I pulled the cruiser to a stop and flipped a switch on the dash, killing the siren. As I got out and made my way to the rear of the small, wooden shack, the smell of burning assaulted my nose. I heard a moaning, keening wail, and I headed in the direction of the sound. I was tense as hell and my hand kept straying to the butt of my gun. I inwardly cursed those idiots on the City Council for cutting the budget and forcing us to ride without partners.
I was responding to a 911 call of unknown type, so I had to prepare myself for anything. Sandi, my dispatcher, had said over the radio, "I don't know what's up, Wayne. The caller said, 'Send police to the storage shack behind the stadium right away' and then they just hung up.
"Ten-four," I had responded, "Just get me some back-up on this will you?"
"Sure thing." Sandi had answered. She was a great woman and I knew she would do as I had asked.
I came around the corner of the dull, red shack- and I stopped dead in my tracks. Before me lay a black, smoking heap, its edges still glowing slightly like the dying embers of a campfire. Sitting beside this burned pile, rocking back and forth, was a man who looked to be eighty or more. He had white, stringy hair and his face bore the wrinkles of time in a spider-web of age. The dark, red tone of his skin told me he was most likely native American. As he rocked, he wailed in a haunting, mournful way that made my skin crawl.
I knelt beside the old man, "What happened here?" I asked him.
He looked up at me, his dark eyes wide and frightened, "The Cloud People." he said in heavily accented English, "They return. They bring fire and death."
My girlfriend was into this kind of thing. She had totems and mandellas and dream catchers all over her house. But I had not paid much attention to it, except to admire the artwork, "Who are the Cloud People?" I asked calmly, "And why are they bringing fire and death?"
"They come from the sky." the old man said, "They will avenge the sorrow and loss my people have borne at the hands of the White Man. They will rain fire upon those who will not believe."
I tried not to laugh at the man's rantings. I considered pulling out my radio and calling for the patty wagon. This guy was either stoned or crazy. Then the black heap caught my eye again. I sniffed... and the odor was somehow familiar to me. It brought to mind outdoor barbecues and grilled steaks-
Fear suddenly shot through me like a bolt of white lightning as I realized that what I was smelling was burned meat! I stood quickly, my hand returning to the butt of my revolver, "What is that?" I asked the old man, pointing at the black lump.
"My wife Jane." he responded without hesitation, "She did not believe. The Fire Bird came for her. She was covered by its wings."
"This is crazy!" I said, moving toward the old man, pulling out my cuffs as I did, "You are under arrest, my old and nutty friend. I don't believe a word of your Fire Birds or your Cloud People. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say-"
A bright and flickering orange light suddenly illuminated the small area between the shack and the stadium wall. As the light appeared, I heard a sound... It was like the call of some great prehistoric bird. It was huge and high and raspy, and it made the skin along my spine tingle with terror and loathing. I turned my head... And I beheld the Fire Bird. It looked like a great, flaming pterodactyl with a wingspan of fifteen feet or more! Its eyes were a bright, burning yellow, and as it opened its mouth to call again, I saw its red, fiery tongue. Its breath washed over me, and it smelled of sulphur and rotting meat.
"You see!" cried the old man, bowing low, "I tell you truth! The Cloud People are here! The Phoenix rises! Now do you believe?"
I pulled my gun from its holster and fired all six rounds at the thing. I saw all six bullets hit its flaming skin... and just poof out as if they had been evaporated by the heat of the beast. Then the Fire Bird swooped down on me, its wings of flame surrounding me as a hen's wing surrounds her chick. I felt my clothes, my hair, my skin, catch fire quickly, and as the realization of my own death crossed my frenzied mind, I also realized something else as well.
I realized that I believed.
back to the Short Story Page.Believe, 30 December 1999