King of Hearts

The danger that Kingson Landry had fled as a child was closer than ever before.  He could smell it better than his horse could smell the rain.

He guided Fancy through the vast darkness, her tail swishing as she walked under a black sky pierced by stars. A heavy harvest moon hung low on the rugged West Texas horizon as the mare chose her path through the scrub brush with confidence; she knew her way around King’s ranch better than he did.  The midnight ride was a ritual they’d shared over the past couple of years. Sometimes King needed it to clear his head, sometimes he needed it for entertainment.  More times than not, he needed it to escape the demons—real and otherwise—that relentlessly followed him. Tonight they’d found him anyway. He only hoped nothing else had found him, too.           

He rode another hundred yards before the horse stutter-stepped. Pulling lightly on the reins, King spoke softly, trying to reassure the animal.  “Whoa, Fancy, hang on… What’s the problem?”

Around them, everything looked the way it always did.  Dried grass, skeletal bushes, rocks jutting here and there. The nighttime sounds were normal, as well; the scratching of animals, the wind whistling through a cedar tree, the ticking of the cicadas. But the horse hopped again, this time almost rearing, her disquiet clearly growing. 

            

King had come across a drug courier the night before, who’d been using one of the arroyos near the back of his ranch to smuggle in dope.  The runners had no respect for anyone’s property, fenced or not, including the ranches owned by lawmen.  King had arrested the man and thrown him in jail, but he’d posted bail then disappeared.  Immediately suspecting something even more ominous was going on than a lone stray drugrunner, King had headed out tonight to be certain.

           

 He brought the horse around and trotted her back the way they’d come. Tying her to a skinny mesquite, he slipped from the creaking saddle.

            

Easing his Sig Sauer from his shoulder rig, he edged forward, holding the pistol in a two-handed grip, his trigger finger resting lightly on the guard.  Because he was a Rio County deputy, King never left the ranch house without being armed, but few people in their right mind went without their weapons in this part of West Texas.  There was too much crime for too few lawmen to quickly respond, as well as the long distances between the ranches.

            

He was halfway down the ravine when he heard a low growl, a movement to his left catching his eye. He swiveled, tracking his gaze with his weapon.

            

Two coyotes, scrabbling over a scrap of cloth, froze at his unexpected arrival. In the bright moonlight, he could see they were only pups.

            

In different circumstances, he might have enjoyed seeing the animals.  Instead, he studied the area where they’d been rolling in the dirt. Loose soil was scattered all over the open ground, and broken limbs hung from the nearby bushes. Their muzzles were dark, covered with something wet and sticky.  The rag they were pulling apart was wet looking, too.  Their noses quivering, they took off running, their loping grace carrying them into the darkness.  The smell hit King a moment later.

            

He swept the ravine with his gaze, first one way and then the other. The night whispering around him, he waited silently. Nothing else moved or made any noise. Even the cicadas fell silent as if waiting to see what happened next. When he decided he really was alone, he proceeded to the spot where the animals had been squabbling, a prickly pear plant pulling at his pants leg.

            

He bent over to get a better look at the ragged remnant that’d been shredded by the animals. It had been the collar of a dark blue shirt.  Black plastic buttons gleamed in the moonlight, and part of a seam was clearly visible. One edge looked as though the material been dipped in something dark and tacky, like glue or syrup.  But he knew it wasn’t, because he recognized the odor.

            

Blood.

            

His eyes backtracked the pups’ progress. They’d dragged the scrap over the rocky soil at least a dozen yards.  Their trail was clear in the moonlight, their paw prints showing the way. He straightened and climbed up a small rise, then went down into a dip. 

            

A dismembered head sat in the gravel, what was left of its neck lodged in the small stones so the head stared straight ahead. The hair was buzzed and dark, and the jaw wore a stubble.

            

Near one ear, King suddenly caught a glimmer of something shiny. Crouching down and balancing on his fingertips so he wouldn’t disturb the scene even more, he studied what turned out to be a dangling earring.

             

A gold small bead held the post snug against the head’s pierced ear, and suspended from the ball hung a delicate chain, no more than a quarter-inch long. A heart hung at the end of it, with a tiny diamond at its center. The charm twirled gently as if set in motion by an invisible hand.

            

A soccer ball had hit him in the gut when he was ten years old, and the wind had been sucked from his lungs.  He’d had no time to prepare, to defend himself, to realize what had happened while he’d been looking the other way.

            

He felt exactly like that now, his mouth pulling for a breath that refused to come.

            

The last time he’d seen that earring was the day his father had been murdered. The jewelry had been a gift for King’s sister.

           

 She’d never gotten to wear it. Two days later, she was dead, too