Denise was looking a little cross-eyed by now. For that matter, Noelle thought she might be herself.

            The fingers started closing back down, one at a time, gracefully despite their heft. “So Lorraine talked to Lauren and she talked to Graham and Graham put in a word with Joe Stull, and I guess Joe must have been having one of his rare off days because he agreed to hire the clown. And that’s how it happened.”

            Throughout, he hadn’t varied in the slightest the metronome regularity of his chair-rocking. Now, he looked back to Noelle. “So, like I said, forget Simmons.” He gestured with his thumb to the tattoo on his shoulder. “If Mickey had a tattoo, it’d read Born to be a Small-Tim Loser. No, the people you want to start looking at are the Barclays.”

            Noelle frowned. “Pete Barclay? The guy who works for Dave Marcantonio?”

            “Yup. Him and his wife Marina. She works there too, y’know.” He finally ceased the chair-rocking and stood up. Then, picked up a big black flashlight perched on a shelf, one of those long, heavy Maglites favored by cops because they could double as a club in a pinch. Buster was holding it the way cops did, too, with the lamp cupped in his hand and the shaft perched on his shoulder, ready to swing forward if need be. So far as Noelle knew, Buster Beasley hadn’t been in a brawl in years. But he’d been notorious for brawling in his younger years—if not for starting fights, certainly for ending them—and he clearly still had the ingrained habits.

            The big ex-biker headed for the door, not bothering to put on a coat to fend off the autumn chill outside. “Come on. Let me show you something.”

            A minute later, they were staring into one of Buster’s storage sheds. It was one of the big ones down by the end.

            “There is nothing in it,” said Eddie, puzzled.

            “Not today, sure enough. But if you’d looked into it three mornings ago, you would have found it packed full. The Barclays showed up right when I opened, along with Allan and Neil O’Connor—I think most of the stuff belonged to them, actually, even though the Barclays are the ones who paid the rent—and cleaned it all out. They had three wagons for the purposes. Well-built wagons,  driven by some down-timers I don’t know. The guy who seemed to be in charge was a real dandy, dressed to the hilt. Fancy plumed hat, the whole works.”

            Noelle hissed. “The O’Connors? But…”

             There seemed to be a thin smile on Buster’s face. Between the beard and the darkness, though, it was hard to tell.

            “But they have a successful business here? I wouldn’t be too sure of that, the way they go through money like it was water. I can tell you this much, for sure. Since the Barclays rented this shed six months ago, they’ve been steadily filling it up with mechanical equipment—smallish stuff, of course, no big machines—tools, blueprints, diagrams, you name it. I’m pretty sure some of it was swiped from Marcantonio’s machine shop, although I couldn’t swear to it.”

            “Oh, wow,” said Denise. “Dad, the fuckers are defecting.”

            “That’s my guess. Got no idea where to, though.”

            Noelle’s lips were tight. “You know, Buster, you could have maybe said something about this earlier.”

            He swiveled to face her. Whatever smile might have been on his face was gone now. “Said something to who? The so-called ‘authorities’? Meaning no offense, Ms. Murphy—”

            “It’s Stull, now. I changed it.”

            “Good for you,” said Denise. “I kinda like your mother, but her ex-husband—the guy who was supposed to be your dad and wasn’t—is a complete shithead.”

            Clearly enough, whatever parental instruction Buster had felt it necessary to give his daughter had never included “proper language for a young lady.” Noelle couldn’t really fault Buster for that, though. He made a lot better father in everything essential than Francis Murphy had, she didn’t doubt that in the least.

            “Yeah, good for you,” echoed Buster. “Your real dad Dennis is an okay guy, in my book. But like I was saying, Ms. Stull, I mind my own business. I’m as likely to go to the cops as I am to eat tofu for breakfast. I got along with Dan Frost well enough, once him and me straightened out a few issues. But I’ve generally got as much use for cops as I do for cockroaches. Especially since, in this case, I can’t see where they were doing anything illegal anyway except for maybe some petty theft from Dave’s machine shop.”

            He gave his daughter a stern look. “How is it ‘defecting’ when we’re not at war with anybody any longer? People got a right to live wherever they want, you know—and take their property with them. You really oughta watch your language, young lady.”

            Noelle barked a laugh. For his part, Eddie gave Buster a wary look.

            “We’re not actually policemen,” he said. “No powers of arrest. We’re just investigators.”

            Buster shrugged. “Like the guy said in that Muppet movie. Authorities is authorities.”

            “He didn’t say that,” Denise protested. “He said—”

            “Do you want to help them?” demanded her father, gesturing with a thumb at Noelle and Eddie.

            “Yeah, sure. I don’t care what you say, Dad. Those fuckers are defecting. Buncha traitors.”

            “Then quit arguing with me about movie dialogue and get a move on.” He turned back to Noelle and Eddie, smiling again. “If you want to catch them, you’d better plan on starting at dawn. They’ll have three days’ head start on you, wherever they’re going.”

            “You have no idea?”

            “Not a clue. Like I said—”

            “You mind your own business. I heard you.” Noelle tried not to sound too snappish and testy. Despite his appearance, Buster was generally an easy-going sort of fellow. Still. Aggravating a large ex-biker on his own property in the middle of the night when he was carrying an eighteen-inch flashlight in his hand did not strike Noelle as falling into the category of “good idea.”

            Eddie was scratching his head. “We’ll need to alert the police, first. Then, we’ll have to figure out which way they went.”

            Denise grinned. “I’ll find that out for you. Me and my bike. I’ll get started as soon as it’s light enough to see anything.”

            “Ain’t she a pip?” said her father, admiringly.