It was looking for him. He could tell that much just from its persistence. But behind it, driving it, was a lust for power, to control and devour. 'Why me?; he wondered. And then he realized. The people behind the roses, behind this thing, had access to privileged information. 'So, you figure a crazy man's easier to control,' he thought. 'Hell, I can't control myself, don't see how anybody else can...'
He let the joke fade from his thoughts. It was too close to the truth. Rabbit listened intently as the crowd seemed to surge. 'They must have moved, he thought as he started slipping on the white coveralls he'd found in the room. That with a white cap would hopefully give him the cover he needed.
'They say people rarely noticed the help,' he thought to himself. 'Let's hope they're right.'
His main concern had shifted from the police to the thing. He hoped the others were clear, because if that thing found him, there was no way it was going to have him. This he promised himself. He had endangered the others enough as it was, and he knew that it wanted him, not for who he was, but as a tool to get to Boomer and Kenny. After a moment more, he knew it was more for Kenny than Boomer.
Lightning looked at the computer enhanced version of the video. The only thing they'd managed to find was a reflection of Duck and Tracker coming out of the Dragon and ducking just before the sniper opened fire.
"Things do not look good for our heroes," Rico commented as watched the reflection again.
"Not good at all," Lightning agreed. Then the thought hit her. "The security cameras in the area, are there any that could have seen what actually happened with the police officer?"
Rico shook his head. "Those have already been collected I'm afraid. Additionally they've been very closed mouthed about the location and circumstances of the attack."
"Guess it's not to likely that they tell us what they know," Lightning countered.
"Not bloody likely," Rico agreed. "Any footage we come up with is going to be suspect, and the longer they stay out, the more guilty they look."
"They could be guilty," Lightning pointed out.
Rico stared at her in surprise. "How can you say that?"
"Extenuating circumstances," Lightning assured him. "Still you're right. And the longer the police chase them, the more likely somebody's going to get hurt."
Rico nodded. "There has to be something we can do," he told her. "But for the life of me, I don't know what."
"We do what we can, be there when they need us, and do our jobs," Lightning told him.
Rico nodded. "Let's see if Davy and Geoff have anything."
Together they headed towards the conference room.
Captain Reiger swore as the SWAT team came up empty. "I don't think they even went into the room," the Lieutenant told him. "Van's empty too.
"Secure the area," he ordered. "Nobody gets in or out. Nobody!"
"Yes sir," the Lieutenant replied, then made sure his order were carried out.
"Joe," he called to another officer. "Get a forensics team on the van pronto." He had a sinking feeling they were too late to catch Wayne and his brothers.
"You got it boss," the man answered as he signaled several others to follow him. He watched as the cleaning crew began its rounds and shook his head. They were too late.
Tracker stretched out along one of the stretchers in the bus as Duck prepared a link up. Halifax watched as she pulled out a mini dish and made a few minor adjustments.
"And you're sure it's untraceable?" Ange asked warily.
"That's the beauty of a satellite hook up," Halifax assured her. "Anybody tracing the link-up will only be able to trace it as far as the satellite, then poof, nothing. They'll know the call came from the city," he admitted. "But that's about it."
"So why doesn't everybody do it?" Ange asked.
"You have to have the equipment, and a satellite to link up to," Halifax explained. "You have to know what's available, and have access to it. The only people who have a network that's reliable enough to use even most of the time, is the military. And even that one has its problems."
"Tell me about it," Duck grumbled as she took one last look around. "Geeking out," she announced as she activated her deck.
Whisper watched over the proceedings carefully, stretching out his senses to detect anything out of the ordinary. All he found were Candide's watchers along the perimeter of the encampment. There was nothing else to do, but wait and watch.
"So she was in the SEALs with you guys?" Ange asked Whisper.
"Duck?" He asked softly then shook his head. "Nah, she was SpecOps. We all tended to get loaned around as needed. I worked with her team a few times, there were a few joint missions, and then of course there were few times where she was on loan to BlackPaw."
Ange shook her head. She could see the change that had come over Whisper. He was no longer lost, missing his other half.
Being in the presence of old teammates had returned his confidence and given him hope. He was no longer the broken man who had lost everything to Briar. It was as if their presence alone had given him the strength he so desperately needed. They were his family, and she could see the determination grow within him. His will to fight had been restored, and with it a sense of determination and hope.
She knew he'd be leaving with them, but she also knew they were still fighting the same battle. From what she'd seen, his strength was more offensive than defensive. And it was well past time somebody took the fight to Briar instead of trying to stay out of his way.
She found his re-found hope was contagious, and preyed it was enough.
Duck checked the area around the blind account and found the tracers long before they spotted her. So much for the anonymity of a blind account. She'd have to figure that one out, but for now she'd have to make other arrangements and warn Rico about the tracers.
'Rico's a big boy now,' she reminded herself. 'He knows how to take care of himself.'
She created a false version of the file she was going to send and then programmed a courier construct to deliver it to the account. That would keep whoever was watching her busy enough for her to try another approach.
Duck found the data-stream that led to the airport database and started coding a reservation message. She sighed as she started the message. She knew that any anomaly in the reservations system for Wilson Travel would be reported to Rico, since he was their resident specialist. It would take longer for them to find the message, but for now it was the only way. 'Flight 75A 717 out of Memphis has been canceled. Please make other arrangements for your clients,' she thought to herself as she updated the information.
'Now to make my own arrangements,' she sighed as she tried to think of something that was unique enough nobody would think of it, yet not so obscure that Rico would never find it. ' It's never easy.'
As she worked out a method of communications, Duck created a construct 'bot' to collect the day's news and another to make a cursory check on Aerocom. She did not like the results from either check.
As she reviewed the information she finally understood the kind of trouble that waited for them. 'Every time I figure we've got a lid on things, I find out just how wrong I am,' she thought as she scanned the area. 'We are in serious trouble!'
Reports indicated that Max had been 'retrieved' by his friends in Aercomm and had sworn to bring her and Tracker down. At least Masters and her dad were alright, but the corp was divided. Then she realized the source of Briar's information had to have been Aerocom itself. 'Max, do you have any idea of the trouble you've caused, or are you so blind that you don't even get it?'
If that weren't bad enough, as she tried to figure out her next move, her proximity alert went off. She recognized several persona constructs approaching her from different areas, almost as if they were homing in on her signal. Then the trouble really began.
They were street deckers, the kind of people who all but lived in the matrix. She could tell that much from the way they moved. She could see it in the way they communicated. Message constructs surrounded her as she tried to figure out what was happening.
'Explain yourself!,' the message shimmered around her, color and volume indicating rage.
'Come again?' Duck responded
"Murderer!' 'Killer' 'Drek-head' 'Fraggin' drecker' 'Butcher!'
Duck watched in disbelief as the messages surrounded her. 'ENOUGH!' she sent back. 'EXPLAIN YOURSELVES!"
'Your IC is killing our friends,' the new message was cold and bitter.
Alarms went off inside her head. This is the same line Aerocom was feeding about her. Sites without Black IC suddenly killing people with it, counterfeit duckware and those infernal black roses.
'Not mine!' Duck declared angrily.
'Bull' 'Liar' 'Murderer' 'right'
Rage, anger, sarcasm. Their messages swirled around her. Duck had had enough. She drew the area surrounding them nearer and warped the images around them. Now instead of a sterile booking system, they were in a wooded glade with a small sign saying 'Please don't feed the ducks.'
'Now boys and girls. SHUT UP and LISTEN!' her message marched over to them and pulsed at them indignantly.
"I don't care if you believe me or not," she stated calmly. "But you're the second group to approach me on this and I STILL don't know what you're talking about. I need to get to the bottom of this and you can either help me and maybe we can work on solving this mess, or you can fly off the handle and we can have a full scale war and get no closer to the truth."
As she talked she activated several of her routines simultaneously. Five tracers and five analyzers were fired off. One set for each of her 'guests'.
'What's your game?' one of them asked. His persona construct was that of a Bulldog.
"Survival" she answered softly. "I've got a fight on my hands, and I have a feeling all of this is part of my opponent's way of throwing me off my game.
"He's lying," another one asked, this one's persona was a cockatrice.
"Oh, you got a routine that tells you that, or is it just easier to rage than to think?" Duck replied angrily. "If you know enough to find me, then you should have access to the records. That means you should know enough about me to know this ain't my style."
"What's to know? You manage sites that are set up to catch us and kill us," this from a gorilla.
"My sites are setup to supply information and keep people who shouldn't be there out of the site. I have never put Black IC in a public or commercial site."
"What kind of sites HAVE you put Black IC in?" the Bulldog growled angrily.
"Military," Duck answered. "So far and deep in, that I doubt y'all even know the place exists. A place where the information there could kill a whole mess of really good people and anybody going up against them gets what they deserve. Places where nobody has any business going, so much so that the systems are stand-alone. So unless your friends have been playing in the Pentagon, there's no way they could have even come near MY IC."
Duck's persona pulsed deep green, her colors for angry and fed up. The two that hadn't spoken looked at each other. Both looked like Chess pieces. One was a knight, the other a rook.
"Meet us in real life," the Knight told her.
"Kirkland," the Rook stated.
"10385 Kirkland, Chessman's club," Duck finished for him as she read back the reports from her trace programs. It was the address of the node they were using to access the matrix.
They stared at her in surprise.
"Tomorrow night," Duck told them as she prepared to leave. "Oh, yeah, don't take any black roses."
She left them on that note, not bothering to watch their reaction. She had too much else to worry about.
Whisper continued his watch over Duck as she traveled the matrix. It never ceased to amaze him that two things as diverse as decking and magic held some rather startling parallels. Regardless of how different their skills and methods were, the demands they placed on their systems and the complete vulnerability were virtually the same. He had watchers he could instruct to watch over him, she had friends like Tracker. In the end, it was the same.
Then he looked at Tracker and shook his head. He was sprawled out across one of the stretchers, sound asleep, trusting Whisper to not only watch over him, but Duck as well. It was like old times.
The thought sent chills down his spine as he recalled how hairy some of those old times had been. Still they'd managed to survive because of their dedication to each other.
"You want to talk about it?" Ange asked him.
Whisper shook his head. "Not really," he told her. "We've been through some pretty tough times together. Some times it was a miracle we survived. But these two, they're more important to me than my family ever was. There's nothing I wouldn't do for them, and there's nothing they haven't done for me."
Whisper paused, as the memories flashed through his mind. It all came down to the last mission he'd taken as a member of BlackPaw. It had started off simply enough. That should have been the first warning. It almost ended with Alex the Red's poison claiming his life. He remembered the pain as the needle was pulled from his arm and the uncounted hours of agony he endured as his friends tried to find the antidote for the poison that flowed in his veins. In the end it wasn't technology that saved him, but Duck and Tracker, laying it all on the line to get a pure sample of the poison.
Ange waited patiently until Whisper stirred from his reverie. When he looked at her again, she simply nodded. What he didn't tell her was there in his eyes.
As they sat in silence, Allison joined them in their vigil.
"How's it going?" Allison asked.
Ange nodded towards Halifax, who alternated staring at Duck and Tracker and looking out the window. "He's having a hard time with it." she whispered. "They aren't what he expected."
"They seldom are," Whisper agreed.
"I'll say," Allison grunted.
"What did they do to you," Whisper asked quietly. He knew Duck and Tracker, and he knew what they were likely to do to someone watching them when they didn't want to be watched.
"They got the drop on me," Allison admitted. "Left a souvenir on the bottom of the truck."
Whisper's shoulders shook as he suppressed a laugh. "Well, its better than what they did to Masters I guess," he stated.
"I don't think I want to know," Allison muttered.
"Lets just say, they had a much harder time sneaking up on him, so they made it worth their while. According to the Duck, he was good, really good. Even back then." Whisper told him.
"Thing is, if Masters is so good, how come he didn't see Max turning out like he did?"
"Who's to say he didn't," Whisper asked, reflexive playing the devil's advocate.
"Well, Max was his assistant," Allison stated. "He was blind sided. Or was he?"
"Ah, that's the true question" Whisper answered softly. "From what I know of Masters, he's very much old school. A 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer' kind of guy. That's why he and these two get along."
"You have a point," he agreed. "Still, I don't think I'll ever understand them."
Whisper grinned at him. "Good answer."
"Whisper?" Halifax asked softly.
"What's wrong Hal?"
"Duck and Tracker, you said that he's the best, but from everything I've heard, Duck's been in tighter situations and gotten out of them..."
Whisper nodded. "That's true, but..."
"...but Tracker has enough sense to not get into those situations in the first place." Duck interrupted as her focus shifted back to the 'real world. She stared at her partner for a moment then continued.
"Tracker doesn't fall for the traps, I do. I'm just too stubborn to roll over and play dead," She added as she began packing up her equipment. "I have to get creative to get out. That's why my reported hacks are 'wilier'. Believe me Tracker's hacks have a beauty and grace I'll never be able to duplicate. He's the decker's decker, me, I get myself into situations where I have to be creative. Each has its place, and between the two of us there's very little out there that can get the better of us for long. We just have to survive long enough to figure out how to deal with it. That's the real trick."
Whisper smiled at her, but then he saw her expression. "What is it," he asked.
"We got more problems than we thought," Duck answered grimly.
"Like what?" Allison asked.
"Like Max," Duck answered acerbically. "He's got a contingent with him and they're gunning for us."
"How?" Allison asked in disbelief.
"Weasel-boy's got friends," Duck growled. "Should have fragged him when we had the chance."
"Bit blood thirsty aren't we?" Whisper asked her pointedly.
Duck shook her head. "It wouldn't surprise me if he turned out to be the source of Briar's information on us. Man's a weasel, and you know how I feel about weasels. I say frag him, and the sooner the better."
"Okay," Ange admitted. "I'm thinking "frag" as in 'mess up'., it sounds like you have something a lot more specific in mind."
Duck looked at her and grinned. "Very old military term," she said as she held her right hand cupped in front of her. "Fragmentation grenade." Then she held her other hand flat. "Boxer shorts," she added a cold grin as she brought her hands together.
"Oh," Ange winced as she revised her mental notes about Tracker and Duck. 'Good people, unless you get on their wrong side.'
"I'm sorry," Allison told her honestly.
"Yeah, well, it gets better," she added. "You know the police officer Tracker and I wanted to talk to?"
Allison and Ange nodded as Whisper just waited for the rest of the news.
"Well, right now he's looking for our buddy Boomer and some of his brothers in connection to the murder of another officer. I don't think he's going to want to be talking to us."
"Great," Allison swore.
"That the best you can do?" Duck asked wryly. "Come on, if you're going to be hanging with Tracker and me, you've got to learn to swear better than that."
Duck paused as she thought about her encounter in the Matrix. Random Black IC was bad enough, but people were blaming her for it. That meant she had to load up a different persona routine and change her coding style if she was to pass unnoticed, and that meant a lot of unnecessary work. Of course, all her 'spare' setups were at the office in her standard deck.
"Okay Duck," Whisper urged. "What else?"
"Oh, yeah, lest I forget," Duck muttered. "Somebody's tagged my blind account, where I was hoping to exchange information with some friends, and then I got jumped by no less than 5 other deckers while I was out. Seems, the Black IC problem is wider spread than just Aerocom consultants." Duck let out a heavy sigh. "I am getting too old for this."
"Yeah, right," Whisper countered. "What happened?"
"Clearer heads prevailed. I've got to meet with them tomorrow night," she answered.
"Could be a trap," he warned her.
"What isn't these days?" Duck asked with a shrug.
"What did they look like?" Halifax prompted.
"There was a Bulldog, a Cockatrice, a gorilla, then the two chess pieces, a Knight and a Rook," She told him. "I'm supposed to meet them at the Chessman's club."
"If they're who I think they are, they're good, at least as far as matrix-heads go," he told her. "You're going to have to prove yourself to them, they don't take people's words on anything. Can I do anything to help?"
"Right now, my problem isn't proving my code, its proving my innocence. If you can give me a rundown on the folks I'll be dealing with, I'd appreciate it," she told him. "And Whisper, I could use some of your help on this."
"Me? What about Tracker?" he asked.
"I'll need Tracker too," she admitted as she watched him sleep. "But as a friend pointed out, we tend to think like techs. Some magical backup would be much appreciated."
"You know you've got it," Whisper told her. "All you have to do is ask."
"Well, that won't be until tomorrow. For now, we need to figure out how to establish an untraceable communications network. Then we need to implement it."
"What about Tracker?"
"For now, let him sleep," Duck answered with a nod. "I have a feeling we're going to be grabbing what sleep we can get, when we can get it."
"Like old times," Whisper stated with a smile.
"Don't remind me," Duck grumbled.
"If I were Wayne," Sam Reiger found himself thinking. 'If I were Wayne, I'd have half a chance of understanding what this was all about.'
None of it made sense. He had found no trace of the Wilsons in the room that Wayne had paid for. The preliminary forensics report indicated that someone in the van had been shot. They'd found a bullet, and blood in the carpeting in back. They'd have to run the bullet through the ballistics to get any information on it. They'd also found a sniper rifle that had been fired recently. The only problem was the caliber didn't match the one that had killed Miguel. Nothing added up on this investigation. Nothing.
They'd finally found the room where they probably stayed, but there was no sign of them there either. He was about to close up shop when the call came over the radio: "Captain, we found one of them."
"Now maybe we can get somewhere," he grumbled. "Who?"
"Kenneth Wilson, the one they call Clearwater," the officer responded. "Looks like he's been bitten by a snake."
'So much for getting any answers,' Reiger thought to himself. "Where are you?"
"Under the building on the other side of the courtyard, we'll have him out in a few minutes," came the response.
"I'll have the medics standing by," he responded. "Let me know when they're finished with him."
'Just once,' Reiger thought to himself. 'I'd like to have something in this investigation make sense.' He signaled the medics and by the time they'd pulled Kenny out from the crawlspace they were ready for him.
He watched as they took his vitals and one of the medics shook his head in disbelief.
"What?" Reiger asked worriedly.
"Puncture marks indicate venomous snake," the medic stated. "His pulse is erratic, but stabilizing. It's almost as if his body is adjusting to the venom, but unless we know exactly what bit him, we can't give him the right antivenin"
"I say let him rot," an officer grumbled. "After what they did to Miguel."
"After what we think they might have done to Miguel," Reiger corrected. "We've implicated them as involved in the shooting, but we haven't established exactly how."
"Yeah, right," the officer snorted.
"You know, I remember a time in this country when a man was innocent until proven guilty," Reiger reminded him.
"Those days are long gone," the officer countered. "And I say good riddance."
"That's fine, as long as your accusers are right," Reiger answered. "But heaven help you if they're wrong. Or worse, somebody's got an axe to grind."
"Oh, so you're figuring that he shot Miguel cause his mommy didn't hold him enough as a baby?"
"I'm saying that since we've got a man down with snake bite, and we don't know what kind of snake, we need to call in one of Finagle's boys. See if he saw the snake." Reiger answered. "So as we can give him the proper antivenin."
The officer nodded approvingly. Reiger did not like the evil gleam in the man's eyes. He also wasn't particularly proud of what he was planning, but they had to know what was going on, before anybody else got hurt.
'Sorry about this Kenny,' he thought to himself as he signaled for Finagle.
Candide watched as Ange met with their visitors. It amazed her how these people had managed to stay out of Briar's clutches as long as they had. It had taken her everything she had to get away from the one they called MindBender, but she was strong. These people were so weak they were pitiful.
'Like so much cannon fodder,' she found herself thinking. It as almost funny if it weren't for the fact that she knew exactly what MindBender would do to them. Wjowski's daughter especially.
She was also amazed that Ange hadn't kicked them out of the camp. After all, it was their fault that Briar existed in the first place. 'Serve them right,' she thought to herself. 'They'll pay.'
The rage all but overwhelmed her. She would see them controlled by their enemy: turned into that which they had created. She felt the power call to her, welling up inside her, but as she called on it, she heard another voice, telling her to wait until the time was right.
'Now is the time,' she told herself. As she reached out for the woman, she felt a blinding pain behind her eyes.
NO! You will know when it is time. You will do nothing until I say it is time, do you understand?
She froze as the world swirled around her. Emptiness: Failure. They swirled around her until her mind calmed. "Yes master," she answered softly. Then the pressure vanished.
'All in good time,' she told herself. 'In time they shall pay.'
Good... What about Ange?
'She won't do anything,' she thought to herself. 'She's just as ineffectual as Whisper is.'
You will know when it is time.
She would have her revenge for what he'd done to her. They would pay for their creation and she would watch as they're insides were laid bare.
MindBender smiled to himself. He hadn't believed Briar when he first told him that he could control people, that his strength would grow as he manipulated more minds to the cause, but it had.
Candide had been just one of many who didn't even know he was controlling them. She served the Briar, all the while believing that she was fighting it. And it had taken so little for him to restrain her when the time came.
He turned towards his latest 'project': Fen. "You," he called. "Will come with me."
The man nodded woodenly and followed him as he strode down the halls of the house that served as his headquarters. He smiled as he felt the power surrounding them. He would consult with the Briar as to this one's use. He had never imagined the power he could call upon until he had joined with Briar. It had been terrifying, but in the end, the power that sung in his veins was well worth the price he'd paid.
He led Fen to his inner sanctum and ordered him to sit. He was like a blank slate, waiting to be used, and he would be used, Briar would see to that.
"What is your purpose with this one, my lord?" he asked.
"He will lead you to the one I want, his brother," Briar answered. He was everywhere, the room echoed joyously with his master's voice. "You will allow him to search for his brother, believing he is protecting him. Once we have Justin, you will bring him to us, and make him one of us. Once this is done, you may do with this one as you please."
MindBender's heart sang for joy. "Thank you My Lord Briar," he stated as he bowed his head. "Thank you for everything."
He could feel Briar's presence lessen, but he could not miss his parting thoughts. "I reward those who serve me willingly, you will punish those who do not."
That was all he ever asked. "Thank you," he called gratefully. Then he looked at Fen. "Come, we have work to do," he ordered. As he strode from the room, the man who had been Fen followed behind meekly.
Lightning watched Davy and Geoff carefully as they discussed the current situation. It didn't help that they had no way of communicating with Boomer and the others. They had no way of knowing exactly what was going on, and for now, it would have to stay that way.
They had no choice but to keep them isolated from the rest of the family. It would keep the rest of the family safe from prosecution, but it left them at high risk. She could tell they liked almost as much as she did.
Legally they were honor bound to inform the police of any contact they had with the others. It wasn't as if the police wouldn't know about it either. They'd spent a lot of resources tapping all of the Wilson's communications lines, at least the ones they knew about. Rico had found most of them and could shut them off at will, but still, Lightning was pretty sure that if she were to sneeze right now, some one at LoneStar would be saying "Bless you."
"We need to find out exactly what's going on," Davy told them. "I can't believe that Derrick would kill a police officer in cold blood, so either he didn't do it, or there was a very good reason for him to do it."
"Either way, " Geoff added. "It's going to be hard on the family."
As Geoff talked he tapped his ear, signaling to them the simple message: 'They are listening.'
Lightning nodded as Davy handed her a folder. "So if either of you hear from Boomer, I want you to contact the police immediately. Don't bother going up the chain of command, right now we need to clear this mess up before anybody else gets hurt."
Lightning nodded. "I understand," she told him softly. She opened the file and nodded. The police were being very closed mouth about this one. Of course, as far as they were concerned, co-operation was out of the question. Their case was almost air- tight. From what Davy and Geoff had been able to get, they weren't too far from the truth.
"Lightning, we're not turning our backs on Boomer and the others," Geoff stated softly. "But they have to realize that the longer they run, the guiltier they look.
"There has to be a reason," Lightning stated. "There has to be."
Davy nodded, and then he and Geoff droned on with platitudes about duty and honor, giving Lightning and Rico a chance to read the folders they'd been handed. Lightning liked things even less when she finished and passed the folder back to Geoff along with her notes.
There had been two more incidents with black roses since Boomer and the others had headed out. The first had involved Duck's uncle, Gypsy. The other had involved a patient at the clinic. Gypsy was fine, if anything he was wilier then Duck, but the incident at the clinic had shaken them up. It was a poisoning case that almost got Joey.
Then there was the information she had passed on to them. Their research had netted them almost nothing other than the observation camera. As Davy and Geoff read over their notes, Rico and Lightning began their half of the discussion.
As they discussed normal business things, Davy started to write something down. Geoff read it over his shoulder and nodded as Davy handed it to Lightning and Rico.
If someone was watching Duck and Tracker, they may have done the same for Boomer's team. Check it out, but remember, we evacuate the operation in three hours.
Lightning re-read the message and nodded. There was one rule the Wilsons always followed: non-combatants always come first. There was nothing else she could do for Boomer and the guys, but she could see to it that nothing happened to the rest of the family.
She took a deep breath and let it out. Things were tight and they were only going to get tighter until they knew more about the people behind the black roses.