I settled into my favorite recliner with a sigh of pure pleasure. Christmas night, everyone back in their respective homes except for Mom, who claimed Sissy’s recliner, and Philp Phreeb, who’d gone back to the Citadel comm center. Which was pretty much his home anyway, come to think of it.
“You staying the night, Lou?” Judi passed through the living room with a tray full of brownies fresh from the oven. Young Crystal was learning to bake under my wife’s direction and loving it. I grabbed three of the chocolate delights without hesitation; Mom twinkled at me as she took two for herself.
“No,” she mumbled around a mouthful of brownie, “Sim wanted to go check on the chickens. He’ll be back in an hour or so. I thought I’d let that crazy farmer go talk to his hens while I visited with my son for a bit.”
My blondie grinned. “Wouldn’t have a thing to do with being able to watch the game of pickup sticks we’re starting in the kitchen?”
“Of course not.” Louella Jackson waved her free hand airily, dismissing the notion. “You seen one grandchild putzing around with a game that was out of date when I was a kid, you’ve seen ’em all.”
“Uh-huh.” Judi chuckled and headed on out to the kitchen to join the game. She won eight out of ten times, no mercy at all, but our daughters were closing the skill gap with ferocious intent. I was betting they’d beat the .500 mark sooner rather than later.
For a time, Mom and I enjoyed the quiet and the brownies. She had something on her mind, though. I could tell.
“How sure are you, Treemin?”
“Sure?” I probably looked as confused as I felt. “About what?”
“The Zombie Apocalypse picture you painted in the meeting.”
My brow furrowed. “Was that what I was doing? Surely didn’t mean to, Mom.”
“And yet you’re having the entire Clan focus on extreme prepping. Scratch that. Uber extreme prepping. Do you really think all of that is necessary?”
“No,” I replied, my voice quiet but my tone suddenly sarcastic, “I just figured the crew needed a bit of busy work to keep them occupied, seeing as how we’re all getting so freaking lazy with nothing to do.”
She gave me a dark look. “Getting snippy in our old age, are we? Tree, I’m not attacking you. Honest, honey, I’m not. I’m simply worried about you. You already had more on your plate than any one normal man could handle, and now you’ve gone and tripled your load.”
“It’s a mommy thing.”
“Okay, Mommy.” I sighed, not theatrically but just letting the tension out. “Let me turn it around and ask you a question. Do you think I’ve gone off the deep end?”
“Frankly,” she tapped her chin in thought, eyes narrowed, “…maybe.”
“Why?” Her opinion hurt more than it should have. She’d thought my brain had jumped the track back in high school when I started stealing stuff, too.
“It’s not obvious?” Her eyebrows rose. “No, I guess it wouldn’t be. Okay. Let’s try it from this angle. I’ll grant you that the prepping you’ve outlined will look pretty smart if Armageddon hits any time in the next few decades, but what if it doesn’t? Then you’ve wasted all those resources that could have been put to better use, buying up more land, expanding your business faster, whatever. Instead, you’ll have been pounding sand down a rathole, throwing good money after bad…” She trailed off. For the first time, I could see she was really troubled about this.
“Mom,” I asked softly, “why didn’t you bring this up in the meeting?”
She shook her head. “Not a chance in Hell, sonny boy. I may not understand half of what you’ve become, but they tell me you’re the Weaver, the one man who can put together a coalition and keep it put together, an amalgam of forces including people who would never even consider working together without you. The day I let anybody see the Weaver’s mother giving the Weaver crap in front of the troops will be a cold day in Hell.”
“Oh.” Frankly, that surprised me a little. Touched me, too. “Well then, I suppose you deserve an answer.”
“Maybe not deserve,” she grinned, waggling the fingers of one hand at me, “but I would certainly appreciate it.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“Ha ha. Mom, we have more than forty people living right here on the ranch, right now. The best projections our management team can produce, they call for closer to one hundred people here in another decade. That’s not counting the company town on the other side of Helmville or any of the commuting welders from Lincoln, Ovando, and Drummond, just those who’ve joined us for life. And every employee who lives on the premises full time knows it’s a lifetime deal. It has to be. Quite frankly, to use really overdone wording, they all know too much for it to be any other way. And since they are committed to us with that sort of intensity, I owe them. Every one of them, I owe the best chance at life I can provide.”
“Wait a sec.” Lou Jackson raised a hand to stem the flow. “Lifetime? They can’t leave? And are you saying Sim and I fall into that category?” Her voice was mild, but I noticed her favorite Glock .40 was well within reach of that raised hand. Not that I believed she’d shoot her son; just saying.
“Technically, Mom, they can leave…but they know it’s a potential death sentence if they do. Our traditional enemies like the first Ted Kraznick, and now probably the Arvin Clan in Connecticut? You can bet they have files on every man, woman, and child living here. Our people have all either fought attacking mercs, weres, vams, and witches openly or at least provided support for the front line warriors. While they’re here, they have the protection of the ranch, which is considerable. If they leave, they don’t. How long do you think it would take for one of the older Clans to figure out they were vulnerable, snatch them up, and torture them for intel on Rodeo Iron? And then, of course, dispose of the remains in one way or another.”
“How?” I had her attention now. “I mean, Tree, how do they have the detailed files on your people that you say they do?”
I shrugged. “Tax filings, for one. Heartbite has some computer whiz kids who come close to rivaling Philip; it’s a good bet other Clans do, too. If they can’t crack IRS files, I’d be downright flabbergasted. Street surveillance; Montana is a tourism state and a Clan spy can show up disguised as an ordinary tourist without raising any eyebrows. And gossip.”
“Gossip?” My mother was absentmindedly twirling a lock of her curly dark hair with the fingertips of her left hand, a sure sign she was fully absorbed in the conversation. I hadn’t seen her do that since I was a kid. Of course, she didn’t have any gray stands sneaking in there when I was a kid, either.
“Gossip is probably the worst, Mom. Did you know the Trace offspring, after they lost when they tried to fight my ownership of the Trace Ranch…they’ve been spreading the rumor that I murdered both Sam and Jennifer Trace.”
“That’s ridiculous!” There was fire in her eyes now; the mama grizzly instinct had been aroused.
“I’ve met those characters,” I admitted, “and yes, I would say ridiculous is the right word. But effective, too. We’re in no legal danger; the official investigations stated firmly that Sam was downed by gunfire from renegade mercenaries known as Morse Code and that Jennifer was killed by a rattlesnake bite. They can’t get us into court on this…except the court of public opinion, and that is somewhat divided. I’ve been careful to get to know our customers–nearly all of them, anyway–and we’re not seeing any drop in sales. Even so, I do make some people in the area uneasy. We’ve had to spike the guns of more than one investigation over the years.”
“You’re at odds with law enforcement?”
I could tell she didn’t like that thought very much. What cop would, even if she hadn’t been on the force for thirty years? Louella Jackson could and would take the law into her own hands with the best of them when she had it to do, but in her heart of hearts she was still all about law and order.
“Not locally.” I glanced longingly at the TV remote, but there wasn’t really anything on the boob tube that I wanted to watch on Christmas night. “We’re on extremely good terms with the Sheriff in Deer Lodge. Sam Trace always made sure he was, and I’ve kept up the tradition. A little dustup here and there with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and that attempted frame-up by the feds during the Wolf War. Somebody also sicced the IRS on me three…no, four years ago. We came out so clean on that one that the agents who did the audit came right out and told me they’d never seen a better kept set of books. Not that we showed them the second set.”
Mom would have spewed out her coffee if she’d had any to spew. “You’re keeping two sets of books?!”
“Gotcha!” I grinned at her until she gave me the finger over finger shame-shame sign. “No, we’re not keeping two sets of books.” We were keeping three, but the lady who bore me probably didn’t need to hear that. The law lady really had given birth to a natural outlaw. Out of the corner of my eye, though, I could see Sissy in the kitchen, shaking her head. I didn’t think her head shake had anything to do with the game they were playing. My tall warrior woman didn’t mind flouting man’s law, but she did sometimes wish I wouldn’t needle my mother just to see if I could make her jump.
Maybe she had a point. Time to school Lou Jackson, Mom Education 401. “Mom, do you know why we need to expand our on-site population of in-the-know residents so drastically?”
“Not the details.” She shrugged. “Figured that was your business. Above my pay grade, if you will.”
“Hah. As if. Anyway, here’s the deal. We have a really decent fighting crew in place. Things aren’t looking to bad in the Citadel, either, but Philip could use another handful of rebel computer hotshots. However, none of that would require a massive uptick in hiring…except for one thing. We’re kind of like the Wild Wild West.”
My mother wiped her lips with an index finger, sucked the final bits of brownie from that same finger, and stared out longingly at the kitchen–no doubt calculating the odds of being able to snag another brownie. She spoke without looking at me. “The violence, you mean?”
“No…well, that, too. But mainly I was referring to the scarcity of women. On the entire ranch, there are just six couples. Who’s hooked up with a partner? You and Sim, this household and Jack’s, Chilly and Crystal, plus two of Jordan Phreeb’s security guys and their mates. One wife outranks her husband in Jordan’s crew. The other lives with one of Philip’s best hackers, sort of a girlfriend Suzy Homemaker type with a twist; she has a natural talent for cryptography. Which leaves more than two dozen men–at least if we include Seed and Beets, and I do–without hookups.”
Mom’s brow furrowed. “I never considered that. But…how do you plan to remedy that shortage, son?”
“Not easily. The comm center in the Citadel? One of its major functions is to safely recruit people we dare introduce to a lifestyle they can’t leave around supernaturals most people can’t handle. Philip’s people have search programs running all the time, looking for key words and phrases, on social media and elsewhere. Sort of like the NSA snoop programs, but the first thing we want to know is if the potential candidate has the mindset necessary to deal with being around shape shifters and all the rest of it.”
I must have spaced off; in the time I was spitting out those few sentences, my mother had slipped out to the kitchen and back, just like that. Brownie Ninja. She was already settling back into her recliner, her eyes closing in bliss as she munched a third brownie, when I heard an indignant “Hey!”.
“Cleaned ’em out,” she said with a smug smile. Without bothering to open her eyes, she tossed a brownie high through the air.
I caught it on the fly but held off long enough to finish my mini-dissertation. “Philip is always refining his search programs, but let me give you the most recent numbers I have. In a six month period, our computer programs have picked up 27,049 possible Rodeo Iron candidates. 719 test layers later, we’re left with exactly three possibles; the programs plus our gut checks have eliminated all the rest. At that rate, it’s going to take us a while to make our little Clan structure a fully viable, gender balanced group.”
Slow going indeed, but we couldn’t make any mistakes in hiring. Not even one. I’d more than filled my quota when I’d hired the guy whose wonderful plan was to take me out with a grenade; strike two was not an option. So thinking, I failed to hear my mother’s response. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a real bed for a while, nor did it look like I was going to get one now; the recliner would have to do.
I knew it when somebody covered me with a blanket, but I was far from awake enough to have any idea who did the honors. Except for one thing. The uneaten brownie was carefully removed from my slack fingers, so I’m betting it was the Brownie Ninja.
January 13. Almost three full weeks of peaceful home bliss before the triple buzzer rang me out of a sound sleep. In the middle of the night. At 2:37 a.m. “Yo,” I bark-growled, not bothering to aim at the receiver. We had the intercom default set on speaker phone anyway.
“Treemin. You awake?” Philip Phreeb’s voice, one of only six people who could reach me this way. The comm center, then.
“No, I’m talking in my sleep. Whazzup?” I left the speaker phone on. Judi, Sissy, and I were all rolling out; we knew this was not a drill. Across the street, Jack Hill’s group would be doing the same; the triple buzzer hit meant the call was for me, but neither the Wizard nor I could afford to waste time. There’d only been two previous Red Alert night calls, neither of which had left us with seconds to spare.
“Got Frank Harding on the line. You might want to take the call.”
“Put him on.” I searched my memory banks, struggling to clear the cobwebs from my brain. Frank was Rodeo Iron Arizona’s newest franchisee, running a manufacturing operation a few miles out of Show Low. Half Native American, Harding also operated a welding school where students paid a ridiculously low tuition, little more than the cost of their supplies.
His business plan called for most of his thirty-eight projected employees to come from the nearby Fort Apache Indian Reservation, White Mountain Apaches commuting from the Rez. He was well on his way, too, but the tension in his voice was unmistakable.
“Speak to me, Frank.”
“Hate to be calling you at this hour.”
I could hear his relief; he wasn’t fooling me one bit. “Told you, call me any time.”
“Yeah. Um…there’s been a murder. Um…three murders, actually.”
You know how people talk about their blood running cold? Mine didn’t do that. I swear I shivered, though. “Who?”
“Johnny Larson, his girlfriend, and their baby. Boy was three or…three or four, I think. It looked…the cops…Tree, I’m thinking they’re going to write this off as a drive-by shooting. Which it was, I guess, kind of, but not really. Johnny’s a new hire, from the Rez originally, but he’d been living in Seattle for the past couple of years. When he heard I might be able to give him a job, he beats feet back here, hired on just last week. They didn’t have any place to stay, though, except his old van, so I put ’em up in one of those old shacks that were on the property when I bought it. No running water or electricity, but they were fixing the place up, happy to have it. Don’t know the details exactly, but it looks like a car full of whoever drove out there about midnight. Best guess is Johnny heard ’em and went out to run ’em off, you know, riding for the brand, taking care of business. Nearest neighbor is about a quarter mile away, heard the shooting, called me. I grabbed my shotgun, headed out, called 911 on the way. Beat the cops by ten or fifteen minutes. I’m not no old school Apache tracker, you know, but it wasn’t rocket science. I stayed clear of the crime scene, didn’t need to get thrown in jail myself, but I had my camera and a Maglite. No point in trying to help ’em; they were dead as dead could be. Johnny was face down in the dust, holes blown clear through him. Blue Wing–that’s his woman–she was curled on her side, clutching the little one. White nightie, or used to be. Barefoot. Blood…blood everywhere. Thanks to the Mag, I got a bunch of pictures of everything I could before the cops got there. Not the best, but better than nothing. Bodies, different angles, screen door open, tire tracks, and…and the thing that made me call you.”
Now I had the chills. “What was that, Frank?”
“Spray paint. The bodies were situated between Johnny’s van and the house, but there was a message painted on the van, in red. FANG POWER!”
“Yeah. Fang power. I’m not the most superstitious Apache on the planet or anything, but it gave me the creeps. The cops seem to think it’s a gang thing, but out here in the boonies? I’m thinking not. I had to talk to somebody, man. If this turns out to be witchcraft or something extra spooky, I won’t be able to keep a one of them on the payroll. But most of all, if something is stalking us, you’re the only guy I know who–I don’t know why, but I just had this feeling that you’d know what to do about it.”
I was fully dressed, but Jack Hill must have already been up. I could hear his hail at the door and Judi’s soft tread as she headed out through the kitchen to let him in. “You’re saying I don’t seem like the supernatural would spook me, Frank?”
“Treemin, you don’t seem to me like anything would spook you.”
The Wizard strode into our bedroom as quickly as he could without waking the girls, waving his hands as he came. “Frank”, I said, “tell you what. You remember Jack Hill, right? He was with me when you signed the contract.”
“He’s got something to say.”
“The police are still there, right?”
“They sure are. They’ve called for a forensics team, but they’re not here yet. I’m thinking maybe they have to come clear from Phoenix.”
“So they’ve got the crime scene taped off?”
“Yes. Must be twenty cop cars here. I didn’t know they could round up that many out here.”
“Are they tramping all over the tracks or being careful?”
“Um…let me move away a little farther; one of the state troopers looks like he’s got a stick up his butt. Don’t think he could hear me before, but….”
“Take your time.”
“I’m good. Jack, they’re acting more professional than I would have expected, really. But they have walked around a bit, yeah. I wouldn’t want to try to pick out anything on the ground now. Might be possible, but….”
“Okay. I get the picture. Listen, Tree’s got a few things he has to take care of before he can leave.” The ancient Wizard winked at me and held up a finger in the universal “Wait One” sign, ignoring my wide eyed intention to ask him what those “few things” might be. “But I can be on a flight out of Missoula this morning, arriving in Phoenix this evening. I’ll have to move fast to make that flight, though, so could you arrange for a full size rental car at the airport? I’ll drive out to Show Low from there, probably hit your place about twenty-four hours from now.”
“Okay, yeah, but….” Harding sounded as confused as I felt. “What–”
“Frank, you made the right call. I’m no old school Apache, either, but I’ll guarantee you I can get a better fix on things than the cops will. Unless they’re calling in some real talent. Tree keeps me around just to solve mysteries like this one.”
“Oh.” He sounded like he actually believed that. “That’s good, then.”
We said our goodbyes. Once I was sure the line was dead, I turned on Hill. “Mind explaining exactly what the f–”
“Easy, cowboy.” He gave me his patented half smile, palms up and forward in a placating gesture. “I’ve got maybe an hour before I have to hit the road, so let’s talk, shall we?”
Willow and Aspen were still sleeping, so Sissy and I followed Jack over to his place, leaving Judi to stand guard over our daughters.
Carolyn West had a pot of hot chocolate heating; we sat down to sip and discuss things. I should have waited him out, but the old Protector had irritated me, jumping in and taking over like that. “I don’t understand this part about you flying, Jack. That, and leaving my big black ass behind. What the heck were you thinking?”
“Somebody had to think.” He shrugged, unrepentant. “You sure weren’t.”
“I wasn’t?” From the sudden widening of Carolyn West’s eyes, I suspected my tone had gone low and dangerous.
“Maybe you were. Tree, you tell me. Are you guessing that this is an in-your-face message from Charleston and Warisa Blyden in Hartford?”
Well, duh. “Bloody Blydens,” I muttered. “This has to be Warisa, pushing Charleston to strike back so openly. Letting me know that maybe other Clans might worry about letting the mundane world see their handiwork, but that they don’t give a hoot. And that innocents are no longer off limits.”
“Uh huh.” Jack studied his mug. Carolyn’s artistry with simple hot chocolate and a few mini-marshmallows was something to behold. “And you base that conclusion on…what, exactly?”
“The Fang Power message,” I snapped. “Isn’t it ob–” I stopped cold. No, come to think of it, it wasn’t obvious. It was merely a possibility. “Okay, Jack. I’m back in the world now. So tell me, what’s your big plan, besides getting even for me commandeering your truck and running off to Hartford with only Sissy for backup?”
He laughed. “Is that what you think this is?”
“Well…maybe a little. Okay. Here’s the deal. I’m flying because I can get away with it and we need someone on the ground at Show Low ASAP. What I mean by getting away with it is that I don’t have to carry any weapons with me to trigger airport alarms; I am a weapon, right?”
“Can’t argue that.” I was cooling off now. I also had a pretty good idea I wouldn’t be able to rationally disagree with anything he was going to say.
“Horace Tamblyn was a better tracker than me, but with him gone, I’m the best we got, so maybe, just maybe, I can pick up a clue or two at the scene. Most likely, the authorities will still have the area taped off when I get there, but they’re not likely to leave anybody on guard. So I’ll be free to see what I can see. Now, if either one of your ladies would care to fly down with me, I’d be happy to have the company. Sissy is a walking weapon, like me, and your witchy little wife is getting pretty good with casting forensic spells.”
“She is?” Trust a husband to miss what his wife’s been up to. Huh.
“She is,” Sissy agreed quietly, “although I don’t know if either Tree or the girls would be happy to have Mommy traipsing off to Indian Country.”
I stayed quiet, thinking, but Jack jumped right on that one. “Very true, Sis. I’m not saying she should go. It’s just that either one of you winsome women would be a solid addition. I couldn’t explain two of you traipsing along with me; the people down there would think I was an old Mormon or something. But if Judi went, she could pass as my granddaughter or some such, and if you went, well, nobody messes with a six foot babe who looks like she can fight, and you’ve got more than enough Native American in you to get along okay if we decided to visit the Rez.”
“Let me think about that,” I said, “and now that you’ve got me thinking, I can see the possibilities are endless. Or numerous, anyway.” Numerous, indeed. This could well have been a vicious strike from Arvin Clan; neither Sissy nor I, having met the woman, would put the slaughter of innocents past Warisa Blyden. Or it could be simply some crazy, hopped-up idiots who’d decided to live out the latest popular Vampire Wars fantasy. Then again…”It could be a trap,” I admitted. “That’s really why you want to get down there ahead of me, isn’t it? Because you figure you can spot that sort of trouble, besides which, they’re not likely to start the real fireworks unless they believe they’ve got me in the crosshairs.”
Jack didn’t answer. There was no need.
“Okay, Wizard. You need to get going, so I’ll leave you to it. Judi is out; there’s no way she’s leaving the girls for a run like that until they’re a bit older. But I think you’re missing something.”
“Yeah. Instead of Missy, why not take my Mom with you?”
“Lou?” Hill looked startled, which pleased me no end.
“Why not Lou? She’s still a cop at heart, a natural born investigator. I’m pretty sure she’d jump at the chance; she’ll be breathing fire as soon as she hears about a child being killed. As for weapons, I’ll bet she could talk Frank Harding into loaning her one of his shooters. Or if she needs one in a hurry, she’ll just take it away from an enemy that underestimates her until it’s too late.”
“She would at that.” A slow smile crept over Jack’s face. “But I need to hit the junction in thirty minutes from right now.”
“Judi will have called her by now,” Sissy put in. “Unless I miss my guess, she’s already headed this way.”
I sat there, tapping my chin in frustration. Yes, I would need time to prepare before driving down to Arizona. Time to go over defensive protocol with Jordan and the assassins–heh, sounded like a singing group, Jordan and the Assassins. Time to consult with Philip Phreeb, see if he could turn up anything from the victims’ past or by putting his computer skills to work on the photographs Frank Harding had taken. Time, time, time.
It wasn’t pleasant, hiding behind the women, sending off either my lover, my wife, or my mother. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a better choice.