Chapter 1: Dead Man’s Gift

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Six weeks later, Bozeman, MT

Jerrod had been drinking too much to be driving, and he knew it. But how else were they going to get home at two o’clock in the morning? No way he was calling a cab; that would be just too embarrassing. Not to mention expensive. At least it was a clear night, and there was a three-quarter moon, and he wasn’t likely to encounter any traffic out here. The pickup hit something and slid on to the shoulder of the two-lane road.

“Whoa,” he said, and wrenched the wheel to the left to get back on the road. In the rearview mirror a cloud of dust and gravel spit up behind them.

“Keep you’re eyes on the road cowboy.” Trish hadn’t had as much to drink as he had. She never did. But she wasn’t nearly as big as we has, either, so it didn’t take much to put her under the table.

He slurred his speech for effect, and did his best John Wayne imitation, which even he thought was pretty bad. “Shorry about that, ma’am. They musta inshtalled that pothole thish afternoon. I’m sure it washn’t there thish morning.”

She started giggling, which would turn into hiccups if she didn’t get it under control. He flashed her his best we-aims-to-please-ma’am grin, but she had stopped laughing and was pointing at the windshield and chirping, “Oh … oh … oh.”

A man was standing on the road in front of them. Jerrod stomped on the brake pedal and veered left, clipping him as they skidded past. The truck fishtailed across the road and on to the shoulder on the other side, where it executed a gravel-throwing one-eighty, and came to rest half on the road and half off. Jerrod hadn’t gotten his foot on the clutch, so the truck stalled out with a hard jerk as it stopped. He squinted into the night, trying to make the world come into focus. The man was visible in the truck’s headlights; he was lying on the side of the road about thirty feet away. He wasn’t moving.

“I think you hit him.” Trish said.

This was not good. He had two DWI’s on his record. A third one would cost him his license. Maybe even some jail time. And if he’d hurt the guy, or  killed him — . He leaned forward and rested his forehead against the steering wheel. He was screwed, totally screwed.

A voice in some foggy corner of his brain told him he needed to see if the guy was okay. Another voice in another corner of his brain told him to just drive away and pretend none of this happened. He liked the second voice’s plan better, and was about to high-tail it out of there when Trish jumped out of the truck.

“Crap.” He hit the steering wheel with the heel of his hand, and was rewarded with a jolt of pain shooting up his arm to his elbow.

“Get the truck outta the middle of the road,” she shouted as she trotted unsteadily toward the man, waist-length red hair swaying back and forth behind her. He got the stalled truck going and parked it on the other side of the road, a few feet from where Trish was leaning over the man’s body. The glare of the headlights threw the whole scene into sharp relief; every detail jumped out harshly. It seemed like everyone within a hundred miles would be able to see it, and it took a physical effort to not turn the headlights lights off. He climbed out of the truck.

“Is he okay?” he asked. His hands were shaking.

“I don’t know. He’s not moving.”

“Is he breathing?”

“I don’t know.” She was hugging herself, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. The man lay face down on the gravel, one of his legs twisted in a position that didn’t look normal.

“Hey, man.” He put his hand on the man’s shoulder and gave him a nudge. No response.

Trish grabbed Jerrod’s arm and pointed at the man’s back. He pushed his hair out of this face and leaned over to look. Two neat holes stood out against the white shirt, dark stains spreading. He had served two combat tours as a medic in the army. He knew a gunshot wound when he saw one.

“He’s been shot,” he said, “but he’s still alive.”

“How can you tell?”

“The bullet holes.”

“Don’t be funny,” she said. “How can you tell he’s still alive?”

He wasn’t really trying to be funny. It’s just that between the copious amounts of alcohol he had consumed and the shock of hitting the guy, his brain was having trouble keeping up.

“The wounds are still bleeding out. That means the heart is still pumping.”

“Oh.” She took a step back. “What are you gonna do?”

Jerrod pressed his lips together. She was disowning responsibility, pushing it off on him. She liked to be in charge until the going got tough. Then she’d back off and let someone else make the hard decisions. That way she didn’t have to take the blame when everything went south. At least, that was his theory.

“Where’d he come from?” He said, looking around. He drove this road regularly. It was mostly open fields and scrub brush, and there were no buildings along this stretch. He didn’t see a car. But the man had to have gotten here somehow. And he had been shot recently, so the shooter might still be around. Suddenly he felt very exposed standing in the bright lights of the truck.    

The man groaned and rolled over on to his back, his eyes staring at the stars in the cold, cloudless sky. There were two bullet wounds in his chest, too.

Jerrod point them out to Trish. “He was shot in the back.”

“How do you know that?” She was getting hysterical. That was not good.

“Those are exit wounds,” he explained, hoping to calm her down with a clinical description of the facts. “They’re bigger, messier, bloodier than entrance wounds. Someone shot him twice in the back. Both bullets went straight through and out the other side.”

“Oh.” She turned around and threw up.

While she was emptying the contents of her stomach into a patch of scrub brush on the side of the road, the man grabbed Jerrod’s wrist, which almost made him piss his pants. He was wheezing. A trickle of blood ran down his chin from the corner of his mouth. His other arm swung over his body in a looping motion and he shoved something into Jerrod’s hand. A black box about the size of a television remote.

“They mustn’t get it back,” he said, his voice a ragged whisper. “They can’t be trusted with a weapon like that. No one can.” He coughed. Blood erupted from his mouth. Jerrod stuffed the box into his jacket pocket and pushed the man over on to his side so he wouldn’t drown in his own blood.

“They’re going to kill the President,” he said. “They’re going to take over. Someone has to stop them. Tell doctor Joe. College Park. He’ll ― ”

He convulsed and choked up some more blood. Then he was still. Eyes open. Staring unseeing into the distance. Jerrod ran his hand over the man’s face, closing his eyelids. He had seen men die before, but it wasn’t something he’d ever gotten used to.

Trish said, “We gotta call 911.” She was wiping vomit off her mouth.

“He’s dead. Calling 911 isn’t going to do him any good.”

“Maybe we can stop the bleeding until the – ”

“He’s dead, Trish. If the police find us here, we’re in deep shit.”

“W-we can’t just leave him here.” She started crying.

He ran his fingers through his hair. She was right. They couldn’t just leave him there. It could be hours before anyone came along. Coyotes could drag his body off into the bush by then, and that didn’t sit right with him. But what to do? He was still trying to get his brain to work it out when Trish made the decision for him. She was talking on her cell phone.

“Yes. I want to report an injured man on the Old Mission Road, about two miles east of 191. He’s been shot. I think he’s dead.” She listened for a moment and then ended the call and put the phone back in her pants pocket.

“They wanted my name.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s get outta here.”

* * *

The next morning, the pounding in Jerrod’s head gradually merged with the pounding on the front door. He crawled out of bed, noted that Trish was still comatose, and made a seemingly endless trek from the bedroom to the living room and then to the front door. It was Parker. He was grinning. Jerrod suppressed the urge to punch him in the face. After all, Parker was his best friend.

Neither of them seemed to have anything to say, which was probably just as well since Jerrod was not feeling especially conversational. He staggered into the bathroom. When he returned Parker was in the kitchen making coffee. A sign of true friendship. Collapsing on to a chair at the kitchen table, he buried his face in his hands. He felt like crap.

“What time is it?” He mumbled.

“Eight o’clock on a fine Saturday morning, my friend.”

Jerrod glared at him from behind his fingers. He had long been of the opinion that the words “fine” and “morning” could not meaningfully coexist in the same sentence. Which Parker knew. Which was probably why he’d put them in the same sentence.   

Parker had been out drinking with them the night before. Yet here he was, wide awake and disgustingly cheerful, apparently having suffering no ill effects. Jerrod, on the other hand, was suffering enough for both of them. It was so unfair. But there were lots of things in life that Jerrod felt were basically unfair. Like the fact that he was stuck in a dead-end job as a phone tech support guy, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it paid anything resembling a decent salary, which it didn’t. Or the fact that he lived in a one-bedroom dump out in the middle of nowhere – otherwise known as Montana – which might also have been okay if it was his own house, but it wasn’t. Or the fact that his life was a mess and going nowhere, which might have been okay if it weren’t for his uber-successful sisters, and the worried tone in his mom’s voice when they talked about what he was, or wasn’t, doing with his life. Or the —

“Sooo,” Parker said, depositing a cup of black coffee in front of him. “Seen the news?”

Jerrod moved his hands from his face to the cup and guided it to his mouth to take a sip of the elixir of life. His outlook improved considerably.

“Parker, the only thing I’ve seen so far this morning, apart from your ugly face, is the inside of my eyelids.”

“Yeah, well there’s actually something interesting going on in Bozeland today.” Parker was the only person he knew who referred to Bozeman and the surrounding area as Bozeland.

“Oh?” He tried to sound interested, but he really wasn’t interested in anything other than his coffee.

“Seems some guy died out on the ol’ Mission Road last night. Hit and run.”

A shot of adrenaline pumped through Jerrod’s body.

Parker swallowed some coffee. “They’ve got the road blocked at Highway 191. I had to go all the way around to the Baker Hill Road to get here.”

Jerrod tried to sound nonchalant. “Do they know who did it?”

“Nah. They’re still looking.”

Parker got up from the table and walked over to the television set in the living room and turned it on. Jerrod followed him, zombie-like, and they fell into the sagging couch. Emma Tors was on the scene reporting for Channel 4.

“— received a call at 1:15 this morning. Here’s the tape.”

Operator: “911. What is your emergency?”

Caller: “Yes. I want to report a injured man on the Old Mission Road, about two miles east of 191. I think he’s dead.”

Operator: “May I have your name, ma’am?”

The recording ended and Emma Tors continued. “That’s it. At that point, the caller hung up. Police and paramedics were dispatched to the scene where they found a man lying on the side of the road, dead, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run. Police are asking people to call the number shown on the screen if they have any information that might help in the investigation. They are especially interested in talking with the woman who made the 911 call.”

A strangled gasp came from behind him. Trish stood in the hallway, her hand over her mouth, a wild look in her eyes. Jerrod grabbed the remote from Parker and turned the TV off. Nobody said anything for several long seconds. Trish slid down the wall to the floor.

Parker broke the silence. “I heard it earlier and thought I’d better come over and find out what you two have been up to.”

Trish said, “They left out the part about him being shot.”

“He was shot?”

She nodded.

”And you told that to the 911 dispatcher?”

She nodded again.

“Why would they edit that part out?”

Trish stared dumbly at him, so Jerrod explained.

“We almost ran over him last night on our way home. Clipped him I think. He just appeared out of nowhere right in front of us. When we get to him, we find out he’s been shot through the chest. Twice. Entrance wounds in the back, exit wounds in the front. We call 911 and high-tail it out of there.”

He got Trish up off the floor and over to the couch, where she kind of folded in half and fell into it. Parker moved to the old rocking chair in the corner so Jerrod could sit with her.

“So, let’s see what we have here.” He gulped the rest of his coffee down and put the mug on the table beside the rocking chair.

Parker was one of those guys who actually got a four-year degree from a real university. In philosophy. Jerrod had never asked him why a philosophy major was working as a mechanic at a Toyota dealership. Anyway, when he said, “Let’s see what we have here,” it meant he was about to launch into a point-by-point analysis of the situation. Parker held up a finger.

“One. The two of you found a man on the road last night who had been shot twice in the back.” Jerrod nodded. Parker held up a second finger.

“Two. You, or rather Patricia,” ― he always called her Patricia ― “called 911 and reported it but left no name.” He nodded again.

“Three. You fled the scene.” Jerrod decided to stop nodding. It didn’t seem to be adding anything important to the conversation.

“Four. You reported to the 911 dispatcher that he had been shot, but that part was edited out of the version given to the media.”

“Five.  The police will trace the cell phone call back to Patricia.” He stood up and walked over to the window looking out over the gravel driveway that led up to the road.”

Jerrod hadn’t thought about that. Of course they could trace a cell phone call. At least, he assumed they could. Parker thought so, and he usually knew about things like that. He was into conspiracy stuff.

Trish pushed herself away from him and wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her robe. “We should call the police and turn ourselves in. All they have on us is fleeing the scene. We didn’t actually kill anyone. I’m not sure we even hit him.”

Parker turned to face them. “Before you do that, there’s something else you should know.”

“What’s that?” She asked.

“They didn’t show it on TV, but there’s a whole lot of FBI agents crawling all over the place. And some Navy people.”

Jerrod put his head in his hands. “Seems like over-kill for a hit-and-run.”

“Yeah.” Parker returned to the rocking chair. “That’s what I was thinking.”

Jerrod’s mind flashed to the scene on the road, and the small black box the man had shoved into his hand. They can’t get it back, he had said. They can’t be trusted with a weapon like that. Jerrod had stuffed it in his jacket pocket and forgotten about it, but that had to be what this was about. His eyes were drawn to his jacket, hanging on hook by the front door. In the right hand pocket was the reason the man on the road had died.

He needed time to think, but time was exactly what they didn’t have. The police or the FBI or the Navy or who-knows-who could show up anytime. A plan was forming in his mind, but the first thing was to get his friends out of harm’s way.

“Parker, you need to leave now.”

“Aw, I don’t …”

“Leave now, Parker. Please.”

The two of them walked out to his car. As Parker started the engine, Jerrod leaned into the driver’s side window. Parker pulled some bills out of his wallet and pushed them into his hand.

“It’s all I have on me,” he said. “I figure you’re gonna need it more than me.”

“You’re a good friend, Parker. Thanks.”

He produced his patented wry smile. “Let me know how I can help.”

“You’ll hear from me.”

Jerrod watch him drive off. He’d given him a hundred and twenty dollars. Who carried that much cash around? When he went back inside, Trish was still sitting on the couch. He sat down beside her and took her hands in his.

“Here’s what we’re going to do, hon. I’m going to leave now. I want you to call the police and tell them you made the 911 call, and that you wanted to stay until help arrived, but that I forced you to leave with me. I think that’ll fly.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Run.”

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