Those who knew her best still shook their heads. Kina Mulison was, most of them agreed, one scary strange female. Her penchant for privacy rivaled that of Howard Hughes in his latter insane, ultra-reclusive days. Of course, as Kina herself realized beyond the shadow of a doubt, those who knew her best did not really know her at all.
The self made billionaire businesswoman turned the final lock, mercifully cutting off the incessant chatter, screaming, cursing, pleading, begging, whining, shouting voices in her head. This was her safe suite, seventy-two feet below the subbasement in Kansas City’s KM Enterprises tower. She had four of these safe rooms, strategically placed according to her personal whim, each of them deeply hidden with sheets of lead sandwiched in the doors. Between that lead and a whole lot of natural stone standing guard between Ms. Mulison and the outside world, she was protected as only a wealthy empath/telepath can be protected.
She’d read once, somewhere, that it was a dangerous thing to become too sensitive. But when you were born that way, what were the options? They didn’t exist.
“It ain’t easy, Hister,” she told the oversized tomcat as the feline lifted his head from the canopied bed, stretching his impressive jaws wide in a lazy yawn by way of greeting. “The human race is just as crazy as ever.” Hister rose to his feet and stretched lazily, flexing razor sharp claws. Twenty-five pounds of solid muscle, that one, and deadly protective of his mistress. Which made sense, considering the fact that they’d been together since Hiss was a wee kitten. “You remember the swamp, right?” She kicked off her heels, slipped out of her power dress, and stuffed the dress into her carry hamper before heading to the kitchen to give the tom his canned food treat. No one was allowed access to this suite; she alone dusted and vacuumed whenever the mood struck her. No one but her beloved cat, that is. The cat’s thoughts and emotions were simple, straightforward, and full of love. She could deal with that.
What she couldn’t deal with was hearing people’s thoughts like they were screaming in her ear and feeling their emotions with a sharpness that all too often cut like a razor blade in her gut. As far as she knew, she was native to this planet, but Earth was not a comfortable place for an empath who didn’t have an OFF switch.
Still, she had to torture herself. The self-flagellating ritual, weirdly enough, calmed her, helped her wind down after a day of dealing with the masses. A glass of cranberry juice over ice in hand, Kina Mulison moved slowly into the Room of Suffering, her own personal Art Gallery from Hell, scanning one wall display after another. First, the lead news article reporting the death of her father and brothers, followed by blogs and tabloids speculating: Did Young Kina Mulison Burn Her Family to Death in Revenge for Molestation? For a brief time, news coverage of the deaths had rivaled reportage of the O.J. Simpson trial, at least regionally. And I still hear them thinking, there’s the witch, she did it for sure. And their hate, their fear, or worst of all, the occasional vicious approval.
That had started it all. Then Jeb had to go and die, struck down by a rare virus contracted by fewer than one in two million humans, dead in twenty-four hours, his fortune left to his beloved young wife and the gossip mills cranking up again. She still cried for Jeb; he had been the essence of the “good man,” the one who had not only restored her faith in humanity but had let her see the goodness in people that was so often buried under the cacophony of voices in her head. Tears tracked down the left side of her face as she read–her left eye often crying before her right eye let loose, only the Lords of Karma knew why.
After Jeb, there was Harlan. That man had deserved to die, but she was not the one who’d murdered him. She was the one who made sure the real murderer did not get off scot free, identifying the evil one and personally exacting justice, making the kill quick so that she wouldn’t have to hear his mental despair for too long.
Jeb didn’t approve of her actions that time; he’d told her as much when he appeared at the foot of her bed one night, eight years after his death, but he did understand. Jeb would always understand.
Finally, Timothy. HIV that time, successfully hidden from the public. He hadn’t passed the virus on to her, thankfully, but they’d taken precautions. He’d never tried to lie about his affairs. Keeping the truth of that death hidden had been one of her greatest challenges. Cost a small fortune in hush money, too, but she didn’t regret a penny of the expenditures.
From the Timothy display, she moved on around the room, unsurprised when Hister joined her, wrapping around her legs so that she had to step with care lest she trip over the furry beast. Nothing but love and contentment wafted from the big feline’s brain; his presence soothed her more than any other single thing.
And then, finally, the most recent display: A cover article in Black Entrepeneur featuring the welding magnate, black cowboy Treemin Jackson. God, I want that man!
Not that God cared what she wanted. A copy of this article was featured prominently in every safe suite she had, though, and the pain of the memory was…exquisite. All these years, dealing with–or trying to deal with–the scrambled, jumbled thoughts of those around her. All that, and suddenly there was Jackson. His thoughts were easy to identify; they rang with clarity, male confidence without hubris, a sound that could only be described as…beautiful. And in their way, nearly as simple and straightforward as those of Hister the tomcat. During the welding seminar program, his mental focus had been almost entirely on the material being presented, with an underlying sophisticated-yet-simple awareness of his surroundings. “Hister,” she told the cat for the umpteenth time in their long association, “Treemin Jackson’s thoughts chime!”
“Okay, my friend, okay. Your thoughts ain’t chopped liver; I get it.”
She had to have this man, but when she placed herself in his path, he literally did not notice her. That was a new experience for her; no man ignored her.
And yet when he was dancing with his wife, his thoughts were all on the stupid little blonde. What does she have that I don’t?
Yeah, his wife obviously had Treemin, but that was not what Kina Mulison wanted to hear. And when she, the ultra-stunning knock-’em-dead Kina, had found herself out of control and actually asked the big black man to dance, he’d turned her down–without even really noticing her!
“That, my Hister my man, is totally unacceptable. Un. Ack. Sept. A. Bull!”
The cat sat down and began to scratch behind one ear.
“Big help you are.” Hister did help, yes. He helped soothe the savage thoughts running through her mind…but he did not, could not help enough. Obsess much, Kina? If she couldn’t get Treemin Jackson’s attention one way, she’d get it another. Money wouldn’t do it; the man’s company was clearly solidly in the black and, being privately held, not vulnerable to a hostile takeover. Sex appeal–and this really rankled–sex appeal wouldn’t do it; had it not been for his obviously adoring pathetic little wife, she’d have suspected he was gay. Grabbing him off the street wasn’t her style, or hadn’t been to date, and he had too many well focused martially minded people around him in public anyway. One burly white man for sure, and that big ugly mixed race woman, looked and thought like she could kick some serious tush. But where there was a will, there was a way.
Like maybe, just maybe, having his loved ones disappear and no one handy to comfort him, disappearances that made big splashes in the media. Snag his mother, snag little blondie wifey, and–do those two have kids? No mention of them anywhere online, but she hoped they had kids. She could see the big man reduced to blubbering, helpless grief, telling his rug rats, “Honest, babies, Mommy and Grandma will be home soon; I promise.” Knowing he was lying, torn up inside.
Treemin Jackson would be vulnerable then. Desperate, broken, ready to receive her offer of support with eager straw-grasping vigor. “I not only have cash to burn for private investigators, Mr. Jackson, but also many contacts in government. Between us, we will leave no stone unturned.” “Oh, THANK YOU, Kina Mulison, please call me Tree, and how can I ever THANK YOU.”
Why her fantasies always had Jackson calling her by her full name, she had no idea.
The snatches would have to be carefully coordinated, obviously. She’d trust no one else to lead, a consequence perhaps of growing up hunting hills for deer and elk, swamps for alligator skins, and managing to avoid getting bitten by rattlers in tall grass or cottonmouths dropping from cypress trees. Makes a person both self reliant and mistrustful of most others, that sort of upbringing. Possum, Jake, and Waylon, those three would have her back. They also knew what they were doing, especially Possum. It wasn’t time to call them yet, but soon. Very soon. In the meantime, having finished her cranberry juice, she deposited the empty glass in the polished marble sink, then headed for the hidden, heavily locked, triple coded door in her bedroom. That secret vault contained her favorite toys: Dozens of disguises, attire suitable for a hundred different scenarios, and a collection of weapons that would put the Men In Black movies to shame.
Hister the cat couldn’t completely take the edge from her jangled mind right now, but the War Room could. It was time to commune with her personal gods.
Judi Jackson shared a look with her best female friend in the world. Sissy Harms, a rangy but powerfully built six-footer, towered over her petite sister wife–so they styled themselves despite Harms not being a wife on paper. Z\She nodded and headed into the headquarters office, the petite blonde at her heels. The two women had taken separate vehicles on the three mile drive from home, but they shared a single goal.
It being Saturday, the kids were over at grandma Louella Bowles’s place, learning to bake brownies or master a police style choke hold or whatever grandma and step-granddad had them doing today. Or maybe ten year old Willow was showing off her newest witchy spell or practicing shape shifting into her most recently mastered form, which happened to be an undersized wild mustang filly that could run like the wind. And thankfully, Tree had gone to Great Falls, Jack Hill riding shotgun.
Treemin Jackson’s women had a rare few hours to themselves, and that was a good thing.
“Secure?” Judi asked, leaving it to her best friend to make sure none of the office’s hidden recording devices were active for this meeting.
“Secure. I’m not sure the house ever is, what with Diamond Paws coming and going as he chooses.”
“I know, Sis.” Mrs. Jackson didn’t have a problem with the big digger alien roaming freely on the home premises, but Diamond’s loyalty to Treemin guaranteed that anything the girls said about the boss man might well be related to Treemin before the sun went down…in their own voices, no less. Probably not, but best to take no chances when they were conspiring behind their man’s back. “So, we have the same concern, right?”
“Right.” The tall warrior woman turned on the coffee maker, then sat down at a desk next to Judi’s. “There’s no better man in the world at strategy and tactics both…when it comes to the ordinary sorts of threats.” Ordinary being a relative term at Rodeo Iron, which had faced attacks ranging from certifiably insane mercenary types to shape shifters, vampires, you name it. “But I honestly do not believe the love of our lives comprehends the nature of a truly vengeful woman. Especially a beautiful woman. Who wants our man.”
Judi’s nostrils flared. “She can’t have him.”
“Preach on, sister. The thing is, I don’t believe Tree is looking in the right direction. Yes, he’s got the troops geared up, we’re on orange alert and all that, but honey…I hate to say this, but it feels to me like she’s going to target him in a way he won’t see coming.”
“So it’s up to us to be ready,” Mrs. Jackson mused, noting that the aroma of the Kona coffee was already wafting her way. “And we won’t be able to get Tree to open his eyes, no matter what we do. Not until it’s too late.”
“Exactly.” Sissy Harms leaned forward, elbows on the table, intense. “My time as Security Chief at Rodeo Iron was not wasted. I learned a lot while serving in that position. And one thing I learned is that the best of men tend to underestimate the worst of women. If a chick is dog ugly, fine, but if she’s a looker he’ll miss the signs that are right under his nose. I’ll give you an example. Remember Quentin Jones?”
“The welder? Yeah, I was still office manager when he quit. What about him?”
“Well,” Harms went on, “there was no need to bring it up, since Jones had moved on and did not appear to present a threat to any of us, but I kept tabs on the man for a while after he moved on. Just a gut hunch; he felt like a dude I didn’t want rattling around nearby without knowing what made him rattle. He’d been a good, solid employee for more than two years when his behavior suddenly went south. If you’ll recall, he quit before he could get fired. Coming to work late, occasional horrible messes made of routine welding beads, mouthing off to other welders…all of that did not fit his earlier profile. So what caused the change? I found out his wife of six years–six years as of the date he hired on with us–was a real ringtailed doozy. Friends and family had warned him about her from the beginning, but he wasn’t having any of it. But those last two months, before he was no longer with Rodeo Iron, his house of cards came tumbling down. Barb Jones had not only controlled his paycheck and spent them into trouble for years, but she gambled incessantly, slept with everybody from a taxi driver to an old man down the street to a cripple she said she felt sorry for. She verbally abused Quentin, too, told him time and time again that he didn’t love her, that he was going to abandon her…and then she abandoned him, ran off with a trucker out of Des Moines, Iowa.” Sissy paused her commentary and got up to serve coffee; this particular brew machine was fast.
“I didn’t know that,” Judi said, intrigued. “So, he went off the rails when his abusive wife left him?”
“Nope. He actually did some of his best work after that. His work record here was spotless, he was getting his finances in order, and he even started coaching the company town’s slow pitch softball team on the side. What blew him off the rails was when she came back. By that time he had to know what she was, but she still owned the poor sucker. And you know why?”
“No,” the blonde admitted, “but I figure you’re about to tell me. Thanks for the coffee.”
“De nada. Yes, I’m about to tell you. She owned the guy because she was good in bed when she wanted to be, in part, but mostly because she was a looker. And despite everything he’d been through, he couldn’t consciously accept the idea that she was pure dee evil prison material. So he tried to give her a second chance–about her thirty-third chance, really, if my fact checking got it right–and his mind couldn’t take the strain any longer. He started to crack. Then she ran away again, called from a small town in Louisiana to tell him she’d taken up with a shrimper down there, and Quentin Jones snapped. Maxed out his credit card to buy a .38 snubby and enough gas to get to Louisiana, drove on down, and tried to kill her.”
“In the end he couldn’t do it. He held her and her shrimper dude hostage in their own house for two days, wound up surrounded by police, and eventually ate the gun himself.”
“What’s so funny? A guy eating a gun?”
“No.” Judi waved a dismissive hand. “I was just thinking, remembering how stupid my ex got when he shot me. And the funny part was if he hadn’t done that, and Jack and Tree hadn’t shot him in the head before he could get another round off, I might not ever have hooked up with Tree, and–I guess you had to be there. But the point is, I get it, good men have no way to know how a messed up woman thinks, or even why. But you and I are here, plotting to protect our beloved man from his own ignorance of the female psyche, because we two wicked witches do understand how the felonious females of the world work. And we need to give Treemin a bit of backup he’d never authorize if he knew about it. Asking for forgiveness is easier than asking for permission, and all that.”
“Exactly.” Sissy grinned. “And here’s what we’re going to do.”
Jack Hill had been quiet all day. On the run from Ovando to Great Falls, by way of Rogers Pass, he’d been reading through the huge stack of papers Philip Phreeb had compiled on the life and times of Kina Mulison. At the Glacier Café, where we’d had breakfast before meeting with the lawyers, the ancient Protector had continued reading, barely interrupting his self appointed task long enough to place his order for the cafe’s Awesome Omelette. During my three hour meeting with J. B. Goode, the firm’s newest attorney but a shark in the courtroom who’d already gained my complete trust, Jack had stayed in the Pontiac, reading. Hadn’t even taken a potty break as far as I knew.
Not that I’d paid all that much attention to what the Wizard was doing. Legal matters had my full attention for most of the morning. Legal matters, and trying not to snicker when I’d found out that J. B. Goode’s full legal moniker was Jonathan Berry Goode. “Let it out, Treemin,” the long haired, bespectacled, thirty-something lawyer had said finally. “You think I haven’t heard it all? Johnny Be Good. Berry Goode. Oh, your lawyer is Berry Good, is he? Well, mine is Eben Better!” I’d lost it then. Trying to convince a brilliant courtroom battler that you were laughing with him instead of at him? Not an easy task. But mostly, we’d stuck to business, and there was a lot of that. Seventeen active lawsuits against Rodeo Iron at the moment, every one of them naming me personally as well. Nothing like success to attract the leeches. In the current social climate, nobody could get away with calling me a miserable n-word, but they managed to find ways to file actions against me and mine nonetheless. One suit involved a major customer, a sizeable store chain, refusing to pay on the grounds that we’d delivered just under half a million dollars worth of fencing panels late, thus violating the terms of the purchase contract. Another had been filed by an environmental left wing wacko group claiming our Billings shop was polluting the environment unacceptably. And so on and so forth.
“We’ve got them all under control,” J.B. assured me, and I believed him, but we still had to go over the details one by one. Like President Reagan said, trust but verify.
It was impossible not to grin from time to time, listening to my Berry Goode lawyer expound. The man was a certified freaking genius. Take the store chain for example. The suit was based on their position that the final five truckloads of product had been delivered to their primary warehouse in Sacramento one day past the deadline. It was true that they had a tricky clause in the contract I’d signed which required all of the fencing prior to that date, but their parent corporation was based not in the United States but in Mumbai, India, on the wrong side of the International Dateline…and the contract did not state that everything in it was to be based on Mumbai time.
J. B. had convinced the judge, and we were out of the woods on that one, scot free, with the buyer required by the court to pay our legal costs.
Naturally, we wouldn’t ever consider doing business with those folks again, and Philip Phreeb had hacked enough of their company records to make sure we didn’t accidentally do business with any of their subsidiaries, affiliates, family members, or former employees, either. It was painfully obvious that the outfit had planned on soaking us good from the beginning, counting on a lawsuit windfall to make our superior panels more than competitive with cheap Chinese steel. Internal emails, hacked by Philip, proved that much. And J. B. Goode knew the judge on the case really, really well. So well that he’d been able to show the man copies of those emails despite the fact that doing so behind the scenes was highly illegal.
My kind of law shark.
By the time I got back to the Pontiac, Jack was just finishing the final page. He placed it faced down onto the pile in the cardboard box in the back seat as I fired up the beast. “I vote for Rags,” he said.
“Rags it is, then.” It was a few miles out of route, but Rags Restaurant was worth the effort. Best burgers in all of Montana, they claimed. Not the only eatery to blow that particular horn, but quite possibly the most accurate one. However, they didn’t stop there. I was already salivating, thinking about their corned beef on rye with Swiss cheese. Outstanding. Not to mention that getting on-point updates from Berry Goode always did me good, left me bouncing out of his office with a smile in my heart and an appetite worthy of a grizzly just out of hibernation. I didn’t even think to ask Jack what he’d figured out from all the reading he’d been doing, and I guess my apparent disinterest got to him.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?”
“Ask you what?” I glanced at him, then back to the road, genuinely puzzled.
“What I’ve figured out about Kina Mulison.” Hill sounded irritated.
“Oh. Her. Yeah, so, what did you find out?”
“You’re just salivating over Rags’s corned beef on rye, aren’t you?”
“Guilty as charged,” I grinned, “but lay it on me anyway.”
“Alrighty then. First off, no disrespect to Philip; he got the high points just fine. But…Tree, I think she may be a whole lot more dangerous than her public record shows. I’m reading a bunch between the lines here, but…okay, Weaver, I’m just gonna spit it out. I think the dragon lady may be psychic.”
“Psychic, huh? That could make things interesting. But what led you to that conclusion.”
The ancient Protector sighed. “Not any one thing, but there’s a pattern. Subtle, maybe, but it’s there. And I don’t mean the deaths of men around her; I’m none too sure she offed any of them. Maybe yes, maybe no. What does stand out in the record is her business acumen. The files have records of more than thirty major business transactions for her companies where she either had insider information–always possible, of course–or she intuitively sensed the right way to go. Her record isn’t spotless; she’s taken a beating every now and then. But the percentages…well, if she was doing that well in Vegas, she’d be blacklisted at every casino on the Strip.”
I thought about that for a bit. “Hm. So you’re saying that (a) she’s targeted me and (b) her targeting system outshines the average by a fair margin, so (c) she’s likely to nail me to the wall if I’m not careful?”
“All that, yes. Don’t miss that turnoff; I really am hungry. Even worse, the smell I get from her file is one of…if not insanity, something close to it, or at least headed in that direction. And what do we know about insanity?”
Thinking about a beautiful, bat-guano-crazy, billionaire chick wanting my body…it kind of derailed me for a moment, especially since I had to admit the idea was kind of exciting. The idea, you understand, not the reality. I wouldn’t act on it, but wow. What an ego stroke.
“Earth to Treemin.”
“You just made my point for me, Jackson. Let’s eat, and then hit for home. Seems to me we need to bring the women in on this one ASAP.”
That made sense. If things got really ugly, I might not be able to do what needed to be done, but Judi and Sissy? They’d take Ms. Mulison apart so’s all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t but Kina back together again. Oh yeah. Catfight!