The real Sheriff John Penney. Speak of the Devil. I’d impersonated the chief County law enforcement officer less than a week ago, and now here he was in the flesh. But there had to be more to it than that; Marcus Grady wouldn’t have sent young Holly Warburton out here on a high lope unless there was something deadly going on.
“Holly,” I said, taking her by the arms, steadying the girl as best I could, “I need the whole story. All of it. Come inside, sit down, give us the scoop.”
“Oh–okay.” She allowed me to escort her into the kitchen. The vandals hadn’t bothered to bust up the cheap chairs; we at least had a place to sit.
“Go,” I told her. “Spill it. Tori and I are all ears.”
“Well…um…they came from the east. Three vehicles. Marcus said to tell you the lead truck is a Bulwark 22. The others–”
“Hold on. You’re sure that’s what he said? A Bulwark 22?”
“Uh-huh. Tori, could I have a drink of water or something?”
“Absolutely. Either tap water, or we’ve got some water still hot on the stove; would you like a cup of alfalfa tea? With honey?”
“Uh, no, tap water’s fine.”
I was thinking furiously. The Bulwark series of mil spec combat vehicles were state of the art, loaded with computer driven goodies. Somebody in the Army must have upgraded this one in quiet defiance of our dysfunctional Commander in Chief. It clearly hadn’t been disabled by the Chinese EMP blast.
“Okay,” I said, “one Bulwark. What about the other two rigs?”
“Um…Marcus was trying not to confuse me too much. He said to just tell you they’re cars, not military, mid-twentieth century museum pieces.”
I nodded. Holly’s mind was functioning again; she unsnapped the flap on the left breast pocket of her western shirt, fished out a folded piece of paper, smoothed it flat, and handed it to me.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath, sliding the paper around the table so Tori could see it. Her face went white.
“Snake knife seven,” she whispered.
I could tell Holly didn’t know the code, so I explained. “Marcus is telling me that he and I are going to have to kill the Sheriff and everybody with him. But there’s a bit here that’s not in our code; do you by any chance know what this ISIPIF means?”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Marcus said you’d know the other, but that part stands for one sheriff, one priest, and one female.” She sipped her water, calm as could be. Either this girl was one cold cookie or she simply hadn’t put it all together yet.
“Ah. I see. Yeah, those are definitely ones, not i’s.” My gut churned, considering. “Did you know Marcus had decided these people needed to die?”
She shook her head. “No. Not really. They’re being real assholes, though. When the Sheriff figured out he’d been seen in town just last week, he kinda went say what? And then he didn’t push it, but when Cam Staten told him about the trial, all proud like, he sorta exploded. Sheriff Penney did, I mean. I was backstage, packing up my notes and stuff for the day, so I couldn’t hear quite all of it. But enough. He’s saying the trial wasn’t legal, everybody who thought they were going to take the law into their own hands was going to be arrested, and he almost ordered the prisoners let loose right then and there.”
“No shit?” Cold chills chased themselves up and down my back. This could not be allowed. “So did he? Let them loose, I mean?”
“Not right then. There happened to be four of our guards on hand, it being right at shift change and all. They were more than willing to shoot it out rather than take Penney’s word for it that he was the real Penney and the other one was a fake. In fact, they as good as accused him of being phony as a three dollar bill, and they all had their hunting rifles ready. Plus Marcus and Hiram were both there in uniform, so there were six people on our side, and I think the Sheriff didn’t like the odds.”
That was good. So far, at least. I surely didn’t want my neighbors getting involved in a fatal shootout because they believed my impersonation over the word of the actual Sheriff, though.
“So…there’s one female, right?”
“Right. One of the five deputies. She’s kind of short and stocky and carries one of those SuperFrag revolvers on her right hip. Sticks way out there like she was a suitcase and it was the handle.”
Great. “From the look on your face, Holly, there’s more.”
“You mean besides all of us being treated like criminals for cleaning up our own town? Yeah, there is something. Penney and his people have a hand pump with them. They sucked up full tanks of gas from the old service station tank. Stole it.”
“Reckon Penney calls that confiscation,” I remarked dryly.
“Whatever. And they’re asking about any vehicles in the area that still run. Sounded like they’re going to steal–uh, confiscate those, too, if they can find any.”
“That about it?”
“Yeah. Except the Sheriff wants everybody who was an official in the courtroom to get together all at one time. I think he wants to arrest us in a bunch, away from our trigger happy guards. Marcus said he’d try to get all of them to the café as soon as he could talk Penney into it. I asked what about me, what will Penney say when I can’t be found, I’m the Court Reporter, and he said, Marcus said, don’t worry about that, I’ll tell him you went off to find the Prosecuting Attorney and his assistant, and that I’ll bring you two to the café.”
All righty then. We had the County Sheriff and a bunch of deputies–including a woman–to kill if we didn’t want to give up everything and roll over puppy style. Oh yeah, and a priest, too. What was up with that?
“Tell me about the priest.”
She shrugged. “What do I know about priests? My whole family is nothing but atheists.”
Guess I was going to have to break it down into bite sized pieces for her. “How big is he?”
“Um..five eight, maybe.”
“Don’t know. He looks pretty fat under that robe.”
I stared at her in shock. “Robe? The priest wears a robe? What kind?”
A dreadful knowingness surged through me. “Like one of the old time Jesuits? Skirt almost to the ground kind of robe?”
“Yeah. Like that.”
“Holly, this is really important. Does he have a big cross hanging around his neck? I mean, a heavy silver looking thing, long and wide?”
She scrunched her brows, concentrating. “I didn’t see him that close up. But…yeah, I think so.”
I blew out a sigh that came up from my toes. Tori spoke up. “Master, we have to kill a Sheriff, a woman, and a priest?”
“What you mean we, white girl?” I looked at her sharply. “Hiram will be there, obviously. He’ll have to be in on this, being our specially assigned Chief Deputy and all, though I’m pretty sure he’s never been in a firefight. Judge Norcross hunts, but I doubt he’s ever shot at a human before. Cam Staten…shit, he’s the wild card; we don’t know what he’ll do. Might even shoot at us for all I know. But you girls are not in it. Oh, and by the way, since when is it okay for you to call me Master in front of Holly?”
The little blonde stared me right in the eye. “She already knows about our Master/slave relationship. And no, she doesn’t have a problem with it. But she and I are both in it. You can whip me bloody for disobedience, but I’m not being left out when people are shooting at you. I’m not.”
I gave her a disapproving glare. “When have I ever whipped you bloody?”
“Just saying.” Her lower jaw jutted out, cute as hell, but frustrating, too.
Unfortunately, she was right on more counts than one. With Sheriff John on his high horse and an OTC priest present…yes, dammit, we needed her. “It’s going to get ugly.”
“All right.” I surrendered, trying not to look too weak in the process. “If you two are going to help out, you do exactly as I say. Got it?”
“Got it,” they chorused. Holly, of course, wouldn’t want to be left out either. Not with her man Hiram in the middle of a lead storm, she wouldn’t.
“Okay. We’re taking the Chevy. For two reasons. One, it’s faster than saddling the horses and trotting two miles to Grady’s. Two, for bait. Sticky fingers Sheriff John wants vehicles that run, we’ll show him one, and a dandy at that. Holly, you’ve never fired a gun, have you? No? Then you get to be one of our distractions this time. You can start by unbuttoning the top two buttons on your shirt. Tori, while I’m prepping the car, you change into the green square dancing skirt and then strap the Cutter to your thigh like we practiced.”
It didn’t take long to get everything ready–no more than ten, maybe eleven minutes–though it seemed like forever. Holly would do her flirty thing but get herself positioned to slip out of the line of fire and into Grady’s meat locker the second she heard me say the word “seven”. Tori would also know it was time to reach through the slit in her skirt for the thirty round pistol when she heard that signal. The Cutter, manufactured in Wesley Cutter’s factory in Waco, Texas, was both accurate and capable of rapid fire. Equally important, the spiral hybrid Cutter design was the first and only semiauto out there that could skip past a misfired cartridge (like a revolver) and keep on going without ever jamming or needing to be cleared.
True, it only came in .22 long rifle, but she was going to have to go for head shots anyway. We all were. Sheriff John and his crew–including the fat priest of the so called One True Church, commonly called the Over The Counter (OTC) church–would be wearing up to date K88 armored vests.
I was just happy to hear they weren’t wearing face and neck shields.
With our ride idling in the driveway, I double checked the hardware in my weapons coat. The single action .44’s were topped off with rounds under the hammers. The .30 caliber carbine got one up the spout. Everything else was good to go. I counted myself lucky in one respect; the late April evening was cool enough to call for some kind of coat or jacket. It shouldn’t raise undue suspicion when the enemy saw me wearing it.
The enemy. Our very own Sheriff, a handful of deputies undoubtedly just doing their jobs, and one radical priest. The history books, if there were any, would not look kindly on this evening’s work.
So we’d best make sure it didn’t get into the history books, eh?
“Can you shoot the woman deputy?” I asked Tori.
She shrugged. “From what Holly says, she’s ugly. That should help.”
Providence was with us. We beat the rest of them to the café. Not by much; we could see the group rounding the curve. Our people were leading, riding horses, while the Bulwark 22 combat vehicle and the two cars followed close behind, idling. It was impossible to be sure of the reason for that, but my gut said our people were being herded. Either that, or the Sheriff simply didn’t want the court officials of Derringer at his back. Wise man, right there.
Holly and Tori were out of the car even before I got it parked, rear end facing the building as usual. There were no remaining refugees camped out in the dining room; restoring order in town had allowed all of them to return to their former homes. Holly had a key, though.
“Is the water still hot?” I asked. Marcus always loaded up the woodstove and left a full kettle of water on the stovetop during the day, but there was no telling how that had worked out.
“Yup,” Holly replied. “Ow!” She hadn’t expected the kettle to be that hot.
“Good. Tori, get the tea ready. Not the herbal stuff, the regular tea. Don’t want to confuse our guests with herbal decisions.”
With the girls bustling about, looking like they knew what they were doing, I settled in at my preferred table in the northwest corner, my back to the north wall so I could watch the people coming in the door. Marcus entered first, caught my eye, and immediately shucked both his uniform shirt and his gun belt, hanging them on pegs behind the counter and donning an apron. If he could stay right there, behind that counter, we had a real shot at this. As long as nobody got a peek under that apron, the shooter strapped to his left inner thigh should remain undetected.
Behind Marcus, the other Derringer area people drifted in with obvious hesitation, clearly unsure of themselves. Nobody from the jury, thank goodness; we had enough to consider without worrying about that. Other than that, our entire Court contingent was indeed present. Defense attorney Cam Staten, his face impassive, a poker player with his game face on. Chief Deputy Hiram Jacobson, still wearing his uniform and his sidearm, looking grim, determined, and–when he realized Holly was right there, playing waitress–worried. Judge Walt Norcross, clearly pissed to the bone.
Their expressions were mild compared to the bunch from the Fremont County seat. From Fairplay, they’d had to loop way the hell around to come at Derringer from the east. Not that they could have done it from the west; though far closer as the crow flew, neither the frontage road nor the main road went that far before dead ending.
No wonder they were cranky.
We’d not expected a visit from the County honchos, though, and with good reason. Our little town was remote by almost anybody’s definition. If they were raiding this far afield, that meant…what?
Sheriff John himself led the law enforcement contingent. This being my first opportunity to see the man up close and personal, I studied him frankly. He gave me the evil eyeball briefly, but the girls grabbed his attention as I’d hoped they wood…uh, would. Tori, in her skirt and pointy toed girly boots, fairly exuded come-get-me femininity. Holly, on the other hand, seemed well on her way to being the star of the show. She’d filled out just a bit since hooking up with Hiram, as had the lean young lawman, but she was still thin enough to inspire the usual comments by guys who preferred their women thick. Man, she’s so thin, a guy’d get splinters in his tool doing that. Yet even so, she had cleavage and knew how to use it.
In John Penney, arrogance and lust warred across his heavy features, distracting him enough to let me eyeball the rest of his entourage. The female deputy was short and stocky, maybe five-two and 140 pounds. If I had to peg her, I’d have said she was a man hater, her square face and buzz cut hair proclaiming her preference for her own gender. That, and the fact that her eyes locked onto my little blonde Tori and never let go. The deputy’s lip lifted in a bit of a sneer, or maybe a snarl. I took it to mean she’d like to own my woman.
Which could be trouble from a different angle than I’d anticipated. Tori was tasked with putting a bullet or two in Butch Girl’s broad skull if she could. Having the target watching my honey like a hawk–a very hungry hawk–could mean she’d see Tori going for her gun in time to react.
Of the four male deputies, three of them were stamped from the same mold, just ordinary guys in their twenties or maybe early thirties, trying to make a living. Deputy number four, though…double shit. Wavy brown hair topping a face that belonged on a movie marquee, all powered by a pair of bedroom eyes that drew Tori’s attention to him, iron to a lodestone.
Which side had the most effective distraction…time would tell.
And then came the priest.
His presence could be felt even before he stepped through the doorway, accepting Holly’s offer of a mug of steaming tea with a bare nod of his head. Short, well under six feet, but broad–not just from the K88 armor under his black robe–and assured in his movements. I hated him on sight and, once he deigned to turn my way, it was obvious he returned the sentiment. Black eyes; no other color seemed to be present in the orbs that glittered maliciously.
He knew an enemy when he saw one. Had he realized I was a Currus Dei priest myself, the war would have been on right then and there. He could smell the clash in our vibrations, though, the way the hackles rose on his neck and mine alike.
“You would be Harrison Polson,” he stated. It was definitely not a question.
“And you,” I replied quietly, “would be a Paladin of the Church of the Double Cross.”
The Paladin hissed, a sharp intake of breath. Everyone else fell silent, shocked to the core that anyone would dare use that term. Officials of the One True Church did not appreciate such disrespect. No, they did not. Not even a little bit. It was their own fault, of course. When the black man they’d proclaimed as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ had been nailed to a tree in eastern Ohio in 2079, they’d designed their own version of a crucifix.
Activists throughout the country had labeled the killing a racist act, not a religious matter. Despite that, a silversmith in Virginia had designed the Double Cross and the OTC movement had been born.
“What,” the priest demanded coldly, “do you know of the One True Church?”
“Far too much,” I replied, and let it go at that. The Double Crosser looked as if he intended to commit murder sooner rather than later, but he said no more.
Up to this point, the Sheriff hadn’t uttered a word. He hadn’t begun his accusations, or demanded I turn over the Chevy to him and his raiders, or anything else. He just stood there, gaping. I was guessing no one had braced the priest in a good long while. Maybe never. Not and stayed alive long enough to count.
It was dusk outside, but the light inside the café wasn’t bad. Marcus’s solar system wasn’t the high end stuff, but it was still working. The overhead LED lights threw the Double Crosser’s face into sharp relief, highlighting the great beak of a nose, the full lips, the scar that traced from one side of his chin down under his snow white clerical collar. I could start this dance any time I chose; that much was obvious. The lawmen–and law woman–were momentarily off guard, but the tension in the room made it clear one more match would send the place up like a forest fire in the middle of August.
Ah, but there was no rush. We needed information first, as much as we could get. Pretending to ignore the church Paladin, I addressed the Sheriff. “You’ve traveled far, John.” I used his first name with familiarity, as if I knew him. That works more often than you might think.
It worked this time, sort of. “A fair bit,” he admitted, flicking a glance at the priest to be sure it was okay to talk. At least, that’s the way I interpreted it. “Do I know you?”
Time to try a bald faced lie. “I worked on your last election campaign in 2118. We met at a couple of events. No reason for you to remember, though.”
“Oh.” He suddenly looked uncomfortable, sheepish even. “Sorry. I should remember my own volunteers, shouldn’t I?”
Hiram, across the room with nobody watching him, goggled at me. He most likely couldn’t believe I had the overbearing Sheriff apologizing to me within moments of meeting the man. Frankly, I was mildly surprised myself. But only mildly. I’m a trial lawyer of some renown, doncha know; it’s my business to be able to manipulate emotions in those around me. So, let’s see how far I could take it.
“I was mighty glad to see you get reelected. Bart Orowell would have been an absolute disaster for the County. Now, I hear you figure we need to throw out what legal work we’ve been doing and start over with your guidance? And that your department needs all the running iron you can lay your hands on? I brought my 1957 Chevy in for you. It’s still running okay, though I’m a bit worried about what the unleaded gas might be doing to the valves.”
John Penney blinked rapidly as if his eyes couldn’t cope with what his ears were hearing. After all the obvious and natural resentment he’d been getting from the rest of Derringer, the Prosecuting Attorney he’d expected to be his worst enemy was offering him approval? He found his way to the chair to my right, which put his own back to a wall, the west wall. I hadn’t seen that coming; this put him to my right front quarter. In order to shoot at any other target in the café, I’d need to use my left hand.
I hate leading with my left. Okay, hand to hand that’s okay, but in a gunfight? I’m right-eyed all the way. Damn. Not that there was any use worrying about it.
“You don’t seem overly perturbed about all this,” he said, a question mark underlying his comment.
I shrugged. “What’s to be perturbed about? As far as we knew, we were acting in full accordance with the law you yourself laid out for us. Now we find out we were snookered, but you’re willing to take responsibility. That’s a good thing, right? Oh, by the way, before we get into details…how’s the war going? You got any real hard news? All we get out here are a few of the shortwave broadcasts.”
The priest wasn’t fooled; I could see it in his eyes. He stood in the center of the café, ignoring the chairs even though everyone else except for Marcus, Tori, and Holly were already seated.
But I didn’t expect to con the Double Crosser. I just hoped–
“The war.” John Penney blew on his tea, ruffling his oversized moustache, then took a sip before responding. “It’s bad, Harrison. Real bad.”
Harrison. I had him using my first name. Excellent. Excellent. Now, if only young Hiram and Judge Norcross and Cam Staten would keep their traps shut…. I didn’t need to worry about the girls, and most certainly not about Marcus. The café owner and part time bailiff polished the counter, wiped glasses that didn’t need wiping, making himself look as inoffensive as possible. Which you wouldn’t think would work very well for a retired Army Ranger, but no one seemed to be paying him all that much attention.
“Overall,” the Sheriff continued, “best estimates are that the world wide population is down to one billion or less.”
“Whoa.” I stared at him, feigning shock. The number didn’t really surprise me. In fact, I’d hoped it was lower. Most of our century’s troubles could be directly traced to having too many people living on the planet.
“Whoa indeed. But that’s just an estimate. Even the fanciest guessers out there admit it could be higher, or it could be lower. Now, here in these United States…we’ve lost Alaska, taken over by the Russians the last I heard. But the Governor of Alaska, before she disappeared, authorized the National Guard to use a secret bug nobody even knew they had. Some kind of virus that doesn’t mind the cold. There aren’t many Alaskans left, but a whole lot of Russkies died, too.
“In the Sino-Soviet conflict…from all accounts, land should be cheap over thataway for the next century or two. Billions upon billions of dead. Some reports say they nuked each other on top of everything else. Europe…the Germans have pretty much conquered the whole thing, done what Hitler only dreamed of, but the cost has been high.
“Hawaii? Well, that’s been gone under the waves for a while. Now, here in the lower 48, things are in flux. A squad of Army regulars came through Fairplay about a month ago. Claimed they weren’t deserters, but were couriers trying to establish contact with American forces in the west. As best we could gather–and I talked with their Lieutenant at length–everything east of the Mississippi is wasteland. Don’t know the exact population, but the Looie claimed the President had died but the Vice President had taken over and set up shop somewhere in the Tennessee hills of all places.”
He paused, morose, staring at the tea mug cupped between his two fleshy hands. For an instant, I felt the bond between us I’d worked to establish, the bond I was about to use against him.
“What about Highland West?”
The Sheriff snorted in derision. “Those fools? They’re the main reason we’re out here. We’re getting ahead of the Chinese in the western half of the U.S., you know. See a chink, kill a chink. At least in Colorado we are. Not that there are that many people left alive here, either. I’m betting we don’t have more than two or three million Americans left, coast to coast and border to border. But we’re not losing the land to the damn slant eyes.”
My sister in Idaho, till she died, was married to a Chinese American man, an inventor of no small repute. I held my peace. For now.
“Now, them fricking ragheads down south, they’re the real problem, you know?”
“I have a clue or two,” I said quietly, “but no, I don’t really know.”
“Well, they are. Sharia Law bastards came at our people hard. From what my sources tell me, you can travel a hundred miles now in Texas or Arizona and never see a Soul, then when you do, it’ll be a fighting community of either tribal sand suckers shrilling a-la-la-la Allah jihadists or American survivors, you never know which until it’s too late. The big cities? All gone. If it’s not a fighting setup, someplace you can protect crops and herd animals, it doesn’t exist. Period.”
The priest had apparently had enough. He cut in, his tone imperious. “Get on with it, Sheriff. It’s well after dark and we have yet to make camp.”
A few eyebrows rose at that, Derringer people who were surprised at the blackrobe’s authority over the elected lawman. I was not one of those people.
Before Penney could respond, I fished a couple of earplugs from an outside coat pocket and began stuffing them into my ears, first the right one and then the left.
The Sheriff’s monobrow lowered in confusion. “What’re those for?”
“Gotta take care of my hearing,” I explained, easing my hands in through the coat slits. “My eardrums caught seven kinds of Hell the last time it got loud in here.”
My calm, friendly, conversational tone had done the trick, lulling all of the enemy personnel except one; the priest was not fooled. His own hands, long out of sight inside the slits in his own robe, came flashing forth. He’s too fast. I knew it, and I was right. Yet my opening the ball without warning must have startled him just a little, just enough. His first shot went wide. Mine didn’t. Oh, having to shoot at the lying rat bastard left handed did make it tougher; it’s not like I drilled him right between the eyes or anything. The bullet did skin through the edge of his neck, though, enough to throw him completely off, enough to give me time to place my second round. Which also missed its Third Eye target but punched through under his right eye and up through his skull, fountaining skull pieces, brain matter, and blood out the back of his head.
The Sheriff! I spun in my chair…only to find John Penney slumped in his chair, face down on the table. My right hand gun was empty, all six rounds gone, yet I had no recall whatsoever of triggering the thing. I guess at a range of ten inches it’s hard to miss, even when you’re running on automatic.
I didn’t look to study his wounds in detail. They were sufficient, and–and the gunfight was over. I’d planned, if I was still alive, to drop the pistols when they were empty and tip the table over like I’d done against the Chinese, whipping open my coat to grab the .30 caliber carbine. It hadn’t come to that; Marcus and Hiram and Tori had done their work. All of the Fairplay contingent were down.
Unfortunately, so was Cam Staten, and it looked like my girl Tori was nursing a wounded left arm. We’d eliminated them fast, but somebody had gotten a shot off against us.
More than one somebody, as it turned out. “Harrison,” Tori called out, ignoring her own pain as Marcus moved to check for “corpses” who might be faking it, “you’re bleeding!”
What? I began a self-check and realized she was right; blood was dripping down from somewhere on the right side of my head, staining my coat. Judge Norcross was sitting frozen in his chair, just staring, but Holly Warburton crossed the dining room in a rush. “Looks like your earlobe is shot off,” she advised, and I started laughing. It could have been worse, so very, very much worse. Still, I’d best do something about the bleeding until Marcus could get around to me. Holly was back across the room in a heartbeat, grabbing a dish towel to wrap around Tori’s wound. The way my girl was moving her arm, the bullet hadn’t hit bone.
“Sonofabitch,” Marcus said, and I realized he was staring down at the prone form of the female deputy, her head bloodied from what I presumed was one of Tori’s bullets. “I think this one was just creased. She’s damn sure alive, and she’s coming around.”