As a kid, I never thought much of that old phrase, ants in your pants, but at the moment I wouldn’t have been surprised one little bit to discover I did indeed have underwear filled with nippy nasty six-leggeds. In a word, I was restless. Not so, Sissy; our quasi-raven shapeshifter, worn out by her efforts to demonstrate her bird form–how did she take along her clothing when she did that, anyway?–was napping in our king sized bed. Snoring, too, a sound worthy of a midsized Stihl chainsaw ripping through a particularly tough oak knot. Not so, Judi; oblivious to the logs being sawn in the master bedroom, she was deep into her study of various witchcrafty sites on the Internet.
No, there was only one antsy pantsy person in the Jackson household this fine honeymoon day. Me me me. What to do? I considered running over to the shop despite not being scheduled to show up there. You know, just so I could grab a torch and a mask and run a few beads, weld my itchy brain into submission. But the guys didn’t need the boss lurking around while they were busy filling orders; it made them nervous. Nobody needed that. Besides, I had to concentrate when I welded; it was a great exercise for stilling the mind but the exact opposite of what I needed. What I needed was something less demanding, something that would allow my thoughts to ramble wherever they wished while keeping my hands more or less busy…ah. Yes. The fourth bedroom. Perfect.
I didn’t bother to tell Judi what I was up to. She’d hear me, anyway. Fortunately, the sounds of sawing and hammering and stapling never bothered either of my girls when they were sleeping; both of them felt comforted by it, in fact, reassured and secure, knowing their man was wide awake and on the job, doing what men are supposed to do. Well…one of the things men are supposed to do.
This room would likely be our baby’s when the kid got old enough to have her own. Cool. The Willow Room. For now, though, it simply needed to be completed. I stood admiring the view for a bit before I got to work, staring at the raw quarter inch steel lag bolted to the massive studs. Those studs had to be massive; each one supported an average of 108.8 pounds in steel plate alone, not counting the bolts. Which is why we’d gone with 4″ x 6″ studs rather than the usual 2″ x 4″ variety. The trickiest part of the arrangement? Hanging the colored steel siding over the steel plate sheathing, that was a doozy. Once B.J. and I had put our heads together long enough to realize pre-drilling the sheathing steel in the shop was the way to go, things had gone a lot more smoothly.
He and I’d had to handle that during weekends, of course. We weren’t about to tip off the employed welders that Casa del Jackson was anything more than a larger than average stick built home.
Okay, then. Staple insulation batting in place, then hang the special heavy duty wall paneling. Yeah. That would work; it needed to be done, but it was pretty routine stuff. My mind could and did wander. Awareness of time vanished; it was just me and the process. Or rather, the two processes. Body: Work on house. Mind: Work on problem.
What, then, was the problem? Eh? Hm. Okay, knowing Sissy, now that she’d outed herself on the shapeshifting issue, it was a sure bet she’d continue to work at it as she could. She’d also keep up her studies in that arena. If anybody could figure out what was fact and what was fiction in the world of werewolves and other were critters, she could. Likewise, my Paper Wife no doubt had a touch of bulldog DNA tucked into her bloodstream somewhere; give her another thirty days and she’d know more about witches than the witches themselves. She might even be a witch, what with the talent running in her family and all, and unless I missed my guess, she might also figure out a thin razor’s edge where she could practice the craft without delving into either white or black magic. How, I had no idea, but that’s just Judi.
Which left me to do what? Learn how to suck blood? Not likely, I thought. I’d shed a fair bit of blood already in my twenty-seven years of life–okay, twenty-eight before long–and not once had I ever felt the slightest desire to lap any of it up. So then what?
The answer, unfortunately, was blatantly obvious. If I wasn’t interested in being a vampire, I did have a vested interest in defeating any vampire that might show up to, you know, suck the life juice out of our precious Willow Jewel Jackson. Rage at the very thought of such a potential threat surged through me, but I didn’t hang onto it; it just flowed through and went on its way, one of the benefits of thinking while working at a relatively mundane task.
So…how did one become tougher than a vampire? Or a whole pack of them? Flock? Clan? Herd? Hm. Maybe a murder, like a murder of crows. Who came up with that one? Garlic…garlic was good for fighting off infections, right? Or something like that. Come on, Jackson, green light your brain, let the ideas come and go as they will. Maybe some vampires didn’t like garlic flavored humans, but I was betting some of them did, just like some humans prefer…wait, what was I thinking? Hm. Yeah. If I were God–strike that. Don’t want to be trying to play God here. If I were Darwin, how would I evolve a vampire? What would be the perfect form? Not a human as we knew the species today, obviously. One young man could bite a hole in another man’s throat, but he certainly couldn’t be neat about it. Besides, a huge number of older humans lost their teeth; how impossible would it be to blood-feed using dentures? Wow. Hey. Yeah. The ideal Design-A-Vampire model would include fangs, sure, but not just any old fangs. Hollow fangs, like rattlesnakes, capable of injecting both a paralytic or narcotic agent and a blood un-clotting agent at first bite. Fangs that folded back out of the way when not needed so that the vamp could suck happily from his paralyzed victim without re-fanging the food needlessly.
Snakebite, then. The puncture wounds would be small but effective, the injected agents quickly moving through the bloodstream so that little or no swelling accrued in the bite area. Yeah. That would work. Some of the online stuff I’d read proposed that vamps used hollow fangs to serve as straws, but no. I just couldn’t buy that one. If the fangs were hollow, they were for injecting stuff, not sucking. Oh, sure, male mammals sent both urine and semen through the same hollow whatever, but it was all moving outward; the flow did not ever reverse itself.
Hm again. Another thing: Nearly all of the literature, for what that was worth, described the vampire’s inherent scorn for the humans upon which it fed. Usually, that was because We the People were seen as mere sheep, brainless, weak, inferior. But what if all the vamps were really former tree hugging ecologist types? Wouldn’t they naturally tend to scorn us for killing everything they ate instead of daintily sipping and leaving the average food human alive to produce more blood another day? We may suck blood, may even kill on occasion, but you lowly humans kill everything you eat! What kind of logical argument could we mount against that?
Wow. Good thing the true mind readers among us are few and far between–or at least I think they are.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, gotta reload the stapler. Okay, there we go….
ID. That had to be the first step. I had to figure out how to identify a vampire at a glance. Okay, so a whole lot of the top ranking politicians might be vampires–they were certainly bloodsucking parasites in every sense of the word–but closer to home, how could we know a vamp on sight? Or sound? Or smell? They had to have a smell, didn’t they? Sure they did. Yo, Drac, lemme sniff you a sec. Yeah, that would work. Uh-huh.
Spiritual senses. Sixth sense. Whatever you wanted to call it. All the best survivors had it. Hell, I had it for sure; without that, even allowing for Mr. Gray’s last second warning phone call, I’d have died in the California trap. Died, because I certainly wasn’t going to let the feds throw the cuffs on me. Live free or die, that’s my motto. New Hampshire got it right. So we had to be able to sense the predators when they were in the area.
Wait a sec. What about blood banks? Did any of us have a clue what those places really did with all the blood they collected during their blood drives? For all we knew, most of the transfusions were actually donations to fangless vamps who would otherwise starve to death.
Oh wow. What if the bloodsuckers were an integral part of the planet’s ecology? Goodness gracious sakes alive, we were already over populating the globe by the billions; maybe we needed the vamps to help keep our kind in check?
Judi’s voice made me jump. “Did you know there’s a Hall of Fame for witches?”
“A what?” I looked at her stupidly, working my way out of my own deep inner worlds, confused.
“A Hall of Fame. On Facebook. Ye Olde Witches Hall of Fame. I haven’t read much of the page yet, but it has 2,953 likes at the moment. They list it as a Facebook Community. Profile pic is a black and white of a bunch of people sitting around a table with teacups and pointy hats.”
“Huh.” I shook my head to clear it; I’d really been in deep. “There’s probably a Vampire Hall of Fame, too. Facebook style.”
“There is. I looked, just because. It’s a lot creepier looking, blood dripping and all, but a quick scan gives the impression the vampire page is devoted to nothing but fiction and historical references of people being suspected as vampires. The witch page is different; I’m pretty sure the members take it quite seriously.”
“No doubt.” I laid the nail gun down on the floor. When had I finished the insulating and switched over from the stapler? Looking around the room, I had to blink my eyes to be sure I wasn’t seeing things. The room was completely paneled; I’d finished the whole thing in a single semi-coma shift. According to the light filtering through the bullet resistant glass window, it had to be six o’clock or close to it. Come to think of it, there were yummy smells drifting in from the kitchen. Spaghetti, or I missed my guess. Which meant Sissy was up; spaghetti was one of her specialties. “How’s our raven girl doing?”
“Bright feathered and slinging pots and pans with gusto.” Judi grinned, eyes sparkling. “I think the shapeshifting thing–followed by a three hour nap, of course–did her a world of good. She told me to tell you that supper will be on the table by the time you get washed up.”
Whoa. I really did have an appetite. Three plates of spaghetti and plenty of garden fresh salad, lettuce and shredded carrots and sliced radishes. I’d never been a big fan of the lowly radish until Sissy showed me how to do it right; her salads were meals unto themselves.
She liked to see me eat, too. “Looks like I almost didn’t make enough.” She was twinkling when she said that, not complaining.
“Almost,” I said around a mouthful, “doesn’t count except in horseshoes.”
“How’s your vampire research coming?”
“Hm.” I swallowed, chasing down that last bite with a glug of water. Had to loosen my belt, too. Three notches. “I kind of quit researching and started just thinking.”
“Okay. How’s your vampire thinking?”
“Anti-vampire thinking, honey. Anti.” I took a moment to organize my thoughts, hoping I wasn’t missing anything important. “Guess I figured out a couple of things. Number one, we absolutely must have a surefire way of identifying vampires, right?” I didn’t wait for an answer; the question was rhetorical. “And I did come up with a couple of things on that front. For one, we all have to possess an instinctive awareness that will tell us when a predator like that is nearby or hunting us. Every prey animal has such a sixth sense; why would we be any different? It’s the individuals who ignore that inner warning, or maybe sometimes those who really haven’t developed it like we have, who get taken. Likewise, the hunting vamp is probably able to sense when we’re alert to its presence and, in most cases, go elsewhere, looking for easier prey.”
Sissy frowned. “That makes sense…I think.” Judi just nodded.
“As for identifiers, I came up with the idea that they would have folding hollow fangs.”
“Folding hollow fangs. Hollow to inject sedatives or paralytic agents and anti blood clotting agents, folding to be out of the way when they fed.”
“I think they suck through the fangs like straws,” Judi averred.
Any husband with a lick of wisdom knows not to challenge his wife directly if he doesn’t have to. “Could be.” I shrugged. “I just don’t know of any species that runs fluids both directions through any tube from a fang to a urethra. I suppose it’s possible. I was just going for the most-like-a-human scenario, though obviously they’re not human. Not sure I buy the undead theory, either, but mostly I want to know we can spot them if they’re close enough to present a danger.”
“Well, no duh!”
After the table was cleared, the girls retreated to the living room to watch a chick flick. Nothing for me there, so I fired up a fresh batch of coffee and stayed in the kitchen, too lazy to go back and forth to anywhere else, sipping and thinking. The realization began seeping in quietly at first, a mere dampness around the little Dutch boy’s thumb holding back the hole in the dike. Like the leaky dike, though, the end was inevitable–and when the awareness came, it hit me with a great flood-slap upside the head.
Son. Of. A. Bitch.
I stopped by the living room on my way out. “Going over to Jack’s for a bit,” I announced. It wasn’t full dark yet, but his Subaru Outback was there and the early lights were on. Sissy and Judi just waggled a few fingers at me; whether or not they’d actually heard what I’d said was anybody’s guess. It looked like Brad Pitt on the screen and both of them thought ol’ Brad was hotter than Hades on the Fourth of July. Which I didn’t understand at all; Pitt didn’t look one bit like me.
“Hello the house!” I yelled, announcing my presence on my way in. Wouldn’t have needed to do that, but it was sort of a tradition between us.
“Yo, Tree,” the old Protector replied amiably. “Coffee?”
“Coffeed out,” I admitted, “but if Wayne’s made any rhubarb pie lately….”
“He and Carolyn are off in the living room watching some chick flick with Brad Pitt in it, but yeah, there’s rhubarb in the second fridge, next to the blueberry. Help yourself.”
Which I did, a full quarter topped with vanilla ice cream. As an afterthought, I got out a glass and added sixteen ounces of milk. Mm-m-m, good! Campbell’s soup, eat your heart out. Jack was making notes in a journal; neither of us spoke until I’d cleaned my plate and returned it to the sink. Hill laid down his pen and we were ready to chat. I hit him with both barrels.
“How much have you been keeping from me, Jack?”
He looked at me carefully, considering. “Could you be a little more specific?”
I barely restrained from cussing him out, but the tone was there. “You didn’t just follow your inner muse to Hartford that day, the day I first saw you take down the Hood Rats. You recruited me, you sonofabitch.” Okay, so I didn’t restrain myself completely.
He steepled his fingers under his chin, visibly relaxing. “Oh. That.”
His unexpected response deflated my anger balloon. Somewhat. “You don’t deny it? After lying to me for so long, you dismiss it as unimportant? Because if you don’t come clean with me now, as much as I trust that you have my back, and I do, and as much as it would tear me up…Jack Hill, either you tell me everything right now, all of it, or I’m outa here. I put Rodeo Iron up for sale, take my ladies and the Pontiac, to Hell with the new house and screw the hundred year lease. What we’ll end up doing after that, where we’ll go, I’ll figure that out later, except to say that I’ll never set foot in Montana again.”
“Just like that?”
“You’re not surprised, are you?”
“From anybody else, I would be. But from you, Tree, no, I’m not surprised. I know full well you have it in you.”
“So?” I stared at him, unblinking. “What’s it gonna be?”
He took in a deep breath, slowly, no rush. Let it out the same way. The calm in his eyes never wavered. “I’ll give you all the answers I can.” My mouth popped open to say that wasn’t enough, but he raised a hand to forestall me. “There are some things I still can’t get into. I would hope what I can share will be enough to let you feel comfortable with hanging around, but I’m not trying to negotiate here. And honestly, I don’t believe you can make an informed decision either way until I lay out what I can lay out. Fair enough?”
Part of me wanted to tell him to go to Hell right then and there, but that was the smaller, hurt-little-kid part of me. I choked that little bastard into submission, eyeballed the much bigger part of me that did not want to lose what Jack and I had, and said, “Fair enough.”
“Just a sec.” He reached down under the table, came up with a…what? Miniature CB radio? “Wayne,” he said quietly, “you and Carolyn please stay clear of the kitchen for a while. Tree and I need some privacy.”
The gay man’s voice came back promptly. “Done and done.”
“All right, then,” Jack said quietly, “where to start?”
I folded my hands on the table, mostly to keep from clenching them into fists. “Let’s start with two questions. Number one, what did you recruit me for, really? Number two, why me in particular?”
He nodded. “Number one, then. First off, I’m not a part of any sneaky organization or anything like that, but I did have a…not a dream, really, more of a vision about…twenty-some years back. I saw Hartford, Connecticut, clear as day, an all black neighborhood. Nothing I could pin down other than that, but the scene was ultra-vivid. It also took on an extra measure of importance in my thinking because I’d been getting all sorts of indicators that something really big and ugly was coming this way–meaning this part of Montana–and I had the definite feeling that I was meant to fight it. But I knew I couldn’t fight it alone, so I’d been contemplating for months, trying to pin down what I could do about getting some help, some allies, a freaking nuclear weapon or two, whatever it was going to take. I started having dreams about a man who could serve as the focal point for an awful lot of power for good. So I went to Hartford, following my inner guidance, to try to find that man. That time, though, I did not find my guy. I didn’t realize it then, but it simply wasn’t time yet.”
It was my turn to hold up a hand. “Twenty-some years ago, you said?”
“That’s when you ran into my uncle B.J.?”
“I did. Yes. Not in the ‘hood per se. It’s kind of a long story–”
“He told me. Said you saved him from being savaged, most likely killed, by a gang of twenty or so skinheads.”
“Don’t know if I saved him exactly.” Hill shrugged. “It’s not likely those yahoos would have had an easy time of it with him. I might have tipped the scales a bit.”
“Uh-huh.” False modesty, or did he really believe that? “So you decided that trip to recruit some ignorant idiot into your private war was a bust, at least at that time?”
“Hold on, Tree. I don’t deserve that bite in your voice.”
“Don’t you?” I was tired of holding it back. “Dammit, Hill, okay, obviously I knew Tania Overgood and would have gotten her out of Hartford, would have come west like I did, no matter what. Equally obviously, the Hood Rats would have sent their two hired guns after us, with or without you. And yes, you taking them off our tail was nice and handy–for you since you wanted to recruit me, but for us, too. I admit that. But if you hadn’t been there, I’m thinking I would have found a way to take care of the problem without your help. Tania and I would have gone on from there, maybe heading on to Sim’s ranch at Rexburg. We’d have had no war. I’m certainly not complaining about winding up with my own hotsy totsy welding company, let alone Judi and Sissy under my roof–but you had no right. You brought me blind into what you knew was going to be a war zone. I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for that.”
Hill was shaking his head. “No, Tree, I didn’t make myself clear. You and I’ve seen a lot of fighting and killing these past few years, right?”
“You damn well know it.”
“Yes. I do know it. And it’s the most I’ve seen in a very long time, myself. But Tree, none of that is the dark cloud war of my vision. None of it. What you don’t understand, son, is the fact that what we’ve been through is nothing; the ugly I saw has not yet begun!” He was leaning over the table now, his gaze boring into my own. “There’s time,” he added softly, so softly I almost couldn’t hear it, “to bug out if that’s your choice. But I did not know the other–the Wolf War, Morse Code, all the rest of it–I did not know that was going to happen. It blindsided me as much as it did you.”
“Oh.” I sat there, stunned, suddenly feeling small and stupid and foolish. “Oh.”
“You asked two questions,” he went on, “the second being, why you? I was drawn there that day I went to bat for Tania, just like I said. When we met later on the road, that was the first time I ever laid eyes on you. I saw you and B.J. in his big honking Hudson in the ‘hood, yes, but not clearly. I was just aware that I had witnesses whether I liked it or not. Then when I got a good look at you the first time at the truck stop, that was my oh shit moment. Fragments from half a dozen dreams crashed together and yes, I knew you were the one I’d been looking for. I admit that. From that moment forth, yes, I was recruiting you. Just recently–in fact, just since Judi announced her pregnancy–I’ve been getting inner hints and hits that tell me we don’t have a lot of time left to get ready for whatever’s coming. I figured it was time to bring you up to date, you know, so you could decide whether you wanted to fish or cut bait. But I didn’t want you to have to dive into all of this crap during your wedding or your honeymoon; the Big Ugly isn’t that close. I thought I had time. I sure as Hell didn’t expect you to figure it out in the middle of your days off.”
I shook my head to clear it. I wouldn’t have figured it out except for Diamond Paws. Where did the big Umthnn fit into all of this? “I’ve, um…got more questions.”
“You’d be an idiot if you didn’t. And you’re no idiot.”
“This…darkness that’s coming….”
“Go on.” Jack got up and, without asking, grabbed a mug for me and poured more coffee for both of us. I took a sip of mine before continuing.
“If my girls and I break up our Inner Circle, head off for parts unknown….” I didn’t finish. Couldn’t.
“Then my sense of it,” Jack said as calmly as if he were reporting cattle prices, “is that all of us who stay behind will be dead or worse by the end of the decade. If I understood correctly, Ovando will be wiped out, and Lincoln, and Helmville. Those three for sure, including anyone living outside of those communities. The vision wasn’t clear about farther on down at Drummond. West to Clearwater Junction, though, and probably Greenough.”
“With most of the people having no clue what hit them.”
“No clue at all. Until too late, at least.”
“And,” I said, posing the million dollar question, “if me and mine stay and fight?”
Jack remained silent for a long time. When he spoke, I understood why. “My sense of it is that if you stay, we have a chance.”
“No more than that?”
“No more that I can promise. I’m ever the optimist, but you’re not asking for a cheerleader right now.”
“No. I’m not. Next question.”
“Shoot.” Hill winced, probably wishing he hadn’t used that particular word.
“Your dark war cloud…do witches and vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night…do they figure into this?”
His eyes widened. I’d never seen that; I’d startled him. “They might,” he said carefully.
“If such things existed, of course,” I added, mockery in my voice, “at least some of them might be vulnerable to silver bullets, eh? Like those available for the Taurus Curve?”
“Yes,” he nodded, “some might.”
“Any more you care to add, old man? Before I go bring my girls up to speed, that is.”
“We’ll see what they say, but probably, yes. None of us are the kind to turn our back on an entire region that is guaranteed to perish–or worse, you said–even if it does mean our futures might well end up being both violent and short.” I thought about telling him Diamond Paws had gifted us with the book that helped me realize Hill had been holding out on us, but no. I didn’t trust the man like I once had. Maybe never would again, though I’d take pains to hide my reservations. For now, if he could hold out on us, we could hold out on him. He didn’t need to know about the book or about Judi’s family witchery research, and he certainly did not need to hear about Sissy’s shapeshifting abilities. I just hoped whatever he couldn’t tell us yet was not something that would end up getting us all killed. Or worse. Would I have done things any differently in his place? I didn’t know, and until I did know….. Besides, Diamond had chosen to tip me off; the least I could do was honor his confidence for the time being. Jack was not lying to me; he’d never done that, but his sins of omission were gigantic. Before I left, though…. “So, you know anything about fighting things that go bump in the night?”
“Not as much as I should,” he admitted, stirring his coffee idly. “If you decide to stay, Tree, we’ll all get together to go through what I do know.” I heard the unstated threat. And if you chicken out and go, you lily livered bastard, up yours, you’re on your own. He probably didn’t mean it that way, but that’s the way I took it.
Then old Jack Hill dropped the real bomb. “One thing you do need to know. My visions were extremely clear on this point. Unfortunately.”
Unfortunately? “Go on.”
“It’s not you who’s going to be the ultimate key to our survival. It’s your daughter.”