All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design except the character of "Mark." For those of you who haven't figured it out yet, more about "Mark" may be found at The Tiger's Den.
This story is a work of fiction based upon nothing in particular.
Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote
2003 - 2011
12 August 2011
The First Time ... Again
Her accusation flew at him like a lightning bolt, launching along her outstretched arm and projecting from the finger she pointed at him accusingly.
“You can't help me ...” crackled just past him on the left, the close passage of the bolt singeing the fur at the tip of his ear.
Each of those that followed seemed larger and more deadly than the last.
“I'm leaving All Furs Christian Church …” grazed his right shoulder, scorching his fur and causing him to flinch and yelp, wincing in pain as her words reverberated in his ears.
And then, with a deafening screech, the last bolt and her words drilled right through his chest as the lynx screamed “I'm leaving you!”, obliterating his heart and leaving a dead fur staggering about in uncertain futility …
… and he was still rebounding from her verbal destruction. His body shook as he regained consciousness. His head ached, and his soul felt empty and devoid of life.
Mike Harland groaned weakly. “Jazz ...”
“Wake up, Mike. Wake up!”
A strong shove rolled him over onto his side, and he cracked his eyes open briefly against the glare of daylight. His head thrummed painfully, like his Jeep running at speed over an old, wash-boarded trail. He clamped his eyes shut tight against the light. And that voice …
“Mike, I need you to wake up now. Mom's leaving,” the worried voice of his sister implored of him as she again shoved him, over onto his back.
Mom … leaving? Her too? The eyes of the gray fox suddenly flashed wide open. He ignored the pain of his pupils trying to adjust to the warm sunlight flooding into his old bedroom in his parents home. He sat up groggily and, ignoring his failing equilibrium and the pain in his head, looked into the troubled eyes of his sister Debbie.
“Where is she going?” he croaked through a very dry throat.
His head was fuzzy inside. “Colorado?” he mumbled. “Why?”
Debbie stood up straight and put her paws on her hips. “Why do you think? To get Chris.”
“Oh no ...” the hung-over fox mix mumbled, lowering his head so he could gently rub between his ears with a paw. “Does dad know?” he asked, still looking down at his bed.
“He's not here.”
“Not here?” Mike looked up again quickly, his muzzle contorting with pain as his brain protested the rapid movement. “Where is he?”
The young copy of his mom shrugged her shoulders. “Nobody knows,” she exclaimed quickly, the words coming in a rush. “He's just not here. And mom is pissed. And she and Gina are leaving in a few minutes to catch a plane from John Wayne, and you and I have to stay here. And I'm worried about dad because he won't know where she is, and I'm worried about mom because she doesn't seem to care where he is, and ...”
Debbie Latrans gripped her brother tightly by the shoulders.
“Mike, I'm scared. And I don't even know why.”
Something moved between the ears of Mike Harland, almost like a voice whispering to him. In spite of the hangover, in spite of the dry mouth, in spite of his own woes, Mike looked up to his sister and tenderly caressed her cheek with a paw.
“OK,, OK ...” the gray fox replied soothingly. “Don't worry, Debs. I'll figure out what's going on, and we'll get through this.”
The gratitude was evident in his sister's glistening eyes as Mike struggled slightly to get himself up off his mattress. What a way to start the day ...
# # #
She had almost had a fight with the fox, a gross incongruity given that they had seemed to so quickly become the best of friends. It had frightened her. The mink was trying … hard! … to remain a friend in Christ to the red fox that was beginning to unravel right before her eyes. She had done everything within her power to be an anchor, bedrock for Annie to hold on to as things had so rapidly seemed to spiral out of control in the life and marriage of the fox. And then she had practically demanded that Gina accompany her to Colorado …
And in that brief moment immediately following Annie's pronouncement Gina knew she was in real trouble. Because in that moment her heart had leapt for joy, her mind screaming Yay! at the prospect of having the red fox all to herself for a few days. It had only lasted for a split second, but it had been there long enough to terrify the mink who was so desperately trying to do the right thing, trying to deny her base instincts in the friendship she had developed with her student's mother.
Gina realized suddenly that she had been trying … struggling … to deny her desire for this fox at the same time she was working so hard to become her friend, her Christian sister. In the last few days all her years of effort at putting her bisexuality behind her, at developing her Christian lifestyle, at becoming the Gina Vison she wanted … longed to be, had been jeopardized.
She was falling in love.
So at first she had tried to avoid the problem.
“I can't, Annie, I … “
… and that was as far as she got. The red fox had turned from her packing of a small suitcase with an expression that revealed so much in that short glance before she spoke. Pain. Fear. Frustration. Anger. Desire. The desperate need for something, someone of stability to cling to …
“Gina … I can't … I don't know how to thank you for all that you've been and done for me the past couple of days.” Her pretty blue eyes were clear now, her expression earnest. But ... “You've helped me face the things that have happened to my boys … “ and here the eyes grew soft and glassy again, preparing for tears, “... are happening to my boys. And you've helped me try to deal with ...” and now those eyes grew hard and cold, “... with … Joe … and you've been so sweet and …”
And the eyes grew troubled, and her ears wilted slightly, and her tail became still.
“I don't think I can do this alone, Gina. If Chris can't get himself onto an airplane then I'll have figure out some other way. And Joe … can't be bothered. But I have to see Chris, Gina, I have to do what I can for my son. I have to!”
She had been short of breath, and her chest had heaved slightly as she had tried to reign in her overpowering mix of emotions.
And that visual had not been lost on Gina Vison.
The red fox and the mink had stared at each other, both ever so slightly out of breath but for completely different reasons. Gina hadn't trusted her muzzle to say the right things at that moment, to hold the right tone of voice, so she had just stared at those pretty blue eyes and waited.
Which had made Annie slightly uncomfortable because she thought Gina didn't believe her.
“Well,” she'd said a little frostily, “I guess I'll do what I can.” And she had turned back to her packing.
And as soon as she broke eye contact Gina had found her voice and her reason.
“Annie, it's ...”
“It's OK,” the fox had snapped, interrupting her, the anger evident in her voice as she packed. “I'll take care of it. I don't need Joe ...”
The inference wasn't lost on the mink. The fox didn't need her either.
The fox had whirled quickly, taking them both by surprise. Her eyes were blazing, but her voice was fiercely controlled. “You've done more than anyone has a right to ask for, dear. Don't trouble yourself any further.”
And the fire had drained from the eyes of Annie Latrans as she saw the obvious pain her words had caused reflected in her friends body language. Gina's small ears couldn't really wilt like those of a feline or canine, but they had done something to match the hurt in the mink's eyes and the sour look that came to her muzzle as her arms folded tightly across her ample chest.
Annie's anger had deflated instantly. She threw the clothes she held in her paws to the bed between them as she said “Oh Gina, I'm sorry!”
The fox moved rapidly around the bed as her eyes grew soft and her arms opened wide for a hug. “I'm being a bitch,” she muttered. And as she enfolded her friend in an embrace she kissed the startled mink on the cheek, and Gina almost forgot to hug her friend in return as the fox's warm breath caressed her ear in a whisper.
“I don't deserve a friend like you.”
Gina stroked Annie's back in what she hoped would be a soothing manner and said nothing, her mind a whirl of conflicting emotions that robbed her of speech once again.
The two were still in a tight embrace, the muzzle of each resting upon the shoulder of the other, when Mike knocked on the closed bedroom door.
# # #
“Why is the press here?” the bulldog asked bluntly. “I brought this straight to you for discussion. I hadn't expected to make a media event out of it.”
Governor Farnsworth gazed stoically at the old former Marine. He had the classic thick, stiff neck, his fur cut very short upon his head, his erect posture while seated enhancing a chest that was still broad and flat, shoulders still powerful.
He was a difficult fur to discuss things with. Typical of most military furs she had come in contact with throughout her political career, there was no room in him for negotiations, no gray areas to consider. For him it was quite simple. He wanted to make damn sure MCAS El Toro would never again be used as an air field of any type, military or civilian, wanted desperately to ensure that his investment would pay off in the form of the planned mega-development that he and his wife and their businessfur cronies had invested so much of their lives in over the past decade. For him there was no other choice, no compromise. He had bluntly offered a half-million dollar contribution to the Governor's “re-election campaign fund” in exchange for her assistance, a poorly disguised bribe as her re-election was still three years in the future. She was pretty sure they both knew that, too.
He had patiently listened to her rhetoric as she explained to him the need to cooperate with the Interstate Police Force. She had found out just this morning where his funds for her re-election had come from, her advisers had dug up the fact that the IPF had paid each of the council-members a cool million dollars to give up that air base. In a corner of her mind she was slightly miffed that he had offered her only half of that, that he was still trying to work an angle for himself even as he bid to keep the airbase for the County of Orange, for his wife's business, for his own sordid profit.
So her gentle dialog about the needs of the nation and her populace, the defense of the homeland against terrorism foreign and domestic, the job opportunities a fully functioning military air base would bring back to the bulldog's county, largely fell on deaf ears. He wasn't interested in the facts of the matter, he only knew that he and his wife and their friends stood to make millions over the next five to ten years if their plans could carry forward. And he wasn't about to let the IPF stand in his way.
And she wasn't about to torpedo her career by standing with him against the likes of the Interstate Police Force and its Director. She was no dummy, and she had excellent intelligence on what kind of organization Nicolas Canon really was in charge of. She had no interest in encouraging her visitor in his endeavor, covertly or otherwise. She had no intention of standing with him in his opposition to the IPF.
And she had no intention of discussing this small concern with the press.
“This conference was scheduled two weeks ago, Mister Mollett, as a kickoff for my new infrastructure management program for the State's transportation systems. I thought you might like to appear with me, as it is possible we may be discussing airfields in the course of our conference.”
“On the steps of the Capitol building?” the bulldog retorted sarcastically.
“Why not?” the Governor replied smoothly. “This will get air time in the national press, what better way to advertise what a wonderful state we live in than to hold a press conference outdoors as we head into the winter? It'll have the same effect on those poor furs in the northeast and upper midwest as watching the Rose Bowl. They're freezing their tails off watching us run around in tank tops and flip-flops!”
The old Marine grumbled quietly. Obviously such political considerations were beneath his purview.
“You don't have to speak, you don't have to do a thing, Mister Mollett. Appearing publicly with me will lend strength to your cause no matter what we discuss or do not discuss. Let the press draw their own conclusions. When you return to Orange County your local press will no doubt want to know why they saw you on national television with the Governor, and you would not be lying to tell them that we discussed your concerns about the air base and its disposition.”
The bulldog's face was impassive, deadpan.
“Would you?” The Governor flashed the smile that had helped her get elected, perfectly aligned teeth glittering between firm lips in a broad smile, the tips of her upper fangs just visible.
“I suppose not,” the old Marine growled in his best drill instructor voice.
She rose quickly from her chair and extended a paw out to him.
“Then come and join me,” she said enthusiastically. “You have nothing to lose.”
The bulldog snorted, ignoring her outstretched paw as he stood.
# # #
The rooftop air conditioning superstructure offered excellent cover. He would be exposed only long enough to make the final fine adjustments to his ART-two 'scope and complete his mission. Approach to the site was concealed by the superstructure and came from within the building. The location was actually just about perfect, at over three hundred feet this building was higher than those surrounding it and it offered an unobstructed view of the east steps of the capitol, where the press conference was staged to be conducted. It was a calculated 475 yards from his perch to those steps, well within the abilities of his M21. He wondered briefly if his own skills were still up to the challenge.
In his box canyon in the Santa Anas he had managed to calibrate the scope to his rifle at a measured 300 yards, and had preset his adjustments accordingly. It should take only moments to calibrate his system to a known elevation at the target. His time on the roof should be a pawful of minutes at most. He knew it would take him less than sixty seconds to break down the SWS after his mission had been completed, and the rented Robinson R-44 helicopter that had brought the faux businessfur to Sacramento's Esquire Building the previous evening was still sitting on the rooftop helipad just below and to the north of the superstructure. While he was performing his task the IPF pilot, who had accompanied that businessfur and had spent the night at the Esquire, would be readying that chopper for flight.
The false businessfur was a shepherd in his fifties, a bit heavyset, and with a little dye was at a glance a dead ringer for Joe. A loyal and dedicated IPF agent, he had left the Esquire Center unobtrusively last night, and would board a plane for Dulles International at Sacramento International today, at the same time that Joe would be at the same airport transferring from the rented R-44 to some other IPF conveyance for his ride home. It was arranged that their paths would briefly cross in a restroom there, to change wearing apparel without ever meeting one another. In this way any observer would see the businessfur (Joe) arrive from the Esquire late in the morning just in time to catch his flight, pause briefly in the restroom to freshen up, and leave (the nameless counterpart) to board his plane. Meanwhile Joe would shed his business clothing in favor of more casual wear associated with air crew, an olive drab flight suit with black boots. In such garb he would board an IPF helicopter for the flight home.
It was all carefully planned and coordinated by Hector Sandovál. The methodical and patient coyote had been planning this for days now, and everything was in place. If Joe could hold up his end of the bargain, everything would go off without a hitch. Even the smallest detail had been planned for, right down to the special rounds that were in the magazine in the case that contained Joe's broken-down M21. The frangible slugs would “shred” within the target, leaving no significant exit wound yet ensuring a quick death if properly placed.
A chest shot to the heart was best.
Joe looked up from his gloved paws in his lap. He had intended to pray, but nothing had come. This was, after all, an unholy business.
They were in an underground parking structure, near a freight elevator. Joe knew the drill. His gun case and a briefcase, containing his change of clothes and a duffel for the airport, came from the trunk. Into the freight elevator and straight to the roof, then up the flights of stairs to the air conditioning penthouse, then outside to the superstructure. Set up, emerge to the parapet, complete the mission. Secure quickly and exit via the R-44.
It should be a piece of cake.
“Yeah,” Joe replied quietly, un-clenching his paws. “Ready.” He ran his paws over the lapels of new, Italian-cut suit jacket, adjusted his tie, and glanced at Hector.
“Bueno,” his friend smiled calmly. “Vamanos.”
# # #
“You'll be fine,” Annie Latrans assured her daughter. “Gina and I won't be gone long. We'll find Chris and bring him home. You and Mike stay at the house.” She smiled prettily. “Russ is welcome to visit as often as he likes.”
That hadn't even been in her daughter's head. Neither she nor her brother had been able to dissuade their mother from making this trip without at least letting their father know about it first. A shuttle for John Wayne Airport idled noisily even now outside their door, in the driveway below their wide front porch.
Debbie looked to her church youth group leader, and the mink smiled a bit uncertainly in return.
“I'll take care of your mother, don't worry.” she said quietly.
“And you,” Annie added, nodding towards her son, “take care of your sister.”
“Sure mom, but ...”
A brief flicker of annoyance crossed the face of the red fox.
“Mike, Debbie, listen carefully, I'll explain it again this last time. He wasn't here when we woke up this morning. I called his cell phone, he doesn't answer. I paged him, he doesn't call. I don't know who to call at the IPF to ask after his whereabouts, and even if I did, do you really think I'd get a straight answer out of them?”
To their credit, both of her pups shook their heads in the negative.
“So I can't do anything there. But what I can do is go to Colorado to see Chris and bring him home. We shouldn't ...”
“What if he doesn't want to come home, like daddy said?”
The stare Annie fixed upon her daughter sent a mild chill up Debbie's spine. Her mom wasn't angry, but she had plainly heard this question one too many times.
“As I was saying,” she said slowly with a trace of sarcasm before continuing, “we shouldn't be gone more than two or three days. If Chris doesn't want to come home to us, then he'll tell me that to my face. Otherwise I expect we'll be home with him by the end of the week, no later.”
Her two pups glanced briefly at each other before nodding silently.
“If your father shows up sometime between now and then, feel free to tell him ...”
A strange series of emotions flashed across the face of the red fox, so quickly that her children couldn't keep up with them and would later disagree about what they had seen or not seen.
“... tell him whatever you want.”
Annie Latrans' expression brightened to a cheerful smile. “Now give your mother a hug before we go.”
Each pup hugged their mother and kissed her on the cheek. Debbie hugged the mink as well, but wasn't sure whether it was because Gina was a leader of her church, her boss, her mom's friend, or her own friend. She suddenly wasn't sure exactly how Gina fit into their lives anymore, but that Gina would become a permanent fixture in their lives she had no doubt.
The fox and the mink walked quickly down the steps from the porch and across a brief bit of concrete driveway to the waiting shuttle van into which their bags had already been loaded. The two Latrans pups caught glimpses of brief waves in the window of the van as it pulled away.
After watching the van disappear down the road heading south, Debbie turned to her older brother with an uncertain look about her.
“What do we do now?”
Mike was at a loss. “Wait for dad to get home, I guess.” The gray fox scratched his chin briefly. “Hey, how about I clean myself up and we go get some breakfast?”
Debbie smiled hesitantly. “At Jordan's Bistro?” It was a favorite of the high school and college furs at AFCC.
“Sure,” Mike said. “That sounds good. Let me get a shower and we'll go.”
# # #
The bulldog marched along beside her as they approached the wide doors leading to the south landing of the capitol building. She smiled and greeted each of the state police furs that were pulling guard duty at those doors as they approached.
“Joe, Tom, good morning.”
“Good morning, Governor,” they replied cheerfully as they opened the doors for her and her guest. “Big crowd waiting for you outside.”
“Indeed,” she replied, still smiling. “Seems like we can't get away from the news hounds these days.”
“No ma'am,” they replied together.
The bulldog had been silent since leaving her office. Sarah Farnsworth turned to look briefly at her companion and noticed the tightness about his eyes, and the way those eyes darted side to side, as if looking for something. “He's nervous,” she thought. “Probably he's never been in front of the cameras before.”
And then they were outside, and she fixed her campaign-winning smile to her face and strode towards the podium, motioning for the bulldog to accompany her. He fell in a half-step behind her and moved forward with her.
“Good morning,” she greeted the press as she stepped up to the podium at the center of the landing. “Thank you for joining us on such a wonderful California day. As you know, the legislature has recently endorsed Senator Blight's Transportation Infrastructure Rehabilitation Plan, a bill which I have heartily endorsed as it will repair our highways, improve light-rail mass transit systems, and increase traffic capacity at major air terminals throughout …
A jackal with the logo of a major television broadcast system in the south end of the state on her jacket suddenly rose and, interrupting her in mid-sentence, loudly demanded …
“What are you going to do about El Toro?”
And before Sarah could formulate a reply there was a whuff of expelled air from the bulldog at her shoulder. Turning to see what had prompted such a sound, she saw him draw a paw to his chest as he staggered backwards to collapse amongst her security staff behind her.
“My God,” she exclaimed without thinking, “he's having a heart attack!” She looked up at one of the security detail as she knelt beside the stricken fur. “Call 911, get an ambulance. You ...” she pointed at a different fur, “take off your jacket and place it beneath his head. Make him comfortable. You …” she pointed to a third, “clear the area. This press conference is over! Move it!”
# # #
Joe Latrans sighed quietly as he observed the scene through his targeting scope. A perfect hit. Judging from the reaction of the furs scurrying about, they weren't even yet aware of the fact that the bulldog had been shot.
Joe dipped back into the penthouse superstructure where he could not be seen, and quickly broke down his now field-proven M21 Sniper Weapon System. It was safely in its case within thirty seconds, by the time he was fastening the latches the blades on the R-44 helicopter were turning. Standing, Joe ran his paws quickly down the front of his suit jacket and picked up his gun case and his briefcase.
One minute later a well-attired businessfur appeared from the elevator shafthouse structure at the top of the Esquire Center building and strode purposefully toward the helicopter waiting on the helipad. The fur clambered swiftly aboard and shut the cabin door as the helicopter immediately lifted off clear of the pad. Turning northwest, it quickly accelerated away from the building and towards Sacramento International.
# # #
“Holy Jesus,” the paramedic recoiled in shock. “This guy's been shot. Look!”
A claw pointed to a small hole in the bulldog's chest, just to the right of center, exactly over his heart.
Governor Farnsworth had been on her knees next to the bulldog since he had gone down seven minutes ago. Eyes wide, she stared incredulously at this new evidence, just revealed as the EMT was preparing to try and bring back the fur with a defibrillator by spreading the unbuttoned lapels of the bulldog's sport coat and cutting open the front of his shirt. She looked up into the equally wide eyes of the furs gathered around her. With the exception of the two EMTs, they were all her personally paw-picked security team and executive staff. There were perhaps fifteen furs gathered protectively around the Governor and the two EMTs. The press had been herded away to a perimeter about a hundred feet away.
“That fucker!” she blurted.
“Beg pardon, ma'am?” her security chief said unsteadily. He had never heard the Governor use any foul language stronger than a rare “damn” in private.
The Governor closed her eyes and drew a deep breath, and appeared to compose herself.
Opening her eyes she spoke quietly, first to the EMTs.
“Do what you can, but keep quiet about this. Not a word to anyone without my direct authorization. Do you understand?”
The two EMTs gulped and nodded silently.
“Good boys. Get to work.”
“Nick,” she looked up to another bulldog, this one an old friend and chief of her security team. “Until we figure out what the hell just happened here, I want a tight lid on this. As far as the press knows this poor gentlefur just suffered an apparent fatal heart attack, nothing more, nothing less. George ...” she turned briefly to her press secretary, “get the word out. Make it sound routine.”
“Yes ma'am, right away,” the feline chirped as he stepped away towards the press hounds in the distance.
Returning her gaze to her security chief the Governor sighed slightly before continuing. “Until we find out who's responsible for this I want this kept tightly under wraps.”
The Governor pondered recent conversations briefly and muttered “Damn that tiger” under her breath.
“Ma'am?” her security chief inquired.
“Get me my senior counsel, on the double. I don't care what he's doing, I want him in my office in five minutes.”
The chief nodded as she continued, still in her hushed voice.
“OK everyone, you know the drill. He had a heart attack. You two,” she indicated the EMTs, “when you're done here, do not transport him to a hospital. I want his … body kept here until we learn a little bit more about him, who sent him here, and who his enemies are.”
“Enemies, ma'am?” one of her junior security furs asked hesitantly.
“God damn it, Andrew,” she hissed, striving to keep her voice down. “Look at this. This is a professional hit if I ever saw one. There's not even any blood!”
# # #
A tired looking fur in an olive drab flight suit, carrying a large and bulky duffel bag over one shoulder, walked slowly across a remote ramp at Sacramento International towards a black UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that appeared to be waiting for him. This helicopter carried a large Interstate Police Force logo on the rear of the cabin, partially covered by the open sliding door. As the fur reached the chopper he threw his duffel into the cabin and then climbed in after it. The door closed behind him and the helicopter waited briefly before ascending from the tarmac and heading east.
# # #
“Where is he now?” the Siberian tiger wanted to know.
A slightly disheveled Governor stared at her senior counsel briefly as she slowly swirled a snifter full of brandy in her left paw.
“I commandeered one of the walk-in refrigerators downstairs until we can figure out how to deal with this. He's in there.”
Even though he knew they were alone, the Siberian slowly swept the room with his gaze before returning his attention to the otter seated behind the large desk before him. They were in her office, and the door was shut. Out in the outer office there was no one, the wing had been swept of non-essential personnel. Two of her own security staff, armed with side arms and assault rifles, were at the outer doors of the outer office.
“Sarah,” the tiger said quietly. “You can't just brush him under the rug. He has a wife, family, business associates ...”
“And he was assassinated on the steps of the capitol, Mark. My turf!” she said heatedly. “And I know that son of a bitch Canon is responsible for it. You saw that note from him, it's not a damn coincidence! I just need to figure out how to pin it on him!” She took a good swig of the brandy in her glass and made an obvious effort to control her emotions.
“Look, that old bulldog is nobody,” she continued after another moment. “I mean, sure, he's got family and loved ones and all that good stuff, but he's not a player, he's not … anybody. He's just a businessfur trying to protect his own interests, except that he happened to cross swords with the IPF. I can't go to the press with that! I can't tell my constituency that a fur was murdered in cold blood on my front porch because he didn't want to have a military installation in his back yard! I can't tell them that we're living in the old west, where we just kill those who stand in our way!”
“What are you going to do?”
Sarah thought for a while about that. She took so long that the tiger rose and went to the bar in her office, pulling a bottle of Perrier from a small refrigerator and returning to his chair.
After his second pull from that the otter looked up and fixed him with her gaze.
“We hold his funeral here, as a token to his family of our respect for him and his cause. We prepare the body, we make all the arrangements, we control everything from the viewing to the grave. All on our dime, of course. The widow gets a meeting of condolence with me ...” she blinked, “with us, you and I. We'll do it up nice and send her home with a head full of good memories and no ... God damn ... inclination of what really happened here today.”
“OK,” the tiger responded slowly. He took another pull from his water and added “Why me?”
The Governor deflated before his eyes. She didn't weaken, but it seemed as if suddenly the worries of the world were on her petít shoulders.
“I can't do it alone, Mark. I need you.”
The tiger nodded his head slowly. “I will be there for you.”
“Thank you,” she said, and for the first time since that bulldog had gone down she took a truly deep breath and began to relax. She took another hefty swig of her brandy and smiled at her senior counsel.
# # #
“What is this, José?” Hector asked.
“Latitude and longitude. Take me there.”
“Where is it?”
“Not that far.”
Hector passed the scrap of paper up to the pilot. “Here is your destination.”
The pilot nodded without comment, and the Black Hawk turned from its southerly heading to the east again. The pitch of the rotors changed, and the helicopter began to climb.
# # #
Annie and Gina sat on opposite sides of a small round table in an airport lounge in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Each of them had a glass of red wine in front of them, and a small plate of vegetables - cherry tomatoes, celery and carrot sticks, chunks of cauliflower and broccoli - sat between them.
“Wish we had something to dip this in,” Annie muttered good naturedly.
“It would compete with the wine on your palate,” Gina mused.
“Maybe we should have ordered a cheese plate?”
“The closest thing they had to that was fried Mozzarella,” the mink replied. “Bad for the hips,” she added with a wink.
“I know,” Annie pretended to grumble.
She was slightly impatient. They had been waiting for almost an hour now, and still had over ninety minutes to wait before their connecting flight to Durango was scheduled to depart.
Gina was nervous. The conflicting emotions that had boiled over in Annie's bedroom earlier today were still roiling quietly in her mind, and she was no nearer to sorting them out. She cared very much for Annie's daughter Debbie, and wanted to work with her to develop the talent she saw in the young coyfox to its fullest potential. And she had great respect for Annie's son as well, and enjoyed what she saw in Mike as he brought young furs from all walks of life to Christ with his music and his words and his love. She wished she had those talents as wholly and completely as her co-worker did. And she even liked Joe, who while a little scruffy sometimes was, in her opinion, a good and decent fur who at the moment found himself in a very bad place.
And she would blow all of that to hell and gone if she allowed her heart its choice in the matter.
Meanwhile Annie fidgeted with her wine as she sipped it, worrying. As angry as she was at her husband, she still loved him, and even now missed him. But he was the problem, his change in attitude and mindset since returning from Colorado had immediately set them on a course of destruction. He had abandoned both of their sons in their time of need, and it was now incumbent upon her to make right those wrongs. If he couldn't spare time from his new job to care for his family, to care for her, then she would have to step up and take care of herself and her family in his absence.
But she had trouble trying to separate her hurt from it all, had trouble seeing it from his perspective. And to be honest, at this moment, with her friend and this good wine and the prospect of seeing her son Chris before too much longer, she really didn't care that much.
And in a corner of her mind she knew that wasn't right, and that she ought to be concerned by that.
“We need to go shopping!” the red fox exclaimed suddenly.
Gina grinned at her. “What for?”
“The fun of it!” Annie exclaimed happily. “There's got to be something we need, and someplace around here has got to have it, whatever it is ...”
Gina held up her glass towards Annie. “I like the way you think, dear.”
Annie raised her own glass to touch that of the mink. “Bottoms up! Let's do this!”
And they both drained their glasses before sliding off their respective stools to head out in search of they knew not what. But they were together, so it would be fun no matter where it took them.
# # #
Hector scrutinized his companion discretely. The coyote's ears were erect and his nose twitched repeatedly, sampling the breeze for scents. His tail was still, draped behind him over the side of the smooth granite boulder he sat crossed-legged upon, forearms resting upon his knees. His gray eyes were very active as he scanned the terrain about them. He appeared calm, but Hector knew better.
“Why here, José?”
“Decompression time,” Joe muttered from his rock, eyes still constantly moving.
The Black Hawk sat perched on a rocky outcrop about two hundred yards away, across a meadow of yellowing grass that was preparing for winter. When the coyotes weren't talking they could faintly hear pops and clicks coming from the helicopter as its systems cooled in the thin mountain air. Thirteen and fourteen thousand foot peaks of jagged granite surrounded the long valley they were in. The afternoon sun fell upon their fur from the southern sky, warming them. Up here in the heart of the back-country Sierra the daytime high was fifty three degrees, so the sunlight was appreciated.
The two coyotes perched near each other, Joe on his rock and Hector leaning against an old fallen tree trunk. Below the meadow that spread before them was a small lake of clear water; they had seen rocks and logs in the bottom of it as they had flown over it a while ago. A gentle breeze ruffled the fur of their heads and faces, insects buzzed gently, and a lone hawk circled silently above the meadow, intently searching for a meal.
They were miles from the nearest road, but less than twelve miles to the east over a couple of alpine ridges was US-395 and the town of Independence. Without the helicopter it would take them a couple of days to reach it. With the AH-60 it was less than ten minutes away.
“Decompression time?” the Sonoran asked gently. He was all too aware of how wound up his friend was. He saw in him now the same tension, the same loss of eye color, that he had seen in Colorado the night they had found his son.
Joe Latrans nodded slowly. “You got a toothpick?” he asked absently.
Hector patted his various pockets and was mildly surprised to find that he did, in fact, have a couple in an inner pocket of his jacket. He handed one silently to his counterpart.
Joe smiled weakly as he removed the item from its plastic wrapper. Stuffing the plastic in a vest pocket of his flight suit, he placed the toothpick in his mouth and returned his gaze to the vista before them. He drew a deep breath and held it briefly before exhaling quietly and slowly over a comparatively long period of time. His eyes wandered the landscape.
They were near timberline. What pines and cedars that were around them were stunted and withered by a lifetime of winter snows. The trees were green, but the needles were sparse and wind blown. The grasses of the meadow and the smaller growth in the surrounding rocky terrain were yellowing or devoid of leaves owing to the onset of fall. On the slopes above them only tundra and small scrub flowers grew. Winter was coming. And while it was pleasant here now, within a few weeks the entire scene would most likely be covered in snow for the duration.
Talus lay at the shoulders of some of the granite ridges above them, at the top of the slopes leading to the base of their vertical upthrusts. Elsewhere large boulders, some as large as small houses, lay in disarray below fresh scars in the sides of cliffs. Somewhere a small trickle of water burbled over rocks, its happy sound barely audible in the distance. And while his gaze took in perhaps a hundred or more square miles in any direction, it was so quiet that he could hear his own heart beating in his ears and hear Hector's slow respiration.
“Yeah,” Joe continued. “Decompression. One of my instructors in the Army taught me about it. When I was a kid, after a mission I would find the most remote place possible and just let myself unwind for a bit before returning to … whatever or wherever it was I was supposed to go next. It helped that I had no noise, no commotion, no fur telling me what to do or where to go. I could just be me for a little bit. Not somefur's mechanic, not a son, not a friend, not a pawn, not … anything. Just me.”
“Ah,” Hector said in an encouraging tone.
“Trouble was, over time I needed more decompression time between missions. Eventually I couldn't decompress quickly enough before they sent me out on my next mission, and … well, things just didn't work so well after that.”
Joe fell silent again, watching the high country and occasionally working the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. Hector took in the vista for a while, knowing to what Joe was referring and wanting to let that topic ebb away from them both. Eventually he turned his attention back to his friend.
“You remember our conversation about the mountains when we were in Rockwood?”
Hector nodded, watching Joe's eyes as he remembered the morning after his son's rescue in the Animas River Canyon.
“So beautiful, yet so deadly.” Joe said quietly, almost with reverence.
“Yes,” Hector agreed.
A silence stretched between them.
“I like these mountains,” Joe mumbled presently, “They do something for my soul.” The dark-muzzled coyote sighed quietly. “I may die here someday. Alone. Calmly.”
Hector looked at his friend. There was no anger or remorse in his voice, he was simply stating fact. His eyes were clear, their color returning. His face was a passive mask.
Hector rose slowly from his tree trunk. “I will leave you to your decompression, José.”
“Stay, Hector,” Joe asked in that same quiet voice. He turned his head slowly to make eye contact with his friend, his boss. “In a while we'll get on that chopper and go have some coffee in your office at Fullerton. But sit here for a moment longer …”
Hector smiled. Joe was referring to the Colombian coffee he liked to keep in the galley on his business jet, which was currently on the tarmac at Fullerton Airport, near Joe's home.
He looked carefully at his friend, who had returned his gaze to the meadow and lake below them.
“Live.” Joe said softly. “With me. For the moment.”