Virgil “Chief” Stassen studied the big screen on the far wall, pondering. Not that he’d admit to his birth name being Virgil; it was certainly not the name he was known by these days. He’d had to legally change all that before founding Vigilant Enterprises; being known as either Virgil Vigilant or Virgil the Vigilante didn’t exactly fit his public image.
Privately, he still considered the entire double set of operations to be neither Vigilant nor Vigilante, bur rather Virgilante Enterprises. Virgil + Ante, and he was about to up the ante.
The rest of the Executive Committee…yes, he probably should consider them for a moment. He hadn’t lasted this long by ignoring the sometimes fragile egos of his subordinates. The Committee was a sham, a rubber stamp and nothing more, but it could be a touchy rubber stamp. To his left at the horseshoe shaped table, he could count on Breck Tollefson; the skinny North Dakotan was a born lackey, his loyalty far more firmly cemented to his fearless leader than to his own Norwegian ancestors. And where Breck went, there went Carl Thorpe also. Thorpe was as fat as Tollefson was lean, reminding the Founder of nothing so much as the old nursery rhyme.
Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.
Never mind that in this instance Sprat and his wife were of the same gender. They probably lick-cleaned a few more things than platters, too, but that was none of his business. What did matter was that he could count on those two to follow his lead without complaint.
The other side of the table…that was something else. Jericho Tanner, five six at most but solid as a rock and built like one, too. Jericho had to weigh in at two hundred pounds or more, nearly as wide as pansy Thorpe but with a body fat ratio that would turn the average competitive body builder green with envy. The man ate like a whole herd of horses, too, but his metabolism somehow turned every ounce of intake to muscle. Which wouldn’t be a problem, but this oversized pain in the neck had an overdeveloped conscience to go along with his overdeveloped brain.
Bottom line, Tanner made him nervous. No one else did that, not even the rebel Seed.
Mayonnaise Welch, the final EC member…hell, you never knew which way that guy was going to jump. He’d gotten his nickname as a kid, thanks to his compulsive habit of eating the stuff straight from the jar, but Mayo’s voting record on the Committee more resembled black pepper. His input spiced up many a target discussion meeting, but over the long haul he was as likely to give a fellow holes in his colon as not. They’d have sanctioned Seed long ago, had it not been for the Mayo man’s vigorous argument decrying such action against one of their own. In a very real sense, Mayo was to blame for the entire mess in which they now found themselves.
Well. The natives were starting to get restless; time to get on with it. “Jericho,” he said, “your thoughts?”
The stocky man steepled his fingers, considering. “Seed has definitely made it clear he’s not going to go quietly into that good night. I have to agree with that much.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious. “All right. Are we all agreed, then? Kirk the Jerk has declared himself an enemy of Vigilante Enterprises?”
Mayo’s mild voice answered first. “No. We’re not agreed. Not on that point, we’re not. We sent a team. He defended himself. He warned us about Beets, and when we called his bluff, he came and got his friend. But he has not gone to the authorities, and–”
“Of course he hasn’t gone to the authorities. His record stands as the field operative with the highest single number of successful assassinations in VE history. That’s not something he’d want mentioned to law enforcement, now is it?”
“Hold on, Chief. Let me finish. As I was saying, he’s not gone to the authorities. He’s also not expanded his action focus against us. Especially in the Great Falls mission, he could easily have terminated some of our people that night. We’ve ascertained that there were several shooters; some of them had to have seen shots they could have taken at one headquarters guard or another.”
Stassen struggled to hold on to his temper. “And you think this means he’s our buddy?”
“I didn’t say that. But I don’t believe he’s going to escalate this conflict if we don’t. Seems to me he’s sending a clear message, or two messages. Number one, knock it off with the overbearing arrogant attitude. Number two, this is between us.”
There was a stunned silence. The leader who’d signed off on more than a thousand assassinations–and those were just the killings done within the fifty states–felt his eyes narrowing to mere slits. “You think,” he said softly, the near-silent whisper of a hunting rattlesnake inching closer to its prey, “that what we do is arrogant? That taking out those who would bring America to its knees, those who would fundamentally transform the nation, is arrogance?”
“Chief,” Jericho Tanner said, his demeanor calm but his gaze as chill as winter ice, “Seed is not America’s enemy. Neither is Beets.”
“Well then. Let’s put it to a vote.” He’d hoped to bring these idiots around to his way of thinking, but if he let this so called discussion go on much longer, he’d end up using the under-table weapons to terminate a couple of recalcitrant Executive Committee members on the spot. Which wouldn’t do at all; he’d be needing them as scapegoats if anything went seriously wrong.
The vote went as expected, three in favor of Red Dawn, two against. He logged the results into his secure laptop, the one that was never connected to the Internet. “Time for lunch, gentlemen,” he declared with false cheer. Prime rib, lobster, or chicken parmesan, take your pick. Three martini limit. We reconvene at two p.m.” The others nodded, Tanner and Welch pushing back their chairs. Those two would repair to the men’s room, no doubt gossiping like a couple of catty females while they used the facilities.
That was a good thing. Chief Stassen had the place wired for sound. The more they gave away, the better.
We didn’t have to wait too long, thankfully. Jack reached us via throwaway cell phone just before we started up Rogers Pass; another ten minutes and we’d have lost signal in the mountains. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” he announced. His tone seemed a bit clipped, but the words were code, telling B.J. and me that we’d left nobody behind (in the bush) and every member of the team was alive.
“Birds in the trees beat the birds and the bees,” I fired back. Nonsensical. I happen to be a big fan of the birds and the bees. But to anyone listening in, it wouldn’t sound like anything more than a couple of idiot drunks. Or maybe a couple of really old college students, which would be pretty much the same thing.
By the time we reached Hill’s place, the sun was up and our people had caught up to B.J.’s Hudson. Close call on the daylight thing, but as far as we could tell, nobody had gotten any sort of look at any of us. We’d skinned through Lincoln minutes before breakfast traffic started stirring.
Bringing everybody into the Jack Hill residence might have seemed a bit risky, but in reality it was our only workable option. Kirk’s home shed was no place to hide Beets Robertson out, but the old Protector not only had plenty of room, he had an impressive variety of supplies on hand at all times, including medical. Which, as it turned out, both Jack and Beets needed. The former prisoner of war–and that’s what Robertson was; we were definitely at war–needed a fair bit of attention. He’d made light of it at first, but the truth of the matter was, his testicles were dangerously swollen. Wayne took over on that front, though we were all careful not to mention to the patient that his medic was gay. Nobody asked what Wayne did to ease the man’s balls, either, but whatever he did, it worked; by the time Carolyn West had breakfast on the table for all of us, Beets was back in the world, moving easier, his eyes less strained, and his complexion less gray. He ate surprisingly little for a man who’d been on prison chow for the past ten days or more, but nobody commented on that, either.
Jack Hill himself…that was another matter. You couldn’t tell he was in pain to look at him, but he was limping like crazy. “Didn’t get shot or anything,” he explained. “After your all clear call, we were headed for our escape vehicle on a high lope, and damned if I didn’t run into a wire loop somebody had left there in the dark. Not a trap, just an old scrap piece of wire some fool had left behind. I got both feet tangled up, and before I knew what was happening, I was down.”
“He sure was.” Judi shook her head. She’d been teamed with Jack, around the corner from the position held by Sissy and down the street a bit from Wayne and Soren. “The way he hit and rolled, ready to fire at whoever had snagged him, I thought for a second he was going to shoot me.”
“I wouldn’t have done that. I make sure of my targets, Jude.”
“I know, I know. Just saying.”
“Anyway,” Jack said, “I just popped some sports medicine supplements that work like gangbusters for taking down swelling. Twisted my left knee some; that’s the main motivation for my limp, okay? But if you’ll get me an ice pack out of the freezer, Sissy, I’ll ice this thing down while we’re eating. And then Tree and I need to hit for Missoula. See what we can find out.” Soren Kirk had been clued in to the extent that he knew we had friends there who knew things. He did not know the Half Castle had anything to do with it, nor would he.
Curiously, nobody remarked on Diamond Paws, sitting at one corner of the table, contentedly munching a special treat of oak firewood. We didn’t have any native oak in the area; Jack had picked up half a cord from somewhere, just for the big digger. Diamond viewed oak the way I viewed prime rib. Beets and Soren did both flick a glance toward the sharp clawed alien every once in a while, but that was it.
“We might as well take the Pontiac,” I observed, my way of letting Jack know I understood it was my turn to drive. He’d piloted his Subaru Outback all the way from Great Falls with that bum knee. Of course, it wasn’t like the Subi was a stick shift.
That meant leaving both Robertson and Kirk alone with the rest of our people, three of the four being women, but it couldn’t be helped. If VE came after their former field operatives, Jack’s was the only truly defensible place this side of Jennifer Trace’s ranch house or Wolf Cave, and we weren’t about to put either of those in jeopardy.
We reached East Missoula a few minutes before ten o’clock. Jack pinged Mr. Gray on his dedicated cell and was told–in code–to come on in; we’d be given access to the back room a good hour before the restaurant was even open for business.
I glanced at Jack as I pulled the Grand Prix into the parking lot. “He must have something really hot.”
Jack rubbed his stubbled chin. “Most likely. Vigilante makes the Half Castle nervous too, though. It’s just about as likely he can’t wait to hear what we have to tell him.”
“Guess we’ll see.”
When we entered the secure room, Mr. Gray was already in action, setting out a pot of hot water to go with the teacups. “Your choice of flavors,” he said. “Two way reports today?”
“Fair enough.” Jack nodded, limping across the room to climb onto the bar chair. Gray had been redecorating again. “Shall I go first?” Without waiting, he launched into an abbreviated report of the night’s actions, covering all of the high points except one. The Half Castle crew did not need to know about Diamond Paws. All he said about that end of it was, “Two of our people tunneled in beneath the building, blew a hole in the concrete floor, and got Robertson out.”
Gray didn’t respond immediately. Instead, he sipped his spearmint tea, absorbing what he’d just heard. We waited, patient enough after our long night plus our long drive down from Ovando. It felt good to just sit for a change. Few humans do well with silence, I’ve noted, but we three are definitely members of the exclusive club that does.
Our host broke first. “I need to share something. Jack, Tree, you know a few things about or operation here. You know you can bring us a request for intel on almost anything, from a government computer that needs hacking to DNA testing mutant wolves. Slip us enough cash to cover our expenses and we’re good to go. When it comes to knowledge, to finding things out, that’s what we do, and I think you’ll agree we do it well.”
“Extreme understatement,” I said quietly.
“Thank you. Unfortunately, though, that’s where our expertise ends. We have access to scientists who can analyze anything from a camel fart to a moon rock, hackers on tap who donate thousands of hours of free time to keeping America free, even arms suppliers who will for a price provide military ordnance on a moment’s notice. But at the end of the day, we’re still just intel. We have enough warriors on tap to defend the Half Castle should the need arise, at least long enough for the rest of us to destroy any and all evidence of our intelligence gathering activities, but that’s it. We’re not geared to action, just information.”
“Your point being?” Jack asked.
“My apologies. I did not mean to beat around the bush. Jack, you and Tree–and the rest of your people, whose identities we’ve never asked because it’s quite frankly none of our business–you have seen more action in the last two years than the rest of us combined. You’re doing good work out there. We appreciate it. Dare I say…we admire it.”
Hill’s brow furrowed. “Gray, we’re not heroic or anything. Bad guys keep stepping on our toes and we keep cutting them off at the knees. That’s all there is to it. It’s just about as automatic as the way you’re fiddling with your tie right now.”
“But that’s just it. People are stepping on your toes, or trying to, and your reactions to all that toe-stepping are different. May I give you an example?”
“One of our most valuable hackers, a young girl who goes by the online user name of Piercings, was rousted by the FBI a couple of months ago. She’s facing a couple of years in the penitentiary at Dublin, California, if she plea bargains. Maybe ten years if she goes to trial and loses. She’s good enough to crack the Pentagon data base without skipping a beat, but the charges they are bringing against her are baseless. Trumped up. Entirely bogus, if you will. We’ve done what we can, anonymously paying for a competent attorney, but the odds are she will be convicted. We know who the villains are in this scenario. One of them is her stepfather, who is seeking revenge because she refused to sleep with him; he turned her in to the Bureau. The other is the judge in the case, known for being biased in the favor of the prosecution. Yet there’s nothing any of us can or will do about that.”
I felt myself frowning. “Are you saying you want us to do something about that?”
“Oh, no, no, nothing like that.” Gray looked positively embarrassed, a first for him. “I was just giving an example. It’s my belief that if she were a part of your group, the girl would not be facing a probable prison sentence. I don’t know how you two would do it, but the stepfather would accidentally fall off of a glacier somewhere or the judge would suddenly find himself embroiled in scandal and forced to recuse himself. Something. You gentlemen get results.”
“I still don’t get your point,” I admitted. Jack lifted his hands, palms up, in an I’m clueless, too sort of gesture.
“Again, my apologies. What I’ve been trying to say is that our entire organization, loosely knit as it is, remains entirely at your disposal. We provide intel to many people who talk the talk, but you two walk the walk. From this point forward, anything you need takes precedence over requests from anyone else.”
“Oh.” I stared at him, startled. “Wow. Thanks.”
“Yeah,” Jack echoed. “What he said.”
“With that in mind, I believe it’s my turn to report. We know where VE’s Execution Committee is meeting these days.”
“How?” I asked.
“The Chief’s laptop computer. Not his official office desktop; that’s still up and humming in Tennessee, putting out bogus emails on a daily basis in what we believe is an effort to throw off any would be trackers. But he’s a bit too sure of himself. One of our people found the paper trail where he bought this particular laptop almost four years ago. As far as we know, he’s never once hooked it up to the Internet. He apparently does not realize two things. That model is equipped with GPS. Also, there are a few of the best talents who don’t need the Internet to hack into a computer.”
They don’t? That was something to think about. Judi and I had our most sensitive company data on computers just like that, standalone units that were never–damn. We might need to rethink our office security from the ground up.
Distracted, I almost missed what he said next. “If a computer is working in the same office where there’s a wireless router of any sort, the software exists that will allow the best of the best to hack into the unconnected computer. Piercings did exactly that, and–”
“Wait a sec.” I’d been drooping a bit, but my head came up sharply. “The hacker who cracked VE’s top secret computer is the same girl who’s under fire by the feds?”
“Yes. The one and the same. Frankly, there are few if any like her.”
“So we owe her. Big time.”
Gray looked uneasy. “No one is asking you to take on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Jackson. She knew the risks.”
“Hnh. And how old is Piercings?”
Now Gray looked positively uncomfortable. “Are you sure…fifteen. She’s fifteen years old.”
Fifteen. It should have shocked me, but it didn’t. After all, I’d been raising a fair bit of Hell myself at that age, albeit with nothing even remotely resembling an altruistic motive in mind. “Well. All right. Is she going to trial? Copping a plea? What?”
“Her mother wants her to plea bargain. Her stepfather doesn’t seem to care one way or the other; he’s gotten his revenge either way. Piercings, however, is determined to demand a jury trial despite the Bureau’s hope that they can try her as an adult.”
“So nothing’s certain, then?”
“These things move slowly, especially at the federal level. She’s out on bail at present. One of our other contacts has set her up with computer access neither her stepfather nor the Bureau is likely to detect.”
“All right.” I didn’t have to think about it at the moment, but I didn’t have to make a decision right away, either. “What did she find?”
“The entire Executive Committee is meeting in Pittsburgh.”
“Pennsylvania? Not Tennessee?”
“Pennsylvania. In one of the industrial sections of Pittsburgh, not downtown. They’ve rehabbed an old steel warehouse for their meetings. It looks like they believe they’re completely secure, their whereabouts unknown to the world at large. Worst of all, Piercings found files on the Chief’s computer that scared her badly. They scared me, too. You’ve got to stop them. Or stop him, at least. We’ve not been able find out whether or not the other members of his Committee are in on his plans.”
Jack looked at me, his expression unreadable. “Pittsburgh, eh?”
“Pittsburgh. Mr. Gray, you have the specifics in that folder? Thanks. Jack, we’re out of here.”
I couldn’t ask my friend to drive, not with his knee sill occupying a good deal of attention, but it didn’t matter. Fishing my business cell phone from my shirt pocket, I clipped it into the hands free cradle and spoke three words.
“Call Chuck Trucking.”