Had he not chosen to take a break at that precise moment, they would have been on him before he sensed them. Three…five Umthnn, one elder with his four primary assistants, all experienced in underground combat. And all, of course, keenly aware of the renegade’s identity.
So be it. Thinking he might be able to slip all the way down the west coast to pop up in southern California without being detected en route had been a pipe dream from the beginning. It could have been worse. They were coming from the Horga Clan’s side tunnel, allowing him to face them at the tee with two ways to go, should he choose to flee. Had he been trapped in a lonely stretch with enemies fore and aft, his options would have been much more limited.
Jonbhoiebtyt would know this. Would it make him wary?
There was only one way to find out. Diamond Paws settled himself comfortably at the side tunnel entrance, multi-spectrum vision watching the elders approach. They’d smelled him, of course; the Umthnn sense of smell was thousands of times more sensitive than that of the surface dwelling humans. Which it should be, with every fur follicle doubling as a sniffer. Being limited to two nostrils? A fate worth than death, that.
Jonbhoiebtyt was limping. Just a little, but enough to be cause for concern. As the youngest member of the ruling Quencil at a mere 37,082 years of age, he should not be limping at all.
The Quencillor limp-flowed to a stop some three dozen yards from Diamond’s position. For a long moment, no one spoke, until Diamond decided it was time to break the silence. “Greetings, Honored One,” he said quietly, a mere rock-rumble from the back of his multi-throat.
Shaking his great round head in disbelief, Jonbhoiebtyt retorted, “You have the nerve to return, renegade? You come to accept your death?”
“Not at all.” The outlaw Umthnn, younger than the Quencillor by more than 17,000 years, kept his tone mild. “I have an errand to run. I will be gone from the Tunnels of the People in short order.”
None of the others spoke; to usurp the elder’s leadership would be unthinkable. But they did shift nervously, their bodies reflexively hardening, then softening, in the ancient way of Umthnn wishing they were elsewhere. This renegade Umthnn, one of the Middle Aged, worried them. He had broken the ancient taboo, yet he seemed unconcerned by the depth of his betrayal, exposing the existence of the Umthnn race to the warlike surface dwellers. Elsewhere? They’d prefer to be under another continent.
Still, their leader had held his position for several millennia. He would not be easily thrown by a simple heretic. “I think,” the big Umthnn with the subtle limp said, “that it has fallen to me to execute you this day in the name of the People.”
“You and what army?” Diamond asked, borrowing one of the human sayings.
“I need no army.” The elder’s tone was scornful. “When last I saw you, you were a mere subwife, a groveling female submissive to the great Goliath. Now you dare present yourself as male? That alone would have earned you the death penalty, switching genders without authorization. Although,” he sighed in apparently genuine regret, “I will admit it would have been better if Goliath and his squad had caught up to you first.”
“Goliath and his squad did catch up to me.”
The big round eye facing the heretic flared even bigger and rounder. “They did not!”
“They did. Three of the squad, I let live. They submitted to me as wives and have borne me children.”
“You…killed Goliath? You?”
“I did.” Technically, that was true. Never mind that Treemin Jackson had first popped a .22 long rifle round through one of the giant’s eyes and out of another, scrambling the upper brain circuits. The final death blow had been struck by–he was not lying.
“Impossible!” The Quencillor surged forward, his limp hampering him hardly at all. Jonbhoiebtyt was no Goliath, but even so, he had more than a foot of reach on the smaller outlaw, he would–
The short barreled .22 caliber revolver cracked sharply in the confines of the tunnel, freezing the attacker’s followers in place. Jonbhoiebtyt himself slumped forward onto the solid rock of the tunnel floor, all eight clawed limbs thrashing wildly, sounding the horrible keening sound that Diamond Paws had needed to endure only once before. With that massive diversion, none of the others noticed the killer passing the tiny pistol back from limb to limb until it was behind him and then slipped back into the underbelly pouch. One shot, one kill, the rebel thought morosely. The Quencillor had fallen almost at his feet; it was the work of but a moment to lean over the prostrate form to apply the killing stroke.
Silence in the tunnels, then, except for horrified little squeals coming from the four followers and his own labored breathing. He had never before killed one of his Clan Superiors.
What to do about the others?
Fortunately, he knew Umthnn psychology as well as any. Stepping over the corpse, he approached the huddled four, three of whom were male with one female. “I have killed your leader,” he explained needlessly. “Do you all accept my dominance?”
They did, of course. It would take a powerful rebel spirit to resist the time honored formula, and there was none of that spirit in any of these four. He didn’t even have to wait until the three males completed their transformations to females; once initiated, this was not a thing that could be reversed easily. It took a while to give them directions, routing new rebel wives to a place beneath the panhandle of Idaho that should keep them safe from discovery until he could return to escort them the rest of the way.
He did scent mark each of them, though, and saw them on their way before continuing his own journey.
The corpse, he left in place. This tunnel junction was not frequently used; there was every chance the former Quencil member’s body would remain undiscovered long enough for the powerful odor of decomposition to mask his own outlaw smell entirely.
One week later, the eight foot alien surfaced in a vacant lot next to the California domicile housing the reporter and her big black lover man, B.J. Hennessey. He knew it was the right place; B.J.’s monster antique Hudson was parked smack dab in front of the building, gleaming softly in the glow of the streetlights. Their original information hadn’t said this was a duplex, but hey. Can’t have everything.
Diamond Paws emerged slowly from the finished tunnel hole, scanning the lot for something to cover his exit until it was time to go. There was a privacy fence between the vacant lot and the duplex, though a couple of boards were missing. Not the most perfectly maintained neighborhood. The residence looked neat enough, but area residents had clearly been using the vacant lot as a dumping ground.
Which suited the big Umthnn just fine. There was even an old car hood, lying right there, perfect for concealing giant mole holes.
“Man,” the voice spoke out of the darkness, “you’re a big ‘un.”
Damn. That pile of rags, old newspapers, and cardboard in the far corner…homeless? Wino? Both? Think fast! The fellow had only uttered that one brief sentence, but maybe it would be enough….
“Ain’t near big enough to rassle this freaking monster suit,” he retorted, adjusting the hardness of his limbs so that he moved awkwardly, as if he were a smallish human male in an awkward costume, clearly exasperated. “Shoulda had the damn role, too. Buggers gave it to Ewan McGregor, of all things.”
“Ah.” The pile of rags, now clearly visible to Diamond Paws now that the alien had turned on his infrared vision, hiccupped loudly. “Shoulda known. What’re you doing here, then? Kinda outa the way for a Wookie, if you know what I mean.”
“Drunk-ass cousin was giving me a ride. Shoulda got outa the suit first, right? But it’s big and heavy, even nastier to carry around than to wear, and he drives a full sized van, so I climb in back and away we go. Gonna crash at his pad, get outa the constume there, but no-o-o-o! Jerkwad has to decide halfway home that he’s going to a party. Buttwipe ran outa coke, and he knew there’d be plenty of the stuff there. So he pulls over to the curb, tells me to get my overly hairy tuchas the heck outa his van…” Diamond let his voice trail off, dripping bitterness.
“Got a smoke, man?”
“Never touch the stuff. Rather eat wood than weed. I’m a wooditarian.” A bit of the truth mixed in with a tall tale worked rather well at times, he’d learned. “Trouble is, I can’t stay here long, either. You look like you’re settled in pretty good–”
“Snug as a bug in a rug, that’s me.” Sarcasm? Hard to tell.
“–but I overheard a couple of cops talking, a couple of streets back. They’re planning a sweep of this area.”
Silence for a moment. Then, “Oh, crap. Not again. Did you hear ’em say when? After the weekend, I’m hoping?”
“Don’t I wish. Man, I could use some sleep. But no, they’re staging at the Dunkin’ Donuts, the one over by the brewery, then they’re figuring to start down this street at 1:00 a.m. The jerks were laughing, saying there was no time to take out the trash like nighttime.”
The homeless man abandoned his nest three minutes later; most likely, he’d had more than his share of being hassled by the po-po’s. Or he had an outstanding warrant or two. Something.
Diamond cleaned up the fellow’s nesting material, much of which he’d left behind. Simply hauled it down into the tunnel, back far enough to stash it in a little side room, and that was that. When the guy came back and found the place spruced up, his home of the moment cleaned away as if it had never existed, he’d most likely keep moving. If not, it wouldn’t be that difficult to scare the pants off of him. If he was wearing pants; the garment had been a bit hard to describe.
Either way, the lot was his.
He spent three days and nights doing reconnaissance, slipping over next to the duplex during the quietest deep-night hours, listening to and through the walls as he had first done with the Rodeo Iron shop itself nearly a decade earlier. By the end of that time, he knew four things.
1. B.J. Hennessey and Ruby Sheets–he did not get the humor of the lady’s name, not realizing how some homo sapiens would take that–were indeed in residence in unit #1.
2. Unit #2 was vacant, for rent but currently unoccupied. This, he decided, was a good thing.
3. Ms. Sheets was a young mixed race woman who sold articles not only to the Enquirer, but to the Globe and the Star as well, using a different name in her dealings with each tabloid. She was also rather passionate and a bit noisy in bed.
4. From the sound of things, B.J. was drinking a bit…and his luck with women had not changed for the better. Ruby Sheets was Polly Promiscuous, getting it on with somebody just about every time her car left the driveway. It was a wonder B.J. hadn’t already picked up the clap, or AIDS, or herpes. Or maybe he had; who knew?
B.J. stretched, working the muscles loose in his six foot eight, 300 pound body. Saturday Night Live was coming on, and with Ruby gone for the night yet again, chasing a story lead up near Fresno about a sewer crocodile or some such, he might as well have one more beer. It would only be his fourth, after all, hardly enough to dent the quiet fury he felt these days.
They killed her, he thought for the ten thousandth time. My Weaver nephew and that accursed old white man Wizard killed her as sure as–the doorbell rang.
What the–? Shouldn’t be anybody ringing doorbells at this time of night. He eased over to the front door, peering through the peephole, but saw absolutely nothing. He would have become alarmed at that, but Ruby’s voice cut through the steel door. “Beej! Let me in! The sewer croc lead was a crock, and I lost my house key!”
Had the big man been on his game, the ploy would never have worked. But he was not. He unlocked and opened the door.
It must be a shock beyond description to expect a trim, slim, five foot four lover and, instead, find yourself facing an eight foot mountain of hair, legs, arms, claws, and all that. Diamond shoved through the doorway without further ado, his lead leg snaking behind Hennessey as he shoved Tree’s uncle in the chest, hard. B.J. landed with a crash, flat on his back, the wind knocked out of him. For the first time since childhood, he was the little guy in the room. For the first time, he realized the advantage of having four arms and four legs in close quarters combat as Diamond Paws sat on him, pinning the entire lower half of his body under the huge alien’s massive weight. His wrists were pinned to the floor as well, each held firmly in place by a long-clawed, double thumbed paw. That still left the Umthnn a free forward paw with which to fish out the .45 ACP from its hiding place under his shirt, and even a free rearward paw to likewise retrieve the .38 Smith and Wesson snubby from the ankle holster.
He panted hoarsely but said nothing, glaring up into the single round eye that focused on his face. Diamond, however, was not so reticent. “We need to talk, pilgrim,” he said in his best John Wayne voice.
Talk? Of all the possibilities running through his mind, that hadn’t even been in the top ten. He thought for two or three seconds before replying. “I’d say you’re making me an offer I can’t refuse, big guy. But at least shut the damned door, will you? The last thing I need is Ruby coming back with a camera and catching you raping me like this.”
The Umthnn laughed. “The headline would read, Black Man Pregnant with Alien Bigfoot Baby!”
“Something like that.” The corner of B.J.’s mouth twitched upward; he couldn’t help it.
Moments later, the pair of them sat at the little dinette table, though of course only the human managed to use a chair. The big alien simply sat on the floor, adjusting his height to that he and Hennessey could look each other in the eye at roughly the same level.
“Do me one favor,” B.J. said calmly, realizing he no longer cared about having that fourth beer. “Lose the John Wayne accent.”
“You don’t like it?” Diamond would have raised an eyebrow, but of course none of his four eyes had eyebrows to raise. “What’s your preference, then?” He was pretty sure imitating the man’s nephew wouldn’t work any better than imitating the Duke.
“I dunno…how about that amalgam you used in meetings?”
“Sure. I can do that.” It was a good, solid baritone, that amalgam was. Of course, he’d slip in a few subtle variations, speech patterns that more closely echoed the black man’s own.
“So. You’re not here to assassinate me?”
“Oh, come on, B.J.!”
“Hey. Had to ask. After that Enquirer article came out, I wouldn’t have much blamed you. Just so you know, that wasn’t my idea. I got drunk one night, talked too much, and forgot Ruby never goes anywhere without a voice recorder on her person. That girl is wired 24/7, 365, in the literal sense.”
“Must make you a bit cautious when you’re mating,” the Umnthnn observed.
“Not so much that. I never was into talking when I was f–you know. Um…don’t have any firewood to offer you as a snack.”
“Wasn’t expecting to eat.”
“But I need to do something kind of normal, you know? So do you mind if I start a pot of coffee? Coffee mug will give me something to hold onto while we talk. I have an idea this little conversation is going to be a wee bit disturbing.”
Diamond bobbed his basketball head. “No problem as long as you don’t decide you need to go for a weapon. As you know, I’ve learned full well the deadliness of humans with weapons in their hands. Or,” he added thoughtfully, “some of them even without weapons.”
“No weapons. I have to admit, big guy, I never expected Tree to send you my way. Himself, Jack maybe, but not you.”
“Oh, he didn’t send me.”
“No?” B.J. scratched his head, forcing himself to remember where Ruby kept the coffee filters. “He didn’t?”
“No. I volunteered. And not because of the article, either. I came because you and I needed to talk.”
“You mentioned that.” The filters were under the counter, third drawer to the right. No fancy Kona; Folgers would have to do. “So…about what?”
“First–this wasn’t something I knew when I left Montana, but found out when I called in to Rodeo Iron, just last week–you may want to know what happened to your paramour.”
“My–Mary the Mute?” B.J. froze in the middle of pouring the fourth scoop of coffee into the basket. “You know something?”
“Yes. Philip has managed to open communications between Kraznick Number Two, the imposter who took over, and himself. Not directly, which wouldn’t be a great idea for either side, but through some sort of online bulletin board system where each can leave messages for the other. Coded, of course. Apparently, the new man is cleaning up the billionaire’s holdings. He decided he couldn’t afford to fix all of the slum properties he owned, but he is selling them off, bit by bit. This matches with what Philip has been able to determine from his independent online surveillance; he and Treemin and Jack all seem to believe Kraznick II is being sincere.
“So anyway, Philip asked Kraznick if he knew anything regarding Mary the Mute. With the exception of the young turncoat werewolf, no one had ever heard of that person until you mentioned her.”
“Ngh. I don’t imagine they had.”
“Right. So Kraznick answered right back, and he said she was killed in the attack on Heartbite headquarters. She wasn’t supposed to be there at that time; she had duties in one of the smaller outbuildings. But that’s what we’ve heard.”
It should have been a gut punch, but really, it wasn’t. Not so much. Hennessey wasn’t sure what that said about him. Was he moving on, or had his feelings for the woman been shallow from the start? “Don’t suppose he sent a picture.”
“No. Sorry.” Diamond lied casually, feeling no impulse whatsoever to tell this hurting human the truth. They had a photo now, and Mary the Mute had by human standards been one u-u-ugly female. “But my main reason for coming to see you…B.J., you and I have a lot in common.”
“What!?” Hennessey barked a laugh, seating himself to wait while the Mr. Coffee did its thing. “We’re both big and ugly?”
“Neither of us is ugly by the standards of our species. But consider this: Both of us are voluntary outcasts. Both of us chose to leave the culture and family we knew, family with whom we had been extremely close at one time. Both of us did that because we believed that what others in our groups thought to be right, we thought to be narrow minded, perhaps even stupid. We are, in essence, a pair of ultimate renegades.”
“Never thought of like that.” He rubbed his right wrist with his left. The Umthnn had some serious grip strength when he chose to use it; at best, the tendons in that wrist were bruised. He thought that over for a while, both of them remaining silent until the coffee maker announced the brew was ready. “You started drinking coffee, didn’t you?”
“I did. It’s remarkable, what that stuff does in my system. So yes, I’ll take a cup if you have enough.”
“Ha. Big enough cup to fit you would have to be a gallon jug.” He got out the green ceramic set, which would have to do. “Cream or sugar?”
“Black.” The alien’s various eyes sparkled with humor. “Once you go black, you never go back.”
“Not sure that’s what that saying was meant to imply,” B.J. grinned, “but it’ll do. So. Now that it’s just us boy renegades, why are you really here?” He thought about reaching for the Flicker in his right hip pocket, but he was curious now. Might as well hear the Umthnn out. Besides, the knuckle knife was made more for close work than for throwing. He might miss, or at least miss the eye, the only vital hit spot he knew about. Maybe a steak knife…but the drawer that held the kitchen blades was way too close, well within the alien’s oversized reach. Or maybe a bit of Ruby’s heroin stash, mixed in the coffee…
Idle thoughts. What was he saying?
“…the thing is, Beej, you need to get your head out of your ass. Because if you don’t, I will personally see to it that Shyala learns just how far her father has fallen. Perhaps–”
“Hold it, bobblehead. You’re going to say what to my daughter?” B.J.’s fingers were literally itching for a weapon, clenching and unclenching.
“Ah, yes. You want specifics. You humans always want specifics.” Diamond lifted one massive paw, serving to underscore the point that he could reach across the little table and take the infuriated father out before the man could react. “Shyala is quite a treasure, as you know. Tall, lithe, beautiful, brilliant, and one of the best basketball players to come along in a while. You also know that she called you last night to tell you she’s finally been offered a contract with the WBA. Quite a young lady, indeed. So, specifics. You will post on your new Facebook page, and Twitter, stating firmly that the Enquirer reporter who wrote that story about aliens was stoned out of her mind at the time–which of course she was, though being under the influence hardly harmed her writing. Then you will break off the relationship with Ms. Ruby Sheets, moving on to make yourself a new life in whatever legitimate field you choose. Welding, possibly, or considering your advancing age, perhaps sales. Or since you are in California and a big handsome fellow by homo sapiens standards, perhaps in acting. Your choice, as long as nothing you do betrays the secrets of Rodeo Iron in any way, manner, shape or form.”
“Quite a speech, digger,” Hennessey growled. “What if I don’t?”
“Then I will kill you. You will never see me coming; this was strictly a courtesy call. In part, I made this journey to let you understand that there is no place you can go that I cannot reach. But if I do decide it is necessary to kill you, the slaying will not be a simple thing. It will be messy, and done in such a way that your reputation is utterly destroyed. There will be body parts scattered around, tales of Satanic cults and various other weirdnesses. At best, your daughter will be horrified, shocked that she herself could have been sired by such a monster. And,” the Umthnn shrugged, though he didn’t possess shoulders in the strict sense of the word, “if you share any of your nephew’s secrets with your daughter, she will die in similar fashion, grist for the media mill, her name forever writ in flames to shame a story by Stephen King.”
The worst thing of all, B.J. thought, is that he delivers these lines so calmly, just another day at the office. I suppose I could tell him I’m HIV positive, but…no. “You would really do that to me? More to the point, you would do that to my daughter? I’m pretty sure you know I’d try to take you out right now if I thought I could, but I have to say, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe you’d do that.”
Diamond Paws sighed, peered into his coffee mug to ascertain that it was truly empty, then replied softly, “Mr. Hennessey, I am over 20,000 years old. My experiences cannot possibly be understood by one such as you, but I will try to hit a few key points. In our culture, the ancient culture of the Umthnn, there is no such thing as mercy. The moment we are hatched from the egg, we fight to the death with our siblings–or did, with the only known exception being the child rearing changes I’ve instituted for the Diamond Clan these past nine years. That means that as an infant I slaughtered every one of my clutch mates, or I would not be here today. We know little of love, only dominance and submission. Our ruling Quencil determines the way we live our lives, every aspect except those of the nuclear family, which is ruled as ruthlessly by the Husband. Treemin Jackson and Jack Hill have shown me friendship, but that is a new thing to me; I do not claim to be used to it yet, or even to understand it.
“Until a single decade ago, I was one of the submissives, a female to my Husband, Goliath. I bore him more than seven thousand eggs over the years, more than five hundred of which survived their hatchings and live among the People to this day. When I finally rebelled, and ran from the restrictions of my People, my Husband was sent with several of his wives to execute me. When the Kill Squad caught up to me, I killed several of my own sister wives and also my great Husband, whom I adored. I had transformed to male to do this, and Treemin Jackson had scrambled my Husband’s upper brain so that he was helpless, but mine was the killing stroke.
“On the way down here from Montana, I had the misfortune to be noticed by one of our revered Quencil leaders, who also happened to be my own biological father, he who had fertilized my mother’s eggs. One of his assistants with him that fallen day was my mother herself. In honor to Clan Tradition…I killed my own father, B.J. Hennessey, left his body to rot in place and took my own mother as slave wife. So do not dare, Big Jude Hennessey. Do not dare to presume what I would or would not do.”
With that, Diamond Paws rose as far as he could without hitting the ceiling and backed slowly, carefully, to the door–except, of course, there is no backward or forward to an Umthnn, their bodies being omnidirectional. He unlocked the door, grateful for the 360 degree vision that allowed him to see the street without turning his head away from the man who would now forever be his sworn enemy, and moved swiftly out and away, around the end of the fence and into the tunnel entrance. It was the work of moments to backfill the entrance from his prepared underground stockpile of dirt, at least thickly enough to stop a bullet, should the enraged Hennessey decide to fire his .45 ACP down the hole.
The old wino shuffled into the vacant lot almost on the alien’s heels. He was pushing a shopping cart full of fresh rags, newsprint, and a smashed but fine, oversized cardboard box, which he unfolded and slipped into without further ado. Sound asleep in minutes, snoring softly in his securely camouflaged nest, fence on one side and several bald rubber tires on the other, he paid no attention to the big black man who came prowling into the lot, muttering and cursing under his breath.
After all, it had been a rough day and most of the night. If the aging survivor of the mean California streets knew one thing, it was to mind his own business.