Our Sunday morning Trace Nation Triad meeting for the month of February–TNT was a cool acronym, so we’d adopted that–started off slow and easy because, quite frankly, we had so much material to cover. If this one ran past noon, it wouldn’t surprise any of the three of us one little bit. With that in mind, we took our time getting through breakfast, only getting down to business after everyone had taken a potty break and settled in with coffee from a freshly brewed batch of Yuban.
It was Jennifer Trace’s turn to make sure we covered everything on the agenda. It was far too easy to stray conversationally, so she’d printed an outline we’d try to work through, one by one. We didn’t always do it this way, but then again, there weren’t always this many topics to cover.
“Take a second to scan them, gentlemen,” she advised, directing our attention to the sheets of paper she’d laid in front of us. “Things are getting complex around here.”
I looked at the agenda and had to agree. Jack Hill wasn’t smiling, either. We definitely had our work cut out for us.
February 2014 Triad Agenda
I. Snow Snuffers
–A. How to identify.
–B. Plan of action once they’re identified.
–C. How much, if any, to involve Gary Jellison (pros and cons).
II. Tunnel Project
–A. Postponement? If so, for how long?
III. Rimville Project (Rodeo Iron Montana company town)
–A. When to break ground for company store.
–B. How large to make the store.
–C. Sell tobacco or not?
–D. Store manager: Who, amount of authority, compensation.
IV. Trace Ranch Rustling Problem
–A. Update on progress to date.
–B. What to do next (including whether or not to include law enforcement).
V. Bobby Hancock
–A. Progress report; is he still a candidate for Inner Circle?
“I’d say,” Jack Hill observed in a slow, exaggerated drawl, “this here is enough to be going on with for one meeting, eh?”
“Eh,” I agreed. Jennifer just smiled and sipped her coffee.
Hill took a deep breath and got started. “Well, I guess I get to go first, seeing as how I have more to report on the Snuffers. When I was in Missoula yesterday, our friend at the Half Castle had an update for me. The hacker community took these murder-for-profit critters on en masse; there are more than a hundred computer whiz-bang types scouring the Net nonstop, working to pin down who the guys are that dumped Gary Jellison off in the snow without a stitch between him and Old Man Winter.
“And they’ve already found out a few things. For one, it looks like our villains are all from two families based out of Kentucky, originally from the Cumberland Gap area but spread out some in recent years. We don’t know exactly which members yet–and we don’t dare make any moves until we do, ’cause there are some powerhouse people in that bunch. State legislators, couple of doctors, one entrepreneur who’s built a multimillion dollar business by figuring out alternative uses for coal instead of burning it, college professors, half a dozen high school teachers, yada yada yada.”
“In other words,” Jennifer mused, “not your basic genetic bag of hammers.”
“No. Not at all. But here’s the thing. Both families, while producing all these successful folks, are also known for some real dandies in the way of black sheep. Two mass murderers in the last twenty years, one who’s on Kentucky’s Death Row as we speak, the other killed by an armed civilian when he started mowing down people in the wrong supermarket. One horse trainer who moved to Louisville and trained Thoroughbreds with an eye toward the Kentucky Derby for years before he was caught doping his horses. An athlete who looked like he was destined for the Olympics in Greco Roman wrestling before he was caught doping himself at the Nationals. And so on, and so forth.”
I had to ask. “The hackers know the family but not the individuals involved in Snow Snuffers?”
Jack nodded. “So far. Apparently, there’s a paper trail…excuse me, an electronic trail that shows money from the snuff film auctions heading back to these people’s stomping grounds. Our guys may eventually be able to pin it down, or maybe not. Digital footprints don’t track everything, despite what the nerds seem to believe.”
“No, I get that. And while it would be tempting to assume the black sheep are behind this, it could just as well be the seemingly squeaky clean types.”
“So true. There’s more…let’s see…the hackers also uncovered more snuff films by Snow Snuffers, seven more, scattered out all over the world. One up high in the Himalayas, one on the Matterhorn in Switzerland, even one on Mt. Everest, though of course nowhere near the peak. No pattern has been found so far, except that (a) no one country has more than two snuffs–I’m guessing Gary’s death in the Bob was supposed to be #2 for the U.S., after Alaska–and, (b) the abandonment of the naked victims is always done in daylight, presumably for better filming, with the temperature somewhere in the mid-twenties. That is, subfreezing but not subzero. I’m guessing they want the star of the film to die, but not too fast, so they can stoke the imagination of their viewers, picturing how the guy suffered.”
Jennifer shook her head in disgust. “You know, most online entries about snuff films say they involve females being raped and killed in the process, or killed shortly thereafter. By comparison, there’s almost nothing out there about these Snow Snuffers. But…I’m glad you want to nail these bastards. Really. I really am.”
We lifted our coffee mugs to her in salute. There was something about seeing Gary Jellison, still alive and determined to thrive but bearing the visible marks of his suffering, that inspired all three of us.
“One more thing,” Hill continued. “My contacts picked up just enough traces to be about 99.99% certain there’s a federal law enforcement task force trying to nail these guys.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” I wondered.
“Not so much. We don’t know when this task force was originally formed, but at least three years ago, and they haven’t busted ’em yet. The way the feds work, they’d lose a footrace to a glacier. Even if the Snuffers limit themselves to one murder per year–and it’s looking more like they’re doing at least two–that would be another ten poor buggers dying the hard way. Plus, these guys are operating internationally. Interpol may be involved, probably is, but how excited are they going to be about this, really?”
We got the point. Beyond that, we realized that with federal agents sniffing after the Snow Snuffers, we had a problem. For example, tripping over an undercover FBI guy about the time we were making one of our patented moves would be a very, very bad idea.
It was Jennifer Trace who summed it up. “Unless or until we can be certain we know more about these snow snakes than law enforcement does, we’d best lay low, don’t you think?”
Well, duh. “For now,” I suggested, “what say we do just that, except for one thing. We need to let Gary know the feds are on this one. He’s going to be packing heat from now on, and I’m pretty sure that if one of those four guys he can recognize on sight shows up, he’ll shoot first and question the remains afterward. But he’s not going to want the FBI to know he’s laid eyes on actual Snow Snuffers and lived to tell about it, because they’ll want him to testify, and with all the family members these killers have, he’d end up in the witness protection program at best.”
Jack sighed. “I do purely hate to leave it up Uncle Bumbling Sam on this one. Can we at least consider tipping off the FBI anonymously from time to time?”
“Sure,” I grinned, “if you’re feeling stupider than usual, old man.”
“Who’s to say one of the task force members isn’t related to the Snuffer families?”
“Their man on the inside?”
“But,” I pointed out, “better a little excessive paranoia than take a chance on sticking our heads in a noose.”
“There is that,” he admitted, and we went on to the next item on the agenda, the tunnel project. It was bugging me that we’d had to shelve that one for a while, so I was glad to see Jennifer felt the same way, strongly enough to want to talk about it at today’s TNT meeting. The tunnel project was building for the future. If we ignored that indefinitely in favor of simply putting out fires as they popped up, the day could come when we’d get caught with our pants down.
We kicked the topic around for close to thirty minutes before Jack Hill came up with an idea. “Let’s go out of order, jump down to item five, Bobby Hancock.”
“Okay,” we agreed, wondering what the old man was up to.
“Tree, you were with him, hooked at the hip for three straight days and nights on your North Dakota run. What’s your take on the kid?”
I thought about that carefully before answering. “So far, so good. He’s got gaps, like anybody would who grew up like he did. I don’t think I’m quite ready to bring him into our Inner Circle completely just quite yet. That is, some of the maneuvers we’ve managed that could land us in prison if they got out, TMI, too much information for now.”
“What about the cave?”
“Wolf Cave?” I looked at Jack in surprise. “You’re thinking of showing him the cave? Letting him know we–oh, I see. That…might work. Heck, it might even be a good idea….”
“Will you two,” Jennifer put in dryly, “please enlighten me? I may have my woman’s intuition, but the way you two read each other’s minds, I’m kind of out of the loop here.”
“Sorry, Jen,” Hill grinned, not looking sorry at all. “What we’re thinking is, I’ve done my part to kick start the company town–which we’ll talk about next if that’s okay with you. That means, if we’re going to lie low for a while on the Snow Snuffers thing, there’s no reason I couldn’t get back to exploring Wolf Cave. Tree and I’ve been talking; the only way we can remove all the rock from a tunnel and not get caught at it is if we can find a big enough room, or series of rooms, somewhere in the cave complex itself. Keep the rock underground, and nobody will know a thing.”
“Plus,” I admitted, “we really don’t need Bobby as a full time welder at this time. Come April or May, we may need every hand we can get in the shop, but for now, he’s a bit of excess, and not quite as good as most of the hands. If he’s okay underground, he could partner with Jack. Learn spelunking, and knowing one of our biggest secrets that does not involve killing anybody….”
“I see. Okay. All right, then, I vote to give Bobby a chance. It would be a bad thing if he ran his mouth about the cave, but it’ll be a good test to see how he does, too.”
It was unanimous. Bobby would be introduced to Wolf Cave…sort of. Before moving on to the next topic, we decided young Hancock would become familiar with much of the cave setup but not all of it. The back entrance? No. The explosive charges that would enable any of the Inner Circle to seal the front portal (behind trapper Horace Tamblyn’s steel reinforced cabin)? No.
If he did betray us, and state or federal authorities showed up demanding to see the cave, yammering at us about the rules and regs applying to caves these days, guess what? The cave would “disappear”, and Bobby Hancock would promptly be painted by the bunch of us as a mentally unbalanced kid who imagined things that weren’t there.
After all, you know how those home schooled types are.
A glance at the clock showed us we were burning daylight. We got up, stretched, took another potty break. Waiting for Jennifer to make it back out of the bathroom, Jack checked the cupboards, coming up with a dozen cake doughnuts to tide us over till lunchtime, while I did the honors with the coffee percolator.
Then we got down to Rimville, and it was Jennifer who had a few surprises for us. “You boys have been busy, running all over Hell’s half acre, so I took a run down to the 80 acre Rimville property yesterday. Tommy and his girl’s Granddad are already getting ready to build his house, logging a stand of lodgepole pine farther up on the ranch that’s being donated. They’re cutting the logs in 36′ lengths, barking them, stacking them on skids so they’ll dry nicely the minute the snow melts. They should be cured enough to build with by midsummer, and Tommy’s bought himself a bunch of instruction manuals on full Swedish cope construction. He figures to get some help from the other welders to help him pour concrete and throw up the logs, then he’ll turn around and help them in return. The place should be ready for occupancy by first snow in the fall.”
“Excellent!” I exclaimed, surprised. It often surprised me when a man took charge of his own destiny like that. “Good for him.”
“You bet. Now, about the rest of it. That is, the company store. I realized that I have a big interest in your store doing well, Tree. It’s going to be closer than Lincoln for my ranch hands, so some of them are going to want to get in the habit of stopping in there, if you’ve got goods they want. Were it me, though, I’d limit the size to no more than 10,000 square feet at most.”
“Uh–Jen, that’s a lot bigger than I was thinking….”
She held up her hands in mock surrender. “No doubt. But there’s not much to be had in Helmville or Ovando. If you stocked not just groceries but work clothes, and….”
“No cigarettes,” Jack put in.
We stared at him, speechless. None of us smoked, but a good half of the welders and a similar percentage of the ranch hands most certainly did.
Jennifer asked, “Why not? Other than the fact that smoking is a nasty, cancer producing habit, and all that.”
“Fire hazard. An idiot in high country with a cigarette is a wildfire waiting to happen. Also reputation; why encourage the idiots? And also, there’s not much profit margin in the cigarette business. Use the space for something that helps the survival rate. Like maybe getting a firearms license and stocking a few weapons plus a fair bit of ammunition.”
That took some discussion. Getting involved with the feds, getting an FFL? I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, other than the cold shudders the very thought was giving me.
In the end, we tabled discussion on that one for another day. I owned Rodeo Iron, lock, stock, and barrel, and it was thus my decision to make–but I didn’t take the input from my fellow Triad members lightly. We’d gotten this far by working together as a team. If it works, don’t fix it.
Finally, we were down to one last agenda item, the rustlers who’d been hitting the east pastures.
“Sissy has pulled together some pretty hard evidence,” Jennifer began–and the sat phone rang. She got up to answer it…then promptly put it on speaker so we could all hear. “Go, Judi,” she said.
My petite lover’s voice came through loud and clear. “Jennifer, Tree, Jack–you might want to finish up your Triad meeting over here at Jack’s place.”
She gave no more explanation than that. Whatever this was, it was serious; she didn’t dare bounce the information off of a satellite. We all hesitated for maybe half a second, processing, then I spoke up. “On our way, Jude.”
That was it. Not knowing what we were getting into, Jack and I rode back in the Pontiac, but Jennifer drove her Blazer. All of us had our adrenaline rushing for the five minutes it took to cover the three miles between Trace headquarters and home. There were no black helicopters or evil gunmen attacking Jack’s house. No ravening wolf pack or grizzly bear early out of hibernation.
What there was, was Sissy Harms, standing out in the driveway, thumbs hooked in her belt, waiting to give us the word. The moment all three of us were out of our vehicles so she knew we could hear her, she spoke four quiet words.
“Gary Jellison is dead.”