The week following our introduction to Soren Kirk at the Half Castle was a touch on the hectic side for Rodeo Iron. Chuck Trucking was going gangbusters, taking full advantage of lower fuel prices, but we had to decide whether or not to send the eighteen wheelers to Pennsylvania for half a dozen loads of bargain priced steel pipe. That required a fairly intense skull session, mostly trying to figure out if metal could possibly be top quality U.S. product at the price the foundry was offering. We eventually determined that it was indeed a bona fide, gold plated opportunity.
Personnel records for Victor Breach had to be pulled and scrutinized. Judi didn’t think we’d missed dotting any i’s or crossing any t’s, but we had to be sure. Having fired the fellow and now finding out our new neighbor was Breach’s lifetime worst enemy, or close to it, we weren’t taking any chances on a frivolous lawsuit catching us off guard. Especially after I’d stood up and more or less sided with Kirk in Missoula.
Unsurprisingly, the Diamond Paws situation remained high on the list. To date, only our inner circle knew the eight limbed, four eyed sentient even existed, but Diamond’s prime motivation in seeking us out in the first place required a bit of discussion regarding the being’s mystery: Why were his people fading, numerically speaking, and what could be done about it? Carolyn West took point on that one; she and the big fellow continued to strengthen their bond. Besides, I got the feeling that Diamond wasn’t one hundred percent comfortable hanging tight with me these days. Not after I’d gunned down his former husband, he wasn’t. His stellar intelligence told him his reaction was out of line since I’d been done the killing to save Diamond’s own life, but Umthnn emotions in such matters were powerful. He’d get over it, Carolyn assured me, but it would take time.
Meanwhile, she’d gleaned a few facts and figures to help us all put on our thinking caps. It turned out the underground Umthnn population had peaked around the time Columbus stumbled onto American soil and had been declining ever since. I didn’t understand a fraction of the math involved (Fraction…math…get it?) but had no reason to doubt the figures.
And the figures were pretty grim.
For one thing, there were no longer any living Umthnn older than 47,931 years of age. In 1492, there had been dozens of oldsters beating that number, several of them topping the magical 50,000 year mark. Being concerned about that might sound ridiculous to a human whose elders seldom lived much beyond a single century, but to the Umthnn it was a terrifying statistic.
Secondly, the hatchling wars were becoming more deadly than before. Today, Diamond told Carolyn sadly, there were very few dual or triple survivors from a single clutch of eggs.
Thirdly, the fertilized egg laying rate among mated Umthnn was down by nearly eleven percent, more of the eggs that were produced being good for nothing but giant omelettes.
None of us had any scintillating insights.
We did have a few skull sessions with Diamond regarding technology. The Umthnn rule on such things turned out to be pretty simple. If an Umthnn invention could be easily destroyed, if it was organic and more or less biodegradable over time, then by all means, the Council would generally be in favor. But if it was something that might persist in easily recognizable form underground for decades or even centuries, it generally got a thumbs down ruling–and the Council members had a lot of thumbs between them. This was not due to any concern about the environment. Rather, it stemmed from the People’s core need to avoid discovery by the human world at large.
Thus, wooden spears, even fire hardened, were acceptable. Stone or steel spearheads were not. Rope was fine, and the Umthnn made some fine rope. Knives were simply superfluous, what with most Umthnn possessing digging and fighting claws that were sharper than most steel blades anyway.
And so it went.
We called an owners meeting for the following Sunday, Jack scheduling a solo run to Missoula on Saturday to pick up the in depth background report on Soren Kirk. I would have gone with him, but Judi and I had to pull a bit of overtime in the office that morning. I didn’t see the old Protector until we gathered in Jennifer Trace’s kitchen at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. Wayne Bruce was serving up elk steak tip omelettes–made with chicken eggs, not Umthnn eggs–that were to die for, as they say. That was a definite improvement in the cuisine department. Stereotypical or not, nobody else we knew could match the gay man’s cooking. Also, though he was not an owner, he was definitely part of our inner circle; we didn’t need to shoo him away before the meeting started like we’d always done with Jennifer’s ranch cook.
The meeting went smoothly enough for the most part. The widow Trace was still working up her nerve toward the idea of meeting Diamond Paws face to face. Admitting she might change her mind once she got to know the critter, Jennifer also let us all know that while she wasn’t exactly freaked out by the presence of eight foot tall digger monsters living beneath her land, it wouldn’t cause her to lose any sleep to hear they’d gone extinct, either.
Diamond himself was off somewhere on his own and hadn’t been seen for three days now.
Soren Kirk checked out; he really did have a college degree in Mechanical Engineering–an advanced degree, in fact, a PhD–and he really had invented the Super Screw, reportedly grossing sales of more than five million dollars annually at this point. He’d been soaked rather badly in his divorce but had apparently managed to pay his ex off in full; he was his own man financially.
There was one surprise. “He also writes books,” Jack told us, reading from the notes Mr. Gray had provided. “Not dry engineering stuff, either. Fiction. He’s not one of the giants, sells an average of thirty to forty thousand copies of each title. But he’s prolific; according to the report, he produces at least one new novel every year. Not itty bitty things, either; average number of pages tends to hover around 700 or so.”
We all found that interesting, not that any of us were qualified to comment on it. Who had time to sit around reading?
The meeting wrapped up around 11:30. On the way back to our vehicles, Jack sprang a small surprise. “The girls are all at my place, Tree. Fixing lunch. We need to talk.”
With that he was gone, leaving my cocked eyebrow without a target. Lunch invitations at the Hill house were always welcome, but Wayne Bruce was usually involved in producing the meal. With his efforts focused on brunch for the meeting at the Trace ranch, today was clearly an exception to the usual rule.
Most intriguing, of course, was Jack going all enigmatic on me. We need to talk, he said. Huh.
Of course, Jack and I’d both had brunch at Jennifer’s, so “lunch” was a bit of a misnomer. Carolyn, Sissy, and Judi all had egg salad sandwiches, but we settled for blueberry pie and coffee. Jack wolfed down two pieces of pie before raising the curtain on the mystery of the day.
“This could take a while,” he began, producing a thick trade paperback book. “For starters, take a look at this.” He passed it across the table, eyeing me across his mug as he sipped coffee and waited for my response.
I took my time, studying the tome. It was impossible to tell from the cover if I was looking at science fiction or fantasy or mainstream fiction, but it definitely wasn’t fact based. Mentor, the title read, by Horvak Tuth. The cover painting depicted a silver something or other that might have been either a medieval shield or a space ship. The yellowish background was equally ambiguous. Alien landscape? American desert, blasted by war? Seven hundred and three pages. Published in 2007, copyright belonging to Singra Publishing.
It was the page count that clued me in. “One of Soren Kirk’s books? Under a nom de plume?”
“Got it in one, Tree.” Jack put down his coffee mug. He looked…worried? “That’s the only title our contacts could produce on short notice, but it’s supposed to be his biggest hit. Sold nearly 300,000 copies to date. Now, I realize it’s fiction, but the thing is, if this is typical of his work…I stayed up all night last night, reading this thing. Haven’t been to bed yet. The setup is simple enough. The primary protagonist, Shickle Brown, goes hunting for a mentor, a master who really understands how our messed up universe actually works at every level. Shick finds his mentor in the third chapter, a simple seeming wheat farmer living in North Dakota, not far from the Canadian border. He’s lucky in that he finds this fellow, Nord Johanson, late enough in the year that Johanson has little to do for several months through the long, cold North Dakota winter.
“Shick pesters Nord, and Nord eventually agrees to tell him a few things.”
Carolyn West chose that moment to wave a peach cobbler, fresh from the oven, under our noses. Hey, a guy’s always got room for peach cobbler–when Carolyn makes it, anyway. Move over, blueberry.
I looked my puzzlement at Jack. “So…what’s your point?”
“I’d just as soon not get to that till you hear a few samples from the book.”
I handed Mentor back across the table. Hill pulled a pair of Walmart reading glasses from his shirt pocket–he didn’t always need them, just depended on the day–thumbed to a passage he’d dog-eared, and began reading.
“What,” Shickle Brown asked, “is the key to survival? The number one, most important key?”
The big Swede paused, eyeing the knife blade he’d been sharpening. Still not quite keen enough; he returned to his slow, methodical work against the oilstone. “Manage not to be arrested,” he said. Nothing more.
Frustrated, Brown spluttered, “Manage not to be arrested? That’s it?!”
“It could be more.” Johanson’s voice was calm, unbothered by his protégé’s distress. “But it’s important. Think about it. Walk across a street in town against the light, you can get arrested. Admire a pretty girl in a schoolyard, even if she’s a seventeen year old cheerleader with boobs out to here and the morals of an alley cat, you get arrested. Neglect to fasten your seat belt. Arrested. Tell the truth about people in power, maybe get murdered instead of getting arrested. Raise the wrong sort of crop on your own land. Arrested. Wear the wrong clothing, or no clothing at all. Arrested. Say something politically incorrect in the wrong neighborhood. Boom. Arrested. Take a wrong turn at the Mexican border. Do you need me to go on?”
“Oh, come on, now,” Shick protested, “you can’t be serious. Sure, nobody wants to run afoul of the authorities. I get that. But basics like food and shelter are surely more important!”
“You think so?”
“No. You are mistaken. If you are homeless in the wrong city, you will be arrested for lacking those very basics. If you were a black man or woman or child who drank from the wrong water fountain or used the wrong restroom or refused to sit in the back of the bus prior to the Civil Rights Act, you were quite often arrested. You say shelter is more important that not getting arrested? Not so. Build a house or even a little leanto without a building permit, you get arrested, or at least threatened and fined. If you take food without paying for it, you get arrested. If you hunt your food without a hunting license? Arrested. The first thing, always, is to avoid getting arrested.”
Jack eyed me expectantly.
“What?” I shrugged, mostly concentrating on my cobbler.
“That passage doesn’t jar you a bit?”
“Should it?” I was honestly confused. “What he’s stating sounds accurate enough to me.”
“Yes. Aha. Tree, the passage doesn’t bother you because you and I both know he’s telling the truth straight out. Hell, man, it sometimes seems like half the stuff you and I do is aimed at making sure none of us get arrested. But that’s just it. Rounders like you and me, that’s how we think. But Soren Kirk is a bonafide Mechanical Engineer with an advanced degree. And I can tell you this, Mr. Jackson, I’ve yet to meet–well, before Kirk, anyway–I’ve yet to meet the Mechanical Engineer who had this kind of reality based take on society as we know it. What I’m saying is, it just does not fit.”
I stared at him, nonplussed. There was something about Jack Hill at this moment, in the way he spoke. Subtle, but I had grown to know this man better than I knew any other human being on the planet with the possible exceptions of my lovers, Sissy and Judi. There was something wrong here. It took me a long moment to pin it down…no, that’s not right. It took me a long moment to accept what I was seeing and hearing. The ancient Protector, he who had faced Death in a hundred guises without flinching, he who had witnessed man’s inhumanity to man over a span of nearly seventeen decades at this point…damn it, there was no way around it.
Jack Hill was scared.
That such a man could be frightened was enough to shake me to my roots. Soren Kirk’s book had caused this? What was I missing? There was only one way to find out.
“I’m missing something, Jack,” I said slowly, rubbing my cheek absently with the fingers of one hand. “Is it really that unusual for an Engineer type to think outside the box?”
“There are exceptions to every rule,” he admitted, a look of relief flooding his eyes. He could tell when I was engaged in the conversation and when I wasn’t. “But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s another passage I found later on in the book, one that really slammed me upside the head.” He located another dog-eared page and began to read.
Shickle Brown was nothing if not persistent, his skull housing a brain that his mother had once described as half moth, half bulldog. “You’re drawn to the flame of knowledge,” she’d told him, “and once you get your teeth into a topic, any topic, you won’t let go.” Right now, he had his buldoggy teeth into the topic of survival.
“How long can a man survive?” He asked his mentor, “After all, our days are numbered, aren’t they? Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”
Nord Johanson looked down his rather long nose at the persistent young man. “Our days may be numbered,” he said, “but who’s to say what that number may be? There are those who accept no limitations, those who understand the Law of Avoidance, who have learned to slide past not only the law enforcing cop in the patrol car but the Law of Expectations as well. Those who know we are not bound by the rules generally accepted by society are perhaps few in number but by no means nonexistent. They walk among us, bound by neither time nor space nor the combination thereof, some of them carrying out spiritual missions, others wedded to the Dark Side as surely as the Emperor in the Star Wars movies. What man knows he can do, he can do. It may or may not always be worth the price of the whistle, but he can do it.”
Brown’s eyes widened at this. He did not know whether to exult in the possibilities or cower from the idea that Darth Vader himself could be right around the next corner. The day had simultaneously brightened and darkened. The effect was unsettling.
“Oh.” The girls were silent, watching us, saying nothing at all. “I, um, don’t suppose it’s likely Kirk’s fiction book is really fiction, is it?”
Jack shook his head. “I don’t think so. There are fiction writers out there who make up the wildest stuff they can think of just to hook a reader, but to me this has the feel of somebody hiding his own real experience under a bit of thin gauze.”
“So, if that’s the case, he’s either discovered how to become one of the long lived people or he’s seriously seeking the knowledge.”
“Tree, I don’t think he’s just seeking; his Nord Johanson character speaks with way too much authority, too much certainty. Sure, he could have plagiarized it, lifted the idea from some other writer, but that’s not what my gut is telling me.”
“And this scares the crap out of you because….” I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear him say it.
“Because we don’t know if he’s running the spiritual mission side or the Dark Side. The guy could be a budding saint, or he could be a John Wayne Gacy, a Killer Clown who buries bodies on his own property.”
“And his own property,” I said slowly, thinking it through, “is now a sizeable tract of heavily timbered land smack dab next to yours.”
“Hey,” he pointed out, “we’re not that far from where the Unabomber holed up outside of Lincoln. But wait, there’s more. Oh, damn. Not the time to be quoting a Ginsu knife commercial. Cannibal hitchhiker, severed thumb in pocket. Happy times.”
“Focus, Jack. Focus.”
“Yeah. Well. There is more. As deep as the background check went, there are still a few times our new neighbor went black over the years. Gaps in his resume, if you will, times–once nearly two years–when even our magical hackers couldn’t pin down his location or what he was doing or anything whatsoever about him. He knows how to disappear, and from time to time he’s done it.”
“Hunh.” I wasn’t spooked yet, not like Jack, but I was beginning to comprehend his concern. “So at the very least, he’s more than he appears to be. Or less, depending on how you look at it. Maybe we should instigate a little investigation of our own.”
Jack’s eyebrows lifted. As well as I knew him, he probably knew me better. “What do you have in mind?”
“Surveil–we don’t have time for that. Not and get anything else done.”
“You’re right. We don’t.”
“You up for a riddle? What’s eight feet tall, invisible, and able to pick up human conversation through steel walls?”
“You don’t–Diamond Paws?!”
“Why not? Diamond is kind of at loose ends right now. He’s not quite completely healed yet, he’s got to be lonely as Hell–except when he and Carolyn are conversing, anyway–and he’s sort of stuck here until we either figure out the Umthnn population decline problem or decide we simply don’t have what it takes to find the answer. He’s probably smarter than all of us in this room put together. He knows there are good humans, bad humans, and in between humans. I’m betting he’ll jump at the chance to have something worthwhile to do, especially if his buddy Carolyn is the one to explain the situation to him. Heck, he’s certainly not going to want to be happily tunneling around under the land and run into a cache of fresh corpses, either.”
Carolyn West shuddered at the image. “I think that’s a great idea, Treemin. Jack, what do you think?” She turned the full power of her love gaze on Hill. He really never had a chance.
“Sure,” he grinned. “Why not? Diamond’s a digger; he might as well be digging for secrets.”
I laughed out loud. “So, is a Diamond digger like a gold digger, only more so?”
“The answer to that,” Jack pointed out, “depends on what the big fellow digs up for us.”