The year had come and the year had gone
And Rodeo Iron was moving on
President Trump applying the goad
Making those liberals’ heads explode
Winning when all of them swore he could not
All talking smack with their left-wingy rot
While Rodeo Iron is pumping out door after door
To sell to moderate Muslims and more
Don’t bug the bull or you’ll surely get gored
It’s peaceful right now and wow am I bored!
I had to chuckle, but I was shaking my head at the same time. Willow and Aspen had both been born into a clan at war, complete with witches, shape shifters, aliens, and even vampires. It really had been amazingly quiet for months now. Our firstborn would be turning ten shortly, but she wouldn’t be happy with a mere birthday cake and candles. Young shape shifting, spell casting Willow Jackson would want combat, or at least a trip through the tunnels with her basketball headed, long clawed, four eyed, four mouthed, alien friend, Diamond Paws.
“Judi my love,” I admitted, “we have birthed a monster.”
The petite blonde responded with a straight face…mostly. Her eyes were definitely laughing. “Monsters ‘R’ Us!” She shoved the rest of the Composition papers to one side and deftly replaced them with plate and silverware. The warmed over stew on the stove smelled savory enough to make my stomach growl; it had been a long Friday shift at the office and I’d worked late, studying the A.S.S. door sales reports, teleconferencing with Chuck Trucking to work out steel supply logistics, and even going over the final, long delayed background check report on Herschel and Holly Ware.
Okay. Yeah. We were a fine bunch of monsters, true enough. Even me. Aside from my healthy hunger, so many thoughts were criss-crossing through my mind that I didn’t realize I was shoveling chow down like I was feeding coal to a nineteenth century steam train in the middle of a ten percent grade. “Who you calling a monthter?”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, cowboy.”
“Hnh.” That much I could grunt with my mouth closed. Swallowing finally, I got out, “It’s just you and me tonight?”
“What there is left of the night.” She had a point there; it was after ten p.m. “The girls were so bushed they didn’t even argue about going to bed on time. They were out riding in the pastures all day. With Jordan’s men watching over them, of course, but from a distance and out of sight. Willow thinks she’s God’s gift to horses, tries to tell Aspen how to handle Baby, and Aspen tells her where she can put her advice. Not in exactly those words, since she knows I’d wash her mouth out with soap, but she gets her point across. For a while they even played tag on horseback, but eventually decided it was not all fun after Willow fell off into a prickly pear patch when she turned Bonfire too sharply. And Sissy is spending the night at Sim and your Mom’s place, presumably still at this hour talking door business with Herschel and Holly.”
“Ah.” It was unusual for me not to have been advised earlier about that, but I had been bogged down in paperwork. “Sure hope she can convince Herschel to call his bit of the business something other than A.S.S. so we can settle this out of court and be done with it.” How it had escaped the rest of us in the beginning was one of the world’s great mysteries, but the name American Security Systems had been around for a long time, and those A.S.S.es were suing for trademark violation. Even our hotshot lawyers in Great Falls had missed that one. Maybe I should sue them.
Joking. We don’t instigate lawsuits, just defend when necessary. If Rodeo Iron has a beef with somebody, we prefer more…direct…methods. “Wait. Why is Sissy spending the night there?”
“Sim’s feeling poorly, Tree. Got the latest winter flu crud or something, and Lou’s afraid he might get so congested he could stop breathing in the middle of the night and we’d lose him.”
Ouch. Yeah, that would hurt. Losing any of our people hurt like the blue blazes, and we’d lost a few. No one yet to old age, though, or even sickness. Unless you counted Jennifer Trace’s death by poison from a hundred pound shape shifting rattlesnake. “So she’s staying to spell Lou a bit?”
“Yeah. Your Mom hasn’t slept in three days, taking care of Sim.”
“Got it. So you said it’s all quiet on the bedroom front, did you?”
She snagged my empty bowl and took it to the stove for a refill from the slow cooker. “You inhaled that first batch, Treemin Jackson.” My little sharpshooter witchy wonder woman gave me her stern, no nonsense look. “Wrap yourself around one more helping, and then we’ll see. I don’t want you swallowing me by mistake.”
Ay-yi-yi! Later, I realized not even my eidetic memory was enough to remember whether or not I’d finished as ordered before rising from the table and heading for the shower, discarding clothing across the master suite’s bedroom floor as I went. The little minx had a streak of neat freak in her; she wouldn’t be able to resist picking up my discarded garb. I might even have a chance to enjoy the hot water for a few seconds before she got to me and steamed things up worse than the mirror.
Saturday morning. I sat sprawled in my chair, sipping after-breakfast coffee, lounging like a great lazy cat as I watched the girls playing Witchfire in the living room, my peripheral vision keenly aware of my mate in her fluffy pink robe doing the dishes. We heard Sissy drive in but didn’t need to check the cameras to know it was her; every vehicle crunched gravel in a specific way.
“Success!” Sissy Harms was as enthusiastic this fine day as Judi and I were contentedly satiated. “Holly and I had to practically hold that stubborn Herschel down and beat him with a tire iron, but he finally saw the light. We have a new name for the security door business.”
“What did he settle on?” Judi beat me to the question. There’d been some ugly possibilities floated in the past. Such as United States of America Security Systems (U.S.A.S.S.), Rodeo Iron Doors (R.I.D.), Montana Ultimate Doors (M.U.D.), and others.
Sissy Harms grinned. “Breathe easy, boss. Holly came up with the winner, though she had me present it to her husband as if we’d thought of it. Guess she figured it might carry more weight, coming from us. The new name, subject to your approval, is Total Opening Protection, T.O.P. for short. Herschel had to think it over for a couple of hours, but by midnight he was loving it. Says the name will make the product line. He’s already hard at work designing something he says will protect chimney tops, with back burner ideas for attic vents. I’m not sure he’s going to manage either of those, and it’s doubtful we’d be involved in manufacturing them even if he does, but as long as he’s happy, right?”
The radio blared to life. “Tree, you there?”
I grabbed the headset and put it on. “Here, Philip.” No wasted words.
“Got two guys at the main gate insisting on seeing you today. You might want to hear their descriptions before you decide yes or no.”
If Philip, ensconced in the Citadel and monitoring the visitors from multiple camera angles, including overhead drone…yeah, I’d better hear this. “Go.”
“One of them is an older dude, long salt and pepper beard, olive skin, dark eyes, and if I had to peg him, I’d say he was an Imam. No robe or turban, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, but it’s like I can see him in the clerical garb. He doesn’t look like a happy camper, either.”
“And the other?”
“Bodyguard, sure as shooting. Big, beefy, eyes scanning constantly. Left side lump under his arm.”
So, a shoulder holster. A possible Islamic Imam, or somebody who gave off that vibe of religious arrogance even in American street clothing, and a bit of muscle. Hm…. “Okay, stall them for twenty minutes. Tell them I’m on the property somewhere, but it may take you a few minutes to track me down and you don’t have the authority to release the gate locks after business hours unless I personally give the okay. Then tell him you found me, it’s okay to come on in, and give him directions to the office. I’ll flag Jack Hill and we’ll meet him there. In the meantime, Orange Alert. Have your Dad post extra guards around the Bowles place, just in case this in-your-face request for a meeting is a diversion.”
“Teach your grandma to suck eggs.”
Mouthy kid. He was right, though; unless I guessed wrong, Head of Security Jordan Phreeb was already putting things into motion, including some I hadn’t thought of. I punched the Jack button. “You monitor that?”
“Ayup.” Hill’s voice came back immediately. “See you at the office.”
The Orange Alert designation made it easy. Sissy Harms would come with me–I guess I was the Imam in this case, she was the bodyguard? That would be a gig and a half, me going in for some fiery preaching and, were I one of the radicals, a nice sideline of terrorist encouragement. Ha! Anyway, Judi and the girls would button up and hunker down, not alarmed, just ready to rock and roll should the need arise. Probably the finest week-before-her-birthday present we could have arranged for our bloodthirsty Willow. Wayne Bruce and Carolyn West would be echoing the arrangement across the driveway, former assassins Seed and Beets would be on standby just down the road a bit, and we were good to go.
Our erstwhile visitors drove sedately enough, the bodyguard type piloting a maroon GMC Yukon SUV, two wheel drive version. The SUV looked awfully shiny, as did the jeans and flannel shirts worn by the two men. So, not country folks but trying to look like they were. The burly fellow with the shooter tucked in under his armpit had really overdone it with a fringed leather jacket that did little to hide the bulge. Not a spot or a stain or a worn spot on that jacket; this was likely the first time he’d ever worn it. Two bits to a dollar, it was new off the rack from some supposedly high-end western clothing store.
Mostly, the bodyguard was in guard mode and the other fellow radiated…what? Arrogance, maybe. Scorn? Barely leashed hostility, certainly. But that didn’t mean he was a religious cleric; he could as easily be a true believer family member who opposed Holly’s marriage to Herschel. I couldn’t quite visualize the robe and turban Philip had imagined the man wearing.
Well, we’d see. The lead dude introduced himself as Mohammed Garcia. I didn’t know what to make of that, except it was pretty obvious the name was fake. He had a slight accent I couldn’t quite place, but it certainly wasn’t Hispanic.
Jack and I led them to the small conference room in the shop building, just to the rear of my current office. “Something to drink, gentlemen? Coffee? Tea? Water?”
“No. I will not be here that long.”
I? So, the bodyguard didn’t count as a person. Wonder how that made the muscular fellow feel? Not that we were going to get all touchy feely here today.
“Tell me,” the man said, his eyes boring into mine, “how do you sleep at night?”
Alrighty then. No small talk; we were getting right to it. “With one ear tuned, one eye open, and an Uzi in my fist,” I replied, my tone matter of fact. Pass the salt, please. “And with a very low tolerance for those who show me disrespect on my own turf.”
“Ah.” His eyes had been hard before, but now they fairly gleamed. No a happy gleam, either. Hateful, one might say. “I would expect nothing more than such foolishness from one such as you.”
One such as me? If you only knew, buddy. “What is your purpose here, sir?” Few people ever heard me call anyone sir. It was not a good thing when I used that form of address.
The zealot leaned forward, forearms on the table, eyes blazing. “Very well, then. I am here to remove a stain from the face of the Earth, a stain you have been harboring for some time now. We have discovered your treachery in giving shelter to this criminal. I say to you, stand aside and Allah’s will be done, or attempt to interfere and Allah’s will will still be done.” The bodyguard punctuated his fearless leader’s last sentence nicely by opening his jacket to reveal a holstered semiautomatic. A huge one. Looked like a Desert Eagle. He would be slow getting that into action; Jack Hill would have three .22 long rifle rounds into the side of his head before he cleared leather.
Especially since neither fanatic seemed to be paying Jack the slightest bit of attention. Come to think of it, the Wizard might have something else in mind, doing his feeble–even senile–old man impression, studying his fingernails up close like they were the most fascinating things in the Universe. With a mere twist of the wrist and flick of those fingers, Hill could easily punch a lightning bolt clean through any man.
“You know,” I said, leaning back against the wall in imitation of Han Solo’s ultra-casual ruse just before he fired his blaster under the table and terminated the bounty hunter in the first Star Wars movie, “Mr. Garcia, you have much to learn regarding the limits of your own power. However, I presume you proceed on the assumption you have all of God’s power at your beck and call, and that you are referring to Both Mr. and Mrs. Ware in your rant?”
Surprisingly, the Imam–that was how I was beginning to think of him, thanks to Philip’s hyperactive imagination–straightened up in his chair. “It has come to the attention to the true servants of Allah, yes. The Wares, as you refer to them, are selling hardware designed to resist the attentions of the true believers, the legitimate agents of Allah. This is not right. It is, as you Americans might say, of the Dark Side. Correcting this spiritual failure of our people is our business, Mr. Jackson. We have tracked these blasphemers down, and you must stand aside, or quite frankly, you will die with them. Perhaps not beheaded,” he tipped his head back to indicate the bodyguard standing behind him, “at least until after your death. But you will die, and for what?”
I laughed aloud. The Imam’s eyes went wide and the bodyguard’s eyes narrowed. Cool; two for one. “Tell me before we die, oh exalted one, have you proclaimed this little mission of yours to all who know you? So that when you return, you can boast of having done what you set out to do? Clue me in; how big is your home audience?”
“What do you mean?” It was his turn to do the eye-narrowing thing. “Home audience? I need no audience save Allah!”
“Ah. So no one knew you were coming here today? I find that hard to believe. You must have boasted to your wife, at least.” Personally, I hoped he was telling the truth; it would make things so much easier if we ended having to ice these two.
“I have no wife!” He was off balance now; I was winning. The bodyguard knew something was terribly wrong, but it seemed pretty clear he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Totally understandable when you’re a gorilla with a couple of peas rattling around inside your skull pretending to be an entire brain.
“How about you?” I asked the burly man. “Surely you have a wife, sir? Surely she will be waiting to hear about your glorious exploits in the Big Sky Country of Montana?”
“He does not have to answer to the likes of you!” The Imam snapped. “Kill them, Achmed!”
I held up a hand as Achmed reached for his monster pistol. Something in my eyes must have stopped him from completing the draw; he watched me carefully but made no further move.
“Sissy,” I called out, “show yourself, please.” A light came on in the next room, the supply room situated between the small and large conference rooms. My Warrior Woman was illuminated from behind, nothing more than a dark silhouette…except for the muzzle of the M1A1 carbine resting comfortable in the small window opening. Not much of a window, really. More of a murder hole, just enough to let her see most of the room without providing much of a target herself.
That muzzle pointed directly at the Imam.
“Jordan, your turn.”
Another backlit murder hole, this one from the main shop. Our Security Chief’s choice of weapon was not a rifle, however, but a twelve gauge shotgun, the bore zeroed in on Achmed. I didn’t mention Jack; one does not turn over all of his hole cards unless absolutely necessary.
It would get awfully loud in the room if folks started shooting. With elaborate care, watching the stunned, angry faces of our guests, I pulled a pair of foam earplugs from a shirt pocket and began inserting them into my ears.
As homicidally insane as the Imam might be, he wasn’t entirely stupid. He got the picture, finally. Nobody knew they had come here, at least according to them. We could blow them away, bury the bodies, and their disappearance from the face of the Earth would never be solved. Plus, while they might yearn for the seventy-two virgins (each) they would receive in Paradise as martyrs, they would prefer to take out a few infidels and blasphemers before they went.
The bodyguard looked resigned to his fate, willing to go for it, to see if he could take out one or two of us before our bullets finally stopped him…but the Imam did not look resigned at all. To give him credit, he wasn’t scared, either. “We will leave,” he said, icy calm overlying the rage that surged within.
“If we let you,” I replied softly. “Just a moment.” I unclipped the handheld radio from my belt and keyed the Citadel code three times. Three more clicks came right back at me. Excellent; Philip had all the video and audio he needed to ID these two.
“Ah,” I waved a hand, dismissing them. “Go on. Get out of here. After Brutus there unbuckles his shoulder holster and drops the rig on the table, that is.”
Brutus didn’t like that much, but he could do the math. The Imam? He didn’t say much after that. In fact, he said nothing at all. Just strolled on out, every vibe promising revenge. He would be back, or more likely he would send others back. A lot of them, heavily armed, with cute explosives, grenades, rockets, and stuff.
When their SUV had left the shop driveway, I keyed the mike again. “Philip?”
“Monitor the vehicle as far as your drones can safely reach. Once they’ve exited the main gate, drop to Yellow Alert and call for a Full Council meeting at um…say two p.m. But keep a minimum of fifty percent of your drones in the air, okay?”
I could have had him read the instructions back, but there was no point. Philip Phreeb was one guy who’d never messed up a set of instructions in his life.
Jordan Phreeb left on his rounds, undoubtedly starting with Seed and Beets. He’d want to know what the former assassins had noted of interest when the radical Islamic terrorist types were coming and going. Sissy, Jack, and I headed back home; we had several hours yet before the scheduled meeting would start.
“How’d it go?” Judi asked the moment we stepped in the door. “I see the Code just dropped to Yellow Alert.” Meaning she’d noticed it had not dropped any farther than that.
“About what we expected,” Sissy told her cheerfully. “We all knew the Wares couldn’t hide once the T.O.P. doors went into production. Not with Herschel having that patent pending on them, they couldn’t.”
My wife had been baking while we were gone; I could smell the cherry pie, fresh from the oven, and headed for the kitchen. No use letting good cherry pie sit a-wasting until lunch time. “Could have been worse timing,” I pointed out. “It took forever to pull that last bit of deep background check on Holly, but the kids are clean. Best of all, Philip will have these two yahoos identified in short order. Face recognition software and all that. With luck, he’ll also know what kind of backup this guy has, whether he’s a real Imam or whatever, how many other guys he can call on to try to take the Wares down. I’m pretty sure we’re all nothing more to him now than object lesson to be used to intimidate anybody else who might think about not toeing the line. He does know we have some teeth now; he got to see the business ends of shooters held by Jordan and Sissy. But that’s it.”
“And that’s a very small part of the force Rodeo Iron can bring to bear during a shootout,” Judi said thoughtfully. “So, how we prepare will depend on how many warriors for Allah this guy can call on?”
“That’s one factor.” I stared longingly at the pie, still cooling on the counter. Sissy took mercy on me and dug out plates. Plates plural; neither she nor Judi were about to let me hog the whole pie, and we could hear the kids coming down the hallway, arguing over the best way to decapitate a demon. “Philip will be looking at other things, too. Stuff the feds look at all the time. Travel overseas, possible training connections, access to explosives, ability to make their own, yada yada yada. And then when we have a fairly good picture….”
“And then?” Willow prompted. “And then what, Daddy?”
“And then we have to decide whether we’d be better off handling the attack ourselves when it comes, or if it’s likely to spiral out of control and we need to call in the feds before Uncle Sammy catches us with our pants down. We can’t afford to be found fighting terrorists without mentioning anything to the G-men.”
Nine year old Aspen–nine soon, anyway–piped up. “You don’t want those old feds mucking around on our property, do you, Daddy?”
“No, honey, I don’t.” She climbed into her seat and I reached over to tousle her hair with one hand while attempting to sneak a forkful of her pie with the other. She slapped my hand away in righteous indignation. It was her pie. “But we might have to tell them. In the meantime, we’ll just have to sit and wait until Philip gathers the data. He can hack just about anything; it shouldn’t take him too long.”
“It better not!” Our younger daughter declared with asperity. “Meantime, we got the fear of the unknown and I don’t like the fear of the unknown!”
Out of the mouths of babes. “Neither do I, honey. Neither do I.”
Judi decided to lighten the mood around the table. “Willow came up with a new joke today, Tree. Fair warning, though; some black folks and white liberals would call this one racist and hound her to the ends of the continent.” My blonde was twinkling at me as she said that. It must be a dandy.
“Well,” I stuck out my chest, “this big ol’ handsome black man was never one to be skeered of no politically incorrect comedy material. Lay it on me, short stuff.”
“Okay.” The girl paused her forkful of cherry pie halfway to her mouth, just long enough to present her joke. “What’s the difference between a man living in a tent and a laundry basket with an afro?”
A laundry basket with an afro? What sort of little mind-monster had I sired here? “I don’t know.”
“One is a happy camper and the other is a nappy hamper.”
Sissy must have already heard that one, but I spluttered with laughter and looked at my wife. “Don’t look at me,” she replied calmly. “She’s your daughter, too.”