“He’s coming for you. It won’t be long now.”
“How do you know?” Henry replied through his headset mic.
He adjusted his night goggles and peered through the green haze into the line of trees on the other side of the abandoned logging road. He hunched deeper into his makeshift bunker as the light rain dripped into the soggy ground beneath his now nearly submerged plywood platform.
“Do you have to ask?” Jake replied from his perch high above Henry. He shifted in his tree hammock, a body swing that held him vertically fifty feet overhead. His arms were crossed. In his right hand, he held a double-barreled pistol, armed with two tranquilizer darts, each strong enough to put a moose under for half a day. He clicked the safety off.
Henry chuckled. “Sorry, Thirty-Nine. Even after five years, I’m still a little surprised by your abilities.”
“No worries, Thirty-Three. You surprise me too sometimes.” Jake clicked a notch on the side of his headset. “Going dark now. See you at the rendezvous in fifteen.”
“Roger that, Thirty-Nine.”
It had actually been eight years since they met, on the bus to their first day of high school. Five years had passed since they were recruited to join the elite anti-terrorist program at The Woodlands Outpost Station. Five years since they were given their ID numbers, five years since Thirty-Nine’s telepathic abilities were identified and enhanced. Five years since Thirty-Three’s free-wheeling, punchy attitude almost got him punched out of the program.
Intervention by Thirty-Nine saved his hide, and after some difficult days and sleepless nights, the two became practically joined at the hip. The rational, calculating mind of Thirty-Nine was perfectly balanced by the passionate heart of Thirty-Three, making them nearly unstoppable together.
They were the top team in an exceptional group of youthful, ruthless anti-terror warriors. Tonight, as in most operations, Thirty-Three was the bait. Thirty-Nine was the trap.
Wish I’d eaten more than a half bag of trail mix this afternoon, Thirty-Three thought. He pressed a button on his wrist and glanced at the LED display. One forty-five am. This mission is taking so long. I’m so hungry.
He glanced at his waistline. A gurgling grumble responded. He patted his stomach. “Easy fella,” he whispered. “I’ll get some good stuff in you soon.”
As he spoke, the darkness was pierced. A pair of headlights over a mile away bounced from side-to-side on the overgrown, rut-filled path that used to serve as a major transport for giant logs, on their way to the mill at Port Maston.
Port Maston was once a bustling harbor in Puget Sound with thousands of workers, most with young families. The mills that dotted the harbor produced a lot of the timber used to build America during the early 1900’s.
But times change, and these times were no different. The mills dwindled, and Port Maston was now a shadow town with an undercurrent of active criminal enterprises, drawn in by the low-security access to the Pacific Ocean, which led to Russia and Asia, as well as easy cover across the border in Canada whenever the Feds got too close.
Since The Woodlands Outpost was in the vicinity of Port Maston, infiltrating local gangs and drug runners was added to the list of anti-terror activities.
“Might as well accentuate your training with real life work,” Captain Nampala, commander of The Woodlands, often said. “Academics without adrenaline leads to apathy.”
The car’s horn beeped twice as it slowly rolled over the mounded area at the far end of the road.
“That’s my cue,” Thirty-Three said. He unfolded his thick body from his roadside shelter. He stretched and yawned, tiptoeing up to his full height of nearly five foot nine. He smacked his upper arms and cracked his neck. He tucked his flannel shirt in all the way around.
“Let’s go,” Thirty-Three whispered. He zipped his navy windbreaker up to the middle of his broad chest, pausing to grab the silver chain that dangled from his neck. Instead of dog tags, a simple plastic rectangle hung at the end of the chain. The souvenir keychain rectangle held a faded photograph.
“I got you Lola, always,” he whispered as he kissed the plastic rectangle and tucked it into his shirt. He finished zipping up his windbreaker and pulled his hood down.
He pitched his goggles and headset into a small beige backpack and kicked it into the ditch beside the road.
The headlights meandered along, shining on bits and pieces of field grass, broken glass and wide stumps. Like sleepy eyes, the headlights moved almost aimlessly until they fixed on Thirty-Three, who now stood in center of the road, empty hands planted on his muscular hips.
The long, low-slung car stopped inches from Thirty-Three’s booted feet.
“Not exactly an off-road vehicle is it boys?” Thirty-Three joked as four men exited the vintage Dodge Charger. Its long windshield wipers squeaked as they streaked across the glass. The idling engine kept a steady low roar as the old carburetor spit fresh air into the big eight-cylinder engine.
The two men on the passenger side of the car remained standing near their respective doors. They wore matching black vests over gray long-sleeved henleys. Each had a shoulder holster holding a long-barreled pistol.
“Oh, you funny, real funny,” the driver shouted over the rumbling engine. A tall thin man with a beard to match, he held a worn leather briefcase in his gloved hand. Dark stains covered both sides of the case. Emblazoned in the center were the initials, “O F R”. Under the initials was the following symbol, burned into the leather like a branded cow:
Bearded Driver gripped the case tightly as he walked to the front corner of the car.
“You make me laugh,” he continued rebuking Thirty-Three. “You laugh too,” he sneered, exposing several missing teeth. “Until I make you cry.”
“Shut up!” A voice behind the thin man growled. A short round man with a chunk of cigar in the side of his mouth stepped out from the back of the car and walked alongside Bearded Driver.
“Watch your mouth. Always talking, always talking. Your talking is going to get you killed.” Cigar Man smacked Bearded Driver and walked toward Thirty-Three.
“Forgive William,” he said. “He is stupid.”
Bearded Driver hung his head as he handed the briefcase to stocky Cigar Man. He remained a step behind as they both walked to the front of the car and stood in between the headlights and Thirty-Three.
Cigar man stepped closer to Thirty-Three. He held the briefcase behind his back with both hands, as casual as Sunday afternoon.
Thirty-Nine locked his sights on the man beside the back seat passenger door. He slowly gripped the pistol with his left hand, his right index finger already tapping on the trigger. His cool efficiency kept him from wasting a moment.
He aimed for the base of the neck, in the perfect box formed by the end of the guard’s mullet and the top of the ribbed collar of his shirt. Thirty-Nine squeezed the trigger. A low whistle followed by a thwap dropped the back seat guard silently into the mud.
“One down,” Thirty-Nine whispered. He moved his sights toward the guard at the passenger door. The rain picked up, giving more cover to the sound of his gun, but reducing his visibility. The high swirling wind pushed against him, testing the strength of the cables holding his apparatus close to the tree from which he hung.
“William?” Thirty-Three replied. “You sure it’s not Vilhelm?” Thirty-Three dragged out the pronunciation of the “l”, in a pitiful attempt at an Eastern European accent.
“Now who needs to stop talking?” cigar man replied. He cocked his head at Thirty-Three. “Do not take things for granted.”
He waved his arm to his right without turning his head.
“There are four of us, and only one of you, cowboy.”
Thwap. Thud. The second passenger side guard fell, cracking his chin on the hood of the car as he slumped forward.
Thirty-Nine reloaded swiftly. Just one more shot for the driver. Thirty-Three would take out Cigar Man.
“Are you sure about that?” Thirty-Three replied, waving his left arm toward the passenger’s side of the car.
Cigar man looked over his right shoulder. The top of front passenger door guard’s head disappeared behind the wet metal fender of the Dodge Charger.
He whirled around, chomping on his cigar as furiously as the pistons pounding in the engine behind him.
A gust of wind blew rain straight into Thirty-Nine’s face as he drew a bead on the back of the driver’s thin neck.
“Wilhelm!” Cigar Man shouted. “We are set up!”
He flipped the briefcase to the tall bearded driver.
As the leather case flipped end over end through the rain, Thirty-Three bulldozed Cigar Man; driving him into the grill of the vintage muscle car. He coughed the cigar high into the air as the tackle knocked the wind out of him.
“Get straight,” Thirty-Nine said through gritted teeth. He cinched his support straps as tightly as he could, trying to keep from swaying. The rain dripping onto the crevices formed by his clenched hands rolled down his palms, into his lycra-kevlar sleeved arm.
“Come on, Thirty-Nine,” Thirty-Three yelled as he climbed onto the hood of the car, parkouring over Cigar Man’s protruding stomach. His rubber-soled boots slid slightly as he slipped his arm around Cigar Man’s throat, clamped down on his wrist and settled in to choke Cigar Man out.
Thirty-Nine squinted hard into the biting rain. He pulled the trigger, sending a feather-tipped dart hurtling through the dark toward the shadowy figure snatching the briefcase.
In one motion, Wilhelm grabbed the briefcase and flung the driver’s door open. He dove inside and crawled across the bench front seat just as the dart hit the opening door.
Ping. It bounced off the doorframe and fell harmlessly into the muck.
“Ineffective shot,” Thirty-Nine told himself. “Target entered vehicle. Time to descend.”
Thirty-Nine slid his pistol into his holster. He left it unsnapped and reached up for the handle of the wench bracketed between two thick branches above his head. He grabbed the rubber-encased handle, now slicker than the freshly waxed hood of the Dodge Charger below, and started cranking himself down, four feet per click.
The Dodge Charger roared under Thirty-Three. He could feel Cigar Man weakening and he ratcheted his grip even tighter around Cigar Man’s hefty throat. Cigar Man’s three day beard scraped the windbreaker. It sounded like the squeak of tennis shoes on the gym floor during conditioning back at The Woodlands.
“At least I don’t have to do any running this month,” Thirty-Three whispered. “It’s the little things.”
“Looks like you haven’t done any running, in a long time, Victor,” Thirty-Three said into Cigar Man’s ear.
The Charger’s wheels began spinning, spitting mud and grass high into the air. Wilhelm was behind the wheel. It shuddered and trembled while Thirty-Three held on to Cigar Man for all his might.
Thirty-Nine clicked as fast as he could, bouncing against the thick trunk of tree. He caught himself repeatedly to prevent spinning.
“Can’t get tangled. Must get to the target,” he said in his typical direct mission speak.
Suddenly, Thirty-Three felt the wheels get traction and the car ripped backward, sending him tumbling to the ground, still hanging onto a nearly unconscious Cigar Man. He fell straight down, landing on his backside, with Cigar Man’s not insignificant girth sandwiching him against the cold wet earth.
At the same time, Thirty-Nine’s feet hit the cold wet earth.
At the same time, the Charger flew in reverse, veering straight toward Thirty-Nine.
Thirty-Three held his grip. Cigar Man was out. Thirty-Three grunted and shoved and rolled the unconscious man to the side.
Thirty-Three rolled over. He winced and grabbed his ribs.
Hope they aren’t cracked. He glanced at Cigar Man. Fatso.
Thirty-Nine was two buckles undone in a six-buckle process when he realized the car wasn’t slowing down and it wasn’t turning. It was coming at him.
This is going to hurt, he thought as he feverishly fought with the buckles across his backside.
The car barreled toward him, bounding over a slight ridge, its taillights like tractor beams on Thirty-Nine’s midsection.
He was trained for this. They were trained for this. They were trained for anything.
“She finished her training session yet? How long has she been on The Wheel?” Thirty-Three asked.
He nudged Thirty-Nine as they stood near the entrance to The Yard. The Yard was the open-air physical coordination and development space at The Woodlands Outpost.
“Long enough,” Thirty-Nine replied.
“Look at you,” Thirty-Three said, turning and smiling at his partner. “Getting a little ‘tude this morning, huh?”
“No. I just think she does it on purpose. She knows I want to get in there and get a good workout before I go to Captain Nampala’s research session. She’s smiling at us. Like she enjoys toying with us. Look at her.” Thirty-Nine pointed to the giant steel and plexi-glass contraption stationed a few feet away.
“I’m always looking at her.” Thirty-Three grinned and followed the line of Thirty-Nine’s pointed finger.
The familiar slender athletic frame of Eleven, a female recruit from Southern California awaited his stare. Her tight pulled ponytail bobbed and bounced as she worked through The Wheel, the most advanced and rigorous training system at The Woodlands Outpost.
The Wheel was ringed with a variety of random pop-outs, rings and bars. It turned like a circular treadmill. The recruit had one goal. To stay on his or her feet as long as possible. Eleven held the current record: six minutes forty-two seconds.
Her blue eyes occasionally met Thirty-Three’s dark brown almond shaped eyes as she tumbled and stretched, leaped and weaved through the obstacles contained within the giant hamster wheel. Her sleeveless spandex shirt revealed her supple arms. Every tug or pull highlighted the sleek lines of her wiry arms. Between her shorts and socks, the rock solid legs of a former gymnast propelled her over and around hurdles within The Wheel.
As she spun through the course, multiple trapdoors opened and closed without warning, leaving Eleven a split second to catch a handhold to keep from dropping to the ground.
Thirty-Nine walked closer to The Wheel, arms crossed. Thirty-Three chuckled as he followed, hands shoved into the pockets of his government-issue gray fleece sweatpants.
“She’s really getting under your skin today, huh?”
“No. I just have work to do. Don’t you have work to do?” Thirty-Nine asked.
Thirty-Three shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose.” He waved his arm out toward the center of The Yard. “Looks like everyone else is doing plenty of work. Maybe I should take a break.”
Across The Yard, the recruits were engaged in a wide variety of physical challenges. Some were working on self-defense and extrication maneuvers, on one of the many mats dotting the open space. The mats were thick and robust, with a double layer cover. They were anchored to the earth like a backyard trampoline. Trampoline work was common, as recruits flipped and flopped for improved balance and dexterity.
Various instructors marched around The Yard with clipboards and whistles, encouraging recruits. It looked like a giant Olympic tryout session for the pentathlon. And it was – a tryout. Every day was a tryout. To keep pace; to be prepared for the next challenge. To be qualified for the next mission. The future was unknown, but it was better defended if every recruit did his or her best. Every day.
Thirty-Nine finished surveying the action all around them. He looked up at Thirty-Three, his golden yellow eyes flickering with an unusual intensity.
“I don’t think you can afford to take a break. You’ve been taking breaks since we were back in high school. Heck, you almost didn’t get chosen because you were so prone to slacking off.”
“Hey,” Thirty-Three good-naturedly punched his partner in the arm. “It wasn’t my fault the teachers didn’t back me. I’m a free spirit, you know. It’s my Cheyenne blood.”
“Cheyenne? Oh, right, your great-great grandmother,” Thirty-Nine laughed. “That means you’re what, one two hundred fifty-sixth Indian?”
“It was enough to get the Captain’s attention.”
“You got the Captain’s attention for sure. Not always for good reasons…” Thirty-Nine poked Thirty-Three in the gut.
“Easy, man,” Thirty-Three replied, rubbing his stomach. “I got to keep a nice store of energy. That comes from my Indian heritage too. Never know when I’ll find another bison on the range.”
“Speaking of Indians, have you seen the new Inspector?” Thirty-Nine asked.
“Yes,” Thirty-Three replied. “There he is, over there.”
Thirty-Three pointed to their left, just beyond the climbing wall, near the hand-to-hand combat cages. In the shadow of the only tree in The Yard, an elderly Native American stood. His jet black hair was streaked with silver. A single strand of orange beads embraced his haggard neck, just above the collar of his uniform.
All Inspectors wore sleek black jumpsuits, divided by a silver belt and highlighted by silver cuffs on the pants and sleeves. Each uniform had a large white square on the left chest, embroidered with a black number. Like the recruits, as well as the Instructors and the Investigators, they were numbered instead of named. The secrecy of the operation was paramount. No names were ever used. That was Proper Protocol One. Violation equaled expulsion. No exceptions.
The Inspectors were the enforcers at The Woodlands. They did room checks, made sure the recruits followed the Proper Protocols (all ten) and kept the facility secure.
“He’s like sixty,” Thirty-Nine said as he stared at the Inspector.
“No, he’s Inspector-44,” Thirty-Three replied. “You need to get your eyes checked. They may be pretty, but they aren’t seeing too well.”
“Not his ID number, stupid. His age. He’s at least sixty. Look at him move. Who’s he going to discipline?”
Inspector-44’s hands were wide and strong, but his parchment thin skin and knobby knuckles were a testament to a long hard life. And arthritis. He clipped a few weeds from around the small bed that separated the large willow tree from the rest of The Yard.
“What’s he doing, anyway? I never see him doing much but fooling around the tree.”
“Like I know? I can barely keep up with my own assignments,” Thirty-Three replied.
“Well, you’re the Indian. Maybe you and Inspector-44 have a sacred connection to the land or something,” Thirty-Nine said.
“Not cool, Thirty-Nine. I can joke about it because I am part Indian. You’re as white as the snow on top of the Cascades.”
A loud buzzing sound interrupted their banter and their puzzlement over Inspector-44’s purpose.
“Finally,” Thirty-Nine huffed. He looked over at The Wheel just as Eleven fell to the turf.
She lay on the ground for a moment. She sat up, supported by her hands behind her back. Her triceps rippled as she pushed herself upright.
“So nice. So hot,” Thirty-Three whispered.
“Shut up,” Thirty-Nine replied.
“How are you fellas?” Eleven asked. She rose to her feet and smiled. Her crystal blue eyes reminded Thirty-Nine of the water near the head of the creeks fed by melting ice, when he’d been on fishing trips with his dad.
They reminded Thirty-Three of heaven.
“Catch my breath,” he mumbled.
Eleven dabbed at her glistening forehead with a small yellow towel as she walked toward them.
“Sorry if I took such a long time on The Wheel,” she said, loud enough for half The Yard to hear.
She pointed at the monitor near the entrance to The Wheel.
“Look at it this way, Thirty-Nine,” she tossed her moist towel at him. “Now you’ve got something to shoot for.”
Thirty-Nine snatched the towel before it hit him in the face.
The large LED showed the new record, just set by Eleven.
“Twelve minutes, thirty-four seconds,” Thirty-Three whistled.
Eleven purposely slid between them, swaying her ponytail as she passed. Thirty-Three scrambled to the door and held it open. She walked through, leaving nothing but the chilled air of confident superiority in her wake. Thirty-Three breathed deeply, his wide nostrils flaring like a stallion after a race.
“Can you train me sometime, Eleven?” He asked as she disappeared into the main hall of the facility.
“You’re so pathetic,” Thirty-Nine said. He tossed Eleven’s towel in a perfect arc. It sailed through the moist air and dropped right on top of Thirty-Three’s head.
“Come on..” Thirty-Three protested. He pulled it down across his face and started to wad it into a ball. “Hey. That smells nice. Even her sweat is sweet. What a woman!”
“Let it go, Thirty-Three,” Thirty-Nine replied. “Proper Protocol Four.”
“I know, I know.” Thirty-Three tucked the hand towel into his pocket. “All is fair in love and war, except for love during war.”
Thirty-Nine marched to The Wheel and wriggled through the narrow entrance. He slid the plexiglass door closed and pressed the start button. He looked through the mesh enclosure at Thirty-Three.
“Now watch a real man do some training.”