Duke sat in front of the comm unit, staring at the image of Ferron through steepled fingers. He did not like the news. Ferron had been able to follow the woman back to O’Donnel’s, then the trouble had begun. It had taken all of Ferron’s skills to follow her as she eluded pursuit, but in the end she had lost him.
“Return here,” he sighed. “If she is safe, then all is well, if not; I fear we are too late to help her.”
Ferron nodded glumly.
“My friend, if she lost you, odds are she lost the others as well,” he added when he noticed Ferron’s expression. “She will return soon enough.”
“What of the others?” Ferron asked.
“They are not our concern,” Duke answerd. “Unless they become a threat to her safety.”
Ferron nodded. “Very well.”
Duke continued to stare at the screen, long after the image of Ferron had faded. He hadn’t been entirely truthful to his friend, but that was necessary. The enemy was growing bolder and stronger, but it made it harder for them to hide their activities. Time was on their side for now.
Sooner or later, they would come to him for assistance and then he would be able to take their toy from them and destroy it. There were some risks he personally would have to take, but it was necessary. ‘Mankind is not ready for this,’ he told himself with a sigh.
He looked at the time table. It spanned almost 5 years with a little red dot for every fatality surrounding the ‘toy.’ The dots started slowly, with a pattern of one dot every four months, followed by an occasional blob of dots as the object changed hands. As the years progressed the single deaths were increasing.
‘Soon they will have it,’ he thought to himself, ‘soon they will have unlocked its secrets, and I will have to stop them.’
Normally he would have had Ferron handle this, but it had become personal. One of those blood baths had been at one of his facilities. It had ended with an explosion that the police ruled ‘a freak accident.’
He knew better. Duke had been on the line with his son in the main office when the explosion destroyed the building, the lab, the office... his son. He had all but closed down operations so that he could personally oversee the investigation and retribution. He tried to feel happy that he would soon have his revenge, but he did not. He did not like interfering in the dealings of man. But when their dealings had taken so many from him, it became his business.
He took a deep breath as he considered what had happened since that fateful day. More deaths, more raids, it never ceased to amaze him how diabolic humans could be when dealing with their own kind. He snorted.
“And they call me inhuman,” he sighed. “If they only knew.”
The technician sat at his terminal as he reviewed the information he had gleaned from the ‘project’, concentrating on the impulses recorded from Wiz as he succumbed to the device’s images. It was a series of numbers, nothing more, barely noticeable over the other random chatter and numbers that were pulsing through his mind.
The technician punched in the numbers to his deck and allowed the ghost program to hunt down the address. He smiled as he pinged the node that matched the address. It existed. That was all he needed to know for now.
He carefully bundled the information he had and activated his link. As the images swirled around him, he began traveling through systems. Making connections and then transferring them until he didn’t even know where he was coming from. Then he accessed the account.
He was surprised as the images swirled around him. He had expected trouble at the gate, but instead he found a man tending a rock garden. He was too surprised to even bring any of his evasion programs into play. The figure turned towards him and watched him calmly.
The technician knew he was out of his element now. He was not used to something so... low tech in an account’s setup. There was an order to the place, and yet, almost an air of mischief. Something was lurking there, he knew it, but somehow he also knew that this was more of an antechamber, the main account was accessed through here, and behind the gardener were two doors.
The technician turned and watched the gardener as he turned back to his rocks. ‘Two doors,’ he thought to himself as he looked at them. ‘The Lady or the Tiger?’
He was tempted to leave the package here, but he knew that this was not a safe place. On a hunch, he bowed towards the gardener.
Although his back was turned, the gardener turned and then returned the bow, fist in palm, like a martial artist. The technician smiled to himself. If someone had tried to overcome the gardener, they would have been in for a surprise.
With a slight nod, the gardener moved to the rocks and pushed them aside, revealing a third door. ‘Follow the signs,’ he said, and waited for the technician to pass through the door.
The technician took one last look at the other doors and shuddered, realizing that the visible choices of the doors were probably, ‘the Tiger or the Tiger.’ He took a deep breath and proceeded through the rock door. As reality shifted around him, he found himself in a park, facing a rather pleasant looking duck pond.
He smiled. There was no doubt in his mind whose account this had to be. He started down the pathway, paying particular attention to the signs. ‘Keep off the grass’ was followed by ‘please feed the ducks.’ He shook his head. ‘Please feed the ducks.’
He spied a vending machine labeled ‘Duck food’ and followed the path to the machine. It stood there like a monolith asking for a token. Looking around he found none, but he did have the packet of information he’d brought with him, and this looked as good a place as any to ‘deposit’ it.
With a smile, he slotted the information and then walked away. Out of curiosity, he wandered out onto the grass. Halfway back to the door, the grass came alive, folding in on itself, folding in on him. He smiled to himself, then jacked out, he’d finished what he’d gone there to do, now it was up to the Duck.
The technician forced himself to relax as his mind whirled from the transition. As he became aware of his surroundings he realized he wasn’t alone.
“You wouldn’t be thinking about going out on your own now would you?”
He shook his head as he tried to place the voice. Hammerstein.
“I was trying to follow a lead,” he managed to groan.
“Looks like you weren’t doing too well,” Rogers observed. After studying the decker for a minute, he tossed him a damp washrag.
The technician nodded gratefully as he placed the cloth over his eyes and tried to think. His screen connection had been deactivated: they hadn’t seen where he had been, but there was no way of knowing how long they’d been there, or whether either of them had accessed his hitcher jack.
“They made another installation,” he told them.
“We know,” Hammerstein answered. “Why’d they kill the girl?”
The technician’s head shot up at the question. “Girl?” he asked dumbfounded. “What girl?”
He sat there as the two men studied him for a minute. “You didn’t hear?” Rogers asked gently.
“Obviously not,” he answered tersely. “Talk to me.”
Rogers got up and began pacing. “They kidnaped his fiancé, they worked her over pretty good before they sent both of them over an embankment. Haven’t gotten back the full forensics report, but we’re pretty sure of what we’ll find.”
The technician bowed his head. This was getting to be too much for him. “I can’t keep this up,” he finally managed to say.
“You don’t have a choice,” Hammerstein answered. “You’ll do as we tell you, or we’ll see to it that you’re listed as one of the conspirators.”
The technician’s eyes widened as he glared at the Interpol agent. “But you set me up. You’re the ones that...”
“I don’t think a military tribunal will see it that way,” Hammerstein told him. “And I can make sure they don’t.”
The technician turned to Rogers and realized that he’d get no help from him. “So...” he finally managed to say. “Is that all you wanted?”
Rogers shook his head. “We need your latest information.”
“Here,” he growled as he tossed Rogers the disk he’d prepared. “Now leave me alone.”
The two men left without an argument, but not before the technician noticed the sadistic smile on Hammerstein’s face. He knew between the General and Hammerstein, he was a dead man. He shuddered at the thought and then sighed. If he was going to die anyway, he was going to make it worth his while. He walked to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a shot of whiskey.
“Lisa,” he told her memory. “I’m going to put an end to this, somehow.”
He raised the shot glass and downed the contents. Then he pulled the bottle out and sat down on the couch. He poured another one, this one for Silly Wizard and his fiancé. As he downed the whiskey, he felt its warmth spread through his system.
As the liquor took hold, so did an idea. He’d show them. He’d make sure that if it even looked like Hammerstein was going to make good his threats that neither of the agents would get through this. He had nothing else to lose.
Duck noticed the security cameras as she exited the building and walked towards the bikes. The two that usually scanned the area were fixed on her bikes. The hair on the back of her neck stood up as she watched them, and looked around the garage. Somebody had found her.
While she was still out of camera range, she pulled her hair up and put on her helmet. Once again she was glad she wore a full face helmet. Once the helmet was secured, she walked purposely towards the bikes and began checking them both out. When she was sure nobody had tampered with them, she mounted the Indian and started the engine. As she pulled out the parking space, she noticed that the cameras remained focused on her Harley.
Something in the back of her mind said she should check with Barry about this, but something else told her it didn’t matter any more. She wasn’t coming back.
Once she was clear of the garage, Duck began a series of evasion maneuvers just in case somebody was following her.
*** *** ***
Barry watched the helmed figure as it mounted the Indian and left the garage and smiled. Katya was alone again. He felt a momentary sense of disappointment that her visitor wouldn’t be there when the time came.
He checked the clock: everything was happening as planned. Without hesitation he dialed the number he’d memorized.
When the line was picked up he informed the party on the other end that the ‘target’ was once again alone.
He relished the answer as his employer told him in nice crisp English, “Very good, commence.”
He held the phone tenderly as the line went dead. Soon, very soon, he would have her right where he wanted her. He put in the call to his partner.
“Warren,” he stated eagerly. “We’re on.”
The image of Warren smiled at him. “Be there in ten,” he answered.
Barry waited as time seemed to run backwards. Finally Warren arrived and they moved in on Katya’s apartment. He licked his lips in anticipation as Warren pulled out the master key and opened the door.
Barry moved in as the door opened, taser drawn and ready. The explosion caught him full in the face as he entered the room. It sounded like a flash bang, but that didn’t explain the burning sensation as he clawed at his face and collapsed onto the floor coughing wildly.
He was barely aware of Warren dragging him to the kitchen and flushing his face with water. It was a long time before he was even willing to talk, but when he looked around, he realized that Warren hadn’t been spared.
“CS,” Warren told him. “Just take it easy.”
Barry was taking it anything but easily. He was going to make her pay for that. She was going to regret the day she ever even thought of hurting him.
Warren watched as his expression changed and nodded. Any temptation to stop Barry from having his fun was gone now. She deserved whatever Barry did to her. He didn’t even cringe as Barry smiled.
It was almost an hour later when Duck arrived at the clock tower: the ‘time keeper.’ She made sure the place was secured and then waited for the others to join her. Wayne was the first to arrive. She recognized his footsteps outside the door and greeted him when he entered the room.
“You okay?” he asked gently.
She smiled and then nodded. “It was rather close,” she admitted.
“The others?” he asked. “Gypsy, they guy from table three?”
“They’re fine,” she assured him. “Thanks.”
“Now,” he asked as he studied her. “Care to tell me what this is all about?”
“If you can wait till the others are here,” she asked. “I really don’t want to go through this too many times.”
He nodded. “Police took three hours to finish their questioning.”
Duck looked at him and shook her head. She was pretty sure the police either knew or suspected that something was going on. But it was interesting to note that the MP’s hadn’t been involved in any of this.
“Then I had to deal with two Detectives, Rogers and Hammerstein.” He nodded when he noticed the sharp turn of her head and the surprised expression on her face. “You’ve heard of them.”
Duck nodded again. “What were they like?”
“Good cop, bad cop,” he answered then smiled as he corrected himself. “More like ‘pleasant cop, surly cop.’”
Duck laughed at that. “They were at O’Donnel’s this morning... I’ll explain when the others arrive.”
He nodded then moved to the window. He didn’t like having to wait, but he knew that Duck had her reasons. At least he’d been able to make her laugh. “Company,” he added as he noticed Devon’s arrival.
Duck nodded. “Thanks,” she told him. “I appreciate everything you’re doing.”
Wayne smiled at her. “You know I still owe you.”
Duck shook her head. “You don’t owe me anything,” she answered.
He looked at her and shook his head. “Whatever,” he answered with a smile.
Duck stood as Devon entered the room. He nodded towards Wayne and then moved closer to Duck. “So... what’s going on?”
Duck looked up and Wayne and smiled, as she told Devon the same thing she’d told Wayne.
BlackCat scanned the area as she left her apartment. With all the trouble she’d been through, the last thing she wanted was company. She tensed slightly when her mind brushed against another. Cautiously she moved forward as she recognized the owner of the mind: Vermillion.
‘Vermin?’ She called mentally.
‘That would be me,’ he answered. ‘Where you heading?’
‘Got a message from Duck,’ she answered. ‘I’m going to meet him now.’
‘You want company?’
Cat thought for a minute. ‘I’m supposed to be alone,’ she answered.
She could almost feel Vermillion’s chuckle at that. She had purposely left it up to him.
‘Okay,’ he answered.
Something in his mental voice told her what she needed to know. He’d be there watching her back, just in case.
*** *** ***
BlackCat tensed as she entered the Clock Tower Building. She could sense the powerful magics that kept the place safe. They rankled on her, making the hair on the back of her neck stand out. As she studied the power she realized that someone had recently augmented the building’s protective spells, making it even stronger.
‘How could anyone ignore the power?’ she wondered to herself, but then she realized that Duck was a decker, and pretty much blind to the powers that were not electronic.
She climbed the stairs then moved to the maintenance room. Scanning the area she noted three auras: Duck and two others. She took a deep breath and entered the room. She was surprised when the first person she saw was Red. As she moved in she realized that Red talking to Duck. It took her a few minutes to recognize third occupant of the room. Without the purple hair, Wayne could blend in almost anywhere and hardly be noticed.
“Duck,” she called to man seated next to Red.
Red turned and smiled at her. “BC,” she called.
Cat studied her warily as Red radiated the same aura her uncle did right before he pulled out a deck of cards. “Start talking,” she urged coolly.
Red waited as she came closer then stood studying her and the others. Red smiled and nodded. “Cat, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Devon. Dev, you’ve already met ‘Cat.”
The man she had always known as Duck stood and bowed slightly. “I am pleased to officially make your acquaintance,” he told her with a smile. “Duck has told me a lot about you.”
Red smiled impishly as she noticed Cat’s eyes narrowing. “Sorry,” she said. “But I had to keep anyone from knowing... Devon is my...” She paused as she tried to come up with an explanation.
“Stand in?” Devon offered. “Stunt double?”
Cat stared at them in disbelief, then shook her head. “I should have at least picked up on some of it...” she objected.
Red, ‘no,’ she corrected herself mentally. ‘Duck,’ smiled and shook her head.
“Devon has many skills one of them is being hard to read...” Duck offered quietly.
Cat shook her head; that may have explained Devon’s ability to convince her that he was the Duck, but not ‘Red.’
Duck smiled, almost as if she could hear Cat’s thoughts. “BC,” she sighed. “You never really had any cause to think of me as anything other than Gypsy’s niece.”
Cat finally accepted the fact that Red was indeed the Duck, but now more questions were taking form. Like how she’d managed to get into the military and keep her identity hidden. “How...”
“Loopholes,” Duck answered with a smile. “I joined through a pilot program, anonymous enrollment. Since I was a decker, they never really saw me...”
Cat shook her head, she knew there was a lot more to it than that, and a lot of it was probably court-martialable.
Duck smiled almost as if to say, ‘you’re right, so don’t ask too many questions.’
Cat took a deep breath and realized that it was too late to worry about the legalities of Duck’s enlistment. “So... how is your uncle and have you heard from the others?”
Duck nodded, pleased with BC’s pragmatism. “As you all know, Persephone and her fiancé were killed in an accident,” she began.
‘Cat shook her head. “Yala was dead before the car went over the embankment,” she corrected. “Daniel was...” she paused as she tried to find the right words to describe his condition. “He was just a shell, dead inside.”
Duck’s head shot up at the correction. She moved closer as Cat started shaking as she forced herself to recall the images. The car, the four people... the loss, it all swirled around her as she tried to focus in on one of them, the images would blur.
“Cat?” Duck called questioningly.
Cat looked at her and was surprised to find Duck kneeling in front of her. Duck’s hands resting gently on her own. She looked at them as she forced herself to center, then begin again. Again the images flashed before her, but she couldn’t focus in on the faces.
“I...” Cat shook her head as she tried to bring the images forward but couldn’t. “I managed to see what happened, but ... I can’t focus in on any of them. They just seem to blur if I try.”
Duck nodded gently, then bit her lip. “Don’t try to see more right now,” she urged gently. “Just tell us what you saw.”
Cat looked at her and smiled. She didn’t even look like Gypsy’s niece anymore, she looked more like Gypsy himself: confident and mischievous. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Two men pushing the car,” she stated quietly as she replayed the images. “Two people inside... one dead, one brain dead. One of the men was relieved, the other... my god, you’d think he did this sort of thing every day.”
She felt Duck’s grip of her hand tighten slightly, almost reassuringly. Drawing strength from the contact she began trying to review the scene and analyze it. “Masking spell,” she sighed finally when the faces wouldn’t focus.
“Its okay,” she heard Duck urge softly. “Don’t look at their faces. Just look at the images you have. Give a general description, build, hair color, height?”
Cat smiled slightly as she found that information had not been hidden from her. “First man,” she said as she focused on the size and position of the first man. “Heavy-set.” She took a deep breath as she tried to guess the height based on the way he was bent and the height of the car. “5'9 to probably 6'. Bald. Gray trousers... suit. Black oxfords.”
She took a deep breath waiting for any questions. When there were none, she moved to the image of the man behind the car. “Second man. Bulky, muscled...” she paused as she watched him move and then nodded. “Augmented, fluid movements... Brown hair, not long, buzz cut.”
She paused as she tried to imagine the man standing, then shook her head. He was too bunched up to even come close on a guess. She opened her eyes and looked around. “Yala died violently. I have no idea what they did to Daniel... I should have felt something from him.”
Duck nodded and swallowed hard. BC was surprised at the pain and hurt in the young woman’s eyes. “Red?” she called.
Duck looked at her and Cat could see a flicker of Gypsy’s niece behind Duck’s eyes, but then the cold strength of Duck overrode it. “I’ll be fine,” she answered.
Cat forced herself to remain still as she finally realized why she had never noticed ‘Duck’ in ‘Red’: they were two separate entities. Two separate parts of the same woman. Red, the camouflage for Duck: the more deadly aspect of Katya’s personality. Something told her as she looked into her friend’s eyes that she had just witnessed the ‘death’ of Red.