“Great, here comes…” the tall black man, slouching against the gray Ford, began.
“Don’t say it, Tom,” his partner, a thin, dishwater blonde woman cautioned. She straightened to her five and a half foot height, almost as if coming to attention. “She’s okay, just a little short-tempered.”
Tom nodded, standing away from the car, and taking his hands out of his pockets. “I didn’t mean anything by it, Jen. It’s just this her way or the highway business. The FBI doesn’t run well if agents get reprimanded for offering input.”
“Oh,” Jen replied in mock surprise, watching the subject of their discussion walk purposely towards them from across the dirt parking lot. “Is that what you call belittling an agent-in-charge after she issues an order on site with other agents in attendance? You’re lucky she didn’t get your badge.”
“Yeah,” Tom replied grudgingly in agreement. “That wasn’t too smart. She’s been riding me hard since then and I’m getting a little raw.”
Jen smiled over at her partner, as she met his gaze. “Suck it up, big boy, she’ll get over it. Man, it’s freezin’ out in these damn mountains.”
“It gets real chilly up here this late in September, especially at seven in the morning. I bet it went down in the twenties last night.”
“How come Diane has that getup on?” Jen asked, seeing the red-haired woman approaching them had on camouflage hiking gear. “I thought we were meeting here to brief the lab boys and tactical team before they go in looking for that psycho, Hughes.”
“I don’t know, but you better drop that Diane stuff. Reskova don’t like familiarity. If you ain’t looking for a letter in your file, you better show some respect.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not as dumb as you, buddy.” Jen grinned at her partner to take the edge off her verbal dig.
Both agents waited silently, knowing how sound carried up in the Sierra’s. They were standing near an abandoned
They had found the
Reskova nodded at the two agents before moving to read the note still taped to the
“The three of us?” Rutledge asked in some confusion, as she stared in disbelief at her partner, who returned her look with one of equal consternation.
Reskova sighed. “Believe me, I know how wacko this sounds. I don’t suppose either of you has any wilderness knowledge, do you?”
“I do some backpacking,”
“Ditto,” Rutledge admitted. “The closest I get to the woods is when I walk to the park near my apartment.”
“My experience is about the same as Tom’s, a little backpacking once in a while,” Reskova added. “This guy they’re sending supposedly knows this area intimately, and he’s a tracker. AD Dreyer told me we are to locate Hughes’ trail and shadow his movements until they come up with a plan.”
“Why not use dogs?”
“Too much noise,” Reskova replied. “Hughes would hear them coming and kill the girl.”
“You haven’t heard me moving through the woods yet, Agent Reskova,”
“That makes two of us,” Rutledge agreed.
Reskova smiled. “Three, actually. This tracker they’re sending is supposed to keep us close to Hughes, but not so close we get made. He’ll be here by eight. He’s getting a ride over with AD Dreyer and the lab team. Dreyer will be remaining here with the lab guys and set up a base to stay in contact with us.”
“What about equipment?” Rutledge asked. “Tom and I didn’t know we’d be going into the woods.”
“In the back of my Saturn,” Reskova gestured toward the Saturn SUV she’d driven over in. “I brought everything on the list AD Dreyer suggested. We’ll be lugging fifty-pound packs, I’m afraid. I hope you both are the same size as your records state, or you’ll have to do some alterations here.”
“I…I don’t know if I’m going to be much good to you out there,” Rutledge said, as she followed her partner and Reskova over to the SUV.
“You’ll be fine, Jen.” Reskova turned slightly towards Rutledge. “We…”
“I’m aware of the terrain in this area.” Reskova opened the rear Saturn Vue hatch and stepped back, indicating the three packs, with each agent’s name plastic tied onto one of the pack straps. “We’re that little girl’s only hope.”
“Hughes probably already killed her, and if she is still alive, we shouldn’t be the ones going in to track her,”
“Dreyer heard it all from me. He doesn’t want to send an army in after Hughes.”
“Yeah, but he could have at least sent in some people more knowledgeable in woodcraft than Tom and I are,” Rutledge remarked. “Hughes gave us the slip two years ago and we haven’t been close to him since. He’s one of those survivalists with no ties to anyone. We couldn’t find him in civilization. How the heck…”
“We know Hughes better than any other person who could have been sent,” Reskova broke in, pulling her long red hair back into a ponytail and wrapping it with an elastic hair tie. “The Saturn’s unlocked. Get dressed.”
“Do you know anything about this tracker AD Dreyer is bringing with him,”
“He was with Delta in the first Gulf War,
“Jesus!” Rutledge exclaimed. She ducked her head out of the Saturn. “What the hell does he need us along for?”
“Jen has a point, Agent Reskova,”
“AD Dreyer says this guy is the best there is, but he might take the law into his own hands if we’re not with him.”
“And that would be a bad thing?” Rutledge asked, stepping out from behind the rear door.
“We can’t play it like that, Tom,” Reskova said, taking a deep breath. “Call me Diane. We’re going to get awful close before this op finally ends. We can get formal again when we return. How do the boots feel? They’re the most important. Those socks should keep you two from blistering up, but only if the boots are pretty comfortable.”
“Mine feel a little stiff,” Rutledge replied, stomping around.
“Unfortunately, they won’t get much looser until we put some miles on them, Jen,”
“You each have three more pair of socks in your packs. How many clips do you two carry for your weapons?”
“Two,” Rutledge followed.
“I brought you both two more each. They’re in the pack. You have a Ruger, don’t you, Jen, and you have a Glock, right Tom?”
The two agents nodded. Ten minutes later as the trio checked over their equipment and Reskova explained to Rutledge some of the finer points of backpacking, they heard the rumble of a large vehicle approaching. A plain gray truck, with cab over fifth wheel, turned into the parking lot. The driver pulled in next to the
“Look at the size of him,”
The trio watched Dreyer and his companion approach. The big man walked with the gait of a caged lion, with very little side-to-side movement. Although Dreyer’s shoes kicked up dust, the larger man’s boots seemed to glide over the parking lot surface. The tracker was dressed in well-worn fatigues with matching parka. His brown hair, cropped close to his skull, bordered a darkly tanned face. As the two men drew near, the agents saw a thin white scar line, extending from the man’s lower left-hand jaw, up across the bridge of his nose, and into his right-side hairline.
“Diane, this guy don’t look too civilized,” Rutledge whispered to her superior.
Reskova merely nodded in agreement as the two men stopped in front of them. Dreyer shook hands with each of the three agents in his charge. He gestured to the man next to him.
“This is Colonel Jeremiah McDaniels. Colonel, this is Special Agent in charge, Diane Reskova, Special Agent Jennifer Rutledge, and Special Agent Tom Barrington.”
McDaniels smiled at the three agents, shaking hands carefully with each one in turn as Dreyer introduced them. “I am very glad to know you all.”
“What generation are you from the old country, Agent Reskova?” McDaniels asked in Russian.
Reskova responded in heavily accented Russian after realizing what McDaniels had asked. “Third generation, Colonel. I am sorry. My Russian is a little weak. You speak like a native.”
“May I have a look around, Ma’am? I would like to confirm where the kidnapper went into the woods,” McDaniels asked Reskova in English. “We should leave as soon as possible. I must apologize if I’m out of line, but it would be a good thing to use the bathroom they have here before we leave. There will not be any facilities on the trail.”
“Good point, Colonel,”
“Go ahead and check out the trail, Colonel,” Reskova answered. “How long will you need?”
“It depends on whether Hughes left a trail for us to follow deliberately, as he did with his note. I’ll be quick.”
Dreyer and Reskova watched McDaniels hurry fluidly toward the woods.
“How do you know McDaniels, Sir?”
“I was in Marine Recon during Gulf War I. Delta helped us out of a couple of jams. The Colonel was a Sergeant back then. On the way past the Iraqi lines, going full bore ahead, McDaniels signaled us from ahead of our column. He appeared right out of the sand with his hands up so we wouldn’t shoot him. McDaniels looked like a native, albeit a big one, so our guy with the column who spoke Arabic approached him. McDaniels speaks to our guy in Arabic first, and then switches to English when he was sure we were Americans. The Iraqi’s had an ambush set up. Thanks to McDaniels, we zeroed in on the coordinates he gave us and blew the crap out of them while we were still out of range. He is the best tracker on any terrain I have ever known.”
“Why isn’t he still in? What is he, mid-thirties?”
“He’s still in the reserves, but he had a little trouble in
“Sixteen, before word from some of the Iraqis about a giant, snatching guys in the night, reached headquarters. The Colonel was on liaison with CIA at the time, because of his language skills. Some of the CIA guys put two and two together and sent him home. The killings stopped. The army retired him to the reserves.
“Jesus,” Reskova whispered. “I understand your reluctance to send him out by himself on this.”
Dreyer grinned at her. “I could care less if McDaniels went in and brought out Hughes’ head on a pike. That little girl’s uncle is a
“She may already be dead, Jim,” Reskova replied as she echoed
“I know that! This freak Hughes ain’t even pretending he wants something in exchange for keeping her alive. The son-of-a-bitch is doing this just to screw with us. He believes he’s untouchable. Hokanson wants in on every phase of this. I’ve been ordered to give him hourly updates until it ends.”
“Have we been able to keep this out of the media?”
“On our end, yes,” Dreyer answered. “The little girl’s parents, and Uncle Frank, may decide to out the whole thing though.”
“Hokanson knows we’re here then?”
“Unfortunately yes. This parking lot could be a circus in short order - hence the need for McDaniels to take you three in immediately. By the time you’ve located Hughes and McDaniels thinks he’s close, I hope to have a plan.”
“This sounds worse by the second, Jim. I’m supposed to baby-sit a military psycho, while bartering with another psycho for a little girl’s life, all the while trudging around out in the middle of nowhere without backup. Any suggestions before we launch into this fiasco?”
“Don’t get the little girl killed.”
“Shit,” Reskova muttered. “I…”
“I’ve found his trail, Ma’am,” McDaniels said quietly, startling the two FBI Agents to the point Reskova jumped and Dreyer reached for his weapon. Both stared open-mouthed at the tracker.
“Jesus H. Christ Palomino, Colonel!” Dreyer exclaimed angrily. “Don’t do that.”
“Do what, Sir?” McDaniels smiled amiably.
“You know what, you prick, I’ll tie a bell around your neck the next time you pull that shit.”
“How long were you standing there, Colonel?” Reskova asked, still shaken at the big man’s sudden appearance.
“Somewhere around the military psycho part,” McDaniels replied, still smiling. “We should go, Ma’am, he’s hours ahead of us, even with the little girl. She was still alive when they went in.”
“How do you… oh, never mind,” Reskova began. She gestured shakily for
McDaniels grabbed Reskova’s pack. “Hughes went in about fifty yards down from where the bathroom is. We’ll walk by the van and get my pack before we pick up Agent Reskova. Let me check over your equipment and see if you’ve missed anything.”
“They’ll do. I put your extra clips in the top flap,” McDaniels said, leading the group back toward the truck.
“Remember what we talked about, Colonel,” Dreyer warned, as they all walked abreast of the van.
“I understand the parameters, Sir,” McDaniels confirmed, provoking an uneasy exchange of looks between
McDaniels went into the truck and emerged with a second pack. He donned the one he took out of the truck and then walked toward the bathroom. With one final glance at Dreyer,
“Did you see Diane’s face?” Rutledge whispered to
“Yeah… makes you wonder what the hell we missed.”
“Probably better we don’t know,” Rutledge muttered.
“I’m not sure pretending we see no evil will help us out here,”
McDaniels held her pack by the straps. Reskova let him help her into it. She adjusted the straps and cross belt support. She looked up at McDaniels when she was sure she had the pack adjusted properly.
“I guess he didn’t go in at the trailhead, huh?”
“No Ma’am, he went in just down from here,” McDaniels answered, pointing to a dried out husk of a tree lying in the brush about fifty yards away. “Hughes went in near that downed tree.”
“Why wouldn’t he go in at the trailhead where there are still plenty of recent tracks to help him confuse us,”
“Two reasons,” McDaniels replied, leading the way toward the fallen tree. “The first is he wanted us to know where he went in. I’m sure he figured the FBI would get someone who could find his trail.”
“And the second?” Reskova asked.
“He’ll be able to play with us in the denser brush.”
“Play with us?”
“Razor wire, deadfalls, staked pits,” McDaniels listed. “He’ll get creative. He knows who he took and he knows there will not be any air support. Hughes can take his time. He’ll try and have some fun at our expense.”
“Ah, Colonel, are we home yet?” Rutledge asked comically.
“I’ll go first, wherever we go, Agent Rutledge.” McDaniels chuckled, taking a liking to the woman, who was obviously terrified, but continued on in spite of it. “Do not stray from the path I take and clear. If you need to go to the bathroom or take a break, don’t wander away when we stop until I clear the area, okay?”
“Go back immediately,” McDaniels replied solemnly. “Under no circumstances should you go on if he gets me. I’ll leave our back trail plainly marked for you.”
“I don’t think we’d be any good with you breaking a few twigs along the underbrush,” Reskova said. “We’d still be lost.”
“You all have GPS units, don’t you?” McDaniels asked.
“Yes, I set them with the parking lot as base camp. That won’t make much difference if Hughes booby traps the trail,” Reskova reasoned.
“True, but you won’t be lost. I hadn’t planned on using breadcrumbs to mark the trail, Ma’am. I’ll mark it with this.” McDaniels held up a yellow paint stick. He swiped it on a tree they passed, making a bright yellow dash. “It’s fluorescent, so you’ll be able to see it even in the dark.”
“We can’t go back, no matter what,” Reskova interrupted.
“He’ll kill all of you if you don’t, Ma’am.”
“Maybe, but he’ll for sure kill the girl if we give up,” Reskova pointed out. “As long as he thinks the game is still on, he may keep her alive.”
“That’ll be up to you, Agent Reskova.” McDaniels grinned back at her. “I don’t plan on letting Hughes get any of us; but Agent Barring…”
“Tom asked me,” McDaniels acknowledged. “I gave you the best advice I could. One other thing: don’t drink from any body of water we pass. I’ll take care of getting our drinking water. Go easy on it. Make sure you give me warning when you’re getting low. If you’re sweating, you’re fine. If you’re not sweating, you need water.”
“He wouldn’t poison all the water as he goes, would he?” Rutledge asked.
“All the water up here can give us a bug, right Colonel?”
“That’s right, Tom. If you drink the water without purifying it first, you may not die, but you’ll wish you had. You each have two bottles on your belt. They should be fine for the rest of the day if the weather stays cool.”
“I guess you better lead on, Colonel,” Reskova said. “I’m sorry about the remarks you overheard.”
“I’m sorry I startled you,” McDaniels replied. “Stay about forty feet back from me. Maintain the spacing at all times. Here, take these.”
McDaniels handed each of them a telescoping walking stick out of his pack. “I brought along extras in case we needed to make a travois out of them. It’s important to watch your footing. Even a slight sprain will slow us to a crawl.”
Each of the FBI agents adjusted their walking stick to a height comfortable for them McDaniels started out at a brisk pace.
“I’ve already scouted the trail,” McDaniels replied over his shoulder. “Besides, Hughes won’t want anything to happen to us until we’re well into the woods. I figure we can make about three hours without any worry.”
“You’ve already found something, haven’t you, Colonel?” Reskova asked.
McDaniels turned around suddenly, an amused smile on his face. “Not bad, Agent Reskova. How’d you guess?”
“Hughes would want to do something minor right away…”
“To make sure we wouldn’t follow too quickly,” Rutledge finished Reskova’s statement. “He’d figure we’d be checking every inch of the trail afterward.”
“What was it, Colonel?”
“Razor wire, just above ankle high. It would have disabled one of us. The others would have had to carry the injured one back, delaying our start after him.”
“He wanted to take out the tracker,” Reskova continued.
“Yep,” McDaniels agreed. “That means, from here on, the trail will be pretty easy to follow. Hughes will be thinking he needs to draw a map for novices to be drawn in.”
“I hate this already,” Rutledge said with a sigh, as she gripped the straps of her pack tightly. “What did you do with the wire?”
“I still have it in my pack. C’mon, let’s move out,” McDaniels said, leading again. “Remember your spacing.”
When McDaniels had paced about forty feet in the lead, the others followed. Reskova quietly filled in
“What’s so funny, Tom?”
“I can answer that, Diane.” Rutledge smiled over at her. “If we have to be out here trailing this murdering psycho, we need a guy like the Colonel, not some boy scout.”
“Do you feel the same way, Jen?” Reskova asked.
“Pretty much,” Rutledge admitted. “I know we have a job to do; but let’s face it, this ain’t it. How sure are you we’re not being used as scapegoats?”
“Not sure at all,” Reskova admitted. “I wanted to hear you two say it. At first, I thought we were up against the wall as far as time. After hearing AD Dreyer, I don’t know what the hell the script is. We can shadow this guy and call in every step of the way but we won’t be any closer to saving the girl than we were in the parking lot.”
“Did we piss somebody off I’m not aware of?”
“More likely, we just know Hughes the best. The best scapegoats are also the most logical choices,” Reskova replied.
“What freaked you out so bad while we were gone to the bathroom?” Rutledge asked.
“You two should have been in the parking lot when the Colonel materialized. Dreyer and I were talking one second, and then there he was. That guy has to be over six and a half feet tall and somewhere around two-fifty in weight. Hell, look at him.”
The three FBI agents watched McDaniels. The big man looked as if he slid along rather than stepped. What little disturbance he made passing through the woods was barely detectable, even as close as they were to him.
“Check us out,”
The agents were making enough noise in the brush to drown out anything McDaniels did up ahead.
“I guess it would be a good idea if we at least tried to mimic his movements,” Reskova suggested.
“You were right, Tom,” Reskova admitted as the three of them concentrated on moving more quietly. “When McDaniels spoke up from almost at my shoulder, he practically scared the crap out of me. He said he knew what the parameters are when Dreyer asked him. Makes me wonder why Dreyer thinks the Colonel won’t ditch us and do anything he wants.”
“You said AD Dreyer knew the Colonel,”
“For our sake, I hope so,” Reskova acknowledged.
“Okay, I officially hate this,” Rutledge added, her breath coming in short gasps, as the trail began slanting upwards. Reskova and
“You better get your wind back before we catch up to Hughes or the Colonel will have to gag you,”
“Very… funny…” Rutledge replied.
“I figured the Colonel would just go in with a day bag and a knife,”
“Dreyer told me before I picked up the equipment McDaniels would be carrying the tent and our ground pads,” Reskova explained. “We’re only carrying our food, sleeping bags, and some clothing.”
“All that said, McDaniels hardly makes a branch rustle, even over here off trail,”
The three agents laughed together uneasily.
* * *
Nearly three hours later, McDaniels stopped as he crested the slope they had been trudging upwards on for the past forty-five minutes. McDaniels signaled the FBI agents to stay where they were. They watched him quickly shed his pack and move upwards over the rocky top of the slope to the other side, out of their sight.
“Jesus,” Rutledge gasped, taking a long swallow of her water. “I… I’m dyin’ here.”
“He’s been giving us breaks every twenty minutes,”
The three agents looked out over the rugged forest and rocky crests stretched out downwards along the side of the mountain. The sky, with wispy shadows of clouds shading the sun occasionally, bordered the vista in deep blue relief. The temperature had risen quickly up into the sixties, causing the FBI agents to sweat profusely as they trekked uphill. They were each into their second bottle of water.
“Just think how this climb must have been for that little girl.” Rutledge shuddered. “Every time I start wimping out, I just think of her.”
“Hughes will be taking pretty good care of her,” Reskova explained. “He needs her for the time being.”
“Or he could be dragging her dead body along,”
“Thanks for that happy thought, Tom,” Rutledge said with a sigh.
“Here’s where I think we are,” Reskova held out her topographical map, pointing to a spot running parallel to three lakes in the
“Check what, Agent Reskova?” McDaniels asked from behind the three agents, causing them to literally knock into one another, as their first instinct was to reach for their weapons.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Reskova snarled angrily. “If you pull…”
“Boy, if he’d have been Hughes, he could have sliced and diced us,” Rutledge agreed, looking up at McDaniels with some irritation. “Damn, Colonel, how the hell do you do that shit? Couldn’t you’ve just warned us to…”
“To what, Agent Rutledge?” McDaniels cut her off sternly. “This ain’t a Campfire Girls’ outing. Hughes has that clearing up ahead staked out. He’s sitting nearly half a mile away in the brush of that peak over there.”
The three FBI agents could only see the forested peak of the mountain McDaniels pointed to from where they were.
“How do you know that?” Reskova asked, her anger still barely under control.
“Because that’s where I’d be if I wanted to take a shot,” McDaniels answered. “I also went around the slope so I could scan ahead with my scope. He’s there, all right. Hughes takes a peek every few minutes with either his sighting scope or through his riflescope. He’s not dumb enough to take a chance on sighting in for long.”
“Did you bring anything with that kind of range, Colonel?”
McDaniels shook his head in the negative. “No, it wasn’t in the mission parameters. Jim wouldn’t let me bring my sniper rifle. If he had, Hughes would be laying dead up on that peak and we’d be haulin’ ass over there to pick up the girl.”
“Unless he hid her somewhere, and then she’d be dead.”
“That’s what Jim said, Agent Reskova, but I would have found her,” McDaniels replied. “No use picking at that scab now. I don’t have a rifle.”
“I’ll call in and let AD Dreyer know where we are and where Hughes is,” Reskova said, taking out her satellite phone. “Maybe he knows what he’d like us to do.”
“Knowing how bureaucracies work, he won’t have a clue,” McDaniels replied. “This is all a sham. You three know it and I know it. Because of that Senator, nobody wants to do what needs to be done. They think somehow if everyone pretends the little girl will magically be okay then all will be well.”
“Pretty cynical, Colonel.”
“Yeah, well I’m sorry I popped up on you all like I did, Agent Reskova. I’m not too thrilled about having my hands tied concerning the girl and also having to worry about getting you three killed. I won’t do it again, if you three promise me to take this jaunt in the woods more seriously.”
Reskova nodded and walked off with her phone in hand.
“We appreciate your concern, Colonel. Why did you take this gig? The money can’t be all that good,”
“I was overseas when I heard about this Hughes guy and what he did to those three other girls he took. When your boss on behalf of Senator Hokanson contacted me, I couldn’t say no. Even when he finished listing all the handicaps I’d have doing this gig as you call it, I still had to take a shot.”
“We’re like lead weights strapped to your back, huh?” Rutledge asked with a grin. “Don’t for a second think we don’t know it too. I…”
“Dreyer said to move on if there was a way to get closer to Hughes,” Reskova interrupted as she rejoined the others after her call ended. “We are to proceed until nightfall and then wait for further instructions. Can you get us nearer, McDaniels?”
“It would mean splitting up. I can map you three a way to flank him while I watch to make sure he doesn’t move from where he’s set up now. I figure he thinks he has at least another few hours before the three of you would reach his trap point.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll know where he is and where you are. Let me see your map.”
Reskova handed McDaniels the map. McDaniels pointed to a spot at the base of the peak where Hughes waited to snipe at them if they came into the clearing.
“It will be rough going but I figure you three can make it to this spot before dusk. If I see Hughes pull out I’ll call you immediately on the Sat. Phone.” McDaniels outlined a trail which would keep the FBI agents out of Hughes’ sight as they proceeded to the point he had indicated. “You will have to take it slow and keep the noise level down. The winds picking up. It will be sweeping down from the mountain where Hughes is perched. That should mask some of the noise you all make. I’ll join you at dusk.”
“You aren’t planning on ditching us, are you, McDaniels?” Reskova asked.
“Diane, he could have ditched us anytime he wanted,”
“Tom’s right,” McDaniels added. “If I say I’ll join you at dusk, that’s what I’ll do.”
“This all sounds real good. Maybe it would be better if I stayed here and watched our back trail,” Rutledge said, only half in jest.
“That’s my partner, always watching out for us.”
Reskova looked at McDaniels with distrust. “The Colonel’s going to pull something. I can feel it all the way from my toes to the top of my head.”
“You missed the point,” Rutledge spoke up. “If he does, we can’t do anything about it anyway. If you don’t have a way to get across that clearing without getting your head shot off, I think we should consider his plan.”
“How do we know Hughes is even where McDaniels says he is?” Reskova turned to McDaniels. “Take me where I can see him and we’ll go with your plan.”
McDaniels nodded. “Follow me. Tom, you and Jen stay right where you are. We’ll be back in about fifteen minutes.”
“Don’t worry about us this time, Colonel,” Rutledge said. “You better not try any of that damn Ninja shit on us again either. You might just get shot.”
McDaniels laughed. “Acknowledged. C’mon, Agent Reskova, let’s go take a look at the real bad guy.”
Almost exactly fifteen minutes later, McDaniels led Reskova down over the slope in front of the other two FBI agents, making sure they knew where he was.
“He’s there,” Reskova announced as they came abreast of
“I’ll catch up with you just after dusk,” McDaniels told them as Reskova started descending carefully from their previous position with
The trio stopped and took stock of their water supply.
“I only have a half left, Colonel,” Rutledge told him.
McDaniels handed her two full containers. “Give me the half full one and all your empties. I’ll fill them before I rejoin you.”
After collecting the containers, McDaniels watched the three hiking away at an angle down the slope, trying as best they could to be as quiet as possible. He smiled and went back over the slope; but instead of taking up a position to watch Hughes, McDaniels began a quick and silent trek in another direction. He knew Hughes would hear the three FBI agents.
“Well, little Missy,” the black-bearded man snarled, looking through the digital viewfinders. “It looks like those FBI agents want to play mountain-man with me. Too bad they didn’t give me a chance to make my shot. I wasn’t goin’ to hurt them too bad, just blow some toes off. Then I’d have had me some fun tonight.”
The little girl, exposure causing her teeth to chatter behind the duct tape used as a gag, looked fearfully up at the man who had dragged her through the mountains. Her blonde hair lay in dirt-streaked tendrils over her face and neck. Every movement brought new agony from her arms and legs. She lay curled up with her limbs bound painfully behind her back. She had been at the park for her eighth birthday, playing hide and seek with her friends, while they waited for their parents to barbeque the hamburgers and hot dogs. One moment, Alicia was hiding behind a tree - the next she felt a rough hand over her mouth, a pinprick at her neck; and a few minutes later, only darkness.
She had come to with the man slapping her into consciousness, laughing at the pain he was causing. Alicia had felt the tape over her mouth, her head aching in waves so intense, she almost threw up behind her gag. Swallowing the bile, her tortured eyes open fully, Alicia tried to turn away from the man’s hand. When Hughes saw she was awake, he yanked her to her feet. Only then did she see they were in the middle of a dense woods. Hughes ripped the duct tape off, leaning down menacingly as Alicia screamed. He shook her by the arm until the little girl whimpered and begged for him to stop. Keeping her hands duct-taped behind her back, Hughes leashed Alicia like a dog with choke chain and tether. Alternately yanking and dragging on the tether to keep her moving, Hughes had brought her to their present position.
Alicia had then been tied in her present state and left lying on the ground next to Hughes while he set up his sniper rifle on a stand, perched within the camouflage of some thick bushes. He had seemed contented, making jokes to her about the great shots he would take, and described the pain he would inflict. Only in the last hour, Hughes had begun cursing as if something had not gone the way he had planned.
“Don’t you think for a moment, little Missy, that anybody’s goin’ to’ rescue you,” Hughes sneered, looking disdainfully at her. “I’ll carve you like a pumpkin when I’m sure they’re within range to hear you scream, then I’ll do for them in the dark. Yep, it’s gonna’ be a long night for those assholes.”
Hughes reached down and stroked the little girl’s leg. “Too bad we don’t have enough time to play.”
Hughes gave Alicia a shushing sound, putting one dirty nailed index finger up to his lips when she whimpered. “You keep quiet girl, or Daddy goin’ to punish you.”
Alicia closed her eyes tightly, heart racing in time to her throbbing temples. Hughes continued cursing the approaching agents, detailing what he would do when night came. The little girl cringed when she heard a loud rustling sound. She heard Hughes belch out a throaty gargle. Alicia felt something tapping against her side. She opened her eyes to narrow slits, hoping the man would not notice her. The side of Hughes’ boot brushed against her rhythmically, as great founts of a liquid splashed into the folliage. Alicia looked up to see something massive holding her captor with his feet off the ground. A moment later, Hughes crashed to the ground beside her, twitching slightly. A huge hand reached down and picked Hughes’ body up by the back of his belt. As the body was carried away, Alicia saw it no longer had a head.
A few minutes later, Alicia lay with her eyes again closed as tightly as she could close them, her teeth clamped shut. She wondered what new horror would be visited on her. She jumped involuntarily as a hand gently touched her hair, stroking her head gently. She felt the tape being cut away from her wrists and ankles. Pain from the sudden flow of blood caused her to cry out behind the tape over her mouth. Warm hands massaged the raw skin of her ankles and wrists, pausing to massage her knee joints and ankles.
“Easy, little one,” a deep voice soothed softly. “Lie still for a moment while I work this tape off. My name’s Jeremiah. I’ve come to take you back to your Mommy and Daddy.”
Tears flowed from her eyes as Alicia began to sob, not believing this news could possibly be true. The nightmare would return somehow, bringing the pain and darkness.
“Hey, don’t cry,” McDaniels urged. He removed the duct tape as painlessly as he could. “I’ll help you sit up and then you can peel the tape off your mouth, okay?”
Alicia felt the hands lift her effortlessly up into a sitting position. A silvery blanket was draped around her, providing more warmth. The man continued to massage her arms and legs through the rustling material of the blanket for the next few moments. Whenever he saw her looking wide eyed at him, McDaniels smiled, nodding at her amiably.
“Yep, you’re going to be good as new. Now, do you think you can peel that crappy tape from your mouth?”
Alicia nodded, reaching up with her still partially numb fingers, feeling clumsily for a corner of the tape. She picked at it, working the duct tape little by little from her mouth. It felt so wonderful to feel the cool air on her mouth, Alicia yanked the last quarter off.
“Ouch.” McDaniels chuckled. “I guess that stuff feels pretty bad after all the time you’ve had it on. Are you warming up some?”
Alicia nodded. She rubbed her mouth and clutched the blanket around her shoulders. “Is… is that man dead?”
McDaniels glanced over his shoulder in the direction he had carried Hughes’ headless corpse. He turned back to Alicia with a smile. “Oh yeah, Honey, he won’t be making the trek down with us. I’m sorry you saw that. I have some friends camping pretty close to here. I wish we could take the chance and carry you back home tonight but it’s real dangerous plodding around up here in the dark. How about I carry you down to where my friends are camping and I light up a nice fire?”
Alicia nodded, taking the water bottle McDaniels handed her. She gulped the cool water from the small retractable spout. McDaniels let her drink for a long moment and then put a restraining hand over hers, pulling the bottle down.
“Easy, Alicia, not too much at one time, okay?”
“You… you know my name.”
“Oh yeah, your Uncle Frank contacted a friend of mine, who asked me to come help you,” McDaniels answered. “They’re all worried about you. We have a special phone so we can call your Mommy and Daddy from camp. I’d let you call right now, but I’m afraid my friends would be angry.”
“I…I’m real glad you came,” Alicia whispered.
“Me too, little one. Do you think you could swallow one of these aspirin? It’ll make you feel better. I’d give you two but I’m afraid they might make you sick on an empty stomach.”
Alicia took the proffered aspirin tablet. She swallowed some more water to wash it down. Alicia handed the water bottle back to McDaniels while looking around her at the darkening woods. “Are you going to leave the man here?”
“Part of him,” McDaniels replied, lifting the little girl up in his arms. “We better get moving or my friends will start worrying about me. I think they believe I’d leave them up here in the spooky old woods alone.”
“You wouldn’t do that,” Alicia stated firmly.
“That’s what I told them, little one.”
* * *
“Christ, it’s dark up here,” Rutledge said. The three FBI agents huddled against a fallen log. “The Colonel should have been here by now.”
“He’s probably just making his way slowly,”
“I hope you’re right. I…”
“Hello the camp,” McDaniels voice called out loudly.
Although McDaniels had not simply appeared in their midst, the three FBI agents still jumped at the sound of his voice so near their cold camp. The three scrambled to their feet, peering out into the darkness toward where his voice had called out, trying to discern where McDaniels was.
“Come in, Colonel,”
A moment later, a huge shadow detached itself from behind a tree only twenty yards to their right. The FBI agents could see McDaniels was carrying something, wrapped in a silver space blanket from his survival kit. The big man carefully walked towards them, threading his way noiselessly through the undergrowth.
“How the hell do you do that, Colonel?” Rutledge asked for the second time, surprised at the almost silent approach. “I… hey… what the hell…”
“I brought someone to share our camp tonight,” McDaniels announced. “This here is Alicia. Alicia, meet my friends, Tom, Jen, and Diane. They’re all real FBI agents.”
“Oh… my… God…” Reskova said in complete shock, as the three agents stumbled forward around McDaniels and his wrapped bundle.
A small hand waved to them in the darkness from beneath the blanket.
“Hi,” Alicia greeted them.
“Where the hell is Hughes?” Rutledge asked, glancing furtively around in the darkness beyond.
“Didn’t you goofballs ever see those movies where the characters rig up warning lines around their camp instead of sitting around waiting for the monsters to get them?” McDaniels joked. He gently rested Alicia down against the same log the FBI agents had been leaning against.
“Answer the question!” Reskova ordered, crouching down next to Alicia.
“He lost his head,” Alicia said simply.
“He what… listen, Alicia, you take it easy and…” Reskova began.
“Jeremiah promised me I could roast marshmallows.” Alicia interrupted.
McDaniels knelt down next to her, patting her shoulder. “Let Diane call her boss on the phone. Then she’ll get your Mommy and Daddy on the line. Me and Tom will clear out a safe place for a campfire. You’ll be toasting them in no time.”
“Okay,” Alicia agreed happily.
Reskova grabbed McDaniels arm as he tried to straighten up. “Where’s Hughes?”
“He’s dead, Diane,” Rutledge broke in. She patted Alicia’s hand. “You want a picture? I’m Jen, Alicia. Diane will be making that call now, right Di?”
Reskova stared at McDaniels for a moment longer before releasing his arm. She sat down next to Alicia. Reskova pulled out the satellite phone from her parka pocket. McDaniels handed Rutledge a sleeping bag from his pack which she helped Alicia ease into. The two men cleared the brush and debris from near the log until they had a nearly barren area twenty feet in diameter. Using the numerous loose granite rocks around and dried wood,
“I figured you’d rub two sticks together, Colonel,”
“Not hardly.” McDaniels smiled over at him from the rapidly growing flames.
Rutledge warmed her hands near the flames. “God almighty this fire looks and feels good. You never had any intention of taking us to Hughes, did you?”
“Nope,” McDaniels replied quietly.
“Thank you,” Rutledge said.
“I mean it, you two,” McDaniels said, changing the subject. “Didn’t you guys ever see Predator, or one of those other movies where the heroes always set up a perimeter? In your defense, Hughes wasn’t very good at perimeters either.”
“Me, me, me,” Rutledge waved her hand comically with
McDaniels grinned and went out into the darkness. When he returned a few moments later Reskova and Alicia had finished the call to her parents. He brought along four long, thin sticks. Reskova walked away while making a second call. Sitting next to Alicia, he quickly trimmed the bark off and sharpened the ends. McDaniels handed the sticks to
“Okay now,” McDaniels said, taking one of the sticks from
Rutledge handed McDaniels the marshmallow. McDaniels put it on the end of the stick firmly and passed it on to Alicia. “Are you an old hand at these marshmallow roasts, little one?”
“Yes Sir,” Alicia replied. “Rotate it, and don’t hold it too far in or you get a flameout, right?”
McDaniels laughed and nodded his assent.
“Where’s Hughes?” Reskova asked brusquely. She looked at
“Don’t go there, Agent Reskova,” McDaniels cut her off, standing up from the fire. “I brought proof down about Hughes, so let’s enjoy the fire for the little one’s sake and deal with the rest tomorrow.”
“That won’t fly, Colonel, show me.”
“I left the proof out there where I called to you. I’ll get it.”
Reskova followed McDaniels to the edge of the woods. She stood waiting for him to return with her arms folded over her chest.
* * *
Alicia glanced up at
“He… he was going to let you get close and then cut me up to make me scream where you could hear me,” Alicia told the shocked agents. “Then he said he’d come down to get you all in the dark… and… and he would’ve too. Jeremiah didn’t let him.”
“See, that’s a flamer,” Alicia told her.
Rutledge smiled at Alicia. The three of them watched McDaniels come back out of the woods with a plastic bag. He opened it, allowing Reskova to shine her Mag-lite down into the bag. Reskova gagged and dropped her small flashlight. She staggered a few steps away and vomited violently. McDaniels sealed up the bag. Without another word, he took it back out into the woods.
“Uh oh, I guess Diane saw something that didn’t agree with her,”
“Be careful what you wish for, huh?” Rutledge winked at Alicia. “You ready for another marshmallow?”
“Yep,” Alicia replied, taking another white puff from Rutledge. “Remember, don’t let yours get too close to the fire.”
“I’ll remember, Honey,” Rutledge promised. “Do you think Diane’s okay, Tom?”
“She’ll be okay, but the Colonel might be in for some trouble.”
Alicia watched Reskova stumble over to her bag and take out her water bottle with a shaky hand. She rinsed her mouth out before spitting the water on the ground. McDaniels returned from the woods. He walked over next to her. Reskova waved him off angrily and stalked over to the fire. She crouched down, holding her hands out to warm them. After a moment, she glared at the other agents.
“Do you know what that monster did?” Reskova asked them, her voice almost a hiss, as she tried to hide her embarrassment.
“Jer…Jeremiah’s not the monster, lady,” Alicia said, her voice trembling as McDaniels walked slowly over to the fire. “Don’t you talk about him like that.”
Alicia felt McDaniels’ arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay, little one, Agent Reskova is just shaken up a bit.”
“You’ll answer for this when we get back down,” Reskova promised darkly. “You can’t just…”
“I asked you nicely not to talk any more about this until we get down out of here,” McDaniels cut her off. “Now I’m telling you. Relax and enjoy the fire. Give Alicia a chance to think about something else.”
“You…” Reskova began, starting to get to her feet. Rutledge grabbed her arm.
“The Colonel’s right, Diane,” Rutledge told her. “Give the little girl a break. You can do anything you like when we get out of these damn woods.”
Reskova shrugged her off but stayed silent.
“Is there anywhere we can land a helicopter and cut the trip back short, Colonel,”
“Yep, there’s a meadow only a half hour away, we can use for an LZ,” McDaniels answered, looking closely at the lightly browned, toasted marshmallow Alicia held up for him to inspect. “We can call in the coordinates tomorrow morning. Let me have one of those sticks and marshmallows, Jen. They look good.”
“Diane said you were bringing the tents, Colonel,”
“I have four of those tube type tents. I’ll get them out a little later,” McDaniels answered. He took out the water bottles he had refilled before going after Hughes from the pack Alicia leaned against. He passed them out to the agents. “There are bears and such out here. I have a bear bag to string all our food up with.”
“Did I mention I hate it out here,” Rutledge said, glancing around uneasily.
“That makes about the five hundredth time, Jen,”
“Just checking,” Rutledge replied, as Alicia laughed.
“You have to use a shovel too when you go to the bathroom,” Alicia informed her. “Otherwise the animals will smell it, right Jeremiah?”
“That’s right, little one. You’re pretty good at this camping stuff,” McDaniels chuckled, giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze. He placed two small packets which said baby wipes on them near a folding camp shovel where everyone could see them.
“Bury anything you do about eighteen inches down,” McDaniels said.
“Where?” Rutledge asked hesitantly.
“Jesus, Rutledge, out there behind a tree somewhere.” Reskova made a dismissive gesture at the woods beyond.
“In the dark?” Rutledge continued. Alicia giggled at the comical look on Rutledge’s face. “I never saw Scully head out into the woods with a shovel on the X-Files.”
Even Reskova laughed.