In the end, the decision was made for us. There was no real cover to either side of our pet boulder. If we rolled out and around to the right, we’d be immediately exposed and vulnerable to anyone holed up in the stone redoubt. It didn’t help one bit that Soren Kirk was the presumed occupant; alone and under fire from multiple opponents, he was likely to take a shot at anybody who popped up unexpectedly. That he might grieve over our corpses later, should he prove to be the last man standing…well, that just didn’t make up for the possibility of being dead.
“So, we’re rolling left?” I could do this. I really could; the dizzy waves were receding. Low tide.
“Yes.” Jack yawned repeatedly, confusing me for a moment. Then I realized he must be sucking in as much oxygen as he could, pumping his bloodstream, getting ready to rock. I doubted he even knew he was doing it. “But we’re not going too far. We could get blown away doing this, you know.”
“A couple of things to keep in mind. First, if you see Kirk’s boulder slot off to the right, even an inch of it, back up in a hurry, okay? I’m thinking the best we can do is try to catch a bad guy or two in our sights without giving Kirk a free shot at a neighbor. Second, if you do spot somebody that needs shooting, don’t try too hard to hit ’em. One handed, the best you’re likely to do is lay down a little hay in their general direction, encourage ’em to keep their heads down long enough for me to line up my sights. Okay?”
“Works for me.” What else could I say? Inwardly, though, he pissed me off with that assessment. I don’t like to be underestimated by my friends. If I did get a one handed angle with the carbine, I was seriously going to try for a kill.
My inner adult threw up his hands in exasperation. Could you get any more juveline, Treemin? In the middle of a firefight, you’re offended? What a putz! He had a point. I ignored him.
Jack led off, me following his pattern. We were crouched low, ready to either retreat or throw ourselves flat the instant either of us perceived a need to do so. I was hoping we didn’t have to do the throw-flat thing; slamming down like that was bound to jar my wounded shoulder. That thought was only fleeting, though; focusing on every tree at the Garden’s edge, every boulder as we scooted around the end of our personal rock, hell, looking for those willing to unhesitatingly kill me and my partner if they saw us first, that was more than enough to shove everything else out of the picture.
Hill moved in a scoot-pause pattern, one step forward, knees deeply bent–no more than a couple of notches above a duck walk–then pause…survey…one more step forward. Rinse and repeat.
It didn’t take long to discover our first bad guy. Yes, we saw him first, before he saw us. In fact, he was unlikely to ever see us unless he was an out of body observer. Roughly sixty feet from our position, the corpse was sprawled face down, its lower half protected from Kirk’s presumed position by a funky bit of granite that made me think of an Easter bunny with really bad hemorrhoids. The body’s upper half, exposed on our side of the bunny boulder, had taken more than one hit. At least one grenade launcher was accounted for, lying near–but not in–the deceased’s right hand. It would seem Soren Kirk was proving himself and then some.
And deceased he was, too. We weren’t close enough to conduct a complete forensic examination, but I was pretty sure having half of his face blown off was a fairly reliable indicator.
Another grenade exploded, followed by rifle fire at the rate of one every three or four seconds. Where was the shooter? Sounded like somewhere near the far corner of the Garden, either behind one of several medium sized boulders or back in the trees a bit.
Was there any return fire targeting the aggressors? Was Kirk still in the fight? I thought maybe one or two of those rounds might have been his, but I couldn’t be sure. Either way, there was a sudden lull, and I realized our CB’s were clicking. How long had that been going on? Five clicks, pause, five clicks, pause. We were being asked to authorize breaking voice silence.
Jack shot a look my way. I nodded, laying my carbine on the ground and plucking my mike from its belt holster. Hill turned back to the warscape before us, settling into watch mode. Both of us assumed one knee stances.
I whispered into the mike. “Go ahead. Over.”
The whisper that came back I would know anywhere. Sissy, who’d whispered pillow talk into my ear many a time. “We’re in position to shoot. Got an angle on three hostiles, one with a grenade launcher, two with what look like MP5’s. Green light?”
This didn’t take rocket science to compute; the calculations flashed through my mind in a millisecond or so. They had three bad guys in their sights. Jack had accounted for one, Kirk for another. Five total. Theoretically, there could easily be more than that in the hit squad, yet I suddenly knew that was all of them.
Jack didn’t turn his head from his watchdog position; he was leaving it up to me. “Try to keep one alive for questioning. Green light; take the shots.”
Three seconds later, our people opened up, half a dozen rounds or more, so close together it seemed almost like another machine gun burst, though I knew it wasn’t.
More silence…and finally Sissy’s voice, calm and clear. “Two dead as doornails, one lively with a limp.”
That worked. I rose to my feet, earning a quizzical eyebrow raise from Jack, and stepped over to the edge of our boulder. “Soren Kirk!” I yelled, putting everything I had into it. “This is Treemin Jackson! We’ve taken out five attackers! You expecting more company than that?!”
Silence again, and this time it stretched for what seemed like minutes. Probably only seconds, though. When Kirk did finally yell back, his voice was incredulous. “Who the hell are you guys?!”
I sometimes wondered that myself. How had Wayne and Sissy covered the mile down through the timber to get in position as quickly as we covered a mere quarter mile? Maybe my getting shot had slowed us down more than I realized, or…well, figuring that out could wait. “Just a few good ole Montana rednecks, Soren! I’m going to step out where you can see me now. Would appreciate it if you’d hold your fire!”
“Come on, then!”
And so I did. Jack had his eyebrow cocked at me; I could feel it. Kirk’s boulder redoubt had withstood the grenade assault with remarkably little damage. Dozens of chips had been blown from the face of the monster rock, almost a rock face rather than a simple boulder. The objective had clearly been to slip a a grenade inside the gouge itself; even one such explosion would have stunned the defender if it didn’t kill him outright. But I saw why Horace Tamblyn perceived the gouge as such a superior defensive position. For most of the length across the rock face, the slit was extremely narrow, no more than an inch or two wide. It opened up in several spots, one of which had obviously allowed Kirk to access the interior–which I presumed had to be roomy enough to let him move around. From the looks of it, a couple of the explosives had come close, but none had penetrated.
It was a bit surprising to realize he could still hear, though. The din must have been–oh. There he came, sliding feet first out of what had to be the largest opening. He carried a scoped rifle in one hand and a pair of shooter’s earmuffs in the other. His visitors had definitely not caught him by surprise.
“Glad to see you’re in one piece, neighbor,” I told him.
He offered a lopsided grin in return. “Wish I could say the same, neighbor. Looks like you lost a piece.”
“What?” I glanced down at my sling. “This old thing? It’s just a fashion accessory, don’t you know?”
Kirk chuckled at that. “Feel free to call in your crew. Five is the right number. They always send teams of five.”
I pulled out the CB mike again, this time without letting go of the carbine. I wasn’t quite ready to trust Mr. Kirk all that much just yet. Good thing I have big hands. “All clear according to Good Neighbor Sam. Let’s meet over by the big blue spruce at the west end of the Garden. Bring the prisoner if you can. Over.” I wanted us out of the clearing as soon as possible. This little dustup had generated a lot of noise; they’d have heard it at least as far away as Ovando. It just felt safer, getting under a bit of cover.
A brief two clicks came back. They’d be there.
Soren Kirk wasn’t the only one who did a double take when he got a good look at the bunch of us; I was also a bit startled. It wasn’t just Wayne Bruce and Sissy Harms who escorted their limping capture through the trees; Judi Minske was there as well, looking cute as a button yet deadly as a stepped-on rattler in her camouflage jacket and jeans, her favorite .22-250 varmint rifle held in ready position.
“Beets.” Kirk nodded at the big, burly mercenary–at least I’d think of him as a merc until we knew enough to judge otherwise.
“Seed,” the wounded man replied. The bullet hole through his leg had to hurt, but he gave no indication other than the limp; his eyes were a deep brown, clear and untroubled.
Jack Hill asked, “Seed?”
The big man quirked up one side of his mouth in a half-smile. “Mission names. He’s one of the best we ever had at planting ’em.”
Hm. Well, Beets wouldn’t be pulling any gotcha stunts for a while; his captors had found a couple of sturdy cable ties somewhere and secured his wrists behind his back. He might be able to kill somebody with a kick from one of those size thirteen boots, but with six of us holding weapons, it would be a suicidal move. Let’s see what we could learn; he seemed willing enough to talk.
Which meant it was time to turn the party over to Jack. Being around this old world as long as he had, there was no one better at conducting an interview. I gave him a look and he went to work.
“Seed,” Hill nodded to Kirk. “Beets,” he nodded to the injured Incredible Hulk impersonator. “We need some answers. Matter of fact, we need all the answers. Soren, I won’t ask you to disarm. I certainly wouldn’t go along with such a request in your place. But I would ask you to note, please, that the two women in our group have the drop on you, just in case this little parley goes south.”
“I could hardly have missed that,” Kirk admitted drily. Judi had somehow slipped sideways and yonder a bit; her .22-250 was pointing directly at his back. Sissy was off to his side, her AK-47 ready to core him through the ribs if need be. “But never fear. I agree; you folks deserve the full picture. Especially since I didn’t expect any help, and especially since it looks like Treemin qualifies as one of the walking wounded. From what I remember of women in general–excluding my ex, who couldn’t care less–a guy who gets her man shot is going to be on her shit list for a good long time. Maybe even after he’s dead.”
Wow. He had a point. Sissy was handling it, but for the first time I took a really close look at the expression on Judi’s face. The petite hottie’s eyes were glacial; one look at her baby blues and Death Himself would have run screaming into the night. Kirk was right; if he so much as flinched or if he said the wrong thing by so much as a missed comma, her varmint rifle wouldn’t hesitate. Guns don’t kill people; pissed off women kill people.
“Tell you what,” Kirk said, “let me just go ahead and lay my rifle down, okay? I wouldn’t want to get shot by mistake.”
Hm. I didn’t trust that. In close quarters, he might be a lot deadlier against multiple opponents–in this case us–using other weapons. But fine.
“Go ahead,” Jack ordered. “Spill it.”
Beets was starting to look a little gray around the edges; he seemed perfectly content to let Soren “Seed” Kirk do the talking.
“There’s a corporation known as Vigilant Enterprises,” he began. “A Delaware corporation with headquarters in Biloxi, Mississippi, but they have branches in thirty-seven of the fifty states. The Montana branch is located in Great Falls. On the surface, they manufacture and distribute high end security devices, focusing primarily on the consumer market. Their security cameras and alarm systems are the best of the best, and they sell a lot of them, but not once have they ever sold a single camera to any governmental agency.”
“They’re anti-government?” Jack asked quietly.
“Not…not so much anti-government per se, but the owners do believe that the bureaucracies already have enough of an edge. They prefer to help out the little guy and leave it at that. Their product line is elite in the extreme. They’re always expanding the line. Vigilant had close to a billion dollars in gross sales in 2013, the last year for which I have the numbers.”
“But there’s more,” Beets put in from his seated position on the ground. When had that happened? Not that I needed to worry; Wayne Bruce had obviously appointed himself the dedicated Beets watcher. “Tell ’em the rest, Seed.”
“I’m getting there.” Kirk didn’t seem offended by Beets’s advice to hurry things up. In fact, it seemed as though they might have been friends once. Maybe still were, never mind the current situation. “All of the security equipment sales are legitimate. The income is legitimate…until it’s run through multiple sets of books. Hundreds of millions of dollars are skimmed off, scrubbed clean, then funneled back into the deeper purpose, the real company mission.”
“Which is?” I was beginning to get impatient. The pain in my arm was ramping up; I’d need to get to our favorite doctor what’s-his-name in Deer Lodge soon.
“Which is, Vigilant Enterprises is a bit of an abbreviation. It’s really Vigilante Enterprises.”
He let that hang, waiting on our reactions. We decided not to bite. “Go on,” Jack said.
“The founder of the company,” Kirk continued, wiping his brow nervously, “has believed from the beginning that there is real evil on the planet, that the legal system is a joke. The company’s entire Board is composed of like minded individuals. The Board doubles as an Execution Committee. The Committee meets monthly, studies dossiers that have been compiled on bad guys around the globe with a special emphasis on those operating in the United States, and decides which of these bugs–as they’re called–should be terminated forthwith. You know, the creeps our government simply won’t go after until they do something, carry out another terrorist attack or rape another baby or whatever.”
“And you were part of that?”
“Yes. For more than twenty years, I went out on missions. Mostly part time, just every once in a while, but there were periods when I’d go into it full time for a year or two here and there.”
“Wet work,” I said. “Lots of it.”
“Lots of it, yes.”
“For a good cause.” There was no inflection in my voice. None whatsoever.
Kirk shrugged. “For the longest time, yes, I believed it was for a very good cause. We operated as assassins; there’s no other real word for it, other than vigilantes. Took out one man who headed up a child slave torture ring. Eliminated the entire leadership of a meth cartel. Tortured three men involved in planning an Al Qaeda type attack, dumped their bodies, and anonymously passed on the information we’d gleaned to authorities. That one was my first wake-up call, not because of the deaths, but because the government did not act on the information provided. If they had, there’d have been no 9/11 attacks whatsoever. I’m ashamed to admit it took me so long after that to call it quits.”
“Hold on,” Jack interjected. He didn’t look surprised, just wanting to make sure he’d heard right. “Vigilante Enterprises told the government…what, exactly?”
“Yeah,” Kirk shook his head. “I couldn’t believe it, either. The feds were given the exact names of the men involved in the actual attacks, the precise date–September 11, 2001–the list of targets, the intent to use airliners as the weapons of choice, the whole works.”
“Why am I not surprised,” I muttered.
“But that wasn’t the trigger. It wasn’t what disillusioned me to the extent that I decided I had to get out. After 9/11 happened exactly as we’d told them it would–except for the heroism of the Americans who overpowered the hijackers in one case and drove the plane into the dirt–the Executive Committee began to change. It was like they’d been infected with some slow moving virus, something that destroyed their sense of values and their ability to make fully rational decisions. Over time, it did. It didn’t happen all at once. But slowly, gradually, the missions got worse. We would take casualties because we’d been sent out in a reckless fashion. Nastier than that, we started causing collateral damage, which had never happened before. We’d be assigned to take out an evil dude and end up harming completely innocent civilians. Most of my nightmares, when I can sleep, involve those innocents.”
I let myself slide down to a sitting position on the rough carpet of dead spruce needles. Beets and I glanced at each other in silent acknowledgement, the two wounded warriors taking five. “So you decided to get out.”
“I did. Yes.”
“And Vigilante Enterprises doesn’t let people out.”
“No more than the Mafia or the CIA, no. I know too much, at least as they see it.”
“So you brought your personal war to us.” If I wasn’t mistaken, Judi’s finger tightened on the trigger. “Asshole.”
“I’ll accept that. I am an asshole. Treemin, I’m not making excuses for what happened here today, but I did do the best I could. For cry-yi, I didn’t expect my neighbors to deal themselves in. It’s a good mile up through the trees to your place, at least three quarters of a mile from here down to the highway. I mean, come on, I know Montanans as a whole are supposed to be fairly self reliant and all that, but look at you. You people came in with a pincer movement, three from the north, two from the south. Every one of you is obviously familiar not only with firearms but with armed combat. Your squad–I’ll call it a squad for lack of a better term–is…Hell, Tree, your five just took out Vigilante’s top Five in all of the western states. Do you have any idea how unexpected that was?”
Hunh. Maybe he had a point. Of course, he’d accounted for one of the Five himself, the grenade humper with the shot-off face.
“So,” Jack took up the reins once more, “Beets.”
“You concur with everything ol’ Seed here is saying?”
“About what?” The man’s face was getting a bit gray; looked like it was his turn to hold off shock with nothing but an act of will.
“About Vigilante Enterprises. Its original mission, how it’s gone downhill since 9/11. All that.”
“Oh. Yeah. Like he said. I agree wholeheartedly.” The man had a raspy voice, sort of a Rod Stewart quality. “VE used to be a great place to work if you wanted to kill lowlifes, but yeah, it changed. And it’s still changing. I was worried about this particular mission, afraid we might end up having to kill innocents. Seed lives out here alone, that’s good, but what if we’d miscalculated? I mean, what if the forward observer, Blinks–he’s our team leader, too, or he was until you guys smoked him–what if he blew it even a little? Missed the fact that today was the day for Welcome Wagon to come to call, a neighbor hunting cattle, a couple of young Mormon missionaries working the back country. The whole thing just felt…off.”
I’d been trying not to think about the real issue, but here it was, big and bright and ugly: With the firefight over, did we execute one or both of these men? On the one hand, neither Beets nor Kirk had attacked us; they’d gone up against each other and we’d butted in, big and bold as brass. On the other hand, they now knew way too much, having seen a fair portion of our Inner Circle in action. There was precisely zero doubt in my mind that this Vigilante Enterprises outfit could mount a serious offensive if its Execution Committee chose to do that. If we planted both of them, shoot, shovel, and shut up, it wouldn’t be like anything that had gone before. We’d have murdered a neighbor who’d not once lifted a hand against us and another who was wounded and in no position to make a fight of it.
I’m pretty sure Jack Hill read my mind. He also had a few insights I hadn’t considered. “Beets,” he said, his natural drawl suddenly exaggerated, “Did it never occur to that godlike Execution Committee of yours that a man like Seed would have a dead man switch in place long before your hit team got the green light?”
Kirk’s eyes widened. Beets just smiled through his increasing pallor. “Occurred to me, you better damn betcha. To the Committee, probably not. That bunch always underestimates the field operators.”
“Well then. Treemin here, he’s got veto power, but my suggestion is, we let you go on back to Great Falls and clue them in. Let them know that if they succeed in offing Mr. Soren Kirk, every one of them will be exposed on the evening news within a matter of days.” He turned to Kirk. “Do I have that about right?”
A familiar voice suddenly boomed from behind me. “Damn, late to the party again?”
Turning carefully so as not to aggravate my wound, I stared in amazement. My uncle B.J. strode through the Garden toward us, the M60 machine gun in his hands looking ready for business, full cartridge belt and all. The old tracker, Horace Tamblyn, trailed him closely, limping only slightly and cradling his beloved long barrel AK-47, the one with the bipod, the weapon with which he’d held off Morse Code’s attack and saved Jennifer Trace’s life. They must have come up the way Jack and I had, but I had no idea my giant uncle was back home; he’d planned to stay in Livingston this weekend in order to make a number of Park County sales calls on Monday and Tuesday.
His lips were moving, but my hearing was gone. The world was suddenly filled with bright swirling colors and I was out of there, spiraling off I knew not where. Consciousness returned, only partially and only briefly. There was movement, something…I couldn’t hang onto it, couldn’t sort it out. This time I was well and truly in the wind, the swift but silent multihued wind, my last thought crystal clear yet devoid of any emotion whatsoever.
The injury couldn’t have done this by itself. The bullet had to have been coated with…something….