Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Empire Strikes Back - part 6


“So … why the heck does ol’ Mattie want you so bad anyway?” 

“Gennie if I knew that I’d be able to address this idiocy better.” 

With absolute faith in her logic she asked me, “Then why don’t you ask him and then go tell him to …” 

Aware of Gennie’s limited vocabulary choices when she was in this mood I quickly interrupted her since I didn’t want Kelly repeating those particular words.  “Because asking him would be like admitting that I was thinking about him.” 

“But you are.” 

I shook my head as I continued to muck out the barn.  “Not the way he is going to take it.  I also don’t want to give him any information until I know the best way to phrase things.” 

She rolled her eyes.  “You are making this way too complicated.  Just tell him to go **** himself.” 

“Gennie!” I yelped, scandalized despite my age to hear that word come out of someone hers. 

“Geez, you’re not my mother,” she said with attitude turned up to high. 

“For which I’m sure we’re both grateful thank you very much.  But I am trying to be a mother to Kelly and she’s like that blasted parrot … she repeats everything she hears, usually choosing whatever is going to make other people squawks the loudest.  I might not be able to tell you how to think but I’ll be doggone if I’m going to put up with you using that mouth of yours like that around Kelly … so knock it off.” 

Praying that I hadn’t given my parents half as much attitude as Gennie gave me I watched her sachet back to the house like my words had about as much worth to her as manure stuck to the bottom of her shoe.  I heard a snicker and turned around with a scowl only to have it melt into a relieved grin.  “How long have you been standing there Jax?” 

“You mean how long have I been hiding from that little witch on wheels?” 

I laughed but felt forced to say, “She’s not that bad.” 

“That’s not what you were saying the other day.  It is getting to where even Johnson sighs when he sees her coming.”  I rolled my eyes while he pushed Kelly a few times to get her swing going.  He looked at me and then more seriously asked, “You still mad at me?” 

“I’m not mad at you.” 

“You were.” 

“No.  I was mad at the situation.  You just … just kinda made it harder to take.  I knew finding out that Matt had some wild hair for some reason was going to force me to be more cautious … maybe to the point of restricting my movements again.  What I hadn’t expected is for you to feel the need to go all caveman and tell me so in front of everyone else after we’d already had a bit of a tiff over me getting a little bruised up by Donny the Viking Wench’s headlock.” 

He snorted, “What you call a little bruised up I call near strangulation.  You had minor petechial spots all over your face … you called a strawberry rash of all things.  Your jaw and neck were bruised.  You still have a bruise from where that crazy female put her knees into your kidney for leverage to choke you.  And whether you admit it or not you were shaking enough that you hid your hands in your coat pockets while you told me what had happened.  So don’t give me the it-was-no-big-deal crap.” 

Sighing I told him, “Don’t shout, you’re upsetting Kelly.  And I didn’t say it was no big deal.  What I said was that a reward was a stupid reason to die.  And I meant her, not me.  She didn’t want me dead, just incapacitated so she could haul me back.  I wasn’t going to be hauled back regardless of the reason why or to whom.  To Matt I assume, but even that we don’t have enough real information on.  Speaking of which was that Reggie I heard?  Did he and Jules learn anything new?” 

Jax made his own special sound, something between a snort and a sigh, when he was getting frustrated with me.  “Don’t change the subject.  Are you mad at me or not?” 

I leaned the manure shovel against one of the stalls and then walked over and kissed him as best I could considering everything but my lips wasn’t exactly touchable.  “I already told you, it was never you I was mad at.”  Stepping away quickly before I got him dirty I went back to what I was doing.  “You just don’t need to treat me like I’m Kelly’s age.  I already knew what the new information meant.  I didn’t need it spelled out for me like that and I certainly didn’t need it done in front of everyone else.  I already have enough trouble with respect as it is; I don’t need you acting like I don’t deserve any either.” 

Surprised he said, “What?!  Hey no, that’s not what I meant.” 

I looked at him and said, “I know, that’s why I’m not mad.  But that’s not how other people take it.  Next time you get scared for my safety or whatever and feel the need to flay something … especially me … do it in private.  That’s all I’m asking.” 

He leaned back against the wall of the barn.  The look he had on his face wasn’t exactly contrite but it was conciliatory.  “I know.  It’s just when I saw your face and then heard what had happened I was so mad at Matt … and I told you I wouldn’t …”  He blew air out through his puckered lips.  “So much for being more careful about giving you reason to set your temper off.” 

That’s straightened me back up.  “Jax, you are not responsible for whether I keep a hold of my temper … the ears or the tail end of it.  That’s me and me alone.  Don’t make me feel worse than I still do about losing it in front of everyone.” 

“I didn’t mean that.” 

“Maybe not but it is why you feel bad now, or at least part of it.  I’m doing my best not to let things get to me like I was.  I think the two of us are OK, understand?  I just mean that everyone else is my friend but … but they don’t … look …”  I shook my head and looked at the roof of the barn and silently agreed with Mom when she had said that Dad had gotten a kid just like him … me … and that I had the same problems getting along with people he had; maybe not as bad but the ground work was there and it was up to me to decide whether I was gonna be Dad’s clone or whether I was going to pick my own path.  “Jax I don’t like it when people … people think and act like … like I haven’t got any sense.  I may act like I don’t have any sense on occasion but usually I’ve got enough brains not to do it so that it will endanger other people.  When you … when you get all over me in front of the others I can see how it makes them start to … start to question my commonsense or question whether I’m the weak link in their survival plans.  I try and ignore it – just like I try and ignore Gennie when she acts like she has a lot more experience in the world than I do – but when you upbraid me in public it makes it harder to put people at their ease around me.  Being avoided because you are smart is one thing – I dealt with that in school and am used to it – but being tip toed around because people think you are dumb as a stump and they are afraid you are going to do something that gets them hurt if not killed is a different set up completely.” 

He shook his head.  “You’re exaggerating, none of us think that.” 

“Like heck you all don’t!” I told him.  “You’ll be talking about Matt or something along those lines and as soon as I walk into the room or come near you all shut up or change the subject.” 

“It isn’t like that but to be honest you’re insistence that Matt is innocent doesn’t help.” 

Rolling my eyes I told him, “For the last flaming time I’m not insisting that Matt is innocent.  What I’m insisting on is good investigative research that gives us facts and not assumptions.  There’s a huge difference.  We have enough facts that simply drawing the conclusion that Matt is behind everything doesn’t make sense at this point.  The possibility exists that he is but if he is, and we haven’t misread the known facts, then the difference in behavior from how he was known to operate in the past is just as important as the fact that he is in charge of what is going on now.” 

Gennie had reappeared and entered the conversation without invitation.  In a snotty voice said, “That’s stupid and doesn’t make any sense.” 

Reggie and Ginger had followed her out.  Ginger looked like she was about ready to kick her in the butt but Reggie crossed his arms and said, “Then I guess that shows what you know Brat.  What Lydie is talking about is the difference between tactics and strategy.” 

Gennie snorted.  “They’re the same thing.” 

“Wrong.  Tactics is what you use during a battle.  Strategy is planning which tactics to use so you get a desirable outcome.” 

“That’s easy,” Gennie breezed.  “Just throw everything we have at them, take them out, end of story.  They’re all dead.” 

The last phrase was said with such relish it reinforced in my mind that while Gennie may have been a brat, she was a damaged brat and that it wasn’t her fault.  “Gennie,” I said trying not to sound overly gentle and set her off.  “There’s always been bad guys.  There’s always going to be bad guys.  If we throw everything we have at the town right now we’ll have nothing left for anyone that takes their place.” 

“No!  If they’re all dead then it’s over with.  Things can go back to the way they were.” 

I wasn’t getting any help from the others that had just started to clue into the fantasy that Gennie had obviously been living in her head. Treading carefully I told her, “Sweetie, things are never going back to the way they were.  If we are careful and handle things right, we can make them better than they are now … but it will never be exactly the way things were before no matter how much we want them to.” 

“You don’t know that,” she snapped.  “You can’t even figure out what that freak in town is doing so how can you know things won’t go back to where they were.  I mean Suicide is probably dead so that has to make things better.” 

Sighing I said, “Suicide may be dead but a guy named Delorey Baumgarten has taken his place and he is worse than Suicide.  Suicide was just a local gang banger that got too big for his britches.  Delorey is a lot more powerful than Suicide was even capable of thinking and has a lot of powerful friends; he’s at least state wide in his connections and may be even regional by now.  Who knows?  And another thing is even if we do manage to clear the town there is still a war going on … one on this country’s soil and an international war … I guess they are starting to call it a World War.  Until all of that is resolved … if it gets resolved … we don’t know what kind of shape things are going to be in in the end.  We can have a goal but we have to make it a realistic one.” 

Nastily in a tone meaning to hurt she said, “You mean that it isn’t realistic to kill your old boyfriend.” 

I shrugged.  “It may come down to that.  I don’t know.  That isn’t going to make things go back the way they were before for anyone.” 

“Why not?!” she demanded. 

She was as close to tears as I had ever seen her so I couldn’t just say, because your family is all dead chika so I said, “Because too many pieces of the puzzle are missing and aren’t coming back.” 

She looked at me and it felt like all of her anger was focused in that one glance.  She needed someone to blame and someone to fix things and she was furious I was bursting the fantasy she had built to console herself with.  “You don’t know anything!!” she screamed. 

Quietly I told her, “You’re sorta right.  I don’t know what it is like to go through what you’ve gone through.  But I do know what it is like to have your family’s life snuffed out and then try and figure out how to keep going on your own.  I can’t help you with the first but with the rest of it I can tell you what mistakes not to make so you do things better than I did.” 

She was too mad to hear anything, too broken.  She turned around and tried to run but Johnson and Alexis were right there.  She fought them for a moment but then went limp in Alexis’ arms and allowed herself to be led back to the house.  Johnson said defensively, “The kid’s messed up.” 

Reggie rolled his eyes and said, “No kidding.” 

“Reggie,” I said catching his attention.  “Let’s not go there OK?  Remember what a wreck I was after my family was killed.  You all – most of you all anyway – gave me some space to let me be a freak for a while.  Let’s try and do the same for Gennie.” 

It was Ginger that said, “We might not be able to Lydie.  You said yourself that things are different and aren’t going back to the way they were.  She’s gotta start getting it together.  Aiden complains she constantly wants to mess with the radio to look for music because she says there isn’t anything decent to listen to in the house.  Ash and I have both caught her scrounging in the pantry for something to eat after she turned up her nose at what got put on the table at meal times.  She’s really mad that there isn’t anything quick to eat like junk food and stuff, wants to know why we have to cook everything from scratch.” 

I sighed.  “Look, I’m the first to admit that …” 

Then Jax interrupted, “The crap with the radio stops right now.”  I jumped at the unexpected tone of his voice then looked at his face and Mr. Remington was on the scene, large and in charge.  Not even I messed with him when he got like that.  “Locks are on the food cabinets and they are supposed to be kept that way.  They are there for Kelly’s safety but if I have to key lock them because Gennie can’t follow the house rules I will.  Johnson you make sure that she and Alexis understand that and understand why if they don’t already.” 

Johnson said, “Alexis gets it.  She’s trying to help Gennie but the kid is getting beyond her.  If you got answers I’m listening.” 

About as serious as I’d ever heard him Jax said, “You don’t want to hear what my solution will be if Gennie doesn’t start trying.  I am not bluffing.  If you can’t or won’t tell them that then I will.  This is not a frickin’ playground man.  I’ve got a kid to take care of.  Ashley is going to pop in a couple of months too.  Gennie does not do crap like mess with the radio which could compromise it; our lives might depend on knowing what is going on in the world and that is our primary link.  I don’t want to find out she has picked up a radio pal or whatever either; someone could triangulate our signal and find out where we are.   And another thing, I am not going to watch my kid starve in the spring because Miss ‘Tude has the munchies now.  Ain’t happening.  Furthermore, I’m not having Lydie be …” 

I stopped whatever he was going to say by leaning my head on his shoulder and saying, “I know Jax.  It doesn’t need to be said for me to know it.” 

He looked deep into my eyes and said, “I’m glad Hon but maybe other people need to hear me say it to know it.  No more of this stuff going on.” 

Surprisingly Johnson said, “I’m with ya man.  It only puts points on the wrong side of the score board.” 

Before we could continue down a depressing path Reggie asked, “You said anything to her yet?” 

I looked at Reggie and then at Jax and tried not to stiffen.  “Got side tracked,” he admitted.  I noticed he was still relaxed so it couldn’t be too bad I told myself. 

“Alright, so what is it I don’t know?”  There was an unspoken “this time” on the end of my question that had Jax looking at me closely before answering. 

“We now have confirmation that the guy called Suicide is dead.  Lon was able to get close enough to observe and identify him as one of the bodies hanging from River Road bridge.  Some of his tats were still visible though not many.”  We’d all seen the pictures that Reggie had brought back from one of his recon trips.  To call them disturbing didn’t even start to cover it.  “Looks like Baumgarten is taking a page from the Mexican cartels which more than likely means that he is still in the drug trade; but, that’s not all he is into.” 

Reggie continued the narrative.  “Lon and Vernon have finally figured out the code they’re using and our little burg is now a dot on a pretty good sized trade route for the black marketeers.  They’ve managed to shut down most of the honest bartering centers and now you either deal with his organization or you don’t deal, period.  Local militia is looking the other way because they are getting a cut, might be the same for the local National Guard units.  No confirmation on that yet.” 

“Well that’s just great news,” I muttered.  “Got anything to top that?” 

Reggie got uncomfortable and looked every place else but me.  I sighed in resignation and turned to look at Jax.  “What now?” I said sounding suspiciously like I was whining. 

Jax got a closed look on his face but explained although it sounded like he was doing it while chewing glass.  “Matt.  Playing games again.  Love story of the century.  You are the princess to his prince.  Apparently you are being held captive by evil forces and he is building an army to save you so that you can reign with him and you can build some kind of geek-y paradise where everyone will be happy after you and he are established as king and queen.” 

When I could rehinge my mouth from where it had fallen open in shock I just about screeched, “And that’s the best explanation that jerk could come up with for why I’m not biting his ridiculous bait on the radio?!  Can his ego possibly be any bigger?!  I am soooooo lucky he dumped me.  I swear I would have been crazy or dead by now if I had gone ahead with my plan to invite him out here.  Oh … my … gosh!!” 

I was literally stomping around I was so mad and probably would have continued for a while if Kelly hadn’t laughed and squealed, “Up, up, up Widdie!  I wanna dance toooooo!  Up Widdie!  Pick me up!” 

I stopped in mid stomp and turned to look at everyone.  “Jax was picking up Kelly to keep her from bringing the roof down.  Despite his own upset he was fighting back a smile.  Reggie wasn’t even bothering to hide his.  Johnson being Johnson merely looked at me with his eyebrows all up in his hair line.  Ginger giggled and said, “You looked like you were doing the hamster dance.” 

I stuck tongue out at her in particular and everyone else in general, stuck my nose in the air, and grabbed the manure shovel and went back to work refusing to join in their joking.  Eventually the others grew tired of their own silliness and went back inside; Ginger took Kelly so that Jax could stay and smooth my ruffled feathers.  “Hon, you did look kinda … er … strange.” 

“Well the energy had to go somewhere; better it go in the floor through stomping than into words that I might regret later.”  Huffing a bit I said, “I can’t believe … I mean … geez Louise …” 

“Easy.  No one was laughing at you … well, not to be mean anyway.” 

“Huh?  No, not that … I mean what kind of idiot game is Matt playing at?  Matt is smart for sure but I’m beginning to wonder how mentally and emotionally balanced that boy is.  I used to think I was just lucky I wound up with you instead of him, now I’m thinking that I was more than just lucky.  I have to be blessed, this has to be some part of some intelligent design; no one gets this lucky on accident.” 

That got me a hot kiss.  Out of the blue he asks, “Mind if when we’re alone I call you Mrs. Remington sometimes?” 

He’d caught me off guard enough that I blushed which isn’t something I normally do.  “You … uh … you want to?” 

“Uh huh, I do.” 

“Um … ok … but only if you want to.  I know nothing is … you know … official and I … I don’t want you to feel like … like you have to … and …” 

Jax got in my personal space and said, “It’s official in my book.  What about yours?” 

Looking at the buttons on his coat I admitted, “If I didn’t think of it like that we wouldn’t be doing what we do when Kelly goes to sleep.” 

“That’s what I figured,” he said sounding very male and very satisfied.  “I just wanted you to know that I consider it official too.  And even if I get bent over the things Matt is saying I want you to know that I trust you.  No more of that thinking what you used to think.” 

That explained it so I relaxed.  “I know that.  I told you, I’m over it.” 

“And I want you to stay over it so I’m doing my part.  I don’t like what Matt is saying … the jerk … but I don’t blame you for it and I don’t think you are going to fall for it.  OK?” 

“OK,” I told him. 

“Good.  Want to hear the rest?” 

Giving him a sideways look as he helped me spread fresh straw and hay under the rabbit hutches to catch their droppings I asked in trepidation, “There’s more?” 

He sighed.  “Yeah.  They definitely have the dam at least partially up and running.  Baumgarten seems to be financing things – or handing the finances – and as they increase energy output it sounds like he is going to charge local communities a … let’s call it protection money … to make sure their electric doesn’t get interrupted.  He is also putting in what looks like bunkers and other fortifications, especially along the river and the primary roads in and out of town.  As far as we can tell he isn’t living in town right now, hasn’t even been back since he took out Suicide, but some of his big hired guns are and they run a tight ship.  They are really hardening the town; and Vernon thinks one of the latest messages mean that they will begin bringing in more refugees to operate whatever manufacturing they are setting up at the old mill.” 

“Not the paper mill?” 

He shook his head.  “But they’ve stripped the paper mill – I’m now even gladder we took what we did when we did it – and moved a lot of equipment into the city limits.  They have concertina wire from some place and laid it so that that even inside the city limits you have check points you have to go through to get from place to place.  They’ve made a lot of repairs to the old warehouses that line the river in the historic district.  Houses and buildings outside the city limits are being stripped and stuff brought to the newly rehabbed warehouses.  It’s like they’re cannibalizing the outskirts of town for trade goods.” 

Thoughtfully I said, “Now that does sound like Matt.”  After another moment I said, “Try this on for size.  Matt made the big plans but he didn’t have the ability to implement them.  At first he was in the development stage and didn’t have the people.  Then when the labor force showed up in the form of the refugees he didn’t have the authority or might to make them do what he wanted them to do.  The refugees already had leaders of a sort but they were really just kind of primitive and inefficient in their approach.  Matt backtracks a bit and starts manipulating the situation so that he may have not been king in fact, but he was king in deed.  But that fell apart as the infighting got out of Matt’s control and they were so vulnerable that an outsider – in the form of Delorey Baumgarten – shows up and takes over.  Matt is back to square one but has now learned how to climb the ladder of success and worms his way into Delorey’s good graces … may have already been there and siding with him before Suicide was taken out; I’m not sure how deep Matt’s play goes.  Delorey, unfortunately for us, has just enough smarts to know who to hire to make him look good; because, while Delorey is brutal and intelligent in a savage kind of way, he isn’t what you would call smart in a traditional academic sense.” 

Consideringly Jax said, “No, Delorey isn’t smart in the academic sense but he does have vision.  I can see him looking at Matt’s plans … if that is what we are talking about here … and saying to himself, hire this guy before someone else does.  As incentive to keep him loyal I’ll even let him play his stupid game about the girl … but he still works for me and he’ll either know it or I’ll just kill him and find some other smart guy to finish his plans.” 

I nodded, “Yeah, exactly.  If this is what is happening Matt is playing a very deep and dangerous game.  Delorey is no one to fool with, games won’t work with him.  You either provide results for him or you stop drawing breath.” 

Jax and I looked at each other and both of us were worried.  “Jax, this is getting a lot bigger than I ever figured on it being.” 

He nodded, “Lon and Vern aren’t real happy with the direction things are taking either.  We need another committee meeting to bring everyone up to speed on all the different projects we have going and to hash out some new ones that need to get done as soon as possible.” 

Nodding I thought to ask, “How’s Mr. Houchins?” 

“Better.  Or at least that’s what Lon says.  He’ll be a while getting his strength back, maybe not until spring, but he seems to be on the mend.  He seems easier in spirit now that he’s heard from his boys that their wheat crop is coming back from the bad freezes we had.” 

I nodded knowing the feeling.  “Ours is too.  It might be early July before we can harvest but baring anything else happening I think we’ll be OK.  I’m hoping to get forty bushels an acre, at five acres that is two hundred bushels for us.  I know that sounds like a lot but with all the people we are feeding it will go quicker than you think.  We also need to hold back seed for planting … about two bushel per acre to be planted.” 

“When did you say you want to get the corn in the ground?” 

“First week of April assuming we aren’t at war … and even if we are we’ll still have to figure something out.  I need feed for the animals and I need time to get more grain dried so that we can have corn meal.” 

“Ok, I know there’s more but hold the rest of it until the committee meeting and bring your notes.  We’ll need to figure out when we need to have our other projects finished so that they don’t interfere with planting and harvesting.” 

I chuffed an ironic laugh.  Jax asked, “What?” 

“That’s the way they used to do things in the old days.  If you wanted to keep your soldiers you had to work around the farming schedule otherwise you’d have a lot of ‘em going AWOL so that they could keep their families fed.  For most of the world eating is a lot more important than making war.” 

Jax nodded.  “And that’s why they’ll follow whoever can fill their belly which is likely going to be what we are up against as well if we try and go after Baumgarten through the refugees in town.  People want the lights to work and the trucks to move.  If he and Matt can pull that off a lot of them won’t care that they are paying the devil to do it.” 

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Empire Strikes Back - part 5


“What do you want me to say?  I told you so?” 

Vernon growled, “Anything but that.  Bad enough you were born smart … being born a smart aleck girl is gonna be more than I can handle right now … got it?” 

I got it and while I did my level best not to say what I really, really wanted to say we both looked at a box full of miscellaneous, and now disabled, equipment.  There were some cameras but notably they weren’t Wi-Fi so that meant that someone was collecting by hand – or at least hand intended to – the data on the storage cards.  Reggie was analyzing the cards on a lap top we had managed to salvage and upgrade and would let us know if they were date stamped and what they were of. 

There were also dismantled boobie traps … although not real boobies as Reggie and I would have built them.  The ones that were found were old hunting traps; the things honestly looked like old timey bear traps.  They were real rusty so who knows where they found them, probably salvaging in great great Uncle Dismuke’s basement.  OK, that was a little facetious but it was the kind of thing that looked like they were grasping at straws. 

Reggie came back in and made a face.  “I don’t know who set these things but most of the pics look like squirrels and birds set them off.  And a couple of them were badly out of focus.  A third was all fogged up like water had gotten in the casing.  And no date stamp.  What’s up with this?” he complained. 

Vernon and Lon sighed in relief.  “We got lucky.” 

I shook my head after looking at Reggie.  “No, it isn’t luck.  Whoever set these just got dumb and you benefited from it.  I’m guessing whoever set these knows squat about the great outdoors.  Sure as heck couldn’t have been a hunter with any sense.” 

Reggie leaned against a porch railing and said, “I just can’t see Matt making this kind of stupid mistake.” 

I shrugged, “And I keep telling folks we need to keep an open mind; it may not be Matt behind this stuff.”  At the sounds of impatient snorts all around me I said, “Geez.  I’m not saying that it isn’t.  He fits Occam ’s razor but other facts that we are looking at don’t.” 

Cal asked, “Who’s Occam and what do you mean his razor?” 

Reggie answered, “Old dude from like the middle ages.  Basically it is a line of reasoning that says the simplest answer is usually the correct one.   If you have to think about it too hard and bend and twist to make it fit the known facts then likely the answer isn’t correct.  Just don’t get too attached your assumptions because that will foul you up too which I think is what Lydie is saying.” 

I shrugged.  “Sure, I guess.  It’s just that all these assumptions about Matt … people act like he is Genghis Khan.   He might be … but then again we don’t have a lot of hard facts to prove the hypothesis.” 

“Yet,” Lon said. 

“Yet,” I agree.  “It isn’t unreasonable to think Matt is behind everything that is going on but what if no one knew about Matt?  Who would be the next most reasonable character you’d attach these acts to?” 

Lon nodded.  “Suicide and that new guy Baumgarten.” 

Vernon sighed and said almost reluctantly, “OK, so it’s possible.”  It sounded like it was like pouring acid down his throat to get him to admit it.  “So looking at this bunch of junk, where does that leave us?  I don’t see Baumgarten investing man hours or time into something this sloppy.  Doesn’t sound his style from what I remember of the gossip about him.” 

I noticed suddenly everyone looking at me.  “Oh honestly, knock it off.  I’m in the dark as much as you guys are.  No, I wouldn’t have thought that Matt would have done anything this sloppy.  Is that what you want to hear?  But it is doubtful that Matt actually laid any of this stuff with his own two hands.  It might have been his idea based on whatever supplies he had at his disposal at the time but there are a lot of variables we don’t have.  When were these put in?  Who put them in and under whose orders?  Why were they put in?  And frankly I don’t know how to get the answers to those questions to add to what we already know which is whoever put these in didn’t really know what they were doing.” 

Vernon asked, “Now who is jumping to conclusions?” 

“Huh?” 

And with way too much enjoyment he explained, “Like you said we don’t know when these were installed.  If the installer – whoever that may be – was working in much less than optimal conditions it could make it appear that an amateur had done the deed.  Setting a camera at night would explain the lack of focus for day time shots.  Fogged up lenses could be explained by it getting done in some of those freezing rains we’ve had.” 

Properly chastened I said, “Fine.  Whatever.  But at least now you know what I mean about too many assumptions and not enough facts.” 

Vernon gave a small smile that turned into a twinkle of a near laugh when Lon popped me on the head with his baseball cap.  I turned and looked at him and said, “You know that isn’t exactly something I like.” 

He just grinned and said, “I know.” 

I sighed and rolled my eyes but let it pass.  I was actually relieved that we were back on better footing with the Houchins Farm.  Which led to my next question.  “Vernon, how’s your daddy?” 

The twinkle faded from his eyes.  “’Bout the same.  Momma told him not to go out in the rain but he insisted on supervising the boys.  Hates to order someone to do something he isn’t willing and able to do himself.  Paying the price now though.  Momma is worried it will turn into pneumonia before it’s all over and for a man his age …” 

Lon said, “Oh Lord, don’t let anyone hear you say that.  If it gets back to the Old Man …” 

Vernon harrumphed but didn’t say anything more.  Reggie said, “And on that note we need to be heading out or we are gonna catch it from Jax.” 

I shrugged, trying to act like I wasn’t willing to hurry to keep him from being a bear about it all.  “He’s just worried.  Kelly has the sniffles and he isn’t used to her being sick.” 

“Half the house as the sniffles,” Reggie complained.  “It’s like living in the sick ward of a hospital.  All the coughing and hacking and sneezing is enough to be heard from space.” 

I rolled my eyes and shook my head but gathered up my gear and said my goodbyes.  Vernon said, “We’ll send a fax to let them know you are on your way.” 

About a mile from the farm Reggie groans.  “Pull over.  All that tea.  I gotta go.” 

“Are you serious?!” I asked on an exasperated laugh.  “Why didn’t you go at the farm?!” 

“I know OK?  You think I’m delighted think again.  It’s cold remember.” 

I tried not to giggle but obligingly pulled off the road into the bushes.  Reggie jumped out but wasn’t gone near long enough before he was yanking my door open and pulling me out.  “Hey!  Go take your own bathroom break, I don’t have to go!” 

“Shhh!  Listen,” he said while pointing up. 

Sure enough I heard a buzz.  It grew louder then faded to almost nothing before growing louder again.  Reggie whispered, “They’re looking for us.” 

I wanted to deny it but it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that someone had the farm under surveillance and had spotted us and was trying to follow us home … or at least follow us to the reach of their signal.  That’s when we saw there were two of them.  I said, “Crisscross search pattern.  Much more professional than what they found on the perimeter of the farm.  Makes me think that Suicide and/or Matt set up the stuff at the farm but someone … Matt and/or Delorey … has made some improvements.” 

Reggie nodded.  “Or someone is learning from experience.  We need to get word to Vernon and Lon.” 

Urgently I told him, “Use that scrambler and send give them a coded message.  Do the same to the Home Place.  Who would be on duty right now?” 

Reggie thought and then said, “Johnson … or maybe Aston … one of the two.  Neither of them will panic if that’s what you’re worried about.” 

I shrugged.  “I hope it is Aston.  Johnson thinks of the girls first instead of starting the rest of the plan in the order we set it up.” 

“So tell him about it.” 

I shook my head.  “I’m not the boss of you guys.  I say something to Johnson he gets all prickly and then gives Jax a hard time.  You tell Aston to warn him about it … or you and Aston and Jax say something to him.  I don’t want any more trouble.” 

Reggie bit his lip and looked at me strangely but then we both had to refocus on the drones above our heads.  Reggie whispered, “They’re flying lower and in tighter circles.” 

I sighed in irritation.  “They know where we went off the road.  Something is definitely up.  Better get those messages out before we get too busy to send them.” 

While Reggie was on the radio I stayed hidden in the bushes.  That’s when I heard something with wheels crunching gravel on the road and I signaled to Reggie to hurry up and do it silently.  He wiggled back over my way and muttered, “Crap.  Now I really have to go.” 

I almost elbowed him but didn’t want any accidents.  I pointed to my ear and then the road and then my ear again to let Reggie know I’d heard something.  We both checked our pistols and rechecked our rifles that were already out and in our hands with the safeties off.  Then we heard the vehicle stop its engine and the sound of a door opening. 

A voice too far away to identify but close enough to understand said, “I don’t know how we lost them.  If I knew we wouldn’t have lost them in the first place.” 

Silence. 

“Screw you.  You’re the one that thinks there is a brain trust out here living in a commune with all the comforts of home.  I never thought Lydie was all that special.” 

Reggie and I both stiffened.  I made to move forward to see who the speaker was but Reggie was just as adamant that I wouldn’t.  He signaled me to stay put while he crawled along the ground. 

“Yeah, yeah.  Whatever man.  Mr. Baumgarten is in charge, not you.  He said we could play your little game so long as it didn’t take time and resources away from our jobs.  I’m due back on shift in two hours.  I don’t show up, the work doesn’t get done, and Mr. Baumgarten is gonna wanna know why.  You gonna tell him?” 

Silence. 

“Like I said man, whatever.  As soon as Jace and Donny meet up with me we’re out of here.” 

I froze.  Jace could be Jace Donahue; I knew he was amongst those students that had been left behind.  Donny I was less sure of as the name didn’t strike an immediate bell.  About that time there was a scuff behind me and I rolled just in time to avoid a tree limb coming down where my head had been a moment before.   

I was flattened as something … or should I say someone … landed on me hard, nearly knocking the wind out of me.  An arm came around my throat from behind and started to choke me.  I don’t care who you are but if you haven’t been trained not to panic when you can’t breathe you are gonna have some adrenaline zinging through your veins.   

Praying the person on my back didn’t have on insulated pants I reached down and around and grabbed a handful of the crotch of the pants he was wearing.  As luck would have it, he was a she.  And the she laughed nastily in my ear with fetid breath, “Gotcha skank.  I’m gonna get me that reward.” 

OK, so the first dirty pool tactic didn’t work; I made sure the second one did.  I managed to rip a sharp stick off of the tree branch and jabbed at the face behind mine.  There was a shriek loud enough to wake anything hibernating within five miles.  I rolled over and grabbed for my pistol at the same time.  It took two jerks before I could free it from the holster but out it came … and so did a double tap of bullets, right into the chest of the woman who had been my attacker.  I scrambled up, still trying to draw a clear breath.  Over the ringing in my ears I hear noise off down at the road. 

Quickly but cautiously I made my way down there but Reggie had secured the situation by the time I arrived.  We looked at each other and then jumped as the radio squawked.  “I’m getting tired of waiting.  If this is some kind of infantile passive aggressive tactic Randall …” 

I recognized that voice.  So did Reggie.  “Do we answer him?” 

Seeing the devilment in Reggie’s eyes made me almost want to but I said, “No.  Let Matt guess what is going on.  It will drive him crazier than anything we could say.” 

That made Reggie grin even bigger, this time in satisfaction.  I was relieved.  Reggie and Matt had never really gotten along.  They ignored each other by mutual agreement while we were in school but I could see them becoming deadly enemies at this point and a personal vendetta we didn’t need making things worse.  Johnson and Aston were already in that category but we had it directed to more constructive pursuits.  Reggie wouldn’t intentionally do anything to hurt those of us at the Home Place but when he got nasty I wouldn’t want to get in his way … I’d played on his side too many times not to know what he was capable of. 

I rubbed my throat and then thought to ask him, “You hurt?” 

“Naw.  You?” 

“Stiff,” I said stretching my neck.  “Some woman caught me from behind.” 

“She the double tap I heard?” 

“Yeah.  Sorry about the noise but she was hard up to win some type of reward.” 

Reggie nodded.  “Yeah.  Heard Randy … that’s who was driving, Jace Donahue is down in the ditch over there … say something along that line to Matt.  Said it was the only reason he was out here.  Well, it got him killed.” 

I saw the look on Reggie’s face and then remembered he and Randy had hung out at the paintball field together sometimes.  “You OK?” 

“Yeah.  He wasn’t who he used to be.  Let’s just get things cleaned up and get out of here before Matt decides to send someone out here to find out what is going on.” 

We dumped the bodies in the bed of the truck … it would be easier to wash out than the car’s trunk … and then gathered up the little drones.  “Didja check to make sure there were no homing devices?” Reggie asked. 

“I didn’t see anything.  You look too.  What’s in your hand?” 

“The reason I asked,” he answered, showing me a small plastic box.  “It was under the car’s hood.  I don’t know if it is a homing device or not but I disabled whatever it is.  No sense in taking chances.” 

I said, “Looks like an automatic garage door opener thingie.” 

“I know, which means it either has a signal going in or coming out.  Better to turn it off until I can figure out what it is.” 

Reggie said he’d drive the old beater while I took the truck.  Before we got back going where we were going we radioed home and let them radiofax the farm.  While he was outwardly calm I could hear the polish coming off of Jax’s teeth when he said not to lose any more time.   

Reggie looked at me and smiled, “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do when you get home.” 

“Oh shut up.”