She was driving slower now, not wanting to miss the turnoff when it came.
“Central, this is Ops.”
“I’ve got him. Only four cars that have been active in the past four hours, and the sun’s coming up, so I was able to check colors with low-light enhancement. The police report said the stolen vehicle was a blue Jeep, and I’ve found it. You’re a couple of miles away from the opening to the road. It has a number, but no signpost as far as I can tell, so I’ll have to give you a yell when you reach it.”
“Understood. What about him?”
“Personal heat signature is too small for this satellite to track, I’m doing the best I can with limited tools. I saw him get out of the car and take a few steps away, but then he vanished. There are about a dozen houses scattered up the hill, he’s on an offshoot, the, uh...” she heard the sounds of his lips moving. “The only offshoot that has three houses on it. He parked at the last one. He’s probably at one of the houses on that little road.”
“I doubt it, but I can start there. Listen, once you get me on that road, I don’t want you looking over my shoulder, is that understood?”
There was a pause, and then he said, a little too quickly, “Uh, yeah, sure.”
“What are your orders?”
“Well, uh, you know, he has been trying to reach you for a while now.”
“And he asked you for a report.”
“And you told him.”
“Of course. Then what?”
“There’s a penetration and liquidation team waiting to come in by Blackhawk as soon as you positively ID the target.”
“If I positively ID the target, then he’s dead.”
“Well, that’s the hope, and if that’s the case, I’ll turn them around, but...”
“But he wanted redundancy.”
She restrained herself from telling Ops that he was fuckin’ redundant, and just kept driving. There was a long silence. Then she heard him take a breath.
“Coming up on your left, road after this one...two hundred yards...there you go, that one. Got it?”
“Got it. Going offline now.”
“Good luck, Central,” Ops said, and she never spoke to him again.
She drove up the hill, the ride rougher in her smaller, more modern car. She noticed the same things he had, the signs of disuse, the signs of habitation. When she broke out into the turnaround, she immediately saw the sign for three houses, and that it was old and splitting. It wasn’t the route she would have chosen, but it’s the one she would guess he would make. She would have taken a family hostage just for the advantage of the highest house she could find, better eyelines. Or a giant propane tank. That had no end of uses.
As much as it was a giant target, the car gave her a tiny modicum of protection as well, so she stayed in it and slowly rolled down the overgrown trail. When she saw the first house start to appear, she ran the windows down and cut the engine. She sat and listened as the car occasionally ticked, heard the nattering of what might be a squirrel (did they have chipmunks here?) and birdsong. That was it. She got out of the car and put it between her and the house. She flashed a loose, floppy sleeve of her windbreaker into view, just in case someone twitchy was watching her. There was no response. She peered around the car, not offering a clean shot. The place was too homey, too recently used. He’d never choose it unless forced to, and that seemed unlikely.
The weight of the gun under her arm reminded her how unarmed she was. She had no idea how prepared he was, not very, surely, but if he had a stash on his boat, and there was no reason to think he would be that stupid, then he at least had a gun of some kind. That meant they were evenly matched, and she’d been running even with him for too long. For all she knew he’d found a shotgun or a hunting rifle where he’d gone to ground, and she wasn’t about to approach him at a disadvantage.
She didn’t bother with the lock, she just kicked the door open, and there it was, clean, prominent, shining, a .30-06. It took her several more minutes to find the shells, in their own Rubbermaid tub, terrifyingly, next to a bunch of board games in a cupboard. She checked the gun, found it in good shape, and loaded six into the magazine. Better than nothing.
She walked to the edge of the property and scouted ahead, looking for the next house. She couldn’t see it from here, but she could see the trees start to fall away from the right side of the road a couple hundred yards ahead. House number two.
She was about to return to the car when her movement brought a flash of light to her eye. She stepped back and forth, twisted this way and that, and finally caught another flash. She was about to go get her phone and use a digital binocular feature, when she realized she was carrying a rifle. She put it to her shoulder and used the Unertl 3x scope to sight on the rough road.
Jars. Glass jars scattered on the road, just to see if she was paying attention. No, more likely in the hopes that she wasn’t paying attention and he’d have one up on her. Bastard.
She got back in her car and slowly rolled it up to the point where she could see the jars clearly, and where she’d have never been able to avoid them if she’d been driving quickly. She saw the beginning of a shaggy lawn and stopped the car again.
She cut through the corner of the woods, a triangle of trees between the edge of the trail and the edge of the yard. Baxter never trained her much in woodcraft. She was taught dirty tricks, not hunting and camping. That was what soldiers were for. Or hunters for that matter. She used the cover of the trees to scope out the house without exposing herself too much. She was still at too steep an angle to be seen from the windows. There were two big ones at the front, covering the entire lawn, and a door between, solid wood, no window. She saw that one window was ajar and then...Something fluttered. She slid to her left, coming toward the corner of the woods that ended at road and lawn. She got down on her knees, then onto her stomach, sliding quietly and intently to see without being seen. As she did, she saw more pieces of paper, two fluttering in the open window, four in the corners of the upstairs window, and more in the window closer to her. She raised the rifle and sighted through the scope. The upstairs window angle wasn’t right. The angle in the open window was too steep, she just saw flashes of white. The window closest her, which looked to open into a kitchen, had paper in all four corners. She adjusted the focus and a word snapped into view.
She almost physically started, the word so unexpected it was like a slap in the face. That son of a bitch. A word she hadn’t thought of in a Baxter context in...well he’d been dead, hadn’t he? She hadn’t thought of him as anything other than a dead man in more than ten years. And the first thing he does is throw this at her.
She looked at it again to reassure herself it said what she thought it did.
In all four corners of the window there was a piece of paper with a single word on it, the same word on all of them, in big, black, block caps: CHAPSTICK.