Jack Hill fought the Subaru’s wheel as the Outback churned through the last of the mud, its all wheel drive tires finally grabbing onto the Highway 200 blacktop like a drowning man clutching a lifeguard. Neither of us had considered taking the Pontiac for this run; the beefed up front wheel drive beast was a cushy road machine for the long haul, but it was no ATV. Neither of us said a word until the -chunk!-splat!- of spinoff mud finished celebrating the machine’s victory over the rain gods. True, the rain had finally had its say and moved on. Overhead, the sky was clearing on this fine spring Sunday morning. But it would take most of the day–at least–for the road surface to dry out significantly.
“So,” Hill finally asked, “that’s all of it?”
“Pretty close. The rest of it was small talk, both of us cussing the weather, talking about our building plans, nothing of substance.” I was a little edgy inside, waiting to see how the old Protector was going to react to me spouting off to Soren Kirk about our living arrangements, two bed partners each in a rural community where spreading that around would never be a good idea. However, the operative word was little. Maybe I was getting cocky at the ripe old age of twenty-seven–though I hoped that wasn’t the case–but…. “I know I gave away maybe a bit more than I should have.”
He flicked a glance at me, mildly surprised. “Gave away? Gave away what?”
Wha–?! “You know. About Carolyn and Wayne being your slaves. Reckon it’s up to me if I talk about my arrangement with Sissy and Judi, but your threesome is nobody’s business but yours, which I know full well.”
“Oh.” He fell silent for a minute, warily watching a sizeable blacktail buck feeding alongside the road. A tenderfoot might not have known it was a boy deer; the animal’s antlers were barely coming back as velvet covered nubs. He was a big fellow, though. By October, he ought to have a dandy rack if he didn’t do the deer suicide thing and step into the roadway in front of an oncoming motor vehicle. Or if the wolves didn’t get him; we’d been hearing them again, though they’d not hit the Trace herds recently. “Tree, you didn’t tell Kirk anything that’s not at least common rumor in the area.”
We passed the buck safely; Jack put the hammer down and the Subaru accelerated smoothly toward Clearwater Junction. We’d be in Missoula pretty early this time. The Half Castle didn’t officially open its doors as a Chinese restaurant until eleven, but we’d be there when they did. Not that we visited the place on a Sunday very often. In fact, I couldn’t remember doing so even once.
“No. You didn’t. Kirk had one thing right for sure. Remember when he told us we were celebrities–well, you and B.J. were, anyway, with me being the sort of anonymous sidekick. You know, black entrepreneurs in white Montana, all that?”
“Well, our new neighbor made me think. I did some checking around. Discreetly, of course. There was never any question about Sissy and Judi; you’re employing dozens of welders and both girls are working for Rodeo Iron. I’m willing to bet hundreds of people in this end of Powell County know they live with you. The more charitable folks may choose to believe you’ve got some sort of platonic relationship with one of them, and maybe a few others try not to think about it, but it’s not exactly a secret.”
Okay. That made sense now that I thought about it. But…. “I get that. The main thing we three have to do is (a) keep Judi out of Missoula, safely away from her dead ex’s relatives, and (b) make sure nobody points a camera at Sissy in case there’s still a murder warrant out on her, which there probably is. On the other hand, when I told Kirk not to tell you, sure, I was setting him up–but you’re not saying Ovando as a whole knows about your Master/slave arrangement, are you?”
I didn’t stare at him, kept looking out through the windshield, but I caught his shrug from the corner of my eye. “Master/slave specifically? Maybe not. Probably not. But there are plenty of folks up our way who were aware that not two but three other people were living with me before you came along. The small minded folks had already put their evil little attitudes to work long before you and I even met. I’ve heard tell there are other views out there, too, one of them being that Wayne Bruce is my son and that Carolyn West is his wife. One rumor got back to me that the property belonged to Wayne and I was his senile, doddering grandfather.”
He paused briefly, but it was obvious he had more to say. I waited him out, listening to the car’s tires humming happily down the highway as a kind of therapy. “Thing is, Tree, there are times a man worth his salt has got to risk a few chips if he’s going to win the big pot. What you did yesterday…no, I can’t say that’s the way I’d have handled it. Not today, I can’t. But a hundred years ago? It does remind me of the style I had back then.”
“You’re not pissed off at me, then?”
“Pissed off?” He sounded genuinely startled. “You thought I would be?”
“The possibility crossed my mind.”
“Ah. Well…no. I see it more like…you know the old stories about the Indian Wars, right? And the Plains Indians, their way of life before the white man came?” His questions were rhetorical; he knew full well I was up on all that. Being hooked up with Native American Sissy Harms, I’d better be. “So you know it was almost a cliché that in a given nation, be it the Blackfeet or the Lakota or whoever, the young bucks would be itchy for war and would go start one if they had half a chance, sometimes if they didn’t, while the elders who’d seen it all had grown a whole lot more cautious about that sort of thing.”
“Of course. Are you saying I’m the reckless, hot blooded young buck, and you–?”
“By George, I think he’s got it.”
“And the Native elders, when the young bucks dashed off and counted coup or stole horses or raided whichever enemy tribe and brought back fresh scalps, were they–as a regular thing, now–did they get pissed off the young men? Or did they remember their own times on the warpath and take it in stride as the normal order of things?”
“Ah. I see.” I wasn’t positive I was thrilled to be seen as a reckless young man, but if the shoe fits….
We didn’t have much else to say during the rest of the ride to town, nor at breakfast. When we hit the Half Castle promptly at eleven and were tucked into the secret back room by 11:02, however, both of us had our adrenaline up. What Mr. Gray could find out for us through his intel network remained to be seen, but he was certainly our best shot.
When Jack explained why we were there, Gray did something I’d never seen him do before. He spoke into the back of his left wrist, presumably to a Dick Tracy style communicator. “Laura? Yes. D3 meeting protocol…no, one hour minimum on the lock; I’ll let you know when…yes. Thank you.”
I felt my inner eyebrows rise but schooled my face to impassivity. D3? Lock? What the hell? Jack didn’t look at all concerned, though. I was pretty sure emulating him was a good idea, so I did that.
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Gray said, “have a seat. Whatever information any of us have on Mr. Soren Kirk, I suggest we share.”
Jack did speak up then. “You go first.”
“Certainly. First, gentlemen, let me assure you that HCC, Half Castle Corporation, has at least as many questions about Mr. Kirk as you do. Please watch closely.” The trim, elegantly attired man, impeccable in his sleek gray suit, electric blue tie, and what looked like eight hundred dollar loafers, tapped a control on the console at his desk–a desk that was new to this room since our last visit–and the far wall lit up with a movie of sorts. Whoa. Big screen HDTV eat your heart out. The display had to be at least ten feet high by fourteen wide. Man, you could count the individual hairs on the back of Victor Breach’s hairy hands as he loomed over Soren Kirk.
The action shifted into ultra slow motion, displaying one discrete frame at a time. “There,” Gray intoned, “note Kirk’s right hand.”
I did, and I saw what he was getting at. At the time, I’d been impressed that Soren Kirk could move with enough lightning speed to catch Breach’s attack in midair…but that hadn’t been the way of it. Instant replay, no doubt from one of the Half Castle’s many hidden security cameras, made it clear; Kirk’s right hand had been in motion several frames before Breach launched his ill fated strike.
Gray froze the image. “Conclusions, gentlemen?”
I decided to let Jack take this one. The old man was rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Kirk’s counter was precise and quick, but the key here is that he anticipated Breach’s move. Anticipated it with one hundred percent accuracy. And nobody acquires that kind of skill without a whole lot of intense training by the best of the best. Which leads to the question: Who trained him? Where and when? And to what purpose?”
“Those are the exact questions our people are asking,” Gray said. His demeanor didn’t change from his usual calm, collected style, at least not noticeably. But he was concerned; I was certain of that. “The gaps in his background check plus a close combat skill level he should not possess add up to…what?”
“Enquiring minds want to know,” I muttered. Both men looked at me, especially when I followed up by fishing a little blue USB flash drive from my shirt pocket and handed it to Gray. “I recorded my entire conversation with Kirk yesterday,” I explained. “I’ve made a copy, but that’s the original. I thought possibly some of your contacts could make use of it. Not sure how, exactly, but–” I trailed off. Jack had known I was carrying the flash drive, but Gray looked like I’d just handed him the Holy Grail.
“With this,” he breathed, showing uncharacteristic emotion, “yes, our people may just be able to do something. Voice recognition apps; it’s possible the voice on here might match a voice in one database or another. The speech patterns. Voice stress analysis; we have people who can use that to determine with a high degree of certainty if Mr. Kirk is telling the truth or fibbing. Accent analysis; we could very well pin down an area of the country–or out of the country–where he’s been during the times he’s gone black. This, Treemin Jackson,” he gave me a rare smile, revealing teeth too perfect to be anything but expensive, “is pure gold. Platinum. Titanium. Whatever.”
I fought an urge to giggle. Hearing the suave Mr. Gray use a word like whatever was almost too much. The advent of Soren Kirk must be bothering him and his people a lot.
Come to think of it, it was bothering me a bit, too. Jack and I, everybody in management at both Rodeo Iron and the Trace ranch for that matter, had secrets and plenty of them, but our fighting skills, while not exactly shabby, were somewhere in the range of human normal. The film left no doubt that Kirk’s were not; he was in another class altogether. I still felt I’d done the right thing by calling on him yesterday, but if he’d decided I needed to die, I’d most likely have died. Jack didn’t say anything, but I knew he was thinking it. I’d gone dancing with a possible pit viper, thinking he was maybe a coyote or some such, and come away safely. Which left me wondering: Had he kept his fangs sheathed because he really was a good guy of one sort or another…or had it simply not been the right time for him to introduce me to a massive dose of venom?
Man, the dude must be an awesome actor. And I’d challenged him, implied we’d best be friends or else. Or maybe that wasn’t so bad. Might even have been the right thing to do. Can’t let ’em smell your fear, can’t let ’em see you sweat.
We spent the next half hour going over everything we knew so far. Everything he’d stated regarding his formal education and career and even his divorce checked out, with the exception of the part about his ex having given him signs that she wanted to be enslaved. I shared a few observations that were not on the flash drive, such as the quick glances I’d taken toward the hallway when Kirk’s back was turned. There looked to be two more rooms back there, with the corner of a desk showing in the most rearward room and his bed set up in the middle room.
“That struck me as significant,” I explain. “Most of the time, at least in a linear room arrangement building like that, the bedroom will be the one farthest back in the building on the assumption that the distance from the front door will give the homeowner another second or two to react in the event of a home invasion. But that’s not the case for Kirk. Which leads me to wonder what is in that back room that is more important, more needful of protection, than Kirk himself? A desk would indicate paperwork, maybe a second computer. His forward computer, the fancy laptop, I don’t know for sure what he does with that except surf porn sites. I did catch a glimpse before his screensaver came on. But I’m not certain the porn isn’t a front, that and the fancy chrome on the laptop, gimmicks to fool the casual observer so that the real machine remains undetected and unsuspected.”
“Possibly.” Mr. Gray tapped the table with one long, manicured finger, considering. “It might also be a way of communicating right under the noses of the unsuspecting.”
“It’s a not uncommon tactic, Treemin. Covert operators will sometimes encode messages in images, a .jpg or .png photo or whatever.” There was that word again, whatever. “A text message can be hidden in an online image rather easily.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said slowly. Jack remained silent, trying to look like he did know, but I strongly suspected he was faking it. “So you’re saying a photo of a nude woman might have instructions to a terrorist embedded in her vagina.”
“I’m not sure about the vagina,” Gray shook his head, “but somewhere in the image, yes. The receiver would need to know the key, but yes. Apps to do that sort of thing have been around for a long time.”
“Huh. Shows you what I know.”
“Do not underestimate yourself, Mr. Jackson. It was you who bearded the mystery lion in his wooden den yesterday. In the mud, no less. That takes a certain…panache.”
Punash? I was going to have to look that one up later. Or ask Jack. It sounded good, though.
It seemed like we were wrapping things up, but Jack had one last thing to add. “I’ve got your emergency number, Mr. Gray, in case we turn up something on Kirk that can’t wait for us to get to Missoula. Would you like to have a number for me? And one for Tree? They’re secure cells, one time usage.”
“Yes, I think that would be advisable.” He fished a slim case out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket, and a gold colored pen–which I suspected might be real gold–appeared magically in his hand. He took down the numbers in what I just knew had to be a precise script that would qualify as art. He had that sort of presence, Mr. Mega Competence with Exquisite Taste and Artistic Qualities.
Minutes later, we were out of there and back in the Subaru, heading across town to pick up a load of goodies from Walmart. None of our crew ever came to town without taking a load back, at least not if we could help it.
“What do you think?” I asked.
Jack swerved the Outback expertly around a bicyclist who was trying out for the Hood Ornament team before answering. “I think we need to brief the entire inner circle, Tree. Including your uncle. All we know, or think we know, is that Soren Kirk can probably kill without using any weapons but his hands. He may not have come home to Ovando to terminate anybody, but we don’t know that he hasn’t, either. We need to go to HWF.”
“HWF?” I couldn’t help grinning. “That’s another one of your acronyms?”
“Most assuredly. HWF, Hidden War Footing. We don’t know for sure that anything bad is coming at us, but we do need to do the Boy Scout thing and be prepared. Seems to me that until this is all sorted out, we all need to buddy up. For now, no more solo security rounds for Sissy. She and Judi need to stick to each other like glue. Same for Wayne and Carolyn, plus, since Carolyn is useless in a fight, those two are going to have to stick close to the house unless I’m escorting them elsewhere. Jennifer Trace…Horace Tamblyn is going to have to be her shadow.”
“He’ll like that,” I chuckle.
“No doubt he will. And Tree?”
“Same goes for you and me. No more solo jaunts to beard the mystery lion in his wooden den; you and I need to be covering each other’s backs any time there’s no one else on hand to do it. On our home turf, with the other members of our households, we can split up, but away from that, any more solo expeditions don’t seem advisable to me. You agree?”
“I do,” I said, feeling a trickle of sweat suddenly running down under my shirt from my left armpit, “and while I can’t say I regret going to talk with Soren yesterday, I’m not feeling any overwhelming desire to repeat the experience in the immediate future, either.”
“We’re agreed, then.” We rose from our glorified bar stools, shook hands with Mr. Gray, and waited for him to call his team to let us out. I glanced at my watch. Twelve thirty-three. We’d been in conference for an hour and a half. It would be one-thirty, maybe two o’clock before we could finish up at Walmart and head back north. No time to waste. Our households were on guard well enough, but Jennifer Trace and the old tracker needed to be given a heads up. For that matter, a quick call to B.J.’s safe phone was in order, too; not even the big man could be guaranteed safe alone in the high country until we got this sorted out.
And then there was Diamond Paws. The digger was positive he hadn’t been spotted during his surveillance, but what if he had been? Victor Breach was certain he was being ignored, too, until he found himself disarmed and on his knees in front of the man he’d intended to slice and dice, a man who didn’t even bother to get up from his seated position. What if Soren Kirk’s presence wasn’t about Rodeo Iron or the Trace ranch at all; what if he knew about the alien?
Shades of the freaking X Files….
We were halfway across town before I told Jack, “You know, I really don’t think I’m an adrenaline addict, but this is getting ridiculous.”
Hill threw back his head and laughed so hard he nearly ran off the road. “What did I say?” I asked. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh–,” he wiped his eyes, struggling for composure. “Nothing, really. It’s just that whenever you and I’ve been together, at least as far as memory serves…well, it’s never been boring.”
I flashed back to our first remembered meeting at the Confederate prison camp, Andersonville, during the Civil War. Jack, under another name then, of course, had sliced my throat from ear to ear to facilitate his escape from the notorious facility. “That,” I admitted drily, “is one way to put it.”