Down in the Weeds - A Dafydd Owen story
As I looked around the room I reflected on just what the fuck I was doing here. Here I was, 9 floors below a supposedly abandoned ICBM field, sitting across a table from the guy I’d been hired to find, who was guilty of at least three quarters of what I had suspected him of doing. If I told his wife any of it, though, not only would he be totally blown and the kind of serious operators he had got himself mixed up with would stuff the toothpaste back in the tube by making a few folks disappear but even assuming she or the rest of his family survived the “cleanup effort” she’d probably gladly pay me to invoke the “til death us do part” clause of their marriage vows and in all honesty I probably wouldn’t lose much sleep over taking that one and following through. The sick fucker had experimented on his own kids, was now swept up in what looked like a seriously black project being run by a lot of guys with too many stars in their insignia than I liked. It had always been my experience that the more flag officers were involved, the crappier the assignment and the Army general officers involved in this particular piece of filth seemed to be trying to outdo the Navy flags responsible for my cynicism.
All I knew at this point was that I wanted out of this shit, but in order to accomplish that I needed some way to get there with an answer for my client and a reason not to just give in to my instincts and go on a fucking rampage down here. On the one hand I was betting that the door behind me was now locked and likely the elevator was locked off, the room was certainly bugged and probably wired for video too and if I’d been setting this thing up I’d probably have arranged to have some means to introduce a variety of unpleasant substances into the air if it should be needed as well. Of course on the other hand, they clearly wanted this guy alive and there was nothing they could pump in here that would put me down fast enough to stop me killing him if I really went for it - not that wouldn’t kill him too anyway - so gas was likely an outside chance. I’d no actual weapons other than those nature gave me, but I did have the two lengths of primacord concealed in my belt and the means to detonate ‘em hidden elsewhere about my person. Provided they didn’t hit the place with something fast-acting and effective via skin absorption I could probably blow one door or the other in time to escape this room at least. Once I was out of the box the game would change some. It would still be ugly, though. All in all I was really hoping that the moose across the table from me could come up with a reason for me to not start breaking things and hurting people. However, I was running out of patience.
“Dr. Daniels, Arnold.” I paused, watching him fret. “You need to give me something to work with here. Something that isn’t going to get your family ‘disappeared’, including the twin grandkids you got on the way but that’s going to satisfy them and make ‘em stop looking. Racquel hired me, she could just as easily hire somebody else and there’s at least three packs of wolves on your ass already and an info bomb ticking to blow the lid off all this shit if I don’t walk out of here relatively soon.” Fuck it. Patience level zero.
“Talk to me, you bastard. You experimented on your own sons, you’ve dropped one of them so far down the shitter that he’d have to look up with a fucking telescope to see the next asshole about to dump on him. Other than the bloody sniper up top aiming at my wife, give me another reason not to just accept that we’re all gonna die sometime and rip your sick fucking throat out, letting the chips fall wherever they may but making DAMN sure that when we knock on Hell’s door we’ll find you waiting for us just inside.”
I was breathing shallowly, predator tunnel-vision completely locked on him and I was dimly aware of a snarl on my muzzle and my claws digging into the table top. I hung onto my control by a thread, the threat to Sarah not helping, aware that if I let go of that thread really bad things were going to start happening. I really hoped that either he or his handlers would start talking soon and that he would stop fidgeting. Every muscle twitch made it harder for me to hold back.
“None of this is where it was supposed to go Mr. Owen,” the moose man said barely above a whisper.
Somewhere in the room an old speaker crackled to life, “tread carefully Dr. Daniels,” a deep gruff voice said without a hint of emotion to interfere with the tone of the threat the next words implied. “The man across from you at this moment is the predominant threat to yourself, your safety and your family. Perhaps you should give him enough to meet his… request, and strap a lid on this mess before it gets further out of paw.”
“I understand,” Arnold replied simply, finally looking the older man fully in the eyes. “Before you judge me too harshly Mr. Owen, I only ask for the chance to clear up a few things. Yes I experimented on my own sons, though for far different reasons than may be apparent..”
“Make them apparent, Dr Daniels. In a way that I can believe and then lie to your wife in a way she can believe.”
“None of our children were as perfect or normal at birth as they appeared to be. I have the distinct feeling Mr. Owen that you are well aware of the possible problems caused by heritage or as some call them inherited traits?” the moose man asked, continuing before an answer could be offered. “Each of them exhibited differing degrees of these traits around the age of four.”
“Doc, you are looking at my body language, you are seeing the look in my eye and my subconscious responses. I have no doubt you’re good at what you do and you know exactly what is sitting across this table from you. That’s why your own responses have the tremors in your muscles and the gut-level feeling to either run or charge me and stomp me into the ground. Which I promise you isn’t going to happen either way. Run or charge, you’re dead. And you know it. That’s why you’re talking.”
“Indeed, just as my current ‘handlers’,” he said throwing air quotes for emphasis, “thought it better to try to contain my wife’s fears and meddling than to take other action is the reason you are here with me now.”
“Arnold, she’s fucking frantic. She’s got one kid off in the wind on the East coast, one in a reasonably good situation but with impending fatherhood about to complicate his life, and another in a locked psych facility where they are doing more to deepen his problems than treat them. That last in particular should bug you because you created those problems in the first place! And without you she can’t get him out of that hole.”
“Not entirely true,” a voice spoke up from the speaker behind the men. “It won’t be as simple as signing him out and walking him out the door, but she can extricate the boy.”
“I was just getting to that Colonel,” the moose man piped up.
“All I’m saying is it doesn’t look that way to her right now. That’s what's dictating her reactions.”
“I suspected as much, Mr. Owen.”
“Well tell me if you suspected this. I’m no psych but I’ve seen a LOT of folks in crisis, if you take my meaning. If I went back to her and told her everything I’ve seen and heard, I swear she’d hire me or someone else to kill you. You’ve started to convince me that this might not be exactly justified, but whatever I tell her has to hold together no matter how hard it gets pressed.”
“Then the solution is not nearly as complicated as you may think,” Arnold said as he slowly pulled open a small drawer in the desk. “Take this, study it or have someone more versed in shrink talk do it and tell her what’s in it.’ Tossing a plain manila file folder on the desk he continued. “It’s what I can reasonably give you on Paul and his issues. The boy inherited a highly elevated fight or flight trait. What started as simple childish pranks to garner attention rapidly developed into his actions resulting in physical harm to himself and others.”
“Christ on a bike I know how that one goes…” Didn’t I ever. The man was describing my own life, growing up fighting to control my predatory instincts, with my first response to any perceived threat being to want to kill it and the speed and instinctive reactions to make that quite possible even as a cub. After my mother passed my dad had a hard enough time handling one kid with a semi-feral alter ego always staring over his shoulder. If he hadn’t introduced me to the martial arts club I’d probably have been staring at a cell as a lifer by now. Amazing how different twins can be. They had the same genetic factors, and what he told me totally explained how Ralph had behaved when he was suddenly confronted with a family to protect. I was wondering why Paul hadn’t gone the same way when he seemed to read my mind and answered the question.
“The biggest problem, however, Mr. Owen is that he did not develop empathy towards others, most notably towards his victims. Without that portion of a moral compass I can’t begin to imagine just how far those actions would have gone.”
“Sounds like he’s destined to be a perfect sociopathic CEO”
I leaned back in my chair, the moose’s frank admissions going a long way to calm me down. But there was one more little niggle I couldn’t explain from this.
“Ok. You were trying to push him into being forced to discover that empathy. It’s obvious that’s what he needs and from what I have heard he’s started down that road.. But it leaves one question. There was a trigger item left on the cruise wasn’t there? Something to push him over the edge and go extreme. Make his brother, the one person he does have some empathy towards, turn against him and shock him into seeing that hole in himself. How did you do it? Visual-subconscious conditioning? Given the goals you’ve stated I find it hard to believe you’d go so far as to trigger what he actually did. Aside from anything else, causing what happened to Zoe makes no sense given your long career healing kids that have experienced something similar or worse.”
“That brings me to exactly where we are now Mr. Owen. Yes there was a visual trigger and I provided it myself. What I was not aware of at the time is that six years of conditioning my son, programming him if you like, had been tampered with by the people that were backing the research that went into the methods. I’m still at a loss as to how they accomplished it, but they… rewrote his objective. The trigger should have had him do nothing more than make a pass as his brothers girlfriend in Ralph’s presence. Not…. Nothing even remotely near what he did.”
“You were working with folks that insisted. Now you’re hiding out from them. I guess because they don’t exactly have the best motives in mind for the use of this technique in future? Doc, I’ve spent my entire life hunting down folks that believe the means justify the end, no matter how many other folks it completely fucks over. You spent some years working for them, even though you didn’t know it.”
I turned my head to where the disembodied voice had issued from.
“Ok, It’s obvious Dr Daniels here isn’t the boss in this thing. How’s this sound? I use what Arnold here gave me to make a convincing case to his wife that he was involved in some classified research he couldn’t even talk to her about. Some foreign agency found out about it and that explains the way his entire house was wired like a fucking pinball machine. When you guys - and I won't presume to name you but I’m going to call you a “rather obscure government agency” found out about that, you relocated him to somewhere obscure to protect his family. Does that sound about right?”
“That would be acceptable Mr. Owen, but there is still the matter of her concern for her youngest. That could be enough to keep any mother hunting him, even more so with Mrs. Daniels.”
“As I said, I was about to address that,” Arnold spoke up again. “Mr. Owen, how ever you think it best to do so pass this on to her as well if you think it will help. She is the one that committed Paul to that place. She is the one that can get him out. It will likely take legal action to do it, but she can get him free of that place. A… ‘friend’, we’ll call him, has informed me that my daughter and the group she is with have already been quietly looking into it. But for her own peace of mind if she tries to she can get the boy released for time with his family over the holidays, it’s the one loophole in their state charter of operations because they are a youth facility operating in the state of Colorado.”
“Seems it’s the best I can do for everybody in this mess. It gets her off the ‘search for Arnold’ thing, explains some weirdness she already knows about and leaves her so completely in the dark about what’s really going on that nobody will think she’s got real information that they might want. As for the Tennyson center, there’s something hinky about that place. I haven’t looked in any detail and without her say-so I won’t, but there’s something doesn’t feel right. They are treating Paul differently to most other kids there. If she asks me to I’ll blow the place up and get him out that way.”
I smiled across at the moose. For the first time since I walked into this room it wasn't a threat.
“You're in some pretty deep shit yourself, Arnold. Let's see what I can do to honor my contract with your wife and see that it doesn’t get any worse.”
“I thank you for that Mr. Owen. Although the results were not what I was hoping for due to the tampering of fools. My youngest son will in time be a far better person than he might have been, once he can be freed from where he is.”
‘Next time we meet, if you see me, it’s Dafydd. If you don’t you won’t be talking.” Lifting my muzzle to the wall again I continued. “I think we’re done here. Probably about time for me to retrace my steps and get the fuck out of your hair, right?”
“Correct, though I would suggest a more direct route on your way out. The area has been cleared and the reconnaissance flights are temporarily suspended for maintenance of equipment, you have roughly thirty minutes to clear the area with little more than overwatch dogging your steps,” the disembodied voice said flatly.
“If I let them see us, I’m losing my touch. We’ll be gone in fifteen from the time I hit the surface, so make it twenty from… mark.”
I turned and sprinted for the door, which thankfully opened for me.
Sarah and I were back in our assigned quarters 18 minutes later.
I spent the first couple of hours the next morning putting together a perfectly boring standard format NATO report, confirming that according to all the currently operative strategic arms treaties the missile field was “fully deactivated” - making no mention of how some part of it had been apparently repurposed. That wasn’t within the remit of the orders that got me onto the base in the first place and I suspected keeping my yap shut about it was somewhat important in getting me off it.
Having properly transmitted that report and handed a copy to the base adjutant, Sarah and I were heading off the base by lunchtime. There was a diner we’d passed on the way up here, just outside Grand Forks itself, which I suspected would serve something a little more appetizing than we’d find on the base. I wasn’t disappointed. I left my phone turned off so we wouldn’t be bothered and we made good time heading home, the exit ramp from I94 that took us into our neighborhood showing up just over five hours later.
I knew I’d have to call General Hillerman and probably meet him again, but I wanted to sleep on it first.
As I walked into the coffee shop, I spotted the big rottweiler sitting in a corner booth. He’d suggested a Starbucks but I’d firmly vetoed that. I hated their coffee. Instead I’d pointed him to a local place, out of the way on Randolph Avenue next to I35E. I’d been there a few times but wasn’t so much of a regular that either he or I would attract notice. I just sauntered up to him like an old friend.
“Can I get you a refill, Jim?”
“Thanks, Dafydd, that would be great. I’m drinking the special.”
I stepped over and checked the specials board. Today’s special was lattes made with their Sumatran blend and sounded good to me too. A minute later I was walking back to the corner booth with one in each paw. As I slid into the the booth, he began speaking quietly.
“I’m pushed for time, unfortunately, so we’ll have to make this quick.”
“I understand.” I passed an envelope across the table. “Here’s a full report but I’ll give you the abridged version. Yes he was experimenting with ways to condition responses outside a kids normal response profile. Yes his sons were part of that. No he had no idea what the people backing the work were planning on using it for and the only reasons his kids were involved at all were for the therapeutic purposes that he thought were behind the whole project. The people backing it are very bad news indeed and they tampered with his protocols.”
I paused for us both to take a sip of what was really excellent coffee.
“Here I have a gap in my information. I don’t know whether it was the revelation of that tampering by events on their recent cruise that turned him, whether he was playing a double game all along or whether he was contacted by his current handlers at some point along the way but I’d lean towards the last option. This bunch is as black as your own team and things seem to be so thoroughly compartmentalized that I’m betting you have less than full information on why you’ve been tasked with keeping him and his family safe. The folks that have him now knew I was coming of course. That was a risk I took in talking to you. They had me made from the moment I stepped on the base and the fact that the base CO didn’t say anything in private but bought my cover hook, line and sinker, without demur suggests that he is unaware of a black project operating on his turf. I kept it that way by not saying anything myself and by carrying out my cover assignment to the best of my ability.”
He just nodded.
“After a chat with the good doctor, under controlled circumstances, I have agreed to shade the facts a little for his wife, to preserve everyone’s safety. The cover story is that he was involved in secret research, that some foreign agency found out about his involvement and that a government agency has him at a secure location. That he will only be able to return to his family or communicate after the mess is tidied up.He also gave me some personal info to pass along to his wife which will go a long way towards making the rest of the report more acceptable, as will the perfectly truthful information that I find it hard to imagine a safer location or a more thorough set of security arrangements.”
Again, he nodded, then looked up at me from across the table, visibly relaxing.
“That will work.”
“I do have two final points, though. First, I need you to make sure that your people leave me alone. From this point on I’m going to be assuming that any surveillance on me is from the bad guys. I don’t want to waste one of your guys by mistake. I know you’ve probably got some coverage on the entire Daniels clan that’s discreet enough that they have no idea that their protectors are even there. That’s not an issue but I may need to inconvenience them slightly in order to remain covert myself. However if there’s coverage on me my methods of discouraging them may be a little emphatic.”
“Done. And your second point?”
“There may be a player in this that neither of us knows about. Somebody anonymously directed me to the second breadcrumb in the trail, the one that set up doctor Daniels in a worse light than he deserved at the start of my investigation. If it was the bad guys we know about, maybe trying to set me up to kill him, they were hotter on his trail than it looked and it’s certain they also have coverage on the Daniels family. It sure wasn’t one of yours because if your team knew about those breadcrumbs they would have swept them up. Which leaves possibility number three, there may be somebody else at the other end of a long piece of string tugging on things.”
“Duly noted. Since you’re already better informed than anyone else we’d bring in, would it be possible to use your unique skills ourselves in the future should we need to?”
“Not in anything that pertains to this matter, I’m afraid. My primary client in this case is Mrs. Daniels and by extension her family and their associates. I won’t be placed in the position where I may have to decide between the interests of two clients on a single case.”
“Understood, but I had to ask.”
Sarah appeared a little preoccupied over dinner that night. Once we were settled down afterwards I just looked over at her and raised an eyebrow.
“Dafydd, your trip down to Colorado looks like it’s going to have to be a solo run. Alan needs me to drive out for a few days as social grease and moral support.”
“Apparently having such a star role at our wedding got to him. He’s really serious about a girl he met down there and he proposed last week. She said yes. Only problem is that they have been keeping the relationship a bit quiet around her family, most of them are rather anti-military. My brother needs me around to bail him out of trouble just like when we were kids.”
“Not a problem. Take whichever vehicle you want and a couple of weeks. I’ll take the bike, make a few days of it, maybe have a little scout around on the way back for any good locations to set up ‘operation Haven’”.
They’d switched vehicles and changed clothes since this morning, the woman had dark hair instead of the dusty blonde she’d been the last time I’d seen her but they got upwind of me at the rest stop. The vixen was still wearing the same perfume, and the bison guy could use a better brand of deodorant because his scent was clear enough I bet she’d been insisting on driving with the windows open. That was all I needed to take a second closer look and realize I’d picked up a tail beyond my natural one. I’m no stranger to being followed, of course, but if I didn’t do something about it these folks were going to irritate me. Aside from everything else I had no way of knowing which of the shadow players in this mess they were working for so I’d have to either shake them or discourage them before too much longer. Likely they knew where I was going, at least in general terms, so if I shook them off I’d just get picked up closer to my destination by these or a different team. I’d already started making plans for defeating any surveillance on the Daniels family and fortunately that would also take care of anyone who was on me at the time. I suppose I could have simply ignored them and factored them into my plans but I really wasn’t in the mood.
With that in mind I kept an eye on the road signs and soon found what I was looking for. ‘Scenic overlook’ in a half mile. Perfect. I took the exit and parked the bike in the small lot at its end, walking up to the wooden railing and apparently just admiring the view, but from a spot where I could also keep the lot and my bike in view.
What made this so perfect was that here I was at a dead end off a freeway. Anywhere else, a smart surveillance team would just pick me up again as I left, but they couldn’t wait me out on the freeway without attracting attention from the State Troopers, The next rest stop wasn’t for thirty miles and there were at least two exits before then, the first of which was a freeway interchange, so they couldn’t sit there either. The only way they wouldn’t lose me was to do exactly what they did, follow me up to the overlook and act like a tourist couple trusting that I hadn’t made them.
Just as I hoped, they figured that just sitting in the car on the lot would make me suspicious and sauntered up to the rail a few feet away from me. I gave them my best sincere lawyers smile.
“Pretty isn’t it?” It was the bison who answered.
“Yeah, we like to stop off at places like these on a road trip.”
“Where you headed?”
“Denver, eventually, We might meander a bit on the way though.”
Time to set the hook.
“If by ‘meander’ you mean taking the time to switch vehicles, clothes and in the case of your pretty companion, wigs so that I don’t pick up on the fact you’re following me, I suppose you could say that… No, please don’t do anything rash. I’ve already got my paw on a weapon I wouldn’t need to take you both down and I can see where both of yours are. Let’s keep it that way so I don’t get nervous, huh?” I watched both their shoulders slump a little before the vixen spoke for the first time.
“Sorry, guys. I don’t know who you’re working for, and I don’t particularly care but unfortunately because I don’t know that is precisely why I can’t permit you to keep doing it. How much did they tell you about me before handing you this particular shit sandwich of a job?”
“Not much, that you were a PI poking his muzzle into something and that we were to tail you, try and overhear what you said in any meetings..”
“I’m afraid it isn’t going to happen. Being watched annoys me so you might want to ask around the lowlives in my home town or maybe talk to a certain mob boss in Russia about what happens to people who cross me.You two are blown, so I doubt I’ll see you again, but the next tail I pick up or any other kind of surveillance I spot, gets wasted. No further warnings.”
“That’s a pretty bold statement from somebody who doesn’t know who they are dealing with.”
“True, but if you had recognized the patch on my jacket you’d know I’m neither bluffing nor in any doubt about my ability to make good on it. Either of you ever been in the military?”
“Then you really were dropped in it by your boss. I’m telling you this because like me you’re professionals trying to do a job and I’d really rather not go to the trouble of making your bodies and vehicle vanish. Do us all a favor and convince your boss to drop it. If he’s interested in the case I’ve been working the last few weeks he can stop being. I’m dropping it and taking some vacation time while I’m at it.”
“Well, we’ll pass the word along, but you understand we can’t make any deals.”
“That’s ok, I wasn’t offering one. Give me a good five minutes to pull out of here and your families will have no reason to grieve. And I’ll need your phones. Don’t make me have to take them or let your paws be holding anything else when you hand them over.” I twitched back my jacket so they could clearly see my paw on my holstered weapon.
They handed over their phones and I pulled the batteries and SIM cards before treating each phone to some “percussive maintenance” with a rock.
“Do keep your paws on that railing until I’m gone so this can stay professional and not personal..”
As I hit the exit from the parking lot, a glance over my shoulder showed them leaning on the railing just like a couple of tourists. It’s always easier to deal with professionals instead of amateurs.
Leaning on the bar at the dive diner I’d found in a rather seedy Denver suburb I picked at my food while tapping on my phone. Most of the furs in the place looked pretty average for a neighborhood like this, the odd drug dealer, pimp or whore sprinkled through the mix. The rest were just your average Joe or Jane that couldn’t afford to live in a more upscale neighborhood but were more likely than not good people anyway. I’d checked my GPS, we were outside the boundaries of Denver County by a good few miles so it was legal to go openly armed and nobody was going to hassle me, not so long as I carried my SIG openly on one hip and my knife on the other. With five knives in each paw I needed neither, but it they weren’t exactly a visible threat, so I guaranteed my solitude by equipping the hardware. The reactions of the clientele here pretty much guaranteed any watchers on me would be blown in seconds. They’d be warily watched by the locals just like I was, and there’s no way I wouldn’t spot that. My eyes picked up movement in my peripheral vision at about the same time as my ears snapped around to the sound of high heels walking up to the stool next to me.
I gotta admit for a junkie and probably a whore she looked pretty good. A well built, slender but curvy Afghan Hound, a long mane of blonde hair reaching almost to her waist. Only the slightly spacey look in her eyes and the almost imperceptible thinning of the fur on her arms over the needle tracks revealed where she stood on this social ladder.
“You ain't from around here.”
“No shit. Was it the Minnesota plate on my bike or the fact you don’t recognize the logo on my back gave you the clue?”
“Well, this ain’t exactly a good place to stop if the locals don’t know you.”
Ah. She was checking me out. Either sent to do so by one of the local players or worried I’d make trouble for somebody she cared about. No threat.
“Stopping long enough to make a few calls and eat some awesome Q. Then I’ll be on the road. I think I can handle myself that long. If that’s a big deal, I could maybe get an intro if the locals are associated with anyone I know?” She shrugged.
“Depends on who you know, hon, and what the local guys think of anyone wearing that patch.” I laughed.
Take a closer look, This ain’t a 1% patch, just the logo, no rockers. But if anyone was in the military they got a chance of recognizing it and not fucking with me. Still gets me the stink-eye from the cops, but usually free beers in most VFW posts. I ain’t moving in on anyone’s territory and ain’t got no business here that ain’t my own. Feel free to pass that along.” I waved to the Shepherd behind the bar, then pointed a finger at the Afghan lass with the claw extended to emphasize the point. “Anything she wants to drink, on my tab. She just did me a huge favor.”
She gave me a dazzling professional smile.
“Hon, I do hope that was a pick-up line because there’s something different about you… “
“Sorry, lass. I’m happily married to a lynx who’d cheerfully shred us both if I cheated on her and quite frankly I have no interest in doing so. Even if I did, Saddam’s Republican Guard already shot one of ‘em off, I’m in no hurry to lose the other.”
“I’d say you’re no fun, but I bet you are.. Just not for me. Barry? Throw me one of your special Margaritas.”
We made small talk as I finished off my meal. Then I sent my final message of the afternoon, before walking outside and riding off.
“Mrs. Daniels. I’m ready to give you my final report, in person. I presume you know how to get to Cherry Creek State Park. It’s not a long drive from your work. Pick whichever day is most convenient, Thursday or Friday. When you get off work, activate the app I’m about to send you then drive to the Cherry Creek Park picnic area. Leave your car and take a five minute walk following the arrow on the app. It will lead you to me and enable me to make sure nobody is watching us. If you don’t activate and follow the app before the weekend, it will no longer work and I’ll assume that you are no longer interested in your husband’s whereabouts and consider our business at an end. In which case you will never hear from me again on this matter unless you initiate the contact”
I wasn’t keen on being noticed as a repeat customer at the same hotel as before, but it was pretty much the only one worth staying in that didn’t have me needing to commute to the tasks I intended to accomplish over the couple of days I had before the earliest date for my meeting with my client. I planned on doing what I’d had no time to do last time I was in the area, being a typical lowlife gumshoe, blending in and listening to gossip. The local cops would remember me, of course, the grapevine in a small place like this would mean that pretty much anyone plugged into that information network would know that Raquel Daniels had hired a PI, a cat with a ripped up ear, to find her husband. So even if they’d never seen me before they’d know who I was. That actually worked in my favor. Even though I wasn’t local, the locals knew who I was, what my business in town was and I wasn’t just some random guy from out of town, I was working for one of their own.Not an insider in any sense, but not precisely an outsider either.
I’d listen attentively to any gossip they passed on about Dr. Daniels of course, just in case, but it was the feel of the place I really wanted to get. I didn’t really like working any place where I didn’t have that, where I couldn’t take the pulse of the street,
From my vantage point on the rock, overlooking the parking lot, my client was unmistakable as she stepped out of her car. She pulled her phone from a pocket and glanced down at the screen before stepping out towards the track that led uphill into a small wooded area. I stayed put, splitting my attention between the parking lot and her progress up the path. I didn’t need to move yet.
The threat I was guarding against materialized a couple of minutes later. A nondescript Ford truck pulled into the lot, an otter in scruffy clothes got out, looked around, his gaze locking on my client as she walked up the path, then he pulled out what looked like one of the small digital walkie-talkies that you can pick up by the dozen at every outdoor store, spoke into it for a few seconds and started following her. Now, it was time for me to move. I made it to the edge of the wooded area a good two minutes before my client and her tail would get there.
I pulled a few more leafy twigs around me as I lay on the branch that overhung the trail. My client had walked past just a few seconds ago, without ever looking up in my direction. Now that she was in the woods, the guy tailing her would have to close up some so he was about due… and there he was, hurrying a little to close the distance. I was pretty confident in my camo, but I was also glad to not need it as he came along fat dumb and happy. My muscles tensed as he approached and as he passed the stone I’d placed as a marker I dropped.
My strike was perfect, my hind-paws landing just below his shoulders, claws digging in and between that and the impact driving him muzzle-first into the ground and leaving him gasping for breath, unable to make a sound loud enough to alert my client of the mayhem taking place behind her. I quickly set a paw on the back of my targets neck, flexing my fingers just enough that he could feel the claws and he obligingly froze.
I didn’t say a word, just stuffed a bag over his head, pulling the drawstring tight enough to be uncomfortable but not dangerous then concentrated on getting the rope on him so he couldn’t struggle or thrash around. Bloody water weasels. So damn flexible that they are pretty difficult to restrain but there are techniques that work. All in all, though, once I had him trussed up like a roast it was a pretty perfect bag and tag, he never caught sight of me and was now shoved in the underbrush off to the side of the path. If he was on Hillerman’s team he was, as I had promised, duly “inconvenienced” and if he was working for anyone else he’d just got off very lightly indeed. He wasn’t going anywhere, but I was. Up the trail in the wake of my client, covering her back but aiming to overtake her before she reached where I’d stashed my own phone in a tree to act as a beacon for her.
She was staring at her phone. After retrieving mine, I’d stayed in the tree waiting for her to arrive. She hadn’t heard me drop to the ground behind her but at my voice she spun around, her head instinctively lowering before she recognized me. She didn’t exactly relax, though, and I didn’t blame her. Every other time she’d seen me I was wearing a suit and tie, admittedly with a weapon concealed under the jacket. What faced her this time was a little different. I was hardly in full “battle rattle” but you’d hardly expect an untrained eye to tell the difference. The pair of suppressed pistols resting in their thigh holsters, the visible handles of a couple of knives, the bulging gear pouches and the overall theme of woodland digital camo said plenty. The fact that I didn’t have an MP5 clipped to my chest or a long blade strapped to my back, wasn’t wearing a respirator or other headgear would have meant something to a soldier or a cop, but she was neither.
“Mrs. Daniels. Thank you for coming. Please excuse the rig. For me, this is a tactical situation so I’m equipped to deal appropriately with any threat to you or I that may present itself.”
“You mentioned a final report, Mr Owen. Can I assume from that you found my husband?”
Straight to the point. That was refreshing.
“Yes I did. I met with him a few days ago and he gave me more information than I can safely give you. May I summarize it for you?”
“That would be a good start, I think.”
“I can give you both good news and bad news. Your husband is alive, well and missing his family. The bad news is that you’re not going to be able to find or reach him for a while without putting him and your entire family in danger. No, please.. Before you ask any questions let me finish. Then you’ll know the kind of questions I can’t answer for your sake and for his. He was indeed involved in secret research. So secret he wasn’t even allowed to talk to you about it in his sleep. I can’t give you any details because I don’t have them and I’m not a psych to interpret them even if I had. His problems started when a foreign agency worked out he was part of that research effort. He was worried that if he stuck around they’d try and exploit the difficulties your family was facing, use you and your kids to put pressure on him. When he discovered that ‘somebody’ had wired your house like Nixon’s office, he understandably panicked and called for help. A government agency with military resources to protect him has moved him to a secure location and is taking care of him there, and while he’s incommunicado he’s going along with it willingly to protect you, Daisy, Ralph and Paul. Nobody is prepared to let anything happen that might give the bad guys the impression that one of you four might have information they want. When the mess is all sorted out he hopes to come back to you and wants you to hang in there, handle it as best you can. Unfortunately the BIG bad news is nobody has a timeline.
I’m sorry, Mrs Daniels, you didn’t sign up for this but you’re being handed the same deal as an Army wife. Your husband is on a zero-notice deployment with indefinite duration, duty station classified. I know where he was a few days ago, I sat across the table from him and with the agreement of the brass got as many details as I could reveal to you without compromising either their security or yours. You might want to talk to the Bells about how to deal with it. They’ve probably given good advice to families of their own units. I know you’re recording this on your phone. You would be insane not to. Play it to them and ask them what to do. They have enough access on the base to look me up on the Navy Lists and I’d be needlessly churlish to object to them looking a little into my background provided they don’t get so intrusive with it that their enquiries become a problem. For their information my former rank and service number are in the file I have for you. There are holes in that record and I’m sure both of them as serving officers will know which of those holes to not poke too deeply into.
There’s nothing I told you so far that you can’t talk about although if you do too much of it people might start thinking you’re losing it. Secrecy stuff is like that, sometimes you can’t tell the difference between reality and dumb conspiracy theories. I’m going to ask you to shut the recording off before I say anything more, though. ”
I watched as she hesitated, then lifted the paw that still held her phone and shut off the recording.
“Thank you for trusting me. Any additional information on record will only put you and your family at risk. I can tell you this much, though. Arnold is as frantic about your safety as you are about his. Fortunately my own paranoia about sweeping off my own trail has only added an extra layer of protection for you both. The few breadcrumbs I followed to find him aren’t there any more.”
She was looking at her phone and frowning slightly. I guessed what was bugging her.
“There’s a broad-spectrum jammer hidden up in that tree. Only got twenty or thirty meters range, but inside this spot you ain’t got no phone signal and any transmitter anyone had managed to plant on you is not talking to whoever planted it. The recording on your phone is safe, the tracker app I sent you also did a full check and would have alerted me if anyone had bugged your phone. I switched the jammer on before revealing myself, and was pacing you all the way up here to make sure nobody was following to try and overhear. We’re as secure here as I can make us.”
“Very well, Mr. Owen, I’m sure you’re more familiar with this kind of thing than I am.”
“It’s what I do, Mrs Daniels. Operational security has always been a lodestone of mine. It keeps furs that aren’t trained to deal with it out of trouble.”
“Trouble finds them anyway, Mr Owen. I am just so tired of things happening to my family and I want to make it stop.”
“Well from where I’m standing it looks like the trouble found you because somebody was less paranoid about operational security than I am. The situation that led to your husband’s relocation would never have occurred if his research hadn’t got into the wrong paws.”
I paused as I watched that sink in. It was perfectly true, I just wasn’t telling her that it had been in the wrong paws from day one, because at the time, the bad guys had been backing it.
“As for making it stop, I think you need to focus on what to stop and what to leave alone. With what I’ve already told you and what’s in the file about your husband’s situation, that one’s pretty much in the ‘paws off’ category because you can’t possibly be kept in the loop on what is being done at his end to protect the rest of you so anything you do with respect to him could jeopardize his efforts. As for his safety, where I met him is more secure than you can possibly imagine, provided you don’t stir the pot and leave it to the dedicated professionals that are taking care of him he’s safer than the President.
Where Daisy is concerned, I didn’t dig too far but a colleague in the Baltimore area was able to get me enough publicly available info that it seems to me that what she’s got going with that mouse lass and the bunch they hang out with is a good thing not a bad one. I did pick up an image off the cloud with her dyed a lovely shade of pink though.”
“WHAT? Oh my God, she wasn’t joking..”
“From the blog post that linked to it, I think they pranked her for her first day at work.”
“I have to see this… “
“It’s in the file. But that’s one kid you don’t need to worry about. From the local digging I did while working this one I know that Ralph has an influential young entrepreneur and pretty much an entire town watching his back, and the backs of his pretty lass and their incoming cubs.”
“I do worry about him though. I’m incredibly proud of him but he and his fiancée are taking on an awful lot for their age..”
“Fiancée now rather than girlfriend, huh? Good for him! But the fact remains, they are in a good place too. That leaves Paul. He’s not in a good place.”
“Mr Owen, I truly don’t understand what’s going on there. The Tennyson Center has a towering reputation, they should have been the best place to help him.”
“That was my impression too, but he’s not getting the benefit from it that he should. Please don’t look so surprised, Mrs. Daniels, I always research my clients very thoroughly and in this particular case I was looking for signs of anyone taking interest in you or the rest of your family in case it shed light on your husband’s disappearance. In Paul’s case there is a very bad smell over some therapeutic decisions that I can’t confirm without gaining clandestine access to the center’s records and I wasn’t prepared to go that far in invading his privacy.”
“I’m not… I’m not surprised that you found it, Mr Owen. I’m surprised that anyone apart from me saw it.”
“You’re his mother. Of course you saw it before anyone else did because you know your own child better than anyone else could. Some suggestions that Arnold asked me to pass along to you if I could. You’re the one in charge. Get a lawyer and start looking at ‘family visits’ around the holiday seasons or perhaps his or a family member’s birthdays. You’ve got a lot more power in this situation than you think. There’s information in the file that Arnold prepared to help you out, I promised him it would be in your hands.”
“I think I can do that.”
“I’m a lawyer, I could get a Colorado lawyer to PHV me on this case with no trouble.”
“I think I need to keep this separate, everybody knows I hired you to find Arnold. Isn’t there a chance that you being involved there would direct exactly the sort of attention at Paul that you tell me Arnold has gone to great lengths to avoid?”
“True. No acting as your lawyer in this then. But… Mrs Daniels… No, Raquel… Completely off the record and whatever we say from this point on I’m prepared to swear on a stack of bibles I never heard or said… I was going to tell you something is bugging me about the way Paul is being treated at that place. Now I’m telling you that I firmly believe his care is being manipulated to manufacture reasons to keep him there. If you want it burned to the ground, maybe with a moose body found in the wreckage that could be your son and him moved somewhere safer with a new identity, I could probably arrange it. He needs out of there. Or I need to take a few of the staff out of play so that they start handling him like all the other kids in there. I don’t know how many or who but there has to be at least one, more likely two. I’m sorry if I’ve shocked you, sometimes legal solutions don’t exactly provide a just outcome and fixing bad shit requires somebody to break the rules. I’ve always believed that when you have to break them, break them HARD but always do what’s right. This isn’t part of what you hired me for, it’s just an offer to somebody who may need me to do something right but horribly illegal, because I can do it and they can’t.
Raquel, understand me here. I try really hard to be one of the good guys. That doesn’t make me ‘nice’ or give me any moral qualms about being positively nasty to folks that have it coming. If you need me to do anything, tell me what you want to happen and don’t ask too close about how I do it”
“I think that some ‘other friends’ are already looking into things in that regard and I’d hope that it doesn’t need to get that extreme.”
“You have my card. If they need me to get involved, just have them call me and drop your name.”
“Thank you, Mr Owen. If I need that I’ll be sure to take you up on it. And if you get the chance, tell Arnold I love him. He’s an insufferable asshole sometimes but I do.”
“I doubt I’ll set eyes on him until after this mess is all wrapped up and he’s come home to you, but I think I have a channel to pass that on to him. If you need to talk or meet for anything more, I should be available for a few days.” Privately I wondered if that presumably happy event would ever come to pass, but I wasn’t going to voice my doubts to the moose lady in front of me.
“You’re staying in town?”
“Hanging around for personal reasons. Going to be here for around a week. Here’s the writeup of what I’ve got and can safely give you. If I don’t hear from you or your friends I’ll be assuming you don’t want me taking any further action. On that assumption my final bill is in the folder. If you decide there is more for me to do in this matter, we can settle the business stuff whenever we get to that point.”
I gave her five minutes to get back to her car before casually walking back to where I’d left the otter, silently cutting most of the way through his bonds and disappearing before he could free himself far enough to get the bag off his head.
I could hardly call the case “closed” but it looked like my involvement with it was done, at least for the moment.