Day Six dawned clear, bright, and a good deal warmer than it had been for a while. When we left the cave at first light to head on home, there was no crunch to the snow. Our packs were lighter, too; mine had dropped by at least ten pounds and Sissy’s by a good bit more than that.
We’d eaten well during our time on the mountain.
We’d also left the stockpile of firewood higher than it had been when we arrived. There was no telling who might know about the existence of the cave. It didn’t show on any of the topographical maps we’d seen to date, but then again, it probably wasn’t big enough to rate a listing. With the fires going, half a dozen people could shelter there, a few more than that if they were super friendly, but it only had the one room. The feds supposedly patrolling the wilderness most likely knew, though none were crazy enough to make the tough hike without really good reason, especially when there was snow on the ground. Still, there wasn’t one hint of graffiti scrawled on its walls.
The return trip tended to run downhill, which was nice. Sure, in the mountains you get to climb plenty of ridges no matter which way you’re going, but the cave’s elevation was a good two thousand feet above the six thousand foot level at our home base.
Again, I took the lead, but this time there was no ego involved in it. On the way up, we’d had a storm to keep any possible drones from spotting us and also to cover our tracks. This time, with no more snow heading our way and not a cloud in the sky, we stayed under cover as much as possible, with my warrior woman in her Sissy Bear form following literally in my footprints. If a drone spotted us, there was nothing we could do about it, but if all it saw was a line of tracks…hey, it didn’t make sense for a bear to still be out and about, but the authorities would most likely shrug it off.
The state legislature was still looking mighty drone resistant, at least when it came to highway surveillance, but the feds were another matter. And if they did have overhead coverage, either drone or satellite, would they tell us?
Not that we were breaking any laws. Not this time. It certainly wasn’t illegal for a bear and a black man to go wandering through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. But there was only one black man known to live in the general vicinity. If I was seen, I’d be identified, and I certainly did not need curious feds showing up on Rodeo Iron’s doorstep, wanting to know how and when I’d become the Bear Whisperer. Sissy and I’d done a fair amount of bare whispering this past week, but that wasn’t the same thing at all.
I was more than a little surprised to realize it was nearly noon when I called the first halt. Space off much, Jackson? Either I’d been lollygagging, a dangerous pastime, or I’d been extremely tuned in and operating at a higher level, letting the human mind take a break while Soul did the hard work. I went with that second option, ever the master of rationalization. Besides, there was something bugging me. I’d never be a shape shifter or spell caster or Purple Fire Wizard, but every once in a while my ESP faculties opened up a bit more to let me do things I hadn’t known I could do. This felt like one of those times, but I couldn’t seem to bring the wandering bits of my attention into the proper focus.
It felt important. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to lose it.
Our seating for the lunch break was another fallen log, only slightly uncomfortable due to the bruise on my butt. Sissy had actually gotten me turned sideways at one point during our sparring match, landing a resounding thwack across both glutes with her nasty long stick.
By the time she’d shifted back to human form and shucked her pack, I was already opening mine and fishing out the meat loaf sandwiches we’d saved as a special going-home treat. We had to warm them between our hands to thaw them a bit before we could eat them, though. Sissy took the opportunity to ask, “How are you feeling?”
I thought about that, stalling for time by looking around at the sound of raven’s wings. Two of the big black birds swished overhead. Although that isn’t quite right. The passage of a raven in flight doesn’t exactly sound like a swish. More like Swish had married Thunder and had a baby.
“Emotionally,” I asked, or “physically?”
“Either or both. I was thinking of our sparring match.”
“Oh. I hurt all over, basically.”
“Really all over?” She snapped a frozen twig from a nearby bush and used it to trace letters in the snow. Treemin’s #1. She was entitled; I’d only married Judi because of the blonde’s first pregnancy. Couldn’t say I loved either of my women more or less than the other, but Sissy Harms would always hold one particular corner of my heart that Judi simply couldn’t access. I truly believed our little blondie was blissfully unaware of that fact; certainly, both Sis and I did everything we could to shield the true depths of our Super Glue bond from the rest of the world.
“Earth to Treemin!”
“Uh–oh. Almost all over.”
“And the part that does not hurt?”
“You’re going somewhere with this, aren’t you?”
“Answer the question, cowboy.”
“Left shoulder. No pain there. Only place on my entire body you missed. Even my family jewels are happy Judi and I don’t want any more kids than Willow and Aspen.”
“Aha!” Her tone sounded insufferably smug. “Do you hear yourself?”
“Sissy,” I sighed, exasperated. “If you’re trying to say something, just say it, would you?” My sandwich was thawed enough; I chomped down, took a big bite despite the meat loaf still being a bit frosty in the middle. She couldn’t make me talk if I had my mouth full.
“Babe, I didn’t miss your shoulder. You protected it. Kept your sword side toward me, of course, and that makes sense. But about halfway through your session, I realized what you were doing. It really wasn’t that long ago that your shoulder was torn up pretty good. It makes sense that your subconscious doesn’t want to take another hit there, eh? And there’s nothing wrong with that. I really tried to bop you on that shoulder at least once, but no matter what I did, I could never get through. Honey, you took a shot to the head rather than get hit in that shoulder.”
“I–” She’d managed to startle me. I swallowed, thinking fast. “That’s a serious flaw.”
“Reason I mentioned it.”
“Thanks. I’ll work on getting my head reprogrammed.”
And just like that, due to the sandwich or the conversation or who knows what, my consciousness opened up and I knew what had been trying to break through. I didn’t dare say anything yet for fear of losing it, so I simply closed my eyes and concentrated, trusting Sissy not to interrupt. I let my breath settle, my awareness expanding…reaching out and upward…and got it.
“Satellite sweep overhead,” I said quietly, eyes still closed. “Moving roughly southeast to northwest. Picking us up…now. Routine patrol. Military, I think, but…not us. Feels…hm…Russian? Yes. Russian. Gone past us…now…wait. There’s another one…farther out. Not looking at–ah. Not interested in scanning Earth. Tracking the Russky sat. Hm. That’s interesting. Ours feels darker than the other one…okay.” I opened my eyes, turning to find my warrior woman scanning the surrounding woods. Just because I was having a moment didn’t mean she intended to let anything sneak up on us.
I blew out a breath, just a wee bit amazed at myself.
“So,” she said, “you’re tuned to satellites now?”
“Looks like.” There wasn’t much left of my sandwich; I shoved the final bit into my mouth and commenced chewing.
“Drones too, I wonder?”
There was nothing I could do with my mouth full but shrug. She waited patiently until finished and swallowed. “I didn’t sense anything but those two satellites. We’ll have to think about that. It’s a baby skill, first time I’ve been aware I had it. Could be there are fifty other satellites within reach but only those two were in surveillance mode. If so, I’d think maybe I can sense drones, now that I know what to look for. I’m not sensing the ranch drones yet, but maybe I have to be in their range. Should be able to tell once we get down under their camera angles. The darkness I felt in the USA satellite, though, that worries me. What could that be?”
It was Sissy’s turn to shrug. “Darth Vader at the helm? Or…how about weaponry? If our sat is armed, ready to shoot down a Russian orbiter at a moment’s notice….”
“Doesn’t feel right.” I shook my head and stood to shoulder my pack. The feeling that we needed to get home was suddenly in me, strong and hard. “You and I deal with weapons day in, day out. It’s the people behind weapons who power the evil intent, not the shooters they use.”
She had a point, but we’d have to continue the conversation later. She shifted into bear form and we headed on down the slope. I was pushing a little harder now, but the going was easier. Not nearly the extreme snow depth at this much lower elevation, the white stuff barely hitting me in mid-shin as I plowed through it.
There was still an hour left before sundown by the time we came out onto the point. A mixed stand of fir and pine gave us ample overhead cover, but from here we could see the driveway between our house and Jack Hill’s. Three miles to the east, Rodeo Iron headquarters buildings and corrals were visible.
And hurry-up signals were all over the place.
“Pink?” Sissy breathed softly, practically in my ear. Not in bear form, thankfully. “We’ve never had to go to Condition Pink before.”
I didn’t answer. The flagpoles in front of both houses flew Old Glory as usual, but ours had a second flag flying a few feet below the nation’s colors, a satin white emblazoned with the pink ribbon denoting support for victims of breast cancer. Any unauthorized observer such as a satellite picture or unexpected visitor would naturally draw that conclusion, effectively disguising our code. Code that meant: Extremely urgent but not a shooting war.
Sissy shifted her head to eagle form, staring toward the corrals behind the ranch headquarters building. Lacking eagle vision required me to dig out the binoculars. Fortunately, these glasses were capable of making sense of things even at that three mile distance.
The signals at HQ were simpler, limited to the natural colors of the various horses in the herd.
My eagle shifted back. We conferred swiftly; Code Pink required us to move fast. Not stupidly, but quickly. “No red horses,” she sighed in relief. I nodded. Had the blood red bay been in the water corral, we’d have known our people were under siege in some way. Instead, there were three saddle mounts in the signal corral, all of them gray. A gray area, then, something definitely not simple black and white.
“Looks like they’re worried and confused,” Sissy observed.
“Yeah. And the buck stops here. Let’s head for the house.” It was the quickest route, not quite a quarter mile from our present position. We got to it, double timing all the way except for the necessary slowdown at the gate.
When we pulled up at the front step, Wayne Bruce opened the door. He didn’t waste any time, just said, “Philip will need to explain. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
We nodded, left him to it, and shucked our packs. The green light to the classroom was on; Judi was teaching. Grinning, I stepped over to read the agenda for the day posted beside the classroom door. “Snap Quiz,” Sissy chuckled. Code Pink or not, we might as well sit in for a minute or two. There wouldn’t be time to hit the shower before Philip got here, but we could certainly let Judi and the kids know we were home.
They all kind of lit up when we let ourselves in, but that was it. My little blonde martinet of a wife ran a tight ship when she was serving as Home School Teacher. We found our usual seats, reserved for observers, and settled in to enjoy the show.
“Next topic for today’s quiz,” Judi snapped, “Supernatural Theory 101. Crystal!”
“Yes Ma’am!” The little blonde old school werewolf sat stock still in her chair, but she was fairly quivering with the sort of just-right tension one would find in a pro athlete ready to excel. The mother of my children had somehow managed to instill a fierce competitive spirit in every one of her students, the polar opposite of the non-spirit seen in public schools advocating “participation ribbons” and such. Not that public schools in rural Montana lacked competitive spirit, but so far as we knew, nobody else was teaching what we taught. Jude made sure the basics were covered, but then she went so-o-o far beyond that in her one room mountain schoolroom.
“Question number one! What makes a vampire a vampire?”
“The vam virus, Ma’am!”
“Yes, Ma’am!” The girl’s blue eyes sparkled with intensity. She thought she’d known this subject inside and out, but her time at RICE (Rodeo Iron College Education) had shown her how much she had yet to learn. Not that these advanced courses were reported to the State Board of Education. Duh. “Almost all of the old legends and the newer pop culture tales about vampires are at least partly correct, but mostly incorrect. The traditional belief is that being bitten by a vampire will turn the victim into a vampire. Scientific studies, done by vampires themselves, show that transfer of the virus requires blood-to-blood contact.
“Once introduced into the bloodstream, the vam virus does not guarantee a new vampire. In fact, close to ninety percent of such blood transfers–whether by injection, a bite from a vam with bleeding sores in the mouth, blood brother rituals, or any other method–close to ninety percent of victims are killed by the virus. Those few who survive do in fact become vams.
“Your question asked what makes a vampire a vampire. Realistically, there are several parts to the answer. Part one, as explained, is having the vam virus in the bloodstream and surviving it. Part two is continuing to survive, because the virus is always trying to kill its host. It is a very stupid virus that way. Popular books and movies talk about vampire hunger. Basically, the vam has to receive an infusion of fresh, uncontaminated blood on a regular basis, or the vam will die. Dumb virus!
“But it’s even worse than that. The virus likes to fool the vampire into thinking he or she is faster, smarter, stronger than other people. And he is, a little bit, but most of it is illusion. The eyes are especially hard hit, red rimmed because the blood vessels have burst. Night vision is usually sharper, but strong light bothers those bloodshot eyes. Vams really do try to stay away from that, though the legend that sunlight will kill them immediately has never been proved. That brings us to the third part of what makes a vampire a vampire. More than anything, it’s the loss of the vam’s humanity. It’s the old slippery slope thing. The vam has to have fresh blood to live. Most of them don’t have handy blood banks. Lucky for them, they don’t have to match blood types, so all they have to do to get lots of blood is open up an uncontaminated human. The human donor blood can be contaminated with almost anything else, just not with the vam virus itself. Vampires can even drink blood from a person with HIV and get away with it because the HIV is a weak virus and the strong vam virus just kills it like it kills everything else it doesn’t like–”
My peripheral vision picked up motion. Turning my head, I saw Wayne beckoning to us from the doorway. Sissy and I exchanged winks with Judi and slipped out into the hallway.
“Philip will be here any second,” Jack’s gay slave explained.
“That was quick.”
“Yeah, he happened to be heading out the door when I called. If you two would like to take this meeting in the kitchen, I can pop over to our place and grab a cherry pie. Coffee’s already brewing.”
“Your pie?” Sissy asked.
“Carolyn’s, but believe me, it’s not bad. Not bad at all.
We were barely settled in behind steaming mugs of Kona when Philip burst through the door, looking significantly more agitated than I’d seen him in quite a while. He carried several green folders in one hand. Passing one to each of us and saving one for himself, he pulled up a chair, thought better of it, and popped back up to get his own coffee. Wayne was already coming back in with the pie, but he ghosted into the kitchen without sound, leaving us to concentrate on our Com Center specialist.
“The transcripts of the call are in there,” he explained, “but let me give you the human take on it. Lori the Robot called, precisely one hour and twenty-three minutes before you got back. So at least the Code Pink signals didn’t have to be up for long. I was about to have a heart attack, waiting.”
Sissy’s eyes widened. Mine probably did the same. The Half Castle owner we’d brushed off as a possible security threat? The unattractive, oversized Chinese android with the camera eyes?
“Yeah.” Philip looked at me, his expression sober if not grim. “In the transcript, she simply requests a meeting with you and Jack.”
“Wait.” I interrupted. “Where’s Jack?”
“He and Soren Kirk are on a Great Falls run. Stayed over last night. He’s due back.”
“Okay. Sorry to interrupt, Philip. Go on.”
“Yeah. Well. Like I said, there was more than the simple request. I would have brought a copy of the audio, but I didn’t have time; I’ve been too busy running it through my various computer programs. Her voice doesn’t read as mechanical like her eyes; she’s definitely under stress. Scared to death, I would say. Terrified. Flat-out terrified.”
We sat and thought about that for a while, destroying the entire pie in the process. Wayne was right; Carolyn had done herself proud.
All comes to he who waits. We heard Jack’s latest project pull into the yard. Wayne had been lurking in one corner of the kitchen; he slipped out to tell the Wizard he was needed. Sissy got up and poured two more mugs of coffee for Jack; I’d already decided I wanted to bring Soren “Seed” Kirk in on this one…up to a point.
When people have been at war for as long as we have, wasting time is considered a cardinal sin, so I got right to it. When everybody was seated, I took the meeting over. “Soren, we’ve got a cryptic message from a key contact in Missoula. Need to know only, so I’d rather not identify the contact unless absolutely necessary, but the thing is, Jack and I and Sissy need to scoot on down to Missoula without knowing what has spooked our contact. That’s not a good situation, so we’d just as soon take a fairly hefty team. You in?”
Kirk nodded slowly. “I’d just need to stop by my place for a minute. Let Beets know where I’m going. And pick up any special weaponry suitable to the mission. Which is?”
I caught Jack’s eye, got his go-ahead to say whatever I felt I should say. He hadn’t even heard about Lori’s message yet, but I’d have done the same for him. “We’ll be stopping for a late supper at the Half Castle. Jack and I will need to go to the men’s room. Might be there for a while; feeling kind of bound up, you know. Something could bust loose and all that. In the meantime, since we’re flying blind on this one, I’d like you and Sissy to dawdle over your meals if necessary. And if our supper gets cold on the table, just hang onto it. We’ll eat if we can, if nothing goes south on us. Main thing is, I need somebody to cover Sissy’s back while we’re out of sight, just in case.”
“Got it. Weapons?”
“Anything you can carry concealed. Jack, how’s the Dodge Ram running?”
“Like a Swiss watch,” the ancient Protector said. “A big diesel Swiss watch.”
“Good.” The Navy blue beast appeared to be a standard three quarter ton pickup truck, but the big cab and camper shell with opaque windows could hide almost anything. “I want everything for this one. Including the M60 if Jordan can make this run with us. Philip?”
“I’m on it,” the younger Phreeb announced, getting up from the table and heading for the hardwired radio on the counter. We hadn’t bothered Diamond Paws for the three miles of trenching it had taken to run an underground cable between headquarters and our homes. “Dad’s in the Com Center. He took over so I could pop over here.”
By the time everything was ready, including an all too brief reunion with my wife and kids and an absolutely necessary appointment with a razor and a shower, it was long past dark. Jack drove, I rode shotgun, and the other three occupied the back seat. That didn’t leave room for any long guns in the cab, but all of us had keys to the camper shell; if it became necessary, we could access some serious ordnance in fairly short order.
It was a good thing Jack Hill had decided to relegate the Outback to Wayne Bruce’s personal use. We’d never have fit the five of us, plus even half of the ordnance we were carrying, into the Subaru or my ’89 Pontiac Grand Prix, either one.
Believe it or not, I finally relaxed. Jack had the wheel. It felt more normal, heading into probable danger, than not. “Last minute questions or comments, guys?” We could all talk in this truck; the cab was impressively quiet.
“Yeah.” Jordan Phreeb, former Marine and current Rodeo Iron Security Chief, spoke for the first time. “What if you or Jack gets a turd stuck crosswise and cant’ get out of that restroom? Do I get to blow it out with the M60?”
Marine humor? “Nah, you’ll need an RPG. Seriously, if it comes time to unlimber the machine gun, you blow out whatever looks good. Of course, if it comes to that, we’re shafted anyway. A major shooting in East Missoula wouldn’t likely go unnoticed, eh?”
“I’ll be sure and save a few rounds for each of us, then, so nobody gets taken alive.”
Old West Indian humor? Or maybe not. “You do that.”
Soren Kirk spoke up. “Other than me watching Sissy’s back and Jordan looking for something he can perforate, any Jerry Springer thought for the day?”
My brow furrowed. “Who’s Jerry Springer?”
“Ha ha. Everybody knows Jerry Springer.”
I didn’t, but never mind. “Basically, Seed, I’d like you to be in your ultra assassin mode. Meek and mild, invisible, nerdy, and missing absolutely nothing. Exactly like you were the day we met. We know our contact is nervous, but we don’t know why.” I didn’t add that we didn’t trust her or that she was a she. Loose lips and all that. A sudden thought took me. “I figure if anybody can spot an assassin, it would be another assassin.”
A slow, deep breath kissed the air behind my seat. “Your gut’s telling you that’s what’s up, Weaver?” He didn’t sound worried; he sounded…ready. Like a hungry rattlesnake, sneaky-creeping up on an unsuspecting ground squirrel, one slow inch at a time.
“Yes. No. I don’t know. That came out of nowhere.”
“Hunh. Your out-of-nowhere has kept us all going more than a few times. I’ll be on my game. Wish we could have had Beets with us for this one, though.”
“Me too.” The wary eyes of two top former assassins would be better than one. “But the call might have been a trick to get some of us away from headquarters. I really wanted Jordan with us, and it seemed like leaving somebody watching the front gate at home would be a really good idea.”
“You don’t have to explain to me, boss. I was just thinking out loud.”
Nobody said much after that. We were lost in our own thoughts and prepared for an ambush in the canyon, all at the same time. Nothing interfered with our passage, however, and eventually Jack had made the final turn. He pulled the big Dodge into the Half Castle’s parking lot and found a space near the east side curb. Not our usual spot, but predictability nearly always works in the enemy’s favor. Besides, this was as close as we could get to the front door without lighting up the vehicle. If we had to go for the ordnance in the back, we could do without a streetlight illuminating our every move.
I gave myself a mental pat down, checking my weapons before giving the okay to exit the truck. Taurus Curve, right front pocket, check. Walther .22, small of back, check. Survival knife, left boot sheath, check. Other survival knife, right boot sheath, check.
It was late, a bit more than an hour and a half before closing time for the Half Castle. With the exception of one, the half dozen vehicles in the lot all belonged to employees. The outlier was an aging Kia Soul, a little the worse for wear. Perhaps a later customer. Perhaps not; it could be the reason for Lori Droid’s panicked call. The night was crisp and cold but clear overhead; if something ugly happened, we wouldn’t have any cloud cover to keep us invisible to satellites or drones. Nor did I have the time to worry about sensing stuff overhead; that new skill was a baby, in no way sufficiently developed to be useful in a high stress situation.
“Let’s do it,” I said, and we all got out.
The guard with the halberd no longer stood outside the front door. Instead, he was seated at a table in the southeast corner of the restaurant, eating his supper. The wicked steel blade of his weapon gleamed above and behind his head; he’d propped the thing in the corner. Jack and I nodded to him as we headed for our preferred table along the west all. He nodded back, looking unconcerned, but that didn’t mean anything. The man had a face that gave away absolutely nothing he didn’t care to give away.
“Menus?” The waitress was new, one we didn’t know. I didn’t worry about her; Soren started chatting her up immediately. The inventor of the Super Screw might even have an eye on her as a possible future conquest–she was kind of cute, Eurasian and built and all that–but he was also on the job. If she turned out to be a danger, she’d get Kirked in a hurry.
I was more than hungry enough, but even if nothing went seriously wrong, I’d have to eat my meal cold. So would Jack, but we’d gone that route plenty of times. Once our orders were placed, I excused myself to the men’s room. Hill followed a minute later. The secret door still opened for us the way it had always opened. We stepped into Lori Droid’s inner sanctum.
“Oh thank God!” The Droid woman…gushed? Could a robot gush? “You came! Thank you!”
It’s hard to explain. Over the years, I’d faced everything from mutated wolves to maniac mercenaries to evil employees to federal sting traps, vamshifters and everything in between–and yet this six foot android, or whatever the Hell she was…freaked me completely out. It may have been the camera eyes. Or the highly unattractive body; surely I could have handled a droid if she was built cute and sexy.
Lori sobered instantly. “Yes. I know I’m hideous. I don’t like my looks, either. But you came anyway. Mr. Gray said you could be trusted. He was right.”
Jack Hill stepped in, cutting off her awkward confession. “What’s the trouble, Lori?”
That’s all it took. “It will be quicker to explain if I introduce you to somebody first. May I do so?”
“Of course.” Jack bowed a little, almost as if he were doing the Japanese courtesy thing.
The big droid woman tapped a button on the control console. A formerly hidden door slid open with a quiet hiss, admitting a white man of middling stature and middling years, brown hair beginning to streak with gray, brown eyes, totally unremarkable features.
“Hello, gentlemen,” the woman said in even, cultured tones. “Good to meet you.”
I could not say the same. I’d never seen this person before, but I knew her. Her aura flickered constantly, not a steady burn like most people, but every color of the rainbow and half a dozen much darker hues constantly shifting, moving, changing positions, snuffing out, reigniting. Whatever Lori Droid might truly be, I did not blame her for being terrified of the message this being carried, or of the being itself. Despite never having attended church much as a kid, and never since, I became aware of the word demonic ringing through my consciousness. Which might or might not be literally true; I had no opinion on that. I did have one instant, rock solid opinion, however.
This man was the Enemy with a capital E, and he hated me with a cold passion that would put an ISIS suicide bomber to shame.