Tainted Trail

Tainted Trail by Wen SpencerUkiah Oregon and his senior partner, Max Bennett, are flying to Oregon to find Homicide Detective Kraynak’s missing niece who vanished while researching Ukiah’s origins.

Nominated for the 2002 Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best SF

“Spencer continues to amaze, cranking up both suspense and wonder.” — Aurora Award Winning Author JULIE E. CZERNEDA

Excerpt from Chapter One

Continental Flight 5373: Pittsburgh to Portland, Oregon
Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Ukiah Oregon woke, shivering, face pressed against an oval plexiglass window. The endless muted roar of the jet engines vibrated against his senses. Clouds drifted far beneath the airplane — islands of whiteness against the rumpled landscape of mountains. The clouds made him recall an ancient memory, belonging to his father, Prime. Ontongard ships lifting from Prime’s ravaged homeworld; scattering like dandelion seeds to find new planets to take over.

Ukiah rubbed at his eyes, wishing he hadn’t pulled up the recall. It was lodged now in his own perfect memory. He located the source of the cold and reached up to close the overhead air conditioning vent. The plane bucked and he missed the first grab for the vent.

Ukiah got it on his second try. He twisted his close, and then the one above the empty seat beside him, where Homicide Detective Raymond Kraynak should have been sitting. “Where’s Kraynak?”

Max Bennett, Ukiah’s partner, sat in the aisle seat, making notes on his PDA. “He felt like throwing up again, so he went off to do it in private. He’s going to be sad shape when we hit Pendleton. Depending where Alicia got lost, we might be doing this case on horseback.” Max paused in making notes to turn a gray-eyed query at him. “Can you ride?”

“I don’t know.” Ukiah shrugged. Some mysterious accident in the past had robbed him of his childhood memories and left him running with a pack of gray wolves. “Native Americans in the movies can always ride like the wild.”

Max grunted and made a note on his PDA. “A resounding maybe. Hopefully, Alicia didn’t choose one of the wilderness areas of Umatilla National Park to vanish into. They’re the only part of the park without access roads.”

“Why is Alicia in Oregon?” Ukiah had missed most of the explanations in the mad scramble to catch the flight. When he first started working with Max, Kraynak’s niece Alicia worked part-time at the office. She quit to attend grad school. While she usually stayed in close touch, he hadn’t seen her since Max’s annual Fourth of July picnic. She hadn’t mentioned going to Oregon, but then she had acted weird the entire picnic. “Isn’t she going to grad school at Pitt?”

“It’s a geology field trip.” Max waved one hand to indicate he only vaguely understood it himself. “She was spending most of August collecting data for her graduate’s thesis. She drove Kraynak’s van out to Oregon with another female graduate student, and they planned to drive back at the end of this week. Last night the other girl called Kraynak and said that Alicia didn’t return from going out alone.”

And Kraynak called them. The nine p.m. phone call gave them all less than nine hours to drop everything personal and professional, pack, and catch a flight across the country. In the confusion, Ukiah didn’t get a chance to eat, and Kraynak forgot to pickup Dramamine.

“I’m starving. Are they going to serve a meal?”

Max looking up the aisle. “The flight attendants have the cart out and they’re serving something. It won’t be very much, kid. A sandwich, a cookie or two, and a soda.”

The flight attendants seemed not to notice that the plane jerked and bucked on invisible air waves. They served the food with practiced smiles.

Ukiah glanced at the empty center seat. “You think Kraynak will eat his?”

“Probably not. He’ll be lucky to get out of the restroom this flight. He’d wanted to grab something for motion sickness in Houston, thinking we’d have time in the layover.”

For some reason unfathomable to Ukiah, one couldn’t fly directly from Pittsburgh to Portland. Stranger yet, they had flown south to go north. A storm front over Houston delayed their landing and their layover consisted of a dash through the sprawling, crowded airport.

Max looked at him warily now. “How do you feel?”

“I’m cold and hungry,” Ukiah admitted, then realized Max was asking if he was going to be airsick. “I think after the first handful of jiggles, my body decides to ignore my inner ear as an alarmist. Remember that time on Lake Erie when Kraynak took us fishing with his brother-in-law?”

“God, don’t say anything else, or I’ll start puking.” Max undid his seat belt, stood cautiously, opened the overhead compartment and tossed a folded blanket to Ukiah. He pulled out his briefcase, closed the overhead, and sat back down. “I’ve got a Snickers bar or two in here.” He thumbed open the locks. He fished out the candy and handed it to Ukiah. “Remind me to stock up at the Portland airport.”

“Thanks.” Ukiah glanced into the briefcase. Taking up the most space in the briefcase was a fat folder marked ‘Oregon, Ukiah – Bennett Detective Agency file #117.’ “Is that my case file?”

They had first met when Ukiah’s adopted mothers hired Max to find out Ukiah’s real identity. Max had failed. In hindsight, there was no way Max could have succeeded. Ukiah’s background had been too strange for anyone to guess, and sometimes, even believe. The case had, however, introduced Max to Ukiah’s tracking abilities, and inspired a partnership that specialized in finding lost children.

Max nodded, flipping open the file. “I grabbed it as we were running out the door. I kept all the geographic maps of the Umatilla National Park, road maps, campground guides, and so forth. I figured that it would prove to be useful.”

“Can I see?” Ukiah took out one of the maps and opened it. It showed the mountains of the national park in a series of squiggly lines. Spreading it out on his lap, he studied it for several minutes as he ate the candy, shaking his head.

Max noticed the motion. “What’s wrong?”

“I lived here for so long, Max. Maybe over two hundred years. I knew every inch of it. This map, though, is so abstract, I can’t relate to a single feature. I wonder how much it’s changed in the last eight years. Am I going to be able to find my way around?”

“All you need to worry about, kid, is Alicia’s trail. Where ever she went, you follow. I’ll handle the maps.”

Ukiah glanced to the back of the plane. The right restroom door stayed firmly shut as a short line rotated through the left. “You think Kraynak is right, and she’s in serious trouble?”

Max shrugged. “He thinks so, he’s footing the bill, and we owe him a favor. I’m hoping we’ll get out there and find out that she just let the batteries of her phone die or some such nonsense.”

“What are we charging him?” Their normal tracking fee was a thousand dollars a day, a bit steep for a police detective to pay. Kraynak lived in a modest house and cringed at dinners over ten dollars. It was a mark of how worried he was that he’d bought their airline tickets.

Max looked sheepish. “Hell, I didn’t talk to him about it. It’s Alicia! We’re doing good enough that, if need be, we’ll do this as a freebie.”

Ukiah nodded without a quibble. Technically he was a full partner of their detective agency, but only because Max had given him half the company after Ukiah saved his life. Seventeen years Ukiah’s senior, Max still made most of the business decisions, especially the financial ones. Ukiah supposed it was just as well – being raised by wolves gave him a very loose grasp on the concept of money.

Kraynak came back from the restroom, reeking faintly of vomit and old cigarette smoke resurrected by water. “Can I sit on the end?”

Max handed Ukiah his briefcase with a ‘hold this’ and started to shift over his other belongings to the middle seat. Ukiah thumbed through the folder. Max kept meticulous records and the folder was no exception. Maps in the front. Area info next. There was microfilm-photocopy of a newspaper tucked in before a bundle of receipts. Ukiah pulled it out as Max sat beside him and Kraynak carefully settled his tall solid body into the end seat.

‘Information Sought On Wolf Boy’ was the headline of the small article circled in red. “Anyone with information on the feral child sighted recently at the Umatilla National Park, please contact Jesse Kicking Deer. Kicking Deer believes the mysterious boy reportedly ‘running naked with the wolves’ to be a distant family member. Kicking Deer describes the supposed feral child as a handsome boy from the Cayuse tribe. Anyone sighting the Umatilla Wolf Boy can reach Jesse Kicking Deer at Rt. 1 Box 534, Pendleton, Oregon 97801.”

“Max? What’s this? This sounds like me.”

Max looked over and frowned for a moment in recall. “That sounded real close, but I had to discount it.”


Max tapped the ‘1933’ written in red ink at the top, next to the ‘East Oregonian’ legend. “Because, the kid disappeared in 1933 and that would make him over eighty.”

“Or over two hundred,” Ukiah whispered.

Max glanced at him puzzled. Understanding came with a slight widening of his eyes. “Oh shit.” He looked down at the paper again. “Ukiah, this could have been you. I thought you were a normal kid at the time.”

When his Mom Jo found him running with the wolves, there had been no way of knowing his birth date or exact age. He showed signs that he had started into puberty, so his Mom Jo had assigned him the age of thirteen. In actuality, they learned later, he was several hundred years old; after growing to maturity, he aged only when he was wounded. The rough and tumble life of a private investigator was the only reason he couldn’t still pass as a thirteen-year old. A series of almost and completely fatal accidents and shootings made him look almost eighteen, but certainly not the twenty-one stated on his driver’s license.

Ukiah flipped through the case report looking for an indication that Max had followed up on the newspaper clipping. “You talked to this man?”

Max considered the overhead compartments as he thought. “This was five years ago, Ukiah, and I don’t have your memory. I talked to him, but not face to face. It was over the phone. I remember it was a short conversation. I told him I found the article in the library’s archive and that I was trying to establish someone’s true identity, but I know I didn’t go into details with him. I think one of my first questions was ‘When did the boy disappear?’ After he said ‘1933’, I thanked him for his time and cut the conversation short.”

Ukiah found the name, address, and phone number of Jesse Kicking Deer in the case report. Max had noted, ‘Description and location matches but age is completely wrong.’ “I would love to go see this guy. I wonder if he’s still at this address.”

Max picked up the phone built into the seat in front of them. “Let’s see.”

The phone number listed in the file was no longer in service. Undaunted, Max called information and gave the name and address.

“I’m showing a Claire Kicking Deer at that address.” The operator said over the drone of the engines. “But that number is unlisted.”

Max thanked the operator and hung up. “With a name like that, it’s a fair bet they’re related.” Max consulted his PDA. “We’re landing in Pendleton at five thirty, if we don’t miss the commuter in Portland. We’ll need to rent the cars, load them, and then it’s an hour drive down to the campground.” He did some clicking. “We’re not going to be able to do any actual tracking tonight; I don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark.”

“I can track at night,” Ukiah said.

Max gave him a cold look. “I know, kid, but I can’t see in the dark. I’m not letting you track without backup.” Max considered the rest of the day. “Three is over kill for what we’re doing tonight. Let’s split up. We’ll rent a second car. Kraynak and I will load the gear, find out what we can on the search and rescue efforts, and then check into the hotel. You can see if you can find Jesse Kicking Deer.”

“Is that okay with you, Kraynak?” Ukiah glanced past Max and discovered that the City of Pittsburgh homicide detective was gone again. “We’ve got to make sure he takes something before we get on that commuter plane to Pendleton.”