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I was wrong about sleeping on the plane. My definition of sleeping in the air is to be lulled into a semi-conscious stupor by the harmonics of the engines. My eyes are closed and I still hear sounds around me, but it's like a wide black void exists between me and the sound. Sometimes I can open my eyes and be instantly awake. Other times it takes a while for me to climb out of the darkness.
By the time the attendants collected the breakfast trays we had run into quite a bit of turbulence. I refastened my seat belt, put my chin on my chest, and closed my eyes. I had a window seat, and I no sooner closed my eyes when the four-year-old seated between me and her mother decided to make life miserable for everybody around her. She refused to be restrained by the seat belt - her mother must have re-buckled it at least six times. The kid stood on her seat, jumped on her seat, annoyed the people ahead of us and behind us and, when the attendant told the mother that the child must sit in her seat, with the seat belt buckled, the kid threw a temper tantrum unlike any I have ever seen. For more than a half-hour, she kicked her feet, flailed her arms at her mother, and yelled. And I mean loud. What really irked me was the way the mother seemed to accept it as normal behavior. The frustrated attendant tried bribing the kid with a cup of juice and a worn teddy bear, missing one eye, that she probably keeps on board for such emergencies. Clutching the teddy bear, the kid finally calmed down and fell asleep more than an hour out of Philly. I suspect the attendant never got her teddy bear back.
The second leg of my flight - without the kid and her mother, who apparently were headed elsewhere - was much quieter, and I actually did cat-nap. When we landed in Billings it was raining hard. Packing light with one carry-on bag, I hadn't brought a raincoat, so by the time I located my commuter flight to Miles City and got on board I was a very wet and unhappy camper.
It was still raining when we landed at the Miles City Municipal Airport, but with a little bobbing and weaving I found the car rental counter without getting any wetter. My SUV was ready and waiting, and the very pleasant clerk asked if I had ever been to Miles City before. When I told her I hadn't even been in Montana before, she handed me a state map, plus a map of Custer County and a pamphlet of local restaurants, motels and hotels. I asked where I could get a good deli sandwich and she recommended a place on the outskirts of the city.
It was almost three in the afternoon at home, but it was two hours earlier here, and I was famished. I made one or two wrong turns but finally found the deli the clerk recommended. My corned-beef on rye was nice and lean and came complete with potato salad, dill pickle and pickled green tomatoes. While I ate I spread out the map of Custer County and tried to find the most direct route to where I had to go. The back of the map showed the counties surrounding Custer. Comparing the two maps it was obvious that Route 59 south was the best choice. But before I left I had some business to attend to here in Miles City. I also wanted to spend the night here; it was about a three hour drive to where I was headed and I didn't have any idea what I'd find when I got there. The thought of arriving in some god-forsaken wilderness after dark didn't appeal to me at all.
My first stop was a post office. The old guy behind the counter was busy waiting on the people ahead of me. He seemed to be on a first-name basis with most of them, and when my turn came he raised an eyebrow and said, "You new here, young fella; don't remember seein' you in here before?"
"As a matter of fact, I am," I replied. "I'm from Kentucky," I lied, "And I breed thoroughbred horses. A friend of mine told me about a big place south of here that has some select stock I may be interested in. I don't know the name of the ranch, but I think it's owned by a guy named Shaw."
"Oh yeh, I know the place. It's called the Diamond 27, and it is big - also damned strange. I don't know first-hand, but the son of a friend of mine worked there as a cook for about six months. Said he probably asked too many questions, 'cause one day they fired him, led him to the main gate and told him to git."
"Do you know anybody who still works there?" I asked.
"No - 'cept for the lady who comes here to pick up their mail. She's in here about twice a week, but I don't really know her. She's a real sourpuss - never smiles. She's also some kinda furriner - black hair, dark eyes, and skin; speaks with an accent - hard to understand. She could be an A-rab or somethin'."
"You say she'sin here a couple times a week? What do they have - a post-office box?"
"Yep. They have a drawer - a big one. It's full most of the time, too."
"When was she here last, and what time does she usually get here?"
"Let's see, it was two, mebbe three days ago. She'll probably be back again tomorrow, and she's always in and out of here by ten."
"Do you know what kind of car she drives?"
"It's some kinda van - I don't know the make. Say, young fella, you sure ask a lot of danged questions. Why you so interested in their mail?"
"I'm not, really. Like I said, I may do some business with them and I like to know who I'm dealing with. Particularly when they're total strangers."
"Well, like a told ya, I've heard some mighty strange stories about the place, so I'd be real careful."
"I intend to be. And thanks for the information."
I drove around town for almost an hour, just to see what Miles City had to offer. I also wanted to find a place to stay and decent places to eat. I was almost ready to give up when I found a small and very neat looking motel about five minutes drive from Route 59. The owner checked me in and also recommended two places to eat, one a diner and the other a tavern, both within walking distance. I locked my gear in the motel room and took off again in my car.
The car radio was giving the five-day weather forecast, and it didn't sound good. It was the first week of October and the day temperatures had been in the high sixties for five or six days. They said a cold front was going to move through the area tonight, bringing rain and much colder weather. I had no intention of getting soaked again, so I drove to a run-down looking Army and Navy surplus store that I had passed earlier. I bought a few things I thought I might need, including binoculars, a compass, a powerful flashlight, a heavy wool sweater, boots, and a poncho with a hood. I might not look too sharp, but I'd be warm and dry.
I drove back to the motel and decided to take a nap. As I lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling, all of the doubts and questions about my trip here began spinning in my head. My earlier good ideas and planning notwithstanding, what the hell was I doing here? What did I hope to accomplish? Even if I satisfied myself that Shaw was in fact the Shah of Iran, what should I do next? What could I do next? Based on the past violence, if I asked the wrong individuals the wrong questions I could get my head blown off. Maybe I should go home and have my head examined before that happens. No, damn it, I'm here and I'm going to see this through. But what do I do next, and what do I have to work with? The reality of the situation is; all I have to work with is my knowledge of the past and a picture of the Shah taken about a year before he supposedly died - so it's obvious I'm gonna have to play my hand one card at a time. I decided that if I can get a first-hand look at the ranch, and also convince myself that Mr. Shaw is the Shah, I'll go home. I knew that once I get home the tough part will be convincing somebody in authority that I'm right. I also knew that it wouldn't be Ben's FBI friend Hamilton, or, for that matter, anybody else in Washington. I don't trust any of them. I finally dozed off and it was almost six when I awoke. I quickly showered and dressed because I hoped to catch the motel owner before he left for the day - maybe pick his brain to see if he knew anything about the Diamond 27 ranch.
Other than my SUV, the parking lot was deserted. The owner was seated on a stool behind the counter, flipping through pages of a boating magazine, sipping a mug of steaming coffee. He offered me a cup, which I accepted. He put the magazine down and seemed anxious to talk - I guess the poor guy was bored to death; I know I would be. They couldn't pay me enough to sit and watch these four walls for fourteen to sixteen hours a day, as I'm sure he did. I tried making small talk by telling him a little about my phony business. His name was George, and he admitted to being a little older than me and said he had been born and raised in a small town just north of the city. I found him to be very articulate and extremely knowledgeable about Montana and, in particular, Custer County. He and his wife had bought the motel about six years ago. They couldn't survive on what they cleared from the place, so she went back to work as a nurse for a doctor in town. George said he had been a school teacher but had to give it up to run the motel. He also said the motel had been up for sale for almost three years, and he and his wife would accept any fair offer. Problem was, as soon as potential buyers saw the books they were scared off.
I gradually turned the conversation to why I was in Montana, and gave him the same scenario I had used at the post office. Without any prompting he voiced the same views as the old guy at the post office when I mentioned the Diamond 27 Ranch.
"George, have you ever had any personal involvement with anybody from the ranch? Have you ever been to the place?"
"I've driven past the place dozens of times, but I only stopped near the place once, about seven or eight years ago. It was a real scary experience. A friend and I were headed south of the ranch to do some hunting. We were on government property about a mile from the ranch. At dusk we pitched our tent and started to cook supper when a 4-wheel drive pickup with the ranch's name on the doors came barreling into our camp. Two guys in uniform got out and told us we had to leave immediately - we were on private property. They both had uniforms and sidearms. My friend told them we weren't on ranch property, it was government land, and said he had no intention of leaving. One of the two kicked the stakes out of the ground and pulled down our tent. The other kicked dirt on the fire and stomped it out. My buddy shoved the guy and got pistol-whipped for his trouble. I tried pulling the guy off my friend and wound up getting some of the same. They told us they'd be back in a half-hour, and if we were still there we'd be shot as trespassers."
"Were you really trespassing - what happened next?"
"We weren't trespassing, absolutely not! But we were scared, so we gathered up our gear and left. About five minutes later we passed a police patrol car parked on the shoulder. We stopped and told the cop what happened. He took down our names and addresses and said he'd look into it. Before he pulled away he told us to think twice before signing any kind of complaint against the ranch guards or the owner. He said others had tried it and their cases always got thrown out of court. The cop wouldn't come right out and say so, but he hinted that the ranch owner had all the local judges in his hip pocket. The owner always claimed that he had millions tied up in his prize breeding stock and thoroughbreds and couldn't risk one being killed by some off-site hunter. In essence, he didn't give two damns where his property lines were."
We talked for another ten minutes or so, but George knew little more about the Diamond 27. I decided to walk the three blocks to the tavern George recommended earlier. The building had a lot of neon out front and a blinking red neon sign in a large blacked-out front window that proclaimed the place to be Rockies Bar & Grill. The menu posted in the window indicated a diner-size assortment of choices.
A waitress seated me at a small table in the dining room adjoining the bar. The dining room was non-smoking, but the bar wasn't; obvious by the blue-gray haze that permeated the room. The majority of customers were apparently smokers - the bar was packed, but the dining room had about a dozen empty tables. I knew I had made a good choice when I sat down and found a bowl of oyster crackers and a pot of horseradish; something I can easily spoil my appetite with. When the waitress came back I ordered a mug of one of their local draught beers to wash down the extra hot appetizer. When that was gone I ordered a small Caesar salad, chicken pot-pie and another mug of beer. The beer was cold, the salad was so-so - too heavy on the lemon - but the pot-pie was excellent; lots of chicken and veggies under a thick but flaky crust. I topped everything off with apple pie and coffee.
I was just finishing when a young guy in coveralls came in and sat down at a table a few feet away. He ordered a double boilermaker and a bowl of chili. What caught my eye was the logo on the breast pocket of his coveralls; the number 27 in green on a yellow background, contained within a silver diamond outline. Beneath that, in script, was the name ?Jerry'. He seemed extremely agitated. Before his order came he sat with his face buried in his hands. I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I'd get, but I decided to try striking up a conversation with him.
"I see you're from the Diamond 27," I said. "I'm headed there tomorrow to look at some breeding stock I might consider buying. I hear they have the best stock west of the Mississippi." I sure hope Jerry doesn't ask too many questions, because I can't tell a Jersey cow from a Brahma bull.
"I used to be with the Diamond 27," he replied. "But not any more. The bastards fired me this morning." He spoke slowly and deliberately, his voice cold with bitterness.
"I was there going on twelve years. . .started as a stable boy cleaning stalls, and worked my way up to trainer. I trained some of the best thoroughbreds ever to leave the ranch. I figure they netted about twenty million just from stock I raised and trained."
"If that's the case why would they fire you?"
"I'll tell you why. I did what was right and the son-of-a-bitch head trainer canned me for it. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised; he and I never got along anyway. He was always bitching about something. I knew sooner or later we'd lock horns."
"Twelve years is a long time Jerry. If he didn't like you why didn't he fire you sooner?"
"He's only had the job for less than a year. Before they promoted him he was a regular trainer like me. I think his new title went to his head. He doesn't get along with any of the other trainers either. They all think he's arrogant and an ass kisser with the owner."
"So what was this so-called right thing he fired you for?"
"What the hell's the difference. . .I'm out of a job. Got a wife, two kids and a big mortgage. You realize how tough it is to find work around here? I was making damn good money - now I'll probably end up flipping burgers in some fast food joint, and lose my house to boot! I worked my ass off for that ranch and what the hell did it get me - nothing!"
"I'd still like to know what they fired you for."
"I dunno what business it is of yours, but like I said, I did what was right. One of the horses in my stable is the ranch owner's favorite - a beautiful, big white Arabian. His name's Cossack and he's one of the fastest horses on the ranch. The owner, Mr. Shaw, rides him three or four times a week. The last time he had him out, the day before yesterday, he was riding him hard when Cossack stepped in a hole and went down hard. He didn't break anything, but he did twist his right foreleg pretty bad. Mr. Shaw was smart enough to walk Cossack back to the stable. I did what I could to treat and wrap Cossack's leg, but I knew it would take time to heal. . . at least a couple of weeks or so, and that's with the right treatment and a lot of luck.
"Well, this morning the jackass manager comes to me and tells me that Mr. Shaw wants me to get Cossack ready; he wants to ride out and inspect some of his grazing stock. I told the manager no way; riding Cossack now could do permanent damage. The manager left, but was back ten minutes later. He said Mr. Shaw thought I was exaggerating and said to saddle Cossack immediately. I again refused - and you know the rest."
I had a decision to make - and fast. I knew Jerry could be a big help to me, so do I tell him why I'm really here? In view of his situation and present state of mind he just might agree to help. On the other hand, if he blows the whistle on me, thinking maybe it could get his job back, I'd be in deep trouble.
I decided to buy him another drink and try to keep him here as long as possible. It might not be too difficult because I suspected the last thing Jerry wanted to do was go home and face his wife and kids.
After finishing his chili and boilermaker, followed by a second and a third drink, Jerry seemed to mellow. The anger had faded from his voice and he now spoke in a quiet, slurred monotone.
"I'm a damn good trainer. . .probably their best. . .their gonna miss me. . .wait an see. . .you need a good trainer, mister?"
"Only if you're willing to move to Kentucky," I replied, feeling guilty about lying. "But first I need you to look at something."
I took the picture of the Shah out of my pocket and slid it in front of him. "Ever seen this guy before?"
"Hmmm, lemme see," he said, holding the picture up to the light. "Yeh. . .looks a lot like Mr. Shaw, 'cept Shaw has a bushy mustache and longer hair. This guy a relative of Mr. Shaw?"
Before I answered I decided to go for broke. I wasn't sure how it would play out, but with Jerry's knowledge of the ranch he could save me a lot of time, and maybe keep me out of trouble.
"Jerry," I replied, "What they did to you was rotten. Maybe you'd get some satisfaction out of helping me tomorrow."
"What do ya mean, help you? At the ranch? I never wanna see the place again. Besides, I'm gonna have one helluva hangover come tomorrow."
"Let me explain before you say no. To begin with, I'm not a horse breeder from Kentucky, so I'm not here to buy horses. I am an investigator from New Jersey, and my target is your Mr. Shaw. If I'm right, he isn't who you think he is, not by a long shot. He's an international figure who is hiding from his countrymen and the law. He's also a fugitive criminal because he's responsible, either directly or indirectly for the deaths of at least seven people we know of. And, if his reputation is accurate, he also has the blood of God knows how many others on his hands. I won't bother you with all the details unless you agree to help me. What do you say?"
"Whoa, man, you got my head spinning. . . you say old man Shaw is a criminal? Most of the workers at the ranch think he's a pain in the ass, a senile old fart . . . but a criminal - a murderer . . . nah, can't be. Besides, what the hell could I do to help you - like I said, I never wanna see the place again - the bastards screwed me. . .royally. . . I need 'nother drink."
"Jerry, it may be hard to understand, but what I'm telling you is the truth. And it's worth two hundred bucks to me to have your help tomorrow. As far as your hangover is concerned, no more booze tonight, let's switch to coffee."
"Before I decide, tell me watcha want me to do."
"Fair enough. All I want is for you to go with me. You can wait in the SUV while I try getting in the main entrance. I'll use the same line I gave you - I'm there to buy horse flesh. If they don't let me in I'll want you to show me how to get on the property without being seen. You say you worked there for twelve years, so you must know places where you can get in and out without alerting the guards. That's all I need you for. Okay? And by the way, my name's Cole, Cole McQuaid."
"I dunno, Cole, those guards are mean bastards . . . I know at least one's a psycho . . .we could wind up dead. First thing, they're gonna search you and go through your SUV from bumper to bumper . . . won't let you through the gate without a search. So I can't go near the main entrance in your SUV. I know a place where you can drop me off to wait for you. If you don't get past the guards you'll have to come back and pick me up . . . and another thing, two hundred bucks don't cut it. I ain't risking my neck for less than four hundred."
"Three's as far as I'll go, Jerry, take it or leave it."
"I dunno, whole thing sounds kinda crazy to me. . .god knows I need the money. . .wife's gonna be sick when she hears I got canned . . .well, O.K., but I want the money up front. . .and in cash."
"I'll give you half before we leave and the other half when we finish. Be here at Rockies tomorrow morning at seven; I'll pick you up. And you better come dressed for bad weather; it's supposed to turn nasty tomorrow afternoon. And another thing; don't say anything to your wife about getting fired, at least not until after tomorrow. It'll only complicate things for you. Let her think you're going to work as usual."
We each had coffee. I sat and waited while Jerry had a second mug, plus two trips to the men's room. I wanted to get back to my motel, but I decided to wait until I was convinced he was sober enough to drive. I sure didn't want him killing himself driving home.
It was almost eleven when I got back to my room. I had to call Suzy. I was sure she was asleep because it was one in the morning at home, but she fooled me when she answered on the first ring. Turned out she was reading in bed waiting for my call.
"Hi, Suzy, it's me. How's everything at home?"
"Everything's fine. I was waiting for your call. Where are you now?"
"I'm calling from my motel room. Just wanted to let you know everything is O.K. It's good to hear your voice."
"Have you been able to find out anything?"
"Only that I'm more convinced than ever that our guy is who I think he is. But I've got to be totally sure before I come home. I'm going to the ranch tomorrow morning; supposedly to buy some thoroughbreds. If I satisfy myself that I'm right about him, I'll be heading home on the first flight out of here."
"I hope so, Cole. I'm really concerned about what you're doing. Actually I'm terrified. . . can't you get the proof you need without going to the ranch? It seems to me that you'll be walking into a hornet's nest."
"Maybe so, Suzy, but I don't know how to get what I need without doing it myself; I have to be sure. Otherwise, if I blow the whistle on this guy publicly and it turns out I'm wrong, I'll be labeled as some kind of nut. I hope you understand - I've got to go."
"I do understand, but that doesn't lessen my concern . . . it only makes me worry more. Just be careful . . . and promise me you won't try to be a hero. Remember, all you're trying to do is confirm his identity. Let the authorities do the rest. I miss you and need you back here safe and sound. When do you think you'll be home?"
"If everything goes O.K., probably the day after tomorrow. But it'll be late before I get into Philly."
"Will you call me tomorrow night and let me know how things went?"
"I will, but it'll probably be late in the evening, like tonight."
"I don't care what time it is, just call. I need to know you're all right."
I promised her I wouldn't try anything heroic and that I would call, told her I loved her, and hung up. Before I went to bed I got my gear together for tomorrow morning. I decided to play the part of a successful horse breeder and dress accordingly; complete with tweed jacket, snap-brim cap and my scuffed leather briefcase, containing some fictitious papers I had put together yesterday back in my office. All my other gear, including everything I bought here earlier today, plus my 35mm camera and 400mm telephoto lens, I stowed in a duffel bag that I intended leaving with Jerry, when I dropped him off at his hidey-hole. When I finally turned out the light and crawled into bed, I was asleep even before I moved to my favorite sleeping position; it had been a long day.
I was up at six the next morning. I loaded everything into the SUV and headed to a diner about a half-mile from Rockies. It wasn't raining yet, but the wind-driven low clouds looked ominous. And it was much colder than yesterday. I had orange juice, coffee, and a grilled cinnamon bun. By five of seven I was parked in front of Rockies, but there was no sign of Jerry. By quarter after seven I began to doubt that he would show. I got my Montana map out and began plotting my route south. I was just about to pull out and be on my way when Jerry arrived in a battered pickup truck, full of body cancer and minus the front bumper and left headlight. He was wearing camouflaged army fatigues, a baseball cap and hunting boots. He was carrying a large metal thermos and a gym bag.
"G'morning Cole," he mumbled in a raspy voice. "I must be nuts for doin' this. If I didn't need the money I'd tell you to go pound sand. You still gonna go through with it?"
"Absolutely. Throw your bag in the back and lets get going."
I pulled away from the curb and handed Jerry four fifties. "Here's the money; you'll get the rest when we get back here tonight."
"Thanks - I hope I live to spend it."
"Relax, and don't be such a pessimist. All I'm going to do is offer to buy some horses and, if I'm lucky, get a good look at your Mr. Shaw. I certainly don't intend doing anything stupid. And the quicker we get it over with the better I'll like it. How long should it take us to get there?"
"It usually takes me a little over an hour. You can double that in winter, when there's a lot of snow or the roads ice up. It's not cold enough to snow, but that sky out there looks like some heavy weather is on the way. Did you bring any food?"
"No. Are there any decent places to eat where we're headed?"
"Not really. There's a mini-market that makes good sandwiches about five miles down the road. Beyond that there's a couple places with lousy food. But once you get within ten miles of the ranch there ain't nothin'."
We stopped at the mini-market and bought sandwiches, some fruit, canned soda and a cheap styrofoam cooler to keep everything in. The sky ahead of us and to the west was black with storm clouds. We no sooner got back on the road when the rain started, light at first, and then the sky opened and it was like driving through a waterfall. The torrential rain continued for almost thirty miles. Twice I had to stop on the shoulder because the windshield wipers couldn't keep up.
If my ?Plan A' worked, I'd be inside and the storm wouldn't matter. If it didn't, and I had to switch to ?Plan B', my fallback scheme, I'd be slogging across God knows what kind of terrain, exposed to whatever Mother Nature was dishing out.
"Jerry, I need you to describe the ranch to me; particularly the roads in and out, where the main house is located, and the guard situation. I also need to know where you're going to be and where to pick you up."
"O.K. we still have about twenty miles to go. When we get there you'll see a two-lane road angling off to the right. You'll also see a large yellow and black sign the says 'Private Property - No Trespassing'. We're gonna continue past that road about a mile and we'll come to a rutted dirt trail. That's where you'll drop me off. The trail disappears into a grove of trees about five hundred yards in. On the other side of the trees is an electrified fence, and on the other side of the fence is a line shack with bunks and a cook stove for the range hands. The shack is used only in the winter, but it's too early in the year, so nobody should be there. The dirt trail is used to bring in supplies for the range hands. I'll be waitin' in the line shack."
"That's fine, but how the hell are you going to know when I'm ready to leave? You realize I could be in one helluva hurry!"
"Sure, but all you have to do is drive up the trail until you see the shack and then honk your horn. There's space to turn around and we can be off and running. Besides, I don't think you're gonna get in to see Mr. Shaw, so you're gonna have to drive to the line shack to get on ranch property - assumin' that's what you still wanna do after those people scare the crap outa you. I still don't see how comin' back to the line shack is gonna help you see Mr. Shaw."
"It may not, but if you're right and I don't get in the main gate, getting on the ranch at the line shack is my only hope. If that doesn't work, my trip here is a total bust."
"Problem is, Cole, the main house is quite a distance from the line shack, and most of the terrain is open grazing land. Some of it's a little hilly, but the house is surrounded by about two-hundred yards of dead-flat grass. There's a few trees around the house and about a half-dozen outbuildings some distance away, but that's it. There aint many places to hide."
"You said earlier that Shaw likes to ride his horse. Any chance he'll be out riding today? Does he ever come near the line shack?"
"He rides all over. But I don't know if Cossack can be ridden yet. He might ride another horse, but either way I'd say you got a fifty-fifty chance he'll ride today."
"That's better than no chance at all, so I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens."
It was still raining hard when we passed the entrance road to the ranch. When we came to the trail into the line shack I turned in and drove to the small turn-around, with the electric fence just beyond. It seemed a lot more than five-hundred yards from the main road, which was now totally hidden by underbrush on both sides of the trail. The line shack was barely visible, hidden by trees and more underbrush. Jerry took his stuff and my duffel bag, went under the fence wire, and disappeared into the brush. I waited a few minutes to make sure he didn't come back and then drove slowly back to the main road. With heavy rain still coming down I was concerned about churning up the dirt trail. The last thing I needed was to get stuck.
Back on the main road, I headed north to the entrance road into the ranch. I turned in and drove past the sign Jerry told me about; "PRIVATE PROPERTY - NO TRESPASSING" and continued for almost a mile on a well maintained two-lane paved road. The road snaked its way through thick stands of pine, oak and evergreen, then abruptly widened to four lanes, with nose-in parking for about a dozen cars off to the right. A large yellow and black sign said "THE DIAMOND 27 RANCH - ALL VISITORS PARK HERE AND REPORT TO GUARD HOUSE - PARKING BY APPOINTMENT ONLY" I wasn't sure what appointment parking meant, but I parked anyway, checked my appearance one more time in the rear-view mirror, grabbed my briefcase and sprinted the fifty yards or so to the guardhouse. The rain was still heavy.
The guard house was one of the most sophisticated I have ever seen. It was brick, with a metal roof and large windows across the front. You could fit most three-bedroom ranchers inside the place. Behind the building was a tall free-standing communications tower. Electric security gates blocked both the entrance and exit roads. When I opened the side door and walked in there were two uniformed guards seated on an elevated platform behind a chin-high counter. The wall opposite them was lined with television monitors, each showing a different scene. I recognized my SUV on one of the screens. Every few seconds the scenes on the screens would change. Secured to the wall below the monitors was a large display board containing what appeared to be a map of the entire ranch. It was divided into zones, and each zone contained flashing red and green lights. Each green light had a number below it. One glance told me the number visible on the screen of each monitor corresponded with the numbered green light on the display board. When the picture on a monitor changed, a new number appeared; the green light for the previous picture went out and the corresponding red light came on.
These bastards had taken a seventy-two hundred acre property and turned it into a giant outdoor television studio. They obviously had something invaluable to protect - or something major to hide. Maybe both.
"Yes sir , and who might you be here to see?" the guard closest to me asked. His tone was what I always labeled chip-on-the-shoulder-sarcasm, like an underling responding to a superior, but with absolutely no sincerity or respect.
"I'd like to speak to someone about purchasing two horses - two thoroughbreds," I responded.
"I repeat sir, who are you here to see?" he snapped at me, his voice an irritating monotone.
"I would like to see the ranch owner or, at the very least, the ranch manager. I flew in to Miles City yesterday from my ranch in Kentucky. I was told you have some of the best breeding stock in the country. That's why I'm here."
"And, sir , do I understand that you don't have an appointment?"
"No. I didn't think an appointment was necessary."
"Well, you thought wrong, sir . The owner, Mr. Shaw, doesn't see anybody without an appointment. The ranch superintendent, Mr. Carson, is off the ranch today on business. So I guess you're out of luck, sir ."
The guard was apparently in his early twenties and badly needed a course in public relations, not to mention good manners. It suddenly dawned on me that between this kid and old ?Iron-Face Irena' back in Tampa, the whole organization needed retraining. I seldom lose my temper when dealing with people, but something about this guy really ticked me off. On the other hand, I didn't want to jeopardize my reason for being here, so the little voice in my head flip-flopped about four times in two seconds. My temper won out, and I decided to give him a dose of his own disrespect.
"Wait a minute, boy ," I snapped back. "I didn't come all the way from Kentucky to be turned around by a gate keeper in a Boy Scout uniform. I suggest you immediately call the owner and tell him I'd like to meet with him. I'll need about fifteen minutes of his time. Better yet, get him on the phone and I'll tell him. You got that?"
"Don't call me boy, sir - and this is not a Boy Scout uniform. My name is Karl Seitz - and that's Karl with a ?K'. I'm in charge of security for the ranch, and unless I have specific orders from Mr. Shaw, I'm the one who decides who gets past that security gate. And without an appointment, nobody - and I mean nobody does! Also, for your information, each of my men is licensed to carry a gun, and is authorized to use it. Get my drift, sir ?"
"Damn right - and your security operation here doesn't impress me one little bit. Like I just said; get Mr. Shaw on the phone and let me talk to him."
"I'll call him, but I can guarantee he won't see you. In the meantime fill out this questionnaire." He slid a clipboard across the counter to me.
"I'm not here looking for a job," I replied, glancing at the form. "All I want is to buy two horses."
He glared at me. "Nobody gets on the ranch without first filling out the questionnaire; helps us keep out the triflers and particularly the troublemakers." He leaned closer to me across the counter and glared again. You got a choice, sir , either fill out the form or get back in your vehicle and leave."
I grabbed the clipboard and started filling in the information. Seitz watched me write and made no attempt to call Shaw. When I finished I slid the clipboard back to him. He glanced at the form and still made no attempt to call Shaw. "So you're from Kentucky," he said. "You didn't fill out the rest of your address; what part of Kentucky you from?"
I had to think fast. A friend of my father bought a small farm in Kentucky when I was a kid. My folks took the family there one summer for a few days. It's where I learned to ride a horse. "My place is out in the country, about halfway between Louisville and Elizabethtown, three miles off Interstate 65."
"You sure don't talk like any Kentuckian I've ever met. How long you lived there?"
"About four years. I'm originally from New Jersey."
"I knew you weren't from Kentucky. What other information you holding back, sir ?"
"You've got all the information you need. Like I said, I want to buy two horses; I'm not trying to sell you or Mr. Shaw anything. Now what the hell's your problem. Either get him on the phone or I'll take my business somewhere else."
He finally picked up the phone and punched-in an extension number. I don't know who answered; I could only hear this end of the conversation, but by the tone of his voice I knew Seitz wasn't talking to Shaw, and I also knew my chances of seeing Shaw were slim to none. Seitz hung up the phone and told me that Shaw was checking a newborn colt in one of his stables, and wasn't available.
"I don't mind waiting," I said. "I have nowhere to go but home, so I think I'll stick around until he returns."
"I think not, sir . Strangers make Mr. Shaw very nervous. Our standing orders are to never admit anyone except employees, approved vendors, and people who have made an appointment. And they have to be escorted to their destination on the ranch. In addition, your vehicle is parked illegally - parking is reserved exclusively for persons with appointments. I suggest you leave immediately and call later for an appointment. Understood, sir ?"
"Perfectly, boy ." With that I picked-up my briefcase and left. It was still raining hard, and when I got back to my SUV I started the engine and turned on the wipers, but decided to stay parked where I was. I wanted to see what would happen if I tested the Boy Scout's parking ban. Sure enough, about five minutes later a four-wheel drive pickup, with oversized tires and the Diamond 27 logo on the door pulled in beside me. One of the Boy Scout's crew got out and tapped on my window with his nightstick. I cracked the window open and asked what the problem was.
"You are parked illegally. This vehicle must be removed immediately or it will be towed. Do you understand, sir ?"
"Sure do, but tell your troop leader that I'll be back. Understand ?"
He looked puzzled. I didn't wait for a response, but put the SUV in gear and took off. I watched in my rear view mirror to see if he was following me, but when I came to the first bend in the road he was still standing in the same spot, hands on his hips.
Mr. Shaw may have had what he considered good reasons for creating the type of security system I had just witnessed, but the militaristic Green Beret regimen seemed to me like overkill. Maybe he had more to hide and protect than even I imagined. But, if he wasn't who I suspected, he had to be one paranoid nut. Either way, he certainly discouraged visitors, probably friend and foe alike. I decided to take no chances.
I couldn't risk being followed, so when I got to the main highway I purposely turned left and headed toward Miles City, instead of turning right toward where Jerry was holed up in the line shack. There was very little traffic, and I clipped along doing about sixty, while checking my rear view mirror every few seconds. So far there was nothing behind me. I drove three or four miles and was ready to make a U-turn to rejoin Jerry when a small object appeared in my mirror. I stepped on the gas and was doing near eighty, but the object grew larger and larger. It moved close enough to identify as the security pick-up truck, with my friend with the nightstick at the wheel. He was alone.
For the next five miles, regardless of what speed I maintained, he stayed fifty yards behind me. Obviously he wasn't trying to intercept, just follow me wherever I went.
I knew I had to shake this guy or I'd never be able to go back to meet Jerry. When I spotted a gas station some distance ahead of me I decided to try something, but I knew it would work only if my pursuer was as dumb as I thought he was. I pushed my speed up to eighty again and he stayed right on my tail. As I approached the first ramp into the station I stood on the brake pedal, fish-tailed off to the shoulder, turned in and skidded to a stop in front of the first set of pumps. My friend in the pickup couldn't stop fast enough and continued past the station. He kept going and disappeared over the crest of a small hill. I figured he would pull off onto the shoulder and wait for me.
I had the attendant fill the tank while I borrowed the key to the men's room. The station had two service bays. The overhead doors to the bays were closed and each door had one small window, which, fortunately looked too dirty to see through. I asked the attendant if he could give me a quick lube and oil change. Three minutes later the SUV was up on a lift and I was peering out through the dirty window in the closed garage door.
Sure enough, not five minutes later the guard in the pickup truck pulled into the station and stopped in front of a gas pump. I slipped the attendant a twenty and told him that if the guy in the pickup truck asked about me he was to say I got gas and then left in a big hurry, heading south.
I watched as the pickup tore out of the station and turned south toward the ranch. When the attendant returned to the service bay he said the driver of the pickup truck did ask about me, and when he told the guy which way I headed, the driver yelled something about me being too smart for my own good, and he'd make me pay for causing him so much trouble. The attendant looked terrified. When I paid him for the service he looked at me, shaking his head. "Mister, that guy was plenty mad. I wouldn't mess with anybody from the Diamond 27; they're a bunch of mean dudes. If you're on your way back to Miles City I'd get there fast. Know what I mean?"
I said I did, and thanked him for his help. I gave the pickup truck another five minutes and then took off south; the last thing I needed was to overtake the pickup, so I held my speed down to fifty. When I passed the road leading into the ranch I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw no pickup truck or other signs of life. So far so good.
The rutted trail into the line shack was also devoid of any signs of life. The rain had slackened a little as I moved through the twisting path and into the turnaround. I backed off the turnaround into the high grass and underbrush; high and thick enough to almost completely hide the SUV. When I stepped out I saw Jerry waiting for me on the other side of the fence. He said I was gone so long he thought something bad had happened. I assured him it hadn't; things didn't work out the way I had hoped they would, but I knew my situation could be a lot worse.
The rain was now mixed with sleet, and the wind was getting stronger. It had also swung around and was now blowing out of the north, and it seemed to be getting colder by the minute. The line shack was warm inside - Jerry had built a fire in the Franklin stove. My clothes were still damp from the earlier soaking, so the heat felt good. But after seeing the TV surveillance system in the guard house a red flag went up - would smoke coming from the chimney show up on one of their monitors? I sure hope not. The shack was a large, single room, with bunks along the back wall, a table and chairs, and a metal cabinet containing canned foods and bottled water. There were kerosene lanterns, but no electric and no plumbing. So I guess we do what the bears do.
There was a window in the front wall next to the only door. The other three walls were windowless - Jerry said that was done to keep the shack as warm as possible in the winter, when outdoor temperatures dropped into the single digits and stayed there for days at a time, with nighttime temperatures well below zero.
"How far is it to the main ranch house?" I asked.
"I'd say a mile and a half, maybe two," Jerry answered. "If you look out the window you can see we're at the bottom end of a narrow valley. It's mostly grazing land. There are some wooded areas, but most of the ranch is rolling grassland. Not much difference in elevation from high to low. The ranch house is beyond the far end of the valley and quite a ways off to the right."
"I expected to see a lot of rock and mountains. Of course where I come from, anything higher than a mole hill is considered the Alps."
"Well, Cole," Jerry chuckled, "There aint no Alps around here. You gotta go west, past Billings out through the Butte area before you run into any real mountains."
"Is this the only line shack on the ranch?"
"Yep, the only one. They built it here because the wranglers chase most of the strays into the valley. Storms out here develop real fast - we get line squalls in the summer and lots of snow in the winter, sometimes with little or no warning, so this is where the guys head if they know they can't make it back to the pens and the bunkhouses. This place has been a life-saver for a lot of ranch-hands, particularly in the winter. Blizzards out in this country are usually a real bitch - snow's horizontal - with a white-out so blinding you can't see your horse's head. It's easy to get lost and freeze to death. And speaking of snow - we might see some today. I don't like the look of that sky, or the way the temperature's dropping."
Jerry was looking at a thermometer mounted outside the window. "It's reading about thirty degrees," he said. "When we left Miles City this morning it was forty-eight."
I started toward the window when Jerry let out a yell. "I'll be damned," he said. "Gimme your binoculars, quick! That looks like Cossack coming out of a ravine, four - maybe five hundred yards up the valley."
He grabbed the glasses from me and stared through then for what seemed an eternity. "Yep," he said, handing the glasses to me, "that's Cossack all right, and that's Mr. Shaw riding him. He's got two other guys on horses with him. Shit, Cole, looks like they're heading toward us. How the hell could they know we're here?"
"You think they're coming here?" I asked, knowing the answer before I asked the question.
"'Fraid so, Cole, why else would they be heading into a dead-end valley?"
"I know you were trying to be helpful, but I think the smoky fire you built told them somebody is here."
"Yeah, you're probably right - It was stupid of me! Dammit, I knew I'd regret coming with you - I knew it!"
"Take it easy Jerry, they're still some distance away. Grab your stuff and we'll make a break for the SUV."
As bad as I wanted to run, I first had to look at the infamous Mr. Shaw. I grabbed the binoculars from Jerry and moved to the window. When I focused on the white stallion and the rider, I saw an older man with gray-white hair protruding below the brim of a large, dark green cowboy hat. He also had a gray-white close-cropped beard, not full enough to hide a chiseled nose and sharp, angular features. He wore light colored boots, dark pants and a bright yellow poncho. I tried superimposing my mental images of the dozens of pictures of the Shah of Iran that I had recently poured over - pictures from the 40's right up to the time he supposedly died - and his biography that I had practically memorized. The more I looked at this figure on a horse, the more I became convinced that I was looking at the late Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Aryamehr Shahanshah of Iran. My God, this is absolutely incredible! As strong as my suspicions have been, I can't believe my eyes. It quickly dawned on me that nobody else was going to believe me either. The Shah alive! Sure, and so is John F. Kennedy. I can hear it now - what the hell you been smokin' Cole McQuaid! The fantasy of this situation is one thing, but the reality of the image in my binoculars is undeniable.
"Cole, for God's sake we gotta get outa here now! I think the other two guys are armed - and they're gonna be on us real quick."
I grabbed my stuff and we were out the door in ten seconds flat. Once outside I looked back at the three riders. They were still about two hundred yards away, but now they were coming at a full gallop.
We threw our stuff in the back of the SUV and I gunned it through the rutted trail toward the main highway. We hadn't gone more than a couple hundred yards when dead ahead of us the security pickup truck was blocking our path. They had picked a spot where trees on both sides of the trail made it impossible to get past them. The same guard who had tailed me earlier today was leaning against the front fender of his truck with a shotgun cradled in his arms. His boss, Karl Seitz, stood a few feet away. He also had a shotgun, but his was pointed straight at us.
I braked to a stop about ten feet from the pickup and rolled down the window. Seitz walked toward us and tapped the front fender of the SUV with the barrel of his shotgun.
"Out of the vehicle, both of you. Now!" he yelled. "And keep your hands in sight. You're both under arrest for criminal trespass and breaking and entering. If you don't mind my saying so sir , you're both in deep trouble"
Jerry and I got out and Jerry immediately started toward Seitz, his hand raised above his head and his face flushed with anger.
"Seitz," Jerry said, almost shouting. "You're dead wrong. McQuaid here wants to buy some horses. You wouldn't let him in to see Mr. Shaw so I brought him out here hoping to see some grazing stock in the valley. I figured that maybe if I helped McQuaid get the horses he's after it might change the bosses mind and help me get my old job back."
I give Jerry credit, he's a fast thinker. But he didn't impress Seitz.
"Jerry, you're a lousy liar. Your past employment here don't cut no ice with me; you got fired because you don't know how to obey orders. But you better obey mine or you're gonna get your head blown off - so stop right there and keep your hands where I can see 'em. up. And Mr. McQuaid, sir , get over here beside Jerry, and keep your hands in sight too. Now, damn it. Move!"
While Seitz covered us with his shotgun, the other guard cuffed our hands behind our backs. According to the patch on his breast pocket his name is Russell Jenkins. Jenkin's pickup truck was a crew cab; he opened the passenger door and shoved us into the back seat. Jenkins drove the pickup, while Seitz drove my SUV.
Five minutes later we drove through the raised gates at the security headquarters building. Jenkins lead Jerry and I to a room at the rear of the building and put us in separate steel-barred cells on opposite sides of a wide aisle. From what I could see there were about six cells. I couldn't see any windows in the room and the single door we came through looked to be heavy steel. I'd bet that most police departments in South Jersey have no more than two or three cells; and here in the middle of nowhere they've got a half dozen. Something is really wrong with this whole picture. It's like the Shah has established his own country - more accurately a monarchy - here in Montana, and I don't understand how he gets away with it. It's like we were in some small, third-world country. Where the hell is the local law?
After locking each of us in our cell Jenkins left the room. The temperature in the room was on the high side of eighty, and I was sweating. Jenkins hadn't removed the cuffs, so I couldn't take off my jacket or sweater. I figured the room was being monitored; I could see one camera on the ceiling of the aisle. There were probably others. I also had no doubt the cells were bugged for sound, so I'd have to play the game accordingly. I was concerned about what Jerry might say, and when I looked across he was pacing his small cell, mumbling something under his breath.
"You know these people, Jerry," I said. "Why are they overreacting like this - all I wanted to do was buy two horses." I motioned up to the ceiling mounted camera, but I don't think Jerry got my message.
"I don't know why, Cole. But I don't mind telling you I'm scared. These bastards are crazy and there's no telling what they'll do. I'm just sorry as hell that I let you talk me into bringing you out here. I must have been nuts!"
I tried mouthing words to him to shut up, while alternately nodding my head up and down, then staring and pointing a finger at the ceiling. All I got in return was Jerry staring through the bars at me, his expression telling me he thought I was nuts.
I was thinking about what I could say next when the door to the room opened and Jenkins walked in carrying two small brown paper bags. He slid one bag through the bars of my cell and sat it on the floor, then told me to back up against the bars so he could unlock my cuffs. After he did he repeated the same procedure with Jerry.
"There's food in the bags, but eat slow, guys," he said. "It's mid-afternoon, so this is lunch and dinner. There won't be any more food today." He stood in the aisle with his arms folded and watched us, a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
I guess the reality of my situation was beginning to sink in. I was a prisoner; probably miles from any kind of help, and the prospect of getting out of here was beginning to look mighty dim. These bastards could cause me to disappear off the face of the earth, and nobody would know where or how it happened.
The names of the earlier victims who had disappeared without a trace flashed through my head; Stiebris in particular. He was the first, and it happened here on this ranch. Maybe the poor guy is buried under the floor I'm standing on.
I needed to think; there has to be some way out of this mess. For lack of anything better at the moment I decided to try the old television cop show line.
"Jenkins," I said. "Regardless of what you think I'm guilty of, I'm entitled to call my lawyer. And I want to do just that - right now!"
Jenkins turned to face me and laughed. "McQuaid, you'd better understand something. You trespassed on private property, posted private property I might add, and then you broke into one of our buildings. So we'll decide who you can call, and when. And that applies to you too, Jerry. I suggest you both shut up and eat your food. Captain Sietz and maybe even Mr. Shaw will be in to talk to you a little later. Beyond that, all I can suggest is don't make any long range plans." He chuckled and the smirk faded, instantly replaced with a sadistic grin. I guess he thought he was funny. With that, he turned and walked out, locking the big door behind him.
I scanned the walls and ceiling of my cell and didn't see anything resembling a camera or a peep hole, so I moved to the back of the cell where I knew the corridor camera couldn't see me. I waived my arms until I caught Jerry's attention and then put a finger across my lips. With my other hand I pointed toward the corridor ceiling and the video camera.
Jerry finally caught on and nodded agreement. I spent the next few minutes silently mouthing words to Jerry, hoping he'd understand what I didn't want him to say. He nodded again. All I can do now is play it by ear, cross my fingers, and hope for the best.
I sat on the edge of the bunk and opened the brown bag. I didn't realize how hungry I was; it had been a long time since breakfast. The bag yielded a ham sandwich on rather dry looking rye bread, an overripe apple, a can of warm cola, and a small plastic packet of mustard. Wow, how lucky can a guy get? Then it dawned on me that I better start worrying about saving my ass, not the quality of jailhouse food. It wasn't the worst food I've ever had, but I'd have trouble giving it half a star.
When I finished the sandwich I laid on the bunk staring at the ceiling. I had to come up with some kind of plan to get out of here. With all the security and technology in this place breaking out would be next to impossible. First, I was behind bars in a locked room. I had no weapon. Beyond that I'd probably be outnumbered five to one. The only conclusion I could reach was that I'd have to find some way to outthink or outsmart them - and, based on what I've seen so far, that's going to be next to impossible - even with a helluva lot of luck. These guys seem to be not only tough, but very smart.
I've never been in a situation like this before; I knew that one wrong move and I'd be dead. To make matters worse I glanced across and saw Jerry pacing his cell. I got him into this and I'd have to do everything I could to get him out.
The only positive thing that's happened since I got here is that I accomplished what I set out to do. What I saw earlier at the line shack convinced me I was right; Mr. M. R. Shaw is in fact the ?late' Shah of Iran - without a shadow of doubt. As unbelievable as I knew this was, I also knew that even if I get out of here my job would only be half done - it won't be easy, but I'll have to find somebody who believes me. And that somebody will have to have the clout to do something about it.
I laid there staring at the ceiling for more than an hour, discarding one idea after another. Just as I sat up on the bunk the door to the cell room opened and Karl Seitz swaggered in.
"All right, McQuaid," he said. "Were going for a little walk. Mr. Shaw wants to see you in his office. Walk over to the bars and turn away from me. I've gotta cuff you."
I saw no reason to argue - looks like I'd get to see the Shah up close - so I did as he ordered. After the cuffs were in place Seitz looked up at the corridor video camera and gave some sort of hand signal, then unlocked my cell door.
Seitz got behind me, holding on to the chain between my cuffs, and steered me outside the cell room. After a few left and right turns we were in a blind corridor, with a door at the far end that turned out to be an elevator.
"I'm confused," I said. "A one-story building with an elevator? What do you have, a penthouse sandwiched between here and the roof?"
"We're not going up, McQuaid, we're going down. Just be patient."
There were no indicator buttons inside the elevator, but it seemed like we dropped at least two floors before the doors reopened. When we stepped out of the elevator we walked across a carpeted corridor and stepped onto a wide conveyor belt that was flush with the floor. This is unbelievable; an underground tunnel with a moving sidewalk! The conveyor extended to my left as far as I could see. The tunnel appeared to be solid concrete and had indirect lighting on both sides, and the air seemed dry and warm. I didn't say a word, but the more I saw of this place the more concerned I became about my chances of getting out alive.
After traveling for two or three minutes the conveyor ended at a blank wall similar to where we got on. On the left was another elevator. On the right was a guard watching us through a large glass window. This place has security like a Federal Reserve bank.
After another short elevator ride, this time heading up, we stepped out into a small carpeted room, empty except for a rather nondescript female seated behind a small desk.
"Good afternoon, Captain Seitz, you are expected. Mr. Shaw is in his office. Go right through."
"Thank you, Miss Kinnard," Seitz responded.
The single door opposite the elevator slid silently open and, with Seitz still behind me, we continued our journey. We passed through a room containing a lot of leather chairs and heavy oak lamp tables. There were no windows; the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with loaded bookshelves. After passing through another carpeted corridor we entered a small, beautifully furnished room - obviously some kind of reception area - with a real knockout redhead seated behind an executive desk. There were large heavy looking oak doors on three walls of the room.
The redhead greeted Seitz and told us both to take a seat; Mr. Shaw was on the phone. A few minutes later a light flashed on her desk. She picked up her phone and listened for about ten seconds. When she returned the phone to its cradle, she told us that Mr. Shaw would see us now.
The Shah's private office was even more opulent than the reception area. He was standing behind his desk when we walked in. As I had seen back at the line shack, he had long gray and white streaked hair and a close-cropped gray and white beard. He also wore very dark tinted glasses, which I thought a bit unusual since there was nothing but artificial light. Compared with the pictures of him that I had studied before coming here he was the right height, but had put on some weight; particularly his face. I still had no doubt about his true identity - I'd stake my life on it. It then dawned on me that maybe I have done just that!
"Karl," the Shah said, "please remove Mr. McQuaid's handcuffs. You may also leave us alone."
He spoke excellent English, but with a trace of accent that I couldn't quite identify. I couldn't take my eyes off of him.
"Are you sure, sir?" Seitz replied. "I don't trust this guy at all."
"Do not worry Karl, I believe Mr. McQuaid is intelligent enough to realize that any attempt to escape our hospitality would be futile."
"Yes, sir, but if you don't mind I'll wait in the library."
"Suit yourself Karl."
The Shah motioned for me to sit in a large chair across from his desk. He continued to stand motionless, watching Karl leaving the office and closing the door behind him. It wasn't until I sat down that he began pacing the length of his desk. I was curious as to why he wanted Karl to leave the office. Something odd was going on.
"McQuaid," he said in a rather raspy voice. "I do not intend to waste my valuable time playing your game of charades. I know who you are and I also know why you are here. We both know that you are not here to buy horses. That said, let me ask why you are pursuing this asinine attempt to harass and embarrass me? You have nothing to gain and much to lose. Who is behind this and what do they hope to accomplish?"
His voice surprised me. He spoke slowly in a very controlled manner, with just a hint of that elusive accent. After many months of effort on my part and so many years of speculation by others - it seemed almost anticlimactic to see the mysterious ' client ' in the flesh, and to hear his voice. Was this really the end of the trail? Could it be this simple? But how the hell does he know so much about me? It was a question I couldn't answer. I quickly decided that the safest path for me was to continue playing dumb, but before I could speak he stopped pacing and pointed a finger at me.
"McQuaid," he said, his voice trembling, "I'll be totally frank. Based on what my people tell me, you have a baseless suspicion that I am the late Shah of Iran. Your premise is totally ludicrous.
"Mr. Shaw," I responded. "I have no idea what you are talking about. I'm not working with or for anybody other than myself. I'm truly here for no reason other than to purchase two thoroughbreds for my stable. Why is that being construed as harassment?" Before he could answer I continued.
"I met Jerry in a bar last night and he told me your head trainer had fired him. He also said he thought you liked him because he trained and cared for your personal horse. Since I had been told by others in town that you and your ranch are very inaccessible, I thought Jerry might help me get in to see you. I think he agreed to help me because he thought if he brought you some business you might give him his old job back. So, again, I am only here to buy . . ."
The Shah stopped pacing and extended both hands in the air. "Mr. McQuaid," he snapped angrily, "Do not insult my intelligence with more of your lies. Would you like me to tell you all about your recent visit to my Tampa office? A visit that had nothing to do with buying horses. You were prying into my affairs. And if you think I am bluffing I'll gladly show you a video tape that covers much of your comings and goings while you were there."
He really caught me off guard. I had spent a lot of time in Tampa with Rita, and she seemed so open and above board I couldn't believe she was a stooge of the Shah. Other than Irena I didn't have a clue who could have filmed me. Regardless, I knew for sure that I had to see the film; for no reason other than to see who was - and who wasn't in it.
"O.K.," I responded, feigning anger. "I think you are bluffing, so show me the damn film!"
"Very well, Mr. McQuaid, but you are simply stalling for time. It will change nothing."
I knew it wouldn't, but I had to buy time any way I could. I still had no idea how to get out of here.
He sat on the edge of his desk, and with a hand-held remote opened a section of wall revealing a large screen TV. The video tape lasted about ten minutes. There was no mistaking my image on the screen. There were segments of me coming into the building, talking with Irena in the reception area, and others of me entering and leaving Rita's office. But none inside her office. There were shots of me in the corridors and even in the men's toilet room. But there was nothing of Rita and me beyond the walls of the office building, or at the restaurants where we had lunch and dinner, and later that evening when I dropped her off at her home. It was little consolation to realize what I was watching was obviously edited tape from security cameras. But it told me nothing about who in the Tampa office sent it to the Shah. I also realized that given the predicament I was in it really didn't matter.
The Shah had dimmed the lights in the room before starting the film and the room was still semi-dark. I knew that whatever I was going to do - I had better do it damn quick, because if the Shah called Seitz back into his office I was a dead man. I didn't know how it would play out, but I had to make my move now!
The Shah still sat on the edge of his desk, about six feet from me. The cuffs Seitz had taken off me were sitting on the desk in front of me. I said a prayer under my breath and jumped out of the chair. Before he knew what was happening I slammed into him and knocked him backwards on the desk. His head hit the desk hard, but he was still conscious and began wildly swinging one arm at me. With his other arm he reached down and slid open a desk drawer, his hand flailing in search of something. I saw it first - a Colt .45 pistol. My hand reached it just ahead of his.I had no time to see if it was loaded because the Shah was pounding my chest. I also had no time to think about what I was doing - I was moving on adrenaline and survival instinct! I glanced at the gun and flipped the safety off and quickly jammed the muzzle under his chin. Suddenly he became motionless, wide eyes staring up at me and his body rigid.
"I implore you Mr. McQuaid, move the gun - please . . .it has a hair trigger so please, please listen to me. It will fire with the least amount of pressure on the trigger. I will not resist, so please move the gun!"
I moved back so he could sit up, but kept the gun pointed at his head.
"Stand up and don't touch anything on the desk - do it slow," I said, not recognizing my own voice. I didn't see any alarm button, but I figured there had to be one. When his feet touched the floor I backed away and with my free hand grabbed the handcuffs still lying on the desk.
"Move away from your desk and get against the wall - facing it. And don't even think about yelling for help, 'cause if you do I'll kill you! I've got nothing to lose at this point."
I stayed behind him, with the gun jammed between his shoulder blades. With one hand I managed to cuff his hands behind his back, then turned him to face me.
"We're gonna walk over to the door. I'll open it a crack and you're gonna tell the redhead to get Seitz from the library and bring him in here. And remember - say the wrong thing and you're dead, and she'll also be dead before she can get out of her chair."
I was trying my damndest to sound threatening, but my voice still wasn't cooperating; not only did it sound squeaky but it was breaking up.
I held tight to the chain between the cuffs and put my foot close enough to the door so he could open it no more than an inch or two. I stayed out of sight with the gun pointed at his left ear.
"Cathy," he said quietly, "please go to the library and get Karl. Tell him to come directly to my office."
When she said she would I quickly closed the door. I didn't want the Shah anywhere near his desk, so I turned one of the visitor's chairs to face the door and pushed him into it, holding the back of his collar with one hand and with the other keeping the gun against the back of his head. I had no idea how Seitz would react when he walks in on this, but I knew my only chance of getting out of here was to use the Shah as a shield.
It seemed no more than a few seconds before the door swung open and Seitz stepped through. He froze when he saw me with the gun. His sidearm was holstered on his right side and, as he reached to unsnap the strap, the Shah screamed at him.
"Don't Karl, don't. He will kill me. Come in and shut the. . .
Karl didn't listen. A microsecond of hesitation on my part allowed him to pull the gun from its holster and swing it up toward me. I have never in my life fired a gun at a human being, but in that same microsecond I knew that if I didn't I would be dead. I wasn't even sure if my gun was loaded, but I squeezed the trigger once, twice, and almost in slow motion watched the slugs tear into Karl's torso, flinging him back against the door frame. He fell in a heap and landed on his back; his gun spinning across the carpet. The noise from my gun was deafening, and was followed by screams from outside the door.
Through the open door I could see Cathy the redhead. She was hugging herself and screaming at the top of her lungs. I pulled the Shah out of his chair and pushed him through the doorway to where Cathy was standing.
"Cathy! Stop screaming now! If you do I won't hurt you. . .I promise. . .otherwise I'll have to stop you."
I waved the gun in her face and her screaming turned into uncontrollable sobbing; she was hysterical. I told the Shah to lay on the floor, face down, until I figured out what to do with Cathy. I couldn't leave her here to sound an alarm, and I certainly didn't want to take her with me.
There was a door with a key lock in the wall behind her desk. I opened it and found a small storage room lined with shelving filled with office supplies. She was still blubbering when I led her by the arm into the room and told her to sit on the floor and keep quiet.
"You've got light and plenty of air to breathe in here. Behave yourself and I'll let somebody know you're here," I said. I shut and locked the door and dropped the key on her desk.
I looked into the Shah's office to where Seitz's body lay. He hadn't moved. I checked the side of his neck for a pulse and felt none. He was dead. Since I wasn't sure how many shots were left in the Shah's gun I grabbed Seitz's pistol from the floor, slid the safety on, and pushed it into the waistband of my pants. It was a plainer version of the Shah's Colt.45, and I figured it would have a full clip. I didn't know how much firepower I'd need to get out of here, but I wanted to even the odds as much as possible.
I grabbed the chain between the Shah's handcuffs and told him to get on his feet. I had no idea where I was in this labyrinth of rooms and corridors. My head was spinning with questions about what to do next; fear that I was doomed; remorse because I had just killed somebody, even though I knew it was self defense, and poor Jerry, probably still in his cell in the guardhouse. I wanted to get away from this place as fast as I could, but I couldn't leave without Jerry. Besides, unless they've moved it, my SUV is parked right outside the guardhouse. That seemed to be the most direct way out of here. But it would also be the way I'd run into who knows how many armed guards. Nothing is easy!
"Mr. Shaw," I said. "You're going to lead me back to the main guardhouse. But we're not going the same way Seitz brought me to your office. I'm not going to risk being ambushed in one of your underground tunnels - with no place to hide. I'm sure you know another way to get there, so you're coming with me. Consider yourself my hostage and shield - I'll be behind you all the way. And the gun is gonna be right between your shoulder blades until we're out of here. Understand? You saw what I did to Seitz. Give me any trouble and I'll do the same to you."
The Shah looked at me through steely dark eyes. "Mr. McQuaid," he said. "I do not want to die. But, regardless, you're not going to kill me, because if you do you will lose your shield, and if that happens you won't make it to the front gate."
"You may be right," I responded, "but don't test me. I may not get out of here alive, but I guarantee you won't either. Now, show me another way back to the guard house."
"We will have to go by car," he replied. "The tunnel you came through is the only way to get there underground and out of sight."
He led me through what appeared to be underground living quarters to yet another elevator. We saw nobody on the way. After another short ascent the elevator doors opened and we stepped out into a short hallway between what appeared to be a kitchen on one end and a living room on the other. As we entered the living room, a woman seated at a desk at the far end of the room jumped to her feet.
"Mr. Shaw, what is going on? Why are you. . ."
Before she could finish I pointed the gun at her and ordered her to move from behind the desk and sit in one of the upholstered chairs.
"Do as he says, Cindy," the Shah said. "and do not be frightened."
The Shah turned to me and actually forced a smile. "Mr. McQuaid, in order to get my car one of us will have to call the garage. Do you really want to risk that?"
I answered by leading him to her desk, where I picked a cordless phone off its cradle and dropped it in Cindy's lap. "Call," I said. "Make it short and sweet. Tell them to bring the car immediately. And no funny stuff."
I watched her punch in a number and then tell whoever answered that Mr. Shaw's car was to be brought to the main house immediately. I took the phone from her and laid it on the desk. I noticed a wide doorway behind her desk, leading to a room that seemed to be enclosed with nothing but windows.
"What's out there?" I asked.
"It is a sun room and my public office," the Shah answered. "I conduct all ranch business there, meeting vendors and other visitors."
Looking through the expanse of windows I could see the weather was getting worse. I could see the snow and hear the sleet pinging against the windows. The macadam road leading to the house was wet, but the grass areas were already white with snow. The sky was dark gray, with low black clouds scudding along in a swirling strong wind - if I didn't know how cold it was, I'd expect to see flashes of lightning. Given my predicament, I wasn't sure whether this weather was good or bad for me. Then something caught my eye at the far end of the sun room near the high ceiling. It was a security camera panning the room. The realization then hit me that I wasn't going to surprise anybody; I was heading into an ambush at the guard house. With the multitude of monitors I saw earlier, how many other cameras had picked me up since I took the Shah hostage and shot Seitz? They had to know what was going on.
So it was a coin toss. Do I try to leave through the guard house, or find some other way off the ranch. Either way, my odds of getting out of here alive seemed to be shrinking by the minute - even with my hostage.
As I watched through the sun room windows a car materialized out of the swirling snow, heading toward us. Suddenly, beyond and to the right of the car, a plane heading away from us descended, it's lights blinking in the dark stormy sky. It appeared to touch down and then disappear into a white wall of snow. It's probably a wild long-shot, but maybe there is another way out of here!
When the car driver walked through the front door he headed directly to Cindy's desk, brushing snow from his leather jacket. "Geez, Cindy, where does Mr. Shaw want to go in this lousy weather? It's brutal out there."
I stepped through the sun room doorway with the Shah in front of me and pointed my gun directly at the driver.
"I'll answer your question," I said, "just as soon as we're all in the car."
I figured security probably knew by now exactly where I was and what I was up to, so I decided to leave Cindy behind. She'd be excess baggage I'd have to keep my eyes on. I told her to sit on the floor in the corner and not to move.
The car was a big sedan. I told the driver to get behind the wheel, as I put the Shah in the front passenger seat. I got directly behind the Shah and kept the muzzle of my gun pressed against the back of his head.
"What's your name, driver?" I asked.
"My name is Angelo," he responded. "I don't know what your problem is mister, but where are we supposed to be going?" He turned his head and looked at me, moving his head from side to side almost imperceptibly, like he was trying to tell me something.
"He wants you to drive off the ranch through the main gate," the Shah interjected.
"No!" I said. "I've changed my mind. Sorry if it disappoints you Mister Shaw , but I'm not driving into a turkey shoot at the front gate. Angelo, I want you to drive to the airstrip. Find the plane that just landed. And let's not waste time faking any detours. Understand?"
"Yeah, I do." Angelo answered. "But I don't think the plane's gonna help you get out of here - I'm surprised Paul even landed here in this weather, much less try to take off again."
"Who's plane is it, Angelo? You obviously know the pilot."
The Shah turned his head slightly. "McQuaid," he said. "The plane is mine, and Paul Miller is my pilot. He just brought Alex Carson, my ranch manager, back from a business trip to Chicago. And like Angelo said, Paul will never agree to take off in this weather. You're on a fool's errand McQuaid."
"We'll see about that," I said.
A few minutes later we stopped in front of a small hanger. A Learjet was parked in front of the closed hanger doors and was being refueled from a small tank truck. The truck driver was standing at the rear of the truck, hands in his pockets, looking very cold. No one else was visible. Snow was now accumulating on the blacktop, so the temperature was still dropping.
"Angelo," I said. "Pull up as close as you can to that small door at the end of the hanger." There were lights on in a window next to the door and I could see a shadow moving around inside. I crossed my fingers and hoped it was the pilot.
With Angelo and the Shah in front of me we walked into the room. It was a small office and there were two guys inside. One was seated at a desk doing paperwork; I assumed he was the pilot. The other guy was in a chair with an open briefcase on his lap. The room was quite warm but I was shaking with cold. Or maybe it was just nerves. Both scrambled to stand up when they saw the Shah and me behind him with a gun.
"What the hell's going on!" the guy getting out of his chair yelled, spilling the contents of his briefcase on the floor. "Who are you?" he said, looking at me.
"Who I am doesn't matter," I said. "Are you Alex Carson?"
The Shah again turned to look at me, his eyes cold as ice. "McQuaid, gun or no gun you are trying my patience. What difference does it make who's who? Yes, this is Alex and that guy is my pilot, Paul. Now, do whatever you're going to do, but do it quickly! I am becoming very agitated and physically tired."
My hastily formed plan was to have the pilot fly the Shah and me out of here. The Shah was my only bargaining chip, so I had to keep him as a hostage. But now I had four people to watch and, with this lousy weather, every minute I waste further decreases the chances of getting that plane off the ground. Then I remembered poor Jerry, probably still locked in his cell back at the guard house, and my spirits really plummeted. I couldn't desert Jerry. Out of desperation more than anything I turned to Angelo.
"Take the car, Angelo, and go to the guard house. Tell whoever is on duty that Mr. Shaw wants you to bring their prisoner, Jerry, here immediately. And, again, Angelo, no tricks! You've got exactly fifteen minutes to get back here with Jerry. Take longer than that or come back with somebody other than Jerry and Mr. Shaw dies. Understood? Now go!"
Angelo said he understood and headed for the door. As he opened the door he turned toward me and nodded his head ever so slightly, an almost undetectable grin on his face. It was like he was trying to give me some sort of signal. Problem was, I didn't know whether to be relieved or alarmed. One way or the other, it probably wouldn't make much difference - I was smack in the middle of a pretty scary situation.
I didn't think Alex or Paul would be carrying a gun. I checked them anyway and found nothing. I told both to sit on the floor with their backs against the wall. I pushed the Shah into the desk chair and stood an arm's length away, nervously looking out the window for the return of Angelo.
He was back in less then fifteen, but my heart sank when I saw two people exit the rear door of the car. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. The first was Jerry, still handcuffed. Right behind him was Russell Jenkins, Karl Seitz's sadistic second-in-command. I stepped behind the Shah and held the gun to his right ear. Things were getting more complicated by the minute, and I knew somebody was going to get hurt - maybe die. I just hoped it wasn't me.
Angelo came through the door first, followed by Jerry, then Jenkins. When Jenkins saw me he stopped in the open doorway and pulled Jerry toward him. Before I could blink, Jenkins gun was jammed under Jerry's chin.
"What the hell's going on here?" Jenkins yelled. "Are you all right Mr. Shaw?"
"Not really, Russell, I think that's obvious."
Angelo had stepped to one side, his head moving from Jenkins to me and back again. "Angelo," I said. "I told you to bring Jerry here - nobody else - what happened?"
"I had no choice McQuaid," he said. "When I got to the guard house Jenkins was at the front counter on the phone. He was having an argument with whoever was on the other end of the line. I told him Mr. Shaw wanted me to bring Jerry here. After he slammed the phone down he said something funny was going on and he'd bring Jerry here personally. He said he wouldn't let Jerry out of his sight."
The Shah stiffened. "Russell," the Shah said. "Who was on the phone and what did they want?"
"It was the state Attorney General's office, sir. They wanted to notify us that the Highway Patrol was on the way here from their field office in Miles City. They were coming to investigate a missing person's report. I tried to convince the guy on the phone that we could handle that type of investigation ourselves."
"And just who is missing, Russell?" the Shah asked.
"The bastard holding a gun on you - McQuaid! He must have friends in high places to get the Attorney General's office involved."
Russell's nervousness was showing. He had a twitch in his right eye and he kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He also looked as white as the snow outside.
"Russell," the Shah said, cold anger in his voice. "Why didn't you refer them to the Sheriff's office, as we always do in situations like this; you know we have friends there! My standing order has always been to keep the Highway Patrol off the ranch. Why didn't you do that?"
"I tried, Mr. Shaw, but the guy wouldn't listen to me. I really think. . ."
"Russell," the Shah interrupted, almost shouting. "Your job is to follow orders, not to think! You've made two serious mistakes. First, you didn't respond to the emergency that developed in my compound a short while ago. With so many security cameras, how could you not know what was going on? I was taken prisoner by Mr. McQuaid here, who also shot and killed Karl. And you saw none of that?"
"Karl is dead?" Russell yelled, moving his gun from Jerry to me. "On my mother's grave, Mr. Shaw, I didn't know any of that happened. I was in the cell room checking on our prisoner and then went to the front desk to answer the phone when the Attorney General's office called. I'm sorry, but I wasn't paying attention to the monitors. I guess I was too preoccupied with the phone call. . ."
"Unacceptable, Russell, totally unacceptable," the Shah interrupted. "I will not be interrogated by anyone from the Attorney General's office, and I don't want them snooping around my property. You could have prevented that if you had handled the phone call intelligently. By not doing that you have made it necessary for me to take drastic action - something I've hoped I'd never have to do. I've dreaded this moment for years."
"Please, Mr. Shaw, let me go back to the guard house. I can prevent them from coming on the ranch."
"And just how do you propose doing that, Russell? You'd compound disobedience with stupidity. The Highway Patrol is only following orders from their boss, the Attorney General. What will you do, Russell, kill them? Within hours we'd have an army of law enforcement people crawling all over my ranch."
The Shah turned his head and looked at me, anger still contorting his features. "Mr. McQuaid," he said. "You hold the trump card here. At least for the moment. If you kill me, Russell will surely kill you, unless you're willing to shoot through your hostage friend to kill Russell first. Most of the people in this room could be dead in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, all you really want to do is leave the ranch with your friend, alive and healthy. Am I correct?"
"That about sums it up, Mr. Shaw," I answered. "So what do you have in mind?"
"I would like to suggest a compromise, Mr. McQuaid."
"I'm listening, Mr. Shaw."
"My offer is this:" he said. "First, Russell will give his gun to you, along with his prisoner, Jerry. You will then remove my handcuffs and escort Paul, my pilot, and myself to my plane. Russell also will accompany me as my bodyguard - less his weapon of course. And one other person will join me on the plane - someone you have not met; Inez, my personal assistant. Alex, please call her now on the speaker phone and tell her to dress warm and meet us at the plane. She'll have to drive here in the van."
"Whoa, Mr. Shaw, just hold on," I said. "If I agree to this - and I don't know that I will, she's to park behind the plane and get on board immediately."
The Shah shrugged his shoulders. "That's fine, McQuaid. Tell her that Alex." Turning to face Alex, the Shah continued, "You will stay here, Alex. I want you to meet the Highway Patrol when then arrive. Tell them anything you want, but do your best to keep them off the ranch. You probably will not succeed, and that is exactly why I cannot be here. I will not be interrogated by those people. I will call you tomorrow for your report and to give you further instructions.
"Angelo, as soon as we take off you are to drive Alex, McQuaid and Jerry to the guard house. Alex, you will wait there for the Highway Patrol. McQuaid, I trust that you and Jerry will leave the ranch immediately. I ask that you not be here when the Highway Patrol arrives. Now, does everybody understand what I want them to do? McQuaid, do you accept my compromise?"
Before I could speak, Paul, the pilot, stood up and began shaking his head. "Mr. Shaw," he said. "It will be suicide to attempt a flight out of here tonight in this weather. Visibility is getting worse by the minute. Please reconsider!"
"It is risky, I agree," the Shah said. "But I'm confident you can do it. I've seen you fly in worse weather. McQuaid, you haven't answered me! Time is critical here!"
"I accept," I said. "As long as everything is done in the sequence you just outlined. Alex, get this Inez on the phone now and tell her she has exactly ten minutes to get here or the plane leaves without her. And Russell, remove Jerry's handcuffs and give him your gun, handle first. Jerry, as soon as you have his gun I want you to search Russell for other weapons - and be careful - I don't trust him at all!"
Turning back to the Shah, I said, "Why are you so concerned about a visit by the Highway Patrol. If you're the legitimate businessman you claim to be, what do you have to hide? Seems to me you're totally overreacting."
"Let me be the judge of that, McQuaid. The Attorney General, in fact the entire Montana Department of Justice, have tried for years to find cause to search my property. I do have an informant in their midst who has told me that they have even tried fabricating evidence that I'm the leader of a religious cult here on the ranch who advocates the violent overthrow of the government. Ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous! Now it appears they are using your disappearance as an excuse to snoop around my property. They will undoubtedly show up with a search warrant and who knows what else, but I will not play their game! I will not answer their questions! Beyond that, McQuaid, it is none of your business, and you're wasting my valuable time. Russell, give your weapon to Jerry - do it now!"
A lot happened in the next few minutes. I ordered Alex to call the Inez woman, and on the speaker phone heard exactly what was said. Nothing sounded out of the ordinary to me. Jerry found no other weapons on Russell. We waited a little more than ten minutes for Inez to show up. I was watching out the office window when she did. She parked her van off to one side and walked toward then plane. She was carrying a small suitcase and stopped and stood beside the plane's closed passenger door. Based on the description I got from the old guy at the post office, this was probably the woman who picked-up the Shah's mail on a regular basis. From what I could see in the diminished outdoor lighting she was almost masculine in appearance, with long dark hair and an olive complexion. I got a quick glimpse of her face when she turned in the light. She had a sour expression that looked chiseled in stone - a strong resemblance to old Iron-Face Irena in Tampa. I wondered if her last name is also Kabojian.
As I herded the Shah, Russell and Paul out the door, Jerry kept repeating over and over 'Thank you dear Jesus, thank you, thank you, thank you! He had obviously convinced himself that he'd never live to see daylight tomorrow.
Angelo followed my group out the door and he walked directly to the car. I didn't think too much of it until I saw him unlock and open the trunk. Red lights began flashing in my head. What did all of those odd facial expressions he directed at me during the past hour or so mean? What the hell is he up to? I was in the open with no place to hide. I had two choices; either go after Angelo or get this group on the plane fast. I yelled for Paul to hurry it up, and when he opened the plane door I practically pushed the three of them on board. Through the open door I could see the mysterious Inez, already on board. As soon as Paul closed and secured the door I turned and walked toward Angelo's car, trying all the while to keep the car between us. I kept my gun pointed straight ahead. Angelo was yelling something to me but I couldn't hear him above the howling wind. As I approached the front of the car, Angelo was closing the trunk lid, and held an automatic pistol in his right hand. In his left hand he held an open wallet, displaying some sort of gold emblem, all the while yelling that he was on my side - he was the law - please put my gun away. Now I was really confused. He lowered his gun until it was pointed at the ground, but held his gold shield at eye level for me to see. I continued walking toward him and kept my gun raised and pointed at his head.
"McQuaid, don't do anything stupid," he said. "I don't have time to explain now, but my name is not Angelo and my job as the Shah's chauffeur is nothing more than a cover. I work for the United States government and for your own protection I'm asking you not to interfere with what I have do to. Please get behind me and stay out of my way."
I don't know why, but I did what he asked. I slipped my gun under my belt and walked around the car and stood behind him. He never took his eyes off the plane. I looked around but couldn't see Jerry; I hoped he was still in the hanger office keeping his eyes on Alex.
Paul had started the plane's engines. The cabin and running lights were barely visible in the blowing snow. The plane's landing lights were also on. I could see the wing and tail controls moving, so I guess Paul was trying to dislodge the accumulating snow. The lights on both sides on the runway were on when we first got here and were still lit. I didn't know whether Paul would have any problem taking off; I also didn't know what Angelo, or what ever the hell his name is, was going to do next.
I was still standing behind Angelo when the plane started taxiing the short distance to the end of the runway, where it turned into the wind and braked to a stop. Angelo yelled for me to stay where I was and began moving toward the plane at a fast trot. He was about a hundred feet from the plane when it started moving, engine noise screaming above the wind. The plane was accelerating quickly. Angelo stopped, planted his feet, brought his gun up to waist level and began firing. He was spraying the length of the plane with automatic gunfire, emptying one clip and quickly inserting another. The plane was gaining speed rapidly when Angelo began firing again. Just as the plane seemed to become airborne the right wing dipped and struck the runway with a shower of sparks. The tail lifted high in the air and, nose down, the plane cartwheeled once before erupting into a giant fireball and skidded off the runway, leaving a wake of flaming wreckage.
Angelo stood and watched the flames. I guess when he was satisfied that no one survived he turned and walked back to me.
"My god, Angelo," I said. "Was it necessary to do that? I can't believe I just witnessed four people dying like that. Do you know who Mr. Shaw really is - or was?"
"Yes I do, McQuaid," he answered. "I was simply following orders, and there's no time now to explain any more than that. We've got to get back to the hanger office fast. Let's go!"
When we entered the office Jerry was sitting in a chair with his back to the wall. He had Russell's gun pointed at Alex, who was standing with his face pressed against the window. The distant burning wreckage was visible through the window. Alex was white as a ghost and his whole body was trembling. He looked like he could be having some kind of seizure.
"Alex, get hold of yourself," Angelo yelled. "We're leaving right now for the main house, and you're coming with us. I need you to open the safe in Mr. Shaw's office. Cooperate and you won't get hurt. Let's go!"
When we arrived at the main house I remembered locking Cathy in a closet. I told Angelo I wasn't sure where the closet is.
"Don't worry McQuaid," he said. "I want you and Jerry to wait in the car. Alex, I want you to come with me. I need some files out of Shaw's office and some other things from his safe. You're to stay here after I leave. Find Cathy and then contact the rest of the staff. Tell them if they want to live they better gather up their personal belongings and get off the ranch fast. Unless you want to see more dead bodies you'd better convince them to move fast, cause all hell's gonna break loose here in just about ninety minutes. You can then leave too, if you want to live. Now let's go!"
In less than ten minutes Angelo came through the front door carrying a cardboard box. He put it on the seat next to him and we took off for the guard house.
"Angelo," I said. " Who are you and who do you work for? Are you CIA, FBI, or what?"
"You'll find out soon enough exactly what this is all about, McQuaid," he responded. "I assure you I'm not employed by either of those agencies, but I do work for the federal government - the executive branch and the Attorney General. We know all about you and what you've been up to the past few months. After you get home we'll be in touch and I'm sure we'll answer a lot of your questions. In the meantime keep your mouth shut.
"When we get to the guard house I want you and Jerry to get in your SUV and take off. As soon as I take care of a few things I'll be right behind you. First, I've got to turn the Highway Patrol around. So, McQuaid, drop Jerry off in Miles City and get your ass home as fast as you can. And, again, a warning to both of you - don't say anything to anybody about what happened here today. If you do, you could be in big, big trouble. Besides, you'll have a tough time getting anybody to believe you. Understand?"
We both said we did. Jerry began mumbling something under his breath. I think he was scared out of his wits! Ten minutes later we were speeding north on Route 59 toward Miles City. Neither of us said much. I kept my eyes glued to the road ahead and never looked back. All I wanted to see was home sweet home!
Originally published: Wednesday, March 21, 2007; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019