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Authors: John Conroe

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BOOK: Black Frost
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Getting back to the household, I stopped in
the kitchen long enough to get a fresh cup of coffee from the
breakfast pot, then headed to the barn to check the forge.

School days follow a pattern, as they do in
most households. I get up first, dress for the day, then wake
Ashley – a job that combines the skills and danger of snake
handling with zombie reanimation.

I honestly don’t recall being that hard to
roust from bed, but maybe my Father’s drill sergeant approach was
just more effective than my own more gentle method.

Once she’s up and showering, I head down,
turn on the coffee, feed the dog and start breakfast while watching
the morning news. When sleeping beauty finally makes it downstairs,
we eat, chat about the day and then make Ashley’s lunch. It’s a
team effort, her on sandwich duty while I gather drink pouch, chips
and dessert. I’ve offered many times to let her buy lunch, but she
always refuses. My guess is that the long wait in the lunch line
cuts into chat time with her buddies.

When her lunch is put together, we both head
outside; her to wait for the bus, and I, in theory, to light the
forge. While I do actually light the fire, I spend more time
watching her from the grimy, carbon streaked window to make sure
she gets on the bus okay. I’m not allowed to wait with her, as that
would leave her so embarrassed that we would have to move to the
west coast to make a clean start. Instead I entrust her to Charm’s
careful guard while I lurk in the gloom of the workshop, unable to
concentrate on anything but her safety. Once she’s on the bus,
Charm meets me half-way down the driveway and we begin our morning
tour of the property, a ritual that happens rain, snow or

That morning I found the coal burning red,
the three-inch billets of stainless steel I had left nestled in the
firebox just reaching a dull cherry hue. I turned on the blower,
quickly bringing the metal to an almost white-orange, the color of
critical, the temperature where the steel becomes nonmagnetic. Then
I pulled a chunk of steel from the fire and began the rhythmic work
of hammer and anvil that would shape the metal for its future life
– in this case as cooking knives for a chef in New York City.

My GrandFather’s forge had been a godsend in
many ways. First, when I became unemployed after losing my wife, my
grandpa had asked me to help him with the forge. At the time I had
been shocked he would do so, as despite his eighty-nine years of
age, he was still spry and capable. But looking back it was
obviously his way to help me, one proud man discreetly providing
financial and mental help to another proud man.

I say mental help, because forging steel into
useful blades is a very Zen-like business. You need to picture the
metal in three dimensions, then form an image of what you want it
to look like. From there it’s a gradual coaxing process, convincing
the steel to move where you want it to. The steady work of hands
and mind is much different from the stress of originating
mortgages; working paper, phone and numbers to get approved loans.
The work in the smithy was as therapeutic as it was helpful
financially. The old skills I had learned as a boy, hanging with
and helping my grandpa came back quickly, tempered and smoothed by
age and life experience.

When he died, I took over completely, using
the income to supplement the social security death benefits that
Sarah had left behind. I had a third source of income that took up
time in the afternoons and some evenings, but it was more


None of this seems important to you, not, but
trust me, this back story is important if you’re going to
understand what has happened.


About two hours into the morning work, Charm
lifted her head from her paws and looked at the door of the smithy,
silently announcing a visitor. By habit and lifelong training I put
the current piece back in the forge and picked up the fighting ax
that was one of the first things I ever made. I moved closer to the
door, strategically positioned for when it eventually opened and I
got a look at the white-haired head framed in the opening.

“Hi Dad,” I said, noting his slightly widened

He wasn’t really shocked to find me within
his danger space, a modern tomahawk in my hand. He was, instead,
pleased, although the only sign of it was a slight quirk at the
corners of his mouth, just under the white mustache that lived on
his upper lip.

“Hey Ian, how’s it comin’?” he asked.

“Good, I’ve got some roughing out to do on
one more blade, then I can come in for a coffee break and help
you,” I said. My father had come over to go through some more of
Grandpa’s papers.

“Good enough, I’ll get a fresh pot brewing,”
he said, reaching down to pat Charm on the head. As he backed out
the door, the muscular little dog looked at me, seeking permission
to go with him.

“Go ahead, go get him!” I said. Her response…
a tail wag, a doggy grin and a brown blur out the door.


Threatening your father with an ax is not
normal behavior in most parts of the world. The fact that he
approved of my actions is even stranger, unless you know my


My grandfather was a welder by trade, but his
son, Bob, Jr. spent his entire career in the employment of the U.S.
Government working for a little organization with the initials DEA.
In fact, he started with the Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous
Drugs ,and then was carried along into the federal merger that
created the Drug Enforcement Agency. So I grew up living in five
different cities across this great nation. And growing up DEA is
quite a bit different than the normal American experience, whatever
that is.


DEA households are well kept and tidy, but
there is never a name on a mail box, the houses all have alarms
that are used faithfully, and there is always, always, always a
dog. Could be a little Shih Tzu, a Pekingese or a Great Dane; it
doesn’t matter. As long as it has all of its senses.

DEA children are constantly coached in things
like situational awareness, household security and never telling
anybody anything personal or private. Cars are backed into the
garage, ready for an emergency exit. Drug dealers are notoriously
unforgiving on both agents and their families.


My father took it further, by having me take
martial arts lessons in every city we lived in. When I was six, I
knew enough about gun handling to safely unload a weapon, if ever I
came across one unattended. At ten I could hit the center ring on a
standard target at seven yards with almost any handgun you could
name, and I had a lot of practice time as Dad was almost always the
firearms instructor for whichever field office he was working out

Each summer I would spend three weeks at my
grandparents’, helping with the forging although I also roamed the
hillside and woods on the little farm. So I grew up with a rather
intense education in modern survival, one that would one day be put
to full use.


So, now in my middle years, these reactions
are pretty much hardwired into me. My wife, Sarah, never really
understood it. Conceptually, she got the point but couldn’t really
grasp the mindset that I had grown up with. I tried to explain it
to her, the fact that I never knew if my father would come home, or
if some drug lord would come after me or my mother in revenge. She
would nod, but I don’t think she fully got it. I guess you would
just have to live it.


I finished the rough work on the blade, then
left it to cool slowly. The morning’s work set aside, I headed into
the house, entering the kitchen door. The farmhouse is really a
collection of add-ons, centered on the original two-story
footprint. The additions are all one story. There are two bedrooms
and a bathroom upstairs in the original structure, a living room
and kitchen below. The other, newer parts consist of a dining room,
family room, sewing room (which became an office after my
grandmother’s death) and a second full bathroom (that’s the one I


I found dad in the office, working his way
through three untidy file cabinets that we hadn’t tackled yet.

The little room had a small work table with
one drawer and a measuring straight edge painted on top, the filing
cabinets, a small fireproof safe hidden under a fake cabinet and a
tiny end table that we used as a printer stand. My laptop sat open
on the table which was as close to a desk as the house had. The
sight of it reminded me of the pictures on my cell phone and I
immediately sent them to my email address.

Dad had pulled the single chair over to the
cabinets; the garbage can nearby already over flowing with
throwaways. After waiting a minute or so for the photos to make
their way through the digital network, I opened my email service
and brought the pictures up on screen.

“Dad, have you ever seen bite wounds like
these?” I asked.

He spun around fast, then relaxed when he saw
I was referring to just photos on the computer. I’m pretty sure my
tone would have been different if the bite marks had been on

He frowned as he studied the photos. “Where
did you get these?”

“Dead possum I found up top the mountain this
morning. Actually, Charm found it.” I answered, reaching down to
pat the wide, wedge-shaped head next to me. She was tucked in the
corner where she could stay close without getting stepped on. Charm
loves my dad, he and I being the only two males she is comfortable

“Hmm, I’ve never seen anything like them
around here, but they remind me of a Discovery Channel show I saw
about the Amazon. Piranha make bites like that.”

Now that he said it, the similarities were
obvious. Crescent shaped, cookie cutter bites. I Googled piranha
and found pictures that seemed to match.

“What the hell would do that around here?” I
asked, baffled. “Unless somebody’s been stocking the brook with
South American fish.”

He was still frowning, but after a long pause
he stood and went to his black soft-sided briefcase near the

“Before your grandfather died, he started to
act…..well, strange. You probably didn’t have a chance to notice,
with all you went through,” he said gently. “But nonetheless, I
thought he was becoming senile.”

He stood up, a leather-bound book in his
hand. I recognized it as my Grandpa’s journal.

“I took this the day we found him…I didn’t
want you to remember him as crazy or anything, but maybe you should
read it. Maybe you should keep an open mind and see what you think.
And Ian…” his light blue eyes drove home his serious intent, “I
want you to keep your eyes and ears open!”

I snorted, “Dad, I always do…as if I had a

His mouth twitched in what might have been a
smirk, but then straight-lined into serious mode again.

“I mean, keep an eye and ear out for stuff
like those bite marks, wiseass.”

“Why Dad? What do you think made them?” I

“I have no idea, but keep a watch and read
your Grandpa’s journal. We’ll talk about it some more then.”

“Alright. Listen, why don’t I throw some
lunch together. You look like you have this under control.”


I retreated to the kitchen to ponder his
words. Dad wasn’t prone to alarmism and completely lacked the
imagination that I had shared with my grandfather. That he would
react that way to a strange wound on a possum carcass was out of

I put together a couple of thick ham and
Swiss sandwiches, cracked open cold cans of diet Pepsi and set out
some potato chips, all under the watchful eyes of Charm who was
hoping for scraps. Dad wandered in at my call. We spent lunch
talking about the last pieces of Bob, Sr.’s estate, then dad packed
up his papers and headed to the door.

“Ian, where’s your GrandFather’s shotgun?” my
father asked suddenly, pausing in the doorway.

I pointed to the coat rack in the little
entry way by the back door where we were standing. It was solidly
screwed to the wall, hand-crafted of pine, with a rather boxy top
and six coat pegs below. I touched the hidden lever on the back and
the front of the long rectangular top popped open on springs.
Inside the narrow space lay my GrandFather’s ‘social’ shotgun, just
as he had left it.

My father reached in, grabbed the gun, and
broke the action open, pulling out the round from the top barrel.
He handed the shotgun to me, not looking up from his examination of
the shell. After a moment he held it up from my inspection.

“Steel shot – BB size,” he said, his white
eyebrows arched.

“Steel? Why would gramps use steel?” I asked.
I hadn’t looked at the gun or its load of ammo since moving in.


For those of you new to weapons, steel shot
is usually used for waterfowl, to avoid leaving poisonous lead in
the waterways. Leastways, that’s the old use for steel shot. We’ll
have a new need of it now.

Looking at the three inch shell, it was
clearly labeled ‘steel shot, BB’.

“That’s a pretty good question, Ian” my
father said, then waved as he headed out. I watched him walk to his
Ford Expedition, his right hand unconsciously tugging his light
jacket down to cover the butt of the .45 he habitually wore, even
in retirement. I automatically reloaded the round into the shotgun
and put it back in its hiding spot, latching the coat rack lid


I cleaned up from lunch and looked at the
clock. There were a few minutes, I decided, to look at the journal
before I needed to get back to my knives.

I started with the last entry first. We had
found grandpa dead, in his bed, on May 28
. The last
journal entry was the night before.


May 27- Was outside this morning , looking up
at the house, noticed hole in the guest bedroom mesh. Climbed up on
roof and found that they had cut a small opening. Chilled me to the
bone. Didn’t think they could get through steel mesh! Don’t know if
any got in the house. I repaired hole and reinforced. Checked
house, no sign. Pray I didn’t miss one.

BOOK: Black Frost
8.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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