Throughout its history, the organization known as The Guild has been the subject of nearly as many conspiracy theories as the Illuminati or the Freemasons.
A.S.P, the Anti-Seeder Project, has long been credited with keeping the pot boiling with rumor, innuendo, and downright accusation. If these cowardly (can you spell anonymous?) libelists are to be believed, Guild Representatives are responsible for everything from drought and flash floods to earthquakes and erupting volcanoes, maybe even directing the comet that narrowly missed Earth in 2142.
The only reason they haven’t blamed this remarkable health service company for Eve eating the apple is their inability to trace The Guild’s roots back to the Book of Genesis.____Karen Tropwer, PhD, Cowards In The Shadows.
By the time July rolled around with its terrible heat–terribly muggy on the East Coast, terribly dry in Nevada–Hoelring martial arts Master Corolla Edsella “Nails” Hendrix knew she had to make a decision. Several decisions.
Decision number one: Whether or not to finally bring Homer Arbogast fully into her confidence.
“Fully into” defined: Aware of her specific role in the disappearance of Guild Rep Garrett Di Marco. Additionally, informed as to how cousin Rory could be reached day or night without giving anything away to Those Who Watched.
Decision number two: Whether or not to ask Homey to marry her. Sure, he was half again her age. So what? She’d told him about her killing ability, showed him several basic Hoelring martial arts sequences, even told him straight up that she’d already killed seven more times since she’d met him. The man was still steady, still willing to back her play, and she didn’t think it was only the sex.
Trouble was, she’d misjudged men before, most recently Divdan.
Not so many years ago, that one, and she’d barely lived to tell about it. The handsome dude had been, as it turned out, an undercover anti-militia agent carrying triple implants much like Di Marco had worn. Still wore, actually. The knife branding had disabled rather than removed them.
She and her family had not been able to trace Divdan’s computer chip implants to their source after he’d been neutralized, but they had most certainly found the little thingies. Transponder chip, recorder chip, ID chip. Hoelring family technicians were superb in their fields and did manage to make the recorder chip spill its data. At least they had that.
There’d been enough sensitive data recorded “on ‘plant” to have presented them with monster problems had Div the Shiv lived to report to his superiors.
It had been a close thing, close enough to require an entirely new identity for the fourth time in her twenty-seven years. No, twenty-eight now, she reminded herself. She’d had a birthday in May. These days her hair was long where it had been short, black where it had been ash blonde. Plastic surgery had altered her facial planes subtly but effectively. She was hopefully safe, at least for a while, but Jacob Hoelring’s descendants were uniformly concerned: How had the Div-Dude known enough to target her at all?
A Montana rodeo had started it all.
She’d been just twenty-two. Divdan Eornas had been tall, dark, and handsome in all the right places.
Oh, they should have seen it coming. Anit-militia activities by official law enforcement personnel had been illegal for a long time now, ever since passage of the MRA, the Militia Reconciliation Act, but of course that meant nothing to the covert types. They continued to infiltrate and act as agents provocateur all over the place.
There was another worrisome thing. Divvy’s implants had been found in a different area than Di Marco’s, right butt cheek rather than right shoulder, but were clearly of the same design and performing the same functions. Only a fool would conclude the two sets were unrelated. One implanted man had been an anti-militia government guy working the Hoelring family. The other had been a Guild Seeder.
Hopefully, Garrett Di Marco aka Sven Jensen was not also an AMAIP (pronounced “Am-ape”, the acronym for Anti-Militia Agent In Place). Such a discovery would mean Camry’s–Kate’s–death as sure as the sun rose in the East. That little redhead loved her man with a depth and passion that could not survive separation, let alone betrayal. Fortunately, Nails did not really believe “Sven” could possibly be an enemy. He’d had plenty of chances to do harm were he so inclined and had done Kate nothing but good. The guy had even imported some sort of yellow-flowering desert bush from Arizona to plant in Nevada for her cousin’s enjoyment.
If he proved out to be precisely as represented, however, the implications were still chilling.
Div the Shiv had carried implants from an unknown source. Sven Jensen carried similar implants from a known source, and that source was the Guild. Logical conclusion number one: Since the implants were of no ordinary manufacture yet were virtually identical, they likely came from a single source. Logical conclusion number two: That source was the Guild.
Chilling indeed. Icy ripples ran up and down her spine, neck hairs lifting in warning of extreme danger every time she thought about it.
Probability theory: Since it was known that every AMAIP the Hoelrings had uncovered since the end of the Jovian War had been sponsored by one Federal Agency or another, it was highly probably that Divdan had worked for the Feds as well. If true, this meant that the Guild and the Feds were probably the same thing or at least in close cahoots.
Fear based conjecture: What if the Feds had always been able to crack Guild technology? What if they had in fact developed The Box in the first place? What if the Guild was no more than the cover name for an ugly Agency with ugly secrets, like the CIA being known as “the Company”?
Crap. What if the Guild and the Company were TSFT, The Same Freaking Thing?
She made her decision. Homey had to be told. The Frog might or might not be willing to back her play, but it was just plain evil to ask him to hang around without bringing him up to speed.
If he ended up dead from associating with her, at least he deserved to know what had killed him.
Once they’d settled in for the evening at his apartment, however, the big police sergeant spoke first. Big was the right word. He wasn’t fat any more, though a stranger on the street might make the fatal mistake of thinking so. His weight had leveled out at 232 with a body fat percentage of 14.7 percent, plenty low enough unless you were a pro body builder willing to shred yourself down into the danger zone. With a hot woman in his life for motivation, he’d become just plain awesome…though tonight he looked just plain worried.
“Had a visitor at the Precinct today, babe.” He paused, the sort of hesitation seen in those who wished they didn’t have to say anything at all but know they must. “He claimed to be a long lost relative of missing Guild Rep Garrett Di Marco, worried about a family member who’d dropped out of sight, but Fed stuck out all over the guy. You know the type. Tried to play transplanted cowboy as if he’d originally come from Di Marco’s birth state of South Dakota.”
Cory thought she could see where this was headed, but she held her peace except to ask, “He wasn’t a real cowboy, I take it?”
Homer snorted. “About as much as you’re a meek little housewife. Had on a western shirt, but a new one fresh out of the box. Brush cut hair, scrubbed clean, recently out of New Harvard or one of those Ivy League schools, hint of a Boston accent he was trying hard to hide. He called Di Marco a Guild Rep rather than a Seeder as any member of the public would do, family or no family. Said his Daddy raised Brahma bulls and pronounced it braw-ma instead of bray-ma. And he was wired to the hilt; even my Mickey Mouse scanner was able to pick that up. Honey, he did everything but speak into his lapel.”
The tall brunette squeezed her man’s hand gently. “I know the type.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “For whatever reason, this particular missing Seeder has everyone turning up the heat. As if that’s not enough, I can’t for the life of me figure why they’re focusing on me. Why a lower management desk sergeant never much known for anything but slogging along and keeping his nose clean? Well, sort of clean, anyway. It doesn’t make sense, and I purely hate a mystery that includes me. I’m starting to have boogeyman dreams.”
That was her cue. The Hoelringer couldn’t spill this batch of beans while relaxing on the couch, though. Nervous energy drove her to her feet; she began to pace, back and forth, alternately staring at the carpet and at Homer’s face. Challenge and appeal warred in her naturally blue eyes–tonight they were naturally blue.
“Sweetheart, I think they believe I know more than I do, and it’s no secret you and I have hooked up. Maybe they figure I told you. At any rate, it’s clearly time and more than time I brought you up to speed.”
“Another truth installment? Think I can handle it?” His tone was wry; she tried to ignore the stab that tone put right through her heart.
“No more installments. You get all the rest of it in one big dump. The thing is, love, I’ve been holding back on a biggie. Not that I have the slightest interest in helping the Guild or the Feds, whatever they turn out to really be, nothing like that, but I do know how to find Garrett Di Marco. One of my cousins lives wth him. They came to me for help in going black. He believes there is a hit out on him.”
She stopped cold for a long moment, taking deep breaths to calm herself. Her presentation was coming out in a kind of jerky fashion…but this was important. So important. Arbogast waited patiently, soaking it all in…soaking her in. She loved that.
“I still don’t know how to get hold of A.S.P., but Di Marco is another matter.”
Her man didn’t bat an eye. “Is it okay to let me know here he is,” he asked calmly, “Or does that stay on a need to know basis?”
“No more need to know, not between us. Homey, you get the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth, now and forever, Amen.” She was striding again, back and forth in front of him, his eyes following her movement like a kitten watching a fly buzz around a room. The image struck her as hilarious, but she managed to keep from cracking up openly. This wasn’t the time for comedy.
“Baby, Mr. Arbogast Sir, I guess I’ve stalled as long as I can.” She came to an abrupt halt squarely in front of him and dropped to her knees, looking up, looking him in the eye. “I want to marry you and move us away from here and that means you’d have to quit your job but I have a new one for you and I know it’s suppposed to be the man who asks but if you’ll say yes we’d be together and–”
She stopped, fiercely aware of how silly she must sound. She–
“Yes what? You’ll marry me?” At this moment she felt only confusion.
The big man smiled gently and took her hands in his huge, powerful, wonderful, gentle hamfists. “Yes, I’ll marry you. You think I’m nuts? Then I’m nuts, and you know what? I don’t care. Yes, I’ll quit the Force and go wherever it is you want to go or need to go, which I’m guessing is in the vicinity of your cousin and our mysteriously missing Seeder. Which I gather isn’t all that much of a mystery to you, but–”
“Oh!” Nails Hendrix, hard bitten columnist and secret serial killer of hopefully bad people, threw her arms around him. As long as those arms were, they almost didn’t make it; Sergeant Homer P. Arbogast had immense development in the chest area.
“You didn’t even ask what your new job is.”
“That can wait.” The soon-to-be-retired cop thought about correcting her English. He also quashed that idea in a hurry. If his bride to be wanted to end a sentence with a prepostion, she could end a sentence with a preposition. “For now, it’s enough to know I’ve got a permanent hookup with my favorite Hoelringer.”
“Just point me at the horses so I can saddle up, and we’ll ride off into the sunset.”