Feeling uncharacteristically hesitant Bobby Hobbes stepped further into the room and bent down to gently roll Eleanor Stark's body over until he could reach the child beneath. He carefully scooped up the small boy and held him close; he might not be able to reunite Alex with her son, but he'd damned well make sure she got some sense of closure by being able to bury him. However, as he made his way back out to Darien he felt a faint fluttering against his chest and the whisper of a breath against his neck. Hardly daring to hope, he moved to check for a pulse and could plainly feel a strong rhythmical throb against his fingers. James was still alive!
Hobbes laid the child back down on the floor and quickly searched for injuries. Finding only a messy flesh wound on James' right forearm and a large bump on the back of his head Hobbes breathed a sigh of relief. Eleanor Stark's attempt to act as a human shield had worked and the majority of blood soaking the boy's clothes was obviously hers. A hasty search through the drawers next to the bed revealed a small towel, which he deftly wrapped around the flesh wound before bending down to pick James up once more. Within seconds he was back in the hallway.
"Oh crap, we haven't got time for this," he muttered to himself as he took in the sight of Darien sitting cradling his head and rocking backwards and forwards. "C'mon Fawkes hold it together just a little longer kid, James is still alive and we gotta get out of here now!"
"What?" Darien croaked as he raised his head and confused brown eyes gazed blearily up at his partner.
"James is still alive buddy," Hobbes repeated urgently, "now come on, we gotta go!"
Darien stared in surprise for a few moments then roused himself enough to shakily climb to his feet. "How…?" he began.
"I'll explain later, just get moving," Hobbes insisted.
They hurried along the deserted corridors and soon found themselves in the wine cellar, but before they reached the hidden entrance to the tunnel Darien cried out in pain and fell to the floor clutching at the back of his head. Hobbes rushed over to him and watched helplessly as his friend endured this latest attack.
"C-can't go on," Darien eventually gasped when the pain ebbed enough for him to speak. "Leave me…get James out…"
"Not an option my friend. Get your scrawny ass in gear now and let's blow this joint!" Hobbes demanded, his concern making his tone gruff. Adjusting his hold on James, he took a firm grip of his partner's arm and attempted to drag him to his feet.
Darien resisted Hobbes' efforts and fell back to the floor. With his attention focused on the prone man in front of him, Hobbes didn't see the wine rack off to the left swing out from the wall and Claire emerge from the hidden tunnel, closely followed by Alex.
"Hobbes, we've got to get out of here now. We caught one of Stark's men outside and he says the whole place is rigged. It could blow any minute!" Alex panted. She stepped out from behind Claire and paused in shock when it suddenly registered that Hobbes was holding James in his arms. She lurched forward in alarm. "Oh my God, is he…?"
"No," Hobbes reassured her immediately. "Just a flesh wound and a bump on the head, that's all. Most of the blood's Eleanor Stark's. I'm sure he's gonna be fine." He leaned forward and handed the unconscious boy to her. "Here, take him, I've gotta help Fawkes," he said and turned back to Claire as Alex hugged her precious burden closer and made her way back outside.
"Hold his head," Claire instructed, quickly removing a syringe full of relaxant from her jacket pocket and injecting the contents into the gland. However, instead of relaxing Darien it was having no effect and his body continued to spasm in pain.
"N-not w-working…!" he cried out in despair, fighting the restraining hands of his friends to claw at the back of his head.
Claire looked over at Hobbes in concern. "Damn, I was afraid of this," she admitted as she held onto Darien in an attempt to offer comfort. "My tests on the gland have been throwing up some really strange readings and I suspected the toxin may have permanently affected it. The failure of the relaxant confirms my suspicions."
"Well, what are we gonna do about it?" Hobbes asked anxiously.
"I didn't have time to complete my tests and the only thing I could think of was to bring along a dose of the new formula. It's untested, but it might just work."
"Do it," Darien moaned desperately and Hobbes nodded in agreement. Needing no further encouragement, Claire swiftly took out a second syringe and administered the new relaxant. For a few seconds it looked like nothing was going to happen, then, as she withdrew the needle, violent tremors began coursing through Darien's body and he began screaming and writhing in agony.
"Oh hell!" Claire shouted. "Help me hold him down!" Before Bobby could move to get a better hold on his partner, Darien's body suddenly went limp and he slipped into unconsciousness.
"Is he okay?" Hobbes breathed.
"He's still breathing," Claire confirmed as she stood up. "Let's get him back to the van where I can get a better look at him, then we'll see."
"Right," Hobbes agreed grimly. As he carefully lifted Darien into his arms and followed Claire into the passageway he whispered, "Don't you dare give up on me now kid - we've been through too much together."
"Your guest has arrived Sir," a young woman's voice announced as she entered her employer's quiet office.
Stark looked up from the documents spread out on his desk and sombrely acknowledged her, "Thank you Janice. Show him in."
As the willowy blonde stepped to one side, Mark Carter strode past her and eagerly extended his right hand to Stark. "Jared!" he exclaimed in apparent relief, "I was so worried about you when I heard the news of the attack by Chrysalis. I couldn't believe it when I was told of your escape!"
Deliberately ignoring the proffered hand, Stark stared at the man before him, his face an expressionless mask. "Oh I don't doubt that for a minute Mark - after all, you've always prided yourself on meticulous planning."
"I…ah, I don't understand what you mean," Carter said, uncomfortably rattled by Stark's strange comments.
"Come now, we both know how disappointed you must be to find out I survived your little plot."
"Plot?" Carter squeaked, his voice climbing an entire octave in his surprise.
"Unfortunately my wife and son were not so lucky," Stark continued, his voice becoming harsh and accusatory. "The setback to my plans is incalculable and I simply cannot tolerate your betrayal."
Carter was speechless and stood silently in front of the desk, his mind reeling. How could Stark possibly know anything about his part in the attack on the estate? He was positive his secret negotiations with Sharon hadn't been discovered and he was equally certain no one could have seen him upload the computer virus that had deactivated the defence system. Hell, he'd even managed to slip out of the estate early on the morning of the attack without raising any suspicion.
In return for his help with the attack, Sharon had promised him a position within her inner cadre but the offer had been abruptly withdrawn following the shocking news that Stark had managed to elude them. Nevertheless, he'd been sure he could feign ignorance of any complicity and simply resume his duties as Stark's right hand man until the next opportunity for advancement presented itself. How could things have gone so wrong?
"I…I don't…." he stuttered, struggling to regain his trademark composure.
"Please spare me the 'I'm innocent' speech Mark, I really couldn't stomach it!" Stark spat contemptuously. "I believed in you, financed your work, gave you my friendship and you swore you could give me Darien Fawkes - and what did I get in return? You sold me out to that simpering French bitch and her cronies!" He shook his head violently and continued with barely controlled rage bubbling inside, "You killed my family Mark, just as surely as if you'd pulled the trigger yourself. My organisation's all but destroyed and it's going to take years to rebuild. But do you want to know what the real kicker is? Darien Fawkes is still alive!"
Carter was trembling uncontrollably now. There was no point trying to defend himself or in attempting to beg for mercy. He'd seen Stark like this before and knew without a shadow of a doubt only blood would satisfy him. Mark Carter was a dead man - it was just a matter of when and how.
Stark slowly reached down to open the drawer by his right hand and pulled out a .357 SIG. He placed the weapon carefully on the desk in front of him and looked up at his erstwhile friend. "Did you know that the going rate for employing a top class assassin to kill a nobody government agent is only $100,000? It's simply a one off payment on completion of the contract. No fuss, no mess. Sort of makes a mockery of all the millions I've poured into your failed schemes doesn't it?"
Here it comes, Carter thought as Stark's lips began to form the sneering smile that always heralded an act of violence on his part. "I'm extremely disappointed in your work Mark, so I'm afraid I have no alternative…." he began, slowly raising the SIG and pulling the trigger three times in quick succession. As Carter's dead body slumped to the floor Stark added, "Consider your employment terminated."
He carelessly hit the intercom button on the desk. "Janice could you please arrange for a clean-up crew to come to my office? I'm afraid my guest has made rather a nasty mess on the carpet."
"Hey Fawkes, you're looking much better than the last time I saw you," Alex Monroe called in greeting as he, Bobby and Claire made their way towards her across the well manicured lawns of the Agency's new safe house.
"Yeah, that new juice the Keeper cooked up has worked out just great," Darien replied enthusiastically. "No headaches, no dreams, no visions in almost three weeks!" He bent down to give her a quick hug and commented, "You're not looking too shabby yourself Monroe. This good clean Virginian air seems to be agreeing with you."
Alex appreciated the compliment but knew he was lying. She was eating well enough, but there were dark smudges under her eyes and her features were pinched and drawn from worry and sleepless nights. Her eyes wandered over to the cause of her concern to see a small, listless child sitting on the edge of a sandbox, his fingers absently sifting through the sand.
"How is James?" Claire asked quietly, following her friend's gaze.
"Brandon James," Alex replied, emphasising the first name. The others looked at her in surprise and she shrugged. "He's lost so much, I couldn't take his name from him aswell and I'm sure the urge to cringe every time I say or hear it will fade eventually," she explained with a wry smile. "As to how he's doing…well I'm not really sure. We're working with a child psychologist and I think we're making some progress, but he's so quiet and self-contained. I don't know if he'll ever really trust me." She sighed unhappily, "He doesn't seem to need me most of the time and won't allow himself to be a little boy. The only time he lets me get close is when he wakes up from a nightmare - and then it's only for a few minutes." Alex's obvious distress radiated from her like heat. "He's not even three years old yet but they told him he's too old for hugs and if I find him playing with the toys in his bedroom he thinks I'm going to punish him!"
Darien felt anger rising within him as he imagined what the child's life must have been like with the Starks. Forcing himself to adopt a cheerful expression he said, "Looks like we arrived just in time then 'cause it seems to me the kid needs a few lessons in goofin' around and as you know, me an' 'Uncle' Bobby are experts in the field. We'll give him a few pointers and he'll be driving you nuts before you know it!" He grinned and started opening the box he was carrying. "It just so happens I've also brought along a secret weapon that's guaranteed to work," he continued, producing a small brown teddy bear with a flourish. "One of our guys found this at Stark's place and Eberts thought Ja…er, Brandon might like it back." Grabbing Hobbes' arm he started dragging him across the lawn and shouted over his shoulder to the two women, "Just leave it to the professionals!"
They watched as Darien introduced himself and Bobby to Brandon and held out the teddy bear. The little boy looked longingly at the toy and his hands fluttered nervously by his sides, however, he made no further move to take it. Claire squeezed her friend's arm as she felt Alex stiffen beside her. "It's early days yet," she said comfortingly. "Just give it time."
Alex nodded, watching Darien and Hobbes bantering with each other in front of the bemused boy and gestured for Claire to take a seat on the large wooden bench behind them. "How…how long can you stay?" she asked hesitantly. Melissa and her mum were also staying at the house until Stark was caught, as were a couple of agents who'd been assigned to protect them, but it felt good to see her friends again.
"Don't worry we've got plenty of time to catch up," Claire assured her. "The Official's given us two weeks off and we've been given permission to spend it here with you."
"You're kidding!" Alex said incredulously.
"What about?" Claire asked with a chuckle, "the Official giving us a vacation or the length of our visit?"
"Both!" Alex replied as if her answer should have been self-evident.
"Yes well, it's not really a very altruistic decision," Claire admitted. "Darien isn't due back at work for at least another couple of weeks and Bobby's been restricted to desk duty until he's fully healed." She gave another chuckle and went on, "To be perfectly honest, Bobby hasn't been in the best of moods without Darien around and he's been driving Eberts and the Official to distraction. I think the idea to send them on this little trip was a last desperate attempt to get him out of their hair, so to speak and where Darien goes at the moment so does his Keeper – hence a nice little holiday with you!"
"How is Darien?" Alex asked, absently watching the man in question fooling around with Hobbes.
"Oh, much better," Claire replied happily. "I was so worried when the old relaxant didn't work at Stark's house, but it was a bit of a blessing in disguise really. The new formula gave us a few hairy moments there for a while, but it worked beyond my wildest expectations. Darien's recovery time was considerably shortened and I'm hopeful it will work even faster once he's fully fit. He's been sleeping much better and hasn't had any disturbing dreams recently, in fact he's convinced the "new juice" as he calls it has stopped his psychic flashes for good."
The women were suddenly interrupted when a gurgling fit of giggles had them jumping in surprise. They looked over to see Darien deftly swinging a laughing Brandon up onto his shoulders and setting off to walk back up to the house. The small teddy bear, clutched tightly in small hands, took pride of place on top of Darien's head. It looked like the Fawkes charm was working.
"Hey you two," Darien called over to them, "me, Bobby, BJ and the bear are starving! How about ice-cream for everyone?"
"Yeah, I'm gonna sulk if I don't get at least four scoops," Hobbes pouted dramatically.
"BJ?" Alex asked, questioning the unexpected nickname with an appraising frown.
The small boy noticed her change in expression and his smile faded as he looked down at her uncertainly. "Do you like that name?" she asked gently, realising he'd misinterpreted her reaction. He answered with a tentative nod, trying to gauge her mood and she smiled. "Yes I do too," she said approvingly and was rewarded by the return of that all too rarely seen smile on the young face. It was a small step, but for the first time since being reunited with her son she allowed herself to hope. "Okay 'BJ' bring your friends and let's go see what we can find in the freezer. It looks like ice cream for everyone!"
"Alright!" Darien shouted, beginning to bounce the little passenger on his shoulders. "It's time to partaaaay!"
The laughing group turned as one and headed back to the house.
As the sun inexorably began to descend in the cloudless blue sky, a man lay patiently waiting for his prey to appear. He'd been there since early morning, but his years of experience had taught him that the secret to a successful hit wasn't just turning up and firing a rifle; it required patience and planning, learning the mark's routine and identifying patterns of behaviour before finally taking the shot. His current target had been extremely difficult to track down and had only recently moved to this location, but he'd taken his time and today the assignment would finally be completed.
Movement by the glass door at the rear of the house he was watching almost a mile away drew his attention and he abandoned his musings as cold professionalism took over. He adjusted the telescopic sight on his high-powered rifle one last time and flexed his aching muscles before settling down to take aim. A blonde haired woman stepped through the door into the garden and was immediately followed by the tall, dark haired man he was here to kill. Conditions were perfect. The sun's position meant there were no shadows to obscure his shot and he waited until the optimum moment before applying pressure to the trigger. The familiar recoil of the rifle against his shoulder confirmed the bullet had been fired and a quick check through the telescopic lens showed his victim lying dead on the grass outside his new home.
Grey flecked sandy hair was ruffled by a slight breeze as the assassin rose slowly to his feet and nodded in grim satisfaction. Throughout his career Mason Fawkes had taken no pleasure in taking lives, but this man had threatened his family and tried to murder his son. Justice had now been served and Jared Stark would rot in hell.