All three of us agreed: The honeymoon was over.
Wait. That wasn’t exactly how we put it. More precisely, Sissy and Judi and I decided the remaining days of our honeymoon would be devoted to gearing up toward the Heartbite threat. If we were going to keep Rodeo Iron up and running, let alone growing, the demands of business couldn’t be avoided forever. This was Thursday morning. We were all scheduled back on duty come Monday. That didn’t give us a lot of time to gather intel for an all-out war against forces we barely understood if we understood them at all. Judi’s due date, if she had her conception date right, fell in mid-February of 2016, two days after Valentine’s Day. The Biters, as we’d chosen to refer to them, would be coming after our baby Willow no later than that date.
Heartbite action on the Day of Hearts. Whoopee.
It was quite possible, of course, that the predators might identify the mother before the baby was born. It didn’t happen that way with Jesus, but this was the Internet Age. There were still plenty of places where people rode donkeys to work or travel, of course, but in western Montana in 2015, the forces of oppression were more likely to use Google searches, hi tech drones, and/or stealth helicopters to hit us fast and hard. With that in mind, and hoping Diamond Paws wouldn’t object, we were already working on the big Umthnn’s tunnel system. He wasn’t around to refine it, but the passage ways already spider webbed deep beneath our properties, connecting Jack’s place and ours and heading off in half a dozen other directions as well. It wouldn’t take that much work for the old Protector and me to mark the routes so that a pregnant woman in fear for her baby’s life could scoot beneath the driveway, zipping from one house to the other without being seen above ground. It would have been nice to have B.J. helping me when I got around to welding human-friendly modifications to the trap doors, but that part would be all up to me; my giant uncle’s fear of underground places left him out of that particular equation.
I was in luck; Horace Tamblyn had just finished his morning security rounds. The aging tracker was sitting at Jennifer Trace’s ranch kitchen table when I walked in, sipping hot chocolate and shooting the breeze with the love of his life.
“Treemin!” The widow Trace started in surprise. “Aren’t you supposed to be, you know, canoodling with your bride?”
“Canoodling?” I felt the skin around my eyes crinkle in amusement. “I get the context, but I’m not sure I’ve heard that one.”
“Ah,” Horace observed with a straight face, “these young whippersnappers, nobody ever taught them anything.”
I grinned at him, carefully not commenting on the way his bad leg was stretched out under the table. He never complained, never so much as winced, but those titanium pins must give him all sorts of hell. “You don’t know the half of it, Tamblyn. Turns out Jack Hill has been keeping secrets.”
The tracker snorted. “Hnh! Secrets, that’s our middle name around here, isn’t it?”
“And then some,” I agreed, managing not to protest when Jennifer jumped up to fix me a mug of cocoa. The lady was hospitable to a fault. “Turns out he’s known for more than twenty years that this entire part of Montana is headed for a close encounter with things that go bump in the night, and until I caught on and confronted him last night, he never said a word.”
Horace raised an eyebrow at that, Jennifer just looked at me, and I hit them with the rest of it. All of it, excluding only the fact that Sissy was at least part raven. To their credit and my disappointment, they took the news a lot better than I had. Not even a hiss of righteous indignation. Nothing. They just nodded like it was no surprise at all, or at least no big deal.
“Huh,” I said, “I’d have thought you two would at least have shown a little, you know, skepticism or something.”
Mrs. Trace smiled at that, though there was more sadness than humor in her eyes. “Tree, you’re what, twenty-eight?”
“Okay. Horace and I, we’ve…seen a few things. Spooky stuff on Red Gate Hill near Deer Lodge. A ghost who was strong enough to fight Sam for the wheel of our truck, one time, near Arlee. A sickness among the bulls, nearly thirty years ago, that ended up killing three of them. The vet autopsied all three, never could pin down what hit them. We sort of half-joked about it being some irritated witch throwing a spell; there’d been a buckle bunny following the rodeo circuit who’d taken a shine to my man and threatened to hex him when he turned down her offer of a free trip around the world. A fresh elk kill up in the Bob. I didn’t see that one, but Horace was with Sam when they found it.”
Tamblyn nodded. “The carcass was still warm. Sam and I, the hackles were standing up on our necks something fierce. We pulled our rifles out of their saddle boots, made sure the safeties were off and ready to go. Kept facing each other, more or less, so we could watch the other guy’s back. It wasn’t hunting season, we’d heard no shots, and we never did find a mark on the animal. Sam cut his throat–a big five-point bull, antlers in velvet–but not one drop of blood came out. A carcass won’t bleed, of course, if it’s had time to cool, but this was a very fresh kill, minutes old at most. I couldn’t find even a hint of a track other than those made by the bull himself. The sun was shining, about ten in the morning, not a cloud in the sky, but we looked at each other and I’m telling you, we were chilled to the bone. Left the meat right there, let the scavengers have it; neither one of us would have touched a steak from that carcass with a ten foot stick. First running water we came to after that, Sam washed his knife and his hands for a good ten minutes, and I didn’t blame him one bit.”
“So what you’re saying….”
“What he’s saying, Tree,” Jennifer concluded, “is that if you’ve lived in these mountains for as long as we have, you know there are…things out there. Unless you’re in denial, which many are. Call it witch, werewolf, vampire, Sasquatch, mutant wolf, demon, devil, or alien like our Diamond Paws and beyond, the life most of us know barely touches the tip of the iceberg.”
True that. We kicked it around for a few more minutes, ending up with a date circled on Jennifer’s calendar, the Sunday after the following. That had originally been scheduled as an owner’s meeting, but neither Rodeo Iron nor Trace ranch issues seemed overly pressing.
“What’s the ABC?” She’d inked those initials in boldly with a black Sharpie.
“Stands for Anti Biters Conference.” She flipped the marker in the air, spinning it like a drum major showing off with a mini-baton. Caught it on the down-drop with her other hand. Maybe she had been a cheerleader in her youth; there was a lot I didn’t know about the lady to whom I owed so much. “I don’t think we want the cook or the ranch hands noticing a meeting to discuss vampires, eh?”
“Eh,” I agreed solemnly. Our dual operations were controversial enough, a major black-owned business in the middle of white cowboy country on land originally owned by the still attractive widow; we didn’t need to stir things up any more than that.
Next stop: The cabin currently occupied by former assassins Soren “Seed” Kirk and Gilligan “Beets” Robertson.
Maybe it was the driveway that jolted me into a different state of consciousness. The lane leading up to the Kirk homesite was no longer a dirt track; Soren must have had at least a hundred cubic yards of gravel hauled in to produce a surface that would now be passable in all sorts of weather. With the windows down on my company truck, the crunch of the gravel under the big Ford’s tires came out crisp and sharp. With that as a starting point, I began noticing all sorts of details. That’s not my normal pattern. My strong suit is being able to focus, to tune out everything I don’t need to see or hear or even smell. When I’m running a welding bead, for instance, I’m unaware of anything else; a guy could be making love to a goat at the next bench without attracting my attention.
But now, for whatever reason, I found myself aware of pretty much everything. In the big hayfield across Highway 200, visible in the rear view mirror, one of the Deacon boys was making rounds with a mower, knocking down the first cutting of the season. Upslope, ahead and off to the left, a stubborn patch of Indian paintbrush announced its presence with a flare of color. As I reached the treeline, a glimpse of lighter cottonwood, seen briefly through the trunks of Douglas fir and an occasional Ponderosa pine, suggested a spring or at least the likelihood of water near the surface. Closer to the homesite, machinery of every sort made it clear the newly formed Kirk/Robertson partnership was dead serious about getting at least the shell of their Mountain Fort home up and weathertight before the snow flew. There, a Kubota loader backhoe, and a pretty big one at that. Next to the cabin, what could only be a Ditch Witch trenching machine, capable perhaps of getting into places the big backhoe wouldn’t go. An industrial concrete mixer, a monster five yard unit. Ladders and saws and building supplies, oh my. A rack supporting a sizeable batch of rebar.
No welding machine, though. B.J. was handling that for them, hanging out with the pair of former assassins any weekend he wasn’t helping Rodeo Iron with security or chasing some dewey eyed liberal female from Billings or Missoula.
Both men were home, framing the building that would become a sizeable house by the time they were done. By sizeable, I mean about a third of the square footage devoted to Casa del Jackson, but hey. These were two single guys, neither of whom seemed in any hurry to hook up with a woman. No, they weren’t gay; it was just that Kirk was still feeling pretty burned by his ex-wife, and Robertson…I didn’t know about Robertson.
Stepping out of the truck, I waved a hand at Seed, the closer of the two. He waved back, but in a distracted sort of way; most of his attention was on the planking he and Beets were removing from the concrete forms. I waited until they placed the board atop a pile on the front end loader, twelve footers sticking out several feet to either side of the five foot bucket. “When did you get the concrete poured?” I inquired, curious. Wrapped up in my own wedding plans, I’d been blissfully ignorant of pretty much everything else for a while.
“The week before your wedding.” He looked at his watch. “Close enough for lunch, Beets?”
“Don’t see why not,” the burly man agreed. He hadn’t shaved in a while. He limped a little, too, though I hadn’t noticed any of that during our mission to neuter the Execution Committee. At a guess, the bullet hole Judi had put through his leg hadn’t healed quite as perfectly as we’d thought. A bit of leftover nerve damage, perhaps. No complaints, though; the former assassin knew full well he was lucky to be alive.
Lunch turned out to be a simple working man’s affair, cold roast beef sandwiches and a pitcher of iced tea retrieved from the little propane refrigerator Seed had scrounged from somewhere in the Helena area. They’d have all the usual on grid amenities in the permanent house; for now, why bother?
“You interrupt your honeymoon just to come admire our basement concrete?” Beets mumbled around a mouthful of sandwich, crumbs speckling his fledgling beard.
I swallowed before answering. “Not exactly. Let’s finish eating before I fill you in, though. You’re not likely to have a whole lot of appetite after.”
They both gave me skeptical looks at that. Having worked for decades as part time professional killers, it took a lot to put them off their feed. Not that I was all that hungry to start with. I was staring morosely at the final quarter of my sandwich when Kirk took pity on me. “Don’t eat it if you ain’t hungry, Tree.”
“Hate to waste it.”
“You won’t. Just chuck it out through the cabin door, then watch what happens.”
“O-okay.” I gave the remnant a flip. It landed maybe six feet outside of the door, bouncing once on the hard packed ground before coming to rest. For a minute or two, nothing happened, but I was learning to be patient. Before a third minute had passed, there was a shadow, a rustle of wings, and a fearless jay swooped down to land beside the tempting morsel. Cocking one bright beady eye right at me, stranger that I was, it decided I was no threat and began pecking away.
“Seed’s been encouraging that one,” Beets informed me. “Got it to land on his forearm yesterday, just long enough to grab a jelly bean from the palm of his hand and then take off again.”
“A jelly bean?”
“Yep. A jelly bean.”
The amenities over, I got down to business. It took a while, explaining it all, but if anything, Kirk and Robertson seemed even less surprised than Horace and Jennifer had been. What, were my girls and I the only ones around here who hadn’t seen a war with the supernatural as inevitable or…something? That’s what I was thinking, right up until I mentioned the Heartbite Prophecy. I didn’t realize at first, my attention being turned inward, scanning my memory to make sure I got the wording right, but it hit both men hard. I finished reciting the prophecy fragment just in time to see Robertson’s iced tea mug hit the floor, splashing tea and ice cubes dramatically. The man’s face had turned bone white. His eyes had that thousand yard stare, which they’d never had since I’d known him, not even when Judi had shot him through the leg. His right hand, the one that had held the mug, was shaking like an aspen leaf in a late autumn wind, yet his left hand rested on the table top, utterly still.
Was Kirk–? Yes and no. He didn’t drop anything. In fact, he seemed to be fully in control of himself. But his eyes, though much in the present, had gone as cold as ice. His jaw was clenched.
What sort of hornet’s nest did I just kick? “Soren, what–?”
Seed’s voice, when he answered, was calm, his delivery pleasant enough. I could see how he’d held the record for planting more bodies as an assassin than anyone else in the vigilante organization. “Just a sec, Tree. Beets, is it okay if I tell it?”
Robertson managed a nod, a jerky movement of his massive head. His right hand still shook, though, and I noticed his knee was bobbing up and down a bit, too.
“Heartbite.” Seed spat the word from his lips. “Seven…no, eight years ago, almost. Beets and I were part of a five man team tasked with taking out a really nasty specimen, a wealthy pedophile based in Cleveland but with additional homes and office buildings in three states. Code name we gave the dude was Angle, shortened by our Team Leader from a monster in the Philippines, the Manananggal, who eats babies while they’re still in the womb.” He shuddered a little, remembering. “Little did we know how close we came with that name. Our intel people said Angle would be holed up on a particular weekend at his estate in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an oversized log cabin–really a cross between a house and a mini-fortress–with several underage victims available for his use and three of his closest staff members, two bodyguards and a woman who’d acted as his personal secretary for years.”
He stopped speaking, watching Beets. The man was shaking less, his eyes shifting to something feral. “Go on,” he muttered, his voice full of gravel. “I can take it.”
Seed didn’t look too sure about that, but he did continue. “It was one of the worst failures ever. We had the green light to take out the staff members if need be, but of course the kids were not to be harmed, nor were they under any circumstances to witness our killing of their host, or their captor, or however they saw him. Unfortunately for us, what we didn’t realize was the children were the real enemy.”
“What?!” I’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out.
“That’s right, Jackson.” Robertson’s gravel voice took up the tale. “We thought we had the bad guys, and maybe the one bad gal, dead to rights. The kids were all in the basement of the place–a basement our intel didn’t even pick up; we had no idea it was there until the last moment. Angle and his evil minions, so to speak, were having a leisurely supper in the dining room; the kids had their own menu downstairs. What we did not realize was what was on that menu. There was an alarm system of sorts, but it didn’t slow us down much. Should have realized then that something was wrong. We came in low and fast, all five of us, catching our targets in a crossfire, two of us having hit the back door while the other three were hitting the front.
“Trouble was, we were idiots. We had no idea what we were going up against. I remember rounding the edge of the doorframe, bringing the dining room into view. The others just sat there at the table, smirking at us, but Angle himself changed in front of our eyes. One second we were looking at a man in a flannel shirt, jeans, and boots; the next we were facing a rampaging leopard with speed any ordinary leopard could only envy. The big cat was so fast, it tore out the throat of our only female team member–Alicia Portales, a girl on whom I had a terrible crush–ripped her wide open, left her to bleed out on the floor. He, the leopard I mean, took out Benny next, a guy I’d teamed with more than a dozen times, one of the best. That cat’s claws were long and sharp, not normal claws at all, ripped through his Kevlar vest in a single swipe, left him trying to hold in his own intestines. Three of us, Jon Iggles, Seed, and me, got our weapons going, poured fire into the damned thing, but it had a tail that ended in a sharp stinger, no ordinary tail. Venomous, as it turned out. Whipped that tail-spike into Jon’s leg on the way by, then that beast launched itself right out through the nearest window, shattering the glass. We must have put a dozen or more bullets into the thing, but it kept going.”
He stopped there, seemingly in no hurry to say anything more. Seed helped him out. “You have to understand, Treemin, this all happened in three, maybe four seconds. When Beets and I pulled ourselves together enough to think rationally–not that there was anything rational about that scene–it dawned on us that the others, the smirkers, were simply gone. Vanished. There were only two entrances to that room. I was firing from one doorway, Beets from the other. There was no way anything came past us, nothing went out the window except the leopard with the poison tail, yet they were gone as gone could be.”
“Huh,” I said brilliantly. “I take it Jon didn’t last long? The poison?”
“Not long at all,” Beets replied grimly, “though you really don’t want to hear the details of his passing. Think black and bloated and screaming; it wasn’t pretty.”
“And you’d stopped no one, at least not permanently.”
“Not a one. The guy we call Angle is still very much out there, doing his thing.”
“So…what about the kids? And why did my mention of the Heartbite Prophecy shake you up like it did?”
“I’m getting to that. We couldn’t do anything for Alicia or Benny; the cat had done something more than just open up Benny’s guts. He was dead in less than a minute. Seed stayed with the bodies, getting them ready for transport out of there, though we couldn’t do anything about the DNA left behind in the blood they’d sprayed everywhere. Jon was still in the process of dying. I went downstairs alone to check on the kids. And guess what? Those little buggers had cleared out, too. But, freaked out as I was, I searched that basement thoroughly anyway. We were going to need all the explanation we could get when we got back to headquarters. Besides, we simply had to know what sort of buzzsaw we’d run into, you know? So I looked and I looked, and I got lucky. One of the little bastards had gotten careless, left behind a flash drive. We didn’t have time to fiddle with it then, but we knew somebody who could check it out for us. By this time, we were not in a real trusting mood when it came to the EC having sent us out on that particular mission; we had no intention of turning anything over to the bosses.”
“I can understand that,” I interjected, thinking of Jack “Mr. Secrets” Hill.
“Yeah. Well. Our guy didn’t have any trouble cracking the code on the drive, ’cause there wasn’t any code. Damned thing was in clear text, and believe it or not, it contained a manual for these characters. Seemed the kids this guy was supposedly molesting were not exactly innocent wee lads and lassies. Rather, they were device addicted computer experts with a twist. They were programmers who created online games, the object of which was to produce what you’re calling darksiders, dark witches and evil wizards and shapeshifters and vampires and other things that go bump in the night. It’s a game to them. Points are given for the most innovative predators.”
“Like a guy who can shapeshift into a leopard with super wicked claws and a venomous prehensile tail,” I said, thinking aloud. “But so what? There are games galore like that out there.”
Beets bent over to pick up his fallen mug, ignoring the wet stain and slippery ice cubes decorating the wooden floor. “You don’t get it, Tree. There were enough hints on that flash drive to let us deduce the truth. Those kids did create the concept of the Poisonous Leopard, all right, but they did more than that. They figured it out, taught each other that if enough of them believed strongly enough, they could bring their creations to life.”
“What, like Tinker Bell and Peter Pan?” I heard the incredulity in my voice.
“Yes and no.” Soren Kirk got up from the table, went to the lone kitchen window, spoke with his back to us. “It’s not like they stare at a spot on the floor and a werecat magically appears. Or at least we don’t think that’s the way it works. It’s more that …if they hold the image in their minds strongly enough for long enough, Spirit will eventually fill that mold. The Poison Leopard will manifest somehow, some way. One of the lines in their manual states, The Creative Force is not mocked. It took me hundreds of hours of study and thinking, but I’ve come to believe they mean that…well, maybe it turned out that some scientist had been working on producing the magical leopard for decades, or maybe there’s a way to cross species that ends up having the desired effect, or maybe it’s a mutation or…something. But it will find a way to come into existence if the mental mold is strong enough and clear enough for long enough.”
“If you can imagine it, it exists somewhere,” I quoted softly, remembering a text I’d once read. “If you build it, they will come.”
“But I still don’t get it. I mean, yeah, that’s some scary stuff, but–”
“Ah.” Beets smacked his own forehead with one beefy palm. “Sorry. Forgot to tell you. The title on the cover page of their manual labeled it The Heartbite Protocol.”
“Oh.” I sat staring, in shock. “Oh. And if Jack Hill’s vision was accurate, these mental mold types are coming to call, sooner rather than later. I can see why you didn’t like hearing that.”
Robertson chuckled then. “No, Tree, you still don’t understand. I did like hearing that. I lost the woman I believed might well become the love of my life, lost her to Angle’s fangs. Lost two good men besides. I wasn’t, you know, frightened or anything like that. I was thrilled. There’s nothing I want more in life than another crack at those bastards.”
Ah. That made a difference. Before I realized it, all three of us were grinning. Or snarling. In my head, I could hear knives being sharpened, the steady scrape of stone on steel.