Organized religion never had a chance after Mom forced me to attend every single church in Rexburg, Idaho, when I was twelve. She was no churchgoer, but her theory was that a bit of exposure to the world of faith-in-groups would be good for me. Not that she attended; I got dropped off in front of a new church each Sunday while she peeled out of the parking lot.
Okay, that’s a wee bit of exaggeration. But Louella Jackson, former cop and single mother, must have been giggling maniacally every time she dumped me off. There are twenty-six LDS churches in Rexburg, or at least that was the count in my day, plus one Catholic church and one Baptist church. By the end of it, I’d learned to appreciate the grit and determination of the Mormon folks simply for their ability to tolerate three hours of services every Sunday, marveled at the raw emotion you could feel in a church full of devout Baptists, and scratched my head over the smoke produced by the Catholic priest’s smoke-thingy. A censer, it’s called, no doubt because it burns incense.
The Native American practice of burning sage seems a bit better to me, never mind that Spirit won’t hang around smoke of any sort, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
The worst part was that I could never forget a single detail of any one of those church times. Not with my eidetic memory, I couldn’t. Oh, I could file the recall away, deep down in my mental basement archives, but that’s the thing about a memory like mine; the recall is always on tap. Ask me about a loved one’s death scene, like Jennifer Trace’s, and I could cite chapter and verse without blinking. The same went for every preaching I ever heard, and the sum of those preachings was enough to convince me I’d been right from the very start: I was no joiner and probably never would be.
But I did recognize the rightness of particular churches for particular people…and if I wasn’t mistaken, the trucker was a charter member of the King Kong Church for Perverts. Except maybe not; this fellow would give perverts a bad name. He’d picked a good day for it, though; I had to give him that. There was a storm rolling in, the first sprinkly drops of the leading edge already speckling the pavement. Summer thunderstorm, nothing unusual in these parts.
The girl he had backed up against the rear of his fifty-three foot semi trailer was not only tiny against his slimy bulk; she was clearly underage. There was woman-promise there, to be sure, and plenty of it…but if she’d reached the age of consent, I’d eat my shorts.
And those shorts hadn’t been changed since we left Montana.
Nor was she consenting. Totally cute, totally terrified…and totally defiant. Reminded me of my Judi the morning she threw a tray of food at her ex, flying breakfast defense against Merv the Perv’s attack with a .41 Magnum revolver. Except Judi had been twenty-three at the time….
The surly brute was almost oblivious of his surroundings, but not quite. He was still leaning in, one hand pressed against the trailer door on either side of her petite body to prevent her escape, but he sensed my approach and turned his head, prepared to snarl something my way. I didn’t let him get set.
“Penelope,” I said in mock reproof, closing the distance between us, “what have I told you about talking to strangers?”
The girl was quick. “Sorry.” She ducked her head demurely. “I didn’t think.”
“Ah,” I gave her a little smile, “the young ones never do.”
“You–” The trucker finally got a word out, sort of, but it was clear his brain synapses were crossfiring. Miss Penelope was petite and as blonde as they come; I was six-three, two hundred and twenty solid pounds these days, and as black as Herman Cain. PervZilla couldn’t quite put it together; I decided that was a good thing.
“Come, daughter,” I said. From the corner of my eye, I saw a tourist in one of those hideous jump suit coverall garments reach for his cell phone, but it was too late to worry about that. My left hand sort of casually gripped the fat man’s wrist, though not a wraparound grip; the tip of my thumb was pressing into the soft underside between all those tendons and stuff. The big guy sort of screeched…and lightning struck.
No, really. Literally. The overhead thunderbolt crack was enough to test eardrums. We were right under it. People ducked instinctively, throwing their hands over their heads as they ran for either the truck stop or their vehicles. That is, everyone but me, Fat Boy, and Penelope ducked; we were too busy doing our little drama thing to pay much attention to a mere lightning strike. It gave me great cover, though, the perfect distraction. No one would see what happened next, at least not for the next few seconds. In considerable pain from my thumb pressure, the trucker launched his other meaty fist toward my face, completely abandoning any attempt to control the girl. Unfortunately for him, my grip on his right wrist meant his arm was going to go pretty much where I wanted it to go.
He hit his own fist. Yelped in surprise and pain. “Quit hitting yourself!” I smirked down at him, quoting the old high school bully cliché line. I’d long since learned not to play around, though, so the folded knuckles of my right hand were thumping his adam’s apple at the same time.
I let him go and he staggered back, clutching his throat, choking, gagging, turning a little purple but not quite going down. Instead, he turned and staggered around to the driver’s side of the vehicle, starting toward the Freightliner tractor’s cab at a shambling run. Tougher than I thought, that guy; it looked like he was actually going to make it.
When I felt free to put my attention on the girl, though, she was doing something crazy, yanking the right side trailer door open and scrambling inside. It didn’t make sense until her panicked voice hit me.
“We’ve got to get him out of here!”
Him. Penelope was struggling, trying to move an unconscious boy who looked even younger than she did. Quite a bit younger, in fact, though who knew for sure? I’m no judge of ages, at least not when the kid is as short and stocky as this one.
“Got muscles, he does,” I grunted, picking up the heavy youngster and pulling him clear just as the Freightliner’s engine roared to life. Penny jumped out and both of us got the heck off to the passenger side, not trusting the frustrated driver one bit; he seemed the type to back up first if he thought he could run over us.
He didn’t want any part of backing up, though. The transmission scratched gears, grind a pound for me wouldja, and the rig roared out of the parking lot, headed for I-29, hammer down.
Our Silverado came cruising calmly, stopping between us and the truck stop. “Want to get out of here?” I asked the girl.
Like I said, she was quick. She simply jerked a quick nod, yanked open a door, climbed in, and slid over on the wide back seat. I followed, propping the dead weight in place between us. Sissy was driving, Jack riding shotgun, and we were on our way, heading for I-29 the same as Dirty Trucker except that the eighteen wheeler was rumbling north and we were, for the moment, southbound.
With two obvious minors in tow.
Well, first things first. “Figure somebody in that bunch of cowardly observers called the law?”
Jack turned back to look at us with a big old ear to ear grin. Resembled a toothless jack-o-lantern with the candle out. “Not just yet, they haven’t.”
It took me a second, but I got it. “Oh.” Wizards and electronics are an interesting match. Lots of them will fry things like cell phones just by being too close. Hill could control his aura to prevent that sort of thing…except when he wanted to cut loose. That lightning strike had not come from Mother Nature’s storm; the Wizard had distracted those who might have filmed me bitch-slapping the trucker and put the hex on their devices all in one swell foop…while leaving our Silverado functional. Quite a surgical strike, that.
“Please.” Penelope spoke up. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or anything, but that guy hit Chilly awfully hard.”
“Sorry,” I muttered. She had a point. Chilly, she called him? Unusual name…it looked like he’d been smashed upside the head with something…”Brass knuckles? They still use those?”
“I don’t know what, but it was kind of shiny. I caught that. Is he going to die?”
Sissy, keeping her eyes on the road, responded without turning her head. “Where exactly did he get hit, Tree?”
“Left handed punch, I’d say. Right side of the skull, just above and behind the temple.”
“Not in the temple?”
“…no. Doesn’t look like it. Some torn skin.” My fingers were moving, assessing damage. I’d gotten plenty of practice at that, these past years. “Bone’s not caved in at all, at least not as nearly as I can tell. Could be cracked, hairline fracture, but it looks like it held.”
Sissy chuckled. “It’ll take more than a whop upside the head to kill a werewolf as strongly built as that one. And I should know; I’ve killed enough of ’em.”
“Wha–” The girl’s eyes widened. “What did you say?”
“Come on, surely you’ve learned to smell the difference between a mundane human and a shifter, haven’t you?” My warrior woman’s eye’s caught mine in the rear view mirror; she was genuinely amused.
“Oh, bat guano. You’re Kraznick’s people.” The blonde’s self disgust was palpable. “You offered me a way out and I walked right into it. What, was stinky trucker dude one of you, too? One of the expendables?”
We all busted out laughing at that one. It wasn’t fair to the girl, and normally we wouldn’t have done it. We just couldn’t help ourselves. Jack got control of himself first, turning around in his seat to address our passenger before she decided to bail out at seventy-five miles per hour. “If there’s one thing we are not,” he said gently, “it’s anything to do with old Leopard Puss.”
“The gentleman to your right is Treemin Jackson, sole owner of Rodeo Iron, also known in certain circles as the Weaver. Our esteemed pilot is Sissy Harms, multi shifter extraordinaire.”
“He,” I began to explain, “is–”
“Purple Fire.” The voice was a bare breath of sound, but we all heard it clearly enough.
Everyone’s attention jerked immediately to the injured boy; even Sissy whipped her head around for a quick look before returning her attention to the road ahead. His eyes were still closed, though starting to flutter a bit.
“That’s right.” I studied the boy’s face, watching as he struggled to return to full consciousness. “Jack Hill is also known as the Wizard. And you would be the youngster ol’ Lord Heartbite is panicked to find.”
Chilly didn’t answer; he wasn’t exactly back in the world yet.
“And you?” I looked expectantly at the girl. “Do you have a name you’d care to share?”
“Yeah. I guess. When I can quit shaking.” She wasn’t shaking in the slightest, though; this woman-child had nerves of steel. “I’m Jewel Creachner. C.W., he found me in a wolf trap. Rescued the fair maiden and all that. He was on the run and I’d been abandoned by my father and brother.”
“You’re dressed pretty well for being on the dodge,” I observed.
“What, these old things? I suppose you noticed Slimy Trucker Man was pulling a Walmart trailer?”
“Yeah, with a Swift tractor. Freightliner, late model Columbia.”
“Never mind. About the trailer?”
“Well…it was full of clothes, headed for whatever store I guess, so we kind of…helped ourselves. But…you guys seem to know everything, but did you realize we’d been trying to get to Montana? To you?”
“No.” It was my turn to be surprised. “Why?”
“Yes, why?” Sissy spoke up, intrigued. “If my sniffer is not mistaken, we killed your friend’s entire family a while back. At least, his scent fits what we found when a couple of our guys backtracked the werewolf trio involved in the latest assault on Rodeo Iron. He had a pretty good observation post, too. Likely even saw it all happen. So why would he want to come see us? Revenge?”
Jewel sighed deeply, her eyes closing as she slumped back, relaxing for the first time since she’d joined us. “Revenge, yes. But not against you guys. He’s…he’s really smart, Chilly is. He never blamed you for the killings. You were attacked; you were defending your homes. He blames Theodore J. Kraznick. Lord Hearbite. Old Leopard Puss. He’s the one who gave the orders, and…right, you wouldn’t have known this. He also tried to force vamhood on Chilly, only Chilly saw it coming and split.”
Jack turned his head again, intrigued. “Vamhood?”
She shrugged. “That’s what Heartbite calls it when a were shifter or a witch is infected with the vamvirus, the vampire virus. Only thing is, the virus kills most of its victims; not that many survive to become vams. And,” she shuddered, “living as a vam isn’t really living, anyway. Not in my book.”
“Mine either,” I agreed. “So, do you think this trucker guy was one of the expendables out to get you for Kraznick, or was he just a full blown pervert with a gleam in his eye and bad breath in his mouth?”
“Pee-yew! You smelled that, did you?”
“I was close enough,” I admitted drily. “It could hardly be avoided.”
“Let me think. Hmm…no, seemed to me like Slobber Lips was out for himself, not looking to collect the bounty. My father is another matter; he’s out to kill us for sure, but he’s–”
“Wait. Your dad wants you dead? What kind of family are we talking about here?”
She grinned at that. “Can you spell dysfunctional? A redneck family from down south, okay? Technically, I guess he’s my stepdad, which explains why he goes by Meeker and I’m a Creachner, which was my mother’s maiden name. She’s dead, though. He and my brother…stepbrother…were on their way to join up with Kraznick. Guess maybe they did it. Don’t know what happened to my nasty bro, but Daddy dearest came hunting us for real. He and Chilly fought once. Chilly’s tough; he thinks he’s fat, but we’ve been running too long for there to be any of that left on him. Every ounce is muscle, and he was giving Paps what for. He left him bleeding and hamstrung on an Indian Reservation, but Paps would have been able to heal up from that, given time.”
Neither Jack nor Sissy was saying anything. I considered for a moment before voicing my thoughts. “So, would this Paps Meeker be healed up enough to be back on your trail by now?”
“Probably not. I mean, Chilly really did him a number, you know? But he’ll come after us as soon as he can; we’re pretty sure Kraznick sent him in the first place, and he’d never dare go back to Michigan without our scalps.”
“His own daughter.”
“Close enough.” Something was bugging me…ah. I pulled out one of our single use cell phones and dialed the 800 number. The operator at Swift Trucking Company wasn’t happy when I declined to give my name or number, but the data I did provide was being recorded automatically. “That’s right,” I repeated, “the South Sioux City, Iowa, truck stop. Swift tractor, Walmart trailer…yes, that’s the right tractor number…yes, that’s the right trailer number. What? Yes, Ma’am, he was headed northbound on I-29. And Ma’am, I would strongly suggest you have armed security on hand when you ask him about all this. The man carries a set of brass knuckles in his left side jacket pocket and a firearm in an ankle holster on the right side. Goodbye, Ma’am.” Closing the cheap looking flip phone, which was anything but cheap in reality, I pressed the Terminate button, rolled down the window, and pitched the device off the highway’s right shoulder.
By the time anyone found the phone, if that ever happened, the chemical reaction would have long since reduced the little electronic marvel to a heap of meaningless plastic slag.
“Wow.” Jewel was staring at me, fascinated. “How did you do that?”
I didn’t answer, but Jack did. “Eidetic memory, Jewel.”
“Yeah. Like that.”
“And just like that, you what? Replayed stuff in your head?”
“Wow. Just…wow. I never could figure it out, you know. When C.W. was telling me all about you guys, how Kraznick has this obsession with wiping you out and how you keep beating him like a drum, he’d talk about–hey, you’re the Bear Woman!” Her eyes were focused on the back of Sissy’s head.
“I’ll have you know,” Sissy replied primly, “I’m fully dressed, thank you.”
“Huh? Oh. Ha ha. Very funny. But that’s how you can smell us, isn’t it? Chilly said that big old fighting boar bear was a female human, he could just feel it. Don’t tell him, but I thought he was crazy, you know?”
“He can probably hear you,” I pointed out. Seemingly unconscious or not, the young fellow was propped up between us.
“Yeah.” She looked at her young wolf doubtfully. “Maybe. Anyway, I got it about the shifters and the Wizard, but he kept telling me a big black man with a sword was the key to everything. I never could understand that…but now….”
“Glad you’re getting it,” Hill said, ignoring the part about the sword her heels were practically touching, though she couldn’t know that. “Underestimating Tree has gotten a lot of his enemies dead.”
I thought about being embarrassed by the praise but didn’t have time to worry about it. Chilly suddenly opened his eyes and asked, “When do we eat? I’m hungry enough to swallow a skunk, butt first.”