Time War
By Jim Gerrish
2002, Imagineering Magic. All Rights Reserved.

John Hancock Barnes was inordinately proud of his middle name. It was as if he were destined for the role he came to play in forming the ultra conservative Cougar Party. He was also founder of the Cougar Militia that trained and played their war games in the uppermost wilderness regions of the Michigan Peninsula, just north of the town that also bore the famous American name of Hancock.

Like John Hancock, signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock Barnes was an inheritor of great wealth and vast land estates, mostly concentrated in the Upper Peninsula. How Barnes came by his inheritance was a subject of concern and suspicion at the time it happened, but nothing was ever proven and he liberally spread his newly acquired wealth around until the circumstances were all but forgotten. How he continued to increase his wealth was a topic of discussion in certain governmental circles, especially since he seemed to be involved with buying and selling surplus military equipment. But he had acquired friends in the Pentagon and with their blessing, he continued to receive government contracts for disposal of surplus and obsolete military equipment.

Barnes’ Cougar Militia seemed to be the recipients of most of the military equipment. Indeed, when one visited Cougar headquarters in the depths of the Michigan wilderness, one would have thought one was visiting a regular U.S. army base, so thoroughly was it equipped and outfitted with Quonset huts, khaki-colored trucks and jeeps, men in uniforms, and the like. The only difference was that everything was marked with the black paw-print of the Michigan cougar rather than the usual star of the US Military. Flying beneath the stars and stripes on every building was the Cougar flag, black paw-print superimposed over a map outline of the state of Michigan.

However, Barnes bought more surplus military equipment than could be accounted for, if anyone in the Pentagon were paying attention. Army supply officers were only too happy to have a ready market to get rid of their embarrassing surpluses at a price high enough to skim a little off the top without getting caught. So Barnes’ factories were filled with his patriotic and fiercely loyal workers who took on the job of refurbishing old military weapons and materials until they glistened like new and were packed in wooden crates that disappeared from time to time.

When the workers arrived each Monday morning, the filled crates would be gone and there would be stacks of wooden parts waiting to be formed into new crates for filling. The workers never complained at the unending tasks. They lived on base with their families and were well paid; with all the benefits they never would have received working anyplace else in this economically depressed region. The base had its own clinics, doctors, dentists, childcare centers… it was like a small city in the Michigan wilderness, with one exception. Every day every man, woman, and child over the age of eight received some type of military training. A common worker would be sent to the firing range next to his dentist or a hospital nurse. All of them wore the Cougar uniform when in training, and civilian clothes while working other jobs, but there was never any doubt that every person on that base was a full-fledged member of the Cougar Militia.

They all knew why they were there and what they were to do when the proper time came. John Hancock Barnes… or General Barnes as he was called while on the base… made sure of that. Each evening, when the workers were gathered into their homes surrounding the base property, they heard the gospel of General Barnes preached to them via closed circuit television, their only means of information and entertainment during the workweek. On weekends, there were church services, socials, sporting events, dances and other forms of recreation, but always with some sermonizing echoing the words of General Barnes, or perhaps a lecture by the General himself.

Despite the rhetoric of their mission statement and instruction manuals to uphold the state and federal constitutions, the General’s slant on things generally took this approach: state and federal government can’t be trusted; we are the only true Americans and only we know how to interpret the Constitution; a day is coming when we will have to take back this country by force and make all those other bad people see things our way.

On the other side of the world, in a land that was as dry and dusty as the Michigan wilderness was green and moist, another kind of message was being spread. In a military training camp surrounded by packing crates bearing the imprint of a large cat’s paw-print, men dressed in a very different kind of uniform drilled and practiced with the contents of those crates. Just now, however, they were squatting or seated under the shade of a canopy, listening to their leader, one Khalid Alshehri, a black bearded Saudi with hypnotic dark eyes and a passionate orator’s voice.

The message being preached in Arabic, was phrased in religious piety, but boiled down to its bare essence turned out to be: trust no one; we are the only true followers of Islam and only we know how to interpret the words of the prophet; a day is coming when we will force all the nations of the earth to submit to our version of the one, true religion; but first, kill all Americans and Jews.

About that same time Inspector Joseph Pearson of the F.B.I. New York regional office was in a private conference with Mr. Samuel O’Neil and his lawyer, Mr. Donald Thorpe, Esq. They met in Joe’s private office within the F.B.I. regional building, which was high enough to have a spectacular view of the city. One tried not to pay too much attention to the gaping hole in the skyline where the Twin Towers had once stood, but it was not an easy thing to ignore.

When Sam and Don had their coffee cups filled and each had been given a donut and a napkin, Joe sat down. “Last time we met,” he began, “was at the debriefing about six months ago. I hope you’ve been able to enjoy yourselves since then. I’d like to be able to go and sit in a park all day.”

“What do you mean, sit in a park all day?” asked Sam, rising to the jibe. “I work in that science park and I work pretty hard teaching kids physics while they try their best to ignore me.”

“He’s right,” said Don. “I’ve seen him in action, but I’d say the kids definitely do not ignore him. Especially once they see how his little physics lessons improve their games of basketball, baseball and even golf.”

“Really?” said Joe, raising his eyebrows. “They have a golf course in that tiny park?”

“Miniature golf, just good for putting lessons,” said Sam. “But Tiger Woods donated some training tapes they can watch and anyone who comes in under par gets a free pass to a real golf club out in the country for the weekend.”

“And what’s the lawyer doing with his spare time?” asked Joe.

“Well Sam has inspired me to run some legal classes in the science park’s indoor facility,” said Don. “At first I thought no one would be interested, but these kids come in with all kinds of legal problems and learn to solve them on their own.”

“God help us,” said Joe, rolling his eyes. “More lawyers in the making!”

“So what have you been up to, “ said Sam. “I know you didn’t call us in here just to catch up on our lives since we last met.”

“You’re right,” said Joe. “Take a look at this.” He handed them a black and white glossy photo of a packing crate.

“You found the crate I was locked up in!” exclaimed Sam.

“That’s it, all right,” said Don. “I remember that funny mark on the side.”

“No, we never found the crate,” said Joe. “We think whoever was driving that SUV kidnap car came back soon after the plane crash and got rid of all the evidence of your kidnapping from the landing field. There was no windsock, as you described it, no tents… nothing but a lot of holes and rake marks where everything you described had once been.”

“So how did you get that photo of my temporary prison?” asked Sam.

“Remember I asked you both to describe the markings on the crate, and Don even managed to sketch that funny mark, as he calls it, fairly accurately. It turns out that funny mark is a paw-print.”

“A cat!” said Sam, in sudden recognition.

“Very good,” said Joe. “For the longest time I thought it was a dog’s paw-print, but eventually a cat-lover pointed out the error of my ways. Since then I’ve learned that it is a cougar paw-print.”

“Not many cougars left around anymore,” said Sam. “They’re almost extinct. But I understand the Michigan cougar is making a comeback.”

“Where were you when I needed you?” asked Joe. “It’s taken me months to track this symbol down.”

“You could have come to see us at the park,” said Sam.

“Yeah,” said Don. “We do nothing but lounge around all day in the park. So what’s it mean, this cougar paw-print?”

“Ever hear of John Hancock Barnes and his Cougar Militia?” asked Joe.

Both Sam and Don shook their heads.

“Good,” said Joe. “That makes me feel like I didn’t waste the last six months of my life.”

“Is that one of those right-wing Michigan Militias?” asked Sam.

“Isn’t there a town in Michigan named Hancock?” asked Don. “Seems I knew somebody from there a long time ago.”

“Is there anything you two don’t know between you both?” asked Joe. “Do you have any idea how much time it took me to learn all that?”

“I’m sorry,” said Sam. “Tell us what you learned.”

“This photo was taken somewhere in the desert-like mountains of Afghanistan,” said Joe.

“A Michigan militia in Afghanistan?” asked Don, raising his eyebrows.

Joe gave him a stern look for interrupting and Don waved his hand apologetically. “We don’t know how the crate got there,” said Joe, “but the Michigan Cougars have probably been selling arms all over the world. It seems unlikely that they would do business with al-Qaida, or rather that al-Qaida would do business with any American, given their well known hatred for all Americans and Israelis. It’s more likely that al-Qaida intercepted a shipment of arms bound for somewhere else.”

“That argument would hold except for the very strange coincidence of the box I was being transported in having the exact same marking. I told you I heard Arabic voices,” said Sam.

“Maybe, maybe not,” said Joe. “Would you know the difference between someone speaking Arabic or Pashtu or Afghan Persian?”

“OK, you got me,” said Sam. “But I can tell you which languages it was not. It wasn’t English, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Russian, French, German, or Chinese.”

“That still leaves quite a few languages to choose from,” said Joe. “About seven thousand would be my guess. But maybe we don’t even have to identify what language your kidnappers were speaking. Let me tell you what we found out from the plane wreckage.”

“Bodies, I hope,” said Don. “Especially of that bastard who was shooting at us.”

“Yes,” said Joe. “It was just he and a pilot, and both of them Saudi nationals linked to al-Qaida. They entered the country from Canada, just a short trip by airplane to where you encountered them. Another al-Qaida was in the woods sniping at us north of Albany. At least two others got away, but they left behind their SUV.”

“Was it the same SUV as the one they used to kidnap me?” asked Sam.

“You’re losing some hair,” said Joe. “We found some in the back of the SUV. I’d return it to you, but it’s being held as evidence.”

“Keep it with my compliments,” said Sam. “I’ll lose a lot more before this is over, I’m sure. So it looks as if I was kidnapped by al-Qaida. Where does this Cougar Militia come in?”

“We have no idea, but I can’t imagine al-Qaida was going to fly you back across the ocean in that tiny plane,” said Joe.

“On the other hand, Michigan is a lot closer,” said Don.

“Very good,” said Joe. “My thinking exactly. Now here’s the problem. John Hancock Barnes is a multi-millionaire. He has friends in the Pentagon, hangs around with congressmen in Washington, even has friends in the C.I.A. and F.B.I.”

“So it seems we don’t want too many people in on this investigation,” said Sam. “How many know about this photograph?”

“Too many,” said Joe. “It’s a good thing I had this copy made as soon as I found the original, because now the original is missing from the files, and the negative, too.”

“So he knows that you know that he knows,” said Don.

“I don’t know,” said Joe. “Maybe he knows, and maybe it’s just someone else within the Cougar organization. But I’ve got to act as if he knows and he certainly will know if the F.B.I. launches a full scale investigation in his direction.”

“So you didn’t call us in here just for coffee and donuts,” said Sam.

“We’re not trained for this kind of work,” said Don. “You have no right…”

“Leave it to a lawyer to bring up rights,” said Joe. “You’re correct. I have no right to ask you, but I don’t need trained F.B.I. investigators for this job. I just need someone with a sharp inquisitive mind to go to Michigan and do a little snooping. Nothing dangerous. Just look around and tell me what you think.”

“Michigan in the spring,” said Sam. “It sounds like a great vacation, Don.”

“Hancock is on the north end of the peninsula,” said Don. “It can be damn cold up there even in the spring.”

“Do I get to carry an F.B.I. badge?” asked Sam.

“Have you ever watched ‘Mission Impossible’?” asked Joe. Sam and Don looked at one another warily. “Well this mission is like that. If anybody catches you snooping around, you’ll be… well…”

“Disavowed?” asked Don.

“Yeah. I don’t know shit about it,” said Joe.

“No badge then,” said Sam, a little sadly.

“Cheer up,” said Joe. “I’ve got a friend in Houghton, Michigan which is just across the river from Hancock. I’ve told him about your science park in Irvington and he wants to set up something just like it in Houghton. The funds have already been approved… don’t ask… so you both have a cover reason for being in Houghton. Then you can snoop around, but don’t be obvious and don’t play ‘secret agent’ or you’re sure to get caught. My friend is a retired F.B.I. agent and now works with the recreation department in Houghton. He’ll find a place for you to stay, but remember he knows nothing about your snoop mission. I’ve told absolutely no one about this, so it’s just between the three of us.”

“How do we contact you if we find out something juicy to report?” asked Sam.

“Do you guys still have the cell phones?” asked Joe.

Sam and Don nodded. They still used them occasionally to communicate privately.

“Good. I just got a new cell phone for my own private use. You’re the only ones who will have the number. Who’s Big Fish?”

“That’s me,” said Don.

“I’m Little Fish,” said Sam.

“So I’m Red Lobster,” said Joe. “Let’s all do our best to avoid getting caught.”


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2005, Imagineering Magic. All Rights Reserved.