A Chapter of 'Absolved'
by Mike Vanderboegh
(Written to the tune of "Finnegan's Wake")
Will Shipman and Tom Swenson slipped through the bars that blocked the mouth of the old mine. They weren't bars really, not like you'd find in a jail or at the counter of the old Winston County Land Bank. These were rails, taken up from the double track that had serviced the big old mine, set into concrete and welded together like a porous scab across the massive stone entrance arch. The engraving in the capstone read "1918". It was hot outside and the cool beckoned them inward. Being young and skinny, they had no trouble getting through the narrow openings.
As they moved forward out of the sun's embrace into the gloomy dark, they fished out their flashlights and carelessly began to explore. They'd never been in this mine, though they'd been told it was dangerous and they shouldn't go near it. Some said it was gassy with deadly methane. Some said it was haunted. The coal dust was probably two or three inches deep under their feet and wet from condensation. It scrunched under their feet like black snow and clung to their shoes. The main shaft seemed to go on into the mountain forever, but they'd only gone about a hundred and fifty yards or so when, unaccountably, they both halted.
Somewhere in the last ten yards or so, they'd lost their sense of adventure. Now they gripped their flashlights as tightly as they did their courage, and wildly shined them into the inky deep of the mine, illuminating. . . nothing. Yet, there WAS something. Will strained to hear and and see. No, there was nothing. Will and Tom held their breath, listening. No, Will thought, there was a BIG nothing. His hair stood up on end, and his flesh literally crawled, I mean CRAWLED, moving liquidly, spasmodically up his arms and legs, his muscles jerking.
A thought penetrated his fear and Will turned and flashed his light back down toward the way they'd come. There were two sets of footprints coming into the mine, his and Tom's. And, he realized in a panic, nothing else. No critter tracks whatsoever. Not a squirrel or a racoon, not a bobcat. Nothing. There weren't even any spider webs. That was so far beyond his experience that he couldn't get his brain around it. Old mines always had critter tracks. Whatever was in here was scary enough to keep all other living things out. All except us.
"Y-yeah?" His best friend was frightened too.
"There ain't nothin' in here. This place is DEAD."
And so without another word between them they backed out, slowly. They didn't turn and run. As much as they wanted to, some primal instinct told them that if they turned their backs they were dead. So they faced the nothing and backed out to the bars, all one hundred and fifty yards. Only when they were at the grate in the sunlight did they turn sideways and wriggle through the bars.
And when Will Shipman was safe in the sunlight once more, he woke up.
Will was sitting up in bed, drenched in sweat. "Oh, God," he groaned aloud. I was back in Miller Mine. The sun shone in on him through the bedroom curtains. He ached all over. Will saw from the clock on the nightstand it was almost 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
Oh, yeah. Charlie Quintard. The ATF. Moving his stash up to the cave. Charlie's war trophies. Stuck a thief's hand in a vise and dumped him in Smith Lake. Damn.
Will brought his right hand to his face and massaged his eyeballs, getting control of the memories and the nightmares, though where one ended and the other began, Will couldn't really say.
Miller Mine. How long ago had that been? He was in high school then, he remembered. Why had he dreamed of that? Had Charlie's dank little cave triggered the memory? Or was it the bounty of the boxcar in another mine that he knew he would soon have to do something about?
There was a loud bang out in the kitchen, like a big pan being dropped from about six feet onto the linoleum.. Mary, being subtle again. She was back and wanted some answers. That was the opening gun of a marital skirmish, he knew from long experience. Will groaned again. So what excuse am I going to give her for being in bed at 3 in the afternoon?
Will pivoted and put his feet over the side of the bed. Tentatively, every bone creaking and muscle screaming, he stood. Then he shambled off into the kitchen, going to face the music.
On his way he yawned, scratched his two-day growth of beard and complained to nobody in particular, "I'm too old for this crap."
The next day . . .
Charlie Quintard eased up to the cache point, all his senses straining.
A bank covered with kudzu only twenty yards from a logging road, it contained a fifty-five gallon plastic barrel that had been sunk sideways into it back in the 90s. The drum had a carefully-crafted wooden lid that friction fit into the top, the surface of which appeared to be a sideways view of a rotted log. Only a close-up inspection would have revealed the preservatives it had been soaked in to keep the insects away. Despite its proximity to the road, the folds of the ground made it invisible to passing vehicles, not that there was much traffic these days. Five yards away from the kudzu-shielded drum, a random stick protruded up from the bank, just like a flag on a mailbox.
Charlie grinned. "You've got mail," he mimicked the old AOL voice. He pulled the stick out of the ground and laid it down, then moved to the lid, brushing away the kudzu vines that draped over it. Removing the lid, he pulled the M-1945 GI packboard out with its lashed-on cargo and dropped it down the bank, watching it roll gently through the kudzu. Taking a plastic baggie out of his pocket, he put his letter to Will in the drum and carefully replaced the lid. Rearranging the vines until he was satisfied no one could tell they had been disturbed, Charlie carefully worked his way down the bank, his mocassined feet eluding the entangling kudzu.
Once down, he shouldered the heavy packboard and made his way back to the cave, stopping periodically to cover what few tracks he left. Regaining his new home away from home, he dropped down on the camp bed he'd crafted from limbs and ropes and began to explore the mysteries of the packboard by electric lantern, almost as excited as a kid at Christmas.
Toilet paper! Thank the Lord. And prunes for regularity. Vitamins. A very complete yet compact first aid with instruction book. Cyalume sticks. A pump flashlight that didn't require batteries. A couple of portable camp lamps with extra six volt batteries. Mountain House freeze dried food. Spices. Dried fruit. Four dozen MRE heaters. No MREs, thank God, but he could use the heaters to heat other food and himself. The cave was dank, and Charlie already hated it.
And books, wrapped in ziplock bags. A field manual on the Ingram MAC-10. A field guide to herbs and edible plants of the Southeastern US. A paperback Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes and The Unabridged Mark Twain. Bless you, Will Shipman. In the rush to move the food, Charlie had left almost all of his library behind, grabbing only his pocket Bible and his favorite book of Cherokee culture and history. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sam Clemens would do in a pinch, though.
A small arms cleaning kit with a variety of brushes and jags, several hundred patches, pipe cleaners, cleaning rags, bore cleaner, grease and gun oil, all in individual gallon ziplock bags. Xeroxed field-stripping instructions on the types of weapons Charlie had in his trophy collection, with hand-written addenda on packaging the firearms for long term storage. Trash bags.
Waterless handcleanser and shampoo! Charlie might be a self-taught backwoodsman, but that didn't mean he had to stink like an 18th century Cherokee brave. Unscented too. Good thinking, Will.
Space blankets. A GI poncho and liner. A sewing kit. More handwritten instructions in a ziplock bag. A handheld radio with extra batteries and more instructions on how to communicate with Will in an emergency. Something in a black paper cylinder with metal caps on both ends, heavy, with tape going round the center holding the container together. In faded letters, it read "M-15, Smoke, WP."
And a letter, and a map.
This ought to get you started. You're going to want to stick around the cave for the next few weeks as much as possible. At least a hundred ATF raided your cabin the afternoon of the day we moved you out. They're starting to search the lake too. I don't know what if anything they found. They know it was you because they're offering a $50,000 reward for information on your whereabouts. Don't worry though. They never did find that asshole Eric Robert Rudolph with all their technology. A local cop did that for them after they'd pretty much given up. . . "
Charlie grunted. That was cold comfort to him. Besides, they'd had ten years and two wars to improve their technological wizardry, hadn't they? He knew that from the Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines he'd read in the library. Charlie continued reading.
". . . We're going to have to be careful as well about resupplying you with the caches until I get a better handle on how they're looking for you. Read the instructions I put with the radio and use only the click protocol I have given you at the times and frequencies indicated. Only speak over the radio if you have to break cover and escape and evade and then keep it short. Use the code words I have provided. If I need to get you a message or have more supplies for you at one of the cache sites, I'll use the click method too. Again, consult the protocol for times and frequencies of when to listen.
I've selected three possible pickup points if we need to get you out in a hurry. They are marked on the enclosed topo map as A, B & C. A is the best I think. It's the closest to you. It leads away from the bigger road which is likely to have more traffic, and the old logging and mining roads and abandoned railroad beds crisscross so that multiple vehicle escape routes are possible in case one or more is blocked. I've penciled in some of them that aren't on the map, but you probably know the area better than I do. And in case we have to abandon the vehicle, or we miss connections on the pickup, I have marked rally points, W, X, Y and Z which are reachable on foot in less than four hours. We will use the following click code for each of these . . .
Charlie skipped down to the last.
We'll get through this.
God be with you Charlie."
It was unsigned.
At the bottom there was a PS, "Burn this after memorizing."
Charlie sighed. This Batcave crap was already old and he was lonely beyond any experience. He sure missed Pushmataha.
He moved to the cave mouth and sat down in the warm light of day. Charlie Quintard basked in the sun and took what comfort he could from it and from the tangible proof of the friendship and assistance of Will Shipman. He hoped it would be enough. He was alive and he intended to stay alive, if for no other reason than to wreak more vengeance on the ATF for the deaths of Phil Gordon and Pushmataha. Tonight, he would read The Hound of the Baskervilles, and dream of old times, better times, with Push.
One week after the skirmish at the old Gordon place . . .
Barton Meigs hated having to rely on and worse, trust, John Claxton and his Brightfire mercenaries, but the ATF regional boss had to admit that Claxton had the ability to put his hands on technology that Meigs could have only dreamed about.
By now, Meigs knew the name of the "person of interest" in the disappearance of ten of his agents -- Charlie Quintard. They still hadn't found any bodies, but a thorough search of the Gordon cabin and its approaches had turned up evidence of a firefight.
This time, Meigs had sent 163 federal agents and Brightfire mercenaries by helicopter, boat and Humvee in a coordinated assault. They came up empty-handed but at least none of them had disappeared in the process. The same could not be said for Charlie Quintard. They had found a small grave, but dug up only a dead dog. Ballistics said it was an agency weapon that killed it. We lost ten agents and he lost a dog, Meigs mused bitterly. Bad trade.
Strangely, the only recent brass the forensics unit had found was from his agent's guns, and none that could be said to be from their presumed assailants. Quintard had to have had help, Meigs figured. No one untrained man could take out four to six men at a time. He might have got the first team unawares, but surely the second team had come in wary and loaded for bear.
After all, the Indian was a burned-out computer geek hermit, not Rambo. At least that's what the profilers said. He hadn't had any military training. Hell, he'd never been in trouble with the law at all until this. Quintard had done mountain-man-rendezvous Walter-Mitty kind of stuff, but that was about all they knew. Those familiar with him had been uniformly closed mouthed about the Indian. The local post office personnel all had amnesia. Even the nice lady librarian had told them to go to Hell in words that had shocked the patrons who witnessed it. Quintard's fellow Cherokee had been particularly surly, ordering Meigs' agents off their property at gunpoint in two cases. That had been a close run thing. Meigs couldn't afford to lose any more agents.
So he's got friends and accomplices. He's had help and he'll continue to get it. He's probably living in a cave up there like that prick Rudolph in North Carolina back in the 90s, only no deputy sheriff was going to turn this guy in if he caught him rooting around in a trash can. And Quintard probably wouldn't be reduced to dumpster diving. Meigs had no doubt that Quintard could get a lot more help than Rudolph had if the people of Winston County only knew where the Charlie Quintard Charity Donation Box was.
We, on the other hand, will get no help from the locals and none that we can trust from either the county sheriff or the state. The IRS had been helpful with the name of a Winston County deputy who had tax problems, but even with him on the payroll they'd learned nothing about the whereabouts of Quintard, nor much about the few friends who might have helped him. They had learned a great deal about how unwilling the Sheriff was to get in the middle of this, though. I'll get to that pusillanimous bastard one day. But not now. It was simply a matter of priorities.
The mystery of the bodies was another thing. The lake seemed a logical place but it was so BIG an area to search. They'd used sonar searches and contract divers in the area immediately offshore of the Gordon cabin to no result. They were still searching, but the hydro-geologist and the search team leader, after consulting their respective crystal balls and comparing notes, didn't hold out much hope of a quick find because of all the deep dips and folds in the lake bottom. Each would have to be identified and explored without much help from the machines.
A ransom demand had been recieved, purporting to be from the kidnapper of his missing agents. But they had quickly traced it to an opportunistic petty criminal in Jasper, Alabama who would likely be spending the next twenty years in federal prison. No, they were dead, Meigs was sure of it. But where?
Still, as important as finding the bodies was, finding Quintard was more important. Trying to limit the Indian's access to help, Meigs had the entire Bankhead National Forest area officially shut down. There were no longer any of the thousands of innocent visitors to the area who normally would have roamed the forest. But it wasn't that simple, Meigs knew. There were thousands more people whose homes were scattered throughout the general area, intermingled with federal property. Meigs didn't have the authority to dispossess them, as much as he wanted to. There were simply too many people who had a right to be where Barton Meigs didn't want them to be, and he knew that some of them had to be helping Quintard. In addition, it was hard to sort them out from the visitors who didn't have a right to be there.
For now, the ATF was searching vehicles at random roadblocks and carrying out searches of nearby homes on a federal judge's blanket warrant which Meigs was certain would never survive legal challenge. These clumsy efforts were making a great many innocent people very angry to no purpose. If they ever did spot Quintard now, Meigs knew, they were hardly likely to turn him over to the ATF.
He had, to the chagrin of the Forest Service, flooded the area with "undercover" agents in brand new park ranger uniforms but they fooled nobody with their city slicker clumsiness. Their ranger trucks had already begun turning up with "ATF" or "Gun Gestapo" spray painted on the tailgates and "pin the tail on the Fed" was a new and thoroughly enjoyed past time of Winston County teenagers.
But this, Barton Meigs hoped, just might work. This time, Brightfire had impressed him. The remotely piloted surveillance blimp swung gently in the breeze from its portable pylon which had been erected on the tarmac of the old World War Two vintage airstrip in southern Tennessee, hard by the Alabama state line. Meigs had commandeered it from the owner of the defunct flying school who had last used it, by making him a deal on his considerable tax trouble which had been discovered only this week.
New chainlink fences and barbed wire were still being installed along the perimeter, and the old guard shack and dilapidated quonset huts were even now being bulldozed to make way for a modern hardened entrance and a large hanger. Command and control of the blimp would be accomplished from the trailer which now sat about a hundred yards from the pylon and living areas for the Brightfire pilots, maintenance crew and security detail were being hauled into place as he stood amidst the cacophony of construction noise and blowing dust. They were mostly old FEMA trailers, Meigs saw, but they would serve. At least I don't have to live in them.
It was good that they'd found this spot in Tennessee, Meigs reflected. Relations with the state authorities in Alabama were already poisonous and getting worse. Alabama Bureau of Investigation agents were shadowing his own all throughout the state now, ordered to do so by a pissant, holier-than-thou governor would had been "offended" by the "federal misconduct" at the Battle of Sipsey Street. As unwise as Barton Meigs agreed that operation had been (he still cursed his predecessor's memory daily), he had no patience for state governors who acted bigger than their britches and didn't understand their place in the federal universe. To hell with him, Meigs swore. We'll find this cop killer without the Governor of Alabama and all his dickless ABI men. And if he gets in my way enough, maybe I'll get the opportunity to arrest HIS ass.
Who knows? Maybe after we get Quintard, I'll use this to spy on HIM.
The blimp swung with the breeze again and brought him out of his reverie. Damn, Meigs thought, this is bigger than I thought it would be from the briefings. The blimp was almost 200 feet long, with three fins at the rear and a gondola containing the state-of-the art detection equipment. It had an operational ceiling of 15,000 feet and a top speed of 60 miles an hour. Two of them would operate from this base, maintaining a 24-7 surveillance of Quintard's potential hiding places.
Of course this wasn't like Iraq or Afghanistan and there were lots of restrictions the FAA had put on the deployment of these Brightfire airships. Some air lanes had to be shifted and the airspace over Winston County was put off limits to civilian aviation, except police and fire helicopters and even THEY had to get his permission before they lifted off. The phone call he'd had from the chairman of the local airport authority down there had been memorable. The man had cussed him for six minutes and fifty-two seconds and if he repeated himself even once, Barton Meigs hadn't noticed it. The ATF regional director had thought that his father was the champion cusser of all time. Now, he shook his head at the depths of his ignorance. The airport authority guy had been an Olympic champion athlete of the profane and obscene. Meigs was still amazed.
Still, Meigs, thought with satisfaction, if we can't get him with this, we aren't trying hard enough. The Brightfire techs had told him about the problems created for the sensors by the dense tree canopy in parts of the forest, and they certainly couldn't see underground into a cave. But experience told Meigs that Charlie Quintard would have to be moving outside of his lair sometime. And when he does, we'll have him. Maybe then we can close the Gordon case for good.
Or, maybe not.
That same afternoon, Will Shipman looked up from his desk at the marina office to see a tall, lean older fellow pull up on a Harley outside the bay window which fronted the restaurant parking lot across the way. He looked vaguely familiar but Will couldn't immediately place him. He had a folding rod and a fishing creel strapped to the back of his bike, but instead of walking into the restaurant he headed back across the parking lot for the marina office door.
When the older man hit the door and made a bee-line past Shaunna at the front desk toward Will, Shipman knew he wasn't a fisherman. Where have I seen him before? He racked his brain. Even when the man extended his hand and told him his name, Will still couldn't place him.
"Hi, Will, I'm Jack Durer." He waited, and then seeing not a spark of recognition in Will Shipman's eyes he offered, "We have a mutual acquaintance, Kraut Mueller."
Will shook his hand, the old memory moving up from the dim recesses of his brain. "Kraut? When, no wait, I remember, give me a second. The meeting at John Brassey's place. When was it, '95?"
"June of '96," Durer replied.
"You worked for the state then, right?"
"Yeah, but that was a long time ago. I'm retired now and up here to do some fishin'. Got any suggestions?" As he spoke, he nodded toward the back door. Will took the hint.
"Sure, I've got a map of the lake posted on the back porch. Let me show you."
They walked out back to the porch, which was connected to the dock by a pine board stairway. Will started to show him the map of Smith Lake, but Jack squeezed his shoulder and guided him toward the stairs, and the dock. Will complied and together they walked down to the marina dock.
"You rent boats?"
"Sure, it's my biggest money maker next to being a guide."
"That's the ticket. Let me hire you for a couple of hours. How much?"
Will told him, and Jack nodded with a merry grin on his face. He didn't even try to dicker like most out-of-towners.
"That'll be fine. You got a boat, I guess?"
Will thought he was pulling his leg. "Yeah, a couple three."
"You got somebody else's boat we can use?"
"Huh? Uh, yeah. We can take that one down there," Will pointed. "It's here for maintenance and just came out of the shop."
"Know the guy it belongs to?"
"Live around here?"
"Yeah." Where was this going?
Durer nodded. "OK, let's take that one."
"You going to go get your rod?"
"No. You've got some rental tackle don't you?"
"Well, go get it and put it on the bill. We're burning daylight."
Five minutes later, after telling Shaunna he'd be with a customer for a couple hours, Will conned the borrowed boat around the point and out of sight of the marina. Jack Durer hadn't said another word in the interim, until now.
"Blind Squaw Cove is just ahead, isn't it?"
"Yeah, how did you know that?"
"I can read a topo map," Jack said with a grin. "It's pretty private place, isn't it? Not close to the road, steep cliff straight up from the lake, but with a shelf of overhanging vegetation?"
"Yeah, but you didn't get that from a topo map."
"No, Google Earth." He paused. "Let's head there."
Another five minutes and they were there, sheltered under the trees. A water mocassin plopped out of one with a splash and undulated away in search of warm water and Alabama sushi.
Will Shipman waited. This was Durer's show.
"Let's fish while we chat a bit."
Out came the rods and reels. The hooks were baited, lines cast.
"Sorry, Mr. Durer, but we didn't bring any beer."
"That's OK, Will, this is business. And call me Jack."
"Yeah. Serious business." The older man paused. "You know you've got ATF surveillance all over your ass, don't you?"
"Well, I've spotted a few of them, but not consistently."
"Look harder next time, and EVERY time, they're there."
"Where are they now, back at the marina?"
"No, they're chasing a wild goose they think is named Charlie Quintard. I know because some of my old ABI boys pointed them in the wrong direction at my request. Charlie is their number one priority. You're their second priority."
"Don't kid a kidder, Will, and don't try to act the fool, or play me for one. I'm the best friend you have in the whole wide pea-pickin' world right now and that includes your wife Mary."
Durer saw the darkening look on Will Shipman's face. "Don't get pissed son. I really am here to help you. In fact, I need you as much as you need me."
"Let me answer your question first. You're their second priority because they think you can lead them to Charlie Quintard. They think you know where he is. Point of fact, so do I. I'm even more convinced of it than they are thanks to the disinformation we're dishin' out to 'em with both hands."
"Uh huh. So, even if I did, which I'm not sayin' I do, you want to know where he's at, huh?"
Durer let out a belly laugh. "Lord, NO, son. If you tried to tell me now, I'd plug my ears and sing 'Dixie' at the top of my lungs. I want to make sure that boy is NEVER found. Not by the likes of the ATF. But if he is found, I want to make sure that its much more later than sooner. I need to buy some time, a couple months would be good, six months would be better."
"And that's how I can help you? How's that?"
"Well, you won't be helpin' me, exactly. I'll get by whether Charlie Quintard goes down tomorrow or becomes a mysterious legend who disappeared like smoke and was never seen again. Who we'll both be helping is the Governor."
"The Governor?" Will Shipman was as puzzled as he sounded.
"Yeah. Look Will. I was friends with Phil Gordon too. The Governor had no idea what the ATF was about to do him, although they'd asked for DPS assistance that day with traffic control and the like. But they gave us no warning of what they had up their sleeves or who their target was. The whole thing was as big a shock to the Governor as anybody else and now he's stuck with having to deal with the consequences." Durer paused. "What do you think of the Governor?"
Will Shipman reflected for a moment. "Well, I voted for him. He struck me as the most honest, principled and incorruptible man as ever held the office. 'Course in Alabama that ain't sayin' much," he grinned. "I think he's an upright Christian man and we'll never have a better leader in Montgomery."
Durer smiled. "You're right. But more importantly we couldn't have a better man in this crisis that the ATF's madness had put us all in. This country is about to finally come apart, you know that don't you?"
Will nodded and Durer continued. "The Governor believes, and I do too, that the only hope for the country to stay together is to get everyone to agree that the old scheme of federalism where the states get to decide more of their own future is the way to go. But the administration and the bureaucracy, hell, even a slim majority of the American people, don't see it that way. Especially the new President."
Will again nodded.
"What the Governor wants to try is the Doctrine of Interposition to see if he can get the Feds to back off some. Ever heard of it?"
"Sure, I read a lot about it when Chief Justice Moore was trying to stop the ACLU and the Feds from removing the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Supreme Court. Didn't do him any good. That RINO Governor Riley stabbed him in the back."
"Right," agreed Durer. "But has it occurred to you that Ray Marsh IS the Governor now? And that he's got the backing of the Attorney General, not to mention a majority of the people in the state, black and white?"
Will nodded slowly.
"In addition, where Judge Roy Moore had public opinion on his side but not much else, Ray Marsh has most of the levers of state power in his hands and the brains to work them. He's ten times smarter than any other politician in the state with the possible exception of the Attorney General. Robert Williams, Junior has a mind like greased lightning along with a Harvard Law degree."
"Yeah, I know that's right."
"There has never been a better time or place to try to stop the federal leviathan than right here and right now. And Ray Marsh is the fellow to do it. What he doesn't need right now is any more complications, like the ATF making another martyr out of Charlie Quintard and starting a shooting war that spreads like a wildfire across the country."
Will thought for moment and then asked, "You're saying that Governor Marsh sent you?"
Jack Durer smiled. "No, not exactly. In fact he doesn't know I'm here nor will he know if I can help it. Let's say that I'm anticipating him wanting me to be here, if he actually knew what was happening in Winston County at the moment, which he doesn't."
"So," said Will Shipman slowly, "You want me to take your word for all this without proof?"
"What's proof?" Jack snapped. "Have I said anything that contradicts reality as you understand the present situation?"
"No," admitted Will.
"And if the Governor can hold the line against the Feds, maybe push them back a bit, then that's a good thing?"
"Yes, of course."
"And it would be a good thing if the ATF never gets their hands on Charlie Quintard?"
"And you're willing to help me make that happen?"
Will was silent for a while and then said, "Yes, I am."
"OK," Jack Durer said, "You wanted proof, here it is. Have you ever met Barton Miegs?"
"No, but I know who he is. The papers say he's heading the search for Charlie."
"He is that, and a lot more. He's the new ATF Regional Director. Works out of Nashville. And he's ten times smarter than the idiot who got himself killed going after Phil Gordon. He's not a bad sort for a federal gun cop, but that ain't saying much. He'll still do his damnedest to catch Charlie, and you, if he thinks you're helping him. And he won't shed many tears if you're both killed in the process. Think of Meigs as your opposite number, the OPFOR commander. You're going to have to get crawl inside his skull and mess with his decision cycle. Him and the Brightfire mercenary commander who's been tapped to help him, John Claxton."
"They're using mercenaries against us? Against Charlie?"
"Hell, yeah," said Jack Durer with a grim laugh, "Phil Gordon just about wiped out their personnel roster around here, if you hadn't noticed. They had to get thug replacements from somewhere, and Brightfire and other companies like them are it. The word I get is that they'll get no assistance from the services on this, at least not until they fire the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and about fifteen or twenty other generals and admirals. The administration isn't prepared to take the heat on THAT yet, thank the Lord. And until they do, the Army won't fight our own people over gun ownership. Plain and simple. And if they did, the President couldn't be certain which way some of them would point their guns. So its Brightfire and mercenary companies like them and the federal police agencies including, of course, the ATF.
Jack Durer reached inside his windbreaker and pulled out a pad and pen, handing them to Will.
"Here," he said, "you're going to need to take notes because there's a lot to cover and no time to repeat myself. Make notes of what I'm about to tell you, commit them to memory as soon as you can and then burn them."
From his other pocket, Durer produced some xeroxed sheets in a ziplock bag. "You'll need to do the same with this after you transcribe and encrypt it. You can't possibly memorize all of this data, but find a safe place to hold onto the copes you make, NOT, I repeat NOT, on any property that is your own."
"A complete T.O.& E. of both the ATF regional structure and the Brightfire elements tasked to assist them. Names, addresses, intentions of the enemy as near as we can determine. Sterile transcription copies, no one will ever trace them. Some photographs of principal enemy personnel."
Will raised his eyebrow at that. "ENEMY personnel?"
Jack Durer looked at Will Shipman with an impatient intensity that said he was examining the curves and nuances of the younger man's spinal vertebrae and judging them to be slightly substandard. Will almost wilted under the gaze. Damn, this guy is scary. Another thought intruded: He's killed before, with his own hands, up close. He started to say something, but Durer beat him to it.
"You got a better description?" the older man demanded. "This is a war THEY launched upon the citizens of their OWN country, which includes YOU. If they aren't your enemies BY THEIR OWN HANDS," Durer snapped out the words like gunshots, "then I don't know what that word means. It's mostly a cold war right now -- God help us to keep it a cold war -- but its a war. Get used to it," Durer finished brutally.
Will cleared his throat. "Right," he said huskily.
"If this," Will said as he brandished the thick wad of sheets in the ziplock bag, "is that complete, then what do I need to take notes for?"
"That," pointing at the pen and notebook, "is for what I couldn't easily put down in writing, as well as communications security stuff for contacting me. You must be familiar with some fieldcraft or the ATF would have had you both by now."
"Yeah," Will agreed, "some, but obviously not enough if I couldn't make all of my ATF tail."
"You don't contact Charlie directly?"
"Lord, no," Will replied. "I've got both dead and live drops I use. Trusted friends who service the cache sites. Charlie has a radio I gave him with a CEOI for an emergency, but I pray God he never has to use it."
"Yeah," agreed Durer, "me too." He paused. "OK, write this down."
When he got to the part about the Brightfire RPV surveillance blimps, Will interjected, "What!?! How are we supposed to beat that?"
"Will, Kraut Mueller once told me that if he had to pick anybody to watch his flank it would be you. He said you're experienced, bright and resourceful. Plus you know your own AO better than anybody else."
Shipman could feel the smoke being blown up his back passage.
"But HOW?" he persisted.
"I don't know, but I have every confidence you'll figure it out. And you'll have to do it in such a way as to avoid having your fingerprints, or those of any of your friends, on the job."
"Right," sneered Will.
"Look," said Durer, "these RPVs, whether they're Predators or blimps, aren't infallible. Everybody's seen the images of Osama walking in the middle of his entourage in the dark of night. Looks impressive. But you know what they didn't have in that footage?"
"TREES. Look around, Will, what do you see here? Some of this is double canopy stuff, especially up in the Sipsey Wilderness. Thick vegetation hinders the imaging of these things, even the thermal sensors. You can alter Charlie's thermal image as well, using space blankets sewn inside a hooded poncho."
"Yes," replied Will, "I'd heard of that and Charlie has the makings of one right now. If he did what I asked in the instructions, he's already put it together."
"Good," Jack said with evident approval, and then continued.
"Plus, the biggest challenge with these imaging systems is expert interpretation and that's one thing that Brightfire and the ATF haven't yet achieved on their own and won't. In fact, the biggest secret of our own military's success with these things is the interpretation that's done at a top-secret Air Force installation on the backside of Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. They don't fly 'em, they don't maintain 'em. All they do is interpret little electronic squiggles into clues of enemy personnel and operations. And they are the best at what they do in the entire world. But as I said, they're not going to be working on the ATF's little Winston County problem. If they were, you'd be dead already."
"Well, that's a cheery thought," said Will. "Let's hope they stay on the sidelines."
"Getting back to dealing with this Brightfire blimp, you can also give the thing many other targets to confuse it, some of them I've listed in the packet. Finally, you can go after either the vehicle as it flies or the ground control station, but only as a last resort, and only if you can guarantee zero enemy casualties in the process and only if you don't get your fingerprints on it."
"That's a hell of a tall order."
"I know, so shut up and soldier. Tomorrow, a customer in your restaurant is going to leave a book underneath the last booth on the right, the one with the broken footboard. Retrieve it when you total the receipts at the end of the day as you usually do."
"And I was going to get that fixed," Will shook his head with a sad grin. "Is there anything about me that you don't know about?"
Jack Durer looked at him kindly. "Very little. Unlike the ATF, I don't have your phones, your house and your business wiretapped." Will looked at him sharply. "What I DO have, is an informant in the ATF section who monitors all of those, and Kraut Mueller's and those of a half dozen other names you would probably recognize."
"OK, so we're going to use the book as a cipher system?" Will volunteered.
"Right," said Jack, "Go to the head of the class. Its not foolproof, and there are computers at Langley that could still crack it given enough time, but where the CIA and the NSA stand in all of this is by no means certain. The struggle for the hearts and minds of the spooks goes on. What we're hoping is to postpone any decision making time on their part until after Alabama has had a chance to implement the Governor's gambit. That's more information than you need to know, but it may help you understand that on this the federal government is by no means the New World Order monolith portrayed in the paranoid ether." Durer paused.
"You'll like the book though," he said with a smile.
"Because its a limited edition reminiscence and history of Winston County in the 19th Century. Only a hundred copies ever printed and fewer than twenty identified as still in existence."
"You mean . . ."
"Yep. Told you you'd like it. Don't let out a war whoop when you 'accidentally find it cleaning up.' Remember, the whole place is bugged."
"OK, let's continue with the notebook."
"The ATF has a deputy in the Winston County Sheriff's Department, his name is . . ."
For about an hour, Will Shipman scribbled notes, asking questions, getting answers sometimes, sometimes getting questions back in return. What did he think? How would he deal with this contigency or that? Part of it, Will came to realize, was Jack Durer testing him, feeling him out, pointing him in the right direction, motivating him. Will started to tell Durer about the boxcar, but backed off. Concentrate on the subject at hand. Durer, and the Governor, have enough to worry about right now.
Somewhere in that long period of writer's cramp on the gently rocking boat, Jack Durer made an observation that caught Will Shipman's imagination. "There are going to be a lot of people in Winston County who won't like the cover being ripped off their business for everyone else to see. Some of them will be in a position to do something about it." Will knew his county and his people as well or better than anyone. He knew that Jack Durer was absolutely right about that. He even came up with a name, but he did not speak it. Let's think on that a bit, he told himself.
Durer was back on his Harley and headed southeast by the time the ATF agents got back from their goose chase. He had even paid the bill with cash. Insisted on it, in fact.
Will Shipman was now convinced that, with Jack Durer's help, he could keep the ATF and their mercenary minions spinning. But what to do about the blimps? He was still thinking on it when he went to sleep that night. About two o'clock in the morning, he sat straight up in bed out of a sound sleep and knew without a doubt how he was going to do this. He just had to have a little patience and let human nature take its course.
"What's the matter?" Mary murmured.
"Nothing honey," he replied softly, laying back down. "Nothing at all."
The blimps had been flying for almost a month now and what they'd found was impressive. Marijuana fields, meth labs, cock fights, dog fights, whiskey stills, a counterfeiting operation, the recently disturbed soil of graves containing four dead bodies, the parson of a local Methodist congregation dallying with the church secretary, and twenty one possums with IR thermal imitators strapped to them.
The last gag was the idea of a senior in the International Baccalaureate School of Shades Valley near Birmingham. Possums being rather territorial even when transplanted from one place to another, with electronic help they had successfully imitated a human with a ninety eight point six temperature moving in and out of dark, tight spaces and down to water, out to food and searching for dates.
When caught, the senior insisted that it was all in pursuit of a winning science fair project, and though he advanced to the state finals, he was unable to accept the college scholarship he earned for he was still being held for questioning when the fall semester commenced. Legal wiggle room for such detentions was discovered in the latest iteration of the PATRIOT Act, and there was a lot of the Fourth Amendment that just wasn't there any more. Since such laws were now being used against their enemies, the so-called liberal civil libertarians didn't give a rip. Those who did mostly stayed quiet out of fear of being detained themselves.
Barton Meigs estimated the lost man hours in the tens of thousands and there was still no sign of Charlie Quintard. The reward was boosted to a half million, then a million. Still nothing. No bodies either. Dead Man's Holler remained an undiscovered country to the ATF and Charlie Quintard was still its only tour guide.
Not that he got around much anymore.
Pinned to his cave, Charlie was so sick of it, so stressed by being alone, so heartsick at the loss of Pushmataha that some mornings he awoke in his dank prison with thoughts of suicide on his mind. He memorized Sherlock Holmes. He memorized Mark Twain. He memorized the Bible and came to a new appreciation of all of three works. To stay sane, he overruled his initial resistance and took out his frustration by practicing with the MAC-10 and its sound suppressor in the back recesses of the cave. He got to be very, very good with it, despite the fact that twice he was nearly killed by ricochets and once a deflected slug blew apart one of his scat sacks and the cave filled with the smell of ordure until he got it repackaged.
His food was holding out, though he was running low on toilet paper, waterless shampoo, cyalume sticks and batteries. He stayed fit by exercising in the flat back hall of the cave. But his nerves were shot. He made friends with a field mouse that wandered into his home, feeding it so it returned time and again. He dubbed it Mickey and though it was the only social interaction he had, it was a poor substitute for Pushmataha. Lord, he missed that dog. Will had sent word that there was a surveillance blimp overhead and to be extremely cautious about keeping under the trees as much as possible.
In the wider world, the ATF and the federal leviathan it served were under increasing stress themselves, facing a low-intensity conflict waged by like-minded Phil Gordons all across the country.
In Washington and West Virginia, both the ATF and the FBI powered up their comuter terminals one morning to find that they had been hacked in a coordinated attack with large numbers of programs and millions of files corrupted by "The Sipsey Street Cyber Commandos." The NCIC was found to have been interlaced with the entire phone directories of New York and Washington, D.C.
Senator Charles Schumer was later discovered to have had his name grafted onto the file of a convicted child molester, which flagged him for arrest when the computer discovered one of his addresses was too close to an elementary school. It was later determined to be an inside job by a contract employee with a spotless seventeen year record.
A week later, the IRS computer system crashed from a similar, but far more deadly cyber attack, also an inside job. The total system failure, including redundancies, had been reckoned impossible prior to this. "Inconceivable," said one industry analyst familiar with the system. It wasn't.
ATF offices were being vandalized. In one night, a maintenance company employee crazy-glued every single lock in the federal building in Albany, New York.
They were still trying to calculate how many gallons of crazy-glue that was. The perpretrator, who turned himself in the next morning to the Albany PD, declared himself a "prisoner of conscience" and was awaiting a jury trial.
In northern California, an HVAC contractor who had a cousin who was an exterminator, placed about a hundred dead and rotting rats in the ductwork of a building that including an ATF field office over a weekend while the unit was being serviced. When the unit was turned back on the following Monday, thirteen office employees, three field agents and the ATF supervisory agent vomited.
This inspired other attacks using Butyric acid -- which was much more easily deployable than dead rats -- all across the country. Butyric acid, a mild acid that smells like a combination of rancid butter and three day old vomit boiling on a stove, was inserted in random attacks on federal cars in the Phoenix Arizona area. This was accomplished by means of a large syringe with a needle inserted through the rubber seals of the door windows and then sprayed within. No car with federal plates was safe.
And no one wanted to drive them thereafter. Not even after they had been cleaned. Twice.
In both Massachusetts and New Jersey, places that had competed for the title "Most Anti-Firearm State in the Country," arsons of federal government property were epidemic. In Trenton, every single federal vehicle in a storage lot was burned after the surveillance cameras had been paintballed into ineffectiveness.
Some of the incidents did not involve property and were not so petty. In Boston, an ATF supervisory agent was assassinated as he walked on a crowded midday street near Faneuil Hall. Shot in the back of the head with a .22 pistol, his assassin had not yet been caught, or even identified.
More restrictive laws were coming. More power was being claimed by the federal government. But more states were resisting, too, in the south, the west and rural midwest. Ironically, the number of violent incidents in those states was lower than in the "blue areas" where gun control was wildly popular. The armed citizenry had not yet given up hope and faith in their elected officials who, one way or another, were seeking to stand between the ATF, its mercenary auxiliaries and the people they were elected to protect. The citizen militias, it must be admitted, were taking the intervening "Phony War" period seriously to train and further prepare for what seemed to be coming.
All of this was unknown to Charlie Quintard. He also was unaware that he had become a folk hero -- that country ballads were being sung about him. Nobody knew for sure what had happened, so everyone was free to read their own morality tale into the rumors. Charlie Daniel's version of his tale, a long re-work of "Simple Man," had made number one on the country charts a week ago.
But even in his isolation, frustration and ignorance of things, Charlie Quintard in the end decided to stay alive, to force himself to be fit and alert, and to await the moment he could break cover and leave his prison cave forever. Then, he knew, he would wreak more vengeance upon the heads of the dogkillers of the ATF. And this time he would use a silenced submachine gun in addition to his bow, hawk and knife. Phil Gordon and Pushmataha were not yet fully avenged.
Not by a long shot.
Peewee Carpenter was pissed. He was pissed in way that almost unhinged him, as men often are when money, power or sex are on the line. Peewee had taken successive tidal waves of destructive hits from the ATF's search for Charlie Quintard. You see, it was Peewee's marijuana fields, meth labs and crack houses which had been taken down one by one in the past month, toppling like dominos. He was even discomfited by the discovery of three of the four dead bodies, since they had been put in that condition on his orders.
He coped the best he could, transferring operations to other counties. But there he ran into rivals, some of them old acquaintances, more vicious than Peewee and nursing murderous grudges. And, Peewee reflected angrily, it didn't help anyway because that damn blimp seemed to follow him wherever he went. Had he known that it did so because of a carefully crafted ABI surveillance and disinformation plan put together by Will Shipman and Jack Durer, he would have lost his temper and had them both killed most gruesomely. He certainly was in a position to accomplish it.
But he didn't know.
So Shipman and Durer continued breathing, staying alive to continue to push Peewee Carpenter into a corner of their making.
Peewee had his own sources on the Winston County Sheriff's Department and in the Drug Enforcement Administration come to that (although he had learned to his regret never to trust a DEA agent -- once bought they didn't stay bought) so he knew most of what they knew. And what they knew, or strongly suspected, was that Will Shipman was helping Charlie Quintard, though by what means they could not exactly say.
Peewee Carpenter also learned that someone had even put out the rumor that the ATF agents were dead at HIS orders because they stumbled on one of his drug operations. At various times the ATF leadership in Nashville almost believed that one, especially after one of their agents and two Brightfire mercs had died tripping boobytraps and landmines laid around his one of his pot fields.
Peewee had the rest of his defenses removed after that. One of his competitors from Walker County had even come in and harvested one of his fields in the confusion. He felt he was being pecked to death by crows. The only way he could start to recoup his staggering financial losses was to grab Charlie Quintard and claim the million dollar reward.
Even that, Peewee knew, wouldn't begin to touch the damages he had been done. He'd worked the calculator two nights ago and he had figured that, in lost product, disrupted business and seized property and cash, that damned blimp had cost him upwards of 15 million dollars.
Had Peewee been a man of stouter courage or greater daring, he would have kidnapped Shipman and tortured him until he talked. But this was Winston County and Shipman had many, many more friends than he did. The feud he would start with such a move would certainly be bad for business (and it could get worse, he knew, far worse) and it might even kill him.
Shipman was related to Aunt Jenny Brooks and everybody knew about her famous forty year feud. Just about everybody, no, strike that, make it EVERYBODY that the old woman had wanted dead had preceded her by a considerable margin. He knew that because two of his own ancestors had been on Aunt Jenny's coup stick. And one of them had involuntarily provided that old bitch with her "soap dish." In Winston County, Peewee knew, nobody ever got too far from their own history.
Peewee Carpenter did not get where he was by being foolhardy, so just as he had recoiled from fighting the feds at the edge of his pot fields, he would not start a feud. But what in Hell could he do about that blimp? He'd heard that it was controlled from a defended airfield across the state line in Tennessee. He'd even had the field reconned. It was way, way too tough a nut for his boys to crack. How could he knock down something that cruised from a mile to three miles up? It was an insoluble problem that didn't look like it was going to get better, and it damn near made Peewee Carpenter insane.
It was good that he was so distracted, for when the solution was presented to him indirectly, cleverly, quietly, seemingly accidentally through an intermediary, he did not question its origin so glad he was of its very promise of relief. One of his boys, a meth head named Jerry Winfield had overheard a kid named Jimmy Flynn boasting that he knew how to take down the blimp, he even had the means to do so, but he didn't have the guts or the explosives to try it. But he could, he was sure. If, that is, he wasn't about to be married.
Winfield butted in on the conversation and asked him how he would do it.
Jimmy pulled out a napkin from the restaurant table dispenser and diagrammed it out. It involved a weather balloon, several weather balloons actually, a video camera for tracking mounted on top, a lower structure strapped tight to the balloon consisting of stabilizers and rudders which were battery driven like a remote controlled aircraft and ten pounds of dynamite or C-4 packed inside ten pounds of military surplus flechettes or better yet, sharpened nails with the heads ground off. The lift was provided by hydrogen or helium gas in the balloon envelope. Sure the blimp flew high, but weather balloons were designed to fly even higher.
The idea was to launch several of these devices at once, each with its own operators just like the blimp. Using the camera, the pilot operator would guide the weather balloon bomb to the blimp, try to get beside or above it and an assistant would detonate the charge with a cell phone when the operator ordered. The flechettes or nails would do the rest.
"Yeah," said Jerry Winfield, "but where would you get the weather balloons? They don't grow on trees."
That was the thing, said Jimmy Flynn, that made it so sweet. He'd been down to Birmingham last Saturday and spotted a whole boatload of World War II vintage balloons in an Army surplus store. That's what had given him the idea.
What Jimmy Flynn neglected to mention was that the shop carried them only because they had been given to the owner by somebody who was "cleaning out the basement of stuff grandpa collected." The owner, always willing to accept a gift, marketed them as novel war relics, priced them at $20.00 each and, up until Jerry Winfield overheard Jimmy Flynn, he had sold exactly none of them. He didn't even get the name of the lady who gave them to him. They had in fact come from Deacon Shipman's legacy.
The key, Jimmy said, was to launch several at them at once from a carefully constructed grid of launching sites beneath the blimp's course. Anybody who did this would likely only have one shot at it. But of course it wouldn't be Jimmy Flynn who did it, but he was certain it could be done.
The thing about the idea in Peewee Carpenter's mind was that as zany and idiotic as it sounded, as he looked at the napkin diagram and thought about it, it just might work. And what would be the downside? He would be destroying private property, but not even government property. And it wasn't like he was killing anybody. What was the punishment for that? Something like vandalism, right? Oh, maybe there'd be an explosive charge or so, but nobody living would testify against HIM in federal court. He'd beat those kind of odds before, after the key witnesses disappeared or caught infectious amnesia.
So he put out the word. If anybody knew of a customer who worked in a model shop or played around with remote control aircraft, he, Peewee Carpenter, wanted to know about it. The next day he dispatched Jerry Winfield to Birmingham to buy 20 weather balloons, and by the afternoon he'd heard back through his distributor network that a there was a pothead in Huntsville who worked with RC aircraft behind the counter of a hobby shop.
A promise of a pound of weed up front got the man up to Winston County the next day. Once the job was explained to him, he was certain it could be accomplished. His enthusiasm may have been strengthened by the promise of an additional ten free pounds of Peewee's best when the job was completed.
He did it in two long days in a machine shop whose owner owed Peewee a gambling debt. The worst problem the modeler had was supervising the many minions Peewee had ordered to help him.
Using aircraft aluminum, plastic strapping, and light alloy brackets, the RC man produced one prototype and then ten production models. The only difference between them being that the explosives and projectiles (Peewee decided on nails as they were cheaper than flechettes) were replaced by twenty pounds of bricks in the prototype.
The helium was expensive. So were the cameras, the electronics, the ground station TV screens and the used pickup trucks towing ten stolen cotton trailers. They improvised plywood sides, fronts and backs that blocked the view of the trailer interior from the ground but which had open tops so the balloons could be fully inflated and launched without impediment. The ballons were to be partly inflated under tarps in the trailers, and only fully inflated just before launch. The steering rig and explosives pod below and the TV camera on top were held in place by light bungee rope. With care, as the balloon expanded, so did the arrangement of the control package and payload. The modeler was particularly proud of that. Peewee was unimpressed.
"Yeah, but will it work?"
The prototype was tested the third day when, in a remote part of Walker county well away from prying airborne eyes, the RC modeler almost hit a Cessna flying at 5,000 feet. The Cessna belonged to Peewee's organization, having been used to smuggle a variety of banned substances over the years. The fact that Peewee had to put one of his men in the side seat with a gun held to the reluctant pilot's head was of no concern to him.
In the expert hands of the RC modeler, it was a near miss. Peewee Carpenter was ecstatic. After all, the plane had been flying in a slow circle. The blimp would be almost still. What he didn't know was that the pilot decided before he landed that he would take that DEA agent's offer of witness protection the next time he saw him. Looking at Peewee, the pilot thought, this mother is NUTS.
The fourth day was spent dealing with an oversight. They needed somebody with access to the air traffic control system to tell them in real time where the blimp was and what altitude and heading it was on before they set their grid to attack it. By happy circumstance, they found their man. What Peewee didn't know was that one of his hardy band of two dozen minions entrusted with knowledge of his project was a young state trooper -- pulled out of his academy class for precocious aptitude by ABI a year before -- who had been building a state drug case against him for six months. ABI didn't trust DEA either.
On the fifth day, Peewee Carpenter sprung what he thought was HIS trap.
The Brightfire pilot tech was by now thoroughly familiar with the ground below the blimp's path. They had been stooging around over the Sipsey Wilderness for the past two days, following snitch leads that Quintard might have withdrawn north from his old familiar stomping grounds in the lower Bankhead. This was not unusual. They had followed such ultimately bogus leads for a week now without result. But this morning they had been ordered to look at a particular farmstead and surrounding woods outside Double Springs. Here the vegetation was not so thick. Here, they might have a good shot at pinning this Quintard prick to the ground. The tech hoped it wasn't another false alarm. He had heard that a special team had been brought in to run him down. He hoped they were as good as rumored. He was tired of this chickenshit terrain and this boring job. He wanted to get back to armed Predators where he could kill something.
Give me the desert and a Hellfire missile any day. And, he thought, somewhere where the local women don't think you're some kind of murdering Nazi for being a Brightfire employee. These cold, stuck-up Tennessee bitches gave him piles, and little else.
The thing was, closer into Double Springs the road net became ideal for setting up the box grid that Jimmy Flynn had first outlined on the napkin. Not that the tech apprehended any trouble. He saw a pickup and a trailer covered with a tarp headed into the farmstead as his "back seater" sensor man focused his array toward it. It always amazed him how clear the pictures were he got from the suite of systems mounted on the blimp. Night or day, it was nothing less than magical.
The truck halted. Men jumped out and pulled the tarp from the top of the trailer. What the hell is that? First he thought it, then he said it aloud.
"Dunno," said the back seater, who actually sat beside him in a chair (Air Force jargon died hard). "It's round."
"What-the-hell?" they both blurted at once. Their supervisor came over to have a closer look.
"What's the angle on the camera shot?" he asked.
"Five degrees," came the answer.
"Full speed, emergency. Hard to starboard," came the order.
You don't do a wing over in a blimp, trading altitude for sideward motion. But you do have some ability to maneuver. It was the blimp's only hope.
"Widen the view."
Damn, there were two, three, five, six of these things coming up at the RPV. No, there were MORE. And they were coming up FAST. They weren't trying to outrun just one attacker. They had to escape a box of attackers.
"Hell, they're balloons!" the rear seater exclaimed. "What the . . ."
"Christ, you don't think . . ."
There was a long moment of silence. The operator goosed the blimp frantically. Some, not all, of the balloons followed.
The supervisor shook his head in horrified amazement. "What kind of stupid bastard attacks Brightfire?" he marveled. And then he thought, whoever he is, they'll have his balls mounted on a plaque in the corporate boardroom in Virginia this time next week. Brightfire's long reach and vindictive nature was legendary.
Then, one by one and two by two, they began to explode.
Down on the ground, Peewee Carpenter was beside himself with joy as he guided his balloon toward the blimp. The problem was that he kept over-correcting. This was a problem for eight out of the ten operators because they had no practice and no video game skills to speak of. Most of them were junkies themselves, which didn't bode well for their reflexes or their calculating abilities.
Peewee Carpenter lost sight of the target on the monitor as his balloon not only spun but yawed wildly while he gave violent corrections to his equally violent mistakes. Shit, he thought. This isn't going to work.
In point of fact it didn't work for eight out of the ten balloons. Had a disinterested observer been able to take in all of the frantic cursing and hopping about the various stolen cotton trailers he would have beheld a scene that looked like a cross between Homer Hickham's Rocket Boys and Jimmy Breslin's The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight -- played by a cast of high school dropout stoners -- and laughed himself to death. For the few hundred Winston Countians more or less below the barrage and in a position to see, the rise of the balloon craft was stunning and their subsequent explosions incredible. Everyone above the age of five who witnessed it realized it was an attack on the Brightfire surveillance blimp. Including, most especially, the ATF agents and Brightfire contractors who depended upon it on the ground.
The only two balloon bomb operators who got their Rube Goldberg craft close enough to do some damage were the RC modeler and an 18 year old kid who'd played video games all his life. Still, the kid's charge blew up short of the blimp because he misjudged his distance to target. Net result: a few holes in the envelope cells, but nothing fatal.
The RC man on the other hand earned his ten pounds of weed. His balloon's nails tore through the control hydraulics, half the sensor array and punched gaping holes in the gas bag. It was redundant by design, but not that redundant.
Half blind, out of control, the precious helium lift whistling out through multiple tears, the blimp began its 2 mile fall toward Smith Lake, slowly at first, then picking up speed. When the gondola hit the rocks of a nearby ridge instead, the rest of the $6 million dollar Brightfire surveillance system was smashed to useless metal, plastic and ceramic shards. Peewee Carpenter's rage against the machine that had complicated his life was successful, even if it hadn't been his own idea. And, like most things in life, there were unintended consequences. But those would come later.
And the funny thing was, though he was long dead, Feldwebel Helmut Grass had finally achieved his most fervent wish. His actions back in February 1945 had in some small measure helped shoot down an American aircraft, thus wreaking vengence for those terrifying Ami Jabos which had made him piss his pants in that squalid Normandy ditch so very long ago. No one knew that however, not even Will Shipman. Feldwebel Grass, of course, had long since ceased to care.
With the downing of the blimp, the race began.
Will Shipman would have been forced to move Charlie Quintard soon anyway. The disinformation game was pretty much played out and as Will marked off the areas of the Bankhead and Sipsey that had been searched by the ATF and Brightfire, one area on the map was unmarked and must soon be covered by the feds -- the ridge that held Charlie's cave. But now, with all of the fed's attention riveted upon the downing of the blimp and the people who had destroyed it, they had a chance. Charlie had to exfiltrate out NOW. Arrangements had been made, his destination was fixed. Will keyed the mic on the radio three times, then two, then three.
Charlie heard it, keyed the proper response -- three clicks -- turned down the volume, lit the fuse on the dynamite jammed under the overhanging shelf at the entrance to his cave, and began to run.
He carried his bow and quiver, his tomahawk and knife and the MAC-10 on a SpecOps shoulder sling that had previously belonged to Special Agent Duncan. He had the magazine pouch slung over his shoulder. All the magazines were pristine now, inside and out, not a trace of rust remaining and all were loaded with USGI .45 Caliber ball ammunition. To the shoulder strap of the mag pouch he had duct-taped the M15 smoke grenade, which he had removed from its container. The radio was jammed in his pants pocket, and his space-blanket-lined poncho was carefully folded and and tucked in his belt at the small of his back.
Behind him, the blast dropped the overhang into the cave mouth, blocking it from casual inspection. His stash would be safe until after the federal heat went away. Not that Charlie cared about his trophies.
He was on a run for his life.
He loped away from the cave, elated at regaining his long-lost freedom yet running as he had always walked, carefully --always staying under overhead cover except when he had to cross roads and trails, using the terrain as his ally, moving at angles, using streams when appropriate and never ever in a straight line, but always on course, headed for the pre-arranged pickup point.
The Brightfire tracker team leader was sitting in the front passenger seat of his Humvee at the junction of two logging roads in the Bankhead, paying attention to the radio chatter generated by the blimp's destruction and awaiting orders when he heard the explosion echoing in the hills from Charlie's cave. "Damn," he muttered to no one in particular, "That was close." The echoing made direction determination difficult, but he guessed that it was roughly northwest of where he was now.
He looked at the map board which he had been consulting before the explosion. The vehicle GPS was out. That was OK, he was used to navigating the old fashioned way in any case. He despised people who were helpless without their electronic toys. He tugged on the lanyard of his lensatic compass and it popped out of the pocket on his harness and into his hand. This was the first time they'd worked this area, but he was unafraid, confident in his team and his own competence. After a moment's orientation, he decided. "Saddle up," he ordered his other three team members. They headed up the lesser of the two logging roads, making straight for Charlie's ridge.
The rest of the hundreds of Brightfire and ATF personnel in and around Winston County were instantly focused on finding out where those balloons came from. The radio message from the Brightfire blimp operations center in Tennessee gave them descriptions of the pickup trucks with cotton trailers, so that's what they were looking for. What they didn't know now that the blimp was in pieces was that Peewee's orders were to dump the trailers in place and disperse in the pickup trucks.
One thing slowed them down. Peewee had ordered his minions to take the empty helium cylinders from the trailers and throw them in the back of the pickups. There was a deposit on the cylinders.
Sheriff Carter Johnson, on the other hand, knew almost exactly where all of the balloon bombers were as well as complete descriptions of them and the license plate numbers of their trucks. He knew this because Jack Durer's ABI men had provided them via an anonymous cell phone call to the Sheriff's department ten minutes before the attack. And the informant provided one other thing. The name of the ringleader of the conspiracy and his motive.
Carter Johnson was salivating at the chance to nail Peewee Carpenter, and he wanted to get him before the ATF did. Hell, thought Carter, this'll get both the ATF and the friends of Charlie Quintard off my back. Skeeter Haynes wouldn't stand a chance in the primary now. By the time the bombs were launched, every Winston County deputy Sheriff Johnson could muster was racing down the various roads toward Peewee and his doper confederates.
"STOP!" ordered the Brightfire tracker team leader, whose name was Finley. Ahmed, his assistant team leader who was driving, stopped on a dime. His team deployed, guns up.
Finley had picked Ahmed up in Iraq after the Sunni had taken his chance to continue a long-standing blood feud by murdering the grandson of the tribal sheik. Ahmed was a former Baathist party enforcer who was wanted under another name by the Iraqi government for war crimes in the aftermath of the 1991 war, and was then acting as Finley's translator. Since Finley deemed Ahmed too valuable to give up, he'd had himself and his team transferred out of that province. The fact that the shiek's vengeance ultimately took the lives of twenty-six American soldiers and Marines before the shiek himself (along with most of his extended family) was killed by a Hellfire missle was of little concern to Finley
When Finley left Iraq, Ahmed came along, sporting a green card provided by Brightfire along with his company ID. Brightfire hired a lot of foreign personnel and frankly wasn't too picky about their pasts.
Armando, his radio operator, was a Nicaraguan, but whether he'd fought with the Sandanistas or the Contras was a little unclear. Maybe both, for it was certain that both sides wanted him dead. He'd also found a home at Brightfire.
Patrick Docker was another survivor of a dirty little war. The Orangeman had killed one too many innocent Irishmen of both faiths in and around Belfast and while the Brits didn't want him, the IRA (though ostensibly now at peace) still did. Badly.
My own little private Foreign Legion, smiled Finley. All veterans of dirty wars, all killers, and all skilled as any of Cochise's Apaches at tracking. They'd worked for Brightfire in eleven different countries now and always got their man or provided a corpse that looked a lot like him. The company got paid big bucks for their work, and Brightfire took care of them too. They were among the company's highest paid operators.
The light wind blew over the ridge and down toward the Humvee. None of Finley's men were smokers. He insisted on it. Armando laid an index finger up to his nose. Finley smelled it too. Work around enough explosives and you get to know their individual bouquets. Dynamite. Finley nodded at Armando. Dynamite and rock dust. With a pointed silent order from Finley, they secured the doors of the Humvee and moved up the ridge in formation, Ahmed leading. Finley came second with Armando behind and to his right. Docker came up the rear.
When they came to the collapsed mouth of the cave, fresh rubble completely blocking it, it was Docker not Finley who figured it out first. "The bloody fooker has scarpered. He's usin' the confusion to exfil." Ahmed spotted some of Charlie's sign, lost the trail, then picked it up again more toward the top of the ridge. Most anybody else would have missed it, Finley knew.
He's gone over the other side, Finley knew, not bothering to take the map out of his pocket because he had memorized it. He was gifted that way.
He'll be getting a ride, probably at that dirt road on the other side of the next ridge. His reaction was instant. "Dock, you and Ahmed trail him. Don't lose him, but don't engage. We'll go down to the Hummer and try to cut him off at the next road past the second ridge. Then we'll bag him. If we can, I want him alive. GO!"
As they ran back down, Armando pressed the ear-bud screwed into his left ear and then half-yelled, "Jefe, they want us back down to chase the balloon bombers."
"Bullshit," replied Finley, tell 'em . . ."
No, he stopped himself, don't tell them I'm chasing a million dollars. Somebody else might get a bright idea and get to him first. "Tell them we think we've got a small group of 'em up here and we're in hot pursuit. We can't break off without letting them get away in heavy terrain. Tell 'em that." Armando smiled. He too saw the million dollars in front of his face. He smiled again, more broadly, and began to speak urgently, pleadingly, into the radio mic.
Sheriff Johnson would have nailed all ten teams of Peewee's balloon bombers within a half hour if it hadn't been for the ATF and Brightfire idiots getting in his way. The whole business looked like "The Keystone Kops Head Themselves Off at the Pass" and would have been hysterically funny, except for the dead bodies it generated.
The Brightfire mercs in particular were ravenous for vengeance on the bombers of their $6 million blimp. They wanted blood.
Some of the ATF agents whose orders the Brightfire people were supposed to be following simply lost control of the mercs. This was largely due to the fact that the Brightfires maintained their own comm channels with their bosses, and when they received conflicting orders they obeyed the men who handed them their paychecks.
And when you lose control of angry people with machineguns, a goodly portion of whom are foreigners and can't communicate in English very well anyway, you'd better run and hide. That is exactly and precisely what most of the outnumbered ATF agents did. They got out of the way and control passed to mad, excited mercenaries unfamiliar with law enforcement but intimately, lovingly familiar with war and murder.
Some set up roadblocks and refused to let the deputies pass, not trusting local law enforcement. Although tempers flared and guns were drawn, no one was killed at most of these confrontations. Most, but not all.
Seventy-two year old Millicent Sylvan was shot through the head at one of these roadblocks on US 278 by a Brightfire merc from Costa Rica who misunderstood the orders of his section leader who was Ukrainian. Sylvan's 16 year old granddaughter Merry Kay was left a paraplegic by the same burst and would never cheerlead again.
That was bad enough.
It got worse.
Sheriff Carter Johnson and three deputies hit another roadblock on a blacktopped sideroad about a mile off 278 right behind the pickup carrying Peewee Carpenter and Jerry Winfield. There were four Brightfires on the block, which consisted of their Humvee and a county road grader that they had pulled across the road, completely interdicting it. They'd been set up just about thirty seconds or so when Peewee's truck came around the corner with Jerry Winfield at the wheel and slammed on the brakes. They came to rest 60 feet in front of the grader. The two Winston County Sheriff's cars following likewise slammed on their brakes and executed a vee-shaped block about 50 feet behind the pickup. The Sheriff and deputies took cover behind their vehicles, two shotguns and two pistols up and ready. Peewee had nowhere to go.
Standing on the porch of a bait store on the east side of the road, just slightly behind and to the right of the Brightfire roadblock, was an undercover ABI man named Finch and a reporter and his cameraman from WBRC-6 News in Birmingham. Finch had been detailed to tail this bunch of mercenaries, The news crew was there because they had been alerted an hour before according to Jack Durer's clandestine media plan that "something was going on in Winston County."
The crew had missed seeing and filming the balloon assault on the blimp, but they were now aware of it thanks to Finch, who they thought was a local. The crew had stopped here ten minutes ago to get sodas and ask directions. They broke out their gear when the mercenaries hotwired the roadgrader and moved it into place. The screech of Peewee's truck tires brought the camera back up and running.
Finch, having a better idea of what was about to happen or perhaps just out of an abundance of experienced caution, took cover behind the ice machine and drew his pistol from under his shirt.
In a normal law enforcement operation, this was perfect. The four mercs on the roadblock were loaded for bear and one of them even had an M-240 medium machine gun on a bipod laying across the hood of the Hummer. Chambered in 7.62 NATO, it was loaded with standard military fare, a hundred round belt of one tracer for every four ball rounds.
The criminals were caught in a bag of overwhelming fire power and only a madman would have tried to shoot it out rather than meekly surrender. And despite the frightened pilot's low opinion of him, when it came to HIS skin, Peewee was decidely NOT crazy. He folded like a cheap suit, got out of the pickup slowly with his hands in air and told Jerry to do the same.
But this wasn't "a normal law enforcement operation." Still, for a long moment it looked that way.
Sheriff Johnson called out to the two men to turn around, face him and get down on the ground. Peewee was relieved to see it was Carter Johnson himself and he knew now he was going to live. He immediately complied and so did Jerry Winfield. Carter came around the trunk of his patrol car with his pistol up, motioning downward as walked forward to emphasize his command. Dick Williams, a deputy with nine years on the force and a wife and three kids, did likewise from the other car.
Here's the thing that no one could figure out later. All four of these Brightfires were Americans born and bred. No foreigners, they had grown up with the idea that when a criminal is called upon to surrender and he complies, he is cuffed and taken off to jail after having his rights read to him. There were no language difficulties here. Everyone within earshot understood what had happened, what was happening, and where this would go from here.
Only it didn't.
Maybe somebody thought that Peewee was Charlie Quintard, the murderous ghostly Indian who had "disappeared" armed men by means of black magic, even though Peewee looked nothing like him. Maybe somebody thought that their chance at a million dollars was going to walk away and into a Sheriff's car. Maybe the gunner didn't intend to kill anybody other then Peewee. The M-240 is a hoss of a weapon and maybe the recoil got the better of him.
You could count the maybes forever and still not understand why that M-240 started up, catching Peewee in the back and head as he was dropping down, blowing his brains out on the blacktop and then, muzzle rising, stitching the Sheriff diagonally from right kidney to spine to heart. Carter Johnson, ex-Marine, survivor of many a battle in South Vietnam and thirty plus years of law enforcement, died without a sigh on a public road in his own home county. The only thing that crossed his mind as he fell was that Skeeter Haynes was going to win that primary after all.
When the M-240 quit, there was dead silence. Then the rest of the mercs, knowing about the camera crew, seeing the dead Sheriff and the looks on the deputies' faces turning from shock to wrath, decided that there had better be just one narrative told of this and that it had best be theirs. In the silence, they made their decision, and the guns behind the HumVee and the grader started up once more.
Dick Williams, rooted in place out in the open, died next, hit by 5.56mm fire from an M-4. Then Jerry Winfield, screaming and cursing.
Then it was Horace Pines' turn. Horace was a reserve deputy who wasn't even getting paid to do this crap. He was a volunteer and he paid the price. Frightened to death and huddled down behind the rear of the Sheriff's own car, the M-240 rounds sieved it and him, tracers detonating the gas tank and setting him afire. When the second sweep of the belt finally killed him, he didn't mind.
One of the mercs remembered the camera crew and carefully shot the reporter through the head, only to killed by a shot from the pistol of a very lucky ABI Agent Finch that blew through the Brightfire's clenched teeth and lodged in the medulla oblongata. The mercenary went down like a sack.
The M-240 shifted toward Finch and the ice machine and as it did, Arthur Curtis Looney, descendant of a famous Winston County Unionist and the last deputy alive, leaned across the hood of the remaining patrol car and hit the gunner with a 12 gauge shotgun slug that went in through the flabby flesh of his left arm, just over the side panel of his Interceptor body armor and traversed the chest cavity.
The gunner, whose finger was already on the trigger, reflexively began firing as he spun and fell, killing the man beside him who was shooting at the cameraman and Finch and missing them both. The dying gunner's burst also flushed from cover the last merc, who had to come from behind the big road grader tire to get away from deadly stream. In doing so, he was hit by three of Finch's pistol rounds and two of Looney's 12 gauge slugs.
His body armor stopped some.
He didn't die immediately, but after he was disarmed of his M-4 carbine and M-9 pistol by Finch, nobody bothered trying to give him first aid either.
Throughout it all, the camera never blinked, though the subsequent footage had a blurry spot in the lower right that wouldn't go away. It was a tiny piece of the reporter's scalp with one long, carefully combed hair sticking out of it. Bullets do funny things.
How the cameraman hadn't died, he couldn't figure out. There were 5.56mm holes in the post he had been steadying the camera against. One of them, right where his head had been, had hit a knot and turned just enough to miss him, expending the rest of its green-tipped energy in the wall of the bait store behind him.
Looking down at the ruined face of the pretty-boy reporter who he'd never really liked, he knew that from this day he could either become a drunkard or a convinced Christian for the rest of his life. One or the other. He'd never been a church-going guy and at that particular moment he badly wanted a shot of Jack Daniels.
In the end, he went home with his prize winning footage, told his story over and over again a hundred times in the next few days, hugged his wife and two little kids repeatedly . . . and went to church that Sunday and every Sunday after.
Charlie Quintard didn't know how he knew, but he knew he was being tracked. It wouldn't matter if the extraction vehicle was there, and he was already over the second ridge and almost to the road.
On the road, about a hundred and twenty yards down from where Charlie was going to come out, was Jimmy Flynn in obedience to Will Shipman's orders to be at Point A for the link-up. Flynn sat in his official military surplus Winston County Volunteer Search and Rescue ambulance, dressed in his official SAR uniform, with his heart in his throat, making a poor job of whistling "Finnegan's Wake" as he tried to steady his nerves. It wasn't working. The song reminded him that his family were relative newcomers to Winston County, but were no strangers to gunfire.
Jimmy was mostly descended from a short line of Irish coal miners, the first of whom had gotten mixed up in some IRA business in the Forties when the entire western world was supposed to be fighting Nazi tyranny -- only nobody had told the Irish republican holdouts. They still cursed the long-dead Michael Collins and "that bloody treaty." Some in the IRA thought they had an identity of interest with the Germans as an enemy of the British and one of them was Patrick Flynn, who hadn't even been born in 1916, and was only a newborn in 1921.
The IRA taught Patrick Flynn to be a bombmaker -- his teacher was an old Fenian with just six fingers left on both hands -- and sent him to London on an abortive sabotage bombing campaign that failed before it started because the Brits owned the Nazi spy ring he was supposed to work with. Almost killed in the roundup, Patrick escaped with Webley revolver bullet holes in his clothes and talked his way onto Liberty ship that needed a stoker. The forged US passport which indicated he had been born in America helped, as did the religious preference expressed on it -- "P" for Protestant. Orangemen were thought to be much more trustworthy than Catholics and sabotage was still a lively concern.
Patrick often joked later about his "conversion," but his documents were good enough to get him a job once he jumped ship in New York and headed to the coal fields of Alabama -- which had the double advantage of being starved for competent help as well as being just about as far from the U.S. immigration authorities in New York as you could get without crossing the Mississippi River. And Patrick Flynn was a very competent blaster. If he hadn't had a chance to use his skills on the Brits, it wasn't his fault. But there was a war on and coal was a vital part of that war. Nobody looked too close at his story, and besides, Patrick Flynn had always been a convincing liar with more than a touch of the blarney.
By the time Patrick died early of black lung in the 1960s, nobody thought of him as anything other than American, including close family friends. The menfolk of his family knew the secret though, and it was passed from father to son. And there were always plenty of Flynn sons. Jimmy was the third of four in his family, and he had cousins who came from families of six, seven, even nine siblings. Work hard, have sons, die young -- that had been the Flynn inheritance. Only Jimmy had escaped the mines and had no intention of ever going. Factory work was safer and cleaner. Besides, the mine jobs were drying up and blowing away anyway. And Jimmy was determined to be a solid, dependable breadwinner for his soon-to-be new wife.
Flynn prayed he would get to see Katy Dobson after THIS day. He prayed and he whistled some of the "old tunes" as his father had called them. Jimmy's favorite had always been Finnegan's Wake. Still, he was doing a real poor job of it when two things happened almost simultaneously -- Charlie Quintard broke from cover onto the road more than a football field away and Finley's Humvee rounded the curve less than half that distance past Charlie.
Charlie took it all in in a glance and without breaking stride, bolted across the road and up the rising ground of yet another ridge and beyond that, a sure-'nuff mountain. Charlie knew the ground and realized he would have to deal with his pursuers before he caught a ride out of hell. So up he went, past Point A and off to what he hoped was freedom, leaving the tracker team leader with a dilemma.
At this point, Finley screwed up. It was the bow and quiver that first threw him. Charlie had the bow slung across his back from high left to low right and so it was the first thing that Finley noticed about him. Bow and arrows? Bow and ARROWS? I knew he was Cherokee but bow and arrows? Since the MAC-10 was slung up tight in his right armpit, and the Brightfire vehicle approached from Charlie's left, it was shielded from Finley's sight.
The team leader didn't know how close Ahmed and Docker were to the road, but in any case they had to be right on Quintard's tail. Charlie was already lost to sight in the vegetation. On the other hand, there sat the Indian's salvation less than 200 yards away down a rutted but straight road. A million dollars just crossed the road, but there sits his ride. We've just about got the Indian run to ground, but his help probably knows the ground as well as he does, and that's better than we do. Take him out of the equation and the Indian has to hoof it out and we'll track him and kill him.
That was the second thing that threw him.
He tried to have it both ways and got neither. He ordered Armando to go for the ambulance, while he leaned out the window to take it under fire. This was just plain stupid because nobody hits a target that far away down a rutted roadway from a bouncing vehicle without God's own miracle making it happen. God was not on Finley's side this day, nor it would later turn out, on any other day either.
In fact, by shooting at Jimmy Flynn, Finley shocked him out of his fear-frozen reverie. Jimmy threw the ambulance into reverse gear and backed crazily down the road as fast as he could go and as he rounded the curve backwards, Finley lost sight of him. Screw this, Finley realized his mistake. The million dollars is headed in another direction. And Docker and Ahmed had to be tired. We'll lose him.
He ordered Armando into reverse and they got back to where Charlie crossed the road just as the other two mercs debouched onto the road to greet them. They were winded, fighting the extra weight of their body armor. Finley and Armando were not. They took up the lead, following Charlie up the ridge. Ahmed locked the vehicle, sucking in air, and then he and Docker followed up the ridge.
Jimmy Flynn kept backing up the narrow road until he got to an old rail bed that had serviced a nearby abandoned mine. Without missing a beat, he slewed the rear end of the ambulance onto the road bed and threw it into drive, retreating even faster down the narrow dirt track in forward as if the Hounds of Hell were still on his track.
They weren't. They were on Charlie's.
For his part, Charlie Quintard wasn't quite winded, but he was close. As he half-climbed, half-ran, Sherlock Holmes sprang into his consciousness. "Watson, the game's afoot!" Yeah, thought Charlie bitterly, and I'm the game. He made the crest of the third ridge and angled off down to the right, knowing where he was going but not yet knowing exactly what he was going to do when he got there. The backside of the ridge bottomed out into a flat area that many years ago had buildings sitting on it. The old railroad bed that Jimmy Flynn had turned around on came through the ridge by a short tunnel and cut through this flat space, leading to Charlie's destination. Miller Mine.
Charlie Quintard ran right up to bars across the mine entrance, shucked his bow and quiver and leaned them up against the rails. A look down told him it was as he had remembered -- the footprints left behind by somebody many years ago were still there in the coal dust, indistinct in the sunlight nearer the opening from the effects of winds. There were four sets, all going into the mine. He had to climb up a bit, but Charlie slipped between the bars and stepped down carefully into one of the larger marks. He then freshened the trail in the sunlight, moving in about twenty yards until he could barely see the originals. Then he carefully backed out in the same marks, heels held high.
As he raised his foot, to step up and out, he saw the black stuff stuck to his mocassins like glue. Damn. No time.
Before taking a step on the rail, he slipped the left moccasin off and stepped up on his bare foot. He stuck the moccasin in his open shirt, sliming himself but too scared and hurried to care. Then, holding onto the vertical rail with his left, he repeated the process with his right.
Up, then, and outside, but he didn't drop to the ground. Reaching down, he slung his bow and quiver again. Then Charlie Quintard climbed. He scrambled up using the horizontal stringers of the bars made from rails, gripping the verticals with his hands, his bare feet on the iron. Up, up, past the capstone with it's "1918" and Charlie dropped over the carved stone into the eroded hollow behind it just as Finley and Armando emerged from the trees across the open space.
Control, Charlie, he thought. CONTROL. You're not only going to breathe slowly through your mouth, you're not going to make the slightest noise. Fight the blackness. Fight the urge to suck it in. CONTROL. Breathe deeply now while you can, but don't gasp.
Slower as they approach. Slower. SLOWER.
As they approached the mouth of the mine, the mercenaries split up and did so from each side, Armando and Finley on right, Ahmed and Docker on the left, careful not to silhouette themselves for Charlie who they were all convinced had disappeared into the inky blackness beyond the sunlight. There was no other obvious place he could hide, was there? Finley scanned the mountainside and wondered, but not for long.
He hated to go into this ambush alley. In any other situation in any other war, he could have called on outside help to finish the job.
Could have and would have.
But not here and not now.
Part of it, a big part of it he knew, was the million dollars. Split four ways it was a lot.
Split one way was better.
But there was more to it than that.
He was cocky. He realized it, but he didn't care. The bow was part of it.
The fact that Finley hadn't spotted the MAC-10 was part of it too.
The fact that this guy couldn't be as smart as everybody feared he was because he had made a beeline to a death trap was also a consideration.
One way in and one way out, right?
Finally, they had the critical advantage -- they owned the darkness. They had PVS-14 night vision monoculars plus IR weapon sights and illuminators. They would spot him long before he would see them, if they stayed plastered up along the sides of the mine and moved slowly, quietly. He wouldn't even be able to see in the IR spectrum while they painted him plainly for death. The team had often killed in darkness or in the pitchblack inner corridors of urban buildings.
Their previous prey had all had guns -- they could shoot back -- and yet they were all deader than Julius Ceasar whereas Finley and his boys were still victorious, alive and kicking. All this guy had was a stone age bow and maybe a knife. Hell, this would be no different, unless you figured easier as different.
Yeah, maybe that's what the ten ATF agents thought. But then his pride and arrogance took over. Well, that was them and this is us. They were stupid gun cops, representative of an agency known to be a cesspool of foul-ups. Weren't they called "F Troop" for a reason? We, on the other hand, are the best there is at what we do. The size of our private-sector paychecks says so.
And on any level you wanted to examine it, the decision the Indian had made to go into the mine was a fatal error. Unless, Finley realized with a start, there WAS a way out.
The Indian was a local. This was his AO, his Area of Operations. If there was a way out of the mine, then Finley was the stupid one and not Charlie Quintard. An air shaft maybe?
Ahmed was examining the footprints as closely as he could from the safety of his side of the arch. Indeed, he recognized, they WERE the target's moccasins. The other trails he discounted as old from the weathering. The target was still alone. All the tracks went in, none came out. Why? Did they die inside? Was there another exit? He could read the same questions in Finley and Armando's faces across the way. Docker was behind him and facing away from the mine entrance, watching their backs as was his job.
Ahmed wanted his part of the million dollars, but he wanted to stay alive more. He hated this part of Finley's infidel country. He didn't mind that it was hot. Iraq had been hot, hotter than this. But the humidity of this place made him feel like he was being drowned as well as baked. This was as bad as the worst of Africa or Central America. It was as Allah willed it, but Ahmed fervently wished Allah willed differently.
Ahmed was not a dutiful Muslim, but his father had been and as he stared back in at the footprints again, he could hear his father's voice so long ago, reading one of Imam Zayn al-Abidin's Supplications:
How many an oppressor has oppressed me with his tricks,
set up for me the net of his snares,
appointed over me the inspection of his regard,
and lay in ambush for me,
the lying in the ambush of a predator for its game,
waiting to take advantage of its prey,
while he showed me the smile of the flatterer
and looked at me with the intensity of fury!
So when Thou saw, my God,
(blessed art Thou and high exalted)
the depravity of his secret thoughts
and the ugliness of what he harboured,
Thou threw him on his head into his own pitfall
and dumped him into the hole of his own digging.
So he was brought down low, after his overbearing
by the nooses of his own snare,
wherein he thought he would see me;
and what came down down upon his courtyard
-- had it not been for Thy mercy --
was on the point of coming down upon me!
There was more, but Ahmed couldn't remember it. He had been on the verge of concluding there might be something suspicious about the moccasin prints, but now the more he stared at them the less he cared about them. To hear his father's voice here, reading the Fourth Imam's wisdom, was a sign, a talisman. "Thou threw him on his head into his own pitfall and dumped him into the hole of his own digging." What was this mine but that?
With a quarter million US dollars (he had no doubt that Finley would treat him fairly) plus what he had saved he could quit this Allah cursed job in this Allah forsaken country and go back, if not home, maybe somewhere close. Lebanon? Even Libya looked good right now. He looked back at Finley with renewed confidence and zeal. Let's get this done.
Finley saw the look and nodded. Right, we've stood around here too long with our dicks in our hands. Let's take him. He hand signaled his decision to the other team members. Docker, who was too big to fit through the bars anyway, would stay here with the radio. Armando unburdened himself of it and set it on the ground. Docker would get it after the others were inside. The three of them couldn't fit through with their combat harnesses and body armor on so they took it all off and their patrol caps as well. They took out their PVS-14s from the protective cases, powered them up, checked them and then fitted the headbands securely, the units initially pivoted up and out of the way.
Ahmed would enter first, covered by Docker and Finley. Once in, he would put his harness and armor back on, advance twenty yards down the shaft keeping tight up against the dank wall and then cover Armando and Finley while they did the same. They began.
As Docker looked down the dark shaft, he was damned glad he was too big to enter. If he hadn't been, he would have invented an excuse to stay outside. This place gave him the bloody willies.
When he was little in South Armagh, he heard the Banshee one dark night. He'd never told a living soul, but he had.
Funny thing that. In all his travels and adventures into bloody mayhem and organized murder, he'd been scared plenty of times -- no sane man wouldn't be -- but he'd never been as scared as he had been as a lad when he'd heard the Banshee's high keening moan right outside his window.
And truth be told, when there was a job to do, he'd never before let his mind wander back to then. He was as smart an Orangeman as had ever drawn breath. That was why he was still alive. But just now, at this place, the Banshee's cries unhinged his logic, ravaged his memory and stole his courage. He shuddered. If the Banshee wasn't down that bloody great hole, then the Devil himself was and Patrick Docker was more than happy to stay right where he was. He'd get his cut of the million just the same.
Charlie's breathing was under control now and, other than his eyes and ears straining, he did his very best to emulate a corpse. He laid on his back just as he'd rolled over the stone into the erosion channel, the bow sticking into his ribs and spine like an iron rod. He didn't dare shift his weight. He felt ants crawling all over his bare feet.
He couldn't see anything of course, being down behind the keystone. When his ears heard the rustle and clunk of the body armor and harnesses coming off, the rip of the velcro, the shuffle of the boots, he knew they were going for it and couldn't believe his great good luck. When he heard the muffled, receding crunch of the boots on wet coal dust, he knew he had won. He had been prepared, if discovered, to stand and rake them with the MAC-10 from above, trusting to God and his Cherokee ancestors to get them all before they got him. That hadn't been his plan.
His plan was to get them in Miller Mine and let the mine do the rest. You see, Patrick Docker wasn't far wrong about the Devil himself being down that shaft. Charlie knew that because of his eleventh grade science teacher, Mrs. Charlotte Wilson, and he blessed her now for the knowledge -- something he'd never thought he would do in a million years.
Part of the course requirements that year was a science fair project, and Mrs. Wilson being rather convinced of her own innate wisdom, selected the subjects for the students rather than letting them pick themselves. And poor Charlie Quintard, who couldn't have been interested in coal mines if he knew there were naked dancing ladies at the bottom of each and every one, drew "The Science of Coal Mine Safety." He didn't remember much about that project but he remembered this -- Miller Mine was closed down after repeated natural gas pockets had been hit.
There had been explosions too. Men had died, choked or blown apart, it made no difference except to the undertaker. This accounted for the ghost stories associated with the mine. But even after it was closed, there had been one great explosion that blew the wooden bulkhead off the great entrance.
A forest fire had raced across the top of the mountain one dry fall day in the early Fifties, and sparks from the burning pines had somehow drifted down one of the airshafts, igniting a pocket of gas which blew the bulkhead to splinters. That was why, when it was replaced, they used a grate of rails that was welded together well away from the mouth of the mine, lifted into place with a crane and set in concrete. The gas could now more easily vent instead of building up.
Which didn't mean that it didn't keep trying.
Charlie had been all over the mountain above Miller Mine, probably ten or twelve times in the past five or so years. He'd almost fallen into one of the old ventilation shafts on one of those jaunts. He knew where three of them were, including the nearest one which came out about 175 feet above his head, angling down at about a 45 degree angle into the mountain. He knew he could get to it in a scramble up the slope, but first he had to deal with the man left outside, who was shifting and pacing below, alternately turning to watch the woods behind him, then straining to see down the shaft.
All this Charlie deduced from the sound alone. In his head, he choreographed his next move, and the seven moves that would follow after that. He needed to kill the man quietly and would have preferred his bow, but as it was pinned beneath him that was out of the question. To leap upon his quarry with knife or tomahawk was too risky. Too much chance of failure and he had to be SURE of the man's quiet death in order to get the others as he planned.
He could move his left arm silently far enough to explore the accumulated gravel and larger rocks which had been left in place when the soil eroded away around them. His hand found a tennis ball sized rock, left it, searched for something bigger, failed and came back to it. He heard the man mutter to himself, and based on that tenuous evidence Charlie concluded that his feet were closer to the man than his head. That wouldn't do. When Charlie Quintard rolled up on the capstone, he needed the man to be on the other side of the mine's mouth, out of sight of his buddies working their way down it and looking away from him.
Charlie took a quiet breath, let it part way out, and flipped the rock as hard as he could over his left shoulder.
Inside the mine, Finley's hopes for a silent approach were shattered by the reality of the crunching wet coal dust, which seemed to thunder and echo every time one of them took a step or shifted his weight. We're about as stealthy as a freight train, he thought angrily. The green glow of the night vision revealed nothing. Neither did the IR illuminators. This place was dead. But the footprints still led away down the shaft, so they followed, slowly, cautiously, senses straining.
They were about a hundred yards down the shaft when Charlie flipped his rock.
When it hit among the sparse vegetation on the left of the mine entrance, it caused a small cascade of other loose stones and dirt. Docker's nerves, stretched taught by his relived memories of the Banshee and heightened by the sounds coming out of the black maw of the mine (which sounded in his imagination like the Devil chewing bones), caused him to jump, spinning toward the sound and almost -- not quite, but almost -- making him put a bullet into the miniature landslide.
If he had, Charlie's plan would have been out the window. But the Irishman's finger stayed outside the M-4's trigger guard as he had long ago learned, and he moved across the mine entrance over to the other side to scan up the hillside to see what might have caused it. When he did, Charlie had him.
Docker spun at the sound behind and above him in time to hear the almost instantaneous "CLACK, PHHHT, CLICK" of the MAC on semi-auto. His last thought, and only a half-formed one at that, was that it wasn't the Banshee after all. The 230 grain bullet caught him just beneath the eyebrow of his left eye, ranged downward, snapped his cervical spine at the base of his skull as it exited and flipped him backwards.
The IRA would remain forever disappointed that the Orangeman Docker had escaped their justice, which would have begun with an electric drill bit through the knee and descended in civilized conduct from there.
All standard .45 ACP loads are subsonic so there was no ballistic "crack!" -- just metal on metal of the bolt flying forward, chambering the round, firing it and cycling to rear with a click as the sear caught it again. In the shaft, deafened by their own crunching footsteps, the rest of the team heard nothing.
Damn, thought Charlie, Will Shipman was right about firearms having their place. Then he safed the MAC-10, pushed himself up off the stonework, took out his moccasins, placed them on his feet and threw himself at the mountain, scrambling up for the air shaft.
When Ahmed saw in his night vision that the footprints all abruptly stopped at the same spot, a thrill of terror shot through him that not even Allah could have prevented. "The noose of his own snare," the Fourth Imam had said. We are all dead men, he thought dully. He turned to yell "Run!," but was stopped by a clattering from up ahead.
Lungs heaving, gut churning, legs pumping, arms alternately clutching hillside and vegetation, finding handholds, propelling himself upward, Charlie finally gained the first ventilation shaft opening. The grate which had once covered it had long since rusted away.
Clumsily, with bleeding fingers, he tore at the M-15 grenade, clawing the tape away from it and the grenade away from the strap. It was blue-grey in color with a yellow band and weighed just short of two pounds. The delay on the fuze once the pin was pulled was supposed to be between 4 and 4.8 seconds, although Charlie didn't know that, having never been in the Army.
According to the accompanying note Shipman had given him, the smoke grenade was "to delay pursuit and make anybody chasing you think twice about getting close. Be sure you throw it far behind you toward the enemy and run like hell."
Charlie still didn't quite get that part. I mean, he thought, what's so scary about smoke?
The only thing he was hoping was that, being a smoke grenade, it would burn, and the burning might set off the gas and take out his pursuers permanently. He pulled the pin with his left hand, and threw the grenade down the shaft as hard as he could with his right, the spoon flying free, the striker hitting the primer on the fuze with a loud "POP!" It banged and clattered all the way down the shaft that had been cut so long ago in the stone.
Finley saw Ahmed turn, then freeze. Then he heard "pop" from a long way away and then the clatter coming closer.
Ahmed ran past him. Armando's and Finley's reflexes and habits were more ingrained. When a grenade is thrown at you, you find cover. If you can't find cover you throw yourself away from the grenade and down, putting the soles of your boots to the blast and hoping that the fragmentation blows over you, not into you. What you don't do is stand up and run away like Ahmed. Finley was congratulating himself on just how much smarter he was than the Iraqi when the M-15 went off and he realized just how wrong he was about that and everything else.
The fuze, being almost sixty-five years old, burned a little longer than it was designed to do. That was a good thing, because it meant the grenade had time to drop deeper into the ventilation shaft and Charlie had time to remember that he probably shouldn't be watching for it to quit sparking and start smoking.
He pulled his face away from the shaft opening and started to run down the hill on a tangent away from both the shaft and the entrance below.
Then the grenade went off with a huge boom, dwarfed and forgotten a half-second later as the gas in Miller Mine reached out to kill again with the blast wave of an atomic bomb simulation.
The Devil's own breath sought release, and then found it instantaneously out every ventilation shaft as well as the main entrance. The fiery blast deafened Charlie and blew him down the mountain, ass over appetite. He broke a rib on the MAC and his right leg on a large rock that got in his way. He came to rest tangled in some privet bushes, out like a light. All around Charlie's still form, rock slides large and small surrendered to gravity and cascaded down.
The grenade had been a smoke grenade, sure enough, but not your everyday ordinary "pop smoke" grenade that Charlie had once seen in a war movie.
The "WP" stood for White Phosphorous, the dreaded Willy Peter, the stuff that once it started burning produced prodigious amounts of smoke and kept on burning, even under water. Willy Peter did his duty that day and taught Charlie just how much he didn't know about military pyrotechnics.
Inside the mine, the fire blazed on, cooking the bodies, drying and setting the coal dust on fire, and long after the flames ceased to flare from the openings, smoke still poured out. It would do so for weeks. The smoke could be seen a long, long ways away.
Just before Jimmy Flynn hit the main highway in his flight away from Charlie Quintard and the Brightfire mercenaries -- some ten minutes after it had begun -- the road went up a hill that overlooked a large area behind him which had been logged. Something told him to stop here and see if he was really being followed.
And the longer he waited, the more he repeated the events in his head, the more he reproached himself for leaving Charlie Quintard to the mercy of those murdering mercenary bastards.
He tried to raise Charlie on the radio. He couldn't. He tried to raise Will Shipman. He couldn't. The chaos down in the valley was reaching its bloody denouement. OK, then, it was on Patrick Flynn's great grandson. He took the folding stock AK-74 out of the sports bag he carried it in and set it beside him on the passenger-side seat. Next to it, he deposited a five pocket Chinese shoulder-strapped pouch, containing thirty-round magazines loaded with 5.45x39 7N6 Russian military ball.
Gathering his courage into his own two hands, he turned the ambulance around and started to go back up the mountain approaches. Before he got the ambulance back onto to the road, somebody turned off the main highway and pulled up next to him.
Barton Meigs was as indignantly furious as he had ever been in his life. Or would ever be again, after he implemented the decision he had just made. By now he knew of the deaths of the Sheriff and his deputies, of Peewee Carpenter and his toady, of the WBRC reporter and of the four Brightfire mercenaries who had turned a bad day into the worst one of Barton Meigs' life. He also knew that the WBRC-6 cameraman and his footage were nowhere to be found, although the TV station van was still at Martin's Bait Shop. The shop owner had sworn the cameraman had just vanished along with some armed citizen who had helped the surviving deputy kill the Brightfire employees who had, apparently without cause, run amok.
It was imperative to get that footage before it was shown, he thought, but he knew it was a fool's errand. There would be no tampering with this evidence. He had agents on their way to stake out the TV station in Birmingham, but he knew that they'd never get a chance to seize the original.
Wearily Meigs looked up at his aide. "Yes?"
"Sir, the TV people are mostly here now in the briefing room downstairs. We're missing a couple of them but you wanted to know the soonest we could go with a statement and I think we can go with what we've got."
"OK," replied Meigs. The aide looked nervous. "Is there anything else?"
"Yes, sir, uh, AD Atherton is holding for you. He demands that you talk to him before you speak to the press."
"Tell him I'm on my way to the press conference, that you missed me, but that I left this message for him." Meigs pulled out a piece of fancy ATF stationery with his vain-but-now-dead predecessor's name on it. He scribbled a couple of lines and handed it to his aide. He waited while the aide read it and watched his face go white.
"Clear?" demanded Meigs.
"Yes sir," said the aide, who paused and then said, "Actually, sir, I'm going to enjoy giving the AD this message."
"Good man. Now let me go forth and do the Lord's work this day."
"Just a joke, son. A poor joke. And I think the joke's on me anyway."
Meigs left his office and his aide picked up the line.
"Meigs?" demanded Atherton before the aide had a chance to speak.
"No, Sir, this is Agent Winton."
"Put Meigs on, goddammit."
"I'm sorry sir, but he's already in the press conference, sir, but he did leave this message for you."
"That sonofabitch. What's the goddam message?"
"Well, its rather awkward, sir."
"Winton, just read me the goddam message or hit the goddam door."
"Er, yes sir, well it reads, 'Tell Atherton thank you for his brilliant idea of shoving these Brightfire maniacs down my throat and tell him I said to go f-ck himself in private. Tell him that if he doesn't know how to do that, then he can watch my press conference while I f-ck him myself in public.'"
Just before Winton heard the click on the other end, he heard the AD whisper, "Oh my God." Winton, who was a good Episcopalian, doubted God was paying much attention to what AD Atherton said. He smiled a mournful smile, the most he could muster on such a horrible day, and left the office. He did not bother closing the door. He was looking for a new job tomorrow no matter what happened next.
It was Jack Durer. He stopped the car, still halfway on the road, popped the trunk from the inside, got out, locked the doors and went to the trunk where he pulled out an M1928 Thompson submachine gun with Cutts compensator, fifty round drum and the whole nine yards. Durer also grabbed a baseball cap and a magazine pouch full of loaded thirty-rounders. He slammed the trunk lid and walked over to Jimmy who sat dumbfounded.
He had no idea who this old man was, but he didn't feel threatened. Durer was carrying the Thompson vertical to the ground by the foregrip, with the ballcap over the muzzle. It was all just matter-of-fact. One guy transferring his weapon to another guy's car so they could drive to the range.
Flynn couldn't take his eyes off the Thompson, which he had only seen in the movies. Durer opened the passenger door and saw the AK-74.
"Here hold this." He handed the Thompson to Jimmy, who took it gently, reverently, cradling it like a baby. It was beautiful, the lustrous wood, the gleaming blue. It was almost mint.
The ballcap fell into the floorboard. "And keep your finger off the trigger," he added sharply. Then, more matter-of-factly, "You mind if I move that out of the way?" Jack pointed at the AK-74.
"Huh?" said Jimmy, his eyes still on the Thompson. He'd been shot at for the first time in his life that day and his brain still wasn't working very well. Jack Durer explained.
"I'm coming with you to rescue Charlie Quintard," said Durer as he put the 74 on the floorboard between the seats.
"Oh, uh, OK."
"I've got a good idea where he's at from Will Shipman, but why don't you tell me what's happened so far today?"
"Uh, yeah, Will, OK," stammered Jimmy.
"Here, son, let me take that off your hands before you get a hard on."
"Huh? Oh, yeah." Flynn handed the Chicago Piano back to Durer.
"I never seen one before," marveled Jimmy, still astonished at the turn of events and this apparition of an old man who appeared out of thin air at precisely where he was by accident..
"Well, son, I'm kinda old fashioned. . . . If we get out of this alive, I'll let you shoot it some."
"I said, 'if'," Jack said flatly.
Then he added, more kindly but with a hint of exasperation, "Can you hand me my hat?"
"Uh, yeah," Jimmy groped around on the floor with his right hand and came up with it, and handed it to Durer.
"Thanks, son," and then he ordered, "Drive."
Jimmy put it back into gear and hit the accelerator.
"And tell me what the hell's been happening up here."
Charlie Quintard wished somebody would stop smashing his head flat with a sledgehammer. And can somebody please get that bayonet outta my ribs, and please, please stop stomping on my leg.
He came to slowly, painfully, still amazed at what his little smoke grenade had wrought. He tried to roll over, to get up, do anything but couldn't. Pinned in place by his pain and the privet. And the only thing he could hear was ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing.
"Can somebody stop that shit too?" he asked aloud plaintively. He didn't hear his own voice for the ringing.
The wind shifted and smoke blew across his little half-acre of Hell. Charlie choked and then immediately wished he hadn't.
Oh God above, please, my head. Please.
He passed out again.
When he next awoke, an old man and a young kid were carrying him down the hillside strapped to a litter. The were both strangers. Well, maybe he'd seen the kid somewhere, but he couldn't place him. They both carried long arms in addition to him, slung over their backs. An AK and was that a Thompson? Must be militia, he thought, then lost consciousness again.
He woke up in the back of a dark shell. It looked Army with dark green paint. Far away down a tinny reverberating well, the old man was telling the younger one something about a Humvee, a body, something had to be moved. Once more he gave over to the dark. Then, later, he was bouncing again down the hill. Oh God. OH GOD! Make it stop.
He opened his eyes. No he wasn't on the hill, he was bouncing around in the shell. When the bouncing turned his head, he shrieked in pain and then shrieked again when he saw the man he'd killed at the mouth of the mine laying beside him. Was he in Hell? Why was this dead guy following him around?
Before he could form an answer, once again, he passed out.
Finally, they were back at Jack Durer's car. They had been lucky, although both were exhausted, spent. You know, thought Jack, people say this all the time, but I REALLY AM TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT.
They'd been lucky with the keys. Like every competent team leader, the mercenary had insisted that all of his team members each carry a spare set of keys to their vehicle. The body was a real pain-in-the-ass inconvenience, but they couldn't leave it there with a .45 hole in its eye and forensic clues littered about. Better to add another chapter to the mystery of Big Bad Charlie Quintard.
They'd found the keys in the big dead man's pocket, gone back to the Humvee, moved it up to the Miller Mine using the overgrown railroad right of way. They left the Humvee like they found it, but took the remains of the radio, Docker and all his kit.
They left the Humvee, in fact, like the Brightfire team had just stepped out of it, walked in and blew themselves up in a mine that everybody around here with any sense knew was full of natural gas.
Jack liked the kid's idea for disposing of the body. He even understood the classical reference that occasioned it. And it would provide good cover if the kid were stopped at a roadblock, if his guts and his cover story held up. An ambulance in a hurry had to have casualties aboard.
A good day's work, if you could call such butchery in a cause good. He'd heard about the innocents who'd died, even about the sixteen year old kid, who even if she made it, would curse her lot the rest of her days. He knew that he bore more than a little responsibility for that . . . for arranging this evil day. Still, he told himself the old lie that he'd told himself all his life.
Yeah, you got some people killed but you saved many more lives than that by doing so. He told himself that, but deep down he wasn't sure he believed it any more. It still hurt. May God forgive me.
Jack Durer took his Thompson and his mag pouch and his exhausted old carcass and put them all in their proper places in his car. It would be a long drive home. He had changed history again today, by just a little bit.
He hoped it was enough.
Jimmy Flynn, knowing now what he had to do and wondering if he'd ever see another M1928 Thompson again, immediately took off down the main road with his red lights running and his siren blowing. And as he drove he began to sing with the ebullience and elation that only those who have danced with death and lived can understand:
Tim Finnegan lived in Walken Street, a gentle Irishman mighty odd
He had a brogue both rich and sweet, an' to rise in the world he carried a hod.
You see he'd a sort of tippler's way, but the love for the liquor poor Tim was born.
To help him on his way each day, he'd a drop of the craythur every morn.
Whack fol the dah now dance to yer partner, around the flure yer trotters shake
Wasn't it the truth I told ye? Lots of fun at Finnegan's Wake.
One morning Tim got rather full, his head felt heavy which made him shake
Fell from a ladder and he broke his skull, and they carried him home his corpse to wake
Rolled him up in a nice clean sheet, and laid him out upon the bed
A bottle of whisky at his feet and a barrel of porter at his head.
Whack fol the dah now dance to yer partner, around the flure yer trotters shake
Wasn't it the truth I told ye? Lots of fun at . . .
Oh shit. Flashing blue lights. Roadblock ahead.
Jimmy began to brake.
Every eye in the room was on Barton Meigs. This was a press conference like none that the ATF had ever held. Meigs was saying that innocents had died this day in Winston County and that the ATF was responsible for them. He had taken responsibility for the killings. Incredible. It was said the Birmingham ambulance-chasing trial lawyers were already flocking to the funeral homes.
The rumor was that an ABC affiliate had footage of the murders, yes, MURDERS, of Winston County law enforcement officers at the hands of Brightfire contractors working for ATF. The national network had certainly preempted two hours of prime time tonight for a special. Rumor was, the Governor of Alabama was going to serve notice that all Brightfire employees AND ATF agents were being ordered to leave the state immediately. Rumor was, the Attorney General of Alabama was going to charge the entire Brightfire corporate chain of command with conspiracy to murder.
"I have ordered that all Brightfire employees in my region cease operations immediately. I want everyone to understand they have no authority from me to act in any capacity under their old contracts. I hereby revoke them unilaterally and call on my superiors to ratify my decision. They no longer have any legal authority to conduct operations of any kind in my region. If they continue to do so, I hope that law enforcement agencies at every level will apprehend them as the criminals and outlaws that they have proven themselves to be.
I have, to the extent that it is possible at my paygrade, initiated a full agency investigation of the circumstances of this tragedy and further, I have sent letters to the President, the appropriate congressional oversight committees and the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Inspector General's Office at Justice, to conduct independent inquiries asking that they whitewash nothing.
I will tell you now, before any investigation compels me to do so, that I was directed, no, ordered, by Assistant Director Atherton, over my objections, to accept Brightfire employees in lieu of trained federal law enforcement agents. I believe that the innocent blood that was shed this day in Winston County, Alabama is on his hands as much as any other man's. As far as who may have ordered him to do so, you must seek answers higher up. I hope the investigations that surely will come will find out.
Finally, I'd like to say this. I have worked all my life for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. I have been mostly proud of my agency over the years. I say mostly proud because we have been given a difficult, unpopular job by the elected representatives of this nation without much thought on their part as to how we might carry out their whims, some of which frankly make no sense. Over the years, my agency like every other human agency on earth, has made mistakes. But in recent years, we have been made into a bully boy agency by politicians who wish to engineer social control on the cheap against the will of a substantial number of the people. In the process, some of my fellow agents, and especially some of our higher management, have lost sight of the oaths we took when we signed on.
It was in this spirit that my predecessor in this job targeted Phil Gordon for enforcement action. I have read all the surviving files on Phil Gordon. I believe he was targeted for his opinions, not for any violation of law he may have committed before he found out he was being targeted. I believe that Mr. Gordon felt, as many of our people have felt over the years, that the federal government has gotten too big for its britches and too unaccountable for its mistakes. I think that Mr. Gordon believed, in the light of some recent cases, that he could no longer get a fair trial in the federal courts of this country.
I do not condone what Phil Gordon did. Many of the agents killed that terrible day on Sipsey Street were my friends, some of them lifelong friends, and I grieve for them still. I grieve for their wives and their children and for the terrible loss of their future contributions to this nation. But while I do not condone what Phil Gordon did, in the light of this day's bloody events, I better understand him.
I end by begging you all, my fellow Americans, whether you be community leaders, politicians, law enforcement officers or just citizens . . . I beg you all, let us back up for a moment, take a deep breath and try to reason our way through this crisis before it is too late.
As for me, I have given notice that I will be resigning my duties in two weeks so that I may work on my legal defense in the cases that are sure to arise from this tragedy and for failing in my responsibility to keep it from happening. Thank you."
In the headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, the Captain switched off the press conference. The Major General, lost in thoughts of childhood, pressed his fingers to his eyes, fighting tears.
"Sir," said the Captain, "you must be very proud of your brother." The Major General didn't look up, but said in a husky voice, "Well, I never was much before, but I sure as hell am now."
The Captain, understanding that he had been dismissed, said, "Goodnight, sir."
When the Captain closed the door, the general let the tears roll down. "Well done, Bartie. Well done," he whispered.
AD Atherton snapped off the television in his Washington office. "He's a dead man walking. If I do nothing else before I leave this office, I'm going to make sure of that."
The President of Brightfire replied mildly, "Well, you never can tell what might happen."
Jimmy Flynn came to a stop. Art Looney, senior deputy and now acting Sheriff as of an hour ago, walked up to the ambulance.
Art Looney looked a lot older than Jimmy ever remembered him being. He would have thought it weird had he known, but Art Looney thought the same of him.
"I was hopin' you'd come this way," said Art. He paused, and then smiled. "OK, pass friend." He motioned the ambulance forward, and turned to the roadblock.
"OPEN UP!" Looney ordered his men.
A cruiser began to roll aside, making an opening.
"Kill the lights and the siren. You're just drawing attention to yourself."
"YES, SIR!" He saluted and Art Looney laughed as the kid eased the ambulance through the roadblock.
There was one thing Sheriff Carter Johnson had been wrong about. Skeeter Haynes wasn't going to win that primary after all. After today, Arthur Curtis Looney had decided he was going to run for the job. And after today, he would win.
Well, it was done.
Charlie Quintard had been delivered to the safe house.
He would be OK, though his convalescence would take a while. The doctor was sure of that. Will had no fear of the doctor speaking outside of church. He was his cousin, and a Shipman. In Winston County, that's all you had to know.
Will Shipman had also made certain of another thing.
A new coon dog pup, just weaned, awaited Charlie there.
He's been through hell, Shipman knew, but this ain't over yet, not by a long shot, and they would need Charlie Quintard. His state, his country, would need him. Although how you defined that country after today might differ with your proximity to its events.
The big dead mercenary was where he had belonged all along and Jimmy Flynn was slamming the doors on the ambulance and about to be on his way back to the Winston County Volunteer Search and Rescue building in Double Springs.
He'd called Katy to let her know he was all right. After all the killing she'd been worried to death. She told him about the ABC special that was due to come on any minute and promised him she'd save it on disc for him.
"I love you, Jimmy," she said.
"I love you too, baby. I'll call you when I get home."
He looked down one last time at the dead merc. He'd been stripped of every stitch of clothing and was as naked as the day he came into the world in South Armagh, Northern Ireland. He wouldn't have to fear Banshees any more, though Jimmy wondered if maybe he hadn't gone to the place where Banshees ruled the night that never ended.
But wherever he was, this was the perfect ending for him today.
What was it that Will Shipman had said?
"Dulce et decorum est," I think.
Anyway, it meant "it is sweet and fitting." Shipman had told him some months ago about a book that had been written back the 90s, a fiction book by a guy named John Ross, about the ATF pickin' on the wrong guy, just like they did Phil Gordon in real life. Anyway, this guy had a way of gettin' rid of the bodies.
He fed 'em to the hogs.
And Jimmy had just dumped the Brightfire mercenary's mortal remains right in the middle of a wild hog wallow on the back forty of an abandoned farm just south of the Bankhead National Forest. He could hear the boars grunting in the brush out past the illumination of the ambulance's headlights not a hundred yards away. Well, they're shy, he thought. They'll be needin' me out of the way before they dine.
"Eat hearty, boys an' girls," he called, and he hopped back in the driver's seat and drove off.
That night the herd dined on foreign food. Exotic, but still tasty and quite filling.
And as he drove back home, Jimmy picked up the song:
His friends assembled at the wake, and Mrs Finnegan called for lunch.
First she brought in tay and cake, then pipes, tobacco and whiskey punch.
Biddy O'Brien began to cry, "Such a clean corpse, did you ever see,
Tim avourneen, why did you die?" "Will ye hold yer gob?" said Paddy McGee.
Whack fol the dah now dance to yer partner, around the flure yer trotters shake
Wasn't it the truth I told ye? Lots of fun at Finnegan's Wake.
Then Maggie O'Connor took up the job, "Biddie," says she, "You're wrong, I'm sure."
Biddy gave her a belt in the gob and left her sprawling on the floor.
Then the war did soon engage, t'was woman to woman and man to man
Shillelagh law was all the rage and a row and ruction soon began.
Whack fol the dah now dance to yer partner, around the flure yer trotters shake
Wasn't it the truth I told ye? Lots of fun at Finnegan's Wake!
Mickey Maloney ducked his head when a bucket of whisky flew at him.
It missed, and falling on the bed, the liquor scattered over Tim.
Bedad he revives, see how he rises, Timothy risin from the bed,
Saying "Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, t'undering Jaysus, do ye think I'm dead?!?"
Whack fol the dah now dance to yer partner, around the flure yer trotters shake
Wasn't it the truth I told ye? Lots of fun at Finnegan's Wake!
Jimmy Flynn laughed, remembering Charlie Quintard's delivery to the safehouse. The beat up Indian had roused from his headache and concussion long enough to look around and ask, "What's your name?"
Jimmy Flynn didn't know if they should be using real names just now so he said, "Mickey Maloney."
"Huh?" said Charley, "you'll have to speak louder." The effort damn near made him pass out.
So Jimmy shouted, "Mickey Maloney!" with a grin. Then impulsively he added loudly, "I'm the guy who ducked the pail of whisky."
Huh? Whisky? That damn ringing. Had he heard that right? Charlie started to ask, but then had a better question.
"And the old guy, who was he?"
"Why that was Paddy McGee!"
Jimmy Flynn paused. Then he shouted in a badly-faked brogue, "And yer bloody Tim Finnegan! Welcome back to the living!"
Charlie closed his eyes then. His brain just couldn't take the confusion right now. He was asleep before Jimmy Flynn turned to go.
Taking his leave of Mrs. Walker, who would care for Charlie these first few weeks in her cabin way up in hills of nearby Walker County, he had walked out the door, laughing.
He was whistling "Finnegan's Wake."
Ten days later, Barton Meigs was found dead of a heart attack in his office in Nashville. He had been cleaning out his desk. The agency had refused his resignation. He had been fired and action was in the works to strip his family of his pension. Oddly, there was a mixup at the Nashville morgue and his body was cremated in error. They were very sorry for the mistake.
William Winton, his former aide, said that he'd died of a broken heart for an agency he had loved.
Barton Meigs' brother knew it was murder.
Three days after Barton's ashes were scattered over Winston County, Alabama by his brother -- a place neither of the Meigs boys had ever been to or even thought about before the Battle of Sipsey Street -- Jack Durer got a private message from a mutual friend asking that he discreetly contact a certain active duty Major General.
He had some things to discuss bearing upon the peace and security of a southern state.