Our various synchronized clocks and watches agreed; we had everything arranged in large conference room with eight minutes to spare. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to go over a few of the details one more time. “Judi, the girls are safe?”
“With Diamond Paws,” my wife nodded. The big basketball-headed alien digger would entertain them in the tunnels until we gave the all clear. We knew of no immediate threat to our home, but we hadn’t survived and thrived this long by getting careless, and I needed their mother here for the meeting, just in case. Hopefully she wouldn’t need to do anything other than sit there and look pretty…which she did exceptionally well, I might add.
“Audio and video up and running, boss,” my tall warrior woman grinned. “Philip can edit later if needed.” She probably thought I missed the wink she gave Judi, not to mention the slight twitch of my wife’s upper lip in return. Those two got pretty cocky sometimes, humoring me as if I were their child instead of their man and leader of this whole shebang. Not that I minded that much. Truth be told, my ladies were almighty tolerant of my little foibles, overall.
The former Marine drill sergeant leaned back in his chair, laced his fingers together, and cracked his knuckles. “Six men on standby in the trees, three to either side of the road. Anybody deciding to either cut and run or on the other hand crash our little get-together, they’re in for a wee surprise.”
Seated halfway around the conference table as if he weren’t my number one backup, the ancient Protector put a hand over his mouth to cover a mighty yawn. That was Jack Hill’s answer; not only was the man born ready, lo those many years ago, but his play today would be to act sleepy and bored while keeping his senses open. If there were any surprises in store for us, he would give the surprises some surprises. It’s nice to have a Wizard on your team, especially one who can throw a dagger as precisely as he can throw lightning.
What was not nice, I reflected morosely, was the number of empty chairs with red ribbons tied across the arms to block their usage, each representing a fallen friend who could not be here today. Sam Trace. Jennifer Trace. The old tracker Horace…time to shut off that line of thought and get on with it. I hit the speaker button and spoke to Soren Kirk aka “Seed,” former assassin, inventor of the Super Screw, and today posing as our receptionist. “Send them in.”
“Yes sir,” Kirk’s cultured voice came back in respectful response. He almost made me laugh out loud with that one.
Seconds later, the door opened, admitting Herschel and Holly Ware. The young couple looked around, eyes wide. This was the first time they’d been invited to an Inner Council meeting; they were taking advantage of the experience. I tried to see the room through their eyes: Big, first of all, forty feet by sixty. Walls of tongue-and-groove knotty pine which provided a light, homey feel to the sizeable space. The random knots also made the construction of hidden storage and the installation of hidden cameras a breeze, but the Wares didn’t need to know that. To them, it would appear to be nothing but Hick Chic. A lot of it. Several pictures graced each wall, some of them taken of Sam and Jennifer Trace, back when Trace Rodeo Ranch was up and running, before the murders. Others showed the growth of Rodeo Iron in progress, sequentially dated, one of them a close-up of me meeting with the Governor of the State of Montana to receive a Black Boy Makes Good award, though they didn’t call it that, exactly.
There were no outside windows.
The conference table wasn’t quite a Round Table of Camelot quality, but it was oval. Or, more accurately, egg shaped, with my seat as sole owner of Rodeo Iron being at the narrower tip. The top was made of marble, a dark mottled gray-to-black with gold and white steaks winding throughout the pattern here and there. Gaudy, but hey, gotta have a little bling once in a while. Everybody got a high end, leather covered chair with roller casters and arms, though only our people knew about the really special feature of those arms. Press a hidden catch just so, and any one of them would swing out of the way. Fast. Both hinged and spring loaded, they were designed to give Rodeo Iron fighters a split second advantage if we were ever jumped on our own turf, either by a visitor we’d somehow failed to vet properly or by an attack from outside.
In our world, paranoia pays.
“Have a seat,” I said, snapping the Wares back to attention. Time to get down to business. There were only two chairs available, one between Judi and Sissy on my left, halfway down the table, and the other directly across the table from there, between Security Chief Jordan Phreeb and Jack Hill. Jack appeared to be dozing off. Judi gave Holly a big smile and gestured to the seat next to her. Mrs. Ware looked a little nervous, being separated even that much from her husband, but she accepted the invitation and sat down. Herschel looked perfectly calm, maybe a bit expectant, as he settled in between the men.
There would be no snacks for this one, but I did take down a healthy glug of water from the glass in front of me before opening the meeting. As I detailed the failed attempt by the “Imam” to intimidate us that very morning, Herschel Ware started blinking. Not frequently, but when he did, it was nearly always a rapid double-blink. My eidetic memory served up several earlier images of the man. No, he had not double-blinked in my presence before. A tell, then; Ware was deeply worried. As well he should be; his life and that of his woman were very much at stake. Who wanted, or even could, stand up against an entire radical Muslim jihad and survive? Rodeo Iron had not turned them over to the bad guys this time, but what might happen next? I would have been nervous too. Very nervous.
Holly Ware was a steed of a different shade. I could pick up no tell whatsoever. It seemed like she was…resigned to their fate? Could be; women were often more practical than men. As it should be; it’s the man’s job to protect his mate, so anything threatening her well being is going to fire up his adrenaline. Elementary, my dear Watson. Maybe.
Having brought everybody up to date, I moved on to new business. To my right, towering up out of a welded lace-steel Inbox tray, was a stack of papers seven inches deep. I picked the top two from the pile, copies of a surveillance camera photo of the Imam, a document sized, up close portrait of the Imam in living color. It had taken Philip Phreeb all of twenty seconds to convince me the extra expense of purchasing surveillance equipment that recorded in color would someday pay for itself. In my opinion, that day was today.
“Pass these down to Herschel and Holly, would you,” I said, waiting until they had the photos in hand to ask the sixty-four thousand dollar question. “Does this man look familiar?”
Both brows furrowed, wrinkles forming as they studied the Imam’s face. After a few long seconds, they raised their heads almost as one, gave each other a look. Holly nodded almost imperceptibly. Herschel turned to me, spokesman for the pair. “We’ve seen him twice before. Not sure of his name, though I thought I heard one of his men call him Achmed one time. The first time, when they tried to kill us, but we were lucky. Or spiritually protected might be more like it. The second time, I saw him first, and I don’t think he saw me. The first time was in Illinois, I forget the name of the town, but we were gassing up the car and these guys came out of a restaurant down the block. When they saw us, they started running toward us, and one guy pulled out a big pistol. I don’t think they shot at us, but we didn’t wait around to find out. We’d paid cash for the gas, and still had a couple of dollars worth to go, but Holly was already back in the car. She’d gone to the restroom, but she was back. I yelled something, yanked the hose out of the tank, dived behind the wheel and peeled out of there.”
“You yelled something?” Security Chief Phreeb’s inquiry was mild, curious.
Holly spoke up. “He said omigodtheyfoundus!”
“Was that it?”
“And the second time?” I tried copying Phreeb’s gentle tone. Didn’t want to disturb the flow.
“Well, uh…that one was kind of embarrassing. We hadn’t seen anybody on our trail for weeks. I got careless, I guess. I’m a big sports fan, crazy for baseball especially. Holly doesn’t like it, but we were in this little motel and she told me to go ahead, she’d be fine alone for a few hours. So I went to the game, drank way too much um…soda…and had to go to the restroom. But so did a lot of other guys, and bless my gender, it’s usually the women’s side where they all have to line up and wait, but there was a line at the men’s this time, too. Home team was getting creamed, and I guess I wasn’t the only one who’d put over filled my bladder. If you can’t cheer, you might as well drink, or something like that. I was waiting in line, trying not to do the potty dance or hold my crotch, not wanting look like I was five years old in front of all these other guys, and then I saw him. He was in the same line. Not the Imam, but the big guy with the gun, and I knew wherever he was, the Imam had to be around somewhere. They must have tracked us to that town…in Indiana that was. I couldn’t figure why this guy would be there, but then why would I be dumb enough to be there?
“I had to get out of there, so I did. But on the way back to the motel to get Holly, I, um….”
“He peed his pants,” Mrs. Ware put in helpfully.
“Yeah.” Herschel blushed. TMI, right there.
“Just trying to help, honey.”
“So,” I interjected, “these guys have been after you two for a long time?”
“Yes,” they chorused. They were good.
“Uh-huh. And what did you think would happen, once you filed for that patent on your super-reinforced T.O.P. door and then came out in the open with production? Did you think these guys were stupid? That they couldn’t access the U.S. Patent Office’s database? Or that they wouldn’t know about your invention?” No more Mr. Nice Guy; I’d gone straight past CEO to my Daddy voice.
“Uh….” Herschel shrank in his seat, utterly mortified.
Holly Ware was made of sterner stuff. “Frankly, Mr. Jackson, we didn’t think. We were frightened to the core, worn down from running, and your company looked like a safe haven. Consequences didn’t cross our mind.”
Things had gone far enough. “You said you recognized that photo, right?” They nodded, not knowing where this was going. I selected more papers from the huge pile. “Well then, how bout this one? Or this one? Or this, or this, or this one?” Five more photos, five different men, all in black and white except for one that had been taken with a cell phone.
Holly took one look at the first of the five and froze, a deer-in-the-headlights look on her face. Herschel turned white. Whiter, that is; he was already pretty white. His fingers trembled, dancing the paper he held like an aspen leaf in a high wind.
We all let the silence drag on for a while. Mrs. Ware’s lovely features remained frozen in horror. Her husband’s mouth worked, silently gasping like a carp out of water, left to die on a grassy riverbank, but there was no sound.
Time to finish the kill. Figuratively, with a verbal sword. “Baskin Elden Yarmouth, Junior,” I held up my copy of the man’s portrait, “con man extraordinaire, wanted in seventeen states at last count and father of Baskin Elden Yarmouth the Third. By some miracle, or perhaps merely due to his relative youth, Baskin the Third is only wanted in five states at this point.” I held up two more photos, one showing a bearded ruffian who looked like a deranged pirate, complete with a scar across one cheek and a patch over the opposite eye. The other portrayed an up-and-coming young businessman, clean shaven, square jawed, clear eyed, looking born to wear his Armani suit. “Baskin Junior as outlaw biker Roman Chase,” I indicated the bearded pirate, “and Baskin Number Three as Conway Allan Holden, Harvard MBA and genius stock analyst. Risky con, that one, especially for young Conway.” I shook my head in mock admiration. Conway the con. Cute. “Had the Sundowners tumbled to either one of you, they never would have found your bodies. Or the pieces of them.”
My precious, petite, innocent looking little Judi was ready to play Devil’s advocate. “Tree,” she exclaimed, putting a hand on Holly’s shoulder in a protective, indignant move, “surely you’re not saying the Wares are…thieves?”
“Some of the best,” I stated flatly. Looking around the room, I dropped the hammer. We’d all covered this before the Wares arrived for the meeting, but this was for effect. “The implied Imam is no Muslim at all; he’s a white bread con man with a set of cojones the size of Chicago. I’m guessing he chose to use the Muslim faith to try ripping us off because much of America is terrified of radical Islamic terrorism at this time; he likely figured we’d bend over immediately, rather than face the prospect of being targeted by a jihadist group.” He didn’t know the real Rodeo Iron, of course, or he would have picked a much different target. “And of course it helped that Holly really is Muslim by birth, though she’s long since left that faith and her family, while mourning her departure, would never consider anything like an honor killing. They’re really good people.”
“Wait,” young Mrs. Ware spat out suddenly, fire in her eyes. “You contacted my family?!” She might be just that good as an actress, but I thought her rage was genuine.
“Discreetly, I assure you.” I met her gaze, returning it with nothing but calm. I’d faced irritated vampires and blood lusting shape shifters and even one surprised grizzly bear before; a twenty-something renegade girl wasn’t much. “Which is more than you’ve done. Your parents were happy to hear you were all right and asked me to tell you, you’re always welcome at home, Mrs. Yarmouth. As long as you don’t bring Mr. Yarmouth with you. Your folks feel he’s a negative influence on you.”
“Yeah.” She spat the word. “I think they’re a negative influence on the whole bleeping world.” Lovely parent-child relationship right there.
Baskin Elden Yarmouth the Third, thanks to me focusing on his wife for a moment, had pulled himself somewhat together. It was a remarkable feat. His features were now calm, the trembling in his fingers completely gone. “How did you find all this out, Tree?”
Aha. Tree now, is it? Trying to work the first-name familiarity angle, no doubt. I glanced at the seven inch stack of paper, then looked him in the eye. “Why do you think it took us this long to finish up your background checks? We use some people who are very good at what they do.” Those people being primarily boy wonder hacker Philip Phreeb in our Citadel security center and Laurie from the Half Castle in East Missoula, but he didn’t need to know that. “It does take a bit of time, though. Especially when the subjects are as, um, interesting as you and your Dad.”
He could see he wasn’t going to get any more answer than that, so…. “You call the cops now? Or what?”
I considered, steepling my fingers as I pondered. “Could do that, of course.” Couldn’t, because we’re not bringing the Sheriff’s Department in on our security measures. “But I’d rather you told us the complete plan. You do that–trying to hold your congenital lying down to a minimum, mind you–and we might be inclined to let you go.”
“You’d let us go?” His expression was guarded, as well it should be.
“Under certain conditions.”
“You first. How did you figure to make out financially? The real score.”
“Okay.” Baskin/Herschel sighed, exchanging another look with his wife, who’d taken to imitating the Sphinx; she was utterly unreadable. “Dad has a Sub S corporation set up, a Delaware corporation. Before we started, he made sure we had lots and lots of proof that his company had developed the security door. He even filed for a patent, days earlier than I did. He has a contact in the Patent Office who would slow-track both applications for a cut of the take; there would be no official awareness of a possible conflict until we’d made our score and gotten out.”
“And then,” I prompted. He’d started looking like he was having second thoughts about his confession.
“And then…the lawsuit you’re facing now over the A.S.S. company name, that was a bit of luck. But with or without it, the idea was for Dad’s company to likewise take notice of the door production and threaten you with a huge lawsuit. Dad believed you were solvent enough to pony up some big bucks, so he’d sue for ten or fifteen million dollars and settle for what he could get as a settlement, targeting five million but not being unhappy if he got a million and a half.”
A million and a half dollars. Like I had that kind of cash on hand, even if I wanted to play ball. “So, where does the radical Islamic thing come in? The fake Imam and his goons?”
“That was just to make you nervous, Tree. And to give me an exit. If the bad guys were after me and Holly, and you could be rid of their threat by getting rid of us, Dad figured you could be taken for another bit of cash–a hundred thousand, maybe, you know, just so Holly and I had running money, so you and your Mom and everybody wouldn’t feel so guilty about not standing up for us against such terrible odds. The last thing he expected was for you guys to have guns pointed at him and Teddy. Teddy’s big revolver usually works pretty good to scare people.”
I stared at him in shock. Nothing else had even surprised me, but expecting us to roll over in the face of a single goon with a single pistol? “Baskin,” I spoke softly, the whisper of a sword leaving its sheath, “this is rural Montana, not sissypants crybaby San Francisco. To top that off, I was raised cowboy in Idaho and spent a bunch of years living within a stone’s throw of the ghetto in Hartford, Connecticut. And I’m a black businessman in a mostly white part of the country where the memory of people murdering other people for being different is still fresh and raw.” Like the young gay man in Wyoming who happily left a bar with two cowboys, hoping for some loving, and ended up crucified naked in a remote barbed wire fence, freezing to death in the middle of a subzero Wyoming winter. That had not been Wyoming’s finest moment.
“Yeah,” Holly put in, her tone bitter. “Mr. Baskin Elden Yarmouth, Junior, really blew it on that one.” She appeared to have daddy-in-law issues.
“What are your conditions?” Baskin the Third again, looking merely apprehensive.
“First things first.” I took a sip of water, then continued. “Let me summarize, make sure I’ve got this right. I was to give you a stake to hit the road, leading the supposed Islamic killers away from Rodeo Iron. And I was to fork over a million or two to settle the mess caused by stealing the plans for the T.O.P. security door. Anything else?”
“That’s about it,” he muttered.
“Can’t hear you.”
“I said that’s about it. What are your conditions?”
“Number one,” I said, “who did you really steal the door plans from?”
Yarmouth locked up. I could tell from the stubborn set of his mouth that he was going to tell me no. I might even have to reveal one or two of our scarier assets, and I absolutely did not want to do that. “Holly,” I murmured, barely loud enough for them to hear, “please advise your husband.”
She did. “There’s no point, honey. If they’ve back trailed us this thoroughly, they can find out sooner or later anyway.” Which might or might not have been true, but we’d established a certain rep here. I glanced her way. The woman was cleaning the fingernails of one hand with the fingernails of the other, seemingly engrossed in her task. On either side of her, Judi and Sissy were hyper alert, just in case a weapon or martial arts strike was involved in that behavior. Yay girls, though violence was not likely. Nothing in the files indicated that.
“Okay, okay. There’s a guy in Oklahoma.” He reeled off the contact information.
“Philip?” I said to the air, my gaze momentarily rising toward the ceiling. Maintenance had forgotten to check for cobwebs; I’d have to have a word with them.
“On it, Tree,” came the reply through the tiny receiver in my left ear.
He would have the answer quickly if I knew Philip. In the meantime…. “If this checks out, then here’s the rest of the deal. See this?” I held up a contract. “You sign this. It doesn’t incriminate you in anything; you simply sign over all rights to the T.O.P. security door design to Rodeo Iron Incorporated. Jack Hill–Jack, wake up!”
“Huh?” The old man’s eyes flew opened as he straightened in his chair. Not that he’d really been sleeping…at least I didn’t think he had.
“Jack here is a Notary,” I said, “got his Stamp a couple of years ago because he was nearby and the only person here who holds no fiduciary interest in Rodeo Iron, so he can and will notarize your signature. The contract states that you are selling the rights to us in return for one thousand dollars and other valuable considerations, those considerations being,” I leaned forward, fixing young Yarmouth with my best killer glare, “your lives.”
Baskin choked, staring at me in disbelief. “You’d kill an unarmed, helpless woman?” I didn’t know if he was manning up finally, worrying more about his wife than himself, or simply using his best weapon. He was, after all, a second generation con artist of the lifetime persuasion.
“In a heartbeat,” I lied, “but I wouldn’t have to. The Sundowners would do that for me. After they were done with you and had put her through her paces for a while, that is.”
I could see the moment Baskin Elden Yarmouth III broke completely, and that was it. It was time to wrap this up.
My earpiece spoke. I held up a finger for everyone to wait while I listened to Philip. “Got it, Tree. Very first search string. He told the truth; the inventor’s name is Robert Xavier Penman. Don’t know if Penman knows about us producing the door yet, but he’s on record in his town’s local newspaper, talking about it. He’s been having trouble finding a manufacturer who can build the door right and still keep the cost competitive.”
“Thanks,” I said to the air again. Addressing our con man, I stated, “Time for you to go. Take that thousand dollars, gas up that hunk of junk you drive, and be out of Montana by noon tomorrow. I don’t care which direction you go; that gives you enough time to clear the state.”
“So you ripped us off, huh?” He was getting feisty now.
“That’s rich,” Jack Hill spoke for the first time. “If I know this man, he’ll go have a little talk with Mr. Robert Xavier Penman.” Yarmouth jerked, his eyes widening; he hadn’t mentioned Penman’s middle name. “Explain what happened, that you rabbited, but offer to make it right with the inventor.” He looked my way. “Did I guess right, Tree?”
“Close enough,” I admitted. Spot on, actually. Unless Penman turned out to be a jerk, Rodeo Iron would sign all design ownership back over to the him, subject to a contract that allowed us to continue manufacturing and marketing the door. The cut that would have gone to Herschel-who-was-not-Herschel would now go to Robert X. Penman, who would have input into the process but wouldn’t have to lift a finger to see his dream come true.
Okay, so it might not go that smoothly, but we could make it happen; I was sure of it.
The Yarmouths were gone, escorted by a team of Jordan’s people, when Jack Hill cocked a quizzical eyebrow at the tall stack of reports from which I’d selected the photos that blew the con couple’s cover. “You really produced that much background on them, Tree?”
With a straight face, I lifted another batch of papers and gestured to the rest. “What I’m holding is background stuff. The rest is three reams of blank copy paper. Conning the cons.”
Hill laughed so hard I thought he was going to hurt himself.
By supper time, things were back to as normal as they ever got around our place. Sissy and Judi were setting the table, Willow and Aspen were wrestling in the exercise room–with warnings to watch the suplex moves, as we didn’t need one girl breaking the other girl’s neck. I was thinking about telling the girls to go wash up before heading to the kitchen when my phone rang. Jordan.
“The tracker on their car is out of range,” the Security Chief reported. “Philip’s drone is headed back to base. But they stopped for gas west of Missoula and kept going on I-90.”
“All right,” I said, a weight leaving my chest that I hadn’t known was there. The Yarmouths were rabbiting for the nearest Montana exit, aiming toward the Idaho panhandle. “Back to Normal for the night, then.” Normal was the mildest ranking in our Alert system. Not green, exactly; Rodeo Iron slept with one eye open, always. But it would do.
We’d barely pulled our chairs up to the table when Sissy Harms passed me the mashed potatoes and remarked, “You know, I do believe this is the first.”
“The first what, sweetheart?”
“The first time we’ve ever had a viper in our midst and gotten out of the situation with no physical violence.”
“Huh.” She might be right at that. Later, maybe, I’d run through my eidetic memory, see if that was accurate. In the meantime, supper was on the table, I was as hungry as an old boar bear coming out of hibernation after a long winter’s nap, and there was cherry pie for dessert, cooling on the counter as we spoke. “Maybe we’re evolving, you suppose?”
None of us believed that, not even our daughters. Our eyes all laughed at each other as we dug in.