1 — Fools rush in

Chapter 1, pages 2-6

 

Up until six months ago, when he had innocently embarked on a solitary retreat to review and reinvent his life in an isolated shack near Klamath Falls, Oregon, very little in Walter’s past forty-five years had prepared him for the bizarre situation he now faced. (Mac, the peripatetic polymath who served as his fishing guide and mental health counselor, had warned him that it was imminent.) On his left stood a ragtag cadre of AK47-bearing Muslim males, shoddily trained but brimming with the unbridled zeal of immaturity; on his right a pickup-load of heavily armed, slightly over-the-hill patriots from the Jefferson State Militia, self-appointed but committed to intervene whenever and wherever they deem it necessary to protect local property and persons; and himself, the would-be peacemaker, in the middle, supported only by his new fiancée Susan and her twenty-year-old Army linguist daughter Lucy, both minimally sheltered in the rustic cabin behind him, plus a lone US Marshal lurking in the bushes along the narrow path leading to a nearby house from which his neighbor and landlord Ted, (whose abduction was the stated objective of the Muslims’ incursion) had been whisked away to safety only minutes before by a Federal government “Black Hawk” helicopter, and his paranoiac wife Lottie (whose past brutal transgressions had triggered — and nearly justified — terrorist jihad) had cut and run a few days earlier — but only after a parting display of defiance and ingratitude. If he had had the slightest premonition of any of that, Walter would have disregarded the ad under ‘Rentals, Misc.’ in last Sunday’s edition (April 27, 2014) of the Portland Oregonian:

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However, lacking any forewarning, he had decided to give it a try.

Today, some 160 days before the Great Confrontation, a brief cell phone call had led him to Malin, Oregon (pop. 637), some 30 miles southeast of Klamath Falls, to the Malin Country Diner where he now awaited the arrival of his prospective landlord. “Ted” was the only name he had; his cordial self-introduction, “I’m Walter Baker,” had not been reciprocated. He had arrived early to do a little reconnaissance, a habit ingrained by thirteen years as an Air Force pilot followed by a decade more with Alaska Airlines. A window seat with a good view of the main street seemed an ideal spot to follow all the comings-and-goings. Slowly eating his sandwich, he strained to pick up tidbits of conversation among the local farmers gathered there, but gained no information that seemed significant, in large part because he simply didn’t know what he was getting himself into.

Just before 1:00 PM an old Ford pickup, showing more rust than white, slowly approached from the North and parked in front of the hardware store across the street. Its driver got out and carefully surveyed the surroundings, as if wary of outlaws or Indians waiting in ambush. His gaze stopped momentarily on Walter’s blue Chevy pickup bearing California plates and continued until he had noted every vehicle and every pedestrian in sight. Only then did he cross over to the diner. As he stepped inside, Walter stood up and smiled. “Hi, I’m Walter Baker,” he said, extending his hand. The response was almost a grunt — “Ted” — along with a cursory handshake. He still hasn’t told me his full name, Walter thought, but he let it pass, asking, “Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” Still unsmiling, Ted nodded a “yes,” and sat down quickly, his body language indicating he wanted to be inconspicuous.

The waitress approached, Walter ordered “Two coffees, please,” and she left them to study each other across the table for three minutes that seemed more like thirty. Ted was of average height and build, with searching blue eyes, semi-concealed by the brim of his black cowboy hat. A two-day growth of black beard made it difficult to guess his age, but Walter tentatively put it at early-to-mid-fifties, five-to-ten years older than himself. Dressed in work shirt, jeans, denim jacket, and work boots, all well-worn but clean, Ted apparently wanted to project the image of a backwoodsman, but it wasn’t authentic: Walter’s gut told him that Ted had been transplanted into this place and time, and that he wasn’t a local, much as he wished to pass for one.

“Let me tell you about the cabin,” Ted began, speaking softly as if imparting a secret. “It’s probably fifty years old, but I’ve fixed it up — about 800 square feet, with one bedroom, a bathroom — shower, not tub — and the rest open space, all on one level. In the kitchen area there’s a two-burner hot plate, a toaster-oven, and a medium-sized refrigerator — all about three years old — but no dishwasher. Heating is by a good-quality wood stove that can also be used for cooking if the electricity goes out. Over the past couple years I’ve installed insulation, dual-pane windows with screens, and a decent hot water heater.”

The coffee arrived. Ted paused to add cream and sugar, then continued. “The main drawback is that there are no laundry facilities. You’d have to hand-wash your things in the sink or go to a laundromat in one of the towns around here.” Walter nodded. “There’s a small front porch where you can sit and drink beer and watch the world go by, and there’s a covered carport and storage shed. The cabin is furnished — well, sort of — with stuff left over from when I lived there, plus some odds and ends from yard sales, including kitchen utensils and linens. If you’re fussy about things like that, you would probably want to add a few items of your own. The mattress on the bed is almost new — good quality and very comfortable.” Ted paused before delivering the clincher that he hoped would make the sale. “The whole place is in move-in condition. It should work just fine for one or two persons.” Then he stopped to sip some coffee.

“Where is it located?” Walter asked.

“In the middle of a forty-acre plot, mostly rolling hills and thin woods, a few miles from here.” Walter recalled seeing low wooded hills to the North as he had driven toward Malin. “Access is by paved county road to the edge of the property, then a half-mile gravel driveway through the trees. You shouldn’t have any problem getting in or out unless we get more than a foot of snow. My house is a hundred yards away, through the woods, and shares the same well as the cabin. There are no other neighbors for a mile in any direction, and my wife and I have no kids.” A short pause and another clincher: “It’s real quiet.”

“I believe your ad said the rent is $500 per month.”

“That’s right, but let me give you the fine print. This is the first time we’ve rented it out — I’ve been fixing it up in my spare time over the past couple years — so we’re sort of feeling our way along. The main thing is we don’t want a lot of turnover in tenants. We also want a security deposit — let’s say $300 — that will be refunded when you leave if you don’t trash the place. The rent includes electricity because both houses are on the same meter. If we find the tenant is running up our bill, we’ll have to dicker about it. There’s no telephone — we assume you’ll use a cell phone like we do, but the signal is awfully weak at times, as you found out when you called me yesterday. And there’s no TV, but if you want you could sign up for satellite service at your own expense — we’ve got it at our house. There might even be a way to get Internet access through the TV.”

“The Internet isn’t important to me right now,” Walter replied. “If I need it, I’ll go to the library. What about postal service?”

“We rent a box at the post office in town. If you don’t want to do that, you can have your mail sent to General Delivery and just stop by to pick it up now and then.”

He stopped. Several seconds passed as Walter mulled over all he’d learned. Ted seemed to be impatient for his reaction, so he said, “It sounds like what I had in mind. What information do you need about me?”

Ted’s eyes narrowed to slits, like he was turning on some kind of X-ray vision. “Well, let’s start with you telling me a little about yourself: who you are, where you come from, and why you’re here.”

Walter took a couple sips of coffee, buying time to decide what to say and what to leave out. “I’m almost forty-five years old, born and raised near Mendocino. I’m recently divorced; my ex-wife and two kids are living in the East Bay area. I graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1991 and got trained as a pilot. Ten years ago, I resigned my commission and joined Alaska Airlines, where I worked my way up to Captain. After all the recent acquisitions and mergers, I was far enough down on the seniority ladder that I had to choose between dropping back to First Officer status or accepting the severance package. Given the divorce and the fact that my kids don’t even want to talk to me now, I decided to take the severance. My plan is to hang out in the woods for a while, do a little fishing, and sort out where I want to go from here. I figure I can get by for a year or two on the cash from the severance. If you like, I can get you a copy of a recent bank statement as evidence that I will be financially responsible.”

Ted had switched off his X-ray scan after Walter mentioned the Air Force. “No need to do that, but since you’re in the process of pulling up roots and all that, I would like to get a background check on you. There are some weirdo groups in this area I’d rather not get mixed up with.”

Walter flashed a smile. “Whatever you wish. I can assure you I’ve never done drugs nor had any run-ins with the law beyond a couple traffic tickets. I wouldn’t have been able to keep my airline job if I’d had any problems like that.”

Ted’s eyes narrowed down again. “All the same, I’d like you to write your full name, date and place of birth, and Social Security number on this piece of paper — if you don’t mind.” He pulled a pen and a small square of paper from his shirt pocket and slid them across the table. A yellow caution light flashed in Walter’s mind. He hasn’t told me his full name or where the cabin is or anything else about himself, but now he wants me to disclose the basic information needed for identity theft. Why should I trust him? For a few seconds Walter considered demanding the same information from Ted so he could get his own background check, but his gut warned him it would be a deal-breaker. Further consultation with his gut told him he was not likely to quickly find another domicile that met his needs so he decided to take the risk. He wrote down the information and handed the paper and pen back. Ted read, nodded approvingly, and said, “OK. It will take a couple days, maybe even a week, to run the check. How can I get in touch with you?”

Walter retrieved the piece of paper long enough to write his cell phone number on it, then asked, “Do you have any recommendations on how I might pass the time for a week?”

Ted’s eyes softened, and he seemed to warm a little. “There’s lots to do around here if you want a change from big city life. It’s not hunting season, but the trout fishing is excellent. There’s hiking and rock climbing and horseback riding and bird watching. You can go take in the scenery over at Crater Lake — or you can drive back up to Chiloquin and piss away your money at the casino.” He seemed on the verge of smiling. “There’s at least a dozen so-called resorts hereabouts that would gladly help you lighten your wallet. I suggest you go to the tourist information center in Klamath Falls. They can advise you on the options and help you with reservations.”

“I know the place. It sounds like a good way for me to start.”

Ted stood up. “I’m sorry that this might take longer than you expected. As I said, this is my first shot at renting the cabin, so I need to go slow and careful. But I give you my word I won’t rent it to anybody else before getting back to you.”

“That’s fair enough,” Walter agreed. He paid the bill and followed Ted out the door. They shook hands, exchanged short ‘Thank you’s, and Ted crossed the street to go into the hardware store.

As he drove back to Klamath Falls, Walter reviewed the meeting in his mind. He sure is cautiousIt was clear he didn’t want me to know the precise location of the cabin until he had checked me out. Not that I wouldn’t do the same if I were in his situation. Then there was his cryptic comment about “some weirdo groups in this area.” What weirdo groups? Do I need to do some further investigating to see what I might be getting myself into? If so, where do I start? The Klamath Welcome Center was the obvious answer. Walter checked his watch. I should have plenty of time to get there before they close today. Nevertheless, he pressed down a little more on the accelerator in his eagerness. Besides, he had noticed that drivers in southern Oregon seem to have a low regard for speed limits.

 

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