“We’re at the 4 B’s…yeah, sure; we’ll tell ’em to start a fresh pot of coffee.”
Jack Hill cocked an eyebrow as I holstered the cell phone. “I take it we’re having a dinner guest?” He wasn’t being quite literal, of course, it being midafternoon at the moment.
“Larry,” I replied. There had been an undertone in the good doctor’s voice that didn’t sound quite right. Plus, he had never hooked up with us at the restaurant before. “Something’s up.” Best not to say anything more just yet; the waitress was headed our way with our orders. Except for a couple of guys who’d chosen to sit at the counter and one trucker in a booth who looked like he needed something stronger than coffee if he was going to last another hundred miles, we were the only customers.
“Sirloin medium?” The girl was attractive in a high school sort of way. She looked like she should be chewing gum to complete the effect.
“Mine, Lila, and thank you.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Tree.” Lila was what, maybe eighteen, nineteen at the most? These white girls were starting to look younger all the time. She had a thing for big black me, too, judging by the sparkle in her eye when she looked my way and the fact that she never seemed to remember Jack’s name.
Hill dug into his meat loaf with gusto the second she turned to saunter back toward the kitchen. “Not likely we’ll have time to eat much once Menning gets here,” he explained. “Might as well cram it down now.”
“Good point,” I agreed.
Seventeen minutes later, our plates were clean and Dr. Menning’s big red SUV was pulling up outside. When he got out of the vehicle, our suspicions were confirmed. Watching him through the side window from our corner booth, I could see his usual easy way of moving was still there, but his awareness was extended. His turn to lock the door behind him looked innocent enough to the casual bystander, but it also afforded him the opportunity to check out everything and everybody in a 360 degree sweep. The light jacket he wore…well, Larry Menning didn’t normally wear any jacket at all in the middle of a toasty Montana summer day.
We’d never seen it before, but the doctor was packing.
Once inside, he hand signaled Lila–who was peeping out of the kitchen to see who’d arrived–and made his way back to our booth. It was my turn to have my back against the wall with old Jack Hill on the other side of the table watching the angles I couldn’t see. Menning hesitated, then slid in beside Jack. Lila was already hustling our way with the coffee pot and an extra cup. Once she’d left the table, we had a long moment of silence while the newcomer added two containers of half and half and a dash of sugar to his coffee. That done, he picked up his spoon and began stirring mindlessly, his attention clearly elsewhere.
“You’ll let me know if anybody gets too close and I need to shut up?” His gaze was steady, but there was a clear thread of tension running through his entire being. I simply nodded. “All right, then…wait a sec. Tree, you’re not wearing your shoulder brace?” Obviously I wasn’t. “Huh. Can’t say I’m surprised. That last set of x-rays showed your bone was healing in a way that should have been impossible, but with you, I’m beginning to think impossible may not apply.”
“Healing how?” This wasn’t his reason for joining us, but hey, it’s my body; I wanted to know.
He shrugged, a gesture I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret. “The missing pieces of bone taken out by the bullet? They’re filling back in. Regenerating. Not science fiction fast or anything, but like you’re a gecko growing a new tail or, got me, an immortal or something.” When I didn’t respond to that, he continued. “But…let me back up a bit.” He paused, looked at the spoon like it had grown attached to his fingers of its own accord. He set it aside, picked up the cup, and drank deeply. “Ah…just the right temperature. Anyway, I got a flyer in the mail a couple of weeks ago. A slick brochure promoting a retirement village down near Big Sky. Didn’t think anything of it, just tossed it onto a table where a few thousand other pieces of junk mail have accumulated over the years. But then a week later, I get this phone call from a man claiming to promote this particular development. He tried the hard sell, even kind of intimated that if I didn’t retire to this place, there might be unintended consequences from my failure to act.”
“Unintended consequences?” Jack’s query was mild, but I could see the wheels turning behind his eyes.
“Hunh. You were threatened.”
“I was. Not in words that would hold up in court, necessarily, but yes. I was threatened.”
“And you being such a pansy….” Hey, it was my turn; I can’t help it if the Devil made me do it.
“Yeah. He didn’t get anywhere with that, of course. But it did worry me some. As you know, I practice out of my home office outside of town, just the one part time assistant. I wasn’t worried about myself so much, but I did start thinking. I’ve made my share of enemies over the years, but the only real shootemup incidents I’ve treated since leaving military service have been either Trace Ranch or Rodeo Iron related. Made me wonder if some of your enemies might have put me on the list of people to take out of the picture, you know?” He fell silent for a bit, contemplating his coffee mug, though I noticed his eyes were still scanning the windows he could see. He was checking my eyes regularly, too, knowing I’d see any threat coming if it arrived via the front door. I thought he was done, but he wasn’t.
“Then about an hour ago I got a visit from a couple of thugs in a black Lincoln Town Car. Turned out to be the same so-called salesman who’d spoken to me on the phone, plus a blond muscle-before-brains type.”
I interrupted. “They still in the area?”
“Doubt it.” He shook his head. “Sales guy repeated his spiel almost word for word, delivered it through a plastic smile that made me itch to smack him upside the head just for the fun of it. Then they left.”
Jack’s eyes had gone flat. “But they’ll be back, and next time it won’t be pretty.”
“That’s the message I got,” Menning agreed. “The moment they were clear of the driveway, I called Helen into my office, told her I’d decided to move out of the Deer Lodge area, and told her she was laid off. Cut her a check for three months worth of wages as severance pay and that was that.”
“So,” I said carefully, “you’re leaving the area?”
The look he gave me had steel in it. “Deer Lodge area, yes. But not to Big Sky. I don’t do well with threats, you know.” He paused, took another swallow of coffee, and picked up the menu, flipping the pages but most likely not seeing them. “Thought maybe I’d, you know, retire to the mountains. Just not Big Sky. Different mountains. I do like mountains, if they’re the right mountains.”
It took me fifteen, twenty seconds to get it. There was this one girl, back in Hartford, who wanted me to get in her pants in the worst way. She hinted. She wiggled. She did everything, and I remained oblivious…until the day she ripped off her halter top, dropped her shorts, and stood stark naked right in front of me. I got it then, but never did follow up on her offer. She’d presented herself in public, dead center in a movie theater lobby, and I figured one of us going to jail for indecent exposure was enough. Fast forward to here and now, I was seeing Dr. Larry Menning offer himself almost as blatantly. The sawbones to whom I owed my life several times over wanted to come to Rodeo Iron country.
When I got my thoughts more or less unscrambled, I said softly, “You’d be more than welcome in the mountains north of Ovando, for sure. But I see Lila heading this way to top off our coffee. Let me make a few notes while she’s bustling around, okay?”
Menning nodded in return. The man was nothing if not sharp; he even ordered apple pie and ice cream all around, on him, to keep the waitress’s attention away from my scribbling. Or maybe he just needed the sugar rush. I kept writing and stalling until the dessert was delivered and it was safe to speak up again.
“Here you go, Larry.” I flipped the notebook around and passed it across the table. Menning started reading the list. I had no idea what he was thinking, how he was handling the shock, but I knew what I’d written would rattle almost anybody, visiting thugs notwithstanding.
1. How do you feel about vampires?
2. Ditto for witches.
3. Double ditto for werewolves and/or other shapeshifters.
4. Yeah, wizards, too.
5. Wicked evil billionaires.
6. Wicked evil billionaire vampire shapeshifters with venomous barbed tails.
7. Most of all, considering your lifelong friendship with Horace Tamblyn and knowing he was murdered by some or all of the above, would you like to get some back on behalf of the old tracker?
When Dr. Menning raised his gaze to meet mine, he was rattled, all right…but not quite in the way I’d expected. Frankly, it wouldn’t have surprised me to see him recoil in disbelief, get up out of the booth, storm out of the restaurant, and disappear from our lives forever. That was not at all what happened. His eyes? Ice cold fury, right there.
“This is real?” His voice was flat, utterly devoid of emotion.
I replied as simply as I could. “Yes.”
“What, no zombies?”
Jack Hill’s mouth twitched upward. “Not yet,” he admitted. “Not that we know of, at least. But that might be just because we make sure our dead get cremated, not buried. No bodies to reanimate and all that.”
“Well…taking all this one step at a time, the evil billionaire part isn’t hard to buy. Somebody’s sure as hell paying the two gentlemen in the Town Car.” He tapped a fingertip on the table. I doubt he was aware of it. “I’ve never seen any of the other stuff except in movies, but do I think it could all be–Tree, I just went on the record as saying that with you, it’s possible that nothing is impossible. It’ll obviously take me a while to hear all about why you believe this shi–this stuff, but bottom line, do I want to get some back for Horace? Effing ay, brother. Effing ay.”
“Good.” I nodded, surprised to find my voice sounded calm and sure. Inside, I was practically shaking with excitement. Having our own ultra competent combat surgeon living on Rodeo Iron premises would beat the heck out of those desperate wounded runs to Deer Lodge or having to ask Menning to make a long distance house call every time Heartbite came to call.
I checked my watch. 3:02 a.m., just the right time to get clear before daylight. It had taken B.J. a couple of hours to reach the Menning place with the one ton company truck towing a six horse trailer. He’d brought the M60 with him, of course. There was no reason to expect an attack on Menning this soon, but better to carry the extra weight of a machine gun with you and not need it than vice versa. If you doubt me on that, ask the restless ghost of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, deceased 1876.
The doctor lived frugally, which turned out to be a huge help with the packing and loading. On the other hand, he also turned out to be a weapons collector specializing in pieces from the latter half of the 19th century. Not just firearms, though he had a bunch of those, but cavalry sabers and various knives as well. Add that to enough medical equipment to outfit a small hospital, none of which could be handled carelessly, and the four of us had put in nine straight hours of nonstop work. We were done now, though. The horse trailer was a tad overloaded, but not dangerously so. Larry headed into the house to shut down the lights. Jack and B.J. and I were out back with our vehicles, giving everything a final pretrip check just to make sure there would be no surprises like a low tire exploding or somebody running low on oil before we got back to the ranch.
That’s when it became clear to me, once and for all, that one should never discount luck; had we been five minutes later getting everything loaded and the lights shut down, the attackers would have shied away from the place. Instead, the big, dark car that turned into Larry’s driveway was running on park lights only, a sure sign of bad intentions. Out back, we heard the tires crunch on gravel. Inside, Larry remained both silent and invisible; there was no obvious indication that anybody was awake, let alone alert and armed.
What to do? Well, we surely weren’t going to head into the house; a nervous former military man might shoot us before realizing we were the good guys. But B.J., Jack, and I had seen the elephant together; we didn’t need an instruction manual for this scenario. My giant uncle quietly opened the truck door and retrieved the M60, finding an angle where he could watch the walk on the east side of the house without exposing himself unduly. Jack slipped his beloved Colt Challenger from his waistband, taking up a position that covered the west side of the house. No one was likely to come that way, not unless they wanted to struggle through the hedge, but still. That left the middle for me…and by the time I’d decided the open Pontiac door gave the best available cover for the purpose, I’d also decided a pistol was not my best choice of weapon.
If they came straight in through the front door, they’d run into the homeowner. I still didn’t know what sort of heat Dr. Menning was packing, but I had no doubt whatsoever that he knew how to use it.
As it turned out, they didn’t try the front door at all. My straining ears could hear them shuffling back on that eastside walkway, right into the muzzle of B.J’s M60. Not that B.J. intended to fire up the machine gun if he didn’t have to; we were well outside of town with no near neighbors, but a full auto burst would wake somebody up, even at 3:00 a.m. One dark figure, barely visible by the minimal light of a cloud-shadowed moon, rounded the corner. I waited, hoping Jack and B.J. would do the same. The second, much larger figure followed. Blond muscles-before-brain dude. Had to be. They eased over toward the back door…and I fired up the two Maglite flashlights, one in each hand, blinding the pair.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” I intoned, going for my best M.C. voice. “Are you familiar with the venerable military masterpiece, the M60 machine gun?” They froze in place, staring in shock for a second or two. Then both of them swung their gun hands toward me. Not big pistols, but then neither were the .22’s Jack and I both carried, and we’d killed with those. I had both flashlights held out as far to my right as possible, hoping that if they tried to shoot between them…well, they wouldn’t hit anything vital. Besides, Jack and B.J. could gun them down easily, brilliantly lit as they were.
B.J. convinced them not to shoot by stepping forward, just far enough into the light for the pair’s fear-wide eyes to pick up the outline of the M60. “Paraphrasing Crocodile Dundee,” my uncle rumbled in his cellar-bass voice, “those aren’t guns. This is a gun.”
By the time we had Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee trussed up in the basement, I knew what sort of heat Larry Menning preferred in a pinch: A single action Remington Model 1890 in .44-40 caliber. “There were only 2,020 of these ever made,” he explained cheerfully, studying the contents of the Town Car’s glove box. “Whoa. Thank the good Lord and all his angels for America’s dumbest criminals. These men were careful to empty their pockets before going home invading, yet they left everything in their car. Can you believe that?”
The big blond guy spoke for the first time. We hadn’t gotten around to gagging anybody, so he was free to speak. “You fools are in deep shit.”
The four of us exchanged glances. They left it up to me to reply. “How might that be, Mr. Tied Up in the Basement?” I asked the question without inflection. Kind of proud of myself for that one.
“Mr. Kra–” That was as far as he got. His partner, tied hand and foot by men who knew how to tie knots, had nonetheless managed to squinch around and unleash a two-footed kick right into the big man’s left kneecap. “Gah! What was that for?”
There was no reply, but there didn’t need to be. “Doc,” I said, addressing Larry, “I suspect you might want to fire up your SUV and follow B.J. on outa here. Jack and I will lock up.”
To his credit, Menning didn’t hesitate.
When they were gone, Jack spoke up. “I can handle it, Tree.”
I stopped inspecting the captives’ weapons, both cheap semiautos in .22 long rifle caliber. Execution weapons, mob style. “One each,” I decided. Jack nodded.
“Wait.” Blond dude–Lars Gergen of Hancock, Michigan, according to his driver’s license–finally understood. “You’re going to just kill us? While we’re tied up?” The smaller dude, far more hardcore, never said a word.
“Why,” I asked Jack, “do the guys who were planning on shooting a man in his sleep always say stuff like that?”
“Dunno.” The ancient Protector shrugged, picking up one of the pistols and racking the slide. A cartridge flew out and bounced across the floor; there had been one in the spout. “‘Tiz a mystery.”
“Front page,” I said, passing the paper to Judi. Sissy was busy serving up pancakes on this fine Sunday morning.
BODIES FOUND AT DEER LODGE LANDFILL
According to the Powell County Sheriff, two bodies with apparent multiple bullet wounds were found at the Deer Lodge landfill on Friday morning. Both bodies were located inside a Lincoln Town Car with Michigan license plates. The vehicle was parked outside the landfill’s front gate. Autopsies are being performed. Identities are being withheld, pending notification of the next of kin. Anyone having information concerning this matter is encouraged to call the Sheriff’s office, anonymously if so desired.
Judi’s first comment had nothing to do with the murders. “This matter?” She wondered. “Anonymously if so desired?”
“I think he’s new at the paper. Give him time; he’ll eventually start writing like all the other reporters.”
“So,” Sissy sat down, “you and Jack really did just execute them in cold blood?”
“We did. Might not have, except the big guy started to say Kraznick’s name. These weren’t mere low level need-to-know guns for hire; they actually knew who was paying the bills. Expendables, no doubt, considering how unprofessional they were, but they definitely knew they worked for our billionaire nemesis. And don’t forget, it’s clear they were intending to execute Larry.”
“Not criticizing your decision, honey. Just making sure I’ve got my facts straight. My only real question is, how is Doctor Larry handling this? You know, being a healer, the Hippocratic oath and all.”
“Well, about that,” I replied, “I think he’ll handle it just fine. When we told him the full story of how Horace really died, full of both rattler and vam venom while defending Jennifer to the last, he said he wished we’d let him be the one to off Kraznick’s bully boys. Although I’m not sure he really believes us about the vamshifters yet. Seeing is believing, and he has yet to see anybody shift.”
“Bet I can convince him, Dad.” Eight year old Willow came bouncing to the table, bright eyed and bushy tailed. “Bet it’s easier than getting that lazy sister of mine out of bed, too.”
“No smack talking your sis, honey,” Judi admonished. Her eyes were twinkling, though. “I’ll go get the spoiled baby of the family moving. Or not.” Six year old Aspen was exiting the bathroom under her own power, Spongebob Squarepants jammies looking a lot more cheerful than she did. Our younger daughter was definitely not a morning person.
“Good morning, Sunshine.” I grinned at her, charmed as always. One thing about our baby; she was under no illusions that life was a bowl of cherries.
“If you say so,” she replied, and the day was officially under way.