Despite the bliss of mortal ignorance - forgive not that betrayal when a man defiles an innocent
*** The Procreation Instinct ***
A powerful human emotion that drives every parent to protect its offspring
A WHITE FUR PARKA completely envelops a man huddled beneath a copse of pine trees burdened with fresh snow. A few remaining flakes blow about, settling into the freeze. Chilling winds push the clouds away after three brutal days of blizzards and below freezing temperatures.
Nearly invisible against a colorless landscape, the man called Tracker exhales through a knit scarf and vapor floats before the embankment, drifting unseen amidst snowflakes and dusk. A shotgun painted white hangs in the crook of his arm, its muzzle a round black dot dancing against the frosty background each time he shifts position. Tracker studies a log cabin buried halfway to its eaves and a small woodshed standing nearby.
Smoke hovers briefly above a stone chimney then drifts away, an ethereal wisp haunting the wilderness. Dim firelight flickers behind tapered snowdrifts banked against frost-covered windows and lends an eerie quality to the scene. Eyes as pale as a glacier flick between the cabin and a woodshed beyond.
The shed door bangs open and a man steps out, his face partially hidden in a fleece-lined hood, his arms cupped beneath a stack of firewood. The man stamps along a trail he shoveled earlier through snow three feet deep and pushes his back against the cabin door. The overlaid wooden slab resists, stuck shut. He kicks at it. A dull thump sounds dead in the wintry wilderness.
"Damn it," the man growls, voicing a thick rasp in the chill air. "Open the fuckin' door, Jack." Again Manny kicks at it then bumps his shoulder against the door.
At that exact instant, Jack twists the handle inside. The thick wooden slab springs open and barks his knuckles. Jack yelps and slams it shut again, tipping Manny backward into the snow bank, the firewood scattering beside him. A heavily bearded face appears in a thin slit then the door swings open.
Manny jumps to his feet and snaps a snowball through the gap.cold welt turns red in the center of Jack's forehead as he jerks his head backward and grins, brushing his fingertips at the wet spot.
Manny shoves the door open all the way and stuffs another snowball down his younger brother’s shirt.
Jack grabs Manny, lifts him off his feet, staggers outside and tosses him into the snow bank, then spins on one bright red sock, races back inside, still grinning, and slams the door shut one more time.
Manny quickly shakes the white crystals off his shirt and pants, and jumps at the door again but nearly falls inside this time when it pops open easily. The men grapple and bear-hug, wrestling and laughing, rolling around on the floor.
"I'll toss your big hairy ass in that snow yet," Manny barks, and struggles with the weight, trying unsuccessfully to push the much larger man off his chest. "All right, all right, lemme up. You tryin’ to heat the whole state? Lemme get the wood and shut the door, before we freeze the joint.”
Jack grins, cuffs Manny playfully behind his ears, and rolls off his brother. Manny scrambles to his feet but suddenly has no face. The first shotgun blast takes him head-high and flips him backward over a rough plank table centered in the room.
Two more blasts slam Jack back against the hearth and drop him in front of the flames. Blood splatters the rocks and walls, and drips onto the slate floor. His left shoulder and arm lie in the coals, his hair and beard sizzle, his shirt smolders. Jack twitches and jerks, twitches again, then lies motionless and feels nothing. Manny lies beside his brother on the plank floor, still as a stone.
White fur fills the frame as Tracker steps inside. Sharp odors hang in the room, gunpowder, wood smoke, blood and old sweat fill his nostrils. Tracker pumps another shell into the chamber just as the first slug hits him above the heart and deflects up and sideways off a rib.
Tracker rolls right and drops the shotgun, caroms off the woodstove and twists quickly. A second bullet slams into a log above his head, and a third ricochets off the stove, punctures a teapot and sprays water all over the stovetop. Steaming beads hiss and pop on the hot metal.
A short, thick-bodied young woman undressed to the waist rises above the loft railing and aims once more.
Two quick shots echo a split second apart.
A small red dot appears below her hairline, another two inches below it where her right eye had been a second ago, and both dots dribble slick red wetness down her cheek.
The snub-nose pistol slips from her fingers and bounces twice on the kitchen floor nine feet below. Her remaining eye widens, staring at Tracker, her brow wrinkles in disbelief, resisting her end. The woman struggles, willing herself to remain erect but finally slumps onto the mattress. Her left hand slips between the rails, her fingers extend crookedly as if grasping at her killer.
"Chose the wrong weapon," Tracker observes, his rough, sandpaper voice evaluating the small caliber, short-range handgun the woman used. “Lucky for me,” his abrupt cackle fills the room and he grunts at her mistake.
His smile twists a bit as the pain grabs him. Tracker groans. He reaches inside, rubs his chest, and then wipes his fingers clean. Bloody stains streak his parka, the thin splotches bright red against the white fur. Breathing heavily, Tracker tucks his pistol into its pouch and leans his back against the log wall. He retrieves a handkerchief from his pants pocket and stuffs it in against the bullet hole, fingering a stickiness where the blood leaks, clots, and mats in his chest hair.
Pain grips his chest once more. "Damn that hurts!"
He picked up this assignment nine days ago. The package mapped this location and identified the brothers. It had taken him four days just to pack in, hindered by nasty weather and heavy snowdrifts. The woman completely surprised him. Tracker had been watching the cabin since early morning, awaiting this evening and the opportunity to accomplish his chore, but she had never come outside so he never spotted her. He expected no one but the two men, a mission control error that nearly cost him his life.
“Someone's gonna pay for this.” A promise to himself he'll keep later. His gritty mutter fades away with the pain, and he groans again.
The rank smell of burnt hair and cotton shirt fill the room. Tracker wrinkles his nose and pushes to his feet, grabs Jack by a foot and tugs the body away from the flames. He locates a small bucket, kneels, and pours water over the smoldering hair and shirt, dousing the burn and washing away the stink.
A wave of nausea rolls over Tracker. He slumps against the stone hearth, eases himself down slowly and stretches his legs out on the floor, resting a minute. His eyes quiver and slide shut, his thoughts dissipate into a thickening fog of ache and shock.
A chill enters the cabin while Tracker sleeps, driving out the heat. The fire burns down to a few coals, the open door drifts back and forth in the quickening breeze, squeaking on old rusted hinges. A feminine hand hangs over the loft edge, stiff, without life.
His eyes flutter then open, close briefly, then open again. Unconscious for more than three hours, his shoulder and chest ache, and the bullet hole oozes blood each time he flexes the muscle. Tracker tilts his head, adjusts his focus. Moonlight filters through the treetops and lights up the woodshed roof. Snow reflects back into the darkness, creating odd shadows across the yard and into the cabin interior.
He rolls over, grips the upended table, struggles to his knees then pushes himself erect. Another wave of dizziness nearly knocks him down again and he shakes his head, a mindless error that aggravates the pain immensely. He leans against the table and waits while his thoughts clear.
Later still, clean and disinfected, he tapes a bandage across the hole. The bullet remains inside and Tracker knows he needs a clinic. Infection will cause him trouble if he cannot get to a doctor soon. He whips out a miniature camera and quickly records evidence of his work. He exits the cabin, packs up his gear and enters a trail, aims his snowshoes at an Arctic Cat snow-runner hidden in the trees, a three hour hike lit by a full moon.
Tracker grunts and takes the first step.
Intelligence Coordination Division Director George M. Hallingforth III lifts his eyes, removes his glasses, and gazes out the window, massaging the bridge of his nose. A blue folder slips from his fingers, its contents spill out across his desk. "Wish this damn rain'd quit."
A photograph lands face-up on his blotter, its bright colors clearly illustrating a man with his throat slit and his genitals cut away, the rest of his body battered and bruised. Vacant but glaring, two extremely unforgiving eyes stare back at Hallingforth, accusing. A spasm of remorse crosses his face and Hallingforth glances out the window again.
"Well, here's the proof, Henry. They killed John Symington," Hallingforth says, and shakes his head. "We have to begin again."
Uneasy, standing beside the desk, Henry Bates shuffles his feet, but says nothing. His left hand holds four thin files. His right hand squeezes a black rubber ball. Periodically, he switches the ball and the files, exercising the opposite fist.
Seated in his tenth floor office, Hallingforth stares at the panoramic view, sadness straddling his portly shoulders. Wind and rain beats steadily against the glass and beyond the adjoining buildings an occasional spark of lightning brightens the sky.
Heavy and blowing, the storm has been drowning Baltimore off-and-on for nearly a week. The city dwellers constantly beg for sunshine, and once it arrives, immediately complain about the heat and humidity.
"Will you need anything else this evening, sir?" asks Bates, forever locked in his South Texas drawl. Bates often adds the ‘sir’ out of respect, though the men have been friends and colleagues for years.
"Still only four, Henry?"
Bates raises the files, waves them at Hallingforth. "No change."
"Well, you read them too. What do you think?"
Bates shifts the ball and the files between his hands once more. "Tracker’s the best by far, but won't do it. Says he retired after that last hit, and still pissed about it. We left him hanging when Tactical missed Ramona Pierce. She almost iced him in the cabin when he sanctioned the Dixon brothers a few months ago. Blames it on us, of course.”
“Yes, well he's a contract. Can’t expect us to do the same background as we do for our internal Spec 909 ops. Too expensive. Should’ve checked on his own too, for the money we paid him, and his ass on the line. I’d sure check myself if it were my tail hanging out there." Hallingforth replies. "He's got plenty of soft contacts, probably some we don’t even know about,”
That screw-up annoys the director a little, although probably not as much as Tracker and the bullet he took based on an agency error. Hallingforth neither accepts nor tolerates screw-ups, but he masks those feelings at present and for this specific project. No sense letting emotion cloud his judgment, and this operation's fundamentally different anyway.
“Run it all by me again, Henry.”
“Salvoni and Fountaine are both ex-CIA and work freelance for us, and for other departments and, unfortunately, for other countries as well. Both have an easily traceable record. Course, same thing with Symington, but he's such a renegade it didn't matter. Well, was anyway, he’s off the books now for good. Tracker won't even talk about it anymore, just ignores my pings."
“Sergeant Klyne's a loner by choice, excellent in the operational intelligence and extremely physical, but a real rookie at something like this, and may be tough to convince. He's still active military, might get a bit dicey. Besides, he already said 'No' once last time we asked. Currently in Panama for another few weeks. Told me he's tired, finished with it all. 'Taking a discharge and going home,' he said ... but we don't know which home he means."
"He has family in England and Seattle, and in Jersey. His best friend works in Los Angeles, out in the beach area somewhere. A state drug cop. Both did Special Forces ops all over the world, forged a pretty tight bond."
"I can search it again, but won't find anyone else, unless you change your mind. About the qualifications, I mean."
"Can't we force him? We must have something good on him. Who? Tracker? Doubt it. You know him as well as I do. Sent Lenny Mathews down to his farm to ask again. Lenny couldn't find him, and woke up the next morning with the middle finger of his glove tacked to a tree beside his campsite." Bates laughs. "I'd call that a statement."
"Could give it one more try, but he'll just disappear again. Might even come for us if we push him too hard. He's crazy enough to try it.”
“I’m not worried about that. He’d just bump up against it. Wouldn’t ever get in here unless we let him.”
“Not so sure about that, George. And we’re not always here either. Wouldn’t want to be looking behind myself the rest of my life if we piss him off again, good as he is. And, he's a little nuts. Besides, if we push him hard now and he still turns it down, we won't be able to use him later if we find something he likes."
“Nobody retires. Not in our world,” Hallingforth reflects absently. The director leans his elbows on the desk and lowers his forehead onto his palms, digs his fingertips into his scalp.
He launched this operation two months ago. The files detail only four remaining men his ICD computers identified with the skills he needs. Five until a couple days ago. John Symington accepted the contract more than a month ago, but lost his way somehow.
“Not careful enough probably. Getting too old for it maybe?” Bates concludes, and shrugs, as if an adversary butchers one of his contractors every week.
Now the favored mercenary is dead, the photos Hallingforth received last night confirm that unfortunate fact. And, the man insisted on his money up-front, which upsets Hallingforth even more. Budget again, even though his operational money never shows up on any federal accounting, and he never runs out.
"This one's a bit different anyway, Henry … but still, it’s annoying to pay and get nothing for it,” he said. Hallingforth shakes his head and rubs his eyes again, a perpetual habit.
"Not exactly nothing, George. He got to one of the targets."
Hallingforth glares across the desk. "He didn't finish it. That matters!"
Bates shifts the ball and files again. "Anything else, sir." He feels a bit uneasy with this specific project. Hallingforth has not shared everything on it, an extremely unusual situation after all the years they've worked together. But his Red Ops are often like that. Need to know, and most don't need all of it.
"I think not Henry, just finish up and I'll buzz if I need something. Leave these files with me and you can go as soon as you wrap up. I'll check these again and decide tonight who we send."
"Okay. I’ll be here awhile anyway." Bates steps out and shuts the door.
Hallingforth skims the files, scribbles a few notes as he reads. An hour passes. He points a finger and depresses a switch. "Henry, you still here?"
Bates enters immediately, as if expecting the call. "Yes sir?" Brushing his palm back and forth over an inch of thick blond hair above his craggy, unreadable face, Bates stands across the desk and looks down at his supervisor.
"Have we a Spec 909 agent in the Northwest? A young female, attractive, and extremely competent in martial arts."
"A woman, sir?" Bates asks, his eyebrows arch in question.
"Yes, Henry, a woman."
The ICD Specialist 909 operation center controls two hundred and forty-seven agents, but only sixteen women.
Bates keeps track of who, what, and where every Spec 909 operative lives and works, and administers all assignments.
Hallingforth does not, at least not until he needs one. Everyone believes that, although it's basically untrue. George Hallingforth recalls every current operation, and all completed operations as well. That makes him unique, that kind of mind-control and memory.
He never learned it or practiced it, it just came to him from birth, and made him an anomaly in high school and college, then among his peers, and later, as he matured and rose through the ranks, created avenues in federal law enforcement organizations unavailable to others. George Hallingforth paved his own road to the top early on in his career.
Bates inspects dots in the ceiling while searching his mind. "No. Not that I'm aware of." Then his eyes glimmer and what passes for a smile creases his face. "Hold on a minute, Nikki …”
He pauses briefly, reflecting, begins again, a bit more official tone in his words. “Agent Pepperton, she's right here, well in D.C. anyway, and available. Could send her anywhere on short notice. She's assigned to internal investigations temporarily, but operated in Washington and Oregon, a little bit in Canada, and a couple times in California. She usually works the Far East for obvious reasons."
Bates almost restrains the crack in his face, but his lips twitch at the corners despite his normally stoic persona. "About thirty, if I recall, but still looks like a kid. Attractive, yeah too, no doubt. My sons call her a ‘stone fox’ with a very nice tail."
The director knows that Henry Bates recalls Nikki Pepperton exactly, and that Bates wishes he could undo the lip-twitch that gave him away just now, and why he pretends ignorance whenever her name pops up. Both men know the story and reasons, and both men know the other man knows it.
Hallingforth says nothing about it, just picks up the files and scans each one quickly. The Pepperton history means nothing today, so he ignores it.
"Thought of her, but she's on med-leave?"
"Just back, bullet didn't do much damage. Pretty tough woman. And she's about ready for assignment. You don’t like her for this one, maybe use Jacki Granger. She's actually a couple years younger than Nikki, but looks much older." His eyes crinkle and the corners of his mouth bend up once and flatten back quickly, but again, he refrains from actually smiling.
“Don't tell Jacki I said that. She's working an industrial espionage case in London with Trigger Crabbe, but it's just idling. He can watch it alone for now. If it pops open again we can send someone else if he needs back-up."
"But Pepperton's fully fit, and ready for assignment."
"Good ... excellent. Get me her ops files, not the background." The Director works at his thoughts momentarily. "She still capable? Not hurt or ineffective, or psyched out by that weird hit?”
"No, nothing. Nine confirmed kills, most recent in this last one – then she caught that bullet trying to get out afterwards. Pretty lucky actually, could've been worse. Just grazed her lung so she’s been rehabbing for a while. Probably about the best we have in unarmed combat. No reason to rotate her out, she's fully recovered. And Annie Newport did her work-up over at psyche and says her head's just fine."
Bates spins on his heel and leaves the room, returns shortly and hands over a red folder. “Might be something I forgot in here, but I doubt it."
"I'll be home all night if you need me, George." The door swings shut behind Bates, a nearly silent puff of air announces the security door sealing itself.
Hallingforth leans on his elbows, presses stubby fingers into his eyes, gently kneading the orbits. He has five files and a decision suddenly urgent with Symington dead and the mission compromised. “Temporarily,” the word barely audible under his breath. He shakes his head, rubs his eyes, and groans. He hides his suffering well, but someone may easily discover his secret if this project stalls much longer.
The director lays the open folders in a row on his desk and boots up his desktop. Alternately, he refers to each page one at a time and taps keys with one index finger on each hand, his old school typing method, slow but sure.
Stopping occasionally, he rests his eyes and refreshes his coffee while searching the web and the federal security data base. He reads and makes notes long past midnight, filling a large pad with small, neat script as well as building a new digital file.
Finally, he copies the info into a flash drive he slips in his pants pocket, and then keys in a security sequence. The computer erases everything he entered and shuts itself down. He sticks the files and the note pad in his briefcase and spins the locks.
He opens the bottom drawer, removes a nearly full bottle and a goblet, and sets both on his desk. Lost in thought, he stares at the tumbler a moment then pours two fingers of amber liquid, passes the snifter under his nose, inhales then sips, rolling the aged brandy around on his tongue, savoring its mellow flavor.
Once again, Hallingforth experiences a secret window that opens directly into his soul and a tart tangerine taste that slides across the palette, followed by the sweetly thick honey-rose liqueur and flat coconut strands that delight his taste buds. Relaxing as best he can under the circumstances, the brandy turns his mind inward.
A vengeful sadness follows his thoughts into a satanic lair while the devil cracks a smile and chuckles silently at behavior the director can no longer resist.
Gazing out the slick dark window, Hallingforth leans back and stretches out his short, thick legs. The wind lightens, the rain finally stops, and a bright half-moon hangs behind thinning clouds. His co-workers often call him 'Chunkie' behind his back and think he doesn't know it. He knows it. The ICD Director knows everything.
"I know everything!" He opens the initial interview with each new agent assigned to his unit. "If I don't know it, I'll find it out long before you do," his lecture continues. "When you know more than I, you'll have my job, and until you do, don't doubt anything I tell you."
Most recruits express minor disbelief at first, but later learn the lesson, sometimes a harsh one, and sometimes too late. But George Hallingforth is always right and always one step ahead, or two. Well, almost always - an antagonistic enemy nailed Symington this time, and extremely unusual event in Spec 909 operations.
George M. Hallingforth III founded the Intelligence Coordination Division five years ago and rules it with an iron fist. He misses nothing and plays no favorites. Every person in power politics owes him at least something, even if only one favor. And he owes no one. Nice to park on that throne he reflects often, and very convenient.
He sips again, pours another shot. His eyes roam the room, returning time and again to the family portrait sitting on his desk. His thoughts turn inward, as always, to his only daughter, his love, his life, the dark-haired beauty he buried nearly two years ago.
Victoria Hallingforth, her spirit crushed before its time. Brightness, and sparkle, and humor, and gone. His sweetest memory occupies a huge void in his chest whenever his mind stands idle, a perpetual ache that never lets him rest.
He spent a ton of influence, collected numerous favors, and kept the real story from his wife. Margaret still believes her only child died in an automobile accident in New Mexico while developing an advertising contract for her employer, an electronics development firm based in Virginia.
A tear moistens his eye. Once again, and as always when late and alone, he contemplates a different version of her life, how he might have raised her some other way, and protected her from the viciousness surrounding her death. Again, he comes up without an answer. He had done his best, he believes, but chance and choice had chilled her laughter ... Forever.
He shakes his head once more. His reverie slips away. Absently, he fingers the wet streaks on his cheek, rises, switches off the lights and stands in shadow for a moment. A tremendous weariness suddenly overwhelms him and he sags beneath it, its burden riding heavy in his heart.
Hallingforth changes his mind and turns the lights back on, sits at the desk, pours another drink. He opens his briefcase, picks up the files, and quickly reviews the information again as if a new wrinkle emerged while he pondered his child. He taps his fingers on the desk, lost in thought and planning one last time. He jots a few more notes, places the files and his note pad carefully inside his briefcase and locks it.
"Sergeant Jacoby Klyne, your life's about to change." He whispers his words gently into the darkness. "And I'm truly sorry for that." The ICD Director swallows the remaining brandy, rinses his glass, then locks up and wanders a crooked path to the elevator, pushing himself off the wall several times.
Navigating around shallow black puddles that dot the pavement and wrestling briefly with his conscience over the deeds he's about to set into motion, George M. Hallingforth carefully masks his rage, wraps his arms tightly around his briefcase and shuffles across the wet parking lot.