Monthly Archives: May 2016

Indivisible Chapter 19

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Chapter 19

 

The snow was falling again as Vaughn coasted into the last gas station. He didn’t have enough fuel to make it home. To his dismay, he found the pumps covered with yellow baggies indicating “out of service.” His options were to leave his truck and walk the last five miles or beg the storekeeper to sell him a gallon illegally. Neither option was very appealing.

He noticed a shadowy figure making his way down the road toward the station. He was not a local; he had a vagabond appearance dressed in a frayed, black trench coat. Vaughn decided it best to beg for gas rather than leave his truck behind. He went up to the door of the store but found it locked. The lights were on inside so he knocked. The shopkeeper came to the door, looking irritated. Vaughn made himself look as pathetic as possible. The shopkeeper unlocked the door and let him in. The vagabond followed behind him..

“Ain’t got no gas,” said the shopkeeper

“Please,” Vaughn begged, “all I need is a gallon, even half a gallon—just enough to get home. I’ll give you all I have.” Vaughn pulled out his wallet and began counting off bills… ten… twenty… thirty…. The shop keeper just rubbed his handlebar mustache, peering through his squinty eyes while Vaughn counted.

“Even if I had any, I couldn’t sell any to you. I’m at my daily quota.”

The vagabond who followed Vaughn into the store stepped toward them. His black stocking cap was pulled down low, almost over his eyes. He was shivering.

“Would you sell it to him if he had a black card?” the vagabond asked.

The shopkeeper’s squinty eyes popped wide open.

“A black card? Let’s see it, then.”

The vagabond turned to Vaughn first. “If I can get you some gas will you give me a ride?”

Vaughn considered it for a moment. It sounded like a bandit’s ruse but he was desperate. “Where to and how much gas will you get me?”

“Not too far. I’ll tell you outside.” He reached into the breast pocket of his  overcoat and pulled out a money clip containing a wad of Reagans—$500 bills—and a black credit card with a luminescent gold eagle on the face. It had no other identifying marks other than the matte data strip on the backside. “Here.” He handed it to the shopkeeper.

“How much do you need?” asked the shopkeeper.

“Fill it up.”

“You got it. Pump number two. Just put the yellow bag back on when you’re done.”

Vaughn couldn’t believe his spectacular good fortune. It was too good to be true. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a full tank of gas. But there had to be a devil in the details, somewhere. Vaughn and his new benefactor stepped outside.

“This isn’t a a ruse, is it?” Vaughn asked, as he pulled the yellow bag off the nozzle and stuck the spout into the tank. “Are you going to rob me?”

“No. Do you have anything I’d even want?”

“So where am I taking you, then?”

Vaughn noticed that the vagabond was standing in front of Vaughn’s license plate, blocking it from the view of the shopkeeper who spied on them from the inside of the shop, twisting the ends of his moustache again as he watched.

“Let’s wait until we’re out of here,” he said as he bent down and began unscrewing the license plate.

“I really don’t have anything valuable,” Vaughn said. “Anything you take from me would be worth far less than this tank of gas.”

“I suppose I could steal your truck but I don’t imagine I’d get very far with all the checkpoints.” He tucked the license plate into his overcoat.

“Why are you taking that off?”

“Just to be safe. There’s a lot of snitches around. A black card tends to draw attention. We’ll put your plate back on up the road a mile or so.”

“Are you in trouble or something?”

“Who isn’t these days?”

The gas pump clicked off.

“Let’s go. Back out over there so he can’t read your back plate.” He winked, dispelling some of Vaughn’s anxiety. They got in. Vaughn started up the truck andthey backed out and drove down the road.

They travelled a mile in silence. Vaughn was too nervous to come up with any small talk. It didn’t matter anyway. His passenger didn’t seem like a fan of idle chat. His rider stared directly ahead, almost without blinking.

At what point does he take out his gun? Vaughn wondered.

“Stop here. I’ve got to pick something up over there. Hang on a second. You aren’t going to leave me, are you? I still have your plate. I can find you.”

“No, I won’t.”

He got out and jogged into the woods just off the shoulder. Vaughn felt an urge to stomp on the gas, but his integrity made him wait—he did make a deal after all. His passenger retrieved a loaded trash bag hidden in the brambles and snow. He opened the passenger door and placed it in the cab on the floor. Then he walked to the front of the truck. Vaughn tried to discern what was hidden inside the bag while the vagabond screwed his license plate back on. Vaughn didn’t quite have the nerve to peek.

“Okay, let’s go.”

They continued up the canyon road toward Vaughn’s house.

“This would be a great spot for an ambush,” the rider observed. “See that bend up ahead? That ridge above it? You could block it off just around the corner there with a couple of trees or wrecked cars. They wouldn’t see it until it was too late. It’d take forever to back up to that turnout we just passed back there. And there’s all kinds of cover for exfiltration. It’s perfect.”

“So will you tell me who you are?” Vaughn interrupted.

The vagabond grinned. ” That’s a fair question.” He took off his stocking cap revealing his shaved head. “My name is James. You can call me Jimmy. But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell that to anyone until I’m long gone.” He loosened his overcoat revealing a khaki-colored t-shirt. He opened his bag and stuffed his hat into it revealing the barrel of an M4.

“You’re a soldier.”

“Yeah. I was.”

“Was?”

“Is that a problem for you?”

“No, no. Not at all.”

“Look, I don’t want to get you in any kind of trouble. I just need a ride a few miles down the road towards Bailey. Maybe you got some food I can eat before you take me there? Maybe some civilian clothes would be nice, if I could borrow some. This old coat smells like piss. I had to pay a bum a Reagan for it.”

“I can do that for you but I—”

“Don’t worry. I won’t roll over on you. I ain’t going to get captured, anyway.  Not alive. They don’t take deserters alive.”

“You deserted?”

“I guess. I guess I didn’t really dig on shooting up civilians too much. There’s a whole lot of us that feel that way. There’s half a division running around out here, now.”

“My mother said that the Army shot up a riot in Denver the other night. Is that true?”

“It was hardly a riot. But yeah, we did. That’s why I’m here.”

“How could they do that?”

“Soldiers follow orders. It’s what we do. Hell, we did worse than shoot people.”

“Like what?” asked Vaughn.

Jimmy turned and looked out the window as they flew past the snow-covered ponderosas closing in on either side of the narrow road. “This whole stretch of road is an insurgent’s wet dream. You get a lot of patrols through here?”

“Like cops?”

“Like Humvees, MRAPS. Military hardware.”

“I haven’t noticed a whole lot of that. I guess I’ve seen a couple come through this way.” Vaughn changed the subject. “I have some food at the house,” he offered. “And you’re welcome to some clothes too. I really appreciate the gas.”

“So what’s your name?”

“Vaughn.”

“What’s your story, Vaughn?”

Vaughn came right out with it. “My wife’s been kidnapped. I’m trying to get her back.”

“Damn.”

Jimmy Marzan was suddenly afflicted with the realization that Vaughn’s plight might be a great opportunity for him. Funny how God always presents us with opportunity for redemption, he thought.

“So who took her?” Jimmy asked.

“I’ve no idea.”

“What’s the ransom?”

“They think I have Krugerrands.”

“And my guess is you don’t have any.”

“They got me mixed up with my neighbor, I think.”

“What are you going to do, then? Are the police working on it?”

“They’ve got bigger problems to deal with.”

“Right.”

They turned up Vaughn’s road and pulled into his driveway. Marzan scanned the tree line and neighbor’s windows for spooks before exiting the truck. “You’ve got to be wary of the ‘see something, say something’ types,” he said. He took his stocking cap out of his bag and put it back on. He pulled it down low and he flipped up his coat collar obscuring as much of his face as possible. He grabbed his bag and the two of them hustled into Vaughn’s house.

“You mind if I take my stuff out here?” Jimmy asked.

“Not at all, but it might make more sense to do it in the room, back there.”

Marzan made his way into the back bedroom with Vaughn trailing behind him.

“What happened here?”

“They ransacked the place. I haven’t had time to put it back together.”

Marzan tossed his trash bag down on the mattress and tore the bundle apart.

Vaughn’s eyes widened. “Is that an AR-15?”

“It’s an M-4.” He ticked off his inventory. “I got a hundred and eighty rounds of 5.56. Gen 5 night vision. Had to let the radio go—they put GPS in them. There’s a med kit with sutures, gauze, antiseptic, forceps, and a plastic thing to hold over a chest wound so the air doesn’t leak out.” Marzan turned to Vaughn and grinned, punctuating his gory imagery. “There’s two tear gas grenades, a silencer, gas mask, flashlight, one big motherfucking knife, a fat wad of Reagans, and a Gideon’s Bible. I’m wearing my Kevlar. All this and my fatigues, this coat that smells like piss, and my black card—which they’ll soon trace to that gas station back down the road. That’s everything I own in this world, Vaughn. Oh yeah, and my 9mm.”

“So what’s your plan? Where are you going? Are you going home?”

Marzan chuckled. “Irvine, California. It won’t be long before the Army tells my family I’ve done something terrible. They’ll have that place staked out. There’s no going home for me until it’s all over.”

Indivisible

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Oathkeeper Chapter 23

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 23

 

The sky was overcast white. The storm front had passed through, but it was barely above freezing all day, and little of the remaining road snow had melted. The plows had been working through the night, making most of the roads passable. It would be in the sixties for the next few days, and almost all of the snow would be gone within a week. It was opportune that Kennesaw and the sheriff weren’t waiting another day to see Turcot. The mountain roads would be too muddy, impassable by then.

They weren’t long on the road before they noticed they were being tailed by a black Tahoe, but the vehicle broke off when Kennesaw pulled over a driver for speeding. When those matters were resolved, they meandered through the valley for an hour, while Kennesaw checked to make sure they weren’t being followed. At last, they turned west, heading for Mahonville Pass by the back roads. It was late afternoon when the deputy and sheriff finally reached the gate. It was normally closed until May, but Kennesaw got out and unlocked it, pulled the cruiser through, and locked it again behind him.

Upwards they drove, rising out of the budding cottonwoods and into the tall pines. The air cooled and the ice hardened on the road. Kennesaw had to stop so he and Bear could chain up the tires. Soon, they were approaching the summit. An icy mist descended on the cruiser as it skirted the face of a sheer thousand-foot wall of gray granite. The higher they climbed, the harder and colder the wind blew. Near the top of the mountain, the road was a mere channel cut through five feet of snow. In sixty days’ time, it would all be gone, melted off into the rivulets and creeks, trickling down into the alpine valleys and filling the streams that feed the Arkansas River. The river comes out of the mountains and runs east through Kansas, by then rolling slow. It bends south at Wichita, then deepens and broadens, finally becoming navigable at Tulsa and eventually feeding into the Mississippi. All grand waterways begin this way.

The sky was clear at the summit, but the sun was sinking and would be down in an hour. Before them, under the tree line, lay the Matchless Valley, rimmed on all sides by pure white mountains. Nestled in the basin before them lay a reservoir. Most of the ice had melted off and now reflected the dying golden sun, an oasis surrounded by a desert of ice.

Ellison and Kennesaw descended into wilderness, winding downwards out of the tundra and back into the pines. The snow was less than a third of what it was on the east side of the Continental Divide. The road leveled and straightened on the valley floor as the cruiser emerged from the trees, gaining speed until it came to a junction. Turning south would take them towards the college town of Gunnison. Kennesaw turned north instead, meandering along the Mahonville River. Its banks were crowded by budding bushes and scrub, which concealed the dark pools and shadows where trout lurk and rise to suck mosquitoes from the surface. Glancing out the window, the deputy accelerated to make up time. The orange sun had touched the blue peaks to the west, and the temperature was already dropping. The last stretch of road would be unplowed, and they didn’t want to be cutting a trail through it in the dark if that could be avoided. They turned again after four miles, crossing a one lane bridge over the river and winding back upwards into the trees. As expected, no plows had cleared the roads there. The sun had finally sunk behind Castle Peak to the west.

The road rose from the valley in a series of switchbacks, rising some five hundred feet above the floor. The cruiser passed a waterfall, splashing and roaring in the gray twilight as the basin passed out of view behind them. They turned up a goat trail road, identified only by the corner of a range fence. It too was unplowed, covered with half a foot of unblemished snow, with no tire tracks or footprints anywhere. Beyond the fence lay a flat, treeless swath, a snow covered pasture which had once been beaver ponds that had silted in decades before. The last leg of the journey was only a mile, but it took them ten minutes to drive it. The cruiser pulled up to the cabin just as the last light failed. The sky above was clear and pristine. The stars had awakened – shimmering crystals affixed to the Prussian blue sky.

“Where is he?” Bear asked as Kennesaw shut off the engine.

“Maybe he left.”

The men looked at each other, each knowing the other was contemplating Turcot’s role in Stern’s murder. It was impossible, they knew, but they had to make sure all the same. Both got out of the cruiser and walked up to the cabin door. Bear stepped forward and knocked. No one answered. Kennesaw reached out and turned the knob, then pushed gently. The door creaked as it swung inward.

“Monte?” Bear announced, making his presence known. “Are you in here?”

There was no response from inside. It was dark, but warm.

The sheriff looked at Kennesaw, who shrugged his shoulders. “Monte, it’s Sheriff Ellison. I’m here with Deputy Kennesaw. Are you all right? We came to check on you.”

Something shuffled inside in the darkness. Both men reached down towards their holsters.

“It’s just me,” a voice called out. “Come in.”

“Is that you, Monte? Mind turning on some light?” Bear exclaimed.

“Hang on. I’ll turn up the lantern.”

Footsteps. Fumbling. A lantern hissed, and a yellow glow brightened the interior. Monte Turcot stood before them. He had grown a beard again.

“Evening,” he said, and brushed a few strands of matted hair out of his face.

“How are you?” asked the sheriff.

“I’m good.”

“What are you doing sitting here in the dark?” Kennesaw inquired as he closed the door behind them.

“I was just sitting here, waiting for the sun to go down, and I guess I fell asleep.”

“You didn’t hear us drive up?”

“I must have been out.”

“Your fire’s getting low,” the deputy observed. He stepped over to the stove, took a knee, and twisted the lever to open the steel door. The coals glowed orange with the burst of oxygen. Kennesaw pushed two splits of dried, gray aspen into the firebox and left the door cracked so the flames could breathe.

“So what can I do for you gentlemen?” Turcot asked. “Did you finally come to take me in?”

“Why would you think that?” asked the sheriff.

“Because there’s two of you.”

The stove flared to life as the splits caught and began to burn.

“You guys want some coffee?” Turcot pointed over his shoulder. “It’s instant. That okay?”

“Sure,” answered the sheriff. Turcot went to the cupboards and removed a steel kettle. Two five gallon jugs rested on the counter, one with its spout over a basin. He filled the kettle there, then brought it over to the stove and set it on top. Water droplets sizzled on the hot metal surface as Turcot returned to the cupboard and produced three plastic coffee mugs. He rinsed a spoon off under the spigot of the water jug, then unscrewed the lid on a jar of instant coffee.

Bear looked at Kennesaw, then turned back to Turcot. “Monte…”

“Yes Sheriff?” Turcot answered as he spooned coffee into the mugs.

“Have you been in contact with anyone?”

“I don’t get a lot of visitors up here, Sheriff.”

“Yeah,” Bear replied, “I guess I’d be surprised if you got any other than us. But you do have the radio.”

“I don’t listen to it much.”

“You ever run out of anything?” Kennesaw cut in. “Now that the pass is open, we can come up here every couple days.”

“I’m good,” said Turcot. “I’ve got plenty to eat. I’ve got T.P., water, gasoline for the generator. It’s plenty warm in here when that stove gets going, even when it gets down below zero outside. I’m assuming that the bitter cold is behind us, now.”

The deputy nodded.

“I’d like to have my truck. Could you maybe drive that up for me? It’d be nice to be able to go for a drive or go down to the lake or maybe Gunnison and see some human faces. I’ll be careful.”

“We’re not holding you, Monte. You can leave whenever you like,” Bear explained. “But I can’t protect you everywhere, especially outside the county.”

“I don’t figure you could really protect me in the county if they knew where I was.”

“I’ll do everything I can. You have my word.”

Turcot sighed. “I’m just getting cabin fever. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“You need to contact anyone?” Ellison asked.

“I should talk to my lawyer. Can you make that happen?”

The kettle began to spit steam.

“That’s not gonna be possible, Monte,” Bear said.

Turcot screwed the lid back onto the jar and set the spoon in the sink, looking resigned to his continued isolation. “Why’s that?”

Kennesaw took off his gloves and stuck them in his coat pockets, then began warming his hands at the door of the stove. He pulled the kettle off the center of the top to slow the boil. Ellison stood between them both.

“When was the last time you spoke to Stern?” the sheriff asked.

“Not since I’ve been up here.”

“Do you remember talking to him about anything not directly related to your case?”

“Like what?”

“Did he mention anything you found peculiar?”

“He said he likes the Jets. He wants them to draft that QB from Virginia.”

“You found that peculiar?” inquired Kennesaw.

“I guess I figured him for a Giants fan.”

“Did he ever mention that he was concerned or fearful?” continued the deputy.

“No. He isn’t afraid, just a little paranoid.”

“What’s the difference?” Bear asked.

“You know…‘afraid’ would be like a fear that something specific is going to happen. ‘Paranoid’ is vague,” Turcot explained. “Stern has this cloud that hangs over him. He talks about how he worries that he can’t control everything.”

“So what made you think Stern was paranoid?”

“He records everything, every conversation with everyone. He talked about being listened to all the time. One time, he told me that his email was hacked.”

“By who?” asked the sheriff.

“NSA. DEA. FBI.” Turcot shrugged. “He’s convinced that the DA is doing it, too.”

“Did he say what made him think that?”

“He said he felt like the prosecution was one step ahead of him – that they knew what his motions were before he even made them. He said it was like they knew what he was going to do before he did it. He said the only way they could know what they knew is if they’d read his emails or tapped his phone.”

“Anything else?”

“He asked me once about getting a gun.”

“Did he?” Bear asked. “I mean, did he ever purchase one?”

“No,” said Turcot. “Not to my knowledge anyway.”

The boiling water gurgled in the teapot.

“Did he mention anyone out of the ordinary? Anyone that he was concerned about?”

“No. Yes. He told me that he was approached once; this guy showed up while he was at the Wagon Wheel and told him that he should really lose my case.”

“He was being threatened?”

“Sounded like a threat to me, or maybe just a drunk talking trash.”

“Did he tell you anything about this person?”

Turcot’s eyes went blank. “I’ve said too much, really. He told me this in confidence.”

“Monte,” Kennesaw spoke up, “If you can’t trust us, then what are you doing here?”

Turcot fumbled around with the spigot for a moment, then continued. “He said that the DA didn’t know that he knew they were spying on him.”

“When did he tell you this? During the trial?”

“Before the trial. We talked every day. When he would visit, we would chat about the case, but then he’d hand me a notepad with what he really wanted to say. We’d have one speaking conversation while we’d write down another.”

“What sorts of things did he write down?”

“That’s between me and my lawyer.”

“I mean, did he write down anything about his situation, anything not specific to your case?”

“No. Just the case.”

“Is there anything else you can tell us?”

“Yeah. He said he has a file that he’s saving for a rainy day. He keeps a copy of it on his phone….” Turcot studied the sheriff and Kennesaw for a moment. “Something’s happened to him, hasn’t it?”

The two men looked at each other. Bear turned back to Turcot, clearing his throat and preparing to speak.

The kettle whistled.

Turcot’s eyes darted between Ellison and Kennesaw. Kennesaw lifted the kettle off the stove. The whistling died.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Turcot asked.

“Yes.” Bear took a deep breath.

“Fuck me!” Turcot shouted, slamming his fist against the table as he leapt to his feet. “Well, I can tell you who did it! Acevedo! He had one of his goons do it!”

“That’s quite an accusation,” remarked Kennesaw calmly.

“Oh is it?” Turcot whirled to face the deputy. “You don’t think Acevedo has people? You’re naive, man! He’s got junkies, tweakers, snitches, dealers that he owns! He could easily extort one into doing it by threatening them with prison. They’re going to kill me! I’m a dead man.”

“Calm down, Monte,” Bear advised. “Try to think of anything else you remember Stern telling you.”

“I can’t think of anything else now except that I’ve got to get the hell out of here,” growled Turcot. “They’re going to find me here, and they’re going to kill me. They’ll do it here or in custody or anywhere. They’ll do it. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to get as far away from here as I can.”

“They’ll find you if you run,” said the sheriff. “You’ll be in public. People will see you.”

Turcot threw up his hands. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t leave. They’re coming. I can feel it.”

Oathkeeper

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Indivisible Chapter 18

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Chapter 18

 

Vaughn slowed his truck to a stop at the end of a long line of cars. Up ahead he could see red flashers and men in black body armor with tinted face shields and M-16s. German shepherds were sniffing at car undercarriages. Vaughn stopped and turned off his engine to save his precious gas. He had to preserve what he could as his ration card was nearly exhausted.

His little blue ration debit card with a blue eagle on the face had arrived in the mail along with instructions on how to replenish it with one’s bank account for a modest transaction fee. The purpose of the ration card, implemented by yet another executive order, was to combat hoarding which was blamed for the tenfold increase in the cost of fuel. Without the card, buying gas was not legal.

Vaughn waited in the checkpoint line for an hour. Brooke grew agitated. Her diaper was soiled and she was hungry and exhausted from being immobilized in her car seat. Vaughn pondered unfastening her and letting her crawl around in the front, but who knew what kind of police response that might illicit. He didn’t want to give them any cause to harass him. He reached down for his backpack and took out a  box of powdered milk. He poured a tablespoon’s worth into her sippy cup, topped it off with tap water from a bottle, and shook vigorously. A scum coagulated on the bottom of the cup but this was normal for the ration milk. Brooke hadn’t tasted real milk in two months. She also hadn’t had any fresh fruit for two weeks. Vaughn had not seen any fruit in the grocery store that once brimmed with bananas and oranges and grapes. That cornucopia had been replaced with bins of potatoes, turnips, sour baking apples and sugar beets. What the hell can you make with a sugar beet? Can a human even eat one? There were three bins of them in the produce section.

A soot-belching eighteen-wheeler roared past him. It was painted in the gray, geometric hues of urban camouflage and the blue eagle logo that glared down at him with its sinister, all-seeing eye. The jack-hammering racket of its engine brakes startled Brooke and she began to cry. Vaughn tried to calm her with his pathetic singing of “Muffin Man” which calmed her a bit.

A winter fog swept in and cast an eerie pall while they waited. Slowly, the men in black body armor emerged from the smoky haze, making their way towards Vaughn’s truck. Vaughn was thankful he’d remembered to remove his shotgun as the storm troopers did not look like they would be very tolerant regarding illegal firearms.

Vaughn guessed that the holdup was due to someone having failed an inspection. A car ahead had been directed off the road and onto the shoulder. The driver was pulled out and handcuffed, then shoved into a gray van and spirited away into the mist.

Vaughn turned on the radio. The mainstay for the past several weeks was the news about this or that government edict and how it was going to fix this or that calamity. “We are in this together,” was one common refrain. “Think safety!” was another. “Report any suspicious activity,” was yet another. But this morning there were no news reports, only music. Even the talk stations played music.

Maybe they’ve finally run out of bullshit, Vaughn thought as the inspectors made their way to his truck. He started the engine for the tenth time and pulled forward twenty feet.

“Papers please,” a trooper asked, voice muffled by his opaque face shield.

Vaughn produced his license, registration, proof of insurance, ration card, and travel permit. It was a great deal of fuss for a twenty-mile drive. US 285 might as well have been a road through the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin circa 1975.

“Where you headed?” asked the trooper, bluntly.

“My mother’s house. She’s watching my daughter for a few days while I look for…work.”

“You know you shouldn’t be on the highways today unless absolutely necessary.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you listen to the radio?”

“There’s nothing but music on.”

“Don’t get smart with me. There’s terrorist activity. It’s a triple-red-alert day. They called in the Army last night to help get things under control.” The trooper looked over the inside of Vaughn’s truck while another officer scanned his undercarriage with a mirror, accompanied by a sniffing German shepherd.

“I didn’t hear about any of that. I’m not going to be out long. I just want to get to my mom’s and drop my daughter off.” Vaughn was not feeling much like kissing the trooper’s ass but he was savvy enough to avoid a display of contempt-of-cop. He didn’t want to send the trooper into a rage, which they were prone to do.

“Stay out of downtown. And stop wasting gas. Conservation is your patriotic duty.”

Vaughn couldn’t suppress his disaffection any longer. “Patriotic duty?” he asked.

“Yeah,” the trooper answered. “You heard me. Your duty. Your duty to quit wasting resources and your duty to stay out of our way so we can do our job protecting you.”

Vaughn felt the hot blood pump into the vessels in his face. He tried to remain calm.

“I don’t recall ever asking for your so-called protection.”

“Oh, you’re one of those types, eh?”

“What’s one of those types supposed to mean?”

The trooper turned and shouted to the other officer who was still scanning the undercarriage. “Hey O’Reilly, I got me one of those types over here.” His opaque face shield swung back to Vaughn. “What d’you say we do a full inspection on your vehicle? Huh? How about we just pull you over to the shoulder there and impound your truck? What do you think of that? Maybe you’ll get it back in month or two—what’s left of it anyway.”

Brooke started to cry again. Vaughn looked back at her, and caught a glimpse of her blue, saucer eyes reflecting the sinister trooper in black armor. Vaughn knew he had to swallow his pride, as much as he hated to do it. “You’re absolutely right,” he offered in a conciliatory tone. “That wouldn’t be good. Please forgive me for not being more understanding. I know you guys are under a lot of strain nowadays. Where would we be without you guys protecting our freedom? I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated about a lot of things right now.”

“Well don’t ever forget it.” The trooper turned to the other officer. “Everything check out?”

“Looks good down here.”

“Move along. And try showing a little more respect next time.”

“You bet. Absolutely. Thank you, sir.”

The trooper walked around the front of the truck past Brooke’s window. Brooke’s wide eyes were transfixed on him as he passed. She began to squirm in her car seat.

“Hang in there, kiddo. We’ll be at Grandma’s soon.”

“Where’s Mommy?” She asked.

“She’s coming home soon,” Vaughn answered. But as he looked at her in the rearview mirror he noticed that she was still watching the trooper and pointing at him with her tiny index finger.

“Where’s Mommy?”

Vaughn started the truck and pulled forward but Brooke’s little head swiveled and locked on to the trooper. When she finally lost sight of him she burst into screams.

“Mommy! Mommy!”

“Shhh.” Vaughn tried to calm her.

“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”

The last of the black storm troopers disappeared into the fog as Vaughn pulled away from the checkpoint. Brooke didn’t stop screaming until they got to Grandma’s house.

 

 

Vaughn carried little Brooke up the steps to the door of an apartment. His mother Sharon greeted them just inside the door.

“What are you going to do?” she asked as she took Brooke from his arms and turned to change her.

“I don’t know, Ma. The kidnappers might call any time and I can’t leave her alone anymore.”Sharon stopped changing Brooke’s diaper to dab her eye with a square of toilet paper.

“What’s going on down here?” Vaughn asked.

“I don’t know,” his mother answered as she finished the changing. “It’s really bad, Vaughn. Phones don’t work half the time. The power goes out every day. Rolling blackouts. It’s hard to get any information from the TV or internet. All the cable shows and channels are switched around. They don’t say anything other than talk about triple-red terrorism alerts and the Chinese and how we all need to be patient and give them time to get things fixed. It all sounds like garbage to me. Are they getting things under control, Vaughn?” She dabbed her eye again then put her square of toilet paper in her pocket. She didn’t want to waste it. “I don’t see anything getting better. I go to the store and there’s nothing to buy. What’s there is all different brands now, too. Most of it is stamped with that devil hawk.”

“It’s an eagle, mom. You know, the national symbol.”

“I don’t care what kind of bird it is. It looks something that came straight from hell…swooping down on me. It’s evil.”

“It’s just a bird.”

“I never could have imagined any of this in my lifetime. It has to be worse than the Depression. There’s nothing to buy. What am I going to do with a forty-pound block of cheddar cheese, Vaughn? What am I going to do with a fifty-pound bag of flour? And those sweet potatoes? Jesus, I can’t even carry the bags out of the store. There’s no butter, eggs maybe once a week. No soap, except for lye soap. You ever use lye soap? No diapers. What do I do for diapers for Brooke when I run out? They’ve all been taken by the hospitals. I hear it’s illegal to even have diapers without a ration card. Can you believe that? It’s illegal to own diapers. I don’t understand it, Vaughn. Why can’t the government do something about it?”

“They are, Ma. But they’re just making it worse.”

“My friend Liz says that there was a huge protest last night at the capitol and that the Army came in and started shooting at people. She said there’s dozens of dead people and hundreds with really bad burns and wounds and broken bones.” She took out her square and wiped her nose again. “Liz’s husband’s a doctor. She said that these Army types showed up at the hospital in the morning and started giving everyone orders.”

“Orders?”

“She heard that if they have a soldier come in or any male under forty that they are to be notified about it. They gave the nurses a special phone number and a bunch of Army cell phones. Told them if they didn’t call, they’d be arrested for sedition. Liz thinks a lot of the soldiers are deserting.” She went to the cupboard and got Brooke some crackers. “Liz’s husband says that the government workers are getting death threats, and people are setting their cars on fire and shooting into their windows at night and all sorts of terrible stuff. So many government workers are leaving town that the offices are all shutting down. Liz said that even the Governor left—flew out this morning.”

“What else did you hear?”

“I heard from my neighbor that there are police departments fighting with each other. There are cops arresting cops. This department is with the federal government but that department is with the state and another is with the county. They’re all fighting with each other about who does what. The cops fight while the gangs run around and terrorize everyone. It doesn’t make any sense. Nobody knows who to call for help. Everyone thinks they’re in charge but no one’s in charge. It’s chaos and no one can defend themselves because they took everyone’s guns… Do you want some crackers?”

“That’d be nice, Ma. I can’t stay very long. The kidnappers might call.”

Vaughn watched his young daughter make her way to the guest room where there was a stash of toys and books for her frequent visits. Vaughn took the crackers from his mother, followed Brooke in, and sat on the bed. Brooke set her sippy cup and crackers down on an end table, scattering crumbs everywhere. She went to the trunk where her toys were stashed and pulled out her mini teapot.

“Do you wanna sit, Daddy?” she asked.

Vaughn scrounged around in the trunk and produced two pink plastic teacups before he took a seat on the floor. Brooke was delighted. “Are we having a tea party?” he asked her.

“We are having a tea party, Daddy,” she answered with a cherubic grin of white, nubby little toddler teeth.

Vaughn held out his tiny pink teacup and Brooke poured the imaginary tea. He sipped the contents, tipping the cup back with his little finger fully extended, making the noisiest slurping noise he could. Brooke giggled. She poured some tea for herself and imitated her Daddy’s silly noises. He patted her head and brushed her golden hair away from her perfectly round, china-doll face.

“No Daddy!” she objected.

Apparently it was tea time and not hair time.

“Do we have any crumpets?” Vaughn asked in a cartoonish, British accent.

“Crumpets?” Brooke asked with a bewildered furrow.

Vaughn had no idea what crumpets were, but he seemed to recall that crumpets were the appropriate accompaniment for tea…tea and crumpets. He nibbled at an imaginary crumpet, then handed it to Brooke who did the same. They sipped imaginary tea and ate imaginary crumpets as the white mist swirled around outside the window.

“I have to go now, Brooke,” Vaughn said, not knowing how long it would be before he would see her again.

“Bye, Daddy,” she answered. The toy box having grabbed her attention.

“I have to go get your Mommy.”

“Mommy’s coming home?” she asked.

“Mommy’s coming home,” Vaughn answered.

He grasped her tiny arm and pulled her close, swallowing her up in his arms as if she were a teddy bear. He nuzzled her on the neck with his stubbly face which made her squeal and laugh. He couldn’t imagine a reason to live if he were to lose her, too. A lump crawled up and lodged itself into the middle of his throat. He had to escape before it took him apart in front of his mother. She was a hardened German woman, utterly intolerant of blubbering. Vaughn let go of Brooke, pushing her gently towards the toy box.

“I’ll come down as often as I can, Mom.” He made his way to the door.

“She’ll be fine,” Sharon answered. “Just get Jess home safe.”

Indivisible

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Oathkeeper Chapter 22

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 22

 

A spring blizzard in the mountains is an inland hurricane of ice, swirling across roads and over fences, burying cars and drifting up to rooftops. Calumet County bore the brunt of one of these particular storms. Heavy, wet, barely frozen, it came down sideways in relentless torrents. Having been sucked up from the south by low pressure, the frozen moisture was trapped in the valley by the mountains on all sides. The front had crested the western peaks, and by the afternoon, the county was buried in two feet of snow.

“Shots fired.”

Kennesaw got the call at 6 p.m. He switched on his flashers and radioed for backup, but help was at least twenty minutes out due to the weather. He pressed the accelerator, ripping a wake through the roadway slush. His wiper blades iced over and his windows fogged in the moist air. He could barely see through the windshield.

An old sedan emerged through the storm in front of the cruiser, its back end sagging with shot leaf springs and several inches of snow piled up on its vinyl roof. It barely crept along down the main thoroughfare, fishtailing from side to side as it drove. Kennesaw couldn’t pass the car. The two southbound lanes were compressed into one set of slushy ruts, and attempting to go around would likely result in careening into oncoming traffic or spinning off the road. He honked and hit the flashers. The sedan swerved in response, trying to accelerate away.

They came to an intersection, which finally presented the sedan an opportunity to turn off. Kennesaw hit the siren, but the other car only swerved, staying on course and blocking the way. Kennesaw plowed to the left, through the intersection and into the oncoming lane, horn and sirens blaring, flashers flashing, tires sliding, wipers grinding on the ice that had accumulated on his windshield. Traffic dodged out of the way, into the drifts piling up alongside parked cars. Kennesaw turned onto Main Street, drove over the train tracks, and stopped in the middle of the street, leaving his cruiser running and the flashers on.

“Code eleven.” Kennesaw hopped out, unfastening his holster and keeping his palm on the stock of his pistol. He darted into the Wagon Wheel Saloon. Inside, he spotted Tommyknocker with his wiry gray beard, cloudy eyes, and broken posture, standing just inside the door. The bartender pointed to the back of the saloon, frozen with shock but apparently unharmed. Kennesaw cautiously drew and raised his pistol. The long bar ran nearly the length of the establishment along the right with a row of booths on the left, but the joint appeared to be empty. The Rolling Stones droned on the jukebox, and Sports Center silently illuminated the television over the bar.

As he passed the third booth from the end, and finding it empty, Kennesaw searched the far end, which was darkened by shadow. A hall at the back led to the kitchen and a door to the alley, but the deputy couldn’t make much else out. He aimed his gun and moved forward, only to find that the second booth from the end was also empty. Keith Richard’s filthy, writhing riffs bayed over the speakers. Pro basketball highlights flashed and flickered on the television. Kennesaw could just make out the picture frames on the wall near the back door.

Kennesaw reached the last booth from the end. He first scanned the hallway again, but found no one there, then looked down into the booth. It appeared empty, but as he searched, he saw the top of someone’s head in the last seat. Kennesaw looked over his shoulder, back down along the bar, towards the front. Tommyknocker stood frozen, waiting for orders. Kennesaw turned back and looked under the table to check the victim. He had slid almost all the way down onto the floor, braced only by the post holding the table up. Kennesaw inadvertently nudged the table as he knelt, and the victim’s hand and wrist spilled out. Kennesaw rose and walked to the back hall, found the light switch, and turned on the buzzing, overhead fluorescent lights. The screen door leading out the back was closed, but the door was left half open, letting the cold, wet air blow in.

“He went out the back!” shouted Tommyknocker. “He’s long gone.”

Kennesaw holstered his pistol and went back to the last booth. He kneeled down and reached for the victim’s wrist, but there was no pulse. He took out his pen light, shined it on the victim’s face, and recognized him immediately. Benjamin Stern.

“I’m at the Wagon Wheel,” Kennesaw radioed in. “The inside is secure. We’ve got one victim, deceased. Looks like a gunshot…no, gunshots in the chest and abdomen.” He lifted his head. “One in the head, too. Witness says the suspect fled out the back. I need backup to secure the alley.” He stowed his radio and turned back to the bartender. “Did you see who it was?”

“I didn’t get a good look. I was standing here when I heard the gunshots. I looked up and saw him walk out. I was afraid to move.”

“Can you describe him at all?”

“Tallish. Husky. He had a brown coat, black stocking hat. I didn’t get too good a look at him. I just saw him get up from the booth and go out the back. He went out fast, but he didn’t run. Then the fella there just kind of slid down like he is now.”

Kennesaw felt through Stern’s pants pockets, removed the dead man’s wallet, and checked the driver’s license to confirm his identity. Setting the wallet on the table, he began searching the pockets of Stern’s coat. He felt an object. The front door of the Wagon Wheel swung open. Kennesaw’s hand slid down to his sidearm.

“Step aside!” came the voice at the front door.

Shielding himself from view, Kennesaw reached in and removed the object from Stern’s pocket – a cell phone – then tucked it away.

“What do we have here?” asked the new voice from the front of the saloon. Kennesaw recognized it as Agent Acevedo’s. He stayed kneeling, searching the floor under the table for evidence with his penlight. Three shell casings lay on the floor. Kennesaw attempted to lift one carefully with his pen to determine the caliber without spoiling any fingerprints that might be left on it, but he dropped it when he sensed Acevedo slithering up behind him.

“Find anything?” the agent asked.

“There.” Kennesaw pointed to the casings on the floor.  “You guys got here fast. How’d you know?”

“We heard the call on the radio.”

“You’re using our band now?”

“We listen to everything,” Acevedo answered as he reached down and picked up a casing, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. “Nine mil? How many shots were fired?”

“I saw those three casings on the floor, there,” Kennesaw answered. “I’m guessing the suspect fired under the table, then he stood up and shot the victim in the head. I bet there’s a casing over there somewhere.”

“Hmm.” Acevedo turned back to Tommyknocker, who was still anchored to the same spot by the front door. “Bartender, did you get a good look at the shooter?”

“No, sir,” Tommyknocker answered. “Not his face. His back was turned to me. I was telling the deputy that all I saw was him walking out the back. He was wearing a brown–”

“Looks like the other casing’s right there,” interrupted Acevedo. He reached down to pick it up. “I think we’ll be securing the scene until the FBI can take over.”

“I don’t believe that’s protocol,” Kennesaw protested. “Why would the FBI take over?”

“Who do you think the prime suspect is going to be?”

“We don’t have any suspect, yet.”

“Take a wild guess. Someone who’s killed before. Someone on the loose.”

“Turcot? You think Monte shot his own lawyer?”

“Who else? Do you have an alibi for him or something?”

Kennesaw didn’t answer.

“You’re going to need to bring him in for questioning.” Acevedo turned to Tommyknocker again. “Hey, bartender…”

“Yes, sir?”

“What did the shooter look like?”

“Like I just said a second ago, I didn’t get a good look at him. He wore a brown coat and a black stocking cap. That’s all I remember.”

“Brown coat, black hat,” Acevedo pondered. “But he looked like Monte Turcot, right?”

“I don’t really think so. I don’t know. Like I said, I didn’t see his face.”

“Yeah, but he looked like Turcot, didn’t he?” continued Acevedo. “Would you at least say they had the same build?”

“I don’t know. I guess you could say that. Yeah, they had a similar build. But I don’t–”

“C’mon. Try and remember. There’s a psychotic killer on the loose. Now it looks like he’s killed again. You don’t want a killer on the loose if you could do something about it right now, would you?”

“I don’t know,” Tommyknocker answered.

“Think, bartender,” persisted Acevedo. “Think about how you can help. If you say the shooter looked like Monte Turcot, then the deputy here will bring him in for questioning. Now that would be a good thing, right? That would get a psycho killer off your streets, wouldn’t you think? You want to be safe, don’t you?”

“What are you doing?” asked Kennesaw.

“I’m interviewing a witness,” answered Acevedo. “What does it look like?”

“You’re telling him what to say.”

Acevedo laughed. “I think we can take things from here, Deputy.”

Kennesaw turned and left, stepping out into the snow to radio in his report. As he approached the cruiser, two DEA agents popped up on the other side of it, surprising him.

“Can I help you folks?” the deputy asked. The men did not respond, but walked around the cruiser and through the entrance of the Wagon Wheel. Frustrated, Kennesaw entered the vehicle and slammed the door shut, sealing out the cold and wind and the wail of an approaching ambulance. Taking a deep breath, he reached for Stern’s cell phone, and was surprised to discover that it was still recording. He replayed it from the beginning, and after listening to the audio file in its entirety, he drove directly to the Sheriff’s Department.

#

Kennesaw opened Sheriff Ellison’s office door, brushing drops of melted snow from the brim of his hat and the shoulders of his coat. The sheriff himself sat behind his desk with a phone in hand, but immediately hung up once he noticed Kennesaw’s shaken expression. He was about to speak, but the deputy shook his head and pressed his gloved finger to his lips. He glanced towards the television, then nodded to the remote on the sheriff’s desk. Bear picked it up and increased the volume until he was sure that any words they exchanged would be inaudible to any unwanted listeners. He pulled a chair over next to his desk, and Kennesaw took a seat.

“So, Stern’s dead?” the sheriff murmured.

“Yes, and Turcot’s the only suspect.”

“According to who?”

“DEA. The FBI will be involved soon.”

Bear scowled. “Of course they will.”

“There’s no way he did it, Boss,” Kennesaw explained. “He’s twenty-five miles away. He’s got no transportation. No cell signal. He’s totally isolated out there.”

“They don’t know where he is, do they?”

“No.”

“But they want us to bring him in.”

“Then they’ll hold him over for the new trial.”

The sheriff nodded. “I need to go see him.”

“You don’t think that’s dangerous, Boss?” asked Kennesaw.

“He’s a person of interest. I need to get up there and see if he knows anything.”

“There’s something else,” Kennesaw interrupted.

“What is it?”

The deputy put his finger to his lips again. Taking the remote from Bear, he turned the TV volume down several notches and set the remote back down, then reached into his pocket and produced Stern’s phone. He started the voice playback and handed it to Bear, who put it to his ear. After listening for a few seconds, Bear took out a pencil and scribbled, Is that Stern? on a piece of paper.

The deputy nodded.

Who’s the other voice?

Kennesaw took the pencil from him. Not sure. Listen.

Bear continued listening. His eyes widened as three gunshots rang out, followed by the sound of Stern groaning. There was some shuffling, then another report, then more shuffling as a man’s heavy footsteps trailed off. In the silence, another voice emerged. It sounded like Tommyknocker.

When the playback ended, Bear glanced at the TV and Kennesaw turned the volume back up.

“The other voice clearly wasn’t Turcot,” the sheriff whispered.

Kennesaw shrugged. “I can’t place it.”

“And you found this at the scene?”

“Yeah. It was in Stern’s pocket. He was recording the entire thing. Guess the gunman didn’t think to check him. I grabbed it instinctively. I know it’s not protocol, but–”

“Does anyone else know about it?”

Kennesaw shook his head.

Bear checked his watch and pondered for a moment. “I don’t think we should be in any rush to hand this over just yet.”

“Yeah,” agreed Kennesaw. “This is the kind of thing that gets…well, misplaced.”

“So what do you think we should we do?” asked the sheriff. “Seems like they’re boxing us in. If we don’t deliver Turcot, they’re going to get a court order. I can’t protect Turcot if he’s wanted for questioning in another murder case. I’ll be relieved by the governor if I don’t give him up. ”

“That sounds about right, Boss.”

“I could go to the marshals and tell them about this,” Bear suggested, pointing to Stern’s phone.

“They’ll probably still want Turcot brought in,” replied Kennesaw. “I don’t trust them, anyway.”

Bear silently reached for the remote and turned the TV over to Channel 9. The current news story was covering a massive weed bust in Denver. They hadn’t gotten to the Stern murder yet, but the sheriff knew that it was only a matter of time. How was the media going to spin it, he wondered.

“Okay, here’s what I think we should do,” he instructed Kennesaw slowly. “I want you to make copies of everything on this phone. I mean everything – audio files, photos, phone numbers, everything. Have Jennings show you how to do it, but you do it yourself. Then put those copies in safe places, or with people we can trust.”

“Like who?”

“Like your wife, relatives, a close friend. No deputies, though.”

“How about Frenchie?”

Bear groaned. “I guess I’m okay with that.”

“Then what?”

“I have to see Turcot before we do anything else. I’ll interview him and see if he knows anyone who’d want Stern dead. Then I’ll give my notes to the FBI in lieu of bringing him in. That’ll give them their interview, and buy some more time while we decide what to do with this phone.”

“Am I breaking the law here, Boss?”

“This is my call,” declared Ellison. “You’re only following my orders. It’s all on me. We’re just hanging on to this evidence for the moment, making sure it’s secure. We intend to hand it over when the time is right. Got it?”

“Are you driving up there tonight? There’s two feet of snow, you know.”

“No,” the sheriff said. “Tomorrow. I’m gonna need CDOT to plow Mahonville Pass without anyone knowing I made the request.”

Oathkeeper

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Indivisible Chapter 17

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Chapter 17

 

After waiting about an hour at the Mercantile building, Vaughn hid his shotgun, locked up his truck, grabbed his empty gas can, and began a slow jog through the shin deep snow, south, toward the village of Buffalo Creek. The snow had stopped again. A lavender glow illuminated the cloudy horizon to the east. Vaughn marched, his feet crunching through the drifts with each straining step. It was around zero degrees, judging by the way the air froze in his nostrils with each inhalation. His toes soon lost feeling. He made it into the village just before his knees gave out. It was silent and dark. He searched around for a house with a light on or some other feature that might invite him to approach but everything was still.

Headlights appeared on the highway, coming down the hill towards him from the south. It was a sheriff deputy’s SUV. Vaughn was in violation of curfew but he was too cold and too tired to hide or flee. Where would he run to anyway? The woods? He wouldn’t make it very far. He stopped on the roadside and waited to surrender. The deputies’ flashers came on. The SUV slowed. The driver’s side window opened.

“What are you doing out here?” asked the deputy.

Vaughn wasn’t quite sure how to answer. He didn’t want to jeopardize Jess’s life.

“I ran out of fuel back up the road.”

” I thought so judging by that gas can you’re holding,” the deputy answered as he shifted into park. “What I meant was what are you doing out at this hour? I’m sure you’re aware there’s a dusk-till-dawn curfew.”

Vaughn’s brain raced around searching for a plausible excuse. “Uh…my wife forgot her medicine.” He sensed the deputy knew he was lying.

“Do you mind setting that can down and taking your hand out of your pocket for me?”

“No, not at all,” Vaughn replied.

“I do appreciate it. I have to be careful with the way things have been, lately. You understand?”

“No problem,” Vaughn answered.

“Are you armed?”

“No sir.”

“Do you mind turning around for me, slowly?”

“No sir.” Vaughn complied.

“Can you stand right there for a second?” The deputy got out of his truck, walked up to Vaughn and frisked him from his wrists down to his frozen ankles.

“Are you arresting me?” Vaughn asked.

“I’m just being careful.”

“I get that. But are you arresting me?”

“Stay right here for a second. You can put your arms down.” The deputy got back into his SUV. Vaughn watched as he muttered something into his radio. The deputy paused to listen for a moment, then he turned back to Vaughn. “Get in,” he ordered, as he unlocked the passenger door. “You can bring your can.”

Vaughn walked around the front of the SUV and climbed in. The interior of the cab was loaded with two shotguns, a carbine rifle, a heads-up display, and tactical gear, including a gas mask and night vision. The dashboard flickered with a fruit cocktail of blinking indicator lights. It was warm and dry in the cab, which made it nirvana for Vaughn who was certain that frostbite was getting at his toes. He thought about the excruciating pain he would feel as they thawed and the sensation returned.

The deputy looked Vaughn over for a moment, studying his expressions and mannerisms. This made Vaughn uncomfortable. Vaughn expected to be asked for his papers but the deputy just shifted into drive and the truck started north. They only had to drive for a couple minutes.

“Where’s your car?”

“See it there? That pickup at the Mercantile.”

They pulled into the lot and the deputy motioned for Vaughn to get out. He stepped out after him and took a long look at Vaughn’s truck and the other set of tire tracks.

“Why don’t you stand right here against the bumper,” the deputy said as he circled to the back of the SUV.

Vaughn waited patiently while the deputy returned with his own gas can from the back of his truck. He offered it to Vaughn. Vaughn accepted the five gallons and took it over to his truck where he poured the contents in.

“I can’t believe you’re not arresting me,” Vaughn remarked as he poured.

“For what?”

“For breaking curfew.”

The deputy laughed. “That curfew’s a federal order, so let the feds enforce it. Now, I will say that if DHS or ATF or DSF or any of those other feds catch you out here, you’re probably going to jail for twenty-four hours.”

“I’m sure you’re right about that. I do appreciate the fuel, sir.”

The deputy glanced over at the tire tracks again. “Is there something you feel you need to tell me? If so, I’m here to help. Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Vaughn continued pouring without answering or raising his eyes.

“We’ve been getting a lot of reports of bandits and kidnappers lately. I’m sure you’ve heard of that.”

The last of the contents of the gas can dribbled into Vaughn’s tank. He wanted to reveal everything to the deputy but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I just need to get my wife her medicine,” Vaughn explained. “But thanks again for the gas. You probably saved my life.” Vaughn extended his hand and the deputy shook it.

“Like I said, I’m here to help. Take my card. I’m Deputy Pritchard. You can call that number. Now get home before you cross paths with one of those feds. You don’t want any trouble with them.”

Vaughn handed the deputy his empty can and put his in the back. He got in and started his truck. “Thanks again,” he shouted out the window as he backed up and turned onto the northbound lane. He watched the deputy fade into his rearview mirror as he drove north.

Vaughn’s drive was agonizing. He battled the relentless, dueling anguish for both Brooke’s and Jessica’s well-being. It was a drive made ever the more treacherous by the slippery, packed snow and his high speed. He reassured himself that Brooke would be fine even though he might find her in a fit of screaming. There was no way to know about Jessica, however.

Why didn’t my mother call? he wondered. Should I call the detective as soon as I get home? Should I call and tell him what happened? Nothing could be done about any of it until he got home. There wasn’t even cell reception as far out as he was. The drive would take him over an hour.

On the way home, the sun rose and the clouds dissolved. Vaughn passed a convoy of semi-trailers and army trucks on U.S. 285. They were painted khaki and were hauling storage pods and tanks sheathed in tan canvas with their guns poking out. A column of Humvees and MRAPS followed behind. It was headed towards Denver. Vaughn surmised they were shunning the more visible I25 corridor which was the more direct route from Fort Carson.

When he pulled into his driveway, Vaughn was disheartened to find that his mother’s car was not there. He scrambled into the house and, thankfully, found everything in the exact same state of disarray that he had left it. All was quiet. Brooke? He ran down the hallway to her room and eased open the door. She was still asleep. Thank god, he thought.

He returned to his despair over Jess. He had to decide what to do and how to set himself about doing it. He got Brooke up and fed her a breakfast of boiled egg noodles and powdered milk, which was nearly all that was left in the house to eat. He pondered opening one of his cans from his fruit cocktail hoard but that seemed extravagant.

There weren’t many options for Vaughn, and the ones he did have were not good. He thought about them as he watched Brooke dance after breakfast. She moved in clumsy circles with her tiny raised hands singing, “Ring Around-the-Rosie…we all fall down,” and her flexible little body collapsed in slow motion into a ball on the floor. Vaughn watched her as she performed the routine a dozen times. It amused him to think that both of them were entranced by a children’s rhyme about Bubonic Plague. He mustered a smile for her on each repetition, trying to ratchet himself back from the emotional brink. “When’s mommy coming home?” Brooke asked.

He decided there was only one option. “Soon, Princess,” he answered, hoping it was true.

Vaughn waited for the call from the kidnappers but it didn’t come. At nine a.m., he took out the two business cards he had been carrying. He stared at the pristine card for deputy Pritchard and the smudged card for the detective assigned to Jessica’s case. He put one in back in his pocket. He dialed the number on the other. Tthe detective answered. Vaughn explained over the phone the entire early morning episode.

“Why didn’t you tell the deputy what happened?” the detective asked.

“I was afraid,” Vaughn answered, honestly. “The kidnappers told me not to tell the police or something bad would happen to Jessica.”

“Well, you might have blown a real opportunity to catch them,” the detective answered.

“I don’t care if you catch them.”

“What?”

“I don’t care if you catch them,” Vaughn repeated. “All I want is Jess back safe.”

“What kind of attitude is that? You want these guys going free out there? What if they kidnap someone else? What if they kidnap a public official next?”

“I don’t care about them. I just want Jess back.” Vaughn said. “So what should I do now? Are you going to investigate the site at the Mercantile? Could there be any clues there?”

The detective sighed. “We’ll send someone over to check it out. But next time, let us know right away when something like this happens.”

“I thought that’s what I was doing.”

“You’re not being completely open with us, Mr. Clayton. To be honest, that doesn’t reflect very well on you.”

“It’s not about me. It’s about my daughter’s mother.”

“Stay in touch.”

Click.

Vaughn dialed Jessica’s mother before he could talk himself out of it. Her voice turned flat with the news. He tried to assure her that it was going to be all right but it was of no use.

“What are the police doing about it?” she asked.

Vaughn wanted to say “nothing” but that would just upset her more. Instead, he answered, “They’re conducting their investigation.”

“Do you think she’s okay?”

“I’m sure they’re taking care of her.”

“What makes you sure?”

“Because she’s no good to them if she’s…”

Jessica’s mother went silent. Vaughn listened for several agonizing moments.

“Is that Mommy?” Brooke asked, tugging on Vaughn’s pant leg.

“It’s Grandma.”

“Vaughn?” asked Jess’s mother.

“Yeah?”

“Vaughn?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

Another silence followed. Vaughn looked down at little Brooke staring up at him with her saucer-like eyes and china-doll face. She reached to be picked up.

“I’ve heard about those kidnappings.  They’re happening around out here too,” Vaughn’s mother-in-law said.

“I’m sure they’re happening in lots of places. These are crazy times.”

“Vaughn?”

“Yeah?”

“You said once that if something was to happen to your family that…well…”

Vaughn knew what she meant. He knew he’d have to take matters into his own hands. The calls to the detective were a pointless exercise. “I know,” he answered.

“Vaughn?”

“Yeah?”

“What are you going to do then?”

“I don’t know yet,” he answered, picking Brooke up and carrying her over to the kitchen to wipe her nose. “I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know anything about them.”

“Please get her back.”

“I’ll do everything I can.”

“Vaughn?”

“Yeah…”

“How far will you go to get her back?”

Vaughn was aware of the likelihood that his conversation was being recorded. His response was measured.

“Whatever…whatever I have to do, I’ll do it.”

His call-waiting feature beeped. It was his mother.

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Oathkeeper Chapter 21

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 21

 

The mountains along the western rim of the Calumet Valley form a fourteen thousand foot granite levy, thwarting the storm fronts that surge in from the west. The moisture-laden clouds get trapped behind the jagged peaks and drop their snow and rain outside the valley. Once relieved of their loads of moisture, they float upwards and over the ridge, leaving the valley mostly arid. Some refer to the valley as Colorado’s “Banana Belt”, but although the microclimate is dry and temperate, it cannot support tropical plants. Heavy snowstorms are not common, but occasionally, when a sufficiently massive front crests the ridge, the laden clouds spill down and get trapped in the giant bowl. This typically happens in the spring, when the waxing sun is high and powerful enough to fuel the storm. Such a storm was predicted by meteorologists to hit Calumet in three days.

At the moment, the U.S. attorney general was conducting a weekly conference call with Inspector Weathers in his room at the Sumerset Motel. Agent Acevedo was in attendance as well. The predominant item on their agenda had to do with the disposition of Sheriff Bear Ellison.

“My preference,” offered Acevedo, “is to take him at the department. My agents will back up the marshals. They can arrest him and hold him at the federal pen until he’s transferred. I say we do it today.”

“I understand your position,” replied the attorney general, “but we need to cool things down there a little.”

“What do you mean?”

“The governor’s been talking to the president about this.”

“The president? I don’t see how this concerns him.”

“It’s politics, Vince.”

“Politics doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Politics has everything to do with everything.”

“What did the governor say?” asked Acevedo.

“This Calumet situation has implications regarding the governor’s future.”

“Like what?”

“The governor has political aspirations: a cabinet level post, maybe veep.”

“What does that have to do with our problems out here?”

“He’s done favors for the president. He delivered the state in the election, but it nearly cost him his own position. Colorado’s a purple state, Vince. The party’s hold is tenuous. The governor can’t afford to let the rural opposition get energized – all those BLM ranchers and gun nuts and right wingers. If you go in there and take that sheriff down, there’s gonna be blowback. Those folks up there are going to feel like they’re being pushed around by Big Brother. They’re going to demand that the governor take a position, and he doesn’t want to take a position. Do you follow me? If he sides with us and authorizes you to go after that sheriff, he’ll probably lose re-election. Then he’s tainted, with no future for him in DC. And if the governor sides with his county, he’ll lose PAC funding. The New York boys aren’t going to funnel money into a rogue governor’s campaign. Any position he takes is a loser, so he doesn’t want to take any position…and he doesn’t want to be forced to take one, either.”

“What does the president say?” asked Weathers.

“The president owes him, and he personally doesn’t want another Waco or Ruby Ridge during his term, so he wants us to back off.”

“So I have to sit around and do nothing while Ellison plays cowboy? No way. I’m bringing him in.”

“Calm down, Vince.”

“This is bullshit!”

“Do I need to have you reassigned?” asked the AG. “I didn’t say to do nothing. Just back off from the sheriff for the time being. Go do some police work. Your boys have nothing to do at the moment. Go find out where Turcot is and make the arrest on your own. That would be the ideal scenario for everyone involved.”

“Ellison is obstructing justice. He needs to be in jail,” said Acevedo.

“There’s nothing to be gained by locking him up. We’ll deal with him after the general election.”

“I can’t believe you politicians. You’ll be the end of us all.”

“I’m sorry, Vince. It’s the president’s recommendation. He’s accounting for the blowback.”

“Yeah…have you thought about the blowback if we don’t do anything?” retorted Acevedo. “Whatever happens – we get Turcot or we don’t – Ellison ends up looking like a hero. How many hillbilly sheriffs are going to get crazy ideas after they see him strutting around? Have you thought about that blowback? Have you thought about all those redneck sheriffs disregarding and disrespecting the authority of the federal government? You’re talking about unleashing chaos in half the country.”

“Let’s not go off the deep end, Vince. I can assure you that Sheriff Ellison is not going to come out of this looking like any hero. When we get our Turcot conviction, Ellison’s going to look like someone on the wrong side of history. The media will feast on him. He’ll be friendless and isolated. We’ll even push some money down to make sure he loses his re-election.”

“Still…”

“You’re just going to have to deal with it, Vince. The mission here is not the sheriff. Let that go. Go find Turcot. Weathers, are you still there?”

“Yeah, boss.”

“Do you understand the objective?”

“Yes sir. We’re working on it. There’s a lot of places to hide out here. It’s possible he’s left the state.”

“That’s unlikely,” Acevedo said. “He couldn’t have gotten far…not without cash.”

“Unless the sheriff’s bankrolling him,” Weathers suggested.

“I doubt it,” replied the AG. “Ellison isn’t that brazen. I don’t believe he’s that committed to Turcot. He’s just committed to being a pain in your ass, Vince. You really screwed up your relationship with him. What did you do?”

“I was doing my job,” Acevedo answered.

“Weathers, I thought you said one of the Calumet deputies knows where he is.”

“We believe so,” answered Weathers.

“Ken Kennesaw,” barked Acevedo. “I say we bring him in for questioning.”

“Have you spoken with this Deputy Kennesaw?”

“I doubt he’ll reveal anything to us,” explained Weathers.

“Are you tailing him?”

“He knows when we are.”

“Then maybe you should be tailing him in a less conspicuous manner.”

“I know what you mean, but we’ll need a warrant for that. Could we even get it? The courts aren’t very cooperative out here, and I’m sure the local sheriff’s department, here, would get wind of it.”

“If necessary, I can go to the FISA court,” answered the AG. “I’ll make it a national security issue.”

“Great, but I’m sorry, how is this a national security issue?” asked Weathers.

“Terrorism is practically the definition of ‘national security issue’.”

“It doesn’t sound like terrorism to me,” Acevedo remarked.

“Terrorism is defined as ‘the intent to intimidate or coerce a significant portion of a civilian population.’ Turcot fits this bill. He can easily be portrayed as a domestic extremist. And we have reason to believe Deputy Kennesaw knows his whereabouts.”

“Do you think the court will buy it?” asked Weathers.

“Yes,” answered the AG. “The court’s definition is broad, and they err on the side of national security. Plus, my boss appointed them.”

“Maybe we should try to motivate the locals to give Turcot up,” suggested Weathers. “Maybe we could offer a reward.”

“You might be on to something. But I don’t think a reward will work on its own,” answered the AG. “It’s tough to get people to snitch purely for selfish gain. We’ll need more.”

“What do you suggest?” asked Weathers.

“Propaganda. Turn Turcot from a hero into a psychotic killer. Play that up every time you talk to the media. Create fear and panic. I’ll make some calls and get the Quantico people to cook up some crazy psych profile. Maybe we use the suicidal mass shooter template. We’ll throw in some racism or religious fanaticism or sexual deviancy for good measure. We’ll use the FISA warrant to turn the NSA loose on him. They’ll find something in his internet searches and emails and metadata – contextual or not, they’ll find something. Then we’ll leak it to the press and let them build a public safety hysteria. Psychotic, suicidal, fanatic, pervert, Nazi – that should get those sympathizers out there second guessing their loyalties.”

The AG signed off.

“Well there you have it,” Weathers said, turning to the agent.

Acevedo’s phone buzzed. “I have to go deal with something,” he said, and excused himself.

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Chapter 16

 

Crowds began assembling on a field of ice at around eleven a.m. They arrived in carpools and busses and spilled out into the snow and cold. They started fires in trashcans but the police came around on horseback and ordered them put out. This angered the freezing crowd but they complied with the pointless orders. They had been issued quite a few pointless orders by people in uniforms as of late, and they learned that exhibiting even the slightest contempt for authority encouraged brutal retaliation. The crowd of protestors chilled in their huddled masses for hours.

By two o’clock, all of the factions were represented. The Marxists, wearing their Che Guevera shirts and waving their red and black flags, had come. Their faces were obscured by red bandanas. Then their counterparts, the libertarians, with their tricorn hats, barking through their megaphones. These were deemed to be causing a disturbance and were snatched up by the police as well. The two diametrically opposed ideologies merged together in opposition to their common enemy. They shared a fleeting, fragile brotherhood of resistance which was the only warmth they would experience on that tragic day.

Other factions appeared as well: the old and the young, the conservatives and the greens (but no neocons or progressives), the potheads, the veterans, and the unemployed dads with their unshaven faces and pot bellies. Many middle-aged white men filled the park but there were also many college kids and single mothers. Blacks and Latinos and Asians had had enough as well.

There were fundamentalist and not-so-fundamentalist Christians, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists and Muslims too. They had all amassed in Denver’s Civic Center Park in front of the State Capitol building with her gold leaf peeling and flaking and blowing away from her regal, romanesque dome like brittle autumn leaves in the wind. The government that had promised them so much had delivered them so little. They were tired of the empty promises. They were beginning to realize that dealing with the government had become like dealing with the devil. They were cold and exhausted, and were warmed only by their anger. They didn’t know what was going to happen, but it didn’t matter because their futures ceased to have relevance. They lived for the day, day by day. They had to do something. They had to take a stand. Enough was enough.

They weren’t going to accept any more of the ever-expanding list of ever-increasingly vague regulations and edicts. There were so many laws against selling this or buying that or going here or going there that one could be arrested for anything. They were done with the ration debit cards that bought nothing. They were tired of the obnoxious treatment by officials, the invasive, random searches, and the checkpoints—”freedom gates” as they were officially called. They would not accept any more neighborhood snitch programs designed to ferret out the “evil hoarders” who stockpiled canned food and the “energy wasters” who left their lights on too late at night. They would not tolerate waiting in thirty minute lines for toilet paper and egg noodles. They refused to accept any more disappearing of their neighbors.

No more were they going to tolerate beltway bureaucrats shutting off local electricity after towns exceeded their congressionally allotted energy ration because a cold front had moved in and everyone was forced to turn on their heat. No more! They were fed up with the scheduled brownouts and the gas prices doubling every four weeks and talk of reinstituting a draft and a Civilian Security Force and an Americorps built of kids soon to be kidnapped and conscripted by Homeland Security.

They were furious about how their pensions were confiscated under the Ghilarducci Act, which promised to save everyone’s future by creating so-called “guaranteed rates of return.” Their life savings—unless you worked for the government or the public employee unions—were confiscated, and the trillions of dollars were used to bail out D.C., propping up the establishment for a little while longer. Soon the guaranteed rate of return touted by the Ivy Leaguers was completely gone, wiped out in a poof of 200% annual inflation.

The smart ones who had bought hard assets didn’t escape either. Even though they had the prudence and foresight to stash their savings in something real, Congress pillaged them as well with the Currency Stabilization Act and a Windfall Profits Tax of 90% on the profits from the sale of selected commodities. “Everyone has to do their fair share,” the politicians announced. In other words, “There is no escape. Your foresight and prepping and resistance is futile.”

The protestors were protesting the lies more than anything. The unemployment rate officially peaked at 19%, but everyone knew that was a lie, too, and more like 30%. It was all propaganda, not any different from what the Soviets used to spout. Lies, lies, and more lies.

They saw the beltway cronies getting away with all the loot and that enraged them. “Kill the bankers!” some howled. “Hang the Wall Street thieves!”

The banksters had gamed the system by simply printing up a shitload of money and buying themselves a so-called democracy. Under the cover of “too big to fail” and “in the interest of financial stability” they enriched themselves by the calamity. They put a gun to their own heads and shouted, “Bail us out or we’ll shoot!” Big media, bankrolled by the banks, convinced everyone that Americans had to save the bankers in order to save America as the fortunes of Main Street were tied together. It was feudalism reinvented—neofeudalism. The more desperate the situation, the more ruthless the corporatocracy became at saving themselves.

It was the same old story told throughout antiquity. It was the twilight of Rome, the lingering death of Spanish colonialism. It was the Weimar Republic, the erosion of the British Empire, and the French Revolution. The Jacobins had been unleashed. Nothing ever changes.

The banks, of course, took the money and blew it on Ponzi schemes and real estate boondoggles, and bets—innocuously called swaps—and collateralized debt obligations, and a myriad of other rackets of hedge fund plays and a mountain of increasingly worthless government debt. And before the dollar dissolved into paper unworthy of wiping oneself with, the bankers cashed it all out for Saudi oil contracts and gold bars and Swiss francs. The rats jumped the sinking ship, leaving the Main Street chumps from steerage to rearrange the deck chairs. The populist anger was building into one ferocious gale. “Kill the politicians! Kill them all!”

The initial rage of the welfare proles had finally infected the working and middle classes. Once independent and self-sufficient, now their lives too were regimented, surveilled, and increasingly dependent upon Big Brother’s beneficence. They were being squeezed for protection money by local government Mafioso masquerading as police.  They were terrorized by roaming thugs. And they were ignored by the police who spent their time trying to devise schemes to extract every last droplet of wealth from the dwindling earners in their jurisdictions. The latest racket was newly-devised: door-to-door tax collection they called “economic inspections.” They also ramped up efforts at taxation by citation, citing people enormous fines for the most inconsequential and victimless infractions.

The government at first tried to deflect the furor by pointing the finger at the evil price-gougers. But the government soon learned that whenever they instituted price controls, the store shelves would be instantaneously swept bare of the newly bargain-priced goods. Shuttered stores paid no taxes, so the government stopped demonizing the shopkeepers. Then they tried to blame the sneaky Asians, but after several months, the Great Asian Liquidation—as it came to be known—was a fading memory, long removed from the crisis that continued to deepen every day.

So the government redirected their efforts toward perception management. They took control of the television, arguing that the government owned the airwaves giving them the right to commandeer them. They put on their propaganda mouthpieces to tell the people that everything was going to be okay and was, in fact, getting better. Just one more round of ten-trillion-dollar stimulus and bailouts and everything would be fixed. They censored the internet in the interests of national security and fighting terror, and they implemented martial law to make the streets safe for freedom. Safety and security became magical words capable of silencing any public dissenter.

Perhaps a lower life form, lower than even the loathsome civil servant, was that servile, submissive citizen enabler that would always pontificate, “If you people would just cooperate with the government and give them a chance, they’ll fix everything.” None of those cattle-car-ready citizens were in attendance at the big nullification rally in Denver’s Civic Center Park that day. The crowd grew and aside from the angry venting of “kill the bastards,” it was a peaceful affair.

Some fifty thousand people had braved the snow and cold by four p.m. The media, however, did not come to cover it. Not even the local news crews showed up. It was joked that their conspicuous absence was a function of it being a busy news day. There must have been a great deal of “upswings in consumer confidence” and “rising manufacturing sentiments” stories to distract them from the protest rally. Such positive stories were apparently much more newsworthy than a spontaneous gathering of fifty thousand people.

The absent media’s place was taken up by the Domestic Security Force. They came in on Twentieth Street, exiting off Interstate 25. They paused briefly before the viaduct that spanned the steamy, sewage-warmed South Platte River. A gateway of two great, decorative bronze cauldrons marked the passageway into downtown. As the convoy awaited the final order to enter the city, Rollins lugged a gas can up onto the concrete base of one of the cauldrons.  He poured diesel fuel into it and set it ablaze. Civilians stood and watched in silent amazement as a mechanized army crossed the shallow Rubicon and rolled into the heart of the Queen City of the Plains. The column turned south onto Broadway then east onto Colfax Avenue. They formed a line between the thoroughfares of Bannock and Lincoln Street, just behind the capitol building and her peeling gold dome.

Rollins and Marzan were in the same Humvee, again. Rollins drove this time and Marzan rode shotgun, looking green and trying not to vomit.

“What is wrong with you, dude?” Rollins asked as Jimmy opened the window and threw up down the side of the Humvee’s newly urbanized gray camouflage. “Why don’t you go see the doctor or something?”

“Just shut up and drive,” Marzan groaned, spitting out the last of it.

Denver’s mounted police took up a position south of the park along 14th Avenue. The Army-Police coalition’s plan was to drive a wedge through the crowd down Broadway and then converge like a vice on the two masses, arresting the rioters by the hundreds as they squeezed out the eastern and western ends. Once arrested, they would be handcuffed with plastic binders and driven like sheep over to the convention center for processing.  From there, they would be packed into 53-foot semi-trailers where they would be hauled off for indefinite detention under authority of the latest round of anti-terror legislation.

“They’ve gotta know what’s about to go down,” Rollins remarked.

The crowd watched as the forces fell into formation around them. But they weren’t going anywhere. By six p.m., the roads into downtown were blocked off by barricades and reserve tanks. Big media may not have been there to capture the events, but videos were flying out to the world via cell phones. The world was tuning in and things were getting out of hand for the state’s top bureaucrats who yearned for DC validation and didn’t want Washington to see their incompetance.

The wind died and the skies clouded over as night fell. The air warmed a little. At ten p.m., the Humvee loudspeakers began barking orders at the crowd. Some in the throng mocked them with one-finger salutes, but other than that, the crowd was non-combative. Rollins watched as they passed candles around. Women stood on the ice holding their feeble flames. Men with grim faces locked their arms together. The black horses huffed and snorted and shuffled around on their icy hooves. The soldiers, many still dressed in their tawny desert camouflage, clashing with the gray hues of their freshly painted war machines, awaited their orders.

At 11:59 p.m., the interim governor—a party apparatchik and D.C. wannabe who was watching the entire event on closed-circuit surveillance—called the president and asked what should be done. Thirty seconds later he hung up and issued the order. Thirty seconds after that, the coalition launched the tear gas canisters.

The crowd did not budge.

The sound-blasters fired their ear-piercing wails

But the crowd just locked their arms tighter and covered their ears.

The Governor called his DC master again. He hung up. He issued the next command. “Disperse them!”

The Humvees roared to life. The gunners aimed their .50 calibers. The horsemen began their advance. The unarmed crowd bowed and bent, and the chains of locked arms started to break apart in places, but very few fled.

Rollins drove his Humvee up onto the grass. Just ahead of him, in the beams of his headlamps, stood a solitary figure, an unarmed man, a man who was probably someone’s father and brother and son. He hurled no insults at Rollins; he simply stood there, facing the rumbling, armored war machine with the .50 caliber machine gun on its turret. Michael Rollins had seen him many times before back in Shariastan. He sensed his fear. Rollins-the-Brave took his hands off the steering wheel. He screwed his Osiris eye ring down onto his middle finger and glared at the unarmed man from behind his bullet proof windshield. Rollins switched on the interior light so that the resister could see him. The two men locked eyes.

Rollins did not see a human being. He only saw a savage disrespecting him, an animal refusing to obey commands, a thing secretly plotting against him. Deep down, deep within his id, beyond language, beyond consciousness, Rollins perceived a man who was several orders of magnitude more courageous than he could ever possibly be.

Anger boiled up inside of Michael Rollins. He hated that thing now, and he was going to teach that thing some respect. He grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and revved the engine. The resister didn’t move. Rollins blared the air horn. The man stood fast.

Rollins had seen enough. He jammed on the gas and ran the man down with such acceleration that the Humvee bounced into the air as its wheels skidded over his body. He let out an orgasmic scream as the Humvee slid to a stop in the grass. “I am Michael Rollins, god of thunder and rock and roll!”

Jimmy Marzan heaved violently but nothing but air came out.

“Did you see that?!” Rollins shouted.

“Let me out of here,” Marzan shouted back.

“Did you see that, Jimmy? Holy shit. Did you see that?”

“Let me out of here!”

“Dude, c’mon man…”

In a one crisp movement, Marzan took out his pistol and stuck the barrel into Rollin’s temple.

“Okay. Okay. Chill out, dude,” Rollins begged. “Go check him out. Maybe he’ll be okay.”

Marzan leaned in real close to Rollins so that the end of the barrel of his pistol touched them both. He pressed his mouth into Rollin’s ear and whispered. “If I ever see you again, Rollins, I will kill you. Do you understand?”

“What the hell is wrong with you, man?”

“You listen very closely,” Marzan continued, pressing the barrel deeper into Rollins’ temple. “You and I—we are going to hell when we die. But if I ever see you alive again on this earth, I will send you there myself.”

Jimmy Marzan leaped out of the Humvee and disappeared into the screaming darkness.

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Oathkeeper Chapter 20

Oathkeeper

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Chapter 20

 

“…less than a week after the controversial not-guilty verdict in the Monte Turcot trial, events in the mountain town of Calumet City took a bizarre turn when the county’s chief law enforcement officer, Sheriff Bear Ellison, announced during a joint press conference with the DEA and U.S. Marshals that his department would not cooperate with federal law enforcement officials in their pursuit and arrest of Montgomery Turcot. Turcot, who was just acquitted of first degree murder, was indicted Thursday on a federal civil rights charge related to the death of DEA Agent Kevin Sniggs. In a rambling and at times cryptic rant, Sheriff Ellison made references to his oath of office and the U.S. Constitution as the basis for his decision. When asked for comment, U.S. Marshal James Weathers said that he found the sheriff’s behavior ‘perplexing’.”

“I don’t know what is going through the sheriff’s mind, right now,” Inspector Weathers stated as his face appeared on the television in front of the Calumet County Sheriff’s Department. “He seems irrational to me. We have a cold blooded killer – someone who murdered a federal agent – out there running loose in this county. We have reason to believe Sheriff Ellison knows where he is. Yet, he refuses to cooperate. I just don’t understand it. We believe Monte Turcot is an armed and highly dangerous individual who needs to be apprehended, but the sheriff would rather have a philosophical debate instead. I understand what his point is – I don’t agree with his position, but I understand it – but this is a public safety matter. This is not the time or place to argue about what the Fifth or Tenth Amendment means. Frankly, it’s not his place to even do that. That’s what we have courts for. Sheriff Ellison’s job is to enforce the law, not interpret it, and keep the people here safe, and make sure that armed killers aren’t on the loose. I just don’t get why he’s doing this.”

“We’ll keep you updated as the situation here in Calumet City develops. Chase Carson reporting, Channel 9 News…”

Ben Stern had seen enough. He turned his attention from the Wagon Wheel Saloon’s television to the emails on his cell phone, but was soon interrupted when a shadow fell across his screen.

“You have a lot of explaining to do, Stern.”

Stern looked up to find Falco hovering over his booth.

“Please have a seat,” he offered, holding back a look of surprise. He’d been expecting something like this, but Falco’s sudden appearance still startled him.

“We had a deal, Stern.” Falco sat down across from him, fixing him with an imposing stare.

The attorney sighed. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“What happened?”

“Why don’t you ask Miss White?”

“That’s not any of our concern. You were paid a substantial amount of money to ensure a specific outcome.”

“I can’t control all the variables. She was the prosecution’s witness”

“For starters, you need to start with returning the money,” Falco said. “Then we can talk about what else you’re going to do to make things right for my clients.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re on very thin ice here, Stern. My people are very upset.”

“I imagine they are, but they have no one to blame but themselves,” Stern explained. “Besides, I don’t have the money.”

“Where is it?”

“I gave it to charity.”

“How selfless of you. Go get it back.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”

“Then go see one of your Jew bankers and get a loan.”

“One of my Jew bankers? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t need to explain myself further,” muttered Falco.

“This matter is resolved, as far as I’m concerned,” Stern said. “The DA needs to appeal. God knows I left him plenty of arguments for that. Had I pulled some of the shit I pulled here back in Philadelphia, I’d be disbarred by now. Go tell your clients to get to work. They’ll get their outcome.”

“You think you know who you’re dealing with.”

“I’m not stupid. I do my research. I know all about you, Francis Michael Gottfried. Falco’s your nom de guerre. You’re a narcotics distributor, at least you were…until Acevedo put you on the dole. It seems you’ve been working with him for five years, now. And you’re working both sides of the law – setting up shops in these rural counties, raking in the cash, then turning them over to the DEA for a finder’s fee when you’ve milked it dry. No wonder Acevedo seems to know where all the operations are. He’s amassed quite a record of busts, thanks to your help.”

“You’ve got it wrong.”

“No, I don’t think so. You got busted in San Bernardino. You were looking at ten years until Acevedo swooped down and rescued you, putting you to work. I must say that I am very impressed, but working both sides has got to be stressful. You can never know for sure when the bikers or the Mexicans might catch on. If they did, I imagine they’d come pay you a visit.”

Falco was speechless.

“Do you trust Acevedo’s boys?” Stern continued. “Do you think they’ll protect you? I wouldn’t be so sure if I was in your shoes. At best, you’re just an expendable informant who they could replace tomorrow. At worst, you’re a loose end that they might just allow the gangs to tie up.”

“So what exactly do you suggest I tell my people, Stern?” Falco growled. “Tell them to forget about our deal? Tell them to forget about the money and just walk away?”

“Sell it to them, Falco. Your life may depend on it.”

“What’s to stop them from paying you a visit?”

Stern placed his hands behind his head, leaned back in his seat, and grinned. “You really do think I’m an idiot, don’t you? It’s like this, Falco: if anything happens to me, then a file I’ve assembled gets emailed to the sheriff’s department. It’d implicate you and Acevedo and DA Chalmers, too. I can tie you all together. Phone records. Pictures. Emails. You really should update your Internet security.”

“Assuming it’s true, they aren’t going to let you just walk around with that kind of information.”

“I’m betting my life that they will.” Stern smirked. “That’s how the real world works, Mr. Gottfried. It’s called leverage.”

“Then I guess there’s nothing left to discuss.” Falco got up from the booth, as if to leave.

“Sell it to them,” Stern repeated.

“You think you got all the angles figured out, don’t you?”

“All the ones that matter.”

“I don’t think you really understand who you’re dealing with,” Falco said, and walked out.

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Chapter 15

 

“Mr. Clayton, I’m going to have to ask you to stay in town,” advised the portly detective from the sheriff’s department. He talked with his mouth still full of processed the chicken he had just picked out of a blue eagle package. He had arrived shortly after the deputies, who themselves never bothered to remove their shades during their perfunctory examination of Vaughn’s house. A wrinkled blue suit draped the detective’s slouching frame. He wore his thinning hair combed forward to mask a prematurely receding hairline. His notepad and cheap Bic pen never left his pocket.

“You don’t look like a detective,” Vaughn remarked.  Vaughn had encouraged and even pleaded with the deputies and detective to search everything and spend as much time as they needed at the crime scene. He showed them the muddy footprints in the hallway that they had missed. He showed them the tire tracks in the driveway. He even offered them Jessica’s journal, but they weren’t very interested in any of it.

“Am I the suspect?” Vaughn asked.

“Not technically,” answered the detective. “Let’s just say you’re a person of interest for now. A lot of these cases end up where the wife just up and left. A lot of other times, someone she knew was responsible.”

“What do you mean? I hear about kidnappings for ransom all the time.  None of those were people they knew.” Vaughn felt a rage percolate up into the blood vessels of his face.

“We need to rule out the obvious possibilities first.”

“Well I didn’t do anything to my wife. And she didn’t leave. She wouldn’t leave her daughter half frozen to death.  She was kidnapped.  Find the kidnappers. You’re wasting time.”

“Calm down, sir. We’re not saying you did it,” answered the detective, spitting out crumbs as he spoke.

“Then tell me what I can do to help find her. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll take a polygraph, anything. Just find her!”

“Vaughn, let me be honest with you,” said the detective as he wiped his greasy fingers on the insides of his suit pants pockets. “You know that your wife isn’t the only one that’s been kidnapped around here. Hell, we had fourteen kidnappings in the county this month alone. And half of them are relatives of cops, for crying out loud.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“I’m trying to say that you need to be patient. It’s going to take some time. We have to deal with these things on a first-in, first-out basis. So just relax and try not to worry so much.”

“What? Try not to worry? My wife is missing! How can you tell me to not worry?!”

“Just calm down…easy.” The detective put his greasy paw on Vaughn’s shoulder. “Relax. The feds will be getting involved, soon. These kidnappings are a national epidemic. There’s been too many of these disappearances while law-enforcement resources have been devoted to higher priorities. But all that’s about to change. I’m sure you’ve heard of TAPSRA?”

“What?”

“The president signed it back in September—The Anti-Kidnapping and Public Safety Restoration Act.”

“I just want you to take some prints or something. Do your job.”

“You’ve been watching too much TV. We don’t do it that way. Just sit tight, wait for the ransom call.” The detective balled up his foil wrapper, tucked it into his pants pocket, and handed Vaughn one of his smudged cards. He walked out the door and disappeared into the cold with the deputies. Vaughn and tiny Brooke, who was watching a DVD about mermaids, were alone in the house again.

“Where’s mommy?” she asked, looking up from the TV.

Vaughn mustered a smile. Looking down into her wide little eyes, he was deeply afraid that they would never see her mother again. How will I manage? he wondered.

He checked his voicemail for the 30th time…still nothing. He contemplated making the dreaded call to Jessica’s mother but he couldn’t do it just yet. He had to process things a little more.

He began to pace. What is wrong with these people? he asked himself. Can’t they see that she didn’t just leave? All of her things are here, even her coat. Why would she tear the house apart? If she left, she wouldn’t have left the door open and Brooke to freeze. She couldn’t leave Brooke.  No way. Do they seriously think I did something to her?

Brooke went back to her mermaids. Vaughn let her entertain herself for the better part of the day while he sat and waited for a ransom call. He checked his phone seven times to make sure the ringer was on or that the battery was still alive or that an incoming message alert hadn’t been missed.

Nothing.

At eight o’clock, he put Brooke to bed and poured himself a whiskey. He was not normally one to drink it straight, but somehow the thought of its potency appealed to him at that moment. He paced with his cell phone in one hand and his drink in the other, waiting, contemplating the enormous endeavor of cleaning up his decimated house. He downed the drink and checked the phone an eighth time.

Nothing.

He poured himself another whiskey and walked from room to room taking inventory and looking for clues. He checked the phone a ninth and tenth time. Exhausted, he migrated back into the family room and fell into his sofa.

He decided that reclamation of the household was far too big a task for nine p.m. He got up and poured another drink. He resisted the urge to look at his phone, that time. The god damn phone, he thought. Why won’t it ring? He was inclined to smash it to bits. No, that won’t help. He was helpless. There was nothing he could do. He put his face into his hands. He composed himself and took another drink. For an instant, he worried that he would be too hung over for work the next day. Then he remembered he was unemployed. Perhaps the timing’s perfect, he thought. I can dedicate all my time to finding Jess. He sucked on the sour ice cubes from his empty glass. But who’s going to take care of Brooke while I look for her? Mom? She’ll do it. Call her. He lifted the phone to his ear and was about to press the quick dial key but stopped himself.

By eleven p.m., the stove that heated the living room was burning down, casting off its dying orange sparks. He freshened his drink again and sipped it in the darkness while the house cooled.

Call Jess’s mother at least, he thought. No, call her tomorrow when you’re sober

He dragged himself up off the sofa again and clumsily reloaded the stove, fumbling with the kindling and lighter. He stumbled back towards the sofa, grabbed the whiskey bottle and cell phone and lumbered into the master bedroom. He lost his balance trying to navigate the clutter in the darkness. He fell over the overturned mattress and landed on the box spring. He lay there with his half-empty bottle and his silent cell phone for an hour, watching the red minutes click over on the digital clock on his nightstand. At 12:00, he rolled over and fell asleep.

He dreamed he was digging. He was sweeping away black dirt with his hands, trying to uncover Jessica’s buried face. She was somewhere down in that dirt, suffocating. He found her hand. He dug faster, handful after handful, as fast as he could. The walls of soil collapsed back in covering her up just as he got close. A bright light flashed behind him. He heard his own voice.

“Don’t look back or you might just see what’s gaining on you.”

He dug faster. He brushed the dirt away from Jess’s face. Her eyes opened but she couldn’t breathe. He dug still faster but the walls caved in again. The light brightened from behind. He looked over his shoulder again and saw the German shepherd that had terrorized him in his youth. The walls of the hole collapsed in. He clawed at the dirt in desperation but she was gone. Now he was trapped, buried by the black, sandy dirt. He heard little Brooke scream. More and more earth fell down on him in an avalanche, paralyzing him …

“Beep. Beep.”

The phone was ringing. He tried to wake up. He fumbled around for the receiver in the dark but dropped it. “Damn it!” “Beep. Beep.”

He blindly felt around for it. “Where the hell is it?”

“Beep. Beep.”

He dropped the bottle and the remaining whiskey spilled out onto the box spring. He couldn’t find the phone.

“Beep. Beep.”

“Where is it?!” he shouted.

“Beep. Beep.”

He cursed.

“Beep. Beep.”

“At last! But he couldn’t get the flip top to open.”

“Beep. Beep.”

“Come on!” Open. Success. He put the receiver to his ear. Nothing.

“No! No!” he shouted, thinking that he had missed the call after all that. He looked into the receiver. The timer was still counting. He put it back to his ear.

“Vaughn Clayton?”

“Who is this?” Vaughn answered. No response. “Who is this?” he shouted again. He glanced over at the clock. It was 3:01. His head was spinning in a metal-on-metal screeching headache. His mouth was covered in film. “Who is this?”

“Vaughn…”

“Yes?”

“We have your wife, Vaughn.”

Vaughn froze. His eyes stared at a fixed point in the darkness.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Do you want your wife back?”

“Yes. Yes, of course. Who are you?”

“You have something we want, Vaughn.”

“What is it?”

“We think you know.”

“I have no idea what you want!” Vaughn answered. “Money? I can’t get it out bec…”

“We don’t want your worthless dollars, Vaughn.”

“What then?” His mind raced through his possessions. Television, computer, furniture, car, clothing…it’s all worthless junk. They wouldn’t want any of that, he thought. “What do you want?” he asked.

“We want your gold, Vaughn.”

“What gold?”

“You know what we’re talking about. We want your gold. All of it.”

“I don’t have any gold.”

“We know you do, Vaughn. We want the Krugerrands.”

“What the hell is a Krugerrand?” Vaughn asked.

“Don’t play dumb with us, Vaughn. This is your wife we’re talking about. If you want to see her again, you need to deliver the Krugerrands to us.”

“I don’t have any Krugerrands. Please. I can get you cash but it will take a couple days.”

“Like I said, we don’t want your worthless dollars, Vaughn. We want your gold. We know you have a collection stashed away there. Fifty ounces. We want them all. You’ve got two hours. Do you know where the old Mercantile Building is near Buffalo Creek?”

“The old general store? Yes, I know it.”

“You’ve got two hours to get there. Bring your little coin collection and don’t bother calling the sheriff. We’ll know if you do.”

“That’s twenty miles from here and there’s a foot of snow outside. I don’t have enough gas.”

“Not our problem, Vaughn. Be there. Two hours. Goodbye.”

Click.

Vaughn lay motionless clutching the phone to his ear, staring into the dark. He thought that maybe he had wet the bed but then realized the spilled whiskey had run down and soaked into his khakis. He fumbled around for the lamp on the nightstand. A burst of photons nearly vaporized his eyeballs as he switched on the light. He lay back down and shielded his eyes with the inside of his elbow.

“Get up!” he slurred to himself as he swung his arm off his face, allowing the light to sear tracers into his vision.

He scrambled downstairs to the garage looking for gas. There was no way he could make it to Buffalo Creek on fumes. If he ran out, he would have to walk several miles down lonely country roads at night in the midst of a blizzard. Dying of exposure was a very real possibility.

Brooke! he thought. Should I bring her? Absolutely not. But I can’t leave her. What then?

He found the lawnmower gas can. It had about a gallon and a half left. He went outside to the truck and carefully poured the contents in. It would be enough to get there. It was the best he could do.

He went back inside to check on Brooke. She was still asleep, tiny hands clutching her monkey. He watched her for a minute, then snuck out. He couldn’t bring her, too dangerous. He picked up the phone and called his mother. It was 3:15 a.m.. He got her voicemail.

“Mom! It’s me. I’m sorry to call you like this but something has happened. I need to go somewhere to help Jess. It’s an emergency. I can’t take Brooke with me but I can’t wait for someone to come watch her, either. I need a big, big favor. I need for you to come to my house when you get this message. I know I’m asking a lot. Brooke’s asleep now and she rarely wakes up so things should be all right until you get here. I know this all sounds crazy. I’ll explain everything as soon as I get back. The snow isn’t coming down like it was before so you should be okay. All right? Call me as soon as you get this. If I don’t answer it’s because I’m in the canyons. I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Okay. Goodbye.”

Vaughn went back up to the master bedroom and looked over the disaster. He went to the bed and felt underneath for the shotgun. It was still there.

“Idiots!” he declared, wondering how the kidnappers missed it.

He pulled the key out from the nightstand and unfastened the cable lock.

After putting on his winter gear, he checked in on Brooke one last time. She was still asleep, snoring her tiny, whistling snores through alternating drags on her pacifier. He hoped he would make it back before she woke. He took one last look at the upheaval that was his house before quietly closing the door and getting in his truck. The snowflakes were large and falling slowly. The storm was dying. The crystalline reflections in the truck’s headlamps hypnotized him as he drove. The road was packed over and slick. The county snowplows didn’t run anymore because the county was bankrupt. The volunteers would not be out for another hour or two. Vaughn prayed his mom would make it up to his house. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be up for another couple of hours at the earliest. Maybe he could get back home before then.

US 285 is a treacherous span of rollercoaster highway. It climbs and dives and bends through the foothills, bluntly engineered into the steep hillsides. Since the suspension of the bulk of the State’s Department of Transportation services, the road became littered with boulders that had broken loose and tumbled down the steep mountain faces along the southbound shoulder. A driver had to be wary of them as they came up fast. Now they were hidden under snow making the drive even more dangerous. Civilian Samaritans were good about pushing them to the side but that was in good weather during the daylight, and only during times when the police weren’t citing them for public safety violations. There were no Samaritans out on the highway at this hour.

Vaughn turned south at Pine Junction and drove another seven miles through the town of Pine Grove which was not more than a cluster of eclectic houses and a boarded up biker bar on the banks of the winding South Platte River.

What am I going to do when I get there? he asked himself as he passed through the nearly abandoned town. He gazed down at his shotgun. He moved it down onto the floorboards with its barrel pointed away. What will happen if the kidnappers see it?

He thought about little Brooke, alone in the house. A terrifying sensation that she was awake and screaming in her crib came over him. No one would come for her, at least not for another couple hours.

His mind drifted to the gold coins. What made the kidnappers think I have these things? He recalled Mr. Croukamp at the grocery store, the night of the market crash. “Krugerrands!” he shouted in realization. He must have them. Maybe they think I’m Croukamp! I can explain that to them. No, they won’t buy it. It wouldn’t be right, anyway. I can’t sell him out like that. Maybe I could give Croukamp a warning before they come for him. No. It won’t work. How will I handle things when I finally get there? Be honest? No. That’ll get you nowhere with them. You have to lie and buy some time.

He drove another two miles. A lonely acetylene lamp appeared in the dark, hanging over a relic payphone. The glow illuminated “1892” on the granite stone wall of the old Mercantile Building. He parked alongside the building by a vintage gas pump. He turned the engine off to conserve what was left of his precious fuel. The snow floated down through the golden arc of the lamplight.

Headlights appeared.

It was another truck, roaring up the highway from the south, cutting across the adjacent church parking lot. It slid to a stop with its high beams pointed directly into Vaughn’s eyes, momentarily blinding him. Vaughn didn’t move. He thought about the shotgun on the floor. His cell phone beeped.

“Yes,” Vaughn answered.

“Step out of the truck.”

Vaughn left the shotgun on the floorboard and stepped out. He put one hand up with the other clutching the cell phone at his ear.

“Where is it?”

“We need to talk,” Vaughn replied.

“Where are the Krugerrands?”

“They’re close.”

“Show me the coins.”

“Let me see Jessica first. How do I know she’s okay?”

“Don’t fuck with us, Vaughn. We’re professionals.”

“I’m not fucking with you. Please. Just show me she’s okay.”

“Where’s the gold, Vaughn?”

“Please. Please!” Vaughn pleaded. “I’ll get you what you want. Just don’t hurt her. I’ll get you whatever you want.”

“You didn’t bring it, did you?”

“Please! I’ll give you everything I have. I won’t tell anyone. No police. Just don’t hurt her. Please. Just—”

The truck shifted into reverse and started to back up.

“No! Don’t go!”

The truck’s engine roared as it turned around in a spinout and tore back out onto the highway headed south.

“Please come back!” Vaughn shouted into his phone. “Don’t leave!”

The call disconnected.

Vaughn ran back to the truck and turned the key but the engine would not start. It was out of gas.

Indivisible

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