They Walk Among Us, Chapter Sixteen: Mr. Diversion

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Had it not been for my woman, the first 12 days after surviving the ambush east of Malta would have remained a blur in my mind–eidetic memory or no eidetic memory. Sure, I could cast back, call up any moment at will, but there were so many moments.

Tania, however, sprang a little surprise on me during the afternoon of September 26. It was a Wednesday, a day I’d normally have been tied up at the welding shop, but these times were anything but normal. The Stealth Chevy, as we’d dubbed the reworked ’59 El Camino, was packed and ready to go.

Tania and I’d just finished what she referred to as a WPI, Wartime Passion Interlude, when she raised up on one elbow, grinned at me like the cat that ate the canary, and asked,

“Wanne see my Journal?”

Yeah, you could hear the capital “J” in Journal, the way she said it. Naturally, I had to ask, “What Journal?”

“I’ve dubbed it the WWJ, Wolf War Journal. You know. Just in case.”

“Just in case?”

“Yeah.” Suddenly, she wasn’t grinning any more. “Just in case the feds or whoever’s really behind all this ends up winning and I lose you.”

“I ain’t that easy to kill.”

“No, you’re not. And that’s a good thing. But just in case. I don’t have your photographic memory, honey. I want a record.”

“Okay.” I might be just 24, and this might be my first real relationship, but I’d learned enough to say okay.

She reached into the little shelf in her bedside stand, hauled out a leather bound journal that didn’t look like it came from Walmart–heck, it didn’t look like it came from Staples, for that matter–and started reading.

“September 14. Friday. Ambush. That’s the only entry for that day. Kind of says it all.”

Yep. It did that.

“September 15. Saturday. Jack Hill goes to Missoula. Sam Trace calls ranch meeting. See, honey, I’m just putting in triggers here. Stuff that will jog my memory without telling the enemy too much in case they raid us and get hold of this.”

I nodded. That had truly begun the frantically busy days. Jack had run his camera in to an Internet access point he trusted, emailed a set of the ambush photos off to one of his contacts, and put out a request for all possible information on Wolf Support Inc. of Wolf Bay, Wisconsin.

In the meantime, back at the ranch, I’d been telling our stories. The two stories, one of the day the various law enforcement types tried to frame us with a dropped packet of “wolf stuff” by the forge in the shop, the other about a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter plonking an old telephone pole down across Highway 2 by way of a greeting card.

The boss had taken over when I was finished. “Here’s the thing,” he’d told the assembled hands. “It’s obvious we’ve been targeted by some powerful forces out there. They’ve got access to all the money they need, they’re either feds or know how to manipulate the feds, and they playing for keeps. Jack Hill, B. J., Tree, me, and by extension all of our families–we’re at risk.”

“Any idea why?” The question came from the oldest cowboy in the group, Jerry Riggins. Jer was at least 70, maybe older than that, wind-weathered, lean, hard as an old piece of rawhide left out in the sun.

Sam had shrugged. “Seems to be centered on the wolves. We were accused of killing wolves, anyway. But there’s other ranchers who’ve actually been caught shooting wolves out of season in Montana, and all they’ve gotten so far is fines and a few other little slaps on the wrist. General harrassment, but nothing like this.”

He couldn’t tell the whole crew what we’d really been up to, of course. You never knew who’d crack under pressure or, for that matter, who might already be a double agent on the enemy’s payroll.

“Thing is,” Trace continued, “I couldn’t leave you guys in the dark, and I can’t be asking you to stay on with me for no reward when it could mean a bullet in the back or a telephone pole dropped on your head. So here’s the deal. I did my time as a Marine, back in the day, and I understand hazard pay. Anybody chooses to stick it out, you’re drawing fighting pay for the duration, just like in the old range wars.”

“Except,” Riggins put in drily, “this enemy has a lot more firepower available than some neighboring rancher with 30 or so Winchesters at hand.”

“Yep. Exactly. So the other side of the coin is, any of you feels the need to pull up stakes, there’ll be no hard feelings. In fact, I’ll be spotting you two months regular wages as severance pay, starting now. I’d only ask that you hang in through our one last rodeo for the year, down in Idaho, before you head out, if you would.”

In the end–and in several cases after talking it over with their wives–four men of the twelve had decided to quit. Wayne Shacey couldn’t hang in there for the Idaho show; he was practically peeing his pants with fear.

Sam paid him the full two months severance anyway.

Jerry Riggins stayed, and I think we were all glad of it.

The video hit YouTube a few minutes after 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 18. Jack and I’d been on tenterhooks waiting, knowing we needed that out there to (hopefully) convince the bad guys that making another open move to kill us would be a bad idea at the moment….but the wait was worth it.

High Dollar Hit Misses the Mark in Montana

That was the headline. The video ran 17 minues and 3 seconds. It opened with a –WHOOOSH!!- roaring sound effect behind a photo slide sequence of the burning upside down Ford dually going from nearly pitch dark to being completely engulfed in flames.

“Twenty miles east of Malta, Montana,”
the narrator’s voice intoned, “two men survived this wreck. They weren’t drunk, they weren’t lousy drivers, and they weren’t trying to avoid a deer or an elk. What they were…was ambushed.”

Where they’d gotten the guy who did the voice, I had no idea–but he was brilliant. His timing was spot on, his tone…think a blend of that guy who does all those movie trailers, with a touch of Rod Serling from Twilight Zone.

He could have read the dictionary and made you pay attention…and this was no dictionary.

Seventeen minutes later, fixed on a series of pictures showing the huge rattler crossing the highway, The Voice wrapped it up.

“So, the question is: Why are these two citizens of the United States and the State of Montana, why are they in danger of being rubbed out? Whose hit list are they on, and why? Our friends tell us that a group of law enforcement officials from various agencies tried to frame them for killing wolves illegally a few months ago. That frame failed, as this ambush failed, but both incidents raise more questions than answers.

“Does this have to do with the reintroduction of wolves throughout the mountain areas of Montana and Idaho in recent decades? Or is it all coincidence?”

There were no closing credits, just a list of phone numbers citizens could call with tips, such as the identification of the two hit men standing by the guardrail. At the head of the list was the number for the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office, followed by the FBI and half a dozen other agencies…and ending with the White House.

The video had gone viral instantly. Last time we’d checked, around noon, there’d already been more than a hundred thousand views. At the rate the thing was accelerating, pretty soon it’d be more like a hundred thou a day.

Sheriff Scott Moran had called Sam, cussing him and us out thoroughly. Not so much for withholding evidence, but for listing his official number. They’d already had to add a separate line for locals to use; the other one was jammed solid with calls from this, that, and the other crank and/or curiosity seeker.

When he’d wound down, though, he’d kind of sheepishly admitted he was grateful we’d done it that way. No way his seven-man crew (including the Sheriff himself) could deal with a wildfire of this size. And he had all 311 photos Sam had sent him, nearly 200 more than were used in the video.

Some of us had wondered if the video producers could ever be traced. Jack said no, or at least, not likely. The hacker who’d posted it to YouTube had somehow made it look like it had come from, of all places, China.

From then till now had been no less hectic, preparation for Operation In Your Eye.

“Releasing the video was a necessary move,” Jack stated, “but entirely defensive. Those two idiots in the pictures will no doubt diappear forever, but the bigwigs won’t care about that. They’re nothing. Cannon fodder.”

“So we’ve got to hit them, and it’s got to be harder than they hit us.” This from my uncle B.J. There’d just been the three of us in on that war council, though B.J. would carry a full report to Sam. He also wanted to be in on the operation, but Jack and I vetoed that.

At six-eight, Big Jude would not be exactly inconspicuous, doing what we had to do.

I pulled out just at dusk, easing the classic old El Camino on down past Ovando, through Helmville and the Helmville Canyon, hitting I-90 eastbound just east of Drummond. From there it was hammer down, running well under the 75 mph limit until I’d been able to calculate the accuracy of the speedometer by timing half a dozen mile markers.

It kept working out that the Chevy was moving just a bit slower than the reading, so from there it was a matter of setting the cruise control right on 75 and figuring we were running 73 or so. Good enough.

Not that the pickup had come equipped with cruise control when it left the factory in ’59. My uncle and I’d been busier than one of Obama’s spin doctors these last few weeks before the election, getting it ready for this road trip.

In addition to cruise control, we’d added one of those hydraulic-lift bed lids, the flat kind, and added a few other touches. The license plate, though, we’d left in place. Jack had picked the rig up nearly a year ago from a fellow in Arizona. The guy had neglected to remove the plate, which was one of those permanent things they issue for antiques only, and Jack had neglected to remind him.

He’d also gotten the man to sign off on the title without filling in either the date or the name of the new owner.

Yeah, it was still risky. A little. If I got stopped, there’d be some explaining to do. So I’d best not get stopped.

The thing got pretty good gas mileage, thanks to the V-6 we’d dropped in, replacing the old 283 V-8…but in ’59, they still made automobiles with steel. Pushing 3,200 pounds got 21 mpg on the road….well, at least it beat the old 16 with the original engine, and there was a turbocharger if I needed it.

Too bad this beauty would have to be sacrificed for the cause. I wanted to cry every time I thought about that, but it had to be done. Though I begged the machine’s understanding, three miles out of four, all the way to Billings.

In the Radisson parking lot, out on the edge away from the brightest of the lights, I found what I needed and relieved a late model Caddy of its Illinois plates. Sixty seconds later, we (the El Camino and I) were outa there. At the next rest stop, before Hardin and a bit before first light, the Arizona plate went under the front seat and I was now from Illinois, just another homeward bound traveler.

Breakfast at the Purple Cow in Hardin and a quick fill-up (both cash, of course) plus a not-so-quick restroom break, and onward.

That precious Arizona plate, its duty done, found a permanent home under a few inches of dirt beside the road near Ranchester on the Wyoming side of the line.

September 29, 8:38 p.m.

Headquarters for WSI, Wolf Support Inc., sat in kind of a curious spot. We’d known it was situated near a remote lake cove, but Google Earth had shown it to actually be in a bit of a hollow between two low, timbered ridges. The front of the building faced southeast, 6,000 square feet of concrete block planted toward the left front of a 40 acre parcel that was mostly cleared of timber.

Out back and separated a bit from the building were the wolf enclosures, four of them , taking up 20 of the 40 acres. The entire 40 was ringed with rugged chain link fencing topped with out-leaning concertina wire…yet the security we’d been able to uncover didn’t look like all that much.

Yeah, there was a guard on duty during off hours, but only one. All he appeared to carry was a sidearm and some sort of satellite radio, there apparently being no cell service in Wolfland.

Access to the facility was via private road. That is, not a road strictly owned by WSI, but not one maintained by the county, either. Parts of it were graveled, parts weren’t even that, depending on what landowner had cared to do what over the years.

The nearest neighbors, at least as far as buildings were concerned, were a couple of hunting and/or fishing cabins situated a good two miles up the road. Going the other way, there was nothing habitable for nearly three miles.

The road ran mostly along the ridge tops where it could. In front of the facility, there was a pretty steep drop down the driveway to the fence. At least a 6% grade. It didn’t level out till thirty, forty feet the other side of the gate. In other words, these people and their dirty deeds were set up really well when it came to being out of sight of the world…but not well at all for defense against attackers.

I’d be doing my thing right from that access road. Call me Mr. Diversion.

Old Jack Hill, who’d left Montana two days ahead of me in a nondescript five year old Impala–guess this was an all-Chevy operation, come to think of it–should be parked on the other side of the ridge that ran behind the Wolfers. That access wasn’t much more than a goat path, not something you’d figure a rear wheel drive machine could negotiate at all, nor anything with less clearance than a Jeep.

My partner had checked it out, though. Drove it once, picked his spot. Even scouted my side, just one drive-through, the day before yesterday.

Back home, they were faking our presence. We’d gotten new cell phones, of course, and those were being moved around the usual areas, making it look like I was going to work at the welding shop as usual and that Jack was doing whatever, just like he usually did. The cells didn’t work in that area any better than the others had, but we had a hunch the GPS chips were functional and the phones trackable by our enemies.

We’d stayed in touch–cautiously, speaking in code–on cell phones he’d picked up in Missoula. Stolen units, guaranteed to have come from Iowa. We weren’t in touch now, though. Like I said, no cell service in this spot. None whatsoever.

If our synchronized timing was off, we were screwed.

On the way in, I’d parked the pickup half a mile back down the road, grabbed the Stihl chainsaw, and dropped a sixty-foot pine smack dab across the lane. Wouldn’t want to make it easy for the reinforcements, and that’s the way they’d be coming.

Now…8:38 p.m…it was raining out, getting a bit slick. There was gravel here, thankfully, but I was going to have to do this just right or the truck would end up sliding over the edge of the road, at least down onto that portion of their driveway WSI had paved. Which would be a potential disaster, so let’s not get that wrong.

8:39 p.m…Full moon out, but no way to see it through the clouds. The windshield wipers were about shot, barely clearing the glass enough to see. Should have replaced those.

8:40 p.m…Time to pull up off the shoulder just a little–lights off, of course. On both vehicles, we’d cut in a toggle switch so we could run dark on command. Angle the rig, ignore the adrenaline trying to convince me to take a leak first, stop, get out, drop the tailgate, back behind the wheel and…NOW!

Driver side window down, leaning out, looking back, I angled the El Camino as crosswise as I dared get, moving maybe 7 miles an hour in reverse–though I didn’t dare turn my head to look–and…HIT THE BRAKES!

It was close. Oh God was it close. But it worked. I’d guessed it right. The rear wheels slid to a stop, the driver side rubber within inches of dropping over the edge–and the four 8-foot logs shot from the painted steel truck bed like so many missiles.

My head swiveled back and forth now, believe me. Easy, ease on outa there, watching the logs clatter-rolling, gaining speed, a good 50 yards down that steep driveway. If the security guard happened to look out and see those coming, he was already widening his eyeballs.

But he wouldn’t. Not in this rain. In this weather, the yard lights barely reached to the fence itself.

I didn’t actually see them hit, but I heard them. They made a racket the Devil himself couldn’t have missed, had he been playing strip poker in Hades at the time with a bunch of Progressive Democrats.

Not done yet. Up the road a bit, back over to the far shoulder, which meant out of sight the way the land lay. Then…out of the truck again, .25-06 Winchester in hand, muzzle down to keep out the rain and try not to ruin the effect by splashing up too much mud with my boots.

Speaking of mud, belly down on the near shoulder, right smack in the stuff. There are times to be fussy. This wasn’t one of them.

The facility got its power from two sources, a big diesel generator and a thousand gallon propane tank. Couldn’t touch the gennie; it was in a sturdy building of its own. But the propane…not likely I could blow it up, even with full metal jacket rounds. A secondary diversion, though, that seemed possible.

The tank stood off from the building a good sixty feet, standing proud and white in its own concrete block enclosure. Open topped, of course, just a block wall maybe five feet high.

Which turned out to be a really bad mistake on their part, good intentions with unforeseen consequences. Later, I’d come to suspect the gas company driver who filled that thing didn’t much care or had mush between his ears, but it looked good–nice and safe–to the uninitiated.

We didn’t figure hitting the tank would guarantee any kind of penetration. The regulator, however, was another story entirely. Besides, I’d been wanting to shoot something ever since those buggers had tried to take us out.

My first round was an inch low, screamed a bit of paint off of the tank and made a nice -SPANG-G!- ricochet sound. Shooting that steeply downhill is always tricky.

The second shot, I pictured that gray pot-metal regulator being the face of Stocky Man from the ambush, lined up the crosshairs, took a breath, let out half of it, remembered to squeeze the trigger between heartbeats–and yeah, blew that sucker to smithereens.

Nothing happened immediately, except that propane came pouring out under considerable pressure. You could hear it whistling, clear up on the bank where I was. I started to reach into my shirt pocket…and the security guard came busting out the front door of the building.

Right there, it became obvious they’d hired an idiot for the job. Somebody’s just dropped a little pile of logs on your front gate, two of which have actually torn through the chain link a bit, there’s a high-powered rifle popping off out there, and you yard light yourself?

Smart feller indeed. Or as we used to say back in the good ol’ school days, fart smeller.

Well, he was looking around wildly, not zeroing in on my position, so I just froze in place. And I do mean froze; we’re talking almost nine at night in the middle of a pouring rain in northern Wisconsin in dang near October. You do the math.

But this wasn’t about creature comforts. It was about survival. I didn’t want to shoot this guy–not because I cared about him personally, but because we’d all agreed, the more we could make our tormenters look like bad guys and us like better guys, the better chance we had of coming out on top in the end.

Now, if we could get them to killing each other….

How long it took Carrot Brain to realize he wasn’t in a good position, I’ve no idea. I do know that by the time he finally retreated back inside, suddenly seeming to remember the radio he carried on his hip, my teeth were chattering.

“Great!” I thought. “Wonder if sniper school teaches you how to shoot straight when you’re shivering all over?”

I got the tracer out of my pocket, stuffed it into the magazine, and slammed the bolt home. How the Hell was I supposed to hit that outflowing stream of propane now? We’d figured that if I could do that, it ought to at least start a flare, a horizontal jet that would light things up a bit and hold Carrot Brain’s attention long enough for Jack to do his thing…and even if I couldn’t, if the guard happened to see that tracer, he’d be certain sure military ordnance was involved.

Tracer rounds to fit hunting rifles aren’t that easy to come by.

Turned out I needn’t have worried. Propane is a heavy gas, and that “safety enclosure” held who knows how much of the stuff as it came spewing out the hole I’d created. I likely could have put that tracer just about anywhere inside that enclosure and gotten the same result.

Which was, I must say, spectacular. Instead of one explosion, we got two–though I didn’t figure that out till later, playing it back in my eidetic memory. The accumulated gas in the encloisure went off first and, acting a bit like an oversized blasting cap, set off the whole tank.

–KA-WHOO-WHOOOMMMM!!!-

Or something like that. Man, I was outa there as fast as I could scramble back to my feet, sprinting for the truck. My ears were hurting, and there were pieces of whatever–concrete block or steel tank or–

It wasn’t graceful. The El Camino peeled outa there like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, flinging mud and gravel and dammit I crapped my pants.

Good thing I was figuring on changing clothes anyway, was all I could think. At least I hadn’t dropped the rifle. I had to turn on the headlights or run off the road, it was still hard to see through the streaked windshield, I nearly missed my cutoff, and the cab was starting to stink something fierce, but I found myself announcing aloud,

“Got all my fingers and my toes and my balls and my nose and thank God I didn’t drop the ’06!”

The wolves, I finally realized, had been howling something fierce the whole time. When it was all going down, their protests hadn’t even registered.

Jack Hill pulled into the meeting spot 37 minutes later. We’d agreed on 30 even, and I’d been terrified when he’d run late, but at least I was ready. Had the truck positioned, ready to roll as soon as I knew I had a ride. Had my arse wiped and clean clothes on, including a slicker that kept everything dry that needed to stay dry, including the Winchester.

“Let ‘er rip!” The old man called out.

I reached into the cab, released the parking brake–it was already out of gear–and that beautiful machine started to roll…down the bit of slope and off the bluff, landing in what we estimated to be 40 feet of water at the base of the cliff.

They might find it, but the odds were good they wouldn’t.

I have never in my life felt the kind of relief I did when I settled into the Impala’s shotgun seat and Jack took us outa there.

Relief, and warmth from the heater.

We didn’t talk much till we were beyond the county line and, miraculously, out of the rain as well. Hill stopped along the road just long enough for us to transfer two computer towers from the back seat to the trunk, and off we went again.

“Two?” I asked. The plan had been to try for whatever looked like the main boss’s computer, either the one in the fanciest office or the one that looked like it had the most slave computers hooked to it (if it wasn’t a wireless setup).

“Two”, he agreed, and told me how it had gone from his side.

The hike in the dark, through thick timber and a good quarter mile up over a ridge, hadn’t been a lot of fun. Reminded him of the War, he said, and I knew he meant the Civil War. Except he’d been a lot better equipped now than then, having been infantry at the time.

He’d made it to the edge of the trees behind the facility before I’d released the logs, though, and that was what mattered.

“The minute I heard your engine, even before the logs started rolling, I was moving. It looked to me like I had a blind spot coming up to the fence, so I took advantage. Had the bolt cutter working within seconds after they hit the gate.”

“You could hear that?” I grinned at him. We were now able to see each other easily enough, what with the full moon out and the cloud cover lifting.

“Yep. Mighty nice crash those logs made. So anyway, I was through the fence and up next to that back door we figured for entry just about the time you let off that first round.”

“The door hard to breach? We figured there’d be an alarm.”

“Easier than that. I was just fixing to tackle the door when I spotted a wide open window under the eaves. Bathroom, smelled like there’d been a reason to leave it open even with the rain, but big enough for a scrawny guy like me to shinny through. No alarm on the window that I could tell.”

My partner was anything but scrawny, but I held my peace. It was his story.

“Once inside, I barely heard your second shot, and then it seemed like you were quiet for an awfully long time–”

“I was. Carrot Brain popped out the front door, stared around like an idiot, and I held my fire till he popped back in.”

“Ah. Well, it wasn’t hard to find the computer bay. Would you believe it, there were 17 of those suckers? Wireless all right, but the head cheese was pretty obvious. Only office with a door on it, anyway. So I grabbed that one. Just clipped the cables, snarfed it up, and got ready to run.”

“And the other?”

“Funny thing about that. I could hear–what’d you call the guard, Carrot Brain? I could hear Carrot Brain yammering on his radio, and it sounded like he was moving my way. Maybe heading for that main office or who knew what the Hell. So I was in the process of scooting on outa there when the second one, kind of over near one corner, seemed to kind of just…light up. Like it had a halo around it or something.”

“No kidding?” I could picture it. Made me think of my visions of the Mammoth Riders, for some reason.

“No kidding. You know I don’t ignore that kind of hint, so I went after it.”

“Got away clean, I take it?”

“Almost didn’t. I was back in the corner clipping cables when Carrot Brain come busting through the door into the computer bay from the hallway.”

I held my breath. Yeah, he was here, so obviously he made it, but I still held my breath. Question was, did the guard make it? That Jack would have taken him out if he had it to do, I had no doubt.

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“So, I crouched down behind that corner computer, the main tower sitting there on the floor beside me, and got ready for whatever. But luck was with us, Tree. Dipstick went into that main office, got some kind of paper out of a file cabinet, and went right back out, talking on the radio the whole time. I’d swear he didn’t even notice the boss’s #1 computer was gone.”

Thinking about that, it made sense–at least from what I’d seen of the guard. The man had quite obviously never considered an attack on the facility a real possibility. Rent-a-cop all the way.

I was glad neither of us had needed to kill him. Taking out somebody at that level who’s so utterly clueless and just in it for the minimum wage paycheck is like…I dunno. Kicking a puppy or something. Very bad karma.

The stolen license plates were bad karma, too, duh, but small potatoes alongside of something like that..

We swapped off driving every so often but didn’t stop the Impala other than that until we’d left Wisconsin behind, run on down through Chicago, and pulled in at a truck stop just outside of Gary, Indiana.

Where we met up, briefly, with a five-foot tall fat man in a Navy blue Dodge Caravan, Danny DeVito plus fifty more pounds of donuts.

“Tree, Shandy,” Jack said, and that was all either of us got by way of introduction. The computer towers we’d acquired via midnight recquisition went into the minivan, and Shandy went into the Petro for a bite to eat. Or maybe a bunch of bites, from the look of him.

We fueled the Impala, which was bone dry and running on fumes, and headed on west. Dropped the stolen tags Hill had been using in a Beloit truck stop dumpster, topped off the tank, and kept going.

Teaming it, we were back home–the two homes on Jack’s property–by 11:30 a.m. on Monday. The old man stayed put, but I didn’t dare. Gave Tania a quick hug, jumped in the Grand Prix, and motored on over to the Rodeo Iron welding shop.

Just in time, too. A deputy I didn’t know, a fellow who looked more than a bit like Barney Fife, stopped by around 3:00 p.m. Supposedly wanted to commission a special set of Toy Iron corrals for his 8 year old nephew’s birthday, a cover which gave him the excuse to just sort of come popping in the shop door.

B.J. was working in back by the forge, which left me nearest the door. When I lifted my welding mask to greet the “customer”, the shock in his face made him look even more like Barney. Clearly, the enemy was still manipulating our local Sheriff’s Department to some degree. This deputy had been told to expect me not to be there.

He asked his leading questions, the kind obviously hoping to trip me up, to get me to admit I’d been gone someplace–like, say, someplace in Wisconsin. They always think they’re so slick.

I didn’t even have to counter the questions; my uncle had that covered. In the middle of my conversation with Mr. Fife (no, that’s not what his name tag said), Big Jude wandered our way, towering over the relatively midget lawdog, and remarked, “This piece you did yesterday, Tree–I do believe it’s some of your best work ever.”

He was holding a toy barn, all steel, welded with seams as smooth as butter and hinged doors for both the main entrance and the hayloft. It really was a remarkable piece, and before we were done teaming up on the deputy, he’d cut us a check for $300. His nephew was going to love his uncle forever, even if Uncle Barney did end up having to eat nothing but Ramen noodles for a month.

Of course, it was actually B.J. Hennessey himself who’d crafted that piece, but what the law didn’t know wouldn’t hurt us.

Sam came out from the ranch house after the deputy left and told me to get my ass home. Which I did, and spent the rest of the afternoon bringing my sweetheart up to date on our Wolfland adventures.

“What do you suppose they’re going to find on that second computer, the one that lit up for Jack?” She asked.

“Got me,” I shrugged, “but I bet it’ll be good. Or bad. You know what I mean.”

By that time, she was putting supper on the table and the national news was coming on. NBC had a bit about an attack on a charitable organization known as Wolf Support Inc. of Wolf Bay, Wisconsin. There were a few short clips including one of the facility manager bemoaning the “act of domestic terrorism” that had damaged his fence, blown up his propane tank, and such.

There was no mention of any missing computers.

There were, however, a few shots of the damage done by the exploding propane tank–impressive, that–and some interesting footage of the four 8-foot logs. The words WOLF MUTATORS were spray painted on the logs in different colors, one each in red, white, blue, and John Deere green.

The reporter, one of those stereotypically cute Asian girls who make a guy want to cheat just to find out of they feel as good as they look, turned out to be stereotypically tough as well.

“Mr. Bendix,” she asked the manager, “do you have any idea why WOLF MUTATORS was painted on these logs?”

“No,” he replied shortly, “I don’t.”

“WSI is not involved in producing mutations–which would be highly illegal and/or unethical?”

“That’s ridiculous. Of course not.”

“Hm. Well, Mr. Bendix,” she paused, giving a remarkably good impression of Detective Columbo, “just one more thing.”

“Yes?” The man was both wary and on the edge of testy; you could see that.

“Those logs. They look like they were cut from a single longer piece, don’t they? Like an old telephone pole?”

My Tania’s no dummy. “Remarkable,” she observed, “that the media got there before WSI could get those logs out of sight. ‘Cause you know they would have. It almost makes a body think somebody tipped them off.”

I twinkled at her as she handed over the bowl of spaghetti. “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? Almost.”

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