Chapter 8: The Hunt
Ready or not here I come. He warned unseen. It was one of the few thoughts I plucked from the invaders. Their inner voices were distorted, overpowered by a contest to see who could find us first. It was a game they played en route to interrupting ours.
Communicating by hand signals, they traversed the terrain like an experienced infantry. And in a staggered formation they sliced through the last margins of the forest.
He was the first to breach the clearing — an indescript male, the owner of the voice, the leader. He broke his stride allowing a second darker male to take point. With feline mobility, the female ghosted behind them. My attention was briefly struck by the sight of her hair, which rose like the color of flames. As they crossed the remaining field, the invaders tightened their lines.
It had been some time since my family encountered strangers of our kind. It was always unsettling. Now the moment harrowed. They stalked forward but differential to my family who claimed this territory.
Despite their unsuspecting camping attire, tattered edges and bare feet gave them away as something feral and suspicious. I sized them up quickly.
The darker complected male at the helm of their spearhead pattern was of average build with short inky black hair. His Mediterranean coloring, although matte by an immortal's skin tone, wasn't the only aspect that differed from his friends. A Parisian accent that voiced his thoughts seemed out of place in their company. It was faded by centuries of nomadism, but that clip distinct tongue was unmistakable. He presented a porcelain smile that was seemingly genuine as it was curious.
The female's orange mane was mired with bits of debris and foliage. The volume of it compensated for her male companions' closely cropped cuts. Her thoughts remained garbled as her visual prospect shifted from one person to the next. Her eyes dialed in on Rosalie and in an infantile voice, the female selected Rose as her chief competition.
The leader, a tuff of brown hair, unexceptional features, and a slighter physique than the Frenchman, remained in the rear. He also strayed on Rose but for different reasons. The leader's sightline appeared deceptively stagnant; however, he evaluated each stranger, fortunately glossing over Bella secreted behind me, lingering from Rosalie to Esme, halting on Alice then widening the ambit of his gaze to encompass my entire family. His eyes, like his sidekicks, flared red, fresh from a recent hunt.
They were fast to assess Carlisle whose evident refinement stood in vivid contrast to them. Emmett and Jasper winged him like bodyguards. In reaction to being outnumbered, the invaders straightened out of their crouch-like prowl in a show of submission.
"We thought we heard a game." The Frenchman said as he approached Carlisle. "I'm Laurent, these are Victoria and James." He introduced the vampires stepping up beside him.
My father spoke, "I'm Carlisle. This is my family, Emmett and Jasper, Rosalie, Esme, and Alice, Edward and Bella." He gestured in general directions, vaguely identifying the owner of each name. When my father mentioned Bella, every one of my muscles tightened like strings on the tuning pegs of a violin.
"Do you have room for a few more players?" asked the Frenchman named Laurent. When I riffled through his thoughts, the Frenchman had genuine interest to socialize with a coven of civility, as he phrased it in his mind.
I drilled into the head of the female whose attention swung back and forth from Rosalie to the leader. But his interest lied elsewhere. The leader was looking to Carlisle, but his shuffling thoughts didn't hold Rosalie but Alice in his periphery.
Carlisle chose his reply carefully, "Actually, we were just finishing up. But we'd certainly be interested another time. Are you planning to stay in the area for long?"
"We're headed north, in fact, but we were curious to see who was in the neighborhood. We haven't run into any company in a long time."
"No, this region is usually empty except for us and the occasional visitor, like yourselves."
That's when I felt the blanket of calm Jasper had thrown over the invaders. He ratcheted his talent to its full compass, but my nerves were on hair trigger alert.
"What's your hunting range?" Laurent queried, but Carlisle overlooked the obvious.
"The Olympic Range here, up and down the Coast Ranges on occasion. We keep a permanent residence nearby. There's another permanent settlement like ours up near Denali."
Laurent tottered on his heels by this bit of information. "'Permanent?' How do you manage that?"
"Why don't you come back to our home with us and we can talk comfortably?" Carlisle proposed. "It's rather a long story."
The leader and the female traded looks at the word "home," but Laurent's curiosity subordinated his surprise.
"That sounds very interesting, and welcome." He reviewed my father's groomed appearance with anticipation. "We've been on the hunt all the way from Ontario, and we haven't had the chance to clean up in a while."
"Please don't take offense, but we'd appreciate it if you'd refrain from hunting in this immediate area. We have to stay inconspicuous, you understand."
"Of course," Laurent conceded. "We certainly won't encroach on your territory. We just ate outside of Seattle anyway." As he chortled, the scene from his memory unfolded in his mind — under a highway off ramp four vagrants attacked in a shanty camp. Their drained bodies buried by a creek bed. The names of Ralph Palazo and Michael Turk flashed in Laurent's thoughts as he remembered handing two of the victims' IDs to the leader.
"We'll show you the way if you'd like to run with us — Emmett and Alice, you can go with Edward and Bella to get the Jeep." Carlisle's next words died in his mouth.
In the worst possible timing, a salvo of many things going wrong all at once fumbled before my eyes.
A northerly breeze altered its direction and pipelined Bella's scent right to the invaders. My body set like mortar at this betrayal.
At that instant, the leader snatched the air and leveled his eyes on Bella. What do we have here?
My body went from mortar to fluid violence.
The leader inflated his lungs obscenely and in a seamless movement dropped into a killing crouch. The entire assembly — Bella, my family, the invaders — fibrillated like one organ.
A savage growl lacerated past my throat.
My palms slammed to the floor. Back arched, lips curled, my vision narrowed and burned into the leader.
"What's this?" The Frenchman gibbered.
My, my, look at this pretty little thing. The leader leered inwardly and made a gambit to the left for a better vantage point. I mirrored him in a primal aggressive stroke. The rage burning through me vented from my throat in rolling rumbles.
"She's with us." My father threatened.
That's when the Frenchman detected Bella's scent. "You brought a snack?" He took a step toward Carlisle.
Another bestial roar ruptured from me. My lips retracted far above my gums, exposing teeth champing to gnash the invaders into refuse, into nothingness. The Frenchman cowled back.
"I said she's with us." Carlisle knew in the next moment I would attack.
"But she's human," the Frenchman argued.
Emmett amped to join me in the kill zone, puffed up his chest to answer him. "Yes."
This show of strength forced the leader out of his attack stance. But he would not draw down his slaughterous stare.
Something about my behavior betrayed that I did not protect Bella simply as a possession, a pet, some plaything, and he knew it. This fool has a thing for her. He drawled internally skimming over Emmett and Carlisle. They all do? How novel. Now, this is going to be fun.
Hackles up, my shoulders lowered for a charge.
In an attempt to quell the increasing militance, the Frenchman fluted, "It appears we have a lot to learn about each other."
"Indeed." Carlisle said tightly.
"But we'd like to accept your invitation." The Frenchman looked fleetingly at Bella and then to Carlisle. "And, of course, we will not harm the human girl. We won't hunt in your range, as I said."
With interior malice, the leader dismissed the Frenchman's promises. Speak for yourself, Laurent. This is something I've been waiting for, for a long time. He passed an underhanded glance to the female. Despite a bland front, the leader was exultant. Then I saw something in his thoughts so revolting it gored me.
"We'll show you the way. Jasper, Rosalie, Esme?" Carlisle recruited.
In my family, there were no weak allegiances when one of us was threatened. They cloistered around Bella in a phalanx. Alice swiftly shot to Bella's side as Emmett taking front guard faded back to meet us.
My vision was fused to the leader. He made his own promises. His mouth stretched into a slit of a smile. It was then his chilling valediction defiled everything I loved. Until we meet again, Bella. I have so many things in store for you.
My pupils fogged over with naked hate. I wanted to feel his skull pulverize between my hands.
Go, go, go… It was Carlisle's internal urgings that impelled me to act. "Let's go Bella." The order came from my mouth, but I was reeling from what just happened, from what I saw, from what I heard.
Bella stood like a mannequin that I grasped her elbow to wrest her from paralysis. With Emmett and Alice forming a second wall of concealment, I guided Bella toward the forest. As she wobbled along beside me, whatever control I had became less enforceable.
At last we reached the thick trim of woods. I flung Bella on my back. With swiftness unknown to me before, I howled through the forest. Alice and Emmett were a gap behind as fear leant me even more speed.
Short of a minute the Jeep was in view. Without slowing momentum, I swung Bella onto the backseat. Emmett next skated beside her. "Strap her in," I directed my brother as Alice joined me in the front.
A hard twist to the ignition, the engine groaned. The torque of the tires sprayed a fountain of mud in all directions as I reversed towards the road. With the grinding of gears and a stomp to the gas pedal, the Jeep then fishtailed forward.
My thoughts began to aggregate as I took stock of what we just escaped. I once vowed, no more mistakes, and now I committed the worst crime. Because of it, Bella's life was threatened. I should be hanged. I said to myself in disgust, which was followed by an audible flux of curses.
With no regard for the rugged topography, I mowed a short-cut to the highway, testing the Jeep's suspension. In the rear-view mirror, Bella jostled in her harness; but gratefully I could see that no one pursued us. For now it appeared we eluded them. Once we reached the highway, I struck out south, away from the menace, away from Forks.
"Where are you going?" Bella questioned. I didn't answer. My silence inspired muteness from my siblings.
"Dammit, Edward! Where are you taking me?"
The Jeep devoured the pavement before us as I stood on the accelerator reaching a hundred and five miles an hour. "We have to get you away from here — far away — now."
"Turn around! You have to take me home!" Bella began to unfasten her restraints.
"Emmett," I murmured. He pinioned her hands in a grip.
"No! Edward! No, you can't do this."
"I have to, Bella, now please be quite."
"I won't! You have to take me back — Charlie will call the FBI! They'll be all over your family — Carlisle and Esme! They'll have to leave, to hide forever!"
"Calm down, Bella." My face went rigid with suppressed anger. "We've been there before."
"Not over me, you don't!" You're not ruining everything over me!" She thrashed against Emmett's hold. I would not allow defiance. Making Bella safe was paramount before anything or anyone else.
Then in a quite but carrying voice Alice spoke, "Edward, pull over."
I threw my sister a granite stare and pushed the speedometer to its limits.
"Edward, let's just talk this through." Alice persisted.
"You don't understand," I railed. "He's a tracker, Alice, did you see that? He's a tracker!" At the word, "tracker," my siblings quickened with apprehension. They now fully appreciated my desperation. That's when I saw it again, a macabre montage of his favorite kills, the systematic ploys used to stalk his prey, the grisly rituals enjoyed to torture his victims. Propelled by panic, my foot fell hard on the accelerator.
"Pull over, Edward."
I shut my sister out and glimpsed the red needle edge pass one hundred and twenty.
"Do it, Edward." Even with what I told her, Alice wasn't letting this go.
"Listen to me Alice. I saw his mind. Tracking is his passion, his obsession — and he wants her, Alice — her, specifically. He begins the hunt tonight." Within moments of catching Bella's scent, he slated her as his next kill. The tracker's bloodlust was tangible so much so that it was inseparable from him. He was his thirst. He would stop at nothing until it was sated.
"He doesn't know where —"
Cutting my sister's reply, I pushed my point. "How long do you think it will take him to cross her scent in town? His plan was already set before the words were out of Laurent's mouth."
Bella pulled my focus. "Charlie! You can't leave him there! You can't leave him!" She writhed against the bands and straps of her harness while Emmett still penned her hands.
"She right." Charlie's in danger. A vision glimmered in Alice's mind of the tracker lurking at a window with Bella's father in view.
I eased the gas pedal, but Alice wouldn't let up, "Let's just look at our options for a minute."
The Jeep slowed as I released pressure from the accelerator whereupon I hit the brakes. Bella was thrown forward in her seatbelts then propelled back.
"There are no options." I mumbled with frigid resistance.
"I'm not leaving Charlie!" Bella shouted.
To hell with Charlie, to hell with my family, to hell with everyone!
"We have to take her back." Emmett decided to weigh in then. Leave it to my brother to fold at a woman's duress.
I bit my cheek. "No."
"He's no match for us, Edward. He won't be able to touch her."
Emmett gleamed. "I can wait, too."
"You didn't see — you don't understand. Once he commits to a hunt, he's unshakable. We'd have to kill him."
"That's an idea." My brother was eager to mete out whatever was necessary to neutralize the threat. It was the only thing we agreed on.
"And the female. She's with him. If it turns into a fight, the Frenchman will go with them, too."
"There are enough of us."
I shot my brother a questioning look.
Alice's was resolute. "There's another option." A vision of Bella's immortal crimson eyes torched through her mind for the briefest instant.
My head whipped toward my sister, "There — is — no — other — option!" Each word was punctuated with rage. Bella and Emmett boggled at me. Alice remained unflinching. In the intervening seconds, we locked into a duel of wills.
It was Bella who cut through the thick silence. "Does anyone want to hear my plan?"
"No." I barked.
"Listen," Bella urged. "You take me back."
She joined Alice's glare. "You take me back. I tell my dad I want to go home to Phoenix. I pack my bags. We wait till this tracker is watching, and then we run. He'll follow us and leave Charlie alone. Charlie won't call the FBI on your family. Then you can take me any damned place you want."
All eyes turned to Bella.
"It's not a bad idea, really," Emmett said unhelpfully.
Alice added, "It might work — and we simply can't leave her father unprotected. You know that."
All eyes turned to me.
"It's too dangerous — I don't want him within a hundred miles of her." The imperative was Bella's safety.
Why were they fighting me on this?
"Edward, he's not getting through us." My brother continued.
Why didn't they get it? Along with Bella's blood, opposition was what this tracker wanted.
After a moment with her thoughts, Alice offered an affirmation, "I don't see him attacking. He'll try to wait for us to leave her alone."
Although the scenes from her mind corroborated her claim, I wasn't swayed. "It won't take long for him to realize that's not going to happen."
"I demand you take me home."
This was followed by Alice's interior warnings that broadcasted through my brain. He'll kill him. Can't you see that? He'll kill Charlie. And I don't have to tell you what that will do to Bella. Jamming my fingers to my temples, I crammed my eyes shut. Alice was right. I didn't have to view her visions to know that it was true.
"Please." My heart tugged as Bella's quite plea had its own persuasive power. It was completely wrong, but I felt myself begin to buckle to their plan.
I didn't open my eyes as I said, "You're leaving tonight, whether the tracker sees or not. You tell Charlie that you can't stand another minute in Forks. Tell him whatever story works. Pack the first things your hands touch, and then get in your truck. I don't care what he says to you. You have fifteen minutes. Do you hear me? Fifteen minutes from the time you cross the doorstep."
The engine vroomed when I switched on the starter. In a tight U-turn, I steered the Jeep toward Forks bearing down on the gas pedal with tires wailing in protest beneath us. The speedometer's gauge once more orbited to the other side of its axis.
Bella stared at my brother's hand still manacled around hers. "Emmett?"
"Oh, sorry." And he promptly let her go.
At the drone of the Jeep's engine, we lapsed into another silence as I finalized the plan in my mind.
"This is how it's going to happen. When we get to the house, if the tracker is not there, I will walk her to the door. Then she has fifteen minutes." I cast a, this is non-negotiable, look at Bella in the rearview mirror. "Emmett, you take the outside of the house. Alice, you get the truck. I'll be inside as long as she is. After she's out, you two can take the Jeep home and tell Carlisle."
"No way," Emmett jumped in on my last directive, "I'm with you."
"Think it through, Emmett. I don't know how long I'll be gone." I tried applying to his sense of reason. But like the thumbing of prayer beads on a string, "No, no, no, no, no…" the mantra repeated in his head. Emmett wasn't listening to me.
"Until we know how far this is going to go, I'm with you," he reiterated.
I heaved a sigh, knowing this is where my brother would not give in. "If the tracker is there," I resumed bleakly, "we keep driving."
"We're going to make it there before him," Alice verified. I foraged through her thoughts and could see that we would beat him to Bella's house. But that the tracker was racing us there proved Charlie's endangerment.
Alice looked over at me. "What are we going to do with the Jeep?"
"You're driving it home."
"No, I'm not."
Obscenities spilled from my mouth in a tribal incantation.
"We can't all fit in my truck," Bella said in a way to dispel the escalating friction.
She next muttered below a whisper, "I think you should let me go alone."
I was wrong. Bella clearly aimed to gall me.
"Bella, please just do this my way, just this once." After an expulsion of air, I was ready for another fight.
"Listen, Charlie's not an imbecile," she argued. "If you're not in town tomorrow, he's going to be suspicious."
"That's irrelevant. We'll make sure he's safe, and that's all that matters." What a fat lot of good it would do to trot Bella out for the tracker's advantage? We might was well place her on platter and ring the dinner bell.
"Then what about this tracker? He saw the way you acted tonight. He's going to think you're with me, wherever you are."
Emmett turned to her in surprise. The human has something here. "Edward, listen to her," he counseled. "I think she's right."
"Yes, she is," Alice concurred.
"I can't do that."
"Emmett should stay, too," Bella went on. "He definitely got an eyeful of Emmett."
He gawped at her. "What?"
"You'll get a better crack at him if you stay," Alice said expanding on Bella's argument.
"You think I should let her go alone?" With a dark glare, I questioned my sister's mental stability.
"Of course not," Alice said, "Jasper and I will take her."
Disregarding her insane offer, I reemphasized, "I can't do that," but it lacked the impact I intended.
"Hang out here for a week —" at the mention of a week's separation, I balked as Bella spoke to me through the rearview mirror. She quickly revised "— a few days. Let Charlie see you haven't kidnapped me, and lead this James on a wild-goose chase. Make sure he's completely off my trail. Then come and meet me. Take a roundabout route of course, and then Jasper and Alice can go home."
This was unacceptable, but I allowed Bella to make her case. Through the mirror, I held her in an interrogating stare. "Meet you where?"
"No. He'll hear that's where you're going."
"And you'll make it look like that's a ruse, obviously. He'll know that we'll know that he's listening. He'll never believe I'm actually going where I say I am going."
Emmett snorted, "She's diabolical."
"And if that doesn't work?" I said disconcerted at how abruptly I was giving thought to her proposition.
"There are several million people in Phoenix," she reminded me.
"It's not that hard to find a phone book."
"I won't go home."
"Oh?" I huffed.
Bella harped on, "I'm quite old enough to get my own place."
Alice once more tendered her earlier suggestion. "Edward, we'll be with her."
"What are you going to do in Phoenix?"
Emmett mulled over the idea, "I kind of like it."
"Shut up, Emmett." I sniped.
"Look, if we try to take him down while she's still around, there's a much better chance that someone will get hurt — she'll get hurt, or you will, trying to protect her. Now, if we get him alone…" As my brother chewed on the possibility of a hand-to-hand death match, I had to acknowledge there was sense in Bella's scheme. But I just couldn't brave the idea of being apart from her — not being able to protect her, not just from this tracker and countless other unknown dangers, but from herself. Bella wouldn't hesitate to act the martyr to avoid risking anyone's discomfort.
We were now within Fork's boundaries. I slowed the Jeep to a moderate speed to evade attention. With the abandonment of my counterarguments, Alice and Emmett knew I had surrendered to Bella's wishes. They resumed reconnoitering from their windows while I agonized over the high stakes at play and an uncertain future.
"Bella." My voice lowered in volume but increased in intensity. "If you let anything happen to yourself — anything at all — I'm holding you personally responsible. Do you understand that?"
"Yes." Her eyes widened and she tried to swallow.
I served Alice a look. "Can Jasper handle this?"
"Give him some credit, Edward. He's been doing very, very, well, all things considered."
"Can you handle this?"
Alice lost it. Civility morphed into a ferocity rarely displayed. Her lips recoiled into a fearsome sneer as a growl let loose from her throat. Then Alice followed this with an internal litany of blasphemies highlighting my name. I only grimaced in return.
"But keep your opinions to yourself," I said with the final word.