Close Call

The steps behind the Eldo dropped beneath the Regulator and Sanna’s feet, leaving them in the dimly lit alley.  To their right, the turning over of the Ford’s engine and the rumble of dual exhaust pipes broke the night air.

“Seems like mom has found her truck,” Bob said with slight amusement.

Barretta’s pulled, they felt their way through the alley and into the side parking lot.   The Regulator floated up over the tailgate lightly landing in the bed of the truck.  Sanna moved to the passenger door.  Seeing the long hard case at his feet he holstered the pistol and quickly unsnapped the latches.  Opening the case, he hefted out the assault rifle. As the truck reversed from its spot, he sat on the toolbox and scanned the dark spaces around him.

Bridget cursed herself for not backing into her spot.  She mumbled something to herself about getting old and soft.  Backing out of a parking spot was a waste of precious seconds.  Sanna lowered her window and the pistol scanned. Her finger on the trigger held by a hair.  She wanted to fire, she wanted to kill, but nothing nor anyone moved.

The Regulator smelled the air and listened to the dark.  He saw only one vision as the truck rounded the corner and into the alley.  A thin face, wide-eyed and familiar.  Lit up red and full of calm.  The Regulator locked eyes with the man, and he thought, “Just you?  Do they send only you, my old friend? You have come a long way.”  The two men nodded at one another and then the truck rounded the corner and into the alley.

Bridget worked her way through the gears, and the truck moved quickly out of the alley onto the third street.  Then banked left on to Elk Avenue.  The rifle lowered to his lap.  Sanna still held her pistol out the window.  The cold midnight air made its way into Bob’s clothes.  Creeping into his soul and his mind.  He closed his eyes and tried to find the memory.

The Peruvian sun loomed brutally overhead. While the air stuck to everything with an indifference. The only thing worse than the air was the mosquitos.  They seemed to be in an all-out war with each other for every square inch of exposed skin.  Bob and Fell stood above the jungle on a large moss-covered boulder.  From their perch, they observed the torrent and froth below them.  The river cascaded through a 12-foot-wide slot, then disappeared over a desperate horizon.  Beyond they could see the edge of a turquoise pool, then another horizon.  They knew the river fell five times in this section, but the first two were all they could see.  Bob looked over at Fell.  Fell looked back with wide eyes and a large grin.  He was all energy, and he almost hopped back and forth with anticipation.  He was black to the white calm of Bob.  They would be dropping in blind and have to survival-kayak the bottom half.  Neither one worried much.  For some reason, they always came out of these things alive.  Adventuring with Fell was never dull and thank the gods it was never safe.

The cold steel of the gun started to sting his fingers and he broke from his memories.  The Regulator placed the rifle back in its case.  They were heading out of town to the south, down highway 135.  The only road in or out of Crested Butte this time of year.  He sniffed and took a look behind them.  Then he turned to look ahead facing the 55 mph air.  Nothing.  Bob knocked on the sliding window of the cab.  A small click and it slid open.  He wound his way into the back-seat head first.  Rolled over and came up sitting in the center of the back of the cab.

“We should have killed him,” Sanna said evenly.

“Easier said than done,” Bob replied with indifference. “Fell would have killed everyone there to get just one of us.  Coming from a long line of Berserkers, there is no turning him off once the switch is pulled.  Confronting him in the Eldo would have been very bad for business.”  Bob contemplated Fell for a second.  He figured it would be soon enough for their relationship to end.

“Fell?  That was Fell? What the fuck happened to him?”  Sanna looked straight out the windshield. “I didn’t recognize him.  He is so thin.”

“Certain life choices can leave permanent marks.  He has chosen poorly.”

Bob looked at his sister.   The dashboard lit up the highlights of her face.  The defined thin nose between high rounded cheekbones.  Straight lips and a supple jawline.  She was just the same as he remembered.  Not a day older.  He could feel her tension and the radiating energy that almost made the front seat glow. He stared at her like he was reading her thoughts. Sanna wanted to look back at Bob, but something kept her eyes forward.  It got quiet.  Very quiet.

“Hiya, Sis!” Bob said with all the enthusiasm of a five-year-old.

Sanna dropped her gaze, gave a little chuckle and shook her head. “Hiya, little brother.” She could not help but smile. She turned and with a sideways glance asked, “Talk to any dogs today?”

Sanna used to ask this very question to Bob almost every day when they were young.   For Bob had insisted he could talk with dogs and would expound on the discoveries of their ever-deepening wisdom.  Telling what seemed to be a never-ending collaboration of stories and insights he would learn from them.  Sanna would tease him about the self-proclaimed gift, but she always wondered to herself whether it was true.  Bob always did have at least one dog in his presence.  They seemed to all feel comfortable around him: even Dozer, the mean mutt that lived on the ranch.  While no one could get near the animal without the chance of losing a finger, Bob would wrestle and play with him freely.

Bob’s face screwed up into a thoughtful look and he said, “Why yes! In fact, I had a wonderful chat with a burly old St. Bernard, named Olaf, just yesterday.  He left me with a great little nugget of advice. ‘If you should come across your long-lost sister after some untold years of separation you should ask her one simple question.’ ”

Bob sat back with a theatrical pause as Sanna’s eyes pulled her head around to look more squarely at him. He sighed slapped his hand on his knees and asked, “What the fuck gives?”

Sanna half smiled in a bit of relief but then turned remorseful.  She dropped her eyes and said, “I’m really sorry, Bob.  I have been terribly unfair.”  Her voice was full of penance and pity.  Like she was talking to a young adolescent and not the full-grown man in the back seat. “There is no justifiable reason for my actions.  Regardless of overwhelming obligations or business, I should have never abandoned you as I did.  Letting you think I had just left or even worse that I might be dead, was plainly unfair.”  Her high energy was gone.  Her intensity was now piled up like a wet towel on the bathroom floor.  She had become fully open and vulnerable.

Bob felt her change as they reach out and lightly touched Sanna’s left arm.  This brought her gaze up. “We might have been born free, but we don’t have the luxury of free will.  The gods have bestowed upon us great and powerful gifts. For these gifts, we have obligations: obligations to family, business and the clan.  Of all the people, you don’t need to explain anything to me, sis.  You are playing your role as I am playing mine.”  His eyes left Sanna’s and shifted to his mother.  In an exaggeratedly sarcastic voice, he continued, “You on the other hand.   You have some explaining to do.  How could you have kept this from me all these years?  I mean, damn woman, you are one cold operator.”

Bridget had been preoccupied with getting them out of town safely and making sure no one was following them.  She seemed to come to life now and was ready to join the party. “Hell Bob, you know I am.  I am one cold bitch with the blood of Tyr running through my veins.  If you wanted a loving and nurturing mother, you should have chosen to have been born into the line of Freya.”  Her voice got stronger and more serious as she spoke. “Don’t mistake my cunning and coldness for having no heart.  I love you two more than anything else in this world.  Everything your father and I have done over the past decades has been for you two and don’t you forget it.”

Bob looked back at Sanna and they started to giggle like little kids.  “We know,” they both said at the same time.  Then both of their faces went slack and Bridget felt it too.

The Regulator yelled, “Duck!” A bullet shattered the front passenger window, cut through the headrest and lodged in the rear door panel.  This happened just as Bridget swerved into the left lane and mashed on the gas.  They were at the junction with Jack’s Cabin cut off,  a left-handed ninety-degree turn. The junction was flanked by the Miller ranch house and a few barns.  Bob had seen the flash come from the hayloft door of the barn across from the Jack’s Cabin road.  Bridget dropped the left wheels of the truck into the inside ditch of the turn.   Running through some willows and exploding up onto the asphalt of Jack’s Cabin road.   The back end breaking loose and sliding sideways.

The Regulator yelled, “Stop!”

Bridget hit the brakes bringing the truck to a screeching halt in the middle of the road.

The Regulator said to Sanna, “Hayloft.”  Another bullet ripped through the back window of the truck and took out the stereo.

Bridget looked at the hole in her beloved stereo and calmly said, “Nothing but death shall come of this, kids.”

Bob rolled out the door behind Bridget while Sanna went out her door.  Both welded two Barrettas raised to the barn behind the truck and across 135, they opened fire. Releasing a hail of bullets into the large door opening.  The firing was unrelenting as clips where emptied, dropped and new ones inserted.  After each of them had emptied three clips they had moved themselves to the other side of 135.  Loading their next set, they moved through the willow by the roadside, down through the ditch and into the open of the barnyard.  They paused on either side of the open barn doors then entered into the pitch black of the barn.  The opening for the hayloft was directly above them.  Standing quietly they heard nothing: no movement, no voice.  Then a groan and a scratch like someone crawling slow. Standing six feet apart, they listened.  They smelled.  They looked at each other in the dark and nodded.  Lifted their pistols to the same spot in the wooden planks above, and they opened fire.  The bullets blasted through the planks.  Finish off their clips. Then a silence came with a cloud of gun smoke swirled around them.  A quiet cracking sound soon turned louder and then the full crash of a body fell between them.  A cloud of dust and hay rose up around them. They stood still for a few seconds.  Listening into the night.  Nothing was moving — not even the mice in the hay.  The Regulator raised his nose to the air.  Then put his pistol barrel to his lips, indicating to Sanna not move or make a sound.  He raised the pistol above his head never taking his eyes off Sanna.  One bullet left the barrel.  A voice shouted out.  Sanna lifted her pistols and let loose a volley of bullets.  Another body fell through the hole in the floor,  landing halfway across the first body.

Staring down at the bodies the Regulator shook his head and said, “Old lady Miller is not going to be happy with us, but at least we don’t have to climb up into the loft.”  He smiled, then turned and vomited. To himself, he prayed to Thor, “Take me when you can.  Let me come home.  Let me stop being, death.”

 

Sanna gave Bob a quizzical look.  She had heard about his physical aversion to killing, but she had never seen it in person.  An awkward moment had started to brew when Bridget pulled into the yard and backed up to the barn doors.  She jumped out and walked up to the bodies, kicking one.  “Serves you right, shooting out an old woman’s radio.” She spit on the bodies and then turned to The Regulator, “Let’s get these two loaded and get the fuck out of here.  I will explain to old lady Miller later.”   The moment was broken.

Secure in the back of the truck Bridget started to turn down 135, but Bob told her to go over Jack’s Cabin.  He had a little surprise for them and a way to throw anyone off their sent.  After a few miles over to Taylor Canyon, they headed up to Spring Creek Canyon.  A few miles up Bob had them turn into a drive and head up into a stand of pines at a cliff edge.  Pointing to a tall fence made of logs they could park behind.  To their left, about 30 yards away was an old fishing cabin.  Bridget asked Bob when he had got this place. Bob said he had all kinds of places like this spread out across Colorado and southern Utah.   Bridget was impressed that Bob could keep such things from her.  She took it as a sign that she had raised him well.

They bagged up the bodies and wrapped them up tight in plastic wrap.  Bridget said she would take care of them later.  Then they covered the truck with a camouflage tarp.  After grabbing their bags, the women started walking toward the cabin.  Bob stood and stared after them.  Sanna soon turned and asked why he was not coming.

“You guys can try to get in that cabin, but Gerry will be pretty pissed that you woke him up.  He is a grumpy son of a bitch when in a good mood.  I think you might want to follow me.”

He worked his way through the pines along the cliff wall for about 50 yards.  Soon they stood in front of a large slab of rock that leaned back against the wall.

“Home, sweet home,” Bob said.

Sanna just giggled as the realization of where they were popped into her head. “You didn’t?  Did you build the hideaway we always talked about?  The superhero’s secret lair.  I do love you, brother.”

Bridget was confused, but Bob motioned for them to follow as he ducked behind the large slab of stone.  A glow of light was triggered on as they entered the cave-like entrance.  Bob stood in front of a steel door set into the cliff wall.   Bob stood and looked at the door for a second.

Sanna and Bridget looked at him quite puzzled. Sanna finally spoke up, “Well, aren’t we going in?”

“I forgot the code,” Bob said with a grin.  “Maybe you can help me out.”  He gave her a wink.

Sanna stood for a second in confusion and then she looked at the keypad.  The keys were not numbers or letters but runes.  Her face changed into realization.  She stepped forward and pushed the keys for ice, stone, spear, and fire.  The door clicked open.  Bob pushed the door open and welcomed them to his “Bat Cave.”

Motion detectors turned on the lights as they entered the underground lair.   They stood in a small entry with a hallway leading into the mountain.  Dropping their belongings, Bob told them to go on in while he set up the security.  The two women walked down the short hallway and through a door into the main room.  Sanna and Bridget just stood in complete awe, as the lights came on to illuminate something amazing. They stood in a large dome-shaped room about forty feet across.  The perimeter of the room was set up in four sections.  A sleeping section with soundproof sleeping pods.  An office section with a wall of computer screens.  A living section with a midcentury couch sunk into the floor.  A kitchen section complete with a beer tap fridge.  The entire décor was fashioned after a midcentury superhero/James Bond/ bad guy secret layer.  But it was the middle of the room that took the cake.  In the center was a rotating platform and on that platform was a mint 1977 Pontiac, “Smokey and the Bandit” Firebird.  Bob walked in behind them and saw their open-mouthed astonishment.

“Let me get this straight.  You have places like this all-around Colorado and southern Utah?”  Sanna asked in seer amazement.

“Nah, this is the only superhero cave.  But, I do have lots of different hiding spots.”  Bob smiled and looked around the room about as pleased as one could be.  “Haven’t been here in a loooong time.  Sure is cool, huh?”

“Um, fuck yeah it’s cool!”  Sanna said.

Bob stood with his hands on his hips.  Smiled with pride and said, “Let’s rest up, get a plan together tomorrow and then go secure your place at the head of this family.”  He looked over at Sanna with determined eyes.  Then at Bridget with a wink.

“Fuck that!  I need a drink.  Then we need to talk some more, and then maybe I can sleep.”

Bob shrugged. “OK.”

Bridget headed toward the bar and said, “Let me guess, tequila?”

Reunion

The two women moved easily through the pitch black silence of the pines.  Neither talked for a bit.  They made their way down the mile-long trail.  Seeing with their memory, they traveled in the darkness.  Two figured floating among the ghosts of the new moon.  Down to the end of the jeep road, where the old Ford truck was parked next to a tricked out Jeep Rubicon.

“Mother, just how are we going to find Bob?” Sanna asked quietly. “I mean, you said yourself he has been missing for a few days.  For all we know he is in the desert on one of his vision quests.”

“Oh, I have a feeling it won’t be all that hard to locate him.”  Bridget had a bit of lightness in her voice. “You see, Bob for all his trying, is still a creature of habit.  Although a very focused hunter, he does like his distractions.  You see, The Reverend Horton Heat is playing…”

“At the Eld,” Sanna cut in, and her smile rang out in her words. “Well, isn’t that convenient and all at the same time very weird.?   The Reverend is playing an off-season show in Crested Butte.  What are the chances?”

“Exactly what I was thinking.   It seems the gods are in our favor.”

They drifted down the trail, winding between the aspens, pines, and leftover snow.   In the cold spring silence, they shared many thoughts, though neither one talked.  Just a mother and daughter sharing a moment in a familiar place.  They both had their mental preparations to make and now was as good a time as any to make them.   The following days would be hectic.  They would move and counter move until they solidified their family rule or they were dead.  Better take some time to meditate on your future actions now.  Once things were in motion, hesitation wouldn’t be an option.

They cleared the forest’s hold on their tongues, and both moved towards their vehicles.  Bridget stopped and turned to Sanna saying, “Don’t think for a second we are taking that newfangled contraption to town.”  The older woman stood tall and even in the dark, you could see her stern face.

“Really?  You want me to ride in that kidney bruising bucket of bolts you call a truck?”  Sanna almost sounded like a dejected teenager. “Not going to happen.”

They stood six feet apart, facing each other.  Two Asgardian strong women, having a moment of crushing stubbornness.   Two whole minutes passed and finally, Sanna huffed and said, “Fine.  We drive separate to Kebler pass.  Then we take your truck to town.”

Bridget shrugged.  “Sure.”

The two vehicles started the crawl down the jeep road.  The road was kept in a state of almost impassability for the final couple miles or so.  This was to ensure anyone that had ignored the many “No Trespassing” signs to not venture any further.  Sanna led the way, and Bridget rattled on behind her.

————————————-

The WRX was downshifted, and with the exhaust rapping, Bob pulled into the sleepy offseason Thursday night of Crested Butte.  Crawling onto the 15 mph empty streets he turned left on Elk Avenue.  The main drag was mostly deserted and patiently waiting for the summer crowds.  Three blocks down, Bob slid into a parking spot in front of a three-story, brown, wanna-be old western wood clad building.  A real estate office occupied the first floor.  The big windows, plastered with the overpriced resort town trophy homes, was tucked back under a second-floor deck that covered the sidewalk.  A wooden sign hung from the front of the deck.  “The ELDO: A sunny place for shady people.”  He smiled as he always did when he read that sign.

In front of him was a big fancy tour bus.  He cut the engine and let the quietness of the empty ski resort town surround him in comfort.  He sat for a bit.  Watching young mountain people, in down jackets and hoodies, park their town bikes and enter the stairwell door, beside the real estate office.  Tonight there was a big act playing and it was the slow season.  Even if you didn’t like the heavy psycho-billy punk rock sounds of The Reverend and his faithful bass player Jimbo and whoever the drummer was at the moment, you were going to the show.  It was the only thing going in town and would be for over a month.

Bob got out of the car.  Smelled the crisp cool air and stretched.  The clock moved at a different speed here, and Bob could always feel it.  Things ticked along at a slower pace and in a slightly off-kilter fashion.  He liked it and so many times wished he could just stay.  Get a job as a ski tuner with a free season pass and ride all winter long.   Maybe be a raft guide during the summer.  Be anonymous and boring.  Just another mountain sports junky, eking out a living and enjoying the great outdoors.

Stepping up on the sidewalk he looked to his left and eyed the tour bus.  He could knock on the door.  Hang out with the band.  He would be welcome.  He and the Reverend went way back.  Bob had been to so many shows that he was a permanent name on the guest list.  But, tonight Bob wanted the common tribal company of the bar.  The noise of banter, the faces of regulars and show-goers alike.  He had spent the last few days alone, wrapped up in his head.  Dreaming, tripping and talking with spiritual lions.  Right now he needed camaraderie.  Even though he had no real comrades here, the crowd itself would be enough to make him feel like he belonged.

At the top of the stairs, the familiarity of the scene made his defenses start to drop.  The young, bearded lumberjack-like bouncer looked him up and down.  The Stones ’ “Honkey Tonk Woman,” slipped out from the double doors.  Glass clinked, and chatter floated above it all.  Under everything was the smell of stale beer, marinating in the old wood floor.  Perfect. Just perfect,  Bob thought.

“ID, ticket or $25.00,” the bouncer announced with a smile behind the burly facial hair.

The Regulator gave the young man a sideways look and a crooked smile.

“Ok, then,” he said with a nod. “How about the ticket?”

Bob, thrust out his hand.  The bouncer shook it, even though he was not sure why.  He was not used to being overly friendly with the customers. “Name’s, Regulator.  Should be on the list.”  The bouncer looked down at the guest list. “How’re things going tonight?”

“Things are good.  Mellow so far.  The Reverend should change that soon.  Ah, here ya are.”

The young man looked up and found himself glued to a pair of ice blue eyes.  They told him everything was going to be great.  Everything was going to be just like it should.  This made him uneasy.  He shook away from the stare, and Bob handed him a fifty dollar bill.  “Thanks for your help.”  The Regulator’s calm voice cut through the noise as a couple opened the door to leave.

“Um, yeah.  No worries brah.”  The bouncer was not sure what to make of the feeling he felt.  A feeling, like the souls in the bar, had just become a little more important.  He felt a need to be vigilant and that he was a bit more important.

Bob walked in and felt all the warmth and welcome of a local watering whole wrap around him.  It filled him with hope, and he took a seat at the end of a long bar.  The bouncer watched him with a concerned eye.  For some reason, he knew he would be watching Bob all night.

The Eldo is a long narrow establishment.  The bar runs along the front left side.  The bathrooms and a passageway take up the middle.  The dance floor and stage reside in the rear.  The walls are finished with rough barn wood in a multitude of patterns, and the furniture is vintage seventies steakhouse.   In true mountain bar fashion, the bathrooms are a fucking mess.  The bar back is traditional Old West, oak and mirror set up.  The bar is a dented copper with oak trim.  Basically, it’s wood tone set upon a backdrop of wood tones.  And Bob, could not have been more at home.  The bartender strolled down the line.  Tucked a towel in his back pocket and just nodded his head.

“Patron, silver, on the rocks with a lime.”  Bob handed the bartender a $100 bill and said, “This should cover the night.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit.  You know your money is not good in here.”  The bartender crossed his arms and looked straight at the Regulator.  This stance caught the eye of the young girl on the stool next to Bob. “If I buy your silver for the night, can you promise me all patrons leave in the same state that they arrived?”

Bob pulled his Quicksilver hoodie over his head and swept a hand through his blonde hair.  The top was getting long.  Four or five inches.  The sides buzzed up with a number two guard.  He set his trucker hat back on his head and pulled it down tight on his brow.  He had to tilt his head up a bit to look at the bartender.  About half the bar had now noticed the standoff and some wore inside grins. “If you set everyone at this bar up with one round of silver, I will spare their worthless mountain troll souls.  But, if any one of them gets in my way on the dance floor,”  he paused for dramatic effect, “I will cut down the lot and send them to the mead halls of Valhalla.”  His eyes scanned the bar and landed on the girl next to him.  She started crying.

Then the bartender shrugged his shoulders and said in a loud voice as he turned. “ So he has promised. The Regulator has spoken, and you will all be spared tonight! Silver for all!  Compliments of the house!”  There was a large cheer and half the people sitting at the bar started laughing while the others looked on in confusion.

Bob looked at the girl next to him and smiled.  She found her legs and walked away.  He spied the bouncer watching him from across the bar, keeping his smile he gave him a wink.  Just a little reassurance that all was fine.  The bartender moved back his way and filled two shot glasses.  “Where did your little girlfriend go?”  He poured the tequila.  “Heard about your father.  Not cool.  So, how the fuck are ya, Bob?”

“Thanks, Tommy.  It’s Pretty much been a bag full of suck lately, but tonight I just want to be another, regular old person.”  The first shot went down, and the glass was refilled.  Tommy walked around the bar and hugged Bob.  Not many people could hug the Regulator, but Tommy was different.  He was Bob’s oldest friend and the only person outside the family who knew what Bob was.  Bob accepted the condolences and drank another shot.  “What’s up with the new bouncer?  Can he handle this crowd?”

“I agree, he might not look like much, but his antenna for trouble is good, and he’s quick.  Real quick.  So watch yourself, Bob.”  Tommy smiled and walked back down the bar. Over his shoulder, he said, “Oh, and by the way, there is nothing regular about you.”

——————————————–

The dust rolled up from behind and washed over their trucks as they stopped at the intersection at Kebler Pass.  It circled and swirled in the headlights as the old truck idled and the Jeep was parked.  Sanna grabbed a long, hard case and a backpack.  She crossed in front of the headlights and dropped the bags in the bed of the truck, first checking for pig shit.  You never know with the old woman, she thought.  Climbing into the cab, she was reintroduced to a familiar smell.

“Wanna hit?”  Bridget offered over a blunt the size of a zucchini, to Sanna.

She just shook her head and smiled.  Sanna, thanked her lucky stars for marijuana.  Without it, her mother would be an overbearing mess of intensity.   Bridget could put off some big vibes and make people feel on edge.  She could do this from simply walking into a room.  The pot took off the edge and left everyone at ease.  Bridget turned up the Hank Williams on the three hundred watt stereo system, and they sashayed their way toward Crested Butte.  The truck’s barreling exhaust trying to outdo the subwoofer.  Although she loved her old trucks, she loved a good stereo system even better.  With Bridget singing along and puffin’ on the blunt, Sanna felt like her mother was possibly tickled pink for the task ahead of them.  She seemed to be relishing this.  And why not?  She had been hiding out in the mountains for decades.  Hiding and watching from afar.  Hiding and training her daughter.   Sanna had a lot to learn if she was to take over the family business.  She would have to learn even more than most because when and if she took the helm, she would be an unknown.  She would be coming cold and she would have to prove her competence, fast. Bridget didn’t just teach her about the family.  She taught Sanna the finer things about the shadow world.  Bridget was a ghost in her own right.  A warrior in the old world sense of the word.  She was a master at intimidation and the art of overpowering your opponent.   She was not all power though. She knew how to bait an enemy in and use misdirection to gain the advantage.  Bridget had made Sanna the woman she is today through patience and tenacity.  Sanna was grateful and she was ready.

Sanna watched her mother driving and singing.  She felt good.  She felt the gods had brought her here and that the Norns were spinning a good life for her.  Bridget turned to her, “Your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you….” Sanna smiled and before she knew it was singing along.  “You’ll cry and cry, and try to sleep….”  In the back of her mind, she wondered what would happen when they found Bob.  When they, she, was face to face with him.  She knew that Bob, knew, she was alive.  Sanna was sure he had seen her in the spirit dream, but she left him so long ago.  So many years he was left to fend for himself.  Yes, he seemed to be handling it all ok, but what will he think of her?  Sanna was feeling something odd for the first time in a long time.  She was feeling nervous.  Nervous what her little brother would think of her.  Would he still like her? Would he be on her side?  Would he want to take over the family himself?  So, many things she didn’t know and within the hour she would have her answers.

——————————————-

Jimbo’s stout fingers rapped fast and steady up his flame-painted, stand-up bass, strings.  He slapped in perfect time with the drummer’s punk rock speed.  Their thumping rhythm chocking the air in the lower half of the room and filled all their groins with lusty bass.  Above it all wailed the clean, hollow-body, frett-damaging, relentless serenade of the Reverend Horton Heat. Dressed in a fine western wear suit that would make Hank Williams jealous, he sang, smiled and musically hypnotized the audience into a swing dance mosh pit frenzy.   Bob stood stage right and watched the Reverend perform his voodoo.  A few shots of tequila mixed around in his head and the music vibrated through his bones.  He was in the moment at last.  Not thinking of the past, nor the future, but marveling at the synchronized beauty of the three masters blasting away in perfect synchronicity and power.  He was here, and this was now.

After playing for an hour, the Reverend gave Bob a sideways smile as he took a sip of his bourbon.  They had just finished up a three-song set of classic Reverend surf punk and he mouthed to Bob, “here we go,” before ripping into, “The Devil’s Chasing Me.”  By far Bob’s favorite song and the Reverend knew it.

“Sunset lights the sky, and there’s a shadow over me…..”  The high lonesome guitar rang in over the driving western swing beat.  Bob watched in anticipation.

“But when the Devil comes collecting, your gonna payin’ for eternity… The devil’s chasin’ me….”

Jimbo lays his bass upon its side. The drums are lowered to a background drone and a steady ride cymbal jazz triplet.  The Reverend climbs up on Jimbo’s bass and starts in on his magical solo ride.  Bob loves this part.  He closes his eyes and waits for the build dancing notes.

Then the nerves in the base of the Regulator’s spine light up a wave of energy that spikes through his skull.  Something has shifted.  Something has disturbed the air and made it taste of darkness.  Yet, his stomach senses something familiar.  He needs to move.  Floating to his left he never took his eyes off the stage. Tucking himself in behind the speaker column.  Back into the side shadows.  He is no longer part of the space.

———————————————-

The rumbling of the Ford takes up two spots in the parking area to the rear of the Eldo building.  The two women give each other short glances as if to check each other’s resolve.   As unsure as Sanna is about how Bob will react to seeing her, Bridget might be even more unsure.   She has been helping the Regulator dispose of his problems.  Never once has she let on that she knew where his beloved big sister was.  Much less that they had been working for years towards this very moment.  It was soul crushing for Bridget to keep this secret.  Bob loved and honored his sister.  He never talked about her, but a mother knows her children and Bob was hurt.  Hurt that Sanna could just up and leave.  He knew she was not dead.  How he knew this, Bridget had no idea, but he knew.  Tonight could get very interesting.  Bridget had to bring her children together and she had to be successful.  This was paramount to bring together all the years of planning.

The two got out of the truck and started toward Elk Avenue and the entrance to the bar.  They could hear the muted sound of loud rock and roll.  Sanna stole a glance to the second-floor windows.  She could see figures silhouetted in the red, blue and green lights.  Some of their heads nodding along with the beat.  He’s right there.  Right inside those windows.   She looked over to her mother.  Bridget slowed, knocked her head and smelled.

“Everything ok?” Sanna asked and then she felt it too.

Bridget nodded, shrugged and said, “Yep,  just thought I smelled vermin.  I think it’s just the dog shit freeing itself from the melting snow piles.”

Sanna wasn’t sold, but she went along with it.   They rounded the corner, past Bob’s car and opened the stairway door.  The bouncer was checking some IDs when he took a glance at the two women.   He got that uneasy feeling again like the one when he talked to that Regulator guy.  He didn’t ask for IDs and quickly made up an excuse that since the band had been playing for over an hour, he would just let them in for free.  Something about a fifty dollar bill flashed in his head.  The women entered the bar, took an unnoticeable look around and headed for the band room.  They moved their way to the back of the dancing crowd.

Bridget leaned into Sanna and half yelled in her ear, “Why the fuck do you kids like the music so loud?  I am surprised anyone under 30 can hear.”

Sanna, replied with a smile, “It’s to drown out the negative voices in our heads.”

“Well, I know for sure he is here. Do you see him?”

“No, but I do feel him and I know where he is.”  She sounded a little baffled as she looked toward the back corner of the room. “Let me go alone.”  Sanna looked into Bridget’s eyes and the old woman knew not to argue.

“Ok, but be cautious.”

Sanna knew she was not referring to her encounter with Bob.  She felt it too.  Something odd.  Something sick.

—————————————–

Bob stood still and breathed a silent breath.  He stared out among the dancing, moshing and watching crowd.  Scanning the faces for a sign.  Then a voice came from just behind him.  “Why so shy, little brother?  You know you’re not the only one in this family that can sneak around in the shadows.”  There was a bit of playfulness in her voice along with a hesitancy.

The Regulator was not alarmed and his eyes never left the room.  He spoke in a whisper and Sanna heard him clear as day.  She also heard the warning in his voice. “No, I am not, big sis.  Just as we are not the only ones that can play in here, either.”  Just then he lifted his chin as to point out in the crowd.

Her eyes landed on a tall man with an angular face.  He was pretending to enjoy the music while he casually searched the faces and sensed the room.

“I can smell him,” Sanna said, “and I don’t like it.”  Her voice was raw and filled with venom.

Bob could feel her presences growing.  “Keep your shit under control.  If you can’t keep a lid on your emotions a bunch of people in here are going to die, and I promised Tommy that would not happen.  Not tonight at least.”

Sanna closed her eyes and took a few slow, steady breaths.   She was more of a straightforward specialist when it came to conflict.  Patience and timing were not her strong suit. “So, what is your plan, brother?” she whispered back.  Neither of them took their eyes off the tall man.

“In thirty seconds the bouncer will open the backstage door, five steps to our left.  If all goes right, we walk right out.”

“Um, Bob, there is nothing but stage lights and open air that direction.”

“Yep. That is why we have to wait for the end of the song.  The lights will go off for a second.  It happens at the end of every Reverend show….ever.”

Sanna was not good with control.  Her emotions were growing as the seconds ticked by, and the song came closer to an end. The tall man sniffed the air, and his eyes got wide. Sanna’s presence grew.  The band raced toward the final note. The last cymbal crash crashed.  The room went dark.  Two shadows floated through the door.  The bouncer felt uneasy.  The lights came back up.  The Reverend and the band headed towards the back door.  A tall, angular man stood in the mid of the dance floor, and a knife was embedded in the wall where Bob and Sanna had stood.

Warnings

Note: For first-time visitors, this is a story in progress.  You are welcome to start reading this post, but to get the full aspect of the story you might want to go to the first post “In the End.”   Also, I suggest reading the Background page.  -Enjoy.

Sometimes, the night is placid, covered in cloudy vales, and unnoticeable.   Sometimes, it is full of restless ideas, uncommon sounds, and ominous sensations.  There are nights when the stars race to outshine the moon while it is recovering from its long cycle.  Nights where the deepest parts of the universe come into view.  Reminding us of the long past, the small present and the distant future.   Open your eyes and your heart on a night like this and gods just might let you see the things you shouldn’t see.   Glimpses into the true terrors or happinesses that makes your reality.  Words from the past reminding you that the future can change, but not from your will alone.  Sometimes, the gods’ messages come with warnings.  Sometimes, they come in a cryptic sequence of events.  Sometimes, they come as clear and eternal as the big dipper.

Jane felt like something was filling the empty spaces in the air tonight.  She felt a weight.  Not a weight like the past few weeks of decision-making and planning.  She had worked very hard to make sure their plans would be flawless.  Making sure all the right lies were told at the right time, with the right emotion, at precisely the right time.  Many times over the past ten years, she had worked things over and over in her mind.  Jane had waited long enough.  It was time, to have her time.   But, tonight the weight was something else.  There was something about the weight that was not tangible or rational.   The weight seemed to exist for existing’s sake.

The night was warm for early spring.  The French doors to the bedroom were open.  The crisp breeze caught the white linen curtains.  Like ghosts, they swayed and billowed into the room.  That was what she was feeling-ghosts.  Leaving Axel to sleep, she walked out on to the porch and let the air chill her naked body.  Sage and new grass filled her nose.  She looked up; the clear new moon sky pressed down.   The Milky Way expanded overhead, and Orion slashed his way over the eastern horizon.

Maybe this being in charge business is not all it seems, she thought to her self.   She wondered if her ambitions had robbed her of her sight.  Robbed her of her ability to objectively look at her life and what she wanted.   Was she not able to see the immense pressure of obtaining the status she desired?  Surely she could not have misjudged the job.  She had been around the clan her whole life.  Granted, she came into the main family later in life when she married Reynor.   True, it was not a marriage of absolute love.  More a marriage of convenience but always rooted in respect.  She had lost her husband to stupidity, and he needed a competent woman to manage the home and kids.   A woman that understood the business he was involved in.  Jane and her family were never in the inner circle of the clan workings, but she did grow up around it.  Hell, her grandfather set up Gunnar Johnson with all his Asian contacts after World War Two.   Contacts that led to a sizable fortune during the rebuilding of Japan and China.  Sure it was Reynor that had her husband killed, but that was her husband’s fault.   Had he not played the family for fools, he would have been just fine and the Regulator wouldn’t have been needed.

From an early age, Jane had an overwhelming interest in the clan business.  She made no effort to hide this from Reynor.  He, in turn, let her inside.  Not fully inside but pretty close.  She was never in charge of anything, but she did befriend many in the middle and upper ranks.  Through these relationships, she developed a good working education of how the clan’s systems work.   The funny thing was that the closer she got the more confused she was about her husband’s role.  Frankly,  it didn’t seem like he did all that much.  Nor did he make a whole lot of important decisions.  He seemed to be very lackadaisical about, well, everything.  Never directly involved in any operations.  Never checking in to see how things were going.  He seemed just to let everyone do as they pleased.  She began to thank the gods for the lower ranking people they had.  They were the ones making it all happen.  They were the ones that got the work done and made the clan a force.

Axel constantly reminded her to pay close attention.  Reminding her that Reynor was doing more than he let on.  Reminder her to read between the lines.  He would say, “Listen and look.  You have a front row seat to the big show.”   She tried, but after a while, she directed her attention back to the lower ranks.   Reynor’s life was boring.  He spent most of the day having pointless meetings with people of no substance.  And the meditation.  Don’t get her started on the hours of sitting quietly and meditating.  No, in the lower ranks, this is where things were happening.  She figured this was giving her the best way to learn.

She saw his easy-going demeanor and lack of oversight to be his ultimate downfall.  Not seeing the assassination coming.  Three armed men easily stroll into his house, and he doesn’t get off one shot.  Jane had convinced herself long ago that she had a better handle on the family business and as soon as Axel and the Hansen family made their bid for a takeover, she would be running the show.   This she was sure of.  Hell, the fact that the ten-generation pact was coming to an end never even came up.  Reynor seemed to be oblivious to the ramifications of this.  They were going to lose a major partner that is the Hansen family.  For generations, the Hansens have wanted to break off and/or take over the clan.  But, he never once mentioned his plans to deal with it.  In fact, the one time it came up he just shrugged and said, “All will fall in place, as it should.”

“Really,” she thought.  “Just like that.”

Jane always knew Reynor had a heavy belief in the gods and all the mythology, but this was ridiculous.   But then again Reynor’s ways had always confused her.  He never seemed to stress out about anything.  Not even the disappearance of his daughter.  Jane had, for the most part, raised Sanna.   She was stunned when she ran off.  Reynor took the incident surprisingly well.  Saying that Sanna never belonged, to this world and that wherever she was and whatever she was doing it was on her terms.  That was good enough for him.

He was always a caring father, but for Jane’s taste, he let his kids run wild far too much.  Not like her boys.  She kept them under strict command, and they knew their places.  She made sure they grew up right and ready.  Ready to take over when they had their time.  She didn’t let them in on the whole assassination thing.  Or the bid to support Axel and the Hansens.  But, with Sanna gone and Bob being, well, Bob, she figured her sons would soon be in control no matter what.

Bob, she thought.   Just what was that wingnut up to,  she thought.  He always had a knack for disappearing at just the wrong time.  Very unpredictable he is.  She thought about the time when he was 12, and he talked a bunch of his friends in to leave school at lunch.  They took a bus up to Idaho Springs, just up I-70 into the mountains.  There they stopped at a convenience store, bought a bunch of junk food and headed off into the mountains.  Apparently, just before dark, they had found a cave and Bob thought it would be a fabulous idea to spend the night.  The other boys were not so keen on the idea, but Bob had made up his mind.  He was staying, and so, the other kids did too.  No sleeping bags, no water and a little bit of food.  Bob started a fire with a flint rock.  The other boys marveled at his skill in this.  He found a couple of tin cans and boiled some water from a nearby stream.   This too, the boys thought was pretty ingenious.  Heat, water, and food being secured, Bob figured all was perfect. Two boys started to cry when the sun went down.  This was odd to Bob.  Bob started to wonder aloud if they were in a bear’s cave.  This sent the scared boys over the edge.  They said they were going to walk out in the dark.  Bob convinced them they were safer in the cave next to the fire.  Later,  Bob said that besides the other boys being total wusses, it was a great adventure.

The next morning, they came down off the mountain and walked right into town.  Right up to a large group of Search and Rescue volunteers that had gathered in a parking lot by the trailhead.  Bob asked a guy what all the fuss was about.  The volunteer was checking over his pack and without looking at Bob just mentioned something about five boys being lost up in the mountains.  They were all getting ready to find them.    Then the guy looked up, saw the dirty, exhausted boys, knocked his head and asked, “You’re the kids, aren’t you?”

Bob just shrugged and said, “That all depends.”

The volunteer stood up and said,” Depends on what?”

“How much trouble those kids are in.”

But, before they could get away one of the crying boy’s mothers started screaming and running towards them.  The jig was up.  Needless to say, Bob was not allowed back at the school.

The strange part of it all was that Bob was never scared.  He didn’t make up any stories about what they did or why.  He told the story exactly how it all went down.  He admitted being the instigator and at the same time reveled in how much fun they had.  Well, he had.  Jane always found Bob a bit off, but this sealed the deal.  No normal kid is that honest and confident in his actions.   Her sons for sure were not this way.  They lied and schemed about everything.  She always had to keep an eye on them.  Bob was his own little island.  Other kids loved him and even looked up to him, but in some way, they all feared him too.  No one has ever gotten super- close to Bob.  That was the way of his upbringing and that is how he lives today.

Reynor thought the whole adventure was awesome.  He never let the other parents know that, but in private he laughed and told Bob sarcastically to stop fooling around.  Reynor knew Bob wanted to be off in the wild.  He loved the ranch in South Park.  So, he sent him up to live with the ranch hands.  He went to “school” in Fairplay and ran feral through the mountains.  He learned to survive for days on his own.  Hunting small game and fishing.  He would leave on Thursday afternoon with his backpack and return as late as the next Friday.   Carrying the bare essentials and a sleeping bag.  He would always talk about the great conversations he had with the deer, the squirrels, and the bears.  He was at home and he was training to be the Regulator.  Whether he knew it or not.

No, Reynor’s kids were not Jane’s, but they always treated her with respect.  This she loved and she even felt like they loved her back.   One thing that Jane could never figure out was why Reynor didn’t teach Bob the ways of managing the family.  Bob was always privy to the goings on and the details of things.  But, Reynor didn’t teach him the details of management.  He was the Regulator and that seemed to be where he was to remain.  She once asked when he would start training Bob.

Reynor replied in his whimsical way, “Bob will be just fine.  He knows all he needs to know.  When the time comes, the gods will favor him, and he will be a great clan leader.  Time is on his side.”

The wind blew with an extra bite.  Waking Jane from her thoughts and sending a shiver through her naked body.  A presence now filled the air.  A familiar feeling came over her, and an uneasiness worked its way through her bones. She knew what was in her midst, but she was not about to turn when she heard the shuffling behind her.  She was not going to look upon whatever it was that smelled of death.  She stood straight and stared up at the darkness between the stars.

A voice came,  slow and painful. “Is it all you wanted, Jane?  Is it the fulfillment you so desired?”

She still did not look upon the figure.  A presence she had hoped would never come. “I guess that all depends.”  She tried to hide the truths inside her, but her voice betrayed her.  She sounded weak.

The figure shuffled forward a few more steps. “You have done well my love, but your lack of imagination won’t let you see why.  Your mind stumbles in your aspiration.  Your sight sees only what your greed allows it to.  You can’t even see the reality of what you have made of me.”

Jane gripped the railing.  Something was being forced into her mind.  A notion was being heaped upon her.  “No!” she said in determination.  “This is not real.  It is just a dream, a nightmare.”  Her head began to pound. She lashed out, “You don’t belong here, Reynor.  You failed.  Your family is done because you failed to prepare your precious Bob.”

She was finding a bit of arrogance now.  She was feeling righteous.  Her voice rose a bit. “He will never take over this clan.  He is overwhelmed and as far as I can tell he has run away.  Just like his big sister.  They have abandoned you Reynor, just like you abandoned them.” She was breathing hard now. Taking in the cold night air and allowing herself a small victory.

A few more shuffles and she could hear the labored breath.  Her perfume would have filled his nose if he could have smelled.   Low and steady but somehow playful he said, “Yes, just like his sister.  The Regulator will do exactly what he was raised to do.  The gods are playing their game, and Bob is one of their favorite pieces.  He has his purpose.  Just like I had mine, you have yours, and the rest have theirs.  You can’t escape it, Jane.  It will all happen just the way it should.”  His voice told the story she didn’t want to hear.

Jane’s hands were turning white from gripping the railing.  She locked out her knees, and it was all she could do to stay standing. Tears rolled down her face.  She breathed in the rotting smell.  She screamed up into the night, “I am in control now!”

She slumped over the railing and Axel shot up in bed.   He saw Jane’s body slide off the railing to the deck.  Through the sheer curtains, he saw another figure, but it was starting to fade away.  Through the breeze came a whisper, “Look into the shadows and you will see.”

The figure disappeared into a fine mist that smelled like rot.  Axel ran to Jane.  She was trembling with sweat and mumbling something about finding Bob.  He asked her what she was talking about as he rocked her.

Jane stared blankly at the floor, “We have to find Bob before he finds us.  He knows, Axel. He knows.” Her voice trailed off.

Axel rocked her and held her close.  “He was just seen in South Park.  Heading south towards Monarch Pass.  I was going to tell you in the morning.”

She sat trembling in Alex’s arms as her mind raced.  Why had Reynor come to her?  Why had he given her this warning? Then another thing came to her. “Alex?”

“Yes, Jane.” His voice was smooth and calm.

“Why is Bob heading West?  Why is he heading away from Denver, away from the problems at hand?”

“I don’t know Jane.  Why does Bob do half the things he does?”  The man is an enigma.

“Do you have anyone you can trust, to take care of Bob?”  Jane’s voice was serious, but there was a hint of embarrassment in it.  The embarrassment of asking a question she full well knew the answer.

“Trust yes.  Capable, well, that is a whole other thing.  Are you asking if I know someone that can kill a ghost?  I will have to think on that one.”

“Well think fast and hard, because we need just such a person.”

The Grey

Note: For first-time visitors, this is a story in progress.  You are welcome to start reading this post, but to get the full aspect of the story you might want to go to the first post “In the End.”   Also, I suggest reading the Background page.  -Enjoy.

Say you’re a very powerful, wealthy and eccentric Yakuza crime boss.  You have spent a lifetime working your way up through the mayhem of a Japanese organized crime ring, and somehow you have stayed alive.   You run a tight ship and profitable business.  Life has become somewhat stable.  Well, as stable as one can be in your line of work.  You figure. It’s about time for a little self-gratification, so you build a house.  Not just any run-of-the-mill Japanese cramped traditional box.  It’s the house you always wanted.  Perched on, a steep, wooded hillside, overlooking the port city of Nagasaki and your empire.   The house is not overly expansive, but it’s large for Japan.  You have spent five years overseeing every detail.  You make sure the local officials have plenty of payoffs to leave you alone and bend a few zoning rules.   The foundation even comes reinforced with a few enemies.  Making sure every space has its signature style.   In the end, they come together to create a modern home that thoughtfully nods to tradition.

Your crowning detail is a perfectly placed alcove in the main hallway.  This alcove houses a ten-foot-tall by six-foot-wide megalith from the ruins of Gobekli Tepe.  Well, not an authentic stone from Gobekli Tepe, but an incredibly accurate hand-carved replica.  The stone is even sequestered from a quarry nearby the actual ruins.  The stone sculpture sits directly across from a floor-to-ceiling plate glass wall that is perfectly aligned to catch the rising sun of the winter solstice.   It is a stunning display, and its raw beauty leaves all visitors taken aback in awe.  Unfortunately, there is one person that is not in awe, and that person is you.  The person that has to look at it every day.  The person that designed and fretted over every small detail.  Why are you not in awe?  Because, in the end, it is just a silly replica set in a modern Japanese home.  You know this, and it eats away at you.  You want it all to be real.  You want it all to have a commanding aura of reverence and ancient power.  You want to fear it and you just don’t.  Day after day it mocks you with it’s “I’m just a fake” impartiality.  So, what are you to do?  Well, you hire the best people in the world at acquiring things that should not be acquired.  You hire Vikings.  What you do is, you contract out the Johnson Clan.

The Johnson Clan is a family business.  A business that deals in items no one else can or wants to.  Developed over many generations, they are a detailed web of operations and logistics.  An intricate network of people and systems that is simultaneously invisible and massively influential.  They can foxily pull strings from the shadows or stand right in the daylight barking out orders like a German Shepherd.

Separated into four major factions; the solvers, the carriers, the collectors, and the influencers.  These four factions worked in a synchronized concert to provide anyone with enough money, just about anything.  Pre Columbian-Jaguar Statue from Honduras? No problem.  List of active CIA agents in Croatia?  Give us a few days.  Or, a thirteen thousand-year-old, three-ton megalith from Turkey.  Although based in Colorado, they operate globally and across all levels of society.

For the better part of two years and a multitude of choreography, not to mention a boatload of money, the factions worked to secure the Yakuza Boss’s ancient artifact.  After being installed, it measured up to everything he hoped it would and even more.  He revered it.  He feared it.  He loved it.   But, there are consequences to displacing an ancient spiritual artifact.  You see, when you put something somewhere it doesn’t belong its spirit can get a bit annoyed.  We don’t know what these pieces represent or the powers they possess.  Within a year of the stone entering the house, things went terribly wrong for the Yakuza Boss and his family.  His wife had a miserable battle with ovarian cancer and died a horribly drawn out death.  Then his two daughters got run over by a bus.  His son had a motorcycle racing accident and became a quadriplegic.  The Boss soon succumbed to depression, tried to take his life the old-fashioned way, with a short sword to the belly.  That didn’t even go right.  He didn’t manage to hit the proper organs and suffered for many hours before his henchman found him in a pool of blood.  The man took pity on his boss and a shot him dead.  The Johnsons have seen their fair share of bad juju moving taboo articles.  That is why they adhere to the teachings of the old gods of Asgard and doing all they can to stay in their good graces.  This way they figure they have some back-up in the spiritual world.

How is it that the Johnsons became the world’s foremost experts in acquiring rare items?  Well, that should not be such a surprise; they are Vikings after all.  Their ancestors plundered and collected from all over the world.  From as far back as 600 AD, the Johnson Clan raided and plundered throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.  They were one of the first to invade the British Isles and beyond.  Columbus was a latecomer.  Some of the Clan made it to North America in the 810’s.   The problem was, there was way more land than riches at that time in northern Canada.  Getting land was not an issue back in the old country, but new sources of gold and silver were scarce.  Compared to their Norse brethren, the Johnson’s had a unique way of conquering.  They were apt to assimilate the new cultures they found and set up trade routes.   As a matter of fact the current spelling of thier name, “Johnson”, is a Scottish adaptation of the Danish “Jansen”.  Adopted to assimilate better into the Scottish culture.  Their end goal was not to just remove the wealth from a people but to use those people to generate steady gains.  Controlling the acquisition and flow of goods, including people, was far better than having to go looking for new stuff constantly. And, they knew that to work with a people was far better than just killing them all.  But, don’t think there wasn’t a lot of that, too.  A civil and righteous bunch, they were not. They did and always have conducted business with a brutal hand when needed.  From this heritage of conquering and trading grew an established structure of operation.  A structure that has slowly been woven right into the fabric of modern society as they moved from the British Isles to the new world and eventually the last frontier of the wild west.

All that historical structure and systems had Sanna pacing.  Mulling over all the moving parts and how they worked together.  Although it was all very robust, it was all super delicate as well.   Walking the covered porch, her boot heels thudded on the wooden deck.   She moved in a steady rhythm.  Consistent, regimented, and meditative.  Moving along the three sides of the mountain cabin.  From the view of the river to the lake to the West Elk range.  Sanna would pause, then turn and return in her path.  West Elks, lake, river.  River, lake, West Elks.  Her breath steady in time with her heels.  365 days a year, the only thing changing was her clothing with the seasons.  She walked to organize her overflowing mind.  She trained to empty it.  Using this lonely, secluded place to instill all the lessons in family, business, and war.

She needed to know the systems, the hierarchy, and the ways and means, inside out.   The deck and the walking were her way of methodically going over all the information.  Back and forth she walked and talked and cataloged.   Names, places, events, strategies, customers, allies and, of course, enemies.  No apparent shortage of enemies in this business.   Sometimes the amount of information was staggering and she often wondered just how her father kept it all together.  He did not seem to be the most diligent man.  Fact is, he came across as downright flighty and free-spirited.  From the outside you might take him for a fool, but this, Sanna came to know, was never the case.  Reynor knew and saw everything.  He was quick-witted and had a sixth sense about things and people.

Once, she observed him bait a cocky young Korean man into sharing way too much information.  This was done much to the man’s demise.  Reynor eased the man with pleasant compliments.  Subliminally dropping praise for the man’s business acumen in such an unassuming way it was like he never said it at all.   Stroking his ego and making him more comfortable than he should have been.  Sanna felt sorry for the man and the way he was being played.  It truely was like watching an artist.  Every word was spoken with perfect intent like the brush strokes of a famous painter.   Working from an abstract blank canvas and pulling out a masterpiece of scenic beauty. By the end of the conversation Reynor knew all the details of how the man’s uncle would be trying to double-cross him.   No shouting, no threats, no tough guy family machismo.  Just the subtle deception of a snake enticing a mouse out of its hole.  The poor man’s mind never had a chance nor did his head, literally.

Not Sanna.  She has the subtleness of a rhino.  More like Bridget, her mother.  Strong, earthbound and stubborn.  She could be persuasive, but usually, it came from sheer terror and intimidation.  She emits a hora of absolute force.  From her eyes to her walk and voice she projects pure power.  While her brother Bob can manipulate the shadows, Sanna is the shadows.   She lives in a tangible world of black and white.  She is upfront and sometimes very brutal.  Her father could navigate in a world of greys and weird angles.  Somehow, he saw clearly, even in the fog of confusion that often surrounded him.  He really was the perfect person to run this Clan.

Sanna’s boot heels came to a sudden stop.  The last thuds echoed off the cabin and melted into the pines.  Hood over her bowed head.  Hands tucked deep in the pocket of her sweatshirt. Sanna stood and watched her breath trail out in to the spring evening air. “The grey,” she thought to herself.

“I must find the grey,” she said out loud to no one.  Then she felt it.  A presence.

“Yes, that is exactly what you need to do,” said a familiar voice to her right and out by the lake edge.

Sanna turned to see the outline of a figure standing on a flat rock about thirty feet away.   A woman cloaked in a long duster coat.  A white well-worn cowgirl hat pulled tight to her eyes.  Sanna knew the voice and knew whom it belonged.  The figure was facing the lake.  Well, truthfully it is sort of a pond.  For some reason, the word pond didn’t seem to make it to Colorado.  Thus, every body of water bigger than a puddle is called a lake.  Sanna felt a calming inside, like Odin himself, had stopped by to banish all worry from the land.  Her body wanted to run off the porch to the woman, but her mind moved her slow and measured.  She could sense something heavy coming off the woman.   `With a mixed feeling of wanting and trepidation she approached the woman.  These conflicting feelings puzzled her.  It was her mother after all, and it was not completely out of the ordinary for her to visit her here.  But, something was telling her to give her mother space.  It was not an ominous feeling but a respectful one.

They stood in their spots for a few minutes, then Bridget said, “We used to stand here, right on this very rock.  Your father and I.  Stand right here watching the alpenglow as it is now.  We would talk of the gods and what they had in store for us.   Of the life, we would share and the adventures to be had.  He loved deeper than any man I ever knew or could hope to know.   He could love much better than me.  He was not afraid of love or connection.  He…we did everything we had to do to make sure you and Bob had the future you deserved.  It all came from a good place.  You do know that don’t you, Sanna?  Please tell me you understand the decisions we made.  On the other hand, who am I to say what you should or could feel or understand.  After all the deception and maneuvering.  I can’t blame you if you don’t.  Understand, that is.  We were young and we had family pride and honor weighing in our minds.   Maybe we didn’t do all right things, but we did it the best we knew how.  We did everything we did for what we hoped would make life better for the two of you.”

There was a silence like the silence before silence had a name.  A slight breeze rippled the lake and rattled the dry spring grass.  Bridget let her force field down.

Sanna didn’t move, but simply said, “Yeah, I know, mom.” She still didn’t move.

Bridget lowered her head and inspected the water lapping at the rocky shore. “I love that sound.  The small waves washing on the rocks.”

“It’s what I fall asleep to every night.  Well, that and the coyotes. Active bunch they are.”

Mother turned to face Sanna.  Their eyes met for a few seconds.  There were more words spoken in that moment than all the years that had come before.  They were just mother and daughter for those few seconds.  Seeing each other and understanding each other.

“You ready?”  Bridget asked.  “Are you truly, ready?”

“If I am not ready by now then may Thor strike me where I stand.”

Bridget covered the distance in what seemed like one fluid motion and embraced Sanna.  She whispered in her ear. “Time to find Bob.  Time to find death and bring it to the traders.  I have faith in you, darling.”

The words sank down Sanna’s spine and warmed her stomach like a late-night cup of tea.  With a frigid voice she whispered back to her mother, “Yes, it is time to find The Regulator.”  To herself, she thought, time to release the shadows and set our souls free.  She smiled and embraced her mother, tighter.

Ghosts

Note: For first-time visitors, this is a story in progress.  You are welcome to start reading this post, but to get the full aspect of the story you might want to go to the first post “In the End.”   Also, I suggest reading the Background page.  -Enjoy.

The Alter’s large wooden doors opened and the Regulator stepped free of the heavy air of the hall. He squinted his eyes against the afternoon sun as he put on his Oakleys.   He tilted his head back and spread his arms out wide to embrace the warmth of the sun-soaked spring afternoon.  He lowered his arms and thought “Toward the sun, the days and weeks ahead will lead me toward the sun.”  A small cloud passed overhead, blocking the warm rays for a minute and set a chill upon him. A reminder of the shadows that still lurk inside and all around him.  Shadows he will need to embrace, navigate and manipulate.  The shadows that will get him to the ends he seeks.  Satiated by his time with Nagli he now saw the present and the past for what he needed.  He could now set the future in motion.

The Regulator had grand plans in mind.  Grand plans indeed.  Plans that set him in a completely different place than he’d imagined possible.  Funny how the world can hand you opportunities that you yourself had no idea existed.   Emerging from the eather of life and the cosmos.  Opportunities are funny things.  Some pop up all obvious and easy like.  Some need to strangle you to near death to be noticed.  He was now breathing in the opportunities before him in long deep sustaining breaths.  Hope and light filled his thoughts.

He could smell the difference in the air.   The valley was free of its amber air distorted with the ghosts from the past.  Good forward thinking work was crawling in his mind.   Bob now realized he had been looking at his family from the wrong point of view.  Looking at it as something to be protected, honored and managed.  Bob now look at his family as a ticket to freeing his mind.  Freeing him from the discomfort of being himself.  His family will be his new source of freedom, rather than an oppressive obligation.  Bob loved his family, his clan, but his role had taken its toll on him.  He now understood a way to make all the worlds of Asgard align in his favor and he was going to will it into being. He just needed to locate a few people and hopefully have a few people locate him.  First off, it was time to find his sister, Sanna. Time to set things straight with her and get her on board.

“Thank you, Nagli,”  The Regulator said without looking at the sage.

“For what, exactly?”  The old man cleaned his glasses and looked down at the ground.  He had an air of disappointment about him. He said, “I have imparted on you the worst possible news and information one could have given.”

“Not the way I see it, old friend.”  The Regulator was stone-faced. “I see this all as an opportunity to be reborn.  True, it might kill me in the process but, better that, than living in the quagmire I call the present.”

“Well then, don’t let the door hit ya in the ass on the way out.” Nagli was suddenly very chipper.  He slapped Bob on the shoulder. “It is sad but all too true, that I hope I never talk to you again, Regulator Bob. At least not on this plane of consciousness.”

“Love you too, Nagli.”  The Regulator grabbed his weapons, stepped off the front porch and headed for the Subaru.  He turned to look over his shoulder and said, “Now don’t forget to tell those displaced spirits to get their asses back to Valhalla and take care of their side of this.”

Nagli shifted. “Ah yes, um, will do.” He smiled unconvincingly.

Bob knew he would never see this place again.  Or at least he hoped he wouldn’t.  The Alter was a piece of his past and if everything went right, it would stay that way.   He took a long look around before ducking into the car.  The shadow from the western ridge was creeping across the valley.  He fired up the engine.  Stabbing the gas pedal.  Whipped the car around on the gravel driveway.  Dust piled up from around the spinning tires into the clean air of the valley.  Letting up and counter turning, the Regulator straightened out the WRX and raced across the creek bridge, plunging directly towards the setting sun and the oncoming shadow.

Bob took one last look in the rearview mirror as he dropped down the gravel road.  Strange enough, the Alter was not visible where it should have sat in the meadow.  There was just an old dilapidated horse barn.  If you were a landscape photographer, it would be a perfectly iconic visual to represent a long-gone way of life.

The Regulator moved down the road pondering on the illusion of the Alter.   He thought hard about the days to come and the tasks at hand. Then he noticed it start.  It began as a slight tightening of his gut.  Then it would soon grow to a warm, comfortable easing of his spin. Eventually, the back of his head would tingle, like the feeling, you get when your standing in a dark basement and you feel you’re not all alone.   He called this “The Mood.”  It often came to him when he had to chain out the world and deepen his resolve.  When emotions needed to be set aside and details needed sorting out.  He could never quite explain what happened during The Mood.  He would become part of another place.  Well, not really a place- more like a state of being.  Another level of consciousness.    No words could paint the pictures that would splatter across his mind.  Taking place in the back of his mind as he rambled through the operations of life.  One side of his brain operating in the real world and the other caught up in his unfiltered self.

His closest friends could recognize the signs and they knew to back away.  They would leave him to his thoughts.  Nothing bad would come of his mood, but no one who knew him well enough wanted to be around and accidentally poke the hornet’s nest.   Best he was left alone to work out the demons that demanded his attention. The Regulator knew this as well and would typically excuse himself from whatever it was he was engaged with.  Or better yet he would avoid contact with people during stressful times.  Especially when a problem was to be solved.

Avoiding people, in general, was more the Regulator’s way.  Not that he didn’t like people.  On the contrary, he could be a very social person.  He enjoyed the company of other people.  He even had some very close friends.  None of them knew exactly what he did but neither did they want to.  They just went along with the programmer story and let it all be what it was.  The problem with socializing with most people lay in common ground.  Mainly in the fact that there wasn’t any.  Common ground that is.     After basic pleasantries, an impasse would form.   Really, how does one get chummy when most of your life is a secret?  He couldn’t very well  be honest about what he had been up to all day.

“So, how was your day?  Anything interesting happen?”

“Well, I strangled a man due to his poor debt management skills.  I hope his business partner has better luck. And oh yes! There was that unfortunate fellow who “fell” off the footbridge downtown into the Platte River.   Or should I say the rocks next to the river?  These things do happen I guess.   How about you?  Anything fun today in your world?”

No, it was best he stayed to himself.  Not a lot of people that could understand all this business.  Bob thought of his self-appointed seclusion for a minute.  Yes, he thought, best to keep most at a distance.  Especially right now.   But, there was that John, the preacher fellow.   That man had been at the back of his mind for the past few days. He seemed to gain The Regulator’s confidence right off the bat.  He was not altogether sure why that was.  Just that there was something more to the man.  More than simply another traveling preacher doing the Good Lord’s work.  John had a past.  A long and crooked past.  This Bob knew for sure and the Regulator wanted to know more about it.

The tingle at the back of his head had set in.  The timber gate at the end of the access road to the Alter was not in his rearview mirror.  The road ahead became a fog.

John would have to wait because the mood was strengthening.  The illusion of the valley, the meadow and the Alter sitting in his mind’s eye.   “Things are changing,” he muttered to himself and then he went deep.  Deep into his raw self.   The thoughts came like a sucking wind.

Reality has a way of folding itself to meet the minds eyes, doesn’t it?  Beyond the solid form of the planet is a never-ending sea of human tangibility.  A defective space, all exhausted with misperception and unseeable truths.  This hoodie, that coffee cup, my watch. They are all made-up things.  Man-made objects of illusion and self-made comfort.

Take time for instance.  Even that is man-made.  Before we constructed time how did we know when to do things?  How did we know when to be where?

I mean, if you told a friend “meet me by the large Oak tree later this morning,” how would he know when that was, exactly? Later this morning. You couldn’t very well say meet me around 10:15 AM.  10:15 AM hadn’t been invented yet! Maybe you could say, “Meet me when the sun is three fingers over the ridge.” But, is that measured by my skinny three fingers or his fat three fingers?  Or, is it three fingers by my arm’s length or his arm length? I have some long ass arms.  Well, for one thing, I am glad we now have time.  Much easier to gauge my life but it is an illusion.

I guess it’s all how we each see it and from what angle we stand.  “Reality” is just that.  An individual perception.  Made up by man.  Just like time.  But, I control my reality.  I control the illusion.  I can see beyond the illusion that makes others obey the laws of reality.

I am not a slave to the perceptions of others.  I will not see the world in their distorted and commonplace way. No! I create the world I want, and I control the rules of the game.  That is what they taught me.  The spirits.  Lejon and the sages.  They showed me how to play with the angles of things.  How to change them to my will.  That is why I am a ghost.  A shadow walker, a half-bread.  It’s because I view reality from an alternate dimension.  I make passageways out of solid walls.  I make innocence into a menace.  I can make the shadows into the light, and the light into dark.  I can make the dark even darker still.  Heavy as pitch.  Blinding, disorienting and wretched with death.  I can do this because I can see it and because I can see it I can navigate it.  Manipulate it. I can move through it in the middle of the day, right in front of your eyes.  Your reality-tinted mind could never imagine me there.  In the dark, during the day, right before your face. You will never know I am there because your eyes and your mind can’t imagine it so. 

You will never feel me, either.  Well, not unless I want you to.  Unless I need you to.  Then I can make you feel me. Make you feel like you need to move.  You won’t know why you want to stand by the window in the laundry room or sit in the corner chair, but you will do it.  Then you will feel me.  The true unmistakable reality of me.  The bullet, the knife, the melting dart of poison.  Those things will be a real, and no imagination or hope, or prayer can save you from that moment.  For a split second, I will be all you know, and I will know everything about you.  I will be the shepherd and you will be the lamb.  I create that reality and I will bring it upon you.

But, what happens next, after you cross.  Well, that belongs to you.  That is a place I cannot go.  That is a place no one sees and then returns.  Your reality has now altered to a new dimension.  This crossing will not take long.  After all, this is now my reality and I have limited time.  So, take solace in the fact that you will not know the Regulator for long.

I can see and sense the ones that have the shadow power.  There are not many and when you meet one you can see the broken light around them.  The skipping of the sun as they move like a prism.  Breaking the clean lines of reality and putting them back together at their will.  John can occupy the shadows.  I know this.  He is very good at hiding it, but I could see.  Or maybe he let me see.  Time will tell.

The sound of a honking horn brought Bob back from the mood.  He was driving down 285 towards Denver, weeping.   A car in front of him was honking at a land yacht whose driver figure 45-mph in a 65-mph zone would be more than ample to slow down the rest of the world to his retired, sightseeing speed.  He spun the car onto a dirt pull off, opened the door and puked.  The darkness had not taken him like that in a long time.  Every cell in his body was pulsing.  Reality would be watching him.  Play in the shadows as he sought out his next steps.

Charged with the calculated lust of revenge.   He would have to push hard on his ego.   Push it down to manage his resolve.  Now, was time for patience and deliberate thought.  He must not let the shadows overtake him.   Lead him charging into a battle best won by perfectly timed tactics. He must play all of them to his will.

The Girls

Note: For first-time visitors, this is a story in progress.  You are welcome to start reading this post, but to get the full aspect of the story you might want to go to the first post “In the End.”   Also, I suggest reading the Background page.  -Enjoy.

Legend has it that Gretchen the Broad was a fierce and mighty shield maiden. Feared across the old land for her obstinance and ruthless heart in the heat of battle.   She was not a sizable woman nor a ravaging beauty, but she did have a presence far beyond her years.  Like a berzerker, she fought in a trance-like state.  A swirling torrent of steel and wicked screams.  She could move like lightning and had the strength of an ox.  Gretchen was fiercely dedicated to her husband and the Johnson Clan.   A feared warrior himself, they made a formidable couple.  Why did they call her Gretchen the Broad?  Because of the large broadsword, she favored in battle.

Gretchen the Broad left the battlefield behind once she secured her husband in the Elder seat.  She took up ruling their lands with the same vigor she applied to war.  A more respected Elder Woman in the Johnson clan there was not.  One of her largest challenges was protecting their lands and people when her husband went a-Viking.   He would load up the majority of fighting men in the long boats and set out to raid in far-off lands. This could take him away for a season, a year, or even more.  The uncertainty was all part of the Norse life at the time.  How to keep the homesteads safe while the raiding party was gone became an obsession for Gretchen.  During a time of heightened conflicts between rival clans, her husband was planning on sailing farther west than ever before.  When or if they would return was anyone’s guess.   But, one thing was certain- they would leave, and the homelands would be unprotected.

One cold, early winter day Gretchen walked through her trading port village of Stroden.  The village was alive with markets and the bustling slave trade.   As she bargained for some venison a scream and a bustle down by the docks caught her attention.  A group of grubby young girls huddled about two other girls wrestling about the ground.  She walked up on the group, and upon seeing the Elder Woman, the girls parted and started to scurry away.

“Hold where you stand!” Gretchen’s firm voice sounded above the remaining shouts.  They all stopped in their tracks.

One of the two fighting girls stopped her struggle once she noticed Gretchen standing above them.  The other girl, much smaller, saw her opportunity and slugged the larger girl in the rib cage.  The larger girl dropped the half loaf of bread they were fighting over.  The smaller girl grabbed the bread and started to run.  Gretchen’s snake-like hand swung and caught the running girl across the side of her head.  The girl went to her knees, spun and raised her fists ready to take on her new attacker.  The girl showed no sign of backing down.  She was in a battle trance and she was ready to defend her self no matter the foe.

“Ah, you are a fierce one, aren’t’ you?” Gretchen spoke with an even tone. “Just remember that making battle for battle’s sake is a risky way to go through life, but I do understand your fury.  Go ahead.  Try and take me down.”  Gretchen’s eyes turned grey.

Gretchen’s tone and blank eyes eased the battle craze in the small girl.  Her eyes softened and she then realized her situation.  All eyes were on her.   All were shocked at the girl’s pugnacious behavior.  No one stands up to the Elder Woman.  Especially a worthless street girl.  Gretchen understood the intoxication of the battle trance.  How the brain switched over to a premortal place where survival and death become one.  Where killing your enemy is all that matters and your own personal safety is secondary.  She had spent a number of hours and even days under that trance.

“Who do you girls belong to?” Gretchen asked, but she knew the answer.  These girls were a result of a problem that Gretchen had long tried to solve.  These girls were the bastard children of the clansmen.  Daughters of whores and slaves.   Lost souls in their society.  Soon to become just as their mothers.

“We belong to no one and everyone, all at the same time.”  The small girl said with defiance and sadness, and then she began to cry.  Another side effect of the battle trance is the release of an emotional floodgate when all is done.  Gretchen had sat among many a dead man after a battle and wept.  Mainly because she was still alive and would have to fight again.   She loved the battle, but she despised it, all the same.   The death, the smell, the sounds and most of all, cheers.   Cheers, for what exactly?  The cheers escaped her better reasoning.  But, this was their way.

Somewhat stunned by the thoughtful response, she softly nodded. “Yes, that is right.”  She slowly turned, looking into all the eyes of the surrounding girls. “For those of you that want to belong to something?  If you want to belong to yourselves?  You will meet me by the stable barns tomorrow at dawn.  Tell all the damned girls of the clan that if they want to be the saviors of this village, then they should come.”

Turning to leave a small voice asked. “If you don’t mind me asking, what will we be doing at the stables ma’am?”

Gretchen strode away and with a coldness, in her voice, she said, “You will become everything and nothing at all.”

They moved slowly out of the cold, early morning mist.  Not a word was spoken between them as they walked towards the lone figure standing in the middle of the riding paddock.   Gretchen was dressed in her leather armor with a broadsword hanging by her side and a battle ax strapped to her back.  A count of 12 girls stood around her in a semi-circle.  More than Gretchen had thought would come.  This was a good start and it made her think that this idea just might work.  The girls fidgeted as Gretchen sized them up.  She figured they ranged from ages 10 to 18.  The small girl from the previous, day’s fight was there and standing the closest to Gretchen.

Taking a deep breath, she began to speak in a regimented cadence, “If you so choose you will be given a great opportunity upon this early morning.”  If you stay, you will be part of something never done before.   It will not be easy, nor will it be fun, but I promise it will be fulfilling.  You will work harder than you have ever thought possible.  You will be pushed well beyond the ends of your strength and mental capabilities. But!” She paused and looked at each one in the eye. “You will do it all together.  In the end, you will belong to a unit bound in honor and blood.  Who of you that stand here today want to be part of something?  Who of you want to belong?  Who of you will sacrifice to be something more?”  She turned her gaze skyward.  They were unsure, so Gretchen gave them a cue. “Step forward or walk away.”

They all stepped forward.  Some more eager than others but they all stepped forward.  Gretchen was pleased and she nodded to her left.  Two more women dressed in leather armor joined her side.  Gretchen opened her arms and said to the women, “Kelda, Petrin.  Here are our warriors.  Here are our protectors.   We will train them as we see fit in the arts of war and death.”  The girls then looked at one another in confusion.

“We are to be warriors?” a small voice asked.

“Yes, and not just any warriors.  You will be charged with the protection of our lands while the men are gone a-Viking.”

“But we are just girls,” another shaking voice called out.

“How old are you?” Gretchen asked

“Fifteen, I think.”

“I was in my first shield wall at fourteen.  I killed four men that day. Or so they say.  I don’t remember much of it.  So, no you are not too young and you are not just girls.”

The small girl spoke up clear and loud. “Will we carry swords and wear armor such as you?”

“You will not just carry them, my girl, you will wield them, and you will be cunning, swift and deadly.”  Gretchen’s voice was cold and her eyes turned from green to grey.

The girls all sealed their oaths with a bloody fingerprint on parchment.  Their training had begun.  They started each day at dawn with a run to the top of the sea cliffs.  This was followed by weapons training until mid-morning.  Then they were sent home to tend to their family’s needs.   That is, for the ones that had families.  The orphans worked at the stables.  At mid-afternoon, a bell was rung to call them back to the training grounds.  The first part of the afternoon was spent studying the tactics of warfare.  Then they finished up the day with hand to hand combat.  Dinner was eaten together in a small barn behind the stables where a makeshift bunk room was fashioned.   After dinner, they worked on their writing and reading.  This was extremely odd for the time.   Very few people in the northlands knew how to read and write.  Some thought it to be the works of the evil gods.  Gretchen had learned how and now she was teaching the girls.

The girls were now a part of the Elder Family guard.  They lived together as a unit in the bunkhouse.  Their real family was now the unit. Gretchen had named them the Girls of Ritualistic Learning Skills.  Most everyone referred to them as simply “The Girls.”  More joined their ranks until finally the door was closed at 30.  Gretchen and her family could not support anymore.  Nor could they train anymore before the spring when the time would come for the men to leave.  The time when they would be the force protecting the Johnson lands.

Olson Iron Wolf, Gretchen’s husband, was skeptical of his wife’s plan but he trusted her to know the way.  She had stood by him for many a year and always seemed to have the right mind for strategy.  Plus, he knew there was no changing her mind once it was set upon something.

One day, about two months into their training, Olson decided to stop in.  Until now he had been busy traveling the towns to garner support for the spring voyage and secure ships.   He and a few of his soldiers came during the hand to hand combat session.  What he saw impressed him.  Standing next to Gretchen he said, “You have done well my wife, but have they trained against anyone but themselves?”

Gretchen didn’t stop watching the girls train. “Not as of yet, my husband.  It seems the men find it below them to fight with a girl.  I figure it is fear that keeps them away.”  A bit of sarcasm in her tone.

Olson nodded and then pointed to a tall, agile girl who had just taken down her opponent in quick form. “You!  Yes, you with the ratty yellow hair.  Come here.!”

The girl quickly made her way, standing tall in front of the Elder. “You are quick.  Do you think you can outmaneuver an experienced warrior?”  Olson looked to his left. “Like this strong young fellow here.”

The girl looked sideways at the man standing next to Olson with suspecting eyes.  The rest of the girls had stopped fighting and were now watching the interaction between their fellow warrior and Olson.  The young soldier just smirked as he looked over the tall, lanky girl.

“Will he be fighting with that silly looking grin on his face?  I don’t know if I could stop laughing long enough to hit him.” the girl said.

The young soldier’s expression quickly changed to a scowl.

“Well, then!” Olson said with an amused tone. “Let us see what you can do.”

Confident, Gretchen gave her young warrior a slight nod and motioned for her to step into the middle of the training grounds.  Aloof and quite confident in himself, the young man strode in behind.   Lista, the girl, took her ready stance.  Trevor, the soldier, stood straight with arms crossed as if just an observer.  He was a strong man with true battle experience and was by no means a pushover.  Lista would truly be lucky to land but one blow.

Lista moved first, coming in low and quick.  She moved before Trevor thought the fight had started.  Grabbing his left leg in a bear hug and leveraging upwards, Trevor was lifted and slammed back on the hard dirt before he could even get his hands out to break the fall.  Lista rolled over her right shoulder and was now kneeling behind Trevor ready to land a blow down on his exposed face.  A veteran fighter, it took but a few seconds for Trevor to gain his thoughts.  Before her fist could connect he rolled to his right and stood facing Lista in a ready position.  She pulled back her swing at the now empty space on the ground and sprung to her feet.  They circled while sizing each other up.

Trevor figured he would just overpower her with a sudden rush, but Lista was too quick and jumped back and to the side.  She landed a blow to the back of his head as he passed.  Trevor pulled up, turned with a smile. “Is that the best you can muster?  I have had flies run into me with more force.”

Lista narrowed her eyes and came at him fast and high.  Feigning with a wild left hook she moved her right hand up for an uppercut.  Trevor grabbed her left arm and fell back.   Pulling away from the right fist of Lista and launching her over his body to slam on the ground behind them.  Lista rebounded off the ground pulling herself back towards Trevor and landed her right leg on his chest.  This released Trevor’s grip on her arm and the two jumped back to facing each other once again.  Trevor was getting angry.  He should easily be able to take this girl down.  He had underestimated her.  Some snickers came from his fellow soldiers.  A few even offering to lend him a hand.

Lista tried to go low again, but Trevor saw it coming.  He jumped back and landed a solid blow to the back of Lista’s head.  She sprawled out flat and before she knew it, Trevor was sitting on her back and holding her face to the dirt.  Lista was not happy by this turn of events and she struggled to try and get free.   The more she struggled, the more pressure Trevor put on the back of her head.   With a mouth full of dirt she started to settle down.

Trevor leaned over and said, “Your eyes give you away.  Don’t look where you are going to attack.  Attack where your mind’s eye wants to attack.”

Olson spoke up, “Enough.”  Trevor released the girl and they both stood to face their Elders. “Nicely done.  You have a ways to go before you become a formidable warrior but I see the promise in you.  If you all have come this far in such a short time, I believe you will be very useful.”

Gretchen looked hard at Lista.  Lista quickly thanked her Elder for the compliment.

Olson then looked at Trevor. “You have given good advice Trevor.  You will now be one of their trainers.  Choose three of your fellow warriors and have them train with the girls every day.  If you are all to fight against and among men you’d better start training with them.”

Trevor was not happy about this new arrangement, but he was not about to challenge his Elder when a raiding voyage was so close at hand.   The last thing he wanted was to be relegated to rowing for four months. Gretchen was pleased with the outcome.  This brought legitimacy to her experiment.  She also knew Olson was right.  Without practical training with real warriors, her girls would not stand a chance against a raiding party from another clan.

That early summer Olson had gone a-Viking and had taken a larger sum of men for the long voyage.  The village of Stroden was seemingly left woefully unprotected.  A younger leader of a small clan, keen on gaining some respect and attention, decided he would take advantage of this situation.  His band of thirty or so men easily entered the village and quickly made their way to the elders great hall.   They figured this might be the easiest plunder they ever earned.  Yet, upon approaching the hall there stood a small band of fifteen young women in full battle gear.   At first, the raiders were a bit confused as to what they were seeing.  A girl stepped forward and warned them to leave in peace or pay for their treachery in blood.  At this, the men laughed loudly.

The young, upstart leader leveled his sword at the girls, “So, the mighty Olson Iron Wolf leaves the protection of his lands to a group of sniveling little bitches.  You girls! Move aside, or you will be cut down or worse- we will take you as whores and slaves.”

Instead of moving aside, the girls formed a shield wall and began a slow advance on the men.  Outnumbering the girls two to one the men let them come.  The laughter got louder as they slowly moved forward.  Thirty feet.  Twenty feet.

Ten feet away a piercing scream rose up from behind the shield wall as the two girls in the center parted.  Before the men knew it, Gretchen was through the gap with her broadsword arcing down on a large bear of a man.  Her sword landed at the base of the man’s neck.  Half cutting off his head.   He stood for a moment with a stunned look in his eye, then fell to the ground.   The laughter stopped and confusion set in.  A hail of spears rained down on the men and many dropped.  Some were lucky enough to get their shields up in time.   The other fifteen girls had snuck out of the great hall with Gretchen during the distraction of forming the shield wall.  The men now faced even odds.

Then came the rush of screams, battle axes, and short swords.  Moving with alarming speed and agility the girls cut down man after man and within minutes the band of raiders had been halved.  The remaining men turned and ran. If they were fast enough, they escaped, but most were run down and killed.  All of The Girls survived but a few cuts and scrapes.

Gretchen pinned down the young clan leader.  Swordpoint to his throat, he was stripped of his weapons and valuables.  He was told he would be set free to spread the word.  If any other clans want to sack the lands of Stroden, The Girls of the Johnson Clan will show no mercy upon their enemies.  Their lands and families will always be protected.  Thus the Girls of Ritual Learning Skills (GRLS) was ingrained into the Johnson clan.

Nowadays The Girl’s ranks are filled with both legitimate and illegitimate daughters of the Clan.  The sages read the girls’ futures when they are very young.  They are chosen in this way.  Not a perfect system but a necessary one.  After all, in any large organization, there are certain practices that although they are not endearing, they are enduring.

The 5,000-acre Lazy J ranch looks like any other northwestern Colorado cattle ranch.  A rolling mixture of sagebrush,  hay fields, small canyons, and willow stands.  Nothing stands out and that is just the way it should be.  Here The Girls live and hone their skills until they are set out in the world.  The Girls represent an elite covert force used as special operatives across all facets of the clan organization.   Not just inside the clan, they keep positions in many local, state and federal governments as well as other crime syndicate organizations.   A few have even been installed inside the CIA, FBI and similar organizations around the world.  Others are used as simple muscle or mercenaries.  The Girls all have specified skills and they are always applied to a useful end.

They are not just trained in covert military operations.  They are taught languages, history, politics, social etiquette, multiculturalism, espionage,  survival skills and many other trades of the world.  When graduated, these girls could get dropped in a jungle and fight their way through a horde of tribal warriors or dazzle an Arabian prince at a debutante ball in Morocco.

Let’s be fully clear, the GRLS is not a fun time and is very much a one-way program.  Once you are in you, do not come out.  At least not alive.  Once a Girl always a Girl.  If one was to try and leave they are never seen or heard from again.   The Clan could not risk a bad apple spoiling the heretical bunch.  To this day only one has ever left and stayed alive.  She was a very strong girl from the highest Clan family.  Very smart, very strong and very brutal.  Some of her classmates said she was not fully human.  They would say, only a half-bread could move as she did and think as fast too.   A half-bread was the offspring of the gods.  It is believed that the gods have visited earth and bear children with us humans.  Favored by Odin, she was not just a great warrior but a great leader as well.  But, this young woman did not want to be at the Lazy J ranch.  She knew she was meant for more than just serving the Clan.  She was going to run it and that she could not do from the confines of the ranch or the simple ranks of the clan on the outside.  So, she trained and bided her time.

On her 18th birthday, just eight months from graduation, she left the ranch and was never seen again.  Her classmates say that as they celebrated her birthday, she just stepped back into the shadows and was gone.   No sound, no light or footsteps to trace.  Some say that Odin himself must have taken her back to Asgard.  Taken her back to her true home.  Others say she was just a foolish, spoiled elders’ daughter who wanted her way or no other.

The truth of the matter is only two people knew what happened to her.  Bridget and Reynor.  They created the shadows for Sanna to disappear into and live among.  A place where she could learn the detailed operations of the Clan with no distractions and in secret.   Where she could work directly towards what she always knew was her rightful place.   The hardest part was leaving her baby brother behind.  But, she always knew that someday she would see him again and now and then she would visit him in the shadows. Staying just out of sight but close enough to let him know she was there.  Somewhere close.

Siblings

Note: For first-time visitors, this is a story in progress.  You are welcome to start reading this post, but to get the full aspect of the story you might want to go to the first post “In the End.”   Also, I suggest reading the Background page.  -Enjoy.

“Lejon! She was there!  My sister, Sanna, she was there and …….she could see me.”  His voice trailed off as he closed his eyes and locked the vision of her in his mind.  Lejon and The Regulator were back on the sandstone cliff, overlooking the Colorado River.  The sun was setting and the air was starting to lose its comfort.  The desert is very quiet and altogether alive at sunset.  In the animal kingdom, it is the changing of the guard.  Some will be calling it a day and other will be stalking out to own the night.  Only a few occupy both worlds.  They both stood watching to the west.

“She has come back, Bob.  But then again she never really left, did she?” Lejon said with a calm notification in his voice. “You have felt her.  Have you not?”

“I have always felt her.  Somewhere close but somehow just out of reach.  I just accepted that she wanted it that way.  She liked it there.  Somewhere on the periphery.”

“Sanna was trained to live in the shadows.  She was born for it.  Even better than you.”  There was a satisfied snicker in the lion’s tone. “But soon the shadows will give way to a blinding light.”

“She said I would not go through this alone.  Do you think she will return to the family? To the clan?  I mean, she made her decision so long ago, knowing the possibility of coming back would be extremely limited.  She knew the consequences.”  He paused for a second and then thought about something the lion had said. “Blinding light?”  What do you mean?”

“Sanna is the one truth in all this, Regulator.  She is the one person that can guide you the most in your quest.”

“Quest?  What quest?! I don’t have a quest.  I have a job.  I have a duty to fulfill.  To my family, to my father, to the Clan.   Maybe to the gods, if they even exist. Let ‘s face it, Lejon, I took the easy way.  I chose to follow the path my family laid out for me.  Granted, I have a gift for it, but we both know I don’t have the constitution for it.”

The lion nodded his head in agreement.  He knew he could not argue with Bob on this point.  Bob did not have an empty, mindless heart.   He was not a robot to be turned on and kill at the drop of a hat for any reason.  He was a self-preservationist and driven by family honor and duty.  In the end, he did love his family above all else, but there was another side to him that looked farther out into the world.  A part that wanted to live peacefully among the masses.  Just another Joe going about his life.

Bob continued, “I pray before every kill that the gods will take me away.  That the sickness in my stomach will prevent me from moving forward.  That I can’t walk that final mile.   Somehow, I always overcome and follow through.   Driven by something only the gods could explain.  I do my job.”  He conjured up the image of his sister again, “But she somehow refused.  She chose to choose better.  She chose for herself.  I know a lot of people found it selfish, but I always found it to be courageous.  She wouldn’t be forced to live as the elders, and the sages had deemed.  She took their teachings and her given skills and disappeared.  But yes, I always knew she was close.  Many others knew she was still around, but no one could verify it.  Even my father knew, but I don’t think he ever really looked.”

Bob was standing, facing the last of the day’s sun as it poured needles into his eyes.  He reached down and grabbed a small handful of sand.  He put some in his mouth.  The grit of the earth on his teeth and tongue reminded him from where he came.  He was of the earth and would one day return there.  He was but borrowed energy that would someday need to be returned.  To feed future generations.  In this sense he was immortal.  One of a few old myths he believed.

Lejon turned from the sun and greeted the full moon rising in the east. “Did you see the faces you needed to see?  Did you see the reasons for your quest?  There are jealous and greedy minds working to empty the house of Johnson.   Yes, you have a duty to your father to justify his death with yet more death, but this is just the surface of things.  The real challenge is in determining the future of the family.  You and Sanna will redefine the ways of the clan.  You will do this, or you will turn back to the earth.  I am sorry Bob, but these are the only paths you are now given.”

Regulator Bob didn’t turn to watch the moon rise.  He wanted to see the last rays of sun pull back over the horizon.  He wanted to feel the cooling western breeze push through his linen clothes.  The night could wait a few more minutes.  Soon he shifted to face south and turned his head side to side.  Setting sun, rising moon.  Cycles of days and nights came into his imagination.  Cycles of moons, of seasons and years.  Cycles of lives and deaths and of traditions lost and gained.  He felt the power of the in-between start to fill him up.  The power of not belonging to just one world.  The power of being seen and of not being seen.  A creature in the shadows left without true connection.  The full moon was his confidant.  Reflecting just enough light to see his prey but providing adequate dark to hide his will.  He could feel a new time coming for him.  A time to leave the shadow world behind.  A time to chase down the sun. He turned his back to the moon and started walking. Walking to the west.  Moving toward the sun.

The Regulator woke in a dark room.   Not pitch black like his collapsing stone cell.  The dark was escaping under the door and in its place came a dull glow.  He was lying in the bed he had fallen on after the old sage gave him a glass of water.  The room was full of a familiar mix of smells including wood fire and old dust.  He was back at the Altar.   He sat up to find his head throbbing and Nagli sitting upright in a chair across the small room.  Nagli’s eyes were closed and he breathed deeply and soundly.

Cupping his head in his hands, Bob exclaimed, “Can’t you give a guy a warning before you drug him up with that spirit water shit?”  The sage did not move.

Bob looked up.”Hey!  Wake up, old man.”

Nagli jumped awake and looked hurriedly around then slumped down in his chair. “Dammit, Regulator, I hadn’t finished my conversation with Lejon!”

“I believe the old lion has said enough for the next 20 years.  Why were you to talk to my spiritual guider?”

“I just needed to collect some intel, or may it be rumors from the other side.  I wanted to know what the talk was about this disturbance in Valhalla.   Although I understand rules have been broken and disrespect has been portrayed, the ostracizing of so many spirits from the other side to this realm is unprecedented.” Nagli stared off into the corner to the room where the light had slowed and the darkness eddied.

The Regulator sat watching the sage closely, “I have not seen you this quiet in all my years.  This truely is weighing on you.   For all our sakes I hope you figure it out.  I for one have my marching orders.  It seems I will need to be productive over the next few days. .”

“Productive indeed.” The sage nodded but did not take his eyes off the corner of the room.

The Regulator looked from Nagli to the corner and back again, hesitated and said, “Well, nice seeing you again, Nagli.  I wish you the best in solving all this.  I will be on my way after a true glass of water, perhaps?”  He was trying to pull the sage from his contemplation.

Without moving an eye, Nagli said. “You have much more to do with the state of the spirit world than you will ever know and I have nothing to solve.  You on the other hand, or to be more precise, you and your sister have many things to solve.”

The Regulator took in a deep breath and sighed. ” Ya know what?  Just once I would love for one of you spirit people or spirit animals or whatever you are to talk in plain terms and not riddles.   Just come up to me and say, ‘Guess what? Since X, Y and Z happened, so A, B and C now have to happen.’  Understand?  Great! Now get on with it.”

“OK then.”  The sage finally dropped his gaze from the corner to the Regulator.  Eyes that were open to a vortex of ageless wisdom bore into Bob.  For a second he wished he had not taken a harsh tone with the good old man.  Nagli took in a deep breath, leveled his voice and the words starting falling from his mouth.  “Your father’s death was a result of a generations-old family battle.  A battle birthed by greed and ego and discontent.   The Johnsons have held sway over the clans for many generations now.  Hundreds of years!  They have ruled through both hard times and good times and all times in between.  This rule has fostered both friends and enemies and many times these two are one in the same.  There have been many alliances made and broken.  Some alliances have been purely out of necessity.   Let me reiterate that.  When dealing in the human psyche, the majority of alliances are made out of necessity.   Alliances are fickle things but mostly far from fair and balanced.  One party typically has the upper hand.  Even if it is 51% to 49% someone is a loser and someone is the winner.  A very long time ago an alliance was made between the Johnson and Hansen families.   This alliance was forged in a time of duress for the Hansens.”

Bod had heard a bit about the pact made long ago in the old land.  He believed it was in his great-great- great-grandfather that brokered the deal.  It is one of the most fabled family alliances.  Never to be broken.  Or so Bob was told.  The length and the loyalty of this family alliance are the reasons why Bob was surprised to find that Axel Hansen was involved in anything to do in his father’s death.

The wise old man kept the facts of the matter coming.  Bob sat and remembered that this was exactly what he asked for. “The eldest Hansen at the time, Thronen, had been an ego-driven and hard-headed man with a severe lack in the critical thinking department.  He had gotten himself in trouble with the clan elder.  Apparently, he had done some freelance raiding along the cost of what was then Saxony.  He was a formidable warrior and not a horrible slave trader.  But like I said he was not overly smart and not one to think through all the details.  The elder found out about the raiding and was not all too happy about not getting his fair share.  After all, Thronen was under the clan protection of the elder.  Without the elder, he would not have ships to sail or land to sail from.  Realizing his fate, death, for his treason he brokered a deal with Lars Johnson.  Thronen pledged that the Hansen family would support and side with the Johnsons in any business or warrior matters for next ten generations.”  Bob was trying to figure out how many “greats” that would be in front of the “grandfather”. “The Johnsons at the time were already a formidable family with much land and many feared warriors.   They held a lofty position but Lars wanted full control of the Clan and the elder and his kin were not fully Lars’ kind of people.  He saw the elders family as weak and feared that another clan would seek to take advantage of it.  Lars saw Thronen’s plight as opportunity knocking.  He never expected the pledge would be fulfilled past one generation much less last the full 10.  Just for good measure, he made Thronen promise that the death of all the eldest sons would be punishment for any breaking of the alliance.  He also required that it be bonded in writing.  Not the common method of the day.  There were few that could write and just as many that could read.  Nevertheless they found a scribe and the Johnson – Hansen alliance was forged, written down and family stamps applied.  Now, like I said no one expected this to last much longer past the Johnson family obtaining the elder rule, but your family has two enduring traits.  They are studious record keepers and vicious constables of the law.  So, to save his worthless hide, Thronen sold his family into ten generations of servitude to the Johnson’s and the Johnson’s have quietly held the alliance over the Hansens.”

The Regulator, now seeing where this soliloquy was headed, chimed in, “Let me guess.  Time is up and I am the 11th generation.  This is why my father was always going on about how the times are changing.  He wasn’t some old guy pining for the past but a father trying to navigate and warn his son of a shift in the family’s business.  A threat to his and his family’s way of life was coming and I am guessing he was not too sure how to manage it.”

Nagli’s eyes squinted. “Oh, he knew how to manage it, but his fortitude to do what needed to be done was not in your father’s skill set.  Your father had a very strategical mind but not a vicious one.   He knew that to keep the position of the family in the years to come.  The years outside the alliance.  He would have to rule with a certain amount of brutality as well as with brains.  He was not comfortable with this.”

The Regulator thought for a second in silence.  A few pieces on the chessboard in his brain lit up and things got a bit more clear.    A flat voice fell out of him, “He meant to die.  He knew what was coming and he let it.”  He sat in silence a second longer and the sage watched the gears turn. ” Well don’t that just suck balls.  What a puss.”  Bob was not apt to let his emotions come out, but now he was just pissed.  He sat with nothing more to say and the silence beat in his ears.  But now more pieces and moves started to present themselves.  “No!”  The Regulator switched his tone, “He was not running away.  He was leading me forward.  Damn the gods, he was smart.  Hell, even in his death he is smarter than most of us.  Axel Hansen and Jane thought that they were striking early to cause disruption and a power gap.  They thought he needed time.  Time to train me.  To bring me up to speed on the changes to come.  He made sure they knew my ignorance of the new family order.  Then he let me be a shadow of death.  He let me perfect my skills.  He let me be a decoy.  All the while training another to take control and run this beast of a business.  The one person with the brutal skills to take on the new order.  Sanna.  That is why she said I would not go through this alone.”  The Regulator sat with understanding and admiration welling up in his heart.  What he thought was a fragmented family unit was Reynor playing the long game.  It all started back when his mother left.  The family had always been together, just working from obtuse angles.  Just like Reynor liked it.  The Regulator liked this, and he smiled a mischievous smile.  “But, I have one important question.”

Nagli cocked his head, “Just one?” he said with cool amusement.

“Yeah.  What’s the deal with all the misplaced spirits and what does that have to do with all the shit going on in this realm?

“Ah, well how much time do you have?  Do you want the short or long of it?” Nagli smiled broadly.

The Regulator laughed a bit and said, “Bring it, old man.  the more I know, the better…..”