Down in the Weeds - A Dafydd Owen story.
My kitchen table was awash with notes, printout and assorted electronics, three laptops rising above them like islands in the sea of information. Sarah, Jason and I were going over the latest data we had acquired.
“So, what’s first?” I asked. Jason was the one to reply.
“I downloaded everything from the hare’s phone. One contact listed with calls to or from it at least daily. Denver area code. I made a wrong number call to it, proxying through a cell tower in Alaska and traced the recipient. That was connected through a cell tower in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I was able to identify General James Hillerman. His records are sketchy at best, large gaps where you can’t find out anything about where he was or what he was doing.”
“A bit like mine, then.”
“Yeah, and I guess for the same reason. Thing is, I could find no reason for him to be anywhere near North Dakota. He’s supposedly retired and moved from New York to Denver a little while ago. After that, though, no info. He dug a hole and pulled it in after him.”
“So another arrow pointing at Colorado and one at North Dakota. Did you dispose of our guests phones after downloading whatever you could?”
“Yep. Their guns and phones are in the river. And we’ve got one more arrow pointing at North Dakota too.” Jason held up the latest SD card, that I’d retrieved from the warehouse.
“Yeah, this one was a fun puzzle to crack. At first sight it looked blank, unformatted even. Looking a little more closely the data on it wasn’t all nulls so it had been used before. I went digging at the raw data and it looked like it had been securely erased. You know how those programs work, they overwrite the entire drive repeatedly with either random numbers or repeating bit patterns. I found the latter, a repeating bit pattern, but there were two things that were a little odd about it.”
He had my attention. Jason was way more of a geek than I was but stuff like security and crypto I knew pretty well.
“Those two things were?”
“First its length. Hundred and sixty eight bits. As you know these things are usually a power of two long. Secondly it contained a null byte - that’s very unusual for a repeating pattern used in a security erase. Here it is.” Jason passed me a post-it note and I looked down at it.
“So, I presume you poked at that some more?”
“Yep. Didn’t take much. The fact that the final byte is the null and that all the others are less than 7F immediately made me think it was actually a text string. It is.” Jason passed me another post-it.
“That’s a point on Grand Forks Air Force Base, to enough of an accuracy to only put a fourteen-yard radius error circle around it.” I was already pulling up the map on my laptop as Jason continued. “It’s in one of those blocks where publicly available overheads are censored, so I don’t know exactly what’s in there.”
“I do. It’s a decommissioned missile field, well away from the base proper.” (Author’s Note: It’s not actually a lat/long in one of the classified blocks, it’s where you’ll get to if you put GFAFB into a gmap search, in a parking lot in the middle of the sports facility)
I needed time to think. I stretched and got up to pour myself another cup of coffee. “Anyone else want a refill?” After a few sips of coffee I looked around the table and frowned. “I’m not in any great hurry to follow this up. If the next crumb on this trail is in the middle of an active Air Force base, in an old missile field no less, getting in to pick it up will be next to impossible. The folks guarding that place all have their sense of humor surgically removed when they enlist.”
“I’m not too happy about it either.” Sarah was frowning too. “If we’re crossing the lines of a government operation here we could be getting into all sorts of trouble. This next step on the trail seems to have ‘TRAP’ written all over it in big red letters.”
“I don’t like it. If this trail was left by the moose, we could well have come to the end of it. Maybe this message is what we were supposed to find.”
“I don’t think so, Dafydd. If it was it would be better to have just left it as the first message. There’s something important out there and, trap or not, the next piece of the puzzle is on that base. Can you think of a more secure place to hide anything?”
“No. Moving on then… Our next steps. I think I should contact our client and see if our target had any contact with the military. If that is a dead end, I think I need to take a big step and open a dialog with our mysterious general. Anyone got any other ideas?”
“Option three, Boss. Drop the case and return the client's retainer.”
“I’ve only done that three times in my career, Jason, and I don’t think we’re over the line to make this one number four yet. I’ll admit we’re getting a little close though.”
“Mr. Owen, I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon. Have you found anything?”
“Yes, Mrs. Daniels, we have. Unfortunately it seems to have raised rather more questions than it answers. Can you tell me if your husband ever worked for any branch of the military?”
“Well, unless you count providing services to children of military families - particularly when a family member was lost in combat or in a training accident - I’m certain the answer is no.”
“Any government agency at all?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“Has he ever had any business in North Dakota?”
“To the best of my knowledge, since we’ve been together he’s never set a hoof in the state.”
“Ok, we’ll keep digging then. How are your sons doing?”
“Ralph is doing very well indeed, although he and his mate have just discovered they are expecting twins. Paul, on the other hand, I’m starting to wonder if I placed him in the right place to help him. He hasn’t had any episodes since the one I told you about, to my eye he seems to be making progress and yet they still have him on the locked down wing under constant surveillance. I’m sure that’s hindering his recovery but my voice doesn’t hold anything like the weight with these people that Arnold’s would.”
I kept my muzzle shut about the probability that Arnold was the reason he was there in the first place.
“I’m truly sorry you have to deal with this, Mrs. Daniels. If there’s any way we can take the weight of at least one worry off your shoulders and answer your questions about Arnold’s disappearance we will.”
“Thank you, Mr. Owen. I’m sure.. I’m sorry, I have another call coming in. I’m going to have to go.”
“Not a problem, Mrs. Daniels. We’ve covered everything I needed to talk to you about. You have a good evening. Goodbye.”
“Dafydd Owen, General Hillerman. We need to talk.”
“I’ve no idea who you are so what do we need to talk about?”
“Don’t bullshit me, General. As for what to talk about, how about the two very competent mercs I’ve got stashed in a secure location that you had trailing one of my employees? Or about a certain moose that I’ve been hired to find?”
“Not over the phone.”
“One would almost think you had something to hide, General, or that you’re not as retired as the dossier I have on you would indicate. Where do you want to meet?”
“How about in your city, Harriet Island Pavilion at 4pm. Tomorrow.”
“How about somewhere close to there but a little more discreet. Make it 6pm at Mancini’s on 7th street. Tell the host you're my guest and they will bring you to me. Dinner is on me.”
“I’ll accept your hospitality, this time, I think.”
“I look forward to it, General. You have my word that this will be kept purely professional.”
“If you intended otherwise you wouldn’t have picked that location or been identifiable as my host. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Yeah, right. I was damn sure the general was already burning up the phone lines arranging some overwatch. No problem. Mine would be in place before his would. Hopefully neither of us would need it but we’d both be fools not to arrange it.
Mancini’s had been in operation since ‘68 and it had just the ambience I liked. The kind of place where Don Corleone wouldn’t have felt out of place discussing “business” over dinner. The staff were friendly but discreet, the chef phenomenal and the tables were laid out in a way that made keeping your business private easy. Michael, a middle aged raccoon, was the maitre d’ and an old client of mine - on the lawyer side of the business not as a PI. I’d successfully defended his son on a bullshit charge he collected from being in the wrong place at the wrong time when some gang shit went down in Frogtown. All it took was a 2 minute phone call and my usual table was reserved at 5, with the wait staff alerted to the fact that I’d only be ordering drinks until 6, when my guest was expected to arrive and not to bother me overmuch just sitting there. He never asked for any grease but I’d slip Michael a few portraits of president Grant to spread around to ease the pinch of having a table idle for an hour. Margins on even a successful place like this were thin enough and the staff dependent enough on tips that I’d feel guilty doing otherwise.
They were about as busy as usual that evening, When I had arrived Michael had quietly slipped me the list I wanted, of all reservations between 5pm and 7pm that had been made since my call to the general. I kept a subtle eye on those tables and sure enough at about 5:45 a couple showed up that caught my eye. They acted like a couple on date, but their body language was off, they weren’t intimate enough - more like they were there to discuss business the same way I was. I’d bet she usually wore her hair up, not down around her shoulders like that, he sported a buzz-cut and his entire bearing said “soldier” to me. I spoke quietly, not loud enough for any other guests to hear me.
“Last couple to arrive. Not really a couple and probably military. Table seventeen.” Through the tiny earbud I was wearing - small enough for most furs not to notice - I heard a reply.
“Got them. Their car is an airport rental, parked two streets away. There will be a tracker on it within two minutes.”
There was no need for me to reply.
Promptly at 6 a broad-shouldered rottweiler in an expensive suit walked in and went straight to Michael, who immediately started walking him towards my table. As they approached I stood and stuck out my paw.
“General. Good to see you and welcome to Saint Paul.” He reached out and shook my paw, without replying and I gestured him towards the table. “Please, have a seat.” Michael paused before moving away.
“Audrey will be with you in a moment to take your drinks orders, gentlemen.”
“Thank you, Michael.” Two seconds later we were both easing into our seats and as alone as we were going to get.
“Before we begin, some ground rules. I’m sure you’re wired for sound and that’s ok, because so am I. Nothing’s going to pop here unless you start it because this is one of my favorite restaurants and I don’t believe in shitting on my own doorstep. If you do start it, however, neither you nor the couple at table seventeen will be walking out of here. If you’ve got any nasty plans, call them off now so that we can relax and enjoy a good meal.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled at me. The smile didn’t quite reach his eyes but I guessed that was just his usual habit, it seemed genuine enough and my nose wasn’t picking up any indicators of stress from him.
“I think I’m starting to like you, Mr. Owen.” He glanced over at the couple I’d been watching as he continued, not for my benefit but for whoever was listening from elsewhere. “Andy, Gabrielle, stand down. You’ve been made, probably from the moment you walked in here. Relax and enjoy the evening, I don’t think your services will be required tonight.” Both furs at table seventeen threw us a look, the general looking back at me as he continued. “I’m sorry, Mr. Owen, I took you at your word that this was going to be free of any unpleasantness but I never go anywhere without some coverage.” He broke off as Audrey stepped up to our table to take our drinks orders. Mine was my usual Bombay Sapphire and tonic, his was Bourbon, straight up. I raised a finger and caught Audrey’s attention after the general ordered.
“If I may presume, I’d suggest the Eagle Rare for my guest.” Audrey and I both looked at him. “It’s one of the finest I’ve ever tasted, I think you’ll appreciate it.” He nodded and Audrey left, freeing us to continue our conversation. “I said it would be kept professional, and to walk in here without coverage wouldn’t have been, for either of us. I apologize for inconveniencing you and your team with my call yesterday, but either we discuss this like gentlemen or things could go sideways on us both.”
“I appreciate your candor, Mr. Owen.”
“Jim. My problem is that your target is involved in something I can’t discuss and you’re not the only ones looking for him. I really can’t afford for him to be found right now, there are those out there that wouldn’t hesitate to remove him if they knew where he was.”
“Then you have a problem, Jim. There’s a carefully laid breadcrumb trail. Not the work of a professional but somebody with at least a little experience on the edge of covert operations. Like whoever did it learned his tradecraft from what he was ordered to do rather than it being a matter of actual training. I’ve swept up the ones I found but there could easily be others and who’s to know whether or not I’m actually in the lead on this scavenger hunt?”
“Shitfire. I wondered how you were getting so close so fast. Who are you actually working for, Dafydd?”
“His wife. She’s going spare dealing with the shitpile he stirred up and so far she has no idea just how thoroughly he stirred it so she wants him found, wants answers.”
Our drinks arrived and we spent a few moments savoring them, the rottweilers eyebrows raising in appreciation as he sampled the Bourbon I’d suggested. After a couple of sips he broke the silence.
“How much does she know?”
“That he’s involved with something ugly, no details.”
“You know more than that, though, don’t you?”
“Look. How much you already know will determine how much I can tell you.”
“And, at the same time, allow you to know everything about my operations and the data I already have without revealing anything about yours. Let’s order while you think about it. This place does some of the most phenomenal steaks in the metro.”
Dinner was very pleasant and, by mutual consent, we didn’t talk further business. We made “old soldier” smalltalk. As I’d suspected, Jim was a veteran of some very black missions, about which he revealed nothing. I could sympathize and it was clear we had drawn pretty much the same conclusions about each other. We swapped stories of how folks we served with managed to screw up spectacularly or pull the most amazing pranks on each other, which we - as officers - only saw the aftermath of. It was only over coffee and cognac once we were done that he brought it back to business.
“I’ve an idea how this could work. We take it in turns, one picks a subject and the other gives one piece of information on that subject or admits to having no info on it. It has to be honest, it has to be substantive. However, it can be ANY piece of information on the subject relevant to the reason we’re sitting here.”
“I like that. I’ll even let you name the first subject.”
“Arnold Daniels was working on that. At least one of his kids was one of his lab rats. Factions.”
“There are two that I know of. Daniels worked with one and was pulled out by the other. Locations.”
“Other than Colorado, which doesn’t count because I know we both know it, North Dakota. Specifically a decommissioned missile field. Official status.”
“You will find no trace of any of this in any government agencies records. Intentions.”
“I will fulfil my contract with my client. I think we’re done with the game. As for no records, even the blackest of black ops leaves a trail somewhere. Just ask Nixon. I thought you guys were insane to elect a weasel.”
“I don’t think I should admit to harboring any such species prejudice.”
“I have enough right now to fulfil my contract, if I was prepared to leave things at face value - I could go to my client and say ‘Mrs. Daniels, I’m sorry to have to say this but your husband was involved in some very dark stuff. He was participating in a program of experimentation on troubled kids, planting suggestions in their mind and conditioning them to be the perfect covert operatives, spies or assassins with no knowledge of their mission until they are presented with a specific visual cue that activates their conditioning.’ I could even speculate that Paul’s actions towards Zoe were part of that program, that he had triggered them with a visual cue, maybe even ask if Ralphs luggage from the cruise had been fully unpacked yet or if the one psychotic outburst Paul experienced was triggered by something he saw? Tell her that he’s under lockdown in a secure government facility and that I can’t get to him.”
“So why don’t you?”
“Because that would just lead to a dead moose. Raquel wouldn’t order it, I wouldn’t do it but Arnold Daniels would be a dead moose walking. And I don’t believe it is that simple. Hell, If I did I’d shoot him myself and tell Raquel that I didn’t get there in time to save him so she can have some closure.”
“Really? I wouldn’t be averse to hearing more about how you feel walking away with that would wreck things that way.”
“Sorry, Jim. You didn’t pay to see those cards and they aren’t in my hand anyway. Call it a bit of enlightened speculation. Doesn’t matter anyway, you know she’d go public about the ‘secure government facility’ bit and that would start to let light into your black operation, wouldn’t it?”
“Not so much. We could arrange for her to join him before any such announcement could be made.”
“Trust me, that would only make matters worse, even if you took me completely out of the picture. I’m not threatening to blow the lid off myself because if too much has to happen in terms of overt action I won’t need to. There are such things as secure drops and they may have instructions to communicate if I’m not around to tell them otherwise.”
The rottweiler reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small radio, he pulled the wires to the earpiece and mic, turned it off and laid it on the table.
“Do the same with yours please.”
I pulled out my comm pack, switched it off and set it beside his.
“Ok, Now what?”
“I can’t tell you what you’ll find in Grand Forks, but I can get you onto the base with clearance to roam around the missile field. You’ll have credentials as a NATO inspector verifying compliance with the START treaty. Full access to everything on the base. These things happen without any notice to the base command.”
“Myself and my aide.”
“And your side of the deal?”
“Tell me everything you find out - BEFORE you talk to Mrs Daniels.”
“What about those mercs I’ve got stashed? If I let them go are they or their buddies going to be sniffing after me or mine?”
“No. Their contract is over. Thank you for keeping them alive.”
“Well, one of them is less than intact, but he received expert medical attention and won’t miss his pinkie toe once it’s all healed up.”
“They knew they were messing with somebody inclined to play for keeps when they took the job. Doesn’t change anything I’ve said.”
“I think we have a deal.” I raised my paw and Audrey hurried over to us. “Another cognac for my guest, please. I’m afraid I have to leave but his tab is still open. When he decides to close it out send the bill to my office?”
“Of course, Mr. Owen.”
After she left, I looked over at the canine in the opposite seat. “You need to give it at least fifteen minutes before you leave. It would be a good move to have those credentials in my office before the bill for tonight’s dinner gets there. Your mercs will be on a flight to wherever they want within 48 hours.”
to be continued...