A frigid spring morning at a Native American archaeological dig erupts into sudden and brutal violence, leaving five people dead and one man gravely wounded. And in a hospital, with archaeologist Annja Creed at his side, the last survivor utters his final words to name his killer--a skinwalker.
The skinwalker is feared among the Navajo and Apache. It is witchcraft of a most terrible nature that allows a man to take the shape of a wolf--and kill. But as Annja delves into the mystery of the skinwalker, she finds herself pulled into an underworld of violence and vicious radicals, threaded with legend...and sociopathic intent.
In this world, Annja is unwelcome. And in this world, she could be the creature's next victim....
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July 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Tribal Ways by Alex Archer
It was all over the flat-screen TVs hung from the rafters and tuned to CNN when Annja entered the airport terminal. Five dead and one gravely injured in an inexplicable attack on an archaeological dig in western Oklahoma.
It's so tragic about those other poor people, she thought as she headed to the baggage claim. Does it make me a bad person that I feel glad that Paul's the one who survived?
She hadn't been coming to rekindle any old embers. It had been good with Paul while it lasted. And when it was done, it was over. He was still a sweet guy, if a little bit of a player, and a good archaeologist on the tenure track at the university.
Now she just hoped he was still on any track at all.
She collected her single black bag. And I thought I was due for a little relaxation here, she thought as she walked briskly through the crowds toward the car rental desk.
Because of the severity of his injuries, Paul had been taken by helicopter from the site west of Lawton to the trauma unit in Norman, right outside Oklahoma City.
Finding the trauma center wasn't hard. Once inside amid the bright lights and muted sounds and quietly purposeful traffic of the hospital, things got a little dicier. The staff initially tried to keep Annja from seeing Paul in intensive care.
It seemed to be a well-run facility, so Annja didn't even try playing her journalist-cum-TV-personality card. It was never her first choice in any event. But Paul's family had yet to arrive, given that the crime had actually occurred while she was in transit from New York to Houston. His next of kin, it seemed, would only arrive late that evening. Though the nurses wouldn't say so, Annja got the sickening impression they didn't expect him to live long enough to see them.
In the meantime, Paul was asking incessantly for Annja Creed so his doctors and the police officer in charge of the case agreed to let her in.
Sunlight streamed through the window. The early online weather reports had showed clouds over western Oklahoma, but they'd dissipated by the time her flight touched down.
Paul was all tubes and bandages and taped-on wires. Half his face was obscured by a bandage. But his good brown eye was open. It turned toward her as she walked in the door.
"Annja," he said. His voice was a croak. He tried to sit up.
"Paul." She stopped in the doorway, momentarily overcome.
The nurse who had escorted Annja to the room--a short, wide woman--moved past Annja. Though a head shorter she was heavy enough to push Annja aside as if she were a child. Annja frowned, but held her temper. She's doing her job, she told herself.
"Now, Paul, calm down," the nurse said. She turned and glared back with narrowed blue eyes. "Ms. Creed, I'm afraid you're going to have to cut short your visit, after all."
"No," Paul said. Alarms shrilled as his heart rate spiked. "Please, Roslee. Please! I have to talk to her. I have to tell her."
The nurse gave Annja a speculative scowl. The businesslike amiability with which she had initially greeted Annja was long gone.
"Okay," she said. "He seems to really need to get something off his chest. It may be good for him to have company. I'll give you five minutes. And I do not want you stressing my patient. Please tell me you understand."
Annja took no offense at the woman's words or her tone. A good nurse had the same outlook on anyone or anything that might prove detrimental to her patients as a mother grizzly bear toward potential threats to her cubs.
"I understand," Annja said. And she did. Perfectly. Herself a chronic defender of innocence, she could only approve of the nurse's protectiveness.
The nurse looked at her a beat longer. Then she nodded. "All right. Call me if any changes happen. I'll be right outside."
The nurse left. Annja sidestepped to give her plenty of clearance. Then she moved forward and took Paul's unbandaged hand.
"Paul, what happened?"
The torn lips quirked into a painful smile. "Something right up your alley, Annja."
"What's that, Paul?"
Suddenly his fingers clenched hers in a death grip. "A monster," he said.
For a mad moment she thought he was making a joke well beyond good taste. But his lone visible eye showed white all around, and a tear rose in the corner of it and rolled down his cheek. His whole body seemed to tense.
"Paul," she said, trying to keep her own voice low and steady. "Please calm down."
"No! There's no time. There's something out there, Annja. Something awful. It killed them."
His fingers dug into her hand. "I told you. That-- creature."
"Paul, please. Settle down. You're getting upset and not making any sense."
"Annja! I saw it. It was a wolf, but it wasn't. Sometimes it seemed like a man, sometimes like an animal. And it killed and killed."
"That's just in the movies," Annja said.
"No! It looked like a wolf but didn't move like one."
He shook his head from side to side so violently Annja was afraid he'd pull something loose. "No! No! It was terrible. Oh, God. It killed them. It was so fast. So strong. Not anything natural--"
"Why would a wolf attack such a large group of people?" she asked. It made no sense to her that a solitary member of a pack-hunting species would attack multiple human beings. It totally reversed the whole mathematics of wolf predation.
"It wasn't natural, I tell you. Wasn't an animal!" His eye rolled. "Annja, listen. It wasn't an animal. It wasn't. And it's hunting me!"
He sat up and grabbed her arm with his good hand. Alarms began to shrill.
"It was a skinwalker! A Navajo wolf! I saw his eyes--those glowing--"
The frantic cry ended.
Paul seemed to shrink, then fell back onto the bed. His one visible eye stared at the ceiling.
The keening of the flatline alarms was barely audible through the roaring in Annja's ears.
"What's your interest in this poor deceased fella, Ms. Creed?"
Lieutenant Tom Ten Bears of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol sat down behind the plain wooden desk in his office. He had the unmistakable look of an officer who'd spent many years with the force. Not a tall man, he was built strong and low to the ground, short in the legs, wide around the middle, suggesting still both strength and a certain agility.
Annja sat across from him in a not very comfortable wooden chair. It reminded her way too much of being called before the Mother Superior back at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. She suspected the visiting-the-prin-cipal effect wasn't entirely accidental.
"We're friends, Lieutenant," she said. "Uh, were friends."
The highway patrol officer's round, pockmarked face, beneath a salt-and-pepper military cut, was set in lines and contours of grave compassion. He probably gets a lot of practice with that look in his line of work, she realized. It also didn't mean he didn't feel it.
The office walls were wood paneling. An Oklahoma state flag hung behind him, along with a plaque in the arrowhead shape of the OHP patch, certificates of completion from training courses and numerous citations, including a commendation from the Comanche Nation. From his features and body type, which would have been burly and bearlike even if he hadn't been carrying a certain excess above the belt, Annja suspected he was a member of the Nation himself. She gathered they hadn't named this Comanche County for nothing.
"My condolences," he told her. "I know that don't help much. All the times I've offered condolences over the years, I never yet figured out a way that actually does a body any good. I keep trying."
"I appreciate it, Lieutenant. Really."
"It was unusual for them to let you in to see him. But the ICU staff tell me he kept asking for you so insistently they figured it was better for him to let him see you."
"Maybe that was a mistake," she said, faltering.
He shook his head. "No point second-guessing something like that, Ms. Creed. That poor boy was pretty torn up. I don't reckon he could've lasted long regardless of anything you did or didn't do."
"Thanks," Annja said.
She drew in a deep breath and tried to ignore the stinging in her eyes. "I was coming out to visit him," she said. "He was also kind enough to want to consult with me on the dig, even though pre-Columbian North American archaeology is way outside my area of study."
"You're doin' me a favor, Ms. Creed, by comin' out here to see me," he said. "I was needing to interview you, anyway."
He put on a pair of heavy-framed reading glasses and moved his mouse around on the pad, peering at a flat-screen monitor set at an angle so as not to intrude between him and a visitor. Aside from an in-box stacked with papers, the only other objects on his desk were a picture of a grinning young and handsome Indian man wearing an Army uniform, a much younger girl, maybe twelve, with pigtails, both built along much more aerodynamic lines than the lieutenant, and another picture of a young man in BDUs and combat gear with a bullet-pocked adobe wall for a backdrop. The soldier held a CAR-4 assault carbine decked out with the usual array of sights and lights. He looked like the same person as the grinning kid in the other photo, only older. Not so much in years, maybe, but still much older, Annja thought.
"So you work for a television show," he said.
"Yes. I'm kind of the resident skeptic--the token voice of reason. I suspect Paul's superiors hoped that by inviting me out they might put their department in the way of some free publicity."
"The anthro department at OU wanted to get on something called Chasing History's Monsters?"
She shrugged. "The hope of getting on TV can have a strange effect on people. Even intelligent, well-educated ones."
He made a face, took off the glasses and looked at her. "Maybe the monster thing's actually appropriate now. Is that what brings you to see me, Ms. Creed?"
"I want to learn everything I can about what happened to my friend," she said. "Also his colleagues. And the poor man whose property the dig site was on."
"Old Eric," Ten Bears said. "Pretty righteous guy. Did well for himself and his family from leasing natural-gas rights on some of his land out there south of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Always quick to help out a fellow Nation member or crack a joke. Even if he did have lousy taste in 'em."
"He was a friend of yours?"
Ten Bears nodded. "I know a lot of people in our region. Know a whole lot of Indian good old boys like me."
"Thanks. Listen, it was a pretty ugly scene out there, Ms. Creed. I've worked a lot of homicides over the years. I've worked some pretty terrible accident scenes. Never saw anything like that anywhere. I can't really tell you anything the department hasn't already released to the media. Tell the truth, I'm sorta glad."
He sat back, looking at her. He seemed not unfriendly. Not unkind, in fact. From the laugh lines bracketing his eyes and mouth she guessed he was by nature a pretty decent guy. She also knew that a seasoned homicide investigator wouldn't hesitate to feign those emotions when he didn't feel remotely kind or friendly, if it would help advance the case.
"What'd the decedent tell you?" he asked quietly.
"He said he was attacked by what, frankly, sounded more like a movie monster than anything in the real world."
"You've had some experience investigating monsters, I guess," he said. "What's your take on that?"
"Are you serious? I'm sorry, Lieutenant, I'mnot trying to be uncooperative. It just sounds like--a strange question for somebody who seems so no-nonsense to be asking."
"I try not to close any possible avenues of inquiry. Especially in a case like this. I'm not giving away any confidential information when I tell you we don't have a whole lot of ideas on this thing. Not ones that make any sense. So, hey, I'll at least give a listen to ones that might not seem to make much sense. I don't believe in werewolves. But if our perp really is a damn werewolf, I want to be there when they pump silver into his veins or whatever they'd use for an execution. Maybe you'd call it putting him to sleep."
A strangled squeak of laughter escaped Annja's lips before she could clap her hand over her mouth. She bent forward in her chair, then straightened.
"Sorry," she said. "I'm... not normally like that."
"I'm sorry," Ten Bears said. "Sometimes I've got pretty lousy taste in jokes, too. I can see you're shaken up some. Anybody would be. Nice young woman like you isn't used to having people up and die right in front of her."
She managed to show no reaction to that statement. Unfortunately she was used to having people up and die in front of her. Poor Paul wasn't even the first ex-lover and friend Annja Creed had seen die. Although she was sure she would never get used to that.