Karina insisted on getting us a ride back down to Manchester. We didn’t particularly care for the idea, but the options were limited. Bulwer Falls certainly didn’t have car rentals available, and hiring a cab to run all the way to the Northeast Kingdom to pick us up would have been expensive indeed.
Fortunately, one middle aged couple who’d attended the memorial service came from south of Manchester. Both husband and wife were happy to help out. I hated riding in the back seat of their aging Cadillac, but at least they weren’t talkers. They were thrifty, though; when I offered them $100 in cash in return for the lift, they took it without hesitation.
No change of expression, either. We had the impression nothing short of a bar of pure gold would have impressed them.
Thankfully, Alamo had a cool blue Toyota Rav 4 as well as a terminal in Helena, Montana, where we could drop off the rental when we were done with it. Not only that, but the SUV had the optional V-6 engine under the hood, a bit of a pleasant surprise. There was a lot of winter between us and home, making the four wheel drive a plus, and–as the thirty-something rental agent at the counter explained–the bigger engine got just one mile less per gallon than the four cylinder version.
Well, then. With sensible wheels and pointed toward home (sort of), we finally felt fully human again. We even felt it was safe to talk. For all we knew, Jellison’s Kia could have been bugged by the Snow Snuffers, but there was no way the criminal group’s reach extended all the way into a national rental car chain.
“Any road preference?” Judi asked, studying the atlas.
I shook my head. “No, just navigate us out of here. You know where we need to go.”
“Yassuh, boss.” And she did. My pistol packing lover–the five foot three, Caucasian version, not to be confused with the six foot mixed blood warrior woman lover who was holding the fort back in Montana–was a wizard with a road map. Our route took us along lengths of more than a dozen different highways and byways, not edging along the Great Lakes in order to grab I-90 and barrel on west, but working more toward the south. Eventually, with a good chunk of mileage and several states behind us, we caught a night’s sleep at a Motel 6 on a mattress harder than limestone, though slightly softer than granite.
After breakfast the next morning, easing on westward via I-64 through West Virginia, we were wide eyed and bushy tailed, ready for the bit of detective work we hoped the day would bring. We were running radio silent, having no wish to advertise our presence or intentions to any possible opponents, just in case. Just to kill time, Judi started the conversation.
“Do you think Jack Hill really, um, fought in the Civil War? Or is he maybe just…crazy?”
I was stunned. Speechless. There were only seven people in the world who knew of the old Protector’s extreme longevity. Jack’s household, including Wayne and Carolyn. My household, with Sissy–who’d been with Jack first–and Judi. And of course my humongous uncle B. J. Hennessey, who’d been the first to clue me in that Hill was more than he seemed. Judi was the most recent addition to the group holding that knowledge and, apparently, the only one who remained unconvinced.
So, how should I answer that question?
“Earth to Treemin!”
“Uh, sorry. You want the truth?”
“I asked, didn’t I?”
“All right, then. Honey, I don’t believe–”
“You don’t believe it, either! I knew it!”
“–excuse me. Talking here. As I started to say, I don’t merely believe he’s long-lived like he says; I know it. One thing you can count on, beloved; every story you’ve ever heard Jack tell is 100% accurate, unvarnished fact.”
She didn’t respond to that, remaining silent except to remind me that I needed to take the very first exit once we crossed into Kentucky, hook around under the freeway, and head south. In fact, we were well past Fallsburg before either one of us spoke again, and then it was me.
“You’re having trouble buying it.”
She sighed. “I guess it doesn’t matter one way or the other what I believe.”
“It matters to me,” I said, squeezing her thigh.
“Thanks, baby. But hey, my point is, if he really is what he says, and yes, your opinion on that does make a difference, well then…it must be hard, don’t you think? I mean, his late wife, Carina….”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “Same as Karina Fay, Gary Jellison’s half sister, only Jack’s wife spelled it with a C.”
“Right. Well…how tough must that be, living forever and watching loved ones grow old and die around you, time after time after time? I don’t think I could deal with that, if it was me.”
I thought about telling her then, letting her know that I’d committed myself inwardly, hoping–no, intending to figure out how to immortalize my physical body in time to hang around like Jack was doing. However, it seemed like maybe discretion might be the better part of valor in this case, so I decided to come at it from an oblique angle. “What if you could, you know, sooner or later, if you could, like, um, come up with others who shared your ability?”
She chuckled at that. “Who? Like…you? Oh, wait….”
Her mental gears were grinding loudly enough to hurt my head. “Damn,” she breathed finally, “you too?”
“I didn’t fight in the Civil War, Jude,” I said wryly.
“No? Okay, so…but you think it’s possible? You do, don’t you?”
“I hope it’s possible,” I amended, “and I intend to make it happen if at all possible. Not because I’m afraid of getting old or dying or anything like that. I just hate being a kid. It’s such a waste, having to go through that every few decades. But if it’s any consolation, my uncle B. J. thinks I’m nuts for considering it a reasonable goal, too. He’s with you on that one.”
She was silent again for a time, considering. “Do you think I could do it, too, if I tried?”
“Heck, sweetheart, I don’t even know 100% for sure if I can do it–but sure. Why not? Neither one of us will know unless we give it a shot, and what’s the worst that could happen? We die again, right? It ain’t like the first incarnation either of us has had; I’ll guarantee you that much.”
“Speaking of worst possibilities, that looks like the exit we need to take to Coalburn.”
“Right.” I wheeled the Toyota off paved road, taking a graveled track south by southwest. It wasn’t the Coalburn Exit, specifically; the place was far too small to merit its own. We had to travel 7.3 miles to find the only business building, an ancient clapboard structure that leaned like a drunk on Saturday night. What few flecks of paint remained on the exterior looked like they’d probably been red at one time. A converted barn, maybe, though the sign hanging over the door announced its current usage: CRETE’S EATS.
Jack’s hacker contacts had identified Josiah Crete, owner of this fine dining establishment, as belonging to one of the families suspected of being Snow Snuffers. Whether he was one of those truly evil ones or not remained an open question, but there were a lot of Crete relatives in this part of Kentucky. Spiritual masters have long taught, Man, know thyself, but to paraphrase Sun Tzu on a practical level, it pays to know thine enemy. Stopping here for lunch in Crete country at a rural café owned by an actual Crete…hey, we were just in the neighborhood, and….
On the other hand, we might be in the neighborhood, but we certainly weren’t of the neighborhood. Half a dozen vehicles were already parked in front of the eatery when we pulled in. Two old, battered Dodge pickup trucks, one old, battered Chevy pickup truck, an even older, more disreputable Ford F-150, and one car that looked like the General from Dukes of Hazzard except that its primary body color was rust, not orange, and it appeared to have been a recent loser in a demolition derby.
“My kind of place,” Judi muttered under her breath as we headed for the door. “Maybe I should apply for a job here.”
It got worse when we stepped inside. Our late model, shiny Rav 4 stood out in the parking lot like a rainbow trout in a mud puddle full of frogs, but that was nothing to the entrance we made. The men hunched over the tables or gossiping at the counter–and they were all men except for the saggy-breasted old waitress–studies in shock, making no bones about their interest. It’d be gilding the lily to call them white men, considering the assortment of grime and grease and unwashed male stink wafting through the room. Off-white, maybe. Whether it was the fact of a mixed race couple coming in out of the noonday sun, or my big blackness, or Judi’s extreme hotness, I had no idea. That they were all shocked, though, was obvious.
Not really hostile. Just…flabbergasted. I imagined the Alabama bus driver must have looked a little like that when Rosa Parks calmly refused to move to the back of the bus.
Racism? Maybe. Maybe not.
What the hey. We’d come this far, and there was one table empty. We made our way to it and sat down, me quietly meeting several rude stares and returning mild nods, Judi carefully not reacting one way or the other. It might have been wiser to have simply backed out of the doorway and boogied, but part of me couldn’t face the thought that they might be catcalling after us: “Run, nigger, run! And take your little Snow White whore with you!” Or words to that effect. Discretion might be the better part of valor, but there are times when discretion just isn’t an option.
Surprisingly, the menu looked good, the table and chairs were clean, and the aging waitress didn’t hesitate to take our orders. With the exception of one shifty eyed character at the end of the counter, the regulars got their eyes back into their heads and pretended to ignore us. That fellow might throw folks with weaker stomachs off their feed, but I’d seen worse, and Judi, during her time as a waitress at the KO Ranch Restaurant in Missoula and dealing with ex-husband Merv the Perv until Jack and I shot him down, had seen everything. We ordered a pair of cheeseburgers with the works, they came back out of the kitchen in short order, and they were excellent.
“Give our compliments to the cook,” I told Mavis the waitress when she delivered apple pie and ice cream for dessert.
She told him. The big man stuck his head out from the kitchen to give us a wave of appreciation–and froze in mid-wave. His eyes went wide, then narrowed.
Then he backed out of sight. Thankfully, Mavis was right at the next table, making her rounds with the coffee pot. “Keep the change,” I said, two bills on the table, a $20 and a $10.
“Thanks, hon,” she chirped, but we were already moving. Judi didn’t know what had triggered my sudden movement, but she read my tension and beat me out the door. We were in the Toyota and rolling in a matter of seconds.
“I’ll watch my mirrors,” I told my girl, “but you keep a sharp eye out, too. We might have company pretty soon.”
She was already swiveling her head, turning to see if–“Real soon, Tree. One of the trucks just peeled out of the lot, heading our way.”
“Okay, babe. I see him. Buckle up.” I followed my own advice, snapping the seat belt one handed after pulling the Walther .22 from behind my back, just in case. If it came down to shooting, though, we were in trouble. We were in the Snow Snuffers’ home state of Kentucky; even if we survived a pitched battle, it was a pretty good bet an out of state shooter would not be treated nicely in court.
What to do, then? We were nearly to the two lane pavement, had maybe a half mile lead on the pursuing Ford. Left or right?
Left, back the way we came. Had to be that; hanging a right took us farther into Kentucky on a road I’d never traveled. Sixty miles, give or take, back to the freeway. But the freeway wouldn’t be safe, either. If the Snuffers didn’t have enough vehicles to trap us into a pit maneuver, there was always the Highway Patrol to consider. State troopers wouldn’t much approve of a black man and a white girl packing three pistols between them. At best, they’d jail us separately for a time, until Jack Hill or Jennifer Trace could bail us out. The heck with Kansas, Toto, we’re not in Montana any more.
All that went through my mind in a millisecond or two. I picked up the pace on the blacktop, stretching out our lead by another quarter mile by the time the F-150 made the turn onto pavement behind us. With the V-6 under the hood, we should be able to outrun a lone pickup truck, but what if he wasn’t alone? What if he was on his cell phone, calling for allies to head us off at the pass? That our lives were in danger, I had no doubt…time to put my eidetic memory to work, dammit. Up ahead, a curve, a hill, a–“Jude, I need to focus ahead. What’s happening back there?”
She replied immediately. “Looks like he’s picking up the pace a bit, but not enough to close the gap too much. If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were being herded.”
I flicked a glance at the outside mirror. Yes. The Ford was moving right along, but clearly hanging back a bit. There should be enough time. “Grab hold of something, hon. Wild sh*t coming up.”
Over the little hill and out of sight. Punch the gas. The V-6 responded dramatically, squat-thrusting ahead, accelerating like a NASCAR aspirant. Seventy, eighty, eighty-five miles per hour, and–there! Slow down in a hurry, as fast as the *%^$!! ABS brakes will allow, almost blowing past–now! Still working the brakes, I whipped the wheel hard to the right. We slewed sideways a little, not enough to leave telltale rubber on the pavement, but almost, whipping down and doubling back below the highway, into the bare dirt parking area, across that, onto the grass and in under the trees.
Stop car. Stop engine. Throw transmission in Park, get foot off brake.
The Ford pickup went roaring by on the little bridge, unseen due to the brush screen between us but clearly heard. Sounded like he had it flat out now, pedal to the metal, figuring we’d rabbited.
Silence fell, punctuated only by the ticking sounds of the Toyota’s cooling engine, some unidentified songbird on the other side of the creek, and one squirrel angry at our intrusion, chittering its displeasure.
Finally, I let out a breath. It felt safe enough to talk now, to wind down. In fact, we’d better relax; we weren’t going anywhere for a while.
“You okay, Jude?”
She snorted. Prettily, the way she did everything. “Of course I’m okay. Nobody’s even shot at me yet today. But I would like to know our plan, if there is one. And oh yeah, you got any idea what that was all about?”
“There is a plan. And yeah, I got an idea, all right. Did you see the cook when he peeked out to wave at us for sending him our compliments?”
“Uh…no. Guess I missed that.”
“Well, his eyeballs like to bugged out of his head when he seen us, then he got all squinty eyed and got back outa sight.”
“Hm.” She sounded thoughtful, and likely was. “Any idea why?”
“Oh yeah. He recognized us both, and I recognized him. He was at Gary’s memorial service, last row in the back, third from the aisle on the right hand side. Now that I scan my memory, he wasn’t alone, either. The two men between him and the door bore a distinct family resemblance. Which means they know we’re onto them now. Nobody could be dumb enough to think that was coincidence, two Montana friends of Gary’s suddenly showing up in eastern Kentucky, walking right in on one of them like that. They’ll be scared of exposure now, and scared villains are dangerous villains. We need to use one of the throwaway Walmart phones, call Jack the first chance we get, give Trace Nation a heads up.”
“True that. But not from here, right?”
“No, babe. Not from here. We’re tucked nicely out of sight in these woods for the moment, but if by any chance Clete and friends have technological wizardry at their fingertips, we can’t chance a call pinning our location down. We’ll have to wait till full dark before we ease out of here. And hope the rain doesn’t make the way back up to the road too muddy for this rig to plow through.” In truth, I wasn’t much worried about that last part. It was raining, yes, but not heavily. Without the four wheel drive, it might be iffy, but the Rav 4 shouldn’t have a problem.
“One question, Tree. Don’t you think they might–wait.”
I heard it, too, the wind of engines, one, two…three more vehicles roaring over the bridge above the creek, all northbound, hammer down.
“Boss Hogg’s getting all the boys out,” I remarked.
“Dukes of Hazzard reference, Jude.”
“Oh,” she said, not caring to admit she had no idea what I was talking about. “Do you think they might figure out we’ve gone to ground? I’d hate to get trapped here.”
“Nope.” My voice was confident. I was pretty sure I was right. “We’re all duded up, driving a shiny rental rig. Despite knowing we’re from Montana, I doubt it’ll cross ol’ Clete’s mind that we’d pull an old country stunt on ’em. They have to be thinking we ran for the freeway, just getting outa Dodge.”
“Run, nigger, run?”
I laughed aloud. “Precisely! Besides, they have to be so mad they’re not thinking straight. See, all the earlier Snow Snuffer victims we know about, they were able to point out that the guy who froze to death was their doing. They can’t do that with Gary. Not now, maybe not ever. He was officially declared dead as the result of a blood clot stemming from exposure due to getting lost in the mountains, an accident. If they post their usual film, claiming that’s Gary Jellison, his half sister and most of the town of Bulwer Falls will vehemently and indignantly deny the possibility. The film will be declared a fraud. Besides which, he survived their usual murder method, dying under roof with friends, not alone in the snow. So everything they did to set him up cost them, but they won’t gain a penny back.”
Judi chuckled quietly. “So, they’re mad because their golden goose had an abortion, and they’re scared because the big black boogeyman and his teeny white girlfriend are on their case. I like it.”
“Me too, sweetheart, though we did lose the element of surprise today. I’m not too crazy about that.”
“I am,” she declared, reaching over to take my hand. “How often do we manage to find a whole afternoon with nothing to do but be together like this?”
“Good point,” I agreed. We tipped the seats back a little, holding hands, listening to the creatures of the woods, the burble of the creek, the soft patter of rain, and the occasional passage of a vehicle on the blacktop. She was right. As long as we didn’t get surprised and murdered in the process, this was awesome. If not for certain of its citizens, I could learn to really like Kentucky. “Good point.”