She broke off suddenly, and stared at the wall. Nothing there to look at, just getting an idea.

            “What is it?” Eddie asked.

            She started scratching her chin again, forgetting her solemn vow to work on her memory so it wouldn’t resemble Swiss cheese. Just what she needed, having people think she was as flighty as an elf.

            “I was just thinking, now that I think about, that Jay Barlow is the mirror opposite of Buster Beasley. There’s a guy who has ‘tough biker’ down pat every other way, except he finds most bikers pretty boring. So he doesn’t hang out much at the 250 Club, true enough—but I’ll bet he knows where all the bones are buried and whose skeleton is rattling which bike. He’s honest, too. Well… allowing for a certain casual attitude toward mind-altering substances and stuff like that, but who cares? Those laws aren’t in force any more and even if they were you and I are working for the Treasury department, not the old DEA.”

            “I am now completely lost,” said Eddie.

            Noelle flashed him a grin, forgetting her solemn vow to suppress her quick way of smiling since she thought that was probably the silly way that elves smiled if elves existed which they didn’t but too many damn people had heard of them and thought they probably did and she was suspect number one.

            “I’ll introduce you.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s only eight. He’s probably still at his storage rental place.”

            She got up, grabbed her purse and shrugged into her coat. Then, headed for the door. Eddie followed. “If we’re lucky, maybe his daughter Denise is there too. There’s a real pip.”

            Outside, Eddie asked: “What is a ‘pip’?”

            Noelle did her best to explain, as they walked. She’d never realized before, just how hard it could be to explain a colloquial term like “a real pip.” But, when she was done, Eddie nodded sagely.

            “Ah. Sort of an American elf.”

            “There’s no such thing as an elf,” Noelle snapped.

            She thought his ensuing silence had a dubious flavor, too.


            “Forget Simmons,” said Buster Beasley. With the booted foot he had planted on an overturned crate, he kept rocking back and forth on his chair. Given that it wasn’t a rocking chair, just a beat-up old wooden kitchen chair, and given Buster’s heft, Noelle wondered how much longer it would last.

            “Simmons is a clown,” he continued. The light cast into the office of Buster’s rental storage operation from a single naked light bulb in the ceiling threw his face into deep shadows, making him look more like a prophet than the middle-aged, long-haired, heavily-bearded and burly ex-biker that he was. If you ignored the muscular arms exposed by the cutaway denim jacket, anyway. Noelle was familiar with the lives of many of the saints and the Old Testament prophets, and she was quite sure not one of them had had a Born to Raise Hell tattoo on their shoulder, with or without a dagger through it.

            “He can manage to slice bread on his own, I suppose, but anything more complicated would stump him for sure. The only reason he got that job heading up the training program for the Department of Transportation was because his ex-wife Lorraine talked her twin sister Lauren into getting it for him, even though she’d dumped the bum years ago.”

            Buster’s fifteen-year-old daughter Denise was perched on an upended crate not far away, as was Eddie. Noelle had been given the one stool in the office to sit on. She’d have preferred a crate herself, actually, since the stool looked to be as rickety as the one and only chair in the office that was getting a workout from Buster.

            “I don’t get it, Dad,” she said. The girl’s expression was one of intense curiosity, which seemed to fit her face quite nicely. She shook her head a little, causing her long dark hair to ripple. “I mean, sure, I like Lorraine. Who doesn’t? But where’d she get the pull to land an ex-husband—not even the guy she’s married to now—a job that good?”

            Denise didn’t seem to think there was anything odd about her father calling another man a bum and clown. This, despite the fact that Buster’s office furniture consisted of upside-down crates and stools, a cheap metal cabinet that looked like an antique except no antique shop would have bothered trying to restore anything that badly stained and covered with rust spots, and a desk—Noelle was still trying not to grin at the thing—that was actually the bed of a junkyard pickup truck that Buster must have cut out with a torch and provided it with legs made out of parts from the frames of old motorcycles. He ran a welding business on the side and was quite good at it. Good enough, in fact, that if he’d concentrated on that business he could have become very prosperous. But Buster valued his free time a lot more than he did money.

            Noelle wasn’t surprised by Denise’s respect for her father, quite evident despite the relaxed and informal ease of their relationship. Buster Beasley, like Tom Stone, was one of those people who managed to live outside the normal boundaries of social custom without being considered a hopeless screwball.  Screwball, maybe, hopeless—no. They were just too effective at managing their lives, each in their own way. In Buster’s case, of course, the tattoos helped stifle vocal criticism, especially combined with the seventeen-inch biceps displayed by the cut-out jacket. Not to mention the scars.

            Despite her appearance, which she’d inherited from her mother—slender and very attractive, where Buster was neither—Denise was a chip off the old block. She was just a few weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday. Most girls her age would have been either egotistical or confused by her good looks, and the effect it had on boys. Denise was neither. She took it for granted, didn’t seem to care in the least—she certainly didn’t pick her girlfriends based on their looks—and God help the overeager high school boy who didn’t take “no” seriously. Denise was the only girl Noelle knew who’d been hauled in front of the high-school vice-principal for punching a kid out. Fortunately, there weren’t too many boys stupid enough to harass Buster Beasley’s daughter.

            Buster gave his daughter a grin. “How many times have I told you not to underestimate networking skills?”

            Denise snorted. “Coming from you!”

            He shrugged. “I didn’t say I was good at it, I just told you not to underestimate them. In this case, sure, Lorraine doesn’t have any direct clout worth talking about. But—”

            He held up his thumb. “Her twin sister Lauren owns and runs the town’s best restaurant, along with her husband Calvin.” He raised his forefinger alongside the thumb. “If there’s a power-that-be in Grantville that doesn’t hang out there, I don’t know who it is.” The middle finger came up to join them. “For sure and certain, Joe Stull—remember him? he’s the Secretary of Transportation—eats lunch there practically every day.”

            Buster brought up the ring finger, somehow managing not to haul the little finger along with it. He was a very well-coordinated man, despite the graying beard and the muscle. “Moving right along, since Lauren and Calvin Tyler’s daughter Rachel has all the sense when it comes to men that Lorraine doesn’t, she married that Scot cavalryman Edward Graham, who—he ain’t no dummy, either—immediately left the Swedish colors and wrangled himself a partnership in the restaurant with his new in-laws. And—”

            Finally, the little finger came up. “That damn Scotsman could charm a rattlesnake, which Joe Stull ain’t—and Graham makes it a point to be the waiter any time a bigshot shows up.”