Almost as much as the Thicke and Crete families respected young Barney Thicke’s ability to make his computer sit up and do tricks, they marveled at his capacity for tolerance when it came to Caleb Crete. Thirty-two years of age last June, Caleb was not so much a black sheep as he was a lost sheep. Maureen Thicke, born a Hauser but married to Isaiah Thicke, taught over at the high school and had managed to get a look at Caleb’s Stanford-Binet test. He’d scored well enough, 108, during his senior year…yet his grades were abysmal and he dropped out of school thirty-seven days before the rest of his class graduated.
“He’s not technically retarded or even particularly slow,” Maureen had told his parents over chicken and dumplings one Sunday while Caleb was off hunting in the woods, “but he’s still dumb as a box of rocks. I hate to say it, but you did ask for my opinion.”
“We did,” they agreed, “and we appreciate it. Pass the gravy, please. Chauncey, get your elbows off the table. And don’t you be talking out of school, telling Caleb what we’re saying about him, okay?”
“Wouldn’t think of it, Paw.” Chauncey, the baby of the family of three boys and no fan of his older brothers, wouldn’t have opened his mouth to warn either one of them if their hair was on fire.
Jason Thicke, Dad to T. P. and Caleb and Chauncey, aked, “So, Maureen, in your professional opinion as the most educated person in the room, what is Caleb’s problem? That is, other than his tendency to irritate the heck out of folks.” Except for children under the age of six. Those all seemed to enjoy his company. But of course, still being mini-monsters, they didn’t count for much, at least to Jason’s way of thinking. Let them get big enough to do a fair share of the work; then they counted as real people.
Maureen helped herself to an ear of corn on the cob before replying. The corn would be cold before she dug in, but her brother in law deserved an honest answer. “In my professional opinion, as you put it, Caleb’s greatest shortcoming is that he’s a born follower. There’s an insecurity in the boy, something you don’t see in a Crete man very often, thank goodness. He’s…fearful, I guess is the word. That’s a terrible burden for any young man to bear, doubly so in this family. Every other Crete I know, and every Thicke, too, for that matter, possesses self confidence in abundance. Whether aspiring to greatness in the world of manufacturing, like cousin Izzard with his bronze casting business, or operating a moonshine still like Bartholomew Thicke, you’re all forces to be reckoned with.”
Caleb’s father felt like he’d been punched in the gut. “That’s…sick.”
“Jason…,” Mrs. Crete murmered, “maybe–”
“No, honey, the boy is sick. A follower? Insecure? Fearful? A Crete? It ain’t right.”
“Not right?” Maureen, the teacher most admired in the community by parents and most feared by students, arched one perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “I’d say it has little to do with right or wrong. It simply is. I believe your son’s lack of confidence in himself is the root of his clingy behavior. Not to mention his sad predilection for memorizing and repeating inane sayings and riddles more suitable to an eight year old.”
“Ngh.” Jason answered with a grunt, decided the conversation was over, and applied himself to reloading his plate. Mrs. Pauline Crete, his wife of some twenty-three years, still made the finest chicken and dumplings he’d ever sampled. So their youngest son was a pansy, eh? A weakling, for Pete’s sake, a follower? Lord preserve me, he thought. Reckon I can only hope he finds somebody worth following who can stand to have him around for more’n five minutes at a stretch.
That had been fourteen years ago. By the time little Barney Thicke had turned eight, he and Caleb were buds. By the time Barn hit puberty, it was clear to everyone that the younger fellow was the leader of the pair, the older man–in his mid-twenties by then–was the follower, and they were pretty much inseparable. No one understood it, but they all appreciated it. Heck, young Barney even showed Caleb how to catch more fish, believe it or not, and snare rabbits like nobody’s business. But most of all, not even his mother had to worry about her dysfunctional son.
There were three loves in Barney Thicke’s life. His computer came first, his fiancée second, Caleb Crete third.
Oh, sure, he lied to Wendy all the time about that. It didn’t take a wizard to comprehend the utter folly of letting a girl know she played second fiddle to a plastic keyboard and a seventeen inch monitor, never mind the hard drive. But he was pretty sure she knew, anyway. Besides, she was off to college at Ohio State, studying to be–whatever it was she was studying to be. She’d told him plenty of times; he just had a little trouble giving a sh*t. The girl was a brain, 150 I.Q., full academic scholarship, all that. She might even be as smart as he was. At any rate, she was smart enough to realize when to leave him alone. These last few days, their Skype time together was down from an hour a day to pretty much nothing. She had finals coming up, and he had a threat from Montana to analyze. They could talk more…sometime.
Caleb, sprawled in a beanbag chair, playing Toejam and Earl on his antique Sega Genesis, suddenly spoke without looking away from his game.
“What’s black and white and red all over?”
“Dunno,” Barney replied, not really paying attention. You didn’t really have to pay attention to Caleb most of the time. When he got scared, which happened every so often, it paid to address the man’s fears straight on. He, Barney Thicke, was the only man in the entire county who could calm the older man down, soothe his jitters, bring peace back into his eyes. No one knew why; there was just that kind of chemistry between them, never mind the thirteen year age difference. “What’s black and white and red all over?”
“A newspaper!” Caleb’s announcement was triumphant, as if he’d just landed Great Whomper, the huge bass in Fog Lake that every local fisherman tried for and missed. “Black and white and read all over! Get it?”
“Oh, I get it. Good one, Caleb.” Not that he hadn’t heard it a few hundred thousand times already, but with the outcast of the Crete family, it helped to pretend the riddle was fresh and new every time.
Banks were tough to crack, and Rodeo Iron turned out to have some surprisingly challenging firewalls in place. He hadn’t managed to penetrate the Montana company’s internal files yet, though he would, unless–could it be they didn’t have any of their sensitive data where it could be reached from the Internet? How archaic would that be? Naw, that couldn’t be. He’d find their data sooner or later.
Besides, there were plenty of other sources to tap. He’d focused on those for most of the weekend, scraping together a wealth of information. He now knew about Sam Trace’s death by gunfire (Social Security Death Index, newspaper obituary column, news coverage), B. Jude Hennessey’s departure from the company, and Treemin Jackson’s status as sole owner of Rodeo Iron, Inc., a Sub S Corporation that had switched out from its former status as an LLC. That was unheard of. It wasn’t clear yet exactly how much money the welding/manufacturing/sales company was grossing. In the multiple millions, though, and growing fast in three states. Montana, Idaho, North Dakota.
Strictly a western operation, then, he mused. Those two definitely weren’t in Kentucky on business. Except monkey business, sticking their noses in our business.
“If you had a sewage lagoon right on the Kentucky-Tennessee border,” Caleb suddenly asked, “How could you tell which side was which?”
“I dunno,” Barney admitted, not really listening. “How could you tell?”
“The Tennessee side is the side with the diving board!”
He had to laugh at that one. That one was actually pretty funny. More to the point, he hadn’t heard it before. Where did Caleb come up with that one, anyway? Now, let’s see…hadn’t tried Google Images. Hm. Search Rodeo Iron…nothing. Search Rodeo Iron Montana…okay, there were a couple of pictures showing their products. The toy rodeo chutes were kind of cool. Interesting. Search Rodeo Iron Idaho…same, plus one image of the Idaho franchise owner, one Clark Higgins. All right, search Rodeo Iron North Dakota. Product images, yes. Photo of–what? There was a group shot from a newspaper, taken at the official kickoff party for the new franchise just a few weeks ago in a town called Belfield. Three men, one of them the local mayor, one the North Dakota franchisee, and the third…yes. There could be no doubt about it.
“Guess what, buddy?”
“What?” The tone in the computer whiz’s voice pulled Caleb’s head right out of his video game, just like that. “You found something.”
“More than something. That black dude, the one we’re looking for? He’s Treemin Jackson, the top dog lone wolf owner of the whole Rodeo Iron operation. The man is worth millions. Well, maybe not millions, but he’s the head of a sizeable company out west.”
The realization scared Barney Thicke, down deep where the smartest part of a very smart man lived. He stared at the computer screen, and Treemin Jackson’s face stared back at him. A good looking guy, if you liked them well tanned, but most importantly, there was power in that face. Eyes that, even operating from a digital platform, looked right through you. Enough to make a man shiver down to his toes, should he be fool enough to face him. Thankfully, it wouldn’t be Barney doing the wet work, going after this dude, but still. Jackson looked pleasant enough in the photo, no question about that, but…”Man, I wouldn’t want to cross this guy,” he whispered to himself.
“Nothing, Caleb. Just thinking.”
“About what?” Crete paused his game and scrambled up from the beanbag chair, moving to look over his friend’s left shoulder at the target T.P., Josiah, Mordecai, and Thumper wanted so badly. “Yep, you found him.”
Kind of wish I hadn’t, he thought, but knew better than to voice his worries aloud, at last not in full. If he admitted the depth of his alarm, Caleb would go into total meltdown in half a heartbeat. Couldn’t have that. He’d seen it a few times before, and it wasn’t pretty.
“What’s black and white and red all over?”
Wearily, Barney replied, “I dunno, Caleb. What is black and white and red all over?”
“This Treemin Jackson and that Judi Minske, once Snow Snuffers Anonymous get through with ‘em.”
Barney sighed. “I dunno, my friend. That’s the idea, I suppose, but I’ve got a feeling it’s not going to be a walk in the park.”
“You know how that there Treemin Jackson takes a bubble bath?”
“He runs outside in the rain, sits in a mud puddle, and farts.”
“Buddy, I hope that’s the sum of it.”
“You remember the day they were here. They were out there in the rain, all right, but they got their vehicle out of the mud and down the road ahead of us. If anybody farted that night, it was us. I don’t think we better underestimate this guy. Caleb, my research says he’s just 26 freaking years old, yet he owns the whole Rodeo Iron company. He’s big. He’s bad. I swear he’s dangerous, I can feel it. Of course, Ziah and T.P. are dangerous, too. I dunno, maybe I’m overreacting. He can’t be as dangerous as our guys, right?”
“Right on, Barn. Our guys are the best. They’ll take out the dude in the west. Punch holes in his vest and his chest and he won’t be blessed. I ain’t no lawyer, but my case I rest.”
Oh, great. When had he started rhyming like that? Still, enough doom and gloom. Ziah and T.P. could take this guy. Probably. Yeah. Sure they could.
“What’s black and white and white that’ll put us in the black?”
“Black and white and white that’ll–got me, Barn. What is?”
“Jackson and Minske, froze to death in a snowbank. If SSA did a double snuff like that, betcha the auction for the film would bring in two million bucks, easy.”
“Good one. We going over to Crete’s now? It’s lunch time.”
“Am not. Ziah’s buying. Or T.P. or maybe Mordecai. We gotta get rewarded for this here dee-scovery, doncha think?”
“Eh. Yeah. Reckon so.” The thought flashed through Barney Thicke’s mind, though. What’s black and white and red all over? He didn’t like the answer that came unbidden. The obituaries for a bunch of Thickes and Cretes after they tangled with a big boar coon out of Montana.
No, he didn’t like that answer. He didn’t like it at all. Were it up to him, he’d have the Snow Snuffers group stand down, lie low, see what happened that way. These Rodeo Iron people, they hadn’t really done anything yet, except dare to show up at Crete’s Eats, where outsiders weren’t particularly welcome, and black outsiders least of all. They likely didn’t have any proof of anything. Just sniffing around like old hounds with their noses to the ground, trying to pick up a scent.
Not that Ziah and T.P. would listen to good advice even if he did offer it. He was just the computer kid. He gave the big boys the intel; they decided what to do with it. Him and Caleb, they just did their assigned duty. They didn’t have any part of the executive decision making progress.
Which was fine by Barney Thicke. He didn’t want any part of the responsibility that went with this one.