Hands thrust deep in the pockets of the absurd checkered hunter's coat — protective coloration in northern Minnesota — Charles stared at the campground. Gray ash, blown into ripples, exposed an old campfire ring. On the edges of the clearing the ash melded into gray hills, low and still in death. Black spikes, the last rebellion of living trees, thrust up through the misery of destruction.
Giving God the finger, Charles thought. Never a good idea. Like most Catholics, Charles prayed to Jesus and Mother Mary when he bothered to pray. Jesus was in the redemption business. Not God; God was in the smiting business.
"What're we gonna do, Dude?"
Charles slid his eyes toward the Fox River. The fire had been stopped by the water. Its final act of destruction was the campground. On the far bank, vegetation was a lush mockery; verdant greens, rich golds, and loud reds thrust out over the water like so many jeering faces.
"What're we gonna do, Dude?" repeated the goon, slouching between Charles and the river.
Known facts automatically played in Charles's mind: Sean Ferris, small-time muscle. Philadelphia, Chicago, then Detroit. Served three years for rape. Obedient, loyal. Attack dog. Ferris was old for this work, and fat. The black leather coat and pointed-toe boots stuck him in the sixties, too overdone even to pass for retro.
Charles took his cell phone from the pocket of the blanket coat and pushed the number three.
"Calling Mr. Big?" asked another of the goons Bernie had stuck him with.
James R. Spinks, forty-one years of age, out of Detroit, Michigan, connected to what passed for Mafia. Scum for hire. IQ of 84. Went by the name Jimmy. Grown men who liked to be called by little boys' names needed to be hung by their tiny dicks, Charles thought.
Bernie picked up on the second ring. The fool must be hunched over the phone, waiting for news of his cunning foray into crime.
"Campground is burned," Charles said. "Nothing to acquire." The job was supposed to be a clean smash-and-grab. Bernie, Mr. Big, hadn't done his homework. The fool actually believed Charles had no idea who was the so-called brains behind this caper. Bernard Iverson, forty-six, Edmondson, Canada, marine equipment, massively overextended, net worth five million dollars and still not worth the bullet it would take to kill him.
"One second, please," Bernie said.
Unblinking, Charles waited, listening to a clatter that suggested Bernie was using his cell phone as a hockey puck. He gritted his teeth, his jaw muscles bunched into hard knots. This was the only outward show of emotion he allowed himself. Humans were masters at reading faces. A second's hesitation, a flick of the eyes, a smile at the wrong time telegraphed weakness. Even people who didn't understand what they were seeing retained enough feral instinct to home in on any chink in the armor. From that day forth they hammered at it until the chink became a crack and the crack a break. Once the soft flesh was exposed they went for the entrails with talons and tongues as sharp as harpies'.
The only earth the meek inherited was six feet down and capped by a stone.
A final scrimmage and Bernie was back. "There's a second campsite about four miles north on the same side of the river. It looks like it didn't burn. They probably stopped there."
Charles kept waiting. Four miles, no trail, probably: not good enough. The whole setup was Mickey Mouse. Bernie didn't know Charles, but Charles knew him. Michael had once said the so-called Mr. Big was nickel and dime, undermining unions, cutting corners, slighting on materials. That was why they'd bought him out. When it came to fundamental criminal activities, Charles doubted if he could steal a peek at a nudist camp. Given half a day, Charles could have come up with a better crew than Bernie's bottom-feeders.
"I'll get a bird's-eye's and call you back," Bernie said finally.
Charles punched the disconnect. Jimmy, dressed in a coat identical to the one Charles wore, but with a matching hat and earflaps, spit a stream of tobacco juice into the ash. Mostly into the ash; a drop or two of spittle remained in the Ted Kaczynski–style beard he sported.
"What's the deal?" Jimmy asked. His teeth were stained brown.
Charles looked away. "The target may be four miles upriver. The pilot's doing a flyby. We wait here until we have a positive ID."
"Then what?" This from Reg.
Reginald Waters, African American, thirty-one, Detroit. Ex-gangbanger, low-end drug dealer, con man. Into bookies for a hundred and seventy-three grand. Last call for repayment before the bad boys came for him.
"If the target is located, we move to acquire it," Charles said without looking at Waters. Eye contact was an invitation to intimacy. Flee, fight, fornicate, or, Charles's least favorite, ask stupid questions. Open honest intercourse was not a paradigm for leadership that appealed to him.
"Even with others he works alone."
Charles's brother had said that. A photograph of Michael clicked onto the screen in Charles's mind, the black-and-white glossy taken for his senior yearbook. Next to it appeared the picture of the target lifted from the Internet.
Payback is going to be a bitch, Charles promised his little brother.
One hand buried in Wily's ragged fur, Heath gazed into the fire, marveling at the concept of camping out, canoeing a river, building a fire, and eating and sleeping in the wilderness. This was a fine and wonderful thing. Boy Scouts did it, park rangers and hunters and hikers did it, photographers and dishwashers and presidents did it.
And now cripples did it, she thought. Hooray for our side.
Their camp was on a bluff above the river. Dishes and hands were washed well inland. No human effluvia would dirty the waters on Anna Pigeon's watch. Excretions were buried, the soiled toilet tissue put in ziplocked plastic bags to be packed out. This Heath was exempt from. She was testing a chamber-pot-sized camping toilet, super lightweight, watertight, and ergonomically designed to improve the aim of even the most inept user. Come morning the fire would be doused and stirred. Ashes and burned stick ends would be scattered, the burn mark raked, and the area rehabbed with forest duff.
Anna had lived by the law of "take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints" for so long she no longer even carried a camera; she took nothing but memories. Tonight she was storing them up on a solitary float on the Fox. Heath would have enjoyed a ride with her old friend, but Anna needed solitude. Like a dolphin in the ocean, Anna could submerge herself in the sea of humanity for long periods of time, but if she didn't surface into her private universe every so often, she would suffocate.
"You look like the Cheshire cat who ate the canary in the catbird seat," Leah said in her usual scratchy murmur. Leah always carried an internal echo, as if she were talking to herself. Too many hours alone in labs breathing toxic fumes, was Heath's guess. Leah had two doctorates, one in chemistry and one in electronic engineering. She was the research and development genius behind Hendricks & Hendricks, a high-end sports gear and clothing manufacturer based out of Boulder.
Heath met her when Leah was looking for paraplegics willing to play guinea pig to test gear she'd designed to make wilderness access easier for the disabled. This trip was a shakedown cruise for a chair, a canoe, a lifting device, and selvane, a chemical compound that was lightweight and strong, and dramatically decreased friction.
At the moment Heath was lounging in a camp chair designed for wheelchair users. Twelve and a half inches from the ground, and as stable as if nailed to the earth, it allowed Heath to move easily from chair to wheelchair and back. The arms were sturdy enough to do handstands on — Elizabeth had done several just to prove it, though, since she weighed about the same as the average golden retriever, it wasn't the best of tests.
H&H was already successful, but if selvane was all Leah hoped it would be, it would revolutionize the industry. It would revolutionize a lot of industries. God forbid the sinister uses the military would find for it.
"Lost in thought," Leah said. It was less a question, it seemed to Heath, than a statement of personal choice.
"I was contemplating your genius," Heath said truthfully.
"Oh." Evidently, people often did that, and it had ceased to be of interest. Leah went back to studying the wheelchair. The wheels were larger and softer than those on street chairs, and it weighed next to nothing. Leah had designed it to be folded so it could fit easily into a canoe or strapped onto a backpack. Firelight flickering on the lenses of her glasses gave Heath the illusion of witnessing mental gears turning as Leah mulled over her design, seeking out flaws.
Elizabeth, Heath's daughter, had named her wheelchair Robo-butt. This new miracle of modern engineering was dubbed Robo-butt ATV.
Taking a drag from her cigarette, Heath watched her daughter. Heat rising from the campfire twisted the air, and she saw E as if through antique glass. The first time she'd laid eyes on this amazing creature who was to be her child had been in the woods at night. Elizabeth and two other little girls had stumbled half naked, bleeding and mute, out of the forest near where she and her aunt were camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. Heath had thought they were a bear come to dine on the helpless crippled lady. Instead, one of them became her salvation.
After the accident that broke her back, Heath had given up on herself. Along came Elizabeth, and Heath discovered she couldn't give up on herself without giving up on Elizabeth. That was unthinkable.
From a bitter drunken cripple, Heath had grown into a semicivilized paraplegic. From a scrawny frightened limpet, Elizabeth had grown into a confident beauty. Still, her eyes were the eyes of someone much older — a thousand years older. Ghosts could be seen in those depths. Shadows moved there even on cloudless days. Heath liked to think her adopted daughter was an old soul who had visited the realms of the living in many incarnations.
Before she'd asked E on this trip, they'd talked long and hard about whether a sojourn in the woods would bring back the nightmares. E was in favor of facing one's fears. Where her daughter was concerned, Heath sang the praises of running away.
"You're doing it, Heath."
Elizabeth had caught her in the act. Mothers should not be obviously smitten. E told her once in mock seriousness that it undermined discipline.
"I am not," she lied as she wiped the doting look off her face.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes.
"Doing what?" Katie asked. Leah's daughter, Katie, was thirteen. Heath had hoped they would be company for each other on the trip, but Katie looked and acted far younger than her years.
"Looking all warm and runny inside," Elizabeth said. "You know, Mother Gooey?"
Katie's white-blond eyebrows, nearly invisible on her pale, heart-shaped face, drew together in confusion. When it cleared Heath saw bitterness. "Right," she said. "Maybe if I had titanium parts."
Katie stabbed a marshmallow through the heart with a twig. "These have got to be covered in germs and squirrel poop," she said with a grimace.
"Organic," Elizabeth kidded her. "Costs a fortune at Whole Foods."
"Daddy gets fits if Tanya lets me eat anything that isn't organic. 'Organic' is Latin for boring." Katie thrust the skewered marshmallow into the fire and watched keenly as it caught and burned, the skin turning black and crusted.
"Who is Tanya?" Heath asked.
"Warden," Katie said.
"Au pair," Leah said without looking at her daughter.
Katie tilted her head until her baby-fine blond hair fell forward and curtained her face. Heath suspected she was mortified. Who has a babysitter in the eighth grade? What kind of a mother mentions it in front of another girl, and a high school girl at that?
"A pair of what?" Heath asked.
Katie raised her eyes from the charred corpse of the marshmallow. Katie didn't grace Heath with even a hint of a smile. Heath had known Leah's daughter for twenty-four hours and had yet to see her smile. Katie might be accustomed to manipulating adults by withholding approval. God knew most mothers would wag themselves to death for a pat on the head from their kid.
"You shouldn't smoke," Katie said to wreak a kind of revenge. "Secondhand smoke kills people."
"It's okay. Mom doesn't exhale," Elizabeth said.
Leah said nothing. Heath had been raised by her aunt Gwen, a pediatrician. Rudeness, particularly to adults, was not tolerated. Heath had never tolerated it in Elizabeth. Leah just glanced at her daughter as if she were the ill-mannered child of a stranger.
Wily sighed in his sleep. Heath ran her fingers up his pointed coyote-style ears. Maybe Anna was right, maybe animals were better people than people. Then again, Anna didn't exactly work and play well with others. She should be roasting marshmallows and celebrating the night on the river instead of floating somewhere in her damn sacred solitude. A true friend would be drinking wine and keeping Heath from getting too involved in other people's business.
"E, would you go see if you can see Anna's canoe?" Heath asked. "Tell her we're making s'mores. That should bring her in out of the cold." Elizabeth rose with a fluid grace Heath could barely remember. Movement was language for E. Often she'd forgo use of her own legs to experiment with new ways Heath could get around. They installed monkey bars in the living room and performed monkeylike antics on them. Elizabeth was an ace with Heath's wheelchair. So as not to seem a drag, Heath learned to pop wheelies, entered races, and was rear guard for the basketball team Rolling Thunder.
The leaves, rich reds, yellows, and oranges during the day, were black with coming night. The last light of the day limned the edges with silver. Leaning back, Heath looked for the first star of evening amid sparks rising lazily into the air, then winking out like fireflies. Campfires and Wily were two of the reasons Heath preferred to camp on Forest Service rather than Park Service land. Much as she loved Anna's parks, the NPS was not dog- or fire-friendly. There were times Heath didn't want to conserve for the use of the next generation; she wanted to pretend there was enough of everything wild, that it would go on forever, and humans were too insignificant to do any real damage. Camping with a good fire and a good dog helped that illusion.
"Are these things any better roasted?" Katie asked. She was holding up one of the mushrooms Leah had picked earlier in the day. Raised north of Duluth, Minnesota, the only child of two mothers, both of whom were concerned with natural foods and sustained harvests, Leah had grown up hunting mushrooms and gathering wild rice.
Before Leah could respond, Katie had jabbed the orange fungus with a stick and poked it into the flame more as if she were torturing than cooking it.
"Don't do that," Leah said softly. Katie kept doing it. Leah looked away.
"Leave a few, at least," Heath said. Lobster mushrooms had added a nice zest to the prepared foods they'd brought.
"Never eat a mushroom I haven't okayed," Leah said. "Some are deadly."
"Oh right, like I'm going to mistake an Amanita for a lobster," Katie sneered.
"They look like deer mushrooms, not lobster," Leah said mildly.
"Do you see Anna?" Heath asked Elizabeth, a sharp silhouette on the bluff overlooking the water.
Feeling abandoned, Heath swallowed a slug of bourbon. It definitely tasted better from a tin cup than from a crystal glass. She wondered if that would be true inside four walls. Definitely a double-blind test in the offing when they returned to Boulder.
A crashing in the woods interrupted Heath's meditation. Katie dropped the mushroom she was burning with such determination.
"Wolf?" Elizabeth asked hopefully. "It would be so cool to see a wolf."
"More likely a bear or a moose," Heath said. "Get Wily's leash, would you, E?"
Elizabeth ducked into the tent with the enviable ease of the young and limber, scooped up the leash, then knelt, legs folding smoothly like the self-lubricating hinges on Leah's high-tech inventions, and clipped the lead to Wily's collar.
"Probably a deer," Leah said absently.
Too many years without predators had allowed the deer herds to outgrow their habitat. In winter, they starved and died of disease. Wherever humans were known to give handouts, they begged. Without food, even Bambi could become aggressive. Wolves had reinhabited northern Minnesota, but not in sufficient numbers to do the thinning work.
Wily's neck hair stiffened under Heath's hand. His body went rigid. A growl, so low she more felt than heard it, began building in his chest.
"It's people," she said quietly.