Fourteen

Two days later
July 10, 2024
1000 Z
Mountfair, VA
United States of America
Daniel drove his truck up the mountain that led to his friend Lindsey Fletcher’s cabin. The sun was just about to dip below the horizon as Locke’s pickup truck bounced up the dusty mountain road. She was a noisy jalopy, and Daniel had christened the dirty old Ford 2010 F-150 Sue. Sue could be heard for miles around.
Sue screeched to a halt in front of a small but clean looking house, painted white with light yellow shutters. The front door was red with a welcoming wreath of evergreens. A white picket fence surrounded a neat and trim yard. Flowers sat on the windowsills and around the house. The small abode overlooked a scenic panorama of mountains.
The sounds of the speeding truck had alerted Lindsey Fletcher, who approached the fence and awaited the truck’s squealing stop. Lindsey was a woman who knew how attractive she was. An avid gardener, and given the summer heat, she wore a red cotton tank top and cutoff dark denim shorts. A sly grin spread across her face as she saw the truck door open. Her eagerness was hard to contain, and she cautioned herself with the unspoken word, patience. She had shoulder length brown hair that she usually swept back into a ponytail and a headband. Today, it hung free on her shoulders and was shining in the dawning sun.
Daniel was about to open his mouth when he heard a bark. A large golden retriever came bounding out from behind the house, golden hair streaming behind. “Stonewall!” The dog ran to his master as he opened the fence gate and gleefully welcomed Daniel with slobber. Daniel let the dog vent his excitement as Lindsey stood by and smiled. She cared for the dog for extended periods of time, but she always knew the real person he always wanted was Daniel.
“Daniel,” Lindsey said with a smile. “Welcome back. It's good to see you. Are you doing ok?” She gave him a hug that was more of an invitation. “Do you have time for a cup of coffee? I just put some on.”
“I'll have to take a rain check on that,” Daniel said reluctantly. “Unfortunately, I just got a notice on my secure line. Sounds like I'm needed again.”
Lindsey looked disappointed but tried not to show it. She gave his dog one last pat and then turned back towards the lovely little house. Daniel looked after her, appreciating the attractive form so evident in the brief summer outfit. He thought about the unopened invitation that had been given him earlier, and a sad look crossed his face. While he could not see the sadness in her eyes, he felt it in his heart. He just wasn’t ready.
Daniel got back in the truck, and Stonewall immediately jumped into the back of the pickup. His dog was an excellent companion, but the golden retriever was no Sana. Daniel drove off in a cloud of smoke and dust as he vented some frustration against his accelerator. The hard road was not helping his mood, but he eased off the gas to not damage his truck.
The truck drove up a remote rocky mountain road to a small but comfortable looking mountain cabin. Leaving the vehicle, Daniel and the golden retriever walked purposely to the bungalow. They had no time to enjoy its comforts or the view from the rocky outcrop to the Shenandoah River Valley. There was work to do, and Daniel needed to focus.
The quietness of the cabin would have unsettled most people. Its owner had deliberately picked a place deep in the forest. Previously abandoned, Daniel had spent the first few months of re-construction removing squirrel's nests from the attic and dealing with a rather dramatic raccoon infestation.
This cabin had been his dream. In all those long years on foreign soil, he had looked forward to the day that he could retire to the woods, where he could fish and hunt and especially look at the stars. Far away from any big city, there was minimal light pollution. At night, the sky above was an utterly pristine inky blackness adorned with the beauty of the cosmos.
Daniel had made sure the surrounding trees were carefully pruned back each year. The effect was peace and serenity that was unmatched and made it almost impossible for anyone to approach the cabin unannounced. Daniel had installed a sophisticated security system that was overkill for his tiny reclaimed cabin, but for him, it was a necessity.
For Stonewall, there were rabbits to chase across the broad meadow the cabin sat on the edge of, shy moles and teasing gophers to dig after. Hedgehogs could be smelled from a safe distance, and there was a small, clear stream to drink. The trees in the woodland behind the cabin were full of chattering, scolding squirrels, and deer noiselessly made their way among the trunks to graze on the meadow grasses. Both field and forest held a cacophony of intriguing, delicious scents no dog could resist.
And now, it all seemed so hollow.
During the short drive from Lindsay Fletcher’s cabin to his own, the dawn had given way to night. An enormous moon began to rise. As Daniel walked to the front door, he performed his usual checks to make sure that his privacy hadn't been disturbed. The door handle was still correctly pointing at 40 degrees, the fake spider web was still attached to the door, and there were no indentations in the permaspong doormat. He had been surprised once in the past, just a group of teenage stoners, but that was enough. After that incident, word got out in the town below not to mess with the “Rambo type” who lived up on the mountain.
Daniel pushed open the heavy door and sighed the sigh of contentment one felt when returning home after a long absence. He filled a bowl, grabbed a beer and called Stonewall over. Man and dog slaked their thirst in silence. Stonewall bounded past him and settled down into a big dog bed in the corner of the living room. There he would stay for the rest of the night.
The walls were papered with posters of the constellations, the Milky Way, and the solar system. There were magnificent pictures of stars and star clusters taken by the Hubble telescope, the Mars Rover, and by various probes the wealthiest governments had sent into space over the years. Several large telescopes huddled sleepily together in the farthest corner of the main room, waiting for the darkness of night to once again reveal the stars, planets, satellites, comets, clusters, and asteroids. The room was dominated by an oversized and incredibly detailed image of a vast, white, flattened oval of the Milky Way against a dark blue-black background. A large, white arrow labeled “You are here” pointed at a spot just to the left of galactic central point.
The moonlight caressed the brown leather couch and the cluttered coffee table in front of it, glaring off the glossy covers of magazines. It illuminated the astronomy-themed coffee table books barely visible beneath the litter of mail, telescope pieces, tools, keys, and the ever-present empty coffee cup.
Daniel flipped on the large flat-screen television perched on the rustic, rough-hewn-log mantelpiece. He smiled to see the dog laying on his bed, head on his front paws. The dog’s tail softly thumped against her bed in reply to Daniel’s smile, but otherwise, she was as still as a statue.
The news was on. Most days, Daniel could tune it out as he read, but today his ears picked up on some keywords coming from the talking head, and he turned up the volume. The evening news was just coming on, and as a thin, balding newscaster began reading the evening’s top headlines, Daniel suddenly grabbed the remote and turned the volume up.
“....and things got even more intense for anarchist Debyan Radchenko today as the CPC announced that the price on Radchenko’s head has been increased by one hundred million dollars.”
Daniel felt as if his stomach dropped down around his knees and he sat down heavily. His thoughts raced, screamed through his head as he stared hopelessly, angrily at the screen
four hundred million dollars?!
The picture shifted to a blank, black silhouette of a man with a white question mark where the face should be. A text box filled with Radchenko’s vague physical description, last known whereabouts, a list of his possible present locations as the newscaster read them. Next, an infographic labeled “EDC Office of Public Information” issued a stern warning, also read aloud by the newscaster, to any civilians who may spot the intensely sought-after anarchist.
“Notify the police and never, ever approach the armed, brutally violent, extremely dangerous, murderous, traitorous, and very likely insane anarchist.”
Daniel’s expression changed from deep sadness to fury. “Absolute power and untold resources and they still don’t even know what Debyan Radchenko looks like,” he said aloud.
Daniel looked at the dog, “Well, I’m not the least bit impressed with the CPC’s handling of this situation. What about you, Stonewall?” he patted his thighs in his familiar “come on over here and let me scratch those ears for you” gesture. The dog, also unimpressed with the central government, but enthusiastic about the possibility of some ear scratching, happily obliged.
The newscaster continued: “The increased bounty is in response to the reports of an alliance between Debyan Radchenko and Achmed al-Khatani to destabilize and destroy the CPC, a threat that the CPC is, of course, taking very seriously,”
“Lorcan Dubhlaoch spoke briefly to the press today,” the newscaster continued. In response, the picture changed to the outside of the immense and famously grim-looking CPC building at the CPC capitol in Brussels. On a raised platform carpeted in blood red, there was a podium draped with crimson, navy blue, and white silks. A forest of microphones on stands stood on top of the podium, their roots decorously covered by the dignified colors the too-rich silk. Lorcan appeared at the podium in a hail of camera flashes and respectfully shouted questions. He did not smile and with one hand gestured a command of silence which was immediately given.
Lorcan Dubhlaoch spoke quickly but with absolute, deadly clarity, “We will find this anarchist, this rabble-rouser who believes himself outside the walls of our perfect union. Private military contractors have been granted more leeway and given additional tax advantages as an incentive to find Debyan Radchenko. They will either neutralize or capture him. They will find him.”
With that, Dubhlaoch again held up his hand, this time indicating that he was done speaking, and stepped away from the podium. He strode purposefully away, appearing utterly unaware of the explosion of camera flashes and shouted questions that were now noticeably tinged with urgency and frustration.
Moonlight streamed into the room through the white curtains of three wide windows framed in dark wood. Daniel paused to glance for a moment at the lawn that ran down to the trees. Then he walked across the shining wood floor towards a rustic fireplace where two overstuffed armchairs looked at each other across a dark bearskin rug.
A shadow box hung nearby. It contained an array of different ranks that Daniel had held in the United States Army, eventually culminating with the rank of Captain. His gray West Point uniform hung inside, and his treasured Green Beret was also present in the box. Also, a secret patch, known only to members of the secret and elite Delta Force perched in a place of prominence. A few pictures were here as well, including one of Daniel wearing dusty goggles on his forehead. He was carrying an M-4 rifle at the ready and wearing a long bushy beard that would not have been out of place on an Amish farm. Behind him was a mud hut, and Daniel was standing beside his enormous friend Gideon.
A small porcelain vase sat among the memorabilia on the wooden mantle. Daniel picked it up carefully and cradled it in his palm for a moment, appreciating its elaborate Eastern design and dwelling on a memory. The vase was decorated with intricate green and red scrollwork. A fierce dragon was its most prominent characteristic. For a moment, Daniel examined the dragon, who responded in kind, bearing its vicious teeth at him.
He had bought the vase long ago, during a stop in Korea. He liked it, he had told Gideon, because the dragon seemed to be telling him something with its enigmatic eyes. Gideon had replied only with a dismissive head shake.
The dragon had provided a metaphor for something else. Danger yes, but also an opportunity. But that was another time, when he was a younger man when he was just spoiling for a fight.
Daniel shook it sharply three times. Behind him sounded a loud click and a brief whirr.

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