“Need any help?” I didn’t really think so, Carolyn West and Sissy seeming to have everything in hand, but it’s never a bad idea to offer.
“Nope,” my warrior woman replied. Her large, capable hands were efficiently distributing silverware to each place setting as she spoke. “Pour yourself a cup and take a load off, boss. We’ll be ready right on time.”
Hey, I can take a hint. Stay out of the women’s way? I could do that. I poured my mug, sat my carcass down at the table, and took a good long look around. How many times had we gathered here in Jennifer Trace’s kitchen for Sunday brunch and an ownership meeting? Obviously, with Jen gone from this vale of tears, it would never be quite the same…and yet, it felt right for the tradition to go on. For one long moment, I was pretty sure I could feel her hand resting on my shoulder, seeing what I was seeing. She definitely approved.
Larry Menning popped up from the basement a few minutes later. It hadn’t taken much to restore the main floor of the house to vintage condition; despite entertaining a dozen ranch hands for three squares a day over a thirty year period, the late widow Trace had somehow managed to keep the entire place in tiptop shape. The fortified basement was another matter altogether. We’d seen what a single powerful breaching charge could do to a foot of concrete plus a quarter inch of steel plate, so B.J. and I had come up with a super fortress concept based on a combination of military techniques found online and plain old common sense. The doctor, now that he was living in the very residence where his mentor had bought the farm, had every reason to pay plenty of attention to that basement.
Man, this place feels empty without her. Horace, too. Theodore Kraznick was going to pay; I held that promise in my heart. How? That had yet to be determined, but it would happen sooner or later. Were it not for our Willow and Aspen, Jack Hill and I would have been on the road to Michigan already, spearheading an assault of our own.
Jack had been in place at the table before anyone else, having driven Carolyn over and then settled into his usual chair, but he was snoozing. The old man might be the next thing to immortal and an almighty Purple Fire wizard, but he still retained the old Army habit of sleeping when he could, where he could.
Nonetheless, the food was on the table by the time the wall clock ticked over to 10:00 a.m.
“This meeting is underway,” I announced quietly. Jack Hill’s eyes popped open, his soft snore cut off, and we all dug in. Menning had been briefed on protocol; we would chow down first, talk seriously later. I ate well enough, though I couldn’t tell you what, except for the cinnamon roll. Wayne Bruce had made those. Mostly, however, my attention was not on the chow. I was watching the doctor, hopefully without anybody realizing I was doing that. He looked a lot better, more at peace than he had before he came to the mountains, except…had his left eye developed a tic?
Something still wasn’t quite right with that man.
Once bellies were stuffed and the table cleared, we got down to business as usual. “Larry,” I began, “as we explained the other day, these once a month Sunday brunches used to be lead-ins to what we called ownership meetings. Without Jennifer, and with B.J. already being on the road to call on our franchise in North Dakota, we decided we needed a new title.”
“Inner Circle meetings.” Menning nodded soberly. “And you’re about to initiate me into that circle, tell me at least some things I don’t know at the moment, do something to convince me vampires and werewolves and witches and wizards really do exist, oh me oh my.”
Hill didn’t wait for me to respond to that. “Doc,” he said, “I do believe that was genuine sarcasm. One would think the sci fi lives we’ve led these past eight years were figments of our overactive imaginations, eh?”
“Eh.” He didn’t look sullen, exactly, but it was close. “Look, people, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I do realize you have some really nasty enemies out there. But this…werewolf stuff…before you start telling me how that’s supposed to work, I have something to say.” Studying Doc’s face, I suddenly realized I’d misread his expression. He wasn’t sullen; he was nervous. Extremely nervous. When he spit out the rest of it, I understood why.
“I’m a coward.”
Pin drop? Not even close. The silence in the room was complete except for the beating of our hearts and the metallic ticking sound as the next fresh pot of coffee felt the heat. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. Certainly, nobody coughed. I caught Jack’s eye; sure enough, he was leaving it up to me. Eventually, unable to stand it any longer, I cleared my throat. “Sounds like a story to me, Larry. Are you going to tell, or do we have to guess?”
Menning shook his head like a dog getting rid of water after a dip in the river. “Yeah. Guess I do owe you all that much. Let’s see…thumbnail biography. I grew up on a little rattlesnake and barbed wire ranch over near Ekalaka. Dad left us when I was nine, face down in the dirt with a bullet in his back, far enough away from the house that nobody heard the shot. The Sheriff never came up with a single suspect, which I found a bit suspicious, seeing as how he and Dad never did get along that well. I had three sisters, but they were all quite a bit older and had left for greener pastures, moved out of state, married city men, basically divorced Mom and me. Only one of them even showed up for the funeral. They’re presumably still out there somewhere, but I haven’t seen any of them in more than twenty years.
“Anyway, Mom and I sat down together after the funeral, had a real heart to heart. Decided the two of us could by God make the ranch work. Which was ridiculous on the face of it, but somehow we did, taking it day by day, for seven more years. Now, that somehow went by another name: Horace Tamblyn. Horace had been living in the area for some years at that time, picking up odd jobs here and there, working on ranches or in town or anywhere he could make a dollar. Never did stick with one employer for long; the man liked his independence too much for that. I’d seen him around, and we always spoke courteously to each other, but I didn’t really know him, and neither did Mom.
“One day, a month or two after Dad passed, Horace stopped by the ranch, looking for work. Mom told him flat out that she’d love to have the help but she couldn’t pay him one thin dime. He asked her, well, if he hunted up some meat, killed it and gutted it, skinned it and cut the meat into portions, could she cook it? She said yes, of course, she could certainly do that. And he said they had a deal. He’d work for a place to sleep in the bunkhouse and a place at the family table for supper, ’cause he purely hated cooking for himself and feared he’d starve plumb to death if he had to fry up his own venison for much longer.”
Larry stopped there for a moment, his expression softening in remembrance. It gave me time to think. Knowing the old tracker as we had, hunting seasons imposed by the government wouldn’t have meant anything to him; he’d have brought in meat any month of the year it was needed. Feed the people, screw the State.
“He made Mom laugh when he said that, but it made sense to me. I didn’t much like to cook, either. So he moved his gear–he didn’t have much–into the bunkhouse, where nobody had slept in years because we couldn’t afford any hired hands even when Dad was alive, except once in a while during haying season. He did have a couple of guns I admired, though. I latched onto the man right off, trying not to show it but no doubt being totally obvious. It took me two, three years to figure out Mom’s angle, which was simply that after the tracker had been with us a while, it was obvious he’d be what they call a good catch. He was polite, didn’t drink much at all, never cussed in front of ladies, and worked insanely hard. He’d be away from time to time, taking on odd jobs here and there, but our home was his home, and my mother wanted to make it permanent.
“One day, I was hauling in firewood for the cookstove when I heard Horace talking to Mom, telling her any man would be a fool not to jump at the chance, but his heart belonged to another. I backed out quiet like, decided I’d haul that wood in a little later.”
He paused, lost in his memories. Sissy got up and snagged the fresh pot of coffee, moving to top off our mugs. Larry stirred himself and continued. “Mom was never right after that. None of us said anything, at least that I know, but she started fading. Not all at once, but slow and subtle, just disappearing in front of our eyes, one molecule at a time. It wasn’t until my seventeenth birthday when she was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t remember what kind, but it had already spread throughout most of her body. Nothing could be done for her. Two months after that, she was gone.
“This time it was Horace and me that sat down to talk things over. There was no way we could save the ranch; it was deep in debt, Horace had no legal angle whatsoever, and I was a minor. Bluntly put, we were screwed. Or so I thought, but Tamblyn wasn’t buying that. He talked me into staying in school, finishing my senior year. He was there for my graduation, didn’t leave Ekalaka until I’d signed up for a four year hitch in the Army. When the Army recruiter needed a parent’s signature for my enlistment because I still hadn’t turned eighteen, he signed as my father.”
The doctor stopped talking long enough to wet his whistle with several slow sips of coffee. It was obvious he was gathering himself, bracing for the coward part of the story. None of disturbed him; we were lost in our own thoughts. That time in the Life Flight helicopter when Horace had threatened to find a way to wreck the aircraft if they didn’t take him to the little hospital in Deer Lodge instead of the much bigger facility in Great Falls…this background put that event into a whole new perspective.
We’d never known of Horace ever having any sort of family of his own, yet Dr. Lawrence Menning, M.D., had been his son in all the ways that counted. Now the doctor was living and sleeping in the very building where his beloved mentor had been violently murdered in a fashion that would have done Stephen King or Jim Butcher proud. Or…was he sleeping at all? That was a disturbing thought.
Larry’s voice brought me back to his backstory, interrupting my worries for the moment.
“Fast forward to Desert Storm. Officially, we only lost 148 soldiers to hostile fire in that action, but I’m here to tell you, numbers don’t mean squat when it’s your ox that’s getting gored. I’m also pretty damned sure we lost a few more guys than the Army ever admitted. I was in the last year of my enlistment, a buck sergeant and a tank gunner on an M1 Abrams at the time. We were chasing the Iraqis back all the way to Baghdad, most of us stupid excited to be in real combat for the first time in our military careers. Word was, the enemy was already whipped; all we had to do was hammer down.
“But hammering a tank across that terrain isn’t as simple as it might sound to the uninitiated…which we found out the hard way. I’ll never know how it happened, exactly, but our tank got separated from the rest of the platoon. Something was messed up in our computer systems. We had no idea where we were. Smitty, the tank commander, decided to stop until he could figure out the best way to go to find our guys, and that’s when they hit us. The first RPG round blew our left side track; we were dead in the sand. It wasn’t much fun inside the tin can at that point; every one of us had our bell rung pretty good. But I was the gunner. We could still fight, and if I could target the attackers–hell, they weren’t more than eighty yards away, judging by the smoke from that first round–I could take ’em out. But…” Menning’s eyes had that thousand yard stare; he was relating the facts as he remembered them, but he was definitely not with us at the moment. “…I froze. Smitty was yelling at me through my headset, but it was like, you know, the lights were on but nobody was home.
“It didn’t even really register what Smitty was saying. The commander on an M1 has a .50 caliber machine gun at his position, and he got that going, but the 105 I was supposed to put into action? Never happened. Smitty was fast; he chewed ’em up pretty good, but while I was doing my chicken shit ostrich thing, the enemy got off another…I’m not sure how many grenades. More than one. Turned out there were multiple rocket weapons out there.
“You know, they claim no Abrams tank was even hit by enemy fire during Desert Storm. I got pretty disillusioned when I read that after the war. But that day, when it was all over, our tank was still standing and I was facing charges. As close as the Iraqis were, they never got in another hit; every RPG they fired missed, after that first one, thanks to the commander and no thanks to Sergeant Menning. So, the Army wanting to blame the least valuable scapegoat possible, they busted me out of the service. On the Ides of March, no less. I was a civilian again, twenty-one years of age…with a dishonorable discharge that promised to dog me for the rest of my life and a memory of having failed completely when the chips were down.”
That seemed like a good place for an intermission. I got up from the table, moved to the kitchen counter, and started dishing up slices of cherry pie. Hey, it’s brunch, right? What good is a confession story without pie? Sissy and Carolyn both moved to help me distribute the plates. Jack Hill didn’t leave his chair, but he did stretch luxuriously, commenting quietly, “Damn near everybody freezes up at one time or another, Doc. I take it you’re worrying some about it happening again, next time Heartbite comes visiting?”
Menning looked wary. “Yeah…something like that.”
“Well,” Jack continued, eyeing the pie Carolyn deposited in front of him, “Seems to me we’ve always valued you as a surgeon, not Rambo reincarnated. Last thing we want is to put you in the direct line of fire. You take a round through an eyeball, who’s going to stitch us back together? Especially without reporting all our, um, unusual wounds to the authorities?”
“Good point. But this house was the focal point for the last attack, right?”
“Ah.” I finished the pie cutting and returned to my seat, nodding in understanding. “You figure you’re going to end up in the thick of it sooner or later, right?”
“And it is. This place may very well get hit again; it certainly has a history of attracting hostile elements. You do realize B.J. and I have done a whole bunch of work turning this house into–oh, hell, we’ve turned it into a freaking tank, haven’t we?”
Larry chuckled weakly. “Kinda sorta.”
“We built you a Flashback Basement.”
I nodded, finally getting it. “Well, Doc, as I see it, you’ve got options. There are other buildings on this property, other places you could live and still be part of our operation, so we can move you if you want. Or you can continue to live here, deal with the ghosts from your past, maybe with a bit of help from the ghosts of Horace and Jennifer both. Or you can move on elsewhere; you’re certainly a free man. If you want to stick it out, though, we’ll just keep what you said in mind.”
“You’re not worried about…what I’ve told you?”
Thoughtfully, I scanned the faces around the table. “I don’t believe any of us are.”
Carolyn West suddenly spoke, surprising us all. “What I want to know is the rest of the story. You came out of the service at, what, twenty-one years of age? Dishonorable discharge and no prospects, right? How on Earth did you start from that point and wind up with an M.D.? Enquiring minds want to know.”
Menning bowed from his seated position. “Fair questions, fair lady. The short answer is, I got lucky.”
“I think the long answer might be in order, eh?” West was twinkling at the doctor? Whoa. Jack Hill’s main squeeze really liked this guy. Which could have definitely been a problem, had the ancient Protector been the jealous sort.
“I agree. Guess this pie will have to wait. Okay, the long version. Horace and I had stayed in touch. I knew he was working for Sam Trace by that time, so the minute my discharge papers were signed, I hopped on a bus and headed for Montana. I’d never spent much of my pay while in service, so I had enough to buy a beat-up old Volkswagen Bug in Missoula. Drove right up out front of this exact ranch house, right at supper time, so I got fed with everybody else. Spent that night in the bunkhouse, talking with Horace about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Some of the ranch hands had advice, most of it worthless, so eventually the tracker and I took a walk, out under the moonlight, me beating myself up and him being amazingly patient about it all.
“Finally, he just up and told me. My grades in school had always been topnotch, maybe even–he thought–good enough to get me into medical school. He suggested I might want to flat-out lie about the service, but when I told him it wouldn’t take much of a background check to uncover that, he changed his tune. He said to do a preemptive strike, put right on the applications exactly what happened, admit to freezing and own it, right up front. So I did…and damned if one of the schools didn’t accept me, Mercer University’s medical school in Macon, Georgia. But how was I going to pay for it? I was basically homeless, living out of my car, and my car wasn’t even a full sized Detroit model; it was a freaking Bug!”
He made us all chuckle with that one. It wasn’t funny, not really, but his delivery made it work.
“By that time, I was working at a gas station and convenience store in Bozeman, just trying to hold body and Soul together any way I could. It was early September; if something didn’t happen soon, I’d have to head south or freeze to death. But I decided, hey, Horace put me up to this, let’s see what he has to say. Drove back up to the Trace ranch, and as it happened, told everybody at the supper table–I’d arrived just in time to eat again, no accident there–what was going on. I didn’t really mean to; it just kind of spilled out. When the table was cleared, Sam himself asked me back into his office. Horace didn’t come. Man, I didn’t know what was up; I was thinking maybe I’d already worn out my welcome and Sam was going to tell me to quit showing up for free meals, you know? But no, that wasn’t it. We chatted for a while, me getting more and more confused, until he finally told me he was going to finance my education.”
“That,” I observed, “must have been a bit startling.” I was thinking of Jennifer Trace rigging it so that I owned the entire Trace Ranch property, all without my knowing a thing about it until the time was right. That kind of startlement.
“Oh, it was. I kind of teared up, you know. But I had to ask him why. Why would he do that? He just said, hey, he’d frozen up in a bad situation one time when he was younger, and he wouldn’t say any more. But I always felt there had to be something more to it.”
“Oh, there was.” Should I mention this? Too late; my mouth was running off on its own agenda. “Did you know that back in the day, Sam Trace beat Horace out for Jennifer’s affections?”
Menning’s eyes went wide. “No. I didn’t know that. So Jennifer Trace was–”
“The woman who held Horace’s heart. And Sam knew it. He also knew the old tracker was the best friend he would ever have in this lifetime.”
In the end, we postponed our discussion of werewolves and wizards. Doctor Larry Menning had suffered enough shocks to his system for one day.