DARK ALCHEMY

Read the Excerpt

CHAPTER 1: Buried

 

The raven saw it first.

His dark eye scraped the horizon, scouring the earth for movement in the lengthening shadows. The shadows crawled across the scrub and the sage, wrapping around lodgepole pine trees and flickering through bits of grass. A hot breeze ruffled the raven’s feathers, pulling him higher over the land. He sensed something old, something malevolent sliding under the fences and over the rocks.

Old magic, gathering, dispersing.

By the time the first evening star burned in the sky, the raven had spied it: a tangle of paleness, nested in the grass. Diving down, his claws grasped the safety of a pine tree. He bounced on the branch once, twice, cupping his wings against the turbulence. He turned his head right and left, as he did when he’d spotted something shiny that made his heart pound in the light cage of his chest.

This was more than something shiny, something more terrible. His gaze took it in, eyes dilating to suck in all the available light.

The raven squawked. His call rattled through the tree branches, over fields and between the hooves of cattle. It bounced off a barn and echoed against the side of a truck in a hoarse whisper.

A man heard the raven’s call. He stood with his back to the horizon, eyes closed. He was dressed as an ordinary ranch hand: flannel and jeans and scuffed leather that smelled like earth. An old black hat shadowed the man’s angular face. His arms hung loose at his sides. Though his left hand was open, the right was missing. From the wrist down, the sleeve of his shirt flapped like a rag on a clothesline. He stood motionless, not breathing, not so much as a pulse leaping through the skin under his neck. Gabe was focused within, on the darkness behind his eyelids.

Gabe’s eyes snapped open, gleaming gold.

The raven’s call was answered by others, taking up the cry of alarm. Gabe climbed inside his pickup truck and slammed the door, awkwardly cranking the ignition with his left hand and shoving it into reverse with his knee. He worked the steering wheel with his left hand, watching the horizon. Dark outlines of birds were gathering. Not the twilight gathering of chattering birds coming home to roost, but raucous panic. He followed them, knowing that the contagious call would summon others.

Night fell swiftly as the sun dipped below the mountain. The truck bounced over the ruts in the fields, and Gabe did not turn on the headlights. He avoided spiky stands of weeds and deep rills in the land with practiced turns of the wheel. Like any worker in these remote parts of Wyoming, he knew the land well. And all its secrets. Or so he’d thought.

He slammed on the brakes as bulky shadows appeared before him. A half dozen cows in a tight knot hauled ass back toward the main part of the ranch. His eyes narrowed. Cows shouldn’t be on the move this late at night. Something had spooked them.

He turned the truck back west, his foot lighter on the gas this time. Beyond the edge of a ruined fence, he could make out the figures of men in the field, standing in a circle. They were thin as scarecrows, their clothes seeming to dangle on lopsided stick frames, many missing limbs. They were also dressed as ranch hands, but Gabe knew that was simply cover, like a thin coating of dust on a rattlesnake. Silently, their heads turned toward Gabe. They’d been standing in the dimness, not one of them carrying a flashlight or lantern. Gabe’s men were, among other things, good at seeing in the dark.

Gabe shut off the engine. Coolant continued to tick inside it, like a watch, as he climbed out of the pickup and approached the cluster of men. Ravens perched on the ruined barbed-wire fence cawed at him softly. There were dozens of ravens. One was his. Some belonged to the other men. And the rest … well, those were compelled to come, summoned by curiosity and a flicker of magic to gather and gossip at the spectacle.

Gabe lifted the empty sleeve of his right arm. A raven separated from the mass of birds and flew to him. It slipped up his sleeve, meshing with flesh in a flutter of darkness.

Gabe flexed his right hand, whole and unmarked. His skin felt cold from where the evening chill had begun to seep into the bird’s feathers, dew now glistening on his skin.

Feathers flashed, slipping into a flurry of shadow as the ravens left their perches and surrounded the men. The birds poured into them, plumping their shadows and filling their outlines. They had the appearance of full, healthy men now. 

And the spectator ravens, the ones that belonged to no one, fled in a panic, screaming.

Gabe strode to the edge of the circle and peered down.

Two skeletons lay in the grass. But they weren’t simply corpses, plucked clean by vultures. These were ivory-white, twisted into unnatural shapes, the bodies facing each other and knitted together. One was frozen midfall, with its head turned backward over its spine. Delicate spires of bone reached out from the fingers like icicles, sheets of what looked like cartilage wrapped around splintered ribs. Black eye sockets melted in wavering shadow, rimmed with a rusty stain of blood. They looked like something cast out of papier-mâché, barely recognizable as human.

Gabe crossed back to the pickup truck and keyed the CB radio.  “You need to see this, Boss.” His voice sounded hoarse as it warmed, remembering human sounds.

After a beat of silence, a voice crackled back at him. “God damn it. Do you know what fucking time it is?”

“You need to see this,” Gabe repeated slowly.

A static-punctuated breath blew over the radio. “What’s your twenty?”

“West edge of the property, beyond the new fence. A hundred yards north of the road as the crow flies.”

He disconnected the call and rejoined the others, to wait in the silence until Sal Rutherford arrived.

 

***

 

They saw him coming from a far distance, Sal’s headlights bucking over ruts and scaring the cows.

His glossy new pickup pulled up beside Gabe’s. Sal popped open the door, grabbing his shotgun from the rack, a flashlight, and a box of shells. He left the engine and the lights running. Sal was not one of these men, and he knew it.

“Gabe. What the hell did you wake me up for?” he growled, rubbing the sleep crust from his eyes as he plodded toward the group. 

Gabe was unarmed. His men didn’t need weapons

“Dead cattle?” Sal demanded. He didn’t wait for an answer, broke down the shotgun and fed it shells. “Was it wolves?”

Silence dragged. Gabe shook his head. “Come see.”  

Sal followed him to the men staring down at the ground. The truck headlights cast their shadows long over the scene, like negative images of ghosts.

“Shit,” Sal swore. Gabe could see the sweat prickling the back of his neck.

“Those human?”

Gabe stared down at the twisted remains. “Looks like they were, once upon a time.”

“Did you boys have anything to do with this?” Sal demanded.

“No, Boss.”

Sal mopped his brow with a meaty palm. “Shit.”

From the tangled skeletons, a sound emanated: a splintering bleat that caused Sal to jump and aim his shotgun.

One of those once-upon-a-time humans moaned from deep within the prison of bones.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Sal hissed. “It’s still alive.”

Gabe turned his unblinking stare at it, nonplussed. “Seems so.”

Sal ratcheted the shotgun and shot the creature in the head. Bones shattered like broken ice under the roar of the blast. Sal waited for the echoes to recede, staring at the fragmented skeleton, seeming to dare it to make another sound.

The husk was silent, and Sal nodded. He turned back toward the truck, climbed in, and slammed the door.

“What do you want us to do with them?” Gabe called. These bones were like any other secret on this land: writhing pieces of darkness that had to be shoved further back into shadow. Forced back before they acquired form and volition.

Sal set the truck into reverse and rolled down the window with a shaking hand.    

“Bury ’em.”

 

***

 

“This is odd land,” Mike Hollander said, glancing sideways at his passenger. Petra couldn’t tell if he meant it as conversation starter or a warning.

“That’s what they tell me, Ranger Hollander. Everyone says the Yellowstone region is one of the most geologically interesting places on Earth.” Hot air whipped through the open windows of Mike’s Forestry Service Jeep, blowing long strands of Petra’s dark blond hair into her mouth. It still tasted like sea salt. She shaded her eyes against the sun dazzle with a hand, her gaze tracing the distant horizon of mountains and scrub plains. This was as far from the water as she could get.

Hollander shook his head, smiling. “The early Indians and trappers said that this was the place where hell bubbled up.”

“I can see why they might think that.” Petra wasn’t much in the mood for idle conversation, but Hollander seemed too chatty to let her ride to their destination in peace.

“So you’re a geologist?”

“Yes. Taking soil samples for the U.S. Geological Survey.”

“Most of the geologists are gone by spring. What did you do to get sent all the way out here this late in summer?”

Petra’s mouth thinned as she tugged her sleeve down to cover the handprint-shaped scar on her forearm. “Just looking …” She paused, weighing how much to tell him. “Looking for a little solitude.”

Hollander fanned his fingers over the wheel, casting hand-puppet shadows in the molten light. He laughed. “Point taken. Most people out here are either looking for something or running from something. You’ll fit in fine.”

Petra jammed her chin on her fist and stared out the window at the tassels of grasses flashing past in the dust. The wind felt soothing on her sunburned freckled face, and she let her eyes slip shut. Maybe she could pretend to sleep, and Hollander would give up.

“Look, I don’t mean to be nosy. Strangers are rare enough around here, except for the tourists. And we don’t pay them much mind.”

Petra opened one eye. “I appreciate you picking me up from the airport. Really.”

“No problem. Tourism’s down this year, and there isn’t much to do at the station. This kept me from spending the day hauling winter gear up to the ranger cabins.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Forestry is a glamorous business.”

“Are there any other scientists around?”

“Some. There’s a group of biologists that will be here in a few weeks to track wolves. I’ll introduce you when they show up.”

“Thanks.” Petra wasn’t sure how social she felt. But she appreciated the effort.

Hollander pointed through the dirty glass. “Here’s your new home sweet home.”

A sign perched by the side of the road announced that they were entering “TEMPERANCE—Pop. —412.” Beyond it, Petra could make out a main street with a gas station. There were no stoplights. They drove past a bar, pizza parlor, canoe rental, and a post office.

“Small town,” she remarked.

“Temperance is at a crossroads,” Hollander said. “We’re at the intersection of an Indian reservation, Yellowstone Park, and ranch land.”

“It’s a tourist town, then?”

“Nah. It’s been around since the Gold Rush days. Legend says it was founded by an alchemist who was determined to turn dead rocks into gold.”

“Judging by the size of the town, he wasn’t too successful.”

“I guess not. He disappeared when his house burned down. The town hung on by its fingernails after that, but it never really flourished.” Hollander turned the Jeep down a gravel road and west into fields. “How the heck did you find this place?”

“The Internet.”

“Well, here it is.”

The Jeep pulled up to a beat-up Airstream trailer parked in a broad plain about two miles out of town. The trailer’s amenities consisted of an electrical pole tied off at the mast and a rusty charcoal grill leaning beside the front door. Petra opened the door of the Jeep and stepped into the field. The tall, brittle grasses lashed around her ankles. Hollander picked up her bag from the backseat—a military-style duffel containing her only possessions.

“Look, I can take you to the lodge at the park …” he began.

Petra ignored him. She tugged the Airstream’s door open and fumbled inside for a light switch. Fluorescent lights flickered, illuminating faux wood paneling, a futon covered in a plaid quilt, and a small refrigerator. The floor creaked as Petra walked to the back, where a small bathroom was tucked away. The trailer was blisteringly hot, so she reached for a window.

“I can take you to the lodge,” Hollander repeated. He hadn’t set her bag down yet.

Petra shook her head. “Thanks, but … this’ll be fine.” She gave him a reassuring smile.

Hollander frowned. “These really aren’t accommodations fit for a woman.”

Petra laughed, and tried to smother it with the back of her hand.

“What’s so funny?”

“I’ve spent the last two years working on an oil rig. This is … luxurious by comparison.”

“Okay.” He set her bag down on the futon. “Look, if you need anything, you have my cell number.”

Petra nodded. She surveyed her new domain, finding the keys to the Airstream’s door on a small fold-down table next to a preaddressed envelope for the rent. She’d seen worse, much worse. She could make this work.

Hollander frowned some more at the surroundings, thumbs caught in his belt. “You got a gun?”

“Airline is sort of a bitch about traveling with weapons these days.”

“I’m not leaving a gal out in the middle of nowhere without protection.” He smiled. Hollander had a very nice smile. A smile that took out some of the sting of being called a “gal.” He reached into his boot, pulled a gun out of a hidden holster. “’Specially not a gal with a handprint-shaped scar around her wrist.”

Piss. Cops were cops, no matter where she went. She tucked her arm behind her back, tugging down her sleeve again. “The Forest Service is well armed,” she observed, to change the subject.

“We’re out in the wilderness without anyone else for miles around. You bet we’re well armed.” He held out the gun, but she didn’t move to take it. “You know how to shoot one of these?”

“Yeah. That’s a five-shot Ruger SP-101 .38. Nice piece.”

“I’m impressed. A gal who knows her firearms.” He set it on the fold-out table.

“Hollander, I don’t want to take—”

“You’re borrowing it, until you get your own. This isn’t my federal-issue sidearm. I’ve got others.”

Petra bit back a snide remark. But she was conscious of the shadows drawing down outside, knowing that it would be dark soon in unfamiliar territory. “Okay. Thanks. I’ll get it back to you as soon as I get one of my own.”

Hollander tipped his hat and headed for the door. Petra stood in the doorway and watched him drive away into the melting light. When the dust plume had faded, she closed and locked the door behind him. The door didn’t fit exactly square in the frame, and she had to bump it with her hip to make sure that it shut properly.

The heat was thick, sticky like caramel. Petra opened the rest of the creaky windows. She was glad to be rid of Hollander. He was a nice-looking man, but Petra had had enough of nice-looking men to last a lifetime. And the alpha-male types, too. Tears blurred her vision as she set about opening her duffel bag. Her fingers clasped around the pendant that knocked against her collarbone. It was cast in the shape of a lion swallowing the sun, a gift from her father. Her fingers moved from the pendant to the scar spiraling around her wrist, a mark left by the last man who’d touched her. The puckered edges were flattening, turning white with time. She feared what would happen when it faded—would she forget?

But coming here was for exactly that—for forgetting. She wanted this to be the biggest, widest oubliette in the world. Petra savagely tore through her clothes and stacked them on the futon: jeans and casual shirts, T-shirts, tank tops, sunglasses, an olive military-style jacket, boots stained with oil and crusted with brine. A shockproof plastic case held her tools: compass, binoculars, picks, flashlights, chisels, hand lenses, rock-climbing gear. And six fat envelopes full of cash. She stuffed five of them behind a piece of loose plastic paneling in the wall, and put the sixth on the table next to the rent envelope. That was for a gun. And a car—probably a truck. But those were tomorrow’s worries.

She stretched out on the futon, watching the light drain from the day. The thin mattress smelled of tobacco smoke. The light seeped away from the field, sucking shadows toward the distant mountains. A rim of brilliant gold outlined the craggy, snow-covered peaks until it faded like the corona of an eclipse, leaving violet sky behind. Crickets and cicadas chimed and buzzed in a soothing melody. Not like the sussurance of the waves, but a landlocked lullaby all its own.

This place was all earth and dirt. She let the blackness of the new world fall over her as it fell over the land, hoping that it would obliterate her thoughts and grant her a dreamless sleep.

 

***

 

Petra jolted upright. For a moment, she forgot where she was. Expecting a long drop from her bunk to the floor, she misstepped, turning her ankle as she scrambled out of the futon and the tangle of covers.

Something was howling outside. She squinted through the window into the inkiness beyond, shivering. Cold had invaded the trailer.

Was it a wolf? She’d never heard one before. This animal’s voice sounded higher pitched than the wolves she’d heard in movies, punctuated by yips and owl-like hoots.

A dog? It had to be a dog, she decided.

She peered into the dark. Was it hurt? Worry gnawed at her.

There would be no sleep while it was carrying on. She reached for her boots and a flashlight. As an afterthought, she reached for Hollander’s gun. She hoped that the dog wasn’t hurt badly enough that it would need to be put down. That would just be icing on the cake.

Petra dragged the door open and stared out into the night. Night here was different than on the ocean. The ocean was black, capped with white waves, but the lights from the drilling platform and boats obliterated most of the stars.

Here … here was different. Night held sway over everything else. The only light was the one in Petra’s hand and the glorious spill of the stars overhead. She sucked in her breath, taking in the white shadow of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.

She stepped down, onto the ground. Her weight shifted beneath her, and she nearly tripped, craning her neck to see upward. She was too accustomed to the swell of the tides—solid ground was screwing with her sense of balance. She spread her arms out for steadiness, staring up at the sky again.

The Big Dipper shone overhead, and she could pick out the sickle of Leo low on the horizon. Her father had taught her about the stars when she was a little girl, before he disappeared. Her throat closed around the memory.

The howl sounded again, to the east. Clutching the gun and the flashlight, Petra swept the beam across the field of spiky grasses and stones. She whistled, and the howl cut off, midnote.

“Come here, puppy,” she called, feeling moronic. Her breath made ghosts in the air before her, and the chill cut through her tank top and cargo pants.

The keening began again. Resolved, Petra clomped through the grasses and gravel to the source of the sound. She swatted away mosquitoes determined to make a meal of her, whistling for the dog.

Twenty yards from the trailer, her whistle froze and fell flat in her mouth. A pair of shining gold eyes peered through the grass at her.

Petra edged the flashlight to the eyes, raising the gun. The light outlined a small, reddish-grey creature with big ears and a bushy tail. Not a dog, not a fox. Coyote. 

“Hey,” she called, wondering why the coyote wasn’t running from her. “You okay, little guy?”

The coyote blinked, lifted his head and sniffed in her general direction. He yipped conversationally, then presented his rump to her. He dug with his front paws in the sandy earth like a dog searching for a bone. Judging by the size of the hole, he’d been at it for a while.

“Whatcha got there, little guy?” Petra tried to peer into the hole. It was about a foot and a half deep that she could see, but the coyote was enthusiastically kicking up enough dust to make her cough.

The coyote ignored her, continuing to dig. Petra backed away, deciding to leave the coyote to his business. Perhaps it was den-digging season, or he smelled a delicious vole. Whatever he was into, he didn’t want human involvement.

Suddenly, the coyote broke off and scampered a couple of feet from the hole. He looked her straight in the eye and gave a soft, lilting whimper.

“What? I don’t want your dinner. I had pretzels on the plane.”

The coyote laid his forelegs down on the ground and yowled at Petra.

Petra shined her flashlight down into the hole. Something metallic glinted in the dirt.

“Oh. What did you find?”

She looked back at the coyote, to find that he’d vanished like a puff of smoke in the sere landscape. She held her breath. She couldn’t hear him moving in the undergrowth. He was gone, swallowed into black.

Petra laid down the gun and reached into the hole, hoping that there was nothing inside that would bite her. Snakes would be just perfect. Blackened wood crumbled under her touch. A tarnished metallic plate was jammed in the side of what looked like an old building beam, turned up at an odd angle. Petra dug into the flaking wood to free it.

The metal was about the size of her palm, round and ornately engraved. She rubbed at it with her filthy hand, and her heart leapt into her mouth. It looked like a compass with numbers and the cardinal directions carved around the rim, and in the center was an image of a lion devouring the sun. Her fingers fluttered up to her necklace. No, it couldn’t be. Too damn weird.

She stood up yelled for the coyote. “Hey, come back here!”

Her voice startled the nearby crickets into silence.

The metal cut into her palm, but the coyote didn’t answer her with as much as a yip.

 

ISBN: 978-0062389862

$2.99 for ebook, $6.99 for mass market paperback

About the Book

Read the Reviews