Her freshly cut key could use a little buffing around the edges, but it did work. Nails let herself in, gratified beyond words that Homer had quietly handed it to her a few days earlier.
It was that, she supected, that had tipped the balance and made her decide to seduce the big police sergeant in his own home. That, and the lifesized bronze statue of a snarling German Shepherd caught in midleap toward the visitor’s throat. She really liked that statue.
“Honey, I’m ho-o-o-ome!” She called out, pretending her man wasn’t right there in front of her, patting a place beside him on the leather covered couch.
They sat a while without saying much, just sipping Blackberry Frost and watching the evening news on the holo. A mob had attacked a school in Sector Eighteen, some three hundred miles up the coast. Motive unknown. There’d been several alleged sightings of Jupie spacecraft in central Colorado, mostly centered around Rifle and Parachute and above the Roan Plateau. If the witnesses were not either hallucinating or collaborating, the Stick Men were violating Treaty terms. A nine year old boy in Sector Thirty-Three had been tested right off the top of the IQ scale and claimed to have invented a device the size of a baseball that could cause earthquakes.
The talking heads scoffed at that last item, remaining blissfully unaware that genius scientist Nikola Tesla had constructed and demonstrated just such a gizmo clear back in the eighteen hundreds.
Enough. Newscasters had been idiots since the time of the town crier; they didn’t need to listen to these buffoons all evening. The blue eyed brunette–she’d already removed her green daytime contact lenses–reached over and thumbed the remote.
“Thanks for the missing person report.”
“You’re welcome,” Homer nodded soberly. “Thought you’d want to see that. There’s something else. Departmental memo came down just minutes before that fellow, that Harlan Johnson, walked into my office. Substance of said memo being, any and all citizen complaints regarding the Guild are to be referred to Chief Courson’s desk.”
“No kidding?” Nails Hendrix might not have worked as a cop, but she did understand the import of something like this. A Sector Chief had not just one guard dog but an entire station house full of them. What, did the guy suddenly think all of his boys and girls in blue had suddenly turned to brass like the critter in Homer’s hallway?
No, this had to have come from the top. Crap trickles down. This was big.
“No kidding.” He might have been commenting on the price of coffee. No big, might rain tomorrow, and oh, by the way, there’s a huge police coverup going on. Cream or sugar?
“Well,” she slid sideways and nestled against his shoulder, wishing she didn’t have to say what came next. If she was right, he could handle it. If not, then he wasn’t really her man after all, now was he? No help in that line of reasoning, but there it was.
“I have to tell you something, Homey.”
His body tensed like a cobra preparing to strike. “Something bad?”
“Not bad. Not really. To me, anyway. You’ll have to judge for yourself. First, I want you to know I’ve heard that name. The missing Seeder, I mean. Garrett Di Marco. I don’t know where he is, but I do know he went under his own power. A cousin of mine lives with him.”
“You’re tied in with a renegade Seeder?” His surprise showed, but she could feel his body relax. No longer a king cobra with its hood flared, now simply a tiger lounging in jungle shadow.
He’d feared she was going to dump him; anything else, he could handle.
“Not exactly tied in. My cousin gave me a call to tell me that she and her man needed to go black. The call came in just a couple of days before he vanished. We haven’t been in touch since.” There. That was technically the truth, though far from the whole truth.
Without looking at her, Homer asked, “You felt you shouldn’t tell me? Truth in installments?”
She shrugged, only slightly embarrassed. “We weren’t as tight then as we are now. It was my favorite cousin. The whole thing was in confidence. To my knowledge, there was no crime committed that might require police action. It was between the Guild and this Seeder. He’d become disillusioned and expected his former masters to put a contract out on him at any time. What would you have done?”
He considered that. “The same, I guess.” But he wasn’t sure.
“I do have something else to share. Maybe enough to convince you my truth installments are getting bigger all the time. Okay?”
“I guess.” Owch. She was going to think he was doubting her. Well…maybe he was. A little.
She stood up abruptly and began pacing, glancing his way from time to time to gauge his reaction but mostly keeping her eyes downcast as she unloaded. “I decided that before we settle down to dinner or head for the bedroom, I can tell you something about Hoelring. Must tell you something about Hoelring.”
He looked puzzled. “Hoelring. Seems like I should know that word, but–no, I can’t place it.”
She nodded, unsurprised. “How about the Way of the Guard Dog?”
“…No…I think not. Should I have?”
“Not really. You do come up with unexpected chunks of knowledge now and again, though.
“Okay, then. The Hoelring martial art, or the Way Of The Guard Dog, same thing, was created by my ancestor, Jacob Hoelring and three of his children, Benjamin, Sherry, and Bobby. This was in the early years of the Jovian War, so it’s not as old as many of the fighting systems, but I guarantee you it’s deadly. And it has one key feature that sets it entirely apart from anything else taught these days.
“Every movement, every single one, is designed to end in the death of the opponent.”
The Frog froze in the act of lifting his glass, clearly startled. “Death strikes? Only death strikes?”
“Yes. That’s right. Prior to founding the Hoelring fighting system, Jacob was a gentle man with a counseling degree and a foolish, liberal belief in the basic goodness of all sentient beings. He worked as a school counselor in a Pueblo, Colorado, high school, in fact, labeled himself a neo-progressive, and often told the kids who came to him that violence solved nothing. He probably wasn’t a complete pacifist by the strictest of definitions, but he came close.”
Warming to her subject, Nails stopped pacing and eased back down on the couch, turning to face Homer with her legs tucked under her long skirt and a serious expression on her sculpted-by-Michelangelo face.
“When the Twiggies made a sweep through his town one day, he should have done what his neigbors did. Everyone else had gone to ground before the Jovians got there, some hiding in makeshift foxholes, some in the shelters the survivalist types had constructed. He stayed in his home–this was on a Saturday, so there was no school–and when a Stick Man patrol marched up to his door, he welcomed them inside. He’d already learned enough Jovian to get by with the use of a translator, and yes, he’d managed to talk the Feds into letting him keep a translator in his house.
“The mother of his children had died of cancer several years earlier, so she wasn’t there to keep him from being a fool.
“The Jupie commander announced that two of Jacob’s four children would have to come with them. Jacob was standing there remonstrating with the Centurion, trying to use human logic on an inhuman foe, when his troops grabbed one girl and one boy. The soldiers started out of the house with the kids, who were in shock and not saying much of anything, when the family’s German Shepherd put in his two cents worth. Tore out the throats of three Twiggies before their weapons turned him into spaghetti sauce.”
“Helluva story,” the Frog admitted. Not that he hadn’t heard others like it. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m believing every word.”
She smiled, smoothing her skirt with both hands as she studied his face. It was getting easier to share this as she got farther into it. But this part was only background; the crux of the matter had yet to be uncovered.
“Well, to continue. People who knew him said that he might not have acted to save his children, but he loved that dog something fierce. When he saw Old Faithful shredded in front of his disbelieving eyes, something snapped inside him. By the time the Twiggies turned their attention from what remained of the guard dog, it was too late. He was mowing them down with their own weapons he’d picked up from the soldiers the dog had killed. Turned out he might have preached nonviolence, but he still knew how to pull a trigger.
“He didn’t get them all, but he put them on the run long enough for him to grab his kids and scoot out the back door.”
She paused to take a deep breath, barely noticing Homer’s appreciative stare as her chest rose and fell.
“Well, now.” Arbogast pulled his gaze away from her cleavage and got up to check on the steaks grilling nicely in the kitchen. “This is definitely of interest. Reckon I can see why it’s called the Way of the Guard Dog. Jacob’s memorial to Old Faithful?”
“Yup.” Speaking of dogs, she unfolded her long legs and puppy-dogged him to the kitchen. “You ready to hear more?”
The big man smiled. It warmed the cockles of her heart every time she saw it, that smile. Would he be smiling five minutes from now? Fear of the unknown was killing her; she had to get it over with.
Supper was nearly ready, filling the apartment with an aroma to make any true beef lover salivate. This Arbogast guy could cook; he really could. Soy sauce, sea salt, minced onions, garlic powder. She didn’t know what else he’d used, but Cuisine by the Arbo Man, all by itself, would have been enough to hook her for life.
“Baby,” he said gently, gesturing with the spatula he’d used to turn the steaks, “You know I want to know everything about you. Besides which, any cop is a born snoop; we love uncovering other folks’ secrets. A good cop and a good gossip columnist have a lot in common, except the officer doesn’t publish his findings in the tabloids. Most of the time, he doesn’t.”
They began setting the table as a team. He put out plates and cups; she placed silverware and napkins.
“All right. But before I go on, I’ve got to ask. What do you think of a family that trains every functional child to kill from infancy?”
“Hm. Animal cruelty? Other than letting a guard dog do his job, I mean.”
“No, no. Never cruelty. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have put it that way. Study starts at age five, not really infancy, and we don’t spar. We can’t. Slow motion demonstration, absolutely, but not what karate calls kumite’. We’d kill each other. And we don’t do bad things to animals.”
He saw the hurt in her face and rushed to clarify himself. “Cory,” he said, his voice sounding somehow heavy, as if it had weight of its own. “I’d like to preach at you about that one. I was raised a good Catholic, you know. I still attend mass at least once a month. I burn candles, sometimes even get on my knees and pray. By age twenty, the Ten Commandments were burned into my Soul. Thou shalt not kill. All that.”
“But?” Her voice was soft, anxious. She didn’t really know if there was a ‘but’, only hoped.
“But I’ve killed. In the line of duty, yes. Many times, no. Off duty, no, though there have been a couple of close calls. Does it haunt me? Yes. If you tell me you’re a Hoelring Guard Dog fighter and that you’ve killed, will I ever feel I can fully understand you? No.”
Her heart sank through her boots and plunged on down through the apartment floor, landing somewhere in the basement with a thud. She needed to be open, it had to be that way, yet it seemed no man could deal with what she was.
Homer read the distress in her eyes and raised a hand in the sign for Stop!
“Will my knowing I can’t understand you keep me from loving you? No, and I mean definitely not. Corolla Edsella Nails Hendrix, if that’s your real name and I’m coming to doubt it despite your credentials, you’ve got me by the balls. It’s easier to say that than admit you’ve got me by the heart, but no matter how I squirm, you could be the reincarnation of Genghis Khan, Hitler, Jupiter’s Commander Rorhote, plus half a dozen demons straight from Hell–and it wouldn’t matter one damned bit. I accept you, girl, whatever the dickens you are or what you aren’t.”
He finished emphatically, “And one thing you are not, is boring. Steaks are ready. Let’s eat.”
Her heart dusted itself off, levered its way back up out of the basement and back into her body.
It was going to be all right after all.
She’d never been half so scared in her life, never, but it was going to be all right. Acceptance beat understanding anyway, didn’t it? Beat it like a royal flush beat a pair of deuces, beat it like an alcoholic beat his wife. The man could cook, she was pretty sure he could fight, and he wasn’t half bad in bed. Not only that, hey, he might not be brilliant, but he didn’t exactly have sawdust between his ears, either.
Wait a minute. He was brilliant. The author of the Essential Liberties Essay Series was far from a johnny come lately in the thinking department. Plus, he had the Soul of a poet. Not to mention compassion, a rare enough commodity in any quarter these days. By the time the meal was finished and the dishes put to soak, she knew she’d done the right thing in opening up.
He really was the one.
She smiled. “You said you did want to know more.”
“I did, and I do. But after we eat, okay? Supper’s getting cold.”
It turned out to be possible to wait. She was ravenous.
When they got up from the table to get the ice cream for dessert, though, she could hold back no longer.
He nodded, grabbing the bowls while she snagged a half gallon of Hreyer’s Black Cherry Supreme from the freezer. “Didn’t figure you were telling me all this as a way to explain your record sales of Girl Scout cookies.”
She wanted to laugh at that but couldn’t quite do it. Not just yet.
“I mean, I’ve killed a lot.”
“Define a lot.”
“More than a hundred, fewer than a thousand.”
“Wow.” His eyes went wide under those bushy, prematurely white eyebrows. “I’ve only planted three. This is weird, but I almost feel like I’m next thing to a virgin and you’re the one who’s been around the block–” He stopped, blushing like an Arizona sunset. They both knew she had been around the sexual block. Had he offended her?
She pretended she hadn’t noticed his slip of the tongue, for which he was immediately grateful. “Now that you have some idea of numbers, is there anything else you want to know?”
“Yup. Next question is, why?”
“Various reasons. Some because of dangerous situations I’ve put myself in that actually invite attack. You know, put on a pretty western outfit and head into Deep City, magnetize a few gangsta types to get all aggressive just so I can stay sharp. Guard dogs need practice.
“Others have been suggested by my family, and I don’t mean like a Mafia family. My blood family. Not a command, a suggestion. A few were for revenge, pure and simple.
“Are we over the line for you now, Arbo Man?”