Once, almost a lifetime ago, he had been declared a child prodigy. Now he was almost a footnote in ‘where are they now?'
He could have made a fortune if he had stuck to one place, if he had played their games, but Ian Mac had a far greater calling. His muse called to him, and he followed her willingly. She'd led him far abroad and he had followed. He would do anything to be a part of the music.
Sometimes he was served her by just being part of the band, sometimes he backed it up, sometimes he took the lead, but the song was all that ever really mattered to Ian. When the music played, it transformed him, filled him. Its power flowed in his veins, but there were so few who really understood.
There were others like him, singers, musicians, he'd even met a few dancers. They were the closest thing he had to family, but they all followed the song where it led them, and now there was something very wrong with the song.
It started as a discordant wail in the background, like somebody had hit the wrong note, but it had lingered. Then it seemed to spread until it threatened to become a counterpoint to the song. Whenever he found one of her children, he talked to them, asked them if they had felt it too. They all agreed: something was fighting the muse.
Seattle to New York, Tokyo, London, it was all the same. He could hear it's cloying, discordance as it tried to take the lead. And now, the song, the true song was calling him to Memphis. It wouldn't have been his first choice of places to go, but again, it wasn't his decision to make. The song led him and he followed. Even in his mind, as he hummed the tune, he could feel the discordant strains of the other song creeping in.
This worried Ian more than anything else to date. If this discord were allowed it takes the singers, the true music will be lost. That thought drove him on. For the first time in his life, Ian knew the music needed him, he was determined not to fail.
The time had come for him to take the solo.
Sam Ranier watched as Finagle and two of his associates gathered around Kenny. He'd always found the trappings that went along with their work a bit unsettling.
Finagle had trained hard in the arts of magic, especially in interrogation and forensic investigation. His skill and innovation had earned him his own team. Men he had trained. Together they formed the best interrogation squad in Lone Star history. But no matter what they did, they still made Sam nervous.
He'd been questioned by them once, as a routine check. He had to admit, they were good and they were thorough. But the experience had left a bitter taste in his mouth. He didn't like the idea of anybody knowing that much about him, and having someone that deep in his mind left him feeling vulnerable. Sam Ranier did not like being vulnerable.
He didn't like doing this to Wayne's brother either, but his life, and perhaps their's depended on it. Still it was hard to watch.
They started by drawing figures in the air around Kenny, then in the dust that surrounded them. Yet after all that show, all he could see was Finagle standing next to Kenny and resting his hands on his head. Somehow he knew, there was a lot more that he couldn't see.
Finagle drew a deep breath as his men finished the shielding. It was a precaution, but he was nothing if not cautious. When they signaled him, he braced himself and began the spell that would take him into his subject's mind.
Visions exploded around him as he was met by a pair of eyes. The eyes glowed green in the darkness of Kenny's mind. Green with slit irises.
Harm him not, but see what he has seen.
Finagle was shocked. In all his years of experience he had only once before encountered a spirit when he entered a man's mind. That man had been possessed.
I am with him, nothing more.
‘I must talk to him,' he carefully formed the thought. He wanted to convey nothing to this spirit other than that information.
When you are calm.
‘I must talk to him,' he repeated.
When you are ready to listen. In a moment, I will be done with him. Then you may talk.
The spirit revealed himself to Finagle's mind. The mental image was that of a water mocassin, most likely the form the spirit had used to bite him.
‘But why?' he thought.
Because it was the only way, and time is far shorter than you think.
He watched as serpent faded back into his subject's mind and waited. The images flashed around him as he waited. He felt a great sorrow welling up inside Kenny's mind, and then it faded.
Take care with him, he is needed. As are you Robert A. Michaels, as are you.
Alarms went off inside his head. The Serpent knew his name, that gave him power over him, especially where they were now.
Fear me not. It is the one called Briar you must fear, and he is coming for both you and Kenneth. It must not be allowed to win. Too much is at stake.
With that, the serpent vanished. He could feel the change as it left. Now he was face to face with his subject, and he was alone.
‘Who are you,' his subject asked softly.
He could tell the man was still weak from his ordeal. He didn't have time to question how, he had to act.
‘Forgive me,' Finagle stated as he forced himself into the man's mind and took control.
*** *** ***
"Forgive me," the man said as he forced himself into Kenny's mind and took control. Kenny forced himself to relax even as he fought the urge to resist.
Serpent hand warned him that this was necessary, but it was hard for him not to fight back. After being forced to face his past and the terror he had endured as a child, it was one more invasion heaped upon his already ragged nerves.
He forced himself to remain calm as the man sifted through his memories, starting with the shooting the night before. The man guided his thoughts back to the tense wait in the van as Rabbit reported that they were being watched by a sniper. He was forced to listen to the gunshots again and again, knowing that his brother had been hit in the exchange. The anxious wait and the sound of pain in Rabbit's voice replayed in his mind until he wanted to scream.
The man forced him back through the memory two more times as he analyzed their location and tried to figure out where the snipers were located. Only then did he allow Kenny's memories to flow through the night's events. He watched everything that transpired after the shooting. He could feel the man's surprise as he fought the watcher, but he didn't stop the flow this time, rather watching everything that happened up to the snake biting him.
He was surprised by the man's gentleness as he eased his mind back through the events one more time. This time he focused on the watcher's attack in the van. He could tell the man was analyzing the attack and gauging it. Then he concentrated on the images that had long been suppressed. Finally he found the memory he was looking for.
Kenny felt the man study the park where he had last seen Geffen. He replayed the memories of the kidnaping one last time, then finally allowed Kenny's mind to rest. "Thanks," the man thought as he eased back out of his mind.
*** *** ***
Finagle took a deep breath as he separated himself from his subject. His first words were to the paramedics. "Water mocassin," he stated then let his breath out slowly. The images were starting to fade, but he now understood why the Wilsons had acted they way they had.
His men cleared the circle and watched as the medics prepared the antivenin. When he was sure Kenny was safe, he signaled Ranier.
Ranier moved closer, then waited patiently as Finagle gathered his thoughts.
"I don't think they were responsible for what happened," Finagle finally told him. "Run ballistics on the bullet, I think his brother was shot by the sniper that got Miguel. On the bright side, I'm pretty sure he got the real sniper."
"Then why did they run?" Ranier demanded.
"They've been getting Black Roses," Finagle answered grimly. "Probably didn't know who to trust. Your friend had one brother shot and this one was attacked magically. "
"Somebody attacked Kenny?" Ranier asked in disbelief.
Finagle nodded. "Somebody had a 'watcher' on him. When he started to work on his brother, it went active. Bad scene all the way around. And if that weren't enough, a couple of their friends went missing last night. That was the dust-up over at the Playful Dragon. If Briar's gotten bold enough to attack people in front of that place," Finagle shook his head. "Your friend's first concern would have to be his brothers' safety. Reputation ain't worth squat if you're dead."
Ranier nodded as he thought about what Finagle had said. If Rabbit had been shot, then what ever had happened was done in self defense, and if Kenny was hurt, there's no way Wayne would even try and talk to the police. He'd see to their safety, then work damage control. He knew Wayne would do anything to protect his family. Hell, all the Wilsons were like that.
"Wayne's not going to be too pleased about this," he stated as he watched as the medics loaded Kenny in the back of the ambulance.
"He'll be fine, its more precautionary than anything," Finagle told him. "But you know, Corp's going to let Aerocomm take this investigation over. The Black Rose case is strictly an 'internal' affair."
"Yeah, look how 'internal' its become," Ranier growled as he looked around them.
"Modulate it," Finagle warned. "They're just looking for a reason to kick you back to beat cop."
"Want to ask me if I care?" Ranier countered.
"Well you better bub," Finagle countered. "This thing has gotten way too big for them to contain. When it busts loose, and believe me its going to, its going to leave one giant wake of destruction. And you better be where you can do some good, cause if you aren't, a lot more people are going to get hurt and none of us are going to be safe!"
Ranier waved off the warning. "I know, I know," he grumbled. "But Wayne's out there and he doesn't even have the slightest clue what he's up against."
"Then I suggest you tell him tonight." Finagle told him.
"They were going to meet at the impound lot tonight," Finagle answered. "You'll find him there. Oh, and you may want to call off the A.P.B. before somebody gets overzealous."
Ranier nodded. "I'll need a full report on what you got from Kenny."
"You'll have it, but after you catch up with his brothers, I'm going to need to talk to the one they call Rabbit, get his take on what happened."
Ranier thought about it for a minute and nodded. "I'll make the necessary calls," he promised. "You stick with our friend here, make sure nothing happens to him."
Finagle nodded then looked at Rainer. "You'll probably want to call Commissioner Stevens as well. Tell him I need to talk to him."
"Stevens?" Ranier asked in surprise. "How does he fit into all of this?"
"Just call him. Tell him its about the Stromburg case," Finagle answered quietly. "I'll explain later."
Ranier shook his head, still not sure how this related to their current situation. He signaled his men to wrap it up. "Get me a land line to HQ," he ordered.
Wulf signaled his team to cover him as he entered Sable's new base. Two weeks ago, he would have come by himself, trusting Sable to protect him. But that was before his team had taken a pounding, before Sable had been forced to move, before everything had gone to hell. This whole thing had started out badly and only gotten worse.
He surveyed the building one last time, then slipped through the doorway. He never really liked being closed in, but there were times when it became necessary. This was one of those times.
He was surprised when Rosco met him at the door. Rosco usually handled support and left the security to the others. "Where's Chrys," he asked instantly.
"Dead," Rosco answered softly. "MindBender took Fen, killed the rest of the rescue team, almost took out Fen's little brother."
Wulf nodded. Times were very bad indeed. "Lets not keep the man waiting," he urged.
Rosco nodded and led him to the basement. As they passed by the remains of Sable's force, Wulf noticed the complete dejection that hung over them. Chrys had been one of their best, and Fen, Fen was everybody's friend, the consoler of the group. Now they were gone. One dead, the other better off that way.
No, things were definitely bad and getting worse all the time.
Sable read through the reports he'd gathered over the years, two years of war. At first it had been easy, but then Ellingsworth had to have more power. He wanted to control it, but it had ended up controlling him. Ellingsworth had no way of knowing exactly what he'd done. He hadn't given life to Briar. Briar had taken the power. He gave body not to an idea, but to a demon.
Ironically, he viewed Sable, the true creation, as a failure: something he couldn't control. Ellingsworth had given him the knowledge, but the magic was slow in coming. All things that are worthwhile take time. Sable understood this, but Ellingsworth did not.
Ellingsworth wanted instant power, and Briar had given it to him. Or so he thought. Sable knew better. Nothing is without its price. Either you pay for it up front with blood and pain, or you pay for it later, when you aren't expecting it.
He watched the events unfold, and knew it was almost time. Briar could not afford to leave him alone much longer. It didn't matter, he had done his job, the pieces were almost in place. Fen was lost, but his brother had been found and could take his place. The singer was coming, and the warrior was at his door. He prayed they had enough time, and that he could hold Briar back just long enough that they would have the chance they needed.
Jade watched as Wulf entered the building. They'd already lost two members of their team, she wasn't about to lose any more, especially Wulf. As they waited she could sense the ‘wrongness' in the area. After five minutes, she signaled Gris to watch her as she prepared to make a mental scan for the others.
Gris wasn't the first person she'd pick as her backup, but then again, she probably wouldn't have even allowed him on the team in the first place. There was no way of predicting what he'd do at any given moment. But, to be fair, he was always there when in mattered. He was loyal to a fault and she knew he could be depended on, at least he could as long as he kept his inner demons at bay.
The problem was: he was having more and more trouble controlling them. They crept into everything the man did, and usually in the most unnerving way possible. Gris was not what anybody in their right mind would call sane.
She forced herself out of her revery and took a deep breath as she waited for Gris' signal. When he acknowledged her signal, she closed her eyes and drifted away from her body. Mercury, their sniper was her first stop.
He had taken up a position on the rooftop across the street from Sable's base. As she reached out, she could see him scanning the street below with the high powered scope of his rifle. She could feel his agitation as he watched and waited. Then he surprised her by turning to her and smiling. She kept forgetting, their sniper had once been a member of the Black Company, a military task force, made up strictly of mages and magic-sensitive people.
He signaled that everything was fine, then went back to scanning the area. Something was definitely wrong, he could feel it too. Jade moved on.
Her next check was on the trio, Merri, Daff and Ni. It was hard to think of them as anything other than ‘The Trio'. They worked as a tight knit group, and were seldom seen more than 30 feet from each other. Merri was the team's Decker, Daff their Rigger and Ni, Ni watched over them. If you met them on the street, the only thing that would strike you was how mis-matched they were; Merri, with her fine elfin features, Daff, a dwarf, with his beard almost to his knees and Ni, the hulking seven foot Orc with his bright red hair. No, they were not your average anything.
Merri and Daff would spend countless hours plying their trade, then for fun, go back and do it again. And Ni never seemed to tire of watching their backs. She never understood the Trio, but she didn't have to. They were always there for each other, and that protection had spilled over to the rest of Wulf's team.
Her last stop was Felix, who seemed pre occupied by something. She was about to return to Gris and her body when she felt what had drawn his attention. A man standing in the middle of the street was calling to him. She recognized the stench around the man and all but screamed at Felix. It was Briar's man MindBender.
She struck at him angrily, but the attack passed right through him. As she prepared a second attack, Felix fell to his knees from the force of her first. Laughter filled her mind as she realized what MindBender had done. No, what she had done.
Some how he had gotten into her head, made her see what he wanted her to see, and Felix had paid the price. She had to warn the others.
"You're too late," the voice echoed in her mind. "No one can help them now, and you've shown me where they are."
Jade screamed but she was not with her body. Nobody could hear her.
Mercury adjusted his scope as Jade continued on her way. He could feel something in the air, something wasn't right. As he scanned the area, he realized that there was no movement in the area except his people. It was three o'clock. ‘Somebody should be moving,' he told himself.
He scanned the area again, and then he felt it, the presence that had all but overwhelmed him the last time. "Heads up people," he called into the radio. "We got serious trouble on its way."
"What you got?" Gris' voice growled across the line. The man sounded pissed, then again, he always sounded pissed.
"Same presence as the last time," he answered. "Where's the goddess?"
"She still on her rounds," Gris answered. "I tell her you called."
It was the closest to an acknowledgment he had ever gotten from the man. He waited for the Trio's response and was rewarded with the sound of a roto-drone taking off. As he scanned the street, he could feel the wrongness.
"Got one," Daff declared as he separated himself from the drone long enough to report in. "Starting attack run now."
Before Mercury could respond, he felt Daff's drone bearing down on him. He tried to roll away from it, but it adjusted for his movement as it started its strafing run. "Daff!" he all but yelled into the radio, as he tried one more time to avoid the drone, then he felt the fire as three bullets found his leg.
Gris whipped the radio from his ear as Mercury screamed repeatedly into it. He had no idea what had happened to their sniper, but the pressure behind his eyes told him it wasn't good.
He scanned the streets, but could see no sign of the others. He could hear Daff's drone blasting away at something, but he heard nothing else from the Trio. That made him nervous. Jade was still ‘out and about,' but he could tell she was still breathing. Merc was hurt, but still breathing. That left Felix in the unaccounted for column.
The pressure behind his eyes was almost unbearable. A voice spoke to him, telling him he had to act, but Gris had heard voices like that for so long, it was second nature to ignore them. It wasn't the voice that reasoned with him, the pressure that kept him going, kept him strong. He understood the pressure.
It was the voices that worried him. He knew they lied to him, therefore he ignored them. This voice was just another lie to be dismissed.
‘Just a lil'bit o' gris-gris' he thought to himself as he called upon the power of his ancestors. Somebody was mucking with his team, and that meant they were mucking with him. ‘Jes a ‘lil bit.'
He looked down and saw something crawl across Jade's skin. It was shifting, melting. He shook his head. Dismissing the illusion as just another one of his hallucinations, he continued to try and protect the group. He felt the power as it built up inside of him. It sang in his veins and the voices were silent. It was the only time he didn't hear them, but he knew he couldn't hold the power for long. The pressure was almost unbearable, but as he released the spell, the pressure was released as well.
Mind fire spread through the area. It recognized those that were Gris' friends, but any other influences were burned away by it. Once the area was clear of outside influence the fires surged, surrounding those it was designed to protect. Nothing was going to get through it. His ancestors would see to that.
Gris looked down as Jade groaned. "What happened?" she asked.
"Dunno," he muttered. "You tell me."
"He was in my head," she groaned, then swore as she remembered what she'd done. "I tried to hit him, but I hit Felix instead. Where are the others?"
"They be fine," Gris assured her. The pressure was gone, everybody had to be fine. "You rest, I check."
Jade nodded. She shuddered as a cold chill went through her. MindBender had been able to reach into her mind and warp what she'd seen. She'd struck out at him, only to find she'd targeted Felix, not MindBender. She hadn't even realized it until he let her know. He was strong and only getting stronger.
"Find the others," she urged.
Gris nodded gently, then picked the radio unit up. "I think Daff, he get Merc with his drone."
She wasn't sure if he was trying to comfort her, or just tell her the score. It didn't matter. MindBender had been able to manipulate her, and she had become more of a liability to the team than a help. She could still hear his laughter in her head, but as she turned she saw the look in Gris-Gris' eyes.
Somehow he'd broken MindBender's grasp on the others. He'd felt his call, but had somehow managed to ignore it.
"You be alright," Gris told her. "You just learn to give him no never-mind. Don't you give up none either. That's him talking, not you. You got that?"
She nodded as he cautiously put the radio unit back up next to his ear.
"Mercury?" he called, but the sniper was silent now. He called the others, but the only response he got was static. "Boss..."
MindBender screamed in frustration. They should have all been his: the witch; the meddlesome dwarf. He'd had them right where he'd wanted them. It was little comfort that they had probably taken out their teammates. That might shake them up, but it did little to serve his needs. He wanted them.
It had all worked so perfectly. He's managed to slip into the witch's mind and she'd shown him where the others were. Then the fun had begun. He savored her rage and terror as she realized that she had killed one of her friends instead of him. And then it had been a simple step to take over the dwarfen rigger. He had proven less of a challenge than he had hoped, but having him gun down that half-mage sniper was well worth the effort.
He'd managed to knock the others out and was moving in for the kill when he ran into a brick wall. It had all been within his grasp and then that insane voodun had stepped in. He should have been the easiest one to control, yet somehow he had managed to break his hold on the others.
"Next time," he promised himself. "Next time I will have them kill him first!"
Wulf waited patiently as Rosco entered the room that was now serving as Sable's office. As he waited he could feel the tension surrounding him. At first he wasn't sure of the source, but then he knew something was very wrong outside.
He activated his radio and wrapped it around his ear, but all he heard was screaming.
"MindBender is outside," Sable called from inside the room. "There is nothing you can do for them now."
Wulf drew himself up. Sable had been a good friend and a powerful ally in the fight against Briar, but he was not about to sit around and do nothing while his team paid with their lives. "I'll be back," he growled as he headed for the door.
"You must wait," Sable called, but it fell on deaf ears. Wulf hit the door running.
"Boss..." he heard Gris call into the radio.
"Status," he demanded.
"Boss, he was here, in their minds," Gris reported softly. "Lady J, she shaken up pretty bad, Merc, he been shot, don't know ‘bout da rest."
"You take Jade to the van and you wait there, okay?" he called back.
"Stay within the block," Gris answered. "He can't come in, but he just waiting for a chance to take you on."
"You're doing?" Wulf asked.
"I tink so," Gris answered. "Don't remember much. You know de way da lady work. Conja be a fickle mistress."
Wulf shook his head as he moved towards the Trio first. They were the most vulnerable when it came to manipulation. He found them sprawled out on the ground: Daff still hooked into his control rig. "Daff?" he called as he heard a slight moan. "Meri? Ni?"
He tried to shake them, but they seemed to barely notice. Finally Ni started to come around.
"Boss?" he called groggily.
"Ni," he answered with a very serious calm voice. "Ni, you have to get the others to the van can you handle that?"
"I don't know," Ni answered as he forced rocked his neck from side to side. "What happened? Where are the others?"
"MindBender happened," Wulf growled. "You get them to the van."
Ni nodded. "Jade, she take him on all by her lonesome?"
Wulf shook his head. "Gris. I'll explain later. For now, you get them to the van, and you don't let anything happen to them."
"You know it boss," Ni promised as he eased Merri over his shoulder and then picked Daff up. "Daff had a bead on one of them."
"We'll get them," Wulf promised. "But for now, we fall back."
Ni wasn't the swiftest man on the planet, but he knew what he had to do. "I'll watch over them," he promised, and Wulf knew he was talking about Gris-Gris and Lady Jade as well as his companions.
Wulf turned and headed towards Felix's position. He knew Felix was dead. He could feel it even before he saw him. There was only emptiness when he reached out for the mental image of his friend. He found his limp form and bowed his head. The guitar playing warrior that had been his friend was gone. Another casualty in this insane war. He wrapped him up in his long coat and carried him back towards the van.
He couldn't bear to leave the man in the alleyway. He deserved better.
"Mercury, you better be listenin'" he growled into the radio. "I'm coming for you, just hold on."
"Damn freakin dwarf," he heard Merc gasp into the unit. "Fragger shot me!"
"Easy son," Wulf urged, he could tell he was hurt bad, but at least he wasn't dead. "It wasn't his fault. How bad?"
"Pretty damn bad," Merc answered with a hiss. "Can't hold out much longer."
"I'll be there," he promised. As he eased Felix's body into the back of the van, then surveyed the area. "I'm on my way."
He saw the look in Jade's eyes and realized what had happened. He knew it wasn't her fault, but it still left a bitter taste in his mouth. Bad enough he's trying to control us, now he's got us kill each other. "You hang on," he called into the radio, but his eyes were on Jade.
"You better move boss," Gris interupted. "Pressure, she's getting worse. He be back soon."
Wulf nodded. "Get the engine started. Soon as I call, you come running, you hear me?" he asked.
"I hear you," Gris answered. "I hear."
With that Wulf headed back the way he'd come. "Merc, I'm on my way," he called.