Duck sat at her desk going over the designs for her latest 'toy,' an eyeball remote that contained a combination low light camera and laser audio. Durango, her replacement in Voodoo had requested the change. It was a challenge, and she was glad to see that the 'youngster' wasn't afraid to ask for things. The problem, as always, was the eyeball's power supply.
The visual only version was only good for about fifteen minutes of flight time, or a half an hour sitting still. She'd tried all variations short of resizing the unit, and had come to the conclusion that it was either resize the unit or leave off the ability to program it for auto-flight.
Each had their merits. The advantage to the eye series of remotes was that they were small and fast. Programmed correctly, a rigger could get a full sweep from them without the opposition noticing. It was simple math really, the bigger the remote, the more there was to see, and therefore, more of a chance of it being noticed.
Auto flight on the other hand let the rigger program it for a sweep and it would only report if it found anything, leaving its operator free to do other things. A rigger that was locked into a remote had no choice but to stay with the remote or loose it.
She thought about the kind of missions Durango would be sent on, the kind she used to go on. 'You don't want yourself locked in, you need to be able to adapt as the situation warrants,' she mused. 'You want to be able to move without giving away your position.' Programmability was essential. Which meant there was only one answer: resize.
She spent the next few hours in an almost meditative state as she contemplated the power requirements for operation and transmission of the audio feed. As she finished her preliminary design, security buzzed her and told her that Rico Wilson was on his way up.
She heard him approach, long before she saw him: recognizing his footsteps as he took the stairs two at a time. Rather than hide the design, she turned it around so he could see it.
To her surprise, Rico only gave it a cursory nod before handing a folder to her and motioning for her to read it. She scanned the reports and shook her head. Two of the Backer Brother's clients had been ambushed by what seemed to be the same outfit. The response team had taken minimal damage, but the clients were still laid-up at the clinic. None of the attackers had been found and at each site a single black rose had been found.
Duck signaled him to take a seat as she reached into her desk and pulled out a folder of her own. He looked at her questioningly has she hand the file to him and nodded.
She waited as he read the reports in her file. Gadje and The Old Man, two members of Voodoo, her old group, had taken some flack on a mission a few days earlier. There as well a black rose had been found. The two reported by Rico brought the total count of 'rose incidents,' to seven . It was much more than coincidence. Rico looked at her questioningly, but as he started to comment on it, Duck shook her head and pointed towards the windows, it wasn't safe to talk there.
Rico nodded, then signed, "See you later," and walked out.
As Rico headed down the stairs, Duck sat down at her terminal and sent a message to Tracker. "Bad Day - drinks on me - Playful Dragon - over and out." She looked longingly at her deck and shrugged, the coded message didn't warrant the fire power a full deck commanded. Tracker would understand.
She was about to leave when she noticed the message light blinking on terminal. She checked, she found the following message waiting for her.
TO MISTRESS OF HER FATE - DON'T FORGET TO CHECK THE WEATHER.
'Just another day,' Duck sighed to herself. 'So the man wants a meeting.'
Tracker absentmindedly tossed the baseball into the air and caught it as he watched the courier leave the bank and go back to her bike. It had taken her 7 minutes to deliver her package and get back outside. He noted the times in his journal.
He had been analyzing the bank's security for a week now and admittedly he was starting to get bored. They had two weeks to find any holes in the security before they would give it the final test. One week of watching people come and go had been boring enough, but since Duck had been already working on a project when they got the bank's business, he had to do it all himself. If that wasn't enough, there was another week's worth of observation waiting for him.
He watched as the courier unlocked her bike, a plan beginning to develop but as he watched, a car swerved onto the curb and barreled down on her. The courier, who had already donned her earphones, was oblivious to the danger.
Realizing he couldn't get to her in time, Tracker picked up the baseball he had been fidgeting with and threw it at her bike. His aim was true, and as she looked up at him glowering, he pointed at the car. She almost didn't get it, but at the last minute, she understood and rolled out of the way.
By the time he got down there, the car, the courier and the bike were gone. Confused, he started back towards his hotel room in time to see the fireball crash through the window of the office he'd been using as his observation point. He felt his pulse quicken as he surveyed the area. He saw nothing else out of the ordinary, until he looked at the light post where the courier had locked down her bike. There, taped to the side, was a single black rose.
He watched as the fire department arrived to handle the situation and was thankful that he hadn't been there when the fireball hit. He was even more grateful that the majority of his equipment was still at the apartment. He watched the scene, recording as many of the faces as he could, then slipped back into the crowd and vanished.
If the car and the courier were a diversion to locate him, then they had also saved his life. If they weren't, the effect was the same. And then there was the question of the black rose. There were too many questions, but he knew he had to let Duck know something was up.
Once he was sure he wasn't being followed, Tracker headed back to one of the apartment buildings where he and Duck rented several rooms. There he would be able to send her a warning. Things had definitely taken a turn for the weird. He found himself wondering if some how Bear fit into all of this.
He knew it wasn't fair, but it had all the earmarks of another case of being too close to Bear. The feeling didn't go away when he got to the one bedroom apartment. When he logged in and got his messages, he found two messages, one coded message from Masters asking about the weather, 'Man wants a meeting,' he told himself. He figured he'd worry about that later.
The other message was the important one, an invitation from Duck for drinks. It sounded reasonable enough, unless you knew Duck. Duck didn't drink, ever. So much so that he made it a point not to drink in front of her.
'Bad Day - Drinks on me - Playful Dragon - Over and Out.' He thought about the message. It was encrypted, so Duck's worried about somebody listening in. Word Code, so she's not too worried. Then he started reading between the lines.
'Bad Day'... Duck was working on a rigged toy for Durango, hardly constitutes a 'bad day' for her. So it's not about her day. Drinks on me - Things aren't as they should be. Playful Dragon. Fancy place, hardly the place to discuss trouble, especially with Minh's 'No Trouble' Policy. Over and out... message done, hardly. Over to Playful, then out the back. Probably meet at Jamaica's place. Fine. One puzzle solved.
'Give me a tough one Duck,' He thought to himself. 'Like an accident waiting to happen, a fireball through the window and a black rose. Now *that's* a riddle."
The Playful Dragon was crowded by the time Duck managed to get through the front door. Linn was at the hostess station and was smiling broadly when she saw Duck.
"Red!" She called. "Tracker's been waiting for you over at table five, and there were some flowers delivered here for you earlier."
"Flowers? "Duck asked, figuring she hadn't heard right over the band.
"Black Roses, "Linn answered. "They're at the bar."
Duck let her breath out and looked around worriedly. Linn recognized the look and shook her head. "Minh's already checked them. My, you're jumpy tonight."
"It's a long story, I'll tell you about it sometime."
Linn gave Duck a sidelong look then turned to the next set of customers, leaving Duck to make her way to table 5. Tracker nodded as Duck looked around and took the seat across from him. As she sat down, he twisted the cap off of one of the bottles on the table and handed it to her.
Duck nodded as she took a whiff of the amber colored overly-potent Ginger-ale within the bottle. "A very good week," she commented as she raised the bottle towards him and took a swig.
"I think I had a worse day than you did," he told her, but when she stopped and looked at him, he shook his head. "Drink up, I'm two ahead of you."
Duck finished her bottle as she studied the room in the mirror behind her partner. She stiffened automatically as Becke and Rae approached and flanked her on either side.
"Red, Tracker, "Becke greeted them with a nod. Duck watched as Tracker stood and bowed towards the ladies. As they returned his greeting, Duck nodded at them in the mirror.
"Minh requests an audience," Rae stated as she gestured towards the stairs.
"There was an, altercation, "Becke warned them. "No one was hurt, but your names were mentioned, and there is the matter of the black roses."
"Black roses? "Tracker asked suddenly alert. The idea of any real trouble befalling Minh, or the Playful Dragon was ludicrous, but still, something had bothered the woman enough that she had sent her personal body guards down to get them, and they had mentioned black roses.
Without so much as a word between them, Duck and Tracker rose in unison and followed the twins upstairs. Tracker was beginning to suspect from Duck's expression that her 'bad day' had also involved black rose.
As they reached the top of the stairs, there was a scream from one of the rooms down the hall. As Duck and Tracker started forward, Becke stopped them. "Ours," she stated then moved ahead.
"You know, sometimes you forget how fast those two are," Tracker commented wryly. As Becke and Rae moved into the room Tracker looked at Duck and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Duck nodded.
Agreeing, they moved down the hall with practiced ease and took positions on either side of the door. Tracker leaned against the wall and took a casual pose as a couple walked by the open door. Duck gave them one of her 'sweet innocent' smiles that gave them the impression of some one who was anything but sweet and innocent trying to look that way.
They quickened their pace and headed down the stairs.
"You are so bad," Tracker sub-vocalized, knowing that Duck would receive his message over her comm-unit.
"I was nice," she objected, as she looked over at him innocently.
"Yeah, right." Tracker stated as he winked at her.
When the twins exited the room a minute later they noticed Duck and Tracker's defensive positioning and smiled.
"We're fine," Rae assured them as she brushed some dust off her blouse.
"But thanks," Becke added. Duck didn't miss the fact that the girls were looking at Tracker when they spoke.
"And you can put your weapons away," Rae added as she looked pointedly at Duck.
"What?" Duck asked, her voice echoing the picked upon expression on her face. She again affected her 'sweet innocent' look and held her hands out to her side. They were empty.
"See, I'm harmless," she objected.
"That'll be the day," Becke stated, shaking her head.
"What?" Duck asked then turned towards Tracker as he chuckled. "I notice they never tell you to put your weapons away."
"That's because Tracker's responsible," Rae informed her.
"And I'm not?" Duck asked batting her eyes in disbelief.
Becke and Rae turned and gave Duck their patented 'come on now, we know better' looks.
"I'll explain it to you sometime," Tracker stated as he put an arm around Duck's shoulders and started walking her towards the back. "When you're older."
Duck rewarded him with an elbow to the ribs. Tracker knocked on the office then waited for the door to open. When it finally did, he entered the room while Duck waited a beat, checked the hallway and then followed him in.
Once they had dispatched their duty Becke and Rae closed the door behind them and went back to finish 'cleaning up' the other room.
"Ah good, you're here," Minh stated as she gestured towards the chairs in front of her desk. "Please, be seated, Duck stop looking over your shoulder, it's bad for your posture."
Duck smiled and took the seat closer to the door. It never ceased to amaze her how Minh always had just the right number of chairs for every occasion.
"I will not bore you with long tales and subterfuge, " she announced. "But I must tell you this: You are in great danger. Forces are at work that are trying to force you and your friends into a compromising position. They are attacking your clients, and leaving rather befuddling messages."
"The black roses?" Tracker asked evenly.
"The same," Minh answered. "I would have you all safe, but it is not for me to determine. We have all grown old and set in our ways. To continue along this path, is suicide. Proceed accordingly."
Duck looked at the Minh and smiled. "They've got you stumped too."
Minh arched her neck indignantly for a minute then smiled. "To be honest, yes. I cannot penetrate their veil without revealing myself, and this indicates great magic at work. Great magic indeed."
"Terrific," Tracker growled.
"Amen," Duck agreed. They both knew what it meant if Minh declared the magic 'Great'.
"I am loath to point this out, but it is a facet in which you and your companions have been severely lacking." Minh sighed. "Alas, I am unable to provide you with that which you need. Be careful children, and watch over your friends well. They are as precious to you as you are to me."
Duck nodded and turned towards Tracker. Again they exchanged no words, but their communications were clear. If Minh was worried, there was indeed some serious trouble heading their way, and once again, they were in the middle of it.
"I am sorry I could not tell you more," she stated. "I will send word to you when you may return, but as the policy goes..."
"We will not dishonor your business by bringing our troubles here," Tracker promised as he rose and turned towards the door.
Duck studied the woman a moment longer, a question in her eyes, then shook her head and stood. "Thank you, as always," she stated as she bowed respectfully. "As usual, you have told us much, by what you haven't told us." Duck added with a slight nod and then left.
Tracker waited until Duck was in the hallway before bowing as well. Minh smiled as he paused in the doorway then moved on. She stared at the door intently for a minute then turned to the wall behind her.
"That was an ancient's answer if ever there was one," Kai stated as he solidified in human form next to her.
Minh turned to her 'son' and smiled. "Yes."
They stood in silence for a minute as they thought about the conversation and Duck's comments.
"Do you wish me to watch over them?" Kai asked
"No, in this they must journey alone," She answered with a wistful sigh. "I shall miss them."
Kai looked at her then towards the door worriedly. "Aren't they coming back?
"In time child, if they are able," Minh answered. "It is a long hard journey they face, and there will be much sorrow before we meet again."
Outside the office Duck looked at Tracker and shook her head. "Ya ever notice how we start talking like Minh when we're in her office?"
"Ah yep!" Tracker answered in a forced drawl. "But it always seems so right."
Duck grinned and together they headed down the hallway. As they headed towards the stairs, Duck and Tracker heard a familiar voice call from one of the rooms.
"Swinia! You cheat me!"
Without even bothering to look Duck yelled, "Don't believe him, his family's been sharking cards since before the ink was dry on the Magna Carta!"
"You insult me!" The man yelled back then leapt into the hallway.
Duck shook her head as her uncle smiled at them and winked. It was good to know that some people never changed. "Gypsy," she stated with a smile.
"Kaczka, Tracker, my old friends," he called with a wink.
"Jak sie masz?" Duck asked as Gypsy gave her a great hug. "How are you?
"Bien Dobze!" he answered. "Bien."
"Bien?" Duck asked in disbelief as her uncle mixed Polish and Spanish. "Bien?"
"I was figuring I'd see you here maybe yes?" Her uncle added. Tracker shook his head, remembering the first time he had ever met the effervescent man.
In the twenty some odd years he had known Duck's uncle, he had never fully understood the man.
"You have heard no?" He asked Duck softly.
"Si, rosa negra," Duck answered in Spanish, then switching back into Polish added. "Czarny roza,": Black rose in Polish.
"Cholerny klopoot!" Gypsy countered. "Be careful my children," he whispered then staggered back into the room. "Hey, you didn't deal me in," he bellowed.
Duck shook her head and started back down the hall.
"Okay, I understand most of that," Tracker admitted. "The last one I didn't understand."
"I told him 'bout the flowers, he said they're a damn nuisance," Duck explained with a shrug. Tracker understood, her uncle knew enough to know there was danger.
"Great." Tracker sighed. Everybody knew they were in trouble, but nobody seemed to be able get a fix on what kind. "Everybody has a firm grasp of the obvious."
"Tak," Duck agreed, then shook her head. "He also gave us a warning in a very Gypsy-ish way."
"He told us that he knew he could find us here tonight," Duck stated. "We need to fall back to the old ways."
"Old ways?" Tracker asked then nodded. "Ah, no more 'the usual'?"
"Yeah," Duck answered as they headed towards the front door. "It was nice while it lasted."
"Call it," Tracker stated as the made their way downstairs.
"Go home together, nice and normal," Duck answered. "Then pull a fast fade."
"Plan." Tracker acknowledged.
"Here we go again," Duck smiled at him.
As they left the Playful Dragon, their minds were abruptly changed for them. Duck was the first to notice that the line in front of the club had disappeared. As she stiffened, Tracker had started scanning the street.
"Cover," Tracker managed to warn before the bullets sprayed the sidewalk around them.
Even before the warning had left his lips, they were rolling away from each other and taking cover on opposite sides of the door. Duck drew her pistol as she came up to a crouched position behind one of the cars parked in front of the club, and waited for a target to present itself.
"Sniper, far roof," Tracker warned over the comm-link.
"Eye-ball," Duck announced as she pulled one of the prototypes from her purse and tossed in into the air. As the unit started to fall, it fired its mini-jets and stabilized. She took control of the unit, knowing that Tracker would cover her while she programmed the device to report the location of all warm bodies within a two block radius.
Tracker scanned the area, ready for anything. They'd run this play only in simulation back at the Backer Brother's 'Training range,' but it had its merits. The big problem, he realized, was that they had never done it in real-life. He kicked himself for not bringing more firepower, but then again, it was supposed to be 'just for drinks.'
"Seven," Duck informed him over the comm-link. "Two snipers, crossfire positions, only one has fired. Three Bikers over by your car, two waiting, one's doing something."
"Other two?" Tracker asked.
"Maybe involved, maybe not. Couple walking down the street, way too casual for the gunfire we've just had."
"Choices?" Tracker queried as he noted that to the Playful Dragon had been sealed behind them.
"Left, Bikers, Right unknown, straight, sniper kill zone."
"Back up?" He asked, knowing Duck's response before she answered.
"You and me, till we figure this thing out."
Tracker nodded as he scanned his surroundings. "Second Pass?"
"Gimme a three count," Duck answered.
Tracker nodded as he scanned the area, verifying his cover then watched over Duck as she merged her mind with the remote's controls and images.
Duck took over the remote as it zoomed around the area she had cordoned off as the 'active zone.' This was the area of immediate concern. She knew that something wasn't right, but she had still been unable to put her finger on it. She changed the remote's course as she saw something in the alleyway behind the club. She only had a glimpse of them, three men at the back door, before one of them turned and pointed at the remote.
Her mind swam as she sensed rather than saw the power leave the man's hand. Duck gasped as she pulled herself out of the remote before the blast hit knowing full well that her 'toy' had just been slagged.
"Aw, bloody..."she swore under her breath.
"Duck?" Tracker called worriedly.
"Add three behind the Dragon, waiting at the back door," She explained. "Mage slagged the eye."
"We need to get this circus out of here," Tracker stated.
"Got any insurance?" Duck asked.
"Go left, watch your eyes," Tracker warned cryptically. Cryptic that was, unless you knew Tracker as well as Duck did. They would try to get closer to his car, then he would activate the car's weapon's systems, or the car's auto-destruct depending on the situation.
"30 feet," he answered.
Duck pushed herself away from the car and fired at the sniper's position, covering Tracker as he ran to the car next to the one she was using for cover. He ran low, but he could feel the bullets wiz past his head as they ricocheted off of the cars he was using for cover.
He stopped and turned to fire without saying a word to Duck. As he started firing, she was already moving to the next car in line, reloading as she ran.
"Clips?" He asked as she started firing and he was running past her.
"Four," she answered as he began firing. "You?"
Tracker waited as she took cover and began firing. "Two," he answered as he slipped his second clip into his pistol and passed her again. As he started firing Duck paused behind his car long enough to toss him a clip, then she was gone.
"Bike," she warned.
"Figures," Tracker sighed as he prepared to move, then flattened himself against the ground as the car he was hiding behind went up in flames. "Incendiary?" He asked as Duck prepared to move.
"I don't think so," Duck gasped as the flames started to take form. "Elemental my dear Tracker."
"Great, abso-frigga-lutin' great," Tracker grumbled.
"Just keep out of his way," Duck muttered as she again reached into her purse.
"Make it quick," Tracker urged as he watched the fire take on the general shape of a man.
Duck swore as she ripped off a piece of duct tape and stuck an end to the car she was hiding behind. Switching the roll of tape for a second 'Eyeball,' she began taping one of her earrings to the remote.
"Move," She yelled as she released the remote. Tracker ran towards her, grabbing her as he ran past, still trying to avoid the gunfire.
Duck's mind swam as she quickly programmed the remote to find the center of the 'fire' behind them and stay there. Even as she released control, she felt herself rolling in Tracker's arms as they rolled clear of the fire and back to the cover the car just passed the bike Duck had warned him about.
"Eyes," they warned each other as remote reached the center of the inferno and the earring detonated. Tracker activated the flash bangs on his car a second later. Around them the light flared to blinding white then faded. Tracker scanned the area behind them as Duck checked the area to their left. The explosion had taken the air out of the elemental, blowing it and the fire out in the process.
"Move it," Duck yelled as she pushed off the car and started running towards the bikers.
Tracker turned and was about to join her when the night was lit up a second time. "What the?" Duck yelled as she hit the ground.
"That would be my car," Tracker informed her blandly. "Seems somebody was setting it to explode?"
Duck growled as she looked around.
"I was hoping to get past it before it exploded," She stated.
"Any more eyeballs?" Tracker asked her.
"Just the two." Duck looked around and activated the heat sensors in her eyes.
"Grand theft auto?" Tracker suggested.
Duck shook her head. "Just cover, I'll get the van."
Tracker nodded as Duck shifted so that the inside of her left thigh was exposed and uncovered the connection for the van's remote control unit. Duck looked around one more time and waited for Tracker's thumbs up. As soon as he signaled, she activated the unit.
The van became her world as she ran the systems checks and verified that it was free of tampering. Once she was sure it was safe, she started the engine and put it in gear. As it moved, she got a better look of the couple she has spotted via the eyeball. From the van's forward display she saw them as the 'sauntered' towards the Dragon. Something about them made her sure she had made the right decision in heading away from them. As she pegged the acceleration past them, she allowed herself another look and shuddered.
Tracker watched over Duck as she activated the van and guided it to them. He caught some movement along the roof tops, and eased closer to the cars, praying who-ever had sent the elemental didn't have another waiting in the wings.
'Eight to ten,' he thought to himself. 'Eight to ten attackers for two 'mild mannered' deckers.' He didn't like the amount of firepower, he definitely did not like the odds. As he watched, he could hear the familiar whine of the van as it accelerated towards them at full tilt. For a minute it looked as if it wasn't going to stop in time, but then Duck activated the breaks. Even as it stopped the side door slid open waiting for them, Tracker was moving.
He grabbed Duck and hauled her into the van behind him. He heard the bullets as the snipers tried to get them, but the van's armor held. As soon as he slammed the door shut, the van was moving again, barreling down on the smoldering remains of his car. The bikers were nowhere to be seen, but the car was a mess.
Duck calculated the speed and slammed on the breaks, trying to get as close to Tracker as she could, as quickly as she could. As she neared their location, she released the sliding door and held her breath. She watched as Tracker threw her still form into the van and slammed the door closed. As she waited, she felt the bullets hit the van, her shell. It didn't hurt, but she felt it none-the-less. Then she activated the throttle and accelerated away from their attackers.
As they moved away, she saw them from the rear corner mounted camera. The three from behind the Dragon had moved up the alleyway and now one of them was aiming a rocket launcher at them. There was no hesitation as she reflexively activated the rear turret and opened fire. As the bullets sprayed around them, she whipped the van around the corner. She realized she was going too fast at the last moment and overcompensated. As she fought to control the van, it careened around the corner, almost hitting an oncoming cab.
It bore down on her, horns blazing as Duck eased the van back under control. She managed to miss the cab by 10 feet, but it felt much, much closer. Once she was sure they weren't being pursued, Duck guided the van onto the freeway and headed out of the city, then initiated a full systems check.
Tracker held his breath as he heard the whirring noise of the van's rear cannons being activated. He started towards the control unit to check the ammo status, only to be slammed against the side door as the van careened into the intersection. He tried to brace himself, and keep Duck's body from rolling around.
He could feel the difference as they eased onto the freeway and moved immediately, strapping Duck into one of the seats. He then slipped into the driver's seat and prepared to take over for Duck. As he ran his checks everything seemed in order, but then he saw it, tucked under the windshield wiper, waiting. Tracker was starting to get very tired of black roses.