It had been three hours and the only thing Joe had seen out the windows was a stop sign in the middle of the desert and the bugs that hit the windshield every so often. Oh, and a whole lot of sky. That part wasn't bad, really. It was a good sky out here.
"Whole lotta nothing out there, huh?" he asked his road trip companion.
"You're the one who told me where we were going," Methos pointed out. "I was all set to drive down to Mexico but no, you said to me 'Hey buddy, I know it's out of your way, but I got a call from an old girlfriend…" He stopped and looked meaningfully over at Joe.
"Eyes on the road, pal," Joe reminded him as the RV drifted a little.
"There is no one else on this road, Joe. This road is bereft of anything but tumbleweeds and dirt. We could pretend we're in England and drive on the other side of the road for all anyone cares out here. There's not even anything for a state trooper to hide behind."
"You know they do speed patrols by plane and drone in some places these days?"
Methos just shrugged and begrudgingly steered them back to the right side of the road. Joe supposed he should be grateful that Methos had said yes to this ridiculous trip. He hadn't heard from Elly in decades and how she'd tracked him down, he had no idea. But she'd called and said she'd love to see him if he was ever in the area, which was a laugh. Why would he be out in the middle of nowhere? For that matter, what was she doing out in the middle of nowhere? And why would she even mention it? That was enough of a curiosity that he'd convinced Methos to take his new RV for a different trip than the old man had been planning.
"I've been meaning to ask you," Joe said after half an hour or so of fairly comfortable silence. "Why'd you buy this thing? I didn't even know you'd been looking. You never mentioned it."
"You're not my accountant, Joe. I buy things sometimes."
Joe rolled his eyes and shifted in his seat a little to glance at Methos. "Yeah, I know you do, but come on. This is a pretty big one."
This time Methos kept his eyes on the road. The barest hint of a smile showed at the corner of his mouth. "You know I hate moving, but I like being mobile. If I take it with me, I don't have to pack it all up," he pointed out.
"I guess," Joe allowed. In truth, the RV was pretty decent. Not ridiculously huge, but not so small that the two of them were always bumping elbows on the trip. It was a little bizarre to be sharing such a small space with Methos, but he didn't snore and he always put the coffee on when he got up before Joe did, so Joe wasn't complaining.
The road seemed to just go on and on. Joe tried to check the map on his phone, but his signal was pretty weak all the way out here. He supposed he was spoiled by living in cities most of the time. Not everywhere had full coverage, he reminded himself. Eventually, he headed into the back of the RV to get something to drink and ended up falling asleep.
When Joe woke, he realized that they weren't moving. He didn't hear Methos swearing, which suggested that the stop was on purpose. Methos was still behind the wheel, looking back in Joe's direction.
"Hey. I think we're here. If your destination was some cross between a commune and a trailer park."
Joe looked out the front windshield and saw that they had pulled off the road and into what looked like it might have once been a strip mall, but with the storefronts all renovated with hand painted signs that labeled them as things like Grocery, Clothing Exchange, and Carpenter.
"Huh," Joe said, looking at the RVs and trailers parked around them, in front of the strip mall and off to the side. "Why the hell is a strip mall all the way out here anyhow?"
"I suspect they're fungal," Methos said as he got up to stretch. "You know, popping up out of nowhere when you least expect them. Remains of an old tree under the grass? Fairy ring. There's this one mushroom that's only found in two places, Texas and Japan, and it's so distinctive it's definitely the same, and it's been in both places so long it couldn't have been transplanted. It's one of the world's great mysteries. Like strip malls in the middle of nowhere."
Joe didn't even dignify that with an answer as he grabbed his cane and made his way out of the RV.
It was pretty pleasant outside, nowhere near as hot as it looked from inside the RV. There were some people coming in and out of the mall storefronts and a handful sitting at some tables in the shade of a tent set up in the parking lot. As Joe looked around to see if he could spot Elly - and he'd have to recognize her after so many years, they hadn't seen each other since he'd enlisted - he started to get the feeling that something was very wrong here. And not just because it looked like people were living out of a strip mall.
"Joey!" Joe turned around to see a woman with long grey hair in a braid hurry towards him. Yup. That was Elly, alright. More wrinkles, hair no longer chestnut brown, but it was Elly down to the battered old Birkenstocks on her feet. And who didn't have some extra wrinkles and grey hair these days? Aside from the old crank who'd driven him all the way out here, that was.
"Same sandals?" Joe asked, walking over to her. "Good to see you, El."
"It's good to see you too, Joe." But Elly was looking around a little, more on edge than she'd been when he'd told her he was enlisting.
"Joe," a voice said from inside the RV behind him. "Joe, I think you should get back in here."
"Come on, Adam, we didn't come all this way just to sit in your RV," he muttered, turning to look at Methos, who was now standing in the side door of the RV, right hand conspicuously hidden. "Hey, El, this is… my nephew. Adam."
But Elly wasn't listening. She was staring at Methos, one hand up over her mouth.
"Jacob?" she whispered. "It can't be… You'd be at least 60 now."
"Joe," Methos said, more insistently this time. "We need to talk."
Elly shook her head. "No, sorry, you can't be… Joe, I didn't know you had a nephew. Did Cathy…" But she was staring at Methos again, frowning slightly. "You don't look like Cathy."
"He's not Cathy's kid," Joe muttered. "Come on, Elly. If he says it's important, let's go."
Methos looked like he was about to protest, then sighed and ducked out of sight into the RV so Joe and Elly could follow him. Joe hooked his cane on the handle just inside the door and turned to look at Elly. She was hesitating, glancing behind her towards the strip mall, then over to a row of RVs.
Elly started and looked at him. "What? Oh. Yes. Well, no. Not really. I should explain."
Once inside the RV Joe took a seat at the little table while Methos stood a little ways back from the cab, looking out the front windshield without moving forward enough to be seen. Elly shut the door firmly after herself, then stood there, looking like she might dash right out again.
"Eleanor," Methos said, finally coming back to the table. "Did someone new come to town recently? Other than us?"
Joe watched as Elly turned towards Methos slowly, brows knit together as she truly examined his face.
"It is you, isn't it?" she demanded, taking a step forward and poking his chest. "No one calls me Eleanor. No one ever really has except my mother. Where the hell have you been? The Fountain of Youth?"
"Something like that. My question stands. Has someone new come here recently?"
Elly sighed and plunked herself down next to Joe.
"You're explaining yourself later, young man," she told Methos, pointing at him. "But yeah, we get new folks every so often, so we didn't think much of it. There's always some folks looking to get away from the cities, get off the grid. We've got our own electricity, water, you name it. It's not for everyone, but we've got enough bright bulbs around here to keep us up and running and sometimes someone rolls through and they've got some new ideas or maybe some supplies. New guy showed up last month, said his name was Lou. Seemed like a decent sort at first, but then…"
Methos nodded. "Right. I see. So why call Joe?"
"He said he knew him. We were talking one night at the bar and he was telling me about being in the Army back in the 60s and I mentioned Joe and before you know it he was saying he knew him and I should call him and it all seemed like one of those coincidences, you know?"
Methos was looking at Joe and Joe shrugged at him. "I dunno, man. I knew a lot of folks. Don't remember a Lou, but come on, cut me some slack. He could have been in the bed next to me when I was healing up and I wouldn't know. They had me on the good stuff." Not that Joe thought that's what this was. If Methos was alert and asking questions it was likely an Immortal was around, and Joe knew for damn sure what Immortal he'd known back in Vietnam and he was long gone. But Elly didn't know about any of that. And it didn't explain why she was so nervous now.
"Thing is," she continued. "I couldn't find you at first. We don't exactly have the best wi-fi out here, you might've guessed. So I told him hey, it was fifty years ago! And he said fifty years is nothing and I could find you or he could have us all arrested for squatting on his land. He had paperwork and everything, Joe. Who the hell even knew someone cared about this little patch of nothing? Now, you want to tell me how you happen to be driving around with Jacob? Last I saw him, he was in Tibet."
"Tibet, huh?" Joe said, looking at Methos. "Yeah, well, he's not my nephew and I didn't even tell him who we were coming to see. Just told him it was an old girlfriend."
"True for both of you," Elly commented, smirking just a little before frowning again. "So what now? He was probably watching. He probably knows I'm telling you all of this. What the hell does he want with you?"
Joe and Methos looked at each other and both shrugged in unison. It was a good question. What did this strange Immortal want with Joe? How did he even know Joe? Or maybe it wasn't the Immortal. Maybe Lou was some mortal and the Immortal Methos was sensing was someone else in the makeshift town.
"Well, whatever it is, if he's threatening to have you all arrested, then it's probably nothing good," Methos pointed out. "What a pain in the ass. Well. He probably knows I'm here if I know he's here. Might as well go deal with this," he sighed.
"Why? How would he know you're here? Why would he care? One of you had better tell me what's going on," Elly demanded.
"Yeah, you know, we'll explain it later, when this guy's been dealt with," Joe promised her. "You gonna handle it?" he asked Methos, who nodded.
Joe watched as Methos retrieved his sword from where he'd stashed it when Elly had come into the RV, then watched as Methos stalked out of the RV after tossing Joe the keys.
After a few minutes of watching Methos duck around the corner of the strip mall, Joe shut the door and locked it, then turned around to look at Elly. She was glaring at him. Yeah, that look was familiar, even after all this time.
"Are you going to explain this?" she asked him, arms crossed, elbows on the table in front of her. "Because I'm pretty sure that Jacob, whom I am very sure should at least have a few gray hairs by now, just left this RV with a sword in his hand, to go 'deal with' a man who demanded that I get you here. And right about now it's feeling a little organized crime-ish to me. But also I'd assume they use guns."
"Oh, he's got one of those too," Joe assured her. "It's kind of complicated, but well, I'm not too worried about him. So you met him in Tibet?"
Elly leveled a look at him that made it clear she wasn't to be distracted, then nodded. "Right. I was traveling. It was the 80s and the co-op I'd been living in dissolved when one of the members went behind our backs and bought the property to turn it into a corporate retreat. I didn't have much anyhow, so I figured I'd backpack around India, Nepal, wherever I could go. I met him in Lhasa and we hooked up for a while. He's really not your nephew, right? That would just be bizarre."
"Nah, he's not my nephew. He's just a friend. And this is, well, it's weird, Elly. Weirder than any of those books you used to try and get me to read. You know how they say truth is stranger than fiction? They're not lying."
"Oh yeah?" Elly said, leaning forward. "Try me, soldier boy."
Joe took a deep breath, stalling as he tried to figure out where to start. It wasn't like he was telling a total stranger who'd just witnessed a quickening or an Immortal coming back to life. This was Elly. She'd been his first real girlfriend, even if it hadn't lasted more than a summer.
"Okay, so, just let me finish before asking questions, right? There are these people, and they're just like you and me, mostly, but also they're kind of immortal. I mean, they die, but they don't age or anything, and most times when they die they just come back to life a few minutes later. They've been around for thousands of years. We don't really know why and we don't know how, but that's just how it is. And Jacob - Adam now, by the way - is one of them. That guy Lou probably is too. They fight each other sometimes, with swords. Only way to kill them for good is a beheading. If we see a light show out there, that means one of them won. Hopefully it'll be Adam. I'd put money on him any day. He's a sneaky son of a bitch."
Elly was staring at him, shaking her head in disbelief. "Joe… you weren't at Woodstock, were you? You didn't take the brown acid? That's a whole lot of fantasy you're spinning there."
"It's all real, El. Every word of it. It's why your old flame there hasn't aged a day since you last saw him and it's why he left here with a sword in hand. I still don't have a clue what that guy wanted with me but hey, can't say I'm mad I had Adam drive me here now."
Joe sat down next to Elly and stretched out a bit. Then he pulled up his sleeve and showed her his tattoo. "I'm part of a group that keeps tabs on them all. Records their history so someone knows all the things they've done. Good and bad. Gave me a reason to keep going after I lost my legs. It's been a hell of a time, these past fifty years."
Taking his hand, Elly turned his arm so she could look at the tattoo. "I've seen this. Lou's got a folder with this on it in his trailer. And there was a woman through here six months back with this tattoo. Had it on her shoulder. She said it was for some indie band. She took off not long after. Lost a couple of people around then, but like I said, living out here's not for everyone."
Joe would have replied, asked her more questions about this folder and the woman with the tattoo and who else had left just before her, but as he opened his mouth they heard the crack of thunder as lightning split the sky a ways off from the mall parking lot. The sky outside was still the darkening blue-purple of dusk, not a cloud in sight, but the lightning kept going, flashing over and over, the force of it shaking the trailers and RVs at the far end of the lot.
When it was over and people from the town had started to gather to look in the direction of the bizarre little storm, Joe grabbed his own gun from the glove compartment in the cab, then led Elly out of the RV.
"It's not nearly hot enough for heat lightning," he heard one man say to another as they passed through the crowd.
"Weather experiments," said a man with a long beard, nodding sagely. "Told y'all. We should set up those lightning rods around the mall. Protect ourselves!"
As the people discussed various theories, Joe and Elly started walking. The road itself was pretty smooth, but Joe didn't fancy walking too far. Fortunately, Methos had apparently started back as soon as they quickening was over, sword already wiped off. He met them not far beyond the parking lot, hidden from the people of the town by the parked RVs.
"All taken care of," Methos said, glancing down at his shirt, which had been sliced to ribbons. "And you owe me a shirt. I liked this one."
"Yeah, yeah," Joe said. "So you get anything out of the guy?"
In response, Methos held up a set of keys and clicked a button on the fob. A trailer nearby beeped and Methos led the way to it, unlocking the rear doors to reveal a messy interior full of papers and books. Joe climbed in to look them over, finding several with names of Watchers on them.
"Hunting Watchers, looks like," Methos muttered. "Charming. I suppose you've given Eleanor here the lowdown?"
"Yeah, he told me you don't get old, you bastard," Elly said to Methos. "And you apparently just chopped Lou's head off."
"He was planning on killing whoever he had to if it meant also killing Joe," Methos pointed out. "I say it was fully justified."
Joe expected Elly to argue. She'd always been an ardent pacifist. But then, Methos himself usually tried to stay out of fights. Joe knew he'd probably only done this because he'd known there was no way Lou was going to back off. But Elly wasn't protesting, she was sighing.
"Well. Self defense, I guess. In a way," she said, looking at Joe. "Hey, I'm still firmly anti-war, but I'm not going to just sit here and let someone hurt people for no reason. Now. Come on. We've got some shirts that'll fit you at the exchange," she told Methos. "Take the bloody one off."
"You're just saying that to see me shirtless," Methos guessed.
"Damn right. So are you two going to stick around a while? I think all three of us have some catching up to do."
Joe looked at Methos, who shrugged. "You know, I could do with a little time off the grid," he said. "How about you?"
Joe grinned and held out his arm for Elly to take, which she did. "Sounds good to me, buddy. Let's go get you a new shirt and find out where to park the RV."