Category Archives: Action thrillers

“Shades of Justice” Chapter Forty-five

Kathy met them at Dulles Airport in the Ford Flex she had rented. Shadow and Gideon were in the back. Kathy let them out to greet Jack and Kelly. She knew Gideon wouldn’t run off as long as Shadow and his human pack were there. Shadow ran up to Jack and stood on his hind legs. He knew not to jump on people. Jack stepped forward and hugged him while Shadow licked his ear. Kelly made a fuss over Gideon. Kathy said, “Lover, save something for me.” Jack gathered her in his arms. “The next time you go anywhere, I’m coming. I’m not good at this stay behind and worry stuff. And Kelly thanks for bringing him back.”

“It was more like him bringing me back.”

Kathy spun back to Jack and said, “Did anyone get killed?”

“The sniper and we didn’t do it,” Jack said defensively. “Kelly was dragging him to his feet when he was shot in the back. We didn’t fire a shot. What we both need now is a hot bath and something to eat besides trail mix or store-bought sandwiches on an airplane.”

“Get in the Flex. I can fix both of those problems. Storm and Lou are residing with us. They are a great example of a father and daughter sharing the same values and belief system. Storm runs the family. In fact she runs anything she touches. She has a rare sense of always knowing what to do. Her exceptional beauty with her Jamaican ancestral heritage helps her carry off her in-your-face presence when her blood is up. I have to watch she doesn’t cross Mrs. Minh.”

Jack laughed and asked, “How is Sally doing?”

“Sally is getting into her training program. She is good at hapkido. I went to practice yesterday and was impressed. You will be swamped with questions about the ins and outs and tradeoffs of the units you want set up. I told them beyond keeping it simple I wasn’t going to guess what you were thinking about.”

It was dark when Kathy pulled into the garage of the Brandon house. It was late but the Minhs had held dinner and all were seated around the dining room table. Turkish yogurt soup was the first course followed by an Indonesian curry and rice with several condiments. Dessert was fresh lychees served with strong dark Sumatran roast coffee. Over coffee Jack brought everyone up to date on the episode in Montana and the next phase to destroy the mob-run human trafficking activity.

“We can’t stop the crime of human trafficking but we can put this part of it out of business. Lou, the first action is for you.”

Jack went on to detail what he wanted. He asked Lou to survey Conrad Connors and Dom Salvatori, starting with Conrad, for just enough time to verify Jim’s story about where he lived, phone numbers, car plates, and movement patterns with photos. The next step involved the same kind of surveillance on Dom in Atlantic City. The surveillance on Dom would have to be done very carefully. “As a member of a New Jersey mob he will be aware of his surroundings and conscious of anyone following him,” Jack cautioned. “The intent is to gather enough information on Dom, to again verify Jim’s account, and to learn enough about his movements, associates, and living arrangements so we have the option of picking him up for questioning.”

Storm said, “What kind of analytic unit do you want?”

Jack said, “Small, responsive, and very smart. Almost no paper products. A number of briefings as needed by Lou, Kathy, or me. Kelly, if you or Sally need analytic support ask one of us. Storm, hire as many people as you need. There is no time for on-the-job training. They should have some experience in operational analysis and planning. Hackers are good. I do not want ‘think pieces’ or unasked for reports. Do not hire any analysts that think they know more than you. I’ve seen and used your work. You are very good. No analysts whose egos exceed their abilities. Kathy will give you the pay scale and benefits. There will be no leaking of information to anyone and no discussing of work outside our group. No second chances. All must agree to polygraph-supported interviews at any time. Surveillants and analysts will not be brought to this house or given this address. Use your cells for all calls. Have any and all bills sent to a P.O. Box. Lease or buy secure office space as soon as possible. Kathy will approve all office rentals or buys. Lou, make sure all your people have private investigator licenses and concealed carry permits. If they don’t have them now, get them started on the process. Use hotel conference facilities until you get into your own spaces. Lou and Storm, it would be good if you could have separate spaces in the same building. Include enough space for a small team of lawyers. If you have any recommendations for a lawyer you know personally, please tell Kathy. We’ll meet here at dinnertime for a couple of days until you have office space. The office space will be leased or subleased to you personally. We start tomorrow.”

Storm and Lou left to go to their rooms and start working on their plans. Kelly and Sally stayed behind. Kelly asked, “What about us?”

Jack answered, “Kelly, your role is cast. You can change it, but you’re very good at the hard stuff. Sally, continue with your training but at a less intensive pace. We need you to organize and run a comprehensive legal team, including real estate acquisitions. Kathy and I want to establish a trust fund to finance educations for people who are college material but need financial help. Kathy will go over the details with you. Remember these assignments all depend on your acceptance. And nothing is forever. Both of you will also be asked to work as a team with Lou’s people once in a while and more often with Kathy and me. You always have the right to refuse an assignment. No questions asked. If you have bad feelings about the operation or can’t support it fully, just opt out.

“Kathy and I will be your teachers for now. Kelly is proficient now with long-range shooting. She needs more work on short-distance reaction shooting with multiple targets. Sally, you need both. You will always be in some training phase. Kathy and I put ourselves through training exercises several times a year. We can all make improvements.

“Physical conditioning is a constant struggle for improvement. We’ll include training in the development of cover stories, the use of alias documentation, interrogation, and use of disguises. Doing what we do is very much like role playing on stage. You have to get into the part. If you don’t believe in your cover, you won’t fool anyone. We want the two of you to work as a team to take over for Kathy and me at times. Tomorrow morning a couple of hours after breakfast the four of us will work out in our Dojang. I want to see how the hapkido is coming along. Kelly, you’ll work with me. Sally will be with Kathy. So get a good night’s sleep.”

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“Shades of Justice” Chapter Forty-four

Jack explained the situation to Jim while he was cleaning up the areas he touched inside the cabin. Jim blanched when Jack told him that at the first sign Jim had contacted Conrad or Dom or anyone else, Jack would send his handwritten, dated, and signed statement to Dom and his boss. The same thing would happen if Bobby talked to anyone, including the law. If he kept his mouth shut, he would receive $10,000 per month, ostensibly for a share in his business. Jack told him he expected him to pay taxes on the money as a capital gain on the investment in his shooting camp.

When Kelly came in the cabin, Jack said, “I’ve told him the situation. Now Jim you should know that your walking is a close call. Kelly wanted to kill you now. The slightest reason we have to think you betrayed our trust, Kelly or someone like her will come to Montana to kill you and Bobby. You will never even see them. It will just be over. Understand?”

Jim nodded. Jack said, “I didn’t hear anything. Kelly, maybe we should talk some more about his cooperation?”

“Why talk? You know what I want to do with him.”

Kelly had her SOCOM out and wracked a round into the chamber. Jack said, “No! No! Don’t shoot him in here.”

Jim’s face was dripping sweat and he was trying to talk. Jack said, “Come on Jim, get it out.”

Jim said, “I’ll cooperate. You won’t have any trouble with me or Bobby.”

“One last point. Why did you tell me you might know the suspect in the artist sketch I sent you?”

“When I saw the sketch, it was so accurate, I knew someone would identify Jake. Then the investigation would eventually get to me. Conrad said I had no choice. I had to tell you and find out what the police knew. Jake was expendable. Always was. When you left, Jake would disappear and we would find another shooter.”

Jack said, “Kelly, let him live?”

Kelly said, “Okay. But no more casual responses. You’re in or you’re dead. I like dead better.”

It was starting to rain when they left. By the time they reached Jim’s Jeep, the rain was coming hard. Kelly drove them back to the camp and after a cup of coffee and a short good-bye to Jim, Bobby drove them to the airport. Bobby was sensitive enough to know something was going on but asked no questions. The plane was ready and they got a lucky break in the rain and cloud cover and were cleared for takeoff.

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“Shades of Justice” Chapter Forty-three

“There were three of us in Vietnam that were really close. All of us were sergeants. In the 82nd Airborne. We DEROSED about the same time and agreed to meet in Washington, D.C., on the first of May 1970. The peace demonstrations were everywhere. We were all bitter. None of us had much chance of getting decent work. We tried to think up something we could do together to make some money. We didn’t know much except military life and killing. Nothing came of it and we separated, promising to stay in touch.”

“This story better get interesting soon.”

“It will but I want you to understand.”

“Just hurry up!”

“A few years went by and Conrad Connor., the youngest of the three of us, called me and said he needed help and asked me to come right away. He said there would be enough money in it to pay my expenses with plenty left over. He knew I would drive and asked me to bring a couple of my rifles so we could do some shooting on a nearby range.

“I made my way to Conrad’s small farm house in Round Hill, Virginia. Just north of Leesburg on Route 15. He was renting the house and barely had enough money to buy groceries. We had a few drinks, catching up, and bringing back old times. Finally I asked him why he wanted me to come. He said Dom called him a few days back. Dom Salvatori was the third person of our group. Dom had family connections on a low level to gambling in Atlantic City. Dom offered Conrad $25,000 for taking out a guy the Atlantic City mob wanted to disappear. Nothing fancy, just kill him. Dom also said Conrad could contact me. If we did this job well there would be more work. Conrad and I talked it over for less than an hour and agreed it was no different than killing for the Army. We were still bitter at the government and the people in general. They sent us to Vietnam and let us dangle out there and didn’t care squat about helping us when we came home.

“We did two or three hits a year for Dom and his friends. The pay got better. Our lives improved. I bought my shooting camp with mob money. They thought it was excellent cover for us and we could do some spotting of other good shooters who needed money. We never knew much about our targets. Just a picture, an address, and some information about where they hung out. A year ago they asked me to recommend a shooter with no criminal background who was young and naive. The guy had to be responsible, follow instructions, and ask no questions. They didn’t want Conrad or me because the shooter they wanted would be expendable. After a period he would disappear and another similar shooter would pick up the business. We did not know about the kidnapping. You shook me when you told me about the young women being snatched. That’s all I know.”

“Kelly, see if you can find a tablet. Jim is going to write out his statement.”

“What are you going to do with my statement?”

“Keep it in case I let you live. If I even suspect you alert your friends or fail to follow my instructions in any way I’ll kill you and Bobby and leave your statement where it will be found. You should know that there are more of us than just Kelly and me. I’ll need more than you told us before I let you go back to your camp. So far you’re still a dead man. A warning: I’m going to untie your right hand, the other hand will be tied to the chair. Don’t even think about making a move. I will not be taking my eyes off you.”

“What else do you want?”

“We’ll need phone numbers, photos, or very good descriptions, personality data on Conrad and Dom, and a history of past kills.”

Kelly found a yellow pad and pen and handed them to Jack, using a paper towel to avoid putting her prints or Jack’s on the pad. As Jim wrote out his statement, Jack pulled her to the side and asked her for her thoughts on what to do with Jim, keeping his eyes on the big man.

“Kill him. It is too dangerous to let him live. I don’t trust him after he tried to kill us.”

“Hear that, Jim? Your information has to make her change her mind, otherwise it will look like you and Jake got into a fight and killed each other. Kelly has Jake’s rifle and you conveniently shot Jake with your rifle. Case closed. So you had better be convincing.

“Kelly, his cell is beside the sink. Go through it and see what you can find.”

When Jim finished writing his statement plus the information Jack wanted, Jack passed it over to Kelly to check what she could against data contained in the cell phone. Jack retied Jim’s right hand and motioned to Kelly to step outside. When she followed him out he said, “Anything in the cell’s memory that checks with his written information?”

“Yes, the names of his friends match, as do their phone numbers. His photo library is almost full. Very few captions or dates. Hard to make sense of them. No audio recordings. A list of recent calls and favorites. No music or videos and a few bookmarks of gun and outdoor sellers. Doesn’t look as if he does much searching on the Internet. Nothing on his cell relates to their hits over the years. Guess he was smart enough not to record any of them. Bottom line, alive, he’s a walking time bomb with our names on it.”

“If we kill him, I believe we could leave a plausible crime scene scenario but Bobby and others at the camp saw us with him and she knows we were going to see Jake carrying weapons. I’m not so tough that I could kill her in cold blood and I don’t want you to get there. So, if he dies, he is still a problem to us. If we let him live there is at least a chance he will not alert his fellow thugs. I’m thinking the same thing you are. This guy has killed several innocent people and counting up the ones Jake killed, the number gets into the twenties or higher.

“I like a combination of carrot and stick. Stick first. If he talks we send his statement to his mob friends. They will do the rest. Sending to the law enforcement types is a waste of time. The way the statement was obtained rules out its use in court. Every month we have no reason to believe he has double-crossed us, I’ll deposit $10,000 in his account. I don’t expect payments to go on for more than two or three months. I don’t think this guy believes he did anything wrong. He never even said he regretted trying to kill us. Whatever happens to him won’t keep me awake.”

Kelly said, “Something needs to happen to him. Let’s turn him over to Kathy.”

“What, you have no mercy?”

“Scum like Jim don’t deserve any mercy.”

“We have two choices. One is to move up the chain by grabbing Conrad or Dom. The other is to make Jim call Conrad and set up a meeting. I like the option of grabbing Dom the best. Conrad is just another Jim, a hired killer. Agree?”

“Yes, but only because killing Jim could cause complications for us. He doesn’t deserve to walk.”

“Jim’s days are numbered. The mob will figure out who fingered them and do their thing about cleaning up loose ends.”

“Who was the voice that called Jake to give him his schedule?”

“It had to be Dom Salvatori. Conrad and Jim are just hired help. Now we need to wipe the cabin clean of our prints without removing Jake’s. It’s okay if we miss some Jim left here. I removed the nylon line from Jake’s wrists before he died. I’ll check his wrists for marks. There will be none on his legs. There is a rainstorm coming soon. It’s clouding up now. Even a small rain will take away our tracks on the way in here. But the trail up to his body from the cabin will need checking. You check the path you and Jake used. I’ll clean up my marks at Jim’s ambush site. I’m tempted to leave any tracks or marks he made there for an especially sharp sheriff to find, but it is not good for us to have the cops question Jim. He’ll cave in a heartbeat. Meet me in the cabin when you’re done. Make sure Jake’s rifle and its position look like he was going up the slope when he was shot in the back. Jim’s car is probably on the fire road. When we leave, you drive and I’ll watch him. Once back at the camp our story will be that Jake wasn’t there. I’ll say we might try again next month. Jim can make sure Bobby doesn’t talk about us going to get Jake. Okay? Let’s get started.”

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“Shades of Justice” Chapter Forty-two

Lying in his ambush position, Jim looked at his watch. He had expected Jack and the girl to arrive sooner. Something must have held them up. He was pleased with his position. He could cover any approach from the West.

He was in a bad situation. But he needed the money and he had to take care of his family. He had made the back mortgage payments and was in the black. If only Jack wasn’t so damn persistent.

The only thing he could think up to get rid of the three bodies was to put them all in the cabin and set it on fire. Just then he heard a sound. Looking around, he saw two people on the hillside behind the cabin. One was on the ground. Jim thought someone fell. Damn, the girl is there. It looks like she has Jake. Both are out in the open. Once he had them in his sights, he was completely focused and relaxed. Control your breathing and squeeze. He took the best shot first.

******************************************

Jack was just coming out of the streambed when Jim fired. He knocked Jim’s rifle aside and hit a glancing blow with the butt of his rifle high on the left side of his head. Jim dropped his rifle and Jack kicked it aside and said, “Jim, you are a dumb son-of-a-bitch. I don’t want to hear a word. Right now I’m very close to killing you. Roll over and put your hands behind your back.” Using another of his two-foot pieces of nylon line, he tied Jim’s hands securely, searched him for weapons, took his sheathed Buck knife, used another piece of line to tie his feet, and then charged across the stream to where he could now see Kelly and Jake on the ground.

When Jack reached them, he saw Kelly was desperately trying to stop the flow of blood from Jake’s chest. Jim’s shot hit Jake in the back and went on through his body. Jack started to help her and said, “Kelly, he’s done! Nothing we can do. Are you okay?”

“Yes! We were in good cover. Jake fell, I think on purpose. As I was bringing him to his feet, he was hit in the back. I dove into the pines, expecting to hear another shot. I used the scope on Jake’s rifle to locate the shooter when I saw you take him down. Boy, was I glad to see you. I guess I knew Jake was gone but had to try.”

“You done good. Here, wipe Jake’s .22 Hornet and leave it with him. Untie his hands. Make it look like he was climbing this slope when he was shot in the back. I don’t know if we’ll leave him like this, but for now it will do. Put his prints on the Hornet in a normal pattern. When you’re done come down to the cabin. I’ll go down and get Jim inside the cabin. He has some things he’ll want to tell us.”

Kelly finished setting the hillside scene and smoothed over some boot marks made near the body and went down to the cabin where she found Jack tying Jim in the same chair Jake had been in. She heard Jack saying, “Jim, you were planning to kill us. You shot at Kelly and Jake. Jake is dead by your hand. I guess you know how much sympathy I’ve got for you. I’m angry enough to go back to your camp, kill Bobby, and burn your house with her inside. If you have anything to say now would be a good time.”

“Kill me if you want to but leave Bobby out of this.”

“Not a chance. It doesn’t work like that. You should have thought about the danger you put her in with your greed. I hold you more responsible for the killing of innocent people than I do that young dumb kid you killed on the hillside. I’m not making any deals, but if you tell me the whole story and all the details, I’ll not hurt Bobby. Now tell me!”

“I need some water.”

Jack held a tin cup so he could drink. “Okay, now start your story.”

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“Shades of Justice” Chapter Forty-one

Kelly nodded and Jack was gone, just like that. She left the door open to keep anyone watching believing they were all inside. When she started to hobble Jake’s legs he tried to kick her. Kelly walked around behind him and put pressure on both carotids. In 30 seconds Jake was out. When he regained consciousness his legs were hobbled and a brown paper bag was over his head. He started to struggle and Kelly said, “You want another treatment? The timing is tricky. Sometimes people do not wake up. So be a good boy.”

Jack moved from the back wall of the cabin into the scrub pine and sagebrush on the slope. From there he made his way to the site he used to watch over Kelly’s encounter with Jake. Jack settled down in his temporary hide and began scanning the terrain to the east. Jim could shoot and marksmanship is important in the sniper world, but Jim was no sniper. A decent woodsman and hunter of game, but hunting people is very different, especially those who have been well-trained as snipers. Jim wasn’t expecting to become the hunted. He would have picked a stand with only one thought: Did it have line of sight to where he thought the target might be? No thought would have been given to light changing during the day, multiple escape routes, shooting and moving, or whether his position had defensive vulnerabilities. Jack had commanded a counter-sniper team in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. He was working hard not to underestimate his opponent but he had to speed things up. He didn’t want Jim to get a shot at Kelly because in 40 minutes Kelly would be leading Jake back over the ridge to their rendezvous. She could be vulnerable moving up the slope to the ridge line with a prisoner. Jack decided he would search for ten more minutes then move aggressively to find Jim’s shooting stand.

Moving his search pattern in closer to the cabin he saw a small movement not caused by the wind or wildlife foraging. Searching the spot slowly he gradually made out a boot and the straight line of a rifle. Jack wondered why he had set up in there with his back to the cabin. True, he was on high ground provided by a small knoll. It must be that although he can’t see the front door of the cabin, he is positioned to cover the usual route from the cabin to the parking area Jake used. Also, he probably feels that he is high enough to see any movement toward him. He has to turn to cover the trail Kelly used to approach the cabin. They were lucky to be inside the cabin before Jim arrived. He was probably just making his way from the fire road and looking for an ambush position. So he doesn’t even know we are here already, Jack thought. He will be concentrating on his back trail waiting for us to show up. The cover is not great down the slope but approaching from the front is the safer way. Jack planned his route down the slope and into the streambed. Its high banks would cover him until he was nearly on top of Jim’s position. Slowly and patiently Jack began his crawl down the slope.

In 15 minutes Kelly would leave the cabin with her captive and move up to the ridge line. If he turned, Jim might see them and have a shot. Moving up a creek bed quietly is not easy. The sound of the fast-moving current masked some noise, but Jack had to be patient. He couldn’t see the small knoll where Jim was waiting from his route tight against the east bank of the stream. A small cottonwood with its roots exposed and lying partially in the water marked the spot where Jack planned to come out of the stream bed and confront his father’s old friend.

Kelly would be starting out any minute now. At his slow pace he wouldn’t reach his marker before she left the back of the cabin.

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“Shades of Justice” Chapter Forty

Jake finished his breakfast and carried his coffee outside to sit in the sun and plan his day. He didn’t notice Kelly at the brook until he heard water splashing and saw a young woman splashing water on her bare upper body. He called out to her and she turned, covering herself. Kelly called out, “I hope you don’t mind sharing your water. I needed to fill my canteen and freshen up a bit.”

Jake began to walk down the slope toward the stream and said, “No, I don’t mind. Might even offer you a cuppa coffee.”

By the time he got close to her, Kelly was buttoning her flannel shirt. She pushed her sports bra into a side pocket on her pack. Kelly had a full figure and it was obvious she was not wearing anything under her shirt. She was damp and the flannel clung to her breasts. Jake was fixated. He stopped within touching distance. Not knowing quite what to do next, Kelly raised her left hand to her hair and began to playfully twist her hair, keeping her eyes locked on Jake. She couldn’t see or hear Jack but she knew he would be there in the next 30 seconds. She stepped swiftly toward Jake with her right foot while thrusting the web of her right hand into Jake’s throat. Before Jake could make a move, Kelly’s right leg whipped into the back of his right knee. He went down hard on his back with her hand still fastened on his throat. Kelly looked into his eyes and said, “Be still or die.”

Jack rushed up, put his knee on Jake’s chest and turned him over. Taking a two-foot length of nylon line, Jack tied Jake’s arms behind his back and pulled him to his feet, saying, “If he yells, tries to get away, or does anything you don’t like, hurt him badly. I’m going to check the cabin. Jake, your first chance to cooperate. Is there anyone in the cabin, including a dog?”

Jake looked at Jack, spit at him, and said nothing. Jack said, “Wrong answer,” feinted a jab toward his eyes and slammed a knee into his crotch. As Jake started to scream, Jack pulled him forward in the direction he was leaning and drove his face into the stony soil. Rolling him on his back, Jack asked again, “Is there anyone or a dog inside the cabin?”

Jake mumbled, “No.”

“See how easy that was? Keep cooperating and it won’t be so painful.” Jack nodded at Kelly and said, “Bring him up. I think he understands.”

Jack checked the interior of the cabin. He found two rifles, one a .22 Hornet and a .270 caliber. A couple of hundred rounds of ammunition, a month’s supply of food, and a satellite TV hook up and a cell phone. The cabin was neat and well kept. Jack called out to Kelly, “Bring him in.”

Kelly brought him and tied him to a chair and stepped back. Jack paced around the chair and said, “Same rules apply. Cooperate and you may be here tomorrow. I don’t have much time, so neither do you. I know your name. The police have your sketch. Here, look at it. Now you know we know, so no holding back. Police in several states are looking for you. All of them have murder warrants. Cop killers don’t usually live very long. Your chances of seeing the sun tomorrow are slim. None, if I think you are holding back. Let’s get started. How were you contacted for the sniper role?”

Jake looked down and in a nervous voice said, “A guy contacted me and said I would receive $10,000 in a package. He knew my mailing address. When I received the money he gave me a number to call.”

“Keep talking.”

“The same voice said ‘Thank you for calling. I’m putting my associate on the line. Talk to him.’ The second voice had an accent and gave me a city and a date and time to shoot a cop or a fireman. They didn’t care if I killed the target or wounded them. But the timing had to be exact. I needed the money and thought I might as well make some easy cash.”

“How did they know to call you?”

“I asked the guy why he called me. He said ‘we were told you could shoot and could use the money.’”

Jack motioned for Kelly to follow him as he walked outside. Jack said, “Stay close to the wall. Jim may’ve been the man who gave the kidnappers Jake’s name. Who else would know he could shoot and needed money? Jim can’t let us walk out of here with Jake. Jim will expect us to take the short route back to his camp. Maybe using Jake’s truck. Someplace out there he’s set up and waiting. Here’s the plan. But first we casually move back inside.”

Once inside, Jack and Kelly held a whispered conversation. Jack said, “Jim is working alone. He can’t set up in a place where he can guard both the east and west exit routes from here. But he can try to take the three of us as we come out the front door and at the same time stop us from getting to Jake’s pickup. I’m betting he is set up to the east of us. I’m going out the small back window on the west side and will circle around to the east to come up behind him. Give me an hour and you push Jake out the same window. Hobble his legs first and put a bag or blindfold on him so he can’t even think about getting away. I’ll leave my rifle with you. I’ll take Jake’s Hornet. If I have to shoot Jim, it’ll be with Jake’s gun. Our rendezvous point is the camp we just left. Wait there or nearby for me. If I don’t show up by dark, kill Jake and make your way back to the plane. Give me another day to show up there. Dump Jim’s rifles in the deep woods. Okay?”

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“Shades of Justice” Chapter Thirty-nine

Jack woke just before first light, dressed, and put water on for instant Starbucks coffee. He could see Kelly sleeping the sleep of youth. God, she is quite a woman, he thought. Don’t worry Anita, I’ll take care of your daughter. I’m sorry you couldn’t see her as a mature woman. You gave birth to a warrior.

Jack touched Kelly’s shoulder. As she sat up, he handed her a cup of coffee and said, “Well are you ready for another day at the office?”

“Coffee first!”

Coffee, trail mix, dried apples and they were on their way. Jack was on point. They walked quietly on the damp ground strewn with pine needles, talking softly and only when necessary. Jack stopped and checked the map. He kept his eyes forward and said to Kelly, “Get ready for your girl strut. His cabin is just over this ridge. Twenty more yards and we can see down the slope to the cabin. I’ll move left and get in position to see everything in front of the cabin. Try to stay 30 feet in front of the cabin so I’ve a good shooting angle. Keep your eyes on me and when I signal get into your hiking stride and move down the trail.”

Kelly let her hair down, put her light jacket in her backpack, and opened the top three buttons of her flannel shirt. The sun was just coming up but it wasn’t cold, she judged in the low fifties and no wind. Perfect day to play mountain girl on the loose.

Her cover story was simple. She was trekking with some friends and she had a fight with them and left on her own. She was headed east until she found paved roads and civilization. Her cell phone was dead. They had trekked for three days from a campsite in Yellowstone. Her car was in a lot in the park. She was going back there as soon as she could find a highway and get her bearings.

Kelly saw Jack’s signal, eased her double-edged boot knife in its sheath, and started down the path through sagebrush in her best mountain girl flirting walk. She could now see down the slope to the cabin. No one was outside. A thin column of smoke threaded its way up to the ridgeline where it met the slight wind aloft and vanished. Kelly noted the small stream running swiftly in front of the cabin 40 yards from the cabin door. She thought, It would be natural for me to walk down to the stream for fresh water. I might even wash up a bit.

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