The Wizard and the Weaver, Chapter 15: A Bitch but Never a Dog

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B. J. beat us to the punch. Larry had decided to stay at Jack Hill’s place, monitoring his patient and keeping out of my possibly insane uncle’s way until we got things settled one way or another, but the big man had let himself into Larry’s home without asking. The doctor’s home, which had originally been the Trace Ranch headquarters. Mom and I exchanged a glance before meandering on in, both of us looking calm and casual.

If my mother was as wired inside as I was, though, she might as well have been dipped in Red Bull.

The six foot eight, 300 pound problem had appropriated the captain’s chair at the head of the long kitchen table. That had been my seat in recent years, even before the paramilitary assassination of Jennifer Trace by a hundred pound vamsnake in its dying but still ultra-venomous throes. Jen had been more than happy to stick with her old chair at the foot of the table, letting me lead the herd.

Not that I minded the big man stuffing himself into “my” chair. It had arms, for one thing; if he decided to go on the prod, it would take him a split second longer to draw a weapon from the small of his back than it would if he’d chosen a seat with nothing in the way.

These days, I was a big believer in the value of a split second.

It did not escape his notice that Mom and I positioned ourselves across from each other, about halfway down the table. Far enough away to prevent even this oversized black man from reaching either of us in a single lunge, far enough apart from each other that he couldn’t tackle both of us at the same time.

“Combat mode, sis?” He sneered, his sad eyes going deep and ugly, just like that. “Mommy gotta wipe her widdle boy’s butt, still?”

“What did you expect?” She replied quietly enough, but I noticed she’d placed her shoulder bag on the adjoining chair with the flap unsnapped. At a guess, Lou Jackson could draw the big Magnum and fire from that position in roughly one second. “To steal a line from Fox News, brother, you haven’t been sounding exactly fair and balanced lately.”

“What?” B. J. leaned back in his chair, placing his huge hands flat on the table top. “So you’re going to shoot me?”

I’d remained quiet long enough. “She might not, but I will if necessary.”

His massive had swung over my way, his gaze now derisive. Funny. Big Jude Hennessey had always had a pretty decent poker face, at least in my experience, but not this morning. His emotions were raw, right out there for the world to see–Mom and me being the world at the moment. I had the sudden image of a maniac juggling steel balls filled with nitroglycerin, just waiting to go off. “You would, Jackson. You definitely would. You would do that.”

Jackson. I was pretty sure my uncle had never before referred to me by my last name. Treemin, Tree, even Kid. But never Jackson. I sighed deeply, my last hope gone. I couldn’t think of anything brilliant to say to this man who’d saved my life when I was a delinquent teenager, set me on the right road, backed my play a dozen times in down and dirty combat situations. This was not the man I’d known. The vam venom affected some people this way in the early stages, we knew that, but somehow I was positive this was something even worse. My brain went blank; the next words left my mouth under their own power. “Lay it on me, B.J. What the hell is going on with you?”

“Aha!” He lifted one hand, pointing at me with his index finger. Except that I could feel the truth, the absolute fact that he’d rather be using his middle finger. “That is the wrong question! The right question, Oh Lord High and Mighty Up Yours Jackson, is how the hell did you manage it?”

Manage what, I thought, but kept quiet. Hennessey was gathering himself; he obviously had more to say. A whole lot more. So I just looked at him…and looked at him…and the dam broke. His voice dropped to a more conversational level, one eerily devoid of any emotion whatsoever.

“We had it all planned out, you know. From the beginning, you were the Anointed One, but we had it figured, how to crucify your magical black ass. The Golden Child, eh? It should have been me. I straightened you out, back there in Hartford. I got you and that slut out of Connecticut when things got too hot for her. It was me that got Rodeo Iron really up and running, me that should own it now–”

“Hey!” I broke in, indignant. “You left on your own, for that crazy woman in Idaho. Sold out, literally. And when you came back, I told you I’d be happy to turn the primary ownership of Rodeo Iron back to you, but you wouldn’t have it. It was your decision, not mine–”

“Can it, Jackson.” His voice dropped another half octave, into the Malevolent Zone, matching the vitriol dripping from his eyes. “I didn’t want your fricking charity. Now, Sam Trace, there was a man. If he’d still been around, things would be different today.”

Mom was sitting silent, taking all this in, but I had to refrain from shaking my head. Of course things would be different if Sam were still alive. But–“And if Jennifer hadn’t died?” I asked softly “You jealous of Jennifer, too, like you seem to be of me? Jealous of me with no cause whatsoever, and me not aware of it the least little bit for all these years!”

“Jealous.” His tone changed again, becoming almost reflective. “Yeah. That’s it. I’m jealous. Let’s see, there couldn’t possibly be any reason for me to feel that way, could there? Did you know I thought of stealing Willow and Aspen?”

That put a chill in my bones. “Steal them?”

“Sure. Every woman I ever had, turned on me sooner or later. You knew that, but did you care? Nah, not you. You just lah-de-dahed along with your big mixed race warrior bitch–she’s one ugly honker, by the say, wow, you like ’em ugly–on one hand and your prissy little white girl on the other. Would have served you right if I had stolen them, you know? Raised ’em right. And then Jennifer Trace kicks off, and I figure you’re about to get your comeuppance at last, and what happens? Turns out the widow Trace left everything to you. Rodeo Iron is bigger and better than ever, the company I built with my sales work, but your name is on the cover of the business magazines, not mine. So I reached out, you know? Did you know I reached out? Eh? Did you?”

A horrible premonition washed through me then, a knowing that what I was about to hear would change my world forever.

I was right.

“Her name is Mary.” His eyes went soft, talking about the woman. “Mary the Mute, some call her that because she doesn’t waste words, but let me tell you, she and I share a common language. We’ve been in touch for quite some time, Mr. High and Mighty Jackson. You dumbass workaholics shouldn’t have been in the office that Saturday, you know. That attack should have wiped out the widow Trace, that old cougar, wiped Trace out without a trace, and the tracker as well, along with leveling this building and the shop to the ground, all before anybody could react. You were all supposed to be in Missoula that day, or don’t you remember? The whole bunch of you were going to be gone. And yet you weren’t. You were right here–”

From the corner of my eye, I could see my mother turning white. Not literally, I suppose; she’s way too black for that. But that was my sense of it, as my sense of seeing my turncoat uncle as if through a sheet of flame could not be ignored. “You…you set up the Heartbite attack that killed Jennifer and Horace?”

“Yep.” The giant looked smug, proud of himself for his part in our troubles.

“And got Judi gutshot, Willow bowled over with a bullet, my shoulder shot to sh*t, Sissy wounded in a dozen places.”

“And yet you’re all alive. Disappointing, isn’t it.”

There was a roaring in my ears. For one long moment, I was looking at a dead man, and I was pretty sure Mom was having trouble keeping the Super Redhawk out of her hand as well.

“Let me go on,” B.J. continued as if lecturing a class of remedial students, “explain the rest of it. Mary knew about your forthcoming attack on Heartbite HQ before you even pulled out of the driveway. I made sure of that, planted an almighty powerful bug inside the Ford truck’s frame, one able to broadcast your precise location every step of the way…until suddenly it stopped broadcasting. We didn’t know why, but we figured it didn’t matter.” Hennessey smirked. “It didn’t matter because Heartbite knew you’d be coming, and there’s only one realistic approach to the main building in Michigan.”

More than one, I thought viciously, but stayed quiet.

“You didn’t have a chance, or so we all believed. All meaning me and Mary and, of course, her boss, Theodore Kraznick. You’d have to come straight at them, and Ted had enough advanced weaponry in place to guarantee you’d never even make it to the front door.”

Mom couldn’t take it. “You deliberately planned to murder my son in cold blood? Brother, you did that?”

“Half brother,” he sneered, “and I bet you never told the brat that, either. But I digress. They would have been deader’n doornails, all right, but a joker got thrown into the deck. A wild card. Mary tells me the stink of that wolf cub, the one they called Chilly before he ran away, somehow that little bastard screwed up everything.”

I gave him a level look. “By screwed up, I presume you mean the power shutdown. And yes, Chilly did that.”

“Yeah,” he said bitterly, “we get that.”

“Let me guess. All of Kraznick’s fancy weaponry depended on electronics for its targeting. Without power, his shooters were blinded.”

B.J. just stared at me. His sister, big gun or no big gun, might was well not have been in the room…until she cut to the chase, asking the one question that had to be asked.

“Why, Beej? What were you supposed to get out of it?”

He favored her with an evil grin, a truly frightening expression on a man that size. “Other than wiping out Golden Boy, here? And his whitey Wizard sidekick? And the big ugly warrior bitch?”

“Sissy is anything but ugly,” she responded, “but yeah. Other than that.”

The crazed man’s left eye started twitching, but he actually grinned. “I would have gotten everything.”

“Everything?” I cocked an eyebrow, a habit I belatedly realized I’d picked up from B.J. himself.

“Everything. Rodeo Iron, lock, stock, and barrel. It wouldn’t have mattered if you had a will that said otherwise; Ted had plenty of lawyers who could challenge that. I’d have gotten Carolyn West, too, once Hill and that gay bastard were dead. And your kids, if they were still alive, though I didn’t much care if they were or not. And, of course, Mary herself.”

“Herself?” That image was just flat-out…bizarre. Chilly hadn’t said a whole lot about Mary the Mute, but he’d said enough. That my uncle could consider acquiring the woman a plus…”You haven’t met her face to face, have you?”

His grin got even wider. “Skype! Face time! Close enough!”

And just like that, we all quit talking. B.J. stared at us and we stared at him. This went on for what felt like a long time–and then suddenly he moved, rising from his chair. Mom and I reacted instantly, her Charlie gun coming out of her handbag, my .45 ACP Kimber leaping from the shoulder holster into my hand.

Big Jude Hennessey, the man who’d betrayed his blood family and most of those who thought of him as friends, laughed aloud. “I’m impressed, Treemin! No small-of-the-back .22 today, eh? Big ol’ bang-bang shooter! But guess what? You’re not going to shoot me.”

“And why not?” For the life of me, I couldn’t think of a single reason why I shouldn’t pull the trigger. The checkered grips dug into my palm and fingers, begging me to do it.

“Because,” he explained patiently, “I set up a dead man’s switch. If I don’t call Mary by noon, she’ll know I’m done for, and she’ll email blast every Congress critter and every news outlet with a few hundred of the more gory details. You know, how the squeaky clean sole owner of Rodeo Iron, black businessman success story, has two women in his bed with two little girls living in the same house. How he believes in aliens and werewolves and wizards and vampires. How he’s murdered people and dumped them in the Deer Lodge landfill. And oh so much more! So go ahead, kid. Pop that cap! I dare ya!”

I was tempted to call his bluff…except I was pretty sure he wasn’t bluffing. Chilly had painted Mary the Mute as one cold, steelhearted woman. We’d missed her somehow during our Michigan strike, obviously, but I had no doubt she’d be willing to take her lumps if we offed the big man. She’d adored Kraznick, truly believed in the vamleopard, loved him as a boss. She might even be suicidal, or close enough to it to tip the scales if we killed my uncle, and she was certainly homicidal. Our young werewolf had assured me she was born that way.

Besides, avunculicide was truly an ugly word, even though it seemed that in B.J.’s case it would be half-avunculicide.

I flicked a glance toward my mother. She nodded almost imperceptibly. Your call, Tree.

Looking back at the traitor, the mole we’d harbored for so many years, I laid it out. “You will leave the premises immediately and never come back.”

“Of course.” He looked condescending now. “I know where I’m not wanted.”

“If you ever come back, either here to headquarters or to any of our franchises, all bets are off. You’ll be under sentence of death, and let the chips fall where they may.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

“Any last words before you bug out?”

“Just…here.” He picked up a briefcase from the floor. I hadn’t noticed it, but if he figured to pull out a weapon, either Mom or I would get him for sure. But no. “This is a Quit Claim Deed for my place. Pay me whatever you think it’s worth.”

Strangely enough in this circus of horrors, that was actually a good point. His small acreage, surrounded by Rodeo Iron holdings, could not be allowed to continue in his name. “On the open market,” I said, “it would run between two hundred thousand and two-fifty. But it would make sense, if anyone else owned it, to pay a premium to acquire it. So say three hundred and fifty thousand.”

“Fair enough.” His voice changed once again, almost to the B.J. of old, just taking care of business. “I’ll email you with instructions, where to wire the money. Oh, one other thing. I left the M60 machine gun in the house. Miles to go before I sleep, it takes up too much space, and I wouldn’t want law enforcement to, you know, accidentally find it in my possession.”

With that, he walked past me and out of the door, ignoring the pistols that tracked him all the way. Moments later, his antique Hudson pulled away, towing a U-Haul trailer.

A thousand questions assaulted my mind, clashing with thoughts of a thousand things that needed doing, but all of that would have to wait. I started shaking so badly that I dropped the .45. Fortunately, it didn’t go off. I sat there, quivering, staring at the weapon.

“Me too,” my mother said softly, but I noticed she wasn’t shaking one little bit, nor did she drop her weapon. Instead, she let the hammer down easy and slipped it back into the handbag, a thoughtful look on her face.

“I don’t know which is worse,” I admitted, my voice shaking almost as hard as the rest of my body, “B.J.’s betrayal or the fact that we nearly gunned him down in cold blood like any other enemy.”

“Oh, that’s an easy one.” She leaned across the table, patting my hand. “His betrayal is far worse. And we may have to plant him yet.”

Then she dropped her bomb. “How would you like to flip that acreage of his, house and all?”

“Wait, what?” I couldn’t think, but there was one thing. I got up, unsteady on my feet, and headed for the sat phone on the wall. “Jordan? Yeah. B.J. has clearance to leave the property, but if any of us ever see him again, shoot on sight. What? No, of course I didn’t mean in front of a hundred witnesses, fool! You have a very, very strange sense of humor. Yeah. Thanks.”

Okay, maybe two things. “Sissy? Yeah, you can stand down now, though I’m pretty sure when you hear what he had to say, you’re going to end up wishing you’d gotten to use that RPG. Do me a favor, will you? See if we can set up an Inner Circle meeting for eleven o’clock, maybe at Jack’s place. I’d like him there, and that way Doc could wheel that hospital bed out to the kitchen; he wouldn’t have to trek over here. Yeah, everybody except B.J.; he’s on the enemy list now. No, I’ll explain then. Thanks.”

“Now,” I hung the sat phone back on the wall, “you were saying?”

“Sell me B.J.’s place. If you think it’s a good idea.”

“Mom, if you want it, it’s yours, but–what about Sim?” The Idaho rancher who’d been her employer since I was knee high to a grasshopper and most likely her lover for the same amount of time…he might not be happy–

“Sim is selling out.”

“He what?”

“He turns seventy next month, Tree. He put the ranch up for sale more than a year ago. Looks like he got it sold; the closing is next week. If I moved over here, he’d be coming with.”

“He’d follow you?” Somehow, I found this more than a bit surprising, though I couldn’t have said why.

“We’re a package deal, son. We’ve been married for the past three years.”

I thought about that, forcing myself to concentrate, to shove the B.J. betrayal issues to the back of my mind for just a few minutes. It wasn’t easy, but…”How about a lifetime lease instead? Set it up so that I retain ownership, but you and Sim treat it entirely as your own for as long as either of you is alive?”

“See?” She smiled like the sun coming out after an eclipse. “That’s why they pay you the big bucks.”

“As B.J. so kindly pointed out,” I said drily.

“Ah. About that. There’s going to be a void in your Sales Department, right?”

“Yeah. A big one. Faithful or treacherous, nobody could sell iron like B.J. Hennessey.”

She arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow at that. I noticed for the first time that she wasn’t precisely young any more, either. She was what, in her fifties? And was that a gray hair? Post menopausal! “I’m willing to lay odds, young man, that his elder half sister, the esteemed Louella Jackson-Bowles, can put Traitor Hennessey’s sales records to absolute shame.”

“Bold words, madame.” Despite myself, I felt a grin spreading over my face. “Bold words indeed.”

“Hey, quoting the eminent Muhammad Ali, if you can do what you say, it ain’t bragging.”

==============================================================

“Soup’s on,” Wayne Bruce announced cheerfully. Not that we could have missed it, what with the bunch of us already having been parked at the table for an hour. It had taken that long to bring everybody up to speed on B.J.’s staggering betrayal.

Several of us broke for bathroom breaks and a bit of hand washing, but before long we were chowing down en masse, all fifteen of us focusing on food and drink for a few minutes before getting back to the task at hand. The staggering task at hand. Jack Hill, although propped up in his hospital bed at a forty-five degree angle rather than seated at the table, appeared to be enjoying his meal immensely. Doc Menning, chewing quietly and methodically, his face giving away nothing, had told the Wizard he could eat anything he could hold down. “If my surgical repair of such a tiny slit in the stomach lining won’t hold up against a plateful of pot roast, mashed potatoes, and carrots,” he’d explained, “I deserve to be run out of town on a rail.”

Of course, we were already about as far out of town as you could get without trekking into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but he got his point across.

Willow and Aspen, ages eight and six respectively, were present as well. It was little Aspen’s first Inner Circle meeting, but Rodeo Iron kids grew up fast these days. Besides, nobody was any more stubborn than that girl. If she didn’t have enough solid information to understand why her beloved great-uncle B.J. had become a danger to her, she might very well decide to run her mouth at the wrong place and time. She proved the wisdom of including her in the meeting when she announced suddenly, “I am thoroughly pissed at B.J.!”

Her mother nodded in solemn agreement. “We all are, honey. But remember, the p-word is not to be used in polite company.”

How Judi kept her composure, I had no clue. The rest of us were about to turn purple, trying to keep from laughing. This, I decided, was a good thing; there hadn’t been much humor in Jack’s house since my Uncle Benedict Arnold lowered the boom.

Carolyn West, I noticed, seemed to be having trouble controlling her Mommy impulse. Her eyes kept darting sideways to check on her Master, but she knew better than anybody that if there was one man on the planet who didn’t need mothering, it was Jack Hill.

We’d all had time to settle down a bit by the time the plates were cleared and after dinner mugs of Kona coffee were steaming in front of us. In front of all of us but the youngsters, that is. They had root beer floats, guaranteed to keep them occupied for a while.

“Folks,” I said finally, loosening my belt a couple of notches and sighing in relaxed contentment for the first time in a while, “we’re all up to date on the threat, so let’s do this. Jordan, do you mind taking Aspen and Willow with you, back to the citadel?”

“Not at all,” the former Marine smiled. “My son will be delighted to have their company. Might even pry himself away from his computer. Bring your floats, kiddos; let’s make like a banana and split.”

“Jordan,” Willow replied in a voice full of reprimand, “you’ve used that old saying to death.”

“How do you know it’s old? You’re not all that old yourself!”

“I’m eight! Um, and a half!”

Once the children were out of hearing range, I addressed the two former assassins. “Soren, what do you think of you and Gilligan running a check on B.J.’s house before we walk in there? As over the line as my uncle was, he might have left something behind, a clue, some incriminating stuff we could use to our benefit, or your know–”

“A booby trap or two,” Gilligan “Beets” Robertson observed.

“Or three, Soren “Seed” Kirk added. “Come on partner. Let’s roll.”

Now we were down to our true Inner Circle and no one else. Except for my mother, and that was about to change. “Mom, we’ll all be more than willing to bring you up to speed, here and now, on anything and everything you don’t know yet about our operation.”

She arched that eyebrow again. “You’ve been keeping secrets from your dear old mother?”

“Tons,” I admitted. “But if you’re going to be living smack dab in the middle of the property, with all the benefits and dangers attached thereto, that has to change. Today, for that matter; there’s too much at stake to play it any other way, and if we can’t trust you, we might as well pack it in, eh?”

“Nice save, son. Hit me.” She twinkled at me.

“All righty then. We’re friends with an alien whose species has been on Earth, mostly living underground and staying out of sight of humans until Diamond Paws decided to contact us. We have a sizeable cave on the property, called Wolf Cave, along with an extensive network of tunnels connecting the cave, this house of Jack’s, our house across the driveway, the welding shop, and Larry’s house–what use to be Jennifer’s. Jack and I know people in Missoula who know people who know people and can get us almost any information we need on anybody in the world who hasn’t gone totally black. We’ve shot, killed, and disposed of mutant wolves–that goes way back, actually–and crazed mercenaries who killed Sam Trace, back before our eight year war with the Heartbite clan. Jack is a real life Wizard, Willow and Sissy are shapeshifting geniuses, and Willow can cast spells to beat any witch you ever read about. These two youngsters to your right, automatically inducted into our Inner Circle because of what we all went through in Michigan, are both real life werewolves. Jennifer Trace and Horace Tamblyn were actually killed by a vamsnake–that’s a person who could shapeshift into rattlesnake form, but who was also a real life vampire at the same time. The number one guy we just took out in Michigan, when Jack got shot, was a vamleopard with a venomous, barbed tail and also a slumlord billionaire. And–”

Louella Jackson-Bowles held up a hand. “Whoa, son!”

I stopped. What the heck, I was out of breath anyway. Mom was looking at me, and for that matter at the rest of us as well, as if she’d never seen any of us before.

“There’s more, right?” She asked carefully.

“Some,” I admitted, thinking, Jack fought in the Civil War and I’m pretty sure I’m showing signs of rebounding from injuries faster than a normal human would, so we’re both maybe kind of quasi-immortal. “TMI?”

She laughed, a short, sharp sound. “Too much information? I don’t know, Treemin. I suppose I can get my head around all of it, sooner or later. My husband might be another matter, though.”

“Yeah.” I’d expected nothing less; I couldn’t expect a lifetime Idaho rancher to walk into the middle of a mess like ours and take it at face value, now could I? But the idea of Mom taking over the top sales job for the company had felt so comforting….

She was shaking her head. “I’m not saying he won’t be able to handle it. Frankly, if I told Sim the buffalo were coming back in their millions tomorrow, he’d start sharpening his butchering knives by this evening. It’s more going to depend on whether or not he’ll think plunking the two of us down in the middle of a Twilight Zone episode for our retirement…well, he might think that’s too much, or he might go for it. Believe me, there’s more to Sim Bowles than meets the eye.”

“There’d have to be Mom. He caught you.” I winced inwardly, realizing how corny that sounded.

“More like I caught him. You know, using my feminine wiles and all.”

Whew! She was letting me off the hook. “And your cooking. Don’t forget your cooking.”

“Enough, Tree. Let’s not get carried away. Tell you what; if your men declare the house safe to stay in for a while, I’ll do that while I wrap my head around the basics of what you’ve just told me. Then I’ll head back to Rexburg, seduce my husband, and pillow-talk him about all this until his eyes bug out of their sockets. I should have an answer for you within a week–but I do know one thing. Sim couldn’t be left out of your Inner Circle secret sessions. And he does know how to shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

“Works for me. Carolyn, is that fresh pot of coffee done brewing? Confessing to one’s mother is scary; I need me some more caffeine fortification.”

“I’m the Mother Confessor now, am I?”

I left that one alone. “Okay. Let’s get down to a few brass tacks regarding B.J.”

Judi raised her hand like a kid in school. “One thought first, Tree?”

“Go.”

“Am I the only one who’s getting slapped upside the head with the obvious spiritual aspect of all this?”

“What do you mean, honey?”

“Well, B.J. helped Heartbite plan to kill you all in one swell foop, you and Jack and Sissy. And he would have succeeded, right? I mean, from what your uncle told you, Kraznick must have had some weapons that you guys never spotted, hidden stuff, either remote controlled or fully automated, but definitely more than enough to shred the three of you into little bloody bits of Rodeo Iron confetti. And the ambush would have one hundred percent succeeded if you hadn’t hooked up with Chilly and Jewel before you got there, because Chilly was the one who knew how to power down the whole place. Obviously, that lack of power either blinded the weapons or temporarily disabled them entirely, and Jack was able to start throwing Purple Fire at will

“But,” she scanned her gaze around the table, taking us all in, including Jack on his hospital bed, “how miraculous was it that you and the kids found each other just in time to save all of you? In my book, that’s your basic Higher Power in action, right there!”

That had never occurred to me. Strange, because it should have, but it hadn’t. Jack, though, had a smile on his face. “I was waiting for somebody to mention that,” he said. “But I’m betting several of us had it figured out. We were just too busy to talk about it.”

Definitely. That must be it. Too busy.

At any rate, if we hadn’t thought of it before, we’d be thinking about it now. Talking about it, too, as time allowed.

“Back to the mundane nuts and bolts?” I asked. Nobody objected, so I went on. “Obviously, we can’t just let B.J. run around the country without any, um, supervision. At the very least, we need to track his movements as best we can. To that end, I need to head down to Missoula right now, check in with our contacts, let them know what we need. Jack, you’re not ready for that run.” The old Protector gave me a dirty look at that, but I plowed on ahead as if I hadn’t seen it. “Sissy and Judi, neither one of you is safe in that town, and besides, I need you here so Sissy can get back into her Security Chief role and Judi can start going through the books, making sure Uncle Anus wasn’t skimming profits while he was planning our murders. That leaves you, Mom. I know we just ate, but could you stand a bit of the best Chinese food you ever ate, come supper time?”

She nodded assent. “Why not? If nothing else, it’ll give Seed and Beets time to go through B.J.’s former house without feeling pressured.”

“That,” I agreed, “and since it looks like we’re still on a war footing, nobody leaves the premises alone. Not ever.” Like I had to tell a former cop. Lou Jackson might not have tackled were critters yet, but she’d certainly encountered plenty of weird critters during her three years with the Hartford PD. Every cop understands the value of working with a partner.

We gassed up the Pontiac, drawing fuel from the underground five thousand gallon shop tank, and were headed down the highway by one-thirty. Mom would have to hang out in the restaurant while I slipped back through the men’s room secret doorway to chat with Mr. Gray, but she wouldn’t mind; the food really was outstanding. I told her a few more things along the way, including the tale of the attempt by heavily armed but inept bounty hunters to take Jack and me out below Potomac, but my mind was on the instructions I wanted to pass on to our hacker contacts. I’d gotten past my initial shock, somewhat come to terms with my uncle’s betrayal, and I didn’t doubt his jealousy-powered drive for revenge was as real as the fires of Hades could be. But there was something else, something he hadn’t told us, something I couldn’t put my finger on, and it was driving me crazy.

Then, just as we pulled into East Missoula, it hit me. By all accounts, Mary the mute was a powerfully unattractive female. From day one, he’d never fallen for an ugly female. Revenge, jealousy, even hatred…no. Impossible. He’d gleefully jump into bed with a bitch, but never a dog. Which meant he’d lied about that part…and if he’d lied about one thing, what else might false about his story?

The possibilities were endless and paralyzing; I almost missed the turnoff to the frontage road that led to the Half Castle.