The Horned Owl - First Chapter



“Every man is a moon and has a side which he turns toward nobody; you have to slip around behind if you want to see it.” —Mark Twain (“The Refuge of the Derelicts” 1905)




Thunderstorms rumbled across southeastern Oklahoma in the night, leaving waves of rain in their wake. The fall pattern was beginning. More times than not, you could count on rainy weather in April and October. Sam Chitto liked patterns. Patterns were predictable. Now close to midday, he welcomed the thrum of raindrops on his office window. Water had been sluicing down the panes all morning making for empty streets, quiet phones, and a grateful Choctaw Nation police detective needing a quiet Friday to catch up on paperwork.

The loud rasp of Jasmine Birdsong’s voice shattered the spell. He looked up to see her trailing behind two women marching his direction, hoods on their raincoats concealing their faces. Without invitation, the cloaked women took chairs in front of his desk and pushed back their hoods. Chitto sighed. Not one council member, but two. And one of them his mother.

“It’s all right, Jasmine,” he said. The administrative assistant stood behind the intruders, fists on her hips and a scowl on her face.

Jasmine had only been there a few weeks. For years, she had worked as a temp in various offices across the Nation, filling in until a permanent hire was made. After Wanda Gilly, the department’s former administrative assistant died, Jasmine agreed to fill the empty chair temporarily. Then, for reasons understood only to her, she decided to take on the job full time. Chitto didn’t know Jasmine well but what he did know about her, he liked. She kept to herself, knew the Choctaw Nation like the back of her hand, and was an ace on the computer. She apparently didn’t like to be steamrolled either. Another point in her favor.

Quickly, he introduced Jasmine to his mother, Mattie Chitto, and June Biggers, council members for Districts Eleven and Four respectively.

“Oh, I know her,” Jasmine said, indicating June Biggers. “I was born and raised in LeFlore County.”

“Birdsong . . .” June narrowed her eyes, examining Jasmine more closely. “Yes, I recognize you now. You’re descended from that old freedwoman, Violet.”

“My grandmother.”

Jasmine was neither young nor old, fifty-something Chitto guessed. Today, as always, she had dressed in subdued clothing: brown slacks and tan shirt, leather walking shoes. Earthy colors that complimented her rich skin tone. While Jasmine held her personal life close, her heritage was well known. Her ancestors had been slaves of Choctaws removed to Indian Territory in the 1830s. In the late 1880s, those freed slaves had been admitted to the Choctaw Nation.

Turning her attention from Jasmine to Mattie Chitto, June Biggers said, “Give him the folder, Mattie.”

Obligingly, Mattie Chitto dropped a damp manila folder onto Chitto’s desk. “This is for your eyes only,” she said, locking him in a stare.

Chitto paused, decoding the nonverbal message, then looked at Jasmine. “Make sure no one interrupts me.”

“Tried that one already,” she snapped.

As Jasmine strode away, Chitto turned to his mother. Raindrops glistened on the lapels of her trench coat, shirt collar, high cheekbones. “There’s a coat rack up front,” he said pointing his chin toward the entrance.

“No need,” Mattie said. “We have a meeting and can’t stay long.” She gave an insistent nod toward the folder.

Sighing again, he opened a folder containing a stack of hand-drawn pictures. Hurriedly, he flipped through crude pictures of fantastic monsters and misshapen people, bloodied weapons and bleeding bodies, all drawn on three-ring notebook paper.

“What am I looking at?” he asked, looking at Mattie.

“What’s it look like to you?” she said.

“Are you serious—?” He glanced at the unfinished paperwork on his desk, which he’d hoped to finish before the rain let up and people came out of their hidey-holes.

“Dead serious,” she said. “What do you see?”

Giving his head a slight shake, he studied the drawings for a couple of minutes. “Well,” he said, looking between June and his mother. “From the similarity in style, I’d say they were done by one kid, probably a teenage boy.”

“So,” Mattie said. “Pretty normal for a boy to do that kind of thing, huh?”

“Normal . . .” He paused, trying to read the subliminal message in the two sets of dark eyes scrutinizing him. “They’re not unlike others I’ve seen kids do,” he said with a shrug.

June gave Mattie a knowing look, saying, “You were right. He is the one to fix this.”

“Fix what?” Noting the smug looks on their faces, Chitto bristled. “Look,” he growled. “I get the feeling I’m being led around by the nose here, which pisses me off.” He tapped the folder. “So one of you tell me what I’m looking at here.”

“Condemning evidence,” June snapped.

“Evidence?” Quickly, he flicked through the stack of drawings again. “Of what?”

“Murder,” Mattie responded.

Heinous murder,” June added. Her angular face and prominent cheekbones appeared chiseled from stone. “Which he didn’t do.”

“Okay,” Chitto sighed, shoulders slumping. Resigned that he wasn’t going to defer this conversation, he leaned back in his chair. “Start at the beginning.”

June took charge, telling Chitto about Bobby Taneyhill, a high school boy and member of the Choctaw Nation who had been accused of murdering a young woman at the Spiro Mounds Archaeology Center. The victim had worked at the gift shop on site and lived in Spiro, a few miles away. The boy lived with his grandfather, a maintenance worker at the Center who owned a home nearby.

“I heard something about that,” Chitto said, searching his memory for details. “But Spiro Mounds . . . that’s state-owned, isn’t it?”

“Right,” June said. “Which is why the case was filed in the LeFlore County District Court in Poteau. But it doesn’t matter. The boy’s grandfather said Bobby was home all night and that man would never lie. His name’s Charlie Walker and he’s a Tribal Elder—an honorable man. The boy didn’t do it—and you have to prove it.”

Nuh-uh . . .” Chitto stiffened, head wagging side to side. “The case is out of my district, not to mention my jurisdiction.”

“You’ve worked in other districts lots of times,” Mattie countered.

The Choctaw Nation covered 11,000 square miles and was divided into twelve districts. Chitto was field lieutenant for District Nine; LeFlore County was in District Four. The two districts were on opposite corners of the Choctaw Nation, as the crow flies a hundred fifty miles apart. The distance was not an impossible problem to overcome. Chitto had been assigned to other districts plenty of times to fill in for another field lieutenant either out on sick leave or handling an emergency.

“This is different,” he said. “There’s no need to send me up there. Besides, you both know how the system works. This country’s called the Checkerboard for a reason. My hands are tied.”

The problem was an old one, for not only the Choctaw but also the other nations forced to move to Indian Territory. All told, there were thirty-eight federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma and the Removal had been the trigger mechanism for the occupation. For the Choctaws, the Removal began in the 1830s when the people were forced from their lands in Mississippi. Survivors of the march were given the southeast corner of Indian Territory, a section wedged between the Canadian River on the north and the Red River on the south, the Ouachita Mountains on the east and grassland prairies to the west. Sometime later, the federal government redid the treaties, chopping the whole into smaller pieces, in effect making the Choctaw allotment Indians. Sometime later, another government treaty replaced the previous one, opening up land not yet allotted to Choctaws to non-Indians. The mix of tribal and non-tribal lands led to a checkerboard landscape requiring a multi-layered law enforcement system—federal, state, municipal, and Native American. A stranglehold of jurisdictional issues often led to criminals walking free.

Mattie’s eyes narrowed to slits. “That didn’t stop you before.”

Before . . .

Chitto fixed his eyes on his mother, knowing full well what she was referring to and wondering where she’d gotten the information. Recently, he’d teamed with Chickasaw and Muskogee police officers looking into murders that spanned their boundaries, a case officially under the auspices of the FBI. He’d made a decision at the end that caused a man to die and him to feel unclean, unfit to do his job. He’d gone to an old mystic named Sonny Boy Monroe for a cleansing ceremony. Had Sonny Boy spilled the beans?

He leaned forward, eyes still locked on hers. “My hands are tied,” he repeated more forcefully.

Chitto’s mother was missing an important piece of information. The Feds had gotten wind of the undercover operation and made their displeasure known. The bureau didn’t like it when other jurisdictions trespassed in their territory, and one FBI agent, by the name of Ramon Rodriguez, had made it his personal vendetta to ID Chitto as the leader of the rebellious act.

“Well untie them.” June Biggers crossed her arms, dark eyes glinting. “The boy’s being framed. It’s all because one of his teachers said something about scary pictures he drew in class—claiming they showed something was wrong with him.” She made a circular motion with her forefinger finger and pointed it at her head, the sign for crazy. “The prosecution’s bringing in a psychiatrist who specializes in sexual homicides to look at the stories the boy wrote. Comic book stories, not real.”

“Graphic novels?” he asked, thinking of the latest rage in books that were especially popular with the younger generation.

“Yeah,” she confirmed. “That’s what they’re calling them. But the state’s lawyer is claiming the boy was living out a fantasy, saying the murder was a fantasy killing.” Looking at her watch, she rose from her chair. “That teacher’s the one who’s nuts—that lawyer, too.”

“Hold on,” Chitto said, looking up at June. “To indict him, there had to be some pretty solid evidence presented.”

“Well . . .” She hesitated. “See, a rancher driving down the road saw him walking away from the Archaeology Center where the body was found.” She hesitated again. “Bobby went looking for it the next morning.”

“Looking for it . . . The body?”

“Yes.” Glancing at the rain-streaked window, June pulled up the hood of her raincoat. “He heard Ishkitini in the night so he knew someone had been killed.”

In Choctaw mythology, Ishkitini was the Horned Owl. Hearing its screech in the night was a sign of sudden death, as in a murder.

Chitto suppressed an urge to laugh. “You’re saying this kid heard a screech owl and went looking for a dead person the next morning.”

“That’s exactly what she’s saying,” Mattie said, pulling up her hood. “We have to go now but you call me later, tell me what you’re gonna do. The boy needs an advocate from the Nation.”

“June can be his advocate,” he replied.

“A cop advocate,” she said over her shoulder.

“Wait up,” Chitto called to the departing women. As they turned, he held up the folder of drawings. “You didn’t say how you got hold of the pictures this kid drew. They should be locked up in an evidence locker.”

“Didn’t say they were done by that boy,” Mattie said. “Look on the back of the pictures. There’s a note from another teacher, too.”

Chitto opened the folder again. “Well, hell,” he muttered, seeing a scrawled Samuel Chitto on the back of the pages. The handwritten note tucked behind the drawings was one a seventh-grade algebra teacher had sent to his parents. The teacher described the images as abnormal and postulated that either Chitto was a lazy ne’er-do-well who would never amount to a hill of beans or in need professional help.

“I was bored, not psycho,” he mumbled. He hurried toward the front entrance hoping to catch his mother, wanting to ask her why she had hung onto the drawings all these years. Too late, he caught a glimpse of her car leaving the parking lot.

I’ll catch up with her tonight, he thought, returning to his desk. She was expecting him to call that evening and he did want to know that she’d made it home all right. It was an hour and a half drive to her home in Krebs, an eighty-mile trip up Highway 69. She was a careful driver but the roads were wet. Hydroplaning could be a problem. Shoving the folder into a bottom drawer, he went back to his reports.

But as Chitto worked, his attention wandered to Bobby Taneyhill’s drawings. Graphic novels were stories told primarily through pictures, like the funny pages in newspapers and comic books sold at drugstores and newsstands. An innocuous form of entertainment for children and teenagers. He’d bought his share of comics growing up. In recent years, the art form had developed into something more sophisticated, a novel told primarily in pictures but for a more mature audience. He wondered what the subject of the Taneyhill boy’s stories had been and what the psychiatrist had seen in them that indicated he was capable of murder.

Chitto looked up from his work, wondering what a psychiatrist would see in his own drawings. Opening the bottom drawer, he pulled out the folder again. Examining the pictures more closely, he recognized them as subjects of stories his grandmother had told him growing up. Old Choctaw legends and myths, ways to explain how things came to be. Nothing unusual, he told himself. Every culture had its own. Had Bobby Taneyhill’s grandfather told him those old stories, too? If not, was there was another logical reason for what the boy drew?

That thought triggered a chain of others and he swiveled his chair, looking toward Jasmine’s desk. Being from LeFlore County and having worked in most of the Nation’s offices, she possessed a wealth of information. What’s more, with her computer experience she would know which rocks to turn over to find what was obscured. Such as why the boy was being raised by his grandfather instead of his parents. If he’d had problems with teachers or schoolmates. If he’d seen counselors, had dealings with the victim.

The next thing he knew, he was wondering if the screech of the owl could have been the scream of a woman. The boy’s grandfather lived nearby. Was the place close enough to the murder site for the boy to hear the victim’s cries? One thing was certain: honorable men didn’t lie. If the boy had been home all night, the murderer was still out there. Was this his first murder? Would he kill again?

Chitto selected a stone from the collection on his desk and rubbed it between his fingers. Trained as a geologist, he had put together his collection carefully, selecting various types of rock that spoke to the creation of that part of the country. Spanning eons, the rocks told an ancient story: volcanic eruptions, ancient seas, cracks in the planet’s surface that led to earthquakes and faults. The flat, round stone he chose this day, however, was nothing remarkable. He’d picked it up on a fishing trip with his father.

Swiveling his chair, he looked out the window. The rain had let up, causing ground fog to float like ghost vapors in low-lying places. Chitto knew of ghosts. The recent murder was not the first one to happen in LeFlore County. Two Choctaw Nation police officers had lost their lives there a decade ago, his father and Bert Gilly.

Chitto contemplated the misty vapors rising from the ground like restless spirits. From past experience, he knew ghosts had a way of making their presence known. Had he just been handed an invitation to look into a ten-year-old murder case?

His father had been Field Lieutenant for District 11 and Bert Gilly for District 9. But soon after their bodies were discovered, the jurisdictional rigmarole had kicked in and Dan Blackfox, the Director of the Law Enforcement, turned the case over to the FBI, which held jurisdiction. Chitto had not visited the murder site since the case was turned over to the feds.

A decade, he thought now. Ten long years. He had changed his career plan because of the murder, given up a career in geology for a job that would enable him to find the killers. His goal had gone unfulfilled. And though multiple FBI agents had been assigned to work the case, none had made any progress. Would doing a favor for two irate council members be the ammunition he needed to persuade Dan Blackfox to let him off leash?

Returning the stone to his collection, he rose and walked to the front of the office. “Jasmine,” he said. “Let me buy you a cup of coffee.”

“Um-hmm,” she said. “I knew those two were up to no good. Politicians always have an agenda.”

Another reason to like Jasmine Birdsong. Her opinion of politicians matched his to a T.