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©02 The Media Desk

The GROUND of theHunter


     I looked out my front door at a small river, a tributary of the Columbia River.
     This was either British Columbia, or Alberta in Canada, there is a provincial line out there someplace, but up here, nobody's put a sign on the trail. Keia was in the small kitchen of the hunting lodge preparing a meal from our supplies and some fresh venison. I had already gone hunting for something besides canned salmon and frozen pork, and the deer was still hanging from a tree, partially butchered.

     Why were we here?
     Simple really.
     Somebody INSIDE the government was a little upset at my snooping around looking for Hover.
     The trail I had followed from the business card that the man with purple blood had on him after he had fallen off a mountain, lead me to a web site maintained by a National Security Agency ranking employee. I surveyed the site, and reported some of the details back to the Bishop for confirmation.

     I got a message from the Bishop. It said that my inquiry had raised some hackles within the NSA and things might be better if I suspended my work for the time being. Then it turned sour, 'If you don't hear back from me, lay low. I may have to take a vacation for a short time. Hereon, messages signified."
     Within the game, corporation signified messages meant things were more serious than just life and death. They warranted special attention and were not sent lightly.
     Within the hour the Bishop sent me another email with a signification code and one word.
     And I did, taking Keia with me. Evidently the Bishop was on his vacation already, I noticed in my communication box as I logged off something I hadn't seen before, 'BISHOP42: OFF-LINE.'
     I went to ground hard and fast. Dropping my car off in a parking lot at the BWI airport. We took a train into Baltimore then a Taxi to Wilmington, Delaware, where we caught another train to Phily. Then hopscotched across the country on commuters and puddle jumpers using a dozen aliases, changing airports as often as we did planes. Renting a car in Indianapolis and driving to St. Louis to board a hopper to Minneapolis.
     There I paid cash for a four-wheel drive and left the US until told otherwise.
     I could only hope my trail was ice cold if somebody was looking for us.
     In Regina I made my first contact with somebody from our group. I called 2nd Grace's celphone. I knew I might only have a minute to find out what was going on.
     She answered on the second ring.
     "Is this you?"
     "You're hotter than Hell! Go to 198 and crawl under a rock!"
     The line went dead.
     I knew 198 was a person, but that person was a contact in Mexicali. Over 1200 miles from where I was. I left the phone booth and took off my gloves. My fake beard itched but I dare not take it off. Keia was waiting in the truck, she couldn't get out often because no disguise would cover up her Oriental looks if somebody looked closely.
     Swinging north to Saskatoon I saw a rather curious sign. The Mexicali Restaurant and Bar. In spite of our circumstances I smiled broadly.
     But just in case this was coincidence I walked in packing enough hardware to fight a war, the bullet proof vest weighing heavy on me. There was a safe sign for agents needing a safe house. You asked a certain question, "What time is it in Honolulu?"
     "I think it's the same as Alaska."
     The contact never told me his name, although he knew about me. He said PeaceNick, 2nd Grace's deep cover name, had called him when the storm broke. He loaded the truck with boxes of supplies and handed me a map and a bag, then told us to get out. Word was out and we were hotter than he could stand.
     I looked in the bag. Inside was a Canadian license plate for the truck, and a registration card saying it was property of Yukon Timber and Millwork, as well as a calling card, a ring of keys, and some notes.

     I drove toward Calgary. Almost being too careful. We stopped at what had to have been the last original trading post in the providence. There I bought a few things, once again Keia donned a costume that was almost outrageous, but up here, it worked.
     She could pass for a Native American grandmother in mourning robes. Almost.
     My map began here. Down logging roads and up fire breaks.
     'Two miles up the creek bed to a clearing.' Yes, I had to drive up a creek.
     Finally we made it to the cabin. And it wasn't too bad.
     The cabin was still secure, my notes said if it had been violated to take whatever we needed and move on. The cabin had its own power supply of a gas generator supplemented by solar, a satellite phone, and a few other indications of civilization.

     Inside, where the notes said it would be, behind a false panel on the fireplace, was a note from Centre.
     'Agent. If you are reading this, you are probably fleeing a serious threat that our organization cannot counter at this time. You must use your own discretion as far as contacting the outside world. We cannot guarantee any lines of communication except the following, there is a number attached to this letter. Dial it on the hour when you need supplies. Let it ring only once. Repeat this every hour on the hour for four hours. Then stop. Supplies will be airdrop delivered the next day. Listen to the short-wave, we will contact you when necessary via code words also attached to the letter using your deep cover name. This cabin is on known friendly territory. Expect no visitors, use any means you deem necessary if so needed. Be Vigilant.
     'Fishing robs in the shed. Hunting rifle over the fireplace. Traps on back porch. Best of Luck.
     'Centre. Command and Control.'
     I read the letter twice, then gave it to Keia. She read it, and put it back in the envelope.
     A couple of days passed. I was thinking maybe the threat wasn't all that real and wondered about calling for supplies. Then as Keia sat next to me watching the sunset she changed all that.

     "Huntie, tell me something."
     I nodded, "Sure."
     "Who we hide from?"
     "I don't know. But somebody associated with Hover had enough clout to scare the Bishop half to death, he's in hiding too."
     "Bishop42 hide? You in bad trouble Huntie."
     "I think so." Then I saw her face, "What?"
     "I can't tell Huntie. I want too, but can't."
     I swallowed hard. I trusted her judgement, "If you think telling me will help us out of this, I need to know, but otherwise, I don't want you to break your word to them."
     Keia was deep in thought. "I tell Huntie part of it." She looked toward the sink as she talked. "The Bishop, but it was Bishop before our Bishop. They very important. I see picture of him one time when I do research. He had black out face, but he with President and man I look up, and a couple others."
     I knew the Bishop, former and current, were inside the government in a major way, but a connection to the White House?
     "Who was he with?"
     "Chief Judge. Big General. State Secretary. And..." She turned toward me, her eyes were wide.
     "Hover." I said.
     "That who they tell me."
     I was shivering.
     Hover, with the President, Cabinet level people, and the Bishop. Things started adding up real fast. The decoy run I had made wasn't a decoy run, the things I had been looking up fit into a puzzle somewhere, somehow. Mulie, and the other guy with the purple blood that had fallen off a mountain after meeting Hover. They were tied together as well.
     I had a lot to think about.
     And a lot to worry about.
     "Did I say upsetting to Huntie?" Keia said, she put her arms around me.
     "No, no. I think it helped. But now I think we are in even bigger trouble than we were."
     I looked around the cabin.
     Suddenly I felt very vulnerable here. I knew this place wasn't safe. I just knew it.
     When I had initially scoped out the surrounding grounds around the cabin I had spotted a hunting lodge far above this clearing.
     In an hour we had the truck loaded and were driving up the overgrown track to it. The cabin was run down, but repairable. The only advantage was I could see all of the other cabin and clearing from up here with my telescope.
     Then I wrote a note and walked back to the other cabin.

     'To whom it may concern, found cabin open. Took what was left and headed toward other friendly territory. Will be in contact on secure line.'

     I stuck it on the door and left. We had taken everything of value and use in the cabin.
     Then I hiked back up the hill. I made sure the track up the hill from the logging road looked like it did before we went that way. It hadn't been used in years, and still hadn't as far as anybody was concerned. I threw a couple of rather large, and heavy, limbs across it at odd intervals just to add to the effect.
     "So we stay here?" Keia asked me.
     I nodded. "I don't see any point in going on the run. Not right now anyway." I looked at my laptop, sitting useless on the rough-cut table. "In a few days I'll go see if I can make contact with somebody. And I need to call my boss and tell him, well... tell him if I stay alive, I'll be back, eventually."
     All I had done for my job at the computer center was call in and tell them a family emergency had come up and I'd be gone for a few days. It had been far more than a few days and it didn't look like I'd be home any time soon.

     A few days later I heard a helicopter. I peered out carefully. It wasn't Falcon's that was for sure.
     It hung over the other cabin for several minutes. Through my telescope I saw two vehicles pull up to the cabin. Now I was very glad I had covered our tracks so well and buried the truck in the hunting cabin's dugout storm cover in the side of the mountain, making it invisible from the air.
     They evidently shook the cabin down thoroughly, one of them came out and waved off the chopper, it sped off south. Then the two all terrain's left.
     I was dying of curiosity, but I fought it for two more days.
     Then I ventured down to the cabin.
     I surveyed everything carefully. I used my scanner for electronics. I checked for booby traps. It took me an hour to get from the edge of the clearing to the front door.
     The note was gone. I pushed the unlocked door open by millimeters. Everything that had been left inside had been turned upside down. Whoever they were hadn't been here on a social call.
     I left the door open and tip toed back out. Not even breathing until I was halfway back to our cabin.

     A couple of days later I hiked over the top of the mountain to a logging camp. But I never went near the camp. Instead I borrowed their phone line.
     My laptop made short work of jumping my call through half a dozen systems and patch lines to make it untraceable. Then I logged into my workstation at the computer center. My main account had been sealed. I had to go in a back door I had created. I left a note for my boss, basically telling him something had gone terribly wrong with my hobby and I was hiding on an oilrig. Then I logged into the game server looking for the Bishop.
     The flashing message sent chills down my back. Had they gotten to him?
     I fought to remember anything I knew about the Bishop that might give me a clue to how to get hold of him, or even to get a message to him.
     I went into the game itself more out of habit than anything else. Then I dropped to the corporate message area. There was a note for me from the Traders Bank.
     There was no such organization within the game.
     It was from the Bishop, or at least from somebody using some of his signifying codes.
     'Trust NO ONE else. Fire on the mountain. Went to Greece. 1 Sat. Signify Muslim. Corp mad dog.'
     I wrote it all down. Then made tracks back to the cabin.
     I knew what 'fire on the mountain' meant, there was trouble at the highest levels. His mentioning Greece had nothing to do with the country. In my first few space trading games with him, he had always named his deepest, most heavily defended holes after ancient Greek City-states. So he was probably dug in someplace. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure it was him.
     His other messages I had to look up. 1 Sat could mean anything, signify Muslim was the response code I was to use. And 'corp mad dog'? I didn't have a clue.
     Every-time I went out, I approached the cabin on my return like it held a Nazi machine gun nest. Keia was just as jumpy, we whistled and called to each other a dozen times before either of us lowered our weapons.
     I let her look over the message from the Bishop.
     "Mad Dog! Mad Dog!" She said gleefully. "I call him!"
     "Who's corp mad dog?" I asked her.
     "He partner in game. Mine! He help!"
     I was bewildered by several things. I didn't know she had been playing the game recently. When she calmed down I asked her about it.
     "No, not you game, other game, about forest. And he not work for Bishop, he State Police in Indiana."
     I blinked. "Indiana is a long way from here." But if he wasn't associated with the Bishop, he might be a link to the outside.
     "He help. He say he help me anytime I need it."
     "Was he just talking about the game?"
     She was beaming, "He know about things. He help before. He bring Fify-One home one time."
     "OK. We'll go call him over the weekend." I didn't want to risk using the camp's phone any more than needed, and I wasn't touching the satellite phone unless things really got out of hand.
     So I had a few days to sit and stew about the problem.
     It was becoming more obvious all the time that somehow the Bishop, in pursuit of the Mandate and the sense of pure Justice it carried with it had run afoul of something the NSA was doing. Which brought me back to the two extraordinary men with the purple blood. And their connection to Hover, and his connection to, well, the NSA.
     I was missing one piece of the puzzle. One major corner piece. The one that linked it all together.
     And sitting in a hunting cabin in the wild's of the Canadian Rocky's may be the safest place to be, but it wasn't going to solve this mystery, help the Bishop, or get me out from under the gun.
     Finally Friday night rolled around. In the morning we were going to go over and try to contact Mad Dog.
     "Then we pack up and go back to US and fix problem?"
     Evidently Keia read my thoughts like a book.
     All I could do was nod. "But first I want your friend to make some calls and see if its cooled down a little."
     "If it cool. We go. Right Huntie?"

     It wasn't cool. Mad Dog told Keia on the follow-up phone call to a pay phone in a bar in another town that, after he had hung up on her first call the FBI had hauled him in and questioned him until his own captain ordered him to either talk or be suspended. He told them he had no idea where she was, they informed him that the call had come from Chicago. He couldn't tell them any more, but it definitely wasn't safe to come back just yet.
     She hung up heartbroken.
     "Well. At least my phone dance paid off." I smiled.
     "We not in Chicago Huntie."
     "They thought we were, that's good enough."
     "But they know Mad Dog. He in danger."
     "No. They won't hurt him, they'll watch him. Which means we can use him to send them on a wild goose chase when we do go back."
     "What we do now?" Keia asked me with wide eyes.
     "We go insulate the cabin. It's gonna be a long winter."
     "I keep Huntie warm." She smiled.

End 30 ground

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