Jane’s oldest son, Todd, stood in the middle of the rooftop deck, slowly turning and surveying the surrounding landscape. He barely took notice of his long blond hair dancing around his face in the wind, as troubling thoughts bounced through his head. How did his mother get them into this? How was it that he could have been so stupid to trust Jane blindly? How was he going to live with himself after this was all done? Better yet, how was he going to stay living? How are the Johnsons going to come? Did he even care?
Todd was an exceptional warrior. A savant in Brazilian Jujitsu and other martial arts, he could have gone professional as an MMA fighter. Standing well over six foot tall and weighing 210 pounds, he was an imposing figure. He had worked his way into being a crucial player in the security details for the clan. Todd had a way of sensing when things were not right. The Regulator had often complimented him on his intuition. His only problem was that he had a bad habit of thinking all conflict could be resolved with a solid beat- down. Psychological or mental acuity escape him. He was too quick to action, often putting him at odds with The Regulator, who preferred to be a ghost and use his enemies’ psychosis against them. Right now he was trying to think a little bit before acting. Standing on the rooftop, he was digging into the intuition that had him sensing something wrong. Something he had been feeling for the past few months, and this feeling had been very strong around his mother.
His problem was that, like all good warriors, Todd was vehemently loyal. The problem at the moment was to whom he should be loyal. Standing on that deck above Axel’s compound, he was struggling to come to terms with the current situation he had been forced in to. On the one hand, he had Jane, his mother, who he loved but who had also betrayed the clan. The clan he had happily sworn an oath to, and that was run by his stepfather. The man that took them in after his own ignorant father got himself killed. Yeah, Reynor was the one that had his father killed but, that was all just business. The respect he had for Reynor generated a fierce loyalty to the clan. Was his dedication to his blood family more important than the loyalty to the clan? Finding out that Jane had planned this for quite some time, most of his life, also rubbed him the wrong way. He felt he had just been some pawn in his mother’s game of revenge. Yes, Jane, wanted the best for her sons, but at what cost? He didn’t even want to think about Axel. How could one betray his life- long friend like that? This part grated at his conscience almost more than his issues with Jane.
All this ran through his head while he took in every nook and cranny around the compound. There were the main house, the barn, and two small cabins residing inside the eight-foot steel perimeter fence. The barn had a large pergola/watchtower. To the east and west were steep hillsides pushing up from the small valley floor. A hundred yards of open sagebrush lay between the start of the hills and the fence. To the north, the valley came to an abrupt end in a sheer cliff wall of one hundred feet or so. To the south lay the San Luis Valley and the way in or out of the compound- a fully exposed, rough, dirt road leading to the only Gate.
Nobody is coming in that way. At least not without an army, he thought to himself. He was turning another 180 degrees. The cliffs, that is what I would do. Come down the cliffs, then stay low in the dry creek bed. Truth be told, he didn’t see any good way of getting in or out of the compound without being seen. Nothing but low sage and grass surrounded them. He had to admit that Axel was right to feel comfortable in his home. But still, Todd felt like they were sitting ducks for the Johnsons. The gods favored the bold. They would want us to go out and challenge the enemy. Run them down and kill them out on the battlefield. Not hiding behind fences and locked doors, waiting to be overtaken by the shadows. Maybe he was thinking too boldly, too old-school. Either way, he had made up his mind. He was not going to wait around inside this death camp; he was going to go out and hunt. At least that way the gods might look upon him with favor when The Regulator cut him down.
As Todd turned to descend the stairs, his younger brother Jason was coming up. He looked as if he had just pulled an all-nighter trying to reach the top level of some video game. This was not far from the truth. His dress shirt was halfway untucked with the sleeves rolled up. Khaki pants hung from his hips, a size too big. His black hair was a mess. He squinted at the sun like a bear coming out of his cave. Searching through his pockets, he produced a pair of wayferer sunglasses, cleaned them off and slid them on. Jason pointed his pale face to the sun-filled sky, took a deep breath, smiled. He then nodded to his brother, looking quite satisfied with himself.
“Been up most of the night again?” asked Todd.
Jason shrugged. “Do most of my best work during the night. When it quiets down around here.”
Jason had been up dialing in the security system around the property, linking sensors, lights, and cameras. Setting up remote controlled guns that a team of well-hidden operators could fire from a safe room in the house. Technology was Jason’s passion. He was not an imposing person like his brother, but he was smart. Like, genius smart. Well, more like awarded -engineer smart. He had almost no ability to converse in the real world with real people, but he could program and manage massive data systems. He could also hack just about anything. He had actually broken into the clans digital platforms just a few years back, mainly to show Reynor how feeble the cyber protection was for the Family business. But also to show everyone that strength and physical skill were not the future of the clan. Not in the new world of technology. The future lay in cyber warfare and informaton -gathering. Reynor understood this and he put Jason to work, first securing their files, then stealing information they would need.
Managing and securing the clan’s massive library of files and information was a major undertaking. But, as always, the Johnsons had prided themselves on good record- keeping. That is why the multi-generational pact between the Hansens and them had held for so long. Everything was kept recorded and accessible. In giving Jason the task of digitizing the entire family history and record, Reynor had given him quite a bit of power. After all, to do this he would have access to every incriminating fact about the clan and everyone in it. This was a high honor and Jason knew it. Outside of being a tech wiz, Jason had inherited his father’s propensity for arrogance. He thought he was smarter than the rest of the family and in so figured himself superior. Even though he knew his brother had and always would be able to kick his ass, he would live longer. This, he figured, put him in the position of win-out in the end. Jason leaned on the railing. His back turned to the compound.
“So, brother, which way do you think they will come?” He studied a knothole in the deck boards.
Todd looked to the cliffs. “That way.”
“Interesting.” He turned his head to look at the cliffs. “Not what I calculated. I am betting on the east. More access roads into the backcountry that way.”
Todd turned his head to the east, pondering the hillside. His voice was flat. “Not sure it really matters.” He gestured to the compound with his right hand. “We’re fucked. Staying in here and waiting to die. The gods will not favor us here.”
“Really?” Jason scoffed and shook his head. “The gods? The gods? Sorry, brother, but you know I don’t understand nor believe in all that. I play along for the sake of the clan, but haven’t we come too far in the age of enlightenment to put our faith in mythological beings? I like numbers, statistics, facts. I prefer reality over fiction.”
Todd nodded and stepped closer to his brother. “Yeah, I get it. Reality is nice but let’s face it, The Regulator and Sanna don’t operate in reality. You grew up with them, too. You know what they are. Call them what you want, but they don’t play by the rules of this world. Your world of numbers and facts, those don’t apply to them. Your remote control guns won’t do a thing against shadows.”
“Shadows? Yeah, I grew up with them too and guess what?” Todd kocked his head with curiosity. “When they skinned their knees in the creek they bled, just like you and me. If they can bleed, they can die.”
“Can’t kill what you can’t see,” Todd said as he patted Jason on the shoulder and headed for the stairs.
“We don’t have to kill them to ruin them, you know.”
Todd stopped and turned to face his brother again. “What do you mean?”
Jason looked around and then moved in very close to Todd. “I wasn’t working on the just the security all night. I have been working on a little side project with Axel.” He looked around again, and Todd gave him a sideways look. “We have been building a kind ,of insurance policy. I have built a backdoor server. I have been copying all the files in the clan’s mainframe. Slowly. Bit by bit so as not to send up any red flags.” Jason’s voice was full of confidence and mischief. “Only the two, well now the three, of us know about it.”
Todd thought about this for a second. Then looked at his brother and with is a voice full of empathy he said, “Oh little brother, I wish you had not done that.”
Jason looked surprised. This was obviously not the reaction he expected. “What do you mean? This is our way out. This information could destroy the Johnsons. This is our salvation and our way to gain control of this enterprise. Avenging our father. Look, mother wants to just cut off the heads. Such an old way of looking at it. How many heads will she have to cut off? Think of all the Johnson bloodlines. That could go on forever. This is the best way to bring them down. Take away their whole existence. Expose them and then take over!” Jason’s voice had risen, and he was clenching his fists.
Todd said very calmly. “Jane has put us in a bad position, and this after our father had already put us in a bad position as children. Will you ever accept the fact that our father was an arrogant, stupid fool? He got himself killed because he crossed the Johnsons. It’s business, Jason. The business we were born into. The business Jane has made sure we stay in.”
“Why do you do that? Call her Jane?”
“Because she is our mother, but when we are talking family business she is Jane. You know that.”
Jason’s eyes pulled away, and he went back to the railing, but this time he was looking to the south.
“Where is this server?” Todd asked.
Jason nodded towards the barn. “In the basement.”
Todd went silent and thought. So, I am the only one who has not outwardly betrayed the Johnsons. He took in a deep breath and looked up at the sun. “It’s getting late. They are coming, and you are all fools. If you think for one minute that they don’t know about your plan, your server, you are even more of an ignorant idiot than I thought. There is a reason Fell left, not wanting to be confined to this place. I think he is right and if you knew what was good for you, you would get out, too.”
“No, brother, you are the fool. This is a new era. The technological era, and it will outmaneuver you, the Johnsons, and all of your silly gods. It doesn’t matter what they know because I have built in so many safeguards the CIA couldn’t take it down.”
Todd now had a look of pity and a voice of concern. “Well, now there is something you can take comfort in. The CIA won’t come knocking for your precious files. There is just one problem, little brother. The CIA isn’t coming. The Regulator is. You might not believe in gods, but I assure you, there is one coming here to kill you. And he is close.” Jason’s face dropped as Todd turned and descended the stairs.