The Wizard and the Weaver, Chapter 34: Ripped a Tendon

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We cleared the area as quickly as we could without getting careless, crossing the line into New Mexico at 12:03 a.m. Will should be pulling into Phoenix about now, followed by his father; the rental Impala would be dropped off before the agency opened up for business. The Pontiac was running as strongly as ever, its beefed-up suspension utterly unconcerned by a load consisting of four full sized humans in the cabin and an arsenal worthy of Seal Team Six in the trunk.

Jack rode shotgun, but there was little need for hyper-awareness now that Arizona was behind us. He tipped his hat down over his eyes and started snoring before we reached Gallup. In the back seat, Mom and Sim settled more deeply into opposite corners and did likewise, though without the snoring. I was left to pilot the Grand Prix eastward on I-40, then northward on I-25, which would point us up through Colorado toward home. Our timing was good, the cruise control was set dead on the speed limit, and I finally had time to relax a little and think.

Had we made the right plan? It was almighty hard, leaving something this big to other people.

Night rolled on, transformed itself into a rosy dawn, and still my passengers slept. Bunch of old coots, need their beauty sleep, right? It took hours of daylight to bring them all back awake, Sim Bowles the last of the bunch. He only stirred when we hit an exit in Colorado Springs that promised high octane fuel on one side of the street and an iHop on the other.

The old rancher had barely rubbed the sleep from his eyes when his burner phone rang twice. That was it. The signal from Frank Harding. Rodeo Iron Show Low was set up and ready to put on a show.

Sim had Navajo County Deputy Sheriff Jess Harnling on speed dial. The lawman answered on the second ring. “Jess? Sim Bowles. Treemin decided we all needed to get back home and take care of business there, but I just got a call from Frank Harding. He remembered me saying something about meeting with you in town yesterday, but he didn’t really feel like he knew you all that well himself, so he asked me to fill you in. Yeah. No. He had a reporter show up there, wanted to do an interview about the business, hopefully not a hit piece about the killings…right. Yeah, but here’s the thing; he’s asking if you’d take a run out to his place. Said he found something you’re gonna want to see. No, he wouldn’t tell me what it was, but Jess? He sounded nervous as Hell. You will? Awesome; I owe you a steak dinner, next time I’m down that way.”

I’d gotten out to stick my debit card in the machine and the hose in the gas tank–this was one time we did want a paper trail showing our whereabouts, just in case–but I’d rolled the driver’s window down so I could hear Sim’s side of the conversation. “He’s going for it?” Jack asked.

“No reason he shouldn’t. Woke him up, but the guy wakes up fast. You’d think he’d pulled a few calves in the middle of deep winter nights or something. I got the impression he’d be at Frank’s in an hour or less.”

“Good news, boys.” Mom’s voice was cheerful enough but a little strained. “Now can we hurry up a bit and get over to the restaurant? I need to see a woman about a cat.”

“A woman about a cat?” Jack sounded amused.

“Hey, if you gentlemen can say you need to go see a man about a dog when you mean you need to pee, I figure a girl like me can say she needs to see a woman about a cat.”

None of us had anything to add to that.

We made small talk over brunch, nothing heavy. The eggs I ordered over hard came out sunny side up and Jack’s corned beef hash was scorched around the edges, but with Show Low on our minds, neither of us bothered to complain. Waiting was always the hard part and there was nothing to do but wait.

And wait. And wait. Mom and Sim stayed in the back seat. Jack took the wheel. I needed sleep, and I had the easiest time of it for the rest of the day, not counting Mom declaring I snored louder than Jack Hill did. When I’d come back to life enough to know where I was, the sun was low in the sky. Jack glanced my way. “Thirty minutes to Sheridan, Tree. No rest stop before that, so if you gotta go, tie a knot in it and hang on.”

“Hunh. You’re the old fart who’s traced the western highways and byways with pee dots, old man.” Not that I couldn’t use a restroom, but give him the satisfaction? Not a chance.

My phone rang. I fished it out, glanced at the caller ID. “Frank, right on schedule.” This call, if the plan had gone well, did not require a burner phone. We’d be careful what we said and how we said it anyway, of course. “Hello.”

“Tree?” Frank’s voice, all right. “You’re not going to believe this.”

“Oh?” Both of us were performing now, acting for the snoopers just in case there were any.

“Really. Let’s see, where to start…first thing this morning, I got a call from Asa Jigong. He’s a reporter, not a regular on local TV here, but does some investigative reporting and sometimes gets a few minutes on camera. Anyway, he wanted to come on out to Rodeo Iron, film the shop and the houses. Promised not to focus on the shootings too much. Mostly on the business.”

“Yeah? Sounds like a good deal…if he could be trusted.” We all trusted the media about as far as Donald Trump could throw it.

“Yeah, well, he’s supposed to be one of the better ones that way. And he was. We were doing the tour, you know, and–okay, long story short, we were walking around through our house, nothing to brag about, but Asa thought it would add a human element, and we happened to be in my bedroom–camera guy and all, which was a tight fit and then some–when I said something about everything we were doing being on the up and up. No dust swept under the rug. And Asa points down at the throw rug by the bed, and he says, not even under that rug? And I says, nope, not even under this one, and I pick up the edge of the rug, and guess what?”

“No clue, Frank. Clue me in.”

“Well, I pulled that rug up, and damned if there wasn’t a trap door under there. And I lift that up, thinking maybe it’s for the plumbing like in a lot of really old houses, but no. There’s a space underneath the house, but no pipes, and it’s only maybe six feet on a side. Concrete floor, wood walls. So I get a hunch, okay? You know how we’ve all been trying to figure out why people are shooting people out here, right?”

“Yeah. No kidding.”

“So my gut suddenly says this is maybe connected. But I don’t want the reporters all over it, so I wait until Asa and his camera guy are wandering around outside where we were attacked, excuse myself by saying I gotta go to the bathroom, and then I call the Sheriff’s office. Well, not Dispatch; I had Deputy Jess Harnling’s cell number, so I called him. Told him I had a hunch. He came out, I showed him the trap door hole, then I climbed down in there and guess what? There was a secret door in one wall, and behind that–hell, Tree, it’s a giant drug warehouse stash! Will and I’ve been sleeping on top of, I don’t know how much it’s worth on the street, the feds are all over this place all over again and I’m barred from my own house, but it’s gotta be millions and millions!”

I let the silence build for a couple of beats before responding. “Shit, Frank, I hope they don’t think you had anything to do with it…do they?”

“Ha! Never thought of that, cowboy. No, I think we’re good there. Deputy Harnling was here when I found it; he vouched for me to the feds. Steered ’em right, I’d say. Don’t know if I ever wanna sleep in that house again, though.”

“Sheesh. I sure wouldn’t. So where are you crashing tonight?”

“At the shop. They let Will and me take our beds and stuff out–after they combed through everything to make sure we weren’t, you know, holding or anything. There’s room enough in the office. Barely. But we’ll get by for now.”

The conversation went on for another five minutes before we signed off.

Jack hit the blinkers for the Sheridan exit before asking, “So, Frank and Will are good?”

“Sounds like. With the reporter there, never mind that Frank called Asa before Asa called Frank. With Jess backing up Frank’s startled discovery of the stash, at least he shouldn’t be under any suspicion. You notice he left you out of it, too, Sim. Guess the official version now is that Frank, not you, made that call to Harnling.”

“And,” Mom added from the back seat, “the big TV news scoop will tell the cartel goons there’s no point in trying to run the Hardings out of the area now. So our guys should be off the hit list.”

“Let’s hope,” I nodded. “And of course Deputy Harnling gets the credit for being the officer on the scene. We could end up having a friendly Sheriff in Navajo County next year. Bet the incumbent is chock full of mixed emotions right now.”

Sim chuckled. “If not now, he sure will be when Jess files his papers to run against him. One thing still worries me, though.”

“Just one?” Mom asked.

“One for the moment. The cartel boys having recruited so many local white guys down there to do their bidding. Just don’t seem quite right.”

Jack Hill took that one. “Equal opportunity employment. Enough drugs worth enough money, ain’t nobody worrying about much else. Too bad they don’t give outstanding civilians a percentage for turning in a stash like that. One percent would have set ol’ Frank up pretty fine. Although I don’t suppose being the new Sheriff’s BFF would be a bad thing, either. Sheriff Meeker must be having a fit right about now, his deputy coming across a find like that before he even heard about it.”

If he hadn’t heard about it.”

“You’re thinking ol’ Jules Meeker mighta been in on it? A wee bit corrupt? Treemin Jackson, I do declare, your lack of faith in the upstanding character in our elected public officials is plumb discouraging sometimes.”

There were a couple of snorts from the back seat at that.

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We dropped everybody else off and made it to our own front door just in time for breakfast. Not that I got to sit down and eat right away; there was a two-girl hurricane that swarmed all over me first. Not so much a “Daddy’s home” thing. More, “Come see what we did while you were gone!” Judi didn’t even fight her daughters to get close enough to hug up on me, just threw me a salute, twinkled those big blue eyes my way, and told Willow and Aspen to mind their manners.

Which they did, sort of, long enough for me to get settled in my kitchen chair. With the little ones chattering full time at me, Judi and Sissy wrapped their arms around each other and pretended to ignore me. At least, I thought they were pretending.

The girls had already eaten, so while we were plowing through a feast fit for returning warriors–buckwheat pancakes, thick sliced bacon, scrambled eggs, and a choice between real maple syrup and raspberry syrup–our over achieving rug rats decided to provide the floor show. During our absence, Willow had learned a new spell; she could make steel objects perform tricks. Neither Sissy nor I paid much attention to the specifics of Willow’s incantation, but the tricks were something else. Twelve inch spikes, eight or ten of them, waltzed into the room and jigged around the floor, bending and swaying like they were made of rubber, not metal. Then they marched like little galvanized soldiers and, when Judi pointed out that it was Aspen’s turn to entertain us, the six year old showed off her newfound mastery of the classic cartwheel.

That was as impressive in its way as the dancing spikes; for a girl her age to flawlessly cartwheel her way through the kitchen and the living room without hitting any furniture, a human, or even a cat…no small accomplishment. Not that the cats didn’t make themselves scarce during the performance; only our precious Ruby, nine years old and a senior feline diplomat these days, hung around to watch.

By the time we got our after breakfast coffee, blue Kona no less, the kids were done with us and headed out the door to saddle up. Seed and Beets, it turned out, had donated a couple of gentle pinto ponies to the cause, complete with tack.

Once they were out the door and out of earshot, the silence was deafening. Wide eyed, I stared at my wife. “What, may I ask, was that?”

Her reply dripped innocence. “What was what?”

Sissy chuckled. “You have to admit, Jude, life certainly did go on here while we were down in Arizona. Cartwheels, animated nails, and the introduction of equine entertainment…that’s quite a list.”

“Tree, pull your chair back a little.” The petite blonde’s tone brooked no argument. I did as told, whereupon she bounced up from her own chair, rounded the corner, and promptly plopped herself in my lap. “Okay, now you’re home.” She snuggled herself in tighter, fitting her curves to me, eliminating any possible little air pocket of space between us. “I gotta tell you something, buster. Here you guys were, having a fine old time down south, just ducking a few bullets and chasing bad guys and taking on what turned out to be cartel goons while setting up a major drug confiscation. Piece of cake, I’m telling you. You want to see tough? Try rassling those two alone for a while, keeping Aspen’s flying feet from my glass figurine collection, ducking flying galvanized iron spikes when Willow’s spell went wrong, explaining to both of them that they weren’t allowed to just take off into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on horseback without any adult security escort. You two had the easy part, I tell ya! The easy part!”

Sissy’s eyes met mine. She nodded imperceptibly. “And don’t we know it,” I said softly to the 110 pounds of blonde in my lap. “Don’t we know it.”

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We held our ownership meeting three days later, on a Sunday morning as usual. Everything seemed comfortable and normal, complete with brunch goodies and pots of coffee, calm and collected. It promised to be a mighty fine day.

Until it didn’t.

Security Chief Jordan Phreeb let us all get our bellies stuffed and the digestion process started before he dropped the curdle into the milk. I will give him that. He called ahead, too; no crashing the meeting of all the bosses for the former Marine.

“Of course,” I told him on the phone. “Come on over. There still one entire blueberry pie we haven’t tackled yet.”

“Yum,” he replied, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.

When he got to the ranch house–which didn’t take long, as he’d been working in the Citadel computer center with his son when he called–he passed on the pie but gratefully accepted a mug of coffee.

“Can’t believe I haven’t slowed down enough today to get my caffeine fix,” he muttered. We waited more or less patiently.

We didn’t have to wait long. “Personnel problem,” he explained. “Came up on Friday afternoon in the break room. I happened to be working in the Security Center and saw things heating up on the break room monitor. Managed to get there in time to stop the argument before it came to blows. It was close, though, and the more I thought it over this weekend, the more I realized this might end up escalating to something above my pay grade. You know John Corcoran, Tree? Big guy. Bearded. In his fifties. Best welder we’ve got, too.”

“Yeah.” Of course I knew him. I’d helped interview him before he was hired. “What about him?”

“I’ll get to that. Two of the newer hires are involved here, too. Sammy Barnes and Jay Jay Holmes. Both smaller men, wiry, early thirties. Not in Corcoran’s class when it comes to running a bead, but not bad, either.”

“Okay. No, can’t say I know them personally. Been kind of busy lately.”

“Not pointing fingers, boss. Just setting the scene.” Jordan sighed, stared at his mug for a moment. Picked it up. Threw back a swallow that drained half of the contents. “Okay, it’s all about politics. Well…religion and politics, but the religion part had been pretty much been settled, at least from what I can tell. Holmes and Barnes are solid Christians, devout churchgoers, and a wee bit on the judgmental side when it comes to the beliefs of others. Big John is a whole different ball of wax. I’m pretty sure the man has some deep spiritual connection, but he doesn’t talk about it.

“Now, politics is a whole ‘nother ball of was. Turns out the Friday blowup started with John showing up to work wearing a Trump 2016 / Make America Great Again tee shirt. Sammy and Jay Jay made a couple of snide comments even before the shift started, it turns out, but they all made it through most of the day without anything escalating very far. According to the security audio from the break room, the afternoon break went to hell when both of the Little Man Syndrome guys started pecking at John. Standard anti-Trump sound bite B.S., everybody else minding their own business and John just quietly sitting there, taking it, until Jay Jay comes out with a statement about Trump being anti-women. At that point, I guess Corcoran had simply had enough; he eyeballs Holmes, tells him that he and his sidekick are just steamed because Trump has a fine looking wife and those two could have picked their women up at redneck garage sales.”

Jack spewed his coffee all over the table. We were all laughing like hyenas. When things got slightly under control, I wiped my eyes and said, “He didn’t!”

“Oh, he surely did.”

“Okay. I’d say it’s a miracle you got there before Big John stomped ’em both, but you figure Monday morning may not be pretty, right?”

“It might not,” Phreeb admitted. He kept a straight face but his eyes were twinkling.

“And you’d appreciate being able to pass the buck on up to my sorry black ass, right?”

“I will confess, it would help me sleep better tonight.”

“Fair enough. Tell you what. I’m taking Judi and Sissy and the girls down to Missoula this afternoon for dinner and a movie. While I’m doing that, you ask your genius offspring to run deeper background checks on all three men. As deep as he can get. I’m looking for personality quirks, dirt swept under the rug, everything. Have all that material shoved through the mail slot at our house by the time we get back this evening. Then, tomorrow morning, you have the foreman announce to the crew that every man jack welder gets some time off at ten a.m. to assemble in the big conference room for an address from the owner. I’ll waltz in and take it from there.”

“Sounds good,” Jordan nodded. Then he got up and left. Place to go, Philip Phreeb to see.

Jack Hill had a funny look on his face. “You’re up to something, Jackson. And I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling it involves me. Now, why am I feeling that?”

“What,” I grinned, “the Weaver put one over on the Wizard? Nah, not me!”

“Of course not. Never happen. Total impossibility. What’s on your mind, Tree?”

“The thought’s not fully formed yet. Tell you what; how be you and Carolyn and Wayne host us for breakfast tomorrow. I’ll have been through the background material by then and hopefully have a plan.”

“Never a straight answer,” the ancient grumbled. “You’re turning into a freaking politician.”

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Ten a.m., Monday. I was rested and ready. Kung Fu Panda 3 had been a big hit with both Willow and Aspen, but I had a hunch we adults had enjoyed it at least as much. We’d eaten what seemed like a wheelbarrow load of seriously excellent Chinese food at the Half Castle, my slipaway meeting in the hidden back room taking no more than ten minutes away from our family night out.

Jack Hill, on the other hand, had taken some convincing. He’d acquiesced in the end, though, and looked at peace with himself for the moment. Which might or might not mean anything; even I couldn’t read the Wizard when he decided he didn’t want to be read.

The welders, all forty-eight of them, were assembled and waiting. A bit antsy, some of them. The boss didn’t call a whole-crew meeting very often…come to think of it, this was only the third such in all my time as the owner of Rodeo Iron. All righty then. Time to get with it. I stepped to the podium and started speaking.

“Going to start with a few questions,” I began without preamble. “Number one, gentlemen, what is the key premise of the First Amendment?”

Long pause. No raised hands. None of them had my amount of time in front of a microphone, however, and few if any were inured to silence. I just let the question lie there like a dog turd on the rug and waited. And waited.

Finally, a voice from the back. “Free speech.”

“Excellent, Michael.” Cheat sheets and an eidetic memory, what an unbeatable combination. Michael Gray would go home tonight and tell his girlfriend, Gee honey, the boss knew who I was. He called me by name! I didn’t know all the tricks of effective leadership yet, but neither was I a babe in the woods. “Second question: Where does the right to free speech end?”

No answer this time, nor did I expect one, so the pause wasn’t as long. “I’ll tell you, gentlemen. Your right of free speech ends right at the point where your fist reaches my nose.” Some were nodding at that but some looked confused. “That is, every one of us has a right to express his opinion. That’s guaranteed by the United States Constitution. But there is a limit on the method of speech. For example, each of has the right to let a neighbor know his dog is pooping on the wrong lawn. On the other hand, none of has the right to tell that same neighbor to either control his mutt or we’re going to shoot both the neighbor and the dog.”

I hesitated just long enough to let that sink in. Four years ago, Jay Jay Holmes had gone to jail overnight and later received probation from a judge for making exactly that threat. “That’s a pretty simple example. Do you all understand it?” Jay Jay looked a bit shaken, which was pretty much the point. The rest of the room were giving me looks that suggested I’d just insulted their intelligence.

“Now, that said, suppose I abuse my right of free speech by saying something I know damn well is going to piss off somebody. What are the rights of the guy I just pissed off?”

George Quick, center row front, spoke up. “Rights go out the window, Mr. Jackson. You deliberately poke a guy in his ego, he’s gonna poke back. Like kicking a coiled rattlesnake, you know, the rattler’s just naturally going to strike.”

“Bingo.” Thanks, George. I didn’t expect that bit of help, but thanks. “Now, gentlemen, I need to make something very, very clear. Last Friday, John Corcoran wore his Trump tee shirt to work, the same one he’s wearing today. Or maybe another one like it; I’m not accusing you of being short on laundry, John.”

Laughter. Not from Barnes or Holmes, but most of the others at least chuckled. John even smiled a little, just a quick upward mouth quirk. “Now, John wearing that shirt is his right. I could write up a dress code for work at Rodeo Iron, but trust me, folks, that ain’t happening. If you can run a bead right, stay out of drugs, and show up to work sober, I don’t give a bony rat’s ass what you wear in the shop. Although I might begin to wonder about a guy in a bikini, what with the sparks and all.”

More chuckles. All right. The Little Men were looking more than a bit stormy, but I didn’t have any sympathy for them. “Now here’s the thing. John is well within his First Amendment rights to wear whatever political shirt he wants when he comes to work. Sammy, Jay Jay, you two can wear a Cruz shirt or a Kasich shirt or God forbid a Hillary or Bernie shirt for all I care. Free speech in the printed form, have at it. And technically, you and John can argue politics all you want, which I assure you is not the case on any other job you’ve ever had or ever will have.

“However,” I pulled my focus back from the pair of instigators, let it spread back over the room as whole, “I don’t want to hear any name calling when you do it. Not ever again.”

It was more than Jay Jay could stand. He leaped to his feet, blurting out angrily, “Whadda you mean, name calling?”

I sighed openly, the picture of forbearance. “Jay Jay, have you read The Art of the Deal? Donald Trump’s website? Watched any of the YouTube videos of his rallies–not the media sound bites showing protesters, but the actual meetings from beginning to end? Do you know who Melissa Young is? How many women are in positions of power in The Trump Organization?”

“Trump’s a racist,” he declared, sullen and defiant. Sammy Barnes, on the other hand, was starting to look hopeful.

“You didn’t answer the questions, Jay Jay,” I replied softly, my voice the whisper of steel being withdrawn from a silken sheath. “In fact, you didn’t answer any one of them. Because you don’t know, do you? You’ve never studied the man. If I had to hazard a guess, you get your news from CNN or maybe MSNBC–and even they know who Melissa Young is.”

“Yeah? So?”

“So the little set-to you had with Big John last Friday. You and Sammy, but in the end mostly you, verbally attacked John just because he had chosen a candidate in this year’s Presidential election and chose to advertise that fact. Silently, mind you, just by wearing a shirt. You gave him crap and then amped things up with your ignorant remark about Trump’s take on women. You kicked the rattlesnake, and the rattler bit your out-of-bounds ass.”

“You can’t talk to me like that! I’m outa here! I’ll sue!”

The entire room, including me, laughed aloud when he said that. Most of our guys weren’t political at all; not all of them even bothered to vote. But they were astute enough to realize Jay Jay Holmes was bucking a stacked deck if he tried going up against Treemin Jackson in court. Being big and black and beautiful gave me a huge advantage and Rodeo Iron’s attorneys in Great Falls were known statewide as the nastiest sharks in the state.

Jay Jay did not like being laughed at, but in the midst of his apoplectic fit, he thought of something. I could see it in his eyes, in his stance. His wife was expecting their third child. It was nearly spring according to the calendar, but early spring in rural Montana is not the best time to find oneself unemployed with no chance of a favorable reference from his former employer. He was choking on his wrath, but he was managing to hold it in.

Barely.

Time to throw him a lifeline…if he’d take it. I let the laughter settle, then said, “Jay Jay, sit down. Please.” He did, hesitantly. “Tell you what.” I was taking a chance on Big John with this, silently willing him to lay back and let me do my thing. “How’d you like a sporting chance to insult everybody you want for the next thirty days?”

“Huh?”

“Well, see, you all know Jack Hill.” I gestured. Jack walked forward from the wings where he’d been waiting. “Now, Hill here is a seriously old-looking coot, wouldn’t you say?” Jack was playing his role to the hilt, subtly putting some feeble into his movement, eyes wandering vacantly. Truth be told, I thought he was over playing it a bit; the Wiz looked like he’d had a mini stroke at least.

“Jay Jay, do you figure you’re stout enough to, oh, say…beat an old man like this at arm wrestling?”

The young welder’s eyes rounded in shock. “You gotta be–no offense, but of course!”

His confidence was understandable. Hill only looked tough when he was actually in combat; the rest of the time he mostly managed to come off as a harmless senior citizen. Besides, Jack’s five-eleven height and 170 pounds (or less) was strung over a lean, lanky frame, whereas Barnes wrestled heavy steel every day and packed a set of arms–both forearms and biceps–that would have given Schwarzenegger pause.

Fortunately, arm wrestling is not only about purely muscular strength.

“Well then,” I said, “since you’re sure, I’ll make you a deal. We’ll set you and Jack up over there at that side table. You two arm wrestle. If you can beat this old coot, you get to insult John Corcoran about his support for Trump for one full month. But if he beats you, you get to keep your mouth shut and let ol’ John exercise his First Amendments rights the way they were intended by our nation’s Founders. Fair deal?”

Barnes lit up, that maliciously gleeful look some of the dimmer bulbs in the chandelier get when they believe they’ve got you by the cojones and are getting ready to twist. He shook his head, though, streetwise enough to play the game a little bit. “I don’t want to hurt you, Jack, but if you’re up for this, I guess I gotta do it.”

Yeah, right. He was practically drooling, he was so eager.

Hill just shrugged. “John, I hope you won’t get too mad at me when I get whupped here.”

Corcoran was struggling to keep a straight face, but only Hill and I noticed. “Just do your best, Mr. Hill. I’ll manage to take the abuse if it comes to that.”

Sissy wandered into the meeting in time to tell the contestants, “Go!” Said she wasn’t about to miss this one.

Jay Jay Barnes had won more than a few arm wrestling contests in bars, but all he knew was speed and power. Which he did have in spades, but it wasn’t enough. Jack looked calm, but I’d caught the slight twist of the wrist and forward hunch of the shoulder, felt the Wizard reach deep down through the floor and into the Earth beneath. He was anchored as firmly as a four foot eyebolt buried in bedrock; his arm didn’t yield a single centimeter.

To say his opponent was startled would have been a world class understatement. His muscled arm bulged, certainly enough to win a body building pose-off, yet the scrawny old man’s limb remained upright, unmoved. Waiting. The contest went on for many long seconds. One full minute. Two. Jay Jay’s look of glee had disappeared; his veins were bulging, his face turning purple with the effort. Sweat ran down his soot-marked cheeks.

Still Jack held. Firmly, fiercely focused, but calm…

…and then, judging the welder to be exhausted at the two minute and twenty-seven second mark, his arm shifted slightly…barely noticeable at first…and at two minutes and thirty-three seconds, the back of Jay Jay’s hand slammed down hard on the table.

Defeated.

“Son. Of. A. Bitch.” The young smartmouth was all respect, staring at the man who’d done him in. “Never woulda believed in a million years you coulda done that.”

“I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” Jack said mildly, but I barely heard him over the applause.

“Guess I gotta be nice to the Trump dude, huh?”

“That was the agreement,” Jack smiled.

I dismissed the crew. They shuffled on out, back to work. When they were all gone and Sissy had closed the door behind them, I said, “Thanks, Jack. I appreciate you showing some of your abilities you’d rather have kept secret.”

“I’m over that,” the Wizard grimaced, “but dammit, Tree, you owe me one. Now let’s get me over to Doc. I’m pretty sure I ripped a tendon.”