FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
“We have company,” Nathan heard his friend murmur, and simply nodded.
He’d heard the approach of the car but hadn’t bothered to look up. His mind was solely focused on the barbed wire stained with blood.
More than one being had passed this way earlier, but the snow had already covered the tracks. The blood appeared to be human, but he had been fooled before. Touching a finger to the barb, he found the blood was still wet. Without hesitation he tasted it…
Veronica was keeping an eye on two men kneeling by the barbed wire fence across the road. Her original intention had been to stop and ask if they’d seen a little girl, but now then she saw the one in the full length parka reaching out to the barbed wire. He touched one of the points and then began sucking his finger.
Normally this wouldn’t have seemed all that odd, but it was the way he’d done it. He hadn’t pulled his finger back quickly or yelped, as if he’d hurt himself. Instead he’d moved slowly and had the most intense look on his face. It was that, which really caught her attention.
She’d seen that kind of expression before on some of her fellow officers. It was one that said a clue had been found.
Studying them carefully she noted that neither man appeared to be armed, nor were they dressed for hunting wild game. ‘So what were they doing around here?’ she began to wonder when a figure appeared beside her.
“They seem to be searching for something, don’t they, Sergeant?” the newcomer observed, quietly.
Turning she saw the familiar profile of Jason Cloudfoot, the missing girl’s uncle. He didn’t even glance at her. His focus was solely on the two strangers across the road.
“Or someone,” she whispered back and stepped forward, while keeping one hand close to her gun. “Excuse me? Have either of you gentleman seen a little girl, around nine years old, come by here?”
The two men exchanged a look and then the younger one stood up. “No, but someone’s come through here recently and pricked themselves on this barbed wire,” he told them.
‘Oh dear God let this be a lead,’ she thought and quickened her pace, totally oblivious to the fact that Jason had not followed her.
As soon as she reached the pair, she bent down and saw that indeed someone had cut themselves on one of the points. At a guess, she suspected it was just the right height for a nine year old girl to try and climb through.
Unfortunately, the wind and falling snow had already erased any footprints. “Damn, if only we knew whether it was really Julie’s blood and not some poacher who cut through here,” she muttered.
“Is that the girl’s name?” asked the younger of the two men.
Veronica nodded and looked at him. From beneath the hood of his long parka, she could see he had blonde hair and a pair of eyebrows that seemed to give him a perpetual scowl. But the warmth in his eyes hinted at a much kinder and caring nature, she hoped.
“Yes, it is,” she told him and then asked, “How long have you two been in this area?”
Instead of answering, the young man turned to his friend who replied, “Hmm… I’d say about an hour so.”
“I see,” she nodded and fixed her gaze at the one in the parka. “Neither of you are from around here, may I ask your names?”
This time the older man spoke up. “Well, in spite all the snow that is making my beard turn white, I am not Santa Claus. My name is Professor Otto Hofstadter, and this is my research assistant, Nathan Steward.”
The young man smiled and gave a slight bow, which made her wonder. For someone who had to be her age, his manners seemed a bit old-fashioned.
She smiled politely, but silently raised her guard again. Why had the one called Nathaniel had to check with his friend about how long they’d been here? She’d seen similar behavior between suspects when they were being questioned when they were trying to keep their stories straight.
Eyes narrowed she asked them, “And neither of you saw anyone else during that time?”
The younger man shook his head. “I was inside the trailer until about five minutes ago.”
“Doing what?” she asked curiously.
But before either man could answer Jason joined their little group saying, “Resting, from the look of things, Sergeant.”
“And how do you know that?” she demanded, shooting an annoyed look at him.
“Because while you were over here asking questions, I went inside the trailer,” the tall Native American replied. “It was wrong of me to do so I know, but as a police officer you have to follow certain rules. Whereas I am simply a man looking for his niece, and I don’t have time to worry about social niceties.”
She just stared at him for a moment and then shook her head. A part of her couldn’t blame him. Julie was his responsibility and he was obviously very afraid for her.
Sighing she turned back to Nathaniel and his friend and briefly caught the two men exchanging strange looks, but then it was gone. But she was sure something had just passed between them.
But before she could form her next question the professor asked, “How long has the girl been missing?”
“Since this morning,” Jason answered, “She developed Chicken Pox two weeks ago and had to stay with me and my family, while her parents and older brothers headed back to sea.”
“They went on a cruise?” the one called Nathan frowned.
“No,” Jason corrected him, “My brother and his wife are marine biologists. Then this morning I got a call that my brother’s research vessel had been caught in a storm and all contact had been lost four days ago. The searchers had found nothing and were now turning their efforts into a… recovery operation.”
“And the poor girl she overheard everything and took off crying; am I right?” Professor Hofstadter asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Jason nodded. “Julianna has gotten into the habit of running off into the woods when she’s upset. She says it helps her calm down and forget her troubles.”
Veronica watched Nathan’s eyebrows furrow, giving him a more intense look than before as he asked, “What kind of troubles does she have?”
It was a good question, she had to admit. No one had bothered to tell her back at the station why Julie had run off. Whoever this fellow was a part of her was starting to like him.
“My niece is a bit overweight and has become more sensitive about it recently. She’d been teased a lot back at school and even my own children started giving her a hard time about it until I made them stop. They hadn’t meant any real harm since she was their cousin, but her feelings had been hurt so she was still feeling very emotional. Then when the call came she overheard and took off before any of us realized what had happened,” Jason explained.
“The poor thing,” Veronica sighed, feeling more determined than ever to find the girl. “Assuming the blood on the barbed wire is Julie’s…”
“It is,” she heard Nathan murmur almost inaudibly, and did a double-take.
Staring at him she said quietly, “I though you said you hadn’t seen anyone come through here?”
“I didn’t,” he replied and looked her straight in the eye. “But every fiber of my body is screaming that it was her.” Then he turned and stared out into the field. “There’s a little girl out there and she needs to be found NOW! It’s going to be dark within the hour and the temperature is dropping fast.”
Hearing the same thoughts she’d had back at the station, struck a tone within Veronica. “I take it you both want to help?”
“Absolutely,” Professor Hofstadter, “Now since we already suspect she came this way, I suggest the four of us start searching from here and stay in contact by radio.”
Veronica looked at him, “Do you have any on you?”
“Back in the trailer, come. You can call in more help from your station while we’re at it,” the older man suggested as they headed back across the road, while Jason and Nathan remained at the fence.
Nathan stared out at the white expanse. A part of him had hoped that the girl’s uncle would have gone with Otto and the policewoman, so he could send out a small search party of his own. But the man had stayed behind and was watching him out of the corner of his eye. The fellow obviously suspected something. He’d admitted to going inside the trailer to search for the girl. Had he found the refrigeration unit with the supply of blood bags?
As if knowing his thoughts the tall man said quietly, “You have been places where no other man has set foot before, haven’t you?”
Nathan caught the unspoken hint in those words. The first time he’d met Otto back a similar conversation had sprouted up between them in a similar manner. He studied the man for a moment and noted his skin tone and long black hair. Surely he was of Native American descent. He also held himself in a manner that more than hinted at authority.
“Yes,” he said finally. “Do any of the stories or legends of your tribe speak of strange places that few have ever suspected were real?”
“They do,” his companion nodded, “In fact I know them all. You see it is my responsibility to know all things pertaining to my people: our traditions, medicines, and folklore.”
Upon hearing this Nathan turned to his companion and looked up at him in surprise. “You’re a shaman?”
The man nodded. “And I know many things, including that such places as you and I have been discussing do exist. One of my people from long ago, before we called ourselves Seneca, entered one of those places.”
“No, he went by choice to find a way to save our people from a being that did not belong in this world.”
“And did he succeed?” Nathan asked quietly.
“Indeed he did,” said his new acquaintance with pride, “There was no way to send the thing back, but he brought an object with him that allowed us to imprison the creature and keep it from harming others ever again.”
Nathan smiled and nodded, but a part of him was troubled. “Was he the same when he came back from that other place?”
“Yes, but he was more wise than before. He had seen and learned much during his period in that other reality that was so much like ours, yet so different,” here the man paused to at him and added solemnly, “You were not as fortunate.”
“Depends on who you ask,” Nathan replied with a sigh. “My life has been extended far beyond that of any man. But my body’s requirements changed.”
“Yes, I found that which you keep cold and hidden from sight,” the one called Jason nodded. “Tell me, did you enter that other place by choice?”
“No, it happened purely by chance,” Nathan told him. “I was a soldier, fighting to protect others.”
“Then you had a good heart,” his companion nodded, staring out into the empty field.
Behind them Nathan could hear Otto and the police sergeant starting to head back their way. “Our friends are about to rejoin us,” he murmured just loud enough for the other man to hear.
“I know,” Jason replied without looking at him. “Can you tell me one thing? Did you find that your heart had changed after you came back?”
Without pause, Nathan shook his head. “No, I’m still the same man I was before.”
Jason studied the stranger carefully. Deep down he sensed that the man before him, was indeed a good person. But still he had to be sure. “Then please show me,” he told the fellow. “If you have any gifts that can help me find my niece, please use them and know that you’re secret will be safe. It getting dark and the snow is getting worse.”
For several seconds nothing happened.
Then he noticed the young man’s brow furrow in concentration. A moment later, the fellow’s right hand disappeared into the sleeve of his jacket. This was followed by the arm of the jacket slowly ‘deflating’ as if the arm that occupied it was shrinking or withering away.
As Jason stared in wonder, his sharp eyes detected movement within the rest of the coat, as if dozens of tiny creatures were racing down towards the man’s feet.
Suddenly a flurry of mice, the color of blood, began emerging from beneath the edges of Nathan’s floor-length parka. The creatures began racing across the open field began to slowly spread out in various directions.
“If they find any trace of your niece, I’ll know,” he heard the young man whisper as the last of the mice emerged and joined their brethren across the snow.
“Thank you, my friend,” Jason smiled placed a hand on his companion’s shoulder, knowing full well that there was no longer an arm attached.
TO BE CONTINUED…