When we got back home, the mood within our inner circle was primarily one of relief, not celebration. No one seemed particularly overjoyed at the need to execute Chief Virgil Stassen–known publicly as Zechariah Beesom–or at any of the other inescapable casualties. Old Jack Hill had practically been born to war and seemed somehow inured to the traumas that inevitably accompanied the aftermath of combat, but the rest of us were getting more than a little weary, racking up the body count as we had been. Not that we would hesitate, should the need to bleed arise again in the future, but we were as a group a bit more somber these days.
Which made the joy we took in the mundane facets of life more sharply defined. Wading back into the backlog of myriad business details that had piled up while I’d been distracted? Pure joy. I even found myself taking pleasure in balancing a ledger at the end of the day or handling a nervous Rodeo Iron distributor’s problem over the phone.
As for working on the new house, that went beyond joy into…ecstasy? Yeah, that works. Ecstasy. Though I’d never admit it in so many words, Sissy and Judi could see the delight shining in my eyes as the foundation was poured, the walls and roof erected, the plumbing installed. We were even sleeping in the place now, though there was a lot of work to do before we could move out of the old mobile home entirely.
The weeks passed, through the remainder of June, all of July, and the first few days of August. Jack Hill had taken to making the Half Castle runs alone, gathering intel as always, spending hours in conference with Mr. Gray. He didn’t bother me with many of his findings, sensing I needed the cool down period, needed time to decompress.
I took his hard work for granted in a way, focusing on commerce and carpentry and, thanks to the manual labor involved in house construction, getting into the best physical condition of my life. Yay me.
The first Saturday in August, however, all of that changed. It was near sunset. Me and my girls were seated in rockers on the wraparound porch, sipping iced tea, watching the gray squirrel who lived in the pine tree a few yards from the corner of the house. That particular squirrel had long since given up scolding us for moving around in her territory. She would twitchy-tail with the best of them, but in curiosity, not alarm, staring down at us all bright eyed, sniffing the air. Sometimes she would even descend to the ground, venturing across the pine needles to snatch up a stray snack we’d “accidentally” tossed her way.
Life could not have been better.
We heard the Subaru before we saw it. Jack wheeled the Outback around the final corner and into the driveway separating our two properties, parking in front of his house as usual. When he got out, though, he headed our way instead of into his own dwelling.
“Hello the porch!” He called cheerfully, as if he needed to announce himself.
“Hello the Jack!” I replied, hoisting my tea mug in his direction. Sissy hopped up, grabbed the pitcher, and poured a cup for him as he crossed the driveway.
“Thanks, Sis,” he smiled at her, the knowing look of old lovers.
The big Absarokee woman ducked her head demurely in return. “You’re welcome, Mr. Hill.”
“Ah, Mister now, is it?” He grabbed one of the patio chairs, turned it around, and straddled it backward, propping his elbows on the back. In the hand not holding the tea mug, he gripped a bright orange folder, about a quarter inch thick. I had a bad feeling about this, even before he looked me in the eye and said, “Remember Piercings?”
I stared at him blankly, my famed memory for once failing me completely. I’d blame the failure on the poison bullet that had creased my humerus bone not so long ago. It was always good to have something to blame. “I’m blank, Jack.”
“Well,” he admitted, “it’s not like you haven’t had anything on your plate lately. Piercings is the fifteen year old California girl who cracked Chief Stassen’s computer for us. You know, the hacker without whom we could not have planned the Pittsburg raid at all, because we’d not have known where the Execution Committee was holed up.”
“Oh. That Piercings.” Good Lord. I’d forgotten all about the girl. “When does she go to court?”
“Hopefully, she doesn’t. Her court date is scheduled for the week after next. You’ve been holed up here in the woods, working your day job and slacking off, so I figured it was up to me to come up with a plan. You know, you being so adverse to leadership and all. Have a look.” He handed over the folder, which I took with both reluctance and dread.
Section One of the folder was all about the girl herself. Hacker name, Piercings, and the photo showed why. An African American teenaged beauty with all sorts of metal decorating her countenance. No gauging, thank goodness; her earlobes were not stretched out like she’d come straight from either the Dark Continent or High Teenage Fashion. But other than that, yeah, the girl was pierced, all right. Three rings in her left ear, four in her right. One through the side of each nostril and another through the septum. Eyebrows, too, a pair each, though thankfully the bridge of the nose between the eyes was not pierced. I’d seen one of those and wanted to vomit on the spot. Two rings in the lower lip. Her mouth was closed in the photo, so it didn’t show, but she no doubt had a stud through her tongue, too. Why not?
I had to grab hold of myself by the mental scruff of my neck and shake myself to look past the metal. Beautiful eyes. Something seemed familiar…my cousin. She looked the spitting image of B.J.’s basketball scholarship daughter, my stunning cousin, when she was that age.
This girl could be my kid sister.
Guilt hit me, low and hard. How had I forgotten about this girl’s predicament? I was such an asshole!
Guilt wouldn’t accomplish anything, though. I shook it off and kept reading. Legal name: Penelope “Penny” Cummings. Father unknown. Stepfather, one Abe Hobbleton, a cop with seven years of service. The jerk who’d turned her in as a hacker because she refused to let him bang her was a freaking cop! Okay, I was getting pissed now, my internal steam heat thermostat auto-turning up to a rolling boil. Mother: Jasmine Cummings, age 28, on welfare and food stamps. Which meant the stepdad was working the system, not admitting he was cohabiting with Jasmine. It also meant Jasmine had gotten pregnant at age twelve and had Penny when she was thirteen.
“Man,” I muttered, “East Coast or West Coast, the ‘hood is all the same.”
Nobody else said anything. They knew I was lost to them for the moment.
Twenty minutes later, I looked up from the notes Jack had brought from the Half Castle. The sun was down. Judi piped up. “We can either heat up the meat loaf, or we can all eat over at Jack’s.”
“There’ll be enough?” I asked, which was my official Dumb Question of the Day. If there was one thing Wayne Bruce and Carolyn West always had on hand when the table was set, it was enough chow for company.
The others chatted easily through the meal, but quietly so as not to overly disturb me. They knew I was thinking everything through. In deference to my disillusionment with the leadership role, Hill had planned the entire rescue run–which required me and me alone to go do the dirty work. I was, of course, free to reject his plan. Yeah, right. About as much as I was free to stay in the womb when my Mom went into labor, I was. It might not be a good plan, but I had to admit it was the only plan.
Mr. Gray’s organization and all of its loosely woven affiliates had pulled together to make this at least potentially workable. Penelope “Piercings” Cummings would have to disappear before her court date. That would mean a bail bondsman left holding an $80,000 bag. Fortunately, the bondsman was an honest crook; once he was bought, he stayed bought. They’d taken up a collection, Gray’s people had, raising enough to cover the man’s loss when Piercings skipped. He’d receive the money anonymously, in untraceable $20 bills. In return, he’d lie his ass off, swearing to the Court and to any curious investigators that he was really ticked off about Cummings jumping bail, he had his top bounty hunters on the little bitch’s trail, and he would for damn sure drag her sorry little hacker ass back to court.
That was a big item. Eluding the feds was a piece of cake compared to successfully hiding out from determined private bounty hunters. Unless they put her face on America’s Most Wanted, which did not seem likely in this case. Her disappearance would infuriate the feds and her perverted cop stepdad, no doubt about it, but…okay. I liked that part.
I also liked the part where she was quoted as having told her peers that (a) she didn’t mind living as a fugitive for the rest of her days if it meant poking the authorities in the eye with a sharp stick, and (b) for God’s sake, don’t anybody screw up and let Mom know she was planning to run. Mom was okay sober, but she wasn’t often sober, and besides, she was firmly under Horny Abe’s thumb. That part was in Internet-yelling caps: DON’T TELL MOM!!
Good girl, I thought. I could take a chance on rescuing my new kid sister from the feds. I could not deal with another Mom-plus-daughter scenario. As B.J. and I both knew all too well, the last time we’d tried that had not gone well at all.
But I did not like having to go on this run alone, and finally, with a bowl of apple crisp dessert in front of me and a cup of Kona coffee in my hand, I said as much.
Jack nodded as if he’d been expecting the objection. “I don’t like it either, Tree. I just couldn’t come up with any better idea. If anybody can, I’d love to hear it. The thing is, her neighborhood is Herman Cain black. I’m not afraid to go into the heart of the ‘hood–heck, you know that from Hartford–but the most crucial part of this rescue is doing it invisibly. And you have to admit, I’m not exactly invisible in Cain Town.”
I looked at him thoughtfully. He read my mind. “Oh no, you don’t. Yeah, I could dye my skin black. But you remember what happened to the white guy who dyed his skin and passed as black in order to write Black Like Me. The dye gave him skin cancer. He died from it. He. D-y-e-d. D-i-e-d. Not funny.”
“Nothing about this is funny,” I pointed out.
“Agreed. But here’s the thing, Tree. You have the best shot at getting her out without being noticed. Once you’re away from her immediate neighborhood, you can easily pass as just another young black couple. Yes, she’s only fifteen, but she looks older–and I confirmed that with Gray; it’s not just the photograph. Once you get back up here in white country, yeah, you’ll stand out more. But if you roll into Montana under cover of darkness, get her up here and stashed in the woods, we can put it out that she’s your kid sister or some such.”
“Jack,” I exploded, exasperated, “suppose I do get her out of California? Where the hell is she supposed to sleep? I mean, you know, where will she live?”
Every eye in the room turned toward me when I said that. Most of the looks declared I was just too stupid for words. “Tree,” Sissy said softly, “the new house has extra bedrooms. And three bathrooms, for Pete’s sake. I’m pretty sure we can squeeze her in.”
“Oh yeah?” I retorted, defiant. “And what about boys? She can’t exactly live right in the middle of all of our secrets and then go out dancing with some high school football player from Drummond, now can she? She’d stick out like a sore thumb. Might as well hire a skywriter to post a sign in the heavens: Very unusual black girl here in the middle of white country. All federal agents looking for runaway accused hackers, please investigate here!”
It got quiet after that for a long moment. Surprisingly, it was Carolyn West, Jack’s main squeeze, who took it upon herself to reason with me. She’d been making the rounds with the coffee pot but paused long enough to place a hand on my shoulder. An extremely feminine hand; Jack definitely had good taste. “Tree,” she said softly, “Miss Cummings would obviously have to lay low, not fraternize with people in the community at large. But are you going to refuse her safe haven now because we haven’t yet figured out the answers to the long term questions? I know you, and I don’t believe for one second you could do that.”
I sighed, defeated. Patting her hand in appreciation, I capitulated. “Of course I can’t do that. But I’m telling you, people, this solo rescue run scares me like I’ve never been scared before. Well, not since I was a seventeen year old juvenile delinquent, anyway. I remember how scared I was then. They’re pushing to try her as an adult. If she’s convicted, she gets a jacket for life and also gets to be fresh meat for every butch bitch behind bars. Heh. There’s a movie title, eh? Butch Bitch Behind Bars.”
With my admission that I was going to do it, the tension went out of the room. Jack’s plan was solid. Not perfect, but except for a few relatively minor details here and there, none of us could come up with anything better. I’d need to be gone from Rodeo Iron for at least a week. Every member of our inner circle would be actively working to maintain the illusion that I was still right there at home, working the business. If we were ever questioned, I could “prove” I’d been in Montana the entire time, sending out emails, leaving prerecorded messages on voice mail for various business associates–carefully timed to reach their phones when they were not free to take the calls, of course. Judi and Sissy and my uncle B.J. would even work to convince some of the welders that they’d actually seen me while I was gone.
At the far end, I’d be driving a Chrysler minivan with California plates, beat up enough to look at home in the ‘hood but solidly souped up under the hood, rolling on rubber that had too little tread left to make the vehicle a high value theft target. Equally important, I would not be Treemin Jackson. Mr. Gray had provided a California driver’s license he swore would pass a Highway Patrol computer check, identifying me as one Benjamin Trotter of Fresno. To match the photo, I had to shave my head, losing my beautiful curly locks, and don a fake beard that made me look like an entirely different person. Ugly bastard, but definitely different.
New Black Panther, maybe. Heh. If seeing me in this getup didn’t send the girl screaming into the night, I doubted anything would. I looked a lot more like an enthusiastic rapist than her perverted stepdad did.
I also carried new ID for Penny, also a high end Fresno driver’s license and Social Security card, identifying her as one Carol Louise Trotter, age eighteen. At least a routine traffic stop wouldn’t get me busted for hauling a minor over state lines. It worried me, though, presenting us as husband and wife this way. I didn’t like it much at all.
Sissy laughed at me for that one. “Chill, Tree. If she rapes you on the way back, what the hey, we have a foursome. It’s not like any of us ever broke a law or ignored a social taboo, now is it?” Judi put her hand over her mouth, giggling.
“You’re not helping,” I scowled. Secretly, though, I was pleased. Not that I had any carnal intentions toward young Miss Cummings. Uh…Mrs. Trotter. I didn’t. But knowing that my girls had my back no matter what happened, yes, that did help.
Every little detail had to be covered, of course. For one thing, my clothing could not be my usual western attire. Jack had thought of that; I’d be picking up a package on the way south, one set of ‘hood clothing and one set of normal city stuff for flyover country residents. Weaponry was critical; I didn’t dare fail to carry, yet neither could I afford to pack any heat that might point even vaguely toward Montana. Jack had been working on that issue for a while, though. Without comment, he handed me the Taurus Ultra-Lite Nine revolver. I cringed a little at first; it was definitely not my beloved Walther.
But it turned out to be everything else. Firing nine .22 long rifle bullets through a two inch barrel, the little pistol was no toy. The rear sight was adjustable for both elevation and windage and sported a white “box U” outline that framed the bright red-orange front sight nicely. Jack had acquired the shooter through Mr. Gray, who assured him it had been picked up for cash at a yard sale in Texas before heading north; there would be no way for law enforcement to trace it to Montana unless I left it lying around with my prints on it. The original grip had been changed out for a slightly larger version that fit my sizeable hand surprisingly well. Jack had also acquired a pancake holster that clipped onto the waistband of my pants; I could carry it in the usual spot in the small of my back.
The next day, I ignored breakfast to familiarize myself with the gun. Three hours after sunup, we were friends. The sight had taken a while to get right, but I had it now. The secret turned out to be gripping the front of the trigger guard hard with my left index finger, anchoring it solidly while triggering the weapon in double action mode with my right hand. Done that way, forgetting about single action–because the undersized hammer on the undersized pistol made that a losing proposition–I could put all nine rounds into a three inch bullseye at twenty-one feet in roughly four seconds. I wouldn’t want to try a head shot at any real distance, but up close…yeah. I was ready to go.
I got hugged a lot, fierce and hard, by the members of our inner circle on the morning Jack and I headed out for the truck stop west of Missoula where the minivan was waiting. Ranch widow Jennifer Trace like to broke a couple of my ribs, declaring, “You watch your back now!” Horace Tamblyn, the old tracker, settled for a handshake, but his eyes said the same thing. As for my girls…well, let’s not go there, okay? This one scared them even more than it did me. It’s always hardest on those who wait.
The only person missing was the big Umthnn digger. Diamond Paws was gone who knew where, attending his mates in their secret underground homestead somewhere up in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. They had eggs incubating; he intended to stay there until they all hatched. He’d been considering some child rearing reforms, he’d said, but would not provide details.
Okay. I could relate. It looked like I’d be doing some child rearing of my own…if I came out of this alive. Leadership might suck, I realized, but playing the Lone Ranger without Tonto–and doing it in the middle of the big, bad city to boot–was not going to be any fun, either.