Yosemite National Park
Ted Parker was not having a nice day. One of only five men to survive the botched ambush in the high-country, he found himself ambulatory but exhausted. He counted himself remarkably lucky; only two men had come out of the ranger’s fiendishly clever deathtrap, up in the rocks, alive. And neither of them had walked out under his own steam. Now here he was, “Iron Man” Ted Parker, tossed right back into combat, simply because the Militia suddenly found itself shorthanded. And, he reminded himself, because the General thinks I’m lucky. Just as long as I’m not a lucky stiff, he thought grimly. On top of everything else the blasted clouds were still rolling overhead, and it looked as though it was probably going to go and rain again.
Parker shrugged, Stop this poor-baby whining and get your mind back in the game, boy. The target this time was a freakin’ preacher, for Pete’s sake. That had bothered Parker at first. After all, weren’t the militiamen struggling to make America “One Nation under God” again? Sure they were. They were on a holy mission. A preacher is supposed to be holy too, he thought; like, God’s own special man. Maybe even under divine protection. Ted wasn’t anxious to do anything which might incur the Almighty’s wrath.
However, General Taylor had easily resolved the apparent contradiction by informing the boys that this particular preacher was cozy with the Sacred Earth tree huggers. That made the so-called “preacher” just another socialist do-gooder. Another typical, liberal phony, the enemy of all Real Americans as far as Ted Parker was concerned, what with their everlasting meddling in everybody else’s business. Nobody but another pinko-liberal would ever miss a guy like that. Parker figured his conscience was clear on that count anyway. Come on, he told himself, we’re performing a public service, aren’t we? Like taking out the garbage.
The General prided himself on thoroughness. He had dispatched spotter teams to likely locations around the Valley. One group staked out the preacher’s pretty yuppie mobile. Another team had been sent to cover dead woman’s prissy gift shop. Parker found himself teamed with a half-wit named Fosdick, assigned to hang around the guest cabins. If Preacher Drake he happened to show up at his rental shack they were supposed to call in the sighting and stay close. Finally, the General had designated a “grab team.” They were cruising the Valley ring road in an old slab-sided van. Their job was to snatch the unsuspecting preacher whenever and wherever he was eventually spotted.
Parker’s wandering attention focused on a sudden flurry of movement near the preacher’s cabin. Fosdick snuck up and peered through a window on the backside of the venerable wooden structure. He stood on tiptoes, fingers clinging to the sill, checking the dwelling for habitation. Apparently he confirmed the preacher’s presence, because he began making clumsy “Golly, he’s here!” gestures, in what he probably thought was a subtle, Secret Agent man fashion.
Parker’s face twisted into a disgusted grimace. The shoot-out in the hills had knocked a good deal of childish, ‘secret agent’ illusions from his thinking. It had also put a ragged edge on his temper. He now understood the Mariposa Militia wasn’t playing some silly adolescent paintball game. They were engaged in a grim life and death struggle. The upshot was, he no longer had any patience with play-acting, or jerks.
Fosdick! he snorted in disgust, Look at that fool; like a cornfield scarecrow flapping in the breeze. Just as well that no one—especially the preacher—could see him hopping around behind the cabin. Despite his annoyance, Parker managed a casual, though annoyed wave.
“Okay, I’m ready, calm down,” he growled under his breath. Fosdick left the cabin, moving in Parker’s direction.
One hundred yards away, Parker watched as the preacher and his hound emerged from his cabin accompanied by the Mitchell woman. Handsome animal, he judged the dog. He had to make a conscious effort not to think about the humans and their fate. He watched from cover as they walked across the parking lot. At the Park Service trail they turned right, heading for Yosemite Village. They strode directly past Parker’s hide, not seeing him. Fosdick was already walking ahead of them, shambling along. Moron that he was, Fosdick was actually blocking the trail so the couple had to pass him. Fool! thought Parker, as Fosdick ignored their attempt to apologize, thereby drawing unnecessary attention to himself. Parker spun away with a snort of fury and began walking along the trail himself. When the trees got heavy he cut in among them to get ahead trail them from in front.
Once ahead he pulled a cellular phone from his coat pocket, discreetly activating it. Parker hit the phone’s redial button, automatically calling the ‘grab team’ in the van. He held the phone to his ear—just another guy with a cell phone—and waited for the line to be picked up in the van. When he heard a muted “Hello” from the other end, he cupped the phone to his mouth and said, “Its Parker; bridge number three.” He repeated the cryptic message four times. The prearranged code told the boys in the van exactly which surveillance team had found the preacher, and where to snatch him. In this case, the intercept would take place about a mile ahead, at the pair of bridges where the main valley road spanned Yosemite Creek. They hoped the thick foliage on either side of the creek would conceal their activities from casual passersby.
* * *
Drake was in a sweat; literally. For all his daydreams of glory—of manfully overcoming incredible odds, rescuing the beautiful damsel in distress and humbly riding off into the sunset—he was just plain scared. He could sense a trap closing in around him, but could not discern its shape. Without that bit of information, his brain wasn’t able to formulate anything in the form of an action plan. Beside him, Paige strode along confidently. She must have walked this trail a thousand times before. Either she’s absolutely fearless, or she doesn’t realize the danger we’re in, he reflected. As they walked, Drake’s eyes remained glued to the back of the filthy jacket on the man walking forty yards ahead of them. Think! he cudgeled his brain, What do I do?
Far ahead through the trees they began to see occasional hints of the Village. Brown and green-painted park buildings peeked through the dense growth. Good, he thought, we’re almost there. They were approaching a pair of narrow, stone bridges he noted, one constructed to serve pedestrians, the other reserved for motor vehicles. The trail they were following crossed the road at this point shunting all pedestrian traffic to the separate foot-bridge, about thirty-feet north of the larger vehicle overpass. Only one mile more would see them to the village. Just a few more minutes Stan boy, he thought, then you’ll both be home free.
As they reached the center of the footbridge, however, Drake noted that “Pigpen,” as he’d taken to calling the grungy-looking character walking out in front, had slowed upon reaching the far end. The man stopped, turned deliberately, and stared Drake directly in the eye in an open and challenging manner. It was an effective bit of menace, but mainly it served to distract Drake’s attention from the shabby-looking van slowing to a stop on the dirt shoulder. Drake stopped dead in his tracks in the center of the fifty-foot span. His left hand automatically grabbed an uncomprehending Paige by the arm, stopping her as well. Hank growled deep in his canine throat, bristling the hair on the back of his neck.
Drake’s danger senses, already feverishly alert, went into overdrive, with his brain taking in the sudden data and working at lightning speed to process it all. He thought he had the situation figured pretty well. He’d simply continue on to the end of the bridge, if “Pigpen” wanted to make something of it, well, together he and Hank ought to be able to discourage the guy. Considering his lack of options it seemed as good a plan as any.
But before he could put his best-laid-plans into motion, everything went to pieces.
His racing mind slammed to a halt as two men dressed in wool slacks and navy blue wind breakers stepped up to them from behind. They flashed their ever-present G-man badges. And just like that—like a computer asked to do too many tasks at once—Drake’s mind locked up from the abrupt, sensory overload.
“Hold it right there, Reverend Drake,” said Dexter, the goateed agent of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. “Would you mind stepping over to the car please, sir?”
Confused, Drake hesitated, incapable of doing anything at all. He stood motionless, directionless, not really resisting, just dumbfounded due to the biological equivalent of a computer’s Blue Screen of Death. There was simply too much conflicting information to deal with. Hank growled again, Paige stood arguing indignantly with Dexter. Drake struggled to make sense of it all.
Twenty yards away, “Pigpen” began waving his arms, like an umpire calling a runner ‘out.’ The two government agents dropped the polite routine. Now they demanded his immediate submission, and at the other end of the bridge a beat-up old van stopped. The right hand cargo door slide wide open. In the vehicle’s open doorway two bearded men sat, staring intently at the tableau on the bridge.
Suddenly Drake’s brain began offering options. A. grab Paige and run. B. stand his ground and fight. C.—and this seemed real attractive at the moment—lie on the ground, assume a fetal position and begin sucking his thumb. The government boys were getting angry with his indecision, but at least they were offering a ride to relative safety. Unfortunately, by the time he had reached this eminently rational conclusion, it was too late. Dexter angrily yanked a pair of chromium handcuffs from his belt and reaching out to grab Drake by the shoulder, obviously planning to spin him around and apply the cuffs.
Drake’s eyes widened as armed militiamen emerged from the van. He shouted an inarticulate warning. Dexter’s partner, alerted by the noise and look of horror on Drake’s face checked right. He called a short warning to Dexter and stepped back to give himself room.
The two BATF men were caught in a classic whipsaw. With the government agent’s attention held by the men from the van, they never even saw the two militiamen closing in from either end of the bridge. They drew their sidearms to meet the van’s threat, but gunfire erupted from their flanks, cutting them down even as they returned fire.
Paige stiffened and began backing up. Drake stepped forward and threw his arms around her, turning to get her out of the line of fire. They hit the solid stone railing heavily, their combined momentum carrying them over the side. Hank leaped gracefully after them. All three fell some ten feet, splashing into the turbidly flowing waters below.
Yosemite Creek in the autumn is never exactly a bottomless torrent. However, directly beneath the bridge the running water had carved out a hole, almost four feet deep in places. Drake and Paige broke the surface, gasping for air, having already been carried under the middle of the bridge by the leisurely current. Hank paddled ahead of them heading for the bank, but Drake sharply whistled him back.
“Not that way,” he sputtered, tugging Paige by the arm, “swim downstream!”
At this point the Militia’s grab plan began to develop serious flaws. They had chosen the bridge as a good spot to seize the preacher because of the dense foliage surrounding it. That same foliage now protected their movements as they made their way, half-swimming, sometimes slithering, over the slick pebbled bottom. In this way they moved downstream to relative safety.
* * *
The mounting storm clouds finally let go releasing a cold, heavy downpour over Yosemite Valley. The late afternoon, already dark enough, swiftly transformed into a dismal twilight. Like scurrying ants, tourists rushed about, seeking shelter from the deluge. They hastened to the warmth and dryness of their vehicles or swarmed into crowded Park buildings. In both cases the influx of warm, wet bodies transformed vehicles and buildings alike into humid steam baths. The beneficial result, as far as Paige and Drake were concerned, was the virtual emptying the streets, making it easier to spot potential pursuers. It also helped to hide the fact that they were both soaked to the bone.
Paige led the way, moving with care, employing her intimate knowledge of Yosemite Village to reach a place of safety. She took a devious path, using employee entrances, storerooms, and back alleyways, yet always heading for her gift shop. She utilized every odd corner and shadow in an attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible. Originally, they had planned to go directly to Bill Gordon of the ATF. That plan had lasted exactly as long as it took to overhear an exchange between two ATF agents running by in the mist, “You heard me,” one had snapped to the other. “The word is out. That preacher’s a dangerous cop killer! He is considered armed and dangerous. Take no chances, shoot him on sight!”
They immediately instituted Plan ‘B;’ Call the ATF by phone. Hopefully they might cheat death for a smidge longer that way. Drake tried to use his cell phone, but his electronic marvel was stone cold dead. Maybe it had survived the dip into Yosemite Creek, but he’d never know now. It had been completely crunched between Drake’s falling body and the rocky creek bed.
Now they were down to Plan ‘C,’ where they hoped to reach the safety of Bridalveil Gifts. Once there, they would use the shop phone to keep the authorities at arm’s length. They might be able to arrange an amicable, even bloodless cessation of hostilities.
After sneaking through what seemed like half of Yosemite Village, they reached her private entrance at the rear of the shop. While Paige quietly unlocked the door, Drake helped her out by tripping over a trashcan and setting an ally cat to yowling. Hank chimed in, barking and jerking his leash as he tried to chase the fleeing cat, nearly dislocating Drake’s arm in the process. Paige stood glaring at them both through narrowed eyes, hands on her hips. She looked remarkably like Mrs. Miller, Drake’s eighth-grade math teacher.
“You really are a fearful klutz,” she announced soto-voice. Choking back a laugh she entered the shop, trailing streams of water. “My side is black and blue where you smashed me into that darn bridge,” she stood rubbing her tender side. “But… anyway,” she hesitated, her voice softening, “I… wanted to say thank you; you know, for saving my life back there.”
“My pleasure, ma’am,” he replied. “T’wern’t nothin’. Truth be told, I think I just tripped over my own big feet and knocked us both over the side.”
“I’m sure,” she said, stepping up to take the sodden lapels of his coat in both hands then gently kissing him on the lips.
“Um… well, okay…” he said awkwardly as she stepped back, “So,” he cleared his throat, “where’s the phone around here, anyway?”
“It’s up on the front counter by the cash register, of course.”
“Hmmm… I don’t think it would be very bright of us to use a phone in plain view of those huge front windows,” he said. “In fact,” he lowered his voice, “I think we’d better be as inconspicuous as possible. While we’re at it, we’d better not turn on any lights either. Have you got any other phones in the place?”
“Well,” she stage-whispered, “there is a phone jack upstairs in the storage room, but no phone… Oh wait, there’s the fax machine in the closet under the stairs. We keep it there to cut down on the noise. It has a phone, and its right here.”
Paige drew back a decorative wooden screen and opened a small closet door. Looking inside he saw one of those frugal closets, crammed into leftover space under the stairway. The headroom was generous at the entrance, but tapered all the way down to the floor inside ten feet. The fax machine sat on an oak file cabinet.
Paige opened one of the drawers, producing a slim booklet, a Yosemite Phone Directory. She looked at Drake with a puzzled expression on her face. “So who are we planning to call, anyway? There’s not going to be any listing for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in here. They’re just temporary.”
“I have no idea,” he said, “how about the Park Ranger switchboard? Or, Hey I’ve got it, just dial 911.”
“I don’t think that would work” she said uncertainly. “I think calling 911 from here would probably just get us the operator in Merced or Mariposa or something. That’s no good. I’ve got it! I’m calling uncle Rudy,” she said, punching the keypad.
To Paige’s amazement Uncle Rudy picked up the phone on the other end of the line immediately. “Park Ranger office, Gutierrez speaking.”
“Uncle Rudy?” she asked softly. “It’s Paige. Stan and I are in big trouble. We need your—what are you doing?” she whisper-screamed at Drake, who had suddenly cut off the phone. With his hand over her mouth he placed his fore finger upright against his lips, the universal gesture for silence. Hank began growling deep in his throat and Drake had to clap his hand around the dog’s muzzle to stifle the noise. With a jerk of his head Drake gestured toward the front of the shop. Paige listened, hearing a rattling of the doorknob, followed by the distant tinkling of shattering glass.
Someone was breaking into Paige’s shop.
Under the circumstances Drake didn’t believe the intruder would be the average, garden variety, burglar.
“Quiet Hank!” Drake demanded softly. He leaned out of the closet and quietly pulled the screen into place. Then he softly closed closet door, shutting the three of them in. Groping around in the dark Drake’s fingers found a push stud on the door’s brass knob. He gently pressed it, locking the door.
Paige felt a shiver of fear ripple through her chilled body. She cupped her hand to Drake’s ear and whispered, “What do we do now?”
* * *
Ted Parker did not like this job; he did not think of himself as a crook. The General had ordered him to check out the girl’s artsy-fartsy gift shop. Why those two women had to try and run a business instead of staying at home and raising a family was beyond him. Just another example of how modern life disrupted the country, he figured. And, one more reason not to give up on the Militia just yet. He had, quite simply, put too much in the kitty to fold. The country needed valiant warriors like the Mariposa Militiamen to stand firm, now more than ever.
Two of the boys had been sent to watch the gift shop earlier that afternoon. But of course, cowards that they were, they had panicked and run when word of the shoot-out at the bridge had come through. So it had to be checked out all over again. And Ted Parker was the guy sent to do the job. There was a fair possibility that their prey might try going-to-ground there.
The front door was locked of course. No big surprise there. And no real problem either. Parker just held a corner of his heavy coat over a small square of window glass in the door and firmly tapped it with the butt of his pistol. He busted a jagged hole, picking out shards and slivers until he had a large enough opening to safely shove his arm through and work the old-fashioned twist-lock on the door.
Parker entered, silently motioning Fosdick to follow and shut the door behind them. They briefly discussed strategy before agreeing upon what to do and where to wait. They moved through the shop, searching for any sign their quarry had already been there. When they came back together, they held a whispered consultation. They needed to find places to hide while they waited for their quarry. Wordlessly, Parker shoved Fosdick’s shoulder and pointed up-stairs.
* * *
In the gloom of the closet Drake’s eyes lit up as he experienced an epiphany, a certified flash of genius. Moving quietly he slipped his backpack off, removing the notebook computer inside. He gave a silent sigh of relief on finding the zip-lock moisture seal had held. The computer was safe and dry, which was more than they could say for themselves.
Thankfully, he switched portable computer on, taking care to manually mute the usually noisy start-up process. While the machine booted up he fumbled through his bag, searching for the proper connecting cord by the light of the notebook’s flat panel screen. Finding it, he plugged into the modem port and then jacked the computer into the gift shop’s phone line.
“Can this thing print out the last incoming message?” he asked her.
“Do it, please. I’ll explain later.”
Drake quickly accessed his e-mail program, composing a plea for help to Gene, his well-connected deacon, back home…
* * *
Parker yanked the cell phone from his coat pocket. It was time to give the General a situation report. Big flippin’ report, consisting of exactly zilch: zip. zero. nada. He hit the redial button punching process twice before noticing the low battery indicator on the blasted thing. Cursing and growling he crept back downstairs to the front desk and picked up the shop’s phone. Hey, what’s going on here?! Was it screwed up too?
Wait a minute, though… Parker climbed the stairs looking for his partner. He found Fosdick seated in a comfortable chair watching the street below through a frilly-curtained window.
“You been using the phone, Larry?” he asked quietly. Fosdick glanced calmly around, an uncomprehending look on his simple face, “Not me,” he answered. “Why, what’s up?”
“Something screwy is going on around here,” Parker replied elliptically. He began searching the room, opening cupboards and looking behind piled up boxes. He moved on to the only other upstairs room, followed closely by a curious Fosdick.
“What are we supposed to be doing?” whispered Fosdick.
“I picked up the phone, down there on the front desk,” Parker explained patiently, “I heard electronic screeching on the line, sounded like a computer modem. So now I’m looking for a computer, Stupid. Shut up and stay out of my way!”
“I don’t see no computer, Ted.”
“Duh!” snapped Parker angrily. “Come on, Einstein, help me look downstairs.”
They poked around, paying particular attention to the cabinets in the kitchen and under the front desk. They found no phones there and nothing unusual in the pantry either. After a while Fosdick came shuffling from the back of the shop. In a restrained voice he said, “Hey Ted, cm‘ere have a look at this.”
‘This,’ turned out to be a narrow door concealed behind a heavy, purple brocade curtain mounted on a wooden frame. Parker put his finger for silence, nodded his head at the door and quietly drew his pistol. Fosdick followed suit. When they were both ready, guns aimed at the door, Parker suddenly yanked it open, his finger unconsciously tensing on the trigger. Inside they found an empty closet. The only things inside were a small file cabinet supporting a combination fax and answer machine. The machine’s out-tray contained a facsimile letter from some art supply warehouse. Parker checked the date and time. It had printed out in the last ten minutes
“Well, here’s the answer,” he said to Fosdick, “I guess it must’ve been this machine using the phone line.” His foot slipped a little and he looked down to see a small pool of water on the floor. “Humm… Looks like the little lady’s got herself a leaky roof.”