“Stop the car!” Rusty was staring intently out the passenger side window.
“Stop the car!” Rusty was all but squirming in his seat. Boris looked at him, worried.
“Are you ill? Is something wrong?”
“No, I'm fine, there's nothing wrong. Stop the car!”
Boris steered the Suburban into a handy parking lot and the other two vehicles in the convoy followed. Almost before Boris has shut the motor off, Rusty was out of his seat belt and out of the car. Boris and Moose followed.
“What's up?” Moose said, beginning to shift into protective mode.
“I just feel strange, is all, I don't know, like people are near. No, not that, exactly. Something's, I mean someone’s close by. It's very weird... oh, I can't explain it.”
Boris looked thoughtful. By this time, the others had gathered and were asking what was going on. Boris raised a hand and asked, “Have you felt like this before? What do you mean, 'someone's near'?”
“Yes, I have... well, not exactly but a little. Lately I’ve noticed that I know when Moose or Vic or Walt or Mitch are coming in from outside, even before they get inside. I just thought that was part of being a bear now. We can see and hear and smell better, right?” He looked at Boris, who nodded. “Well, when we drove up to your place at first, I felt a little like this, like... oh, I can't explain this right but it felt like there were others like us. I felt you before I saw you; all of you,” he said, looking at Robert and Larry and Rene. “But it felt... OK; it didn't feel like there was something wrong. This feels... weird. Different. Not good.”
“Y'all mean ta say that you feel there's someone close by, another one of our kin?” Larry looked skeptical. Rusty nodded.
“But there's no one close by, 'cept that kid on the bike over yonder,” Larry said pointing. “Unless you mean that lil old lady over on the corner, with the cane.”
“No, no... they aren’t close enough to see yet, but they are close by.” Rusty, who was growing more confident by the minute, looked up the street. “I’m really sure it's the guys we're looking for, they feel wrong, off, somehow. But not all of them, maybe a smaller group.” He turned to Mitch.
“This is like when me and Moose are at the cabin and you guys come back from a trip into town. I feel when you are getting close. But it’s not happy like that, this isn't happy. It's more of a threat.” He paused. “I thought we all could do this when we changed.”
Vic shook his head. “No. We have sharper senses of sight and smell and hearing but they have to be within our range, and you know what's happening, you know you're smelling someone or hearing them. It's not a feeling. Can you hear them or see them?”
“Not yet.” Rusty said.
“Well, if Rusty is right and these are our guys, do we wait here for them or...” As soon as Walt spoke, the others joined in, excitement at finally getting near their quarry causing them all to speak at once. Suddenly, Rusty grabbed Moose's arm and pointed up the street.
“Look!” All heads turned. In a moment, they could see three, then four bikes far in the distance beyond a dip in the road.
“Was this what you were feeling, son?” Vic asked. Rusty nodded, mutely. “Can you tell if they are heading this way?” There was an edge to Vic's voice but Rusty shook his head.
“They seem to be fading, so no, not heading this way.” He shaded his eyes with his hand, looking up the road.
“OK, let's follow but we keep back, OK?” The other nodded. “Boris, you lead again and Rusty, stay alert. Let Boris know the minute you feel anything. We'll follow right behind.” The blond bear clapped Rusty on the back. “You done good, son. You keep this up and we’re gonna have to start callin’you ‘Bloodhound’.” Vic smiled.
“Thanks... I think,” Rusty said as he swung up into the Suburban. The vehicles pulled out onto the highway and followed the dust of the bikers at a distance. Even when they lost actual sight of the bikers, Rusty's sensations kept them accurately tracking the rogues.
In less than an hour, the bikers pulled off the road, making a pit stop at a small but crowded convenience store. With Rusty's warning of their increasing nearness, the three following vehicles pulled up some distance away. All got out and after Vic and Boris had conferred, casually walked towards the store. Moose, Rusty, Larry and Walt circled around behind, to cover any back exit, while Mitch and Vic watched the sides.
“It's very unlikely they will risk any kind of altercation with this many people about but they might bolt. We'll just let them know we're here and that we want to talk,” Boris said.
“Yeah, nice and quiet.” Robert said. Boris, Rene and Robert walked into the store.
Inside, it was easy to spot Sebastian's gang. Others in the store we also eyeing the dusty, somewhat fierce looking men who had come in as a group. Most were picking up drinks and snacks; but Sebastian was standing, pretending to examine the box of band aides in his hand to cover his watchfulness, as he scanned the customers and the checkout counter with its cash register.
For all his size, Boris could move silently when the need arose. He moved behind Sebastian and just as the younger bear was about to react, laid a heavy paw on his shoulder and squeezed. He exerted just enough pressure to let him know it wouldn't be wise to try and run.
“We meet at last. You know, we really do need to talk; all of us. Why don't you and your friends come outside with us and we'll have a nice conversation.” Boris's tone made it clear he wasn't asking a question but giving an order. Sebastian turned.
“And why should I want to do that, huh?” Sebastian's face expressed the sullen rebellious scorn that any disaffected teen or twenty-something might.
“Oh, I think you know why. But let me give you a small hint.” He looked pointedly at the box of band aides in Sebastian's hand. “You don't really need those, now, do you... you don't need much in the way of first aid at all, any more than I do.” His eyes bored into Sebastian's. Sebastian's eyes widened but his body remained still. Boris could almost see the wheels turn as Sebastian worked it out.
“So, shall we talk a bit?” Boris continued to hold Sebastian's gaze.
Sebastian finally blinked and putting the box back on the shelf said, “Yeah, I guess so. But not here,” he mumbled.“ There's a public park about a quarter mile back on the road. It was empty when we rode by. Nice and open, no place to hide. We'll meet you there.”
Sebastian raised his head and caught the eyes of Rick and Trey. He shook his head slightly, and they moved off to whisper with their buddies. The bikers paid for their food items and filed out to mount their scoots and kick them into life.
Moose, Mitch and the others hustled around from the sides and back but Boris stepped out of the store and shook his head at them. “We're following them to a park close by. Stay close and watch that they don't separate or head out.” They all hurried to their vehicles and gunned them into pursuit.
Inside, the owner of the store and the cashier looked at each other, scratching their heads. “Now, what d’ya suppose all that was about?”
“Beats me!” the cashier said. “ I kinda thought we mighta had some trouble there. Gave me the willies. Oh, we're almos’ outta Copenhagen. Fetch some more out from in back next time yer there, OK?”
Out on the streets of the town, the bikers made for the public park, with the three large, bear-laden vehicles in their wake. The streets of the town were dusty, the landscape flat and dry. The town looked tired and neglected; one of many small towns that once had been larger but was dying now as life and traffic passed them by. Dusty older houses, clapboard for the most part, lined the few streets behind the convenience store. Large trees dotted the yards of a few of them but others were boarded up and their lawns and gardens were dry and dead. A schoolyard, empty now, stood at the end of one street, with the small park across from it.
The sun was past its zenith, with shadows lengthening. The park had a few withered trees, some swings, a picnic table or two and a bent and sagging backstop. It was open on all sides, as Sebastian had said. It was also empty, except for the bikers, who pulled up at the curb and trooped over to the larger picnic table. A metal frame supported a dented tin roof offered some shade. A few houses could be glimpsed across a street on the far side of the park.
Boris and the rest pulled up beside the bikes but parked some feet from the leaning machines. They got out and walked slowly over the dry grass toward the picnic table and Sebastian's gang. Sebastian stepped towards them. He stopped and folded his arms across his chest.
“You know, there's a custom among our kind, to treat newcomers with civility and at least a modicum of friendliness. But you are making it very hard for us to follow in those ways.”
Boris looked at the young bear with an appraising stare. He saw an above average height, rather thick young man, with large arms and a surprisingly scruffy blond beard which looked like it wasn’t more than a week old. The goatee at its center was more mature, longer and fuller than the rest. His stance was at once defensive and defiant, legs set apart and arms folded but fingers nervously drumming. Every once in a while, his tongue would dart out to lick his lips.
“Let’s cut the crap. What do you want?” Sebastian's voice was tight. The rest of his group sat or stood silently behind him, not interfering.
“Shall we sit?” Boris asked.
“No.” Sebastian's voice was flat.
“As you wish. Though I suspect that at least some of the houses across the way are occupied and all of us standing here, squaring off for a fight, might just draw some unwanted attention. We aren't exactly inconspicuous. The authorities might be summoned. That would not be good for you… nor for us.” Boris looked steadily at Sebastian. The rest of bears were each looking at the other, sizing each other up, gauging distances.
It was clear that Sebastian hadn't thought of that. His gaze wavered and he almost nervously looked over his shoulder.
Boris noted this lack of tactical thinking. This cub was not in the habit of always being aware of his surroundings, nor did he assess people around him well as demonstrated at the convenience store.
“OK. We'll sit. But don't get any fancy ideas.”
Boris looked at Robert and shrugged slightly and then sat at one of the picnic tables. The sagging shelter gave some welcome shade and the other bears and rogues arranged themselves at the tables or standing.
“Why are you following us?” Sebastian demanded.
“Because we need to talk. Because we need to explain some things to you. Because you are a danger to yourselves and to us.” Boris's eyes never left Sebastian's. Sebastian snorted. Some of the other rogues spoke softly amongst themselves.
“Quiet!” Sebastian snapped. The others fell silent.
“If you thought you'd hook up with us or hang out with us, just because we're like you, forget it. It ain't gonna happen.” Sebastian folded his arms across his wide chest.
“You weren't listening.” Robert interjected. “We don't want to hook up with you. We're here to...”
Sebastian interrupted, “Who the Hell is he? What's he got to do with this?”
It was obvious that Sebastian had accepted Boris as the leader and, like himself, the sole voice of their group.
“Well, you might say he's the reason we're here,” Boris said. “He knows all about you, you see.” Boris nodded at Robert. “Your Steve was a close friend of his.”
There was a hiss as Sebastian sharply inhaled. “How do you know about that?” he demanded.
“Like I said. Robert was Steve's friend, a very dear friend. When he was killed, we came to Montana to see if we could help. We knew that you and Steve were living together and where to find you; after all, we made the arrangements for your new lives... or have you forgotten that? You are family, our kind; we came to help, but you were gone. No word left, no arrangements made… nothing.” Boris paused and Robert took over.
“I made it my business to find out what had happened to you. So we know all about the thefts and the liquor stores and the bank robberies… and the murders.”
“So? What about it? You gonna arrest us? Turn us in?” Sebastian snorted defiantly.
Robert almost burst out laughing, “I haven’t lived as long as I have being as stupid as you are,” he said. Several of the rogues angrily started to get up but Sebastian waved them down.
“Not now!” He growled just above a talking voice, aware of the public setting. The others relaxed. He glared at Robert, “So, out with it! What you got to say?”
Boris spoke again. “Of course we can't arrest you and we certainly can't turn you in to the authorities. Look, you're young and new to all of this and we’ve all been there.” Boris raised a placating hand as Sebastian gritted his teeth. “We understand that you don't have all the information that you might have had if your Papa had lived to teach you.” Sebastian showed no outward sign of the sting that last bit brought to him. “That's why we're here, in part. We’re here to help you, to give you a chance.” He paused again and some of the rogues looked at each other.
“Consider for a moment; sooner or later, one of you is going to get injured in some way in one of your robberies. You'll leave blood behind. The police will take samples of that blood and make investigations. Imagine what your DNA will show them. Or perhaps one of you will be so badly injured that you'll be captured, perhaps taken to a hospital. What will they think when they examine you and there are no more injuries, hmm? When broken bones heal before their eyes? What if someone, somewhere sees one of you changing? That, at least, had already happened, has it not? And with what results?”
Boris's eyes bored into Sebastian's but his words were for all the rogues. “Your activities are wrong but we’re not here to punish you. But what you’ve done has put us, all of us, in serious danger and cannot go unchecked. Once you are discovered -- and make no mistake, you will be discovered eventually – you will expose us all.” Boris paused, gathering his thoughts.
The rogues began whispering among themselves and Sebastian once again silenced them.
“Our kind survive by being invisible, by 'flying under the radar' as you put it. We work very hard at keeping our existence out of the public eye. But once you are captured or your blood analyzed, there is proof and we will be exposed. Our existence becomes the headline on the evening news and every tabloid in this state and then the nation and then the world.”
“I imagine you are familiar with the X-Men comics and movies, no? Special schools and a Cabinet-level Department of Mutant Affairs? It’s all very pretty to imagine but the reality would be far less pleasant, I assure you. We would be hunted down and exposed, one by one. Everyone who looked a little too young for their age would be 'examined'. Blood tests would be devised and put into widespread use on those who seem to be just a bit more healthy than normal. Every drug company on the planet would be after us, all of us, to harvest our blood and our tissue for experiments and research, searching for miracle cures for every disease known to man. The military would do anything to get their hands on us. Super soldiers, special forces commandos who are a lot better at sniffing the enemy out than the average human; faster, stronger, and harder to kill.”
“And then, of course, the fear would set in. From out of all the dark places on earth, the backward areas, the parts where superstition still governs men's hearts, there would come the waves of intolerance and persecution. We'd be hunted down, tortured, burned alive, crushed or impaled or any of the dozen other ways people have used to exterminate us in centuries past. You don't have to go back very many years to find the angry crowds of peasants bearing torches. The werewolf hysteria in the middle ages would look like a picnic compared to what would happen once there was real proof of our existence. And let's not even talk about the fact that we prefer to mate with our own sex. The simple fact that we’re are different, dramatically different than the average, will be quite enough to sign our death warrants.”
“None of us want to end our existence with our bodies battered and broken, our skulls bashed in, our arms and legs wrenched from their sockets. I imagine our fates in the 'civilized' countries would be more refined. Here, we'd simply be imprisoned in medical labs, our blood constantly drained, our skin cut away, denied contact with our mates, caged for the length of our very long lives like all the other experimental animals. After all, we’re not exactly human, so I imagine 'human' rights wouldn’t apply to us. I seriously doubt that the good folks in PeTA would come to our rescue. How would you like to live a couple hundred years or longer in a maximum security cage while your parts are harvested shortly after growing back, over and over? How would you feel about never seeing the light of day again? If you’re lucky, they’d just euthanize you and keep tissue samples to grow in vats.”
Boris's chest was heaving, his impassioned speech causing his breath to come in shallow drafts. Robert put a hand on his friend's arm and squeezed lightly, then turned to face the rogues.
“You must stop what you are doing, for the sake of all shape shifters. We are offering you a way out and a fresh start. We'll go with you, help you clean up and dispose of the evidence back at that farm. We have friends who can create new identities for you and manipulate the news reports so the public doesn't hear much about this. We'll take you with us and teach you our ways, teach you our history and most important, show you how to survive unseen in this world as a werebear. Each of us has pledged to stay with you for whatever time it takes to get you settled. We’ll raise you up as if you were our own cubs.”
“And what do we have to do in return?” The question came from Rick, not Sebastian. Sebastian turned and glared at Rick but Rick returned the look steadily and then shifted his eyes to Boris and Robert.
“You come with us. You follow our directions when we give them. You do as we say in matters of bear behavior. You learn from us, everything you can. You consider how your actions would affect other bears. You help other bears whenever and wherever they need it and when the time comes, when you have stayed too long in one place without aging, you fade away and start a new life somewhere else. That's what you do until such time as you are ready to live on your own.” Boris looked at each of the rogues in turn.
“So, that’s all we have to do? Just be your boys, is that it?” Sebastian's voice dripped scorn. “Just do what we're told, like good little boys. Come when we’re called, like dogs. Obey? Bend over, take it up the ass and then lick your boots.” He spat on the ground.
“No, thanks. I had enough of that shit as a kid. 'Why can't you be a good boy?' 'Why can you be good like your brother?' 'Why can't you get good grades?' 'Come here and make daddy happy.' I'm sick of it, you hear? I had it at home, I had it in school and I had it in prison. I ain't gonna have it anymore. No fucking way. Not ever.” Sebastian stood up to leave.
“Look, you're angry. You're confused and, I suspect, you're lonely. You need some time to sort all this out. I'm sure you must feel as if we are trying to control you, to run your lives. I’d be angry, too. But believe me, we really do want to help all of you.” Seeing the other rogues making ready to leave, Boris reached into his shirt pocket and took out a pen and piece of paper. “Look, here's a cell number. Call me tomorrow if you or any of your boys change your minds, OK?” Boris paused, then added, “You don't have much time.”
Sebastian stood, legs separated, arms folded across his chest, defiant. “Fat chance, old man.”
“Still… please, think about it.” He extended the paper towards Sebastian. “Robert has some things of Steve's. Call me and give me an address someplace and he'll send them to you. I think you might like to have them, I don't imagine you have much of his.” He kept his hand out with the paper between his fingers.
The creases around his mouth tightened but reluctantly, Sebastian took the paper and stuffed it in his jeans. “Are we done here?”
“I'm guessin' we are, if you won't see reason,” Larry growled.
“Meaning?” Trey spoke up for the first time.
Before Boris could interject, Larry spat out,
“Meanin' if y’all don't come with us an’ change yer ways, we got us no choice. Y’all gotta die.” Larry began to grow larger, his muscles puffing out, his chest beginning to barrel and his thighs straining at his pant legs, changing just enough to become frightening as a man. Each of them, bear and rogue, backed up to give themselves fighting room. Suddenly Mitch said loudly, “Wait! Look!”
Mitch nodded at without pointing to a state police cruiser that had pulled up on the other side of the park, moving slowly, observing. The others looked.
“It would appear that someone has alerted the authorities,” Boris said. “I suggest that we appear to be having a friendly tussle. A comradely punch on the arm, a slap on the back; we really don’t need any more attention, do we?” There was no movement on the rogue's part.
“Now, if you please; before the nice man in the car radios for assistance.” He seized Sebastian's hand and shook it and pulled him slightly forward into a brief hug so he could slap him on the back, looking like old friends. Their eyes locked, but Sebastian eventually slapped Boris on the back and, gradually, the others did similar things. Two of the rogues put their arms over each other's shoulders and began walking toward their scoots.
Sebastian's mind had closed, cemented shut by bitterness and hurt. Nothing would induce him to take the offer... nothing at all. Keeping up the pretense of comraderie for the observing police cruiser, he walked along with Boris and Robert as if they were the best of friends but hissed through his teeth, “This isn't finished, old man. You come here offerin’ your way or our death... well, you just watch your back ‘cause I ain’t takin’ neither of those options.”
Sebastian growled, then turned and walked away from the bears. Rick and the others walked with him, with Rick turning his head once to look over his shoulder. The bears were left alone in the park as the rogues carefully motored off, the groups waved to each other and that seemed to satisfy the state trooper. A light wind began to kick up dust from the empty baseball field and the trooper drove off.
“Well, that went well!” Rusty said in a weak attempt at humor. The bears looked bleakly at each other.
“You know what this means,” Robert said.
“We ain't got no choice now, like I said,” Larry chimed in.
“I fear you are right, mon ami,” René said, evident sadness in his voice.
Vic chewed on his cigar, shifted it to the other side of his mouth and spoke. “We should get back to a motel somewhere's close by. It'll be dark soon and we need to make plans.” He looked up at the sky. “I'd hoped to be done with killin'.” He shrugged and rose, walking to the car. Walt, Moose and the rest rose and headed to the vehicles.
This part of Montana had been ignored by the national motel chains, so the bears' choice was limited to the Traveler's Rest Motel, which advertised itself as 'Your Best Bet for a Bed'.
“Our only bet, more like,” Larry said as they turned in to the old fashioned motor court.
After checking in, they all met in Moose and Rusty's cabin, which was the biggest. It was still tight with all nine bears together. Normally, there would have been a lot of affectionate groping and nuzzling in such close proximity but now, the mood was grim. Vic suggested posting at least one lookout and Boris agreed. Larry took that job. “Text me on your cell if you see any hint of them,” Boris said. Larry nodded and moved off. He crossed the highway and circled behind the abandoned gas station. A discarded ladder provided an easy way up to the roof. Concealed behind the old rusted Sinclair sign, he had a good view of the road in both directions as well as the motel. The sun was setting and the sky was clear; it was going to be cold tonight.
Moose spoke next. “One's not enough. What if they decide to come across that field and hide in those trees or bushes?”
Boris smiled and nodded. “Good thinking, Moose. We could post another but where?” He looked out the window. “We can't climb up on the roofs of any of the cabins, the management might notice and if any of the cabins get rented tonight, vacationers might see or hear us up there.”
“How about that?” Rusty said pointing to a utility shed at the back of the motor court. “The row of cabins screens it from the office and if one of us stayed low, no one could see from the ground.”
Boris smiled again. “Excellent! Who wants to take the first watch then?” René volunteered. “Good. One of us will spell you in two hours. You have your cell?” René nodded and headed out the door, checking the signal as he went. “Mitch, would you and Rusty give Larry and René a break in a couple of hours and we'll fill them in on what we've decided. But if either of them calls with a warning, I think it best we scatter. It will make it harder for them to hit us if were are widely separated. Agreed?” The rest nodded but Rusty queried, “What... no 'safety in numbers'?”
Vic answered. “The only way they can kill us is a head shot, or a heart shot if they use something big enough. If we're all together, it'll be easier to pull that off, especially if they attack in a group. Separate, they got to hit nine separate targets, all of them firing back.” Rusty stared at Vic, reality slowly seeping in.
The next two hours passed quietly. There was no warning text message from either lookout but the discussion of plans inside the cabin was intense. Robert pointed out that they had no way of knowing what the rogues had in mind. “They may just leave, move on, hope to get away from us. They're young, after all, they really don't know our ways or understand the danger. They might just hope by moving elsewhere, their 'problem', meaning us, will just go away.”
“Maybe,” Vic said. “But remember that Sebastian's killed before. If he gets it into his head to solve his problem here and now, we need to be ready.” He turned to Boris, “We should bring the guns in.” The big bear nodded. “I think we should pass 'em out now, just to be on the safe side.” Vic and Boris went out and got the weapons. When they came back, they discussed strategy and targets.
Mitch and Walt looked at each other. “This really is serious, isn't it?” Mitch said, taking Walt's hand.
Walt nodded. “Looks like.”
“Shit, I never figured we'd be in this kind of mess. I mean, it's like a novel or something or a war movie.” Moose shook his head then hugged Rusty.
“Well, if we go, we go together.” Rusty said solemnly.
Moose hugged him tighter. “OK, bad choice of words, but we stay together, I don't care what Boris says. I'm not leaving you. Period.”
Rusty looked up at Moose and put his paw on his lover's thick auburn beard. “Thanks,” was all he could manage for a moment.
“It made my blood run cold when Boris and Vic started talking about which one to target first and who would be the easiest to kill. You know we're planning murder here... calculated murder.” Rusty stared into Moose's deep brown eyes. Moose shook his head.
“No. Not murder. Self defense and I don't mean just here, I mean when we hunt them down. It's still self defense, for all of us. If what Boris and Robert say is true, these guys will get caught sooner or later and there goes any chance at keeping any of us secret. There will be living, breathing proof of us. The public will have proof we exist and after that, the persecutions will begin.”
Rusty looked steadily at his mate. “If we kill these guys, we'll be criminals in the eyes of the rest of the world.”
“Well,” Moose said, with more than a little sadness in his voice, “I guess we aren't part of the rest of the world anymore, are we?”
The discussion in the cabin continued but in reality, each knew what had to be done. When the talk finally faded out, replaced by a brooding silence, Boris spoke.
“We're agreed, then. If the rogues don't show tonight, we go after them and we keep after them until they are all taken care of, once and for all.” Boris looked at each bear in turn. “There is no stopping once this starts.” Each nodded, though some reluctantly.
By morning, each of the bears had done a spell of guard duty and each had slept, if only fitfully. There had been no sign of the rogues. The bears loaded up the vehicles and checked out of the motel.
“Which way?” Walt asked as they stood in the cold morning air.
“Well, they've been heading north all along and no one saw any sign of one bike heading south on the highway, let alone eight. I say we continue north.” Robert looked around. “With 'Rusty-the-early-warning-system' on our side, they can't sneak up on us. Walt and Vic can ask discreetly at any gas station or diner we pass if they've passed on ahead of us. Just about anyone looking at either of them would think 'biker' and probably wouldn't wonder much why they were asking about eight guys on bikes.” Boris nodded in agreement.
Walt took off his jacket and donned his worn Harley t-shirt and pin encrusted leather vest. This wardrobe change, of course, revealed the tattoos on his arms as much as his thick hair would allow. He reached into a small leather bag and pulled out several big heavy, well worn silver rings which he put on every finger. Skulls seemed to be a favorite motif of the jewelry. He put on a black bandana with little skull and crossbones all over it, tying it back on his head as bikers do. He smiled at Boris then fixed his face in a cold ‘I don’t give a shit’ expression.
“Perfect!” Boris said.
“OK, let's ride.” The rest piled into the three big vehicles and swung out onto the highway, heading north.