Deputy Ian McAlester never really cared for coming to Marrakech. The town had no formal law enforcement of its own, and the it was unspoken, but understood, the sheriff only came in if called, even then, being looked on with disdain by watching locals. That was not to say Marrakech was lawless. It was often said in semi-joking terms that the rule of law was not in the hands of the mayor and town board, but that of three individuals; Ira Milligan, Grizz, and Lazarus Lankin. The last person to try and tangle with that law was Franklin Davis, almost two years before, in connection with the murder of Donovan Tabor. Ian had been the one to come up and make the arrest.
There was a ball of anxiety in his gut as he pulled across the driving bridge to the last house on Lovecraft Lane. Two vehicles sat in the drive, notating someone was home. As he got out of his truck, Ian could hear the sound of wood being split out back. It reminded him that there was a storm forecasted to move in. There was even the suggestion that this could bring the first flakes of snow for the season above tree-line.
Following the sounds of chopping and splitting, Ian came upon Lankin, working in an almost effortless fashion on some logs just short of the cliff overlooking Marrakech Gulch. He was dressed in jeans and a pair of boots, his wiry muscles cording and snapping in an almost predatory rhythm. A woman with long, curly brown hair was gathering the split pieces and taking them to be stacked by the back door. She was the one who noticed Ian in his full Levant County Sheriff's uniform.
“You’ve got company, Lazarus,” she said.
He turned, ever so slightly in mid-swing, to regard Ian before splitting the log he was working on as though it was an afterthought. The girl was walking toward Lankin as he reached down to hand her the split pieces of wood with one hand, in the other, he kept holding his splitting maul. He gave her an off-handed smile as she took the wood.
“Why don’t you go brew us some tea,” he said softly.
“Don’t be too long,” she whispered, giving him a kiss on the cheek and going into the house.
“Your sister said you were seeing someone,” Ian said after she went inside. “She said it was sort of serious. Well, serious for you.”
“What do you want, Deputy?” Lankin inquired coldly, setting up another log to split.
Ian jerked back, as though he had been physically struck. It was obvious Lankin had no interest in small talk. Not with him. The only time Lankin went out of his way to deal with the sheriff's department was during a rescue. Even then, it was done so dismissively.
“You and Grizz spoke to my cousin, Trace, a week or two back,” Ian started. “Tried to warn him off Phantom Peak.”
“And?” The spitting maul slammed into wood with a thunderous crack.
“His girlfriend called me today,” Ian continued. “Apparently, Saturday, he came up here to try it anyway.”
“It’s Tuesday, Deputy,” Lankin observed, swinging again, not checking to see if he was heard over the impact of the maul into wood.
“Exactly!” Ian exclaimed. “He’s hasn’t come back yet! Which means he’s still up there.”
“’Most likely’?!? Lazarus, he could be injured, or worse.”
“He could,” the log split and another was set in its place.
“And you’re just going to split wood?” Ian found himself starting to shake. “There’s suppose to be weather moving in!”
“Yes, weather is moving in, which is why I’m getting my firewood ready.”
“I can’t believe you!”
“Connelly is in charge of rescue operations in this county,” Lankin said casually, swinging down on the fresh log. “Have you even bothered to talk to him?”
“You’d be the first person he’d call, Lazarus,” Ian said. “Everyone knows you’re the go-to guy for the Backcountry. No one knows Gaia’s Backbone as well as you. Even Phantom Peak.”
“Call Connelly and tell him to have a body bag ready.”
“You’re not even going to try?!?” By this time, Ian was standing face to face with Lankin. “You bastard! You pussy! What? You afraid because Phantom Peak’s where your mommy and daddy disappeared?”
In a flash, Ian found himself hanging above Marrakech Gulch, Lankin’s left hand locked tightly around his throat, his splitting maul slightly raised. His gray eyes were narrowed with predatory intensity. Something that sounded like a growl resounded in the back of his throat.
“The sphinx used to ask travelers a riddle about a creature who walked on different numbers of legs at different times of the day,” Lankin hissed. "Although I always liked the version of the riddle my sister told me; ‘shall I kill you, traveler? Or shall I set you free? What walks on four legs? Then two? Then three?’”
“The riddle!” He roared. “What is the fucking answer?”
“Man!” Ian screamed “Man! It’s Man! Okay!?!”
He found himself back on the ground, sputtering for breath. For a brief moment, he considered charging Lankin for assaulting him. The splitting maul coming down into the log, just inches from Ian’s face, shattering the log into two pieces, got him to reconsider.
“Don’t ever mention my parents again!” Lankin growled.
“Sonuvabitch!” Ian wheezed. “You do have a weakness after all.”
“Call Connelly and get a body bag, Deputy,” Lankin said. “Three days missing on Phantom Peak? It’s not going to be a happy ending.”
“He’s still alive!”
“Oh? And you know this?” Lankin mocked. “Are we psychic now, Deputy McAlester?”
“No, but some people think your sister is,” he retorted. “And she says Trace is still alive up there!”
Lankin froze in mid-swing on another log. Slowly, he lowered the splitting maul, his head cocking to the side inquisitively. Perhaps at some other time, Ian would’ve been amused to see Lankin looking almost shocked.
“Really, Lazarus,” Ian began, pulling himself off the ground. “Do you think I’d have come up here to ask you otherwise? The only reason I’m here is because Bast said there’s still a chance.”
“Go grab your gear and be back here in an hour.”
“Now?” It was Ian’s turn to be shocked. The sphinx-like smile returned to Lankin’s face as he once more raised the maul and split the log in one stroke.
“Yes, now,” he replied off-handedly. “Weather’s coming and we don’t want to prove my dear sister wrong, now do we?”