It felt slightly odd, stopping at the Half Castle to eat and nothing else. No back room skullduggery, no reports from hackers or DNA labs, no meeting whatsoever with Mr. Gray.
Yeah, it felt odd, but not in a bad way. I was ravenous. Our friend with the halberd greeted us at the front door, reserved and stately as always, his deadlier aspects well hidden. “New chef,” he said as we passed him on the way in. “Excellent won ton soup.”
Quite a speech for Mr. Reticent. A well received speech, too; I was up for some won ton. Jack’s favorite table in the far corner was fortuitously vacant, putting walls at our backs and giving us an excellent view of both the other diners and the front door, though not so much the hallway to the restroom with the secret passageway.
We were settled in, just picking up our menus, when Jack murmured, “Ten o’clock.”
I looked up casually enough, scanning the man who’d drawn his attention. We’d passed the fellow on the way in, but I hadn’t paid much attention, an oversight Hill seemed intent on rectifying. A lone diner, a wall also at his back but the front door not far to his right, he seemed a bit of an odd duck. His clothing (paint stained gray hoodie, cheap paint-and-dirt stained Walmart jeans, cheap paint stained tennis shoes) and his chrome-trimmed laptop computer (high end custom IBM clone) didn’t really go together. Computer nerd with money to burn meets grungy day laborer. We were line-of-sight angled toward his table’s left side, leaving him visible in profile, top to bottom. Strong profile; I suspected he’d be photogenic. Oblivious of his surroundings, though.
Naturally, I noticed he was eating from a bowl of soup with one hand while working his computer keyboard with the other, his eyes never leaving the screen. Remarkable skill, that. If I tried eating soup without looking at it, my keyboard would be swimming in broth.
It was hard to be sure when he was sitting down–and slumped over a bit at that, utterly relaxed and absorbed in his work–but I guessed his height at maybe five ten, weight one sixty. Age, mid-fifties. Full dark head of hair with just a touch here and there going gray, the kind of pattern that inspires women to describe it as “distinguished”.
Finishing my scan, I shifted my gaze to Jack Hill and raised my eyebrows. So? What’s your point?
“Now, check out the first table on the other side of the doorway.” I could barely hear my partner.
Hm. There were three men seated at the table in question…and I knew two of them. Victor Breach, close to the computer guy’s age, an Ovando local, a welder I’d had to fire for drinking on the job. Good hand when he was sober; he just wasn’t sober often enough. I doubted I was on Breach’s list of Fifty Favorite People. Sam Gardner, the first Sam I’d run into since the late Sam Trace, was one of the alcoholic welder’s drinking buddies. I didn’t recognize the third man.
I did finally see what Jack wanted me to see, though. The three were focused on the computer dude something fierce. Something was up.
Not that we needed to worry about it. We were just here to enjoy a nice, quiet meal, thank you very much.
Ri-ight. “They can’t be thinking of starting something in here, can they?”
Jack snorted. “Of course they can. You think three barflies like that have any idea how much muscle is on call? Not a clue, those guys. They likely think the door guard is just for decoration, let alone the beef you never see until it’s too late.”
“I can understand that.” Glancing around, I could spot two of the Half Castle’s security team on duty, but only because I knew what to look for. At minimum, there’d be three times that many. Unless it got deadly, they might choose to let the scene play out rather than expose themselves; nobody wanted the place to lose its public reputation as nothing but the finest Chinese restaurant in Missoula. Local authorities suddenly wondering why a simple eatery kept professional butt-kickers on the payroll…that would not be a good thing.
Our soup arrived. I dug in, hoping to finish my bowl before things got too hairy. As fortune would have it, my prayers were answered…barely. I’d just set the empty bowl at the edge of the table for the waiter to pick up when the curtain rose and the play was on. Naturally, Victor had the first move; he always got in the first word, such as it was.
“Why don’t you crawl on back to California?”
Typical Victor Breach. He couldn’t come up with an original line if his next drink depended on it.
The paint spattered computer dude didn’t even look up from his keyboard, though I noticed that he, too, had finished his soup. Breach was looming over him, leaning over the table toward the fellow. His thick forearms were on display, his sleeves rolled up to reveal the rather festive tattoos decorating every square inch of skin above the wrists. Jungle parrots, green leaves, a dark tiger’s fierce eyes peering out, a monkey scolding the tiger.
No, I couldn’t see all that from clear across the room. But I’d seen my former employee up close when he was working for me. His tattoos were hard to miss. What he thought he was going to gain by bracing a fellow in Missoula when he was on parole made no more sense than the dream I had last night. I’d been riding a giant skunk with my spurs on but no skunk saddle or skunk bridle, trying to maneuver into position to get a few pictures of an equally huge and brightly quilled porcupine along the frontage road west of Drummond. Wonderful symbolism. Probably. If I had a clue what it was all about.
“Kirk, I’m talking to you!” Victor was turning red now. Redder, that is. His booze raddled face was always a bit rosy.
The fellow still ignored him.
Being ignored was of course the one thing Breach hated more than any other. He color shifted from red to purple rage, slamming a sizeable hand forward–not to bitch slap Kirk but to grab his computer. And just like that, he was on his knees, letting out a strangled sort of screeching sound, his mouth gaping open. The computer guy remained seated, but he had a grip on Breach’s hand, forcing it back at an unnatural angle.
“Don’t touch my computer, Victor.” His voice was calm, quiet, and…effective. That is, it would have been effective against a sane person, but V.B. was strongly suspected of lacking a marble or two. Kirk let go of Breach’s hand. Breach got back to his feet, massaging his assaulted extremity with his good hand while staring at his nemesis with murder in his eyes. He quit rubbing his hand and began reaching around to the small of his back ever so slowly.
I didn’t even remember moving. “That’s enough, Victor.”
The bully’s bloodshot eyes widened. “Mr. Jackson! I, uh. we–”
“This is no place to pick a fight. Go on home.” Not that I cared where he went, as long as it was somewhere away from the Half Castle. And he did go, him and his two buddies, all three of them shooting worried glances at me on the way out. I let out a breath of relief; if Breach had pulled the switchblade he carried in a sheath in the small of his back, things could have gotten ugly in a hurry.
Computer dude Kirk finally got to his feet, smiling as he extended his hand for me to shake. I shook it, noting the firm grip. I’d overestimated his height; he stood closer to five eight than five ten. “Treemin Jackson, I presume?”
My eyebrows rose. “You know who I am?”
He looked startled at that…then he started laughing. “Everybody in Granite County and most of them in Powell County know who you are.”
“They do?” That surprised me.
“You didn’t know?”
“Should I have?”
“I should think so. Your Rodeo Iron is only the biggest private employer in either county and growing like crazy. You and your uncle B.J. Hennessey are the only African American men in the area, that I know about anyway. He’s big enough to kill a guy just by sitting on him, and you’re no shrinking violet, either. You’re most often seen with your Caucasian buddy,” he indicated Jack Hill with a nod, “and there have been puff pieces all over the media about your skyrocketing business success in recent weeks. So yeah, you probably should have known.”
He said all that so pleasantly that I couldn’t be offended, but startled? I was definitely startled. We’d been keeping our noses to the grindstone when we weren’t having Diamond Paws adventures or killing Morse Code attackers or whatever; not one whiff of all that free publicity had passed by my apparently insensitive nose.
Jack hadn’t bothered to get up from his seat; he was cheerfully working his way through an order of sesame beef. I wanted him to hear this. “Care to join us for a bit?” I asked, “Or are you in the middle of something important?”
“Not that important.” He picked up his laptop and wiggled his fingers at a waiter to let him know about the shift to our table.
Hill did stand up long enough to shake Soren Kirk’s hand. We all sat down. It was a good thing my won ton soup had come in a huge bowl; I’d never be able to focus on food with an interesting fellow like Soren Kirk around.
“So,” I began, “how do you happen to know Victor Breach?”
“Oh, we go way back, Victor and me. Back in grade school at Ovando, he was the rich rancher’s son and my Dad raised sheep. No love lost between the two of us from day one. We had our first real fight in the second grade and it went from there. I lost two out of three of our scuffles, but I was gaining, and he didn’t like that. Then when we were in seventh grade, his Daddy got busted for knocking up his own daughter, Victor’s sister. The rumors said Victor had been getting some of that, too. He was never arrested or anything, but all the same, the word was out. I liked Renee a lot–that’s the sister’s name–and when all that came out, and she was in foster care for a while when she was thirteen, lost her son to the state and everything, I told her she could call on me if she ever needed anything. Word got to Victor, he decided I was putting my nose where it didn’t belong, and that was that. We’ve both been hackles-up on sight ever since.”
Jack Hill finished his last bite, put down his fork, and asked, “What was that bit about you going back to California?”
Kirk chuckled. “He figures anybody who ever spent any time in the Golden State plumb has to be a bona fide ass pirate, queer as a three dollar bill, tutti frutti all the way, or at least gay for pay. Funny thing is, I’ve never even been to California, except to fly out to Fresno a couple of times on business. My Dad moved us to Ohio when I was in eighth grade. Got my degree in Mechanical Engineering at M.I.T. and made my living from then until three weeks ago in Massachusetts. I just moved back to Ovando.”
I shook my head. “Didn’t take Breach long to resume the old vendetta, eh?”
“Not long. It’s my own fault, of course. I came back to Montana showing money. That is, I bought a full section of land and paid cash for it. Around here, word of something like that gets around in a hurry.”
Our favorite waiter, Chuck, stopped by at that point. “On the house,” he said, depositing a series of dishes on our table. I recognized sesame beef, teriyaki chicken, and a couple of kinds of egg foo young; some of the others were mysteries to me. “Don’t worry if you can’t eat it all right now,” he added with a straight face. “We have boxes.” Then he left, not a twitch or a wink or the slightest bit of body language to add to the message. Thanks, the Half Castle was saying, for chilling the troublemaker. A thrill of pleasure ran through me, head to toe. Until today, I’d been accepted in Mr. Gray’s confidence because of Jack Hill; now I was being appreciated on my own merits.
Soren Kirk was staring at the loaded table, shaking his head slowly. I couldn’t decide if he understood the message or not. We all dug in, though, helping ourselves to a bit of this and a bit of that, family style. We were going to need a lot of boxes.
“So,” I said around a mouthful of eggplant something-or-other, “you hit the Lottery or what? That much land doesn’t come cheap.” It was a pretty personal thing to be asking a brand new acquaintance, but Kirk seemed pretty open about his finances.
He took a sip of tea before answering. “You could say that. I invented the Super Screw.”
“The what?” Jack and I both stared at him in rather obvious amusement.
“You heard me,” he replied mildly. “The Super Screw. From your reaction, you never heard of it?”
“Unless it’s a girl I went to school with,” Jack replied, “then no. Care to clue us in?”
“Well…simplest way to explain it is…you know about nail guns, right? The Super Screw is a machine tool that does for roofing screws what a nail gun does for nails.”
He left it at that, letting us try to wrap our heads around the concept. After a while, I remarked, “That must have been a bitch to invent. I know nail guns thrive on magazines of nails that have been temporarily glued together at the factory, but nails don’t have threads. Or neoprene washers under the heads, for that matter.”
The inventor nodded. “It did take me a while to figure it out, all right. And it’s still expensive as the dickens. Not something a do it yourself home builder would consider, which is likely why you haven’t heard of it. Unless you’re a roofing contractor really cranking out the business, the Kirk Super Screw is cost prohibitive and then some. At present, the top model goes for just under three thousand dollars, retail.
“But if you’re one of the big guns, it’s worth it. I became obsessed with the idea after roofing my own home in Massachusetts–that was some years back. The ex got that one in the divorce, a couple of years before she overdosed on heroin. I did that roof myself. Took me just under two weeks to put in roughly 4,000 screws on a 2,600 square foot home. I got to thinking, a pro roofer could probably cut that in half, but if he was working alone it would still take him a week or close to it. Once a man is trained on the Super Screw, he can screw steel roofing panels down almost as fast as his partner can get them in place. One of our customers had me out on one of his jobs to observe; he had three men roofing a 2,000 square foot home. Two were placing panels while the third man ran the Super Screw. They traded off every half hour or so…and roofed the whole damn thing in three hours and fifty-seven minutes.”
I was still digesting that when Jack commented. “So, half a shift to roof a whole house.”
“Not counting the roofing felt, but yeah.”
We were impressed. However, I was still thinking over the bit about my apparent local celebrity status. It had simply never occurred to me that everybody in the area knew who I was. Guess I should have realized. I almost missed Hill’s question.
“Where’s your land located, exactly?”
“Actually, I’m your neighbor. Half a mile of your southern border is my northern border. Runs south for two miles, all the way down to Highway 200.”
“No shit?” The words were out before I could stop them. That was the timbered area through which Horace had tracked our wounded Kentuckian and his buddies as they headed down to the road to get picked up. And now it was going to be occupied? I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that.
“No shit. But I can guarantee you one thing. Except for my little old cabin–which I haven’t built yet, but I’ll be getting after it soon enough–there won’t be any development at all. Even my palatial domicile–that’s a joke, okay?–will be positioned near the far south end, well over two miles south of your homes according to Google Earth. I’ve picked my building site. Figure on buying a commercial shed on skids and bootlegging the rest of it, just far enough back in the trees so as to be invisible from the road. No use making it easy for the tax man.”
“A man after my own heart.” I had to smile, thinking about my own building plans. I wouldn’t be able to hide everything from the County Assessor, but….
Eventually, the talk turned back to the confrontation with Victor Breach. Jack and I were both curious about the hold Kirk had used to drop Breach to his knees.
“I don’t know what it’s called,” Kirk admitted. “just something I taught myself over the years. If he’s thrown his left hand out there, I use my left hand to trap my opponent’s arm long enough for my right hand to go to work. Center two fingers lock in where the bones in the back of the other guy’s hand meet his wrist. Thumb pushes against the palm, specifically against the bone just before it reaches his middle finger. I can show you if you like. Slow motion, no real pressure.”
Jack passed on that one, but I thought, why not? My hands were considerably larger than Kirk’s, but he made the hold work just fine. I could tell that if he locked one of those in during a real confrontation, I wouldn’t like it very much. It wouldn’t work against a monster like my uncle B.J., but then, not much would.
When we left the restaurant, we had eight boxes of Chinese food left to take with. Soren Kirk climbed into his pickup truck, a Navy blue one ton Dodge dually, and powered out of the lot. “Guess we’d better buy a cooler to keep all of this stuff edible till we get home, eh?” Bruce Wayne and the girls would be more than happy to help us take care of the leftovers.
A couple of hours later, loaded up and headed home, we had time to talk. “What do you think?” I asked.
“Our new neighbor.”
Jack shrugged. “Could be worse. At least he’s committed to keeping the forest cover between us and the highway intact.”
“Yeah,” I grinned, “and he doesn’t like Victor Breach any more than we do. That’s got to count for something. I just hope he’s not depending on bare handed martial arts to defend himself in the long run.”
“Hah!” Hill snorted, “You mean you didn’t notice?”
“His boots, for one. His jeans bulge out a little where the boot tops hit; he’s packing something there. Two somethings at least. Plus, that long leather vest was hanging open, so he wasn’t wearing an obvious shoulder holster, but if doesn’t have something in the small of his back–you know, like you carry your Walther–I’d be surprised. And that’s just what I noticed. I’d be willing to bet there’s more.”
“Huh.” I should have paid attention to the boots at least. After all, that’s where my Judi carried her matched pair of .22’s. The signs aren’t all that subtle if you know what you’re looking for. “So…a man after our own hearts, you think?”
“Possibly. Time will tell. That, and my hacker contacts. While you and Soren were checking out your fortune cookies, I excused myself to go to the restroom, remember?”
“Yeah, I–oh.” Of course. Jack had slipped on back to talk to Mr. Gray, put in a request for a full background check on one Soren Kirk, purported inventor of the Super Screw.
I couldn’t wait to see the results on that one.