Turbulence, was his first groggy thought, followed by, why would there be this much turbulence on the Seaview? Got to get to the control room and find out what‘s happening. He struggled to open his eyes and focus, knowing he needed to wake up and take care of a problem, but his mind felt stuffed with cotton, slowing his thought processes to a crawl. Air, something is wrong with the air system. He reached out for the edge of his bunk, but his hand fell against carpet, not his blankets. What????
Somebody stepped heavily on his thigh.
The shock snapped his eyes open. The scene around him was bathed in a strange flickering light and seemed somehow out of focus. He rolled over, struggling to get his hands and knees under him. Momentarily hanging his head, he closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath as he fought to regain his equilibrium and fight his way out of the lassitude gripping his brain. Once the waves of dizziness had passed, he lifted his head and opened his eyes.
Several things became clear despite the sluggishness of his thoughts.
This isn’t Seaview. Where the hell am I? As he turned his bewildered gaze towards the source of the ever shifting light he realized that it was a fire in the process of engulfing what appeared to be the cockpit of an airplane. He stared at the flames, not quite comprehending what his eyes were telling him.
The plane lurched again, startling him. His gaze shifted as two figures locked in combat crossed his field of view, pulling his attention away from the fire. In the reddish light, he couldn’t see clearly, but neither man seemed even remotely familiar to him. One wore the uniform of a pilot with the four rings of a captain on the sleeves; the other was in a dark business suit.
What the hell? His befogged brain struggled to make sense of the chaos around him. As his vision continued to clear, it became obvious that the two men were fighting over a parachute.
Parachute… My God, if they’re fighting over it, there’s only one… With that realization came a brief spurt of panic - and the comprehension that however he came to be here, it wasn’t by his own choice. The last thing he remembered was stopping to help what he thought was a lovely young lady with a flat. Turned out she had company - unpleasant, ugly company. He shifted back away from the combatants - and found himself staring into the rapidly glazing eyes of one of the uglies. The man had a small black hole in the center of his forehead.
Should have kept a better class of company, pal, was Morton’s thought. That mean’s somebody’s got a gun - and no qualms about using it.
The adrenalin flooding his system was finally burning through the fog in his mind. He became aware that wind was roaring through the cabin of the plane. Looking for the source he saw that the exterior cabin door was open. As he lurched to his feet, he realized that the deck of the aircraft had a slight downward pitch.
Damn, running out of time. How high are we? Doesn’t matter, he instantly decided, I‘ve got to get that parachute myself and bail. It‘s my only chance.
The two fighters crossed between him and the door. Instinct told him this was his one chance. He abruptly lunged forward, taking both men by surprise as he grabbed the parachute from them and bodily shouldered both of them towards the open door. The man in the business suit tried to twist out of the way, but the pilot, caught off guard, lost his footing. As he fell towards the open door Morton saw him reach back and grab for the man in the suit. One hand managed to clutch the pocket of the other man’s jacket. As the slipstream picked the pilot off his feet and jerked him out the door, the man in the suit was pulled out with him. Morton heard a thin scream as they fell away into the dark sky.
Morton glanced towards the cockpit. It was now fully engulfed and flames were starting to lick out onto the ceiling of the passenger cabin of what he now realized was a medium sized business jet. There’d be no taking control and trying to land, even if he could find a fire extinguisher. He struggled into the unfamiliar parachute harness, the process eating up precious time. Once buckled up, he took one last look around the cabin that was now rapidly filling with choking black smoke, despite the open doorway and roaring wind. In what little light he had left he saw there were at least two other bodies besides the first; the co-pilot and a dark haired scruffy looking character in what he would describe as outdoor attire. He didn’t recognize either of them any more than he had the first two. However, more importantly from his standpoint was the heavy fleece lined brown leather flight jacket one of them was lying on. He hastily snatched it up as the plane gave a shudder and tied it off on loops on the parachute harness. Something popped in the cockpit and the sound of the engines changed pitch, telling him it was definitely time to go. With two running steps he hurled himself out the door into the void.
As soon as he knew he was clear of the plane he pulled the rip cord and prayed that he was still high enough for the chute to open before he hit the ground. Black silk billowed above his head, jerking him hard as it caught the night air, the abrupt deceleration leaving him momentarily breathless. The plane had been going a bit fast for a parachute jump - not that he‘d had much of a choice. Shaking his head to finish clearing away the last haze in his mind, he looked up at the black canopy above his head and couldn’t help the snort. Spook gear. It figures. That explains all the extra rings. As his fall slowed further, he looked around trying to orient himself. There, the Big Dipper. Polaris. That’s north. He couldn’t help a sigh of relief. At least I’m still in the Northern Hemisphere. Looking around for the plane, he caught a brief glimpse of the cabin windows and open door outlined in flame as it flew away from him. Going east. Shit. Mountains to the east. The plane‘s too low to clear the peaks even if it gets that far. He looked west and saw more mountains. Lots and lots of dark, snow capped, towering mountains. Looking down, he glimpsed the tree tops coming up at him fast and flinched.
Oh, this is gonna hurt, was his last thought as the branches engulfed him.
Awareness trickled back slowly; along with the feeling of having been run over by something the size of a Mack truck. As he slowly pried his right eye open, he found himself staring at a purplish looking seed cone surrounded by flat dark green needles on a gray barked branch. From somewhere in the back of his mind floated the information that the sun had risen while he was unconscious and that this was some sort of conifer. Tree… Oh, shit. It wasn‘t just a dream. He closed his eye for a moment and swore a series of vile curses that would have probably shocked most of Seaview’s crew. They certainly sent the large crow that had been giving him the eye from a nearby branch flapping away with a startled caw.
Finally running down, he again opened his one eye; the other seemed to be stuck shut. He cautiously lifted a hand to feel the left side of his face. Probing gently, he found a cut across his forehead that had bled down that side of his face. Since he couldn’t feel any puffiness or pain around the eye, it was probably - hopefully - just dried blood sticking it shut. He rubbed gently at it, brushing away the dried blood and was rewarded with movement of the eyelid. Encouraged, he spit onto his fingertips and wiped some more. Several minutes of wiping allowed him to finally pry his left eye open.
The tree didn’t look any better - or smaller - with both eyes, as it was clear he hadn’t gone through to the ground. “Great,” he muttered out loud to himself, “hung up in a treetop.”
He sighed and continued to take stock of his physical condition. He felt twinges and aches in his muscles, both from having been battered by his now deceased assailants and having hung in the tree for several hours and gotten chilled by the night air. Some of the exposed parts of his skin felt flayed, but he failed to identify anything that felt like a broken bone. Could he actually have been that lucky? There was more than enough light for him to see, so he lifted both arms up and examined them closely. Scrapes and bruises was all he could find. Moving his legs was difficult while hanging in the harness, but he couldn’t feel anything seriously wrong there either. He didn’t appear to have any nausea or dizziness - though he did have a headache. If he had a concussion - and he had to admit privately that he probably did - it was at least a relatively mild one. It wasn’t bad enough to be debilitating, but he would need to be cautious.
Well, that’s a relief. Now he could turn his attention to his location. He looked down to see if he could tell just how high the tree he was stuck in was.
Pretty damned high was the dismaying answer. It’s total height had to be at least a hundred feet; he judged that he was hanging about a quarter of the way down the massive conifer. At least it gave him a good view of where he was - wherever the hell that was. All he knew with any certainty was that he was still in the Northern Hemisphere; the stars last night had told him that. As for his immediate vicinity - it appeared he had landed on the west side of a large mountain valley that was heavily forested. From his perch he could clearly see the peaks to both the east and west of him that he’d seen after bailing out of the plane. About two thirds of the way up the side of the peak across the valley from him he saw a thin trickle of black smoke coming from the center of a large snowfield. He grunted; that was probably what was left of the plane. At least crashing in the snow had eliminated the added complication of a forest fire, something he could cheerfully do without. With smoke still rising, it couldn’t have been more than a few hours since the plane went down.
Which still left the pressing question of where in the Northern Hemisphere these mountains were.
He eyed them again, more analytically this time, trying to recall a long ago lecture on the subject of the geology of mountains. The peaks were high and snow capped, with rough, jagged surfaces. Young mountains then. He didn’t see anything that was obviously a volcano, so he probably wasn’t in the Cascades. The valley itself had a broad U shape - he thought he remembered something about that being a sign of past glaciation. Maybe the Northern Rockies? He certainly hoped so. If he was somewhere in eastern Siberia, then he was in BIG trouble. He didn’t think he’d been out long enough to have flown that far though. Hopefully, that also eliminated being somewhere in Europe. He glanced down at his left wrist, wistfully hoping that he’d been wrong about his watch being gone, but he hadn’t been. There was only the slightly paler circle of skin to show where it had been.
He sighed. He didn’t feel his wallet in his back pocket either. Both were probably in the wreckage of the plane. That’d be just his luck - even if he was still in the US he’d have no money and no identification. He looked again at the forest below him and contemplated his situation. Did he want to stay where he could be found or did he want to try and lose himself in the mountains around him?
He turned what information he had around in his mind, considering it. NIMR security would by now be aware that he was missing, since Lee Crane had called him to come in to assist on a problem with Seaview‘s current refit. He suspected that whoever had snatched him hadn’t known that. He hadn’t been in uniform when they’d grabbed him - just blue jeans and a black tee-shirt - and wasn’t officially due back from leave for at least three more days. Fortunately for him, the people at the Institute would have realized within just a few hours of his non-arrival that something was amiss and started a search. But would they have a clue as to where to look? An even bigger problem, he noted to himself, is whether or not anybody other than the now deceased kidnappers was involved - and whether or not anybody is going to come looking for them.. That was the real question in his mind. He had to get down out of this tree and either try to make his way out of the mountains or find a place to hide until he knew that any searchers were of the legitimate sort.
The first order of business he judged, was to get himself firmly on a branch. There was a fairly large one off to one side just above his head; he counted himself extremely fortunate to have missed colliding with it in the dark. The jacket bumped against his thigh as he shifted, reminding him of its presence. Unclipping it from his harness, he tossed it across the limb above. Ignoring the twinges from his abused muscles, he then got a firm grip and swung himself up so that he was straddling the branch facing the tree trunk. And discovered that he really, really needed to pee.
Great, he thought sourly to himself. Well, he guessed there was nothing else to do but attempt it. He decided it wasn’t something he was going to be able to do with any finesse, let alone accuracy, while sitting. There was nothing left to do but stand. He scooted closer to the trunk of the tree so he could get his arms around it and carefully hitched himself up.
So far, so good, was his thought to himself, but now…. He sighed as he tugged the zipper of his jeans down with one hand. So where do I aim? He looked around thoughtfully. The side of the tree away from where he was standing would have to do, he supposed.
Oh, what a relief it is… He half smiled as the jingle from a TV commercial ran through his head in accompaniment to the tinkle of liquid through the needles of the tree. He just hoped there wasn’t a bear or something down below that he was rudely interrupting.
With that need taken care off and everything tucked back into place, he craned his neck to peer up above at the chute tangled in the limbs above him. Should he try to pull it down and hide it? Or perhaps take it with him? His eyes narrowed in thought. The lines he definitely wanted - rope to tie things with could make the difference between life and death out here. He knew he wasn’t the master at wilderness survival that his friend and captain was, but he’d listened to enough of Lee’s stories to not be totally clueless. He never thought he’d find himself in the position of having to apply that knowledge, however.
The problem, though, was how was he going to cut the lines to the chute? His own pocket knife was missing, presumably having met the same fiery fate as his watch and wallet. He eyed the leather jacket; perhaps it would have something in one of the pockets he could use. Sliding back down to straddle the limb again, he pulled the jacket to him and began a methodical search of the pockets. The first produced a knit cap and a pair of leather gloves. But the second - the second was the jackpot. It held a large folding knife in a leather sheath - and a book of matches. He breathed a sigh of relief as he gratefully thanked whatever powers that looked after fools and lost submariners, because now he wouldn’t have to play Mountain Man. Lee had once tried to show him how to start a fire using a firebow - at the time he’d been more amused than anything else, but when he got back from this little adventure, he was going to have to get the captain to really teach him some serious survival skills. He knew that he had been unreasonably lucky in getting out of the plane in one piece and in having some crucial tools to aid in his survival. That wasn’t something you could always count on.
He shuddered at the thought of having found himself in this situation with basically just the clothes on his back. Not a happy thought. Further examination of the rest of the pockets unearthed a bandanna and a packet of cashews. Not a bad haul, he decided. It might even be enough to get me out of here alive.
Now he had to determine what his next priority was. Getting out of the parachute harness seemed to be a pretty good place to start.
Which proved to be fairly interesting to accomplish while seated on a tree limb. He was cursing again by the time he’d finished. At one point he actually considered cutting the damned thing off, but his current dearth of survival equipment convinced him that he probably ought to hang on to everything he could - at least until circumstances had proven a given item to be useless. Once free of the harness he hung it on a limb with the jacket; he’d worked up a good sweat struggling with the harness and shaken off the chill he’d woken up with, so felt no need to put the jacket on. Not to mention the temperature was heating up as the sun rose higher in the sky. Well, it was August after all, even if he was in the mountains.
Now for the parachute. He carefully climbed as high as he could before the limbs began to quake under his feet. Bracing himself against the tree trunk, he grabbed a handful of the lines and tugged them down as far as he could without unbalancing himself. Cutting them free, he simply let them drop, since he’d not detached the other ends from the harness. The next handful, however, was attached to the closest end of the chute. Studying them, he thought it might just be possible to pull at least part of the silk in close enough to salvage it for future use. Unfortunately, there was only one way to find out for certain.
Giving an experimental tug, he was astounded when the whole canopy slid easily over the needle covered branches of the tree and threatened to envelope him in its descending mass. Giving a startled yelp, he hastily dropped the lines, wrapped his arms around the trunk of the tree and ducked his head. The entire swirling mass of black silk caressed by him, landing lightly on the branches just below.
Once the silk had settled, Morton raised his head and glared down at it. Now he had to climb back down to grab the lines again. He was tempted at this point just to leave the damn thing in the tree, but reason forced him to concede that the lines he’d already cut would be a dead giveaway that someone had survived the crash of the plane. If he could, he had to get the thing out of the tree - or at least get it pulled into the branches where it wouldn’t show from above. Muttering under his breath, he climbed back down to where he could easily gather up the lines again.
With one hand tightly gripping a branch for balance, he backed up against the trunk of the tree and pulled.
To his relief and surprise, the chute again pulled easily over the limbs of the conifer. Deciding that it was too awkward to try and handle the billowing mass one handed - and far too risky to let go of his branch to use both hands - he slid down so that he straddled the limb he had been standing on. With both hands now free to work, he was able to pull the chute to himself, wrapping it as tightly as he could until he had it rolled into a reasonably compact bundle. It wasn’t an easy thing to do while sitting perched precariously in a tree, but after a couple of false starts and no few choice words, he managed to accomplish his task. He then severed the rest of the lines that attached the chute to the harness and tied them off.
Now the trick was to get it down on the ground. Well, the best way to do that was to drop it, so he aimed between the branches and let go.
The bundle of silk made most of the way down before snagging on a limb. Better than I expected, really, he noted to himself. Now came the task of getting himself down. He carefully worked his way back down to his original limb to retrieve the jacket and harness. The harness and lines he decided to wrap in another bundle, though he kept a couple of the longer lines - just in case. The harness followed the parachute down, but it’s relatively greater weight for its size took it all the way to the ground. As for the jacket… even though the temperature had risen with the sun, he decided that he might ought to wear the jacket if it was anything close to a reasonable fit. Trying it on, he was pleased to discover that it was actually a size too big for him.
Good, that’ll make it easier to move in. He looked down through the branches of the tree and tried not to think of falling. Well, no time like the present to start down. Even if part of him would just as soon wait right here in this damn tree for Lee to come looking for him. He sighed. If he could only be sure that it was Lee that would get there first…
But he couldn’t. That left him only one option and one direction to go - down.
He decided after the first handful of spiky needles to put on the leather gloves. After that it was easier - marginally. At least he wasn’t sticking his hands on the needles; the occasional dead ones were particularly sharp. His descent also made him glad that he’d been wearing rubber soled canvas deck shoes instead of his smooth soled leather Oxfords when he’d been snatched. A tree seventy or so feet above the ground was no place to have uncertain footing.
By the time he’d reached the limb where the bundled parachute had lodged, his knees were shaking, his breath was short and ragged and he could feel rivulets of sweat running down his back. He’d come perilously close to slipping a couple of times. It was time for a break. Putting his back to the tree trunk, he slid down to sit, both to get his breath back and cool off. The jacket was hot, but it had protected him from the limbs of the tree, so he was reluctant to take it off. He looked down to see how far he had to go and was pleasantly surprised to find that he had one more set of limbs and then about a ten foot drop to the ground.
Okay, the jacket can come off. It was with relief he slipped it off and spread it over the branch in front of him. The slight breeze immediately felt refreshing as the sweat soaking his shirt began to evaporate. He took a deep breath and felt his nerves begin to calm. While he might not kiss the ground once he was completely down, he would certainly be glad to be out of this damned tree.
The sound of a helicopter broke his contemplation, freezing him in place. He peered around through the limbs of the tree, straining to see and wishing for a pair of binoculars, but as the machine passed just to the east of him, he caught a brief glimpse of it. That fleeting peek made him scoot back against the tree trunk, glad that his clothes were dark colored and that he’d gotten all signs of that damned parachute out of the top of the tree.
The chopper in question was in civilian paint, but looked to be military surplus in type - a Huey unless he was much mistaken - and had passed close enough that he’d been able to see the automatic rifle the man in the open doorway cradled. They had been on a direct course coming from the south, but apparently sighting the smoke coming from the ruins of the plane, had turned due east towards it. He was still high enough in the tree to see the site of the wreckage; the helicopter made a beeline for it and settled down just off to one side. He could just barely make out the tiny specks of figures exiting the chopper and moving over to the wreckage. After a few moments of doing something that was mystifying from this distance they returned to the chopper with several objects which they loaded on board. The distant figures then carried things back to the plane that he soon realized were body bags. They filled three of them and also loaded them on the helicopter. That done, the men reappeared with - shovels? Morton couldn’t quite believe his eyes. They were burying the wreckage of the plane in the snow! It appeared that his instinct to get the chute out of sight had proved correct. Easing the flight jacket off the limb and up over himself, he pulled up his knees to make himself as invisible as possible. He was glad for the brown of the jacket as it hid the blue of his jeans and made him blend into the trunk of the tree.
It soon became apparent that concealing the wreckage with shovels was going to be an arduous and time consuming task for just a few men. Evidently time was a commodity the chopper and it’s occupants didn’t have, for the three men who’d been shoveling snow suddenly ceased their efforts and climbed back aboard their craft. The helicopter lifted from the ground, circling the wreck site, then came in at a slight angle. Morton watched, both intrigued and dismayed, as the pilot used the prop wash to blow clouds of snow over the remains of the jet. Within minutes all signs that there had ever been a plane crash were erased.
Not to mention any footprints. He shivered, not liking the implications of what he was seeing. As the chopper lifted back up, it turned and came towards him, obviously retracing the flight path of the jet.
Of course, they’re looking for the missing people! Counting himself, there had been six aboard, but there had only been three body bags carried away from the plane. He ducked his head under the jacket, not wanting to have the pale skin of his face or the color of his hair betray his presence. As he listened to the passage of the helicopter, he wondered if the searchers knew there had been only one parachute. Were they looking for three people or two bodies and one person? And did they know he was among the missing, not the dead?
As the heavy whop of the helicopter’s blades faded over the ridge to the west, he lifted his head and listened carefully. All he could hear was the sounds of nature. Slipping the jacket back on, he lay down on the limb and inched carefully out to where the bundled parachute was snagged. Pulling it loose, he let it fall the rest of the way to the ground. Scooting back towards the trunk, he climbed down to the last limb, where he carefully eyed the distance to the ground. Right next to the trunk it was about ten feet, but he’d noted when he’d climbed out on the limb above that his weight had deflected it downward considerably. It was worth a try here, he decided.
Carefully inching out, he was pleased to find that the limb was indeed dropping under his weight, though not enough that he felt in any danger of having the limb suddenly snap. Getting about halfway to the end, he decided it was far enough. He eased one leg over and let himself down; his feet were perhaps two feet above the ground, which looked to be covered by a thick cushion of needles. It was now or never.
He let go and landed with a soft thump on the ground.
Yes! he exulted to himself. He was down in one piece, with no trace left in the tree that he’d ever been there. Well, nothing except the now drying piss covering part of the branches three fourths of the way up. He shrugged. Nothing he could do about that now - and if they were good enough to find that, he hadn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of eluding them anyway. Picking up the silk and harness, he set about fashioning them into a pack-like bundle. Once comfortably settled on his back he took stock of his bearings and thought about which direction he wanted to go.
Definitely not south or west. The helicopter had come from the south and was currently on the prowl to the west. That left east or north, but the plane had been headed east. Or at least that was the direction it had been going when it crashed. So why had the chopper come from the south? He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, wishing he’d been more awake to have seen just exactly what had gone on in the cabin of the plane. Perhaps the plane hadn’t been supposed to go as far east as it had. In which case east was still an option - or it was if he could find a way over the mountains. He eyed the towering snow capped peak opposite him and decided that from here it looked like his best bet was to make his way north, at least until he could find a trail or road that might lead him back to civilization - or at least over the mountains.
The first order of business though, was to see if he could find some water. He was starting to get terribly thirsty; it had been the previous afternoon since he’d had anything to drink. He was hungry too, but the only food he had to hand was the cashews, which were unfortunately salted. If he ate them before he found something to drink, his thirst would be even worse. Down he decided, to the floor of the valley. There should be a stream of some sort that would hopefully provide him with water.
Decision made, he began a wary descent, keeping close to the tree trunks, trying to drift as noiselessly as possible from shadow to shadow. It wasn’t easy to do with all the dried needles on the ground. They crunched underfoot and tended to hide small limbs that cracked with sharp pops that sounded to his ears like booming gunshots. He cringed with every one of them, stopping to listen and see if he could hear anyone else in the forest. It slowed his progression to a crawl. That may have been a fortunate thing however, for he only made about two hundred yards before he came to his first obstacle.
The small bluff was only about ten feet or so high, little more than a spine of fractured rock sticking out of the ground, heavily festooned with vines and shrubs. If he’d been in a hurry he might have walked right off the edge of it before realizing it was there.
He carefully looked the tangle of vines and shrubs over, mindful of the fact that such places were prime snake habitat, not to mention other unsavory forest dwellers. The spot he’d come out on was particularly dense, so he decided to move parallel to the outcrop, looking for a more suitable place to descend. Fifty feet or so to the north he found what he was looking for, as one of the joints had widened into a crack that proved to be relatively free of vegetation - and there was clearly a trail running through it. The only question now was it made by humans or animals. He squatted at the top of the crack and studied the ground. He was no tracker, but he could see what looked to be paw prints; he thought they might be dog or coyote, but admitted to himself that he couldn’t tell. A small voice in the back of his mind whispered that they could be wolf, depending on where he was. It sent a small atavistic shiver down his spine.
The tracks that most interested him were the boot prints. Someone had walked down this trail sometime in the past. He had no way of telling how long ago it had been, but the blurring of the prints and the animal track overlay suggested it hadn’t been recently, so hopefully they weren’t connected with his abductors. Still, it would be best to be wary. He stepped carefully down the rocky path. It wouldn’t do to made it out of that damned tree and then turn an ankle. At the bottom he stopped and carefully poked his head out, searching for signs of any large animals or people. He certainly didn’t want to walk into anybody searching for the survivors from the plane - or any of the larger forest denizens.
The path was clear and it turned north at the base of the outcrop. He heaved a sigh of relief. If it had turned south, he’d have been faced with the dilemma of whether or not to abandon the trail and continue on down to the floor of the valley. He still might face that problem, but he’d be willing to bet that sooner or later the trail would lead to water. Hopefully it would be something that was safe for him to drink, because his mouth was feeling parched. It was also getting too hot for the jacket, especially now that he was more in the open, so he slipped it off and threw it over his shoulder. He set out, walking at an easy pace, eyes constantly sweeping from the path to the surrounding woods to the sky; he didn’t want to get caught in the open if the helicopter came back.
The easier going made for good time, so in the first half hour or so he covered at least a mile and a half. He hoped every stride away from the course the plane had crossed was a step towards the return home. As he had speculated, the path also started to drop towards the valley floor - or rather the valley floor was rising to meet the trail. He’d also gotten glimpses of a fair sized stream through the trees. It appeared to be flowing south, so he hoped that if he came to a place where the trail crossed it that there was either a bridge or he was far enough upstream that he wouldn’t have to swim. Here in this high valley the source of the water had to be snowmelt, so he’d be willing to be the temperature of the stream was frigid at best.
It was in the next bend of the trail that he found the spring. It trickled out from the rocky outcrop, making a cheerful gurgling noise. It had clearly been used by hikers as a water source, given that all of the vegetation had been cleared back and a ring of blackened rocks marked a fire pit. Morton nearly went limp with relief.
The water was so cold it was shocking. He knew better than to drink too much all at once, so he contented himself with a couple of swallows every minute or two. He needed to rehydrate himself, though, so he kept drinking even when his immediate thirst had been slacked. Finally satisfied, he found a convenient log and sat, then pulled out his pack of cashews and contemplated them.
He was getting pretty hungry, though the cold water had helped take the edge off. Should he go ahead and eat what he had now or save it for later? He sighed gustily. He still didn’t know where he was or how far it might be to civilization, though the well worn condition of the trail suggested he wasn’t in the middle of some inaccessible wilderness. So it was likely he couldn’t be more than a few days walk from the trail head - unless it was in the other direction and he was heading away from rescue. He felt a moment of doubt assail him, but then shook his head. Even if the trailhead was south and not north, the helicopter had come from that direction. Going south would be walking straight towards the people who’d put him in this predicament in the first place. Maybe he would run into other hikers - legitimate ones - who could at least tell him where he was and point him in the right direction. He’d have to come up with a cover story though; he didn’t think he wanted anybody he met out here to know how he really got here.
Which wasn’t getting him any closer to a decision. He held the packet up, looking at it with a critical eye. It held perhaps two very small handfuls of the cashews. Maybe the thing to do was eat one helping now and save the other for later - that would work. He nodded to himself and tore open the top of the pack, measuring out about half. The amount seemed pitifully meager, just a couple of mouthfuls. Finishing, he carefully folded the top over on the half left and tucked the package back into his jeans pocket. A final drink from the spring topped his poor excuse for lunch off. As he stood to leave he eyed the spring, wishing he had some kind of container to take some of the water with him. There was no telling how far away the next site with drinkable water was. Well, there was nothing he could do about it …
A flash of red and white in the bushes caught his attention. He looked closer and realized that he was looking at a large two liter plastic Coke bottle - with a screw-on lid still in place. He froze in place for a moment, not quite believing he could be that lucky. Walking closer, he took a better look and determined that it was indeed what he’d first thought it was. Even more importantly, it looked from where he was to be intact. He could have jumped for joy. Lifting his eyes heavenward he said a reverent Thank You to whatever power was looking out for him.
It took cutting a long stick to finally retrieve the bottle from the bushes. It was completely empty except for a few tiny still undried drops of residue - and it was indeed intact. No one had poked holes in it and it was unchewed by animals. And since it had the lid still on, no insects or spiders had taken up residence inside. Thank God for litterbugs, was his almost irreverent thought. He carried the bottle back to the spring and carefully washed it out, rinsing it several times to make sure all of the sticky Coke was out of it before filling it to the top and tightly screwing the lid on. He took a length of his parachute line and quickly wove a small harness to carry the bottle in, attached to a loop he could carry over his shoulder.
I wonder if there’s anything else in the bushes I could use?
Taking his stick, he carefully probed around in the underbrush. He didn’t find another bottle, but he did come up with a couple of tin cans that weren’t rusted. Well, if he found anything to cook, perhaps they’d do as pots. He cleaned them at the spring and tucked them into the silk of his pack. One never knew just what might come in handy. He decided to keep the stick as well. It was about the same length and diameter as the staff he’d trained with in his martial arts classes years ago. If need be, he thought he could probably remember enough of the moves to give any attacker an unpleasant surprise.
He gave the spring and it’s attendant campsite one more look. There didn’t appear to be anything else lying about he could use, but at least now if he had to leave the trail, he’d have enough water for a day or so. And a weapon that doubled as a walking stick. Not bad for a fellow who hadn’t a clue as to where he was or who his enemies were. Giving an ironic laugh at himself, he moved on.
The afternoon had proved to be warm, but quiet. He’d heard the helicopter returning in the distance an hour or so after he’d left the spring and had ducked under the sheltering branches of another big conifer. The aircraft hadn’t turned in his direction, however; it had taken one more pass around the crash site and then turned back south. Probably getting low on fuel, he surmised. He wondered if they’d found the bodies of the two men he’d shoved out of the plane during the fight for the parachute. He rather hoped they had, because then the ground search would start there, in some valley to the west, rather than here where he was. Or at least that’s what he hoped.
Now the shadows were starting to lengthen and he could tell that it wouldn’t be long before the sun slipped below the peaks to the west. He needed to think about stopping somewhere and making camp while there was still enough light to see by. He’d been looking for the last half hour or so, but so far hadn’t seen anything suitable. A grove of slender white barked trees with brilliant golden leaves just off the trail caught his eye. Aspen, he thought they were, though being a city kid, his woodsmanship left a lot to be desired. Stopping for a moment, he admired their spectacular beauty. He had to admit that he found the scenery around him breathtaking, despite his predicament. He was about to walk on when he spotted what looked to be another camp site set towards the center of the grove he‘d been admiring. Deciding to check it out, he walked closer and discovered a small path leading from the main trail down into the trees.
Once down, he found another fire pit, with log seats strategically placed around it. To one side was a cleared spot that looked like campers regularly built some sort of shelter - tents most likely - or perhaps a lean-to. He cast a glance at the late afternoon sky. So far he’d seen no signs of rain, but he wasn’t entirely sure the indications of impending bad weather would be the same here as they were at sea. Besides, it had been his past experience that bugs were worse the closer to the ground one was. Perhaps his silk could be fashioned into a tent of sorts. It wouldn’t keep any rain off, but it might keep him from being eaten alive by bugs during the night.
Placing his pack on the ground, he began a meticulous search of the grove for any materials that might be of use to him. He found several saplings that he was able to chop through without too much difficulty; they’d do for support structure. He also gathered as much fallen dried wood as he could find. That pile proved to be pretty meager; previous campers appeared to have picked the area pretty clean of firewood. He did however, find another spring that showed signs of having been used by hikers, which allowed him to refill his bottle. And as before, litterbugs had left their discards in the underbrush. While he found no other large soft drink bottles, he did find a couple of smaller ones that he was able to clean and fill, adding to his stockpile. He even found an old skillet that someone had tossed. It was battered and bent, but the inside hadn’t rusted yet, so he added that to his growing pile of gear. Now if he could just find something to put in it.
He also found an area that smelled like it had been used fairly regularly as an outdoor latrine. When in Rome….
The deepening shadows forced him back to the camp. If he was going to get anything done, he needed to do it now, while he still had light to see by. The first order of business was a fire. That part he remembered from the lessons Lee had tried to teach him - he knew to start small. He had found some scraps of brown paper bag; these he put in a small pile, arranging twigs over them, with slightly larger sticks over that. Settling on his knees so as to get as close to his fire as possible, he pulled out his book of matches. Carefully taking one, he closed the cover of the matchbook, then with a silent prayer, struck it with the match.
It caught with the first try. At the flare of flame he carefully touched the blazing match to one edge of the paper. The fire swiftly spread, eagerly consuming the paper. It seemed to hesitate for a second at the twigs, but then began eating into the dried wood. Once the small twigs were alight, the larger twigs began to burn as well. Once they had a good start, he carefully added a couple of larger pieces. He didn’t want his fire to get too big, for a couple of reasons, the primary one of which was he didn‘t have enough wood for a large fire. Plus, if the helicopter came back through on a night flight, a large campfire would be all too visible. The thought caused a frown. Maybe he didn’t want to even try and maintain a fire through the night. He’d burn it until the sun was fully down and let it go out. Hopefully just the smell of the smoke would keep most of the wildlife at bay. In the meantime, he had to try and construct something approximating a tent.
The experience proved to be interesting. He finally wound up tying the longest of his saplings between two trees and using the others to spread the silk out in a tent shape. He left a section for a floor, to keep himself off the ground. A single layer of the thin silk didn’t seem to keep much of the deepening chill out, so he doubled the rest of the canopy back and forth over the his framework until he had at least a half dozen layers. Weighting the edges down with rocks, he then crawled inside to check it out.
It wasn’t airtight, but he found that layering did greatly increase the efficiency of his construction. With the reserve chute for a pillow and the jacket to wrap up in, he might actually be relatively comfortable - as long as it didn’t rain or snow on him.
He crawled back out, returning to his fire. The sounds of the creatures on the night shift were starting to replace the sounds that had become somewhat familiar to him through the day. He settled on one of the logs, reaching out his hands towards the fire to warm them. He’d probably need to put the gloves on tonight to keep his hands from getting cold. His stomach rumbled, complaining about the lack of nourishment. He sighed and pulled out what was left of the pack of cashews. Shaking them into his hand, he popped a couple into his mouth and chewed slowly, chasing them down with a swig of water. He ate slowly, savoring what was likely to be his last meal for a while as his fire burned slowly down. As the moon cleared the mountain to the east, he smothered what little was left of the fire and turned to head to his tent to turn in.
The distant sound of a helicopter beat through the night.
Reflex made him dive for the shadows under the nearest bush. Listening carefully, he determined that the aircraft was still some distance away. Would they be able to see him under the bush if they came this way? Deciding not to chance it, he scuttled for his tent. The black silk would hopefully blend into the shadows, so unless they had infrared sensors, they’d not be able to find him.
For at least thirty tense minutes that felt like an eternity, he heard the chopper quartering back and forth across the path the jet had taken on it’s final approach to oblivion. It did not, however, approach his location and he thanked his lucky stars that he’d opted to keep his fire small and smother it when he did. The heavy chop of the blades finally faded to the west, but he stayed in his shelter, reluctant to expose himself. Besides, if he left now, he’d have to abandon everything except the bottles of water and some of the parachute lines. No, he’d sit tight until dawn. A legitimate hiker wouldn’t be out in the dark anyway; if they spotted him on the move, they’d suspect he was someone they were looking for.
He finally settled down for the night, but his sleep was fitful. The noises of the northern forest weren’t something he was familiar with, but something Lee had once told him stuck in his mind. The sounds of forests and jungles are like the sounds a submarine makes when everything is working okay. It’s when the noises stop that you know you’ve got a problem. So as long as the insects and night birds kept up their symphony, it meant there probably wasn’t anybody out there.
He just hoped there weren’t any bears out there either.
Dawn came too slowly. As soon as he had enough light to make out what he was doing, he took his tent down and refolded it. Since he could lay it out on the ground, he was able to do a much better job of folding it compactly. The skillet and cans he decided to put in the outermost layer, just in case. Shouldering his rearranged pack, he returned to the spring to top off his bottles.
And found he had company of the slithery sort.
It would have been difficult to say who was more surprised, the snake or Chip Morton. But as on edge as Morton’s nerves were, the reptile, still sluggish from the cool night air, didn’t stand a chance. All of Morton’s frustrations of the last two days poured out and the snake died in a flurry of blows from the walking stick.
When it was over, Morton stood for a moment to catch his breath, feeling quivery. The bloodied snake lay belly up, still twitching, when another of Lee’s survival gems floated to the surface of his mind. Snakes make pretty good eating. White meat, a lot like chicken. His stomach growled at the mere thought of food. He rubbed his chin and decided that he might try it just this once.
Scooping the snake up with the staff, he laid it across a rock and carefully cut the head off; the rattles on the tail identified as a rattlesnake, so he knew to be careful of the fangs. Poking a hole in the soil under some bushes, he buried the head. Carrying the rest of the carcass back to the fire pit, he set about kindling another fire. As it heated up, he skinned and gutted the snake, then debated on what the best way to cook it might be. Finally he decide a spit would be quickest. He cut the snake into pieces and ran green limbs crosswise though each piece so that he had what amounted to snake shish kebob.
Cut into small pieces, it didn’t take the snake long to cook. He carefully eased a piece off one of the limbs and cautiously tasted it. As the flavors spread through his mouth he closed his eyes in ecstasy. Lee was right - snake made a fine meal. He set about finishing his breakfast off with enthusiasm.
Too bad it hadn’t been a bigger snake.
Once the meal was over, he buried the remains of his fire, tossed the bones into the bushes for the scavengers and returned to the spring to finish topping off the water bottles that had gotten temporarily forgotten in the excitement. With enough water and a full belly, he felt a lot more optimistic about the day ahead, even though he hadn’t gotten quite the early start he wanted.
He stepped out briskly, determined to make it as far today as he could. The trail and stream were coming together; he could see the tumbling water easily through the trees. As the morning hours passed, so did the next several miles. Occasional glances at the stream seemed to show the width shrinking considerably from when he’d first seen it, so even if he had to wade, he probably wouldn’t get soaked above mid thigh. Strange that the sound wasn’t getting any quieter though. Maybe that was because the trail was getting closer to the water.
The next turn in the trail revealed a small footbridge marked with a Forest Service sign crossing the turbulent stream.
Yes! Morton grinned with relief for he really hadn’t been looking forward to getting even just his feet wet. He hated squishy shoes. Even better, it confirmed for certain that he was still in the US.
He strode out on the wooden bridge, pausing to look down at the water. The sight that greeted his eyes forced him to reassess his earlier optimism about having been able to wade across. The width of the stream may have shrunk, but it was clear that at this point, the volume was still high. The water had carved what was essentially a rocky chute, making the water both swift and deep. No wonder the Park Service had put a bridge across it. Otherwise they’d be fishing bodies out of the water right and left. But more important from his standpoint was a small sign with an arrow pointing east that said simply BLODGETT CANYON TRAILHEAD 15 MILES.
Trailhead meant a road, maybe a campground or Forest Service station. That meant a phone - and rescue. It also meant he was headed in the right direction.
A shadow passed overhead, blotting out the sun just as a gust of wind howled past him, kicking up a cloud of dust. He blinked and looked up - and up and up some more, to see the front of a towering thunderhead that was swiftly approaching from the west. Even as his startled eyes took in the sight of the massive cloud, a bolt of lightning streaked out and struck somewhere to the northwest of him. A moment later the distant growl of thunder reached his ears.
Whirling around, he fled across the bridge at a dead run. He had to find shelter from the storm and fast. Somewhere away from the stream - anybody with any sense who lived in southern California knew about flash floods in arroyos - and this high mountain valley was simply the mother of all arroyos because all of the water the cloud dumped after crossing the western ridge would be funneled into one channel - this one.
And as a sailor he was also far too familiar with the dangers of lightning. To be caught in the open near water… His skin crawled just thinking about it. He pelted up the trail as fast as he dared run. Fortunately for his peace of mind it quickly began rising away from the stream, up the east side of the valley. As he looked for a place to shelter from the impending storm he realized that he had entered a canyon that ran east to west. He slowed to a stop to take a better look and swore. There was another stream here too, though it wasn’t nearly as big as the previous one and the trail rose higher up on the canyon wall as it went upstream. He could see a couple of places from where he was that looked like the rocky walls might have sufficient overhang to shelter him from anything but a wind directly out of the north. As the first fat drops of rain beat an opening barrage, he pulled the jacket up over his head and kept going. He made it to the first overhang just as the cloud above seemed to unzip and pour.
The remains of a fire pit showed he wasn’t the first traveler to come this way and take refuge. Unfortunately the space was bare of any wood with which to make a fire. He sighed and shrugged off his pack, then sat down on it. At least it didn’t appear that there was anything unsavory sheltering in the hollow with him - and he hadn’t gotten too damp in his dash up the trail. All things considered, he could be a lot worse off. At least the wind was blowing the rain past, not in on him. So he simply sat and watched the rain fall as lighting wove delicate but deadly traceries across the sky and thunder echoed off the canyon walls.
The rain continued to fall. As the deluge continued unrelenting, he began to frown. This wasn’t just a simple summer shower; there was far too much water coming down way too fast. The thunderhead must have parked itself between the two mountain ridges and was proceeding to wring itself dry. He cautiously poked his head out and craned his neck to see if he could make out the bridge he’d crossed. It was just barely visible through the pouring rain - but so was the surging surface of the stream. It was now licking at the bottom of the bridge and threatening to overrun its banks. He eyed the distance he was above it with concern. As near as he could make out, he was at least thirty feet above the surface of the madly raging water. He could only hope that was sufficient.
Retreating to the back of the overhang, he huddled into the jacket; the rain had chilled the air enough that he really wished there was wood for a fire. He suspected he was going to be stuck again out here again tonight, so unless the sun came back out and warmed things up, tonight was going to be considerably cooler than last night. Another worry was going to be what sort of shape the trail might be in after so much rain and flooding. Were these canyons subject to the same kinds of mudslides and rock falls that southern California always endured after heavy rains?
By now he estimated that at least an hour had passed. The rain was still pouring down and the stream had surged out of its banks. The bridge had long since disappeared under the surface; he’d be more than astonished if there was anything left of it when the water went back down. As a sailor, he knew the power of water far better than most landsmen. It was a deadly force, with a mass that people often underestimated - and they frequently died because they failed to comprehend the fact of that mass.
The roaring stream had now crept halfway up to where he was sheltered. It had become so deafening only the loudest and closest thunder could compete; it was so thunderous he could feel the very rock under his feet vibrating from the power of it. A few more feet, he decided and he was heading for the next overhang up the trail. Wet was better than drowned.
No sooner had he made his decision than the rain suddenly began to slack off. Within moments it had reduced from a deluge to a mere sprinkle. Eyeing the still rising stream, he decided this might be a good time to move himself higher, just in case this was only a lull in the torrent and not the true end of it. Besides, even if the rain had stopped, runoff would still be pouring into the streams for some time to come, so the water level was likely to rise further. He’d rather not wait until it was lapping at his feet to seek higher ground.
Shouldering his pack, he stepped carefully out onto the rain soaked trail. The water made the going treacherous, so he had to keep his pace down to a slow walk. The next overhang was at least a hundred yards up the trail, so he kept turning an anxious eye to the sky. The storm, however, seemed to have blown itself out and what was left of it was moving on to the east. Even the lightning had almost entirely ceased and the sun was coming out from behind the cloud. From its position, he estimated that it was now almost mid afternoon. There was no way he’d made the trailhead today. He sighed in disgust. He probably ought to find a good place to camp and simply wait for morning. Maybe by then the Park Service would be out looking for stranded hikers, because he doubted that anybody at the trailhead would have yet realized how severe the flooding here was. It would probably take somebody walking out with the news before the outside world heard.
He reached the next overhang and stopped short. It was occupied, though not by any wildlife - not unless you counted two very soaked blondes who couldn’t be a day over twenty five as wildlife.
His first fleeting thought was that he’d been ambushed again, but the wary and apprehensive looks they turned to him suggested otherwise. They might just be what they appeared to be - a pair of young, inexperienced hikers in trouble.
“Uh, hello,” he said to the pair as they instinctively shrank back; he guessed he was looking a bit rough around the edges, since he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days now and his bruises had reached the point of ‘colorful’. He smiled crookedly at them, hoping to allay their fears. “My name’s Chip.” He decided on the spur of the moment to use the flight jacket and parachute as part of his cover story, gambling that since his abductors’ associates had gone to so much trouble to conceal the wreckage, there was no official report on the crash. “My plane and I had a bit of an accident yesterday and it seems like I’ve been walking forever trying to get out of here.”
The taller of the two blondes took in his appearance with a searching look that gradually became less skeptical. He certainly did look like he’d been in a plane crash. The leather flight jacket did give him that certain air - and how many hikers would be wandering around packing a parachute? Finally she gave him an uncertain smile.
“Shouldn’t you have stayed with your plane to be found?” she asked. Her accent identified her as European - Dutch perhaps. He wasn’t entirely sure; her English was very good.
“There wasn‘t anywhere to put the plane down in one piece. I bailed and wound up in a treetop - the plane wound up in the rocks up the mountainside. The tree wasn’t a place I wanted to be if something like we just had came along.” All of which was technically true. He just hadn’t been the pilot.
The young women’s eyes strayed to the scenic vista of the valley spread out before them. Trees all the way to the snowline. He hadn’t been lying about there being no place to try and land a plane in this valley. The smiles became more sincere. Clearly the taller girl knew a bit about flying. Good thing he did actually have a pilot’s license; the FAA had required them for everyone who piloted the Flying Sub.
“I am Anna,“ the tallest said as she smiled shyly at him, “and this is my friend. Her name is Anna too.”
He couldn’t help but laugh. “So how do people tell you two Annas apart?”
“They call me Little Anna,” offered the second girl.
“Hello, Anna and Little Anna.” Chip turned on the charm. With any luck at all, they could be his ticket out of here. Even if he was being looked for, the searchers would be looking for either a lone male or a trio, not a guy with two cute as a button chicks.
“So how close did I get to the airport?” he asked. He didn’t want to let them know he didn’t have a clue as to exactly where he was, except that he was somewhere in the western US.
“Hamilton is the closest town, I think, ” Anna told him, “I don’t know if it has an airport. We flew into Missoula, to the north about an hour’s drive.”
Missoula, Missoula… ah. Montana. Western edge, I think. “Darn,” he told them, “I guess I was more off course than I thought. How far are we from Idaho?”
The girls giggled. “The Park Rangers told us the state line was at the top of the pass, so we’re in Idaho.”
Morton brightened. Now he had a much better idea of where he was. “Well, maybe I wasn’t as lost as I thought I was then. Good. Now I need to get to town and call my boss. I am really, really late for work and he’s going to be chewing the walls.”
That produced real smiles. Apparently they knew about bosses who chewed walls too. “He won’t fire you will he?” asked Little Anna with real concern in her voice.
“Nah. He’ll just yell a lot. It’s not like I deliberately crashed. Besides, it wasn‘t his plane. Now if it had been - then I’d be in trouble.” That was no lie, though Nelson probably wouldn’t be the only one who chewed on him. Certifying the Flying Sub had given the FAA major heartburn; the Institute been lucky that the two craft they’d lost so far had both been outside the US and in circumstances where no recovery of the wreckage had been possible. He could just imagine what the NTSB would have to say if he splattered one of them in a US National Park. It wouldn’t be pretty.
“I didn’t see you pass me on the trail, so did you just come down from the trailhead?”
“Yes,” sighed Little Anna. “We were with two guys, but they walked off and left us behind when we couldn’t keep up.”
He bristled. “Well, that wasn’t very nice.” But that explained why they were huddled in this overhang with very little gear in sight and were so apprehensive when he appeared. “But why were you still coming this way?”
“Eric made Charlie promise they’d stop early and set up camp for us on the other side of the river,” explained Anna. “Did you see them along the trail?”
“No,” he answered thoughtfully. “But they might have been off in the bushes, er, you know. But the bridge is gone now. Washed away in the flooding.”
Anna pursed her lips. “I think they just wanted to steal our gear. We rented some very nice equipment.”
“So how well did you know them?” Now Morton was puzzled.
Both girls blushed. “Not very well, I’m afraid,” admitted Anna. “We met them at the hotel in town. They said they knew the trails and could act as guides.”
“Ah.” Morton held his tongue. The two had screwed up badly and had sense enough to realize it without him lecturing them. All things considered, Eric and Charlie’s plans could have included far worse for the two girls. He suspected that thought had also by now occurred to the pair. “Well, if you don’t mind me joining you, we can head back up the trail towards town. When we get there you can report those two thieves to the local Sheriff and I can report my plane crash.”
The mention of going to the local law enforcement seemed to seal it for the two girls, for their relief was palpable.
“You didn’t see anywhere back up the trail that would be a better campsite than here, did you. Somewhere with a spring for water and maybe trees for shelter and some firewood?”
Anna and Little Anna consulted. Definitely not German or French, he noted to himself. His belief they were probably Dutch strengthened.
“I think,” ventured Little Anna, “that there was a place a couple of kilometers back up the trail that might be what you were looking for. But I don’t know if…” She gestured at the raging floodwaters below them and he understood. The place they remembered might now be flooded.
He shrugged. “Won’t hurt to go look. We can always find another overhang or something if we have to.”
With a plan of action settled on, the two girls shouldered their packs and headed back up the trail towards the top of the pass. Morton had to conceal a groan. This was more walking than he’d done since the Academy. Jogging around the missile room on Seaview certainly didn’t keep a man in shape for this kind of exercise. He was going to have to keep a closer eye on Riley and see what the kid did while they were at sea to keep himself in such great shape - other than the fifteen years difference in their ages.
He was huffing pretty good by the time they reached the site the two girls had mentioned. His walking the day before had all been downhill - this was all up. Fortunately for him the campsite proved not only to be above water, but occupied by a group of three middle aged couples with a real trail guide. He staggered in behind the two young blondes and sank gratefully down on a log, much to the amusement of the encamped group.
They weren’t so amused when Anna related conditions down in the valley.
Every one of them, except the guide, looked at Morton like it was his fault.
He threw up his hands in self defense. “I didn’t bring the rain. The plane crashed yesterday before daylight. I’ve been walking out ever since.”
“He’s right,” noted the guide, a tall lanky dark haired man with a laconic western drawl. “Give the guy a break. He’s crashed his plane and took a beating doing it.” He looked Morton over. “Though how you got it down to get it out…”
“Didn’t,” Morton admitted. “Had to bail when the cockpit caught fire and wound up in a damned tree that had to be at least a hundred feet tall. Knocked myself out, hung up there till after daybreak, then had to climb down. That’s where the bruises came from. No supplies, nobody knew where I was.” He sighed. “Breakfast this morning was roast snake and I was lucky to have that.”
The guide laughed and stuck out his hand. “Roy Bensen. Sounds like for a flyer you‘ve done okay.”
Morton took it and shook. “Chip Morton. It could have been a lot worse for sure.”
“So, Mister Morton, just what do you do for a living? Besides crashing airplanes, that is,” asked one of the other three men. Morton gave him the eye and realized the guy had a real attitude problem. He was mad that his plans had been spoiled by mother nature and wanted someone to take it out on.
“Leave it, Jake,” said one of the other two, who looked to be the oldest of the three. “It’s none of our business.”
The one called Jake looked for a moment like he might argue, but the tall, patrician looking man gave him what Morton recognized as an alpha male stare. Jake whirled and stalked off, indignation in every line of his posture.
The man put his hand out as well. “I’m Dan Jansen. Sorry about acting like pricks. It’s just that we’d planned this trip for months now…” He shrugged as Morton nodded acceptance of his apology. “And really sorry about Jake. This is Bob Grubbs and his wife June, my wife Barbara and Jake’s wife Gloria. We‘re all three staff in the geology department at the University of Colorado.”
“Call me Chip, and this is Anna …” He looked over at the two girls. “You never did tell me your last names.”
“I’m Anna Hauer and this is Anna Verhoeven,” said the taller Anna. She dimpled a smile and added, “My friend is Little Anna, to tell us apart.”
“Sounds like you’ve had an exciting couple of days, Chip,” said Dan’s wife Barbara, coming forward. “Hungry?”
The expression on his face answered for her and she laughed as she patted him on the shoulder.
“We’ll get you fixed up then. How about some stew?”
“Right now, Barbara,” Morton told her with feeling, “I’d settle for a dried biscuit and a banana peel.”
She laughed. “I think we can do better than that. You just sit right there and I’ll bring you a bowl.”
“Thanks. I hadn’t realized just how out of shape I’ve gotten. Too much time spent sitting lately.”
Barbara laughed and motioned the two girls to follow as she left to fetch him a meal. The rest of the group except for the guide retreated with them.
“So, how sure are you the bridge is out?” Roy asked, squatting down in front of Morton so he was at eye level.
Morton reflected for a moment. “It was completely submerged when we left and logs were shooting down the channel without even slowing down. If the bridge had still been there, I’d think it would have acted as a dam and been catching the big stuff anyway.”
Roy nodded ruefully. “Yeah, I expect you’re right. Don’t sound like the bridge held. Probably be a few hours yet fore the water goes down enough to check on it.” He looked over to where the two girls were warming themselves in front of the fire, with the older women fussing over them. “Where’d you find those two?”
“In an overhang a mile or so down the trail. Said they’d had two guys who’d volunteered to act as guides who took most of their gear and left them.”
Roy’s face darkened. “Wouldn’t have been named Eric and Charlie, would they?”
Morton nodded. “That’s what the girls said they were called. You know them?”
“Yeah. And so does the Sheriff. Not that he’s ever tried to do anything about them. No good little rat bastards. The girls are lucky you came along and persuaded them to turn back.”
“I thought as much,” Morton told him, a grim note in his voice. “Maybe with any luck, they drowned.”
Roy brightened at the thought. “Ya think? Sure save a lot of people grief if they did.”
“Sounds like the two make a habit of this. Why aren’t they in jail?”
“They pick their victims with care. Foreigners who can’t - or won’t - come back to testify against them. With no witnesses, the DA refuses to try and prosecute.”
“Just theft or are the little slime balls rapists too?”
The black look on Roy’s face answered for him. “Giving the area a bad rap. And tourism is what keeps the local economy going. I’d like to string both of them up by their balls.”
“So why’d they leave the girls then… ah, if nobody saw them together on the trail, then there aren’t any other witnesses who can link them to the crime.” Chip answered his own question.
“That’s about the size of it. Plus Eric’s daddy is a rich man who owns the county sheriff.”
“What’s his name?”
And suddenly the events of the last few days started falling into place for Morton. “Does the name Noah Grafton ring any bells, Roy?”
“Yeah. John’s late brother. Died a year or so ago down in New Mexico under mysterious circumstances.”
Morton snorted. “The government covered it up, because they’d got caught with their pants down and didn’t want to be embarrassed.” He shook his head. “Traitorous bastard kidnapped my boss.” He paused, wondering just how much to tell Bensen. “Look, Roy, what I’ve just told you is classified. I probably shouldn’t have said anything, but I will tell you this - Grafton was killed by his own tame hit man, not the government.” He sighed. “I was a witness to the whole mess. Which may well explain a lot of things about how I wound up hanging in a treetop yesterday.”
Benson was silent for several minutes. When he spoke, he asked, “Do you work for the Feds?”
Morton shook his head. “The Nelson Institute of Marine Research.” He gave Roy a lopsided smile. “I’m a sub jockey by trade.”
Enlightenment lit Bensen’s eyes. “The outfit in California with the big submarine?”
“Yeah. I’m the XO.”
“I have heard things about John’s brother….,” said Roy thoughtfully. “You might really want to avoid the sheriff, then.”
Morton sighed. “What about the girls? They were going to report what happened.”
“Tell them to go to the State Police. Or better yet, get an out of state lawyer to report it for them.”
“Or their Embassy.”
“Yeah, the sheriff couldn’t ignore it then.” Roy grinned. “Maybe we could get rid of the silly fool.”
“But in the meantime, that means I have to lay low. Grafton probably has the local cops looking for me, without telling them the truth about who I really am. Damn!”
“Do the girls have a car?”
“I never asked,” he admitted, “but since they mentioned something about driving down from Missoula, maybe they do.”
“If you can talk them into just driving away from here, that would be your best bet. Get out of the county and find a phone. Start making calls.”
“It’s the getting out of the county part that worries me,” said Morton glumly. “There’s no telling what Grafton had the sheriff tell his deputies. It might endanger the girls.”
“If they figure out the girls have even seen you, they’re in danger anyway,” Roy pointed out, leaving Morton to wonder just how much he really knew about what was going on. On the other hand, he was probably right. John Grafton’s brother had been prepared to commit treason and murder and it looked like those traits might well run in the family.
“I’ll talk with them.” He sighed, wondering just how well they were going to take the news. His ruminations were interrupted by Anna bringing him a bowl of stew, a bleak expression on her face.
“Chip,” she said as she handed him the bowl, “we have been talking to Barbara…”
“She didn’t happen to tell you who the two little slime balls were and who Eric’s father is?”
“Yes.” Anna looked very troubled. “I am thinking Little Anna and I should just take our car and get out of here.”
“For what it’s worth, I think the same thing. And you may as well know - I expect Eric’s father is a behind the reason I wound up having to bail out of a burning plane. His brother tried to kill my boss last year and wound up dead when his own hit man missed. I was a witness to it.”
Anna’s eyes widened. “He will not like us having talked to you.”
“Probably not,” Morton admitted to the girl. “Roy here knows a bit about what’s going on around here - he says our best bet is to get out of the county and then start making phone calls. Me to my boss, you to your country’s Embassy.”
Anna face reflected deep thought before she slowly nodded. “The car is at the trailhead. It has nearly a full tank of gas.”
“Then I’m thinking we need to get there as soon as possible and get gone before those two can get out and alert their old man you got away - and before he figures out I didn’t go down with the plane, if he hasn’t already.”
Anna sighed. “If we had a light, we could walk after dark.”
Morton shook his head. “They’ll be looking for people moving out of pattern. But we could push on this afternoon as far as we can, then get an early start tomorrow.”
“A cold camp?” she asked.
“One night wouldn’t kill us. And I bet Roy would give us some food.”
“Consider it done,” said Roy, getting up to go pack them some supplies.
“What about that one, Jake? Will he cause trouble?”
“He’ll have to make it back to town first. By then we should be long gone.”
“I’ll get Little Anna.”
Morton sighed, thinking how nice it would have been to spend the night in a proper camp, then set to with a will on his bowl of stew. No telling how long it might be to his next warm meal.
Roy returned shortly with the two girls. They’d packed some foodstuff in their knapsacks. Roy had also tucked a windbreaker into Anna‘s backpack..
“As soon as you’re out of sight of this bunch, put the windbreaker on over that jacket. You need to ditch the parachute gear as well.”
“I’ve been using it for a tent,” protested Morton.
“Well, maybe one more night, But if you do, get off the trail and when you break camp, hide everything. Just tell the Rangers you lost your gear in the flooding. Then get out of here. It‘s about three miles to the top of the pass, then nine miles to the campground at the trailhead.”
It all sounded like good advice to him.
The others seemed disturbed when Morton and the girls shouldered their packs and prepared to move out.
“Surely you can’t be thinking of going on,” protested Barbara.
“I’ve already been missing for nearly three days,” he told her. “My boss is going to have everybody from the FBI on looking for me. I’ve got to get to a phone and let him know what’s happened. The girls need to call their families and let them know what’s going on as well. Every mile we make today is one we won’t have to make tomorrow. We appreciate the offer of hospitality, but there are things we need to get done as soon as possible. There‘s still a couple of hours of daylight left, so we can make several miles yet.”
Barbara’s mouth narrowed and she cut her eyes at Roy. “You’re afraid that those two little shits will beat you out of the mountains, aren’t you?”
“Among other things, Barbara, among other things,” replied Morton. She gave him an old look, but didn’t press any further. As the group watched, the trio set off up the trail at a brisk pace, wanting to make as much distance as they could in what was left of the light.
Within half a mile, they had to slow the pace down for Morton; after a mile they had to stop and call a short halt. Morton fretted at the delay, but was forced to admit to himself that he had gotten badly out of shape for this sort of physical exertion. He vowed to start joining Lee on his regular morning runs along the beach. If he ever found himself in a situation like this again, he didn’t want to find himself moving slower than a couple of girls. Maybe that was a male ego thing, but it really did bother him.
After fifteen minutes he was ready to try again. Walking at a slower pace, he managed to hang in there. With just over thirty minutes of daylight left, the three finally crested the trail at the top of the pass. Morton was exhausted.
He also had to admit that the view was magnificent. Wishing he had a camera to record the stunning vista, he stood for a moment to catch his breath, watching as the sun hovered at the edge of the jagged mountains and colors of gold, orange and purple painted the now rapidly darkening evening sky. It was time to camp for the night.
The girls found a sheltered spot off the trail in a grove of aspen. Roy had loaned them a hatchet, so cutting saplings to support the fabric of the parachute was no problem. With Anna’s help, he repeated the trick of the night before, but made the makeshift tent larger, so all three of them could fit into it. Little Anna had gathered firewood while he and Anna had worked on the tent; she had a fire going and used his battered skillet to heat some of the food Roy had given them. The three of them settled around the fire for a strangely silent meal.
He found the girls giving him odd looks across the fire. Apparently they were having second thoughts about something.
“Okay,” he said, “out with it. Something’s bothering you.”
“Well,” admitted Anna, “we really don’t know who you are, so…”
Morton almost laughed. He did smile at them. “Fair enough. Lieutenant Commander Charles Phillip Morton, US Naval Reserve, currently employed by the Nelson Institute of Marine Research as Executive Officer of the submarine Seaview, at your service. My friends call me Chip.” His blue eyes twinkled in the firelight as their jaws fell open. It would appear that they had heard of Seaview.
“No way,” exclaimed Little Anna.
“It’s true, I work for the Nelson Institute of Marine Research in Santa Barbara, California.”
“But the jacket,” protested Anna, “and the parachute.” She glared at him. “You let us think you could fly a plane, that you are a pilot.”
“And I can fly a plane. I even have a commercial license with a jet rating. But my main job at NIMR is aboard Seaview as XO.” As they started to further protest, he held up his hand. “I’ll tell you everything - you need to know just how dangerous this situation really is.”
The two girls looked at each other, then gave him slow nods.
“What I said earlier about Eric’s father’s brother trying to kill my boss was absolutely true. Noah Grafton was involved in a plot that involved treason and murder. My boss, Admiral Harriman Nelson, was given information about it. When he resolved to personally carry that information to Washington, Noah Grafton kidnapped him. I was part of a team from Seaview that went in and rescued the Admiral. In the melee one of Grafton’s men shot him by mistake, killing him. Eric’s father John is Noah’s younger brother. Three days ago I was kidnapped in Santa Barbara. I woke up on a burning airplane with the pilot and another man fighting over a parachute. One of the men who snatched me was already dead on the deck, shot in the head, along with the co-pilot and another man. I managed to get the chute and bail before the plane crashed. The jacket belonged to someone on the plane - I have no idea who any of the people on the plane were and until I found out that John Grafton lived here, I had no idea who might have wanted me kidnapped. It’s possible that Grafton wasn’t involved, that the plane flying here was just a coincidence - but….” He shrugged eloquently.
“Given what Roy told me about Eric, I’d have to say that John Grafton is as immoral as his brother. At the very least he certainly uses his wealth to abuse the justice system to protect his son Eric and his friend Charlie. Did Barbara tell you what has happened to other young European women who fell for their line?”
Both girls nodded unhappily.
“You were lucky,” he told them flatly.
Anna sighed, eyes downcast. “We know that,” she admitted. “But this…”
“If I’d known who was involved, I’d have stayed off the trail and probably never met you. With the bridge out, you’d have had no choice but to turn back. That would have probably saved you from Eric and Charlie. Roy would have warned you off from the sheriff when you encountered his group.” He got up to pace. “I’d rather not have you involved in this. But I don’t think I can get out on my own - and you are involved. If Grafton did have me kidnapped, just the fact that you saw me, talked to me, and can place me here, may be enough to get you killed.”
Both girls sat in stunned silence.
“We have to get out of this county. Otherwise, I doubt that we can call for help without someone here knowing.”
“I have a brother,” said Anna slowly, “but I don’t want him involved. He’ll think he has to come to the rescue. This isn’t like the movies.”
“No,” agreed Morton grimly. “the blood is real and dying permanent. Unless he‘s cop or a navy SEAL, he shouldn‘t get involved.”
“He’s an actor,” said Anna with a small smile of her own. “He lives in Amsterdam.”
Morton rolled his eyes heavenward. “Hopefully we’ll be out of here before he could even get on a plane to come. If I can get a message to my boss, he can have a rescue team here in just a matter of hours. And John Grafton will find himself answering to the FBI.” He could tell that neither of the young women was very pleased with the situation they found themselves in, but then Anna surprised him.
“I suppose it could be worse. And if nothing else, it will be something to tell our children and grandchildren.” She gave him a small smile. “It will be something my brother Rutger hasn’t done, either.” She shook her head. “And to think how wild he was as a boy. He will envy me.”
Well. What could he say to that?
Morning came too soon. At first light, with the girls help, Morton rolled up the parachute and flight jacket, then stuffed them deep into a crevice and covered everything with rocks. In the cool morning the windbreaker Roy had given him wasn’t entirely adequate, but hopefully in a few hours they’d be down the mountain to the car. It was nine miles, but it was pretty much all downhill. He was hopeful that by noon they would be not only to the car, but on the road out of here.
They had saved the trail mix Roy had given them for breakfast. The decision to eat on the move was unanimous.
They had been walking for almost an hour when they began encountering groups of hikers coming up as they made their way down. To each they passed on the news of the flooding the day before and the fate of the bridge. Several individuals made the decision to turn around and head back down with them. By the time they’d reached the halfway mark, they were embedded in a group of nearly a dozen hikers. The trio had decided to stick with the story Roy had devised - that they’d lost much of their gear in the flooding.
Their progress proved to be slower than Morton liked. With each individual or group they met coming up the pass, the news had to be passed on. That meant a short halt each time, so by noon they had only covered a little over half the distance to the trailhead. He was starting to feel the pressure and he could tell the girls were too. But there was safety in numbers, so he made the decision to stick with the expanding horde of hikers that had decided to return to the campground.
It was almost 4:00 that afternoon when they finally reached the trailhead and its attendant campground. That’s when they discovered their next problem.
The car was gone.
The three of them surreptitiously searched through the entire parking lot; Anna still had the keys in her pocket, with the attached tag that had the plate number along with make and color of car, so there was no question of what to look for. After all, a silver ‘76 Trans Am shouldn’t be that hard to spot. The search turned up nothing. The three of them gathered off to one side of the parking lot to confer.
“What does this mean?” asked Anna anxiously, looking frightened.
“It could mean a lot of things. Are you sure you locked the car?” Anna gave an emphatic nod. Morton sighed. “One possibility is that the car was simply broken into and stolen. That would be best for us, but I’m not counting on it.”
“Other possibilities?” asked Little Anna, clearly as upset as her friend.
“That Eric and Charlie had an accomplice who drove your car away to make sure no one knew you were here.” His voice was grim. “They may have decided to up the ante from rape to murder.”
Anna muttered something under her breath in Dutch that didn’t need any translation. If the situation hadn’t been so grim Morton would have smiled; the tall Dutchwoman was starting to get mad. He didn’t think Eric and Charlie had any idea of what a firebrand they’d picked as victim. She’d been scared, but now she was getting tired of it.
A yellow and white VW van pulled up beside them. The young man driving instantly set Morton’s warning instincts off. He could see the girls looking at the pasty faced blond boy with distaste.
“You folks got a problem?” The driver was clearly sweating; at that instant Morton would have bet dollars to donuts that this was the person who’d driven the girls’ car away. Maybe they could turn that to their advantage.
“Yeah, pal. Our wheels seem to be AWOL. We need a ride into town to report them missing.”
Both girls looked at him sharply. He caught Anna’s eye and tried to telepathically convey his thoughts to her. Something must have gotten through because she looked thoughtful for an instant and then gave the briefest of nods.
“Climb in then,” invited the young man. “I’m Randy, by the way.” He didn’t offer to shake. Morton helped the two girls into the back seat and as he did so he slipped the folding knife into Anna’s hand. He could tell by her fleeting expression that she understood; he was placing all three of their lives in her hands.
Once settled the van pulled out of the parking lot and headed down the road towards town. There was a considerable amount of traffic, so Morton felt the driver wouldn’t try anything where there might be potential witnesses. They came to a side road and as he turned the van down it he told them, “This is a shortcut back to town.”
Morton didn’t believe it for one second and neither did the girls. He figured any minute now there’d be some sort of move by the driver.
He was right. The boy suddenly slammed on the brakes and skidded the van to a halt. Morton found himself looking down the barrel of a .22 pistol. The hammer wasn’t cocked, so he felt the danger wasn’t immediate.
“Well, well, the last of the Three Musketeers. I was wondering when you’d show,” said Morton dryly. “You took the car, didn’t you?”
His calm demeanor seemed to rattle the boy. “What did you do to Eric and Charlie?” he demanded, his voice squeaking.
“Nothing,” responded Morton. “Mother Nature took care of them for us. Or didn’t you hear about the flood yesterday?”
“I don’t believe you,” Randy told him as the gun quivered. Not a brave sort, thought Morton, and that makes him dangerous. “They weren’t supposed to have anybody with them. Where did you come from?” He jerked his head at the girls.
“I just fell out of the sky,” was Morton’s dry reply. He heard muffled snorts from both girls, which seemed to unnerve the young man even more.
“It doesn’t matter. You shoulda stayed wherever you came from,” snarled Randy, thumbing back the hammer.
Now or never. Morton grabbed for the boy’s wrist and twisted the gun up. Startled, Randy frantically pulled the trigger, trying to shoot before his intended victim took the gun away from him. The boom of the shot was deafening in the enclosed space of the van, but the bullet missed Morton’s right ear by inches and shattered the passenger side window. The boy never got the chance to pull the trigger a second time, for Anna had flicked open the knife; swarming over the seat she plunged the knife deep into the blond boy’s right shoulder. Screeching in pain and dropping the gun, the boy bolted from the van, blood pouring from the wound. Morton leaped out to pursue, followed by Anna, but Randy started to stagger before he’d so much as reached the trees. He fell face down beside a large conifer, twitching.
Anna and Morton looked at each other. Anna slowly turned pale, then staggered off behind the van to puke up everything she’d eaten. Morton carefully picked his way across the ditch, following Randy’s trail. The boy had gone still by the time he got to him, though he squatted and checked for a pulse. It fluttered briefly under his fingertips, then faded. Judging from the amount of blood, it looked like Anna had severed a major artery. The kid had bled out before he knew what hit him.
Morton stood, looking around in the golden late afternoon light. There were no houses or barns to be seen. Given that Randy had chosen to stop here to shoot him, he didn’t figure there would be. The question now was what to do with the body. If the three of them were to make a clean getaway, they couldn’t afford for Randy to be found just yet. They also needed to find Anna’s rental car. At this point, it was the only thing that firmly connected them to Randy and his two pals.
The grass beside him rustled and Morton turned to find Anna staring down at the body. “He meant to kill you didn’t he.” The tone she said it in made it a statement, not a question.
“If he didn’t hide his face from us, that means he would have killed me and Little Anna too.” He could tell she was trying to come to grips with what had just happened.
“At this point, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. If Eric and Charlie are still alive, I suspect he’d have held you two until they got here and then….” He left the sentence trail off. Anna was intelligent enough to understand what he didn’t say.
Anna’s nostrils flared for a moment. “My Grandmother was in the resistance during the war. She told me she killed an SS officer once. Killed him with a knife.” She paused for a moment. “I never understood before what she meant when she said even though he was evil, how hard it was to do.” Morton reached over and gave her a hug. She leaned into him and shivered.
Little Anna joined them. “Now what?”
“Good question, “ he admitted. “We can’t let him be found just yet. I’m hoping they have a place near here and that we can find your car. The less there is to connect any of us with them, the better.”
“Should we drag him into the woods or take him with us?”
Morton thought about it. “Take him with us for now. That is, if we can find something to wrap him in to keep the blood off the floor of the van, just in case we can‘t find your car and we have to keep it. Let’s go back to the van and see if there’s anything there.”
There was. The sight of what they found brought a grim look to Morton’s face and a hard look to Anna’s eyes. The back of the van contained a large roll of heavy black plastic, gloves, rope, scissors and duct tape. A serial killer’s disposal tool kit.
They found a certain cosmic irony in the thought that Randy was going to be the one disposed of, not any of them.
It was heavy work, getting the body wrapped. In a grim sort of way, they were fortunate Randy had bled out so completely. Between the three of them, They were able to carry the body back to the van and stash it in the back. By now they only had a couple of hours of daylight left and as Morton took the wheel of the van, he wondered how they would ever find the place where Randy had been aiming to take the girls.
“Any ideas, Anna?”
She sighed. “What sort of a place do you think they would have?”
He thought for a moment. “Someplace off the road, with little traffic. Let’s look for small lanes that lead off into the woods.” The girls nodded in agreement, so he put the van in gear to creep slowly down the road. They didn’t want to miss any possibilities.
The first one appeared within a hundred yards. A small darkly shaded lane turned off to their right. He brought the van to a stop and got out to check for tracks; the lane showed signs of recent travel. He hurried back to the van. “This one looks like it could be a possible.” He checked the pistol that he had tucked in his belt. Taking a deep breath, he turned the van down the lane.
The trees met overhead, completely blocking out the sky. It was like driving through a tunnel; at night the darkness would be complete.
“Creepy,” muttered Little Anna from the back seat.
“It certain would fit this bunch’s style,” commented Morton. The girls agreed completely. He kept driving.
The odometer showed they’d now come nearly half a mile into the forest when they rounded a final turn and the lane ended at a small cabin with shuttered windows. The sight that made them all sigh with relief was the silver Trans Am parked under a lean-to attached to a small shed. They had found the right place on the first try. Now they could hopefully leave Randy and his van behind. He pulled the van up to one side of the car.
He expected to find a broken window and the ignition torn out where the car had been hotwired, but everything was intact. He looked in puzzlement at the girls.
“How did he get in and start the car?” The girls were as much at a loss as he was. “Well, we’ll turn it back into the rental company and get something different. If the little bastard somehow had a key made, a different vehicle will solve that problem.” He took Anna’s keys and popped the trunk open. Empty. “Did you have anything in the car?”
“Yes,” Anna told him, “extra clothes. Souvenirs.”
“I guess we need to look in the cabin then.” He didn’t like the idea, because by now Eric and Charlie would have had time to walk out of the valley if they could have gotten across the stream - or been picked up by a search and rescue chopper. He could only hope the two little swine really had drowned. But if Randy had carried the girls’ belongings inside, it was imperative that they recover them.
He took the key ring out of the van’s ignition and looked to find anything that might be a house key. Since the windows were shuttered, he figured the boys didn’t want anybody to be able to casually walk in and find their lair. There were several keys that were possibilities. He walked up on the porch of the cabin, and as Anna held a large flashlight they‘d found in the van as a club, he began trying keys in the lock on the front door.
The fourth key proved to be the one. As the door creaked open under his hand, he couldn’t help a wince. Taking the flashlight from Anna, he shined it around the room. The place was pretty bare; a large arm chair, a small table with a TV on it. One doorway on the opposite side led into another room that appeared to contain a bed; a small kitchen showed beyond the second. He pushed his way in, looking for a light switch. There was one beside the door.
The room didn’t look any better under the light of the single bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. If anything, it looked worse.
“Not big on housekeeping, were they?” muttered Morton to the two girls as they followed him in. He crossed to the bedroom and turned the light on there. A pile of about a dozen duffle bags and suitcases sat on the bed, cascading off onto the floor. No wonder they didn’t want anybody looking in the windows. These couldn’t all belong to the three boys.
“Three of those are ours,” said Anna, pointing at the three nearest bags.
“Get them and make sure all your stuff is in them,” he told the two. They complied, carrying their bags back out into the other room so they’d have room to spread them out. Morton stood looking at the other bags, suddenly glad he’d had the foresight to carry in a clean pair of gloves. Putting them on, he lifted the nearest and opened it, looking for anything that would tell him who the owner was. One of the pockets produced a passport and billfold. He flipped open the passport; the owner was a young Frenchwoman. He got a sudden chill, wondering if the woman was still alive or if Eric and Charlie had already progressed to murder before the two Annas had crossed their paths.
It took the girls ten minutes to check through their bags; in that time he found two more passports, both belonging to young European women. He tucked all three into his pocket. When he got back to the Institute, he’d have Security check on the whereabouts of the owners. On a sudden hunch he went to the dresser that sat against the far wall. In the top drawer he found two more passports and a wad of money - along with the answer to how Randy had gotten into the car. A slim jim and a ring of auto lock master keys lay beside the two passports. He put the two passports in his shirt pocket with the other three and tucked the money into his pants pocket, then carried the slim jim and key ring out to where the girls were zipping their bags back up and getting ready to leave.
“This is how the little bastard got into your car,” he told the girls, showing them his find. Anna comprehended at once and scowled.
“Damned little car thief,” she exclaimed.
“You know, he probably was exactly that. I’d be willing to bet that Eric and Charlie recruited him just for that reason. To help them get rid of evidence.”
“So now what?” asked Little Anna.
“I’m going to see if they have any guns. You two check the kitchen and see if there’s any canned food or stuff we can take with us, just in case.” He reflected that the Trans Am was going to get pretty crowded with all their bags and him.
Putting the key ring and slim jim down on the chair, he returned to the bedroom. Another drawer in the dresser produced a 9mm semiautomatic pistol and a box of ammo, along with a snub nosed .38 revolver. He’d be willing to bet they were both hot, but he wasn’t about to walk out of here unarmed - or leave anything behind for Eric and Charlie to use. There was also a bolt action rifle. He stuck both pistols in his belt and carried the rifle and extra ammo out to the other room.
Sweeping his eyes around the room, he had the feeling he was missing something.
Then it hit him. If Randy had been bringing the girls here, where was he planning on keeping them? None of the rooms he’d seen so far would be suitable for the keeping of captives. There must be another room. But where?
He looked down at the floor. Underneath was certainly a possibility. He cocked his head to one side, studying the layout of the room. As barren as the place was, the brightly colored rug in front of the TV suddenly looked incongruous. He walked over and kicked one corner aside with his toe, revealing the outlines of a trap door.
“Anna,” he called softly, “there’s another room underneath the floor. Come in here and back me up while I check it out.”
Both girls came, looking alarmed. He handed them the guns he’d found in the dresser. Little Anna took hers like she had been handed a snake, but Anna gripped hers with more confidence.
“Just don’t shoot me, okay?” he said to them as he lifted the door, revealing a wooden stairway that led into darkness. Taking the .22 pistol in his right hand and the flashlight in his left, he started cautiously down.
The room below proved to be slightly smaller than the cabin above. He found a light switch at the bottom of the stairs, enabling him to shed more light on the subject.
What he saw chilled him. There was no doubt this room had been prepared to hold captives. The shackles and chains attached to the concrete slab of the floor bore mute testimony to that. At least they were empty. He had to breath a sigh of relief at that. A quick search found nothing that would be of any use to them so he turned out the light and hurried back up the stairs.
“Nothing down there we can use,” he told them as he exited and closed the trap door, recovering it with the rug.
“Was there….” asked Anna with trepidation.
He shook his head. “As far as I could tell, they hadn’t used it for anyone yet.” That wasn’t entirely the truth, but he didn’t want to rattle them any worse than they already were. “ At least there weren’t any obvious signs of it.” Both girls looked vastly relieved.
“Should we put Randy down there?” Little Anna asked.
Morton considered the idea, then shook his head. “As much as the little bastard deserves it, I’d rather not handle the body any more. Let’s leave as little evidence behind as possible.” The girls agreed and gathered up their belongings, while he picked up the key ring, slim jim and ammo.
Back at the car, the girls eyed the pile of stuff they had and then looked at the car dubiously. “Is it all going to fit?” asked Little Anna.
“We’ll make it fit,” Morton told them.
“You’ll have to sit up front,” said Anna. “Why don’t you drive?”
“They stole my driver’s license. If we get stopped it could be a problem.” Anna looked over at the van and arched an eyebrow. He followed her look and responded with a shake of his head and a wry smile. “In that context, I guess you’re right. Not having a license is the least of our problems.”
They stuffed the bags and one of the backpacks into the tiny trunk. Everything else went into the back seat with Little Anna or up front in Anna’s lap. Morton tucked the pistols under his seat and put the ammo under Anna’s. With everyone in place, he mentally crossed his fingers as he started the car. It rumbled to life. Letting out the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, he flashed the girls a smile. Backing the car out of the lean-to, he turned it around to head back down the lane. He gave one last glance at the cabin in the rear view mirror - and swore.
There was a vehicle coming through the trees behind the cabin.
Well, that was the last piece of the puzzle that had been niggling at him - how they had intended to get the two girls out of the park to the cabin. There must be a back road through another pass into the valley beyond. But it meant that now it was a race. He had to get back to the paved road where the sports car would have the advantage over any other type of vehicle. If they got caught on this lane, it would probably mean a shootout. He wasn’t keen on that idea.
Morton sent the Trans Am plunging down the lane as fast as he dared. He would have liked to turn the headlights on to see better; in the late evening shadow of the mountain, the dense canopy of limbs overhead made the lane fairly dark. He saw the vehicle behind come to a stop beside the cabin. With any luck it would take them a few minutes to realize that it wasn’t Randy driving the Trans Am.
The dense forest closed in around them as they made a turn and the view of the cabin vanished. The two girls had turned to watch out the back window, letting him keep his full attention on the lane ahead. He strained to see ahead. At least the road was in fair shape; probably one of the reasons they’d chosen this particular place was so Randy could get the van - and any of their victims’ cars - in and out without too much problem. So much the better for him. He reckoned it had never occurred to the trio that somebody might escape their clutches and that a good road would aid them as well.
The paved road gleamed ahead in the evening light. He charged out onto it and turned left; as much as he would have liked to turn right, he had no idea where the road went. He did know that going back the way they came would lead to the highway. If all else failed they could always go back to the trailhead and try the ranger station - or head into the mountains on foot. Though that was something he preferred to reserve as an absolute last resort.
Light flickered through the trees. Whoever had come out of the woods behind the cabin was now coming down the lane at a fair rate of speed; they had the advantage of knowing the road and being able to turn on their lights. Probably a truck or jeep, thought Morton, something with higher ground clearance than the car. They were on pavement now, though, so the Trans Am had the advantage of both speed and maneuverability. He pressed the accelerator to the floor and watched the needle on the speedometer climb. As they sped around the next curve they lost sight of the vehicle behind.
It gave Morton an idea. It was risky, but it might just work.
Two curves later he figured they’d opened up enough distance to try his idea. He saw a side lane up ahead and stomped on the brake, bringing the car to a squealing stop. The girls looked at him like he was crazy. Shifting into reverse, he backed the car down the lane and killed the engine. Jumping out, he pulled on his gloves and grabbed a tree limb. Pulling it over, he partially shielded the hood of the car. Seeing his plan, Anna joined him on the opposite side and pulled another limb in to cover the other side.
Just in time. They watched as a jeep flash past. In the still bright afternoon light they could easily make out two figures. With a low growl Anna identified the two as Eric and Charlie. He wondered if they’d found Randy’s body in the van or not. If they hadn’t, it was possible they thought their accomplice was simply out for a joyride in the stolen car.
Letting go of the limb, he motioned for Anna to do the same. Climbing back behind the wheel, he sat thoughtfully for a moment. “I wish I had a damned map,” he muttered. There was a small ‘oh’ from the back seat and as he turned to see what the problem was, Little Anna thrust a handful of papers at him. He recognized them as maps. He couldn’t help the sigh. “Better late than never,” he told her as she looked apologetic. Taking the maps from her, he checked to see exactly what he had. One proved to be a fairly detailed local map.
He quickly located their present location and grimaced. His decision to turn back towards the highway was probably correct, for the paved road they were on was a dead end in the opposite direction. There was however, an unpaved road up ahead that cut across to the main highway, coming out in the next community south of Hamilton, a place called Grantsdale. A road led from there east to a state highway that in turn led to Interstate 90 and the city of Butte. He thought about it for a moment. The logical thing to do was head north to Missoula - so he wouldn’t. East was going to be rough country and back roads - not the sort of terrain the Trans Am was suited to. He thought about the wad of cash in his pocket and decided that their best bet was to try and buy another vehicle, something more appropriate to the area. Then they could hide the TA somewhere out of sight. The Institute would probably wind up having to square with the rental agency for the car - he winced at the thought of the yelling that the accountants would do - but if it saved their hides, it would be worth every penny. But first they had to make it to Grantsdale.
“Okay, there’s another turn up here we need to make. Look for a dirt road that leads to the right. That’ll take us to a small town called Grantsdale. According to this, we need to cross US 93 and keep heading east until we hit State Highway 1. It’s probably a good seventy miles or more the way these roads curve and a lot of it’s going to be dirt or gravel.” He glanced down at the gas gauge. “It looks like we’ve still got at least three fourths of a tank of gas, so we should be able to make it without stopping.”
“But why that way?” asked Anna.
He looked back at her. “Because it’s a crazy place to take a car like this. They won’t expect it. And once we get through the pass, we’ll be in another county. With any luck we can get at least that far before they figure it out.”
Both girls sighed, almost in unison. “The rental agency is going to have a fit over the car. I don‘t know if the insurance will cover the damage.”
He shook his head. “Admiral Nelson will cover the cost. What’s happened here isn’t your fault.”
The girls looked dubious, but Anna told him, “Let’s go. Whoever pays for it, I just want out of this place.”
He nodded and started the engine, saying as he did so, “So do I, Anna, so do I.” He carefully crept the car back out onto the pavement, but kept his speed below forty-five miles an hour. After all, they didn’t want to catch up with the jeep.
“Keep a lookout for the road to the right,” he reminded them, “according to the map we shouldn’t be very far from it.”
“There,” sang out Little Anna from the back seat. Morton looked to the right and saw what appeared to be a well maintained gravel road. There was also a lingering dust cloud.
“Great,” he muttered. “It looks like they turned this way.” With deep misgiving, he wheeled the Trans Am onto the road. If the map was accurate, it was about five miles to US 93 and Grantsdale. The question though, was how far ahead Eric and company were.
Not far enough it turned out. For some reason the jeep was pulled over to the side of the road just around a bend. Morton and the girls were even with the jeep before they ever saw it. From the reactions of the two in the jeep, it appeared they hadn’t found Randy, for there was shock on their faces at the realization of just who was in the car.
Morton stomped the accelerator down as far as he dared; the car left a churning cloud of dust in it’s wake. He could see the jeep bounding back onto the road and come charging after them.
The crack of a bullet striking the back windshield startled all of them into ducking; Little Anna shrieked as she was showered with glass. Anna screamed something in Dutch and leaned over. At first Morton thought she’d been hit, but then he realized she was grabbing for a gun. He had his hands full trying to keep the car straight and couldn’t stop her. Even as he shouted “No!” she raised the pistol - it was the nine millimeter a part of his mind recognized - and pulled the trigger at least a half dozen times. The headlights in the dust behind then suddenly swerved and Morton saw them flip madly off the road, then roll down into the trees along the creek that ran down the north side of the road. He braked the car to a stop. Shaking his head, he knew they had to go back, to see how much more trouble they were going to be in, if nothing else.
He backed the car up until he was even with the broken jeep. He could see that it had landed upside down in the water. Taking the .38, he headed down the bank. His first find was one of the two boys. Or rather, what was left of him. The way the body was wrapped around the tree, it was pretty clear he’d been thrown from the jeep. Morton checked for a pulse, but the boy was definitely dead. From the description he’d been given, this was Charlie. He moved on, sweeping the terrain. He found no one else until he got to the bank of the stream. He could see that one person was still pinned in the wreckage.
He sighed. It looked like he was going to get his feet wet after all. Rolling up his pants legs, he waded in.
The body pinned facedown in the water proved to be Eric’s.
“Chip?” The call came from Anna, standing on the bank with Little Anna at her side.
“You shouldn’t have come down here, girls,” he said to them.
“We had to,” said Anna, her Dutch accent finally showing with the strain. “We needed to make sure those two wouldn’t do to anybody else what they were going to do to us.”
Morton glanced again at Eric. The way he was pinned under the jeep, it was likely he’d been killed instantly. “Eric’s dead too, Anna.”
“Good,” was all she had to say. Morton reached into the jeep and turned off the headlights. With darkness only a few hours away, it could mean that the jeep wouldn’t be found until morning. They would need all the head start they could get.
Morton clambered back up the bank and got back into the car. Pulling back out onto the road they headed east. In spite of his earlier words, he decided they probably ought to stop and top off the car’s gas tank at the first gas station they found. If there was a payphone available, it would give them cover while he called the Institute to let the Admiral know what had happened and where he was.
It was a matter of less than ten minutes to Grantsdale. They slipped across the main highway and pulled into a small gas station and topped the tank while he discretely searched for a payphone. Spotting one at the end of the building, Morton casually strode over to it while the girls went inside to pay for the gas and use the restroom. Lifting the receiver, he put in his change, expecting a dial tone.
Nothing. The line was dead. Looking puzzled, he hung the phone back up and returned to the car. When they’d returned to the car, he told the girls of their misfortune. The three of them shrugged, puzzled, but decided it was just bad luck and pulled out, again heading east.
The first fifteen miles of the road they were on was paved, so they made good time despite the fact that the road twisted like a worm with a belly ache. It was also starting to rise. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic, for the higher they went into the mountains, the narrower the road became. Their speed dropped accordingly, until they were creeping along at thirty miles an hour. Morton kept the car as close to the center of the road as he dared; the drop off on his left was straight down into a rock strewn mountain stream, while the right side towered out of sight above their heads. He found himself reminded of the Coast Highway in Big Sur and prayed for there to not be any rock falls while they were crawling along.
They were slightly over an hour’s drive from Grantsdale when the road flattened for a short distance and he realized that the stream had vanished. He slowed even further. The sun was starting to set for real now and the sky was rapidly darkening to the east, though the nearly full moon had risen almost an hour earlier.
He thought this might be the pass shown on their map. “Skalkaho Pass,” he told the girls. “We’re about fifteen miles from county 472 and we just passed into Granite County.” There were sighs of relief from both.
The hours seemed to stretch forever as the car crept through the mountainous terrain and the two hours turned into three. By now the moon was riding high in the clear night sky. As the road approached the interstate, signs of human habitation became more prevalent, Finally the brightly lit sign announcing a gas station came into view. Morton looked all around. Not a police car in sight. Taking a deep breath, he pulled the car straight up in front of the pumps. Killing the engine, he got out and began the task of filling the tank. It didn’t take long. He headed inside to pay the attendant and while he was at it, he grabbed up a six pack of Cokes and a bag full of snacks. Breakfast had been scant and far too long ago.
Climbing back behind the wheel, he handed his bounty around. The girls attacked the package of cookies like a pair of hungry wolves; he laughed and in the rear view mirror saw Anna stick her tongue out at him. He looked around for the phone. Like before, it was set at the end of the building, so he pulled the car away from the pump and parked it next to the phone. Stepping back out, he gathered up his fortitude and walked to the phone. Lifting the receiver and putting in his change, he dialed 0 for the operator.
And got absolutely nothing. Again.
The clerk stuck his head out the door. “Phone’s been out since this afternoon, mister. Even the store phone isn’t working. Sorry.” Having delivered his disastrous news, the man then ducked back inside.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that he had witnesses, Chip Morton would have beat his head against the brick wall out of sheer frustration.
Instead he put the receiver back and walked back to the truck. The girls were looking at him curiously when he got in and leaned over to rest his forehead on the steering wheel.
“What’s wrong?” asked Anna worriedly.
Morton raised his head. “This phone,” he told them tightly, “is also dead. I‘m beginning to think it‘s not a coincidence.”
The girls looked at him in shock. “Can they do such a thing?” asked Anna.
“Probably not legally,” he told them, “But Grafton has a lot of money - and there’s no telling what sort of lies he’s told either the police or the phone company. We’re going to have to get away from this area - and somehow get another vehicle to drive. Sooner or later they’ll put it together and be looking for this car. If they haven’t already. It depends on just how much and who else knew about what those three little bastards were up to.”
“So where do we go now?” asked Little Anna.
Morton pulled out the map. Shaking his head he said, “We’re twenty miles from Missoula and in still another county. But if the phones are out this far from where we started, there’s no telling how far we’ll have to go to find a working payphone.” He considered for a moment. “My first instinct was to head west and try to get into Idaho, but the routes are limited and I bet they’ll be watching for me. Where were you two headed after here?”
“South,” said Anna, “We wanted to go down to Arizona and New Mexico and see Indians.”
“Did you tell anybody that?”
The two girls looked at each other and shrugged. “We asked several people in about the best places to go.”
Morton drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “And you flew into Missoula? From where?”
“Denver. Does it matter?”
“I’m trying to think of a direction and course of action they won’t expect. Other than just finding a place here and staying put. But that’s risky.”
Both girls shuddered. The idea of staying was obviously repugnant to them .
“Well, east might be our best bet. Since there doesn’t seem to be any pursuit yet, we can probably get on I 90 for a while.” He looked again at the map. “It’s one hundred eighty miles to Bozeman. We can do that in three hours.”
“Are you not tired?” asked Little Anna.
He shrugged, “I’ve gone for thirty hours at a stretch on the boat. Not that I like to. And I’ll have to drink a lot of caffeine. But the farther we get, the better our chances.”
They reluctantly nodded and Morton set the car back into motion. The entrance onto the Interstate went without a hitch and soon they were humming through the night at sixty miles an hour, just over the speed limit, but not enough to stir most troopers into pursuit.
The miles clicked away and the landscape around them began to lose some of it’s ruggedness. Exhaustion claimed the girls after the first few miles. Just outside Bozeman Morton found another all night gas station and topped up again: He woke Anna up and sent her inside to pay for the gas while he took a quick bathroom break and checked the payphone. This one was also dead, which while infuriating, wasn’t a big surprise. Anna returned with a thermos of hot coffee. While it wasn’t up to Cookie’s standards, it was still sweet nectar. However, since Anna had had some sleep, Morton decided to turn the driving over to her for a few hours while he tried to sleep.
They keep to the Interstate. After all, it was only 3:00 AM - they still had hours till daylight and they had yet to even spot a police car.
As they ran generally eastward through the night, the full moon provided ample illumination to see the landscape around them. It was losing even more of it’s ruggedness as they proceeded eastward, becoming dryer in character. Anna and Little Anna talked softly while Morton snored in the passenger’s seat.
The first glimmerings of dawn found them ten miles from Billings. The eastern horizon was starting to take on a faint hint of rose as the moon slid below the horizon behind them. Traffic was still thin; on Sunday mornings those who could slept in.
Flashing red lights abruptly appeared in the rear view mirror. Anna reached over and shook Morton awake.
“What do we do,” asked Anna worriedly.
“Stop. You’ve got your license and passport, don’t you?”
“Well, there’s at least a chance they aren’t looking for either of you. But if you run, they’ll give chase and it’s all over.”
The girls looked unhappy, but agreed. Anna pulled the Trans Am to the side of the road.
The state trooper got out of his car and approached warily. Morton knew what had triggered his interest; when Eric and Charlie had shot at them, they’d blown a large hole in the back windshield. That was enough to make any cop at least a little suspicious.
There was something about the cop though, that seemed oddly familiar. As he drew closer, Morton suddenly realized he knew the man.
Years before, Morton had been a lowly junior lieutenant on a diesel electric sub named Blueback doing special ops duty off the coast of Viet Nam. She had been snorkeling her way out from the coast after taking in a Special Ops team. At that shallow depth, her radio mast was above water as well as her snorkel. They’d picked up a Mayday from a medical helicopter that was ferrying casualties out to a hospital ship; they were the only vessel close enough to help, only a mile or so from the dying chopper. The captain had popped the sub to the surface and called the pilot of the chopper, who’d turned to try and make it as close to them as he could. Blueback’s crew had watched in horror as the chopper had gone down less than a hundred feet from them. They’d thrown out everything they could for the men in the chopper grab hold of - rafts, ropes, life vests. Lieutenant Morton and a half dozen others had dived over the side to try and help get those still trapped in the sinking chopper get out. Two of those men trapped had been the pilots. Somehow in the confusion, Morton had managed to get both of them free. They had been the last survivors to make it out.
One of the pilots had been named Wayne Hardin, but his crewmates had pinned the handle Gunslinger on him for two reasons: because he was from Montana and he was distantly related to the gunfighter John Wesley Hardin of Old West fame.
As the cop reached the driver’s side of the car, Morton found himself speaking the name out loud. “Gunslinger, it’s been a while.”
The trooper came to a dead stop, trying to see into the car. Morton opened the door so the dome light came on, lighting up the interior.
Sudden recognition flared in Trooper Hardin’s eyes. “Lieutenant Morton,” he said with a wry smile.
“Lieutenant commander, Reserves now, Wayne. Call me Chip.”
Hardin cocked his head to one side as he studied Morton. “You look considerably worse for the wear, Lieutenant Commander.”
Morton internally sighed; having Hardin call him by his rank instead of his name might well be a sign that Grafton had indeed fed the local police a lie - and gotten them to believe it.
“Well, if you’d been kidnapped, had to bail out of a burning airplane in the middle of the night and landed in a hundred foot tall tree, then climbed down and hiked for two days, I expect you’d look a little rough too.” Morton let a hint of exasperation creep into his tone.
“So what do you do for a living now that anybody would go to that much trouble?” Morton was certain now Hardin had been told something that wasn’t squaring with what the former pilot knew from the their past encounter and was fishing for answers.
“I work for the Nelson Institute for Marine Research these days. I’m XO of the Seaview.”
Hardin eyes widened as he whistled. “You’ve come up in the world from the old Blueback then. Who’s the prime suspect?”
To Morton’s surprise Hardin gave a slow nod. “He’s looking for you. There‘s an APB out for you, though it‘s under a different name. Claims you murdered several of his employees.”
Morton snorted. “That he’s looking for me I have no doubt. But the shootout that got his people killed happened before I ever woke up on the plane. I don’t have a clue as to how started it or why. But I can tell you this - when Admiral Nelson finds out what he’s done, there won’t be a place on this planet he can hide. The Admiral will destroy him financially, politically and socially - and then make sure they throw him under the jail for the rest of his life.”
Hardin looked at the two girls. “How did you two get involved?”
“Chip rescued us from two boys who were going to kill us. One of them was named Eric Grafton.” Anna’s tone was deadly serious and her Dutch accent strong with her stress. “They had another boy steal our car, but after Chip got us out of the woods, we found it and got it back with Chip’s help.”
“Where are you from?” asked Hardin. There was another emotion on the trooper’s face Morton couldn’t quite identify.
“The Netherlands. My friend and I came over to see the American West.” Her voice cracked for a moment. “It was a horrible experience.”
Morton spoke up, “And they aren’t the first are they, Wayne? Been several foreign tourists - especially young women - go missing around Hamilton, haven’t there?”
Hardin’s head swiveled and his eyes grew cold. “What would you know about it?” he asked quietly.
In answer, Morton pulled the passports out of his pocket. “When we found the cabin where Eric and his buddies had been planning on taking the girls - and found the car - I found these in a dresser drawer inside.” He handed the passports to the officer.
Hardin took them and looked carefully at each one. His face grew longer with each name he read.
“Wayne,” asked Morton softly, “are any of these girls still alive? Did any of them ever make it home?”
The look in the trooper’s eyes was a somber negative. Anna and her friend both burst into tears; Anna wrapped herself around Morton’s neck and bawled unashamedly on his shoulder, babbling in Dutch.
The trooper sighed as he tucked the passports into his own pocket. “Grafton’s kid. Great. It makes all too much sense, but getting an arrest warrant is gonna be a bitch.”
Something flickered in Morton’s eyes, stopping Hardin cold.
“And did you happen to do anything to the little bastards, Lt. Commander?”
“I did,” answered Anna in a quavering voice. “When they were chasing us and shooting….and when the back windshield blew out…I…I shot back.” She burst into tears.
Hardin’s eyebrows climbed nearly to his hairline. He looked at Morton skeptically. “She did?”
Morton shrugged and nodded. “I was driving at that point.”
“So she shot them?” Hardin sounded dubious.
Morton shook his head. “Shot at them. I think when the bullet hit their windshield, the one driving panicked and lost control of the jeep. I went back and looked, Ronnie. The one called Charlie had been thrown out into the trunk of a tree. Eric was under the jeep in the creek. They were both dead. As far as I could tell neither of them had been hit.”
“You mentioned a third boy. The one who stole the car?”
Anna wailed and wrapped herself tighter around Morton’s neck. He managed to pry her loose enough to answer, “He’s how we found the car. When we came out into the parking lot at the campground, I guess he recognized the girls, because he offered us a ride into town. We got about halfway there when he turned onto a side road and pulled a gun on me.” He shrugged and glanced at Anna.
She sniffed and said in a low voice, “When Randy pulled the gun on Chip, I stabbed him with a knife in the shoulder. He got out and ran. I really didn’t think I’d cut him very much, but he just suddenly dropped…” She trailed off unhappily.
Trooper Hardin’s eyebrows notched higher.
“She hit an artery. When the little idiot took off like he did, he just pumped himself dry,” finished Morton. “He was dead before I could do a thing.”
Shaking his head, Hardin commented, “Well, I supposed you’ve saved the State of Montana and the county in question a lot of money on trying the sorry little shits in court, but it would have been nice to get one of them alive and find out where the bodies are.”
“I’d be willing to bet they’re somewhere close to that cabin the three of them were using. And when you see the basement…” Morton looked grim enough that Hardin just sighed. “Speaking of which, when we left, we took all the guns we could find from the cabin as well. Two pistols and a rifle. I‘d be happy if you took them off our hands and then put in a call to Admiral Nelson. We,” he added grimly as he stepped out of the car and carried the rifle around to the driver’s side of the car and handed it to Hardin, “haven‘t been able to find a working payphone anywhere between here and Hamilton.”
The startled look on the trooper’s face settled into a scowl as he took the rifle and box of ammo. “Huh. I can just guess who arranged that.” He glanced down at the rifle and whistled in surprise. “A Ruger 77 with 300 Winchester Mag rounds? Damn. What were they hunting - grizzly bears?”
Morton shrugged. “People, more likely. But on the phones, if money could arrange it, Grafton certainly has the resources.”
Hardin looked thoughtful. “I called in your tag before I stopped you. Do you know whether or not Grafton connects the three of you together?”
The heavy whop of a helicopter coming over the top of a hill to the west was his answer.
“Damn,” swore Morton as he lunged away from the car, “that’s the chopper they were hunting me with in the park! And the bastards have automatic weapons! Girls, get out of the car - you can’t outrun that damn thing in it!”
Morton bolted for the trees on the far side of the Interstate just as someone in the chopper opened fire. He heard the smack of lead hitting steel and glass. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Trooper Hardin’s patrol car disintegrate as both girls and the trooper ran for the nearer tree line on the south. He swore furiously; the chopper had come almost to a stop and was hovering out of range of the Trooper Hardin’s pistol while the automatic rifle chewed the two vehicles into scrap.
Once the two cars had been reduced to immobile rubble, the gun swung towards the trees on the side Morton had chosen. He ducked behind the largest tree trunk he could find and hunkered down.
The bark splintered around him as the bullets shredded the tree he’d taken refuge behind. They must have gotten IR goggles, was his frantic thought, because there wasn’t enough light for them to have found him in the dense grove. As the gunfire halted for a brief moment, Morton dashed for an outcropping of rock. The gun started it’s staccato bark before he’d gone more than a few steps. The heavy burn of a bullet lit his left side on fire, sending him sprawling. He frantically rolled for the shelter of another tree. There was another pause as the shooter reloaded - and the sudden crack of a rifle from the other side of the road.
The chopper abruptly rose and retreated as a second bullet smacked into the windscreen, leaving a fist sized hole but missing the pilot, who had ducked. It was obvious to Morton that Hardin had hung on the rifle - and that it’s range matched that of the weapons on the attacking helicopter. Unfortunately, the trooper only had the one box of rounds. If he couldn’t knock the chopper down before he ran out of ammunition, the four of them would be dead shortly thereafter.
As the chopper pivoted to give the shooter a clear field of fire to the side of the road where Hardin had gone to ground, the automatic rifle opened up again. Morton swore again; both the pistols he’d taken from the cabin were still under the front seat of the Trans Am. Not that he’d have been able to hit anything with any accuracy at this distance. The chopper had retreated to at least three hundred yards away. On the other hand, at that range accuracy with an automatic rifle also became problematic. The question was, was there any way could he turn that to his advantage?
As he frantically searched for a plan, he became aware of another sound penetrating the night sky. Morton perked up his ears in disbelief. It couldn’t be. He listened more closely and a grin lit his face. It was what he thought it was, for there was only one craft on the planet that made that particular sound. The Flying Sub. Somehow, someway, the Admiral and Lee had found him.
Someone on the chopper must have heard or seen the Flying Sub coming as well, for the craft suddenly pitched its nose down and headed straight towards Morton, hugging the tops of the trees. He realized with dismay they were going to strafe his location one last time as they fled.
The rifle barked one more time from across the highway. In their hurry to flee, the men on the chopper had apparently decided to disregard Trooper Hardin’s rifle; it proved their undoing. Hardin’s last shot hit the tail rotor, shattering it. With only feet between the helicopter and the trees, disaster was almost instantaneous.
Unfortunately for Morton the first tree it collided with was the one he taken shelter behind.
As debris and fire began raining down around him, he surged to his feet and bolted for the open ground of the Interstate. He’d just made it to the edge of the forest when a thunderous whump sounded at his heels; he found himself swept off his feet and propelled through the air by a blast wave. His last conscious thought as he found himself descending towards the pavement was that the chopper must have had been carrying explosives - and that his landing was going to really, really hurt.
Wakefulness came slowly. As his aches and pains made themselves known, he wasn’t sure that consciousness was such a good idea. As he sorted out the sensations, he realized he was face down on a paved surface; his left arm was twisted at an awkward angle and his back felt flayed. He wasn’t sure which hurt worse. His groan was answered by a familiar voice.
“You, know, Chip, if you wanted a vacation that bad, all you had to do was ask for some time off.”
Morton pried his eyes open to find the concerned face of his friend and captain kneeling beside him, motioning to someone out of sight. As Crane rose and stepped back, the equally familiar face of Seaview’s CMO took the captain’s place.
“What happened?” Morton asked groggily, wondering why he was lying in the middle of the road.
“Don’t you remember?” asked Dr. Jamieson, bringing his pen light up to shine it in Morton’s eyes.
Morton thought for a moment. “There was a crash,” he said hesitantly. “A plane… no.. a helicopter.” He scrunched his eyes shut; his head pounded like he’d been hit by a truck….
Not a truck. Memories began to slowly float back. There‘d been two girls with him. “Are… the girls…. okay?”
“They’re both fine,” rumbled a voice from beyond the doctor, “as is Trooper Hardin. They‘re on the other side of the road waiting for an ambulance to take them to the hospital to be checked out.” Admiral Nelson leaned over into his view.
Morton‘s memories continued to solidify. “Admiral…John Grafton…. was behind this.” Morton tried to roll over, but Jamison put a hand on his shoulder and firmly held him down.
“I know that, lad,” Nelson told him gruffly. “The FBI is raiding his house and places of business even as we speak, rounding up his employees, along with anybody else known to be on his payroll.”
“Does anybody,” asked Morton, “know… what he thought…. he was doing?”
“I suspect,” Nelson told him, “that Grafton wanted to take up where his brother Noah had left off - and he wanted revenge on me.”
Morton would have shaken his head, but the pain from his arm and back were starting to blur his vision. The wail of several sirens in the distance announced the arrival of local fire and rescue, the cops and ambulances.
For once, Morton thought, I’ll be glad to see the inside of a hospital. He closed his eyes and let oblivion creep in, blotting out the pain.
When consciousness came again, it was cocooned in a light fog of painkillers. Morton found that he was still on his stomach, lying in a special bed. A frisson of panic ran down his spine as he wondered just how badly he was hurt. His grunt conveyed that fear as he tried to lift his head to see what had been done to him.
“Take it easy, Chip,” came the familiar voice of Will Jamieson at his elbow, “we’ve got you face down because you took some splinters in your back and you’ve got some burns. Northing serious,” the doctor hastened to add, “but you’ll heal a lot faster if you keep any pressure off your back. And your left arm is broken in two places.”
Morton sighed with relief and let himself relax. “How long have I been out, Jamie?”
“About six hours.”
Given the circumstances, it could have been far worse. “How long do I have to stay like this?”
“At least a week. And that‘s if you‘re on your best behavior and heal without any complications.”
“Jamie..” Morton began, only to find himself cut off by another familiar voice.
“I can make that an order, Mr. Morton,” drawled the rich voice belonging to Admiral Nelson. Morton was able to slightly turn his head to see his employer coming into the room, flanked by a tall, square jawed man in a suit that fairly shouted FBI. He couldn’t help the second sigh that escaped as he wondered how much trouble he was going to be in - despite the fact that none of what happened had really been his fault.
Nelson seemed to read his mind, for he continued, “Miss Hauer and her friend have been quite helpful to the FBI and Agent Saunders here. Enough evidence has been gathered to clear you of any wrongdoing.”
Well, that was a relief. “What about Grafton?” asked Morton. “Have you been able to prove he was behind it? And what about Eric and the missing women?”
Agent Saunders frowned at him, but a look from Nelson prompted the man to answer reluctantly, “We had a tip from a local informant on the case of the missing women; we were already looking for the killers - and had just found the cabin when we became aware that you had crossed their path and rescued two of their intended victims and somehow managed to kill all three of them. It seems the little perverts liked to record their … activities. Which will make it much easier to find where their private burial ground is.” The man gave Morton an unhappy look. “It would have been nice if one of them had survived to tell us where…” A glare from Nelson prompted him to drop the subject.
Morton closed his eyes from a pang of guilt, silent. He knew the feeling was irrational, that the other young women had been dead long before he ever knew Eric Grafton even existed, but he couldn’t help it. It was sorrow he’d forever carry that he hadn’t been able to save the others as well.
Saunders looked slightly rebellious as he continued. “The families are in the process of being notified; most of them will probably come here to Billings before we take them on to Hamilton.” He paused, flicking a glance at Dr. Jamieson before continuing. “Several of them have expressed a desire to thank you.”
Puzzlement wrinkled Morton’s forehead. “Thank me? For what?”
“For at least letting them find their children, so they could take them home,” responded Nelson. “Otherwise they might have never known what happened to them. As bad as it is, lad, at least now they can stop searching and wondering.”
He supposed there was that small comfort. Another thought occurred to him. “Are Anna and Little Anna in any kind of legal trouble over this?” Nelson had already said he wasn’t, but what about the girls?
“I doubt it,” promptly responded Saunders. “From what we’ve seen so far, there’s more than enough evidence to show they certainly acted in self defense. Since the Sheriff of Ravalli County and the bulk of his deputies were on Grafton’s payroll, the fact that none of you turned yourself into them won’t be held against any of you. In fact, I suspect Washington will be fairly pleased things turned out the way they did in that case - with Grafton dead he can’t use his fortune to either flee the country or try to buy his way out of justice.”
“Grafton’s dead? How?” Astonishment colored Morton’s voice.
Nelson and Agent Saunders shared a brief look. “Did you ever get a look at the occupants of the helicopter?” asked the agent.
“No,” Morton told him. “They stood off out of pistol range to shoot at us, at least until the Flying Sub arrived. I was under the trees when they came overhead and Hardin shot the damned thing down.”
“Ah.” Agent Saunders rubbed his nose thoughtfully. “It appears that Grafton was aboard the chopper. It’ll take dental records to tell for sure since the chopper was carrying several cases of dynamite, but that’s the preliminary indication.”
Translated, thought Morton wryly to himself, if he really is dead, it means the government is spared the embarrassment of a trial that would expose corruption in high place to the world. He caught Nelson’s eye; he could tell the other was thinking the same thing.
“Enough for now,” said Jamieson, moving back into Morton’s field of view.
Morton had one more question though. “How did you guys know where we were?”
It was Saunders who answered. “Our informant in the murder case also mentioned seeing you with the two Dutch girls and gave us their names. As soon as he told us that, we informed Admiral Nelson and he and the FBI team from Santa Barbara headed this way. So when Trooper Hardin radioed in the tag on the car, we picked it up too. Unfortunately so did Grafton - and he was closer than we were. Ironic that Hardin shot the chopper down with Grafton’s own rifle. The trooper said he’d met you before when he was in the Navy, so as soon as he recognized who you really were, he realized that Grafton’s charges didn’t make much sense. You’re an uncommonly lucky man, Commander. Somebody out there must like you.”
Morton could only shrug, though even that produced twinges of pain. With the last tidbit of information, he had a feeling he knew who the informant was; he was grateful Roy’d been able to call in the cavalry, so to speak, for the two young women he had been able to rescue. And perhaps the agent was right - after all, he would live to go home to Seaview. The only place John Grafton was going would be into a box six feet under - and in pieces from the sound of things. From that perspective, he guessed he was indeed a lucky man.
Chip Morton sat on a cushioned chair on the deck of the Admiral’s beach house and tried to find a comfortable position. It wasn’t easy. While his wounds were healing well, his back - and butt - were still tender, so sitting for very long wasn’t yet an option.
He hoped Admiral Nelson would arrive soon with the FBI agent - not Saunders, unfortunately - for what would hopefully be his last debriefing.
Sounds of people coming through the house reached his ears and he sighed in relief. Finally. It was only a moment before Nelson opened the door onto the deck and stepped out, joined by Lee Crane and NIMR’s Chief of Security, Lyon Adams. Morton peered curiously at the empty door behind them as they seated themselves at the table with him; there was no sign of the FBI agent who’d been such a thorn in his side for the last two weeks. He looked a question at the admiral. It had been his understanding that this meeting was a debriefing session, so the presence of only Lee and Adams had him puzzled.
Nelson correctly interpreted his look and got down to business. “Chip, the FBI is refocusing it’s investigation into John Grafton’s dealings. It’s become very clear that he had you kidnapped as the opening move in a plot to discredit the Institute in order to take revenge against me for what happened to his brother Noah. As a result, Agent Samuels has been reassigned - and your part in this is pretty much over.” The Admiral paused for a moment to let the news sink in.
Morton’s relief was palpable. Samuels had been, in his humble opinion, an idiot. “So now what happens, Admiral?”
“For you, nothing except getting well. You may have to appear as a witness in court, but it looks like most of the survivors who were involved in that little plot to grab you were so shocked by Grafton’s ruthless extermination of the rest that they’ve almost all agreed to turn state’s evidence.”
“Ahhhh. Is that what the business on the airplane was all about?” Morton had never been able to come up with an explanation for what had happened aboard the jet. Samuels, on the other hand, seemed convinced that Morton knew more than he was telling - and that he could have found some other way to save himself besides pitching the pilot and other man out the cabin door at ten thousand feet.
“So it would seem. Grafton didn’t want any lose ends that might lead back to him, but his plan started coming apart when his hired thugs refused to die quietly as planned.” The Admiral’s tone was dry; Morton had to stifle a chuckle. Nelson continued. “It also appears that John was much more deeply involved in his brother’s treason than the government’s previous investigation showed - and that the plot was far wider in scope than anyone had realized. However, since it’s now confirmed that Grafton was in fact killed in the crash of the helicopter, several people he had been blackmailing have come forward with information. I suppose since the FBI managed to get their hands on Grafton’s files, they figure it’ll look better if they come clean voluntarily.”
Adams leaned forward. “We’ve caught the individuals who were giving him information from the Institute.” He looked grim. “We’re redoing all of our security protocols - anything they got won’t do them - or anybody else - any good.”
Crane added to his comment. “There was only one man in the crew that Grafton was able to get to. Petty officer Mendez. Turns out he’s an illegal immigrant who was brought here as an infant by his parents. Until Grafton came along, he didn’t even know he was an illegal. His parents never told him. They‘d gotten forged papers that held up pretty well until now.”
“What’s going to happen to him then?” asked Morton.
Nelson sighed. “He went to Lee as soon as you were grabbed and confessed to being blackmailed, but he didn‘t know by whom. Given that - and what he knows about Seaview - and the fact that he has been a top hand - I’ve persuaded the Feds to grant him asylum until we can figure out a permanent solution. I thought I’d leave it up to you to decide if you can still work with the man on the boat.”
Morton thought about it, considering all the other lives John Grafton had destroyed, starting with his own son, Eric. Mendez was a plank owner - he’d fit in well and worked really hard. Perhaps a second chance might be in order, given the circumstances. “I kinda hate to let Grafton win anything, so if Mendez is willing, I’m game. We‘ll take it one day at a time.”
It was, after all, definitely not the sort of thing Grafton have done.