I refused to call it PTSD, but the fact was, I wasn’t sleeping well. Three hours per night, four max, and I’d be up and at ’em, leaving my worried but sleepy bedmates to cuddle without me while I dressed and headed out for a walk in the middle of the night. Every night. Killing federal agents didn’t bother me like maybe it should have, but one of those agents being a beautiful young girl I could have loved in a heartbeat…yeah, that was a bitch. Her image floated in my inner vision more waking moments than not. Not many dreams of her yet; I suspected she might not yet be done processing her own passing.
My girls would have gladly gone with me to keep me company, but they understood well enough that company was the last thing I wanted. With one exception; Carolyn West had taken it upon herself to ask Diamond Paws to shadow me through the wooded hills on my excursions. The big alien was back from his egg watching duties. The eggs had all hatched. He’d instituted a new child rearing practice; instead of allowing the babies from each clutch to fight to the death, the egg groups had been separated, three in each nesting area. Instead of ending up with just one survivor from each of the two egg batches, one in three hatchlings would be raised to adulthood. For the Umthnn, this was a radical departure; Diamond wasn’t sure it wouldn’t end up weakening future generations. But he had to try something, he said, and this was a first step.
His mates could handle the wee ones for a while, now, though, and truth be told, I was grateful for his presence. While I was pushing myself up and over ridge after ridge, getting in the best shape of my life, Diamond had my back covered. My front, too; he kept a sharp eye out to make sure I didn’t step on a night hunting rattlesnake while I was spaced off.
Strangely enough, my business performance didn’t seem to be suffering noticeably. I was still in the office every day during business hours and working on the house every weekend. Jennifer Trace gave me a bit of a look every now and then, reading me like a book, but she didn’t say anything. Like everyone else in our inner circle, she understood that I had to work through this myself.
Jack Hill cruised on down to Missoula three or four times a week, spending a huge amount of time traveling back and forth from the Half Castle. Of course, he always did something else while he was in town, just in case. Mr. Gray continued to gather intel on the Penelope Incident, as we thought of it, though even the best and most trusted hackers in the network had to be ultra extra cautious to make sure their probes were not detected. If they really are after you, it’s not paranoia. Still, these people were experts in their field; they were gradually putting the picture together.
For one thing, the fake stepdad turned out to be a real local cop after all, not a fed. Abe and Blakely had been part of a joint task force created to infiltrate and take down hacker networks deemed to be national security threats. Which explained why the fake alcoholic mother was in fact an NSA agent by the name of Winifred Bielawski. Mr. Gray’s people had uncovered that fact, along with the tidbit that Ms. Bielawski was the ranking power on the team. Neither Abe nor Sharon, the two people I’d terminated, got along with Ms. B. And it was suspected, though not confirmed yet, that it was Ms. B’s NSA status that motivated the cover up of the killings.
One hacker had even uncovered a couple of emails that hinted President Obama himself might have authorized the media blackout in order to keep his beloved National Security Agency from getting yet another public black eye. Bottom line, an FBI agent and a police officer wound up dead on Winifred’s watch while operating under the rules of engagement she required.
For a screwup like that, she would no doubt be getting a promotion before the year was out.
It began to dawn on me, eventually, that I was getting one potentially useful benefit from my nightly hikes other than exercise and contemplative rest periods, seated atop a stray deadfall or granite outcrop. Namely, I was learning our “back yard” like the back of my hand. Jack Hill had always known the country north of our residences way better than I had, but now I was betting I could give him a run for his money. There was the little draw hosting a hollow log where a skunk nested with her family, for instance, always a reminder of our precious Ruby kitten’s past life. Tucked in under a rock overhang, a totally hidden spring hosted a plethora of life ranging from salamanders to tiny frogs, water bugs with a powerful bite, you name it. That one, Jack probably did know about, but I liked pretending he didn’t.
Three weeks into my nightly alien-escorted jaunts, I took a route that had become one of my favorites, three miles of up-country travel through thick timber culminating in a little park with a comfy boulder just inside the tree line. Seated on the mossy rock, I waited and watched, Diamond Paws slumped casually at my side. The egg shaped moon, just a few days from full, bathed the tiny meadow in silver. The night was cool, the air utterly still.
We’d barely gotten settled when he made his appearance, the most magnificent mule deer buck I’d ever seen. I’d spotted him twice before, dubbed him Monument, and made it a point to keep an eye out for him every night. He was huge, over 300 pounds if he was an ounce. No spring chicken, this one; I thought of him as the Jack Hill of the mule deer family. His rack was absolutely incredible. Not having seen the big fellow by the light of day, and preferring not to use the night vision monocle unless it was strictly necessary–I didn’t want to get dependent on it–I’d never managed to get a firm tine count on his antlers, but as the horny guy said about the large breasted woman, what a rack!
The average hunter would have been surprised to see the majestic monarch of the woods stepping into the clearing as casually as he did, but I wasn’t fooled. Monarch knew we were there. Hunting season would be upon us soon; so what? Yes, I hunted, but I would never even think about lofting a round toward this animal, and I was convinced he knew it. He hadn’t survived this long by being stupid.
Still, he spent more time with his head up, sniffing and scanning the night, than he did feeding. True, my eidetic memory would not let me repress the image of Agent Blakely’s face, backlit at the head of the stairs, but it made up for that by recording Monument’s visit in Living Moonlight.
That morning, a Sunday but not an ownership meeting day, Diamond and I made it back to the new Jackson residence right at first light as usual. Smoke rolling from the chimney meant Sissy was up and had the fire going; we all preferred wood heat and used it almost exclusively despite the backup propane systems already in place. The electrician had all the wiring done; once the inspector signed off on it, we’d be official new power company customers. In the meantime, having pulled out the bootlegged lines so the inspector wouldn’t catch us using those, we relied on battery powered LED lanterns for light.
Judi was mixing pancake batter when I walked in the front door. As was his usual practice, the big eight limbed Umthnn had already looped off into the woods, ducking down through a hidden trap door in the forest floor to pop in his assigned room. He could have come in the front easily enough, but for security reasons, we figured it was best not to get into bad habits. It would take a suspicious drone overhead to spot him in our relatively hidden clearing, but even so.
The girls were in a remarkably cheerful mood. I wondered at that, just a bit. They’re up to something, I thought, but the realization only made me smile. They’d tell me when they were good and ready, or not. Could be something as simple as my Mom driving over from Idaho to pay me a surprise visit, Sissy and Judi being in on the surprise.
One thing those two wise women knew: Before you spring a surprise on your man, feed him. He’ll be in a better mood if you do. So they fed me, buckwheat flapjacks with blueberries cooked in, blueberry syrup, plenty of sausage from a hog farmer near Lincoln who specialized in it, great slabs of butter, and all the coffee I could drink. I pretended to be naïve and unaware, enjoying the game. Diamond Paws, on the other hand, was practically out of his mind. Where she’d come up with it, I had no idea, but the basketball-headed digger was practically orgasmic over the hickory kindling Sissy had piled high beside his seat. He tried to eat quietly, not much louder than a small chainsaw trying to purr like a kitten.
All right, I wanted to ask, leaning back and loosening my belt a couple of notches as Judi refilled my coffee cup for the fourth time, spill it. I knew better, though. The three of us never played practical jokes; none of us believed in such things. But this sort of subtle little waiting game…yeah, we could enjoy that once in a while. I thought. If they realized how many pins and needles I was sitting on, they’d be giggling out loud.
Diamond Paws seemed oblivious, which didn’t mean anything one way or the other.
Sissy broke first. Seated directly across the table from me, she leaned forward, fixed me with a no nonsense gaze, and announced, “It’s time for you to quit feeling sorry for yourself, Treemin Jackson.”
What? For a second or two, I felt a flash of irritation, deep and hostile, something I’d never felt toward either of my girls before. How dare she? Sissy was not the one who’d gunned down a pretty young girl, drilling her right in the head. How could–
–and then I brought myself up short. Wait just a cotton picking minute. I got hold of myself, forced the anger out of my system–though aware she and Judi both must have seen it flaming briefly in my eyes–and stated calmly, “I haven’t exactly been feeling sorry for myself, but I can see how you might think otherwise.” And then I waited.
“Yes, well….” Sissy’s voice was uncertain, very much unlike her. Judi came to the rescue.
“What Sis is getting at, Tree, is that it looks like we have a bigger mission for you than any you’ve ever faced before.”
That brought me up short. I stared at her, nonplussed. “What on Earth are you getting at, Jude?”
“Simple enough,” she grinned, her whole face lighting up. “I promise you it wasn’t on purpose but…I’m pregnant.”