Searchend

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While the greater Puget Sound megasprawl was almost totally shut down and asleep early on a dreary gray and cold Sunday morning, little Hope Felton and Robyn Shybear ascended Doll Hill, formerly known as End Dome, and for both of them the climb was a joy.

On the lower slopes the underlying brush was suppressed by bark shed by cedar trees, which over many years had been compressed into a strange rubbery surface that Hope dubbed Brown Land, framed by intricate staircases made of exposed tree roots. Even when she occasionally slipped and fell, there was little chance of injury in a forest that seemed to be fashioned like a giant trampoline.

At another point higher up, Hope found herself in a small shady field of baby pine cones, a clean surface she could roll in and even pretend to swim.

Robyn led her up the western flank of End Dome on an unmarked track she had practiced several times and committed firmly to memory. This Hope-smuggling operation was years in the planning.

Presently they were come to the summit, nearly nine hundred feet over the rim of the Green River Gorge and twelve hundred feet above the river itself, but views were screened by the gray leafless branches of many maples and alders.

There was a large concrete slab here and the remains of a giant stone fireplace and chimney. Robyn told Hope these were the ruins of the End Dome Temple which had been razed to the foundation by the American government in the years shortly following World War II. Robyn held living memory of that time but to Hope the War was just boring stuff she had to memorize from school books.

Much of the slab was covered with a stack of thin black fabric folded in many layers. A half-dozen large metal tanks were sitting nearby, painted to blend in with the trees. These were so heavy they had to be craned off a flatbed deuce-and-a-half when this material was recently put in place by Dory and a handful of other trusted allies who were relatively new to the B’nei Elohim, untainted by the Bunners.

Also lying about were hoses and wires and various packages of every size. And there was a big lump under all the fabric that would later reveal itself to be a small snub-nosed space plane with stubby folded wings. It was a craft only large enough for a single pilot with a little girl sitting on her lap.

Immediately, Robyn set about conducting an inventory of all her supplies to make sure everything she needed was present. All of these preparations were deemed necessary because if Robyn tried to take Hope off the planet in Exiler Sidekick, the lander belonging to her nephilim allies patiently waiting in orbit above, their life-expectancy after getting airborne would be measured in mere minutes.

When Hope asked her Momma Robyn what all this stuff was for, Robyn said, “You like balloons, don’t you, Hope? Well, this will be the biggest balloon you ever saw in your life.”

Round Robyn called the whole Black River Gorge area “Booger Holler”. That Sunday the good folks of Booger Holler watched their police procedurals and hospital dramas and went to bed at ten o’clock. The rest of the population of Booger Holler was split evenly between a good old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone big tent revival in Franklin or playing pull-tabs and drinking Bucky Beer at the “Y” Tavern in Black Diamond.

Robyn was a virtual zombie from a week’s worth of sleep deficit, but she knew she would be able to thoroughly catch up during the upcoming balloon ascent. By nine PM the balloon was erect and completely inflated with hydrogen. It was a silvery bulb 180 feet tall that poked dangerously high above the alders and maples bristling the summit of End Dome, but it had been too dark for anyone to see it for three hours.

The living space of the mini-shuttle hanging under the balloon was about as roomy as a coffin. This balloon-drop trick had never been tried before, but Lilith had assured Robyn years ago that the math was perfectly sound. She had been confident enough to risk the lives of Hope and Robyn in the attempt.

The Bunners who definitely were searching for Hope (with bad intent), and Sheriff Vic, who might be searching for Hope (with good intent) would be completely taken off-guard by this move, but the debris Robyn left behind on the hilltop would soon be discovered, probably in the morning.

Robyn felt a twinge of regret that it was not possible to advise Vic and Mark Felton of this move beforehand. She could only let them know what happened well after the deed was done. Stealing Hope and the Ark was going to bring a long simmer to a head and cast the entire B’nei Elohim organization into a state of open civil war. But it wouldn’t really matter since a lot of bigger things were moving to their conclusion as well. It was also very likely that Vic or some of her deputies would be hurt or even killed by the numberless dangers lurking around in every corner of these dark woods. That, too, could not be helped.

Around ten when Robyn finally cut the mooring lines and went aloft with Hope sitting on her lap as a rather light burden, Robyn thought they probably looked just like a small cloud on radar.

During the endless planning sessions seven years ago Hunky told her, “The Oregon Air National Guard has velocity discriminators so they don’t scramble F-15’s every time a flock of birds goes by. Good thing it’ll be a nighttime ascent, Robyn. Otherwise, by the time you get up into the jet stream and out over the Great American Desert you will have started a dozen UFO religions.”

So safely in the air, and with her equipment set to give alarm if anything went wrong, Robyn drifted off to the first good long sleep she had obtained in a week.

As the balloon quietly rose into the night and drifted east with the prevailing winds, Hope watched the muted red, green, and yellow lights dancing randomly on the flight control board and fell asleep. And once having fallen asleep, she did dream.

Victoria and Danica found more rock markers and followed them downhill when the trail forked. They descended to a beautiful area of deeply etched sandstone ridges and gullies that came one after the other until the trail straightened out and intersected a nameless creek. It was precisely here that Vic encountered the first of the trail markers that had red strips of fabric with them. She looked at one of the strips closely. “This could be from Hope’s uniform, but it’s not proof. All the girls at Shangri-La wear the same thing.”

“Shangri-La being Boot Camp for B’nei Elohim.”

“More like a school where we teach the brats how to follow orders and how to protect themselves. We are somewhat upriver from there.”

Danica treaded carefully here. “But it seems your daughter was a complete washout, I’m sorry to say, Vic. She certainly wasn’t following orders when she visited Aliwe, and she hasn’t protected herself from her abductor.”

Something didn’t make sense to Vic. “If she is being taken against her will, why would her abductor allow her to leave trail markings?”

“Is Hope merely wandering around down here alone, lost, and just trying to help someone find her?” Danica ventured.

There were more rock snowmen with shreds of Hope’s tunic. The creek formed it’s own canyon and tumbled over sandstone, sculpting little potholes. And when they followed Hope’s markers they came upon some some poorly-constructed switchbacks that made for rough going. Vic said the switchbacks here were not part of her own trail system and that he had never come this way before.

After another quarter of an hour Vic and Danica emerged from the woods to reach the river’s north bank. They had dropped a total of four hundred feet in elevation.

Two women were already on the stony riverbank wearing dark blue DECON jackets with big bold yellow lettering, exactly like the one worn by Danica. They looked very different, but Vic and Danica noticed something creepy about the absolutely coordinated way they moved, the way they seemed to complete each others’ thoughts. As they sifted through the debris left behind by Robyn, they were saying:

“Note here.”

“And here.”

“We always suspected of course.”

“But now we know.”

Then Vic noticed they both had their hair back in buns and she knew who they were. She could even make a very good guess of their first names. The women looked up at the approaching sound of Vic and Keith. One of them said, “Hello, Special Agent Fawn. And you are Sheriff Victoria Shybear, of course.”

Vic nodded. “And who are you?”

“DECON. I’m Special Agent Jill Masters, and this is Special Agent Jill Watterly.”

So two Jills. Vic’s guess they were Bunners was confirmed. Just as the ponytail people of the End Dome Church were called Ponies, Victoria knew the Jills were in turn called Bunners. Just never to their face. “You moonlighting, ladies? What? They don’t pay you enough at Astrodyne?”

They just stared at her for a moment, then put on sheepish grins. They remembered that Vic was Begotten herself. Finally one of the Jills asked, “Is this going to turn into the usual pissing contest over jurisdiction, Sheriff?”

“It will not,” Danica said, “because the Sheriff and I have come to an arrangement, and I’m in charge of this investigation.”

“Actually, Danica,” Jill Masters said, “you’re not in charge of anything.”

“Says who?”

“Says Yellow Mountain. Check with them if you don’t believe me. Your job was to watch the girl and you fucked that up, Danica, you and poor Kurt, so you’re out. You sure as hell aren’t authorized to go looking for her. I’d cuff ya and bring you in myself, Danica, but as you can see, we’re busy.”

“Unless you know something I don’t,” Vic said, “this is not a kidnapping across state lines. So I’m still in charge. And I’d like to see your identification, please. Both of you. I think you’re playing dress-up, girls. I can’t imagine Yellow Mountain actually accepting applicants from the C. o’ E.D.”

“Actually, this matter does cross state lines,” the other Bunner said as she handed Vic her identification. Vic felt that it didn’t seem to matter which one spoke. “National lines, in fact. We traced the micro of a Barbuda national to your backyard and then right to here.”

Jill Watterly. Her identification was real, these things could not be duplicated. The other Jill was authentically DECON as well. Their last names were probably made up, however. I’ll be damned, Vic thought. They accepted Jills at Yellow Mountain. And they graduated too. She said, “I wonder how Roland bought it, before he bought it.”

The agents did not tell Vic that the B’nei Eloah’s micro was tracked downstream where it stopped somewhere around the Lincoln Bridge. There was another DECON team looking into that, and both of those agents, coincidentally, were also named Jill. But they could not keep Vic and Danica from observing the plastic boat oar that was lying on the ground together with a large amount of other debris.

Victoria asked the Bunners the name of the owner of the micro and about the evidence they had uncovered at this site, but Jill Watterly ignored her and said to her partner, “You know what sucks about Washington State, Jill? They elect their sheriffs here, so any Jane Doe can run. And sometimes a county gets a sheriff who lacks a certain sensitivity to the finer points of professional ethics.”

“I think I know what you’re getting at,” Gina Masters said. “Like sometimes you get a sheriff who ends up immersing herself in the investigation of her own daughter’s disappearing act when by every accepted standard she ought to recuse herself.”

“After all,” Gina Watterly said, “what is it, seventy, eighty percent of these cases the kid is abducted by someone she knows. Maybe even by a parent in a custody dispute.”

The Bunners had accomplished their purpose. Vic turned beet red, then returned up the trail with Special Agent Danica Fawn in tow without making any farewells to the Bunners, leaving them alone to methodically catalog the discarded items they had found on the side of the river.

Vic asked him, “Did you see it?”

“The oar? Yes.”

“Whoever took my baby girl came in by boat, and they’re already downstream. That’s where I want to look next.”

“Whoever took my baby girl came in by boat, and they’re already downstream. That’s where I want to look next.” But Vic had begun to relax just a little bit. “Barbuda national, they said. That meant they were looking for a B’nei Eloah, and if the Jills were looking for him or her, then it wasn’t a Jill.”

So her Robyn theory was panning out after all. Vic sighed a little at that. She knew this day was coming from the very beginning, seven years ago. Robyn gaveth Hope to her and Bayard, and now Robyn taketh Hope away. But all Robyn had to do was ask. Why the drama of a kidnapping? The implications of finding DECON-affiliated Jills conducting a parallel search for Hope threw Victoria’s mind into turmoil.

With many coal-mining relics found along the way the trail crossed a plateau of knee-high ferns dotted with islands of oak, maple, alder, and young fir. The country was so airy and open here a person with phone-glasses linked to SATNAV could strike off cross country and possibly reach the embankment marking Interstate 86, but with so many hidden dangers it would be a fool’s errand.

Paralleling a beautiful creek on a narrow ridge high above it, the trail passed an ancient section corner marker and enormous Douglas firs before reaching a fern covered boulder about the size of a two-car garage which Vic said was an erratic deposited here during the ice age by a great lobe of the Canadian glacier.

Beyond the erratic the trail seemed to end at a cul-de-sac. But Sheriff Vic to the rescue. To the northeast a hidden connector trail switch-backed down to a forgotten mine road that continued due east through salmonberry bushes all the way to the property of the Church of Racial Holiness, formerly the White Wing of the End Dome Church, and thence to the highway.

Vic called the office and told them to send a squad car to pick her and Danica up along the roadside. Her immediate destination was the Lincoln Bridge.

Built in 1914, the Lincoln Bridge was a one-lane structure that spanned the deepest and most beautiful part of the Green River Gorge. At Victoria’s behest, the light which regulated traffic was disabled, requiring two deputies to be stationed at both ends of the bridge directing traffic. The real purpose was permit them to look inside each vehicle for Hope.

It was a great idea in theory, but in practice, there was the problem of what to do with commercial trucks, which had no windows to peer into the back. While Victoria was checking out this operation, one such truck presented itself at the bridge, and she decided to check it out personally.

His driver’s license identified him as Carl Wustner, and he was a local resident of Cumberland.

“What are you hauling?” Victoria asked.

“Artifacts for Hitlers museum.”

“Hitler’s museum?” Danica asked, entirely puzzled by the answer.

Vic helped her out. “Here in the Gorge area we have a local gentleman who calls himself Adolph Hitler. He runs a…I guess you would call it a museum, on the same property with the Wells Battlefield Memorial.”

“Mind if I take a look in the back?” Danica asked Carl. She had no probable cause, but she was doing what the law enforcement community called “flushing rabbits”. If the trucker had Hope back there, he’d look and act suspicious.

In the back of his truck was a pillar of salt in the shape of a woman.

Carl showed them an automobile engine that ran on tap water, a lead-to-gold converter, and several perpetual motion devices. He picked up a dinosaur skull to show them a bullet hole in it. Then he pointed to a bunch of flowers in pots. Here are some plants from the Sang’ha rain forest that can cure just about anything.

Next to that was an plain old dirty plastic Coke bottle. Carl said, “This was shown to the Chinese emperor around 300 BC, which caused the inventor to be executed to keep the glassblowers in business.”

Victoria struggled to keep from laughing.

Wustner let Vic and Keith fan through what he called undeniable authentication documents for the Shroud of Turin, which lay there folded neatly. Vic said, “Mr. Wustner, do you know why a story down at the Sheriff’s Office is just like something in Adolph Hitlers museum?”

“No, why?”

“At the office a story begins, ‘Now this is a no-shitter’ and something in Adolph Hitlers museum has ‘undeniable authentication documents.’”

Wustner didnt seem to understand that he’d just been insulted. Danica cleared her throat and asked, “So Mr. Hitler is paying you good for this stuff?”

“A very pretty penny.” He pointed to an opaque box sitting on top of several cases of the original Coke (the ones with cocaine in it) and invited them to look inside. “This is Schroedinger’s cat. No one can tell whether it is alive or dead.”

Vic turned to Danica. “This museum is just down the road on the other side of the bridge, if you want to take a look.”

Danica nodded. “Okay, Mr. Wustner, you are free to go, but we’re going to follow you to your destination. I’ve half a mind to meet this Adolph Hitler.”

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