Jack Hill’s sudden command was enough. My finger dropped away from where it’d been about to activate the right turn signal, my foot pressed back down on the accelerator, and the Pontiac cruised right on past the little bridge. Over there, tucked back in the trees against a low cliff, the Half Castle Restaurant waited for us.
But not just yet.
“What’s up?” I asked mildly enough, but my adrenaline was spiking. Jack didn’t bark out orders like that without good reason.
“What about the flag?” He must be referring to Old Glory, snapping in the morning wind from the top of its 20 foot pole on the other side of the bridge. Half a dozen searchlights positioned around the base kept emitting a random firing of red, white, and blue strobes upward. The patterning of the patriotic light show was pretty impressive after dark. At 9:45 a.m. on a blue-sky Monday morning, it wasn’t nearly as striking.
“Well…not the flag itself, but the lights. They don’t really flash at random, you know.”
I glanced over without losing sight of the frontage road we were covering. “No. I didn’t know.”
“Right now, every few seconds, they’re flashing two or three reds in succession.”
“Let me guess.” I braked medium hard for an oncoming driver who’d just pulled a hard left, crossing mere yards in front of the Grand Prix before hitting a gravel driveway that led off to the north, down toward the Clark Fork River. Idiot. “That means danger, keep on going?”
Hill shrugged. “Maybe danger, maybe a high-security meeting they don’t want disturbed. The code’s not that sophisticated. Anyway, we’ll kill an hour or two, swing back by, see how things are then.”
“Fair enough. So, where to, kemo sabe?”
“How about the KO? It’s only five miles down the road from here.”
“Good enough.” I reset the cruise control at 55 and took my foot off the pedal. We both liked the KO Rodeo Ranch Cafe, named after Oral Zumwalt’s place out on Miller Creek. Never mind that Zumwalt had been dead since the early sixties and the cafe had played host to its share of violence in recent years. The cook was capable and the morning shift waittress, Judi Minske, was a looker.
We wound up having to park around the corner and halfway down the block. Not unusual along this part of Broadway.
The hairs lifting off the back of my neck, though…that was unusual. Something didn’t feel right. While exiting the vehicle, I reached back under my jacket, pinned the hammer strap back out of the way, and made sure the Walther .22 pistol was positioned right.
The sound of a racking slide caught my ear. I turned my head in time to see Jack Hill slip his Colt Challenger–also a .22–back inside his shirt. He didn’t usually keep one in the chamber on that particular shooter. Since he carried it under his waistband inside his shirt with the muzzle pointed straight at his balls, keeping the chamber empty made sense.
“You, too?” I queried, eyebrow arched.
He nodded, sky blue eyes flicking about, scoping out the environment.
We didn’t run into any trouble on the way down the sidewalk to the restaurant, though, and Judi greeted us with her usual cheery smile the moment we stepped through the door.
“I do believe your booth is available, gentlemen. The usual?”
“Absolutely.” I gave her my best girl-getting grin in return. We trekked on back to the booth on the far end. It was my turn to have my back to the wall, which gave me a clear view of the rest of the restaurant. Jack was facing the hallway that led to the restrooms and, beyond them, to the back door with the Exit sign over a notice the owner had posted a couple of years ago.
Eating and running gets you 30 days
The food’s a whole lot cheaper for the customer who pays
Jack had told me about the event that inspired those words, but I had more important things on my mind at the moment. Judi brought our water and coffee, along with a mini-pitcher of half-and-half. I looked straight into her pretty brown eyes and said softly,
“I hope the other guy looks a whole lot worse.”
She snorted and chuckled at the same time. Snorkeled? Snuckeled? Showing no trace of self-consciousness, she framed her hands to sort of “present” the huge purple bruise surrounding most of her left eye.
“I got in my licks,” she admitted. “Kicked him in the cojones hard enough to make him sing soprano and give me time enough to get away.”
“Good girl.” I nodded in approval.
Jack spoke up. “Still the ex?”
“Yep. He keeps tracking me down. Restraining orders don’t mean nothing to that one.”
Hill heaved a deep sigh. “They never do. You’ve still got our phone numbers, I presume?”
“Sure.” She tapped her skull, wincing when she realized her fingertip had hit inside the bruised area. “In here. Yours and Tree’s both.”
“Don’t wait too long.” I had to say it. These things never seemed to end well. “He’s escalating.” Thankfully, we could talk freely. There were no other customers in the place at the moment, and our friend was the only waittress.
“He’s an ayhole.” With that, she turned on her heel. Not upset with us, just going to snag our Belgian waffles and bacon. Or something. At any rate, she disappeared into the kitchen.
Jack and I turned our attention to some serious coffee sipping. Partly. Mostly, I was keeping an eye on Broadway and Jack was eyeballing that hallway leading to the back door. Mervin Minske had to be the reason we both had our hackles up. Could be something else. Anything is possible. But most likely….
Hold on now…an old Caddy had just pulled out from a parking spot right in front of the restaurant, and speak of the Devil, ol’ wife beater Merv the Perv had just wheeled his big black Dodge dually into the vacated space.
“Merv.” I spoke quietly, not bothering to look at Jack. He’d know what I meant. The control freak got out of his truck and left the door open. On the traffic side.
Minske doted on that truck. If he was that far gone–
“Gun!” My voice wasn’t as quiet this time, but not all that loud, either. Judi’s ex was rounding the front of the truck, not running but next thing to it, striding toward the cafe door like a man possessed.
Hell. Not like a man possessed. He was a man possessed. A lefty, and in his left hand he carried a monster revolver. His .41 Magnum, no doubt. The pistol was on full cock, his finger on the trigger, his thumb not on the hammer. Three and a half pounds of squeeze, that thing was going off.
Hill and I were both moving, me leaning forward enough to get the Walther unlimbered, Jack twisting around on the seat as he drew his Colt from under his shirt.
It occurred to me to yell to Judi to stay in the kitchen, but there was no time. Besides, she’d likely come running to see what we wanted, not realizing–
–Judi came out through the kitchen door, carrying our orders on a tray.
–Mervin Minske came storming in through the front door, his Magnum sweeping up.
I’ve got to say, the girl had her poop in a group. No screaming, no panic, she just launched that tray full of food at her ex’s face. It was a bit of a throw for a full-tray food fight, nearly 20 feet. Not even a single slice of bacon made it all the way to the target…but it did maybe startle Minske a touch. Maybe. We’ll never know, the way things panned out, but maybe.
The food splattered all over the floor, butter-laden waffles skidding toward the gunman’s oncoming Redwing work boots. His Magnum roared, launching 240 grains of jacketed hollow point at the lovely, bruised, yet unbroken 110 pound woman.
Jack and I dropped the hammers on our .22’s at almost the same instant. Who was first, Minske, Hill, or me? I couldn’t tell you to this day, and neither could my partner. It was close, very close. We should have beaten him, but he was moving laterally to our left when he busted through that door, a fast-moving target nearly 60 feet from our back-booth positions. We’d taken that extra half-second to zero in the best we could.
Had our hesitation cost Judi her life?
For a few seconds there, we didn’t know. Minske was dang sure down, but the lady was nowhere to be seen.
I beat Hill up the aisle by a step or two, staying focused on the prostrate shooter. There’s nothing half as dangerous on this planet as a dead crazy man who ain’t quite dead yet.
This one, fortunately for us all, was quite thoroughly deceased. There were two itsy bitsy .22 caliber entry holes in the left side of his head, right where they should be. Blood was dribbling, just a little bit, from both the ear hole and a puncture in the temple. Either shot would have been fatal; between them, he wasn’t even twitching.
Judi stood up behind the counter, cradling her right arm with her left. She was bleeding a good bit more than the corpse on the floor and her face had lost color, but it didn’t look like the slug had broken any bone. She’d live.
And she was tough. “Get out of here!” She whispered fiercely, indicating the back door with a jerk of her head.
For an instant, I stared at her. “What about Chance?”
Jack was already pulling at me, though, so I did what the girl said and got out of there, through that back door.
We didn’t speak until we’d scooted down the alley, back around the block to the car, and then cleared the area.
“Okay,” I took a deep breath. “That was interesting. But like I said, what about Chance?” The cook knew us by sight, at least enough to tell the cops that Minske had been shot down by a big black man and an old white dude. Not too many salt and pepper combos like that in Missoula, Montana. It might take the local yokels a day or three, but they’d make us…wouldn’t they?
Hill didn’t seem concerned. “Chance is a good cook, Tree, but he’s also both lazy and, I strongly suspect, entirely chicken shit. I’m betting, after hearing World War III open up out front, he went and hid. Judi probably had to dig him out of the meat locker. As for identifying us, we got lucky when we weren’t able to park in front of the restaurant. Nobody can say they saw your Pontiac, ’cause it wasn’t there. And I’m willing to bet our girl is telling the cops, right now, that the mystery vigilantes who took down her homicidal ex were Chinese guys, or Native American, maybe Hispanic–anything but black and white.”
“Huh.” I knew I liked that girl. “So, kemo sabe, one question.”
“Was that ear shot yours, or mine?”
He laughed uproariously at that, kicking off a ballistics discussion that carried us all the way to the 4B’s restaurant west of town. We still needed those Belgian waffles, and the shootout at the KO Cafe made the idea of picking another eatery mighty attractive indeed.
By the time we’d finished brunch, the word was out on the radio, circulating everywhere. There’d been a shooting at the KO Rodeo Ranch Restaurant. One Mervin Minske had wounded his ex-wife and been killed in turn by a pair of mysterious strangers, “persons of interest” the police very much wanted to engage in conversation.
The lone eyewitness, waittress Judi Minske, reported that the unknown gunmen struck her as Italian, with an accent and driving a black BMW with New Jersey plates.
“Hate to shoot and run,” one of the men had told her after ascertaining that she had suffered no more than a flesh wound, “but there’s a highway out there making us an offer we can’t refuse.”
Hill liked that a lot. “Not bad. She’s laying it off on the Mafia, complete with a line from The Godfather, no less.”
I groaned, but I was grinning. I knew I liked that girl. Grit, smarts, and a sense of theater.
It was nearly one o’clock by the time we made it back to the bridge. The flag lights were flashing their usual sequence, no multiple reds, so we went on in to the Half Castle.
In the hidden back room, Mr. Gray had good news for us: His hacking contacts had completed their dossier on the two Department of Defense moles who’d been compromised by the Sinaloa Cartel.
“We’re referring to them by the code names of Curly and Moe,” he told us.
“The Two Stooges?” I couldn’t help liking the sound of that.
“Right on.” The dapper underground intel hotshot held up a wait-a-minute finger, then tapped a sequence of commands on a wall mounted keypad. Watching the stainless steel round table and three chairs rise up from under the floor was like being in a James Bond movie. Extremely cool.
The coffee wasn’t bad, either…and it told us we were going to be hearing a lot of information, enough that memorizing it might require some serious sipping.
The journey home, back out of Missoula, up the canyon past Greenough, then east past Clearwater Junction…there just weren’t enough miles to allow us to cover everything. Judi Minske was in and of herself worthy of serious discourse. Curly was an amazingly arrogant dude, even for a relatively high level bureaucrat gone bad. Moe lived a smarter lifestyle except for the exceedingly bad habit of meeting strange men in public restrooms for gay action.
In other words, both of the bad guys had glaring weak spots that gave us tons of ideas for taking them down, and the good girl was obviously worth bringing up to either Jack’s place or mine. Her choice. If she ever decided to make that choice.
Man, I wanted me some of that. Sissy wouldn’t mind, either; we’d talked about it.
Jack, though, he could be serious competition when it came to damsels in distress needing a new place to stay.
She would want a new place to stay…wouldn’t she? Missoula had to be losing its allure…didn’t it? She’d refused to get out of town before, because she wasn’t about to let some big ol’ homicidal ex with a loaded .41 Magnum tell her what to do, but now? Surely now?
Well, she had our numbers. Yes indeed, Treemin Jackson, she’s surely got your number at the very least! Shut up, voice in my head.
I’d probably never admit it, not even to Sissy, but the last fifty miles? Despite my vaunted and usually 100% reliable eidetic memory, I had no idea what the heck Jack Hill said to me, or what I answered back.