Sissy was driving when we left I-90 at Jens, took the frontage road down to the underpass, and headed up Highway 271. The familiar feeling of home enveloped us as she wheeled Jack’s big Silverado up through the Helmville Canyon curves. We hadn’t seen a whiff of stormy weather in the last four hundred miles. Despite my banged-up body, my spirits were sky high; it was still pitch dark, my headache was down to a dull throb, and Judi had assured me during our brief phone call that she’d leave a light on for us.
After we unloaded our gear at the house, I left it to Sissy to move Jack’s truck across the driveway to his place and headed straight for the bathroom in our master bedroom suite. We could talk, our daughters having rooms deliberately some distance from our own, so Judi chatted me up while I scraped six days worth of beard from my face. Sissy was back by the time I was done shaving, shucking her clothes in record time. The shower designed for our custom home was large enough for all three of us to pile in together, which we did with a vengeance. Two of us were badly in need of soap and hot water; Judi was badly in need of a chance to tell us what our little girls had been up to while we were on the road.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
With us tall types not yet back from our away game, my five foot three wife had prevailed upon the Wizard to fill the stockings at midnight. Jack’s greater reach had been pretty much a necessity; the wide living room entrance, over which the stockings were hung, was situated pretty close to Willow’s bedroom and even closer to Aspen’s. Despite being little kids, they were tough to fool. “Willow tried staying awake to catch Santa Claus,” Judi explained, “but she was gone to dreamland by ten thirty. That sneaky little Aspen popped back up once at eleven fifteen, though.”
I nodded, preoccupied with getting into my Santa suit and making sure it still fit right. Yep, still needed the padding. Yay me. The irony of shaving my black beard before putting on a long fake white beard didn’t strike me at all. “It’s been tricky with Aspen from Year One.”
“That it has.” Sissy’s quiet laugh echoed the sparkle in her dark eyes. If anybody in this family doted on the mule-stubborn six year old, it was the tall warrior woman. Judi and her youngest butted heads every now and then; not so with Aspen and “Sissy-Mom”.
We were in the kitchen, reveling in the taste of a fresh pot of Kona coffee, when we heard the break in the silence that had lain on the house, the slide-slip of slippers too loud for a mouse.
“He’s home!” A little six year old bullet flew into the kitchen, slamming into a particularly sore spot on my right leg. I was grateful for the beard then, hiding my grimace as it did. “Santa made it!”
“How you doing, Tree Stump?” I scooched my chair back and turned it so that Aspen could leap up to plant her little butt firmly on the suffering leg, her older sister quickly arriving to claim the other. Two little charmers on Santa’s lap. Could life get any sweeter? I submit that it could not!
Willow, however, missed nothing. She saw the pain in my eyes, the fleeting owie before I masked it. “How hurt are you, Daddy?”
Her question was quiet, but her ebullient kid sister didn’t miss it. She did, however, choose to let me fake it until I could make it. “He’s not Daddy till he takes off the suit, Willow.”
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” My Santa laugh was genuine; screw the boo-boos. “Good point there, short stuff! And there’s a tree in the living room with presents under it! Stockings to explore!”
That got them moving, letting me suck in a quick sigh of relief. Not that I fooled Willow. “You didn’t get vammed, did you?” Her gaze was direct. She wasn’t fooling. Our eight year old daughter was not only a multiple threat capable of shifting into nearly as many forms as Sissy and a spell caster likely to outstrip her own mother’s skill before long. She also remained the only Talent we’d ever heard of who could lay hands on a victim who’d been infected with the vam virus and–as she put it–Cold Sweep the infection right out of there. Had I been bitten in Hartford, of course, I’d have been dead long before she could reach me…and she knew that, too.
“No, honey,” I whispered in her ear, leaning down close so her rambunctious sibling would not hear, “I didn’t get vammed. I’m bruised is all, okay?”
“Bruised a bunch, I’d say,” she retorted in a return whisper, “but maybe Aspen’s right. You can’t kill Santa.”
All through the morning, that line kept coming back to me, bouncing around inside my head. You can’t kill Santa. Even at six years of age, Aspen was keenly aware of the possibility of death and destruction raining down upon us at any moment, but so far she retained her inherently stubborn optimism, her unshakeable faith in her parents, her belief that we would always survive whatever the warring universe threw at us. Eight year old Willow knew better. She knew any one of us could be taken out at any time.
Was this a bad thing or a good thing? The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that it was a good thing. A lot of Souls couldn’t have handled that knowledge. Then again, a lot of Souls dealt with similar awareness every day. On the whole, our nation still has it pretty soft, compared to the rest of the world. The beautiful thing was that Willow dealt with it. She worried when worry was appropriate, but she was no worry wart.
Naturally, the Christmas presents we gave our kids weren’t exactly comparable to those hawked online or in the big department stores. This morning, Aspen’s favorite gift turned out to be the latest box set of Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere books on American history. Willow, ignoring her first standalone desktop computer, dove into her leather bound copy of the seven hundred page The Compleat Caster’s Grimoire, purportedly written by one Amande Suardi. Since no real witch would ever put his true name out there for others to use and abuse, Suardi was obviously a pen name, duh. But Willow’s fascination with the book was no surprise to us. The tome was laid out in a precise format that left no excuse for error, utilizing a common sense “by the numbers” arrangement that reminded us a great deal of one of Jack Hill’s infamous lists:
1. Title of the spell.
2. Purpose of the spell.
3. Source of the power used for the spell.
6. Side effects.
7. Appropriate situations for application of the spell.
8. How to make it happen.
The book had only been released three months ago, available in occult bookstores and on Amazon. We’d found it interesting that, while sales must have been better than anyone was about to admit, Amazon reviews were horrible. Our Inner Circle had brainstormed that fact before paying cash for the book at a store in Billings–we weren’t about to leave an Amazon paper trail for something like that–and concluded the scathing reviews most likely came from two diametrically opposed sources. One was obvious; quite a few One Star reviewers pointed out the horrifically dangerous nature of messing with the spells detailed by the writer while others, tending to cluster in the Two Star area, struck a different tone altogether. The Two Star folks were, we’d guessed, practitioners who hoped to downplay the Grimoire’s usefulness.
Wouldn’t want real Talents getting real training, now would they?
What I gave my ladies is none of anyone else’s business, but I couldn’t help being blown away by the present the entire Clan handed to me after lunch. By then I was out of the Santa suit and back in my boots and jeans, sans beard, so there was no hiding my surprise. With nearly twenty witnesses in the room, Mom and Sim seeming especially tickled at the look on my face, I stared at the wildly colorful project.
“Wow!” The comic book was complete. A rough draft, to be sure, but as I thumbed through it, there wasn’t a thing I wanted to change. Yeah, I’d had a bit of an original idea for the series, but our resident Rodeo Iron geniuses had changed it for the better, put this all together without one iota of additional input from the boss, and…just wow. The cover depicted an obvious were bull, a sort of jet black Brangus with long horns (real Brangus don’t have horns), fighting a cross between a witch and a mountain lion who was slinging lightning bolts. The strikes were standard lightning, jagged flashes like those Mother Nature produces, but the cat woman was no ordinary feline; she was in fact the sexiest mountain lion half-were…wow.
But that wasn’t the whole of it. The massive bull’s features, even in bovine form, were clearly reminiscent of my late and much missed benefactor, Sam Trace. Anyone who’d ever known him would see that.
And then there was the title. I had to thumb through the action packed pages to get the overall picture. The were bull, known in his human form as Ace Trace, was married to Lacy Trace…whose super powers weren’t yet mentioned, but the reader was left with the definite impression that she had some. The Traces were depicted as airbrushed, glamorized versions of Sam and Jennifer. Ace and Lacy owned a rare earth mine that produced the only known source of spacedite, a magical mineral that could reverse the effects of gravity, depending on the temperature at which it was kept. Naturally, every villain worthy of the designation had evil designs on their mining company. That company was known simply as…
In the debut issue, after finally dispatching the cougar witch by sound-blasting her over the edge of a cliff with a huge HONK-K-K! from one his horns–the tip of which at that point (!) looks suspiciously similar to the new air horns Chuck Berenson has on top of the cab of his latest Kenworth–Ace Trace shifts back to human form, looks over the cliff at his fallen adversary (who has fallen into a raging river and, being a cat, is not happy about it), and delivers what is clearly intended to be his signature line. “Mess with the bull, you get the horn!”
Sissy just grinned at me when I broke up laughing and started to tear up at the same time. Without a doubt, she’d been in on the secret. Nobody in the room had the slightest bit of mercy on me, though I did see a suspicious glistening in more than one eye. Sam had been gone from the planet for a while now, but Jennifer’s death was still extremely fresh in our minds. Now he would live on in the form of a were bull with shifty horns that looked like they could become anything from prehensile graspers to pointy weapons to air horns to who knew what next? Wherever he was, the burly rancher had to be hooting with glee, slapping his knee with delight.
Knowing the art crew consisted of our daughters plus the two young werewolves–not counting the animation, which was handled by an adult, Philip Phreeb–I had to ask. “Who came up with the shifty horns?”
“I did!” Aspen beamed with the obvious level of pride only a six year old can muster. “Ace Trace is a very horny bull!”
We lost it. I mean, we really lost it. Aspen didn’t seem to know for sure why the whole room thought that was so hilarious, but our youngest is a pro who follows the old motto, any publicity is good publicity. “Mom,” I said to Louella Jackson once the laughter had settled down to a low roar, “when the time is right, you get to explain to your granddaughter!”
“Oh,” my mother replied innocently, “I already did that. She knew exactly what she was saying. Didn’t you, sweetie?”
“You betcha, grandma. I got it all figgered out!”
We’d been had. We also lost it again, every one of us but Judi. My wife’s expression told me she was already plotting and scheming, thinking of ways to play a get-even trick on her mother in law. I almost missed the glance Mom gave Judi, the look that said, “Bring it on!” From the day Lou had officially joined our Rodeo Iron Clan, the competition between those two had been fierce. Not that they didn’t love each other. I suspected it might have been like that for Lou Jackson when she was a member of the Hartford Police Department, cops pulling stuff on each other and respecting each other at the same time. It never got out of hand between Lou and Judi, but it did make life interesting.
I decided to get serious. “The lawyers have okayed this?”
Jack nodded. “I’ve been talking to them while you were on the road. They’re confident that we’re in the clear, nothing close enough to anything out there that we can be accused of plagiarism.”
“Philip, you’ve got this worked up in animated form?” I wasn’t sure he did; he’d been working night and day to get us the vital intel we needed for the Arvin Clan confrontation.
“Don’t be insulting,” the young cyber wizard retorted. “Of course I do.”
“Then let’s hit it,” I decided, “full bore. YouTube, a standalone Trace Minerals website, press releases and free copies to everybody on Rodeo Iron’s entire contact list. Let’s hit ’em with both barrels, bill the venture as (a) a memorial tribute to Sam and Jennifer Trace, super heroes in the rodeo world for decades, and (b) an exercise in creativity by the kids who drew this. Might as well stick this in the faces of the public school advocates who are always taking shots at home schooling, right?”
“RIGHT!” The response was little short of thunderous. Philip Phreeb was the adult who’d worked up the animation, but the basic characters were all drawn by minors under the tyrannical direction of our midget art director, six year old Aspen.
By the time we adults trooped across the driveway to hold an impromptu Inner Circle meeting in Jack’s expanded kitchen, it was a bit after 3:00 p.m. Only Sissy stayed behind, our volunteer babysitter despite every one of us knowing she’d most likely be napping in her favorite recliner while the youngsters entertained themselves. What the heck, she’d be there if one of the kids needed her for anything, and she’d more than earned a bit of relaxation.
As usual, Carolyn West and Wayne Bruce bustled around, serving coffee and snacks and, for Beets Robertson, a shot of blackberry brandy. No one else in the entire Clan ever touched alcohol in any form, figuring we couldn’t afford impaired reflexes if combat came on us unaware. Soren Kirk even claimed he remembered a past life in which he and his biological father in this lifetime had been foot soldiers in the Crusades. Relaxing in camp during a rare day off, they’d gotten rip-roaring drunk, as had every man who could find the wherewithal. Unfortunately, their teetotaling Moslem enemies surprised them while they were in their cups. Soren’s friend–they’d not been related in that incarnation–had been passed out, but Soren had risen to do battle…and without his partner to watch his back, he’d taken a sword through his kidneys and died. He was still pissed about that.
I called the meeting to order and got right down to it. “Folks, Jack and I’ve been kicking it around, and we believe it’s time everybody in this room should be brought in on every military secret we’ve got, simply because the times they are a-changing and we may need every hand fully briefed at any moment. Besides which, there’s nobody here who hasn’t proved himself or herself a thousand times over. Before I spill the beans, are there any objections?”
Nobody spoke up. That surprised me just a little; I’d thought Judi might have something to say. My petite warrior wife believed in keeping our hole cards face down for the most part. Maybe she had faith in my judgment, or maybe she’d come to the same conclusion already and we simply hadn’t discussed it.
Either way, it looked like I was good to go.
It took a full two hours to bring everybody up to date on Diamond Paws and the extensive labyrinth of tunnels he’d dug for us, not to mention Wolf Cave, and of course I had to throw in a Reader’s Digest Condensed version of the Hartford run.
When everybody seemed to have their questions answered, I said, “Soren, you and Gilligan have the best vantage point for spotting and possibly slowing down attacks that come at us from the conventional route, Highway 200 and then up our private road. We appreciate that, believe me.”
“Figured you did,” the inventor and former assassin nodded.
“Yeah, well, we do…but we’ve not been treating you fairly. Until today, you hadn’t been fully informed regarding our tunnel fall-back defensive system. Most importantly, none of those tunnels reach down the hill to your place. Our alien digger friend plans to be back here some time in early January. With your permission, I’d like to get with you and Jack and Diamond Paws to tie you in with everybody else. What do you say?”
Kirk chuckled. “I say I’d be a stone blind idiot not to be happy as a clam dipped in tartar sauce about that. Yes, yes, and hell yes. Beets and I do have a hidden bunker, but it’s just that. It wouldn’t take a serious opposing force long to smoke us out if they had it to do.”
A clam dipped in tartar sauce was happy? Huh. “All right, then. That’s on the agenda as soon as the Umthnn shows up. Now….” I paused, kind of scared to jump into the next part. It was going to be like a beginning swimmer moving from the kiddie pool to the high diving board. “People, we’ve got to ramp up our defensive plans. Right now, we have a decent Plan A–kill the crap out of any small force thrown against us–”
“Small force?” Carolyn didn’t speak up in meetings often. In fact, she seldom even attended any of those not held right here in her home kitchen. But she definitely had something to say this time, and Jack Hill was watching his main squeeze with a definite look of approval. “You all have wiped out dozens of attackers at a time. What are you defining as small, Tree?”
“Getting to that,” I replied. “Let me tell you what I see as a large force and maybe the comparison will become clear. A large force by my personal definition would be, say, a full battalion of U.S. Marines with air support, including Apache helicopters, A-10 Warthog planes, AWACS overhead to keep an eye on everything, Hellfire missiles, enough ordnance to sink an aircraft carrier, and the entire weight of the United States Government behind it.”
I stopped to let that sink in.
Former Marine Sergeant Jordan Phreeb, our current Security Chief, nodded. “That would definitely qualify as a large force if it was tasked with nothing more than taking out a little bunch of civilians like us, all right.”
“Do you see that happening, Treemin?” Mom’s voice was as calm as Jordan’s, but she, too, had seen the elephant. Sitting beside her, Sim Bowles looked almighty thoughtful; I had a hunch he was on the same page I was.
“Not necessarily,” I said, “but I do see it as a definite possibility. It wouldn’t have to be our own military; I was just using that as an example of an attacking force we simply could not defeat, at least not in open combat.
“What got me to thinking about all this was a talk show Sissy had on the radio when she was behind the wheel on our run back from Connecticut. I was sort of sleeping, but in and out, you know? Turned out to be that new rabble rouser, Kermit Wakefield. Calls his program Kermit Wakefield and the Wake Up Show. He had on three different guests; they spoke as a panel for a full hour. One was an expert on EMP related disasters, electromagnetic pulses that could come from extreme solar flares, an enemy of the United States firing off an EMP from high in the atmosphere, or even our own government using the existing HAARP tower system to blast out a huge EMP as a defensive move.
“The second guy on the panel was a gal. She sounded almighty knowledgeable about the nation’s electrical grid and its vulnerabilities. She made the statement that any terrorist organization established inside our borders–and we all know there are plenty of those these days–could quite conceivably knock out the lower 48’s entire grid in one shot, using fewer than one hundred skilled operatives to do it. Then there was a computer guy whose identity was not revealed. That dude said he could easily program a virus that could bypass every safeguard in current existence and crash the Internet worldwide in a matter of days. In fact, he said he had already produced twenty-three such viruses, any of one of which could do the job.”
“No wonder he didn’t want to be identified,” Philip Phreeb muttered. Our young computer hotshot looked more than a bit disturbed, as well he should. Gathering himself, he raised his voice and a question. “Did this guy sound convincing? And did he say what he intended to do with his viruses? Or has he already done it?”
“Good question, Phil.” I took a sip of coffee before answering. Cold. “What he said was, he’d invented these Internet killers as a personal experiment. He’s run tests on them, supposedly in standalone computers kept well away from anything hooked up online. His original idea was to show his test results to top government officials…but when he sent untraceable emails to the officials he most wanted to impress with the danger and the need to make massive changes in how we all do business, the results were no fun whatsoever. Instead of treating his messages with the respect they deserved, several agencies launched massive efforts to find the man who’d sent them. He’s still not on their radar, he says, but they’ve come too close for comfort…and two of the alphabet agencies have issued Find and Kill orders.”
“Hngh,” Jack Hill grunted, though he had one eye on the trio of cherry pies Wayne was pulling from the oven. “Big surprise there.”
There were murmurs of agreement around the table. None of us would ever be surprised at the knee jerk, idiotic response of many of our nation’s top officials. A lone civilian could show them how easy it would be to mess with the system? Okay, fine. Never mind allowing him to help his beloved America; just rub him out.
Fear politics as usual.
“The point of the program,” I continued, “was that there are so many ways things can go south that only a moron or a politician–but I repeat myself–could possibly believe something really overwhelming isn’t going to happen sooner or later. That was point number one. Point number two was that when, not if, when the sh*t does hit the fan, neither the government officials nor the people are adequately prepared. Point number three was that all of the above adds up to massive violence until the population crash has cut us down to size. And the people who will be the biggest targets for some of that cut-down time are exactly groups like us, folks who are suspected of eating too well, for example.”
Judi’s turn. “So, Tree, what the hell? Are you saying we’re doomed?”
“Not at all, hon.” I shook my head in firm denial. “But we do need to understand that if it gets super bad, we may have to abandon the surface, at least for a time. Everything we’ve built here could be ripped to shreds, go up in flames, whatever. The entire forest could go up in flames. Thanks to the combination of the Wolf Cave discovery and having Diamond Paws as an ally, we’ll be able to hide if we have to. But we need to put an organized evacuation plan in place, one that’s far more detailed than the one we have to date. The hands that aren’t part of the Inner Circle will have to be assigned to members of the Inner Circle so we can lead them to safety if it comes to that. Shelter won’t be a problem, obviously, and we’re already making progress on storing weapons, building supplies, cooking gear, bedding, water filters, yada yada yada.
“But,” I adopted my gimlet eye look and ran it around the table, serious as I’d ever been in my life, “that’s for the short term. For the long term, we may be able to forage enough to bring in a bit of meat so that we have essential protein–unless we’re facing a whole burned earth scenario–but what about vegetables? Fruits? We need to start researching hydroponic growing systems, a whole field I don’t believe any one of us has seriously studied. And how long can humans live underground, true cave people if you will, without suffering from the effects? This country is some limestone but mostly granite, and granite naturally radiates some level of radon gas. To quote from that premier source of all science reporting, Wikipedia,” I closed my eyes, reading from the screen in my eidetic memory,
“According to a 2003 report EPA’s Assessment of Risks from Radon in Homes from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, epidemiological evidence shows a clear link between lung cancer and high concentrations of radon, with 21,000 radon-induced U.S. lung cancer deaths per year—second only to cigarette smoking—. Thus in geographic areas where radon is present in heightened concentrations, radon is considered a significant indoor air contaminant.”
“The Wiki article goes on to say that current mining technology includes sufficient ventilation in mines to keep radon levels down fairly close to atmospheric levels, which are always there and are not known to cause cancer. So we need somebody to start researching mine ventilation…and also to figure out how we can ventilate adequately without giving away our location.”
I fell silent, watching Carolyn and Bruce as they dished up the still warm pie, followed by making the rounds with fresh pots of coffee. Judi had noticed my cold cup; she hopped up, took it to the sink, dumped it, and returned in time for Bruce to give me a piping hot refill. Everybody in the room looked pretty serious, but nobody spoke. It had gotten dark outside. The temperature was plunging like Wile E. Coyote going over a cliff.
Taking the mug in hand, I tried a cautious sip. Still too hot, but I drank it anyway. “I know this is a load, folks. Here we’ve been thinking a few dozen battles with weres and vams and the occasional witch was enough to be going on with, yet it now looks like ye olde ordinary human nature is likely to be the far greater danger in the long run. If the vamleopard don’t get you, then the Zombie Apocalypse will.” I raised my coffee mug in mock salute.
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”