Thaddeus Moore stared at the six-foot brunette with obvious appreciation, ignoring his prone, strapped-down position and the IV in his right arm.
“I’m Kate Morgan,” she said, the words filtering through her surgical mask. Her blue eyes twinkled. “I’ll be your anesthesiologist.”
Well, Hell. This was his kind of girl, and he wasn’t even going to be awake.
But his Mom had raised him to be polite, may she rest in peace. “Glad to meet you,” he grinned, “even though I’m probably not going to be very good company for a while.”
She chuckled. A professional response, no doubt. They must get all sorts of different responses in the OR…dang. He was fading already. Maybe he could have one of those near death experiences, travel toward the light for a while? Or an OOBE, out of body experience, hovering over the table, watching Doc Sorenson slicing and dicing (not a great option) or ogling the black haired, blue eyed Kate Morgan, Anesthesiologist, from every Soul-floating angle?
Nope. No such luck.
Instead, the flashbacks started. Lucid dreaming? Not that, either. More like Total Recall, courtesy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, going through memory pickups that reminded him who he really was, like it or not.
The first part wasn’t so bad. On the way through southeastern Arizona, parked overnight, catching a few winks in the RV, he’d awakened to the softest of sounds. Not sure what they might be, but reverting back to his youth when he’d understood the outdoor life, he’d cracked a shutter and peeked out to see…
…deer. Three of them. Blacktails, a young doe with two yearlings. One boy, one girl, those yearlings, fraternal twins. Tall spike antlers on the baby buck, still very much in velvet.
They were browsing their way through the little clearing where he’d parked, passing no more than thirty feet from his camp trailer.
He’d considered that a wonderful omen, thinking, Thad, me lad, you’ve made the right call. You’re going to come through this operation just fine. It’ll accomplish what you want it to accomplish.
Feeling good. Yes, he remembered feeling good…and then the lone coyote came slinking past, heading in the other direction, not at the same time the deer were in the clearing but mere moments after. The coyote and the deer had to have been aware of each other’s presence.
After that, he didn’t know what to think.
Now here he was, under the scalpel in Phoenix, aware of it but not having the slightest clue what came next.
There was a jolt. A shudder.
Trouble on the surgical front? Hard to say, and somehow Thaddeus Moore couldn’t care enough to try to find out what was going on with his physical body. When it came to major knife work and his own living flesh, he’d just as soon stay a little bit ignorant.
At any rate, the scene changed.
Now it was 1300 miles north of the deer-and-coyote spot. Deer Lodge, Montana, thirty years ago.
He was a twenty year old soldier, just out of Basic Training in Uncle Sam’s Army at Fort Ord, California, and more than a thousand miles outside the authorized radius of his weekend pass.
The base would close less than a year later, not that he knew or cared about any of that.
What Thad Moore cared about, right that moment, was getting pure dee one thousand percent shit faced drunk. “Cousin Shawn,” he grinned at his host, “whatcha got left in the booze department?”
It was a logical question. Shawn Hicks was his best friend, barely a year older, and his host for the weekend. Hicks and his wife, Darla, had treated Thad and Starr to steaks at the 4B’s, followed by a movie nobody seemed to remember. The evening had been all about the soldier’s return from Ord, having timed his enlistment so that he missed Desert Storm entirely. Do a hitch, get out, and go to school. In the meantime, snuggle up in the back seat–and in the back row theater seats–with his fiancée. She would never become his wife, thanks to an unforeseen pregnancy resulting in twin baby girls that looked nothing like Thad, but that was another story.
The program had shifted gears at midnight, naturally, when Cinderella had to be home from the ball. Midnight curfew. The girl was sixteen, still in high school, with parents that actually, you know, parented.
Then back to the Hicks house, and the home bar was opened. Let the drinking begin.
Shawn could drink, but tonight it was Thad’s turn to clean out the booze closet.
“Couple inches of Jack,” Hicks said, hoisting the fifth to let Moore see the contents. “Little of this, little of that. Leftovers…vodka, bit of sloe gin, cooking sherry, blackberry brandy, schnapps, and, let’s see…here’s some Bacardi.”
“Perfect!” Thad declared, already far enough under the influence that he spoke both loudly and often. “I’ll clean ’em all out.”
And he did.
Oh, the man knew about mixing his liquors. He surely did. That night, he simply didn’t care.
An hour later, with Darla long gone to bed and every drop of alcohol in the house gone down Thad’s throat, Shawn Hicks had a suggestion for his drunken cousin.
“Let’s go down to the coffee shop,” he urged quietly. “Have us a cheeseburger and a bowl of chili, like old times.” Food, Shawn thought, might help the booze-soaked soldier’s sloppy condition.
Moore nodded in agreement, which in his present state came out looking more like one of those bobblehead dolls, only in slow motion. “Yeah! Let’s do that!”
And away they went.
Shawn remained grateful. Despite all odds, his cuz managed to avoid the family joke that had turned out to be in very bad taste at the end. Even bombed as the dude was, he had that much grace left in him.
Darla, before marrying Shawn, had been a Braxton. One of the Butte Braxtons. Darla Braxton. The newspaper had advertised their forthcoming nuptials as the “Braxton-Hicks” marriage–and the laughter around both Butte and Deer Lodge had begun in earnest.
He’d not known false labor pains even existed back then, except for the times he’d seen cows that acted that way every once in a while during calving season. He knew now, though…and when Darla Braxton Hicks had gone through what they’d all believed were just that, her body crying wolf…ah.
She’d nearly died when the bleeding hit. He hadn’t lost her, not quite, but she had lost her uterus and their unborn daughter in the operating room. Braxton Hicks jokes were in very poor taste around the Hicks house these days. Drunk or not, cousin Thad understood that.
Which, at the moment, was about all he did understand.
“I can’t get any more down,” the soldier admitted, listlessly shoving more than two thirds of his cheeseburger around on the plate. He hadn’t touched his chili. “Think I’ll take a walk. Get some fresh air.”
Fresh air. They both knew that mixing your booze and getting totally wasted…well, adding fresh air into the mix was probably going to knock you flat out on your keister.
But Moore was a man, barely a year younger than Hicks. A man doesn’t go around telling another man, especially his best friend even if he is a cousin, what to do. Heck, nobody could tell Thad Moore what to do on a good day. How he put up with being ordered around in the Army was one of the great mysteries of the Universe.
So Shawn Hicks watched his intoxicated cousin stagger out into the night, waited one solid hour for him to return, and when he didn’t, Shawn drove on home and went to bed.
“Where’s Thad?” His wife murmured as he snuggled in next to her.
“Drunk and disorderly in Deer Lodge, Montana,” he replied.
“Mpf.” She didn’t seem surprised, just pulled her husband’s arm around her and went back to sleep.
Thad hadn’t figured to be gone long. Just down to the end of the side street, barely a block of concrete before things went back to bare dirt. He’d made he turn, heading back toward Main Street, drunker’n a skunk but motating just fine. No way to walk normal-like, so…pick up a foot. Throw it out ahead as far as it would go, then fall forward over that lead leg, and…repeat the process.
He’d have made it back to the coffee shop, too, except for realizing the car that just drove by on the otherwise deserted side street was–
Dang. That ossifer was going to flip a uey first chance he got, loop back to nab the drunk staggering up the street. He knew it. Just three years earlier, at age seventeen, he’d underestimated the danger and ended up pulling his one and only night in jail.
Not tonight. Veer right, off the street, into the dark, lightless area that opened up behind the Main Street buildings. This bit of country ran all the way to the railroad tracks and then…then what?
Plan B: Burt lives across the river, if he can remember the exact street. Second? Ninth? Burt knows he’s in town, will put him up with no fuss. Good old Burt. Cross this here dark patch, cross the railroad tracks, have to risk the bridge across the river–don’t feel like swimming the Clark Fork–but that should be doable. Careful now…
He wakes at first light, a bit before six a.m. by the watch on his left wrist. Wakes with his head pillowed on his right arm, resting peacefully on the rocks of the railroad grade, his broad skull a nice, safe, three feet away from the nearest steel rail.
Maybe there hadn’t been a train through while he was passed out, anyway. Maybe. Didn’t the last train hit Deer Lodge at midnight?
Sober now…sort of. Hung over like a sumo wrestler’s gut. Not really back in the world yet. Not really.
Back to the coffee shop, to the same table at the far end of the restaurant where he and Shawn had sat a few hours ago. Dorothy is still on duty. Dorothy, mother of the first girl cousin Shawn ever scored with, though presumably mother Dorothy doesn’t know that.
He sits down, slumps his head on his arms, and passes out again.
Dorothy is a big woman, and she’s known him for years, ever since he started coming out from Pennsylvania as a little kid, spending summers with his cousin and his cousin’s parents on the Hicks ranch. During the next two hours, several early regulars arrive at the coffee shop for breakfast. Three of them, at different times, want in the worst way to roust the drunk sleeping at the table.
Mother Dorothy won’t let them do it. The binge drinker is left to sleep it off.
It was nearly 8:00 a.m. when Thaddeus Moore’s eyes opened again. His head hurt like crazy, and he was keenly aware that time was not on his side. His flight out of Butte left at 10:00 a.m. A phone call to Shawn would get him to the airport on time, but the connecting flight in Salt Lake City might be a problem.
He was flying on military standby. If he got bumped too many times by full fare civilian passengers, he’d wind up being AWOL from his duty post at Fort Ord. AWOL, and even at Salt Lake, many hundreds of miles outside of the authorized 250 mile radius printed on his weekend pass
It was nearly 8:00 p.m. when Thaddeus Moore’s eyes opened again. His head hurt like crazy, and he was keenly aware that–
–where was he?
Truth be told, right now he wasn’t keenly aware of anything, except….
Oh. Phoenix. Cosmetic surgery, subtly reshaping the planes of his face to look more like his late cousin Shawn.
He was in a recovery room. The surgery, much as he feared going under the knife for any reason, had not killed him after all. If Dr. Sorenson was as good as he was supposed to be, things were going to work out.
It hadn’t looked that way for a while. On a personal level, things had begun going downhill five years earlier. Cousin Shawn, long divorced from Darla, had been killed by a train at an unmarked crossing in a whiteout wonder of a snowstorm. Thad, the closest remaining relative, had acted as administrator of the estate–which wasn’t much, except for one thing.
Shawn’s date of death did not show up in the computerized SSDI, the Social Security Death Index. Thad had procured the usual dozen death certificates but then “neglected” to send even one of them out. To anybody. Not even to the IRS.
On paper, and especially in cyberworld, Shawn Hicks was still very much alive.
At the time, this oversight had seemed unplanned, even unconscious. After all, the 2008 version of Thaddeus Moore had been a busy, busy man. Newly elevated to Undersecretary of Defense–one of many such Undersecretaries, but still a big step up–he’d more than had his hands full.
His pockets, too. Thad had squirreled his cartel bribe money away as surely as any furry critter stacking nuts in a hollow tree. Unlike his partner in crime, the boy loving suicide known as Jonathan Q. Parkins, who’d been suckered by a handsome young black man in a boxing club restroom and subsequently exposed via YouTube.
Effing Parkins always was a wuss.
Not long after that lovely drug money had quit flowing in like a wonderful, peaceful river,he’d come across the other YouTube video. Kicking back in his leather recliner, still acclimated to his plush D.C. apartment that fell little short of penthouse status, he’d simply been bored, browsing the site…and there it was.
A truck and horse trailer engulfed in flames, a Sikorsky helicopter lifting away the telephone pole that blocked the highway, incriminating statements caught on camera, and all of it done in the dead of night.
And of course the narration, both audio and scripted on screen, accusing the people behind the wolf mutators of having attempted to eliminate two Montana men who’d caught on to their opponents’ game.
A window of understanding opened up for fifty year old Thaddeus Moore.
Despite the early drinking bouts that had killed a few million brain cells, his was a deep-thinking, keenly aware, highly intuitive intellect. His awareness, at times, made connections.
It hadn’t taken him long to figure out the rest of it, or at least some of it. Living alone helped. Wifey had served him with divorce papers one week after his firing from the Department Of Defense. Fifty ways to leave your lover, taking the kids and her power climbing trip with her, just that fast. If she hadn’t already gotten her hooks into some young blood on the way up, he’d be surprised.
Sayonara, Denise. Good riddance.
He’d found enough on the Net, plus a few phone calls to newspapers in Montana, Wisconsin, and D.C., to fill out an intriguing set of notes pertaining to WMI, Wolf Management Inc:
1. A good looking, strapping young black man kept popping up in opposition, starting with the telephone pole incident and going forward.
2. There was also an old white man involved.
3. This applied to action both in Montana and in the nation’s capitol. Whether they were involved in the Wisconsin incident (terrorist action against Wolf Management Inc., responsibility claimed by a bunch of hacker kids) remained unprovable, but intriguing as a possibility.
4. These guys appeared to be very, very hard to kill…and impossible to intimidate.
5. The black man’s employer? Friend? Something–one rodeo producer and rancher, Sam Trace, had not been so hard to kill.
6. At least one casualty of a wolf related shootout in Montana (the one that killed Sam Trace) had been hospitalized in–get this–freaking Deer Lodge, Montana, for a time.
Deer Lodge. Thaddeus Moore’s old summer stomping grounds as a youth, except no one knew about that. No one who lived, who cared.
Dorothy the waitress had moved on or passed on, he wasn’t sure which.
Thaddeus Moore, of course, was also dead. He, like his fellow disgraced DoD Undersecretary, fired when the wolf mutating bribes from Mexico had come to light…had committed suicide. True, he’d done it with more flair, launching his Jeep from the deck of the Lake Chelan ferry in Washington State into a body of water some 1500 feet deep.
That had been the trickiest part of his side-slide to date, arranging that deck-jumping Jeep episode. He’d had most but not all of his wet suit already on, hidden under his street clothes, but you can’t strap oxygen tanks on your back openly in such a situation without arousing suspicion.
Deep beneath the surface, he’d nearly drowned for real before getting everything hooked up and the oxygen flowing into his lungs.
That would have been ironic as all get-out, dying while nearly ten million dollars sat idle in various safe places around the world. Ironic as hell. That’s what he’d thought as the first gulp of O2 told him he was going to survive the lake.
The point was, he had survived…and here he was. In Phoenix, Arizona, mummy-wrapped from the neck up, but alive and kicking. And needing to pee, come to think of it.
Rodeo Iron, here I come, he told himself, staring at the monitor. His vitals looked good, from what he could see of them. 97% oxygen–he always noticed the oxygen first, ever since the lake–heart rate 72, blood pressure moving around a little but not bad, heart sinus rhythm steady. What he would do once he got to know young black Treemin Jackson and old white Jack Hill…that was unclear. Did they deserve killing? He did not yet know, and besides, he’d only killed once in this lifetime, a D.C. mugger who’d thought he looked like an easy mark just because he resembled a lard-soft, wide-gutted, bulgy eyed frog wearing a ten thousand dollar suit, easy pickings.
Cousin Shawn had been the least homely of the clan. That was good. He’d still have the frog body, but at least his face wouldn’t be quite so plug-ugly.
There were no medical personnel in his recovery room at the moment, and that was good, too. He got out the little hand mirror from the side drawer, turned up the bed lamp a bit, and took a look at his bandaged face. It would be a while, he knew, before the wrappings would come off. That was okay. He was through the surgery, through the worst of it. That was what mattered.
Despite the face pain and the headache and the bandages and needing to pee, the new and improved man in the mirror decided he felt like a desert plant sprouting after a monsoon rain, thrusting upward into bright clean air with such force that even caked, drying clay soil was shattered easily.
“Thaddeus Moore is dead,” he whispered to his white-taped, froggy-eyed image. “Long live Shawn Hicks.”