-a WICUS FOSTER novel –
This book is dedicated to pot and chocolate
November winds are not kind to the Blackfoot Valley. They scratch the dead landscape with sharp, cold fingers of its October green, orange, gold, yellow, and hints of red hue, exposing a rocky, wet, dark soul incapable of spring flowers and summer love. Decay and rot and frozen pine needles pump through its gray veins, pushing the sun away, the reach of darkness growing longer with each day, pushing light away from the Valley’s grief stricken soul. It is a time of increasing darkness — the time in the course of a year when the cold air is filled with more whispers of last breaths, than firsts.
Dane had just landed in Missoula. Eighteen hours earlier he had left Talnin, Estonia, where he was researching an article, connecting the dots between the opium epidemic in the US and Afghanistan. His path to investigative journalism, detoured four years with the Army, two years in prison for selling pot after he was discharged, and then finished his four year journalism degree in Missoula in three years, while working his brother’s bars at night.
He worked mostly out of Brookline for the Resistance but often sought writing refuge at his small cabin in Seeley Lake, an hour outside of his hometown, Missoula. Dane wrote for The Resistance, a high profile internet news source, founded by progressive billionaire, James Slaytower, who was bored with creative ways to spend his high-tech fortune, so he funneled tens of millions into the investigative news giant he created – an ostensible Big Brother watch dog. Dane’s beat was national security, foreign affairs, international finance, and anything else that didn’t pencil out and smelled like shit.
Dane bought the cabin from his ex-wife. Thirty-two years earlier the small three bedroom, story and a half, timber frame cabin was built but not for Dane. It was built for the Strickland family—Richard and Alice and their two young children Jennifer and Gabriel. The Stricklands lived in Missoula on Jackson Street in a 1920’s bungalow in the Lower Rattlesnake but enjoyed weekends at ‘the lake.’ Richard worked for Montana Trust Bank as a residential loan officer. Alice taught fourth grade across town at Target Range Elementary in west Missoula. Jennifer was Gabriel’s older sister by two years.
Construction of the cabin commenced in mid-May and was completed just after Labor Day. Like boiling water in a teakettle on a gas stove, it was straightforward and simple. It hid under the trees, looking out at the lake and the Swan Range. It was cool in the summer and held the warmth from the woodstove long into the night during the winter. The forested land south of the cabin was vacant. To the north, through the trees, lived the Norbergs year round. It was quiet and peaceful.
Jennifer was eight, Gabriel six, the summer the cabin was built. For ten years the cabin was their summer anchor and their winter escape. For the first six years it lived up to the Strickland family expectations. Summer barbeques, canoeing, kayaking, boating, waterskiing behind the twelve-year old Bayliner. Cocktails in the evening for Richard and Alice. S’mores and Coke for the kids. Late night monopoly games and early morning coffee, watching the sun crest over the majestic Swans. Life was as it should be.
But as the kids grew older, there proved more to do in Missoula through their eyes than at the lake and the small back-assward town of Seeley. Richard and Alice began leaving Jennifer behind in Missoula and soon after Gabriel followed his big sister’s lead, letting Mom and Dad go alone to the cabin. Friends, movies and teenage flirtations took precedent over monopoly and s’mores with aging parents.
Richard’s heart attack dropped him like a brick in front of the woodshed. An armload of wood scattered around his body in the snow. And like that, the Strickland family trajectory began to veer unexpectedly.
Gabriel died three years later in a car accident in the Bitterroot just south of Hamilton. He was a drunk underage, unbuckled passenger in a Toyota Camry but not as drunk as the underage unbuckled driver. Nine months later Alice quietly swallowed twenty five small, white round Percocet pills with about seven ounces of Crown Royal in a room at the Davenport in Spokane where the cloud like pillows were down and the white robe was plush and comfy, snugged tight around her little, aging ass.
Jennifer did not graduate from the University of Montana in four years. It took her six.
Dane stared through the windshield at Highway 200, hypnotized by the cadence of the wipers and the barrage of pellet-like snowflakes racing towards his face with a silent fury.
The snow spitting down wasn’t pretty. It was angry and hurried– like it had something to hide from the world. His hands gripped the steering wheel, winding the pick-up along the meandering banks of the Blackfoot River, a veil of pelting snow, being yanked in haste across its dark, stealth water.
Seeley Lake was an hour away from Missoula. The lake was one of a handful of lakes strung out over fifty miles, north to south, pinched between the morning shadows of the Swan Range and the evening shadows of the Mission Mountains. The chain of lakes were remnant clues of the massive glacier, two thousand feet thick, that ripped out the valley floor ten thousand years prior to Dane retreating to his cabin to write and spend Thanksgiving, sipping good bourbon dribbled over ice, smelling roasting turkey alone in his cabin.
Dane rolled down the long, winding snowy driveway, the compressed snow squeaking under the weight of the truck tires. He parked twenty yards back from the cabin, turned off the engine and sat, staring through the windshield and the falling snow at the cabin. The towering Doug-fir trees surrounding the simple timber frame home, stood strong and resolute, like sentries watching over the quiet cabin. Snow blanketed the gabled roof and its dormers, its dark windows staring back at him. The sound of the snow was circumspect not because it was silent, but because it aspired to be so.
Dane stepped out the driver’s door into the snow. He walked to the cabin looking at the windows, hoping for movement, a light turned on, a welcoming hand in the window waving hello. But the windows revealed only darkness. He stomped the snow of his shoes on the deck, unlocked the dead bolt and stepped out of the storm.
Inside, the cabin was cold. The small propane heater attached to the wall next to the bookcase hummed softly. Dane kicked off his shoes, walked across the pine floor, bending down in front of the heater, turning the small black dial clock-wise.
The heater sucked in more propane to generate more heat, its soft hum transitioning to a steady growl.
Dane went back to the truck
Dane stuck his feet into the black muck boots he kept at the cabin. He grabbed a brown wool hat and gloves from the shelf above the coat rack. With his wool jacket on and his camera around his neck he grabbed from his bag, he headed out the door. Dane tromped through the snow, down the driveway, heading toward the Windthrow Trail.
Dane left the cabin around three-fifty, to find the body before the ‘pigs’ do. The snow was dumping down. He headed for the trail through the State land where old growth Doug-fir and Western larch stood as pillars between the earth and sky. The trail threaded its way around the stalwart trunks and up and over two small ridges before angling downward toward the bridge and river. It would be dark in another half hour.
Dane hurried down the trail, peering into the snowstorm. No fresh tracks meant no one had been on the trail since it started snowing as there was about three inches of snow covering the ground.
Fifty yards off the left of the trail were three does, standing under a Doug-fir, their black eyes watching Dane dart through the snowstorm.
Before the first rise in the trail, Dane saw the body – like a hole in the gray afternoon, where everything wrong in the world merged into one small place on the Windthrow Trail.
The body was a naked black woman, laying face down, a leather satchel placed by her head.
Jesus Christ, said Dane.
She was of slight build, her hair cropped short, a thin blanket of snow covering much of her body.
Dane looked behind him, searching the woods and snow for the evil that had done this. He swung his pack off, removing his camera. He adjusted the appature of the 700X lens, focusing on the woman. He snapped several pictures, before zooming in on her head, her shoulders, parts of her ass.
He took a number of photos of the satchel. It was worn from use, a little bigger than a large purse. Dane looked around again, scanning the dark woods. Then he stepped closer, bent down, placing his gloves under the woman’s left shoulder. He heaved, rolling her over.
The woman’s eyes were closed, her face somewhat bloated. Dane stepped back, raising the zoom lens up from his chest, taking pictures and zooming in.
He stopped. Shit! He said aloud, moving the camera away from his eyes. He stared at the face.
Good god?! He clicked more pictures. He knew her. Rachel S. Sterling, the President’s National Security Advisor who had been missing since July. Her photo had been splattered all over the news a few weeks after she went missing in July.
Dane clicked away, his heart pounding. From the corner of his eye he saw a deer dart towards him. He turned suddenly to look at the deer when his left arm, shot forward with a stinging pain. Then he heard the gunshot.
Dane hit the ground, looking around. The shot had come from his right.
He was a sitting duck. He crawled forward, grabbing the satchel.
Thhhud! Thhhud! Thhhud!
The body absorbed three rounds in the back and shoulder.
The shooter was still to his right.
No time, thought Dane. I’m dead lying here.
He crouched, then darted right, before rolling back left. He stood, racing to the left, zig-zagging as he ran. He dove over a large, fallen larch, crawled hurriedly down the length of it, then bolted forty yards further to another downed tree. He paused a few seconds, not crawling the length of it. He bolted again, making longer zigs and zags, racing behind large trees.
Keep moving. Fast.
Dane raced around the backside of the small knoll. Almost to the truck.
He ran through a small regeneration stand, the small trees thick and no more than ten feet tall. The snow from the boughs covered him as he raced through the trees. He didn’t look back – moving as quickly as possible.
He rounded the knoll and bee-lined it for his cabin, two hundred yards away. He didn’t hesitate, sprinting like a mad man for it through the snowstorm. Branches slapped his face as he sped through the snowy forest. He darted left and right and left again. He burst out of the woods onto the road and down his driveway.
Dane yanked the truck keys from his pocket, unlocking it. He started the truck, cranked the steering wheel and jammed it in reverse, turned sharply, then put the truck in drive. A Camry was blocking the driveway. A woman left it running, getting out walking towards Dane.
Dane rolled down his window. Get outta here, now!
The woman continued toward the truck.
Dane shook his head. Get outta here! He yelled.
I’m Marcel. I’m meeting you here.
Go! Dane waved her off.
Chhhink. Chhhink. Chhhink. Three bullets hit the Camry.
The woman stared back at her car, confused.
Get the hell outta here – those are bullets!
She stared at Dane, frightened.
She ran to the truck passenger’s door, ripped it open and jumped in.
Chhhink. Chhhink. Two bullets his the truck’s topper.
Dane gunned the truck in reverse, cranking the wheel right. Then he raced forward driving on the cabin’s small lawn, aiming for a small opening in the trees. The truck crashed through the small trees, split between two towering larch and flew up onto the road, racing away.
Who was shooting?! yelled the woman.
Dane checked his side view mirror, then he looked over at the woman.
She was tall, black hair, caramel skin, maybe in her forties.
He kept checking the mirrors. A mile later Dane pulled onto Highway 83, turning north.
Where are you going?
Away from here.
The woman pulled out her phone. I’m calling 911.
Dane shrugged. Don’t.
We were shot at?!
The cops will be there soon enough. He looked over at her phone. Give me ten minutes.
She stared at the phone. Are you Dane Roberts?
He shrugged. Who are you?
Just Anna for now.
Okay, Anna. Who sent you to see me?
I want to get out.
Dane gazed at her, then back at the road.
Answer a few questions and I’ll let you out. Dane checked his mirrors, as he drove through the small town, a gas station on the right, a café on the left.
Why did you want to see me?
Anna stared at Dane. I was told you would help me.
Dane shrugged. Help with what?
Anna stared down at her phone, then out the window at the snow.
I was told you’d help me find some one.
She stared over at Dane. Rachael Sterling.
Dane looked in the side view mirror, glad it was almost dark. The snow flakes bombarded his windshield as he headed north, his head lights cutting a swathe into the snowstorm.
Anna punched 9-1-1 into her phone. Nothing. She looked over at Dane. No service.
I know. Dane checked his mirrors and punched the gas.
The man grabbed the suitcase from the back seat of the Camry. He took the rental papers from the glove box. He hurried into the unlocked cabin.
The Camry was rented to Bridget Crane four days earlier from Seattle-Tacoma Airport.
The man walked around opening drawers and cupboards. He rifled through a desk drawer of old bills.
Dane Roberts name was a common denominator.
He opened the suitcase. Clothes, underwear, toilet bag, a leather bound notebook.
With his phone the man sent an encrypted email.
Dane Roberts 872 Lakeside Road, Seeley Lake MT
Missoula Electric Coop Account# 234788
Bridget Crane, Hertz Rental. From SEATAC. Silver Camry, 8976-T WA. Send intel on these two. They have the laundry.
The man left the cabin with a utility bill and leather notebook. He walked down the long driveway and crossed the road. He cleaned his scope, leaned against a tree, and waited in the dark for the cops to arrive.
Dane turned left off of Highway 83. It was dark and snowing hard.
We are we going? asked Anna.
A guy I know has a place up here. I don’t think he’s around now.
Why are we going there?
Dane looked over at Anna. I need a different vehicle. The truck is a giveaway.
Why don’t we just go to the police?
Dane laughed. We’re an hour from Missoula. There’s one deputy sheriff that patrols around here and he could be fifty miles away. I don’t trust people shooting at me and I don’t trust cops.
Anna looked at him. I know you did time in jail for selling marijuana.
Intent to sell, there’s a difference.
I know you work for The Resistance.
Dane smiled. I’m an easy guy to research. My career is on the internet. He turned up a steep narrow driveway, shifting into lower gear.
The driveway flattened out and ended in front of a large metal workshop. Dane turned off the truck, pulled the keys out of the ignition but kept the headlights shining at the workshop. I’ll be right back. He hoped out into the snow, leaving his door open.
The woman stared at her phone again. Still no reception. She looked out his open door, watching the snow fall.
She spun her head, looking out the windshield. The large work shop garage door raised slowly. Dane ducked his head, walking under the door toward the truck. He sat back inside.
He drove the truck into the large, lit shop, parking it next to an older green Subaru wagon. Large toolboxes and work benches surrounded the shop. Two boats were parked inside as well as an F250 truck. Dane walked over to a gray control panel on the wall, pressing a button to shut the garage door.
What now? Asked Anna standing next to Dane’s truck.
Dane stared over at her. How about your name?
Well, Anna, that doesn’t do me any good. And my patience is wearing thin. I have to make some decisions pretty damn quickly so you may want to loosen your tongue and talk.
I need to know how you’re connected to Rachael Sterling.
You’ve never heard of her.
Of course I have. You know I cover national security for The Resistance. Rachael Sterling, President Mullan’s national security advisor was last seen July 8th, entering her Georgetown home around 10:30 pm. She’s been missing ever since. Why are you so interested in her.
Look, I have no idea who you are. None. You could be with the shooter for all I know. Dane walked over by the two boats and climbed a set of stairs to the upper balcony. His voice echoed in the metal building. Are you going to give me a last name? He looked down at Anna before disappearing behind some plastic bins.
How long are we going to be here?
Dane shouted from behind the bins. You’re on a need to know basis. We’ll leave when I’m ready. Dane reappeared with a rifle.
What the hell is that? shouted Anna.
It’s a 12 gauge shotgun and a .22 pistol. Nothing special against a damn sniper but they’re better than nothing. Dane hurried down the stairs.
He walked over to the truck, opened the door, and removed the satchel and his duffle bag. He carried them over to toolbox on wheels. A few minutes later he had his laptop opened perched on top of the toolbox
You’re Dane Roberts, right?
You keep asking that.
I’m suppose to meet with Dane Roberts at the trail head, driving a gray Tacoma.
Next Dane walked across the room to the forest green enameled Jøtul woodstove. He opened the glass door and started crumpling the newspaper tucked behind the stacked firewood. After placing.the thinly split kindling atop the paper in the firebox he lit the fire, leaving the glass door cracked open an inch to help draft the fire. Back at the front door, he slipped on his black muck boots and headed back to the truck.
Boyd was nowhere to be seen, off exploring fresh snow and buried scents, as dogs were meant to do.
Dane grabbed his duffle bag and the two sacks of groceries. Trudging back to the cabin, he squinted, walking through the curtain of snow. Back inside, he dusted the snow out of his sandy blond hair, leaving his boots inside by the door. He placed the eleven-pound turkey in the fridge, smiling to himself over the prospects of eating it alone. He figured the turkey equation most likely would pencil out over the next week in Boyd’s favor.
He placed split Doug-fir in the woodstove, still leaving the door ajar for a good burn. From the blue-stained wood cupboard he grabbed his large round, beige mug, with a colorful cutthroat trout painted on the side. Its handle was large and robust. Dane wasn’t much for fishing but he had a soft spot for the mug. It balanced well in his hands and worked well with coffee, hot chocolate, and water, but more often than not it had a tendency to gravitate toward whisky and bourbon.
Dane filled the mug with ice from the freezer. He looked out the kitchen window at the storm, raising his eyebrows. The storm was still flustered, the snow relentlessly diving with precipitance. He dribbled Knob Creek over the ice before settling into the leather recliner looking out the large window facing the Swan Range now shielded from the storm. The fading afternoon light provided a gray backdrop to the unfolding day. Dane raised his mug to the fire and the storm. Cheers.
The sky was getting darker.
Dane and Boyd left the cabin around three-fifty for their walk in the storm. At least two more inches of snow had fallen since their arrival an hour earlier. They headed for the trail through the State land where old growth Doug-fir and Western larch stood as pillars between the earth and sky. The trail threaded its way around the stalwart trunks and up and over two small ridges before angling downward toward the bridge and river. Jennifer called it the Wind-throw trail because that had been what her Dad had called it. The State called it the Windy trail.
Memories of Jennifer were mostly bitter for Dane. Catching your wife of six years, ass-up in bed, screwing her colleague Scotty like she was pumping a well dry, proved the last straw in a doomed marriage. Unlike the shaky marriage, the divorce was easy. No kids helped. It was Dane’s lawyer who suggested buying out Jennifer’s half of the cabin in the settlement. “Leverage her guilt for all its worth,” he suggested. “You like the cabin. She doesn’t. Maybe she’ll want the quick cash.”
The lawyer was right. Two months after the divorce was final, Dane bought out Jennifer and the chain of title to the Strickland cabin changed to Dane Roberts.
Darkness. Soft back light. Snow spitting down with fury. A proud glass of wine. Great company. A warm fire. Subjective metrics of a good day. Of course the machine needs to be attended to – always has and always will. But it sure as hell doesn’t define me or my family or the community I run with