Chapter 18

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We jumped into Pop's big old Range Rover. I called shotgun, leaving the twins to ride in the back while Pop drove. On the way out to the range, the guys bantered excitedly about tactics and wind and sights and a bunch of other stuff I couldn't be bothered trying to understand.

Pulling up in the driveway of a small building in the woods, I stepped out and breathed in the fresh air. A big man who looked like he might have been part-bear came out to greet us.

"Darrel!" said Pop. "Thanks for taking our booking today."

"No problems, Ted," the bear man replied. He handed Pop a huge duffle bag that looked heavy. "There's enough rounds in there to keep you busy for a few hours, and as usual, you've got the range to yourselves."

"Wonderful!" said Pop. He lifted a bulky gun from the bag. Even though I knew it was only a paintball gun, it still looked bizarre to see Pop, the doctor and loving grandfather, holding a weapon in his hands.

Pop replaced the gun and slapped an envelope in Darrel's hand. "Thank you, sir. See you a bit later."

"Have fun," said the bear man, counting his cash in the envelope and heading inside.

Pop threw the bag to Noah. "Make yourself useful you two. Noah, you can carry that and Leigh, get the rest of the gear from the back. We'll meet you there."

Pop and I start walking along the trail next to the building that led deep into the woods. As the trees closed around us, I asked a question. "Pop, I'm just wondering... All this stuff..." I tried to phrase it in a way that wouldn't be immediately offensive. "It doesn't seem like, well, something you'd be into."

As always, Pop was benevolent. "You mean, because I'm a healer and an old man, what am I doing playing paintball?"

"I wouldn't have phrased it quite like that..."

"It's a fair question," said Pop. "I'm not exactly the typical paintball enthusiast. It started when the boys hit puberty. We'd always been close, especially since their parents passed, but once they hit their teen years, look out." Pop shuddered. "Noah became hormonal and angsty, Leigh got hormonal and crazy. I needed something we could do together, something active, engaging and bonding. Paintball ticked all the boxes."

He gestured around at the woods. "We found this place and never looked back. Noah loves it because it's tactical. Leigh just loves the rush." Pop lowered his voice. "Don't tell anyone, but I love it too. Whenever the boys would frustrate me, there was a wicked release in coming out here and nailing them with paint pellets."

He winked at me and I laughed at the image of the paint-spattered twins as awkward teens.

Pop's tone grew hard. "The other reason I taught them to play is more practical. I may be a man of God, but I also believe in defending your own. Who the boys are makes them vulnerable, hunted. I want Noah and Leigh to be capable of looking after themselves and the people they care about." He held an imaginary gun in his hands. "If you can aim a paintball gun, you can aim a real one."

I shuddered, horrified by the thought of either twin needing to shoot their way out of a situation and slightly shocked by Pop's blasé attitude to weapons. "I hope they never have to fire real guns."

"So do I. But if they ever need to, they'll be ready." We came to a small clearing. All around us the trees were decorated with paint splotches in primary colours and the sun shone through the canopy in dappled patterns, but somehow, the world around me seemed a little darker and scarier.

"We'll wait here for the twins." Pop eyed me carefully. "So, things were a little tense this morning."

"Yeah. Sorry about that." I tried to appear busy inspecting the local flora.

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