On the way out of Beach, I let Bobby Hancock drive the Pontiac. It was only a mile to the Montana line, we had nothing but open freeway westbound ahead of us, and he’d picked up his learner’s permit a couple of days before our road trip. When you grow up off grid with parents who don’t believe in government paperwork, you’re bound to come up a little shy on the driver’s license side of things.
In fact, he hadn’t even had a birth certificate until Jack’s contacts had cobbled together one for him.
He was a natural, though, with an instinctive feel for the machine and common sense oozing from his very pores. Given a little time behind the wheel, he’d do. The dash mounted clock said it was 3:46 p.m. Bobby would get the experience of driving straight into a setting sun before his shift was done.
There had been two kickoff celebrations for Rodeo Iron North Dakota, the first hosted by the Trapper’s Kettle in Belfield at 11:00 a.m., the other launching at the Flying J truck stop in Beach at 1:00 p.m.
Drawings at each location had sent winners home with toy corral sets. More than two hundred promotional packets had been handed out. Media reporters from as far away as Bismarck had covered the Belfield event, and the number of oil patch men studying our product lines promised to make Adam Microondas a reasonably wealthy man in reasonably short order.
Not that our cut of the profits would hurt us any, either.
But I was worried about the home front. Specifically, what had Jack Hill’s contacts been able to find out about our guest, Gary Jellison, the survivor of a leave-for-dead attempt deep in a Bob Marshall Wilderness winter? He had to be one tough sumbitch; I was getting to know the Bob well, loved it, but would not have cared to bet on my own chances in my birthday suit in February.
I managed to hold off for nearly an hour, until we’d passed the town of Glendive, before calling home. Not Jack’s cell phone, which wouldn’t work there anyway, but the sat line.
“Tree!” He answered on the first ring, which told me something in itself. “You hear about the Amber Alert?”
Uh-oh. Code. We weren’t under attack, but amber in the sentence meant we were on half-war status (again!), not trusting just who might or might not be monitoring our calls. I replied in kind.
“I did. Hope they’re seeing some daylight with that one.”
Daylight meant we were on the move, burning daylight. Knowing the distances we had to cover and the fact that with two drivers we could run hard, they’d expect us for breakfast. From there, it was all small talk, mostly bringing Jack up to date on how well the grand opening events had gone. My girls did not come to the phone; they’d see us soon enough. From here on out, radio silence was in order.
When I hung up, Bobby asked simply, “Whazzup?”
“Good question,” I said thoughtfully, “but we’ll just have to wait and see. At a guess, Jack most likely found out some serious stuff about the guys who left Jellison for dead in the snow. Or maybe our guest isn’t all he appears to be. No way to know for sure, but basically, the message is, get our butts on home ASAP, without getting reckless, and we’ll have us a war council when we get there.”
“A war council? Sounds–”
“Serious? You could say that. But it’s not a red alert, so…tell you what. Think you can handle this beast clear to Butte? Should have enough range to get there, but it’ll be pitch dark in a couple more hours. Probably be after midnight before we get that far.”
He considered the question before answering. “I believe so. Can’t say I’m a born nighthawk like you are, but I’m usually good till around 2:00 a.m. or so if I need to be.”
“Wake me up if you start falling asleep at the wheel.”
With that, I tipped back the seat, fished a baseball cap out of the pile of stuff in the back seat, set the bill low down over my eyes to keep out the sun, and dropped off to sleep.
We pulled in and parked a bit after 6:30 a.m. Our mobile home had a light on inside, but nobody was home; Judi had fed the cats, but everyone was gathered in Jack Hill’s kitchen.
Gary Jellison’s appearance was shocking. Even now, 36 hours or so after he’d come stumbling out of the Bob, he still looked half dead. At five-ten or so, he swam in a pair of Jack’s jeans, one of Jack’s shirts, and a pair of Jack’s slippers. The belt holding up the jeans had acquired a couple of new holes to suck it up tight enough; the man couldn’t weigh more than 130 pounds at the moment. There were blackened patches on his face from frostbite, though none on his hands; the gloves he’d managed to stash before being cast adrift in the high country had saved his fingers. In the dictionary under gaunt, it probably said, See Gary Jellison.
When we shook hands, though, his grip was strong–skeletal, but strong–and there was a clear fire in his blue eyes that made me realize the bad guys had made a serious mistake with this one.
“I’m grateful for all your people have done for me,” he said. His voice was soft, precise like you’d expect the voice of a good bean counter to be, except for a bit of rasp that he’d probably not had prior to his ordeal, “but I really should be going.”
“Before breakfast?” I cocked an eyebrow, did my twinkle-eye thing. “And before we bitch-slap the folks who left you out there making snow angels? I don’t think so.”
He looked nonplussed. “That’s what everyone else here keeps saying, but–Mr. Jackson, I don’t think you realize just how dangerous those people may be.”
I groaned theatrically, realizing the rest of our crew had been waiting for me to take the lead, to get it through this guy’s thick skull that in our neighborhood, we took things like this personally. “Let’s sit down to eat, Gary,” I told him. “Jack, what’s your read on our guest here? Do we have to worry about burning his virgin ears?”
Hill grinned, pouring half and half in his coffee–he was back on coffee, thank goodness–and shook his head. “He checks out okay, Tree. CPA, successful solo practice, two office assistants, respected bean counter. Damn fine hunter, too; he’s even got a bull moose in Boone & Crockett, which is not easy in a state where you only get 9 days or so of hunting season. Single, both parents deceased, no siblings. Will have a drink or two on social occasions, but nothing regular and never to excess. Nonsmoker. No drug use. Fought in Golden Gloves, runner up at State one year. And, most importantly, his high school Yearbook voted him Least Likely to Tell a Secret.”
Jellison’s eyes were wide, startled. “You–you investigated me?”
“We did,” Jack admitted mildly. “You see, we’re not precisely the lovely innocent hayseeds we appear to be, eh?”
The old Protector did have a way with words. We all pretended to be seriously interested in our waffles and bacon for a bit, waiting to see how our temporary resident invalid would respond to finding out we’d stuck a probe up his behind–figuratively speaking–to see how his plumbing worked. If he got all huffy and indignant, we couldn’t help him…and for a long moment, it looked like that might be what he had in mind.
But in the end, he simply nodded. “Okay. I’m impressed. Just the fact that you could learn all that in the short amount of time I’ve been here…okay. Okay. Maybe you do understand the way the world works, eh?”
“Eh!” We chorused, all six of us at once.
“Yeah, Jack, I say lay out whatever you’ve got. But not before we check with Jennifer.”
“Been there, done that. She’s on board. You and I’ll bring her up to speed at our monthly brunch tomorrow morning, but she’ll back whatever play we figure is right.”
“Good enough.” I reached for the blackberry syrup, thankful it would be Jack doing the talking for a while. That would allow me to down my second waffle while it was still warm, and I do purely hate a cold waffle. “Fire away.”
Whereupon Hill gave Jellison a condensed version of Trace Nation history, leaving out the deeper secrets such as Wolf Cave, raiding the wolf mutation program in Wisconsin, and hunting down the Morse Code killers, but laying a lot of it out pretty clearly. He included the telephone pole dropped across the highway that had nearly taken out the two of us. He summarized the direct attacks on the ranch, one of which had resulted in the death of Sam Trace, and the attempt by federal agents to plant hide, flesh, and bone in the welding shop in an attempt to frame us for hunting wolves out of season.
Not once did he mention any of the highly illegal moves we’d made, but there was enough legal stuff to get the point across that we were no easy meat–and he did mention that he had “a friend” who was almighty good with using the Internet to ferret out secrets most folks thought safely hidden.
By the time he was done, Gary got it: We didn’t like bad guys, especially those who operated in our back yard. We were good allies. And we fully intended to bring down these yahoos with or without his involvement–if we could identify the buggers–mainly because doing major evil deeds in the wilderness to the north of us was just too close to home.
When Hill was finished, the scarecrow was convinced. “I never really believed people like you existed,” he admitted, “except in comic books. But…okay, I’ll admit it. I want to take these guys down, but truthfully, I don’t even know who they are or how to go about it even if I did. Plus, I need to get back to my practice in New Hampshire. This is tax season, after all; I must have been out of my mind to take a week off at this time of year. My girls in the office are good, and they were covering for me, but I need to be there….”
“Have you told them you’re alive yet?” I asked.
“Yesterday morning. Called the office. I was supposed to have been back on Monday; they were frantic. In fact, they’d filed a missing person report, but nobody knew which way I’d gone. I’d just told them I’d be out of the office for one week, and now it’s been two. Roberta, per my instructions, called our local police and told them I’d turned up safe and sound in Montana. The local Chief is a jerk anyway; he hadn’t done anything about the report that I was missing.”
We kicked that around for a bit. This was Saturday. Jellison need a month to recuperate, but he couldn’t afford the luxury. He’d continue to convalesce for the rest of the weekend, and that was it. On Monday, Jack and Wayne would take him to Butte, with a clothing stop in Deer Lodge along the way, and put him on a plane back to New Hampshire. Of course, they wouldn’t let him on a plane without picture ID, but Jack had that covered, too. He’d snap a few photos of Gary and head right back to Missoula the minute our war council was done. Gary would be back at work on Tuesday morning, even if he was traveling on a forged ID.
In the meantime, Jack had an idea or two. “It really bugged me, trying to figure out the motivation for the OOE group. I was just getting around to telling my friend who you were, Gary, when it hit me. What do you know about snuff artists?”
Jellison drew a blank on that one, but Sissy didn’t. “Snuff artists? You mean, film makers who record somebody being murdered, then post it on YouTube?”
“YouTube, or other websites, or simply sell copies of the films on the black market.”
Gary looked stunned. “People…do that?”
Jack nodded, unperturbed. “They do. Now, what puzzled me was, these so called snuff artists film the actual killings, the gorier the better, and you weren’t dead yet, but is there any chance there could have been a camera or two going while you were out there in the snow, butt naked, before the snowmobiles pulled out? Or maybe even after, hidden in a tree or bush or something?”
The almost-snuffee wasn’t slow; he got it immediately. “Hm. I never thought of that. You know, freezing my, uh, toes off with people pointing guns at me and laughing…there could have been. The fear factor…two of the four pistols they were pointing my way might not have been firearms at all. We see what we expect to see, right? And one guy definitely had a .45 in his hand, so…yeah, maybe. And…there was one of the snowmobile riders who’d gone on ahead for a bit before we got to that knob where they…he could have stashed cameras around there, yeah…if they came back for them later, maybe. But not farther in the timber. There we no tracks or anything, no sign…what would be the point of just filming like that?”
Jack sighed. “That was the puzzler. But I had my guy look for snuff films anyway, whatever he could find in the time he had. And he did find something. There’s a group of snuff artists out there who call themselves Snow Snuffers. They do post on YouTube, but of course not even YouTube thinks it’s a good idea to encourage them, so they bury their identities in the body of their promotional videos, just long enough, maybe, for their regular customers to catch the vids before YouTube gets wise and closes their account. Then they open a new account the next time, rinse and repeat.
“And they’ve got a gimmick.”
Hill paused, building the suspense. “…well, the thing is, at least from what my Internet buddy could figure, the Snow Snuffers don’t directly kill anybody. Just like with you, they let the elements do their dirty work. And they don’t release the films until the missing person is declared dead, so they must monitor the victim’s home town coverage, waiting for the grim acceptance to be announced. So, let’s say Joe Blow has been missing for a month or two when his body is found, frozen to icicles, gnawed by wolves. They get hold of the death photos somehow–don’t ask me how–and then release the film saying basically, “Here’s how we snow snuffed this guy. Let’s just imagine how the poor schmuck suffered….”
Jack stopped long enough to take a sip of coffee. The faces around the table were grim, considering. Carolyn West had to ask, “But Jack, why do they do it?”
“Money,” he replied. They’ve built themselves a brand, Snow Snuffers. So far, we know of three other similar cases involving Snow Snuffers films. In every film, the victim is set free, naked, to freeze to death as he will. One in Alaska, one in northern Scotland, and one in–get this–Antarctica.”
This didn’t make sense. I spoke up. “How do they make a profit out of this?”
“Tree, you wouldn’t believe how much money they make. See, the film they put out on YouTube is only three minutes long or so. They use that to stir up interest in an auction for the real thing, a full one hour of film showing details no one will ever know except the purchasers. The winning bidder gets the Certified Original film, or what the producers claim is the Certified Original. Bidders two through ten get First Run Copies, shipped out one week after the winning bidder gets his Certified Original. And that’s it. Ten copies of the Snow Snuffers masterpiece are all that are ever sold.”
“Hm.” I finally put down my fork; I was stuffed to the gills. “I don’t suppose we know how much these Princes of Darkness end up paying for these, uh, works or art, do we?”
“Not entirely,” he shook his head. “But we can guess. My computer whiz was able to find a cached copy of a film that did not work so well for them, mainly because the victim fell dead of a heart attack within minutes of getting naked in the snow. Spoiled all the fun. And that one had a notation regardomg a disgruntled bidder who’d come in third and only got a First Run Copy–for which he’d paid slightly over $40,000.”
“Wait a minute!” Jellison was astounded, as were, I think, the rest of us. “You mean somebody paid that much money for what the, um, snuff culture types would consider a defective product?”
“Oh. My. God.” We could see the bean counters rolling inside the accountant’s head as he did the math. “Figuring a top bidder for a victim who lasted long enough to make the story a true exercise in imagination…it’s possible somebody’s willing to fork over, heck, as much as a million bucks for an original where the snuffee lasts long enough to make it interesting?”
Jack nodded. “That could quite likely be in the ball park.”
That was when the scarecrow surprised all of us by busting out laughing. What the–? Had he gone mental on us?
He read our minds. Waving his hands to calm us down, he explained. “Believe it or not, knowing that actually makes me feel a whole lot better.”
“Huh?” The question came from three or four of us.
“Well, see, of course I’m not thrilled about the idea of starring in a snuff film, but it’s good to know my death, if not my life, is worth a million bucks to somebody. I’d hate to find out the bastards tried to kill me for nothing!”