It was September and the air blew warm across the broad clearing high atop a pine-forested hill. Nevertheless, Dalton Rogers mentally hummed “Here Comes Santa Claus” as he stepped over the smoldering remains of five burned bodies. His grandfather had sung it to him every Christmas Eve when Dalton was a kid. The night before Christmas had always been his favorite time. Back then, his mother would make an effort to stay sober long enough to drive her young son to her parents’ house. She’d drop him off and promise to be there in the morning. A couple of years she even made it. But to Dalton it didn’t matter where his mother went on Christmas Eve. There was always plenty of food on Grandma’s old hickory kitchen table, as well as a giant tree done up with bubble lights and tinsel. His grandparents would let Dalton wrestle with their old hound dog right there in the living room. And when it was time for bed, Grandpa would tuck Dalton in, cover him with a quilt Grandma’s mother had stitched herself, and sing the silly song until Dalton fell asleep. It always brought him comfort.
He hadn’t thought of that song in years. Not since his mother had had that last screaming match with her parents. After that, she packed up and moved herself and eleven-year-old Dalton two counties over. He didn’t see his grandparents again until their funeral. Flu took them both the year Dalton graduated from high school. But today the song came back to him. He hoped it might work its magic to keep the beef-and-bean burrito he had for lunch down in his stomach where it needed to stay. He didn’t need old Tug spreading stories about how the new guy blew chunks at the sight of all those dead bodies.
Dalton looked toward Officer Tugger Mahoney, a fifteen-year veteran of the Enumclaw Police Department, who stood talking with the shaking and crying woman who’d placed the emergency call.
“You catching anything?”
Dalton forced himself to monitor the carnage and yelled back the details as he circled the burned-out area.
“Looks like five of ’em. All dead and then some.” Here comes Santa Claus, Here comes Santa Claus. “Best I can tell it’s two ladies. . . . I mean, two females.” Right down Santa Claus Lane. “Clothes are pretty near burned off all of ’em.” He swallowed hard against a mixture of taco sauce and bile climbing up his throat. “Some’s got their fingers burned off.” He didn’t yell out any description of the slash wounds he saw on the bodies. There was no need to traumatize the woman any more than she obviously was.
Dalton kept surveying. He was careful where he placed his boots. He’d been on the force for nearly two years. This was his first murder scene. But he remembered from the academy that the first rule, after arriving and securing any crime scene, was not to disturb the evidence. “Lots of what looks like burned rugs or carpets.”
“Sure there’s only five?”
Dalton wondered how many more old Tug needed to make it interesting. He looked again, this time counting off the charred mounds of flesh on his fingers.
“Five’s what I see,” he yelled back.
“Get on up here, then. And step wide of any ash. Don’t contaminate anything.”
The acrid stench of burned flesh stuck in Dalton’s nostrils like burrs on a hunting dog’s legs. Streams of rancid smoke curled up from the large crater holding the bodies. Dalton stepped wide as Tug ordered, but he wondered how much more contaminated the place could get.
“You okay, ma’am?” Dalton asked when he reached the two of them. “This must be quite a shock.”
A thin woman—who Dalton made as no older than himself—with long red hair braided with blue and silver ribbons, struggled to answer. “This is a holy place,” she said. “How could this happen?”
“You know these people, ma’am?” Dalton asked.
“Of course she knows them,” Tug barked. “She brought ’em up here. They came from the lodge. Tourists up here—”
“Travelers,” the woman interrupted. “We call them travelers. They come to experience the sweat lodge. It’s part of their spiritual journey.”
Tug rolled his eyes. Dalton was glad Tug was standing behind the woman so she couldn’t see.
“Anyway,” Tug continued. “She brings the travelers up here. Dropped ’em off last night. Comes to pick ’em up this morning, and this is what she sees.”
“This site is sacred,” the woman said. “What caused this? There was no storm last night. No lightning.”
A storm doesn’t cause slashes, Dalton thought. Thunder doesn’t gouge.
Old Tug rested his hand on his holster, threw his shoulders back, and spit to the side. “That’s what we intend to find out, little lady. Don’t you worry.”
Dalton Rogers took another look toward the smoldering pile of flesh and bones. A sudden gust of chilled air blew against the back of his sweaty neck. He looked up and counted seven hawks circling in the cloudless sky far above the carnage. Another memory of his grandfather floated into his awareness. The two of them were walking through the forest. Grandpa pointed out a hawk and told him the hunting bird always flew alone.
“So if you see more than one, Dalton,” his grandfather had warned, “you know you got trouble.”
So fill your hearts with Christmas cheer ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight.