To Save a Child - the RP

Part 7

Thomas and Sahara moved from the bedroom. They looked refreshed from the short knap, but the worry was an ever present feature on their faces. "Does he know where my son is?" Thomas asked with a glimmer of hope.

Tal shook his head, reluctant to say the word 'no.' The couple nodded their understanding. It was Sahara who finally said she would converse with the man. "Perhaps he knows more the why, of Darren's abduction, Tom," she said as simply as possible. Tal could hear the hope in her voice, it was there along with the frustration. Her husband nodded, all the exhaustion that had been wiped away by his rest returning.

The magic-user turned and escorted the couple down the hall towards the living room where the others were waiting. Once at the end, and past the Escrimador, Sahara shot forward. "WHERE IS HE?!?!?!?!?" the woman shrieked launched herself bodily towards the newcomer. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HIM, YOU FRAGGING SLOT!?!?!?!"

By the time Sticks and Thomas were able to pull her from Ryuko, she had succeeded in drawing blood on his left cheek and across the left side of his neck. However, the man on the floor made no move to defend himself. Instead, he sat rock still and allowed the woman to attack. Meanwhile, Sahara's eyes blazed at him. "WHERE IS HE?!?!?" she shouted once more. Thomas had a hold of her now, and had no intention of letting her go.

"Calm down, honey. Please," Thomas seemed to be choking back some of his own frustration as well. It seemed that in this round, he would be the stone on which Sahara could depend on.

Ryuko stood slowly, making the move deliberate as to assure everyone in the room that he meant no harm. Particularly Sticks. Facing the Gillians, he bowed deeply eyes towards the ground. "I am Ryuko Eishin Omuri, I must first give you my apology for not finding you sooner. For this I will eternally be in your debt and can never be forgiven. But I will swear by my blood and the blood of my ancestors that I will do all within my power to see you and your son reunited."

There came a change over Thomas Gillian at that moment, his eyes shifted from worry to a determined gleam. "Why are you here? And what is this information you have for us?" he asked in a level tone.

"I have come to extend training to Darren Allain Gillian, training and protection with my House. He is a special individual, with one the brightest potentials in the magical arts. The offer is for your entire family."

"What do you mean by House? Is it some kind of cult?" Sahara asked with acid in her voice.

Ryuko neither missed a beat, or took offense. "No, Mrs. Gillian. We are a group, spanning several years in history dedicated to helping individuals like your son, Darren. This day and age has found our group in a larger amount of activity. There quite a number of corporations and other entities who desire your child and his abilities for their own ends."

"Isn't that why you want him?" Thomas shot.

"No, Mr. Gillian. This is your choice, and Darren Allain's. If it is not an arrangement you want, I am dedicated to staying with you the rest of my days to protect and assist your family. It is my path, and my honor."

"Do you know where our son is?" Thomas asked, the splinter of hope wedging its way into his mask of professionalism.

Ryuko bowed once more, face towards the ground in a form of self-disrespect. "I do not, Mr. Gillian. But I want to help in his return to the safety of you and Mrs. Gillian. And hopefully, if you decide, the safety of my Household."

Sahara sniffed a bit, wiping her tears away on her shirt sleave. "What would you and your group do to our son?" Her voice sounded hollow, compared to her earlier rage.

"My household only wishes to guide Darren in the uses of his abilities. They will manifest soon, if not already. Our intention is to teach him in their use, so that he does not become a danger to himself and those around him. The education extends to you and your husband as well. In this fashion, you will learn to accept him for who he is, not what he can do. There will be no fear to blind you to your son. That is our purpose. However, we cannot guide his path in life, that is up to him to decide how to use his abilities." He paused for a moment, glancing back and forth from husband to wife. "It is hard to believe my words, this I understand. I pledge my honor and blood on the truth of my words, and will do whatever it is necessary to offer you the comfort you need to accept them as truth."

Thomas nodded, his weariness hitting him in new waves. He looked to his wife, who nodded with a small smile. "I don't know why, I believe him." she said simply. Sahara looked towards Ryuko. "I am sorry...I didn't know what to do...I..."

The man only nodded. "I understand, and accept your feelings and reactions as the only things they are...reflections of your love and devotion for your son. There are no apologies necessary."

Thomas looked towards the rest of the group, then back to Ryuko. "I have stuck my foot in my mouth at the mention of money before, so if it comes up later...let me know." And with that, he led his wife to the couch and sat down.

Ryuko resumed his position on the floor and looked to the rest of the group and waited.

Sticks, initially highly insulted that the Gillians had ignored his protection to charge past him, shook his head and exhaled deeply. After a few cleansing breaths his rational side told him that the parents were so concerned about their child that they had not even recognized their danger. "Learn from the mistakes of others, my son" a voice said in the back of his mind and the teenager resolved to keep the people he was supposed to protect from getting the opportunity to put themselves in harm's way again.

Since it was apparent that Sanguri could have taken out both Gillians and had not done so, Sticks was less concerned about the Hwarang warrior's intentions. The teenager's reasoning saw that, in practacal terms, dead was dead and if Sanguri did not make the Gillians dead when he had the chance, he probably would not do so at a later time. He took the intruder's weapons/tools from his pockets and laid them on the table. He reholstered his own sticks and started to return to his perch when he realized he still had the box that Sanguri had left behind. He placed this on the table with the other equipment. The dim echo of his father's instructions caused the teenager to turn to Tal and Jess. Where they satisfied that their visitor was not a threat? Was it fair to leave again without explaining himself? Was he being as foolish as the Gillians had been in their haste and rushing when he should go slow? These thoughts caused the teenager to pause and see if wiser heads had other plans.

Annoyingly, the purring feline called Taco decided that part of its life mission involved head butting his ankle and was acting accordingly.

Jess looked at Tal briefly to verify that Ryuko was still speaking the truth. Having heard all he had to say, she felt even more annoyed with herself.

If the man were indeed true to his words then she was, as she said, indebted to him. There was no way of explaining how she felt. Relief that maybe there was hope, distrust, shame at the distrust, anger at herself for losing her cool? She didn't know.

Then she looked at Sticks, trying to read his feelings on the matter. In the end, neither man's opinions mattered in what she did next.

Picking up her kit, she knelt by Ryuko and nodded questioningly towards his wounds.

Ryuko bowed his head. "For reasons of my own council, I must decline your offer." he said simply. "As my wounds heal, so will the lessons learned join my mind."

That said, the Asian moved towards the table, rising in a smooth motion. Without words, he began slipping his weapons back in there places on his person. Lastly, his hand brushed the small cube shaped device that Sticks had wrested from the roof earlier. It was to Sticks that his next words were addressed. "It is an electronic scrambler. Designed to fool security systems into thinking they have not been penetrated. That is why the electronic lock on the skylight proved to be no problem."

Satisfied he had explained enough, he retrieved the device and returned it to a pouch inside his gi. In silence, he returned to his place on the floor. "What will you require of me?" he asked.

"I require that you not act like a fool." Sticks said. "Your injuries, though minor, are embarrassing to Mrs. Gillian, a distracting worry for Jess and a weakness that your opponents will seek to use against you. If you are working with us to protect the Gillians, it is a weakness that you add to our team. While the injuries are being seen to, you can explain how you found the Gillians here so we will know if we should expect others. My teammates may 'require' more."

Jess' eyes widened at Sticks' comments. She turned and gave him a questioning look. 'Is he really that annoyed?" she wondered.

She was interested in knowing how Ryuko had found them, but bluntness of Sticks' comments left her flat footed.

Tal got down next to Ryuko. "Ryuko-san, if you are to be cooperating with us, you must know that we might find ourselves once again in danger and needing to fight. Your being wounded could prove a liability to both yourself and us. Please--I can heal your wounds with magic, or Jess can tend them with her skills. Please allow us to do so."

Ryuko looked towards Sticks, his face as unreadable as ever. "I would not want the performance of my duty to be hampered in anyway, Angel Hidalgo Cabrales." There was a resonance in his tone, a tightness on his speech pattern that everyone in the room felt. It gave the impression that Ryuko was a coiled spring, held back by will. He turned his head towards Tal. "Since there should be no time wasted, I will offer no objections. I submit to your will Weaver. Heal my wounds, but do not tax yourself. I will do my best to lower my resistance."

Tal gave the man a look, ready to ask a question. Instead he proceeded with his Healing Spell, sending the mana into the Asian's body to knit together the damaged cells. As the mana began its work at Tal's expert direction, the elf noticed the strength of Ryuko's mind. The norm seemed to have a will cast of iron, causing Tal to do some extra work to get around it. Though he could tell that the asian was helping him with that fact. Interesting... he thought to himself.

The spell worked quickly, despite the extra amount of concentration. To Tal, it almost seemed like Ryuko's body was helping somehow. The impression Tal received, was that this warrior was some form of physical adept. As the spell came to a close, he made a mental note to ask the man about it sometime.

Ryuko sat quietly, waiting for what the group would do next.

Sticks felt the tension in the air without having any clue that his abrupt directness had been it's cause. Having requested information on how they had been found, the Escrimador waited for an answer, knowing that if one was not forthcoming then the Hwarang warrior must be playing a game of his own and therefore could not be trusted, whatever oaths he swore.

The Asian sat in silence for a time, making sure that there were no other concerns on the table before he launched into his explanation. Satisfied that there was none, he continued. Finding you was not that difficult. The Gillians are listed on the Net, something that my group, though full of tradition, is not adverse to using as a resource. I gained his address and arrived during the moment you were dropped off." The last was aimed at Sticks. "Seeing that the situation was not going to be as easy as a simple conversation, I returned to my transportation and reoutfitted myself in a nearby alley." Looking to the rest of the group, he continued. "From there, following the events was much more difficult. I felt that sudden action on my part to contact the Gillians may put them in more danger than was necessary. The swiftness of your group's actions did not leave much for me to work with. I had no idea of your intentions, and assumptions can kill. I followed your departure, doing my best since I was not able to get a functioning tracking device onto the vehicle you left in." Looking again towards Sticks, "The person that drove you was good, perhaps knowledgeable enough to avoid any other pursuit. I noticed no others, but I will not claim to be perfect and would be ready for anything."

Jess listened to Ryuko as he explained how he'd found them and nodded. "Did you see anything of our 'visitors' while you were waiting?" she asked

Jess listened to Ryuko as he explained how he'd found them and nodded.

"Did you see anything of our 'visitors' while you were waiting?" she asked

Jess nodded. "Actually I meant when you were waiting outside the Gillians," she prompted.

"I positioned myself on the roof of a neighoring building shortly after you arrived in the van. Since then, I saw no other intruders or possible threats," he answered to Jess. "However, I cannot think myself perfect. I found you using rudimentary skills. Someone else may be just as compitent."

Ryuko turned towards the Gillians. "I wonder if you have leads as to who may have abducted your son. Darren has latent abilities in mana that if tapped too early, could burn him out or cause him great harm."

Thomas held tightly to his wife, the two finding strength in their proximity. "Could he die?" Thomas asked, on the edge of tears.

The asian cast a look towards Tal. "He knows as well as I, that the danger is life threatening. That is why time is of the essence. My household was able to identify his abilities using a ritual. I should tell you that Darren promises to be one of the strongest wielders of magic in many years."

Sahara's eyes flared for a moment. "Could your house find him again as they did before?"

Ryuko shook his head. "Unfortunately, no. Somehow he has been masked."

Tal nodded. "What sort of rituals did you use in an attempt to locate him? Having some idea of the power of your own magicians might give us an insight into the level of masking we're dealing with."

Ryuko looked to Jess once more. "The only ones I saw were the group of black coats, corp men I would think that went in through the front door and the roof." Then nodding towards Sticks, "The car that dropped you off, left rather quickly under the fire of the building's automated defenses and never returned to the best of my knowledge." He looked towards the ground for a moment. "There was one vehicle that attempted chase when you left in the van. A Skimmer drone. I delt with it when it came in lower for a closer observation point. Other than that, no others that I could perceive."

He turned towards Tal, his face becoming a slight grimmer. "I am unfortunately not as skilled in the magical arts as my comrades. They are powerful, I do know that. Their ritual involves a the sending of their most powerful spirits in search of people like Darren Allain Gillian." There was a shift in Ryuko's posture, something that the group was able to pick up on. Regret, it seemed. Perhaps a sense of loss. The Asian brushed a palm over his face to move some hairs from the chrome of his eyes. "It is a beautiful thing to see," he said quietly.

"From what they tell me, the mask being used can only be provided by a ritual circle that has been in place for quite some time. It only reenforces my fear that the wrong people have custody of Darren Allain, the kind that know who he is and his potential."

Jess thought about the cars and was tempted to ask more about Sticks getting 'dropped off,'but there were more important questions to be asked.

"Ryuko-san," Jess asked, picking up on Tal's form of adressing their guest. "You didn't happen to get a plate on any of the vehicles in question did you?"

"The cars of the corp men, they had no identification that I could perceive. However, I did get a sight of the limo's registration," the last was aimed towards Sticks. "When they sped off I was able to read the VIN on their license plate." Ryuko seemed to change expressions, angeling his face towards the ground. It was as if he was looking at a far off place. "I was able to track the limo to a rental company. A source of mine went a step further and found it was rented to a Gambler Inc. I was unable to find anything out about that company other than they have an office in downtown Seattle near the Renraku district."

Jess studied Ryuko for a minute and then shook her head. "Is that all?" she asked sarcastically. She gave a slightly self derisive chuckle as she again shook her head. She was very quickly realizing just how serious the situation was.

Again Jess shook her head. It all tracked with what she'd seen. The Star didn't ignore people with money unless somebody with more money or power told them to.

Ryuko had shared some information with them, maybe he'd have some clues on what she'd found. She weighed her options then looked at the others.

"Do the letters 'LD' mean anything to you?"

Ryuko looked towards Thomas Gillian for a moment and frowned. "Landersham & Donovan? I believe that is the name of your accounting firm, Mr. Gillian."

Thomas nodded, the old rage that had reared its head earlier in the penthouse rising again in the it of his stomach. "Maybe they are behind it," he muttered. There was a stickiness to his voice that caused Sahara to hold her husband tighter. As if it would stop an exploding grenade.

Gauging Thomas for a moment, Ryuko continued. "Have you found anything that links his office to the abduction? If so, we may find information at Lankersham & Donovan." He paused for a moment. "However, I do not want to interfere with any of your plans. I am here to protect the Gillians and to assist in returning Darren to their custody."

Jess paused for a moment. "In the matrix, when I checked out your son's node," she stated first looking at the Gillians and then at Ryuko. "There was a construct there. It went to report to someone, I followed. It went into the LD node, but I'm not sure if that's where I ended up."

Jess took a deep breath and let it out again. "Whoever it reported to, didn't have Darren. They were looking for him."

Jess got a faraway expression as she remembered the bits of black IC the form had sent her way. "I think the limo might be a better bet, but I have a feeling I'm going to be needing some better hardware before this thing is over.

Thomas looked from person to person, his jaw set in a vise causing his neck muscles to tighten. "What can I do to help?" he almost whispered through gritted teeth.

Jess thought about everything they'd discussed and took a deep breath. "There's a lot we need to do," she admitted. "The big thing is finding out who all had contact and or information on your son. Think about the past several weeks. Any odd occurrences, tests at school, physical exams... anything like that. I'm afraid yours will be the hardest job. We need you to think back and let us know everything you can think of... and then you have to let us act on it. If somebody wants Darren badly enough, they may try using you to get to him."

Then she looked at the others. "We're going to need to pull our resources and see what we can come up with. I want to check for any similar disappearances...."

She paused as a thought crossed her mind. "Tal, according to Ryuko, who ever has Darren is shielding him, making locating him through magic, nigh impossible... what about finding some thing... try and locate something that Darren would have with him."

She turned towards the Gillians. "Is there anything that Darren would have with him no matter what?"

Jess looked around at the others to see what they would say. Finally she felt as if she was contributing to the group.

Tal sighed. "It depends on how they're shielding him. If they've got him behind some sort of ward, than chances are that anything he's got with him would be similarly warded. If Ryoko-san's group was unable to locate him, then I'm afraid that my efforts to do so would not be of much use--it's always easier to do ritual magic with a group. I'm certainly willing to try, though--perhaps if we can narrow down the possibilities for locations where he might be held, the mere existence of a ward could indicate a potential place for us to search." He shook his head ruefully, wishing that he could be of more help.

Thomas found the couch and sat down with his wife. "There is one thing that he's particularly attatched to. One of those snow globes? It's of the Seattle cityscape. He takes it everywhere he goes. Keeps telling me and Sahara that he's 'tied' to it." He stopped and looked towards his wife.

"As far as any appointments, we did take him to the doctor a month or so ago for chronic fevers. Our doctor told us that he was prone to allergies in the house, particularly cat dander and long haired dogs. We had to give away our cat to Thomas' brother in Chicago." She sighed, searching her memory for anything else. "Once we removed the cat and began the medication for Darren, his fevers stopped." Sahara looked to each person. "Does that mean anything?" she asked, a tremor of worry creeping into her voice.

Jess perked up at the mention of medicine for Darren's allergies. "Do you know what the doc prescribed?" she asked.

It was a long shot, but if he needed the meds, then that might give them something else to trace.

Sahara thought for a moment, but the instincts of a mother kicked in immediately. "Amoxycillin. It has a synthetic traces of the things he's allergic too. That way he can build up an immunity." She stopped and cast a worried glance towards Thomas for a moment, then looked back to Jess. "Do you think he'll be okay without it?"

"He should be fine without the meds," Jess assured Mrs. Gillian. "Uncomfortable, but it might just be distressing enough that whoever has him may need to reproduce it"

Jess thought for a moment then continued "Amoxicillin is an antibiotic, its common enough, but if it has specific items in it designed to build up his immunity, then they'd have to get that mix. It may be possible to find the exact mix information and then search the local drug companies for it."

Jess looked Sahara, not wanting to give her false hope, but not wanting to crush her hopes either. Jess knew how important hope was.

"Its another lead for us to follow, and right now, the more leads we have, the better."

*** *** ***

While Sticks listened to Jess' plan and tried to think of a way of contributing to the effort, Senior Lisama's cellphone began vibrating in his pocket. Alarmed at the unexpected sensation, Sticks' mind raced as he tried to think of who could be calling him.

Sticks opened the flip phone and waited for the caller to speak. "You there, Kid?" the voice of Woods came over the line.

"Yes," Sticks said simply.

"Time ta do some laundry. Think I could borrow your washer?" Translation: Time to meet, where can I meet you?"

"Mine's broken." The teenager responded immediately. "Maybe we could fix the old one behind your house. Take your time to decide."(translation: Need a new location to meet. Perhaps we could get together at Old Henry's fix-it shop near the precinct house? Two AM?)

"Sounds fine, I'll load up the laundry. See you there." And with that, the phone went dead. Sticks looked around to the group...

Sticks turned to his teammates and said "I may have some information. I have to go and meet my source. I will be back as soon as possible."

Hurrying down the stairs the teenager debated the wisdom of calling another cab and decided that the meeting location was close enough for him to walk. He set out down the seemingly empty streets but after six blocks he began to get the sensation he was being watched. Noting the graffiti in the neighborhood he decided that if this was gang related he's have to put an immediate stop to it before it escalated into something disastrous. If it was not gang related, if it involved the forces he was opposing in recovering young Darren, well, tomorrow was not promised to anyone. He stepped out into the middle of the street and with hands away from his body whistled four long notes. After perhaps 30 seconds of tomb-like silence a three note whistle came floating back. The teenager bowed, turned and continued his journey.

He turned into the block behind the 23rd precinct house just as officer Woods entered the alley alongside what had formerly been Harry's fix-it shop.

"Nice to see you, omae," Woods said, while pulling a cigarette in his mouth. Looking about the alley, he replaced the cancer stick in his pocket. Best to conserve the night vision. "You've got yourself in a nice pile of drek, kid. A nice pile," he muttered with a shake of his head.

Sticks gave the officer a steady look. There were times when the man could overstate, but it didn't look like this was one of those times. Woods pulled out a small rectangular object and pinned it to the lapel of his synth-leather finger-tip length coat, a white noise generator. "You seem to be pulling one of those capers that can make or break ya," he began, while still glancing about. His eyes were cops eyes, but they still had a hunted look to them. "I got as much as I could, but it seems that we've been locked out, full disconnection from the case. It was taken over by a private consulting firm that from what I can tell, leads back to Mitsuhama. Those guys have definately taken an interest in the Gillian kid, and they're comin' heavy. Even gone to the length of makin' sure none of the Star tells the family that we're no longer on the case." Woods paused to see if Sticks wanted to probe a bit before he continued.

The Escrimador could tell from the bitterness in the patrolman's voice just how much he resented the situation. "He hates that he is not able to do his job", the teenager thought, "but more than that, he is angry that his people are made to mislead the family by not telling them the truth. I must go carefully here. Mike's anger drives him to do what he can even if his own safety is at risk. He could be caught if he tries to make this his fight"

Looking the patrolman in the eyes, Sticks gave a single nod for his friend to continue.

"From what I can tell there's a number of groups looking for the kid. You need ta move fast, s'far as I can tell, there's a virtual bounty on the kid. I don't know who has him, but it isn't Mitsuhama. I woulda found that if they had." Woods glanced over his shoulder, hearing ahead of time the car that passed the alley mouth. Once it was gone, he turned back and continued. "There's a lot of people on the streets looking for this kid, Sticks. They want him in the worst way, and I don't think that if he's found by these yahoos, they'll know how to treat him. I don't know the kid, but I'd rather not see him hurt when he's so young he can't do anything about it." The sincerity in the officer's voice struck a chord with the young man. In the time he'd been connected with Woods, he hadn't seen him like this since the night of their meeting.

"There's one more thing I got. Gambler, Inc." He watched Sticks for a reaction. Finding none he forged ahead. "They seem to be one of the primary groups contracting get the kid. And they don't stand for competition." He searched Sticks' eyes for moment, like he was preparing to deliver some bad news. "Listen, son, there's word on the street that you've had a run in with the leader and her lackies. They seem to be the front runners in this race." Woods smiled sardonically and gave a mild :humph: "Actually, they're runnin' second. To who?" he shrugged. "I honestly don't know. It's like the boy disappeared...poof," he snapped his fingers, "gone. Nobody has any idea who nabbed him."

Sticks nodded solemnly, taking everything in to better analyze it later.

"I'll see what else I can dig up, but it's getting harder. There are only a limited amount of pukes who'll talk ta the likes of me. Any special requests, kid? I gotta get onto beat in another fifteen minutes."

"First, thank you for your help" Sticks said simply. "I would ask that you not put yourself at further risk in this matter, but I know you would not listen. As my father says, 'to protect the weak is the job of every good man'. So I ask that you be very, very careful with this." On reflection, Sticks continued, "It sounds as though we have grabbed a tiger by the tail. It's better than holding the part that eats, but only until the beast turns around." Seeing that the hardbitten cop actually smiled at his attempt at humor, Sticks revealed the plan he had been considering since leaving Jess' apartment. "I must discuss this with my team mates," he said, "but I think before the tiger turns we may want to remove some claws. Please consider how you would 'leak' my location to my...uh.. friends at Gambler, Inc. I will call you soon with a location." Holding out his hand for a handshake that incorporated both gratitude and farewell, the teenager said "Thank you, my friend".

"Sure, Sticks" Woods said as he was caught off guard by the younger man's sudden emotional intensity. "But, uh, maybe I could......"

"Mike, in spite of every problem, you uphold the law. It is your code. If you give up your code, even in a good cause, you will not be you. What I will do is outside the law. You cannot be of direct help." Sticks said with a conviction that was both absolute and compelling. He bowed and backed up, disappearing into the shadows of the alley.

Sticks considered his next move. The information from Woods, though not completely new, cast a brighter light on the situation. It was time to decide whether to return to the apartment, or to dig further.

Sticks headed back through the alley, working out the details of his plan for confronting Gambler Inc. He hoped the team would agree that eliminating one of the distractions might clear up the field of play and speed the child's safe return. He made good time back to Jess's apartment, but was particularly careful that he didn't "bring home" anything unintended.

The group sat about the living room going over what they knew so far. Ryuko had proven to be an asset in the information department. Now at least they knew why he was taken, if not by whom.

*** *** ***

As Tal considered their options, Jess stuffed her hands in her pocket once more. Inside, her hand brushed the chip that Sticks had been able to procure from his informant. The one that seemed to need a net connection to reveal its secrets. That, this Gambler, Inc and Darren's prescription were a some good potential leads. Perhaps Sticks would return with some information.

Thomas and Sahara sat on the couch, discussing anything that they might have forgotten...some hopeful clue that would lead to the recovery of Darren.

The group waited diligently for the Escrimador's return.

Jess pulled out her pocket computer and entered the information gathered to date. Adding the times and information that Ryuko had given them she had a much better idea of when things actually happened. The big question was did the big guns arrive after she and Tal had had their encounters and if so how long.

She knew she'd have to hit the matrix for the run, but she wanted to wait until Sticks returned.

'I have to remember to get his number,' she told herself.

"'Scuse me for a moment folks," she told them as she headed to the phone and began dialing. The first call was to information for the time. She smiled to herself. It wasn't too late to call...

She was surprised when her next call was answered by a woman. "Genna, hey, can you put PC on?"

"Jess!?" the woman asked. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Its only 2:30," Jess answered. "PC's probably only on his second run of the evening."

She could hear Genna's muttered curse as she handed the phone to PushCiti.

"Jess," he stated questioningly. "Exactly what have you gotten yourself into?"

"What do you mean?"

"I got the files you sent, they were followed by some pretty mean looking guard mockups... nothing I couldn't handle mind you, but not the sort you usually have to deal with."

"Tell me 'bout it," she answered. "Does the offer for the loaner deck still hold?"

PushCiti grunted. "S'long as it doesn't leave the city," he chided. "Course you could leave it up to the professionals."

"Where can I pick it up, PC?" Jess asked, her tone a step above warning.

"At the diner, just give me a 1/2 hour head start when you want it."

"Thanks," Jess answered. "See ya in an hour?"

She waited for his answer.

"Sure," he could hear the hesitation in his voice.

"I'll be careful," she promised. "You too."

She hung up quickly, there was too much else that needed to be done.

It took Sticks longer than he expected to return to Jess', not because he was actually observed, but because the teenager had taken Officer Woods' cautions to heart. Every street seemed to have an unusually high number of slow rolling, ominous vans. Every corner and alley seemed populated with particularly predatory street people. The Escrimador imagined himself a walking credstick, and acted as if the sight, smell, even his suspected existence was enough to incite an acquisitive riot among the streeters.

To enter Jess' brother's building Sticks climbed through a basement window in a neighboring brownstone, crept up the stairs to the roof and made a running leap across the alley which separate the two roofs so he could make his way down to the apartment unobserved.

Tal opened the door before he could knock.

Mindful of the young man's quick reaction speed, Tal stepped out of the way and motioned Sticks in. "Find anything?"

"Yes" the teenager said as he entered. "I will need to speak with everyone about what I've found and what I think we should do. Is Jess busy?"

As another thought struck him, the teenager held up his hand before Tal could respond and asked in a confidential tone "First, should we include Sanguri in the planning or just ask him to guard the Gillians? What do you think?"

Tal considered. "My feeling, after magical examination, is that he is trustworthy...however, he might well have his own agenda." Again he paused, then said slowly, "Given the choice, I would prefer to keep him where we can see him, wouldn't you?"

Jess excused herself when she saw Sticks enter the room. "Everything all right?" she asked.

Then nodded towards the door. "I'm going to have to see a man about a deck."

Sticks held up his hand, then immediately thought the better of it and mumbled "Wait, please, Jess." When he had the young woman's attention he quickly explained, "There is a great deal of attention on the streets direct at us. A great deal. We must either stay in hiding or.... uhm, I think I have a way that we can remove some of the heat that is after us. I mean I think we should look to ambush my friends from Gambler Inc. This might gain us information but would definitely lessen the pressure and perhaps make some people think twice about acting as beaters for the big game hunters. I have an idea, but I will need to fine tune it with both your abilities." Looking from Tal to Jess he asked, "Are you willing?"

Tal stepped forward, nodding. "I am. I'd much rather be doing something than hanging around here waiting for something to happen." He looked at Jess, waiting for her reply.

Jess thought for a moment then nodded. "I was serious about needed to get the deck," she told Sticks, a mischievous smile playing across her face. "And we may be able to use that to our advantage. All it would take is a few 'slips' in the right places and they'll be able to find me... "

She paused as she realized exactly what she was saying. "If you think you can provide the necessary cover."

She took a deep breath let it out slowly.

Sticks, initially intending to reject Jess's suggestion out of hand because it meant putting a woman at risk, bit his tongue. After a few minutes consideration he said, "I intended to be the 'bait' myself, and if you like, I will do it, but I think your plan may be more clever. My friends will come after me with guns drawn, but they might seek to tempt you first, as they did with me. We could take advantage of their sloppiness if they tried this, but there is great danger. Please think about the risks. These are very bad people."

Jess drew a deep breath and winked at Sticks. "I know," she assured him then looked from Sticks to Tal, holding them both in her gaze. "But to be honest... I figure you two can protect me a lot more than I can protect either of you."

"Economy of motion really," she added as she looked around. "And since I need to go out to get a few things, and some info, it only makes sense..."

"Very well." Sticks said. "We will need to act together for this to work. Tal, there is a magic user on the other team. If you can put her to sleep or keep her out of the first few minutes of the battle, I will be able to help as soon as we've stopped the samurai. Jess, you will need to be the focus, er... decoy, so that I can surprise the ork woman." Counting off his fingers, the teenager said, "First, keep your head down, second, get their attention as their goal, not as a target, third, I will take care of the ork sam, but if the pair have any backup I haven't seen, I will need you to keep them busy until I'm done." Taking a deep breath Sticks looked at Jess with great intensity as he said, "This is for real. Gambler Inc. will not be a factor when we are done. Blood and death for them so that the child comes back safe. You understand that we play for keeps, neh?"

"You two are not people who plan death for others" Sticks said, addressing his teammates, "but, there is need here. I know that unless we reduce the forces that face us, finding the child will not bring him safety. We must eliminate those who threaten the child." After another deep breath the Escrimador said, "I think Sanguri should defend the parents while we work. I do not know him or trust him as I do you. He has honor, but he serves another master."

Concluding, Sticks said, "I have done this before. It is not pleasant. If anyone cannot or has a better plan, please speak. Once we start, this is something we will need to finish."

Jess took a deep breath as she thought about what Sticks had said. As she let it out she met his gaze and spoke from her heart.

"Sticks," she stated. "I hired on for a missing persons case, I've already told you, I can take care of myself, but I'm not a very good choice for protecting someone. I can't change that, that's what I am." She smiled then looked around.

"I believe in meeting force with like force and that life is worth preserving. Sometimes, in saving a life, it becomes necessary to take a life. And if its a choice between our lives and these people... well," she paused then shook her head. "They've made their descion."

"I'm ready to do my part," she assured him, she knew from his tone of voice that these people had already stated their... possition on the matter. "But, I have to meet a friend and make sure he's clear before this gets out of hand. He has no part in this and he'll be very upset if I get him killed." She looked at him hoping he'd understand her next request. "His safety first, then mine."

Sticks nodded his acceptance and turned to Tal for his reaction

*** *** ***

PushCiti waited out front of the diner, checking angles and anything else that might be out of the ordinary from behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses. The cigarette on his lips was nearly to the filter as he waited for Jess to arrive. A quick hand checked the bag slung over his shoulder, not too wary don't want to advertise.

The clouds far above still threatened to let loose with more water, or whatever you called fell from the skies these days.

Jess stuck to the shadows and pathways she knew, watching for anything out of the ordinary. Like she told Sticks, the last thing she wanted was to bring any of this down on PC.

Once she was sure she hadn't been followed and that the others were in position, she aproached her old friend.

"Hey cutie," she called softly. There was a hint of a laugh in her voice. "come here often?"

PC smiled at Jess, relief appearing in his eyes for a brief moment. Just as quickly it was gone and he was back to his old self. "Now you better watch that before the old lady hears you," he said with a chuckle of his own. Without any further words, he nodded towards the diner and went inside. Jess followed, giving a quick signal that all was well.

Inside, the two took up residence in a booth towards the back. Once the waitress was gone, PC took the bag from his shoulder and placed on the table in front of Jess. "Hope this helps," he said simply.

Jess gauged him quickly, he was wearing those same black shades he always did on a caper...she would be willing to bet that his eyes were constantly sweeping the restaurant and the outside street.

"Yeah, I know," she told him. "Sorry to bring this down on you," she added. She was not used to endangering her friends and she didn't like it at all. "It's already at 7 margaritas and a whole boat load of aspirin, and something tells me it hasn't even begun... "

She looked up as the waitress returned with two cups of tea. "Thanks," Jess said with a smile. As the waitress wandered away, Jess scanned the area behind PC, then focused on him again. "I've got some advise to ask as well... I'm pretty sure your first suggestion will be ignored,"

He lowered his glasses and studied her over the top of them. "The one where I tell you to get out?"

She nodded "That's the one. so lets just move on to number two: I need to trick something into thinking it's got a matrix connection so I can find out where its going... "

Thus ends the story as played.
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