The morning was cool and crisp, high overcast with the promise of snow in the air. Jordan Phreeb walked the sturdy bay steadily along the southern fence line, studying the lay of the land along with watching for any signs of human trespassers as he went, enjoying himself immensely. He’d never once ridden any sort of horse before coming to work for Rodeo Iron, but he knew what he was doing now. He reached down and patted the animal’s neck with his free hand, something he seldom did when other humans were present. Can’t let ’em see me looking all soft and mushy, can we, Red? He only thought those words, of course. Voices carried, and he’d much rather hear than be heard.
This deep into hunting season, six men patrolled the ranch from sunup to sundown, leaving just three on duty at Rodeo Iron headquarters. Six men to cover more than sixteen thousand acres, a fair number of those acres covered with timber. There had been more, but eight good soldiers had died in the Heartbite War, four were disabled with combat related injuries and pensioned off in line cabins strategically located at various points around the property, and a few had failed to make the cut, being sent on down the road before being told they would sometimes be fighting supernatural beings. That last one, Rigson Canby, hadn’t even made it through the first day.
“Why do we have to play cowboy when there isn’t even any stock on the place?” Canby had complained, and that was more than enough to punch his ticket out of there.
Canby hadn’t even known of the horse herd Jackson was quietly rebuilding, a deliberate mix of top riding animals and broncs capable of one day becoming known as well in the rodeo arena as Sam Trace’s bulls had been. The idiot would have bellyached even harder had he known of the extensive drone coverage blanketing the ranch, but it wasn’t firing the former Army Ranger Lieutenant that had bothered Phreeb. What had stung the Security Chief the most was that his judgment had failed. Philip provided him with background checks so extensive he knew his men’s performance records and personality traits from kindergarten on up; he should have been able to spot the rotten apples way before they ever got hired in the first place. Worst of all, Tree trusted him to do the hiring now. He didn’t like failing the boss.
Perfectionist much? Of course he was; when it came to performing his duty, he was as OCD as they came.
As far as the drones went, they were helpful, all right. Very helpful indeed. But despite being better than one might expect from a civilian operation, they had limitations. They were worthless in a storm, be it snow or rain, and as good as they were, they couldn’t see through trees.
No, he and his men needed to be out here, all right. The ranch needed boots on the ground, even if the boots only averaged one pair for every four square miles of territory.
He and Red passed the Tar Baby herd, the big black stud staring at his gelding with interest, wondering if he should beats feet over there and kill the lesser horse just for the studliness of it. Don’t even think about it, you ornery bastard, he thought. Tar Baby threw some awesome colts, many of which grew up to be fine saddle mounts rather than bucking horses, but the stallion himself had the personality of a mountain troll.
The meanest horst on the ranch tossed his head a few times, then turned back to check out a pinto mare who’d come in heat. Jordan relaxed, taking his hand away from the bullwhip coiled where a lot of working cowboys carried their catch ropes. He’d had to back that bugger off three times already. The monster obviously didn’t care one whit that Red was his son.
His wrist mounted com unit buzzed. Another of Philip’s tech miracles, these little marvels now kept everybody in touch on the entire ranch. Jordan respected the need for them, though he missed being able–ah, no use bitching about it, even inside his own head. His son wouldn’t be calling if it wasn’t important.
“Yo,” he said softly into the mic.
At least Philip didn’t waste words. “Grady’s back.”
Damn. They’d caught him poaching just last week. What the hell? “Coordinates.”
“Piper Four Three.”
“Repeating, Piper Four Three.”
The former Marine Segeant’s finely tuned tactical mind turned things over for a couple of seconds. Cardwell was on the nearest ATV, but not that close. Besides, the terrain in the Piper-4-3 sector, the extreme southeast corner of the old Trace ranch, wasn’t exactly wheeled vehicle friendly. Not inside the property line, it wasn’t, and Treemin Jackson discouraged action on the adjoining land unless it was considered a necessity. So that left…he punched in the code and waited for Jimmy Spease to pick up.
Which he did in short order. “Yo, boss.” The voice was as soft as his own; none of his men intended to give away their positions without good reason.
“Grady is back.”
A moment of silence. Then, “Same spot as last week?”
“Nah. Even he’s not that stupid.” Not quite. “Piper 4-3, so I’m guessing he’s parked in the trees at the end of the Wombat Trailhead. He’s been there before, but not for almost a year.”
“Yeah. We can ask him why, once we intercept his ass. From there, if he was hunting game, he could go in almost any direction and stay under a bit of cover. Not enough for Philip not to spot him, but he doesn’t know about that. But hunting doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t. Not after last week.”
“So,” Jordan breathed into the mic, “I’m thinking maybe he’s got something different in mind. Like maybe picking up a cash bonus from the Enquirer for getting pictures of headquarters or some such. Which I realize is some ambitious for the boy, but he’s a hair greedy, too, so maybe.”
“Chief…that’s a six mile hike. Seven, if he tries to work the cover a bit.”
“It’s just a hunch. But if I’m right, he’ll hit the Curly Spring trail. You and I can both beat him there. Philip will buzz me back with updates on his location, but I’m getting a powerful hunch.”
“See you there, then.”
It took Lincoln’s premier lazy-assed poacher a full half hour to cover the single mile from the fence to Curly Spring. It was uphill most of the way; he wasn’t made for this sort of rigorous trekking through the foothills that would have been called mountains in most places. He’d forgotten to fill his canteen before he left the trailer, though, so he was mighty relieved to top the final grade and drop down the gentle slope to the stock tank. There was nobody around, just a camp jay and a squirrel, both scolding him from the trees as he broke cover to fill his canteen. While the canteen was filling, he eyed the old shack, no more than a shed made of weathered boards, really. Jackson still used it to store iodized salt blocks, the reddish ones. It was a wonder the thing hadn’t fallen down years ago. but the roof still held. Maybe he could lie down for a quick nap in there. He’d be out of sight, and it was still a long hike to the rich black bastard’s headquarters.
He muttered angrily about that, freely employing the letters F and N in examples Sesame Street never used. This had been good country, back in the day. It was all going to hell now. Going to hell in hand basket, a tisket a tasket.
He was pouring a good portion of the freshly filled canteen’s contents down his bearded throat when Jordan Phreeb’s voice scared the crap out of him. Well…not literally, but it was close. Not that the average nose could have told the difference. Grady Clark was not exactly on close terms with soap.
“Top o’ the morning, Mr. Clark.”
He spun, for a moment unable to pick out the Rodeo Iron man. Phreeb leaned casually against a moderately tall pine tree, apparently one big enough he’d been able to hide behind it. Which mean he’d known he was coming, but how?
“Don’t get jumpy with that rifle, Grady.”
His head swiveled again. Another one, right over there–fooey. They had him boxed. In a crossfire, if it came to that. He coulda took one of ’em, but if he did, the other would shoot him in the back.
Or so he told himself. Grady Clark was not skilled at very many things–poaching being an exception–but he was a master at self deception. It kept him from thinking about how this was going to go, which was a good thing, ’cause it most likely wasn’t going to turn out all that hunky dory for him, now was it?
On that point, he hit the nail on the head.
“I jist…I jist needed some meat,” he whined, trying to sound manly but failing miserably. That was another thing he was good at. He had failing miserably down to an art. “The…the wife is getting hungry, you know.”
“Grady, Grady, Grady.” Phreeb just looked at him, shaking his head. The Security Chief had a long gun of some sort slung over his shoulder and a pistol in a hip holster, but he hadn’t reached for either weapon.
The other bugger had his rifle ready to shoot, though. Yeah. Right in the back. Definitely in the back. “What?” It didn’t come out right. The trespasser cleared his throat and tried again. “What?”
“You poached that big buck on Rodeo Iron land just last week. Your woman’s a hefty sort of thing, all right, but not even she can go through two hundred pounds of venison in seven days.”
“Yeah, well.” Words failed him.
“Here’s the thing, Grady. Do you remember what I told you last week? You know, when you shot that big boy with the deformed rack?”
“You said,” Clark swallowed hard, wondering how he was going to talk his way out of this one, “you said you were letting me off with a warning.”
“Chief,” the other guy interrupted, “his trigger finger’s looking kind of itchy.”
“Good point. Unsling that .243 and lay it down on the ground easy-like Grady. Now!” Phreeb’s voice cracked with the tone of command so effectively that Grady Clark found himself disarmed, his beloved “woman’s gun” in the Security Chief’s nasty hands before he realized it had happened.
“Thank you, Mr. Clark.” Phreeb nodded politely, but Clark thought he looked awful cop-like at that moment, not at all like when he’d bought the old tale of woe before. “Now, let’s walk back to your truck, shall we? And be happy; it’s mostly downhill.
Well, yeah, there was that. It wasn’t a whole lot of consolation, though. On the hike back to where he’d crawled through the fence in the first place, he tried to shut down his thoughts entirely, and for the most part, he succeeded. Obviously, Phreeb wasn’t going to let him off with a warning. Maybe they were going to steal his rifle. He began getting angry. No, furious. These rich bastards really might do something like that, confiscate a man’s only way of feeding his family. Though he did have to admit that his family consisted of one old dog that would eat just about anything and a three hundred pound woman who looked like she ate the dog.
It really was mostly downhill. Strangely, although the other guy stayed behind and held their horses, Phreeb crawled through the fence right along with him. This made him even more nervous than he had been.
“Now,” Phreeb said, his eyes suddenly flat, cold, and hard, “time to answer a few questions.”
“Like, how much are they paying you?”
“Paying me?” His eyes went wide. “What are you talking about?”
“You know nothing?” The Rodeo Iron man’s voice was mild, but his eyes weren’t.
Grady Clark had seen eyes like that before. He remembered where, and when, and for the first time he knew he was in deep trouble. Still, some of his fury remained. He gathered that up, bunched it into a ball, and spat it out. “I don’t have to tell you an effin’ thing! I got rights!”
Jordan Phreeb shot him through the foot. With his own rifle.
He didn’t scream. The blast through his metatarsal bones and on down through the center of the arch of his foot didn’t even knock him down–until he tried to pick up the injured member, and then he fell over on his side. Not until he’d scrambled back up to sit on his butt did the pain hit. Though he turned white, or at least as white as he could under the layers of grime he wore like a second skin, he never let out a whimper. Instead, he glared up at his attacker. “You had no right!”
“No, but I had the rifle.”
“You going to talk now, Grady? I’ve been really polite, you know. There’s lots worse places I could have shot you.”
It wasn’t the bullet wound that made Grady Clark decide to cooperate. It was the look in Phreeb’s eyes. “What do you want to know?” He asked sullenly, watching the blood soaking his boot. “This really sucks.”
“Yep. It sucks. I want to know who hired you.”
“How do–okay, okay. I think the order maybe came from that Enquirer article, you know? But I don’t know for sure.”
“Tell me what you do know for sure.”
“Yeah. Why not. The offer came over the phone. Some chick. Said she’d checked around town and learned I had the reputation of knowing the country around here, and would I be interested in earning a thousand dollars? And I said, who do I gotta kill, the Pope? And she said no killing, just a bit of picture taking. If I was interested, she’d send me a special camera with a zoom lens so I could do it without getting too close.”
“Hand over the camera, Grady.”
“Hold yer horses.” He fished in a filthy jeans pocket and came up with a little digital camera half the size of his palm. “I took a few shots on the way in, just to see how it worked and all.”
“I’ll bet you did. Were you paid up front?”
Clark snorted, producing a string of snot in the process. He wiped his nose on the sleeve of what looked like a top of the line dumpster diving jacket before he shook his head. “No. I tried, but she wasn’t buying it.”
Presumably, Phreeb decided, this telephone contact girl really had investigated Grady Clark before offering him the job. Had he been paid up front, she would have been waiting for photos until the sun burned out.
“All right, Grady.” Phreeb worked the rifle’s bolt, ejecting the three remaining cartridges onto the grass before opening the ancient Nissan pickup’s driver door and depositing the weapon inside. The door hadn’t been locked, of course, the key having been lost years ago. Ignition by Hotwire, the only way to go. “Here’s the deal. You’re going to drag your ass up off the ground, get into this fantastic Batmobile of yours, drive yourself back to town, and tell your woman that you need a doctor ’cause you accidentally shot yourself in the foot.”
“Nobody’s going to believe that!” Clark was incensed; letting people think he’d ever handle a firearm that ridiculously was worse than–“That’s worse than you shooting me in the first place! I won’t do it!”
And had the scales been even, he wouldn’t have done it, either. Not even if he got shot again for refusing. But the former Marine wasn’t quite finished.
“Grady, if you say I shot you, who do you think a court would believe? I wasn’t even on duty today; did you know that? Besides, there’s that big old blood stain right under your foot, and after you pull out of here, we’re going to take a few pictures of that and keep them on file. The bullet came from your rifle–”
“Yeah,” the wounded man spoke desperately as he pulled himelf erect with the help of the Nissan’s front bumper, “but the bullet went through!”
“–and it just so happens that one of our men, patrolling on our side of the fence of course, rode by today and observed that blood stain. So he crawled through the fence and looked closer, and darned if he didn’t happen to dig up the bullet and bring it back to headquarters. Except it was just a curiosity, since he didn’t have any idea that was human blood, eh? But if it’s ever needed in court, then….” He let the implication hang.
“Well.” Grady just looked at him. “Shit.”
“There’s more, Clark.” For the first time, Phreeb’s voice turned as cold as his eyes. “You’re a sex offender required to register any time you change addresses, and you haven’t registered in years. As I understand it, people like you are the absolute bottom feeders in the prison at Deer Lodge. So if you’d like to go back there, believe me, it can be arranged.”
The man who’d once considered the thousand dollars for a few photos a sure thing looked long and hard at the Rodeo Iron Security Chief. And he believed.
“You did what?” I asked, still distracted. No matter how Judi and I crunched them, the numbers remained irrefutable.
“Shot him through the foot,” Jordan repeated quietly.
“Ah.” He had my attention now. I leaned back in my office chair and focused on the Security Chief. “Better than killing the fool, I suppose.”
“On several levels.” Phreeb poured himself a mug of our best Kona coffee and slumped tiredly into his preferred seat, a midnight blue leather recliner I kept on hand for those occasional times when nothing said luxury like being able to lie back and think.
“You don’t figure he’ll talk?”
“Ha!” His evil grin was TV-worthy; a good cartoonist could have worked it up into a dandy trick-or-treat Halloween mask. “He’ll talk, all right. But not to law enforcement. He knows I wasn’t joking about sending him back to prison; with his jacket, that’d be a slam dunk.”
“So?” I rubbed my eyes and got up to fix myself a cup. I’d been at this paperwork thing way too long. The clock said–3:30 p.m already? Damn.
“So, he’ll tell the Sheriff exactly what I told him to say. Everybody in this end of Montana knows your Great Falls lawyers have never been beaten in court. He won’t mess with that. But being the weasel he is, he’ll go the other way when he talks to his fat woman or the boozers down at the bar. They’ll all agree with him that Rodeo Iron has by God and Country gotten too damn big for its britches. Before the weekend is out, all of Lincoln and Ovando will have gotten the word, along Helmville and most likely Drummond as well. Your big beautiful black ass will be hated for your success, not to mention one mighty fine white wife, hated more than ever before–if that’s possible.”
I had to chuckle. “And they’ll talk and they’ll talk, but not one of the minor outlaws in the bunch will dare set foot anywhere near one of our fences.”
“See?” His eyes sparkled. “That’s why they pay you the big bucks. Nothing gets past you, eh?”
“Eh. But that’s also why you’re our current Security Chief. You think of things like this on the spot. Never seen you miss an angle yet, Jordan.”
“Ah.” He tipped the chair back, sighing in contentment. Only man I ever saw who could drink coffee in that position without either choking or spilling his drink, but he made it look easy. “Thing is, Tree, I’m one jump away from maxing out the Peter Principle.”
“It’s an old book. The author’s theory was that a person tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence and then stop there, so eventually the incompetents are all pretty much running things. Like our wondrous federal government, just for instance. So whatever you do, don’t promote me again. I’m still more or less competent as Security Chief, but I’d never make it like you do as the Weaver, making everything work with so many people doing so many different things.”
“I’m not feeling all that Weaverly today,” I admitted. I swiveled my chair to look out the window. The bullet resistant glass didn’t hide the fact that it was getting ready to snow. “I need your opinion on something.”
“Uh-oh,” he said solemnly, tipping the recliner back upright. “Sounds serious.”
“As a heart attack. Bottom line, we need to diversify. Rodeo Iron is about to top out. One jump shy of your Peter Principle, you might say.”
Phreeb frowned, either at my statement or at the fact that he’d already drained his mug. I reached over and refilled the green ceramic super-cup Sissy had crafted as one of her hobbies.
“Tree…that doesn’t make sense.” He sipped slowly, savoring the heat. “Didn’t you tell us at the last meeting that you’re finally opening a franchise in New Mexico?”
“Yep. Santa Fe area.”
“So you’re still expanding, right?”
I sighed. “Yeah. For now. But here’s the thing. New Mexico should be able to grow for a while, but we’re dominating the market in Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota, with the other states putting up some really stiff competition. Not one but three new companies who are stealing our innovations about as fast as we can come up with them. Mom and Sim are better than B.J. ever was when it comes to analyzing these things. It’s possible we can up our annual gross another twenty percent in another three or four years, but from then on it’ll be nothing but scratching to hold position. And anybody who knows anything understands that’s a losing proposition. If you’re not growing, sooner or later you’re going down.”
“Can’t argue with that. So…I take it you have an idea or two about diversification?”
“And you’re bringing this up to me after, what? Brainstorming with Jack and your girls?”
“Nope. You’re the first to hear about it.”
The former Marine’s jaw dropped. Seriously. I’d seen him face a sudden assault by enemies both natural and supernatural without turning a hair, but asking him something like this apparently blew a gasket or two.
“Um…” he gathered himself, “…lay it on me, then.”
“It occurred to me that your creative thinking when it came to poachers might indicate a turn of mind that could see what I’m getting at, so here it is.” I sucked in a little extra breath, unaccountably nervous. I really wanted this idea to fly. “Let me lay it out by the numbers.
“One: The TV and movie cartoon market is huge. There’s no denying that. If we can generate enough interest in the powers that be in the entertainment industry, and keep them from stealing us blind when the first R.I.P. Entertainment product–”
“Wait. R.I.P. Entertainment? Rest In Peace? You got death cartoons on the mind, or what?”
“Kinda sorta, yes and no. Doesn’t hurt to have a catchy acronym, right? Not Rest In Peace, but Rodeo Iron Productions Entertainment.”
“Huh. You do realize that works out all together as R.I.P.E., don’t you?”
“Even better. See, here’s the thing. I mean, the bunch of things. More than anything, even more than needing to diversify, I can’t for the life of me believe we’ve been this lucky all these years, us and Heartbite waging the Weekend War without the general public ever once tumbling to the fact that something really scary was going on, both here and in Michigan. So what I’m thinking is, yeah, that war is apparently over, but we’ve still got shifters and casters and a Purple Fire wizard and an alien or two on premises–okay, the alien is out on a mission at the moment, but you see what I’m saying–so why not let the public know all about it?”
“In fictionalized, cartoon version. Animation only. Use the real beings, but disguise them sufficiently that outsiders would never recognize them. Like Jack for instance; we could present his character as a young nonwhite person–”
Jordan jumped in. “A tall blue haired woman with awesome knockers?”
He got me with that one. I didn’t spit out any coffee, but I did nearly knock my cup from the desktop, pounding on it as I laughed. “Exactly! Although the rest of the crew, Jack included, might argue some of that.”
“All right,” Phreeb nodded, placing his mug on the side table and steepling his fingers. “But don’t get any ideas about turning me into an Army grunt.”
“Heaven forbid. We’ll have to leave the Marine a Marine. The whole damn Corps would be up here looking to take my head off if I messed with that.”
“Point being, if we push this out to the public–maybe initially as a series of YouTube videos, stir up some viewership, figure out what works and what doesn’t, we can eventually get the whole country looking at us as the birthplace of a freaking cartoon instead of worrying about being outed as a community of freaks. And that way, if and when some local yokel or unlucky satellite shot eventually sees something, we’ll be able to sell it as just one more R.I.P. Entertainment character in costume. Or,” I finished lamely, “something like that.”
Phreeb leaned forward, elbows on knees, considering the angles. “And this is extremely important now because of B.J.’s defection.”
“You got it.”
“Believe it or not…I like it. It’ll take some time to spin up, but even a good start might be enough to satisfy the feds if they came looking before we were really ready. We’ve put out one helluva lot of fires these past eight years, and you’re right. We’ve been unconscionably lucky. We really do need a cover story, and this could do the trick. But who would do the story lines? And more importantly, the drawing?”
“Story lines are no problem,” I pointed out. “We’ve got a million of ’em. Just greenlight a meeting for suggestions, pick out any firefight we’ve been in, try to plug in something funny when of course there was nothing funny about any of them–well, with a few exceptions–and go from there. As for the drawing, did you know your son can draw just about anything on the computer?”
“Philip? When does he find time to do that?” The cyber prodigy’s father looked truly puzzled.
“Doesn’t take him much time. Turns out he’s been doodling since he got his first device, never quit since. But he’s not the only one. Willow hasn’t the slightest interest in such things, but six year old Aspen can whip out a pencil and sketch just about anything she wants to sketch. No sign of my eidetic mind, but I guess you could say she was born with an eidetic pencil. And I suspect both of our young werewolves might be of help as well.”
“Ain’t home schooling wonderful?” I grinned, more relieved by Phreeb’s positive reception to my idea than I could say. “Although I think most of the time it’s us older types who are getting schooled.”