by Celeste Castro
What is terrorizing a nature preserve near a small town in rural Idaho? Half the town believes it’s the Lake Lowell Ghost and the rest are convinced it’s a diabolical beast. With no end in sight, they need help.
Enter Special Agent Winifred Ford,Federal Bureau of Investigation. She has an eye for the unexplained and a history with the creature at large.
Joining the hunt is State Fish & Wildlife Officer Daya Soto and her partner, Lexy—a specialist in wildlife enforcement who happens to be a Karelian Bear Dog.
Can the two women work together when one faces east toward logic and the other faces west toward the realm of impossibility? In an age where science and facts rule, blind trust can be a lot to ask of anyone.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"My big (older, much much older) sister and I are obsessed with The X-Files. One of my favorite episodes is "The Great Mutato". It’s about a creature running amuck and everyone is speculating and it has two mouths, and there’s a half-eaten sandwich to prove it! (Her favorite episode is "Home" about a long forgotten family of inbreeders, but I wasn’t about to write a lesbian romance about that!)
"The Great Mutato" is the basic premise of Lex Files. There’s a strange creature, possibly misunderstood, wild speculation and fantastical eyewitnesses. In my story, swap Scully and Mulder for two Scullys, one of which is a very awkward (definitely misunderstood) FBI agent. The other is a wildlife enforcement officer who happens to be the top tracker in twelve states, skilled at taming wild animals (and awkward women). The real star of the story is Lexy, so named after my sister’s dog, who graced us with her presence for eleven (short) years. Lexy’s spirit is resurrected in this story and she will ever live as a hero and in the form of a tough-as-nails Karelian Bear Dog (here’s a little more about why I chose this dog breed). Our pets are our family and when it’s time to say goodbye, it’s gut reaching, but their spirits can endure through our memories and stories."
Puff, Puff, Gasp
“Pass the joint, man. It’s puff, puff, pass, not puff, puff, puff.”
“Whatever. You took two hits.”
“Whatever.” Kristof took another massive hit and his face grew red before he handed it over. “’Ere. Asshole.”
Marnie rolled her eyes and waited her turn. As their joint smoldered, so did their conversation devolving into silence. She closed her eyes, enjoying the high and the sun on her face, when a faint sound in the distance captured her attention. A whistling sound. That is, it sounded more like someone learning to whistle, and only a faint and high-pitched shrill noise could be heard.
Her curiosity pulled her to her feet. “Hey, do you guys hear that?” She looked into the distance. “Listen.”
“I can’t hear over Kristof hoarding the joint,” Forrest said.
“You fuck off. There are no rules, man. You just smoke it.”
“There are rules you need to abide by as a pot smoker in today’s world.”
“Shh. You guys…” She bit her lip, turned toward the trees, and then back to her companions. “You don’t hear that?”
They were fighting over the small bit of black paper, stealing turns to inhale every last bit of smoke. “Seriously. Listen,” she whispered.
Their faces contorted as their eyes narrowed.
“Is it like, hissing?” Forrest got up and pushed the roach into his pocket. He brushed off his backside as dried leaves, grass, and bits of gravel fell to the ground. “That’s weird.”
“Totally! Come on, brah, we gotta hunt that shit down!” Kristof jumped to his feet.
“Wait,” Marnie pleaded. “You guys…”
“It’s cool, Marn. We’re in Lake freggin’ Lowell in Caldwell You-Da-Ho,” Forrest said. “There ain’t jack to worry about.”
They left her with stupid grins and raced each other toward the sound.
“Forrest! Kristof! Idiots!”
She yelled and gave up. Both of her male companions disappeared through the brush. One of them flipped her the bird. She flipped them one right back.
She trotted toward the direction the boys had taken, but the sound pulled her in another direction. She hesitated to go alone, but laughed it off. She wasn’t scared, just curious. There was absolutely nothing to worry about around Lake Lowell, except for the Lake Lowell Ghost. A story her big brother used to tell her about an apparition in the form of a young woman with long white hair and a flowy white dress. She couldn’t remember the details, only that her face was the last thing someone saw before their heart exploded.
Nope. Nothing to worry about.
A gentle breeze brought scents of new mint, alfalfa, and onion, classic Caldwell staple crops that received life from the Lake Lowell reservoir. As she made her way deeper into the brush, under the shade from the trees, different scents lingered about—musty wet leaves, damp mineral-rich earth from the nutrient-dense lake, and pot and cigarette smoke.
There was another scent. She searched her memories for something familiar with nothing to show except perplexity, confusion, and growing paranoia.
“Forrest?” she asked. “Is that you?”
Her words felt fat and heavy, the classic weed-induced cottonmouth compounded by fright and uncertainty—and a feeling she couldn’t place. A hand to her chest calmed the building pressure. She clenched her teeth. Her jaw tightened. Unable to move. Rigid legs rooted her in place. The dark under the canopy of the trees cast shadows and animated tree trunks.
The ground was shifting. Bubbling, as if lava threatened. She wondered if their weed was laced with something. She’d heard stories of synthetic marijuana.
“Seriously assholes, you better not be fucking with me.” She almost lost her footing. Something wet below. A look downward. A dark tar-like substance. Oil? Mud? Her white canvas shoes were now red, her feet wet, her toes slipping around inside and curling in response. The sensation hitting her at once. It was fight or flight. Or fall. She took off, but a tangle of branches and an exposed root brought her down.
“What the hell?” She worked herself on to her knees and inspected the substance on her hands. Blood?
It was definitely blood, but from where?
A dead deer. A totally destroyed deer. Its insides were on the outside. A mess of guts, gore, blood, and matted fur. Its stomach split from end to end. Its face appeared to be twitching and its eyes were still blinking, but that was impossible. The animal was dead, totally and completely, one hundred percent dead. But its tongue was moving and it was hissing like her cat did when she was being brushed, just a warning hiss, but a hiss it was, and how could the deer be hissing if it was dead and blood was spilling from its throat?
But the sound wasn’t coming from the deer.
The hissing grew louder and evolved into words, the whispering of words she couldn’t comprehend. And it was coming from above, no, behind her, all around, a vortex with her at the eye.
She tasted blood. “Shit.” Her nose was bleeding. She raised her arm and used the cuff of her hoodie to stop the bleeding.
Out of the corner of her eye, movement. Deranged and distorted as if a lightbulb was dying. On and off. Dark then light. Over and over and over again. Something was there, lurking and hissing, whispering. It was growing louder, getting closer. It was everywhere and nowhere and she wanted to catch a glimpse.
Forrest and Kristof. Their shouts broke her free from the call of the hissing.
“What the fuck happened to you! Your nose. Your face. You’re covered in blood.” The boys looked to their feet. “Holy shit! It’s everywhere!”
“Do you see it? Can you hear it?” She stood rooted in place, unable to move and wanting to run, but where? “There!” She pointed. “Lost! Can’t see! Trapped!”
A Girl & Her Dog
“All right, girl. Hold. Only for a sec’.” Officer Daya Soto exited her service vehicle and gave her work partner a pat on the head and a couple of scratches behind an ear. The tolerant colleague: a short-haired, medium-built, black-and-white canine named Lexy. Alexus Marie to be exact, named for the simple fact that Officer Soto had always loved that name. Other names the dog had been called during her three years included Lex, Lixi, and Lix, mainly because she licked so much, especially when she was happy.
Soto loved the look in Lexy’s eyes at the onset of an investigation, a mix of eagerness and intrigue. She wondered if the feeling was mutual. Probably. Officer Soto was certain they communicated on a special wavelength and had tales to tell to back her claim.
“Mr. Simmons?” Soto positioned her Stetson, adding another few inches to her five-foot-four frame. The hat did its other job of shading her olive skin from a sunny summer day in Seattle. Her long wavy black hair was woven into a single braid, which she always wore while on duty.
“To some.” He snorted. “But you can call me Larry.”
They shook hands. His was large and chubby, and he had an overly strong grip, but she gripped back just as hard if not harder.
“I’m sorry this happened, sir. My partner, Officer Tom Roselyn, is talking with your wife. Everything will be okay.” Larry seemed more interested in working something out from between his teeth. She inspected her notes. “You said a cougarattacked your wife and then took off toward the Highlands?”
“Darn straight.” He lifted his ball cap to scratch an itch, then resettled it.
“What color was the cat and about how large would you say?”
“It was a big ol’ critter,” he said, holding his arms out in front of him as if he were holding a wine barrel in his arms. “The thing came out of nowhere, scratched up the wife real good. Ain’t never seen no cat do that before.” A smirk appeared on his face. He settled his thumbs into his belt loops. How he managed to find his waistband under his protruding belly she didn’t know.
“Nor have I. Cougars don’t usually attack people.”
His smirk disappeared when he noticed Lexy poke her head out of the backseat of the service vehicle window. He ceased to be concerned with the troublesome piece of food in between his teeth at the sight of the dog. “When did y’all get dogs on the force?”
“She’s the only one like this,” Soto said, making eye contact with her partner.
“Like what? Looks like a regular dog to me. A buddy of mine’s got one, looks just like that. A cow dog I think, and real smart. Are you sure this isn’t a cow dog breed, little lady?”
“Pretty sure,” she confirmed.
“She’s a Karelian Bear Dog.”
“What kind of fancy newfangled dog is that?”
“Actually it’s an old breed, a rare and specialized one known for hunting large game, moose, and bears to name a few. Oh, and large cats, which she can smell a mile away.”
“They let women on the force and now dogs? I would think it would be the other way around.” He gave her a playful swat on the arm and let it linger there. “In fact, I don’t know why your six-foot-somethin’ partner is talkin’ to the wife and you’re here talkin’ to me.” He stepped closer and smiled. “You’re just a little bitty thang.”
She suppressed an urge to take his meaty fat wrist in hers and twist it all sorts of awkward, if only to teach him to abstain from laying his hands on a uniformed officer. And he could wipe the lecherous look off his face at the same time. She eyed his hand and he took a step back.
But her looks deceived most people. She could bench more than the average man, and she was quick on her feet and acutely aware of her surroundings, which made her extremely effective in dealing with scared wildlife and out of control humans.
“Come on, you know I’m joking. Try smiling. It was funny.”
He rocked back and forth on his heels as he did the one-two look up her body in that way so many men do—the look that said she had no business carrying a weapon, wearing that badge, or working in wildlife enforcement.
“I’ll smile later when I know your wife is okay,” she replied as she looked toward the wife and paramedics, who were tending to her wounds. Soto’s longtime team member, Officer Tom Roselyn, was doing the questioning, but by the looks of it, he couldn’t get a word in edgewise given her overly emotional state. “Sir, would you mind showing us the area of the attack? I want Lexy to get the cat’s scent so she can start tracking.” She clipped on the dog’s leash and let her out of the cab. Lexy jumped out and danced around, sniffing the air, the ground, and waiting for her cue. “Come on, girl.”
“Yap. It’s over on this ways where it happened.”
The partners followed, stopping on the way so Lexy could sniff out the bit of blood on the ground in the man’s driveway.
“The little fucker. Now you know, I’ve seen it around here before.”
Junk cars, an old RV, and fiberglass boat parts sat collecting mold and moss just like the house they were headed toward.
“The cat’s been getting into other people’s yards. You can straight-up ask anyone ’round here.”
“I don’t doubt that. It is summertime.”
“Them cougars, bears, and other critters are a common occurrence around these parts this time of year.” His comment sounded more like a question.
She remembered untangling the moose that had wandered into the high school playfield earlier in the summer. The poor creature could hardly stand on her own by the time Soto and Lexy had freed her. There was footage of them all over the Fish and Game’s Facebook page. The post had gone viral.
“Sir, I’m going to let her off the leash so she can go to work.” Soto’s eager partner whipped her head around, raring to go. “C’mon, girl. Find it.”
Lexy snorted her response. As fierce as she was, having tracked down aggressive wolves, subduing massive moose, and treeing numerous black bears that were quadruple her size, Lexy hated large cats. Pinned-back ears and fur standing on end were her telltale signs that a feline was near. But the dog gave no indication the cougar had been anywhere close. She pranced around, sniffing her way with her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth. Freed from the leash, she darted toward the back of the property, running to inspect a rusty coiled chain, an empty feeding bowl, and a water dish green with algae.
“Sir, do you own a dog?”
His face contorted. “We used to. A while ago. Gave him away…Now, I said the cougar scattered on up to the Highlands. Why are you wasting time around here?”
It didn’t take a specialty wildlife enforcement canine to tell her that he was acting suspicious. “Sir, let us do our job. She’s got to get the scent.” She spoke into her shoulder intercom device. “Roselyn, what’s the happs on the wife?”
“I’m getting nothing out of her. She’s not talking,” he reported.
“All she says over and over is that it was a cougar and it went to the Highlands. When I press, she freaks out.”
The sound of hysterics came in loud and clear through Soto’s intercom. She turned her attention back to Lexy, who scratched and sniffed her way around piles of junk in Larry’s backyard. She eventually made her way to a door, which presumably led to a basement.
“Roselyn, come out to the backyard. I think we’re about to have ourselves a situation.”
Before Soto made it to the basement door, Larry was there yelling, “Get her away from there! Y’all can’t go down there. I don’t give nobody no permission to go into my private home! There’s a cougar, a big ol’ cat, that attacked the wife running ’round loose! You bunch of incompetent fake police are wasting my tax dollars.”
“Excuse me?” Her hand moved to her Taser, a habit she’d developed. She rarely used the device since the mere act of reaching for it usually calmed people significantly.
“I guaran-fuckin-ty that it will attack again, and that’ll be on you, lil’ missy,” he shouted as spittle dripped from his lips.
“Sir, you need to calm down. Got it?” she said, careful not to change her tone and upset him even more. Still, she kept her hand resting over her Taser. “You called us here to investigate an animal attack and that’s what we’re doing. If there’s something dangerous down there, we need to investigate, so what’s in the basement? My dog’s going crazy.”
“Nothing’s in the damn basement. I told you. The goddamned cat scratched up the wife and headed up into the Highlands. Ya’ know, that way.” His belly shook when he pointed northward. “What’s in my basement has nothing to do with you and it’s my right as a property owner to protect what’s mine.”
“Soto?” Officer Roselyn made his entrance. “Is everything cool?”
“It will be,” she replied, her tone steady.
“No! It most certainly won’t be.” Larry huffed his response. “Man, you gotta calm this little know-it-all down. She thinks I’m hiding something in my damn basement.”
“Are you?” Roselyn asked and stepped closer into Larry’s personal space. Roselyn’s large stature helped in these situations.
“What? No! Why the hell would I?” Larry removed his ball cap and scratched his head aggressively.
“Sir,” Soto said, “We are going into the basement. Every indication says the trail leads there. Either you let us in, or we will use force because we have probable cause. What will it be? You’re the boss here.”
“Like hell you will. I am a gun-carrying citizen!”
He charged toward the basement door. Whether he had a weapon in that sweaty waistband or not, Soto wasn’t about to take any chances.
“Move out of the way, you damn dog,” he gruffed, charging as fast as his massive belly permitted. She was right behind and grabbed his arm, swung him around, and dropped him, though not before he took a swing at her. Her quick reflexes helped avoid the brunt of his fist, but a loud crack and blinding light told her his elbow connected with her cheekbone.
“Whoa. You okay?” Roselyn rushed over to her. Lexy bared her fangs and gave a low growl, a warning that put most people’s hair on end.
“Peachy.” She touched her cheek with the tips of her fingers to assess the damage. No blood, but she felt swelling coming on. “God damn it.”
“Get the fuck off me, you fuckin’ whore!”
Larry struggled to no avail, cuffed in her signature compromising position. The more he moved, the more uncomfortable the cuffs became.
“Sir, you need to shut the fuck up and stay the fuck down.” Lexy’s complete focus was trained on him. “It’s okay, girl. Roselyn, we’re going in. Watch this piece of…” She took a deep breath. “Keep an eye on him.”
“You got it.”
Larry tsked, snorted and spat onto the ground, landing most of the viscous substance on her right boot. Soto rolled her eyes.
She turned the doorknob. “Locked.” She so wanted to karate-kick the door open with her big black combat boot, but she reminded herself that she was a professional. “Sir, where might I find the keys to get in?”
He spat. “Fuck you.”
“Roselyn, can you help us please?”
Roselyn hoisted Larry up to his feet and held him in place for Soto.
“This day keeps getting better and better,” she said as she worked a hand into Larry’s pockets, grimacing at feeling his sweaty rolls of fat as she dug out the keys—a memory she didn’t want to revisit. Ever. Taking her frustration out on her flashlight, she clicked it on harder than necessary—with an expletive to match. In the background, she heard Larry making crude and sexual remarks about her to Roselyn. That was nothing new. Being taken down by a woman didn’t usually sit well with the men around her mostly rural territory. She trudged onward into the basement through mountains of trash. Boxes and empty cans, tires, motor oil, and other toxic-looking fluids littered the space. She pulled out her leather gloves and covered her mouth and nose with the bandana she always wore around her neck. Then she proceeded through and over endless junk. Lex led the way, releasing dust particles and mushroom spores with every step.
A whimpering and a rattling metal sound pulled them deeper into the dark space, a trail of blood and recently disturbed dust on the ground outlining the way. Lexy made her way to a cage and barked several times before sitting down. She pawed the air a few times, her signal that she’d found something worthy of Soto’s attention. A pit bull was inside, its muzzle bloodied, and full of scratches. He was scared and he was aggressive—not a good combination.
“Good job, girl. You found the cougar.” She gave her partner a treat and a pat on the head. “Roselyn,” she said into her shoulder radio, “get the county pit bull rescue on location.”
“Copy,” he replied as she and Lex navigated their way out of the dank and depressing basement.
“A pit bull?” Roselyn confirmed as he hoisted Larry to a standing position. “Let me guess. He’s bloody and full of scratches like the wife? Best to come clean now, man, and quit wasting taxpayer dollars.” He directed Larry toward Soto.
She Mirandized her charge, a speech she’d recited a few hundred times in her line of work where humans were always the culprits. She led him to her service vehicle and with Larry in the backseat, she closed the door with a bang. Then she let Lexy into the front cab to keep an eye on their suspect.
A Blast from the Past
The rhythmic knocking pattern belonged to only one person, and one person alone: Special Agent Winifred Ford’s superior: Special Agent Johnny Rankin. At first she thought about ignoring it, but she knew he would enter regardless of her permission. “Come in.”
She was deep in thought with all her focus on the fifteen-inch monitor before her. Ford glanced up from her laptop momentarily to see Rankin, her supervisor for the last twelve years, look around for a place to sit down, while holding file folders and two cups of iced coffee.
“A little help here?” he asked.
“Morning,” Winifred said. She moved a pile of papers over for him, making way for the cups of coffee.
He settled on a dusty metal folding chair. “Morning? It’s officially the afternoon.”
She turned her attention back to her monitor, trying to remember where she was going with her last thought. Out of the corner of her eye she couldn’t ignore the production he was making as he thumbed through the folders, spreading papers out on top of her small metal desk. “Give me one sec.”
“Any time you’reready.”
“I’m trying to see if, no, that doesn’t make sense, Winnie. Get it together.” She picked up a ballpoint pen and twirled it through her fingers, back and forth, clicking the top over and over each time it arrived back to her thumb. Then, into her mouth it went, familiar teeth grooves already imprinted in the cheap plastic.
“Earth to Ford,” Rankin said. “You know, you are encompassing every FBI agent stereotype at this exact moment.” She gave him a look and he gave her a chuckle. “I’m only kidding. How can you see in here? It’s so dark.”
“I like it this way. I can focusbetter.”
“It is really nice outside.” He got out of his chair to open dusty blinds, letting light fill the room. A beam shone right at her eyes.
“Close it!” She waved away floating dust particles. “It’s too fucking bright.”
“It’s a lovely summer day.”
“There are two seasons in DC, muggy or frigid, and neither is particularly lovely.”
He rounded her desk. “So, what has your complete attention?” He peered over her shoulder. “Ah, UFOs?”
“At least that is what they look like. But this light here,” she waved her finger across the upper right part of the screen, “it’s not right. And the angle of light there,” she circled the area on her monitor, “tells another story.”
“Fascinating. Who sent you these?”
“A legitimate source.”
“He’s legit, Rankin. We go through this every single time. There has got to be something else I’m supposed to be focusing on.”
“I see,” he said, busying himself by emptying coffee cups and take-out containers that he tossed in her recycling bin.
“Please stop picking up after me.”
“If not me, then who?” He popped the top off one of the cups. “There’s mold in this one!” He tossed the last empty cup into the bin, which was now full. “This place is a sty.”
“It is not.” She went back to studying the images on her laptop.
“Yep,” he tsked. “Every single stereotype. Jesus, Win, when’s the last time you left your office?”
“I just got here.” She glanced at her watch. “Holy hell.” It told her she’d spent the entire morning tweaking out on UFO photos. Her stomach growled at being neglected.
“Special Agent Winifred Ford, I came into your office for a reason,” Rankin said as he sat back down. “I would appreciate the courtesy of your attention, if for no other reason than I am your boss.”
“Sorry.” She dropped her shoulders and circled her head to the side, emitting a cracking sound. “I get sucked into these things, you know that.” She pulled away from her computer screen to give him her undivided attention. “What can I do for you, Special Agent Rankin?”
“I know you’re not taking any new cases, but I thought you might want to see this.” He pushed the file folders toward her. “Reminds me of the case you investigated in Oregon.”
“Which one?” She mentally ran through the investigations she had conducted there.
“Blue River Reservoir?” She stared at the folder sitting on her desk, recalling the details of her most defining case—thecase that set the stage for her checkered career in the FBI.
“What did the locals call it?” he asked.
“The Whispering. The Hissing. Aunt Betty from Beyond. It depended on who you asked and what they heard in its presence. The only thing in common was its unintelligible whispering and mauling of wildlife.”
“Take a look.” He pushed the file folder toward her. “It might be related.”
Ford begrudgingly pulled out her reading glasses. They made her feel old, and worse, they were the opposite of chic. She sifted through the details that conjured bitter, stale memories of her infamous case. Chills prickled down her spine along with feelings of resentment.
She pretended not to hear him as she took a sip of her iced coffee, which was not a good idea. The acidic cold liquid did nothing to comfort her. “I’m not one for jumping to conclusions.”
“The MO was pretty darn clear.”
“At first glance, maybe. But these photos look like your standard circle of life shit,” she said and closed the folder, pushing it toward him.
He pushed it back. “You don’t think it’s merely a coincidence that it’s been exactly nine years to the date since Oregon?”
“To the date?” she said and narrowed her eyes.
“Look for yourself.”
He pushed another file toward her. She knew this one by heart—a thick, mint-green file folder, the kind with four panels and two metal prongs on each page, holding hostage the evidence and proof of an impressionable agent. Its edges were worn, and tattered sheets of paper spilled out the sides. It also had a specific scent to it like walking into an antique shop. Memories of former owners. A place she didn’t want to revisit.
“Such an amateur,” she muttered. Then over her reading glasses she asked him, “Where is Deer Flat Refuge?”
She really shouldn’t express any interest and lead him on. She was absolutely not taking any new cases—especially not this one. She was determined to take her imminent extended leave of absence.
“Caldwell?” She tapped her finger on her lips.
“Southwestern part of the state. About thirty miles east of the Oregon border and about the same distance to Boise,” he said.
“And Deer Flat?” she asked.
“It’s a ten-thousand-acre wildlife habitat. Lake Lowell sits on the land, and get this,” he said, tapping a single finger on her desk, “it’s another manmade reservoir.”
“Damn.” She recalled the Blue River Reservoir built in the late sixties by the Army Corps of Engineers. “How many attacks are we talking about? What’s the frequency?”
“Unknown, but it has the potential to do much more damage than Oregon due to the sheer size of the preserve. It’s a significant resting place for wildlife in the winter.”
“Yes. Scared some kids pretty bad. We have their eyewitness accounts. It’s all in there.”
“And the locals?” She rubbed her temples and tried to ignore her growling stomach.
“Upset, going crazy, fighting. It’s your classic small-town fear-mongering.”
She nibbled at the tip of one of her perfectly manicured fingernails, reverting to an old habit. She took a deep breath. “What else?”
“Local authorities are bringing in an expert from Washington State Fish and Wildlife and a specialized K-9.”
“There aren’t specialized K-9 in Idaho?”
“Not like this. It’s a one of a kind experimental program and by the looks of it, highly effective.”
“What’s it called?” she asked, bringing up an Internet search window while he fished out a sheet of paper from the folder.
“The Karelian Bear Dog Program.”
“A Karelian Bear what now?” She typed into her browser. “What is that, like a huge-ass dog?” She pressed enter, bringing up stock images of black-and-white medium-built muscular dogs.
“No, this one doesn’t look huge.” He fished out photos from the crisp new file folder. “This is Lexy. This particular breed specializes in tracking large wildlife. An Officer Soto runs the program. They are lucky to get her on this case. She’s highly sought after. A rare commodity.” He pushed photos toward her, and she found the one of the dog.
“Good-looking dog.” Ford edged the photo with her fingertip. The dog was sitting obediently complete with service vest. She pulled another photo from the stack. “Whoa! Look at those fangs.” She held it up for Rankin to see. A large bear was cowered against a rock wall, and the same dog was keeping the massive creature at bay. Ford laid the photos side by side on her desk. “What’s the officialstory?”
“An exotic pet someone let loose because it got too difficult to take care of.”
“It’ll take the enforcement officer a day at most to realize it isn’t an exotic animal running wild.” Flashback to the Blue River case. No traces of normalanimal tracks, no traces of human involvement—only disturbed habitat, hallucinations, mauled and partially devoured wildlife, and a lot of blood. Add interviewing people for their recollection of the story only to get a sensationalized tale of the account they read about in their local newspaper. “And the unofficial story?”
“The Lake Lowell Ghost.”
“Listen to these accounts.”
“Do I have to?”
“It’ll be worth it.” He picked up the folder and cleared his throat. “Reports have confirmed several apparitions were spotted at Gott’s Point.”
“My sister and I spotted a bunch of teenagers wearing black clothing. They were leaving Lake Lowell late last night. They looked high on drugs and they had a bloody-looking bag, probably had black cats in it.”
“Black clothes, bloody bag of black cats, try saying thatthree times fast.”
“We were out early yesterday evening and saw what appeared to be a three-hundred-fifty pound wolf-like creature. It had red eyes and a red mouth and was darting around erratically.”
“Three hundred and fifty pounds? Impressive.”
“Here’s a good one. On our walk this morning, we spotted cloven animal tracks, El Chupacabra? Or is the devil himself running amuck at Lake Lowell?”
“Okay,” she drawled. “As tempting as this is—and you know I love a good haunt—I got six fascinating cases on my desk that need wrapping up before I go on leave, and this one isn’t one of them.” She pulled off her reading glasses, folded them up, and put them back into their velvet case. She closed both of the file folders and pushed them toward him with both hands. “Feel free to send Officer Soto all of my files.”
“Come on! How can you say no to this?” He sported several lines on his forehead.
“How about I say yes and no. I’ll make myself available for a phone call or two, if need be. How’s that?” The look on his face told her he was not appeased. “They have a bear dog for crying out loud. Plus it really isn’t worth my time or energy to be chasing ghost stories cooked up by local incompetents. Been there, done that. Besides, I’m knee-deep in the Burning Hand report. I nearly have it where I want it. I need to follow up on these UFO photos,” she said as she motioned to her laptop. “I got shit I need to do. I leave in three weeks. How the hell am I going to wrap up six cases and investigate a seventh?”
“I know.” He inched himself toward the edge of his seat. “But—”
“There are no refunds to Saint Martin. Package deal,” she reasoned. “They got it covered.” He folded his arms and narrowed his eyes. “Bear Dog—”
“Oregon was a long time ago, Ford. You took a couple of wrong turns. We didn’t give you the support you needed. Paranormal Investigations was a new unit. It’s come a long way. Youhave come a long way.”
“You’re right. I have come a long way, and part of that is I get to pick the cases I want—and this one is not one of them.” He leaned in and she leaned back. “It’s been nine years. What new information could I possibly offer that would help in any way whatsoever? They are better off starting from scratch.”
“Look at the file again. Nine years to the month. Officer Soto and company look extremely competent. You could make a great team.”
“A team? Really?” she scoffed. “I don’t work well with others, you know this. Everyone knows this,” she said, thinking back to the only partner she ever had on that freak show in Oregon. Being a team player wasn’t what she was known for these days. In fact, people purposely avoided her, which suited her fine.
“Look. I get it. Blue River was bad,” he sympathized.
“That’s an understatement. They still call me Winifreak. Did you know that?” She dug her nails into her palms to refrain from breaking something or breaking a lot of somethings. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him for fear of the latter. She picked up her trusty pen. The sound of clicking soothed her.
“Everybody knows that, and so what? You kept going year after year despite what happened. You,” he pointed at her, “have continued to work the hard cases those other asshole agents are too chickenshit to even touch. And everyone knows that too.”
She attacked her fingernail, biting through two layers of polish. She tore off a big piece and spit it out, realizing she’d made herself bleed. “Shit.” This wasn’t about missing her trip or not getting to take time off. The case in Oregon changed her at her core, made her paranoid at times, and clouded her judgment when she needed clarity.
“Getting scared is how you knew you were getting close. That’s what Paranormal Investigations are all about. I never said it was an easy road,” he said in a soothing voice.
“It hasn’t been.” Which was why she was weeks away from taking a three-month hiatus after going far too long without taking a proper one. Up to this point, vacationto her simply meant working remotely from a hotel room somewhere.
“With your background, Win, and having already faced it once before, you’d bring leadership and a critical perspective. You can have this thing solved in a week, two at the very most. If not, do what you can and turn it over. You won’t miss your flight.”
“Since when are we rushing investigations?”
“That’s not what I am suggesting. It’s just that Officer Soto looks like she’s incredibly efficient.”
She bore into him with a look that said he was probably right but with overtones of fuck you.
“Besides, if they screw this up, your name is tied to it, and you will have to get involved anyway, which will be even more difficult, because you weren’t there from the get-go. Furthermore, you will have to solve it when it shows up again in some other place nine years from now. How old will you be?” He reached over for her calculator.
She pushed it out of his reach. “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”
“No, you won’t. I’m pulling rank on you this time.”
“You are the only Native American expert I got,” he reminded her.
“If you recall from the last time, this isn’t based in Native American spiritualism.”
“Close enough that you are the subject-matter expert,” he said, and she knew he was right. “Come on, take a look at what you got to work with.”
Her curiosity won and she reached for the folders. She thumbed through the contents before clicking into the Fish and Wildlife website, muttering while eyeing Rankin. She pulled up the website again and scanned the Aboutsection of the Karelian Bear Dog Program webpage that described Officer Soto’s program, including photos of Lexy with a huge black bear atop a tree, barking at people in cuffs wearing camo gear, and working with officers. She landed on a shot of Lexy next to a captivating woman with bronze skin and a jet-black braid holding a heavy-duty dart rifle pointed at a massive bear running out of a small cage and into the forest. A spark of recognition flickered in her mind. “This woman…” Her typing intensity shook her laptop as she clicked around the webpage. “Interesting. Very interesting.”
“It really is an interesting case when you take a good look at it. This is a second chance that a lot of people would kill for, especially in our line of work.”
“What’s her name again? Her full name?”
He scrambled through the folder. “Officer Dayan-na-ra…” As he was stumbled over the Spanish name, she pulled the sheet over to see what all the fuss was about.
“Dayanara Soto,” she said without hesitation. She was fluent in Spanish as well as six other languages. “Looks like she goes by Daya, so don’t break your head.”
“Well, that’s not a name you hear every day.”
“I think I know her,” Ford mused aloud. “Or know of her, maybe?” She sifted through the compartments of her mind with nothing to show. She and Rankin stared at each other. She slapped her desk and startled Rankin. “Former Senator Juan Soto. She’s his daughter, all grown up.”
“Well then it’s meant to be.”
Ford pulled both of the file folders toward her in an act of ownership. “Send me a full background on Officer Dayanara Soto along with her entire team, whomever is going to be involved. I need to know who I can rely on, their backgrounds, anything and everything. I’ll need information on the dog too. I need to know how the breed reacts, how they track. This one’s temperament, images of her and Soto working together, videos, things like that. I’m serious. If after two weeks this case isn’t solved—you heard it—I’m walking.”
“You have my word. Thank you.”
“Permission to exercise my authority above and beyond what is necessary.”
They both chuckled at her comment. She knew it was among the things she excelled at. Complete bitch. Difficult to work with. Stops at nothing to get answers.All ways her colleagues described her. She was the best and the only paranormal expert the FBI had at the moment. Not to mention she also had the highest solve ratio, which was her biggest bargaining chip.
“Do what you need to do to solve this case knowing that you’re about to go on leave for three months. Would you really leave loose ends for me to clean up?”
“Good point.” She wasn’t all bitch. She stood up on weak legs and closed her laptop, placing it in her bag. “I’m going to need extra backup on this one.”
“You got Gorman, Ladd, and I’ll give you Grady.”
“Grady? God. I hate that guy.”
“He’s one of our best techs.”
“And,” she held out her hands, “I can scarcely tolerate him.”
“I assure you the feeling is mutual.”
“Thank you for giving him up.” Her shoulders dropped an inch knowing she had the best, but most annoying in a little-brother-she-never-wanted sort of way, tech in the bureau. “What about on the ground?”
“I’ve already briefed local FBI. They are on hand for whatever strategic support and manpower you need. Call me for anything else you can’t get locally, and I’ll do my best to help.”
“Thank you.” She smiled at him as she slowly zipped up her bag, checking pockets she had already checked and looking around the room hoping something would jump out at her that would require her to stay. “I wish you could come with me.”
“You got this.”
“We will see about that.” She sat back down in her chair and blew out a breath of air.
“Hey, look on the bright side,” he suggested.
“What is so bright about this?”
“You can finally see if you’re cut out for that dog you’ve always wanted.”
“I was actually thinking more of a lap dog.”
“Even a Great Dane can be a lap dog for the right person.”