“You ever watch Family Feud, Tree?” Jack Hill asked the question without taking his eyes from the road, always a good thing when the road happens to be a twisting secondary highway bordered by a steep drop-off. We were past Greenough now, zipping down through the canyon, riding in Hill’s Subaru Outback this time because he needed to drop it off at a shop on the west side of Missoula for a few hours. We’d be using a rental car while the Subi was down; time was a precious commodity.
“No,” I replied, mildly surprised that he’d ask. “Why should I?”
It felt…normal, heading somewhere–anywhere–with Jack again. Somehow, Sissy’s tale of getting her ass whupped and her brain washed (in a good way) by this old man…I still didn’t understand how or why, but it had helped. Maybe it was knowing he’d prepped my warrior woman for me. Or not. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that.
“No reason. Since you haven’t, though, I know I can tell you about one episode I saw last night. Had me just about rolling on the floor.”
“Yeah. You know where they ask the families questions that have been put to either one hundred men or one hundred women?”
“Nope. Like I said, never watched it.”
“Oh. Right. Well, this one particular question, the families had to fight over who could get the top eight answers right. Steve Harvey, he’s the show’s host, he says, “We took a survey of one hundred–forget if it was men or women–and asked them, why would a hundred year old man not date a lot?”
Where was he going with this? Jack was a whole lot more than a hundred. Closing in on a hundred seventy, or maybe passed it by a hair. It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t talking about himself.
“Yeah, so, the families start knocking out the answers. You know, like the hundred year old man is too tired, or he’s got erectile dysfunction, or there just aren’t that many chicks left in his age group. But number five, you know what the number five answer was?”
“No,” I said, amused despite myself. “Englighten me.”
“A hundred year old man doesn’t date a lot,” he intoned solemnly, “because he’s dead.”
I thought that over. “Makes no sense, Jack. If he’s dead, then by definition he’s not a hundred year old man. At best, he’s a hundred year old corpse. Most likely, he’s nothing but a hundred year old memory.”
Hill snorted in exasperation. “Dammit, Tree, you do know how to ruin a good joke. It’s funny on two levels. One, dead men don’t date; that’s the opinion of the folks who gave that answer. Two, there are a lot of ignorant people in the world who don’t have a tenth of the intellect it takes to analyze that answer like you just did.”
“Oh. Well, it’s still not that funny.”
Jack laughed, but I wasn’t quite sure what he was laughing at. The joke, the stupid people who’d answered that way, or me? Just yesterday, I would’ve said he was laughing at me, but I wasn’t nearly as paranoid today. I decided not to pursue it.
By the time we’d dropped off the Subaru and headed back to East Missoula in a little silver colored tin can they called a Kia, the Half Castle was open. As always, ever since the Los Angeles debacle, we went directly back through the restroom’s secret doorway to Mr. Gray’s conference room, no waiting. The other guy’s guilty conscience hath its perks.
“Anything crucial for us today?” Jack asked casually as we settled in on the tall stools and wrapped our hands around cups of hot tea delivered by Gray himself.
“It’s been surprisingly quiet.” The dapper man looked like he didn’t quite understand that. “How about from your end?”
Ah, there was the rub. We’d talked a fair bit about that, Jack and I, what to tell Gray and what not to tell him. In the end, the Protector and I were on the same page. We’d decided I should make the initial pitch.
“We do have a research need,” I began, noticing Gray perk up at that. He must really have been getting bored this week. “But before we give you the skinny, let me ask you. Do you believe in the supernatural? You know, ghosts and dragons and werewolves and esoteric evil operating in the world?”
“You need to investigate–what, like Ghostbusters?” He stared at me in frank disbelief.
I had my answer. This guy in the Armani suit–not that I knew an Armani from a Walmart special, but whatever he was wearing looked like it should be an Armani–this intel conduit clearly did not believe. Okay; we had a plan for that.
For starters, I decided not to answer his question directly. “Whatever you call it, Damien–”
“Wha–Treemin, how did you come up with my first name? I’m pretty sure–no, I’m certain I never shared that with you.”
Huh. I wasn’t about to tell him it was a lucky guess. He just looked like a Damien to me. “What, you thought we depended slowly on the Half Castle for our intel? Really? You really thought that?” It was true, at least for the most part, but he didn’t need to know everything. I’d better let him off the hook a little, though. “If you prefer not to be called by your first name….”
“No.” He looked shaky. I had to admit to myself I was a bit surprised; neither Jack nor I had ever suspected he was using his real name. Or maybe he wasn’t; maybe the local paperwork on him showed him to be John Gray or Frank Gray or some such. Hey, at least I hadn’t called him Dorian Gray. “No, that’s fine. Since you know it anyway…sure. I’ve been calling you by your first name for years. Turn about is fair play and all of that.”
Awesome. I’d rattled his brain clear away from the Jackson-and-Hill-are-nutjobs track. Time to get down to business. “Thanks, Damien. I appreciate the honor. Now, here’s the thing. We’ve picked up on a credible threat that may–I stress may–be headed Montana way, one Jack and I and our people suspect we may have to deal with in the relatively near future. I’m not saying we believe in witches and wizards and things that go bump in the night, but every indication is that this group does. In fact, it’d be fair to say they’re fanatics about that. We believe they’re killers, maybe looking at the Unabomber’s old stomping grounds around Lincoln as a fine place to spread their batwings and vampire teeth and rack up a few kills. Or maybe just to enhance their reputation as major players in the evil scheme of things, you know?”
He nodded, clearly relieved to be back on familiar ground. “There are plenty of groups like that out there. You ought to see the fan club for John Wayne Gacey our guys uncovered last year. Nothing to do with us out here in the sticks, but law enforcement in Chicago did act on the anonymous tip they got.”
Jack and I both nodded. The darkness coming out way was a lot hairier than that, but close enough for now. “Exactly. We do know a few things, stuff we’ve picked up from our other sources. They call themselves Heartbite. They live and die by an operating manual for weirdos they call the Heartbite Protocol, which claims they can do all sorts of off the wall stuff. One member is supposedly a rich were-leopard with a poison tip to his tail, that sort of thing.”
“Really?” Damien Gray’s lip curled in scorn. “What will they come up with next?”
“Our question exactly.” Jack cut in at this point. We’d planned the switch, leaving him the task of impressing Gray with the need to warn the hackers. He’d known the man a lot longer, after all. We’d skull sessioned this topic for hours. If there were capable witches or empaths in the Heartbite We Believe group, they might well be able to track down cyber intruders through esoteric means. Heck, a simple wizardy spell ought to do it, but obviously we couldn’t lay it out precisely for Gray the Unbeliever. “Here’s the thing. We know of at least three kills this group has made already, but that’s not unusual for the sorts of people we’ve had to deal with in recent years. What is unusual is that at least two of those kills were people that knew their way around computer security. Psychic trolls or aliens from outer space or vampires or whatever, they apparently have some techs who are awfully good at tracking down people. Please warn your hacker contacts to be super wary when they look into Heartbite; we don’t want your group decimated.”
Gray looked at Jack like he’d just told him water was wet. “For real, Damien,” I growled, the first time I’d done so in his presence. “We don’t pretend to know how they’re doing it, but these guys are super dangerous. If you don’t impress the risk on your hackers, they could end up walking into a worse trap than the one in Los Angeles.”
That got him. He held up his hands, placating. “We certainly don’t want that. I will definitely tell them, Tree. The problem is, any hacker worth his or her weight in gigabytes is arrogant as hell. A warning to them is like a red flag to a bull. These are people who consider it child’s play to hack into Pentagon or CIA files just for the fun of it, the challenge. The more strongly we warn them, the faster and harder they’re going to go after Heartbite. All of them. I can’t think of a one who won’t.”
Time to let him off the hook. “Fair enough. But we do have to warn them in the strongest possible terms. I don’t want to find out somebody ended up dead because they weren’t told, okay?”
He had no answer to that. We wrapped up, letting Gray know that at least one Heartbite member had been known to operate in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; it was the only geographical clue we had.
“The UP?” His eyebrows rose in surprise. “Have you been there?”
Being the mental giant I am, I quickly deduced that “UP” (pronounced “you pee”) was short for Upper Peninsula. “No,” I admitted. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing.” The suave and debonair Mr. Damien Gray positively twinkled at me, his eyes full of mischief. I didn’t think he had it in him. “But when you get the chance, you might want to check out some of the songs by Da Yoopers.”
Jack said nothing. I shrugged. “Might not get that much of a chance for a while. Unless they’re on YouTube. YouTube is kind of like Jell-O. Everybody’s got room for a YouTube clip.”
“They have a few songs on YouTube,” he assured us. On that whimsical and not entirely reassuring note, we left, stopping in the dining room for forty-five minutes and a meal.
Not until we were back in the Kosmic Krap Kia did I dare ask Jack, “Da Yoopers?”
“Never heard of ’em, either. We’ve still got at least another hour before the Outback will be ready to go, though; we could swing by the library. Their computer room is surprisingly good. Eight computers available, last time I was in there. You can sign up for an hour at a time, too.”
“We shouldn’t need that much.”
“Just saying.” Hill pointed the Kia toward town, driving like the tinny hunk of junk didn’t even bother him. I sat back in the shotgun seat. That is, I sat back as far as possible, which wasn’t anything to brag about for a guy my size. On the other hand, after I’d watched my first Da Yoopers video, I was convinced I was lucky to live in Montana, not in Michigan’s UP. Jack and I had lucked out and gotten adjacent monitors, so I was able to look over and see that he’d selected a song called Rusty Chevrolet. My pick was My Car Won’t Go. Either video was enough to put a sane person off the Upper Peninsula for life, even if he had to drive a Kia.
Dem Yoopers definitely knew their cars, but other than that, they were some stra-ange dudes. Not that I had all that much room to throw stones. Jack and I’d just lied our asses off to our premier intel asset. True, it was for a good cause, but then all the evildoers in the world say that, right? If Gray knew we were true believers in the Weird of the World, he’d be thinking we were the stra-ange dudes.
Still, we’d had to do it. I shrugged it off and cued up Second Week of Deer Camp. Da Yoopers, unfortunately, were a wee bit addictive.