The Walker on the Hills Chapter 4

They didn’t lead us to the sheriff’s department, as I’d halfway been expecting. Instead, we headed back toward the interstate, and pulled off in the truck stop at the exit. Craig parked the cruiser back by the semis, then got out and waited. I looked over at Eryn, shrugged, and got out to go join him.
He was leaning against the hood of the cruiser, his arms crossed in front of him. “What do you know about Chrystal Meek?” he asked as I walked up to him.
I shook my head. “Bupkis,” I told him. “She’s a name that Blake gave us to find if we couldn’t meet up with him. That’s all we know.”
Craig frowned, looking down at the asphalt as if to gather his thoughts. “Chrystal’s…well, she’s been through a lot. I’d almost say she’s the one decent person in that blight of a town. A lot of people have tried to get her to leave, but she’s always been the type to say that it’s her home, that she can’t leave, you know? She’s stayed for her mom. Lord knows why. Her mom’s an abusive addict, nobody knows who her dad was, and she’s had a string of abusive boyfriends, a couple of whom I’ve had the pleasure of putting in jail.” He spat on the ground. “She kind of latched onto your friend when he came through town; I can kind of see why. He seemed like a decent guy. At least, until he left her here.” He squinted at me. “Now, I’m not sure it’d be a good idea for you to go barging in and telling her that your friends with this dude. Pretty sure it wouldn’t be good for her.”
I grimaced. Great. Drama. As much as I’ve had to deal with hair-raising, sanity-shredding things from beyond human ken, I still really hate a lot of human drama. I’m not a cold-hearted individual, at least not most of the time, but Chrystal was our only link to Blake and whatever was going on that had scared him enough to write a panicky, cryptic note to come out here and see him. And I suspected that whatever it was had to do with the sudden increase in psycho belligerence that the sheriff’s deputies had noted in Coldwell. I couldn’t leave this alone.
“Look,” I said carefully, “I’m pretty sure my friend’s in trouble. Chrystal is the only lead I’ve got. I’m certain that if Blake bounced, he had a good reason, and didn’t do it just to abandon her here. Knowing him, he probably thought it would be safer here than with him. But regardless, we’ve got to talk to her. We can let my wife do the talking; she’s a lot gentler and more diplomatic than I am.” Which she is. Vastly.
He studied me silently for a long moment. “I get the feeling you’re not telling me everything,” he said.
I bit back the sarcastic comment about how it would take several human lifetimes to tell him everything, but I did say, “I really don’t know much. I got a message from Blake, telling me to meet him here, and if that failed, to find Chrystal. I’m assuming because he would have told her where he’s going.”
He chewed his lower lip for a second. “Well, if he did tell you to find her, that might make it a little different,” he allowed. “She hasn’t said anything about it to me…but then, she hasn’t said much the few times I’ve seen her lately. She seems scared of something.”
If she’d gotten a good look at the creepy stuff Blake and I dealt with on a daily basis, I’d be surprised if she wasn’t scared. And some kind of Otherworldly or demonic influence was the best explanation for the weird behavior of the inhabitants of Coldwell I could think of.
I dug around in my pocket for the note, but I figured I’d left it in my pack in the truck. “I can show you the note,” I offered.
After a moment, he nodded. “Let’s see it.” He wasn’t just going to take my word for it. Which was fine. I probably wouldn’t take a complete stranger’s word for it, either. We walked back over to the truck. Eryn watched us coming over, a calculating look in her green eyes. She was gauging the situation from the way we approached. I just gave her what I hoped was a reassuring look, and reached into the back for my pack.
It took some rummaging around to find the crumpled note. It was buried at the bottom of one of the outside pockets, naturally. At least it was in an outside pocket. I smoothed it out as best I could and handed it over. Eryn continued watching from the passenger seat.
Craig took the note and studied it, flipping it over just as I had to see if there was anything else on the other side. “And this is it?” he asked.
I nodded. “It doesn’t make sense that he’d tell us to find her if he was planning on just abandoning her,” I pointed out.
“None of this makes sense,” he said with a frown, still studying the wrinkled paper. He looked up at me. “You have no idea why he was here?”
“None,” I replied, honestly enough. We knew little more than Craig did.
“You said he might be in trouble,” he said thoughtfully. Oh, hell, here we go, I thought. “What kind of trouble? Was he possibly involved in any sort of illegal activity?”
I had to handle this very, very carefully. “I highly doubt it,” I replied. “We’re both private investigators, of a sort. We tend to specialize in missing persons.” Which was true enough; most of our cases as Witch Hunters started with either ritualistic murders or disappearances. They were usually the only indicators to be found in the open when the society as a whole doesn’t believe in such hoodoo as Heaven, Hell, or the Otherworld. “But I don’t know anything about the case he might have been working.”
He frowned. “I don’t know of any missing persons cases around here at the moment,” he said. “Nothing that’s been reported to the sheriff’s department, anyway.”
“Maybe we should ask Chrystal,” I ventured. “If she was hanging around with him, and he left word with her, she might just know what’s going on.” That earned me a sour look. I was getting the impression that Craig had rather…personal reasons for being protective of Chrystal. I didn’t know for sure what they might be; I had no good reason to suspect that they were nefarious, but I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. I knew full well that these sorts of situations rarely turned out to be what they appeared to be on the surface, even without spooky influences affecting them. I just shrugged. “She’s our only lead. Don’t tell me you’re in the habit of passing up leads because it might be traumatic to the person to tell you what you need to know.”
He really didn’t like that one. If he’d been able to set me on fire with his eyes, I think I would have been cinders on the spot. But he also knew I had him. Still, that wasn’t going to keep him from trying to find a way to avoid admitting it.
“Look,” he said, “all I have is this note, that could have been written by anybody, and your assertion that your friend might be in trouble. That’s not exactly stirring cause to take action.”
Now he was starting to make me mad. All I wanted to do was find Chrystal Meek and ask her where Blake had gone. Why was this deputy so hell-bent on keeping us away from her? I was starting to smell a rat.
The windows were down, and Eryn had been listening to the latest part of the conversation. Apparently she smelled a rat, too. “What is the problem, Deputy?” she asked. Her tone was friendly enough, but there was just enough steel in it to leave no doubt that she expected a good answer, and would know if she got anything else. “Why are you so determined to keep us away from this woman?”
“Like I was telling your husband,” he said, “she’s been through a lot, and…”
Eryn cut him off. “That’s got to be one of the weakest excuses for not speaking to a witness I’ve ever heard,” she said. “Do we really have to report Blake missing before you’ll let us speak to her?”
Craig’s expression went stiff. Anger flared in his eyes. Before he could say anything, though, Tall Bear loomed over both of us. “I think we had better go see her, Eugene,” he rumbled. “Enough’s enough.”
Craig started to protest, but fell silent at Tall Bear’s stony glare. The big man looked at me. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll take you to her.” Without another word, he stalked back to the cruiser, suddenly the man in charge instead of the silent partner. Craig gave me a look of pure venom, then wordlessly followed his partner back to the cruiser.
Frowning, I climbed back into the driver’s seat and pulled the door closed. “What was that all about, I wonder?” Eryn asked, her eyes fixed on the two deputies.
“I don’t know, but I’m starting to suspect somebody has a personal problem,” I replied, as I put the truck in gear to follow the cruiser. “Deputy Craig is invested in the situation, somehow.”
“Do you think it’s got something to do with Blake’s trouble?” she asked. “Maybe he doesn’t want us to talk to Chrystal precisely because she might know where he went?”
I squinted at the cruiser as we headed back in the general direction of Coldwell. “Maybe. But it doesn’t feel like it. I think he’s genuinely being protective; the only question is why and from what?” The cruiser turned off the road a mile short of the town, and I followed. “From Tall Bear’s reaction, it may not be something necessarily all that…wholesome.”
I felt more than saw Eryn’s eyebrow go up. “You think he’s got a thing for her? Maybe a little bit of an unrequited, obsessive ‘thing?’”
“Maybe.” I gave an uncomfortable shrug. “I have a feeling we’re going to find out when we meet her, and I don’t think it’s going to be all that pretty.”
The road wove through the trees for maybe a half a mile, then opened up on a campground down by the river. It was pretty empty, but there were a few trailers parked in camping sites, none of them looking particularly new. There wasn’t anyone outside, but I glimpsed a couple of sets of blinds moving as people peeked out at us as we drove by.
The cruiser led the way to an old, but still serviceable-looking, Airstream trailer parked near the far end of the campground. There were empty spaces all the way around it, and unlike the other trailers, it didn’t look like it had been sitting there for all that long. Or maybe the occupants just didn’t pile all their junk outside until they looked like permanent residents.
The cruiser stopped there, and both deputies got out, starting toward the trailer without even looking back at us. “I guess this is the place,” Eryn said. “Let’s get over there before Deputy Craig throws a monkey wrench in the works.”
Without a word, we both got out and strode over toward the trailer. The double slam of the truck doors was loud, echoing against the trees. It was very quiet in the campground. The gravel crunched under our boots as we walked toward the trailer.
Craig was already at the door, but he didn’t look like he was in a hurry to knock. Tall Bear said something, and Craig shot him a look, then gave me an even more bitter glare than he’d given me before, then knocked, almost timidly, on the door.
At first there was no response. He knocked again, but by then I was close enough to tell it was a half-hearted tap, not a knock. Tall Bear, apparently disgusted by the shenanigans, reached past him and rapped three times on the door.
This time there was some shuffling from inside, and the trailer rocked a little as somebody moved around. Then the door cracked open, just a little bit. “Who is it?” a woman’s voice asked.
“It’s Deputy Tall Bear, ma’am,” the taciturn deputy said before Craig could open his mouth. “We’ve got some people looking to ask you some questions, if it’s not too much trouble.”
The door opened just a little bit more. I could see an eye and disheveled dark hair. “Who are they?” she asked. Tall Bear turned to look at me, and I stepped forward, even as Craig saw fit to stick his oar in, regardless of Tall Bear’s warnings.
“Chrystal, you don’t need to talk to anybody,” he started to say. The woman, whom I assumed was Chrystal Meek, opened the door farther and shot him a glance that can only be described as scorching, and looked at me.
“Who are you?” she asked again. She was black-haired and dark-eyed, with very prominent cheekbones. She would have been beautiful, if she hadn’t looked like she’d been awake for a week straight.
“I’m Jed Horn,” I introduced myself. “This is my wife, Eryn. We’re friends of Blake’s.” I studied her for a reaction to the name, but she kept her face carefully impassive. “He sent me a note, telling me to meet him here, and if he wasn’t here, he said to find you. These gentlemen–” I indicated the two deputies, including Craig even though I hardly thought he deserved the term “–tell me that he’s left. So we came to find you.”
She studied us with the same calculating dispassion. “How do you know Blake?” she asked. She was very hard to read; I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
“We’re in the same line of work,” I said. “As a matter of fact, I got him into this line of work after we both got out of the Marine Corps. He was my platoon sergeant, once upon a time.”
She studied me quietly. I could almost see the gears turning. She was tense, almost like a deer that’s trying to decide to bolt or not. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?” she asked suddenly. “Maybe you know Blake, or maybe you’re lying to me.”
“She has a point,” Craig put in, trying to step between me and the door. “All you’ve got is a name and that note.” He’d acquiesced to his partner’s insistence that we come here, but he still didn’t like it, and for some reason he really didn’t want us talking to Chrystal. The paranoid part of my mind was starting to wonder if it had something to do with Chrystal, or if he was somehow involved in the trouble that Blake was in.
I ignored him, and carefully reached into the collar of my shirt, pulling out the little silver crucifix on its leather thong that hung around my neck. It’s nothing terribly fancy, nor is it terribly big, but it’s the symbol of the Order. All of us wore one. “He would have had one of these,” I told her. “Didn’t he?”
She sagged in the doorway, and for the first time the shotgun she’d been holding next to the door became visible. I had a sudden flash of memory, back to when I’d first met Eryn in Silverton. She’d had that big .44 of hers ready if I turned out to be something other than what I claimed. “You’d better come in,” she said, relief plain in her voice.
“Chrystal, I don’t think you should talk to these people,” Craig tried again. “We don’t know who they are…”
“There is no ‘we,’ Eugene,” she said tiredly. “There never has been. You can wait outside if you want to, but I’ll talk to them, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. If it really bothers you that much, you can drive away.” She glanced at Tall Bear, who just stood there, his big arms crossed across his chest, as impassive and silent as he had been up until he’d intervened. “There’s no crime to arrest them for, so you can leave. I’ll be fine.”
He didn’t like it. The look he gave me was pure poison. But I returned his gaze, completely unconcerned. I’d faced a lot worse than a jilted lover, whether he had a gun and a badge or not. Tall Bear had discreetly moved closer behind him, and a glance at the big man suggested that he was ready to grab his partner if he tried to do anything…regrettable. “Fine,” he spat. “We’ll be right here, in case you change your mind.”
The look on Chrystal’s face said what she thought the odds of that were, as she stepped back inside the trailer so that Eryn and I could come in. I didn’t gloat as I brushed past Craig. I didn’t need to, and frankly, I was still a lot more worried about Blake and whatever had turned Coldwell psycho than I was about Craig’s jealousy.
The inside of the trailer was fairly Spartan; it didn’t look like it had been modified at all. It was well taken care of, but none of it was new. Wear showed on just about every surface. The trailer’s suspension creaked as we stepped inside.
Chrystal set the shotgun on the counter as the door swung closed and sat down on a stool, gesturing to a wicker chair and another stool. I took the stool, and let Eryn take the chair. Chrystal didn’t say anything at first, but just sat on the stool and fidgeted, staring at her hands as she wrung them over and over. She seemed terrified, in spite of the relief she’d displayed when I’d shown her the crucifix.
“Chrystal?” Eryn ventured, her voice gentle. “What was Blake doing here?”
“I don’t know for sure,” she replied, her voice quiet. “A lot of what he said, and what’s happened, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” She kept looking down at her hands as she started to shake. “He made it seem safe while he was here, and now he’s gone, and I’m scared all the time, so scared…” She started to hyperventilate. This was not going well.
Eryn got up and moved over to her, leaning against the counter and putting her arm around the other woman’s shoulders. “It’s all right,” she said soothingly. “We’ve all been there, believe me. You’re safe now. We’re here, and we’ll protect you.”
No sooner had she said that than there was a rap at the door. A muffled voice that sounded like Tall Bear said, “Folks, I hate to break up the meeting, but it might be time to go. Things are about to start happening out here.”
I quickly moved to one of the windows and lifted the blinds. He wasn’t kidding.
A mob of wild-eyed, skinny people was slowly working its way across the campground towards us. I thought I saw a taller figure in back, but it faded behind a tree—if it had even been there—as the angry murmuring from the crowd started to rise to a roar.

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