Unobstructed, the knuckles hit hard and heavy. The final punch breaks two ribs, cracks two more, and empties his lungs. Jason Marks grunts and passes out. Then the towel again, the water once more soaking his head and body.

“Tell me,” the assailant growls.

Marks lifts his eyes, shakes his head a fourth time, his lips split and bloody, one eye badly bruised and swelling shut. A few unintelligible words bubble out. Sounds like ‘puk yo mutha’.

Two days ago, drug smugglers ambushed a Special Forces intelligence squad operating in Panama, killed three in a fire-fight, and now hold the captain and two additional rangers in a concrete bunker. Corporal Marks sits in a chair bolted to the floor of a drug storage room and struggles against the ropes binding his arms and chest.

The smuggler boss tosses the bucket aside, pulls out a knife honed razor-sharp, grabs a fist full of hair, and opens a slit beneath his prisoner’s chin. “Tell me.”

Corporal Marks remains mute.

The point digs in deeper, opens the slit a bit wider. A feral grin crosses his face and the blade cuts through the carotid artery neat and clean. The man jerks the knife sideways and forward, slicing through muscle and tendon as if it were wet cotton thread. He watches the federal agent bleed out.

“Fuck you, agent man,” he says, his English heavily accented. “Your brother will answer or get the same. I’ll show him you first.”

Some people might label the killer ugly. A poorly healed scar runs from beneath his right eye, down a cheek and across thick lips on a face that’s seen better days. He strides out through the door, aims his boots down a short hallway toward another locked storage room.

The man keys the lock and pushes the heavy steel door. Hung on stout, well-oiled hinges, the door opens half-way and bumps against an obstruction then rockets back at him and breaks his nose. He staggers backward across the corridor, bounces off the wall, meets a knee between his legs, coughs, and grabs his crotch with one hand, his bleeding nose with the other. A punch he never sees coming drops him face-down on the dirt floor. Still holding his crotch and nose, the smuggler squirms onto his back and groans.

A man dressed in combat fatigues lands on the killer’s chest and drives a fist into his throat, crushing the trachea and tearing the esophagus. Choking on his own blood, the body twitches a couple times, then runs out of life.

“Shudda learnt how to tie real knots, asshole. Serves ya’ right, leaving me alone in a room wrapped in rope a five-year-old could untangle with one hand.”

The Special Forces Captain kicks the man once, turns the body on its side, releases a flap catch and confiscates a pistol. He mutters aloud, “Gotta find Marks and Klyne, we got a mission to complete.”

Cooper cocks an ear, listens. Barely discernible, a small diesel generator throbs outside the building, supplying electricity. He spins in a circle, quickly evaluating the bunker.

Concrete walls buried four or five feet below grade surround a dirt floor thirty feet long, four feet wide. Short gable walls at each end vent outside and support a ridge beam. A plywood roof slopes up and overlaps the ridge. Four additional metal doors line the right side of the corridor, six storerooms altogether. Three doors open and three closed. A small but permanent stopover facility it appears, a protective drug bunker on a smuggling route heading north.

A string of dim light bulbs hangs from the ridge and illuminates the corridor. The access hallway ends at a wooden stairway that leads up to a small landing and single exit door. No windows.

Cooper slides along the wall, the pistol leading his way. He listens carefully, then peeks into room five. He finds Corporal Marks, bled out, eyes wide open in a death stare. Cooper drops his chin and closes his eyes briefly, emotion clouding his mind momentarily. That’s four lost this trip, unusual for the extremely well-trained black operations unit he leads.

He continues along the corridor, approaches the door six, listens carefully. Silence. He drops into a squat, rests his butt on the dirt floor and eases the lever down. A quarter inch, then a half. Unlocked. He slowly completes the rotation, takes a full minute. He aims the pistol through his knees and into the room at gut level then rolls back slightly and kicks the door.

Empty, no humans. A large stack of wrapped kilos, heroin or cocaine maybe, sits in the middle of the room. Three backpacks and three military issue M-16 rifles belonging to himself and his team lean against a corner. Two wireless transmitters lay in the dirt, shattered. Otherwise, an empty room.

In one smooth motion, he stands, releases the clip, sticks it in his cargo pocket, rachets the remaining shell out of its chamber, catches it in mid-air and tosses the confiscated pistol behind the stack, trusting his own weapons more than an untested enemy handgun. He removes his personal Colt from a side pocket in his pack, anchors it in his waistband, and grabs his M-16, checks its loads, sets the semi-automatic burst, nods and grins.

He exits the room, crab-crawls along the hallway, approaches door four, listens. Two low voices converse in Spanish, he pushes to his feet. Extremely patient, he lifts the brass lever a quarter inch, then a half. Unlocked. He jerks the lever up completely, kicks the door, finds two men naked to the waist and playing cards, sweating in a wet Panama heat wave. 

He pulls the trigger twice, a three-shot burst enters the heart of each man faster than either one can draw a weapon. He abandons both men right where they fall, and heads for the next door, tests the lever.

Locked. No keys. He glances back at the smuggler boss he’d killed, debating the key issue, watching door six, open, its light on. The shots will have warned its occupants, if any. He counts off a ten-second delay. Nothing. He shrugs, pulls the trigger and blasts the lock on door five, slides four feet backward along the wall and squats below any upper body firing line, his M-16 ready. Silence. No response. The door remains ajar, the lock blown into pieces.

“Jake,” he yells, figuring this storage room holds his sergeant or maybe he’s already dead behind door six, like Marks in door two.

“Yes,” a single word. Sergeant Jacoby Klyne, his guy. “I’m here, Captain.”

“Step out, Jake, show me your hands.” Personal safety first.

Two hands appear, empty, then a full body and a face he recognizes immediately. “Nobody else in here but me, Coop.” His eyes fall on the body outside door two.

“He killed Marks. The guy’s dead, let’s go,” Cooper says. He quickly explains his escape, the dead smuggler and his two card-playing henchmen.

Sergeant Klyne and Captain Cooper retrieve their backpacks and gather all ammunition. Klyne grabs his own M-16. Cooper unloads and smashes the third weapon against the concrete wall, tosses it behind the stack. Both men exit the room and approach the landing, climb the wooden steps and ease open the door, one inch. Klyne sticks an eye to the slot. Nothing.  He pushes it open another inch, catches a slight oddity in the trees and spots a wooden shack partially hidden in the foliage. Wide, flat palm fronds layer the roof and a porch surrounds the cabin on three sides.

Klyne holds one finger straight up, points at himself, then left. Points a thumb over his shoulder at the captain, points a finger right, then three fingers up and a silent count down, one finger, two, three and kicks the door. Both men launch up and out of the dugout, spinning in opposite directions.  Klyne whips around the corner and ducks behind a rain barrel.

Directly behind Klyne, the captain takes one quick step to the right and his weight trips a hidden trigger. A buried trap-grenade explodes beneath him and blows him off his feet. Rusty nails, glass shards and steel shavings rip through his boot, shredding tissue and bone.

Cooper twists at the waist, drops his weapon and falls on his back, grabs what remains of his left foot below the calf, broken and bloody. A groan escapes his lips, “Fuck me that hurt!”

Tears roll down his cheeks. He loosens his belt, slides it out, wraps it around his calf four inches above the bleeding, and pulls it as tight as possible. The bleeding nearly stops. 

Klyne pops up above the rain barrel, and checks out the shack. The door leading inside sits dead center on the front wall and bangs open, spits out three armed men bringing up automatic rifles, but not quick enough.  All three catch M-16 body shots dead center. Sergeant Klyne never misses at such close range. He leaves them where they lie, studies the cabin a minute, and then turns back to his squad leader.

He opens his pack and a first aid kit, injects morphine into a muscle below the knee. He removes the shrapnel, stones and glass, cleans and disinfects the damaged ankle and foot as best he can, wraps a sterile bandage around the entire bloody mess. Bright red spots dot the white cloth immediately.

“Hurts, need a new foot!” A groan follows, shock arrives, and his head flops back onto the dirt. “Leave me here, Jake. Go get some help.”

“Bullshit, you’ll never make it alone. It’s me and you, or nothing.” Klyne strips his pack of all but essentials, grabs both rifles, hoists Cooper over his right shoulder, and takes the first step north. “Glad you’re a runner and not a weight lifter.”

“Hang in there, Coop, we got a least three days, maybe four, to the nearest Tango Command once we find the river. We’ll send a chopper team in to collect Marks, wipe out any smugglers still here, burn the shack and implode that building.”

 Chapter One 

A smudge of darkness creeps across the horizon and swallows the last streak of sunlight, plunging the forest encampment into shadow. The scent of pine pitch and wood smoke hangs in the chill. Low flames lick the rim of a rusty barrel set in a clearing amidst conifers and oaks. A few random sparks spit up and flare out in the moonless dusk.

Light chatter floats beneath the gloom and sets a brighter tone. A gleeful shriek twists up into the night and elevates the mood, chasing away the frowns and sadness. Several deep chuckles follow. A tough life sometimes for these vagabonds, each one embracing that occasional bout of wit or humor simply to survive.

One more burst of laughter peals out, another high-pitched squeal. “That’s too funny, wait ’til you hear this one.” Another tall tale bends the facts, spicing up tragedy. True, false, or embellished, story-telling becomes an art form less easily defined when homeless drifters share a patch of ground for a day or a week, sometimes a month or more.

As the chill deepens, each bundled body cloaks itself in a ragged blanket or a dingy old coat. The travelers snuggle closer. A grunt or a groan disturbs the quiet as one or another scoots in toward the fire and crabs about the weather.

“Shoulda left a week ago.” A male voice grumbles. A fabric rustle punctuates his words as he tosses a log into the barrel then slips away and wraps himself tighter. A loner and complainer, hiding near the perimeter but still slow to abandon his companions.

“Damn cold sneaks right inside these old bones, sets up a cramp.” A different male voice, another fabric rustle.  “Come on over here and warm me up, Annie.”

A group giggle pops out. Everyone knows what’s coming.

“Screw you, Gator. Git out the magnifier and use a rag.” Annie giggles again. Same request every night, same response. Annie and Gator remain pals, but not lovers. An old boar hunter and alligator trapper from southern Georgia, Gator never bathes. The average nose can smell the man a mile away, even his fingernails reek.

Chicago’s not the finest place in the country to sleep outdoors during winter, and most seasonal vagabonds have long departed, seeking the southern warmth.

A few hardy misfits hang around until the last minute, confiscating the favored spots soon as the alpha dogs vacate the camp. Starlight peeks between the clouds and barely penetrates the thick evergreen canopy, reflecting a light dusting of snow that began an hour ago and then quit.

In the distance, the never-sleeping city bounces its reflection off the cloud-cover. A long mournful wail accents the rhythmic clatter of large metal wheels chugging slow but steady atop steel I-beams aimed at the old dilapidated stockyards. Rolling north on the mainline railhead, four powerful engines whistle and whine and a steel tune vibrates down from treble to bass as a mile-long caravan winds into that final bend and climbs a slight rise before aiming itself at the municipal boundaries.

Long closed now, the vacant and mostly dismantled slaughterhouse once fed a major industry and anchored the Chicago economy and its surrounding agricultural communities.

One man and his woman sit off in a separate section away from the fire, close enough to others for safety but distant enough for privacy. Eleanor McGee slips a pair of silver feathers through a piercing in each ear, a gift from her current traveling companion. She leans in and plants a thank you kiss right where it counts.

Heath bought the earrings for his sister at a Navajo roadside stand on his last journey west but changed his mind after meeting Ellie at a hobo camp in New York a few months ago. He didn’t share that ‘gift for his sister’ information with Ellie though.

Both watch the train rumble and slow, arcing into that last graceful curve. A lone shadow tosses a backpack and drops off a boxcar, stumbles once on the icy gravel slope then catches his balance and grabs the pack, slings it over a shoulder, and trots toward the hobo camp, weaving between frosty white pines and naked oaks.

Dry leaves rustle and twigs crack, and Heath Simmons turns an ear toward the noise.  Wary, testing, he stands and says, “That you Tick? Couple days late.”

An answer bounces back between the trees. “Yup, it’s me, tardy to the party as usual. Don’t make a schedule that needs keeping anymore. Figured you’d wait or move on and I’d track you south somewhere a bit warmer.”

 Tick pushes through the brush, drops his pack. “Got two extra days work. No sense leaving eighty-five bucks lying on the table.” The brothers take a few steps and wrap up together. “Good to see you. Been too long.” The men unwind slowly, the intimacy and fondness obvious.

Heath aims a finger at the new woman in his life, sitting and watching. “Ellie McGee, meet Tick, the younger.”

The woman pushes up and offers a hand, firm and callused. Two strangers, a male and a female, touch and release, friends now, accepted, no questions asked.

“Like looking in a six-foot, hundred and ninety pound, grey-eyed mirror,” she says. Ellie marvels at the duplicate image.

“Twins,” she decides, pointing a finger at Heath, “and you’re older.”

“Fourteen minutes. How’d you guess?”

She aims a smile at the question. “No guess. You told. I listened …’Tick, the younger’, you said.  Makes you older. Gotta use both ears.”

“Damn cold night.” Tick unrolls a sleeping bag and slips inside it, scoots up and leans his shoulders against an oak trunk, bites into an apple he swiped off a tree on the way in. He tosses one to his brother. Ellie snags it in mid-air, removes a pocket knife, cuts the apple in half and shares with Heath.

 Tick blows out a breath and shuts his eyes briefly, then bites into the fruit again and chews, reviewing his day, glad he’d found his brother so quickly.

The woman settles herself in close beside Heath, soaking up body heat between them. Tick reads infatuation each time Heath looks at Ellie, but reads convenience each time Ellie looks back. Protection and release, the physical needs these travelers desire, and Heath fills both requirements. A temporary companion in her mind. A pairing that suits Heath forever if he gets his way, but a partnership only for the moment in Ellie’s mind. Impossible telling the future in either case.

Ellie nods her chin at Tick and says, “Odd name, Tick?” Her voice light and trim, like her body. Sensual, breathless and interesting rolled into one unkempt package. A few reddish curls hang out the front of her hood. She wears no make-up. Patches of dirt and grit hide a plain and unremarkable face until her smile lights it up. Eyes as blue as the winter sky investigate this new acquaintance, a duplicate brother. She needs a bath though, Heath too.

Heath says, “Pa named him after the highway patrol officer in his favorite television show. No one ever called him Broderick though, too many syllables for us kids just learning to talk. And Mom insisted we leave off the first part. That term ‘broad’ on all those mafia and crime shows didn’t sit right with her so she broke off the front and just called him Rick.” Heath grins. “Lucky she named me first, left Pa out of it.”

Tick pokes in a sentence. “About the time we hit two or three years old, Heath kept trying Rick but it always popped out Tick due to some oddity in his speech triggers. ‘Tongue training,’ the doc called it, but he probably made that up just to say it, sound smart, and charge a fee. Dropped off naturally about time we turned five but the name stuck and everyone still called me Tick just to keep things simple.”

Tick laughs briefly, “And me, the brat kid getting even. I kept calling him Teath.” Another quiet chuckle. “Mom wouldn’t have none of it though, stuck soap in my mouth every time she heard it, so I quit and rescued my taste buds.”

Over near the burn barrel, a feminine titter rattles into the night once more. “Ha,” Annie laughs aloud, “the brand new one-step Gator diet. Take a shower and lose ten pounds.” More group laughter.

Even Gator joins in, a true realist.  Then he adds, “Sure like the sound of your voice a lot better with your mouth shut, Annie.” The back and forth sarcasm ignites another round of giggles.

Tick rolls his eyes left and stares between the trees. Three scraggly men and one thin as a stick, line-faced woman huddle near the fire, four derelicts sitting cross-legged on the dirt, hunched in toward the warmth.

The thin woman just lost a bet. Greta claimed she could pop the cap off a Coors bottle with her one remaining tooth. That bet won her a few beers here and there at times, but tonight that last soldier finally gave up and lies in the dirt, ignored and now worthless.

Greta takes a blood-soaked rag out of her mouth long enough to say, “Well, that damn tooth was in the way what I gotta do sometimes to git meal money anyways.” Her deep south Alabama twang nearly lost now in the hollow pink smile from which her words emerge.

She tucks the rag in between her gums and suddenly groans, the shock gone, a sharp pain slipping in unannounced. “Saved a hundred bucks on a dentist though.”

Her pals release a few chuckles, acknowledging the irony, but her humor fails this time. A grimace adds a twinge of discomfort to a hard life and pulls her face into an aged look she’s not truly earned yet in real years.

One man reaches inside his parka and withdraws a pint, tosses it across the flames. Greta catches it one-handed, unscrews the cap, removes the rag and tips up the bottle, swishes the smooth brown liquid around a few times then swallows. Eases the pain and disinfects the bleeding gum in one slick motion. “Can’t beat that sweet burn,” she grunts, tips it up once more then caps it, tosses it back.

“Thanks, Alfred.” Greta refolds her bandage, finds a cleaner spot, sticks it between her gums and bites down. Alfred swallows the final sip and tosses the bottle into the burn barrel. Holes punched in its bottom allow air in, ventilates the flames properly and the coals burn much hotter, reforming the glass bottles into interesting shapes and configurations.

Born with brilliant artistic vision, Greta gathers the pieces each morning after the fire cools, and makes her living decorating the deformed green, brown, and blue glass, and sells the objects at swap shops and art outlets across the nation. Aluminum cans work the same way, but the remaining small droplet-shaped metal needs a little glue, color, and creativity to make a design of any value. She fashions small silver critters dotted with colorful spirits that represent the diversity of wildlife she finds during her travels.

The moon peeks out from behind wispy cloud-cover, lights up a large metal culvert half-buried in a muddy creek bed running alongside the camp. A wooden structure spreads across its middle a few inches above the highest water-flow that tumbles through it whenever a heavy rainstorm hits.

Junkie Harrison, a long-term camp resident, scavenged a couple planks and a few branches and pine boughs months ago, laid them inside the culvert at that widest arch just above the high-water mark. Mostly it stays dry, but runoff splashes through its bottom beneath the wooden frame whenever a storm drops its load while blowing its way northeast. The make-shift bed sits high and dry. His personal waterfront estate, Junkie calls it.

Nick-named for the auto salvage yard where he once worked years ago, Junkie settles atop his clap-trap bed frame. He tosses and turns a bit, fluffs a towel under his head, getting himself comfortable for the night.

County road crosses over his culvert, and the spur line too, but the boxcars haven’t moved in weeks. Junkie says he feels safer inside his curved metal house. He ignores the engine when it rumbles overhead, sporadically moving boxcars around the spurs, dropping some off, hauling some out.

‘Don’t hear so well anymore’ he tells folks that ask.

He lies though, got superb hearing, was a sonar expert in the navy. He just trained his brain to ignore the farm trucks passing over that patched-crack blacktop and the intermittent track noise the engines broadcast over the side rails.

One time, a particularly heavy flood washed him right out, bed and all. Junkie flapped around in it for awhile, got soaking wet, and finally hauled himself up on the embankment. Lucky for him it happened during spring rains not winter or he’d probably frozen stiff. He owns no extra clothes.

Junkie wears all three sets at once, rotating one inside the other every few days, allowing the breeze to blow off that internal stink. It never works, but he rotates the clothes anyway. Something to do, keeping a schedule such as it is, in his own mind at least, counting down to nothing. He owns three t-shirts with the same message printed across the front and always readable. It announces ‘God only created a few perfect heads – upon the rest he grew hair’ – a proverb that fits Junkie exactly, his shiny bare scalp often covered with a knit cap in winter and a Cubs ball cap in warmer seasons.

Back in the woods and still wrapped in his bag, Tick pulls a bandana down around his ears and straightens his old Boston Patriots hat, ignoring the soft murmurs and passionate groans of a sexual union that rise above the bushes behind him. The ad hoc partnership enjoys shared warmth and the false security these brief couplings provide. Heath Simmons and Ellie McGee alone in the wilderness, enjoying a cuddle afterward.

Suddenly, the murmurs become low, angry words Tick barely makes out. “Git away from it. Leave it be or we’ll come back and hurt you bad.”

A few slaps disturb the peaceful harmony and then a solid thump, and another. One more thump, hard and heavy, like a bat busting a melon. Tick pushes through the brush toward his brother and Ellie. A fist arrives out of nowhere and flattens his nose, splits a lip and sits him down hard.

“Stay down there tramp, this here ain’t none a yore business,” a stranger snarls.

Aggressive in life and not a man that takes orders well, Tick slides sideways and kicks out. The heel of his boot connects behind the left knee and drops the stranger straight down. A loud yelp cuts into the darkness. The man swings a heavy wooden dowel wrapped in tape, catches Tick on the hip as he rises and it knocks him down a second time.

Strong and fit despite his lifestyle, Tick twists sideways, grabs a hold and wraps his arms around two thighs then works his way up. Both men wrestle for a good grip, squirming around in the pine needles and mud, too close in to punch and cause any damage.

The struggle continues for half a minute that seems like an hour until Tick incidentally traps two fingers in his mouth, bites hard and shakes his head like a bulldog on a bone-thief. Knuckles snap and crack, skin splits open and leaks blood. The stranger drops his weapon and screams. Tick pops up and kicks the man twice in the shins, once in the crotch and doubles him over.

“Yup, my business now, ain’t it?” Breathing heavy, adrenalin pumping, anger pushing hard, Tick grabs the dowel and swats the stranger once and cracks the wrist on the same hand he bit and bloodied. Another swat bounces off a shoulder, and a third lands a glancing blow on his tailbone.

The stranger scuttles away beneath the brush and yells, “Let’s git outta here, this guy’s fuckin’ crazy.”

Sonar-trained ears pick up the squabble. Junkie lifts his head and watches three males dressed in black scramble through the woods and disappear, one limping and cursing, another one holding a red rag against his cheek. In the distance, an engine fires up and gravel clatters inside fender wells as a brown Ford pickup spins a horse-shoe turn and heads toward the suburbs.

Junkie rolls off his nest, climbs the embankment and watches the truck cross over his home. Brand, model, color, and year he notes automatically, all that time he worked in the Wreck-Right salvage yard built a habit. Junkie memorizes its license plate, climbs back into his house and writes the details in a notebook. Nothing dull about Junkie, despite his less than sharp appearance.

Tick wipes the blood off his face and lip, takes three steps into the woods, stops and listens. Nothing. He starts a chase then thinks better of it when the sound of that engine revs up and trails off into the distance. He spots his brother lying in the dirt.

Ellie holds his head in her lap, balls up a handkerchief and puts pressure against a deep gash on his forehead. Bright red fluid leaks around it, runs steadily down his cheek, and drips onto his shirt.

“Not as bad as it looks,” she says. “Scalp cuts always bleed a lot. I’m more worried about the knot above his ear. It’s swelling pretty quickly, turning dark.”

Tick drops down on a knee, “Heath, open your eyes.” No response, silence. “Talk to me.  Come on brother, talk to me.  Open your eyes.”

“He’s unconscious, needs a medic,” Ellie says, “You too, looks like. Got blood all over your face. Go tell Annie. She burrows into the brush right behind the woodpile.  Just call out her name, tell her who you are.”

Tick takes two steps, turns back and kneels again, confused, looks at his hands, looks at his brother, says his name again. “Heath.” A bit of fright taps into his brain, worms itself inside and scares him. 

“Go on, Tick. Hurry! Tell Annie!”

He jumps up, angles past the culvert and down toward the burn barrel, trips twice in the dark, sprawling in the cold mud. He picks himself up and yells, “Annie … Annie,” and wakes everyone.

A few stick a head out, a few tunnel in deeper. All wonder what’s in the works, but remain silent.  No business of anyone but those directly involved. The way of camps like this, leave it alone unless it’s yours. Help if it needs you, but not until asked. Private stays private.

“What? Damn it, what? Just got to sleep,” a female groans. Annie crawls out and pops into view behind the stacked wood. “What?”

Tick explains briefly, “… some jerks beat up my brother. Heath needs a medic.”

Annie stares a few seconds, “Yeah, you look just like him, ‘cept for the split lip and bloody nose you got.”

“Come on.”  Annie trots over and squeezes in next to the culvert, tells Tick, “Give Junkie a dollar.”

“What? Why?”

“Just give him a dollar. He’ll call the EMT’s. Only cell phone here. Junkie guards it, hides it he thinks, everyone knows where though, ain’t like he got a large house. It’s got a little solar charger. No one touches it without asking and paying. Belongs to him. You gotta pay for the minutes.”

“You use it, costs a dollar so Junkie can keep it active. Gotta call home, you put up or shut up. Just like E.T.” Annie giggles, but then quickly turns serious again. 

“Git on up here Junkie, emergency time. Bring the phone.”