Sunday WildCard – The Kildaran, Chapters 25 & 26

Welcome back! If I remember correctly, the ‘split path’ of the novel is about to converge again.

Wait, I hear you saying. You don’t know?

I sort of do. But I haven’t sat down and read The Kildaran in a while, and I’m resisting the urge to read ahead, as it were. I don’t want to spoil anything for myself or be tempted to write too much in some of my intros. Plus this is not easy sledding!

This is the third or fourth time I’ve edited this particular book, and while I know I’ve improved as a writer there’s only so much you can do when editing before you start in on major surgery. Given that the book was generally positively received, and even more so after the ending revised last year (and THAT was major surgery!), I don’t want to change too much. I’m tightening things up, tweaking it, removing bits which don’t move the story forward.

So strap in.

Chapter 26 has Stasia getting a little bit frisky, if you’ve been waiting for something along those lines.

Oh – before you get into this story. If you like Sherlock Holmes, my pair of Sherlock stories is Free today (May 2). You can get them by clicking on the button below.

ALSO, my cover for A Quiet Revolution is up for Cover of the Month. Please go vote for it! Consider it a contribution in recognition of the pleasure you’ve gotten out of the chapters to date.

Thanks, and now, on with the story! Big chunk today, roughly 12,000 words.

CHAPTER 25

Utta, Russia; The Caravanserai; Groznyy

April 9

It was decided Katya would arrive in Utta first, an hour before J arrived as Abdul Hamid on the bus. She should have sufficient time to find the café, reconnoiter, and leave for a nearby ‘hide’ well before J appeared. She wore a clean but not stylish dress, giving her the look of a semi-successful professional woman. A bank clerk, perhaps, or a low-level manager. To complete the illusion she hadbusiness cards that read, “Katsarina Kapitskaya, Software Developer, TELMA.”

They even carried a phone number which, if called, would eventually route back to the Cave. The Four Blind Mice had hacked into a defunct telecomm company’s abandoned routers; now, that number would ring to a computerized voicemail system which would back up Cottontail’s card.

She left at nine. The battered old car had seen better days. It didn’t have shock absorbers, she thought, as much as shock transmitters. In only a few kilometers her ass was as sore as she had ever been, and that included the worst tricks she’d turned.

“If they make me sit on a wooden chair in the café, they’re going to eat the table,” she muttered as she hit another pothole. At least the heat worked.

Three hours later she crawled into Utta, parked the Lada a few blocks from the Wandering Wolf, and stretched. Her back and shoulders ached now, as much from the effort of wrenching the recalcitrant steering wheel as the pummeling the road had given her, and she allowed a few minutes to recover before setting off.

Looking around, she said, “What a shithole.”

Utta had seen better days, probably shortly before being burned to the ground, or given the current conditions perhaps after as well. The few buildings were weathered and worn, battered and poorly maintained at best. One, the sign proclaiming it to be a branch of Inkombank, was a gutted concrete shell. A couple cars prowled desultorily along the road, most of the few people she saw choosing to walk rather than risk the pothole slalom of what obviously passed for their main street.

The Wandering Wolf had seen better days, too, but there was a neon sign for Baltika beer in the window and the appetizing smell of grilling meat wafted through an open window. Realizing she was ready to eat she pulled at the door which opened with a creak.

The interior was sparse but clean. Three small round tables stood before her, a pair of booths to the left and right, and the obligatory bar, with a half-dozen high-backed chairs, toward the back. A grainy television was showing a soccer match, FC Khimik against Sparta. She asked the lone barkeep slash waiter, idly wiping a tray with a towel as he watched the game, “What’s the score?”

“Spartak is kicking the shit out of those Khimik pussies. It’s six nil.”

“Fucking Khimik. Think they’ll get relegated?” she asked, dropping onto a chair with an appreciative sigh. Battered or not, they were more comfortable than the Lada.

“They’ve won one match this season, what do you think?”

“Damn.”

“You like those fucks?”

She shrugged and took off her coat.

“Don’t personally care about them one way or another, but my company’s one of their sponsors. The better they play, the more business we get.”

“Sorry to hear that. Who’s your company?”

“TELMA. We do software.”

“Never heard of you.”

She shrugged again, to much greater effect. The blouse she wore was tight and just slightly translucent. It was her plan to be remembered for her tits instead of any questions she might ask.

“Doesn’t look like you have much use for our product here,” she laughed.

“Not really,” he agreed. “What can I get you?”

“Bottle of water, and something to eat. What’s cooking? I smelled it outside.”

“Boris is grilling venison. Shot it myself.”

“I’ll take that, a small steak.”

“No beer?”

She shuddered inwardly.

“No, I have to get back on the road after lunch,” she explained. He yelled the order back to the kitchen, brought her water, and returned to the game. She swiveled in the chair, looking around. One old woman sat in a booth, nursing a cup of a hot drink; other than her, the place was empty.

“Lunch rush?” she asked.

“Ha. Since the battery factory closed, this place has gone to hell. Don’t know why I keep coming to work, it hardly pays to stay open.”

“Because your mother would thrash you if you closed down, Yevgeni,” croaked the other customer.

“Drink your tea, Baba Matya, and mind your own business!” said Yevgeni. “My great-aunt,” he said apologetically.

“I had one just like her,” lied Katya convincingly. “Thought she knew everything and poked her nose in everywhere.”

He nodded.

“That’s her in a nutshell.” He held out a hand. “Yevgeni.”

She took it and said, “Katsarina. Pleased to meet you.”

They chatted harmlessly for a few minutes as Boris – “My cousin, he can’t do anything else, so what else could I do?” – cooked her meal. It arrived, and after she took a bite and pronounced herself satisfied, Yevgeni left her to her meal. It was surprisingly good, in fact, but she paid it little attention, as she examined the interior minutely though discretely. Using the bio-enhancements in her eyes, she was able to zoom in on the few suspicious-looking details. However, they all proved to be harmless: natural features in the wood, an exposed bolt and washer, or, in one case, a squashed fly. Soon enough, she was convinced that the café had been chosen not because it was prepped and loaded with monitoring gear but because it was totally lacking such gear.

She pulled a wallet from her bag.

“What do I owe you?”

“Thirteen rubles,” he said.

Feigning clumsiness, she dropped the wallet on the floor, placing a micro camera under the bar and, incidentally, giving Yevgeni a good view of her ass.

“Good thing I didn’t have that drink,” she joked, handing him a twenty-ruble bill.

“No, thanks,” she said as he went to give her back the change. “I’ll just write it off as a business lunch. Can I get a receipt?”

That got him turned around again, and she palmed another transmitter. “Restroom?”

“Outside, around back,” he grunted.

She went out, waited in the reeking outhouse briefly, then returned, planting the bug on the door lintel, facing in.

“All set,” he said. “I made it look like it was a twenty-ruble meal, with a four-ruble tip.”

“Thank you, that’s easier to explain,” she replied, pocketing the slip. “Dasvidanya,” she said, walking out.

Once out of easy sight, she hurried back to the car. Once inside she pulled out a disposable cell phone and sent J a text: “Looks clean. Planted on door, under bar.”

Then she went to find her hide.

*

Abdul Hamid got off the bus, late, he was not at all surprised, cursing the Allah-damned bastard who had sold him a ticket next to the toilet. Hoisting the backpack, he made his way down the street, looking in the mostly empty store fronts. Finally, he was at the café and, feeling the chill, entered.

It was almost crowded now, at half past one. He made his way through the tables, placing his pack on the only vacant one, and caught the waiter’s attention. “Hot tea with honey, and do you have any lamb?”

“Lamb? No. Venison, I have.”

“Could you make a kebab, or two?”

“Might take a few minutes.”

“I can wait.”

“I’ll bring it to you when they’re done,” he was told. He sat at the table he had selected, the empty chair facing the door, rummaged through the pack until he found a battered edition of the Qur’an, which he opened at a bookmark. The tea and kebabs were dropped off ten minutes later. “Allah’s blessings,” he said to the waiter.

“Whatever,” and he walked off.

He closed his eyes and moved his lips in prayer, then began eating. The venison kebabs were burnt, the vegetables seemed wilted, and the tea weak. Typical treatment by the infidels, but he couldn’t afford to get angry, not here, not in public. When he finished, he paid his bill before asking, “Please, will you make two more? They were rather good,” he lied.

“Ten minutes.”

He returned to his table to read more. Eventually the second order arrived, and he set the book aside.

A large man, dark, straight hair, long beard, dark complexion, approached the table.

“Excuse me.”

He looked up. “Yes?”

“The waiter said you have salt, and adzhika that I can borrow?”

“I have salt, but I do not use adzhika, I don’t like it,” he replied, completing the signal.

The man sat down. “Abdul Hamid?”

“I must be,” he said with a disarming smile.

“You have something for me?”

“In my pack, under the table.” He pushed it over with a foot. “For the glory of Allah.”

“Inshallah,” came the reply. The pack was lifted, and the other man departed. Abdul Hamid finished the kebabs, paid again, and followed the other outside three minutes later. Two minutes after that he was in Katya’s hide and washing the dye from his face.

“Are we tracking?”

“Yes, very clear so far. He’s not moving very quickly.” The receiver looked like a common laptop with a truncated keyboard. Instead of the common QWERTY layout, it had only a track pad, two mouse buttons, and a numeric keypad.

“See? He’s only about half a kilometer away, and he’s not moving.”

“The package isn’t moving,” J clarified, wiping his face with a towel. “Did you get any shots from the cameras?”

She nodded.

“Already uploaded to the Valley,” she said. “Two good front facial, and one side. They should be able to get a match from that.”

“Good work. Pack it up. Remember, we don’t have much range with this.”

“You’re driving,” insisted Katya.

*

“A high priority request from Cottontail,” said Kseniya, opening the file attached to the message. “The next link in the chain. They’re following him but want us to run down the face.”

She imported the image to their facial recognition software and started the program.

“We might not have him in our database,” said Vanner. “Patch it through to CIA and Russian Intel. Verify receipt and make sure they get right on it.”

“Understood.”

He turned to Anisa. “Any changes in activity at Kassab’s location?”

She shook her head. “No, they’re still waiting. I don’t think they’re happy, though.”

“Why not?”

“There have been a large number of punishment details, for one. We’re picked up lots of quick fights; not even fights, just sharp words for no reason at all. They seem to be on edge.”

“Speculation?”

“Something’s gone wrong, and their timetable is off. Whatever was supposed to go down has been delayed, and they’re uneasy.”

Vanner nodded.

“That fits with the urgency and lack of subtlety in trying to acquire the tritium. At a guess, I’d say that the warheads they snatched have bad detonators, maybe even most of them, so they couldn’t deploy. And that means we might just have a little breathing room.” He smiled. “Good work, ladies. Inform Cottontail that we’re processing her request.”

*

“This sucks.”

“Shut the fuck up, Nangle.”

“Just sayin’, Corp. At least you have someone to go back to the barracks to; all I have to look forward to is Puzzo’s snores.”

“Hey!”

“Dude, if Kwan wasn’t running our asses off, I’d never be able to sleep.”

The griping couldn’t be heard outside of their foxhole, dug into the side of a hill. Bravo was war-gaming with the Keldara, playing the role of the defending force, after a busy week of drilling on probable routes, preset defensive positions, and coordinating with the mortar forces. Now, they got to play.

Sivula’s squad was dug into a north-facing hillside, overlooking a track along a small stream. They were responsible for holding the location against, quote, “an unknown number of hostile forces penetrating from the east,” unquote. The path, about a hundred meters below them, was the least-obstructed route past the hill, so he had set a single man at the military crest of the hill, keeping the eastern approach under observation. Two more were up-slope, under cover. He had kept Privates Nangle and Puzzo with him to man the SAW, while he stayed in radio contact with the mortar forces. At his word, they would drop simulated Willie Pete rounds all along the path that would, if real, blind and burn anyone unlucky enough to be there.

“Hey, Corp, can I ask you a question?”

Sigh.

“What, Nangle?”

“How did you bag her so quick, anyway? Near as I can figure, you was either unconscious or asleep pretty much from when we jumped to when she hit your bed.”

“That’s his charm, he’s best when he’s not talking,” added Puzzo.

“You can both shut up and watch the path,” returned Sivula. “Not that it’s any of your business, but it was anything but quick. I met Jessia on the last deployment, and we stayed in touch.”

“I’ll bet you stayed in touch,” said Nangle.

“Enough,” said Sivula, warningly. “Seriously.”

“Sorry.” At least he sounded contrite, though Sivula knew that wouldn’t take him long to start up again.

“Still, how the fuck -”

No, not long at all.

*

“This sucks.”

“Deal with it, Pavel,” growled Chief Adams over the radio. “At least we’re inside, and all we have to do is watch these ragheads.”

Pavel’s team occupied a flat across the road from Kassab’s townhouse. Each of the ten men took turns watching the presumed Chechens trudge around the building, smoke cigarettes, and bitch, loudly, whenever they were together. Everyone except Braon, who, as team sniper, had his own routine. Cottontail had wired the house to a fare-thee-well; none of ‘em could piss without a Keldara knowing it. But the constant tedium of the routine, and the fact that they couldn’t be really active, was wearing on them. Adams was afraid that they’d start fighting each other just to relieve the boredom. At least they’d brought an Xbox; at any given time, two or three would be playing. The current favorite was Medal of Honor.

“I don’t want to deal with it, Chief. I want to kill them.”

“Soon enough, Pavel. Soon enough.”

I hope, he added as a mental reservation.

*

J didn’t complain about the sprung shocks, but Katya could tell he was feeling every bounce.

The target had finally stopped pissing around in Utta after an hour, heading east out of town before turning gradually south. Even though they had to stay within a mile, they didn’t have any problems, nor were they really worried about being spotted. The engineer which had laid out the road had apparently never heard of a straight line. The tarmac twisted and curved around, seemingly at random. It wasn’t at all clear where they were heading. They were making pretty good time, though.

He turned west onto the R263, then north again on an unnamed dirt road several kilometers on.

“Katya, are we transmitting our route back?”

“Yes, and I have it stored in the Garmin as well.”

“I think we’re getting close.”

Sure enough, minutes later the signal came to a relative stop. They pulled parallel to the trace on the road. There was a faint automobile track leading off into the woods to the right.

“What’s around here?”

“The details are poor,” admitted Katya. “There seems to be a lake to our west, called the Kek-Usn, but I don’t see any named town closer than twenty kilometers,” she added, zooming out.

He let up on the brake. “Mark the spot, then see if this road leads anywhere.”

“Should we call in?”

“As soon as we’re back on a – oof! – road,” he said, hitting a particularly steep hole. “I hope it’s soon.”

*

Kseniya knocked on Vanner’s door.

“What’ve you got?”

“We have a solid hit. Bursuk Gereshk, age thirty-four, another known follower of Inarov. Dropped out of sight five months ago. He’s suspected in multiple kidnappings, three bombings, and one attack on a Russian convoy.”

“Is he our mastermind?”

“Probably not. He has experience, yes, but not planning. All execution of others‘ plans. Some training in the Moscow Military School, now the Military Commanders Training School, before being dismissed in his second year.”

“Well, it‘s one step closer. Pass this back to Cottontail ASAP. Then pull everything we can get on Inarov. I‘ve got a feeling about him. I think that he‘s the one we need to bring down.”

Kseniya looked uncertain. “I don‘t know.”

“Why not?”

“He‘s always made a splash with his actions. Every other action he‘s orchestrated, he‘s been online announcing his genius, or in a video, or in a statement to al-Jazeera, and we‘ve heard nothing.”

“Nothing‘s happened yet,” countered Vanner.

“But something has. The convoy being taken down? That was as clean an action as we‘ve ever seen.”

“Mmm. What else?”

“It seems to be a very elaborate plan. He’s usually been a point A to point B type of guy. ‘You surrender or I kill hostages’ type. We don’t know what the end game will be, yet, but this is a lot of work.”

`“You said we don’t know the end game yet. What if we do? What if he’s looking to establish his Emirate in one step?”

“It’s an awfully big leap,” she disagreed. “Even if that is the goal, he’s had some help creating the structure to support it.”

“Okay, I’ll buy that.”

“Finally, he’s broke. I don’t just mean money, though he doesn’t have much of that left, either. In the eyes of the Chechens, he’s not much more than a common criminal any longer. Bombing the medical clinic in Mozdok didn’t go over well at all.”

“Again, if he’s desperate, if he’s against the wall, he’s probably willing to take greater risks.”

“He might face an internal rebellion, though, and he can’t be prepared for that. It’s not thought through, not to the successful creation of his Caucasian state. I think there’s something else going on here, something we’re not picking up on yet.”

“Possibly. Okay, concentrate on his activities in the last six months, especially any new associates. I still think that we should concentrate on Inarov. Maybe he’s taking his cues from one of them, but they‘re almost certainly co-located. If we can find Inarov, we‘ll find his brain trust, too.” He thought for a moment. “That Ibrahim character. What have we learned about him?”

“Still nothing. It’s as if he appeared from thin air six or seven months ago. We don’t have a firm grip on a patronymic, though al-Jasir and ibn Faoud have both come up. Ibrahim ibn Faoud is a slightly more known name. He appears to have been marginally connected with the Chechen rebellion for five years or so, no known links to any particular activity or event. Interpol reported a bank account in his name opened in Switzerland; they naturally suspect him in laundering money but haven’t proven it.”

“Typical of Interpol,” interjected Vanner. “All the information and none of the convictions.”

“ibn Faoud is still reported near his home. The last confirmed sighting was a month ago, before the raid, but he wasn’t deemed a good prospect for increased surveillance.”

“He probably isn’t now, either. If he was home a month ago, well, that’s too soon before the attack for him to be involved. Don’t waste any time on him; put the word out that we want to know when he pops up again, but he’s for the back burner. What about the other name?”

“al-Jasir. Son of a relatively wealthy merchant, Dharr al-Jasir, who was killed in the early stages of the war. Mother, Husniyah, also killed in the war. No known siblings. Attended university sporadically before the war, then dropped out when his parents died. No known affiliation with any rebel movement.”

“What about work?”

“He seems to live on the income from his father’s business, which still exists in Groznyy, run by a Russian manager. Very low profile, and not considered any kind of suspect.”

“Bingo!”

“Sir?” Kseniya looked puzzled.

“It’s a classic. Find an identity and take it over. I’ll bet that the real Ibrahim al-Jasir died with his parents. Was he reported injured during the fighting?”

“Yes, he was, he was in hospital for several weeks after -”

“After suffering severe facial injuries in a fire or explosion or something like that, right?”

Kseniya’s eyes were wide. “Explosion in the family’s flat, yes.”

“To hide the fact that he wasn’t really al-Jasir. And with a head injury, any ‘gaps’ in his memory would be filled in by the helpful doctors and nurses, trying to restore him to a normal life. That’s our man!”

He stood. “It’s perfect. The manager of the business just deposits money in an account, nobody has to see him around. Whoever this guy really is, he’s had this contingency planned for years. That makes him a real pro, all right.”

“We need to figure out who this guy really is. Anything we can get on him since his hospitalization, especially photos, but business statements, phone records, rental agreements, anything will help. I want files from both sides on any agents who were inactive around the time of the attack.”

“Inactive?”

“Whoever this guy is, he had another life he had to step away from while he was in the hospital.”

“Ahh, I understand,” she replied, nodding. “What else?”

“We can narrow it down some by physical type, height, weight, stuff like that, so grab that data too.”

“You don’t think they will give us the data willingly?”

“Oh, eventually, but we need now, not after debate in committee. Hack ‘em.” Through the open doorway, the women of the intel section looked up at that. While they weren’t averse to ‘acquiring’ needed information, Vanner didn’t usually state it quite so directly. Plus, usually Creata’s Four Blind Mice oversaw the deep hacking.

“It’s not just for fun this time, ladies, so no hacking into Playgirl. Find this guy and nail him!”

CHAPTER 26

Boston; Road Trip; Mt. Washington, NH

April 10

“Morning, Jack.” Mike squinted up into the bright spring sun. It promised to be a warm day, a windows-down-while-you-drive kind of day. A sudden thought came to him, and he smiled. Hell if he wasn’t going to take this chance.

“Morning, Sir.”

At Mike’s look, Hughes went on. “Sorry, higher ups said it’s either ‘sir’ or ‘Kildar’.”

“Fine, if that’s what you have to do, but go with ‘Kildar.’ I was never into that ‘sir’ shit; I was a Petty Officer, not some damn shave-tail lieutenant.” He grinned and donned his sunglasses: expensive, could double as safety glasses, and Stasia’s choice. She’d become enamored of the name brand, found that they made shooter’s glasses, and ordered several sets for him over the internet. Didn’t matter that he held onto the cards; she had the numbers memorized…

All thoughts of credit cards were wiped from his mind when a convertible cruised by the front of the hotel, top down, the driver’s long blonde hair flying in the breeze, luxuriating in the early spring warmth. He remembered a certain GT, still parked on a private island because it was too closely associated with the guy who saved Florida’s ass, and his earlier thoughts crystallized.

“What kind of car can we get our hands on? In short order?”

“Pretty much anything you want. If there isn’t one available in the motor pools, there’s a federal impound lot we can utilize.”

“Pain in the ass, not worth it. Did that once with some boats in Florida; my team leader had to go way up the chain to get the lard-ass bureaucrat to shag ass. Pass. I am officially on vacation. Other options?”

“We could rent one.”

“Pass again. Nothing used and tired, not today. Hmm. You have any idea where there’s a Mercedes dealer?”

“I don’t think they rent cars -”

Mike pulled out his wallet, extracted a sky-blue card, one he’d kept away from Stasia.

“I don’t want to rent. Think they’ll listen?”

Jack’s eyes rose above his ever-present sunglasses, Standard, Agent, One Each as he took in the card. There were something like four hundred of these cards on the whole planet, if Forbes knew what they were talking about. It made the black Amex that Stasia used – well-worn, that card was – look positively pedestrian.

“I think they will.”

*

Timothy (Don’t Call Me Tim) Johnson had been a salesman at Rich Borges’ Mercedes for fourteen years. He’d seen all types come through the Somerville showplace: yuppies and techies from the 128 corridor; retirees looking for the car they’d dreamed of; college kids dreaming of what they’d drive ‘someday’.

Johnson loved this part of his job, figuring out the whys and wherefores of his potential customers. He knew that he could have stayed in school, become a therapist, he was that good at pegging people. More than once, buddies of his in various police departments – knowing the local cops was a necessity, selling high-end cars – had pressed him to come aboard, even part-time, to help them pick out the liars and scumbags they had to deal with. He’d always turned them down, though. He loved selling cars.

It was all about the dollars. Even in a crappy economy, he could pull commissions out of just about anyone who walked in the door – at least, anyone he targeted. He was the number one salesman, and he got first pick of the people who walked in the door.

His favorites were the recent divorcees, who had just traded in the starter wife for the upgraded model. They’d stroll in, prize clinging to their arm, and before the chimes could finish their soft announcement Johnson would be over there with a smile, a friendly and firm handshake, steering the guy to the car that would make his eye candy oh so appreciative. Hell, he ought to give some of the women part of the commission; the way they’d giggle and coo and practically crawl into their sugar daddy’s lap, they’d practically make the sale for him.

Johnson could also tell the guys with too much gold, too much jewelry, diamonds in their teeth and a roll of bills that would choke a camel tucked carelessly into a hoodie pocket. He didn’t want anything to do with money like that, but a sale was a sale, so he’d slide them over to some poor schmuck who was near the bottom of the totem pole, let them take the sale. Those jokers would always go for the aftermarket crap, chrome and flash, ruined the lines of the car in Johnson’s eyes, which is why he wouldn’t touch it. Plus, tossing the other dogs a bone kept the rest of the pound happy.

These guys, though. Something was off, so he kept working the problem, worrying at it. The brown-haired guy who was obviously, though not demonstratively, in charge, were confusing the hell out of him. For one thing, he was former service. So was Johnson. Four years in the Army had taught him one thing: he didn’t want anything else to do with the Army. Oh, he appreciated the discipline they had instilled, and the money he’d used for college, and the fact that he was still a fitness nut and was in better shape than any three guys his age.

But that was past, and he was happier for it. This guy wasn’t past it. Maybe he was still in it, but with that crew? Naah, out, but not beyond it. No, there was something in the way he moved, a predator, barely held in check. And as for the way he looked, he simply exuded the air of command, one used to giving orders he knew would be followed. Then there was also something darker about him, wrapped around him like a cloak.

The other guy was military too, but he just stood back and watched the others prowl around the showroom. That pegged him as a bodyguard, probably ex-military. Good shape, well-trained. His suit was custom, not off-the-rack like the innumerable Fibbies and other agents that crawled around the city. Johnson could tell that he was carrying but couldn’t determine if he was heavy on the left or right. Definitely a pro.

If anything, it was the two women who threw him off, and this bothered him the most. He was right so often, he just couldn’t rest until he got this one pegged. He made subtle eye contact with another salesman, waved him off with a single waggling finger. Everyone else returned to their busywork, follow-up calls, letting him have all the time he needed. This group was his.

One was a tall, well-stacked blonde. Real, not fake. Maybe in her late twenties, and obviously used to luxury. She had the look, that, “Oh yes, the C-Class, perfectly fine for someone else, but I rather prefer a car with a little more panache.” Miss Rich Bitch. She was quietly debating every car with the guy. So. Not a first girlfriend after the divorce, not the way she was obviously friendly with the other young lady. Curious.

The fourth member was a young, really young, as in barely legal, redhead who was hotter than the blonde if you didn‘t care about age. He’d seen her type before but never this pretty. In three, maybe five years he could see her on the cover of a magazine, some high fashion crap. She was that perfect.

Her wide-eyed amazement changed his assessment mid-stride again. He could tell she wasn’t used to luxury. She was drinking in the AMGs like a dying man stumbling across a desert oasis and hanging on the guy and the blonde’s every word. Johnson wasn’t sure if she was a hooker or maybe, just maybe, a really adoring daughter. Yeah, that had to be it. There weren’t many guys who had the brass ones to bring a prostitute car-shopping.

So. Guy, rich. How? And how much?

Has a very good, and very subtle, bodyguard, which put him way up in the stratosphere, but he’d never seen his face in Forbes, or Fortune, or had he? That face; put a moustache on it, or a beard, or, hell, just change the hair a little, and he’d be a totally different person. Later for that. Concentrate.

Military careers don‘t usually make too much money. Did he inherit money and get his rocks off playing soldier? No, he was too good, it was too natural to be an act. Maybe he’d skimmed it out of the mess in the sandbox? With all the billions over there, it was easy enough to manage. No, again, he was simply too comfortable with himself to be that kind of scum. What about an arms dealer, to governments, not individuals? Lots of money there, and that would explain the bodyguard too.

Okay, so that makes the girl, what? Maybe a daughter from the first marriage? Ooh, maybe she stays with mommy and he’s trying to buy her affection? Get her a first car? That would make the blonde a trophy wife, and that’s where it all fell apart. No way. The women were just way too friendly with each other to be ‘steps’.

No, the key here was the blonde. Figure her out, and everything else will fall into place. So. Acts like a teacher, but calmer, and no teacher ever moved with that fluidity or had that kind of style or elegance in their dress. The dress, and the redhead’s too, were custom made, not even couture. She knew someone who knew someone, had their services, and that was on her own, not bought.

Think. Think. Smooth, professional, elegant. Mature. Used to putting people at ease.

Sales.

That was it, it had to be. Selling weapons? Maybe. That would make him her boss, originally, who rescued her from the horrors of their profession. Someone who stood by him after losing the first wife? A deal went bad, the wife died at the hands of a competitor, and she had to get out? Not a trophy wife, then. Didn’t have any problem bonding with the stepdaughter, obviously, because she’s not trying to be stepmom.

Feeling that he finally had a handle he could use, Johnson started forward. Chat ‘em up a bit for a while. Offer the women some chocolate truffles. He kept a supply in his office, made specially for him by a man who was in the business for the love of making fine chocolates. That looked like a good bet. Chocolates. Nodding to the bodyguard first, he approached the women from the side so as not to surprise them. A woman surprised would hold a grudge. Forever. And that would end any chance of making this sale.

“Morning. Timothy Johnson. I see you’re looking at the 63? Best car in the showroom.”

The car, a bright red CLS63, was the current centerpiece. Sleek and low, it felt like a predator, waiting for its prey.

“Yeah, I need something to beat around in,” said the brown-haired man, who finally met his eyes with a crooked grin that would have made Han Solo proud.

“She’s got a V-8, over five hundred horsepower, seven-speed automatic, so she’ll take you from zero to sixty in four point four seconds. Practical, too, if you’re out on the town. Seats four in luxury you can only get in a Mercedes, oversized moon roof, and, of course, all the bells and whistles the engineers could dream up. Absolutely the pride of the line.”

“Michael, the wheel’s on the wrong side!” said the blonde.

Ah! Foreigner. And what a delightful accent she had!

“Ma’am?”

“It’s built for the American market, Stasia, so the driver sits on the left.”

“You live overseas?” His mind started to race again, but before he could even get out of the starting blocks he heard the words he always expected, though never quite this quickly.

“How much?”

“There’s quite a wait for this model. Last I heard, orders were three or four months out. Of course, every one is custom made, to your exact specifications, exactly the options you -”

The blonde interrupted.

“The roof opens?”

“Oh, yes, very easily. Just a push of a button and the inside sun shield slides back, letting all the glorious April sunshine in, push another button and the glass itself retracts. Let me show you -”

And he was interrupted again. This time by the man, Michael, reminding Johnson just who was going to be buying here. Or not.

“I didn’t ask how long, I said how much. This one.”

“Oh, I can’t sell you this one. Not allowed. She’s the floor model, we have to have her for display. On rare occasions, we let certain special customers take her out, just to get a feel for her, so she’s got a few miles on her. Plus, do you know how many people have come to look at her? Sat in her? It would take forever to make her smell new and fresh again.”

The guy, Michael, he remembered, turned and said in a voice as cold as a Boston winter, “You can’t sell it to me? Find someone who can.” Then turned back to the car.

Johnson, stunned for a moment, rallied.

“I mean, sir, you wouldn’t want this particular one. It’s not ready to drive, it needs…” He didn’t get to finish telling what it needed, as Michael turned back, this time with a predator’s smile that reflected the car’s attitude perfectly.

“Let’s get this clear. This is the car I want to buy. I want to buy it now and drive it out of here this morning. I have places to go and I have wasted enough of my time listening to your bullshit. I’ll bet if you got this car back to the garage for a fill and oil change and whatever other excuses you can think of, now, while you start processing the paperwork, we could all be happy and finished in, oh, an hour. What do you think?”

Johnson also knew when to surrender.

 “I think we’ll get on it right away, sir.”

It took seventy-two minutes by Kat’s watch. That was long enough for Debra, Johnson’s secretary, to take the women, bodyguard in tow, down to the confectioner’s for an order of truffles, on Johnson’s dime, of course. From the way the redhead was bouncing, she was now well into a full-on sugar rush.

No financing hassles. As soon as the 63 had started up, Michael handed him an otherwise-unadorned blue MasterCard, name of Michael Jenkins. Johnson was a bit dubious; it was a rather large purchase to make on credit. The card went through practically as soon as he finished punching in the digits. Soon enough, engine tuned, governor disabled, latest generation software downloaded, the vehicle was ready to go. Without another word to Johnson, they drove off the property and turned north.

Later.

Much later.

Long after the dealership had closed, and Johnson had headed down the road to La Hacienda, his favorite after-work hangout. Despite the name, it was a pretty decent pizza joint, and it was his habit to order a small pesto pizza and enjoy a beer before he waited. Tonight, after assuring himself of a five-figure commission, he figured he’d treat himself and ordered a Mountain Tiger. Joe, the barkeep, had poured a stein full and set the ceramic bottle down on the bar. Johnson took a long pull, then nearly lost it all through his nose when he looked at the picture on the label.

“I will be dipped in shit,” he murmured. That was the redhead, which made the money man the Tiger Beer baron, not a gun runner. And then the blonde wasn’t a gun bunny turned exec. Damn, how did his radar get so far off?

“Hey, Joe, you got any promotional stuff for these Mountain Tiger beers?”

“Yeah, in the corner, why?”

“Can I grab a poster? It’ll win me a bet at work tomorrow.”

As Joe started rooting around, Johnson continued. “You ever see a blue MasterCard? Or a black AmEx?”

At Joe’s grunted “No,” he elaborated.

“This guy, the guy who makes Tiger Beer, came in the dealership today…”

By the time Joe found the poster, Johnson finished the story.

Joe was suitably impressed.

“Nice.”

*

“Why do we need a car? And where are we going?”

Kat was sitting in front with Mike, moonroof way open, Stasia and Hughes in the back. Jack’s longer legs, and Katrina’s shorter ones, demanded that he sit behind her. Stasia? Well, she was probably cramped, but she wouldn’t complain. Hell, she might even enjoy it. Winterborn was blasting from the Harman/Kardon stereo and twelve speakers. Jack looked fully relaxed for once, nodding and singing badly with the music, watching the world pass by at high speed. Stasia, like Kat, bounced in her seat, though probably with better reason, since one of the two subwoofers was directly beneath her.

Each girl clutched a golden box, ‘gifts’ from the salesman. Mike made the mistake of reaching for Kat’s box, to examine the contents. The fierce look, and was that a growl? quickly convinced him otherwise.

“What?” he called over the music.

Katrina repeated her question, yelling loudly enough to be heard this time.

“North!”

She laughed.

“Where north?”

“There’s a road you need to ride on! It’ll remind you of home!”

He wouldn’t say any more about it as Massachusetts, followed quickly by New Hampshire, flashed by. No police. Either it was a bad day, crime-wise, or Jack had been busier on his phone than Mike thought when he reported the change of vehicle to OSOL. They’d driven south, back into Boston, so he could drive the girls over the Zakim bridge on the way out of town. Then they were on 93, flying out of town, past even the most hardened commuters, the ones who would say, “Why do you think they’re called ‘bumpers’?”

Far too soon, they hit the 95/128 loop. Traffic slowed there as the inevitable construction zone popped up, orange barrels and cones, flaggers, the whole nine yards. Once past, though, the road was nearly deserted, and he really let the Merc stretch her legs, touching 140 a couple times before hopping onto 495 towards the coast.

Reaching over, he gave Katrina’s seatbelt a sharp tug, pulling it into a more secure position and finally stopping her bouncing. She looked up at the movement, her eyes freezing on the old-fashioned analog speedometer. It was currently resting comfortably on 130. Nervously, she looked back at Hughes and Stasia, but they both looked relaxed. She relaxed too.

Mike peered into the back seat. Jack, was Jack asleep? Sure looked that way. And how about Stasia? This was faster than she’d ever gone on the ground, which was quantitatively different than a plane. Though with the air rushing past the wide-open moon roof, and the almost turbine-like pitch of the engine, it was a pretty good imitation of the G550 on the runway. He adjusted the mirror to get a better look at her. Actually…

Stasia looked a little more than relaxed. It seemed that the sugar rush had been replaced by another kind of rush, one that each passed car, each tremor from the road, was intensifying. Seeing a pair of semis ahead, Mike deliberately steered as close to the sides as he could, so close he could practically see the individual rivets on the trailers as they flew by. Sure enough, Stasia screamed soundlessly and arched her back, her feet kicking into Mike’s seat.

Oblivious to the byplay, but proving he hadn’t been asleep, Jack said, “Probably ought to slow down a bit, Kildar. Truckers are notorious for gossiping, especially about fast cars like this one. I’m not sure that the state police would be willing to ignore a direct report of a red Mercedes doing a hundred and forty.”

Mike relaxed his foot on the accelerator.

“Point. Besides, I think we’ll have to keep her now. Stasia’s christened the back seat already.”

Jack looked up, confused. “Huh?”

“Stasia?”

“Yes, Kildar?”

“You’ve been having a good old time, haven’t you?”

“Yes, Kildar.” She hung her head, a secret smile playing on her lips.

“And you haven’t told anyone, have you?”

“No, Kildar.”

“Was it the speed?”

“And the bumps. And the music. The bass is directly beneath me and you have no idea -”

“Fine. I think you need to be disciplined. For starters, take off your top.”

She began to remove the blouse, revealing her nearly perfect breasts. Only a few scars remained from her ‘torture’ at the hands of the late, unlamented Juan Gonzalez, one of many reasons he’d had to be put down.

Sensing movement next to him, he said, “Kat! Eyes front!”

“I’ve seen it before, Michael, but never live. All of my lessons have been virtual, online.”

“Never you mind. Eyes front, I said. Here,” he added, pointing to the nav console between them. “Figure out how to use that and see if you can guess where we’re going.”

At the challenge a determined look set on her face. Unconsciously the tip of her tongue poked out a corner of her mouth as she concentrated on mastering the German-designed, read fiendishly overcomplicated, satellite navigation system.

Jack was thoroughly bewildered now, trying desperately to keep his eyes anywhere but the sights next to him. That gave Mike an even better idea. Time to put the surveillance he knew he was under whenever he was in the States to work for him, for once.

“Jack,” he said, “you have a choice on how you think of this. You can look at is as taking one for the team, or you can take it as a bonus. No matter to me either way, but it’s payback time for that lousy singing.”

“What?” Jack was totally lost.

“Stasia. I want you to give Jack as much pleasure as you’ve received since you got in the car. The catch is you can’t use your hands, or his, to help you.”

Almost instantly, there was a zzzziiiiip – she must have used her teeth, thought Mike. Then the only sounds from the back were Jack’s sudden inhalations, punctuated by groans. In just a few moments, Jack grunted loudly, then said, “Oh. My.”

Stasia didn’t stop. If anything, she increased her efforts. After Jack came a second time, Mike noticed that Stasia was shaking, quivering, too. What a perfect Catch-22 he’d caught her in! She was humiliated, but all the sensations were still there, pushing her into a nearly continuous orgasm. And since she couldn’t stop until Hughes had equaled her pleasure, and she was receiving more pleasure, she couldn’t stop sucking on him.

Katrina had adjusted the mirror to watch, too.

“Wow. He’s really making a funny face! She must be doing her tongue twisty trick. She said she’s never tried it on you, said she never needed to. I’ve got to see exactly how she does it…” And she reached to unbuckle.

“Not so fast, little one,” contradicted Mike, pressing her head back against the headrest. She struggled against it, briefly, then, with a look that promised mayhem later, relented.

“How do we bring it home?” Kat asked some miles later. “Or do we leave it here?”

“It’s too much fun to leave here. We’ll figure it out!”

They had turned off the interstate onto a state highway but were still heading north through New Hampshire. Small towns flashed by, impressions of New England: white, steepled churches; colonial houses; small shops and restaurants; lots and lots of trees. The mountains they had glimpsed in the distance loomed larger and larger.

Finally, Mike said, “Stasia, you can finish him off now.”

“Finish… me…?” gasped Jack, who then moaned.

Without turning, Katrina announced, “It must be the tongue twisty trick. Be warned, Michael, I will learn it before our wedding day. Stasia told me it would enslave even the strongest man. She’s never used it on you; you’re her Master. But in our bed…! Not even all of Kurosawa’s needles will save you!”

“Ah, I meant to ask, are you spending any time – that is, is he tutoring you in anything? Seems like everyone else is.”

“Definitely! He’s shown me the technique he uses in the morning to help your joints. I’ve got that one down, pretty well, but there’s another one he says I need more work on.”

Despite every inner voice screaming, “STOP!”, Mike asked anyway: “What technique is that?”

“To ensure that you survive our nights together,” she answered, almost coyly.

Then: “He showed me where to put the needle. It’s a much bigger needle than the others! But I haven’t actually been able to practice on a live man. None of the Keldara will volunteer,” she finished with a pout.

“I’m not surprised,” commented Mike, wisely letting the conversation lapse.

From the back, he could hear a final, explosive exclamation from Jack, followed a moment later by Stasia’s shriek. Mercifully, the road noise and the stereo managed to mask it, or he’d have been deafened. Shortly, Stasia sat up, wiping a corner of her mouth with a tissue.

“Michael, we will need to stop shortly.”

“Do I need to know why?”

“I seem to have soaked through -”

“Stopping.” Glancing back, he noticed Jack, sprawled against the seat. “Jack, my man. You’re looking a little dehydrated.”

“I’ve never – she’s – man, you are one lucky SOB!”

“I agree.” A grin slowly spread across his face. “Nice view through the roof?”

“Amazing. Biggest damn moon roof I’ve ever seen.”

“Uh-huh. Does the name Allen Funt mean anything to you?”

After visibly searching his memory, Jack answered, “No. Who is he?”

Mike grinned wider.

“Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”

Still looking up, the dawning realization of Mike’s implication spread across Jack’s face.

“Fuck me.”

“Basically, yeah. I’ll make a call for you, make sure that anything that might have seen you has a little data burp. You know we probably have our own satellite, don’t you? If that doesn’t work, I have a couple specialists who can help you out. But, face it. I own your soul now.”

“Goddamn SEALs play dirty.”

“Damn right we do.”

“Fuck me sideways.”

“This, I must see!” Katrina said, turning around in her seat before Mike could react. “Please? Show me?”

*

They were definitely entering a tourist area; convenience stations started popping up all over, so it was only a few minutes before Mike pulled the Merc into a parking lot.

“Okay, Jack, you go with Stasia, fetch us all drinks and something to munch. I’ll make my call.”

“I need to go too, Michael.”

“Kat too.”

Jack just groaned.

“I don’t know if I can move, actually.”

“That’s easy!” exclaimed Katrina. “Kurosawa taught me this! I need to heat a needle until it’s red-hot…”

Whatever Kat was going to do with the needle was lost on Jack, as he levitated out of the car and into the refuge of the store before she could complete her thought. He had been leaning his head against the cooler door for a couple minutes when he heard a giggle behind him. He turned to see Katrina and Stasia, arm-in-arm, strolling toward the restroom, talking to a group of local girls and pointing at –

Blushing furiously, he turned away, tucked himself in, and zipped.

*

Mike kept up a steady stream of banter, telling the stories of the Green Frog and invasions from Canada while he was stationed, briefly, at Plattsburgh AFB.

“Why was a SEAL at an Air Force base?” asked Katrina, sensibly.

“Never quite figured that one out, but it was a good place to spend the summer. Lots of sun, big lake for swimming, great, cheap beer, and the co-eds from SUNY…“

Mike caught himself before he said anything that would arouse Katrina’s ire; something about ex-girlfriends and a redhead warned him off.

Neither Jack or Stasia were in any condition to hear these tales, though, as they’d both quickly fallen asleep despite the still-booming stereo. It wasn’t until they were finally forced to slow, about eighty miles north and entering a town in a river valley, that both awoke. Jack looked like he could use a shot of B-12 and about ten hours‘ sleep. Stasia looked perky.

 Buds were just forming on the trees, and the ground still bore patches of snow. The mountains to either side, while only a couple thousand feet high, were capped in snow.

“I hope it’s open,” said Mike.

“You hope what is open?” demanded Kat.

“The road,” he answered cryptically.

“Michael Harmon! If you do not tell us, now, where we are going…!”

“How about some chocolate?” he said instead, pulling into a parking lot by a very Bavarian-feeling building. It looked like a nineteenth-century German cottage, and there was an aroma of fudge in the air. He’d found this place on the GPS after seeing the girls’ reaction to the truffles earlier in the day. He forgot sometimes that Katrina, and Stasia too, didn’t have much exposure to chocolate, especially fine chocolate, and thus reacted to it like a cat in a catnip patch.

“Don’t go overboard while we’re in there. Just a little something,” he cautioned. “We’ll get lunch at the top.”

“Top?”

He just grinned and handed each girl a hundred-dollar bill. “No credit cards.”

“They take them, I saw the sign,” protested Stasia.

“I know they take them, I don’t want you to use them. Come on, Jack. I don’t want to be present for the mayhem.”

Twenty minutes later, chocolate craving abated, they hit the road again. This was obviously a tourist town. The restored train station, overlooking nearby mountains, was behind a large, kid-friendly park. A white gazebo sat in the park under a huge oak tree. People wandered along the sidewalks among the shops bearing ‘cute’ names like The Toy Box and Cool Jewels. Mike pointed to one approaching: L.L.Bean.

“Best guarantee on the planet. Worth the extra money. Plus, the boots are great.”

Stasia’s hand reached into the front seat. Mike slowed and pulled in, handing her the black AmEx card. They had barely stopped when Kat popped out of the car, then Stasia.

“Don‘t take too long,” Mike said from the front seat.

“Oh, no. You‘re coming too,“ she insisted. Very reluctantly, he followed, trailed by a still-hobbling Jack.

The poor sales associate who greeted them, who introduced herself as Lara, never stood a chance. Stasia was in her element, hitting department after department, unerringly zooming in on the best, most practical item out of dozens on display, adding it to Lara’s pile.

“Tell me, Lara,” asked Stasia after looking over a selection of men’s casual shirts and slacks. “Does your company ship overseas?”

Behind Stasia, Mike shook his head frantically but Lara said, “Of course,” anyways.

After that, it got ugly.

They managed to escape carrying three bags of goods with another vast pile ordered to be shipped to a drop they used in Tbilisi. On the way out, Kat whispered to Mike, “And I got you some cute Green Frog boxers.”

Hughes was holding his bag gingerly.

“Problem, Major?”

“Kildar, I’m not supposed to accept gifts from my primaries. It involves all sorts of paperwork, reports -”

“You didn’t complain about Stasia’s ‘gifts’. Report one, report the other.”

“Sergeant Schultz time again?”

“You see nottink, you hear nottink. Be happy. You ought to meet Chief Constable Tyurin sometime. You ever see Casablanca?”

“Yeah.”

“I swear, Tyurin models himself on Captain Renault in that movie. Venal, opportunistic, always with the open palm, willing to look the other way, but committed to his job as long as it doesn’t interfere with his lifestyle.”

“Sounds like a charmer.”

“That he is. Anyway, he knows when to take what is given gracefully.”

“Gotcha.”

“Besides, I may have mentioned I own your soul?” Mike smiled.

“You may have,” replied Jack weakly.

“Then I don’t want to hear any more about it. Okay, back in the car. Next stop, you’ll find out where we’re going.”

Soon they were through the town and speeding along the roadway again. The pine forests grew denser and closer to the road, and the shops gradually disappeared. The road split, and they were in the woods.

“We’re approaching the Presidential Range of the White Mountains,” Mike finally said. “They’re the northern extension of the Appalachians, so are really old and, in truth, not all that high. The tallest is only a little over a mile. I think they feel like the mountains around the Valley, though.”

“They do!” exclaimed Kat. “I could feel it, too. So few people, here. That’s like home as well.”

“I was hoping you’d appreciate them.” The forest retreated and the road widened. Mike turned left onto a gravel road and drove up to a small white building.

“Weather At Summit” read a sign. “Temperature 24 Wind Gusts to 55 mph Visibility Unlimited”

Before them loomed a mountain. Surrounded as it was by the rest of the range, it still stood alone, rising from the valley floor, past a distinct tree-line to a snow-covered summit.

“Morning, folks,” said a woman from inside the building. “Planning on going up?”

“How’s the road today?” asked Mike.

“Surprisingly clear and dry,” she answered. “Though it might scratch up your finish,” she added.

“No worries. What’s the damage?”

She peered into the car. “Four adults? Forty-seven.”

He handed her a fifty. As she made change, she asked, “Automatic?”

“Yeah, seven-speed.”

“Drop it out of drive into a lower gear going up and go no higher than two on the way down, otherwise you’ll burn out your brakes.”

She handed him his bills and a manila envelope. “I assume you have a CD player, not a cassette?”

“Somewhere in here,” he said.

“Okay, when you’re ready, put the CD in and head up through the trees.” She pointed past a wooden bridge over a small stream, where the road disappeared into a stand of trees. “Enjoy your drive!”

“What did she mean, ‘drive’?” asked Stasia from the back.

“This is the Mount Washington Auto Road,” answered Mike. “It’s an eight-mile road chiseled into the side of the mountain, from the base here right up to the summit. I’ve heard that the view is spectacular.”

“Drive?” asked Stasia again.

“Yeah, we have to drive up it.”

“We’re going to drive up a mountain.”

“Yes, Stasia, we’re going to drive up a mountain, that one right there.”

She moaned, though whether in terror or anticipation Mike couldn’t tell.

“No way!” exclaimed Kat. “That is so cool!”

Mike looked at her. “Cool?”

“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to say?” she asked, innocently.

Jack added, “I’ve done some freehand mountain climbing, but this blows it to hell. Out in Arizona, the mesa’s can be pretty tall, but there’s no snow. Or ice. Hate to try to freehand over that.”

“My troops would call you a pussy, then. They train on worse slopes than this. Got to; one of our missions -”

He stopped to think about Jack’s clearance, then visibly decided, Fuck it.

“We had to do a rappel, sheer ice cliff, maybe five hundred feet. Everyone else down but me. Don’t know if it was bad placement, bad knots, or just rotten luck, but as I’m lowering my ass down, I feel the belay pins giving way. Pang! I drop and stop. I’m moving faster, waiting for the next one to go. Sure enough, pang! Another drop, another stop. I’m dangling, maybe a hundred feet up, far enough so I’ll just make a big wet splat when the last pin goes. So I start the single fastest rappel I have ever done, nearly burn through a glove, and just as I’m about to touch down the last pin goes and I drop the last few feet. The rope comes down after me, and the Keldara waiting for me tells me how impressed he was that I managed to retrieve the fucking rope!”

“It wasn’t time for the Valkyries to fetch you, Mike,” Kat said in a subdued voice, totally unlike her usual tones, her eyes unfocussed, looking at everything and nothing. Every hair on Mike’s body stood on end. He knew that she was training to be a priestess, but he was a rational, twenty-first century American, not some backwater tribal warrior. This was sure as hell a trance, though. She continued.

“You still had much to do. You still have much to do. The Keldara need you, those around the Keldara who struggle to rebuild need you. Loki comes for you and yours soon. You must be ready. You must be pure of heart when the time comes.” She slumped, eyes closing, then just as quickly sat upright again.

She blinked and looked at the three pairs of eyes staring at her. “What?”

Stasia recovered first. “Nothing, Katrina, dear. Are you feeling well?”

Katrina turned and glared. “I had a vision, didn’t I?”

“I suppose you did,” said Mike. “You didn’t seem to be…here.”

“What was the vision? I don’t remember them. Mother Lenka says I can glimpse through the gates of chaos because of the way my mind works, but the cost is I cannot keep the memory.”

“It didn’t make too much sense,” said Stasia, sensing Mike’s reluctance to talk about himself. “Something about Loki and Valkyries.”

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” Kat sighed. “Fine. But when it comes to pass, you’ll tell me?”

“Of course, dear,” said Stasia.

“I need to learn to control these things.”

And she would say no more.

The CD was an audio tour, designed to be informative and amusing, for Yankee values of amusing. Signs that winter still had the mountain firmly in its grip were abundant. In places, the snow on the upslope side rose eight or ten feet above the car, while a precipitous drop loomed down slope. Kat was pivoting in all directions to absorb all the scenery; Stasia had her eyes clamped shut.

She moaned heavily as her breathing increased, her imagination running wild, then she’d take a deep breath, open her eyes and look around. She’d slam them shut again, wiggle in the seat, grip the three-point safety belt even as her body betrayed her, again and again. Mike added to the torture, stopping several times at corners, tricking her into opening her eyes to look and seeing that there was nothing below her side of the car.

Mike found it all relaxing. The CLS gripped the roadway, providing sure going, the heated seat kept him pleasantly warm, and the joy on Kat’s face made it all worthwhile. Still the vision hovered just back of his eyes. He was going to have to talk to Mother Lenka about it when they returned.

About a half-hour later they parked just below the summit. The wind was whipping past, slicing through their clothes and chilling them in seconds. Out came the bags and the coats and the Hunting Shoes.

“Up there!” said Mike, pointing to stairs chiseled into the bones of the mountain. They hurried up, emerging onto the broad summit, bathed in blinding sunlight reflecting off the snow. They could see a rough-hewn rock building with a nearly flat roof, snow piled high to one side, rock exposed on the other. Other buildings, barely distinguishable from the blasted-on snow, poked into the air, while three or four radio towers loomed overhead. One began as an ice-encrusted framework, about thirty meters tall, with a more modern-looking tower extending another thirty meters above. Ice streamed horizontally from every surface, blown and frozen in place by the constant winds. Another low building, completely covered in rime, seemed to be chained to the ground. Kat pointed at it, Mike shrugged. They made their way off to the right, to a large, curved, modern-looking building, and entered its warmth gratefully.

They saw they were in the main building of the Mount Washington State Park. It housed a museum, highlighting the history of the Mount Washington Observatory over the years; a cafeteria; and a gift shop. They seemed to be the only visitors, so they split up again.

“Observation deck’s still closed, folks,” said an employee. “If you want to see the view, you’ll have to go back outside. The museum is open though.”

“Coffee?” asked a shivering Stasia.

“In the cafeteria,” she was told, and that’s where she went, followed by Hughes.

Mike led Kat to the museum.

“I knew it would be windy up here, but damn!” he said, reading a sign. “That’s a wind! ‘On April 12, 1934’,” he read, “The highest wind speed ever recorded by man was measured here.’ Two hundred and thirty-one miles per hour. I can’t even imagine it!”

“Look! Here’s a picture,” pointed Kat. In it a person, dressed heavily, was leaning at nearly a forty-five-degree angle into a fierce winter wind. “And here, Michael, those chains! The caption says the observation hut is chained down to prevent it from being torn off the mountain.”

“I guess it really is ‘Home to the World’s Worst Weather.’ Remind me to never bitch about the snow back home again.”

“And I, Michael! Even the night you found me, would not be so bad!”

A few minutes more and they joined Stasia and Hughes, who were thawing nicely in the cafe.

“No beer, Michael,” said Stasia. “Park rules. I asked.”

“Coffee’s good, though,” supplied Hughes. “Doughnuts, not so much. Recycled, I think.”

He tossed the offending pastry to Mike. “I saw some hockey gear behind the door. I think these crazy fuckers play hockey when nobody’s around. Guess it’s that or go batshit up here after a few weeks.”

Mike didn’t know whether to laugh or throw the half-pound grease sponge back at Jack. It did indeed look like it would make a good hockey puck, though.

“Jack. Wonder if they did slap shots for distance off the peak? Wonder what you’d shout to warn the people below? Not ‘Fore!’, that was golf. How about Hobey Baker!” he ended, shouting.

Jack fell over off his chair, laughing in spasms until an attendant came over to check on him.

Katrina supplied the excuse.

“He ate one of the doughnuts.”

“Poor sap.”

*

They ventured out again only to be driven back in, Stasia‘s lips already blue, Katrina shivering. Waterproof their new jackets might be, but they weren’t windproof or coldproof. Into the store they went. Out came the credit card. Even the limited choice the shop provided enough retail therapy for Stasia to recover quickly. She even found flannel boxers for herself and Katrina, though it did prompt a question.

“I thought these were men’s clothes?”

Mike had to explain about the fad, starting with women borrowing men’s clothing when they spent the night at his place and didn’t have a change, leading to the discovery they were more comfortable to wear, so soon enough a minor industry sprouted supplying men’s-style boxers fitted for women.

After equipping themselves with Mount Washington-adorned gear, they ventured outside again to experience a little of the wind first-hand. They stood near the chained-down hut, peering into the distance. Mountains stretched off in all directions but to the southeast they could make out a shimmer of blue.

“The Atlantic Ocean, I think,“ said Mike.

“How far away is it?“

“No idea, but it’s gotta be at least a hundred miles.“ Mike climbed easily to the summit, marked with a wooden cross, followed quickly by Kat.

“Hold it!” called Stasia, “I need to take your picture!”

“Hurry!” called back Kat. Her hair, peeking out around the hood, flew across her face. “I’m ready to go down!”

Seeing Stasia’s reaction, she turned to Mike and laughed. “Not like that!”

“Damn!”

Photo taken, Stasia allowed them to descend. “You want me to take a shot, Stasia?”

“No, I’m too cold.”

Kat, turning back to the stairway, exclaimed, “A cloud! There’s a cloud down there!”

Mike looked in time to see a white cloud hurry past the side of the mountain below them.

“It’s like flying!” she said. “Or not, I don’t know!”

“It’s fantastic!”

“It’s cold!” said Stasia firmly, heading for the stairs. “I’m going back to the car!”

It seemed like a good idea.

“Ready?” asked Mike when they were all enclosed, engine running, heater blowing, seats heating, and gear stowed. “This is where it gets interesting.”

Stasia moaned again.

“Down is going to be more difficult. Between the wind, and gravity, it’s going to be tough to keep this car on the road.” He surreptitiously squeezed Kat’s hand. “How fast should we take it?”

“Michael, I love you and trust you, but you will not get us killed in a car accident before my wedding!”

“Your wish is my command,” he replied, grinning widely. “Stasia, Kat’s saved your ass.”

He backed out, dropped the car into ‘2’, and started slowly down the mountain. One thing was for sure, he was not letting Vanner or, God forbid, the Four Blind Mice anywhere near this beauty when he finally got her home. The computer was just fine the way it was, thank you very much. The idea of them tinkering around with the software gave him an involuntary shiver.

The first half-mile went smoothly. As they were approaching the first sharp curve a sudden blast of wind, rushing up the mountainside, pushed the car toward the cliff-like snow face. Mike reacted instinctively, turning against the wind and applying power. The tires spun then gripped, propelling the heavy car away from the looming snow, but now the low rocks along the drop rushed toward them. Mike whipped the wheel to the left, hit the gas, then, as the car hurtled toward the snowface spun back to the right and mashed the brakes, sliding the tail of the car around the curve and back to a straight line. He put the car in its lowest gear and stopped.

“Everyone okay? Kat? Stasia?”

Kat was pale, but her eyes were shining.

“It all seemed so slow! I could see the wall and the edge of the cliff and the snow flying and I heard the brakes and saw you looking and thinking and…!”

“Slow? It couldn’t’ve taken more than two seconds.”

“So little?”

“Stasia? How about you?” He turned to look.

She was gripping the door handle tightly enough to whiten her knuckles. Between clenched teeth, she ground out, “Get. Me. Down. This. Mountain. Now.”

“Hughes?”

“That was a rush! But I have to agree with the lady. We should get down the mountain.”

Mike started again. He hugged the upslope side of the road the rest of the way down, even when it put him on the left side. Oncoming traffic be damned.

He puzzled a little over what Kat said. He knew from experience that, in intense combat, the same thing happened to him. During the so-called ‘Charge of the Kildar,’ he could recall seeing individual bullets rifling through the air all around him. His reactions were faster, his thoughts clearer. Whether that was adrenaline or training or something else, he didn’t know. But it seemed, possibly, Katrina had it too. That could explain her abilities in hand-to-hand training.

Hmm.

His thoughts were interrupted as they approached the road.

“Now where?” asked Kat.

“A real lunch, and I’ve got to make a few calls, figure out how to get this baby back home,” he answered, patting the dashboard. “Don’t think I want to leave her behind.”

*

Gloria at Chatham Aviation was perfectly happy to arrange transport for the Mercedes.

“Just leave it at Logan and we’ll pick it up,” she told him.

“Stasia, do we have a place laid on in St. Louis?” he asked as they drove south again.

“Not yet, Kildar,” she said. “I wasn’t sure when we would be arriving. I’ll call now, though.”

While she called from the back seat, Mike called the caravanserai.

“Keldara House, Illia speaking, how may I help you sir or ma’am?”

“Illia, it’s the Kildar. Put me through to Vanner.”

“Right away, Kildar.”

A quick silence, then, “Vanner.”

“We are not secure. Any news?”

“We’ve got some leads that look really promising.”

“Anything short-term?”

“Not immediate, but maybe in a week or so. Of course, something might break earlier than that, but…”

“I understand. Call me if anything changes.”

“Will do.” He hung up and dialed another number.

“Lowell.”

“Mike Jenkins here.”

“Hey, Mike! Did you get the jackets?”

“We did, thanks. Did you get the beer?”

“You bet we did! Tasted even better after that win.”

“I’ll bet it did! Nice hit in the third, driving in Bay.”

“Felt good to get that first one out of the way,” Lowell admitted. “Been a while since I swung a bat that well. What’s up?”

“We’re headed back into town, and wondered if you and Ortiz were free tonight?”

“Sorry, no, got a game tonight at seven.”

“Bummer. Maybe next time, then. Don’t worry about running out of Tiger. I’ve arranged with the local distributor to have two cases per game dropped off at the park.”

“Fantastic! Any time you‘re in town, you and your fiancée are welcome in the clubhouse, guests of the team.”

“Great. Good luck tonight.”

“Thanks!”

Again, he hung up and dialed.

“Hardesty.”

“Jenkins. Have the packages arrived?”

“Indeed they have! Bloody hell!”

Mike chuckled. “I knew it was going to be bad, but that bad?”

“That bad.”

“Well, the good news is we’re on our way back to the city and should be at the airport in a couple hours. Can you be ready to go?”

“Certainly. Where are we going next? I need to work up a flight plan.“

“St. Louis.“

“Simple enough. Give me a ring when you’ve cleared security.”

“Will do.”

He put away the phone. “Okay. We’re off to Logan, then St. Louis. We ought to be there by dinner. Stasia, get a hotel yet?”

“Presidential suite at the Four Seasons.”

“That’ll do.”

Published by gaffen620

Author of The Cassidy Chronicles. Lives in Colorado with many dogs, cats, and one very patient wife.

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