“#&%*!! California driver!” I cursed with feeling, but not till after whipping the Pontiac to the right, missing the high-end Lexus by inches. The vehicle with the plates from the land of Nancy Pelosi had cut us off, changing lanes without warning. We rocketed past on the right, got into the clear, and I gave vent to my feelings. “Go back to San Francisco and ride a dam**d trolley car!”
“Woman driver, too,” Jack Hill added calmly. He was riding shotgun.
“Blue haired lady. Probably owns one of those red hats.”
“Huh.” My adrenaline was winding down. Doesn’t take me long, most times.
“Might as well stay in this lane. Our exit’s coming up.”
We’d had to wait a while for the DNA report on the wolves we’d killed in the high country, but there was no lack of things to keep me busy on the ranch. For one thing–the thing that had gotten me away from the welding shop and down to Missoula today–the boss had expanded his product line once again and appointed me his part time sales representative.
Which might have put us behind on orders, but the new welder, a guy in his mid-twenties by the name of Wally Gregg, was better and faster than I’d ever be.
When Jack heard I was scheduled to call on a bunch of Missoula businesses today, he’d volunteered to ride along. Worked for me; we enjoyed each other’s company, and I found out he could close a sale as a “disinterested” third party faster than a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses could show up on an otherwise pleasant Saturday morning.
It’d been a bit of a surprise, him wanting to come along. The man detests Missoula. But there, he told me, was where we’d find our genetics report on the wolf pack. Being done on the QT, it wasn’t something wise people entrusted to things like the U.S. Mail or (God forbid) a satellite telephone.
Not that I had any idea where we were going. Mostly, already forgetting about the blue haired senile California suicide jockey, my thoughts were on our sales success. Wally had welded up several sets of miniature stock corrals, three of them now doing double duty at Hellgate Saddlery, a startup storefront called Cowboy Toys, and Thorgerson Seed & Feed. The Rodeo Iron Miniatures could of course be purchased as high end toys for young children, but being built to scale, they could also show a prospective customer exactly what a set of our stock pens might look like on his ranch.
“There,” Jack pointed. We wheeled off the frontage road, taking a dirt track that wound between trees along the creek, across a narrow bridge, and into the parking lot of a remarkable structure boasting a small copperplate sign that said simply, “Half Castle, Inc.”
They had that right, though Hidden Half Castle would have been more descriptive. The grim gray stone building could not be seen from the highway. They did no advertising, and being owned by a conservative Republican, got no free coverage from the left-leaning Missoulian. Or, for that matter, from the local TV stations.
Which was the media’s loss. From what the Protector had told me, the Halflings served the finest Chinese food anywhere…and, for those in the know, something more.
The back end of Half Castle was jammed into the side of a small hill, making it hard to defend in the medieval sense. Swordsmen could easily climb up there…but this was obviously a fashion statement, not a serious attempt to hold off the armies of an enemy lord.
Up front, the entrance was monitored by a stonefaced door guard clad in what appeared to be simple boiled leather armor and packing a halberd. I was pretty sure he knew how to use it.
“Afternoon, Geoffram,” Jack greeted the halberdier.
“And you, Sir.” You could hear the capital S, but you couldn’t see a smile, either on the lips or in the eyes. This cold steel dude was a stone cold killer or I’d eat my latest welding project.
Inside, the place was impressive. Counting the booths hugging the outer wall, there must have been fifty tables, each topped by a snowy white cloth. Few were occupied at this hour of the day, 3:14 p.m. by my well worn Casio wristwatch.
“Restroom,” Jack said, moving toward the back. I wasn’t sure what he expected of me; guys don’t tag each other to the john like the ladies tend to do.
Inside the restroom, which was as big as any you’ll find in, say, your local Walmart, he ignored the urinals and moved swiftly to an inexplicably blank space around the far corner of the row of stalls …where he knocked on a wall tile that looked like any other.
Cloak and dagger and secret passageways, oho!!
Three secret doors later, each of which no doubt possessed its own hidden defenses, we were there. This room, maybe forty feet to a side and as square as the visible Half Castle was half-round, must be tucked back in underneath the hill itself. At a guess, something like 60 feet of earth and rock rested on top of the roof.
These folks were serious.
Or at least this one folk was serious. Dapper, maybe five-seven, slim, trim, fortyish but holding it well, wearing what had to be an Armani suit and Italian made shoes, both in charcoal gray.
At least he wasn’t one of the Men in Black. Where’s Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones when you need ’em?
The Man in Gray simply nodded to my fearless leader before greeting me.
“Been called that,” I admitted, shaking the hand he offered. The guy might have been a runt compared to me, but he had a handshake like a pair of American made vise grips. His name I never caught, nor was it ever thrown. Were I to make a wild guess, I’d say it likely changed from time to time, anyway, so I tried not to fret too much about that.
The DNA report on the dead wolves? Yeah, I did fret about that. It was, you might say, fretworthy.
All verbal, nothing put in writing, no phone calls, no emails, this was black ops at the grassroots level. And as Mr. Gray (as I came to think of him) laid it out, I could see why. Something was rotten in the wolf pack.
He ticked points off on his manicured fingers, speaking in a crisp manner that left the hearer unable to doubt his expertise or even, for that matter, the accuracy of his people’s findings.
“We’ve been able to identify a number of species whose DNA exists in your Canis lupus,” he began, “whether by interbreeding or through gene grafting. Your hunch was right; these are not pure wolf. Not a bit of it.
“There are at least three species of domestic dogs present here: The Irish wolfhound, the English Mastiff, and the greyhound. Additionally, the dire wolf is represented quite strongly, which is interesting in the sense that the dire wolf has been extinct for the last 10,000 years.”
I couldn’t help myself; it just slipped out. “Jurassic Park, anyone?”
“Exactly.” He nodded, beaming as if I’d passed some sort of test. “But that’s not the interesting part–and by interesting, I mean as in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.”
“Huh indeed. The interesting part–well, see, any of the Canids could have turned up in the gray wolf by natural means. We’ve not found dire wolf DNA in gray wolves before the samples Jack brought us, but then again, we’ve most certainly not sampled the entire worldwide wolf population, either. The Irish wolfhound and the wolf are ancient enemies, but a bitch in heat can result in males and females breaking all the rules. And so it goes.”
Suddenly, I knew where he was heading with this. Hoped to Hell I was wrong, but–
“Thus, the interesting part is not the DNA from other Canids. The interesting part is…there is also at least a bit of human DNA in these wolves.”
Jack Hill looked about as totally unsurprised as a man can be. The expression on my face must have been–I burst out with it.
“There’s more.” It wasn’t a question.
“There is. We were able to put together a search string, start digging through the Internet for those who might evince interest in such a combination.”
“And you found something.”
“We did, Mr. Jackson. We found enough–not material you could take to court, but enough to convince us that a single entity has its prints all over this one.”
Jack had that one eyebrow cocked. I held my breath.
“The U.S. Department of Defense.”
Our beloved mountains were being used as a biological weapons testing center. The reintroduced wolves hadn’t just been bred up by some idiot environmentalist with a penchant for mega fauna; they were being created.
What for? I wondered. Weapons, obviously; we’re talking DOD here. But how would/could they be used? They hadn’t turned on people yet, but–
–Oh. They wouldn’t have to turn on people to be weapons. What if they were being designed to, say, kill off every four-hooved piece of meat out there? Protein deprivation; didn’t the prison camp types all say, take away a man’s meat and you’d take the fight right out of him?
Guess I lost it for a bit there. We were back out in the Grand Prix, heading up the highway toward Greenough, the river rushing down-canyon on our right, before I even realized I was driving. Neither of us had said a word; that was about all I knew for sure.
I was ticked off.
“Does this sort of thing, you know….”
He thought for a moment. “Kinda sorta.”
“Well…some. Tree, you gotta understand, when you’ve been around nonstop for centuries as I have, you get to the point where you realize it’s a warring universe, there are literally millions of idiots out there looking to gain an edge over their fellow man at any given moment, and it’s–well, it’s just what it is.”
“So, do you, you know, ever rage against the machine? Give in to your higher warrior impulses and fight it?”
“Play noble superhero, you mean? Shut down the meanies, one operation at a time?” He sounded amused.
I considered that, glancing at the glorious fir and pine and blue spruce gracing the western Montana hills through which we drove, the colors in the sky, the river now gleaming below us in the last rays of the setting sun. “Yeah. Like that.” Somebody had to fight.
“Hell, Tree,” he grinned, “what do you think I was doing in Connecticut?”
It took me a second to get it. “Recruiting? Rounding up troops for the Wolf War?”
“Looks like. Though I didn’t know it consciously at the time.”
We’d popped out on top, just gotten clear of the canyon, when my cell phone rang. There was no signal available till then, anyway, nor would there be once we turned off the highway and headed back into the foothills housing our home, but right here the signal was plenty strong enough.
Had to fumble for it one-handed, fighting the snap on my shirt pocket, still thinking about the Wolf War. A mere handful of high country men and women, white and black plus a bit of Native American blood here and there, against the might of the Department of Defense? Death camps, black helicopters, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Bill Cooper, Jose Guerena…didn’t seem like a fair match, did it?
“Yo, nephew, y’all gittin’ lonely out West?”
“That’s my name, kid; don’t wear it out.”
“Good to hear from you–”
“I would hope so. Now listen up. Tania told us, if we did get through on your cell, talk fast ’cause you’d hit a dead zone again pretty quick. Is that right?”
“That’s right.” I looked long, down the two lane highway. We wouldn’t be turning off till just this side of Ovando, so…
“Quichona and I are coming to see you.”
“Is that a bad say what, or a good say what?” The big man’s rumbling chuckle vibrated in my ear.
“Good, uncle. Good all the way. How long you gonna be able to stay?” Big Jude might still be wanted in New York state, but it sounded like he was going to chance that. Maybe hide in the trunk of his Hudson, have his woman drive him through to Pennsylvania. That would be something.
“Forever. We’re staying forever.”
“But–how?! I mean, what about HAIF?”
“Sold the business. See, here’s the thing, kid. I been sneaky. Been in touch with your boss, Mr. Sam Trace. Sam and I worked out a deal. He’s selling me 20 acres right in the middle of his spread, so we can build a house there. And I’m coming in as a partner on his Rodeo Iron operation.”
I was stunned. “So…I’ll end up working for both of you?” Much as I loved my uncle, I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that.
“Nope. Not exactly. This partnership we’ve set up, Rodeo Iron LLC, it includes you. Sam keeps 51 percent; he’s got the lion’s share of the money and a real start on a customer base, plus someobody’s got to be the big dog in these things. The other 49 percent splits between me and you, 29 percent me, 20 percent you. You’ll be working for yourself.”
I dang near drove off the road into a tree at hearing that, ‘cept there weren’t any trees anywhere near this particular section of highway. Six years and some odd months ago, I’d been a big black juvenile delinquent kinda sorta cowboy teenager with no hope for the future…and now this?
But there was something I needed to let him know…later. Cell phone signals could be jacked.
They’d be here in a week, driving a used motor home they’d purchased at auction and towing his restored ’46 Hudson, wheels up on an auto transport trailer.
When we hung up, Jack commented, “Sounds like that went well.”
“You betchum, Red Ryder,” I replied. I’d been right; the Wolf War between our tiny group and the massed might of Uncle Sam’s Most Oppressive was an unfair match.
That my uncle would willingly sign up to help, I had no doubt whatsoever…and with Big Jude Hennessey in the hunt, the government was seriously outnumbered.