Shawn Hicks screamed in frustration–then caught himself and tiptoed to the window, parting the drapes just enough to peer out. He needn’t have worried, he told himself. After all, that was a big part of why he’d picked this strangely remote little motel with its separate cabins rather than adjoining rooms. Nor was he in Montana, where the cops were likely on the lookout for a frog bodied dude driving a big Ford and pulling a high end 5th wheel trailer.
Still, he felt like that scream might have been heard all the way to Chamberlain. This might be central South Dakota, but he still felt exposed, unsafe. After all, the Missouri River started in Montana, yet here he was, holed up not 300 yards from the same damn river.
Why was there no news of a body?
What they were now calling the Trace Fire, after the Trace ranch where it had started, was now officially one of the monsters of the wildfire season. Thirty-eight thousand acres, barely ten percent contained. Day after day, the blaze had raced east and north, driven by winds that just didn’t seem to want to quit, chewing up miles of timber and Lord knows how many crispy critters.
He hadn’t meant to cause anything like that. Just burn Treemin Jackson’s already lifeless body a bit, that was all. How was he to know the fire would do that?
They should have found his blackened remains by now. There’d have been a piece of bone, a melted belt buckle…something. Wouldn’t there?
Suddenly needing to relieve himself, he shifted from the window to the bathroom, unzipped, took care of business. Unfortunately, he washed his hands when he was done. Force of habit. He washed his hands–and made the mistake of looking into the mirror above the sink.
What he saw there was not reassuring.
The man in the mirror, never any paragon of male beauty at the best of times, had gone beyond bulgy eyed frog to mottled toad in appearance. Suck on this toad, he thought involuntarily, and you’re welcome to all the poison induced hallucinations that come your way.
He was afraid he was losing it.
No. He knew he was losing it. It had seemed so simple at first. Well…relatively simple, for a complex thinker like himself. Thaddeus Moore, former Undersecretary of the Department of Defense, fakes his death on Lake Chelan in Washington State. Thad gets plastic surgery, takes on the appearance and the identity of his late cousin, Montana cowboy Shawn Hicks. Thad-now-Shawn gets job with Rodeo Iron. Thad takes his well deserved revenge.
Certainly, it was not about guilt. Except for the nightmares where the real Shawn Hicks kept showing up, berating Thaddeus Moore for ruining the good name of Shawn Hicks. But even that wasn’t guilt; Thad/Shawn resented the old Shawn severely; how dare the dead sumbitch get all huffy about how his name was used after he was dead and gone?
No, not guilt. Hicks–he forced himself to think of that as his name 24/7 now–had never been about guilt.
He had heaved a sigh of relief when the Trace Fire veered away from Lincoln, but even that wasn’t guilt. That was more in appreciation, knowing the forest hideout of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski had been spared. He’d always kind of admired ol’ Ted. Did it his way, Ted did.
But why was there no report of any human death attributed to the fire? Why?
Could Tree have burned to a crisp, there among the trees? Tree in the trees? Fried as you please? Nothing left to find but ashes on the breeze?
That could be it. Come to think of it, that must be it. Here he’d been thinking they’d know where to look, where to find the body, but they wouldn’t, would they? The last anybody knew, Jackson had been welding away in the shop, not out picking choke cherries. Nobody knew he’d gone to Choke Cherry Gully, did they?
Of course not. He’d been stupid not to take that into consideration.
A huge wave of relief swept through him, lifting his spirits on a tide of euphoria–until he remembered suddenly that, blast it, they would still be looking for him. When the others had come home and couldn’t find Treemin Jackson…and couldn’t find Shawn Hicks or the Hicks vehicles, either, what were they going to think?
They were going to think there was a connection, that’s what they were going to think. Those people on and around the Trace ranching operation were not stupid, and they weren’t forgiving, either.
Which had to be why there’d been no mention of Shawn Hicks in the news. Not a word about a missing “person of interest”, not a peep about law enforcement looking for either him or his rig.
Maybe they were just keeping it quiet–no. Not law enforcement. Rodeo Iron was keeping it quiet. Trying to find Tree, but not telling outsiders anything. They were very much that way.
That, he realized, terrified him a whole lot more than having to duck the cops, the FBI, even America’s Most Wanted if it went that far. Bucking the system was one thing. Having to constantly look over your shoulder to see if the Jackson Revenge Posse was sneaking up on you was quite another.
Especially the big man. What had be been thinking, taking out Tree when Tree’s giant uncle, six foot eight B. J. Hennessey, was still in the picture?
Thinking about that monster would have been enough to make him pee his pants, had he not just emptied his bladder.
Getting Treemin alone like that, away from the ranch buildings and all to himself, with nobody home to add trouble to the mix–it had been what they called a crime of opportunity.
“Dammit!” He swore, punching a wall and nearly breaking a bone or two, “This is ridiculous! I can’t go on like this!”
And then…the idea sprouted right up through his fevered brain, rooted itself deeply, blossomed full blown so that he found himself smiling. If he couldn’t go on like this, then why not do something different? Something they’d never expect? Here he was, doing what they probably would expect, hiding out under yet another alias–Dick Raridan, this time. Why not do the last thing they’d expect?
Well…maybe not the last thing. That would be to head right on back to Trace country, see how many more he could kill. He was too chicken sh*t for that; he’d admit it.
But Treemin Jackson’s mother, wasn’t she sister to the big man uncle? Yes, yes, she was. He didn’t know exactly where to find her, not quite, but how many African American women could there be, working on ranches in the general vicinity of Rexburg, Idaho?
Now he was baking with butane. Having a goal, a purpose, that’s all it had taken. His paranoia was down to manageable, common sense levels. They’d probably never find him here if he stayed till Armageddon. After all, they’d figure his 5th wheel RV would be found at a campground or out in the wilds somewhere. Why rent a motel room when you’re dragging a perfectly good little house behind you?
But purpose was everything. Maybe he’d meander through Yellowstone Park on the way there, if the Park wasn’t still closed for the Political Theater put on by Obama during the government shutdown. After all, he’d never been to Yellowstone, not even Old Faithful.
Rexburg wasn’t that far on the other side, anyway. Out through the town of West Yellowstone, then south a bit, he thought.
Come to think of it, why not kidnap Treemin’s Mom, enjoy her for a while before he sent her to join her choke cherry loving son on the other side of the Great Divide? Indeed, why not? He’d never had a black woman; why not now?
Thaddeus Moore, aka Shawn Hicks aka Dick Raridan, motored west and south, humming an old tune he failed to recognize as Bad Moon Rising. He’d actually grown to like young Treemin Jackson. Murdering him had tipped the scales, driven him to choose between recognizing the enormity of his transgression and plunging fully into the Dark Side.
Now the choice had been made. The frog-bodied man’s mind had snapped fully, once and for all. He daydreamed happily as he drove, picturing his conquests to come, the dark and devious glories that would be his.
It was, he would realize later, the happiest day of his life.