Duck started to open her eyes then froze. She could feel Tracker tense and realized that someone was pulling on their door knob. The pull became a pound as the door resisted opening.
"Frannie, I know you're in there with that no account Jimmy!" a man yelled as somebody continued to pull on the door. "Jimmy if you had one ounce of decency you'd hang yourself for what you're doing."
Duck sat up, gun drawn and looked at Tracker questioningly. Tracker shrugged, then signaled: "Mistake or Trap."
Duck nodded, then moved toward the door as Tracker aimed at the wall just alongside the door. It was chancy, but they had to know what they were up against. She held her breath, as she focused on the peep hole with one eye. She saw a man standing at the door who looked every bit the part of the jilted husband, but she could also see the shadow of a man standing on her side of the door, gun drawn. She allowed herself a faint smile as she backed away from the door. She wouldn't have been able to do that before she'd gotten the implants.
She turned towards Tracker and shook her head. "Two men, both armed, one weapon drawn." she signaled, then added "No flowers."
Tracker tilted his head and shrugged, then checked the fire escape. It looked clear, and he signaled as much to Duck, then signaled for her to check. Duck grinned back and looked out the window. Adjusting for low light she scanned the area. She saw a truck idling in the alleyway below, and a man standing next to it, having a cigarette.
She shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not," she signed, then winked at Tracker.
"I don't know anybody named Frannie er this Jimmy fella yer lookin' for," Duck called out with a soft Irish brogue. "M'name's Maddy O'Brien, and ‘tis late."
"Frannie! You come out here this instant!"
Duck shook her head as she could hear some of their neighbors getting irritated. "Yer not listenin' to me," she called out as she signaled Tracker to move towards the fire escape. Tracker moved, taking the ‘mission pack' with him. Duck held up four fingers and Tracker nodded then pointed up. Duck nodded, then concentrated on the door.
"Frannie, I know you're in there. I had you followed."
"Then you should demand a refund, ‘cause you got the wrong bloody room!" she countered her voice, developing a slight edge.. Tracker unlocked the window and slipped out onto the fire escape leaving the pack just inside the room where Duck could get to it.
"Frannie, you're making a scene," the man called. "Please just let me in and we can talk about this."
"Ow many times've I got to tell ye," she asked. "I'm not yer bleeding Frannie, and there's nobody ‘ere by that name."
She could hear them shift position outside the room and knew the man with the gun was about to bust down the door.
"Switching to B&E," Duck told Tracker via the comm-link.
"Coming down now," Tracker answered as Duck dove for the window, and the mission pack. Once outside she stood with her back to the wall, facing the building across the street. She held her gun in a ready position and waited.
The door jam splintered as the door came flying in. Its progress was halted by what remained of the top hinge. The man with the gun carried it like a professional, carefully pointed at the ground, but ready to be aimed as necessary. He did a quick sweep of the room, and noticed the open window.
"Damn," he swore. "Target is on the fire escape. I repeat, Target is on the fire escape," he yelled into his comm unit.
Duck scanned the area below as she heard him talking. Then she heard the buzz overhead. "They got a flyer," Duck growled. "Its almost here."
"Ready on three," Tracker responded.
Duck smiled to herself as she listened to Tracker's count. On three she dove back into the room as the flyer made a strafing run on the fire escape. Bullets sprayed the wall where she had been less then a second before.
As she came through the window she saw the man's gun come up, trying to get a clear line on her. As he tracked her motions, Tracker came up behind him, shoving the ‘jilted husband' inside the room. He smiled as his systems gave him the go signal, indicating target acquisition.
"You're getting old," the man chided as he signaled her to stand.
"And you're getting careless, Masters." Tracker stated softly in the man's ear. The man bowed his head and smiled.
"I could still take her," he commented calmly.
"Yeah, but you and gumby over there wouldn't have a chance to gloat about it," Tracker agreed as he backed up.
"And then certain files would become public," Duck offered as she brushed past the man and closed what remained of the door.
The man sat down on the edge of the bed and holstered his gun. "I thought you traded those files for information when Tracker turned up missing," the man commented to Duck.
"Oh, I did," Duck countered. "I just found more to replace them," she added with a shrug. "Which leads us to you. What the hell are you doing here?"
The man looked at them and held up a single finger. "CD-5 to base, recall all units," he stated into his comm-unit. "I'd hate for them to get over zealous."
Tracker looked at Duck and shook his head. "Like busting down our door won't draw a crowd."
"Or live fire from the drone..." Duck added as she looked at the man expectantly. "You have some serious explaining to do."
"I know," the man answered with a nod. "But so do you. Black IC on general systems was never your style."
"Come again?" Tracker asked in disbelief.
"We had two consultants at Aerocomm that got their brains eaten by Black IC on one of your systems," the man stated as he looked from Tracker to Duck. The look of disgust and disbelief on their faces said it all. "You didn't know about it did you?"
"The only systems I've done that have any kind of Black IC are the three Governmental systems we serviced back in the late 40's," Duck answered.
"And the simulator," Tracker added.
"And the simulator," Duck agreed. "You want to tell us about it?"
"And how you managed to find us?" Tracker asked.
"You better come with us," the man stated as he stood up. "I think we may have attracted too much attention already. Your van around?"
"We're between vehicles," Tracker answered with a slight growl.
"I just stepped into the middle of something didn't I?" the man asked.
"You stepped into our lives," Duck answered. "Of course you stepped into the middle of something."
"That's us, a really happening crowd," Tracker agreed. "Regular party in action."
The man looked at Tracker as he dead panned his answer. "I'll bet you're really fun at parties," he countered with a chuckle. "Max," he stated to the ‘jilted husband' who'd been watching the exchange between his boss and ‘Frannie and Jimmy.' "I'd like you to meed Tracker and Duck. If you're lucky, you won't meet them again."
"Sir?" the man asked as he shook his head.
"We go way back," the man explained. "Rule of thumb Max, these two are habitually in trouble. You try and mix it up with them, the trouble will get you long before they do." He looked around the room and sighed. "Enough of that, I think we should vacate the premise. We have a car in back," he assured Duck and Tracker.
"Truck in the alley yours?" Tracker asked without moving.
"Iveco, driver smokes..." Duck answered distractedly.
"Allison," the man answered with a growl. "Over achiever, trying to get my job."
"Great," Tracker growled humorlessly. Then he gave Duck a sidelong glance.
Duck flashed him a smile and nodded. "We'll meet you at the car," Duck told the man with a grin.
"We're just going to pay our respects to Mr. Allison," Tracker added with a dark chuckle in his voice.
"Go easy on him," the man requested.
"Oh, we will," Duck answered sweetly.
"Come on Max, lets get the car warmed up," the man urged with a shudder. "You know, I'm really glad we established a working relationship," he told Tracker. "I'd hate to be at odds with you two."
"Next time, you could just call," Duck offered as she checked her clip and smiled at the man as she slapped it back into place.
"You'd never return my call," he answered matter of factly. "See you in a few."
With that the man left with a befuddled Max. "Guess it really was the wrong room," he commented to one of the neighbors as they headed for the stairs.
Duck and Tracker looked at each other and shrugged. They'd known the man for over twenty years and they had yet to figure him out. "Shall we?" Duck asked.
"I'll take the roof," Tracker signed.
Duck shrugged, then counter signed, "I got below."
Duck picked up the mission bag and headed for the door. "Careful."
"You too." Tracker said as he grabbed the security equipment and headed out the window. Duck watched him leave, then stepped over what remained of the door jam. The neighbors had already slunk back to their rooms. Duck headed to the far stairs and went up a flight, then to the window at the end of the hallway. Standing away from the window, she scanned the area outside. IR revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Once she was sure it was clear, Duck opened the window and pulled the repelling line from her bag. As she tied off, Duck heard Tracker chuckle over the line.
"Just like old times," he commented.
Duck, who had never gotten the hang of repelling any other way headed out the window face first. Once she hit the ground she cleared herself of the line and headed for the sewer access.
"Give me 5," she commented as she slipped under the grating and pulled the cover back over her.
*** *** ***
Mark Allison watched the monitoring equipment as it scanned the room where the suspects were staying. He knew that Masters had broken in, he got that much from the radio exchange, but throughout the entire exchanged, the equipment had only picked up two occupants of the room. He wondered how Masters had done it.
After ten minutes, he started wondering what was keeping him. The targets should have been dealt with and Masters should have left already. He'd given the all clear, but the two were still in the room. He stretched and started for the back door of the Iveco, figuring on a visual check and another cigarette.
He looked around and checked his watch. Fifteen minutes and still nothing. He shook his head as he lit his cigarette and took a drag.
"Those things'll kill you," he heard a man comment cooly.
"Really bad habit," a woman's voice agreed.
"Don't," the man told him as he tried for his gun. "I've got a gun trained on you."
He moved his hands into the open. All his sources said that if these particular targets got the drop on you, you wouldn't get hurt unless you did something stupid. Then again, the same sources said that they were morally opposed to installing Black IC on the systems they protected.
"Sides, if we wanted you dead, do you think we'd be waiting around for introductions?" the woman asked him as she walked in front of him and handed him a timer. "Okay, underneath your van is a bomb. If you move the truck, ‘Boom.' Timer's set for ten minutes," she told him as she took his gun from its holster, then frisked him. "The timer will go off two minutes before the bomb. If you haven't managed to defuse it by then, unass the precinct. Understand?"
"Bomb?" he asked with a start.
"Bomb." The woman, Duck, assured him.
"Have a good evening," the man told him as the woman slipped back out of view.
"Why?" he asked as they moved away from the van.
"Someday Masters will retire," Tracker stated. "You'll most likely take his place."
"Figure we should start breaking you in," Duck finished, the added, "oh, and next time, don't park over an access panel. Too easy."
He turned, but they were already gone. He looked at the timer and swore. No wonder Masters had always had problems with these two. As he checked under the truck he saw the package they'd left for him. He swore as he crawled under the truck and inspected it. It looked real enough and he had no reason to doubt what the woman, ‘Duck' had told him.
Once again, according to the records, these two did not bluff. He though for a moment about running, but realized he'd have to pay for the van. He had to admire them though, they were fast and creative. No wonder Masters had never brought them in. He began to wonder about his goals, and whether they'd get him killed.
"Damn them," he swore to himself as he checked the timer and started working on the device. He analyzed the wiring and realized that it far exceeded what the files indicated they were capable of. ‘Have to updated the files,' he thought to himself as he reached for his wire cutters. He was surprised she'd missed them when she frisked him, but then he realized she'd probably left them on purpose.
He'd cut four wires, but nothing seemed to work. He began to suspect a set-up when the alarm went off. He thought again of leaving, but he was damned if he was going to let some two-bit ex- criminals make him throw in the towel. Almost two minutes later, he realized his mistake. He'd underestimated his opponents.
‘This is not how I want to die, laying in the mud, trying to keep from being blown up,' he thought to himself as he rolled out from under the van. He was still trying to get out of the way, when there was a loud popping noise from underneath the van.
He caught his breath as he realized he was still alive, and the van was still there. He knelt down by the van and looked at the remains of the package and found a piece of hotel stationary. Scrawled on the paper he read: ‘If this had been a real bomb, you'd be dead. Have a nice day.'
‘Don't bluff' my ass! He thought to himself as he stood up and looked at the van. He started laughing when he realized, she hadn't lied to him. It was a bomb, and technically it had gone boom. For a minute he wasn't sure if he hated them or was beginning to like them. Then he looked at his mud soaked cloths and growled. Hate seemed the more reasonable of the two.
Masters watched the area around his car as he waited for Duck and Tracker. He wasn't too worried about their paying Allison a visit. He knew that they were quite capable of taking care of themselves without really harming the man. That was why the whole situation felt wrong. Even when his predecessor had tried to kill Duck, then Katya Wjowski, she had only resorted to lethal force when she was given no other choice. She had even found a creative solution to the whole situation. One that not only guaranteed her safety, but also resulted in Aerocomm's security detail providing her with protection on occasion. Her resourcefulness had never ceased to amazing him, and once she and Tracker teamed up, the creativity had grown exponentially.
Max, who had been very quiet since they'd met in ‘Mr. Weather's' room finally spoke up. "Sir, why didn't you shoot?"
"He had the drop on me," Masters answered matter of factly as he spotted Tracker and Duck walking towards them. "Besides, what would shooting them get us?"
"They're criminals," Max objected. "They're wanted in connection to the Black IC incident."
"Wanted for questioning," Masters corrected him. "And they are anything but criminals."
"But we have extensive files on both of them," Max objected.
"That doesn't make them criminals," Masters assured him. "If you'd read the files, you wouldn't be asking me these questions. Listen and learn."
As he watched Tracker approached the car and stopped as Duck slipped to the other side of the car and gave it a quick once over. When she gave the all clear signal, he opened the door and Duck dove into the car. Once she was inside, Tracker joined her in the back seat and closed the door.
"You may want to move," Tracker urged.
"We've been having a bad week," Duck explained.
"And its only Tuesday morning," Tracker added.
Masters took a deep breath, but before he could put the car in gear, Tracker put a hand on his shoulder. "Trouble?" he asked as he once again scanned the area.
"Big. Seen any black roses?" Tracker whispered.
Masters felt the hairs on the back of his neck stick straight up. "Oooh, boy, when you two step in it, you really step in it." He watched their reaction and realized just how big and ugly things had gotten. "Not directly, but it looks like we have some, problems, in common."
Master put the car in gear and didn't say a word until he'd gotten well into the city and halfway back to the main security installation. Duck and Tracker simply looked at each other and shrugged.
Boomer drummed on the wheel as he tried to figure out what to do. At least the traffic was giving him plenty of time to think. Rabbit was still in a drug induced oblivion, and Kenny may as well have been. "What skeletons are you finding in you closet little brother," he asked, knowing Kenny couldn't hear him, even if he wanted to.
Then he heard the thrumming of the police helicopters. "Not now," he told them as the search light hit the van and hovered. Boomer thanked Geoff for insisting on the privacy glass that had been installed on all the vans. As the light focused on the front of the van, he slipped out of the driver's seat and picked Rabbit up.
"Sorry ‘bout this Derrick, but we need to hide you," he muttered under his breath as he pulled down the overhead compartment. He quickly piled Rabbit the sniper rifle and the remains of his brother's armor on the platform then raised it and locked it back into place. Looking at the carpeting, he saw the blood stains and shook his head.
As he searched for something to cover the stain, he could hear the police calling for him to come out with his hand's in the air. Boomer shook his head as he began rearranging the boxes in the back of the van. It would have to do. As he slipped back into the front, he looked over at Kenny and let his breath out slowly.
‘How do I explain Kenny,' he wondered to himself as he turned the inside lights on and rolled down the window.
"Hold it right there!" a man ordered gruffly as somebody pulled his door open and dragged him to the ground.
"What the?" he asked as he felt a knee in his back and a barrel along side his temple.
"I told you to freeze," the man yelled in his ear.
"I'm frozen, just take it easy man, my brother's in the car, he's out cold," Boomer stated as the pressure only increased.
"There's another man in the car," he heard another man confirm.
"My name is Wayne Wilson," Boomer told them evenly. "That's my brother Kenny. We've been working hard the last few weeks, figured we'd take a few days off, get away from the city for a few days."
He felt somebody grab his right hand and pull it behind his back. He forced himself to remain calm as he felt someone slap a cuff around his wrist. Somebody pressed his face into the pavement as his other arm was brought behind him and locked in place with the other side of the cuffs.
"Just take it easy," he urged as he felt himself hauled up.
"Give me a reason," one of the officers growled as he hit Boomer in the gut with the stock of his shotgun.
Boomer forced himself upright and faced the officer that had hit him. "If you're looking for trouble," he told the officer between breaths. "You picked the wrong people."
He watched the officer's expression carefully as he forced himself to breathe. "What you going to do about it boy?"
Boomer took a deep breath as he forced himself to remain calm, to not react to the officer's taunts. "This is one very big mistake," Boomer answered.
"Oh, is it now?" the officer asked as he knocked Boomer's legs out from under him. "Lookie, here boys, he fell down." Boomer held his temper in check as the officer helped him up and growled at him. "Come on, you fragger, resist!"
"Wilson, Wayne, Master Sargent, UCAS Army Reserve, Serial Number Two, One-Five, Zero, Niner, Niner-Five, Eight-One, Seven-seven. Check that out officer, before you make any more mistakes." Boomer answered evenly as he told himself he'd been through worse in boot camp. He took another deep breath and let it out slowly. "My brother wasn't feeling well, just take it easy on him."
The officer looked at him carefully as he spoke. The last thing Boomer wanted was for some high-strung officer to do something stupid. "Benny, check it out," he called to another officer as he glared at Boomer.
"On it boss," the younger man responded.
As the younger officer started towards the Helicopter, the officer glared at Boomer. "You better not be yanking my chain," he growled.
Boomer nodded and tried to keep calm as Kenny was dragged from the passenger side and handcuffed. "Woodrow, what you got?" the officer called as he stepped away from Boomer.
"Passenger's out cold," the officer confirmed.
"What's the scanner say?" The officer demanded as he stared Boomer in the eyes.
"Van's coming up empty," Woodrow told him.
Boomer nodded as he watched the officer's eyes. He was not taking the news well. Then Benny returned with a printout, which he handed to the officer. Boomer watched him carefully as he read the report then glared at him. "Well Mr. Wilson, it would seem you are who you say you are," he stated. "Lt. Ranier sends his regards."
Boomer nodded slowly as he locked eyes with the officer. "He been demoted?" Boomer asked with a slight raise to his eyebrow. "Cause he was a Captain last time I saw him."
Boomer realized that it was going to take a lot more than an positive ID to get him to ease off. He wanted whoever had shot one of his men, and they looked like the closest thing. It didn't help knowing that they were somehow involved, but now was not the time to bring that up. "You want to tell me what's going on?"
"We got a cop killer," the officer told him, as if that said it all. Boomer nodded understandingly. It did say it all.
"Well, it ain't us," Boomer told him. "I understand where you're coming for, and if I were in your shoes, I'd probably do the same, but its like I said," he told him calmly. "This is one, very big mistake. Now, will you let me check on my brother?"
The officer bit his lip as he thought about Boomer's request. "Okay," he stated as he unlocked the cuffs. But I want both of you where I can see you," he answered.
"That's fine," Boomer answered as he resisted the urge to slug the officer. He had bigger problems than petty vengeance. Boomer walked slowly over to the helicopter. There, on a stretcher, he found a very confused looking Kenny.
"Easy Bra," Boomer told him as he knelt along side him. "You okay?"
Kenny looked around, and Boomer saw the lost look in his eyes. "You aren't getting any of this are ya Kenny?"
"I want my momma," Kenny stated softly, almost as if he was afraid of Boomer's response.
Boomer could hear the childlike quality in Kenny's voice. "You were lost," Boomer told him. "We're trying to get you home okay?" Kenny nodded, but Boomer could see, he was a long way away then. And the lights and noise weren't helping matters.
Fen felt a sudden surge of energy as it flashed across his mind. Something told him he wasn't alone. He tried to move, but his limbs seemed to ignore his commands. He felt panic start to grow in the pit of his stomach as nothing seemed to work.
'Relax, Fen,' he heard a voice urge. 'Everything is fine.'
"What happened?" he asked groggily, at least he thought he asked.
'Don't you remember?' he heard the voice answer. Something about the voice was familiar, but he couldn't place it.
'I was watching something,' Fen answered as he tried to piece things together. There was a van, he remembered now, a van, and the Briar. Justin had told him about two strangers and he'd gone to investigate. Then he remembered being shot, and running. Everything was a jumble until he fell. Then Cliff and Jenny were there, picking up and carrying him towards something. His friends or more to the point, the Zombies that were once his friends were taking him away. He was in trouble and it had ‘Briar' written all over it.
'Pretend you don't know,' he told himself as he prepared to answer.
'Please, Fen, don't insult me,' the voice chastised him. 'You can't hide from me!"
Fen screamed as pain filled his mind. He tried to scream, but no sound escaped his lips. Again, he tried to move, fight off whatever it was that was attacking him, nothing would move. Throughout the struggle, the pain increased until nothing else existed.
'Don't make me do that again,' the voice told him as the pain ended. 'I'd much rather see you happy.'
‘Go to Hell!' He thoughts were agonizing. He tried to fight the pain with all his strength, but there was only thought. He tried not to think about Justin. Somehow he knew that the voice wanted something to use against him, something that would break his will. He knew had to protect his brother. He just couldn't let their mother down again, not after the last time.
‘Justin will be mine soon enough,' the voice assured him.
‘Mind Bender!' Fen tried to scream, but it that existed was thought.
‘Fen, Fen, Fen,' the voice stated. ‘You disappoint me. Haven't you figured out by now, there's nothing you can hide from me. I know every dark shadow of your mind, every pain, every pleasure, every sorrow. And I can make you relive any one of them, any time I want.'
‘No!' Fen swore as he felt Mind Bender rip through his memories. He was searching for something to use against him and he homed in on it like a beacon. Fear and pain swept through him as his former friend found what he was looking for and opened up his memories for both of them to see.
‘I never knew you had an older brother,' Mind Bender told him with a laugh. ‘This should prove interesting.'
Fen screamed as the images flashed through his mind. Over and over again, he was forced to watch images of doctors and policemen and the empty casket. On some level, he knew Bender was enjoying the whole thing. That only made it worse.
Masters looked in the rearview mirror as he turned onto 4th Street. He could tell that Duck had been studying him as he drove. When his eyes met hers in the mirror, he saw the smile reflected there.
"What?" he asked.
"Just remembering our first meeting," she answered.
He shook his head. "I was so sure I could get the jump on you, bring you back into the fold, make you see the error of your ways."
"Your boy Allison has the same look in his eyes," she countered.
"He's a tough one to crack," he warned her. "He's more likely to hate you than accept you."
"I figured," Duck answered. "Things aren't like they used to be."
"You talk to your old man any?" he asked.
"You kidding?" Duck asked him. "He would have let Chisholm rip my mind apart to get to the information I ended up with. Hardly the sort of thing you can talk about later on."
Masters nodded. Then noticed the confused look on Max's face. "Care to fill the kid in?"
Duck shrugged. "Not too much to tell really," she said looking at Max. "My old man, Sergei Wjowski, he made the mistake of getting me a job with Aerocomm when I came of age. Wouldn't have been too bad, but I ended up with too much information, and not enough friends. There were a lot of people who wanted what I knew, and well, Chisholm was head of security back then."
Masters chuckled. "He wasted a lot of resources trying to get to her, but every time he killed one copy of the file, two more would take its place. He would have lost his job over it. The man just didn't know when to quit."
"Masters tried to bring me in, but well, we came to an understanding," she explained.
"Understanding?" Masters asked in disbelief. "She made it so that if anything happened to her, anything, those files would become public knowledge."
"You understood," Duck countered with a shrug.
"True enough," Masters admitted. "Of course you weren't ready for the repercussions."
Duck looked at Max and started laughing. "They tried everything they could think of to break my system, but they just couldn't. Scared ‘em enough that Masters ended up being assigned to the security detail responsible for seeing that nothing happened to me."
"That, my boy, is why we have such extensive files on the young lady," Masters finished.
"Young Lady?" Duck asked. "You've been calling me that for the past fifteen years."
"And I hope to continue to do so for the next fifteen years," Masters told her. "Hopefully we can work out a way to do so."
"You had mentioned Black IC," Tracker prompted.
"And a whole lot more it looks like we need to discuss," Masters answered with a nod. "Two of our consultants were checking out one of your clients, they ran into Black IC."
"Which clients, which areas?" Duck asked as she started to pull out the combat deck.
"Cephaloft and UniComm," Masters answered as he watched Duck in the mirror. "And they were only in the public access areas."
Duck looked in the mirror with a disbelieving look, but he met her look with a nod. "Public only, we weren't trying anything."
"None," Masters answered. "We have logs back at the Main Security. If you don't mind, that's where I'd like to take you."
"Well," Tracker answered calmly. "That would depend on our status on arrival."
"Guests," Masters assured him. "I want you there as consultants, but I'll warn you there are some people who want you as prisoners."
"Your word?" Tracker asked. "We can leave when we want."
"My word," Masters promised.
"Fine, wake me when we get there," Tracker grumbled as he settled back in the seat.
"He's just a little grumpy, not enough sleep," Duck told Masters with a wink.