They Walk Among Us, Chapter 79: Skimming the Surface

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We reached Helena around 8:00 a.m. the second morning out of Kentucky, ran the rental Rav 4 through a car wash, and turned it back to Alamo, telling the clerk behind the counter, “This SUV is a lifesaver.” We meant that literally.

Since we’d been running radio silent all the way home except for a brief, coded Red Alert message delivered from a throwaway phone, Sissy Harms had ridden over with Jack Hill to pick us up. As Security Chief for Rodeo Iron, she needed to get the skinny from us as soon as possible, which was good. Once back home, we went straight to bed, knowing the intel we’d brought with us was in good hands. Jack promised he’d be able to run the information down to Mr. Gray at the Half Castle in Missoula and be back in time for the evening Inner Circle meeting I’d requested. Sissy jumped into her Brat and headed for Trace Nation; she’d be there in time to join Jennifer Trace and the ranch hands for lunch, after which she’d fill in the widow rancher regarding our discoveries.

I never even felt my head hit the pillow.

Judi, having had more sleep on the road simply because I’d done more of the driving, popped back up at 4:00. She called me at 5:00, declaring the bathroom was clear and the water hot.

“We’re eating at Jack’s at 6:00,” she said. “Jack called in as he was passing Clearwater Junction; he’ll be here in a short. Jennifer’s new cook is a whiz, says she can handle feeding the ranch crew with the boss’s help, so she–Jennifer–and Horace will also join us for chow. On the other hand, Wayne is serving elk roast with plum sauce for supper and promises to take a spatula to anybody who talks business before the table is cleared.”

I chuckled, a gravelly sound at the moment. This road warrior stuff really did take a toll on a guy sometimes. “For Wayne’s elk roast with plum sauce, I think I can manage to hold back for one extra hour.”

“And the fear of the mighty spatula?”

“That too. Don’t ever underestimate Wayne Bruce with a spatula in his hand.”

“Wouldn’t think of it, cowboy. See you over there. I’m going to give Carolyn a hand, set the table or something.”

Throwing her a bleary eyed salute, I stumbled into the bathroom, trying to decide whether shaving or using the toilet came first. Indecision is not usually my problem, but I was not exactly all the way back into the world. Managed not to slice myself with the razor, though. A good omen, right there.

Somebody had forgotten to reload the toilet paper, though. Bad omen, right there.

Hm. I had an hour, she said? What the hey, might as well use it. Unfortunately, the long hot soak in the tub, followed by an even hotter shower, left me sweating like a pig by the time I finally exited the steamy bathroom. Could have balanced that out with a quick cold shower, you say?

Yeah, right.

Still, I was clean, alert, and in my chair by the time the roast (with plum sauce!) was served. Wayne had every right to be proud of it; the gay warrior chef had outdone himself–and if you’ve ever eaten his cooking, you know that’s saying something.

We did manage to wait for dessert, so no spatula–but it was Jack, not me, who opened the ball as the cherry cobbler was making the rounds. “Tree,” he began, “I know you’ve got plenty to tell us, even more than what you shared with me and Sissy on the way home from Helena, but you might want to give Sissy a listen first. That be all right with you?”

“Of course.” I nodded, suddenly worried. For my Bear Warrior woman to want a priority hearing at a meeting like this one, something had to be up. Something serious. Glancing around the table, it was easy to see Jack running interference for Sissy had set every internal radar in the room buzzing.

“Well,” Sissy began, setting her spoon down on her plate and giving her dessert a wistful look, “Two things, really. The simplest one first. While you and Judi were gone, we got Bobby’s place fully wired for surveillance. I’d like him to tell us how it works. Bobby?”

Young Hancock looked surprised at being called on, but since he’d already wolfed down his bowl of cobbler, he wasn’t losing anything. “Uh…the cameras feed into three separate monitors in my trailer. There’s one in the kitchen, behind one of the cabinet doors. I just leave that door open unless someone’s coming into my home, and then, of course, I uh, just close it. The second monitor is in the cabinet under the TV, and the third one is in my bedroom, which I can also see from the bathroom unless I’m in the shower. So nearly all the time I’m home and awake, I have one eye on the road, especially at the Y. And it all goes direct to the hard drive on a designated computer, too, so if I want to review what happened at any particular hour, I can bring that footage up with a few clicks of the mouse. Oh, and it’s in color, too. Uh, and night vision.”

Whoa. Everyone was looking impressed except for Bobby Hancock, who seemed more relieved than anything. Could be he’d never given a presentation in front of so many people before. Or maybe he was just glad it was a good system and actually worked.

I had to ask. “Sis, that sounds like a pretty high end system. How far over budget did you have to go?”

“About double,” the tall woman shrugged, “but my gut was telling me we might be needing the best we could get.”

“Okay. It was your call as Security Chief, and I have to admit I feel better with what Bobby described than I would have with the bargain basement version we originally discussed. But unless there’ve been some miracle receipts coming in these last few days while I’ve been out of touch, we’re going to need to start pinching pennies a bit for the next few weeks, till we get the usual spring surge in orders.”

“Boss,” Sissy replied, serving notice that she was speaking as my Security Chief and not as my lover, “It gets worse. The CPA you hired to audit Rodeo Iron Idaho checked in yesterday.”

Alarm bells began clanging in my head. A bit late, no doubt, but loud as Hell. The Idaho franchise only paid us two percent of sales, but it was two percent off the top–more like five percent of profit–and the early volume had been high enough to make that small percentage add up to a tidy sum.

“Idaho is losing money?”

“You could say that.” Her mouth was set in a grim line even as she spoke. “But not legitimately. Somebody’s skimming off the top.”

“The CPA said that?”

“Not in so many words. You know those guys. But he was more forthright than you’d expect, which to me means he’s really sure of what he’s seeing. Now, he wasn’t happy when he couldn’t reach you, but I managed to convince him to spill his bean counter beans to me. He says the signs are all there; it’s more than likely they’re keeping two sets of books.”

I let out a gust of air. Not a sigh. More of a whoosh. “Did he say how much?”

“Not precisely. He did ask me if I knew how to spell a lot.”

Nobody said anything for a while. I sat, drumming my fingers on the table, thinking. Driving the others nuts, no doubt, but they let it be. With all nine of us present, Jack’s stove was keeping two big pots of coffee hot; Judi and Carolyn grabbed one each, working around the table, refilling our cups. Old Horace’s calloused hand rasped across his jeans as he massaged his weather leg, the one held together with titanium pins. Jennifer Trace had an elbow propped on the table, her chin in her hand, studying me.

“When it rains, it pours,” I admitted, stopping the finger drumming, “and it’s only likely to get worse.”

Jack Hill took that as his cue. Clearing his throat, he dropped the elephant in the room, which no one else had even known was there. “When Sissy got that call yesterday from the accounting firm, I decided to make another lightning run down to Missoula and back. Seem to be doing that a lot lately. Point being, I took this data to my usual contact, asked for a rush job by our hacker friends–if possible–to, number one, find out all they could about anybody in Clark Higgins’s Rodeo Iron Idaho operation whose fingers ever touched any of the money, and number two, trace any money they could follow that didn’t look like it was going to the usual suspects. You know, steel purchases, payroll, et cetera.”

He had my attention. Never, I thought for the ten thousandth time, underestimate Jack Hill. “And?”

“As we all know, anybody who’s really good at hiding money from electronic snoopery can make following the trail a bit time consuming. We don’t have any feedback on that end of it yet. But we do have one very suspicious discovery. That is, I’d call it suspicious in light of this new knowledge that money is missing.”

Pausing for effect, Jack waited to see if anyone would crack and beg him to get to the point. Nobody did.

“This suspicious discovery,” he continued, “involves Clark’s new head bookkeeper. Name is Arminta Jones. He hired her a couple of months ago, jumped her right up over the other two girls in the department–three women to handle what you do before lunch, Judi. Also, Arminta and Clark have been dating, and last week they announced their engagement.” He held up a hand to forestall our obvious question. “Now hold on. I ain’t done yet. Here’s the double barreled tricky part. Miss Arminta is niece to the cowgirl politician, Hardesty Collins, whose campaign manager and current lover happens to be your uncle B. J. Hennessy, Tree. And wait, I still ain’t done yet. Guess who introduced them?”

I didn’t have to guess. My head was between my hands, throbbing with pain. “My beloved mother,” I said, “the esteemed Louella Jackson.”

For a time, no telling how long, the conversation swirled around the table without my being aware of what was being said. Carolyn got me a couple of aspirin, which I chased down with a jolt of cold coffee. Judi put a gentle hand on my shoulder but, aware that not even she could offer any real comfort until I’d worked this out for myself, soon withdrew it. There were so many threads to this thing….

The clock showed 7:38 p.m. when I finally lifted my head, resolute but still not quite able to see the forest for the trees. The others fell silent, waiting to hear me out.

“I’d bet a dollar to a doughnut hole that at least some of the missing money from Rodeo Iron Idaho is making its way under the table to the Collins campaign for Congress. Laundered along the way, no doubt, ’cause the Ice Witch of the West may be many things, but she’s not stupid. Her political opponents aren’t likely to be able to nail her for receiving illegal campaign contributions, is what I’m saying. But there were rumors around the first of February that she was running short on funds, and then suddenly she wasn’t. The timing could be coincidence, but none of us in this room believe in coincidence, so….

“The thing is, we need to know who’s involved. If it’s Clark Higgins himself, the franchise owner, we can by the terms of our contract strip Rodeo Iron Idaho from him entirely and replace him with a new owner of our choosing. We’d have to press criminal charges if we did that, to make sure our actions would stand up in court if he tried to sue–you know, saying it was us who breached the contract, not him–but it might not be him. In fact, even if it is, we stand to lose less in money and corporate prestige if we can rehabilitate the man than if we strong arm him out of the company entirely. One way or the other, though, we need intel and we need it fast.

“And the only way I know how to get that is to put boots on the ground, do the humint thing, human intelligence like the big boys say. In other words, I gotta go to Idaho, snoop face to face, feel what’s going on, find the answers to the questions. Is this bookkeeper hookup, Arminta Jones, is she involved in cooking the books? Skimming the cream? And if she is, is she in it with Clark or is she stealing from Clark? Never mind the diamond ring on her finger. Most importantly on a personal level, as opposed to corporate, how much does my Mom know? Is she altogether innocent? Which would make her a lot more na├»ve than I’d ever have suspected of my mother. Or is she a co-conspirator? Which would make her–I dunno, as crooked as my pimp of a father, in her own way.

“And then there’s B. J. I know Hardesty Collins would never let him in on anything crooked she was doing; she knows better than that. Can I dig up enough dirt to prove to my uncle that his ice queen girlfriend is a federal prison sentence waiting to happen?”

I stopped, out of breath. But we weren’t done yet. Letting the crew chew on all that for a bit, I caught Jennifer’s eye–she happened to be closest to the stove–then raised my mug and both eyebrows. Please?

She smiled, just a little, then got up and grabbed a coffee pot. She was in her sixties and I was in my twenties, but I had a hunch she could still outwork me on any given day. The widow was tough.

Worn and tired from the outburst, I said quietly, “There’s also Judi to consider.”

My girl froze beside me. I could feel the tension radiating from her. She had a hunch she wasn’t going to like what I said next, and she was right.

“For the first time, a known enemy has a specific Trace Nation target who is not a principal in either Trace Ranch or Rodeo Iron. Our enemies went after Sam Trace, owner of Trace Ranch, and they killed him. One enemy went after Treemin Jackson, yours truly, owner of Rodeo Iron, and almost killed him. But now these Snow Snuffers, a bunch of Kentucky rednecks who murder for entertainment and profit, they know Judi’s face, her name, probably everything by now. Until they’re taken down–and before that, we need to know their numbers and their names–Judi’s life is at risk. The chance they won’t try for her is less than one in a thousand.”

“Wait a sec,” Judi interrupted, “They have to know who you are by now, too. Don’t try to pretend you’re all safe and secure!”

“Wouldn’t think of it.” I grinned and patted her knee. She was having none of it, though. Not a good idea to try to soft soap her when there were bullets in the wind. Nuh-uh.

“Here’s the thing.” I swung my attention back to the group at large. “I’ve got to go to Idaho. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Yes, like Judi says, I may be a target–but if you were the bad guys, who would you try for first? The big, mean looking guy, or the cute little, ever-underestimated hottie? If they’ve got a brain between them, they’ll want to grab the weakest link. Being big, ornery males of the Kentucky persuasion, they will assume that link is the petite woman. Okay, kill the chick, maybe make her a star in a Snow Snuffers film, but if you can, abduct her first, torture her to get the names of those who know about the Snow Snuffers and what they know, and then snuff her.

“If they do come after me, especially if Jack Hill will consent to ride shotgun–you will, Jack? Thanks. With me and Jack together, I’ll be a damned hard target. With Judi sticking close to home, she, too will be a hard target…although we’ll need to figure out how to keep her back covered at all times, 24/7, every second of the day and night.”

“Huh!” Judi snorted, all 110 pounds of her noticeably irritated. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

“I say no, you don’t. Not this time. But I will seek a second opinion. Sis, what’s your take on the security-for-Judi issue?”

“I’m with you on this one, Tree,” she declared, staring across the table at our bedmate. “Judi, as Security Chief, I’ve got to say, our man has it right.”

The smaller woman looked like she wanted to sulk a bit, but she couldn’t quite pull it off. “Oh, all right.”

“I’ll keep an eye on things while you’re at the office,” Horace volunteered. That was a big thing; the old tracker had fought off the Morse Code attack group, not in time to save Sam Trace, but he’d put ’em on the run before they could get lead into Jennifer as she lay smunched beneath her husband’s bullet ridden body. A promise by Horace Tamblyn to act as a woman’s guardian meant something.

Wayne Bruce spoke up next. “When Judi’s home and you’re not, Tree, I’ll sleep over at your place. Carolyn can handle being alone in Jack’s house; it’s built for defense. Judi, Sissy, Carolyn, and me, we could all take our meals together. Then at bedtime, I could rack out on your couch.”

“Much appreciated, my man.” I gave him a thumbs up. Judi gave him the finger. He understood that both gestures were saying thanks.

Bobby Hancock hadn’t said a word since giving his mini-lecture on his new surveillance system, but he had something to say now. “Seems to me, Jude, they’ve got you covered at both ends, but how about the middle? I could drive over from my place, give you and armed escort–you know, an extra vehicle–going and coming from work.”

Judi couldn’t be snippy with Bobby. No giving him the finger. So she just said, “Thanks, Sir Hancock, but you’ll need a long gun. If there’s a gunfight on the road, that is. Never bring a pistol to a rifle fight.”

With a personal arsenal second to none, Jack had that covered. “I’ve got a couple of M1 carbines that aren’t doing much but gathering dust,” he said. “One for you, one for Bobby, for the duration. Couple hundred rounds of ammo each. How’s that sound?”

It sounded mighty fine to both of them, but especially to young Hancock. Turned out he’d studied the history of the M1, knew of its usage in World War II, Korea, and even to some extent in Vietnam. “I’d take an M1 in lieu of a week’s wages,” he enthused.

Hill chuckled. “They’re not quite that pricey, kid. Just keep our Miss Minske safe; that’ll be payment enough, and more.”

“Yes sir!”

He will, too, I thought. And Jack Hill is all the backup I’ll need, no matter what they throw at us. But uncle B.J, and Mom, and even Clark Higgins if he happens to be innocent…that’s another matter.

4 thoughts on “They Walk Among Us, Chapter 79: Skimming the Surface

  1. Glad you like it. I thought of throwing a third emergency in there but figured I’d better see if I could work with two (as a writer) first.

  2. I knew I didn’t trust Tree’s mom. I hope she’s innocent in all this, but I have a feeling she’s not. Guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

  3. There’s no proof (at least yet) that she’s involved in the skimming–after all, that would be directly stealing from her own son–but the possibility has definitely crossed Tree’s mind. He and Jack will be entering Idaho under a caution light for a while, for sure.

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