wrinkles,’ she’d say.”
And damn it—damn it!—having this man here with her, it did make her feel less scared. And that was not a good thing.
“You’re too pretty ta’ be puttin’ wrinkles on that pretty forehead.”
Saint coming on as strong as he was, it was making Pete insane.
“I can take care of myself, Pete,” she’d promised Pete last night at dinner. They’d dined in the hotel lounge (the Heorot, the only fancy hotel within thirty miles of Battleground) and they’d had some time alone, since Saint and Garrett Roth had yet to arrive. No doubt Saint would have made a point of being there had he been in town. He was after her for sure.
Pete had, staring across the table at her, been sporting a good set of “worry lines” all his own.
“Answer a question for me, Arly?” he’d asked. “What are you drinking tonight?”
“Huh? Sweet tea. Why?”
“Why not a beer, or a mixed drink? Some wine?”
“You know I don’t drink.”
“Why is that?”
“You know why.”
“I know what you’re doing.”
“Answer the question, Youngblood.”
“I’m not on the witness stand, one of your witnesses.”
“Answer the question.”
“Fine. I don’t drink because my father’s an alcoholic. Fire water no good for Injun. There, you happy? I’m not afraid to answer your question. I just don’t see any need, when you already know.”
“I want to illustrate, or underscore for the sake of our current argument, that you have a, let’s call it a ‘vulnerability’ where your father is concerned.”
“Are we having an argument?” she’d asked.
“I don’t know. Are you hearing what I’m saying?”
She was. She had.
“I get it, Pete.”
*Beau Saint is not my father.*
They’d driven out into the hills in a Land Rover rented by Garrett Roth. On the way out of town they’d stopped at a Hardee’s to pick up some lunch for later. Now they sat or stood around the vehicle, which they’d parked on an old logging road a good ten miles outside of town, eating their burgers. Arly sat on the rear driver’s seat, sideways, with the door open. Saint, with his burger and fries on top of the Land Rover, had claimed position on one side of her, her right. Pete stood guard on her left.
“Bet that Coke is all watered down by now,” Saint said. “You want some a’ mine? I had ’em leave the ice out. It’s none too cold but it tastes good.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Such a gentleman,” Pete muttered.
“Always,” Saint said. He smiled at Arly. He had a nice smile.
You can’t save him, Arly told herself, in what was becoming a second mantra. You couldn’t save your father and you can’t save this man, either.
“There’s a big difference,” Pete had said the night before, his mouth full of medium-rare steak.
“Between Saint and your father.”
“Just one?” she’d said, trying to be playful.
“One big one. Your father had a sickness, Arly. All the rotten things that he did, his violence, the stealing, it was a direct result of his drinking. He was a sick man.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I was there.”
“But this guy, Saint. He’s not sick. He’s just evil. And I’m not being melodramatic, here. I mean it. Seriously, he’s evil.”
“I read the same stuff you did,” Arly had reminded him.
“But did it sink in? The man’s a professional killer, Arly. A stone-cold murderer.”
“You said yourself we’re not in any danger. He went after people he was paid to, and he’s being paid now not to harm anybody.”
“He didn’t ‘go after’ or ‘harm’ anybody, Arly. He killed people.”
“I know that.”
“Say it. He’s a killer.”
“I’m not a child, Pete.”
“Arly, this guy is dangerous.”
“He’s not like all those other guys, all the bullfrogs you’ve kissed and tried to turn into princes.”
“I wish all I’d done was kiss ’em,” she’d muttered, but again Pete had refused to let the mood be lightened.
“Those men were all damaged goods, sure. But they weren’t dangerous. Not like Saint. You’re smart enough to recognize the pattern, kiddo, but you keep repeating it anyway. You find these broken types, men who remind you of dear old Dad, and you try to fix them. I need to know that you understand, you cannot ‘fix’ a sociopath. There’s no cure for that. Promise me you’ll keep a safe distance from this guy,” Pete had implored.
Saint, however, had made no such promises, and he was on her like white on rice.
“Tell us that story, now,” he said, standing there next to her, pretending to hang on every word she said, pouring on the charm. (Yes, she had to admit he had charm.) Most sociopaths are charming, she reminded herself. But *is* he a sociopath?
“You don’t put stock in a bunch of old Indian ghost stories, do you, Mr. Saint?” she asked.
“A man’s got ta’ keep an open mind. I’ve seen a lot a’ strange things, chere. Who am I ta’ say what is or is’n true?”
Garrett Roth, who had gone off some distance to urinate, walked back over at that point. “If these stories of yours might have anything to do with what happened to Kiersten,” he said, “if it’s even remotely possible, I need to hear them, Miss Youngblood.”
“I don’t think…”
“Come on, chere.” Saint squatted down next to her, getting on her eye level. The stare from those blue eyes felt too intense for her to hold it for long. Relax, Arly told herself, taking a sip of her watery cola. (It did taste lousy.) She wasn’t sure which made her more nervous, Saint watching her that way or—*Or what? Are you afraid to tell a simple story? Afraid to say the words? No. I’m afraid to say that name.*
“I don’t know how widespread the legend is,” Arly began. “I know we heard it a lot in my family, and it’s pretty common among the Long Hair Clan.”
“That’s your Tribe?” Roth interrupted to ask.
“More like my branch of the Tribe, but yeah. Anyway, the legend is that when the Cherokee first moved into this region from the north, there was another race already living here. They were called the Moon People because they lived in caves and such and only came out at night. These people were supposed to be white and their eyes couldn’t stand the sun, hence them only coming out at night.”
“White people. And this would have been before Columbus, right?” Roth asked.
“Yeah, like, way before.”
“White people,” Saint said, “have no problem seein’ in direct sunlight. What she’s talkin’ ’bout sounds like albinism.”
“Like what?” Roth asked.
“Albinos, boss. People who have no pigment in their skin or eyes. Lot a’ them got vision problems or go blind.”
“So these ‘Moon People’ were albinos?” Roth asked.
“Legends run together,” Arly said. “There are legends about the Indians encountering white people, supposed Europeans, before Columbus. Which, you know, there’s no reason that couldn’t have happened, except there’s no evidence that it did happen. Anyway, those stories may have gotten mixed up with the story of the Moon People. But in the story of…” (*Don’t say it! Not in these woods!*) “Um, in this particular story, the Moon People weren’t from Europe but had come from another world, a world inside the earth.”
“That would explain the albinism,” Saint commented.
“Go on, Arly,” Pete said.
“It’s kind of a Romeo and Juliet story to begin with,” she said. “There was this young warrior from among the Moon People.” (*Don’t say its name!*) “He who fell in love with a Cherokee girl. They knew that neither of their tribes would allow the union so they ran off together. But that winter was real bad and there was no food. They were holed up in a cave, starving to death.” Arly paused. “She died first and he ate her.”
“Lovely,” Pete said.
“As the story goes, the Spirits, or in some versions of the story it was the Moon People or the woman’s ghost, they put a curse on the man. He was cursed to live forever, always hungry, and no matter how much he ate he never stopped being hungry.”
“Sounds like the Wendigo legend,” Saint said.
Arly looked at him, surprised. “You know about the Wendigo?”
“I read, chere,” he said, and winked at her. She looked away.
“What is that?” Roth asked.
“There’s a tradition among the northern tribes,” Arly said. “Northern states and Canada. Anybody who resorts to cannibalism gets turned into a monster, a Wendigo. The myth is there to reinforce the taboo against cannibalism to these people who lived in an environment where winters were harsh and starvation was a real possibility. But it’s regional. The story of, um, the one I just told you, it’s the only example I’ve ever found of a parallel in the Cherokee mythology. And it differs from the Wendigo story in one major way.” Again she hesitated.
“Go on,” Roth urged. “Please.”
*Oh, to hell with it! It’s not like you’re going to summon it, for God’s sake! People have been saying its name in these woods forever. Besides, Saint’s here.*
That was when she knew she was in trouble. As soon as that thought popped into her mind. Drawing from the man’s presence, taking comfort in it, that was bad. Real bad. Yes, she couldn’t deny, the man exuded strength, inspired confidence. But Saint was, no bones about it, not the kind of man she should be looking to for anything. You can’t save him! she reminded herself.
“Arly?” Pete said.
“Sorry. So, uh, the warrior, the one who got cursed, his name was Makah’kahu.” She repressed a shudder. (*Do not look at Saint!*) “And, um, according to the stories, in addition to always being hungry, Makah’kahu is always pining for his lost love, the Cherokee girl. If he chances upon a man in the wilderness, he kills him and eats him, but if he comes upon a girl, he takes her back to his den, trying to make her a replacement for his missing mate.”
“This fella, he has big feet,” Saint said, “right, chere?”
“He’s got big everything,” she said. “He’s a giant.”
“It does bear repeatin’,” Saint said, “that the only folks missin’ from the dig site are women. An’ then there’s the footprints. The papers say they found tracks all over the site, no? Also say some a’ the bodies they recovered looked like they’d been chewed on.”
“None of that garbage you’ve been reading in the newspapers has been substantiated,” Pete said.
“It’s like Sherlock Holmes says, boss. When you’ve eliminated the impossible, then what you’ve got left, no matter how improbable it is, that there’s the truth. I’m paraphrasin’, ‘course.”
Saint clapped Roth on the shoulder.
“But no worries, boss. It’s jus’ like I told you. If it turns out a monster is behind all this, I’ll kill it for you. Make you a nice rug for your livin’ room.”
Roth shook off Saint’s hand. “And have you ‘picked up on a scent,’ as you say, Mr. Saint?” he said.
“Think I may be on ta’ somethin’,” Saint replied. “Reckon we’re gon’ want ta’ start lookin’ for caves, boss.”