Chapter 6 — Over the Border and Through the Woods
"Ashe, your clearance just came in!"
Jeremy leaned out of his chair, glancing through his open door and across the bullpen to the Chief's office. "Canadians are on board?"
"I pulled a few favors. You've got the lead. The mounties will stay out of your way til you need 'em."
Jeremy grinned at Lani. "Want to go to B.C.?"
His partner nodded. "It's the best lead we've had since this started. I'm in."
Jeremy leaned back to shout at Aderholt again. "Coach?"
"First class, motherfucker. We've still got tons of discretionary you never used. I took the liberty of spending it for you."
Jeremy sighed. He wasn't going to turn it down, but he didn't feel like he deserved the pampered treatment. Lani looked excited though, so he went along with it. If anyone had earned it, Lani certainly had. After Jeremy had spotted the car, Lani had painstakingly traced its journey through every piece of footage they'd gathered, until it finally left their scope heading north and out of the country.
They'd been sitting and waiting for the Canadians to give them the okay to expand their investigation into the country. Jeremy had been packed and ready in his office anticipating the call. He'd never felt so eager to pursue an investigation before, even when he was just getting started as a detective back in Seattle. Then again, he'd never had a real personal connection like this to a case before. This one was special.
In spite of that, he still had an hour until the flight Aderholt had got them on to Vancouver. Jeremy spent the first twenty minutes pacing the office impatiently, while Lani went home to get his things. When he got bored of pacing, Jeremy sat down and went through the last piece of video they'd found. A tech team was currently going through other shots again, just in case, but all they had to go on was the car blazing down the highway in the dead of night. Jeremy had no inkling of where to start looking once he arrived in Vancouver, but damned if he was going to slack off in Seattle and let the Canadians take his case.
What are you running from Jackie? What the hell could spook you this much? It was a sobering thought. If Jackie Nossinger, one of the strongest women he'd ever known, was fleeing the country in the middle of the night… he might have a real reason to panic.
They hadn't spoken in years, but they'd enjoyed a solid eight as partners in the Seattle homicide division. Jackie had eventually put in for a transfer after a few particularly bad cases in a row. Jeremy hadn't wanted to deal with the new partner they'd assigned him, and finally took up the offer for a position in the Bureau. It had been a little bit political, given his family ties, but he didn't mind. The bump to the federal level meant he got to deal with way fewer bullshit cases at the end of the day, and that suited him just fine.
Jeremy looked up. It wasn't Lani. Aderholt had come over to his office with a serious look.
"I won't piss off the mounties," Jeremy assured him.
"Not that. Look, man," he started, leaning back against the doorframe casually. "I get how personal this case's gotten for you—"
Fuck you. You aren't taking this from me. "You think I need to step away?"
To his surprise, Aderholt shook his head. "Hell no. If I was in your shoes and the chief suggested that to me, I'd slug him in the face." He looked Jeremy in the eye. "Don't forget: whoever did this killed over a hundred people and God knows how or why. And whoever they are, they aren't done. You watch your back up there."
"Killer's still down here in Olympia," Jeremy pointed out.
"As far as we know. Unless there were multiple killers."
"Any luck in the forests yet?"
He shook his head. "They found fuck-all so far. I'm going out to the site myself today."
"You're leaving the building sir?"
"Ha ha, fuck you." Aderholt shot him a glare. "Someone's gotta go hold the rangers' dicks so they don't piss all over themselves."
"I'm sure they appreciate your sacrifice, sir."
The elevator door down the hall pinged. "Just be careful, shitbird," Aderholt called over his shoulder as he returned to his office. Lani had returned with his bag, packed and ready to go. "I want Lani back in one piece."
"And me, sir?"
"As many fucking pieces as you like. If you happen to lose your tongue, I'll get you a goddamn medal."
Their Canadian counterparts greeted them right off the plane. They were ushered into vehicles and brought straight to their local station, where a task force headquarters had been set aside. "We're as eager to solve the mystery as yourselves," said their chief, shaking Lani and Jeremy's hands enthusiastically. Jeremy tried to remember his name, but came up empty. "Everyone here's wondering what this is all about."
Jeremy had to fight to suppress a laugh at how strong his accent came through on the last word. Lani stepped in to save him. "Thanks. I believe you were sent a preliminary case file with some notes on where to start?"
"Yeah. We've already got teams running the border video back. You're lucky we upgraded our storage. We used to not keep video that long." He scratched his head. "You really think they went through a checkpoint though?"
"Nah," Jeremy replied. "But better safe than sorry."
They hadn't. The Canadian teams worked through all the videos fast, and not a one showed Jackie's vehicle or anything resembling it passing over the border. Their network wasn't as sophisticated as the FBI system, but they had more than enough coverage on their side of the checkpoints for Jeremy to believe the results.
He wasn't about to give up that easily.
Within the day, Jeremy managed to persuade the Canadians to give them airspace clearance to send several helicopters across the entire expanse connecting Washington and B.C. Thanks to the new lead, Aderholt had gotten them more resources to access, so Jeremy was able to divert much more than he usually could in support. The helicopters trawled inch by inch across the forests, watching for absolutely anything unusual, while Jeremy watched the feeds from an array of laptops they'd provided him in their hotel room. In the meantime, Lani collected updated scans from the satellite that had been retasked for their use.
Between the satellite and the helicopters, they found her car. The satellite picked up a strange metallic reading underneath the forest canopy, plenty large and right on the surface level. When Jeremy directed one of the helicopters to investigate more closely, he got enough of a glimpse to be sure.
They were in a rugged jeep and on their way within minutes.
"So," Lani started as they pulled onto the highway. "Your old partner."
Jeremy didn't reply. He was busy staring out the window, thinking about his sister. She'd flown back to D.C., where she faced endless meetings and committees amidst the never-ending drama theater of modern politics. Unlike many of her colleagues, Madelaine Ashe had fought her way up from almost nothing. They hadn't even used their mother's remarriage to Walter Milton and their newfound connections to high society in the campaign. Maddie worked her way in as an aide to almost everyone, one after another, until she finally broke through with her own campaign.
When she was elected, her first order of business was to ditch the entire existing staff in her office. Having been an aide herself for so long, she knew better than anyone how much power they could wield. Many senators and representatives were really just public faces, while their aides and subordinates ended up doing most of the work.
Maddie didn't trust any of them, so she fired all of them. She brought in her own people, much smaller and more focused (as it was all she could afford without support), and she did the work of ten all on her own. She'd sacrificed everything in her life to keep up with the more privileged and wealthy around her—never even considering dating, raising a family, or anything personal. Hell, she doesn't even have any fucking hobbies.
Maddie was trying to change the world for the better. If it weren't for Jackie Nossinger, he'd have lost his sister fourteen years ago. He had to find the missing sheriff, no matter what it took.
"Jeremy?" Lani asked, as he merged them into the off-ramp.
"Sorry. Just thinking."
"You got any ideas about what we're heading into?"
"An empty ditched car from when they hopped the border without a single clue on it." Jeremy shrugged. "But we've gotta check anyway."
Lani sighed. "With our luck, it won't even be her car."
"Now you're catchin' on." Jeremy's phone buzzed with a pile of text messages. "Chief found two more bodies in the woods with the rangers. Harrison and one other older male. Probably Smith. Both dead back in May. We can knock two more off our count."
Lani glanced over at him. "Do you think we'll find other survivors? At this rate, it sounds like the entire town was killed off."
"Can't be sure. You made the count. You think it's actually accurate?"
"It's the most recent census plus the last submitted university records and voter registration cross-referenced. It's the best we're going to get."
"So we've got no fuckin' clue," Jeremy grumbled. Lani pulled the jeep off to the side of the road. "What's up?"
"This is where we break off," he replied. The jeep bounced with an angry thump as they started rumbling through the underbrush into the wooded hills. "You'd better hope it's clear all the way there."
"The forest didn't look that thick."
"We're in a car."
"We'll make it," Jeremy said firmly.
Jeremy looked at him sharply. "You don't fuckin' know that."
"You don't know she isn't."
"Why d'you think we're in fucking Canada?"
"Hey, it's actually pretty nice up here. It's better than the city."
"I don't need reassuring, Lani," Jeremy said, leaning back and trying to relax while the jeep tumbled along the rough ground. "We're gonna find her either way, and she's gonna tell us what the fuck happened back in Rallsburg. Simple as that."
It was slow going through the forest. As the tree cover thickened, they were forced to take longer and longer detours to get back on track with the GPS map Lani had on his phone. Jeremy spent most of it running through the details of the case in his head, but as they reached the halfway point, Lani broke the silence.
"You know what this all seems like to me?"
A psychotic serial killer with way too much firepower? "What?"
"It's all a sign. It's warnings."
Jeremy didn't have anything better to do, and he didn't feel like going into the field with animosity from his partner, so he decided to entertain Lani's train of thought. "Warnings of what?"
"The end of the world."
He barked out a short laugh. "Christ, Lani, people have been callin' out end of the world for way too long. What makes this pile of bodies different from Jim Jones or Heaven's Gate?"
"Those were all suicides. These people didn't kill themselves. We don't have any reason to believe they were crazy."
Jeremy shrugged. "Jury's out on the crazy, but how'd you get from mass death to end of the world?"
"The way those bodies were laid out in the street sure looks like a sign."
He frowned. "You said it yourself, they were trying to reach somethin' in the middle. Probably whoever killed 'em."
"I'm not so sure anymore," Lani muttered. He paused while navigating a particularly tricky section of forest. "The people getting torn up, and now with Hauserman dying so much later… This is end of the world stuff."
"Or it's confirmation bias."
"Look, I mean this with all respect," said Jeremy, "but you're a lot more superstitious than me. Fair?"
"So you're way more likely to believe in somethin' supernatural occurring here. Even if it doesn't make sense."
"You're saying I don't make any sense?" Lani asked, without any hostility.
"I'm saying you gotta watch your biases, that's all. So does the whole fuckin' world, from the shit we get on the tip line. Apocalypse is fucking trendy these days."
"What do you mean?"
"People want the world to change, but they don't feel like they got the power to do it themselves. So they want a redo." Jeremy sighed. "They feel so powerless that the majority of the world gettin' knocked off is preferable to trying to fix our shitty real world."
"That could just be our tip line."
He shook his head. "You wanna know how the world is feeling? Don't watch the news, check out what entertainment people love the most. When we were inventin' space flight, people wanted science fiction with rubber suited aliens, humanity reachin' for the stars, optimistic shit. Go way back to Shakespeare, and people loved it because he wrote for the fuckin' peasants, not the royalty. He got what they were feelin'. Or look at all the anti-war songs and movies around 'Nam."
"And now we're in the apocalypse?"
"Well, there's so much shit these days that it's got thinned out. But yeah, check out what's popular. People love the 'pocalypse, they love the whole world gettin' reset or blown away. Shit, there's even post-apocalyptic books for kids now."
"You were reading kids books?" Lani asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Saw 'em in the store," Jeremy replied without missing a beat. "Point is, it's saturating everything. That's where our culture's at, and culture reflects the times. People want an apocalypse, and something this crazy? Mass unexplained death and an entire town evaporating into thin air?" He closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat as they bumped along. "They might be so desperate that this kicks it off all on its own."
"Are they wrong?"
Jeremy's eyes snapped back open. He glared at his partner. "Of course they're fucking wrong!"
"Just because our country's fucked up doesn't mean it's a lost fuckin' cause," he growled. "People fought for this place. Fuck if I'm gonna let some looney tunes serial killer and a bunch of end of the world addicts ruin our home."
"Even if it might actually be a lost cause?"
"Lani, do you really believe that?"
"...No. But I get where they're coming from."
Jeremy sighed. "You and me both."
When they were within a thousand feet of the GPS marker they'd dropped, Lani pulled off to the side and turned off the engine. They found Jackie's cruiser partially covered in a blanket of branches and leaves. Jeremy approached slowly, gun drawn, while Lani covered him. His shoes crunched through the first fallen leaves. Jeremy watched the car with sweat beading on the back of his neck. It had been years since he'd gone into a situation like this without any idea of what he was going up against. That was a younger Jeremy's move, not his.
What the fuck am I doing out where with only my partner as backup?
The windows of the cruiser were all blown out. Even the windshield was totally gone. Jeremy hadn't noticed that in the video footage of the cruiser leaving Washington. The doors were closed and the car was deliberately concealed, so whomever left it hadn't been in a hurry. He had no reason to expect any sort of ambush.
Jeremy approached the car. He reached out and touched the trunk, spotting the very same bullet hole he'd remembered. He sighed, waving Lani forward to join him.
There wasn't going to be anything here, good or bad. He already knew it, before they even went over the car. Lani approached just as deliberately, but Jeremy had already lowered his gun and gone for the front door. They spent a good twenty minutes digging through the car looking for anything they could find. Any clue whatsoever that might tell them where Jackie had gone. There was nothing. Jackie had gone over it thoroughly. Jeremy knew it was her car, but that was all they could be sure of.
"Why'd they ditch it?" Lani asked. They were leaning against the back of the trunk, neither particularly wanting to go home empty-handed.
"Too easy to follow?"
"They'd already made it out of the country and into the forest. Why'd they ditch it here?" Lani gestured around them. Not a single sign of civilization in sight. "There's still gas in the tank, and the wheels look fine."
Jeremy pointed at the rising hill leading further north. "We drove up in a jeep. An old Seattle cruiser ain't gettin' up that."
Lani frowned. "So you think they went on foot?"
"If I know Jackie, not a chance in hell. That hike with the rangers was bad enough for me, and Jackie hated exercise." Jeremy walked out into the woods a short distance and examined the ground. "Lani, c'mhere."
"Check this out." Jeremy brushed away the leaves. There was a faint but distinct set of tire tracks in the ground. He plucked a few pieces of rubber out of the dirt. "There was another car."
"...But they came through months ago. There's no way this could be her."
"Nope," Jeremy got to his feet and started back for their jeep. "We're not the only ones following her."
They drove for almost two hours, due north at a slow speed. Every time Jeremy thought they might have lost the trail, Lani managed to find another clue—a thick branch clearly broken off by a passing vehicle through a tight space, skidmarks in the dirt, anything to keep them going. His partner was thorough and relentless, keeping them on the chase.
"But if we're following the second group," Jeremy wondered aloud, "what the fuck are they following?"
"I have no idea." Lani flicked the lights on and off to check their positioning. It was still fairly light out, but the tree cover was too thick for it to really feel like daytime. "I didn't see anything else on the ground. What would there be, five months later in the middle of the forest?"
"Nothing." Jeremy felt frustrated. "What if we're chasing nothing at all?"
"It's the only lead we've got, right?"
On they went, as the sun passed overhead and started dipping back down again on the other side. They pulled on jackets as the night chill seeped in through the jeep's windows, which they'd left open to try and hear anything over the low rumble of the engine. Jeremy wished they could have gone ahead on foot nice and quiet, but he doubted they'd ever cover enough ground in time. Somehow, though he couldn't explain it, he knew they were on the run already. Maybe not from Jeremy and his partner, but certainly fleeing someone—or something.
Fuck that. Don't turn into Lani. None of the supernatural bullshit.
"Is that a light up ahead?" Lani asked, leaning forward over the wheel to peer through the deepening shadows of the trees.
"Yeah," Jeremy confirmed. "Firelight, though," he added, noticing the telltale flickering.
Lani parked them in a dip of the rolling flatland, where a couple thick trees managed to hide their jeep almost entirely. They got out of the car, and the faint scent of campfire smoke reached his nostrils. The sun dipped below the treeline and the chilly air had them both shivering slightly. Jeremy pulled his coat tighter around his chest, double-checking his pistol holster as he did. Everything about his current situation felt just a little bit off.
Where had this campout come from? Where the fuck was the car they'd been following?
Where was Jackie?
Jeremy motioned to Lani. They crept forward, trying to avoid the leaves as much as possible. Every twig Jeremy snapped made him a little more tense, waiting for something to jump out at him. Lani, damn him, moved through the forest easily without making a sound.
They got a little closer. Jeremy's hand hovered near his firearm—never quite touching, never quite moving away. He walked at a snail's pace, watching the firelight flickering through the thick branches. He began to see the outline of a truck, painted black, with a fair-sized camper attached. The fire crackled and hissed.
Jeremy caught a snatch of conversation. A man offered some food, and a younger female voice declined.
Lani froze. He'd heard the same thing. Jeremy motioned for him to spread out. They'd stay in eyesight, but cover more ground on their approach—anything to improve their chances of catching their target. Jeremy withdrew his phone from his pocket, dashing off a quick message.
Approaching potential suspect. Coord attached.
He attached his phone's GPS reading and sent the texts, one to Aderholt and one to his Canadian counterpart.
One to his sister.
Jeremy motioned to Lani. They crept forward through the last few sets of trees. Less than one hundred feet to go. Jeremy's fingers itched. His palm clasped and unclasped the grip on his pistol. Beads of sweat dripped down his shoulder. He took a deep breath, trying to calm down.
His foot snapped a fallen branch in half.
Too fucking loud! Jeremy's eyes shot up to meet Lani's. He had frozen in place, waiting for Jeremy's signal. They weren't yet in sight of the two by the fire.
The voices stopped. All they could hear was the crackle of the fire and the sounds of the forest around them.
Jeremy waved forward urgently. Lani nodded acknowledgment. They walked through the last few trees, emerging into the small clearing where the fire burned away the evening chill.
An elderly man sat, quite serene, in a small folding chair by the fire. He was old but in remarkably good shape, wearing a thick overcoat and a cap over his head. His face sported a thin, well-trimmed beard, and his eyes were small, twinkling black. All in all, he didn't seem remotely threatening. He sat a little reclined, watching them approach with mild interest. Jeremy slowly moved his hand away from his gun and walked forward.
"Hello there," the man called out. "You're welcome to share my fire, if you're cold." He gestured at the three other folding chairs surrounding it.
Jeremy scanned the area. He didn't see anyone. Whoever the other voice had been, she'd fled in a hurry. Silently, too. He took the man's offer and sat down across from him. Lani stood nearby, eyeing the man with open suspicion, his hand still hovering near his pistol.
"Would you care for something to drink? I was about to make some tea," the man said, reaching for a kettle. Jeremy shook his head. Lani didn't respond at all. The man shrugged and hung the kettle over the fire, pouring water into it from a huge jug before reclining in his chair once again. "So, what brings you two out so far into the woods?"
"Searching for someone," Jeremy replied. He glanced at the truck. It didn't have plates or any visible registration marks. Nothing at all to identify it. He ran through the known vehicles registered to Rallsburg residents in his head. It could be one or two of them, but so many people owned that type of truck around here… He couldn't be sure. The man certainly didn't resemble anyone he could remember from the dossiers.
"No one out here, I'm afraid. Just my old bones and the stars."
"No stars yet," Jeremy replied, glancing up at the sky. The sun still hadn't set, but it was getting pretty dark.
"Oh, they're up there. The stars watch and listen. They wait for their time." The old man smiled. "Could it be they're waiting for you two?"
"I doubt it."
"Did you see someone else come through here?" Lani asked. Jeremy winced. Not yet, Lani. You're asking him too quickly.
To his surprise, the man nodded. "I believe you're asking about the friend I was speaking with recently? She had to depart quite suddenly. She tends to do that."
Lani looked around the clearing pointedly. "To where? There's nothing around for miles."
He shook his head. "It would be impolite to ask. She likes her privacy, and I enjoy our conversations. I wouldn't dream of imposing upon her."
"Would you tell us her name?" Jeremy asked.
The man looked at him strangely. "I beg your pardon, but could I ask your reason? You speak as though you have authority, but I do not yet know you."
Jeremy pulled out his badge and flipped it open. "United States Special Agent for the Federal Investigation Bureau," he said in his most official voice. If he'd hoped to impress or intimidate the man, he was thoroughly underwhelmed. Jeremy may as well have said he were a fisherman for all the reaction he got.
The man leaned forward and stoked the fire. "You're a ways from home, Jeremy Ashe."
"I thought you said you didn't know me."
"Forgive my old memory," the man replied. "I did not remember your face from the news until I saw the badge."
Bullshit. You knew. You just wanted me to show it. "Now that you've seen it, would you mind answering our questions?"
"To the best of my ability, though I believe you're outside your jurisdiction." The man sighed and leaned back in his chair, watching Jeremy carefully. "I cannot answer your question, though, as I don't know her name."
"You talk to her regularly but you don't know her name?" asked Lani.
"We have a… unique relationship."
"How did you meet?" Jeremy asked.
"She was lost and totally alone, and she happened to walk into my little shop on a tragic day. The rest is history, really."
"Where is your shop?"
"In the past," he said with a sad smile. His eyes drooped slightly as he spoke. "My life took another direction. I'm not one to question it."
"And when did that dramatic shift take place?" Jeremy asked, his eyes narrowing.
The old man didn't answer right away. He took a moment to check the kettle, waiting for the water to boil, before leaning back in his chair again. "I think you find me suspicious, Agent Ashe. I'm struggling to find a reason for that."
No shit. "I'm just looking for answers."
"But what if the answers are worse than staying in the dark?"
Son of a bitch. An amateur bullshit philosopher. "It's my job to get them anyway."
The old man nodded. "And without your purpose, what are you? What are any of us without a goal to achieve or our fellow man to serve? If we'd been afraid of the light, we'd never have made it out of the womb."
"So if you agree with us, are you going to stop beating around the bush?" Lani cut in.
He looked up at Jeremy's partner. "The birds you seek to catch are not here."
"Beating around the bush," he explained. "An English idiom about scaring out the birds so the hunters could catch them." He picked up the kettle, which was now boiling away merrily, and began to prepare his tea. "I've watched the investigation with interest, as we all have, and I know what you seek. There is nothing for you here."
You know somethin', old man. Tell me. "So you've seen no one come through this area recently."
"I have been here for a few weeks and seen nothing," he confirmed. "Just nature and the occasional visit from my friend."
"And where is she from?"
"Another detail of her life I have no wish to pry away."
"You never thought it was weird that you're so far away from civilization and she still comes out here to talk?" Jeremy glanced around for effect. "You're alone out here, old man."
"You found me," he replied pointedly. "Should I wonder about your own habits for stumbling through forests?" The fire crackled loudly while he blew on his tea, waiting for it to cool. He poked at the logs with a long stick a few times before returning to their conversation. "You chose to stop and speak with me. I can only imagine you had a good reason, if you'd interrupt your search to talk to a tired old man in the woods."
"We're following a lead and it brought us here."
"So you are a man of faith."
Jeremy shook his head. "Not even a little."
"You believe that your lead will bring you answers, and you follow it without knowing if it is worthwhile or not. That sounds like faith to me."
"That's just police work."
"All police work is based on faith. Society itself is based upon faith."
"You lost me," said Jeremy, with another shake of his head.
"He's talking about social contract theory," Lani put in.
The old man's face lit up. "Precisely!" He grinned at Jeremy. "Your partner understands."
"Enlighten me," Jeremy said dryly.
"He's talking about how we've all agreed to certain rules of society," Lani explained. "How we have to be bound by them even if we have an escape, because if we didn't, we wouldn't have survived this far. Like, if people didn't follow the law, the set of circumstances that let me be born might never have happened."
"You are an excellent student of Socrates." The old man took a sip of his tea and smiled in satisfaction. "Delicious. You're sure you don't want any?"
"No, thank you," Lani said politely. Jeremy shook his head.
"The old Greek view has a limitation, however," he continued thoughtfully. "It assumes the rough equality of man. They believed that man would follow the law because he should, not because he is forced to. That only a plurality could suppress the individual."
"So you're sayin' that if one guy is too strong, he won't follow the social contract," Jeremy reasoned.
"Close." He set his tea aside. "He might still obey the law, but he gains the ultimate authority. He becomes the Übermensch, at which point we all begin to follow his example rather than our established laws."
"Or we just kill him." Jeremy shrugged. "People said the same thing about a lot of races before."
"Unless you cannot. Unless he has become so powerful, so indomitable that legions of men and weapons of mass destruction could not touch him." The old man's vague jovial air had disappeared. He looked deadly serious now. "What if there existed a race apart from man, but living in cohabitation, with power far exceeding man's most plateaued capabilities?"
Jeremy felt a chill on his spine. The man's expression was too serious. He felt seriously unsettled. His hand had unconsciously started reaching for his holster.
"If this new, objectively superior race determines that man exists outside its social contract, what happens then? Will man die out, or will we be forced into submission?"
"This sounds a lot like nazism," Jeremy muttered.
The man raised his hands in surrender. "Heavens, no! I advocate for no such thing. This was just a hypothetical. My apologies." He picked up his tea again and took a deep drink. "I'm sorry if I caused you any discomfort. Please, I believe you were asking me about someone you were following?"
As Jeremy opened his mouth to respond, the door on the camper poked open slightly. "Hey Boris, what do you want to do for dinner tonight?"
Jeremy leapt to his feet. Lani drew his pistol on the door, while Jeremy took aim at the old man. The middle-aged, balding man poking his face out was one they both recognized instantly.
"...Dan, we have guests," the old man replied, not moving an inch.
"Hands on your head," Lani ordered. "Walk out, slowly."
Dan Rhodes did as ordered, moving very slowly out of the camper with his palms glued to his temples. Lani kept his weapon firmly trained on Dan's chest the whole time.
"So you're Boris Morozov," Lani added, nodding at the old man.
"In this life," the old man sighed. "May Dan come take a seat with me? We're no threat, I assure you."
"You two survived Rallsburg," stated Jeremy. "Explain."
"We left before it happened," Dan replied nervously.
"Bullshit," Jeremy snapped. "Talk. You've got one chance here."
"I do believe you're still well outside your jurisdiction, Mr. Ashe," Boris replied gently. "As my friend said, we witnessed nothing."
"So what the fuck are you doing hiding outside the country? Illegally?"
"Just a vacation."
"According to the terms of your agreement with the spooks, you weren't supposed to leave the state. Ever." Jeremy's finger hovered just outside the trigger guard on his pistol. He wasn't going to give them an inch.
Boris sighed. "I had hoped you wouldn't dig up that piece of history from its well-trodden grave."
"Wide-reaching emergency authority," Lani added. "We got pretty much everything we wanted." He glanced at Boris momentarily before returning his focus to Dan. "Why'd you choose Rallsburg, though?"
"I wanted the quietest home I could find, and I loved the climate. Evidently I chose poorly."
"What are they talkin' about, Boris?" Dan asked, his voice quaking slightly.
"Another life," Boris replied. He glanced around the clearing. "So what happens now? You can't arrest us, but you can't let us go. What do you do?"
Jeremy shook his head. "As soon as we call in backup, they'll be happy to arrest you. They know where we are."
"Ah…" Boris trailed off. "That is unfortunate."
"What does that mean?" Lani asked sharply. He lifted his pistol slightly, readjusting his aim on Dan.
"I don't think we have the answers you seek."
"Then tell us who does!" Jeremy roared. Even Lani flinched in surprise at his sudden outburst. Jeremy was getting fed up with the runaround. He wanted answers.
He wasn't going to get them.
A female voice cried out, seemingly right next to them. "Boris, get down!"
Without hesitating, Boris fell to the ground. Dan followed him down an instant later.
A gunshot rang through the clearing, loud as a cannon. Cloth burst into the air as a hole appeared in the back of Boris' chair, right where he'd been sitting a split-second earlier.
Lani whipped around like a robot. He opened fire in the direction of the gunshot.
Jeremy followed his aim, but couldn't see anything in the underbrush. Lani was just firing to suppress, but Jeremy couldn't open up from his angle to support. He ran for the treeline, trying to get a new angle on their shooter.
"Lani, cover them!" he shouted. Boris and Dan were crawling for the cab of the truck as fast as they could. Jeremy took cover behind a tree, watching the treeline from a hairbreadth outside the cover of the thick trunk.
Another gunshot. It was definitely a rifle of some kind. From the second shot, Jeremy had a much better idea where the shooter might be. He aimed at the bush in the rough vicinity, the one he'd select if he were laying down an ambush, and opened fire.
He unloaded his entire magazine into the bush, branches crackling off and puffs of dirt flying from each impact. He reloaded quickly and waited, watching for anything more. There was nothing. He walked forward, slowly, trusting Lani was still covering.
Jeremy reached the thick bush and lifted it aside with his foot, covering the area with his pistol. Underneath was a man holding a hunting rifle, totally immobile. Jeremy leaned down and felt for his pulse. Nothing. He'd already expired. One of the bullets went straight through his heart, another through his brain.
Jeremy scanned the area, but didn't see any signs of another shooter. He looked back at the clearing.
Lani was on the ground.
He sprinted to his partner, his heart pounding. Jeremy hadn't realized how much adrenaline was pumping through his veins, but he could feel his heart pounding through the skin of his neck and his brain felt like it was thumping out of his ears. He dropped to Lani's side.
"Clear?" Lani mumbled. He'd taken the second rifle round to the shoulder above his vest and collapsed. Blood seeped out into his shirt at an alarming rate.
Boris appeared at his side, holding a roll of bandages and other first aid supplies. He quickly cleaned the wound, then held out the bandage. Jeremy pressed down on the wound, while Boris helped wrap it tight around the shoulder.
As Jeremy held it in, he saw Dan get into the cab of the truck. "No!" he shouted.
Dan started the engine. Boris stood up and got into the passenger seat. He glanced back out the window at Jeremy, holding the bandage to his partner's shoulder. "Call for help right away," he called over the engine noise. "Your partner saved our lives!"
Jeremy wanted more than anything to chase after them, but one groan from Lani beneath him and he knew he was stuck. He pulled out his phone with his other hand while holding the wound. Two taps and he was dialing the emergency line the Canadians had given him. Boris nodded in satisfaction as Dan shifted the truck into gear.
"Is Jackie alive?" Jeremy shouted desperately over the engine and the ringing phone in his ear.
Boris looked surprised. Right before they pulled away, he gave Jeremy one firm, unambiguous nod.
Jeremy watched helplessly as his best lead vanished into the falling night. He held his partner's shoulder closed from an assassin whose motives they could only guess at. They were stuck in the middle of the forest in another country, far away from any civilization, with only the crackling fire and a corpse to keep them company.