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©02 The Media Desk

the Spine of theHunter


     The assignment reminded me of the old days. The Bishop still used the five and a half inch disks, stuffed full of information, he still sent me silly stickers pinned to everything from reward checks to bandages as the mood struck.
     I had found out through the grapevine that he had attended my wedding, but it was several months after the fact and I didn't see anybody I didn't know on the tape when I went through reviewing it frame by frame. Then it occurred to me that Bishop42 could really be anybody from Allied Forces to the Vice President and I would have no way of finding out.
     And lately, I hadn't been that curious.
     One of the things I had been worried about was that my missions for the Bishop would become routine. Go to some town, find the bad guy, shoot it out, come home, via the hospital once in awhile.
     That had not happened. If I had two missions back to back that had similarities, the third would be completely different.
     And this one, was completely different.
     I was halfway up the side of some mountain, not even sure of which state I was in now, following a guy along the Appalachian Trail.

     We had started out along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. It was a routine surveillance. He was supposed to meet with a contact and set up a drop for some sensitive information from a branch of government that wasn't the usually the victim of spying, Education.
     Now I was a hundred miles out of my way. We had taken a left, and crossed the Potomac and were trekking south like nobody's business.
     I was in intermittent contact with my support team, lead by 2nd Grace. I had brought the satellite phone but by the second day its battery was dead. I was reduced to a small field radio that only had a range of five miles, and out here, five miles was nothing.
     The target seemed to never take a break. Even on the mountain bike supplied by my backup, I had trouble keeping up with him. As far as I could tell, he never met his contact, but my instructions were to stay on him. And on him I stayed.
     And still he moved south.
     I have to admit the scenery was beautiful. I had never had the opportunity to see the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, wildlife up close and personal.

     The echo of dad's gun was still loud in my ears. It seemed the right thing to do so I blew across the end of the barrel and spun the revolver on my finger then holstered it. The timber rattler was lying in two pieces next to my bicycle. No I was not going to find out if they taste like chicken. I walked the long way around and pushed the bike away.
     With my binoculars I saw my target come out of a trail house. He looked around, and seeming to see me even though I was half a mile away up the hill, he took off at a good pace again. South, always south.
     After another couple of days of this he made a sudden right turn along a narrow country road. I followed.
     He was heading due west now. But now that we were off the trail my backup could stay with me.
     The subject was on foot, although his walking pace was equal to a good jog. I was still on my bike, staying with him. Behind me was my backup team.
     He stopped in a small park and went and laid down on a table. We were just outside Bluefield, Virginia.
     The van pulled up next to me just down the road from the park.
     "He's making great time." 2nd Grace said to me.
     I nodded. "And getting me in great shape." I got off the bike and reached in the window for a cold drink. "But you know something odd?"
     She shrugged, her companion, an older man I had met a couple of times, WhiteNail, nodded. "He has not stopped to eat, to use the bathroom, to even get a drink in days."
     "Not since I picked him up in Hancock, Maryland. He'll lay down and sleep, and I guarantee you he won't move for at least six hours. Which reminds me, you need your back seat?"
     "Help yourself." She said.
     I hung the bike on the back of the van, crawled in, and slept like the dead.

     "Hunter. Hunter. Wake up, it's your turn." Whitenail was shaking me.
     I felt the van moving. I sat up groggy. He handed me a steaming mug of strong tea. I looked around. "Where are we?"
     "Still in Virginia, but he's left the road again. You've got to follow on the bike." 2nd Grace said pointing down some railroad tracks as she stopped the van on the other side of the crossing.
     You could just see him walking his double-time step along the other side of the tracks.
     I glanced at my watch. "I slept all night?"
     "You needed it." Whitenail said.
     "Here's your breakfast and lunch, get going, we don't want to loose him now." He handed me my backpack. It was a lot fuller than it had been when I stopped.

     He kept up a steady pace along the tracks. Not even slowing down when a train went by. We passed through towns, over rivers, and through mountains.
     Then as I was getting ready to follow him through a second tunnel in just a mile or so, he made an abrupt left turn, waded across a small river and started climbing a cliff. I left the bike behind some bushes and followed more slowly. He was climbing the sheer rock face almost as fast as he had been hiking along the tracks.
     I was relieved to find a trail that followed at a slightly easier pace. We continued on, climbing upward steeply.
     I saw the van pull up on the road that followed the train tracks through the hills.
     We climbed upwards still. He was nearing the top, what must be a thousand feet from the river below. My throat was raw from panting, I was pouring sweat, my legs were burning, yet he climbed on.
     He was at the top. I struggled on. It felt like my heart was going to break my ribs with its pounding. A light rain was now falling into my eyes, mocking me.
     I heard voices above me but I couldn't make out the words.
     My knees protested every step up, finally I was crawling. Then I was lying face down on the trail.
     The voices above me got intense. Shouting. Angry. I managed to stand and lean against a tree. Just off to my right the world ended. A vertical drop down to the river below. A small cloud passed below me, I watched the raindrops fall through the little cloud for a second. Then I turned my attention back to the top of the cliff. The voices were raging at each other now.
     Then all of the sudden they stopped. I heard a shrill scream of some sort of energy, then a shriek. Something crashed through the undergrowth.
     I saw the man I had been following all these days plummet down into the abyss.
     Running feet retreated above. I knew I'd never catch whoever it was in my condition. Down was a much better option. In spite of the torturing pain in my legs, hips, back, feet, chest, throat and stomach I descended the mountain. Falling and swimming through brush and trees. Arriving where he had landed before 2nd Grace and Whitenail.
     The body of the subject was smashed beyond belief at the bottom of the cliff in, around, and on, huge jagged boulders of limestone.
     Yet as I looked at him he opened one eye in what was left of his face and tried to speak. I leaned close.


     He said the words with effort beyond belief. Then his eye closed and he was no more.
     I stood, panting and dizzy, but aware of the significance of what I was seeing.
     Purple blood and what must have been the meat of his body was splattered all over the rocks.
     I let 2nd Grace and Whitenail get a good look. Then I pointed at the top of the mountain I had just been up and down. "What's up there?"
     Whitenail looked up then nodded in recognition. "A park. Called The Breaks." He gestured to the surrounding cliffs towering into the clouds around us. "This is the backbone of the East. We're in our version Grand Canyon, if you will."
     "We can get there from here. It'll take awhile to drive it." 2nd Grace said.
     "Nah, he's long gone." I picked through what was left of what the man had been wearing. There was only one thing I found of interest. A business card. He carried no wallet, no change, no keys. Nothing. Except a business card.
     On it was printed one line. Just a sequence of numbers.
     "What is it?" Whitenail asked.
     "An Internet address is my bet."
     "Is it a clue?"
     I looked at him, then at 2nd Grace. "It's all we got now."
     "What did he say before he died?" She asked me.
     "A name. A name I've come to have a lot of respect for."
     "Hover." She frowned looking at the mess on the rocks.
     I nodded. We walked off. The rain washing the rocks clean.

end 29 spine

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