While Baxter was kicking himself and asking where the words came from, she walked to the car, kicking the jars out of the road on the way. She drove back to the house, not seeing any point in leaving the car in the road. After she parked, she put in her headset and keyed the connection to Ops.
“Ops, this is Central.”
“This is Ops.”
“I’m calling in to report mission success, photographic evidence will be forthcoming, but I wanted to report soon.”
“I’m being told the mission parameters have been expanded to request a DNA swab from him as well. Do you have the equipment for that?”
“I’m sure I can manage something. So you’re going to call off the Blackhawk crew, right?”
“Uh...” she closed her eyes at the pause. “Uh, negative on that, when we didn’t hear from you within fifteen minutes, the Blackhawk was given the go-ahead.”
“Blackhawk is inbound, repeat, inbound.”
“Put him on the line.”
“Don’t waste my time you little shit, put him on the line.”
There was a soft click, but she knew it was the mute button, not the end of the connection.
“Yes?” Smith’s voice came on the line.
“You don’t trust me?”
“You’ve never taken one before.”
“You’ve never chased someone halfway across a state before. You’ve never gone up against your teacher before. I’m being cautious.”
“You’re stepping on my toes and it’s the first time you’ve done it in my career. A job is a job, and you’re interfering in a way you never have.”
“And I’m sure I’ll never have to again. Besides, it’ll be a much faster exfiltration for you than trying to drive out after whatever ghastly mayhem you’ve caused there.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, her voice frosty.
“Oh, one thing,” he said.
“Sir,” she said, automatically and then made a face about it.
“Did you speak with him?”
“No, of course not.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“Because there were questions we had of course, but the risk was too, high, I thought if perhaps he confessed something, or if you talked on the phone while you were driving...”
“He ran out of his condo naked and took to the road. I couldn’t have called him if I’d have wanted to.”
“Because you could have gotten his number.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Ask Ops, he’s sitting right there.”
“I certainly shall. Exfil will get you on a plane, and I’ll see you soon.”
“Yes, sir,” she said again and cut off the call.
The door slammed open as she re-entered the house, carrying the rifle inside. “What the fuck did you do, Baxter?”
He was pulling the bases off shotgun shells with a pair of pliers and emptying the results into two pans, one for shot, one for powder. He looked up, and it was so natural to see him doing something like that she would swear they’d stepped back in time. “What?” he asked.
“Not only did Smith ask me if we talked on the phone while I was chasing you, and not only is he sending a mop-up squad here even after I told him the mission was a success, but he asked me if you’d made a deathbed confession, said anything at all to me.”
“Jesus. You see, told you it wasn’t about the money.”
“I have no idea. Truly. Obviously I do know something, or he thinks I do, but it doesn’t matter right now, does it?” He went back to the shells.
“Why are you doing that?” she said, pointing at the table.
“Because I kinda figured we weren’t getting off that easy.”
He looked back up at her. “I told you, I know this isn’t about the money, and if he thinks I’m dirty, well, you and I drank from the same pool, didn’t we? If I’m sullied, then so are you.”
“You think he--”
“You think he--”
“Hey! Who are we talking about? This isn’t an abstract. This is what he does and he’d be happy to do it every hour of every day if he had to. He decided, for whatever reason, to come after me. And you were part of the package. If you hadn’t spent all night chasing me, the exfil unit would have just shown up earlier and you’d have probably had a tragic helicopter accident.” He pushed his chair back, leaned over the table, locking onto her eyes. “It’s a shitty thing to find out, but we don’t have time. This is me. I know who you are. And I need you to be that person, right now. You have fifteen minutes to think, to come up with a plan, and then we’ve just gotta do it. In the meantime, you don’t have time to think about anything else.” He sat down and started tugging on another shell.
“Fuck you,” she said, but it was barely audible and probably at least partly directed at Smith.
He ignored the comment and asked, “How much time do we have?”
She did. “Two hours from wheels up, which was sometime while we were talking. For all I know it was all a bluff and they were in the air the second I told them where you were. Maybe a bit more than an hour if we’re lucky.”
“Well, I have an idea. Why don’t you take a walk. You found the rifle in the first house, right?”
“Well, head on up the road and check out the third one. It’s broke down, but you never know. Oh, and the Jeep is behind it, see if there’s a gas tank in the back.”
“You don’t know?” she asked, incredulous.
“You’re decaying. And I’m taking the car.”
“You’ll think better if you walk.”
And dammit if he wasn’t right.
The walk was the time she needed to distance herself from what Smith had tried to pull, was pulling right now, in fact. There wasn’t a gas can in the Jeep, but she pulled it out in front of the house anyway. There was gas in there, maybe they’d have time to use it. She kicked open the door and found out why the house was abandoned. The smell was appalling and a decrepit, desiccated corpse sat in a chair on the far side of the one big room. It grinned at her through the wisps of a long beard.
She knew the smell and after a moment she had control again and was able to ignore it, for a while at least. She would smell awful herself, though, she knew.
The fact that someone died here rather than abandoned it gave her hope she’d find something useful and she did. There was a dusty but hopefully serviceable shotgun near the corpse. She found a single bear trap rusting in a closet. She gingerly carried it to the car and threw it in the back. She found a box of empty Bell jars and brought those along, too.
By the time she screeched up in front of Baxter’s cabin, a plan was percolating.