“This is Duyi Cheng,” Lori was saying, but it barely registered. I was too busy fighting down the beast inside me, the core darkness of my own that cried out to kill the black thing in front of me, kill it before it could taint the world any further with its foul essence. I did not see this Cheng as a female, not unless Kali the demon (as opposed to Kali the goddess) had incarnated as a woman.
On the other hand, I could certainly see it as parented by Krodha (anger) and Himsa (violence) as Kali had been.
Judi and I had been studying the Hindu spiritual hierarchy lately in preparation for the classes on World Religions she would begin teaching next year. Kali was a truly eclectic demon, the source of all evil.
Jack handles confrontations with evil more calmly than I do; he could even treat this woman-form-thing as a normal human until it was time to do otherwise. I might have done something really stupid like attacking without truly knowing my opponent, had the old Wizard not stepped into the breach. “Jack Hill,” he said calmly, moving forward with his hand extended. The move surprised Cheng; she clearly knew something of the effect she had on mere mortals. It should have tipped her off, Jack being clearly unconcerned, but one of the Wizard’s greatest skills is coming across as an easygoing old westerner of no particular status one way or the other. Bemused, the demon with the roiling, multicolored aura shook my partner’s hand. She wasn’t even paying him that much attention; most of her spite remained aimed directly at me. I could feel it battering at my psychic shields, fierce, insistent, destructive.
Then Jack did something that threw me for just a second until I realized what he’d accomplished. His left hand came forward naturally, gripping Cheng’s forearm so that he now held the woman’s limb in a two-handed grip. Sneaky salesmen and sneakier politicians use that move a lot, pouring their charisma into their victims in all too often successful attempts to convince their targets that they give a damn. Cheng most likely thought Hill was one of those fools if she thought of him at all.
She missed the zap entirely.
Okay, so maybe zap isn’t the right word, but I don’t have a better one to describe the effect. It wasn’t enough of a wizardly strike to flare Purple Fire all over the room or anything like that, but my hyper vigilant senses picked up the sharp little current that ran, just for an instant, from his right hand to his left one, completing a circuit as he collected his electrical outflow back into himself.
The effect was mind blowing. Seemingly unaware that its cover was blown, the demon Cheng no longer appeared as a Caucasian female but as a compactly built Han Chinese male. The eyes were still flat, snakelike, but little else looked the same.
Lori sucked in her breath sharply but made no other sound. I doubt Cheng even heard her. “And you would be Treemin Jackson,” he hissed. Or at least I heard it as a hiss. But I had Jack Hill’s example to follow, and besides, the Wizard’s little EMP strike had done more than derail the man’s disguise; it had also settled down that roiling, flickering, rainbow colored aura. Now there was only a single color showing around the man, an oily black with an iridescent dark green sheen to it, like you might see in crude oil coming up out of the ground or on the feathers of a common grackle in a Walmart parking lot.
A one-colored bad guy? That, I could handle. As I engulfed his small hand in my oversized mitt, staring down into his snake-dead eyes from my nine inches of additional height, I spoke in a friendly tone. “Good to meet you…Chameleon.”
Shock hit him hard, but his reactions were fast. Very fast. His left foot chambered immediately, one hard shoe striking toward my right knee. An excellent move, far too quick for me to avoid, so I twisted and pulled into it instead, dropping down on that side as much as I could, taking the shot on the muscle on the side of the leg just above the knee. His left hand was of much greater concern; the glint told me a blade was coming for my right side, fixing to carve out a piece of my liver.
It would have, too, but for the Tarkio Concealed Combat Vest. The TCCV’s were new this year, ridiculously expensive, and worth every cent. A mere half an inch thick and worn beneath a long sleeved shirt, shaped like a standard tee shirt except for the tapering at the holes–neck, arms, waist–the state of the art design made any man look thicker in the chest and more bulked up in the biceps, but that was about it.
I didn’t give the demon any extra time to figure out what had stopped the tip of his gravity knife, just yanked him around so that his back was presented to the not so tender mercies of Jack Hill’s old school choke hold. The Kali impersonator didn’t give up easily, but with me crushing his right hand and left wrist in adrenaline fueled grips while locking his legs firmly between my own, his oxygen deprived brain didn’t last all that long. It just seemed like it took a couple of hours to render him unconscious.
Lori had slumped into the chair next to her computer console, eyelids blinking rapidly over the camera lenses that served as her eyes.
“Taking pictures, Lori?” I asked in a gentle tone that surprised me a bit.
“Wha–uh…oh.” She seemed to collect herself. She’d been hyperventilating, too, but that gradually settled down. “I’m–I’m sorry, Treemin. Jack. I…I didn’t want to call you, but Tree, Cheng knew who you were. He…I….”
“Easy now,” Jack said quietly. “Tree, why don’t we keep our captive belly down on the floor. Cuff his hands behind him, and then you sit on him. We don’t know how fast his metabolism might be, how fast he can recover, or what other talents he might have if he has time to think about it.”
“Fair enough,” I grunted, setting to work. Sitting on the bad guy. Sitting, setting, whatever. Judi was the grammar Nazi in the family, not me. “But before we find out the rest of the story, how be you slip out to let Jordan and Sissy know the score to date. Don’t want those two getting nervous on us.”
“No,” Jack agreed, one side of his mouth twitching upward, “that would be bad.” I had no doubt he was envisioning an enraged black bear loose in the restaurant, backed up by a Marine with an M60 machine gun, if those two got overly nervous about our well being.
Besides, our hostess could use the time to collect herself.
Hill wasn’t gone more than a minute or two, but Lori had her wits back by the time he returned. She took a deep but easy breath, no hyperventilation, and said, “Do you have time for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
I had to laugh at that. A nervous release, no doubt, but still a laugh. “That would be a good thing, I think. But first, we need to make sure this little KD is actually neutralized for the moment.”
“Oh. What’s a Kali?”
“It’s from the Hindu–never mind. Jack, shall we?”
Duyi Cheng was awake, a fact made obvious by his silent but strenuous attempts to do his chameleon thing. There were plenty of ripples and shifts; sitting on him and holding his wrists behind his back was a truly unsettling feeling, sort of like I imagined riding a sea of snakes would be. Not that I’ve ever tried riding a sea of snakes.
Jack Hill held his hands up, offering to zap the guy again. I shook my head. Better to find out what he could do now than continue to zap and guess.
I didn’t clock the time, but it couldn’t have taken more than four or five minutes to take our enemy’s measure. As nearly as I could tell, he could shift the conformation of his muscles and soft tissues, maybe even some of his internal organs, and definitely his genitalia if the appearance and disappearance of mammary gland mounds were any indication. I had no desire to research what he could accomplish below the belt, though his hips certainly changed at will. Some guys, I thought, might even get off on this. Skin color and tone? No problem there, and yes, the roiling rainbow hues were back.
But it seemed like his bones weren’t changing at all. Teeth and fingernails and hair, yes. Bones, no. And that meant…. “Jack, handcuffs won’t hold him, but I believe I could easily enough weld up a cage that would confine this sorry sack of shape shifter wannabe just fine.”
On hearing that, Duyi Cheng redoubled his efforts, a string of incomprehensible Chinese gibberish thrown in for good measure. From the sudden blush on Lori Droid’s face–she appeared to be human in that regard, at least–the KD’s tirade was composed of insults and/ or epithets.
Jack settled that matter by gagging him with a bit of material sliced from the chameleon’s own khaki pants. The Wizard wasn’t gentle when he tied the knot behind the captive’s head, judging by Lori’s visible wince as she watched, but it did shut the guy up.
Moments later, Jordan, Sissy, and Soren Kirk were dispatched on an errand across town. It would take them an hour to make the round trip, but Carl wasn’t going to refuse to unlock his shop long enough to get our people what they needed, nor would he ask questions. More than forty percent of his welding supply business came from Rodeo Iron. While we waited, I secured Cheng’s arms tightly, cinching things down snugly, making sure the bindings were tight at the wrists, above the elbows, at the ankles, and above the knees. The chameleon might still be able to slip all of that, but not so quickly that I couldn’t draw the Taurus Curve and shoot him, or let Jack blast him with Purple Fire, or something.
We arranged our chairs so that the three of us faced each other across Cheng’s ever squirming body, the back of which I used as a footrest. Lori excused herself briefly, returned with three mugs and a pot of pretty decent coffee despite the Half Castle being a Chinese restaurant, and poured with a hand that barely shook at all.
“Not bad,” I admitted, slurping down a healthy swallow, and she blushed again. “We’re going to be here a while. Lay it on us.”
“Lay it–oh. An American idiom. I…I suppose you deserve to know everything.”
We said nothing. Just waited, sipping and watching, ignoring the squirmy thing in the middle of the room.
“All right. The beginning. My real name is Mei Foo. Dr. Mei Foo, a PhD in Computer Science.” She sighed, hesitating for just a second, realizing she was about to let the cat out of the bag, or the goodies out of Pandora’s box, or whatever. “For several years after graduation, I was one of China’s premier–is that the right word? Yes? Premier hackers. My mother was educated in America and my father is…was American. I have suspected that helped me hack into American computers. Computers are all about ones and zeros, at least until quantum computers enter the picture, but the thinking of the people who build and operate them is still an influence. Or so I believe. My supervisors did not care what I believed as long as I got results.”
Hers was a monotone monologue. Why, I was not yet sure. Nor did I care; for the moment, it was all about content.
“One night, a former suitor set a fire that murdered my parents and left me a dying orphan. My charred body was given to a burn center researching new techniques, and this,” she gestured to her own tall, unattractive form, “is the result. I did not want to come out of my coma. When I did, I was angry that the doctors had saved me. I wanted to die, but I was not allowed. Then came the night when I found the journals documenting the procedures that gave me this…suit of armor. When I discovered that my face had not been burned, but that they had skinned me alive and cut out my eyeballs to compete their experiment, I was enraged.
“I am still enraged. The government gave my body to those doctors for their experiments, so I became an enemy, both to tyrannical governments and arrogant doctors. In time, I arranged my own escape from China and ended up here, as you know me. I promise,” she said in that same monotone, “that while I may not sound trustworthy, I am. I have also been very stupid. Mr. Gray told me I could trust the two of you. I should have believed him. But….”
“Lori,” I interrupted, but gently, “Jack and I only backed away because there was something you were obviously hiding from us. We detected the camera lenses that serve as your eyes and jumped to conclusions. Believed you were an android or robot, possibly an AI, but certainly not a burn victim. Or a victim of Nazi style experiments.”
“You detected–? Oh. But I should not have underestimated you, either. Mr. Gray also warned me about that. Still, as painful as my life had become emotionally, I believed I was safe from discovery by the MSS, the Chinese Ministry of State Security. When Duyi Cheng found me, he immediately destroyed that illusion. I had no idea who he was, but it turned out he’s been obsessed with me for years. Why, I have no idea, but he is. Most importantly, he pointed out an obvious truth: If he could find me, so could the government. And I know they are sparing no expense.”
She stopped there, stricken. Jack asked the burning question. “Lori–Mei, why aren’t you crying? I’m pretty sure I would be, in your situation.”
The answer ripped at my heart. “I would be crying like a starving baby whose diaper has not been changed in days,” she said simply, “but they removed my tear ducts.”
That was enough backstory for the moment–barely–but…”How did Mr. Squirmy here find you?”
“He wouldn’t say. Maybe you could torture it out of him.” Still the monotone; I had no idea if she was serious or not. Considering what she’d been through, probably serious.
“Did he say why? Was it simply because he was obsessed with you?”
This time, her laugh was no monotone. It was bitter, full of self hate. “I certainly don’t blame you, Treemin. Who could be obsessed with me now? Other than as a grotesque experiment.”
I could have crawled under the floor. “Didn’t mean it that way, Mei.”
“Of course you didn’t.”
“I’m sorry, Treemin. He told me that I once came to his school to speak, that he fell in love with me on the spot, and that he’s never been able to think of any other woman since that day. He followed my career, knew about the fire that killed my parents, refused to believe I was dead, even tracked me to the burn center. I was already gone by then, but he got a job as a janitor and began snooping. Rather impossibly, he learned exactly what I had learned about my transformation into a monster at the hands of the doctors. He boasted about his…chameleon? His chameleon skills. He assured me that we were meant for each other. I don’t think he would have been so open with anyone else. He told me about stealing identity and travel papers from people on his journey to America.”
“He knew you’d come to America?”
“He intuited it, if I can believe what he says. If he really did that, then he’s probably right. The Ministry will find me.” She might not have any tear ducts left, but we could hear the sob in her voice. Interestingly, the squirming body beneath my boots stilled at that. I didn’t worry about why.
Then I asked the question that fired Cheng up, got him to squirming even more energetically than before. “How many innocent people do you think he killed to get here?” There was no doubt in my mind that I’d hit a nerve.
Lori blinked twice before answering. “He boasted about avoiding that…at first. He told me all about the people he stole from without hurting them physically…until…” She paused, thinking it through. “Until he reached the airport in Los Angeles. Now that I think about it, he was totally evasive after that. No bragging at all.”
“So,” Jack Hill’s voice was grim, “he most likely left a trail of dead American bodies between southern California and Montana.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
We both stared at her, speaking in unison. “It’s not your fault.”
“It is,” she insisted. “If I hadn’t come to America, he wouldn’t have killed Americans.”
Jack half-smiled, an expression indicating amusement, but not at her expense. “Mei, are you sure you’re from China? That sounds like a good, solid dose of genuine Jewish guilt. Or maybe Catholic; the Catholics are no slouches in the guilt department, either.”
“I think I’m an atheist,” she replied. “Is there such a thing as atheist guilt?”
Did she just make a joke? I couldn’t be sure. “Jack, would you spell me on Cheng watch for a bit? I need to make a call.”
He nodded, propping his boots on the evil one’s back as I got up and excused myself. “Be back in five.” Hill tipped two fingers to his hat; the Half Castle’s owner just looked at me, bemused. Or at least I thought she was bemused. Kind of hard to tell, what with those camera lenses for eyes and all.
I walked back out into the darkened dining room, ignoring Hal–guy with a halberd in this day and age, you know his nickname is going to be Hal–and fishing the burner phone from my left hand shirt pocket. Philip Phreeb answered on the second ring, obviously proud of the hidden RIO (Rodeo Iron Only) mini-towers he’d designed. Never mind that his Dad and I had been the ones to climb the trees to place them; the tech was all his and he wasn’t shy about letting me know it.
“Am I good or what, boss?!” I could picture him smirking, pumping his fist in the air while he gloated. Not that he hadn’t earned a bit of gloat; this was only the third time we’d tried this system between Missoula and the Citadel, but the signal was crystal clear, five by five.
“You’re good,” I admitted. It was easy to forget he was only twenty years old until his ego driven youth came shining through. “That’s why we pay you the big bucks. Now listen up.” I didn’t say a word about weird little Chinese guys with dark demon auras, just gave him the list of who, where, and what.
Just as I got back into Lori’s meeting room, an amber light began blinking on her console, Hal’s signal that our supplies were here. I turned on my heel and headed back out to the dining room. It took several trips to cart everything in through the hidden men’s room door–I wasn’t about to ask Lori/Mei for access to her back door, so to speak–but forty-five minutes later the new cage was good to go. The Half Castle’s owner turned her back while we cut the clothing from the KD’s body, gave him a quick body cavity search he didn’t seem to notice, and stuffed him through the open end. We covered his suddenly limp form with an old bathrobe Mei swore she didn’t need, but she watched with interest as I welded the steel access panel shut. The steel alone weighed a good 300 pounds, say 450 pounds total, but we had a dolly in the truck that would make it possible to wheel the cage out into the dining room.
“Everyone gone who needs to be gone? Jack asked.
“Yes,” she nodded. “Just your people and my front door guard, and he knows how to hold his tongue. What will happen to him?”
“The guard? We’ve got no beef with your guard.”
“No, what will happen to…Duyi Cheng.”
It would have gone right by me, but Jack got it. “Darkly obsessed or not, Mei, you can’t help worry a little about the one man you know truly wants you. That’s a normal thing.”
She didn’t respond to that. My turn. I figured this woman had already had more than enough people lie to her. “He’s too dangerous to turn loose. We know some people who can work with him.”
Okay, so I lied. We were going to kill this psychopathic, sociopathic, way too intuitive chameleon piece of garbage, sure as the sun sets more or less in the west. But first, he was going to perform one good deed. We couldn’t do anything about the U.S. citizens he’d undoubtedly terminated along the way, but he could play a role in throwing the Chinese government goons off Lori’s trail.
Yeah, I was going to have trouble adjusting to that. Mei Foo was always going to be Lori Droid to me.
I doubt she believed me, but she wanted to. That would have to do.
In the meantime, we needed to get going. Before we left the parking lot, we grabbed our space age survival blankets from the cab, rolled them cigarillo tight, and stuffed them through the little ventilation hole in the cage we’d hoisted into the back of the truck. It was three a.m. and eleven degrees above zero; our prisoner would need them.
Once we were rolling, Sissy asked, “Do you think he’ll freeze to death?”
Jack was driving, but he fielded that one anyway. “We could almost hope he would; he’s that dangerous. But he probably won’t. I got the sense that he was holding back after he came to, giving the appearance of trying his best but not really. That cold steel under his butt will motivate him no end; he’s likely out of his bonds and curled up in the blankets already.”
“If he’s that tricky,” Jordan wondered, “is there any chance he’s got enough tricks up his sleeve to bust out of that cage altogether?” The former Marine was not one to underestimate an enemy.
“Anything’s possible,” I replied, “but our best guess is no. I don’t believe he was holding back when he kicked me or when he stabbed me–”
“He what?!” Sissy’s fury was palpable; she didn’t like not being in the picture when her man was getting attacked.
“Relax, hon. I’m fine. The kick hit nothing but muscle. Feels like I might have a bruise, but nothing serious. And the vest stopped the knife strike altogether. Which is my point: He’s damned fast, quicker than me by at least ten percent or so, but there’s no unusual level of power there. Not like that barbed vamleopard tail of Kraznick’s, for example. Or a bite or claw swat from your bear form. So I don’t believe he’s going to bust quarter inch steel plate or any of my welds.
“Now, if he were a full multi-shifter like you, sure. He could maybe morph into something skinny enough to slide through the ventilation hole in the cage wall, maybe a snake form or some such. But we didn’t see any sign of that. Unless, of course, he was faking just about everything.”
Sissy and Jordan weren’t convinced, but they let it go for the moment. I thought about it and decided I needed to compromise; the last thing I needed was my lover and my Security Chief both thinking I was not taking their concerns seriously.
“Okay, you both make good points.” I was about to suck up some more when Phreeb cut in.
“Got a question, boss. I’m not doubting your judgment or anything,” he said, which meant he was doubting pretty much everything and was truly worried, “but are you absolutely one hundred per cent certain you want to bring something that nasty onto our home turf?”
“Oh!” Palm smack to forehead. “Sorry. I forgot to explain. Mr. Demon Butt is not going all the way to Ovando. Beets is bringing his conversion van as far as Clearwater Junction. In fact, he should beat us there, or close to it. He just had to swing up to our place, grab Sissy’s and my bugout bags, and head out.”
For the first time ever, I could feel tension radiating from Jack Hill; the Wizard did not like the implications one little bit. “You figure you and Sissy are what, Tree? Delivering that live bundle of ugly elsewhere? Just you two? Without me there?”
The old man was up for an argument, but I wasn’t having it. “Yeah, Jack. What you said.” I didn’t add anything else; the ball was in his court now.
For nearly three minutes–I timed them on the radio clock–he remained silent. Not thinking. Fuming. But even if he did have more than a century on me, I knew how to be quiet. I waited him out.
“Seems reckless to me,” he said finally. “And no, I’m not begging for a road trip. I’m just thinking that we don’t know for sure what Cheng can do. If he comes up with something we’ve never seen before, three warriors on hand could end up being better than two.”
Bingo. I had my opening.
“Yeah. That’s true.”
“But what if it’s a feint? A ruse? A diversion? What if, just for example, one of the other Clans out there, weres or vams or one of the rare combos like Kraznick’s old Heartbite bunch, with or with out spell caster backup….” I left it hanging. Jordan, Seed, and Sissy paid close attention in the back seat; I could feel them listening.
I could also feel the moment when Jack Hill’s irritation faded to grudging acceptance. “Yeah. You’re right. That would be bad.”
Whew. Hadn’t been sure I could sell that one. But I needed to nail it down. “Jordan, you’re our Security Chief. Your analysis, please? Is my thinking tactically sound…or not?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Bottom line, Tree, I’d say it’s sound. You’ve got a known shifter in your little cage back there, albeit only at the chameleon level as far as we know, so you’re taking the most combat experienced shifter with you, just in case. Call me The Amazing Kreskin for guessing, but I have a hunch you’re headed to a neighborhood where the two of you will blend in but an old white man in your company would stick out like a sore thumb. And you’ve been suckered before, especially with the federal sting that nearly nailed you in Los Angeles, so you know things aren’t always as they seem, all war being the art of deception.
“And if Cheng is working for somebody else, then yes, we need to keep a strong presence on Rodeo Iron turf. Seed and Beets make up our early warning system for any hostile approach to the front gate or through the woods from the highway. Having the Wizard as well as my crew to back up Judi if anybody goes after the kids…yeah. You might be right, you might be wrong, but based on what we know at the moment, it looks to me like a good a plan as any.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Jack didn’t raise any more objections, but there was one hitch. When we made the changeover, Beets passed on a message from my wife. The burly former assassin seemed amused.
“Jude says to bring back her sister wife in one piece,” he informed me, “or she’ll put a spell on you that will leave you with erectile dysfunction for the rest of your miserable life.”
It wasn’t hard to groan theatrically at that. Starting with the M60 machine gun, we got rid of all the ordnance that wouldn’t fit into the cab and arranged our gear to make our load as inconspicuous as possible. Satisfied that everything else was ready, I shined the Maglite through the ventilation hole to check on our prisoner and was rewarded with the sight of one dark, baleful eye glaring at me from a pile of blankets. Judging by the slow rise and fall of the blankets that indicated he was still breathing and the frosty breath filling his limited air space, Cheng appeared to be alive.
Sissy hadn’t had the opportunity to view the fellow, so I handed her the light. Her sharp intake of breath didn’t surprise me. “Damn,” she muttered, “that is one Evil Eye!”
Moments later, Robertson’s van was headed home and I was behind the wheel of the project truck I’d just hijacked from the Wizard, pointing back toward Missoula. Sissy was still shuddering from her encounter with Cheng’s eyeball, but I couldn’t help myself. I chuckled.
“I just realized why Jack was so ticked off. I just appropriated his latest fun machine and sent him packing without so much as asking his permission. I’m sure Jordan will issue him another vehicle from the security fleet, but wow, how arrogant am I?!”
Sissy’s answering snort was anything but feminine. “Not arrogant so much, Tree.”
“No. You and Jack have been through so much together, it’s like you’re parts of the same person. You just forget that he doesn’t literally read your mind. But you know what, Weaver? I don’t think he was upset about you swiping his truck. I think he was upset because he thought you were protecting him from the Ultimate Cage of Evil back there.”
“Huh.” Sissy did read my mind from time to time; I was sure of it. There was a part of me that felt I needed to protect Jack Hill. Because we were headed east, all the way to my old stomping grounds of Hartford, Connecticut. I hadn’t been there in twelve years, but the Hood Rats gang was still in existence. Back in the day, they’d hired a couple of hit men to take me and my ex out; I figured it was time to get some payback. But I did not want the Wizard going into the hood. He’d already been there twice, saving my uncle B.J.’s life the first time and blocking the gang attempt to abduct Tania the second time. Call me superstitious, but three strikes and you’re out.
If everything worked out, any Chinese agents attempting to track Dr. Foo would end up mucking around in urban Connecticut, not traipsing up into the wilds of Montana. The Hood Rats would quite possibly cease to exist, or if not that, they’d at the very least be seriously damaged.
If it didn’t work out, Sissy and I would be dead.
When we hit I-90, I turned Jack’s Silverado east, away from Missoula. We needed open freeway as far as we could get it; speed was going to be essential on this six thousand mile round trip. First light was catching up to us when we wheeled into the empty rest area at Bearmouth. That rest area wasn’t always empty, not by a long shot, but hitting it at this hour on a frigid winter day helped. Sissy fished out the first set of stealth license plates, replacing the paper plates Jack had been running while I popped the camper shell hatch and shined a beam from my favorite blue Maglite into the steel cage. As expected, Cheng’s hate filled eye stared right back at me.
“Here’s the deal,” I told him. “You’re going to need fuel, so I’m shoving a couple of serious protein bars through the hole. You can cram one down now or save them both for later; either way, I don’t care. I’m also going to shove one bottle of water in there. I suggest you drink it and then use the bottle as a piss container. Then,” I held up a small hypodermic syringe filled with a clear fluid, “I’m going to hand this in to you, very carefully. You’re going to drop your pants and needle yourself in the ass.”
The eye blinked twice. The voice came out in a raspy growl. “You’re not serious.”
“Oh, but I am.”
“If you want me injected, do it yourself.”
“Ah.” I grinned, though he couldn’t see it; the 3″ x 3″ opening in the cage was too small and the light was in his eyes. “See, here’s the thing. If you don’t cooperate, I simply fire that little welder right back up, here and now. It’s one of those nice new models, self contained generator and all; I don’t even need a power outlet to make things happen.” It occurred to me that I was enjoying myself way too much. I really didn’t like this character. “I’ll fire it up, grab that little piece of steel plate, and weld it right over this air hole here. Then we’ll see how long you last as the air runs out.”
“Stupid,” Cheng snarled, his face emerging fully from the blankets, “it’s not the air running out. It’s the carbon dioxide poisoning.”
Which was not the response I’d expected. “Good point. Not that you’ll be able to say I told you so from the bottom of Lake Michigan.”
Something in my tone finally convinced him. He gave himself the injection.
“Good dog,” I said, shoving a tightly rolled TOW blanket through the little hole. Top of the World products were making a name for themselves among the unending stream of idiots tackling Mt. Everest; if he wrapped up in that, he’d stay so toasty he’d sweat. “That shot should take effect in the next few minutes. If your metabolism is anywhere near human average, you should be out for close to 24 hours. Maybe half that if your chameleon talent tracks that of a real shifter.”
His eyes widened at that; he might have thought of me as competition for Mei Foo’s attention, but he hadn’t expected me to know anything about shifting. Not that I really knew all that much; Sissy and Willow were the Clan experts.
Sissy waited until we were rolling again before she started laughing. “Lake Michigan?”
“Hey,” I shrugged, checking the nonexistent traffic before pulling back onto the freeway, “it just popped into my mind.”
Neither of us spoke again until we’d passed Drummond and then Garrison, being careful to stay in the proper lane. A moment’s inattention at the Garrison junction could send a vehicle haring off toward Avon and Elliston, up over McDonald’s Pass, and down into Helena. Egg on face and wasted time to boot. With the route finally lined out, we pulled off at Deer Lodge, fueling the Chevy and changing drivers after Sissy assured me she was good for at least another four hours.
There was not a peep from the back of the truck; Duyi Cheng was presumably out like a light. Doc Menning’s little cocktail guaranteed it.
I was nearly asleep when the need to unburden myself hit me hard. “Sis?”
“I’m an idiot.”
“You know how we were studying with Judi last week and came across that text that explained about the never ending battle between Light and Dark?”
“Remember that chapter titled Targets?”
We both paused our conversation as her foot mashed down on the accelerator. The truck shot ahead, passing an eighteen wheeler from the sound of it. I didn’t bother to open my eyes to look.
Once we were leveled out again at a steady 80 mph, right smack dab on the posted speed limit, I got to my point. “Then you remember the part about carriers of Light being automatic targets. Agents of the Dark, consciously or unconsciously, will seek to destroy the Light, always. And the bigger the Light, the bigger the target.”
“Hang on, honey. I’m getting there. What I really want to say is that I’ve known for a long time that we at Rodeo Iron carry the Light, at least for the most part. We have our dark moments, we kill when we must, but overall….”
“Yeah, Tree. I get it.”
“So…you see auras, right?”
I heard the hesitation in her silence, but she answered eventually. “Some, but Judi’s better at it.”
“Okay. You girls have discussed the auras of everybody in the Inner Circle? I bet you have.”
“We have.” Her tone sounded wary.
“I’m positive you’d have told me if you spotted a really dark aura, right?” SHe didn’t respond to that; the question was rhetorical. “But I need to ask: Who’s carrying the most Light?”
“That’s easy. The top three are you, Jack, and Carolyn West.”
Carolyn West? I didn’t see that one coming. “Okay. Where does Carolyn rank?”
“You really sure you want to hear this?”
“Lay it on me, babe.”
“Number one. By a country mile.”
“And between me and Jack?”
“You, Treemin. On a scale from one to ten, you’d be maybe an eight to Carolyn’s ten, with Jack hitting around seven.”
My mind was suddenly in overdrive, making connections at warp speed. Fortunately, those connections didn’t ruin my theory; I just had to rework it a little. “Okay. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that with all three of us at home, the candlepower of Light in the immediate area–especially with you and Jude and everybody else thrown in–adds up to one hundred gazillion gigawatts. Enough to paint one gigantic bullseye on the place, wouldn’t you say?”
“So, you and I and Jack have become the premier strike squad for necessary assassinations, taking the fight to the enemy, whatever…but every time we’ve done it, we’ve left headquarters terribly exposed. Because while the Dark may represent Evil, nobody ever said it was Stupid. We’ve been unbelievably lucky, but luck doesn’t last forever. Plus, and here’s the point I had before you clued me in about Carolyn, the three of us running together make an incredibly tempting target any time we traipse off into so called civilization.”
I shut up, thinking through the ramifications.
“Hunh.” Sissy had already processed the information. “Maybe it’s not just luck, you know. We’ve always kept moving when the three of us were out and about, never more than a day in any one place. Not in recent years, anyway.”
“I agree. And we’re going to have to keep moving even faster, you and me. Because I figured out at least part of the reason Duyi Cheng was able to find Lori Droid aka Mei Foo the way he did. It wasn’t her carelessness that left him a trail to follow to Montana. It was his extreme Darkness, drawn to Montana by our extreme Light. That also explains the unbelievable hatred in that chameleon.
“He’s not merely jealous of me. Oh, he is that, but there’s a whole lot more to it. More than anything, he’s the scout for the Darkness I’ve felt coming for a while now, drawn to us unceasingly, fueled by the need to destroy the Light.”
A vehicle passed us in the fast lane, doing at least 100 mph. “Red Corvette,” Sissy said. I didn’t comment. She went on. “If what you say is true, Tree–and it feels right–then Chameleon Cheng is the first of an unending stream of Big Nasties coming our way. And I’m glad we left a strong force at home.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “Me too. You and I can keep ducking and diving while we’re out and about, but the people at home are sitting ducks.”
“Lousy analogy,” my warrior woman chuckled drily, “unless Donald Duck has Harry Potter and a full squad of Marines on his side these days.”
At least I thought that was what she said. Thoroughly exhausted by the events of the past twenty-four hours, I was already sliding into sleep like an otter playing on ice in the depths of winter.