Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Empire Strikes Back - part 4


Despite the scary thoughts about what the drones – we referred to them as flying rats to take the edge off of our fear – were capable of, the rest of that week was spent constructively setting up the radiofax system with the Houchins Farm.  I went on one of the first runs and asked to speak to Vernon alone when Jax was off with Junior running some cable.  I’ll admit I was nervous but I felt I was in the right and that it needed to be said.  

Facing Vernon was nearly as hard as facing Mr. Houchins would have been.  “Vernon, I know you aren’t going to take this kindly.  You’re my dad’s age or close enough that you aren’t going to like someone my age – especially a girl – giving you a hard time.  But I feel I need to say this … the next time you got a problem with me or are suspicious of me, talk to me about it instead of causing problems in my house.” 

I don’t think he’d ever expected me to address it quite that directly.  Caught off guard the large man said, “Now just wait one minute little girl.” 

My fear lending me even more stubbornness than I normally had I said, “No, I won’t.  In your home I won’t ever tell you what to do but you caused heartache that didn’t need to be for the people under my roof.  It got very, very serious and downright ugly.  I won’t come right out and say you did it on purpose because I don’t have any proof of that, but I could make a circumstantial case for it if push came to shove.  Right now we enjoy good relations because I respect your folks because they were good friends with my dad and mom.  That doesn’t mean I don’t remember how I got turned away at the gate when I didn’t ask for nothing but friendship to keep from being lonesome.  I’ll always remember that because it keeps things in perspective when dealing with you and yours.  And now I’ve got something for you to remember … we don’t need you.  It’s nice to have you for friends but we don’t need you.  We may not be your equal in land and stuff but we can get along without you.  And if we have to we will.” 

He was really angry.  “Are you through?” 

“No, I’m not finish digging this hole.  See I set up this radiofax system just because I could.  It might come in handy, it might not; that’s up to you.  I’m not asking anything in return for the work I did … not a trade, nothing.  You asked and I delivered … but only because I could and also because I wanted to.  You only have as much authority over us as we are willing to give, no more no less.  And I’ll refrain from being nasty and insinuating that if there is a spy that the odds are far more likely that it comes from your place than ours … but I could … and I would be right.  And I’m sure you don’t want that kind of noise floating around the farm given how destructive it could be to your cohesiveness both as a team and as a family.” 

“Why you little … You really think this is going to pass and there not be consequences for your mouth?” 

“Oh, I know there will be consequences.  I warned everyone at the Home Place what I was going to say and that you all might decide to take your ball and go home.  They said they understood.”  That caught him off guard though he tried not to show it.  “This needed saying because we are smaller and younger.  It would be real easy for you to get the idea that you’re doing us a favor by taking over and I’m here to tell you it just ain’t gonna happen.  And if this was some kinda test let me tell you it was a lame one.  You and Lon think you know everything that Reggie and I can pull off?  That the others are just gonna roll over ‘cause you say so?  Think again and I’m not bluffing.  I won’t ever throw in with any bad guys against you all … my parents would roll over in their graves at the very idea of that … but that doesn’t mean we have to lend you a hand in that area either.” 

He growled, “All your talk is just that and makes me think being suspicious of you was the right thing to be rather than the wrong.” 

I shook my head.  “Think what you want, all you want.  Be suspicious and see what it buys you.  But don’t try the same thing again.  I didn’t deserve being treated like I was mentally damaged enough to turn on people that way.  I was loyal and it hurt what you people did to me.  I don’t know why everyone keeps thinking that just because once upon a time I was more than friends with Matt that he still holds some kind of power over me or whatever.  The fact that I have seen him for what he is now should make the opposite case.  I’d be much more worried about someone that wasn’t exposed to Matt not having any defenses to keep themselves from being manipulated and that isn’t anyone under my roof, but more than a few under your authority sure could be described that way.” 

“You …” He was breathing like a bull but then he suddenly blinked and said mildly, “You’ve got a point.” 

He had changed tack so fast I nearly stumbled.  “Huh?” 

He twisted his lips which was probably about the closest thing to a smile he could muster at that moment.  “I said you’ve got a point.  I don’t like you mouthing off at me but … but we’ll call it even.  I just better not catch you trying to cause problems for my family.” 

“I’m not the one that caused problems,” I reminded him.  “But I’ll call it quits if you will.” 

I held out my hand to shake on it.  He gave me the hairy eyeball but eventually stuck his hand out and shook on it.  “You are going to give Jax an ulcer.” 

Being I was unwilling to comment on that type of statement we got back down to business.  He asked, “You’re willing to vouch for everyone you got under your roof?” 

“Yes.” 

“Even those two females.”  Since I knew he was referring to Alexis and Gennie I nodded. 

I said, “And speaking of which before I leave I need to talk to your momma or one of the other ladies around here.  A couple of us girls think Gennie – the young one you met – might be even younger than fourteen.” 

Vernon’s face was blank for a moment but then he growled something fowl about the gang members.  “How sure are you and how much younger?” 

“Pretty sure and maybe as young as eleven, it’s kinda hard to tell.  She wears make up like it’s war paint but Janice … that’s Johnsons’ sister …” 

Impatiently he said, “I know who she is.” 

“Anyway, Janice has seen her in … uh … let’s just call it a locker room setting, and she says that Gennie doesn’t look fourteen.” 

Vernon growled some more and then shook his head.  “A couple of the boys around here were looking her over so I’ll warn them off but you need to keep an eye on the girl.” 

My lip curled at the idea of the farm boys looking us girls over but I kept my thoughts to myself.  I supposed it was going to happen but I didn’t like it being said like we were cattle on the auction block. 

“Vernon,” I started tentatively. 

“What?” he asked cautiously. 

“Is … is there any other way that the townies could have gotten information from us besides a spy?” 

He was going to blow the question off at first, I could tell; then, he gave it some honest consideration.  “There’s always ways to get information.  Instead of a spy in our ranks we could have people spying on us.  That could be literal eyes on us, cameras, listening devices, radar, interrogation of personnel, and so on … but most would be well beyond the capabilities of the refugees.” 

I nodded.  “Fine but some of those I can come up with ways to do without really thinking about it too hard … and think maybe we ought to start exercising a few of them … so wouldn’t it be possible that the townies have already gotten a jump on us by doing them too?” 

He pointed to a chair in what they called the radio shack and indicated for me to sit.  After I did he did as well and steepled his fingers.  “Talk to me.” 

“I thought I was.” 

He snorted.  “Talk to me now that I’m listening.” 

I sighed and grumbled a bit under my breath but managed to keep my opinion of his remark to myself.  “They are already using cobbled together gizmos to use as drones.  What they are using them for we don’t know for sure.  Maybe they are mapping locations for salvaging to save on gas and labor … or to prioritize various sites.  Or maybe they are looking for people, maybe particular people.”  Neither one of us mentioned that the possibility was that Matt had been particularly looking for me.  “Maybe they just want to know what is going on outside of town without having to put too much man power into it.  Or maybe they are already spying on known locations and we are just now noticing.  If that is the case it makes me wonder what else we’ve missed.” 

Vernon sighed and then got up and stuck his head out the door, sending one of the boys out in the yard scrambling to fetch Lon.  He looked at me and said, “Hold that thought a minute.” 

After Lon arrived Vernon asked me to start at the top.  Once I’d got to the point of possibly having missed other stuff they both looked serious.  I continued, “Reggie has gone over the drones that have come down and they had wifi capable cameras but no listening capabilities, but might be night vision capable; they look like those cameras you could hook into a security system.  Reggie and I are pretty sure they are limited to a distance of about one mile from their controller.  That means that we’ve had someone out there spying, at least indirectly, and in my opinion getting a little too close to have not let their presence be known.  So what else has this person … or persons … done and to what purpose?” 

Lon shrugged and said, “Nothing is missing around the farm.  Crops have been in for a couple of months.  Food is locked up tight, even the feed for the animals.  No animals have been rustled.  No equipment has been sabotaged.  Kids are all accounted for.” 

“OK.  Then let’s reverse it.  If they aren’t taking anything can they be leaving something?  How secure is your potable water and/or the water for your livestock?  Have you had any animals get sick lately?  Had a sudden explosion in rodents when they should be hibernating?  Have your fences needed an unusual amount of repair?  Found fresh holes in the ground where they shouldn’t be that could bring down the horses while someone is out riding the fence line?  Found what looks to be old hunting blinds … or maybe those hunting cameras even?” 

I was going to keep going but Vernon was looking at me and shaking his head.  I asked him, “What?” 

Lon chuckled and answered for the speechless man.  “You’re a mess girl.  Vernon is old school and not used to little girlies being capable of what you apparently are.” 

I snorted.  “Old school?  Really?  Women have been spies for centuries.  It is precisely because men underestimate women that this can happen.  Mata Hari, Sarah Emma Edmonds, Aphra Behn, Belle Boyd?  Do those names ring a bell at all ‘cause they should.  The known list of female spies goes on and on so you know there has to be a lot of unacknowledged female spies that made a difference … and stop getting me off topic unless you are looking at a long history lecture.  Let’s just leave it at the fact that women can be just as spy-ish as men can be.” 

“Spy-ish,” Lon said with another chuckle. 

“Whatever.  You know what I mean.” 

Vernon remained serious however.  “Counter measures.” 

Lon looked at him and nodded.  I had to ask, “What counter measures?” 

“We have to assume that our security has been breached in some fashion.  We need to get on the defensive – do a thorough scan of the area surrounding the farm – but we need to go on the offensive as well.  We’ve got the manpower to pull it off, you don’t.” 

I rolled my eyes.  “We’ve had the land around the Home Place bugged for a while.  We rotate shifts so no one single person is observing the equipment and we rotate the schedule so it would be next to impossible for anyone in the house to make an assignation unobserved … not impossible but very difficult.  We also have the same area seriously boobied and only Reggie and I know where all of the traps are.  Several places are no man’s land because of this.  Anyone thinking to sneak in would likely trip something and Reggie and I would know.” 

“How?” 

I gave him a closed look and said, “Don’t worry about it.  We’d know.” 

Vernon and Lon looked at each other then Lon asked said, “I got the impression from Jax and the others that have come out here to help set the radiofax that suspicions didn’t go over well at your place.” 

Vernon told him, “The less that is brought up the better.  I need you to set up a schedule and to check the woods and byways.  The farm is as secure as we can make it but I want a perimeter around the farm of at least fifty yards, wider as we go along.  I’m getting tired of that itchy feeling between my shoulder blades.” 

Lon got up but before he left he gave me a smile and popped me on the head with his baseball cap.  I was still huffing at the fact that he’d knocked my braids loose when Vernon asked, “Here’s something we might not have taken seriously enough.  What if they’ve got the town and surrounding areas bugged?” 

I saw it as soon as he brought it up.  “You’re saying that when we were laying the boobies that they were already there, possibly watching for us to come?” 

He nodded, “Or more than likely trying to keep an eye on their own.  Our man Suicide didn’t strike me as the trusting sort.”  When he saw me giving him the don’t-even-go-there look he just humphed.  “As you kids are fond of saying … whatever.  Let’s theorize for a moment that that is what happened and why we ran into an ambush.  We need to know what, if anything, that could have been given away.” 

“Reggie and I don’t talk when we are working and I – as you should remember – was not allowed to be part of the crews that laid the boobies.”  His nose flared so I just blew on through rather than rub it in.  “Numbers, who’s in charge, who is part of a couple, names, radio call signs, what method of transportation we were using, and any number of other things.  I have no idea who gossips while they work, who doesn’t, and what they might have said.  Oh wait … men don’t gossip, right?” 

He surprised me with a grin.  “Wrong.  Men are as bad as women, we just don’t call it that.”  His grin faded however as he continued.  “But it gives me a lot to think about.  We really have no way of knowing what the enemy knows and what they don’t.” 

“So let’s find out.” 

I gave him an innocent look and then he got a slightly evil grin on his face.  “You know kid, I’m beginning to like the way you think.”

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