The great mountain roars before the rocks tumble.
— Tilok proverb
Sam looked at the hard rock of the mountains, the jagged, knife-edged ridges that plunged near vertically and the dull gray and black of the clouds that swathed their peaks, the dormant plants vying for life, the barren trees whose sap had receded into the roots, withering the leaves, the rust on the needles of tired conifers. It was a cold day. The animals would be gaunt with the miseries of winter, the songbirds gone to a better place. Most of the mountain seemed dead or struggling. It all brought to mind Russian peasants on the frozen steppe and the precious vodka that helped them to flee the pain. It was enough to make him weep.
Jill had called on the satellite phone and told him that the doctors had evaluated Anna and she was no better. That was a blow, but he insisted to himself that she was also no worse and prayed that she would recover. The miscarriage still haunted him. They still had no word from Benoit Moreau, but Jill was coordinating a massive private search, this in addition to an earnest government effort.
Sam had arrived one day behind Grady.
It felt like a path that Sam had walked before-dead or dying people that could not be mourned because live people could still be saved. Every time it took something from him, and every time he knew he got a little worse for the wear.
He was waiting for the right moment to tell Grady about Anna.
Standing by the cabin, he tried to let anger displace his sadness.
He watched Michael and Grady through the window holding each other on the couch. Grady had always seemed alive, but now her smiles were deeper, and he had also observed the angelic patience of new love. He had seen it in others with marriage and pregnancy and engagements, and it was always followed by realism-a necessary but unfortu nate end to infatuation. Living alone allowed for a certain frivolity, a good scotch, a wink and a nod at the Devil. It also allowed one not to worry about making someone else miser able. It avoided any analysis over whether Indian blood would ultimately be a turnoff for a celebrity like Anna, or whether someone like her could live with someone without celebrity status. If he lived out his days alone, it would be okay, but he had to quit thinking about it because thinking about life and meaning and that stuff would send him into despair. Right now he had to focus on keeping these people alive, finding Benoit, and eliminating Gaudet.
For some reason thoughts of death on a mountain brought on this kind of thinking. He wished Grandfather were here. Something was about to happen.
He imagined Anna again as he had left her, lying in a coma, and tried to shake the thought off. Shouldn’t he be at her side while she struggled for her life? The thought was in terrupted by a second premonition of the sort he had now come to accept. At that moment Sam felt sure he could feel Gaudet. He looked up at just the visible edges of the vast expanse of the surrounding terrain. He saw countless places to hide, then dismissed the feeling as superstition.
Sam had asked the government to come in with an infrared- sensing helicopter and look for people on the nearby moun tains. It was how they would catch Gaudet and then use drugs to pump him for information about Cordyceps. What the government would not dare try, Sam would do without hesitation. The helicopter was coming, he was told, but to date it hadn’t arrived and now it was too late. The growing snow flurries would prevent them. Sam had tried to impress on Ernie the logic of waiting in the mountains, but the FBI was convinced that Gaudet was orchestrating Cordyceps from a Manhattan warehouse. They agreed to come to the California outback only if anybody showed up.
Mother Nature had other ideas about that.
Grady and Michael appeared at the cabin door with Georges Raval. They had donned stocking caps, obviously preparing for a walk around the compound.
“It’s not a good idea to go far,” Sam said.
“There’s nothing but wilderness up that mountain and it goes for miles. The artillery is down here.”
The wind was whipping and a chime near the porch dropped to the ground with a final metallic tinkle that was choked off on impact. Black clouds hung everywhere; it appeared as if the forecasted blizzard were about to cut loose. Chandler jogged up, looking like a man with something on his mind.
Just then, Sam cocked his head as he heard a cracking sound reverberate through the mountains, followed by a rumble and a vibration that he could feel in his feet. It grew in intensity until the sound was deep and rolling, perhaps a volcano or a massive landslide with the vibration filling the air and literally shaking their bodies. Suddenly it stopped.
“What was that?” Michael asked.
“Shit,” Chandler said as he reached the group.
“What in the world was that?” Grady murmured. “An atomic bomb?”
“Look.” As Yodo pointed toward the river, Chandler’s head exploded in a burst of blood. Sam shoved Grady and Michael to the ground, urging them to crawl to a small rock wall. Yodo ran for a rock fortification and the machine gun it housed, apparently more concerned with fighting back than with getting shot.
Bullets smacked into rock and occasionally ricocheted with a whine. Sam’s men were returning fire and the opposite hillside was pocked with puffs of snow, dust, and rock. Someone on Sam’s team fired a rocket and a small patch of trees on the opposite mountain was upended and a body came tumbling over the lip of a cliff. It slapped its way from one rock protrusion to the next, the body bending and break ing in a gruesome display.
After depositing Grady and Michael in the rocks, Sam belly-crawled through the brush to the bluff edge, where he could see whatever might have excited Yodo. He looked down at the river and saw its flow had ceased and that it was shriveling to a series of tiny pools, the green rocks exposed, the car-size boulders surrounding what had once been a vi brant river now standing like monuments over ancient graves. Cascades of heavy rapids became trickles even as he watched. And there was something else. Men in white camouflage were coming across the river bottom, spread out, one at a time. Yodo was firing virtually nonstop, pinning down one member and then another of the enemy team. It was an assault- too many to fight off. Looking at the force, Sam wondered whether Gaudet had actually managed to enlist the French. Raval was still a French citizen and they would do everything possible to take him back to France. It was crazy, but maybe they saw it as their only hope of getting what they thought they had purchased.
“Count on the government to be someplace else when you need them,” Sam muttered. The snipers were not going for Michael or Raval. That explained why Chandler had his head blown off, with Michael and Raval standing close by, but it didn’t explain why Sam still breathed. Probably the first bullet was a premature shot by an overanxious sniper; probably Gaudet would be boiling that shooter’s balls before daybreak next.
Sam kept low and ran back to Grady and Michael. “Get to the base of the mountain,” Sam said. “We’re gonna climb.”
“Supplies?” Michael said. “I have to get the ’98 journal anyway.” Sam looked at the spacious log house thirty yards distant across mostly open space. If they tried to make it into the house and back out, at least one of them would probably die.
“Over there, through the trees, there’s a rock house. Inside, there are two guns and a little ammo. Run like hell. I’ll be right behind.”
“First the journals.” Michael sprinted off through a hail of bullets without awaiting an answer.
Sam took out his radio. “Everybody up the mountain now. High ground.”
Sam looked again at the main house. By some miracle Michael had made it inside. Sam waited to see if he would emerge. Between the front door and his current hiding place were several oaks, trimmed up and offering little cover. There were some benches cut from logs, a chain saw sculpture that formed the likeness of a walking bear, and an old hammock strung between two of the oaks. Unfortunately, his M-4 was on the porch. He set out in a run, his boots sinking in the soft earth and throwing up black soil as he zigzagged to make himself a tough target. Shots cracked in the cold air and bullets spat mud around him. Just as he reached the porch, he heard a rushing sound-something like the sound following a jet fighter’s low pass at an air show. Michael passed him at a dead run. Grabbing his rifle, Sam fled as the rocket vaporized the back of the cabin and the concussion sent him flying. Hitting the dirt, he was moving instantly with hands and feet flying, and his gun slung over his back in an unconscious motion guided by reflex.
Food would have been good, but they would have to make do without.
Sam found Grady, Michael, and Raval huddled, Grady with red eyes.
“God, I thought you were both dead.” Her voice cracked, but she held back any tears.
“Let’s go,” Sam said, grateful at least for his gun.
They ran through the densest clumps of trees toward a corner of the property, where there was a pump house and a cache of M-4 ammunition. Sam’s body sung with adrena line, his mind working out how he could get his charges up the mountain.
They ran at a full sprint, except where rough ground or tree branches slowed them. They bulled their way through a heavy stand of fir saplings and into a small opening. For a second Sam had difficulty locating the small doghouse-size structure that he had seen only once. Then he located an old madrona tree that had been partially burned at the base, and he knew right where to look. Upon finding the rickety, grayed pump house, he yanked the door off its hinges and grabbed ten clips, stuffing them in his pockets. In a war it wasn’t much. Michael, Grady, and Raval grabbed handfuls, he didn’t know how many each.
Grady, Michael, and Raval were running behind Sam, while Yodo was running through the trees about thirty feet to their right, as were Martin, Gunther, Kenneth, and the rest. Yodo had a rocket launcher; Martin was lugging the BAR. They were taking one heavy piece of armament each and he hoped it wouldn’t slow them down. They were all headed across a forested stretch of the plateau that was dotted with sixtysomething-foot conifers. As they neared the corner of the plateau and the mountain, they tightened into a single- file formation.
The snow began falling in windblown sheets. Almost im mediately it became difficult to discern angles and slopes; “down” became the white ground and “up” the white sky. Beyond that, there was little visible of anything. It even made it hard to balance. They began running through what seemed a white tunnel with snow-laden branches whipping them and the whoosh of snow underfoot. The cold air poured into their lungs in odd juxtaposition to their sweating bodies. Soon they were laboring in the heavy branches.
Sam had on shooting mitts. The thin leather of the trigger finger was cold against the metal of the M-4. As he ran, he peered into the blinding snow and the dense white and green of a tree-choked forest in winter. Then from the murky land scape a form suddenly took shape-off to his left-then shots were pounding in his ears.,
A man had burst through the trees, firing. Gunther hit the ground as Sam and the others fired back, turning the at tacker’s white camo into red-splotched laundry.
They ran on for a few seconds until more deafening muzzle blasts tore through flesh and forest. This time Martin and Kenneth were down, writhing in the snow, their wounds hopeless, their bullet-riddled bodies nearly empty of life.
Sam ran the thirty feet to Grady, Michael, and Raval.
“Run as fast as you can. Stay in the main branch of the creek at the end of this trail. We’ll catch you when we can.”
Grady grabbed his neck and kissed him on the cheek, then quickly gave him a peck on the mouth.
“You gotta live” was all she said.
Yodo remained while the three others ran after Michael, Grady, and Raval. Sam had killed the shooter, but he waited for more. Yodo squatted with his M-4 ready to fire and the rocket launcher cast beside him on the ground. They heard the cracking branches of men in a hurry to kill and Sam de cided on a strategy.
“Yodo,” Sam whispered. He pointed up the trail and began to move with Yodo following. When they left the plateau, it was on a steep, snow-covered sliver of a trail, which soon became a faint tracing on the ground. Under the snow-coated oak lay loose rock and acorns rotting from winter. Douglas fir and slightly smaller white fir canopied over the oaks, diminishing the light greatly. Sam and Yodo followed the route of the others until they came to a spot fifty yards up the white-foamed creek. It was steeper than any city street but did not require traveling on all fours, although just ahead the smaller branch of the Y moved up steeply in a couple of near-vertical drops. Quickly they lay track in the earth and the old snow, and they broke branches, making it appear that the larger number of the group had taken the small fork. Next they used tree branches to obliterate as best they could the prints going up the main fork.
“Yodo, you need to go after the others and be the rear guard.”
“But the larger force, if not all of them, will follow after you.”
“Yes. But I know these mountains. I’ll be going fast. Very fast.”
Yodo’s frustration showed, but Sam knew that he would not disagree.
Yodo nodded. “Take the rocket.”
“No. I will make my point another way. This is partly a mental war.”
Yodo nodded and took the artillery.
Sam turned and began scrambling, carrying only the M-4 and his backpack. As he went, he slowed a moment to feel for the satellite phone that created a reassuring bulge in a pocket at the bottom of the pack. As soon as he was several hundred yards up the hill, he took out the phone and called Jill.
“We’re being chased up the mountain into the wilderness by thirty men, maybe more. I’m guessing they’re rogue French SDECE or mercenaries trying to take Raval back to France. Gaudet may be leading the attack. They’ve created two large rock slides into the river, one above us and one below. I imag ine that a huge lake is forming above, It’s only a matter of time before the dam bursts. When the second one breaks, there’ll be an amazing debris torrent for miles downriver.”
“In that case, anyone near that river is dead.”
“Call the authorities just to make sure they are evacuating people. I know it’s obvious but it is the government… and don’t worry, we won’t be near the river.”
“I’ll call the authorities.” She paused. “You’re pretty much on your own, Sam. Be careful.”
“Uh-huh. Look, I’ve got to move. Any word on Benoit?”
“Do everything you can to find her, Jill.”
“We’ve got men combing the warehouses. We’re trying to get permission to go inside. It’s slow work.”
“I know. How many atomizer-equipped helicopters have they found?”
“Only three so far. There must be many more. We’re run ning out of time. I figure twenty-four hours max.”
“What about Grogg?”
“Government is showing no signs of letting us release the Internet antivirus.”
“That’s nuts. If Grogg gets into the Quatram server and gets a read on Gaudet’s virus, call me before anyone else.”
“Even the government?”
“Especially the government.”
Benoit Moreau stretched her body as far as she could. Lying in a fetal position, she could not straighten anything but her back. It was becoming excruciating. The space was perhaps a foot high, but much wider. There was a water bot tle and she could obtain water by sucking on a plastic tube. Gaudet had put her there and was holding her as an asset. He didn’t care if she suffered, but he wanted to keep her alive. There would be many questions to answer about why the French didn’t get Chaperone, and she was still valuable with respect to Chaperone and the French laboratory, and Gaudet might need all the bargaining chips he could get. Surely, he’d gone after Raval and Bowden now. A couple of Gaudet’s guards came every so often to give her a little food and to let her use the toilet. One man reminded her of Saddam Hussein in appearance. She had taken to calling him “Hussein,” and the other guard she had dubbed “Napoleon” because he was a short strutter.
Last time Hussein had come to let her out, he had looked at her too long for a man with no interest but his job. Of course she immediately thought about how she might use it. Although Gaudet had dropped her into the box with her hands cuffed behind her back, she had since managed to pass her wrists under her feet by turning on her side. The flexibility for the maneuver was the result of her Pilates and stretching. Strangely, Hussein, the more attentive of the two, did nothing about rearranging the cuffs. He underestimated her, and that was her first break.
As she waited, she thought about what she would do if she could escape. Sam might be the only person, aside from Raval, that she trusted. She had a phone number of his com mitted to memory. That was step one. Another number she remembered was one that Trotsky had used to access the mainframe with the laptop. She needed to get that info to Sam, including a warning about the cement trucks, before it was too late.
It had been hours since the guard’s last visit and her blad der was bursting. If she had even the slightest chance, she would risk everything.
No sooner had she thought it than Hussein came. He was alone, no doubt with ulterior motives. This was her second break. He pulled up the boards, allowing a pinpoint of light into the hole. Then shining a bright flashlight, he was obviously perusing her. This time she made sure that one of her breasts was nearly exposed. For a long time he just looked and she didn’t move, feigning near unconsciousness. Finally he reached down and felt her forehead. Then his hand drifted to her shoulder, caressing it and tugging at her dress. Making no move and not acknowledging him, she waited. It was instinct. Every man required a slightly different seduction. Finally he grabbed her arm.
She made as if to stir and struggled to her feet while she remained hunched over. She hoped he wouldn’t think about her hands. In the near darkness she fell against him, making sure that her arm and even her hands rubbed his crotch. He took her by the shoulders to try to draw her to him.
Violently snapping her head up, she hit him hard under his chin and knew instantly she had hurt him badly. Blood spurted from his mouth and he half screamed, half moaned. Then she found his face and drove her thumbs into his eyes, trying to squish them like vintners’ grapes. When he grabbed her wrists, she kneed him in the testicles as hard as she could. He wore a shoulder holster and she grabbed the gun. Then she ran.
She was terribly stiff and she stumbled as she went, nearly falling. It was a huge warehouse full of drums in the area of her captivity. Two more men came running; they were shooting, and almost unconsciously she shot back. Then she ran down an aisle, turned, and was out of sight. She found an al cove and went in it, trying to get her wits about her, to stretch cramped muscles, to clear her head.
Looking around, she could see that she could easily reach another aisle by crawling over some barrels. She moved quickly across barrel tops on her hands and knees. In the next aisle she ran and took the first turn. Then she stopped. Running footsteps approached the next intersection. She leveled the gun. The steps slowed. She leaned into a small space between the barrels so that she would not present an obvious target. As she watched, she saw the barrel of a handgun; then a hand came slowly around the edge. The man was no more than twenty feet away. Weakness paralyzed her arm and it shook. The sights wobbled. Part of a man’s head came into view-too small to hit. She waited. In the dim light he hadn’t seen her. He kept coming. His face was full on. It was a wide face, with a big nose. The snarl in his soul was cap tured in the lips. He was squinting over his gun. She fired. Flesh blew out the back of his head in the instant before he dropped.
Benoit shuddered and nearly collapsed, but she forced herself to run past the body, around the turn, and perhaps a hundred feet more to the next four-way intersection. As she approached, she slowed. There was another alcove, where barrels had been removed.
Her chest heaved, her legs still cramping from confinement. A headache behind her eyes made her nauseated and she knew she had to get away. She had no more fight in her. A man burst into the aisle, right into her sights. She started shooting at the same time he did. He dropped. She felt a stinging in her shoulder. She reached and felt blood. Her head spun. Footsteps, running. She tried to raise the gun, but her arm was crazy. The ceiling spun and she fell. For some reason the floor felt soft.
Sam scrambled up the mountain through the oaks and then into the timber, careful to watch the lay of the land for the formations he had studied through the binoculars. Some ravines ended in vertical faces high on the mountain, where water tumbled down over bare, smooth rock. In these areas the rock was harder and the water’s etchings were displaced to areas where the stone was softer and more easily worn away. It was one such ravine that Sam had in mind and it was the watercourse that he now followed. About two thousand feet up it ended in a waterfall on a stone face that only a rock climber could scale. To either side of the face there were ridges that could be scaled, but they were widely separated. It would be very difficult for climbers to take an alternate ridge, get above him, and then come back down. At night he would use the terrain. When his grandfather had taught him, it was to stalk deer, but it would serve equally well for hunt ing men.
Sam turned after forty minutes of rapid climbing and looked down the mountain. The snow had abated briefly. He saw many following him-maybe twenty or so. No doubt most of Gaudet’s force.
It was growing dark and Sam resumed his climb. A few minutes later, he veered out of the ravine onto the ridge, broke a few branches, and made the trail ridiculously obvious. After he had gone high on the razor-sharp ridge near the head of the rock wall, he found the deep chasm that would stop the climb of Gaudet’s men, even assuming they could reach it before nightfall. He dropped off the ridge and went down its shoulder, leaving no trace. If he were being fol lowed by Tiloks, they would laugh, go down the mountain, and take a different route, but these men were from the city and they would not laugh, nor would they double back in darkness. They would be trapped for the night with Sam below and impassable terrain above.
Meandering down into a forested hillside, he stayed away from loose rock to avoid slides and broke no branches. Stepping on the balls of his feet, as Grandfather had taught him, he avoided making deep heel imprints that would be easy to spot. Where he could, he walked on hard rock. After twenty minutes of rapid downhill progress he moved back near the ridge and waited. It was only minutes until he heard the heavy, labored breathing of men who were not in shape to climb mountains. They were noisier than a herd of elk. Rocks bounced down the mountain; branches were fractured; they tried to whisper, but their voices were nearly shouts when they found his sign. They would stop for the night, spread out along the shoulders of the ridge.
When Benoit awoke, her mouth felt dry as dust. The first thing she saw were plastic tubes hanging all around her. As she turned her head to the left, she noticed her arm and shoulder in a giant cast and her hand above her, off the bed. The terrible ache came from her shoulder. By her bed stood a woman she did not recognize. The room was unsteady. She still had the awful headache. At once she remembered the box in the floor; then she was running and they were shooting. She felt so tired-exhausted, really. She closed her eyes.
When she next opened her eyes, she tried to put things to gether. There had been a hamper and a large crate in a store. She had been with Gaudet and in the river. Somehow it didn’t seem to fit. The woman next to the bed was still there, al though now she was asleep. It must have been a long time. As she lay there, things began to become less elusive in her mind, and suddenly she remembered coming from France and prison, the government job, Baptiste and the admiral, the meeting with Sam and Spring. Georges.
“Cordyceps,” she whispered.
The woman by the bed jerked and her eyes flashed open.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m Jill. I’m with Sam, but officially I’m your sister. Outside are the French SDECE and the FBI. Sam’s people found you in the warehouse. During the shoot- out.”
“Jean-Baptiste Sourriaux. Is he here?”
“No, a Rene Denard seems to be in charge.”
“Don’t let him in!”
“Yes. I understand.”
“We have to get out of here.”
“That will be tough.”
“Cement trucks. Tell Sam that Cordyceps is cement trucks and helicopters.”
“Did you get the laptop?”
“There is a code. Let me see. The year of the French rev olution, 1789. Then the telephone city code for my sister in Bordeaux, fourteen. Next one year after I was born, but one decade off. So 1977. Next it is… let me see… oh yes… it is BMW backward so WMB… then it is Gaudet’s age transposed, so it is fifty-four instead of forty-five. Next it is the number of my driver’s license. Gaudet did that because he used to be fond of me. I don’t remember the number on my driver’s license, but you should be able to look it up. Last it is Trotsky’s birthday. He was born in 1959 on the day be fore Christmas. Put those numbers together, and if I have re membered correctly, you can enter a folder on the laptop where you will find another much more complicated code. Use that to get into Gaudet’s computer, if he hasn’t shut it off. I doubt he has because it’s about to release a major com puter virus.”
The woman called Jill pulled out a cell phone.
“Grogg, take this down. There is a password to a folder in the laptop.” Benoit helped Jill repeat what she had told her. “Call me back when you’ve cracked it… Tell us your assessment of what we can do and we’ll call Sam.” Then there was a pause. “I don’t care what you have to do to hide it. Tell them you have to take a shit and smuggle it into the rest- room.” Another pause. “Okay, well, if that won’t work, then take advantage of their boredom. But just do it.” Another pause. “Yes, you can bring in gourmet food. Anything. Wine, whatever. Get it downloaded to Big Brain, give them the wrong code, and get back to our offices.”
Jill hung up and dialed again.
“Ernie, it’s cement trucks and helicopters.” A pause. “Yeah, good. That’s a hell of a lot of helicopters, but she says definitely also cement trucks.” Then after a moment. “I have another call. Yes?” A pause. “That’s all the French know? Shit, Figgy, you’d think they’d know more than that. What the hell good does it do to know Gaudet is going to do some thing in the next sixty hours?” A pause. “No. Benoit’s still unconscious.” She gave Benoit a wink. “We’ll call you the minute she wakes up.” A pause. “Figgy, of course we’ll let the SDECE interview her, but only when the doctors say she’s ready.” Another pause. “I can’t promise that. Hell, I probably won’t even be here.” A pause. “I gotta go, Figgy. Can’t talk now. Sam’s calling.” A pause. “He’s in New York looking for Gaudet. Where else would he be?” Jill discon nected. “Lying bastard.”
Next Jill dialed Sam’s satellite and left a message.