Author: The third amino acid from the right
Written for: amand_r
Characters/Pairing: Duncan, Methos, Joe Dawson
Rating: R for violence (bullets and beheadings, usual stuff)
Warnings:References to D/M kinkishness, but generally gen.
Summary: For Methos, it started out as just another night mucking out the bar for free beer and freer conversation with the one bartender who really knew his name. Just how much trouble could he get into at Joe’s? More than enough to start up a dead-end dirt road to help hide a body for a friend--and take the long way back.
If you want to be happy for the rest of your life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife,
So from my personal point of view,
Get an ugly girl to marry you. (Jimmy Soul)
“What about the woman with the wide shoulders and the low center of gravity, Joe? She was watching you all night.” Methos inquired as Joe finished up the bar cleanup after hours.
“You mean the goalie? Yeah, I saw you and her and the rest of the women’s hockey team out there on the dance floor. They were watching me all night because I was on the stage all night. When the lights came up, they were watching you. The only time they stopped watching you was when you hid in the bathroom during last call, abandoning me to shovel them out into their taxis.”
“I was giving you room to exercise your fabled charm. Charm needs exercise, Joe. Just like other muscles we all know and love.”
“Don’t be derailing me with bogus talk about the cardio capabilites of your love muscle,” Joe scoffed. “I was watching. It’s in my contract. It was Methos Trolls For Attention Night. If I put up posters, I’d pack the place.”
“And there I thought I was joining the Lonelyhearts Club. You being charter member, and all.”
“Don’t be a jerk, jerk. And you’re still derailing. The fact you are no longer surgically attached to MacLeod’s hip has been duly noted. I think it was even Twittered in Kyrgystan. Hell, you’ve been radiating Available Me all week.”
“Just because MacLeod decided to spend the last lunar month up at Chief Mountain Monastery rededicating himself to some warrior-priest’s obscure martial art? Am I so shallow? So undisciplined? So downright vengeful?”
“Celibacy is a bitch,” Joe sighed in agreement, taking his point as made. “Shame to waste your talents, with a whole hockey team begging for you to unleash the hounds.”
“Just what I told MacLeod. But does he listen to his elders?”
“Not when I’m around to eavesdrop,” Joe admitted. “You mean you talked to MacLeod tonight? I thought he was being held spiritually incommunicado, or whatever they do up at the Chief Mountain monastery to block cell phones.”
“We did speak, this afternoon, briefly. He’s on his way back. Tonight, in fact.”
“Then why the hockey team tango?”
“I was just warming them up for you,” Methos said virtuously. “And it would have been helpful to balance my Chi before his return.”
“I’ll balance your Chi--” Joe automatically threatened, though there was no bite to it.
“Would you?” Methos pounced.
Joe rolled his eyes. “Save the flirty brows for Mac. You know I’m immune. And enough with the team blind dates, will you? I’ve got an image to protect.”
“Yes, yes, the mysterious blues traveler who sings of the loves of others while concealing his own tragic secrets,” Methos said testily. “Spoken like a true Warrior-Priest. I love it when you emulate the Highlander’s kinks. I can tease him by proxy.”
“Not if I stop pouring beer,” Joe threw a damp towel at him. “This is a working bar. Get to work. And why are you hanging out here if Mac’s on his way back? I’d think you’d be lighting the candles in the window at the dojo.”
Methos cheerfully made his rounds with his freshly topped off beer in tow, leaving perfect condensation circles on each newly wiped table. “Candles. Good idea,” he said with an approving smile.
“Good idea for what?” Joe asked with a note of suspicion.
“If you’re lucky, I’ll take pictures,” Methos promised. “I’m here because Mac told me to meet him here, after hours. And before you ask, I don’t know why, aside from your obvious charms. Cell reception was lousy.”
“I have obvious charms? I thought you said they were puny and underexercised.”
“I lied. You have scads of beer charm. See?” Methos plunked his empty glass on the bar, and beamed as it was refilled.
“Just as long as you aren’t after me just for my looks,” Joe allowed, as he unloaded another tray of bar glasses from the washer.
“Aren’t you curious about my plans for MacLeod’s return?”
“After the gals left with the puck bag, I figured everything else would be anticlimactic.” Joe made the mistake of sounding a bit wistful about that.
Methos grinned. Joe took a wary step backward. “I believe that MacLeod owes it to us to show me what wonders of self-control he learned at the feet of his guest instructors,” Methos said, deliberately keeping his tone harmless. Mostly harmless. “How else will I be able to share those secrets for the benefit of all mankind? Starting here in the bar, of course.”
“That’s okay, I don’t need to know,” Joe quickly assured.
“I’ll just hit the high points, so you’ll be able to accurately record them.”
Unfooled, and with a slight tinge of panic, Joe cast about the bar. “Where are my earplugs?”
“Now what kind of Chronicler would allow such a unique opportunity for personal enlightenment about his Immortal slip through his fingers?” Methos protested. “The devil is in the details.”
“Detail this,” Joe flipped a quick centerfinger salute before rummaging through the back of the till.
“That’s an excellent guess! Though it’s remarkable what marvellous improvements technology has brought to the most ancient of healthy recreations. Why just last week I found this marvellous little shop that stocked the new Acme Cork-a-Cock Pretzel Cage, which when used in combination with the From Dusk Til Dawn IcyHot Prostate Massager and just a touch of extra-virgin olive oil... .”
Methos rambled happily into TooMuchInformationville, and Joe clapped his hands over his ears. “Not Professor Pierson and the Miracle Prostate Milking scheme again!”
“Prostate health is important. And olive oil has many beneficial properties, Joe.”
“Damn, I’m never eating Italian at Mac’s again.” Joe triumphantly came up with two heavy duty earplugs from under the till, guaranteed to keep him safe from karaoke, emo and disco. “Sweep while you’re talking, or the beer charm dries up,” he warned, and jammed them home.
“Variety in your diet is important!” Methos advised loudly anyway. After all, he was a Doctor. “And if you can’t sleep tonight for visions of hockey players dancing in your heads, you only have yourself to blame!”
“I can’t hear you,” Joe sang out. “And it’s head, not heads!”
“Perhaps your anatomy differs from the manly norm,” Methos sympathized.
Joe ducked under the bar and rattled the restocks, knowing when to beat a strategic retreat.
Methos waltzed around the room with the broom, putting up the chairs and sweeping up the detritus of the day, merrily sniping at Joe about tantric remedies as he returned for a refill. A vibrating hum interrupted Joe’s pour, and he closed the tap early to pull out his cell.
Methos brightened. “You bright old dog, you gave the team your iPhone number!”
“I wish,” Joe muttered, frowning at the caller ID and replacing one earplug with his iPhone. He meandered down the bar toward the till, leaving the other plug in to shut out Methos’ arcane and anatomically unlikely romantic advice.
Thwarted, Methos reached over the bar to coax the tap into topping off his glass. Methos didn’t always drink beer, but he’d never believed in stoic half measures. The prickle of an approaching Immortal presence caught him just as he raised the glass. He didn’t spill a drop as he eased instinctively into a more battle-ready position, just a few inches nearer the sword in his carefully arranged coat on the bar.
Joe noticed anyway. “I take it that’s not MacLeod on your radar,” he stated, tapping the cell phone off.
“How do you know I know it’s not MacLeod?” Methos asked, peering down the dark hallway, checking the back stage, noting the front door was still securely locked.
“You do this thing with your face,” Joe said, with just the barest smile. “That was a general automated alert from our good buddies in Watcher Security.” The sour look on Joe’s face indicated his low opinion of that particular arm of the Watchers. “There are strangers in town. Unchronicled strangers. They’re reported as running in a pack. Young. Male. Maybe four, maybe six. Or maybe it’s the Backstreet Boys going incognito.”
“I take it you’re not expecting guests?”
“I hadn’t invited any. I would have warned you.” Joe was already reaching under the bar for the house .45 Peacemaker, which filled his large hand nicely, and made Methos’ own snub nose automatic hideout droop in inadequacy.
“I was afraid of that. I would have warned me, too.” The buzz deepened, and the pitch changed. “Oh, but that’s MacLeod arriving, as well. Do you think he’s picking up strays again?”
Joe frowned. “No. He’d lead, with a friend in tow, not the other way around. You check the front lot. I’ll check the back alley.” He was already moving down the hall.
Methos donned his coat, loosened his sword, then drew his own lamentably unremarkable automatic, less impressive than Joe’s more burly piece, but much easier to hide. He cautiously unlocked the front door and stole a quick look around the parking lot. It was mostly empty, aside from a couple of cars left by drivers the worse for wear and the best for taxis. The sodium lights overhead burned away shadows. Nobody.
Then the lights flared, flickered, and glazed over into a bloody red glow. There was a snap of electricity from over Joe’s roof, from the alley behind the bar. Methos looked back inside to see an eldritch glow highlight the back door and leak into the hallway, eerily framing Joe as he reached for the emergency exit crash bar.
At first, Joe cautiously peered out through just a slit, ready to slam the door shut. Then, to Methos’ alarm, he straightened and threw the door wide open. “MacLeod!” he boomed in warning, raising his gun.
MacLeod’s signature still hummed, but the atonal secondary buzz had dropped out with the Quickening. Now, a new high-pitched whine crowded MacLeod’s melody. “Joe, there’s another Immortal out there!” Methos warned as he slammed the front door shut and sprinted across the bar toward the hallway.
“MacLeod! Duck, dammit!” Joe ordered, and stepped out of the cover of the doorway. A playful sprite of ball lightning bounced on the loading dock rail, lighting Joe in silhouette.
Methos heard gunfire snap. “Joe, wait!”
Joe, of course, didn’t wait.
Methos counted two shots from Joe’s cannon before pock marks started stitching down the opened emergency door and bullets began whanging all over the loading dock. Joe dropped his cane to steady his aim, loosing two more quick rounds before he twitched and thumped back against the door, sliding down. Methos slid to a stop on his belly next to him on the lintel, and grabbed his collar and arm to pull him in out of the line of fire.
“Dammit!” Joe protested, shifting his gun from his right to his left and nearly blowing a hole in his own left prosthesis. He popped off two more shots before he lost the angle. “They were cheating!”
“Who?” Methos asked economically, checking Joe for obvious holes.
“Four. Maybe more. Young. Mac beheaded one. I shot one trying to take him during the Quickening. Two more, far side of the dumpster. I can keep ‘em pinned down here while you go around and flank the twerps.”
“How many shots does a six-shooter hold?” Methos asked Joe rhetorically, as he dragged him a few extra feet down the corridor for good measure.
“Crap.” Joe dropped the empty gun. “I knew that.”
Satisfied that Joe was murderously angry, but not mortally wounded, Methos checked his own weapon and handed it to Joe. Drawing his sword, he stepped to the door and ducked for a quick look. He couldn’t see anything moving. The shots had stopped. “I think you caught a ricochet. Your common sense is certainly blown to smithereens. Keep your head down, will you?”
“Yes, mother,” Joe snarled, definitely smarting somewhere. “Mac’s still out there.”
“And you’re staying in here,” Methos insisted, sealing the deal by stepping quickly out the door, closing it with a slam behind him before leaping off the loading dock. The sound of Joe’s .45 whacking the door behind him made him wince nearly as much as the expectation of a hail of bullets.
But there were no more shots. Methos felt a bone-deep buzz as familiar as his own pulse flare, and he watched patiently as MacLeod pulled himself erect and stared down at a headless body. “You never call. You never write.”
“Miss me?” MacLeod asked shakily, clearly still processing the aftermath of an unexpected challenge.
“We should hold an election for Village Fool,” Methos said, lowering his sword. “As the two main candidates, you and Joe are disqualified from voting. Idiot nearly got himself another Mauve Spleen.”
“Don’t you mean Purple Heart?,” MacLeod questioned, as he surveyed the bullet spalls in the concrete wall around the door.
“The Watcher version isn’t so flashy. And it’s more of a dusty fuchsia, now that I think about it. They don’t like to encourage showboating. Just like there’s one other thing they don’t encourage,” Methos added, keeping his voice low.
“Interference,” MacLeod supplied bleakly. “Do you think they saw?”
“Joe likes to keep the surveillance lean, but he gets nervous when you go Walkabout.” Methos tasted the air, feeling no more strange Immortals, and sighting no Watchers in the shadows. Frowning, he studied a blood trail that dragged away down the alley. “Too much blood. No healing.”
“Joe saved my life.” MacLeod sounded a bit peeved at the thought. “The one I beheaded was very young. Confused. Surprised. So was I,” he confessed with a hint of shame. “I wasn’t ready to meet the second threat.” Pointing at the trail, MacLeod added, “This one was mortal. Popped out from behind the dumpster when the Quickening hit, and came after me. Just one more second, and you would have had my Quickening in turn.”
Methos froze at the offhanded revelation. “There was at least one more Immortal, but the signal was very weak, farther away. He must have dragged the mortal away. Probably hoping to kill two birds with one stone.”
“Or was it a pre-Immortal?” MacLeod speculated, clearly still upset.
“What would be the point? A pre-Immortal couldn’t gather the Quickenings. I get the bad feeling Joe saved both of us from two really embarrassing closing Chronicles.” If Joe hadn’t been so quick on the draw, Methos would have been paralyzed with MacLeod’s Quickening, and pathetically easy prey as well. Methos dug an unsympathetic elbow into MacLeod. “We need to get out of the open.”
At Methos’ reminder, MacLeod shook off the remnants of his daze. “Is Joe all right?”
“Mildly punctured, and mad as hell. I’d open the back door with a truce flag in your hand,” Methos recommended as they backed toward the loading dock, each watching the other’s back.
“Me? I’m not the one that ticked him off,” MacLeod protested.
“Don’t be too sure,” Methos observed. “He hates it when you’re careless. Drives him to drink.”
“And there I thought you were his favorite chauffeur.”
Methos paused to quickly search the headless body left behind, pocketing a wallet, passport, and two cell phones. “The Watchers called Joe. They’re here. They saw. Maybe they even invited him to join the party.”
“A setup?” MacLeod’s antipathies toward the Watchers were getting a good workout. “Another Tribunal?”
“I don’t think they’d waste the airfare to bring the Tribunal here,” Methos said with dark conviction. “They’d just videoconference the verdict. But after the last cockup, I don’t think they’d kill him outright. They know you’d be miffed.”
“They could take him so far underground in the organization, he might never find his way back,” MacLeod said uneasily. “Isn’t that what they did with Shapiro? How else do they keep their malcontents under control?”
“Ah, the fine art of hostage-taking. The Watchers are unappreciated masters.”
“Then you think they might kidnap him?” MacLeod pressed.
“Not if we kidnap him first.”
“Joe won’t like that.”
“I won’t tell him, if you don’t.”
“That should go well,” MacLeod sighed.
Methos slipped out his copy of Joe’s backdoor key, and gave MacLeod a worried glance. “I’m a little surprised Joe hasn’t barrelled out here again.” Using MacLeod as a shield, Methos unlocked the door and slid inside behind him, sword at ready. His precautions were mostly unnecessary. Joe was exactly where he had left him, leaning against the wall in the hallway, cradling a cell phone to one ear while pointing the automatic at the door with the other.
“Tell it to the Marines, bozo,” Joe clicked the phone shut with finality and flipped the safety on the automatic. He stared off into the middle distance.
“Who was that, Joe?” Methos asked quietly.
“Colleague,” Joe said vaguely. “Former colleague. I don’t know. No one.”
“Who, Joe?” MacLeod asked, quite politely, considering his history with many of Joe’s former colleagues.
Joe started to screw up the side of his face, until he caught sight of Methos laughing at him silently. “Fine. Just fine. But it’s a what, not a who.”
MacLeod and Methos loomed over Joe, who glared up at them from the floor. Reopening his phone, he handed the glowing screen over. A short video looped over and over, taken from the vantage point of the dumpster. They saw the sword raised, gun raised, gun firing, swordsman falling. “Smile, MacLeod, we’re on candid camera,” he said in disgust.
“Blackmail?” Methos asked, peering at the two phones he’d picked up from the body, opening each, comparing stored numbers. “Or an ardent fan?”
“Either way, it’ll end up with the Tribunal,” Joe said with a wince. “Or worse, on Facebook. Listen. You two need to get out of here, plan an exit strategy. And I need to take care of the body. Now give me a hand up, willya?”
Methos ignored him, and caught MacLeod’s hand when he held it out to Joe. “First things first. Mac, do you know your phone’s been hacked? That’s how they got Joe’s number.” He handed over one of the phones he’d recovered, and showed them a GPS tracking screen. “Your location, too. These youngsters are good. Worse. These youngsters are our first encounter with Immortal digital natives. A whole gang of them. Now how the hell did so many shiny new criminal yearlings bond so quickly?”
“Facecrook?” Joe suggested.
MacLeod glowered a great glower. “I think I know part of the answer to that. The monastery up near Chief Mountain supports an orphanage in the next valley. I’ve contributed to it in the past, and helped some special candidates get in. They’ve lost some students, over the years. Runaways, they thought, dissatisfied with the isolation. But what if they were lured?”
“Recruits,” Methos speculated. “Footsoldiers.”
“It may go farther than just one orphanage. I’ve heard some disturbing stories from Grace,” MacLeod admitted. “And Amanda mentioned an incident in the Loire refuge that Rebecca founded. That’s the reason I returned, to try to get more information,” MacLeod automatically and unapologetically looked to Joe.
Joe made another move to use a carton of empties to lever himself into vertical, again thwarted by Methos. He sighed, closed his eyes, and thought for a moment. “Hackers, not just recruiters, if they got into the orphanage networks. Maybe through donor websites. And what you’re saying fits something I heard a while back about lost foster kids,” Joe mused, looking a touch green at the thought. “By the way, are those phones safe?”
“No. But I’m not safe, either.” Methos dropped them into his pocket and now finally held his hand out to Joe. “Come on, no more lollygagging.”
“Probably not the best choice of phrase,” MacLeod murmured.
Joe looked like he he was saving up to clout Methos once he found his balance, but the slight squelching sound as he pulled away from the wall sapped his ferocity. “Gotta bandaid?”
“Relax, Joe. The body is safely wrapped up in a tarp in the back of your jeep. And the chainsaw you asked for. MacLeod even hosed down the alley. Just the way you like it.”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Joe insisted as he leaned over the bar. MacLeod was plying him with the good whisky while Methos cut away his ruined shirt to reveal some shrapnel cuts left by a shattered ricochet. Joe’s left shoulderblade resembled a scatter of paper cuts, but there was no deep damage.
“Just one bad feeling? I’ve got dozens,” Methos complained. “You can’t call up the Watchers for the body cleanup. And we can’t leave you to take care of it yourself. For one thing, you can’t run a chainsaw, as manly we all know you are.”
“Sez you,” Joe’s shoulders knotted beneath his hands. “You can’t stay here running my errands if more of those kids might be in danger at the orphanage,” Joe pointed out. “Their ambush failed, they might want to make one last raid, cover their tracks. Ow. Dammit.”
“Hold still and keep talking,” Methos ordered. “It’s just a little sliver.” Methos held up the ‘little’ sliver to MacLeod as he returned to the room with a new shirt for Joe from the office stash. He was wearing another.
MacLeod winced when he saw the jagged shard, but didn’t let Joe see. “You’re running low on clean shirts,” he said briskly.
“I need to start claiming them as a business expense,” Joe groused, before he continued. “I’ve heard of the sickos that hunt pre-Immortals-this gang is operating only one step away. That kid in the alley was just cannon fodder. Someone is using these kids as pawns.”
“Like Kenny, if he ran a punk street gang? Armed with iPhones and mail order swords?,” MacLeod mused.
“Kenny was old school, he could barely read Latin, much less HTML, and there was only one tactic in his playbook,” Methos disparaged. “We’re up against a strategic planner. An Odysseus of the digital era.”
“More like a mini-Methos,” Joe lobbed back. “With a devoted following of close associates.”
MacLeod coughed up some of his whisky. “The Four Fanboys of the Apocalypse?”
“What I could have done with Google in Alexandria,” Methos speculated. “Or with you as a green Immortal, MacLeod.”
Joe moved uneasily under his hands. “Aren’t you done yet?” he cut in.
Methos tied off the last stitch. “There. See how handsome, MacLeod? All the women will remark on these virile new scars.”
“Quite fetching, especially when framed by the old bullet holes,” MacLeod agreed, though his lingering gloom over the unnecessary Quickening dampened the effectiveness of the compliment.
“You two lived in some kind of fun centuries,” Joe observed, knocking back the rest of his glass. “Here’s to medicinal purposes,” he added, pouring them all another round, immediately and ritually dispatched. “Moonlight’s burning, boys. You need to get going.”
“MacLeod needs to get going,” Methos agreed.
MacLeod slowly nodded in agreement, though he didn’t look happy about it. “I’ll alert the monastery to the danger to the orphanage. They don’t even have land lines or electricity.”
“Why not just warn the orphanage directly?” Joe asked. “It’s a school, they have to be wired.”
“Wired, and tapped. It would tip them off that we have a line on their strategy, if not their names.”
“The monastery’s isolation is also its advantage. It means they aren’t vulnerable to virtual stalking. They aren’t on the gang’s radar, except as guest teachers. Not guest warriors. With this,” MacLeod tossed his cell phone in the air before returning it to his pocket, “I can lead them into a trap.”
Methos nodded, approving of the wolfish warrior’s gleam that chased away the darkness in the Highlander’s gaze. “When we finish hiding the corpus, we’ll meet you to close the trap. And MacLeod,” Methos warned fairly, “Save a monk’s cell for us. I’ve got unfinished business with you.”
Deliberately avoiding Methos’ gaze, Joe added innocently, “Better light a candle.”
“House cleaning, huh?” Joe muttered, handling the throttle with a little too much ginger.
“Still smarting?” Methos asked solicitously, knowing neither one of them were talking about physical injuries. Joe’s pride had taken a bigger beating than his body.
“I don’t like being babysat,” Joe snapped. Finally.
“Amazingly, we’ve noticed,” Methos said agreeably. “If you turn up here, we’ll get the house cleaning part over with. Locker cleaning, really. We need more firepower. I have a gun vault at the storage facility on Denny Way. There’s a mint condition ‘64 Dragunov rifle with your name on it.”
Methos saw Joe’s knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. Adrenaline was good for war footing. “A Dragunov? How did you know I was rated on a sniper rifle? You never set foot on the Watcher gun ranges.”
“Your personnel jacket is my personnel jacket,” Methos grinned, huffing on his fingernails and shining them on his jacket. “I’ve got some other toys you might like,” he added, dangling the bait. “Including a nice bandolier of ammunition for that .45 of yours.”
“Okay, running out of ammo was embarrassing,” Joe admitted. “I wasn’t expecting the shootout at the OK Corral in my own back yard. News at eleven.”
“The Spanish Inquisition caught me by surprise, too. It happens.”
“It didn’t happen to you on YouTube,” Joe countered.
“No, it didn’t,” Methos reflected. “It might have lost it’s popularity more quickly if it had. Who would have friended Torquemada?"
“We could count the Fox News fans and project from there,” Joe offered, only half joking. A quarter. An eighth. Methos read his face again. Not joking at all.
Joe flipped on his turn signal, and paid strict attention to the speed limit as Methos directed him to the self-service storage lockers. Methos ran the security strip through, and pulled down the rolling door behind them before opening the gun safe.
“Mi pistola es su pistola,” Methos gestured grandly.
Joe’s nose wrinkled as the smell of gun grease wafted out of the case. He ran the back of his knuckles over the barrel of the Dragunov, in a way that was utterly unlike the caress he gave his guitars. “Maybe we should just take them all, sort them out later,” he recommended softly. “We don’t know how many we’re up against.”
“Smart boy,” Methos agreed, already moving the ammunition next to the door so they could load and leave quickly. “Better turn the car around, it will shield the body in the back from the security camera. You’ve had your fifteen minutes of fame for the night,” he recommended.
“Smart ass,” Joe returned with a rueful grin. He turned for the car, stopped, then reached into the case to liberate a beat up sheath carrying an old Marine Ka-Bar field knife. “Would it make you nervous if I carried this?” he asked solicitously.
“You bet it would,” Methos admitted.
Methos played with Joe’s smartphone while they travelled, trusting Joe’s long career experience in body-snatching to get them safely out of town. Joe drove his Jeep smoothly through the sleeping city, working his way east into the Cascade mountains just off Interstate 5. “I thought the Ka-Bar wasn’t standard issue in Vietnam,” Methos eventually ventured as they turned up a dark and twisty logging road.
“It wasn’t,” Joe answered shortly. “My Dad carried one in the Pacific. Mom gave it to me when I was shipped overseas.”
Methos grinned in the moonlight. “A family tradition. Are you going to will it to Amy?”
“I’ll will it where the sun doesn’t shine, if you start teasing me about Amy,” Joe stated calmly.
“Forewarned is forearmed,” Methos nodded.
“What are you doing with my cell phone?” Joe asked, slowing to look over at the glowing screen. “If you install that FarmVille app again, I’m throwing it off the next bridge.”
“I learned my lesson the last time. No more cows. But speaking of bridges, why not just roll the body off the last bridge into the Sound? Nice and deep, lots of crabs, no muss, no fuss.”
“Still too many security cameras. No cams on the spruce forests, though. Not on this stretch of land, anyway. I checked.”
“And you picked this stretch of land, because... ?”
“Blowdowns,” Joe said without elaboration. “You made sure Mac packed the chainsaw?”
“Honestly, I’m just relieved you’re focused on trees, not Saw IV.” Methos made a very realistic sound effect of a high-powered blade catching on unknown matter.
“Ick. That’s disgusting.”
“I try. It’s amazing how thinking like a fourteen-year-old can sharpen your survival skills from generation to generation.”
“I’d better explain that to MacLeod,” Joe reflected. “My reputation is shot to hell as it is.”
“Can’t argue with you there,” Methos agreed amiably.
“Playing with your X-Box constitutes a survival strategy?”
“Beats playing with Torquemada in the Spanish Inquisition. Why, I remember the time that... ,”
“Speaking of ‘ick’, hold that thought,” Joe cut in, braking next to a blown down tree that almost blocked the road. There was a crater right next to the track where the root ball had been torn from the ground, leaving a deep hole. “That last storm did some damage up here. Some good Samaritan should clear this hazard away.” he suggested, staring at his passenger.
“Hey. What. Me? I was never a Samaritan. Or if I was, I was bad. Very bad. And I don’t hold with power tools. Very dangerous. I forgot my steel-toed boots. Where are the safety goggles!”
“You’re the one who dissed my chainsaw skills, buddy. Now sharpen it up, or shut up.”
Joe backed up the Jeep so the crater was next to the rear of the Jeep, and the headlights lit up the trunk of the tree. Despite his words, he was the first to open up the chainsaw case, exposing a well cared for orange and white Stihl 032 AV. Checking the gas and oil and tightening the chain, Joe finished by touching up a couple of burred teeth with a round file. Finally satisfied, he glanced sideways at Methos, then toward the crater. “Body goes there,” he said quietly.
“Then we bury him?”
“Then we say a few words. Then we bury him deep.”
Catching Joe’s mood, Methos moved the body to the lip of the crater with respect and care, and then climbed down into the hole, using the broken roots for purchase. The tree was well over a hundred feet tall, and the root ball had unearthed a fine eight foot deep cavity. Methos laid out the body with more ceremony than he’d summoned in centuries, making sure the head was properly tucked in with the body, where the spirit might find it in any third afterlife, if necessary. He had enough headless ghosts in his past.
Joe’s words weren’t sentimental, but they were tinged with a sad regret for the nameless youth’s inexperience and lost potential, and just a touch of hope for light on paths unknown. Finally, he dropped in a handful of dirt, and backed away, his face expressionless.
“Do you always say the words?” Methos asked carefully.
“The words change. But you gotta say something,” Joe said, moving on. “Grab the chainsaw, lets finish this.”
Methos carried the saw forward into the wash of the headlights, and surveyed the tree dubiously. “You want me to cut that up, and fill in the hole?”
“No, of course not. Some unlucky woodcutter might harvest the wood for his stove, and find a nasty surprise at the bottom. Cut here.” Joe indicated a spot around 12 feet up the trunk. “Make sure you cut away the limbs from the trunk for three feet on either side. You don’t want to get tangled up with the branches.”
“You sound like you’ve done this a few times.”
“Every Watcher evolves their own system. It keeps us from developing too many detectable habits. Crime fighters see serial killers behind every bush these days.”
“I wonder why.” Methos pulled the drawcord and a throaty roar shattered the peace of the silent woods. “Not exactly stealthy!” he yelled.
“Cut,” Joe admonished. “You’re on the clock, now.”
Methos cut. He limbed the branches he could reach, and undercut a notch in the main trunk before starting a cut from the top down. The trunk was nearly as wide as the twenty-four inch bar, and the air filled with the smell of warm pitch and sawdust. Methos heard wood snapping, and the trunk shifted, a subtle movement of many tons. He backed out the saw and gave the tree room, but nothing happened.
“This is the fun part,” Joe said, his eyes catching a gleam of lunar light. “This is the part I miss. One more inch. Go on,” he urged.
Dubious, Methos revved the saw and re-entered the cut. The fact that Joe had stepped well back behind the Jeep was not lost on him. “If this thing rolls on me, I’m putting it in your Chronicle!” Methos yelled. Then, the last of the trunk parted with a sharp snap, and the upper part of the tree settled gently on the support of it’s upper limbs, rocking as if on rusty springs. The lower part of the tree trunk didn’t move an inch. The new saw cut gleamed whitely in the moonlight.
“Hmm. Looks like it needs the magic touch. Gimme...” Joe moved forward, motioning for the saw, craning his head to look into the shadows under the main trunk.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Methos blocked him with a solid elbow. “MacLeod would kill me if I allowed you to be murdered by a conniving conifer.”
“Killjoy,” Joe sulked. He pointed down into the shadows. “Cut that last branch holding it down, and let’s get out of here.”
“Who in their right mind taught you how to run a chainsaw, Joe?”
“They come with a perfectly good manual.”
“I had to ask.”
Methos poked his head very carefully under the trunk and trimmed away a few more branches. His surgery revealed a long, thick limb deeply skewered into the earth by the weight of the falling tree.
“That one,” Joe confirmed, still a little grumpy. “Cut it close to the trunk. And be ready to jump away if the saw vibration shatters the branch. It’s under a lot of pressure. I don’t want to explain to MacLeod how you were beheaded by a murderous conifer meant for me.”
“Don’t even joke about that, Joe.”
Methos crept up on the anchoring limb like an enemy sentry on a castle battlement, and ripped the saw through the base of the branch, the chain screaming. The limb did shatter, and Methos jumped back as if dodging a cobra, tossing the saw. The anchor released, the tree trunk swept upward, it’s flexible branches gathering in the saw and launching it fifty feet down the road, where it bounced from housing to saw tip to roll to a rest with only a couple of scratches to mark it’s flight.
“Gotta admire good German engineering.” Joe was grinning like a thief.
“You didn’t tell me you were re-inventing the catapult!” Methos accused.
“I thought you’d recognize the design,” Joe managed to answer, after he stopped laughing. The trunk was now standing perfectly vertical, the root ball returned to the earth, covering the body with a ton of tree and dirt. “Besides, it’s a counterweight problem. A trebuchet. Are you sure you lived through the middle ages?”
“Don’t be starting on me, Joe. I was a scribe, not a siege-leader. Fiery arrows and hot lead suck.”
“Can’t argue with you there. Come on, Paul Bunyan, grab the saw and let’s get out of here. I’ll buy you a beer for beheading your first spruce.”
While Methos packed up the SUV, Joe wandered over to the upright trunk, mindful of his footing on the uneven soil. Drawing the Marine knife from inside his coat, he carefully carved a small ankh on the eastern exposure of the tree bole.
“Done?” Methos asked, looking over Joe’s shoulder.
Joe eased stiffly into the driver’s seat and disengaged the handbrake. “If you’re going to be messing with those phones again, see if you can hook up my music to the speakers. I can’t get my radio station way up here.”
“Do you want me to drive for a while?”
“Not on your life. You drive like an old lady.”
“Horses are safer.”
“But not as sanitary.” Joe adjusted the wheel after looking over Methos’ shoulder one too many times.
“See? Keep your eyes on the cobblestones, driver.”
“Then tell me what you’re up to over there.”
“I’m playing with the video. If we can make it look like it’s been photoshopped, maybe we can avoid getting arrested, at least.”
“Great, I get to end up on JibJab, too. ‘Blues Barkeep Blasts Teen.’ ”
Methos froze in mid-text, and stared at Joe. “You’re a genius.”
“I knew that. Where’s the proof, so I can post that, too, wise guy?”
“Well, your new marketing director and agent is a genius, anyway. Why, he’s planning on tying your unique gritty urban blues image into the next hot cultural craze. The Green Hornet!”
“There’s a Green Hornet craze?” Joe asked, mystified. “Not since I was in high school, man. Bruce Lee was cool, though.”
“You wouldn’t still have the lunch bucket, would you?” Methos asked.
“I ain’t telling. Now how does my being a genius tie into the Green Hornet?”
“We’ll photoshop you and Mac into a half a dozen little vids and release them to the wild. Joe Dawson, Blues Man by night, and Crime Fighter by-,” Methos hesitated, “-night. We’ll have to work on that part. Instead of the Green Hornet, you’ll be the Blue Bee. Mac can play your faithful sidekick, Buzz.”
The mental image almost forced Joe off the road. “The Blue Bee? I’m not going to be the Blue Bee. That’s stupid. Besides, doesn’t the Blue Beetle have a copyright on insects in indigo tights, or something?”
“You’ve clearly never watched the Tick,” Methos accused. “Okay, then what should we call you? The Azul Ant? The Woad Wasp? I kind of like that one,” Methos paused to scribble it down in his notebook.
“Why an insect? Why not the Turquoise Tanager?” Joe asked a little desperately.
“Too many syllables, and too hard to fit into a word balloon. Besides, not enough chitinous imagery to cover your deep inner angst in the storyline. After all, the theme for all superheroes is metamorphosis in the wake of disaster.”
“Great. Next you’ll be calling me the Cerulean Cockroach.”
“The Kafka fans would squee,” Methos considered.
“Yeah, you and that one guy in the basement in Cleveland,” Joe said. “What’s his name, Gregor?”
Methos adopted an expression of pained martyrdom. “You just watch. Our fan base is small, but mighty in thematic content. We’ll get our reboot filmed yet.”
“Hey, focus, here. You can’t start a viral craze from my telephone.”
“Smart phone. Keep up, Luddite.”
“Look who’s talking. And that’s my top of the line iPhone you’re borrowing. You’d think it was a beer or something, cadging it like that. Why don’t you use yours?”
“Because you get better coverage. It’s a Watcher perk. And because I’m using my phone to shield yours from traces.”
“What, you have an app for that?”
“Not quite. I have a company that invented an app for that. Don’t tell Mac, he’ll want to make me buy my own beer.”
“I’d have to spend all my time at the bar.”
“I’m absolutely, positively, never ever telling Mac,” Joe fervently promised. “But there’s one thing I don’t get.”
“Yes? How may I clarify?” Methos was willing to be generous in doling out his secrets, if he could twist more concessions out of Joe. He had lots of secrets.
“Why don’t you get your pet hackers at your company to Jibjab the video?” Joe asked blandly.
Methos stared at him, eyes narrowed. “Because...that would be too easy?”
“Bright boy,” Joe grinned.
Even as Methos finished his email instructions and jabbed the send on the touchscreen, the iPhone bleeped, and the display flipped and blacked out. “Oh, that can’t be good,” Methos shook it. “Not now! I need access. The vid hasn’t finished uploading.”
“Give it to me,” Joe demanded.
Methos held it out of reach, while squinting to read a scroll of text that started crawling across the screen. “It’s in a new code. You know I hate it when you keep things from me.”
“Don’t make me stop the car.”
Sullenly, Methos handed over the phone.
Joe read it, and squared his shoulders. “That was fast. For Watchers.”
“I’ve been blacklisted. They’ve pulled the plug on my access code on the network. Keep up, Sidekick.”
“No, no, no, Mac’s the sidekick, I’m the sage and magical advisor.”
“Do I dub thee Yoda the Yogi? I’ll just shorten it to Yoga.” Joe glanced down as the scrolling continued, then tossed the useless phone back to Methos. “A general recall.”
“A line in the sand? You go back to headquarters like all the rest of the good little field agents, or else?”
“That’s about right,” Joe shrugged. “We’ve been there, done that.”
“Got the bullet holes.”
“We need to catch up to Mac and warn him.”
“We need a real computer to tease out the vid and finish the upload.”
“Mine is locked up in the vault back at the bar. It might as well be on Mars. How about yours?”
Methos shook his head. “I use the University Free Library when I want to stay off the grid. The one at home is an innocent shill. But we can’t backtrack to any of them in the middle of the night.”
“If we’re lucky, the Watchers and the Terrible Tweens Gang will crash into each other looking for us,” Joe said, rubbing his beard restlessly.
“Invoking the goddess of fortune is perilous work,” Methos observed.
“It’s a job?”
“In every culture I ever died in, it was.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Then we’re back at square one, meeting Mac at the monastery, drawing in the gang, and fighting our way out from there. We’ll deal with the Watchers and the rest of the flak later.”
“No. Not quite. The orphanage will have computers. Good ones, if Mac’s a donor. We’ll co-opt the gang’s own network and use it to bring them down.”
“That’s evil. I like it.”
“It’s nice to exercise hidden talents once and a while.”
“You’re too modest. Really.” Joe glanced sideways. “And if you call me the ‘Blue Bee’ on Facebook, I’m warning the monastery abbot about the Icyhot Pronghammer and Prostate Screamer, and your blues fixation will be concentrated in other anatomical quarters entirely.”
“Evil is as evil does, Joe.”
“How far to Chief Mountain?”
“Maybe ten hours from here? MacLeod will be a couple of hours ahead of us.”
“Then they should have the orphanage secured by the time we get there. Piece of cake.”
“We’ll see, Woad Warrior.”
They turned east and north. Methos took over driving in the dead of night, when Joe began to blink heavily against the oncoming truck lights. Methos kept an eye on him as he drove‒Joe was still favoring his shoulder as he dozed, and tended to jerk awake at twenty minute intervals. After the third rousing, Methos asked quietly, “Why don’t you kick your legs off and stretch out in the back?”
“Nah. Too many ghosts,” Joe answered, too tired to lie.
“Like MacLeod’s challenger? He has a resting place, Joe. You made sure of that. You said the words.”
“No. Like the kid I shot and didn’t bury. There’s no words for that.”
Methos couldn’t think of any words, either.
Joe turned his head toward the window, and pretended to sleep again. Still, the steady beat of the tread on the road and the hum of the engine wore down even the most persistent haunts. Methos made sure, after that, that a thread of music kept tumbling from the tinny country stations that dotted Highway 3 as it twisted between the Cascades and the main spine of the Rockies.
“Where are we?” Joe demanded hoarsely as Methos started their ascent into the Rockies.
“The wicked, twisted road,” Methos said randomly. It was the name of the song on the radio.
“Oh. Wake me when it straightens out, will you?” Joe asked politely, then didn’t rouse again til dawn.
Methos crested the Crowsnest Summit as the sun rose over the plains of Alberta. The quaking aspens that filled the southern ravines were just unfolding their autumn colors, but the trees below gleamed green in the early light. Methos yawned, and checked the fuel gauge.
“How did you get over the border with the equivalent of a National Guard arsenal in the back of the Jeep?” Joe murmured, no sign of sleep clouding his eyes as he straightened up.
Methos blinked innocently. “Do I look like a gunrunner? Besides, it’s your plates they ran at the checkpoint, not mine. And the Watchers have mysterious ways of making border guards look the other way.”
“There’s a gas station with a decent diner just this side of Burmis,” Joe offered, not bothering to comment on Methos’ looks. “They have biscuits and gravy.”
“You’ve been following Mac over here on his pilgrimages,” Methos accused.
Joe shrugged with one shoulder. “It’s what I do. It’s not like I’m cheating on you,” he added with a fleeting smile. “If it makes you feel any better, the first time was when Mac was dating Tessa. She donated one of her marble statues to the kids. I watched them install it from an old mine entrance up in the hills.”
“Hell, no. Mac knows I’ve Watched him for over twenty years. But he doesn’t really get at a gut level that I watched him most of that time, you know? Do me a favor, and don’t clue him in.”
“He should be honored.”
“Look who’s angling for beer for breakfast,” Joe laughed, stretching carefully. “Let’s see if the Watcher credit card still works. I think they owe us per diem.”
“About four thousand years worth,” Methos griped.
Joe checked his watch, and frowned. “We’d better phone it in and get it to go. And about a gallon of coffee. Mac’s probably close to pulling in to Chief Mountain right now. We’re about 2 hours out. The iPhone Mafia must have figured we’ve blown town by now.”
“I texted them as of 3:45 am last night, to be precise.”
“I need that coffee,” Joe declared. “Because it sounds to me like you told them where we’re going.”
“Why should they get a good night’s sleep? We want them tired, rushed and unable to call in reinforcements.”
“Oh, I get it. Unlike us, right? Not to put a fine point on it, or anything.”
“They should be about three hours behind us. I’ll catch a nap after breakfast, you can cop a siesta at the school while I spike their video. We’ll be fresh as daisies.”
“Maybe I should call up headquarters and invite a few security teams, too.”
“If we do this right, they’ll call you, announce all is forgiven, and roll out the red carpet.”
“Have you been eating those Liberty Caps again?” Joe squinted suspiciously.
“It’s a native herbal medicine. And I only indulge during the full moon. I’m considering reliving my shamanic years in my next life.”
“Give me fair warning if you decide to eat the brown acid. I’ll move to Australia.”
“Not far enough, Joe. Not far enough.”