My uncle drove, still smoking, his shotgun in easy reach. He looked totally at ease. I, on the other hand, was completely freaking out. I'd done most of this comforting myself with the thought that my uncle wouldn't have known about it. Now here he was, looking and acting absolutely nothing like himself. It was as if the man I'd known for the last five years had utterly vanished. The only thing that I recognised from his writer's persona was his clipped tone and pipe. Finally, he spoke.
"Correct me if I'm wrong. Miss Higgins, you stole close to fifty thousand dollars of your father's money - in cash - and then fled to Flagstaff to start a new life. You didn't check your vehicle closely enough, however, and that would explain why the scum of the earth are pursuing you and my nephew. Right?"
Millie nodded. "They're probably only an hour or two behind us."
"Excellent," said my uncle. "We have plenty of time t prepare, then."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Millie demanded. "They're going to kill us!"
"Of course they're going to try," Peter said, "but I don't like their chances."
"Really? You have any idea how desperate these lunatics are?" Millie snorted derisively. "You have no idea what you're getting caught up in, either of you."
"Mmm. Perhaps we do," my uncle told her.
"Oh? So you were a criminal at one point, then?"
Millie and I both froze and stared at him. My uncle finished his pipe and tapped it on the outside of the car, before dropping it into a centre console and glancing sidelong at me. Was there apology in his eyes? I'd never known much about my uncle. Or my father, really. I'd never been able to talk to me about it and they'd never really been willing to open up and tell me about their past.
"Are you looking for details?" he enquired.
I nodded, and Millie voiced her agreement.
"My brother, Kasey - your father, Todd - and I were enforcers for corrupt police officials in the criminal underworld. We disguised our real motives with safer ones... bouncing, or in my case, hunting. Our job was to put non-paying second-rate criminals clean out of commission. Kill them, if you like. It reeled in enough money for what we wanted - I wanted my own house near the beach, and Kasey, unfortunately, drowned his dreams in drink."
I was barely believing what I was hearing.
"Took us a few years to realise just how deep were getting ourselves. If a single officer in the entire PD had a straight bone in their body, we would've been jailed for life and then some. I don't pretend innocence, but I took on less jobs than Kasey did - it never appealed to me and the only thing that really kept me in was the kind of money that they were sending our way. Eventually, I made enough that I could comfortably retire and live on the beach in relative luxury. Flagstaff was a quiet town and I liked it. Kasey never tried to get out. The way he saw it, he was stuck in his ways and the only way he would ever find release was if he died. I tried to talk him out of it, but he never listened."
And you took me in, I realised.
Millie stared at my uncle. "You know about Higgins, then? My father?"
"He was too rich and influential to touch in my day," Peter admitted. "But we always had an eye on him. I left it all behind - but I knew when I saw your car. I knew that I wasn't going to get as lucky as I thought. So I decided to keep an eye on you. Todd, unfortunately, got himself involved with you, and lo and behold, your father's people turn up here looking for a substantial sum of money and you, Miss Higgins. I assume you're not looking to negotiate with them?"
"I've already tried that. They're not interested," Millie told him.
"Excellent." An edge of steel touched my uncle's voice. "Means we can handle this ourselves."
He pushed the truck up another gear. "They're going to follow the road. You dropped the car, so they'll assume you're either on foot and following the road, or someone else picked you up, which is more likely. So it makes sense that they'll follow us."
"And how is this helpful?" Mille wanted to know.
"We have all the advantages," my uncle told her. "Surprise, a little time, and the police."
"You called the cops?" Millie swore and let her head fall back on the seat. "Perfect. Just perfect."
"We're citizens being unlawfully molested by people with criminal backgrounds," my uncle told her. "This is self-defence, nothing more complicated than that. With any luck, we won't even have to fight the people following us. You know that the last time someone fired a gun in Flagstaff, it was 1983? And it was by accident? The police are going to be all over the idiots who started shooting at you."
There was silence as this sunk in.
I let it all filter through. So both my father and my uncle had been hit-men, pretty much. Nice to know. I tried not to let it bother me, but the fact that the man beside me was nonchalantly mentioning that he'd murdered people for a living was chilling, to say in the least. I tried to take my mind off it and looked at everything from a different perspective. The past didn't matter - what mattered was what happened in the next few hours. I had no idea how close the Higgins Gang were behind us, and whether or not they'd found the BMW yet. We were just going to have to trust to hope until something presented itself. Millie didn't say anything else, and even when my uncle glanced at me, something like regret haunting his expression... I pretended not to notice, acted as if this was all perfectly normal. Finally, my uncle turned off the road and parked his truck parallel to the road.
"There's a cabin about half a mile's hike up this way," he informed both of us.
"That's where we're going to be holding up? A log cabin?" Millie laughed humourlessly as she pulled the door open and slid out onto her feet. "It occur to you that these people will probably just burn the entire thing down? Or even the forest? They'll do it purely for the fun of it."
"Then we make sure that they get more than they bargain for," my uncle said.
He stepped out of the truck after Millie, taking his shotgun with him.
I followed suit, closing the door behind me and fishing the magazine and pistol out of my cargo pants, quickly slipping them together. Then I strode in front of Millie and tossed the gun back to her. She caught it, surprise on her face, and then glanced at my uncle, who watched the exchange with quiet amusement. He raised an eyebrow at me and then glanced back to Millie.
"Todd trusts you. That's enough for me... just mind your step."
Millie looked back at me, a grateful gaze that I held.
I half-smiled at her. Ready for a walk?
We started through the trees together. The pine trees seemed to hum, drenching the air with their delicious scent. I loved the woodlands out here - I had only ever seen pictures - but driving through it for a few hours had given me plenty of time to fall in love with it. Birds chattered to each other in the air, and small animals darted out of sight as we walked up the track leading to the cabin that my uncle had been talking about. He was easily ten yards ahead of us, making good time for a guy who looked like he was in his forties or so. Millie easily kept up with us, and as I looked at her, she smiled, just a little, no sarcasm or mocking in it this time.
"You know, around your uncle I can almost feel safe."
I nodded. He's like that.
"And you never knew he was...?"
I shook my head. Not a clue.
Strange how little it seemed to bother me. But then, people's pasts were their own - it affected them, definitely, but it didn't make them into who they were. I knew my uncle as an eccentric, pipe-smoking writer who loved the quiet life in Flagstaff and enjoyed the simple comforts of life. I wasn't about to give that man up. Millie stayed quiet for a while, and then turned her head, trying to see through the trees to the road. I turned, doing the same, but the trees were too thick.
"Maybe they won't come here," Millie murmured, half to herself.
I grimaced. Don't like your chances of that, Millie.
She shook her head. "You never know."
There was a moment of easy silence between us.
"I've found our stronghold," my uncle proclaimed.
I looked up, and sat a modest log cabin tucked away in the trees, practically invisible. It had a small garden out the front, which was overgrown with herbs and peppers. Glass panes weren't even installed - instead, the windows were solid wood and swung outwards. I couldn't suppress a smile as I looked at it - it looked like something stolen out of time. Absolutely perfect. I'd live up here without a qualm. My uncle grinned at me as I drew up alongside him, and pulled a key from around his neck, tossing it to me with his free hand.
"I'm going to keep an eye out for our pursuers. Make yourself at home."
I unlocked the door to the cabin, and pushed the door open, which creaked loudly. Inside, the place was well-swept, clean, smelled pleasantly of fresh sawdust, and had two double-bunked beds built into the walls. To one side, there was a fireplace that led straight up into a chimney. On a bench - also built into the wall - sat a gas cooker, five boxes of shotguns shells, and a stack of plastic boxes that I assumed contained food. A water cooler sat in the corner, but I couldn't see a power source. Millie glanced over the room, and then looked back at me.
"How long do you think he plans on staying here?"
Until everything's sorted out, I replied silently.
Millie shook her head and sat down on the closest bunk.
"How do we know if they come back?"
I leaned against the wall. Peter will tell us.
"What do we do after this?" Millie asked, a hint of desperation touching her voice. "What happens? I mean, even if they get caught, the police are going to be asking about me. About all of us. They'll trace me back to... to who I used to be. You have any idea what I've done, Todd?"
Something made me walk over to her and crouch, sitting on my heels, our faces level.
She looked into my eyes, searching for something.
I don't care, I told her. It's what you do NOW that counts.
A sad smile touched her face.
"What did I do to deserve you?" she murmured softly.
I sensed that it was a rhetorical question and didn't reply.
Next thing I knew, she had her arms around my neck and she was crying quietly into my chest. I rocked back on my heels, dropped a knee to the ground, and did what came naturally - I hugged her back. Millie smelled like leather - a new car kind of smell - and I held her, feeling a sudden rush of warmth coupled with strange satisfaction. I couldn't say anything to her - all I could do was stroke her hair and hold her, let her know that I was there for her. I had no idea how much time had passed - it'd turned to liquid - and finally, she spoke, her voice muffled by my clothing.
It's fine, I would've told her.
"Stay safe, K?"
But she didn't see me say that either. Millie finally untangled herself from me, brushed a strange of hair out of her eye, and then wiped her face on her sleeve. She offered me a lame grin and then stood up. I heard footsteps outside, and my uncle pulled the door open. He gestured outside, and we both followed him out into the open air again. I could see by the set of his mouth that the news wasn't good. I tried to fight the sudden attack of nerves, and kept my face completely neutral.
Millie wasn't so composed. "They're coming, aren't they?"
"They've found my truck. Shouldn't take them long to pick up the trail."
Millie pulled her pistol free of her jeans and turned, walking towards the trail.
My uncle flicked his hand, and his Remington hit my chest. I caught it, and then watched in astonishment as he sprang on the girl, easily jerking the gun out of her hand and tossing it to the ground. He pulled her into a sleeper hold, and although she put up a hard fight, she eventually succumbed to the pressure and went limp.