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Timberwolf By T. Alex Miller Talex10@gmail.com “Being the first version of my novel Ohiowa and the guts of which will be turned into Ohiowa’s sequel.”
It was when the big toe landed in my chopped Cobb salad that I decided it was time to leave L.A. Since it was late March, I figured I could still get in some decent skiing at my place in Colorado. How long would I stay? I wasn’t sure, but like so many others leaving the cities, I wasn’t about to press my luck any further. Unlike the Israelis, who had no other place to go in their tiny country to escape suicide bombers, Americans had plenty of room to fan out. And fan out we did. It helped, too, if you had money. I suppose I might feel guilty about all the less-fortunate folks stuck in the cities with all the crazies, but the truth is the bombers didn’t walk into the ‘hood to do their “martyr jam” (as one rapper described it). They didn’t go for the buses like they did in Israel, either. They targeted money, walking into the tony shops on Wilshire or Madison Avenue. They showed up at country clubs during golf tournaments or at celebrity fundraisers—usually during cocktail hour. It
Miller/Timberwolf/2 didn’t seem to matter what kind of security was in place: they got in no matter what anyone did. Homeland Security was much more effective at hassling schmucks like me than weeding out the twisted butt-knockers who strapped on bombs for a living—or a dying, I guess. Sure, every once in a while one of them would be stopped in his tracks, but the volume, the sheer number of them, combined with the limitless amount of targets, the size of the country and the very nature of the suicide bomber made it all but impossible to stop or even slow down the determined martyr. It was like trying to stop telemarketers from calling your home. You could buy some kind of gizmo to weed them out, you could get a little box that showed you who was calling, you could make calls to try to get off the lists, but some of them would always get through. The only recourse was to try to get the hell away from the phones. It wasn’t a big deal for me to leave L.A. right then. The movie I’d been working on was done and I didn’t have anything else lined up. Usually when post-production on a film was wrapped, I was so disgusted with the whole industry that I needed a few weeks or months off anyway. And with all the bombings, plenty of people were guessing production in town might shut down altogether for a while.
Miller/Timberwolf/3 The way Hollywood used freelance computer animators like me was to bring us in during the last stage of post and work us like dogs to fix all the things the director had screwed up during the shoot. Someone forgets to get the white panel van that’s supposed to be parked in the background and, rather than reshoot the scene with a $100 rental truck, he yells “Screw it! Fix it in post!” A few months later, it takes me three weeks at five grand a week to add the van. And people wonder why films cost $100 million. I had the house near Breckenridge my parents left me, plenty of cash and a burning desire to see L.A. in my rearview mirror. You terrorists, I thought, can set yourselves off like a wad of Chinese firecrackers all spring and summer long. Just stay the hell away from my townhome and don’t nail any of my friends. I’ll be up in the hills, and you can target me when I get back, as if blowing up Daniel Gould, freelance film animator, is going to change your world in any way whatsoever.
When I rolled through the Eisenhower Tunnel and into Summit County, Colorado that day in March, it was a blizzard. While it’s not at all unusual for it to be
Miller/Timberwolf/4 snowing at 11,000 feet on a day in late March, I wasn’t prepared for it. For starters, I was still wearing shorts and a T-shirt from the trip across the desert, and the Jag was not at all snow-worthy—from it’s shallow-tread Pirellis to its 3-inch clearance. It was a joke. A spring storm in the Rockies is a remarkable thing. It comes down like it’s got some kind of highly pressing business with the ground. Just can’t wait. It comes down vertically in huge clumps, and the wind blows another load of it in sideways in smaller pieces. It comes down so heavily that no wiper in the world can keep up with it, and before long I was peering through a small window in the Jag’s windshield as the wipers beat back and forth to no effect. At the same time my visual acuity was severely compromised, I started to lose control of the car as the Pirellis failed to keep up with the growing blobs of slush and mush piling up on the road. Rather than crash, I pulled over, got out and assessed my options while scraping off the windshield and headlights with a CD case. I could continue on and hope to make it without wrecking. I could sit in the car and wait. I could call a tow truck to scoop me up and take me to safety. Or I could ….
Miller/Timberwolf/5 I don’t know what the fourth option might’ve been. The point is I didn’t stop, didn’t call anyone, didn’t wait. I finished scraping off the windshield and, reasoning that the snow would let up as I dropped in altitude, got back in the car and continued on my way. I was partly right. The snow did let up some as I dropped down toward Silverthorne, at about 9,000 feet. The road was still a mess and I’d have been well-advised to have pulled over there. But something was urging me on, a strong desire to get to the house in Blue River and begin my vacation—if that’s what it was. Past Frisco, past Farmer’s Korner and through Breckenridge I went, pulling into my driveway just in time to find a chubby woman with rosy cheeks and the ugliest winter coat I’d ever seen climbing into what was obviously a rented SUV. It was one of those tiny little all-wheel-drive things women thought were “cute” and men disdained as silly. The rental car companies charged a premium for them, even though they were no better in snow than anything else, and usually worse. It wasn’t uncommon to see them upside-down on the side of the road during snowstorms, locals driving by and noting the rental-car plates with a sneer. “Hi,” I said, stepping out of the car. “It’s a hell of
Miller/Timberwolf/6 a day for a drive.” Was she a realtor or something, scoping out my house? The woman looked at me sideways, her lips moving as if to speak and her eyes questioning. Who was I? Hours passed. I moved some snow around with my foot, waiting. Here was a woman who was either mute, dense or seriously contemplative about what she uttered. Hoping for the latter, I stood there with a half smile on my face as more wet snow came down, clinging to our hair, our eyelashes, our clothes. “You’re wearing shorts,” she said finally. “Yes, indeed,” I said, looking down at my battered Gramiccis. “So, you’re not the property management guy?” “No,” I said. “I’m not. This is my house.” “You’re the owner?” “There’s always an owner,” I said. “I actually come here quite often.” This wasn’t entirely true. Some years, I’d spend up to two months at the house in Blue River; others, if I was really busy, hardly at all. This year had been one where I’d been largely absent, but it wasn’t like I was trying to lie to her. I was also slightly confused, since the
Miller/Timberwolf/7 property management company’s last e-mail said something about “soft” rentals this spring, and I seemed to recall no renters at all since the President’s Day Weekend in February. Who, then, was this zaftig brunette in the down coat that looked big enough to fold into a three-man tent? She didn’t look like a squatter, or a maid or a snow-plow driver. Not with that silly vehicle, anyway. “And you are …?” I said, hands on hips in a lord-ofthe manor kind of way. “I’m Melanie,” she said. “Melanie Watson.” “Well hello, Melanie Watson,” I said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m going inside. You can follow me in and tell me your story, or you can be on your way. It’s all good to me.” With that, I grabbed a bag and my laptop, closed the door to the Jag and headed up the stairs. They hadn’t been shoveled or swept in weeks, but looked like they’d seen plenty of activity lately. Another glance around told me that someone, probably the three-man-tent lady puffing up the stairs after me, had been pretty busy around here. There were tracks all through the trees around the house, the remains of a snowman and even some cross-country ski tracks. At the top of the stairs I turned and watched
Miller/Timberwolf/8 Melanie lumber up the remaining steps. “Melanie Watson,” I said, “Did you build a snowman on my lawn? How quaint.” “Why is that quaint?” she asked, breathing heavily next to me, and then: “Can I go in first?” “I don’t know,” I said. “A grown woman, making a snowman without any kids around, that’s quaint. And why do you want to go in first?” “I just do,” she said. “Please?” “OK,” I said. “I assume you know the code?” She did. After entering it, she scurried into the house ahead of me, calling back over her shoulder: “How do you know there were no kids?” I entered the great room (my mother’s term) just as Melanie quickly grabbed a couple of bras hanging from a deer antler chandelier and stuffed them in her pocket. “Because there would have been more tracks, smaller tracks, snow angel indentations and other signs that people had been rolling in the snow,” I said. “Is the dryer broken?” “That’s very observant of you, Mr. …?” “Gould,” I said. “Daniel Gould.” “Yes, very observant,” she said. “And no, the dryer
Miller/Timberwolf/9 works great.” Another pause, then quickly: “But I wear underwire bras and I don’t like them to go in the dryer. It screws up the underwire thingies.” “Ah,” I said, looking around at evidence telling me Ms. Melanie Watson had been here a while and had failed the Martha Stewart housekeeping exams. “I’m sure the poor deer who died to make that chandelier would be thrilled to know their antlers were able to help out like that.” It was a dreadful chandelier anyway, given to us by the sleazebag realtor who sold my father the place. He probably had a garage full of them, made by his half-wit brother-in-law. “Yes,” she said. “I suppose.” “You’ve been here a while?” I asked. “Yes.” “Longer than you were supposed to, longer than you paid for?” “Well, yes.” “Then you are a squatter!” I said. “Amazing!” “Why is that amazing?” For one, I told her, who ever heard of a second-home squatter? A vacation home thief? For another, this was obviously not a poor woman. From the car to the clothes to
Miller/Timberwolf/10 the look of her things lying all about, she was no bag lady. And, again, this was Breckenridge, not exactly known for its squatters and homeless. She shrugged. She didn’t seem embarrassed by anything other than the underwire bras on the antlers. As for the squatting, it was no big deal to me either way, since she wasn’t supplanting any paying renters. The most I was out, I figured, was whatever the gas, water and electricity cost while she was there. I could cover it. I’d never been with a woman who wore underwire bras, I don’t think. As Melanie took off her coat and I got a look at her figure—or as much of it as I could see under her flowing sweats—it occurred to me that I must be a smallboob kind of guy. Either that or the women I dated with larger breasts had had work done that defied gravity enough to obviate the need for underwires. Whichever the case, I was, up until that moment, unaware of the need to keep certain kinds of bras out of the dryer. I let it go for the moment, and focused instead on this woman in front of me. “Look, Mr. Gould …” she said. “Daniel, please,” I said, putting up my hand like an idiot. “Mr. Gould, I came here and paid for two whole weeks
Miller/Timberwolf/11 in February. I needed a break because … a bomb went off, a suicide bomber, killed my … went off in my office in Chicago. And my company closed the office temporarily. But I was afraid, afraid to go back to the city, and the guy who let me into your house here, he told me I was probably the last rental of the season because there wasn’t much snow then, and so I, I stayed on and I just do all my work from here and it’s such a nice house and I didn’t think I was harming anyone and I was going to have a maid come in and clean it when I left but I don’t know when that was going to be and I didn’t know who you are and …” And she cried, her tears turning me immediately into an awkward statue. When it seemed I could no longer avoid it, I reached out and tentatively put a hand on her shoulder. “Melanie,” I said. “Look …” She latched onto my hand like a pair of Vice-Grips . Next thing I knew I was hugging her while she sobbed like a Bush-era Democrat on my shoulder. I said stuff like “there, there” and “it’ll be OK.” It felt lame, but it seemed to help. Her sobs slowed and I prepared myself for the next phase: the wiping and apologizing about how bad they look et cetera et cetera. Just before that, I reflected on
Miller/Timberwolf/12 something while hugging this woman: I’d never embraced someone as substantial as Melanie Watson. She wasn’t fat— more Degas than Rubens—but not the L.A. twig I was used to— women who are about as huggable as cactus. This was a real, honest-to-god full-figured woman who’d probably never had a nose job or a tummy tuck or even a facial. Chicago, that’s where they grow ‘em like this, I thought. It was OK. “Daniel,” she said while wiping her eyes, “I know I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but you’re the first person I’ve touched in six weeks, and it feels really good!” I smiled in my best avuncular fashion and put my arms around her for another hug. We stood like that for a few minutes, sort of rocking back and forth with the silence of the house and the snow falling outside all around us. I’m comforting someone. I wasn’t even that impatient to finish with the hug and get on with whatever it was needed getting on with. I didn’t think about getting her in the sack. I just let it continue until I felt my own body start to loosen and relax. Tension flowed out from my head, my back, my shoulders. Snot broke it up.
Miller/Timberwolf/13 “Oh my god!” she said, pulling away. “I am so sorry! I got, I slobbered on your shirt.” While she was busy with a kitchen towel on my shirt, I asked her to tell me about the bombing. “If you can, I mean, if it’s OK,” I said. “Yeah,” she said. “Sure I can. It helps, actually, I think.” She sat down on a couch facing me and exhaled momentously. “OK, I was like just sitting in my office dealing with e-mails and stuff, it was first thing in the morning and people were just getting into the office. The bagel-cart was just coming by—he comes by first thing every morning and usually it’s this guy Pedro who I’ve known for years and usually always bought a bagel from him but since I started doing the low-carb diet thing I wasn’t buying them anymore. So the bagel cart goes by my office heading toward the conference room. But …” “It wasn’t Pedro,” I said, guessing the rest. “No, it wasn’t. Usually he always says hi even though I don’t buy stuff anymore. But it was a woman, a dark woman with dark hair tied back. She was beautiful, and I remember thinking she should be like a model or something, not
Miller/Timberwolf/14 selling bagels. I guess I figured she was filling in for Pedro, I dunno, maybe she was his cousin or something. So I shrugged and just went back to my computer and then I heard it.” The “it” showed on her face, the memory leaping into the room to paint the picture almost as tangibly as a holographic image. “Alla Akbar. Followed by a huge explosion?” I said. Tears started again as she tried to describe the scene. “I heard the yelling, that Alla Akbar thing from the woman, and the people in the conference room yelling. I jumped up and I was like frozen there for a second, I didn’t know what to do, what was going on, and then just WHAM!I don’t even remember, I mean I got knocked out I guess and when I woke up, the walls to my office were just gone. There was a fire going and the sprinklers turned on. People were screaming, but even worse was the groaning underneath it all. I wasn’t really hurt very badly, just some cuts and scratches, but I couldn’t seem to move and everything was like muffled. I could hear all that stuff going on, but like really low, like the sound was turned down, so it didn’t even seem real.” “Jesus,” I said.
Miller/Timberwolf/15 “And I conked out again, I guess, and the next thing I remember is the ride to the hospital in the ambulance. This paramedic lady was shoving those smelling-salts things under my nose and it was like whoa! Being thrown into a cold pool or something cuz I woke up and realized where I was and knew everything that had happened and asked her what she knew. She just said there were like 10 people dead and another dozen or so injured. She tried to make me feel better, telling me I was a low priority because I wasn’t really hurt bad. But I didn’t find out anything until the cops came to see me in the hospital. They wanted to know what I saw, and then … then they told me all of who was killed and hurt by that, that fucking horrible beautiful bitch.” And so some of Melanie’s best friends, her boss and a guy named Cal who was her boyfriend, they all died. Two other close friends were crippled, one losing an arm, the other paralyzed from the neck down. Melanie was crying profusely now, her nose as red as a drunk’s, but she waved off my suggestions to stop. “Cal walked past my office right before the bagel cart lady and reminded me not to be late to the meeting. I was supposed to be in there, Daniel. I should be dead, or
Miller/Timberwolf/16 paralyzed like Jill. But instead I just had a concussion and some ringing in my ears and I was fine. Fine physically, anyway. But then I just snapped, I turned into this zombie and when I got back from the hospital I didn’t leave the house and didn’t talk to anyone or answer the phone or anything, for like a month. I wasn’t even like grieving or sad; I was just like dead. Work finally sent this emergency grief team or something from the Red Cross and they made me go to this place and talk to people and it helped me wake up. “And then it hurt, huh?” I said. “Yeah. Yeah it did.” The ad firm really stepped up to the plate for the people affected by the attack. For Melanie, they took care of all the counseling, and when it was suggested she’d benefit by a vacation to a quiet place, they paid for the trip to Breckenridge. “I always wanted to try skiing,” she said. “But it turns out I really suck at it. I hated it, kept falling down. So I tried snowboarding but that wasn’t any better. So I got some of those cross-country skis and some snowshoes and tried them around the house here, but I’m just not in shape for that.”
Miller/Timberwolf/17 “It’s hard work,” I said, “especially at 10,000 feet.” “Yeah, so I just started working again. I was the only one left from the group working on the El Al account, and R-J really was happy to have me back.” “El Al?” I said. “Yeah. They figure that’s why they hit us us. We were working on an image campaign, trying to get tourists to start going back to Israel.” So beautiful bagel lady terrorist was a Palestinian. I remembered it now, read about it in the paper. But only 10 killed, in these days it didn’t even make the front page. Melanie let out another great breath and wiped at her nose. “There,” she said. “That’s my story, my sad tale. But I’m OK now, I think. Or as OK as I could be. I mean, it’s been what, like four or five months now …. I told her she could stay as long as she wanted. “As long as you don’t annoy the shit out of me or anything,” I said with a smile. She stopped wiping and looked at me. “Thank you,” she said, then seemed to switch gears, brightening. “Why don’t you get your things out of the car and I’ll
Miller/Timberwolf/18 straighten up around here. I wasn’t expecting company.” “I’ll bet you weren’t,” I said, heading back out into the snowstorm to gather my stuff. All of the sudden, my solitary life in the mountains was turning into some kind of therapy session for a terrorism victim. I could’ve kicked her out easy enough I suppose, but the truth was a little companionship didn’t sound so bad. Hell, maybe she could cook. But damn, I hate terrorists. I’m just sick of them.
Chapter Two The company Melanie worked for in Chicago was called Rubicon-Johnson, an advertising agency with offices all over the world. She could’ve relocated to any of them—from Milan to Monterrey—but she chose to turn my vacation home into her office. She was senior enough at her firm to do that, I guess, and corporations during these days did whatever they could to keep employees after a terrorist attack. Even though the terrorist lightning rarely struck in the same place, workers had an annoying tendency to abandon work places that’d been hit. Several of Melanie’s co-workers quit Rubicon-Johnson altogether rather than risk relocation and a second bombing. “I don’t blame them,” Melanie said. “After going through that, the last thing they ever want to see or feel or hear again is some explosion going off in their office. Blood, metal, plastic, body parts all over the place.” “I know,” I said. “It’s awful. Unreal.”
Miller/Timberwolf/19 We were sitting in the living room the day after the storm and my arrival, watching as the noon sun turned the heavy snow into a torrent of melt coming off the roof. Every once in a while, a shelf of snow would slide off and onto the deck with a great whooshing sound followed by a crash. It delighted Melanie every time. “Anyway,” she said, after applauding the last slide, “it’s made me want to spend the rest of my life in some forest glen, counting deer or measuring pine trees or something. Hanging out here, it’s kind of close to that.” She looked out the window at the ongoing melt, then turned to me. “Did you say ‘I know?’ Have you been around a bombing?” I had. I told her about it. Sitting there on Larchmont in one of those L.A. restaurants that was neither inside nor outside. The guy in the bike shorts with the covered jogging stroller—no baby, just a bomb. Three blondes at a table at a café across the street. The sound, the percussive layer of air that knocked me from my seat. The silence afterwards, followed by the shouts, wailing. All muffled and in slow-motion, just like her story. “I got up, I was OK,” I said. “And my chopped cobb salad was somehow still sitting on the table. Only now it had a new ingredient—a toe. A big toe.” “Holy god,” Melanie said. “With a brand-new pedicure, no less.” “Oh boy,” she said, hand on her mouth. “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be,” I said. “They weren’t anyone I knew, like with you, and I didn’t get hurt or anything. But still …” It’s the kind of experience that lives with you pretty much 24-7. There’s the obvious stuff: Fourth-of-July
Miller/Timberwolf/20 celebrations will never be the same, and a car backfiring will send you into hysterics. But then there are the things particular to your own frozen moment in time. For me it was … well, just try eating at a restaurant again after you’ve watched three perfect blondes eating salads on a perfect day turned into a bloody masterpiece against a stucco wall. And cobb salad, forget about it. We listened to the dripping for a time, not looking at one another, preoccupied with the leaky world outside the window and our grisly recollections, shared now by so many. You’re not in Kansas anymore, gang. It’s more like Israel, Pakistan, Chechyna. The sound of my mother’s faux-antique regulator in the corner added another layer of non-human sound, making me think of what life might be like when I’m terribly old and too far gone to do anything but listen to the clock ticking. I’ll read my Dostoevsky then, I figure, my Melville, work complex crossword puzzles and write in a journal. I’ll log everything that happens in my day, the hour the mailman arrives, what I had for dinner. Maybe by then the toe in the salad would be a distant memory, like a childhood broken arm or a drunken night in college, the one where you woke up on someone’s lawn but the only one who still remembered the story was your buddy Fred, who died last winter. “So,” I said, my voice like a chair scraping in the library, “tell me about your job. What do you do, exactly?” Excellent topic. Melanie was a media buyer, which meant she shopped around looking for the best deals for advertisers in a variety of different media. She began downloading her job description
Miller/Timberwolf/21 in rapid-fire detail, but I was gone, reliving that day on Larchmont. Skulking away while everyone else ran across the street to “help.” There was no help. They were dead. Selfimportant official-types in trim, dark blue uniforms would be along to mop up. At home, I stripped and thought about burning my clothes, settling instead for tying them up in a trash bag and walking them to a dumpster at the McDonald’s up the street. I could barely hear, felt like I was underwater, not in the real world at all. My ears rang for a week, my conscience for longer. They were dead; I’d keep telling myself that. “And so I got moved over from airlines and travel stuff to the tech accounts, which was actually a pretty big promotion,” Melanie was saying, somewhere in the periphery. I gave a limp “uh-huh” and she finally realized I’d left the room. She disappeared upstairs to take a shower, continuing the download about her work over dinner, apparently not offended, perhaps even understanding. Maybe she’s OK, this one. “It’s a changing landscape,” she said. We were eating spaghetti with bottled sauce, which Melanie told me was her “specialty.” She served it with garlic bread she made from powdered spice, “squirty butter” and white bread blasted in the microwave. I’d never seen anything like it. At least the wine was passable, a Bordeaux retrieved from my locked (against renters) stash in the pantry. “How so?” I said, pouring her a glass and wondering if the “specialty” referred to the glutinous mass of angel hair or the bread. Should I use a knife to cut it into chunks?
Miller/Timberwolf/22 “Advertisers aren’t doing things like they used to,” she said, diving into her pasta. “They don’t like TV anymore, they don’t like radio, they don’t like print, they don’t like the Internet. They don’t even like direct mail, not after those pipe bombings in the Midwest last year.” “So what do they like?” I said. “What’s left?” “Well, they still have to buy all of that media, but they’re killing us to come up with other ways to get messages out. I’m working on some stuff, pretty cutting edge.” How to sell a hamburger or a car without buying a spot on TV or space in a newspaper or magazine. I was one of these communications philistines who never understood advertising in the first place. If I decide to buy a Jaguar or a Big Mac or a cruise, I’ll do it if and when I’m ready and not because of any ad I saw. “Oh, bull,” Melanie said. “You choose things because you’ve had them reinforced over and over again in your mind because of advertising. There’s a Jumbo Burger next to that McDonald’s, and it’s got a cheaper, better burger, but you go in Mickey D’s because the brand is so strong.” “I never go in McDonald’s anyway,” I said, lying to be difficult. “I just used it as an example.” She smiled and cocked her head. “Do you really think corporations would spend billions of dollars a year on advertising if they didn’t think it was worth it?” Actually, I did. I had a theory that said the more people get together to make decisions as some kind of group, the less sense those decisions made. It didn’t matter if it was a government diverting billions of dollars away from, say, health coverage for its citizens to build a bogus missile
Miller/Timberwolf/23 defense shield, or a huge company spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on “image” campaigns aimed at making their sleaze less sleazy. Everyone knew what was going on. Everyone with a brain, anyway. There just weren’t enough brained humans to make a difference, which was my other pet theory: Most people are idiots. How else to explain things like the success of the lottery or professional wrestling, or two Bushes in the White House? (For the record, I consider myself an idiot, albeit an informed one.) Melanie hated my idiot theory. She thought most people were intrinsically wise and good. That flew in the face of yet another theory of mine, which held that most people were conniving scumbags out to screw one another. “So, are you a conniving scumbag out to screw me, Daniel?” “Sure,” I said. “Watch it.” “I will,” she said, the barest hint of a smile playing at the corner of her lip. “But look, it’s just the two of us,” I said. “The chances of me screwing you are more remote because it’s just me making those decisions. If I, for example, had stopped to consult a dozen of my friends about what to do with you, you might be out on you’re ass in the snow by now. But since it was just me, I let you stay.” “See?” she said, triumphant. “You’re good! Wise and good, and you let this poor woman stay here rather than toss her out in the snow.” I topped off her wine. “I still like my theory about bad decisions coming from groups,” I said. “But what about terrorists?” she said. “They act alone,
Miller/Timberwolf/24 in the end. “They have help up front, but when it comes to detonating that bomb, they’re by themselves. How do they do it?” I didn’t know the answer to that one. I speculated that, even if they were alone physically, they had the group, the mission, in their head, in their twisted heart. “I don’t get it,” Melanie said, helping herself to some more special garlic bread. “How do they make it over here and do these things? It doesn’t make sense.” “They must have help,” I said. “They’ve got to have someone here, in the States, to help.” “Yeah,” she said. “They must.”
A month or so later, and I was out in the utility shed trying to fire up the Honda generator I bought a year or two ago, when things starting getting really bad and the property manager person told me “everyone” was buying generators. I got it going, and Melanie leaned her out of her bedroom window to shout a thanks. A minor bloom of male pride spread throughout my being, and I congratulated myself on starting the generator, idiot-proof though it was. What else might I be capable of in the handyman line? Change the clutch in the Jag, put an addition on the house? Probably not. But we had electricity for now. Tomorrow it’d be the Internet that’d be down, or the gas would stop flowing for whatever reason. America was never designed to handle threats from within, and the entire country was like a body contaminated with a virus it could do nothing about. Along with the bombings aimed at people, they’d hit things like water supplies, electrical generators, even central servers for e-mail. All the information about this stuff
Miller/Timberwolf/25 was readily available, and it simply wasn’t possible to guard it all 24-7. Often, all they had to do was threaten, and officials would shut things down as a “preventive measure.” Here we were, the greatest show on Earth, brought to our knees every other day by a phone call from a whacko, or an “unidentified package” left in the mall or airport restroom. And, yeah, a homicide bombing ever other week or so. But we all lived under the mantra of “persevering despite the terrorists” and, vowing not to let them slow us down or alter our “way of life,” we fixed, patched, repaired and replaced all the stuff they damaged, poisoned, burnt, blewup or otherwise sabotaged. We sang songs and waved flags and let the government systematically dismantle the Bill of Rights in the relentless pursuit of something called homeland security. “So, even Mr. I-Don’t-Give-A-Damn about lights or gas or Internet service, even he has a generator,” Melanie said to me when I came in the house. “It’s just for the renters,” I said, more or less truthfully. “If the lights go out during the day, no biggie for me—I’ll go for a ski. At night, I’ll go to bed.” “Sure,” she said. “And if the supermarket blows up, you’ll hunt for meat or eat pine cones, right?” “You got it. With ketchup.” She went back to her work, still trying to be a highpowered media buyer tied into a global network via the phone and the Internet. It wasn’t easy with all the service interruptions, but no matter how many times something like the cable DSL went down, she’d still react as if it were a completely new and amazing phenomenon. She wasn’t much for
Miller/Timberwolf/26 swearing, but she did OK expressing herself with a series of increasingly loud groans and exclamations. “Listen Melanie,” I said one April afternoon when the DSL bombed again. “It’s a nice, sunny day and you worked all morning. Forget about it. Go for a snowshoe with me.” She couldn’t do that during what she called “normal business hours.” I pointed out that there wasn’t anything resembling “normal” anywhere in our world anymore and that she was therefore exempt from such considerations, but she shook her head and, muttering something about files, stomped back upstairs. The company still electronically deposited her full salary into her account every other Friday, and she was determined to earn every penny. I didn’t get the hard-core work ethic. Nothing made me happier than getting paid a lot more than I should for a project. I loved it when a project got cancelled for whatever reason and they still had to pay out my contract. I enjoyed walking past construction workers in the street and thinking that, on a good day, I made more in an hour than they could make in a week. If I could make that without leaving the house, so much the better. As she probed me, gently but methodically, that spring, looking to figure out what made me tick, Melanie came to look at me the way you might a lunatic in the street. It was beyond her comprehension how I was able to simply shut off my brain and my ambition and happily exist “sucking up oxygen and taking up space.” “Well,” I said, “I am also exhaling carbon dioxide, which is good for the plants or something.” “You’re so cheap, you’d withhold that if you could find a way to,” she said, huffing up the stairs with a fresh cup
Miller/Timberwolf/27 of coffee and the Denver Post. The poor woman just couldn’t seem to get used to the altitude, and, unless I was mistaken, she was fitting a bit more snugly into the sweatpants that had become her work uniform. As I watched her expanding rump make its way up the steps, I decided that any amorous or libidinous feelings I may have had for her were probably unsubstantiated, if that’s the word. Who was she, this squatter, to tell me I was a cheap, lazy bum, even if I was? Besides, I spent a fair amount of every day exercising, whether it was out in the woods or at the rec center. Not that she’d displayed the slightest interest in me, either. For a man and a woman of similar age and availability, cooped up together, we did remarkably little flirting or suggesting. Taking care of things on my own once in a while, I’d fantasize for a nanosecond or two about her in the next bedroom, but it never did much for me. I wondered what, if anything, she was doing over there, and if she ever thought of me. Occasionally, I’d find myself venturing into the hall in only my boxers, knowing my toned and tan body looked pretty decent for a guy as far along into his 30s as I was. I’d check to see if she gave me a second glance, surreptitiously or otherwise, but I might as well have been a chair or a lampshade for all the attention she directed at me. The only organ on me she seemed interested in was my brain, and then only to try to alter its sloth and pessimism and into that perhaps possessed by a more fully engaged member of society. By the time April merged into the doldrums of May—perhaps the only month not worth spending in the Colorado High country—I started to wonder if Melanie would ever leave.
Miller/Timberwolf/28 I’d given up any thought of kicking her out, but she’d started making me feel guilty about my lifestyle, and I didn’t need any of that. On the other hand, she did, after all, take care of the laundry and some of the cooking (although I tried to dissuade her and cooked most of our meals myself), but more importantly she’d moved in with a sense of permanence that was hard to refute. After her initial embarrassment and apologies, she’d never again mentioned the fact that it was my house and she was living there rent-free. I think she decided I was somehow owed some inconvenience in my tidy little world. As far as she could tell, I had little or no appreciation for the beauty surrounding me, no recognition of how fortunate I was to own this home, no sense of history or attachment to the place. None of that was true. I just had a different way of showing it than she might, which is to say I didn’t show it at all to her. But every day I went outside in the brilliant sun and what was left of the winter’s snow, I thanked whom- or whatever for the fact that I had this place. It made me think of some relatively happy times as a kid, when I came here with my folks. The idea when my folks bought it was to spend half the year here, but they had a hard time motivating to pack up and do the whole relocation thing twice a year, so we just came on the occasional vacation. We skied pretty well, but were averse to crowds, so we took up snowshoeing for those days when the mountain was too full for our taste. Lethargic though we might’ve been in spirit, my parents and I had a lot of physical endurance, and snowshoe hikes that started at 10 in the morning and went until dark were not
Miller/Timberwolf/29 uncommon. My dad would come up to my mom after a big outing, swat her on her tight, Lycra-encased behind and say the same thing every time: “Look at this butt! My god! You could crack an egg on it!” In the trees outside the house, in the surrounding hills, I could hear my parents again. Arguing, cajoling, teasing. I’d come across landmarks I’d remember from previous hikes— a stump where I saw my mom sit and cry; a big rock my dad tried and failed to climb; a downed tree that once housed a family of foxes—and I’d entertain warmer feelings for my parents in their absence than I ever did in their presence. Melanie didn’t like the fact that I had no idea where my parents were; hadn’t heard from them in years. And I didn’t seem to care. “They might be dead,” I said helpfully. “But, so, you didn’t have a fight or anything?” “Nope.” “They just left you the deed to this place and disappeared?” “The deed plus $350,000,” I said. “The deed plus $350,000?” “Yep.” That was 11 years ago. I guessed my folks were in Tuscany, since it was a place my mom always talked about living. But I really had no idea. “You should go there,” Melanie said. “To Tuscany.” “Why?” I said. “If they left without telling me where they went, it probably means they don’t want anyone from their old life butting into their new deal, their new Italian reality. If that’s where they are.” “But you’re not just anyone!” Melanie said, wringing her
Miller/Timberwolf/30 hands, impossibly. “You’re their son! Their only son! They must miss you! You miss them, don’t you?” “No, not really,” I said. “They were a pain in the ass, and crappy parents for the most part. I doubt they’ve improved with age.” Melanie’s face went into overdrive as she tried to form some sentences to counter my outrageous suggestion that my parents or I didn’t care to know one another anymore. It just didn’t compute for her. If only I’d thought to fabricate some kind of falling out, it would’ve been a lot easier on her—and given me some more peace as well. Neither of her parents were alive anymore, but she kept an 8X10 of them on her nightstand, and she spoke to them often in some kind of prayer mode. Or so she told me; I never actually heard her. But, then, she knew my lack of tolerance for anything resembling spirituality. Me being an atheist and she a devout Episcopalian was nothing, however, to our divergent beliefs regarding laundry. Having been single my whole life and never having lived with a woman, I always did my own laundry my own way. As I got to know Melanie over the next few months, I was to discover a whole new world of laundry rules, and it wasn’t long before I was proscribed from doing any of the laundry, including my own. It only got me into trouble, it was just as well. There I’d be before the Whirlpool god, loading the washing machine with a trembling heart, hoping I was getting it all right. But it didn’t matter how careful I was, I always screwed something up. It wasn’t ever one of my things, either. I’d hear the dryer door close and Melanie say something like “Oh … no!” and my heart would sink into my trail
Miller/Timberwolf/31 runners. She’d then walk into whatever room I was in, holding the ruined garment in her hands, like a parent cradling a child stricken by polio. “Daniel,” she’d begin, then recite one of Melanie’s Thousand Rules of Laundry. They were many and varied, and they didn’t just apply in a general sense. Example: Melanie owned no less than eight sweatshirts, but only some of them were OK to go in the dryer—mostly the older ones. The newer ones were possibly shrinkage victims, and they were to be hung to dry with the underwire brassieres and other dryerrestricted garments. They all looked more or less the same to me, of course, and although I tried to keep it straight, I nonetheless erred frequently and dramatically, causing no end of tears and consternation as she accused me of blatant disregard for her things. My theory on laundry was pretty simple. If something I bought couldn’t survive my laundering techniques, I got rid of it. Better yet, I wouldn’t buy it in the first place. In Melanie’s world, however, things were more complex, and it didn’t seem to bother her that she invested so much time fretting about what went through whichever cycle or did or didn’t go in the dryer or what temperature the washer was set on or what flavor fabric softener was used. It was like stumbling into a world where everyone drove standing up or ate with their feet, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t get it, but like most men are compelled to do in these situations, I did a complete capitulation and ceded all laundry-doing to Melanie.
Anyway, after that conversation about our parents, we went through a “period,” as she termed it later. We didn’t
Miller/Timberwolf/32 speak much. Maybe I was simply too big a conundrum for her. Or maybe just the opposite: a transparent bit of humanity not worth talking to, in her mind. For my part, I felt like I knew as much about her as I cared to know. I started to wonder if this was kind of what marriage was like after a while, where you run out of things to say and simply get tired of the other person and sort of wish they’d just die or go away or something. But, then, I charitably thought, marriage was to have the whole “love” thing as part of it, which could make things different. Love was the furthest thing in the world I felt for Melanie or anyone else as May dripped into June and the first summer tourists started to show up in town. I’d watch her shuffling around in her sweats and slippers and think how pointless it all was, what she was doing. I mean, who gave a damn if her efforts led to greater sales for some company? What difference did it make? In terms of her life, she’d be better off spending more time exercising, but I’d long since given up inviting her along. Chapter 3
My alarm went off. I don’t know what’s gonna happen man, but I tell you this, I tell you this: I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames. Alright! Alright! (sound of explosion, cheering)
Miller/Timberwolf/33 “What IS that?” Melanie asked, poking her head in my door one morning. “Jim Morrison.” I said. Blank look. “I took it from a live Doors album and rigged it to my alarm clock.” “Why?” she said. “It’s terrible. Awful. Why wake up to that? And who is Jim Morrison?” I let the questions go, just shrugged. How does one explain Jim Morrison? While we were in our high country cocoon that spring, awaiting the day when we would emerge from our pupae as some sort of fully engaged members of whatever society was left, the whole shithouse did indeed continue to go up in flames. The suicide bombers—or “homicide bombers,” as we were supposed to now call them-were as busy as ever. On June 6, an ethnic Kurd from Iraq angry about something or other (ousting Saddam wasn’t enough? C’mon!), decided a good place to blow himself up would be at a fast-food chicken-n-waffles joint in North Hollywood. It was during the lunch rush, so his timing was decent for maximum killing effect. He could have had no way of knowing, though, that the table next to where he detonated a bomb
Miller/Timberwolf/34 concealed in a backpack was inhabited by three major studio heads. They were meeting to discuss what to do about the terrorism jitters surrounding film productions those days, and their deaths did more to influence that particular issue than anything they could have done in their lives. The irony—and there’s always irony—is that they met at this dumpy chicken place because they were afraid to go to any of the fancier places, which had seen their share of action vis-à-vis the martyr jam. Their deaths effectively shut down film production in L.A. that season, and work in other places, from Vancouver to Melbourne, was stopped or slowed as well. With one bomb, my industry, my lifeline to the easy life, dried up, and I had absolutely no way of knowing how or when it would come back. I figured I had about two months left before I needed to start earning money again, assuming current lifestyle, and my options were somewhat limited. “I could drive a UPS truck,” I said to Melanie on the third of July, after it had become painfully obvious that nothing resembling my old work would be coming my way for some time. Melanie was sitting at the kitchen counter, eating some kid cereal she insisted I buy for her. She was
Miller/Timberwolf/35 contributing to the grocery fund now, so couldn’t really deny her despite the 42 grams of carbs I saw fit to point out. “You? A truck driver? You realize that would mean getting up early, driving around lifting heavy packages and dealing with whiny people?” She had a point. The last thing I wanted to do was actually work. She still didn’t understand why I had to. “What’s the big deal?” she asked. “You’re rich, aren’t you? Can’t you just hang out for a year until things pick up again?” The thing was, my façade of opulence was a fleeting thing, not a permanent condition. I still had to work; it was just my good luck to have found a career that didn’t require me to do so on a regular basis. “Oh,” she said, somewhat primly, as I outlined the truth to her. It effectively obliterated my lord-of-themanor thing, which was pretty holey anyway, and I felt my net worth in Melanie’s eye sag tangibly. Power would soon shift like tectonic plates shoving up a mountain range, and I was going to be relegated soon to Sherpa status. I could feel it.
Miller/Timberwolf/36 As I contemplated life without the ability to generate relatively easy money doing computer stuff for the film industry, it sunk in, finally, how good I’d had it up until then. When I started to truly consider the options, it sunk in with even more emphasis that I didn’t have a whole lot of them. “I still think the UPS truck driver’s not a bad idea,” I said a few days later, my words passing uselessly against lips that felt like they’d been numbed with novocaine. It didn’t matter what I said. I was sitting in a ridiculous, plum-colored chair that was big enough for two people, and while my feet were still touching the ground, I felt like my legs were gone. Floating away, I was, in an ether created by my own uncertainty in a world that suddenly seemed too terribly real. Money had a way of insulating you from that. I heard Melanie’s voice from Planet Reality, where she dwelled. “Hello?” she said, her words coming from a million miles away. “Daniel? You can’t drive a UPS truck, OK? They wouldn’t even hire you, probably. I mean, what’s your resume look like?” “I have a reel.”
Miller/Timberwolf/37 It was a damn good one, too, with some super-cool stuff I’d done on a lot of films most people had paid good money to see. “Oh,” Melanie said. “A reel,” mouthing the word like a child might say “anchovy.” Of course, she was right. A reel, hard currency in Hollywood, didn’t mean a thing in a world inhabited by people who got up in the morning and went to the same job day after day, year after year. Not only did I no longer have a means of income, I didn’t even have a means to find a means of income anymore. And why? Because of fucking terrorists. Suddenly I knew how a poor farmer might feel when boll weevils attacked his cotton crop, or how a guy who runs a ski area in Vermont feels when it rains in January. I wasn’t a control freak, I didn’t think, but the fact that my money-earning capabilities were suddenly completely beyond my control was sobering in a way I’d never experienced before. I thought about all the friends I’d known over the years who’d been canned for various reasons, and how I’d offered some of those self-help book platitudes like “It’ll probably turn out for the best,” or “Sometimes when a door closes, a window opens.” It was nonsense, but it was better
Miller/Timberwolf/38 than standing there with your mouth half open as you watched a guy in shock because his meaningless job was now gone. “Well,” I said to Melanie, my voice fading to a mumble: “I’m sure something will come up.”
“Like what?” she said. She was sitting there with her arms folded across her chest, addressing her Sherpa. “Like … something,” I said. “It always does, doesn’t it?” “Well, Daniel, it always did, that’s true. But that was before the world got a little nuts on us with all this terrorist stuff. I mean, we’re practically in a depression here.” “You’re doing OK,” I said, knowing her response. “Just because I still have a job doesn’t mean I’m doing OK, Daniel. You don’t … you don’t even know the half of it.” A bomb went off in your office so you moved into my house in Breckenridge. You felt bad, now you’re better. No. There was more to it than that, she said. The nightmares continued, the anxiety attacks, the headaches. “Geez Melanie, I’m sorry,” I said. I was a little too busy feeling sorry for myself at the time to think too hard
Miller/Timberwolf/39 about how Melanie must’ve been feeling all these weeks, all these months. For some, sympathy comes naturally. Like talent, it’s something you either have or you don’t. I didn’t like looking at other people’s snapshots, either, and I think it’s related. I can’t sympathize or care about people or situations I don’t know about. I tried, but the death of Melanie’s friends was about as emotionally compelling to me as reading about one of those routine disasters in Turkey or Indonesia. Flipping past the headline I’d murmur “It sucks to be you” and that was the extent of my commiseration with my fellow man. The way I saw it, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it, and fretting over it would only make me depressed. Still, I appreciate the talent of sympathy, and I like it when it’s directed at me. That was why I was annoyed when, rather than give me a pep talk and some soothing words, Melanie just hit me with numbers. “What about the $350,000?” she said. “Gone,” I said. “Long gone.” She took out a pen and pad and sat poised for notes. “Any other savings?” she said. I told her, a rough estimate. We went down the list of
Miller/Timberwolf/40 assets and liabilities, and then Melanie did some quick figuring on a tiny calculator she produced from her purse. I watched her pudgy fingers working the miniscule keys and, for no particular reason, thought about how nice frozen grapes would taste right about then. I looked out the window a bit and thought of how nice a hike would be. I was the kid in the classroom on a perfect day, mooning for the playground while the teacher went on about algebra, the Monroe Doctrine. Without selling anything, she said finally, I could survive only three months. I should sell the Jag, she said, as well as my townhouse back in L.A. “Perhaps no one’s told you this,” I said, “but the market for fancy homes and luxury cars isn’t exactly on fire right now.” She gave me a hard look; I returned a slightly apologetic one. “Oh, Daniel,” she said. And we were silent. Outside the huge picture windows that were such a selling point for my mom were the woods, a fragrant, quiet place full of unknowing firs and pines and dumb bugs and animals who knew nothing of the crap that weighed on us like rolls of wet cotton and wool, lying over
Miller/Timberwolf/41 us, oppressing us. With an inner layer of mohair scratching at our skin. I stood up, straightened my shirt and said, “Well …” “Well what?” said Melanie. I sat down again. “I don’t know,” I said. She stood up. “Daniel,” she said, “I want you to go for a walk. A long walk. When you come back, I will have something for you.” Something about the way she said that, looming over me in her faded sweats, made me believe she was going to somehow make it all right. So I stood up, mumbled some kind of thanks, and headed out the door. It was a hot day for 10,000 feet—nearly 80 degrees. The next day was the Fourth, and there was a lot of national hand-wringing over how to celebrate it properly: Go on as usual and to hell with the terrorists, or somehow take into account the fact that explosions were tearing the country apart and perhaps celebrate some other way? With mimes, maybe, or silent film festivals. Flower shows. It didn’t matter what anyone on Capitol Hill or CNN said or did, I knew. Everyone was going to light off
Miller/Timberwolf/42 fireworks the same way we’d been doing forever, and if the people who couldn’t handle it didn’t like it, well, to hell with them. National sympathy, it seemed, went only so far. I was never a big fan of the Fourth of July. I thought the whole notion of oohing and aahing over explosions and lights in the sky to be rather infantile, and the idea of setting some of them off myself utterly boorish. I didn’t share my views on this with many people, since I knew they were about as popular as my atheism, and I didn’t need any more grief from people than I already got during the normal course of doing business on this planet. But Melanie said she had no interest in being around explosions, either, and we’d planned a hike into the backcountry to get as far away from humanity and its gunpowder as possible. “The loudest thing I want to hear on the Fourth is a deer farting,” Melanie had said. I was excited about her breaking the sloth habit and joining me on the hike, so while she worked out my career and finances back at the house, I walked and thought about where to take her tomorrow. As out of shape as she was, I wasn’t going to be able to use any of my normal routes, so I thought about the little trail to the lily pad lake just south of the house. I started to walk it, imagining I was
Miller/Timberwolf/43 in Melanie’s shoes and asking myself things like, “Is this too steep? Is this too hard?” I decided she could do it. She would huff, she would puff, she might complain, but with the promise of a nice picnic lunch at the lake, I was pretty sure I could get her there in under two hours. For me it was about half an hour to reach the pond on my reconnoiter. There, I sat on a rotting log and thought about a day long ago, when my mother and I came here on a rare hike without dad. He’d been possessed by one of his rare home improvement bugs and had driven to Denver for supplies to put in an underground sprinkler system. “He may as well plan on building a rocket ship to go to the moon, for all the good it’ll do,” my mother said, as we stood around the lake with sticks, poking at the lily pads, trying to figure out what made them tick. “Why mom?” “Because, for your father, the notion of doing stuff like that is far more appealing than actually doing it.” Like me, my father had the ability to change a light bulb and little else. But dad believed a man of his intelligence should and could figure things out, and he never stopped trying to “branch out,” as he called it.
Miller/Timberwolf/44 Unfortunately, his enthusiasm never remained on a specific project, and long before one had been completed—or, in some cases, even begun—he’d moved onto something new. In the garage there still sat a few hundred feet of irrigation tubing, plus a pile of unopened stuff for putting in the sprinkler system. There were plenty of other supplies for other projects that had never been taken out of the wrapper. Dad would get as far as reading the first page of directions and we’d hear him say something like, “Wow! This looks like a huge pain in the ass!” or “Whoa! I didn’t realize how much was involved here.” My mom and I would smile at each other, and later we’d find him reading a book or putting the skis on the car for a few runs up on the hill. If he hadn’t gotten rich quick, I don’t know what would’ve happened. I couldn’t see my dad holding down a job or doing anything serious. As I grew older and saw more of my dad in myself, it alarmed the hell out of me at times. Was it a genetic thing, I’d wonder, or did I learn this from being around him? The day mom and I went to the lily pad pond would be one of our last times alone together. I was in college at the time, and my visits to the Blue River house had grown
Miller/Timberwolf/45 fewer and further between. My parents treated my college experience like they did the many summer camps I went to over the years. They’d ask occasional questions about it and respond with things like “that sounds nice” or “how interesting.” Neither of them had gone to college, and while they never questioned my decision to have a go at it, it was clear to me it didn’t matter to them whether I was there or not. I was thinking about this at the pond years later, how my mom didn’t take the occasion to ask me anything about my life at school. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time; I was just happy to be alone with her, a rare treat. In the presence of my father, my mother carried an air of a person continuously at odds with the world. A consummate grown-up and worry-wart most of the time, it was only when dad wasn’t around that I could see the girl she once was. The girl my dad fell in love with, I guess. For the first time in a while, I wondered about my parents, whether they were still together. Hell, whether they were still alive. I figured the affirmative on both counts. They were too healthy to be dead while only in their 60s, and too lazy to have bothered to leave each other in search of something or someone better. Melanie
Miller/Timberwolf/46 wondered why I wasn’t concerned about their absence in my life, but it was hard to explain that a set of parents like mine started out absent. It didn’t much matter if they were there physically anymore. Did I miss them? Sure, some. But I missed other things more, like being 12, my freshman year of college, my friend Alan who died in a bizarre train wreck. Thinking of Melanie made me realize it was getting to be time to go back and see which color my parachute was. I was happy to have her on my side but depressed when I thought about how whatever solution she came up with would mean having to make changes, expend energy and effort, do things differently than I wanted to do them. Upon reaching the house, I allowed myself a great sigh and opened the door into my new hell of a life. I called upstairs to her. Was she done? “Make dinner!” she said, calling down. “I need a little more time.” So I made dinner, her favorite: pistachio-encrusted salmon, green beans sautéed with shallots and mushrooms and Cherry Garcia ice cream (which I usually hid from her and kept for myself, in deference to her thigh circumference). By the time we were eating the ice cream on the porch,
Miller/Timberwolf/47 the sun was dipping into the horizon in a wildly distorted array of reds, crimsons and, I think, burnt umbers. We’d been treated to a series of exceptional sunsets as of late due to wildfires burning over near Glenwood Springs. “Just think, Mel,” I said to her as we watched the show, “Some poor bastard over in Glenwood is watching his house burn to the ground, and over here in Breck it’s nothing to us but a sunset enhancer.” “You’re all heart, you know that Daniel?” she said, not unkindly. Melanie was still basking in the glow of what was for me an effusion of gratitude (I’d actually uttered the words “Thank you so very much!” and clasped both her hands in mine) following her work on my behalf that day. During my walk, she’d called some contacts and gotten me a pretty decent gig that would allow me to make OK money without leaving the house. True, it was for an insurance company, but once she explained it to me, I warmed to the concept. I’d hate it later, I figured. It seems there are people in the world who work for insurance companies trying to figure out when people are going to die. These people are called “actuaries,” and my job was to work with them doing research and designing
Miller/Timberwolf/48 software to crunch the many numbers it took to determine the ever-changing landscape of mortality. Melanie knew I was pretty handy with code, and she convinced an old college buddy of hers that I was the man to help rewrite some of the actuarial paradigms the terrorists had been unwittingly changing with every detonation. My “Hollywood experiences” would go far, she’d fibbed, in helping me imagine scenarios. “So, I’m kind of like a computer detective?” “Yeah, more or less,” Melanie said. “With a little programming thrown in for good measure. You do know how to program, don’t you?” Sure, I told her. I was a bit rusty, but I was pretty handy around an if-then statement. I’d spent some time designing web sites before getting into film work, and I knew my way around a database pretty well, and several programming languages. She’d also told me she was going to start paying rent, and that between that and my salary, I was going to be OK. I didn’t even have to sell the Jag, although she still “highly recommended” I garage it in favor of the old Cherokee my folks left with the house. “Who knows,” she said, “terrorist may decide people
Miller/Timberwolf/49 driving Jaguars should be blown up too.” I figured I could stall indefinitely on the Jag issue. There was only part of Melanie’s plan I didn’t like: She wanted to get another paying roommate. Since the house had five bedrooms (two of which we were using as offices), she saw no reason not to generate some more income, and the fact was people were moving to rural areas in droves to be away from terrorists: I could charge top dollar. “I dunno Mel,” I said. “Roommates are a hassle. They make messes they don’t clean up, they take off and stick you with the phone bill, they have people sleeping on the couch, they spill bong water on the carpet, they …” “Daniel,” she said, stopiing me, “That was in college, OK? We’re grown-ups now, we can choose someone more carefully. We can check references, check credit. We’ll find someone we can live with. Better yet, I’ll find someone we can live with.” I hated the idea, but I couldn’t argue with her logic. Besides, the one thing I did find highly appealing about roommates was that it was income that I didn’t have to do anything for other than tolerate another person in the house. And that’s how Clam entered the picture.
Miller/Timberwolf/50 # “Clam?!” I asked her. “You’ve interviewed 14 people to be our roommate, and the one you’ve decided on is a guy named Clam?” “He’s perfect,” was all she’d say, not stooping to my grade-school assessment based on his funny name. “How did he get the name Clam?” I said. “At least tell me that.” She hadn’t asked. Didn’t want to appear rude. I didn’t know what was rude about asking someone with a twisted name like “Clam” where he got it from. Surely it wasn’t his parents who saddled him with that; it had to be a nickname. I theorized out loud. Maybe he was the silent type. Or a very happy guy. Silent or happy, those are the two attributes most often associated with the bivalve mollusk. “Maybe it’s a family name,” Melanie said. “You know, one of those old-timey names like Clem or Vernon or Bullfinch or something.” “Bullfinch?” I said. “Who the hell’s ever heard of someone with the first name of Bullfinch?” She didn’t know. What she did know was that Clam had excellent credit, a decent job as some kind of consultant
Miller/Timberwolf/51 and landlord references that made him sound like a combination between a choir boy, an Eagle scout and a renaissance man. “Fine. Whatever. Sign him up,” I said, grumpily looking around the living room at the champagne-colored carpet and trying to imagine it with bong-water stains, crumpled beer cans. So Clam moved in. I lingered in my office, stealing occasional glimpses of him as he hauled in box after box of his stuff, Melanie helping. I felt that, as landlord, it would be undignified for me to sully my hands with that kind of work, and resolved to wander downstairs when it was done to offer salutations: The lord of the manor exercising a modicum of noblesse oblige to the less fortunate, as it were. So I paced in my office, trapped and unhappy. Angry at Clam for sequestering me, I resolved to go downstairs and to hell with them and their sanctimonious moving-in exercises. I wanted to get a better look at the guy, anyway. From my bedroom window looking down, I could only see the top of his head, covered as it was in a navy Broncos cap. “At least he’s not a Raiders fan,” I said to no one,
Miller/Timberwolf/52 opening my door and heading down the stairs as Melanie lumbered in with an armful of clothing on hangers. “I hope you get a good tip,” I said, a stab of guilt between my ribs as I noted her heavy breathing. “It wouldn’t kill you to help us out,” she said, brushing past me with the air of someone with much bigger fish to fry. “Well shit,” I said, “I didn’t know the guy would have this much stuff.” “I am a bit of a pack rat.” It was Clam, the silent and/or happy Broncos fan. Tall and thin with a complexion like the underside of a flounder, Clam was an orthodontist’s wet dream. When he smiled and held out his hand, I couldn’t help but stare for a moment into his snaggle-toothed maw: Didn’t they have dentists where this guy came from? He had a mouth like a prepubescent crocodile. “You must be Daniel,” he said, either ignoring my rude stare or passing it off because he was used to it. “I must be,” I said, “But I’m not so sure lately.” “I know how you feel,” he said. “I think. We’re none of us the innocents we once were.” Innocents? Who said anything about innocents? I let it
Miller/Timberwolf/53 slide. “So,” I said, setting aside my usual hand-shake phobia and extending mine, “Welcome to my home.” And then Clam was shaking my hand and telling me something about a kayak, where he should put it or something, but I was too busy second-guessing my ridiculous welcome to listen. How should I have greeted him? I’d never been a landlord before, didn’t know the proper form. There was something about Clam, though, that put me on edge. He had a haunted look, like a character out of a Tom Waits song, but I bet he was also the kind of guy people said was “nice.” Maybe that was it. I’d been in L.A. too long to deal with nice guys. Anyone I knew with a dick was a bastard, and the ones with breasts were all dreadful bitches. Or so I imagined. Probably they were regular people with their own plusses and minuses, just like anywhere else, but I couldn’t remember anymore. I’d been up in the hills too long, existing solely in the company of Melanie, who wasn’t a bitch but who wasn’t particularly nice, either. All that went through my mind in the course of the handshake, and I realized with a start that, not only was I shaking a stranger’s hand, I was doing it for longer than
Miller/Timberwolf/54 the socially acceptable second or two. Clam was smiling at me with his snaggle-puss, but his pale blue eyes told me he knew exactly what I was thinking. “So, um, the kayak? Is the garage OK?” Clam had a kayak. He had skis. He had not one, not two but three bicycles—a mountain bike, a road bike and something he called his “cruiser.” He also had climbing gear, tents and other camping equipment, a snowboard, inline skates and some sort of sail he said allowed him to ski uphill when the spirit moved him. “Tell me you don’t have a bumper sticker that says ‘He who dies with the most toys wins,’” I said, helping him with the kayak. Clam laughed. “Actually, my mom gave me one of those, but I thought it was too cheesy to put on my car. I think it’s packed away somewhere.” Clam had borrowed a van from a friend who managed one of the ski shops in town, and by the time we’d emptied its contents and disseminated them throughout the garage, his room, the boot room and the kitchen, I’d worked up a sweat. I also noticed that, as soon as Melanie saw me lugging stuff, she’d beaten her own retreat into her office. With
Miller/Timberwolf/55 her out of the way, I rudely asked him about his name. “It’s not a big secret,” he said. “People say I’ve got a happy disposition, and you know that old expression, ‘happy as a clam,’ well, that’s me: Clam, the happy guy.” The way he looked when he said it told me he was nothing of the sort, but I let it slide because I was secretly pleased that one of my guesses was correct. I pressed on and asked him what he was so happy about. “Nothing in particular, really,” he said, hoisting a load of climbing rope and carabiners over his shoulder. “It’s just a natural state for me. To be honest, I don’t have any good reason to do anything but cry, but it’s not in my nature.” I never cried, either, but I don’t think it was for the same reason Clam didn’t. I didn’t ask for any more details, though. The last thing I needed was some kind of confessional, dry-eyed or otherwise. Everyone these days had plenty of reasons to be unhappy, and I didn’t want to be put in the position yet again of having to feign compassion. You want help shagging your kayak around, fine, but save the Dear Abby stuff for Melanie, I thought. She’ll eat it up. While Daniel worked on putting his room together, I
Miller/Timberwolf/56 went to my office and tried to do some work. My contact in New York—my boss, I guess--was a guy named Anthony Leary, and he was an indefatigable e-mailer. In the 40 minutes I’d been gone he’d sent me three messages, the last one demanding to know where I was. Who does this guy think I am? “A paid employee,” the voice of Melanie said. Truly frightening. In the course of six months, she’d gone from unwelcome freeloader to the voice of my conscience, and I hadn’t even boinked her. Not that I wanted to. In some ways, I wanted her to go away, along with the gear-head Clam, who I could hear clattering around in the garage now, probably trying to make sense of the grand assortment of ski equipment and other gear already there. He’ll get a kick out of my dad’s 207 GS boards, I thought to myself, imagining the likely nature of Clam’s skis: high-tech shaped skis no longer than 175s. I banged on the side of my head a few times as a means to clear away all thoughts of Melanie, Clam and short or long skis and turned my attention to the latest conundrum offered by this Leary guy. They were trying to assess the mean age of the typical suicide bomber victim, as well as their occupations and interests. The better to over-insure
Miller/Timberwolf/57 them with, I suppose, but it didn’t make sense to me. Suicide bombings are random events, right? The victims are whoever happens to be unlucky enough to be in the vicinity, so how is it possible to profile them? NOTHING IS RANDOM IN OUR INDUSTRY typed back Anthony. He had a habit of eschewing lower-case letters altogether, which gave the effect of shouting at all times. He was thorough, though, and the compressed files he sent contained a wealth of information, from newspaper and police reports to insurance records that had all kinds of proprietary information that really appealed to my prurient side. So I started to look at victim lists from all the suicide bombings since they started 18 months ago. I tried to focus on the statistics rather than the grim reality and tattered emotional stuff behind the information. It wasn’t that hard to do for a cold fish like myself, I thought. Here was one in Atlanta, where a Syrian national—a woman— detonated herself in the changing room of a department store at closing time. It seemed a strange choice of time and location to me, although she did manage to take out a 53 year-old woman in the stall next to her, as well as a store employee on the other side of the wall.
Miller/Timberwolf/58 The older woman was named Callie Bostwick, a native Atlantan with three grown children, a husband named Ted and a problem with something called “irritable bowel syndrome.” She had no apparent connection to the bomber and rarely went out shopping,according to the investigator’s report. The husband said she did most of her shopping online. That’s what you get for breaking your routine, I chided her posthumously. The sales clerk was a 23-year-old black woman named Alezha Cane. She had no apparent health issues other than the fact that she was two months pregnant and unattached at the time of the bombing. I thought of her for a moment, hanging up clothing in a boring store in a boring job in a boring city, thinking about how she was going to tell her mother, her lover, her best friend or whomever about the baby. Or maybe she still hadn’t decided whether to have it or not when (ARABIC NAME HERE) walked in and made the decision for her. Talk about choice. The terrorists didn’t give you any. No warning, no threats or hostage standoffs or anything before they did their thing. No suicide note, no gloating missive mailed to the newspaper, no explanation, period. I think that’s what bothered us the most about the
Miller/Timberwolf/59 suicide bombers. There was no Hollywood ending. The act itself stood as the sole statement, and the frustration caused by that lack of information was palpable across the country. There’s nothing worse than a “why?” that never gets answered, and no one could get their arms around the simple fact that a whole bunch of people in the world— mostly of Arab extractions—hated us because we didn’t give a damn about Muhammed and had a bunch of stuff they didn’t. “Oh, so that’s it?” Melanie said when I told her of my theory. “Thanks for clearing that up for me.” “No problem,” I said, waiting for the rest of it. “So, if only we were all Muslim and people in Arab countries had access to more cell phones and SUVs and fast food, they’d leave us alone?” Forget it, I’d said. She’d reduced my theory into a mocking over-simplification, but she didn’t have a better one herself. I was tired of it, anyway. All anyone in America talked about anymore was terrorist-this and terrorist-that. The whos, the whys, the hows, the whens … it was all just a lot of questions with no answers. And here was this little prick in Hartford trying to get me to write a program that would answer the unanswerable. Looking through the bombing records was like flipping
Miller/Timberwolf/60 through an album of snapshots. The bomb was the camera, and the people in the image were all those killed and wounded, in that second of time. At that precise moment. Or maybe the bomb was a time machine, only not one that took you back to the Old West or the perfect future. It froze time, and left everything in those lives suspended unfinished. Bills unpaid, apologies left unsaid, concert tickets unused, children orphaned …. The only formula that could logically be applied to the phenomenon of suicide bombing victims was chaos theory. It was like trying to explain a traffic jam or a riot. You might know the catalyst, but there was little else to be applied in the way of information. What draws people together, to one place? In the case of a restaurant, it’s hunger. In the case of Alezha Cane and Callie Bostwick, it was employment and the need for clothing, respectively. At a sporting event (a favorite haunt of terrorist bombers), it was the desire for spectacle, the love of a team, whatever. Only on rare occasions—such as hitting an El Al marketing roundtable at Melanie’s office—did the target appear to make much sense. Fortunately, I didn’t have to come up with an answer anytime soon. My initial task was to compile a data base on
Miller/Timberwolf/61 the victims and the bombers, plugging in as much information as was available and creating routines to compare all the data to one another. Most of it seemed entirely meaningless, but Anthony kept pressing for ever more ludicrous comparisons: If a woman named Hannah goes to a baseball game in the middle of the day on a Tuesday and gets her legs blown off, then what does that say about the woman named Tracy next to her who escaped with cuts and bruises? How many accountants have been killed so far? How many plumbers? How many wounded? Are there any particular professions left unscathed so far? What are they? Day after day I sat down at the computer after my morning hike and peered into the lives and deaths of my fellow Americans who’d been killed or wounded by terrorist bombers. Some of the stories were fascinating, with layers of irony so thick in some I couldn’t help but be amazed: The guy who stole tickets to a ball game and ended up being killed; the lady who volunteered to fill in for a co-worker going into labor and who was then blown to bits; a children’s birthday pool party changed at the last minute to a bowling party, with disastrous results. There were also more fortunate ironies, and those were the ones that interested Anthony the most: The guy who went
Miller/Timberwolf/62 back to his car because he forgot something, only to miss his three friends getting blasted in a coffee shop. Or the little boy who refused to go into the department store’s women’s change room with his mom and saved both of them from the bomber who killed Callie and Alezha. The mother had given up and taken him to the toy aisle instead. I read it in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution web site. People loved those stories, and the papers were full of them after each bombing—a continuation of the snapshot and the best record available to ghouls like me, exhuming the facts not to catch anyone or stop the horror, but to help the insurance industry project its future losses so as to adjust premiums. It seemed to me a simple matter to just raise premiums across the board, since everyone was more or less in the same boat as far as risk went. But that’s not how they saw it. These people thrived on exactitude, and they like nothing better than targeted information to help justify premium hikes. What the hell, I figured, everyone’s got a job to do, and plenty of other jobs rely on other people’s misery. I was just happy to be doing something that didn’t require me to leave the house or have to answer to really stupid people. Anthony was a pain in the ass, but as far as
Miller/Timberwolf/63 I could tell he was sharp as mustard. I liked seeing his mind work through his e-mails, and I was more than once blown away by his utterly unemotional approach to the subject — even as I was starting to get a bit warmer and fuzzier in the course of my work. In the past, I couldn’t be bothered to read the newspaper accounts of the victims’ friends and relatives and how they felt. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, and it only depressed me. Now, I was compelled to read that stuff, and it had its effect. One afternoon, I was reading a Denver Post account of a bombing the previous winter at an amusement park near Colorado Springs. A Columbian national named Romo Enero was riding in one of those giant pendulum pirate ships with about 65 other people—mostly kids, of course—when he detonated himself. What an asshole, eh? In a sidebar story about friends and relatives, I saw a mention of a guy named Clam Van Valkenburgh, who’d lost his wife in the blast. Get out your irony board: Yes, it was our Clam, and, according to the story, he didn’t get on the ride because they made him sick. I was thinking about that old Charlton Heston movie, The Ten Commandments, and how one of the plagues of Egypt
Miller/Timberwolf/64 was the death of the first-born son. In the film, they showed the angel of death or whatever flitting from door to door in the city. If you were a Jew and had put some goat blood or something on the door, the angel of death passed you by. All the other houses got the visit, and you’d hear the wailing from within. Up until that moment when I saw Clam’s name in the newspaper story, I’d kind of felt like the guy with the goat blood on the door. The angel of death flitting about the country in the form of pissed-off Arabs (and the occasional Columbian or Indonesian) had been something abstract, to be read about in the newspapers. Sure, I knew it was real enough, especially after hearing Melanie’s story, but the full weight of it all didn’t hit me until I discovered Clam’s wife had copped it from a terrorist. I went into Melanie’s office and closed the door. She turned around in her chair and gave me a quizzical look. “Clam’s wife was killed in a bombing last year,” I said simply. Melanie didn’t say anything for a moment. And then: “I thought he had something hanging on his heart, but it’s hard to tell with a guy who’s always so friggin’ chipper.”
Miller/Timberwolf/65 Clam had been with us about six weeks when I found out about his wife. I had to admire a guy who could keep something like that locked up for that long. Maybe his moniker came from reticence as well. And who knows if he’d ever have told us. We didn’t really see a whole lot of the guy. He worked from an office in downtown Breck, some kind of “consultant,” he said. He never ate dinner with us, although he occasionally came home with bags of fast food or restaurant leftovers. We watched a few Broncos games together that fall, and I was thankful that he wasn’t one of these guys who has to yell all the time during the game. When the Broncos scored, we’d say things like “Alright!” or “Cool!” in normal voices, and that’d be it. Very civilized cheering. Clam told me he was a native Coloradoan. He grew up in Littleton, near Denver, and his parents were both high school teachers. I gathered that he’d been in the Breckenridge area for a few years, but I didn’t ask a lot of questions and he didn’t volunteer much. “You guys are such guys,” Melanie said, complaining when, grilling me for more details about Clam, I could offer little. She hadn’t done much better, although I sensed in her a fondness for Clam, and I wondered how deep
Miller/Timberwolf/66 it went. I saw her look at him in a funny way one night in the kitchen, and I was surprised as much by the notion that someone would find a guy like that attractive as I was by the realization that I’d felt a dull stab of jealousy. Even if I didn’t want Melanie, I didn’t want any other guys sniffing around her, either. It was a guy thing, don’t ask me to explain it. “So what are you going to do?” I asked Melanie after telling her about Clam’s wife. She looked like she was poised for action, and I had a ridiculous flash of her rushing to Clam grabbing his skinny little head and thrusting it into her ample bosom by way of consolation. He wouldn’t be the first guy in the history of the world to find solace in a pair of warm breasts, but he also struck me as a kind of neuter who wouldn’t appreciate the gesture. “I don’t know,” she said. “I feel like I should talk to him. Let him know he’s not alone.” We’re all alone, sister. “Look Mel, the guy hasn’t said anything because, for
whatever reason, he doesn’t want to talk about it. Why don’t we just chill and maybe it’ll come out naturally in conversation or something.” She seemed to buy this, although I knew waiting for
Miller/Timberwolf/67 things to happen wasn’t her strength. She was the kind of woman who, if you went out with her, she’d probably never let anything slide but would always want to talk about it and “get it out into the open” immediately. So we didn’t say anything to Clam. In fact, we were so pointed in our not saying anything to him that he approached us in front of the TV one night to ask if there was something the matter. “I haven’t broken some house rule or anything, have I?” he said, with his crooked smile. Oh, no, we reassured him, not at all. Whatever gave him that idea? “You two just seem a little distant, a little less friendly than you were,” he said. So I told him we knew about his wife. “Oh,” he said quietly, sitting down in a ridiculous brocade armchair my mother imported from Belgium and used to call her “royal chair.” “And we, we didn’t know how to act,” Melanie said. “No one ever does,” Clam said. “We’re sorry,” I said. “Yes, very sorry,” Melanie said. “Thanks,” he said, his long neck disappearing somewhat
Miller/Timberwolf/68 into the raised collar of the fleece vest he always wore. We sat there and effected great interest in the TV. It was a reality program where people tried to outdo one another in a mock game of Russian roulette. There weren’t real bullets, of course, but they had these six-shooter cannons aimed at them, and somehow or other if they were unlucky, they would have a blob of sheeps’ brains launched into their faces. They wore swimsuits and goggles in the event that happened, and the three of us paid rapt attention to the game, endowing it with the kind of solemnity generally reserved for State of the Union addresses and the singing of the National Anthem before the Super Bowl. Finally, a zaftig Chicana in a yellow bikini and matching goggles got blasted with the ovine gray matter. They slithered down her face and into her cleavage, the camera lovingly tracing the path in close-up. It jolted us back into the room. “Unbelievable,” Clam said. “I don’t get it. Why would anyone ….” “It’s simple,” I said. “People will do anything to be on television.” “This show pulls a 25-plus rating every week and the
Miller/Timberwolf/69 ads cost a fortune,” Melanie said. “It’s sick, but it sells shampoo.” I flicked off the set and turned to Clam. “Tell us about your wife, Clam.” And he did.
Late October snow was falling steadily outside my office window, and I longed to get outside in it. But Anthony had me working on the case of a home-center bombing in Des Moines where only three people were killed. One of the deceased was a drug trafficker suspected in a variety of homicides; the other two were newlyweds shopping for towels and linens to outfit their first apartment together. “STRANGE, ISN’T IT?” Anthony IM’d me. It certainly was. Who knew drug-trafficking murderers on the FBI most-wanted list shopped for towels? That was one of the things about this job that always struck me: the peering into people’s quotidian lives and seeing what they did to live. Tracing backwards the paths of the bombers, I saw how they did normal stuff, like go to the Laundromat, shop for groceries and buy things like tampons, milk of magnesia and People magazine—even on the day they knew there were going to die. Details of the victims could be equally embarrassing or prurient, even if most of them didn’t make it into the news reports. But Anthony wasn’t talking about the fact that our drug guy was trying to decide between Royal Velvet and Wamsutta.
Miller/Timberwolf/70 “IT LOOKS LIKE HE WAS TARGETED, DOESN’T IT?” It did. After more digging, I discovered this guy—whose name was Alfredo Lockivar—was in the store after hours. Store personnel think he hid somewhere until closing time (my guess was in the shower curtain section), then headed over to the towel aisle where he intersected the blast zone of a Syrian national named Zamad Mahounnidian. (Note: We later discover Clam told Lockivar there was evidence against him hidden in the store; he told Zamad that Lockivar was a federal agent who was masterminding the war against terror.) It didn’t make any sense to me that a guy like Mahounnidian would blow his wad on a guy like Lockivar for any other reason than pure accident. At the same time, it made absolutely no sense for him to blast off in an empty store. Presumably, he didn’t even know about the other victims who just happened to be there as well. Was he a terrorist once wronged by a towel? Did towels kill his parents? Maybe he was an Arab trying to make a statement against the old “towel-head” slur. I toyed for a moment with the idea that some suicide bombers could be in it for entirely apolitical reasons. Mahounnidian’s girlfriend broke up with him in a Bed, Bath & Beyond, maybe, or he was once insulted while visiting a Linens ‘n’ Things to find a desk lamp. And then there was the story of Charles and “Bubbles” Langell: They were in the store after-hours because Bubbles’ sister worked there and arranged for them to get a jump on the next day’s big towel sale. At the instant Mahounnidian detonated himself next to Lockivar, the Langells were in the next aisle, probably fingering
Miller/Timberwolf/71 material and talking about whether the “Desert Cobalt” towels matched their “River Slate” bath mats. Maybe they were talking about their new lives together, or how they were going to save 10 or 20 bucks on towels. I imagined them stopping for a moment to neck, alone together among the clean-smelling, well-ordered stacks of virgin towel stock. And then, in the blink of an eye, some ghoul with an agenda the Langells wouldn’t understand in a million years snuffs it out for all of them. I blinked hard and sat back in my chair. “People named Bubbles shouldn’t be allowed to die,” I said out loud. Clam was walking by my office as I said this, and he popped his head in. “What?” he said. “Did you say ‘Bubbles?’” I told him a little of the story. He said he’d heard of it. “That’s where that scumbag Lockivar bought it, too,” Clam said, examining his feet. “Weird story.” “They’re all weird,” I said. “Everything about this world is weird. Nothing makes any sense anymore.” “Au contraire, my friend,” Clam said, settling into a creaky bamboo chair Mom dragged home from a Pier One. “It all makes perfect sense by virtue of the fact that it makes no sense.” I’d heard this kind of thinking before. Whether you were an atheist, an existentialist or a gung-ho Baptist, everyone had a way to explain the bombings to themselves and those around them. Environmentalists thought it was karmic retribution for our screwing up the planet’s atmosphere. Mother Earth was using Her divine, mystical
Miller/Timberwolf/72 power to set us against one another. The goddies figured it was all part of His Big Plan, with some Christians even suggesting the bombers had something to do with the arrival of the Antichrist and the Rapture and all that. These, I thought, were the happier people, since they had some kind of explanation for themselves, and cared little if it made sense to the rest of us. The bulk of the population was perplexed into a state of near-dementia—or at least that’s the way the media portrayed it. The inability to make sense of our world anymore was driving us into a sort of collective insanity, talking-head shrinks told the cable news shows. Those who couldn’t fit it into some spiritual or theological framework were at a disadvantage, and that seeming realization was driving people to churches and synagogues in droves. They didn’t talk much about those on the other end of the spectrum: guys like me who didn’t even bother trying to explain it but muddled on in the vague hope it would go away soon so we could get back to our otherwise meaningless lives. I shared this with Clam. “I think you care more than that,” he said, his ghost eyes looking right through me. “All this research, meeting me and hearing my story—you’re finding out it’s more than headlines, more than just names.” He was right, the dweeb. Investigating all the horror stories was having an odd thawing effect on my carefully cultivated and meticulously groomed aura of detachment. One newspaper account of a little boy whose mother was killed right in front of him in an ice-cream parlor actually brought tears to my eyes, and it set the stage for more waterworks every time I read one of these damn stories. It
Miller/Timberwolf/73 was the first time I’d cried since I was a kid, and once it started, well … “I agree with you, anyway,” Clam said, standing. “About what?” “About Bubbles. She certainly should not have died that day in Des Moines.” # Clam started to make a habit of stopping by my office to chat. I didn’t mind. There was usually always an interesting story or two to tell him about, and I needed the human contact after a few hours of death and destruction viewed abstractly via the Internet. Clam knew a lot about suicide bombings and had a keen interest in the people stories behind them. For a guy whose wife was killed in one, his interest made sense to me. Then I figured I could add his brainpower to the mix. “Think about that one, Clam,” I told him one day as he left my office. We’d been talking about a bombing at a car wash in Pasadena. Saturday afternoon, the place was packed with people indulging in that most Californian of rituals: getting the car washed and vacuumed. A bomber whose identity was never determined loaded his trunk with explosives and walked away. The car went off as it passed through the drying blowers at the end of the cycle, killing 27 people. It was somewhat rare to find a bomber who didn’t take himself out with the rest. It was as if a formula had been established and they wouldn’t deviate from it, even if it meant they might live to bomb some more evil Americans into oblivion. So who was this guy? I thought. One witness, a guy named Bob Crawford, said he saw a guy in a ball cap and
Miller/Timberwolf/74 sunglasses take a phone call, then run from the scene just before the blast. (Note: The call was from Timberwolf, telling him to abort since he was supposed to have bombed something else. But it was too late to stop it. Timberwolf has to kill the guy himself.) I tracked down Bob Crawford, who was now living at his sister’s in Montana. “You’d have to be crazy to waste your time and explosives up here,” he said, explaining his move. Like I cared. “There ain’t nothing but wind and sky, some cattle and a few people scattered hither and yon.” Not for long, I thought. I’d just finished reading a portion of yet another jumbo “enterprise” (read: “Please give us a Pulitzer!”) story in the Denver Post about the mass migration to the hinterlands. Frenzied urban- and suburbanites were flocking to the sticks, hoping to avoid an awful fate at the hands of a bomber. Problem was, they didn’t have jobs, homes or a clue about what to do once they got there. I thought about Melanie’s squatting technique and wondered how much more of that was going on in the country. There were probably plenty more people like Bob Crawford’s sister, who welcomed friends and relatives to their bucolic sanctuaries as a safe haven from the madding world. Before long, I figured, they’d be trying to convince the interlopers that the cities and ‘burbs weren’t that unsafe after all, and wasn’t it about time Uncle Bob returned home? I can’t imagine the dumb-ass terrorist ever considered this effect: that millions would relocate to try to steer clear of them, setting off a land rush, water wars,
Miller/Timberwolf/75 environmental hand-wringing of all stripes. And this was only the beginning. It was also a bonanza for rural real estate agents, who stood like wolverines over a fresh beaver carcass as all those out-of-state plates pulled up in front of their newly renovated offices. Mr. Crawford didn’t have much to say apart from what had already been reported in the newspapers. He couldn’t even say if the guy looked Arabic or Columbian or anything other than “white, maybe a little dark, but that coulda been a tan.” Wonderful, I thought, as Bob complained to me some about the wind up in Montana and water that was either too hard or too soft, he wasn’t sure which. The guy must not have many people to talk to, I figured, if he was willing to lean over the fence with an insurance investigator (which is how I lamentably have to identify myself). Then, finally, he recalled something: “Oh, hey, listen,” he said. “That feller in the car wash? He said a funny word in between all that foreign gibberish he was talking.” “Really?” I said, my finger poised on the phone’s “flash” button so I could make my next call. “What was that?” “It was ‘Timberwolf,’” he said. “Now what the hell do you suppose that could mean?’ # On my way to Colorado in the spring, I stopped at thie Greek joint in Barstow for a strawberry shake. It’s a little tradition of mine, and I stop whether I want one or not every time I drive to Vegas. There’s a gas station or three, as well as a giant thermometer that tells you what it’s like outside your air-condition cocoon.
Miller/Timberwolf/76 The place is always full of foreigners, from the Mexican waitresses to the Greek owners to the funny-talking soup of tourists who make their way through the desert between L.A. and Vegas. Still, I couldn’t help but notice with a twinge of guilt and suspicion that the two guys next to me were some kind of Arabs. With all that’d been going on lately, it was hard not to feel a bit edgy around anyone of Arab descent, but knowing that most of them were either as American as me or simply tourists made me feel like a heel, like my subconscious was involved in some kind of automatically triggered racial profiling. I couldn’t help it, so I forgave myself and tried to focus on my shake, the giant thermometer and the ham-faced woman in a skimpy tank top emerging from a pickup truck. It was then, in the midst of the lightning-fast conversation these two Arabs were having in, I guess, Arabic, that I heard the word “timberwolf.” Amid all their incomprehensible gibberish, it stood out like a rabbi in a cathedral, and it caused me to stop my bottom-slurping for the barest fraction of a second. I looked up briefly at the Arabs and they looked at me. We then went about our business: me getting up and tossing my cup in the trash while they lit cigarettes and continued talking. As I climbed back in my car and headed up the road to Pahrump (I take the back way to Vegas to avoid traffic), I felt like a kid who’s just been told to go the principal’s office. Something about those guys. Would they follow me? I mean, what if they were the real thing--terrorists? What the hell was “timberwolf?” Did it mean anything, and if so, who should I call? I’d forgotten about it until the old man said he’d heard
Miller/Timberwolf/77 the word too. Did it mean something? Was this—dare I say it — a “clue?” Or were those two guys accountants from Jordan or some place, and “timberwolf” some new spreadsheet program? But what about the guy at the car wash?
“Where you headed?” Melanie was in the kitchen eating Apple Jacks from what looked like a soup tureen. I tried not to look. Clam and I were going to play chess in the living room. “Chess?” she said. “At 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning?” Did she want to play winner? “Oh no. You boys have fun. Someone’s got to work around here.” “You go, girl!” Clam said. But he looked guilty, like a guy lifting his feet while the old lady vacuumed. If she was looking for a guilty reaction from me, I had to disappoint, but I was starting to hear more comments from her like this the more Clam and I hung out. Was there a problem? Melanie was jealous. Separately, she tolerated me and liked Clam a good deal, but the two of us together bothered her. “I don’t know,” I said to Clam. “Maybe it looks to her like a club she’s not welcome to or something.” He stopped, knight in hand, and thought a moment, his mollusk of a tongue poking out between his lips in a nowfamiliar tableau of cranial processes invoked. “How can we make her feel welcome then?” Clam said
Miller/Timberwolf/78 finally, his brow knit like that of a surgeon deciding whether to operate. It hadn’t occurred to me we were supposed to fix the situation; I was just reporting it. Clam was the kind of guy whose sensitive talk probably got him laid a lot before he was married. Either that or he was one of these eunuch guys who was always the girls’ “friend.” Not the gay guy, but the ugly dude who “understood.” This was the schmuck who would explain to the girls why guys like me dumped them after one date, or why we didn’t call them after sleeping with them, or why we’d prefer watching a football game on a Sunday rather than going to the movies with them. It was divulging trade secrets and a terrible breach of guy protocol, but I had no hard evidence and figured most of the transgressions had occurred long ago. As for what to do with Melanie, Clam had a phenomenally successful method of persuasion that consisted solely of talking in a calm, measured and mellifluous voice that suggested nothing but whole and utter sense and truth. Simply posing the question about how to make Melanie feel “welcome” was enough to convince me it had to be done. Thanksgiving was only a week away, so I suggested a group project to create a traditional feast. “That’s it then!” Clam said, rubbing his hands together and doing that thing with his tongue again while grabbing a pad. I guessed chess was over fornow. “What shall it be, eh? The bird, of course, and the stuffing. My mom always made this wretched sweet-potato thing with marshmallows on top—we’ll need to make that.” He scratched left-handed notes while describing little
Miller/Timberwolf/79 pirouettes in the room. I feared he might wet his pants. “And those little friggin’ onions in cream sauce,” I suggested. “You’ve got to have those.” “Absolutely!” he said. “’Little friggin’ onions,’” he wrote on his pad. “I’ll abbreviate them as ‘LFOs’ if that’s OK.” “Sure,” I said, rising. “Hold on, I’ll go get Melanie.” “Good thinking Daniel, good thinking! If she’s going to feel welcome, she must certainly be in on the menu planning!” Melanie didn’t share our Thanksgiving fervor. She was sitting at her computer and waved me away. “Whatever,” she said. “Frozen turkey loaf and a can of peas is fine with me.” “Nonsense!” Clam said when I repeated the blasphemous suggestion. “Nothing is more important in these dark times than the perpetuating of American tradition! NOTHING is more sacrosanct than the Thanksgiving Feast!” And he stormed upstairs to confront the heretic. He was back in five minutes. “OK, so Melanie is making twice-baked potatoes and the green-bean casserole,” he said, making more notes. I looked at him like a co-conspirator of a panty raid, smiled for the camera and said, “Let’s go to the store!” # I hadn’t gone near the local City Market in a while. Whether she felt obligated as a squatter, from habit or the oft-shared belief among women that men can’t navigate inside a super market, Melanie did all the grocery shopping. She’d mentioned things had changed a little, but it was a shock to see how empty some of the shelves had
Miller/Timberwolf/80 become since that week in September, when bombers decided the nation’s trucking fleet made an enticing target. Even though only three truckers and 73 cows lost their lives, the effect on the transport of goods was tremendous. Fresh produce was pretty much non-existent, as was anything that came from outside the country (I’d been chafing over the absence of San Pellegrino water for months now). As Clam and I tried to assemble the components of our feast with what was still available (amazingly, LFOs were to be had in abundance), I told him about the conversation with Bob Crawford, and that mysterious word “Timberwolf” that I’d heard as well. Clam looked up at me with the look of someone who’s either about to sneeze or have a stroke. The thought that I’d quit a beginning CPR class I took during college flashed through my mind, and I kicked myself ahead of time for not being able to save Clam’s life. “What?” I said to him. “What is it? Are you OK?” His shoulders slumped and he pointed to a shelf behind me. “Terrible news Daniel,” he said finally, with a funereal timbre. “They’re out of canned yams altogether. It’s a fucking disaster.” “Jesus, Clam!” I said. “I thought you were having a seizure or something.” “Sorry about that,” he said, fondling a dusty can of Brussels sprouts. “There are a great many big things I can handle. No candied yams on Thanksgiving isn’t one of them.” He recovered quickly. “Come on—let’s go look for those little dried onion things for Melanie’s casserole.”
Miller/Timberwolf/81 The supermarket was full of people trying to sift through items that were plentiful--cans of beets, jars of molasses, little bottles of cream of tartar, etc.—with those that were not, which was just about everything else. We managed to get home with enough supplies to make a passable Thanksgiving so long as we didn’t get too hung up on the “traditional.” There were still a few days to go before Thursday, but work had slowed down for me and the snow was pretty decent, so Clam and I made daily excursions on skinny skies into the woods around the house. Melanie wouldn’t join us, saying her work was incredibly busy and enjoining us to “go have fun.” “She’s got it tough, you know,” Clam told me as we labored up a hill with skins on the bottoms of our Nordic skis. “What do you mean,” I said. “She sits there and buys advertising space. What’s so tough about that?” Didn’t I ever talk to her about her work, Clam wanted to know. Did I have any idea what the advertising market was like these days? Did I read the paper and have any clue about what was going on with the economy? “I mostly skim over that stuff,” I said. “If it doesn’t have to do with the bombings or the movie industry, it’s not too terribly interesting to me.” Clam gave me the kind of look teachers reserve for the smart kids they know are slacking. “You need to engage,” he said, summiting the knoll we were attacking and hurriedly stripping off the skins for the trip down. “This way,” I said, jerking my thumb in the direction of
Miller/Timberwolf/82 a scant trail I knew led down to the tarn. We skied in silence as I contemplated Clam’s suggestion to “engage.” OK, I thought, I’ll engage. I knew from scanning headlines that all of the big media companies were in trouble, and it seemed I did recall something about a big downturn in advertising. Companies didn’t know where best to put their money anymore, since the turmoil in the country had made everything from TV to direct mail a dicey proposition at best. Post offices were popular targets, and when one of them was hit it would cripple mail delivery in an entire region for weeks, sometimes months. Television broadcasters were also prone to attack, and it wasn’t uncommon to go without TV for days at a time, regardless of whether you had cable, satellite or direct-band. The trees were mime-silent and supporting a good eight inches of fresh. Clam shuffled on ahead of me in his quirky but sure gait, and I watched his shoulders moving back and forth, wondering what drove him. Occasionally, he’d brush against a tree, resulting in a small avalanche of snow from the offended boughs. He didn’t seem to notice. For me, there was something reverent about fresh snow on a branch, and I tried my best—like a kid avoiding cracks in the sidewalk—to create as little disruption as possible in the idyllic scene. Clam reached a point where intersecting trees made it necessary to bend down and shoot through a tunnel of pine and snow. He attacked it with a slight yell and I stopped to watch the domino effect his action had. For a moment, his approach disgusted me, even if I couldn’t think how I could have done it much differently. People, I thought, always screwing everything up. We
Miller/Timberwolf/83 can’t even go out in the woods without leaving a huge trail of destruction, even if the carnage is limited to aesthetic damage to an ephemeral landscape. I slapped the side of my head, admonishing myself to snap out of it and blasted through the tunnel. Emerging on the other side happier and with a cargo of fine icy powder down the back of my neck, I pulled up to Clam and said, “I see what you mean.” Melanie was doing the equivalent of selling ice cubes to Eskimos, Torahs to Palestinians. “Even worse,” Clam said. “She’s trying to sell ice cubes to Eskimos who all really want to drink iced tea. They just can’t decide on whether they want cubed, crushed, shaved, scalloped or pellet ice.” Our girl Melanie, Clam said, was on the cutting edge of the terrorist-era advertising industry because she devised strategies for reaching consumers in ways outside the traditional pipelines of radio, TV, print, direct mail, etc. Like what? “Like, remember that random appointment that appeared on your PDA last week?” I remembered. We were down in Denver shopping for outdoor gear when my PDA beeped and reminded me of an appointment at a nearby furniture store. I had no idea how it got there, but curiosity won out over my suspicion I was being manipulated. Clam and I walked over to the store—a national chain of cheap-but-hip furnishings—and I emerged half an hour later with a plum-colored credenza I was sure would look great in my office. “Melanie,” Clam said, smiling. “SHE put that appointment on there?” I said.
Miller/Timberwolf/84 “Well, not her personally. But it was her idea to target people with wireless PDAs.” “And lure them into buying things?” I said, indignant with admiration as I realized how it had worked. I could at least take solace in the fact that Clam had his own weaknesses. Just before the PDA sirens lured me to the furniture store, I found him in the climbing section of the gear store, fingering a $300 rope. “Beauty, eh?” he said with a sheepish look. It was. Even though I wasn’t a climber, I had to admire the quality. “Too bad I don’t need a new rope,” he said, one-quarter wistfully. “You want it, you need it,” I said, inadvertently articulating a motto that would make a lot more sense on U.S. currency than “In God We Trust.” “I can’t afford it,” Clam said. “Irrelevant. With credit cards, you can afford anything.” Clam was, in most respects, a practical guy—except when it came to gear. He was a junkie; couldn’t get enough of it. When we got home, he played with his new rope for a day or two, then hung it on a peg in the garage next to a halfdozen others which, to my untrained eye, looked just like it. I never, in the entire time I knew him, saw him use climbing ropes. (his wife loved to climb and he was always buying her gear) Clam explained a few more ways that Melanie was shaking up the advertising world from her office in my house (or was it “our” house now?) Most of it involved similar electronic tinkering with people’s cell phone messenging
Miller/Timberwolf/85 services, PDAs, Internet service and even digital cable. Most of it was subtle enough that the average person wouldn’t even realize he was being exposed to an ad, and while some of the techniques would be subject to inquiry and stricter regulation at a later date, Melanie was working in a free zone, a bubble in time before what she was doing could be declared illegal, immoral or intrusive. She was like the hippie in the early 1960s, doing LSD before it was a crime. “It’s guerilla advertising at its finest,” Clam said as we skied up to the shore of the tarn and poke our poles at the only partially frozen surface. “She’s devised a cafeteria plan for her firm’s advertisers, so if one medium is down—or even three or four—they’ve got back-up ways to get the message across.” “God forbid we exist for any amount of time without ad impressions reaching us,” I said in a mutter. “Yes,” Clam said. “It’s sick, how they can reach us, target us, lure us. But you have to admire Melanie and her gang for some genius work.” Clam skated off. I watched his muscular, Lycra-clad backside and wondered, for a nanosecond, what it would be like to be gay or female, to find that interesting on a man. Then I thought of Melanie’s ever-expanding rump and wondered if some well-placed hints about her sloth and girth could persuade her to join us on our ski journeys. But even Clam couldn’t budge her, I knew. With an audible sigh heard by only a few dozen lodgepole pines, I pushed off to pursue Clam, making a mental note to follow up on this Timberwolf thing. Chapter Five
Miller/Timberwolf/86 On Thanksgiving morning, I woke to my favorite thing in the world: a blanket of new snow on the ground, and more coming down. Aware that it keyed into a childhood fascination with the white stuff, I also gave snow a lot of credit for a lot of psychological cover-up. Even in a shitty, dirty world, it had the amazing ability to deliver an almost womb-like sense of security, even if the thermal properties were backwards. It felt more like Christmas morning, and I hustled downstairs to great my fellow cooks with an ebullience that caused both of them to raise their eyebrows. “Smell that!” I said, drinking in the kitchen’s aromas like a man starved. “What is that? It’s wonderful!” “Um, onions,” Melanie said, eyeing me with a questioning lilt. “Mmmm!” I said. “It smells like real food!” Yes, the two of them agreed, it certainly did—a far cry from the usual offerings of basic pasta with canned sauce or microwaved Lean Cuisines and a boring salad. This day, we were creating food, not simply reheating it, assembling it. With missionary fervor, I rolled up my sleeves and pitched in, investing a brand of enthusiasm in my construction of apple and pumpkin pies I had yet to experience as an adult. We served dinner that day around 4 p.m., after a friendly argument based on one another’s family traditions regarding the correct hour to lay the table. Ultimately it was the completion time of the food itself that dictated things. Snow was falling steadily outside as the shadows lengthened and we took our seats, and the old house, which had never been anyone’s “primary residence,” took on a
Miller/Timberwolf/87 Waltons-like glow. Even though we weren’t surrounded by children, uncles, grandmothers and strata of family history, it felt good to be with each other, a de facto family unit whose members had washed up on these unlikely shores and found a home together. It was a beginning, of sorts, but our first Thanksgiving together would also mark one of the last times we’d all be comfortable and happy together. # The day after Thanksgiving is a bubble in time, a day like no other. Most of us don’t work, although the nagging suspicion I’d always felt is that one should be working. Given the lassitude exhibited by my father most of the time, I’m not sure from whence I’d gleaned this particular ethic, but the fact was it compelled me to my computer that Friday morning, my head heavy from the previous day’s ministrations by sommelier Clam. It occurred to me as I fired up my computer that I’d been investing more of myself than usual into this job. A lot of it was tedious, but I was growing more and more interested in scanning past the headlines for the “story within the story.” Not just yet, though. Internet service was down, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that it came back on. I busied myself shoveling snow for a while, then went for a short ski with Clam, who was oddly quiet. After lunch, with the Internet still down, no TV service for whatever reason and no desire to watch a movie, I took a nap. I finally got online as the shadows were lengthening and a stiff breeze started blowing out of the north. The day after a holiday is generally a pretty slow
Miller/Timberwolf/88 one, news-wise, but terrorists had developed a villainous affinity for American holidays. I logged onto cnn.com and there it was: S-BOMBER KILLS 17 AT MACY’S PARADE NEW YORK – Despite rigid security and an enormous police presence augmented by National Guardsmen, a suicide bomber was able to detonate himself at the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade on Fifth Avenue here Thursday, killing 17 and wounding 23 others. Authorities have yet to positively identify the bomber, but an e-mail (read complete text) sent to several large news organizations—including CNN—15 minutes before the attack claimed responsibility by Peruvian guerilla organization Sendero Luminoso in retribution for U.S. drug war policy. The guerilla group, known in English as “Shining Path,” was (read history) active mostly in the last quarter of the 20th century and considered mostly disbanded after the capture of its founder, Abimael Guzman, in 1992.
And then there was the usual incomplete stuff about the victims, the angry words from the president or Homeland Security secretary, the sidebar story about the parade, et cetera. As I scanned the various news sites for more information, I felt rage growing inside me, fed by each new piece of the puzzle I was able to assemble. It culminated in a stab of pure anger that hit me in the chest like an ice pick when I read, in the penultimate paragraph of a Bloomberg story, this:
Also destroyed in the blast was the Underdog balloon,
Miller/Timberwolf/89 a parade favorite since its introduction in 1977.
They killed Underdog! After the first shock, the realization sunk in and descended from my head to my toes like angry molasses, coating every cell of my being with hatred and dread. It was soon followed by another coating descent, this one of guilt as I realized the destruction of a non-sentient balloon made of plastic or vinyl or whatever had upset me more than the people who’d lost their lives. “You’re not a terrible person, Daniel,” Melanie said. Zombie-like, I’d walked into the living room where Melanie and Clam were playing Scrabble and announced that Underdog had been killed. “No,” Clam said. “You’re just responding to the death of something you actually knew and, I guess, loved. All those other victims you read about, they’re just names.” There seemed some sense to that, even if I still felt like a terrible heel. Of course I also felt for the human victims; I’d welled up yet again when I read of the members of the Iowa girls’ school who’d been killed in the blast. They were majorettes or something, a flag team. But even though I couldn’t find any images of Underdog’s remains, the thought of the once-mighty character, with his outstretched arms and maniacal grin, being destroyed by a Peruvian guerilla … “Who are these guys, anyway?” Melanie said, after what must have been a full minute of silence. “Well, geez,” said Clam,his usually preamble to a knowledge download: “Sendero Luminosa is, y’know, Shining Path, the guerillas who screwed up Peru in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mostly. These guys were major assholes and big
Miller/Timberwolf/90 bombers, although they never did anything, that I can recall, outside of Peru. It’s weird that they’d suddenly show up now, unless it’s some kind of cover for someone else.” More silence, interrupted as Clam got up with a sigh and went to the window, where he fingered one of his Scrabble tiles (the “Q,” I noticed) and watched more snow pile up outside. “Sendero Luminosa,” he said, rolling the disturbingly beautiful name off his tongue and shaking his head as if he should’ve known all along. Melanie and I exchanged glances. It was maddening not to have any television reception. I had redundant service—cable and satellite—but both were out for reasons unknown. In those days, the U.S. was like a developing country, where basic, modern services like electricity, television, Internet access and sometimes even more primal utilities like water and sewer were interrupted frequently, usually without warning. When the lights went out that night, it seemed almost a blessing, a punctuation mark on the statement “They killed Underdog!” Boom! Lights out. Underdog wasn’t just a balloon; he was an icon, a metaphor for all that’s good and strong in the U.S., or so I told Melanie and Clam. “To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of him.” Melanie’s voice came quietly through the darkness. In that short sentence, I heard guilt, compassion, fear, mystery and a sense of foreboding: Even if she didn’t share my sentiments for Underdog, she understood something sacred had been violated, and it wasn’t a balloon. We sat there for hours in the darkness, alternating
Miller/Timberwolf/91 discussions, biographical anecdote and personal observations with periods of silence so protracted there were times I thought one or all of us had gone to sleep. I imagined I could hear the snow falling outside, and I pictured it in my mind, descending languidly, persistently from a frozen, moonless sky. We would sit here in the dark of this sunken living room, and it would stay dark even come morning because the snow would pile up past the windows until the entire house lay buried. And here we would remain, forever perhaps, frozen in space and time, talking our meaningless talk and preserved as some kind of cultural sarcophagi, a museum piece for future generations who wanted to understand why, in the first decade of the 21st century, the world had gone completely … “The world gone mad,” I spoke into one of our protracted lulls. “That’s a phrase, isn’t it? Something that’s been said a million times before?” “Yes,” came Clam’s voice. “It’s a cliché, actually. It sounds corny to say it, even when it’s true.” “But if …” Melanie began. Then more silence. “What?” we both asked after a moment. “I dunno. I just always thought a cliché is actually a truth, a truism. It persists, it endures because it’s constantly reaffirmed.” “Yeah,” said Clam, unconvinced. “So, I guess what I’m saying is that, if ‘the world gone mad’ is a cliché, then it’s true, a truism, a constant state.” “And madness,” I said, taking her point, “is supposed to be an altered state, something apart from the norm.” “Exactly!” Melanie said, breathing it in a stage
Miller/Timberwolf/92 whisper, as if we were sharing something to be kept between us. “The world is mad, it’s always been mad, and so it can’t have ‘gone’ mad.” “So, then, all of this is normal and we should just accept it?” Clam said evenly. “I didn’t say that,” she said. “I’m just suggesting that surprise is not a logical reaction to what is essentially normal human behavior.” Her words hung in the air like diesel exhaust. I looked in Clam’s direction, imagining I could see his brow arching, his lips working themselves into a grimace, his long fingers twisting in his lap as he tried to work his wife’s death into this formula. The sound of the snow falling on the house grew louder, until it sounded like great buckets of nuts and bolts being dropped incessantly. The din became so great that I clapped my hands to my ears and pressed as hard as I could to drown it out. Clam’s voice broke through the cacophony like a hand parting a curtain of water, ceasing the noise abruptly. “Can I tell you guys something?” he said simply. Part 2, Chapter One
I woke up around dawn, forgetting completely where I was but all-consumed by the need to pee. Barefoot, I stumbled out of the tent and limp-skipped over to an abandoned semi trailer, behind which I unleashed a stream as urgent as it was endless. The fact that my feet were unwisely unshod on the freezing ground made it seem that
Miller/Timberwolf/93 much more interminable, and it reminded me of a dream I once had: I’m peeing against a tree in a parking lot and I can’t stop; it just goes on forever. I eventually accept my situation and cheerily endure friends and family walking by, saying hello and lamenting my unenviable situation as hours turned into days into weeks. I don’t know if there was any Freudian explanation for my “monumental micturation” dream (as Clam called it after I told him about it). I simply chalked it up to the fact that I dreamed it while I was a college freshman, when my body’s sole purpose was to reconstitute into urine whatever beer was on sale at the Boulder Liquor Mart. In the real world—or what was left of it—my bladder finally did empty, and I fell back into the tent to hurriedly pull on some socks. Melanie, sleeping between us in her own bag, opened one eye and regarded me. She actually growled. “Holy crow. What time is it? What are you doing?” And then: “Where am I?” It’s dawn, I told her, and I’m putting on my socks. We’re 500 some-odd miles from home sleeping in a tent next to a truck stop because the only open hotel was full. I was mumbling, barely coherent. Speech seemed a
Miller/Timberwolf/94 mighty effort as I tried to reconcile my body, which felt like it had spent the night in a clothes dryer. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” I climbed back into my bag to go back to sleep. “This is Nebraska.” It didn’t last long. The big rigs were starting to fire up outside the hotel. Or they had never been turned off from the night before, I wasn’t sure. The only thing I knew for certain was that it was freezing cold in this stupid tent, and the heater in our brand-new Ford Excelsior sport utility vehicle worked exceptionally well. “Mel,” I said, “I’m getting up. We might as well get going.” She made a sound somewhere between a grunt and a moan and rolled over toward Clam, who was kipping on his back, mouth agape, looking as comfortable as if he were staying at the Plaza. Struggling into my jeans from a ridiculous supine position, I was reminded once again how little I liked “camping” of any sort. When Clam packed the tent back in Blue River, I protested, saying there should be no shortage of hotel rooms on the way to “The Great White North,” as he called our destination. But with Melanie complaining we needed to stop for the night and one motel after another
Miller/Timberwolf/95 boarded up and silent, I was forced to endure Clam’s unspoken “told ya so’s” as we unpacked and pitched this tent. Feeling old as a sequoia and with ice water in my veins, I hunched over to the truck stop restaurant. I wasn’t much of a coffee person usually, but it seemed like a good idea at the moment. Grabbing a USA Today on the way in, I noticed with some relief that nothing big had occurred since we stopped listening to the radio the night before. It was more of the usual stuff: follow up investigation stories on the turkey day bombings, handwringing from the administration and congress and more heart-rending stories from victims and their families. I tucked the paper under my arm and entered the restaurant, where I was greeted by a fug that wrapped itself around me as surely as the sleeping bad I’d just crawled out of. Bacon grease, tobacco smoke and fried egg aromas collided with the essence of a great many unwashed bodies packed into the tiny eatery. Along with the smell was the odd near-silence as the mostly male, mostly lone patrons shoveled in food, downed coffee and powered smokes without saying much of anything. The clink of flatware and coffee cups, the occasional “order up” from the cooks and a
Miller/Timberwolf/96 smattering of “sure thing, darlin’” from the waitresses was accompanied by the low drone of a cable news channel from a wall-mounted television. I found the only seat left at the counter, ordered coffee and flipped through the paper as the talking head on the television walked us through an extended report on the Tamil Tiger guerillas setting up shop in South Dakota. It was titled “Sri Lanka’s Bad Boys in the Badlands” and it tried mightily to explain why these dirtbags, who used to do their business on the other side of the world, were pressing their agenda in the Mount Rushmore area. The Tamil Tigers liked to use teenagers fitted with explosive belts to get across the point that they wanted independence from the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately for the older Tigers—who did the planning, never the bombing—a U.S.- and Norwegian-led campaign to find other, safer and more interesting things for Tamil teens to do had led to a marked decrease in available “talent.” And since Sri Lankans had become almost inured to news of yet another bombing, the Tigers took a different tack: They set up a base of operations near Rapid City and started bombing rock formations in the area. Tamils are dark, like Indians, so it’s not like they
Miller/Timberwolf/97 could blend-in easily in a state dominated by whites and Native Americans. Everyone knew it was the Tamils blowing stuff up, but U.S. laws prohibited us from simply rounding them all up and shipping them back to Sri Lanka. Occasionally, cops and feds would get enough evidence to prosecute one of them, but the fact that the administration was in “high-level” talks with the Sri Lankan government to establish a protected Tamil homeland seemed proof enough that, no matter how senseless the bombings of rocks appeared on the surface, it was getting the political job done. “Aye, that’s the rub,” said a bleary-eyed Clam, taking a seat next to me recently vacated by a reed-thin trucker who’d punctuated each new CNN sound bite with an exhalation of True smoke and a raspy “Jesus Christ.” “What’s the rub?” “Terrorism works,” he said, looking up and nodding when the waitress gestured coffee. “Sometimes,” he added, “too often, actually.” In a time of tremendous irony, the biggest was that terrorists had taken the whole American “land of opportunity” theme, stood it on its ear and walked away once in a while with something to show for it. Blowing
Miller/Timberwolf/98 yourself up in the capital of Nowhereistan probably wouldn’t get you any closer to helping your downtrodden ethnic group, but doing it in the U.S. could, and often did, have positive repercussions. That’s because, after fighting a “war” on terrorism for long enough, the U.S. finally came to the conclusion that dropping bombs of our own didn’t help much, and that political solutions were often more effective. Catching suicide bombers before they acted was an inexact science, to say the least, but if you could attack the root of the problem (Tamils want a homeland; Senagalese want HIV treatment, etc.), often the bombers would go home. The fact that all wannabe martyrs had read up on all the techniques used by the likes of Al Quaeda and Hamas over the years made it even easier for freelancers of all stripes to turn pro—even if it mean you only had one good day on the job. So there was the bomb paradox—or what Clam called the “bombadox”—if you address the bomber’s cause, you encourage others to think that’s a solution for them as well, and one group of bombers is replaced by the next. If you don’t help, they keep bombing you anyway. “In the second case, where we don’t help and the group in question keeps up the bombing, other groups are
Miller/Timberwolf/99 convinced to try as well since they figure something’s got to give at some point,” Clam said. “That’s what the Palestinians believed, that no matter how hard the Israelis hit them, their bombers would eventually wear them down. And we all know how that ended up.” The whole thing gave me an ice-cream headache. It used to seem to me like one of those impossible, intractable issues no one could solve—like capital punishment or abortion. I was content to observe from the sidelines, as people with a lot more passion and time than me waged those wars. Now, suddenly, Clam had convinced me I was in a position to be on the front line, and as I sat in this wretched diner along I-70 in dead-of-winter Nebraska, I felt my stomach as a fist, clenching inside me with dread at what we were attempting. I turned to Clam and opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. “I know what you’re saying,” Clam said, preparing his cup by tearing through half-a-dozen creamers and sugar packets like he was shelling pistachios. “The whole thing’s a nightmare.” Then the light went out of his eyes for the second time since I’d known him. He stiffened, crossed his arms over his chest and grimaced. I asked the stupid question:
Miller/Timberwolf/100 “Dude, are you OK?” “Yeah,” he said through clenched teeth. “Hold on.” The spasm lasted another minute, maybe two, and then he relaxed, picked up his coffee and continued where he left off. I stopped him. “Clam, what the hell was that?” “What?” he said, then, seeing my look, he mumbled something about “reflux.” “Actually,” he said, “on the way to the island, I’d like to … I’d like to stop in Rochester. I’ve got an appointment at the Mayo Clinic for some tests about this thing.” “Sure,” I said. “I mean, is it serious?” Before he could answer, Melanie appeared, looking like a fresh-picked daisy. She’d obviously had a shower, her clothes were new and neat and she’d even put makeup on. “Hi guys!” she said. She passed by us and slid into a booth whose table still contained the remnants of the previous occupants. “Care to join me for breakfast?” Two other guys at the counter stood up as if to make for Melanie’s booth. Clam and I sprang to our feet and slid in first, effecting a claimed-turf look we directed at them that compelled them grumpily back to their seats.
Miller/Timberwolf/101 “What’s up with you?” I said, looking her over. “You put on makeup for a truck-stop restaurant? “And where did you shower?” Clam asked. “Right here,” she said primly, pushing away a plate containing the remnants of fried eggs and cigarette ash. “Most truck stops have showers in them. It’s like three bucks.” After the waitress appeared and cleared the mess amid a flurry of apologies, we sat with our hands in our laps to avoid touching the freshly mopped tabletop. “I hate when this happens,” Melanie said. “It’s like your life is on hold until it dries.” “We shouldn’t even speak until then,” Clam said. “And forget about reading the newspaper,” I added. So we sat for a moment, hands in our laps, quietly listening to the muted hubbub of the diner as our table slowly dried. #
The day after Thanksgiving in America is, so we’re told, the busiest shopping day of the year. For the little
Miller/Timberwolf/102 triumvirate of Clam, Melanie and Daniel, it was an extended retreat that moved from confessional to strategic planning session. Clam wasn’t a computer consultant, he told us there in the dark. “No duh,” was Melanie’s response. She’d confided in me her suspicion that, as nice as he seemed, Clam was obviously a drug dealer or something along those lines. He kept incredibly odd hours, she said, seemed ambivalent about when he went into town to his “office” (the existence of which she doubted), disappeared for days, sometimes weeks at a time, and lived the life of someone who worried little about money and seemed to have plenty of it. My contribution to the picture—that he paid the rent in cash— only filled in more of the shadowy portrait she was painting. Funny, I said, I’d never really noticed. “You’re such a typical guy. If it doesn’t have to do with sports or sex, you’re oblivious.” That wasn’t entirely true, but I let it slide at the time because I was piecing together what Melanie had told me. Clam really was an enigma, and all of what she said could easily fit into a not-so-flattering picture of a guy
Miller/Timberwolf/103 who I’d come to think of as my best friend. Clam got a good laugh out of the drug dealer theory. “I spent the first 10 years of my career chasing drug dealers,” he said. “I’ve locked up more than I can remember.” Ex-FBI. That was Clam. Special Agent Clam Layton, anti-terrorism unit. An expert in explosives, tactics and “fanatic-driven bombing.” “I know more about these guys than just about anyone,” Clam said, “but I could only do so much within the system.” “Whoa,” Melanie said softly, after Clam had downloaded his story. “Why ‘ex’ Clam?” “They kicked me out,” he said. “Said I couldn’t be effective after my wife was killed. They didn’t like some of the tactics I was using, even though I was having better results than anyone. Something about ‘due process’ and ‘irresponsible racial profiling.’” “Details, details,” I said. “So now … you’re a vigilante” Melanie said. She set her coffee cup in its saucer, trying to make as little noise as possible. “Well, I wouldn’t say that,” he said after a moment. “I collect information and pass it along. I don’t have the
Miller/Timberwolf/104 resources to do much else.” Even in the darkness I could hear Melanie’s unspoken “yeah, right,” and I had to agree with her. Clam was into more than “passing information along,” but I figured those details would come out later. Can’t expect a guy like this to spill it all in one dose. But he did share with us a sort of oral biography of his tenure with the Bureau, complete with anecdotes, observations and scathing critique of the organization itself. “I came to Breckenridge because I needed a place not too far from an international airport, but also one kind of in the middle of the country,” he said. “Plus, y’know, I have all this gear I need to justify using.” And he really did have an office in town. He just didn’t use it much. “I’ve got pretty much everything I need here,” he said. “Plus, I kind of like being around people, and I like you guys.” We sat there for a minute, another odd gap in conversation. It was happening a lot lately, the result of people talking about unfamiliar and uncomfortable topics. This wasn’t water-cooler shit.
Miller/Timberwolf/105 “I’d like to help,” Melanie said finally. “What can I do?” “Me too,” I heard myself saying. “Well, fuck, I could always use more help on the research end,” Clam said. “If you guys don’t mind. I mean, if you have the time.” As far as I was concerned, it was all of a piece: My work for Anthony and the kind of information Clam needed were either parallel or intersecting. And Melanie, we discovered, had been doing a bit of extracurricular activity as well. In between trying to discover how to undermine our quality of life even further by imposing ad images onto us, Melanie kept busy on her own case, trying to help “solve” the case of the ad agency bombing. “I know it’s silly, it’s probably just stupid,” she said. “I mean, it’s not like I’m really going to find out anything important surfing the ‘net.” “Well, that’s probably true,” Clam said, “but stranger things have happened. And I can turn you onto some sites that’ll really curl your hair—chat rooms where the enemy talks, some quasi-government sites that say more than they should—that kind of thing.” I wasn’t sure what Melanie was looking for, since the
Miller/Timberwolf/106 ad agency bombing seemed pretty straight-forward and the bomber was dead. But then a question pushed to the front of my mind. It seemed important, and I interjected it like a subway rider grabbing the closing doors. “What’s Timberwolf?” Clam’s freeze was shorter this time, and hard to gauge because of the darkness. Melanie answered for him. “Oh, Timberwolf is a myth,” she said. “For a while they thought he was like this terrorist helper here in America, but now they think it was a total red herring—or a name for anyone who helps terrorists.” “Clam?” “That’s not too far from the truth,” Clam said, lying his ass off. “That word, ‘Timberwolf,’ it shows up from time to time in messages traced to terrorist sources, but it’s been investigated to death with no real answer. It’s just something they use to confuse, or code for something stupid, like “airport” or whatever. Lying sack of shit. “I don’t know,” I said. “Those guys I heard in California, they were just talking and they said it. Why would they use code when they were talking in Arabic or whatever anyway?”
Miller/Timberwolf/107 “Well, Danny,” Clam said, “while it’s probably safe to assume most Americans who look like you don’t know Arabic, the successful terrorist doesn’t take anything for granted. Everyone’s the enemy. These guys don’t even trust each other. They get jealous of one another, even trying to outdo the other guy in the race to blow themselves up.” “The race to heaven,” Melanie said. “Yeah, right,” Clam said. “But in my book, those guys all go straight to hell. If we could just convince them of that.” So we talked about heaven and hell. The latter, as a concept, had always appealed to me in a way heaven never did. When I was younger, I used to enjoy challenging those who spoke of “heaven,” asking them what they thought they’d actually do while there. Occasionally I’d get an interesting response, but mostly it was a wishy-washy description of floating around in the perfect body surrounded by friends and loved ones doing … no one was ever quite sure. I didn’t believe in hell any more than I did heaven, but at least the former had more to recommend itself activity-wise. There’s nothing wishy-washy about being poked in the ass all day for eternity by Satan’s toadies,
Miller/Timberwolf/108 and our imagination of what constitutes torture is, interestingly enough, a great deal more advanced than our ability to envision paradise. It was simple to contrive a perfectly dastardly hell for, say, a young Muslim male: He’d be surrounded by lots of Jewish American females in positions of authority. Perhaps he’d be their servant, and forced to endure their constant nagging and sermons about the superiority of the American way of life. He, in turn, would be unable to respond. “And they’d all be wearing bikinis and drinking tequila and dancing to hip-hop,” Melanie said. “I don’t know,” I sai., “They say they don’t like that stuff, but I’d be afraid they’d get used to it pretty quickly. I mean, what’s not to like about women in bikinis?” “You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever seen me in one.” Clam and I assured her we imagined she looked just fine in a swimsuit, but she abruptly steered the conversation in a different direction, asking Clam when we could get started helping to send terrorists—be they Arabs, Tamils, Columbians or even some of our own home-grown bombers—to hell. “How about first thing tomorrow morning?” he said. #
Miller/Timberwolf/109 Working for Clam wasn’t too much different from what we were doing before, we just had a lot more focus. I didn’t have to feel guilty about using Anthony’s time for Clam’s assignments since they almost always offered something to throw in either direction. When Clam had me monitoring the trial of a Lebanese American accused of aiding a bomber who hit an Atlanta shopping mall, I was able to construct a great model for discerning between innocent acquaintances or landlords (which this guy turned out to be) and knowing abettors. It was far beyond anything I’d submitted to Anthony before because it relied not on mathematical probability and actuarial projection, but on psychological profiling (culled from the trial’s expert testimonies) and what I liked to call “culturally induced guesswork”—assessments of what people would and wouldn’t do based on their ethnic profile. Information from Clam about terrorist profiling helped round out the theory. YOU’RE REALLY GETTING INTO THIS! Anthony IM’d me after I sent him the report. GOOD JOB! Good job? I wasn’t used to praise. Working in film, my work was largely invisible to the producers and directors who might have said something nice about it even if they were in the
Miller/Timberwolf/110 least bit inclined, which they weren’t. Always, I was long gone, two or three pictures away, by the time my work—mixed in as it was with the work of so many others—hit the screen. Occasionally, I’d sit in a theater with a girlfriend and say things like, “I worked on that crowd in the background,” or “I had a hand in that explosion.” But I could hardly blame them when the most they could muster was an “Oh, really?” I wasn’t Michaelangelo pointing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but, rather, a bricklayer telling his gal he’d worked on the northwest wall of some anonymous state building. I went into Melanie’s office and said, “Guess what?” “What?” “Anthony gave me a compliment.” “Really? Is that so surprising?” “Well, yeah.” I looked around for someplace to sit among the clutter and remained standing. “He’s never said anything before, and I’m not used to compliments in the first place.” She turned away from her monitor and looked at me. “No, I guess you wouldn’t have in your previous business. Congratulations.” She gave me a sort of half-grin and turned back to her
Miller/Timberwolf/111 screen. I asked her what she was working on. Clam had her monitoring some of the same sites Homeland kept an eye on, as well as, he said, “a few others they don’t know about yet.” It was painstaking work, since most of it wasn’t in English, anything interesting was in code (however crude) and the volume was enormous. But Melanie had some powerful translation software, the patience of a chess master and the tenacity of schnauzer worrying a bone. “Oh, nothing specific,” she said. “Just fishing.” She was in a Spanish-language chat room, which didn’t surprise me. Melanie knew Spanish pretty well, and she was fascinated by Sendero Luminoso. “Such a beautiful name,Danny, such an evil bunch of jerks.” This was mid-January, and the fallout from the Thanksgiving Day Parade bombing was still raining down on our collective psyche. The bombing, the media insisted, represented a sea change in how we conduct our lives, our business. Orange alerts? It was all red now. Until that day, we’d doggedly persisted in continuing with every tradition, every gathering, every event as if, by simply sticking to our existing schedule, we’d thwart bombers by
Miller/Timberwolf/112 sheer force of will. Even though Thanksgiving was far from the first event targeted, it was the biggest and the highest-profile (despite my previous belief that the only person in the world who watched the parade was my mom). No, we were being told, you cannot continue life as you knew it. The government cannot protect you if you insist on going to that ball game, that concert, that memorial service. Everyone was wearing guns in the hope that they’d get a shot at a bomber before he pushed the button, but the only ones who ever helped were the people close enough to see it and hit the guy on the head with a chair or a lamp. Guns against bombs—only Americans would think that made sense. But this provision of the Patriot Act, which greatly loosened the law in regard to concealed weapons, had the NRA practically dancing in the streets. Despite whatever Thanksgiving meant to us as a nation, Clam was highly interested in the fact that Sendero Luminoso—“If that is indeed who this was”—was active again. According to Clam, they hadn’t much been heard of since a car bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in March of ’02. “Thirty kilos of explosives and not a single American killed,” Clam said, consulting a dossier. “These guys don’t
Miller/Timberwolf/113 always have the best aim. But then, terrorists aren’t usually known for their smarts.” We had a morning briefing every day, which tickled Melanie to death. “Imagine us, in briefings!” she said. “Not meetings, briefings. It’s cool.” Since we were doing our spying (as I liked to think of it) as unsolicited, unpaid and unknown volunteers, our lives began to resemble a highly evolved treehouse club. We didn’t have a secret handshake, but we did begin to develop some of our own jargon and shorthand, and since we were now sharing a single purpose with a common and all-consuming interest, we wound up spending a lot more time together. I had no idea how effective our work was or might be, but I found myself walking a little taller than I used to, and Melanie confessed the same feeling of inhabiting a higher ground. “I was in the store the other day listening to some women in checkout,” Melanie said. “And they were talking about the bombings and how no one can do anything about it. And I felt like interrupting them and saying, ‘Hey, I’m doing something about it!’” “Are we? I said. “Or are we just play-spying to make
Miller/Timberwolf/114 it feel like we’re doing something?” Her smile vanished. “Well, if you think that way, then that’s probably all it is. Just remember what Clam said.” “We’re looking for very small needles in a great many very large haystacks,” Clam told us at our first briefing. “At times, perhaps most of the time, you will feel like what you are doing is irrelevant, unproductive, silly or even completely useless. This is normal. It’s normal for anyone doing this kind of work. It’s also true that what we are doing may accomplish very little, but I doubt that. I think we’re going to do great things. Patience—patience is the key.” Whatever value the work we were undertaking had or lacked, there was one over-arching goal that presented itself: find Timberwolf. Even if he or she or it didn’t exist, the name came to be synonymous with a target which, once identified and eliminated, would solve this whole terrorism problem once and for all. Was it crazy to think we could locate and eliminate Timberwolf sitting in front of computers in the hills of Colorado? “Yes and no,” Clam said. “Will we save the world from a keyboard? Probably not. But it’s not like we don’t have plenty of field agents working for us.”
Miller/Timberwolf/115 Despite the lumbering bureaucracy, Homeland did have one thing even Clam applauded and used: a database linking all the agencies, with the ability to access it remotely through a secure satellite uplink. If you had the proprietary software, access codes and the right encryption engines, you could log onto the database from any computer in the world. Then, you had the ability to sift through the haystack Homeland was building: all the intercepted messages, the daily reports from field agents around the world, the suspect profiles, the bombing analyses, etc. “Of course, it’s only the legally obtained stuff,” Clam said. “But it’s still a lot.” Since Melanie and I didn’t have what it took to access the Database, Clam funneled information from it to us several times a day. It would arrive as an e-mail with a compressed attachment full of PDFs, spreadsheets, text documents and all kinds of other goodies, and I came to look forward to them like a sugar fiend opening up a carton of Ben & Jerry’s. Melanie wanted to know how Clam still had access to the database. “Didn’t they take your thingie away when they canned you?” And, she asked, how much trouble would we be in if we got caught using it?
Miller/Timberwolf/116 “Well, my scrupulous little girl scout,” Clam said, “I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s all, y’know, for the good of the country.” “Well I do,” she said. “I don’t want to go to jail.” After assuring her that the possession of files “accidentally” discovered on some internet site would be unlikely to land her a jail sentence, Clam told us he was leaving for a few days. “Believe it or not, there are some things you just can’t do over the internet,” he said. He was looking past us, as if at someone or something interesting on the wall behind us. We both turned around, then back to Clam with questions on our faces. But he would say no more. Over the next several months, as he’d been doing since he moved in, Clam would go on a number of “field trips,” sometimes for a day or two, sometimes for more than a week. When he came back, he wouldn’t say much. The first few times, Melanie put on her “tell Auntie Mel all about it” hat—to no avail. I tried the “Dude, if you need to talk…” approach and got nowhere. Whatever Clam was up to on his trips, he needed a few days afterwards to “decompress,” as Melanie put it.
“Do you think he’s, like, killing people on these little trips?” Melanie and I were sitting on the deck drinking coffee. Even though it was January, the sun rose every day and assumed command with a relentless cheer that belied the darkness around us, in the headlines, in our work. While still hovering around zero at night, the days would warm into the 30s and 40s, making it balmy by High Country standards. I was wearing my fleece vest over a T-shirt and a pair of jeans; Melanie was in her work sweats and we were talking, as we always did when he was gone, about Clam: where he was, what he was up to and when he would. “Yeah,” I said. “I do.” “You think he’s killing people? Really?” “Yeah, really. He’s an FBI agent, terrorists killed his wife, he spends all his waking hours pursuing terrorists. He has guns, he has balls, I mean, what do you think he’s doing—selling encyclopedias? Or going out trying to convince the terrorists to be good through focus groups or something?” Melanie was quiet after that. I regretted the sarcasm but didn’t say anything. I thought about Clam, and who knew
Miller/Timberwolf/118 if that was even his real name. At first, I thought him a hopeless dweeb, a wannabe adventurer who somehow never took the time and had to settle for the trappings, which now filled my garage. Then we’d become friends, and I almost thought I came to know him less. And now he’s a killer. I tried to plug that job description into what I knew of Clam, tried to envision him pulling out his gun and taking out some dirtbag terrorist— shooting him in the chest, walking away. A camp robber landed on the rail. Melanie flipped a piece of croissant his way and we watched him devour it, then look up for more. “I wish you wouldn’t feed those damn birds,” I said, getting up. “It just makes them come around for more.” “I know,” she said. “But it makes me feel better, like I’m actually doing something: Bird hungry, Melanie feeds bird, bird no longer hungry.” “They’re never not hungry,” I said, then: “I see what you mean.”
Chapter Two Despite what Clam and Melanie had said about Timberwolf, I’d convinced myself he or it was the key to … something. I wasn’t sure what. I googled tirelessly,
Miller/Timberwolf/119 looking for any reference to “timber” + “wolf” and any variation I could think of. I read extensively online about the history of wolves, wolf reintroduction programs, sports teams named after wolves and the occasional lumber industry story. It wasn’t until Clam forwarded me the Feb. 14 info packet from the Database that I hit something. It was buried in an intelligence briefing, a laundry list of items confiscated from the apartment of a Chechen national who went out with a bang on New Year’s Eve. At the stroke of midnight, he did his thing at a costume ball full of drunken blue-bloods in Newport, Rhode Island. I’d read about it when it happened, but the story didn’t have a lot of staying power in the press because no one but the bomber and one unfortunate bartender were killed. Sergei Baranov, a 22-year-old Chechen who’d lost an arm fighting the Russians, apparently accompanied bartender Phil Bekin to the wine cellar in the bowels of one of those Newport mansions referred to as “cottages.” Something went wrong, the bomb went off, Bekin and Baranov were killed and the party went on for hours before anyone noticed. The wine cellar was located beneath the kitchen, which was itself set apart from the main house. The whole thing was made of
Miller/Timberwolf/120 granite blocks, and while all the wine (some $15,000 worth) was destroyed, the structure itself suffered only minor damage. It was a weird story, but most of them were in one way or another. I was curious about the relationship between Bekin and Baranov, but didn’t give the story much thought. Until, that is, I saw the list of things taken from Baranov’s room. There wasn’t much. Some clothes, a Bible (rare is the bomber without some godly intent), some unmailed, blank postcards of Newport sights, a pair of new women’s panties with Wal-Mart tag still attached, and a used condom that yielded the interesting information that Baranov had simply masturbated with it. “Probably with the panties on his head,” I murmured into the screen, then raised my eyebrow as I scanned the very last item in the list: “Fast-food bag, Arby’s, with remains of meal and wrappers. Notation on bag in pencil: ‘TW@McBrae’” Ever on the alert for anything resembling the word “Timberwolf,” I first tried sending a blank e-mail from my anonymous Yahoo account to TW@mcbrae.com, “mcbrae.org” etc. They all came back undeliverable. I did a search for
Miller/Timberwolf/121 “McBrae” and initially came up with little more than genealogy sites and some Irish company that makes lug-soled shoes. It wasn’t until page 8 of the search results that I hit something interesting: “Get away to McBrae Island Hunting Resort, specialized programs for duck and deer hunters in Lake of the Woods boundary waters.” A little more reading turned up the fact that the U.S.-Canada border ran down the middle of the island, leaving a bifurcated land mass with no checkpoints — an easy place for someone to cross unnoticed into the States. “Timberwolf at McBrae Island,” I said in an embarrassingly dramatic hiss, convinced I’d found the Rosetta Stone of international terrorism. Clam shrugged. “What I really want to know is why this guy was jerking off with a condom.” Not surprisingly, the FBI report didn’t speculate on that curiosity. “Maybe he thought he was going to get lucky on his last day alive,” I said. “Maybe he couldn’t find someone and he was a frugal guy who didn’t want it to go to waste. Maybe he was into really, really safe sex and wore a condom
Miller/Timberwolf/122 no matter what. How the hell should I know?” I looked at Clam and felt the back of my neck grow hot. Here was incontrovertible evidence that the
embodiment of the whole terrorist threat was holed up on an island above Minnesota, and all Clam could think about was this guy’s last condom. “Come on, Clam, this is good stuff,” I said. “Lake of the Woods, it’s like half Canada, half U.S. This guy Timberwolf hangs out up there, terrorists come, I don’t know, over the North Pole or something and down through Canada, they get outfitted on McBrae Island and take a little boat ride into the U.S.” It would turn out I wasn’t far at all from the truth, and Clam knew it. One thing Homeland had been fairly successful at was controlling points-of-entry more effectively, and it was damn near impossible to get into the country at an airport or off a ship without the proper identification and visa. Hell, it was hard enough even with all the proper paperwork, and for some reason especially onerous for parents with small children, old ladies with walkers and anyone else who’d be least suspect. That seemed to be Homeland’s tacit strategy: Target all the “average” people,
Miller/Timberwolf/123 hassle them until the breaking point and then maybe they’d stop leaving the country or even flying in the first place, making the job that much easier. “They really do look at other types of people, you know,” Clam said to me during a ski outing, where I was propounding my theory. “It just seems like they’re hassling old ladies because those are the people we hear it from. The single guy from Jordan here on a business meeting, who’s he going to complain to other than his family back home?” But it was obvious terrorists were still getting in somehow, which had Homeland working overtime with Canadian and Mexican authorities to tighten security on the borders. Since Border Patrol had been at work along the southern frontier for years, it was Canada that really had the holes. With some 4,000 miles of shared border, the frontier was twice the size of Mexico’s, and there were a whole hell of a lot more trees to hide behind. And lakes. With a map and a globe, I presented my case to Clam and Melanie, showing how terrorists could enter Canada in any number of ways, make their way down to this McBrae Island, load a canoe with explosives and wash up on American soil. “I like it,” Melanie said after a moment. “It seems
Miller/Timberwolf/124 plausible, although I’d need to see more evidence than this little note on a fast-food bag before we go tromping up to Canada.” “Before we go where!?” I said. “Who said anything about going to Canada? We get some more evidence and turn it over to Homeland, right Clam? I mean, what the hell are we, The A Team?” Clam was over at the window looking out, hands in the pockets of his kimono. Since our coming-together at Thanksgiving, he’d grown a lot more comfortable around us, and it was rare to see him around the house wearing regular clothes. When he didn’t say anything more about my Timberwolf idea, I asked him about the robe. He turned around, his reed-like fingers touching the lapel of the kimono, his eyes glassy. “Ayn gave it to me.” His wife. It’s a sentimental thing. Oh. But he hadn’t really taken to it, he told us, so she’d worn it most of the time. He showed us a picture of her wearing it, looking over her shoulder while picking out clothes from the closet. I saw a tiny Japanese-American woman with a smile like a sunrise, her eyes laughing, wearing the kimono, which swam on her gymnast-sized frame.
Miller/Timberwolf/125 My Hollywood-trained mind inserted a blinding flash and explosion around her, and I closed my eyes and she was gone. Clam’s loss pierced me like an ice pick in the ear. Clam put the picture back in his wallet and sat heavily on the couch. “So I started wearing the damn thing because it smelled like Ayn,” he said, then paused. “I felt like I could wrap myself up in her or something and …” Tears came, and he buried his face in his hands as Melanie sat next to him and put her arm over his shoulder. I sat there feeling like my body was too big, my lips moving as if to say something, but what? “There, there?” “It’ll be OK?” I stood up, exhaled audibly and turned slightly sideways, shoving my hands into my pockets. As a gesture of sympathy, it wasn’t much, but it was all I could figure to do. I was surprised when Clam, without looking up, reached out and took my arm. A moment later, all three of us were in one of those group hugs I’d heretofore only done jokingly. I wound up sort of kneeling in front of the couch they were sitting on, wishing I was elsewhere. And then Clam really let it out, sobs wracking his scarecrow frame like jolts of electricity. And of course
Miller/Timberwolf/126 Melanie was crying as well, although in a less-violent fashion. My embrace at first was of the arms-length variety. I wasn’t a big hugger, was wary of things like the snot and tears of others—the whole messy business of extreme emotion—and had no experience with this sort of thing. I felt like the guy in the corner who gets pulled into the polka against his will, and has to force a smile while enduring an obligatory 45 seconds of the chicken dance. In a moment, I was pretty certain, I could gracefully excuse myself and go change my shirt. Except they wouldn’t let go of me. I got pulled closer and closer into the hug vortex, a place of the aforementioned snot and tears, earlobes, hair, moist shoulders and swirling people-smells. I stopped focusing on the visceral—the physical sensations, the disparity between Melanie’s well-padded frame and Clam’s ribby beanpole-osity —and felt something else, something so latent inside me I hardly knew it existed. Like the name of a half-remembered song, I was trying to put a label on this thing when Melanie finally pulled away, wrinkled her nose and said: “Clam, sweetie, it’s time to wash the kimono.” He smiled thinly, nodded, went upstairs and came back down wearing sweats and a T-shirt, the kimono in a ball in
Miller/Timberwolf/127 his arms. He handed it over to Melanie without a word, and she silently disappeared into the laundry room. I never saw him wear it again. In our history of three, The Hug was as symbolic and important an event as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “Before The Hug” and “After The Hug” were common sentence-starters. “You know,” Melanie said to me a few weeks later, “Before The Hug, I thought you were, like, checking me out.” “Like how?” I said, knowing what was coming. “Like, you’d come by my office in nothing but your boxers, and you’d always sneak a peak down my shirt if I leaned over.” “I still do that,” I said, “It’s built into my hard drive, like the instinct to duck when something comes flying at your head.” “Hmmmm,” she said. “All guys have it,” Clam said. “It can’t be helped.” Melanie had a look on her face like a little girl being told of the non-existence of Santa Claus. I was amazed to discover that Melanie, brotherless and always with female roommates, had never had this conversation before. I assumed all women of a certain age
Miller/Timberwolf/128 knew what really lurked in the hearts and minds of all men, the fruit of late-night chats with male friends. I also believed women who wanted to remain sane looked above this behavior and tried to see men as decent despite their naturally imposed proclivities—like someone in a museum full of interesting art that nonetheless had several inches of raw sewage on the floor. Keep your eyes on the paintings and only deal with what’s underfoot if it becomes a nuisance. “So …” Melanie said, her mind trying to construct this unwelcome portrait in her mind, “Even if some old lady or a young girl leans over, you’d try to look down her shirt? That’s sick.” “No,” I said. “In that case, even though your first instinct is to look, there’s a fail-safe mechanism that kicks in to prevent you from going there.” Clam nodded his head. “Although Ayn used to tell me to look once in a while. She said it’d help prepare me for the day her boobs were swinging around her ankles.” *** Immediately after the hug, after Clam came down in his sweats and handed over the kimono, he seemed recovered
Miller/Timberwolf/129 enough to push this McRae Island issue again. Was there anything to it?—enough to compel us halfway across the country to apprehend a terrorism “consultant,” as Melanie called Timberwolf. Clam turned away from the window with the same look he’d had at Thanksgiving, when he told us he was FBI. “I’ve got to hand it to you, Daniel, you’ve got a great nose for detail and excellent instinct. And you’re 100 percent correct about Timberwolf. Both of you.”
# Clam had known about the Timberwolf organization for months, he told us. He’d even broken his vow not to contact his old colleagues and shared the information he had with them. Busy with working the border on the west side near Vancouver and on the east near Toronto and Montreal, the Homeland gang didn’t have the time or inclination to divert agents to some remote backwater based solely on a tip from a discredited former agent. “And to be honest, most of what I have is not great. Hunches, mostly. Even this scrap Daniel found, it’s not much to offer an organization that relies on solid stuff before it acts. I mean, if they jumped at everything …”
Miller/Timberwolf/130 He left it hanging but the meaning was clear. I still didn’t like it, but Melanie looked like she’d just won a trip to Puerta Vallarta. She sat with her hands in her lap, waiting for Clam to continue. “Someone has to go up there to check it out,” he said. “I didn’t tell you about Timberwolf because I thought it was a red herring, or too hot to touch if it was real.” “But we can … can’t we just go up there, do some snooping, get some decent evidence and then go to your guys at the FBI?” Melanie asked. “Listen, Nancy Drew …” I began. Clam held up his hand. “Why not?” he said. “You guys have been stuck in this house for, what, like a year? Looking into computers all day. You need a little trip. It’ll be fun, and I’ll make it safe.” “Besides,” he added, “There’s a place I’d like to stop on the way.” ***
We were driving to McBrae Island in the Excelsior because Clam wanted more “strategic mobility” and a more reliable “mobile base” than a rental car could provide. He didn’t want to fly.
Miller/Timberwolf/131 “When you fly, you lose everything,” he said. “You don’t see the landscape, you don’t smell the dead skunk on the side of the road or the grass that was just cut. You don’t get to go in Stuckey’s or the Indian gift shop or anything.” “I like flying,” Melanie said, but hesitantly, like she was putting up a slightly outrageous suggestion. Let’s have a crazy hat day, let’s have a ménage a trois. “God, a plane is like a friggin’ living tomb,” Clam said. “You can’t move, you’re treated like a head of cattle, the guy next to you is 400 pounds and smells like a goat ….” “I like road trips,” I said. “Fine by me.” “Plus, y’know, it’ll be fun,” Clam said. And so we were driving. But we needed a vehicle. The Jag was too small, the Jeep too old and Clam’s rig too awful altogether. It smelled like stale tunafish, the floorboards were rotting out and it didn’t even have a CD player. Mel’s car had been returned to the rental agency long ago; her Lexus sat in a garage somewhere in Chicago. So we took a trip to Denver to go car shopping. “I want to buy the most insane, the biggest, the most disgustingly large SUV they make,” Clam said. At the first
Miller/Timberwolf/132 place we stopped—a Ford dealer in Littleton—he saw the Excelsior as we drove into the parking lot and said, “There! That’s it!” The negotiations were simple. Clam paid the sticker price on the most lavishly equipped model in stock. He did this with neat stacks of banded fifty- and hundred-dollar bills, which he produced from a ratty gym bag lying in the trunk of his old Volvo. I’d seen it there before. “Damn, Clam,” I said. We were standing in the showroom as the amazed sales staff stood around a table in a windowed office and counted the cash. “Don’t you believe in banks? Or even mattresses?” “It’s shit money, Danny, bad money. I don’t give a damn if someone steals it, and I only use it for the cause.” He said it in a way that let me know he wasn’t going to add any more details, and I filed it away in my mental locker labeled “Clam inexplicables to perhaps be explained at a later date.” There were a lot of those. Like most people, I assumed that if you paid for something with that much cash, they’d call the police or make some phone calls or at least ask a question or two. But the dealership was moribund, the sales staff looked like a pack of starving hyenas, and the sales manager
Miller/Timberwolf/133 didn’t offer anything other than a stifled “Oh, my!” when he saw the cash. We were out of there in half an hour. “And no,” Clam said, leaning out the window of the Excelsior as he backed out, “I don’t really believe in banks anymore.” There was a time when SUVs ruled the roads. But, as I’d predicted during their heyday, gas would soon rise to a price that would make SUV owners rue the day they’d bought the damn things. People would one day be using them as guest bedrooms or greenhouses, I liked to tell friends, and they’d be riding bicycles to work. It wasn’t too far from the truth. The little gas station in Breckenridge had regular gas at $5.63 a gallon on the day we left, and it was about as busy as a Christian Science Reading Room during Mardi Gras. It cost more than $250 to fill the tank of the Excelsior, and the thing only got around 10 miles to the gallon. But we had plenty of Clam’s play money and enough moral rectitude about what we were doing to offset any guilt over the Excelsior’s excesses. And Clam drove; Clam always drove. With his slightly lopsided grin, he hung over the steering wheel like a frat
Miller/Timberwolf/134 boy on a toilet during rush week. Driving 10 m.p.h. over the speed limit and never more, he peered through the windshield and down the road like a raptor looking for prey. “Tailpipe,” he called out, when we were only about 50 miles from home. I looked up from my book. “What?” “That, there, on the side of the road. It’s a chunk of someone’s tailpipe.” “Oh. Where?” “It’s gone Danny. Behind us.” A little while later, it was a smattering of glass where a wreck had taken place, then a short trail of bigrig truck tire remnants. He logged them all, I guess, but only called out a few of the more interesting pieces of road detritus he saw. “Look at that, Danny!” he said, hitting me in the arm and pointing. “Perfectly good couch.” I looked and saw a couch that looked very much like it deserved to be sitting on the side of the road. “You want to stop?” “And get the couch?” “Yeah, sure,” I said. “We can strap it on the roof,
Miller/Timberwolf/135 take it home after the trip.” He licked his lips and thought a moment, then turned to me with a knowing grin. “You’re shitting me, right?” “Right.” A half mile passed. “It was a decent couch.” “You couldn’t have paid me to sit on it.” He didn’t respond to that, moving on to “Hey, an entire friggin’ bumper, look.” I went back to my book. Some people like to spot wildlife or license plates when on a road trip, Clam like road trash. He made it sound like he was in an enormous shopping mall discovering cool stuff, and I wondered how often, on his own, he stopped to pick things up. My friend Jonathan said this was what people from New Hampshire did: If they saw something as lowly as a rag on the side of the road, they’d stop to get it. Was Clam a ragpicker? Or was he just trying to keep his observation skills honed? “Can we stop soon?” said Melanie. “I’ve got to pee.” *** The Ford Excelsior is the largest consumer sport utility vehicle ever offered for sale in the world.
Miller/Timberwolf/136 According to the specs in the owner’s manual I found in the glove box, it weighed 8,356 pounds and held 52 gallons of fuel. “Wow,” said Clam. Nebraska of the day before was a distant memory, and at dusk we’d managed to find a room in a Thrifty Scot; Melanie grumbling on a roll-away, me and Clam all homophobic in the king bed. The room smelled like a pork chop rolled up in a dirty gym sock, but it was better than camping. Sitting there in the passenger seat after a good night sleep, feeling OK, even if the winter landscape was soul-oppressing. I continued reading from the Excelsior’s owner’s manual. “This thing is 234.7 inches long and 82.7 inches wide” It’s 87.3 inches tall.” “That’s disgusting,” Melanie said from the back. “This vehicle is absurd, obnoxious, impractical and, I’ve got to say it, comfortable as hell.” Determined to make the most of our “ride from hell” (“to hell,” Clam had corrected her), Melanie had encamped in the back of the Excelsior with all the nest-feathering skills her squatter heart possessed. Along with enough blankets and pillows to equip a brothel, she had her laptop
Miller/Timberwolf/137 set up (and online), a crate of books, a pile of notepads and a box of food and cooler from which she supplied her incessant appetite for snacks and drinks. I chided her for the caloric intake; Clam for the repeated potty stops. “I’m going to get you a catheter and a leg bag,” Clam said after Melanie’s insistence that we stop at yet another rest area. He pulled into the parking lot and I stopped reading the owner’s manual (itself an impressive size and bound in a faux-leather cover) to look at the wind-swept nothingness of winter-time Iowa outside my window. That included a rather sizeable RV park next to the rest area. “Damn,” I said, watching as my breath fogged the window. Clam nodded. “It doesn’t really recommend itself for relocation, does it?” He called the whole Midwest “Ohiowa” and refused to acknowledge that anyone “normal” could live here. “I mean, why?” he said. “Why would you live here when you could live, you know, somewhere else?” “I don’t know,” I said. “Because it’s where you grew up? You work on a family farm here, you know it here, you like it here?”
Miller/Timberwolf/138 One thing Ohiowa did have to recommend itself was the fact that terrorists had left it largely alone. Blowing up a few rows of corn or a grain silo was more a whimper than a statement, and there was no shortage of juicier targets in other parts of the country. This relative safety zone hadn’t gone unnoticed, especially among the seniors, who’d arrived in places like Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas in droves. RV parks had sprung up all over the place, with enterprising farmers happily replacing some crops with places for the giant vehicles and their inhabitants to call home. “This was probably a nice corn field or something,” Clam said, looking at the mobile homes. “Now look at it.” According to a newspaper story I read, the seniors in the RV parks spent their days trying to fill their larders with decent food and sending urgent pleas to their insane sons and daughters in the cities and suburbs. Only Ohiowa was safe, they wrote, join us here and live in safety! Clam wasn’t swayed. “I’d rather be blown up, I’d rather have my toenails pulled out with a pair of pliers, than live here in a fucking box.” I squinted at the RV park through the late-spring sleet being driven by high wind. Without a word, Clam
Miller/Timberwolf/139 handed me a pair of binoculars, which I trained on a behemoth with the words “Adventurer” written in enormous purple letters on the side. The door to this particular unit had opened a moment ago, and a white-haired man struggled into the wind. His cheap lawn chairs had blown up against the side of his neighbor’s RV, and he was retrieving them. After putting them back in place on a strip of Astroturf outside his door, he headed back inside and, after another brief battle with the wind, closed the door. Point-oh-two seconds later, the chairs blew away again; one lodging under the wheel of the neighbor’s RV and the other disappearing behind a parked Buick. The curtains parted and I saw the white-haired man look out in disgust. The curtains closed and I waited to see him re-emerge. He never did. You could almost hear the “to hell with it!” as he settled back in front of the TV. “Yeah,” I said as Melanie climbed back into the rig, “This is no good.” I put the binoculars away and resumed reading the owner’s manual as Clam brought the beast back up to speed. I was trying to figure out how to get the navigation system to produce alternate rather than direct routes. Clam wanted to know about back roads as we approached our destination in northern Minnesota, but the
Miller/Timberwolf/140 Excelsior’s nav system was only interested in the fastest way between point A and B. You could tell it was made in Detroit and not Italy or some such place, where people drive for fun. “You know, Danny, you could look at a map,” Clam said about 30 miles up the road. “I’m pretty sure we brought one.” And then he blacked out. In a magnificently attenuated moment in time, I watched his head hit the steering wheel, then felt a sickening lurch as the wheels cut sharply to the right. The mighty Excelsior felt as if it’d been slammed by a giant hand, and a moment later, it was all over: Me looking upside down out the cracked windshield as Melanie whimpered in the back. Clam, I was pretty sure, was dead. His head was twisted at an unnatural angle, and blood stained his face, his neck, his shirt. *** Other than the one in the coffee shop, I’d seen one of Clam’s spells once before. It happened while we were watching a Bronco game, and he let an entire plate of nachos slide out of his hand onto the floor. He laughed it off with a joke about narcolepsy and that was it. But after the coffee shop, it occurred to me that a recurrence while
Miller/Timberwolf/141 he was at the wheel could be disastrous. But there was no way I was going to convince him to relinquish the wheel to me or Melanie (who refused to drive it anyway, despite the fact she’d not been offered). Sitting upside down in the trashed Excelsior that morning in Iowa, I did a quick inventory of my body. Everything seemed OK. “Mel?” I said. “You all right?” “I think so,” she said slowly, then: “Whoa. What happened? How’s Clam? Do we need a new car?” Melanie had a habit of asking several questions at a time, which left me always unsure as to which to answer first. This time, I tried in order: “We crashed. He’s not good. Yes, I think so.” I turned to Clam. “Clam. Clam!” No answer. He didn’t look like he was breathing. I’d seen it done on TV and the movies, so I reached out and touched his neck, unsure where I was supposed to feel. And then, there it was: his pulse, constant and strong. “Well, he’s alive,” I said. “But he’s out. And he’s bloody.”
Miller/Timberwolf/142 Melanie and I clambered out of the rig and worked to pull Clam from the wreck. It took a while to get the seat belt off him and ease him out onto the ground. Through it all, he remained unconscious. The blood was from where he’d apparently bitten his tongue. I watched as Melanie cradled his head in her lap and gingerly cleaned his face with a “moist towelette” from the enormous canister she’d insisted on packing. A cop came by after a while, looked important for a moment or two then left after ascertaining we were OK and that an ambulance was on the way. “I could cite you for careless,” he said. “But it looks like you’ve got enough trouble, and your driver’s asleep.” “What a sweetheart,” Melanie said as he pulled away. She threw a bloody towelette on the ground, grabbed another and glared at the cop as he walked back to his car. Then she turned back to Clam without another word. When the ambulance arrived, nearly an hour had passed since the crash. We’d stuffed the most important stuff in Clam’s gym bag along with the cash. The paramedic ruled out a concussion and said the only thing Clam needed was rest and a few stitches. Other than the Excelsior, the biggest
Miller/Timberwolf/143 casualty was Melanie’s laptop, which had all of our files and the satellite uplink board installed on it. It was busted beyond repair. “Let’s take it anyway,” Melanie said. “Maybe we can salvage the hard drive.” Clam came to a few miles down the road. He looked at me and asked what happened. “You blacked out,” I said. “We wrecked.” “Damn. I’m sorry.” “Don’t worry about it,” Melanie said. “We’re just glad you’re OK. We’re all OK.” “Yeah,” he said with a small laugh. “I’m just fine. You guys OK?” We assured him we were. “How about the rig?” It told him it didn’t look so pretty, but it seemed to have withstood the rollover pretty well. Set it right, put some new glass in it, it’ll probably be good as new—minus the wrinkles. “Well, we all get wrinkles,” Clam said, closing his eyes again. We were only a few hours from Rochester and Clam seemed more or less OK, so I told the ambulance guy to take
Miller/Timberwolf/144 us to the Mayo Clinic. His protests ended abruptly when I shoved a wad of fifties in his hand. While Melanie sat holding Clam’s hand and stroking his head, I got a hold of a body shop and arranged to have the Ford taken care of. With any luck, I figured, it’d be ready to pick up on the way back. If there was a way back. I looked up front, over the shoulder of the ambulance guy, at the near-featureless scenery rolling by. Somewhere ahead of us was Timberwolf, and suddenly it seemed like our broken trio was no match for him—or it, or whatever Timberwolf was. #
Melanie and I both thought the other was ignorant of Clam’s spells and the Mayo Clinic trip. When we discovered we both knew something at least, we spoke in the back of the ambulance as Clam slept. “Is it cancer?” I said. We were whispering, surrounded by the antiseptic hospital smells of the ambulance as headlights from the occasional car jumped around inside. It reminded me of a bus trip, a late-night return from a basketball game or a band concert—if I’d ever done that sort of thing.
Miller/Timberwolf/145 “I don’t know,” Melanie said. “I just know he’s supposed to be there a week. I mean, that’s gotta be pretty serious.” We looked over at Clam asleep on the gurney, his head gently lolling with the motion of the ambulance. “God, I hope he’s OK,” I said, really meaning it. “Me too,” Melanie said. “I’ve really come to love our little G-man.” I’m not sure what the expression on my face looked like to her, but I was bemused by her cheesy reference to Clam as “our little G-man” at the same time I was experiencing what can only be described as a tinge of jealousy. “And don’t worry,” Melanie said, “I love you too.” Stealing a glance at the still-sleeping Clam, she leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. I caught the glance of one of the EMTs in a headlight, backed away from Melanie and looked at the floor. “Wow Melanie,” I said. “That was … sweet. Thanks.” It was dark again in the ambulance. We went another quarter mile before Melanie spoke, this time stiffly. “You’re welcome, Daniel.”
Miller/Timberwolf/146 ### By the time we arrived at the Mayo Clinic, Clam was fully awake, propped up on the gurney on his elbow and rambling about everything from “his poor, poor Excelsior” to an impromptu dissertation about the Tamil Tigers of the Badlands. “Is he delirious, or what?” Melanie said to me as Clam, waving merrily, was wheelchaired out of sight at the clinic. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m more interested in talking about what went on in the ambulance.” “Oh,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.” But I was. I hadn’t responded properly and I felt the need to fix. “I really appreciate what you said …” I said. “I just …” “Don’t, Danny. It’s OK. Just because one person feels a particular way, it doesn’t mean the other person has to. I was just, I dunno, tired and emotional or something.” Walking out of the super-reality of the clinic cast an annoyingly practical frame around any attempt I might make to say something nice. That, and we were surrounded by all of our luggage, trying to hail a cab at 3 a.m. in
Miller/Timberwolf/147 Rochester, Minnesota. At least it gave us something other to talk about. “I don’t think there are going to be any cabs,” I said after standing in the chill breeze for a while. “What we really need to do is get a rental car and drive back to the Excelsior for the rest of our stuff.” “Yes, I’m sure there’s a rental car place open around here somewhere,” Melanie said. Sarcasm on her lips didn’t seem a good match, like ketchup on cake. I looked sideways at her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just beat.” I found a phone book and called a taxi company. Half an hour later, a dusty, silent little man pulled up in a station wagon and took us to a Best Western. We checked into a room with two queen-sized beds and a carpet that looked like a confusion of early Klee paintings attacked with Silly String. Not bothering to undress, I fell asleep on the bed closest to an “environmental control system” that belted out either liquid nitrogen or solar wind and nothing in between.
Chapter 3 When I was a senior in high school, I worked for a few hours every day after class at Chester’s Body Shop on
Miller/Timberwolf/148 Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. Against protest from me and my mother, my father insisted I should “get my hands dirty,” fearing that if I didn’t, I’d grow into the spoiled weenie I grew into anyway. Chester’s was owned by a friend of Dad’s from high school named John Turk. When I was escorted into his filthy office one September afternoon, Turk was sitting behind his desk stirring a Styrofoam cup of Lipton tea with a screwdriver. “I can’t ever find that box of plastic spoons the secretary got for me a few years ago,” he said off my amazed stare. Raised by a mother who, if she dropped a pat of butter, thought it wise to throw out all the butter in the house, I was highly germ-conscious and appalled that a grown man could flout conventional germ theory so brazenly. Looking around the office, it quickly became clear that this was the antithesis of mom’s house, where all soaps were of the anti-bacterial variety and the carpet was vacuumed every other day. Stacks of unopened mail lay atop John Turk’s desk, a wretched Wal-Mart coffee pot sat unevenly atop a Fram filter catalog and a calendar two years past its prime featured girls in bikinis holding dual-action sanders and buffing wheels. They wore high heels, and they stood next
Miller/Timberwolf/149 to shiny chop-rods and customized pickup trucks, and I know this because I’d later spend a lot of time flipping through the pages, wondering about the girls in the pictures. Even more amazing than John Turk’s office was the shop itself. Every inch of it was covered in dust, excreta from the dual-action sanders (or “DAs,” as I soon came to know them) that buzzed constantly on the vehicles in the shop. The perimeter of the shop was lined with a dizzying array of shit: 55-gallon drums of paint thinner, benches full of air chisels and used sandpaper blocks, twisted fenders and bumpers, boxes both full and empty with “Toyota Genuine Parts” or “MOPAR” or “GM” marked on them. An expensivelooking air filtration machine whirred and snapped overhead, but it seemed to have little impact on the choking atmosphere of the shop. I took one breath and assumed I’d soon die of black lung or emphysema, thus releasing me from the hell of working in this place. As we toured the shop, I looked at my dad hopefully, thinking he’d assess the horrible conditions and lead me briskly from the premises—hopefully to a nice, high-paying job doing nothing in an office for one of his white-collar friends. But Dad looked around as if we’d just lighted in
Miller/Timberwolf/150 Valhalla. “Look at this, Danny,” he said in a hoarse whisper, “This is MEN working! Real work.” Before I could react to this pronouncement, John Turk shoved a push-broom in my hands and looked me up and down. “You’re wearing that?” he said, as if I’d shown up at his shop wearing a tutu and a dance belt. I was, in fact, wearing my very worst pair of jeans, ones my mother had pronounced “unacceptable” due to their frayed cuffs. I also had on a brand-new giveaway T-shirt from some “fun run” Dad had finished half of on Father’s Day. It was, truly, the most despicable ensemble my mother could cobble together from my wardrobe, but compared to the other guys in the shop, it looked like a tuxedo. “Um …” I said, but John Turk was already headed back to the shop, saying he wanted to show my Dad something and calling over his shoulder, “Just clean up out here, OK? The place is a shithole.” And so I swept. There were only two guys working in the shop, a painter named James and a body man named Arlis. Among the confused jumble of crap on the floor, it was difficult for me to know what was to be saved and what should be tossed. So I’d pick things up and show them to
Miller/Timberwolf/151 James or Arlis, who’d stop what they were doing for a second and issue a verdict. It didn’t take long to realize Arlis preferred not to be bothered, so I started taking everything to James, a 6-foot blond all of 22 years old with a pale growth of facial hair to which shop dust clung like pollen. “Um, shitcan it,” James said about a new-looking taillight I found under a ball of masking paper. “That job’s long gone.” Verdicts ran into two categories: either “shit-can it” or “better gimme that,” whereupon James would take the item in question, scrutinize it for a moment, then toss it back in his “corner.” “I’ll sort through that later,” he’d say. James was thin as a lamp post and wore a blue uniform work shirt tucked into tight, paint-splattered Wranglers. He smoked Salems faithfully and incessantly, punctuating drags with slugs from a battered “Kum-n-Go” coffee cup up until about 3 in the afternoon, after which time, depending on the location of John Turk, he would switch to Diet Coke or Coors Light. Despite an affectation of great busyness, John Turk was rarely seen at Chester’s after lunch time. He scheduled
Miller/Timberwolf/152 all of his estimates and other appointments for morning and, after telling us he’d be “back in a bit,” he’d disappear until the following morning. “He’s got a momma somewhere he’s jumpin’,” James said. “Ol’ Daddy Turk, he’s getting’ some somewhere.” When Turk left, Danny would hand me a dusty, crumpled bill or two from his pocket and say the same thing every day: “I’ll buy if you fly.” And flew I did, down to a drive-in liquor store and back with an estimated round-trip time of seven minutes. If I took any longer, the parched-looking James would glare at me through narrowed eyes and a cloud of Salem smoke and ask me where the hell I’d been. Beer cans looked small in James’ enormous hands. He’d rip into the cardboard six-pack holder and one-handedly snap open the pop top, draining half the can and exhaling a happy “Holy shit that’s good!” Then he’d look at me. “You want one, Freddy?” Depending on how much work he had to do or if he was going to paint a car that afternoon (he’d always wait until the end of the day for the dust to settle before he painted), Danny and I would go through either a six-pack or a case of Coors Light. Even though I was an inexperienced
Miller/Timberwolf/153 drinker at the time, the soda-pop thin beer didn’t seem to have too great an effect on me outside much more frequent trips to the (appallingly disgusting) bathroom. But Danny was an alcoholic, and after he had three or four in him, he couldn’t shut up. With the omnipresent Salem in the corner of his mouth and a sprayer full of primer in hand, he’d shoot a quarter panel I’d just prepped and tell me about his crazy wife, Jane, his beautiful daughter Clarissa and his old life back in Denver, where he worked in the body shop of a Cadillac dealer. He sounded like a guy in the minors who’d had one season in the big league and couldn’t ever forget about it. “This place,” he’d say, waving his hand around the depressing four walls of Chester’s, “This place is for hack-work. At Hallenbeck (the Cadillac dealer), we had an air filter system, shit, you could bring your fucking baby in there and let ‘em breathe the air!” When I heard “At Hallenbeck…” more than a few times in an hour, then I knew Danny was getting drunk enough to move onto his next favorite topic: Arlis, and what a lazy fuck the body man was. “That Arlis,” he’d say, gesturing with the spray gun toward whatever vehicle Arlis was working on, “I mean,
Miller/Timberwolf/154 where the fuck is he?” Elusive as a snow leopard, Arlis was hard to find other than first thing in the morning. Since I wasn’t there until afternoon, I rarely saw him at all. I could see where he was working—a half-finished quarter panel, a roof welded on but not yet completed. Browbeaten by James, he’d occasionally appear in the afternoon to finish something, then say quietly to me: “Tell James this one here’s done.” And then he’d be gone, leaving a car ready for me to prep and James to paint. James would come over, take a look at what Arlis had left and sigh, “Jesus.” I wasn’t ever sure what this meant: that he didn’t like the quality of the work, that it meant he had to slow down drinking Coors Light enough to paint the thing, or what. But to me, “Jesus” meant it was time to get out the sander, giving me a much-needed reprieve from sweeping and trying to organize the entropy of pieces-parts (as James called them) strewn about the shop. *** I was thinking about James and Chester’s and that particular life chapter when Melanie and I drove into the parking lot of Ferguson Auto Body in Mason City, Iowa. She’d convinced me nothing would make Clam happier, thus
Miller/Timberwolf/155 speeding his recovery, than the sight of the Excelsior in pristine condition following the wreck. I told her my experience, of how cars would sit for weeks in the shop while we waited for parts to come in, how big wrecks could take months to finish and the glacial pace at which body shop workers moved. I assumed this was an industry-wide phenomenon and not just how things got done at Chester’s in Santa Monica. “I bet a wad of C-notes’ll make ‘em move like greased lightning,” Melanie said, a logic I could hardly refute. I hadn’t even considered using the “shit money” to bribe the body shop into action, but the notion of wandering into a sleepy body shop and rousing the staff with wads of cash was extremely interesting to me. I roused Melanie early on our second day in Rochester, hustled her into our rented Ford Taurus clutching an Egg McMuffin and a coffee, and clicked off the 100-odd miles to Mason City in about 90 minutes. The banged-up Excelsior was right out front, parked unceremoniously next to a dumpster and covered with an inch of wet snow. It couldn’t have looked more forlorn, for a non-sentient entity, and I was glad Clam would never see it this way.
Miller/Timberwolf/156 “The drill would be, it’d sit here for a few weeks before someone would say something like, ‘Hey, should we do something with that Ford out front?’” I said, invoking my expert’s tone. “Then maybe they’ll tow it inside and let it marinate in a bay for a few more weeks while they finish other stuff. And then maybe one day the insurance adjuster will come by and …” Melanie put a hand on my arm. “Danny,” she said, “Let’s just get this over with and get the hell out of here, OK?” The office at Ferguson’s Auto Body looked and smelled exactly like Chester’s, right down to the coating of dust and the outdated bikini-girls-with-tools calendar on the
wall. John Ferguson, however, looked more like a real estate agent than a body shop guy, with his crisp Dockers and clean, logo’d denim shirt. When I told him we wanted the Excelsior done by the end of the week, he didn’t laugh as I thought he would’ve and should’ve. He just looked at me and said, “Wow. Four days, huh? Interesting. ” I laid four stacks of hundreds on his desk, counting as I went: “Day one, one thousand; day two, two thousand; day three, three thousand; day four, four thousand. And that’s on top of whatever it costs to repair.”
Miller/Timberwolf/157 And then it was quiet in the office, the stillness interrupted suddenly by the whir of a DA back in the shop. It seemed to rouse Ed Ferguson, who paused for a moment, then told me to come back Friday at 6 p.m. We thanked him and left, adding, I thought, a wonderful layer of mystery that would have the boys at the shop telling this story for years. In addition to getting Clam’s car fixed, I congratulated myself on brightening the dull lives of the staff at Ferguson Auto Body. All it took was cash. Amazing. On the way out, I peered through the window that looked out into the shop, half expecting to see James out there, sanding a quarter panel with a Salem hanging out of his face. But I didn’t see anyone, only sizing up in my mind how long it’d take me with a broom to clean up this particular shop. Only about an hour, I reckoned. It wasn’t that bad. “You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” Melanie said on the way back. “The power, it’s unbelievable,” I said. “I’ve known it for years, but I’m always amazed at what money can do. Except buy you love, of course.” Back in Rochester, we went over to the clinic to see
Miller/Timberwolf/158 Clam. He was undergoing tests, so we sat in the waiting room reading old golf magazines until a nurse told us we could see him. He looked wan but smiled when he saw us. “Hey guys! What’s up? How’s the Excelsior?” “It’ll be done by the end of the week,” I said. “Outstanding! Amazing, the power of cash, isn’t it? Powerful and disgusting.” He wanted to know all about the transaction at the body shop, laughing guardedly throughout, like a guy with some bruised ribs. “So,” I said, eyeing him, “You OK or what?” “Does it hurt to laugh, Clam?” Melanie said. He waved his hand and pursed his lips. “Just some soreness, from the crash I guess. No worries. But look …” His voice dropped. “I’m going to be in here another few days, they’ve got some more tests and stuff. But hey … I need some help from you while I’m in here.” We waited while he fumbled for more words. “This is, this is stuff I wasn’t expecting to ask of you, but we’ve got to have some things for this trip up to the island, and I’m stuck in here.” A few minutes later, smiling his thin Clam smile, he
Miller/Timberwolf/159 waved to us as an orderly rolled him away. Over lunch at a chain restaurant that specialized in ribs that tasted like plastic in spicy ketchup, we drank iced teas, licked our fingers and contemplated the fact that our appointment that evening was with a black-market arms dealer. “This is serious, huh?” Melanie said. “I guess it is.” “I mean, we could get arrested if we get caught, and who’s going to believe us that we’re the good guys?” It was true. “It has to be done,” I said. “Although it hardly seems real.” And then it occurred to me that, as such, it fit in perfectly with the rest of it all. Nutbags blowing themselves up in American shopping malls, mega-jerks killing the Underdog float at the Macy’s Parade, Tamil Tigers blowing up rock formations in South Dakota, Sendero Luminoso operatives on the loose in home improvement stores … against this context, going to see an arms dealer in Rochester, Minnesota with a white-collar squatter named Melanie made as much sense as anything else. Perhaps we should take a rickshaw, I suggested, or ride a pair of unicycles, just to complete the picture.
Miller/Timberwolf/160 “Well,” said Melanie, a dab of barbecue sauce perched on the end of her nose, “I don’t know about that, but I’m glad I’m doing it with you. It’s an adventure, isn’t it? We’re having an adventure.” I dabbed at her nose with a napkin saying “Yes, I suppose we are,” while it occurred to me that I wasn’t turned off by her slight gaffe. Generally, it took only minute flaws in women to start forming my rationale for the inevitable split, and things like messy table manners were right up there with chunky butts, hairy nipples and crooked teeth when it came time to say to myself, “Check, please!” It generally occurred when the woman in question rose to go the ladies’ room at whatever tony LA eatery we happened to be at. I’d lost so many partners to teeth chives and improper fish-fork usage that in recent years I’d become quite adept at steering them away from sharing meals to doing more museum- and gallery-oriented stuff. Their brutish comments on the art notwithstanding, it was easier to handle a philistine than a barbarian. I cringed to myself, thinking about my behavior, but something was different here. Melanie was not a girlfriend, of course, nor was I thinking she ever would be. A bit sloppy, yes, but no thug. I smiled, thinking how she
Miller/Timberwolf/161 wouldn’t know of the existence of fish forks. “What?” she said, smiling back. “Do I have something in my teeth, too?” Without waiting for an answer, she whipped out her compact and performed a quick, discreet inspection, grinning into the mirror as I looked at her through a slightly different prism. ###
Miller/Timberwolf/162 “This is ridiculous,” I said in a whisper. “I feel like an extra in a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger film.” “Do you mean to imply there are some good ones?” Melanie said, her voice a hiss, her eyes peering forward in the dark. We were crouching in a mass of low, poky bushes outside the Timberwolf redoubt, waiting for what we didn’t know. Clam and James had gone in over an hour ago, leaving Mel and me to cool our heels and slap mosquitoes a few hundred yards from the compound. Our faces were blacked and we wore black jeans, shirts and stocking caps. In my hand was a black, .45 police revolver, and it was about the only thing I was feeling confident about at the moment. The guns heft and undeniable stopping power was almost enough to make me forget that, in my hands, it was about as accurate and deadly as throwing rocks. Melanie’s weapon–a CO2-powered pellet gun–lay on a rock in front of her. It was the most lethal weapon she’d allow Clam to give her, and she was a crack shot with it, hitting so many bullseyes in our practice sessions on the island over the past week that Clam gave her a “field commendation” for marksmanship: a chilled bottle of pinot grigio.
Miller/Timberwolf/163 “If things get really bad, just shoot ‘em in the eyes,” James said. “Or the nuts. That always stops ‘em, pellets or whatever.” Right now, it looked to me as if all the time we’d spent at the Wildwood Lodge target range was for nothing. It occurred to me that Clam had trained and positioned us solely as a gesture; he didn’t really expect us to do anything other than stay safe while he and James went on their “recon” into the terrorist’s lodge. We’d probably just get in the way, or shoot ourselves in the foot, I thought, shifting my weight from my sound-asleep right foot to my left. Melanie shifted too, and I thought about her comment to Clam about the use of the word “recon.” “It just sounds so cheesy,” she’d said. “Can’t we just call it a fact-finding mission or an off-site focus group or something?” I stifled a giggle at the memory, then remembered this was serious business. I focused my attention on the dark clearing between our bushes and the lodge. One light was on in the building, and it was the only thing visible in an otherwise toner-black night. Next to me, Melanie stiffened. “Did you hear something?” she said. From the direction of the lodge we heard the distinct
Miller/Timberwolf/164 sound of footsteps drawing closer. The briefest flash of a tiny penlight Clam carried confirmed it was friend not foe, and in another moment they were crouched down with us trying to field our whispered questions. “Not here,” Clam said. “Let’s go.” Back at our lodge, Clam and James debriefed us. “Is ‘debriefed’ OK as a term for this?” he asked Melanie. “I guess,” she said, smiling. “Although you could just call it a follow-up meeting. Or a recap.” James sighed and peeled the tab off a Coors Light. As a condition of coming along, he was limited to two Silver Bullets per diem, and it was pitifully comical to watch him nurse the precious liquid rather than pour it down his neck in two gulps as he was accustomed. In an odd way, I felt a stir of pride when I saw him drink and recognized his strength in reining in his insatiable thirst. Somehow, I was instrumental in his reform, I was giving him a new lease on life, a hand up. I took a break from my selfcongratulation to listen to Clam. “The bottom line is, these guys are pushovers,” he said. “They don’t post guards, they don’t lock the doors, they don’t have any kind of security system or dogs or
Miller/Timberwolf/165 anything.” “They don’t even have a fucking cat,” James said. “I used to know this fella, had a cat that’d piss in the toilet and hiss and meow like a motherfucker if anyone came within a hundred feet of the house.” “Yes,” Clam said with his vast resources of patience, “I’ve heard of cats like that. The bottom line is, these guys don’t have one, or anything else. We could’ve walked out of there with all their weapons and gear tonight, made a few trips, banged the doors and backed a truck up to the front door and I don’t think they’d’ve noticed. They’re just not expecting anything.” “Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Melanie said. “I may not have to shoot anyone in the eye?” “Or the nuts,” James said. “Not likely,” Clam said. “But we don’t want to wait any longer, so I’m thinking tomorrow night, while the moon’s still new and everything’s still there.” By “everything,” Clam meant the terrorists’ cache of weapons and explosives. He’d done a quick inventory while he was in the lodge’s basement and reckoned there was enough there to equip bombers for years. “I don’t know how the hell they got it all in there,
Miller/Timberwolf/166 but it’s like a goddamn Wal-Mart,” James said by way of corroboration. “He’s right,” Clam said. “All I have to do is light the fuse and … ka-boom!” “And then, so we can go home like the day after tomorrow?” Melanie asked hopefully. “Before that, actually,” Clam said. “We don’t want to be around when that stuff goes up.” It sounded good to me. The restaurant at Wildwood sucked, the pool was covered with leaves, and the other guests were guys who measured their manhood in the points on the deer they killed from afar with their scoped, highpowered rifles. They hardly even needed to get out of their rooms to hunt, the island was so well stocked. Even James thought they were a bunch of “henyuck motherfuckers.” “Whatever that means,” Melanie had said, pouring some coffee in James’ cup and not on his head as I might have feared. He ignored her, as he usually did with women– especially ones he didn’t think he could bang. The fact that he was convinced she was with me wouldn’t have mattered much if he’d been interested, he told me. “I’m an alley cat, Danny,” he told me one night at the
Miller/Timberwolf/167 lodge. “But that girlie of yours, she’s kinda chubby. She’s safe around me.” Since I’d already told him a half-dozen times there was nothing between me and Melanied, I let it slide. Mel had gone to bed with a migraine and Clam was asleep at his usual hour of 8. That left James and me on the porch, sipping beer and talking almost like we did 20 years before. Much of James’ patter was the same, but it lacked the newness it had for me as a teenager. To my oler ears, it was baseless bluster, now laced with a cynicism formed by two more decades of hard drinking, a divorce and bitter custody dispute and a professional wanderlust that never kept James at the same shop for more than a year or two. According to him, no shop, no body man, was equal to his painting skills. “They all hacks, Danny,” he told me, blowing smoke towards a cloud of gnats buzzing around some unseen nucleus just off our deck. “Nobody gives a flying fuck about a good job. They just want to turn shit around, wheel the next job in and go home.” He told me nobody prepped for paint as well as me, excepting, of course, the two girls at Hallenbeck who worked as a team when he was shooting there “back in the
Miller/Timberwolf/168 day.” “Why don’t you go to Hallenbeck?” I said. “If they’re so great, I mean, you’re a hell of a painter. They should hire you.” He was quiet for a moment, blowing more clouds at the gnats and fingering a dent in his beer can like he was sizing it up for body work. “Nah,” he said. “They were sold and it ain’t the same crew. Just more hacks. An’ I heard they got a nigger painter in there now, to boot.” So there it was. There went the neighborhood at the finest body shop in the world, according to James. They hired a nigger for head painter. I stood up. “You ain’t going to bed already are you?” he said. “It’s only 9 for chrissakes.” “I’m sorry James, I said. “I’m beat.” “OK, suit yourself,” he said. “Go jump in bed there with hefty mamma.” I froze, my hand still on the door handle ready to whisk it open and closed against the moths, clustered against the porch light like groupies at the backstage door. One thing I’d learned from having worked a few blue-
Miller/Timberwolf/169 collar jobs in my day is that the rank-and-file guys loved to razz the college boy. I’d had it corroborated by friends who’d also worked in the salt mines during summer breaks from college–or in that nebulous year following graduation, when you realized your liberal arts degree qualified you for nothing, really, and that jobs landscaping or sanding cars were easier to secure than something in your dream profession. In that world, the career guys had, it seemed, a right to haze those of us who were just passing through. Our education was to be mocked, ridiculed as of small import in the “real” world where skill and brawn counted for more than knowledge and intelligence. And so we laughed it off, secure, we hoped, in the knowledge that we’d be doing something with clean fingernails and more money before long. I knew James had a mean streak in him, but I’d always withstood his comments to me with my mother-endowed patience and father-lectured noblesse oblige to tolerate “the little man.” And even though James’ opinion of Melanie was of little consequence to me, it struck me that letting his comment go would be an endorsement of sorts. Rarely did I ever bother to take a stand, but I took my hand off the door, turned to James and stooped to his level.
Miller/Timberwolf/170 “Don’t say that kind of shit about Melanie,” I said, standing awkwardly over him and bumping up against an alpha male ego that had him established, long ago, as the older, more experienced man–the mentor. “She’s not my girfriend, which I’ve told you a hundred times, but she’s a good friend, a good person, and it’s not your fucking place to talk shit about her.” James unfolded his long legs from where he had them propped on the railing and hoisted himself to his feet so he could look down on me once again. I shifted back a few inches, feeling my stomach quiver and the hairs on the back of my neck raise as my agitated system dumped adrenaline into my bloodstream. Was he going to hit me? And then what? Would I hit him back? What did it feel like to get punched in the face? I had no idea. But James just reached out, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry there, Freddy. I didn’t mean nothing by it.” He felt the tightness in my shoulder. “Jesus Christ!” he said. “Relax for fuck’s sake! Have a goddamn beer.” And just like that, he turned it around to a joke, a
Miller/Timberwolf/171 misunderstanding brought about by my own uptight character. But that was it for me. I’d used up my chutzpah for one day and wasn’t prepared to go a Round Two. I wasn’t really tired, though, and I accepted the proffered Silver Bullet and confronted James on the Hallenbeck thing. “So, you’re telling me you won’t work at the greatest body shop in the world because there’s a black guy there?” I said. “A black guy who’d be my boss,” he said. “OK,” I said, “A black guy who’d be your boss. It that such a big deal?” “And it ain’t the greatest body shop in the world anymore.” “OK, even given that, is it such a big deal to …” “No, Danny,” he said, “It’s not that big a deal. The black guy, I mean. Sure, I grew up hearing all kinds of bad shit about black people, but they ain’t never bothered me. I just say that shit because I think it sounds tough, or funny.” Another drag off the Salem, a final pull from his second beer of the day. We sat and listened to the sound of the night outside the lodge: crickets, some wind in the trees, maybe an owl.
Miller/Timberwolf/172 “The fact is, I ain’t the painter I once was. I ain’t the painter I was supposed to be.” He looked at the empty beer can and crumpled it up in his fist. “I’m a fucking drunk, Danny. I care more about Coors Light than I do about anything else. Drunks don’t make great painters. Or great husbands or fathers. Drunks don’t make great anythings, I guess. We’re good for beer companies, but that’s about it.” Painting cars is not easy. I know because I’d tried it on an old dune buggy of John Turk’s he let me paint as my “graduation” project before I left Chester’s for college. Most cars are painted in factories by robots. In body shops, humans have to try to recreate the precision of those robot arms with their own meat and bones, and there was a huge difference, I learned, between spraying on a coat of primer without runs (which I could do fairly well after a while) and going into the spray booth to lay down a finished product with metallic paint that cost a hundred bucks a gallon. The painter had to lay down the coats in different layers, so the metallic is distributed evenly and not bunched up in any one place. He had to put the paint down in patterns that were as seemingly abstract as they
Miller/Timberwolf/173 were orderly, since you had to get the same amount of paint on all surfaces at the same time you had to mix it up to make the metallic work. James, John Turk had told me, was a master. “That son of a bitch, watch him paint some time,” Turk said. “It looks like he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, just waving the gun around like crazy. But see how that metallic lays down for him. There aren’t a lot of guys who can do it right.” But I never did, leaving for school at the end of the summer before another paint job came along. So that’s why, 20 years later, I drove into Mason City, Iowa the day before the Excelsior was to be finished. I put on a respirator and accompanied James into the booth, determined to learn the secret of painting metallic. With the booth hosed down, the fans blowing, the truck sitting there all perfectly prepped, masked and wiped at the last minute with cheesecloth to get any remaining dust particles, I felt wholly intimidated, like an actor going on stage in front of an audience for the first time. Hat on backwards, respirator in place (the only time I ever saw him Salem-less) and with a half-gallon or so of Coors Light swishing around inside him, James strode in
Miller/Timberwolf/174 with his gun and hooked it onto the air hose. “You ready, Freddy?” he yelled, his voice muffled and straining to be heard over the ventilators. I gave him the thumbs-up sign and did my best to stay out of the way as he moved around the car, transforming the matte-gray primer into a midnight blue flake. It was magic, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying to me as I thought of how easily the job could be screwed up. I was also afraid James would hand me the gun and have me paint a bit, but I was spared this as it became clear this was all his. Suddenly, I saw this bitter, drunken man, a nobody in the world scrabbling for enough money to pay the rent and keep himself in beer and smokes, transform into an artist of the highest sort. Since I knew he was drunk, I could attribute his perfect painting technique to pure talent, existing on a plane above that of common-sense, sobriety or intelligence. As I watched the paint go on, layer after layer and in all different directions, my affection for James turned into reverence as I comprehended what he was doing. And now here he was, telling me what a loser he thought himself to be. I told him I thought otherwise. “Thanks Danny, but I know I’m a good painter,” he said. “I’m just not a good enough person to be at the top
Miller/Timberwolf/175 of the heap.” Again, I opened my mouth to protest. “It’s OK, you don’t have to try to make me feel better,” he said. “I know who I am and what I am. I’ve never had a chance to do anything else, which is why I’m sitting here tonight. You’re the first opportunity that’s ever come up.” Curious about the rich fuck spending an extra four grand to have his vehicle done in a week, James said he looked on the work order, saw my name and somehow knew it was the same Dan Gould he used to send out for beer. He called the hotel the night after Melanie and I got back from visiting an arms dealer who traveled under the name Voltaire. Melanie and I left the explosives and ammunition in the trunk of the rental car, but we took the guns and laid them out on the bed, marveling at what we had, like kids post trick-or-treating. Voltaire had walked us through each weapon, assuring us none were loaded. I wasn’t sure whether what we had represented what Clam had asked for or what Voltaire had available, but it was an impressive array of hardware nonetheless. I was spinning the chamber of the .45 I’d picked, enjoying the familiar sound I knew only from movies
Miller/Timberwolf/176 and TV, when the phone clattered awake. Melanie droppe the Ruger she was inspecting and a look of a dread crossed her face. “Who the hell is that?” Melanie said. “It’s after midnight.” I picked up the phone. It was James. “Hey Freddy,” he said. “It’s your old friend James. If I do a decent job, can I get another grand?” Twenty years had passed, but I had no trouble recognizing his voice. And, of course, he was working at midnight because he wanted a chunk of that cash. I felt guilty, all of the sudden, when I thought of him away from his wife and kids. Then I realized his daughter was probably all grown up by now. “Jane’s going to kick your ass, you stay out too late,” I said, congratulating myself at not appearing surprised to hear from him. “Jane?! Jane!” he said, yelling over the sound of an air chisel in the background. “Are you fucking kidding me? THAT bitch? She’s long gone, Danny, long gone. Took all my money and my daughter and disappeared 15 years ago.” So what do you say to that? “I’m sorry James,” I said, waving away Melanie and her
Miller/Timberwolf/177 gesticulated demands to know who was on the phone. “Well,” James said, “it ain’t nothin’ now. But listen, you’ve gotta come down here. You left some shit in this Ford that I don’t want around here. Guns and bombs and shit. What the hell are you up to, Danny Gould? There’s money, too. But I’m too fucking honest to take it without asking first.” This must be some cache Clam had either forgotten about or chose not to mention. James’ words, combined with the bed full of weaponry and the whole mad tableau, made me feel like some yawning hell-hole was opening up under my feet. I told him I’d be there in two hours and hung up, feeling all the color drain from my face as I turned to Melanie. “What!? What?!” she said. “What is it?!” I told her it was James, yes, the guy I’d told her about. I told her about the guns, the bombs in the SUV. I held my hand out in front of me and marveled at how it shook. “I can’t handle this, Melanie,” I said. “This just isn’t me. I mean, all that shit you see in movies, people all cool running around with guns and killing people, I mean, that’s just movies, that’s not real life and I’m just
Miller/Timberwolf/178 not cut out for it.” Melanie said nothing, but gathered me up in her arms, stroking my back, my hair. Almost immediately, I felt the panic subside even as tears rolled down my face. Words seemed pointless, the touch was everything. I held onto her for a long 10 minutes, a transference of energy from her to me that filled me up in a way alcohol, Zoloft or pussy never could. Who knew? Twenty minutes later, somewhat restored, I left her to get some sleep and jumped into the Taurus and headed to Ferguson’s, ostensibly to pick up even more guns, cash and explosives. Whatever. I wasn’t sure how to cogently fit James Huber into the equation, but I tried not to think too much about it. Somehow it’d make sense. Heading south on Interstate 35, I tried to imagine what the last 20 years had been like for James, what it would be like to see him again, listen to his stories. I’d had enough experience with meeting old friends after a decade or two had passed to know these were generally not rich or happy events. Most friends are ephemeral, serving some kind of need or filling a highly specialized niche at a given time, and they rarely translate into other times and circumstances. At best, I figured, I would shoot the
Miller/Timberwolf/179 breeze with James for 20 minutes, give him my bullshit story about the things he found in the Excelsior, wish him the best and head back to Rochester. “Simple,” I said aloud to myself in the car. “No problem.” No one was in the office, so I walked into the shop, allowing the overwhelming and distinctive array of body shop smells wrap themselves around my memory. James had the Excelsior on a frame-straightening rack when I walked in. He took one look at me, shook my hand and said, “You really fucked this thing up, y’know. What the hell, were you drunk?” I gave him the Cliff Notes on the wreck and expressed surprise that the frame was bent. “Well, Buckwheat, these friggin’ things are so heavy, when they roll it does a lot more damage than you think.” I could be a millionaire, a captain of industry, a head of state, but to James, I was still just “Buckwheat”— one of his many pet names for people he liked. The Korak Frame System is a busy, manly contraption that incorporates a lot of chains and hooks into a series of steel rails embedded in the floor. The Excelsior was already anchored in place with several chains, and Danny
Miller/Timberwolf/180 was just setting up his first pull with the hydraulic ram when I walked in. A silent John Ferguson inspected his work, nodding at me as I entered. “Watch this, Freddy,” he said, plugging an air hose into the ram and standing back with his foot on the lever. He pushed down and the ram began its chuffing, gradually taking up the slack in the chain and pulling at the vehicle’s frame enough to bring the anchors taught. The Excelsior looked like an unbroken horse, tied down from all sides and straining to tear free. James stopped the chuffing for a moment, looked over at me and said “Here we go!” As the ram began to strain against the strength of the steel, its chuffing slowed noticeably and the Excelsior yawed to one side, its tires skidding slightly over the shop floor, inch by inch. Finally, there was no slack left anywhere and the frame itself began to yield. John Ferguson was there now, and he was peering underneath at the stress point. “A little bit more, James!” he said, yelling over the noise of the ram and the compressor. “Hit it again!” More chuffing. “Again!” Silence as the compressor took a break and the chuffing stopped. An out-of-tune radio in the back
Miller/Timberwolf/181 played “Layla,” and James gave me a sideways look I couldn’t interpret. “That’s it, James.” Ferguson said. “That’s good, that’s really good. I think we got it. Go ahead and set up for the next one.” He wandered back to prime a new hood sitting on a barrel, as James, grumbling, backed the ram off and removed the hooks. “You see this?” he said. “I’m little slave boy now, ‘cause of you!” The truth was, he and Ferguson didn’t want to split the cash more than two ways, so they’d given the shop boy and the regular body man a few days off and we’re working around the clock, just the two of them. “Greed can drive a man to do just about anything,” I said. “This is true,” he said. Then, in a lowered voice, he said: “Listen Danny, there’s a bag on the front seat of my car out front with all your shit in it. I’m not gonna ask you any questions but I will say this: You need any help with whatever it is you’re doing, you give ol’ James a call, hear?” After a few words with Ferguson about the progress of
Miller/Timberwolf/182 the job, I bid them goodnight, left a guilty stack of 50s on the desk and headed outside to look for James’ car. It wasn’t hard to find, since he only drove one model: the AMC Javelin. “Looks like a ’69,” I said aloud, eyeing it in the glow of the outside shop light. I could see different colored panels, primer spots, a missing rear bumper and other evidence that the Javelin was still a work in progress. I smiled, pulling open the door that dropped an inch once released from the latch. This was James’ world, a place where coat-hanger antennas and duct-taped seats were the norm. I’d even seen him drive around for weeks sitting on a crate while he waited for a new seat to come in from the junkyard. Comfort was not a big consideration; actually completing something appeared not to be an option. I grabbed the heavy bag, hoisted the equally heavy door back into place and headed north again, keeping the needle just a few clicks above the speed limit and trying not to dwell on the consequences if I got pulled over. I thought of Melanie sleeping peacefully in our hotel bed as I wandered around the plains in the wee hours, picking up guns and bombs and stuff. Her safe, me out taking risks, I imagined an under-used, dusty little place in my endocrine
Miller/Timberwolf/183 system releasing small amounts of testosterone for the first time in years, the result of my hunter-gatherer activities. I smiled wryly to myself and tuned the radio to a classic rock station, enjoying songs like “Cold As Ice” and “Highway 61 Revisited” by pretending to hear them for the first time. # I didn’t mention the fact that the frame on the Excelsior was bent and just offered a rosy account of the progress as his face brightened. “That’s excellent,” Clam said. “Thanks so much for dealing with that, Danny.” It was hard to say Clam looked well. Despite the fact that he had no lingering complications from the concussion he suffered in the wreck, he looked very much like a guy in the hospital. He had an IV in his arm to facilitate the many blood tests he was undergoing, a few days’ stubble on his wan, tired face, and an aura around him of a guy stripped of his mojo. His eyes, however, were as bright as ever, and he just wanted to know one thing: Were we still in? I was in for the duration. I’d spent my whole life going home or backing out when things got too inconvenient,
Miller/Timberwolf/184 and I was determined to keep going on this one. Melanie said more or less the same, and Clam rubbed his hands together. “Excellent. And so you got the goods?” “Right,” I said. “And the Excelsior will be ready Friday?” “Hopefully,” I said. “Hell, if not we can always buy another.” “Well, I like that one,” Clam said. “And I need the time here anyway. But there’s one other thing: We need someone else. Someone who can handle the, uh, the physical side of this business.” He’d tried a few of his contacts but came up short. I mentioned James. “Can he be trusted?” Clam said. “Absolutely. I can vouch for him no problem. And I know he knows … hardware,” I said, changing the word from “guns” as a nurse entered. “Well, sign him up,” Clam said, uttering four words that would change things significantly for us all. “Tell him we need …” He looked at the nurse. “You know what we need.” I nodded. Melanie kissed Clam goodbye and we left. We
Miller/Timberwolf/185 drove through the featureless streets of Rochester, looking for a non-chain restaurant that didn’t look like it’d poison us. “Are you nervous?” I asked Melanie suddenly. “What? About what? All this stuff we’re doing?” I nodded. “Well, yeah! Of course I’m nervous Danny! Haven’t I said, like a million times, ‘I’m nervous, this is freaking me out, can we go home soon?’” She had, ad nauseum. “I just can’t always tell whether all that’s just rhetorical or a genuine indication of how you feel,” I said. “Rhetorical?” she said. “I didn’t know you could whine rhetorically, but, well, OK.” I pulled into the parking lot of a little Italian place. “How’s this look?” I said. She shrugged. “The truth is, I’m nervous and scared and excited and really happy at the same time,” she said, her words pouring out. “I feel like every inch of me is alive, all my cells are jumping, my synapses are firing, I mean … look at us!” We were like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, she
Miller/Timberwolf/186 said, Bonnie and Clyde, something like that. We were doing shit, not just sitting around reading about it. “Forgive me Danny, but you’re the kind of guy who’s always kept life at arm’s length. Bitter about the past, doubtful of the future, never in the present.” She was turned in the seat toward me, and she grabbed my hand. “But now, you’re like fully engaged, and so am I. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I feel like, even if I get killed, it’ll have been worth it.” She looked at me with eyes that made me think she was going to try to kiss me or something. “I mean, aren’t you excited?” I’d always known where the door was before, always had my hand on the knob. Now, it was nowhere in sight, and on top of it we had all the guns and explosives and hospitals and hotel rooms and terrorists and an expedition looming that could kill us all, and I was still moving forward. Not backing out. I was breathing the experimental air of life and enjoying it rather more than I felt comfortable with. I squeezed her hand back. “Yes, Mel, I’m excited. I can’t say it quite the way you did, but I’m feeling the same shit.”
Miller/Timberwolf/187 “Well, good,” she said. She leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Let’s eat.”
The first few hours on the road north were spent getting an exhaustive blow-by-blow of the repair. Clam had ceded the wheel to James and taken shotgun; I was in the back with Melanie, trying to get comfortable with my meager allotment of space. Despite the Excelsior’s size, she’d taken up so much room with her shit that it felt like the interior of a Mini Cooper. The repair, James told us, had taken 240 work hours. He and Ferguson had taken turns with sleeping bags in the back of a pickup in the shop, grabbing catnaps while the other sanded, primed and prepped the Excelsior. Outside the hotel in Rochester, the four of us went over the outside of the vehicle, with James doing the running commentary. “That windshield pillar there, was a bitch to get together,” he said. Or we’d hear about how tough it was to put in the new headliner or the rocker panel moldings. Nothing, according to James, had come easy, leaving us with the impression that our vehicle was something of a Phoenix we should feel privileged to drive in.
Miller/Timberwolf/188 “Well, it’s certainly lost that new-car smell,” Melanie said, her only offering on the subject. James shot her a narrow-eyed look. “Yeah, the shop’ll do that” he said, before returning to a discourse about the framestraightening exercise. Melanie shrugged and went back to her laptop as I disappeared into a book of crossword puzzles. It was a pretty good haul from Rochester to the northernmost reaches of the state, and it felt like we were driving through (ask Tigger for what it looks like up there). By the time we arrived in (??? Town), I was worn out not only by the tedium of sitting for so long, but also from the constant drone of the chatter from the front seat. After exhausting the car talk, James regaled Clam with the story of his life, from the glory days of Hallenbeck to how he ended up in the gloomy confines of Ferguson’s in “buttfuck nowhere Iowa.” I tried to focus on my crossword, but after a while I started listening to James’ account, which began as something of a hagiography with him in the third person (“In them days, ol’ James was getting a LOT of pussy”) to an increasingly damning view (“and so I looked in the mirror in that filthy Texaco where I dyed my hair and said,
Miller/Timberwolf/189 ‘James, you are one sorry-ass bastard excuse for a human being.’”) At this, even Melanie looked up. “You dyed your hair in the bathroom of a Texaco? Why?” “Wasn’t you listening?” James said. “The process server was looking for a guy with blond hair—extry blond hair, like you see I got. So I dyed it black, like a Mexican, an’ they never found me.” He reached forward and gave the windshield a blast of juice against the bugs, then gave a little laugh. “Not that it mattered in the long run. Ain’t nothing ever matters in the long run.” “Well,” said Clam, “You’re probably right. But if you don’t do something while you’re here, you might as well just slit your wrists and be done with it.” James gave a snort of disgust. “That’s for cowards. I couldn’t ever do that.” Clam turned around and looked at me. “Isn’t that fascinating? Here’s a man trying to convince me his life isn’t worth living, but he wouldn’t ever simply end it on his own.” “The will to live, it’s huge,” I said. “Or is it the fear of death that keeps all us suckers and losers, keeps us at it year after year?”
Miller/Timberwolf/190 We listened to the sound of the highway rushing by for a moment until James called out: “This is us, right? (name of town)” “Yep,” Clam said. “Take this exit and head north.”
*** The Wildwood Lodge of McCrae Island, I learned from the brochure, was built by an American GI just after World War II. His name was Robert Wakeman, and the photo on the lodge wall showed a bushy-browed, serious fellow with a full beard and a headmaster’s glare. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, I thought, thinking of my own soft features compared to the men of yesteryear. I always liked looking at pictures of guys from the 1800s or the first half of the 1900s. A 30-year-old looked like he’d already seen it all, and the lines in his face speaking a world knowledge and accumulated machismo far beyond what I figured I would ever achieve. I shared this with Melanie. “You’re not that wimpy, Daniel,” she said, her voice showing her reluctance to endure yet another rumination on manhood and how far removed from it I thought I was. “I mean, geez, do you really want to be one of these guys,
Miller/Timberwolf/191 living on cigarettes and whiskey, beating their wives, ignoring their kids, working 80 hours a week and dying before they’re 60?” “I didn’t say I envied their lives,” I said, “but I am a little jealous of their toughness. I mean, look at this guy, Robert Wakeman. He looks like he could bring down an elk just by looking at it.” Clam and James returned from the registration desk and said our rooms were ready. Clam had been using a cane because of something they’d done to his leg at Mayo, but he’d taken to leaning on James’ arm for added support. Our nihilist car painter didn’t seem to mind, and it showed a tender side to James I’d only ever seen when he was with his daughter, so many years ago. I filed it with my growing list of imponderables, things I’d get to it in my dotage, along with The Brothers Karamazov and my amateur woodworking plans. Spare and woody, the room contained two twin beds with scratchy army blankets folded on them, a single night table in the middle, a chest full of extra blankets, a gun rack and little else. “Wow,” Melanie said. “I guess they’re mostly used to guys here.” She strode to a window and moved aside the
Miller/Timberwolf/192 curtains, which looked like they were made from some kind of light burlap. “It’s a beautiful view, though,” she said. “Glass half full, right?” “Right,” I said, tossing some bags on a bed. “I’ll bet these beds have never even been used in the connubial sense, whaddaya think?” “Not unless there was a gay hunters club up here,” she said, “but I’d prefer not to think about that.” There were only two rooms open when we arrived, and Clam said he wanted James with him so he could bring him up to speed on our operation, such as it was. “I registered you two as Mr. And Mrs. Gould,” he said with a laugh. At our amazed looks, he quickly added: “Just to reduce any suspicion. This isn’t the kind of a place a single woman would visit on her own.” So here we were. I threw my bag on the closest bed and immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Did you have a bed preference?” “Oh, no,” Melanie said, poking her head in the bathroom and sighing at the tiny, not-so-clean facility. “Whichever you want.” Her voice said otherwise.
Miller/Timberwolf/193 “I’ll take the other one then,” I said, shifting my bag. “OK.” “Because you really want this other one, right?” “Well, it is closer to the window, and I like a breeze,” she said. “So thanks. You’re learning.” “Learning what?” “Never to believe a woman when she says she doesn’t care, doesn’t have a preference.” I laughed. “Maybe so. Perhaps I’m not completely untrainable.” We were to meet the boys at dinner in just an hour. Melanie flopped down on her bed for a short nap while I read more of the lodge literature. After only a few minutes, I was surprised to hear Melanie’s breathing shift into the deep, rhythmic pattern of someone asleep, and I took a moment to look at her face. Adjectives came to mind: pretty, yes, I thought, caring and nice. Nuts, to an extent, but then they all were. I thought about this complex woman and how simple and unaffected she appeared in sleep. Childlike. The fact that we were to lodge in the same room conjured up some younger man stirrings, like how I should try to get in her pants somehow. I smiled at the
Miller/Timberwolf/194 thought, tried to imagine it, failed. When she started snoring, I turned over and tried to work my puzzle over the noise. I woke her with five minutes to spare, then realized I should have given her more time. She came out of slumber like someone clawing their way out of a deep, dark pool, looking at me stupidly. Her long hair had fallen in front of her face, and she regarded me through this veil with a mixture of what looked like hatred and utter confusion. “Oh god,” she said in a rasp. “I must’ve fallen asleep. Don’t look at me! I’m a wreck.” “Oh, stop it,” I said. “You look fine. Comb your hair, powder your nose, you’re good to go. It’s like you’re going to have to show up in an evening gown for dinner at the lodge. It’s probably like a gathering of Vikings, silverware optional.” She got up with a creak and a groan, dragged a brush through her hair and did something with makeup tools and containers. We both wanted to change. Since the bathroom was too small for that, we agreed to change at the same time, facing the wall on opposite sides of the tiny cabin. It was just as we were zipping up that James banged on the door and jerked it open, shooting us a meaningful look.
Miller/Timberwolf/195 “Oh, sorry,” he said with a cough. “You guys coming?” “You don’t have to be sorry, James,” Melanie said, slipping past him out the door. “You didn’t interrupt anything.” “We were changing,” I said. “Don’t give me that look.” “Whatever you say, Stud,” James said.
After a simple but abundant buffet dinner, Clam wanted to meet, which we did in the room he and James had. “OK, so here we are,” he said, sitting on a bed next to James. “I’ve seen nicer places, but it’ll have to do, eh?” “Shit, this place is pretty fancy compared to the fleabags I usually stay in,” James said, sticking a Salem in his mouth he wouldn’t light until he was outside. “We have six days, guys,” Clam said. “Six days to find out what we can, train a little bit, pretend to do some hunting and, who knows, maybe even get a little R&R in.” He looked over at Melanie and me sitting on the bed. “Do I need to be worried about the two of you in any way?” James laughed, Melanie turned the color of a tomato and I looked at Clam amazed.
Miller/Timberwolf/196 “Not, not at all,” I said, shooting a sharp look at James. “Whatever James told you, it was a misunderstanding.” “There’s nothing going on,” Melanie said in a choked voice. There was a silence until Clam said, “Hey, I’m sorry. I just needed to make sure. So we’re all still …platonic?” We assured him that was the case. “Because, sometimes in a mission like this, decisions have to be made independent of emotions, or how we may feel about one another. If there was anything going on, it could be a problem in the field.” Melanie straightened herself up and turned to him. “Listen, Clam, we’re friends, period. We’ll be fine. You just tell us what we need to do and don’t worry about it, OK?” He nodded, although he looked far from convinced. What had James told him? “OK,” Clam said. “From the little information I’ve received, it seems we may well have an unsuspecting enemy here. It’s not that they’re asleep, but they’ve been operating out of an abandoned lodge on the Canadian side of the island for about eight months now, and as far as they can tell, no one knows or cares that they’re there.”
Miller/Timberwolf/197 While we’d napped (or screwed, as Clam and James believed), James fell into conversation with one of the lodge’s guides, who told him a little about the history of the place and what was going on in present times. I had my own knowledge, gleaned from the lodge literature I’d read. Historically, the Canadian side of the island had never seen as much activity as the U.S. side. This was in part because the harbor on the northern side of the island was not very hospitable. During the time of the Canadianrun Elk Head lodge through the ‘50s and ‘60s, a number of charter boats and one seaplane had been lost on the rocks. That, combined with Robert Wakeman’s relentless pursuit of the Elk Head’s costumers, had caused it to close sometime in the mid-‘70s. And now it was full of terrorists. Clam targets. “I don’t care how many of these guys are there,” he said. “I don’t care how many of them we take out. All I care about is we get the one who calls himself Timberwolf and don’t get hurt ourselves. Understand?” Clam walked us through more of what we already knew about the Timberwolf operation. He had a few more details and an estimate of how many people were currently at Elk Head.
Miller/Timberwolf/198 “Eight,” he said. “Just eight guys and Timberwolf. Not bad, eh? We’re only outnumbered two-to-one. Add the element of surprise to that and I’d say things are tipped in our favor.” He paused, a look of curiosity crossed his face and he passed out, his head falling into James’ lap. “Nighty-night, Clammy,” James said, shifting Clam into a more comfortable position and getting up himself. “God, that’s so scary,” Melanie said quietly. “It’s like his switch just gets flipped off.”
James followed us outside and lit his Salem. “This shit’s happening a lot to him,” he said. “Like a couple times a day.” We looked at each other. “He asked me not to tell you.” The three of us stood there, listening to the wind in the trees and the distant sound of a motorboat. It felt like one of those big moments where someone was supposed to say something profound or take charge. Melanie looked from me to James and shifted, placing her hands on her hips. “Well,” she said, “It seems like this is something we need to address.”
Miller/Timberwolf/199 “You ain’t shittin’,” James said. “Our fearless leader has got a short somewhere.” “We should talk to him or something,” I said. “Maybe he can help us prepare a contingency plan if he can’t follow through.” “Yeah, like ‘run the fuck away,’” James said. “You’re not exactly inspiring us,” Melanie said. “Well I’m not exactly Indiana Fucking Jones, either,” he said. “I can shoot a gun’s about it, but I’m no planner, no S.W.A.T. team guy.” We listened to the motorboat again for a moment. I couldn’t tell whether it was getting closer or farther away. It occurred to me that Clam would know. He’d tell us which it was, then give us a mini lecture on Doppler shifts and sound wave theory. “What the hell is wrong with him, anyway?” I said. “Cancer,” Melanie said. “It’s got to be cancer.” “James, has he said anything to you?” I asked. “Anything at all?” “Nope,” he said. “He jokes about being a dead man walking and he feels like he weighs about 75 pounds on my arm. Son of a bitch is wasting away, that’s for sure. I’ve seen gerbils with more meat on ‘em, and …”
Miller/Timberwolf/200 “OK James, we get the picture,” I said. “Bottom line is he’s sick, he’s probably dying and he can’t be relied upon to stay conscious throughout all this. That means one of us has to take over as team leader in case …” The motorboat noise suddenly stopped, leaving us in a sudden near-silence. “Not me,” said James. “I’m just along for the ride.” Melanie and I regarded one another. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “I can barely get myself ready in the morning.” “I would recommend going home before placing me in command,” I said evenly, feeling the sting of honesty in my belly. The damn thing about growing older is that your youthful bravado and machismo, the overlay of bluster that masks all your deficiencies–at least from your own point of view–is eroded away to the point of transparency. This yearly stripping away of mojo had made it impossible to bullshit myself anymore. This was fine when it came to exploring those deficiencies and perhaps improve them, but it also had the unfortunate side effect of making one less inclined to work outside the comfort zone. I stood there, the scent of pines in my nostrils and
Miller/Timberwolf/201 the air of decision thick around me, and I couldn’t move. The tic that occasionally flared up in my left eyelid kicked into overdrive, and I wondered how noticeable it was. I tried to read Melanie’s face, scanning it for signs of disgust or, preferably, understanding and compassion. It was blank. James masked whatever he was thinking with cigarette activity until he finally turned to me. “You going home? After all this?” I took a deep breath and opened my mouth, only to hear Clam’s voice from behind us. “Nobody’s going home. Danny, come in here, please.” He was leaning against the deck railing looking like he’d just run a marathon. I made my legs move toward him and felt the eyes of James and Melanie on my back as we disappeared inside.
Miller/Timberwolf/202 “Now don’t sugarcoat it or nothing, just tell me how I look and spare the wisecracks.” James was dressed in black, head to foot, and he had just applied some black grease paint to his face in a pattern that made him look like something between a zebra and a linebacker. I was putting my own paint on in the cabin mirror. “You look fine,” I said, “Like an extra in a commando movie.” “Hopefully I ain’t the extra who gets shot in the fucking head in the first five minutes,” he said, tugging a black stocking cap over his shock of blond hair and fiddling with a shoulder holster that contained a 9mm Ruger. I was actually fairly impressed with his appearance. He looked like the real deal, whereas I felt like someone getting ready for the school play. None of it felt natural to me, from the knife on my ankle to the gun on my hip. I couldn’t even look at Melanie without feeling even more ridiculous, her own inadequacy in the role somehow deepening my own set of reservations. “There,” I said, finishing with my face. “Do I look like a complete idiot now?” “The idea is not to look like anything,” said Melanie,
Miller/Timberwolf/203 turning to me with a greasepaint job so overwrought I burst out laughing, along with James. “What?” she said, looking back into the mirror. “Is it too much?” “Holy cow, Mel,” I said, “That’s the kind of blackface job that’ll get you in trouble with the NAACP.” “Didn’t know you was the type to go for that dark meat, Danny,” James said. He still hadn’t given up on the theory that I was boinking Melanie, and I’d given up trying to convince him otherwise. “Oh, no!” Melanie cried, grabbing up a Kleenex and wiping at her face. “It’s bad, huh? Crap!” She rubbed furiously at her cheeks and forehead, which only made it worse. Tears came along shortly, rolling effortlessly down her black, greasy cheeks. “I have to do cold cream on it, and then take a shower again,” she said, getting ready to pull her black sweater off. “No way!” James said, looking at his watch. “We’ve got to go.” “Yeah Mel,” I said, touching her shoulder. “If anything, you’re, um, better protected. You just didn’t need so much, but now that it’s on, you’re fine.”
Miller/Timberwolf/204 “But if the terrorists capture us, they’ll laugh at me,” she said, still crying but with a trace of laughter coming through as she heard the absurdity of her words. “If they do catch you, they ain’t gonna be looking at your face,” James said. “Bunch-a guys up here for weeks with no women around ….” “That’s enough comforting for now, James,” I said. “Are we ready?” “Ready as we’ll ever be,” James said. “I’ll go fetch Clammy.” The screen door slammed shut and Melanie turned again to the mirror, her hand poised over her face with some kind of cosmetic towelette. “I don’t know if this’ll make it better or worse,” she said. “Stop, Mel. Just let it go, OK? It doesn’t matter what you look like.” “Easy for you to say, looking all cool with your makeup job.” “Oh, right. I look as much a dork as you do.” She started crying again. I put my hand on her arm and it turned into an embrace. “Oh Danny, what the hell are we doing? I feel like an
Miller/Timberwolf/205 actor in a play, and it’s opening night and I don’t know any of my lines.” I felt the same way. “You’ll do great, Mel,” I said. “We’re just backup, anyway, we don’t have to do hardly anything. We’ll be back here and on our way home before you know it. I’ll treat you to a facial when we get back to civilization.” Clam’s voice came from outside. “Let’s roll, folks! Time’s a-wastin’!” Melanie pulled away and took one last exasperated look in the mirror. “We better go. James’ll tell Clam I’m in here blowing you or something.” # Back in the same spot we were almost a week before, Melanie and I trained our glasses on the backs of Clam and James as they made their way toward Elk Head Lodge. It was a new moon, and it didn’t take long for their black forms to disappear completely, leaving us alone together to wait. Clam appeared perfectly well. He’d stopped needing the cane and wasn’t leaning on James. He told us his fainting spells were under control with the medication and that he was more than ready to go on the mission. We believed him because we had no other choice.
Miller/Timberwolf/206 Unlike the previous night, there wasn’t a single light on in the lodge. There was a pretty good breeze blowing off the lake, which kept the trees around us in a noisy state of agitation and enabling us to exchange the occasional whispered word without fear of being overheard. The plan was simple: We were to watch out for any activity in or around the lodge and give them a head’s up if anything happened. James and Clam were going to find the cache of explosives, set a charge and detonate it after they’d gotten out of there. We’d then hop back in our boat and head for the mainland. There was only one possible catch: If Clam passed out, I had to take his place and join James. As I sat there feeling my feet fall asleep and listening to Melanie shifting next to me, I tried to mentally prepare myself for this eventuality. Upon getting the call, I told myself, I would steel my nerves, strengthen my resolve and call upon some genetically bequeathed storehouse of balls I was sure resided in me somewhere. I would show Melanie and James what I was really made of and make Clam proud. Mostly, though, I tried to direct thoughts of good health toward Clam to make any hero stuff on my part unnecessary. To distract myself, I turned to Melanie to
Miller/Timberwolf/207 whisper something about how this was worse than the wait at the Los Angeles DMV when a leather-gloved hand clapped itself over my mouth and something cold and hard was shoved into my ear. “Don’t move, asshole,” a whispered voice said. My binoculars and gun were taken from my hands, and my arms were pulled behind my back. Before I was shoved facefirst to the ground, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Melanie getting the same treatment. I heard a whimper and what sounded like a muffled blow, then the sound of duct tape being deployed on both of us. They wrapped it around my head several times, covering my mouth before twisting it around my wrists and ankles. It all happened so quickly that part of my brain was still working out the phrasing of my DMV joke while the other was trying to incorporate a new, more pressing reality into my conscious: This was it; we were now going to die. They grabbed us by the ankles and dragged us toward the lodge, our heads finding every pine cone, rock, stick and uneven patch of ground along the way. Incredulity at our shabby treatment was mixed with the beginnings of fear and outrage that what was happening to me was also
Miller/Timberwolf/208 happening to Melanie. I tried to look over at her but the reality was the back of my head was a lot better equipped to withstand the punishment than any other side, so I tried to hold my head as still as possible in one position and closed my eyes, wondering how long the journey would take and what kind of permanent damage my head might be suffering. At some point I must have passed out, because the next thing I knew I was coming to in what I assumed was the Elk Lodge kitchen. I was tied to a chair, directly across from a still-unconscious Melanie. Also tied to a chair and with her mouth still taped, Melanie had had her outer layer of clothes cut from her body. Around her ankles, I could see the remains of the black pants she’d agonized over in Rochester a million years ago. Did they make her look fat? Should she get a baggier pair? Were they black enough? The remnants of her black sweater and T-shirt were still around her neck, leaving only a black bra- and-panty set that surprised me for its raciness. Good god, I thought,is she wearing at thong? It took a moment to understand that they’d taken her clothes off this way because they didn’t want to undo the duct-tape on her wrists and ankles. It took yet another
Miller/Timberwolf/209 moment to recognize that we were far from being alone in the room. There looked to be eight or ten guys there, all dark-featured, some with beards and dressed in an assortment of sweats, T-shirts, boxers and bathrobes—except for two of them in jeans and flannel shirts. These were the two who’d grabbed us, the watch, I guessed, and one of them held in his hand an enormous hunting knife. The other had the remains of Melanie’s clothes, which he held up to his nose and sniffed. “Ah, American girl scent!” he said in some kind of Latin accent. The name Sendero Luminso rose in the back of my foggy brain like an unwelcome smell. “I have not smelled woman-smell in many months.” They all laughed and Melanie stirred. I was hoping she’d somehow stay passed out, but her eyes flickered open and I tried to reassure her with my eyes even as she took in this horrific tableau. It was bad enough she was bound and gagged in a den of terrorists, but the worst thing for her, I knew, was the fact that her body was laid bare. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand, it was anyone, seeing her legs and upper arms, which were entirely too fat in her opinion. They looked fine to me, although I found myself wondering, for a split second, what these other guys
Miller/Timberwolf/210 would think. As non-Americans, maybe the zaftig look didn’t bother them. But what did I care. I watched as her eyes gathered focus and communicated to me her horror, her amazement. With the tape covering so much of her lower face, I could only use her eyes to know what she was feeling. Her hair had fallen out of the pony tail she’d put it in earlier in the evening, and it was filled with twigs and pine needles. There was an ugly bruise above her left eye, and she had a gash on her forehead that had bled down the side of her face and onto her neck. The guy with the knife leaned over and hit me in the head with his fist. “Why are you here? Who are you?” Stunned, then angry, I glared at him. He slipped the knife behind the tape on the side of my neck and gave it a twist. I could feel the wound open and begin to bleed as he yanked the tape off. I stifled a scream of pain and settled for what I hoped was a masculine-sounding whimper. “Who are you?” he asked again. “Why are you here?” “Hunters,” I croaked. “Looking for elk.” They all laughed again, the room filling with husky male laughter that sounded entirely devoid of mirth. He hit
Miller/Timberwolf/211 me again, this time in the mouth. It really, really hurt, causing me to realize how little physical pain I’d experienced in my adult life. For a moment they just stood there looking at me, and I thought of the last time I’d been hit in the mouth. It was in sixth grade, and I was walking down the hall kicking a nerd named Jimmy Fowler in the ass. My cool friends were around me, laughing, and then Jimmy did the unthinkable: He struck back. Just as I was about to launch another kick to his copious backside, he turned around and shoved the textbooks he was holding into my face, splitting my lip. Then as now, I was struck by how much that hurt contrasted with the movies, where guys took those kinds of blows the way boxers using gloves do. “Try again, asshole,” said the knife guy. I figured this had to be Timberwolf, since he appeared to be in command. “Are there others? Are you alone? And why do you bring a woman with you?” He turned to the others. “What kind of man brings a woman along on a mission of espionage, eh?” He turned back to me. “Well?” Since my main training in this area comes from watching Hollywood films, I had only those examples to go by: haughty resilience, never talk, don’t squeal. Lie.
Miller/Timberwolf/212 “It’s just us. Hunting. We were scoping out this area for tomorrow.” He hit Melanie this time, not as hard as me but enough to split her lip. Then he stuck the knife blade between her skin and her bra strap and looked back at me. “This is nice tits on this one, eh?” he said, leering. Again, the rumble of laughter again filled the room. “How would you boys like to see them, eh?” A chorus of positives in several different languages greeted this. Men are dogs in any language. “Hold on,” I said. “Yes …?” said Timberwolf, the knife still poised, Melanie’s eyes beseeching. What would she say if she could talk? “We’re lost,” I said, “And we’re …” The knife flashed, the bra sprung open and Melanie’s breasts spilled out to a chorus of approval. Timberwolf twisted the bra around the blade of the knife and pulled it slowly away from her body. Melanie’s breasts were pretty nice, and after mentally kicking myself for thinking that, I made a point of only looking at her face. What do you do? If I told them about Clam and James, they’d go after them and kill all of us. If I said nothing,
Miller/Timberwolf/213 they’d what?—rape Melanie and then kill us? How could they not? The second option, at least, might preserve the core mission, and it seemed to make sense if we were going to die either way. Our deaths, I thought with more incredulity, might at least mean something. It was impossible, though, for me to face death with any kind of realism. I’d heard of old people, or the terminally ill, who’d had plenty of time to think about it finally “coming to terms” with death, even welcoming it. I’d only had, what, half an hour since our capture. And then I was passed out for part of it, so the sum total of death contemplation was maybe 15 minutes. I hate the way my mind works sometimes. Heroes think and act without a lot of introspection and theorizing, I figured. They just acted from their gut and it worked out somehow. But what would a hero do here? What might Clam do? Or James? I was pretty sure Clam wouldn’t give away the mission at the same time I knew he wouldn’t have the Melanie dilemma. I thought of his words concerning the two of us and realized how well-founded his apprehensions were, especially if I talked. Fear of disappointing Clam became part of my thoughts, and I was so busy trying to work
Miller/Timberwolf/214 things out in my tired brain that Timberwolf’s next words sounded like they came from a TV set or a radio. “Panties come next, hunter. And then we all fuck her while you watch. How you like that, hunter?” Was someone really saying this? How the hell did we ever get to this place? I looked up with hate in my eyes and stared into the face of this monster. He had a huge grin on his face and towered over me waving the knife. “Yes, I think we cut off these sexy panties now, eh?” There was a crack, a tinkle of glass and a look of surprise on Timberwolf’s face, then he fell forward, knocking me over in the chair. I felt his blood pouring out onto my neck and wriggled away from him as the rest of the men in the room scattered, hitting the ground while one of them turned off the light. Assuming it was James or Clam, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t fire again with the lights out. It was completely black in the kitchen. I could hear the men around me, whispering loudly. Some of them—the ones in bathrobes and boxers, I guessed—crawled through the swinging door. I tried to direct some good thoughts in Melanie’s direction while working to get away from the body still partly covering my own.
Miller/Timberwolf/215 It hit me, Timberwolf is dead! Maybe. But how the hell were we going to get out of here? The kitchen door swung open again and someone crawled in. A sliver of light from the room next to the kitchen showed me the blackened face of James. He gave me a wink just before the door closed, plunging us back into darkness. I heard a swift movement and a wet, gurgling sound as he slit the throat of one of the men. “Quien es?” one of them whispered, giving James just enough information to reach over and cut his throat as well. Someone jumped up and flipped on the light. It was the other one of our captors, and he held a pistol that he fired at the lunging figure of James. The bullet went wide and James plunged his knife into the guy’s chest, making it the single most fucked-up thing I have ever witnessed in my life. The guy registered a look of utter bewilderment, dropped his gun and fell to his knees as James let go of the knife handle and turned to the other two cowering on
the floor with their hands up. He shot them each in the chest, twice. “Fuckers,” he said. Then he reached over with his boot and, in two quick motions, pushed the dead terrorist off of me and sliced the tape around my wrists. He grabbed
Miller/Timberwolf/216 Melanie’s shredded clothes from the counter and threw them over her chest, tactfully averting his eyes. He pushed a knife into my hands and said: “Mop up in here, Freddy. I’ll be right back.” And he was gone.
Fighting the urge to crawl into one of the cabinets, I got to me feet and cut the tape off Melanie, pulled off my turtleneck and gave it to her, then stood there for a moment, looking at the bullet hole in the window. In the space of a moment, seventeen different thoughts ran through my mind, some of which included: -The fact that James had shot the one guy through the window made it possible someone could shoot me or Mel there in the kitchen. Best to turn off the light. But then we wouldn’t be able to see, and we’d be in a dark kitchen filled with dead guys, which sucked. -Did the fact that James was running around by himself mean Clam was dead? -How many guys were left and where were they? -I had just been involved in the single most incredible and fucked-up series of events in my entire
Miller/Timberwolf/217 life, dwarfing even the bombing I witnessed. -How was Melanie doing? -What should I do first? -I should act, not think too much. So I stepped over one of the bodies, with the bold intent of flipping off the light, but I slipped in the growing pool of blood on the floor and landed ass-first on top of the dead guy. Cursing, I got up, hit the light switch and crossed to Melanie. She had sunk to the corner of the kitchen floor and when I put my arm around here, I could tell part of her was missing. “Mel,” I said, an urgent whisper. “I don’t know what to do next, but let’s just wait a second, OK?” She grunted her assent. I could feel her shivering uncontrollably, her teeth chattering even though it was anything but cold in the kitchen. I pulled her close and held her while listening for anything in and around the kitchen, this kitchen of death. It was still. Another Hollywood image—spirits rising up to heaven—entered my thoughts as I thought of all the recently deceased around me. Some of these guys believed in a brand of Islam that would have them rising to heaven to be with, what was it, 39 virgins or something? Fuck these guys and their virgins.
Miller/Timberwolf/218 What god would ever give such a reward to such complete and utter assholes? “Mop up in here,” James had said. What did that mean? If it meant I was supposed to “finish off” any of them not quite dead, it seemed unnecessary: James had done a pretty good job of it. “Did you see James?” I said. “He came in here like a friggin’ super hero. Where’d he get all that from?” “I d-don’t know,” Melanie said. “It’s p-pretty scary, but I’m glad he sh-showed up.” “Yeah,” I said. “Remind me not to piss him off ever again.” From somewhere in the house—or was it outside?—we heard a bang. “Was that a g-gun?” Melanie said. “I don’t know. Maybe. Guns just don’t sound the same in real life as they do in the movies.” I was still half deaf from the report of James’ gun in the kitchen. Maybe that was why the bang we just heard sounded so odd, so muffled. “Melanie?” I said. “I don’t know what we should do, stay here or go outside?” So much for decisive leadership on my part.
Miller/Timberwolf/219 She didn’t say anything for a moment, then “G-g-go. Get away from d-dead guys.” I couldn’t argue. There was a door to the outside on the other side of the kitchen, and together we walked toward it, feeling inch by inch with our hands and feet. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the door, turned the knob and let ourselves out. It was a relief, after the stuffy kitchen filled with dead guys, to be outside in the crisp air. Without speaking, we quickly crossed to a stand of trees about 100 feet from the house and crouched down behind one of the larger trunks we found. From there, we looked at the dark, silent lodge, waiting for whatever was going to happen next. After a few minutes, Melanie turned to me and asked if we shouldn’t be even farther away. “After all,” she said, her chattering gone despite the chill, “isn’t the mission to blow the place up?” She had a point. “And isn’t there a backup rendezvous point we’re supposed to use?” Another good point I’d completely forgotten with everything else going on. “Yeah,” I said with an inflection meant to convey that
Miller/Timberwolf/220 I’d meant to go there all along. “It’s on the north side of the lodge by the well house.” I took her hand and we began to make our way through the trees to the other side of the lodge, maintaining a healthy distance from the building. After we reached the well house, we sat in silence for a few minutes, trying to peer through the blackness at the house, our eyes occasionally suggesting they saw something, but with no accompanying sounds it seemed like the place was dead. “I hate to wait,” Melanie said finally. “Me too,” I said. “Well excuse the fuck outta me for inconveniencing y’all,” said the voice of James above us. That was followed by him dropping down next to us and draping his arms around our shoulders. “I couldn’t see who it was so I was just waiting for one of you to say something before I shot you or said hi,” he said. “Jesus Christ, James,” I said. “You just about scared the shit out of us!” “After what you’ve been through, I don’t see how anything could scare you anymore,” he said. “Hey, where’s Clam?” said Melanie.
Miller/Timberwolf/221 “Well …” And then the world exploded. Night turned to day at the same time the pump house erupted into a million pieces, knocking the three of us backwards into a patch of thistle. Moments later, I came to, my whole body tingling, the thistle grabbing at every inch of me as I watched the remains of the lodge falling around us in fiery chunks. “Melanie! James!” I yelled. “Right here!” came James’ voice. “I’m OK, over here!” came Melanie’s. “Everyone got all his pieces-parts?” James said. I checked. “I’m OK,” I said, reaching over to touch Melanie. “You OK?” “Yeah, I’m fine, I think,” she said, “Although I feel like I just got bitch-slapped by a giant.” “Now don’t you be worryin’ at all about ol’ James here, who just saved your lives an’ shit in there. I’ll be OK …” “Oh, come here you big baby,” Melanie said, holding out her arm. James crawled over and joined us in the thistle, the stickers of which seemed but a minor inconvenience compared to everything else. Then I realized
Miller/Timberwolf/222 Melanie was still wearing only her black panties under my turtleneck and must be getting ripped by the thorns. “C’mon Mel, let’s get you out of here,” I said, standing and pulling her up with me. James rose with me and the three of us regarded the surreal sight before us. The lodge was, quite simply, gone. It wasn’t like part of it was destroyed and the remains were burning and smoldering. It was gone, replaced by an enormous, smoking crater surrounded by burning stumps of wall. The remains, such as they were, seemed to be up in the trees, causing a tree-top fire that looked like it was soon going to get out of control. “I think we’d better get the fuck outta here,” James said. “Hold on!” Melanie said. “What about Clam?” I figured I knew the answer to this one, but I waited for James to speak. “Sugar, Clam’s gone boom-boom with the rest of it,” he said. “But don’t worry. It’s how he planned it.”
Chapter 5 Clam wasn’t the kind of guy to leave loose ends around. In his room, on his neatly made bed, we found what we soon came to refer to as “The Envelope.” I flashed back
Miller/Timberwolf/223 to the day we left for the island and recalled Clam running back into the house at the last minute. That was when he put the envelope on his bed. The Envelope was one of those Tyvek things, the kind of envelope you can jam a lot of stuff into. And Clam jammed. There were papers with hand- and typewritten notes, computer discs, maps, photographs, copies of police reports, court filings and the like, along with a letter to me and Melanie written in Clam’s spidery hand. There were also directions to several more boxes of stuff, stashed in the garage. Melanie and I read the letter together, sitting on his bed. Danny and Mel, This is one of those letters you’re supposed to start off by saying “if you’re reading this, blah blah blah.” You know the rest. It’s been great to know you, and I’ve come to love the two of you as brother and sister in the short time we’ve had together. I sincerely hope you made it back OK from the island and that you continue with this work and, I dunno, have good lives. Mel, get out and exercise once in a while, and Danny, don’t be a self-centered prick. “Ouch!” I said. But we kept reading. Now that you know all the truth about Clam and Timberwolf, I felt I should leave you the enclosed information in the event you wish to take up the torch or the baton or whatever and continue this work. Please do not hesitate for a second to decide not to. This is not work you were trained for, paid for or expected to do. But what I’ve observed over the past few months is a passion and a willingness and an intelligence for this work that
Miller/Timberwolf/224 outstrips that of many an experienced agent. If that passion remains, and if you can find the resources to continue the fight, you could do a great service to your country, to our society (cue patriotic music and apple pie). You could also take your chances and turn this stuff over to Homeland, but my fear is that it’ll get stuck in a box somewhere and forgotten about, like the Ark of the Covenant in that Indiana Jones movie. Only you two know the importance of the work I’ve been doing and how difficult it will be to pursue that sort of thing within the confines of the Homeland bureaucracy. And the letter merged into a series of briefs on the various leads and cases Clam had been pursuing—some we knew about, some we didn’t. Throughout the letter were more references that didn’t make sense to us, many of them referring to someone or something known only as “CW.” “Here it is again,” Melanie said, reading from the letter while I picked through The Envelope’s other contents. “’As CW knew, the real Mullah was living in Algeria, blah blah blah.’ Who the hell is CW?” “Dunno,” I said. “’TW’ is Timberwolf, maybe CW is some other guy related to him.” “It just sounds like … it sounds like he thinks we know more than we do.” “What do you mean?” I said. “This letter, it’s written as if there’s some key information he was supposed to tell us that sets all this up, but …” “… he was killed before he could tell us,” I finished. “Yes,” she said. “But that doesn’t make sense, either,” I said. “He
Miller/Timberwolf/225 went in there knowing it was a suicide mission. He could’ve talked to us that day or the night before or …” I thought back to the day before our second trip to the Elk Head. “We had dinner, then we met for a while and got ready,” I said. “Seems like there was time for him to tell us anything.” But Melanie remembered something I didn’t. As we headed back to our cabin to get ready, Clam called us back. “Then he said ‘never mind,’ remember?” I did. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. “So, for whatever reason, he went in there without telling us whatever, who CW is or whatever,” Melanie said. “That’s a lot of whatevers,” I said. We were silent for a moment, then she erupted. “Clamberwolf!” “What?” I said. “Clamberwolf! CW stands for Clamberwolf! Or maybe just ‘Clamwolf.’” She was on her feet, doing a little dance I’d not seen before. I looked up at her in amazement. “Danny, don’t you get it?” “Get what?” I said, on the brink of annoyance.
Miller/Timberwolf/226 “Clam is, Clam was Timberwolf!” “I don’t get it,” I said, feeling thick. “And he wants us to continue being Timberwolf. It’s not a person, it’s a, a mission identity or something like that.” I didn’t buy it. So far as I knew, Timberwolf was dead, blown to bits in the explosion that killed Clam. Despite the loss, I was still enjoying the delicious irony that the king of the suicide bombers was taken out by one himself. But Melanie liked her Clamberwolf theory and wouldn’t give up on it. She had me go fetch James, who’d taken up a catatonic position in front of the TV ever since we’d arrived home. He shuffled into the room looking vaguely unhappy, ripped as he was from his bass fishing shows and Bowflex commercials. “James,” she said, “Did Clam tell you anything about Timberwolf when you saw him last, or did he mention anything about someone called CW or Clamberwolf? Or Clam Wolf? Did he mention anything about needing to talk to us before, y’know, before he went in there? Did he say anything to you that you maybe forgot to tell us?” James stared at her for a moment, trying to decide
Miller/Timberwolf/227 which one of her rapid-fire questions to tackle first. “Well, he was trying to talk to you before we left that night,” James said, his eyes falling on the litter of material from The Envelope covering the bed. “I asked him if he had, and Clam, he said something like ‘No, but I’ll tell ‘em later,’ or something, so I figured he told you later. Whatever it was.” “He didn’t,” I said. “We’re trying to figure it out.” “What about Timberwolf, anything, did he say anything about him towards the end?” Melanie said. “Nah,” said James, “Nothing I can think of. Although he did say something a little funny.” “Funny? What’s funny? What did he say James?” Melanie said, grabbing his arm. “Now hold on, don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m thinking.” And he thought for a moment, his hand stroking the diaphanous stubble on his chin, enjoying a moment when he had something up on Melanie. “He told me, right before I left him, that he’d be damned if …” He stopped again, stroked his chin. “Damned if WHAT?!” Melanie said.
Miller/Timberwolf/228 “Now, let me get this right, cuz he used a word I didn’t know,” James said. “He said he’d be damned if he’d let some raghead steal a perfectly good doppel-something. Doppelmyer? That’s a brand of ski lift, I know, but I don’t think that’s what he was talking about.” Mel and I looked at each other, pieces clicked into place. We said it together: “Doppelganger!” “You were right!” I told her. “I’m always right,” she said. “If you’d just get used to that fact, things would go a lot more smoothly.” “Hold on!” James said. “What the hell are you talking about? What’s doppelganger?” “Um, like an alter-ego, an other self,” I said. Off his blank look, I offered “evil twin,” which worked better. “James, we think Clam and Timberwolf were one in the same,” Melanie said. “We’re not exactly sure how all the pieces fit together, but we’re working on it.” James looked at us both for a moment, then turned and punched a hole in the wall. “Jesus Christ! An’ here I was, thinking this son-of-abitch was some sorta fuckin’ hero!” His angry voice pierced the roof.
Miller/Timberwolf/229 “James!” I stood up and cautiously put a hand on his shoulder. “Take it easy!” He looked at me, fury in his pale blue eyes. “Take it easy? Take it easy when I find out this guy I’ve been helping is behind all these bombings?” “James, that’s not what we’re talking about,” Melanie said evenly, not rising from the bed. “Clam was passionate about stopping the bombings, he wasn’t part of them. But he was doing something—I’m still trying to figure it out, we’ve got to wade through all this stuff—he was working both sides somehow. He was in really deep, I don’t even understand it yet.” James slumped into a chair. “So, what, you’re saying he was some kind of double agent or something?” he said in a mumble. “Something like that,” she said, turning back to the papers. “Now why don’t you two finish unpacking and I’ll see if I can find something else in here.” Half shell-shocked from our experience, we’d only dragged in the essentials from the Excelsior. Most of the crap was still out there. “C’mon James,” I said. “We can unpack and then you can fix this hole in the wall, you big dork.”
Miller/Timberwolf/230 “Sorry about that,” he said, rising and following me down the hall. “Felt good though. I’ve had a lot inside me. And no beer to keep it down.” “You’ve still got your two beers a day, don’t you?” I asked. “Yeah, but that’s like throwing bricks in the Grand Canyon,” he said. “It doesn’t keep anything down.” I didn’t pursue it. I could well imagine what kind of things he was wishing to “keep down” with Coors Light, but I was hoping he wasn’t going to press to up his two-a-day limit. I wasn’t even sure what he was doing here or how long he planned to stay. He’d just said he was finished with Iowa and wanted to see Colorado again. “Iowa sucks, Danny,” he’d said. “Colorado, it doesn’t suck. Y’see?” “Got it,” I’d said, admiring for a moment the man’s ability to distill things to their base elements like that. For me, everything existed in shades between the primary colors. Every decision came either from backing into it, letting it happen or choosing some kind of middle ground that shied away from consequence. Picking all those vague colors, of course, has had their own set of outcomes, and as we unloaded the Excelsior and I thought about my life
Miller/Timberwolf/231 now, I wondered if I wasn’t making some clearer choices. Were they better choices? I laughed to myself as I contemplated this dumped-in-my-lap role as a counterterrorism agent with my work experience to date, then thought about how to note it on my resume or work it into my reel. No matter. I’d given up trying to steer. My life reminded me of those childhood rafting trips on the Arkansas River over near Salida. They gave you paddles and you flailed about as best you could, but in the end it was the river that dictated the course. The paddle was just to make you feel better, like a steering wheel on a roller coaster. James picked up a heavy bag, tossed it over his shoulder and headed into the house with it. I watched the back of his head as he disappeared through the doorway and thought about all the millions, billions of idiots just like us trying to make a go of it on this planet. Hard enough though it was just to get through the day, enough of us were still mightily engaged in trying to disrupt others. From these goddamned terrorists to your garden variety crook to all the sleazy lobbyists, lawyers and politicians out there stirring the pot, it seemed no one was willing to
Miller/Timberwolf/232 just stay on their own path. I looked overhead at a circling red hawk and thought some highly misanthropic thoughts, then did a quick calculation about the number of men on the planet (say 3 billion), the number of testicles (6 billion, give or take) and all that sperm being produced daily to create more of these miserable specimens called humans. I spat dramatically, self-consciously in the dirt, picked up a nylon bag (probably made by someone in China making $10 a week) and headed into the house, shaking my head to clear away these unhelpful thoughts.
### About a week after we got back from the island, a Denver man angry at a child custody court decision shot 15 different people over a 10-day period. His method was to wade into a crowd, shoot one or two random people at pointblank range in the abdomen, then walk swiftly away. It was awful, it was terrible, it freaked out the city and the state for 10 days, but technically, as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t terrorism. Even though George Phillip Manley would be tried under new federal terrorism laws, to me he was a serial killer with no political agenda, and
Miller/Timberwolf/233 thus not even a blip on my radar screen. Even so, Anthony e-mailed me and asked what I thought of this guy. I was still getting used to the fact that the trip to the island, the death of Clam and all the events surrounding it did not cause the rest of the world to slow down or stop. I was now walking around with all kinds of awful secrets and horrific memories, but I’d still say “Great, thank you” when bank tellers or sporting goods store clerks asked how I was doing. Everyone else was carrying on as normally as normal could be in a country “at war,” and there wasn’t a soul to care or ask about where Clam had gotten to. (According to instructions in The Envelope, we did e-mail some cryptic messages to his brother in New Hampshire and two of his agency contacts. As Clam had predicted, we did not hear back.) After we settled back into the house in Blue River, Melanie set to work wading through the contents of The Envelope, James took the Jaguar down to Denver to visit his family, and I got back online to try to deal with the several dozen e-mails Anthony had left while I was away. Life went on, for whatever reason. Mel asked if I wanted to sift through The Envelope with her, but I told her I trusted her to work it out. If
Miller/Timberwolf/234 anyone had the patience and persistence to go through reams of paperwork to try to patch something, anything together into some kind of story, it was Mel. I figured I’d better get back to work. Even though I’d told Anthony I’d be away, his e-mails sounded vaguely annoyed that he hadn’t heard back from me. So I started with his question about George Phillip Manley, beginning with my observation that, with a name like that, he almost had to be a serial killer. The real nutbags always had three names, didn’t they? “ARE WE SURE HE’S NOT A TERRORIST?” typed Anthony. I was pretty sure. Manley was a U.S.-born citizen with a pretty good “alibi” explaining his rage. He also wasn’t
what Clam called one of our “prime” killers, since several of the dates of his attack were not prime numbers. Clam told me Timberwolf terrorists nearly always plan their attacks on prime number days, which occur 12 times a month. “Why?” I’d asked. “I dunno,” he said. “It lets them know they’re on the same page or something. If it’s not a prime day and someone goes off (Clam’s term for a homicide bombing), they know it’s not one of them.” It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, since the chance of a non-Timberwolf terrorist going off on a prime
Miller/Timberwolf/235 day by coincidence was pretty high. But, then, blowing oneself up for any reason at any time didn’t make much sense to me. About the only thing I could admire about it was the passion it took to pull it off. I couldn’t recall being particularly passionate about anything since I was about 12 (Sherlock Holmes books, believe it or not), although this terrorism-fighting business was starting to seem pretty interesting. Not blow-yourself-up passionate, but interesting. As I’d hoped and expected, terror attacks had slowed since we blew up the lodge, and the two that occurred in the month or so following the demise of Timberwolf took place on the 4th and 18th of the month—not prime days. I smiled when I made this connection and silently thanked Clam for his prime idea. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it did help narrow things down. Now that Timberwolf was gone, I wondered how hard it would be to make sense of things. These two new attacks were characterized mainly by their sloppiness: In one instance, the bomber tried and failed to get through turnstile security on a Brooklyn subway. He was able to detonate himself before the transit cops could cuff him, but he killed only 12 people as opposed to the scores he
Miller/Timberwolf/236 would’ve gotten had he made it on the train. This is what passed for good news these days: “only” 12 killed. The other one had an amateur-hour feel to it: a 20year-old Kansan with a history of mental illness and a recent conversion to Islam blew himself up with a poorly made pipe bomb at a Baton Rouge McDonald’s. Clearly not the work of someone with a support system like that provided by Timberwolf, this loser succeeded only in blowing off his own hands and ruining the restaurant’s kiddie playground. He told disgusted police he was waiting for the place to fill up with kids during the lunchtime rush when he accidentally detonated the bomb. A chatterbox, this guy was, giving them plenty of rope to hang him with. I shook my head and was about to e-mail Anthony with some thoughts on these incidents when Melanie poked her head in my office. “Danny, can you go look in the garage for some nylon Broncos’ bag?” she said. “Clam left a little note about it in The Envelope.” In the garage, I drank in the silence and smells and contemplated what had really become a storage room for memories. Not only was there a bunch of my parents’ old stuff in there, now it was full of Clam’s little-used gear.
Miller/Timberwolf/237 I remembered seeing the bag in question before. It was stuffed on a shelf between climbing ropes and inline skates, and when I pulled it out and set it on the floor, I saw a note written on one of those “Hello, My Name Is …” stickers. It said “Don’t go ape-shit. –C.” It was filled with cash. Some of it was loose, as if Clam had absent-mindedly tossed it in there while cleaning out his room, but most of it was in the kind of bundles you see at the bank, or in heist movies. They were mostly hundreds and fifties, so there must’ve been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. “Well,” Melanie said, “I guess we’re in this for the long haul.” She dumped the money out on the bed and we took a few guesses as to how much was there, but neither of us were compelled to count it. It didn’t seem real to me, even though, like most people have, I suppose, I’d daydreamed of finding a bag of money just like this. But this discovery contained no joy, no promise of freedom or a better life. It was more like a sentence, as Melanie had just articulated. “I mean, I can kind of understand how he’d come across some money in the course of his work, but this … this is a
Miller/Timberwolf/238 lot.” Melanie looked at me. “It is,” she said. “An awful lot. But …” “What?” I said. “I think I know where it came from,” she said. “I actually, I don’t think, I know where it came from.” Melanie was done with her investigation into The Envelope, she told me. “I’ve summarized it all in a Powerpoint presentation,” she said, standing and crossing to her desk. “Wanna see?” “A Powerpoint presentation? Are you kidding me?” “No,” she said. “It’s complicated, and I thought it’d be easier to digest this way. Plus, I love Powerpoint.” So I sat next to her at her desk as she ran the presentation, which she’d done quite a job on, with animated graphics, photos, cute clip art and every other thing someone who’s a master of Powerpoint can do to make plain words seem interesting. In this case, though, the words were more than enough to have me on the edge of the chair, peering into the screen to wonder at the next series of bullet points. CLAM’S JOURNEY read the title page. “If you can think of a better title, I’m all ears,”
Miller/Timberwolf/239 she said, hitting the spacebar and moving to the next page. CLAM JOINS THE FBI-EARLY 90S CLAM DOES WELL WITH THE AGENCY WAR ON TERROR BEGINS-2001 CLAM BECOMES COUNTER-TERROR SPECIALIST “All basic stuff we already know,” Melanie said, moving to the next screen. CLAM’S WIFE KILLED IN BOMBING-2004 CLAM STAYS WITH AGENCY, BEGINS ‘FREELANCING’ “What does that mean, freelancing?” I asked. “It’s just, you know how he said he got kicked out because they thought his wife’s death was affecting his work?” “Yeah,” I said. “And something about they didn’t like his techniques.” “Well, he started acting on his own even while he was still with the Bureau.” “I figured that. Tell me something I don’t know.” She hit the space bar and another bullet point zipped into place with a cute whooshing noise. CLAM PROMOTES TIMBERWOLF IDEA IDEA IS BOMBER HELPER AGENCY I said nothing. She hit the space bar again.
Miller/Timberwolf/240 BUREAU REJECTS IDEA CLAM PROCEEDS ANYWAY, THEN GETS CANNED “Melanie, can you just tell me what the hell you’re talking about instead of giving me these little hints?” I said. “Who are you, the Minister of Information?” “Don’t you get it?” she said, a conspiratorial smile on her face. “Clam proposed that the FBI or Homeland or whoever set up a dummy bombers’ helper service. Like a consulting agency for wannabe terrorists. They didn’t buy it, so he left the Bureau and did it on his own.” I waited for more. “The idea was that bombers needed help, not only getting into the country but getting outfitted and supported once they were here. Clam’s idea was to create this group, which he called Timberwolf for whatever reason, that would work the other side, helping terrorists with their projects.” It sunk in. “Wow,” I said, for lack of a better response. “So he’d reel them in with the promise of help, and then, I guess, put them out of business?” “Hold on,” she said, continuing with Powerpoint. TIMBERWOLF IS BORN
Miller/Timberwolf/241 GHOST NETWORK RUN BY CLAM ONE MAN SHOW, WITH CELL CONTACTS “This is driving me nuts, Mel,” I said, rubbing my eyes. She ignored me. “He didn’t, like, run around handing out bombs and ID cards,” Melanie said. “He did almost all of it remotely, using different safe houses, like the one on the island, and with cell contacts abroad and in the States who only knew the name, ‘Timberwolf.’ He established it, and came to be trusted, and he got a lot of business.” “I guess that explains the money,” I said. “But I don’t get it. If he was stopping all of these guys, how did they, I mean, why did they keep coming? And why do bombs keep going off?” For answer, she gave me a pointed look and pressed the space bar again. TIMBERWOLF HAD TO MAINTAIN SOME SUCCESS RATE TO RETAIN CLIENT BASE “That’s the part the FBI didn’t like,” Melanie said, her voice lowered almost to a whisper. I felt something like a shadow creep over us as the enormity of what she was telling me sunk in. To keep Timberwolf viable, Clam had to let some of the bombers get
Miller/Timberwolf/242 through. That meant he was directly behind and responsible for some of the deaths over the past few years, possibly even his own wife’s. But then another question crowded to the front of my thoughts. “Melanie, if Clam was Timberwolf, who the hell did we blow up in Canada?” “Powerpoint tells all,” she said, but threw me a bone when I sighed again. “OK, OK—Basically it was a disgruntled client. “But before I get to that, check this out. I think it’ll make you feel better.” TIMBERWOLF DOUBLE-RIGGED ALL EXPOSIVE DEVICES “He gave the bombers their own button to push, but he also had his own way of detonating them remotely that the bombers never knew about. That way, he could blow them up when they weren’t near so many people, or even when they were nowhere near anyone else. He had a formula.” CLAM’S FORMULA: 30% NO SHOWS “That means these were bombers he never let off the island. He figured a certain percentage could drop off the map and not too many people are going to notice.”
Miller/Timberwolf/243 “But how did he …?” “I’ll get to that in a minute,” she said, moving onto the next bullet point. 30% PREIGNITION “These are the ones he detonated en route to their target,” she said. “They’re the ones you read about sometimes, you know, ‘mysterious bomb goes off in an apartment’ or a guy blows up on the street with no one around. It gets written off as a bumbling terrorist who got what he deserved.” 30% REPURPOSED BOMBERS “God, I hate that word!” I said. “Well, that’s what it is,” Melanie said. “These were the ones he put into places he felt …” she paused, “Places where he felt they’d do some good, but still gave terrorists, the Timberwolf terrorists, credit.” I immediately recalled the towel-aisle bombing that killed the drug kingpin Alfredo Lockivar and the two newlyweds, Charles and Bubbles, as well as some of the other initially odd-seeming stories: a bomber who took out a condemned L.A. apartment house that was the hangout of one of the nastier gangs in South Central (13 gangbangers killed and few tears shed over it); another who lit herself
Miller/Timberwolf/244 up in an enormous meth lab deep in the Louisiana bayou. It was one of Anthony’s pet mystery bombings he never seemed to forget about and for which I’d been able to provide little illumination. “Yep, those were both his,” Melanie said when I mentioned them. “He moved them around like chess pieces, didn’t he?” But he wasn’t around any longer to debate the morality of it all, leaving us to consider his handiwork posthumously. I found it highly questionable, to say the least. It was vigilante work, pure and simple I told Melanie. “It’s not pure and simple,” Melanie said, slapping her thigh. “There’s never been a precedent for something like this that I can think of—using suicide bombers as weapons against other scumbags. And believe me, Clam knew which of them were the worst from his years in the agency.” “OK, take out the ‘pure and simple’ qualifier if you want, but it’s still vigilante work,” I said, adopting a tone that would have suited my mother. “What kind of society would we have if everyone just took the law into their own hands like that?” “Well, what kind of society do we have now, where
Miller/Timberwolf/245 random people from other countries with an axe to grind just show up and murder innocent people for whatever reason?” Melanie said. “None of that stuff is in the rule book, and Clam thought he had to create his own set of rules to have an impact.” “I don’t know,” I said. It was too heavy to contemplate; my brain hurt. “You can’t prosecute body parts, and that’s all that’s left after these jerks do their business,” Melanie said, an angry edge to her voice. “What’s next?” I said. “We can argue about this later.” I wanted to know about the other 10 percent. She looked at me and tapped the keyboard. 10% FOLLOW THROUGH “He let those through,” she said, putting words to the dread that had formed in my mind as soon as I’d heard the accounting of 90 percent of Clam’s customers. “Jesus Christ,” I said. “I know,” Melanie said. “Why?” I said. “Didn’t the repurposed bombers establish Timberwolf’s credibility enough?” “I guess not,” she said. “At least Clam didn’t think so. To be successful in this business, you’ve got to kill
Miller/Timberwolf/246 some innocents.” The cliché about not being able to make an omelet with breaking eggs rose to my mind, but I let it slide. We sat looking at the line on the screen: 10% FOLLOW THROUGH. “Do we know which ones?” I asked. “I mean, is there a list, an accounting?” Yes, there was. A full report on every terrorist Clam helped as Timberwolf, from his initial contact with them to whatever their final disposition turned out to be. There was a sheaf of reports, Melanie showed me, each one representing a “fulfilled event” or one still in planning. Of the latter category, there were only three outstanding. Clam had wrapped up as much business as he could before setting out for what he knew would be his last mission. I flipped through some of the reports Clam had created, zeroing in on the entries after each heading labeled simply “IB.” “For ‘innocent bystander,’ I guess,” Melanie said. And there they were, all those lives, rendered as a simple statistic on the page: 7, 23, 2, 14 …. “Collateral damage,” I said with a sneer, letting the pages fall on the desk.
Miller/Timberwolf/247 “Yeah.” “I don’t know if I can be a part of this, Mel.” “I don’t either,” she said, putting her hand on my knee for the briefest of moments. “But look, there’s another statistic you have to keep in mind.” She took up the papers again and showed me another heading labeled “pot. saves.” “This was his estimate of how many people he might’ve saved on each client,” she said. “In his notes, he admits it’s not very scientific, but he bases it on the bombers’ original goals, then deducts the number actually killed from that.” So a bomber comes to Timberwolf, tells him he wants to take out two dozen Americans at the Mall of America, Clam lights the guy up in the car on the way there and, oops!, kills the occupants of the car next to him at the stoplight. While the friends and relatives grieve, the police investigate, America-haters celebrate a modest victory and the White House rattles its saber at an unseen enemy, the number “22” is entered in the “saves” column on Clam’s report. “Unbelievable,” I said. “The total is over 400,” Melanie said.
Miller/Timberwolf/248 “What about the IBs?” “23. None his wife, by the way.” “That’s not bad.” “I know.” “If the estimates are sound.” “I think they are,” Melanie said. I shook my head, rising. “I’ve got to go for a walk. In the woods. Far from this,” I said, making a vague gesture at the computer, the room, the world outside. “I’ll come with.”
Any other day, I would’ve made a big deal of the fact that the normally sedentary Melanie was accompanying me on a walk outside. After the events on the island and our return to the house in Blue River, many such references to the past seemed irrelevant, if not superfluous. We were different people now. What mattered most was the now and future, and if Melanie wanted to start getting some exercise, so much the better. We crunched through the snow for a few hundred feet, heading north on a suggestion of a path that required us to
Miller/Timberwolf/249 duck under trees, step over bushes and saplings and skirt the banks of several small creeks. When finally we got into a clearing and could talk, I asked Melanie how she was doing. “What do you mean?” she said, gulping air. “I’m dying here.” “We can stop a second,” I said, pulling up. “Hold on.” She stopped and bent over, hands on her knees. “Jiminy Christmas,” she said. “I’ve gotta get out more often.” “Well, stick with me,” I said, touching her shoulder lightly. “We’ll fight terrorism and get in shape in time for bikini weather.” She laughed. “But what I really meant, Mel, was how you’re feeling about all this … stuff that’s gone on, and what we’re looking at in the future. I mean …” She held up one finger in a “give me a moment” gesture and continued to focus on oxygen intake. I stopped and looked around. From where I stood, there was no evidence of humanity. No planes overhead, no sign of houses or utility wires, no bridges or walls or asphalt. And no other people, either, no one armed with guns or
Miller/Timberwolf/250 knives or wearing a fishing vest packed with C-4. This spot, I figured, looked pretty much the same now as it did before we invented guns and knives and plastic explosives, before man came on the scene at all and started changing the environment, altering the law of the jungle and fouling the nest so badly we were afraid to step outside at all. Melanie, of course, was reading my mind. “Thoreau had a nice idea, didn’t he?” she said, her breath finally returning to normal. “Yeah,” I said. “If I could stay out here all the time, I would.” But something always dragged us back. Like a reluctant don trying to get out of the mob, being human invariably meant engaging with the rest of the gang despite your inclination to run in the other direction. I knew we were lucky, at least, to have these kinds of moments as respite. I wondered aloud if more people had access to something like this, if there would be less maniacs strapping on bombs. So many of them emerged from the teeming slums with a Mecca-sized chip on their shoulder…. “Dunno,” Melanie said. “There’s no telling what a trust fund and a second home in a resort area would do for the disenfranchised zealot.”
Miller/Timberwolf/251 And she crunched off into the woods, leaving me to wonder whether it was being around me or the experience on the island that had left her capable of that kind of sarcasm. As I followed her back into the woods, I looked at the back of her head, her bobbing ponytail, and wondered what kind of scars she was nursing after being beaten and half-raped on the island. She seemed incapable of talking much about it, replying only with “I’m fine” or “I’ll get over it” whenever I asked. Neither response gibed with what I was observing, which was a woman who usually appeared in full color now looking like some kind of sepia rendering of her former self. I figured I’d stop asking and hope to see the color come back to her, like leaves returning in the spring. Maybe, I hoped, it was just a matter of time. Melanie determined to make a walk in the woods a daily event, and we spent the next two weeks growing the activity in length and difficulty, working her up to the day when it wouldn’t hurt so badly to exercise. The disgust I’d felt formerly at her sloth melted away as I saw her make a commitment to improving herself, and I kicked myself a hundred times when I remembered how I’d viewed her. I was so involved in my own issues about my life and career (and lack thereof) that I failed to extend much of a hand to the
Miller/Timberwolf/252 scared, depressed and lonely woman who’d washed up on my stupid little island. I was ready to listen now, and just waited for her to talk. In the meantime, we occupied our conversations with a dissection of the information we had about the Timberwolf operation. Melanie now arranged for our hikes a “walking agenda” revolving around certain topics. As we laced up our boots in the mudroom, she’d tell me what she wanted to discuss, and I’d usually go along with it. Glad to supplant Power Point with this method, I told her I wanted more about the identity of the false Timberwolf who got blown up on the island. “Like I said, a disgruntled customer,” she said this snowy Monday as we took the path to the lilypad lake. “His name was Khalifa, a sleeper-cell jihadist from Qatar who lived in Dayton, Ohio, of all places. Clam used him as a go-between on a couple of missions, and I guess was sorta trusting him. He knew more about the operation than anyone other than Clam. But he got annoyed when he saw guys blowing themselves up without taking too many others with them.” “Ahhh,” I said. “So the last straw was this Saudi Khalifa worked with,
Miller/Timberwolf/253 who blew himself up at some festival in the Bay Area. Khalifa was actually planning to join him, like a double bombing on either side of the crowd. But he didn’t make it.” “What, our buddy Khalifa too good for suicide bombing?” I said, feeling the stab of cold air in my lungs as we started our ascent. “No,” said Melanie, panting behind me. “He got sick, appendix or something, and while he was in the hospital the other guy, Moshi-waloshi or something, decided to go it alone.” “And only a few people got killed and Khalifa wanted his money back,” I said, trying to think if I’d ever researched this one. “No one got killed,” she said, “except Moshi-whosits. Pre-ignition by Clammy. And yeah, Khalifa wasn’t happy. He made all kinds of threats about exposing Timberwolf, then disappeared before Clam could neutralize him.” “Listen to you,” I said. “Neutralize him?” “Well, whatever,” she said. “The point is this guy went back to McBrae, which was one of Clam’s safehouses, and set up his own Timberwolf operation. He started intercepting Clam’s customers and sending them on more successful missions. This was about a year ago.”
Miller/Timberwolf/254 Clam, she said, rarely used a safehouse more than a few times, and it took him a while to realize Khalifa was on McBrae. By that time, he was too sick to take him out himself. “That’s why he enlisted us,” Melanie said, stopping for a breath next to me. I’d stopped on a rise overlooking a ravine that spilled down into a tumble of rocks left by some ancient glacier. In summer, I’d see marmot and pikas there, chattering away among the talus. Now, it was silent, save for the wind in the trees and an occasional keening raptor. “Lucky us,” I said. We listened to the silence of the snow falling around us for a moment, and began to speak more quietly. “This conversation doesn’t seem very a propos to our environment right now,” I said. “I know,” she said in a sort of stage whisper. “We should be talking about elk habitat, or pine cones or something.” Melanie had on an old hat of mine, with her collar zipped up around a scarf. Just enough of her was visible for me to see her eyes and red cheeks and lips. She looked good, her sedentary pallor replaced with a healthful glow.
Miller/Timberwolf/255 Humans react to one another’s looks based on the look itself as well as the duration. I admired Melanie’s new countenance for a few milliseconds more than I should have. “What?” she said, with a smile. “Oh, nothing,” I said. “I was just thinking you, you’re looking healthier. And that’s a fine hat.” She laughed. “Thanks. See? I’m not a complete sloth.” “I never said you were.” “Not with words, Daniel. But you have this look, like the one my mom used to give me when she came into my room and it was a mess.” We listened to the wind, looked out over the white world, and felt something together, something about peace, maybe, or … I couldn’t let it last. “This is the kind of scene some jerk makes a poster out of, then puts a word underneath like ‘serenity’ or something. Then, people mistake it for art, frame it, stick it up in their TV room.” She turned to me with a smile half baffled, half dismayed. “Well,” she said, “There’s a skunk at every garden party I guess.” Then she moved off, back up the hill. We continued up the trail in silence for a while, me thinking
Miller/Timberwolf/256 about how I might have handled that differently and Melanie probably wondering if romance could ever enter her life so long as men were involved. Finally, I stopped, asked her to hold up and asked her how we knew Khalifa was dead. Or Clam, for that matter. “You were there, Danny,” she said, slowing but not stopping, not turning around. “You saw that explosion. How could anyone have survived that?” “I don’t know,” I said. “But I’d’ve like to have seen the bodies. I’d hate to think that this Khalifa guy is going to pop up again somewhere just as we’re taking over the family business.” “So, is that what you want to do?” she said, stopping and looking at me. “Take over the family business?” I took a deep breath and got interested for a moment in some pine boughs swaying overhead. “No, it’s not. I’d rather go back to my cushy, highpaying job that doesn’t require killing people, but it doesn’t appear as though that’s an option anymore, is it?” “We don’t have to do this, Danny,” she said. “I mean, it seems like everything’s sort of leading us in that direction, but we can still bury all the papers and stuff, give the money to charity and go back to our old lives.”
Miller/Timberwolf/257 She didn’t say it with much conviction, but it seemed like she wasn’t ready to make a decision on her own—which usually wasn’t a problem for her. Still, there was another party to think about. “What about James?” I said. ### We hadn’t heard from James in about 10 days, and the number he’d scrawled on a coffee filter didn’t seem to work. As January merged into February, we wondered daily
where he was and when he’d return. Then, the phone rang. “Hey Freddy,” came the familiar voice. “Hello James,” I said. “What’s up?” “The rent, the price of Broncos’ tickets, the traffic in Denver,” he said. He was still visiting with friends and family, he told me, living out of his childhood room at his mother’s home in Englewood. He’d spent some time with his daughter, now a 20-something “dumbass” working at a downtown Applebee’s and spending all of her money on makeup and clothes. “I gave her $500 to pay her rent, an’ she spended it all on underwear an’ shampoo,” James moaned as I cringed, thinking of Clam’s terrorist-supplied “shit” money going to Victoria’s Secret and Biolage. After some discussion, we’d
Miller/Timberwolf/258 given James a one-time payment “for services rendered” of $5,000 out of the bag of money we’d brought north with us (this before the subsequent money bag discovery, which he didn’t know about yet). “Well,” I said, “girls will be girls, I guess. I hope it’s good to see her anyway. “Yeah, it is,” he said. “I still think of her as a kid, though, an’ she ain’t no kid anymore. She’s got tits out to here, and 10 different boyfriends and smokes like a goddamned chimney. Drinks too much, too. Makes me sad.” I didn’t say anything. “I know what you’re thinking, that the old man’s reapin’ what he sowed, and you’re probably right. It still sucks, to see my daughter, all trashy and stupid. You know what I mean?” I suppose I did, even though I didn’t have any offspring of my own to worry about. James hadn’t had a lot of opportunity to be a father after Clarissa was 5 years old or so, but I knew she’d never been far from his thoughts. “Not getting to be around your kid,” he’d told me on the island, “It’s like having a fucking knife or a spear sticking in your chest all the time, and you can’t pull it
Miller/Timberwolf/259 out. You just gotta walk around with it all the time.” So I tried to imagine what it would be like, after all those years, to finally get to see your daughter, and then be so disappointed with the adult version. Finding myself once again in the position of having to comfort and counsel, I did my best. “Well James, there may be more to her than you’re seeing. Remember, you haven’t known her too well, and you just might have to spend more time with her to see the good stuff.” “I know,” he said. “But I’ve spent a fair amount of time with her over the last month or so, an’ I still think she’s a piece of shit. I hate it Danny, I just hate it.” I held the phone away and looked at it, vaguely hoping it would break or melt or otherwise go away somehow. It didn’t. “James, I’m sorry man, but I don’t know what to tell you,” I said, bringing the receiver reluctantly back to my ear. “Just try to hang out with her and don’t be so judgmental. You’re not going to change who she is, so just try to enjoy her and love her and stuff.” Oy. I sounded like one of those daytime talk show shrinks during the call-in segment. But the next day, James
Miller/Timberwolf/260 called back much happier. “I took your advice,” he said. “Clarissa, she come home with this new, totally fucked-up hairdo—like a poodle’s what’s been scared to death—and I told her, I told her it looked good.” “Really,” I said, smiling over at Melanie, who shot me a questioning look. “How’d she like that?” “You’d think I give her a million dollars or something,” he said happily. “She gave me a big hug and a kiss and started cryin’ an’ shit.” “Wow,” I said. “That’s great, James.” “Yeah,” he said. “So thanks.” “No problem,” I said. “But hey, James? Do you think you could make it back up here soon? Mel and I have some stuff we want to talk to you about.” ### Melanie and I had spent a lot of time discussing “The James Question,” with the upshot being that, whatever our reservations about him, there were two things we couldn’t refute: One was that we trusted him, more or less; the other was that he had demonstrated beyond a doubt his skill and willingness to do the dirty work that was invariably going to be part of our job.
Miller/Timberwolf/261 What remained was a decision about what his level of involvement would be: partner or employee? I didn’t like the idea of hiding the fact that we were sitting on enough money to all retire on, but I wasn’t so sure that, if James knew that, he wouldn’t vote to hang the whole business and start his own paint shop somewhere. “Well,” Melanie said, “If we make it clear that we’re running the show and we want him as a hired hand, I don’t see why we’d need to disclose our net worth. Do you?” So that’s how we presented it to James when he showed up the next day. We put him on a $10,000-a-month retainer and told him he simply had to be on call and available at a moment’s notice when we needed him. He also had to stay sober, although he could have his two beers a day. He would know little about the details except that all targets, all missions had to do with whacking real terrorists. He was thrilled, although he balked at the notion of having to carry a pager and a cell phone. “I don’t know, Danny,” he said. “Can’t I just call in every day or something?” “It’s a deal-killer James,” I said with a shrug. “You’ve got to have them, period.” He thought a moment.
Miller/Timberwolf/262 “Well, shit,” he said finally. “I guess for 10 grand a month cash, I can carry that shit.” Melanie gave me a look I interpreted as a comment about our argument regarding his salary. A few thousand a month, she said, was more than enough for someone like James. Any more than that and he’ll go nuts and flake out on us. My take on it was that if you’re going to ask someone to commit murder on a retainer basis—for that’s what it was regardless of our intentions—you had to compensate them at hit-man levels. From extensive reading in Elmore Leonard novels, 10K sounded about right to me. So James went back down to Denver, ostensibly to spend more time with his mother and daughter and do what he could with his new-found wealth to make life easier for the two women. Every couple of days, I’d page him or call him on his cell to see if he was using them, and he’d answer merrily. Money, it appeared, agreed with him, and I could hardly blame him. His whole life had been spent working low-paying jobs in horrid conditions, driving shitty cars, living in trailer homes or their equivalent, and not having a dime in the bank. Although I doubted he’d change his wardrobe from jeans, work boots and T-shirts, he did
Miller/Timberwolf/263 develop a taste for the dog track and the limited-stakes casinos in Blackhawk. He rented a nice townhome in Englewood and sent to Iowa for his Javelin. Soon, I knew, we’d have work for him. “He’s not going to stay sober,” Melanie said. “That’s my concern.” “He’s OK,” I said, not very convincingly. “He likes the money enough to hold off on the beer.” Melanie looked at her watch. It was about 9 o’clock on a Friday night. “Call him. Call him now.” He was in Blackhawk, at the casino, and he had a distinct slur to his voice. “I’m down here with Clarissa,” he said, yelling into the phone against the backdrop cacophony of slot machines. “She wanted to see some fucking band, The Assholes or something.” “The Asterisks Dad!” Clarissa yelled in the background, sounding pretty drunk herself. I could almost hear the sound of her mammoth breasts straining against her Mervyn’s sweater. “Whatever,” James said. “What’s up, Dan my man?” “Nothing,” I said. “Just wanted to see if you were being a good boy. You’re not getting loaded all the time
Miller/Timberwolf/264 again, are you James?” “No!” he yelled. “Fuck no! Clarissa an’ me, we’re just a little buzzed. We’re gonna spend the night down here.” Clarissa yelled something about the band getting ready to start. “Danny, I gotta go. I got my phone, I got my pager, I’m you’re man, OK? You just lemme know when you need the cavalry to show up, y’hear?” I yelled quickly into the phone: “Two beers, Danny! Three days!” But he’d already hung up. I looked at the phone and clicked it off. “Well?” Melanie said. “He’s drunk.” “Oh, rats!” Melanie said, stomping her foot. “Does that ever bother you?” I asked, “Not being able to really say something more satisfying than ‘Oh rats?’” “Yes,” she said. “Sometimes.” “Well, Mel, there’s no one else around, and I don’t care if you need to use some adult language. It might make you feel better.” She looked at me, then said “Damnit!” rather softly. “That’s a start,” I said. “Try ramping it up a bit.”
Miller/Timberwolf/265 “Shit!” she said, a little louder, and looking around as if the potty-mouth police were going to pop out of the cupboard. “Melanie,” I said, “James is drunk…” “Shit!” she said, this time more loudly. “…drunk at a casino, partying with his daughter who he’s been trying to reform. …” “Oh, shit, damnit all to hell!” she shouted. “If we need him, he may not be available because he’ll be drunk and we’ll be screwed.” “Fuck!” she yelled finally, throwing out her arms and tipping her head back for a primordial bout of swearing. “Fuck Danny fuck! Oh, shit piss fuck damn hell godamnit motherfucker cocksucker shit shit shit!” It was a bravura performance, but I ruined it by laughing hysterically at the end. In her tiny voice, with her uncertainty underscoring every word, it sounded like a pop gun against an advancing army, or Mr. Rogers trying to talk gangsta. “Stop it!” she said, punching me in the arm. “C’mon Danny, now you got me to say all those bad words, you have to honor that by not laughing.” But it was too late. I couldn’t stop. I don’t know how
Miller/Timberwolf/266 long it had been since I’d had a really, really good laugh, but the release was something I really needed, and it fed upon itself, convulsing me from a series of deep belly laughs into a smattering of aftershock giggles that Melanie soon joined with her own. We lay on couches in the living room, laughing like a couple of college kids on mushrooms. Oh boy!” Melanie said in a wheeze. She looked at me. “I like you, Danny Gould.” “I like you too, Melanie Watson,” I said. “You’re good for me.” “And you me,” she said. Her eyes were bright, like new pennies, and they shined with tears from laughing. The eyecontact timer went off again, although it was lasting longer now. She looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “Man, we’ve got Gilgamesh in three days.” She was talking about our first job as the new corporate management of Timberwolf Incorporated. Gilgamesh was the name of a bomber who was patiently waiting at a safehouse outside Colorado Springs. He was one Clam set up, and he had everything he needed but his marching orders. We’d decided for our first guy the best course was preignition, and we needed James to make it happen. “He’ll be there,” I said. “I’ll talk to him about the
Miller/Timberwolf/267 drinking, and … it’ll be OK.” But it wasn’t OK. I couldn’t get a hold of him the next day, or the day after that. At the end of the week, Gilgamesh got tired of waiting and, ignoring my IM’d pleas to hang tight, walked into a Manitou Springs high school gym during a varsity volleyball game and detonated himself in the bleachers. ### “I know. I was trying to decide between American or Swiss cheese at the deli counter, and then I just said to myself, ‘What the hell difference did it make?’” The two women in front of me in the supermarket checkout line appeared to be old friends. They both had that ski-town local look to them—fleece vests, worn jeans and Sorel pack boots. I had a pair on my feet as well; this March storm had dumped 18 inches since it began the night before. Snow, especially lots of snow, has a remarkable impact on the soul in most cases. Apart from looking cool and being a boon to skiers, a blanket of snow has the power to make the world seem a softer, quieter place. It’s that power that inspired Currier & Ives, Norman Rockwell and, more recently, Thomas Kincaid (whom Melanie adores). It also inspired the mentality of those who live in places
Miller/Timberwolf/268 like Breckenridge: a la-la land seemingly removed from the cares and concerns of what locals call “the real world.” While many enjoyed the proximity to Denver, others had trouble with it, and only went down to town in order to fly out of DIA or to see a Broncos game. Like many ski-country locals, the two women in front of me, I guessed, cared less about what was going on in places like Afghanistan or Iraq than they did about their ability to get off work to ski “freshies” (a term I ahbor). Hearing one of them speaking in such nihilistic tones was a shock, like having a self-help guru tell you you’ll probably always be a loser. I walked into the parking lot and thought again how shopping carts up here should be equipped with snow tires. I pushed the cart through the cement-like snow until it would go no farther, then began ferrying bags from its position in the middle of the lot to the Jeep. When I was finished, I sat in the driver’s seat with the window open and let snow flutter in for what seemed like an eternity, then moved my hand with the keys toward the ignition. I stuck a key in but didn’t turn it, letting my hand drop back into my lap. Every animal has a set of coordinates burned into its hard drive that keeps him going with some sense of purpose.
Miller/Timberwolf/269 Whether you’re a tiger looking for a meal or an ant carrying a twig, this sense of purpose is a constant companion I never thought would abandon me. Sitting there in the parking lot as the snow came down in heaps around me, I couldn’t think of a good reason to move … or even one to stay put. It wasn’t suicidal thoughts but, rather, a lack of desire to be anything or anywhere that caused my torpor. I simply wanted to vanish. After a few moments, a store employee came out and began the laborious process of wrangling the stuck shopping carts back into the store. Some of them actually had their wheels partially frozen to the ground, causing the guy to kick fiercely at them with his unlaced Sorels. Winding up for his third kick at a particularly recalcitrant wheel, I watched unmoved as one of his boots flew backwards off his foot and landed a good 10 feet away. He issued an epithet, then hopped on one leg through the slush to retrieve it. He reached it, tugged it back on and shot me an “Oh well” look. I allowed myself a smile, gave myself a whack on the side of the head and started the Jeep. Somehow, I reasoned, there had to be some purpose to fulfill in the future, some explanation for why I should leave this parking lot, that’d come to me in time. If nothing else, I had to get home to
Miller/Timberwolf/270 cook dinner for Melanie, who hadn’t much moved out of bed since the bleacher bombing six weeks ago. # “Hey Mel!” I said with the forced cheerfulness that had become my thing since the Gilgamesh debacle. She lifted her hand a few inches by way of greeting and turned back to CNN, which remained on 24 hours a day in her room. “Why don’t you turn that off and watch a movie or something Mel?” I said, repeating something I said as often as “how ya feeling today?” “Watch one of your three-hanky movies or something, like Serendipity or Sleepless in Seattle. Quit watching this crap about the world; it just depresses you more.” Nothing. I served her a bowl of soup and a sandwich and left her to her cable news prison. Ever since Gilgamesh killed 27 high school students, parents and coaches, she’d been unable to do anything but sit and watch the escalating cycle of violence against Americans the bleacher bombing seemed to inspire. In Melanie’s eyes, I could see reflected my own feelings, that we’d not only failed to stop one bomber but emboldened others. We’d let Timberwolf Inc. slip
Miller/Timberwolf/271 into irrelevance, and the market had quickly caught up with things. Instead of the previous, Clam-orchestrated schedule of bombings, we had a spate of horrific successes on the part of the terrorists. The Colorado Springs bombing wasn’t even that bad compared to a stadium bombing in Fort Worth that killed 137 and then, the biggie, an explosive-packed Leer jet that took out a studio building in North Hollywood and killed 841. It was impossible for me to know how much of this was preventable by us or if any of the principals in these attacks would have been contacted and intercepted by Timberwolf. Clam’s own estimates figured Timberwolf to be involved in up to 75 percent of terrorist bombings, but with the network down, there seemed no way to assign any empirical evidence to make us feel any better or worse. Feeling worse, though, seemed an impossibility, and the only thing that would make me feel better would be to get my hands around James’ throat. But James was gone, long gone. Two days after Gilgamesh, he’d crept into the house when I was out and retrieved his stuff, leaving a note on the back of a vacuum-cleaner bag that read “Sorry Freddy. Guess we really screwed the pooch.”
Miller/Timberwolf/272 So there was just me. I thought a lot about how to go about reviving Melanie, locating James and rebuilding Timberwolf while I skied and snowshoed around the house and spent hours at the rec center lifting, swimming and playing pick-up basketball. I had become irrelevant once again, treading water in a sea of solipsism that suited me all too well. Outside keeping myself buff, the only thing I was good for was keeping Melanie in Campbell’s Chicken & Stars soup, Lucky Charms and Diet Mountain Dew. I suspected that Melanie got up and moved around when I was gone, but I couldn’t prove it. Either she didn’t, or she was so careful about putting things back and leaving no trace that the downstairs never looked any different upon my return. I knew she got up to go to the bathroom, shower and change sweats (and, presumably, her underwear, although she’d apparently quit wearing bras, which I took as a statement against my laundering skills), but she never appeared on her feet in my presence. To do so might lead me to believe she wasn’t beyond hope. But I’d stopped trying, figuring she’d come around when she felt like it. I did the “supportive partner” thing for as long as I could stand it, but you can only converse with a lump so many times and get nothing back.
Miller/Timberwolf/273 The only positive think I could feel for her was the recognition that, as a professional couch potato, she was really kicking ass. Such commitment, such adherence to a goal, would have been admirable in the pursuit of something more worthwhile — like scrimshaw, or even macramé. Watching the world go by on CNN was like returning year after year to watch your high school football games, wishing you were still on the team. Other than my narcissistic pursuits at the gym (if that’s indeed what they were; I wasn’t sure), I spent an hour or two a day at my “job.” Anthony didn’t expect much from me these days, and he’d stopped paying me after “budget constraints” had caused him to trim his freelance staff. Sitting on the stack of dough Clam had left, I didn’t care anyway, and it helped to keep my hand in it by devoting some time to the research. Anthony’s current obsession was with what he called “The Big One.” He was convinced the current spate of bombings (and, in some cases, sniper attacks and acts of sabotage) would culminate in something on a scale surpassing even that of the North Hollywood jet attack, or the Sept. 11 attacks from a few years back. “WHERE’S THE NUKE, DANNY?” he e-mailed me one day. “WE
Miller/Timberwolf/274 KNOW IT’S OUT THERE, DON’T WE?” I suppose we did. The only mystery to me was why one of them had yet to be deployed against us. Was it that difficult to dig up some Cold War relic and figure out how to use it? I recalled all the hand-wringing of the Clinton and second Bush administrations about either leftover Soviet nukes or new ones made by nutty regimes, but no one seemed to do a whole lot about it. Perhaps the cat was simply already out of the bag. But where was the cat? Clam had put some thought into this. His notes showed the beginnings of a plan to lure a nuke onto U.S. soil and neutralize it, but he clearly considered it too dangerous to work within the Timberwolf model and, according to preGilgamesh Melanie, had shelved it until he could think of a better plan. “I think it’s something we need to put a lot of thought into,” Melanie said, before everything went south on us. “After we catch up and slow down on these regular bombing guys, we need to look at nukes and try to nip ‘em in the bud.” Just like that. As I looked at Anthony’s doomsdaysounding e-mail, I smiled to myself thinking of how Melanie approached problems. She’d attack the nuke issue with the
Miller/Timberwolf/275 same brio she used to cook dinner or rig the hummingbird feeder in the backyard so the squirrels would stay away from it. It felt like reminiscing about a dead person. I thought of her down the hall in her sweats, the CNN hum and smell of soup permeating her here-and-now as much as her work used to. They’d called, of course, and I fended them off for as long as I could until I finally just told them she’d snapped and would be no good to anyone for some time. In the absence of real progress on halting terrorism, Congress busied itself with passing laws surrounding the issue. One of them said companies had to hang onto employees who’d been traumatized by a terror attack. Since Melanie fit this category, they had her on half pay while she “reorganized,” as the Rubicon-Johnson person put it. We could all use a little reorganizing, I thought while trying to educate myself a little about nuclear weapons. There wasn’t much online about how they worked or were built, which I took as the unseen fingerprint of Homeland. They’d done a lot of Web site purging over the past few years despite plenty of whining on the part of ACLU types. In the absence of hard data, there were plenty of
Miller/Timberwolf/276 theories, promulgated by purportedly in-the-know “experts” and worry warts convinced it was no longer a matter of “if” but “when.” One guy had an entire site dedicated to musings and “evidence” surrounding the notion that a nuke of some sort would find its way onto these shores via a container ship. Another had it floating into New York harbor in a decommissioned North Korean submarine. As I often did, I meandered into Melanie’s room and shared my thoughts while she stared at CNN. Occasionally a light would go on in her eyes at something I mentioned, but it was never enough to get her to speak or engage the topic. “Can you at least tell me if there are more of Clam’s notes concerning nukes?” I asked her. She said nothing, but when I returned from a snowshoe that afternoon, there was a folder on my chair. It didn’t contain much in the way of fact, but there was one paragraph scrawled by Clam that caught my eye. “I would not rule out the possibility that a small, tactical nuclear weapon — either a Cold War artifact from the Soviet Union or something new created in a place like North Korea or Pakistan — could find its way here,” Clam wrote. “Somehow, thought, I doubt it. Nuclear weapons are a pain in the ass to deal with compared to conventional
Miller/Timberwolf/277 explosives and other terrorist methods. The average terrorist would much rather shoot from the hip with a few pounds of good ol’ C-4 than be bothered with the huge hassle, expense and technical expertise necessary to deal with a nuke. Personally, I doubt we’ll ever see one deployed, even though it seems like a good idea or somehow inevitable. The same goes for most chemical and biological agents.” I was aware that Clam’s words, read posthumously, often had a much weightier feel to them than they might have were he still alive. A martyr himself, in my view, I often forgot about the flesh-and-blood fellow I knew and read his words like some sort of sacred text. But he had a point. Just how much of a threat was a nuclear weapon? And what kind of resources would we need to use to find out, especially if they might otherwise be used to deter smaller attacks that occurred almost daily now? “Mel,” I told the lump on the bed, “I almost feel like if a nuke comes, it comes. We can’t really use Timberwolf to deter one, since we don’t have one to offer anyone, and even if we did, we’d just get rid of it anyway — leave it on the doorstep of our local Army recruiter or something, I don’t know. We could try to put out the word through the
Miller/Timberwolf/278 pipeline that we were interested in one, but to me, Timberwolf is all about helping the little guy, not some group that’s got their shit together enough to detonate a nuke on U.S. soil.” She blinked her eyes and looked down, then resumed staring at CNBC. It was a Senate hearing about yet another proposed amendment to the Homeland Security Act. Homeland wanted more leeway to hold people without charging them, even if they were American citizens. Ever since an Islamic charity in suburban Chicago had been revealed to be a sleeper cell of terrorists who were nonetheless American citizens, it’d been open season anyway. Now, Homeland just wanted a rubber stamp to cover its ass in the future. “You know they’ll get it,” I said to the TV. “They always get it.” I looked again at Melanie and pressed her hand in mine. “When you shake yourself out of this, Mel, I’m going to need your help. I’ve found something that looks pretty scary, and I think the false Timberwolf is back in business.”
It was chatter on our channels. They were using some
Miller/Timberwolf/279 of our encrypted web domains, ghost e-mail accounts and even some code. I couldn’t tell at first whether it was just opportunists who’d gotten our number from past operations, or a concerted effort by someone who knew Khalifa. For all I knew, it was Khalifa himself, risen from the ashes of Elk Head lodge. After all, I reminded myself for the hundredth time, we never saw the body. “You were good, Clam,” I told my computer, “But you really screwed up with this Khalifa guy.” “Trust no one,” Clam told us in The Envelope, “except yourselves, and even then, keep an eye out.” I thought of James and shook my head, then of Melanie. I’d imagined my talk of the false Timberwolf rising would stir her, but it did no more so than anything else I told her, or of the other horrific things she saw on CNN. Like lightning striking the Earth during a storm, death was stabbing down all around us, and you never knew where it would land next. The fact that some of the death-bringers were using part of Clam’s own little homeland defense system to further their aims pasted a grim expression on my face and compelled me to spend less time at the gym and more at my computer trying to track their activity. Most of it was gibberish: seemingly random series of
Miller/Timberwolf/280 numbers, cryptic words and phrases, occasional dates and times. It wasn’t until enough time and terror had passed, where I could start comparing the messages to the outcomes, that I was able to begin interpreting the chatter. When “1800 0312 38-13N, 122-17W,” came across in an e-mailed PDF of one of Clam’s old “job sheets,” I dutifully marked it down with all the others and forgot about it until a week later, when a venerable Napa winery was destroyed with some kind of napalm dropped from a Cessna. The date? March 12. The time, 6 p.m. The coordinates for Napa? 38° 13' North, 122° 17' West. Duh. And it only took me three months to figure it out. Clam’s system for giving bombers their targets was much more byzantine, and it involved giving them information about as many as a dozen targets in code names over a period of time, then delivering the “final destination” with the time exactly 24 hours before planned detonation. These guys were doing something a lot simpler, which is why, I told myself, it had taken me so long to decipher the messages. Looking over the communications I’d intercepted over the past three weeks, I was able to retroactively predict two other bombings and one sniper attack. There was nothing
Miller/Timberwolf/281 concrete pending, but suddenly my mission seemed all too clear. Clam told us on many occasions not ever to bother with Homeland’s tip line. “Do you have any idea how many tips they get every single day?” he asked. “Over 20,000. And do you know how many bombings have been stopped as a direct result of information from Tipline? None. Zero. Zip.” The worst part about it, Clam said, was the insistence by Homeland that anonymous tips be taken less seriously. As a freelance terrorist vigilante with blood on my hands, I was hardly in a position to divulge my identity, but I called the Tipline anyway from a payphone in town. I told them I had information on upcoming attacks and that I’d call again when I had more concrete information. They didn’t have to wait long. Two days after I left my message, another set of information came through: 2100 0401 41-5N 87-55W RSCC. The terrorists, Clam said, liked to mix up their targets. They loved the high-profile, high population density places the big cities offered, but they also felt it was important to keep the hinterlands in fear. So the next attack was slated for Kankakee, Ill., a sleepy town
Miller/Timberwolf/282 south of Chicago. A quick internet search convinced me the target was the Riverside Country Club, a golf course. Looking on their website, I found they were having an April Fool’s fundraiser bash that night, offering a juicy target of rich Americans drunk on champagne. On my way out, I paused in front of Melanie’s door and thought about telling her what I was up to. It took only a nanosecond of contemplation to skip it and continue with my lame little plan on my own. All she’d done when I told her of my first call was roll her eyes and blow her nose, and who needs that kind of support? So I left my stupid message on the stupid Tipline’s stupid automated system. I also called the Kankakee Sheriff’s Office and told the chirpy women who answered about my concern. She was much more interested in who I was than in what I had to say, and I hung up after I got my info across. I had three days to wait. Had I done enough? Should I drive to Kankakee and go to the fundraiser and try to be some kind of hero? I hated fundraisers, any kind of party where rich “patrons” stand around talking about their returns on investment and their cholesterol levels. If James were around, I’d send him. He could pose as a
Miller/Timberwolf/283 greenskeeper or a caterer and do his commando thing. I tried his cell phone and his pager for the hundredth time and got no response. I went for some long skis in the woods, spent more time at the rec center and even went up to the ski area with my alpine boards and took a few runs among the last of the spring break crowd.
Every year on April 1, the Riverside Country Club names a “Kankakee Town Fool,” as the emcee/mascot for its yearly fundraiser. This year, the Fool was Kankakee County Sheriff Wilson Mendan. Pursuant to tradition, Sheriff Mendan showed up at the party wearing a jester’s costume and a big, shit-eating smile. He also had a 9mm Ruger in an ankle holster hidden by a mass of purple and green tassles sewn on at the last minute by his wife, Sally. Sheriff Mendan, like most public safety officials in the U.S., took terrorist threats and warnings with a hefty grain of salt mixed with a pinch of actual concern. Even a small-town sheriff like Menand had seen enough in the past few years to try to take warnings seriously, but he’d also spent a lot of time, energy and taxpayer money preparing defenses against things that never materialized. In his suicide note found later, he wrote that he thought about
Miller/Timberwolf/284 asking a few deputies to come by the golf course that night, then figured the 9mm in the jester’s outfit could handle anything that might come up. After 9 p.m. came and went, Sheriff Menand breathed a sigh of relief, ordered a Glenlivet and sat back to listen to his wife entertain the table with stories about their last vacation to Jamaica.
Zacharias Mubon was a member of a Saudi-American terrorist faction called Balasa. This group was active in the Midwest for several years until the Feds arrested two of the three leaders the previous fall. Mubon escaped the raid, along with three other members, all of whom subsequently martyred themselves in suicide bombings in the three months prior to the April Fool’s attack. With no more recruits handy to blow themselves up for the cause, Mubon apparently decided it was time to play his last card: himself. He contacted the false Timberwolf, I imagine, because he was out of explosives, and he got hooked up with a cache of C4 hidden under a sandtrap on the 14th hole at Riverside. It was placed there by Clam or one of his operatives, and it contained one of his “ready to rumble” suicide packs, which meant it needed little assembly — just
Miller/Timberwolf/285 strap it on, push the button when you’re in place and Blammo!—some Americans are dead, and you’re in heaven with the 47 virgins or whatever. Had I thought to check the golf course location against the list we had of explosive caches, I could have tried to pre-detonate Mubon. But, even if I’d been that smart, I had no intelligence on the ground to know where he was at any given time and could conceivably have made it even worse. As it turned out, Mubon got into town from the East Coast (forgetting to change the time on his watch to Central), found the pack on the 14th hole without a problem, and walked unchecked through the kitchen entrance at exactly 10 p.m. Sheriff Menand, who by this time had removed his jester’s hat and put the Ruger out in the car, had just enough time to grab Sally and fall to the floor with her when he saw Mubon stride into the middle of the dance floor and shout “Allah Akbar!” Fourteen people were killed while doing the chicken dance, including the mayor of Kankakee and his wife, Lenora. From his hospital bed, Mendan issued a mea culpa three days later admitting he’d received the threat and done nothing other than wear his gun. A day after that, he tendered his resignation, ending a 27-year tenure with the
Miller/Timberwolf/286 Kankakee County Sheriff’s Office. Still not satisfied, the following morning he put that 9mm Ruger to his head and left everyone guessing as to why, exactly, he didn’t do more about the threat. I read every word of every account of the Kanakakee bombing, debating with myself what, if anything, I should have done differently. I knew the seriousness of the threat, and yet all I did was make two anonymous phone calls. I could have dwelled on this for months had James not called the next day to tell me of yet another bombing. This one took place at the Hotshot Hotel & Casino in Blackhawk the night before. Only three people were killed, but of the 17 injured, one of them was Clarissa. “She’s in bad shape, Danny,” James told me. “Her legs are all fucked up an’ she can’t feel nothing below her neck.” I asked him what hospital they were at and told him I’d be right down. “Thanks Danny,” James said, then: “Danny, I’m sorry, I really am.” Before I left, I did two things: I looked in my notes to see if anything jibed with the time and location of the
Miller/Timberwolf/287 Blackhawk bombing, and sighed in relief when I found nothing. I then stopped in on Melanie and told her what happened. “Jesus,” she said. Encouraged by the one word, I asked if she wanted to come with me. She shook her head and I left. My days of trying to convince her of anything were past, and I had an arbitrary date in mind of June 1 when I was going to somehow get treatment for her. When I got to Presbyterian’s emergency room waiting area and saw no James, I asked the nurse at the desk about Clarissa, and if she’d seen her father. “Well, he’s in there too, you know,” she said, acting surprised. “He’s got shrapnel wounds and he’s lost a lot of blood.” He looked fine to me, and as far as James was concerned, his biggest problem other than the condition of his daughter was that they wouldn’t let him outside to have a smoke. It didn’t surprise me at all that he hadn’t bothered to mention his own injuries. James was the kind of guy who usually had a bandage around one or two fingers, a wound or two on his face and something else that was giving him a bit of a limp. Despite
Miller/Timberwolf/288 some scrapes across his face that looked like someone had flogged him with a piece of barbed wire, he looked no worse for wear and said he was supposed to be released the next day. “I hate this shit,” he said, gesturing at the IV needle in his arm and, I guess, the hospital in general. “I need to be looking after Clarissa, not layin’ here taking it easy.” I told him I’d go take a look in on her, but I almost wished I hadn’t. She was a double amputee now, the result of her legs being crushed under a floor joist that let go in the explosion. Her face was a mass of bandages and most of her hair had been seared off. Her left arm had also been crushed; and among her limbs, only her right arm had escaped serious injury. I couldn’t help thinking death might have been a better outcome for her. “Hi Clarissa,” I said, not knowing whether she was awake under the bandages. “I’m Danny, a friend of your Dad’s.” She moved her head a little. “Um, we’re going to take care of you, OK? Your dad is doing fine and he’s going to be released tomorrow.” This time, no head movement. I stood there for a
Miller/Timberwolf/289 moment, wishing I could be anywhere else, then turned when the door opened. “Who are you?” said the doctor. I told him, then asked what he could tell me about Clarissa. He ushered me outside. “She’s got a long road ahead of her,” he said. “She’s going to live, but she’s got years of physical therapy ahead of her, and a major change in adjusting to life with no legs.” I said nothing. He continued. “And Mr. Gould? It’s not my place, really, but you should know that the hospital administrator is concerned about both of these patients. They’ve no insurance, and Mr. Huber tells me they’ve little means to pay for any of this.” At least that was one thing we could help with. We could wave the magic money wand and make the hospital bills go away. As for the rest of it, I wasn’t sure. James told me Clarissa’s mom was so far gone from drugs and booze that she lived with her parents and spent her days hooking rugs to Oprah! James didn’t strike me as a nursemaid, but then I thought of how well he did with Clam. When I went back into James’ room, he was asleep. I sat down and regarded him, not looking half the tough guy
Miller/Timberwolf/290 he usually did. He looked old, too, older than his 40-someodd years. I looked at his huge right hand lying on the bed with the IV sticking out of it and thought about all the things that hand had done — including mowing down a number of terrorists not too long ago. For some reason, I recalled, in the old days, how much James loved to fuel up on a dozen or so Silver Bullets and go out in the yard behind the body shop where all the wrecked cars were. Some of them were simply waiting for insurance claims to clear before they got repaired, but others had been there for months or even years. James would take a body hammer and sidle up to a wreck, then say something like, “Lookee here, Danny, this one’s got a ding in it, by god! I bet ol’ James can fix that right up!” And he’d swing the hammer, beating the shit out of the fender with one hand while he continued to swill Coors with the other. Then maybe he’d pick up a rock and bash in a windshield, or open up a door and piss on the seat, squinting against the plume of Salem smoke rising from the butt between his lips. I wondered if he still did that sort of thing, or whether age had mellowed his vandal tendencies. It would be a good thing, I thought, to continue channeling his violent
Miller/Timberwolf/291 nature in the extermination of terrorists, and I contemplated the likely fact that Clarissa’s wounding would be a new inspiration for him. The trick, I imagined, would just be to get him in the habit. He’d do just about anything if it fell into some kind of routine, pain be damned. Working with James at Turk’s Body Shop, at the end of every day, he would walk over to a 55-gallon drum of paint thinner and pump out a few ounces of it into his hands to wash the paint off. Invariably, he’d have a few cuts the thinner would find, and he’d say things like “Ah, motherfucker!” and “goddamn that hurts like a bitch!” But he’d do it just the same the next day, even if Turk had told him a hundred times to use the heavy duty hand cleaner over the sink instead. I laughed a little at the memory. James cocked one open eye at me. “What you laughing at there, buckwheat?” Nothing, I told him, then gave him the update on Clarissa. “Yeah,” he said, leaning back on the pillow, “they had to whack both her legs off. Arteries fucked up or something. Guess her dancin’ days are over.” “James,” I said. “She’s your daughter, skip the jokes,
Miller/Timberwolf/292 OK? You don’t have to, you shouldn’t try to act tough about this. She needs you to hold her and tell her you love her, not have you crack jokes about her dancing days being over. Jesus Christ.” He looked at me a moment, then nodded his head. “OK Danny. But what’s next?” What was next was Clarissa was going to spend another few weeks in the hospital, then three to six months at a rehabilitation facility where she’d be taught how to live with no legs. “And after that?” he said. “After that she can come live with us up in the mountains,” I said. “We’ll get a new wing put on the house made just for her, and we’ll take care of her, and then you’ll go around helping me whack the motherfuckers that do this kind of shit to people.” “You got yourself a deal,” he said with a weak grin.
### As I always did when something was up, I went into Melanie’s room, sat on the edge of her bed and told her what was going on. This time, I got two words out of her. “Oh boy,” she said.
Miller/Timberwolf/293 I waited a minute or two for more, then left. I didn’t have time for Melanie right now. What I needed to do was hit the computer harder and see what I could do about relaunching Timberwolf and preventing further attacks. James would be up here in a few days, and I was hoping I’d have a little something for him to do. I didn’t know Clarissa, but she was close enough to my own little inner circle that I was starting to feel rather personal about this whole terror thing. Thinking of her in that hospital bed, broken and burned, sharpened my focus better than anything else could have, and I was nearly certain the problems with James would be relegated to the past. Revenge is not the most noble of motivations, but it is A motivation, and James needed one even more than I did. Now that I had coordinates and information to link to an actual event, I was able to follow a chatter stream with identical keywords back several weeks. In a matter of hours, I’d deciphered a number of words and phrases and identified a series of numeric markers that gave the bomber increasingly specific instructions as to the time and place of his mission. They really were using Clam’s Timberwolf model, almost to a T. When I told James on the phone about what I’d
Miller/Timberwolf/294 found, he asked why bombers needed to go through this whole process. “Clam demanded they account for their movements and follow specific goals at specific times,” I said. “He needed this information so he could mess with them, and they provided it because, if they didn’t, they didn’t get the Timberwolf network.” “I still don’t get it,” James said. “If I wanted to blow something up, I’d just find me some explosive and …” “Where, James?” I asked him. “Where do you go to get explosives? As an American citizen, you could maybe buy some dynamite and say you’re doing some mining, but they don’t sell plastique at Wal-Mart. Remember, too, a lot of these guys are coming into the country illegally, they’re in hiding, they may not speak a word of English, and if they get caught so much as jaywalking, some paranoid cop is going to take one look at them and throw them in jail.” Clam had set up the network so that terrorists had to rely on him for everything: where they stayed, how they got fed, any medical needs, cash, equipment, clothing, transportation … everything. In his notes, he referred to them as a “mewling, whining, simpering pack of needy children” who’d become so dependent on him – an electronic
Miller/Timberwolf/295 ghost called Timberwolf – that they would contact him sometimes upwards of 20 times a day. As the target date approached, he noted, their whines and laments grew even more frequent. Not hard people to track, if you were dialed into the system. Right now, I had the apparent advantage of being able to observe the chatter without them knowing of or even suspecting my existence, which necessarily led me to the conclusion that Khalifa must be dead. He’d passed on information about Timberwolf to someone else who was not on the island, and they probably just thought it was his creation. Timberwolf used a proprietary piece of communications software Clam had developed by the IT department at Homeland before he was kicked out. In his notes, Clam said he’d asked for it to be two things: as simple to use as any Internet browser, and absolutely untrackable and transparent. The Homeland guys came through with a protocol Clam had dubbed “GhostWire.” It looked just like any old e-mail browser, but it had something embedded in it called “URL Jumpr.” This enabled the site to alter its URL address constantly, jumping from site to site like a bachelor who
Miller/Timberwolf/296 could never settle down. If you logged onto GhostWire’s admin page (which I alone knew how to access), you could see where it was at any given time, but to the ordinary user, it looked like any other stationary browser, with a URL a mile long tagged onto the end of everything from underwaterbasketweaving.com to Yahoo! sites. GhostWire
shifted its address every 90 minutes, and it would also jump if anyone even attempted and failed to access it via a user name and password. All Clam had to do to get a client on GhostWire was give them a specific URL good for a specific time, along with a user name and password. It all seemed terribly mundane for an international terrorism vigilante, but it was the thread that held the Timberwolf network together. Clam would convey the information about accessing GhostWire through an Internet chat site, and even then it would be encrypted, decipherable only to someone who’d received instructions from yet another chat site. Clients came to Timberwolf in two ways: either through direct referrals or by what Clam called “electronic rumor.” Timberwolf, he said, was like an urban legend in the terrorism community. There was a chess-player chat room off Yahoo! rumored to be monitored by Timberwolf, and that’s
Miller/Timberwolf/297 where initial contact would take place. “There’s a lot of wannabe martyrs out there taking up a sudden interest in chess,” Clam wrote in his notes. That was followed by a checklist of vetting questions he said needed to be asked to try to gauge the “sincerity” of the client. These included answers to things like the ferocity of their anti-American sentiment, their background, their political or religious affiliations and their family. There was even a short essay question, where clients were asked to respond to the question: “Why I want to commit a suicide bombing.” It didn’t matter who became a client or why; the only thing that concerned us was that potential bombers became clients rather than freelancers, and that they were “for reals” (as Melanie said) and not moles from Homeland or any other police force. The vetting helped weed out suspicioussounding types while also making clients feel like they were getting some kind of quality assurance package for their money. The beauty of Clam’s system was that, even if some smart cop or agent made his way in posing as a client, there wasn’t much he could do about it other than thwart a single bombing (which wouldn’t have taken place anyway) or capture a single cache of explosives and ruin a safehouse.
Miller/Timberwolf/298 Either they committed the bombing or they didn’t; it didn’t really matter to us. It was a well-designed system, which at least partly explained why someone else was taking advantage of it. At the same time, it didn’t totally compute. If this Khalifa was really behind this, he should have a pretty good idea that at least some of us from the night of the explosion were still alive and listening in. The only answer could be that Khalifa was dead, and that he’d passed on information about Timberwolf to someone else who had no reason to suspect it was anything other than Khalifa’s baby. It bothered me, but it seemed somewhat academic, since the fact remained that it was being used by someone. My task, then, was to take it back as soon as possible, which meant I was going to need a healthy James before too long. All I had to do was figure out where the False Timberwolf was, have James do his thing, then we could take over the network and get back to business. I had no idea how to do this. Finding someone on the other end of the Internet is not like tracing a phone call or following smoke from a campfire. Unless they gave some clue to their whereabouts, I couldn’t see any way to find the False Timberwolf short of attempting some elaborate
Miller/Timberwolf/299 plan to have him meet me somewhere. I turned over in my mind various schemes of the meet-me-at-midnight genre before inevitably concluding that, unless this guy was a complete moron, it’d not only be a waste of time, but put him on the defensive as well. So I wandered downstairs to make a sandwich. Then I watched back-to-back episodes of I Dream of Jeannie — as good a cleanser of the intellectual palate as any sorbet. I thought about going for a hike, then accessed a little-used area of my conscience filed under “Protestant work ethic” and returned to my computer. Just for the hell of it, I IM’d Anthony and asked him if he knew of any way to find someone at the other end of the virtual telescope. HAVE YOU EVER TRIED ROTO-ROOTER? he wrote. WHAT’S THAT? I replied. IT’S A WORM. VERY ILLEGAL. SOMETIMES WORKS, MOST TIMES DOESN’T. DEPENDS ON OTHER GUY’S FIREWALL, AND OTHER SHIT. TWO THINGS: I wrote back. HOW DETECTABLE IS IT AND WHERE CAN I GET A COPY? Anthony FTP’d me an enormous file that contained Roto Rooter and some other questionable software that was either illegal or, at the very least, likely to fog my Windows very badly if I wasn’t careful. I burned the bin.hex file
Miller/Timberwolf/300 onto a CD and, like the asphalt worker whose wife insists he wash his work clothes at the laundromat, went to a cyber café in Breckenridge to try it out. Roto Rooter was easy enough to use. You just logged onto an e-mail transmission of the destination user, launched something called “The Snake” and waited to get a response. I tried it out at first on an address for Microsoft support. I figured if anyone deserved to have a mess to clean up, it was these guys, who’d caused me no small amount of trouble over the years. I sat there drinking a latte and watched the little snake icon slither around the screen, flicking its tongue, for about 45 seconds. Then, an address in Redmond, Washington came up, complete with zip code. Anthony said Roto Rooter was the proverbial bull in a china shop in terms of how it did what it did. It had a nasty habit of either destroying files on the computer it was searching for or from, or taking files and attaching them to a million random e-mail addresses and sending them. The computer at the café still seemed OK, although there was no way of knowing what was going on in Redmond. I sat and watched the now-smiling snake icon dancing around the results box and wondered what kind of problems
Miller/Timberwolf/301 might be caused by trying it on the False Timberwolf. If his computer was suddenly attacked by something that looked like a malevolent virus, he could get suspicious and close up shop. On the other hand, if he was like most computer users, he’d simply shrug, run Norton Utilities or something and start over. As to this guy’s files winding up scattered to the four virtual winds, I figured there couldn’t be too much harm in that to the world at large; it might even help turn over a few rocks. It only took half a latte for me to make the decision, let loose the Snake and sit back to watch as the après ski crowds started to file in for their mochas. The heavy snows of March and early April had the ski area extend its closing day by two weeks. It was mostly locals who bothered anymore, even though it was the best snow of the year coupled with the smallest crowds on the hill. All the Denverites were already golfing and mountain biking, and the destination skiers from the rest of the world were long gone. It was the time of year the locals thought of as getting their town back, and over the ski repair places, restaurants and T-shirt shops of town you could almost hear the sigh of relief. I was listening to two telemarkers talking about the
Miller/Timberwolf/302 cache of waist-deep powder they’d found up on Peak 10 when the snake started doing its dance. I felt a stab of something in my chest when I looked and saw an actual location, a physical address for my enemy: Burlington, Vermont. It made sense. One of the ways Clam liked to help clients into the country was across frozen Lake Champlain in winter time. The false Timberwolf probably didn’t have the ability to run safehouses around the country like Clam did, so maybe he maintained one central location near a port. I jotted the address down, rebooted the café computer and headed home, wondering all the while how sure I could be that this address was at all correct. The last thing I wanted was to sic James on a bunch of old ladies or UVM students sipping coffee in their kitchen. Somehow, we needed to confirm this information as accurate, and there seemed to be nothing for it but to make a quick trip to the Green Mountain State. James still had another week of recovery, Melanie was a blob and Clam — although his presence loomed large — was apparently dead, although the appearance of this false Timberwolf had instilled a seed of doubt in my mind. Whether it was due to loneliness, hope
Miller/Timberwolf/303 springing eternal or sheer stubbornness, I wouldn’t have been too surprised to see his grinning face appear in the doorway once again, this time with an explanation as to how he escaped a fiery hellhole and then, somehow, beat cancer. I shrugged at the notion, dismissed as unhelpful and turned my attention to an online travel site, where I bought a round-trip ticket to Burlington. I would go out the following morning and return the day after that. If that wasn’t enough time to find something out, I’d simply have to find another way. I was no private detective, and I had little clue as to what steps I would follow in pursuing my goal. Somehow, though, just purchasing the tickets made me feel monumentally proactive, like the tubby who finally buys a treadmill to put in the garage. It was up to me, and me alone, to fire the thing up and try to burn some fat. ** Chapter 8
“Where’d you go, Danny?” The question was simple enough, but I was so unused to hearing Melanie speak in anything resembling a full sentence that I started, then turned to look at her in the
Miller/Timberwolf/304 doorway like I might a dog or a tree that had somehow found speech. I couldn’t detect any note of annoyance or anger in her question, which may have been justified, since I’d left for two days with nothing more than a note left on her night table reading “back in 2 days.” But, then, it was hard for me to feel any great guilt on any communication issue regarding Melanie, the friggin’ clam. “Vermont,” I said, then resumed my unpacking. I didn’t want to reward her having found her tongue with any sort of surprise. Wasn’t going to let her back into the world of the engaged that easy. It was my nature, I’d often told myself, to act unsurprised when I should have been surprised; to not get excited about anything, really. I used to date a woman — a Christie or a Kirsten or one of those — who was always so taken by the events in her life that she lived in a perpetual state of awe and delight. At first, it appealed to me, this childlike wonder that persisted 24/7, but before long it wearied me profusely. It came to a head one night at a bar, where she was agog over the little hula girl swizzle stick in her drink. She kept going back to it, issuing the same phrase: “Isn’t this the CUTEST little
Miller/Timberwolf/305 thing?!” and staring at it incessantly. Feeling upstaged by the plastic hula girl, I said nothing, endured another half hour and fled with a migraine excuse hanging over her cheery head like low tide fumes at the clam bake. In her sunny land, I was the sound of the dumpster being emptied, the jackhammer interrupting the chamber concert, and absenting myself from her sunny world was probably the nicest thing I could have done for her. She was still beaming somewhere, I was sure, probably married to some unpleasant dork she thought she could save and finding solace in her 2.5 kids. I smiled at the thought of her, though, and turned to Melanie, who thought it was for her. “Hi,” she said. Tentatively. “Hello, Melanie,” I said, turning back to my unpacking. She didn’t say anything, her presence behind me that of a big hungry question mark. I toyed with some socks, rustled some papers and sighed. I turned around and sat down on the bed. “So,” I said, “back from the abyss, here to join the world of the living, to grace us with your presence?” “Yes,” she said. Then she cried. They always cry. Before my eyes, she
Miller/Timberwolf/306 changed from a person standing there ready to have a conversation to that unique phenomenon known as Crying Woman. I just sat there and watched it, fascinated. Generally, Crying Woman must be comforted by Sympathetic Man, but in my case, Sympathetic Man was on holiday, and I wasn’t sure when he was going to return. If Melanie could ignore me for a few months, I reasoned, surely I could at least absent my caring self for, what, a few weeks? At least. She didn’t move, just stood there with tears rolling down her face as I contemplated what it would be like to be so quick to weep. What must it be like, to have so little control over your emotions that you had to give it up in public whenever something moved you? Was it embarrassing, like incontinence, or simply a nuisance? I would never know. The closest I ever came was when I lost work on the computer. Some of this terrorism stuff was getting to me as well, but it didn’t move me to tears, even though my advancing age had acquainted me with the affliction known as “welling up,” and I’d experience that lately when reading about particular horrific attacks. There were other occasions as well. The previous
Miller/Timberwolf/307 night, at a Burlington Ramada Inn, I had a dream. I was at a museum in L.A., taking one of those docent-led tours with a group of foreign visitors, when a terrorist attack began. While we watched from the lobby windows, landmarks around us were reduced to fiery rubble by an orchestrated series of small planes apparently packed with explosives. I felt the great tremors as the explosives rocked the landscape around us, and fell to the floor when a chunk of rubble came through one of the huge plate-glass windows. I wondered how long it would be before one of the planes found the building I was in, but it didn’t happen. It ended, and there was smoke and flame and screaming in the distance, but inside the museum we were OK. All during the attack, the docent gamely forged ahead with the tour, occasionally making adjustments to her remarks when something was destroyed. Several times, a museum official would come up and whisper something in her ear, after which she’d turn to us with a pleased smile to report things like, “Museum officials think they can repair the damage in six to nine months,” or “Museum officials say they now have room for the fountain they’ve always wanted.” I’ve never been one to have nightmares, or to remember much of what I suppose I dream, but this one stayed with
Miller/Timberwolf/308 me. Other than the absurdity of some area of L.A. being filled with priceless landmarks, it struck me as incredibly real and possible. I had no delusions about special skills as a precognitive dreamer, but I did hope Timberwolf never got a request for a coordinated plane attack. And when I wakened from the dream, I found my eyes were wet. Granted, a far cry from the overt blubbering Melanie was capable of, but I thought of it as emotional progress of some sort. I thought afterwards that, if Melanie ever returned, I’d share this with her as proof that I was softening up, that my cast-iron heart was metamorphosing into some kind of softer alloy. Brass, perhaps, or maybe copper. I couldn’t tell her now, though. She’d already left, recognizing that I wasn’t responding as expected and retiring to her room to cry more, this time with the added impetus of being cursed by a roommate with a copper heart. I followed. We always follow. Even when we’re “right,” we follow. I’d made my point, I supposed, and told myself that, if nothing else, the work we had ahead of us needed to be started right away, and we didn’t have time for too much more of this emotional crap. She was lying face down on the bed, her sweatsuit-
Miller/Timberwolf/309 encased body wracked with sobs. I sat down next to her and put my hand on her back, ignoring her muffled “Go away!” and hanging in for the long run. *** Vermont was a bust. I went to the address coughed up by RotoRooter and did a few ridiculous things along the
lines of what I imagined a cop would do. I drove past it, a simple, one-story white house on Wendt Street, with an unkempt yard and a newish SUV in the drive. That didn’t tell me anything, so I drove past it again, after waiting half an hour at a Starbucks up the street for the coast to clear – or whatever. It was a shabby neighborhood on the other side of the tracks, literally, from what looked like the main part of town. The address was not on a street where a rented Pontiac Sunfire would just blend in, I reasoned, so I couldn’t (to my great relief) enact the stake-out I’d envisioned: sitting there hour after hour, eating hero sandwiches, drinking coffee and, if need be, smoking cigarettes and allowing the butts to accumulate in a disgusting pile next to the car. Instead, I set up camp at Starbucks with my laptop, a couple of newspapers and a demanding schedule that saw me
Miller/Timberwolf/310 get up every hour or so and walk or drive by or near the house. I found I could go down a parallel street and see part of the backyard through a neighbor’s yard. There was a rusted barbecue and what looked like a snowmobile or a Jet Ski under a tarp, but not much else. Through the windows, I could detect no signs of movement, even though the SUV out front suggested someone must be home. Perhaps the False Timberwolf worked nights, I reasoned, and slept during the day. I checked my watch. It was a few more hours until sundown. Enjoyable though my Starbucks stakeout was, I figured I’d better get a nap in to prepare for my nighttime vigil. I did my best to memorize the landscape around the house, returned to Starbucks for a final latte and one of those little chocolate squares, and headed over to the hotel. I didn’t think I was doing anything particular right, but nor did I feel I’d done anything very badly. In Starbucks, I actually did a Google search for “stakeout tips” and “stakeout methods, techniques” and read up on what real cops supposedly did in these situations. Of course, they were armed with electronic devices, search warrants, vans disguised as plumber’s trucks, etc. All I
Miller/Timberwolf/311 had was a Pontiac Sunfire and a Starbucks, and I felt cruelly outmatched by the force within the house who, I was sure, knew of my presence and was toying with me by staying out of sight. Under cover of night, I told myself, I would get to the bottom of the goings-on in the white house, and when the time was right, I would unleash the fury of James upon its inhabitants. On the way back to the hotel, I did one more drive-by and saw a guy walking up the street. It was impossible to tell where he’d come from, but not difficult to assume he was probably walking up to the same mini-mall I’d just come from. Was it the False Timberwolf? While trying not to slow down too obviously, I eased up on the gas and took a look at him. He was dark, possibly of Arab descent, but cleanshaven and with short black hair. He wore a ratty fleece jacket on top of jeans, with heavy black boots on his feet. Mentally, I put an AK-47 in his hands and decided this guy certainly looked like he could be a terrorist, and a denizen of the home. I brushed aside the pitiful moans of my politically correct conscience, which tried to tell me I was engaging in racial profiling, by remembering the words of Clam: “Danny, have you ever read a news account of old
Miller/Timberwolf/312 Italian women blowing up buses or otherwise engaging in terrorist activity?” “No,” I said. “I haven’t. But …” “What about middle-aged Australian men? Or Swedish teenagers or Tahitian children? How about Lutherans or Baptists, any problems with them on the explosives front?” I didn’t say anything. I knew where he was going. “Have you ever heard of terrorist activity being carried out by young Islamic men of Arab descent?” Yes, I had. “Sure, there are other groups out there, like these jerks who say they’re with Shining Path or the Tamil Tigers, but the truth is, more than 90 percent of the terrorist attacks in this country have been perpetrated by that last group I mentioned, not old Italian women. So don’t talk to me about ‘racial profiling.’ In my … in our line of work, it’s a useful tool, and personally, if I hurt someone’s feelings over it, I don’t give a shit.” So I looked this guy over quickly and, I thought, surreptitiously. He looked up at me briefly as I went by and we made eye contact for an instant. Was that glint I saw one of smoldering malice, or just idle curiosity and languor from a guy who worked down at the local library, on
Miller/Timberwolf/313 his way to Starbuck’s for a coffee? Would I ever see that face again, in a different situation — hovering over me with a knife, perhaps, or waving a gun in my face? Or had I seen that face before? He wasn’t one of the guys I saw at McBrae — all of them were dead anyway. But there was a wisp of familiarity to him, and I brooded on it all the way back to the hotel, like a movie-watcher trying to remember where they’d seen that actor before. It wasn’t until I was opening the door to my room that it hit me: He was one of the guys I’d seen in the desert, at the Greek place, what seemed like a hundred years before, in another lifetime. He was the guy I’d heard say “Timberwolf.” Or maybe not. I couldn’t be sure until I saw him again. If it was him, it gave me at least a shred of something resembling evidence that this guy in a little house on the shore of Lake Champlain was a terrorist. I drew the picture, now with a face attached: In that little house on that quiet, desperate street, he plotted and planned attacks on my countrymen. He collected explosives and guns, he shepherded his little army over the ice of the lake in wintertime, and deployed them on horrible missions across the country. He was responsible for the death of Clam and his wife, the destruction of Underdog, and who
Miller/Timberwolf/314 knows what else. He didn’t know me, but he hated me all the same. I was eager to return the favor. After an appalling chicken fried steak in the hotel restaurant and a glass or two of passable chardonnay to calm my nerves, I headed back over to Wendt Street. It was a warm enough night that I didn’t need a heavy coat, so I settled on a dark sweat shirt, black jeans and some old Doc Marten’s. I parked the Sunfire on the parallel street, got out and crept into the backyard with the grill and the Jet Ski. There was one light on, in a corner bedroom. The window looked to be covered with some slat blinds, and I wondered if I got closer, if it would be possible to see in without someone seeing me. I began inching around the perimeter of the yard, headed toward the window. There were a lot of dead leaves in the yard, and it was impossible to go noiselessly. I settled for moving at a glacial pace, which had the effect of increasing my anxiety with every step, as if someone was slowly and cruelly turning up a rheostat on my heart rate, my adrenal gland. At this pace, I figured, I’d still be yards from the window by the time my heart exploded, so I opted for a much bolder maneuver: I would stride quickly and purposefully toward the window,
Miller/Timberwolf/315 see what I could see and then move quickly back into the shadows before anyone inside could discern whether they’d actually heard anything. At least this way I’d be done with it. I’d either see something or I wouldn’t, and no one could accuse me of not giving it my best. I mean, what training did I have in this stuff? The only experience I had slinking around outside a house at night had ended disastrously, and when I recalled the feeling of that hand clamping down on the back of my neck at McBrae, I felt an instant surge in my belly (what Melanie called “principal’s office tummy”). I certainly didn’t want that happening again. I had about 20 feet to cross before I’d be in front of the window, so I swallowed, breathed deep, hunched over and began my modest assault on the home at 211 Wendt Street. Before I got 5 feet, the motion detector flood lights came on, freezing me in the middle of the lawn. The blinds flew open, but I couldn’t see a face for the light. I heard a bang, like someone slamming their fist on the window, and it shook me out of my temporary paralysis. I turned and ran back the way I’d come, jumped in the Sunfire, started the engine and took off down the street as fast as the little car could go.
Miller/Timberwolf/316 My heart, though still thrusting against my rib cage like a frightened rabbit, had not yet exploded by the time I got back to the hotel. I let myself into my room and stood there, inhaling old hotel room smells (including tobacco, I noted peevishly for the umpteenth time) and regarding, once again and with renewed horror, a sloppily framed print of a watercolor depicting stock cars in pit row. Beneath it, in an elaborate script font, read the legend: “Heroes of the Track.” OK, it seemed clear that the False Timberwolf or the lonely librarian or whoever it was who lived there, had not followed me back to the hotel. There was no banging on the door, jingling phone or sound of gunfire; all was still. Even my heart was starting to slow down to an only-brisk pace, and I reminded myself of a magazine article I’d read saying such “exercise” was good for your ticker. With my “cover blown,” there wasn’t much left for me to do in Burlington, so I left the keys and a five on the dresser, packed my case and left. I paid through the nose but was able to get on a flight to Boston, where I caught a red-eye back to Denver.
“So you didn’t actually see the guy from the Greek
Miller/Timberwolf/317 place in the house, or around it?” Melanie said. “No,” I said. “The lights were too bright, and then I ran. I didn’t see anything.” It had taken a few hours of talking, and then making dinner together, before we’d sort of found our old selves, our former rapport as partners in this enterprise. Mel had plenty of theories about “needing time to grieve” and “stepping back to see the big picture” to explain her paralysis and how it finally lifted. What I saw was plain old guilt kicking her out of bed, combined with her dormant-but-not-dead competitive spirit: She felt bad seeing me going about it alone, and she’d be damned if I were to get all the credit if something went right. And she said she liked me, loved me, even, “in a brother kind of way,” but I didn’t respond in kind. Love, I thought, wasn’t so much about the endless repetition of that three-word phrase, but about actions that defined it. If she loved me, I reasoned, she wouldn’t have excluded me from three months of her life — our lives, our mission. She accepted my lack of reciprocation as probably deserved, put her head down and got back to work as if the last three months had never happened. Melanie agreed with me that the False Timberwolf, whoever or wherever he was,
Miller/Timberwolf/318 had to go before we did anything else. She was concerned about the fellow I saw on the street and the person behind the window of the house. Had they followed me? Had they seen the rental car? Is there any way they could possibly have traced me back to our home? “I just need to know if we’re secure here, because if we’re not, we need to move,” she said.
I estimate now that, at about the same time I was assuring Melanie that there was no way anyone could have tracked me back here, Kafiyah Bin Havil, who was the man on the street, the man in the house and, indeed, the False Timberwolf, was getting on a plane in Burlington to fly to Boston. From there, he caught a United flight to Denver, rented a green Ford Focus, and drove up to Breckenridge to find an address at 167 French Street, which is where Java Mountain coffee shop is located. Technically, I was right. Bin Havil didn’t find us because he was able to follow me from Burlington. He found us because he was, among other things, a computer expert and all-pro hacker who apparently detected the RotoRooter probe and reversed the signature to locate the PC from which I’d run the program on him. From there, it was a
Miller/Timberwolf/319 simple matter of waiting and watching. For what, he probably didn’t know, but he probably figured he’d think of something. As it turned out, not only did he not have to wait long, all he had to do was see my face to know he had his man. Had I seen him, things might have turned out differently. But when I think back to my visit to Java Mountain that day for a pound of Melanie’s favorite Kona, I can’t picture where he might’ve been. Was he behind a newspaper, facing away from the counter where I made my quick purchase, or sitting there in plain view and me simply not noticing? It didn’t matter, doesn’t matter, I suppose, although the question still hangs with me, night and day, like the melody to a half-forgotten song. What if I had seen him? And then what? Call the cops, to tell them what? Would I have run, attacked him, poured a latte on his head? It’s good policy, I’ve often told myself, not to waste too much energy contemplating or questioning things I can’t change, comprehend or control. While that attitude may have prevented me from getting very far professionally, it has insulated me from a lot of anguish over the years. I keep trying to convince myself to go back to that old protocol,
Miller/Timberwolf/320 but something has changed, something that prevents me from forgetting or ignoring anymore. Torture has a way of doing that to a person.
Melanie Watson was the kind of woman who always locked the door to her car, even if she was just stepping out of it for 10 seconds to mail a letter. Even in the garage, for chrissakes. In her world, even if she could acknowledge that there probably wasn’t always someone waiting to jump out of a bush and rob her or break into her car, the possibility was still there, and better safe than sorry. After my lengthy explanation as to how no one could have followed me back from Vermont, she said, “Hmmm … well, OK,” and left the room. When she came back from the garage, she was carrying the large American flag kit my dad bought one July. He’d never gotten around to actually mounting the flag holder on the house, and it was still there in the little box with the collapsed flag pole and the folded copy of Old Glory. “Seized with a sudden rush of patriotism?” I said, knowing I would soon be called upon to do something I’d rather not. “Can you put this up outside?” she said, holding it
Miller/Timberwolf/321 out to me. “It’ll be our ‘all-clear’ sign.” “Our what?” “If the flag is flying, it means everything’s cool,” she said. “If it’s not, then something’s up.” The wheels of my brain turned briefly, then reversed direction, then got stuck altogether as I recognized the fact that, no matter what got said, I would soon be raising the flag outside the house. I got up silently, took the flag from her hand and went out in the garage for some tools — and to read the directions outside her advice zone. For the next few days, every time we went out, we took the flag down, putting it back up when we returned home. If I went out by myself, it stayed up. “So, what if, while I’m gone, something happens and you can’t get to the flag to take it down to let me know something’s up?” I asked. She thought for a moment. “I don’t know. It’s not a perfect system, Danny. But it’s better than nothing.” “An example, then, if you please. How would this work to our advantage in some scenario?” “OK,” she said, “Let’s say you go out and, while you’re gone, I get a weird phone call, or the power gets
Miller/Timberwolf/322 cut off, or I hear noises outside. Then I take the flag down, and when you come home, you see it’s not out and come, I dunno, rescue me or something.” I looked at her. “But what if, while I’m out, someone shows up here, takes you hostage and does whatever, and the flag is still flying outside?” “Like I said, not a perfect system. But it could help in some situations.” And so it was that, when we went out for a walk in the woods that afternoon, she took the flag down with a meaningful look in my direction. We were only about a half hour into our walk when she complained of leg cramps and asked to turn back. “See what not exercising for months does to you?” I said, regretting the matronly tone I employed. “Yeah, well, show me a depressed person in good shape and I’ll show you a happy fat person,” she said. I let that go and walked her to the small ridge just above the house and told her I wanted to stay out a bit longer. As she headed down the path to the house, she called over her shoulder: “Remember, no flag, no all-clear!”
Miller/Timberwolf/323 “Got it!” I yelled back, rolling my eyes at a pine tree. Sometimes, you just have to humor them. It was starting to get dark when I set out on my own. A forest covered in snow is never completely dark, and the moon would be up soon, allowing me to see pretty well as I walked along the path that led above the tarn. It felt good to be out at the same time things were going OK back home. When Mel was in her funk, my walks alone were somber affairs, with me endlessly worrying and wondering what to do about her and everything else. With Melanie back, and the home fires burning, I walked with a lighter step and a lighter heart, despite the heavy lifting we had ahead of us. Nearing the end of my walk and reaching the top of the rise overlooking the house, I could see the lights on and felt some things inside me I never knew existed. Despite her many shortcomings, I really liked this woman, and I wasn’t convinced it was completely platonic. As I stood there, breathing hard and wishing I’d worn a heavier jacket, I felt stupid for not returning her heartfelt expressions of affection, and resolved to correct that before more time passed. Then I noticed the flag was not out.
Miller/Timberwolf/324 After the first icy stab in my heart subsided, I tried to tell myself she simply forgot, but it was no use. There was simply no way she’d have forgotten to put the flag out. It was too important to her, and she’d know that, were she to forget once, I’d pooh-pooh the whole idea into submission. It took me about 20 minutes to work my way back down the hill. I skirted the property line, trying to find cover behind the skinny lodgepole pines around the house as I peered into the windows to see what I could see. Part of me was tempted to just walk right in and begin teasing Mel about her lapse, but it occurred to me that, even if that were the case, there would be a price to pay for not heeding the message. I stood away from the tree I was behind and tried to get a better look through the kitchen window when I heard a bang and felt something tear into my arm above the elbow, like a big, angry hornet. Having never been shot before, it took me a moment to realize what was going on. Another bullet struck the tree next to me, sending wood chips flying into my face. I didn’t need any more evidence that I was under attack. I pitched forward into the snow and started to crawl away when I heard the voice:
Miller/Timberwolf/325 “If you run, I will kill you. It’s that simple.” This can’t be happening. Not again. Not to me. Not to us. “I don’t need you,” the voice continued. “I can get what I need from the girl.” I felt suddenly very nauseous, and the shock in my arm was starting to merge into pain — terrible pain. “Of course, it would be helpful to talk to both of you, so if you can come in out of the cold, we could have a nice chat, the three of us.” It was a pleasant voice, with no discernible accent. It belonged to someone who knew he was in a position of power, with time to do … what? It had to be him. I couldn’t think of who else it could possibly be. But how? How did he find us here? We’d been so careful. I thought of the hell Melanie would give me when she saw me, then wondered if I’d ever see her again. The pain was flowing out from my arm, seeming to consume the rest of my body, and I lifted my face up off the cold snow and threw up, then passed out. Some hero.
I came to seated in a ridiculous aspen-limb chair
Miller/Timberwolf/326 mother bought years before at a garage sale in Frisco. It looked like some kind of crazy, gnarled throne, and the False Timberwolf had tied me to it by my hands and feet. There were flames, I imagined, coming off of the arm that’d been shot. I lifted my head up, felt the flames, and passed out again. In the second or three that I was conscious, I saw Melanie tied too, and in her underwear. She seemed to be hanging, weightless, spinning maybe. When I came to again, I was able to look up without passing out, and I saw her again, her hands and feet bound with cord while one of Clam’s fancy climbing ropes had her suspended from one of the great beams in the living room. Her feet were only an inch or two off the floor, but she was definitely suspended, definitely in her underwear. I looked up at her blearily. “This seems to be a recurring theme,” she said matterof-factly. At least this time she was wearing more practical underwear. Behind me, he spoke. “Mr. Gould. I’m sorry about your arm, and your girlfriend’s predicament, and I can get things over here very quickly for you if you’ll just help me with two
Miller/Timberwolf/327 things.” “I’m not his girlfriend,” Melanie said. “Does that hurt, hanging there like that?” he said. “Nah,” she said. “Feels great. I could use a stretch.” “What do you want?” I heard myself say. I was still very dizzy, and the arm hurt like nothing I’d ever experienced, but I felt I had to participate somehow. “Simple: I just need the cash Timberwolf has acquired from the martyrs over the past few years, and the locations of all the safehouses and weapons caches.” “We don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Melanie said, a wicked edge to her voice that unnerved me further, if that were possible. “When you give me these things, I will kill you both quickly and, I imagine, painlessly. If you don’t give me these things, I will torture you and then kill you.” “Not much of a choice,” I said. “No,” came the voice. “I suppose it’s not. But, then, this isn’t a democracy, is it?” He laughed a stupid laugh. I honestly didn’t think there was much in the way of torture this guy could mete out that would make my situation any worse. All of those movies, where guys get
Miller/Timberwolf/328 shot once or twice and still keep going, it’s bullshit. Not only was I shot, but I could tell my arm was broken and I’d lost a lot of blood, which would explain the constant wooziness. How do you torture a guy who’d just keep passing out? Answer: you torture his girlfriend, or the person you think is his girlfriend. Timberwolf (for that’s how I now thought of him), had thrown the rope over the beam and tied it to the staircase. He now walked over to where it was tied and let Melanie down enough that she could put her arms at her sides. Relief flooded across her face, but she only got a brief respite before Timberwolf hauled her up again, this time tugging her up to a foot or so off the ground. She cried out in an animal scream that shook me to my core. He then walked around in front of me, enabling me to see that he was, indeed, the guy I saw on the street in Vermont. He looked me in the eye and answered my question without my having to ask it. “RotoRooter,” he said. “A clumsy, stupid program that not only told me where you were, but that Timberwolf was dead. He would never have used something so primitive, so easy to track.”
Miller/Timberwolf/329 He then turned to Melanie and gave her a spin, eliciting another great moan. “Money?” he said to her. She shook her head. He looked at me, the same question, unspoken, hanging in the air. I shook my head. He knelt next to Melanie, lit a Marlboro and, after she told him not to smoke in the house, burned the bottom of her foot with it. She howled and kicked, but all he had to do to get her to be still was put some weight on her, which he did by wrapping his arms around her knees and letting his own weight pull on her suspended arms. She jumped again when he burned her on the back of her thigh, then stepped away. She cried out again, writhed in pain then thought better of it: reacting to the burns only made her arms hurt more. I watched horrified as she steeled herself to the situation, through her tears looking at me to let me know she’d make it, we’d make it. I wasn’t so sure. But I was filled with a rage and frustration so pure and intense that it made me forget for the moment about my own pain; I could only feel hers. Seeing her relax, Timberwolf nodded with what looked like respect, then walked over to her and tugged her
Miller/Timberwolf/330 panties down to her ankles, just above where the ropes bound her. I was amazed that she didn’t resist, then noticed that she’d passed out. He turned to me. “I thought it would be interesting to try lighting her pubic hair on fire. Unless you want to tell me where the weapons caches are?” “I have no idea what the hell you’re …” I began. He lifted his foot up and kicked me square in the face, knocking me backwards and causing me to lose consciousness again. I have no idea how long I was out, but when I came to again, I was still lying on my back tied to the chair. Words cannot describe what my arm felt like, or really what was going on in my mind. I felt like I’d been deposited in hell, and I was half hoping to just be rid of it all. How bad could a gunshot to the head feel, I wondered? It’d be over so quickly there wouldn’t be time for pain, right? If I told him what he wanted to know, he’d promised to make it quick. But then he’d have complete control of the entire network, and a huge reservoir of cash. He could kill hundreds, if not thousands or people as a result of my
Miller/Timberwolf/331 weakness. I had some kind of Nathan Hale moment, thinking about giving my life for my country and feeling the barest tickle of humor as I thought how my greatest contribution to this whole mess was to die. My consciousness was a fleeting affair. It’d come and go. When I was awake, I tried desperately to hear something, anything from where Melanie was. I couldn’t see her because my chair had fallen over sideways and I was staring at a wall outlet. It was a seldom-used one that still had a protective cover on it from when my mother’s sister had visited with her children – my cousins – what, 20 years ago? My mother had my dad “baby-proof” the entire house, and of course he never removed any of the stuff, so I’d spent years in a house utterly devoid of children but fully protected. The management company told me it was a good selling point for the rentals, so I didn’t bother with it. I thought about my mother, even tried to croak out the word “Mom” for whatever reason. But my lips, mouth and throat felt like they’d been coated with sand – a result, I imagined, of losing so much blood and being dehydrated. Other than thinking about the baby-proofed socket, I spent all of my waking mental energy worrying about Melanie, but
Miller/Timberwolf/332 even that was starting to leave me. I was going beyond pain and sinking into something that felt like a warm pool, a place of peace and quiet, finally. His voice roused me from going there just yet. “Come on, you stupid bitch American!” I heard him say. “Just tell me where the cash is, at least! Then I’ll let you die.” So Mr. Cool was getting angry. You tell him, Mel, I thought. I’m sorry, but you’re on your own. I’m nothing anymore, going away. Sorry. So sorry. Then I heard something else. It sounded like someone whipping a branch quickly through the air, and it was followed by a hoarse exclamation of pain. Very close, definitely male. I felt a small surge of hope, and then, just before going back under yet again, a voice in my ear that said, “You gonna be OK, Buckwheat. That motherfucker’s DEAD.”
James kissed his daughter goodbye in the hospital and limped out to his car at about the same time as Melanie got back to the house and found bin Havil in the kitchen cutting up the American flag with a pair of kitchen shears. “So, you see,” she told me, “I couldn’t have hung it
Miller/Timberwolf/333 up even if I’d been able to, because the crazy dickhead cut it up.” Somehow, that made sense to her. By the time James got up to the house, Bin Havil had already worked us over pretty good and gone through the house and the computers with looking for money, information, whatever. There was nothing he was going to find, though. Mel and I had bulletproof passwords on our machines and the files within, and the cash and all the files related to Timberwolf were in a heavy-duty safe that he never found anyway. (It was sitting inside an old refrigerator in the garage.) Melanie, of course, had tipped James off about the flag, and even though he was as skeptical as me, he noticed it gone before he’d even pulled in the driveway, and so kept going a block or so to park on the street. “I walked up through the goddamn snow all ready to give Mel what for, and then I heard the screaming,” he told me in the hospital. Creeping around the house, he saw through the windows what was going on and felt, as he said, “a great desire to cause bodily harm.” Unarmed because he’d pawned his two guns when his cash ran out, James quietly broke into the garage in search of a weapon and emerged with something
Miller/Timberwolf/334 quite deadly: a Leki Nordic ski pole. The rest I got from Melanie. After pulling down her panties and kicking me in the face, Bin Havil tried and failed to light her pubic hair on fire. “It must be too oily or something, cuz it wouldn’t stay lit,” she said, too casually, as if describing a spa treatment. “It hurt like crazy, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t turn into the burning bush he thought it would, and it pissed him off.” So he decided to rape her. “He let me down and draped me over the sofa, and I could hear him back there trying to get ready, I guess, but guess what?” “Bad hydraulics?” I said. “I guess. And so the limp noodle pissed him off even more, and he dragged me over to the garage. He told me he was going to hook my boobs up to a car battery and shock the truth out of me.” “Really?” I said. “That’s original.” “I thought so too, but at that point, I was ready to exchange shocked boobs for having my arms pulled out of their sockets and my you-know-what burned off.”
Miller/Timberwolf/335 The garage door was right next to where I was lying mostly unconscious. When Bin Havil opened the door, James pulled Melanie past him and to the floor, then whacked the terrorist in the face so hard with the Leki that he fell backwards, tripped over me and into the living room. “That’s when things really got going,” Melanie said. Even though she was naked by this time, bleeding, burned and in terrible pain, she crawled back into the house, cradled my head in her arms and watched James and bin Havil go at it. “James beat the shit out of him, excuse my French,” she said. “He whacked him over and over again with that ski pole until he begged for mercy, and then …” “And then what?” I said. She gulped. “And then James started stabbing him with it. In the gut, in the legs, the arms, the face. He dragged him outside and kicked him and stomped him and stabbed him until finally, I guess, he just died.” “An’ shit his pants,” James said with a bizarre smile. “I really, honest-to-fuckin’-god, beat the living shit out him, didn’t I Mel?” She nodded her head.
Miller/Timberwolf/336 “But she’s leaving something out,” James said. “About why I drug him outside.” “Why was that?” I asked. “Because he was starting to bleed all over the place,” Melanie said. “I figured, the place was enough of a mess, why make it worse?” “You hear that shit?” James said. “Women!” ***
DIDN’T I MENTION THAT? Anthony IM’d me. NO! I wrote back. He’s trying to tell me he warned me that RotoRooter could be worked both ways by someone who knew a thing or two about hacking. Whatever. It was academic at this point. Six weeks had passed and I was back home after what the doctor told me was a “very close call.” Normally, a shot in the arm is not life-threatening if treated within a few hours, as mine was. But the bullet had nicked some artery, which is why I’d lost so much blood. Melanie was in much better shape. Even though her arms and shoulders would be sore for weeks, and she had some hair to grow back in her nether regions, she had no serious injuries. The way she cared for me and brushed aside
Miller/Timberwolf/337 questions about her own well-being made me think the two experiences at the house and on the island had sort of battle-hardened her. “I’m one tough chick now, Danny,” she said. “I’m going after these guys, and I’m not going to be put in that position again.” James vowed never to leave our side again, except to take care of Clarissa. We were quickly building the network back up, and James was gearing up for a trip to Portland for his first interception. “Business is good, Danny,” Melanie said. While I was recovering, she’d hung out our shingle again, as she said, and started lining up clients, some of which were already in the pipeline through bin Havil. “They’ll never know the difference,” she said. “No,” I said. “I guess they won’t.”