Bridget watched the Firebird make its way up the hillside. The headlights periodically ducked behind the rock outcropping on the corners. The high and low tones of the car’s acceleration echoed through the cool mountain air. She closed her eyes and let her mind spread out around her. Her senses seeped into the trees, brush, and stone. The pistol and knife were held easily in her hands. She felt out, trying to see whom or what was hunting in the night. She could smell a conflicted mixture of curiosity, rage, and longing in the air. It was hesitant. Her eyes opened, and she focused in on the hillside across the road. The Firebird rounded the last bend and hit the short straightaway. The expected downshift and elevated exhaust sound never came.
The Regulator pushed the car through the final bend and was just about to accelerate on to the straightaway. The headlights stopped cutting through the night as they had been, as if the light was being pushed back at them. The black outline of Bridget’s truck even faded as they approached. His eyes narrowed, and his breathing got shallow. Sanna sat up in her seat, and her hand instinctively pulled a pistol from its shoulder holster. Her other hand turned the radio off. The Regulator’s hand also moved to his Baretta. He eased the car off the road and pulled up beside his mother. The Regulator and Sanna rolled down their windows, and the engine was shut off. A heavy silence pushed down on them. There was no sound aside from the ticking of the cooling engine. Nothing stirred, not even the breeze. Bridget’s eyes never left the woods, The Regulator stared out the windshield, and Sanna looked over the truck back behind her mother. All three felt out into the night. Then it came from behind them, a groan and a loud, happy voice. “Made it to the meeting point then?” John sat up in the back seat.
Sanna snapped and put her fingers to her lips as she turned and gave John a menacing smile. John looked around, held his breath and sat up in attention. His eyes got wide.
As fast as the tension had come the air loosened and a light breeze fluttered the aspen leaves, carrying away the oppression. The Regulator’s muscles relaxed, and feeling the tension lessen John let out his breath and gulped for more air. Sanna turned back to John and smiled with a giggle.
Bridget’s eyes had still not left the hillside. “There is something or someone hunting tonight. Hunting us? That I am not sure, but maybe we don’t want to hang out here for too much longer.”
“Head down to Woodland Park, the old McNeely cabin?” Sanna said a bit louder than one might.
The Regulator was still quiet and looking straight ahead. “Don’t bother; he is gone. One house dog won’t stick around a pack of wolves.”
Sanna cocked her head and in a low voice asked, “Was it…?”
“Fell?… yeah,” The Regulator said before she could finish. He sighed and said in a sad voice, “And, he’s hurt.”
Bridget leaned down to look inside the car. The Regulator cocked his head. “He is like an injured animal. He is trying to decide what’s better- attaching the danger or running from it, which is strange. Hesitation is not Fell’s way, if you know what I mean.”
“I didn’t recognize it as Fell. There was too much unpredictability.” Bridget’s eyes showed a very uncommon expression of worry. “This makes him even more dangerous than he already is.”
The Regulator nodded. “Add it to the list of fucked up shit.”
“What in the world are you all talking about?” John said from the back seat in an exasperated tone. Bob and Sanna turned to see John, wide-eyed and confused looking back and forth between them. “I mean all this feeling of emotions and such, of people you can’t even see. And, what the blazes is a Fell?”
After a short silence, Sanna started giggling, and this got Bob laughing. Bridget joined in, and now they were all laughing hard. After a few minutes, they settled down, and the Regulator said, “You, have been scrunched in that back seat for waayyy too long. Let’s get you out of there.” Bridget craned her neck to look in the back seat.
“So this is the nailed god’s priest person? John, is it?”
John was a bit taken aback first, but then gave her a quick nod and made a bowing gesture, “At your service, ma’am.”
Sanna pushed the door open, moving her mother back, and got out of the car. She swung the seatback forward, and John half climbed, half crawled out of the back of the car.
Bridget watched in amusement at John’s lack of dexterity and grace. “Not much of a warrior, is he?”
John came to standing and stretched out his round body. “I, fair lady, might not be a swordsman, but with the almighty by my side, I like my chances. You must be the beautiful and strong Bridget. I have heard so much about, and I must say all good things at that,” he said in his best Kings English, and ended with a smile and a wink.
Bridget summed John up from head to toe. “I like this one, Bob. He has a good heart and a sense of humor.” She moved past him with a slap on the back, making him stagger forward on his sleepy legs.
“He is also quite deadly with a shotgun at short range,” Sanna said.
“Glad you like him. He is riding with you.” The Regulator opened the trunk.
John eyed the mud- caked truck. “Well, it will be nice to have some more leg room.”
“Be careful what you wish for. You’ve never ridden with mother before. Some say it’s a…religious experience,” Sanna said with a giggle.
Bridget snapped to attention as she lowered the tailgate on the truck. “Fuck you, little girl. I am the one who taught both of you how to drive. Well, at least how to drive properly.”
The Regulator was removing bags from the trunk. “This is true, Sanna. She had me drifting that old ranch truck at what, 13?”
“Yeah, that was a great truck, huh?” Sanna paused as she checked and loaded an assault rifle and put on a thoughtful face. “Until you flipped it into the creek.”
Bridget moved two boxes form the back seat of the truck to the trunk of the Firebird. “What!? You? I thought Richard the ranch hand did that?”
The Regulator unrolled a tool bag full of knives on the tailgate. Laughing, he said, “Naw he just took the blame for me. He was, after all the one who said I couldn’t take the hay barn turn at 60.” Two knives disappeared into his ankle holsters.
Bridget scoffed. “And apparently he was right. Now in this truck here I bet you could have taken it at 80 mph.” Her voice was full of pride.
“Woah now. Hold the phone. Am I sensing that you like the…what did you call it?” He looked up from a case of what seemed to be smoke canisters with his forefinger to his chin. “This new fangled pile of overblown technology.”
Bridget stowed a compound bow with a quiver of arrows in the backseat of the truck. Nonchalantly she said, “I believe it will do the job.” Sanna and The Regulator exchanged silent looks.
The three moved with utter precision, prepping weapons and moving gear between the two vehicles, all the while bantering back and forth about family trifles and taking small jabs at each other. John watched in total fascination. He thought about how amazingly different his family had been. So upright, proper, strict and rigid. Joking and poking about each other was not done or even thought to be a possibility. It also struck him how just minutes ago they had all been so serious and tense — talking about an unpredictable, emotionally hurt, homicidal killer that had been watching them. No, Hunting them, were the words they had used. In just a few minutes they were being silly and going about their business as if all was quite normal. Like they were preparing for a family picnic or a little camping trip. Typically, this type of carefree and whimsical attitude would set John on edge, but he was actually quite at ease. Were all the heathens like this? Could they be no different from his Christian flock? Just people going about their business, doing the things they do best? Even though what they do best is killing. No matter the answer to these questions, John felt unusually safe and secure. More secure than he had felt in a long time, actually.
“You agree with me, don’t you John?” Sanna asked as she handed him his bag.
“Huh?..Oh…yes, of course.”
Her beautiful eyes laughed at him. “Didn’t hear a thing I just said, did ya?”
“Sorry, no, I didn’t. I was lost in the moment there.” He grabbed the bag from her. He did think to himself, but I do think your eyes are beautiful. Sanna gave him a quizzical look and moved to the back of the truck, where a host of weapons layout on the tailgate. “I mean, it seems you three possess an unnatural comfort with all this…death and darkness and such. You can move from reading your surroundings with deadly intent one minute to joking about childhood antics the next. Are all you heathens the same?” John saw The Regulator frown at the questions, and he stammered to clarify himself. “Well, what I mean is…do you all have a carefree attitude about life and death? It seems like you three aren’t very worried about your personal outcomes from this endeavor. Like, whether you live or die, it’s kind of ok?” John’s face was truly open, free of judgment and he was being honest in his questions.
The Regulator seemed to ponder this a bit as he loaded a shotgun. Upon finishing that task, he jumped up to sit on the tailgate. “We are as we are and we don’t care what you are. Here is the deal. You Christians and Muslims with your one true god have to defend and proselytize your religion. If you didn’t, then it would go against the belief that you are right. That you have the true God, belief, and religion. If you were to accept that other gods or beliefs are ok, then you would accept that your god is not the true God. And, since you have an all-seeing and all-creative God who directs existence, you feel you can go to him for things. Things like help on a test, or salvation, or direction in life. He is there to serve you and you, him.” He paused to see if John was keeping up. Seeing that the man was engaged, he continued. “Us heathens, as you say, believe in many gods, for many reasons. They may favor our actions or they may not, but they do not control us. Fate is what controls us. The randomness of fate is the umbrella we all live under, both us and the gods. Thus the gods have no interest in us but for their entertainment. We can’t bargain with them or ask for favors. We are nothing but pawns in a game. A game that is unfolding for their amusement. We don’t know the rules of the game but we get up every day, and we play. Why? Because that is our purpose. So, we ‘heathens,’ The Regulator said with emphasis, “we understand that the only true thing that matters is this moment. Then next moment, the one after that, and so on. We can’t control the future, the past has already been, and we can’t change the past, but this moment is ours. Accept the moment and surrender to it.” He raised his forefinger. “ If you can focus all your attention into this moment right now. And then right now…and then right now…well, then everything around you will be in the light. Always in the light. Even in the darkest of the dark.” Sanna and Bridget both nodded with nothing else to add. John looked back and forth between all three. They looked at him as if wanting him to respond, but he didn’t. “Oooorrr…we just believe we are all dependent form the gods and in the end, we will join them in the great halls upon death.” Pausing a second, he said, “Nope, I like the moment thing better.”
John shook his head took in a deep breath and clapped his hands saying, “Right then, what needs packing?”
Sanna tossed the shotgun to him. “All done, sunshine. Let’s get movin’ and you might what to keep that close at hand.”
John held the gun awkwardly, picked up his bag and moved to the passenger side of the truck. He paused for a second taking in his surroundings. He took in the mountains and the stars. He noticed the moonlit edges of the clouds and the sound of the wind in the trees. Bridget fired up the Raptor, and he even dropped into the sounds of the engine. For a split second, he could have sworn the night got just a little bit lighter.
Jane was a tall, thin woman with angled yet inviting features. She wore her straight brown hair to a length just below the neckline, and typically pulled back in a simple ponytail. She rarely wore makeup. Jewelry was kept to a simple wedding band with no stones. Her left thumb moved to play with it when she was stressed. Unbeknownst to her the thumb as searching but the silver band was gone. She had put it away after the night Reynor visited her on the balcony.
“What do you mean, leaving?!” Jane looked up at Todd from the desk in Axel’s office. She was sitting upright in a defensive position, but her voice sounded of shocked.
Todd stood in his dirtbike gear with his arms folded on the other side of the desk. “You all can stay here in this compound of death. I am not going to wait around and like a lamb for the slaughter.”
“Todd, those three have no chance of getting in here without being seen. Axel and Jason have taken all and every precaution. Nothing moves without tripping some kind of notice around here. My phone is constantly buzzing.” Her thumb was still busy searching. “Besides we are better off as a united front.” Her voice turned into a plea.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I talked with the boy tech genius. So, it seems all is good here. I’ll ride out and see what’s up. See if I can better the odds by the time they get here.” Todd was talking in a calm matter-of-fact way, using a voice he knew drove his mother nuts.
“Better the odds?” Jane stood and folded her arms to defy her son. Jane was in good shape for a 60-year-old woman. She prided herself on her physical fitness and often used her stature to intimidate. Her workout schedule was rivaled only by Todd. They started working out together when he was 14. Over the years, it seemed the gym was the only place they got along. They even sparred together in Jiu Jitsu classes. Outside of that space, Todd kept her at arm’s length. Having the controlling nature she did, his distance was unnerving to her. She tried to hide it, but Todd knew it bothered her, so he exposed the situation as much as possible.
Jane was in a constant charade. Todd didn’t know exactly why, but he did see it. The fake, manipulative voice she used with some people. The fake laugh she had around people she disliked. Being more of a direct person, Todd saw it all as very tiresome.
“Listen, Jane. The Johnsons will walk in here and cut the heart of every living soul, human and animal alike. You know it, Axel knows it, Jason knows it, and that is why they are building the backup server. He knows he can’t outgun them, so maybe he figures he will outflank them. Blackmail them into submission.”
“Don’t call me that!”
“What? ‘Jane?’ That is your name.”
“I am your mother, and I demand a little bit of respect for getting you this far.”
“In this context you are ‘Jane’. At Christmas, you can be ‘mother’. As for getting me this far, don’t try and pretend it was all for me. The martyr thing doesn’t suit you well.” Todd was talking in that matter-of-fact way again.
Jane huffed and turned to the window. The sun was setting, and the late clouds were lighting up with orange. She turned back around slowly. “Server? What are you talking about?”
“Oh yeah, boy-genius and Axel are the only ones who know. Forgot about that.” Todd had honestly forgotten that part. His voice softened as he saw a bit of hurt and confusion in her eyes. “I am sure they didn’t tell you for a very good reason.”
“What do you mean, server?” Her voice was harsher now.
“Jason built some sort of secret server to back up all the clan files. I guess they figure to blackmail The Regulator into not killing, well, everyone.” His arms went wide, gesturing to the compound.
The look on Jane’s face turned to a sudden realization, as if she suddenly put together a string of seemingly irrelevant incidents. She was lost in a torrent of thought. Todd had seen this before. She was not in control at the moment, and that put her in a weird state. Like vapor-lock on her brain as she worked through her memories.
“Jane!” Todd snapped, trying to get her out of her trance. “Here is the deal. I always knew you were working on some crazy plan to make Jason and Todd the heads of this clan. I didn’t understand the lengths you would go to, but I knew you were determined.” His voice was low now. “You had the man that raised me gunned down in cold blood while he slept..”
“That was Axel’s call.” The words came out in a panic.
Todd put up his hands in a surrendering way. “I don’t care, Jane. It was done, and you had a hand in it. I love you, and I love my brother. I won’t fight against you, but I’m not sure I want to fight for you either. Sooner or later we have to leave this place and live out in the world. Out with the wolves, the demons and the shadows. I might as well start now. I will go and fight for myself. Hunt for myself.”
Jane sat back down and recomposed herself. She busied her self with some papers on the desk. She didn’t look up at Todd. “Fine. May Thor favor you.” She was now moving into her dismissive stage of conflict resolution. Todd took this as his cue to leave. He turned and walked purposefully out of the office. He nearly ran into Axel as he turned into the hallway. Todd stopped by his side and put a hand on the man’s shoulder. Todd whispered in his ear, “Good luck…good luck, old man.”
Axel looked at Todd with confusion. Todd continued down the hall and out the front door. Axel turned to the office door and could see Jane sitting behind the desk. She had tears on her face and fury in her eyes. She said in a low vengeful voice, “You son of a bitch.”