Part 36

Bjorn appeared at Linda’s apartment building just as Ludvik left. He reassured Ludvik he would be extra careful today watching out for Linda.

“I just feel as though something is off. I can’t explain it.”

“I will keep her safe Ludvik. No one will get past me here.” Bjorn motioned towards the front doors. “Go take care of whatever it is you need to. I can take care of this.”

Finally after much coaxing on Bjorn’s part, Ludvik headed out. Until he reached the turn, he kept looking back over his shoulder. Making sure Bjorn was in sight.

Bjorn gave Ludvik an extra ten minutes to get further away, then he headed upstairs.

“Tap, tap” on the door, and Linda opened it immediately, a huge smile on her face.

“I didn’t think he was ever going to leave,” Linda gasps. “Let me just grab my bag, and we can go.”

“Actually I should come in for a moment first.” The smile fades from Linda’s face.

“What’s wrong? Ludvik?” Linda askes frantically.

“Don’t worry, Ludvik is fine, nothing is wrong. I just,” Bjorn then closes the door. He sprinkles something along the door way sealing them in. “The other lines on the doors and windows remain intact, correct?” Linda nods. “Now, what I need to tell you is, you should bring Gramr today.”

“How?” Linda questions. “It’s huge, I have nothing big enough to hide it in.”

Bjorn snickers, “It looks like rain, why not carry an umbrella?”

Linda looked at him dumbfounded. “It is only hidden in the umbrellas, it isn’t one.”

Bjorn walks over to retrieve Gramr from the umbrella stand. “The pink one right?”

“Bjorn, you know very well, it isn’t pink.”

Bjorn then pulls his phone from his pocket and snaps a picture for Linda of her umbrella stand. Linda’s phone dings after several seconds. “What the…… why does it?”

But before Linda could finish Bjorn starts. “You are the current owner, Sigurd gave the sword to you. The sword obeys you. What you choose others to see, is what they see.”

“You mean if I chose to make it my nail file, it would fit in a clutch?”

“Aye. Whatever you choose.”

“Hum…… I think today it will stay in my purse. Nail file it is.”

Suddenly the pink umbrella disappears from the umbrella stand and Bjorn hears a “tink” as something hits the bottom of the glazed ceramic umbrella stand. He reaches down into the jug, and pulls out a small pink handled nail file. He walks over and hands it to Linda. She takes the pink handle and slices with the file. Suddenly before Bjorn’s eyes it transforms from a nail file, into the large sword that is Gramr.

“Thank you Sigurd wherever you are,” Linda states as her mind changes the sword once again to a nail file in Bjorn’s eyes.

Bjorn laughs. “You ready then?”

“Sure, let me slip this in my bag.”

©2015 ML Steele

Part 35

     Linda wakes bright eyed and bushy tailed and crawls straight from bed and into the shower. An idea had come to her as she slept, and with so few days left until Christmas she was running out of time. She tried to hurry in the shower, but her mind kept drifting to  her husband’s reaction on Christmas morning. Linda finally emerged from the shower and wrapped a towel around herself twenty minutes later. Ludvik covers the door way, between Linda and their bedroom, a large grin on his face

“So, Mrs. Vidar, up before me are you?”

Linda giggles, “Hum, I think that is debatable,” as she nods down towards his shorts. Ludvik smiles as he bends towards his wife, his lips landing on hers.

“I cannot help if I find you irresistible, and beautiful with my child growing inside of you.” His hand grabs Linda’s towel and pulls it loose from her body. Ludvik’s large hand then settles on her sizeable belly.

“I love you Min Skatt.”

Ludvik’s lips once again caress Linda’s.

Several hours later, Ludvik finally leaves the apartment. It’s a bit before ten, as he heads to the elevator, messaging Bjorn he would be out till around early evening.

“Please, keep a close eye over Linda and the baby today, I feel something is off.”

     “Did something happen?”

     “No, just a feeling I have.”

     “You worry too much brother.”

     “Maybe, but still…”

     “I will keep my eyes peeled, you know she is in good hands.”

     “Aye, thank you, brother.”

Something did feel off to Ludvik about today, and Linda’s behavior had been part of it. After breakfast, she had rushed him out the door, and seemed even more excited as she closed the door in his face. He had to knock and have her open it once again, in order to tell her goodbye, and kiss her. Then once again, the door closed and the bolts went into place. He stood listening as each lock clicked.

Ludvik messaged Troy after he had messaged Bjorn, who in turn told him “It is perfectly normal. Just hormone fluctuations. Besides Ludvik, it is close to Christmas.” Ludvik felt only a small amount better, after talking with him. He couldn’t shake the nagging feeling in him that something was off.



©2015 ML Steele

Part 34

My apologies, that I have not gotten to post much lately. Health issues have caused it, and I do apologize. I am trying to work out the last bits of the story. I will say this. I have thought of a different ending from my original that I mapped out. I hope it turns out well. Thank you to all my loyal readers. And as always, Please enjoy reading. MLSteele


    Loki’s semiconscious mind, wandered once again into Linda’s. Planting information in her mind, which would allow Fenrir success this time. Just a day, that is all he would have to wait in order for his plan to come into play.

“Fenrir,” Loki began. “You will have another chance. The girl is going on an outing with Thor, and her friends. She will stop for lunch. I will place diminished demons in the restaurant. They will aid you in ensuring my plan works.”

“I will do my best. But you know, things always happen. Things always go wrong when a Norse is involved.”

“Nothing will go wrong this time. I assure you. You will have time to end her child and mate with her. Is this understood?”

“But…” Fenrir begins. However Loki cuts him off.

“No buts!” Loki screeches. “You will do this. Understand?”

“Yes,” Fenrir snarls. “I understand.”

“Now come with me, I will reveal the whole plan, while I find me something to munch on.”

Fenrir looked irritated. “Oh I will have someone find you some raw meat as well. Now come.”

Fenrir grudgingly follows his father.

In Valhalla:

“You know what he seeks to do?” Odin asks Mimir.

“I do. I will not allow things to get out of hand. We can control what happens.” Mimir states. “Besides, Thor can ensure she carries Gramr with her. I put an enchantment on it, so she can hide it as whatever she chooses.”

“Will you tell Vidar?”

“No, he will only get in the way of what is to happen. You know what the prophecy says. It must occur. She has to be the one to do it, or it isn’t for all eternity.”

“Do you think he will forgive you for putting Linda and his child in harms way to get what you want?”

“What we all want. This is what is best for the whole world Odin. Not just for you and I. I cannot take into account Vidar’s feelings for this. It would jeopardize the whole thing. We are the protectors of the world, this is why we were allowed to join Inook’s warriors. If I fail, the world will fall to chaos and death, and it will be on all of our hands. We will not be allowed to ascend. We will all be forced to be slaves of the underworld. I cannot risk it. End of Story.”

“As you say Mimir, but remember. He looks to you more as a father than he does me. This is going to crush him.” Odin then heads out of the Great Hall.

Mimir  collapses onto the bench in the Great Hall. His hands going up over his face. He knows what this will cost, but there is no way around it. He can’t choose one over the other. He can’t play favorites. He has to do what is best for the world. What the prophecy stated. He has to allow this, he only hopes Vidar will forgive him with time.

©2015 ML Steele



Editing is important when writing. Self-editing can slow you down as you write, and I’m just as guilty of that – if not guiltier. In any event, when you finish a piece, then find some trusted friends or family to look it over. Many of us write as we think or speak ourselves, and things like regional dialect sometimes bleed through.

Me, I have problems with “was” and “were,” and many times I just run with it and correct it later. That is, if I remember to do it. This is why I would rather have someone look over my work and check it.

There are guides available for sale to help the writer with these sorts of things and to give the writer the precision needed to get the word out quickly. I used this search string at to pull up all manner of results. Things of this nature can help a great deal, but you do have to put in the time to study it and improve your craft.

Granted, but if you paid attention in school, you wouldn’t have to do that. I can hear some out there smirking as they say this. While this is true, it is also true that there are some of us that put pen to paper that hasn’t sat in a classroom for some time. The finer points of this or that tend to diminish over time, and it is for this reason I suggested the Amazon search. Reference material never hurts. Just remember to actually refer to it.

An editor can improve the technical aspects of your work immensely, and if you can afford it then make use of it. One of my favorite opening lines is “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” This comes from the first volume in the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Now, I don’t know if he sat down and wrote the line like that as a first draft. I dimly recall some interview many years ago in which he did say that. My point being, let’s say he started with “The gunslinger chased the man in black across the desert.” That is serviceable and conveys the image of a pursuit, but it’s a little dry.I could see an editor saying, “Let’s try it this way.” When you read “The man in black fled across the desert,” you automatically think about ‘well, he’s being chased by something.’ On the other hand, “the gunslinger chased the man” doesn’t really give as much room for imagination to spark. Once you read the second part that says, “and the gunslinger followed,” you think ‘why is there a gunslinger after him?’ Or, at least I did.

Somehow, without editing, I doubt the Dark Tower would be seven books. Or for that matter, Harry Potter. Proverbs 27:17 said it pretty well. “One person sharpens another.” While King Solomon wasn’t specifically referring to the writing process in this instance, the wisdom of another reading your work and sharpening it is paramount.

So, enjoy your writing, work hard at it, and let it shine. If an editor can make it shine brighter still, then make use of that resource.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele


Part 33

Evening fell on the apartment, and Linda and Ludvik crawled from bed. Ludvik places a call to order in dinner, so he and Linda can spend the evening trimming the tree.

“Dinner should be here in about a half hour. I hope Italian is okay with you.”

“When has this baby ever rejected Italian!” Linda exclaimed. “Where should we begin?”

“With the lights, I suppose?” Ludvik questioned. “They are usually the first thing to go on. Right?”

“Have you never decorated a tree?”

“Yes, I have. But back then, electricity did not exist.” A hearty chuckle escaping Ludvik.

Linda’s cheeks became a bit rosy at his remark. “You know I love when your cheeks turn red. It makes you glow more than you already do from being pregnant.”

Linda reaches up and gives him a quick peck on his lips. Then continues on trying to untangle her lights.

“By the way, how did you know where I store all of my holiday decorations?”

“The building basement was the first thought that popped into my mind. I got lucky.”

“I think I should be in charge of packing away the tree trimmings from now on.” Ludvik states as he holds up a large tangle of lights. Smirking, Linda throws a bow at him, as he continued on unknotting the lights.

They managed to get the tree lights straight and hung on the tree, before dinner arrived. Once it was there, they took a break and ate. Linda then made hot cocoa and they continued on with the decorating.

“I think this is the last box of ornaments,” Linda states.

“Oh, I’m not so sure about that. Look over in that other box one more time.”

Linda did as Ludvik asked, and there she found a new ornament. One Ludvik himself had picked out. She carefully opened the box, and took the small ornament out. She unwrapped it, and there hanging in her hand, was a mother to be sitting in a rocking chair, knitting a Christmas baby blanket, and the father leaning lovingly over her from behind. Inscribed on the bottom, “Our first Christmas together, Love Ludvik.”

“I sort of want to make it a tradition all our own.”

Linda’s eyes began to fill with tears. “It’s beautiful Ludvik, thank you. I like that idea. Our own traditions for our child.”

©2015 ML Steele

Part 32

Ludvik and Linda returned to her apartment, once the sun rose high in the sky. They kissed and snuggled until sleep arrived. The next morning Ludvik is first to rise. He leaves Linda sleeping as he runs a few errands in town.

Linda rolls over in bed, and finds a note where Ludvik had been earlier.

Good morning my love,

     I have gone into town to take care of the preparations for Valentine’s Day. I will return soon. If you need me text or call. Bjorn is in downstairs in case you need him.

                             I love you,


Linda smiles to herself, as she thinks of their honeymoon. She crawls from bed, and makes her way into the kitchen after putting on her robe. She starts to make her some breakfast, then thinks she should text Ludvik and see when he will return.

“Hey, when are you going to be back? I sorta miss you a lot.”

“I’m finishing up here, then I should be on the road soon. I miss you too.”

“Would you like me to make you something for breakfast, when I make mine?”

“I could use a cup of coffee, it’s kind of cold out here. Snow has begun falling.”

“Do you think it’s going to be a white Christmas?”

“Do you want it to be?”

“I think this year, I would. It will be the icing on the cake so to speak.”

“Then you shall have it. I told you, whatever you want, you will have. Now, I must go. I’ll see you soon. I love you.”

“I love you.”

Linda set about creating a feast for the two of them unlike any she had before. She made French toast, bacon, sliced fruit, and made coffee. She set the table, including candles. She then went to her room and found her new night gown Katie and Paige had talked her into buying. A soft peach, flowing silk material, empire waist gown that reached the floor. Seems most things she bought now were empire waist, what with her tiny bump growing so rapidly.

As Linda returns to the kitchen, she hears the front door locks shift. Ludvik is unlocking the door. She quickly lights the candles and pours his coffee. She then heads towards the living room, coffee in hand.

“Hello beautiful.” Ludvik smiles as he comes through the door. “Oh is that mine?”

Ludvik moves in and kisses Linda on the lips. “I have missed you.”

Linda smiles. “And I you. Here, drink up. You are like ice.”

Ludvik gratefully takes the cup, and begins drinking. “You ready for breakfast?” Linda asks as she begins moving towards the kitchen.

“Sure, give me a minute to shed my coat and get washed up, and I will join you in the kitchen in a few minutes.”

“I’m not so sure we can wait to eat any longer.” Linda giggles.

“I don’t mind my love. You go and begin, I will be in there soon.”

Linda gave her husband a quick peck on the lips, and headed into the kitchen to start her breakfast. Ludvik then, set about setting up his surprise for Linda, after breakfast.

     Ludvik enters the kitchen, and walks over and kisses Linda on her forehead. “This all looks good, you included my love. I really like your attire choice this morning.” A large smile crossing his face.

“Thank you. You want me to make you a plate?”

“No, you go ahead, I can make it. Would you like a refill on anything?”

“No, I think we are about full.” Linda giggles.

Ludvik sits down and the two chat as he enjoys his breakfast. When they finish, Linda begins to start clearing the table.

“Leave that, I will clean that up later. Come with me. Close your eyes.”

“What are you up to?”

“A surprise.”

Linda follows the instructions remembering Ludvik had been out planning for their honeymoon. Ludvik grasps Linda’s hand, and brings it to his lips. He places a soft kiss on the back of it. He then began moving forward, back into the living room.

“Ok open them.”

“Oh Ludvik!”

As Linda opens her eyes, she sees that Ludvik has transformed her living room into a Christmas scene worthy of any holiday special on television. A large scotch pine tree, stands by the fireplace. Three stockings hang from the fireplace, labeled mom, dad, and baby Vidar. All of Linda’s decorations sit about waiting to adorn the new tree, and hidden among them, is a new one.

Linda turns towards Ludvik. “You are making this so magical for me. I feel like we are in a fairytale.” Her lips then go to his.

Ludvik scoops Linda up and heads into the bedroom.


©2015 ML Steele

Suspension of Disbelief

Suspension of Disbelief

Suspension of disbelief is important. To quote, “suspension of disbelief” is defined as “a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.”

Sometimes, I call it “getting into a story.” I like science fiction stories, also fantasy, when I read for relaxation and enjoyment. In David Zindell’s novel “Neverness,” published in 1990, there is a lot of space travel and mathematicians doing mathematician things. Also physics, biology, and other sciences. I’m not really a math fan, but I can ‘get into’ this story. It is well written and gives you a glimpse into math as a language of the universe.

Historical fiction is another. You can be right there with Oliver Twist as he says, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” You can stand on the quarterdeck during battle as Richard Bolitho fights his ship against the Spanish, or Horatio Hornblower against the French. Maybe sit with Peggoty as she talks with young David Copperfield. Get into the story, as it were.

If you want to step forward some centuries again, then sit on the bridge with Captain Jean-Luc Picard or Captain Honor Harrington as they go into battle. Your imagination will help you hear as the phasers fire or the bomb-pumped lasers detonate against the sidewalls.

If you like contemporary fiction, then a Clancy novel, for instance. Put yourself into the shoes of Jack Ryan learning how to be President and dealing with all the things that come along with that.

All of the authors that I’ve referenced above helped in the suspension of disbelief. I like to read either sitting in my recliner or laying in bed, and it’s a stretch to see myself on that bloody, smoke-filled quarterdeck sitting in a comfortable recliner. However, as my disbelief is suspended by the story, I forget where I’m physically located – and that’s when I enter the story. It worked for Lucy, when she went through the wardrobe and met Mr. Tumnus, right?

As a writer, you have to be authentic in what you put on paper or on screen. Don’t write a boxing match and then have a boxer pull a claymore sword out of his shorts. That would be interesting in a drug-addled scene, but I couldn’t see Rocky dealing with it. Be descriptive. Show your reader the scene. A royal wedding in the 12th century should have all the nobles standing around uncomfortably in court dress (sort of like we do today in the monkey suits and ties and dresses and tight shoes that haven’t been worn in a few years) with flames in a fireplace, an archbishop that might or might not be corrupt, and the faint sound of peasants revolting outside the castle. We must not forget the family of the kidnapped bride swearing war, either.

Crank up your own imagination and put on that mental DVD of your story’s screenplay, or step into the shoes of your characters and hear them talk to another character – then write it down. You have to remember, however, that your reader can only see the same thing that you see on that mental movie if you show them.

For example, I’m writing a story now with a warrior monk. Not a Shaolin priest, although the Shaolin order influences what I see. No, this monk is an Elf. His name is Abiradon, and he’s a pretty happy-go-lucky guy. If you’re a bad guy, don’t go after anyone weaker than you or unable to defend themselves where he can see it, however. He will beat you black and blue, then crack a joke over your bleeding, moaning body.

Don’t tick off his partner, either. That one doesn’t bother with jokes.

So, in this story, I try to describe Abiradon’s sunny personality and the things that he does.He likes to help people, make kids happy, charm the women and generally make life great for the people around him. I show the things that he does, how it makes him feel, how it makes others around him feel, and the things he does to try to lighten up his partner. That’s a hard job, but he’s trying. On the other hand, I try to describe the point of view of the poor saps that manage to make him mad.

Let’s take a moment and see what he’s doing now.

Abiradon sat quietly meditating on the unforgiving surface of the stone circle. His attention was on the sound of the water trickling over the smooth stones piled up in regular intervals around the circle. The water flowed into a ring around the circle, and drained underneath to be returned to trickle down over the stones again. This created a consistent place for a warrior monk to recharge his spirit. The shrine was on a small hill, open to the air and elements. Small torches illuminated it from outside the minimal perimeter. It was almost always occupied by one monk or another. Today, it was his turn.

In the distance, a raptor cried as it spotted its prey, and Abiradon let the sound filter into his consciousness. He became the rush of wind through the bird’s feathers and the impact of the talons making their deadly touch. He let the shock flow through him, and he noted that his heartbeat did not change pace. This was a sign that the eighteen hours that he’d been out here, through wind and rain, had begun to bring him to center.

After the horrendous events he’d had to endure recently, he was unsure how long – if ever – it would take to return to that state. His body had begun to heal with it’s usual quickness, but the mental anguish and battle he’d undergone had been rough. To see all those innocents die had been hard on the young warrior monk, and he’d fought for them. He’d tried to save them, and when the tide had turned again him and against those of this brothers that fought with him, he’d fought to avenge them. Now, he alone fought the battle again, deep in the meditative trance. His hands remained still on the motionless ironwood staff that he’d inherited from his master, resting perfectly level on his lap.

There was no outward sign on his body. No eyebrow quirked, his lips didn’t ease up in their usual smile, his fingers didn’t move in a prank. Abiradon stayed in his posture, seemingly another part of the stone that made up this small piece of stillness. He prepared himself for the battle yet to come.

Here, I’ve tried to describe what Abiradon is doing and feeling. He has a motivation for the things that he is doing, and it’s a pretty personal thing. The events leading up to this moment have obviously been hard on him, since if a prankster is perfectly still and not playing a prank, well, there’s something not quite right. I could find myself standing there watching Abiradon in his meditations, suspending my disbelief and wanting to find out what happens next.

Well, I do, but first I have to write it.

Enjoy writing your own suspensions of disbelief.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

Part 31

Ludvik arrives on the top of Linda’s apartment building with her in his arms.

     “So much for a carefree night, eh?” Linda begins.

“Was it really that bad?” Ludvik questions.

“No, not really. But I suppose we will have to postpone the honeymoon, until after the baby comes.”

“How about Valentine’s Day? We can plan a trip just the three of us, anywhere you want to go.”

Linda smiles, “Just the three of us. I kinda like the sound of that.”

“Then it’s settled. I will start the arrangements first thing in the morning.”

“You will stay with me always, won’t you Ludvik? No matter what happens, we will be together and watch our child grow up.”

“Yes, Min Skatt. I promise you. And if you want more babies, I shall give them to you as well. Whatever you want, is yours.”

Ludvik sets Linda down on the roof top. He adjusts his watch, and resumes his human form.

     “Now, Mrs. Vidar, may I have this dance?”

Ludvik pulls Linda in close and the two slow dance on their own private dance floor above Linda’s apartment. The rising sun as their back drop, and the wind as their music.

In Hell:

“You really can’t do anything without my help, can you Fenrir?” Loki admonishes.

“We fought long and hard father. Vidar is stronger than I gave him credit for. It will not happen again.”

“We are running out of time. You have until midnight on the night of the 31st! ”

Loki `waves his scepter,  “Your promise bore me.” Poof. Fenrir is gone.

All of hell is quite, all except for the maniacal laughing of Loki.

In Valhalla:

“This could have been bad.” Mimir begins.

“Nonsense. We were in control the whole time.” Odin smirks. “Sit still Thor, and let Mimir set and mend that wing.”

“Thor could have been killed, had Vidar’s strength not rivaled that of the Jotuns.” Mimir adds.

“I ensured his strength using Huginn and Muninn. He was never in any danger. No one was. It was the whole reason I sent Thor and Vidar.”

“I was!” Thor explodes. “I could have been ripped apart by those ugly gargantuan sisters. They were toying with me as if I were something to pass the hours.”

“Don’t get all bent out of shape Thor. We all must sacrifice to ensure the birth of the child.”

“And just what is it that you are sacrificing father?” Thor demands. “Are we finished Mimir?”

Mimir nods and Thor jumps up, spins the dial on his watch and resumes his human form. He then disappears leaving only a blue flash of light where he was.

“You shouldn’t say such things to him. You have sacrificed nothing.” Mimir criticizes.

“Nothing, except my crown, and being ruler of the world Mimir. Do not forget that! I have not, nor will I ever. I have sacrificed more than anyone here has, or ever will.”

“Do not forget the prophecy. You are not the only one.”

Odin then storms out of Mimirs office.



©2015 ML Steele

Part 30


Odin himself closes the gate and locks it, as Vidar and Thor exit it on foot. “May your staff and hammer serve you well today.” Odin whispers to his sons.

Linda thinks to herself, “I wish they had left in their gargoyle forms. As if reading her thoughts, Odin approaches. “They will be fine. Vidar and Thor fight well together. And you, you are safe here, among us. I assure you of this. First there is an enchantment on this place, no evil can enter. Secondly if for some reason the enchantment failed, there are many Gods and Goddesses here this evening that would protect you and your child with their life, if need be.”

Linda smiles a strange smile, for she knows she is well protected, however it isn’t her safety she is concerned with. Odin then continues on.

Jace approaches Linda and Odin as they speak adamantly to one another. “I’m sorry to interrupt.” Jace begins.

“Oh, we are finished.” Odin states as he looks very intently at Linda.

“Dad,” Linda says, as her expression changes to a smile, “This is Ludvik’s father, Odin Vidar. Odin, this is my father, Jace Dalton.”

Jace extends a large strong hand in Odin’s direction. “Good to meet you,” Jace adds as Odin grasps his hand firmly. “I think its wonderful news that we are to be grandparents, don’t you?”

Odin gives a wry smile to Jace, at this comment. “Come Jace, let us get better acquainted while Linda visits with her guests.”

Once Linda is out of ear shot, Odin begins. “Jace, or” winking at him, “should I say Rollo. His grin changing to a sly one. You have done an amazing job all of these years keeping her safe, and under Fenrir’s nose.”

“Aye, it has not been easy. That one,”  his eyes faling upon Linda as she mingles, “has attracted more demons than one could have thought possible.” Jace returns.

“She still doesn’t know who you really are?” Odin asks.

“No, to her and to myself, I am her father, Odin. Always have been, always will be. She is my little girl.”

As the battle rages outside of the haven, Odin sends his ravens, Hugin and Munin, in search of an update on the uprising. Upon their return, Odin learns of the massive number of Jotuns, including Geirrod, Gjalp and Greip. Those, who had tried once to lure Thor to his death. Odin sends Hugin and Munin back out, to continue to spy on the battle from afar.

A few hours after midnight, Hugin and Munin return, directly behind them, is two gargoyles. Odin’s ravens inform him of what has occurred, before the gargoyles take shape as Thor and Vidar. Instead of going to the aid of his son, Odin is immediately in contact with Mimir.

Vidar approaches Linda. “Keep him here, his wings have been damaged. He is of no use to me in this fight.”

“I will.” Linda then places a kiss upon his lips as Vidar prepares to take off once again. “I love you.”

“And I you.” Linda hears as Vidar shouts back to her.

“Thor,” Odin begins. “What in hell happened? How could you let them corner you like that?”

Thor goes behind a large tree, and changes back into his human form, as no one seems to notice the current disturbance of his return in gargoyle form.

“It is not like I was trying to let them get the upper hand,” Thor began.

“Oh there you are,” Katie exclaimed. “I was wondering where you had gone.”

Thor sighs to himself with relief, that his father can no longer interrogate him on the battle. “Darling, I am sorry, Ludvik needed my help with something special for Linda.”

“That’s alright. You want to dance?”

“I would love to.”

“Don’t think this is done Bjorn,” Odin whispers as he eyes him leaving his side. “Mimir will want to know everything.”

Thor smiles to Odin, infuriating him more, as he follows Katie onto the floor.

Linda could see the aggravation on Odin’s face, as she stood by watching the two go at one another. Linda was that much more thankful she had loving parents growing up.

Hours passed, and finally dawn was near. A large shape appeared in the sky. Once again Odin called upon his Ravens to reveal who is approaching so fast. Hugin whispers in Odin’s ear. “Your son, flees the battle.” Munin adds, “To protect his wife and child.” “Caw caw.” They return to Odin’s body.

Vidar lands and moves towards Linda.

Finally he takes flight with Linda in his arms, bird seed flying everywhere as they depart.



©2015 ML Steele

Riders of the Purple Stars

Riders of the Purple Stars

Chapter One
The cowboy squinted off into the distance with the sun glaring in his eyes, interfering with his sight. His target was too far off for any easy shot, even with the new repeater rifles that Mr. Johnson had procured. He had hired the cowboy to find his man and provided the equipment. The cowboy needed the job, he was starting to wonder about the rightness of it all.
“This might not have been the best of ideas,” he muttered, more to himself than to his mount. He didn’t have any idea if he was right or wrong, but he had a job to do and he would do it. The man was a rustler and an all-around thief. Everything was much better off without him, not to mention more secure.
“I still don’t like this, Danny boy, and if you mess this up, Mrs. Mullins’ boy is going home parcel post.”
His mount flickered his ears but otherwise ignored him, apparently used to hearing his master mutter to himself. The cowboy nudged his sides and the horse stepped off onto the trail. They crept cautiously as the suns inched downward.
Danny Mullins was not a bounty hunter. His boss, Mr. Albert Johnson, distrusted anyone who identified himself as a bounty hunter and preferred to use his own men. The men in the distance had been convicted in absentia of robbery and grand theft for knock off a payroll stage coach, and Mr. Johnson wanted his money back and the robbers dead. Since Danny’s money was part of the robbery, he was motivated to help.
“What’s he doing now?” he wondered.
The horse declined to offer his opinion. To the cowboy, it looked like the distant men was motioning to someone else as yet unseen. Danny clicked his tongue to move forward a little faster, and stared as the man simply disappeared.
For a moment, nothing happened, then the horse was spurred into full speed. They galloped ahead, the horse’s exhaust fans whirring as Danny pulled out a gravimetric scanner.
The machine whirred as neutrinos were shifted around and compared against tables if information. The cowboy waited impatiently as the horse settle into ground mode and his scanner beeped away happily. He whapped it on the side and the screen refocused with a preliminary result.
“The hell? What is a loopshift effect?”
“It’s a false reading planted on scanning devices for a clean getaway.”
The soft feminine voice spoke with a battle hard determination. Mullins fell off his horse in great surprise and landed on his belly, after twisting in the air. He looked up to see a shiny blaster in his aching face, next to a solid-looking badge.
“Umph…. Uh…. Ugh…”
“Since you are so breathless with your quite graceful dismount, let me identify myself.”
The cowboy nodded, silently.
“I’m Marshal Tucker, from the Unified Solar Marshals Service. We’re here to investigate reports of some unsavory business.”
The blaster didn’t waver one millimeter, and from his position Mullins could clearly see that it was at full charge. He gulped.
“So, cowboy, what are you doing here, and why are you scanning this area?”
He coughed, still a bit breathless, with various pains and aches vying for attention. He still answered, trying to be as clear as possible.
“My boss sent me out here to run down the dirty thief that hit his payroll wagon. None of us have been paid for weeks, and he wants to get his money back.”
“I see. And are you having any luck?”
He coughed, feeling a tooth wiggling in his jaw.
“Ugh! No, nothing. Not until I saw that – reading? Not until I saw that reading and thought I had him.”
“And do you know who he was?”
“No! And can you point that thing somewhere else?”
The blaster moved away, decocked, and was shoved in a holster. Mullins could clearly hear retention clips click into place, and he sighed in relief as unobtrusively as he could. As the Marshal stepped back, the cowboy saw rifles leveled at him.
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but what in the hell is going on here?”
The Marshal considered him. Her cool regard was the same thing he saw when someone was looking at a bug.
“Like I said, we’re investigating. You’re coming with us.”
Handcuffs clicked into place, and the cowboy was placed into an unmarked wagon, none too gently. His protests went unheard as the door slid shut and sealed with a hiss.
The bars of his cell stood silently mocking him. The sturdiness of the teceutrium alloy told him that he wasn’t getting out any time soon, and if he did it wouldn’t be of his volition. With that in mind, he decided that he might as well sit down and wait. Screaming and shaking the immovable bars hadn’t helped, so relaxing was the next obvious choice.
No sooner had he planted his rump in the steel chair than the door to the detention unit slid open. He started to get up, but was stopped by a shake of the head and a subliminal signal from the officer in front.
“Can we talk now?”
The same cool voice that had been behind a blaster inquired with a steady precision. The cowboy considered, then shrugged.
“As long as nobody throws me in the drunk tank again, I guess so.”
“OK. Let him out, Wunker.”
The other officer motioned the cowboy back, then applied a long flashing key to a lock. It buzzed loudly, then various clicks and whirrs ended with a resounding clunk that let the door open slowly. The officer stepped back, drawing his shock stick, and motioned Mullins forward out of the cell.
Mullins stepped out of the cell and saw that the officer fell into step just out of his range. He looked around for the female Marshal and found her standing at the door to the detention unit. Her foot was tapping impatiently.
“Well? I don’t have all day here. Follow me, and don’t start anything. Officer Wunker will enjoy making you suffer. He’s good at things like that. Clear?”
She moved off, clearly in a hurry, and even Mullins’ long legs were hard pressed to keep up with her pace. The arrived at a nondescript conference room in a matter of moments. She pointed to a chair.
“Sit down and shut up. We are going to show you a few things.”
He did and she did. The officer with the shock stick seemed a bit disappointed, but posted himself by the door, after punching in some sort of combination into a lock. The lock beeped unobtrusively and glowed a dim, pulsing orange.
“Good. Mr. Mullins, who was that man you was chasing?”
“Don’t start that! I don’t know. I told you that already!”
“Just checking. Don’t get upset.”
“Well, what in the hell do you expect? I’m out there doing a job for my boss. He just got robbed big time, and I’m one of those what hadn’t got paid for last month’s work because of it, and some cop throws me over because of it? And you say ‘don’t get upset?’ Really?”
“So you aren’t involved in any other way with the man you was tracking?”
“Hell, no! What’s going on and why are you asking me these things?”
“Because the man you’re chasing is Timothy Allen Johnson. Name ring a bell?”
It did, faintly. Mullins thought about it with his brow furrowed. Then his eyes popped wide open.
“Not Mr. Johnson’s brother!”
“Bingo. Give the man a cigar.”
The Marshal’s eyes were hard.
“We got a tip that something wasn’t right, The area that the robbery took place was the one place without a lot of cameras. But that didn’t add up, since the only people who would know that are the people who run that route. What a lot of people don’t realize that that everyone with a payroll shipment on a regular run is sent to different routes every so often.”
“Okay, I get that part. So you think there’s something hinky about this whole thing?”
“I know there’s something hinky. But, I can’t take it to the Circuit Court yet without more evidence to show them.”
Mullins squinted at the Marshal.
“And what does all this have to do with me?”
“Well, since you asked, we have checked you out – very thoroughly. That’s the only reason you haven’t been charged with conspiracy to a bunch of things. Since we still need solid evidence – and you still need to get paid – we need you to help us get it.”
Mullins considered that.
“What’s in it for me?”
The Marshal grinned humorlessly.
“Your life, your family, your freedom, your pay, your possessions – lots of things.”
He stiffened with outrage. The Marshal continued.
“That wasn’t a threat from us. I’m just noting that this sort of thing has happened to people before, but they are too slick to let rewards get made. Ever see any coworkers or people around your boss just disappear?”
He had, now that he thought about it. In light of what the Marshal was telling him, he didn’t like it at all.
“So, no, that wasn’t a threat, Mr. Mullins. But if you help us, I promise that we will protect you and your family.”
She waved a chip in front of his face.
“This is a logger chip. It has pervasive programming and can insert itself in any computer network. Slide it into any read port and let it work. Don’t worry about taking it out.”
There wasn’t really anything else he could say, so he sat hunched over and thought for a while, and she left him alone. Being played for a fool didn’t sit will, and he still needed to get paid to feed his family. He sat up straight as these thoughts ran through his brain.
“I’ll do it. Give me the chip.”
The Marshal graced him with a real smile, finally. She handed him the chip.
The next day, he was checking organic supplies in the barn when another cowboy flopped down on a crate next to him. The other man looked up at him.
“Danny? You okay over there? What happened to you yesterday? Just up and disappeared on us.”
“Sorry, Jake. I had something to do for the boss and was working on it all day. Can’t talk about it, not if I want to keep my job.”
Jake looked at him sideways.
“Can’t talk about what?”
“Can’t talk about what Mr. Johnson wanted me to do. He already done told me that I needed to keep my yap shut about it, and I got a family to feed. So, can’t talk about it. I’m OK, just sore from some stuff that happened yesterday.” Danny grimaced as he turned around to reach into a file cabinet for another blank form. Jake noticed.
“You look like you got thrown from a horse.”
“I did, okay? Horse had a power surge and threw me.”
“Oh. I see. Sorry I asked.”
Danny turned to face the other man, with a grim expression.
“Look, Jake, you know I don’t have the best equipment to work with. I have to draw from the second and third hand stuff until I got more time with the Company.”
“I remember doing that. Sure is hard sometimes. It’s got to where I don’t volunteer for nothin’ and don’t do anything special.”
“Not real fun, no.”
Danny turned back to the clipboard he was marking on and slid the form under the static repressor field. The film smoothed out and he watched to make sure the lights settled down before he touched the stylus to it. He’d gotten more than a couple of static shocks zapping him by being too quick. The board accepted the data he’d collected and populated the form.
“Well, I guess I’ll be headed back to what I was doing, Danny. You’re busy, and I don’t need to slow you down.”
“Appreciate it. Sorry I’m not real talkative today.”
“Yeah, well, you look like you got walloped in a bar fight.”
“I wish. At least I would’ve had a drink first. Later.”
Jake walked out to the mechanic’s corral to pick up his mount for the day. After a few minutes, Danny saw him gallop out. The horse’s vents glowed dull red from the energy being whipped through its frame. After he was sure that he was alone, Danny opened up the desktop panel and watched as the screen and reader slid out.
He logged himself in, and slid the board into the reader. He wondered why it wasn’t one of the wireless models, but then again, he’d just told the other cowboy that he had to use older equipment. Danny waited for the computer to finish working, then took the board out. He looked around again to make sure no one was near, then dropped the chip into the reader. It blinked four times, a red and three greens, then disappeared in a puff of smoke.
He waited for a moment, sure that an alarm had already been raised. If that were so, he had no way to get away from it. Nothing happened for a moment, then he saw a quick message pop up on the computer’s screen.
Nothing else. Just that, and it went away as quickly as it appeared. He was not really sure he’d seen the message. He was spooked enough to gather his stuff and get out. Danny didn’t want to be in here if some security man wanted to check around in here. The door hissed shut behind him, forming its seal without fanfare.
For the rest of the day, Danny kept to himself. Nobody bothered him, since he seemed to be unwilling to talk. He wondered just what was on that chip that the Marshal had given him and for that matter what had happened to it. He had seen the chip disappear in smoke, without a trace. It’d be nice to have something like that to clear stumps of ironwood with.
Finally, quitting time arrived and as jumpy as Danny was, he was thankful for it. He was collecting his things to take home and trading good-natured insults with the other cowboys and trying to look normal. The weekend was coming up and while nobody had gotten paid, the cowboys was still looking to go out and raise hell. Danny was thinking about going with them, but he knew his wife would give him her own special kind of hell if he did. And the thing was, he reflected ruefully, is that she’d be right.
Danny was headed toward the bay door going out, near the mechanics corral, when he saw someone walking the other way. The only thing left to go through was a nondescript door marked with a simple “Keep Out.” He remembered that door from his orientation briefings. The trainer had walked everyone around on a tour of the place when they hired on here. When he came to that door, he got a suitably stern look on his face.
“Boys, this is one of the things I’m pretty damn serious about. You see this door?”
He motioned toward it, not even touching the door frame. At the nods of the others, he went on.
“You leave this sonufabitch a-LONE. Nobody goes through it, whatsoever. Mr. Johnson sees you do it, he’ll fire you so fast you’ll think it’s last Tuesday of two weeks ago.”
A few raised eyebrows.
“I’m serious. Don’t. Now, over here, we have some stuff you need to be aware of in a for-real emergency…”
Danny didn’t remember what the rest was, and he doubted anyone else with him that day did, either. The part about the door stuck in his mind pretty well however, and he always gave the door a wide berth when he’d had occasion to walk by it. He noticed that others did, too. Strangely, that eased his mind, knowing that it wasn’t just him that did it.
With that in mind, his attention was diverted from the anticipation of getting off and going home by the sight of the man approaching the door. The man was carrying something, and he looked closer. With a start, he noticed that the man was carrying several payroll bags. Danny stopped, and saw that he was accompanied by only a couple of other guys. He stepped over to the side and took off his boot.
“You okay, Danny?”
He smiled and nodded at the other man, and watched as the others walked out the door.
“Yes, I’m okay, but there’s been something in my boot all day, and I’ve been too busy to deal with it. It’s been bugging me a while. Go on ahead, I’ll catch up.”
“Something in your boot? Yeah, your foot, most likely!”
Danny grimaced.
“Ha, ha, ha. Funny, wise guy.”
“Yep. See ya tomorrow, Danny. Hope your boots fit tomorrow!” The man waved and went out the door. Danny looked back to see the man by the restricted door, fumbling with a set of keys. He opened the door and let it shut while he shoved the boot back on his foot.
The man was still trying to find the key he wanted when Danny eased behind the corner to peer around at him. The bags he carried looked like the old bags they used for payroll, sure as hell. A couple of faded red ones for Thursdays, and a brown one for Mondays. They didn’t use any other colors. In fact, ever since they’d been hit, Mr. Johnson said that they wouldn’t be using the red ones at all. He’d rounded up all the red ones left in the office and burned them.
Now why was a couple of red ones there, and where did they come from? He watched as the man found the right key and opened the lock. He looked up and down the hall and Danny’s second surprise was right there.
It was Jake.

Chapter Two
The man in black followed the gunslinger across the hot sand. He knew that it wasn’t a very popular meeting place for the people who worked for him because of the heat. To be sure, his dark clothes didn’t really help him feel good about it himself, but he wasn’t about to complain about it and make himself look bad. He’d picked this place years ago after a mineral survey of the land was abandoned. The survey crew had found that magnetic distortions from the planet’s core royally screwed up the standard instruments like the one the law carried. In fact, the surveyors and the law enforcers used the same tools a lot of the time. He chuckled at the thought while surreptitiously wiping his brow.
The gunslinger came to a large hole, capped by a larger metal disk flat on the ground. Several handholds ringed the disk, and a recessed dog lock wheel baked in the sun. The gunslinger glanced at the man in black, who quietly stared back at the man and motioned to the wheel. The gunslinger sighed and struggled into some heavy gloves that made his hands sweat more. The wheel resisted turning, and just before the gunslinger was about to give up and kick the wheel over, it gave with a muted screech.
After the wheel turned, the gunslinger punched a metal button that lay cradled in a recess. A hiss was heard, another creak, and the disk slowly rose on industrial gas struts. A wide ladder was revealed that lead down a dark chamber. Cold air rushed out, with small tendrils of condensation ghosting on the edge of the chamber.
The man in black started down the ladder, thankful for the rubberized coating on the rungs and legs of the ladder. Sweaty hands from being outside in that hot air didn’t help, and to fall down this shaft would not do anyone any good.
He reached the end of the ladder and jumped off, watching as the gunslinger above negotiated the rungs to join him. As his boot heels hit, the gunslinger grunted from the impact of the stone-steel deck.
“Careful there, Bob. I can’t carry your heavy ass up that ladder.”
“Yessir.” Bob grinned a little, but he cast a wary glance at the worn ladder. “Somebody’s going to have to look at that ladder. It’s getting a bit rough.”
“Well, you just volunteered.”
Bob hid a sigh, and the man in black was too busy looking for a light switch to notice. A thick clunk echoed in the surrounding space, and the room was flooded with light.
“You’d think they would keep a light on for people coming in, but no.” He sounded irritated, and Bob didn’t remind him that there was several lights mounted in the walls. Red lights rested in their alcoves, and they dimly illuminated the space when the master lighting was not on. Now that it was on, courtesy of the switch the man in black had turned on, those lights was darkened.
They moved down the hall, Bob listening to the other man grumble about the lights and wisely holding his peace. They came to a door with a keypad lock. The man in black punched in a combination, and the lock beeped in refusal. The small panel above the buttons flashed an unaffected red.
“Uh, Mr….” Peeved, the man in black interrupted the gunslinger before he could say more.
“Yes, yes, I know. Hit the switch.”
Bob reached over on the opposite wall where a switch sat, similar to the one in the tunnel. Another thunk echoed, and the hall went dark but for the dim light of the keypad. Another attempt was made on it, and the beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep was followed by the lock clicking open. The keypad rippled green and blue before going dark again.
“Finally.” The miffed tone told Bob not to waste any time. He hustled through the door after the man in black.
Inside the room, it was dim. It was brighter than the darkened room outside, but it took a few minutes for their eyes to adjust. A voice came out of the surrounding duskiness.
“Mr. Johnson. I’m glad you could make it, although we weren’t aware that you was going to drop in.”
Johnson grimaced.
“If that ladder doesn’t get fixed, then ‘drop in’ will be more true than you want to admit.”
“Oh? I’ll see to it.”
“No, don’t bother. Bob will do it, already told him.”
“All right. Bob, you need anything, there’s a full shop down here.”
“I think it’s just that coating that gets worn off. Needs to be reapplied. My brother’s in the Navy, stationed at the Deimos Yards, and he bitches about the same thing. Real pain to put on, and stinks pretty bad.”
Johnson looked at him. His eyes had adjusted mostly, and he could see the room had several people working at desks and a couple of consoles with large screens.
“Bob, we’re going to be here all day. You might as well make yourself useful and knock that out. Ray, you got somebody to show him what he needs?”
“Yes, sir, I do.” Ray leaned over a console operator and whispered in his ear. The man got up and motioned for the gunslinger to follow. They left the room. Ray lead Johnson over to a deserted corner and they spoke in hushed tones.
“Alright, tell me where we’re at right now.”
“Mr. Johnson, for the most part we are ahead of schedule, but we have a problem with the next shipment of merchandise.”
“What’s the problem? We can’t let the feds find that stuff or we’ll all be swinging in the wind.”
“Would you believe a rail car broke an axle?”
“One of the cars attached to the train we was loading out was about a century old and was being held together with spit and baling wire. It just snapped clean in two when the container was lowered down into the cradle this morning.”
“Well, damn! We got anything to replace it with?”
Ray nodded.
“Yes, but it’ll take an extra few days to do it with.”
“Do it. I don’t have another car here. It’ll cut into our margin of error, only leave us a day to turn around on the next load.”
“Yes, sir. I figured you was going to say that, so I went ahead and told them to get started on it.”
“Good. Every second counts on this one. Matter of fact, tell ’em work ’round the clock. It’s got to get done as quick as possible. Now, what about the rustler team?”
“Two of them fell out on the last job. We got Mr. Johnson’s payroll wagon, but one guy shot himself in the foot and blasted it off, and the other guy went out and got drunk.”
“The one with the foot, that’s too bad for him, but the other one? What’s the problem? We all take a drink.”
“He tried to move his air-car by headbutting it.”
“What? Are you serious? Was he that drunk?”
“Yes. The boys took up a collection for his widow. She didn’t seem too broken up by his loss.”
“Can’t say as I blame her. Anything else?”
“No, everything else is on schedule and waiting for another job.”
“Can’t happen for a while, or the feds will get suspicious. What about the adjusters?”
“We filed a claim against our policy for the payroll shipment. So far, it’s on track but you know how slow it goes.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“You’ll be amused by this. They wanted a police report, so we gave them one.”
“What? You got the cops involved? How am I going to tell Al about that?”
Ray laughed.
“No, I got a guy involved that we have on the inside of the department. Your brother made that suggestion. I didn’t know about the guy until he told me.”
Johnson squinted.
“I didn’t know about him either.”
“This guy has some blackmail on him. What it is, I don’t know and I don’t want to know. Anyway, we got an official police report that the insurance company has, and there hasn’t been anything else coming from the cops. No follow up or anything. The case number is lost in the system, and that report is the only thing in the file. The insurance company isn’t checking up on it, other than the photos the guy took – you know, making it look like a real investigation. The adjusters are like every other office worker. Too much to do, and not enough people to do it with.”
“Got lost in the shuffle, huh?”
“Yes, sir, so we can go on with our business.”
Johnson smiled.
“Well, good, but I hope we don’t have that kind of attention again.”
A beep sounded from the unattended console. Ray looked at the screen.
“Mr. Johnson, here’s something. Speak of the devil.”
“What is it?”
“We’re getting a preliminary payment on our policy. Looks like about sixty percent.”
Johnson snorted.
“Good. Route it into the payroll system and get the shell company employees paid. That way, no one will be the wiser.”
“Or suspicious.”
“No, or suspicious. Get that done soonest.”
“Yes, sir.”
Ray logged into the terminal and pulled up a screen. He checked some information on it, then sent a message to the accounting department.
“You know, Mr. Johnson, it’s still funny that the accounting department is just one man.”
“I know. It is, but long as it works, I’m happy with it.”
A few more keystrokes, and Ray sat back.
“OK, that’s done. Everyone will be getting a bump in their accounts tomorrow morning.”
“Good. Now, since we got to wait for that axle to be replaced, I want an inventory of everything we got. Do it quietly, and set up the next run.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Now, I want to see the damage for what we spent doing this last job. We got customers waiting for that stuff, and I don’t want the cops to get wind of us. I want them to keep their long noses out of our business.”
“Yes, sir. It’s right here.” Ray pulled up a different file, and they discussed it. Finally, Tim Johnson pushed back from the desk and stood up.
“OK, Ray. I’ve had enough of that. It looks good from my end, so continue with what you’re doing. I want you to take me to the armory and lets you and me inventory that ourselves.”
Ray nodded, and got up. He shut down the computer as he did so, and walked over to a wall mounted key locker. A sliding panel was pushed up to reveal a keypad, which unlocked the metal cabinet. Ray grabbed a large key ring, shut the locker, and waited for the keypad to reset.
“OK, Mr. Johnson. I’m ready.”
They left the room. Tim Johnson was still complaining about the dimness of the corridor, but after a quick walk they came to another door. He didn’t have to punch in the combination for this door, since Ray did that. They entered into the chamber and waited for the door to close. A second door was there, waiting for another keypad press. Johnson snorted.
“Ray, do you feel like you’re always punching a button somewhere?”
“A lot, but I didn’t design the system.”
“Neither did I. I don’t think I’d have all these keypads, that’s for sure.”
“At least it would be hard for somebody that didn’t belong here to get in.”
“That’s for damn sure.”
The door swung open, and a muted click signaled a relay had closed somewhere. Johnson jumped.
“What was that?”
“I think it was the humidity sensor in here. It’s about time for replacement, but the company that makes the things have them on back order. We have to watch it carefully in here, since too much humidity causes problems with the firearms and the blaster coils.”
“Amazing how little things can screw up big stuff.”
“Yes, sir, it is that. Anyway, here’s the log forms. I’ve signed us in. I’ll start over here, and you do that side. Supposed to be the same stuff on either side, so doesn’t really matter then.”
“All right.”
They got busy counting items. Blaster rifles lay cradled in charging docks, and extra power packs reclined in their own chargers. Sidearms nestled in racks, with the butt pieces sticking out for quick access and clips just underneath. Body armor and headgear took up their own spaces, waiting for somebody to pick them up for use. A computer sat off to the side, electronically monitoring the presence or absence of items in the armory room. Ray woke it up and queried it to see what the electronic record was.
“Supposedly we have fourteen blaster rifles, twenty-eight blasters, seventy-two charge packs … and a question mark on the headgear. Something must not be reporting its presence.”
“Well, that’s why we have a manual inventory to do here. We better check serial numbers, too.”
They got busy counting. It took several hours, but at the end, everything checked out, except for a few items with bad RFID chips. They stored their inventory sheets, made sure the racked weapons were charging, headed out, and locked the door. They had another larger room to go through, with much bigger stuff, before they were done.

Chapter Three
“Well, Danny, how’s your assignment coming along?”
Danny Mullins looked up from the rope he was coiling to put away. Albert Johnson was standing there, and his bodyguards had cleared the area of curious cowboys. He thought quickly.
“I’m moving slow at the moment, but I think that there’s going to be another hit in the next few weeks. I was cleaning up in the general receiving dock yesterday and I found this stuck to one of the pallets of Mod 8 Horse motivator cells. I don’t know what it is or where it came from, but it has the ranch’s company logo on it.”
He pulled out a piece of paper. Marshal Tucker had passed the ragged sheet to him last night, during a seemingly random encounter at the cafe he went to for supper. He’d mostly managed to contain his surprise when the buxom waitress turned out to be the hard-bitten cop in disguise. When she gave him his check, she’d slipped in the sheet and whispered, “Give this to Johnson. The chip worked. We broke some files last night.” He nodded, his stomach jumpy, but he paid his bill and got out as quick as he could.
He really didn’t have a clue what it was. It looked like an inventory sheet for guns and things, and while he was comfortable using them, it wasn’t something that he had a lot of call to use in his job. Johnson took the paper and glanced down. His face tightened.
“Why didn’t you bring this to me right away?”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but when I got in, I had a message from the foreman waiting for me. I had to get this task done I’m working on before I did anything else, and no delay about it. I tried to get out of it, but I couldn’t.”
“OK, well, that’s true. You still need to do your job and not arouse suspicion. You did right, but I need to see if I can get you some leeway for the next time something like this happens. Did you look at this paper?”
“I did, when I pulled it out from that shipment, and didn’t know if it was something important somebody had mislaid or lost or something. I didn’t know we had that kind of stuff.”
“Keep it under your hat, Danny. Every ranch does. Out here in the wild lands – or wild stars, maybe – there’s always somebody what wants to rustle someone else. Some of them are aliens, some are other humans, but all of them are bad news.”
Danny thought about that. He’d never had a problem with the alien species out there in the galaxy, but he didn’t go out of his way to have much to do with them, either. The cowboy had enough problems just living day to day without getting into the problems of somebody else. He looked out at the thunderclouds gathering in the sky and a line of rain approaching slowly.
“I will, Mr. Johnson. I’ll tell you more when I get it, but right now that’s all I got. Whoever did it is lying low for now, I guess.”
“If anything, I want them to stay low. I can’t have my money stolen. Speaking of money, that’s another thing I came by to tell you.”
Danny’s attention perked up, the rope in his hands forgotten. His boss continued.
“You’ll be pleased to know that you and all the others have gotten a partial back payment. The ranch got part of the insurance payout for the claim we filed. It isn’t a full paycheck, but it’s most of one.”
Danny dropped the rope, and had to stoop to pick it up.
“Thank you, sir! The wife and I have been fretting about making ends meet, a lot.”
“Well, Danny, I’m still waiting for the rest of it, and work goes on, as always in this kind of thing. You know how it is. Just be stingy for a while until we get evened out. I’ve been telling everyone that and I’m telling you that, too.”
“Well, thank you sir, that makes me feel good. The wife will be happy.”
“All right. I wanted to come out and check with you. You got work to do, I see.”
“Yes, sir. I want to get it done before that storm gets here, and I got to hurry.”
Johnson headed back to the door after clapping Danny on the shoulder.
“Do what you got to do. I’ll be seeing you.” He got into his SUV, and the driver started off.
The cowboy looked at the retreating vehicle and thought about what he’d learned in the last few days. He was confused. Danny had seen some of the stuff that the Marshal’s service had collected on his boss, and it didn’t make sense. Not when he looked at the way that Mr. Johnson was acting with him, now. He supposed if he was a criminal mastermind, he’d be acting a lot, too.
Danny put the confusing thoughts away as best he could, and went out in the field to gather up his things before the rain got them wet. He’d look at the other stuff later when he could. He would also send a report to the Marshal when he could do it without someone watching him.
He got the equipment put away just in time for the storm to start. One of the other cowboys came in and slammed a stack of paper down.
“Damn rain had to start now!”
“What’s the matter? We need the rain for the water rights.”
“Yeah, we do, but it’s a damn inconvenience when you got to go out in it and deliver stuff. Is there a comm nearby? I got to call Mr. Johnson.”
Danny pointed him in the direction of the office.
“In there. He was just here. You missed him by about ten minutes.”
“Yeah, I saw him, but I meant the other Mr. Johnson. I got to relay information on a busted axle.”
“Yeah, damn thing busted on a flat car and we busted our asses getting it fixed quick. I’m real tired of this and I’m about to tell them what I think about it. I’ll be right back.”
He disappeared into the office with his papers and slammed the door. The glass rattled in the frame. After about ten minutes, Danny could hear the other man’s voice raised and several things that didn’t sound real nice. He decided that he was going to go find something else to do. The door opened back up before he could make his escape.
“Hey, bud, what’s your name?”
“Danny. Danny Mullins.”
“Danny, you know how to work this comm-panel? They told me to transmit it to them, but it’s a lot different from what I’m used to.”
Danny walked into the office. Some of the papers was spread out on the desk. He looked at the machine. It was a decrepit piece of technology that still worked, after a fashion. He checked the power and saw that it was turned on.
“How much you got to send off?”
The man gestured to the folder. It was a fairly thick folder, about as thick as Danny’s little finger.
“Wow, that’s a bunch. You’ll be in here all night.”
“Great. I got to be back in Doverville in an hour.”
“Not and do this, too.”
The man looked like he was about to explode. Danny looked away from him and busied himself with turning on other equipment.
“How come it wouldn’t send anything?”
Danny grimaced at the man’s question.
“It will, but you have to make sure the computer it’s attached to is online first. I just turned it on, and I’m waiting for it to link up.”
“Well that doesn’t make sense!”
“I know, but if we had more recent stuff here, we wouldn’t need a computer to link to. The new stuff is all self-contained.”
“Yeah, I noticed that this place is the pits. You guys must get all the broke down stuff.”
“We do. It’s the end of the line here.”
The man shook his head.
“Look, I can’t stay here. I got things to do, and if I don’t get them done, the boss will take my head off. Can you send all that stuff to this number for me,” he indicated a number scribbled on a scrap of paper, “and make sure you get that stuff shredded?”
Danny thought quickly.
“Good, I owe you one, Danny. I got to get out of here. Bye.”
“See ya.”
The man hustled out, muttering more imprecations under his breath. Danny looked out the door and watched the door slam shut behind him. He turned to look at the paper stack. A few pages in, he saw another inventory form about parts, and an accounting report listing an insurance draft. He flipped through and saw a memo about some kind of upcoming operation.
His blood ran cold. Danny didn’t quite know what he had here, but he thought that somebody really needed to see this. But how was he going to account for shredding it? He started the equipment up and started transmitting it while he thought about it for a little while. About halfway through, he had an idea. He didn’t know if it would work, but he had to try something.
He started up a word processor and opened up somebody’s forgotten report on grain rot and printed off enough copies that the stack was about the same size as what he was transmitting. Danny took the papers from the printer, and started shredding them. It took a while, since the shredder was just as old as all the other equipment in the office. The other reports finished transmitting, and an acknowledgment sheet spit out of the machine with a list of the jobs completed. Danny didn’t know what to do with it, so he stuck it in the folder with all the other papers, and when on with his shredding.
It was about an hour after quitting time when he finished. Danny turned everything off and found a large envelope to slide the folder into. He stuffed the folder down his shirt and headed out.
“Hey, Danny! You’re here late!”
He turned to see the custodian with his cart. He gulped, startled by the voice.
“Hey, Mr. Mike. Yeah, the rain set me back and I had to get this stuff finished.”
“Better hurry home. There’s more of it coming, and supposed to be rough.”
“Thanks, I will. Later.”
The custodian waved absently, already forgetting the cowboy. Danny got into his old beat up cargo hauler and waited to see if it would decide to keep running. After a few minutes, it evened out and he pulled out of the front drive. Home was a left hand turn and just minutes away.
After a moment of indecision, he turned right. When he turned the corner, Danny picked up speed. He was headed to the Marshal’s office. She needed to see this stuff as soon as she could.
Marshal Tucker rubbed her eyes. She didn’t care for paperwork, as important as it was. She had written many a report and knew that a well written report was the difference between keeping or losing your job – or life. Still, she did not like writing them or even filling out the insufficient forms. Especially not this early in the morning. The wall clock placidly displayed 0513 in soothing green numerals, and she asked herself again why she got up so early.
She leaned back in the comfortable office chair. The butt of her blaster dug into her side, but after so long, she was used to the discomfort. She had just read the report from her new operative. That was a funny thought. The cowboy was not the most comfortable writing out things and his composition was painful to read, to say the least. There was a package there marked “Marshal Tucker,” but she hadn’t opened it yet.
The law enforcer lay the report down on the desk with a clatter, and got up. She refilled her coffee mug, and dumped in a French Vanilla creamer. A couple of seconds of mental debate later, and she added a spoonful of brown sugar. Thus fortified, she sat back down to finish the report. It was slow going, but she struggled through it. He seemed unsure about something he’d found, and indicated that it was in the package marked for her. She opened up the package and found a folder with papers inside.
She leafed through the papers, and found account numbers, insurance pay-outs, names, and addresses. One was a newly created bank account with an amount of money that looked familiar.
“Wait a minute.”
Marshal Tucker got up again and pulled a file drawer open. Another file came out and slapped onto the desk. She flipped through it and found a notation that referenced a police report on a robbery. She searched through the file, but this particular report wasn’t there.
“Where is it?”
She grabbed her comm without looking. A code was punched in, and she sat waiting impatiently until someone answered.
“Hello, my name is Marshal Nerys Tucker, from the Unified Solar Marshals Service. I’m looking for a report from your agency about a payroll robbery.”
She waited until the officer on the other end could catch up. She gave him her badge number to verify her identity and the report number she wanted. Thirty minutes later, she had the report. Marshal Tucker perused the report and noted the amount of money stolen was identical to the amount of money that this account was opened with.
This was something. She kept looking through the file. Her blood chilled as she found an inventory sheet for an armory that listed some heavier weapons than a ranch operation was supposed to have. She picked up her comm again, and punched a speed dial button.
“Johnny? I’m glad you’re here this early, too. I need you and Phil, if he’s here too, to hustle in here. I got something hot. No, it’s hotter than the Hankey Twins. All right. Bye.” She set the comm down.
Presently a couple of men in dark fatigues knocked on her door. She waved them in, and handed one of them the armory inventory sheet.
“Johnny, look at this. When did ranches start stockpiling military grade weapons?”
He glanced at the sheet and passed it to the other man.
“They are not supposed to. You need a special license and regular compliance checks after that. A rancher has to prove that he has a demonstrable need for that kind of hardware. I don’t think anyone has been able to do it. Phil?” The other man shook his head no. “It’s a pretty expensive process. Supposed to take about a year and a half just to start.”
He took the sheet back from Phil and squinted at the logo.
“Say, isn’t that the outfit that got hit a short time back? Silverplus Enterprises?”
“Good memory, Johnny.” He grunted.
“Doesn’t take a lot of brain cells to remember that much money getting stolen, plus other stuff, too.”
Marshal Tucker handed him the police report and the sheet listing the new bank account.
“Wow. That can’t be a coincidence.”
Phil spoke up, after looking over the sheets, too.
“I’m wondering about some of the other hits in the last few months. I’d be checking the incorporation records of these places and seeing if they come under the Silverplus Enterprises banner.”
“Think they’re committing insurance fraud?”
He nodded.
“That and/or plain old racketeering.”
She leaned back again, thinking about it.
“Johnny, he has a good point. I think there is probable cause to investigate further. I mean, we was already looking at some other pretty questionable stuff with this company, but this is new information. I want it looked into as quickly and quietly as you can. The military grade hardware really bothers me more than the insurance fraud possibility. Run those serial numbers, too.”
“We’ll look into it. How did we get this information?”
She shook her head.
“I can’t tell you – not yet, any way.”
He nodded, accepting it.
“Come on, Phil, we got work to do. I’ll get with you, Nerys.”
She inclined her head and went back to her pile of paper as they left. Just over an hour later, people outside her office heard a loud curse and a scramble, and that was just barely enough warning to clear the area in front of her door. She burst out of her office, calling on her radio while she ran.
Chapter Four
Albert Johnson was not happy. He hadn’t gotten up this early to get to work in a long time, but that wasn’t the only thing that was the cause of his current mood. The incident with the rail car wasn’t anything he couldn’t do much about after the fact. It didn’t help that his brother made sure to tell him a few things he didn’t want to hear. For some time, Tim Johnson had been telling him that the old, busted equipment wasn’t going to cut it and something was going to happen right when they really needed it.
It didn’t help to hear the “I told you so’s” coming from him. Not for the first time, he wanted to beat his brother black and blue.
He had just gotten word that the police report they’d ginned up was accessed by someone with a security clearance that prevented him from finding out who it was. There wasn’t a lot of agencies out there that could do that, and that part alone was making him sweat some blood. There was other things, too. He’d been hearing some things, certain rustles in the underbrush, as it were. It was something else to worry about, but unlike others who could laugh it off over drinks at the end of the day, he couldn’t.
According to more than one person – and his brother – there was somebody sniffing around where he shouldn’t be. He wasn’t worried about it being some woman, since neither he nor his brother thought a woman had any business doing a man’s job. He let women know that, too. That was his opinion, and if anyone didn’t like it, they could stuff it.
Come to think about it, maybe that was the reason he had six ex-wives and working on another. His favorite words in the whole Terran Standard language were “ironclad prenuptial agreement.” Let ’em try.
Johnson turned and flipped on his screen. He called up a surveillance video. It was grainy and full of static, and he reflected that maybe Tim had a point. There was a lot of activity in the magnetosphere on this world, and it affected unshielded electronic devices something fierce. This particular camera network was bargain basement. He resolved to upgrade everything as soon as he could when he realized that he couldn’t quite tell who was standing at the desk. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in that office that time of night.
A soft knock came at the door. He blanked the screen and grumbled a bit before yelling, “Come on! It’s open!” Johnson twisted slightly in his chair to see who it was. He was a little surprised to see the night custodian there.
“Chester? I haven’t seen you in months.” His voice held an astonished tone.
The man grinned.
“Well, sir, I haven’t either, but then I don’t usually see you get here this early.”
“Yeah, well, don’t remind me.”
“I just thought I’d tell you that I set up the coffee urn with fresh coffee. Cleaned it out good, cleaned up around it, made some coffee a bit stronger than normal, and I put out some donuts, too. Better go get it before the smell attracts everyone else.”
Johnson smiled, but the tired lines in his face didn’t relax.
“Chester, you don’t know how good that sounds. I will.”
“No biggie, boss. And hey, I wanted to tell you that you got a hard working man here, too.”
“What? Who?”
“Danny Mullins. He was here when I came in last night, just leaving. I guess he was working an evening shift or something.”
Johnson’s heartbeat skipped, although he couldn’t say why.
“Yeah, I think he did, but he’s been working on a project for me last couple weeks. Once that’s done, he’ll probably go back to his regular work and you won’t see him all that much.”
“Like you, huh?”
Johnson smiled wanly.
“Yeah, like me. I got some stuff I got to tie up, some loose ends. You out of here?”
“Yeah, I got to get back home, eat, get some sleep so I can be back here tonight.”
“All right, then. I’ll be seeing you. Got to get back to work on this stuff – one reason I came in this early.”
“OK, boss. See you around.”
Chester left, and the door swung shut softly until the lock clicked. Johnson turned back, waving his hand at the screen to light it up again. He stared at the screen some more, mentally fitting a few more pieces and coming up with something he didn’t like.
After a few minutes of hard thought, he grabbed for his comm-panel and stabbed out a combination. The keys clattered reproachfully, but after a moment the speaker was apologetic in playing a recorded message asking for him to leave a message.
“Tim! Where is your sorry ass?” He cut the connection and stewed, staring at the buttons. After a moment, they lit up with his brother’s comm-code. Johnson snatched the receiver up.
“Al, what’s the problem now? You got ants in your pants?”
“Shut up and listen. We got problems.” He went on for a few minutes.
“OK, Al, just cool your jets for a moment. I can get the boys together. Just get out here. Jake can hold it together for a while.”
“Good idea. I’ll be out there in a little over an hour.”
“All right. Bye.” Tim hung up on his brother, and Al stifled a curse. He grabbed his mug and went out to the coffee urn. Sure enough, there was a bunch of donuts around the coffee, which bubbled happily away. He grabbed three huge donuts after he filled his mug and muttered his way back to his office. Several eyes followed him back, then met, accompanied by raised eyebrows. The door slammed shut.
Danny pulled into his usual parking space, and let the engine coil cool a little before he hit the sequence to shut off his old hauler. He was going to have to look at it soon, or go beg the bank for a loan for another one. He wasn’t looking forward to either one, since either way it would cost him money he didn’t have to spare.
It felt nice, coming in a little later than usual. When he’d seen his schedule a week ago, he smiled. Finally, he could sleep a little later and so could his wife. She got up with him and made breakfast without complaining, and that plus the time they spent talking before he had to leave for work made her even more precious to him. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve her, but he wasn’t going to complain about it, either.
It seemed that more than a few people was coming in a little later than usual, and he wondered about that. The small parking lot wasn’t as full as it normally was for this time of day, and he was a bit surprised. Still, other people’s schedules wasn’t his problem. He wasn’t a foreman or a boss for a good reason, and that was because he didn’t like to tell people just like himself what to do. He felt like that was putting himself above others, and he didn’t want to do that.
Finally, Danny judged that the old hauler was cooled enough to shut off, and he did. It settled to the ground a little jerkily, but quickly enough. He just hoped that it would start up this evening. If it didn’t, he just catch a ride with somebody or call his wife. Danny got out and headed for the front door.
Mr. Johnson came out before he was halfway there. He was carrying two covered mugs of coffee.
“Danny, hey. I got something that came up out Westfalls way, and I need you to run me out there right now. I don’t have anybody to do it. Several people called out sick or drunk, more like.”
“Well, sure, but I got to clock in.”
“Don’t worry about that. I clocked you in from my terminal when I saw you come in. Here. I brought you coffee from inside.” Johnson headed toward the motor pool, not waiting for a reply.
Danny took it and fell in beside his boss, mystified. It was pretty unusual but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. He waited as Johnson punched in an access code, and they walked inside. The man at the counter greeted them, and handed Johnson a key fob with the embossed symbol ’13’ on it. Danny didn’t see him sign it out and he thought it was unusual, but he wasn’t going to say anything.
At Slot 13 was a large tough hauler that looked like it could handle his vehicle without any problems, and still take more. He gaped at it, until Johnson slapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to hurry up. He got into the pilot’s seat, and hit the start-up sequence. Johnson got in beside him as the hauler rumbled to life. Danny thought to himself, I really wish I had one of these, but I’ll never be able to afford one.
Johnson waved off to the side.
“Let’s get a move on, Danny. I got things to do and never enough time to do it.”
After a little while, the Westfalls site came into view. Danny had driven a little faster than he was safely supposed to, in an unfamiliar vehicle, but Mr. Johnson didn’t say anything. Either he was too distracted with whatever was on his mind or he liked to go fast too. For some reason, the sheriff’s patrol left them alone.
Danny settled the hauler down on a pad, and watched with undisguised envy as the machine smoothly quickly shut down. Johnson noticed.
“It’s nice to have a good vehicle for once, huh?”
“Yessir, I can’t disagree.”
“Well, you’re the first employee to drive it anywhere. I just got it earlier this morning, not long before you came in.”
“That’s not bad, Mr. Johnson.” He stroked the control surfaces, and regretfully got out. Johnson had already disembarked and was waiting impatiently.
“Come on, Danny, we got to head this way.”
“What’s going on, Mr. Johnson?”
“Tell you in a moment.” Johnson stepped over the rough ground that bled into sand. He was already starting to sweat from the heat of the day out here, and he was already missing the environmental controls of the hauler they had just left. When he got the job done that he came out here to do, then he’d be back in the cool air. For now, though, he couldn’t. A flash of resentment stabbed through him when he saw that Danny seemed to be handling the heat better than he was. Well, he was younger, and worked out in the heat all day anyway.
Danny was getting antsy. Mr. Johnson was acting a bit strange and he had no clue why they had come out here. He could see some sort of weather beaten cabin in the distance. It was a bit bigger than he supposed a cabin should be considered, but if it was cooler than out here, he wasn’t going to quibble about the size. He noticed that Mr. Johnson was setting a fairly fast pace toward it, and he followed. He didn’t have any trouble keeping up.
Halfway there, he heard a noise. He turned to see several men surrounding them. A few had blasters, but most had evil looking clubs and police nightsticks. They didn’t seem to be there to ask for donations for charity. Danny stepped in front of Mr. Johnson, but he didn’t know exactly what he’d be able to do. He was very shocked when his boss shoved him forward and the first nightstick bashed him in the sternum.
Danny collapsed, unable to breathe, and curled into a ball. A couple of men bent and got in several strikes, breaking ribs. Agony ripped through his body, as liquid fire raced around his chest. One blow glanced off his head as he rolled around in the hot sand, and blood flowed. Johnson stepped forward.
“Hold it! We don’t want to kill him, not yet.”
He stepped up to the moaning man on the sand, and directed a kick that landed on Danny’s hip. The pointed boots sank in, and the injured man wailed.
“Stow it, Mullins. You been sniffing around stuff you ain’t got business around. Who you been talking to?”
“Mr. J-Johnson, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve only been doing what you wanted me to do.” His breath came in ragged puffs.
“Right.” Johnson motioned to another man. Danny turned his head painfully and squinted until he could focus on whoever it was. His body went rigid as he recognized Tim Johnson. He held a warm blaster.
“You tried to shoot me, didn’t you?”
“Mr. Johnson, no, I didn’t. I don’t know what’s going on here.” The words came, undercut by pain.
“Well, let me spell it out, since you won’t be here much longer. Somehow you got some documents that belong to us. You either gave those documents to somebody or kept them. I know you did one or the other, because the paper in that shredder basket wasn’t all the same kind of paper. And, I know it was you, because the guy that was supposed to do it went out and got drunk. He started talking about how helpful and kind you was to take over for him. He doesn’t work for us – or anyone else – anymore.”
Danny shuddered at the malice in his voice.
“You’re going to tell us what you know. Then after that, you won’t be working for us anymore, either.”
The blaster came up and aimed between Danny’s eyes, almost touching his sweating skin. The hot sand was baking him, but he didn’t notice in between the pain of broken ribs and the fear of imminently losing his life.
“M-Mr. J-Johnson, I was told to go find out who was knocking off our payroll wagons and stealing our money. I was s-supposed to take the new repeating rifles and shoot the thieves when we sent a new one out as bait. I needed the money, like everyone else, and Mr. Johnson,” he weakly indicated Albert Johnson to distinguish which Mr. Johnson he meant, “told me that we should h-handle this in-house.”
“You mean to tell me, you was supposed to be shooting me like a mad dog? That my own brother wanted me dead?”
“Yes, s-sir, and I never knew it was you.”
“Not that I’m complaining, but why didn’t you shoot me?”
Danny figured that he should keep the Marshal’s visit to himself, as much as he could.
“I fell off my horse w-when you stepped into that portal whatchamacallit.” Being under a blaster kept him still, and being still meant he didn’t move his broken ribs around. It was amazing what good he could find in a situation like this. Besides, he told the truth. He had fell off.
Tim Johnson spoke slowly, mulling over what he’d heard.
“Well. My own brother is a dirty, greedy rat. Well, I got something for you!”
He spun in place, and a shot rang out. Tim Johnson collapsed. Albert Johnson advanced on the body, a mini blaster concealed in his hand. He addressed the dead man.
“You forgot, Tim, that everyone here draws their pay from me.”
He looked at Danny.
“I’m sorry, Danny, but he was right about one thing. You have to go.”
Danny struggled upward, and managed to get to his knees. Johnson shrugged and leveled his blaster.
“Whatever works.”
Danny looked up at the blaster in his face. The blood creasing down his face made the smile there look incongruous.
“Mr. Johnson, maybe you should look again. Not everyone here works for you.”
Johnson did, and gasped. Every cowboy was sprawled on the hot sand, slapped with a neurostunner. His brother was laying where he’d shot him, covered up. Badges winkled in the dim light.
Marshal Tucker smiled over the sights of her blaster.
“Drop it, Johnson. You’re under arrest. We found the offshore accounts, the hardware, and the serial numbers. We got you murdering a man, too. We got you measured for a cell, to stay there for a long time.”
Shocked, the blaster thudded out of the rancher’s hand. Danny struggled to his feet and slipped over out of the way of the law enforcement officers. He was met by Phil, stopping to help get him out of the way, but still watchful.
“You OK, Danny?”
“Yeah, for now, but I’m really done for a while.”
“Don’t blame you. You look like you got the worse of it.”
Danny looked at his former boss, now arrested. He thought about all the shady things that the two brothers had done, most of which had still to come out into the light.
“I don’t know if that’s really true.”
Phil looked at the now-handcuffed man.
“Maybe not. Come on, let’s get you checked out. That’s a nasty bleeder there.”
Before they could get to the med wagon, Marshal Tucker met them halfway. She extended her hand.
“Good job, Danny.”
“Any idea what you’re going to do now?”
He hadn’t even thought about it, and said so. She reached into a pocket and pulled out a business card. She tucked it into his shirt pocket.
“If you think about a career in law enforcement, call that number. That’s my number, and I’ll get you started.”
It was a thought. Danny Mullins pondered on it. Maybe.