by Marina Frants
Still, even on the bike, the going was getting a bit slow. Richie wondered what the holdup was. Three P.M. on a Thursday was not exactly rush hour. An accident probably -- he had passed several cop cars on his way, flashing their lights in vain attempts to get through. There were more flashing lights up ahead, and a couple of circling helicopters too. Richie caught the call letters of a local TV station on one of the copters, and a network logo on another. Whatever was going on, it was attracting attention.
Another couple of hundred yards, and Richie could finally see the cause of all the trouble. An eighteen-wheeler was parked at an angle across an exit ramp up ahead, completely blocking the exit and most of the right lane. A half-circle of police cars surrounded the truck, leaving even less space for the traffic to get through. No ambulances in sight, though. And there were people sitting on top of the truck, over a dozen of them, men and women waving banners and shouting words Richie couldn't make out over the honking horns. Definitely not an accident, Richie decided. Something much weirder.
Richie edged forward a bit more -- and came to an abrupt halt as the presence of a nearby Immortal momentarily overwhelmed his other senses. Richie pulled off his helmet and glanced around wildly, trying to pinpoint the source of the buzz. With so many people around, it was hard to tell.
Good, a little voice whispered inside his head. If you can't spot him, he probably can't spot you. Turn around. Go back. Take another route and avoid him.
It was an attractive notion. Avoid a meeting, avoid a decision. Lately, Richie had been finding it more and more dificult come to any conclusion about other Immortals, and about his own involvement in the Game. Everything he had thought he knew about the subject had been turned upside down months before, in the space of a few short minutes. Kneeling on the dojo floor, with Duncan MacLeod's sword at his throat, Richie had looked up into the face of the man he considered to be his best friend, and saw his own death looking back with cold, contemptuous eyes. It was hard to believe in anything after that. Especially in his own judgment.
He had responded by hitting the road, challenging all comers as he went. As a way of venting his anger by rejecting everything MacLeod had ever taught him, it had been great. As a way of achieving safety and peace of mind, it sucked. And the consequences, in the form of Jennifer Hill, had come back to haunt him just as he thought he was getting his life back together. It was enough to drive any Immortal to holy ground for a century or two. Except Richie really didn't think he was suited for the monastic life.
And then Methos -- or rather, someone calling himself Methos -- came to Seacouver, promising the possibility of quitting the Game for good, of living out the centuries without the threat of mortal confrontation waiting around every new corner, behind every new door. To Richie, floundering in fear and guilt and lingering rage at MacLeod, the notion had been wonderfully, irresistibly attractive. Attractive, unfortunately, did not mean right. In the end, all he'd succeded in doing was making an idiot of himself, yet again.
And now here he was, frozen with indecision in the middle of a crowded highway. This was no way to live.
Richie decided he wasn't going to turn around. After all, the other Immortal could follow him easily enough if he wanted to. Running would only waste time, and make him feel like a coward. Richie put his helmet back on, and began to move forward again.
The Immortal, he quickly realized, was somewhere near that parked truck. One of the people on the roof, maybe? But they were all busy shouting at the police, and waving big cardboard signs at the helicopters. Richie was close enough to read the signs now. "SAVE OUR OLD-GROWTH FORESTS!" "NO LOGGING IN STONY CRESCENT!" "TREES ARE PEOPLE TOO!" The truck itself had a picture of the Earth painted on it, with the word P.A.C.E. written above it in big green letters, and "Pacific Action Coalition for the Environment" written below. Richie scanned the crowd of cops around the truck, but none of them seemed aware of his presence either. Richie moved closer.
The protesters were obviously determined to keep on obstructing traffic for as long as possible. The truck's tires were slashed, three determined-looking women had chained themselves to the front bumper, and a man stood handcuffed to the driver's side door handle. He was looking around with a focused expession that Richie immediately recognized. This had to be the Immortal.
Richie lifted his faceplate, and met the other man's searching gaze. He tried to look neutral, neither afraid nor challenging, as he took the stranger's measure. Neutral was a bit hard to do when his body was pumping adrenaline as if it was expecting a shortage, but he thought he managed reasonably well.
The Immortal had blue eyes, and shaggy blond hair framing a cheerful, tanned face. He was not a tall man, but the faded denim vest he wore revealed broad shoulders and powerful arms, and he stood with the relaxed, confident stance of a man who expected to be able to handle anything he might encounter. He grinned at Richie, gave an amused little shrug, and tugged at the handcuffs a couple of times, as if to demonstrate that he wasn't getting out of them any time soon. Then he directed his attention once more toward the two cops standing directly in front of him.
"Save Stony Crescent!" he shouted. "Stop the logging now!"
Richie let out a sigh of relief as his heartbeat slowed to its usual pace. Whoever this guy was, he was obviously occupied elsewhere. And if the looks on those cops' faces were any indication, he was about to have bigger problems than Richie to deal with. Richie revved his engine, and moved on.
* * * * *
Joel Hunter, previously known, among other things, as Iolaus, watched the other Immortal disappear into the distance, and wondered if he would be needing his sword before the day was over. The stranger had made no threatening moves, but he'd been obviously agitated by Iolaus' presence. So agitated, in fact, that he did not seem to notice the two mopeds that followed him through the traffic. The mopeds' riders were both mortal, and one of them had passed close enough to the truck for Iolaus to make out the suspicously gun-shaped bulge beneath the man's windbreaker.
Iolaus shrugged. It wasn't his problem. Besides, the two cops he'd been shouting slogans at all afternoon were heading toward him, and if he interpreted their expressions correctly, he was about to find himself resisting arrest. With any luck, the helicopters would get it on film.
* * * * *
Richie had intended to be in Oregon by the end of the day. But less than an hour after he left the traffic jam behind, the pale clouds overhead began to darken, and the first raindrops splattered on the road. It was just a drizzle at first, but grew worse rapidly, until the rain was coming down like one solid sheet of water. When the thunder and lightning started, Richie decided that Oregon could wait.
He tried four different motels before he found one that was in his price range and had vacancies. By then he was soaking wet and freezing, and extremely grateful for the fact that Immortals didn't get pneumonia. A steaming shower and a change of clothes went a long way toward restoring to a reasonable semblance of well-being. A bacon cheeseburger and a mountain of French fries at the motel bar completed the process. Afterwards, he considered moving on, and putting more distance between himself and the Immortal he'd spotted earlier. But it was dark, the thunderstorm was still raging outside, and the pool table at the back of the room was calling his name. Plus, he'd already paid for the room for one night. Besides, if he really wanted to avoid a challenge, a crowded bar was the safest place to be, right?
He was on his second pool game and third beer when two men entered the bar, water dripping from their hair and clothes. They both wore jeans and olive-green windbreakers, as bland and nondescript as their faces. The newcomers paused just inside the door, looking around the dimly lit room with identical inquiring expressions. Since neither one of them was giving off a buzz, Richie ignored them after a quick glance, and went back to the far more important business of lining up a bank shot into the left corner pocket.
"Hello?" The taller of the two men called out, pitching his voice to be heard above the jukebox. "Excuse me? Did anyone here leave a black Honda motorbike parked under the canopy by the back entrance?"
Richie's heart sank. It was never good news, when somebody came in asking that. He leaned his pool cue against the wall, and approached the door.
"Yeah, that's my bike," he said. "What happened to it?"
The two men shuffled their feet uncomfortably. Richie prepared himself for the worst.
"There was this van pulling out," the tall man said finally. "Knocked the bike over and kept right on going, didn't even slow down. Must've been drunk or something, I'm telling you, nearly ran me over, too--"
"Shit!" Richie grabbed his jacket from the chair where he'd left it, and ran outside. The two men followed him, muttering apologies, half-hearted offers of help, and repeated assurances that the van driver must've been drunk. Richie paid no attention to them. If the bike was ruined, he was well and truly screwed. He'd have to either call MacLeod for a lift, or hitchhike his way back to Seacouver. Neither prospect was too appealing. And where the hell was he going to get the money for repairs?
The parking lot was dark and badly paved, and the rain had turned it into one giant water hazard. Richie splashed heedlessly through the ankle-deep puddles until he reached the spot where he'd left his bike.
The bike was still there, perfectly fine, not a scratch on it.
All of Richie's mental alarm bells went off at once. He whirled around, automatically dropping into a defensive stance. The two men from the bar were moving toward him, looking suddenly a great deal less bland and harmless. The tall one reached inside his windbreaker, and produced something that gave off a metallic glint in the dim light spilling from the motel windows. Richie did could not tell if it was a gun or a knife, nor did he particularly care. He just didn't want the damn thing anywhere near him.
Richie planted his left foot as solidly as he could, given the state of the ground, and launched his right foot into a sweeping roundhouse kick. It smacked into the man's arm with a satisfying crunch, and the weapon -- a gun, Richie realized -- went flying in a high arc, and landed in a puddle twenty feet away.
Richie regained his footing quickly, and drew his sword. His attackers paused, but did not seem particularly startled by the sight. Which only served to confirm Richie's suspicion that this was not a random mugging. Most people would be at least a little surprised to see a teenage punk pull a sword on them.
The Hunters -- and they had to be Hunters, Richie couldn't imagine what else they could be -- moved in opposite directions, trying to flank him. They were between Richie and the door, so retreating back inside the motel was not an option. Richie backed toward the middle of the parking lot, moving as fast is he dared, brandishing the sword in front of him in short, deadly arcs. He seemed to recall a Jeep parked somewhere in that direction, not too far away. If he could get his back against it, he might hold these bastards off until somebody wandered into the lot...
There was a soft splash behind him, barely audible over the rain. Richie spun reflexively, swinging the sword out in the same motion. There was a short cry as the blade connected, and a dark shape crumpled to the ground at Richie's feet. At the same time, another figure emerged from the shadows between two parked cars a few feet away, and raised its hand. There was a flash of light, and a sharp popping sound. Richie staggered and dropped to one knee as a bullet tore through his right shoulder.
Stupid... should've known there'd be another gun somewhere... The sword dropped from his fingers. His whole arm felt numb. His shoulder, unfortunately, didn't.
The three attackers closed in on him, cutting off all possibility of escape. Richie tried to pick up his sword with his left hand, but one of them kicked it away. He struggled to his feet anyway, determined to go down fighting. Even if his shoulder was on fire, and his head was spinning from pain and loss of blood, he was going to make the bastards work for it...
He was so distracted with pain and fear and adrenaline that he didn't even register the presence of the other Immortal until after he saw him. Or rather, until he saw the flying blur that struck the Hunter nearest to him, and sent the man sprawling to the pavement.
The gunman raised his weapon again, and Richie cried out a warning. It proved unnecessary. The Immortal was already moving, ducking under the man's arm to tackle him. Richie caught a glimpse of shaggy blond hair, and realized that this was the Immortal he'd spotted at the rally earlier that day.
There was no time to ponder the implications of this. There was one thug still standing, and one climbing to his feet. Richie dove for his sword again, and managed to grab it this time.
He was ready to launch himself into the fight immediately, despite his still-useless right arm, but there was no need for it. The two remaining Hunters had apparently decided that the odds were no longer sufficiently stacked in their favor, and made a run for it. Richie watched them recede into the darkness, and didn't even have the energy to swear, let alone give chase.
There was a short, strangled scream behind him. Richie turned, and saw the blond Immortal bending over the body of the man he'd been grappling with.
"Damn," the Immortal muttered. "The gun went off. Stupid idiot just wouldn't let go." He reached down to feel the man's pulse, and shook his head in disgust.
"Is he dead?" Richie asked shakily.
The Immortal nodded. "Yes. And so is the other one, I think." He turned away from the body, and began to examine the ground around it, as if searching for something, though Richie couldn't imagine what.
"What other one?" Richie asked, then remembered bringing one man down with his sword just before he was shot. "Oh, shit." That was all they needed. Two dead mortals on their hands.
"Hey, better them than us, right?" The Immortal straightened up, and held out his hand. "I'm Joel Hunter."
This, Richie thought, was one of those moments that only happened to Immortals. Standing there bleeding, with a bloody sword in one hand and a dead body at his feet, shaking hands with a total stranger, and wondering if he was about to have to fight for his life.
Joel, however, was making no threatening moves. He didn't even have a weapon drawn. Richie allowed himself to relax a little.
"Thanks for the help," he said. "I thought I was a goner there."
"No problem." Joel grinned. He looked perfectly relaxed standing there, unbothered by the rain, not even winded from the fight. "I was just driving by, and sensed you."
"And you decided to stop by, just in case some mortals were jumping me in the parking lot?" Richie felt suspicious again. It was a little too fortuitous.
Joel shrugged. "I saw two of them following you earlier. Wasn't really planning to get involved, but hey -- right place, right time, and all that. What have these guys got against you, anyway?"
"I don't know." Richie crouched down next to the body. "But I can make a guess."
Fighting down his distaste, he lifted the dead man's arm, and pushed the sleeve back. He had to wait for a lightning bolt before there was enough light to see by, but it was there, just as he'd expected. A Watcher tattoo on the man's wrist.
"Shit," he muttered, and looked up to find Joel Hunter staring at him with a puzzled expression.
"Watchers? Why would Watchers want to kill you?"
Richie stared back. "You know about the Watchers?"
Thunder crashed overhead, making them both jump. Joel brushed wet hair out of his face, and looked over his shoulder at the warm lights of the motel.
"Maybe we'd better finish this conversation somewhere dry. Give me a hand with these bozos, will you?"
"Uh... sure." Richie gulped. "What do we do with them?"
"Stick 'em in the back of my truck, drive someplace quiet, dump 'em in the Pacific. I find the tried and true methods work best, don't you?"
Richie swallowed again, feeling slightly queasy. Getting rid of the bodies was always the worst part. Even his recent headhunting spree hadn't inured him to the experience. Had this Joel guy been doing it so long that it stopped bothering him? Or was he just a cold-blooded bastard?
Well, whatever else he might be, he was the guy with the truck. Richie gave a mental shrug.
"Okay, let me get my bike and we'll go."
"You're gonna ride a bike in this rain? You're nuts. Ride in the truck with me."
"That's all right, I--"
"Look, I'm not going to jump you, okay? I'm not even armed." Joel raised his arms and turned around. "You can frisk me if you want."
Richie bristled. "I'm not afraid of you."
Joel grinned, unoffended. "Good. You shouldn't be. I'm perfectly harmless unless provoked."
Richie wasn't entirely sure how to take that remark. It sounded friendly enough, and Joel was relaxed and smiling, but there seemed to be an implicit warning behind his easy manner, an unspoken so don't provoke me hanging at the end of the sentence.
That was fine with him, Richie decided. The bullet wound in his shoulder had healed, but he was still tired, cold, and soaking wet. The last thing he wanted was a fight.
"Okay, let's go."
* * * * *
Two hours later, the two dead men were at the bottom of the Pacific, with rocks in their pockets to make sure they stayed there, and Richie and Joel were on their third round of beers back at the motel bar. It had taken Richie the better part of those three rounds to tell Joel about James Horton, and the Hunters' fanatical campaign against Immortals. When he was done, Joel took a long swig of his beer and shook his head.
"Damn. I didn't know about any of this. When did it happen?"
"About three years ago."
"Ah. I was in Tasmania at the time, taking tourists on safaris. Still, she should've told me..." He slammed his glass down on the table with a little more force than necessary, and stood up. "Come on, Richie, there's somebody we need to talk to."
"Who?" But Joel was already halfway to the door, so Richie shrugged and followed.
They went out into the parking lot again. The rain was beginning to slow down, though not by much. Richie was getting pretty sick of being rained on, but Joel seemed unbothered by it. He looked around with an irritated expression, then shouted at the top of his voice.
No reply. Joel aimed a frustrated kick at the front tire of a nearby car, and yelled again.
"Doooori! If you don't come out and talk to me right now, I'm gonna make you track me down in Tibet again!"
A car door slammed nearby. Richie turned in the direction of the sound, and saw a slim, dark figure walking toward them, shoulders hunched against the rain. A moment later, the figure entered a pool of light spilling from one of the windows, and Richie saw that it was a woman, dressed in black jeans and a black waterproof jacket, sneakers and a wide-brimmed hat to keep the rain out of her face. A pair of binoculars, the expensive infrared kind, hung from a strap around her neck.
She stopped a few steps away from them, and folded her arms across her chest. Richie couldn't get a clear view of her face beneath the dripping hat brim, but her stance suggested extreme exasperation.
"Oh, come on, Joel, not Tibet again! You know what yak butter does to my digestion!" She had a Southern accent, Richie noted.
Joel rolled his eyes. "Don't remind me. Look, we need to talk. I assume you were watching me earlier?"
"When you killed those guys, you mean? Yeah, I was around. Who were they?"
"You tell me. Richie here's been telling me about Hunters..."
Dori tensed visibly, but continued to meet Joel's gaze.
"Let's talk in my car," she said.
Richie cleared his throat, drawing a sheepish look from Joel.
"Oops, misplaced my manners again. Dori, this is Richie Ryan. Richie, this is Dori. My Watcher."
Richie had already guessed as much, but he was still mildly surprised. He'd thought MacLeod was the only Immortal who knew his Watcher, and Joe had always made such a big deal of it. But Dori did not seem in the least bit put out by being suddenly confronted by her Immortal in a dark parking lot.
She did seem put out at being introduced to Richie. She looked him for what seemed like a very long time before shaking his hand, and even then she didn't seem entirely happy about.
"Richard Ryan, right?" she said in a cool voice. "I've heard of you."
Her tone clearly implied that what she heard wasn't good. Richie sighed. Given the way he'd spent most of the previous year, it wasn't too surprising.
Joel must've noticed his Watcher's reaction, but he gave no sign of it.
"Your car sounds good," he said. "Let's go."
Dori drove a dark blue Honda station wagon that had seen better days, and not recently. The back was crammed full of camping supplies, and the floor was littered with old magazines and candy bar wrappers. Richie had to shift a battered duffel bag from the back to the passenger seat before climbing in to sit next to Joel. Dori got into the driver's seat, pulled off her hat, and turned on the light.
"Coffee?" She opened the glove compartment and took out a thermos.
Joel glared at her.
"No, thanks. Dori, those guys in the parking lot had Watcher tattoos. Why haven't you told me about the Hunters before this?"
Dori avoided his eyes as she unscrewed the thermos lid and poured herself a steaming mugfull. "I didn't know."
"Oh, come on--"
"I mean, I didn't know at the time. I was in Tasmania with you, remember? I wasn't in touch with either the European or the North American division. So I didn't find out about the whole mess until we came back here, and by then it was over. Horton was dead, his followers disbanded. I saw no point in bringing it up."
Joel's face was cold. "We have a deal, Dori. You don't hide things from me."
"There was nothing to hide! It was over. If I thought for a moment you might be in danger, I would've told you, you know that."
Joel's eyes softened slightly, but his voice was still hard. "Fine. Tell me now."
Dori sighed, and took a sip of her coffee. "I didn't get a good look at the guys you fought. Can you describe them?"
"One was five-nine, 160 pounds, brown hair, glasses..." Joel rattled off details while Dori scribbled in a pocket notebook. Richie stared at the other Immortal in astonishmet. If Dori had asked him about their attackers, he wouldn't have been able to provide more than the sketchiest of descriptions. But Joel, with only a couple of lightning bolts to illuminate his view, had managed to register every relevant detail, starting with every man's height and weight, and ending with the small scar on one guy's temple.
"Doesn't ring any immediate bells," Dori said when he finished. "But I'll check it out."
"Thanks." Joel smiled, and Dori's shoulders sagged with relief. "Give me a call when you have anything." He opened the car door. "Good night, Dori. Come on, Richie. Let's get back to those drinks."
"Oh, good." Richie climbed out of the car. "Can we stay inside this time? I've been rained on all afternoon and most of the evening, and I'm getting tired of it."
"Don't bitch. I've been in jail most of the afternoon. I'd much rather be rained on, trust me."
"So they did arrest you, huh? How'd they get you out of the handcuffs?"
"Really big-ass wire cutters. I think what the cops really wanted to do was drive the truck to the station with me still attached, so it's probably a good thing we slashed the tires."
Richie could only shake his head. He had been arrested often enough to know how unpleasant the experience could be. Yet Joel just shrugged it off with the same good humor he gave to everything else.
"So did you actually accomplish anything? Besides blocking traffic and making a nuisance of yourself, I mean?"
"Oh, yeah. Making a nuisance is how you get people to pay attention. We've been fighting this logging operation for months -- petitions, phone calls, letters to Congress -- nobody gave a shit. But mess up a major highway for one afternoon, and all of a sudden we've got national coverage. We have three newspaper interviews and a press conference set up for tomorrow. Millions of people got to see me getting my head smashed against a truck door on network television. We'll beat this thing yet."
They strolled back inside, and reclaimed their table in the bar. Joel ordered coffee and a basket of French fries rather than another beer, so Richie did the same. Joel was still an unknown quantity after all, and Richie didn't want to get so drunk that he'd let his guard down. Plus, he had a lot of questions to ask, and he wanted to be sober enough to remember the answers.
"Won't Dori get in trouble for helping you out like that? I thought it was against the rules."
"It is. I'm a special case." Joel grinned, and took a sip of his coffee. He obviously wasn't going to say anything more until Richie asked, so Richie asked.
"When they first stuck a Watcher on me, fourteen centuries ago in Constantinople, it took me about fifteen minutes to the spot the guy. So I cornered him in a blind alley, and we had a little talk... don't look at me like that, I didn't hurt him. Well, not much."
"Hey, if someone's following you, you assume unfriendly intentions, right? Anyway, he tells me about the Watchers. I don't like the idea, so I let him go, and then lose him."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. A few months later they try again with a different guy. I lose him, too. But they keep trying. No one lasts more than a day or so, but it's getting annoying. Finally I make them an offer. I let them watch me, provided they stay out of my personal life, and they share their information with me whenever I ask."
"And they agreed to that?"
"Hey, it was a long time ago. They weren't quite so anal about the rules then. Plus, they knew it was the only way to keep track of me. By the time anyone thought to object, the arrangement was several centuries old, and since I haven't done any harm, they just went on with it. It was tradition by then, and we know how big the Watchers are on tradition."
Richie mulled over this new information as he drank his coffee. So Joel was at least fourteen centuries old -- provided he was telling the truth. After his dealings with the Methos impostor, Richie was inclined to be skeptical. Then again, Joel was laying no claims to great wisdom. And he clearly did have an unusual arrangement with the Watchers... Richie shrugged, and decided to accept the story at face value until he found something to contradict it. Besides, there were more important things to worry about.
"So what are you going to do when Dori gets you the information on those Hunters? Track them down and kill them?"
"Only if I have to. It's not my job to clean up the Watchers' messes for them. And they probably wouldn't thank me for doing it."
"You think the Watchers will take care of it, then?"
"I think I'm going to wait for Dori to get back to me before I form an opinion. Why are you so worried? Hunters or not, I doubt they'll come back tonight."
"That's not what I'm worried about." Richie felt himself blush. He was worried about that, just a little, but he didn't want to come across as a coward. "It's just that I've already killed one mortal today, and I really don't want to repeat the experience anytime soon."
"No?" Joel's voice was neutral, but Richie sensed a certain skepticism.
"I don't like killing people," he said, a little defensively.
"Ah." Joel nodded. "I see... So why was my Watcher looking at you like you're poison?"
Richie's heart sank. Joel had noticed, then. He'd been hoping to avoid that particular bit of explaining.
"Was she?" he muttered lamely. "I hadn't noticed."
Joel rolled his eyes. "Yes, you had. And you knew why, too. Now Dori isn't the most judgmental person in the world, but she is a bit protective of me. She wouldn't look at you like that unless she thought you were going to cause me trouble. Are you?"
"No," Richie sighed. He wondered how often he might need to have this conversation in the future. Even if most Immortals didn't talk to their Watchers, reputations had a way of getting around, didn't they? Every Immortal in the world seemed to know who MacLeod was, or at least to be aware of his existence. Was it going to be the same with Richie now? Did Immortals he'd never even met know his name, and think of him as a headhunter? It was a disquieting thought.
Joel was still watching him, obviously waiting for an elaboration. He didn't look partucularly worried, just curious. Richie drummed his fingers on the table irritably.
"Look, I don't realy want to talk about it, all right?"
"Really?" Joel lifted one eyebrow. "Could've fooled me. I would've said, looking at you, that you're practically bursting to talk about it. I could be wrong, of course..."
Except that he wasn't. The number of people Richie could really talk to had shrunk alarmingly over the past year. The few mortal friends he still kept in touch with were out of the question. Joe was usually good for general friendly chit-chat, but would always get all fidgety if Richie turned the subject to Immortal problems. Methos -- the real one -- was still an unknown quantity. Richie was finally beginning to get comfortable with talking to Amanda, but not about serious stuff. And Mac -- well, things were complicated with Mac. More than usual. It was ironic, really, but at the moment Richie felt more comfortable opening up to a relative stranger than to MacLeod.
He dumped another packet of sugar into his coffee and stirred, just to give his hands something to do.
"Look, it's a long story, okay?"
"That's all right. We're Immortal, we've got time."
"True." Richie reached across the table to grab a French fry. "Well, don't complain if I bore you, then."
It took nearly an hour to get the whole story out. And even then it wasn't really the whole story. Richie named no names, and left out all mention of the Dark Quickening, saying only that he and his teacher had had a violent quarrel. Joel raised his eyebrows at that, but didn't press for details. Richie gave a little sigh of relief, and went on with the tale.
Joel listened without interrupting, sipping his coffee and munching his fries at a leisurely pace. He didn't bat an eye when Richie described his unprovoked killing of Carter Wellan, or admitted to sleeping with Jennifer Hill after learning that he'd killed her husband. He didn't sneer when Richie told of his encounter with the fake Methos, and the disastrous attempt at pacifism that followed. Richie felt himself relaxing more and more with every word. It was a wonderful feeling, to talk to somebody so... so... so non-judgmental.
"No wonder Dori thinks you're trouble," Joel said when Richie finished. Richie winced a bit, but Joel was smiling. "Relax. I'll talk to her, calm her down."
"Thanks." Richie sighed. "I really don't want the Watchers to go around thinking I'm some sort of homicidal maniac. Word gets out, you know?"
"And thanks for listening and not making me feel like an idiot."
Joel shrugged. "Hey, I've been there. It seems like every Immortal has to go through this in their first century or so -- coming to terms with eternal life, searching for the meaning of it all, turning to older Immortals for advice... it's human nature. Or Immortal nature, however you want to look at it."
"Are you saying you made the same mistakes when you were my age?" Richie asked skeptically. He found that he had trouble believing in this idea. His mistakes seemed too unique, and... well... too overwhelmingly stupid.
"Nah." Joel grinned. "I made my very own, personalized set of mistakes. But my motives were the same. I wanted to know the Meaning Of It All." He drew little quotation marks in the air as he spoke the phrase.
"So what conclusion did you come to?"
"See?" Joel rolled his eyes, looking exasperated. "You're doing it again."
"It's all right. We're both tired. Look, how about we call it a night, and I'll call you tomorrow after I've heard from Dori? Are you staying here?"
"Fine." Joel popped the last French fry into his mouth. "Until tomorrow then."
* * * * *
As he had so many other times in his life, Richie went to bed virtuously intending to get an early start the next morning, and ended up sleeping till noon. He actually showered and dressed and was ready to go looking for breakfast when he noticed the message light on the phone blinking. He picked up the phone, and dialed up the message.
"Not a morning person, I take it?" Joel Hunter's voice said cheerfully. "Well, I can't sit around waiting for you. No news from Dori yet, but hopefully we'll have something soon. Come to P.A.C.E. headquarters when you're up, and ask for me. Somebody will probably give you a lecture on deforestation -- consider it your penance for oversleeping."
Richie grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down the address Joel dictated, then went to get his bike. He wondered what news Dori would have for them. He wondered if he could bum breakfast, or at least coffee, at P.A.C.E. He wondered how long a lecture on deforestation would take.
The answers, when he reached the small office building that was his destination, were none, no, and not an issue. Richie walked through the front door, and found himself surrounded by chaos.
The floor was ankle-deep in paper. Filing cabintes lay overturned, empty drawers gaping. A computer lay smashed in the middle of the room, surrounded by a scattering of floppy disks. Posters hung half-torn off the walls. Slashed cushions surrounded a broken sofa against one wall. Half a dozen grim-faced men and women were in the process of trying to clean up the mess.
Joel sat on the floor in the far corner off the room, sorting through a pile of folders. He looked up as Richie entered. The cold, tight-lipped anger in his face made Richie stop and take a step back, though he was fairly sure it wasn't directed at him.
"Uhm. I see I came at a bad time."
Joel made a visible effort to relax. The anger in his eyes receded slightly. "Actually, you haven't. Come on, we need to talk in private."
They went into an adjacent room, a small office that had already been tidied up. Joel shut the door behind them softly, turned around, and, with a look of perfect calm on his face, slammed his fist into the wall. A framed picture above the door fell with a crash.
"Sorry," Joel muttered, rubbing his knuckles absentmindedly. There was a smear of blood on the plaster where his hand had hit. "One of our college interns was here late last night, printing out some flyers when these bastards broke in. They hit her on the head with a crowbar. She's in a coma. The doctors don't know if she'll ever wake up."
Richie swallowed. "I'm sorry, man. Do you know who did this?"
"Yeah. The others all think it was thugs from the lumber company we've been picketing, but I know better. They left footprints on some of the papers in the front room, and I recognized one set from the parking lot last night. These were same guys who attacked you."
"Shit." Richie had to resist an impulse to make his own dent in the wall. "But this place has nothing to do with me. They must've been after you, too."
Joel nodded. "Looking for something to lead them to my home address, probably. But I'm careful about these things. I think what they really wanted were the computer files, and then they trashed the place to cover it." He paced the room, aiming an occasional kick at the furniture. "Dammit, where's Dori? She should've had something for me by now."
As if responding to his voice, the phone rang. Richie and Joel both stood and stared at it for a moment, then Joel reached across the desk to pick it up.
Richie could hear a male voice crackling in the receiver, but couldn't make out the words. Joel's face darkened as he listened.
"Who is this?" he demanded. The reply did not seem to satisfy him. "I want to talk her." Pause. "No, not later, now, or I'm hanging up." Another pause. "Dori? Are you all ri-- okay, okay, I'm listening. Yes. Wait." He came around the desk and sat down, opened a drawer, pulled out a notebook and a pen. "Go on."
For the next couple of minutes, the voice on the phone did all the talking while Joel scribbled rapidly in the notebook, occasionally making a small sketch between the lines. He appeared to be taking down directions. Richie watched impatiently, but made no sound that would betray his presence to the man at the other end of the line. He thought he had a pretty good idea of what was going on.
"Yeah, I'll be there," Joel slammed the receiver down, shut the notebook, and let loose with a rapid stream of words in a language Richie didn't recognize, though he could make a good guess at the meaning.
"They've got Dori, don't they?" Richie asked.
Joel closed his eyes and rubbed one hand across his face. "They say they'll let her go if I come alone."
"I know. I have to go, though."
"Let me come with you."
"No. I appreciate the offer, but it's too risky. They might kill Dori as soon as they see you."
"Then tell me where the place is and we'll come separately, from different directions. Come on, Joel, you know it's a trap. They've probably got a dozen guys waiting with machine guns or something. You come alone, you'll get yourself killed, and Dori will be no better off."
Joel hesitated, drumming his fingers on the desktop. "All right," he said finally. "But we need to think this through."
* * * * *
The directions provided by Dori's abductors pointed to an isolated cabin at the end of an unpaved road deep in the Stony Crescent canyon. Richie and Joel drove out there in Joel's truck, turning onto the road an almost an hour ahead of the specified time. Richie would've liked to have his bike along, but Joel argued that they couldn't risk the noise, and Richie had to agree.
Joel pulled the truck over, and handed Richie a compass on a wriststrap and a folded sheet of paper.
"All right. If the directions are correct, the road curves in a semicircle. The cabin is two miles up ahead as the crow flies, three-and-a-half miles by car. Follow these compass headings, and you'll be able to circle around and approach from the back. Shouldn't take you more than half an hour if you get a move on. I'll wait here exactly twenty five minutes, and drive up to the front. What time do you have?"
They synchronized their watches. Richie reached for the door handle, but Joel pulled him back.
"Remember, if they have any brains they'll have lookouts posted. And Dori's life depends on you spotting them before they spot you and give the alarm. If they do spot you..."
"I know." Richie patted the solid metal bulge of the silenced revolver inside his jacket. It was surprisingly heavy, almost as heavy as the sword he'd left behind. The butt was digging uncomfortably into his armpit and the barrell, lengthened by the silencer, bumped against his hip whenever he moved. The thought of actually using the thing made Richie feel a little ill. So he thought about Dori, and about Joel's intern lying comatose in the hospital. "I'll do what I have to."
Joel squeezed his arm for a moment, then clapped him on the shoulder. "Go, then. Good luck."
"You'll need it more than I do." Richie climbed out of the car, took his first heading, and took off at a run through the trees.
* * * * *
Not for the first time or the last time in his life, Richie had cause to feel grateful for all those endless wilderness trips Mac had dragged him on. He would always be a city boy at heart, but he knew how to move through a forest without getting lost, and without sounding like a herd of bulls stampeding through a china shop. He crouched low as he moved, automatically avoiding protruding tree roots and low-hanging branches, and kept an eye out for the lookouts.
Fifteen minutes after he started out, he spotted the first one -- a dark shape straddling a thick branch about ten feet off the ground, about fifty feed ahead of him. Richie ducked behind a tree trunk and held pefectly still for a full minute. When no alarm was given, he pulled the revolver from its holster and shifted his footing to get the man into his line of sight. He carefully emptied his mind of everything except the mechanics of the motions he was executing. Raise the gun. Brace his arm against the tree trunk to counterbalance the downward drag of the silencer. Aim. Squeeze the trigger.
There was a popping sound, like a soda can being opened too fast. The man in the tree gave one short cry and plummeted to the ground. He hit with a dull thud, accompanied by a clatter as gun and walkie-talkie went flying. Richie lowered the gun and went to check the body.
Something rustled in the trees behind him. There was no time to think, or to aim. Richie spun around and fired twice in the general direction of the sound. There was a sharp cry, and more rustling. It was coming from the thicket of bushes a little to the left. Richie approached cautiously, still keeping low.
A man in jeans and a dark-green sweatshirt sat on the ground, clutching his right shoulder with his left hand. He'd dropped his gun when he got hit, but he snatched it up again when he saw Richie approaching, and tried to lift it.
Richie raised his own weapon first. "Don't move."
The Hunter froze. He watched Richie with a calculating gaze, obviously afraid but not out of control. Richie did his best to look cold and determined.
"Put the gun down."
Apparently he didn't look determined enough. The man jerked his arm upward. Shit. Richie fired.
The bullet hit the Hunter square in the chest, knocking over backwards in a spray of blood. His gun dropped to the ground, unfired. Richie staggered back, feeling sick, angry, and relieved all at the same time. He hadn't wanted to kill the man, Hunter or not. But the idiot's gun was not silenced, and Richie couldn't have afforded to let him fire.
He looked around now, gun still at the ready, but heard only the usual forest noises. Either these two were the only lookouts in this area, or the others had already gone off to give the alarm. Either way there was nothing to do but to move on. So he did.
Apparently the Hunters were expecting a frontal attack. Or maybe they were just shorthanded. In any case, Richie encountered no one else until he came within sight of the cabin.
It was a very small cabin, half the size of MacLeod's island retreat, and it was not in very good repair. Two of the three back windows were boarded up, and the roof looked as if it probably leaked. There was a crumbling chimney, a rickety porch, and a single guard with an automatic pistol waiting on that porch. Richie found another handy tree to hide behind, and waited.
A shot rang out at the other side of the houses. Voices shouted. More shots. The guard on the porch spun around, made a move to go inside the house, the stopped and turned back, obviously unsure what to do. Richie took a deep breath, and went through the whole aim-brace-shoot routine all over again.
He didn't do quite so well on the aiming part this time. The man staggered, but he maintained his hold on the gun, and fired off a volley of shots in Richie's direction.
Richie threw himself to the ground and lay flat. Several shells struck the ground just in front of him, sending bits of dirt and rock flying through the air. The noise was deafening, and Richie could only hope that the other Hunters were too occupied with whatever havoc Joel was wreaking out front to come back here and offer reinforcemets.
Richie scooted backwards until the slope of the ground shielded him from the line of fire. He propped himself up on one elbow and tried to take aim, but it was hard to get a clear shot from his pinned-down position, so he decided to hold off. The guy would have to reload sooner or later.
There was a loud crash from the direction of the cabin, followed by a shout, and a familiar female voice swearing a blue streak. The shooting stopped abruptly. Richie took a risk and sat up.
The guard was face lying on his stomach at the edge of the porch, reaching down for his gun, which he'd apparently dropped over the railing. Richie jumped to his feet.
The guard froze. His fingers were inches from the gun. He was thinking of going for it, Richie just knew it.
"Don't move, dammit!"
The man didn't move. Richie blew out a long sigh of relief.
"Put your hands on the back of your neck, slowly. Okay, now stay that way." He walked over to the porch.
Dori, still tied to a chair, lay just below the middle window, the one that wasn't boarded up. She was surrounded by bits of wood and broken glass, and bleeding from a great many cuts, but she flashed Richie a grin.
"Slowpoke. I knew I'd have to bring the guy down for you."
Richie dropped to one knee next to her, still keeping one eye on the prone guard. "Are you all right?"
The grin turned into a scowl. "No, I'm not all right! I've got a fucking hole in my leg!"
There was a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around her left thigh.
"What happened?" Richie asked.
"Tried to escape. Almost made it, too. Are you going to chat, or do you plan to untie me sometime this week?"
* * * * *
Iolaus drove up to the front of the cabin to find three men waiting for him in the driveway. Two of them had automatic pistols at the ready. The third was hefting a nasty-looking axe. Iolaus gave them a friendly little wave and a smile as he climbed out of the truck.
"Hi, guys! Glad to see me?"
None of the men smiled back. Iolaus recognized two of them from the fight in the parking lot the night before. They were all watching him with a tense caution that suggested they'd read his Chronicle.
"Iolaus." The man in the center gestured with his pistol. "Step away from the car, and keep your hands where we can see them."
Iolaus obeyed. "Where's Dori?"
Now the man did smile. "You're joking, right?"
"Yeah, I'm a laugh riot." Iolaus watched three pairs of eyes narrow, three fingers tighten on the triggers. I hate this part.
The impact of the bullets spun him around. He hit the ground rolling, and didn't stop till he was on his back under the truck. His chest felt as if it had been smashed in by a sledgehammer. He could feel bits of broken ribs griding against each other every time he took a breath. Damn, that hurts.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel near his head.
"Is he dead?" someone asked.
"He oughtta be," another voice answered. "But keep your gun out just in case."
Slowly, careful not to make any noise, Iolaus reached inside his jacket to pull out the small-caliber pistol tucked into the waistband of his jeans. The movement hurt like hell, but he could already feel the electric tingle of Immortal healing across his chest.
More footsteps, as one of the Hunters moved around the truck. A few moments later, Iolaus felt two strong hands grip his ankles and pull. He had to bite his lip to keep from screaming. The hands slowly dragged him forward, accompanied by much huffing and grunting and muttered remarks about Iolaus being "fucking heavy for such a little runt." Iolaus offered no resistance, giving a perfect impression of a dead weight until his head was clear of the truck's bumper and he could see the sky and the trees and the red-faced, annoyed-looking man bending over him. Iolaus grinned, and saw the flushed face go pale with shock.
"Surprise!" he said, and shot him.
The other two men were waiting by the side of the truck. The one with the pistol reacted reasonably fast, but not fast enough to avoid Iolaus' next shot. The one with the axe just stood there frozen, mouth hanging open in shock. Iolaus took the axe away from him and tossed it out of reach, dug a pair of handcuffs from the truck, and cuffed him to the door handle. He could hear shooting at the far side of the cabin, and was just about to go over and see if Richie needed help when the noise stopped. A couple of tense minutes later, Richie came around the porch, supporting a limping Dori with one arm.
Dori looked like shit. Her clothes were blood-soaked shreds, her face was pale, and her leg had been bandaged by someone who clearly didn't know what he was doing. She glared at Iolaus as Richie helped her sit down on the porch steps.
"I don't suppose," she muttered darkly, "you'd consider spending the next couple of decades in Tahiti? I could use a cushy assignment right about now."
Iolaus laughed. He couldn't help it, he was so glad to see her. Unfortunately, laughing hurt. Iolaus swore and slumped against the hood of the truck, one hand pressed against his side. Richie watched him with concern.
"Are you all right, Joel?"
"I'm fine. Just not done healing yet." Iolaus stood up straight and pulled up his sweater to expose the kevlar vest. "I love these things."
He unfastened the velcro straps, removed the metal trauma plate, and held it up for inspection. There were three impressive-looking dents in the metal, two of them right over his heart. Iolaus poked at the dents with his finger, and grinned.
"New hunter's trick," he told Richie and Dori. Richie looked puzzled. Dori just kept glaring.
"Speaking of Hunters," Richie said, "we left one tied up in the back. What are we going to do with him, and with that bozo by the truck?"
Before Iolaus could come up with any suggestions, Dori spoke up.
"They aren't Hunters."
Both Immortals stared at her in bemusement.
"Excuse me?" Richie's voice was sharp. "They're Watchers who want to kill Immortals. Sounds like Hunters to me."
"They don't want to kill all Immortals." Dori sighed. "They just... Look, have you guys heard anything about the mess that happened in Paris earlier this year?"
"What mess in Paris?" Iolaus asked. Richie just shook his head.
"There was an Immortal named Galati going around killing Watchers." Dori turned to Richie. "Your friend MacLeod got dragged into it, along with Joe Dawson. For a while there, it looked as if we might have a war between Watchers and Immortals. It blew over, thank God, but it was touch and go for a while."
This was yet another important bit of information Dori had withheld from him, but Iolaus didn't have the heart to call her on it now. Besides, he had more immediate questions.
"I see." So Richie was Duncan MacLeod's student. That explained a whole lot.
"Well, I don't see," Richie snapped. "You said it all blew over, no war. But these guys wanted to kill us."
"Because you know about the Watchers," Dori explained. "They had this idea, you see, that if they severed all existing links between Watchers and Immortals, then nothing like this could ever happen again."
"So they were going to bump off every Immortal who knew?" Richie nearly choked at the question. "That's nuts!"
"Hey, don't look at me." Dori shrugged. "Wasn't my idea."
"It's not official Watcher policy now, is it?"
"Of course not. Just a small group of renegade morons." She scratched her head, looking thoughtful. "We seem to get a lot of those..."
"Oh, man..." Richie paced the driveway, looking distracted and absently running one hand through his hair. "I gotta get back to Seacouver. I gotta warn Mac, in case some of these guys are still out there. And then there's Amanda, and Carl, and... oh, man, this sucks."
Iolaus agreed with sentiment wholeheartedly. He had told quite a few Immortal friends about the Watchers over the years, and he'd have a hell of a time tracking them all down, even with twentieth-century technology at his disposal. And then there was Methos, who must be in a really awkward position right about now...
He turned to Richie. "Hey, you want company on your way to Seacouver? I'm thinking this might be a good time for a change of residence, what with all the dead bodies we've left littered about the last couple of days."
"The Watchers'll clean them up," Dori muttered. Iolaus kicked her in the ankle.
Richie shrugged. "Be my guest."
"Hey, wait a minute!" Dori protested. "I can't go to Seacouver now! I've got a hole in my leg!"
"I know that." Iolaus patted her shoulder. "The only place you're going is the nearest hospital, where you'll have great fun, I'm sure, trying to explain away a bullet wound. And when you're on your feet again, come and track me down again. It'll be good practice for you."
"Uh-huh." Dori gave him a dubious look. "Track you down. Sure. You're not gonna run off to Tibet again, are you?"
Iolaus rolled his eyes. "No Tibet, I promise."
This story takes place shortly after the Highlander episode "The Messenger," and continues in "Occasional Demons." It takes place well over two thousand years after the time of the Hercules and Xena series.
Richie Ryan was confronted by a Dark-Quickening-crazed Duncan MacLeod in the Highlander episode "Something Wicked." His head-hunting spree happened between that episode and "End of Innocence," which is when he killed Carter Wellan. His defeat of Alec Hill and subsequent liaison with Jennifer Hill was chronicled in "Haunted," and Richie briefly followed the peace-loving teachings of the false Methos in "The Messenger."
James Horton and the Hunters were first introduced in "The Hunters," (as were the Watchers, though they were not explained until "The Watchers") and continued to be a factor throughout the second season of Highlander, though by the time Horton was killed in "Counterfeit Part 2," the Hunters were no longer a concern. Jakob Galati's vendetta against the Watchers and its consequences were chronicled in the episodes "Judgment Day" and "One Minute to Midnight." Amanda learned of the Watchers in "The Return of Amanda"; Carl Robinson did likewise in "Run for Your Life."
Iolaus was last seen in "Life and Death," where it was established that he was in Tasmania three years previous.
Other installments of "The Methos Chronicles":
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