The first gray light of the new day showed through–what?
I rolled out of bed fast, my bare feet hitting the floor, the Walther .22 coming out from under the pillow, sweeping the room…nothing. We’d never used this Boise, Idaho, motel before–where was Jack Hill? Not in his bed; that was obvious. No action light or sounds from the bathroom…oh.
Straightening slowly out of a combat crouch, willing a thundering heart to slow its beat. That heart had been slammed a full inch out of its original position not so many months ago, thanks to a grenade driven tree branch smacking into nearby ribs. No need to overwork the poor pump when there was, duh, no need.
Now, ease over by the window, but don’t stand right in front of it like a big black target, just in case…huh. Jack was out there, all right, out behind the little individual cabin we’d rented for the three day stay needed to cover Rodeo Iron Idaho’s startup in the Boise area. Clark Higgins was one helluva hand, but it had become clear he needed help getting his new franchise off the ground. Orders were pouring in even faster than before, almost as if they had a life of their own.
We knew, of course, that much of the business had come from cowgirl politician Hardesty Collins putting out the word, but that couldn’t be all of it. Hill thought it was “Mormon word of mouth”, as he put it.
“The Mormons are good people,” he’d stated, “for the most part. They take care of their own, and when they find a superior product like what Rodeo Iron puts out, they spread the word.”
That might be it. But…what the heck was Jack doing out there, anyway? The ancient Protector was in what looked like a martial arts T-stance, balanced, knees bent a little, but he wasn’t moving below the waist. Instead, he was repeating the same motion, over and over, shifting hands and arms only. Right palm facing out, cocked by his right shoulder, left arm stretched out in front but kind of curled in front of his body, palm horizontal and facing in…and then the right would shoot forward, crossing over the left as it–oh.
He was practicing being a wizard.
Well. He’d opened the window curtains so I’d know which way to look for him when I woke up, and now I was up. Time to shave and shower.
The two of us were settled in, tackling our breakfast at Goldy’s Breakfast Bistro, before I got around to asking.
“You were throwing Chi?”
He shrugged, taking a sip of his orange juice before answering. “Trying to.”
“Depends how you define the word. It’s not like I’ve been particularly disciplined in my efforts. But I saw it done once, realized it was doable, so every once in a while I crank a few hundred sample throws, just to see if I can finally get my consciousness set right. Twice, it’s happened. The first time, there was just this bit of a rushing sensation, the energy leaving my hand. Don’t think that one was enough to count for much. Got it right a couple of months later–that was fourteen, fifteen years ago now. Threw a pure lightning bolt. Trouble was, I’d been aiming at a wooden fence post. The strike had a thunderclap sound to it…and blasted a three inch hole clean through that cedar post.
“Didn’t want to risk hurting something or somebody after that, and there’s not always a fence post handy. So now I try to practice aiming at nothing but open air, or sometimes the rising sun or a particular cloud.”
“Ah.” I thought about that while we chowed down, fueling our bodies. Clark would be meeting us at Valley Feed & Seed later, with a full round of sales calls scheduled to fill the rest of the day.
There was time for a second cup of coffee, though, and I was some curious. “Care to tell me about the time you saw it thrown?”
“Sure. It was in Denver, at the college there, on campus. A friend of mine had a daughter who needed a ride to school that fall, just to get to the dorms–they had the tuition paid for, but she didn’t have her own wheels or anything. Her Mom wasn’t well, and her Dad couldn’t take time off work, so instead of shipping her out on the bus–never a safe proposition at the best of times–Drake asked me to do the chauffeuring. Which I did; Julie was a fine girl, going into premed or some such.
“Anyway, I’d walked her to her dorm and was heading back across campus to get to my car when I seen this group of college kids, all quiet like, but intensely focused on whatever was happening in the center of their gathering. Having nothing better to do at the moment, I wandered over to see what was what.
“Turned out the circle of students wasn’t really a circle. More of a horseshoe, with one end left open. Inside the horseshoe was a fellow giving a Tai Chi demonstration. I didn’t know that much about Tai Chi, still don’t, but it’s obvious that’s what it was. He was a stereotypical Tai Chi master, too, Chinese, small man, and at least 70, maybe 80 years of age. He was working in absolute silence, and the watchers were keeping quiet, too.
“I could see he was building up to something, though. You could kind of sense the force gathering in the man–and then, all of a sudden, he shot his hand forward and released the Chi.
“Trouble was, right at that instant a young girl, maybe nineteen or so, came rushing toward the master, right up the center of that open lane in the horseshoe of people. He didn’t see her coming on a dead run until he’d already let fly. She was maybe 30 feet away from him when the blast hit her, blew her clean off her feet and back six feet or so, flat on her back.”
“Huh.” I was impressed but trying not to show it. “I can see why that would get your attention.”
Hill laughed then, a sound of pure amusement. “It did, but to add to it, that little Chinese man strode over to the stunned girl, and he was pissed. Not cussing or anything, but you could see the anger. He did everything but spit on her, told her, What did you think you were doing? If you’d been any closer, the Chi would have killed you, and I don’t need your karma!”
I just nodded. What was there to say? And why wouldn’t Jack try, at least intermittently, to acquire the skill he’d seen so powerfully demonstrated? Ever since we’d met, I’d thought of him as a 250 year old man, but come to think of it, he had to be closer to 265 by now. He had time on his side, sort of like Bill Murray in the movie, Groundhog Day. So he didn’t have a Tai Chi master teaching him the tricks of the trade; so what? A man could learn an awful lot if he didn’t need to be concerned with wearing out and dying before the educating was done.
“Uh-oh,” Hill spoke softly. “Speaking of karma we don’t need.”
I followed his glance…and groaned. Swifty Glenmore was coming at us, arrow straight and full speed ahead.
Glenmore was her married name, of course. The girl herself was Asian. Her parents had come from South Korea; Swifty herself had been born right here in the States. She was in her twenties, an anchor on a local TV station, and a dogged reporter with an instinct for the political jugular plus a fine disregard for everything else. Five-two, maybe five-three, slender but with that oversized, camera friendly head common to so many celebrities.
She marched straight up to me, announced to her lapel mike that she was about to interview Mr. Treemin Jackson, the owner of a company called Rodeo Iron, and then shoved a handheld microphone in my face like she was going to stab me with it.
“Mr. Jackson,” she shot the words at me like bullets, “is it not true that animals are tortured in your rodeos?”
See, now, right there’s the thing. Swifty Glenmore looks like she might be fun in the sack if a guy didn’t mind ducking under the covers with a western diamondback rattlesnake, but she was an ultra left wing liberal and a Life Member of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. That ethical treatment did not extend to humans, of course, nor did the truth or the facts have anything to do with her approach to broadcasting journalism.
Obviously, she’d never bothered to check beyond noticing our company’s name. If it said Rodeo Iron, we must put on rodeos, and everybody knew rodeo animals were tortured on a daily basis by those Satanists calling themselves cowboys. Beyond that–as she’d said before, on camera and in no uncertain terms–I was a traitor to my race, being a politically conservative black man.
I’d never before wanted to backhand a woman, but this one tempted me sorely.
Not that I figured on giving into that sort of temptation any time soon. Besides, the camera was rolling. Her camera jock was good, too; I’d seen his work on the evening news a few times.
“My rodeos?” I asked mildly, knowing this was high stakes poker and I’d best keep my game face in place. “I wasn’t aware that I had any rodeos. Am I missing something?”
“The calves!” She shifted her stance slightly, making sure her facial angle to the camera was perfect. “You people rope them by the neck and jerk them in the air! It’s beastly! And the steers; I’ve seen their necks twisted nearly off! The leather straps that cut into the genitals on horses and bulls and–oh, you know!”
Now, you wouldn’t think this sort of ridiculous “reporting” would go over all that well in Idaho, and for the most part, you’d be right. But Swifty Glenmore wasn’t playing to red state Idaho viewers; she was after bigger fish. Her ploy was working, too; word was, she’d be snapped up by one of the big liberal stations in San Francisco or Chicago or some such. She had the right looks, the right fire in her delivery, the right ideology, and the necessary ruthlessness for those places.
“Ma’am,” I replied, putting on my best Gary Cooper drawl, “I just weld steel. I really don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”
Which was a lie, of course. I knew very well what she was talking about. She was talking about demonizing the right, including the working cowboy and the rodeo contestant–often though not always one and the same–and launching her perfect little Korean American butt up the career ladder.
That latter couldn’t happen soon enough for me. In fact, I’d love to give Swifty a swift kick to assist in the launching.
Of course, she ignored my reply. That, too, was her trademark. Attack, attack, attack, never slowing down until she was off the air. The girl had a real future in the business; even I could see that.
Then she dropped the bomb in my lap. Leaning forward conspiratorially, she lowered her voice the way cops do when they want to convince you they have all the answers and you’re about to get either life without parole or a lethal injection.
“We know what you and your uncle B. J. Hennessey are up to.”
She almost got me that time. I almost lost my game face, and you’d better believe old Camera Jock Boy had that lens zeroed in to catch the slightest break in my façade. What could she know?If she knew a thousandth of what B. J. and I’d done over the past couple of years, or even before that, the jig was up. If I’d been wrong, if Big Jude had in fact let out some of Trace Nation’s secrets to Hardesty Collins, and she–
But that old maxim flashed through my thoughts and saved me. Never let ’em see you sweat.
So I just cocked an eyebrow at her, radiating skepticism, and remarked, “I’m up to six-three and I believe B. J. tops out at six-eight.”
She smirked. “Oh, very funny. No, Mr. Jackson, I’m not referring to your height. I’m referring to the fact that you and your uncle have been huge donors to the Hardesty Collins campaign despite being Montana residents. Why are you animal haters trying to influence Idaho politics?”
I didn’t bother to deny it. Denials have a way of biting the denier in the butt. Instead, I smiled, looked straight into the camera, and asked, “Why are you Obama lovers still trying to say he didn’t lie about being able to keep your own health care plan and pay lower premiums under Obamacare?”
That stopped her cold, though it might have been just because she figured she already had the sound bites she wanted. I did notice Camera Jack Boy grin behind her back, though. The dude even gave me a thumbs up. We later found out the station aired the entire interview, such as it was–including my final Obamacare question. They must have figured it would play well with the audience; it certainly couldn’t have pleased Swifty thinks-she’s-nifty Glenmore.
“Well,” Jack drawled, watching Glenmore’s not unattractive backside as she stormed out of Goldy’s almost as fast as she’d stormed in, “that was…typical.”
“For her?” I shook my head, trying to clear it. “Yeah, for her, I guess it was.”
“Tree, I know you haven’t been making any political donations lately, but…think I should fire up my laptop when we get back to the truck? See if B. J. maybe….”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “You should do that.”
I was driving, heading for our first appointment of the day, when Jack spoke next. He had his laptop open and had been Googling hither, thither, and yon. “Summed up, Tree, yes, B.J. did donate. The max, $2500. Perfectly legal.”
It still irritated me that campaign donations can be called up on Google like that. It’s the main reason I don’t donate. At least, not where anybody can see it. There’s just too much outlaw in me, or Libertarian, or whatever. The public’s right to know, my ass.
“Before or after he left Montana?”
“Let’s see…after. One week after he gave us the word, but after.”
“So…well, that’s good. Not that it would matter legally, but it’s still good.”
“Hey, partner,” Hill chuckled, “look on the bright side. Better the Korean Witch makes a scene in Goldy’s and sours our breakfast than she shows up at a customer’s and sours a sale, right?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “but something is bothering me. Namely, how did she find us this morning? It was clear she knew we were at Goldy’s before she came barreling through the front door, but how? I mean, sure, we used a credit card for the motel, but even so, unless we were tailed from there, Goldy’s is miles away. I don’t get it, and that makes me nervous.”
“Hmm…I see what you mean. Hadn’t thought about that, how she’d know to find us at Goldy’s.”
“I mean, sure, it’s a popular spot for breakfast in Boise, but….”
“Wait a sec, let me think…didn’t you tell your Mom on the phone last night that we’d–”
“Whoa, hoss! You saying Mon ratted us out?!”
“No, no. Not directly. She’s no liberal, and she knows Swifty Glenmore hates Hardesty Collins as much as she hates black conservatives. But you used your cell phone, and we know those aren’t secure.”
I couldn’t quite grasp it. “It doesn’t make sense, Jack. She’d have to have access to law enforcement, or at least to somebody who’s capable of snagging airborne transmissions. Why would the libs be all that fired up about Rodeo Iron?”
“Not Rodeo Iron, Tree. Hardesty Collins. We may not trust her one little bit, but what if for some reason the libs are flat terrified of Ms. Collins succeeding in her bid for public office? What if, just saying, she made it into Congress, maybe later made the jump from the House to the Senate, along the way married your big black uncle–who’s clean as a whistle, no dirt on his backtrail anybody’s going to find easily, no bad habits like crack cocaine or emailing pictures of his penis to young girls. Ten years down the road, she could be sitting in the Oval Office with Big Jude right at her side. Could they be afraid of something like that?”
“It seems kind of farfetched, don’t you think?” I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around that one.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Hill agreed, closing his laptop as we got ready to park the truck. “Unless you’re a progressive. Those folks think long term, Tree. It seems possible to me that they’d sic one of their junior attack dogs on Hardesty now, try to take her out of the picture before she can gain traction. You think on it.”
He would have to say that. I didn’t think about much else, mostly going through the motions with our Rodeo Iron Idaho customers. Had it not been for Jack covering my back and Clark Higgins doing his thing as the in-state owner, with me not much more than the bigwig figurehead, the day would have been a disaster.
As it was, except for Jack Hill, nobody noticed.