Beets was just finishing his workout when his right inner thigh vibrated. Easing the eight hundred pounds on the weight machine back to its resting position, he reached inside his sweatpants, slipped the little flip phone from its holster, and checked the one word text message. Green. Time to go. Ten minutes to shower, add driving time and his regular 5:00 a.m. breakfast order at the café…yes, that would work; he could make it to Staging in good shape.
The western omelette was excellent as usual. Traffic through Great Falls was light, this being early on a Sunday morning for most churchgoers. The day promised to be warm and sunny, a beautiful Big Sky spring day. The driveway into Staging looked one hundred percent normal for the area; few visitors–had there been visitors as such–would have suspected the hidden cameras monitoring his arrival. One of the three garage doors marked with the VE logo opened smoothly to welcome his electric blue Corvette. The others were there already, as expected; they all lived closer to Vigilant Enterprises than he did. Carrot, with his long, lean frame. Spud, short and round and all eyes. Rad, short for Radish, sporting his usual ruddy complexion that fooled a lot of people on first acquaintance; Rad was not a drinker.
Spud had the wheel on this one. “Mount up,” he said quietly, and they all climbed into the sleek black Ford Expedition with its blacked-out windows, oversized tires, and various modifications that were not apparent to the casual observer. Beets was riding the right rear seat, making it his responsibility to turn to the equipment stashed where the rearmost seats used to be. “.45 caliber sidearms, four,” he announced.
“Check,” Rad replied, consulting his dedicated Notebook. Carrot was riding shotgun.
“Magazines for .45’s, eight.”
“MP5 submachine guns, four.”
“Magazines for MP5’s, eight.”
“M79 grenade launchers, two.”
“Bugout bags, four.”
“Check. All accounted for.”
With the checklist procedure finished, Beets picked up the bugout bags, passing two of them forward to Spud and Carrot, handing one to Rad, and keeping one for himself. The big Expedition was already nearing the freeway. They’d be leaving I-15 at Vaughn. He knew that much, but the precise location of the target had been kept secret until now. “Do we have the need to know where we’re headed, or not?” He was slipping his KA-BAR fighting knife in its leather sheath onto his belt by the time the driver deigned to reply.
“Blinker says go ahead and bring everybody up to speed. The target is a few miles northwest of Ovando.”
“Ovando?” Beets blinked. “Where the heck is Ovando?”
Carrot spoke over his shoulder. “Over Rogers Pass, somewhere the other side of Lincoln.”
“So…we’re due to hit there at a specific time, or…?”
“No specific time. Blinker knows we’re en route; he’ll be waiting when we get there to pick him up. But this is a we-get-there-when-we-get-there assignment. Blink will give us a full briefing. I’m guessing we’ll be ready to pop caps by 0930 hours or so. Maybe as late as 1030. Plenty of time and light to make sure the job is done right.” Quite a few missions were better done under cover of darkness, depending on night vision equipment to give them the edge. For obvious reasons, that didn’t apply to Mission Janitorial.
“I hate to admit it,” Beets sighed, “but this one bothers me a bit. I’ve never much cared for terminating innocents, and this one carries a pretty significant risk of collateral damage. Even out there in the boonies….”
Spud grunted noncommittally. “You know the rules, Beets. We don’t judge ’em; we just execute ’em.”
“True enough.” He wouldn’t want to be on the Execution Committee for all the Chinese goods in Walmart. At least, he thought, it’ll be over and done with by noon.
Naturally, he thought wrong. Murphy’s Law was not to be denied. Between Sun River and Fort Shaw, they suddenly found themselves stopped in traffic. By the time Spud thought to turn on the CB radio and find out what was happening, it was too late; they were trapped, nothing to do but sit and wait until things sorted themselves out. CB chatter eventually identified the problem, a tanker upside down in the middle of the road and leaking dark fluid. HazMat hazard, possibly. Officials would be taking no chances with this one; they might be here a while.
Carrot managed to fire off a text message to Blinker, saying simply -Yellow-, but they all knew it was an exercise in futility. Their forward observer and team leader had probably texted them from Lincoln, but he’d be back out in the target area now, where there was no cell coverage whatsoever. Their sat phones could make contact, but those were risky; simply running a bit late was not a reason to break sat silence.
“A bit” turned out to be well into the afternoon. No one showed any outward signs of disturbance while waiting; they were all well schooled in patience, as hunters must be. Inwardly, however, Beets pondered. He didn’t consider himself a superstitious man, but he did believe in reading signs, omens if you will, the writing on the wall. That sort of thing. The wrecked tanker had gotten his attention; he’d eyeballed it closely as they drove through the spill area. A dark stain of…what? Nothing official had been released, at least not that they’d heard, but the fifty yard swath of darkened pavement and ruined roadside grass looked like a pretty big, ominous sign to him. The Masters of the Universe, he knew, had reached out to delay them.
It could be a bad thing or a good thing, this delay. He didn’t know the reason, but he knew there was one. On the other hand, he’d long since learned to keep his insights to himself. None of the others believed as he did. He outweighed any one of them by at least eighty pounds, all of it toned muscle, but he was vulnerable to mockery. That, he did not need. Nor did his teammates. They functioned as a well oiled mechanism…as long as he did not share his doubts. He’d seen it happen before, what a single sentence delivered with the wrong attitude could do. No, he’d keep his mouth shut for now.
Unremarked, they eased through the little town of Lincoln. The Expedition with the blacked out windows might have made people in major city neighborhoods sit up and take notice, but Montana was a tourist state. Lincoln area residents might remember their most notorious former neighbor, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, with less than fondness. That was true enough. But Ford Expeditions, dark windows or no, were hardly unknown in these parts. Ted had lived frugally in a cabin so small that the FBI had simply loaded it on a truck and brought it inside the courtroom in–where was that trial held? Sacramento. Kaczynski had been brilliant and nutty as a fruitcake, but he had not accumulated piles of do-re-mi. Brand new Ford Expeditions meant money. Strangely, the high end vehicle provided effective invisibility.
Beets had to smile at that. Omens or no omens, most Montana folks were every bit as good at ignoring what they didn’t want to see as were people in any other part of the country.
Spud turned off of Highway 200 a few miles west of Ovando, pointing the vehicle up a rutted dirt track. He threw the rig into four wheel drive, but that was it; using low range was not necessary. They were not going to bog down. It wasn’t slick, really, just a bit bumpy. This was where Blinker had been spending his time, up ahead in those trees? Truly, there was no accounting for tastes.
Jack and I didn’t get out of Walmart as quickly as we’d have liked, but once clear of the store, we made good time on the way back home. The groceries were all piled in the back seat, of course; with Soren Kirk a big question mark in our minds, the cargo area under the security cover was reserved for extra armaments. If we ever got stopped by the law and the vehicle was searched, we’d have some explaining to do.
I checked my watch. 3:37 p.m. We’d be home by 4:00, I thought, good Lord willing and the crick don’t rise. Naturally, either the good Lord was not willing or the crick did rise. We were just coming up on Soren Kirk’s driveway, about to pass it, when I suddenly snapped, “Stop!”
The ancient Protector and I’d worked together in enough life and death situations that he didn’t hesitate, just slammed on the binders. His Subaru Outback had long ago had its ABS brakes disabled; when he told the vehicle to stop, it stopped. He didn’t say a word, just flicked a glance upslope to see where I was looking and then waited on me. I reached down behind my passenger seat to fish out the binoculars. “Back it up if nothing’s going to hit us in the ass.” He did, easing it over to the narrow shoulder. “There! Stop!”
What was that? I wasn’t sure if I’d actually seen something–it was quite a distance up to the tree line, half a mile or so–but my spidey sense was jangling my nerves something fierce. Fortunately, the 60 x 50 Perrini binocs, which Sissy and Judi had given me as a gift for Valentine’s Day, brought the distant trees jumping into focus. Now, if I could only find where…there! What was…okay….
I lowered the glasses and handed them to Jack. “Just where the driveway enters the tree line, then count seven trees to the right. There’s a clump of brush there. Tell me what you see.”
It sounded bossy, come to think of it, but Jack took no offense. He adjusted the focus to fit his eyes and reported within seconds. “Black vehicle. I’m guessing. Can’t pick out much of it behind that brush screen, but….”
“That’s what I got. Kirk’s cabin shed is a good quarter mile farther on into the woods. There was nothing parked there when I drove up yesterday, nor when I came out. That’s not a place where I can see him situating anything, nor a place where anybody friendly would leave a vehicle or a piece of equipment.”
Hill rubbed his chin in thought. “Want to go check it out?”
“If you’re up for it.”
“I am. But I don’t want to meander on up there dressed in nothing but stupid.” An eighteen wheeler, a red C.R. England tractor pulling a reefer, roared past us at that moment, the wind of its passage rocking the Subaru as if to underscore his words. “Tell you what. About halfway up, does that little dip hide you till you pull on up out of there?”
I thought a moment. “It does. With the truck I was driving, it didn’t quite, but the Outback is low enough we’d be out of anybody’s line of sight. As long as we don’t stand up any higher than the roofline, that is.”
“That’ll work.” He pulled off the shoulder, crossed the pavement, and turned into Kirk’s driveway.
Parked in the dip, we were fully hidden as I’d promised. If another vehicle came popping over the rise, it’d be crunch time, but we had the momentary cover we needed. We both scooted around to the back. I lifted the hatch, holding it so it didn’t pop up too high. Jack brought out what the necessary equipment. I shut the hatch as softly as I could, though the sound would still carry some, and we geared up. We had our concealed .22’s as always, but we needed to be ready for more than the light caliber short guns could handle. Matching .30 caliber M1A1 carbines, locked and loaded. A tactical belt that would make sitting in the car seat awkward, sporting spare ammo pouches, throwing knives, compact but powerful battery powered CB radios, and a number of other goodies. Camouflage jackets. Combat boots complete with blousing bands for our jeans. No Kevlar vests; if we ran into any serious bad guys, we were pretty sure they’d be savvy enough to make vests useless. Besides, we both believed wearing a vest had a tendency to induce a false sense of security in the wearer. We preferred to be scared spitless and on our toes, so to speak.
We were stopped for exactly four minutes and thirteen seconds, after which Jack put the transmission in Drive and said, “Try the CB. See if you can raise Wayne or Sissy.”
Good thought. We were too far from the Trace ranch to reach Jennifer or Howard, but our own houses…maybe. The radios were preset to Channel 14. I pressed the mike button. “Dark Knight to Hilltop, do you copy? Over.”
Our home guard’s spidey senses must have been tingling as hard as mine was. No more than three seconds later, the reply came through, loud and crisp and clear. “Knight, this is Iron Lady. Copy five by five. Hilltop just walked in the door. Over”
I felt a gush of relief somewhere behind my navel. Iron Lady was Sissy’s handle. Wayne Bruce was right there with her. We could get this done without wasting words. “Lady, we’re checking out a foreign object near Good Neighbor Sam’s. Level orange. Over.”
“Copy, Knight. Level orange. Over.”
“Going to click mode. Over.”
“Click mode, copy. Over.”
Jack Hill and I glanced at each other. The folks at home were alerted; we could concentrate on the task at hand. Radio silence would be enforced, but we’d leave the power on for now. Using click mode, we could key the mikes repeatedly to convey essential information without risking voice commo. A single click at the wrong time could give us away, too, but we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. For now, my focus had to be the drying mud track in front of us. Though I’d never been in the military, I couldn’t help visualizing the many wounded–and dead–American warriors who’d been taken out by improvised explosives planted to go off under passing vehicles. No, it didn’t make sense for that to be happening here, but fear and common sense don’t have to have logical connections. We still had hundreds of yards of open terrain to cover before joining the mystery black whatever in the afternoon shade of the evergreen trees. Paranoia, paranoia, LSD, LSD…. That ditty was before my time–Vietnam era?–but I’d heard it somewhere, and it stuck.
Nobody shot at us or blew us up before we reached the tree line. The black whatever I’d spotted was indeed a vehicle, however, a big black shiny Ford Expedition with blacked out windows. Looks like a rig Darth Vader would drive if he was ground pounding. The big SUV positively exuded menace.
Jack shut the Subaru down a few yards from the intruder. We didn’t saunter right over and lay hands on the Ford, but we didn’t have to. We could hear the ticking of cooling metal. It hadn’t been here long. Presuming nobody was hiding inside, which we’d take on faith as neither of us wanted to go any closer than we already were, its former occupants couldn’t be far away. Jack and I were both doing the math; I could see the certainty in his eyes. Quarter mile from here to Soren Kirk’s homestead. Ominous vehicle parked in a mostly hidden spot well away from the cabin. Not the action of a friendly neighbor like, say, Treemin Jackson of Rodeo Iron, who’d driven right up to the residence a mere twenty-four hours earlier. We had hostiles on the ground. Somebody was out there in the timber, probably several somebodies–the Expedition could seat six easily, more in a pinch–and they were intent on sneaking up on our neighbor with a whole backpack full of bad intentions.
We did not speak. We didn’t need to. Whether Soren Kirk was a bad guy or a good guy made no difference; newcomer or not, he was our guy, our neighbor. If anybody was going to mess him up, it would be us, not some hit crew driving a city slicker black Ford that looked like a covert government operation’s wet dream.
It might be the Feds after him, not that it mattered.
I was pissed. Hill didn’t look all fuzzy and cuddly, either. Anybody targeting Soren Kirk would presumably be just as deadly as Kirk himself, plus there’d be more than one of them. If we dealt ourselves into this game, we might well be facing the most dangerous enemies yet. The thought should have been sobering. It wasn’t. Instead, I felt a fierce joy rising in me. The girls and I had selected my CB handle together; there was a reason we’d gone with Dark Knight despite the Batman connotations. I lifted my CB and raised my eyebrows in question. Jack nodded. I keyed the mike in rapid sequence, our own bastardized code. The message was simple in the extreme: Three clicks for Red Alert. Pause. Two plus two plus six meant Jack and I were going all in. One plus one plus one to tell everybody else they were on their own; play it as they saw fit. Four to sign off.
We waited, but not for long. Three plus three plus three, telling us to expect reinforcements. Wayne Bruce and Sissy Harms, most likely, leaving Judi to protect Carolyn if things went south. In any event, an important point; we’d be extra careful to make sure of our targets now, knowing we might be drawing down on one of our own. Four signoff clicks…and it was time to move out.
Jack took the lead with me following behind, far enough apart to make it tough for an enemy to take us both out at once, close enough to maintain visual contact as we moved upslope through the timber. Every sense was on high alert, so high that I would have sworn I could hear the synapses in my brain singing like high wires carrying thousands of kilowatts of electric current. Briefly, it occurred to me that we could have used Horace Tamblyn, the tracker, for this little jaunt. Without either mud or snow to betray the quarry, my tracking skills evaporate like mist in the morning. Still, if I couldn’t have Horace walking point on this one, old Jack Hill was certainly a fine second choice. After all, he’d survived a tough childhood, the Civil War, and every reluctant adventure thereafter. He might not be able to track wind over water, but the ancient could probably smell a bullet coming his way before it left the rifle barrel.
You could do worse, Jackson. I reminded myself to check our backtrail. There’s nothing more embarrassing than getting killed from behind when you’re thinking you’re the hunter.
A squirrel chittered, scolding furiously, somewhere ahead of us and off to the right. One of the Ford Guys, no doubt. Or at least that was a likely possibility. Man, I was thirsty. Forgot to take a leak before we started out, too, an oversight I was beginning to regret with considerable sincerity. Other than the squirrel, the woods were remarkably quiet this afternoon. Sensing the presence of predators, or was this patch of forest simply empty of the usual songbird population? Enquiring minds want to know.
Hill stopped, holding up a hand to halt me in my tracks as well. I heard it then, the chatter of gunfire, still fairly distant but dead ahead. Shit. Chatter?! Somebody had one or more weapons firing on full auto. Not good. Not good at all. We weren’t only going on the offensive against highly trained opponents; we were outgunned.
With a visible shrug, Jack resumed forward motion. Machine guns–or submachine guns; it didn’t sound like a particularly heavy caliber–meant nothing to him. He came from the era of cannons and Gatling guns, for Pete’s sake.
As we moved on up the slope, aiming generally toward the sound of the firing–which seemed to be coming from somewhere a bit to the east of Kirk’s shed cabin, somewhere in the timber–I began to marvel at Jack Hill. He’d always been deserving of marvel, what with being a savvy warrior well into the second half of his second century of life, but I hadn’t really seen him in his element before. We’d fought side by side, true, but our mode of transportation en route to the field of combat had always been either good horses or good cars; I had not seen him in full on infantry mode, heading into battle. Especially battle with an unknown enemy. He ghosted silently from tree to tree, a practically invisible wraith, almost seeming not to be there even when he was only thirty feet or so ahead of me. He drifted through the woods, utterly without sound. I’m not bad, yet although I could hear my foot swish the grass or brush a stray twig from time to time, I could not hear Hill at all.
It occurred to me that I would not want to get on the bad side of my mentor. Ever. For any reason. On my side, he was reassurance personified. Against me, he would be terror incarnate.
Inwardly, I shook my head to clear my thoughts. Focus, Jackson. There are bad guys out there packing serious heat. I was willing to bet Soren Kirk was still alive. The machine gun stutter had ceased, but there were still occasional shots sounding, one at a time. Whose heavy ordnance? Kirk’s or the unsubs? Unsubs: Unknown subjects according to FBI lingo. I couldn’t remember the name of the monstrously boring TV show Judi had been watching last night, but that term had been overused. Unsubs.
Jack slowed, stealth over speed. The only advantage we’d ever had against fierce odds was the element of surprise. Jogging headfirst into the muzzle of an M60 or MP5 or UZI or Gatling gun or whatever…no, we certainly couldn’t afford to do that. Hill turned to signal me, but I was already moving to our right, taking up a different line. Parallel but different. The shooting was really sporadic now, and close. They must be hunkered down among the scattered boulders dotting what Horace the tracker called Gargoyle Garden. He and Hill both knew this property inside out. Me, I’d walked it two or three times, just out strolling, before Kirk bought it. I knew it sort of. I did not know it well; in fact, my travels hadn’t taken me through the boulder patch at all. But Jack nodded in what I thought might be approval; both of us would now have reasonable tree cover the rest of the way to the stone Garden, and we would come at the scene from two slightly different angles.
My mouth was dry. I tried to work up a little spit and couldn’t.
And we were there. One of the shots warned me, a round I took to be a heavy pistol. Not aimed at me; there was no telltale -crack!- of the sound barrier breaking. Wait a minute. Hadn’t I read somewhere that a number of the .45 ACP rounds traveled at subsonic speeds? So maybe I couldn’t trust the “crack rule” if a pistol was involved.
I decided to ignore Jack. Off to my left as he was, the two of us were momentarily out of communication anyway; the little stand of chokecherry trees guaranteed that.
Shit. I was on my own.
Well, nothing for it. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. A risky declaration, that, but less gloomy than Remember the Alamo. I needed a nap. What? I’m maybe one hundred yards from Ground Zero and my adrenaline has fizzed out?
Oh. No. There it is. Damn, why didn’t I pee before we left the Subaru?
It had to be my sixth sense that warned me, but the damned thing was running on Indian time. My spin to the left was never completed; I saw the flame of the muzzle flash practically in my face. The bullet must have slammed into me somewhere, or else I’d just plain slipped and fallen on my ass; I was suddenly aware of staring straight up through the treetops at a patch of ridiculously blue sky. Unfortunately, there was no time to contemplate the cosmos. Whoever had pulled the trigger was a pro and a damned good one; no one else had ever gotten the drop on me like that. What’s-his-name who’d hired on and then sneak-chucked a grenade my way, yeah, but that didn’t count. That was a betrayal of trust.
My brain snapped back into focus. There was no way I could locate the target and return fire before the bastard could shoot me again, but giving up wasn’t in it. The carbine was still in my right hand; I hadn’t dropped it. My legs still worked; my effort to scramble around like a confused crab on a bed of ice seemed to be working, never mind the certainty that I’d never make it. Where was he–there! He’d risen to one knee from his original prone firing position; he was no longer hidden under a screen of brush and debris. The bastard had been scanning the area, not expecting me to still be in the fight, but his weapon–MP5!, my mind screamed–was tracking back my way in a hurry.
I was not going to make it.
It didn’t happen in slow motion. In my world, that’s movie bullshit. It happened fast. His MP5 had swung through its arc, mine through maybe half, when the shot sounded. I heard both the crack! of an incoming round and the -thwuck!- of a meat shot this time, something I’d never before experienced in combination. Hadn’t even known that was possible.
But it wasn’t me that took the hit. No flame fountained from his gun’s muzzle. Instead, blood fountained from the front of his skull. His face seemed to jerk forward from the impact, but that was all; his lifeless corpse slumped in place.
Jack Hill had shot him through the back of the head.
By the time the old man got to me, the pain had hit with sledge hammer force and I was fighting off shock, refusing to succumb. We still had work to do. “Let me get a look at it, Tree.” Jack spoke in a near whisper, but he didn’t suggest that we get a move on or seek cover. Instead, he read my mind. “I’m thinking this guy was their rear guard, set here to make sure nobody snuck up on the main hit squad. We can’t afford to hang around here, build a campfire, roast s’mores, but leaving a blood trail isn’t a great idea, either.”
Blood trail? Oh. Yeah. I was bleeding…maybe not copiously, but significantly.
“It hit high on the arm,” he murmured, “just an inch or so under the shoulder joint.” His med pack was already open. I chose not to watch what he was doing. “You lost some meat there, cowboy. Maybe grooved the humerus, but I don’t believe it’s broken. Tree, I’m going to cut the sleeves off on this side, from both your jacket and your tee shirt, okay?”
“Yeah,” I replied through gritted teeth. “Get on with it.” Had I been wearing body armor, would it have helped? Maybe, maybe not. Might have slowed me down a jillionth of a second and gotten me killed on the spot.
With Hill being focused on patching me up, it fell to me to keep an eye out for the enemy. Rather unconvincingly, I told myself it was only pain and kept my carbine hanging free, ready to flip-fire one handed toward any fresh pop-up threats.
No such threat manifested. Before I realized it, Jack had the blood stopped, packing in the wound, a bandage around my arm and up over my shoulder, and the damaged arm in a sling. Combat colored bandages and sling, of course; we wouldn’t want to be turning the wounded warrior into a flashy whitetail deer, now would we.
“Can you move?”
“Think so. Little woozy. Comes and goes. Jack.”
“Take a closer look at his left shirt pocket, would you? I don’t dare bend over.”
Hill squatted beside the corpse, studying the bloodstained fabric. The headshot had sprayed enough blood to cover all the bases. When he straightened up, he had the shirt flap sliced free and passed it to me for inspection. The image that had caught my eye, embroidered in black and roughly three inches in length, looked like a…carrot? I raised an eyebrow at Jack. He shrugged in return. Time to get on with it. The forest was silent, utterly silent for as far as the ear could hear. We were not the only predators in the area.
At that moment, we heard the explosions, first one, then a second, then a third. Not a rifle. Not a machine gun. I wasn’t sure–but Jack was. “Grenades,” he whispered.
“Grenades?” I whispered back.
He nodded. “In this day and age, most likely fired from a grenade launcher; we’re long past the day when they were hand tossed.”
Great. A grenade launcher. This was getting better and better. What next, a freaking tank? Maybe an A-10 Warthog warplane? A dirty nuke? I shook my head, wished I hadn’t, and followed Jack. I had to follow Jack. For sure I wasn’t in any shape to walk point on my own hook.
Coming out of yet another dizzy spell, I realized we were aiming for a huge squarish boulder, the first of those in Gargoyle Garden that was big enough to provide serious cover for more than one man. A stupid Keystone Cops image flickered through my mind, us and a bunch of bad guys playing Boulder Hide and Seek Dead Man’s Tag. Banishing the images proved remarkably difficult. Blood loss? The pain…I wasn’t sure what Jack had packed the wound with, but it was down to a dull, deep throb. Could shock make me hallucinate slapstick cartoons in my head during the middle of a combat situation?
Another grenade went off, then one more…and these two were closer, shaking the ground under our feet, ringing my ears something fierce. I saw dirt clods fly…I thought. Could have been more Keystone Cops stuff.
Except it wasn’t. Jack paused in his study of the terrain to either side of the boulder long enough to flick an amused look my way. Amused? I really don’t know him at all, do I? Now there was gunfire, a lot of it, nonstop, somewhere on the other side of the boulder but close now, very close. Nobody was going to hear me talking over that. In a normal conversational tone–I was rather proud of my control–I asked, “What’s so funny?”
His eyes twinkled. “I was thinking of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“Oh…the movie, or the real guys?”
“The movie. The scene where they jump off the cliff into the river, rather than be shot by the pursuers closing in on them. Sundance wasn’t wanting to jump, tells Butch he can’t swim. Butch says, Hell, the fall will probably kill us anyway.”
“And they jump.” I would have remembered that scene even without my eidetic memory; it was a good one.
Wait a second. Eidetic memory. I wasn’t using my most valuable weapon. “Jack, if we can make it off to the right thirty yards or so and forward about ten, isn’t there a boulder with a long sort of gouge on the in-Garden side?”
“Yeah.” Hill looked puzzled. “Your point?”
“I just remembered a sketch map Howard did of the Garden. His notes say that gouge is a natural redoubt, that a couple of men could hold off an army if they managed to get into position there.”
Comprehension dawned in his eyes. “You’re thinking–”
“That Soren Kirk is there, yes. Whatever the Hell he is, he knew this was coming. He had to know; nothing else makes any sense.”
“And that’s why–”
“Yes. That’s why he bought this particular property. Not because of you or me or Rodeo Iron or Trace Ranch or anything. He found out about Gargoyle Garden. The real estate agent handling the listing had to know all about it; it was probably even featured in the ads. He came, he toured, he found the gouge.”
Hill nodded. “He picked his battleground. Made the enemy come to him at the place of his choosing.”
“Exactly. Sun Tzu, The Art of War.”
We stared at each other for a moment, stunned not by the situation but by the eye-widening recognition as the puzzle pieces fell into place.