Balance. Jack Hill once told me that getting back in balance after a fellow has fallen off the razor’s edge has to be the trickiest maneuver ever programmed into the system by the powers that be. I’d remembered his comment but hadn’t understood it at the time. I got it now.
My eyes would fly open and I’d be as manic as any Valium user ever conceived, bright eyed and bushy tailed, taking in my surroundings and running my mouth all at the same time, overdone like a turkey left in the oven an extra twenty-four hours or so. “Nice room,” I would say, “didn’t know the hospital in Deer Lodge had anything this spacious. Looking good, Big Jude. Nice scrubs, Doc. What’s for dinner?”
Then the crash would come, no warning whatsoever, and I’d be out like a light again, out of body, zipping around in the astral world. I knew it was the astral world because deceased mercenary Jonathan Morse kept popping up, trying to get revenge, and I’d kill him all over again. In our physical lives, it’s doubtful I’d have lasted long if I’d had to go one on one against the former Special Forces jerkwad; his training was too good in too many fighting disciplines. On the inner, that was another matter. He threw some moves at me; I’ll give him that. But I killed him every time. Rifles, pistols, swords, knives, machine guns, grenades, bare hands, rocks thrown and rocks used as head-bashers in hand to hand combat, once even a bootlace used as a garrote.
The adventures, if one cared to call them that, were mostly endless repetitions of those two scenarios–brief blips in the hospital room and death fights with Morse–distinguished only by a thousand inventive variations both subtle and gross. During my times in the hospital room, there was occasionally a green gargoyle monster with purple spots in addition to the known humans, or a giant cat with nine claws on each foot and a venomous barbed tail. On the astral, Morse brought help a few times, and I killed off the help, too. More than once, dead dog tired from the endless effort, I found myself unable to awaken at all, to either the astral or physical plane, my entire being too exhausted to return fully to awareness in any dimension, a small deep part of me yammering in panic, concerned that something might be sneaking up on me as I lay curled wherever I was curled, often in the sunshine, right out in the open somewhere. The rest of me couldn’t do anything about that; all of my bodies had simply had enough.
My eyes opened, and this time they stayed open. Light coming in through small, high windows indicated it was either late afternoon or early morning. A lavender wall clock with pale yellow numbers and hands, the gayest thing you ever saw, gently declared the time: Eight forty-three. Midmorning, then.
Tracking the voice to my right, I turned my head and smiled. “Good morning to you, too, Sis. How are my warrior women?” It was a logical question; Judi lay curled up on a leather couch next to Sissy’s easy chair. The younger woman was sound asleep, an angel in repose.
“We’re good.” A big, slow smile eased across her mixed blood face. “Now that our favorite black man has decided to return from coo-coo land.” She spoke in a normal conversational tone, clearly unconcerned that we might wake Judi. Either she figured that would be a good thing or the junior member of our threesome was too wiped out to hear a herd of stampeding buffalo.
“Coo-coo land?” I grinned at her, suddenly aware that I really needed to pee. “Does that door in the corner lead to a bathroom?”
“It does.” She rose from the chair, stepped over to the bed, and drew back the covers–civilian sheet and blankets, not hospital issue; where were we? “You’ve been the lucky recipient of a CIC catheter insertion several times a day, but come to think of it, you are about due. I’ll help you get to the toilet.”
Guess that explained the not exactly pleasant sensation down there. “You think I’ll need help?” I was mildly offended.
She shrugged. “I would, honey, if I’d flailed in and out of consciousness in the same bed for six straight days.”
Six days? Flailed? “Well, far be it from me to deny my beloved the chance to be of service.” I said it lightly, but I shouldn’t have. Just sitting up, though I managed that much, was enough to bring on a dizzy spell. This was normal dizziness, though, nothing like the hallucinatory experiences of the past…how long? “Did you say six days? I’ve been here that long? And by the way, where is here?”
“Doc Menning’s place. B.J. called him as soon as he got you to the freeway. Larry directed him here, to his home, instead of to the hospital in Deer Lodge.”
“Quite a setup.” On my feet now, arm across Sissy’s strong shoulders for support, the dizziness passed.
“It is that.” Our steps across the room were slow and awkward. I hadn’t realized a man’s body could go that far downhill with less than a week in bed.
We didn’t say much more until I’d relieved myself, but on the return trip I stole the easy chair. I didn’t think I had any bedsores, exactly, but the chair felt really, really good. Sissy perched on the side of the bed. She was carrying her .40 Glock in a shoulder rig, not in her purse. I was willing to bet there’d never been less than two of our Inner Circle on guard the whole time I was down and out, one of them always awake and aware. I realized I was hungry, too, but the arm wound didn’t seem to be bothering me–itched a little, now that I thought about it. No sling. I pulled up the hospital gown sleeve and peeked. There was a bandage around the arm, no more than that.
“Doc stitched it up,” Sissy said. “He says there may be a bit of nerve damage; you could have some shooting pains there for a while, and it’ll be a few weeks before the arm is ready to really do much without possibly tearing the muscle all over again, but the believes you’ll heal up as good as new. He’s concerned about the potential for keloid scarring. Recommended the application of pure aloe vera gel for that, several times a day, once the wound is sealed well enough for the bandage to come off and stay off.”
“And? Sis, there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“Hang on, beautiful.” She looked me in the eye, sighing deeply. “There’s a story to tell, that’s for sure. But before she wakes up, I want to tell you what our Judi did. It embarrasses her to hear it, but she deserves a medal or something. Did you know she was the one who drilled Beets through the leg?”
“No.” We hadn’t talked about that, at least not before I blacked out.
“Well, she was. But Wayne and I…Tree, we didn’t even know she was there. When we headed out from home, she was left behind, our rear guard and protection for Carolyn West. But as it happened, Diamond Paws popped up into his room in Jack’s house a few minutes later. When the shooting first started, he was somewhere close enough to hear it, and he scooted for Jack’s. Figured his buddy Carolyn might need help, or at least company. Judi jumped on that, made Carolyn promise to go underground with our local friendly alien if the war came to her front door, and then she headed out. Didn’t quite catch up to us, but when you gave us the green light to shoot, she heard all that on her CB–and she had a shot. She’d lost track of where we were exactly and climbed a tree to hopefully spot us. She didn’t see us, but she did get a good look at Gargoyle Garden.
“Wayne and I were in deep cover, roughly eighty yards from our targets. We had great angles on their team leader, Blinker, and another guy they called Rad. Didn’t know their names then, of course; Beets filled us in later. Judi pointed out her perch to us later; she couldn’t see either Blinker or Rad, but she did have a clear shot at Beets. As luck would have it, it worked out perfectly. Wayne popped Blinker and I did Rad, both of us intending to take Beets alive if we could. He was the biggest of them, but he wasn’t anywhere close to the grenade launcher like the other two were. She’d heard us mention three hostiles and knew you wanted one kept alive. Beets’s head end was hidden from her, but from the ass down he was all hers. So that’s what she did. From sixty feet up in a big old tree, Tree, using a small caliber varmint rifle and a cheap four power scope, she fired from a good five hundred yards out with an elevation drop of at least a hundred feet to the target–and she drilled him clean.”
I found myself grinning like a fool. “We could have a little trophy made up for her. Call it the Honorary Chris Kyle award.”
“American Sniper,” she nodded. “I like that.”
“Kyle’s people might take that wrong, though. If they ever heard about it. Not that they would, but….”
“We wouldn’t want that.”
“How about…okay, since we don’t really want anything lying around that could point to what we’ve been up to, how about this? She gets a nickname.”
“A nickname? Okay, what?”
“Annie? Oh. Annie Oakley. Little Sure Shot.” Sissy chuckled. “I like it. I like it a lot.”
How long had she been awake? Judi’s voice chimed in at that moment. “You guys,” she declared firmly, “are pathetic.”
I got up out of the chair. We had us a hugfest then, my injured arm being no obstacle since five foot three Judi could and did slide right in under that arm to wrap her arms around six foot three me. With my six foot Bear Warrior Woman fused to my right front, we were all pretty much welded into a single entity.
Doctor Menning chose that moment to pop in, with old Jack Hill right on his heels and my uncle B.J. Hennessey bringing up the rear.
For a while, there was so much information being thrown at me that I couldn’t process it all. It took a bit to sort it out. Turned out the fancy non-hospital room was a special place, part of a medical care unit Larry Menning, M.D., had chosen to disguise as a combination garage and light aircraft hangar. There was even a real plane to complete the illusion, but illusion it was; the micro plane–larger than an ultralight but not by all that much–was strictly for show. He’d had the shell built but had equipped the place in secret. There was also a surprise; the IV hadn’t been hooked up when I’d come back to awareness, but the sticker-thingie was definitely taped in place on my bad arm.
Doc Menning grinned when he noticed me staring at it. “Even during your hallucinatory thrashing around, Treemin, you seemed to know enough not to jar that arm too much. So that’s where we stuck the IV. Let’s get rid of that.”
He’d get no argument from me. I sat rock still, studying the room a bit more instead of watching the IV removal process. That paneling looked like soundproofing to me; what happened in Doc’s garage stayed in Doc’s garage. Was that a white noise generator I was hearing, hissing softly in the background? A computer console in one corner looked suspiciously like the one Mr. Gray had showed Jack and me at the Half Castle a month or two back. It was no ordinary computer; I’d bet the programming was all about generating some sort of electromagnetic field that messed with IR drones, defeating their ability to see through roof or wall.
Looked to me like somebody didn’t trust our wonderful government. Shame, shame.
When B.J. had called, Menning had directed him here. Doc already knew we at Trace Ranch and Rodeo Iron seemed to draw bullets like carrion draws flies. He couldn’t count on being able to hide the fact that he’d treated me, but as long as nobody without the need to know got a close look at the wound before it healed, who was to say it couldn’t have been a chainsaw accident, the chain snapping in two, one flying end slashing my arm….? This guy, this next thing to a flamer, this veteran combat surgeon who looked younger than his years and far younger than the experience lurking behind his eyes, was breaking umpteen laws by treating my gunshot wound in confidence. My kind of guy, one thousand percent.
Well, except for the gay part. If he really was gay.
The main show? That was all Jack Hill. First, he popped the lid on the sizeable cooler B.J. had carried in. We all got Chinese take out, Doc included. Hill had been to the Half Castle. In fact, he’d been to the Half Castle every single day since I’d been shot, riding with B.J. in my uncle’s rolling tank, the beautifully restored and secretly reinforced 1936 Hudson. Until we knew the Vigilante Enterprises bunch was under control, nobody traveled alone.
“Thanks to Soren Kirk and his personal war,” Jack explained, “the Half Castle and I–including you, Tree–have a brand new level of mutual understanding. The intel I took them on Vigilante Enterprises…well, it’s pretty hard to blow their minds, but I’m not exaggerating when I say Mr. Gray turned gray. Our hacker contacts had never heard of VE. That is, they knew Vigilant existed, the security systems and all that, but they knew nothing about Vigilante. Those people–the Half Castle people, that is–pride themselves on knowing everything there is to know, and for the most part, they do. But not once had they caught a whiff of an organized group of assassins like this. I’ve trusted them for a long time and vice versa, but this put us in ultra-V.I.P. status with them. They’re blown away, as they should be. This,” he fished out several three ring binders from the cardboard box he’d carried in, “is the report on VE I picked up today, just under four hundred pages of detail.”
Doc Menning was still in the room. We weren’t worried about him hearing things he shouldn’t, at least regarding the Vigilante bunch. I remarked, “Jack, you can’t have had time to read all of that yet.”
He shook his head. “No, of course not. But I did take twenty minutes or so at the Bearmouth rest area. Skimmed it. And while we need to go through this line by line, I can assure you of a few things. First and maybe most important, this outfit fields more than two hundred assassination teams. They’re not all full timers. In fact, most of them aren’t. But if Kirk is right and every team is composed of five men, that means they could field a thousand trained killers any time they chose. That’s a short battalion, one helluva fighting force to reckon with, should the necessity arise to do so. And we just tweaked their noses. Hard.”
“Do you macho types think this briefing could possibly be postponed long enough to get, oh, say, a couple hundred calories of something solid into Mr. Jackson?” Judi’s tone dripped with enough honey to send a diabetic into a full blown coma.
“My thought exactly.” Menning twinkled at her in a decidedly heterosexual manner. “And I’ve got it covered.” We hadn’t paid any attention to the hamper when he’d carried it into the room–or at least I hadn’t–but the contents proved irresistible. For starters, chicken soup with plenty of crackers. I’ve never understood those restaurants who employ waitresses that bring soup to the table and leave the crackers behind. “Get a bowl of that inside you and wait twenty minutes. If it doesn’t come back up, there’s more. No rush, either; you’ll note the room is equipped with a fridge and a microwave.”
I didn’t like it, but he was right. Too much too soon after nothing but an IV for six days…yeah, whether I realized it or not, my stomach had likely shrunk to the size of the average walnut. So I sipped soup like a good little boy while Jack continued with his summary of the findings our bunch had produced since I’d wacked out.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who could add two and two. Jack Hill had realized something was amiss within seconds after I blacked out under the spruce tree. Once the bodies were loaded into the Ford Expedition and Beets was on his way back to Great Falls, leg wound be damned, Jack had and Soren Kirk had gathered up the fallen weapons, agreeing that Kirk would keep one grenade launcher and one MP5 while our crew would acquire the rest. Jack then made a fast run to Missoula, taking one round from every enemy weapon with him when he entered the Chinese restaurant.
When the Half Castle’s contacts had run the ammunition through a hidden chem lab–located who knew where, though Jack suspected somewhere in the Tennessee hills–the results were pretty much what he’d strongly suspected: Every bullet on the mission was coated with a foreign substance.
“The hackers caught up to the necessary database the following day, thanks to the trail we’d provided.” Jack paused in his dissertation long enough to steal a chocolate covered cherry from one of the containers in the hamper. I wanted to smack him upside the head for that. Those were my chocolate covered cherries. “They uncovered enough different notes made by enough different people in the VE organization to confirm…let’s see, I made a few notes.” He produced a pocket sized spiral notebook, flipped open the cover, and began reading.
1: Field operator’s statement that his crew knew nothing about the chemical taint on their ammunition jibes with hacker findings. Database makes it clear EC (Execution Committee) sees no need to over-inform their shooters.
2. Chemical’s reaction in human body not documented past 24 hours of exposure. No test subject, exposed to one microgram of UC (Unknown Chemical), has ever survived longer than that.
“There’s a lot more, including an extremely long chain chemical formula the likes of which none of our experts–including Doc Menning here–have ever seen,” Jack said, tucking the notebook into the hip pocket of his jeans. “But let’s skip the boring stuff. Regarding our most immediate concern, Tree, this would have killed you for sure–not right away, but within hours–if the wound hadn’t been an open gash. Larry and I’ve been kicking it around; what makes the most sense to us is that the flesh bled freely enough to cleanse the body before it could do any damage…except for some super-miniscule amount. You want to take it from there, Doc?”
Menning nodded. “My best guess is that the very slight grooving of the humerus was enough for a tiny bit of UC to stay with your body. And I mean a really tiny bit. You were out of it big time for quite a while, but your vital signs never wavered enough to be overly scary. Your pulse and blood pressure did rise and fall in cycles, and you thrashed around a fair amount at times, but I never felt you were anywhere close to leaving this vale of tears.”
“Hm.” I thought for a moment, absently rubbing the site where the IV needle had been. I really hated those things. “Based on Vigilante Enterprises experiments, a thousandth of a milligram of their cute little bullet stain would have wiped me out, right?”
“So it would seem, yes.”
“All right. Maybe my body only retained a millionth of a microgram or some such. Potent stuff.”
“But what was the point? Did our helpful hackers discover any other incidents where this UC had been, um, field tested?”
Jack shook his head. “None. Though that doesn’t mean anything. Tree, my gut says this was a first. I can see why, presuming ethical considerations were not a factor, VE might have wanted this stuff used on Soren Kirk. They did realize he might be a hard kill, though not nearly as hard as he turned out to be with us providing reinforcements. If they tagged him with a bullet–probably not with a grenade, as the fragments would be too hard to predict–it wouldn’t matter if he was killed on the spot or not. If he was captured, the UC taint would make him delusional before it killed him, and maybe they could get him to talk while he was too out of his head to realize what he was saying. And if he wasn’t captured, what the hey, he’d be dead in a day. Win-win, right there.”
Doctor Menning took that as his cue. “Treemin, you’re looking mighty fine, considering what you’ve been through. Try not to eat so much you hurl it right back up. Hit the red button if you need me. Otherwise, I’m going to leave you folks alone for a while. I smell a war council coming, and I have no need to know.”
When he was gone, Sissy said admiringly, “Mighty perceptive for a sawbones, our good Doctor Larry.”
“You don’t know the half of it, Sis,” Jack said, and we got down to business.
Two hours later, every bit of the food was gone, I was utterly exhausted, and we’d come to just one decision: We needed more data. More intel. Was Beets still alive? Safe? We needed to find out in a hurry. The man was relatively innocent, a potential ally VE would eliminate if they could, as soon as they could. Kirk? Good guy, it seemed, or at least a reformed and repentant bad guy, but did he have knowledge that could help us in the next phase of what needed doing? And what was it, exactly, that needed doing? Having a wildcat vigilante operation was nothing new to us, duh, but power mad SHAT (Saddam Hussein America Types) running around poisoning good bullets with chemical warfare was way beyond the pale. If the entire Execution Committee, all five of them, knew about the chemical offensive, we had to seriously consider anonymously siccing the feds on them. They would need to be dismantled, a job well beyond our capabilities.
But did all of the committee members know? Zechariah Beesom, the original founder and the Committee’s Head for Life, might be the only one in the know. By all reports, the man was certainly paranoid enough for that to be the case.
The VE chem lab had to be guilty as sin, of course; without a doubt, that lab and all of its records would have to go. But how could we arrange for a lab like that to be taken down without risking UC contamination? Talk about the potential for collateral damage….
“One thing for sure,” I said, fighting sleep as I lay back down on the bed and got comfortable. Menning wanted me to hang around for a few more days to make sure the flashes in and out of reality were completely finished. Right now, that sounded like an excellent idea; I couldn’t stand the idea of the drive back home.
“One thing?” Jack prompted.
“Yeah. We need to bring Soren Kirk into the loop.”
“You sure about that, cowboy?”
“Yeah. I’m sure.” Stifling a yawn, I clarified that statement. “We don’t clue the Seed man all the way in. Not any of our deeper secrets. And we don’t tell him how we came up with the information we got from Mr. Gray. We damn sure don’t burn that source. But we do tell him the basics, enough to make it obvious we know more than he could possibly expect we would. And then we ask him. We say, Soren, please, how do we go about finding out who knew what? Soren, are you on board for taking out Zechariah Beesom if we decide the rest of Vigilante is worth saving? Soren, if the whole shebang is a lost cause, how can you get your ass covered before the feds start building their cases, which will take years if we end up going that route; them boys move kinda slow in the beginning….”
At least, I think that’s what I said, though the last of it might have been lost as the sandman smacked me upside the head with an entire dune and the world went bye-bye once again.