Investigative Reporter Colton Wiley normally hated attending political press conferences, but he had a smug notion today was going to feel different.
Pink tents adorned a slim stretch of lawn in front of Seattle City Hall as Cole nestled into the throng of other reporters. He noticed right away he was the only guy not wearing a tie. An “End Homelessness” banner hung behind a podium as the mayor began to speak. Flashing still-camera lights created a slow-motion strobe effect on the dreary midday canvas. Television live trucks hummed with activity from a side street.
“It’s the compassionate thing to do,” boomed the mayor’s voice over a pair of speakers. “Beginning immediately, the new law allows these tents in Seattle parks and on any sidewalk between midnight and six A.M.”
Cole half listened as he read a media release passed down through the crowd like a collection plate during church. It stated in bold print that the city was going to pay half the three hundred thousand dollars needed to provide these “innovative, low-cost shelters,” while a federal grant took care of the rest. “To help those in need stay out of the rain,” Cole read in silence, thinking, if that’s the goal, move the hell out of Seattle.
Everyone who met Cole told him he looked like he was supposed to be on television. At 30 years old, his Midwestern looks weren’t striking, but his broad shoulders and steady gaze gave him a certain air of authority with an audience. His resume brought him respect from rival reporters and a sense of dread from the subjects of his reports. It was never a good day if Colton Wiley showed up at your doorstep asking questions.
Cole zipped up his leather jacket and motioned for his videographer to stop recording the mayor and start following him.
“Urban camping. Sounds fun,” Cole whispered beneath his colleagues’ headphones just before he stepped forward and struck a match. He gently flicked the small flame onto the closest neon tent. Poof! It erupted into a flash of orange flames and quickly melted into a glob of evil-smelling black goo. Cole had recognized the flammable, recalled material half a block away.
As a stunned cadre of officials and media stood openmouthed, Cole’s understated comment won the day for KZPR-TV: “I’m not sure your program is such a good idea Mr. Mayor.”
Cole sauntered away, pretending not to see the angry press aide weaving her way through the crowd toward him. His cell phone vibrated before he had to stop and listen to her complaints.
An image of a raging forest fire on his screen let him know who was calling.
“What’s up, Nolan? I swear I didn’t post that undercover video of your ex-girlfriend on YouTube.”
Nolan Burke was about the coolest, most laid-back guy Cole had ever met. He wasn’t in the “sources” file hidden inside Cole’s electronic contact list, but in the “friends” file (though untitled—as an arson investigator for the U.S. Forest Service, Burke could get in serious hot water for palling around with the likes of Colton Wiley).
“You should take a drive. Right now. It involves dead bodies, so don’t dick around,” Nolan said, uncharacteristically ignoring Cole’s gibe, which cried out for a comeback line or two.
Nolan Burke’s tone of voice set Cole’s heart going half a beat faster, though not out of fear for himself or his friend—those emotions weren’t naturally part of his repertoire. The adrenaline was seeping into his veins because he could already taste a great story.
Cole knew whatever adventure was about to come next, he didn’t need permission to pursue it. KZPR-TV’s management gave its best reporter a very wide berth when tracking down leads for new investigations. Cole had won that trust by proving that a state legislator was paying high-dollar prostitutes for S-and-M sex while his taxpayer-hired security guards waited outside, and by videotaping the Russian mob buying automatic weapons on the Seattle docks. He repeatedly found stories that drew large audiences to the nightly newscast which in turn filled the KZPR coffers with advertising cash.
“Give me an address and I’m there,” Cole shot back to his buddy.
Nolan’s voice was partially washed out by the loud crackle of spotty reception. Cole pressed the receiver tight against his ear and jotted down shorthand notes on the back of a manila folder.
“South through Chehalis. Hang a left down Highway Twelve toward the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. A few pastures after Morton, hang a right and follow the river about ten miles. You’ll see my truck off to the right. I put up some caution tape to block the access road. Obviously, cell coverage sucks, so hit your horn when you get there. I’m sending my tech back to the office with some lab samples in a couple of hours. I’ll make sure it’s just you and me here. Move it, dude.”
Nolan paused a second, then added, “And, Cole, no photographer. You’re going to have shoot this yourself. No quick turn for tonight’s newscast. Don’t tell your bosses where you’re going.”
Perfect. Because Seattle ranked as the thirteenth-largest TV market in America, seasoned reporters had long ago lost interest in going solo—they were above working without a producer, photographer, and editor. Perfect. To Cole, the one-man-band or “backpack journalist” arrangement meant he didn’t have to count on anyone else. He’d learned long-ago the ability to pre-focus a camera on a light stand, extended to six feet, three inches, before he stepped into the frame to record himself solo.
Cole hung up the phone and resisted the urge to snag a high-dollar HD camera out of the news van. Keeping this self-assignment secret was more important than annoying the videographer’s union. His personal camera equipment was mostly set up for undercover surveillance, but a change of lenses would more than suffice. He jumped into his navy-blue Ford F-150 truck, sped past the Pike Place Market, and swung wide around the skateboarder with a full-sleeve tattoo slaloming down the street in his Death Cab for Cutie T-shirt.
For an investigative reporter, driving anywhere was perhaps the sickest, most twisted trip down memory lane imaginable. Most travelers looking off Interstate 5 in South Seattle would see the colorful art adorning the Vietnamese restaurants in the International district. Not Cole—he thought about videotaping rats in the kitchens there. Normal people saw Seahawks Stadium and pictured the lime-green sea of fans cheering inside; Cole saw it and thought about which professional football players got drunk and beat their wives. A triple murder at a house up on Beacon Hill . . . a corrupt politician who stole tax money in Tacoma . . . a registered sex offender living next to an elementary school in Olympia. Those were the associations that popped into Cole’s head as he drove through the heart of the state.
After several hours, Cole spotted some crime-scene tape strung between hemlock boughs. He pulled onto the soggy shoulder of the rural road. There was no smell of freshness in the damp air. When rain fell anywhere else on earth, that sweet aroma of clean chlorophyll Febrezed the landscape, but not in coastal Washington. The constant showers in the long, dark months between October and April created a terrarium of sorts, permeating the air with the faint odor of dead worms left over from a slow fishing day. Getting out of his truck, Cole grabbed two mainstays of his work: a digital Sony video camera and a loaded Kahr PM9 handgun. He strapped the gun to his left ankle, and the camera to his right hand, then tapped the truck’s horn but didn’t wait for a response. He slipped under the roped-off area. The 350-year-old cedar beasts here were at least a meter thick and towered higher than many of the buildings in downtown Seattle. Rain didn’t fall on Cole under the umbrella of its canopy. The trail ahead was squishy, but there was no mud—a foot-deep cushion of lichens, fungi, and bright green moss made dirt a foreign concept. It was like walking on thick carpet in a flooded basement. Cole could see his pal in the distance slowly sweeping the ground with a paint brush.
Nolan Burke was a towering African American former firefighter from Eastern Washington. Growing up the son of a fruit farmer, Nolan loved working outdoors: rain or shine.
The government-issued badge hanging from his sleeve said he was 32 years old, but the last time Cole went with Nolan to the county fair, the age-guessing carnival worker had to give up a stuffed lion after saying she believed Nolan was 22.
When Cole first met Nolan, six years prior, it was also in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by ashes and death. Nolan had started his Forest Service career as a gung-ho smoke jumper, routinely plunging from airplanes into blazing hell worlds.
Once the smoke jumpers hit the ground with a shovel, a chain saw, and a few days’ drinking water, they would start slicing away mountainside vegetation in hopes of starving the fire of fuel. If it worked, they were heroes to a few remote cabin owners. If their attempt failed, the firefighters dropped their tools in a footrace for their lives. That happened at the Black Canyon fire. Seasonal firefighters were mostly college kids and convicts. Anyone who wanted a bit of adventure and some pocket change could spend the summer mostly mopping up smoldering grass with buckets of water or throwing spadefuls of dirt on long-gone brush fires.
But at Black Canyon, things went very wrong. An inexperienced cleanup crew strayed down a dead-end road with no radios. There was no way they could have known what was closing in on them. Cole heard it from Nolan a million times; how he wished with all his heart he could have been a hero that day, but six dead kids said otherwise. They had tried to hide in a shallow creek, with paper-thin pop-up heat shields as the only protection against a 1,500-degree flash fire. But the heat wasn’t what killed them. The fire sucked every drop of oxygen out of the air to feed its furious need to grow, and they suffocated. Lying outdoors, in thousands of acres of National Forest, they died for lack of air. Cole could never reconcile that in his head.
Cole was roaming the woods in search of new clues that might lead to a story about homicidal arson when he ran across Nolan. Neither needed a friend, but both needed a beer. Over the years, the converse became more often the case.
Refocused on the burned cabin in front of him, Cole watched Nolan squatting amid the smoking embers. Cole’s normally perfect sandy hair was matted flat from the moisture in the air. Droplets of rain sizzled into steam in a couple of hotspots left from what had been hot fire yesterday. Cole imagined the satellite image: a canvas of jade and lime and emerald hues in a peaceful patch of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. If anyone could then zoom in, they’d see a darkened square, black in the center and brown at the edges, where the burned cabin used to sit. Zoom in closer, and you could see two small rectangles of yellow: body bags filled with charred torsos, skulls, teeth, and bones.
“Holy crap!” Cole gasped to his soot-covered friend. “You’re the expert, but I’m guessing you won’t find the frazzled cord of an old space heater to blame here.”
“Not likely.” Nolan stood and stepped over a thousand tiny particles of blackened glass. “I can still smell the accelerant.”
“It looks like a meth lab to me, Nolan. Piles of jars and beakers. An off-the-grid cabin. Come on, man! Don’t you think this is a case of divine justice? A set of cranked-up tweakers blow themselves to bits trying to make ice! Whatever happened here saved the taxpayers a million bucks in dental care and prison food,” shouted Cole.
Nolan pulled some latex gloves from his pocket, threw them to Cole, and motioned for him to slip them on.
“Look, pretty boy, when I tell you my suspicions you won’t have to pull out your pencil and notebook. You’ll get it as soon as the words leave my mouth. I called you not just because I trust you—I’m going to need your help. You, Mr. Investigative Reporter, are going to have better sources than I do on this deal. Animal rights groups have been committing acts of non-violent domestic terrorism for three decades . . .” Nolan paused. “How about if I told you this is the first time, they killed somebody?”
Every major animal rights group on the west coast considered Colton Wiley one of its own. It was not only a strange pairing of personalities, but proof that God had a sense of humor. Members and sympathizers of dozens of groups spent their nights clad in black masks and armed with bolt cutters, freeing minks from fur farms. They sneaked into university research labs and stole detailed research out of locked cabinets. Some fringe members might even toss a Molotov cocktail or two through the window of a newly constructed mega home, built on the edge of a pristine spotted-owl infested forest preserve. Animal-rights groups historically had only one ironclad rule: do no harm to animal or human. Not an especially original motto, but one that all believers steadfastly lived by. They spent countless hours on stakeouts to make sure whatever facility they were targeting was empty. Members were free-spirited ideologues, not killers. Yes, arson and theft and trespassing were crimes, but the committed activist believed that twisting a screw into the head of a cynomolgus monkey, to study the effects of brain injuries in humans, was far more egregious. They hated animal-killers but were not killers themselves.
When the Department of Homeland Security was created after 9-11, for reasons more political than anything else, a dozen left-leaning animal and environmental rights groups were labeled domestic terrorist organizations. Given that their activities to aid animals and protect nature had never harmed a fly, Cole considered it a strange decision. For years, federal prosecutors had said, “What if they threw a fire bomb through a lab and the janitor was sleeping inside?” Or “What if a firefighter who arrived to put out the blaze had a roof fall on him?”
Cole loved animal rights for reasons that any activist would find revolting. He knew that stories about abused animals scored huge ratings with viewers. There was no better TV than videotape of a choking kitten with a tube down its throat being used to teach ambulance techs how to incubate an infant, or of a starving dog chained in the middle of a snowy yard. In simple terms, Cole exposed many horrible abuses and held the abusers up to public ridicule (and sometimes sent them to jail) because it was popular. Animal-rights leaders mistook his efforts for activism, and members flooded the investigative unit with tips, so Cole could help animals. And help them he did—because it helped his career. In turn, there wasn’t a reporter in the country who knew more about the inner workings of their very secret societies. He knew members’ real names. He was on their covert operations e-mail list and, at times included as a viewer on their live video streams during illegal field operations. Agents from the Seattle FBI office were so peeved about his connections, they successfully petitioned bosses in D.C. to place Cole on their terror watch list, just to him know he was mixing with the wrong crowd.
Nolan motioned his friend to his side.
“I’m guessing this fire occurred last evening sometime, but the medical examiner hasn’t had time to get here yet to give me an exact time of death for these two females. I think his day job is selling used cars.”
“Figures,” Cole said without a hint of surprise. “Females? How do you know? Yeesh.”
“Basic anatomy. Fire didn’t burn hot enough to completely wipe out their forms. They had on matching necklaces. Mean anything to you?”
Cole tried to ignore the horrifying stench of the burnt flesh by breathing through his mouth as he reached out to rub the soot from a blackened silver medallion. The pendant looked like a farrier-hammered coin from the era of the Roman Empire, but it was clearly an artist’s rendition, not an expensive artifact. The metal was rough, like a nugget, but with a smooth sliver of crescent moon jutting out of the center. On the back, someone had used a dull knife or nail to gouge out an alphanumeric code: “N5G.” Ignoring his friend’s suggestion that taking notes wasn’t necessary, Cole jotted down the digits on the inside of his arm with a black marker.
“You’re right, Nolan,” he said. “That crescent moon symbol screams, ‘Hey! We’re with the Animal Liberation Brigade.’ It’s a relatively new group. Small. Tight knit. Super mysterious. These animal-rights fanatics have their own symbols—not that different from gangs that craft an identity by repeatedly tagging train cars. I’ve seen the groups use interwoven dolphins, fake dog tags, burning towers—even tiny snail shells filled with sand—as symbols. That ‘N5G’ notation in addition to the crescent moon is new to me. Could be a subgroup or a project. Hell, it might not mean anything more than ‘that lump of flesh is Nikki, and this pile of ash is Gigi, and they’ve been sleeping together five years.’ Give me a few days. If it’s relevant, it won’t take me too long to figure it out.”
“I know it won’t. You’ve got more contacts inside that animal-rights culture than anyone on the planet. The Animal Liberation Brigade left its signature at four different unsolved arsons this month . . .” Nolan paused and carefully slipped a small shovel under one of the dead girls’ shoulder to look for more clues. “They burned down a sheepskin factory, a dog track, and a couple of restaurants that served foie gras. They spray-painted that moon at every scene to take credit and get their name in the paper. Nobody gets hurt except some insurance company. That game just changed.” He looked up to the misty sky. “It’s time to start tapping your critter-loving friends. I need a solid lead. This is a double-murder that officially ends the days of ‘do no harm.’”