Bye bye, Salt Lake City. As soon as he felt the big jet engines winding up, even before Flight 713A accelerated down the tarmac and lifted into the air, Jack Hill’s eyes were closed. To observers, and certainly to the couple across the aisle from his window seat, he appeared to be sound asleep with no intention of coming back to this world until it was time to deplane in Phoenix.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth. In fact, the Wizard’s eyelids were the only parts of his system that were down for the count; every cell of his awareness was wide awake, searching, considering.
There was much to consider. It hadn’t bothered him when Treemin Jackson suggested his mother as a sidekick for this little exploratory jaunt. Louella was one fine looking woman, the chemistry between the two of them had been comfortable from the day they met, she had a mind nearly as sharp as her son’s–lacking only the eidetic memory that made the sole owner of Rodeo Iron such a formidable force–and Tree’s potential enemies knew her little if at all. They might even get in a little harmless flirting, off by themselves for the few days it would take for the boss to join them in Show Low. No, the idea of traveling with Lou Jackson hadn’t bothered him at all. Discovering that Sim Bowles was coming along for the ride…that was a horse of a different color.
As perfect as he’d thought his poker face to be, the retired rancher had read him like a book. “Not about to let a fine specimen of womanhood like Lou run off with an old horndog like you,” Sim had said. His grin had taken the insult out of the remark while the “guy code” message of his eyes made it clear: There would be no flirting with the salty old cowboy’s mate, period.
The trouble is, Jack thought, working it over in his mind, I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that. What did he and Tree know about Sim Bowles, really? Tree had always said there was more to the man than met the eye, but he’d never been able to provide specifics. It was a gut feeling.
Any man who ignored one of Treemin Jackson’s gut feelings was a fool, and it had been a long time since the man who’d fought on both sides during the Civil War qualified as any kind of fool.
The Wizard was certain about one thing: Sim Bowles was no B.J. Hennessey. He would never betray Lou. Never. So, if he was using his implied jealousy of the stunning black woman as a cover, then what? What was he covering?
By the time the plane reached cruising altitude and leveled off, one and only one possible answer had raised its head without being summarily rejected. The leathery old bugger was there to watch his woman’s back. Fortunately or unfortunately, that theory had a couple of inescapable corollaries. One, he must feel this journey was far more dangerous than any she’d undertaken without him…which might mean Bowles had his own powerful intuition warning him. Two, Sim believed he could protect his lover…and that thought led down all sorts of trails. Why did the man think that? He was at an age when most men are either already dead or leaning hard toward a rocking chair. There was no sign of extreme longevity; Bowles was still as healthy as the proverbial horse, but he’d never failed to show signs of aging, albeit a bit slower than most.
So then, what is he?
If anybody on the planet was qualified to winkle out the answer to that little mystery, it should have been Jack. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he thought, the answer remained un-winkled. Supernatural? Doubtful. A secret agent operating in league with some Black Ops government agency? Ouch. That was a real possibility, in which case Rodeo Iron might already be infiltrated by the feds in a big way. And Tree shot his big mouth off about his plans, too. There was only one solid anchor that gave the ancient Protector any degree of comfort. Lou Jackson trusted Sim. She’d been with him, first as an employee and then as much more than that, for more than three decades now.
Hill found himself in an endless loop. Lou Jackson could be trusted. Lou Jackson trusted Sim Bowles. Ergo, the Wizard had no choice but to trust Bowles.
I’m still going to figure him out, though…eventually.
So, enough about Sim. What about Tree? Their fearless leader’s prepping plans were admirable, well thought out, worth implementation…but they didn’t go far enough. Yes, thanks to Diamond Paws–another ally that only the Weaver could have recruited so effectively, without even trying–Rodeo Iron’s entire contingent could eventually go underground and survive. Probably.
But following any man’s lead unthinkingly had never been Jack Hill’s way. Not since the Civil War, it hadn’t. When it came to Rodeo Iron, the problems were twofold. There might come a time when it would be best to leave Tree in the dust, take his lovers and strike out on his own as he had done so many times in this incarnation. His survival had been guaranteed more often by moving out of harm’s way than by any other maneuver. If it works, don’t fix it. Alternatively, there might come a time when the entire Ovando area would become untenable, above or below ground. Lots of possibilities for that scenario. A single nuke, a single earthquake, the explosion of the Yellowstone Caldera, just to name a few.
In which case he would need to say to Tree, “Hey, cowboy, let’s roll. I’ve got this fallback hideout I sort of failed to mention until now.” Actually, he had three potential hideouts scattered around the country, one of which was little more than an hour’s drive from Show Low. The other two were situated east of the Mississippi, one in Kentucky coal country and one in northern New Hampshire.
The Arizona property, 638 acres, a “short section”, was in many ways his favorite. Cheap agriculture-rated taxes, just over the back ridge to reach National Forest and old growth tree cover, left and right ridges plus a snaky route out of the mini-valley that provided privacy at least as extreme as his Montana place used to be, before the advent of the Weaver and his population boom magic. All that and three perennial springs to boot, though none of them were developed.
All of the hideout properties were owned under different names. Duh. No one else knew about them, not even Wayne or Carolyn. Again, duh.
Getting this close on company time was a blessing he could not afford to ignore. He hadn’t been to what he thought of as his Arizona Rathole in more than, what? Twenty-two…no, almost twenty-three years now. It was definitely time.
How he would slip away to check it out, he had no idea. But he would. He definitely would.
“So,” Lou asked brightly as the trio headed out from the Phoenix airport in their rented Impala, “what’s our cover story?”
From behind the wheel, silently cursing the urban sprawl that had him struggling to find Highway 60, damn the useless GPS and full speed ahead, Jack shrugged. “I’m officially fronting for Tree until he can get down here. How do you guys want to play your end of it?”
“That’s easy.” Sim Bowles was riding shotgun, relegating the black woman to the back of the bus–uh, the car. He attempted to stretch his long legs, discovered to his disgust that a “full sized car” in modern vernacular is an oxymoron, and explained. “I’ve retired from ranching, been spending some time in Montana, but been thinking about Arizona lately. Lou is my caregiver, a Registered Nurse who keeps me from drooling in my cereal or pooping in my pants.”
Hill couldn’t help it; he busted out laughing. “Yeah, like anybody’s going to buy that! You look about as feeble as–ri-ight!”
“See?” The leather skinned old cowboy smiled, clearly pleased with himself. “It’s perfect. People will get all sorts of wrong ideas, but some of those ideas will work to our advantage. Me looking for a retirement acreage, with or without a home on it, will provide plenty of cover for asking questions. If you’ve never seen Lou acting as my concerned caregiver, you’re in for a treat. She can get almost anybody to open up, tell her things they’d never volunteer to you or me. Plus, we can separate at times, me hitting the bars–and before you ask, no, I quit drinking a long time ago, but I never yet met a bartender who wasn’t happy to get the price of a full drink for a glass of club soda with a splash of grenadine in it. Makes it look like I’m drinking a girly drink, but most folks, as long as they think it’s alcohol, they’re fine with that.”
“You’re impressed, right?”
“Yeah, but the damn was for the road sign. Finally found the freaking highway we need.” The traffic was starting to taper off this late in the evening; that was also a good thing. “So you figure we might do best going our separate ways?” The Wizard had his own ideas on the matter, but for the moment, active listening seemed the way to go.
“Maybe not all the time.” Lou spoke up from the back seat. “We don’t need to try to hide the fact that we came in together, just that we’re all looking into the murders. We just tell anybody who asks that you were coming down, we’d never been to Arizona–let alone Show Low specifically–and it seemed like a good time to check it out.”
“Hunh. A good time to check out property for sale in a county where there’s just been a double ugly triple murder.”
“Yeah, so we’re ghouls at heart. Who isn’t?”
She had a point. The tendency of human beings to rubber neck at any site of extreme horror never failed to amaze. Jack Hill thought that over for a while, then said, “Reminds me of a friend of mine who worked on a ranch during his first summer out of high school. The place was a couple of miles from the Interstate. One fine Sunday morning, the boss got word there’d been a fatal car wreck at the intersection. Saturday night alcohol involved. The mess had already been cleaned up, but the boss’s fifteen year old daughter and a friend who was staying with her that weekend, they decided to go down there after the day’s work was done, see what they could see.
“They asked my friend–his name is Randy–they asked Randy if he wanted to come along. He did not. Told them he wouldn’t cross the street to look at an accident unless there was something he could do to help somebody. But these girls were all hopped up about it, so away they went, hiking down during the early evening, just after supper.”
Sim snorted in disgust. “They decided to walk four miles round trip just to check it out where somebody got killed?”
“They did. It was uphill all the way back, too…but they made it back quicker than Randy had figured they would, and they were looking a little green around the gills. Turned out they’d found a finger lying on the ground where the ambulance and cops had missed it. Randy took noticeable satisfaction in telling this story; he said those girls lost their investigative interest entirely.”
“Good for them.” Lou’s voice was quiet; the men in front had to strain to hear her. “First mess I ever investigated as a cop, my partner and I found a whole lot more than a measly finger.”
“Sorry, Lou,” Jack said. “Wasn’t thinking. Didn’t mean to fire up old memories.”
“No harm, no foul. I’m just thinking, whatever we find at Show Low, I’m willing to bet it’s going to be a whole lot more than a stray body part.”
Neither man could argue with that.
All three investigators when they reached the cutoff at dawn’s first light, turning away from the town by unanimous agreement to roll on out to the scene of the crime. According to Frank, the state forensics team had come and gone, three separate ambulances had hauled the bodies off for autopsies–mandatory in gunshot cases–and the local deputies had scooted on down the driveway shortly thereafter, heading for a hot date with Dunkin Donuts.
“That’s a joke, folks,” Frank had explained. “No donut shops around here. Anyway, they’ve done gone. Left the crime scene tape up, made me promise to keep my trap shut about the Fang Power graffiti.”
Jack had put in the call to Frank, using his cell phone to confirm their ETA before they hit a known dead zone. “How did that work, Frank? The paint was on the van, right? Did they haul the van off, too, or what?”
“Not yet. There’s some kind of local politics going on there. The deputy in charge told me they always use Farnum Towing, which is probably because Slim Farnum is brother in law to our new Sheriff, and Slim was tied up with some big wreck out on the Rez. He’s only got the one truck. Word is, he should be here by sometime this afternoon, but you should have plenty of time to look it over. I’m not about to risk crossing that tape, but if you do and I don’t see it, hey, what do I know? And by the way, our illustrious law enforcement superstars didn’t even bother to go inside the shack.”
“Right on,” Hill replied. “There’s our tax dollars at work. Say, Frank, you wouldn’t happen to have a spare set of wheels around the place, would you? We’re in a rental car, but Sim and Lou will be taking that. I could use something local, if you know what I mean.”
“Not a problem. My granddad died off last year and left me his ’54 Chevy pickup. Will that do?”
“Absolutely, if the plates are current and she’ll kick over when you turn the key.”
Harding laughed. “Key? Who said anything about a key?”
“Even better,” the Wizard decided, and he meant it. The franchise owner promised to show up by 7:30 a.m., well before the welders would be going to work in the manufacturing building, and they signed off.
Hill was wheeling the Impala down the driveway, moving at a sedate seven miles per hour, when the bullet crashed through the driver side window, traveling straight across, burning the bridge of the Wizard’s nose and punching two holes in the back of Sim’s jacket before exiting through the passenger side window. Had the old rancher not been leaning over to pick up his billfold from where he’d dropped it on the floor, he’d have taken damage for sure.
The -crack!- of the rifle shot came a moment later, though they barely heard it. The ill fated Larson residence, no more than thirty yards ahead, looked like their best bet. Neither Sim nor Lou said a word as Hill gunned the Chevy, simply getting as low as they could while he swerved off to the right, through a tangle of low yet bumpy bunch grass, and around behind the building.
They all rolled out fast, two of them silently cursing their lack of weaponry. “Don’t assume that’s the only threat!” Jack barked, but he was preaching to the choir; the rancher and his woman were already flat on the ground, peering in different directions, cool as a pair of those proverbial cucumbers.
Who the hell is this Bowles guy? Jack asked himself for the thousandth time as he scooted to the corner of the shack, peering around the edge of the building as cautiously as possible. Using only one eye didn’t give him any depth perception, but he was mostly worried about death perception.
The round had cored their vehicle from side to side, the bullet’s line of travel almost perfectly perpendicular to the driveway. Pretty much level, too, which meant the assassin was–or had been–positioned…crap. That didn’t help. Harding’s operation was set up on a naturally flat bench; there was no great change in elevation for nearly half a mile.
He didn’t think the shooter had been that far away.
Where would I have set up? He wondered…and once again, as it had so often in his past, that mindset did the trick. Right there, beyond the buildings, where that little patch of scrub oaks would provide cover….
Movement. The enemy broke cover from the trees, running low, fast, and hard. At this distance, a quarter mile or close to it, Jack’s vision was enough to be sure it was human, but no more than that. God, I hope that bastard’s not bait. If there’s a second sniper in place, just waiting for me to show myself–
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The Wizard stepped away from the building, launching streaks of lightning, red from his left palm, blue from his right. Guessing how much to lead the runner was an iffy proposition at this range, but what the hell. The colored bolts came together just before reaching the target, fused to become Purple Fire death incarnate–and missed.
Oh, the man fell, all right. He also screamed, though perhaps not loud enough to wake the dead. Loud enough to startle a covey of quail into flight, though. Unfortunately, he got right back up as a poorly shot game animal often gets up, wounded but knowing its life depends on flight, pain or no pain.
When Hill arrived at the site of his strike, he was out of breath. Mostly level or not, a quarter mile jog was more than enough. The rifleman was gone, the growl of his pickup truck having long since faded into the distance.
By the time he made it back to the shack, Frank Harding had arrived. Sim had moved the rental car back to the driveway. Bowles and Jackson had been checking out the ground inside the crime scene tape as well as the van. Lou had also been inside the residence.
Harding deadpanned, “Kind of a warm reception, eh?”
“Not too frigid,” Jack agreed. He looked around carefully. Welders were arriving, going to work. Some of them might have seen him wandering around out there, but they knew enough not to get too curious. To a man–and one woman–they wanted to keep their jobs.
“That’s the weapon?” Their host indicated the rifle Hill was carrying by a short stick stuck through the folds of the leather sling.
“That’s it.” What had his partners told Harding about Jack’s wizardy strike? He wondered. “Remington .30-06. Bugger panicked and dropped it when he fell.”
Harding considered. “What do we do, Jack? Turn it over to the cops for fingerprinting?”
“As if. Frank, for all we know, that was a cop. It’s looking to me like somebody really doesn’t want your franchise to succeed. Murdering Larson and his family could have been a personal thing, but us coming and getting shot at? Total strangers? There’s something ugly going on here. Not that the murders weren’t ugly, mind you. Just saying. No, what I think I’d like to do is put this in the Impala’s trunk all careful like, out of sight, then take the time for the bunch of us to think this thing through.”
“Hoping you’d say that.” The stocky man nodded as if confirming something, then jerked a thumb toward a smaller steel building set to one side of the big machine shop. “My office is private enough. No eavesdroppers.”
Hill wasn’t certain about that, but the bug detector had lived up to its press, making it through in his checked baggage without being noticed.
Once they were settled in, seated around the conference room’s modest table and sipping coffee that tasted like it came from somebody’s bargain bin close-out sale, Jack opened the ball. “At least we know why the guy fell when he took off. Lost a heel to one of his boots.” That told Lou and Sim approximately how much damage he’d done…without giving too much away to Frank. “Got a few pictures of his tracks. I’ll get those photos to our people in Montana; they’ve got some good computer programs that might be able to tell us…or maybe not. You never know until you try. It would also be good to lift prints off that rifle to send along, but it’s not like we brought a kit with us.”
“Speak for yourself, Kemo Sabe,” Lou said, ignoring the curious look she received from Harding. “I used to be a cop, remember? I brought a kit in my checked luggage, just like you brought that bug detector.”
“Huh.” Jack chuckled. “You, Sim? What did you bring?”
“A spare set of underwear,” he replied laconically, “and I’m pretty sure I need it.”
“Folks,” Harding said, looking like he was struggling to get the words out. “I appreciate your help and all, but nobody counted on you getting shot at just for driving in here. I can’t ask you to put your lives in danger.”
Sim raised one going-white eyebrow. “Seems to me we’re already put. Mr. Harding, right now I’d say the sixty-four thousand dollar question is, who might have you on their enemy list? Who stands to lose if your welding school and your manufacturing operation succeed beyond your wildest dreams? My grandpappy always told me to follow the money. Or, if that fails, follow the prejudice, the bone deep stupid hate. Generally speaking, if it aint one, it’s the other.”
“Yeah. I been thinking about that, even before you got shot at. Jack, what’s that red mark on the bridge of your nose?”
“Bullet burned me on the way by.”
“What?! It came that close?”
“It did. What’s your point?”
“My–yeah. My point. My point. Let’s see…Mr. Bowles, I can’t see much money loss in it if I succeed. Matter of fact, it should end up being win-win-win all around. The jobs will help out a bunch of people, they’ll have more money to spend, and some of that should get spent right in this area. Nobody else has tried to open a welding shop here in years, either, so I don’t see this coming from the competition. There are small welding operations around, but none of them are the type to go out gunning people down.”
So that left prejudice? Strangely enough, Jack Hill hadn’t even considered that as a possibility. But then, Sim might well be the right man to think of it. He’d been in a mixed race relationship for a long time now. “Lou? Did you find anything in the shack?”
“Just this.” The black woman fished in her carry bag, producing a baggie containing a a single small sheet of paper, one of those you find in a pocket size spiral notebook. She passed the baggie around so that everyone could take a look. On the sheet, printed in block capitals like those used by either the U.S. military to prevent misunderstandings in communications or by serial killers to prevent identification of the writer, was a single sentence.
THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN IS A DEAD INDIAN.
Frank Harding was the last to read the hateful message. He held the baggie gingerly, staring at the contents and declaring drily, “Looks like, unless it turns out Larson himself wrote this, we got us a motive.”