Our luck held.
We lost a good 45 minutes but only had to shovel through two drifts; Jack’s Outback was chained up on all four and plowed through the rest of them like it was making a new Subaru commercial. Once out on the highway, we pulled the chains and Hill cranked it up to 50 mph or so. Highway 200 was snow covered but not really that slick. The only drift that scared us was near Clearwater Junction, suddenly popping up in the headlights with no warning.
The Outback slewed through that one about half sideways, but didn’t get stopped and didn’t–quite–run off the road, either.
Down below the canyon, where we hit the freeway for those last few miles into Missoula, was another matter altogether. Not a lick of traffic out, though there’d be a few commuters any time now, plus the occasional intrepid trucker. But there’d obviously been traffic running when the temperature had first dropped the day before, water on the road that had turned to ice with fresh snow blanketing the treacherous surface.
Black ice under there, and plenty of it.
When Jack pulled the car down the off ramp–which was even slicker than the freeway itself–and managed to make it through the streets to park safely in front of the motel room door, we both let out sighs of relief and took a few seconds to thank whatever guardians were watching over us.
Only a few seconds, though. We couldn’t see the stars yet, but it could happen any time now; you could tell the cloud cover was thinning. No time to waste, no time to rest.
Once the satellite eyes in the skies could see again, we needed to be presenting the picture we wanted them to get. Not that they were necessarily on us that tight; there was no reason to believe for sure that the enemy had the ability to track the Subaru or that they knew about this motel room.
But we weren’t taking any chances. Like the old saying goes, if they really are after you, it ain’t paranoia.
That little ditty was stuck in my head, courtesy of Jack’s friend in Arizona, Ghost32. Or, more specifically, courtesy of Ghost’s wife. Pam had been at Woodstock–the real one–and had sung onstage with Janis Joplin. She was a pro when it came to paranoia.
It would take hours for the car’s engine to cool down all the way, but there was nothing we could do about that. For the rest of it, though, we unloaded our gear, Jack went to sign the night register, putting our time of arrival at 3:59 p.m. the previous day–seven minutes after the most recent entry–and then we barricaded ourselves in our room.
Literally, with a chair under the doorknob and our short guns lying on the beds, ready to pop anybody who came crashing through the window.
“We’d best grab a little shuteye,” Jack pointed out unnecessarily.
“I’ll set the alarm for 9:30. That only gives us a couple hours, but it’ll have to do. We need to hit Jake’s Pawn, sometime after eleven but before noon.”
I yawned. Prodigiously. “Jake’s one of your contacts?”
“More like he’s in contact with one of my contacts. Seemed like a good idea to keep a few degrees of separation in this business. Can’t be too careful.”
“All right. Believe I’ll just sleep in my clothes–” Wasted breath. The ancient Protector was already asleep, right on top of the covers with just one side of the bedspread wrapped up around him. Asleep…and snoring.
I had to grin. If any man had ever earned the right to saw a few logs, it was him.
Before closing my own eyes, I decided to take one last peek outside, through the drapes. Things were looking good. The Subaru was quiet, looking like it had been parked there forever except for the lack of frost on the windshield. And overhead–ah. The clouds were finally breaking up, and the moon was shining through. A full moon, no less.
Now there was a song lyric, eh?
Beyond Ten Mile Rock, way up there in the Bob
Jack Hill’s on the loose, got a necessary job
He’s popping men in green, men with evil on their minds
They’re dropping in the snow for the others to find
Brain dead at the moment or not, I was plumb certain we had a Grammy winner, right there. Just needed to add a few more verses, a decent chorus and maybe a hook and….
…and get that danged ditty outa my head so’s I could concentrate on my masterpiece.
We skipped breakfast but made it to Jake’s Pawn, down on Pine Street, at 11:13. The heat we were packing–the Walther .22 in the small of my back and whatever shooter Jack carried in his leftside ankle holster–remained carefully concealed. Pawn shop people get kind of antsy if they see you openly carrying loaded weapons on their turf.
In fact, these Montanans, a huge number of them, are pretty sorry wusses compared to their ancestors. A rancher walking into a gathering of agricultural types with a pistol worn openly on his hip could count on some chickenshit neighbors complaining to the Sheriff about it later.
Behind the rancher’s back, of course.
Arizona was different. You could walk into a Walmart there and see people carrying openly. Ghost was always bragging to Jack about that.
We were the only “customers” in the shop. Jake, a beetle-browed fellow who looked like he was more Neanderthal than anything else, locked eyes with Jack the moment we walked in. Some sort of signal passed between them–or maybe it was the set of stuffed-full saddle bags slung over Jack’s shoulder–and the two of them disappeared in the back, leaving me to twiddle my thumbs.
The other Pawnster, a pimply faced kid who looked way too young to drink legally, took charge.
“May I help you, sir?”
His tone was correct, there was no hint of condescension or anything else in his body language, yet I still found myself wanting to smash his face just for the fun of it. Some people do affect me like that, instant hackle-lift on first acquaintance. Past life encounters might account for it; I’ve not found anything else that even comes close.
“Just waiting for my partner,” I said amiably, “though I wouldn’t mind looking at that knife–yeah, that one right there.”
I’d not seen one quite like this before. Folding knife, blade tucked into the wooden handle like all such, with two differences: The handle was a solid piece of hardwood witha goove hollowed out to hold the metal folding arrangement, and when open, the blade was locked in place by turning a little metal tube that enclosed the forward tip of the wood. The word “Opinel” was inscribed on it–the maker, I presumed. French?
When the price on the tag turned out to be three dollars instead of three hundred dollars, I took it.
Who had pawned such a thing? For that matter, what sort of pawn shop was this, that would even take a cheap knife like that in pawn?
Pimple Face wasn’t likely to tell me the straight of it if I asked, so I didn’t ask, just tucked my new weapon in my jacket pocket. Couldn’t even figure out why I’d wanted it, except maybe for the way the handle fit in my fist. The wood was curved perfectly; it could function as the next best thing to brass knuckles, or as a blade in a Shotokan knife fighting move. Maybe that was it.
Jack came out from the back a few minutes later, alone, and we headed back out. The saddlebags he was carrying looked empty now.
“What next?” I asked as we slid ourselves back into the Subaru.
“Lunch at the 4B’s,” he grinned, clearly pleased with himself about something.
“Works for me. If you got room after swallowing the canary?”
That got a chuckle out of him. “I’m that obvious, eh?”
“Eh. Care to share?”
“Sure.” He put the car into gear, checked over his shoulder, and pulled away from the curb. “Two things. One, we’ll need to hang around town for the next two, maybe three days, to get the ID on the fellow. The stuff I gave ’em to work with has to travel a bit under extreme security, which is most of the time loss. But once they get the package, we should have word back in a matter of hours.”
“Here? At Jake’s Pawn?”
“No. We use more disconnects than that. We’ll be able to pick up the report at the Half Castle.”
“Ah. So, that’s one thing. What’s the other?”
“The other is those green uniforms. We already know something about them.”
“Yep. Jake the Pawn Pro is a man of many talents. Been places, done things. He recognized it immediately.”
“The fabric? You cut a swatch from the dead sentry’s uniform?”
“I brought in the whole shirt.”
“Ah.” I thought about that for a bit. Yeah…guess it would be about as easy to strip a shirt from a dead man as to cut off a sleeve or whatever. “And?”
“And it turns out, the shirt really is a Forest Service uniform, standard issue.”
My eyes flared wide in alarm. “Those guys were official?”
“No, no.” He waved a hand to calm me down. “I said that wrong. What I meant to say was, shirts like that were official Forest Service issue at one time, but not for a good twenty years now. They’re out of date. No real Ranger would be wearing one of those in 2013.”
“Oh.” I could feel my fluttering heart start to settle down. It’s not that there aren’t any real federal officers out there who richly deserve to be taken out with the trash, but still. I guess it’s like, if I’m going to go to war against a major federal law enforcement agency, I’d like to have a little advance notice if at all possible. At least enough to sing my death song.
Something else occurred to me.
“Jack, if you grabbed a whole shirt, what…maybe I don’t really want to know the answer, but what did you grab for, you know…a DNA sample?”
He didn’t reply with words, just gripped the steering wheel between both forearms so that his two hand stuck straight up in the air. He wiggled his fingers.
I had to go and ask. We were maybe five minutes from the restaurant. I hoped I could get my appetite back that fast.
No wonder those saddlebags looked like they’d been stuffed pretty full. Besides the uniform shirt, the old warrior had cut off the sentry’s hands–both of them–and brought them along for the ride. Plenty of material for DNA sampling and, of course, fingerprints.
No wonder the “package” had to be transported under strict security. Probably in a cooler.
Packed in dry ice.
After lunch, we took in an afternoon matinee movie, Lincoln, visited a bit with one of our steel suppliers–more for the sake of establishing our official reasons for being in Missoula than anything else–had Chinese food for supper at the Half Castle without talking to the owner or anyone else but the waiter and stone-faced Geoffram at the front door, eased on back to the motel, and racked out early.
Jack Hill slept like a baby. I didn’t. All sorts of monsters tried to get me in my dreams. There was a Death Merchant, a black-winged humanoid who couldn’t arm wrestle worth beans but whose efforts called in more and more of its kind like vultures till the odds were overwhelming. Snow snakes, albino rattlers the size of Anacondas with ruby red eyes and twelve-inch fangs that oozed green venom. Cartoon figures resembling lions with Mickey Mouse heads and messages branded into their flanks: We require your coin, thus take your guns.
And on, and on, and on.
Flight or flight, throughout the night. A great start for a powerful poem, though not one I’d care to write.
At 4:17 a.m., I gave it up as a bad cause, got up quietly, checked the parking lot–all quiet on the parking front–then eased into the bathroom. Hill was still sawing logs, though not with the ferocity of the early hours. That had to be a factor contributing to his extreme longevity; the man could sleep.
A shower would have been good, but running a bath was quieter. This motel had long tubs, too, long enough that I could stretch out most of my considerable frame and take a good hot soak. With a book. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, no less. Classic.
When Jack finally cracked an eyelid at 6:00 a.m.–he’d set the alarm clock–he’d had ten hours and, once he’d done the bathroom thing, looked good as new. I told him so.
“Glad to hear it.” He was rummaging through his duffel bag, digging out fresh socks. “It was a busy night.”
“Oh? My dreams sucked. Got me up around four. But you at least looked like you were at peace with the world.”
“Well,” he mused, “I guess maybe I was, more or less. But the world surely was not at peace with me.”
“Yeah. Old No-Hands Hannigan, he was really ticked off about me killing him like that. Kept showing up, bitching about me chopping off his hands. Sometimes he’d be wearing the hands, sometimes not. Didn’t seem to pay much attention to getting shot in the head, but he was downright irritated about the part that came after. Including the loss of his shirt; he didn’t like that much, either.”
“So…how’d you handle that?”
Hill shrugged, donning his own shirt as he did so. “It varied. If he was a distance, I ignored him. When he’d get close enough, I’d promise to kill him all over again and take his feet and his pants and his private parts this time, too. And when he actually attacked, which he only tried once, I did kill him again. Took his feet and pants. Left the private parts, which weren’t that impressive, anyway.
“He got the message after that. Didn’t do much the next time he showed up but whine about leaving his kids behind. I got tired of listening after a bit, told him he shoulda picked a different line of work if he was worried about that.”
Ouch. “He had a family, then.”
“Don’t we all? War is Hell, Tree.”
All that day and most of the next, right up till we picked up the report we’d been waiting for, I thought about that. My sleep was much less interrupted, the dreams back to being pretty normal, but during waking hours I thought and thought and thought.
Millions of warriors, of both the willing and unwilling sort, have been traumatized by combat experiences throughout the centuries. Nowadays, they called it PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you went back some decades, it was shell shock. Before that, who knows?
Yet not all combat vets suffered the effects. Clearly, Jack Hill had not, or if he had, I couldn’t spot it. He’d been a kid during the Civil War, killed other men–including me, come to think of it, with a knife across my gullible throat–nearly died himself…and yet here he was, about as balanced as either a human being could possibly be. The guy had a heart as big as all outdoors, yet he could kill without compunction and deal with the aftermath effectively.
He’d even help the dead guy if he could, even if that meant doing it hundreds of years after the fact. After all, he’d murdered me, and now here we were, centuries later, with him becoming both my best friend and my….I guess you could call it combat guru, but it was more than that.
I didn’t come to any firm conclusions then. No great epiphany, no sudden light bulb coming on in my brain. But I hadn’t had this sort of free time, a time when my mind was free to explore, for years. So I poured in the puzzlement, stirred it with a stick, and let it brew.
After all, if I was going to follow in his footsteps, quasi-immortalize my body someday and hang around to do whatever needed doing–which was obviously not always what the supposedly wise men taught–I needed to learn.
There was one other huge benefit to our two-day Missoula R&R. My mind cleared.
See, I have this eidetic memory, which means I can usually remember anything I ever saw or heard or smelled or touched, just decide to check it out and -WHAMMO!- it’s there. Except recently. I’d been so stressed lately that my memory machinery had gone from eidetic to spastic, just like that. To wit:
–The morning the women had left us, my uncled tooled over to my place in his restored ’36 Hudson. Except that car wasn’t a ’36; it was a ’46. I’d been remembering it a decade wrong for a while.
–When B.J. had told me about Quichona stealing money from Rodeo Iron, he’d said he & Sam & I would each cover our pro rata share of the loss according to ownership. That is, 40% for Sam, 40% for B.J., 20% for me. Fine. Except that when those men first set up the LLC, Sam had 51%, while B.J. only had 29%. How had I forgotten that? I’d have to ask my uncle–had they reworked the deal?
Tania running out on me had, I now suspected, had hit me a lot harder than I’d thought.
When we arrived at the Half Castle restaurant late that afternoon, right around 4:30, Geoffram was at his usual guard post in front of the main door, halberd at the ready. The cold didn’t seem to bother him any more than it did Sam Trace.
Once inside, we didn’t even slow down, simply nodding at the seating host as we brushed on by and headed for the restrooms. In the door, past the line of urinals, Jack gave the secret wall panel the qualifying knock–and we were in. The dapper Man in Gray looked spiffy and serious as always.
We took our usual seats. Mr. Gray got right down to it, addressing both of us as if we were equals even though we all knew this was Hill’s play.
“Gentlemen,” he began without preamble, “we have positive ID.” He paused then, for half a beat. I thought he seemed a bit disappointed at our lack of reaction.
“First, about the uniform shirt. That was definitely Forest Service issue in the late eighties. Our people were able to pin that particular shirt fabric down as having been produced by a textiles mill in Alabama, one of the last runs after Clinton signed NAFTA. The shirts were outsourced–first to Mexico and later to China–starting in July of 1989.”
Jack interruped with a question. “Do we know if the Alabama mill was left with a stockpile of uniforms they couldn’t sell to the Forest Service?”
“We do, and they did. The entire stock was auctioned off in early 1992. To whom, we were not able to ascertain. Apparently they paid cash. But yes, the supply was definitely moved en bloc to a single buyer, whoever or whatever that buyer might have been.”
I found myself nodding. So far, this was making sense.
“May I go on?”
“All right…the human subject has been identifed as Raymond Travis Sparks, age 43. Sparks is–or was–a resident of Belmont, Texas. He is survived by a son and a daughter, fraternal twins, age 22, both currently living in Houston. No wife; they divorced in 2006. The father passed in 2009, tackled a Peterbilt headon with a Honda Civic, alcohol involved. Mom is still living but is in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s.”
He paused for a moment, seemingly gathering himself. Which scared me; this guy had never seemed like he’d turn a hair if the world was ending.
Jack Hill must have known what was coming, though. He asked simply, “Work history?”
“There’s the rub. Retired military. Started out with the Army, took Ranger training, jumped to the Navy after his first six years for unknown reasons, ended up becoming a Navy SEAL, retired at the rank of E-7 after doing his twenty. Our folks found hints that he might have once been an E-8 and gotten busted down a stripe, but they couldn’t verify that. He was 17 when he first joined the Army, 37 when he retired in 2006.”
Wait a second, I thought. That means old Jack went up against a group containing at least one former SEAL, snuck up on ’em, took out two of their sentries with a .22, and lived to tell about it? WHOA!
“And since?” Hill asked.
“That’s the tricky part.” The Man in Gray looked positively pained. “There’s no record we could find, which hints at Major Ugly in itself, but the one clue we did uncover makes it worse. His name has been linked with Jonathan Morse.”
“Uh-oh,” Jack said quietly. Then he got up, nodded to Gray–who nodded back–and we left. In a hurry.
I had no idea what the Devil that meant or who this Jonathan Morse might be, but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut about missing supper. Hill didn’t actually break into a run, but his stride was clipping right along, enough that I had to stretch my long legs to keep up.
We bailed outa there, barely remembering to toss Geoffram and his halberd a salute on the way, piled into the Subaru, and away we went. Jack had gassed it up earlier, we were checked out of the motel, there was nothing holding us in Missoula–and it was a good thing. My friend didn’t go much over the speed limit in town, but once on the freeway, he reached under the dash and turned on the little array of radar detectors he hardly ever used.
In fact, I’d never seen him use them before.
Turned out the Outback had something under the hood, too. A WRX engine, considerably faster than the original equipment that had come with the vehicle back in the day.
We were cranking 110 mph by the time he starting throttling back to hit the exit to Highway 200. Squealed the tires a little, pulling through the turns.
My mouth was still shut, but my brain was spinning in hamster-circles. In all our time together, including life and death situations, I’d never seen the quasi-immortal acting this…urgent.
He had the Subie cranking through the curves, powering up the canyon toward Clearwater Junction, before he said a word. “When we top out and you can get a signal,” he told me in no uncertain terms, “call the ranch. Tell Sam to go to Defcon Five. He’ll know what that means. Tell him, any noncombatants go to deep cover, right now. Meaning the cave, but don’t use that word over the air. And…”, he hesitated for just a moment, choosing the right words, “tell him to watch his back.”
I already had my cell phone out, turned on, and ready to go. No bars, but my eyeballs would stay glued to the display, ready to hit “4” on speed dial the minute we had signal.
“Watch his back?” I had to ask. “Will he know what that means?”
“He’d better.” Hill’s voice was grim. “We don’t dare come out and say we know there’s a spy in the woodwork. Sam’s not stupid. He’ll get the message. I hope.”
“I hope so, too.” Fervently, I did. My friend’s intensity had infected me, even without knowing what hearing the name of Jonathan Morse really meant.
Jack read my mind. “I’ll fill you in the minute that message is delivered.”
We topped out, three bars of signal popped up on the display, and I hit #4 plus Send.
Jennifer Trace picked up on the third ring.
“Jennifer, this is Tree. I need Sam now. Please.”
The rancher’s wife was no fool. Trace himself came on the line a few seconds later.
“Sam, urgent from Jack and me both–” I added my weight to that of my mentor, for what it was worth, and spit it out, word for word. If nothing else, it was good to have my eidetic memory back up and running.
“Got it!” Trace snapped his response. Guess he figured we were rolling his way, ’cause his next words were, “ETA?”
“Soonest,” was all I said, and closed the phone, not wanting to continue broadcasting our precise position, just in case the enemy didn’t know right where we were at the moment.
Jack had the car screaming down the two-lane, again close to 100 on the straights, slowing for the curves but not by much. He must have beefed up the suspension on this thing, too.
“Okay, Tree.” Hill’s focus was definitely eyes forward, but talking didn’t seem to bother his concentration. “Here’s the deal. Sparks worked for Jonathan Morse. Never heard of Sparks before, but Morse was with Blackwater, back before they were supposedly disbanded in 2004.
“According to what our side has learned over the years, Morse was one of the most effective field commanders Blackwater ever had. Special Forces background like so many of ’em, though I don’t remember exactly which flavor. The important part is, he didn’t take the disbandment well at all. Formed his own totally secret, 100% illegal group known colloquially as Morse Code. Started taking on the dirtiest of the dirty jobs. When Morse Code gets hired, people die. Sometimes lots of people, and sometimes good people in the mix. He’s not one to worry about collateral damage.”
“Nobody’s busted him for that?” I felt really stupid and naive, but the words just sort of flew out of my mouth.
“Nope. Near as we’ve been able to figure it, that’s because he’s been smart enough to take on only jobs for people powerful enough to protect him from prosecution. Or for that matter, even from investigation.”
“Oh. Crap.” I got it. I really got it. “The Wolfers, your contacts once found them tracing back to connections with the DoD, right?”
“Right. Which means in effect, the weight of the entire federal government may not be in a position to come out in Morse’s favor, but it can dang sure give him cover if he slaughters a few–or a few dozen–of our people on contract. But wait; there’s more.”
I’d had a feeling there would be.
“Here’s the thing. The worst thing of all. Almost all mercenaries are in it for the money. If they’re out on a job, and some of their people get killed, they take that in stride. It’s nothing personal, just part of the job.”
The bottom fell out of my stomach. “But not Jonathan Morse.”
“Not Jonathan Morse. If Morse Code takes on a job, they never back down. If they hit resistance, they find a way to eliminate it. And if they actually lose an operator or two, you know, to the defenders–”
I finished his sentence. “They ramp it up from Doing the Job to Burned Earth, Seek and Destroy.” “Yep.”
“So, your diversion may or may not have them thinking The Hermit is a real, third force in this scenario, but–”
“But they lost people, and that means every living thing at the ranch is under a death sentence.” Triple crap. “Not just us, even, but the regular hands–”
“–and the cook and the dogs and the cats the cattle and horses and even the chickens. Throw the barn mice in for good measure. This guy will stomp puppies and set kittens on fire.”
We were silent then, for just a bit, until Jack slowed the Subaru enough to make the turn from asphalt to dirt road. By that time, I’d processed enough to speak up again.
“Will Morse want cloud cover, so there’s no possibility of an overhead witness, or does he have access to, you know, black helicopters and such?”
Hill replited without hesitation. “I’m guessing he’s got the access, if he chooses to use it. But he’ll likely go for the cloud cover. We dinged his bunch the other day, hurt ’em bad. Two down out of the eight they had in the field, without our side taking so much as a scratch. He’s got an ego big as an elephant’s ass, this guy. He’ll want to prove what happened out by Ten Mile Rock was a fluke. He’ll need to prove it.”
“Well..that’s something working in our favor, then.” Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Yeah. The skies have been clear since we hit Missoula two days ago, and that could be why the ranch hasn’t been attacked yet. He’s waiting for the next storm. Or else it took them a while to walk out after I futzed up the gas tanks on their ATV’s, but they probably had backup transportation that could come get them if they didn’t make it out of the Bob on schedule.”
I was afraid he’d say that. I looked out through my passenger side window, up at the storm clouds rolling in, the last rays of a Montana mountain sunset painting them red. Blood red.
“He doesn’t have long to wait, then.”
“I know!” Jack yelled over the noise of gravel being sprayed by the Subaru powering through yet another turn. “Believe me, I know!!”