Of course they weren't looking any more, well not as suspects at least. The ballistics report had come back the way Finagle had predicted. Derrick had been shot by the same gunman who'd taken out Rodriguez. That made them potential witnesses and he had to follow up on that. He also knew just how deep the trouble was that Boomer and his brothers were up against, and he owed it to Boomer to fill him in on the details.
He was about to step out of the van when he heard the sound of gunfire and squealing tires outside. He hit the scan button he'd found in the van and watched as the security systems came on-line.
His attention was drawn to two of the screens simultaneously. The rear camera showed a man who could only be Boomer, diving into the back seat of a late model Ford. The second, side mounted unit, showed him the two he'd thought were Boomer and Rabbit. He shuddered.
Zombies. He recognized them as two of Briar's 'creations.'
"Boomer, man I hope you appreciate this," he growled to himself as he prepared to jack himself into the van's control box. He knew it had manual controls, but to handle the vehicle and the weapons effectively, he needed every advantage he could get.
Vertigo. It was part of why he avoided rigging whenever possible. The company had forced him to be fitted for it, but linking in left him feeling awkward and out of sorts. It always ruined his sense of balance. For most riggers it was a pleasant integration, they became the machine. Granted there were a few, like Boomer's friend Duck who viewed it as decking equipment, but Duck was a decker, and that's the what she understood, for him it was always a struggle, a necessary evil..
Guns activated. He keyed the ignition and prepared to follow Boomer's attackers. He could feel something along his side. Was it his belt or something on the van? He checked the screens.
The zombies were attacking the side of the van as he pulled out. Pain radiated down his left side as the skin was peeled from the bone. Again, he couldn't tell if it was him or the van. As the guns targeted the attackers, he let out a sigh of relief. The pain stopped: must have been the van.
The guns reflected his heartbeat as he let lose a burst on the zombies. They fell to the ground, but were still trying to get up. He finished them off, knowing it was the only release he could give them.
His pulse raced as the engine revved. It wanted to move, he wanted to move. The van rocked slightly teetering between modes. Finally everything fell into place.
His tires spun slightly on the gravel before digging in, he could feel the traction control adjust for the ground. Then he was spinning around. He felt the wheels slip again as he adjusted for the road surface, then he was chasing after Boomer's attackers.
As he closed the distance he could see the muzzle flash from the Ford as the lead vehicle, a no-name Chrysler knock-off swerved. The follow van was lagging behind: it was only a matter of time until they noticed him. Sooner if he announced his presence.
He polled his weapons: forward chain gun, activated.
Three short bursts, adrenaline flowed through his system as the van broke off its pursuit. It launched its counter measures. Watch your feet, wheels, whatever. Traction slipping again as he hit something slick in the road. He trained his side guns on the fleeing van and let loose. Three hits had it careening out of control, but he didn't dare run it down now. Not when Boomer and the others were being shot at.
Boomer gasped as glass sprayed the back seat. "Keep your head down," he growled as he pushed himself up and pumped several rounds through the window before rolling back onto the seat. He was breathing heavily as Rabbit sent the car careening around the corner.
"Boom?" Rabbit called worriedly.
"Bruises only," Boomer told him as he dropped the shotgun and pulled out two pistols. "Just keep your eye on the road. I'll handle cover fire."
"Never a cop around when you want one," Rabbit grumbled.
Boomer laughed as he flipped the safeties off. "Our luck, those are the cops," Boomer told him.
Rabbit looked over at Ian and shook his head. "Ain't the cops," he told Boomer. "But they want us just as much, if not more."
"Well they're going to have to stand in line," Boomer told him. 'And Lightning has first dibs, ' he added mentally.
He could hear Rabbit's laughter as he pushed himself back up and fired three shots randomly at the pursuing car. They were still in the maze of alleyways and Rabbit darted around corners with reckless abandon.
"They're good," Rabbit warned. "And this car's not going to take to much more."
"Then hold it steady," Boomer told him. "I'll take care of them; you just get us out of here before the police show up."
"You got it," Rabbit answered as he floored the accelerator. "Hang on," he added to Ian.
Ian choked back a scream as his attacker's mental talons locked on his mind and refused to let go. He could feel something else closing in on him. He knew that if he didn't break free soon, it would have him and things would be much worse than they were now.
He tried to reach out for the music, but it was lost in the jumbled discord of pain and rage. The mind-thing held on with a single mindedness that resisted any attempt he made to break free. It had no thoughts, no emotions, only a driving need to hold him there.
Ian tried to calm himself down, but the pain was forcing him to react instead of act. He had to remain in control. It came down to willpower. The thing's drive against his own strength, but the pain made it hard to concentrate on anything else. Then he remembered playing in Milan with a broken hand.
The pain there had been too much, yet he had been able to reach the music. Once he joined the song it eased his pain until nothing else existed. He needed the music now, the true music.
Suddenly he found a guitar in his hands, it was Milan, it was Seattle, it was...Memphis, it was all of them, it was none of him. He was in the realm of the mind, where the song lived.
He had never been here before, not without a guitar physically linking him in from the real world. Now it was all in his mind and there was nothing keeping him from the music. It flowed through his veins, it sang in his heart. It stood against the mind-thing and then wrapped itself around both of them.
Far as the eye can see, Far as the eagle's cry
Peirce the earth with angered ash,
Peirce the sky with fire.
Near as the heart can beat, Near as the thought you hold.
Peirce the heart with softened tears
Peirce the sky with fire.
Battle cries, Rising up
Fire burns, till it burns,
Burns itself to embers
and in the end, after the fire
no one remembers.
What were you fighting for?
Strong as the dream you hold, Strong as the fist that's clenched
Peirce the fire with shattered dreams
Peirce the sky with fire.
Soft as the morning comes, soft as the mourning song
Peirce the heart with softened tears,
Peirce the sky with fire.
Battles rage, forces engage
The fire burns, till it burns,
burns itself to embers
and in the end, after the fire,
no one remembers.
What were you fighting for?
Peirce the sky with fire...
The fire burns, till it burns,
burns itself to embers...
The music flowed through him, pulling him from the mind-thing's grasp. Here the music was pure and sweet. It played until the thing was gone, banished by the muse, the mistress of the song. She moved towards him, slowly, smiling. Then she nodded, the muse had claimed her champion.
"Stand fast against the night," she told him, then faded with the song.
Ian drifted between worlds, lost in the moment. The feel of her lips on his cheek only added to the surrealism of the experience. He was pulled out of his reflections by the sound of gunfire echoing from the back seat.
'My guitar!' he thought as he heard the bullets hit the trunk. A different kind of nausea hit him. He closed his eyes again and prayed it would be over soon.
Vertigo. He pushed the van around the corners as the Ford led them on a wild chase through the alleyways at a breakneck speed. He had to fight to keep his back end from slipping around him: a skid here would prove fatal.
'Driver must be insane,' he thought to himself as he lost sight of the cars. When he finally caught sight of them, it was obvious that the Ford had opted to go for a flat out run.
Then he saw the muzzle flashes from the back seat of the Ford. As his sight adjusted, he could see Boomer sitting up, looking every bit like a pop-up silhouette at the shooting range. Things were worse than he'd thought. Boomer was taking way too many chances in exchange for a chance for a better shot.
He had to stop the other car. The Chrysler-wannabe was beating the daylights out of the Ford and he could tell it wasn't going to last much longer. He caught the radio burst as the van warned the car about him.
Too late. He felt the surge of power as the system alerted him. Target acquired, his heart sang as the guns fired: three pulses, his heartbeat. The Chrysler went airborne, lighting up the night sky, then falling back to earth in a glorious blaze of destruction.
He drove through the debris. There was no other choice. He felt the heat as it reached for him. Faster, he had to move faster. He accelerated, trying to outrun the flames. Then he cleared the cloud of smoke and fire.
The Ford was facing him now, its engine thrumming angrily as it idled. On some level, Reiger realized that the driver must have pulled a boot-legger . He flashed his lights and waited.
The car didn't move, but the back door opened and Boomer stepped out, holding something in his hand. Reiger tried to force the camera to focus on the device, but he was losing the link with the machine.
"Boomer," he called out over the P.A. system as the adrenalin faded from his system and with it his connection to the machine.
"Vertigo, that you?" Boomer called back using Reiger's call sign from their days in the military.
"Boom, it's just Reiger these days," he answered. "We found your equipment in the van, ballistics matched the bullet Kenny pulled from Derrick with the one that got Miguel. We need to talk!"
Boomer nodded and signaled Rabbit to cut the engine on the Ford. He planned on waiting for Reiger to let the after effects of interfacing with the van wear off before continuing, but he could hear the other van still running through the maze of alleyways.
"Boom, we ain't got time," Rabbit growled as he helped Ian out of the car.
Boomer nodded. "Load up the van. I'll get his gear."
Ian was still feeling the after effects of the battle as he tried to lead Rabbit towards the trunk. He had to check on his guitar, but he could barely move.
"Easy there," Rabbit urged. "We'll take care of everything. Boom, his guitar's in the trunk."
Boomer shook his head. He knew there was something about the man that had drawn Rabbit to him, but he had no clue what it was. He also knew that these people had attacked him, that made him a part of this, and if their attackers wanted Rabbit's friend, he was going to do everything in his power to keep him from them.
He checked the car and pulled everything he could from the decrepit Ford. He found the man's guitar, but there was a hole in the case. He was tempted to check the instrument, but, as Rabbit warned, they just didn't have the time. He tossed Ian's back-pack into the van and placed the case next to the man.
"Roll it," he told Rabbit once he'd gotten situated.
Rabbit started the van and pulled away from the wreckage as quickly as he could. He felt better now that they were moving, but he had no idea where they should head now. Boomer watched Reiger carefully, and when the man started to come around, he smiled.
"Thought you said your days as Vertigo were behind you," he teased softly.
"Smart ass," Reiger grumbled as he shook his head and took a deep breath. "Where are we now?"
Boomer looked up through the front windshield. "Looks like South-side," Boomer told him. 'Bout fifteen miles out from the impound lot."
"Head for the hospital," he urged gently.
"You hurt?" Boomer asked worriedly as he started checking for injuries.
"Relax Wilson will ya?" Rainer groused. "Your brother Kenny's there."
"Kenny," Boomer demanded angrily. "What happened?"
"Snake bite. He's okay," Reiger assured him as he held his hands up, trying to calm Boomer down. "We figured it was the safest place for him."
"Safest?" Boomer asked warily.
"I had to let Finagle work on him," he answered softly. He could see the disgust and fear in Boomer's eyes. "Boomer, we had nothing to go on and I had to do something to keep this whole mess from getting worse."
"I'm listening," Boomer answered, but his voice was cold and his eyes flashed dangerously.
"Look, you were set-up. You had to make some tough decisions. You had to think about your brothers, I had to think about my men. I was worried that some one else was going to get hurt before we got to the bottom of this mess. Finagle was the quickest, safest method of getting there."
Boomer forced himself to remain calm. He could tell that Reiger wasn't proud of what he'd been forced to do. "Go on," he prompted quietly.
"You've got a very big problem," Reiger told him. "Officially I'm off of the case, except for the follow-up with you two. Finagle wants to talk, just talk," he assured Boomer, "to you and your brother."
Boomer gave Rabbit a worried glance then looked back at Reiger. "I'm not letting anybody inside his mind," he stated coolly. "You did what you had to with Kenny, but Derrick is strictly off limits."
"Boom, will you ease up on me. We need to get the full report, that's all," Reiger shook his head. He'd forgotten how protective all the Wilsons were especially when it came to Rabbit. "If Finagle doesn't talk to him, then the corp will and they WILL mess him up just for the hell of it. I'm pretty sure they'll probably try and 'debrief' all of you anyway. We have to get the reports and get you out of there before they have a chance to take over."
"Your word?" Boomer asked. He had calmed down somewhat, but Reiger could still hear the hostility in his voice.
"You know it," Reiger assured him. "But we have to move now."
Boomer nodded. "Rabbit," he called to Derrick.
"Hospital." Rabbit agreed. "Don't worry about me," he added. "We'll be alright."
Wulf paced the confines of the hospital's waiting room. It had been almost four hours since they had wheeled Merc into the emergency room. The doctor had done what he could to stop the bleeding then rushed him to surgery. There had been no word since. He expected to see the police any time, but he didn't care. His team was falling apart and there was nothing he could do. He wanted to scream, but it wouldn't do anything to help the situation.
If that weren't bad enough, Jade and Daff seemed to be locked in some kind of guilt competition, seeing who could feel the worst about what had happened. It had gotten to the point that he wanted to slap them both and declare it a tie, but he knew that wouldn't do any good any good either.
"Alright you two," Gris finally growled. "I tink da boss, he have enough a dis. I know ol' Ni and Meri don't need none ah dis an me, I just wish you stop. It don't do nobody no good. Ain't nottin' none of us can do 'bout what happened. Past is past, don' matter how recent or how long, it be done.."
Wulf smiled as Daff and Jade just stared at Gris in shock. Sure, the man had his problems, but when he spoke his mind, it was always straight to the point. He was about to agree when Jade snapped. All her pent up rage and frustration was unleashed on an unsuspecting Gris.
"How dare you!" Jade all but screamed as she grabbed him by the throat. Before anybody could even grasp what was happening, she had tightened her grip and was strangling him. "How, could you presume to know or even understand what I'M GOING THROUGH???"
Wulf pulled on her arm, trying to get her to calm down, but she was having none of it. He could sense her drawing the power needed to cast one of her mind-blast spells on Gris. "Jade," he called then yelled her name when she didn't respond.
She let go physically and mentally then gasped. Wulf's words had broken through the blind rage that would have cost then another teammate. She stared at her hands in disbelief as she realized what she had almost done.
She was shaking uncontrollably as he took her into his arms. "Shhh," he urged. "Shhh." Jade threw her arms around him desperately. It was as if he was the only thing standing between her and complete insanity. He held her until the rage passed and her breathing returned to normal. "Easy," he called. "Just take it easy."
Jade nodded as everything came into focus once again. When she looked at Gris, he just smiled at her as if nothing had happened.
"Was it someting I say?" Gris asked softly as he rubbed his throat cautiously. She wanted to apologize, but the look in his eyes said it all. 'The past is past.'
Jade nodded then looked over at Daff who had watched the whole exchange with horror. 'This is what he's driving us to."
Wulf looked at Daff as he balled up his fist and slammed it down against the arm rest. None of them were in any real shape for any of this, but he needed to know exactly what had happened. He hoped that giving them something to focus on, something constructive, that they might be able to get a handle on their part in what happened.
"Why don't you all tell me what happened," Wulf urged them both.
"What's to tell?" Jade asked sadly. "I felt something and checked on it. Everything seemed normal until I checked on Felix" She stopped as the memories came flooding back. "I saw MindBender, he was just standing there. But somehow I knew he had done something to Felix. At least that's what I thought I saw, but when I hit him, it wasn't him. It was Felix..." she paused again then forced herself to continue. "And he was there, in my mind, laughing at me, telling me exactly how I'd failed the team. I'd shown him exactly where everybody was positioned. And I didn't see it coming. Everything looked normal."
Daff nodded in agreement. "I saw one of their snipers, next thing I know, I'm in the van and Merc's full of holes. Holes I put there..."
Wulf shook his head then plunged on. He didn't want to give them an opportunity to start wallowing in self pity again. Not when they had a much bigger problem at hand. "That means he's been able to get inside your heads, without physical contact. But why use you to take out Felix and Merc? And why not anybody else?"
"He tried," Gris answered slowly. "I tink, he want me to stop Lady Jade, knock her out. Make me see things crawling on her. Tell me I need to do something. But I know it not real, so I try to stop Daff instead."
Wulf looked at Gris as he tried to explain what he'd seen. "You knocked out the trio?"
Gris nodded. "Think so. Daff, he was hitting Merc, and if something could make him do that, ain't no big step to taking out Meri an' Ni. Didn't know how strong MindBender be. Maybe he make dem hurt each other. MindBender, he way too powerful now, but he stretch 'iself thin. Maybe that what help us, maybe it what get us kill't."
Wulf looked at them and shook his head. It was a sorry state of affairs when Gris seemed to be the one with a firm grasp of the situation. At least it was clearer that anybody else's in the team. "Gris," he asked softly. "Talk to me."
Gris caught the look in Wulf's eyes and nodded.
"Sometimes, it like I'm in his head," Gris answered softly. "Bender, it like he tune in on your frequency and then jam da signal. He want the Lady, use her own strength to break her."
Wulf nodded. It all made sense in an insane sort of way. Maybe that was why Gris could understand what was happening. He had the perspective to see that there was no real sense to it. They were all too busy trying to apply logic was there wasn't any. He needed Gris to put the right counter spin to things so they could get a grasp on what was happening. "Okay then, why take out Felix and Merc?"
"Merc, he half mage hisself. And Felix, he our safety net. He keep us all together. You our head, But Felix, he our heart. Cut out our heart, we die." Gris paused as he looked at Wulf and swallowed. "But dere's more boss. More dan anyting, he want you. He want you bad. Figure he take Jade and Daff, kill the rest 'a us, he got you right where he want you."
Wulf nodded as he realized the truth of the matter. "How long have you been able to tune in on MindBender?"
Gris shrugged. "This was the first time. Before, I get vague ghost images, like when da tuner's not quite right on da vid. This time I see what he do, I just do de same to him. I tink, Bender, he got someting broken inside, jus like me."
"No Gris," Wulf told him. "He's nothing like you."
Gris smiled at him then laughed. "Don' you believe dat boss, he just as messed up as 'ol Gris-Gris. An' twice as ugly."
Wulf laughed as he looked into Gris' eyes. The man was not as far off his mark as he tried to let on. He wondered, as he often had, what had happened that drove the Voodun to his current state, but as always, curiosity would have to wait. "Can you tune in on him now?"
Gris nodded. "Not for long, he hate ol'Gris, tink I ruin his fun. Next time, I tink he kill me first. Den he try to have his fun with d'rest a da team.
Wulf locked eyes with Gris. "Can you keep him out of your head?"
Gris met his gaze and nodded slightly. Sometimes his insanity had its advantages.