The wind screamed and howled, driving snow toward my exposed shooting eye at an unrelenting pace. That eye remained closed for the most part, unwilling to face the elements on, as Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy would write, this dark and stormy night. My left eye was protected by the night vision monocle, set for infrared (IR) viewing only, since there wasn’t any ambient light for the starlight mode to use. Friday, February 12, 2016, unless it was now Saturday morning. The last time I’d gone to the trouble of checking my watch, it had been 11:27 p.m.
Reaching the post marking the southern tip of my patrol area, I tapped the top with a mittened hand–my right, the left arm cradling the AK-47–and waited the few seconds it took for Jack Hill to reach the post from the other direction. He performed his ritual post-tap, then raised his own mitten to give me a high one.
Hey, it can’t be a high five when you’re wearing sheepskin lined horsehide mittens.
Carolyn West had modified the mittens for us. I was grateful for that, welcoming the slits that allowed our index fingers to slip into the open as needed. A bare finger was still the most effective trigger puller for our purposes, even at twenty-seven below zero with a sixty degree below wind chill. We’d rounded up AK-47’s for everybody, too; zubzero weather that would cause any other weapon to misfire or fail to feed meant nothing to Kalashnikov’s invention. They weren’t exactly sniper rifles, these AK’s, but if Heartbite attacked tonight, the firefight would be all short range work. As long as it kept snowing like this, extremely short range work. Nobody would mount an assault in such weather, you say? Hey, you might be right. But Angle was a billionaire, able to outfit the biters any way he chose, and as a Yooper with years of Michigan Upper Peninsula winters under his belt, he wouldn’t be stopped by a mere blizzard if he had his target pinpointed. It wouldn’t even slow him down.
Especially not tonight.
At least, I thought, I got out of having to hold Judi’s hand while she was in labor. A guy really should be careful what he wishes for. Throughout January, there had been signs the Biters were getting closer to locating our as yet unborn daughter. East of Lincoln, a lone hunter had disappeared on January 7, what was left of him found three days later by a search party. My careful cultivation of the Sheriff’s Department had paid off; we quickly learned what the public was never told. The man appeared to have lost blood before he died, but the Coroner had no idea how that had happened. Which surprised none of us; rural Montana forensic medicine was not exactly CSI. What it told us was that we had a Biter scout in the area at the very least.
Then, on January 20th, a cross country skier went missing in the Bob Marshall wilderness, not twenty miles north of Rodeo Iron headquarters. Just last week, the search parties had all been advised to call it quits, having found nothing but a ragged portion of the man’s left leg described by witnesses as looking like some animal had chewed the damned thing off…and they’d found that during the first day of searching.
Judi had quickly agreed that Defcon 5 security during her vulnerable birthing process was more important than having her hand held. Sissy was out here too, covering the patrol stretch just north of mine. It wasn’t like we’d left Jude without any help; she had three women attending her–Carolyn West, Jennifer Trace, and of course Meredith Barnes, the midwife. If it came down to a battle, we were going to have some explaining to do; Meredith was definitely not in the know regarding supernatural threats. Of course she wasn’t. She had at least called her husband in Great Falls, early in the afternoon, to tell him she wouldn’t be home until the snowstorm had had its say or the baby was born, whichever came later. My bride’s labor had officially started in midmorning, shortly after 9:30 a.m. Just two days shy of her calendar due date. Definitely no Braxton Hicks false labor.
Fourteen hours and counting. Despite the biting cold, I preferred being out here on Family Defense Patrol to being stuck in there holding hands. Or so I tried to tell myself, doing everything I knew how to stay alert.
The massive black bear beat me to the northern marker post by a couple of steps. Post-tapping done, Sissy Bear stood on his hind legs and offered his own version of a high one, paw-to-mitten slap. I couldn’t refuse, but once this was over, I needed to let my warrior woman know she didn’t know her own strength in that form. Lesson for the day: Don’t ever get into a paw slapping contest with a bear. Sissy much preferred her bear form for pulling guard duty, though. “I never get really super cold inside that furry bear hide,” she’d explained. “Besides, the enhanced hearing and super-enhanced sense of smell make up for the lack of a night vision monocle and then some.”
I’d have to take her word for it.
The cold was numbing my mind, too, and that was a dangerous thing. For lack of a better stay-alert exercise, I went over our patrol roster one more time. Eight troops: Me, Jack, Sissy, Jordan, Horace, Wayne, Seed, Beets. Six of us on duty at all times, the other two inside, warming up in the kitchen, staying well away from the soundproofed room the ladies were using for the birthing. Well…the ladies plus one twelve year old boy. Jordan Phreeb had wanted in on this one in the worst way. I couldn’t deny him–after all, it was his black market contacts who’d rounded up the AK-47’s for us, ten thousand rounds of ammunition thrown in as part of the deal. We’d paid a premium, but less than half the surcharge we’d have been facing if the arms dealer hadn’t been a Marine who’d served with Phreeb, and we hadn’t had to involve Damien Gray’s contacts. Both Jack and I felt it best to diversify where we felt we could safely do so.
Sergeant Phreeb had been one helluva find. Not only did he have contacts, but he’d leaped at the chance to switch from welding to doing, as he put it, “Marine stuff”. Young Philip was inside with the women, the safest place he could be if things went south. Thankfully, the boy wasn’t just a chubby face with a head for computer work; he was also a natural medical dude, or at least a nurse.
He’d even promised not to toss his cookies when the baby came out.
So. I batted myself upside the head to jump start my brain; I’d begun spacing out in the cold. Where was I? Philip Phreeb. No cookie tossing. Okay. So…engage your damned mind, Treemin Jackson! You can’t afford to slack off now! If Angle is here, that’s entirely to his advantage, if you do that! Aside from Sissy Bear, Jordan seemed to be the only member of our crew who remained totally unaffected by the weather. It helped, maybe, that he’d been raised in Alaska, but there was no denying the man was preternaturally tough. Five ten, same height as Seed but a lot more beef on him; the Marine would tip the scales at 200 or so, not an ounce of it fat. Rugged features, not exactly handsome, but I’d overheard Jennifer telling Horace that she wouldn’t kick the guy out of bed for eating crackers. Quick as a cat, tree trunk thighs, fists that you’d swear could crush rocks to powder like the ogres in the stories. He did best as part of an organized structure; I sort of felt he considered me his Commanding Officer. Black hair with early gray streaks already showing. Unbridled loyalty to his pudgy, brilliant son.
My patrol segment, some sixty feet in length, included covering our home’s front door. None of the outside lights were on and the inside illumination was all blocked by the special shutters; all electric lighting could do outside after dark was give any incoming bad guys better targets. I made three more rounds, noticing absently that even in their Arctic Pro cold weather Muck boots, my toes were probably getting close to frostbite. Distracted despite my best efforts, it almost didn’t register when the porch lights came on. As the old saying goes, if it was a snake, it woulda bit me. Three quick flashes, pause, three more, repeat.
Oh. Willow was born!
Sissy Bear had just completed her return to Sissy Harms form when Seed and Beets, the two guards who’d been on warmup break, came spilling out through the door. Relieved of duty, I headed inside, Sissy on my heels. We didn’t stop to shuck our boots or worry about the snow; if the Biters did choose this moment to attack, we didn’t want to get caught sock-footed.
Judi lay propped up in bed, any soiled sheets already removed and replaced. She was clearly worn out, but her eyes were smiling, quietly triumphant. “Seven pounds, two ounce,” she announced proudly. Somebody, I noticed, had taken time to fix her hair. Just a touch of makeup, too; trust the women to think of that before letting her public see her.
“Don’t you want to see our daughter?”
Uh. Oh, right. I realized I was holding my woman’s hand and hadn’t even scanned the room for the baby. Which made sense to me; I knew my wife. I needed her to be in one piece, healthy and all; the kid could wait. Which was apparently not the way the females saw it. Now that I was paying attention, I couldn’t miss the brows furrowed in mild disapproval. At least, I hoped it was mild.
“Here, Mr. Jackson.” Twelve year old Philip Phreeb stepped forward, and damned if he wasn’t holding the new arrival, the wee one all wrapped up in a pink blanket except for her face and a little pink cap thing that covered the top of her head. Her eyes were closed; she was apparently already asleep, ready for her first nap after her odyssey through Mommy’s Amazing Birth Channel. “You want to hold her?”
No! My mind screamed. Sure as Hell, I’d do it wrong. That little thing scared me half to death. “You’re doing great, Philip,” I said. “I can hold her later.” She was definitely going to be a cutie, her skin tone nicely balanced between my dark Herman Cain hue and her mother’s light Caucasian complexion. She had a couple of tiny birthmarks, two darling little freckle spots between her eyes, that could only add to her beauty as a heartbreaking teenager. I could already see myself preparing to clobber the first boy who even thought of doing her wrong.
“Okay,” he replied. Whatever I said was okay with Philip Phreeb, ever since he’d gone to work for me and gotten a replacement for the drone we’d trashed. No drones flying tonight, of course. The blizzard wouldn’t allow it, and besides, we were still testing the new shipment, getting used to working with the technology.
At that moment, tiny Willow Jewel Jackson took a deep breath–deep for such a wee thing–and opened her eyes. I stared in shock, locked eyeball to eyeball with my daughter. The love flowing between us was powerful but in a sense not entirely unexpected. What was unexpected was her identity. I was rooted to the spot, hypnotized, staring into the unblinking gaze of the Soul that both Heartbite prophecy and Jack Hill’s visions saw as the most important being in our immediate Universe. More than that, I was staring at a Soul I knew, the federal agent who had posed as teenaged hacker Penny Cummings, the late Sharon Blakely. Those freckles between her eyes were not birthmarks.
They were echoes, stark reminders of the .22 long rifle bullets I’d sent crashing through her brain less than a year ago.
–The End– (Until the sequel.)
–Stay tuned for the epilogue.–