“You!” The apparition screamed the word, pointing an accusing, bloody finger at me. “You did this!”
Where was I?
The answer to that question could wait. Right now, what was this…thing glaring at me with crimson eye sockets? It appeared to be a man, or at one time had been a man, at least until the back of its skull had been blown away, exploded from within.
There was blood everywhere, starting with the jagged edges of the half-skull, the forward portion of the horror’s head remaining like the chimney of a house still standing after a tornado has ripped away the walls. There didn’t appear to be anything left behind those frontal bones, just gaping red-rimmed holes through which a cloudless blue sky painted the day. The screaming mouth revealed low green hills in the distance.
No one could survive like that. Not on Earth, he couldn’t.
Which meant this must be the astral plane. I was out of body. Dreaming. Whatever.
Moe. Curly had drowned himself, but Moe had eaten a gun.
Would he attack, other than verbally?
Maybe. But I was ready for that. The blood and gore had thrown me for a second there, all that darkening splash down the full length of his rumpled gray suit. Our hacker allies must have finally released the YouTube video, and…
“Couldn’t take take it, eh?” My voice was cold, but no colder than my heart.
It’s hard to explain how one can sense the emotions of a man with no eyes and most of his head blown away, but trust me, I understood this guy perfectly. Jonathan Q. Parkins, one of the two Department of Defense Under Secretaries who’d been taking Mexican drug cartel money to guide the wolf mutation program along twisted channels. The man we’d dubbed Moe, as in Moe of the Three Stooges, a small minded, totally corrupt bureaucrat–and the yahoo who’d offered me five hundred bucks for a liason in a D.C. restroom stall.
If any worm deserved to be impaled on a hook and drowned in the nearest lake as fish bait, this was the guy. Now he thought he’d have it out with me on the inner after he couldn’t take the heat on the outer?
Good luck with that.
His eyeless sockets glared, and yes, they were capable of doing so. The dream state has limitations, but that’s not one of them. He seemed to consider my response for a second or two, maybe three, then yowled in anguish,
“How could you do such a thing? How could you?”
What a cliché. More than that, what a straight line. Don’t ever give this cowboy a straight line like that and expect to get away with it.
“How could I?” The fury in me welled up, spilling forth without check. “You want a f***ing list?! Let me count the ways. You stole hundreds of millions of our tax dollars and diverted them into the wolf management program on the one hand while pocketing who knows how many millions in drug money bribes. You enabled the perversion of hundreds of wolves by funding the experiments that put human DNA into a species that didn’t need it. Worse than that, you warped piece of drek, you knew they were being designed to function as War Wolves, especially those your cartel buddy had commissioned–”
I had more. In fact, I was just getting warmed up, getting ready to mention the little detail that his end run funding had paid for the war being waged against me and mine, the war that had already taken the life of my friend Sam Trace, gunned him down from ambush, and seriously wounded the best tracker I’d ever known. I was on a roll…but Zombie Moe had heard enough.
His eyes bulged. Don’t ask me how a guy with no eyes can make his eyes bulge, but he did. His voice was utterly incredulous.
“All this was about the WOLVES?!”
“Why did you think, Einstein? What did you think it was about? Cheap hookups in dirty restrooms?”
“You ruined my career, you broke me, you got me killed because of a few lousy f***ing WOLVES?”
“Yes,” I replied quietly, looking him right in the eyeless eyeholes. “Yes we did.”
Moe, or what was left of him, snapped. We’d been standing maybe twenty feet apart during this friendly little get-together, just us homeboys out in the open astral countryside somewhere, no one else interested in this particular conversation.
Moe snapped and, with a wordless scream, charged.
So I shot him.
Let me tell you something. Astral zombies, you might think they couldn’t be killed. And maybe they can’t. But they can sure be stopped. The .44 Magnum Super Redhawk bucked in my hand, blasting silver tipped hollowpoint rounds right through the specter’s midsection, all six hits adding up to a ragged hole through his chest where his heart should theoretically have been, a hole the size of my not inconsiderable fist.
And I stood my ground, my will unshakeable, knowing from experience that intention often determines the outcomes of these battles on the inner planes.
I intended this piece of garbage to die (again), and therefore he would die.
He fell, eyeless face first, splat-down with the top of his busted eggshell crown mere inches from my boots, one arm flung out to the side, the other trapped beneath the remains of his body.
He didn’t move.
I stepped back two steps, just far enough so that a sudden arm sweep would miss me, and reloaded from my cartridge belt.
He still didn’t move.
“Stop by any time,” I told the lifeless form, “and I’ll kill you again.”
My eyes snapped open, expecting darkness, but it wasn’t dark. The Super Redhawk really was in my hand. I’d felt uneasy when I went to bed, cradled the big shooter throughout the night, and thus carried it right on into the dream state with me.
Ghost had taught me that trick, though he preferred a carbine.
The clock on the nightstand said 5:32 a.m. Sissy and Judi were already up; I could see light sneaking out from under the bathroom door. They did that sometimes, got themselves squared away for the day, sharing the bathroom and doing it quietly, letting me get another fifteen minutes of rack time.
I was some spoiled.
I’d needed that extra time this morning. The alarm clock would have yanked me away from Zombie Moe at any point, but I don’t like leaving unfinished business if I can help it.
Wet sheets? Yeah, I’d soaked ’em. Major sweatout.
Could be those dream state wars, when they came along, affected me more than I liked to admit.
I’d just made it to an upright position, dropping my bare feet to the carpeted floor, when the girls came out of the bathroom. The light like to blinded me; I sat there, blinking like a big black 200 pound owl.
“Whoa!” Judi took in everything at a glance. “Sissy, I do believe our man’s had himself a case of the night sweats.”
Sissy focused on the Magnum, which was still in my hand. “Combat?”
One word said it all. How she does that, I’ve never quite figured out. Saves a lot of energy, though, however it’s accomplished.
I nodded, shoving the pistol back under the pillow. “Moe. Parkins. He blames me for killing himself.”
“So I killed him again.”
Judi chuckled. She’s good that way.
My eyes snapped open. Again. As sure as I’d been, I was not at home after all. A dream within a dream, then. Only now had I made it back to the physical world. I was…
…it came back in a rush.
I was in the hospital at Deer Lodge. Nurse Ratchet had glared at me when I’d walked in the front door, glowered at either my blackness or my slough-slimed work clothes, maybe both, insisting that I’d have to wait my turn. There were others ahead of me.
Doctor Menning had come barreling out, caught me as I fell. Lawrence Menning, M.D. The guy’s slim build and baby face were deceiving; gay or not, there was surprising strength in that man.
Surprising strength, and more. Lying down on the gurney, knowing I’d made it, I’d been able to fight off the darkness, stay conscious a little while longer. Larry…Horace trusted him…they’d known each other forever…radiology, x-rays….
Got it. It was the weekend. Larry had told the front desk not to bother calling in the radiology guy; he would take the x-rays himself.
Talented dude, Doctor Larry. Had it going on.
“How’d you get hurt?” He’d asked once they were alone in the radiology room, then he’d added with an impish grin, “Officially.”
“Mule kicked me,” I’d replied with a straight face–or as much of a straight face as the pain allowed. “Both hind feet.”
He’d nodded. “Not bad. I can sell that. And unofficially?”
I hadn’t figured to share that part. I hesitated.
“I need the whole picture.” He’d said that, looking me in the eye while he adjusted the machine. The man could multitask. “To treat you properly, make sure I don’t miss anything. Horace trusts me, Treemin. Consider that.”
Well…I sure as Hell didn’t want him missing anything. For all I knew, Shawn could have shot me after I was knocked out. Wouldn’t want to miss a stray bullet track or anything. And if Horace….
I took a breath, which with broken ribs was a really dumb thing to do, winced, and let it out. “New welder, Shawn Hicks. Threw a grenade. Don’t know why. Saw it coming, dived over–unh!–” A particularly sharp stab of pain stopped me for a second. “Dived over a deadfall. Blast tore loose a branch, ’bout as thick as your arm, knocked me out. Couldn’t find any broken skin–ngh!–though I see you did, a little, down lower….”
“Good enough.” He held up a hand to stop me. “Basically, we’re looking at a combat injury, or injuries. I can take it from there.”
Which was a good thing. I didn’t remember anything after that.
Part of my dream was right. Both Sissy and Judi were here. Harms would have her .40 Glock in her handbag, and I’d be willing to bet the younger girl was wearing a pair of .22’s, one in each boot. Under the circumstances, none of us would be leaving a wounded warrior unguarded.
It was dark outside, but they had a clock on one wall. 8:33 p.m.
“Visiting hours?” I croaked, not exactly my usual mellow baritone, but I was thrilled to be talking at all.
“24/7,” Sissy replied, both girls cool, calm, and collected, just another day in the life. Only their eyes, and the hands they laid over mine, one on each side of the bed, told the truth. They were a lot more relieved to find me alive and functional than I was, and I was pretty relieved.
Judi’s turn. “None. Doctor Menning’s orders. He’s got you in a room away from everybody else, so we can come and go without disturbing other patients. Way it is, we can even bypass the nursing station without being seen, unless a roving nurse or orderly happens to be wandering at the time.”
Huh. Sounded like Horace had reason to trust Doctor Larry. I’d have to ask him about that.
“How long was I out? Is it still–it can’t still be Saturday. You guys wouldn’t be back here yet.”
“Nope. Sunday. You weren’t in a coma, at least according to Menning, but it had to be the next thing to it. Twenty-four hours unconscious, or as near as makes no nevermind. Notice the tube in your chest?”
Wha-? Dang. No, I hadn’t noticed. There was a run of 3/8″ clear polyethylene tubing, taped down, nasty something or other burbling up out of there, dumping into a container on a stand to my left. Now that I was paying attention, I could hear the low hum, some kind of–
Sissy nodded. “Yep. One of your ribs broke in two places, caved in pretty hard. Punctured your left lung. It was down in the x-rays. Menning punched a hole in your chest, popped that tube in there, and started sucking out the fluid around the lung, in the chest cavity. Which also let the lung reexpand.”
“Wait a minute. I do remember something. Must have come back partly conscious or something; I remember coughing a blue fit when that lung got back in contact with the chest wall. Which weren’t no fun with broken ribs, sort of half woke me up for a bit.”
We talked low for a while, just holding hands and talking. Then Judi handed me a glass of water, I took a few sips to wash down the dragon poop taste in my mouth, and drifted on back to sleep. None of us had seen any reason to run tell the nurses that I’d come around; this was an ICU room, Intensive Care, and if they weren’t watching, tough on them. We’d tell Larry in the morning, when he made his rounds.
Jack had gone to Missoula, put the word out, an underground APB on Shawn Hicks plus an all points dig to find out who Shawn Hicks might have been working for besides us. Hill’s place and the ranch were once again on full war alert. The enemy had tried to kill another one of us, to duplicate the murder of Sam Trace, and for the moment at least, they had to believe they’d succeeded. That figured to be a good thing, to give us an edge.
The bad thing, the worst thing, was the fire Hicks had set. It was racing east, fanned by unseasonably fierce westerly winds, more than nine thousand acres burned already, seven hundred fire fighters on the line and zero percent containment. There were rumors that the town of Lincoln might have to be evacuated.
My final thought on the way back to dreamland was about the arsonist. The Hell with who you’re working for, Shawn. That can wait. What I want to know is, where are you?