They cleared the side rooms along the twisting and turning corridors of the west hall like a swiftly breaking wave. Team members broke apart by two or three at a time. Breach-left, breach-right, again and again in sequential bursts of practised motion and grim expectation.
Caution necessarily overrode greater speed, which was precisely why Beckett had suggested the downstairs route instead. It only took one length of hallway to confirm the aged corridors weren't going to accommodate stealth. Every other plank was warped and groaned. What sounds the storm capably swallowed up were betrayed instead by trickles of dust and grit disturbed by their passage which sifted down through the imperfect joints of floorboards and tiles.
Anyone below would know precisely where they were.
Each inward swing of the portals along their path confirmed they were alone upstairs, while every inner facet of the Teeth of Seven Sorrows thus explored provided trifles of exposition for a story over six decades dead. One room was piled centrally with discarded hardcover books, a hundred of them or more. The mound of dusty tomes elicited a rigid halt. For a moment, Beckett's breath was locked within her lungs. Thank goodness the room was unoccupied, because the sight was a deadly distraction, as good as a slap in the face for the obvious association it bore to the author elsewhere on North Brother's back.
Are you safe? Am I already too late?
The desperation clawing against the inside of Kate's chest was becoming untenable.
They moved urgently on, soon reaching the merger of the lateral main hall at a widening corridor, essentially a spacious rectangle that must have once served as some kind of lounge or recreational area for patients. Several fat, rounded columns braced the open space. They still clung to most of the white paint which the bordering walls had shed. Natural light intruded at the windows on the south-facing wall, locked behind rusted wire security mesh. One of the barriers had fallen from its assigned portal and lay uselessly in a pile of dead leaves. The howl of the wind and the slanted lash of rain made for a daunting show. The storm's ferocity had increased significantly over the past hour, a detail that had been easy to miss during the firefight. A booming peal of thunder occurred, startling the detective badly.
"That's somewhat disquieting," Hawkins murmured. The angle of his attention towards the windows painted the lenses of his glasses into opaque pools of reflected light. "Hurricanes aren't supposed to produce lightning." No one thanked the man for bestowing that piece of trivia.
At the inner corner where both halls converged, the mouth of a staircase gaped. It bent solidly in descending, hardwood turns towards the first floor, looking infinitely more appealing than the revolving, cast-iron traversals utilized elsewhere. The scent of its rotted layer of carpeting was detectable as muskier notes nestled among the general miasma of decay.
"I'm all turned around," Bielsa admitted. "Is there an exit at the bottom?"
"No," Eamon answered from a short distance away. He was covering a pair of east entrances to the area with Ulan. "But the corridor below is a straighter shot through to the foyer."
"A perfect 'S' would be a straighter shot than this level," Hoffman grumbled lowly. That wasn't overdramatizing the confusion perpetrated by the Teeth's architecture. It if hadn't been for the guidance of Eamon's compass, they could've easily made a couple wrong turns en route.
Close by, on the first floor below, someone sneezed violently.
The reaction of the group was immediate. They folded up like a single mechanism, bristling outward with Lanie and Joseph at their core and with their weapons covering left, right, pointed down over the banister towards the source of the disturbance, and at the bend of the upstairs landing in case they'd somehow been flanked from above.
"God bless you," Logan called down, the wiseass.
Someone muttered, "Nice one, mate." Then, a second later, the same voice called more audibly, "Hello? Are you doing okay up there? Is there anything we can get you? Munitions? Bodybags?" The guy's accent sounded British, but it was light as if trained to a dimmer shine.
"We're members of the NYPD," Bielsa called down angrily. "Do you idiotas understand the fucking war you started today?"
A low whistle sailed up through. "A woman? Dibs. That's mine first."
Bielsa turned, tapping shoulders to acquire attention and then directing the team with a series of silent gestures, each in turn. The message was simple enough to not need words. "Come and get it," the Sergeant said icily while directing everyone, "if you got the cojones."
"You'll see them soon, you foul-mouthed little cunt. We're gonna have a good time, we are."
Lanie gave a quiet, muffled moan. Beckett reached out and felt the other's hand grasp hers tightly. She tried not to focus on the slipperiness of Agent Greene's blood which still coated the M.E.'s fingers. She attempted not to entertain the idea of an enemy force turning into a violent gang of rapists. Most of all, Kate fought to keep at bay the thought of her wayward shadow encountering men like those below. The speaker was unflinchingly cavalier. Remorseless. And the way he'd chosen the improper pronoun while referencing Bielsa—'that' instead of 'she'. It implied very bad things.
"Get off this island," Beilsa commanded evenly. "All of you. While you can. Use the headstart to find somewhere to lay low that doesn't have extradition."
Lane's grip tightened as much from the sudden lack of engagement as it had amidst the disgusting dialogue. Kate used their bound grasps to help pull the other woman back to her feet and situate her more squarely behind the column at which they stood. There was nothing she could say to put those frightened eyes at ease. Thankfully enough, her besty wasn't one to easily fold. The battering of recent events had exacted their toll and it wasn't meager damage, but the dark-skinned woman kept her footing steadily, ready to move.
"We've discussed the situation," the stranger from below called out, sending everyone back to rigidity where they stood. "And we've come to a consensus. The rule of 'dibs' firmly applies. I wanted you to know. It will be you and me. Oh, baby, I want you to enjoy it, too. While you can," he added mockingly. "My friends here—they're the worst. Not a gentleman among them."
"Yeah, I've seen what you and your boys like to do. Real tough, torturing people while they're tied up. Mostly women, too. Que pasa, tough-guy? Your mamas didn't hug you enough? Did the girls in school catch a glimpse of your equipment and give a giggle? How did you go so wrong?"
"I'm not huge," the guy below admitted with a laugh. "But you'll feel me, baby. I bet you'll remember it as a little piece of heaven after the others have had their turns tearing you."
Bielsa guffawed. "Poor choice of words. I don't think you've got enough between the lot of you to tear through wet tissue paper. Come show me what you got, little boy. Don't be shy."
A stirring animosity touched the first few words in the man's voice, but it reclaimed a level calm by the end. "And why would I come up there when you eventually have to come down?"
"The storm is getting closer to all of us. You wanna get stuck here? Whatever boat carried you this far isn't gonna last long. You'll still be stuck on this island when our back-up arrives. Won't that be fun," Bielsa sneered with a cold smile. "Try to survive until I find you, pagafantas. I wanna be the one."
"What the fuck is a pa—paga—"
"Look it up later, idiota, between your searches for pornography."
"Whoa. I don't know if I can share you after all, mamacita. Boys, I think I might be in love."
The four men who slipped into the room seconds later were as silent as the unspoken deception their presence revealed. They cleared the doorway and fanned out again in a tight wedge formation, moving like different limbs belonging to the same fearsome creature. Deliberate. Measured. The barrels of their weapons were set at a dispersal pattern unsettlingly akin to the way the investigators' SWAT accompaniment moved among one another.
Their leading gunman stopped short upon seeing Bielsa standing at the top of the stairway alone.
The Sergeant turned their way, maybe by instinct. She saw the men and smirked. "Great minds."
Ulan and Eamon did most of the damage. Truth be told, there was a kind of sick satisfaction in returning the animosity via fully-automatic expression. Each major pillar in the room disgorged a leaning NYPD shadow, a pointed barrel, and there wasn't a moment of hesitation before they opened fire.
It wasn't clean. The other team clearly had body armor equipped beneath their street clothes and winter jackets. They spasmed en mass under the sudden assault, stumbled apart, and a few even managed to return fire as they attempted to retreat. None of them could bring lethality to bear the way they had in the hallways below. One of Kate's shots hit a grizzled man in his left cheek and the flesh was sucked inward around the bullet with a terrible flash of pallid cheekbone; a half-skeletal grin that she knew immediately would haunt her nightmares forever.
Eight seconds later, the gunfire relented to intermittent and all-natural thunder.
Dust and the chalky haze elicited from shot-up walls began to thin out.
"Any survivors?" the voice from below called laughingly. Bielsa laid a finger to her lips as she looked to the others. No one seemed like they'd intended on answering. "Fellas?"
"Ah dun think they made it," Logan's voice arose, also from below.
Beckett's gaze jerked around the room despite what her ears were telling her. The mercenary was gone, of course. The window missing its grate shone as the most likely point of departure. You're a bold sonuvabitch. The second floor wasn't a long drop, but the rain could have easily rendered even that much of a fall into an injury. When did he leave? It had to have been during the prior dialogue.
Damn. She'd been worrying about Lanie. About Rick. Distracted.
"Well, shit," the guy below muttered. They heard him ask, barely audible over the cacophony of the storm, "Guess I'm under arrest, huh?"
"Naw, broth'ah. Ah ain't a cop."
"Oh? Lucky m—" A single shot cut the discourse incontrovertibly short.
"Clear down," Logan called up afterward.
"Clear up, you motherfucker," Bielsa snarled. "What were you thinking?!"
Casey, gaping somewhat, blurted, "Did he just fucking execute that guy?"
"He pulled on me," Logan rumbled up at them, sounding amused. "Honest."
Jeez. Kate didn't know which was worse, the evil they had reluctantly put down or the one that might be walking alongside them. Maybe she should have been grateful. The man had been helpful in a number of ways up to that point. Also, how would they manage dragging around a cuffed prisoner if more enemies awaited?
All she could think about, though, was the worst-case scenario that might be looming farther ahead. What happens if the tides turn against us to an undeniable degree? Comms were down. No one would ever know if the mercenary decided to switch sides in order to save his own skin. With Logan's skill turned against us, too...what then? In the wake of one chillingly businesslike killing, that possibility shone more like a darkly gleaming inevitability, because nothing could have stated the differences between him and the NYPD officers more cleanly. There for damn sure was a difference between staging a brilliant counter-ambush by necessity and gunning someone down when he might've been subdued instead. However complicated the logistics were, that kind of ruthlessness couldn't be allowed.
We can't let this island degrade us the way it has everything else it's touched.
"Y'all should get a move on. We dunno these fellas are the only ones we gotta worry 'bout."
They did just that with their commanding agent's orders spurring them into motion. Hoffman paused only long enough to relieve one of the enemies of their weapons. As he jogged back into line the agent observed, "They aren't equipped with any comms. What the hell?"
No one had an answer.
As they went, Kate hastened her stride enough to descend alongside Bielsa. "Hey. I, uh, just wanted to say: that was a great call back there—sussing out the distraction for what it was and what it meant for us. Those four came at us from the north, the same place you suspected would be trouble. You saved our asses, Sarge. Twice in as many minutes."
The other narrowed her eyes in a surprising show of hostility. She lowered her voice and growled, "Saved them after putting them in danger by bringing us upstairs you mean, right? Yeah, I got us out. That's what I fucking do, puta. Remember that the next time you're tempted to undermine me."
Beckett gaped somewhat and could only watch blankly as the other woman stepped up her stride to catch up with Ulan and Eamon near the bottom of the stairs. Hoffman followed in her wake and glanced aside at Kate in passing. He bore sympathetic bewilderment in his clean-shaven features but issued no commentary on the matter. Good. She didn't need or want the man's back-up—not like that.
The team spilled out into the first-floor main hall in the same tight formation as above, but they bypassed the closed doors which lined the passage in favor of haste. Beckett and Logan were assigned with their eyes on the group's collective six. They weren't laboring under any sudden illusions of safety after taking down a handful of adversaries. Indeed, their postures were wound tighter than ever. Each wary glance of their surroundings was a snapped motion of hypervigilance.
It was the increasing violence of the storm that hurried them.
Soon they were stacking up against the double doors of the grand foyer. Bielsa checked the windows that showed partial glimpses of the southern expanse of woods and brush, then faced the group again with her jaw set. The downstairs windows were many-paned casements, most of which still contained glass in some quantity. No convenient workaround to be had. We can't all have the devil's luck, she thought somewhat sourly while eyeing the rain-soaked Logan at her right.
"Looks clear out there," Bielsa reported quietly. "But this foyer is gonna be a nightmare. Three stories and too many egresses to count. All we got going for us is momentum, so that's what we're gonna use. We're gonna move fast, Docs." She looked between the twins and Officer Holloway. "Paths?"
"One side or the other," the latter man grunted with a nod. "Remember, there's that massive hole punching straight down through to the second sub-level. We can either skirt along its right edge in favor of expediency or take the long way around and gain the cover provided by that big wooden reception area and the room's northern row of pillars."
"Use that cover," Logan rumbled. "Don't be tempted to rashness by the nearness of an exit."
The Sergeant shot him a glare. "Is that what you'd do, again? Use that glint of hope against us?"
"Yup," the mercenary confirmed without shame, and thankfully without a cutting retort that time.
"Dios mio," the woman muttered, "this one time we agree. Stay left," she clarified to their civilian pairing. "Joe, you're with me. Dr. Parrish, you stick with Hoffman. Keep close. If there's another ambush waiting for us in there, you two move your asses straight to the exit and get out. We'll cover your advance. Beckett, you and this sack of shit stay with them if that happens, maybe swap for that straighter path along the right if you haven't already bypassed easy access. Otherwise, maintain our six as we cross."
"10-4, Sarge," the detective answered neutrally.
"Hoffman, give her that enemy Tav. The rest of you double-check your loadouts."
The lean ESU agent automatically lowered his MP5 and stripped off a secondary rifle from where it was draped at his back. It had the same matte-black finish as his other weapon, but a decidedly more compact and aggressive look. "Have you handled a rifle before, detective?"
Not since I was shot with one.
At least the weapon being offered wasn't the same type. It was much smaller than a sniper rifle. Even so, any upgrade from her standard-issue Glock felt somehow...wrong. "It's been a while," she admitted at length.
"But you have at some point, huh? Good. This is an easy one: the IWI Tavor X-95 Bullpup."
"Israeli," Beckett murmured succinctly, still discomfited.
"That's right. It's chambered for the NATO five-five-six, just like our M4's," he paused to nod at the twins with their carbines. "Same superior recoil management while also gaining lighter weight and easier handling. It'll take some adjustment to work out the differences in your firing stance. It's a much more closed space, obviously." Geoff shifted the weapon in his grasp, illustrating for her while stating, "Safety. Clip release. Fire-selection. It's on semi-auto. I recommend leaving it there for now because, as you can see, it has a suppressor attached. That's why I grabbed it. Are you familiar with POI shift?"
"It stands for point-of-impact. Whenever you equip a suppressor like this—one that's threaded onto the barrel—you sacrifice some accuracy. All the friction actually unwinds the attachment. It's a very gradual thing. It's not gonna pop off, don't worry, but what you aim at and what you hit won't stay in sync forever. You need to pay close attention and adjust your trajectory as it drifts. I'd take it off, but it's not ideal to do stuff like that in the field. You risk loose threads getting into the barrel and creating a failure to fire." He turned at the waist and produced a pair of magazines. Since Kate hadn't come to the island loaded down with the same gear as ESU, she had open pockets on her tactical vest. "These're thirty-round clips. Looks like they loaded each of them with a few tracers."
"Just what they sound like—ammunition that's been modified with a small pyrotechnic charge at the base. They create a visible glow along their flight paths. You've probably seen news footage before of military operations that used 'em. They make it easier to adjust your aim during nighttime engagements. Anyway, these aren't all tracers. It's just the last few rounds in each magazine. Useful in fully automatic weapons for indicating when a clip is about to run dry."
Beckett shook her head. "These guys seem pretty well-equipped, don't they?"
"I'd say that's putting it mildly," Hoffman confirmed while handing over the weapon. "Between the customizations and tactical kit, you're probably holding upwards of six or seven grand. See the one Logan picked up off of that scumbag Bielsa was talking to?" She glanced at the sodden mercenary and the brutal-looking weapon draped by a canvas strap at his right hip. "That's an AA-12 variant. Fully-automatic shotgun, three hundred rounds per minute. They aren't that expensive, but you don't see them kitted out like that one is very often. Stuff like reveals a lot about the owners. That drum magazine holds thirty-two shells, and he's carrying two more just like it. I'd bet on slugs versus buckshot or the like. If you see him swap out for that monster in a firefight, get yourself somewhere else. Damn gun would probably bring this rickety place down on all our heads if he really opened up with it."
"Why the hell are we letting him carry it?"
Hoffman arched an eyebrow. "Do you wanna try and take it from him?"
"Yeah, me neither."
"And someone will. Just not right now. We have bigger problems. Wait'll we get back together with the other team. You can bet Kirkland will snatch that thing out of his hands real quick."
Beckett studied the man for a beat. "Do you think the others met resistance like this?"
Hoffman sighed, frowned. "I sure as hell hope not. Listen, uh, about that impending reunion..." He glanced aside a moment before meeting her expectant gaze again. "Sarge isn't usually like this, y'know? Ten years on the force. Served five of 'em with her in SWAT. I've never seen her shaken up like this."
"Just our luck," the detective deposited with a grim smirk.
"Yeah. I hope you won't be too critical later. Kirkland wouldn't be happy with her."
Beckett's expression cleared with the onset of comprehension. She arched a slim eyebrow. "Whatever else has happened, she was pretty remarkable back there. I'm not gonna tattle on her, Geoff."
"No, I," he stopped, exhaled along with a rueful half-smile. "I figured. Still...thanks."
"Oi," Bielsa hissed at them. "Hug it the fuck out already and get your asses over here."
Beckett hefted the unfamiliar bullpup awkwardly. A natural rest quickly presented itself but it was indeed a much more scrunched position than she was accustomed to. Damn. She shifted the weapon uncomfortably and waited. Bielsa made a silent three-count on her fingers but held them all at 'one' for several additional seconds. When the next burst of lightning flashed at the windows, she motioned them in. The doors pounded apart under one of the twin's boots, almost drowned out by thunder.
Hard gusts of frightful anticipation came and went from the detective's lungs. She listened to the others clomping advance by closely staggered pairs and followed awkwardly after alongside Logan, both of them covering the long emptiness of the hallway behind. An absence of gunfire only added to Kate's anxiety as they took cover in their turn at the base of the reception desk. Its dark mahogany sprawl didn't feel like protection. It felt like a cruel joke waiting for the proper timing to deliver a devastating punchline.
But the ledges of the second and third floors stood empty. The partially visible doors were closed as they had been when the team first entered the hospital. Only the storm intruded upon them with its rampant fury of stinging rain and white-hot bolts of serrated incisions. Nothing revealed itself to be amiss as the team crossed the expanse and eventually claimed the edges of the main doorway.
"Path?" Bielsa questioned softly.
"We took the east road in," Officer Casey provided.
"Didn't Castle say the alternative ferry landing was on the southeast face of the island? That's gotta be where the enemy made landfall," Hoffman said. "We go that way, I'd guess we're more likely to run afoul of whoever stayed behind to guard their ride out of here."
"That's trouble we don't need right now," Bielsa muttered. Kate expelled a quiet breath of relief to hear the woman state as much. "There isn't time to get bogged down in a firefight. We need off of this rock. We take the west road," she concluded but frowned deeply afterward.
It was an unknown path. That alone made it worthy of concern.
"I don't like it either, but it sounds like our best option," Beckett agreed.
Bielsa didn't reply. She eyed their surrounds a moment longer, tsked aloud in displeasure, and looked over the group. "Okay. Back to the original marching order. Hoffman and I got point. Then Casey and Logan. Docs, Beckett. You boys have our six again," she concluded with a nod to the twins.
They'd made it almost a dozen yards into the pounding downpour when the top half of Geoff Hoffman's head was effectively disintegrated by sniper fire.
A/N: Bit of a delay on the update, per usual, but I'm at least glad to report that it was due to spitting out a shameful tease of a p0rnado fic and starting another little multi-chapter I'm hoping will be ready for Halloween. The real news here is that this tale is once again overseen by a capable beta. I'm sure that comes across plainly! My thanks to Stratan for providing assistance once again.