A cloud of dust followed Jerrod’s truck up the forest service road for the last leg of the six hour trip into the Gallatin Mountains south of Bozeman. He was headed for an A-frame cabin that belonged to a friend of his dad. They used to go there in the summer when he was a kid, but it wasn’t used much anymore, so he figure it was as good a place as any to lie low while he worked things out.
Jerrod wasn’t a philosophical guy like Parker, but he’d thought through his situation on the drive up and had it down to a few main points. First, it wasn’t about the dead guy. It was about the black box. Whatever was in it must be important. He had tried to open it after he left the house, but he couldn’t figure out how.
He was also pretty sure the dead man was running from someone. Otherwise how’d he get shot in the back? It was a good bet that whoever shot him was after whatever was in the box. But who? The FBI and the Navy wanted it, but it didn’t seem like they would have shot him in the back.
Another thing he couldn’t figure out was where the people went who shot the man. They must have been nearby. Maybe even watching Trish and him when they stopped. So why didn’t they just walk up with guns and take the box? It’s not like he and Trish could have done anything to stop them. Whatever the reason, Jerrod had it now. Which was maybe not such a good thing since its last owner was dead because of it, and it was a good bet that whoever had killed him would be coming after Jerrod next.
So why not just turn it over to the police? It took him a while to figure out why he wasn’t going to do that. Something the dead man said before he was dead: They can’t get it back. They can’t be trusted with a weapon like that. Who couldn’t get it back? Who couldn’t be trusted with a weapon like that? It didn’t look like a weapon. Then there was the thing about “killing the President”. What did that mean? Things weren’t adding up, and that made it a mystery. And that piqued Jerrod’s curiosity.
But if he was honest with himself, there was another reason he didn’t want to give it to the authorities. Whatever was in the box was important to someone. Important enough to bring out the FBI and the US Navy. Important enough to kill for. It was valuable to someone, and there might be a way to parley it into a lot of money.
At twenty-seven, Jerrod was a failure living in the shadow of two over-achieving sisters, always aware of how disappointed in him his mom and dad were. This could be the big break he needed to get his life turned around. It would be stupid to not at least find out what was in the box.
At the cabin he turned the power on at the switch box, and was relieved to find that it worked. He put away the groceries he’d picked up on the way out of town, and sat cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against a couch that had seen better days. He took the black box out of his coat pocket. It was more charcoal-gray than black. Four inches long, two inches wide, half an inch deep. Rounded edges and corners. Surface smooth and featureless. It weighed hardly anything and didn’t rattle when he shook it. He didn’t see any obvious way to open it, not even a line marking where the lid might be.
“Well,” he said to the box. “Not giving up your secrets so easily, are you?”
He tried twisting it, tried pressing on its surfaces with his thumbs, tried tapping its corners against the floor, tried banging its corners against the floor. He found a screwdriver in a kitchen drawer and jabbed the box a few times. The screwdriver slipped around on the surface, but didn’t leaving any scratches.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He went out and got the toolbox he kept in the back of his truck and brought it into the cabin. A gentle whack with a hammer made no impression on the little box. He hit it again, harder. Still nothing. He brought the hammer down on it as hard as he could. It bounced in response, but showed no sign of damage. He held the screwdriver against the its surface and hammered on it, but it just slid off, again leaving no marks.
“Now that’s just plain weird,” he said. There was no way something that small and light-weight should be able to stand up to that kind of beating without so much as a dent or scratch.
He rummaged around in his toolbox and came up with a hacksaw. It slipped and slid across the surface just like the screwdriver had, again leaving no marks.
The sun was low in the horizon, casting an orange light across the ceiling. He’d been at this longer than he’d thought. He rubbed dry, itchy eyes with the heels of his hands. He was getting dehydrated. And he hadn’t eaten for hours.
“I’m not done with you,” he told the box. “But right now I need to drink some water and get something to eat.”
He guzzled down a half liter bottle of water while he fixed himself a peanut butter and jam sandwich, which he took back into the living room. He sat on the floor again, with his back against the couch, and glared at the black box while he ate his sandwich. He followed the sandwich with another bottle of water.
He picked up the box and studied it from different sides and angles. There should at least have been some scratch marks. But there weren’t any. The surface of the box was perfectly smooth.
“Whatever you’re made of,” he said. “it’s damn tough stuff.”
He was about to put it back down when he felt a sharp pinch in the palm of his hand. It wasn’t especially painful — on par with an insect bite or a bee sting — but it surprised him enough that he dropped the box and said, “Ow.”
He looked at his palm. A drop of blood oozed out from the place that got pinched. Or stung. Or whatever had happened. He looked at the box, but didn’t see anything that would account for it. Truth be told, he was a bit spooked, so he used the screwdriver to turn the box over. It was smooth as a baby’s bum.
A dark thought forced its way into his mind. What if he had tripped some kind of needle trap, and had been injected with poison? He sprinted to the bathroom and began scrubbing his palm with soap and hot water. In the medicine cabinet he found a tube of antibiotic cream, which he rubbed into the wound. It wasn’t bleeding anymore, and he couldn’t see any redness or other discoloration spreading from it.
He returned to the living room and dropped on to the couch. He sank deeply into it, and it blew dust into the air; the couch was well past its expiration date. His heart was beating fast and his breath came in short gasps. That wasn’t good. He focused on taking deep, slow breaths, and waited for his heart to slow down. Which it eventually did.
After a while, he looked at his palm again. He couldn’t see where he had been pricked or bitten or whatever. He let himself slide off the couch and on to the floor, with the black box between his outstretched legs, and reached out and touched one end of it with his index finger. The setting sun cast an orange strip of light across the floor and up the opposite wall. It fell on the box, revealing a faint shadow on the surface, near the other end from where his finger was. It was a shallow depression or indentation. It hadn’t been there before. A shiver ran across his shoulders.
He leaned closer. The indentation was half an inch or so from the end of the box and about half an inch across. He pulled his finger away, and the indentation flattened out and merged into the surface of the box, leaving no sign that it had been there.
“Whoa,” he said with an explosive puff of air; he had been holding his breath.
It respond to his touch. That was pretty wild. But it wasn’t the weirdest thing. The weirdest thing was how the indentation formed. It didn’t just suddenly appear fully formed. No. The surface of the box had kind of sunk into a concave depression. When he pulled his finger away, it had filled in the depression, leaving so sign of having been there. Like the shapeshifter in the second Terminator movie. It was beyond weird; it was down right creepy.
He reached out and gingerly touched the box again. The indentation formed exactly where it had been before. He pulled his finger away. It merged back into the surface.
A wave of nausea came and went, and his right hand started trembling. His heart was racing and there was a ringing sound in his ears. He recognized the symptoms right away: his body was going into fight or flight mode. In a few seconds, the flashbacks would start — the descending screams of incoming mortar rounds, the zinging of bullets passing inches from his head, the cries for help. He sat back against the couch, hugged his knees to his chest, and rocked slowly back and forth.
He never knew what would trigger it, but the psychologist at the VA had taught him techniques for handling it. He took a deep breath, held it for a moment and exhaled, forcing everything out of his lungs. He did it again. And again. He kept doing it, focusing on his breathing, until his heart rate slowed and the ringing mostly went away. His hand still had a tremor but it was getting better.
He got up and closed the curtains. He should have done that when he first arrived. He flipped a switch by the door, and harsh light from a bare bulb in the middle of the ceiling flooded the room; stark shadows jumped out from the furniture, giving the room a black-and-white look. A shudder ran down his back. He almost expected to hear the theme song from The Twilight Zone.
“Pull yourself together,” he said. “There’s a perfectly logical explanation for this.” He couldn’t imagine what it might be.
He got a beer out of the fridge, and plopped himself down at the kitchen table. The beer disappeared in three great gulps. He got another one, which he made himself drink more slowly.
The box had responded to his touch. How was that even possible? And why now? Wait … the prick in his hand. Something about his blood had attuned it to his … to his what? His DNA? He’d never heard of technology like that, but what did he know? Maybe this was some kind of secret research project being conducted by the Navy. That would explain why they wanted it back so bad.
The adrenaline rush was settling down. He grabbed a third beer, popped it open, and returned to the living room, where he dropped on to the floor again. He set the beer down and picked up the box. It formed a perfect concave shape exactly where it had been before. He set it back on the floor and pulled his hand away. The indentation morphed into a smooth surface, leaving no trace.
“Damn,” he said, slowly shaking his head back and forth. There was no doubt about it: the box was responding to his touch. He reached for his beer, but then decided to pass for now. He already had a bit of a buzz going.
Maybe the indentation was a button; a button that would open the box. With a mixture of excitement and fear, he picked up the box and slid his thumb into the depression. The button began glowing with a faint pale blue light; he could see it around the edges of his thumb.
“Huh,” he said.
He lifted his thumb up. The button continued to glow. He pressed down on it again, and the light vanished. He lifted his thumb. It looked just like it had looked before.
“Okay,” he said. “That’s interesting.” But a bit of a let-down.
He pressed his thumb into the indentation again, and again a pale blue light shown around his thumb. He lifted his thumb and noticed what else had happened: A second indentation had appeared — in the middle of the surface of the device. It looked just like the first button, except it wasn’t glowing.
He pressed his thumb on the first button again. It stopped glowing and the second button morphed back into the surface.
“Ah ha!” he said. “It’s the on/off switch.” It wasn’t much, but it was progress. He could turn it on and off. He was jubilant.
“Now, let’s see what’s under button number two.”
He turned the device back on. The button glowed with pale blue light and the second button morphed into existence. He put his thumb into the second indentation.
He let out his breath with an audible puff. He wasn’t sure what he had expected it to do, but he had expected it to do something.
He pushed down harder with his thumb.Without warning, the wall rushed across the room toward him.
“Aaaah!” he said.
It stopped as abruptly as it had started, and then rushed away from him. The room spun around him. Then the ceiling was in front of him, then the floor, then at the wall again. He dropped the device; everything stopped moving. He was sitting where he had been before the room went crazy.
It was an hallucination. It had to be. Whatever that thing had injected into him was causing him to hallucinate. He stood and shifted his weight back and forth from one leg to the other, knocking over his untouched can of beer. There was way too much adrenaline coursing through his body again. He needed to get himself calmed down.
He went out the back door and stood under the lodgepole pines that populated this part of Wyoming. The sun was low enough that he couldn’t see it because of the trees. It would be dark soon. He walked around for a few minutes, taking in the smells of the forest. He used to play in these woods, when he was a kid and didn’t have a care in the world. A chill in the air drove him back into the cabin
He fixed some stew from a can and took it into the living room. Trying to ignore the innocuous-looking black box resting on the floor near the door, he flipped on the two ton television set that occupied one corner of the room. It only picked up one channel, but that was all he needed, because it was showing a picture him.
A woman’s voice-over was saying: “… a resident of Bozeman for three years, is wanted for the murder of Naval Intelligence Specialist Second Class Neil Anderson, and for possession of classified military documents. Earlier today I spoke with Special Agent Benjamin Fisk from the FBI’s Salt Lake City field office, about a possible connection between Mr. Max and the recent upsurge in terrorist attacks across the country.”
Jerrod’s picture was replaced with an image of a man dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie. He looked like Clint Eastwood.
“Agent Fisk, there have been suggestions that Mr. Max is somehow connected with the recent terrorist attacks. Can you comment on that?”
“Megan, it’s early in the investigation. We believe Mr. Max murdered specialist Anderson and took classified documents from him. We have reason to believe the documents have to do with Al Queda in North America. Does that connect Mr. Max to AQNA? It’s too early to tell, but we are pursuing all avenues of investigation.”
Jerrod’s picture re-appeared on the screen, and the voice-over commentary continued.
“Mr Max is considered armed and dangerous. Anyone seeing him or knowing anything about his whereabouts is urged to call 911 or contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the number shown on the screen. A ten thousand dollar reward is being offered for information leading to his capture. Under no circumstances should you approach him yourself.”
The station went to a commercial break, but Jerrod was oblivious to it. He was somehow associated with terrorists, and there was a bounty of his head. How had that happened? If this was his fifteen minutes of fame, he wanted his money back.
His cell phone announced an incoming call: “Hey stupid, pick up the phone. Somebody wants to talk to you.” It had seemed funny when he downloaded it last week. Not so much now. He dug it out of his pocket and stared at it. How had he not thought to turn it off? He pressed the Accept button and held the phone up to his ear.
“Hello?” He could hear the tremor in his own voice.
“Jerrod?” It was Parker. “What the hell’s going on? You’re all over the TV and radio. They’re saying you killed that guy.”
“Yeah. I mean, No. I mean, I didn’t kill anyone, but the dead guy — .” He stopped. There was no point in telling Parker about the black box. The less he knew, the better.
Parker continued. “Man, you are in deep cow crap. They totally trashed your place.”
“Men in black. FBI, I guess. Whoever they were, they turned your place inside out and upside down.”
Damn. There went his damage deposit. Mrs. Berne was going to be pissed.
“What about Trish?” His voice squeaked into some voice range it didn’t belong in. He had left her there because he thought they were dealing with a hit-and-run. But murder and theft of classified government documents — .
“Yeah, about Trish.” Parker paused. “They took her away.”
Crap, crap, crap. This was not the way it was supposed to go down.
“Parker, who took Trish away?”
“I’m not sure, but I don’t think it was the police. There wore jackets that said “Federal Agent”, but I’m thinking maybe they were NCIS. It looks like the Navy’s running things.”
Naval Criminal Investigation Service. That made sense. The dead guy was Navy.
“You gotta turn yourself in, man, before some good-ol-boy in a pickup decides to shoot you for the reward.”
“Yeah.” He was having trouble coming up with anything that would explain it to Parker. Or to himself for that matter.
“What are you gonna do, man?”
The distant thwack-thwack-thwack of a helicopter caught his attention.
“I gotta go, Parker. I think they found me.”
He grabbed his jacket and the black box, which he shoved into the jacket pocket. Some energy bars and water bottles went into a knapsack, which he slung over his shoulder as he headed out the back door. The cell phone disappeared into the trees as far as he could throw it. He headed into the woods in the opposite direction.
* * *
He was running now. Through darkening woods. Through bushes. Through face-slapping tree branches. Through foot-grabbing underbrush. He had always liked the smell of the forest, the smell of the great outdoors. Now the only thing he smelled was his own fear as sweat dribbled off his forehead and into his eyes, assaulting them with stinging salt.
Sirens sounded in the distance, sending waves of terror pulsing through him. They’d be at the cabin in a few minutes. Would they use dogs? The helicopter roared overhead, it’s harsh spotlight sweeping through the trees. The forest was pretty dense, so he didn’t think they could see him,
Not that he knew what they could see or not see. Maybe they had infrared goggles, or some kind of heat-seeking technology, or maybe some technology he’d never dreamed of, something super-secret that only the government knew about. God, he was starting to sound like Parker. On the other hand, he had a little black box in his pocket that seemed almost alive, so who knew?
He ran until he couldn’t run any more. His breathing was ragged and a stabbing pain in his side was reminding him that he really needed to exercise more.
He use to know these woods, but he wasn’t sure where he was; everything looked different in the dark. He broke out of the trees and skidded to a halt at the edge of a thirty-foot drop. He had forgotten about the ravine. He put his hands on his knees and sucked in great gasps of air.
The ravine was an ugly manmade gash cutting through forty miles of forested mountains to provide a corridor for the trains. Nature versus industry: no contest. At least not in the short term. It carried freight trains. Sometimes a hundred and fifty wagons or more. That’s two miles of train. You could sit at a crossing for a long time waiting for one of those puppies to go by.
The helicopter was following the tracks north of him. He could see its spotlight, but it was too far away to hear. What he did hear was the rumble of a diesel engine. It came around the curve a couple miles to the north. The ravine must have acted like an amplifier, channeling the sound, because it seemed too loud for how far away it was.
Behind him was a manhunt that probably rivaled anything the great state of Montana has ever seen. Ahead of him, assuming he could get across the ravine, were some very rugged, snow-covered mountains that he’d just as soon avoid. Coming down the track at forty miles an hour was his ticket out of there.