Murder at Dead Woman Pass
by Gary Clifton
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
By 8:00 a.m., enough hint of gray-daylight had found the valley for Petrovic, Valdez, and Bigfoot to start upward. Snow had stopped. All three were bundled against the weather, complete with ski masks, goggles, and snowshoes. Their orange jumpsuits were visible for miles to anyone looking for them.
Bigfoot, a survival tent strapped to his backpack, carried a .243 Remington slung over a shoulder. “Bears are supposed to be hibernating this time of year.” He grinned and patted the rifle. “But the forest fire rousted several out. Had a run-in with a bear the second day of the fire... a big black.”
With Bigfoot leading, Petrovic estimated the uphill climb to be the hardest mile he’d ever walked. The trip was through rapidly thinning air in forest burned by Thumper’s whiskey-still accident. Despite the fire, most of the snow in the burned area had remained. When they came to the still, spilled mash barrels and smashed jugs were strewn about.
“Bear on the prowl for food.” Bigfoot slid the .243 off his shoulder gingerly. Petrovic dug out his Sig Sauer .40 caliber and slipped it into his coveralls pocket.
Thumper’s ramshackle cabin was a hundred feet above the still. Wispy clouds blew past. It had apparently been spared from the forest fire by a Thumper-friendly west wind. A faint column of smoke wafted up from the chimney. Bigfoot looked back to Petrovic. “I cut him loose yesterday, like you said. Musta come up here and lit a fire.”
As they grew closer, they saw the shack door standing open. Inside on the floor, Thumper lay on his back, sightless eyes fixed on the ceiling. A small trickle of crimson, now partly frozen, oozed from a bullet hole in his forehead.
“Valdez, get a shot of the body, then see if your camera will pick up some of those footprints outside.” Petrovic said. “So much for Thumper as a suspect in Peters’ killing.”
“Company coming.” Valdez peered through the swirl back down the mountain. A man in orange was trudging up the mountain, his identity hidden by heavy clothing and facial cover.
“That’s Mayor Brown,” Bigfoot said. “See his limp?”
They motioned the newcomer inside the cabin with them and closed the door against the cold. He slipped off his ski mask and goggles. Bigfoot had been right. Brown was exhausted. “Luther, I told you to stay below,” Bigfoot said, an edge in his voice.
“Just trying to contribute, Bear, for God’s sake. I am the Mayor, you know.”
Bigfoot dug a walkie-talkie from his backpack and called to town for assistance. In minutes, several parka-hooded men were visible below through the trees, gathering in front of the city building.
Petrovic, studying the ground, started up the mountain. Valdez followed. Bigfoot used the radio to notify the men below he was moving upward. He told them Mayor Brown was on the scene and would be in charge. He gave Luther one last “stay” look and hurried after Petrovic and Valdez.
Petrovic followed boot prints leading upward from Thumper’s cabin. In a hundred yards, the swirling winds had obliterated the trail in the dry, shifting snow. The trio crossed the crest of the mountain, snowshoes carrying them above several feet of snowdrifts. They moved downhill. Footing was hazardous. All breathed heavily in the thin air as Petrovic stopped for a brief rest.
“Never been this low on this opposite side of the mountain,” Bigfoot breathed heavily. “Never any need. Good enough hunting on our side. Now we gotta decide whether we can get back to town before dark. This tent will get pretty crowded.”
“Can you get us down in the dark?” Valdez asked.
“Yeah. Tricky, but we got flashlights and I know the home side of the mountain. Still be better to go back in daylight. Gets pretty cold.” He looked up at the ominous clouds.
“How long has Mayor Brown been up here?” Petrovic stopped to catch his breath.
“Little over a year.” Bigfoot’s expression hinted at friction between him and the mayor.
Petrovic pushed on. Twice he motioned Valdez and Bigfoot to rest while he doubled back, mindful of being followed. He saw nothing. In another mile to the West, well below the crest, Petrovic suddenly stopped and motioned for silence.
A faint hum was audible. A hundred yards further and they encountered, in the dead of winter wilderness, a constructed facility. Three large satellite dishes, surrounded by three concentric, eight foot fences, stood among the trees.
“This your TV system?” Petrovic shouted to Bigfoot over the howling wind.
“Nothing I knew was up here. Never seen this.”
They moved closer. Signs: “Danger, High Voltage Fence. U.S. Department of Defense Restricted Area. Surveillance by Satellite.” The hum of a gasoline-powered generator starting drifted on the air. The units were self-contained. The generator received electrical ignition power from several solar strips atop the fences.
“Satellite receivers don’t just show up on the top of a mountain.” Petrovic studied the sky.
A voice drifted from inside the fences, the flat tone of a recording: “This is a United States Department of Defense facility. Do not approach.”
Petrovic motioned his two companions to remain while he walked a wide circle around the fenced area.
The faint thump of a heavy helicopter engine approaching drifted in on the thin air. A large chopper, twin machine guns in plain view on its struts, appeared over the trees. The pilot eased the big machine down a short distance away. Four men dressed in hooded white, each holding Heckler and Koch, 9mm submachineguns, bailed out and approached warily, all struggling without snowshoes.
“Guys, that’s a quick response. We were spotted by satellite. These guys are not Civil Air Patrol.” Petrovic studied the heavily armed men.
One of the men approached. He lowered the H-K, but his three companions kept their guns leveled at Petrovic and company.
“Federal Officers,” Petrovic said tersely. “ID is in my pocket.” He tapped his chest. The man nodded, and Petrovic extracted his credentials with deliberate caution.
The man examined the creds and handed them back. “What is the Justice Department’s business here?”
Petrovic kept his hand on his Glock in his right front coverall pocket. “Double murder on the other side of the mountain. You need to stop pointing those guns at us or I promise I’ll put a round in your damned head in one second.” Petrovic’s eyes narrowed behind his goggles. The man turned and motioned the men to lower their weapons.
“U.S. Department of Defense, Security Division,” the man said. He pulled credentials from a parka pocket and handed them to Kobok.
Petrovic glanced at the leather badge case and smiled. “D.O.D. creds in black, Security Division? CIA, huh? You guys fly that rig all the way from Langley?”
The man ignored the question. “Who got murdered?”
Like lightening from a sunny sky, Petrovic instantly realized where Peters had gone to work when ATF fired him. “Peters. Did he really hitchhike up here or did you drop him off down the road from Dead Woman Pass?”
The man made no response to the question, but motioned his companions closer. “I think we found Peters,” his breath fogged the cold air. “What happened to him?”
Bigfoot managed to get a small campfire going out of the wind behind a snowdrift and broke out a bottle of brandy. The whole group sat around, sharing MRE’s Bigfoot had dumped from his pack and passing the brandy bottle.
The CIA man in command reluctantly explained the facility was a tracking system designed to monitor two satellites armed with nuclear warheads placed in orbit by a joint Iranian-North Korean venture. They were aimed at the Pentagon and the White House. The mountain system was designed to divert the warheads automatically should they be fired.
Petrovic figured there were other, identical sites, but experience told him not to ask. “When in hell is Israel or the CIA gonna use some of those drones to put those facilities out of business?” he asked.
Valdez, normally quiet, spoke up: “Saw an intelligence bulletin that said North Korea and Iran were ‘capable’ of launching nuclear satellites. Looks like they’ve succeeded. Drones seem a hell of a lot more effective than climbing around on this mountain.”
The commander nodded agreement, echoed by grunts among his men. “As you gotta know,” he said, taking a pull on the brandy. “We’re good at saying ‘we don’t know,’ and in this case it’s the damned truth. I’m programmed to answer that with ‘that info, folks, is above my pay grade’... and all of yours, so keep the hell quiet about what or who you’ve seen up here today.” He looked from face to face. “You seem to know Peters?”
“Peters and I went through the ATF Academy at Glynco together. Somebody put a round between his eyes on the other side of this mountain several months ago, it appears,” Petrovic pointed. “His body is down in that town... uh, Dead Woman Pass.” He gestured. “And two hours ago, we found a second man who appears to have been shot with the same small pistol.”
“Damn,” the first CIA man said, “somebody had been intruding on this site. Professionals who crept in at night and stayed in the trees so the satellite couldn’t spot them. Peters was a private contractor with orders to intercept whoever was intruding. He said he’d worked in these mountains... experienced in mountain terrain... at least he said...”
“He was,” Petrovic said. “He was apparently coming over the mountain the same way we took. Somebody capped him near a whiskey still. We thought the bootlegger might have done it, but he’s the one we found dead a while ago.”
“Got any other suspects?” asked the CIA man.
Petrovic studied the small fire, eyes narrowed. “Good question.” He looked back toward Thumper’s cabin. “Tampering with this site would take somebody with electrical knowledge?”
The CIA man replied. “Probably some skill like that. Maybe a little more sophisticated.”
Bigfoot spoke up. “Dead Woman Pass has almost a hundred permanent residents in winter. I wanna think it ain’t one of them. Only electrician we got is the mayor.” Petrovic looked across the fire at him, at length, but said nothing.
“Could these satellite dishes be compromised? Like to actually cause the warhead riding on the satellites to fire at hard targets?” Petrovic asked. “In addition to destroying their preventive mode?”
“Anything is possible, I guess,” the CIA man said. His evasion was obvious. “Peters was carrying two .40 caliber Glocks with silencers, couple of cameras, satellite telephone. You find any of that stuff?”
“No.” Petrovic studied Bigfoot’s craggy face. “Somebody in Dead Woman Pass has some stolen government gear, plus a small caliber pistol, probably an old Lüger, 7.65 Parabellum.”
“We’ll have to send in agents by the highway down there. Same way you got there, I guess.” The CIA man looked at the gray sky.
Petrovic warmed his hands at the small campfire. “Won’t be necessary, I have an idea.”
“They came yesterday, fifteen miles by snowmobile.” Bigfoot nodded toward Petrovic and Valdez. “We’ve had two more feet of snow. Too much wind this far up the valley to land your chopper down below. You won’t be able to get in, at least for a couple weeks or so. Maybe land up here and walk down. I could meet you and help you down.”
* * *
Petrovic, Valdez, and Bigfoot were halfway down the Dead Woman Pass side of the Mountain before total darkness fell quickly on the valley. They navigated the last half-mile by flashlight and lights from the little town. Petrovic led the way directly to the Sky-View Resort. The place was dark. By flashlight, Petrovic studied boot prints in the snow.
After several minutes of banging on the door, an outside light came on. George Shilati appeared in the doorway. He was bundled in a heavy robe. Petrovic stepped inside without invitation, cop-style. Valdez turned on more lights. They sat around a table in the front, cafe part of the building.
Petrovic tossed a bomb. “What organization are you with George... if that is your name?”
“You don’t look like an Arab, but your name? Are you with Hezbollah? Hamas, maybe? Soldier of Iran? Trained in satellites and electronic warfare?”
Shilati appeared likely to faint. “Hezbollah? Iran? My God, I fled to the U.S. to escape such brutal police tactics.”
“When we talked to you yesterday, you said the dead man was a federal agent. How did you know?”
Shilati’s face froze in terror. “I... just assumed... I... I’m innocent.”
“Do they have your family locked up somewhere? That’s standard procedure.”
“I swear on my mother’s grave. I didn’t know Peters was a government agent.” The terror on his face was graphic. He was almost cowering on the floor.
Petrovic sprang to his feet. “How could you know his name was Peters? Yesterday you said he was a federal agent. How could you know that? You caught each other snooping up there, and you put one between his eyes. You got his name off his body? Dropped that matchbook in the snow accidentally, probably while you lit a match to see who you’d killed. Then Thumper had to go, because you didn’t know what he knew or might have seen.”
The front sight of the Lüger snagged on Shilati’s robe pocket. Petrovic twisted it away and backhanded the man to the floor. “Your assignment was to mess with those satellite dishes over the mountain. Make sure they didn’t deflect those Iranian-North Korean missiles from firing on key U. S. installations. You just haven’t got it figured out yet.”
“They have my family in Tehran. They’ve already executed my father. Oh my God.” Shilati wailed from the floor. He trailed into sobs. “Now they’ll...” Blood trickled from the side of Shilati’s mouth from Petrovic’s blow.
“You should have shot Thumper with one of the Glocks you took off Peters.”
“Oh, my God. I was a professor.”
“Valdez, let’s have a look at those footprint photos from Thumper’s cabin.”
Valdez punched up her camera. Each footprint image was missing a lug from the heel of the left boot.
“What do you bet they match those tracks outside? Both are gonna show a missing lug in the left tread pattern. Those prints on their own wouldn’t convict, but they’re sure as hell admissible evidence. Shoulda swept your sidewalk, George.”
Valdez nodded to Petrovic, then stepped outside, camera in hand to record the boot prints in the snow.
“You said an electrician?” Bigfoot looked at Petrovic, confused.
“Suppose ol’ George here is an electrical engineer?” Petrovic grinned and looked at the man steadily.
“Allah Akbar,” George spat upward from the floor.
“Family hostage story a lie, too, George?” Petrovic replied.
“Death to imperialist swine.” George’s hatred erupted.
Petrovic dug handcuffs from beneath his clothing. “George, it’s the city building pole for you until we can get a proper search warrant in here. I believe we’ll find that defective boot you were wearing, a couple of Glock pistols and some kind of satellite telephone that reaches all the way to the Persian Gulf.” He raised the Lüger. “And, old hoss, do you think this little pistol might match up with the bullets in a couple victims’ heads?”
Shilati, still on the floor, remained silent, eyes radiant with venom.
Valdez walked back in, nodding that the boot prints, to the naked eye, appeared to match.
“Valdez,” Petrovic said. “We need to find that computer again and notify our headquarters... And, oh yeah, the CIA. The corpse is Peters, we have the murderer safely chained to a damned pole, and God knows when we’ll get outta here.”
“My God, Petrovic, we’re gonna be stranded here all winter?!” Valdez was wide-eyed.
“Relax, we have a hot shower to share. Perhaps you could learn to scrub my back? Where’s your Christmas spirit?”
Shilati stared upward, face twisted in silent hatred.
Copyright © 2014 by Gary Clifton