THE BONE PICKER Prologue / Ch. 1
As the helicopter ahead lifts off, he turns his attention to people below it, clinging to a ladder leading to the roof. A vertical queue of people, waiting for a ride to freedom. As the CH-53 he’s on shudders to a hover over them, the troop ladder is deployed. It bows under the weight of people scrambling hand over fist to reach the safety of the aircraft. As the ladder is withdrawn, he watches more people appear below to wait their turn. They disappear from sight as the helo lifts off, the rooftop merging with another rooftop and another until a city emerges below. Squalid. Dirty. Teeming with miniscule specks looking more like rats than members of the human race. He thinks back to other missions where his job would’ve been to make sure those specks stopped crawling. But this day, he had not had to use the MA Deuce .50 caliber machine gun he mans.
He glances at the man opposite, also manning a 50. They catch each other’s eyes, then turn their attention back to the open doors. The air swarms with planes, so many it’s hard to tell which is friendly, which enemy.
Frightened people fill the helo’s belly, saturating the heavy air with the sour-sweet smell of sweat. Fear. Men cling to small bags and rucksacks. Women cling to children. He watches faces mouth words of reassurance, not realizing words would be lost. The thropping of one Jolly Green’s blades was deafening. Dozens of the heavies were enough to burst the eardrums. Like monster heatbugs stripping the ground of life, the copters are evacuating thousands of U.S. citizens and nationals from Saigon. How many trips has he made? Ten? Twenty?
As the South China Sea displaces bruised ground and seared grasses, he forces his hands to ease the grip on the handles and take his thumbs off the butterfly trigger. It’s done, he thinks. The mission’s over—his last one. The big dog in Washington was pulling the plug, leaving this broken finger of land to mend or break on its own. Another North against South, he reflects, just on the opposite side of the globe. A duke’s mixture of guys from all walks of life brought together for a common purpose that didn’t mean diddlysquat to them. Or was it the other way around, South against North? It didn’t matter. It wasn’t his war.
This one wasn’t either, he thinks now. His war was being fought elsewhere . . . and without him.
He digs fingertips deep into corded shoulder muscles, listens to his heart pound in his ears, draws a breath that splinters his lungs. The wall of the helicopter becomes a shuddering crutch to keep his legs from caving.
As the carrier deck looms large, he looks across the helo. The other gunner’s skin glistens with sweat; his mouth is so dry, his lips have cracked open. The man catches his eye, finds a smile. As soon as the copter settles, they slide open their doors and help the nationals disembark out the back.
Like a taxi queue, helicopters great and small form lines around waiting flattops. Huey’s buzz like flies, trying to find an open slot, while the Jolly Greens lumber in for their landings. One of the deck crew runs to them, yelling in their ears to grab their machine guns and ammo bags. As soon as the helo is empty, the crew pushes it to the elevator for a ride below decks, making room for the barrage of unplanned planes from the mainland. His aircraft escapes the ignominy of being jettisoned over the side. Others are not so lucky. He listens to smaller copters groan as they splash into the sea, watches them slide beneath oil-slick waves, and feels the other gunner’s slap on his back.
“That’s it, man,” he yells. “Damn, we must’ve been loony tunes, volunteering for this job. But we’re headed stateside now. Home free . . .”
He forces a smile as the other man continues to talk.
“Back to the flatlands for me. Wheat fields, dairy cows, eight-foot-tall corn as far as the eye can see. And you, you’re back to those hills you been bending my ear ‘bout for . . . Hell, I lost track how long. I’m telling you, man, one of these days I’m gonna have a look at those Comanche hills.”
“Kiamichi,” he says.
“Yeah, Kiamichi.” From somewhere, the man finds the energy to laugh. “Damn, still can’t believe Oklahoma’s got mountains.” He pauses, frowning. “What’s wrong, man? You was never one to run off at the mouth, but . . .” His eyes blink rapidly. “Hold on. That letter you got at mail call, was there bad news in that letter you got?”
The letter . . .
Pulling a crumpled letter from his pocket, he stares at it.
The other man hunches closer. “Somebody die, that what this is about? Somebody back home die?”
“No . . .” He unfolds the letter so he can read the return address, needing confirmation. “My wife just had a baby.
“Baby— You’re a daddy? Hell, man, that’s terrific. Damn, what a homecoming you’re gonna have. First thing we do when we get off this tub is find a cold one and celebrate.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Celebrate . . .”
Sam Chitto slid across ice black as coal, struggling to keep his feet. Overnight, a February storm walloped the southeast corner of Oklahoma, leaving sheet ice on roads, frostbite on the skin, and jelled blood in the veins. Pushing through the door of the Choctaw Nation Police Department, he nodded at two women in the reception area. Shaking frozen pellets from his jacket, he proceeded to Jasmine Birdsong’s desk to pick up his messages.
“You’re late . . .” She hammered a staple into a packet of papers. “Again.”
“Stopped to assist at a pileup.” He picked up a half dozen message slips from the corner of her desk. “People around here have shit for brains when it comes to driving on slick roads.” He nodded over his shoulder at the two women in the reception area. “They here to see someone?”
“Yes, indeed. You. Drove clear from Antlers.”
“In this ice storm?” He looked up from the message slips, frowning. “Antlers is in District 7. Why me?”
“Wouldn’t say. Been waitin’ most of an hour. But you have a previous appointment to take care of first.” She aimed a neatly plucked eyebrow toward Dan Blackfox’s office. “Remember?”
Dan Blackfox, the Director of Law Enforcement, had sent word about the meeting the day before but had not mentioned the reason. Chitto glanced toward his boss’s office, then at the reception area again. An aluminum walker sat next to the older woman, fuzzy yellow tennis balls on the wheels. In her lap lay a manila envelope.
“Don’t even think about it.” Jasmine crooked her neck at the clock on the wall. “He’s got a budget meeting in a half hour. Stuck his head out his door twice already, looking for you.”
“Couldn’t someone else help them?” Glancing toward Nate White’s desk, he remembered the field officer was on assignment. He looked next to where the K-9 officer sat, a German Shepherd on the floor next to him. “How ‘bout Junior. He’s in this morning.”
“No way, Jose. The old one there . . .” She indicated a dark lump stuffed into a stiff-backed chair. “Said no one but the Nameless One would do.” She hammered another staple into a packet.
He frowned. “I’ve got a name.”
“She said so, too. Called you Detective Sam Chitto, the Nameless One.”
He shook his head, sighing. “Okay. I’ll just let them know.”
Introducing himself to the women, Chitto explained the previous appointment. “Officer Wharton’s free—”
“We will wait,” the older woman said, folding her hands. The younger woman rubbed her face, sighing.
“All right then. I shouldn’t be a minute or two.” Retreating to Jasmine’s desk, he pointed his chin toward the cafeteria. “You, uh, you want to get them some coffee. I think they need to thaw out some.”
“I don’t do coffee,” she said, hammering another staple. “Remember?”
You want me to do what?” Chitto stared at Dan Blackfox, the Director of Law Enforcement and his boss.
“You heard me. I want you to help me interview replacements for Wanda.”
Wanda had been the department’s administrative assistant until a lifelong smoking habit and ten-year bout with bitterness caught up with her. Wanda’s husband, Bert Gilly, and Chitto’s father, Will Chitto, were killed while on a routine investigation in LeFlore County. Blackfox had followed procedure, turned the case over to the FBI, and the murder had ended up a decade-old-cold case.
“Not cut out for that kind of thing,” Chitto said, head shaking. “I’m a field guy, not a people person.”
“You have direct reports. They’re people.”
“Report,” Chitto said, downgrading his number of reports from multiple to single. “And Nine manages himself. Hell, he has to. I’m gone more than I’m here.”
Nate White, aka Nine, was the field officer for District 9. Being known by a number instead of a name had become the norm since Chitto had gone to work for the Nation. While his memory of things ancient and long forgotten was renown, he had trouble with names. As a rookie, he had resorted to using the district number to ID the respective field officer. It made sense, at least to him. While people came and went, the Nation’s districts remained the same.
He dropped his still damp jacket on the floor beside his chair. “Besides, I told you what I wanted in Wanda’s replacement.”
“More like what you don’t want. No one that knows your family, would mother you to death, or dog your tracks. That about cover it?”
Blackfox leaned back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head “Problem is, the last item on your list is tops on mine.” He narrowed his eyes. “Care to venture a guess why?”
“No . . .” Chitto paused, rolling shirtsleeves to his elbow. Being a detective, he could choose to wear plain clothes or service uniform. His duty uniforms rarely saw the light of day. “I’ve got a good idea.”
Chitto had gotten involved in an undercover operation in the not-too-distant past, one the FBI had taken exception to, being the case was in its jurisdiction.
“Good. Glad your memory’s still intact. Don’t need the Exec on my back again.”
Chitto glanced toward the front desk. “How about Jasmine? She’s been here a while now. Knows the job and the people. Not just here in District 9 but across the Nation—and she doesn’t take flak from anyone.”
Jasmine Birdsong worked as a floater, filling in for open clerical positions in the various districts. To be as well known as she was, she was somewhat of an enigma. In her mid-fifties, she hailed from LeFlore County in the northern part of the Nation. To Chitto’s knowledge, she had no children. Though she never volunteered the information, he suspected she was divorced, not widowed. She took her lunch alone, didn’t keep pictures of grandkids on her desk, and cared nothing for hobbies like crocheting and quilting. And though she’d held onto her looks, she showed no interest in men. In short, she was an undiscovered planet circumnavigating a distant orbit.
“You got that right.” Blackfox ran a hand through dark, short-trimmed hair. “Swear to God, I thought Wanda was independent, but Jasmine’s got her beat four ways to Sunday. Won’t even make a pot of coffee for the office in the morning. Says that’s what the new cafeteria’s for.”
The Law Enforcement Department now occupied the vacated community center behind the tribal complex. Recently refurbished, the building had been divided into thirds, with Law Enforcement on one end, Land Management on the other, and a small cafeteria between.
“I like her, she’s . . . direct.” Chitto grinned. ”She one of the candidates?”
“Oh, hell no. Said she didn’t want to be tied down, rather do temp work like she’s been doing. Which is fine by me.” Blackfox began leafing through a stack of papers. “Interviews start next week. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. Scheduled them early in case you got called out on something.”
“You’re so considerate,” Chitto muttered. “How early?”
“Nine o’clock. I’ll get you a list of the candidates HR’s lined up. In the meantime, I suggest you come up with a new set of wants for Wanda’s replacement. Might want to brush up on the dos and don’ts, too.”
Chitto stared at him.
“The things you can’t ask about.”
“Oh, right. Those things.”
Blackfox shook his head. “I’ll have HR give you the rundown. Now get the hell outta my office. I’m late for a budget meeting.”
Knowing when he’d lost the battle, Chitto grabbed his jacket and headed for his desk. It was a short walk, just long enough for him to decide it might be a good thing if he was in on the interviews. As the field lieutenant for District 9, he deserved a say in who sat in that chair.
Losing a battle didn’t mean you’d lost the war.