Saturday, February 9, 2013



Yosemite National Park
             Paige pursed he lips and gave an exasperated sigh. “Just what are we supposed to do now?” She and Drake stood by themselves on the cafeteria steps. They watched Rudy Gutierrez and Chief Fine march out of sight around the corner. The ranger’s departure had been quick, leaving a marked air of abandonment in their wake. True, their whole department had a ton of work to do. They would be filing reports and developing strategies for dealing with the sudden lethal rise in militia activity. That left little time for sentiment with so many other lives at stake. Still, Paige missed uncle Rudy’s solid presence.
The death of ranger Hank Grissom, several weeks ago, had been bad enough. It had not even been connected to the militia at the time. No one had known why he was killed, or believed it to be anything other than random violence. That comforting point of view was no longer an option. The Mariposa Militia operated openly now. That, and the knowledge of the deliberate release of mountain lions in Yosemite, had turned a series of unrelated incidents into a major crisis.
First on the list of Ranger priorities was the decision of whether or not to evacuate the Park. It seemed like a prudent decision, the kind any reasonable person could make. In actuality it would be extremely difficult to implement. At any given time there were thousands of guests on Yosemite Valley floor alone, not to mention the hundreds of visitors hiking and camping in the outlying areas of the National Park. Then there were the park employees to consider as well as the other permanent residents. The Park Service did have the foresight to maintain contingency plans, of course. They had even been put into limited effect as recently as the spring of 1997, due to the rockslide at Happy Isles. But, as far as evacuating the whole Park? That was another issue, one of an altogether different magnitude. The decision to evacuate Yosemite National Park, sensible as it seemed would generate endless bureaucratic discussion and departmental buck passing, despite the panic that would ensue when word of the Militia’s murderous activities inevitably made the news.
“Well,” said Drake, “it looks like I’ve got to go back to your place and get Hank. Can I walk you?”
“I’m not really sure,” Paige replied hesitantly, “Agent Dexter told me my house is officially off limits until further notice.” She stopped to assimilate the idea. “My house is a crime scene,” she said, shuddering at the thought. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have the heart to step into that house again.” She stopped as that concept crystallized. “I have no home… Would you mind if I just walked with you and Hank for a while. I need to think.”
“I’d be happy if you would.”
As they heading across the courtyard a voice called after them, “Reverend Drake! Hold up a moment!”
Drake turned to see the female ATF agent—Gordon’ assistant or whatever—escorting Hank. Actually, she was trying hard to keep up as Hank surged forward, straining happily against his leash, dragging her in his wake.
“Hank!” he called, kneeling down, “Come here boy!” The woman wisely released her grip on the heavy leash and Hank leaped into Drake’s outstretched arms. A lot of slobbering, petting and general affection exchanged between the two. Paige joined in, kneeling down to scratch the hounds big floppy ears. “Thanks, Ms…?” Drake said, looking up at the Woman.
“Donna Phillips,” she answered brightly. “And it’s my pleasure.”
            With no further reason to return to the murder site, they found themselves—by unspoken agreement—walking in the direction of Drake’s cabin. Upon arrival he invited her inside. She accepted, after all the afternoon had turned quite cold. Paige eased herself into one of the worn but comfortable chairs, but Stan couldn’t seem sit still. He kept moving restlessly about the room, putting away a loose shirt, emptying the coffee carafe, starting a fresh pot, washing out a dirty cup. During all this nervous activity Paige sat silently watching him, reluctant to initiate any kind of conversation, shallow or deep. When the coffee maker beeped he poured two steaming mugs and finally sat down. Completely exhausted by the morning’s shocking events they spent the afternoon dismal silence, made only slightly companionable by their mutual grief.

*          *          *

After looking the situation over, Doctor Brooks Hollingshead carefully made his way back through the grove of aspens. The trees stood shimmering in the breeze, vibrant with the colors of early Autumn. His face betrayed a smile of satisfaction, having just planted a misleading piece of incriminating evidence. It would soon be found lying on the ground. If everything went according to plan, the simple spiral notebook, containing the owner’s name, ought to lead the authorities in a false direction. Before returning to initiate the next phase of the experiment he paused for a moment of contemplation. Standing a short distance from the Society’s motor coach he critically observed the small crowd of tourists visiting the Mobile, Sacred Earth Outdoor Education display. They were the usual collection of sloppy, overweight parents with their grubby, misbehaving children; the kind that swarmed over any and every attraction at the Park. They didn’t even seem to care that the Sacred Earth ecological display advocated restriction of casual tourists such as themselves from the National Park. As far as Hollingshead was concerned, Yosemite was merely the primary test case. There were other critically endangered biospheres in embattled quarters of the earth. He and his followers fervently believed these endangered sites ought to be preserved for purely scientific purposes by those who sought to understand and preserve the planet. The current United States policy, recklessly opening critical habitats to hordes of uncaring clods, for no other reason than to trample them underfoot was nothing short of intolerable.
Hollingshead stood in the meadow along the Merced River beside their Outdoor Education display. Nearby stood the motor coach that had been modified to fulfill Sacred Earth’s highly specialized needs. It served the Society as a traveling education center as well as a comfortable base station for conducting field research. The coach had come with a significant amount of built-in storage. That space, in its modified state, had proved invaluable.
“Excuse me, Doctor…” Hollingshead turned at the hesitant voice. Sidney, his intern, was an earth sciences graduate student; one of several working for Sacred Earth by means of a Federally-funded university grant. A lifted eyebrow signaled the Doctor’s readiness to receive the young man’s report. Sidney plunged ahead. “We’ve erected the herding screens and are prepared to release the subject animal.”
“Very well, you may proceed.”
Leaving the educational display in the capable hands of several fresh-faced College-age staffers, the two of them walked around to the unoccupied side of the vehicle. Three other Sacred Earth staffers were busily connecting lengths of heavy-duty plastic tarp to form a long, narrowing pathway. The temporary corridor began at the back of the RV, leading into the heart of the Aspen grove. Sidney, the expert at this business, checked the workmanship. Though the flimsy tarps are anything but an impenetrable barrier, animals in the wild invariably perceived them as solid walls. This combination of psychological trick and optical illusion was regularly employed by field researchers in order to herd creatures into holding pens or redirect their movement in a particular direction.
Doctor Hollingshead gave his assent with an imperious nod. Sidney walked to the side of the RV. Keeping himself clear, he opened the baggage compartment, located behind the rear wheels. This niche had been modified into the largest cargo space on board, measuring four feet by ten, and fully four feet in height. It had necessitated raising the floor in the rear sleeping compartment by twelve inches. Behind the exterior sheet metal door lay a heavy cage, similar to the one placed in Drake’s Suburban. Another live puma paced restlessly within the cramped space. The warm, rank smell of wild animal assaulted Sidney’s nostrils, announcing the extreme agitation of the cage’s current resident.
Sidney nervously paused while Hollingshead and the others took positions behind the plastic tarps. Ordinarily, Sidney was the epitome of a competent and confident research assistant, as he had amply demonstrated. After all, he had considerable experience in sedating and tagging animals in the wild. In fact, he had personally captured all three mountain lions that Dr. Hollingshead had requested. No easy feat, that. The wily Puma is difficult enough just to track, let alone get close enough to sedate and capture. In this case however there was one irksome little difference. This particular mountain lion was not, at present, sedated. Because the circumstances were abnormal, Sidney’s extremely apprehensive stomach seemed filled with butterflies.
“Proceed, Mister Hook,” commanded Hollingshead through a chink in the plastic tarp.
Sidney tightened his grasp on a three-foot long, electric cattle prod grasped in his sweaty right hand and prepared to open the cage. His awkward placement, relative to the cargo door’s latch, forced him to pause while he transferred the cattle prod to his left hand so his right could work the hasp. He opened the door quickly, jumping behind an up-turned picnic table for protection. Behind relative cover, Sidney, Hollingshead, and the others waited for the mountain lion to exit the cage. They thought the puma might behave more naturally if no humans were visible.
Nothing happened.
In the perverse way of wild animals, the big cat simply refused to move. Perhaps the proximity of so many manmade odors made it overly cautious. An outside observer might have noted a certain amount of gruesome humor in the collection of wide eyes peeking from behind tarps, trees, and table. Sidney’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment; it was after all, his project failing to proceed as planned. “No prob-lem-o,” he muttered to himself. “That’s what we have the ‘ol cattle prod for, m’boy.” Without exposing himself to the lion’s view, he cautiously placed the business end of the prod in contact with the open cage door. That done he steadied himself, putting his finger on the button, ready for action.
An electric cattle prod is a handy little device. Originally developed for use with domesticated farm animals, it is merely a modern refinement of the age old sharp stick; a high tech version of, ‘git along, little doggie!’  It consists of a simple open electric circuit connected to a hefty battery supply. The battery case forms the handle while the two lengths of wire run up the handle to the end of a short pole. In essence, the gadget looks and is held like a short, clunky sword. At the end of the pole, two half-inch long metal studs mark the ends of the two wires. By pressing the button on the handle and touching the two studs to anything which conducts electricity, the circuit is completed.
Sidney depressed the button. He was immediately rewarded with a variety of fascinating responses to the galvanic stimuli. A sharp crack, accompanied by a faint blue-white ark of light and a whiff of ozone, announced the quick discharge of electricity. At the same time, a deep feline yowl of rage emanated from the bowels of the RV. A similar, but higher pitched yelp emanated from Doctor Hollingshead who had been in contact with the steel bumper of the vehicle. Simultaneously, the reflex actions of both mountain lion and Ph.D. caused them to jump, seeking to escape the sudden shock. Preceded by a loud rending sound, Hollingshead’s body fell heavily through the junction between two plastic tarps. He and the puma hit the same spot of ground, in the middle of the artificial corridor, at the same time. The results were as predictable as they were grisly.
The disoriented animal, feeling itself attacked and cornered, wanting only to escape, felt itself violently attacked by a wildly flailing and screaming human. The cat had no real desire to stand and fight, flight was the uppermost thought in its limited brain. Hollingshead was pretty averse to fighting himself. The big red ESCAPE alarm dominated his own thought processes just as urgently and primitively as the puma’s.
Both creatures scrabbled, rolled, and clawed, trying to get away from one another. Unfortunately, one of the mountain lion’s powerful swipes took Hollingshead across his exposed throat. The resulting wound ripped open his left-side carotid artery, exposing most of his throat. The doctor went limp as his life drained out upon the pine needles and he lost all energy to struggle. The cat, sensing its kill, bounded down the artificial corridor, disappearing into the nearby trees.  

*          *          *

Later that afternoon a somber agent Baker walked into the temporary office of S-A-C Gordon. “Have a look at this sir,” he said. Gordon held out his hand to receive a grossly ordinary spiral notebook. “Okay,” he said flipping through it to see a perfectly ordinary collection of Yosemite sketches and notes, “what about it?”
            “That sir, was found at the site of this latest lion attack,” said Baker. “Take a look at the inside of the front cover,” he suggested. The S-A-C opened the cover to see a business card glued to the paper. The notebook belonged to Pastor Stan Drake of the Sierra Baptist Church, Zurich California.
            Gordon stared at the card for a full minute wondering how he had been so thoroughly conned by a simple small town minister. “Special Agent Baker,” he ordered, “Go and find the Reverend Drake for me. Place him in under arrest and haul his keester in here. The charge is murder.”
            “Right away sir,” said Baker.

*          *          *

Drake pulled out his smart phone and activated it. He opened up the Scripture program seeking familiar words of comfort in the Psalms. Paige watched him idly, finally asking, “What are you doing?”
            “I’m reading the Bible,” he said, “I’ve got a really great app that lets me do all kinds of in-depth research in the Bible and other resource books. I use it to prepare Sunday messages, documents and articles.”
            “You’re kidding, right. I mean, the Bible on your phone? Doesn’t that make you feel like a modernist heretic or something, worshipping at the altar of an evil, artificial thinking-machine instead of reverently getting eye-strain pouring over a dusty old leather-bound tome?”
            “Yeah,” he said laughing for the first time that day, “I guess it doesn’t look so spiritual, at that. But, I’ve got to admit, it’s easy to get hooked after a while. I spend a lot more time in the Word this way, too.”
            Paige’s mien turned somber, “I used to believe,” she said wistfully.
            “What do you mean, ‘Used to’?”
            She looked back, her face a mixture of defiance and sadness, “I was raised in church. When I was twelve I even walked down the aisle and prayed to accept Jesus. I used to be a good little girl, but I’m not anymore.”
            “Paige, what happened?”
            “When I became a little older, I tried to live as a faithful Christian, but all I saw around me was hypocrisy. My mother and father were the worst in the congregation. They preached Jesus on Sunday and lived like hell the rest of the week. Our “faith” was nothing but lies.
            “Finally, I decided since it was all a joke, I’d rather be an honest sinner than a lying hypocrite. So I began partying and playing around; I did it quite openly. I wanted to rub my parent’s noses in it. They ruined my life and I wanted to hurt them back.” She sighed. “Childish, I know, but I was more than just a typically angry teenager.”
            Stan Drake sat without speaking. Experience had taught him to go easy when people were pouring out poison from their souls. They often picked a minister to confess to, even when they claimed unbelief. But he had to watch himself; he represented of the very God she had rejected. Drake concentrated on listening, making sure his body language communicated acceptance.
            “Anyway,” she sniffed, “I sinned, big time. But after a while, I just couldn’t do it any longer. I’d found no happiness or satisfaction, only a long, boring, daily grind. So I ran away, and I’ve never gone back.”
            The room got painfully quiet. Paige sat, peering into her cup as if answers might be found in its depths. Drake swallowed hard, feeling the Pastoral moment upon him. His next words could offer a glimmer of hope, or confirm her belief that all Christians were jerks.
            She gave him a furtive look from under her lashes.
            “What I hear you saying is that everyone you’ve ever trusted has failed you miserably. Believe it or not, I know exactly how that feels. My wife abandoned me, and I failed too. But Paige, God never fails. He promised He would never leave us or forsake us.”
            “I wish I could believe that…”
            “You will. God has been with you all along. He has always been demonstrating His faithfulness to you. He’ll show you. Here, listen to this,” Drake read the twenty-third Psalm aloud.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me
beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
            The room got quiet again as Drake waited patiently for her response.
“Thank you,” she stammered, obviously trying to be polite. Her voice caught in her throat and she looked away.
Drake had to decide whether to pursue the subject or back off. Her manner indicated she needed time to ponder his words. He sent up a short prayer, asking for wisdom in ministering to Paige. His heart went out to a kindred soul, betrayed and fractured.
Paige confirmed his decision by awkwardly changing the subject. She pointed to his computer. “How do you use a phone for your sermons?”
“I only use it for reading. But I do use my laptop to preach from,” he said, reaching into his kit bag for a thumb drive. “Let me show you an article I’ve been working on for a journal.” Drake attempted to pop the drive into the USB port but found there was already a micro-drive in place. A sudden feeling of dread gripped him as he popped out the unknown drive and examined it. It was orange—a color he detested. He’d never seen a thumb drive that compact before. There was no label. It was too small to write on except maybe with a jeweler’s engraving tool.
            “What’s wrong?” asked Paige noting the puzzlement on his face.
“This is not mine.” He held the miniature drive so she could see it.
“What do you mean,” She asked, a slight quaver in her voice, “…it’s not yours?
Drake reinserted the drive and pulled up the Menu. The screen showed a file labeled “Mariposa Militia Operations.” He doubled-clicked the file icon, which opened to reveal a long list of documents and images.
            Drake sighed heavily, “I bet we could both guess who put it there.”
            “You can’t mean Megan,” she said automatically and, they both thought, a bit defensively.
            “Who else?” asked Drake. “You don’t think the Militia sneaked in here to give me their super-secret plans do you—so they could educate me, maybe? And it doesn’t seem likely that our noble heroes of the BATF wanted to set me up either; if so, I think they’d have barged in here to arrest me already. So that leaves Megan, or by extension her fellow crusaders from Sacred Earth. Can you think of anybody else?” 
Paige glared at him.
“Okay, okay, theoretically, I admit it could be mine. But if so, don’t you think I’d be more likely to hide it from you instead of jumping up and down and making a big production of it. No, I think Megan probably put it here. In fact, I think it’s very likely this thumb drive is the reason the militia murdered her. Those two goons this morning were slapping her around, trying to get her to tell them something when I broke in. Maybe this vile little drive is what they were after.”  
Drake pulled the disk out and let it slip from his hand to clatter on the tabletop. Staring at it, he had the feeling that it was personally and malignantly responsible for Megan’s death. That was irrational he knew, but it didn’t stop the feeling. Hank, sensing the sudden tension in the room, walked over and rested his big head on Drake’s knee, seeking a comforting scratch which Drake absentmindedly gave to the dog.
            After a long pause Paige asked, “Aren’t you going to put it back in, find out what’s on it? I mean, it could be important.”
            “Yeah, you’re probably right.” He said dully. “Important enough to commit another couple of murders for, maybe.” He said coldly. “Still want me to open it?”
            “Of course!” she said. “It could be an important message from Megan—evidence against her killers or something. We have to find out.”
            “I’m not so sure,” he said reluctantly. That didn’t stop him from sliding the mysterious drive back into the USB port, though.
Using the touch pad on the keyboard Drake opened the files again. The screen displayed the contents of the drive; among the documents and JPEGS were five files labeled: Code Words, Enemies List, Membership, Ranger Schedules and Training Sites.
            “Lord-a-Mercy,” Breathed Drake, sitting back in his chair.
            “Amen,” came Paige’s echo from over his shoulder.
            Drake maneuvered the pointer to select the file marked Ranger Schedules, which he opened. The file’s icon designated it as a JPEG, meaning the file was a digital picture. The computer responded to his command by opening the photographic application. A fuzzy looking document appeared on screen headed by the words Yosemite National Park, Ranger Duty Roster. It was a list of the ranger’s duty stations and itineraries.
            “Why is the picture so Blurry?” Paige asked.
            “Whoever took the picture had a lousy camera or was in a big hurry,” he explained with a pedantic, professorial air. “If your camera doesn’t have enough mega-pixels the resulting picture will be less then perfect. That’s probably what happened here.”
            “Thanks for the lecture Professor, but what are we going to do about it?”
“We’ve got to take this thing to the authorities right away,” Drake said. “You and I are in genuine danger just because we know this garbage exists.”
            “You’re right, of course,” she agreed. “Stan, if Megan died because of this disk, then we have a moral obligation, for her memory’s sake, to make sure the police know about this, so that her killers are caught. You think so too, don’t you?” 
            “Yes… I guess I do,” he said. He shut down the Computer and slipped it into an oversized ziplock bag, then into his daypack. Drake didn’t really want to lug the thing around, but neither did he know if there would be a compatible computer readily available where they were going. He didn’t want to waste any time getting this information to the proper authorities. His mind raced, trying to think through the process of ridding himself of this dangerous little piece of information.
“After we take care of this, we have to pack up and get our hides out of marvelous, tranquil Yosemite Valley before Armageddon West kicks off. Unless you want to see, ‘The End of the World; In Sensurround!’ that is.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.” She said.
“Don’t worry about that now. ‘Each day has enough trouble of its own,’” he quoted So okay Stan, what are you going to do about Paige? He wondered. Did he have an obligation to her? Would she be offended by an offer to help?
            “Is this what you meant about God demonstrating His faithfulness?” she asked mock-sweetly.
            “Could be.”
With his brain running though possible strategies, Paige half-running to keep up with his long, agitated strides, and Hank calmly trotting alongside, they departed the lodge area. Drake headed directly for the BATF’s temporary headquarters in the Park’s main office complex.
            Striding along the trail, paralleling the main park road, Drake kept a swift pace, knowing they had more than a mile to cover before they were out of danger. Not a great distance for a casual afternoon walk, but the blaze orange micro-drive in his backpack made that mile look like the Bataan Death march to Drake. He remembered the words of the psalmist, silently repeating them for comfort.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Again, Drake had the eerie felling of unseen eyeballs peering at him from behind the rocks and bushes. Why in the world did I leave my transportation halfway across the valley? He chided himself.   
As they walked, they overtook a roughly dressed man hogging the middle of the trail, Drake muttering a quick apology as they went by. The man completely ignored them, giving no indication that he had seen them or heard their apology either. But Drake had no time for irrelevancies, he kept moving. Up ahead he saw a similarly dressed character, also shambling along in the same direction, walking with the same deliberate, eyes-front pace. The paranoia alarm went off in Drake’s head.
Uh, ooh

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