“Sissy Bear nailed a drone.”
Deep in study of the latest witchery text Judi had brought home from our last trip to Butte, I ignored the voice for several seconds. When I finally raised my head, Sissy Harms was leaning against the room’s doorframe, her eyes steady on mine. “What did you say?”
“Sissy Bear. Nailed. A. Drone.”
Hm. This fine, peaceful Saturday afternoon promised to blossom into something else. I glanced at the wall calendar. December 23, 2015. Two days until Christmas. Mom would be here tomorrow, driving in from Idaho on Christmas Eve, figuring to spend Christmas with us. She wasn’t fooling anybody, not with Judi’s belly leading her around be her nose these days. Louella Jackson wanted to play Expecting Grandma for a few days, and that was that. Truth be told, it was probably a good thing she was coming. We’d spend some time with her and my uncle B.J. for sure, bringing them fully up to date on the Heartbite threat. Merry Christmas.
I tapped the intercom. “Jude, you got a minute?”
“Why?” Her reply sounded a bit cranky. My beloved wife hadn’t quite gotten around to openly blaming me for her predicament yet, but she wasn’t exactly Mary Sunshine these days, either.
“Sis has something she needs to tell us.”
“Oh. That’s different.” She was on her way. I wasn’t quite sure if she was joking or not, implying a request from her sister wife far outranked one from her husband. It didn’t take her long to waddle down the hall and sink into the easy chair next to the home office window, but I can think fast. The first thing I was thinking was that she was playing this pregnancy thing to the hilt; she was seven months knocked up, but that was nine months worth of waddle. One the other hand…Sissy Bear, the warrior woman had said. It had taken her until shortly after Thanksgiving to master shapeshifting to and from her tom cougar persona, but adding the black bear boar to the mix had taken her no time at all. It must be like learning new languages, she’d reported. It gets easier with each new language you add. I’d have to take her word for that, a working knowledge of English being about as far as I cared to go in the linguistics department. Somewhere along the line, despite the fact that every one of her animal forms was male–including the original raven, as it turned out–Judi had started referring to them as Sissy Critters: Sissy Raven, Sissy Deer, Sissy Cat, Sissy Bear.
Now we all did.
“I was up in the timber a bit,” she began, “working on my form changes as I was hiking along, taking my time. I happened to be Sissy Bear when I heard something, barely audible to my bear ears. Of course, in human form I wouldn’t have heard it at all. Those bear eyes are pretty darned effective, too, and when I looked up and around, I spotted what had to be a drone, flying along slow-like, maybe fifty feet above the ground, following Jack’s property line fence, eastbound.”
“We’re being spied on?” Judi’s mild irritation dissipated instantly; when it came to home security issues, she was all business.
“Sure looked like it. I didn’t have time to try calling you guys on the CB; if I’d done that, it would have gotten away clean while I was fiddle-faddling around. So I shifted from bear to me, shucked out of my parka, dropped the coat in the snow, and then shifted to raven. Grabbed hold of the coat with my bird feet and hit the air, hoping the camera on the drone was looking mostly down and forward. Grabbed some altitude, hoped anybody who happened to see me in the air was far enough away for my size not to matter, and dropped out of the air to smother the drone. This one has four little rotors up top. Not big ones; the whole thing is only a foot or so from end to end. The idea was to jam the rotors and blind the beast at the same time, since we know a lot of them have live video feeds back to the operators.”
“Where’s your parka now?” I asked.
“Buried under a rock overhang. The drone is still wrapped up in it. I need to get back up there ASAP with that big magnet in the garage, wipe out the computer in the thing. And the GPS chip. Especially the GPS chip. I might have enough granite between it and the satellites its signal bounces off of, but I’m presuming you and Jack will want to take this into Missoula for Damien Gray’s hotshots to analyze. Trace back to its owner if we’re lucky. Right?”
Sissy had the magnet and was back out the door before I could say boo. She’d be back pretty quickly, too; whichever animal form she chose could travel a lot faster than any of the rest of us could on foot. When it comes to moving around on shank’s mare, we homo sapiens are slow boats to China.
I called Jack, told him Sissy was bringing in a drone she’d seen crash up in the timber. Which was the God’s honest truth, just not quite all of it. He asked about magnet-wiping the thing; I told him our girl was on it.
By five-thirty p.m., pitch dark at this time of year, we were showing the machine to Gray. “DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter. Newest model on the market. Yes, I’m reasonably certain our people can hack the DJI database and find out who bought the one with that serial number.”
“So we’ll have a lead,” I queried, “but only if the original owner was the one flying it?”
“Exactly. Have you two had supper yet?”
“No. Why?” Now that he mentioned it, I had a sudden craving for some egg foo yung. Or sesame beef. Or both.
Damien Gray smiled, sort of, a barely perceptible upward quirk of the lips. “Not ten minutes before you walked in, one of our hackers called. He’s bored, looking for something to do. This sort of thing wouldn’t normally excite him all that much, but if I tell him it’s for you, he’ll jump right on it.”
Jack Hill spoke up. “Our names make a difference?”
“Not yours, Jack. In a way, both of you have been famous ever since the YouTube video showing the attempt to take you out with a log across the highway–”
“Man,” I interrupted without meaning to, “that seems like a long time ago.”
“–but it’s Treemin a lot of them idolize. Black man making it big in white Montana cowboy country. A couple of the girls have even let me know they’d be interested if you’re ever single again.”
“Huh,” I observed with my usual brilliance.
We took our time over our meal. Great service too; we were the only customers in the restaurant. They’d be closing soon for the holidays, remaining closed until the third of January. Officially closed, anyway; Jack and I could always get to Gray if we had to.
“Penny for your thoughts, Tree.” Jack peered at me over the teacup he held in both hands, blowing on the hot brew.
“I’m that far gone?” I grinned at the old Protector.
“Somewhere out past Pluto, I’d say.”
“Nah.” I shook my head, noting that none of the staff was within earshot. We were seated in the one booth–newly installed–Gray had assured us was soundproofed and not monitored electronically; no Half Castle snooping. “Just thinking it’s time.”
“Yeah.” We’d given them quite an order. It wouldn’t take the kitchen long to get it ready. It never did. But we had a few minutes. “You can’t yet tell me the entire story. You told me that. I’ll live with it. But it’s time I unloaded our latest secret on you.” The girls and I had discussed this. They had agreed; my reasoning made sense.
“Go on.” He blew across his tea one final time and took a sip. Still pistol hot, but just right for Hill.
“Well, for starters, it would be a really good idea if you didn’t shoot any strange critters you see around our home turf unless you’re dead sure they’re enemies.” I went on to explain Sissy’s shapeshifting skills, starting with the fact that the whitetail buck that had perforated Elmer Fudd’s rump had actually been Sissy in deer form. He laughed out loud at that one, but no one popped out of the kitchen to stare at us. By the time I was done telling the whole story from quarter raven to Sissy Bear, though, he was looking a bit worried.
“We’re going to have to clue Horace and Jennifer in,” he said.
I agreed. “Seed and Beets, too. Which shouldn’t be a problem, since they’ve already lost people to a wereleopard with a poison tail. But I thought we ought to start with you.”
“Oh, absolutely. I’d have been mortally offended if you hadn’t.”
Was he joking? Maybe, maybe not. But at least we were on the same page. “More than her ability to shift, I have to admit her ability to take her clothing and gear with her is most remarkable. None of the literature talks about that.”
“The fiction, you mean?” Hill chuckled. “Why would it? Ninety-five percent of the writing out there is copycat stuff. One writer a few centuries ago decides werewolves have to drop their clothes when they shift into wolf form and come back in naked human form, then almost everybody else follows suit. Robert Jordan is an exception, if I remember correctly. I’m curious about one thing. Sissy hasn’t put a Sissy Wolf form on her list yet?”
“No. She knows she needs to do that. After all, it’s a classic, right? And a wolf is the right size to boot; she’d be a huge wolf, but not outside the realm of possibility. But she, um…she hates the stereotype. Says everybody expects a shifter to do the wolf thing, and that just royally pisses her off. She does not like the idea of being that predictable. Plus, she’s keenly aware of the Wolf War, the mutant packs still roaming the mountains. And finally, her bear form goes into a rage every time it thinks about wolves. She–”
“Wait a sec. Her forms aren’t just her? What is she, some sort of werehybrid?”
I shrugged. “She’s still working it out. Says when she’s in an animal form, it’s not like she can’t control it, but there’s a…pressure, is what she called it. A pressure that lets her feel the same emotions a natural critter would feel. Or maybe she’s doing it and it’s really what she believes that form would feel. Either way, she has to deal with it, and she says there are benefits. When she was in buck form and gored Elmer Fudd, she didn’t have to think about how a bio buck would act or react when sneaking or fighting; the pressure let her know. She could still think in human terms, still act in that form as she chose to act–like when she used her raven form and her parka to knock down the drone–but it has to be a conscious act of will. If she lets go while in cougar form, for example, she’s convinced she’d fight just like any big bio tom. But if she decides to run instead of letting a dog pack tree her, just as an example, she can override the animal instinct…as long as she pays attention to what she’s doing.”
We stopped there; Mia was coming with our gustatory goodies.
As promised, Gray’s hacker had done his work by the time we were done eating and using the restroom for its normal functions.
“Jordan Phreeb bought the drone from Amazon one week ago today,” he said, looking subtly smug. “The Phreeb family–”
Damn! “I know,” I said, interrupting for the second time in one evening. “Jordan is divorced. He has sole custody of his only son, Philip. His ex drove him into bankruptcy while he was in the military, then took off to Mobile, Alabama, with the last cash they had. Last he heard, she was hooking in Baton Rouge.”
“You know all about the Phreebs, then?”
“I should. We just hired Jordan as a welder. His first paycheck hasn’t been issued yet, so your hacker wouldn’t be able to follow that trail for another week or so, and our records are all kept offline. I authorized a draw against his wages so he could get something for his kid for Christmas. It doesn’t thrill me to find out he spent what, a thousand or more for the drone when he couldn’t afford it, but there’s no question whatsoever that he gave it to Philip as an early Christmas present.” And we’d just destroyed it. Neither the magnet treatment nor Sissy Raven’s pounce from the sky had done the Phantom 3 one bit of good; functionally, the thing was totaled.
We thanked Gray for his speedy assistance, took our leave, and headed back home. Happy fricking holidays. We were almost to Clearwater Junction before Jack broke the silence. “Silver lining,” he said.
“I could use one,” I admitted.
“Okay. How about this? Philip Phreeb is what, twelve or so?”
“Right in there.”
“And he as to be in the blue funk of all blue funks right now, his hi tech toy all gone bye-bye. Right?”
“And then some.” I’d seen kids commit suicide over less. Or if not suicide, then murder. Definitely murder.
“On the other hand, didn’t you say his Dad swears the kid is a genius?”
“Must be. He’s known to the other boys in his class as Philip Phreeb, the ultimate dweeb. Sounds like a for sure genius, right there.”
“Kids can definitely be such assholes.”
“True that. Of course, I’m pretty sure the kids believe adults can be such anuses, too; I know I felt that way when I was a kid.”
“So, you get hold of Jordan tomorrow morning. Rodeo Iron isn’t shutting down till noon on Christmas Eve, right? Have him bring his boy in to see you at the office. Explain to both of them exactly what happened.”
“Yeah,” I said drily, “tell them our Security Chief smashed the to the ground in her raven form and then wiped the thing completely out with a magnet? That’s a plan, right there.”
“Okay, maybe not that part. But sling a little mystery. Tell them, the Phreebs, that young Philip couldn’t have known it, but we take overflights on our property seriously. Scare the crap out of him, and then make it all better. Tell them you hear he’s a whiz kid. Offer to hire him as a part time security consultant, working with drones. Just weekends, of course; he can’t be skipping school or anything. See if he and his Dad like that idea. If they do, throw in the sweetener. Offer to buy him a replacement for the one Sissy trashed with the proviso that he’s not to operate it in our neck of the woods, but not as a gift. He’ll have to pay for it, but you can take it out of his weekend wages, a bit at a time.”
I thought about that for a minute or two. “Working with drones, you said?”
“Sure.” Jack yawned, covered his face with both hands, and rubbed his eyes. I had a hunch he hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, though I wasn’t about to try guessing the reason. “Young Philip had to be somewhere nearby when that drone went down; the Phantom 3 only has a range of something like one point two miles. I’m betting he had his twelve year old butt parked right along the fence line, straight east like the drone was heading, so the little beastie wouldn’t have a problem navigating through the middle of a bunch of eighty-foot Douglas fir trees along the way. That’s pretty smart. He also slipped in there–what, all the way from Ovando on his bicycyle, maybe? Slipped in and out and nobody saw him. That’s pretty sneaky. We need both smart and sneaky on our side, Tree, and we need weekend security.”
“Hm.” I rubbed my chin, thinking. One hand was plenty for driving; the Pontiac knew its way home. “Philip Phreeb, Rodeo Iron Assistant Security Chief, Drone Division. Not a bad thing to have on his resume for a twelve year old. Plus, if the biters are using brainy kids to create their monsters, we might as well use a little child labor, too, right?”
“Right. Of course, you might want to work it out with his Dad to pay Philip under the table, what with the child labor laws and all.”
“I like it. I take it you figure we can gear up with some heavier duty drones than the hobby type Phantom 3’s, eh?”
“Just saying.” I really did like it. When Jordan and Philip heard the details of my proposal, I was pretty sure they’d end up liking it, too. Except for the parts about the coming Heartbite War and both sides having shapeshifters, maybe vampires, and almost certainly witches. I didn’t think the kid would even blink; a lot of the younger generation takes magic for granted. Daddy might be a tougher sell.
But I didn’t doubt for one second that we wanted him on our side. As a former Marine with three tours in Afhanistan and two Purple Heart medals to show for it, Jordan Phreeb definitely understood combat. He wasn’t traumatized by it, either; his son was the only reason he’d gotten out when his enlistment was up. When he found out the bad guys were bringing the war to him, he’d be more than ready to fight. I could see it now, him telling his boy, “You spot ’em, son, and I’ll shoot ’em.”