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paranormal romance, urban fantasy


CHAPTER 16: Putting Back the Knife

Travis Dylan sat in his truck on the outskirts of the North Valley, parked under the cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande. His long fingers tapped restlessly on the steering wheel and he stared moodily at the outrageous sky. Across the highway a very old-but-spry man in khakis pushed a second-hand bike through the last up-to-his-ears sunflowers of the season. The man and his bike were packed down with two large olive-drab backpacks and camping gear. Amazing, thought Travis. Where had that guy been? Where was he going? How far could he go like that? That was one man he'd sure like to talk to. But the old guy seemed like the kind best left alone. He'd want to be left alone. Was alone.
    The clouds were so complicated this morning, showing every option—dense swirls and inconsequential puffs, faint streaks and cottage-cheese clots. When the blatant, seamless blue behind it all was more than sufficient drama. Like some show-off modern artist who didn't know when enough was enough. Travis smirked. Some hopped-up, cocaine artist. He lifted his aviators from his nose, propped them on his head, sighed and viewed the three objects spread across the passenger seat.
    The first was a flier for the 66 Center for the Contemporary Arts, an avant-garde art colony on Central Avenue (Route 66) near downtown, housed in an old brick convent building. The 66 Center was known to have a waiting list for art studio rentals, and Travis had added the task of filling out an application to his list of "things I might do next." Maybe he'd turn around and drive back into the city, check it out, see what the space looked like, find out the rent.
    Of course, living on student loans, he couldn't afford both the garage apartment and a studio, but maybe the 66 Center was a loose enough place that he could give up his apartment and sort of sleep there, too. If there wasn't a shower, then he could do the motel thing once a week—the flier said "supportive environment." Unless they'd gone all yuppified which, these days, was entirely possible.
    Travis was getting restless in his neighborhood anyway, he preferred the motels. He didn't want to start accumulating more than his backpack and old metal trunk could hold. Apartments were traps, they sucked in "stuff" before you knew it. All that space to fill. Not that he filled it much, but the temptation was there, that bothersome "I should" feeling. He preferred the anonymity of the motels, along Central Avenue. The brown-bag characters he could observe coming and going from the battered, numbered doors. The wasted, despondent lives he could hear mumbling and shouting through the thin walls on either side. During that dark period every few weeks, the edgy company of the motel people was somehow comforting, gave credence to his jaundiced view of humanity.
    Yeah, the apartment, the neighborhood were exactly what he'd wanted when he moved in a couple months ago under Maxine's influence—some feeling of normalcy, stability, responsibility. But not what he wanted now. Although exactly what he wanted, he wasn't sure. Just not what he had.
    Or maybe he'd get on I-25, head for Santa Fe. The second object on the seat was a Santa Fe psychic channeler's business card he picked up at the coffeehouse this morning. On a whim he called her, from the coffeehouse pay phone. Or at least dialed her number. Then hung up after the first ring. And pretended not to, while he decided whether to really call her. He casually hung his fingers over the receiver button and kept them pressed there, held the receiver to his ear with his shoulder, pretended to be listening to her on the other end, so the two guys waiting in line for the phone wouldn't rush him. He was having a hard time imagining what he might say to a psychic.
    "Miss, uh—"
    He'd glance at the card. Light.
    "Uh—Light, I, I'm calling from Albuquerque and I—"
    "—and your name is Travis Dylan and you're wearing a bomber jacket and you've got this knife you should be attending to instead of calling me—"

    Travis frowned and shook out his shoulders, pressed his thighs up into the steering wheel and pulled his aviators back over his eyes. That's the conversation he'd heard in his head while he contemplated redialing. Because he didn't need a psychic to tell him the real reason for his stop at the coffeehouse this morning, for lingering over his eggs and green chile, for drinking six cups of coffee, for spending a whole half hour reading every damn flier on the notice board, for collecting one of every single of the seventeen business cards from the counter.
    He'd been trying to avoid the subject.
Which was that he had woken at four o'clock this morning from a very disturbing nightmare. In the dream he was dead but then he woke to find himself on a raft in the middle of an ocean, his eyes caked over in a film, unable to fully open, his skin black and blistered from the sun, his limbs being raked and gouged by the claws and beaks of dark birds. He sat up in bed knowing that this was the day he must get in the car, head for the mesa near the Pueblo and put that knife back where he'd found it. It couldn't wait another day, there were a string of consequences to set in motion—options waiting in line, events which would crystallize, choices which would slip and click on top of one another like dominos—once that jaguar was out of his life. Mostly, hopefully, the nightmares would stop.
    The jaguar knife was the third object on the passenger seat, wrapped in an old t-shirt.
    He dreaded it. Not the event so much—a drive to the red hills would be calming, a change in perspective, the hike would be good, the absence of other humans—all pleasing to anticipate. To get rid of the knife, that was a totally positive prospect. To find the exact spot might be tough, but it was the kind of short-term puzzle he could handle these days—nothing elaborate or planned or complex. Just drive up, park the truck, walk in, find the spot, plant the knife, turn around, back to the truck, back on the road, back to Albuquerque in time to maybe catch the film noire festival at the campus theatre tonight. A nice evening alone, uncomplicated by female company.
    Still, he dreaded it. He didn't know why. It was as if the knife didn't want to leave his possession.
    "GEESH!" he cried out in aggravation at himself. A stupid inanimate object, he could just throw it in a dumpster, he could give it to someone, he could maybe pawn it as an antiquity—there were so many options. Yet it was that sense that yanked at him, like a dull aching pull of gravity, that there was only one option. To put it back exactly where he'd found it.
    What was the lesson here? Too much spontaneity? Too much being compelled, pulled this way and that by attractions—for old knives, young women, all the ways the culture tried to tug and bind him—bosses who used to own him eight-to-five, now college professors younger than himself with their term paper deadlines, landlords who wanted leases signed, car lots who demanded outrageous down payments just to have wheels, women who didn't understand—or pretended not to—the difference between handing over their souls and spreading their legs.
    Travis sighed and tossed the 66 Center flier and lavender business card behind the seat into the litter of coffee-stained lapsed insurance notices, styrofoam coffee cups, outdated Rand McNallys, and back issues of the local arts and music rag, all folded open to the personals. He spun out from under the cottonwoods, his wheels spewing dust, and pointed his truck down the old highway toward Red Rock Mesa.


    Light stops on her way from the back door to the wood stove, her arms full of pinon, and stares at the telephone. Raoul gives her a puzzled look as he twists newspaper for kindling, then shakes his head and laughs when the phone rings. It only rings once. Light frowns and turns back to her task of stacking pinon in the wood box, opens the woodstove door and drops in a log.
    "You're doing that more and more lately, you know," says Raoul.
    "What, hearing the phone before it rings?"
    "No—well, yes, that, but I meant—this—"
    Raoul moves her aside gently but firmly and reopens the woodstove door, pulls out the log, crams in the kindling and replaces the log.
    "Oh god, I'm sorry, love. Just had my mind—"
    "—in the ethers, yeah, I know. You ok?"
    Light stares out the French doors into the chamisa lining the arroyo, then out past the arroyo into the Sombras Mountains. Somewhere over there, beyond those ridges, an image of a red mesa, a shaft of sunlight shooting off a sharp object, a wild cat, red eyes—these came, a dream or vision, just before she woke this morning. And then the telephone.
    "What do you see?" Raoul is at her side, staring out through the glass with her. He knows, of course, that what she sees isn't outside the doors.
    "A man wearing those kind of—like pilots wear—glasses. I've seen him before."
    "One of your clients?"
    "No, he's never—he hung up. But I saw him a couple times—stabbing a knife—"
    "—He's dangerous?"
    "Oh...I don't know...he's connected, somehow. To—someone, a woman I've seen, another I'm going to see."
    Light rubs her eyes and turns back to her husband. This is supposed to be their time alone, like ordinary people. Sunday morning, the New York Times, bagels, espresso, Kitaro on the CD player. Not other people's troubles, worries, apprehensions.
    "It's getting harder for you to separate, isn't it?" he asks, his eyes filled with concern. "It's bleeding over—your time in the crystal room and your personal time. Isn't it?"
    Light nods and goes to the kitchen, pulling cream cheese, marmalade and a white package of smoked salmon from the refrigerator. Raoul follows.
    "That's not a good thing, babe. You know that."
    Light places the food on the counter and stares out the kitchen window. Raoul grinds the espresso beans and pours milk into the steamer.
    "But what can I do about it?"
    The two lean against the kitchen counter, their sides touching, rubbing their socked feet together playfully. They watch the espresso machine do its magic.
    "Well, I know you won't give it up."
    "Not yet anyway."
    "Maybe you should take fewer clients."
    "Ask the Energy."
    "Of course. Always."


    Travis Dylan stood in a cluster of large cacti and faced the red hills. Not as easy as he'd hoped. Had that one ridge been to the left or right? There seemed to be more cactus than last time. But that made no sense, there'd been a drought. No, wait. That group of rocks. He remembered sitting there for a while before he found the knife, and then walking—north. Right. About this far. Ok. Yeah, the ridge to the left.
  Then he saw it. The exact spot. It was clear now, the only opened-out expanse, those rocks, that cluster—there! He moved to the center of the expanse and knelt, brushed a smooth spot in the rust-red dirt and lifted his hand to plunge the knife.
    Just at that moment he saw a figure climbing over the rocks about fifty yards to the west. A man in denim and a cowboy hat. Squinting at the sun. A damn Marlboro man. Travis hesitated. The guy was approaching, he'd probably already seen Travis with the knife in the air. Maybe he'd just walk on past, not ask any questions. Or maybe not. Damn, humanity, couldn't get away from it even for one morning. All these months Travis had envisioned this moment, the thought had never crossed his mind that there would be an intruder in the ritual.
    It was too late now, his arm up in the air; if he pulled back and didn't plunge in the knife, it'd look more suspicious than if he did. He plunged it, hard and clean, then quickly stood, brushed off his hands, looked up to see if the Marlboro man had noticed. The man faced the opposite direction, whistling. On the horizon Travis could see something moving. A yellow dog zig-zagging, his body following his nose like an ant-eater, making his way more or less toward the cowboy. The cowboy turned and continued walking toward Travis. Now he could see the man was wearing an arm cast and had long hair, pulled back into a braid under his hat.
    The man seemed to be looking right at him. Hard to tell, though, in this unrelenting desert light, getting on close to noon.
  Travis lifted his aviators to the top of his head and smiled at the approaching stranger in what he hoped looked like a sun squint—just in case the cowboy wasn't smiling back—and stared off at the dog approaching, now on a run to catch up to his master.
    "Nice dog."
    The cowboy squinted back at Travis. Between them the knife handle stuck up in the ground, unmistakable and unavoidable. Before Travis could think what to say next, to make things look natural and not like some old wild west standoff, the yellow dog circled his master and stood between the two men, barking at Travis.
    "S'ok, Seamus. Good boy," the cowboy ruffled the dog's ears with his good hand. "He's ok, boy, it's cool." The man smiled up at Travis.
    Seamus gave Travis a shrewd look, then ducked his head as if to apologize, and discovered the knife. He sniffed it excitedly, wagged his tail enthusiastically, looked up at Travis, then at his master.
    "What you got there?"
    The cowboy knelt down and peered at the knife. A look of incredulity broke through his social mask.
    "My god, it's still here!"
    Travis stared at the man.
    "Don't touch it."
    The cowboy looked up with an ironic twist to his mouth.
    "Hey, don't worry. I wouldn't think of it. What—you were gonna take this?"
    "No. I just put it back."
    "Put it back? This is exactly where I left it. When was that—six months ago?"
    Travis stared at the man, wrinkling his brow.
    "This was your knife?"
    "Yeah, I stuck it here six months ago. You want it, go ahead, but—I wouldn't recommend it. It's got—I don't know—bad energy I guess."
    "Huh. Hey—I'm Travis Dylan. From Albuquerque."
    "Conner McKnight, this is Seamus—we're from up the road a ways, past Ojo de Sombras, near the falls."
    "Listen, are you saying—this is weird, man!" Travis scratched his head. "I've been trying to get back up here to put this knife back for months. And now you tell me the very instant I'm finally putting it back, here you come walking and you're the one who put it here in the first place?"
    Conner McKnight frowned and stared at the man, then at the knife, then back at the man.
    "You mean—you took it? It was gone all this time and—you just brought it back? Today?"
    Travis nodded slowly. The dog sat and whined, looking back and forth at the men's troubled faces.
    "Well, I'll be damned. If that isn't one of the weirdest—but it figures. The way things have been going lately. Christ. I haven't been back since I left that thing here, six months ago. For some reason, this morning I just had to come down here. Even had to hitch a ride, my Jeep's down."
    McKnight stared at the knife a moment longer and then turned, walking slowly back toward the rocks. Travis took one last look at the pale, eyeless jaguar which now seemed to be climbing up out of the red earth, its mouth opened in anguish or rage. He gave himself a shake, pulled down his aviators and followed McKnight to the rocks.
    "Thirsty?" McKnight pulled a flask of water out of his backpack. Travis nodded gratefully and took a swig, handed it back. McKnight poured water in a small stream for Seamus to poke his tongue into, then squirted a mouthful down his own throat. He leaned against the red rocks, tucked his good hand into his jeans jacket pocket, rested his arm cast on a ledge and took a good long look at Travis. Looked like he didn't cost much to feed, his cheeks were sunken in, his jaw long and lean. In his thirties, sunburn showing through his thinning hairline, a bit of grey in the pale brown. Dark, trimmed, city beard, not the scraggly, hermit kind most of the Ojo de Sombras men wore. City guys—pretending to be tough: hiding behind dark military glasses, bomber jackets, cowboy boots. Second-hand, looked like; this guy hadn't been around enough to crack all that leather. What was the message there? Mysterious, tough, loner. What was it with these city folk, like Maxine with her lizard skin boots? What did they need cowboy boots for, on city pavement? Ah well, McKnight laughed to himself. Guess he looked about as incongruous himself, with his old cowboy hat and denims and hiking boots. He should probably switch shoes with the guy if it was a matter of style. Travis was staring back where he'd left the knife sticking up out of the ground. He looked disgruntled.
    "Anything weird happen while you had that knife?" asked McKnight.
    "Weird?" Travis pretended not to understand the question.
    "Oh, you know—like weird dreams or accidents or—" McKnight stopped talking and stared across the mesa at the knife blade. What was he saying? Weird dreams? Accidents? As if he hadn't had any of those since he got rid of the knife? Of course he had. He'd just barely survived a car wreck, then he lost Finn. There was that troubling dream last night about that painting the Ojo de Sombras artist did of him as a dark woman wearing a feather cloak. In the dream he was trying to make love to a woman but dark feathers and leaves kept protruding from between his fingers and teeth and toes. He kept ripping them away but they kept coming, frightening the woman he was trying to love. Yeah, that would qualify as a weird dream.
    But there had been something else, something about the knife that had troubled him, why he'd had to get rid of it.
    Travis looked at McKnight expectantly. The man seemed to have finished what he was saying, his icy green eyes stared off into the red hills. Deep character lines webbed from the corners of his eyes down his cheeks, his mouth was set in a pattern of stubborn creases. Travis felt he'd missed some critical point. Not only in the conversation, but suddenly Travis had a feeling that he'd met McKnight before. Not an entirely pleasant feeling. A vaguely disturbing feeling, like running into someone who used to beat you up in the alley behind school. Now you were both men, way past those times, long past remembering why you'd fought, but the glaring fact—that he had been your nemesis—still stood between you, an embarrassment, a socially unacceptable block that could not be resolved or even acknowledged. The kind of encounter you hurried through, careful not to say any social thing that might require you to meet later for drinks or anything. Just a very bad mistake, to have met again, and let's get it over with and go on. Because next week we won't remember we ran into each other. We won't want to remember.
    "Uh, yeah—weird dreams," Travis tried to pick up the lagging conversation. "Things happened. I don't know—maybe had nothing to do with the knife, that's crazy. Maybe coincidence—"
    "—You believe in coincidence?"
    "I don't know," Travis shrugged....

* * *
© 2002, Michelle Miller Allen

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