Read A Wolf in the Desert Online
Authors: BJ James
es... We have a renegade.”
There was silence after the reluctant admission. In the solitary darkness of his Spartan office Simon McKinzie braced the telephone between shoulder and jaw. His face was wooden, one fisted hand rested on his knee, the other clenched a crumpled message. A message delivered by special courier, intended for his eyes only. With his back to a window that commanded an impressive view of Washington by night, his bleak stare looked blindly at a barren wall.
As he listened to the pedantic lecture of a power hungry bureaucrat wielding what the foolish creature perceived as his own special bit of authority, only the creak and groan of the chair warned of the veiled tensing of Simon's formidable body. In what could have been misconstrued as a languid gesture, a massive hand lifted from his knee, blunt, square-nailed fingers captured the receiver in a bearlike grip. No hint of change flickered over his features, but deep in his hooded eyes seethed cold, barely leashed rage.
“Of course I know it's an explosive situation.” The damning scrap of paper drifted to the floor as he snarled into the receiver in response to a repetitive statement of the obvious. “He's my man. I know better than anyone what he's capable of.”
Reining in his anger Simon leaned forward, eyes like lasers now, scanned his office. Once, twice, then once more, his gaze lingered here, there, probing his memory of his sweep of critical niches. With a curt nod, pleased with his last discovery, he picked up the lighter that occupied a place of honor on his desk. As the voice at the other end of the line droned on, he flicked a broad thumb over it and a flame danced and swayed in the invisible currents of climate control. A small light in the darkness of his soul.
“I have admitted we have a renegade.” Heavy shoulders taut, a frown wrinkling his forehead beneath a closely cropped silver mane, his words were dangerously spaced as he looked into the calming center of the flame. “Where and why is our concern and no other's. The Watch takes care of its own.”
Distaste supplanting anger in his hooded eyes, Simon listened again. A calculated stratagem more than respect for the speaker's political authority. The covert organization for special investigations had been instigated by a past president. The monumental task of making the dream of fail-safe protection above the vagaries of politics a viable reality had been given to Simon. Through sheer willpower and stubborn dedication he made it reality, he made it viable. Without him it could not have existed. He
the organization, and the organization was his.
In twenty years that had not changed. The rigid rules and guidelines were set down by Simon. The extraordinary men who lived and worked by them were chosen by Simon. The assignments were accepted by Simon. The Black Watch was still his.
Simon McKinzie was a powerful man. There were those among his acquaintance who thought too powerful. Those who coveted and those who feared the ungoverned control. Such acquaintances had no concept of the true man. The man of honor and truth, without personal ambition, whose loyalty to his men was superseded only by his loyalty to his country.
Simon McKinzie had and would walk through hell for his men, and twice for his country. He knew his men, singled out for constancy as well as individual talents, would do the same. There had been mistakes over the yearsâagents who failed, who couldn't cope, or simply opted out. But never many, never an agent trusted above all others. And only once, the threat of a renegade.
Until now, only David Canfield.
Cradling the lighter in his hand, Simon remembered.
David, the first, best of the best, a young idealist with a heartbreaking smile. Fifteen grueling years in the field robbed him of the smile, a final tragedy drew him to the brink, a step from disaster. There were enemies who wanted to hunt him down and, in destroying him, destroy The Black Watch. Simon fought for David and won. His ally, time and Raven McCandless.
Gentle Raven, master potter, creator of beauty. A woman who brought love to a bitter, heartsick man, and at long last, salvation and peace.
Simon had no gentle ally in this circumstance. He had only himself. Only he would be champion of the man and keeper of the secret. He could give his renegade that.
Balancing the telephone again between shoulder and chin, with a low growl rumbling at the base of his throat, he retrieved the yellow document. In a slow, deliberate move he dragged a corner through the fire, watching as the flame crawled the length of it to lick at his fingers. As heat singed the hirsute back of his hand, with a great sense of satisfaction and apologies to the meticulous cleaning crew, he dropped the crumbling ash into an immaculate garbage can.
he thought, keeping a careful silence as a coil of smoke drifted in an eddying current of air and disappeared.
All the time you need.
The taut angle of his shoulders eased, grim lines that bracketed his mouth softened as he snuffed out the flame and set the lighter in its place. The bit of potter's clay fashioned in a misshapen ball around a two-bit lighter was a six-year-old child's first effort at his mother's craft. A gift from Simon Canfield to Simon McKinzie, and the elder Simon's greatest treasure.
A child. A very special child. Proof that circumstances weren't always as they seemed, and no man was beyond redemption.
“Casper.” The name began as a growl and ended an intimidating bark. “Shut up.” The preening monologue that poured in a torrent through the line halted abruptly.
His patience at an end, smiling the infamous rictus of a smile that sent any sensible opponent running for cover, Simon set the record straight. “There will be no manhunt. No one could find the Apache unless he wanted to be found, no one could bring him in. No one except us. This is our problem, we'll handle it.”
More stupidly dense than most, Casper chose to argue. Simon cut him short in a low drawl that left no room for underestimation. “There will be no search and destroy. I repeat, none! The Watch will handle this in its own way. Consider this a personal warningâif anyone disregards what I've said, you will answer to me.” Simon paused to let his promise and what it entailed register in Casper's slow-moving mind. “You, Casper. First, last, always.”
Protests and denials spewed over the line. Simon ignored them, speaking into the outburst so softly there could be no mistaking his meaning. “How you control your cohorts is your problem. How I deal with my men is mine.”
As the pedantic voice turned shrill in babbled promises and denials, Simon's smile grew colder. “Good,” he said at last. “I'm glad we understand each other.
“By the way, Casper, there's one more thing.” Simon listened to a ragged breath caught and held, and knew he'd truly won. “As a show of my good faith, I won't ask how you came into possession of this information.”
The receiver clattered into its cradle. “Have a good evening, Casper,” he muttered. With the first real smile of the day beginning in his eyes, in blatant disregard for the microphone tucked beneath the rim of the immaculate trash can, he added, “If you can.”
Wearied by the tensions of the day, Simon leaned back in his chair, allowing himself only a moment to rest. There was more to be done, much more. Not one precious moment would be squandered savoring his victory. The crucial point was time. Time he'd won for his renegade.
Time for Matthew Sky.
eauty sighed. Beauty died.
In the first shade of nightfall, as darkness crept over a bloodred sky, her thundering heart stopped. Death came so swiftly Patience O'Hara had no time to think, none to comprehend. In one perfect moment they were barreling westward, racing at breakneck speed into the ebbing light of a fiery sunset. Patience sang. Beauty hummed, leaving a trail of boiling dust in her wake. Then nothing.
No power, no lights, no music.
On an obscure track in the middle of nowhere and no sign of life for miles, all three hundred, thirty horses under Beauty's pretty aristocratic nose dwindled to a puddle of nothing. The whole herd of them, gone, in a heartbeat, without a second peep or whinny.
“Beauty! No!” Patience cut short her gusty off-key rendition of “Ghost Riders In The Sky” one note past failure of all systems. “You can't do this to me. Not now. Not here.”
As she pleaded her lost cause, ingrained instincts overrode the inertia of surprise. In a conditioned response she mustered the last of Beauty's dying momentum to wrest the Corvette's cumbersome, unresponsive weight to what passed for the shoulder of what could only laughably be called a road.
Bumping to a halt, her hands resting loosely on the steering wheel, she sat nonplussed, dazed, feeling the void, the nothingness closing in. As one would feel at the loss of a friend.
The silly car, an impractical gift for her journey through the west from her ever-impractical family, had become her companion and confidant, assuming a personality in the long, solitary hours they shared on the road. She'd come to know and anticipate the growing list of idiosyncrasies of this sleek work of art in fiberglass. Even to regard them fondly as she would the endearing and often annoying quirks of her eccentric family. Of whom there were seven. Family, that is. Mother, Mavis; father, Keegan; brothers, Devlin, Kieran and Tynan; sister, Valentina; and lastly, Patience. Prudent Patience. Practical Patience. Boring Patience.
Seven O'Haras true to the breed, with thoroughly O'Hara quirks far too changeable and numerous to calculate. But Beauty's idiosyncrasies? A different matter.
Patience had chronicled them, investigated them herself, and had them investigated in each new place, after each new occurrence. There was never anything. Neither she, nor any service center, or shade tree mechanic, no matter how competent, discovered a problem. After weeks of ignoring dozens of smug male smirks insinuating the peculiar and transient difficulties were in her imagination not the splendid Vette, after fending off a dozen and one too many passes, she stopped looking for trouble and coped.
Beauty had a problem; several problems, actually. Or maybe, as Mavis who was Irish to the core might say, she was inhabited by a leprechaun bent on a bit of mischief.
Whatever the cause, all the little transient problems had finally ceased being vague and transient, coalescing into catastrophe. And in that single soft sigh Patience heard the portent that this time the trouble wouldn't be going away.
“Why now?” She glared at an ever-darkening sky. “Why here?” Turning a bleak gaze at the desert she gripped the steering wheel tighter, muttering, “And where the hell are we?”
She couldn't remember a sign giving either name or road number telling where she'd been or where she was going. She couldn't remember the last sign of life. She was alone in the middle of nowhere and not even a cow for company.
“So, Beauty, you got me into this, what do I do?” An unfair accusation Patience admitted, for it was she who had left their charted route on a whim. She who, in typical family fashion, had tired of the expected and opted for this little adventurous ramble.
“My mother's youngest daughter.” Continuing her muttered harangue of all things O'Hara, she rummaged through the console for The Handy Dandy Tool Kit, Tools For All Occasions. A parting gift from brother Devlin.
“There you are.” Pulling the fine leather case from its spot of repose, she prepared to see what she could do about getting herself out of what she'd gotten herself into. If her gut feeling was right, attacking Beauty's problem with The Handy Dandy Tools would be as effective as attacking a rhinoceros with a hairpin.
Climbing out of the Vette one slender, denim-clad leg at a time, she stood barefoot, feeling the rising heat of the ground and the descending chill of the night. In another hour she would be shivering. In less than that the last of the light would vanish from the sky. Since she didn't relish holding a flashlight between her teeth while she delved beneath Beauty's hood in the dark, she snatched her boots from the car, stamped her feet into them with the mastery of a seasoned cowhand and addressed the task she'd set herself.
Twenty minutes later, with a swipe of her forearm over her sweaty brow, she backed away, defeated. Whatever ailed Beauty remained a mystery, no more evident in extremity than before. This strange malady was far beyond the small knowledge imparted to Patience by brother Devlin whose life and love focused on family, especially his baby sister, fast cars, fast planes, fast motorcycles, and fast women. But not especially in that order.
After putting the tools away and closing the hood with a sense of regret, Patience leaned against a fender, absently scrubbing her hands on the thighs of her jeans as she considered her options. She could walk out, but which way should she go? How far back was the last settlement? How far ahead was the next? One mile? Two? Fifty? A hundred? The road was so poorly distinguishable from the desert itself, could she be sure she wouldn't wander away from it?
Patience stared out at miles of nothing. The desert seemed static at a glance, a rendering in stone, the keeper of ancient secrets. But she knew there were creatures there, nocturnal creatures she couldn't see. Since she didn't know where she was, she wasn't sure what creatures. Birds, mice, a sure bet. Javelinas, perhaps.
Suppressing the shiver rippling through her, she crossed her arms beneath her breasts, her fingers clutching at the shirt pulled taut over her ribs. Snakes. She hated them. Animals were her business, she'd studied them, learned how to care for them and treat them. Her purpose for coming west, beyond distancing herself from her beloved madcap family, was to find that perfect place to establish her fledgling veterinary practice. But snakes!
Unconsciously she shook her head. She'd never managed to conquer an almost paralytic fear of them. Her unreasonable response made no sense, but it served her well for once, tipping the scales to a more prudent decision. Snakes or no snakes, only a tenderfoot would venture into unfamiliar territory at night.
Patience hadn't been a tenderfoot since she was seven and her first horse refused a fence, sending her flying braids over bootheels. She remembered the spill and how frightened she'd been as if it were twenty minutes ago instead of twenty years. In the expected tradition, after picking herself up and dusting herself off, she'd hobbled back to the horse, conducted a little heart-to-heart talk and climbed back on. He never refused a fence again. Once again, in family tradition, she would climb back into Beauty for the remainder of the night. At first light she would face any fears she must, do whatever she must to accomplish her return to civilization.
Decision made, she gathered up The Handy Dandy Tool Kit and in her long-legged, confident stride, circled to the door. Her hand was at the latch when a drift of sound made her pause. Head up, she turned, searching for something that would explain the disturbance.
The desert was still under the rising moon. Yet there was something, Patience knew she wasn't mistaken. Executing a slow turn she looked out over the barren land once more, her stare probing, searching, then probing deeper. Nothing moved among clumps of stunted desert grasses. No shadow skulked about the prickly saguaro, pious giants of the desert with arms raised eternally toward heaven.
She could feel the stillness permeating the air.
Stooping swiftly she gathered up a handful of pebbles and flung them into the brush. In a nearly silent flap of wings, so slowly it seemed in stop-action sequences, an owl lifted from the scrub, a snake writhing in its beak. Patience flinched and ducked, bumping her elbow against a mirror. Pain radiated down her arm, followed by a tingling numbness, but she hardly noticed. When the shock subsided she felt only profoundly relieved, chiding herself softly for a momentary revulsion for the owl's dinner.
She was turning again to the door when some nuance, a portent, had her whirling around. Teeth clenched against an outcry, she turned cautiously in place, making another circular sweep of the land.
Saguaros stood as piously as before, grasses perched as tenuously in the sand. Above them the sky was an undisturbed expanse. Frightened and replete, the owl hadn't returned.
What then? she wondered. What had her so spooked?
Had she heard something or only sensed it? Had she been disturbed on some subconscious level by the precursor of sound?
“Ah!” She shook her head in disgust. “God help ye, Patience, ye've been in the desert too long to fall prey to such buffoonery. Mayhap âtwould be best to head back east at first chance.”
The parody of her Irish ancestors dropped like a stone from her lips as she felt it. At first it was only vibration, the subtle, immeasurable shaking of the earth in response to pounding sound. Like an electrical charge lancing through her, the vibration raced to her ears, becoming sound. Deep, pulsing sound. Sound she knew.
“Two,” she muttered, listening, her hopes rising with the sound. “Four.” Her heart raced a bit, a frown barely creased her forehead. Her hand pawed nervously for the latch, but her gaze never wavered from the direction of the invisible sound.
“Six!” The number sent terror racing through her like a ravenous fire. Her hand shook, her numb fingers wouldn't obey as she fumbled with the latch. Frustration fed by fear erupted from her.
“God help me!” The cry was a muted scream as blinding lights rose out of a dip made invisible by the shadows of sunset. Patience wondered desperately what other secrets were hidden in the crude road that had appeared to be as perfectly level as it was straight. Spurred by the strength of panic, her nearly paralyzed fingers responded. The latch engaged and released.
Catching back a sob of pain, scrambling, stumbling, nearly falling in her frantic haste, she flung open the door and threw herself inside the dark interior of the Corvette. She managed to drag the door shut with her good hand and slap down the locks with her palm an instant before six motorcycles, six chromed and polished machines, riding in pairs roared around the car.
Savages of the modern world on modern steeds with throbbing V-twin motors circled a crippled wagon. Around and around in darkness that was complete, Harleys, Fat Boys, Electra Glides reared and spun and skidded, executing tight, sliding turns. Headlights flashed, one illuminating the one in front of it, a battery of monstrous machines, tattooed arms and brawny bodies revealed in their glare.
Patience sat woodenly, seeking refuge in a secret place of oblivion, ignoring catcalls and grinning faces leaning close to leer. Refusing to cringe as gloved fingers stretched out in their circuit to trail over the surface of the car and the windows, stroking them, caressing them, as they would the flesh of a woman.
Fighting back a shiver, she tried not to see, tried not to think. Pebbles clattered against Beauty's smooth sides, dust spewed over her in grainy plumes, and spewed again. The air churned with it, fell thick and heavy with it, and in the flaring light, turned to suffocating haze. Patience was mercifully blinded, the riders, she was sure, would be more so. With all her might she willed them to tire of the choking dust and their game, prayed they would leave her to find her way from the desert in peace.
But the bikers weren't so easily discouraged. In eerie silence, as engine after engine shut down and dust fell through the glare of headlights like settling fog, only a naive fool wouldn't have realized this was far more than a bit of roadside hazing. Her body tense, woodenly stiff, in darting glances she watched them swagger toward her, strutting through blinding brightness in leathers and boots and shining chains, with thumbs hooked in the pockets of jeans, elbows bent, biceps bulging, and six smirking grins.
These were outlaws, the incarnation of every clichÃ©. Mean-to-the-bone, born-to-be-wild, live-to-ride bikers. If she'd been lucky they might had been one of the many rubes like Devlin. Yuppies with deep pockets and gold cards living on the cutting edge. Clean-cut, clean-living country boys fulfilling dreams. The richer, older, gentlemanly urbanite out for a fashionable spin in the desert.
But she hadn't been lucky. These weren't rubes of any sort, and she knew she was looking at more trouble than she'd ever imagined.
“Hey, baby.” The first rider, a wiry man with a tumble of golden curls and goatee to match, slapped a palm on the window, jolting her from her thoughts. Rigid control kept her from cringing.
“You in there.” He bent near to peer at her through the window, a sudden grin splitting his face as he called out, “Jackpot! We got us a redhead this time.”
“Red?” a voice asked.
“âS what I said.”
“For sure? You ain't joshing us, Custer?”
“Red-gold and curly,” the biker called Custer assured them. “And lots of it.”
Patience stared straight ahead, her gaze fixed, focused on nothing. She refused to turn, refused to acknowledge him.
“Hey! I said.” Custer slapped a hand against the window again. The report rivaled the sound of a gunshot in the murky interior of the car. “What's the matter, Red?” He bent closer, his goatee brushing the window. “Are you deaf? Blind? Cat got your tongue?”
Another rider joined him. Another face to peer at her. Patience didn't turn, didn't look.