Just before midnight, in the middle of the stolen lands, three men crouched in an overgrown forest.
The men were known as Watchman, Scavenger and Prophet. They had other names, but it had been a long time since anyone used them. The trio had concealed themselves in a kudzu grove that was teeming with mosquitoes and smelled of pine needles and decay. The men ignored the bugs and the scents and the sounds of an approaching storm as best they could. Their attention was fixed on a small A-frame cabin, the front of which was almost entirely glass. They stayed perfectly still, and they watched.
Waiting for the old man to appear.
After what seemed like hours, they finally saw him shuffle into view. The elderly gentleman plodded up a circular wooden staircase to the second floor. He reached the landing, took a few steps forward and bent down to examine a volume on a bookcase.
While he knelt, Watchman tucked a vintage 1936 Winchester Model 70 rifle against his shoulder and aimed it at the back of the old man’s head. He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly through his burn-scarred lips, and pulled the trigger.
The sounds of gunshot and shattered glass pierced the night. Unsettled birds for acres around them squawked and chattered.
The old man lurched forward into his shelves, then he stuttered back before tumbling down the stairs and out of view.
“Come on!” Watchman rasped.
The three men slogged through the undergrowth to the front door of the cabin.
Scavenger got there first. He tried the doorknob. “Locked.”
The small wiry man put his hands out in front of him and closed his eyes. His fingers bent and twitched as if they were grasping for something in the air. A few seconds later, he bent down to fumble in a nearby shrub.
He stood up again holding a key.
Scavenger unlocked the door and entered the cabin. Watchman and Prophet followed, the young newcomer’s eyes darting nervously around at the surrounding forest before he closed the door behind them.
The wooden cabin was full of hand-carved furniture, animal hides and old woolen blankets. It reeked of mothballs.
Scavenger frowned at Watchman. “We’re looking for an old leather pouch, you said?”
“Yes,” their leader confirmed. “If it looks like the one that I saw, it will be brown, tanned, about eighteen inches long, and rolled up.” Watchman pointed down, adding, “The other two bundles were found under the floorboards, if that helps.”
Scavenger nodded. He closed his eyes and extended his hands in front of him again, seeking as before. After moving carefully through the living room, he looked up at his companions. “Not here.”
He paced through the remainder of the cabin’s first floor with his pulsing fingers. The dining room, bathroom and kitchen also yielded nothing. As he moved toward a bedroom in the back, he stepped over the old man’s body without examining it. Watchman, too, passed without concern, his springy gait making light of the fact that he’d just killed the man.
Prophet paused. He stared, bug-eyed and shuddering, at the lifeless form that was twisted at the foot of the staircase. After a moment, he stepped gingerly around it.
Watchman glanced back at his young teammate, an exasperated look on his face. “You’ve never seen a dead body before?”
“Only at funerals.”
In the back bedroom doorway, Scavenger stopped abruptly. He opened his eyes wide and flexed his outstretched fingers.
A soft scratching noise came from the bedroom.
As he stepped into the room, a shrill beeping sound began.
“Damn it, he has an alarm,” Watchman hollered. “We have fifteen minutes, tops. Move!”
Scavenger ran into the room and crouched on the far side of the bed. He leaned his head against the wall, listening. “It’s right behind this board.”
Watchman frowned and glanced around the room. He walked over to the old man’s closet and picked up a stray crowbar that was lying on the floor, and handed it to Scavenger with a half-grin. “What do you suppose he has this nearby for?”
Scavenger moved his hands down the sides of the paneling until he found a notch in the wood. He put the crowbar against the notch and applied pressure.
A section of paneling snapped off the wall and landed with a thump. Inside, an old leather bundle had been wedged against the insulation. Scavenger took the bundle out and placed it on the bed. He unrolled it, and the three men stared eagerly at the contents.
An odd collection of items was scattered across the leather. There were small wooden carvings of animals: a raven, a wolf, and a beaver. There was also a light blue stone, a pair of hawk tail feathers, and a nugget of raw metal that appeared to be tarnished silver. Underneath the artifacts was a collection of folded papers.
Prophet frowned. “The piece isn’t here,” he yelled over the shrill beeping.
“Are you sure?”
“He only bought the bundle yesterday, so the piece is either somewhere else in this house, or it wasn’t in the bundle to begin with,” Watchman said. “If the old man thought he was being watched, he could have hidden it apart from the bundle. Keep looking, Scavenger.”
“I can’t find something if I don’t know what it looks like!” Scavenger snapped. He turned to Prophet. “Can you describe the piece for me?”
“No. Every object looks different. I don’t know what it’s going to look like. But I’ll know it when I see it.”
Scavenger moved the carvings aside and glanced at the documents beneath them. “These papers are in Shawnee. Any chance they’re what we’re looking for?”
“No, but maybe they say where it is.” Watchman rolled the bundle back up and stuffed it inside his jacket. “We’ll need a translator to be sure. Prophet, you’re the frontman now. Start looking.”
Prophet swallowed and nodded. “Let’s check upstairs.”
The trio left the bedroom and walked back toward the staircase. Prophet averted his eyes again as he stepped around the body, glancing instead toward the kitchen.
A young black woman was staring at them through the raised kitchen window. Her skin glowed brightly in the darkness, the light a deep blood red.
He jumped. Scavenger gasped. Watchman reached for his rifle.
The woman narrowed her eyes at them, then darted to the left, out of view.
“Get her!” Watchman ordered.
The three men raced out the front door and ran around the house to the spot where their observer had been standing.
She was nowhere to be seen.
“Who do you think she was?” Scavenger craned his neck, looking into the dense forest. He raised his hands. “Should I try to find her?”
Watchman looked at his watch. “No. Only five minutes left until the cops show up. We don’t have time to check upstairs. We need to leave.”
“We can’t go yet!” Prophet’s bug-eyed expression grew even more pronounced. “Our lives are worth nothing to the general, you said. We’re expendable. If we come back without it, he—”
“We have no choice if the damn thing isn’t here! Let’s go back and get these papers translated. The general may be angry that the piece is missing, but he’ll be homicidal if we get caught.”
The three of them jogged back down the road toward the place where they’d concealed a plain gray sedan in a nearby thicket. They pulled the car out quietly, and took off down the road.
The tracker watched silently from the woods as the killers drove away.
She stared after them until their car could no longer be seen. Once they were out of sight, she walked back to the old man’s window. She looked at the corpse by the staircase with sorrow in her eyes, then she pulled out her phone and sent a text.
‘We’re too late. The old man is dead. I’m sure Tsali is behind it. You notify his family. I’ll see if I can pick up anything else.’
She put her phone back in her pocket, closed her eyes, and took several long deep breaths, scenting the air.
“Where are you going?” she whispered to the night.
The night did not answer.
Trees rustled around her, whipped by the wind. Thunder rumbled through the clouds above. And somewhere off in the distance, the sound of sirens could just be detected.
The woman frowned at the sirens, and then again at the body. She shook her head and walked back into the forest.
When the responding vehicles grew louder, she broke into a run. As she did so, her body changed shape. Four large paws glowing with blood-red light took over for two human feet, and they carried her in silence to the top of the hill.
The luminous panther took one final glance over her shoulder at the dead man’s cabin as two police cruisers descended upon it. Then she turned away, and padded off into the darkness.