Our waiter at the Half Castle mentioned casually that his boss was away from his post at the moment, something to do with renewing his driver’s license before the DMV closed for the day. My mother and I had plenty of time to sit and chat, then, although my sizeable lunch at Jack’s place had mysteriously vanished from my system already, leaving me unaccountably famished. I ordered cashew chicken for myself and hot tea for both of us.
We could talk freely as long as we kept our voices down. As usual, unless Jack and I happened to stumble in during the lunch or supper rushes, we had the place mostly to ourselves. Besides, the place was routinely swept for bugs and every employee knew the value of privacy for the restaurant’s customers.
“What’s with the medieval guy outside with the halberd?” Mom asked the question idly, but as I knew from long experience, nothing she did was without purpose. “Window dressing or distraction?”
“A bit of both.” I poured tea for us, thinking. “He’s definitely a showpiece, keeps the tongues around town wagging about him so that few pay much attention to anything else about this place except the food. Which is excellent, by the way; you should have something.”
“Tree, you’re the growing boy around here. I won’t be hungry for hours yet.”
Thirty-five years old and I was her growing boy? That better not be true; the only way I could grow these days would be to get fat, never a good plan in my book. “The business part of that guard is that he’s…a guard. With observational and fighting skills and a fair bit of hidden weaponry within easy reach, some of it hidden within that ridiculous costume. Very few know that, though.”
“But you do.” She sipped her tea with obvious appreciation; Lou Jackson knew her oolong.
“I do. Jack and I do. Nobody else, though. Not even in our Inner Circle.”
“Your ladies? They don’t have that connection?”
“Not directly.” I shrugged, unashamed of the arrangement. “They know we trade intel back and forth with the management, but they’ve never met our contact. Nor will they, unless Jack and I both suddenly drop dead. In that event, they know to pass a message to our key contact, but whether or not he’d agree to meet with them, I couldn’t say.”
She nodded. “Same as me, then? Hopefully limiting the damage if Rodeo Iron becomes compromised–by, for instance, one of us going over to the Dark Side?”
“Subtle, Mom.” I had to chuckle. B.J. had definitely been one of us and he’d definitely gone over to the Dark Side. “But accurate. Thankfully, our Half Castle connection was never ever shared with Big Jude. He did know we had a way of going to Missoula and coming back with important information, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t even know it was really East Missoula. I’ll have to tell my guy there’s a one in a thousand chance his operation has been compromised, though. One thing he and I don’t do is pull punches with each other.”
I stopped talking, realizing she was no longer tuned in. Her eyes had that stare, the one that meant she was lost so deep in thought that she couldn’t hear a word I was saying. Her timing was good; Chang was on his way with my cashew chicken. I thanked him and set to with a will, using the serving spoon to shovel the entrée into my face. Forget chopsticks; even a fork was too slow. My plate was nearly empty when Mom came out of her self induced trance.
“Got it,” she said.
“Mmf?” It wasn’t polite to talk with my mouth full, and my plate wasn’t quite empty.
I swallowed hastily, swigged down the last of the tea, and asked, “What about him?”
“Something I read years ago. Did you know I kept up with my reading on law enforcement matters even after I left the force in Hartford?”
“Sure. You had subscriptions to all those magazines, anyway, and you were reading whenever you weren’t cooking or cleaning at the ranch.”
“I didn’t realize you’d noticed.” Her eyes went soft, Mommy appreciating her son’s awareness or something mushy like that. “One of those subscriptions was for the ABA Journal, formerly the American Bar Association Journal. They sometimes have articles that pertain pretty directly to law enforcement. I don’t have your eidetic memory, but every once in a while one of those articles would fascinate me enough to memorize it.”
“That’s what you were trying to remember?” I realized I’d spilled a bit of rice on my napkin. I shook it out so it spilled on the floor under the table; the staff could sweep it up later. “An ABA Journal article?”
“Yes. It was published a while back, in 2012 I think. It was talking about neuroscience making its way into the courtroom. Turns out there was some anecdotal evidence that a brain tumor could turn a previously normal citizen into a psychopath, or at least push him toward drastically inappropriate behavior. The part I memorized went like this.”
“…Take the case of a 40-year-old married schoolteacher from Virginia who during the year 2000 inexplicably began to have a sexual interest in children. He surreptitiously collected and viewed child porn on the Internet and was convicted of trying to molest his stepdaughter. The night before sentencing, he complained of horrible headaches. At the hospital he talked of suicide, made sexual advances to staff, spoke of raping his landlady and urinated on himself.
An MRI revealed that the teacher had a large orbitofrontal tumor, a growth on an area of his brain associated with social behavior. After surgeons removed the tumor, he was no longer considered a threat and completed a sexual rehab program. But a year later, he began getting headaches and once again collected pornography. Another MRI showed the tumor had regrown, and it was removed again.
Dr. Russell Swerdlow, a neurologist who treated the teacher at the hospital and later wrote about the case in the Archives of Neurology, says that such radical behavioral changes are not surprising. “But it was the first case in which the bad behavior was pedophilia,” says Swerdlow, a neuro-scientist and professor at the University of Kansas. “What was so striking about this was his inability to act on his knowledge of what was right or wrong.”
Swerdlow says when pathways are broken between the orbitofrontal lobe and the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotional responses and decision-making, the result can be impulsive behavior. “You don’t get the feedback that controls your decisions. You don’t have the brakes on your behavior,” he says….”
“I don’t remember the rest of it exactly, but….”
I caught Chang’s eye, waving the teapot to ask for a refill. “Do you think B.J. might have a brain tumor? And that this excuses his actions? Because I’m not buying that for a second.”
“No.” She shook her head. “Don’t forget son, I was a cop. Once a cop, always a cop. If my younger half brother is sick, he’s still responsible for his actions.” Her voice dropped to a mere whisper. “I’m not about to cut the guy any slack, not after he did what he did. You don’t mess with my son and my daughter in law and my granddaughters and still call yourself family. You just don’t.”
“Ee-easy, Mom. I’m just trying to follow your train of thought.”
She made a visible effort to get hold of herself. It had always been like that; a major crisis might leave me rattled and shaking once the dust had settled, but the woman who bore me would soldier on until a bit more time had passed…and then she would decompress with a bang.
“Okay,” she smiled, faking it till she could make it. “I’m much better now. No, Tree, what I’m getting at is that if he does have a tumor and it’s pressing in the right place, it might somewhat explain his betrayal, but never excuse it. And I’m not saying he has anything like that.”
The fresh pot of tea arrived. Once again, I poured for both of us, considering. “You haven’t told me everything.”
“Of course not. We’ve got years of catching up to do; with the lives we’ve both been living, that’s going to take a while.” She leaned back in her chair, absentmindedly reaching down to make sure her handbag was still there, Charlie gun and all. “B.J.’s father wasn’t in our mother’s life for very long, you know. A couple of years, give or take a month or two. But when he left, she kept track of him until he died. At the age of fifty. From brain cancer.”
I stared at her, thunderstruck. “The same age as B.J. is now?”
“From brain cancer.”
“That’s what I was told. Rather, that’s what I found out when I was cleaning out my mother’s apartment after her death. She had a newspaper clipping of the obituary. Hanratty T. Hennessey, age fifty, passing after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, loved by all, blah blah blah.”
“Yeah,” I observed drily, “the dead ones are always loved by all. In print, anyway.”
At that moment, Chang signaled me from across the room. The boss was back. I got up from the table, advised my mother to nurse that second pot of tea or whatever, and headed for the restroom. The secret room in the back had been enlarged a little and upgraded a lot over the years, but it was still necessary to walk past the stalls and urinals to get there.
It took nearly an hour to update Gray on just the key issues he needed to understand, specifically the successful assault on the billionaire who’d tried to take us out for years and the giant uncle who’d gone rogue in a big way. No, the man who served as our number one intel conduit to the world of elite hackers did not get to hear about the supernatural aspect of our long struggle. He definitely had no need to know about that and wouldn’t have believed it, anyway. Plus, the owner of the Half Castle Chinese Restaurant was clearly aging.
That’s right; Gray was turning gray.
He hadn’t lost his edge yet, though. When I finished, he poured cups of raspberry tea for both of us. Carolyn West had informed me that raspberry was primarily known as a tea beneficial to women’s health, but I kind of liked it anyway. My host took a sip, set his cup down on the new marble counter, and asked, “Your mother won’t mind this long wait?”
I hadn’t even thought about that. “She’s carrying some kind of smart phone or something. I’m pretty sure she can entertain herself.”
“I will admit,” Gray said wistfully, “I’d love to be the one to entertain her. Too bad she’s married. I’m not trying to be a dirty old man or anything, but that is one stunning woman.”
I stared, speechless. Mom? Dapper gray Mr. Gray had the hots for my mother?
“Please,” he sighed, “unbug your eyes, Treemin. I’ll stick to business. Really. First off, what you’ve told me fills in certain gaps.”
“Yes. As you know, there were several hackers monitoring computer activity at Kraznick’s Michigan headquarters while you were gone on your assault mission. They couldn’t get in far enough to capture content, but they did manage to keep a count on the number of email messages coming and going, as well as a few other things I don’t pretend to understand. There were two strange occurrences that now make sense. One was a sudden spike in overall activity, a burst of messages flying back and forth, many times the baseline rate. That appears to have been triggered by the sudden loss of signal from the bug your uncle planted in your truck. Most likely, his people had no idea why their incoming enemies had suddenly fallen off the radar, and they more or less panicked.”
“Makes sense,” I nodded. I wasn’t about to tell Gray why that signal had suddenly vanished, though. Jack had done it. The Wizard’s lightning strike at the truck stop had fried everything except the truck’s onboard electronics, a tailored EMP if you will. At a guess, that bug had been attached to the frame, close enough it should have been protected along with the Ford’s ignition and our one time use cell phones, but luck had been with us.
Luck or, as Judi had noted, a turbocharged bit of spiritual protection. “And the other strange occurrence?”
“That one’s even more obvious. About the time you launched your final attack on Kraznick’s headquarters, the level of computer activity in the area dropped off the edge of the cliff. Disappeared completely.”
I frowned. “I’m not sure that fits. We never did find out where the cyber whiz kids were housed. Unless…maybe. We never bothered to explore the scary old basement. If Teddy boy kept his genius types working safely underground, our explosive charges might have cut a major supply cable or something.” Explosive charges seemed a weak thing to call major strikes by a full blown Purple Fire Wizard, but again, Gray had no need to know about all that.
The well dressed dude with a crush on my Mom nodded as if that made all the sense in the world. “I presume you’ll want me to put out the word on B.J. Hennessey?”
“Sadly enough, yes. I don’t suppose you have anything on him yet, do you?”
He looked shocked at that. “Tree, I only initiate background investigations upon request.”
Uh huh. We both knew he was lying about that. “Of course.” I could be as two-faced as he could, any day. “Yes, we’ll need a full jacket on him as soon as we can get it. That, and knowledge of his whereabouts, yada yada yada, ongoing until further notice.”
“All right. You and Mrs. Bowles really did almost shoot him?”
“Mrs. Jackson-Bowles. An ex-cop, by the way. And yes, we came close. Or at least I know I did. And I still may. Rodeo Iron’s security is definitely compromised in a big way as long as he’s out there doing whatever it is he’s doing. Equal priority on Kraznick’s former gal Friday, known as Mary the Mute. I may have a contact who knows her last name, but I haven’t asked him yet.”
“No need.” Gray waved that idea away. “If she worked close to Mr. Kraznick and had a nickname like that, our people will have her identified before an old lady in the nursing home can yell Bingo.”
Gray had surprised me again. First, he’s drooling after my mother, and now he’s spitting out nursing home humor?
Well, why not? Surprising me shouldn’t even surprise me any more. Not after B.J.’s treachery, it shouldn’t. I got up from my chair–real Corinthian leather these days, nothing too good for the Half Castle intel room–and headed for the door. “That should do for now…except for one thing. Could you ask the hackers to keep a really sharp eye out for any medical appointments my uncle might have had in the past year or two?”
“Yeah. Doctors, clinics, ER visits, over the counter purchases, anything. Mom and I were talking about it shortly before I came in here. The possibility, however remote, that B.J. might be sick. I mean, what he’s done is sick, all right. No question about that. But if he has a certain kind of brain tumor…. Not that I think that’s likely; it would be just too convenient an excuse.”
“But you need to find out for sure. Of course we can do that. And Tree….” The underground information specialist changed expressions without warning, suddenly looking like he’d been sucking on a lemon. “As long as we discussing medical…I’m selling the Half Castle.”
“You what?” Second only to Jack Hill himself, Gray’s contacts with hackers around the planet had been our salvation from the early days of the Wolf War. Losing him was unthinkable, gray hairs or no gray hairs. “Why?” My voice sounded wrong; I didn’t trust myself to say anything more.
“I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer three months ago. It’s already spread throughout a good deal of my body, though thankfully not my brain. Not yet, anyway.”
“Damn, I’m sorry to hear that.” I was, too. This was one of the few men I could trust, but it was more than that. We had, I realized belatedly, become friends.
“So am I.” He smiled, and just like that, the old, ultra-dapper Mr. Gray was back.
But for how long?
“How long?” I asked.
“Until I leave Montana? A few more weeks. We’ve already signed the papers. The new owner will be here by the middle of next week. I’ll stay on to get her oriented. As for how long until I die, the doctors are giving me three or four months at the outside. Not that I trust the average AMA type to know his rectum from a hole in the ground, but these folks are pretty good.” He raised a hand, forestalling my next question. “I’ll just be gone, Tree. No trail to follow, not even a paper trail. There is far too much sensitive information tucked between these ears to allow the wrong person access when I’m in a weakened state.”
I nodded slowly. “So, where does this leave us? Jack and me, I mean? Not that I’m trying to go all self-centered on you when you’re facing what you’re facing, but I have to ask.”
“Of course you do. Treemin, you and Jack have done more to validate this organization than anyone else who’s ever entered this room. As we’ve discussed before, my contacts and I are highly skilled at gathering information and utterly worthless at taking action in the field, at which you and your Rodeo Iron people excel. With that in mind, I’m going to break the one rule I never in my wildest nightmares thought I’d break. I’m going to give you deep background on the new owner, background that even she has no idea I possess.”
“She?” My eyebrows rose. “Your buyer is a woman?”
“Yes. A woman…and one of the best hackers on the planet, known to her peers only as Sparkle. On paper, her legal name will show as Victoria Lorene Cartwright.”
“No relation to the Bonanza Cartwrights?”
“Never mind. You mentioned her legal name. Does that mean she goes by something else to family and friends?”
“It’s all on here.” Thumbing open one of the many drawers recessed into the wall below the seven foot plasma viewing screen I’d never once seen in use, Gray pulled out a flash drive and handed it to me. “It won’t self destruct, so you’ll need to destroy it thoroughly once you and Jack have studied the contents.”
I kind of choked up, realizing the level of faith Gray had in me. His next words, however, threw me completely.
“Take good care of her, Treemin. Please.”
Mom had kept herself well occupied on the Internet, or reading a book, whatever she did with her lickety split device. It didn’t even bother her when I exited the men’s room, returned to our table, and sat back down to order my third meal in seven hours. We ate in companionable silence, but the drive home was a hard one. She didn’t ask what I’d learned, but it was killing me, not feeling free to bring her fully into the loop. We might do that one day, but not before Jack and I and our lovers had plenty of opportunity to discuss everything in detail.
Most of all, I was aching to plug in that flash drive.
It was long past dark by the time we got to the house, so Mom decided to stay with us until morning. Seed and Beets had checked back in with the report that B.J.’s former residence had come up clean. Suspiciously clean, they said, as though my uncle had gone through the place with a fine tooth comb before leaving, scrubbing any evidence of himself from the very walls.
Tomorrow would definitely be soon enough for Lou Jackson-Bowles to check it out.
Once everything was settled and the girls were getting their evening math lesson from Judi, I punched the appropriate button on the intercom.
“Wayne,” came the response.
“Yo, Wayne. Status report on Jack?”
“Wizardly. He slept most of the time you were gone, but he’s been wide awake for a while now. I’m pretty sure he’d be up and moving around if Doc weren’t camped out right next to his bed.”
I had to laugh. “Larry’s having to sit on him?”
“Pretty close. You know and I know that once the wound was cleaned and the stomach repaired, him healing like magic was a done deal. But the good Doctor Menning can’t quite wrap his head around that yet.”
Good enough. “I’m coming over. Let Doc know he can take a break, would you? I need some quality time with the Wiz.”
Jack and Larry both looked almighty relieved to see me. I was pretty sure the combat surgeon was finding out that Wizards make lousy patients. The two men were practically growling at each other.
“Tell you what, Larry,” I said. “You shouldn’t have to babysit a cranky old fart like this one. I promise you the girls and I will make sure Jack won’t do anything to tear up the good work you’ve done. Feel free to head back to your place if you like, get a decent night’s sleep for a change.”
Hill looked amused. Menning was so wrung out, he didn’t even realize I was up to something sneaky.
“I believe I’ll do that, Tree. Just don’t let this old fool get up and walk around just yet. This isn’t some simple hernia repair.”
“Of course not, Doc. Of course not.”
Once the M.D. was gone, I asked Jack, “So how’s it going, really?”
Already out of bed and pulling on his clothes, he grinned ear to ear. “It’s going just fine. I do sincerely appreciate Larry saving my life and all, but he knows a lot less about nursing than he does doctoring.”
“And,” I matched his grin, “he knows next to nothing about your powers of rejuvenation. Or at least he won’t accept the concept.”
“Right on. Strange blind spot, but I reckon we all have one or two of those, eh?”
“You didn’t come over tonight just to rescue my bony ass, Tree. Whazzup?”
“Well-l-l,” I drawled, “that might go best with a fresh pot of coffee, whatever flavor of pie ala mode Wayne and Carolyn have in the kitchen, and a few hours behind your locked office door.”
Once secured from accidental snooping by his lovers, need to know and all that, I got down to it.
Hill wasn’t as surprised about Gray’s impending departure as I had been. “Saw that one coming a while back. He hasn’t been looking quite right for a while now.”
“Really?” I shook my head. “I don’t know if you’re just that observant, or I’m basically clueless.”
“I’ve known the man for a long time. Let’s take a peek at that flash drive, shall we?”
We did. It was quite a look, too. Victoria Lorene Cartwright, known as Lori to those close to her and Sparkle in the world of elite hackers, stood six feet tall and weighed two hundred and twenty pounds, give or take. Just twenty-seven years of age, her I.Q. was off the charts. A Chinese national, conceived when her mother was studying at Stanford in the U.S., she spoke seven languages fluently and had been a key employee in China’s ongoing cyber attacks against America, first cracking the Pentagon database when she was fifteen and going on from there.
Such a valuable weapon would never be allowed to leave China, and for three years she essentially served as a prisoner soldier for the People’s Republic. Unfortunately for her bosses, her prodigious IQ could not be contained; despite being monitored constantly, she had managed to devise and execute an escape plan that included government issued identity papers and a passport in a false name.
A false name, Jack and I both noted with interest, that showed up as perfectly real in every necessary official database.
She hadn’t gone to the West at first, but to North Korea, a move most refugees would have judged far too dangerous to even consider. She wasn’t there long, though, shifting next to Malaysia, then to Australia, Canada, and finally to Fresno, California, in the United States of America.
And now she would be settling in Missoula, Montana, of all places.
“I can see why Gray asked you to take care of her,” Jack observed.
We were taking time out for a second piece of pie; Carolyn had baked my favorite flavor, rhubarb. “Why?” I mumbled around a mouthful. “Seems to me she’s pretty capable of taking care of herself.”
“On the surface,” he agreed, “but think about it. She had to leave her mother behind. She’s tracked down her father, but he’s working for our government, and there’s no way she would ever dare get in touch with him for a number of reasons. Thanks to her hacking superpowers, she and Gray got to know each other after she reached California, but she’s never dared make any other real friends–and now her mentor, who is selling her the Half Castle as far as the paperwork shows but is in reality giving her the place, lock stock and barrel–he’s dying, Treemin. She’s as alone as a girl can get.”
“Maybe she’s okay with that.”
“Come on, you don’t believe that for a millisecond.”
“No. Guess I don’t. She’ll inherit Gray’s staff, which is a good thing, but there’s no way she can confide in any of her employees. She’s really is going to need our help.” I squinted at the computer screen, studying the photo of the woman. “But if she gets a crush on one of us, you can have her. This girl may be smarter than Einstein, but she sure is u-u-gly!”
Hill sipped his coffee, considering. “Nah. She’s not that bad. Although I do have to wonder if that Washington bureaucrat in the file is her real Daddy. According to the photos, I’m thinking her Mom must have taken an American Sasquatch for a lover.”