Smoke Signals — excerpt

Chapter 1
Friday, October 16, 2015, The Cascade Range — Washington State

By the time Bruno “Beebs” Bandi heard the crack of the rifle shot, the bullet had already zipped past his head, close enough for him to feel its passage. To Beebs’ credit, he reacted in exactly the right way. He dived face first to the forest floor, instinctively throwing his hands out to keep his head and the camera dangling at his chest from harm. A second shot rang out. Beebs didn’t feel this one whip by, but he had the distinct feeling there would have been a large hole in some vital part of him had he remained on his feet.

He rolled to his right, one hand shielding his camera, the other protecting his face. A third shot chased him into the Christmas tree shadow of a Douglas fir. The projectile scattered pine needles, humus and dirt inches from Beebs’ backside. A fourth shot chewed off a chunk of bark sending splinters into the back of his left hand. He gritted his teeth to repress any cry of distress that might give away his position.

He didn’t know who was shooting at him or why the SOB was doing it. All Beebs had been doing was walking in the freaking woods, taking pictures for the guy who owned the land. That dude, a young Silicon Valley tech billionaire, wanted Beebs to bring him some pictures of scenic spots which he might develop into sites for new communities of affordable housing. Cripes, who could get a hard-on about that?

Not that going off-road anywhere in the U.S. wasn’t dangerous. Beebs had done his homework before he took the gig, which to be fair was paying him ridiculous money for what amounted to nothing more than assembling a landscape portfolio. Not that his pictures wouldn’t be great, because they would. Beebs was a highly talented photographer.

He was somewhat notorious, too. Financial hardship had briefly nudged him into the sordid world of the paparazzi. He’d once climbed a tree in the resort town of Goldstrike, California to snap photos of a pair of young movie stars in the most intimate of moments. Those images, along with the camera he’d used, had been confiscated by the cops and never made public. Even so, word of what he’d done had gotten out and imagining what the coupling had looked like became became an Internet game of global popularity.

The faces of the young actors were Photoshopped onto the bodies of innumerable porn performers. Beebs had been horrified and ashamed. He wished there might be some way he could make amends. He’d started his long slog to redemption by vowing never again to photograph anybody or anything except in the most flattering of lights.

That despite being offered a small fortune to work for Giles Henry, crown prince of tabloid reporters. For a moment, Beebs had been tempted, but then he’d learned Henry had been the prick who’d spread the word about Beebs going up that tree.

In spite of Beebs’ decision to leave the dark side of the photographic arts, someone was now doing his damnedest to kill him. Christ, was it one of the young stars he’d humiliated? Or maybe it was both of them. The Internet game had pretty much run its course, but waiting for time to pass might have been the smart thing to do. The defamed parties would put distance between themselves and Beebs’ murder that way.

The shooter, though, was getting closer. Beebs heard crunching leaves and snapping twigs, clear indications that footsteps were drawing near. The fact that the guy with the rifle wasn’t even trying to be stealthy said that he’d seen Beebs was unarmed. Probably had a scope on his weapon. He’d lined Beebs up in his crosshairs and …


What a goober. Beebs had never pulled the trigger of any firearm in his life, but he was sure if he’d had someone dead to rights he could have made the kill. So this dude must be really unskilled. That might have been enough to give Beebs a moment of hope. Only it wouldn’t require any expertise to press the barrel of a rifle against someone’s noggin and blow a hole in it.

On the other hand, if Beebs fought back that might put the sucker really off his game. While Beebs didn’t carry a gun, he hadn’t gone into the woods without any protection. There were wolves, bears and mountain lions in the Cascades; his research had told him that much. Not wanting to become a photographer tartare entrée to the fang and claw set, he’d taken precautions.

Beebs’ cousin, Noah, owned a shop that sold novelty items, including stink bombs. For special customers who wanted to get even with people who deserved a special measure of vengeance, Noah concocted what he called nuclear stink bombs. There was no mushroom cloud, but Noah boosted the active ingredient, ammonium sulfide, and added several other noxious irritants.

“These things will stop a wild animal?” Beebs had asked his cousin.

Noah chuckled. “Knock King Kong right on his ass. You hold your nose, break the seal, throw it and run the hell away as fast as you can.”

Praying his cousin had things right, Beebs added a grace note of his own to that plan. He got quietly to his feet. When he heard the guy who’d shot at him get maybe ten feet away, he gave his best impression of a blood-curdling scream. It was effective enough to get an immediate shot in reply. The bullet whistled past the tree providing Beebs’ shelter. Immediately thereafter, Beebs leaped out from his hiding place. Startled by Beebs’ sudden appearance, a stocky, round-faced Hispanic-looking guy holding a rifle without a scope took an involuntary step backward, tripped over some forest debris, landed on his back and lost hold of his weapon on impact.

The rifle came to rest equidistant between the two men, but Beebs didn’t want to get into a wrestling match for it. The other guy might be stronger or have a knife. Beebs did exactly what Noah had told him to do. He threw the nuclear stink bomb at the shooter and ran the other way as fast as he could.

As he beat feet, Beebs heard the guy screaming.