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Authors: Ty Patterson

the warrior code

The Warrior Code

 

 

 

by
Ty Patterson

 

Copyright © 2014 by Ty Patterson

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced, or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Books by Ty Patterson

Warriors Series

 

The Warrior
, Warriors series, Book 1

The Reluctant Warrior
, Warriors series, Book 2

The Warrior Code, Warriors series, Book 3

Coming soon, The Warrior’s Debt, Warriors series, Book 4

Acknowledgements

No book is a single person’s product. I am privileged that
The Warrior Code
has benefited from the inputs of several great people.

Christine Terrell, Jean Coldwell and Donald Hoffman, who are my beta readers and who helped shape my book, my launch team for supporting me, Donna Rich for her proofreading, Pauline Nolet (
http://www.paulinenolet.com
) for her proofreading and editing.

Dedications

To my wife and son, who made room in their lives for my dreams; all my beta readers, my launch team and well-wishers.

Chapter 1

The sound of an approaching vehicle broke the silence. It grew louder and then faded away.

Zeb lay still in the deep shadow under the boughs of trees.

The night light had given up the battle to reach the ground and his camp ‘fire’, a few feet away, was bathed in darkness. He had made a cold camp and had a small stack of firewood, in case he needed to light them.

He had been stalking a grizzly all day, a large female, just under seven feet and easily over five hundred pounds.

He hadn’t seen a female bear this large, and when he’d spotted her snuffling for roots, he’d stopped and stared, forgetting momentarily that he was visible. Luckily, he was downwind from the bear and she didn’t notice him.

He’d followed her all day, her and her cubs, watching the cubs frolic as their mother searched for food. If he was honest with himself, he was following them to also test his stalking skills.

He was in Yellowstone National Park, a vastness of almost three thousand five hundred square miles spread across the three states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and home to Old Faithful Geyser. A vastness that put man in proper perspective.

He’d done the touristy double-loop attractions and had quickly tired of being around people and had broken out to the southeast corner of the park, one of the most remote areas in the United States.

He’d parked his ride in an isolated spot, covered it, and had set off hiking, breaking away from the usual trails.

He’d been there for over two weeks, making his way through the remotest parts of the park and hadn’t come across another human being – which suited him just fine.

Stalking the grizzly had brought him to where he was now.

Patches of shrub at chest level competed for air and sunlight, while taller foliage ruled the skyline. There was ample undergrowth, which provided the bears with green fodder. There was a stream a klick away with the purest water and best fish he’d had in a long while. The stream was half a mile away from a potted track road where the rare vehicle passed.

 

He’d felt the vehicle first before hearing it, its presence so unusual at that time of night that he’d stayed awake for some time trying to track its progress. The sound died about a mile away from him, and silence fell over the park.

He tried going back to sleep, but when that proved elusive, he gave up and decided to head to the stream for wildlife spotting.

He didn’t have much to pack, a bedroll, a backpack that contained all that he needed, which wasn’t a lot: water, rations, his guns, spare magazines, a Ka-Bar, binoculars, NVG – night vision glasses – and his sat phone. He checked his phone, didn’t expect to see any messages, and there were none. It was just past midnight when he set out, with a light backpack.

A shot rang out.

He paused, peered through the darkness and saw nothing. He let the silence of the park become natural and listened above it.

He thought he heard voices, but couldn’t be sure.

Another shot rang out.

He ran.

Dimly he thought, 
I should mind my own business.

But then life would be boring.

He became another shadow in the darkness of the park, moving from cover to cover, his feet rolling over the ground the way a panther’s did.

He hoped the bears hadn’t woken up and wouldn’t be as curious as he was. Luckily, they had been heading south and he was heading in the other direction.

The U.S. Army had stats for everything, and one of those stats was for various age groups running a mile. Six and a half minutes placed the runner in the top one percentile for that age group.

There didn’t seem to be stats for running the remotest part of the park at night while at the same time keeping an eye out for grizzlies.

Zeb ran the mile in five minutes.

He heard the thrashing in the brush ahead, about two hundred feet away, before he heard the voices.

‘Stop shooting, Steve. You want to get everyone’s attention?’ a male voice cursed.

‘I’m trying to slow her down and scare her. We should’ve killed the bitch when we had the chance,’ another male panted.

‘You shit, all you had to do was bring her out of the back of the truck and into the open where we could question her. Now we have to chase her tail in the darkness.’

‘She kicked me in the nuts and took me by surprise. Once I get my hands on her–’

‘Shut up. Stop. Do we even know which direction she’s gone?’ the other hissed angrily.

Zeb drifted closer, a hundred feet away from them, and could hear their harsh breathing as they tried to listen over themselves. It was too dark for him to make them out clearly, but they seemed to be about five feet seven in height, dressed in dark clothing and obviously out of shape.

He turned his attention to the woman they were chasing, laid the map in his mind, calculated time and distances, and visualized how it might have gone down.

Four hundred feet away was an open patch where a truck could come in, and he guessed that was where it was parked now. The woman had given the two pursuers the slip there and headed toward the denseness of the park.

Maybe two minutes of wrestling with the men, five minutes of running through the open patch… he turned a full circle and set out cautiously in the two o’clock direction.

He stopped every ten feet and listened, and at his third stop he felt her.

A presence at first, different from the surrounding park, and as he went closer, he could feel her moving softly away from all of them.

Her movement became faster as the pursuers stepped up their chase, and then she gave up the stealthy movement as the two pursuers heard her.

‘I can hear the bitch now,’ one of them grunted to the other.

‘Wait, we just want to talk to you,’ Steve called out.

That will make her stop.
Zeb almost laughed.

He was in the middle angle of the triangle formed by the three moving parts, and he stepped it up and closed the gap on the woman.

Zeb had worked out three things about the men chasing the woman.

At least one of them had a silenced gun, which meant a degree of professionalism.

They weren’t out to kill the woman. They might molest her, but not kill her. If they wanted to kill her, they’d have done that by now.

The one who had berated Steve was the leader of the two, though it was highly unlikely he was the one behind all this. The one-who-was-not-Steve turned on a flashlight and aimed it ahead, trying to catch the woman in its glare.

 

One moment the woman was fleeing in panic, darting rapid glances over her shoulder, and the next a hand was clamped firmly over her mouth; she was lifted in the air and carried sideways, twenty feet away, behind a dense thicket.

The pursuers didn’t see anything. All they heard was her rushing through the park and the next moment, silence.

Zeb felt the woman draw a deep breath, and he squeezed, one hand an iron band around her waist, trapping her hands, and the other pressed deep against her mouth, not allowing her lips to move. The deeper she breathed, the tighter he squeezed, till she relaxed finally realizing that screaming was not only futile, it was impossible.

He held her there, made sure her pale face wasn’t visible, and watched the flashlight disappear along with the soft thudding of the two men. He hoped they didn’t come across the bears.

He didn’t want to be the one to wipe their remains off the park.

Three hours later, they were still there waiting silently and saw the flashlight come back swinging in short movements, the anger and frustration in the two apparent in their tread.

He waited till he heard the vehicle start in the distance and drive away.

They’d be back in the daylight. He’d known hunters of their kind before.

‘Will you scream if I remove my hand?’ he asked the woman softly.

She kept stubbornly silent.

He waited patiently. He could outwait the Sphinx. After ten minutes he felt her nod.

He still didn’t remove his hand. ‘If you scream, chances are they’ll hear and come back, and then you’ll be in deeper trouble.’

She nodded again, and he removed his hand.

He stepped in front of her and looked at her closely for the first time.

She was a young woman, black or brown haired – too dark to make that out – and about five feet seven. She was slimly built, but he thought he could detect athleticism and muscle structure in her build.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘Who the hell are
you
?’ she countered, her voice trembling but strong.

‘I am the man who saved you,’ he answered her simply.

She went silent for a long while.

‘I don’t know who I am.’

He waited for her to elaborate.

She said finally, in a small voice, ‘I’ve lost my memory.’

Chapter 2

Zeb stood there silently, as he digested it.
Didn’t see that one coming.

She read his silence correctly and mocked him scornfully. ‘Of all the zillion reasons I could toss out, don’t you think there’s a reason for me to give the most outlandish one? It’s true.’

She waited a few seconds for his answer and, when none came, said, ‘Thank you for stepping in. I need to go now.’

She turned away in the darkness, and he shot out a hand and held her upper arm.

She whirled; her right hand came up in an open-palmed strike, aimed for his open throat, her body coiled tightly behind the blow.

She met open air and stumbled as her simultaneous groin kick cut through the air.

Some Krav Maga moves there. Self-defense classes probably
. He’d seen her body telegraphing the move in the minute movements of her head and shoulders, and had taken a long step backward.

He stood there silently; his hands loose at his sides, and watched her recover and met her wary glance.

She gazed at him for a few seconds and turned and ran.

He made no effort to stop her and called out, ‘Not that way. Not unless you want to meet a grizzly.’

He heard her curse, but she swerved and changed direction.

Her sounds muted as she started moving more stealthily, probably realizing that he could follow her progress. Stealthy was fine with him.

Four hours and frequent stops and starts – her way of checking her back trail – later, they reached the edge of her camp. In the distance, he saw her hunkered behind stunted trees as high as her, as she peered cautiously at the camp.

The sky was tinged with the first streaks of gold, a vast mural stretching from horizon to horizon, painted every day regardless of whether those below appreciated it or not. Whether it had an audience or not.

The camp was empty but for a solitary tent.

That section of the southeast corner saw traffic – hikers and campers passing through – and the camping ground was well located, with a watering hole not far away and enough open space for tents or sleeping bags to be laid out.

He saw her pale face flash as she looked back, and he detached his mind, let it roam free and become part of the earth, the air and the sun. It took an exceptional operative to detect his presence when his ki, his life force, was this low.

She was probably lifted from this place and now is making sure the men haven’t returned.

He nodded mentally in approval. She was no tenderfoot.

He studied the camp in more detail. Just the one tent there, which begged the obvious question – a young woman alone in the park?

Nope. Tent’s a standard two-person one
. So w
here’s the other person?

The woman rose from cover and made her way cautiously to the camp, a stout branch in her hand as a weapon.

He heard her call out something, the words indistinct, and saw her brace herself for a fight-or-flee move depending on the response to her call.

There wasn’t a response. The tent lay still.

She waited for some more time, and when the tent showed no sign of speech or movement, abandoned all caution and ran to it. She jerked it open, poked her head inside, then withdrew it and looked around.

She walked around the camp in small circles, calling out loudly. She went in the tent again and came out with something in her hand. She held the phone to her ear for a few moments and put it down in disgust when she didn’t seem to get a signal.

He drifted closer to make out who or what she was calling out for.

 

Brown flash. Edge of his vision. Too late.

‘Don’t move. I have a gun trained on you.’

He moved, though, the slightest turn of his head to take the speaker in.

He stared, and for once his impassive face deserted him.

The person pointing a gun at him was a young woman. Brown haired, five-foot-seven tall, with a slim build that was athletic and muscular.

Identical to the woman he had rescued and had been following.

 

He saw her face tighten as she looked behind his shoulder, and her eyes widened.

Her twin’s ahead of me. Someone else behind me!

‘Down,’ he shouted and dropped to the ground. He twisted his body to land on his shoulder, just in time, as a bullet split the air where his head had been. A second one buzzed angrily a couple of inches above him.

His Glock came up without conscious thought, became an extension of his arm, his eye sought and found the sight, the sight found the attacker.

His first shot went wide, the second made the attacker duck, his third creased his shoulder, and the fourth killed him. His shots rolled like thunder in the cloudless sky.

He flowed to his feet, approached the fallen man warily, at an angle that would draw any return fire away from the women.

No return fire came. No other attackers came.

He didn’t move.

He relaxed after a long moment when nothing pinged his radar. He holstered his gun and searched the body.

Nothing on it. No papers that said John Thug. He found a phone, but it was dead. He slipped it in his pocket and picked up the attacker’s gun by its barrel

A Sig Sauer P226. A professional’s weapon.

He dropped it and turned to the women.

Their gun was pointing at him.

Chapter 3

‘I’m the one who saved you from that dead guy. Helped her, as well.’ He gestured in the direction of the woman he’d followed.

The two stood together, both of them clad in jeans and outdoor boots, the one with the gun in a flannel shirt, the one he’d followed wore a pullover. They styled their hair similarly and were of the same height and build, with green eyes under dark brown hair, and were healthily tanned. Probably in their late twenties. Their nails were trimmed short, neatly, and they didn’t wear any rings or jewelry of any kind. Nothing that was visible.

They weren’t exactly identical, but only a close study revealed their differences.

The one he was pursuing had fuller lips and her nose flared just a bit more than her twin’s. Details that a quick, casual glance wouldn’t spot.

The twin he’d followed nodded briefly at her sister, confirming what he’d said. They studied him in silence. He was tall, a shade over six feet, brown eyes, brown hair cut short, a lean athletic build, and moved with a fluidity that they had never seen before.

 

‘Why did you follow her? Who the hell are you exactly?’ gun woman asked him. Hostility edged the wariness in her eyes.

‘I’m a hiker like you. I was woken up at night by the sound of shots, followed them, saw your sister was in trouble, rescued her, then followed her to make sure she’d reach your camp safely.’

Gun woman laughed incredulously. ‘Hiker like us? Man, no hiker or tourist I know handles a gun like you did, or acts the way you did. You certainly aren’t a cop on holiday or else that’s the first thing you’d have told us. You’d better start talking.’

Zeb curbed his impatience.
They’ve no reason to trust me.

‘My name is Zeb Carter. I was in the Army, which is where I picked up those skills. I work as a security consultant in New York now.’ He paused. ‘If I wanted to do both of you harm, do you think we’d be standing around talking like this?’

‘Can you prove who you are?’

He reached slowly for his wallet and extracted his card and tossed it to them. The girl he was following caught it, read it, raised her eyebrows silently and held it forward for her twin to read. Gun woman skimmed it swiftly, looked back at him, and lowered the gun slowly.

He caught the card when it was tossed back and, after putting it away, asked them, ‘What’s this all about?’

Their body language, the way they half turned to each other, told its own story. The walls were lowered but not so much that they trusted him fully.

‘We don’t know,’ admitted gun woman. The other woman started to speak and closed her mouth when gun woman nudged her.

Zeb said patiently, ‘I
am
who I said I am. You can call the Army’s liaison office and confirm my details on that card I showed you. I totally understand that you can’t trust me fully. In other circumstances, I would have left you two alone and minded my own business. But these are not ordinary circumstances. It’s not every night that I come across a woman being chased by some hoods at night in the middle of the most famous national park in the world. However, we don’t have much time. If I knew what shit I stepped in, it would help me understand what to expect.’

He stopped, surprised by his own verbosity.

‘She’s telling the truth,’ pursued woman said. ‘We really don’t know who those guys are or why they attacked us–’

‘Why did you say we don’t have much time?’ gun woman cut in.

‘This guy was part of the group who chased her, I presume?’ Zeb looked at them, and when they nodded, he continued. ‘In that case, don’t you think the others will be coming back? Don’t forget your sister evaded them at night, and they’ll want to set that right. No loose ends.’

Gun woman whirled round and strode to the tent. ‘He’s right. Let’s get outta here, Beth,’ she called over her shoulder.

‘Wait,’ Zeb said.

She paused and turned back. The tone of voice he’d used made most people wait.

‘Call the park rangers. We need to close this or else we’ll be swimming in it deeper than we are now.’

She returned his gaze, and he could see her working it out, her twin too. ‘Once the rangers are here, those other guys will keep their distance?’

He nodded. ‘Yeah. We have
some
time. Dead guy’s companions will be waiting for his call, maybe for another hour or so, since it’s still early. They won’t risk calling him, since they know he’s supposed to be following you. A call to his phone might give him away.’

They fidgeted for a while as they pondered it. Gun woman squared her shoulders after a moment and headed back to the tent.

‘Phone’s dead. I have it here.’ Pursued woman stopped her.

‘Then we’re screwed,’ gun woman muttered. She looked at Zeb. ‘You have a phone?’

Zeb slid the backpack off his shoulders, reached inside, and handed her a phone.

‘Never seen such a phone before,’ gun woman said, examining it briefly.

She dialed 911, explained the circumstances and hung up. ‘They’ll be here as quick as they can. They asked us not to leave the scene.’

He rested his backpack in the shade, took a swig of water from his canteen, and offered it to them. ‘You ladies have names?’

Gun woman pointed at her sister – ‘Beth’ – and at herself – ‘Meghan.’

He looked at them, awaiting more, and when none of them said anything, kept on watching them. Patience was second nature to him.

Beth finally broke the silence. ‘Beth and Meghan Petersen. Sisters obviously. Meg’s older but not by much. Meg runs a design consultancy in Boston, and I work with her.’

‘Just the two of you camping?’
No parents, friends, boyfriends, husbands?

Meghan answered his unasked question. ‘It’s the twenty-first century, in case you haven’t noticed. Besides, we can look after ourselves.’

He’d noticed they hadn’t flinched at the firing, hadn’t reacted at the sight of the man dying; she’d held the gun in a firm, sure grip.
They’ve handled weapons, know self-defense, and have been in some heavy situations. How come?

‘What kind of security consultant are you? Software? Viruses and hacking, that kind of geek stuff?’ Beth asked him.

‘Nope. I work with companies and people, advise them on personal security.’

‘A bodyguard?’

‘Sometimes.’ He didn’t elaborate.

 

Zeb was an ex-Special Forces operative who worked in an agency that didn’t exist and reported to a boss who answered only to the President.

A boss who held the nebulous title of Director of Strategy. Clare, his boss, had founded the agency to undertake exothermic missions that no other Special Ops or deep black ops agency in the country’s defense and intelligence setup could or would undertake. These exothermic – their term for extremely high risk, high threat, deniable – missions included infiltrating terrorist gangs, retrieving stolen nuclear or biochemical weapons, taking out rogue heads of state, neutralizing threats that sheltered in friendly nations.

When Clare became the first female director of the agency, she’d overhauled the agency to make it smaller, completely deniable, have the smallest possible administrative footprint, yet have the best operatives.

The agency worked with handpicked private military contractors, whose first allegiance was to the agency. They could take on other assignments when they weren’t on agency assignments, as long as those missions didn’t conflict with the national interest or jeopardize any agency mission.

This structure was born one evening when she’d gone for a drink with her closest friend in downtown Washington D.C.

Cassandra and Clare had studied together at Bryn Mawr and had ended up working in the political jungle that was D.C. Cassandra had started her career as a Foreign Service specialist in the State Department and had ended up being the aide to the Secretary of State before retiring from politics and pursuing a career in academics. Clare had started her career at the agency as an analyst.

During the evening, Clare saw a man waiting outside the bar, a man who seemed to become part of the street, around whom pedestrian traffic bent itself and flowed.

Cassandra saw Clare’s glance and laughed. ‘That’s my superhero brother, Zeb, waiting for me,’ she explained when she saw Clare’s raised eyebrows. ‘Zeb was Special Forces. He’s now a private military contractor, does security consulting, and he wouldn’t like me mentioning anything more.’ She laughed again when she realized how ridiculous that sounded. Clare had the highest security clearances and reported only to the President.

An intrigued Clare pulled Zeb’s file, whistled at the clearances required, and sobered when she read the contents of the file. She asked around discreetly and heard that he worked by his own rules, a tight moral code that meant he did not wage war on women and children, and didn’t accept any assignments that went against the country’s interests.

She asked him to join the agency the next day.

Zeb refused and counter-proposed that he form a team of elite operatives that the agency could call on. She mulled it over only for a few moments before green-lighting it, trusting in Zeb’s judgment to pick operatives who had a similar code to his.

The agency was born.

The President had once, in jest, referred to her team as her
Warriors
. The name stuck.

 

Zeb saw that the women had distrust back in their eyes and told them his cover story. ‘Most of the people or organizations I work with are high profile. I advise them on how they can reduce risk as they go about their life or work. Guarding them is only part of it.’

Meghan looked past him at the body. ‘You’ve done this before?’

Zeb shrugged. ‘You do what you have to while on a job. What about you two? What’s your backstory?’ He looked at Beth. ‘You’ve really lost your memory?’

She nodded, her eyes searching his to see if he believed her. ‘Yeah, like I said, why else would I spin such a story?’

He didn’t push it, allowing them to tell him in their own time, their own way. If they felt like it.

‘How did all this happen?’

Meghan frowned. ‘I’ve been thinking about that. We came to the park yesterday afternoon, with a group of people we knew, via the south entrance. We split away from them and came here; they proceeded ahead. They were going to rendezvous with some others near Lower Geyser Basin. We know this spot well; have been here before with our folks several times. We made camp by evening and didn’t see anything suspicious. I don’t know if we were followed.’

‘Late at night, I had to go… about two or three hundred feet away. When I was away, I heard the sounds of running, more than one person, and after a while the sounds faded. I rushed back to camp and saw Beth was gone. I hollered and searched around the camp, found nothing. Started searching in widening circles – Dad taught us that – still found nothing, and then I heard shots.’

‘I made a beeline to them. I was maybe halfway there or so, I heard her running back, and before I could call out to her, I saw her heading back. The way she was moving, I thought someone might be following her, so I held back from calling out.’

I didn’t detect her. If she was a hostile, I’d have been toast.

‘You haven’t seen these guys before?’

Both of them shook their heads.

Meghan looked at her sister. ‘What happened when they took you?’

‘I was sleeping one moment; the next moment, when I woke, one guy had a hand over my mouth and had flung me over his shoulder like a sack. I didn’t have time to shout or struggle, and by the time I realized what was happening, these guys were covering ground fast. I struggled and punched the guy carrying me, with my elbow, the other guy just hit me with his gun, and I passed out.’

‘Next thing I know, I’m in a Jeep, two guys ahead of me, one beside me in the back. The Jeep must have travelled for fifteen minutes or so and stopped in a clearing, where I was dragged out.’

She turned to Zeb. ‘That guy Steve, he dragged me from the back, when I jumped at him, kicked him in his balls and ran.

‘I was just running blind, and when they shot a few times, I changed direction and ran. When I reached darkness, I checked the compass on my watch and headed to camp; that’s when you grabbed me.’

‘Twice,’ Zeb said.

‘What?’ Meghan asked, not comprehending.

‘They shot twice. I don’t know if they shot to miss, but obviously they did.’

‘Shooting in the dark isn’t easy, especially at a moving target,’ Meghan replied.

And just how do you know that?

‘They must have spotted our camp, two women alone, and decided to have some fun,’ Beth decided.

‘Nope,’ Zeb countered, but his reply was lost in the clatter of a helicopter.

Chapter 4

The chopper circled twice, landed in a clearing a short distance away, and unloaded four people who ran over to them. Three of them were wearing ranger uniforms; the fourth was in a suit.

‘District Ranger Mitch Ketchum and FBI Special Agent John Connor. Connor is based out of Salt Lake City and has jurisdiction over the park. He caught a chopper as soon as he heard what had gone down.’ Ketchum introduced himself and the man in the suit to all of them. The other two rangers had headed to the body and were walking around it, taking photographs. Connor had short bristly hair on his head and dark piercing eyes.

‘Those two are Grant Parker and David Heppel.’ He didn’t mention their titles, and Zeb suspected they were from the law enforcement division of the park rangers.

Ketchum pushed back his hat, scratched his balding head, and drawled, ‘Gotta tell you guys, this is not the kind of history the park wants to make. There haven’t been any shootings like this in a long time, maybe for decades. Now why don’t y’all tell us just what happened?’

Zeb saw his eyes were alert and sharp, taking in the scene, taking them in. The homely attitude had a whip-smart mind behind it.

Zeb turned to the women, allowing them to start, knowing it would be hours before they all finished.

By the time Meghan and Beth had finished telling their side, it was midday, and they took a break to water themselves down.

‘Now, sir, what about you? How do you fit into all this?’ Ketchum looked at Zeb.

Zeb introduced himself and felt Connor’s stare on him when he heard Zeb’s name. Connor and Ketchum were soon joined by Parker and Heppel; they made Zeb and the women go over their stories repeatedly, till they were satisfied. Zeb drew a rough map of the area, marked his camp with an X and the route he’d taken to track down Beth Petersen, both ways.

‘My bedroll should still be at my camp,’ he added, handing the map over to the District Ranger.

‘You can lead us to this place?’ Ketchum asked him.

Zeb nodded, and after half an hour, he, along with the women, led Parker and Heppel back to the spot he’d come across Beth, his camp, and the trail he’d followed, going in and coming back.

He took them to the clearing where he thought the Jeep had taken Beth. She nodded slowly. ‘This could be it. It was night, and I wasn’t thinking clearly, so I could be wrong, but this certainly looks and feels like it.’

One of the rangers snapped away with his camera while the other measured and made casts of tracks where the earth was damp and soft.

When they returned to the camp, Zeb could see a relaxation in Ketchum and Connor.

‘Let’s head to Park H.Q. in Mammoth,’ Ketchum told them. ‘We can take this forward there.’

He addressed the women. ‘Ladies, you should have told us who your dad was, right off. We’ve all heard of him and what happened.’

On seeing Parker’s and Heppel’s bemused looks, he explained, ‘Their father was Jackson Hole SWAT Team Leader Bud Petersen.’

Parker’s face cleared, and he hurried forward to shake their hands. ‘The name sounded familiar, but then there are many Petersens around. I was privileged to meet your father a few times when the rangers and Jackson PD did some joint training.’

He lingered over Beth’s hand. ‘I don’t know how to express this without making a fool of myself, but I’m sorry for what happened to you, ma’am.’

He blushed when Beth leaned up and kissed him on the cheek.

Ketchum laughed. ‘That should give you enough memories to light up your winters, Grant.’

He caught Zeb’s blank face. ‘Carter, I don’t know if you remember this. Six years back, there was a shoot-out at the university the girls were going to. Four gun-crazy students ran down the halls shooting at whoever they saw. They had killed ten students by the time a SWAT team arrived, led by their father. The four students split up and holed up in four classrooms, where they held several students hostage.’

He paused, the still air listening to his words. ‘The SWAT team split up, too, and began negotiations, when those negotiations went nowhere – these crazies didn’t want to talk, they wanted to kill – they went in and started clearing the rooms. All those guys were killed – surrendering wasn’t on their agenda – but in the firefight, Bud Petersen lost his life.

‘His girls, twenty-two years old then, were on the campus that day, and one of them was shot in the head by one of the students.’ He looked searchingly at the two women before his gaze settled on Beth. ‘That’s how you lost your memory, wasn't it?’

Beth nodded once. Clearly it wasn’t something she wished to talk about. She moved closer to Meghan, who put an arm around her.

Ketchum caught on and changed the topic. He pointed at the dead man. ‘That feller there, Pete Bryce, was a hitter for a ruthless meth gang in Wyoming, a gang which is also active in the neighboring states of Utah and Colorado. He had two outstanding warrants, one for holding up a car and another for drug peddling. That gang has a guy called Steve, might be the same Steve you heard, a nasty piece of work who’s got outstanding warrants himself. This gang has about fifteen-twenty people and operates statewide, but they also work with other gangs in the western parts of the country. They’re into drugs primarily, meth, but also have known to take a hand in prostitution, the odd kidnapping, and rape.’

‘Looks like Bryce wanted to kill you and grab the women,’ Ketchum said, looking at Zeb.

Parker chimed in. ‘Ladies, way I figure it, you got lucky that Carter butted in.’

Ketchum turned to Zeb, his eyes full of curiosity. ‘Carter, you seem to get around a lot. It looks like many people in law enforcement know or have heard of you. Your name rang a bell with me, but I couldn’t place you at the time. The moment we mentioned your name and details, flags lit up all over the place.’

John Connor broke his silence. ‘Director Murphy’s office came back pretty fast as soon as your name went in the system, vouching for you.’

He looked askance at Zeb, waiting for an explanation.

None came. Zeb had donned shades, and all they saw was their own selves reflected in his glasses.

Two pairs of green eyes added their weight to the curious looks.

Zeb shrugged. ‘I’ve met the FBI Director a couple of times. Nothing more to it.’

Ketchum snorted. ‘Nothing more to it, the man of mystery says.’ He held a hand up in peace. ‘All right, we’ll go with that. In any case, we were told not to ask for too many details from you. None would be forthcoming was what the powers that be said.

‘Carter, we’ll take the women along with us to H.Q., and then come back for you. Work for you?’

Zeb nodded. ‘I’ll get my bedroll and be back by then.’

 

The park’s headquarters were at Fort Yellowstone, in Mammoth, first built in 1891. Back in 1886, the park’s civilian management was unable to protect the park and turned to the Army for help. The Army deployed men from the cavalry, who built Fort Yellowstone, which then became the park’s headquarters. The cavalry managed the park till as recently as 1916 and, after a short spell away, returned to manage it till 1918.

 

Ketchum led them to a warm, friendly office, where they spent another couple of hours completing all the formalities.

He had a troubled expression on his face when he went through all the details yet again. ‘Ladies, it doesn’t look like this was a random event of some gangbangers finding two women alone. They were specifically looking for you. The comments Carter overheard show that. Is there something that either of you, or both of you, came across that could be gang related? Maybe you saw something or heard something?’

Meghan and Beth shook their heads in frustration. ‘We’ve had a lot of time to think, but nothing jumps out. We’ve detailed our movements for the last week to Parker. We’re no longer even based in Jackson… Boston has been our home for the last three years. We can’t see how we could have come across this gang.’ Meghan blew hair out of her eyes in a tired sigh.

He drummed his fingers on his desk briefly. ‘You’ll let us know if you remember anything.’ It wasn’t a request. He continued, ‘I don’t think this will get resolved very quickly. I would recommend that you cut your holiday short and head back to Boston. If that’s not possible, I would urge caution… try not to be alone, especially in the dark, keep to crowded places. I’m sure your dad would’ve drilled all this into you.’

Meghan nodded reluctantly. ‘We were looking forward to this and had been planning it for so long, but I guess it makes sense for us to leave the park.’

Beth asked her, ‘Why don’t we spend a few days in Jackson? We stayed there when coming in, but that was too short.’

Meghan brightened. ‘Let’s do that.’

‘And you, sir? Will you be hanging around in the park?’ They all swung toward Zeb.

‘I was planning to leave in a day or two. I might as well follow the ladies out.’

‘And where exactly are you heading?’ Connor asked him.

‘I’m heading to New York, but am in no particular hurry.’

Ketchum, Parker and Connor drew Zeb back as they were heading out. ‘If you too are heading in the direction of Jackson Hole, we’d appreciate it if you could keep an eye on them till they get there.’

‘Was planning to.’

A thought struck him. ‘The phone that guy was carrying? Did it get any calls? There was a number on it.’

Parker grimaced. ‘It ran out of juice pretty soon. We’ve given the number to Jackson P.D. to track it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a disposable number. I think by now the gang will know something has happened to their guy. If they have sophisticated police scanners, they might know all the details. They might hunker down for a while till the heat dissipates.’

 

It was getting dark by the time Zeb and the women reached the women’s camp.

He watched them for a while, and when Beth flashed a smile in his direction, he said, ‘Ma’am, I think it will be best if you head out in the morning. I wouldn’t advise driving in the dark.’

She laughed. ‘Meg’s the boss here, as you might’ve noticed. I’ll ask her.’

She headed inside the tent, he could hear them murmuring, then they both walked out.

 

Meghan looked at him appraisingly for a long time before saying anything. Beth and she had discussed Zeb at length and had concluded that he wasn’t just a security consultant. The way he glided in the air, the perpetual stillness around him, and the way he’d handled his gun were similar to some of the best SWAT members they had come across. ‘Maybe he was a SEAL. You noticed that card he showed us was a Medal of Honor recipient card,’ Beth had breathed softly.

 

‘Thank you for all that you’ve done,’ Meghan said, and after a long pause, continued in a lower tone, ‘It’s frightening to know there’s a gang out there who’s hunting us for some reason we don’t know. We can deal with most things, and even if you hadn’t turned up, I’m sure we would have done a lot of damage to them. But this, a faceless gang shadowing us… this is different.’

Her shoulders slumped as the day took its toll, and she leaned back into her sister’s hug. Her eyes were glistening as they looked at Zeb. ‘We would appreciate it if you moved your camp closer to ours for the night.’

Zeb inclined his head and walked away without a word. He’d been planning to do just that.

 

He felt their presence as he was rolling out his bed on the ground – he preferred to sleep under the open sky whenever possible – and turned around.

Beth offered a plate on which were neatly sliced sandwiches. Meghan was beside her, watching him lay out his roll.

He took one sandwich, bending his head silently in thanks.

‘You’re the most incurious man we’ve met.’ Beth half laughed. ‘Most people, Ketchum, for example, would be curious about what happened to me, how it felt, how I’m coping. You, on the other hand, are not in the least interested. It feels as if it hasn’t even registered with you.’

Zeb took a large bite, enjoying the smell and the flavor of the freshly made sandwich. It was a mere sandwich, but to him – accustomed to eating alone most of his life, off his own preparations – it felt like much more.

‘Ma’am, way I figure, it’s your life. Who you choose to open the door to is your prerogative. Curiosity is not the same as right to know.’

Meghan said wonderingly, ‘Dad used to say something like that. He used to say the past should never define our future. He was the one who taught us to handle a gun and the Krav Maga moves.’

‘He sounds like one real man.’

‘He was. Our mom died a couple of years before the shooting, after a long battle with breast cancer. Dad just stepped in and stepped up. Two headstrong college-going daughters, a cop’s life… he juggled everything and gave all of himself to us.’

She gripped Beth’s shoulder, her knuckles showing white in the dark. ‘Beth
will
have a full life.’

Beth patted her hand and smiled at him. ‘You’ll have to excuse us, Mr. Carter. It’s not every day that we get hunted and kidnapped by a gang. Meg will be back to normal tomorrow.’

Her voice was serious when she asked him, ‘Do you think these guys will keep after us?’