Bitter Waters

Bitter Waters by Wen SpencerUkiah and his senior partner, Max Bennett, are just returning to Pittsburgh after the events of Tainted Trail. Before they even land, they have a new tracking job — to find a boy missing from his backyard. Driving straight from the airport, Ukiah and Max start another adventure, one that will involve kidnapped children, a drug-dealing biker gang, a UFO cult, a hostile federal agent, the Pack, Max’s new love Samuel Anne Killington, Ukiah’s FBI lover Indigo Zheng, his two adoptive mothers, and his infant son, Kittanning.

“An engrossing, thrill-filled adventure, full of fascinating alien–and human–weirdness.” — Locus

 


Excerpt from Chapter One

A flood lamp glittered on the tiny, rain-covered backyard, well littered with toys. Barely ten-foot by twenty-foot, the fenced in area of worn grass seemed a relatively safe and escape proof area. Ukiah ignored the toys and grass to concentrate on the fence. As he expected, the rain-slick steel held traces of boy’s climb to freedom. Beyond the fence, the land fell away into a nearly sheer drop, its steepness disguised by wild cherry trees and banks of dying golden rod. Animals had pushed paths through the tall brush, and the boy had followed.

The path came out on the parallel street, lower down the hillside. The cement of the sidewalk seemed washed clean by the rain. Ukiah crouched at the edge of the woods, sweeping hands over the wet stone, trying to find any clue. Max drove up in the Cherokee, turning off the headlights as he turned the corner as to not blind Ukiah’s now highly light-sensitive eyes.

Focused on the hunt, Ukiah was only dimly aware that Max had gotten out, and signaled Ari in his squad car to kill his lights. The policeman got out with thud of a car door and quiet squeak of raingear rubbing against itself.

“How does he do it?” Ari asked quietly. “I can’t even see.”

“He was raised by wolves.” Max misled Ari. It was true Ukiah spent years running with the wolves, but it had nothing to do with his abilities.

“I thought all that wolf boy stuff was bullshit.”

“Not all.” Max said. “By the way, Ari, thanks for the baby stuff in June. It was a lifesaver.”

“No problem.” Ari said. “You two really weaseled out of there fast; not that I blame you, the first of the media was already showing up. Hey, that reminds me though. There’s a new federal agent in town asking questions about the shoot out.”

“Federal agent? What branch?”

Ari grunted and searched his pockets for a business card. “Grant Hutchinson. Homeland Defense. He pulled me into questioning on Friday. He had photographs of you two.”

“Us?” Max asked as Ukiah glanced up, startled out of his focus. Max flashed the business card so Ukiah could see it and then studied it himself. “What kind of photos?”

“Pictures taken after the shoot out; photos of you, the kid and me. He wanted me to ID you two.”

“Did he say why?” Max asked as Ukiah went back to tracking.

Ari made a rude noise. “No. Not a clue. He kept me in interrogations for an hour, asking everything from my religion down to if my belly button was in an inie or an outie.”

“What did you tell him about us?” Max asked.

“Your names.” Ari said. “That the kid is a tracking wonder and that you two were out in Oregon, trying to find Kraynak’s niece. I don’t know any more than that, at least nothing that’s not straight facts, and I don’t pass rumors, not to federal agents. I did tell him, that as far as I’ve ever heard or seen, you’re good people.”

“Thanks.” Max said. “Friday, eh?”

“Friday afternoon, just after I went on shift.” Ari said.

As Max questioned Ari about the federal agent, Ukiah finally found the trace he had been searching for, the rich earth of the hillside, stamped into a small shoeprint, nearly washed away. All but crawling, he followed the track down the street another hundred feet before it vanished. He crouched in the drumming rain, patiently sweeping the cement. The chill of the night vanished for him, as did the beat of the rain. The distant hiss of tires on wet pavement silenced. Even the light went, as he focused in tight on the rough cement. He became aware of the sand versus gravel content. The faint feel of bird tracks left from a sparrow crossing the newly poured cement sometime in the far past. The ghost presence of cleaner from someone washing their car recently.

Nothing of the boy. He flicked through his other senses. Unless he found something here, the trail was gone. He could start a spiral search pattern, hoping to stumble across a new start, but in the rain, every minute made the chance less likely.

Fine-tuned, he realized he was drawing in air very so faintly tainted by blood. He stilled completely, aimed at the scent. It pressed against his skin, invaded his nose. Locked into the smell, he sniffed, nostrils flaring, casting about dog-like. Slowly, he worked his way to a corrugated pipe set into the ground where a side alley joined the main road. Water ran in a tiny stream down the street and into the mouth of the pipe. No water, he noticed, poured out of the pipe on the other side of the alley.

“Tommy? Tommy?” He called into the pipe. His voice echoed back at him.

Under the sound of rain and rushing water and his own heartbeat, he thought he could hear the faint ragged breathing of something small.

“You found him?” Max came to crouch beside him. Ari trailed behind.

“I think he’s in this pipe.” Ukiah got down and tried the fit of his shoulders to the pipe. No, only a child could climb into it. Even with his keen eyes, he couldn’t see anything in the cave darkness.

He examined the pipe with his flashlight. “It’s t-shape with a drain in the center. If he’s in there, he’s down the center pipe somehow. There’s so much white noise with the rain that I can’t be sure. I’m smelling blood.”

He sniffed again, drawing in the coppery smell. Blood, but not enough information to tell the source.

Ari shifted restlessly behind them. “It could be a weird coincidence and be just a wounded raccoon or possum.”

“You said he got into weird places.” Ukiah countered.

Ari eyed the pipe as if it would bite him. “Yeah, but, shit that’s a creepy little hole in the ground.”

Max stood and swept his flashlight back up the hill to the boy’s yard. “They told me that they had been playing with a ball, throwing it back and forth. If the ball landed on this street, it would have funneled right down to this pipe.”

Ukiah tried to fit himself into the pipe again. The best he could do was one arm and shoulder, questing with his outstretched fingers. His fingertips found the edge of the ragged edge where the pipe turned down, water pouring over the edge, washing away any sign of the boy.

Subtly, the rain started to come down harder, moving from a light patter to quickening drum.

Max swore. “If he’s down there, this is going to get ugly fast. This is part of Nine Mile Run.” Sometime in the past, several creeks had been routed completely underground in concrete culverts that converged to form Nine Mile Run; it was a deadly labyrinth they had dealt with before. “Damn, if the airline hadn’t lost our luggage, we could snake one of the mini-cams down the drain to be sure.”

“I’ll call for a rescue team and look for a manhole.” Ari offered, seeming anxious to get away from the narrow pipe. He moved away, speaking into his shoulder radio.

The rill of water coming down the hill was already thickening into a stream. Ukiah flashed to another child in the storm drains, a maze of swirling dark waters and an unhappy end, when Max was forced to pull him out half-drowned. “Max, I don’t want to do that again — wonder around lost while the kid drowns. We should see if we can find a map of the system.”

“The rescue team can deal with the storm drain.” Max said. “All we need to do is convince them that he’s really down there. Are you sure?”

“No.” Ukiah had to admit. How he could squeeze into the pipe and see if Tommy was actually stuck in the pipe? If he was younger, closer to Tommy’s age, he could fit.

It occurred to him a way to be smaller.

Ukiah dug his Swiss army knife from his pocket and made a deep cut across his wrist.

Max swore in surprise and caught Ukiah’s shoulder. “What the hell? Ukiah? What are you doing?”

“I’m going to make a mouse.” Ukiah caught the flow of hot blood in his palm. “And I’m going to use it as a extra set of eyes.”

Max released him. “Okay. Just keep it out of sight. I’ll keep Ari distracted.”

Ukiah clung to the memories of the boy as the rest of the day drained down into his hand. The blood stopped as the wound healed shut. He concentrated on the blood cupped in his hand, urging it to take form instead of seeping back into his body, merging with him again. It formed a quivering sack. Bones took form, racing heart, and then finally the dark fur of a black mouse.

“Thank you.” Ukiah breathed, and carefully reached the mouse as far into the drain as he could go. “Go on, find the boy.”

He leaned his body against the pipe, and thought only of the mouse as it skittered fearfully along water into the darkness.

…cold wet steel, undulating in frozen mini-hills, a rushing river of muddy water, a vast curving ceiling echoing back the white noise of water, something huge ahead, the growing smell of blood, the edge of a great hole, clinging to the edge trembling with fear…

Ukiah tried to send comfort and encouragement over the fraying link. He could create the mouse because he was in truth a collection of independently intelligent cells acting as a whole. Whatever method his cells used to communicate, endowing him with telepathic abilities with his mice and those closely related to him, depended much on mass. The smaller the collection of cells, like the mouse, the shorter distance he could communicate with it.

If he had been reduced down to hundreds of mice, none of them would venture down the terrifying drop. They would be too hard wired by instinct to follow that course. With Ukiah’s human mind directing it remotely, however, the mouse overcame its fear and carefully picked its way down the rusty cliff.

…brown curly hair, a male human, a chilled cheek, closed eyes…

“It’s him.” Ukiah whispered.

“Unfortunately,” Max’s voice came over Ukiah’s headset. “The nearest manhole is way down here, around the corner, and it’s really started to pour. Damn, where’s that rescue crew?”

Ukiah murmured an answer, trying to coax his mouse back out. It was on the edge of his influence, though, and frightened. It scurried back and forth on the imagined safety that the boy provided, hesitant to face the dark alone. Suddenly it slipped into fast moving water that chuted down over slick bare skin. Ukiah squeaked in surprise as the mouse was swept down through a hole between child and pipe and washed away.

“Ukiah!” Max called over the headset. “What’s wrong?”

Ukiah leapt to his feet and bolted toward Max. “I’ve lost my mouse! I need to get to it back.”

Max exploded into curses. The rain beat furiously down now, sheeting off the rest of the world so it seemed like he struggled within a pocket universe to save the boy. Ukiah rounded the corner and found his partner and Ari beside an opened manhole, shining lights into the hole with concerned faces.

Max looked up, obviously torn. “Kid, the water is already deep and fast, and it’s raining harder now. We don’t have ropes, and you’re not even sure what direction to go. Just wait for the rescue crew.”

“I’ve got to go.” Ukiah said, wishing Ari wasn’t there, so he could argue with Max openly. Perhaps, it was better this way — he could never win arguments with Max. He hadn’t considered losing his mouse when he sent it into the drain – a lost mouse was much too dangerous to the world – and his own sanity. He had to get it back. He brushed past Max to the manhole, ignoring the look that spoke volumes.

#

The sound of water falling out the throats of countless feeder pipes, echoed by curving concrete, combined into an unending deafening roar. Ukiah climbed down the slick metal ladder into the ink blackness. The water grabbed his foot as he went to step off the ladder, trying to jerk him under. He braced himself against the current and found his footing. The water flowed up to his knees, numbingly cold, seeming nearly solid with the force it applied on him.

Ukiah swung his flashlight up and down the concrete, six-foot tall storm drainpipe. Tommy had been west of the manhole, but this culvert ran north to south. Ukiah paused, replaying the last moments of contact with his mouse. It had rushed away from him, heading south, not east toward this culvert. Nor could he sense his mouse now, or glean anything of the boy. Ukiah decided to follow the flow of water and see if there was a main junction pipe. Letting go of the ladder, he waded with the current, fighting to stay upright. The cement floor, unseen under the water, sloped with the steep hillside; getting back was going to be hard. His flashlight danced through the cave darkness as he staggered forward.

Fifty feet down, the pipe ended, spilling its water down into a ten-foot tall main junction pipe running east to west. The water was deeper, over his knees and creeping toward his hips. Much deeper and he’d lose his footing against the current completely. And he still wasn’t sure if he was going the right direction. He played his flashlight down the left hand wall of the pipe, looking for something that led back north to Tommy.

Max said something to him over the headset, the thunder of water drowning out his words.

“What?” He cupped his free hand over his ear, trying to keep the water’s roar out.

“Which way are you going?”

“I went south. I’m going east now. First left!” Ukiah shouted and spotted a likely feeder, forty feet down. While only four feet in diameter, the pipe was still wide enough for him to travel without getting stuck. “I’m going to head north now. Hopefully it will take me back to Tommy!”

He overshot the feeder, shoved past the opening by the rushing water. Gripping the lip of the pipe, he hauled himself back and up into the pipe. He had to squat, duck walking against the water, but luckily it only came to his shins. Fast food drinking cups and empty pop bottles floated past him, washed out of gutters and into the storm drain. He came to a small dam made from a wedged tree branch and a Kentucky Fried Chicken box.

Perched on top was his mouse.

“Oh, thank God.” He breathed, although he was no longer sure what God or Gods he believed in. He picked the tiny buddle of shivering wet fur and, unzipping his coat, tucked it into his shirt pocket. He broke up the tree branch, clearing it out of his way, letting the water float the debris away.

“Come on, Ukiah!” Max called over the headset. “It’s turning into downpour out here! You’ve got to get out!”

“I’m almost there!” He worked his way past the smaller pipes feeding into his, sniffing for the blood trace he picked up earlier. There!

His luck held. Tommy’s pipe was little more than an elbow, doing an abrupt right angle into the drainpipe Ukiah crouched in. While only about a foot around, it should have been wide enough for the four year old to wriggle through. Ukiah worked his hands up between the boy and pipe. While Tommy’s front was pressed tight to the pipe, there seemed plenty of room in the back. Why was the boy stuck?

Wedged tight against the center of the boy’s back was a ball. Irregularities in the pipe kept the ball from descending, and the boy lacked any way to push the ball up, as his hands were trapped to his side.

“Ukiah!” Max was shouting.

“I almost have him, Max.” Ukiah pushed the ball up and out of the pipe, and the boy slid down into his arms in a gush of water like a baby being born. Alive. Unconscious. Ice cold. “Got him!”

“What?” Max shouted.

Ukiah didn’t bother to answer. He waddled awkwardly down the pipe, carrying the limp boy. At the mouth lip, he halted, groaning at the change in the junction pipe. Judging by the water’s level to the feeder’s pipe, the water had risen nearly two feet, coming now to his chest. Worse, he would be fighting the current instead of moving with it. If he lost hold of the boy in this torrent, he wouldn’t be able to get him back.

“Max! Where are the rescue crews?” He covered his microphone to keep the white noise from locking his headset on. “Max, I’m going to need someone on ropes.”

“Hold on!”

So, Ukiah waited in the vast, dark wet roaring.