“What the fuck is going on? I thought I told you guys to bring the ATVs around.” Vance was angry, but beneath that there was a rising unease. Something was going terribly wrong and he hoped that his suspicions would not be confirmed.
Tankersley, the mechanics and electronics troubleshooter he’d brought along was working at one of the vehicles with socket wrenches and screwdrivers. He had removed the cowling on the moter, his hands covered in oil; the man smelled of gasoline. The short, stocky mechanic was leaning over that engine, peering intently at the partially exposed assembly. Rubbing his fingers together, he then opened his hand and seemed to offer it, palm up, to his employer.
“Metal filings,” he said. “Somebody put some high quality filings in the gas tank—shit—probably even in the oil reservoir.”
Vance swept a hand through his wild mane of hair. “What’s that mean? Can’t you clean it out? We need to get these vehicles started.” The camp was as cold as the forest around them, and from time to time every man looked up into the trees each time they heard a limb snap or a trunk creak beneath the weight of tons of ice.
“Short answer: no,” Tankersly admitted. “This shit is all in the engine. It’s in the fuel lines. It’s really, really hard stuff. Went through the whole engine and pretty much totally fucked it up. I’d need parts we don’t have. We’ll have to hike out or have one of your choppers bring us the parts we need.” He huffed steam into the air. “Fuck. Just have them bring us a couple of engines. It’s that bad.”
“We need these ATVs,” Holcomb insisted. “I need you to get these damned things running. We’ve got people out there.” He pointed into the frozen, creaking iced forest that loomed around them and threatened to fall over and bury them all.
“Look, Mr. Holcomb. This ain’t some Star Trek show and I’m not Montgomery Scott. I cannot fix these engines.” He held up his fingers again and wriggled them at Vance. “This metal is super-hard steel. It went through the engine a few times and ruined the whole damned thing. If gas or oil passed through it, it’s ruined. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Holcomb put his hands on his hips and stood there, eyes closed, in thought, feeling the stress. “Fuck it, then,” he said. Tankersly and the others within hearing were surprised. They were not accustomed to hearing the man curse like that. “We’ll have to go out on foot. Those folk are out there somewhere and if we don’t find them...well...I don’t want to think about it.”
Well, you have some drama for your goddamned movie, Tankersly thought. But he kept those thoughts to himself. He didn’t know what kind of video was being shot, especially since Holcomb’s cameraman was among the missing. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what else to tell you. Just use your satellite phone and get in touch with someone. Even if the helicopters can’t make it in here in this weather, someone can carry in what we need to get these four-wheelers up and running.”
Holcomb decided to keep to himself the other bit of news. The satellite phones were gone, too. He’d found one of them, in the conference tent, but it had been stomped to pieces, the battery pulled out and taken. His worst fear was that they had a saboteur within the camp, but he couldn’t be certain of that and he didn’t want to start the paranoid panic such an accusation would bring. Worst case, his crew would be fighting among themselves within minutes of that news. Dropping his chin to his chest, he sighed.
“Okay,” he conceded. “We’ll have to send out a couple of search parties. We’ll just do it all on foot. Heck. Maybe it’ll turn out to be more efficient this way.”
He walked back to the conference tent, noticing that the intensity of the sleet had lessened, but that there seemed to be more rain misting down. As he went into the tent he glanced at the thermometer they’d affixed to the door. It was still four degrees below freezing. He could only hope that the temperature would start rising soon. If not, the woods were going to start tumbling down all around them, and then movement would be a relentless slog over and under and through downed trees, limbs, and brush. Holcomb had experienced that kind of travel in the past, and it was hard work.
He saw that Friday was sitting at the map table. His assistant looked up at him as he entered the tent. It was cold in there—only a couple of degrees warmer than it was outside. The place was just too big for a little body heat to have any influence. “Where are the ATVs?” he asked.
“They’ve been wrecked,” Holcomb told him.
“Wrecked? What are you talking about?” The other man stood, his knuckles holding down the topo map he’d been examining.
“Somebody poured metal filings in the engine. Probably in the gas and in the oil.”
“Why would somebody do that?” There was genuine confusion on Friday’s face.
Holcomb shrugged, but actually he figured he knew exactly what was going on, so he voiced that opinion. “I think someone—several people, likely—have come in here to monkey wrench the operation.”
Friday thought about it for a moment. “You think Smoak did it?”
There was that shrug again. “I doubt it.” He considered the possibility. “It’s not impossible. He’s a devious crazy guy. But I don’t think so.”
“Then who would do that?” Friday looked at the map and pressed down the curling edges of the green map with its shaded contours.
“Well...this area has some really committed green monkey wrenchers. What the politicians like to refer to as our domestic terrorist threat.” Holcomb chuckled. “I don’t think they normally qualify as terrorists, but they do know how to move in a screw up anything they see as an industrial operation. Mining. Timber. Even real estate development.”
Sitting back down, Friday relaxed and slumped back in his chair. His hands found the map again and he pushed down the corners which were attempting to curl up into the moist air. “But why would they screw with us? We’re not here to do anything like that.”
Holcomb smiled and laughed lightly again. “Yeah, I know that and you know that. But they don’t. Think about it—we must look pretty damned suspicious to anyone who thinks it’s there job to safeguard the wild places. We’ve been out here raising Hell, making noise, driving gas engine ATVs all over the place. To them, it looks like we’re here to fuck the place up.”
“Well...we were fucking the place up. Not in the way they think, but we’ve made quite the nuisances of ourselves. Especially Smoak’s crew. I even heard those dog packs of his a few times myself. And he’s what...five or six miles northwest of us?”
Vance nodded. “Yeah. About that distance.”
“So you think someone just crept into the camp and did a number on us in the night?”
“Basically, yes. Unless they have someone here with us. That’s possible, I guess. We have about two dozen men working here. I don’t know them. You don’t know them all, either. Any one of them could be a member of a monkey wrenching gang.”
“Any suspicions?” Friday asked. His mind was running through the names and faces of the men with whom he’d been introduced.
“No.” Holcomb’s gaze suddenly became intense. “And I don’t want you getting paranoid trying to figure it out. It’s just as likely as to have been an outside saboteur. I’d almost bet on it, the more that I think about it.”
“Then how did they get in here and find us?”
Vance finally walked to the table and sat down opposite Friday. His fingers found one of the topo maps and he drew it to him, looking down at the emblems representing hills and canyons, waterfalls and rivers. Blue lines for creeks and thick brown marks to indicate steep slopes. “I was thinking about that,” he said. “We put in for leases up here, you know. Paid out good money for mineral and timber rights.” Holcomb sighed. “My bet is that someone who had something to do with issuing those leases basically ratted us out to the wrong bunch.
Friday sat forward, inclining toward his employer, his head down, chin tucked. “Then they’d know about Smoak, too.”
“If that’s the case, then he’s probably in the same shape we’re in.” His eyebrows arched. “If Smoak’s camp is as fucked as ours, then we can surmise that he’s as much a victim as we are.”
“I’d bet good money that’s the case,” Holcomb said. “But the only way to find out now is to hike over there and take a look.” He spread his arms. “And in this weather, I don’t know how easy that will be. But I’ll send some guys over in that direction.”
“Think that’s safe?”
Outside, a slight breeze blew, and that was followed by the snapping of a dozen limbs on as many trees and the forest was suddenly alive with the roar of tumbling wood and shattering ice.
“No, I don’t think it’s especially safe,” Holcomb acknowledged. “But what I do know is that we have a commitment to find those lost people. And if we can talk to Smoak’s bunch and take a look around we’ll have a better idea of whom to blame.”
Standing, Friday reached up and punched the roof of the tent to remove the obvious accumulation of ice there. It slithered across the nylon as it slid off and hit the ground with a slight cracking noise. “Well, then. Let’s get to it.”