“What happened to the breakfast meeting?” Security Chief Jordan Phreeb glanced at the clock on the wall. Unless you were a night-living musician, twenty minutes to noon was not exactly breakfast time.
“Your son needed more time.” I didn’t bother to look up from the stack of personal mail Judi had dropped off. My little blonde bombshell of a wife handled all of that before passing it on to me, weeding out the junk mail and prioritizing the rest. What I’d do without her and Sissy and Jack and Jordan–okay, pretty much everybody tapped for this MWC (Major War Conference) meeting was indispensable. A far cry, Treemin Jackson, from your days as a thieving delinquent teenager. “Says the ID on our mystery enemy is a tougher nut to crack than he expected.”
“Hah!” Jordan headed for the huge industrial coffee maker, making himself useful while we waited for the rest of the crew. “Maybe he’s losing his touch, eh?”
I had to chuckle at that. We both knew Philip Phreeb could match up against the best hackers in the world and come out winners, like as not. He’d been our main genius IT dude since childhood for a reason.
“Whoa, what’s this?” Third envelope down in the stack. Judi hadn’t placed it on top but had highlighted the return address…from–
“What?” Phreeb was intrigued, though he didn’t stop the coffee making process. The man could multitask. As a former Marine, he didn’t much appreciate being teased about that being his inner feminine self, though.
“It’s from my renegade uncle B.J. Hennessey, still in Ohio…wow. This hard to believe.”
“He sent me a wedding invitation.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I kid you not.” My cell phone rang as I was reaching for it. Well…I guess you could call them cell phones. Really, they were tiny CB-type two way radios, tucked into flip phone bodies and using a completely different set of frequencies according to Philip. The lad had branched out to inventing; we really needed to get him a life. He wasn’t going to do it. Or maybe I was just prejudiced; being as virile as I was, it was hard for me to consider the possibility that an individual as totally focused on technology as Philip…might be…normal? No, normal wasn’t the right word; I was sure of that.
“Hey, Mom,” I spoke into the phone. “You got one, too?”
“Sure did. Sim and I are on our way out the door; we’ll be there in a jiff. But yes, my dearly beloved unbalanced brother did invite me to his wedding.”
“Okay, I guess we are all the family he’s got left, even if he did do the backstabbing-and-never-again-be-trusted thing. So…are we going?”
“Your call, Tree. Maybe we think it over? Could you have Philip–no, honey, I’m driving this time. You’re recovering well, but dadblast it, you let me coddle you a wee bit more, okay? Uh…Tree, could you–no, Sim, I’m not going to nag you for not wearing a seatbelt! Just because I still have the habit–Tree, could you–Sim!”
I started laughing. At a guess, her husband had just given her the finger. “Mom, if you’re trying to suggest I have Philip do a deep background check on Uncle Beej and his latest fiancée, yes, we’ll do that.”
We said our goodbyes and hung up. Knowing Louella Bowles and her slightly-cranky-after-being-sick-for-a-month husband, they’d be here well before the high noon starting time for the meeting.
“Sounds like you’re going to a wedding,” Jordan observed, smirking just a bit.
Jordan’s son Philip came striding through the conference room door, carrying a stack of paperwork a good three inches thick. “Yeah,” I admitted, we’ll be going, unless Philip finds out B.J. is actually engaged to the guy who so badly wants Rodeo Iron dead and buried.”
The young IT whiz looked up from where he was squaring the edges of his pile of paper on the presentation table. “B.J. Hennessey is engaged?”
“Mom and I got invites to his wedding in Ohio, so I’d say yes.”
“Um…I don’t know that he’s engaged to your mystery enemy…but he could be. I’ll have to look into that, make sure there’s no connection.”
“Wait, what?” Big Jude Hennessey might be many things, but I’d never pictured him as any sort of gay caballero.
“No, not that.” Philip ran a hand through his hair. Good looking young man; I was betting the few unattached women employed by Rodeo Iron saw his obsession with cyberspace as a terrible waste of man meat. “It’s just…um, what took me so long? To make the ID? Your mystery enemy turned out to be a mystery woman.”
Huh. “Okay, Philip. Hold that thought. Let’s wait till the whole gang is here.”
I went back to reading mail. By the time I looked up again, it was noon exactly–okay, seventeen seconds past–and the room was nearly full. Twenty-three of us. The days of sitting around for these meetings in the ranch kitchen were long gone. Both former assassins, “Seed” Kirk and “Beets” Robertson, were in attendance, along with department heads and specialists galore. Sissy and Judi were already setting up the buffet table, loading it with goodies from the Jack Hill kitchen, courtesy of master culinary artist Wayne Bruce, the ancient wizard’s gay slave lover, assisted by Carolyn West, Jack’s also-slave main squeeze.
Just the mention of Bruce being the food provider had been enough to ensure one hundred percent on-time attendance. Judi, however, appreciated the man most of all for his warrior nature. When it came to combat, there were few better, and he was an easy mark as a babysitter. Not that either Willow or Aspen respected the b-word.
Calling the meeting to order, I informed the assemblage, “The buffet will be ready for y’all in exactly thirty minutes, so I suggest all in favor of covering the several topics on today’s agenda in a hurry, say aye!
The resulting “AYE!” like to burst my eardrums. Fickle people; seduced by a haunch of roast beef.
“Motion carried.” The meeting was being recorded, but would not be retained in that form. After, Sonic–yes, that’s her name, hired a year ago and rapidly elevated to a position of trust, twenty-seven years old, horn rimmed glasses and a sneaky twinkle in her eye that said she might be hell on wheels when she let her hair down. Prim and proper on the outside, it was clear to the more perceptive among us that she had her sights set on Philip Phreeb, though Philip was utterly clueless. So far. Sonic? Yeah, named after Sonic the Hedgehog, old video game. Her mama was a gamer and her daddy had no game at all.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. After the meetings, Sonic and I would sit down and go through what had been said. She’d edit the tapes; there would be no forever record of anything I didn’t want getting out into the public domain. The rest would stand as a nice, pablum-y version of a standard Corporate Meeting, ho hum, black businessman makes good.
Boring enough for ya? Let’s get on with it.
There had been endless changes over the years; Rodeo Iron today was the mighty oak sprung from the acorn that had once been part of Trace Rodeo Ranch, encounters with renegade humans, weres, vampires, vamweres, and a clan of eight-limbed, four-mouthed, four-eyed, underground living, digger aliens notwithstanding.
“Billy. Report on the diaspora.” Diaspora wasn’t exactly the name for it, but it was our name for it.
“The last of the UWORI–the Uninformed Welders Of Rodeo Iron, who had no idea anything unusual went on here at all–the last group has transferred to the Rodeo Iron welding facilities in Helena and Great Falls. As if today, no one who is not in the know about spooky stuff has any reason to be on the Headquarters premises.” The fortyish man paused, looking at me. “It just hit me, boss. We’ve never opened a welding shop in Missoula.”
I was tempted to just agree, tell him no, we haven’t. But that’s the arrogant side of Treemin Jackson, one I have to stomp on every now and then to keep in its place. “Missoula is the liberal cesspool of Montana, Billy. The other counties might mess with us, add regulations and taxes or whatever, but I play the odds. I’d trust Missoula to give us a headache first and think about it later. But do keep on; the buffet is waiting.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Of the forty-eight welders, thirty-seven of them agreed to move. The ten percent raise and five year housing subsidy were big motivators, I’m sure. Which left eleven men who stayed. Of those, with our help, six have found other welding jobs in Powell, Silver Bow, and Missoula counties. One went back east with his wife, who has family there, and four are sitting on their butts drawing unemployment.”
The final results were better than I’d expected. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I grinned ear to ear, feeling a load off my shoulders that I hadn’t fully realized was there, “we no longer need to worry about an enemy attack by weres or vampires coming at a time when UWORI employees might be on the premises. That is a relief to me, as I’m sure it is to every one of you. Questions?”
Soren “Seed” Kirk’s hand shot up. “Tree, I’ve got a couple. That is, if I’m not out of line, technically being a neighbor rather than an employee and all.”
Ha! He said that with a straight face! “Soren, if I didn’t know you’d invented the Super Screw, I’d have been certain sure you were one of those screwy politicians.” Chuckles rippled around the room; Seed and Beets had been right there in the mix with us, more times than not in recent years. The two former assassins ranked high on my list of trusted people, right after the Phreebs, the Jack Hill household, Mom and Sim, and of course my own two-woman, two-girlchild, one-Treemin nuclear family. “Fire away.”
“Okay, number one: Are any of the UWORI–and I agree with that acronym; they did make you worry a lot, that they’d get innocently caught up in the heavy stuff someday–are any of them still living in the company town down south of Helmville?”
That detail had slipped my mind. “Billy?”
“The answer is no, Mr. Kirk. All have been relocated.”
“Hear that, Beets?” Soren Kirk elbowed his friend. “There’s a man who knows respect. Called me Mister!”
The big man, Beets Robertson, yawned. “Probably just couldn’t remember your first name, you being so unimpressive and all.”
Nobody laughed at the byplay between the professional killers (ret.), but about half the people in the room were obviously struggling to hold it in.
“Seed, you had another question?”
“Yeah, just one. Aren’t you worried that one of these days, one of our multitudinous ill-wishers are going to say bleep it and just start attacking your various Rodeo Iron manufacturing facilities? They’d seem like prime targets to me.”
“And I’d never downplay your unique perspective, believe me,” I nodded. “Fact is, yes, that could happen at any time. But we’ve done what we can to minimize the risk. Every company facility is now smack dab in the middle of an industrial park with a significant amount of traffic, so attackers would have to worry about multiple witnesses, police response, outraged city fathers, all that. They could still slip in and do significant damage to the property, but we’re so spread out now, any single attack would be a financial bruise for us, no more than that. If we have an out-and-out terrorist, well, those types generally want more visible killings than they’re going to get with a simple welding shop explosion. And since we have a pretty darned good safety record, every company facility is heavily insured at a reasonable price in today’s market.
“That leaves the franchises scattered throughout the mountain states, but the franchise itself is a huge shield. The franchisees are required to negotiate their own insurance, so if a franchisee gets hit it doesn’t make our company rates go up at all. Latest projections are that it would take the complete elimination of at least three major franchises to run our bottom line into the red.”
And so it went. I glanced at the clock occasionally, but I wasn’t the only one. The aroma of roast beef kept wafting through the room, seasoned with spices as only Wayne Bruce knew how.
He wasn’t telling, either.
At nineteen past twelve, we got to the big one. “We’ve been informed that Rodeo Iron–usually meaning that somebody has taken a disliking to me personally–folks, we have a new enemy to consider. Rather than beat my gums, Philip, you have the floor.”
Our premier geek moved to the presentation table, clearing his throat nervously. It was hard to tell if he was nervous about speaking to the entire group like this, which he’d never done before, or if he wasn’t too sure about old Jack Hill joining him. Not to speak; the Wizard’s eyes were twinkling, but his only role at the moment was to run the projection device. That was old school, the sort of machine capable of eyeballing a piece of paper and projecting it on the flat-white painted wall in 8 1/2 x 11 format. Eight and a half feet by eleven feet, that is. For some inexplicable reason, the computer whiz who could hack government databases with casual aplomb and invent sneaky electronics…the kid (not that he was a kid, my bad) just couldn’t seem to get the hang of the simple click-and-project 1962 model machine.
Projector dysfunction, I heard clearly, in–Sonic’s voice? I glanced her way; had she said that aloud? No one else seemed to have noticed.
The first image on the screen showed a three-quarters view photo of a man wearing a baseball cap over a mop of crudely chopped dark hair. His features were full, with a bulbous nose and a chin that looked like it had been attacked by smallpox, acne, and a small knife, all at the same time. The eyes were dark, partially hidden under a beetling monobrow. In short, this guy could have served as poster boy for any and every monster you didn’t really want to meet in a dark alley.
Philip Phreeb started his presentation. “This is the first version of the best of several emailed to us by Herschel Ware. My first thought when I saw it was, what is this guy, a cartoon? While I was running it through our latest facial recognition program, and please don’t ask where that software was acquired from, it occurred to me that yeah, this guy really was a cartoon. And I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the ID attempt failed, ’cause things started to jump out. Like here,” he picked up the long wooden pointer and indicated the chin, “it’s not easy to see the line because of all the covering makeup, but that chin is entirely fake. So is the nose, the monobrow, one of the worst wigs ever sold, probably cotton in the cheeks like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and I figured, most likely contacts in the eyes as well.”
Looking rather pleased with himself, the hacker glanced around the room to see if anybody had any questions. Or maybe he’d simply forgotten what he was talking about; his mind did leap ahead of itself from time to time.
“Okay then,” he continued once it became obvious no one was going to play the game. “I tried a bunch of things that didn’t work, but the one that did the job is a program called ReMakeKit. The program can go forward or in reverse–that is, you can start with a natural face and add stuff to produce a new look, that’s the forward gear, or in reverse you can anchor to features you believe are real and have the program reverse-project from the made-up face to the natural one. When I studied this photo, the only features I felt were probably mostly natural were the cheekbones and the basic shape of the eyes, which if you think about it, are fairly large and slightly slanted all at the same time.”
It occurred to me that Philip was almost certainly run us over on time. The cyber hotshot was condensing his many hours of work as much as he felt he could, obviously, but…well, nobody seemed to be glancing at the clock or salivating openly or anything. The buffet would keep.
“Now,” Philip gestured, Jack Hill clicked a button, and the next photo to appear on the wall caused a few sharp breath intakes around the room. Gone was the troll, replaced by a stunning woman. And I do mean stunning. You know, the kind of stunning that tells a man with a modicum of common sense to start running. Holy moly. “This was the result. So I ran her through the facial ID program again, and…still nothing.”
He paused again, lost in thought. Our people around the table started looking at each other, raising eyebrows, probably thinking, “Surely he’s not going to go through all this to tell us he failed to identify the enemy?”
Not a chance. I knew Philip Phreeb better than that. Besides, he still had, what, a thousand pages of paper to go? Ew. We could be here for a month!
“But you did identify her?” I prodded gently. “The buffet is waiting, you know.”
“Uh…yeah. Right. I did identify her. But the software didn’t do it. I got to thinking, hey, she must not have hit any major database, right? But that’s not a face anyone would forget. Then I began playing around with–uh, poor choice of words maybe. I, uh, started changing eye colors. Brown, nothing. Green, nothing. But when I got to blue…” Jack clicked a button, and picture number three popped up. A subtle unease stirred somewhere, down deep in my bones. Like I’d seen her somewhere. But I’d have remembered, wouldn’t I? What with my eidetic memory and all? Or with my simply being a male?
Distracted as I was, I almost missed Philip’s next words. “She looks familiar, right? At least to some of us in this room.” He turned to address me directly, “Tree, remember the Modern Welding Technology seminar they held in Great Falls last summer? Half a dozen of us went to that, including you and me. I remember because you actually managed to pry me out of the Citadel and got me to come with you.”
“Yeah….” It still wasn’t coming together.
“And after the Seminar, they held a big get-to-know-each-other dance, remember that?”
“Sure. Judi had stayed home with the kids. Sissy and I danced a few slow ones, but I mostly wanted to get out of there and back home, except that Sim and Mom were having a fine old time out there on the dance floor. Made us youngsters look downright incompetent.”
Louella Bowles, my mother the ex-cop, had made the connection. “We got it, Philip! Cut to the chase and clue in my clueless son, would you?”
That was when it hit me. “You mean–the woman who asked me to dance and I politely declined? I really wasn’t paying that much attention.”
“No,” Lou was on her feet now, “you weren’t, Tree. That’s her, all right, a woman scorned and hell hath no fury.”
“Oh, come on! I’m comfortable with aliens, witches, wizards, and all the rest, but a to-the-death vendetta over a dance? There has got to be more than that!”
“I believe your Mom’s right, Tree.” Philip reasserted himself, gesturing to the huge stack of paper. “This entire pile of printouts? That’s stuff I was able to dig up after backgrounding people who might have been at that dance. And I don’t think you want to underestimate this one. Let me summarize,” he said, and he did.
Her name was Kina Mulison, age 43 and a renowned cougar, but more than that she was a certifiably psychotic billionaire, the entire billion having been earned by Kina herself…if you counted taking gullible men for their money as earning it. A statuesque five-ten, she’d started out as the third daughter of an Arkansas hillbilly and a Eurasian supermodel who’d decided to go hick-slumming, as she later put it. Getting pregnant by Goober had not been part of her plan; when the redneck vowed to fight for his daughter, Mommy Dearest was overjoyed, signed over her parental rights, got the backwoods boy to waive child support, and disappeared back to Germany.
According to Philip’s impressive pile of documentation, there were rumors (never proven) that both Daddy Goober and a couple of little Kina’s older brothers and possibly an uncle had introduced her to the cruder points of male-female relations, all of which came to a crashing halt when said suspects died in a fire that utterly consumed their deep woods shanty and everything within. According to one news report, Kina and her sisters plus Goober’s latest wife were all miraculously spared, having been off to town on a grocery run at the time. Investigators blamed the fire on an illegal still Goober supposedly operated in a nearby leanto, never mind that any redneck worth his salt knows better than to cook up a batch of white lightning where the feds can find it.
Kina had been thirteen years old at the time, bright as a button and already breaking hearts.
She never finished high school, but with looks like that, who needs a G.E.D.? Long story short, her family had trained her well; she understood the power a beautiful woman can exert when she knows how to use it…and has no scruples whatsoever. Over the years, lovers and a series of husbands lavished material goods upon her. None of these boys and men ever died; Kina Mulison was not an idiot. She was not about to set up an obvious pattern.
But she had one flaw. She could not tolerate rejection. Her beauty was not only her weapon; it was her everything. Philip had done an incredible job of research. According to him, only three men had ever been known to fail to respond to her lures–and while none of them were dead now, all of them were destitute. As Kina’s fortune and business acumen grew, so did her willingness to grind the occasional resistant male into the dust.
Her stepmother had finally died, natural causes set up by severe malnutrition early in life. Her sisters worked for Kina, but in…not menial, but certainly commonplace jobs, nothing close to the Power Queen herself.
I glanced at the clock and interrupted Philip. “Okay, genius, good work. We know who this woman is now. Time to break for chow, ya think?”
He blinked. Twice. “Um…just two more things for now, I guess. One, it looks to me like she must have spotted you as a target, likely in one of the magazine articles about you, and decided to get her hooks in, ’cause it was only seven months before that seminar that she bought this little welding shop in Glasgow. Which gave her the street cred to be at that Welding Technology gathering, which gave her a chance to meet you, either there or at the dance.”
“Okay,” I nodded. “I get that. And thing number two?”
“Well…” Phreeb hesitated. I cocked an eyebrow and waited him out. “It’s speculation and you know how I hate to speculate. I like hard facts. But…Tree, I’d be terribly surprised, from what I’ve uncovered, if she’s not a hardcore backwoods hillbilly hunter to the core, despite leaving Arkansas early in life. There’s articles in here that talk about her hunting her own game and even doing crazy stuff like slithering into the swamp to hand-rassle cottonmouth snakes.” He shuddered visibly. “The majority of that talk is in the tabloids, so it may be all made up, but there are some hairy hints in this pile of stuff that tells me it might be real, too.”
Jack Hill spoke up for the first time. “Which means the Bob Marshall Wilderness might be right in her comfort zone, and she–probably with her private army, which I’m sure she has–might well come slithering right down on the ground with her, through the trees, and hit our northern fence line before the drones could pick her up.”
“She hunts everything, Tree,” Philip said, now obviously nervous. Kina Mulison had him scared, something I’d never seen before. “Everything from Kodiak bears and moose in Alaska to itty bitty defenseless squirrels in the deep south. I get the impression she doesn’t care what it is, as long as she can skin in and have it stuffed. She apparently has one entire building in Georgia devoted to nothing but her animal trophies.”
“Okay. Warning taken to heart. Folks, let’s break for lunch.”
Phreeb looked like he wanted to say more, but Sonic calmly walked over, grabbed him firmly by the arm, and ushered him toward the buffet line.
Jack Hill took a seat next to me; we would wait until the rest were served. “Squirrel Woman, huh?” The ancient Wizard chuckled; it didn’t take much to amuse him.
“Good enough name for her,” I agreed. “She certainly sounds squirrely enough.”
“Well,” Jack stretched out his legs, the very picture of relaxation, “you just need to tone down some of that intense animal magnetism, stud. Can’t blame the women who can’t help themselves.”
“Hah.” I looked at him, not amused. “Like you’re some wallflower. Carolyn West is still a hot chick, and you even got the guys going for you. Not that I wouldn’t consider swinging the other way for a cook like Wayne, but still.”
Hill shook his head. “Can’t hold a candle to a young whippersnapper like you, Tree. You know, rich black cowboy in mostly white country, a standout ebony god above a seashore full of bleached gull droppings.”
I snorted. “That didn’t even make sense.”
“No? The one time you and I went head to head, offering our outstanding selves up to a pretty girl, seems to me it was you who won the match.”
He had me there. Judi had indeed hooked up with me, not the immortal. “Point to you, Jack. I’d say Philip’s right to worry, though. We can’t just chop off the lady’s head for getting her panties in a twist, not with her being a well protected and connected billionaire. If she got dead, or even missing, you can bet there’d be ten thousand Congressional investigations, a Presidential task force, and ninety-eight percent of the media howling for blood, working to figure out whodunit.”
“True, but let’s wait to continue this discussion until your ladies get here.”
That worked for me. Sissy and Judi were headed our way, bearing enough plates the feed us as well as themselves. Unless they were both pregnant or something, a thought that didn’t bear repeating. “So,” Sissy Harms said as the ladies began offloading the plates from their arms, “Squirrel Woman?”
Wow. I’d forgotten about her hearing; seemed like it got better and better, the more she practiced shape shifting.
“Squirrel Woman,” I said, getting up to relieve Judi of a platter of juice mugs before they launched themselves. “We were just waiting for you two before we got serious about this discussion.”
“Oh?” Sissy Harms, all warrior woman six feet of her, gave me the look as she sat down. “Why? You figure Judi and I are squirrely enough to be of assistance, or woman enough, or what?”
Uh-oh. “I didn’t say that; you’re no squirrel?”
“Oh? Maybe a moose, then?”
Defenseless, I just rolled my eyes and started shoveling food into my mouth. Oh, foo; shouldn’t have rolled my eyes. I was pretty sure Sissy was just jacking me up, but no way was I going to answer that question.
NOTE TO OUR READERS: I find myself forced to sincerely apologize for leaving you with this cliffhanger. I’ll be back at the keyboard eventually, but not for some months. My wife, Pam, can no longer take the rigors of travel between her northern Utah home with her daughter and her southern Arizona home with me. As a result, pursuant to a phone conversation with my beloved redhead this morning, I will be focusing for a while on getting the Border Fort ready to sell and getting a U-Haul truck ready to move back to Montana, where I have my deepest roots. (The only reason I was living in Arizona in the first place was because of Pam.)
In the meantime, I’ll be packing and discarding and negotiating and all those other things you do when you’re getting ready to move. Comments will still be moderated as much as possible (and appreciated as always), though there may be a few communication gaps along the way.
Once I’m reestablished in Montana, the road mileage to go see my wife (based on the most likely town I’ll be looking to settle in for a while) will drop to 372, all high speed freeway miles, no major cities, Idaho Falls being the biggest. That compares with the present run from the Border Fort to Pam: 970 miles, which includes getting through Tucson, Phoenix, and Flagstaff as well as having to slow down for slower two lane highway travel through much of northern Arizona and southern Utah.
It’s going to take a while to put it all together, but I’m going home, folks.