Thinning of the Herd

In Long Short Story by G. D. McFetridge

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Photo by John Peters on Unsplash

It was after midday when the sound of an airplane interrupted the tranquility of my forested home. I was standing on my second-story deck drinking a cup of coffee, and what caught my attention was the proximity of the aircraft, which seemed closer than usual. Moments later the engine began sputtering in short bursts—blat, blat. . .blat-blat-blat. . .blat. Then it went dead silent.

I was wondering if the engine would restart. Small airplanes usually fly over the Bitterroot Valley at about a thousand feet, although when I glanced skyward, I didn’t see anything. When I started toward the door, a whooshing sound came overhead, roaring like the rush of hurricane-force winds, followed by the sharp crack of metal striking metal.

Something flew past my head and hit the picnic table, shattering the glass top and sending shards in every direction. A split-second later the plane cleared the house, sheared off the top of a ponderosa pine in my yard and clipped another treetop on the far side of the grassy field. I don’t remember how I got there but I was on my hands and knees, glass shards scattered everywhere and sparkling in the sunlight like diamonds. In the space of five seconds, I heard the impact, which sounded similar to a car crash, a heavy thump and the clatter of crunching metal. I got to my feet and looked at my arms and legs, patting my hands over my face and the back of my neck to check if I was bleeding—I wasn’t. I looked around, half-dazed, trying to make sense of what had happened.

“Holy shit that was close,” I said, gaping at the aftermath.

Strands of guidewire dangled from the roof along with a section of galvanized pole, the remains of the antenna hanging from the rain gutter, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. I reached for the doorknob and noticed my hand trembling, so I took a deep breath, collected myself and walked inside. My cell phone wasn’t on the kitchen counter where I thought I had left it. I checked all the likely places—but no luck.

My home is in a rural area with only about a dozen neighbors within a half-mile radius, nevertheless, I figured there was a good chance someone else had witnessed the crash and called 911; so rather than wasting time hunting for my phone, I decided to locate the crash site to see if anyone was injured or dead.

A century ago, at the southern edge of my property, farmers had excavated an irrigation trench to supply their crops and fruit trees, with water from a creek flowing from the Sapphire Mountains. A trail used by mule deer and the occasional elk follows the edge of the trench, and it was the quickest way to reach the downed plane. So I grabbed the fire extinguisher from atop my refrigerator and hurried out the back door.

After dogtrotting for several minutes, I was out of breath. I stopped for a moment and noticed two splintered treetops off to my right and beyond them a section of wing lying near another tall pine with a thick trunk. I figured the airplane had passed diagonally over the trench and probably crashed in the meadow beyond the forest. Clearing the edge of the trees, I looked across the field and saw the plane on its belly, gray smoke rising from the engine compartment. As I got closer, I noticed the fuselage had buckled near the midsection, while the forward cabin, though battered, remained intact. The right side of the windshield was smashed, and the pilot’s door half open.

I stepped onto the left wing, which was touching the ground at the wingtip, and then walked to the cabin and opened the door to get a better look at the cockpit. It was empty, as were the front and two rear passenger seats. I saw blood smeared on the pilot’s chair and on the instrument panel, and more blood splattered on the floor, so I stuck my head outside and surveyed the perimeter of the crash, thinking I might see the pilot collapsed in the field.

After climbing out of the cockpit, I walked to the end of the wing and stepped to the ground, where I noticed blood spots on the dry weeds. It seemed the blood trail was headed towards a cedar tree about twenty yards away, and as I got nearer, a body appeared just past the tree, half hidden in a thick patch of bunchgrass.

I switched onto autopilot. My first thought was that the man was seriously injured or close to death. He lay face down, arms splayed, the bottom half of his shirt saturated with blood. I knelt and took hold of his wrist, then I tried his neck beneath the left ear, pressing my fingers to the artery running from his heart to his brain, but I couldn’t feel a pulse.

Near the center of his shirt, I noticed the bloodstain was bright red and uncoagulated, as if his heart had stopped minutes ago—maybe ten at most. Looking closer, I noticed a small hole in his shirt and pulled up the untucked shirttail, seeing what I suspected was a bullet wound.

During the first Iraq War, I had served in the army as a medic and treated enough wounds to know a bullet hole when I saw it. Rolling the man over, I checked to see if the projectile had passed through his torso, and it had, exiting below his ribcage about three inches left of center. The exit wound was larger, indicating an unjacketed slug that had flattened on impact. I checked for a wallet but his pockets were empty, and so I returned to the plane to see if I could find a pistol or any other weapon.

Back on the wing, I made my way to the cockpit and climbed inside. Hadn’t noticed it before but a metal briefcase lay on the floor half-hidden in front of the passenger seat. Before reaching down to retrieve it, I repositioned myself to get a better look between the back seats. I saw a green coffee thermos on the floor next to a book with curlicue wires binding the pages. The exposed pages looked similar to road maps or aerial navigation charts, but otherwise the airplane was empty and I didn’t see a pistol or any other firearm.

When I turned toward the front of the cabin, I noticed the smoke rising from the engine compartment was thicker and blacker than before, indicating that engine oil or hydraulic fluid had caught fire, or worse yet, the fuel line or injection system had started leaking. I scrunched into the space between the front seats and grabbed the briefcase, under the assumption there might be information to identify the pilot, but it also crossed my mind that it might contain something valuable.

Seconds after climbing out of the cockpit, I heard a low thumping sound, like when an old-fashion furnace lights up. Flames sprouted from the engine compartment and by the time I’d gotten off the wing, a cloud of dark smoke was billowing skyward. It was a warm and breezy day, the grass dry, and I was sure, once started, the fire would spread quickly. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and sprayed blasts of white powder at the engine, but it had little effect before going empty. I picked up the briefcase and started jogging.

By the time I arrived at my house, I remembered where my cell phone was—in my jacket pocket, hanging on a hook in the bedroom closet. I called 911. The dispatcher said someone had already reported the crash, and as soon as I hung up, a fire truck with sirens blasting roared up the highway to a dirt road a hundred yards north of my house.

From my rear porch, I watched smoke clouds rising against the sky and figured the fire had spread to the field and surrounding pine trees. Another fire truck turned off the paved road and circled up and around my property. Curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to watch the action, and I also needed to make sure the firemen got the job done, because if they didn’t, the southwesterly breeze would drive the flames towards my property and home.

By the time I was within eyesight of the wreckage, I saw firemen shooting streams of water from several hoses, dousing the torched trees and burning grass. In the space of twenty minutes, the blaze was under control.

Two deputy sheriffs had arrived on the scene. They talked with the firemen for a few minutes before one of them spotted me and walked over, wanting to know if I had witnessed the accident. I told him no. I’d seen the plane going down but hadn’t actually seen it crash, and I also explained how the airplane had almost hit my house, and mentioned finding the dead pilot.

“Are you certain he was dead?” the deputy asked.

“I was a medic in the army, in the first Iraq war. He wasn’t breathing and I couldn’t get a pulse—he’d been shot in his back, the bullet exiting just below his rib cage.”

The deputy’s brow crinkled. “Are you sure?”

“Like I said, I was a medic. I know a bullet hole when I see one, and there was a lot of blood on the pilot’s seat and more blood on the floor of the airplane.”

“That adds a new twist,” he said, his brow furrowing deeper. “We’ll need to get a written statement and I’ll need your name, address and phone number.”

“My home is over there, last house on Camilla Lane,” I said. Then I gave him my name and phone number.

As he finished writing in his notebook, I realized I had a choice to make, tell him about the briefcase or keep my mouth shut. My initial reason for grabbing it was what I had said before, to identify the pilot; however, once I got home my scheming brain went to work and I began considering possible scenarios. The truth was this was no ordinary briefcase.

The size was normal enough, something like twenty-four inches by sixteen, four or five inches thick, but the metal was not an aluminum alloy; it was stainless steel, with heavy-duty edge binding and a locking mechanism built into a rectangular plate that looked like titanium. When I was younger, I took a class in welding and knew my metals. In addition, the lock wasn’t key operated and didn’t have a number press pad or cylinder-type combination, so maybe it required a device similar to ones that unlock car doors. Beyond that, one thing was clear—the briefcase was a high-security model.

Cutting to the chase, I went with the latter of the two options and told the deputy nothing more. Regarding the contents? My first wild flight of imagination was that the pilot was carrying large sums of money, stacks of freshly printed hundred dollar bills. Or maybe gold coins or bags full of sparkling diamonds.

Or maybe he was a drug runner carrying kilo-size sacks of uncut Afghani heroin or Columbian cocaine. Suffice to say, I was enjoying a fantasy field day and, the truth is, I’d always lived closer to the ragged edge than on the straight and narrow, inclined to push things just for the sake of pushing; and I guess I’ve always been like that, a risk-taker. Although some might say, I was little more than an irresponsible slacker. Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe somewhere between, or put more succinctly, the very idea that the briefcase might contain something valuable was more than I could resist, and I had to keep it, had to find out what was hidden inside.

The pilot was dead. Guaranteed he didn’t give a fat man’s fart one way or another, and the only risk I had calculated—which I admit I did hurriedly—was to weigh the odds of whether anyone had a record of the briefcase, and if so whether the cops would get wind of it. All speculations aside, it was a chance I was willing to take. Not to mention, the plane had burned up in the fire. Briefcase? What briefcase? I don’t know nothing about no stinking briefcase.

When the firemen extinguished the last of the smoldering hot spots, the pumper trucks and their crews left along with the deputy sheriffs in their black and white SUV. I waited until evening, took the briefcase from my closet and went downstairs to my workshop. Aside from the keyless locking mechanism, I noticed it had no exposed hinges; thus, contrary to my plan to use a hand-held grinder with a carbide disk or diamond blade to eliminate the metal hinges, I had to find another method. My second idea was to cut through the sheet-metal top of the briefcase, a frontal assault that sidestepped the locking mechanism.

But what if something fragile or combustible was inside, a painting by a famous artist worth a small fortune, or maybe a Picasso or Van Gogh? There was simply no way I could take the risk and so I decided to think it all through, take my time to see if I could come up with a better strategy.

Later that evening while surfing through my 300 satellite channels, I happened on a spy movie wherein the nefarious bad guys had rigged a briefcase to explode, which it did, killing the intended victim. And if this wasn’t untimely enough, the eleven o’clock news had a piece about terrorists using biological weapons to kill millions of people in a city like New York. According to the commentator, a person could smuggle such a weapon in a suitcase, and that got me thinking about the danger of opening the briefcase, miniscule though it may have seemed.

Early next morning before sunrise, I had a discomforting dream wherein I opened the briefcase and a cloud of white dust exploded in my face and I coughed and choked, blood streaming from my nose. I awoke with a start. It was an eerily realistic dream and my first thought was that I had better get out of bed, take the briefcase to the crash site and hide it—as if it had been thrown from the plane during the crash—and then pretend I’d never found the damned thing to begin with. I dressed and hurried downstairs and switched on the light to my workshop.

Paranoia works strange tricks on your mind, and no sooner had I picked the briefcase up than I began fretting that the sheriff’s department had assigned a watchman to the crash site to keep looters away. Or maybe hidden security cameras would react to motion and silently take incriminating pictures.

“That’s crazy,” I muttered.

I thought about other ways to rid myself of the briefcase. Bury it or climb up the crawl space to the attic and hide it under the insulation between the ceiling joists. No wait, I got it, tie the damned thing to a concrete block and toss it in the river. Nobody would know. I went outside to a stack of concrete blocks leftover from a retaining wall I had built the previous summer and grabbed one and returned to the workshop.

As I was pulling thin nylon rope from the spool to secure the briefcase, I realized I was freaking out, my paranoia was out of control and I needed to get a grip on myself, slow down and think carefully. I took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves.

“What the hell has gotten into you? Is this really who you are, a nervous lightweight? It’s a briefcase, no more and no less, probably full of a bunch of worthless crap and you’re freaking yourself out. Jesus H. Christ, get your shit together!” I have the habit of talking to myself, always have.

I hid the briefcase beneath a pile of shop rags on the floor below the workbench and went back upstairs to watch television. After waking next morning, in the glaring light of reason, I sat at the kitchen table with a mug of Fog Lifter Coffee—the actual brand name of the beans—and then sorted through the contingencies.

My internal dialog went something like this: The decision to take the briefcase was impulsive if not downright stupid. But then that’s how I roll, so I have to accept the consequences. Most importantly, nobody knows I have the briefcase. It may contain something of value but probably doesn’t. The dead pilot has nothing to do with me because I didn’t kill him. Are there explosives in the briefcase or a terrorist bioweapon? Not likely, so I say cut it open and let’s see what’s inside, get it over with, take the briefcase along with the junk and trash that has accumulated around the house to the county dump. And don’t make any more dumb-ass decisions.

Despite my logical discourse, if something valuable was inside the briefcase, and if it was in any way fragile or combustible, and if I damaged or destroyed it, chances were I would lose whatever the payoff might be. But how do you break open a high-tech briefcase? I thought about it until I had an idea. Drill a hole and insert a fiber optics lens inside, one similar to the type doctors use to look inside someone during a colonoscopy, although something that sophisticated would likely cost a small fortune, and if nothing good was in the briefcase, I would be very disappointed and poorer for the effort.

But then the solution popped into my head—my old friend Cliff, the X-ray tech at Community Hospital. The next day, I called and asked him to stop by my house, have a look at a briefcase and tell me if it was something he could X-ray, to see what might be inside.

“What the hell are you up to, you crazy bastard?” he wanted to know. “Are you planning on smuggling something passed airport security?

“No, no. . .for chrissake, you know me better than that. It’s a fancy metal briefcase that I found, and it’s built solid and locked. I want to know what’s inside of it.”

“What kind of metal?”

“Stainless steel, not too thick—I would say it’s a thirty-second of an inch, plus or minus a couple thousandths.”

“It’s still problematic. Only substantial objects will stand out, and I don’t get why you want to X-ray it in the first place.”

“That’s one long story. Just do me this solid, stop by the house and we’ll drink a few beers and I’ll tell you how I found the briefcase.”

He gave me a skeptical look. “All right,” he said, “although I don’t guarantee this is something I’m going to get involved with, and I think you know why. I don’t want to lose my job if I get caught doing unauthorized work.”

“Fair enough, I totally understand—I get it. We’ll talk it through and you’ll decide if you feel comfortable or not. No pressure.”

“I’ll stop by on Saturday morning at about ten.”

I said that would be great and thanked him. Later, when Saturday rolled around, I handed Cliff the briefcase, lied about how I had found it and gave him a hundred-dollar bill. He agreed to help me but made it clear that I’d have to be patient, because he had to find an opportunity to do it when the patient load was light and his boss wasn’t around.

Six days later when he showed me the negatives, the only thing revealed was what appeared to be a rectangular metal object inside the briefcase that was almost as big as the briefcase itself, but it displayed no distinguishable features. It looked like an attaché case, the type businessmen or diplomats use to carry important papers or documents.

Cliff mentioned the X-ray machine wasn’t powerful enough to fully penetrate the object and reveal details, although there was a vague L-shaped object that looked about the length and width of a wallet or mid-size cell phone. He concluded by explaining that in order to get more detailed images, I would need an industrial X-ray. Having studied the negatives for myself, his opinion appeared accurate. In other words, I was no closer to knowing what was inside, and the remaining question was not too complicated—what was my next move?

The briefcase stayed hidden in my workshop in a toolbox under lock and key. I tried not to think about it, and the good news was no cops had visited my house, no FBI or Homeland Security, no DEA, so I decided my petty crime had passed under the investigative radar and nothing was left for me to fret over—except for the treasure that might be inside the enigmatic briefcase.

What’s more, toward the end of my hiatus, I dreamed about it again, and as with most dreams nothing made much logical sense, except for the part where the briefcase was filled with precious jewels and I was scooping them up by the handful, letting them run through my fingers. After getting out of bed, I couldn’t stop thinking about the jewels, the feeling of them in my hands as they ran through my fingers, even though it was only a silly dream.

But I also felt exasperated by my indecisiveness and my failure in finding a solution to get inside the briefcase. I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth, and afterwards glared at myself in the bathroom mirror. “What the hell are you waiting for? Cut the damned thing open and have a look, find out what’s inside and be done with it.”

I walked into my bedroom, dressed hurriedly, strode downstairs to my workshop and attached a diamond-cutting blade to my mini grinder. I decided to wear protective goggles and a motorcycle helmet with a face shield, work gloves and a Kevlar flak jacket—military issue—to assuage my neurotic notions about the briefcase being potentially booby-trapped. The flak jacket I had borrowed from my old army buddy, Darby, who had served with me in the first Iraq War. I started the procedure thinking I would remove the locking mechanism in five or ten minutes, but it was tedious work and took much longer, slowly grinding through the titanium millimeter-by-millimeter.

Having finished the operation, I took off my gloves, helmet and goggles, then dusted off the briefcase and set it on the workbench. I stared at it for ten seconds feeling oddly mesmerized, mumbled a quick incantation for luck and used a blade screwdriver to jimmy open the lid. Not surprisingly, an aluminum attaché case fitted neatly inside the larger briefcase, with space enough to slip my fingers in and lift it out; but just as I set the attaché case on the workbench, I heard tires rolling over my gravel driveway and into the parking area. The car stopped and the engine turned off, then I heard two doors slam shut.

I placed the attaché case in the briefcase and grabbed a tattered beach towel from my rag box, covered the brief case and then hid it under the workbench, walking from the workshop to the corner of the house, peering around it to see who had arrived. Probably someone is lost was what I was thinking.

I heard the words oh, shit resonate inside my brain, although I don’t recall saying them out loud. It was as if my subconscious brain recognized what was happening a split-second before I did and like a good watchdog, sounded the alert. Two men in suits and dark glasses, driving a silver-gray sedan vehicle with government agency written all over it, were walking with apparent resolve towards the wooden stairway that ascended to the second-story patio deck outside the front door of my house.

I realized I was still wearing the flak jacket and ducked back into the workshop, fumbling with the snaps on the overflap of the jacket, and then with the metal zipper. The heavy gauge zipper caught on something. I cussed and zipped it up and down several times until the zipper passed the obstruction; then I yanked the flak jacket off and tossed it under the workbench, composed myself and walked outside.

“Over here,” I said, waving.

We walked toward each other and met at the halfway point in front of my garage. They wore navy-blue suits and red ties, with polished black shoes that were gleaming in the sunlight. I felt another shot of adrenalin hit my bloodstream. Once we were standing face to face, I said, “You fellows lost? Whose address are you looking for?”

People get confused about addresses out here in the sticks, so the question was fitting. The man closest to me pulled out a leather wallet, flipped it open and flashed a badge, holding it at arm’s length in front of my face. FBI—I couldn’t miss those big black letters or the gold embossed emblem. He lowered the badge and looked at me without speaking, his eyes barely visible from behind his dark glasses. I had the feeling he was gathering impressions and preparing his angle of approach. He introduced himself and the other agent, and wanted to know if I was Willis McHenry.

I said yes I was and added, “What can I do for you?”

“We’re investigating the plane crash. There’ve been developments in the ongoing investigation, and so for the record, to tie up loose ends and fill in gaps, I wanted to ask you a few questions.”

I gave him a generic response. “You know, I told the deputy sheriffs everything I knew, which wasn’t much. But I thought the FAA investigated plane crashes.”

“The FBI has taken jurisdiction over this case, and we need to clear up a few things.”

His tone had changed, less casual and more authoritative—similar to how a vice principal might interrogate the high school troublemaker—so I composed a thoughtful expression.

“What do you need to know?”

He slipped the ID into his blazer pocket and hesitated. I tried to look past his dark glasses but still couldn’t see his eyes.

“We were wondering if anyone besides the pilot might have been inside the airplane and managed to leave the scene. Did you see anyone leaving the area when you first arrived at the crash site?”

“Nope—not a soul.”

“Was there any sign of another person, any items or indications inside the airplane that might suggest there was someone besides the pilot?”

Go slow, I said to myself. “Let’s see, there was a coffee thermos and a book that looked like roadmaps or flight maps. But you see I was in a big hurry because of the fire. And then I spotted the dead guy, so I—”

“When the airplane flew over your house did anything drop out of it?”

“Not that I saw. It hit my antenna, came within yards of killing me, and clipped a couple of trees—then it was gone from view.”

“How much time transpired before you reached the crash site?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Did you notice debris between your property and where the airplane crashed?”

I fashioned an attentive expression, as if bolstering my memory. “There was half of a wing and some debris, but you need to understand something. Finding a dead man makes everything pale in comparison.”

“Can you show us the route you took to reach the plane?”

“Not a problem.”

I led them to the irrigation trench and deer trail and when we arrived at the site a salvage outfit had removed the plane. Except for burnt grass and charred trees, little indication remained of what had happened, let alone any large pieces of wreckage. The agents walked the entire area, back and forth, scanning the ground for evidence. I watched, but they didn’t seem to find anything.

Having satisfied himself, the lead agent wanted to trace the course the airplane had flown after passing over my house. I pointed out several trees that the plane had topped, and by sighting from point to point, we had a reasonably accurate sense of the plane’s glide path. The agents looked under bushes and in the tall grass, anywhere a piece of debris might lay hidden. They found part of my antenna.

When we returned to my house, the lead FBI agent removed his dark glasses and gave me a probing look, indicating, at least to me, he was watching my expression for a reaction. Then he offered a handshake and thanked me for my cooperation.

A moment later he asked, “You didn’t happen to remove anything from the plane or from anywhere near the crash site—some sort of souvenir? People do that sometimes, and we understand, but they don’t realize how the smallest piece of evidence might hold important clues.”

I had to do everything in my power to keep my eyes on his and my expression unchanged. But I didn’t want to overdo it. Too much eye contact is as bad as too little, or worse yet, allowing your eyes to dart left or right—telltale micro expressions, I think that’s what investigators call them. I needed something to distract the situation without seeming contrived, and by luck a fly flew in my face and I swiped at it with my hand, giving me a few seconds to think.

I looked him straight in the face and turned on the balls of my feet.

“Do you see that?” I said, pointing. He followed my gesture. “That’s what’s left of my television antenna, not to mention the glass-top patio table that got destroyed. They’re all the souvenirs I need. Plus I haven’t seen a lousy nickel from any insurance company—not even sure who the company is. That’s an expensive antenna—or I should say it was an expensive antenna—not to mention the effort it took me to get it on the roof. Had to go up thirty-five feet to catch the signal from Missoula.”

What a stroke of genius. Not only had I stayed cool and collected, I’d controlled the situation by switching focus and bitching about insurance money. He stared at me, returned his sunglasses to the bridge of his nose and thanked me for my assistance. They walked to the sedan, and as the lead agent pulled keys from his pocket, he glanced over his shoulder.

I waved good-bye. He nodded and opened the driver’s side door.

Shading my eyes from the sun, I watched the sedan drive out of sight around the last curve in my driveway, and then I took a deep breath and let it whistle out between my lips.

“Sonofabitch, what was that all about?” Everything had ratcheted up three fold and my stomach tightened like an overwound pocket watch.

Having indulged my juvenile impulse to steal—and let’s be clear, stealing is what I’d done—had led me down a crooked path and now the FBI was sniffing around. Not to mention I had lied and was in deeper than I’d ever expected and needed to find out quick what was inside the attaché case. I hurried downstairs to my workshop, uncovered the briefcase and opened it, slipped my fingers around the edge of the attaché case and lifted it out and set it on the workbench.

It had two latches that flipped sideways on hinging mechanisms. I tried one of them but it was locked, as was the other one. So I decided to look inside the briefcase more closely, thinking the key might be hidden somewhere. I didn’t find anything and returned my attention to the attaché case. I have no idea why, but I picked it up and checked the bottom.

Bingo! There it was, a key taped to the frosted aluminum surface. It was the definitive moment, a passage through a threshold between the known and the unknown, staring me in the face like the eyes of a Bengal tiger. Looking at the attaché case, I considered getting into my safety gear, but I reminded myself that if it contained anything dangerous, the key wouldn’t have been so easy to find and there would probably be a more sophisticated locking device. An amateur thief could pick those keyed latches in his sleep.

“What are the fricking odds here? If it’s plastic explosive, I’m a dead doornail anyway—in about fifteen microseconds.”

I told myself to stop acting like a wimp and just get it over with once and for all. My stomach hollowed out, as if dropping too fast in a creaky old elevator inside a broken-down brick building. I inserted the key, left side first, right side second, and then slowly opened the lid. I couldn’t keep from squinting, leaning my head away as if something terrible might happen. Seeing what was before my eyes had a sobering effect.

“Holy shit you got to be kidding me,” I muttered. I wanted to hammer my fist on the workbench; I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs; I wanted to throw a tantrum. No diamonds, no sapphires, no gold necklaces or bracelets from ancient Egypt, no old parchment with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s signatures, and no Vincent van Gogh masterpiece.

I felt like a car tire going flat after running over a nail. “Jesus H. Christ,” I yelled. “What have I put myself through—and for what?” I closed the case, removed my safety gear and walked outside. One thing was certain. My decision to take the briefcase had turned into disaster, with no treasure, no happy cakewalk down Cherry Lane, no birds singing in the trees and no Mr. Sun smiling down from an azure dome of cloudless sky.

It was time for some vodka, with ice cubes and tonic. I walked around the house and went inside the back door, hurried down the hallway to the kitchen and snatched my bottle of vodka from the cabinet above the stove, opened the freezer and took out the ice tray, filled a tumbler with ice, generously poured in vodka and sliced a lemon in half and squeezed it into my drink, stirring the ice cubes with my finger. I took three big swallows. I hadn’t eaten for several hours and the booze put a warm glow in my stomach. Within minutes a relaxing sensation washed over me and every nerve in my body settled down and dropped a couple notches in voltage—the same way a dimmer switch reduces a glaring light.

After nearly draining the glass, I set it down on the table and looked for my cell phone. I knew an attorney in town and thought about calling her, get the legal lay of the land, so to speak, and receive an informed overview of my legal dilemma. I thought about how I would broach the subject before I segued into the most significant details, a rehearsal as it were. After going through the antecedents, the plane crash and related details, I would cut right to the chase, the conversation going something like this:

“When I opened the attaché case, there were four CDs inserted into Styrofoam cutouts, and a small pistol next to the CDs, also fitted into a cutout. But these weren’t ordinary CDs. Instead of the usual silver color, they were gold, and I had never before seen CDs like that. And there were no labels on either side.

“Do you think the FBI visit had something to do with these CDs?”

“Maybe I’m overreacting, but then again, since when does the FBI get involved in the crash of a small private airplane?”

“That I can’t answer, but as your attorney I have some good advice. Call the FBI, admit what you did and take the consequences. I can almost guarantee if the FBI’s involved, this case must be pretty important, and the longer you wait, the more annoyed and nasty they’ll become.”

“How nasty—like jail time?”

“At this point, you’re looking at a minor crime, a misdemeanor probably, so you come clean and explain that you acted on impulse and made a thoughtless decision. But now you’ve come to your senses and realized the mistake you’ve made. Tell them you’ve been a bad boy. Do a little song and dance, what my grandpa use to call the old dog and pony show. However, if you get in any deeper, no telling where this could lead.”

So much for my imaginary scenario, so I finished my drink and fixed another. Dashing off to a lawyer wasn’t going to change things. She wasn’t going to say anything I couldn’t figure out for myself, at least not at this stage of the game.

Having finished my second drink, I felt sufficiently shored up to go downstairs to my workshop. I opened the attaché case and stood for several minutes staring at the golden CDs. I knew I had a decision to make sooner than later. Choices? Wait until the middle of the night and dump everything in the river, tied to a concrete block. Or how about digging a hole and burying everything?

I kept staring at the attaché case, but rather than getting rid of the evidence, I settled on a compromise. First thing I did was removing the pistol and looking it over. I know guns; it was semi-automatic, 25-caliber, a loaded five-shot clip with a round in the chamber. I hid the pistol inside my toolbox underneath the wrenches.

When I reached for one of the CDs, I hesitated, a bizarre thought popped into my head. What if they were vital to the government, had something to do with organized crime or foreign spies, the CIA or the NSA? Taking things further, I wondered if there was any chance some agent had set a booby trap, a plastic explosive set to go off if someone removed the wrong CD.

I reminded myself of my tendency to blow things out of proportion. Then I flip-flopped and reconsidered dumping everything into the river. I went back and forth until I heard my internal voice scolding me, telling me that I was a dumb-ass idiot that had gotten into a perilous situation. I put the attaché case back inside the briefcase, used my shop vacuum to clean the workbench, and then vacuumed the entire floor, tidied up the workshop, put everything in its place, reversed the hose on the shop-vac and blew debris out of the entire workshop.

I found a cardboard box to contain the briefcase, put the box in my Ford Ranger and locked the camper shell, although I decided to wait until midnight before driving the old logging road to a remote stretch of the river that few people other than fishermen knew about. Nobody fishes for trout in the dark, so the place would be deserted.

Hours later, having drained a large portion of my vodka bottle, I nodded off on the couch watching television. When I awoke groggy, feeling too drowsy to drive, it was half-past two in the morning. So I got up and took a piss and went to bed, but I couldn’t turn my brain off. It took hours before I was able to sleep. My bedroom has a southeast exposure and this morning, for reasons unknown, the light seemed brighter than usual and was glaring through windowpanes. I rolled over and hid under my pillow, but to no avail. Sleeping was no longer an option.

I got up and pulverized beans in the grinder and brewed a pot of 95-octane coffee. With two large mugs down the pipe, I was wide-awake and jumpier than a grasshopper on steroids. Somehow, amidst this disjointed state of mind, I came up with a cunning plan, a smart way out from under the entire mess; because one thing was certain, I was not going to get sucked into some legal juggernaut over a dumb mistake.

On the other hand, it occurred to me that if the CDs contained classified information or the like, I needed to think twice before destroying them. Doing so would be reckless and deepen the severity of my crime. Beyond that, what if people’s lives were at stake? In any event, it wouldn’t take a genius to see that too many what ifs were circling around inside my brain—like an Oklahoma dust devil.

But despite this internal torment and the potential eventualities both imagined and real, I needed to rid myself of the briefcase and everything inside.

#

Given enough time everything changes, people change, the world changes. Put simply, time cures most ills. For example, when enough time passes, you forget the person who broke your heart, or if you’re worried about something, eventually the anxiety will fade.

For a week or so I didn’t do much. I observed my routines, finished projects around the house and tinkered on my lawn mower. On Sunday I drove to the Sapphire Mountains and cut firewood, and on Monday I went to my P.O. Box to get my monthly check. Five years ago I’d picked a winner in the Montana lottery, not one of those multi-million-dollar tickets, but big enough to buy my house, with enough cash leftover so that I didn’t need to work for at least five years. I was forty-two years old and semiretired. What a deal.

Another factor to consider was that I hadn’t heard a peep from the FBI or any other law enforcement agency for a long while, but my curiosity about the CDs was regaining momentum. I had procrastinated doing anything for a week or so, but then one morning after a couple cups of coffee spiked with brandy, I decided I needed to satisfy my curiosity.

I took the attaché case and went to my desktop computer, turned it on, pushed the button for the multimedia optical drive and watched the tray slide open. I retrieved a CD and held it in my hand, ready to place it on the tray. But I hesitated. I reached in my pocket and found a quarter, balanced it on my right thumbnail and index finger, launching it into the air. It went up flipping like a blur and almost hit the ceiling, hung there for a split second before falling into my hand. I closed my fingers over the coin, slapped it onto the top of my other hand and waited for a moment.

I had the eeriest feeling that time had stopped and the world around me was holding its breath. As if destiny was perhaps waiting to unfold the future but was unsure of the outcome.

“Heads I play the CD, tails I don’t.”

Heads it was, and I set the CD in the tray and pushed the button. The computer drew it in and began making mechanical noises. I didn’t move a muscle, as if the gods had turned me into stone, and I was hypnotically staring at Pandora’s Box, waiting for fortune to reveal its hidden secrets.

Maybe a chilling secret would reveal itself, or something mysterious, or perhaps there was no secret at all. The unknown factor, at least for me, was the most alluring part of the entire spectacle. The computer screen blinked on and the image of a single page appeared, with large red letters on a white background. My breath drew short and a chill quivered up my spine.

THIS IS A TOP SECRET DOCUMENT

Unauthorized possession of this document will result in the maximum penalty of twenty years in prison without parole.

Underneath the warning were several paragraphs of legalese and official language that underscored the proclamation. I didn’t bother reading much of it and scrolled to the second page.

Here’s what it looked like:

Whatever it was or said continued for four more pages, so I decided to switch to another CD. By all appearances it was a duplicate, including the top-secret warning. I checked the third CD and it was as the other two; then I noticed that the forth one had two black dots, side by side, right in the center, something I hadn’t previously noticed. I placed the CD in the computer’s MOD and waited.

Turned out the black dots were significant, because the fourth CD was different from the other three. It was not encoded. Here’s what it said:

Peter,

Code: Ω NOW//20/22. If you’re reading this, then everything has gone as planned. An operative delivered the briefcase to one of our people but he’s not involved at any other level or in any other capacity. The unmarked CDs are exact duplicates. Put one of the three unmarked CDs into a safe-deposit box ASAP, in case something goes wrong, and then see the lawyer and authorize him to open the box in the event of your death or mental incapacitation. Give him the letter of instructions I sent you last month. As per the other two CDs, deliver one of them to the USA Alternative News Agency in NYC.

The remaining CD must be delivered by you to the senator we previously discussed. We haven’t revealed the total picture to him, although he is one of the few who is highly ethical and isn’t on the dark-state payroll. How you get in contact with him is your call. We cannot prearrange any introduction nor do we have anyone who has connections to his office, but you need to do this as quickly as possible once the process is underway. If you cannot do this, see that WikiLeaks gets the CD. We are counting on you. It’s a matter of life and death.

Good luck, Joyce Ann

I thought back to the day the airplane flew over my house and crashed. Had I known where that unexpected event would ultimately lead, I would have steered clear of the entire can of worms. But I had crossed an invisible line between involvement and noninvolvement, and I was in too deep, with no way to reverse course. Not only was there no treasure inside the briefcase, the numerous problems had become an unnerving variation on Pandora’s Box, at once luring yet alarmingly uncertain.

That aside, whatever the organization was or who the people behind it were, they’d put in a hard effort and taken serious risks to deliver information to a news agency and a senator. Not to mention, a man had died, but the how and why of his death remained unknown, at least to me.

The bigger picture, however, was significant enough to bring the FBI into the game, and like it or not, as a result of chance and my questionable inclinations, I had put myself in the loop and succumbed to the impulse to steal the briefcase. Now it seemed the weight of a pallet-load of concrete blocks rested on my shoulders.

The CDs were meant to arrive in the hands of someone named Peter, and I swear if I’d known who he was I would have taken them to him and let the cards fall as they may. If this was a whistleblower deal or a revelation intended to alert people or bring others under the light of scrutiny, perhaps I had a duty to perform even if such an obligation wasn’t something I was keen on accepting.

I was deep in quicksand and caught in events that were forcing me to decide whether or not I would pursue the situation while not knowing what I should or shouldn’t do, or if I should proceed from my original reaction and untangle myself from the web of complications and potential disasters by throwing the CDs in the river.

But tough decisions require sufficient data on which to base the decision, and my problem was clear, yet I required more data to solve it. If I knew more, then I could get a better feel for what to do—or not to do. The content of the CDs lay beyond my capacity to translate, and a large part of me wanted out of the entire mess, yet my more noble self wanted to do the right thing. But where was the rock foundation on which a notion of true justice could stand? How many millions have died or been killed in the name of a cause later shown to be faulty?

Such questions could have rendered me incapable of making any decision, but something occurred to me, a way to find answers or at least eliminate certain possibilities. I needed to call my best friend Darby Corvallis, who I’d gone through boot camp with and by coincidence, crossed paths with in Iraq. The army had trained Darby as a computer specialist, and along with his computer skills, he was also a gifted logician and worked in codes and communications.

His grandfather, a full-blooded Navaho, had been a Wind Talker during the Second World War in the Pacific theater during the struggle against Japan. Wind Talkers were Navahos the Marine Corps engaged to send messages, because their language was so remote and so few people spoke it, there was no way the Japanese could figure out what they were saying.

I needed Darby’s help, for I couldn’t break a code to save my life, and I needed a friend to watch my back, to offer opinions, carry part of the load and let me know when I made bad decisions and what have you. So a few days later I called him, although I wasn’t going to tell him everything—it would be too complicated. I would, nevertheless, tell him enough to goad his curiosity.

After making some chitchat I asked, “Have you been keeping up on your decoding skills?”

“Not much—I’m rustier than a square nail.” Darby had a dry sense of humor.

He changed the subject and wanted to talk about his divorce. The judge had awarded the ex-wife custody of his son. The last time we talked, which had been a while, I knew Darby and Jeanne had separated, though I didn’t realize they’d settled the final divorce.

I asked about his son. Darby said he was doing fine but he didn’t get to see him as often as he wanted. “I took some things for granted,” he added wistfully. Then his tone changed, as if he were holding something back. “I never would have believed it, but Jeanne turned my own son against me, and I think he believes the shit she’s been telling him. He seems different. He looks at me as if he’s wondering if he really knows who I am, as a person.”

I heard regret and pain in Darby’s voice. “Maybe the custody thing can get reworked,” I offered. “And you know how teenagers are, especially when things get shaken up, they go through emotional fluctuations one after another. Give the boy some time. Eventually he’ll think for himself. You’re not a bad man. You’re a good man in a bad situation.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“I know I’m right. You’re a good man and a darn good father.”

He didn’t say anything. I waited a moment. “Let me change the subject, because I have a story for you, a strange story. But for the time being, I don’t want to go into details. It’s way too complicated.”

“No details. Are you being evasive?”

“No, I don’t want to flood you with information. Here’s the deal. I came into possession of a CD written in what appears to be code. You’re the first person I thought of when it comes to code breaking. Any chance I could get you to look at it?”

“Why, do you have something that’s coded? What are you up to?”

“I’ll get into all that later. Just have a look and see if it is what I think it is, and if it is, let’s see if you can figure out what it says—for the hell of it.”

“For chrissake, it could be anything. Not to mention, I’ll need to get an analytical program that can examine coding-type patterns. And it would help to have a Rosetta stone, if you see my point.”

“Have a look and see what you think. That’s all I’m asking. I’ll bring the CD to you along with a six-pack and a bottle of tequila.”

Darby chuckled. “Since you won that lottery you’ve had way too much time on your hands.”

“That’s why I got a new hobby. Code breaking,” I said and laughed.

It took more cajoling but Darby finally agreed. We decided to meet in a week or two, giving him enough time to find the right computer program. A couple days later, I spent the morning and most the afternoon running errands, grocery shopping at the Super One, going to the post office and bank, and then driving to Hamilton to look at a motorcycle advertised in the newspaper. When I got home, I walked around the house to the brick walkway leading from the garage to the half-flight of wooden stairs to the rear patio deck. I pulled out my keys and unlocked the back door. I often use this door because the front door has two flights of stairs.

No sooner had I closed the door and walked the hall to the living room, I had the feeling something wasn’t right, though I can’t explain why. But don’t get me wrong. When it comes to psychic phenomena, I’m not a believer; nevertheless, the house didn’t feel right. I walked the entire upstairs, looked inside my bedroom and bathroom, the laundry room and my office, checking for something out of place or a window I’d forgotten to lock. Everything seemed just how I’d left it—ink pen on the countertop, the unopened credit card bill next to my coffee cup.

“I’m cracking up,” I mumbled. “It’s those goddamned CDs. They’re making me crazy.” I stood in the middle of the living room scratching my head, telling myself not to indulge feelings of suspicion. But I couldn’t resist and hurried down the spiral staircase to the bottom half of the house, which was a double garage with a utility room in the back corner, housing my water heater and the well’s pressure tank, along with the fire-rated safe I’d bolted to the concrete floor, containing my passport, photo negatives, property deeds, contracts, extra credit cards and cash.

I walked to the pump room and unlocked the deadbolt. I opened the safe and checked on the four CDs and they were where I had left them. I went back upstairs to the kitchen, to the refrigerator for a beer, and then sat on my living room couch to relax for a while, but my mind began running through the repertoire of paranoid scenarios I’d previously conjured, beginning with the FBI.

I wondered if agents might sneak into my house, or if they already had, snooping around and installing listening devices in hidden places? I’m a minor security nut because I had, in my youth, lived in a high-crime neighborhood in a big city. After buying my current house, I’d installed deadbolts on the upstairs doors, though the downstairs door had only a single-key setup. I had intended to change it to a deadbolt along with the others, but I’d never gotten around to it, leaving one weak link in my security system.

With that in mind, I headed downstairs to see if someone had tampered with the downstairs door, opened it and looked closely at the doorknob, checking for any sign that someone had jimmied the locking mechanism.

There are things you know that you know and there are things you know that you don’t know, but there are also things you don’t know and you don’t know that you don’t know them. Who said that? Probably some slimy politician spewing double-talk during an interview, but in any event my paranoia level was intensifying. If the FBI broke into my house and planted bugs or searched the place, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to leave behind traces of their entry.

On the other hand, Nixon went down because a pack of flunkies screwed up a simple break-in. So I suppose anything is possible. Maybe I needed to put the CDs in a safety deposit box at my bank.

Saturday at noon I arrived at Darby’s dinky apartment. He has always been eccentric in a charming way, tall and lean, with intense pale green eyes over which arch bushy eyebrows. He’s not academically educated but as far as I can tell, he has an IQ that’s at the far end of the bell curve. I’m pretty darn smart but Darb is smarter, in his own strange way. The army knew it right from the start and ushered him into the line of work he did during three years in uniform.

For the sake of some backstory, Darby and I had joined the army in late 1990 and for the same reasons; no war loomed in the near future and we wanted computer training and the GI Bill to pay for college. The unforeseen problem was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, making for unexpected possibilities. Not long after boot camp the army denied my request for computer school and assigned me to a rifle company. To keep from becoming cannon fodder, I decided to apply for medics’ training, which I figured would be my best shot at survival. As I mentioned before, because of his analytical abilities, Darby did get into computer school.

He lifted his chin and gave me a look when he opened the door. “What have you gotten yourself into?”

I had prepared for an interrogation. I held the CD up about eighteen inches from his face. “Look at this and then I’ll bring you into the loop. Fair enough?”

He grunted. “Where’s my beer?”

“Right here,” I said and I held up the plastic grocery bag.

We went inside and he grabbed two bottles from the six-pack. I followed him into his bedroom where his computer sat on a desk.

“Where’s the tequila?

“It’s in the bag with the beer,”

He took the CD and slid it into the slot. As soon as the top-secret warning appeared he looked, eyes pinpointed, into my face and said, “No way am I going any further with this bullshit.” He pushed the button and ejected the CD.

“Let me explain—”

“This is a crime that equals potential prison time. I don’t know what the fuck you’ve done or gotten yourself into, but I’m not following you onto thin ice. No way and no how. . .you get it?”

His expression was flintier than an arrowhead, as if it’d been carved into his face by a chisel. I held my hands up in a calming gesture. I’d prepared myself for his reaction and had brought the fourth CD in my jacket pocket.

“I’m sorry, Darb, sorry to put you in this position, but you’re the only person I trust enough to even think about bringing into the loop.”

I pulled the CD from my pocket and held it up in front of his face. “There’s no warning on this one, I promise, and it’ll shed some light on the situation. And I swear to tell you everything if you just read what’s on this CD.”

He took several longs pulls off his beer, gave me a sideways look and groaned, puffing air out his nose as if to accentuate his disgruntlement. He placed his hand on his forehead and slowly slid his hand down over his eyes, over his nose and down to his chin, holding on to his chin and opening his eyes and glaring at me.

“You crazy fuck,” he said and snatched the CD from my hand, setting it in the computer tray. When the image appeared on the screen, he read the letter while I peered over his shoulder. When he had finished reading, he canted his head and said, “If this is one of your goofy pranks, I’m going to shoot you—plain and simple.”

I grinned. “It ain’t a prank, but it is the weirdest thing I’ve ever stumbled into in my entire life.”

We moved on to the next CD. The tension in the room was thicker than a dust storm in the Gobi Desert. Darby’s eyebrows arched up in that way he has, then flattened into a straight line as his forehead bunched up above the bridge of his nose. After skipping through a couple dozen pages, he hit the ctrl button and send and stared silently at the final page.

“Hard to tell what this is. The layout is basic encryption 101. But it could be anything. Might be from a German enigma machine from the Second World War for all I know, or something as basic as low to mid-level security communications.”

“Can you crack it?”

“Maybe or maybe we’d better not go any further.”

Neither of us said anything for what seemed like a long time. I wanted to tell Darby the entire story, for no other reason than to get it off my chest, plus having a second brain mulling over the problem would help, not to mention the psychological relief, sort of like seeing a priest for confession. But there was also another problem, insomuch as the more I told him, the deeper in he would be; if trouble were waiting, I would feel pretty low for getting my good friend involved.

So. . .after thinking for a moment or two and weighing options, I decided to take the middle path. Split the difference, as it were.

“Okay now. . .” I began and then hesitated. “This is a complex story and, yes, I have broken the law. A minor breakage I tend to think but I could be wrong. If I tell you everything, then you might be culpable to some extent, although I will explain the whole deal if you want. On the other hand, I could give you a basic sketch of the situation and let it go at that.”

I could have sworn I saw a twinkle flash on his pupils, like little points of starlight—then he laughed. “Did you really think I’d let you off the hook with a watered-down story? I want the director’s cut, so spill your guts and tell me what the fuck you did. I want every detail. But first, we need a shot.”

I went to the kitchen and got the bottle. Darby had two shot glasses ready and I filled them to the brim. After tossing down the tequila, I chronicled the story—start to finish, except for the visit from the FBI. I wanted to segue into that edgy detail. Darby hung on every word, occasionally pulling at his chin, nodding and punctuating my sentences with a “no shit?” or damn!” When I stopped talking, he leaned back, drank from his beer and laughed again.

What he said came as a surprise. “This is interesting, kind of like a spy movie. With all the shit I’ve been through with the divorce and worrying about my boy, I think getting back into action would be good for me, like when we were Iraq. I’ve been moping around half dead half the time. This is a challenge, something exciting to get my mind around.”

I took a chug on my beer, burped and gave him a thoughtful look. “Listen Darb, there’s one more little detail. . .uh, a pertinent detail I suppose you might say. One you probably need to know.”

He nodded. As if to say, spit it out.

So I forged ahead. “In a word. . .actually it’s three letters. F-B-I.”

Darby’s expression underwent several rapid transformations, the last of which suggested he was about to spring to his feet and grab me by the throat. Instead he surprised me again. The man is nothing if not unpredictable.

“The fucking bureau of idiots, the illegitimate offspring of that crossdresser Hoover. What a joke. What a pack of overpaid slackers sucking up taxpayer money. Nine-eleven comes to mind. Like nobody saw that one coming?”

“You’re not freaked out?”

“Me, freaked out? Obviously this escapade runs deeper than meets the eye, but I’ll tell you something—”

I cut him off. “Two agents came to my house.”

I explained the details, after which he said, “If they had anything on you, you’d be sequestered in a high security detention facility. If the plane crash had anything to do with drug runners, the DEA would have already showed up.

I nodded. “I get it. I was thinking this whole deal might be some sort of variation on the Snowden uproar. Somebody copped secret documents and was planning to spill the beans.”

“Too many politicians are crooked money-grubbers bought and paid for by the superrich and rotten to the core.”

“Okay then. Let’s crack the code and figure out what’s inside Pandora’s Box,” I said and grinned.

Darby’s eyebrows arched. He looked like a high school troublemaker about to drop a cherry bomb in the bathroom toilet.

“Easy big fella. First things first,” he said flatly. “We need access to a more potent computer program, plus I need to brush up on a few things. Let’s meet next Saturday and I’ll see what I can do. I got two weeks vacation time coming to me. We’ll get the cannon ball rolling.”

Darby was as loyal as a heartbeat, and I wasn’t alone in this anymore. You know who your real friends are when things start tightening up, and he was a good friend. What had started as me almost getting killed by a plummeting airplane had turned into a bizarre adventure. Was I apprehensive? Sure I was, but I’ve always figured I would rather live five years as a lion than ten years as a goat.

I think it was the following Thursday. Freed from the routines of the workingman’s life and no longer trudging through forty-hour weeks, I was losing track of time. A Tuesday wasn’t much different from a Saturday, a Monday not different from Sunday. Every day’s a weekend after winning the lottery.

At ten in the morning I was sitting on my porch swing, enjoying the view and drinking my third cup of coffee. I was wondering when Darby was going to give me a progress report—then the muffled sound of a car engine interrupted my thoughts.

A moment later a dark-gray sedan approached my parking area to the sounds of tires rolling over the gravel. The next thing I noticed was that the sedan looked a lot like the FBI car that had already visited me.

I stood to get a better look and saw only one person, and though I can’t say why, I had the feeling it was a woman behind the wheel, though the bright sun was reflecting off the windshield as the car rolled to a stop. When the door opened, a woman got out and glanced around as if surveying my house and the surrounding landscape, then she reached inside the sedan for a handbag. I figured she was lost or maybe trying to sell something.

She had a professional look about her, a blue pants suit, apricot blouse, light auburn hair trimmed just above her shoulders and styled like a preppy Ivy League student. Her figure, which was trim, had the look of athleticism—a jogger, bike rider, treadmill junky—mostly in the way she strode from her car towards the house. She slipped on a pair of dark glasses and hung the leather handbag over her shoulder.

I walked around the far side of the deck to the door that enters at the side of my kitchen, and then made my way through the living room. She stepped up the two flights of stairs to the wooden deck and we saw each other through the glass panes in the upper half of the front door. She was younger than I’d guessed, probably thirtyish and good looking. Can’t be FBI, I thought, so she must be lost. I opened the door.

My standard question for strangers who appeared unexpectedly at my door was, “What address are you trying to find?”

“Are you Willis McHenry?”

“Will McHenry is what I go by—although some of my friends call me Willy,” I said and offered a friendly smile.

“I’m Gloria Elson, with the FBI,” and she held up an elongated wallet with a badge and ID, allowing me ample time to view it.

When she slipped the wallet back into her blazer pocket, I thought I glimpsed a small pistol in a shoulder holster under her left armpit. This gave me a little jolt, bringing the reality of things into clear focus.

“Could I please see your ID again?” I’m not sure why I said that, maybe a nervous reflex, but I also figured I might get another look at what I thought had been a pistol. Whatever the case, what I really needed to do was counter the dynamics of the interaction, which had tipped in her favor when she thrust the badge in my face, emblematically announcing her authority over me. Without hesitation she took it out, flipped it open, ID picture on the left, the badge on the other.

I leaned forward and squinted my eyes for effect, focusing my attention on the intimidating black letters—FBI. It struck me as odd that the bureau would send a single agent, especially a female, but when I thought about it further, I figured they were applying a disarming tactic, a variation on the good cop, bad cop routine. If two stone-faced male agents had failed to frighten or motivate me into a confession—or whatever they hoped for—maybe a less threatening woman agent would crack me like an over-ripe coconut. She looked directly into my face and said, “I would like to ask you a few questions. May I come inside?”

I processed her request and weighed what I figured were my two possibilities. Do a hard-ass, Montana style response, tell her no and that I’d rather she ask her questions on the porch. Or I could try the submissive approach: No problem, boss, I’m just a harmless shucks and by golly good ol’ boy here to help my government whenever I can. Law enforcement types love groveling citizens. Ye-es, boss, I’m shaking the bush, still shaking the bush, boss.

But the spirit of discretion won over and I said, “Sure, come on inside.”

She stepped over the door’s threshold. I gestured to a chair.

“I’ve been driving half the day,” she responded. “I’d rather stand.”

We stood looking at each other for a moment. I waited.

“I’m assuming you know why I’m here,” she said, using a voice that sounded more like a perky weather reporter on a small-town television channel.

“Let me guess. . .the plane crash.”

“Yes. And we’re trying to tie up some loose ends.”

It was time to act annoyed without overdoing it, so I said, “I’ve been through this question-answer business several times, including the sheriff deputies and your people. So I’m confused as to why I’m still being bothered with this situation.”

She took off her dark glasses revealing eyes that were an unusual shade of light green, the color of expensive Chinese jade. I thought perhaps she was wearing tinted contacts—something about the way her eyes stood out seemed fake, the color glowing as if backlit by soft light.

Her gaze locked onto me as if focused on an imaginary bull’s eye on my forehead; I say this because she wasn’t actually looking directly into my eyes, but at an imaginary point just above them. Or perhaps she was nearsighted and without her prescription dark glasses, if that’s what they were, my face was a fuzzy blur instead of distinctive features.

“Mr. McHenry, may I come directly to the point?” Her tone of voice had changed and sounded more like a corporate VP about to tell a junior executive that the company was downsizing and he was on the lay-off list.

I nodded. “I’d prefer you do just that, seeing how I’m reasonably certain this isn’t a friendly visit to—or how did you put it? To tie up loose ends?”

She smiled, but it was no ordinary smile, not welcoming, not sociable and certainly not sexy or suggestive—more like a shark grinning as it swims up from the murky water to gnaw off one of your legs.

“We know about the briefcase and we know it was on that airplane. What we don’t know is who has it now.”

She was using the shock and awe approach and my body tightened up as if it were about to receive an electric shock. I felt my heart rate increase and I was afraid my eyelids might start twitching, or sweat would drip copiously from my armpits. On the other hand, I was a war veteran and had seen plenty of action as a medic. I had helped a dozen young soldiers, held pressure pads over bullet holes, seen missing body parts, shattered bones and eyes glassed over in death. I’d heard bullets wiz over my head, had explosive pressure waves hit me like flying sledgehammers, but I could suck it up and take it when I had to, when everything around me was out of control and about to get worse—it’s a survival skill, once learned never forgotten.

Not to mention, I think my subconscious brain was running full speed, but why it offered up this response, I have no clue. I raised my eyebrows and extended my arms, fingers closed and my wrists held close together.

“Go ahead, cuff me. What’s say we go downtown and talk this over with your boss,” I said, trying to sound like Humphrey Bogart.

She was no lightweight. “Let me say it once again, Mr. McHenry. We know about the briefcase. What we don’t know is whether you or someone else took it from the crash site—but if you want my best guess, it was you. You, took, the briefcase.”

Her eyes fixed on me like the crosshairs of a high-powered rifle, her pupils pinpointed, face expressionless, and the sun shining through the window behind her.

“Hang on a second—”

She held a finger up and wagged it in front of my face. I wanted to slap it out of the air like a fly but I fought to restrain the urge.

“We know all about you, Willis. For example, we know your score on the Army’s intelligence test was in the 92th percentile. You received a Purple Heart in Iraq and we know your parents died in a car accident in 2008. We know your sister Helen committed suicide in 1997, and we know you attended Washington Elementary School from kindergarten through fourth grade, we know—”

“You’ve made your goddamned point,” I said, raising my voice. “I’m impressed, but it’s what you don’t know that’s the reason you’re here trying to intimidate me with your stinking badge and massive background check.”

“I’m not trying to intimidate you. I’m offering you an opportunity to do yourself a favor and tell the truth. We can work this out.”

“Hang on. . .let’s assume that I know what you’re talking about, this briefcase business. The first thing I’d want to know is why the FBI is so concerned. And why did the local news downplay the accident as merely the unfortunate death of a pilot? Unfortunate? He had been shot for chrissake, shot and killed. I don’t recall any newscaster saying anything about the bullet hole in his gut. That’s kind of suspicious. I’d say. Is somebody suppressing the news?”

“Maybe you should come to the point,” she said. “Give me some sort of real-world scenario I can take home to my superiors.”

“Fair enough, but allow me to point out the obvious. If you had something on me, other than speculation or the desire for zealous persecution, I would already be in a holding cell. Furthermore, a judge hasn’t issued a search warrant because if he had, I know a couple of your fellow thugs would be here tearing my home apart as we speak. So exactly where does that leave us? You want a briefcase and you think I have it. Sorry to disappoint. I saw no briefcase at that crash site and I don’t know anything about anything. I’m a guy who by mere chance had an airplane fly over, almost destroying my house and killing me, before crashing in the field.”

She smiled pleasantly, another in her repertoire of robotic expressions, and reached into her handbag and pulled out a card, held between her middle and index fingers like the ace of spades. The gesture struck me as a bit theatrical.

“Mr. McHenry, believe it, we’re not your enemy. That is to say, if you step far enough back to see the big picture. We want justice done and we want the bad guys to pay for their crimes, and it has everything to do with the airplane, the dead pilot and the missing briefcase. This situation is not going away, the pressure will increase and we’ll keep an eye on you. You’re on our radar in a big way.”

“I’m on your radar, that’s funny, because I thought we were buddies in pursuit of justice, truth and the American way.”

“You can keep playing this any way you want, Mr. McHenry, it’s your choice. You get to decide.”

“Ah. . .yes, the old freedom versus destiny argument. I have choices.”

“We all have choices. It’s about making the right one.”

I wanted to stick a finger down my throat and barf on her expensive suit. The bureau knows how to pick its automatons, male or female. Program the company line into their brains, give them a pistol and a license to kill and then turn them loose on the public. She smiled again, a smile with lots of white teeth, put on her dark glasses, turned on her heels, walked out my front door and downstairs to the sedan.

I watched the car disappear trailing a thin cloud of dust and knew I had to get in touch with Darby. The game had taken on ominous undertones. I was on their radar and they were watching me the way hungry cats watch mice. The key question was whether they’d started surveillance before or after my first meeting with Darby, and if they knew I’d been to his apartment, although that seemed somewhat unlikely. Or maybe the entire surveillance business was a ploy to ratchet up my nerves and paranoia, wear me down inch by inch until I caved in to their accusations. Whatever the case, I felt trapped in a deep pool of quicksand.

It’s hard for me to admit this, but after the FBI woman left, I was on the verge of a panic attack, and it got so bad I remember pacing around the house talking aloud to my mother who died years ago. Don’t get me wrong, this borderline behavior wasn’t because I believed she was in heaven watching over me. It was what I had been through during my most stressful time in Iraq, watching two young men die from wounds because bullets had severed major arteries and the blood loss horrific.

My job was to get plasma into them and slow the bleeding long enough to get them evacuated. But I had no plasma, it was all used up, and the wounds were severe, and as their lives bled away into the desert sand—me desperately trying to stop the bleeding—they both cried out to their mothers, their eyes with that faraway look. I broke down. It was as if they were standing at the edge of a dark precipice, seeing something they could sense but not understand. I never fully recovered from that experience. Brutal death takes a toll on the mind—like stamping an image on a coin.

The irony of it was in my moment of stress—which was small in comparison to Iraq—I was talking to my mother just like the two young soldiers.

#

I had hidden the CDs in the safety deposit box at the bank. As far as I knew, they were the only concrete link between what the FBI was after and me, so my instincts told me to eliminate that connection in a hurry, and I’m talking obliteration sans consideration, cut the incriminating ties and leave no link between the airplane crash and myself.

Maybe I should have burned the damned things and been done with it. When you think someone is watching you, particularly an outfit as calculating as the FBI, it messes with your sense of balance and your mindset gets tweaked, always looking over your shoulder, sensing eyes on you whether they’re there or not. Agencies such as the FBI, the CIA, ATF, NSA, DEA, and all the rest of them, they aren’t about safeguarding or serving the citizenry at large, because when you boil it down, their job is protecting the government and the super wealthy.

Above all else, I had to start making better decisions, and the next thing I needed to do was talk to Darby. If for no other reason, I owed him, because I had gotten him into this screwed-up situation and needed to warn him that the stakes had jumped up from a yellow alert to flashing red, with a doomsday siren shrieking in the background. The question was how to contact him. My cell phone seemed like a bad idea. The world knows what Snowden revealed about NSA-type spying, so after weighing my options, I got my mountain bike from the garage and rode to the backside of my property, where it intersects a dirt road leading to a paved road and from there six miles to Darby’s apartment.

When I knocked on his door, I was out of breath and sweating like a Scotsman at a sheep auction. He gave me one of his looks, the sort that suggests he was trying to figure out what I was up to and at the same time wondering if he wanted to get involved.

“Will Henry, you look worn out,” he said with a smirk. “What’s with the bicycle? Are we in training?”

Darby was the only person who called me Will Henry, his shortened version of Willis McHenry. I wiped sweat from my brow, said no and added, “I was visited by the FBI again.”

The words hung in the air a moment. He narrowed his gaze and then raised his eyebrows. “Imagine that.”

“Maybe we’d better start thinking about how to—”

He cut me off. “I’ve almost figured out how to break the code.”

“Almost—what does that mean?”

“Come inside and I’ll show you.”

I followed him. He took two beer bottles from the refrigerator and handed me one. I was thirsty and took a couple big gulps.

Darby also took a long drink and said, “So tell me about the FBI.”

“It was a woman and she was by herself. She knocked on my door, looked me in the face and sans any diplomatic segue said, ‘We know about the briefcase and we have reason to believe you stole it.’”

Now I had Darby’s attention. “She said that?”

“Not word for word but close enough. And before she left she threatened me.”

“How did she threaten you?”

“Said they’re going to watch me and that I’m on their radar.”

“That’s how the Gestapo functions. But I think they’re still on a fishing expedition, hoping to get underneath your skin, intimidate you. If they had something substantial they’d already have you locked up with your head in a vice, or maybe a waterboard treatment.”

“It must have worked because I feel intimidated as hell. Prison would be one horrible experience.”

“That’s what they want. They want you to sweat.”

“Maybe I should cut a deal. They get the CDs, I get immunity. Truth is, I never should have gotten you involved, Darb. I’m sorry, man.”

“Don’t worry about it. I haven’t done anything illegal. I’ve spent some time with an old pal looking at golden CDs. You didn’t tell me anything and I don’t know anything, so I can’t be guilty of anything. Case closed.”

“So tell me about breaking the code.”

His eyes lit up. “In code-breaking 101, the first thing the experts teach you is the history of cryptography, symbols, scrambling techniques, and 20th Century innovations, etc.”

When Darby winds up to a high pitch, he’s like a jungle cat on the prowl, springing up from a chair, walking back and forth, pulling at his chin and talking fast with laser-like intensity. He told me there’s a million ways to code a message, although in reality most encryption evolved from a handful of paradigms. He went on to say that after he’d studied the pages we had printed out, the design and encryption used on the golden CDs was not highly complex.

“Whoever did this coding,” he continued, “probably wasn’t a giant among experts. Or maybe he was in a hurry and needed a quick and easy way to keep the information hidden from 99.9 percent of the population, including cops, IRS agents, hackers or private investigators, etcetera. Truth is, if I get the right analysis program and spend a few days, maybe a week, I’ll get this code figured out—that’s that.”

“No kidding?”

“I’ve been wrong before, but that’s how I call this one.”

Six days went by and I didn’t hear from Darby, and then he called me at one o’clock in the morning. He sounded at once tired and halfway manic. The first thing he said was—you won’t believe what I’ve found. You need to get over here right now.

I asked him what was going on and he said, “Get your goddamned ass over here. We’re not talking about this over the phone.”

“Settle down,” I said, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes, but this better be good.”

“Willy, my boy, let me tell you something. Good is a word that has nothing to do with any of this horseshit.”

That was an unsettling thing to hear. I got out of bed and dressed and then looked for my car keys. Fortunately I found them in a hurry, grabbed my cell phone, took a large shot of vodka to settle my nerves and dashed downstairs to my truck. Fifteen minutes later, I rolled up on Darby’s apartment complex. His unit was the only one with a light on inside. I zipped across the parking lot and tapped on his door. Within seconds it opened and a tired-faced Darby was looking at me like a man possessed. I stepped inside. We stood looking at each other.

“Will Henry, you won’t believe what I found on that golden CD after I decoded it and standardized the formatting. In fact, I don’t think anybody is going to believe it. I’m not sure I believe it.”

I studied Darby’s face, doing my best to interpret the strained look etched in his expression. “They say a picture’s worth a thousand words,” I said. “Let’s see what you found.”

After he locked the front-door deadbolt, he said we needed a drink and I agreed. In the kitchen he filled two shots glasses of whisky to the brim. We downed them and I followed him into the bedroom. His computer sat on his desk, casting an eerie glow over the unlit room. From a distance what was on the screen it looked like a page from a manuscript or letter. Darby switched on a floor lamp and stood off to one side with his arms crossed. I sat in the swivel chair and scooted it closer to the desk.

For lack of enough sleep my eyes were tired, my focus a bit blurry, so I leaned closer to the computer screen and propped my chin in my hand, squinting my eyes. Above the column of small print that filled the page was a heading. As I read it, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

Code Name: THINNING OF THE HERD

Global Population Reduction; Targeting and Viral Distribution;

Procedures; Timelines; Strategies; Methods and Precautions.

My jaw dropped and I glanced over my shoulder at Darby. He looked at me with an expression I couldn’t fully describe. It had changed and was more intense, somewhere between disbelief and simmering rage, but whatever it was he was feeling or thinking, I’d never seen him that way before.

He grabbed the tequila bottle leftover from my last visit, which was beside the computer, and handed it to me, said I should take a long swig. I did. It burned going down and I handed him the bottle and he took a long chug, pulling a face after he had swallowed the mouthful. After a pause he looked at me and then pointed at the computer screen.

“Strap on your seatbelt, Will Henry, and keep on reading as if your life depends on it. . .as if a few billion lives depended on it.”

About the Author

G. D. McFetridge

G. D. McFetridge writes from the wilderness of Montana’s Sapphire Mountains. His short fiction and essays are published across the United States, in Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and India, including the following academic publications: Tampa Review; El Portal, Lampeter Review; Confrontation; Cottonwood; South Dakota Review; Weber, the Contemporary West; Louisiana Literature; Big Muddy; Antigonish Review; The Texas Review; Aethlon; Allegany Review; Seems and Foliate Oak, Univ. of Arkansas.