Read 65 Below Online

Authors: Basil Sands

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage

65 Below (3 page)

BOOK: 65 Below
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He hopped on the snowmobile parked in front of his cabin and pulled on the helmet. It squeezed his head snugly. The padding was warm against his ears and cheeks from the heat it had absorbed in the cabin. He started the engine and headed for the snow-covered trail that ran parallel to and slightly below the road to make the ten-mile run to the store that sat alongside the Richardson Highway.

As he pulled out of his property, he noticed that the Hamilton’s farm was dark. Usually the light on their porch lit up the end of their driveway. There were no lights on in the house, either.

Hmm. That’s strange. Must be a power outage. Oh, well at least that’s something I don’t have to worry about. When you’ve got no power, power outages won’t do you no harm.

A quarter of a mile down the road, the lights of an oncoming vehicle reflected around the bend. The trail beside the road rose where it intersected with a farmer’s driveway. As Marcus came up the incline and drew level with the road, he sensed something large and fast come up behind him. Surprised by the abrupt motion, he turned his head and saw a rapidly moving pickup truck bearing down on him. It moved entirely too fast for the icy conditions. The truck veered onto the shoulder and headed straight for Marcus. He gunned the snowmobile up and onto the driveway and yanked the handle bar to the right, then put distance between himself and the truck.

Marcus saw the driver of the truck suddenly look up from whatever had distracted him and lurch the steering wheel to the left and back onto the road. The driver over-corrected and crossed the centerline of Johnson Road as he headed into the bend. Fifty yards ahead, it nearly collided head-on with the truck coming from the other direction and again lurched to the right.

Marcus sat on the snowmobile in the farmer’s driveway and shook his head as he saw, in the light of the headlamps, the Tanana Valley Electrical Cooperative emblem on the side of both trucks.

“Crazy,” he whispered to himself. “Someone’s going to catch hell for that near miss.”

The two trucks disappeared into the distance. Marcus continued until he came to the Richardson Highway and turned left on the trail that followed alongside it. A few minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of the Salt Jacket General Store. The lights were on in the building and at the gas pump. The outage had apparently been repaired in the time it took him get there.

Marcus stopped the snowmobile in front of the store and took off his helmet as he rose to enter. A few yards away sat the electric company truck that had almost hit Marcus and the other truck. He noted the number on the side—forty-eight. He would call TVEC and lodge a complaint. Folks from the city seemed to think they could drive like idiots in the country, with immunity. They acted like they didn’t realize people actually lived out there. For all the driver of that truck knew, Marcus’s snowmobile could just as easily have been a child riding to a friend’s house. The other truck could have been a mom returning from hockey practice with a vanload of kids. He shook his head in disgust and mounted the wooden steps to the entrance.

A bell suspended on a flat metal spring jangled noisily as Marcus opened the door. Once inside, he was greeted by the luscious odors of rich beef stew and hot apple pie. The smiling face of Linus Balsen beamed at him from behind the cash register, where he sat on a tall, padded bar stool just inside the door. Marcus’s tension eased at the sight. He and Linus had been very close friends throughout their lives, growing up together as playmates and continuing into adulthood as close as brothers.

Joseph Balsen, a locally famous scientist and inventor, had started the Salt Jacket General Store in a metal Quonset building in 1954. Originally called Swede’s Café, it primarily served to finance his never-ending research into “Arctic Thermo-Engineering”. Over the years, it grew in successive renovations from its original postage stamp of a building to over 6000 square feet of grocery, dry goods, and hardware. While his inventions never made him wealthy, the store did pretty well on its own. Linus was the third generation of his family to run it.

They still served homemade soup, sandwiches, and pies to local residents, road workers, airmen, soldiers, and tourists who often filled the long diner bar that stretched past the register counter. Six booths provided more seating in a small, square room at the back half of the original Quonset building. Black-and-white pictures of the community’s past hung from the curved walls, evoking nostalgic memories of the region’s history.

From the register, Linus could look down the length of the rest of store, over shoulder-height racks of canned goods, bread, cereal, and medicines, and the glass doors of freezer cabinets filled with TV dinner entrées and packages of meat. A collection of “Alaska Grown” brand T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts were displayed along with a small assortment of other clothing, mainly intended for tourists. In the far back corner were the restrooms and several shelves of dog-eared paperback books, the small town’s
de facto
library.

“Hey! The Marines have landed,” Linus called from across the counter. “You must have some kind of freaky control over nature, huh? The power has been out all day, and then a few minutes before you show up, it comes back on. So, how’s it going for you out there in the woods, old man?”

“Oh, it’s going,” Marcus responded. “I’ve been cutting fire wood all day, and I must say, it kicked my buttocks.”

Linus smiled. “Man, for an old warrior, you sure are a wuss!”

Marcus grinned back. “Yeah, well, that’s Master Sergeant Wuss to you, storekeeper.”

Linus snapped to attention and raised his right hand in a mock salute.

“Aye, aye, Top!”

Marcus chuckled. He glanced down the length of the room as he took a stool at the long diner bar. A man stood midway down the store, comparing the ingredients of two cans of energy drink. The scent of the food grew stronger where Marcus sat. His hunger increased exponentially as it floated from the opening to the kitchen and swirled around his head.

“All right,” Marcus said, turning back to the counter, “where’s that pretty wife of yours? I need a hot bowl of her famous stew and some strong coffee.”

“I’m here, Marcus.”

The slightly accented voice drifted from behind the swinging doors that led to the small kitchen. A somewhat plump, yet still shapely, blonde-haired woman with attractive blue eyes and a pleasant face stepped out through the door with a large bowl of stew. She put the steaming food down in front of Marcus, who leaned over it and inhaled deeply. Cara Balsen reached into the warmer under the counter and came up with a small loaf of soft, warm bread, which she put on a dish and placed next to his stew.

“Lucky for you, we cook with gas. Otherwise, there would be nothing hot for you,” she said. She turned to the back counter, took out a tiny dish with a ball of butter, and placed that next to the bread. “Even though the power was out, the stew and the bread are both fresh.”

Cara and Linus had been married almost eighteen years. They met at a party just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, while Linus was stationed in Germany in the Army. She was a college student from Norway who, for some reason Marcus never understood, was totally enamored with his friend. Even now, all these years into their marriage, she continued to gaze at her husband as if he was some kind of ancient Greek deity. Marcus had served as best man at their wedding in Norway, where he had been training with commando teams of the Norwegian Coastal Rangers.

To Marcus, Cara was like the little sister he had always wanted growing up. While he was serving in the Marines, she wrote to him regularly to keep him apprised of the news in Salt Jacket. Cara and Linus’s two children—Connor, age twelve, and Tia, age eleven—referred to him as Uncle Marcus. They loved to spend time playing games with him whenever he came to visit.

In 1998, when Marcus went missing in action for six months, Cara took care of his mother, who had a stroke after being informed he was presumed dead. Tahana Johnson, a beautiful Athabaskan native woman who looked much younger than her fifty-two years, died in the hospital only three days before Marcus managed to get to safety at the US Embassy in Guinea.

Cara was also the first to tell him of his father’s accidental death last winter, when he had been trampled by a startled moose as he came out of the hay barn early one morning. By the time Marcus came home to stay, the cost of repaying the medical bills for his mother’s care had taken all but fifty acres of the three-hundred-acre homestead originally started by Marcus’s grandfather in the 1940’s.

The Johnson homestead was one of six original plots of free land granted by the US government in hopes of developing the area into a thriving agricultural center. Through the fifties and sixties, the Johnson homestead supplied good quantities of oats, barley, potatoes, cabbage, and beets that fed the city of Fairbanks, as well as the hay that fed the goats, horses, and cattle of the region. With the arrival of chain supermarkets in the eighties, the agricultural businesses quickly died out. Most of the remaining homesteads were now little more than self-sufficient estates.

Linus and Cara had done all they could to hold on to what land was left for their friend so he could come home to something. For this, Marcus was indebted to them both. They were the closest thing to family he had left in the world.

A young girl’s voice called out from the living quarters in the back of the store.

“Mommy! Connor’s messing with me while I’m trying to do my homework!”

“Am not!” A boy’s voice shouted in response.

There was a loud thud, and Connor hollered in pain. “OW!”

“Well,” Cara said, “looks like I have to go to my other job. Enjoy the stew.”

She walked through a doorway marked “private” on the side of the kitchen. The men smiled as they heard her start to discipline the children. Whenever she got upset, Cara’s accent always got stronger. The door to the house slammed shut, and the voices of the arguing children and their Norwegian mother became muffled through the walls.

Marcus turned back to his dinner. As he enjoyed the first steaming-hot spoonful of the, rich, thick, brown stew, the man at the soda cooler approached the front counter.

The man was Caucasian, average height, about Marcus’s age. He appeared physically fit, but as he drew near, Marcus noted that he walked with a limp. Black slacks, a white shirt, and a cheap black tie made him look like a Geek Squad computer technician. He glanced over at Marcus.

“How ya doing?” the man asked.

“Fine,” Marcus replied.

“Former military?”

“You can tell?”

“Yeah, I would guess Marines by the way you carry yourself.”

“Right again. Yourself?”

“I tried the Marines back in the eighties, but ended up with two broken ankles and a quick ticket home right out of boot camp.”

“Ow.” Marcus scrunched his face in sympathy. “That sucks.”

“Yeah, well, fate, I guess.” The man reached out his hand in greeting. “Name’s Aaron Michaels.”

Marcus responded with his own name.

Michaels continued, “When I’m not fixing computer networks, I also happen to be a Staff Sergeant in the Alaska State Defense Force. It’s the state-run militia. If you’re ever interested in getting back into some military activities, you should give us a call.”

“Militia?” Marcus was wary. He recalled the trouble with private militias in the Midwest in the 90’s.

“Well, sort of,” Michaels replied. “We’re actually a state-run agency under the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, so we’re not a Timothy McVeigh kind of group. We’re always on the lookout for men just out of the military to help fill our ranks.”

Linus joined the conversation. “You guys are the ones with ALASKA on your uniform pockets instead of US ARMY, right?”

“Yep, that’s us,” Michaels said. “I’m the NCO in charge of the 492nd Coastal Scouts. We work with the Coast Guard and the troopers doing terrorist interdiction patrols in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound.”

“Terrorist interdiction, huh?” Marcus asked. ‘Found any terrorists yet?”

Michaels grinned. “No, but if they do ever show up, there’s a bunch of us old guys waiting to give them the what-for.”

“Oh, yeah? And just what would you do if you found some?” Marcus said with a hint of sarcasm.

“Bad things,” replied the militia sergeant in a melodramatic tone. “Actually, I hope they don’t show up, but just in case, we’re training for the worst. At least, as much training as I can get my guys to do without pay.”

“You don’t get paid?” Linus asked.

“Nope. Not unless we’re activated by the governor.”

“How often do you train?”

“One weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, just like the National Guard.”

“Except no pay,” Linus repeated.

“Yeah.” Michaels smirked, then added in a mock-heroic tone, “Our pay is the satisfaction of a job well done.”

“Sounds great,” Marcus said sarcastically.

“Actually some of the units get called up by the state pretty regularly, and when they do, the
money
is very good.”

Michaels finished
paying
for his energy drink and continued, “Well, I’ve got to be off. I’m heading home to Anchorage to take some of my guys into the mountains near Healy for some of that free training. Here’s my card. Call me sometime if you’re interested in joining us. Like I said, we always need someone with experience, especially if you can teach.”

Marcus reached out and accepted the card. “Thanks, I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I ask.” Michaels smiled and walked out.

As the door closed behind Michaels, Marcus noticed motion at the rear of the store. Two men came out of the restroom. Their heads moved above the shoulder-height racks that held various grocery items and merchandise. Something about them seemed foreign.

They picked up a couple of bags of chips from the metal wire racks, then stopped at the refrigerated cabinet and pulled out large cans of Rock Star energy drink from behind the glass door. The rubber soles of their new-looking Sorel mukluk boots squeaked on the linoleum tiles with each step.

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