Travis Scott, in a single fluid motion, rolled upright on the bed ending with him sitting on the edge of the bed and his feet planted lightly but firmly on the floor. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and looked around, but as he expected, he was alone in the bedroom. He had known he would be. Janice had gotten up earlier, leaving him as she showered and made coffee. Still, he had lain there for five minutes, eyes shut, while he listened to the creaks of the floorboards, pinpointing where she was and what she was doing.
Janice Northcott chose that moment to return to her bedroom, carrying a pair of mismatched coffee mugs. “Well, don’t you look cute! You expecting me to join you or something?” Janice was wearing a long denim button-front skirt, unbuttoned to the knees, and a crisp white blouse with an open denim vest over it. Travis, on the other hand, was still dressed the way they had gone to bed the night before, naked. Janice had slept that way also, though Travis knew she normally went to sleep in a t-shirt and running shorts. He always slept naked.
Travis smiled at her. “If that’s an offer, I wouldn’t turn it down. You might want me to brush my teeth first.”
“Tempting, but not so practical. Somebody kept me up all night doing unspeakable things for hours on end! I don’t have the strength or the time. I need to open the shop,” she replied.
“Unspeakable, huh?” he snorted. “You seemed to be doing an awful lot of speaking last night, mostly along the lines of ‘Don’t stop!’ and ‘Do that again!’”
Janice blushed. “Hush! It must have been all the alcohol you plied me with.”
“Right,” he drawled out slowly.
“Do you want coffee or not?”
He smiled and stood up. “Absolutely.”
Janice handed him the cup, and as he moved away to grab his bag, she goosed his butt. “Maybe I can close the shop early this afternoon,” she teased.
Travis just smiled and began sipping his coffee. Janice left him to clean up and dress. First things first. He grabbed the gym bag from the floor beside her dresser and put it on the bed. He had packed it before coming into town, with several changes of clothes and his toilet kit. He grabbed the kit and headed for the bathroom.
Looking in the mirror on the medicine cabinet door, he briefly considered the face staring back. For the most part, it was plain and unremarkable. Travis Scott was five-foot ten-inches tall and weighed one-hundred-and-seventy-five pounds. He had light brown hair with just a hint of gray at the temples, and light blue eyes. His nose was straight, his jaw was square, his cheekbones were average, and he was clean-shaven, though he definitely needed a shave. His beard was perhaps the most noticeable thing about him. He had a heavy beard and often had to shave twice a day. If he let it grow, he’d have a beard in a week.
Ten minutes later, the coffee mug was empty, and Travis was showered and shaved. He returned to the bedroom and grabbed his gym bag, pulling out some underwear, a red flannel shirt, and a pair of khakis. Five minutes later he was down the short hallway to Janice’s kitchenette, pouring himself another mug of coffee. He could hear Janice moving around down below, preparing to open shop for the day.
Janice Northcott lived on the second floor of what had once been a Victorian-style home just west of Everest on Route 91. The first floor was her store, Pins&Needles, which sold an odd mix of Victorian-style dresses and touristy kitsch. Being just down the road from Everest State College meant she had a steady stream of flaky liberal types among the parents and tourists. It also meant she could hire one or two college-age coeds to work in the store as needed. Janice had bought the store five years before and remodeled the second floor into an apartment; she lived upstairs and worked downstairs.
Two Years Ago
Travis walked into the store, not because he had need for either Victorian dresses or tourist crap, but because the gas station across the street had suffered a cooler malfunction and they didn’t have any cold Coke. He had been pointed across the street, with the advice, ‘She’s pretty old, but she’s got a cooler for soda and a freezer for ice cream, too!’
Travis had crossed the street, expecting to find the original owner from the 1800s running the place, and was pleasantly surprised when he found that the ‘old lady’ looked like she was in her early thirties. It was an age that looked good on her. The laugh lines gave her some character that the teenager working behind the counter was lacking. She was trim, medium height, with frosted blonde hair that was shoulder length, bright blue eyes, and she had a figure that she didn’t need to be ashamed of.
“Hi!” she had greeted him. “Looking for soda or ice cream?”
“Good guess,” he had responded.
She laughed brightly. “No guess. I saw you walk over from the Quik-Stop, and you’re just the latest today. Their cooling system goes out about once a month. That and the fact that you don’t look like you need any pins or needles.”
“No, not hardly.” Travis smiled. “I hate to tell you, but the clerk over there implied you were as old as your building.”
Janice had rolled her eyes at that. “Let me guess, young kid, bad acne, looks like he’s still in kindergarten?”
“You know him?”
“That’s Bobby Guilfoyle. He’s in middle school. I think anybody over sixteen is ancient to him. Want to watch me go over and whack him with my cane?”
Travis had laughed at that. “Just promise me that when you leave here you’ll run over his toes with your wheelchair.”
The pretty shopkeeper giggled at that. “What can I get you?” she asked, leading him to the cooler.
There was something about Janice Northcott that intrigued Travis from that first meeting, and it was several hours before he headed back to his Jeep, with the promise of a date the following weekend. That had been just under two years ago. Since then he had learned a fair bit about her. Janice was thirty-seven, had been married twice and divorced twice, and though she didn’t have any children, she had about a dozen nieces and nephews who she doted on. Most of them lived in Florida and California, so every December she would shut down the store for a month and spend the holidays visiting them.
Travis finished his second cup of coffee and headed down the back stairs. There he ran into Traci Woods, an impossibly young girl with too many earrings in her ears for his taste, and another through her left eyebrow. Janice had told him it was ‘just a fad’ but it wasn’t a fad he cared for. Still, she was a pleasant enough young lady, working part-time to help with her college bills. She held up a pair of linen outfits. “Do these go in dresses or skirts?” she asked.
He snorted and shook his head. “Whatever I tell you will be wrong, and then the boss will yell at both of us.”
She smiled and shook her head. “You’re no help, Mister Scott, no help at all!” With that she turned around and went in search of Janice. Travis followed, though not out of any burning desire to learn about the dress-versus-skirt issue. “Janice? Dresses or skirts?”
Janice pointed the girl in the right direction, and then turned to Travis. “I need to go into town. Want to come along?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“My printer died, and I need to pick up a new one. Staples is right on 91, and if I can’t find one there, I can run to Office Depot or someplace else.”
Travis nodded and followed her out the door, but then changed his mind. “Hold on a second. You’ll never fit it in the back seat of your car. Let me run back in and get my keys. We can put it in the back of my truck.”
“Oh.” Janice looked at her Honda Civic and nodded in agreement. Travis drove around in a Chevy Silverado. “What about if it rains?”
“The forecast is bright and sunny. Worse comes to worst, I can throw a tarp over it.”
She shrugged. “Okay.”
It took three stops to find a printer and copier combination she liked, and before heading back, they stopped at a small barbecue place on 91 for lunch. It was only after lunch that a problem occurred. Travis paid the bill, but then excused himself to use the rest room, while Janice headed back outside to get in the truck. By the time Travis made it outside, Janice was being braced by a trio of redneck ranch hands. All three looked fairly rough around the edges, and despite the relatively early hour, it was pretty obvious they had already been into a few beers too many.
The largest was several inches taller than Travis, and also at least twenty pounds heavier. He was wearing a denim shirt that had seen better days and had the logo of the Wobbly L Ranch. He leered down at Janice and said, “What the problem, baby? Come on, let’s have lunch!” His friends made some rude remarks and whistled.
“Thanks, but I just had lunch,” she replied. She tried to sidle past them but found herself boxed in under the overhead porch. She looked around, trying to escape, and began backing up towards the front door.
Travis tapped the drunk’s right shoulder from behind, and when he turned to the right, Travis slipped to his left and put himself between the cowboy and Janice. “Time to go,” he told her.
The drunk twisted back around. “Hey, who are you? I was talking to her!”
“Sorry, we need to go.”
“You ain’t going nowhere!”
Travis sighed and rolled his eyes. “Not looking for any trouble, friend. Have a nice lunch.” He stepped back, forcing Janice also to step away. This also forced the other two cowboys away, giving them a path to exit.
“Who the fuck are you to tell me what to do?” demanded the drunken cowboy. He grabbed for Travis, but Travis simply side-stepped him and kept moving backwards.
“Go get in the truck,” Travis quietly told her. He felt Janice moving backwards, and the looks on the others’ eyes told him she was moving away.
It took the big drunk longer to figure out than the others. “Hey! Fuck you!” He took a wild left-handed roundhouse swing at Travis, who simply shook his head as he backed away, dodging the blow. That didn’t stop the fight though, since the follow-up was an equally wild right-hand punch. Half smiling to himself, Travis stepped backwards, forcing the drunk to lean forward to try and connect. Travis moved his head back, and at the same time used his right foot to nudge a cigarette butt receptacle from near the doorway in between them. Off balance, the drunk tripped over the receptacle and fell into the window on the front of the restaurant, breaking it and falling inside.
Travis looked over at the other two, now staring in shock as their friend yelled in pain. “I think you’d better call 9-1-1, guys. I think your buddy needs to go to the emergency room.” With that he backed away and went to his truck.
Janice had already climbed inside and locked the doors, but she unlocked them as Travis calmly approached. “What happened?”
“He tripped and fell. Looks like he’s going to need a few stitches.”
“Hey, I’m a lover, not a fighter! I just backed away. Ready to go?” He smiled at her and started the truck up, smoothly putting it into gear before she even had a chance to reply.
“Travis, you didn’t have to do anything. I could have handled him myself,” she replied. “It’s not like we’ve never had drunken cowboys in Everest before. The place was practically built by them!”
Travis snorted and laughed. “That is so very true! Seriously, though, I never touched the guy. He simply fell over his own feet.
She gave him a suspicious ‘Hmmmppphhh!’, but then smiled and shrugged. “Well, you can make it up to my sense of pride by hooking up the printer.”
“Your sense of pride? Is that short for you don’t know how to install a printer?”
Janice smiled at him. “Well, I was planning on taking the rest of the afternoon off to reward you for hooking it up, but if you don’t want to help…”
He glanced over at her and then turned back towards the road. “Just exactly what kind of reward did you have in mind?” Janice didn’t answer, but simply put her left hand on his right knee and squeezed.
The drive back to the store, and the installation and testing of the printer, took a bit under an hour, after which Janice led Travis back to the upstairs apartment. Considerably more time was spent in the reward process, after which Janice got dressed and went back down to the store to help close up the shop, while Travis dozed contentedly. They were already planning on dinner at the Painted Pony, an upscale steak house with a nightclub in the back. Travis thought the place was too snooty and gentrified, a place for the cowboy-wannabes in town, with lots of Native American kitsch that originally hailed from China. Still, Janice liked it, so he acquiesced.
Travis did admit, though not to Janice, that the coeds looked awfully cute in their fake Western clothes. That made it tolerable to him, and Janice made it enjoyable. They got there about eight and headed first to the ‘Longhorn Bar’ along the back wall. That was just more bullshit, as far as he was concerned; longhorn cattle were from Texas and had never traveled as far north as Montana. He mentioned it to Janice. She had looked at him curiously and said, “Never?”
Travis shook his head. “The conquistadores brought them over from Spain back when they discovered Mexico, and they got loose. They pretty much stick to Texas and Oklahoma. Never heard of them in the Plains States or the Rockies. Not saying it couldn’t have happened, but they aren’t locals.”
Janice looked at the painting of a longhorn over the bar. “Well, they’re cute.”
Travis made a wry smile at her as he glanced at the painting. A one-ton bull with horns six foot across did not strike him as anything remotely resembling ‘cute’. “I’m not so concerned about cute. I’m more interested in delicious. We are in a steak house, remember.”
She grinned and nodded in agreement.
After dinner, which both agreed had been brought about courtesy of a happy cow, they moved to the club in the back. “Weeknights they do karaoke back here. Ever done that?” she asked him.
“That would require motivation and reward far beyond anything you are prepared to offer,” he countered.
Janice laughed. “How do you know what kind of rewards I’m prepared to offer?”
“Let’s just say that any woman that depraved is not a woman I want to be seen in public with!”
Janice just continued to laugh at him.
A steady stream of people began filtering into the club. The band for the night was a local band; if they did well in Everest they might graduate to the big city of Bozeman. Janice said, “You might not sing, but I know you dance.”
“Again, a debatable proposition, but at least I can hide in the crowd,” he replied. Janice grabbed his hand and led him out onto the dance floor.
It was late when the trouble started. Travis noticed it first, spotting some familiar faces in the crowd, drinking heavily over at the bar. Janice had wanted to go back out and dance some more, but seeing the faces, Travis demurred. “Maybe later, babe, but I think we should sit things out for a bit.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Look over to your right…slowly…see anybody familiar at the bar?”
Janice gave him a confused look and twisted her head. “No. Should I?” She turned back to him and gave him a questioning look.
Travis gave a silent sigh. Janice’s head had moved too quickly, and a couple of guys noticed her. They immediately began talking to each other, and some of the other guys near them. “Remember the guys at lunch? There’s a couple of them at the bar.”
Janice’s head swiveled back to the right, and found some guys staring back. “Are you sure? They just look like some guys at the bar.”
Travis didn’t need to turn his head to see that the group at the bar was getting agitated. They had obviously recognized both of them. “Pretty sure, Janice.”
“Should we leave?”
That was a very good question, he thought. Travis didn’t need a bar fight, but Janice might be safer inside the building. In any event, the question was answered for him. A group of five guys left the bar and moved directly towards them. Whether he wanted a confrontation or not, Travis Scott was about to get one.
The first one to approach summed up their mood concisely. “You’re the asshole that beat on Bobby, aren’t you?”
Travis knew that the fellow bracing him, and the third one in the group, were the two guys who were to the side at the lunchtime scuffle. That must make Bobby the guy who had fallen through the window. “How is Bobby, by the way? We were never actually introduced.”
A couple of the guys looked like they wanted to come after him, but a few chairs were in the way, and one of the other held them back. “Fuck you, asshole!” was the response.
Travis sighed. “Fellows, we’re just here for dinner and a few drinks. I never even touched your friend. Just let it go.”
That didn’t calm any of them down. Janice was getting nervous; she had seen drunks amping themselves up for a fight, and this bunch were liquored up and looking for trouble. They kept moving closer, and people at the tables around them were looking and figuring out how to get out of the way when the fists started flying.
Travis just shook his head. He was still seated, but asked, “You really want to do this, huh?”
“Fuck you, asshole! Stand up!”
Travis shrugged at Janice. Turning back to the drunks, he said, “Let’s take this outside. Nobody wants this in here.”
“FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE! I TOLD YOU TO STAND UP!”
Around them people were moving away, and Travis could see a couple of waitresses signaling for a bouncer to come over. Travis figured it would be safer to wait for one of the bouncers to try and calm the drunks down, but he doubted it would work.
A beefy guy in a Painted Pony t-shirt came over. “Is there a problem?”
“Not with me,” answered Travis. The responses from the others were considerably less polite.
The bouncer motioned a couple of his helpers closer. “I think you guys have had enough to drink. Time to go.”
“We ain’t done nothing! What about him?” asked the mouthy one.
The only way this was going to end at all decently was if they moved outside. Travis stood up and looked at Janice. “Back in five minutes. Order me another beer, huh?”
Janice looked terrified at what was happening. “Travis?”
He smiled down at her. “Just order another round. I’ll be back in five.” He turned to face the others. “Lead the way, gentlemen.”
The bouncers were mostly concerned with keeping any fighting outside of the building and away from the customers. The five drunks were pleased with themselves and loudly bragged about how they were going to kick some ass. As they led the way out, Janice grabbed her purse and rooted around for her cell phone. As soon as she could grab it, she dialed 9-1-1. Travis was going to get killed…
It was closer to four minutes before Travis returned, and Janice just stared at him as he sat down next to her. “Did you order another round of beers?” he asked.
“I called 9-1-1!”
Travis shrugged. “Well, that was probably a good idea. Sorry if you got scared. They’re probably still out in the parking lot. Did you order a beer?”
“Travis! How can you care about beer? You were just in a fight!”
Travis simply smiled. “You worry too much.” He turned and flagged down their waitress, who was staring at him with wide eyes. Over in the corner, a couple of the bouncers were whispering to each other and watching him closely. “Miss, another round? Thanks.”
Janice kept asking what had happened and Travis kept sidestepping the question and repeating that nothing had happened. About halfway through his beer, there was a slight commotion at the door, and Janice saw one of the bouncers pointing in their direction. A stocky young man in a sheriff’s deputy uniform moved into the bar, looked around, and turned in their direction. “Travis, I don’t care what you say. I think you are about to go to jail!”
The deputy moved through the crowd of tables, with a number of people turning to watch, not knowing what was happening. When he got to their table, he stopped and gave them both a hard look. His right hand was resting on the handle of his holstered gun.
Travis turned to face the deputy and smiled. “Good evening, deputy.”
“Good evening, Mister Scott. Been having some fun tonight?”
Janice’s brow furrowed at that; how did the deputy know who Travis was? Travis simply made a lazy wave with his free hand and replied, “Of course! I’m just having dinner and a few drinks with a friend, maybe some dancing, you know. Just a nice night on the town.”
“I heard you went outside with some…patrons earlier. Any problems?”
“Problems? No idea what you’re talking about, deputy.”
The deputy studied Travis carefully. “There was a report of a fight in the parking lot. We got a call from somebody claiming that five guys dragged a man with your description outside for a fight.”
Travis gave a surprised look at that. “Really? No idea, deputy. I did go out to my truck a little while ago, but I didn’t see anybody having a fight. Perhaps it was a different place?”
“You didn’t see anybody?” the deputy asked incredulously. “You mean it wasn’t you in a fight?”
“No idea what you are talking about, deputy. A few fellows were here earlier, and trying to talk big, but I walked them outside and they left. I mean, I think they left, but I’m not sure. I just came back inside. Did somebody say they saw a fight? Maybe you should check the video cameras. I thought I saw one over the front door.”
The deputy was getting pissed. He had gotten Travis’ name from the license plate of the truck that had been pointed out to him, but beyond that, there didn’t seem to be any witnesses. Instead, five men were laid out in a back corner of the parking lot, a place where the video cameras couldn’t see. Two had been put through the side windows of a pickup truck, and the other three were sprawled on the gravel. All five were being transported to Everest General for some extensive emergency room treatment. “Let me see your hands!” he ordered.
Travis simply gave a mystified look and held out his hands, flipping them up and over for the deputy. “I don’t understand, deputy.”
“Stand up!” ordered the deputy.
Another man approached them at that point. He was older, in his late thirties, and was dressed casually, in jeans and a red flannel shirt. He was also some sort of police, because he was wearing a badge on the crown of his Stetson. “Jerry, I’ll take it from here.”
“Boss, I’ve got this handled!” protested the young deputy.
“I’m sure you do, Jerry. I’ll handle this, if you don’t mind. You can go back out on patrol.”
“We’ll talk later. It’s fine, Jerry.”
The young deputy turned and stalked from the room. The new man grabbed a chair from a neighboring table and flipped it around, and then sat down at the table. He looked at Janice and said, “I’m Undersheriff Marty Haskell. And you are?”
“Janice Northcott. Why?”
“Just curious. It’s always nice to know who you’re talking to.” He turned to Travis and said, “Good to see you again, Travis.” Travis simply smiled and nodded. “A couple of people saw you going out into the parking lot with some guys, but that was it. Care to comment?”
“I was just taking a brief stroll, Undersheriff.”
“I don’t think Jerry believed you earlier.”
Travis simply smiled and shrugged. He held his hands up again. “I think he’s been watching too much television. I guess he wanted to see if I had any bruises or cuts or blood on me.”
“And you don’t.”
“And you don’t know anything about the five guys who got taken apart like cheap rag dolls in under a minute?”
Undersheriff Haskell nodded again. “Well, then, I’m sorry if we wasted your time.”
“Care for a beer, Sheriff?” asked Travis, smiling.
“Undersheriff.” Haskell smiled but shook his head. “That would be very nice, but somebody would probably report I’m drinking to the Everest Observer and I’d never hear the end of it.” He stood back up. “Could I talk to you for just a second, Mister Scott?”
“Certainly.” Travis stood up and followed the undersheriff over to the end of the bar. Not surprisingly, a number of people left the area, giving them a small space to talk quietly. Travis leaned back against the bar and then waved at Janice.
Undersheriff Haskell also acknowledged her, tipping his hat and smiling. Then he leaned back against the bar also, and the two men looked at the band on the stage. He quietly said, “You’ve had a busy night, Jake.”
Travis simply looked over at the undersheriff and smiled. “No idea who you’re talking about, Undersheriff.”
“Yeah, fine, be that way. So, what really happened? I know I won’t find anything from the cameras, and those twits aren’t going to be talking for a while since their jaws are going to be wired shut. So?”
“Maybe they just met somebody who wasn’t a drunken asshole and wasn’t afraid to let them know it.” He smiled, and finished, “Not me, of course. I’m just a peaceful fellow out for dinner and drinks with my girlfriend.”
Haskell rolled his eyes. “Okay, just watch your back. I doubt they know who you are, but I don’t need any more excitement in my life.”
“I’m a peaceful man, Undersheriff.”
The two men pushed off the bar and faced each other. Travis stuck his hand out, and Haskell shook it. “Take care, Jake.”
“The name’s Travis, Undersheriff, Travis Scott.”
The undersheriff simply snorted and left the room, and bodies moved back into the empty space at the end of the bar. Travis returned to his seat.
“What’s going on, Travis?” asked Janice
“Nothing. Somebody simply pointed me out for talking to those idiots. We simply went outside, I apologized, and came back in. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” she asked, somewhat incredulously. It seemed to her that having a couple of deputies get involved meant that a lot more had happened.
Travis simply smiled. “That’s all. After that, I came in. It sounds like those guys decided to go after somebody else. I wouldn’t worry about it.” He glanced over towards the bar, where one of the bouncers was talking to somebody who looked like the manager, and they were looking in his direction. “Ready to go? I don’t think the management enjoyed having the cops show up. We can find another place if you want.”
“I think going home might be safer,” she replied.
Travis shrugged and smiled. “Okay.” He stood up, dropped some bills on the table, and led Janice out of the Painted Pony. Out in the parking lot the excitement seemed to be over. Any ambulances that had been summoned were gone, and the deputies had left. All that was left was a pickup truck with broken glass around it in the back corner of the parking lot. Over in the corner he saw an unmarked Chevy Tahoe police vehicle, with Undersheriff Haskell sitting in it, watching as he pulled away.
Travis didn’t really mind leaving early. He didn’t consider himself a ‘party’ type and was perfectly content to stay in with Janice. They’d have another night together, and then he would head back to his place in the morning. He figured he was good on supplies and groceries for another week, and if he hung around town, he’d just get into trouble. Travis Scott didn’t want any trouble.
Martin Haskell watched from the corner of the parking lot while sitting in his vehicle. As Undersheriff, the highest ranking non-elected peace officer in Everest County, he rated a personal vehicle. His was an unmarked Chevy Tahoe, notable only for several non-standard antennas and a spotlight on a swivel on the driver-side door. The rear of the vehicle was filled with the standard paraphernalia to be found in any deputy’s vehicle - body armor, rescue and first aid gear, an AR-15, and the like.
Haskell considered himself a working peace officer in the State of Montana, and the guy who really ran the Everest County Sheriff’s office. The Sheriff, on the other hand, while technically his superior, was almost never in the office and left everything up to Haskell in any case. Sheriff Briscoe had three very specific jobs that he devoted his time to - kissing ass, smiling for any cameras that were in the area, and running for reelection. Anything actually related to law and order was simply an accidental oversight. That was something that lesser beings, like Undersheriff Martin Haskell, were responsible for.
Marty watched as Jake Kilbourne led Janice Northcott to his truck and drove away. As soon as he had returned to his vehicle he ran her name through the system and discovered nothing more than an address out on 91 and a couple of old speeding tickets. As Jake left the parking lot, he headed in that direction. Marty knew Jake had seen him in his Tahoe, but that didn’t surprise him. Jake Kilbourne, or whoever he was calling himself now, always seemed to know what was going on around him.
Marty also wondered if any of the five idiots who had decided to kick Jake’s ass was going to try to press charges. It wasn’t like he really cared, but it would probably be a good idea to have a chat with them sometime in the next day or two, after they awoke but before they left the hospital. It might be a good idea to let them know that it was the word of five drunken assholes who had gotten their asses kicked against the word of a guy who was about half their size, with no physical evidence and no video. Maybe they might decide that keeping their mouths shut and learning a lesson was a better idea than trying to get even. That didn’t always work, however, and that was how he knew that Travis Scott was Jake Kilbourne.
Twenty Years Ago
“You really want to join the Army?” asked Marty.
Jake shrugged. “Do I really want to join the Army? Maybe not. Do I have a lot of options? You know the answer to that. What about you? Why are you joining the Army? Since when did you want to die for God and country?”
“Who said anything about dying? I want to be a cop. After basic I am going to MP school. A good tour as an MP and then I’m out. After that I can use my benefits and get into the academy in Helena,” replied Jake’s best friend.
“You’ve got it all planned out,” laughed Jake.
“Right down to the minute I come home and arrest your sorry ass on charges of being a dipshit and an asshole.”
“Christ, you’ll end up in the cell with me!” snorted Jake. Then he shook his head. “You know my situation. The day after I graduate, I’m history.”
Marty gave him a bleak look. “No change?”
Jake shrugged. “It is what it is. Barry and Lucille will let me stay, but they’ve already told me they are going to charge me room and board. They only agreed to put me up until I was eighteen and graduated high school.”
Barry and Lucille were Barry and Lucille Gallatin, Jake’s second cousins on his mother’s side. Jake Kilbourne’s family wasn’t white trash but weren’t far from it. They were what the liberal East and West Coast elites called ‘the working poor’, always just a paycheck away from eviction. They lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of Everest, Montana, and though they owned their double-wide and kept it in good repair, they drove used cars, shopped the specials at Walmart, and didn’t have much in the way of savings.
Jake’s mother had died six years ago of pancreatic cancer; his father died at the beginning of his senior year after getting T-boned by a speeding tractor-trailer. There wasn’t much family left in the area. Like so many rural families, the Kilbournes and Gallatins had been moving away for generations, mostly to California and Texas. Barry and Lucille had been the closest relatives still in Everest County. They had agreed to take in Jake until he finished high school, but after that he was on his own. That time was fast approaching. They weren’t bad people, but they didn’t have much more money than Jake’s family, and they had three daughters of their own.
“So, what is your specialty going to be?” asked Marty. “What are you going to do after basic?”
Jake shrugged. “Infantry. I took the ASVAB and they wanted me to do something else, but it sounded pretty boring.”
Marty nodded. “Who knows, maybe I’ll get a chance to give you a ticket in the Army.”
“That will certainly make both our days,” agreed Jake.
“You doing anything after the game?” Both boys played for the Everest High basketball team, the Red Hawks.
Jake smiled. “Kelsea wants to head up to the lake. She says she knows a very private scenic spot.”
Marty grinned. “Just how private?”
“Hopefully private enough. She told me she wants to test whether there is an echo up there, and I’m supposed to make sure she yells out loudly.”
“You’re full of shit, too.”
Jake gave a sincere smile. “It’s a burden, but I’ll just have to try.”
“So, I guess I won’t go up to the lake with Beth. It’s a good thing her parents are going away this weekend. I’ve promised to help her take care of the house,” replied Haskell.
“Do her parents know about this help?”
Marty shrugged. “I didn’t tell them. I wonder if Beth said anything. I’ll have to ask her later.”
Both teens laughed at that.
Thirteen Years Ago
United State Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
“We’ve met before. Who are you today?” asked Jake Kilbourne.
“I’m the guy who can get you out of here,” was the reply.
Jake didn’t respond to that, other than by commenting, “You want me to call you that? Or is there a shorter version I can put after the Mister? As I recall, the only name I heard the last time was Ed.”
“Is that your real name?”
“No, but it will do. If you were to ask for Ed Jenkins, it will get back to me.”
Jenkins, or whoever he was, was a nondescript man in his mid-forties, white, balding, clean shaven, and with an average build with the beginnings of a small gut. He was wearing a light charcoal suit with a white shirt and a blue tie.
His appearance was a considerable contrast to Jake Kilbourne’s. Jake was wearing the prescribed uniform for maximum security prisoners sentenced to the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Specifically, he was wearing an orange jumpsuit, white socks, and orange lace-less sneakers. He was also sporting some extensive jewelry in the form of a restraint belt and wrist and ankle shackles. It was deemed appropriate by the prison guards, members of the 15th Military Police Brigade, since the meeting was not being held in the normal meeting rooms for prisoners, where they could see family or lawyers. This meeting was in an empty room with nothing but a table and two chairs. The table and one of the chairs were bolted to the floor, and Jake’s shackles were run through a ring bolted to the table.
“So, Ed, how are you planning to get me out of here? You a lawyer?”
Jenkins smiled. “I haven’t sunk that low yet. No, I have a different method of securing your release. Would you care to hear about it?”
Kilbourne returned the smile. “It’s not like I have any other pressing engagements, do I?”
“You have a certain skill set and thought process that could prove useful to your government. In return, I can obtain release from your current…domestic environment.”
“My skill set? The only skills I have that the Army has ever been interested in involved combat.”
“Precisely,” said Jenkins,
That set Jake back. After finishing basic and advanced infantry training, he had been assigned to an infantry battalion heading to Afghanistan. His first tour had been relatively unremarkable; Private Kilbourne had shown courage and above-average combat skills but was too junior to affect anything. He had returned from his first tour with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star and a promotion to Corporal. From there he went to Airborne School and Ranger School, both at Fort Benning. After that he was promoted to Sergeant and given a squad in Afghanistan; eventually he was promoted to Staff Sergeant. The patrols he led gathered more intelligence, captured more prisoners, killed more Taliban and terrorists, and otherwise disrupted more enemy plans than would normally be expected of an Army unit commanded by a young man barely old enough to drink back home.
“I was very impressed with what you did in Taqab. That really set back the local assholes.”
Fourteen Years Ago
Staff Sergeant Jake Kilbourne was ushered into Major Palmer’s office. Normally the Major didn’t stand on a lot of ceremony, but when Jake saw the third person in the room, he decided to come to attention and salute. The major returned the salute and said, “At ease, Jake.”
“Yes, sir.” Jake glanced over at the third man.
The third man smiled and said, “Since this meeting never happened, I was never here.”
The sergeant looked back at the major, who was rolling his eyes. Jake said, “Right. How can SpecOps help the CIA today?”
Palmer laughed. “We’ve got an assignment for your team, Jake. You hear about the hospital in Kandahar?”
“The one the assholes blew up last week?” Jake shrugged. “I heard.”
The third man said, “Call me Ed. We have determined who the assholes are and want to send a message, a very loud and personal message.”
Jake raised an eyebrow and looked back at the major. “And I’m the messenger?”
Palmer nodded. He stood and led the way to a large map laid out on a side desk. “Ed?”
The third man stepped forward. “Abu bin Mahmud ordered the bombing in order to punish the locals for not killing all the Americans in the area.” He tossed down several photos of bearded Afghanis. “Bin Mahmud ordered Mohammed Number 1 and Mohammed Number 2 to go in, shoot up the hospital and everybody in it, and then blow the place. He works out of a mosque in Taqab.” He tapped a spot on the map and laid down an overhead photo of the mosque. “It’s probably got more fighters and weapons hidden there than we have here at the base.”
Jake looked over at his boss and then back at the CIA guy. “So, drop a few thousand-pounders on it and take care of him.”
He got a headshake in return. “No go. We need proof these guys are there before we can blow up a holy site. We’ll have to send in a team to verify presence and then phone it in.”
Jake looked at the spook and then back at Major Palmer. “That’s not how we work, Major.” He turned to Ed and continued, “I am not taking my boys deep into Indian country so that you can ask the local imam if I can kill his brother-in-law. It’s my call or you can whistle up somebody else.”
The CIA agent smiled at the major. “He’s like you said he would be.” He turned back to Jake and said, “Okay, it will be your call. I don’t trust the locals either.”
With that, the three men planned the operation, including the recon and overwatch package. Then the major turned Kilbourne over to his adjutant to finish lining up the assets. Then he turned back to the agent. “Satisfied, Ed?”
“Christ, he seems so young.”
“They’re all young, Ed.” He pointed at the chair across from him.
Ed sat down. “Tell me about him.”
“He’s got a hell of a record, Ed. Two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, ASVAB scores off the charts, he picked up a little college on the side - this kid, he’s going places.”
“What’s his story? Why the hell is this kid a fucking Sergeant and not a Lieutenant or Captain by now?”
“It’s the same story a lot of these kids have. He was orphaned as a teenager and had to live with some relatives who didn’t have any use for him. They told him the day after he graduated high school that he could either leave or start paying room and board. No family and no money. He enlisted the next day.”
“How come you guys haven’t sent him to college yet? He’d be more useful to you with bars on his shoulders than with stripes on his sleeves.”
Palmer shrugged. “We probably will at some point. Right now, he’s scheduled for an instructor slot at Ranger school, but we might just send him to school. We’ve got programs for that. My bet is that at the end of this tour somebody is going to make him an offer he can’t refuse. Get him a quickie degree and run him through OCS. He’s got the chops for it. I’d sign off on him, that’s for sure.”
“All right. Let me get out of here. I’ll be back for the op.”
“Take care, Ed.”
“Take care, Ted.”
Fourteen Years Ago
“Romeo Foxtrot, SITREP, over,” came over the radio.
Staff Sergeant Kilbourne rolled his eyes at Sergeant Bonaroo, his JFO, a Joint Fires Observer who controlled the radio and handled close air support. The SITREP was the Situation Report, which wasn’t any different than fifteen minutes prior. Kilbourne was commanding a Ranger Reconnaissance squad, a recon team assigned to the JSOTF, the Joint SpecOps Task Force in Kabul. Despite his relative youth he was considered a rising star in the unit. Kilbourne was considered a bit unorthodox and tended to stray from the pure doctrine, but nobody really cared. The whole fucking war was unorthodox.
“Overlooking target from southwest. Say status on air support,” said Bonaroo.
“Predator is on station with two AGM weapons. Joker Flight, two Vipers with GBU munitions, is one-five mikes out.”
“Roger, Home Base.”
Jake put his binoculars to his eyes again and focused them on the target. That was the reason they were there, after all. They had been helicoptered in two nights before and had hiked overnight into position, then had hunkered down for a day and a night. Now it was time for the effort to pay off. The target was a mosque on the southwest side of the small town. Most of the mosques were hotbeds of sedition and intrigue, filled with arms and munitions, and hosted Taliban and Al Qaeda units. Because mosques were considered religious and political hot potatoes, it took a really horrendous attack to make the Americans want to respond against one. A bombing of a children’s hospital qualified.
That didn’t mean the Air Force was just allowed to drop a bomb or two on the mosque and wipe it off the map. The politicians in Kabul and Washington needed ‘proof’ that the mosque was the source of the attack. There were pictures of the attackers, so an Army unit was maneuvered into position to see if any of the attackers were at the mosque. The insanity was not lost on the Army unit assigned; rather than just bomb the hell out of the place, a place everybody agreed was the source of the attack, they had to move eight soldiers over difficult terrain and hide them near a few hundred men who would happily eviscerate them without benefit of anesthesia. Then, after coordinating an attack by the Air Force, they needed to sneak away through an area that would be crawling with angry locals who knew the area like the back of their hands. It was the equivalent of sneaking up on a hill full of fire ants, kicking it, and then trying to sneak away when the fire ants boiled out.
Most of the squad was focused on anything not related to the mosque, making sure nobody was sneaking up on them. Only two were looking down at the mosque, Sergeant Kilbourne and a young Specialist with good eyesight and good judgment. The JFO was staying down, trying to be inconspicuous and making sure the radio worked.
Specialist Hensley was looking down at the mosque through the eyepiece of a high-powered digital movie camera. That way they could prove that when they bombed the mosque, bad guys were actually onsite. “Sarge, we got somebody arriving.”
Staff Sergeant Kilbourne was looking through his binoculars and replied, “So it seems. You catching all this?”
“In living color, Sarge!”
Through the binoculars, Jake could see two vehicles enter the courtyard of the mosque. One was a somewhat battered Mercedes sedan and the other was what looked like the Russian version of a five-ton truck. The truck was filled with men who climbed out carrying AK-47s. The sedan, however, had only three people in it, a driver and two passengers in the back seat. “Sarge, that looks like Target Two,” commented Hensley.
“And Target Three. Any takers on Target One being in the truck or already in the mosque?” replied Jake.
“No bet. Call it in, Sarge?” asked the JFO.
"Joker Flight, say position?" asked Bonaroo. He crawled into position and aimed the laser designator at the mosque.
"Romeo Foxtrot, Joker Flight is two Vipers over Point Whiskey with two GBU-10s, two GBU-16s, and four Mk-82s"
"Joker, advise when ready for 9-line"
"Foxtrot, Joker is ready to copy 9-line," came back.
"Joker, from Whiskey three four five for one five decimal five. Elevation is four three hundred. Target is large truck in courtyard at WD5936757217. Laser, 1642. Southwest, six hundred. Egress at pilot's discretion."
"Joker rogers nine line. Southwest six hundred."
Sergeant Bonaroo asked, “Where do you want the laser, Sarge? The mosque?”
“No! Put it on the truck! I want it on the body of the truck. Light it up,” replied Jake.
“On the truck, roger that.” He aimed the laser designator and said, "Joker, this is Romeo Foxtrot you are cleared hot for one GBU-10"
“Roger! Bomb out!”
Jake said, “Hensley, you keep filming.”
“Right, Sarge,” came from Hensley.
It took about forty-five seconds before the bomb fell from seven miles up and seven miles away. During that time Jake simply kept telling Hensley and Bonaroo to stay focused and to keep filming and designating. The next thing said by any of the three men was a loud and collective, “Whoa!”
The GBU-10 bomb was made by bolting a guidance system and steerable fins onto a standard Mk-84 2,000-pound bomb. That improved the CEP, the Circular Error Probable, the circle at which half of all bombs would land inside, from over three hundred feet down to under four feet. A later analysis of the video would show that the bomb impacted within two feet of the lasing point. The other thing about a 2,000-pound bomb was that it actually only contained about 1,000 pounds of a military-grade high explosive. Still that was more than sufficient to do the job.
The three guys up on the hillside only saw a huge blast cloud at first, followed a couple of seconds later by the sound of a massive explosion. When the cloud dissipated, the truck was gone, blasted into a million bits centered on a large crater. That wasn’t all, though. Surrounding the blast site were dozens of bodies and body parts. The front of the mosque was simply obliterated, leaving the building open; the minaret on the left side was gone, a matching minaret to the right toppled over into the street. Then the main body of the mosque collapsed. Thirty seconds later several gigantic explosions tore through the mosque. “Are you getting this, Henley?”
“I’m getting it, I’m getting it! Holy shit, Sarge! What happened?”
Before he could respond, the radio squawked. “Romeo Foxtrot, this is Joker One Two. Say BDA.”
Kilbourne smiled at the request for a BDA, the Bomb Damage Assessment. “Splash out! Target destroyed!”
“Thank you, Romeo Foxtrot. Happy to provide the service. Please be sure to request Joker Flight for all your demolition and explosive needs. Joker Flight out.”
“Romeo Foxtrot out,” said Bonaroo.
Kilbourne said, “Okay, boys. As soon as it’s dark, we are bugging out. Keep your eyes open until then.”
Thirteen Years Ago
United State Military Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
“You liked that, huh?” asked Jake.
“Very impressive, especially the call to lase the truck and not the roof of the mosque itself. Why did you do that, by the way,” replied Jenkins.
Jake shrugged, rattling his shackles as he did so. “I knew the brass wanted it to be deniable. A truck bomb is deniable. A hole in the roof and a bomb in the basement is not deniable. Not that it mattered in the end. Once the place went up, it went up completely. I don’t know how many tons of ammo were in there, but it had to be a lot.”
“Four-point-two tons, in three separate bunkers, as it turned out. Not very well separated bunkers either, as it also turned out.”
“So, what makes me so special? Planning on giving me a laser designator and letting me blast my way out of here?” Jake held up his shackled hands. “I’m a little tied up, but anything is better than sitting around here the rest of my life.”
“That’s not really what I have in mind.”
Jake looked at Jenkins. “You’re serious? You have something for me that gets me out of here?”
“I told you, I am looking for somebody with a specific skill set. You have those skills.”
“Bullshit,” replied Jake. “Who are you, really? You got in here, and you got me in this special room, so you must be from somewhere in the government. You still with the Agency?” He looked around the room and continued, “Where’s the cameras? All the visiting areas have cameras. Where’s the cameras?”
Jenkins smiled. “Very good, Jake. No cameras.”
“So, who are you? If you’re with the government, then you have access to plenty of guys with my skill set. You can find all the warm bodies with my skill set you want. Seals, Force Recon, the Green Beanies. Come on, these guys just love to do and die for the country. What’s so special about me?”
“Ah, yes. That’s the problem, you see. I’m not looking for a Boy Scout. I’m not looking for the perfect knight, sans peur et sans reproche. I’m looking for somebody who will get the job done and not be overly concerned about the morality of whatever that job is.”
“And I’m that guy?”
“I think so. I was there when the intelligence people told the Afghanis that we hadn’t bombed anything, that the explosion was from a truck bomb that was smuggled into the mosque. Where’d you get that idea from, anyway?”
Jake smiled. “Tom Clancy, Clear and Present Danger.”
“Huh. Sort of like how bin Laden attacked us using stuff out of Debt of Honor,” Jenkins remarked. Kilbourne simply nodded. Jenkins snorted and commented, “It always amazes the analysts when the bad guys actually do the shit that smarter people write in best-sellers.” He shrugged and said, “That simply got me to look at you and your operations a little closer. You were a sneaky bastard. There was the time when you picked off a Taliban operative and an ISIS bodyguard and got the two groups shooting at each other for two days. Where’d you get that from, Thunderball?”
Jake smiled and gave a wry shrug. “Better than giving them a chance to shoot at me and my guys.”
“You had a real chance to go somewhere. You had two semesters of college and your CO was pushing you to get your degree and go for OCS. Imagine what you could have done as an officer, the resources you could have controlled by then, the missions you could have accomplished. And yet here we are, in an empty room in Leavenworth with you doing life.”
“What’s your point, Mister Jenkins, or whatever your name is? You want somebody like me, but I’m here, and I don’t think the Colonel is planning on letting me go anytime soon. Even if you have the juice to get me out of here, what’s going to keep me from heading for the tall and uncut my first chance?”
Jenkins shrugged. “I suppose I could come up with some sort of ankle bracelet or subcutaneous tracker, but anybody who can come up with some of the tricks you’ve pulled could probably get out of them. Maybe you’d stick because of what I can offer you.”
“An interesting job, education, a decent paycheck, and something other than concrete walls and steel doors.”
Jake didn’t say anything for a moment. “So, what is this interesting job, and why do you need somebody like me when you have easy access to Super Boy Scouts? You have a pressing need for a psychopathic mass murderer? That was one of the better descriptions I remember hearing.”
“We both know you’re not a psychopath.” Jenkins paused for a second and asked, “Suppose I told you that an American citizen was a traitor and was providing information to the Chinese government, information that would be embarrassing if it were disclosed, and that would damage our foreign relations with not just China, but other nations as well. What would the Super Boy Scout do? He’d arrest the traitor and charge him with crimes and the hell with the consequences. Right?”
“What would you do?” asked Jenkins.
“Arrange for an accident. Maybe a heart attack. Maybe he’d slip off the subway platform or fall off a ladder. Maybe just a mugging gone bad.” Jake shrugged. “Something simple yet fatal, something that wouldn’t make the papers except for the obituary pages.”
“That would be illegal, wouldn’t it?”
“Are you all that concerned about my being a criminal? I’m already in prison for the rest of my life.”
“Ever give any thought to how you ended up here?” asked Jenkins.
“Every day,” replied Kilbourne.
Fourteen Years Ago
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Jake Kilbourne shook the hand of his driver and said, “Thanks! I owe you!”
“I’m guessing it’s been a bit,” replied the driver of the HumVee.
“Six months. Six lonely, horny months!”
The driver smiled and laughed. “Let’s hope her mother isn’t visiting.”
“If she is, she’s about to see a whole new side of her daughter.” Jake grabbed his rucksack and climbed out of the light truck. He fished out the keys to the apartment and waved to the driver as he drove away.
Jake had just flown in from Afghanistan after six hard months of combat. He hadn’t expected to get back for another week, but an opening on an earlier flight had popped up and Jake had eagerly grabbed it. He’d only been married a year, and he desperately wanted to spend his entire leave in bed with his wife. He hadn’t even warned her he was coming home; it had come up so suddenly he hadn’t had a chance to call ahead. Well, the surprise would make it that much sweeter.
Or not. Jake hadn’t needed his keys. As he was about to go inside, the door opened, and two young guys came out. They smiled and nodded, and Jake looked at them curiously before turning away and going inside. Music was blaring and marijuana smoke billowed out of the door. What he saw sickened him immediately. A naked twenty-something guy was sitting on the couch prepping some lines of coke. He looked up at Jake and said, “Drop your shit. She’ll be free in a couple more minutes.” Then Jake heard loud sounds of fornication coming from the bedroom, along with at least two male voices.
Jake dropped his rucksack and slowly moved towards the bedroom. “What the hell?” he asked, as much to himself as anybody else.
The guy on the couch said, “Wait your turn like everybody else. Or cough up some extra, you know.” He held out his hand and rubbed his fingers together.
Jake ignored him and opened the door to the bedroom. “Oh, shit!” he muttered. There on the bed was his wife, kneeling as a man fucked her anally. Off to the side a second naked man was filming them with a videocamera; the evidence on his privates showed that he had already been with Jake’s wife. So much for his marriage. Better to just grab his crap and take off. He’d have her served papers from the base. Still, he just stared in disbelief.
A hand grabbed his arm from behind. “Hey, asshole, you want to play, you have to pay!” Jake shrugged off the hand and turned away. That wasn’t good enough. The guy grabbed him a second time. “Where’s the money, asshole?”
That was all it took for Jake to lose it. He hit the naked man as hard as he could. He staggered back and tripped on the carpet, and then crashed out of the second story window. “What the fuck?” came from the bedroom. The next guy out was pulling up his pants and took a fist to the throat, crushing his larynx. Finally, a naked man with a knife came out; twenty seconds later the knife was buried in his chest.
When the cops showed up, Jake was sitting on the stoop, crying quietly and waiting to be arrested.
Thirteen Years Ago
United State Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
“Ever hear from your wife?” asked Jenkins.
Jake looked at him. “You already know the answer, don’t you? All my visitors, all my phone calls, all my letters are marked down and recorded.”
“She’s working outcall these days, calling herself an escort, doing some dancing, stripping. The drugs are killing her, slowly maybe, but they’re killing her. Once her looks go, she’ll be working street corners.”
“Not my problem anymore, is it.”
“If you get out of here, will it be a problem?”
“Ask me when I’m out of here,” laughed Jake.
Jenkins didn’t smile. “Is it going to be a problem?”
Jake shook his head. “No.”
Jenkins stood up. “I’ll be back in two weeks. Be ready to go then.”
“Take me now. It’s not like I have anything to take with me.”
“Two weeks.” He left and Jake was left in the empty room. A minute later a pair of MPs took Jake back to his cell.
Seven Years Ago
“Why are we doing this?”
Jonathan Swan returned the question with a look that said the speaker was an idiot. “Excuse me?”
“What did this poor asshole do to deserve our attentions?” specified Sam Wilcox.
“What does it matter? We were given the assignment. I am assigning it to you. You will finish the assignment.”
“The assignment, as you say, is a person. Before I finish the person, I’d like to know what he or she has done! I like to know why I am killing somebody before I do it!” replied Sam.
“Wilcox, I don’t have to tell you shit and you know it. My job is to select the best asset for the job. Your job is to terminate the assignment. You don’t need to know any more than that.”
Sam sighed and shook his head. “I might be assigned this person, but I need to know enough about him to do the job properly. So?”
Swan returned a shrug, and he tossed a file folder on the desk between them. “This is all you need to know.” Wilcox reached out to take it, but Swan kept his hand on it a few seconds longer. “And it’s not just the assignment; it’s the entire family. We need to send a message.”
“Excuse me? Since when do we do families?”
“Wilcox, don’t start thinking. It’s not what we pay you to do. Don’t make me rethink your employment with Balustre. Just do the assignment.”
Sam Wilcox stared briefly before picking up the folder and leaving.
This was not what Sam Wilcox had signed up for. He hadn’t had a lot of choice back then, but things had really gone downhill in the last two years. He had started out in the Army, been ‘drafted’ by the Central Intelligence Agency, and then been ‘RIF-ed’ - a reduction-in-force - to The Balustre Group two years ago. He had been selected because he had a rather unique skill set, and because he hadn’t much of a choice about it. Still, he had never signed up to kill families.
He reviewed the file. It was thin, not giving much more than the name and address of the assignment and her family. She was thirty-two, a mid-level tax lawyer in the Department of Energy, reviewing contracts for international natural gas sales and terminals. He couldn’t understand what she had done to deserve his special attentions, or why it was necessary to kill off her family. Husband, three young children; as far as he could determine, total innocents. Nothing about this made sense.
He turned to his computer and cranked up his browser. Facebook didn’t show anything unusual about the woman; it was mostly photos of her and her family, absolutely nothing worth killing somebody for. It had to be something professional. Nothing much showed up on Twitter or Instagram, though it was pretty obvious she was a Democrat. Still, that wasn’t worth killing over. Time to go deeper. Wilcox tapped into the terminal for PRISM, the National Security Agency program that collected and read emails and texts sent over the Internet. Next, he set up a separate window and tapped into the NSA ECHELON program, which accessed the telephone companies, and then finally into FINCEN, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, to search for any financial irregularities.
FINCEN showed nothing out of the ordinary for a typical suburban couple where both individuals worked for the government. They didn’t have a lot of cash and had a disturbingly high level of credit card debt, but they made their payments on time and tried pathetically to pay a little extra each month. Whatever it was that made her a target didn’t appear to be her finances.
ECHELON didn’t show that either one of them was talking to people they shouldn’t be. PRISM, on the other hand, showed some interesting things. Not about her husband, who seemed so boring as to be totally nonexistent, but about her. She was spending a lot of time investigating details about liquified natural gas contracts between a small and obscure Virginia energy company and the Ukraine. A few taps on the computer screen followed up those details and showed a pattern of responses from the Ukraine demanding the inquiries stop.
“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Swan, standing in the open doorway.
“Why are you looking into the assignment? Your job is not to investigate, it is to eliminate!”
Wilcox immediately knew that his boss had been following his browser activity in real time, probably by some sort of keystroke logger. “Unless you want me to simply walk up to them in public with an Uzi and wipe them out, along with any bystanders, I need to know what they are about and up to. Is that what you want me to do?”
“No. Just do your job and do it quick!” He turned and stormed out.
Sam rolled his eyes and finished his research. Nothing he had seen showed that the assignment was a threat to the United States of America. What she was was a potential threat to some very wealthy individuals, people who were doing business in a fashion that was probably illegal and certainly corrupt.
Sam shut down his browser and stood up. He headed back to Swan’s office and said, “I’m heading out. Figure three days and the job is done. I’ll be back in a week or so.” Swan simply nodded in response.
Wilcox went back to his office and grabbed his jacket, and then went out to his car. It was time, and beyond, to retire.
Sam drove from the office in Alexandria to the Huntington Avenue Metro station. He parked and went around to the trunk, which he popped open. Aside from the usual items, like a spare tire and a tool kit with tow chains and a few flares, he had a gym bag, a ‘go bag’, a kit he could grab during an emergency; it contained a makeup kit and some spare clothing, as well as a small Sig Sauer 9 mm.
It was time to disappear. Balustre had had plenty of time to hide a micro-tracker on his car or in his possessions. He needed to lose everything he wore or carried. He tossed his suit coat into the trunk and then stripped off his tie and shirt. Even though he was standing in the open behind his car, he continued undressing, right down to the skin, and dressed in clothing from the go bag. He pulled on a pair of jeans and an old t-shirt and slipped into a pair of old running shoes. Then he grabbed the gym bag and pulled another small package from inside the flat spare tire. That got tossed into the gym bag. The final touch was a dark, unmarked hooded sweatshirt. He tossed his cell phone into the trunk, along with his wallet and pocket items, closed the trunk and locked the car, and then walked into the station, tossing the key fob into a trash can as he passed it.
From Huntington Station he rode around the Metro until he got to a station he knew a shopping mall was near. He left the Metro and walked to the mall. Once inside he found a clothing store and bought a complete set of clothing and paid for it in cash. Then it was off to a public restroom, where he changed clothing; the old clothing he put into the trash can in the bathroom. Next was a store that sold sports shoes, where he bought a new pair of running shoes, a ball cap, and a new hoodie; the old gear also ended up in the trash. Finally, he bought a new gym bag. After grabbing a meal in the food court, he sat down and sorted through the gym bag.
The gun he left in the old gym bag. He kept the small plastic bag that had been stored in the spare tire. Then he headed to a rest room and went into a stall. Sitting down, he opened the makeup kit and used some double-sided tape to secure a small mirror to the door. Ten minutes later a different man came out of the stall, one whose eye color had changed from blue to brown, who now sported a small mustache, and whose facial skin color was slightly darker. As he left the rest room, the old gym bag went into a trash can. It was always possible the Balustre had managed to put a micro-tracker in his possessions in the trunk of his car, but now he was dressed completely in new clothing and shoes, and with his only previous possessions the papers in the clear plastic bag. The final transformation occurred when he went into a drug store and bought a pair of sunglasses and a pair of reading glasses in the weakest prescription.
Carrying his new bag, Sam Wilcox left the mall and walked to the bus stop at the main entrance, where he joined a small line waiting for the next Metro bus. From there he rode to the main terminal, where he purchased a ticket on the next bus to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Once inside the airport, he found his way to the American Airlines counter. “Hi. It’s a spur of the moment thing, but can I get a ticket to Grenada?” Sam asked with a trace of a British-Caribbean lilt.
The ticket agent, a pretty black girl, smiled and asked, “I am guessing you want the island of Grenada and not Granada in Spain.” When he smiled back and nodded, she added, “I thought I heard the Caribbean in your voice. I’m from Puerto Rico myself.”
“I just need to get home for a few days, but I don’t know for sure how long. Better make it a one-way trip.” He pulled out a passport and a credit card and set them on the counter.
She picked up the passport and glanced inside. “Of course, Mister Taylor.”
It was late when Wilson Taylor climbed off the jet in St. George’s. The only flight he could catch required a stop in Puerto Rico, so it was well after dark when they landed. Still, a taxi was available, and some dollars got him a quick ride to the Radisson. The registration desk was quiet when he got there.
“I sure hope you have a room for a weary man,” he said with a tired smile.
The clerk smiled back. “I think we can help you, sir. I gather you don’t have a reservation?”
Taylor shook his head. “This just came up and I’m not sure how long I’ll be here. Several days, I’m sure.”
The clerk nodded and looked down at the computer screen. After a few minutes he smiled and said, “I have a small suite available.” He mentioned a price and Taylor approved. “Very good, sir. Can I have a name?”
“Bart Jackson.” Jackson reached into his pocket and pulled out a credit card.
“Welcome to Grenada, Mister Jackson.”
Bart Jackson didn’t have any luggage other than the small bag he had picked up in Alexandria. He took his keycard and found his room. It had been a long day. He took a quick shower and crawled into bed. He would buy more clothing and toiletries in the morning.
The next morning, Bart Jackson woke late. After a leisurely breakfast in the Tradewinds, he took a taxi into St. Georges. Four hours later he returned to the Radisson; his purchases had already been sent ahead. He would need to return to the tailor shop the next day for the final fitting on the suits he had purchased, but otherwise had only one more task on the island. He spent the afternoon sorting through his purchases and preparing for his next trip.
The following morning, Jackson stopped first at the St. George’s branch on Melville Street. He showed his passport and was given access to his safe deposit box, complimentary to any depositor with such significant assets. The only thing in the box was a small stack of cash, which he placed in his jacket pocket. He also closed out the account, taking his money in the form of a cashier’s check. From there he went to a travel agent and purchased a first-class ticket to St. Kitt’s for the next day. Then it was back to the tailor for the final fitting. He would pick up the clothing later that afternoon.
Everything Sam Wilcox had done since he had left the office in Alexandria had been based on something he had discovered while finishing an assignment in Honduras several years ago. Balustre had sent him to a small town on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa; the assignment needed to be handled in a fashion that didn’t track back to the United States. The assignment also had less than stellar security, trusting to a local contractor who paid by the hour, and cheaply at that. He had been surprised when Wilcox had shown up in his living room, and he had tried to buy him off with the contents of his safe. He had a Beretta 9 mm. in the safe, but before the assignment could reach it, he felt a sharp pain in his left buttock.
“What…”, he managed to say, but before he could pull the gun out of the safe, he began to tremble and lose strength.
Wilcox didn’t say anything but put the cover back on the syringe. Succinylcholine was a short duration muscle relaxant, but in sufficiently high dosages it would shut down the diaphragm and the heart muscle, mimicking a heart attack. The lethal dose was considered to be 40 mg., but since that was for an intravenous injection, he had used 100 mg. One of the nicer aspects of succinylcholine, at least for Sam Wilcox, was that it began breaking down within minutes of death into untraceable metabolites. One of the nastier aspects, at least for the assignment, was that the recipient was completely aware of how he was dying, though he was unable to even move, and it was a very painful death.
The contents of the safe contained over eight million dollars in Swiss bearer bonds, along with a stack of cash in dollars and Euros, and a small bag with some large unmounted diamonds in it. Sam had been tempted to just quit and disappear but had realized that such a sudden move would tell Balustre that something had happened on the assignment. He needed to make some preparations first. Instead, after finishing the assignment, Sam took a short trip to Grenada for a quick vacation. Aside from a lovely climate and beautiful beaches, Grenada offered a program called Citizenship By Investment, whereby a foreign investor could buy property or make a similar significant investment and qualify for citizenship. The fees involved started at $150,000; a higher fee, paid through a less than scrupulous lawyer, provided not just a passport but a birth certificate and a driver’s license. Wilcox made similar stops in St. Lucia and St. Kitts on the way home. Though he had never been a Boy Scout, he considered their motto, ‘Be Prepared’, a prudent idea.
It was time to disappear.
Thirteen Years Ago
United State Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Two weeks to the day later, Jake Kilbourne was taken from his cell to a section of the prison he had never seen before. It was empty except for a table and a chair and had two doors. His shackles were removed, and a large cardboard box was placed on the table. The MP said, “Your new clothes are in the box. Change out of your prison clothing into what is in the box. Put your prison clothing in the box. Take nothing else with you.” Then he stood against the door they entered and watched as Kilbourne changed into the clothing in the box.
Briefs, khaki pants, blue dress shirt, tan blazer, black socks, brown boat shoes - all in his size! Either the U.S. Army’s Corrections Command had his sizes or Jenkins had access in some other fashion. The MP stood there silently while Jake changed, and then pointed towards the second door. Jake walked over to it and grabbed the knob, surprised when it twisted easily, and the door opened. On the other side was Jenkins.
“Ready to go?”
Jake raised an eyebrow. He was on the verge of a sarcastic reply but decided not to push his luck until he was somewhere outside the walls. “Ready.”
Jenkins turned towards another door and said, “Let’s go.”
Jake followed the other man out the door, which led to a parking lot. As he climbed into the passenger seat of a blue Ford Fusion with government plates, Jake said, “How’d you know my sizes? The Army have my sizes?”
Ed snorted and laughed. “Hardly.” He held up his cell phone. “There’s a camera in the phone. I took your photo. We measured your dimensions from the phone and converted them to sizes.”
Jenkins handed Jake the phone. “Here, take it. The only number programmed into it right now is mine.”
“Planning to track me with this somehow?”
“Jake, we don’t need this phone to track you. We’re the government, remember? We don’t need to put in a chip or lock a tracker on you. That stuff is ancient history. The National Security Agency has programs that can track you as soon as you start talking on the telephone, any phone, anywhere, fixed or mobile. The National Reconnaissance Office has satellites that can tell when you get a boner from a hundred miles up. If you decide to head for the tall and uncut, as you so eloquently put it, we can find you, and there won’t be any second chances.”
Jake shrugged. “So how does this work, whatever it is. How’d you get me out of there?”
“Jake, you’re still in there. You just died in prison.”
Jenkins smiled. “You attempted to escape, and the guards had to respond. You died and were buried in the prison cemetery. It was a very moving ceremony.” He reached inside his jacket and handed over a small envelope. “Your new name is Samuel Wilcox.”
Sam opened the envelope and pulled out the contents. There was a driver’s license from Maryland, along with a birth certificate from Carbide, Idaho for Samuel Collins Wilcox. “Where’s Carbide, Idaho?”
“Doesn’t exist. That way nobody will ever show up saying they never knew you in high school.”
Sam nodded in understanding. That actually made a lot of sense. Somebody was always getting tripped up in the movies or books when they ran across somebody who was from their supposed hometown. “Tell me more about myself.”
Jenkins shook his head. “That’s going to be one of your first tasks. You need to build a background, a history. Then we can create the documentation.”
“Such as the bank you use. We work in Beltsville, which is one of the Washington suburbs. Maybe you use EagleBank, or maybe Wells Fargo. Pick one and suddenly you will have a few years of history, deposits, withdrawals, checks, savings accounts.”
Sam blinked. “Wow! I have a checking account?”
“Don’t be so impressed. You also have credit cards you owe money on, just like every other asshole in the country.”
Jenkins drove the car from Fort Leavenworth to the Kansas City International Airport, a roughly half hour trip. Once there, they pulled up to the Southwest Terminal. Interestingly, at least to Sam, was that Jenkins simply pulled up to the terminal and parked. That was against the rules, as far as Sam understood them. You weren’t allowed to park in front of an airport terminal because of the danger of car bombs. Instead, Jenkins parked and got out, but left the car running. He motioned for Sam to get out. Meanwhile a different man came out of the terminal and got into the car and pulled out as soon as Sam had left the car. Sam followed Jenkins into the airport.
Jenkins sat down on one of the plastic chairs along the windows. He motioned for Sam to sit down next to him. “This is your first test. See that woman over there, the blonde with the two blue bags.”
Sam slowly turned his head to the left, finding the woman in the line to get her boarding pass and check her luggage. “Third from the front of the line?”
Sam eyed her quickly. She looked to be in her late thirties, trying hard to look like she was in her late twenties. Medium height, brown eyes, average figure, professional pants suit, low heeled shoes. “And?”
“How would you kill her?”
“Why do you think we got you out of prison? It’s to clean up messes. She works for Grumman and has been selling secrets to the Russians. The FBI would arrest her, and the CIA isn’t allowed to work inside the country. If she’s arrested the Russians will know we know about them. She’s on a flight from here to JFK, and from there is heading to Europe and on to Moscow. She’s a mess and your job is to clean it up,” said Jenkins.
Sam looked back at the woman, and then made a quick look around the room. Then he turned back to Jenkins and leaned back in the chair. “Forget it. Without time, preparation, and weapons, the only way I can kill her is to bull my way through the line and break her neck. I’ll have security on me before I can get out of the line. You might as well just take me back to Leavenworth and stick me in that hole in the prison cemetery.”
Jenkins smiled and nodded. “Follow me.” He stood and walked out of the terminal; Sam got up and followed him. Outside, they found the blue Ford waiting for them. They climbed inside, both in the back seat. The driver pulled away from the terminal.
“So, who was she? Does she really work for Grumman?”
“No idea. I just wanted to see what you would do.”
“Hell of a chance risking her life like that. What if I had actually done that?”
“You’d have been dead before you ever got out of the chair.” Jenkins opened his jacket and Sam saw a shoulder holster holding a small pistol. “So, tell me, what if she really was a traitor and you were assigned her removal? How would you do it?”
“No idea. I’d want to investigate her, find out her habits, her medical history, her address and location, where she worked. All sorts of things. I’d also need to make sure you weren’t bullshitting me and using me to get rid of your pregnant girlfriend.” Jenkins rolled his eyes at that but kept quiet. “I’d want to know if she had any security, and whether the job needed to be quiet or loud, something that looked like an accident or something that looked like a murder.”
The car pulled into a section of the airport that had a number of small hangars. They parked outside one of the hangars, and Jenkins and Wilcox left the sedan and walked through the open hangar door to where a small private jet was waiting. Sam followed Jenkins to the plane, and they climbed on board. A man in a pilot’s uniform pulled the stairs up and sealed the plane, and then went into the cockpit, closing a door behind him. A few minutes later the plane began moving.
“Now what?” asked Wilcox. “Where now?”
“Beltsville, Maryland. We need to start your training.” He paused for a second and asked, “Your ASVAB scores were extremely high, certainly at a level that would have gotten you into college. What’s with that? No college?”
“No money. You’ve seen my background. I got out of high school with the clothes on my back and the money in my pocket. Whatever cash my father left me when he died was used to pay my share of living expenses with my mother’s family. Even if I had gotten a scholarship to some college, who pays for room and board? Spending money? A car? The best deal I could come up with was join the Army and let them send me to college at some point.”
“Well, you’ll be quite capable of the additional training, much of which you will help to select. For instance, you speak Spanish.”
Sam shrugged. “Not great, but if somebody speaks it slowly I can usually figure it out.”
“So maybe we send you to school to learn it better. That might be useful.” Sam nodded. Jenkins continued, “Here’s something else. We need you to learn your back story, your personal history. If you have to tell somebody you are from Idaho, what happens if he says he’s from Idaho, too. How do you get out of that? Do you just out and out lie and let this guy know you’re a fake and he needs to be killed? Or do you know how to deflect the questions and move the conversation off you and onto something else. Maybe you need to know some history of Idaho.”
Sam nodded and smiled. “Sounds like something out of a bad movie.”
It was Jenkins’ turn to shrug. “It was out of In The Line Of Fire, with John Malkovich and Clint Eastwood. Malkovich had to kill two women in Los Angeles when he mentioned he was from one of their hometowns and she questioned him on it. It was part of how Eastwood caught him. Anyway, it’s better to know your backstory and know how to avoid problems like that. Your job is assassination, not murder, and definitely not bulk murder.”
The two men continued to discuss Sam’s future training the balance of the flight. From Kansas City to the small private airport near Washington took two hours. Once they landed, they taxied to a hangar and then inside. The engines were shut down, the door was opened, and the stairs were lowered. “Now what?” asked Sam.
“It’s been a long day, Sam. I’m going home.”
Sam opened his hands and gave a curious look.
Jenkins smiled and said, “Follow me.” Outside the hangar were a pair of blue Ford Fusions. Sam decided there must have been a special on blue Fords that year. Jenkins led him over to one and opened the door. He reached inside and found some car keys, which he handed to Sam. “Follow me. I’ll take you to where you can stay, at least for the time being.”
“Is there GPS in this thing?”
“Probably, simply because it’s a government car. If you’re planning on taking off, go for it. Even without the GPS, we’ll find you. You don’t know yet how to run away. We’ll catch you in a day or two and then you’ll be back to that prison cemetery in Kansas. Or you can follow me and make a new life for yourself. Your choice.”
Sam got into the Ford and waited for Jenkins to get into the other sedan, then followed him out of the airport. Fifteen minutes later they pulled into a small apartment complex. Jenkins parked and Sam pulled into the spot next to his.
“Good choice,” said Jenkins. He pulled a set of keys out of his pocket and led the way inside and up a set of stairs to the second floor. He unlocked a door to one of the apartments and led the way in. Once they were inside, he set the keys on a buffet cabinet in the living room. “Home sweet home.”
Sam looked around. He was standing in a small two-bedroom furnished apartment, but one without any artwork, books, or traces of somebody being present. From the living room he walked into the kitchen and found it was empty, as were all the closets. There was a bed in the larger of the two bedrooms, which opened onto the bathroom. The bed was made and there were some spare sheets and towels in the linen closet. He wandered back out to the living room, where Jenkins was waiting. “You guys provide apartments for all your employees?”
“For a little bit, anyway. Figure six months. After that you’ll know enough to be able to find a place of your own. In the meantime, start making yourself at home.” He handed over a credit card. “Here, don’t go crazy. We’ll be monitoring your spending. You go crazy and you’ll find accountants are even scarier than hardened killers! When I leave, bring the keys down to your car. There’s a suitcase in the trunk with some spare clothing and a laptop computer. You can buy anything you need on Amazon. Get some clothing more your style, some kitchen and bedroom stuff, whatever.”