Excerpt: Mountain Echoes

Book Eight of the Walker Papers

MOUNTAIN ECHOES Friday, March 24, 4:15p.m.
I came home to North Carolina just shy of a decade after promising I’d never go back.

Home was a funny word. I’d lived in Qualla Boundary for the four years of high school. That was longer than I’d lived anywhere else up until then, but in the intervening decade I’d lived exclusively in Seattle. But North Carolina still twigged as home, maybe because it was where my father had been born.

It was where he’d gone missing from, too, and that was why I was back.

Driving up from Atlanta was a slow immersion into memories. I had the windows of my rented Impala rolled down, and the rich rotting scent of winter collapsing into spring made a hungry place at the hollow of my throat. Of course, everything made me hungry right now—I hadn’t yet recovered from a week’s worth of exhaustive shape-shifting fueled by my body’s resources instead of food. But that slightly sweet smell of death begetting life had always made me hungry, and I’d forgotten that until now.

The low hills with a haze of new leaves lining the roads; the roads themselves narrowing as I pulled away from interstates; the way strangers stopped along the roadside would nod a greeting as I passed by: those things I remembered more clearly. Then again, I’d spent an awful lot of my formative years in cars, crisscrossing the country with my father. Things I could see from a vehicle were most likely to stay with me, maybe.

Like the sign welcoming the world to the Qualla. It was smaller than I remembered it. I was taller than I’d been fourteen years ago when Dad had driven us past that sign for the first time, but mostly its size was relative to its importance in my life. Back then those carved white words on a brown road sign had been the most important thing in my life. Welcome: Cherokee Indian Reservation. At thirteen, going on fourteen, I’d never belonged anywhere for more than a few months, and that welcome sign was supposed to be the start of a whole new life for me.

It had been, too. Just not the way I’d expected it to be.

I slowed the car as I drove into the town of Cherokee. It was equal parts bigger and better than I remembered it, and exactly the same. The main street was four lanes rolling through town, no sidewalks to mention, just road, then parking spaces, then tourist shops flush up against them. A lot of low brown buildings with statues of headdressed Indian chiefs or protective gleaming black bears in front of them, and—new to me—signs making sure everybody knew which way to drive to the casino. It had opened the year before I left the Qualla, and the bigger-better aspects of Cherokee probably had it to thank. There’d been tourism money half the year before that, and unemployment the other half. That was the Cherokee I remembered, but I was just as glad that it had moved on.

I got out of my car in front of the sheriff’s station. Wind came down off the blue mountains and caught the skirt of my white leather coat with cinematic flair. For half a second I wished I was as cool as the woman reflected in the car window looked. Somebody that cool, though, probably wouldn’t have a stomach full of butterflies, and her hands wouldn’t shake as she took off her sunglasses. I’d burned bridges, mentally if not actually, when I’d left the Qualla. Coming back scared the crap out of me.

A man about my own age stepped through the station’s open front door, leaned in the frame, and said, “I’ll be damned. Joanne Walkingstick’s come home.”

All the butterflies got squished as my stomach clenched. I’d Anglicized my last name the minute I left Cherokee, calling myself Walker. Excepting a handful of magic users, nobody had called me Joanne Walkingstick in ten years. I’d somehow forgotten that’s who I would be, back here.

“You haven’t changed,” the guy said, which was wildly untrue, although in physical terms he was right. I was still six feet tall with short-cropped black hair, and ten years wasn’t enough for most people to lose the youth they’d had graduating high school. I looked like me, albeit better-dressed.

The fellow in the door looked like himself, too, though it took me a good twenty seconds before I said, “Lester,” and even that I said slowly. It took another moment to finish with, “You cut your hair. And you’re a cop?”

“Who better than the local troublemaker? Figure I at least have a clue what the kids are on about. I hear you’re a brother in blue too.” Lester Lee pushed out of the door and stepped forward to offer his hand. I shook it automatically, still trying to get past the silver badge on his chest and the tidy police haircut. Last time I’d seen Les, he’d had hair to his ass and had been smoking pot during our graduation ceremony. Other than that, he did look like himself: pleasant dark eyes, wide cheekbones, reasonably fit and about four inches shorter than I.

“I was,” I said a bit absently. “I just quit. I’ve had othe— Who told you that?”


“She’s here.” Of course she was here. Sara Buchanan, now Sara Isaac, was the one who’d called to tell me my father was missing. We’d been best friends about half a lifetime ago, right up until I blew it by sleeping with the boy she liked. In my defense, she’d said she didn’t like him, and my social skills hadn’t been well enough developed to recognize the lie. Either way, the friendship had ended. But we’d reconnected, if that was the right word for an encounter over half-eaten dead men, about four months earlier. When that case was over, I’d never expected to hear from her again.

“Lucas came with her,” Les said, watching me.

My stomach went to knots again, though I wasn’t surprised. Lucas Isaac had been the boy, back then. He’d gone home to Vancouver before my pregnancy became obvious, but he and Sara had kept in touch and eventually got married. I’d always refused to answer questions about who the father of my twins was, and had thought nobody knew. Judging from Les’s expression, if everybody hadn’t known then, they did now. That was awkward, so I ignored it.

“I’m more worried about my dad. Les, what’s going on? Sara called and said he was missing, but she wouldn’t say anything else.” That wasn’t exactly true. She’d said it was “my kind of thing,” which I took to mean it appeared to be something paranormal in nature.

“She wouldn’t—” Les broke off with a cough, then jerked his chin toward the station. “Come in and sit down a minute, Joanie. We—”

“Joanne. Or Jo, please. I don’t use Joanie much anymore.” Actually it had only just struck me in the past few days that I’d left the little-girl nickname behind, but Les didn’t have to know that.

He lifted an eyebrow. “You hated being called Jo.” With that observation he went inside, leaving me to look at the dark square of doorway with a blush mounting my cheeks.

We hadn’t been particular friends, Lester Lee and me. I hadn’t been particular friends with much of anybody, truth be told, because I’d had a chip the size of Idaho on my shoulder. I had my Irish mother’s pale skin, which made me unnecessarily self-conscious about coming to the Qualla, and the only long-term companion I’d ever had was my father. Coming into a high school of kids who’d known each other since birth made me horribly uncomfortable, and I’d mostly been a complete jerk through my adolescent years. I could not for the life of me imagine why Les knew I didn’t like being called Jo, when I couldn’t even remember talking to him more than five times in the years I’d been here. But he knew it, and I was once more smacked in the face with the realization that if I’d been less of a jackass, I’d probably have had a lot more fun in school. I sighed and followed Les inside the cop shop.

Last time I’d been in there it had been to hack my personal files in their computers, changing my last name from Walkingstick to Walker on my driver’s license. By the time it propagated to the state system I’d left North Carolina and Joanne Walkingstick behind.

The station hadn’t changed a lot since then. The computers were better and so was the system they were linked into. I probably wouldn’t be able to hack it anymore. Of course, I wouldn’t need to. I could just access any files I needed to change from the Seattle Police Department’s computers. Or I could have before I’d quit not quite a week ago. I sighed, pushed my hand through my hair, and went to sit in one of the surprisingly comfortable chairs by Les’s desk. Sunlight hung on motes of dust between us, making the whole world seem like it was standing still. “All right. Hit me. What’d Sara leave out?”

“Luke’s missing, too.”

Static rushed my ears and for a minute I couldn’t say anything. Then I laughed, short and harsh. “Before or after Dad?”

“Before. Sara and him came into town last Friday. Luke went missing Saturday night and there’s been a manhunt on for him. Your dad was helping, but Monday night he didn’t come back.”

A house of cards collapsed in my mind, each card with a nugget of information on it. Monday had been the solstice. Dad was some kind of mystic. Those two things probably went together. Sara had called me Wednesday. Midafternoon, Irish time—I’d been in Ireland hunting banshees—which was morning here in Cherokee. Dad had been missing about thirty-six hours then, and Lucas for seventy-two. Aloud, I said, “You’re sure Sara didn’t tie Dad up somewhere so she’d have an excuse to call me?”

Humor creased Les’s face, showing what he would look like in another forty years. Like his grandfather, the tribal elder for whom he’d been named. “The thought crossed my mind,” he said, “but she was never an outdoorsy type. She’d never get the drop on your Dad.”

“She’s an FBI agent now, Les. She could get the drop on most people.”

“Not,” Les said firmly, “your Dad,” which was probably true. I’d never thought of my father as particularly impressive, but he was the kind of guy who could sit down and disappear into the landscape even if you were looking at him when he sat. Wild animals tended to treat him as if he was one of their own. Sara had learned the ropes well enough to kick my puny ass, but I couldn’t see her taking Dad out. “Not if her life depended on it,” Les finished, as if following my thoughts.

“What if Luke’s did,” I said under my breath, but I didn’t really mean it. Not mostly, though I was willing to bet Sara’d been almost relieved when my father went missing, if it meant she had an excuse to call me in. “Why’d she say it was my kind of thing?”

Les’s humor fell away. “I know the elders gave you a drum, Joan— Joanne.” He emphasized the name, reminding himself not to use the high school nickname.

A little shock ran through me. There’d been a bit of ceremony involved with the gifting of the drum and logically I supposed half the town knew I’d received it, but logic had never been my strong suit. I sat forward, elbows on my knees, and rubbed my eyes. “Yeah, they did. When I was fifteen.”

“So what happened?” Les’s voice dropped, his curiosity softened by what sounded like genuine respect.

I rubbed my face again, then sat on my hands so I’d stop doing that. “The really short version is I got pregnant and it screwed me up. Everything the drum suggested…” I shrugged. “Went off the rails. I only found the tracks again about fifteen months ago.”

“So you’re a…”

For the first time, I didn’t want to answer the question, not because I thought he would laugh, but because of where I was. Sitting in the heart of Qualla Boundary, in all that was left of the once-vast Cherokee nation, in the midst of that, saying “A shaman,” somehow sounded very arrogant indeed. There were too many charlatans and quacks out there buying, selling and bartering so-called shamanic gifts, and I’d spent way more of my life off the rez than on. For a minute I felt as false as any of those con artists. I’d never had any use for the mystical. Claiming I was now part of that heritage just seemed wrong.

Les, though, looked neither offended nor surprised when I said the word. He just nodded and let me work my way around to continuing. “Not quite like the traditional medicine men, as far as I can tell. When this all…woke up…I was told I was on a warrior’s path. Healing’s only part of it, for me.”

Les’s mouth twitched. “You always did like a fight.”

That much, certainly, was true. It was utterly bizarre to talk to someone who had enough knowledge of a younger me to say a thing like that, but it was true. I shrugged one shoulder and tried again. “So why’d Sara think it was my kind of thing?”

“The mountain’s been hollering, Jo. So loud even I can hear it, and I’m no shaman.”

The mountain was hollering. That was an utterly preposterous thing to say, except I had just gotten off a plane from Ireland, where a screaming stone laid out peoples’ destinies. Mountains hollering seemed right in line with that. I nodded. “What’s it shouting about?”

“It started the night Lucas went missing.” Les shrugged. “Your dad said it was trying to tell us how something was wrong. That’s why he went up there, why he went alone. He was looking for Luke like all of us were, but—”

“But he was looking to heal the crying land,” I finished.

Surprise and respect brightened Les’s eyes. I could see a question coming, and lifted a hand to ward it off. I’d only just, in the past couple days, discovered my father belonged to a magical bloodline just as much as my mother had. My nomadic childhood had crystallized into a never-before-appreciated kind of sense: Dad had been taking us from one damaged site to another, trying, I now suspected, to give something back to barren earth. I hadn’t yet wrapped my mind around the whole idea and wasn’t prepared to discuss it. “What happened when he didn’t come back?”

“It got worse. It’s echoing all over the mountains now, so bad you can’t tell where it starts. My grandpa looks like he’s sucking lemons all the time, that’s how much it’s affecting him. It’s worse for some of the other families.”

“Is there anybody it’s not affecting?”

Les’s mouth quirked again. I’d had no idea that under the hair and the weed he’d had a pervasive, low-key sense of humor. “Tourists,” he said. “White men. Whatever’s happening here, Jo, it’s not their story. It belongs to the People.”

“I’m half-white, Les.”

“Nah. You grew up in the Qualla.”

I stared at him a long moment, a smile tugging at the corner of my mouth. “Just like that, huh? All the time I spent being a dick, chip on my shoulder, obstreperously ignoring my Cherokee heritage, it all gets hand-waved away because I spent a handful of teenage years here? Shit, Les, if I’d known it was that easy—”

Hadlv hehi, Joanne?”

I answered in the same language without thinking. “Home is where the heart is, Les. Which means—” I broke off, my brain catching up to my tongue and immediately forgetting the words I needed. I hadn’t spoken Cherokee regularly since I’d been a kid, less than ten years old. But Les was grinning at me, and shaking his head.

“Maybe you didn’t learn that here, Joanne. Maybe you learned it out there on the road with Joe, but as far as I’m concerned, it means you grew up in the Qualla. So you’re part of the People, even if your ma was white. Besides, most of us have white blood anyway. I mean, look at Sara.”

I actually looked over my shoulder, half expecting her to be there. She wasn’t, but I knew what he meant. Sara was honey-blond with brown eyes and perpetually tanned skin, making her look like more of a California golden girl than somebody who laid claim to a quarter Cherokee blood. But kind of like me, her heritage came out in black and white: the high school yearbook snapshots emphasized the Indian aspects of her features, making the light hair seem less relevant. I turned back around and crooked a smile at Les. “Right. Christ, Les, were you this—”

His eyebrows rose as my face reddened again. “I was going to say this easy-going in high school, but my dim recollection is you were about as easy-going as anybody could be. This nice. Were you this nice in high school?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Bounced off you a few times, though, and figured you weren’t interested.”

I wasn’t especially good at reading between the lines, but I was reasonably certain that Cherokee County Sheriff Lester Lee had just confessed to having had a crush on me in high school. I sat there speechless long enough for him to get uncomfortable and to go back to the topic at hand. “Anyway, so white blood or not, it doesn’t mean the mountain hollers aren’t our story. I’ll call somebody to cover the station and I’ll take you up there now, if you want.”

Light changed behind me, somebody coming through the still-open front door, and a woman’s voice, cool enough to shave ice, said, “Don’t worry about it, Les. I’ll take her up myself.”

Oh, God. Caught between unrequited high school love and unforgiven high school rivalry. I slumped in my seat, trying to disappear myself. It didn’t work, and after a minute, Sara Isaac, Archnemesis, said, “Come on, Joanne. It already took you long enough to get here. We haven’t got all damned day.”


Available March 2013

Mountain Echoes

CE Murphy