“What do you want me to say? I told you so?”
Vernon growled, “Anything but that. Bad enough you were born smart … being born a smart aleck girl is gonna be more than I can handle right now … got it?”
I got it and while I did my level best not to say what I really, really wanted to say we both looked at a box full of miscellaneous, and now disabled, equipment. There were some cameras but notably they weren’t Wi-Fi so that meant that someone was collecting by hand – or at least hand intended to – the data on the storage cards. Reggie was analyzing the cards on a lap top we had managed to salvage and upgrade and would let us know if they were date stamped and what they were of.
There were also dismantled boobie traps … although not real boobies as Reggie and I would have built them. The ones that were found were old hunting traps; the things honestly looked like old timey bear traps. They were real rusty so who knows where they found them, probably salvaging in great great Uncle Dismuke’s basement. OK, that was a little facetious but it was the kind of thing that looked like they were grasping at straws.
Reggie came back in and made a face. “I don’t know who set these things but most of the pics look like squirrels and birds set them off. And a couple of them were badly out of focus. A third was all fogged up like water had gotten in the casing. And no date stamp. What’s up with this?” he complained.
Vernon and Lon sighed in relief. “We got lucky.”
I shook my head after looking at Reggie. “No, it isn’t luck. Whoever set these just got dumb and you benefited from it. I’m guessing whoever set these knows squat about the great outdoors. Sure as heck couldn’t have been a hunter with any sense.”
Reggie leaned against a porch railing and said, “I just can’t see Matt making this kind of stupid mistake.”
I shrugged, “And I keep telling folks we need to keep an open mind; it may not be Matt behind this stuff.” At the sounds of impatient snorts all around me I said, “Geez. I’m not saying that it isn’t. He fits Occam ’s razor but other facts that we are looking at don’t.”
Cal asked, “Who’s Occam and what do you mean his razor?”
Reggie answered, “Old dude from like the middle ages. Basically it is a line of reasoning that says the simplest answer is usually the correct one. If you have to think about it too hard and bend and twist to make it fit the known facts then likely the answer isn’t correct. Just don’t get too attached your assumptions because that will foul you up too which I think is what Lydie is saying.”
I shrugged. “Sure, I guess. It’s just that all these assumptions about Matt … people act like he is Genghis Khan. He might be … but then again we don’t have a lot of hard facts to prove the hypothesis.”
“Yet,” Lon said.
“Yet,” I agree. “It isn’t unreasonable to think Matt is behind everything that is going on but what if no one knew about Matt? Who would be the next most reasonable character you’d attach these acts to?”
Lon nodded. “Suicide and that new guy Baumgarten.”
Vernon sighed and said almost reluctantly, “OK, so it’s possible.” It sounded like it was like pouring acid down his throat to get him to admit it. “So looking at this bunch of junk, where does that leave us? I don’t see Baumgarten investing man hours or time into something this sloppy. Doesn’t sound his style from what I remember of the gossip about him.”
I noticed suddenly everyone looking at me. “Oh honestly, knock it off. I’m in the dark as much as you guys are. No, I wouldn’t have thought that Matt would have done anything this sloppy. Is that what you want to hear? But it is doubtful that Matt actually laid any of this stuff with his own two hands. It might have been his idea based on whatever supplies he had at his disposal at the time but there are a lot of variables we don’t have. When were these put in? Who put them in and under whose orders? Why were they put in? And frankly I don’t know how to get the answers to those questions to add to what we already know which is whoever put these in didn’t really know what they were doing.”
Vernon asked, “Now who is jumping to conclusions?”
And with way too much enjoyment he explained, “Like you said we don’t know when these were installed. If the installer – whoever that may be – was working in much less than optimal conditions it could make it appear that an amateur had done the deed. Setting a camera at night would explain the lack of focus for day time shots. Fogged up lenses could be explained by it getting done in some of those freezing rains we’ve had.”
Properly chastened I said, “Fine. Whatever. But at least now you know what I mean about too many assumptions and not enough facts.”
Vernon gave a small smile that turned into a twinkle of a near laugh when Lon popped me on the head with his baseball cap. I turned and looked at him and said, “You know that isn’t exactly something I like.”
He just grinned and said, “I know.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes but let it pass. I was actually relieved that we were back on better footing with the Houchins Farm. Which led to my next question. “Vernon, how’s your daddy?”
The twinkle faded from his eyes. “’Bout the same. Momma told him not to go out in the rain but he insisted on supervising the boys. Hates to order someone to do something he isn’t willing and able to do himself. Paying the price now though. Momma is worried it will turn into pneumonia before it’s all over and for a man his age …”
Lon said, “Oh Lord, don’t let anyone hear you say that. If it gets back to the Old Man …”
Vernon harrumphed but didn’t say anything more. Reggie said, “And on that note we need to be heading out or we are gonna catch it from Jax.”
I shrugged, trying to act like I wasn’t willing to hurry to keep him from being a bear about it all. “He’s just worried. Kelly has the sniffles and he isn’t used to her being sick.”
“Half the house as the sniffles,” Reggie complained. “It’s like living in the sick ward of a hospital. All the coughing and hacking and sneezing is enough to be heard from space.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head but gathered up my gear and said my goodbyes. Vernon said, “We’ll send a fax to let them know you are on your way.”
About a mile from the farm Reggie groans. “Pull over. All that tea. I gotta go.”
“Are you serious?!” I asked on an exasperated laugh. “Why didn’t you go at the farm?!”
“I know OK? You think I’m delighted think again. It’s cold remember.”
I tried not to giggle but obligingly pulled off the road into the bushes. Reggie jumped out but wasn’t gone near long enough before he was yanking my door open and pulling me out. “Hey! Go take your own bathroom break, I don’t have to go!”
“Shhh! Listen,” he said while pointing up.
Sure enough I heard a buzz. It grew louder then faded to almost nothing before growing louder again. Reggie whispered, “They’re looking for us.”
I wanted to deny it but it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that someone had the farm under surveillance and had spotted us and was trying to follow us home … or at least follow us to the reach of their signal. That’s when we saw there were two of them. I said, “Crisscross search pattern. Much more professional than what they found on the perimeter of the farm. Makes me think that Suicide and/or Matt set up the stuff at the farm but someone … Matt and/or Delorey … has made some improvements.”
Reggie nodded. “Or someone is learning from experience. We need to get word to Vernon and Lon.”
Urgently I told him, “Use that scrambler and send give them a coded message. Do the same to the Home Place. Who would be on duty right now?”
Reggie thought and then said, “Johnson … or maybe Aston … one of the two. Neither of them will panic if that’s what you’re worried about.”
I shrugged. “I hope it is Aston. Johnson thinks of the girls first instead of starting the rest of the plan in the order we set it up.”
“So tell him about it.”
I shook my head. “I’m not the boss of you guys. I say something to Johnson he gets all prickly and then gives Jax a hard time. You tell Aston to warn him about it … or you and Aston and Jax say something to him. I don’t want any more trouble.”
Reggie bit his lip and looked at me strangely but then we both had to refocus on the drones above our heads. Reggie whispered, “They’re flying lower and in tighter circles.”
I sighed in irritation. “They know where we went off the road. Something is definitely up. Better get those messages out before we get too busy to send them.”
While Reggie was on the radio I stayed hidden in the bushes. That’s when I heard something with wheels crunching gravel on the road and I signaled to Reggie to hurry up and do it silently. He wiggled back over my way and muttered, “Crap. Now I really have to go.”
I almost elbowed him but didn’t want any accidents. I pointed to my ear and then the road and then my ear again to let Reggie know I’d heard something. We both checked our pistols and rechecked our rifles that were already out and in our hands with the safeties off. Then we heard the vehicle stop its engine and the sound of a door opening.
A voice too far away to identify but close enough to understand said, “I don’t know how we lost them. If I knew we wouldn’t have lost them in the first place.”
“Screw you. You’re the one that thinks there is a brain trust out here living in a commune with all the comforts of home. I never thought Lydie was all that special.”
Reggie and I both stiffened. I made to move forward to see who the speaker was but Reggie was just as adamant that I wouldn’t. He signaled me to stay put while he crawled along the ground.
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever man. Mr. Baumgarten is in charge, not you. He said we could play your little game so long as it didn’t take time and resources away from our jobs. I’m due back on shift in two hours. I don’t show up, the work doesn’t get done, and Mr. Baumgarten is gonna wanna know why. You gonna tell him?”
“Like I said man, whatever. As soon as Jace and Donny meet up with me we’re out of here.”
I froze. Jace could be Jace Donahue; I knew he was amongst those students that had been left behind. Donny I was less sure of as the name didn’t strike an immediate bell. About that time there was a scuff behind me and I rolled just in time to avoid a tree limb coming down where my head had been a moment before.
I was flattened as something … or should I say someone … landed on me hard, nearly knocking the wind out of me. An arm came around my throat from behind and started to choke me. I don’t care who you are but if you haven’t been trained not to panic when you can’t breathe you are gonna have some adrenaline zinging through your veins.
Praying the person on my back didn’t have on insulated pants I reached down and around and grabbed a handful of the crotch of the pants he was wearing. As luck would have it, he was a she. And the she laughed nastily in my ear with fetid breath, “Gotcha skank. I’m gonna get me that reward.”
OK, so the first dirty pool tactic didn’t work; I made sure the second one did. I managed to rip a sharp stick off of the tree branch and jabbed at the face behind mine. There was a shriek loud enough to wake anything hibernating within five miles. I rolled over and grabbed for my pistol at the same time. It took two jerks before I could free it from the holster but out it came … and so did a double tap of bullets, right into the chest of the woman who had been my attacker. I scrambled up, still trying to draw a clear breath. Over the ringing in my ears I hear noise off down at the road.
Quickly but cautiously I made my way down there but Reggie had secured the situation by the time I arrived. We looked at each other and then jumped as the radio squawked. “I’m getting tired of waiting. If this is some kind of infantile passive aggressive tactic Randall …”
I recognized that voice. So did Reggie. “Do we answer him?”
Seeing the devilment in Reggie’s eyes made me almost want to but I said, “No. Let Matt guess what is going on. It will drive him crazier than anything we could say.”
That made Reggie grin even bigger, this time in satisfaction. I was relieved. Reggie and Matt had never really gotten along. They ignored each other by mutual agreement while we were in school but I could see them becoming deadly enemies at this point and a personal vendetta we didn’t need making things worse. Johnson and Aston were already in that category but we had it directed to more constructive pursuits. Reggie wouldn’t intentionally do anything to hurt those of us at the Home Place but when he got nasty I wouldn’t want to get in his way … I’d played on his side too many times not to know what he was capable of.
I rubbed my throat and then thought to ask him, “You hurt?”
“Stiff,” I said stretching my neck. “Some woman caught me from behind.”
“She the double tap I heard?”
“Yeah. Sorry about the noise but she was hard up to win some type of reward.”
Reggie nodded. “Yeah. Heard Randy … that’s who was driving, Jace Donahue is down in the ditch over there … say something along that line to Matt. Said it was the only reason he was out here. Well, it got him killed.”
I saw the look on Reggie’s face and then remembered he and Randy had hung out at the paintball field together sometimes. “You OK?”
“Yeah. He wasn’t who he used to be. Let’s just get things cleaned up and get out of here before Matt decides to send someone out here to find out what is going on.”
We dumped the bodies in the bed of the truck … it would be easier to wash out than the car’s trunk … and then gathered up the little drones. “Didja check to make sure there were no homing devices?” Reggie asked.
“I didn’t see anything. You look too. What’s in your hand?”
“The reason I asked,” he answered, showing me a small plastic box. “It was under the car’s hood. I don’t know if it is a homing device or not but I disabled whatever it is. No sense in taking chances.”
I said, “Looks like an automatic garage door opener thingie.”
“I know, which means it either has a signal going in or coming out. Better to turn it off until I can figure out what it is.”
Reggie said he’d drive the old beater while I took the truck. Before we got back going where we were going we radioed home and let them radiofax the farm. While he was outwardly calm I could hear the polish coming off of Jax’s teeth when he said not to lose any more time.
Reggie looked at me and smiled, “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do when you get home.”
“Oh shut up.”