Merc listened to the conversation and shook his head. One of their people had been hurt trying to rescue him. That didn't sound like something even Briar's people would be willing to tolerate. Every time the second man spoke, a chill went down his spine. The voice was Fen's, but the speech pattern was all wrong.
He was startled when the first man came back in and tossed him a set of hospital scrubs. "I don't have time for games," the man told him. "You want to leave on your own fine. I've got a man down, and he gets first priority."
"What's your name?" Merc asked as he shook out the scrubs.
"Finagle," the man answered.
"I'll help you out of here, that's the least I owe you. We'll see after that." he stated as he looked at the remains of the door. "You got a plan?"
"My plan didn't involve this little side trip," Finagle answered bluntly. "It definitely did not involve Boomer getting hurt."
Merc was dumbfounded. If this was a trap, then wouldn't they be doing everything in their power to make him feel obligated. Instead, the man was here telling him that the rescue hadn't been his decision, that he didn't care what Merc did as long as it didn't interfere with their getting their man taken care of.
At least the man was up front about that. He found himself wondering about his own team, but knew better than to ask. It was bad enough he was at risk right now, he'd never forgive himself if he let something happen to them. He prayed they had the sense to leave him at the hospital, and hoped they were alright, especially the boss.
"I'm going to need a gun," he stated evenly, as he stepped into the pants and pulled them up. "Two if you can spare them."
Finagle nodded as he took mental note of the man's shopping list. "Get dressed, we'll see what we can get for you," the man offered, then went back into the hall.
Once he'd finished dressing, Merc followed Finagle out of the room. He smiled when he saw the doc laying on the ground, but it quickly turned to a snarl when he felt the magic that bound the doc to the injured man. He could almost taste the power of the spell as it drained the other man to feed the soul that had already left this plane.
As he followed its path, he felt the force on the other end, drawing strength from the power it absorbed. When his mind brushed its, Merc pulled back in horror. The Briar was feeding.
A third man was kneeling by the injured man. Merc could feel the magical pull as he tried to break the spell, but he could also feel Briar feeding on his energy as well.
"I can't break it without killing Boomer."
Merc could hear the frustration and anger in the man's voice, Fen's voice.
That didn't make sense: Fen was no mage. He watched as the first man, Finagle knelt beside the man and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Kenny, we can't stay here."
"And I can't leave my brother!" 'Kenny' countered angrily.
When he turned to speak to Finagle, Merc gasped, "Fen?"
His face looked so much like Fen's Merc forgot himself for a moment. Then his senses went into overdrive. The Briar would suck them dry, and, failing to use them, would use their powers instead.
The real danger wasn't his supposed rescuers as he previously thought. They were genuine. It was the doc's spell. And the longer it was allowed to feed, the stronger it got. It was probably how Briar had hooked the doc in the first place.
"STOP!" he yelled. When Finagle and 'Kenny' turned he stared at them for a minute. "The spell is siphoning off any energy you direct at him. Think about it, the doc is dead. If the spell were truly his, it would have ended with him."
They stared at him in shock until 'Kenny' nodded slowly. There was no mistaking the horror and rage in his expression. It was so much like Fen's but he could see the difference too. 'Fen but not Fen,' he thought to himself.
Then he saw a smile play across the man's lips. Fen-not-Fen, was up to something.
Merc felt the healing power of the man's spell as he pushed it through the magic that bound his friend, to the doc. Then, instead of turning his power towards the injured man, he pushed it back, feeding it through the spell to its source. The spell, which was designed to feed on the power of an unwilling victim, couldn't handle the excess power forcing its way through. The overload caused it to collapse in on itself.
Mercury could feel the sudden surge as the vacuum was filled with what remained of 'Kenny's' spell. As the force dissipated he watched his rescuers closely.
Kenny felt the difference almost immediately. Boomer's vitals were still weak, but now at least he was stable enough to work on. As he stretched out his senses, he could feel the power lines in the next room. The power there was strong enough that he would be able to restore Boomer completely without draining what remained of his own strength.
He began a cursory check on the source of the power. When he found it, Kenny's stomach churned. It was the same power that had grabbed his mind earlier. The power was still there, still hungering for more. All it lacked was something to direct it. That room would never be useful to save lives. The power there fed only on death and pain.
He made sure Boomer was stabilized before casting a spell that would keep him that way until they were away from the room and the presence.
When he was done, he looked over at Finagle. "He's stable, but we have to get him out of here. That room..."
"I know, I can feel it," Finagle told him. "You good to go?"
Kenny looked at Boomer one more time and nodded. "Any ideas on how we're getting out of here?"
"Same way we came in," Finagle answered as he checked his weapon.
"You want me to throw up on another security team?" Kenny asked sarcastically.
"You what?" the doc's 'victim' asked in disbelief.
Kenny looked at him in confusion. "And you would be?"
"Sorry," Finagle said. "Kenny, this is Mercury. Mercury, Kenny. Sniper, Doc."
"Who are you?" Mercury asked again as he stared at Kenny.
"Kenny," he answered slowly, unsure of the man's response.
"No, what's your name?" Mercury demanded.
Kenny looked at him for a minute and then shook his head. "Me Kenny, Him brother Boomer," Kenny stated as he pointed towards Boomer.
The man was still staring at him in disbelief. "No, who are you?" he demanded again cryptically.
Kenny turned to Finagle. "Rabbit couldn't be here tonight, so today the roll of crazed sniper will be played by Mercury..."he muttered to Finagle as they exchanged startled looks.
Finagle shrugged. "Don't look at me," he objected.
"Mercury, right?" Kenny asked as he looked at the man. "You're probably a bit disoriented, that's understandable. But right now we need to move out," when he saw that he wasn't getting through, Kenny started again. "Look, my name is Kenny Wilson. That's my brother Boomer, he's been hurt and the longer we stay here, the worse things are going to get."
Mercury for his part continued to stare at Kenny. When he looked at Boomer the pieces started to fit together. Kenny and his brother looked nothing like each other. From the looks of things they didn't even share a common race, let alone ancestor between them. Then there was their last name: Wilson.
The military was full of Wilsons and a band of them were all part of one of the tightest knit families he'd ever seen. Tight, and yet not one of them was related to another: all but one having been adopted... He'd served with several members of the family, and he'd known of a sniper named Derrick, Derrick Wilson. Working under the call sign of . 'MadRabbit' he had been one of the best snipers to go through 'The School'. Rabbit had a reputation as the crazed sniper...
Then the final piece fell into place: Kenny himself. He remembered Fen telling him once about his brother Kenny, and how they looked so much alike, but that he'd been kidnapped. He said that Kenny was dead, but what if he was wrong. What if Kenny was just lost? That made more sense.
"Kenny," Mercury stated as he locked eyes with him. Looking in those eyes, he saw the answer before he asked the question. "You weren't always who you say you are, were you? Stromburg… Kenneth Stromburg. You're Fen's brother Kenny aren't you?"
Kenny looked at him in shock. "Strom..." the name went off like a bell inside his head as everything from before the terror came rushing back. His mother, his father, his brother. "Fen?... Geffen?... Alive?..."
Mercury looked at him and nodded. "At least he was. Briar took him last night."
Kenny sagged. The news, Boomer's state, it all came crashing down around him. "Why now?"
"It's like Serpent said we're in for a lot of heart ache," Finagle told him. "Just hang on till we get out of here."
Kenny nodded as Finagle grabbed a Gurney and together they hoisted Boomer onto it.
'Do what you can when you can,' he thought to himself, all the while he was screaming inside.
"Cover me," Finagle stated as he leaned against Kenny. They were ready to roll, but without a little snooping around, they'd have no way of knowing what lay in waiting for them.
The guards were on alert, but there was nobody outside the scrub room. The first step would be to put some distance between them and the O.R. After that they'd have to see about getting out of the hospital, but at this point they had to deal with one thing at a time.
As he looked around, he saw no threats other than the security details that were already there. He thought about the converging signals and realized that he had been correct when he surmised that the forces were targeting the fourth man in the Wilson's van. He wished he could ask Boomer about it, but short of scanning him, there was no way of finding out, until he regained consciousness.
Then he felt another power searching for them. 'Damn' he swore to himself. 'Corps brought mages.' He slipped from the astral before they caught sight of him.
Finagle let his breath out as he forced himself to concentrate on the here and now. "Corps got mages with them, won't be long before they find us," he warned.
Kenny shook his head. Tactics may not have been his strong suit, but certain things the drill instructors pounded into his mind, and one of them was how to mask the troop's movements from 'scrying eyes'.
"Okay, they're going to be looking for certain things," Kenny stated as he tried to remember everything they'd need to know. "The more mages you have in one area..."
"The bigger the signal," Merc stated with a nod. "But when you have a big signal, it's hard to spot an individual."
Kenny looked up at Mercury and nodded approvingly. The man was definitely military.
Finagle looked from Kenny to Mercury and shook his head. "I take it you two have both had some of the same classes."
"Looks like," Kenny answered. "Problem is striking a balance."
"We need to give them a big enough signal that they can't help but notice," Mercury added as he looked at Finagle. "Yet one that lets us move about unnoticed."
"In other words we give them a big enough target to distract them, and then we move," Kenny finished then turned to Mercury. "I take it since you know this, you also have certain talents?"
Mercury shook his head. "Nothing that's really useful. I know when something's going on, and I can usually tell when somebody's running magic down on me."
"Finagle, you play well with others?" Kenny asked.
"Sure, but usually it's just my team," the man countered.
Kenny smiled at him as an idea started for form. "Can you get them to start 'Looking' for us?"
Finagle shook his head uncomprehendingly. "Wouldn't that just increase our chances of getting caught?"
"Not really," Kenny stated with a nod. "The more people you have looking in a confined area, the more likely they are to be tripping over each other and the better chance we have of slipping through the cracks."
"So they'd be providing the 'something big' you were talking about?"
"I thought you said you weren't a tactician," Finagle smirked.
"This ain't tactics," Merc growled. "This is survival."
"I'll see what I can do about reaching them."
"Matt," Finagle called over the comm-unit.
"I'm sorry, but Matt has been relieved of duty," a strange voice calmly announced. "If you would be so kind as to surrender yourselves now, I'm sure we can make sure no one else gets hurt."
Finagle cut off the radio and tossed the receiver aside. "They're on to us," he hissed. "They got Matt. That means they've effectively isolated us.
"Great," Mercury growled.
"And there's nobody else you could contact?" Kenny asked.
Finagle shook his head. "Matt was it, looks like we're on our own."
"Great," Kenny swore as he tried to think of another avenue. All he knew was going back into O.R. 7 was out of the question.
"Look," Mercury stated. "You all can do what you want, but there is no way I'm going to surrender. They're as bad as the Doc back there, maybe worse. You may not want to hurt these people, but they sure as hell won't mind hurting you, or anybody who stands in their way. They think they can control it, but they'll end up its slaves just like everybody else."
Kenny nodded. "You're right," he admitted in disgust. He paused as he tried to weigh his options then looked at Boomer. He needed time to heal him, but odds were Aerocom's security detail was already closing in. Worse he realized, if Aerocom did get their hands on him or Boomer, Briar would have free run of Backer Brother Ops as well.
He bowed his head. The family had to come first. If it came down to a choice, he knew what the decision had to be. He looked worriedly at the others, unsure how to express his thoughts.
"Don't worry," Mercury stated as he caught Kenny's gaze. His voice was gruff, but he could feel the underlying concern. "If it comes to that, it won't have any of you, I'll see to that."
Kenny looked at him and nodded. "Thanks," he stated as he looked around the room. They had to do something before it came to that. A smile played across his face as he focused in on the laundry chute. "But I don't think that's going to be necessary."
"You want us to do what?" Finagle asked incredulously.
Kenny just smiled at him and pointed to the chute. "It's the old slide down the laundry chute and escape through the steam tunnels routine," Kenny told him.
"You've watched too many trids," Finagle countered. "That trick never works."
"And neither does the 'wait here until the bad-guys find us' routine," Kenny offered. "This can and will work."
"How are you so sure?" Finagle asked.
"I've worked here," Kenny reminded him. "The laundry room's in the basement. Steam tunnels are right there. It's not the most pleasant of places under the best of circumstances, but right now, it beats the alternatives."
"That's a three story drop," Finagle complained as he looked down the chute.
"Look," Kenny told him. "It's either this or hide in the rafters and pray you can hold a shield long enough for them to move on. And even if you did avoid them, you'd still have to contend with what's in that room."
Finagle looked at him as he weighed the options. "I still don't like it," he grumbled.
"It's not for you to like," Kenny stated. "It's the only way," he added softly.
"What about him?" Mercury asked as he nodded towards Boomer.
"We can make a rope out of sheets and lower Boomer down," Kenny answered. "I'll go first and guide him down from there."
"I'll take the rear," Mercury assured him. "Make sure everybody gets out," he added as he looked over at Finagle who was still shaking his head at the whole idea. "Look monkey-boy," he growled at Finagle. "It's the only way out, so deal with it."
Mercury grabbed some sheets and started stripping them so they could be braided into a rope as Kenny tried to rig something to use to slow his descent. Once he'd wrapped his arms with some bandages he gave Boomer one last check.
"Wish me luck," he stated as he started to ease himself through the opening of the chute.
"You're really doing this," Finagle asked in disbelief. "Even after everything you've been through?"
Kenny looked at him and nodded. "We've got a job to do," Kenny answered. It was all he needed to say. 'Do what you've got to do.'
Finagle nodded. "I'll be right behind Boomer," he assured Kenny.
"Good, cause I'm not planning on holding the fort any longer than necessary," Mercury told him.
That settled Kenny started his almost controlled slide to the basement. The padding on his arms provided him a slight cushion that slowed his fall slightly when he used it to push against the sides of the chute. His pulse quickened as everything became a dark blur as the walls disappeared from around him. He'd forgotten that the chute ended in the ceiling area of the basement. He landed with a solid thump as the air was knocked out of him, the small pile of laundry barely cushioning him. As he caught his breath he looked around and found a hamper that was filled with sheets. He positioned it underneath the chute as the others started to lower Boomer down the chute.
He forced himself to breathe. Boomer's descent was at least more controlled than his own had been. A few minutes later, he was untangling his brother from the make-shift ropes. Once he'd cleared Boomer from the ropes and gotten him out of the way, Kenny pulled up another cart and tugged on the rope.
He heard the thundering roll followed by swearing, as Finagle began his own descent.
Mercury watched as Finagle started into the chute. As he did, he felt the all too familiar tingle of magic as the Corp's team of mages started to scan their area. "Move it," he growled. "They've all but found us."
Finagle looked at him for a minute, then closed his eyes as he grabbed a hold of the rope and began climbing down. Mercury winced as the rope went slack and Finagle's swearing reached a crescendo.
He untied the make-shift rope and dropped it through the chute. The mages were closer now, there was no mistaking it. He'd waited as long as he dared.
Mercury dove into the chute head first, praying that Kenny had managed to get the others out of the way and get something soft under him. With the mages as close as they were, he didn't bother trying to slow his descent. Either he made it, or he died, either way, they weren't taking him back.
Three seconds later he found himself hovering mere inches from the ground, as one of his companions cushioned his fall magically. "Can it," he growled as he stretched his arms out to keep his head from crashing to the floor.
At his request, the spell was canceled, leaving the majority of his weight supported by his hands.
As he came down from the handstand, Mercury started looking around as Kenny started unpacking his brother's weapons supply.
"How much lead do we have?" Finagle asked.
"They were almost on me when I jumped," Mercury informed him. "Hopefully the levitation spell wasn't around long enough for them to notice.
Kenny shrugged as he started handing out weapons. "Couldn't be helped," he announced as he handed Mercury a pair of pistols.
Mercury turned in surprise as Kenny then handed a shotgun to Finagle. Then he looked at Boomer's stock pile.
"He plan on using all this?" Mercury asked in astonishment as he looked over Boomer's weapons stash.
"Well, Boomer always likes to bring a few extra party toys, just in case somebody needs something. He hates surprise parties," Kenny quipped.
Mercury shook his head as Kenny pointed the way towards the steam tunnels. "We're going to have to head that way," he stated. "It's the wider branch, which means they'll find it easier, but with Boomer in his current state, there's not much else we can do."
"Then lets move it," Mercury stated as he took point.
"I'll take the rear," Finagle added as Kenny fell in between them, wheeling Boomer in front of him.
Justin hugged himself as his mother rocked back and forth. When he'd arrived, he'd told her everything. He tried to reassure her that they would find Fen and that everything would go back to the way it was, but there was no reaching her.
"My babies," she groaned as she continued to rock back and forth. "My beautiful babies... all gone..."
"Momma," Justin called, trying to reach her again.
"Just like before," she wailed. "Just like before..."
The pain in her voice made Justin cringe. He had never heard his mother so inconsolable. Even when his father had died, she had been the pillar of strength. When he'd arrived home, she'd yelled at him. 'Where had he been, why hadn't he called...'
Then he made the mistake of telling her everything. She'd listened, and when he finished a look of haunted terror had come into her eyes. 'Not again,' that was what she said. And then she'd started rocking.
'What did she mean, 'not again'?"
"Momma," he called but she just kept rocking.
Ian forced himself upright as the van came to a halt and Rabbit cut the engine. "No matter what happens, stay here," Rabbit told him, then headed towards a phone booth.
Ian watched as Rabbit entered the booth, picked up the phone and dialed. A minute later he hung up the phone without saying a word. He stood there staring at the phone then exited the booth.
Instead of heading back for the van, Rabbit walked into the corner store and walked up to the counter.
Ian felt something familiar as several men detached themselves from the shadows and gathered around the store. He held his breath as Rabbit passed through them as if he hadn't even seen them. He walked back to the booth, but one of the men pushed his way into the booth and picked up the receiver.
Rabbit waited patiently as the man hit three keys on the phone and paused. Ian wasn't sure what was going on, but it had every earmark of either trouble, or perhaps a ritual? A signal, he realized. Rabbit had identified himself somehow, and now it was being verified.
As he waited the man in the phone booth nodded at the others then went back to the phone. One by one they drifted away, leaving only Rabbit and the man on the phone.
When the man hung up, he muttered something to Rabbit then bumped into him as he passed by. Rabbit scowled at the man then went back into the booth. He made another call, talked this time. When he was done with his call he returned to the van and started the engine.
Once they had moved several blocks away, Rabbit pulled a piece of paper out of his pocked and read the instructions on it.
"Rabbi's got some problems," Rabbit told him. "So we're going to have to do some things that are going to seem really bizarre."
"More bizarre than what we've already been through?" Ian asked softly. "Who were those people any way?"
"Sushi Ninja," Rabbit explained tersely. "They work out of a restaurant nearby. Mostly they work as couriers, but they have their own business to attend to as well."
Ian shrugged. There was nothing else to say.
It had been a long tense night as the convoy of decoy vehicles wound its way around the city, then headed east. They'd made it halfway to Atlanta without incident, but the trip was far from over.
Bear touched the gas as he looked in the rearview mirror. The Ford behind him hesitated a minute then matched his new speed.
"You got something?" Geoff asked worriedly from the passenger's side.
Bear nodded. "Looks like we've had the same three trading off on following us," he answered. "There's the Ford that's there now, a van and a racer… been seeing them for about an hour now."
Geoff nodded. "Well, hopefully that means they took the bait."
"Have I mentioned how little I like playing me in a shooting gallery?" Bear asked stoically.
Geoff smiled and let out a hefty sigh. "You've been hanging out with Duck too long," Geoff informed him as he picked up the radio.
"Seven, Seven." he called into the radio.
"Seven, One," came the answer on the other end.
"Go to One-niner-niner," he answered back.
Bear looked at him for a minute as he tried to place the codes, then shook his head. "You aren't really saying anything, are you?"
"Not really," Geoff admitted. "Breaks in radio silence mean we may have something. Their answer means they saw it too. Anything other than that, we leave as an exercise to the tail's imagination."
Bear looked at him for a minute then noticed the worry behind the air of indifference Geoff liked to project. "Want to talk about it?"
"Not much to say," Geoff countered. "Davy's left himself in the most vulnerable position again, and Joey's right in there with him."
Bear nodded. Of all the Wilsons, Davy and Geoff were the ones that tended to take the biggest risks in defending the other members of the family, and Joey was too much like both of them for his own good. He refrained from reminding Geoff that his part in their current scheme could be construed as the most dangerous. He knew it wouldn't help anyway. They had a job to do, and a lot of people were counting on them. Once again, he found his thoughts turning to Duck.
"There were so many things he'd wanted to say to her, but they never seemed to have the time. Now she was out there, somewhere in the city, alone. He laughed at himself on that one. Duck, was many things, but helpless was never one of them. As for being alone, Tracker was with her and Bear knew Tracker would take good care of her in spite of herself. Still, he wished he'd talked to her.
He kicked himself mentally as he looked in the rear-view again. The Ford had been replaced by the van, but they were still being followed.
'Plenty of time for what ifs when people's lives aren't in danger,' he told himself as he scanned the other's locations. 'We'll talk when this is over, no more putting things off,' he promised himself.