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Untamed Fury II - Look at Me When I'm Shooting You

June 21, 2011, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

 

Nearly retired FBI Agent Sam Simon lowered the manila file folder titled “Chambliss, Jacob – Sergeant First Class” and pointed to a turnoff.  “Pull over, I gotta take a piss.”

Nearly retired FBI Agent Bob Dillard, Simon’s longtime partner, pulled off the road onto a patch of gravel next to a stone wall that looked out onto a small herd of elk grazing on a mountaintop grassy hill.  It was only partially covered by the snow that refused to melt at such a high altitude.  Even in the summer, the snow remained.  They were on the main road through the Rocky Mountain National Park that would take them west over the Rockies and then south into Grand Lake, Colorado.  They’d rented a car after landing at the Denver National Airport, and here they had reached the Continental Divide. 

The sign explained it all.  To the west of the Continental Divide, water flows west, and to the east, water flows east.  The Continental divide was the highest point on the continent at any given latitude.  They pulled over where the divide intersected with the road through the park.

Five months earlier, Sam Simon took a bullet to his side, just under his ribcage.  The doctors took part of his kidney, and he was pretty sure his bladder was smaller as a result.  Science.  Dillard often reminded him he peed like a pregnant woman, but Simon, who was still somewhat muscular, would then just remind Dillard that his belly made him look like a pregnant woman.  Then he’d remind him that it was Dillard’s bullet that hit Simon, by accident of course. 

The bullet was meant for Jake Chambliss, but it’s tough to shoot your enemy while he’s fighting with your partner.  That didn’t stop Dillard.  He took the shot and ended up shooting his partner.  By accident.  Not even Simon doubts that.  Simon just can’t believe Dillard was so stupid as to take the shot.  Whatever.  Their mission continued.  Compared to Jake Chambliss, none of that mattered.

The occasional back and forth didn’t change the fact that Simon had to pee a lot.  Nor did it make Dillard stick to a diet.  At least not any diet that didn’t involve regular visits to all-you-can-eat buffets.  So, nothing was said this time.  Dillard pulled over, even though it hurt his shoulder to do so.

On the same night that Dillard shot Simon, Dillard took a bullet to his right thigh and to his right shoulder.  Most men their age would pack it in and retire.  Not these guys.  It was personal.  It used to be just business, but now it was business and personal, not necessarily in that order.  They were after the man who’d shot Dillard, and that’s why they found themselves at the Continental Divide.

Simon dropped trow right in front of the sign specifying the actual divide and started peeing.

Dillard stayed in the car.  Getting out would hurt his thigh more than he was willing to suffer for a stretch.  “What are you doing?  Go over there,” he pointed to Simon’s right, “in the bushes.”

“Nah, I want to see which way my pee flows.”  Simon continued with his business.  “It’s flowing in both directions.  Look at that.”  He’d pleased himself.

“Yeah, weirdo, I’ll get right on that.  Hurry up.  We’re losing daylight.”  Dillard studied the maps.  He knew they’d taken the long way from Denver to Grand Lake, but they both wanted to ride through the park.  One of those things that was worth the extra hour in the car, even a rental.  “What you doing now?”

“Shh,” Simon said while he aimed his government-issued Glock 9 at the herd of elk.

Pop, pop, pop, pop.  The herd scattered for the most part.  Some stood there as if they were offended and couldn’t believe what they were seeing… and hearing.  It was a National Park after all.  No hunting means the animals don’t have to fear humans or any of the things that come out of the boom sticks or even the handheld boom sticks.  Didn’t change the fact that one doe hit the ground.

“Why Sam?  Why?”

“Wanted to see which way she’d fall.”

“Which way’d she fall?... Sam?”  Dillard couldn’t believe he was having this conversation.

“Down.  Didn’t tell me anything.  Not like when I was just peeing.  She just fell down.”

“So, you’re a frikin’ scientist now?  Doing experiments whenever you feel like it?”  Dillard was shaking his head and hoping he wouldn’t have to go flashing his badge at a DEC officer or the Park Rangers.  He was checking his mirrors.  Didn’t want the hassles or the paperwork.  “Let’s get out of here.”

“Hold on Bob.  That’s dinner.  Be right back.”  Simon grabbed a knife out of the trunk he had Dillard pop open and walked his way through the grass to the fallen doe.  By then, the rest of the elk had taken off.  He cut the hide along the spine, pulled it to the sides.  Then he cut out the two backstraps.  He put them in a plastic grocery bag he’d also taken from the trunk. 

As he was getting into the front seat, Dillard said, “Put that in the trunk.  I don’t want blood all over the car and then lose the deposit.”

“Ahh, hush.  Too hot back there.  We’ll keep it up here with the air conditioning.”  As he sat down, he opened the bag and leaned over to show his partner, “Look at that, wouldya?  Beautiful.”  Simon had that smile that Dillard hadn’t seen in a long while.

“Yeah, they do look good.”  Now that they were about to get away with it, Dillard jammed the car into drive and got back on the road.  “Why’d you shoot a doe?”

“Meat’s more tender.  And what am I gonna do with the horns?”

“You thought of everything.”

“Always do.”

“No, you don’t.  Look at that.  You’re getting blood all over that file.”  Dillard pulled over and made Simon get out.

Simon grabbed a bottled water from the trunk and wet his hands and wiped them down with an old T-shirt that he left on the side of the road before getting back into the car.  Careful not to step on the bag of meat on the floor.

“Yeah, well, this file doesn’t tell us much.  It’s all redacted.  Look at this page.  Every word on the page, other than the word ‘the’ is redacted.  Even the page number at the bottom.  Redacted.  I mean, what the hell they think we’re going to do with this?”

“That’s the best I could get, other than our own files.  We’ve already seen them a million times.”

“Did you complain about the redactions?”

“Yeah, but they said it was classified.  Didn’t even care.”

“We’re taking him down for treason, and his military record is still classified.  What does that tell you?”

“The government’s run by morons.”

“You find anything more on this guy?” Dillard was referring to the guy they were going to see.

“Nah.  Just have his name and rank.  Colonel Sylas McInnis, aka Sy and Beefeater.”

“That why you’re bringing elk meat?”

“No, I just like it, and it was there,” Simon said, as he turned his deviously smiling old face towards his partner with his fangs purposely perched on top his lower lip for the dramatic effect.  His face was still scarred from the night they went against Chambliss back in January.  At least it had stopped bleeding.  “You already know he was Chambliss’ Commanding Officer or at least one of them.  I found the names of some of their operations, but everything else is redacted.  Operation Red Death, Operation Hogtied Centaur, Operation Bloody Rapier, Operation Smoked Camelhump and get this, Operation Oklahoma Horsehead.”

“Oklahoma Horsehead?  Anything on that?  When?  Where?  What?  Anything?”

“Nothing.  All redacted.”

“You don’t think he was on an operation in Oklahoma, do you?”

“How could he be?  Posse Comitatus hadn’t been lifted since Waco.”

“Anything about the Farm?  DIA, maybe?”  The farm is where the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency train clandestine officers.  Other agencies too.  But that’s all on a need-to-know basis.  Of course, none of this will ever be confirmed or denied by anyone official because they don’t think you need to know.

“If there is, it’s redacted.”

“Oklahoma was ours.  Could you imagine the $#!+show there’d be if it got out that one part of the government was secretly working against the FBI in Oklahoma City?”

“No worse than if the truth came out about what the FBI was doing,” Simon said with another fang-flaunting smile only his partner was supposed to understand.

“Yeah, but no one would believe it.”

“I beg to differ.  More people already believe it than you can imagine.”

“Yeah, tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists.  That’s it.”

“Yeah, well, those tinfoil hatters know a heck of a lot more than they should.”

“Sure, but everybody thinks they’re crazy.”

“I suppose.”

“What else you got?”

“Nothing.  All I know, this guy was Chambliss’ Commanding Officer.  He either knows something, or he doesn’t.  We’ll find out.”

After another hour and change of a scenic and slow curvy ride through the Rocky Mountains, Simon and Dillard came down into Grand Lake, Colorado.  It’s a resort town built around some large natural lakes, one of which is called Grand Lake.  Imagine that. 

They skipped the lake and drove northwest on a small county road up towards Columbine Lake.  This wasn’t Columbine, Colorado, where the FBI let a couple of feral kids go fascist and slaughter their school before intervening.  Just Columbine Lake.  They found Western Road, which they took further northwest and crossed the Colorado River.  They took a left onto Meredith Manor, which took them southwest to a dirt road named McInnis Way.  It wasn’t on an official map, but they knew where to go. 

There was an arched gateway at the beginning of the road that meandered a mile or so into the mountains before coming upon a mid-sized log cabin perched on a hill.  It sat just well enough in front of a rocky wall so as not to catch falling boulders with its roof.

The man sitting on the wraparound front porch stood up to greet the car kicking up all the dust.  He lifted his rifle and let its muzzle rest on the railing in front of him.

“I guess he’s been expecting us,” Dillard said.

“Hmm.”  Like the redacted file on his lap, Simon was never known to be a man of many words.  Unless he was excited about something.

Dillard parked, and they got out slowly.  They put their hands up to show they were unarmed.  “Colonel McInnis?”

“Who wants to know?”  The man spoke without moving.  He was wearing jeans and a dusty denim button down.  Sleeves rolled up.  His reddish-blond and grey hair was in disarray as if he hadn’t combed it since his last shower.  He hadn’t shaven in days.

“I’m Agent Bob Dillard, and this is Agent Sam Simon.  We’re with the FBI.”

“You the pricks that’s been sniffin’ around my files?”  His voice crackled like the sundried skin on his face.

“I’m afraid so, sir.”

“What do you want?”  Still hadn’t moved.

“Can we come up, sir?”

“I ain’t gonna stop ya.”

“What about your gun?”

“She might, I don’t know.  Take your chances.”

“Ok, we will.”  They walked the steep twenty feet to the stairway and made their way up the steps.  Dillard limped his way up.  His right quads still hadn’t fully recovered from their evening with Jake.  Sam found it easier to move when he bent forward a little.  It eased the pain in his side, especially where he’d been sewn up.

“You don’t look like FBI agents.  Look more like you should be on walkers.”

“We’ve seen better days, for sure,” Dillard offered a smile in hopes he’d build rapport.  He offered his hand to the Colonel.  The Colonel looked at it a second, seeming like he was about to spit while he hesitated, but then he took it and crushed it.  His hand swallowed Dillard’s hand, and even though Dillard was on the same level, the Colonel towered over both men.  Simon then offered his hand for a welcome-to-the-Rockies crushing, and the Colonel obliged.  God probably doesn’t make many men this size anymore in hopes the world no longer needs them.  But it does. 

“So, what is it you Feeb pricks want?”  The crackled voice.

“Can we take a seat?” Dillard asked.

“Sore, huh.  Jake make you that way?”  The colonel smiled for the first time and then spit some tobacco sauce into the half-filled mason jar that sat on the railing.  

“Jake?” Dillard’s one word question was betrayed by Simon’s startled look. 

“Cut the bull.  I know why you’re here.  Jake Chambliss.  Is he back?”  That smile came back as soon as he’d spoken the name.

“I don’t know, sir.  We think so, and we would just like to know if he’s contacted you?”

“What if he has?”

“How about that seat?”  Dillard asked.

“Yeah, what the hell?  Sit down.  You must be the FBI’s fine old-fart brigade, heh, heh.”  He seemed to enjoy a laugh at their expense.

The colonel sat in his chair, and Dillard and Simon pulled chairs around him.  The colonel held the rifle with its stock on the wooden floor of the covered porch.  He also had an unconcealed side arm strapped to his belt and a six-inch blade on his other hip.

“So, get on with it Feebs.  What you want with Chambliss?”

“Well, we’re hoping you’ll be able to help us get in touch with him.”

“Ha.  Now, why would I do that?”  He shook his head at the incomprehensible incompetence of those before him.

“He’s a wanted fugitive.”

“From justice?”  The colonel sneered when he said the word justice and spit some more chunky brown sauce into the mason jar.

“For aiding and abetting a terrorist, for treason and for a trail of bodies too long for me to list off the top of my head.”

“So, Uncle Sam sent you two to bring him to justice?  Just you two?” he asked derisively.  The colonel smiled a lot more than they thought he would.  After spitting a hunk of wet chaw into the jar with the aid of his browned tongue, he compressed the tobacco in his blue Skoal tin with several flicks of the wrist and the resulting thuds of his finger.  Once the top was removed, he took a fresh wad and put it between his cheek and gum.  Didn’t even offer any to Simon and Dillard.

“Yes, sir.  We’re just doing our jobs.”

“If Chambliss is so bad, why didn’t he kill you when he had the chance?  Maybe he is getting bad, probably should have, right?”  Dillard and Simon didn’t share the sentiment.

“I don’t know why he didn’t kill us, sir.”

“Listen to me,” the colonel sat forward with a serious look on his face, “you two Nancy boys had better quit while you’re still alive.  Go home and pray to whatever god you worship that he doesn’t come after you and finish you off.  He’s liable to open you two up and sew zippers into your chests just so he can mess with you on the inside every day for a month while you’re all begging for death.  For your own good, stay away.  Do not underestimate him.”  He spit some dark and freshly brewed chaw sauce into the mason jar. 

“So, you know how murderous he is then?”  Dillard couldn’t believe Simon got that out of what the coot was trying to say.

“Sargent Chambliss is one of the finest soldiers I’ve ever had the privilege of serving with.  No one has ever made my job easier.  He can go into any situation, figure it out at the speed of light and do his job with the sound of silence.  In the field, he was like a QB calling his own plays.  And I let him.  If our government wasn’t loaded with reds, they’d’ve let me send him to the Soviet Union or to Russia, whatever those commies call themselves these days, and one month later, he’d call me from the Kremlin and say, ‘It’s ours, colonel.  Send in the boys.’  Finest badass I’ve ever seen walk the earth.  That nonsense about treason is garbage, and you know it.  Chambliss’ greatness grows exponentially when multiplied by his honorability.  You are no match for him.  Not on any level.  You’re not even worthy of scrubbing his latrine, but you’d be honored to do it and use your tongues to prove it.  You could have an army backing you up, and you’ll still end up dead.  Quit while you’re ahead.”

“That’s not an option, sir.  We have our orders.”

“Whoever gave you these orders has sent you on a suicide mission.  Forget them and walk away, while you still can.  By the looks of it, that ain’t for much longer.  And look at your face.  Sergeant Chambliss did that, didn’t he?”  He pointed to Sam Simon’s cut up face still sporting at least twenty pinkish red scars in the process of healing.  Jake Chambliss busted a window with Simon’s face and then used his face to pull up the remaining glass shards stuck in the bottom of the window frame.  It was right about then that Dillard put a bullet in Simon’s abdomen.  Not Simon’s favorite moment in life, by any means.

Dillard ignored the commentary and responded to the statements that didn’t remind Simon of how he’d gotten shot, “Well, we can’t do that, sir.”

“Can’t do what?”  The colonel apparently had forgotten the advice he’d offered right before admiring Chambliss’ artistic rearrangement of Simon’s face.

“We can’t just walk away, sir.”

“Quit calling me sir, you pricks.  I don’t’ need your respect.  I sure as hell don’t respect either of you.  I know what you guys did, and I know why you guys are trying to take him down.  I’d be doing the whole world a favor if I just took you out right here.”  The colonel lifted his rifle a couple of times to remind them he could wipe them out.  “Wouldn’t I?”

“Have you seen or heard from him?”

“Of course not.  But if I had, I wouldn’t tell you som-b!+(#es.”

“That’s what we thought,” Simon said as he lifted the same Glock he’d killed the elk with and put a bullet in the colonel’s forehead.

The colonel’s head hit the brown log on the wall of the house behind his head, painted it red and then fell forward.  His hand still clung to his rifle, but Dillard pried it free and set it on the ground behind the colonel’s chair.  “What’d you do that for?  I was just starting to like this guy,” he ended his thought with a laugh and a smile.

“He knew too much and was about to try and kill us.  Besides, I’m hungry.  He’s got a grill over there.  I’ll go and get those steaks ready.  You search his house.”

“What’s with you lately, anyway, Sam?”  Probably an odd question since both of them had spent the last five months recovering from the beating they took at the hands of Jake Chambliss.

“Nothing.  I’m hungry.”  Sam was already getting the grill started, “Go check his house.  These steaks are going to be delicious.  I’ll see if he left some potatoes for us too.”

Forty minutes later, Simon had four plates filled with food on the colonel’s kitchen table inside the front door.  The bloody backstrap slices were at least three pounds apiece, and he did find some potatoes and corn on the cob.  The colonel must have known they were coming is all Simon could think.  Sure, he’d eaten more than a few bites off the meat while it was grilling, but he couldn’t help but look forward to digging into the thick parts where the blood was still flowing red. 

“Bob.  Dinner.”

“Hold on.”

He was getting off the phone in the next room.  There was actually service in the mountains.

“Who was that?”

“My girl,” Dillard said with a smile.  He wasn’t referring to a woman that liked to lie with him.  Simon wasn’t aware of any girl that wanted to lie with Dillard.  This was just a girl at headquarters whom Dillard occasionally bribed to get information for him.  For that, he thought he had right to lay claim to her, but Simon was sure she was using her access to make money on the side with any number of other guys.

“She got something?  Sit down.”

“Let’s eat out on the porch.”

“Nah, he stinks.  I’m eating here.  What’s she got?”

“She found him.”

“Nice.  Is he back in his hometown?”

“Not yet, but he will be.”  Dillard was already scheming.

They ate the finest meal they’d had in years before taking the colonel up on the hospitality they were never offered.  They spent the night in his mountain log cabin.  They’d have buried the body, but that was too much work for two guys recovering from bullet wounds.  Instead, they left him there with one of their finished plates in front of him, right next to a mostly emptied bottle of no-name brand whiskey.  They set the colonel’s gun in his lap to make it look like a suicide after a fine last supper.  They cut their own bullet out of the log behind the head and then put another bullet from his own gun right through the same hole in the colonel’s head.  Forensics, if they even did them, would prove the bullet came from the colonel’s side arm, and the death would be presumed a suicide.  They cleaned the other plate, and Simon and Dillard made like they were never there.

Back to New York.


 

Chapter 1 – Being Cash

 

July 2011

 

My twin brother and my wife were killed about six months ago.  The mourning didn’t start until after I’d been cleared of suspicion.

            Unfortunately, the survivor’s guilt is worse than the mourning.

            It should have been me that was killed.  Not my brother.  My brother Cash and I were in the middle of our annual life-switch game.  Ever since we were kids, for a day or two a year, we’d switch lives.  We had a five-dollar bet that the other would be the first to get caught.  Five bucks doesn’t sound like much, but when we were kids, that was a bar of gold.

            Neither of us ever got caught, so the money never changed hands.  Actually though, Cash was caught back in high school.  He was the quarterback with the golden arm.  Jake Chambliss and I were his go-to receivers.  Turns out, when we switched lives and I had to play quarterback, Jake figured it out.  He went to Cash and promised not to tell if he always received more of the throws than I did.  Always seven steps ahead.

            That probably cost me an opportunity to play ball in college, but I got over it.  Jake’s admission that he’d successfully figured out how to get the extra passes didn’t come until the day after Cash and my wife Callie were murdered.  Though it was less an admission and more of an, “I got you sucker,” we’d just been given a whole bunch of more important things to worry about.  Other than Jake, only Skylar, the hot young girlfriend my brother Cash left for me, and maybe my dead wife Callie ever figured it out.  My dead brother Cash and I were good at playing each other, and now I play Cash all day and every day.  As far as the world is concerned, it was Curt Cutler that died with his wife Callie Cutler that night.  Tragedy struck Pendleton, New York, but Cash Cutler lived.

            Imagine that.  Six months had passed since the murders, and I was still with my dead brother’s girlfriend Skylar Meade.  I’ll admit it, at times she was great.  Better than my wife.  The last several years with my wife Callie were miserable.  Found out later though, might have been because she was having an affair with her old boyfriend Cash, my twin brother.  But I’m not totally sure.  The only two who’d know that for sure died that fateful night.  That’s one of the things I don’t like to think about.  I’d prefer to think they were still just friends.  Probably were. 

            Sure, he told Skylar about the affair, but he had reason to lie to her at times, and it might have been purposeful misinformation.  Again, not something I like to think about much.

            There were several other things I didn’t like to think about.  I couldn’t help it though, and this was the main cause of the stress between Skylar and me.  Less than a month after the murders, Skylar had a miscarriage, and the baby of my brother died.  My little nephew, whom I was ready to raise as my own son, died.  I didn’t know what to think about that.  I’m sure it had to do with all the stress – sure of it.  But it also might have been because the Mexican cartel guys who kidnapped her also drugged her with something.  The drug might have played a role too.  That little buddy might have been all that was left of my brother, and he was gone.  Every day of my life was just a little sadder because of his loss.

            Skylar wanted to move on.  She wanted to forget about all the things that led to the murders and what happened afterwards.  Repression’s a great defense mechanism when used properly.  I couldn’t do it without drinking though.  Maybe Skylar is stronger that way than I am.  I don’t know.  I did want to forget as much as I could, but there was a briefcase full of cash and several more stacks of cash sitting up in the secret compartment under the floorboards of the bedroom in the attic that Cash and I shared when we were kids.  Without my nagging questions answered, I didn’t dare spend any of that cash.  Nor did I feel comfortable that someone wouldn’t come knocking on my door at some point looking for it.  It was an incessant fear that lurked in the background of my every thought.

            It was especially bad that Jake Chambliss left right after we’d solved the murders and brought the killers to justice – most of them at least.  He’d been on the run since 1995, when he was left for dead by some rogue FBI agents who took his capture and killed his partner.  After the Oklahoma City Bombing, Jake and his partner captured John Doe Number Two, called it in and waited.  Upon arrival, the agents, in charge of covering up the Islamic connection killed Jake’s partner, and they shot Jake in the head and chest.  They then saved John Doe Number Two from being brought to justice.  With John Doe Number Two gone, hidden and forgotten, the Clinton administration used the OKC Bombing to smear right wingers by conflating them with the supposedly burgeoning white-supremacist movement as an excuse to justify its gun confiscation schemes.

            Might sound crazy and all, but it’s not.  The same rogue FBI agents chased him down when he came home at Callie’s request to help Cash and me.  We were in trouble, Callie knew it and figured out how to get a message to Jake.  Nonetheless, the rogue FBI agents, in charge of tying up loose ends, intercepted the message and came to Pendleton, New York, where we grew up, in hopes of intercepting Jake.

            Didn’t happen though.  Jake outsmarted them and beat the living crap out of them when he found one of them trying to rape Ainsley Reed.  He might have killed them, but by the time the police were on the scene, the whole house had been scrubbed clean and repaired.  They were gone without a trace.  Surely, they’d had help, but whether either agent Dillard or Simon died, we did not know.  As they’d left Jake for dead in 1995, he left them for dead in 2011.  The only difference though, Jake didn’t want to kill them.  Killing a federal agent would earn him the death penalty.  He only wanted to clear his name, even though he was sure it never would be cleared.

            Ainsley Reed begged to differ though.  She liked Jake so much, she’d dedicated her spare time of the last six months to clearing his name.  While it might be selfish in that she was hoping for a future with Jake if he were ever free to come home, it definitely also had to do with her idealistic desire for justice.  Ainsley Reed is a local TV reporter who developed such a strong bond with Jake that he told her his story.  Most of it anyway.  It’s a big story, and they didn’t have enough time for all of it.  Her boss refused to let it see the light of day though.  Like a vampire in church, it was too hot.  Didn’t matter to her.  Even though he told her over and over to stay the heck away, she wrote a whole book about Jake and was trying to get it published.

            I was rooting for her success.  I wanted Jake back too.  I had no idea where he was.  Word around the campfire, Ainsley knew how to get in touch with him if there was an emergency.  The emergency must not have come yet though.  I still hadn’t seen Jake since he’d left.  He was even gone before the funeral.  Incidentally, Callie, my dead wife, was his high school sweetheart and the only girl he ever loved.  Their breakup hit him so hard, he joined the military and didn’t return for over twenty years.  He skipped the funeral anyway.

            And that was how it was.  I was living the life of my dead brother because I was too afraid to admit we were in the middle of our stupid life-switch game.  Coming clean would have made it much harder to clear our names.  While we eventually did, how would I come back and admit I was actually Curt Cutler, the one who was supposed to be murdered along with my wife? – Never figured that one out.  There’d be too much shame.  I’d spend the rest of my life having people look at me as the one who escaped the death I left for my brother and my wife. 

            On top of that, my old bank might find grounds to sue me for potentially having allowed my brother Cash to work at the bank.  Not only was he unqualified, but it would be a huge violation of privacy regarding the bank’s customers.  While I never did that, the bank had no way of knowing for sure.  That might have caused me a lot of legal troubles.  

Furthermore, if the people in charge of killing my brother wanted revenge for what we did after the murders, why in the world wouldn’t they seek it on the guy whom they wanted dead in the first place.  Especially since I turned around and helped foil their plans?  Just too many things to be concerned about.

Not wanting to go to jail, not wanting to live the life of shame and not wanting to be killed added up to enough reason not to admit I was Curt.  I became Cash.

            It’s no cure though for the survivor’s guilt.  How could I live with myself, knowing that if I’d only listened to my brother, who didn’t want to play the life-swapping game that year for his own reasons, I’d have been the one who’d gotten killed?  It’s loony, I know, but as soon as I think about how glad I am it wasn’t me who was killed, I get crushed by the weight of the guilt over my brother’s death.  And rightly so.  It should have been me.  Really, it should have been me.

            Skylar disagreed though.  She likes me more.  At least she did early on.  As time passed, I was no longer so sure.  I’d been drinking a lot.  Skylar said, “too much.”  While objectively that may be true, I didn’t agree.  I was enjoying it.  A permanent vacation from life, and when I was drinking, I wasn’t thinking.  As Curt, I was the president of the Pendleton Savings and Loan.  That was stressful as heck.

It was doubly stressful because my board of directors wanted to acquire the shady First Iroquois Trust, which is the bank run by the Indians that run the casinos and the reservations.  While everyone, in the know, knew they were up to no good, the only reason for the acquisition was to get the books open so they could expose the corruption.  It involved money laundering, a Mexican cartel, drug money, money from sex slaves, sex-slave trafficking, borrowing money to build on land owned by the Indian reservation and on and on. 

They got off, of course.  The US government claims no jurisdiction over tribal assets and that kind of nonsense.  But the truth came out enough that a lot of the local farmers did eventually bring their accounts back to Pendleton Savings and Loan after realizing that the higher interest rates the Indians were giving on deposits came with the risks associated with illegal loans and a vast syndicate of crime. 

            Skylar didn’t like that I drank so much, unless she was drinking too, but I was enjoying it.  I was no longer under the stress of running a bank.  I had money from my old job that came to me as one of the contingent beneficiaries of the estate of myself and my wife.  While nice, it was also another financial motivation they would have thrown at me if I were being tried for killing my brother and wife.  It would have been like getting away with divorce without having to give up all my stuff.  Although Callie’s sister did get some of the money too.  While I didn’t begrudge her anything, I had no choice but to remain as Cash.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself, Cash, so I can sleep at night.

            That’s another thing.  Even though he’s dead, I still have the same ongoing internal conversation with my brother that he and I have been having all our lives.  We were so close in life, it’s like his thoughts are imprinted in the part of my brain that supplies his voice.  I don’t know if that’s scientific or not, but that’s what it’s like.  In the world, he’s dead, but not in my head.  It’s part of the reason I can’t entertain the idea that he was having an affair with my wife.  What would happen to our conversation if I were convinced they were more than friends and confidants?  I didn’t want him to go quiet in my head.  He’s my twin brother and the best friend I ever had.

            Being Cash, I wasn’t as stressed running a bar, and I always had someone to drink with.  At first, drinking was tricky though.  I had to make sure I didn’t say anything that would make someone realize I wasn’t Cash Cutler.  I had to nod my way through a lot of conversations about things in Cash’s life that I wasn’t there for, but it eventually got easy and natural.  For all intents and purposes, I became Cash, and no one, other than Skylar, bothered to question why I was drinking so much.  I had just lost my brother and sister-in-law.  Drinking was the natural way of dealing with grief – especially to those who frequent bars.  New job, new peers, new life and new rules.

            Skylar knew better though.  I think she still liked me more than my brother, but she liked me more when I wasn’t drinking or hung over.  At the same time though, I was never really sure she actually did love me.  She admitted she didn’t love Cash when he was alive.  She was originally only there to get him to sell the bar to the Mexicans so she could get her mother freed from the Indian casino where her mother was working as a hotel-cleaning slave to pay off her gambling debts to the Mexican loan sharks staked with the Indian casino’s money.

            We did save Skylar’s mom Shelly, we technically sold the bar, but then we discovered that we didn’t sell it to the Mexicans.  We actually sold it to the US Attorney for Western New York, who disappeared after it was discovered he had ordered the murders of my brother and my wife. 

So, that’s another thing I couldn’t figure out.  Why did the Mexicans sell back the half of the bar that Cash, my brother, had already sold to them?  Why did the Mexicans walk away without coming for the money that Cash had stashed?  He’d been talked into laundering money through one of their shell corps, but they were laundering so much money, he couldn’t even declare the cash he was making at the bar as income.  It was just too much income.  No auditor would believe the bar had that large an increase in income.  This was all in the letter he left for me under the stacks of cash in the attic.  He was freaked out and felt like he was in way over his head. 

In the letter, he explained the Mexicans thought they could get away with it because they planned on turning it into a strip club so they could launder even more money.  For this, they were employing the US Attorney Bennet Glazebrook.  With his wife in the governor’s office and on track to be the first woman governor in New York, he had enough dirt on just about anyone in Western New York to get the zoning for a strip club anywhere.  But he disappeared, so it seems he wrote a check he couldn’t cash.

Another thing that bothered me a lot was that the Indians were allowed to run a bank that wasn’t FDIC insured.  How was that not illegal?  Stanley Bartowski from the Pendleton Savings and Loan board of directors where I worked had the best answer.  He said it was like junk bonds.  While treasury bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government, junk bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of reality, in that, if the company goes bad, you’re going to lose money.  Same with a bank not insured by the feds.  It goes bad, you lose money.  Simple as that.

But how was the bank allowed to exist?  He asked me, “Do you want to be the politician that tells the Indians they aren’t allowed to lend the money they earn to people willing to pay interest to borrow it?  They’d call it the 21st Century trail of tears.”  It was a great point.  If those in charge of law and order aren’t willing to enforce the laws out of a politically correct self-preservation, people will find a way to get away with anything.   

The whole situation had me freaked out too.  When I filed the taxes for the last year, it was all taken care of through the shell corp, and they’d overpaid.  I ended up getting a refund.  Again, that was another concern.  Why hadn’t those people come back for the money?  Like a Pavlovian dog, thinking about it always made me crave another beer.  To drink or to think, that was the question.  Think about it later was the easiest answer.  Have a drink.

Trying to explain that to Skylar only earned me a roll of the eyes.  But then again, maybe I was testing her too.  Maybe I just wanted to know if she’d still like me when I was down and out.  I wasn’t down and out though.  I was enjoying myself.  Living the life of Cash, always the favorite.  The boy with the golden arm.  Bottom line, when I wasn’t thinking, I was enjoying life more than I had in years.  She had a different opinion.  I did want to know if she would fight for me though.


Chapter 2 – Ainsley Reed, Local News

 

            Local news reporter Ainsley Reed’s boss was best known as the Cap.  He was still punishing Ainsley for her persistence on this go-nowhere story about some AWOL soldier claiming to having been framed for treason, something to do with the Oklahoma City Bombing.  She hadn’t been demoted to traffic detail yet, but he was always threatening. 

            Instead of fighting back, Ainsley was taking his small feel-good assignments and doing her work like a good little soldier.  In her spare time, she’d written the story of Jake Chambliss.  While it might read as a classic tale of war and intrigue, it was 100% true, as far as she knew.  She’d been investigating relentlessly.  The truth can be devastating to closed eyes, and as hers were opening, there were those who demanded she get them back to being closed before it was too late.  Cap was the loudest voice.

            Ainsley resisted.  She got into the news business to be an investigative reporter.  Not to glad hand and smile at the locals during feel-good six o’clock news stories.  But whatever.  She’d set aside her passion for hard-hitting journalism to keep her job while she secretly worked on the story of her career. 

            Sure, she couldn’t get Jake Chambliss out of her mind, but he was innocent, and this story upended everything we’d ever heard about how Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols took down a federal building to kill children and get revenge for government overreach at Waco and Ruby Ridge.  It was much bigger and darker than she ever could have imagined.  At least, that is, before she’d met Jake Chambliss, or Jake Charm, as they used to call him.

            It was July, and that meant the Italian Fest on Buffalo’s historic Hertel Avenue.  It was here, in 1973, when four guys put together six thousand dollars to make “Mexican sandwiches” at what would later be called the first Mighty Taco.  As legend was told, the North Buffalo Italian ladies would come in and ask what they were.  They’d be told these are “Mexican sandwiches.”  The ladies would politely thank them and leave.  It wasn’t until the late-night college crowd discovered the most delicious Mexican fast food ever invented that the Mighty One would take off.  In 1973, few in Buffalo knew what a taco was, but the restaurant still thrives to this day, with locations all over Western New York.

            Ainsley honestly didn’t like Mighty Taco too much.  She considered it better than Taco Bell, but she didn’t like fast food enough to frequent Buffalo’s own beloved spicy taco joint.  She just knew the story because the Cap made her cover it recently.  Yaaaay, tell the story of a famous Buffalo taco joint and pretend it compared to the Anchor Bar’s feat of being the first place to fry chicken wings and cover them with hot sauce and melted butter.  In her eyes, that was world changing.  Feeding drunk college and high school kids spicy tacos wasn’t, even though she knew Jake and Cash had a whole different opinion.  They considered Mighty Taco to be the Mighty ONE.  Even crazier, Cash served some of Western New York’s best authentic Mexican food at his bar, but he still loved the Mighty Taco.  Men.  Boys, really.

For this moment in July, the streets of the Hertel Avenue district were blocked to celebrate the Italian Culture.  

            “Oh, here honey,” an old furry-lipped Italian lady moved in with a napkin to wipe a bit of sauce off Ainsley’s face.  Ainsley had just tried one of her homemade meatballs, and the lady didn’t want her sauce to make Ainsley look like a slob on TV.  The camera guy got it all.

            With her red hair glistening in the sunlight, Ainsley thanked her with a beaming smile and said, “That was delicious,” while shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head in disbelief and amazement that someone could make something so spectacular.  Her body language was even more convincing than her words.  She was made for TV.  Ainsley then named the restaurant, as the camera man panned out to show Ainsley in a lightly colored sundress holding a microphone.  Using the microphone to direct the camera to take a look at all the nearby food booths, she said, “It’s all delicious.”  The sun was on her fair skin.  “The 2011 Italian Festival will be going until Sunday evening.  Come out to Hertel Avenue and enjoy all the old world has to offer us.  Admission is five dollars, children and seniors get in free.  You won’t regret it.  I’m Ainsley Reed, Local News.”

            Cut.

            Ainsley’s smile disappeared the second the camera light went out. 

            Her pony-tailed camera guy Bill asked in his smoky voice, “What’s wrong with you lately?”  Ainsley knew he was a camera man by day, but a pot-smoking party boy by night.  She liked him more than most around the studio.

            She thought about telling him the truth but didn’t, “I’m hot.  It’s hot out here.  I just want a drink and get back to the studio.  Get this thing edited.”

            “So, you can work on your other story?”  He threw her a smile from behind a lock of his long hair that had slipped out from his rubber-banded ponytail with a wink wink.

            Ainsley just gave him a stressed look and shook her head to tell him to drop it.  Her battles with Cap weren’t a secret by any means.

            Bill didn’t take the hint, “Well how’s that going?”  He was sympathetic to her plight and was eager to get his eyes on her story.  Like just about anyone with half a brain, he knew the official OKC-Bombing story was garbage and just another government coverup that the media was forced to play along with.  But she held it tight and refused to talk much about it with anyone.  Didn’t know whom she could trust and definitely knew she couldn’t trust everyone around the office.  The news business is cutthroat, especially for those who want to move up.  That’s why guns and knives aren’t allowed in newsrooms – everybody’d be dead by the 11 o’clock news and there’d be no one left to press the broadcast button.

            But she gave him a little anyway, “It’s with my editor.”

            “Soon then?”

            “I don’t know.  It’s taking forever.  Forget I mentioned it.”

            “Ok,” Bill left it at that.

            “Let’s get back to the studio.”

            Bill took the footage to editing, while Ainsley went directly to her office.  Happy to see Cap’s door closed, she didn’t have to hear about her next punishing assignment.  Her voicemail was flashing, and she couldn’t wait to find out if it was Nancy, her editor.  The lady hadn’t returned her call for three days, and it was Friday.  She wanted an update before the weekend.  Needed to know what to do.  What was the next step?

            Unfortunately, it was some computer voice calling about extending her warranty for her Prius.  She’d gotten rid of the thing after someone had planted a bomb under the driver’s side of the car.  She was sure it was the FBI guys in charge of killing Jake, but the police didn’t care to find out the truth.  The police were told about the bomb that Jake found, got rid of it, held her car as evidence so long she had to buy a new one, and then finally gave it back to her so she could sell it.  Ridiculous.  She didn’t want to drive it again anyway.  Nor did she want to move back into the house where those agents kidnapped her and tried to rape her.  She moved a little north.  Closer to Jake’s hometown, but not too much farther from work.  She was afraid she’d be cut out of the good news stories if she had to drive too far to get into Buffalo every time an emergency story required her to be on the scene.  So, she moved to Campbell Boulevard, just north of her old road.

            While she didn’t think for a second those FBI agents couldn’t find her if they needed to, she didn’t want to make it super easy.  New car and new house.  And with a ground-breaking book about to hit the streets, hopefully a new Ainsley.

            But her editor wasn’t calling her back.  She’d hoped it was because she was out of town for a funeral or something, but that made Ainsley feel terrible.  What kind of person hopes someone’s relatives died so they had a good excuse not to call?  Didn’t change the fact Ainsley feared it was the editor’s way of telling her the story was crap, it was going nowhere, and it wasn’t going to be published any time before hell froze over.  She knew she was playing with fire and stepping on toes belonging to the big feet used to doing the stepping.  But it was right.

            She called Nancy again.  The office number went right to voicemail, and so did her cell phone.  She didn’t leave a message. 

            Instead, she got a headache, took some Advil, put her head down and cried.  Alone in her office, she thought she might get away with it. 

            On cue though, Sam the weatherman barged in through her door.  She wasn’t sure, but when she lifted her face after wiping the tears, she thought she saw him hanging his tongue out like a dog.  He was a dog, but, with his face for radio, it was all aspirational.  That didn’t curb his ambition and enthusiasm for harassing the fairer sex.  Ainsley was just one of many who was forced to tolerate his incessant comments and insinuations, all in his own fantasyland belief it was getting him nearer to bedding women way out of his league.  In his mind, he was Rico Suave, but he still had the scrawny body of a boy who’d suffered growth spurts without puberty.

            “Hey Ainsley…  Awe, what’s wrong?’

            “Nothing Sam.  What’s up?”

            “Your editor called?”      

            “She did?  When?”         

            “No, not really.  I was just trying to pick you up.  You look sad.  Do you need a little Vitamin Sam to fix your day?”

            “Yeah, you know what, let’s do it,” Ainsley said, “when can you get out of here?  We’ll do it at my place.”

            “Really,” his face lost that boyish goofiness and looked puzzled.  Had the dog finally caught the car he was always chasing?

            “Yeah, we’ll get a bottle of tequila and see where it takes us.”

            “I don’t like tequila.  Makes me puke.  How about wine coolers or Zima?”

            “You’re such a girl Sam.  Tequila or nothing.  Man up.”

            “Alright, when do you want to do this?”

            “Right now, Sam.  I want your body right now.  Let’s go.”

            The puzzlement betrayed his bravado, “You’re joking with me, right?”

            “Of course, I am Sam.  People’d see us and think I was dating someone who hadn’t even reached puberty.  Get out of here.”

            “That’s low, even for you Ainsley Reed.  I came in here with nothing but good intentions, and this is how you treat me.  Look, I’ve reached puberty. I’ll show you.”  He started to unbuckle his pants.

            “Ewe, get out of here Sam.”

            “Well, just so you know, the offer still stands.  Vitamin Sam cures all.”  He was probably a virgin, so how would he know?

            Ainsley stood up behind her desk with a look of disgust and rage before Sam weaseled his way out of her office.

            She called Nancy’s numbers again with the same results as earlier.  Then she called Nancy’s main office.  The lady at the desk admitted they hadn’t heard from her in two days.  Thought it was personal business.

            She couldn’t take it any longer.  After sticking her head out her door to check on Cap’s door, she packed her things and left.  For the most part, her day was done, and if anyone called her, she could say she had something to do.  Really though, she just wanted to go home and take a bubble bath. 

            Unfortunately, the call to get her on the scene pronto came just as she’d pulled into her driveway to discover her front door had been kicked in. 

She grabbed the Glock that Jake had given her back in January.  Kept it under her seat in her new Honda CRV.  She held it under her hands as she approached her house.  As she opened the door, she lifted the gun as if she were a cop clearing a potential crime scene.  Granted, she didn’t have a permit for it, but after what she’d gone through, she concluded it was better to ask for forgiveness than to die waiting around for permission.  And there probably wasn’t any way for her to register a gun stolen from a dead and disappeared casino security guard.

She entered her foyer and walked back to the kitchen.  It looked normal.  Her office was a different story.  Her desk was a mess, and the stack of files on top of it was gone.  They were the files of research she’d done on the Jake Chambliss and the Oklahoma City Bombing story.  Sure, it was all in her computer, but these were her files.  On her desk was a note.  They left it right where she would normally place her laptop to write.  “Leave it alone.”  That’s all it said.  What it lacked in eloquence, it made up for with brevity.

She checked the rest of the house.  Nothing was noticeably amiss, so she left after securing the door as best she could.  She had to get to some address in Williamsville.  Some sort of news emergency, the gist of which she missed because of all the curse words that adorned it – Cap talks like that.  Often.

The address came in a text message, along with a couple more curse words.


Chapter 3 – Ainsley News, Local Reed

 

I’d been up for a little while.  Still had a headache from the night before.  A couple of old buddies stayed until about 4:30am drinking with me at the bar.  Last call was 2:00am on a weeknight, but that didn’t mean the afterparty had to end.  Right?

Skylar was quiet on the couch doing a crossword or something in her book with the TV keeping her company.  I’d eaten a roll and washed some aspirin down with a beer as I went up for a shower.  Pacho the kitchen boy and Samantha were opening The Trough.  I told Samantha I’d be in around 6:30 or 7:00pm. 

While I was eating the dinner Skylar had made me, we were watching the 6 o’clock news.  Ever since we’d met Ainsley a while back, we kind of made it a habit to watch her channel.  See what she was up to.  Didn’t hear much from her, but we were fairly sure we would at some point. 

She was reporting live from a murder scene.  It was a circus, as all the local news organizations were waiting for the police to give up some of the details.  All they knew so far was that the body had been there for a couple of days.  Her home was checked after a missing person notification had been filed. 

“She looks stressed out,” Skylar said.

“Yeah, she does,” I concurred.  The professional newsgirl look was gone, and instead, she looked like she was just getting dragged by her nose through the day by a grim reaper not allowed to release her soul until the stroke of midnight.  She looked like she blamed the unnamed victim for ruining her evening.  That’s cold.  We couldn’t take our eyes off her. 

They went to another news story before cutting back to Ainsley.  The camera was on Ainsley with the front porch of a nice house in Williamsville behind her.  Police officers were on the porch, and they were trying to get the press away so they could remove the body and get on with their investigation.  First though, the head cop had to release some details. 

Ainsley spoke to the audience, “Officer Whitman is about to release the details to what has been described as a grisly murder scene.  Here’s Officer Whitman.”

The camera focused in on his face as he spoke into a bouquet of microphones.  He looked sober and confused by all the unwanted commotion behind him – other police officers and crime-scene investigators trying to take their positions and get their jobs done.

To quiet the questioning press in front of him, he used his lifted hands asking for a moment to make his statement.  “Earlier today, a wellness check was made after a missing person’s report.  Investigators have found this missing person’s body, but until the next of kin has been notified, the name of the victim will not be released.  For now, I need you all to move back and give our investigators room to work.”

Ainsley cut in when the officer walked away from the mics.  “There you have it.  A missing person was found dead.  Hold on one second, I’ve just gotten word,” Ainsley looked at her phone for additional information, “Oh my God, NO, Oh my God.  She looked back at the camera with tears in her eyes.  I am not sure if my sources are correct and will have to verify before I release this information.”  She used her head to tell the cameraman to stop filming, but he just kept filming her teary face.  She nodded her head again to get him to cut, but he was still taping, “This is Ainsley News, Local Reed.  Ainsley Reed, Local News.”  She nodded her head with a look of disgust, “Cut.  Cut Bill.”

The news flashed to another story.

“Holy cow, Cash,” Skylar said, “she almost lost it on live TV.”

“Huh,” I sighed.  I didn’t have anything else I could say.  I’d just seen her act like I’d been feeling a lot lately.  Made me want another beer.  I figured there was more to it but wasn’t looking forward to finding out what.  Thus, my need for another beer.

I finished up, kissed Skylar and told her I’d wake her up when I got home.

“Great,” she said.  She didn’t even pretend to be sincere.  When I first met her, I thought she was fake.  Not anymore.


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