Part II

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Carol Pahl

Part II

Chris slammed the phone back into its cradle and mumbled under his breath. “Damn fool.”

Looking up from his monitor, Ezra looked at his superior. “Any news?”

“Can’t find a single DEA officer who knows a thing about a bust going down in central Wyoming. All their efforts are centered on a suspected shipment coming through Yellowstone.”

Standish returned his attention to his computer screen. “Definitely a nightmare, all the tourists this time of year. Have you ever visited the odiferous sulfur pots spewing steam at regular intervals, Mr. Larabee?”

“Took Sarah there once. Have no desire to see nature like that again.” Chris thumbed through agency directories looking for another phone number when the instrument rang again.

“Larabee here.” His voice plainly irritated at the distraction.

“Agent Larabee, I’m sorry to bother you again but I get no response from the phone your agent used to transmit the certification data.”

“Ms. Steavens, Agent Dunne sent another transmission?” Chris interest piqued.

A silence permeated the airwaves before she spoke. “Not another transmission but the same bar codes as this morning. Mr. Larabee, is your agent a cryptographer?”

“No. Why?”

“Well, what he sent in the parity check box is such a happenstance. At the end of each bar code the operator is required to enter a number or letter, using a pattern. Most use all odd or even numbers or a sequence of letters, like their name. It’s not part of the security code but it is a requirement of the software.”

“Ma’am, JD’s real bright when it comes to this stuff. What did he send you?” Chris paced his office waiting for the woman to explain why she called for the third time that day.

“I don’t usually follow the patterns mind you, that’s not what I’m supposed to watch for. But since this batch already threw up a red flag I followed its transmission. Everything was perfect, every sequence, even the last ID was entered in the proper fashion. If this would have happened this morning I wouldn’t have given any of this any thought.”

Chris squeezed the phone waiting for the woman to end her rambling. “Ms. Steavens, is JD in trouble?”

“When I removed the parity box from each bar code they spelled “deathwtch7sopas”.

The senior agent interrupted her. “Was there anything else strange?”

“No sir. At first I was going to call you back about how prompt and complete the verification was entered but that word ‘death’ caught my eye and well I worry about you young boys out there, risking your own lives to protect us from the criminals.”

“Ms. Steavens, red flag this batch and try to get a trace on the point of origin. I’ve got to go now.”

“Please before you hang up will you let me know how things turn out? If I’m going to be in the middle of some covert operation, I’d at least like to know how it ends.”

“I will. Thanks. Good-by.” Chris slammed the phone down again and turned to yell at Standish. The undercover man stood in the door, attracted to eavesdropping on the conversation.

“JD’s in trouble, big time.” He handed the scribbled code to the other man.

“I don’t understand, Mr. Larabee. I mean the letters are certainly cryptic but what do you suspect they cipher?”

Ezra handed the paper back to Chris and walked towards the fax machine. A small stack of paper sat in the tray. The top one caught his eye and he groaned.

“I fear our young colleague is being used to perform a slight of hand. Lester Harper is persona non-gratis with the Drug Enforcement Agency. The name is an alias used by Lester Harpster, AKA Les Harken. He is presently on unpaid suspension pending the outcome of a investigation into stolen electronic equipment from his office.”

“What kind of equipment?” Chris knew the answer before the other man spoke.

“Digital transmission devices necessary to verify and receive certification codes for plastic explosives.”

The chiming of the elevator doors brought both men’s heads up as they watched for their unexpected visitors. The loud ruckus meant one thing. The rest of the team was home.

Buck, expertly maneuvering the crutches, led the group into ATF Team Seven’s office. “Ez, glad to see you back. Could have used you last week in Virginia. Hey, pretty sharp duds, partner. Almost didn’t recognize you dressed like that.” He shook his friend’s hand before heading for the nearest chair by JD’s desk.

The other men greeted their partner and quickly tuned into the room’s tension.

Vin’s quiet voice asked the question they all knew they didn’t want to hear the answer. “What’s wrong?”

Before Chris or Ezra could answer, Buck looked around the room and asked, “Where’s the kid?”

Silence permeated the room as each man looked at the others in the room.

Finally Chris responded, his voice low and deadly, “We don’t know exactly but..?”

“You don’t know? You don’t know as in he ran out to get burger and fries? You don’t know as in he and Casey are out romancing and getting better acquainted or you don’t know as in you don’t know?”

Nathan stepped over to Buck’s side and rested his large hand on the distraught man’s shoulder. “Keep calm, Buck. Give Chris a chance to explain. Don’t want you headed back to the hospital so soon.”

Chris handed the scribble note to Josiah and motioned for every to find a seat. As he explained the numerous phone calls from Chicago and the visit by the DEA agent, the oldest member of the team studied the letters, trying to unlock JD’s message.

“Where did you say this raid was taking place, Chris?” Josiah interrupted, not noticing he missed following the most of the conversation.

Chris returned to his office and grabbed the folder containing his notes with Harper. “Wyoming, somewhere near Casper.”

“South Pass is near there.” Quickly the anthropologist explained the significance of South Pass history in the development of Oregon and California. “Isn’t anything up there but sand, tumbleweeds and an occasional cactus.”

“You would think as important a role that real estate played in our country’s history an entrepreneur would have developed its potential for economic gain by now.”

Josiah shook his head at Ezra’s statement. “Last I heard there’s just a rutty dirt road and a couple of monuments to the intrepid pioneers who crossed through there.”

“Sounds like a real lonely place, Josiah,” Vin added.

Josiah grabbed a white board and scribbled the check letters out for everyone to see. “Here, at the end, after the seven, could be him spelling out South Pass.”

“You all don’t think we’re jumping the gun here, do ya? Now I know we’re talking JD and if there’s going to be trouble, he’ll be in the middle of it. Feel quite foolish us racing up there to help him, if’n he won’t be needing it.” Nathan’s pragmatic nature moved the men to clearer thinking.

Ezra stood to add his discovery. He reread the papers faxed from the DEA bureau and knew his young friend wasn’t holding a winning hand. “Agent Harper/Harpster is on a vendetta. Chris, do you remember a case we shared with the DEA a couple of years ago? Down in Phoenix? It involved the Nichols clan. Harper was the agent responsible for beating the two conspirators which resulted in them getting released and our case dropped. The Nichols have since been detained and incarcerated but the fact remains that Harper was placed on suspension for a lengthy duration because of his misjudgment.”

“I’m the one who turned him in. Didn’t recognize him when he was here.” Though Chris Larabee spoke with a low voice the anger behind it sent electrical currents through the room.

“What about them other letters, any idea as to what JD meant with ‘deathwtch’? He talking about time or something?”

The men sat in unnatural silence contemplating the letter’s significance. “I could run a search of the term,” Ezra offered.

Buck sat in silence, his merriment stymied. Just thinking about the boy in the hands of some creep out to get Chris made his blood boil. His broken leg ached from the long plane ride. As he turned to pull out one of JD’s desk drawers to elevate his leg he accidentally knocked off the stack of papers and folders from the corner of the desktop. Nathan helped the despondent colleague position his foot on the open drawer and bent over to retrieve the scattered paperwork. He stacked the folders and papers. A comic book peeked out from under Buck’s chair. As the medic reached for the errant reading material he spotted a small paperback book on the floor. The title startled him, “Deathwatch”. He thumbed through the short novella and soon discovered the association. “Harper is killing him and making it look like JD succumbed to the elements.”



The men’s chorus quieted as Nathan held up the small book. “Found this under JD’s desk. It’s the story of a young man, left to die of dehydration. Made to look natural not murder. Wanted to cover some crime, a murder or something.”

“The bastard.” The missing man’s roommate reached for his crutches but Nathan stopped him.

“No way, Buck. You should still have that leg in traction. There is no way you’re running off to the wilds of Wyoming.”

Wilmington’s voice dripped with distain. “JD ain’t got the time for us to argue. For all we know he could be dead already. Any body else notice how hot it is outside? How long did you tell us it took a body to get dehydrated?”

The five men exited the office, assisting Buck to the waiting vehicles while Chris made two phone calls. The judge would take care of federal issues; the second call alerted state officials of the travesty going down in their jurisdiction.

+ + + + + + +

The small, velvet like nose sniffed and touched the prone figure. The cold fleshy body hid warm moisture. The small creature scratched the unfamiliar hairless hide. It dug its claws deeper, waiting for the blood to flow. Scratching the exposed belly the three knifelike claws tore open the flesh but the pain penetrated the other animal’s numb brain and the body jerked away from the agony. Fighting the fog preventing him from thinking straight, JD opened his dry eyes. The specks of dust scratched his eyeballs. His lips and nasal passages peeled. No saliva lubricated his mucous membranes. Every nerve ending felt raw. Using sheer grit, he pulled himself into a sitting position.

The full moon illuminated the moonlike landscape. The desert came alive at night when the nocturnal residents foraged for food and moisture. JD didn’t want to die; he had too much living yet to do. The darkness didn’t frightened him; the absence of the sun’s heat relieved some of the pain.

JD knew the other members of the team would miss him. After being part of Chris’s select assembly of ATF agents for almost two years, he knew they would all grieve for him. Buck would be devastated. No, if ands or buts. Buck was his big brother and JD wouldn’t let him down.

Before the sun appeared over the eastern horizon the former easterner, JD, needed water or he would expire. How could Harper leave him to die? Though he’d shot other men in the middle of a raid or when defending his friends he couldn’t fathom purposely causing the death of another human.

The young man struggled towards the nearest mound of large rocks. Sand burrs dug deep into his torn soles. He ignored all the pains and aches as he searched for a source of water. If three-fourths of the earth’s surface was water, couldn’t there be a little of it in this spot? Unable to jump up the rocks he slowly climbed over the indigenous stones.

He struggled toward the next rock. A slight splash echoed through the night air. He dropped to his knees and felt for the water. Laying down on the rocky surface JD stuck his face into the pool. The first mouthful refused to pass his swollen tongue. Swishing the moisture around in his mouth hydrated the dry membranes. He gulped more of the precious fluid; literally feeling it permeated his body. Giving his stomach a chance to settle he splashed some of the priceless moisture into his sand filled eyes while letting the droplets fall back into the natural stone basin. JD was glad he couldn’t see if anything else was in the small pool. He needed the water more than he needed to worry about dirt or any other contamination polluting the water.

The desert seemed so deserted, empty and void of wildlife, during the daylight hours. He watched birds fly through the nocturnal sky hunting for food. Other critters stalked and skittered across the arid landscape, all involved in survival. How would he be able to survive the brutal environment? He almost died during the day. He’d never survive a second day with no water, protection or food.

Drinking more of the water, JD thought about the other men he worked with. They would come to his aid in an instant if they knew he needed their help. He would risk his own life for any of his friends if they were in danger. He’d tried to stop Harper but wasn’t successful. Would anyone notice the cryptic message he added to his second transmission? Probably not. By the time whoever received his verifications realized the checkboxes pointed the way, he’d be dead.

Pushing himself away from the ground, he struggled to balance on his feet. If he was to find shelter from the solar rays, he needed to cross the desert before the orb rose in the east.

A half hour into the sojourn intense pain doubled him over. He dropped to his knees waiting for the spasm to pass. Did he poison himself? The pain increased through his entire gut. Relief came as he lost the little water still in his belly. He fell onto the ground writhing in agony.

Josiah’s calm voice penetrated his anguish offering encouragement. Don’t give up, John Dunne. Help is on the way. Nathan’s baritone resonated in his mind, Ride it out, JD. They’re just cramps. Dunne looked for his friends.

He looked around in the darkness, staring at the shapes in the distance. Harper returned! JD scooted back, away from the threatening image. Stones and stems snagged the knit fabric and scraped his exposed skin. “Go away,” he yelled with a voice that only emitted a slight murmur.

More voices whispered in his mind. Vin’s words of encouragement calmed his racing heart. Ezra’s offered the challenge of the greatest con, to cheat death. Buck’s voice rang the truest, We’re coming, little brother.

Doubling over again with dry heaves, his entire body shook. He would survive until Buck and the others took Harper down and he went home.

+ + + + + + +

“How much further, Dad?”

“Mom, I’m thirsty. Can I have a drink?.”

“Elsie, are you sure we’re on the right road? Shouldn’t we be to the turnoff by now?”

“The book says its eleven miles from where we left the highway. Then we go seven miles on the gravel road before coming to a dirt road.” The young mother read the Oregon Trail Travel Guide in her lap. “There it is.” She pointed at the unmarked turnoff.

Dallas Bauman turned off the blacktop road and headed toward the mountains in the distance. Visiting the lonely South Pass on the Continental Divide was the lifelong dream of his wife. She loved American history and voraciously read novels and non-fiction books about the settlement of the American west. Pioneer travel diaries, shoot-‘em-up westerns and historical romances filled their home’s bookshelves. Elsie convinced her family to spend their two-week vacation retracing the route of the Conestoga wagons that traveled west over one hundred and fifty years ago. They stopped at Pony Express stations, museums and out of the way monuments to the intrepid men and women who made the perilous journey west. The family’s final goal was the monument to Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa located at the wide pass.

He stopped the car near a small mound of boulders. “The car is overheating. I didn’t realize the grade we’re pulling. Don’t see how they made it through here with a team of oxen for power.”

“They walked.” Elsie sat mesmerized by the vista offered her in the early morning as the sun rose over the eastern hills and illuminated the barren landscape.

“Kids, why don’t you get out and do a little exploring while I let the car cool down? Don’t go too far.” He pulled two water bottles out of the cooler and handed them to the children.

“Can we climb the rocks, Dad?” Billy’s ten-year-old body was ready to run.

“Sure. Just be careful.” He watched Jennifer and Billy trot towards the natural playground and smiled. Climbing rocks was cheap entertainment but both of his children loved the outdoors.

“Watch out for snakes. The book says the mountain range around here is called Rattlesnake Range.” Elsie sat on a nearby boulder and looked at the surrounding landscape. “Do you hear it?”

“Hear what?” Dallas looked at the serene expression gracing his wife’s face. He strained to hear anything besides the lonely wind and the occasional child’s voice that drifted off the pile of stones.

“The jangling harnesses, plodding hooves, creaking wagons, squeaking wheels.”

“What? Are you going crazy, honey? I don’t hear anything but ..” Before Dallas finished his statement a girl’s scream echoed off the desert.

“Jenni!” The parent’s voices spoke in unison as they raced up the hill to find their children.

Billy ran down the rocks, jumping over crevices as he raced toward his parents. “We found a body. Under the rocks. I thought it was a cave. There’s a dead man in there!”

Continued in Part 3

"Deathwatch" by Robb White, c1972
Part 1 Part 3 Part 4 Index

February 2001