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By MARC CAMERON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Marc Cameron
All rights reserved.
Mountain Village, Alaska 450 miles west of Anchorage
Jericho Quinn used the back of a bloody hand to wipe windblown spray from his eyes. Behind him, the growl of a single-engine airplane brought a familiar twist of concern to his gut. He turned from his spot at the steering post of an open aluminum skiff to watch a newer-looking Cessna Caravan emerge from a line of low, boiling clouds to the south, on the other side of the Yukon River. Quinn nudged the throttle forward and leaned against the console, bracing himself against the constant chop brought on by a fresh breeze that worked against the current of the mighty river. Water hung in droplets on his thick black beard. A tangle of wet hair escaped a camouflage ball cap, framing the portions of his face not covered by the beard. Even after a long, lightless winter in the north, he was deeply tanned — a trait inherited from an Apache grandmother — and chapped by wind and weather. His knees ached from the constant bouncing on the river — one of the several new pains to which he'd resigned himself over the past half year.
The ripping blat of the approaching aircraft drew his attention away from his aches. Even the most experienced bush pilots steered clear of weather like this. Quinn tamped back the nagging uneasiness in his belly and coaxed the skiff around to cut the current diagonally. A hundred meters away, in the lap of rolling hills, low and covered in willow, white birch, and spruce, a tumble of weather-worn buildings spilled from the fog. It was Asaacarsaq in traditional Yup'ik, but to the United States Post Office it was known as Mountain Village.
Behind Quinn, standing at the stern of the little skiff, a big-boned Eskimo leaned back to watch the airplane pass directly overhead, less than five hundred feet off the water. The big man shook his head in amazement. His name was James Perry, but Quinn had known him since high school and had never called him anything but Ukka. When Perry was nine, his grandfather had given him the Yup'ik nickname, Ukkatamani — "a long time ago. " It was the Eskimo equivalent of "once upon a time."
Quinn looked back over his shoulder from the steering pedestal while he turned the boat in a slow arc. "You see something in the water?"
Ukka's eyes were locked off the stern. "Never know," he said, cocking his head to one side in concentration. He was a broad man, standing an inch over six feet and weighing in at nearly two hundred and fifty pounds. "We'll have to get in close if we see one so I can stick it. You can't just shoot 'em out here. Freshwater doesn't float them as well as seawater ... so they sink fast." He glanced up. "I ever tell you about the time my grandfather caught that beluga whale with a harpoon from his kayak down by Alakunuk?"
"You have not," Quinn said, smiling to himself.
Five months of stories had made it easy to see why James Perry's grandfather had called him "Once Upon a Time." No matter his nickname, Ukka certainly held the short weapon like he knew how to use it. When he wasn't bringing in his family's winter supply of meat, he made his living as a village public safety officer. In the Alaska bush, a VPSO was often the only law out here on the rough edges of the world. Ukka carried himself with the attendant swagger of a man in charge.
Like Quinn, Perry wore rubber knee boots and a blood-smeared orange float coat against the rain and wind-driven spray of his open boat. Beside him, in a slurry of rain, river spray, and fish slime, lay a mound of white Styrofoam football floats and green gill netting. A heavy rubber tub at the transom held a shining heap of the catch from their last drift — forty-six Chinook salmon.
Perry and the others in settlements along the Yukon were not the Eskimos of the icepack whose life revolved around heading out on the ice for polar bear or hunting the bowhead whale from skin boats. They caught seal and loved good whale muktuk when they could get it, but the Yukon River Eskimo were people of the salmon. When the fish arrived, everything else took a backseat.
"That guy's an idiot," Ukka shouted over the sound of the skiff's motor. He gnawed a piece of black, wind-dried meat with one hand while he clutched the wooden shaft of a harpoon in the other. "Man makes the rules. God makes the laws. You can break one and maybe you survive. Break the other — like flying in this shit — and it don't turn out so good."
The plane overflew the village, and then dipped a wing, banking toward the gravel runway a mile to the east. Quinn watched until it sank out of sight beyond the tree line, and then shot a glance over his shoulder at his friend. "Was there another flight coming in today?"
"Not that I know of." Ukka mused over his seal meat. "Everything was supposed to be weathered in all the way to Bethel. Must have cleared up some down there." He turned to scan the churning vee of water off the stern and took another bite of his black meat. "Sure you don't want a hunk of this? Tastes like chicken."
Quinn had learned the hard way about his friend's palate. To James Perry, even the clams, shrimp, and other stomach contents of a freshly killed walrus, flavored with nothing but seawater, also tasted like chicken.
"Think I'll pass," Quinn said, "My doctor says I should stay away from fermented seal meat."
"Suit yourself." Ukka licked his lips. Dark eyes darted toward the airport. "You think we should be worried?"
Quinn groaned, thinking through the possibilities. "It's probably nothing," he said. But his gut told him otherwise.
Quinn was a hunter by nature, not wired to hide behind anyone, least of all his friends. Yet, that is exactly where he'd found himself for the past five months — badly wounded, wanted for murder, and so helpless he could do little but depend on friends to protect him.
In order to stay safely hidden while he'd healed, Quinn had had little contact with the people he cared for the most. His ex-wife was getting used to a new prosthetic leg, he knew that much. And their seven-year-old daughter, Mattie, had just lost a front tooth. It killed him that he wasn't there to watch her grow up, but he realized he never really had been. Middle East deployments, long investigations, the heavy responsibilities of work had taken him away from home since she was a baby. That was the chief reason Mattie's mother was now Quinn's ex-wife.
On the brutally long winter nights, Quinn had sat with James Perry and his family watching the news while Hartman Drake, the new president of the United States, slowly but surely pushed the country toward ruin. The double assassinations of both the President and Vice President sent a shock wave through the American public not seen since September 11th. Near panic allowed newly appointed President Drake and his cronies to chip away at personal privacy and curtail press access, on the grounds of the need for tighter security. Taxes were slashed but welfare went up. High-level leaks from the White House led blogs and political news shows to place blame for the killings at the feet of the Chinese government. Diplomacy was kicked to the curb in favor of bellicose saber rattling with the US spoiling for a fight.
Hartman Drake, the bowtie-wearing former congressman from Wisconsin then Speaker of the House, had been thrust into the presidency. Quinn was certain Drake had something to do with both the President and Vice President's deaths. And he was equally certain the man was a terrorist. Drake had admitted as much, right after Quinn had put a bullet through the bottom of his foot — a big reason Drake wanted to see Quinn very dead.
Quinn was under no illusions that he was the only man in the world who could save the day. He knew his old boss, Winfield Palmer, would have others working on some sort of coup, but it went against everything in his makeup to sit on the sidelines while others did the dirty work. He was built to run toward the sound of gunfire — and if this new airplane carried the sort of people he thought it did, he might get his chance to do just that.
He moved his left arm, feeling the familiar tightness in the long scar that ran diagonally along his ribs. Considering that the wound had been made with a full-size Japanese sword, it was a wonder he was even able to stand. It was pink and raw and would be for many more weeks.
Quinn peered through the line of fog at the willows that separated Mountain Village from the airstrip, flexing his hands against the steering wheel. He was still far from completely healed. It would be at least another month, maybe two, before he'd be back in true, fighting shape. But deep down, he hoped this unscheduled arrival would force his hand.
A chilly wind stiffened from upriver, prompting Quinn to pull his head down, turtlelike, into the collar of his bright orange float coat. He watched a milling crowd of villagers and other fishermen come in and out of view in the fog as he neared the processing plant. A half dozen skiffs crowded along the steep gravel bank, working their way forward when a spot opened up on the docks of the drab blue building where they could offload their catch. Even in the flat light, Quinn could see huge Chinook salmon — called "kings" by Alaskans — flashing silver-blue as they were passed from boats to waiting plastic tubs.
Willing himself to relax, Quinn breathed in the sweet scent of fir and willow as they mingled with the odors of boat fuel and fish. He'd spent so much of his life in sandy, war-torn deserts that he couldn't help but smile at the freshness of the Alaska bush. All but the closed-mouth grin and crow's feet disappeared behind his beard.
He'd been little more than bandages and bones when he'd arrived in the village, wounded and sick, but five months of work and Perry's good cooking had added nearly twenty pounds and a fresh outlook on life. Even with the added weight, the baggy float coat his friend had loaned him still swallowed Quinn up like a child wearing his daddy's clothes. Far from the tactical colors he was used to, the combination life vest and raincoat was meant to facilitate a quick rescue if he fell overboard and into the bone-numbing water. Perry, the practical Eskimo that he was, reasoned that the water was so cold that the bright colors would aid more in body recovery than in saving anyone's life.
Quinn's rough-and-ready life in Air Force Special Operations as a combat rescue officer, and then later as a special agent with the Office of Special Investigations, or OSI, piled on top of the injuries he'd sustained from years of boxing and riding motorcycles to make him feel decades older than his thirty-seven years. A life of dangerous work and play had seen him endure hour upon hour of physical therapy. But hunting, hauling nets, lugging tubs of fish, and just living away from the clamoring city, had produced better results than any rehab he'd ever experienced. His movements were still slower — from one too many beatings. He'd lost some range of motion in his left arm, but an active winter of helping Ukka run traplines and bringing in moose, firewood, and fish worked wonders.
As his body had begun to heal, Quinn added exercise to the chores — push-ups, pull-ups, skipping rope, and a run up Azachorok Mountain above the village at least once a day. After he was well enough, Perry sparred with him in a makeshift boxing ring in the family living room. The matches were good natured but fast paced. Ukka's wife rooted for him, while his daughters cheered for Quinn. Invariably, at least one of the men got a bloody nose. At first, it had been Quinn, but as time progressed and he began to regain his legs and at least part of his reach, Ukka felt the sting of his gloves more and more.
Firearms and fighting were both perishable skills. Perry hand-loaded .45 ammo so they were able to practice shooting out at the dump a couple of times a week during all but the coldest days of winter. More than anything, the training helped Quinn's mood.
Less than fifty meters out, Quinn eased back on the throttle, pointing farther upriver to let the current push him toward the crowd of milling boats that jockeyed for position at the fishery plant. Everyone on the beach at the present moment held a commercial permit. Their own fish, they'd take to fishing camps up and down the river, away from the village itself, where they'd cut, smoke, and dry it for the winter. Even now, the smell of burning alder from their smokehouses hung along the crumbling riverbank, mingling with the fog.
Closer now, he could see the round faces of the villagers, family groups working to offload their boats. Colorful kuspuks, the thigh-length hooded blouses favored by Eskimo women, peeked out from blood-smeared rain gear and fleece jackets. Some were dressed in rubber boots and gloves, while others wore soaked cotton hoodies and muddy tennis shoes. Many worked with bare hands, pinked by the frigid water. Wet and cold, they all smiled because the fishing was good.
The single wiper blade thwacked back and forth on the small windscreen atop the steering post of the open boat. The wiper did little to stay ahead of the rain and spindrift blown off the great river. Quinn peered over the top as he drew closer to land, scanning for threats as much as picking where to dock.
"I wouldn't mind seein' a fat seal out here," James Perry said from the stern. Quinn glanced back to see the big Eskimo aim his spear at an imaginary target in the wake of the skiff. It was not unheard of for seals or even the occasional beluga whale to make the seventy-five-mile journey up the Yukon from the Bering Sea, as far as Mountain Village or even beyond.
At five feet long, the harpoon was relatively short, not nearly as heavy as the big ones used to catch bowhead whales. Yup'ik Eskimos rarely said they'd "shot" a moose or "killed" a whale — preferring to describe the act as "catching." A length of half-inch steel rod was fixed into the business end with a polished brass barb that toggled at the point. The barb was sharpened to a razor's edge and as big as a crooked thumb.
Ahead, eight other skiffs jockeyed for position along the muddy gravel, lining up for their turn at the wooden docks. Bowlines crossed. Aluminum gunnels banged into one another in a happy riot of mud, rain, and the beautiful catch of salmon — the lifeblood of the Yukon.
Beyond the thick stands of willows, the new airplane's engine gunned as the pilot taxied to the parking apron. Ukka stepped to the steering console beside Quinn, passing him the harpoon as he grabbed the wheel. "Better let me take over," he said. "People here like you, but they won't be so quick to let us in if a gus-sak's drivin' the boat." His face darkened as he looked at Quinn, squinting over round cheeks. "You're armed, right?"
"Of course." Quinn let his elbow tap the Colt 1911 in the holster over his right kidney. As an agent with OSI, there had been very few times he didn't have a sidearm. Lately, as a fugitive, those times were fewer still. Opposite the pistol, a Severance hung from a Kydex sheath on his left side. It was as much a tool as it was a weapon; Quinn found uses every day for the heavy seventeen-inch blade.
Ukka leaned around the windscreen of the steering pedestal to shout at his two daughters. Both in their teens, the girls sat on Yamaha ATVs halfway up the bank, waiting to accept the load of salmon. They were dressed in blue cotton hoodies that bore the "Strivers" mascot of their school. Their forest-green Hellys hung unbuttoned to vent the heat while they worked.
"You girls bring your Hondas down here closer to the boat," the big Eskimo said, eyes darting back toward the airstrip. Quinn had learned early on that in the Alaska bush, all ATVs were "Hondas" no matter the brand, just like every soft drink was a "Coke" in the South.
"We'll give the girls the fish," Ukka said. "They can take care of getting them weighed and recorded while I go see what's up."
Quinn hated hiding in the shadows while someone else did his dirty work. But they had planned for this — going over and over the possibilities during the long winter nights in the Perry home while they listened to Molly Hatchet on Ukka's vintage stereo system. Quinn had always known he couldn't hide out forever — and in reality, had never planned to.
Up the bank, the girls gunned their engines and began to slosh their way down the steep gravel.
Excerpted from Day Zero by MARC CAMERON. Copyright © 2015 Marc Cameron. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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