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"Into The Woods" - Part Fourteen

"Now you know," I said to Mac as we rumbled down the road.

She nodded, her expression grim. "I was a damn fool."

"No," I said. "You just stopped paying attention."

Mac grunted. "Probably never happens to you, huh."

"You'd be surprised," I said.

"Yeah," said Mouse. "She only looks invincible."

A few minutes later we reached the highway.

The Bison and the other Humvee had pulled to the right-hand shoulder just past the turnoff. I slid in behind them, cut the engine, then turned in my seat to look at Kyle.

"Was that him?" I said.

"Yeah," he said. "It was him."

Mac turned to look at us. "Wait--who was who?"

"That secman back there," Kyle said. "Same guy who headed the Capital raid at Starkey's Brewhouse." He looked directly at Mac. "The day James died."

Mac recoiled, eyes wide, hand going to her mouth. She looked away.

"Her husband," I said to Kyle.

Kyle nodded, his eyes dark. "Now that we know he's still here, Tina and I are gonna make sure he pays."

* * *

Mac sent the other two Humvees back to French Gulch with Cutter, Tina, and Kyle and told them to send back one of the SUVs with Beck and whatever they could salvage from Cutter's aerodyne.

An hour later, Mouse and I, along with Cutter, Beck, and Mac were back at the airfield where Renaldi's jet was waiting on the tarmac.

Beck was first inside the plane.

Mac waited outside while Cutter helped bring our gear bags aboard. After we got them stowed, he shook hands with me and Mouse.

"What's next for you?" I said.

"Get me a new aerodyne," he said. "Probably another piece of shit. Fix 'er up good."

"Mac paying you back?"

"Damn right she is."

"She said so?"

"Not yet," said Cutter. "But she will."

"Why not spring for a new one?" Mouse said.

He grinned. "Where's the fun in that?"

"Point taken," I said.

"If you two are ever back here," Cutter said, "look me up. I'll be in the cafe. Take you 'round to see the sights."

"Sounds good," I said.

He sketched us a loose salute, turned, and exited the cabin.

Then Mac appeared at the top of the airstairs and leaned inside, holding onto the doorway.

"Thanks for yanking our asses out of the fire," she said. "Sorry I doubted you two."

"Apology accepted," I said. "Glad we could help out."

"Kyle mentioned something to me about payment?"

"We'll bill you," I said.

She snickered. "Okay."

"And Cutter's aerodyne?"

"I owe him for that," she said. "I know a guy. He'll hook me up."

"Better tell him that."

"I will."

"And if you ever need some work done," I said, "get hold of us."

"But back there you said--"

"Raiding a factory isn't the same as hunting down people and executing them."

Mac grinned and nodded. "You've got a point. I'll keep you two in mind."

She shook hands with us, turned, and headed back down the stairs.

Mouse settled into her seat.

I glanced back at Beck.

He was already reclined and snoring peacefully.

I settled into my seat.

A short time later, we were airborne and headed back to Bay City.

My optic clock read: 19:37:33

More than nine and a half hours since we first landed in Redding.

"Hell of a day," said Mouse.

"You can say that again."

"What was that thing with Tina and the phone?"

"Surveillance video of Dylan and that secman."

"From where?"

"The cafe," I said. "Turns out they had security cams."

"They did?"

"That's what I said. Tina said they were camouflaged to look like part of the roof and inside fixtures."

"I'll be damned."

"Remember that kid sitting out front?"

"With the mohawk."

I nodded. "Son of the cafe's owner. A tech-type. Like Tinker. He sent Tina the footage."

"And Mac saw the vid."

I nodded.

"Nice," said Mouse.

After a moment, Mouse said: "You really think they're gonna pay us the ten grand?"

I shrugged. "We'll see."

"Do we have a payment plan?"

"Don't you start."

"We should have one."

"Mouse--"

"It's still Biz."

"I know," I said.

"And I hate kibble," said Mouse.

Then the plane's phone buzzed.

I answered.

"All finished?" the voice on the other end said.

Renaldi.

"All finished," I said.

"And Beck?"

"Your nephew's on the plane and asleep."

"Good. Now--care to explain how a one hour job turned into an all-day operation?"

I grinned. "It started," I said, leaning back in my seat, "when we went into the woods..."

--END--

NEXT TIME: "Entr'acte"


AUTHOR'S NOTE
The town of French Gulch and the Gladstone Mine are actual places in present-day Northern California, both about 20+ miles northwest of the city of Redding.

I'd like to thank Dottie Smith for providing some historical information about the Gladstone Mine and its property.

Additional information on the mine came from:
Since there was limited information on actual layouts inside the mine itself (other than a brief cross-section in the 1915 Mineralogist's report linked to above), I exerted my authorial and creative licenses (we pay dues every year), guessed at the location of the entrance, and created a completely fictional internal layout.

The layout is based on the information from the above materials, the cross-section from the above-named report, and hand-drawn maps of the Big Horn, Dawn, and Black Cargo Mines of Los Angeles County taken from the Gold Mines of Los Angeles County website.

Any mistakes from doing this are all mine.


"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13

"Into The Woods" - Part Thirteen

While Cutter checked on Kyle, Mac sent the other Claw members back to French Gulch so that only her Humvee and ours remained.

A few minutes after the last convoy vehicle disappeared around the bend in the road, a dark blue ChrysFord Bison appeared and rolled to a stop near us.

Tina jumped out, saw Cutter kneeling next to Kyle, gasped, and ran toward them.

Mac looked at Dylan's body, then at Kyle, then at me. "What next?"

"One last thing," I said to Mac.

"Okay," she said.

I gestured toward the Humvee. "Have a seat. Passenger side."

"What for?"

"Explanations," I said. "Trust me."

Her brow furrowed and she looked at me for a moment, then nodded and got inside the vehicle.

Heard Mouse come up next to me.

I gave her instructions then went over to the front of the Humvee.

Cutter was closing the lid on the first aid kit while Tina helped Kyle to his feet.

"He gonna live?" I said to Cutter.

Cutter nodded, brushed off his knees, and stood up. "Flesh wound. Went straight through. Patched him up some and gave him a pain hypo."

"Clear head?"

"Should be. Wasn't a sedative."

"Good." I told him to help Mouse then turned to Tina. "You have it?"

Tina nodded, fished her cellphone from her hip pocket, keyed some buttons, looked at the display, then handed it to me.

I checked.

It was there.

"How?" I said.

Tina told me.

"Nice," I said.

"Told you it was solid," Tina said.

"You did," I said, then motioned Kyle toward the Humvee. "Get in. Gonna need you for this."

* * *

The late afternoon sun was beginning its drop toward the horizon as we headed up Iron Mountain Road at a crawl, crunching across gravel and dirt.

I drove. Mac sat in the passenger seat, focused intently on Tina's cellphone. Mouse and Kyle sat in the back.

Dylan's body was draped across the hood and lashed in place with rope.

A hundred meters up the road, we reached an intersection and I stopped the Humvee and cut the engine.

"You two stay here," I said to Kyle and Mac. "Do nothing but watch."

They nodded in agreement.

I got out of the vehicle.

Mouse followed.

I left my door open.

"Ropes," I said to Mouse. Then stepped two meters in front of the Humvee and looked around.

Trees and ground shrubbery lined the sides of the road in all directions. The main road went ahead while two other roads curved to the left and right.

The air was quiet and humid and thick with the smell of leaves and grass.

"I know you're there," I said. "Might as well come out."

Silence.

Then the foilage directly ahead of us parted and he emerged.

The secman from the Airpark Cafe. He held an M4-A assault rifle at his right shoulder, muzzle pointed skyward.

"You two," he said.

"Us," I said, signaled to Mouse, then stepped back toward the Humvee.

We grabbed the ropes holding Dylan's legs and arms, yanked him off the hood, and tossed him onto the ground in front of us. The body landed a meter away with a wet thud.

Mouse and I stepped back.

The secman looked down at the body. "That's inconvenient," he said.

"Guess he didn't work out so well," I said.

He looked back up at us. "The others are gone?"

"They are."

"Shit outta luck, pal," said Mouse.

"Shame," he said. "First good lead on them."

"Must've been a good price," I said.

"Money beats rhetoric every time," he said.

"So I've heard," I said. "How much did it beat it by?"

"Two million."

"Not bad."

"Could be yours."

"No thanks."

He cocked his head to one side. "Ronin saying no to two million? That's a new one."

"For wholesale slaughter?" I shook my head. "We don't do mass wetwork."

He grinned. Toothy. Feral. "Who said anything about wetwork? These are security actions."

"Nice try. But no thanks."

"Money beats rhetoric every time," he said.

"Not this time," I said and turned toward the Humvee.

"We could end you both here," he said. "Save us the money."

I stopped and turned back toward him.

He had leveled his rifle at us.

"People know we're here," I said. "They're not the kind of people you want to piss off."

"You could be lying."

"I could. You willing to chance it?"

We locked eyes for what seemed like a long time.

Then he raised his rifle back to his right shoulder.

"Good choice," I said, and Mouse and I got back in the Humvee.

I gave the secman one last look through the front windshield before starting the engine, turning us around, and heading back toward the highway.

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods" - Part Twelve

Ten minutes later, we spotted the halted convoy ahead of us. Four Humvees, four dark SUVs, and three heavy-duty pickups, one of which had a manned .50-caliber machinegun mounted in the truckbed, sat on the shoulder of the road.

Mouse had kept up a neverending stream of invective on the walkie talkie directed at Dylan and it seemed to have worked at derailing them.

"They're about twenty meters from the turnoff," Kyle said.

"Block 'em," I said.

We roared past the line of cars, crossed the double-yellow, and slid to a squealing stop at an angle across the intersection of Highway 299 and Iron Mountain Road.

Mouse stopped talking on the walkie and Mac's voice screeched from the speaker: "--I find you, I will cut your fucking head off!"

She turned it off, gave a cruel little chuckle, and handed the unit back to Kyle.

Kyle had a broad grin on his face and Cutter was gasping and wiping his eyes.

I grinned at Mouse. "Nice play," I said.

Mouse flashed me a grin then gestured toward the front of the Humvee.

I turned.

The convoy vehicles were disgorging their passengers.

I counted at least thirty, all of them looking at our Humvee, confusion on their faces.

Looked at Kyle. "Stay here," I said. "Wait for my signal."

He gave me a puzzled look, but nodded.

"Let's go, Mouse," I said.

"Right behind you," said Mouse.

"Me, too," said Cutter.

I opened my door, stepped out, and stood next to the front of the Humvee.

Heard the two other doors open and close.

Out of the corner of both eyes, spotted Cutter to my left, Mouse to my right.

The passenger's side door of the lead Humvee flew open and Mac jumped out and marched toward me, a scowl on her face. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Dylan's sold you out," I said.

Mac skidded to a stop. "That was you on the radio."

"Was me," said Mouse. "And it's true."

"Bullshit," said Mac.

"He sold you out to Capital," I said. "You're walking into an ambush."

Mac drew the pistol from her leg holster and pointed it at me. "You lie," she said.

"Now," I said.

Our Humvee's door opened.

Mac swung her pistol toward the sound.

Then gasped and stepped back.

Kyle walked forward and stopped in front of our Humvee, his AK-47 held muzzle-down at his side. "No lie, Mac," he said.

Surprised cries rippled across the other Claw members.

Mac lowered her pistol, her brow creased. "What're you doing here? You're supposed to be--"

"Gone ahead?" said Kyle. "To recon the site?"

"Disobeying an order," said Dylan.

Looked.

Saw Dylan standing next to the lead Humvee's driver side door, pistol trained on Kyle.

Kyle raised his AK at him.

Dylan fired.

Kyle fell back against the Humvee's front grill, clutching his left shoulder, the AK dropping to the ground beside him.

Heard Mouse shuffle right.

Mac whirled on Dylan, pistol swinging up toward him, her eyes wide. "Stand down and drop the weapon!"

Dylan kept the pistol pointed at Kyle. "I told you Kyle was bad news, Mac. But you didn't listen."

"Drop the goddamn weapon, Dylan!" said Mac.

"Too late for that," said Dylan and swung the pistol toward Mac.

Subvocal.

And the world slid into slo-mo.

The Twins leaped into my hands from their shoulder rig and roared twice, spitting fire and thunder. Both rounds slammed into Dylan, high, near the shoulder, bounced him off the driver's side door, and pitched him face-first onto the asphalt. His pistol clattered away.

Then Dylan pushed himself up from the ground, looked toward me, lips twisted in a snarl.

And twenty centimeters of sharpened steel popped out of the back of his right hand.

Implant blade.

Damn. Should've checked.

Dylan got one leg under him, rose to a half-crouch.

Metal whistled past me.

And three throwing knives erupted from Dylan's left upper arm.

He howled, clutching at his arm, and staggered back against the Humvee's door.

The Twins barked again, twice each.

Dylan's chest cratered and he folded.

And stopped moving.

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods" - Part Eleven

My breathing was a little ragged, my heart was jackhammering in my chest, and my shirt was soaked with sweat and plastered to my back when we finally rounded the bend and the dirt road gave way to pavement.

Never liked prolonged runs. More of a sprinter.

We came to a stop just before the tree cover ended and ducked behind a thick patch of foilage on the side of the road.

Kyle, Tina, and Cutter were bent over, hands on their knees, sucking in air.

I was just breathing hard.

Mouse was crouched next to me, face glistening with sweat, but she was breathing evenly, not even winded.

Showoff.

I popped my optic clock: 17:07:31.

"We have a little over fifty minutes," I said. "We need to get to them before all hell breaks loose." I looked at Kyle. "Any chance there's a car or something left here we can use? Something they didn't take with them?"

He frowned. "Maybe."

"We'd better look," said Mouse. "And fast."

I nodded. "Split up and check around. Fire two shots if you find something."

* * *

I found the sand-colored Humvee with the roof-mounted machine gun five minutes later.

It was parked next to a shabby, one-story, reddish-brown building boasting half an awning, two windows minus glass, and a sign in front of the roof with faded white block letters that read: FRENCH GULCH GENERAL STORE U.S. POST OFFICE. The Humvee's driver side door was open and a Claw member stood half-in, half-out, one hand on top of the door frame, looking toward the back of the building. Another sat in the passenger side, also looking backward.

Then two more Claw members jogged out from behind the building at a trot, rifles slung over their shoulders.

The driver slapped the Humvee's roof twice. "Move it!" he said. "We're late!"

I stood in the middle of the street, drew Bonnie, aimed at the store/post office, and fired two shots.

The driver whirled so fast he tumbled out of the door and fell ass-first on the pavement. The two Claw members outside the vehicle skidded to a stop, nearly crashing into each other, fumbled for their rifles, finally swung them at me.

Lowered Bonnie and held up my left hand, palm out. "Easy, boys," I said. "I just want to use your car."

The driver scrambled to his feet, a pistol in a two-handed grip leveled at me. "Who the fuck are you?"

"Somebody trying to save your ass," I said. "Your people are walking into a trap."

"What are you talking about?" he said.

The passenger had gotten out and now joined the two other Claw members on the left side of the Humvee, their rifles trained on me.

"Forget talking," one of them said. "Let's just shoot her ass."

"Stand down!" a voice said from somewhere behind me.

Then the sound of running feet.

Kyle.

The Humvee group turned their heads to look past me and confusion played across their faces.

The driver lowered his pistol, frowning. "Kyle? What the fuck is going on? I thought you were already at the plant?"

"Dylan sold us out," Kyle said, coming to a stop near me.

He gave them the short version of the story.

Mouse, Cutter, and Tina, arrived a few moments later.

"That little shit," the driver said after Kyle finished.

"Then you're gonna help," I said.

He nodded. So did the others.

"How long ago did they leave?"

"Five, six minutes ago," said the driver.

"We're taking the Humvee," I said.

I motioned to Mouse and Cutter and they headed for the vehicle.

"I'm driving," Kyle said and followed them.

"What about us?" the driver said.

"Stay here," I said. "We've got this."

"Your Bison here?" Tina said to the driver.

"Yeah, but--"

"I'm borrowing it." She turned to me. "You said he was at the Airpark Cafe, right? Dylan and that other guy."

"Yeah," I said. "Why?"

"You need proof," Tina said.

"Was planning on forcing Dylan's hand."

She smiled. "I can get backup. Just in case."

"You can."

She nodded. "Solid backup."

"Do it," I said, turned, and ran toward the waiting Humvee.

* * *

The Humvee left the road leading toward French Gulch, scream-slid across the highway intersection nearly taking out the faded green Highway 299/Redding/Weaverville sign, and roared east toward Redding.

"Shit!" Cutter said from his seat in the back.

"Alive," I said to Kyle from my spot in the passenger seat, gripping the dashboard in front of me, cool air blowing in from the two air vents. "We want to get there alive."

"What's your plan?" said Kyle, expertly negotiating the curves ahead.

Shrubs, trees, and the guardrails zipped past us in a green-gray blur and the Humvee's engine whined with speed.

"Catch up with them as soon as possible," I said. "Best if we can keep them from getting to the plant."

"There's a turn from the highway," Kyle said. "Iron Mountain Road. Takes them up toward the plant."

"Can you get there before they do?"

"They've got a five minute head start. Short answer, no."

"Got an idea," Mouse said. "Gimme your walkie talkie."

Kyle unclipped it from his gear belt and passed it back to her.

"What channel is everybody on?"

Kyle told her.

"Leave it to me," said Mouse.

"Punch it," I said to Kyle.

A moment later, I heard Mouse say: "Dylan's fucking you all in the butt."

I choked back a snorted laugh.

And Kyle almost drove off the road.

(to be continued...)