Author Notes: LaMont and Lococco are creations of Cuse and Cannell Productions, respectively. I just arranged the meeting between them. I also borrowed Quan-Li from another Fanfic author, Elizabeth Anderson, to whom I offer apologies for not asking, but I couldn't find you via Rustyville Public Library. Feel free to offer opinions,
(LaMont Meets Lococco)
Wiseguy/Nash Bridges Crossover
Roger Lococco went about his business, ignoring the surveillance he was only too aware of. The problem was, he wasn't sure how long he had been under observation. That in and of itself was unusual. His instincts were generally good under these conditions. If they hadn't been, he'd never have survived this long as a some-time fugitive. In the seven years since he had staged his death for the benefit of the CIA, he had occasionally come up on some freelancer's radar, but he'd never before been aware of this kind of extended courtship' period. Generally, the hired guns who'd stumbled across him were trigger-happy amateurs, the sorts of goons he had made a career of eliminating in the days he'd worked for Mel Profitt. This, however, was something else entirely.
He had first become conscious of the scrutiny some three days earlier, when the flash of an unexpected reflection mirrored in a store front window had caught his attention. He recognized the glint of sun off a telescopic sight when he saw it. Unhurriedly, he had made his way into the nearest shop, moving deeper into the boutique as he glanced casually at the merchandise that overflowed too-frilly displays. He'd made his way to the back of the shop, questioning a clerk about a restroom. Following the directions, he ducked through the employees only' door and out the back loading area of the shop into the grubby alley that backed the building, melting into the late afternoon shadows that dimmed the narrow access street.
San Francisco was a small city, which usually had advantages in that it allowed him to keep abreast of even the most casual rumors. He had enough contacts, and enough trip-wires', set up through the city that anyone looking for him would attract the attention of one of them. That no alarm had been set off anywhere worried him. Whoever it was that had been shadowing him had contacts of their own, apparently.
He had returned to his penthouse flat on Nob Hill with its' panoramic views of the entire Bay Area that first afternoon and made a call to an old friend, leaving a message on Frank McPike's home phone, then making arrangements to clear out of town for a while until his shadow got bored and lost interest in searching for him. He had been intending to visit Vancouver to pay a call on an old mentor for a while, now. This struck him as the perfect opportunity.
Still, he had had to spend a few days tidying up his business dealings to allow for an absence of unspecified duration, which had given his ghost the chance they'd needed to reacquire him. He'd more-or-less resigned himself to that probability, but refused to worry about it, since the stalker had made no attempt on his life so far. He had stuck to his usual routine, such as it was, not even foregoing his morning run down to the Embarcadero and back. He only hoped the exertion left his shadow panting somewhere in his wake. He had deliberately avoided California Street, with its' precipitous cable car route that would have provided an all-too-convenient way for the hunter to avoid working up a sweat. He was careful to do nothing, beyond that first effort, to avoid his pursuer. When he was ready to leave town, he had no intention of telegraphing his intent to his shadower. While he wasn't sure who the man was, he was sure that he was good. Very good. Only someone truly skilled in the art of the hunt could have avoided the web-like safety net Roger had constructed for himself to protect his new life.
The third day, he heard back from McPike.
"I've pulled every string and rattled every cage I can find. No one knows anything about a contract killer lose in San Francisco," Frank told him shortly.
"Well, he's here, Frank. Trust me. It takes one to know one. And whatever you do, just don't tell Vince. The last thing I need is for him to come blundering into the middle of this, whatever it is, in some do-gooder effort to save my ass. All he's gonna do is jog my elbow."
"He's not hearing it from me, Buckwheat'," McPike retorted. "We both know he'd risk his life to save yours. I see no reason to give him the opportunity to catch a bullet on your behalf."
"Thanks for the support, Frank." Lococco swore he wouldn't let the irascible little federal agent push his buttons every time he dealt with him, but no one was better than Frank McPike at getting under his skin.
"Look. We both know he's a sucker for hard luck cases like you. He means well," Frank said after a moment, a note of apology in his voice.
Roger allowed himself a snort of laughter. "Give him my love," he said sarcastically as he hung up.
He paced his apartment, watching the slow darkening of a summer twilight into night over the bay, oblivious to the beauty of the lights of the East Bay and the financial district as they glittered against the dusky blue air like gems cast onto velvet. He had purchased the flat not because of the unobstructed views, but because the views meant that there were no other buildings of a height with this one anywhere in easy sniper range. The scenery was merely a secondary benefit.
He had had his pilot file four flight plans, none of which were accurate, content to take the risk that the Lear jet had not been booby trapped. He'd had three of his security people go over it with every detection device they knew of as soon as he'd decided on his course of action, and at no time since then had the little aircraft been left unguarded. At a certain point, having done what he could, he had to take survival on faith.
Scott LaMont, aka The Monk, lit a cigarette behind the shelter of his cupped palm, shielding the wavering match flame against the breeze coming in off the ocean. He took a long drag as his attention focused on the art deco building across the street from his position in the lee of a modern concrete apartment complex that looked out of place amidst its more genteel neighbors. He knew Lococco was home, yet there was no glimmer of light anywhere in the windows of the penthouse. He swore softly under his breath, cursing the luck that had dragged him into this.
It wasn't that he didn't like coming back to San Francisco, he thought. Having been born and raised in the City, he always enjoyed returning to it. It embraced him like an old friend every time he felt the damp kiss of the fog on his skin. It was home. Despite all the places he'd been, all the things he'd done, San Francisco was the center of his travels. He did not return often, having his own issues with the ever-increasing attentions of Interpol and various other of the world's constabularies, but when he did, he generally tried to avoid doing it on business. It upset his parents to know their son conducted his trade in the city in which he'd been raised. Of course, he mused wryly, it upset his parents that he traded in mortality. It upset the few people he still called friends, too. Which was why he generally avoided social calls when he hit town. Not that he didn't check up on old acquaintances, but usually he did it discretely, from a distance. Usually through a rifle sight.
It had not occurred to him that he would be observed in his turn. It hadn't occurred to him anyone would bother. He had very effective ways for potential clients to contact him with the specifics of a job. This was the first time someone had circumvented them and approached him directly, bypassing the layers of insulation he had so carefully constructed between himself and his clientele. He had made it a point in his career to never have direct dealings with a client until he had accepted a job and seen the color of their money. When the non-refundable deposit had hit his Swiss accounts, he would arrange to meet with the customer and go over the brief.
It bothered him intensely that he had neglected one of his own cardinal rules of engagement in the false security that came with returning home: no place was safe. He'd found that out the hard way three days before when he'd spent an afternoon on a Russian Hill rooftop watching his oldest friend make love to his current enamorata through the high powered binoculars hung around his neck. It had been his mistake that he hadn't even brought his rifle.
Nash had been en flagranté with a hot little blond number in the loft of the condemned building he had refused to move out of after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 89 that had cracked the foundations so badly the city inspectors had cordoned it off, eventually surrounding it with portable chain link. He had entertained himself watching them for a good while, half considering the idea of finding like companionship for himself. His sobriquet, The Monk, was indicative not of his sexual practices – or lack thereof – but of his absolute refusal to align himself with any single political agenda. He worked for whomever had the money to pay his price. He had made it a policy, after his stint in the Green Berets, to disregard policy and politics in his work. It had no bearing on whether he would accept or reject a job.
The first he'd known of the surveillance he was under was when he'd felt the press of cold steel between his shoulder blades, chill counterpoint to the warmth of the summer sun.
"Well, Mr. LaMont," came the quiet greeting. "We've been hoping to pick you up. It's too bad it took longer than we'd figured on, but better late than never."
Scott looked over a shoulder at the three men who stood at his back, weapons pointed at him steadily. Government stooges, by the look of them, he'd thought. He should have known better than to let sex distract him from his environment, but hell, watching Nash bone a babe a good fifteen years younger than himself had made his day. Bridges, a San Francisco Police Inspector, had been a friend since childhood. Scott followed his exploits with fond interest, and Nash was always his first stop when he came home. And someone had apparently counted on that fact to snare him. "There some law against bird watching I should know about?" he'd asked, amused, both at himself and at his captors.
In response, the man who'd addressed him stepped forward, lifting the binoculars out of his hands to take a look for himself, lingering a split second longer over the view than strictly necessary. He lowered the field glasses and turned to LaMont. "I think it's called being a peeping tom," he said coldly as he wrenched the binoculars off Scott's neck hard enough to break their strap.
He had suppressed a flare of anger, refusing to add fuel to the fire. "So where's the party?" he'd asked flippantly.
That was when they'd clocked him.
He had woken some indeterminate length of time later in a dim room, seated in a wooden ladder back chair, his wrists and ankles cable-tied to the furniture, his head pounding viciously, blinking against the light of the single bare bulb that hung from the ceiling above him.
"Ah. You're back with us," came a sonorous voice from the shadows. "I apologize for the zealousness of my employees, Mr. LaMont, but they were growing impatient with the wait. It's been quite a while since your last confirmed visit to San Francisco."
"Gee. If I'd known I was missed, I'd've sent a postcard," Scottie quipped, squinting into the darkness to try and identify the speaker.
"Your reputation as a comedian is apparently well deserved," was the response to this. "We have a job for you, Mr. LaMont."
"I'm flattered. So what's wrong with going through the usual channels? You seem smart enough to know I don't play well with others," LaMont retorted at this announcement.
"Your reputation for humor isn't the only reputation associated with you. Let's just say the person who wishes to make use of your services wasn't sanguine about the likelihood that you would linger long enough to listen to his proposal if you were given a choice in the matter."
So this was political. Damn. He hated politics. It accomplished nothing beyond complicating an otherwise perfectly simple transaction. "And what makes you think I have any interest in hearing this proposal' now?" he asked.
"You're something of a captive audience, Mr. LaMont," came the amused response. "As are your parents."
LaMont tried not to flinch as this penetrated.
"Your former commander has a mission for you."
"My former commander' is in a maximum security military prison. His days of running missions are over." LaMont didn't bother to conceal his fury.
"General Masters may be inconvenienced by his current address, but he is by no means incapacitated by it," was the reply.
He should have known that General Leland Masters was behind this. Masters. The pathologically patriotic xenophobe who'd honed the arsenal of democracy into a weapon for his own ends. His rabid anticommunist dogma had colored the height of the cold war, and it was that climate that had given Scottie his skills as well as his lack of moral convictions. He'd never met Masters, but the General's reputation was hardly secret. LaMont had been recruited out of the Green Berets for Special Ops training, having unknowingly fit Masters' criteria as a marksman and ruthless soldier. He, his skills, had been used as a weapon against third world dictators, religious leaders, and all manner of others the General had determined to be threats to American dominance in global politics. It was this crucible that had burned away morals, scruples, belief. He had become Masters' personal hitman. Or one of them. The man had had armies of assassins. Until one of them had turned on his handlers, triggering a series of events in the late eighties that had resulted in the abortive overthrow of the despotic government of an island nation in the Caribbean and another in the series of scandals that had rocked Washington at the time.
Scott hadn't hung around to see how it all came out, going freelance as soon as it became clear that he would shortly be sans leadership. It had been a move he'd contemplated for some while, having watched his commanders line their pockets as they catered to politicians and zealots while he took the risks for a pitiful government paycheck. "Why me?" he asked at last.
"Yet another facet of your reputation, Mr. LaMont." There was a pause as a rustle of papers punctuated the dimness.
The thwack' of a file folder hitting the floor at his feet raised a cloud of dust that drifted upward in the shaft of light that held him in its grip. LaMont refused the impulse to look down at it where it rested against the toes of his shoes.
"You're the best there is. And General Masters wants you to kill the best there was."
Well. That explained everything, he thought sarcastically. "Maybe you could be a little more specific," he said when it became clear some sort of answer was required.
In response, he heard the soft sound of footsteps at his back, felt the sharp tug on his wrists as the cable tie was cut through with brutal efficiency, no concern for the slice of a knife along the inside of his left arm. He ignored the small discomfort as he massaged his wrists and reached down to his feet for the file folder, setting it in his lap. He sucked absently on the small cut as he paged through the document slowly.
Roger Lococco, ex-CIA, ex-Special Forces. A fellow soldier. Only he had lingered far longer in the employ of Uncle Sam than Scott had. A few years older than himself, Lococco had had an exceptional military career, serving with honor in Vietnam for three tours of duty, two of which had been in the Special Forces. He'd been decorated for valor, and while recovering from the action that had injured him, had been recruited by the CIA. This was beginning to sound awfully familiar, Scott mused as he read further. Not to his surprise, a lot of the information on the following pages had been blacked out, his need to know' apparently not great enough to overcome the native paranoia of the man who had compiled the information. It documented a fifteen year stint in the CIA as the personal lap dog of some martinet by the name of Herb Ketcher, the details vague, but hauntingly similar to some of the actions he had been involved with as an assassin. So Lococco had been one of Masters' elite, as well Higher up in the ranks of killers than Scott himself had been, but still essentially a hired gun.
The last three pages of the brief set a tremor lose in the pit of his stomach as he read through them, well able to infer what lay between the lines so carefully obliterated. There was enough information for him to piece together the extraordinary conclusion that Lococco had indirectly been Masters' Judas. Which explained why the General wanted the man dead, he supposed. The chain of betrayal had begun with Lococco and ended with Masters, Ketcher and a White House scion named Admiral Walter Strichen falling from grace in the process as well. He remembered, now, in light of the jog to his memory, the senate hearings on Lococco's involvement in the plot Ketcher and Strichen, at Masters' instigation, had put together. It had been mind-bogglingly convoluted, and the details escaped him, but the end result had been that Lococco had been presumed dead after an explosion on his boat had wiped the craft off the surface of the ocean the day after his testimony.
It was a presumption that had obviously been false, if the sheaf of recent 8x10 photos in a manila envelope at the back of the file were any indication. They showed a man, slim-hipped, perhaps six feet tall, sandy, not-quite-red hair that waved over his head in much the same fashion as Scott's – with a face that stared back at LaMont every morning in the mirror when he brushed his teeth. It was downright eerie. Leaving aside the fact that Scott wore a beard, Roger Lococco could have been his twin. Quite literally. It reminded him of a tabloid headline, Twins separated at birth', or some such nonsense. He felt the prickle of superstitious dread down his spine.
He shrugged, looking up at his hidden interrogator. "This still doesn't tell me why I'm the one for this particular job," he said.
"Roger Lococco has succeeded in killing everyone we've sent after him in the last seven years, freelance and Agency both. We need someone with the breadth of experience you have accumulated. Lococco has already overstayed his time on this planet, and General Masters is hoping you're the man to expedite his departure."
"You're telling me I should do it for the challenge of the thing? For old times sake?" he scoffed. "Maybe you need to review my policies again. I don't kill for the government, any more."
"But you do kill for a fee. The usual deposit has been wired to your account in Switzerland, and it will be released from escrow pending your acceptance of the job."
"I don't kill brothers in arms," he said stubbornly.
"Lococco is no brother in arms," his inquisitor spat venomously. "He's a loose cannon who seriously compromised the security of the western hemisphere and disgraced one of the preeminent military minds of this century!"
LaMont did not voice his opinion that Leland Masters was a paranoid egomaniac who had gotten what he had deserved, for once. His mulish silence was, however, correctly interpreted.
"Since appeals to your sense of patriotism are apparently pointless, perhaps you'll understand this. Until we have proof of Lococco's death, namely his body or any fragment thereof in a lifeless state, your parents will be guests' of the General's. They will not be harmed – unless you refuse the mission. If that's the case, they will disappear. Permanently."
LaMont had wondered how long it would take until that threat would be unveiled. Now that the stakes were on the table, he had a clearer idea of the premium these people were placing on Lococco's head. It was also clear that this was a personal vendetta, not a government sanctioned hit. While the government would go to considerable lengths to get what it wanted, it was unlikely that they would stoop to holding his family hostage, or even resorting to his services in the first place. He was not exactly loved by the powers that inhabited the hallowed halls. "So let me get this straight," he said flatly. "I kill this Lococco guy, or you kill my parents. That sum it up?"
"I want to talk to them. Now. I don't so much as load a clip until I know they're alright."
His insistence had eventually paid off, and Scottie had spoken to his father, apologizing for the circumstances that had involved him and his mother in their son's business. He was glad he'd discussed this possibility with both of his parents years before, he and his father having taken time to run through various scenarios. It had allowed his father to provide him with a few scant clues to their whereabouts. Since he had every intention of finding and releasing his parents before he decided what to do about Lococco, it was just as well that he had a place to start.
"Do we have an agreement, Mr. LaMont?" his captor asked, when he had concluded his brief conversation with his father.
"As long as we're clear on one thing, bubba, and that is that you and everyone who works with you is dead if anything happens to my family, then yeah. I'll remove the thorn from the General's side. In return, my folks get turned loose, and my fee gets wired into my account. If either of those things fail to happen, the next thing you'll see is the inside of your brain as I blow your head off."
The laughter from the darkness in front of him had made his flesh crawl as the man at his back had crouched down to cut his ankles free. He supposed he ought to be grateful the clown hadn't hamstrung him in the process.
And so it had begun. He had acquired his target easily, based on the information his client had provided, latching onto Lococco as he had emerged from his building on Taylor Street the next morning. It interested him that Lococco was making very little effort to lead a clandestine life. It made LaMont wary in the extreme, considering the man's history. If Roger Lococco could survive in plain sight given the level of ire directed at him, then he was going to be a truly formidable opponent. It would require a different approach than his usual one, he knew, and it would mean a time investment while he tried to get a handle on the man. Which only increased Scottie's determination to deal with his parents first. He had no intention of leaving them to the tender mercies of the General's toadies for any longer than absolutely necessary. The question was, how to protect them?
Which had led him back to Nash Bridges. Nash had remained close to LaMont's parents, despite the break with their son, checking up on them regularly at the little market that had been their livelihood all of Scottie's life. He knew Bridges could be relied on to protect them, once Scott had found and retrieved them. The question was, how to enlist his help without having Nash try to collar him in the process. Ideally, he'd prefer that Bridges not even realize LaMont was in town. He spent the time he kept watch on Lococco pondering how to manage this.
Almost, he had been tempted to take a shot that first day as Lococco had wandered the neighborhood, seemingly at random. Lococco's skull had loomed in his rifle sight for blocks until the man was almost directly opposite Scott's position behind the yellowed gauze of some embroidered window sheers in the bay window of a vacant apartment. His finger had tightened on the trigger as Lococco's clean-shaven, sunglassed visage swam before his eyes. When the man had turned towards him, responding to a greeting from a passer-by, LaMont had found himself shaking with the strength of the reaction to seeing his own face in his rifle sight. It was truly bizarre to stumble across a man so similar to himself, not only in looks, but in life experience. If he had been a religious man, he would have wondered if the gods were somehow mocking him.
He had eased off the trigger when Lococco had ducked unexpectedly into a dress shop, only to vanish. LaMont had waited for him to reemerge for almost forty five minutes before deciding that Lococco had probably disappeared out the back of the shop in a fit of overdue paranoia. The man had to be aware that he was a potential target at all times, Scott thought, refusing to dwell on the possibility that he had been made. Even if he had, it was probably inevitable. He hoped Lococco would go on being oblivious to him for a while longer, allowing him time to handle the situation with his parents, but if not, LaMont had certainly had enough practice at hunting down quarry who knew how to hide to have much concern over finding Lococco again should he disappear permanently.
He had spent the next two days tracking down his parents. When he had located them, he placed a call to Nick Bridges, Nash's aged father, at the rest home his children had confined him to when his Alzheimer's disease had progressed to the point he could no longer care for himself. He had carefully outlined to the elder Bridges exactly where his parents could be found, adding the warning, for Nash's sake, that the men guarding them were likely to be well armed, and extremely dangerous. He had ensured that the old man had written everything down, and had exacted a promise that Nick would call his son to relay the message immediately. With that, he had returned to his watch on the Hunter's Point warehouse that held his parents. It was another six hours before he saw Bridges' yellow Barracuda cruise past the warehouse, but as soon as he saw the car pull into an alley and park, he packed up his gear and vacated the derelict Muni tram car he had holed up in to keep watch on his folks, not wanting to risk being spotted by Nash during the takedown. He had every confidence in Nash's ability to liberate his parents, and every faith that his parents would refuse to confirm any speculations Nash might have on LaMont's involvement in the whole episode.
So here he was on Nob Hill, freezing his ass off in the ocean wind coming off the usual summer fog bank that had settled over the Richmond district like a wool blanket, staring up at a darkened penthouse wondering how he'd gotten into this mess in the first place. At least the money had posted to his account, he thought, shoving his hands into the pockets of the tweed sports jacket he wore. He had checked on that as soon as he'd made the call to Nick, arranging to close out his accounts at the Banque Suisse and reopen them elsewhere in the labyrinthine Swiss banking establishment to prevent Master's lackey from repossessing the funds somehow.
He still had not decided to what to do about Lococco. Habit said do the job, take delivery of the other half of the fee, and forget it. But something nagged at him, something that hadn't afflicted him in over a decade. His conscience told him, there, but for the grace of god, went himself. Hell, he might very well wind up in a similar situation sometime down the road. Even if he lived long enough to retire, there was still the temptation his reputation represented to the next generation of hit men. To be the man who took out The Monk. Something to put right at the top of a resume. There was also the faint but distinct possibility that Lococco might just wise up to the precariousness of his position and succeed in turning the tables on LaMont. And then there was the creep-out factor of shooting a man with his own face
Roger saw the flare of a match across the street from his lofty vantage point fifteen stories above the ground, his instincts telling him he had just spotted his shadow. If that was the case, it was time for the chase to begin in earnest. He dialed his pilot to warn him, then called a cab, forgoing rousing his driver out of bed at this hour for a trip to the airport.
Twenty minutes later, he was in a cab on the way to SFO International, and forty minutes later, he was boarding a flight to San Diego. He was reasonably sure he had been followed this far, and he settled into a first class seat on the nearly empty midnight flight glad he had the excuse to cat nap for an hour. There was no knowing how much sleep he was likely to get the next few days.
He disembarked at LAX International rather than staying aboard the flight all the way to San Diego, and caught an early commuter hop to Oxnard, where his pilot met him with the Lear. By six a.m., they were airborne on their way to Vancouver, and he settled in for another nap, sure by now he had shaken his tail, at least temporarily.
LaMont was impressed. The question of whether Lococco had spotted him was now unequivocally answered in the affirmative. It had taken him most the next morning to track his prey to the small airfield on the outskirts of Oxnard, only to discover that Lococco had been met by his private jet and spirited away to some unknown destination. Clearly, it was time to find out a bit more about the man. He intended to do so by finding his inquisitor and returning the favor of his initial interrogation. And then Scott planed to kill him. Even if he elected to continue on in his pursuit of Lococco, leaving the manipulative sonovabitch alive went against the grain. Besides, letting it be known that The Monk could be forced into cooperating by going after his family would be stupid indeed. It was a bad precedent to set, and he planned to correct that mistake as quickly as possible.
He returned to San Francisco from LA and set about advertising his presence, reasonably sure that Masters' rat-boy would hear of his return empty-handed in short order. He spotted them on his tail less than two hours after he'd hit the City again, and lured the trio of goons onto the socked-in greens of the military golf course on Land's End. It did not take very much of his expertise to gun down two of them, leaving their bodies to the ravens and the greens-keepers, forcing the third at gunpoint to take him back to his employer.
The man led him to the fortieth floor offices of a mid-career lawyer who had recently made it to a corner office and a full partnership in the firm that employed him. Scottie charmed his way past the paralegal with the silent goon preceding him as he bluffed his way into the office, his silenced automatic never leaving the small of the man's back. He stepped into Nathaniel Delicato's posh office with the impish smile that those who knew him feared. As he shut the door behind himself, he fired pointblank at the man who had led him here, stepping over the body as it dropped to the thick off-white carpeting with barely a sound, training his gun on the astonished man who sat behind a walnut desk that could have served as a life raft aboard the Titanic, talking into the speaker phone.
He waved the tip of his gun muzzle at the phone, indicating Delicato should wrap up his call as he approached the desk, and emphasized his point by centering the silencer muzzle against the man's forehead.
"Uh, Gary, I gotta go. My three o'clock just walked in -" and with this, he disconnected the call, staring into the gray eyes of the World's Best Hit Man, face ashen.
"We can do this here, or we can go somewhere a little more private, but either way, I need to know everything about Lococco you so carefully kept out of his file," LaMont said, recognizing the swiftly masked flash of relief on the man's face. He saw no point in revealing that Delicato was as good as dead the instant he had told The Monk what he wanted to know.
Delicato leaned back in his desk chair, some of his confidence returning. "Well. Your little stunt with the SFPD was a surprise, LaMont," he began. "Now that you've got the police guarding your parents, you could have just cleared out."
"I could have, but only if I want to risk going through all this again. You are a problem, Mr. Delicato. I gave up being a government lackey a few years ago, and the idea of taking up where I left off doesn't appeal to me. That means I have a limited number of options, the way I figure it. I can kill you, and hope that you're working in enough isolation that your means of persuading' me to help die with you, or I can fulfill the contract and get you off my back. So far, I'm on the fence. Now, I want everything you have on Lococco. All of it, right down to how often he changes his underwear and what brand of condom he uses. When I have enough information, I'll make my decision, and you'll know whether you live another day or not." LaMont snapped.
"Are you gonna fuck him or are you gonna shoot him? You've had four days, and instead of killing the bastard, you've spent your time admiring him from afar! So now he's flown the coop and you want us to give you an new place to start looking, is that it?" he asked with the same condescending snarl Scott recognized from the basement inquisition room.
LaMont shrugged slightly, cocking his head as he eyed the man he still covered, evaluating where he planned on shooting him first as he answered with a smile. "Something like that," he agreed pleasantly. Then snarled back soundlessly as he fired into the fleshy part of Delicato's thigh. "Now you can tell me what I need to know, or I can render you unfit for female consumption. Or do you prefer boys?" he said softly.
Nathaniel Delicato's shriek of agony was nearly as soundless as LaMont's snarl, his hands gripping his wounded thigh with frantic pain as he stared into the eyes of Death, realizing it at last. "Alright-alright-alright!" he sobbed, panic in his voice. "Lococco -"
"I think we'll take this somewhere a little more secluded," Scott interrupted, waving his gun muzzle again as he forced Delicato to unsteady feet. He had made sure his shot had not shattered bone, and while the wound undoubtedly hurt like a bitch, it was not fatal in and of itself. Delicato would be good for hours of conversation yet.
He had made Delicato don the light-weight London Fog trench coat hanging on the coat tree by the door of his office and then marched him out of the building and into the first cab that presented itself, directing the cabbie to the Mark Hopkins, where he kept one of several rooms he had booked throughout the City under various pseudonyms. He let himself into the suite with his keycard and sat Delicato down in a Chippendale-style side chair, fastening his wrists and ankles as his own had been fastened a few days previously. He poured himself a scotch from the over-priced but well-stocked bar and settled into the couch opposite where he'd positioned Delicato's chair, determined to enjoy himself.
"Tell me everything you know about Lococco," he suggested evenly, resting his feet on the coffee table as he lay his automatic in his lap. He spared a moment to light a cigarette, drawing in a lung-full of nicotine with pleasure. He kept meaning to quit, but the rush was hard to give up. It was almost as good as the one that came with a successful hunt. And nothing went with scotch like tobacco.
"Most of it was in the file you saw," Delicato insisted.
"Uh-huh." LaMont snorted skeptically. "Whoever it was that went at that file with the black marker did a pretty good job of wiping out anything that'd give me a feel for the guy."
"What the hell kind of feel' do you need for him? He's a cold-blooded killer, and one of the biggest security risks of the second half of the twentieth century!"
Scottie chuckled, sipping from his scotch as he eyed his prisoner with cynical amusement. "Do you really believe this bullshit or are you just repeating the party line?" he asked with a faint smile flickering over his mouth. "From where I sit, Lococco looks like the patriot around here." He let the smile fade from his face as he leaned forward slightly, setting his glass onto the arm rest of the couch as he picked up his gun casually, training it on Delicato with unwavering precision. "Let's start again," he said grimly.
Delicato sang like a canary. For well over an hour, he held forth on the facts and analysis of one Roger Lococco, top-of-the-line former assassin, the man's personal habits (discrete, save for a penchant for boinking married women rather indiscriminately), politics (none), friends (few, and contacted very rarely), family (none that he cared about) and known associates. This was the topic that proved the most enlightening, from the standpoint of useful information.
"Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he's aware someone is after him. Who would he go to?" Scott asked his oracle.
"No one," Delicato answered, surly. "He's a loner, LaMont. Asking for help is not his style."
"Humor me," Scott said flatly, dragging on his cigarette again.
Delicato visibly groped for an answer, the silence extending for several minutes as he struggled to pull a name from his memory. "He has a couple of contacts in the justice department The OCB, to be exact. He might have contacted them."
Interesting, LaMont thought. "Would they have dropped him down some sort of rabbit hole?"
"Not likely," Delicato shook his head. "For one thing, Lococco wouldn't take them up on the offer seven years ago. For another, he's got enough money of his own to build himself all the escape hatches he wants."
"So why hasn't he disappeared? Why hang around and thumb his nose at screw-ups like you?"
"Because he knows as long as he's around, people will remember the General's misstep."
LaMont laughed, sputtering at this understatement. "Misstep? You call killing his own cabin boy and favorite White House intimate a misstep? The man is exactly where he deserves to be. And whatever Lococco's agenda is, there's more to it than just acting as a living reminder of the good ol' days', bubba. Seems to me, living well is the best revenge. That's what really gets Masters' goat, isn't it? Lococco is free, living off his ill-gotten gains, having a great old time in the world he spent most of his life trying to protect from psychotics like your precious General, and Masters is getting butt-fucked by every hardcase in Fort Dix. I'll say one thing for him, Lococco knows how to turn getting even into a fine art. Now. Who in the OCB would owe him favors?"
"An undercover operative whose life he saved. A guy by the name of Vince Terranova. And Terranova's supervisor, Frank McPike. But I'm telling you, he wouldn't go to them. Don't you think I've been through this before? You're not the first trigger-finger we've sent after him!"
LaMont smiled. "Now we're getting somewhere," he said with satisfaction, swallowing the last of the scotch and stubbing out his cigarette against the bottom of the glass. Putting it down, he dropped his feet to the floor and rose smoothly to stand in front of Delicato's chair, the gun muzzle pressed gently between his eyes. "Do you want him dead or don't you? Now tell me where he'd go!"
"You'll never find him. We've lost every man we've sent up there after him!"
"So you do know where he's likely to be. Spit it out, bubba. You can't possibly think you're protecting me from him, can you?" LaMont asked, incredulous. And yet, it seemed as if that were the case.
"Goddammit, LaMont, you're our last best hope for nailing the bastard! If I send you up there, he's gonna be holding all the aces! You'll never get near him, and if you do, he'll see you coming from twenty miles out. And I guarantee you that old priest will be helping him!"
Scott smiled with all the menace of a saber tooth cat. "What priest? Where is he?"
Delicato stared back at him defiantly and Scott cranked up the smile another notch as he tightened his finger slightly on the trigger.
"Vancouver, probably," Delicato spat out as he watched LaMont's trigger ease back a fraction closer to tripping the hammer.
"Thank you," Scott said, letting go of the trigger and dropping the gun to his side. "That wasn't so hard, was it? Now, where in Vancouver? It's a big city."
"That's the problem, LaMont, he's not in the city. He's on a mountain outside of town at a monastery. I'm not kidding, here. The old priest who lives there is the one who trained Lococco twenty five years ago. The two of them together will kill you before you even know what hit you!" Delicato exclaimed, agitated.
"I'm touched by the concern," Scott snapped. "You're the one who brought me into this, bubba, so give me what I need to do the job and get out of my way. Now what order is this priest associated with?"
"He's a defrocked Buddhist monk Lococco stumbled across outside Quang Tri in Vietnam in '68. The guy took him under his wing and turned him into a killing machine. Lococco's handler, Herb Ketcher, tried to recruit the old guy to do the same for the CIA's program, only he refused. Said his pupils came to him. Some sort of mystical claptrap like that. When Vietnam fell, Lococco got him out and set him up in Vancouver, figuring it wouldn't be safe to bring Quan-Li into the U.S., not as long as the CIA wanted to add him to the payroll. Lococco heads for the hills every time he gets wind of a new attempt on his life. He lures our people up there after him and then he ices them. None of them have ever come back."
LaMont began to pace, tucking his automatic into his shoulder holster absently as he considered this information. The Monk going after a monk struck him as weirdly significant in some inexplicable way. The fact that this Quan-Li was an ex-Buddhist priest didn't change the fact that he was still a monk. He suppressed a shiver. His curiosity was well and truly aroused, so much so that he knew he was going to go after Lococco in whatever mountain fastness it was he had found, if for no other reason than to test himself. It had been a very long time since he had really been challenged by a target, but Roger Lococco had succeeded admirably. It did not mean, however, that he would throw caution to the winds and stumble up there without finding out as much about this priest as he could. He returned to the bar and helped himself to another drink, vodka over ice, this time, and settled himself back into the couch, his attention fixed on Delicato with all the single-mindedness of a stalking cat, it's prey in sight. "How old is this priest?" he asked, the first of many questions he fired in rapid succession at his captive. By the time he had finished his interrogation, he knew very little more than he had at the start, mostly because very little seemed to be known about Lococco's mentor in the first place. As far as he could determine from Delicato's answers, Quan-Li was ageless, of indeterminate national origin, had no known family, no known political affiliation, no bank account, no credit cards, no motor vehicle, nothing beyond the deed to a ramshackle old stone hunting lodge and almost ten thousand acres of pristine wilderness in the mountains outside of Vancouver. And an occasional student, apparently, to relieve the boredom.
Hotshots from militaries all over the planet had trekked up that mountain only to be turned away, sometimes ignominiously, if they refused to take no' for an answer the first time. Every once in a while, one of them would be taken in, however, and would emerge as sharp as an edged weapon some six to eighteen months later, having learned whatever skills it was Quan-Li taught, or at any rate, as much of them as they had interest and capacity for. It was clear that whatever discipline the old man adhered to, he had no interest in turning it into some sort of cult. He seemed to accept only one student at the time, sending them on their way before the next pupil darkened his door. As far as Delicato knew, Lococco was one of the only ones who ever returned, and was apparently welcomed, regardless of when he arrived.
He made Delicato give him the precise GPS location for the lodge, then went to take a shower and decide what to do with his prisoner. Killing him was a temptation he had a hard time resisting, but if he needed more information on Lococco's whereabouts, Delicato was the only one who would be able to help him. Still, Delicato had found Scott's Achilles heel, and leaving him alive would only risk having that little piece of information spread around. He was damned if he was going to let his family be used against him this way again. Having resolved that the inconvenience of terminating his only source of information on Roger Lococco was the less onerous choice, he dressed and hustled Delicato back downstairs and out of the hotel, grabbing a cab and directing the driver to take them out to the Presidio. True to his word to the man in the dim basement that first day, he put a single round deep into Delicato's brain and left him in one of the old World War II gun emplacements that looked out over the entrance to the Bay as the fog horns wailed mournfully.
LaMont arrived in Vancouver at five thirty a.m. and rented a four wheel drive vehicle, finding himself a hotel room in the heart of the downtown area in which to catch a little sleep before heading up into the mountains, as well as to take the time to outfit himself for the expedition. He had contacts in most major cities in the western hemisphere, and in many of the ones in the East, as well, thanks to his days as a government player, and seldom arrived anywhere to find procuring the equipment he would need a problem. By mid-afternoon, well-rested and even more well-provisioned, he consulted his Canadian geological survey map and headed northeast into the mountains surrounding the city. He arrived at the foot of a dirt road that was the only possible access point onto Quan-Li's property at dusk, disinclined to take on the poorly graded road at night. Considering his options, he elected to find a motel in which to spend the night, hanging out at a road house half a mile from the place, entertaining himself by trying to solicit information on his destination from the locals who inhabited the bar. After a slow start, the yokels with their Canadian twangs warmed up to the subject and gossiped about the mysterious monk who lived up the mountain with enthusiasm.
"He's been up there for years," one plaid flannel-garbed troglodyte confided, stentoriously, as if imparting a fact of considerable rarity.
"Runs some sorta ninja school or something," another local, this one in a torn black ZZ Top T-shirt, added. "There's always these survivalist types tryin' to get up there and get him to take them on."
"I guess he's picky about his students, huh?" Scott prompted, sipping his beer. Whatever their shortcomings, the Canadians definitely made a better brew than the mass-produced swill available for general consumption in the States, he thought.
"I'd say," Flannel agreed. "Ain't never noticed a trend, you know, like they all have military buzz cuts, or they're all Asian, or anything, but every once in a while, one of em goes up, and doesn't come back down for a few months. Don't know what the hell they do up there, but I can tell you this, when one'a that priest's Kung-fu guys comes in here, you'd better leave them the hell alone. Some of our local geniuses tried picking a fight with a few of them and wound up in the hospital in intensive care."
Interesting, Scott mused, nursing his beer, listening as several other patrons added their two cents worth to this piece of information. The general consensus was that whatever martial art it was this priest taught, it was particularly effective, easily overcoming both the barroom brawl techniques of the bar regulars, as well as the more calculated fighting skills of some of the local mountain men. He even got a description of how one young Tai kwan-do black belt had taken a shot at one of Quan-Li's students, only to find himself pulverized and bleeding on the sawdust-sprinkled floor of the roadhouse without his opponent apparently even breaking a sweat. All of which told him that hand-to-hand combat with Lococco would be more dangerous than he had first suspected. Avoiding a one-on-one physical confrontation should still prove relatively simple, as long as his hunting skills were up to snuff. Even the most accomplished martial artist would have a hard time avoiding a bullet he didn't know was coming.
Forewarned, he returned to his rustic and thread-bare motel room and went to bed. His sleep was dreamless, unusual when he was on a job, and he woke vaguely disoriented the next morning and set out for his rendezvous with the mysterious monastery up the mountain. He was glad he had waited to tackle the road until daylight, he thought as he jounced his slow way up the mountainside. There were areas where much of the track had been eroded away, leaving it barely passable and the potholes alone would have thrashed a less sturdy off-road vehicle than the Land Rover he drove. He consulted the hand-held GPS device he had obtained and when he judged himself within three or four miles of the old lodge, pulled off the road and concealed the car behind a thicket of dogwood and bracken. He spent twenty minutes checking his gear, then settled his pack on his shoulders and set off up the mountain towards the lodge, taking a satellite reading at regular intervals. The last thing he needed was to wind up lost in this wilderness, or accidentally surrendering the advantage of surprise by stumbling across his destination unprepared.
It took him most of an hour to get within range, and even with all his caution, he nearly blundered into the clearing that housed the old lodge unawares. Only luck kept him from breaking cover at the edge of the five-acre meadow that surrounded a three-story stone hunting lodge that had settled into the landscape as though it had grown there. He took out his field glasses and settled down to surveil the place, wondering how long it would be before he caught sight of his quarry.
He did not have long to wait. Perhaps half an hour after his arrival, he saw two men step into the courtyard formed by the wings of the U-shaped lodge. Lococco he recognized instantly, the man's intimately familiar features coming into focus through his binoculars. He was bare chested, wearing loose-fitting white pants tied with a crimson sash bound elaborately around his waist. Workout clothes by the look of it. He and his companion, a wizened old man draped in gray robes almost the exact color of the stone building, bowed formally to one another, then began an intricate and ritually stylized exercise. It was like and yet unlike any other martial arts exercise LaMont had ever seen. He had had his fair share of unarmed combat training, much of it derived from eastern disciplines, but this was different in ways he was unable to quite pinpoint. There was a fluidity and grace he had never seen before, and though neither man made contact with the other, the intent of each movement was clearly to disarm or disable an opponent.
The old man, with his fluttering robes, looked like some raptor confronted by the almost serpentine quality of Lococco's countermoves. Lococco moved hypnotically, darting, weaving, drawing his opponent in for an attack only to answer with one of his own. When the old man swept a pike off a wall bracket, the ritual combat entered another level. Fascinated, unwillingly impressed, LaMont watched as the old priest's attacks on Lococco became more serious, the intent to connect with his pupil, to injure, even to kill. It was obvious that the monk was no longer simply drilling his student, but actively testing his limits.
Lococco's chest and back ran with sweat, though his breathing was still even and slow, given the level of exertion. Finally though, the priest slipped through his guard, and Lococco came to a standstill, the steel-shod pikestaff pressed hard against the hollow below his Adam's apple. Only the priest's unbelievable reflexes had prevented him from ripping out Lococco's throat. They stood frozen like this for several seconds, and Scott could see they spoke to one another, though he couldn't make out what was said. It was not English they conversed in, that much he was certain of, his lip-reading skills good enough that had it been, he would have known what was being said. Finally, Roger grinned, the lethal concentration draining away from his stance, and the old man lowered his weapon, handing it to Lococco, who set it carefully back in it's brackets. They bowed again, and companionably disappeared into the building, their workout completed.
Scott lowered his binoculars and rummaged in a coat pocket for his cigarettes, thinking better of it as he began to light one, and reluctantly returned it to the pack. There was no point in advertising his presence, and given the level of physical prowess he had just witnessed, some of the more fanciful tales concerning Quan-Li he had heard the night before suddenly seemed less unlikely. Uneasily, he considered the possibility that they might already be aware of him, here at the fringes of their small domain. His instincts as a hunter told him that this particular prey would be far more difficult to surprise than he was accustomed to. Whether he liked it or not, he was forced to admit that he might well be confronting an equal. It was not a feeling destined to make his night a pleasant one, and he settled himself in to observe through the afternoon, watching as Lococco, now clothed in black on black jeans and T-shirt, and the priest moved about the place. Lococco spent his time cleaning and sharpening weapons while the monk tended his garden, a deep silence between the two making LaMont wonder whether they shared some sort of non-verbal communication. Their awareness of each other was profound, inexplicable by any standards Scott could come up with, yet undeniable.
Dusk fell, darkening rapidly into night as it did in the mountains, and LaMont huddled deeper into his parka, glad he had brought it with him, and gnawed resolutely on a meal replacement bar as he scanned the lodge through his binoculars. The flickering glow through the windows told him the only light source was likely firelight and candles, which would have been romantic had he had female companionship to share it with, and a bed in which to do it. As it was, he waited until the last of the lights faded from the ground floor and crept in toward the compound, intent on getting an idea of the floor plan, and where the two inhabitants were quartered.
He circumnavigated the building, amazed at the state of repair in which it had been kept. Considering that there was apparently no electricity and no heavy equipment of any kind, the place was sturdy, weather-tight and astonishingly hospitable-seeming. Quan-Li must spend all of his time working on the building when his students weren't in residence, he thought bemusedly as he slipped stealthily past the kitchen, glancing in at the incongruous sight of gourmet kitchen equipment and a fireplace big enough to roast a side of beef in.
He slipped across the flagstones of the practice yard to try the latches of the big floor-to ceiling French doors that opened into the lodge's greatroom. To his surprise, they swung open noiselessly, and he paused long enough to withdraw his silenced automatic from his shoulder holster before stepping into the room. The slight scent of wax and wood smoke lingered in the dark room, testimony to the accuracy of his guess at illumination, and he stood, acclimatizing to the space in which he found himself, only the dim sheen of a quarter moon giving him any idea what the layout was.
The room was large, nearly bare of furnishings, only simple straw tatami mats and low cushions before the enormous fireplace providing any seating. The coals on the hearth glowed like rubies and topaz, burning with a light that did nothing to illuminate the room, and LaMont hesitated as he extended his hunter's senses outward, searching for the telltale signs that would betray a presence. There was nothing. Which made his astonishment all the more complete when a soft voice greeted him from the darkness.
"He has gone," was the simple statement.
"Shit!" Scott hissed, whirling to face the source of these words as adrenaline slammed through his bloodstream, gun aimed at the seated figure on the floor. Quan-Li.
"I could not persuade him to wait for you," the priest said, betraying neither fear nor concern at the automatic leveled at him.
LaMont took a deep breath before lowering the gun. Whatever the old man's game was, he had not come for him. Killing him, unless absolutely necessary, was not part of his plan.
"Are you so sure you would be able to kill me?" Quan-Li asked his newest visitor, his amusement discernable.
LaMont stared at the old priest, the adrenaline coursing through him again with this. "How long ago did he leave, old man?" he snarled, his temper flaring along with his fight-or-flight reflexes.
"Perhaps an hour, maybe two," was the calm response. "Have you eaten?"
Scott's eyes widened as he watched the old priest in the flare of a match as the robed monk lit one of the large pillar candles on a ceramic tray beside him, then used that flame to light a taper with which he rekindled a half-dozen other pillars. Rising to his feet as if he were levitating, Quan-Li circled the room to light the rest of the candles arranged throughout the place before returning to where LaMont stood stock-still in the center of the tatamis before the fire.
"Are you hungry?" he repeated.
LaMont blinked, disconcerted. "Uh, yeah," he answered at last.
Quan-Li nodded and moved toward the kitchen.
Within minutes he was back, carrying a tray laden with a lacquer bowl filled with rice and some sort of vegetable assortment, a pair of handle-less porcelain cups and a teapot. "Sit," he directed his uninvited guest, folding to his knees as he set the tray on the floor at LaMont's feet.
Scott stared down at the old man, watching him pour out the tea, finally sinking to a cross-legged position on the mat in front of Quan-Li to take the cup he held out. The surreality of the whole thing dazed him and he sipped at the beverage in bemusement, glancing at the priest over the eggshell-thin rim of the cup. "Where did he go?" he asked as he cradled the cup between his palms.
Quan-Li looked up at his visitor briefly before pouring tea into the second cup. "He has gone out to wait for you in the wilderness. He would not bring violence to my home."
LaMont snorted ironically. "Oh, yeah, that little waltz the two of you were doing outside this afternoon was completely peaceable," he retorted, voice dripping with sarcasm.
Quan-Li's smile was genuinely amused as he settled back on his heels, cupping his own tea. "It was the most peaceable' of our exercises," he agreed, ignoring the irony. "Roger felt it only fair to warn you."
LaMont stifled the anger that rose through him, disliking the sense that he was being manipulated. "Warn me," he repeated tonelessly.
"He does that with all the ones who have been sent to kill him," Quan-Li agreed. "He has learned the wisdom of allowing the other to make the decision based on complete information."
LaMont took another sip of his tea, refusing to admit to the growing confusion this conversation was producing. "So the two of you do that duet for every gunman who comes up here after him?" he asked.
"How many of them turned around and went home?" Scott asked dryly.
Quan-Li's smile answered that question. "He still feels it is the right thing to do. Someday, one may decide not to pursue him."
"Someday, one of them may actually kill him," Scott snapped. "Tomorrow, maybe I will," he added.
Quan-Li shook his head slightly. "I do not think so. He has things to teach you. And to learn from you, as well."
"This isn't some sort of game, old man!" Scott snarled irritably. "It's not some contest. My job is to kill Lococco."
"And his job is to prevent you," Quan-Li answered simply. "Eat your food before it grows cold."
LaMont stared at his host for a long second before picking up the lacquer bowl and the chopsticks alongside it, tucking into the meal ravenously.
Quan-Li watched his guest with interest, this bearded stranger who was no stranger, comparing the mannerisms, the body language to that of the son of his heart. Their similarities were astonishing, this man's slender strength, his keen intelligence, the restless questing nature of his soul so much like Lococco's. Only time would tell him if the contents of that soul would burn with the same dark brilliance that Roger's did. "What is your name?" he asked when the man had finished his food.
"LaMont. Scott LaMont. If Lococco's heard of me at all, it's probably under the name The Monk'," LaMont answered.
"And it was Master's people who hired you?" Quan-Li asked, knowing the answer.
LaMont nodded, picking up his teacup. "Only they made a slight miscalculation. They made the mistake of dragging my family into this. If Lococco survives me, he won't have to worry about the local Masters goon-squad. They're all in the morgue by now." He noted the slight nod and the faint smile that tugged on the old priest's mouth.
"At least until replacements can be found," Quan-Li said. "Why did you accept the job?"
"I told you, they dragged my family into it. And by the time I'd gotten that straightened out, your boy, Lococco, was making himself so goddamned interesting I just had to ask him out," Scott said snidely.
Quan-Li smiled into his teacup as he sipped. "Did you not think it strange that you were being sent after a man who is enough like you to be a brother?" he asked.
Scott suppressed the shiver that came with the reminder of Lococco's curious resemblance. "Why do you think I'm here?" he snapped. "I want to know how it is that I seem to have an evil twin."
"Perhaps," Quan-Li said after a moment, "it is he who has the evil twin." He locked gazes with the intruder, not breaking eye contact. It was LaMont who looked away first. "Or perhaps, you are fragments of each other, destined to complete each other in some way."
"Destined to kill each other, maybe," LaMont retorted. "I'll consider myself complete when I know the face I'm looking at in the mirror is mine, not some stranger's."
"I do not think you will find him to be a stranger," Quan-Li said with finality, as he rose to his feet. "There is a bed for you upstairs," he said as he bowed his head at his guest. "In the morning, you will find Roger at the shrine. Take the path across the meadow towards the north. It is perhaps an hour's walk." With this, he turned and glided soundlessly across the room to the heavy, rough-hewn log-framed stairs and disappeared into the gloom, leaving LaMont to gaze after him.
Roger watched the stars wheel across the sky, the gauzy Milky Way streaking across it from horizon to horizon like a harem girl's veil. He wondered what Quan-Li would make of this newest seeker. The old priest had warned him they were being watched the previous afternoon, as though he could not have determined that for himself by this time. He had teased Quan-Li, telling his teacher that that particular lesson had long ago been learned past any unlearning. He had survived the dangers his life had thrown against him in large part due to his ability to sense them before they manifested. As a young soldier, he had at first assumed everyone could do so, not realizing it was a skill he had acquired by osmosis from his lessons at Quan-Li's informal and unsanctioned school in the deserted monastery outside Quang Tri. It had freaked out everyone who had seen him do it, until he started keeping his mouth shut and simply acting on the information his senses relayed to him.
He had known he would not be able to shake his pursuer permanently, but the speed with which he had arrived on Quan-Li's doorstep had surprised him. He had come to this place both because it was a refuge for him against the hazards and demands of his life, and because, in the expanse of wilderness, he was far more able to sense his stalker than he would have been in the teeming cities, with their white noise of conscious minds. Here, the wild things would be his allies, their simpler minds a backdrop against which a man's thoughts glittered like pyrite in a stream bed. It wasn't that he could read them, per se, it was only that he was aware of them as he might be aware of the magnetic fields associated with high tension lines, the strength of that awareness increasing with proximity.
He had refused to wait for the man who hunted him, preferring to let Quan-Li run interference. Most people found the priest unnerving when first encountering him, and Roger was not beyond accepting any advantage that presented itself. While the priest would not act with violence, unless in self-defense, against any of the assassins who had come here after Roger in the past, he also had not aided them, either, beyond directing them to the place Roger waited for them.
Lococco had bested three men, and this one was the fourth to come after him here. The other three had long since become food for the small creatures who made the woods their home, their bones buried under cairns of the granite that made up the spine of these mountains. He felt no particular remorse for having killed them as they had intended to kill him, survival under these circumstances coming down to the most basic tenants of Darwinism – kill or be killed. He let himself drift outward from his body, traveling along the same paths the starlight had for aeons, his conscious mind drifting back toward the old stone lodge and the two lives there. He felt Quan-Li's awareness of him, the warmth of that long friendship like sun-struck jade, translucent and veined with both light and dark. He passed with silent greeting, focusing instead on the hematite sheen of the second soul. It reflected his own onyx blackness back at him, fragmented and spiked with the gleam of ancient stars, like a broken mirror, as impenetrable as he himself was, the only light that which reflected from it.
So. A soul as cursed as his own, he thought, drifting away again, only to find himself caught as if in the gravity well of some massive object, held like a specimen moth on a pin as awareness focused on him in turn. He shielded himself reflexively against this unexpected assault, having never, in all the times he had evaluated an opponent this way, been examined in turn. As the first rush of adrenaline faded, he realized this was the touch of a sleeping mind, not a conscious one, an instinctive awareness, not a calculated one, and relaxed against it, letting his own jet darkness reflect the hematite angles and edges of this soul, granting it a view of itself, and of him. He felt the shock even through the walls of sleep as this mind recognized what it saw, recognized both itself, and him. In that instant of amazement, he freed himself and spiraled outward again, drifting free in the night as he had so many times before, letting starlight wash him clean of the other's touch. He shared the other's astonishment, uncertain what to make of this, or what it boded for the physical encounter yet to come.
Uncertainty shivered through him as he found his way back to the still body that sat cross-legged in the exact center of the simple shrine he and Quan-Li had built almost fifteen years before. It was a vessel as his body was, a container for whatever god or gods a man brought with him. It served as a lens, focusing and magnifying what already existed, and never in all the times Roger had meditated here had he been aware of any of the deities his mentor and others had encountered. He felt the pulse of the planet, the quantum energies that held the universe together, but never a sentience beyond man's. But tonight, energy coruscated around the little shrine, himself the epicenter of the maelstrom, and as he returned to himself, he felt it lash his nerves and muscles like the burn of exhaustion. He sat, forcing himself to endure the agony that flamed through him like every near-mortal wound he had ever received, had yet to receive, living through his death and the death of the other in a visceral way he had never experienced before.
When at last the pain had burned itself out, leaving him trembling and sweating despite the chill of a mountain night, he rose and walked unsteadily out of the shrine to the small fire he had kindled, now burned low, and stoked it, holding out aching hands to the flames to warm himself against the glacial cold and the diamond sharpness of his solitude. It was a long time before he slept.
Scott woke at first light, the memory of his dreams vague and yet disturbing. Quan-Li was already up, and he accepted the old man's offer of tea and a ginger-scented rice porridge studded with dried fruit and nuts, breaking his fast in far more comfort than he imagined Lococco had. He lingered in silent companionship, no longer dismayed by his host's ability to snatch the thoughts of others out of their heads, content with the quiet as he had seldom been before. He had been prone to filling silences with something, usually action, seldom letting them evolve, change, mutate as they were wont to do on their own. Rather he molded them, shaping them, using them as he would any other weapon. But here, he was satisfied to leave them be, to admire them as he might some work of art. Part of him was conscious of how odd this was, how unlike himself, and he wondered idly what the old man had put into the food to alter his perceptions as they had been.
"The food was not drugged," Quan-Li answered this absent speculation with humor, taking Scott's empty bowl and pouring him some more tea. "You simply see more clearly in the mountain air," he added as he sipped his own tea.
"How do you do that?" LaMont asked, curious.
"Do what?" the monk asked.
"Know what I'm thinking."
Quan-Li shrugged slightly, rolling his cup between his palms. "I see it in your face. Few men are as opaque as they believe themselves to be," he answered.
At some level, to his surprise, this made sense, and Scott let it be, finishing his tea and setting the cup down on the tray on the low table that sat between himself and the priest. "North, huh?" he queried as he got up gracefully.
Quan-Li nodded, smiling, as he watched his uninvited guest gather up the pack he had brought with him and shrug into it. "Give my greetings to Roger," he said, sipping again from his cup.
LaMont eyed his host for a moment, the sheer Peculiarity of this request striking him, penetrating the mellow haze that had enveloped him since waking. Abruptly, urgency returned and he turned away, leaving as he had come, through the tall French doors, stepping into the brilliant air of the morning.
Roger felt him coming. He could track his approach by the wave of silence that preceded him as all the woods' inhabitants quieted to let the intruder pass among them. He checked his weapons again, ensuring that his Heckler & Koche automatic was fully loaded, and that his spare clips were full. It went back into its shoulder holster, and he loosened the hunting knife in its sheath before picking up his lightweight composite crossbow. He shouldered both his pack and his quiver, stirring the ashes of his fire one last time to ensure the last of the embers were out, then started off in the direction of the ridge that rose sharply to the east.
He had the advantage of knowing the terrain intimately, having spent a great deal of time exploring the landscape around the shrine. He set off on one of the countless game trails that crisscrossed the mountains, trusting his pursuer to have enough woods sense to follow him. The ridge he was making for, a granite outcropping left by the retreat of the ice sheets that had covered North America, was the highest point within range, and he hoped to reach it well ahead of his shadow. It was riddled with crevasses and caves formed by the rock as it exfoliated off the sheer face of the cliffs, crashing down to litter the slopes with colossal debris. It was the perfect place to rig the series of deadfalls that he hoped would speed his opponent's death.
Scott reached the shrine a little over an hour after he had left the lodge, and cast about like a hunting dog, examining the trace evidence of the camp Lococco had made the night before. He noted the patch of flattened grass that had served as a bed, and ran his fingers through the ashes of the small fire. They were still warm, which meant that his target was at most an hour or two ahead of him. He elected to spare a few minutes to examine the area around the shrine, a simple stone gazebo-like structure, looking for any further evidence of Lococco's presence. It was there in abundance, though most of it was subtle enough that it would have evaded casual notice. He did enough hunting and had spent enough time in the wild to be sensitive to even such minimal clues. The thing that puzzled him, however, were the remains of a pair of incense sticks set in deep holes for that purpose in the stone half-wall of the gazebo at points that corresponded exactly to magnetic north and due south. It appeared his quarry had performed some sort of ritual here, something that caught him off guard. For Lococco to have engaged in something that held even potential religious overtones struck him as odd in his experience of men engaged in their mutual profession.
Still, he supposed he shouldn't be surprised. Quan-Li might be an ex-priest, but some of that mindset had to have lingered, even this long since his exile from the land of his birth. In that light, it wasn't especially shocking that some of it had rubbed off on Quan-Li's prize pupil. He found himself wondering what had led to the monk's fall from grace, his banishment from whatever order it was he had once belonged to. He speculated on this as he set off in Lococco's footsteps, literally, down a deer trail heading roughly east. Lococco was making no effort to conceal his direction, confirming for Scott that he knew he was being followed.
As a consequence, LaMont made no effort at stealth, not bothering to waste his resources in a pointless exercise. Instead, he concentrated on Lococco's trail, trying to establish how long it had been since the other man had passed this way. The fact that leaves underfoot had had time to darken with the bruising of his passage told Scott he maintained a fairly steady distance behind his prey, neither gaining nor losing ground. It was not until the path he followed began to climb sharply, the terrain becoming rockier and less forested, that he began to gain on him. He found this odd, and slowed his pace slightly, wondering what had delayed his target. There had been no sign of trouble, and no indication that he had stopped anywhere to rest. His increased caution saved LaMont's life when he hesitated the merest fraction of a second as something brushed an ankle. His glance down prevented the crossbow quarrel from penetrating his throat, instead passing harmlessly – if too closely – over his left shoulder, tearing through the Goretex of his parka. He swore violently as he dropped to his belly, gun in his hand, scanning the open woodland for some sign of his enemy. There wasn't enough cover to hide a man if he moved, something that worked both for and against him, as he scuttled on knees and elbows off the trail into the questionable shelter offered by some underbrush.
He lay, listening for any sound that would betray Lococco's presence, hearing nothing beyond the sigh of the wind in the evergreens and the occasional bird call. Convinced at last that he had walked into a booby trap, he got to his feet and retraced the direction the arrow had come from. He found the crossbow lashed to a tree, the dark gray of its graphite construction making it difficult to see until he was looking straight at it. Lococco had used translucent fishing line to rig the trigger to a trip line across the path that Scott had walked blithely into, barely avoiding becoming shish-kabobbed on the feathered shaft.
He cursed Lococco under his breath as he unfastened the bow from the tree then retraced his steps to find the titanium-shafted arrow, which had lodged deeply in a tree trunk some fifteen feet on the other side of the path. Not one to turn his back on a weapon, even one with only a single round, LaMont loaded the quarrel into the bow and safetied it, slinging it over a shoulder as he continued on in search of his prey.
About a quarter mile later, the path disappeared into the scree slope that footed the base of the granite ridge they had traveled towards all morning. The loose rubble rolled underfoot, and he knew that if Lococco had gone this way, he would be making very poor time indeed. He stopped long enough to gnaw his way through another meal replacement bar, sparing a wistful thought for Quan-Li's hospitality, as he considered his options.
Scant though it was, as long as he remained in the trees, he had the benefit of whatever cover they offered. He decided at last that he would examine the slope a mile in each direction, hoping to pick up Lococco's trail again when he abandoned the rougher going of the stone and gravel base of the ridge. If the man was still on those bare slopes, LaMont would in all likelihood spot him before Lococco saw Scott, another advantage in their game of cat-and-mouse. The trick would be, he thought, avoiding becoming the mouse.
Roger hopped lightly from boulder to boulder along the crest of the terminal moraine left by some long-vanished glacier, wondering if the man who followed him had stumbled across the first of the little surprises he had left behind for him. It had bothered him to abandon the bow, but he had every hope he could retrieve it from the man's corpse when he had succeeded in killing him. In the meantime, he had to reach his objective before dusk to allow him to rig the trap he had in mind. He had used similar tricks to defeat the others who had followed him into this wilderness, letting gravity and the unstable glacial debris do the dirty work for him. He operated on the assumption that the man who tracked him was bright enough not to fall for anything obvious, so he held out little hope that the bow had done its work, but there were other deadfalls to get past. The one he intended as the last would be subtle enough that only luck would likely spare his pursuer a painful death, crushed beneath tons of granite.
It was late afternoon when he rounded the northern end of the ridge and angled his way downward to the base of the slope where the forest started. The spot he was making for was one he had found years before, a small but deep gully that edged the rubble field, formed by years of rain and melt water running off the granite above. From above, the escarpment seemed solid, the stone of its edge apparently sturdy. From below, however, the degree of erosion was more obvious. Careful to leave no tracks, he made his way down the jumbled stone of the gully, then set about building his trap.
LaMont cursed the decision that had sent him a mile south out of his way before turning to head north again. He had lost precious time, and he was not pleased at the prospect of a night spent trying to pick up Lococco's trail again. He knew he was heading the right direction when he came across another little souvenir left behind by Lococco, this time a knife strapped to a sapling bent backward to the limit of its tensile strength, awaiting a careless misstep to release the rope that held it to send it whipping toward the unwary traveler who set it off. He liberated the knife, sliding it into the top of his boot for want of a sheath, hoping vindictively that he would have the chance to use it on its former owner. He was growing angry, his patience insufficient for an extended engagement. Lococco was proving to be a first class pain in the ass, and Scott's mood soured steadily all afternoon as he made his way haltingly along the edge of the stone rubble field, lured on by the occasional footprint in the dust and forest detritus that had accumulated like a tide line along the rocks. The last rays of the sun had disappeared behind the mountains to the west by the time he finally reached the north end of the ridge, and he paused, watching the play of the last light on the clouds that hung in the sky like cotton candy. He hoped it wouldn't rain. That would be all he needed to make the whole expedition as miserable as it was possible to get.
Distracted by his irritable musings, he scrambled his way downward, deciding that whatever Lococco was doing, he was not about to wander about in the dark. It was time to find a campsite, preferably one with water. He could hear the splash of a stream over rock somewhere in the vicinity and he made his way in the direction of the sound. The gully was fairly narrow, but reasonably deep, lined with more of the broken and tumbled stone he had seen so much of that day. Water glinted in the shadows at the bottom, and he edged closer to the lip of the arroyo to try to gage the best way down.
The crack of an explosion was followed instantly by the thunder of weakened stone, and LaMont flung himself away from the edge as he felt the ledge give way underfoot. He caught the newly fractured edge of the gully with one hand, unable to get a good enough grip to keep from tumbling downward into the cloud of granite dust that billowed up to meet him. He hit badly, feeling the wrenching agony in his right knee as it twisted under the impact as he fell backwards onto his pack, the crossbow jabbing him in the ribs painfully. His ankle was wedged awkwardly among the sharp-edged rocks he had come to a stop amidst, and he knew if he had not landed feet first, he would undoubtedly have been killed. Lococco. It had to have been. Which meant the sonovabitch had to be nearby, since whatever had triggered the slide could not have been set off remotely without electronics he doubted anyone would have had the foresight to bring with them. Coughing in the suffocating dust, he struggled into a sitting position, ignoring the screaming pain in his knee as he freed his foot.
"Lococco! You miserable bastard! You are dead!" LaMont howled in rage. The crack and whine of a bullet off stone sent rock chips scattering over his hand and he rolled awkwardly off the boulder that had stopped his fall, caroming downward another fifteen feet before coming to a halt half in the stream he had heard. He had struck his head, more than once, during the last part of his fall, and he lay where he had landed, dazed and nauseous, heedless of the chill of the water that flowed over his legs, the fading boom of the gunshot echoing his dimming grasp on consciousness.
Roger's grin was feral as he holstered the H&K, taking up his pack and making his way back down into the gully to examine his handiwork firsthand. The worst of the dust was settling out by the time he picked his way over the jagged stones to the body that lay sprawled limply at the stream's edge. He approached cautiously, not trusting that his stalker was as incapacitated as he appeared. There was no movement at all, not so much a twitch, but Lococco knew the man was still alive by the shallow rise and fall of his chest, and the faint throb of a pulse in the large vein of his neck where it lay exposed, taut against the skin, the man's face turned away from Roger.
Roger crouched, catching the bearded jaw in one hand and turning the hunter's face towards him to catch his first glimpse of the man's features. And froze, staring at the face in disbelief. Despite the beard, and even through the blood that slicked the man's forehead and right cheek, he was looking into a face enough like his own to be the reflection in his bathroom mirror. He rocked back on his heels, hand snatched away as though burned, and considered this bizarre turn of events. Not yet having decided what to do, he settled for disarming his opponent, retrieving his bow, somewhat battered but still functional, and his knife, as well as the pack the man wore and the gleaming Glock automatic from his shoulder holster.
Lococco dragged him across the creek to the less cluttered side, pulling him another twenty feet to a point where the streambed widened out, leaving a narrow grassy verge tucked under the far bank. He dropped him unceremoniously, removing his pack, and bound the man's hands with a length of the fishing line he had brought with him, snugging it down hard enough to keep him from getting any ideas when he woke, provided he did.
Roger rummaged through the other man's pack, taking inventory, then set about building a camp for the night, and by the time he had lit a fire and brought a billy can of water to boil, his prisoner was beginning to groan. He checked the bonds on his wrists once more, then crouched a little distance from him as the man's eyes flickered open, then closed again with another moan. "Hurts worse than a hangover, huh?" he observed dryly as his reflection turned his head to stare back into his eyes with the same storm-gray gaze. He got another low moan for an answer, and he grinned. "Looks like you dislocated your knee. Probably hurts like hell, but you'll live, even if you aren't gonna enjoy it much for a while. Now tell me who the hell you are, who sent you and why you came up here after me."
LaMont squinted at the silhouette limned by the ruddy glow of the small blaze behind him, his head pounding, queasiness bringing his stomach up the back of his throat. "Fuck you," he groaned as he rolled onto his side to retch miserably into the grass. He'd had enough concussions to know he had another, and as he coughed up the last of the bile in his stomach, he cursed the curiosity that had sent him after this man.
"Temper, temper, Buckwheat," Roger laughed and straightened, walking down to the creek's edge to fill a metal backpacker's cup with the icy runoff and returned, holding the lip to the man's mouth. "Drink up," he suggested.
Startled, Scott did so, gratefully, the cold water cramping his empty belly as it washed the sick taste out of his mouth.
"Who are you?" Roger repeated when the cup was empty.
"Scott LaMont," Scottie answered wearily, rolling onto his back to stare up at the stars that were beginning to appear overhead.
"The Monk," Lococco said, surprised. "I thought you gave up Civil Service in favor of civil disobedience," he commented.
Scott snorted quietly. "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," he retorted, closing his eyes. "They went after people I care about."
"I thought people in your line of work gave up caring about much of anything," Roger said cynically.
"Well you should know, Lococco. You sure managed to cut all those ties." Scott gritted his teeth against the weakness that held him immobile.
Roger chuckled, the sound dangerously un-amused. "They were cut for me when I was six, Buckwheat, and my folks packed me off to boarding school. It was a pretty effective cure for caring." He got to his feet and returned to the fire, leaving LaMont to wallow in his discomfort for a bit, angry that the man had gotten a rise out of him. He did not generally allow himself to think about his childhood, and the choices it had led him too. Self-pity was not something he was comfortable indulging in. He finished spitting the rabbit he had snared earlier in the day as he had waited for LaMont, stuffing the body cavity with the mountain laurel and wild thyme he had found growing nearby. By the time he had set it to roast over the coals, he had his temper back under control. "So I assume it was one of Master's psychophants who sent you after me," he said to LaMont as he stared across the small space that separated them, watching Scott breath slowly as he waited for an answer.
"Some San Francisco lawyer named Delicato," LaMont said, shifting position slightly to ease the discomfort of lying on his hands and arms. "He won't be sending anyone else after you."
Lococco raised an eyebrow at this. "I guess thanks are in order, then," he said with an exaggerated drawl as he repositioned the rabbit over the coals. "Did you do him after you got your family back?" he asked conversationally, wanting to get a better feel for his companion.
"Yeah. Consider him a gift. So how many hired guns have they sent after you?" Scott asked after a moment.
Roger shrugged. "You lose count after a while," he quipped. "Three of em are out here, under rock piles like the one you managed to avoid."
"I imagine those are just the tip of the iceberg, knowing your reputation. So how'd you bring the ledge down, anyway?" LaMont asked, idly curious.
Lococco settled back on his haunches as he lay another piece of wood on the fire before answering. "A trick I learned in the Nam. A little gunpowder wedged into the right crack'll split even basalt."
LaMont nodded, then closed his eyes against the nausea that swept over him again with the movement. He struggled to keep the water he'd drunk down, swallowing hard. "Nice trick," he said grimly when he could speak again.
"So glad it meets with your approval," Lococco snapped, irritated. "I'd have tried for more originality if I'd known there was going to be a critique afterwards."
"It gets a ten for efficiency, but low fives on neatness," LaMont retorted. "It's not much use on a target who can move fast enough."
"Most of the time, they don't figure it out until they're at the bottom of the pile," Roger replied. "Your reflexes were just a little better than most." He was willing to give credit where credit was due, for a fellow professional. LaMont's snort of laughter made Roger grin fleetingly.
"Speaking of reflexes, your teacher wanted me to pass along his greetings," Scott said, changing the subject.
It was Roger's turn to laugh. "He feed you?" he asked, knowing his mentor well.
"Dinner. Then he sent me to bed and gave me breakfast and directions on how to find you in the morning."
Roger considered this silently, busying himself with turning his rabbit. It was beginning to roast nicely, though it would be another hour before it had cooked enough to be edible.
Quan-Li had sent LaMont after him with considerably more assistance than he generally gave the men who went after Roger up here. With the priest, it meant one of two things: either he had taken the measure of the man and considered LaMont a learning experience for Roger, or he had taken a shine to him. Quan-Li's affections were not given lightly, nor according to any logic Roger had ever been able to determine. They were capricious, unpredictable, and often counter-intuitive. He had never, for instance, figured out why the old man had elected to give his friendship to Roger, a part of the army that had invaded his home and laid waste to his country. It had made no sense to him at the time. It still didn't.
It did explain to some extent the impulse that had led him to drag LaMont out of the creek and spare his life, though. While Quan-Li denied any telepathic or other extra-sensory perceptions, Lococco had acted in ways that went against his inherent tendencies before, only to find out he had done so with the active approval of his teacher, whether he knew it or not at the time. He had no explanation for how the old monk accomplished this, but by this time, he knew enough to heed those impulses. It did not tell him what Quan-Li hoped he would learn from LaMont, but he suspected there would be a test.
"Can I ask you a question?" LaMont inquired as the silence between them lengthened. He took Roger's continued quiet for an affirmative and continued. "Why didn't you just leave me here? Or kill me and get it over with?"
Roger's laughter was silent, redolent of irony. "I've been asking myself the same thing, Buckwheat," he told his companion. "When I figure it out, I'll let you know."
Scott thought about this, unsatisfied, but recognizing the truth when he heard it. Lococco had spared his life on a whim, and he knew he was badly injured enough that if he made it off this mountain, it would only be with the other man's help. Being at the mercy of a man he had agreed to kill was bad enough without owing him any favors. He lay on his back, his arms and shoulders beginning to ache in earnest, the prickle of pins and needles adding their subtle torment to the other pains that plagued him. "So if peace has broken out, how bout untying me?" he asked after a time.
"Has it?" Roger asked, eyeing the other man. "You still planning on killing me?"
"I do that and I don't get out of this alive, either. The reality is, I don't need to kill you. At least not today. Maybe someday, but it won't be on your turf, that's for damned sure," Scott answered. "If I come after you again, the first you'll know about it will be when the bullet drills you a third eye."
"You're so sure you could hit me" Roger mused aloud. "It'd almost be worth letting you try again, just to see if you're as good as you think you are."
"It'd almost be worth putting a slug in you right now to wipe that smug expression off your face, bubba," Scott snapped back, his temper as tattered as his body.
Roger laughed again, reaching for the hunting knife where it stood point down, wedged in a chunk of wood beside the fire. "With an attitude like that, what've I got to lose?" he said and got up, coming to stand beside LaMont. He crouched down, rolling Scottie onto his side, then neatly sliced through the fishing line that bound his hands, rising and stepping back with smooth grace.
"Thank you," Scott said with poorly concealed annoyance as he lay back and began massaging his wrists. The prickling sensation faded as blood returned to his arms and he sighed. The only thing it accomplished was to point up the throbbing agony in his knee. It had swollen now to the point that his jeans were painfully snug against the flesh, even the damp denim doing nothing to slow the inflammation. "Give me your knife," he said as he sat up slowly.
Lococco hesitated only the barest fraction of a second before tuning the knife in his grasp and flipping it to stand quivering, point down, less than three inches from LaMont's thigh.
Scott didn't flinch, reaching for the blade before it had finished vibrating and using it to slit his pants leg along the inside seam to a point above the knee, peeling back the fabric to examine the joint in the dim light from the fire. "Shit," he cursed softly as the extent of the bruising became evident, still darkening to it's eventual maximum.
"Nasty," was Lococco's contribution as he turned away and bent to rummage in the packs that leaned against the granite wall of the gully. He pulled out an already cannibalized black T-shirt and went to immerse it in the stream, wringing it out and returning to Scott's side. He handed him the shirt. "Wrap this around it. It'll help bring the swelling down," he directed.
"Thank you Dr. Kildare," LaMont said, letting his irritation show. "The file on you didn't mention medical school." Roger's grin only made him angrier and he glared up at Lococco poisonously.
"I'm sure it was an oversight," Lococco grinned. "So suffer. See if I care." He returned to the fire, contenting himself with attending to his dinner. He dipped his cup into the can of boiling water and dropped a pinch of tea leaves into it, watching them unfurl slowly as the water softened them. Setting the cup on one of the rocks that ringed the flames, he got up again, retrieving the knife from LaMont's side as he passed, noting that Scott had taken his advice and wrapped the damp shirt around the knee. He walked less than a hundred yards downstream before finding what he was looking for, a scraggly clump of willow, their branches drooping into the creek. He peeled off strips of bark and when he had enough, he returned with his prize to the fire, using the pommel of the knife to bruise the cambium layer, then he added several strips to the tea. He carried the cup over to LaMont, who took it suspiciously.
"What the hell is in this?" Scott asked.
"Willow, and some Lapsang Souchong."
"Lapsa-who?" LaMont queried, glancing up at Roger then back at the cup.
"Willow has salicylic acid in the bark. It's the chief constituent of aspirin. The Lapsang will kill the taste a little," Roger answered, turning away to return to the fire. He dumped the rest of the willow bark into the can of water and added another log to the fire, watching the flames, letting his mind quiet, thoughts draining away like water down a drain.
If Quan-Li had sent LaMont after him, there was a reason. And he knew better than to take it lightly. One of the reasons he did not return to the monk's sanctuary often was that invariably, he was put in the position of pupil once again, and at forty five, he was getting a little tired of it. Particularly since the lessons Quan-Li expected him to learn were becoming more challenging. The physical ones he had long since become proficient at, but the mental ones, especially the ones that involved the needs and expectations of other people were no more comfortable than they had been before. He had not been exaggerating when he had told LaMont that boarding school had been the catalyst for the solitude in which he had lived his life. Of necessity, the men he had fought with had penetrated his reserve, but very few of them remained alive, and very few others had been allowed close enough to reach his heart. The barriers he had erected against anything that would make him dependant on another human being were formidable indeed. He had become truly expert at feeling none of the gentler emotions, knowing that to accept friendship from others put not only himself, but them, at risk. He would allow no one to become a tool in the hands of his enemies, leverage that could be used to destroy him. Friendship was something he could simply not afford.
In the flickering of the flames, he saw visions, ghost-like specters of the few who had found their way unwittingly past his defenses, without conscious choice on his part. Vince Terranova was simply the most recent of them, his supervisor, Frank McPike, an equally recent and reluctant friend. He suddenly missed Vince, the quick wit, the sarcasm, the instinctive awareness they had of each other, the trust. Why Terranova had befriended him remained as much a mystery to him as the reasons Quan-Li had. Roger had fought against it, giving in only when it became clear that nothing he could do would change Vinnie's mind. The man had the loyalty and tenaciousness of a bulldog, and an unconscious charm that drew attention.
Terranova had interested him from the minute they had met, baiting each other with their manly prowess in the aftermath of Vinnie's (staged) attempted gun buy at a Stockton, California, hotel. The fact that Vince had refused to back down in the face of Roger's edgy temper had impressed him at the time, and impressed him even more now, realizing that Terranova had been operating under the assumption that Lococco was a contract killer. To all intents and purposes he supposed he had been just that. He had been living under cover so deep he had lost sight of everything but surviving. Vince and his refusal to compromise certain basic principles had revealed to him just how far from grace he had fallen. It was that that had convinced him to put a stop to Herb Ketcher's Caribbean invasion plans. And it was that decision that had indirectly resulted in Leland Masters sending Scott LaMont after him.
In some ways, it seemed to him that every action he had taken, along all the paths of his life, had led to this place, this time, this man. What struck him as truly odd was that looking at LaMont was like looking into a mirror that reflected not only his face, but himself, as he had been before meeting Vince. And suddenly, he realized it was that perception that Quan-Li had hoped for when he had sent LaMont after him. Lococco had refused to acknowledge to his teacher – or himself – how much he had changed since resigning' from the CIA. He could no more kill Scott LaMont in cold blood than he could have killed himself. Killing in self-defense didn't bother him, but that line had been crossed with LaMont the minute he'd dragged him out of the creek. It brought to mind the ancient Chinese saying that to save a man's life once was to accept responsibility for it forever. He sighed, poking a stick into the flames, then turning his rabbit on it's make-shift spit again. He had enough trouble accepting responsibility for his own life, much less anyone else's. Clearly, however, Quan-Li had seen something in LaMont, something that Lococco needed to see for himself. He sighed again, knowing he was in for an interesting few days. It would take that long to get the injured LaMont down off the mountain, given the sharply reduced speed they would be moving at. He could easily have used his cell phone to summon help, but something told him doing so would not only annoy Quan-Li, but defeat the old man's purpose in aiding LaMont in the first place. It was a good thing he had gone through Scott's pack before he had recovered consciousness. The GPS device and LaMont's cell phone were now at the bottom of the creek twenty yards upstream under a boulder. As far as he was concerned, they could remain there until they became part of the fossil record in the distant future.
Resigned to his fate, he checked the rabbit's progress, satisfied that it was roasting rather than burning, and got to his feet and walked over to LaMont, who had propped himself against a rock, staring moodily out into the night. He could see the shivers that rattled the injured man and he crouched beside him. "You're going to die of exposure, sitting out here in the dark. Want a hand getting to the fire?"
Scott glared up at Lococco, his mood foul after nearly an hour of brooding. His head ached violently and his knee was in flames, the bumps and bruises that covered the rest of him just minor annoyances at this stage. "I thought that was the point of leaving me sitting here," he snarled, past caring if Lococco simply put him out of his misery. He saw the flash of anger in Roger's face, and watched as he brought it under control.
Despite his annoyance, Lococco was amused, recognizing a hair-trigger temper much like his own. Anger management was apparently something neither he nor LaMont could claim as skills. "Suit yourself, but if you don't get warm, you'll be dead of hypothermia before I can get you back to Quan-Li's. And something tells me that'll piss him off. He seems to have taken a liking to you."
This caught Scott by surprise, and he eyed Lococco suspiciously. "On what do you base that whacko assumption?" he inquired cynically, huddling deeper into his parka.
"He doesn't usually invite Masters' assassins in for supper. And he's never let one of you spend the night then sicced you on me the next morning," Roger informed him. "You can take that any way you like. But to me, it means I'm in trouble with the old man if I don't bring you back in one piece. My guess is, he's got plans for you."
LaMont stared at Lococco, frowning, caught by surprise at the idea that without intending too, he had somehow auditioned for the old monk. Finally, grudgingly, he nodded. "Alright," he agreed shortly, letting Lococco pull one of his arms over a shoulder. Scott braced himself with his good foot and did what he could to help Roger get him upright, his vision darkening as blood roared in his ears. He nearly threw up again, bending forward and gagging on the acid that rose from his stomach. Lococco waited, supporting him, until he had recovered somewhat, and together they moved haltingly toward the fire.
Roger settled Scott against the base of the cliff in front of the fire, careful not to jar the man's injured leg, and left him to mind the fire after he had turned the rabbit again.
"Where the hell are you going now?" Scott asked as he watched Lococco vanish into the stygian darkness outside the glow of the fire.
Roger ignored LaMont's irritable query as he headed out into the dark in search of pine trees whose boughs could be used as bedding, needing the time to rearrange his mindset. By the time he returned with his armload of branches, LaMont had faded into a glazed stupor that told him the sort of pain the man was in. He dipped up some more of the hot willow bark infusion and steeped additional tea leaves in it, then brought it to Scott, holding the cup while the man downed the brew with a grimace of distaste.
"Gack," Scott commented on the bitter drink. "I think I need something stronger than aspirin," he complained weakly. "You wouldn't happen to have any scotch with you?" He glanced at Lococco, not surprised at the shake of the other man's head. "No cigarettes, either, I'll bet," he added, anticipating the second head-shake. "Figures. Remind me not to get stranded with you on any desert island. You and I do not have compatible ideas of what it takes to survive in the wilderness."
"You're going to have to settle for tea and rabbit," Roger said unsympathetically. "And if Quan-Li's decided to take you on, consider yourself out of luck in the wine, women and song department. The tobacco department, too," he added with a certain amount of satisfaction, turning to finish arranging the branches on the grass, topping them with one of the two metallic-coated survival blankets he'd brought with him. Not much more than glorified Mylar sheeting, the blankets were incredibly light weight and held in a surprising amount of body heat. Folding up into roughly the size of a CD jewel case, they were far more practical for a man on the run in the wilderness than a regulation army blanket.
He was aware of LaMont's scrutiny, ignoring it as he worked. When he was satisfied that he'd done what he could to make the night as comfortable as possible, he settled cross-legged across the fire pit from LaMont. At some point, he was going to have to take a look at Scott's leg, but it would have to wait until daylight. He took his knife to the crisply browned rabbit, piercing it, checking the juices that ran clear from the fleshiest part of the hindquarters. "Dinner's ready," he said, removing the spit from where it had rested, setting it on end in the soft soil to let it's burden cool.
LaMont would not have thought it possible to be nauseous and hungry at the same time, but the scent of roasted meat made his mouth water in spite of the queasiness of the concussion. "It's probably a waste to feed it to me right now. I'm not sure I'll keep it down. I have some protein bars in my pack. There's a cell phone in there, too. We can call in the Mounties in the morning."
Lococco made no response to this, sawing off one of the rabbit's hindquarters and handing it to LaMont, who took it with mingled gratitude and reluctance. "The woods are full of rabbits," he said with a shrug, "and they taste a hellova lot better than those cardboard-flavored chunks of sawdust they call meal replacements. I'll put my money on you keeping down the rabbit before I'd bet on the protein bar staying put."
LaMont held the piece of meat gingerly, the heat from it scorching hands that had been numb with cold a split second before. It was several minutes before it had cooled enough not to burn his mouth, but when he bit into the perfectly roasted flesh, he had to concede that Lococco was probably right. He doubted whether he'd ever tasted a rabbit this good in all of the hunting and camping he'd done. By the time he had gnawed the last morsels from the bones, he had to admit he felt better than he had since he'd woken up to find Lococco staring down at him. "So who are you, really?" he asked Roger as he tossed the bones into the fire. "Wolfgang Puck?"
Roger stifled the grin. "Try Jeremiah Towers," he retorted, coming back with the name of an infamous San Francisco chef.
"Geezus, I hope not," LaMont replied. "I'm not keen on the idea of being stuck out here, in no shape to defend myself, with a flaming queen as the scoutmaster for this little expedition."
Roger's grin was manic. "Don't worry, sweetheart, you're not my type. Besides, fucking you would be like masturbation. And that's nowhere near as much fun as the right woman. Or even the wrong one," he added.
LaMont grinned back at him, laughing softly. "It's kinda weird, though," he said when the laughter had died away. "Us looking so much alike. You sure you weren't adopted?"
"Not a chance," Roger snorted bitterly. "My folks had no interest in raising a kid. Why would they have adopted one? It's more likely you came along second and they put you up for adoption."
"Not according to my mother," Scott retorted, instinct telling him he'd touched on a sore spot for Roger. "She's never been shy about whipping out the family photo albums every time I'm in town. My guess is, she just can't figure out how that little kid turned into a contract killer."
"It's a fair question," Roger agreed after a moment, glancing at Scott, then back into the fire. "So how'd you wind up making a living killing people?"
"You can blame it on our mutual friend', Masters," LaMont answered sharply. "My training was supplied by the same friendly government agencies that supplied yours. In a way, I went freelance because of you," he said, a trace of mockery in his voice. "After Isle Pavot, and the thing with the counterfeit Yen a few years later, it was pretty obvious to me the only thing I was, was someone else's tool. I don't like being used. So I decided it was time to take my toys and go find some other game to play. One where I was the one making all the money. It didn't take long to find my market. But I swore I'd never work for political reasons again." Scott shrugged slightly and fell silent.
Roger let that quiet rest between them, thinking about the similarities in their histories. He didn't know much about The Monk before he had taken up freelancing, but the man's disillusionment was similar to his own. Only there had apparently been no one there to act as a mirror for him, as Vince had been for himself. Terranova, an FBI agent undercover for the Organized Crime Bureau, had never lost sight of the truth. He had never surrendered up that part of himself that lived according to the principles of right and wrong. And in calling Roger on the loss of those guiding principles, had shown Lococco how greatly his life had come to mock the very things he had once believed in so passionately. If he had any chance for redemption at all, it was thanks to Vince. He wondered if that was what Quan-Li had hoped he would realize. "So instead, you're the tool of terrorists, drug dealers, criminals of every persuasion, is that it?" he asked at last, looking across the dying fire to meet LaMont's gaze.
Scott's sharp laugh was laced with irony. "The personal habits of my clients haven't changed one iota, Lococco," he retorted. "The only thing that has is the ones I work for now pay a hellova lot better. So you tell me which is worse, bubba working for a government that conducts foreign policy by assassination and calls itself the last bastion of moral rectitude, or a bunch of criminals' who don't try to con you into doing it out of some mistaken belief in a bankrupt system."
Roger didn't answer immediately. "What about not doing it at all?"
"What, killing? Look, Lococco, another thing that hasn't changed is that the people I kill usually deserve to be executed. The people who can afford me don't have garden-variety disputes. They are bad people, with bad enemies. I deliver peace of mind. That's all. I don't make judgements."
"Then you're still just a tool, LaMont. You're still being used to accomplish someone else's objectives, you're just getting paid better for it. It's still prostitution."
Scott laughed without humor. "I can tell you this much, Lococco, I'd rather be a thousand-dollar-a-night whore than one of Uncle Sam's streetwalkers. Who the hell are you to come across all holier-than-thou?" he demanded, furious.
"Someone who's done their share of whoring," Roger answered calmly. "Only I made the decision to walk away from it. The ends don't justify the means. Not if we really believe in what this country stood for, once."
"You sanctimonious prick, that's bullshit. If the man who could write the words, All men are created equal' and still own slaves, then this country never stood for the things you think it did!" LaMont exclaimed.
"Maybe not, but at least there was once an ideal we aspired to as a nation. Until we, the people, start aspiring to those ideals again, we're not going to hold our leadership to them, either."
"What the hell is this, Political Philosophy 101?" LaMont snapped.
"This Personal Accountability 101, Buckwheat. You can justify it anyway you want, but as long as you do what you do, you're no better than the men who trained us, and then betrayed us. That wasn't something I was satisfied with. That's why I walked away from the whole thing, and it's why I won't live in the shadows. What I did was about as wrong as it gets. I get to live with that. And I may get to die for it. But I'm not going to play the plausible deniability game. I did things that damn me to hell by any religion you want to name. Maybe there's no absolution, but at least I can face the responsibility for doing them." Roger had focused his attention on the flickering coals, watching the heat ripple the air. He had never really codified the rationale behind his decision to take his chances in the open, neither to himself nor to anyone else. It was, to some extent, a form of atonement. While he took his chances, he did what he could to minimize the risks to himself. His solitude was his primary defense.
"You are so full of shit," LaMont said contemptuously. "Where do you get off, judging me?"
"Because I was you, for a lotta years," Roger responded flatly. "And I guarantee if you hang around Quan-Li, the questions he's gonna ask are gonna be a whole lot more uncomfortable than the ones we just covered."
"What makes you think I'm planning on sitting at the Master's feet?" Scott asked sarcastically. "I've got other things to do with my time than play Grasshopper'."
Roger shrugged. "That's your call, Buckwheat. But the things he can teach you'll make you unstoppable. Or they'll make you crazy. It depends on how good you really are."
LaMont stared at Lococco silently for a long while, unsure what to make of this comment. Reflex anger at the aspersions cast on his prowess as an assassin gave way to the unsettling feeling that that may not have been what Lococco was talking about.
They sat this way until the fire had dimmed to garnet embers, then Lococco dug out his second thermal blanket, shaking it out. "I'll take the watch," he said, pulling his H&K out of his shoulder holster and checking the clip again. "You'd better try to get some sleep. I'll have to wake you up every few hours," he reminded LaMont.
Roger helped LaMont back to his feet and walked him the four paces to the makeshift pallet he'd created. When Scott was settled as comfortably as possible, he dipped up another cupful of the willow tea and made the injured man swallow it before returning to the fire and laying another branch on it, prepared for a long night. He slipped into a light trance, his conscious mind freed of his body, profoundly aware of his environment as he moved outward into the wilderness, seeking the isolation he had been denied by LaMont's presence.
Scott lay in the dark, watching Lococco, who sat with closed eyes, clearly meditating or some such thing, trying not to think too closely about their earlier conversation. He had long since grown tired of justifying his choice of profession, and having someone like Lococco attack him for it made him both angry and uncomfortable. That, in combination with the pain in his leg and head, made him doubt he would sleep.
When Roger woke him three hours later, he roused instantly, every sense engaged, then groaned as his attempt to move sent waves of agony through him. Lococco's light hand on his shoulder held him down, and he relaxed back against the pine needles, squinting up at the inky silhouette barely discernable against the star-filled sky. "I'm fine," he said unconvincingly. Lococco's soft laugh irritated him, and he turned his head away.
"Have some more tea," Roger suggested, crouching beside his companion and offering him the cup once more.
It was a moment before LaMont took it, gulping the contents without comment or complaint, then handing the cup back and tugging his blanket up over his shoulders as he rolled onto his side, facing away from Lococco and the fire.
Roger took the cup and returned to his post at the fire pit without a word, silently amused at LaMont's continued pique, realizing it signaled an uneasy conscience. The remainder of the night passed similarly, Roger dozing lightly through the night, never really sleeping, but getting what rest he could. When he woke LaMont the third time, dawn was lightening the sky and the first amber rays of morning sun were streaming past the end of the ridge behind them to glint off of the treetops.
Scott groaned as he struggled into a sitting position, aching in every joint, his knee a persistent misery, his head aching as badly as it had the night before. He squinted up at Lococco, who stood facing the fire, dropping more willow bark strips into his water can, which he set in the coals to boil. The man looked obscenely well-rested considering the fact he hadn't slept. LaMont found himself hating Lococco with the surly anger of a school-boy feud, as annoyed with himself as he was with Lococco. He was a bad patient under the most ideal circumstances – and the circumstances were far from ideal. He gritted his teeth against the complaints that hovered on his tongue, instead, occupying himself with examining the swollen mess of his knee. The bruising marred the skin from mid calf to mid thigh, a deep-hued eggplant color that was still darkening. An assortment of scrapes, now crusted over, striped his leg, and he knew the left one bore matching ones, as did his back and chest. At least the nausea had abated a bit, reduced to an unsettled feeling in the bottom of his stomach.. He suspected that would change, though, as soon as they started moving. His gloomy brooding was interrupted as Roger approached him, carrying his pack. He crouched beside LaMont's pallet and dug through his equipment, removing his knife and another T-shirt.
"D'you get any sleep?" Roger asked Scott, ignoring the man's foul mood that radiated from him like heat from the coals of the fire.
"Some," LaMont admitted.
"How's the leg?" Lococco asked, glancing at him to gage the reaction.
"Take a wild guess," Scott snapped. "It hurts like hell."
Roger nodded slightly. "It's gonna get worse if we don't get it back in joint," he pointed out. He got up, taking the still-damp black T-shirt he'd given LaMont as a compress the night before, and dunked it in the icy stream, wringing it out. He returned to his patient and wrapped it around the knee with surprising gentleness, then retrieved his cup from the stones around the fire pit and scooped up another dose of the willow bark tea, handing it off to LaMont who took it without a word.
Scott swallowed the bitter brew, wishing he could tell whether it actually helped. "Don't tell me. You're going to try to pop it back in," he said resignedly.
"You can't put any weight on it till we do, and we're not making it off this mountain if you're limited to one leg," Roger said practically.
"You're nuts if you think I'm walking all the way back down on this leg," Scott scoffed. "Hand me my pack."
Lococco did as he'd been asked without a word, watching as Scott rummaged around in his gear before finally dumping the contents onto the ground. "Where the hell is my cell phone?" he demanded, glaring accusingly at Lococco.
Roger shrugged. "Probably at the bottom of that pile of rock" he replied calmly, waving a hand in the general direction of the fresh rubble on the far creek bank. "I looked for it while you were asleep this morning."
"Shit!" Scott snarled, shoving his things violently back into the pack. "Goddammit-to-fucking-hell! I'm not in any shape to hobble my way back to Quan-Li's!"
"Not with your knee like that, anyway," Roger agreed. "You ever been hypnotized?"
Scott eyed Lococco askance. "What, now you're going to make me bark like a dog? How exactly is that supposed to help?"
Roger grinned nastily. "It'd be good for a few laughs," he retorted. "The pleasure of your company so far has been underwhelming."
"Fuck you, too," Scott growled.
"If I put you in a trance state, I can get your knee back in place without you going through the roof with pain. Or we can leave it, and you'll be lucky to get out of this gully."
"Why don't you just leave me here and go for help?" LaMont demanded angrily.
"It's a full day's walk back to Quan-Li's, and another day's walk back down the road to the highway," Roger told him. "You want to sit up here by yourself for two days or more, fine, but I wouldn't recommend it. There's still a fair number of bear and mountain lion around here."
"So take my Land Rover. It's parked in the bushes off the road, about four miles down from Quan-Li's," Scott said stubbornly.
Roger cocked his head, letting his own annoyance show. "Suit yourself," he said, rising from his crouch and moving to gather his things together in silence.
Scott watched him, noting the precision with which he moved, the rigid set of his back betraying his anger. "So you'd actually leave me here," he remarked conversationally as Roger slipped one arm through the pack strap.
"Damned straight. If Quan-Li hadn't sent you after me, I'd've walked away as soon as that cliff took you down. I don't know what he wants with you, but whatever it is, I'm not going to be the one who disappoints him. So yeah. I'll head back alone and I'll let him know where he can find you, and he can decide whether or not he's gonna bother coming back up here after you, but I'm through with you, Buckwheat. You come down with me now, or you're on your own."
"You're an asshole, Lococco." LaMont sighed.
"I'm an asshole?" Roger repeated, outraged. "LaMont, you have the market cornered in that department!"
"No argument there," Scott agreed easily. "Okay, Doc, I'll leave it to you to get me outta here. Whadda you want me to do?"
Roger stared down at him, considering his choices. He was annoyed enough to be inclined to leave LaMont where he was and let Quan-Li worry about him. Only the certain knowledge that he would incur his teacher's wrath if he abandoned LaMont in the wilderness swayed him. "How bout stopping with the whine-a-thon? I hear one more complaint, and I'll dump you on the trail, wherever we are. Understand?"
"Yessir," Scott answered with a hint of flippancy, his mood improving as Lococco's had worsened. The man was surprisingly easy to goad.
Roger shook his head slightly as he dumped the pack and opened it up again. He removed what he needed and set about preparing LaMont for what would be an ordeal, even if he did prove to be hypnotizable. He used one of the techniques Quan-Li had taught him, directing Scott in the steps of self-hypnosis, satisfied at last when the injured man suffered his touch without any awareness of discomfort. He felt his way along the joint, taking LaMont through an exercise designed to bring the swelling under control, and as he felt the tissue soften under his touch, took hold of Scott's ankle, giving the leg a single deft twist. The audible snap as the knee realigned made him wince, glad that LaMont was oblivious. It would probably have sent him into unconsciousness again, without the buffer the trance offered. He re-wrapped the knee in the damp T-shirt and went in search of a pair of straight branches to use as splints for LaMont's leg. He found what he wanted and spent a few minutes peeling the bark off them and wrapping them with the fluff from the willow catkins, held in place with strips torn from his last spare shirt. The padding worked surprisingly well, and he was reasonably satisfied with his work by the time he had finished binding the splints in place using the denim from LaMont's jeans leg which he had cut off. He took LaMont through Quan-Li's mental exercise one more time and then roused him from his trance.
"Whoa," Scott said groggily, disoriented. "How long was I out?"
"Half an hour, maybe forty minutes,' Roger answered, re-packing his pack. "How's it feel?"
"Better," Scottie's tone reflected his surprise.
"Good. Let's se if you can stand up," Roger suggested, offering LaMont an assist. He hoisted the injured man to his feet and waited as Scott swayed, slowly settling more of his weight on the splinted leg. LaMont took a step, then another, haltingly, then turned and glanced back at Lococco.
"Not bad," he admitted. "I'm not gonna break any land speed records, but I'll settle for getting outta this alive."
"You're welcome," Roger said coldly, aware of the fact that no thanks had been formally offered. Scott's grin nearly made him lose his temper again.
"Thanks," Scott said deliberately, his grin never fading. "Now how bout a cane?"
Roger clapped his hands together as if in prayer and bowed deeply over them. "Yes, sahib, your wish is my command," he snapped and stalked off to do as he'd been bidden.
It was nearly noon before they made their way out of the ravine in which they had camped and back onto the trail along the edge of the scree slopes. As Roger had suspected, they made poor time, LaMont having to stop periodically to recoup his strength. He fed the man the rest of the rabbit left from the night before, making do himself with one of the protein bars from Scott's store, trying to ignore the nearly complete lack of flavor. It was late afternoon when they arrived at another creek, this one flowing through a small meadow less than fifty feet across. LaMont was clearly at the end of his strength, face gray with fatigue and pain, the silence in which they'd traveled not broken once by a complaint. Without bothering to consult his companion, Roger stopped, settling Scott on a low boulder alongside the stream, and went off in search of firewood. It had been almost a week since the last measurable rain, unusual for British Columbia, even in the height of summer, and there was plenty of dry dead wood littering the forest floor. He made several trips back to the spot he'd selected as a campsite for the night, dumping his burden in a heap a little way from the water's edge. Without a word, he set up camp, lighting a fire and setting his billy can on to boil, dropping the last of his willow bark into it.
He made another rough pallet for Scott, who sat wearily, eyes closed, where Roger had left him nearly an hour before. "Lie down, Buckwheat," he directed.
"Huh?" Scott asked dazedly, opening his eyes. "We're stopping?"
"You're dead on your feet," Roger pointed out tersely. "Besides, it'll be dark in less than an hour. And this is as good a place as any to stop."
LaMont nodded slightly and used the walking stick Lococco had found for him to lever himself to his feet. He limped slowly the few paces to the pile of pine boughs and let Roger lower him onto them, sighing. He closed his eyes again, willing the pain to ease. He didn't know what trick Roger had used on him to set his knee, but it was one he was considering asking for a repeat performance of. Nausea was back with a vengeance, and he felt his mouth water, the telltale that he was about to lose anything still in his stomach.
Roger ignored the quiet moan as Scott rolled onto his side, the dry heaves shaking him. LaMont was in worse shape than he'd thought, he realized, wondering if the injured man would have the stamina to finish the hike the next day. If they got close enough, he could return alone to Quan-Li's and enlist the priest's aid. His memory put their distance from the lodge at somewhere near thirteen miles, an easy hike for a healthy man, but hell for someone in Scott's condition. When the vomiting subsided, he handed Scott the cup, filled with water, and loosened the fabric strips that held the splint while LaMont drank slowly. "It's gonna be a few minutes before the tea's ready," he said, taking the cup when Scott had finished.
"Whatever," Scott sighed. "What's for supper, honey?" he asked, disinterested even in the idea of food.
"Whatever I catch," Roger replied, taking up his crossbow and quiver, as well as the spool of fishing line and heading downstream. He walked less than a quarter mile before the creek widened and stilled, a deeper pool carved out of the gravel and sand of the stream bed by the rapidly flowing water. Years of acquaintance with these woods had given him a fairly good idea what his best bets were as far as securing his next meal. Sure enough, lurking under a boulder that formed one edge of the pool, he could see the dark shapes of a half-dozen fish. Brown trout, in all likelihood, he knew. The rivers and streams in the area were filled with them. Now all he had to do was catch a few.
It took less than forty five minutes for him to shoot four of the trout, hauling them out with the line he had attached to his arrows. He cleaned them then strung them on one of the titanium shafts, carrying them back to the campsite. Scott was semi-conscious when he arrived, the fire nearly out. Roger stoked the flames then set his catch to cooking over the coals. Fish fortunately took very little time, and he was ravenous enough to eat all four of them himself if LaMont wasn't interested.
Scottie roused as the smell of food penetrated his haze. "You weren't kidding," he commented tiredly as he watched Roger turn the fish on their spit. "You always live off the land up here?"
"It's relatively easy," Roger shrugged. "I've been hunting up here for years. You hungry?"
"I'm not sure," Scott confessed. "But it sure as hell smells good. You ever think about opening up a restaurant?"
Roger laughed. "I've opened three. I've got a fourth in the works, but it'll be another year or so before it comes together. I finance them, my business partners organize it."
"Who does the cooking?" Scott asked, interested.
"Not me, Buckwheat. I dabble, but the hours are shitty. And it's not like I need the money."
Scott laughed softly at this. "I guess not," he agreed. He took the metal cup that Lococco had filled with one of the trout fillets, picking listlessly at the delicate flesh, eating slowly as he watched Roger wolf down the remaining three as fast as they cooled. When Roger had finished, taking the cup from Scott and rinsing it in the creek, he braced himself to ask the favor that had occupied him most of the miserable day's hike. "So can you teach me that mind trick you used on me this morning?" he asked, trying not to make it obvious how much he needed the pain relief.
Lococco glanced at LaMont, who looked pale even in the ruddy glow of the firelight. "I can try," he said at last, having thought about it.
"Good. It's stronger than aspirin," Scottie said, unable to help the arch remark.
Roger scowled, the other man's propensity for sarcasm reminding him of himself. He had never realized how annoying it was to be on the receiving end of. "You have a smart mouth on you, LaMont," he said.
"Like someone else I could name," Scott replied, watching Roger from under blond-tipped lashes. "You sure you weren't adopted?" he asked again, seriously, this time.
"Yeah, I'm sure. Just drop it. Odds are slim we have any blood relationship at all. Both my parents were only children, so I never had any cousins," Roger informed him shortly.
"It doesn't strike you as just a little weird?" Scott persisted.
"It strikes me as a lot weird. But believe me, I've seen weirder. Just chalk it up to some divine joke, or maybe a quirk of quantum physics, like matter and anti-matter."
"Aren't they supposed to mutually annihilate one another if two identical particles come into contact?" Scott asked.
Roger eyed Scott from under one quirked eyebrow, his pause before answering lengthy. "Yeah, exactly," he agreed eventually.
Scott caught the meaning. "We haven't killed each other yet, Lococco," he snapped.
"We've still got another thirteen miles or so to do it in, Buckwheat," Roger retorted, his grin suddenly sinister.
"If you were going to kill me, why go to all the trouble of saving my life in the first place?" LaMont pointed out, unperturbed.
"I was thinking it was more likely I'd be the one to end up with my own knife between my ribs, as soon as we got within range of help," Roger retorted.
"Believe me, the thought has occurred," Scott answered coldly. "And I imagine it'll go right on occurring. But believe it or not, killing you was never my idea. At least not until you pulled that Houdini act when you left the city. It was like waving a red flag at a bull, you moron. So you went and made yourself irresistible, and I had to come see just how good you really are."
"D'you get your answer?" Roger asked, not really caring one way or the other.
"Yeah, I did," Scott said, gaze dropping to the crackling fire. He watched it, letting the flickering light mute the answer to that question. It was sobering to realize he had come up against someone well-prepared to defend themselves against the best assault he could muster. It was even more disconcerting to be forced to acknowledge, even just to himself, that had Lococco come after him, he might not have survived against the other man's almost supernatural awareness of danger, and the skill he brought to the hunt.
Something of LaMont's thoughts was evident in his tone, and Roger found himself satisfied with the turn the conversation had taken. He elected to change the subject. "You ever done any of the Eastern martial arts mental disciplines?" he asked.
"Just the bastardized versions they taught us in the Green Berets," Scott said.
Roger nodded slightly. "They have the general idea, but if you plan on getting good at it, it takes a lot more work than the U.S. Armed Forces puts into that kinda thing. Some of Quan-Li's exercises took me years to get right. Some of them, I'm still working on."
It surprised Scott that Lococco readily admitted there were things he had yet to master in his relationship with his teacher. "What sort of priest is he?" he asked.
"Who knows? He's quiet about that part of his life, and I never asked. It never really mattered to me. Probably Buddhist, though hell if I know which sect. What he teaches is part Shinto, part Zen, part a lot of things, but none of it is dependent on doctrine and dogma."
Scott considered this, recognizing the tone and words of a likely atheist. "You grew up in Texas, right? Didn't you get dragged off to church along with everyone else?"
Roger nodded, expression ironic. "I'm an agoraphobe, but my parents thought I was a non-believer when I pitched a fit every time they brought me. It was one of the things we disagreed about. So eventually, they made me someone else's problem. Belief and I have long since parted company. The only faith I claim is in humanity's mindless ability to hurt itself and everything around it. I spent the first half of my life trying to prevent some of it, and wound up perpetrating it, instead. Now, I just stay the hell out of it. And that includes any church you care to name. Some of the worst abuses in history were committed in the name of God."
"Can't argue with you there," Scott conceded quietly. "I was brought up catholic I haven't set foot in a church in twenty years." He shifted slightly, trying to ease the pain in his leg, catching the furrow of concern between Lococco's brows.
"You serious about learning to put yourself into a trance?" Roger asked.
"Anywhere is better than where I'm at right now," Scott told him. "Higher plane, here I come."
Roger's snort of unwilling humor made Scott smile slightly, the brief instant of comradeship incongruous. He forced himself to pay attention to what Lococco taught, letting the other man's subtly lilting speech set a rhythm and pulse to what he undertook for himself, now. Forcing himself to let go of the immediate awareness of his surroundings was perhaps the most difficult part of the process. To exist entirely within his skull, within the pain that wracked his body, to accept that pain, and then ignore it, was a struggle that left him wearier than the day's walk had. There were split seconds when he severed his contacts with his senses, instants that left him facing the vast expanse of an inner landscape he had not realized he carried with him. Ultimately, he wasn't entirely successful in his first solo attempt, and Lococco resorted to the same guided hypnosis he'd used to splint LaMont's leg. Scott was transitioned from the trance to a sleep deeper and more dreamless than any he'd had in weeks when Roger had finished implanting the hypnotic suggestion that the swelling and pain would be relieved, barely moving the whole of the night as Lococco stood watch over him for the second time. He woke to find Roger re-binding his knee, and he levered himself into a sitting position to watch the proceedings, inexplicably surprised when his knee proved to be much closer to its normal size than it had been when he had fallen asleep. "Useful trick," he commented to his rescuer.
"It has it's limitations, but it's saved my butt more than once," Roger agreed, lashing the two splints back in place. "You're going to have to settle for one of those protein bars for breakfast. The fish population got wise to me last night and found some other rock to hide out under."
"You left me here asleep?" Scott asked sharply, angered at being left unknowingly unprotected.
Lococco raised an eyebrow at the tone, annoyed, his temper shorter than usual with the lack of sleep of the past few days. "You're in one piece, so stop complaining," he responded testily. "I left your Glock next to you," he added.
Scott glanced down at the ground beside his pallet to see his automatic in it's shoulder holster nestled in the grass next to where his right hand had been when he'd been prone. He picked up the holster, its russet leather stained dark with the damp of the morning dew, and handed it back to Lococco after a split second. Roger's refusal to take it startled him, and he stared at the other man as Roger rose to his feet and stalked the short distance to the creek-side rock LaMont had rested on the previous evening, settling onto it and closing his eyes.
"I need a few minutes. There were cat tracks downstream, so pay attention," Roger commanded.
LaMont watched as Roger dropped effortlessly into a deep trance, apparently using the same technique on himself that he'd used on Scott, to compensate for two nights of minimal sleep. Roger's breathing became slow and shallow, and it was eerily obvious that whatever made Lococco what he was had gone elsewhere. There was an uncharacteristic stillness, a vulnerability, to his body that made LaMont realize the extent of the trust implied by Roger's choice not to take custody of the Glock. It left him feeling both angry and chastened, his earlier outburst unnecessary.
Lococco had changed the rules of the game yet again, leaving Scott feeling uncomfortably beholden. He resented it. And yet he was the first to acknowledge that Roger could have killed him at will any time in the past thirty six hours, and quite possibly any time since LaMont began tracking him. That he hadn't told Scottie more clearly than anything else could have that Roger Lococco was totally serious when he said he'd retired from the game. Whatever it was he filled his days with no longer had anything to do with international intrigue or plots to assassinate or over-throw world leaders. And it took him off Scott's list of acceptable targets.
He sat watching over Lococco, waiting for some sign of a return to standard consciousness, brooding on this change in his quarry's status and where it left him in the fulfillment of his contract as he turned his gun in his hands, reacquainting himself with its heft and balance. He didn't like being forced to rethink an assignment midstream, but he knew he would not be going after Lococco again, regardless of whatever Masters might want. Which meant he would have to find a way to make it clear to his erstwhile employer that he had no intention of finishing the contract, and would take an exceedingly dim view of being asked to do so again.
It was almost an hour before Roger finally stirred, opening eyes a clear celadon that betrayed his relaxation. He rose and stretched deliberately, shaking the last of the lingering fatigue from his muscles, then focused his attention on LaMont, who sat watching him patiently. "What?" he asked to the question on Scott's face
"Where do you go when you do that?" LaMont asked, genuinely wanting to know.
Roger shrugged. "Depends on where I am, and where I want to go," he answered vaguely. It hardly constituted an answer, and he saw Scott's frustration. "You'll know when you get there yourself," he added.
"Thanks for the clarification," Scott said cynically.
"Happy to help," Roger flashed his most irritating grin at LaMont, ignoring the other man's pique. "You ready to go?" he asked. "Quan-Li's expecting us tonight."
Scott shook his head as he strapped on his shoulder holster and used his walking stick to maneuver to his feet. Almost, he believed Lococco, believed that somehow, the man had been in contact with his teacher through some arcane and suspiciously mystical means. He settled his weight gingerly on his injured leg and was relieved when it became clear that it would bear more than the previous day. He let Lococco help him into his pack and waited as Roger hefted his own. When they set out at last, it was fully light, and the morning air was damp with evaporating dew.
They passed through the open woodland that bordered the meadow in which they'd camped, and into the more densely forested slopes further on, walking in silence. They made better time than they had the day before, thanks largely to the improvement in LaMont's knee, but Roger knew it would be well past dark before they reached the lodge and sanctuary. By midday, the respite he'd gained in his meditation that morning was gone, and the sleep deficit he was operating under set his muscles to burning, his eyes dry with fatigue. He knew he would be virtually useless by the end of the day, and he forced himself onward at the best pace LaMont could manage, the injured man's stamina and spirits markedly better than the day before.
They paused only twice, briefly, that interminable day, to eat one of LaMont's meal bars, however unpalatable, and rest. By the time dusk began to darken the sky overhead, Roger knew they were perhaps another two hours from the lodge, an hour from the shrine, and exhaustion was beginning to take its toll on him. His focus was narrowing to the stretch of trail immediately underfoot as he pressed on doggedly, LaMont also beginning to tire now, and the fading daylight made the going treacherous.
When the attack came, it caught Lococco almost totally by surprise, only the low snarl of the big cat telegraphing it's presence in the spilt second before it knocked him sprawling, skidding down-slope on his back, bouncing off rocks and trees as he fought to keep the three-inch fangs from closing around his throat. Some disconnected part of him was aware of Scott's shouts of angry concern, and he heard the echoing report of LaMont's automatic reverberating off the trees as he fired, trying to startle the mountain lion into abandoning it's prey. Roger rammed a knee upward into the cat's belly as he twisted his head to one side, dislodging the animal's grip on him, feeling the dagger-like claws slash through the muscle of his arms and chest as they came to a sliding stop against a large boulder. The cat made one last try for the choke hold that would suffocate him, and then bolted when another shot from Scott's pistol kicked stinging rock chips into the air bare inches from Roger's head.
Roger lay limp, listening to the soft thud and rustle of the cat's passage through the underbrush, staring up into the nearly colorless, darkening gray of the sky, punctuated by the first glitter of stars, trying to get air back into his screaming lungs. He ignored Scott's attempts to get him to respond until he could breathe again, then hoarsely shouted his survival back up the slope to the trail where LaMont hopped agitatedly around, trying to find a way down to Roger. After a moment, he pushed himself to his feet, leaning against the rock that had stopped his precipitous decent, trying to determine what damage he'd taken from the attack. From the stinging burn in his flesh, claw marks would undoubtedly stripe his chest, ribs and arms, and he could feel the sticky heat of blood as it trickled down his neck to seep into the collar of his shirt. Mauled and shaken, he would undoubtedly live, though he was rattled enough by both the assault and it's unexpectedness that he felt his legs tremble under him as he started to retrace his way back up to the trail and LaMont.
"What the hell happened? Where'd that thing come from?" Scott demanded as he extended a hand to assist Lococco up the last few steps to the trail. He could feel the wild flush of adrenaline, it's slow ebb leaving him jittery and as dazed as Roger appeared. "Are you alright?"
Roger ignored the barrage of questions as he reached the trail, standing with his head down, bent over, hands braced on his knees. When his breathing had steadied a fraction, he looked up, meeting LaMont's worried gaze, startled at the genuine fear he saw there. "Probably the same one I saw the tracks of this morning. My guess is, it's a female, probably with cubs somewhere around here. Either that, or she tracked us, looking to make an easy meal outta you," he hypothesized.
"Yeah, well it hit the wrong target, in that case," Scott snapped, stepping forward to examine the scratches that had rent open Lococco's shirt like the lashes from a bullwhip. Most of them weren't deep, though they undoubtedly hurt like blazes, but the steadily dripping fang wounds along either side of Roger's neck worried him. There was a measurable amount of blood leaching into the fabric of his shirt, and Scott could see it well out of the bites with syrupy slowness. "He got you in the throat, Lococco! We need to get the bleeding stopped. You have a flashlight?" He groped in his parka pocket at Roger's negative head-shake, looking for the lighter he carried there. He fished it out and ignited it, using the flame to examine the wounds more carefully. Only one of the four punctures was deep, he realized quickly, and already the blood-flow was slowing of its own accord. He closed his eyes for a split second, relieved to a degree that caught him by surprise. It occurred to him only now that he could easily have let the cat finish off Lococco and then carted a souvenir back to one of Masters' henchmen as confirmation of Lococco's demise. But Lococco's death was no longer of any interest to him. A grudging respect had replaced the initial animosity he felt for the man, and if he wasn't careful, he might actually start liking the bastard. "It looks like you'll live," he repeated Roger's sarcastic comment of two days earlier back at him, meeting the other man's weary eyes.
"Glad to hear it," Roger answered shortly. He straightened and removed his pack, grateful that its bulk had protected his back, and fished out the remains of the shirt he'd used to bandage Scott's knee, ripping the fabric into a long strip and wrapping it around his neck over the wounds as snugly as was comfortable. There was nothing much to be done for the claw gouges that lined his upper body, so he pulled his pack back on and started wearily down the trail.
Despite the fatigue that dulled his senses, Roger felt Quan-Li's presence at the shrine even before the scent of wood smoke came drifting on the night air at their approach, forty five minutes later. He braced himself for a scolding as they limped into the clearing that housed the stone gazebo to find the priest waiting for them by the fire he'd kindled in the stone hearth outside the shrine. They must have looked every bit as tired as they felt, he thought, as the old man got gracefully to his feet and approached them, his concern clear in his lined face.
"You have met with ill luck," Quan-Li observed, taking in the battered appearance of both men. "Do you have strength to finish your journey tonight?"
"Are you kidding? For a shower and a bed, I'd crawl another ten miles," was Scottie's unequivocal answer. Then he looked at Lococco, who stood swaying on his feet, face drawn and pale. "How bout you, bubba? Got the brass to finish this tonight?"
Roger drew a deep breath, glancing at LaMont, knowing the man was trying to prod him into enough of a competitive mindset to make it the final leg of their walk. He gritted his teeth and nodded, settling his pack and crossbow more comfortably on lacerated shoulders and set off in the lead, down the trail to the lodge.
When they reached the large meadow that surrounded the stone building, Quan-Li hurried on ahead to prepare his version of triage for the injured former combatants while Scott and Roger limped their way after him.
"I didn't thank you," Roger said quietly as they approached the lodge, watching as the glow of fire and candle light glowed in the windows of the greatroom, a welcoming lure.
"I'd say it makes us even, more or less," Scott said simply. "That cat might not have attacked you if I hadn't been slowing you down. On the other hand, maybe it would, and I saved your ass. Either way, I'd say we've finished this go-around. I'd call it a draw."
Roger managed a snicker of laughter. "I could take you, you know," he said, the teasing note in his voice preventing LaMont from taking umbrage.
"Like hell you could," Scottie retorted with a laugh of his own as he crossed the practice yard and opened the French doors, allowing Lococco through first.
"You gonna stay?" Roger asked as he dropped his pack on the wooden floor, slumping against a wall as he watched Scott drop the walking stick and shuck his own pack.
"Maybe for a little while," he said thoughtfully. "You planning on hanging around?"
"I think I've had just about all the fresh air and sunshine a man can take, Buckwheat," Lococco said with tired irony, pushing himself away from the wall as he walked toward Quan-Li, who had appeared from the kitchen.
"I know exactly how you feel," Scott agreed, grinning as he hobbled after him. "Where's the nearest shower?"