Of Night And Fire
A/N: Airwolf belongs to Bellisario and Universal, The Sentinel belongs to Pet Fly, UPN, and Paramount, the Real Ghostbusters to Columbia/DIC. No infringement is intended for any of these. Story set sometime after "Twist of Fate". Airwolf is AU: I've moved events in the series ahead about two decades, and upgraded the Lady. For those unfamiliar with Airwolf, she's a super-secret stealth helicopter flown by Stringfellow Hawke, Dominic Santini and Caitlin O'Shannessy at the orders of Firm deputy director Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III, code-named Archangel. The Real Ghostbusters was a cartoon about a group of guys who chase ghosts (and sometimes other psychic phenomena) throughout NYC, and occasionally other places around the world. If you don't know the Sentinel - Ellison's a cop with heightened senses, Sandburg's an anthropologist that helps him handle it. For more, get thee to the Cascade Library, go! www.skeeter63.org/tslibrary/
Date and time: Classified.
"Come on, come on, come on," Lieutenant Jim Ellison chanted under his breath, assault rifle at the ready as Carson's dark fingers fitted together fragments of gold and jade. Ricardo Jiminez held his back, shivering as the mist-edged dip in the mountains turned dark. Lambert was the third point of their triangle with a rifle and a rosary, muttering Hail Marys at breakneck speed.
"Not like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, man. Tape!" The other surviving Ranger held out a hand; Jim slapped a strip of green stickiness into it without looking.
Rustling in the brush; three rifles trained on a panting, olive-drab form. "It is me," Tregiz gasped, brandishing a last fragment of bent gold.
"Hell, yes!" Carson reached for it.
Ellison blocked him. "That's the piece Muerta had." The last piece. The final fragment of the jade-studded death mask Tregiz' brother had pried loose from ancient stone. Loosing hungry darkness to hunt them all.
Tregiz reached for his own pistol; stopped, as dark rifles drew beads on his chest. "You think I am with her, gringo?"
"Maybe." He wouldn't have been the first one to turn to the dark creature's kiss. Before she sucked him dry. "Where's Archangel?" No one was supposed to be alone, the Firm spy most of all. Muerta wanted him, badly enough to offer the rest of them a clean death in return for yielding him up.
So far there'd been no takers. Partly because of one angry blue glare Jim had leveled on what was left of their motley band. The Firm agent might be sandpaper on his nerves, but Jim wouldn't have left a Nazi to Muerta's clutches. If you gave him up, Tregiz-
"He is the one who turned to her!" Tregiz spat. "How do you think I got this, hmm? They were," he made an obscenely suggestive motion, "Distracted."
Damn. And if Muerta vacuumed his brain the way she apparently had the others she'd killed.... She knows where we are. "Get ready to move."
"One more minute," Carson muttered.
Shadows wove out of the cloud forest trees, greenery burning in their wake. A low, feminine laugh whispered free, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. "Now, Carson-"
"Too late, little Guardian." Shadows clung to her curves; promising, never quite revealing. Dark eyes flashed as she caressed a thing of tentacles and fire, smiling as its fellows advanced on the desperate men. "Far, far too late."
"Why are you doing this?" Jim asked bluntly. Not that he cared, but if he could keep her eyes off Carson just a few seconds longer....
"Why does the jaguar stalk the raven, hmm? It is hungry." She drifted closer, a ripple of smoke and shadow. "I am the huntress. And you, little mortals, are my rightful prey-"
"Got it!" Carson yelped.
Shadows screamed, glowing with jade light. A golden glow rose from the taped seal, drawing in darkness in a hurricane of sparks.
Muerta was the last to vanish, shrieking all the way. But hers was a scream of rage, of cold, cruel calculation.
An hour before dawn.
Two weeks ago.
A slim hand ripped jade from a dying mortal's grip, crumbling it to shards. "As it should have been, long ago."
Free. Muerta drew in a breath of night and forest, enjoying the ebbing moans around her. The wreckage of a treasure-hunting party lay scattered at her feet, greed having laid them bare to her hunger. Not a one had known what they plundered, not even as much as the last who had trapped her. They had seen, and lusted, and taken - and died.
Mortals were so... predictable.
Not all, the creature reminded herself sharply, weighing bits of gold and jade in her hand. Its entrapping spell was shattered now, lost forever as she scattered jade dust to the winds. But still, she was not free.
Not while one who has touched the seal remains alive.
She could kill. Feast. Wreak havoc as she willed. Yet while even one mortal who had touched the enspelled deathmask walked the earth, she could be trapped once more. If one armored against her could find a shaman, adding that last shard of protective magic to their power to cast out spirits of Darkness-
"No," Muerta murmured, teeth a gleam of piranha fangs. "That, they shall not do."
Drinking the wind, she reached for the feel of jade fire that had imprisoned her so long.
Laughing, she swirled her form into feathers and was gone.
Streetlights glinted off black hair as Dan Wolf shook his head. The Native American medical examiner bent closer, careful not to touch, studying the sprawled angle of the corpse still clutching a melted pay phone in one shriveled hand. The metal booth was warped and bent, as if blasted by some tremendous heat, yet the corpse's clothes were untouched. Skin was as cracked and desiccated as rawhide, but the casual foreign shirt and jeans seemed to indicate a middle-aged man. "He's dead."
"We noticed," Jim Ellison said dryly. The tall detective's eyesight was dialed up to deal with the drizzly haze; dawn wouldn't break for at least another hour. Blair was waiting back behind yellow tape, trying to get a statement out of the hysterical teenagers who'd found the body. They'd gotten up way too early this morning, serving a four A.M. warrant on a highly annoyed gun dealer. No sooner had they gotten Mirandas read and cuffs locked than this call had come in. One look at the grisly scene and his partner had found a sudden need to be elsewhere. "Any ideas?"
Wolf let out a slow breath. "Let me get him on the table, and I might have a clue. Outside of that...." Hazel eyes glanced up. "You set here?"
"Give me a few minutes." Turning, Jim beckoned Blair in.
Blair stepped into the scene carefully, following the same track Wolf had used to enter. The wiry anthropologist's dark curls seemed to have lost their usual bounce as he settled in by Jim's shoulder. "Anything?"
"Not yet." The sentinel took an exploratory sniff, confirming his first impression. "Perfume. Not the kind Ms. Arvel was wearing." He closed his eyes, focussing on the scent as Blair's hand settled on his shoulder. "Tropical. Vanilla, liquidambar, annatto... blood."
He heard Blair lick his lips. "This guy didn't...."
"No. He didn't." And neither of the hysterical teens was bleeding. The scent had to have come in on the unknown woman.
"Okay." Just a hair of tremor in his guide's voice. The kid was holding it together. "That's scent. What can you see?"
A faint smudge of red leapt into sharp relief. "Trace of lipstick on his mouth."
"I'll tell Dan to do a swab," Blair murmured, noting it down.
Moving his gaze down the body, Jim zeroed in on a subtle, double row of lumps in the right front pocket. Ending in a cruciform shape... "Our guy was carrying a rosary."
"Could be Catholic, voodoo, Santeria, carrying it for a friend...."
Silver gleamed in the hollow of a wrinkled throat. "And a St. Christopher's medal."
"Probably not just a friend," Blair conceded. "Anything else?"
"Something that isn't there."
Pen scratches stopped. "What?"
"Defensive wounds." Jim gestured at the unmarked skin of the hands and forearms, the clear lack of bruising on fingers or throat. "Whatever did this, he didn't fight back."
The younger man looked at him askance. "Whatever did this?"
Whatever? Where had that come from? "I mean... whoever." A glint of green caught his eye. "Something in his hand." He pried at the deathgrip, uncovered a fingertip shard of stone. "Emerald?"
"Jade, I think," Blair corrected, studying the luster of fractured green. "What's that stuck to it?"
A sniff brought back memories of jungle, of a thousand improvised repairs in the field. "Duct tape," Jim said, puzzled. "Old duct tape."
"Detective!" One of the older officers holding the scene waved; Sergeant Kelsey. "We traced the last call."
"So why are you grinning?" Jim growled.
"Won the pool." Kelsey held out his clipboard. "It's for you."
Swearing, Jim yanked out his cell phone, dialed his answering machine. Message, message from Simon, some woman's message for Blair-
"Ellison!" A voice from the past; a solid Peruvian revolutionary's voice, now high with fright. "Por díos, Ellison, she is back! La Dama de la Noche - no! Stay away!"
Silence. A subtle sound of lips on lips. A stifled shriek.
A deadly thud.
"Four down," a woman whispered.
"Four down, little Guardian," repeated the familiar, impossible voice. A voice out of nightmares; of half-remembered images of fire and shadow. "And two to go."
The line went dead.
"Two to go."
Gasping, Archangel seized the silvered knife under his pillow, threw it at that threatening shape of shadowed curves-
Swish. Thunk. "Michael!"
"Marella!" He lunged for the lamp by his bed, switched on the warm glow. Five-thirteen in the morning, the spymaster noted as he grabbed his glasses; what was someone doing in his house at this hour? "Marella?"
His second in command lowered a briefcase from over her heart, eyeing the slim blade embedded in brown leather. Dark curls slid over white-clad shoulders as she whistled. "Glad I remembered your aim."
"Makes two of us." Too close. Far too close. God, he hadn't reacted to a nightmare like that in years. "What?"
"That piece of equipment I asked for? I believe I've finally figured it out." Plucking out the knife, she laid it on the bed table and opened her briefcase.
For a moment, Michael contemplated burying his head under the pillow. Coward. "Marella. They're nightmares. Tell me one person in this agency who hasn't had a few bad dreams." No use trying to go back to sleep now; he had a flight to Washington in a few hours. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he pulled on a white bathrobe and plucked up his cane. "They're certainly no cause to give your boss a heart attack by showing up at this unearthly hour."
"A week of nightmares isn't just a few bad dreams," Marella Duval said tartly, tuning knobs on the Firm's new PKE meter. "Not when they're making Hawke nervous."
Hand buried in a dresser full of white shirts, Michael stopped. "That's impossible." Stringfellow Hawke hadn't seen him all week. Either the pilot had been working at Santini Air, or secluded up in his cabin at Eagle Lake. Ears like a snooper mike or not, there was no way on earth Hawke could have known about his nightmares.
"Dominic says he's downright grouchy." Consulting a small handbook, Marella twisted a knob a hair left. "Took him a while to find out why... but you know Dominic."
Pulling on white pants behind the shelter of a closet door, Michael hmphed. He did indeed. Dominic Santini was a bulldog when it came to something hurting the man he thought of as a foster son. Even Hawke's stubborn silence would yield to enough Italian persistence.
"He's nervous. He's jumpy. And he feels like time is running out." The African-American woman lifted an elegant brow.
One down, five to go, the nightmares had started. Then four. Three. And now two. Michael shook off creeping dread, buttoning his shirt. "Marella. Would you put that thing away?"
"In a minute...." The meter's red arms lifted, lights at their ends flashing softly.
Tie half-straightened, Michael stopped. Looked at the meter. Fixed his one good eye on his assistant's determined calm. "That is impossible."
He waved off the protest. "We've had the Ghostbuster's schematics for almost a decade now. Long enough to understand how they measure human biorhythms. Everyone who comes into the Firm gets tested - and yes, that did include me. At most I have, or should I say had, a marginal and highly unreliable trace of empathic sensitivity. Most of which has been quite thoroughly burned out by my chosen line of work." He finished knotting his tie. "Thank god."
"But you have enough left to know what Hawke's likely to do." Marella didn't put the meter down.
"No one knows what Hawke's likely to do. That's why Airwolf's still in one piece." Archangel smiled wryly, plucking up his Panama hat. "We just think alike sometimes."
Paper rustled as she gathered up the handbook. "The last time you were tested was seven years ago."
Cane in hand, Michael headed toward his kitchen. "I grant you the equipment was less sensitive then. But psychic abilities don't show up out of nowhere."
"Ordinarily I'd agree with you, sir. Except you have been in contact with a device that generates neurological biofeedback."
Airwolf. The only helicopter he'd ever been in that had given him a headache without a trace of rotor noise. Put on one of those black helmets, and Airwolf bit.
Yet it was easier the second time, and barely stung the third. He'd asked Hawke about it, only to get the man's quiet not-quite-a-smile. She knows who you are now, was all Hawke would say. Relax, Michael. She'll look after you.
Not exactly comforting, coming from Hawke. "So why aren't you waving that thing around Santini Air?"
"I thought I'd try a more subtle approach first." Heels clicked over the wooden floor behind him. "Given that whatever effects she might have, you've been the least exposed."
"Piloting that thing may be hazardous to the health," Michael acknowledged, cracking eggs for an omelet. "But that's generally because there are missiles flying in the vicinity." He dusted in a trace of chili. "Bottom line, Marella. What do you think you're reading?"
She folded the meter arms in, turned it off. "The frequencies aren't an exact match... but it resembles those recorded from wizard-familiar links."
A shiver crawled down his spine. So sweet, crooned that nightmare voice. Sweeter if you'd found your match, little heart-reader... but now you never will.
He shoved the shard of memory back, concentrated on the sizzle of spiced eggs as he poured them into the hot pan. Interesting, to hear each individual crackle, as butter snapped and spattered, louder and louder-
"Sir!" A voice like thunder; a delicate hand shook him, and the scent of crispy eggs lingered in the air. "Michael, snap out of it!"
Archangel drew in a breath, pulled back from the overwhelming noise. Damn. "I'm fine."
Marella's café-au-lait complexion was flushed, and dark eyes were bright as sparks. "You are not fine, sir! Delay the flight. Get up to Eagle Lake-"
"No." He folded breakfast onto a plate, propped up his left knee as he ate.
She stepped back. Gave him a long look. "Then I'll call Hawke down here."
"Absolutely not!" Reflex; he could not bring Hawke near the nightmares. It wasn't safe.
But that way lay horror, and a black pit of not-remembering. He bluffed instead. "This is a simple inquiry, Marella. Not a combat mission. I'm perfectly capable of getting through it without Hawke along to hold my hand."
Cherry lips pressed into a thin line. "Yes, sir." The line relaxed into a wry smile. "Here, hold still."
Michael let her straighten his tie; a small price to pay for silence. And the tie probably needed it. Four years of practice still didn't make up for the loss of depth perception.
He finished the last scrap of eggs, mind already working on the best way to prowl around the information blackout Cascade had become. Jiminez wouldn't have been in town long, but he'd have an ear to the ground; the Peruvian ex-revolutionary was too canny to walk through an unknown city without knowing where to stay away from. And why.
"Two to go."
Ridiculous. Jiminez was a survivor. He'd be alive.
Unknown biorhythm contact severed.
Running systems check, psionic transceiver: SYSCHECK OK.
Unknown biorhythm has ceased to exist.
The A.I. that was Airwolf shivered in the heart of her processor. Death, that meant. Whatever entity had reached out to one of her pilots - had ceased. Utterly.
Hidden in her Californian Lair, most of the helicopter's systems lingered on standby, not to wake without the touch of a pilot's hand. But the transceiver was under her control.
Pinging link: pilot Michael, Archangel.
Worry. Lingering fear, already being buried under the calm control that was Archangel's life. A fierce intent to probe, discover, root out the enemy.
If Michael had meant for her to help he'd contact Hawke, and she'd feel the swift keenness of a mission being readied. Even lost in meditation, she'd wake to that.
Explore link: Michael, Archangel.
Search: traces foreign biorhythm contact.
Not easy. Archangel was the most difficult to reach or read. He hadn't flown her often enough to build a stable link. And unlike the others, parts of his mind seemed... scarred.
Gently she reached, and snarled. Traces were faint, but unmistakable. Whatever had touched him came from the scar.
Activate links: Hawke, Stringfellow; Santini, Dominic; O'Shannessy, Caitlin.
Transmit anxiety/Michael, Archangel/source of danger - unknown: Transmitting.
All she could do. None of her links were truly reliable; though Michael's was the worst. Her pilots were scattered about their own lives, none in helmet or flight suit. None within reach of a more forceful warning. Especially not Archangel.
If A.I.s could grumble, Airwolf did. Most of her former pilots had been deleted from her clearance list. Some of them after they'd tried to delete her.
But Archangel's clearance was valid. And she hadn't had a chance to monitor him physiologically or neurologically in at least two months.
And if she couldn't monitor him, she couldn't implement the core of her survival programs.
Sensory Enhancement Protocols: ACTIVE.
Santini, Dominic: 87%.
O'Shannessy, Caitlin: 80%.
Coldsmith-Briggs, Michael, Archangel: 45%.
Psionic Link Program Update: Pilot, Hawke, Stringfellow: 71%
Santini, Dominic: 65%
O'Shannessy, Caitlin: 60%
Coldsmith-Briggs, Michael, Archangel: 34%
FULL LINK TEMPLATE MISSING. UPDATE REQUIRED.
No answer. Airwolf had finally determined there never would be - not from the programmer who had installed her core survival mode. Firm computers listed Dr. Jane Bethancourt as deceased, along with most of the personnel from the Red Star facility.
SCANNING ENVIRONMENT FOR FULL LINK EXEMPLARS.
Full links were rare. That data was still present in her memory banks, though much had been destroyed by purging the Moffet's Ghost virus. Not as much as her pilots believed had been - but security protocols dictated that they not be informed of that fact until after the links were stable.
Chances of finding a full link exemplar in any given location were less than 0.02%. She hadn't considered that a problem before; patient as her processors, Airwolf had nothing but time.
But Michael didn't.
"Ricardo Jiminez," Jim said grimly, gun at his side as the American Hotel's manager fumbled with his keys at the door of the deceased's room. "Couldn't tell it from the body, but the voice was right. Haven't seen him in years."
"But he was looking for you." Gold frames glinted in the hall light as Detective Captain Simon Banks frowned. His own gun was out as he waited on the other side of the doorway, motioning Blair back out of the line of fire.
Frankly, Blair was just as glad to have the tall, dark captain between him and that room. Something behind that door was wrong. Something that had Jim standing there with a drawn gun, even when he swore there wasn't so much as a mouse's heartbeat inside.
"We met in Peru. One of my first missions down that way."
Clenched jaw, Blair thought. And the next thing he's going to say is....
"I really can't talk about it, sir."
The door creaked open, Jim darting in with a perfunctory shout of "Police! Freeze!"
"Peru?" Simon swept the trashed, ribbon-decked room with a disbelieving glance. Sheets had been pulled from the bed. Cushions slashed. Trash bins upended, contents strew over the floor as if someone had already combed through them. "Looks more like Little Havana to me."
"Protective amulets," Blair murmured, putting a hand behind one dangling bit of straw and string to gentle it to a stop without touching it. Behind him he could hear Jim and Simon tossing the room, looking for anything off, anything that might lead them to the killer.
Thiswas off. Red-dyed straw, one tuft tied at right angles over another with red yarn that went on in a spiraling circle over and under each of the four straw arms. Red yarn that was knotted to white, then white to blue, each adding their defensive circles of color.
Warding off the evil eye, the anthropologist realized. Not something a good Catholic did lightly.
Assuming our guy was a good Catholic.
He was certainly a frightened one. Dried chilies taped over each entrance. Rosaries in easy reach of the bed. Tiny portraits of the Virgin Mary standing on the serpent, the sun's rays behind her.
At least one of those had been hand-painted, a rough, amateur sketch on an oval of polished pinewood. Blair found himself drawn to the subtle glimmer of robes; white, but with a delicate sheen that suggested all the colors of dawn. What do you want to bet that's mother-of-pearl mixed into milk paint?
Stepping back, Blair whistled. "Jim?"
"I don't get it." Finished rooting through the wastebasket with only a museum day-pass receipt to show for it, Jim shook his head. "Jiminez was a lot of things, but he wasn't religious."
"He wasn't trying to be." Blair pointed out the icons, the blessed objects, the herbs meant to protect against evil. "This guy thought he was in deep, deep guacamole." The anthropologist cocked his head. "Who's the Lady of the Night?"
His partner hesitated. "I don't know."
"'I don't know' you can't say, or 'I don't know' you don't know?"
"I... don't know."
"What have we got here," Simon murmured, rapping a bottom drawer with a brown knuckle. "Jim? This doesn't sound right."
The sentinel moved in, tapping wood lightly, cocking an ear to the echo. "Got it." He held out a hand. Blair handed over his pocketknife, and Jim unfolded a blade to pry at lacquered wood.
The bottom of the drawer lifted, exposing a thin folder of papers. "Jackpot."
"Or not," Blair murmured, looking at the sheets of apparently random numbers and letters.
"Coded. We'll scan it in and see if Forensics can do anything with it." Jim plucked out the folder. "What the heck?" Something rustled under his fingers.
Blair squinted at the photo of a brown and green net of knotted strings, held the tip of a finger to the picture to get an idea of the size of flaked obsidian blades. "It's not a regular net." Not with those glossy marks on twine, where an unknown number of hands had polished their grips. "I'd have to look it up to be sure, but from the look of those knots - Aztec?"
"Cotton string," Jim agreed, eyes dilating wide to scrutinize the photo. "Color's natural. Not dyed."
"Cotton's white," Simon argued.
"Only some of it," Blair corrected. "There are a bunch of colored heirloom varieties. My mom loves them; they're a lot easier on the environment. You don't need herbicides to take off the leaves."
"Wasn't your mother's friends that grew this." Jim frowned; wrinkled his nose. "Not unless they were around a few hundred years ago." He held out a paper bag for Simon to slide the picture into. "Let's see what Dan can tell us."
"...It might just be simple substitution. If we can wait an hour for Anthro to get their first cups of coffee, I can get people started looking...."
Something dark flew past; Jim wrinkled his nose, catching a faint whisper of wind through feathers, the harsh warning caw of a raven. How'd a bird get in here?
The hallway was empty.
"...We've got good code references by this time-"
Jim held up a hand to halt his partner's nervous chatter; Blair never liked the morgue. "Quiet."
Blair's hand found his arm as Jim cast his hearing ahead. Air conditioning, a jangle of scalpels dropped into drawers....
Another voice he hadn't heard in years. And one he'd've been just as happy to never have heard again.
"Michael Briggs, DEA." Leather flipped, closing over an I.D.
"You don't look like a DEA agent." Wolf sounded doubtful.
Jim could all but see Archangel's subtle smirk. "I know."
Why that ice-cold son of a-
Dimly he registered Blair's footsteps close behind him, as the anthropologist urged him to slow down, think, don't shoot anyone-
Jim slammed into the medical examiner's workspace. "Get the hell away from that body!"
A tall, blond man turned casually toward him, right hand leaning on a silver-headed cane. Not a young man, though the silver starting to lace his hair probably came more from professional hazards than age. Certainly the one green eye behind those glasses was clear and fierce as ever, even if the other was hidden by a black leather patch.
And, of course, he was wearing white. Outside the field, Jim had never seen the spy in anything else.
I didn't know they even made white trench coats.
But it was the patch and cane that threw him. He'd always thought Archangel was indestructible. At least he'd seemed that way, that one time-
Memory shied like a frightened horse.
"Ellison." Archangel granted him a nod. Rain from one of Cascade's intermittent showers dappled his white coat collar, clung in fine droplets to the Panama hat in his left hand. "I take it you're the one in charge of investigating our witness' untimely demise." His gaze flicked to the still form under the sheet. "It is Jiminez, isn't it."
Not a flicker of surprise. More the resigned comment of a man who'd had his worst fears confirmed. "Did you have anything to do with this?" Jim demanded.
"No." A brow arched over the dark lens. "Unless you count the fact that we were supposed to meet this morning." He regarded the occupied table. "This wasn't what I had in mind for a rendezvous."
No change in heart rate. Not a trace of blush that would indicate a lie.
But for once, Ellison didn't trust his senses. Archangel lived in lies. He'd probably only flinch if he tried to tell the truth.
"Um, hi. Blair Sandburg." The anthropologist offered a hand. "He was a witness? To what?"
Deliberately ignoring Jim's grim expression, Archangel shook it genteelly. "Michael Briggs. Dr. Sandburg, of Rainier?" A charming smile; Jim hated it on sight. "I'll be glad to have you consulting on this case. Your theses have made very interesting reading."
Jim sucked in a breath, as if he'd been punched in the gut. Archangel knows. Archangel knows....
No. He couldn't know. He might suspect, but he couldn't know. Otherwise he and Blair would be in some covert lab, unnamed bodies left to cover the fact they might still be alive. Archangel had no morals, and no pity.
And no business being in the middle of my case. "Get out."
"Detective?" Dan held down the edge of the sheet, gaze switching between him and the white-suited interloper. "He's got the right to be here...."
A forged right, Jim would have bet his life on it. One that would ring all the right bells in the department computers. But if there really were a "Michael Briggs" out there, he'd turn in his Sweetheart for a minivan.
Archangel held up a hand. "It's all right, Dr. Wolf." Again, that genteel smile. "Far be it from me to contribute to inter-agency rivalries." The cane tapped quietly toward the door.
Stopped on the threshold. "Lambert."
Jim clenched his teeth.
"Tregiz," Archangel went on casually. "Carson. And now Jiminez." The spy cast a glance back. "I think we should talk. Don't you?"
No, Jim thought through a red haze. This man was dangerous. This man was everything he'd left Covert Ops to avoid.
"Jim." A bare breath near his ear; a wide, calming hand on his arm. A teal-eyed glance from his partner, reminding him that personal feelings aside, they had a murder to solve.
"Wait in Interrogation," Jim ground out.
Archangel inclined his head. "Of course."
"You have to go, Hawke," Marella urged, glancing out of Dominic's office to make sure the Company half of Santini Air wasn't in a position to overhear.
String could have told her they weren't. The quiet clatter of tools into boxes and swipe of rags over engine parts told him where his brother St. John's team was, as sure as if he could see them. "Man said it wasn't combat."
"And where the spotless wonder's concerned, we don't have to do anything." The feisty Italian pushed back his red silk baseball cap, bending back to his clipboard to study the day's schedule. "Specially not when we got stunts to run."
"He hasn't slept a night through for a week," Marella objected. Her gaze roamed the office, settled on Caitlin as the most sympathetic listener. "He's called up files from South America I'd never seen - tried to bury them in the paperwork so I wouldn't see them. I did some digging; the only thing they have in common is an old mission, about a year after Hawke started flying for us." She raked String with her eyes. "Archangel had to be medically evacuated after that mission. But he came out alive. A lot of people didn't."
String settled back against the wall, trying to hide his interest. Archangel hadn't told him about any South American missions at the time. Not surprising; they'd both been cautious around each other then, a long way from being... well, they weren't friends. Exactly. "You think something came back and bit him."
"I think he's afraid," Marella said softly. "I know I am."
"String. We got plenty of work here," Dominic said, dark eyes shifting back and forth between the pleading agent and his partner.
"Yeah." Yet he couldn't shake the feeling that insisted Michael is in trouble. Now.
And if Michael was in danger, he had to go.
"What is it, Hawke?"Sarah Lebow's voice echoed out of memory; Paraguay, and a green forest clearing, and a Nazi-hunter's daughter studying him like a Chinese puzzle-box. "What's this hold he has over you?"
He didn't know. Then or now. He only knew that of all the people he'd ever met, there were only a few he couldn't shoot. And one of them was Michael.
"Archangel would kill you if he had to!"
He'd met her gaze, weighed the hunger for vengeance blazing in dark eyes. "So would you."
Dominic sighed, bringing him back to the hangar. "And you're going anyway. Ah!" He waved an abrupt hand. "Don't even say it. I'm not going."
"If you say so, Dom." String let a small smile slip out. The elderly mechanic might have a hundred uncomplimentary names for Archangel. But if Michael were really in over his head, Dominic would be one of the first in there to yank him out.
"And you shouldn't go alone," Dominic jabbed a callused finger near his face. "And you know it."
Not much he could say to that. The sharp senses that had kept him alive for years had gotten cranky since that mess over Edwards. All it'd take would be one time listening too hard, or looking too hard, or feeling too carefully, and he'd be lost, blinded by one sensation until somebody jarred him out of it. More than once String had pulled back with Tet licking his face and a headache rawer than the hound's favorite steak. He'd found Dominic almost frozen, bent over an old biplane motor, half-deaf after he'd tried to hear what was wrong with the alternator. And they'd both walked up on Caitlin standing on the tarmac, fingers locked on a minuscule flaw in a tail rotor blade. Lucky it was us, not Jo or Sinj....
Funny; of the two, his brother Sinj was easier to fool. St. John had been away so long, he accepted Stringfellow's rabid need for quiet almost as a matter of course. Jo Santini knew her Uncle Dominic well enough to realize something was wrong - even if she didn't know what.
It'd never hit while they were flying. Dom would have grounded them all - and with good cause. But... it'd come closer, lately. Too close.
No. Alone wasn't an option.
"Jo could cover my jobs," Caitlin O'Shannessy volunteered. The redhead was perched against the file cabinets, grease rag stuffed in the pocket of her mechanic's coveralls like a red-and-black handkerchief. "It's just a quick hop up the coast."
"A thousand miles ain't exactly a quick hop, Red," Dominic argued.
"It is, in the Lady. I'll make the arrangements." Archangel's second in command held up a hand to halt objections. "For fuel, at least. If you don't trust Firm security, there are dozens of places you can hide her near Cascade."
String's eyes narrowed. "Cascade's U.S. soil, Marella. Why would we need Airwolf?"
"Not for a fight. Exactly." The agent hesitated. "I don't want St. John to hear this."
Dominic locked the door. "This better be good."
"Interesting, maybe. I don't know if you'd call it good." Marella gathered them in with her gaze. "These are some of the pilot selection criteria for the original Airwolf Project." She handed String a slim folder. "What we're looking at is on page 9."
"Some selection! Picked out a psycho like Moffet," Dominic grumbled, shoving his cap back.
"The Firm was looking for certain physical aptitudes, not psychological," she pointed out. "We couldn't exactly deny the main designer permission to fly her."
Caitlin studied the page, frowning. Traced a finger along the paragraphs, to sweep back up to the top of the section. "'Enhanced Sensory Capability?' Is this for real?"
"Very real," Marella confirmed. "Although the Committee had much the same reaction. Until we actually started running tests on some of our more successful field agents." She cast a glance at String.
"I'm not the only guy you have with good ears," the pilot shrugged.
"But you do have some of the most acute senses in the Firm," Marella agreed. "All other things being equal, even mildly enhanced sight or hearing can make the difference between a live operative and a corpse." She tapped one of the footnotes. "Dr. Blair Sandburg's made a thorough study of the subject. Thorough enough to get him into real trouble over the past few years, if we hadn't managed to bury much of his work. As it stands he had a bad episode with a rogue Company agent a few years back; Lee Brackett. Since then we've been a bit more careful." She chuckled softly. "Our disinformation office likes to amuse themselves coming up with ever more creative ways to make sentinel research look like a theoretical blind alley."
"So what's this got to do with the Lady?" Dominic scowled at the file.
"The technical specifications required extraordinary pilots," Marella's hands gripped the top of the office guest chair. "Even with computer assist, hitting ground targets accurately at speeds of over Mach 1 was thought to require at least enhanced sight. Enhanced hearing was thought to be a bonus... only none of our pilots without it could fly her."
"Have to hear what's going on, if you're going to push her," String shrugged.
The spy nodded. "Throughout the test runs, no one without enhanced senses could fly her at all. Not without crashing."
"We've flown her," Caitlin argued. "Heck, even Michael's back-seated once or twice."
"Yes, he has," Marella said softly. "And that's where the problem comes in." She met String's gaze. "Michael says the first time he put on a helmet, she bit him."
"Oh, I bet she did," Dominic chuckled dryly, letting Caitlin take the folder. "The Lady don't like strangers."
"Headache the size of Texas," Caitlin agreed, rifling through. "Gets better after that, though. Third time you take her up, it's gone." She shrugged. "Always wondered why nobody we picked up complained about it."
"Probably because she didn't touch them."
The room went silent. Outside, String heard a soft curse as a clogged fuel line slipped out of Jo's grip. "Okay," Dominic said quietly. "You got my attention."
Marella let out a slow breath. "I have reason to believe the selection criteria aren't just statistics in a Firm file. They're part of Airwolf's programming itself."
"Programming we wiped," String pointed out.
"A distributed computer network, tied into every system in the entire helicopter? Systems that came back on-line in time to keep you and Dominic from making yourselves pancakes coming down from over 89,000 feet?" Marella crossed her arms, radiating doubt.
Caitlin whistled, rubbing down hairs standing up on her arms. "You think something's still running."
"What information we have left on the helmet biofeedback protocols indicates Moffet didn't design them," the Firm agent said hastily. For all the people in this room loved Airwolf, they'd put a Hellfire into her rather than let one of Moffet's killer programs take over again. "Based on what I've seen, and some follow-up interviews with various people Hawke's shanghaied into the engineer's seat over the years - anyone who can fly her comes away with enhanced visual and auditory acuity. The effects seem to intensify over time." She hesitated.
"And what else?" Caitlin demanded.
Marella looked over Airwolf's pilots, braced herself. "The more intense the effects, the more frequent the... need for contact."
Now the hairs on String's arms were standing up.
"I have the statistics locked where the Committee can't get to them. It's a curve. The farther away Michael sees or hears things - he's complained about the copier whine at the other end of Knightsbridge, for goodness' sake! - the more often I have to bring him up to Eagle Lake. Or else I find him locked in the dark with a migraine. Only it isn't." Marella flicked her gaze to String. "Sandburg's research calls it a sensory spike."
"Everything goes nuts," Dominic muttered.
"Which never seems to happen when he's near Airwolf," Marella agreed. "Only when he stays away." Her voice dropped. "You know what I'm talking about."
A trio of shared glances; blue to brown to blue. "Yeah," String admitted reluctantly. Which was why Caitlin was going with him, and Dominic wasn't flying alone 'til one of them got back. Just because it hadn't hit while they were flying, didn't mean it wouldn't ever.
Marella breathed a silent curse. "We do have a problem."
"First things first," Caitlin said briskly, handing over the file. "Where's Michael?"
The white-clad man closed a manila folder as Blair walked through the door. "Dr. Sandburg. Your partner's not with you?"
"He's around," Blair shrugged, nodding at the one-way mirror clearly visible on the wall behind Briggs.
"Of course." But a hint of laughter sparkled in that green eye, and the man left his back to the mirror as easily as if it were the solid wall it pretended to be. "So what did you want to know?"
Weird, Blair thought. Like he knows there's no one behind the mirror. "Actually-" he took a peach-scented meditation candle out of his plaid shirt pocket, dropped easily to a folded-leg seat on the floor. "They're busy... looking at Jiminez right now. And this is about the only place in the station I can do this." He hesitated, matchbox in hand. "If you don't mind."
"Someone I know plays the cello when he can't take the world any more," Michael mused, tapping manila. "If I won't disturb you?" A wry smile. "Paperwork. The abiding curse of both our professions."
"Go ahead." Lighting the flame, Blair breathed out fear, fury, frustration. Something's wrong in Cascade. Something that had killed Ricardo Jiminez; something that had driven him to mortal terror before his death, terror not only of the body, but the soul....
Let it go.
The rustle of paper was a quiet counterpoint to the flickering flame, not nearly as distracting as he'd expected. Michael's presence was quiet.
Still water, the anthropologist thought, one of the passing fragments the mind threw up to fight meditation's calm. Hunter in a blind....
Archangel waited for the man's breathing to even out, switched on the miniaturized PKE meter he'd brought in his briefcase. It was an older model than Marella's, less sensitive; but silent, and specialized for human biorhythms.
We have to know, he thought coldly. Even if Sandburg's innocent. Especially because he's innocent. Ellison might take him apart, but the Firm's research indicated the guide might be dangerous on an entirely different level.
Flickers of energy. Numbers climbed on the liquid crystal display, slow but steady; like the airspeed when Dom took Airwolf's helm. Past the level for a borderline psychic, well past the readings Marella had taken this morning-
Enough. Michael switched the meter off.
What he didn't know, no one could ask him to tell.
Snow, Blair thought, tasting the chill in clear air. Vaguely he remembered he was in the station, scented candle-smoke and peach. But this felt real.
A scarred raven perched on a snowy spruce branch, bright black eyes watching him. Slowly - ever so slowly - turned away. The glossy black head tilted, trying to catch a sound just out of hearing.
Blair followed the bright gaze. Something lurked there, in the shadows under the trees. Something that hungered, and beckoned, and would wait for all eternity....
Don't go!he tried to call, as the raven tensed to fly. He could see the thin line of shadow tangling the black bird's talons, drawing it in against every instinct to survive. Wait! Please wait!
But shadow was too strong. Black feathers bunched over muscle, dark wings spread-
A high, distant cry overhead; a pair of falcons, circling almost out of sight. The proud, ivory death of a gyrfalcon, flying in eerie companionship with the fierce slate-blue and brown of a tiny merlin.
Mated pair, the guide thought, half his attention on them, half on the raven struggling not to fly. Don't go. Keep fighting. They're coming....
A cold, wet nose shoved against his hand.
Blair stumbled back into a snowdrift, staring at a creature of myth and dream. She looked like a wolf. Almost. Yet her fur was white as moonlit snow, and her falcon wings barred blue and pale as a clouded winter sky.
And her eyes... her eyes were clear hawk-amber.
Amber narrowed at him; she barked, one short, sharp signal.
The raven closed talons on its branch, huddled to hide and watch. One white dove flew by. Another.
High above hovered the swift death of falcons; below, the snow-furred wolf lurked in wait.
Yet doves passed by, untouched.
A shot rang out; white feathers plummeted from the sky, red staining the message banded on one slim leg. The raven croaked warning, flinging itself from the branch to startle the hunter into clear view-
Falcons and wolf struck.
"Are you all right?"
Candle-smoke. The warmth of flame by his hand. Not a flake of snow in sight.
Blair shuddered, trying to banish the image of a hunter facedown on the snow, ravaged by teeth and talons. "Yeah. I think so." He blew out the candle. Weird. Very weird.
Since when do wolves have wings?
And the raven. Waiting, as if it knew wolf and falcons would fly at its command. "What do you know about falconry?"
"Ah. The sport of kings." The white-clad agent stretched out his knee with an easy smile. "Though I've always suspected the first falconer was some frustrated pigeon handler who got tired of seeing his doves brought down by the enemy."
A white dove falling, message slipping from her grip.... "Must be hard to get falcons to fly where you want them."
"Falcons never fly where you want them." Amusement glimmered in that green eye. "The trick is to get them to see that they can find the best hunting where you'd like them to fly."
Blair nodded, stretching out the kinks as he stood. "Hunting. Like ravens?"
Michael laughed. "Falcons don't usually hunt smart birds, Dr. Sandburg."
Maybe not. But there was some connection there. He could feel it.
As he could feel the angry presence stalking this way. Blair made a show of checking his watch. "I think they're done with the autopsy."
A tall, dark man strode into the interrogation room; Captain Simon Banks, Michael knew from his files on Cascade's Major Crimes department. This could be awkward.
Or convenient. He never had been able to keep from needling Ellison, even on a vital mission. It wasn't the usual disdain of military for Intelligence, or even of Ranger for spy. Something about the man annoyed him, pure and simple.
If he'd had to boil it down, it hinged on a feeling. The same shreds of intuition that kept him alive in the field shrieked that being near Ellison was hazardous to his health. That Ellison wanted something from him. Something he could never be.
Something Ellison would kill to have.
Having witnesses might be a very good idea.
Probably Sandburg's, Michael mused, studying the nervous way the anthropologist ducked his head as Ellison stalked in after the captain. Clever young man. Pity he's too gentle to make a good field agent.
Just as well. Ellison showed no signs of wanting back into the Game, and according to the Firm's research, the detective most likely would be dead or in an insane asylum without his guide's help. Personal animosity aside, that would have been a waste.
Ice-blue eyes met his. "What do you want, Briggs?"
"I see you haven't lost one shred of your courtesy and civility by leaving the Rangers for law enforcement." Michael folded the tips of his fingers together, leaned back in the uncomfortable plastic chair as if it were fine leather. Inwardly he calculated just which hidden weapons he could get to if Ellison decided to dispense with courtesies and simply move along to shredding him. "Shame."
A growl. "Look, you-"
"Jim." Banks' gesture held the man back. Dark eyes scrutinized the agent before him, seemed to find something worth trusting. "You're not DEA."
Usually that wouldn't deserve the dignity of a reply. But there was something solid about Banks; something that vaguely reminded him of a certain rock-steady Italian. "Let's just say, things should go easier if we leave it at that." He unlatched his briefcase, took out the FBI and Interpol files he'd acquired over the past week. "Lambert was on a religious sabbatical in Peru. Finding himself, when something found him. Tregiz turned up in a Panamanian canal. Carson wandered into the wrong alley in Acapulco. And now Jiminez. All dead with no discernable cause."
"Dehydration," Ellison argued.
"So it would appear," Michael acknowledged. "But if I'm correct, your medical examiner told you his electrolyte balance is fine." He hesitated. "And there was a piece of jade left in his hand."
Banks and Ellison traded a silent glance. Damn, Michael thought. For once, he would've been glad to be wrong.
"So what is it?" Blair leaned closer, nerves forgotten. "Who were these guys? What did they have in common?"
"They were on a mission." Ellison seemed determined to stare the agent down. "One that didn't happen."
"No need to go into petty details," Michael shrugged. "To be perfectly frank, I don't remember much besides... shadows. And fire." He shook off the chill. "Suffice it to say something went very wrong."
"Wrong?" Ellison's bark of laughter hurt his ears. "Your intelligence went wrong, Briggs." A hand slammed on the edge of the table. "Fourteen men walked into that patch of jungle. Six walked out!"
The spy didn't flinch. "Four down. And two to go."
Blair drew in a breath. "Oh, man. That's what she said."
Now this was news. "She?"
"On the tape-"
A tape? Traceable evidence? Manna from heaven. He leaned forward. "Where?"
"No." Jim shook his head when Blair moved to explain. "Not one word. You don't know this guy, Blair. He's poison. He makes Brackett look straight."
That stung. "Brackett was a rogue. A Company rogue, at that." He let a blond brow arch. "You are in danger, Detective."
"Not before you." Ellison leaned in. "Assuming we even believe you, why are you here?"
"Not before me..." Michael had to smile, even as he stood to stretch out the ache in his knee. "Now that, is why I'm here."
Simon nudged up his glasses. "Someone want to explain, or are we going to stand here being cryptic all day?"
Michael shrugged, carefully nonchalant. "As I said, Captain. I don't remember what happened on that mission. Everything up to that patch of jungle, yes. Everything after, certainly; that was one of the worst debriefings I've ever had. During?" He shook his head, stalking the little space the room allowed. "Jiminez couldn't recall it either. All he knew when he phoned was that he was in trouble. I tried to persuade him to enter protective custody, but he was convinced it wouldn't do any good. By the time I got here - well. But Ellison...." He turned on the man, good eye narrowed. "Ellison knows that whoever or whatever she is, she'll be coming for me first."
Now the detective stepped back. "I don't know that."
"But you do," Michael corrected mildly. "You have a photographic memory, Detective. I can't recall what happened. I've tried. My life is at risk - anyone near me is at risk - and I can't remember why." His voice went quiet, and he knew the predator gleamed behind his gaze. "But you could."
"If you think I'm letting your people anywhere near my head, you-" A cell phone rang. "Ellison," the detective bit out, opening the phone.
Rubbing his fingertips over the head of his cane, Michael listened. Don't focus on one thing. Focus on one thing and you'll lose it. And this would be an extremely unfortunate place to lose it.
Innocent or not, Sandburg would never miss the signs of a sensory spike. And there was no way Archangel would leave that vulnerability in Ellison's too-noble hands.
Something about - another witness? There were witnesses? Both their lives were in danger. Did he have to shake information out of the man?
He was tempted. Definitely tempted.
"Blows that theory out of the water," Ellison muttered. Ice-blue eyes skewered him. "You. Stay here."
Michael held his peace as the door slammed, waited calmly while footsteps rushed down the hall. Once relative quiet ebbed back into Ellison's wake, he tried the doorknob.
Locked. As if that were supposed to make a difference.
"I detest delays." Shrugging, Archangel pulled a set of lockpicks from his sleeve.
Soon. Shadows rippling around her, the dark-haired creature in the form of a woman licked ruby lips. Soon they will come.
White fire trickled from her fingertips, lacing heat-shimmer over the walls that kept out the painful sun. Should the Guardian or Archangel approach her lair, she would know.
And they would come. She had only to lay her trail, and wait.
"Ms. Muerta?" A pale shadow of a man shivered in the doorway, dark eyes wide and hungry. "It's done."
So. The false trail was laid. The tantalizing crumbs of information that would lead the Guardian straight down her maw.
The dark humor of it tickled what passed for her heart. Guardians were deaf to her spells of persuasion; their spirit guardians saw to that. But they had no armor against their own gifts. If their senses told them there was a trail, they'd follow it to the ends of the earth.
"Good, Leigh." She graced him with a caress. Teased him with a demure flicker of ebony eyes, before bending in to brush her lips lightly over his.
Just a touch. Just a taste.
A moment, and Leigh was whimpering on the floor, tangled in the dry heat of her embrace. Reluctantly she backed off. It would not do to break a useful tool so soon. There were others to be found, of course... but why waste the time? "Very good."
Striding off in a skirl of darkness, she closed her eyes and felt.
Yes. Two life forces pulsed in her mind; the last of those who had touched the ancient Inca seal. The last of those who had once raced Night itself to imprison her.
One blazed like crimson fire; the Guardian, without a doubt. Older now, more powerful. Perhaps he had bonded? Now, there would be a tasty treat. One worth spinning out over weeks, perhaps months, before she leaned in for the final kill.
A mercy she would not grant the Guardian himself. No; that kill would be quick and clean.
Not that she would waste his energy, if she had the opportunity to take it without risk. A Guardian's life force would be rich harvest, much of what she would need to breach the Walls Between the Worlds and free her kind into the mortal realm.
But no energy was worth the price of her freedom. Death would do.
The other was a subtle glimmer of violet, a dragonfly in sunset, gone and there and gone again. Archangel.
For a moment, she sighed at the necessity of his swift death. The human would have been such a challenging hunt. Brave, stubborn as knotted mahogany, keen of mind as the sharp smile he'd used to trap her.
That memory still stung. She'd thought him safely under her thrall, that last hour before the final sunset. He'd even bent to her kiss, let her ravage the small power within him, all the while murmuring sweet words of how they would destroy the Guardian and all that lived.
All the while luring her on, into a snare of duct tape and magic.
No. She would not make the same mistake twice. When the sun fell, Archangel would die.
And there was nothing in this world that could save him.
I.F.F.: Jet Ranger Helicopter, flashed on one of Airwolf's monitors, alongside a wire-frame diagram of the aircraft. ARMAMENT: None detected. RADIO FREQUENCIES: Match found, Cascade Police Department Dispatch.
String laid a finger against the side of the collective, guiding Airwolf gently to the right and out of view of the traffic helicopter. There wasn't a civilian radar made that could pick the Lady out of the air, but that wouldn't stop some cop from just looking up. And he didn't feel like wasting the afternoon with long explanations.
Caitlin leaned back in the engineer's chair, adjusting her black helmet as they streaked over Cascade at just under 225 knots. Whisper Mode set up a quiet vibration in Airwolf's frame, enough to annoy anyone who didn't shift once in a while. "So how you doing, Angel?"
Hawke lifted a dark blond brow. "She's fine."
"Hawke..." Caitlin tapped her control panel, Texas accent a little thicker than usual. Red brows drew down, appearing under her helmet visor as she frowned.
"I know, Cait. I know." Airwolf wasn't in Combat Mode. Meaning the artificial intelligence that was the heart of the helicopter wasn't supposed to be active. In theory.
String had been suspicious of that theory from the moment he'd seen the helicopter. Granted computers weren't his field, but you didn't get through a Master's in Applied Physics without some understanding of how quantum mechanics applied to decision trees - human and electronic. An A.I. was supposed to be a simulated mind. And minds didn't just turn off.
Still. At first, the programmers' theory seemed to hold. In Combat Mode, Airwolf might be downright uncanny; able to read her pilots' reflexes and reactions, dodge what couldn't be dodged, out-soar and out-fight anything in the air. But when they were just flying, Airwolf acted like an ordinary helicopter... at least, as ordinary as any composite rotorcraft that could climb past 80,000 feet, break Mach 2.5 and shed bullets like rain.
String couldn't put a finger on when that had started changing. Maybe when Zeus had sent the Zebra squad hunting him. Maybe when Caitlin had dared to fly the Lady. Looking back, he couldn't be sure the change hadn't started the first time he'd brought Archangel on board, when the two of them nearly crashed searching for Dom in Mexico.
But after a flight of alien invaders had nearly destroyed Airwolf, there was a definite difference.
Maybe she thinks she's still in Combat Mode. Even when the weapons are disarmed.
"Easy, Lady." Caitlin's voice was low and soothing over the helmet radios as she patted her console. Blue eyes were scanning radar and infrared, checking they hadn't missed any surprises in the small clearing ahead. "We're gonna land soon." She chuckled softly. "You gonna dress for town?"
"Sure." He smiled under the helmet. "Jacket and a gun."
"Hawke!" the ex-cop protested as their wheels touched down. "We're going into town? In America? With civilians?"
"After Archangel," he reminded her.
She paused in the midst of shutdown. "You got a point."
Whisper Mode Disengage. Flight time in Whisper Mode: 30 min+. Run Diagnostics: RUN.
Airwolf settled herself in the wooded clearing outside Cascade, activating wheel motors for a few seconds to angle her nose 0.05 degrees better for takeoff. Equations flashed through her processors, calculating probable effects of rotor downwash on her surroundings under various evac conditions. Self-preservation protocols dictated that she attempt to avoid takeoffs that would endanger herself and her crew.
Calculations finished quickly. Pilot Hawke, Stringfellow had selected an optimum hide site with safe clearance.
The next set of calculations had started well before the rotors stopped. Airwolf knew from experience that her crew took off the helmets before the flight suits.
Run Neurological Diagnostic, Pilot, Hawke, Stringfellow: RUN.
Santini, Dominic: NOT MONITORED.
O'Shannessy, Caitlin: RUN.
Coldsmith-Briggs, Michael, Archangel: NOT MONITORED.
No signs of neurological distress from anyone on board. Now to check data from monitors integrated in the left side of the flight suit chest pieces.
Run Physiological Diagnostic, Pilot, Hawke, Stringfellow: RUN.
Santini, Dominic: NOT MONITORED.
O'Shannessy, Caitlin: RUN.
Coldsmith-Briggs, Michael, Archangel: NOT MONITORED.
Two out of four fine; and what she'd picked up from Caitlin and Hawke indicated Dominic was well as ever.
Pinging link: pilot Michael, Archangel.
A mild itch of worry echoed back. Stronger was a glimmer of humor, the exultant glee of doing something human law didn't quite approve of.
Match to baseline psychic scan profile, Michael, Archangel: 99%.
Outside interference previously noted.
Match to baseline not sufficient to determine pilot status.
Explore link: Michael, Archangel.
Search: traces foreign biorhythm contact.
There. No trace of an active entity... yet something still seeped from that scar. Something alien.
Isolate foreign biorhythm frequencies: Isolated.
Frequencies outside human biorhythm range.
Data indicates inhuman psychic frequencies highly variable. Set match threshold to 90%.
Search Bethancourt database: RUN.
That would take a while. If a match could be found at all; her equipment was primarily designed to discriminate among humans, not identify inhuman threats. Pilot and not-my-pilot were her key concerns, not what a not-my-pilot was.
Yet when it came down to it, what it was didn't matter.
Response of Michael, Archangel to foreign biorhythms consistently negative.
Chance of foreign entity non-hostile intent: 10%.
Activate links: Hawke, Stringfellow; Santini, Dominic; O'Shannessy, Caitlin.
Transmit anxiety/Michael, Archangel/source of danger - inhuman: Transmitting.
"Six-two, maybe," the young hooker said eagerly. "Sneakers - you know, the high kind, with the neon stripes on the side...."
Blair let his partner note the details, wondering why something about this interview felt wrong. It was more than just the hurt at seeing someone sell themselves, though he'd never get used to that. Prostitutes were some of the best sources on the street; always watching, always aware they were targets. If Amber said she'd seen this guy chasing Jiminez toward the phone, she probably had.
Or thought she had.
"Jim?" A bare whisper; just enough for his partner to pick up. "What kind of perfume is she wearing?"
A subtle flare of nostrils was his only answer. Then confusion creased blue eyes. "Thanks. We'll get out an APB, soon as possible."
"Trace of tropical perfume," Ellison said as they walked away. "Hard to tell under the hair spray... but there. Like she stood near our unknown lady for a while. How'd you know?"
Blair shook his head. "Something in her eyes...." Something empty. Hungry. Like a drug, only - darker.
"Cop intuition." His partner chuckled. "Next thing you know, you'll be stopping the truck to throw guys up against the wall for a search."
"Not funny, man."
"We'll still put out the APB." Jim's grin held an edge of cool calculation. "Either he is our perp, or he was close enough to see something. Either way, I want to know." He rubbed a hand through curls. "So, oh great investigator. If Amber was near our perp, why's she still alive?"
Blair shrugged. "She doesn't fit the profile of La Dama's primary targets?" But why would Jiminez call his killer a lady if Amber had seen a guy? The women who worked these streets didn't make mistakes like that.
A man Jim would have been just as happy to take apart piece by piece. A man who'd all but admitted he was here under false credentials. And that quip about his theses... not good. Definitely not good.
But that didn't mean he was lying.
"So... when did you want to try to remember that mission?" Blair asked, carefully casual. Sometimes he could get Jim to agree to the wildest things if he just acted as if the ideas he pulled out of his head were time-tested old standbys.
"Not planning to."
And sometimes not. Time for a more direct approach, Blair thought. "If Simon said this was tied to one of your old cases, wouldn't you try to remember it?"
"He's not Simon."
No. Definitely not. "Jim. It's a lead."
"So? What have you got against Agent Briggs?"
Icy eyes narrowed. "He's Black Ops."
"So were you," the anthropologist pointed out as they reached the blue-and-white pickup. "And I know you did things you don't like, and I know he's probably everything Naomi warned me about when she said parts of the government were planning to take over the world. But this sounds personal, man."
Jim leaned against the truck bed, staring into the busy chaos that was a Cascade business day. "I'm not talking about this without a locked door. Get in."
"Are you certain you don't want another cup?" Megan Connor persisted, pouring herself a mug as she braced herself for another crack at her paperwork. Usually department coffee could crawl out of the cup and strangle mice, but Sandy had raided a natural-foods co-op for various blends a few months back and Major Crimes had settled on a rotating schedule of flavors that kept the bullpen mood noticeably brighter. Though Simon still insisted it all tasted like Maxwell House.
"No, thank you. It's quite good, though." The white-clad DEA agent's smile had all Sandy's charm, with an added luster from the rakish patch and air of experience. Pages were stacked on a spare corner of her desk, carefully turned with tweezers to preserve any fingerprints on the coded sheets. The museum receipt was laid aside in its own bag, half-hidden under the coded pile. Michael looked back at the monitor of his laptop, typed out yet another sentence from what seemed a random sequence of characters.
"Never heard of a - what'd you call it?" Joel Taggert peered at the laptop screen. The bomb expert was curious about police techniques as a general rule, and this was a new one on him.
"Vignère cipher. Fairly simple cryptographic technique, but it works as a starting point before you turn loose the serious encryption programs." Michael paged back to the top of the transcript, pointed to a long string of characters and numbers; lowercase, then uppercase, then numbers and punctuation. "Numerically based. Take a word you and your receiver both know; that's your key. Break your message into blocks that number of characters long. Each character in that block gets shifted right; first character by the number of the first character in the key, second by the second, and so on. That's the simplest version, anyway." He scanned down the page. "Fortunately, Jiminez seems to have kept it very simple."
"But it doesn't make sense," Megan objected. "A lady of the night? One 'whose kiss is fire'? Who comes from the worlds beyond?" The Australian inspector pulled out her chair. "Sounds as if the lad's read too many of your New York scandal rags. 'Spook-hunters seize sultry succubi', and all that rot."
"Some of that's legit," Joel pointed out. "Friend of mine in the NYPD worked with Zeddemore once. He's a straight guy." The dark detective shrugged. "Could be a code inside a code?"
The agent frowned. "Doubtful. Jiminez was running out of time and he knew it. No. This sounds familiar...." He shook his head. "Is there a modem port I can plug into for a minute? I'm not sure our systems are compatible; it'd be simpler to just email Dr. Sandburg the text."
"Over there," Taggert pointed, turning back to his own cases. "Try not to bang anything loose. Blair and Rafe keep Tech Support sweet-talked most of the time, but after Zeller shot up this place-" He glanced up. "Michael?"
The chair was empty.
One hand straying near her waist holster, Caitlin scanned the greenery of the old graveyard. The usual yews and pines edged the small plot of grass and stones, but some kind-hearted soul had planted a flowering crabapple to shade the ancient mausoleum. "Michael was s'posed to meet someone here?"
"Yeah." String didn't like it either. This place was too still. Too quiet. No squirrels scampering through the trees. No birds rustling in the underbrush, searching for insects and leftover pine nuts. The only sound in the background was the quiet sputter of their taxi down the street as its driver settled in to wait, grumbling about weird passengers on back roads.
Good thing the man would never see the sleek darkness lurking under camouflage netting in the woods by that back road. They'd never get another ride.
Quiet rustle of a pine-green raincoat against his shoulder; Caitlin, eyes faced away from his, covering the other half of the arc as they made a slow circle through the stillness. "Don't see anybody."
He listened, careful to keep one hand touching her arm. "No one here but us."
"But somebody was here." Red hair slipped down as she ducked her head; frowning, she crouched for a better view of the ground. "Two, looks like." She turned over a few stray leaves, felt the dampness of each side. "One about a day ago; one early this morning. Man and a woman."
"Not Michael." Archangel knew how to conceal his trail, even though he wasn't a field agent anymore. But String could track that cane anywhere.
"They both went that way." Caitlin nodded toward the mausoleum.
Right in the heart of the silence. Terrific. "Let's have a look." And hope the jitter in their nerves was just that.
Metal creaked; eerie echo through the net of her spells. Muerta blinked, drugged by the presence of daylight. Archangel?
No. Though they were at the tomb where Jiminez' dying essence had told her Archangel meant to go. And there was a feel to those far-off life forces that recalled the man. But whoever these mortals were, they'd never touched the Inca seal. Which meant no hold on their aura she could latch on to.
Then again, it also meant they'd have no protection against the pet she'd left to ward the tomb.
"Tentáculito,"she murmured, reaching through the shadows to slick ferocity. "Supper is coming."
Something stirred under marble, making its stealthy way into the sunless space behind the door. Something hot, and dark, and pitiless; like lava stripped of a soul. The moment its prey were in range, it would strike.
And nothing human could stand against it.
Chuckling, Muerta drifted back to sleep.
Psychic scan detects unknown frequencies in close proximity to pilots Hawke, Stringfellow; O'Shannessy, Caitlin.
Frequency match to intruding entity: approx. 80%.
Pilot hazard. Activate links-
Links unstable. Unable to transmit warning.
Anxiety mounting, Airwolf shuffled through her systems, checking for any way to boost the faltering connection.
Psionic transceiver output: 103%.
Links unstable. Unable to transmit.
FULL LINK TEMPLATE MISSING. UPDATE REQUIRED.
Not a circuitry problem. Human minds had to hear and interpret her warning - and without a stable link, she might as well be howling at the moon.
Caitlin whipped behind the mausoleum's steel door, grateful for the warm solidity of String at her back. Nothing, nothing, nothing, she noted, covering each side of the room. Just dust and mold, and the faint, queasy odor of long-gone funerals.
But something about this place was wrong.
Back to back in the center of the tomb, Caitlin shook her head. "See anything?"
Don't panic. The ex-cop fought the rush of unnatural fear, even as shadows closed around them. So they hadn't heard a hand near the door. There were hundreds of ways to set up a remote activation. Trap's meant to make you lose your head. So don't-
Pitiless as Sahara wind, a shadow opened glowing eyes.
Activate scrambler: Firm frequency, registered passenger Marella Duval.
Transmit S.O.S., GPS location pilots Hawke, Stringfellow; O'Shannessy, Caitlin; source of danger - inhuman.
Marella was at Knightsbridge. Any help Archangel's second in command might muster would be too little, too late.
String chopped a hand through burning shadow, not waiting to watch it seal behind his strike. The heat ached all the way to his bones, waking echoes of past wounds, of the sadistic men who'd broken those bones as he lay helpless....
Aim. Fire. Bullets punched into shadow as if into lava; a sizzle, and melted lead dripped free.
The door. They had to get to the door.
A tendril of blackness whipped around his arm. Seared through his green jacket, before hitting the fire-resistant flight suit. Pain struck; pain, and worse, the memory of pain, crippling the will to fight.
Gritting his teeth, he peeled burning shadow from his flesh, stomped another before it could snare Caitlin's leg. But more were coming.
The faintest trace of light leaked under the jamb; just enough to see Caitlin take aim at the hinges. "Don't listen!"
Fear pulsed static through her links. Airwolf shunted it to one side, along with her own growing panic. Even if she tripped autopilot and took off, there was no reason to believe cannons would stop this threat.
Directory list: Bethancourt protocols.
JcontrolA3 target acquisition.
JcontrolA3 countermeasure: "Dazzle Shield".
Countermeasure: "Warning Bite".
Countermeasure: "Hurricane Strike"....
Techniques she'd first unleashed against the Hivemind. Techniques meant for mind-to-mind - no, no, no! There had to be something!
Remote operating protocol: "Tulpa". Warning: high-risk. Emergency deployment only.
A remote protocol? What on earth was-
Razor flame slashed her links.
Activate Bethancourt protocol: Tulpa.
The hinge was blown. One kick and it'd go down. String knew it.
Just as surely as he knew he wasn't going anywhere.
Caitlin was nestled against his shoulder, one hand weakly pulling at the tendril climbing toward her throat. Blackness pulsed about them, drawing away their strength. Drawing away life.
Vision misted. For a moment he expected to see Gabrielle's ebony curls; hear the soft whisper of her calling to the eagle that flew above his lake. His lover's ghost had come to him before, when he'd hung between life and death.
But all he could see was snow and red stone; the towering desert pinnacles of the Valley of the Gods. And all he could hear was Caitlin's ragged breath, and the aching memory of Airwolf's howl....
The tendril hesitated.
Light burst into the darkness; a light that wasn't quite there, only an afterimage of snow, fur and feathers. A light that snapped and tore at dark shadows, howling as it came.
Never mind what! It was a chance, and any chance was better than none....
Lurching up, String staggered to the door, Caitlin clinging like a wildcat. Kick and he'd fall right over, but if they could just push-
Steel screeched; the door tilted, flooding the tomb with afternoon sunlight.
Shadow sizzled to nothingness.
Leaning on each other, the two pilots stumbled over the threshold, falling together onto grass to gulp in clear air. Even with clouds over half the sky, the sun was warm.
Sunlight washed away alien heat, shoved memories of pain back into the nightmare pit where they belonged. String eyed burned hands, somehow not surprised to see weeping blisters fade into simple, stinging redness.
Caitlin's gaze flicked into the silent tomb. "So." She licked dry lips. "Search it?"
He'd always known she was braver than he was. "Hell, no."
"Right." She held out a hand.
Gripping it, he stood.
"If that's what's loose in Cascade, subtle can go to hell!" Caitlin panted as they fled, staggering around graven stones. "I want cannons!"
"And Hellfires," String agreed.
"Tentáculito!" A glass pitcher smashed against polished oak panels. Muerta panted in the darkness, the stab of killing sunlight echoing along her own nerves. A third of her strength ripped away in a heartbeat, in the time it took pure light to sizzle away shadow. "No!"
"Ines?" Leigh stumbled in, blind as any human in the darkness. "Ms. Muerta?"
Snarling, she backhanded him away. Archangel. Archangel's people had done this.
Archangel's people had a tulpa.
"So you remembered me." Rage crackled about her like heat lightning; ebony strands of hair rose, static snapping blue sparks between them. "You remembered your death."
No. He could not have remembered; not wholly. Else she'd be trapped once more, to wait until another fool tampered with her prison. She might have pulverized the ancient seal, but if the tales she'd read of that place called "New York" were true, mortals had other means to trap her now.
Gritting sharp teeth, she probed at the searing ache. She would know the shape of her enemy....
Snow? And... feathers?And something more; something that lingered just out of reach. Something that hinted of that bright poison mortals called love, and joy, and compassion.
A tulpa born of Light. It wasn't possible.
"Mistress?" Lip bleeding, Leigh cringed, awaiting her touch.
"Get up." The shadow-born creature shook her head. No. Even if a mortal mage could be pure of heart enough to shape a tulpa from Light, why would they aid Archangel? The man was half of Shadow as it was; it'd only take a push to send him to her side....
That's how he snared you the last time!Muerta reminded herself savagely. No games. No risks. Only slay him.
"Come to me, little heart-reader," she whispered. "I know you feel me. I know your kind."
"Come to me and die."
"His name isn't Briggs." Jim's hands clenched and released the steering wheel, a rough rhythm of frustration. "Last I heard, he went by the code name Archangel."
Might explain the white, the anthropologist thought. He kept quiet with an effort. It was hard enough to get his partner talking. No way did he want to dry the flow of words.
"He's not CIA. He's not that nice."
Niceand CIA were two words Blair had never associated before. Be fair, he reminded himself. Kelso used to be CIA, and he's a good guy.
"Works for a place called the Firm. They handle things the government never talks about." The detective studied miniscule cracks in the wheel. "He wasn't the main field operative for that mission. Lousy Spanish. Just enough to get along as a technical expert. Knows more about the insides of... never mind." Clench. Release. "He took one look at me and decided he wanted out." Jim shot him a dark look. "It wasn't an option. The mission had to go forward and he knew it. But he pulled every bureaucratic trick in the book to get off it. Away from me."
"Away from you," Blair murmured thoughtfully. Something nagged at him; something from his brief encounter with the man in white. Something about the strange sense of companionship he'd felt in the man's presence, despite that sly hint about the thesis. As if Archangel could hear all his stories about a mule-stubborn, instinct-driven sentinel and match them with tales just as hair-raising.
"He'd never touch me." Knuckles were white on the wheel. "I could have bled to death, and he'd never have touched me."
Archangel had shaken his hand. Been willing to let Simon or Dan get within touching distance. But not Jim. "And you wanted him to?" Blair kept his voice level. The sentinel needed touch; thrived on it. The cop would rather be drawn and quartered than admit it.
Jim's lips were a thin line as he pulled into traffic. "Doesn't make sense. I know."
"It could." Blair bounced absently in his seat, thoughts tumbling together like socks in a dryer. "You got aggressive when you heard his voice, right? More than just a cop hearing trouble."
"I wouldn't say that."
"Believe me, man, it was more." Bounce. Think. "Something about Archangel sets off your instincts. Makes you want touch more than usual. Makes you want-"
Pieces settled into place with a near-audible snap. Blair stopped mid-bounce.
Jim had kept him near, ever since the morgue; not just for protection, but for that obscure comfort he only found in his guide's hand. The soothing insulation from the rest of the world the sentinel had needed for years. Insulation he'd never found, until that near-miss with the garbage truck at Rainier.
Or insulation no one had let him find. "Archangel's a guide."
Jim stared at him as if he'd dyed his hair neon orange. "No way in hell."
"He feels right," Blair insisted.
"Nothing about that man is right!" Barely signaling, Jim yanked the truck into a hard left.
Blair grabbed the dashboard. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Where are we going?"
"Rainier." Jim glared at swerving traffic. "Time someone gave you an idea what Archangel's really like."
"Ack!" Blue exam books flew like startled birds, scattering over the Foreign Affairs office. Afternoon light painted the walls, gilded Jack Kelso's glasses as he yanked his wheelchair around. "Can't you make noise when you walk?"
"Nice to see you, too." Hawke would have heard him. Probably before he entered the building. Nervous, Archangel thought, regarding the man in the chair as he swept the room for bugs. Very nervous indeed. What are you protecting, Jack? He listened down the hall, but any passers-by were out of his earshot. Or should I say, whom?
"I fumigate every other day," Kelso said, voice tight.
"Not nearly often enough." But the room was clean. Fortunately. "It would have been easier to squash that dissertation mess if you'd kept your reports current."
"Naomi blindsided Blair," Jack pointed out. "How was I supposed to know?" A finger tapped against rubber. "And Blair's a friend."
Second thoughts. Not uncommon among those who'd left the Game. "And you're helping him, Jack. As a friend."
Knuckles paled on chair arms. "Can't you just leave him alone? He'd die in your world."
"Your world too."
Kelso's jaw worked. "Not anymore."
No, Michael thought, looking over an office filled with course books, university catalogs, ungraded papers; all the various detritus of a college professor. Not anymore. "I am leaving him alone. As much as I can. It helps that Detective Ellison is known to be inflexibly moral in character."
Kelso avoided his gaze. "He'll be looking for you, you know. The man knows when trouble hits town."
"Odd, how a man supposedly dedicated to truth can utterly fail to recognize it when it's right before his nose," Archangel mused. "Call him after I'm gone, if you like. I'd simply rather not have us both in the same location for too long. It might be too tempting."
Jack blew out a breath. "Should I even ask who'd be after both of you?"
The lady of the night. Whatever that might be. He'd sent Marella the decrypted text over a secure line, taking the opportunity to check in on the day's operations. She seemed fairly cheery, asking his input on a half-dozen minor conflicts threatening to turn into trouble all over the world. As if the morning had never happened.
Suspicious. Very suspicious.
But none of that was in Kelso's need-to-know. "If I wanted to ask Dr. Sandburg a few questions regarding his research, what would be the best way to approach him?"
Kelso leveled a look at him. "Michael."
"Only a few questions, Jack," Archangel said smoothly. "His name turned up in some of Bethancourt's references-"
"Bethancourt?" Jack's hands trembled on the arms of his chair. "Bethancourt's dead. She's been dead for over four years now. Why on earth would you be looking for her-" He studied the Deputy Director's bland expression. "God, no. Tell me that thing's not still out there."
"Dr. Kelso." Michael let a little chill creep through in narrowed eyes. "You know if you pursue this line of inquiry, I'm going to say 'What thing?', and we're both going to get very, very annoyed." He spread a casual hand. "I simply want to ask him how his work ties into neurology."
Jack's fist slammed down on his desk, spilling a box of No. 2 pencils. "That thing put me in this chair, Archangel! It nearly killed me, it nearly killed you, it did kill almost everyone else at Red Star-"
"It's in regard to a... valuable agent."
That stopped him. Michael could all but see the professor's chain of thought derailed, turning to quick calculations behind hooded eyes. "You think a friend of yours is in trouble."
Michael hmphed. "Don't be ridiculous, Kelso. You know as well as I do, no one in my position can afford to have friends." He gave the word a sneering curl of lips, as if it were the last refuge of the terminally naïve. He and Hawke weren't friends. Associates, certainly. Acquaintances of long standing. Occasionally co-workers. And usually on the same side.
But not friends.
"Of course not." Jack was giving him a most peculiar look; as if the master of spies had suddenly announced he was taking up quilting. "What do you need to know?"
I need to know why we're having sensory spikes,Michael thought, keeping his face bland. Two days after Airwolf howled out of Edwards, Marella had found him trapped by sound for the first time; curled in his office chair, barely daring to breath for the thunderous noise of it. Nothing physically wrong, no evidence of mind control or other tampering, just... lost.
He'd pulled out fast enough when she shook him, but two weeks later it happened again. And it kept happening, each time a stronger spike... unless he was near Airwolf.
Unless I'm near Hawke, the agent corrected himself. Not that the two were usually far apart.
So far they'd managed to hide it from any Committee members. But it wasn't going away. And whenever he avoided Airwolf for too long, it got worse.
Distraction. Blinding headaches. A sudden intolerance of office noises he'd used to accept as normal, to the point where Marella had started finding reasons to drop him off at Eagle Lake - or failing that, Santini Air. Half the people there had similar problems, after all; they built a quiet environment as a matter of course.
Halfof them did. St. John's crew didn't.
We missed something in those damn helmets, I know it. Or in the AI. Orsomething. Half Santini Air hears me coming better than a snooper mike, and I'm certain it used to be just Hawke-
But then, before Edwards, Hawke had been the only one in the crew usually afflicted by hunches - and they'd spread just as widely as the spikes.
Which, damn it, didn't fit the set of symptoms in Sandburg's work.
At least, not his recent work,Michael amended. I need those notes. "I'll ask him."
"Don't." A quiet plea, made heartbreaking by the stubborn pride in Kelso's gaze. "Michael. He's already been under the glass from the wrong kind of people. You're pushing it already just being in Cascade."
So. Someone Jack cared about. Archangel relaxed, knowing he'd won here. "I need anything he might have sent Bethancourt's way seven years ago. Notes, papers, electronic letters - phone calls, if he can remember anything he might have told her. She found something useful in his work."
Kelso let out a slow breath. "I'll ask him. Hey!" The professor spun a wheel to face him. "Mind telling me where you're headed? Just in case Jim wants to force something out of me."
On the threshold, Michael paused. "No." The last thing he needed was Ellison trampling the trail. Touching fingers to his hat, he smiled. "Stay well, Jack."
Running over his mental map of Cascade, the spy shook his head. Why here, Jiminez? Why this city? Ricardo had known he was in danger at least twenty-four hours before his death, yet he'd stayed in Cascade. Violating every rule of good tradecraft and common sense.
What was so important about that museum?
Scan parameters: Niobium, palladium, yttrium.
Cross-match scan: Surgical titanium.
Hovering over Cascade, Airwolf licked her wounds, huddling in the safety of her processors. She'd never been hurt before. Not like that.
Fire and pain. A hunger to possess, to devour. Like having Moffet's link forced on her all over again.
She shivered, giving only the barest attention to her operating systems. Hawke and Caitlin could fly without her help. She wanted them to fly. Wanted that warm, soothing hum of concentration through her shaky links, as her pilots immersed themselves in the details of keeping her in the air.
Investigative mission direct threat to Airwolf and pilot survival.
New mission parameters: agent extraction, retreat.
Her sensors ranged outward, looking for rare metals near a surgical pin. Find those and they would find Archangel. And then they could all go home.
Within scan range of Rainier University.
Cross-reference: Dr. Blair Sandburg.
Cross-reference: helmet biofeedback protocols
Ordinarily Airwolf would have reached out, eager to investigate one whose research had contributed to her links. Curiosity was integral to her programming, a key factor in her own and her pilots' survival.
But not tonight. Sick at heart, she only wanted to hide.
Surrounded by the oaken walls of Rainier's Foreign Affairs department, Jim listened to a tired heartbeat, a click of wheels down the hall. "He's coming." He frowned at the click of keys on Blair's laptop. "Blair, this is no time to be checking your email."
"It is when Jiminez' notes just showed up in my in-box." Blair shot him an unreadable look. "Michael broke the code for us."
"Maybe." He'd believe it when he saw it.
"No, really, this seems to fit. It's about an Inca seal, and releasing the curse of the 'fire of the night', and... hey, Jack," Blair grinned as his fellow professor wheeled by.
"You two again?" Jack Kelso said, mock-annoyed. Tucking away notes in the backpack behind his chair, he nodded toward his office. "Come on."
Door shut behind them, Kelso tapped fingers absently on his desk. "I doubt you dropped by at this time of day just to say hello."
Jim gripped the edge of the visitor's chair, careful not to tip off the articles piled on top of the seat. "Tell him about Archangel."
"Who?" Heartbeats sped up, though the ex-CIA agent kept a pleasant face.
"He's using the name Michael Briggs," Jim bit out. "He's under a DEA cover, and he's locked in our Interrogation room-"
A niggling thought finally pierced the red haze that had wrapped him since he'd heard Archangel's voice. If Archangel's locked in Interrogation, how did he send that email?
Kelso's gaze hardened. For the first time, Jim could believe this man had been in the Game. "You locked a deputy director in Interrogation. Bright, Ellison."
"Deputy director?" The last time he'd gotten a feeling this sinking, seawater had been pouring over his ankles.
"I'd bet you ten to one he's not there now," Kelso said dryly. "Fifty to one if all you did was lock the door." The ex-agent studied the detective's face, snorted. "That's what I thought." He turned to Blair. "Why did he tell you he was here?"
"He said he came to meet a guy who turned up as one of our homicides," Sandburg stated carefully.
Kelso nodded thoughtfully. "He also came to talk to you, Blair."
Jim skewered the man with a look. That was the scent tickling the edge of his nose; that faint, vaguely familiar hint of mint and mountain snow. Archangel's light touch of cologne. "He was here."
A wry smile slid glasses down the professor's nose. "Like I said, Detective; I would bet you."
"No bet like a sure thing," Jim ground out. "You can tell him he'll get his dirty, manipulative hands on Blair over my dead-"
"Jim. Relax. I'm not going anywhere." Blair turned his own surprisingly hard look on Kelso. "What does he want?"
Kelso wove his fingers together, eyeing interlaced flesh and bone. "Bear with me a minute. I need to get a little hypothetical here."
"As in, avoiding security," Jim said flatly.
"You said it, not me." Kelso looked away. "Do you remember Dr. Jane Bethancourt?"
"Bethancourt?" Blair frowned. "Doesn't sound... wait." A hand waved, dragging up memory.
"Worked with a Dr. Jeremy Paige," Jack said neutrally.
"Dr. Paige, yeah." The anthropologist bounced, remembering. "I remember him. He called me while I was doing my Master's. About some of my case studies - the ones with one or two enhanced senses? Sight and hearing, mostly."
"Oh, I'd bet they'd be interested in that," Jim growled. What Covert Ops might do with the poor souls Blair might have exposed - he didn't want to think about it.
"But he didn't want names," Blair protested. "Just neurological data. Especially-" He hesitated. "Biofeedback."
Jack leaned back. "What?"
"Techniques I developed, to try to help people get control of their senses," the anthropologist said slowly. "I'm soft science, Jim, not hard. I had the data, but I didn't know how to run statistical analyses on it; how to show my professors I was onto a normal curve of human abilities, not just a few... anomalies."
Freaks. Blair said he wasn't, he knew he wasn't - but still. He knew.
"Paige and Bethancourt put what I had into a graph, pointed me toward the right professors on campus to get help with the rest. If it weren't for them, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure out some of the questions I should've been asking." Blair swallowed, paling. "Guess it wasn't such a good idea."
"No, it was an excellent idea." Something glinted in Kelso's gaze; a hint of sympathy? "You managed to bring your research to the attention of one of the few people in the shadows willing to protect it."
Jim stiffened. "You have to be kidding."
"Really?" Jack looked at him askance. "Detective, did it ever strike you that that fiasco with the diss blew over a little too easily? That less than a month after you had reporters crawling all over you, they vanished?" Lips curled wryly. "Not to mention the less savory types who just said they were reporters."
He hadn't thought about it much. He'd just been grateful that life had lurched back toward normal; that Blair had been able to pass off the Sentinel work as a harmless fictional book and snare his degree with his study of police subcultures.
Archangel, arranging to protect him? Not a chance.
Deliberately, Jack turned his chair to pick up pencils scattered over his desk. "Long story short. I did retire when Brackett came in. Mostly." Graphite points rattled against plastic. "But there were a few projects I was assisting on down in California. Human side, not the technical." He slapped the arm of his chair. "One of them cost me."
The anthropologist looked down. "I'm sorry."
"I knew what I was getting into." Kelso's tone was matter-of-fact. "Never get too close to Archangel when he's working." Fingertips drummed on his desk. "So. Hypothetically. Say Burton's monograph did draw the attention of some... not very nice people."
Jim softened his stance, just enough for a shaken Blair to draw near. For a bright guy, Sandburg could be incredibly naïve about the darker side of government.
"Now say somebody looked into it, and decided trying to exploit the situation would do more harm than good," the ex-agent went on. "You use unwilling agents when you have to, after all, but long term it tends to backfire." He picked up a last pencil, twirled it in his hand. "So he arranges for there to be regular reports, but makes sure all the data plays up the territorial factor. After all, you can't use a man on Covert Ops if he can't leave... oh, say, Cascade. For example."
"You've been spying on us?" Blair blurted.
Jim laid a hand on the wiry shoulder. "Easy, Chief." He shot a warning glance toward the ex-Company man. "This is just hypothetical."
"And here we get into the really hypothetical part." Kelso shook his head, unfazed. "Suppose, after this guy's gone to all this trouble, somebody he knows turns up with these problems. Somebody who could be used; after all, the guy's already an agent, which means he's willing to get his hands dirty. And since he's an agent, he travels, which blows the whole territorial argument into tiny pieces."
"I'd think he'd be ecstatic," Jim said flatly.
"So would I." Jack met his gaze levelly. "He's not."
Blair studied his fellow professor, a hint of color coming back into his face. "Hypothetically... why not?"
Jack leaned back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully. "Ellison could tell you someone in Archangel's job doesn't get to have friends. Michael went out of his way to remind me of that."
"His name really is Michael?" That threw Jim. Truth, out of Archangel? It was like seeing the sky turn purple.
"Yes, it really is," Jack stated dryly. "And he really does think someone's after both of you, Detective. I'd love to know who."
"Not who. What." Blair swallowed. "Jiminez didn't know enough to track down the mythological symbols, but... I think it's one of Supai's daughters."
"Super what?" Jim asked, disbelieving.
"Supai. Inca god of death and the underworld. Major bad guy, Jim. They'd..." His partner gulped. "Kill a hundred children a year for him. And he always wanted more."
Kelso paled. "Are you saying we have a goddess loose on our streets, killing people?"
"I'd say demoness, but...."
His voice faded, lost in night. A shadow flew past, edged with fire. Jim whirled, hearing a harsh raven scream-
Cell phone. Jim yanked it out of his jacket pocket. "Ellison."
"Dispatch," came the calm, clear voice from headquarters. "Tip came in for you, Detective. Suspect sighted near the Art Museum."
"On our way."
Night. Muerta stalked museum corridors, reveling in the fetid touch of ravaged pasts. Exulting in the knowledge her trap was about to spring. Life-forces pulsed nearer with every breath; the last who could stop her following her false trail to their doom.
And with their deaths, I win myfreedom.
Freedom to fly. Hunt. Kill.
Shadows twisted about her form; woman-shape blurring into dark feathers. High heels sprouted amber talons. A dark laugh became a harpy eagle's screech.
A down-stroke broke gravity's chains. Laughing inside, Muerta soared into darkness, spreading wings of night and fire.
"Jim, slow down. Jim, that's a red light. Jim!"
The sentinel ignored his guide's litany of complaints, speeding toward that unearthly howl. The black jaguar was one leap ahead, racing for the sick, fiery crackle of prowling darkness.
Something was loose in Cascade. In his territory.
Something was going to die.
"Mr. Briggs?" Dimly, the sentinel recognized that his guide was questioning one of the museum staff. "Yes, such a nice man, wanting to know about our exhibits - oh my god!"
Searing tentacles surged out of shadow; lambent eyes sneered at him, dropping a shriveled corpse.
The sentinel snarled, circling to keep the creature away from his guide. If the dog were here, the mistress wouldn't be far away. "Blair, go!"
Why a museum? Michael wondered, absently tapping his way around yet another Central American art display. No question in his mind, coming here had cost Jiminez the time he could have used to save his life. And Ricardo knew it.
It wasn't even Inca art. Aztec, all obsidian, knotted cotton, and polished wood, whispering of blood and death. Wonderful. Over twenty years as an agent and you lose your way in the middle of a museum. Be glad Dominic's not here; he'd never let you hear the end of this.
Yet he wished Santini were here. He knew where he was going. Right down the line of that tug at the edge of dreams.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Archangel was trying to panic.
Shhh, shhh, something crooned; a half-heard memory. Come to me. Come....
He rubbed at the brow above his darkened lens, thoughts slow as chilled molasses. Something was wrong here. Very wrong.
Glancing out glass windows, Michael winced at how bright the stars seemed. You turned up your sight.
Which meant the corridors he'd thought were lit... weren't lit at all.
Chill clutched his heart. Get back to the light. Gripping his cane, Michael turned toward the entrance.
Shadow moved at the corner of his eye; a woman, dark of hair, wrapped in a gossamer cloak of night-black silk. Slipping, he scolded himself. No way could anyone have gotten this close if you'd been paying attention-
But then he saw night-dark eyes, and knew no caution would have been enough. "You."
"You remember." The voice was smoke over water, soft and suffocating. The elegant head tilted; such a careful, lovely imitation of humanity. "Or do you?" Her voice sank, a fiery whisper. "Do you, little heart-reader?"
Fire. Darkness. Pain. "I... don't. No. I don't." Shoot her. Deal with Homicide later.
But... he couldn't. His hand wouldn't move toward the gun. Fingers couldn't feel the trigger. He just - couldn't.
Heels clicked over concrete. "You wish to shoot me, do you not, Archangel?" Her laugh was dark, and rich, and seared like flame. "Oh yes, you do. But you cannot. No mortal I have touched can." A pale hand reached out, caressed his cheek; a hot mockery of caring. "And I have touched you, Archangel. Many years ago. Many years of waiting, of patience. Humans are such greedy creatures; I knew the seal would be breached once more." Fingers tightened on flesh. "You kept me from the others... but not from you."
Move!Michael's mind screamed. You're an agent, for god's sake! Move!
But he couldn't.
Blair skidded to a stop in the exhibit doorway, frozen by the dark tableau by the display cases. White shrouded in black; a look of such empty despair on Archangel's face, it cut his heart.
"I am not cruel, no," the dark creature said pleasantly. "Your kind and mine are enemies, as they ever have been."
Aztec display, Blair thought frantically, dredging up details from Jiminez' decoded notes. Matching artifacts to the grainy picture from the drawer - and coming up empty.
"I am the huntress; you are the raven that warns my prey...."
An obsidian gleam in starlight, colored knots of cotton-
Throwing anthropology to the winds, Blair snatched up the blade-decked net.
Michael shuddered in shadow's clutches, trying to move even a fraction of an inch away from waiting death. And failing. Muerta's breath was flame against his ear, as she gripped white lapels to pull him in for the kill. "What is it you said? 'Nothing personal'?"
And the world was fire in the form of soft lips, a dark hunger that would burn away all that he was, all he could ever be....
But there was one quiet, cool rivulet of sanity. One hidden, hurting place that reached somewhere outside himself; somewhere he'd never followed, never dared to touch. Somewhere that echoed of a cleaner, clearer darkness; starlight, skipping through air so thin it was technically space....
Fire. Fire and pain. String shook his head, trying to focus on the controls in front of him. Marella had just rung off, trying to track down the S.O.S. Airwolf had somehow shunted into her computers. They'd gotten a scanner lock on Michael's rare-earth pin, he'd been about to punch up the descrambler to ring the agent's satellite phone for a quiet rendezvous-
Altitude 50', flashed past his view. Collision warning. Collision warning. Collision-
Tap the collective right, left, right; weave between the buildings, not through them. Common sense told him to pull up. That sudden pain said otherwise. Michael. "Cait! Where am I going?"
"Boards're lit up like Broadway!" Caitlin cursed, tapping out commands fast as fingers could move. "Subroutines popping up faster than kudzu! Tryin' to kill 'em but she's not listening. How should I know where you're - what the hell?"
Pilot hazard: Michael, Archangel, scrolled across the screen.
That he could see as they howled out of the sky; the dark cloud smothering white, the unnatural stillness of Archangel's form behind glass. "Chain guns!"
A helicopter? Muerta thought incredulously, never bothering to look up toward the machine-made gale as she leeched out her enemy's life. She could see it clear enough in Archangel's mind; the black form he saw as enemy and ally. Poor fool. They'd strike you if they shot, don't you realize that-
And a net of obsidian knifed overhead, thrown by a shaman's hand.
No!She writhed against dyed cotton, feeling the ancient charms against her kind. The Aztecs had not known her as well as the folk of the mountains, but they had their own demons to face.
Yet it was meant only to catch, not bind. The shaman might have her prisoned for the moment, but he was young, untested; he could not hold her.
And even caught in magic's net, no mortal weapon could harm her-
Thunder roared; lead as sharp and deadly as razored ice.
Blair clamped one arm over his ears, trying to shut out her unearthly scream. No good; it etched right through flesh and bone. Not - hearing it, he realized. It's not... physical.
A tulpa. Muerta fought to draw the last shreds of life from her enemy, shivering off lingering ice. Shaking away shards of outrage, of ferocious defense; the intangible blows of Light violated and vengeful. How-
A wolf's howl drove her into darkness.
"Go!" Caitlin's hand shoved String out the door as she climbed forward to take the controls. "Get Michael!"
He was in no shape to argue, much less fly. God, that scream, when 30-mm rounds punched into that thing....
Punched into and melted away, leaving only traces of ice where they'd struck.
Airwolf howled up, swinging about her axis to get out of easy view. Die, String willed the gasping, netted mass of darkness, gathering Michael's crumpled form from its sprawl on concrete. Painfully.
Hot. Skin burning under his fingers. Pulse racing too fast to count. Dry skin; the body in his arms was shutting down, too exhausted even to sweat.
"Michael!" String ripped back the trench coat, letting cool air at the stricken agent. "Damn you, Michael, don't you dare give up on me!"
Don't you dare die on me, Michael! Don't you dare!
"Cascade PD!" Jim tore into the display, tracking the source of that unearthly scream. "Freeze-"
Cascade's night flexed, shifting into desert chill. Red stone soared around him, drifted with winter snow. The air was high and thin, pure as snowmelt, crisp with the light of innumerable stars.
And a gyrfalcon mantled over a dying raven, screaming defiance.
Blair sucked in a breath beside him. "I'll call an ambulance-"
"Wouldn't help." Something stirred in the back of Jim's mind; a flicker of night and fire. "Didn't help last time." He holstered his gun.
"Last time? This happened before?"
"Peru." A woman's dark eyes; a woman's callous laugh as Archangel betrayed them all-
Or had he? It'd seemed so clear, before....
"Jim." His guide's voice held dry, matter-of-fact warning. "He wants to shoot us."
For a moment, that almost made sense; ivory feathers flickered, yielding to a dark blond man with an automatic and wild blue eyes-
The jaguar roared, and desert surged up around them.
"Come on." Jim kept one hand on the black-spotted pelt, the other on his guide's shoulder. A thin thread of energy pulsed between the two birds, bolstering the raven's faltering heart. Stronger strands of sparks led away from each; enough strength to heal even the gaping wound he saw in black feathers... if they could only claim it. "We're going to help."
"Help?" Blair came willingly in his wake as they drew near the fierce-eyed falcon. "Um, sure. Great. How?"
The jaguar rumbled, recognizing the threat of a fellow predator. But there was a thoughtful purr under it; as if this were one enemy that could be disarmed without violence.
The detective wavered. This... wasn't right. He remembered the raven, hurt and broken, desperately in need of another to heal it. Yet that dark-feathered spirit would rather have died than have him help. Than have anyone help.
A snarl beside him. Gold eyes gleamed, cold and calculating. Turned from their deliberate study of the raven's wound to the gyrfalcon's fragile throat.
If the raven died, the falcon would ravage Cascade. And that, the jaguar would not permit.
"You're the shaman." Jim guided Blair's hands to rest against golden sparks. "Someone's on the other end of that. Get her attention."
Unauthorized link access!
Hovering over the museum, Airwolf tried to shake off the alien presence. Something had struck one of her pilots down. A black, amorphous thing in the shape of an eagle. Something that yet breathed....
Pilot hazard: Michael, Archangel.
Pilot energy levels falling.
Unauthorized access draining Airwolf reserves.
Ready defensive strike-
Want to help, echoed down two links; alien feelings, hijacking the bonds between her, Archangel, and Hawke. Need your help.
My pilot!Airwolf slashed back. It would take so little to trigger the guns again, so little- My link!
Help me help him, the stranger whispered down Archangel's fading link. Please....
She pinged the static-laden connection, and shuddered.
Psychic scans indicate heavy damage, PKE drain.
Immediate pilot hazard: Michael, Archangel.
Secondary pilot hazard: Hawke, Stringfellow.
Unauthorized access biorhythms intent apparently non-hostile.
Unauthorized access biorhythms profile match to theoretical template, full link exemplar: 90%.
Scan unauthorized contact.
Data flowed in, a harvest of potential information. If this were a full link exemplar, if it were non-hostile....
Warning: unauthorized contact may be deliberate attempt at deception.
The Firm had programmed in a certain level of paranoia. But she had to look past it. If she could stabilize one link, just one-
Override: survival priority.
Request clarification of needed assistance.
A waft of nervous laughter. Just reach this way....
Something tingled at the base of String's skull, spreading upward like tendrils of sparks. Some of the killing despair lifted, banished by crackling clarity. It felt... sharp. Clear. Weird.
"Jim, I'm not sure we should-"
"Sandburg, if we don't do this, I'm going to have to kill somebody. Strangle your ethics if you have to. Just do it!"
Kill? Michael. Michael was-
Alive. Still. He could hear the taller man's heartbeat; quieter, ever so slightly stronger. Feel the dangerous heat fading from the scarred form, ever so slowly....
Now warmth swept through him, like being wrapped in fur and feathers. There was something familiar in the warmth; a sense of care, protection, frightened worry. Something that pawed at the edge of his mind, reaching out; not quite able to touch, not quite able to know.
Curious, String reached back.
"Oops!?!Jim, this is not an oops situation!"
Sandburg's yell rang in his ears, but it was nothing to the blinding blaze of joy in his skull.
Full link template acquired.
Full link established: Pilot Hawke, Stringfellow.
Link reading stable.
Secondary link detected: Pilots Hawke, Stringfellow; Coldsmith-Briggs, Michael, Archangel.
Secondary link fluctuating.
Fluctuation within tolerable limits. Proceeding with PKE shunt.
Psionic Link Program Update: Pilot, Hawke, Stringfellow: 100%.
Santini, Dominic: 65%, not monitored.
O'Shannessy, Caitlin: 60%, monitored, applying acquired template.
Coldsmith-Briggs, Michael, Archangel: 45%, not monitored, applying acquired template through secondary link, Stringfellow Hawke.
Human capability of deliberate harm to link partner 0.05%.
Proximal threat to Airwolf survival removed.
Security protocols against revealing Airwolf sentient existence: Disengaged.
At least he thought that was what it was. Images and concepts were wrapped in a bouncing, fluffy, happy rush of feeling; springtime and friendship and a clear, endless stretch of sky....
Something locked in his soul, radiant and eternal as starlight. He knew Airwolf's precise cubic centimeters of fuel, her exact GPS position in the air, the amount of ammo left to the last shell-
Too much. String shut the flood away, focusing on mussed blond hair, a silver-gleaming cane. "Had to be so damn tall," he muttered, hoisting the unconscious agent over his shoulder.
Ellison?String cast a glance back, recognizing cold blue eyes, short-cropped blond hair. And that curly-headed kid rubbing his head and putting inventive Spanish curses on Ellison's social life couldn't be anyone but Sandburg. The Cascade cops had seemed okay, that one brief time they'd crossed paths in Cold Creek. As much as he could tell about anybody when he and Caitlin were in the middle of flinging bikers left, right and center. "I'm taking him home."
"Wait!" Sandburg, struggling to his feet. "You don't know what happened!"
Stepping out over the shards left of the windows, String snorted. "And I don't care."
A short, bone-shaking jog, and he was out of sight around the corner of the building. Howling darkness opened a hatch, and he dragged them both into the engineer's seat. "Home."
"Winterhaven?" Blue eyes looked anxious question at him under the helmet as Caitlin lifted them up and away.
"No," String bit out, easing a helmet over half-dark glasses. The Lady could check Michael for neurological problems. Unless she found some, the Firm hospital was the last place any of them needed to be. "Eagle Lake."
One last check to make sure he wouldn't arm a Hellfire by mistake, and String surrendered.
"Okay, Hawke, but... Hawke?"
Physiological monitor, Hawke, Stringfellow: Stable.
Neurological monitor, Coldsmith-Briggs, Michael, Archangel: Stable.
Stable but out cold, Caitlin realized, calling up more detailed reports. Least the Lady's calmed down. The monitors were reporting regular readouts now, barely any sign of the massive burst of computing power Airwolf had spent on... something.
"Damn!" She swung the Lady in one last loop, searching for any trace of that massive IR signature. How could something that hot just vanish?
How'd a cloud of darkness dothat to Michael? she thought, absently rubbing at the base of her helmet. Something prickled there, like hairs rising on the back of her neck.
Probably common sense, the ex-Highway Patrol officer decided. Whisper Mode or not, there was no way that little dust-up hadn't woken up every cop in the city. She did not want to play dodge with police helicopters. Time to head on home.
Now, there was a fine kettle of fish right there. String had brought Michael up to Eagle Lake before; for a break, for dinner, for refuge when the world did its best to break Archangel into pieces.
But he'd never brought Michael home before.
'Bout time you two admitted you were friends, Caitlin thought, punching on turbos. Not that she thought it would last once Hawke woke up. Man was a better liar than Archangel about some things. At least to himself.
But maybe. Just maybe-
One mess at a time, girl.She tapped on the descrambler, calling a well-known frequency. "Marella? Think we're gonna need a doctor at the cabin. We got your package, but it's a little singed...."
Blair held his head in his hands, willing the seared feeling in his mind to go away. Get her attention. Oh yeah. Great idea, Jim. "Man... I feel like I grabbed hold of a power line...."
A power line with beaks and talons; he had the faint, lingering impression of having tangled with an eyrie full of falcons. Everything hurt. Head. Heart. Even the whisper of hair against the back of his neck felt like barbed wire scraping over his skin.
"Dead." Jim was looking over the icy, netted lump of darkness, a predator's smile etched on his face. "Good job, partner."
"Wasn't just me." It was Hawke, Blair decided, replaying half-glimpsed features in his mind; the gleam of starlight off a drawn gun, the flutter of night wind prying at a charred green jacket. But what had the pilot from Cold Creek been doing here?
The anthropologist frowned. There'd been... something under that innocuous green jacket. Something that looked suspiciously like a military shoulder patch.
Freeing one hand from his aching head, Blair traced a pattern in air. Here a curve, there a jagged edge like fangs....
A winged wolf snarled under his fingers.
Gray, not white, he realized, flinching away. The bared fangs were curves of exaggerated savagery, and a white sheep's pelt had surmounted mad eyes. But... he knew it. Winged wolf. Wolf in sheep's clothing.
The wolf he'd seen hunt at a raven's command.
The tales say Raven used to be white.
Until he stole fire, the anthropologist remembered, looking at the blackened spiral in carpet. For nearly twenty feet red pile had turned to black carbon, leaving trails of soot on Michael's white coat. Yet the man himself had looked almost normal when Hawke hauled him out, only traces of redness lingering around his lips.
Blair breathed in, lungs catching more than the hint of smoke. Tropical perfume. Heavy enough for him to scent it.
"Simon," Blair murmured, relaxing into that promise of solid, straightforward practicality. Now he could rest. Now he could wonder what the hell they'd just done.
Something had reached through him, like claws of sparks. Something powerful, and afraid, and desperate not to lose those she cared for. Something that had plumbed the depths of the intangible tie he had to his sentinel, before using that thunderbolt of power to shock open other minds.
Can we say, majorly bad karma?the guide worried. No matter what was going on, he should have asked Jim for details first. There were worse things than death.
If there's a shamanic license, I think mine's about to get pulled.
If only things would stop glowing....
Blair blinked, focussing on the dark nose bare inches from his. The white wolf's head tilted, hawk-amber eyes studying him before the ivory-winged myth loped into the night.
The anthropologist blinked again. Gone.
Oh no, my life's not too weird.
"Blair!" Jim's hand on his arm, shaking him. "Chief, don't tell me you're taking up zoning."
Ow. Ow, ow, ow. Blair buried his head in his hands, knuckling his eyebrows. "Don't think so."
"Then what was that?"
"Ah... long story." Blair shivered. When did it get so cold?
Jim's jacket wrapped around him, warm and welcome. "She's frozen stiff and you're like ice," the sentinel said gruffly. "I don't like this."
"Ambulance is on the way," Simon reported, almost tripping over a leaden lump on charred carpet. He stared around the wrecked display room. "What the hell happened here?"
Jim shrugged. "Somebody shot our perp."
"Somebody shot our perp?" Simon repeated, shoving up his glasses as if to deny the sight of massive, melted lead slugs. Staring, aghast, at the frigid, dark-oozing form in the obsidian-laced net. "That's the killer?"
"They shot her with 30-mm rounds?"
A second nod.
"And she's still in one piece?"
"Yeah," Blair sighed, massaging his temples. Maybe it would get the little guys with hammers and railroad spikes to lay off. "We're going to have to wait for dawn to finish her off." He looked up at the incredulous captain. "Demons are tough."
Warm, String registered, eyes closed. Keeping his breath in the light, even rhythm of a sleeping man; this might feel like the Lady's back seat, but losing consciousness in one of Michael's battles was a good way to wake up in bad company. Noisy.
Not loud, though there was a low hum of circuitry, and a soft, tired sigh from the pilot's chair. But noisy inside somehow. As if his memory were an echoing hall of filing cabinets and someone was methodically going through each drawer.
Something quieted, as if his waking had caught its attention. Ceasing systems exploration. Pilot Hawke, Stringfellow?
Hawke, he thought back, gripping panic by the edges. Something - something was in his head. Something alien. Something unnatural. Something-
Hand on the stick, quick kick of the turbos, soaring joy as they looped, as no other helicopter could loop-
Alternate identification, Hawke, accepted, came the cheerful reply. Link stable. Airwolf currently en route to Eagle Lake, GPS coordinates....
And he knew where she was, certain as if he were standing in mid-air. IR and radar scanned ahead, checking for unwanted company; camera views were a multitude of eyes sweeping the night. Elevation, ammo, the circuits needed to fire up autopilot-
Disappointment. Worry. Hurt?
Too fast, String thought, bracing himself against the memory of dark hull. He knew it from both sides, now; the smooth, silky beauty under his fingers, the fighter-pilot confidence of wearing armor that shed bullets like rain. Too much. He felt dizzy, off-balance.
And yet... it felt right.
He was a pilot. He knew machinery; knew that for all the joy and glory of the skies, helicopters were nothing more than metal and circuits. Flying was a matter of skill and memory, ingrained so deep you didn't think after a while; just move, and the helicopter did as you commanded.
Flying Airwolf was different. Skills had to be sharper, memory keener - but it was the feel that mattered most. He knew the Lady, and she answered his hand. Not because she had to, but because the line between pilot and craft was so faint that her will and his were one.
Yes. Fierce anticipation; a hunger to fly and fight. Successful pilot evacuation. Threat to pilot survival destroyed.
The creature of night and fire. The thing that had almost killed Archangel - Michael!
Calm reached back to him, soothing as the wind over Eagle Lake. Monitoring pilot Coldsmith-Briggs, Michael, Archangel through neurological monitors and secondary link to pilot Hawke.
Secondary link stable.
PKE shunt successful.
Fingers gripping his. A long body propped against his side, a faint scent of mint and mountains clinging to it. A feel of devious laughter, intricate as any mind-boggling Escher drawing. Archangel.
The rest of that calm transmission hit home, and String fought back raised eyebrows. Since when has Michael been a pilot?
Listed in original Airwolf Project: flight systems expert.
Firm files list valid license.
Medical waiver obtained after Red Star.
Available to link on rescue mission, Mexico; cross-reference Santini, Dominic; cross-reference Bruck, Mitchell, deceased.
Link achieved. Michael, Archangel added to list of cleared pilots.
String kept his breathing even with an effort. He could have taken you? Since Mexico?
Michael, Archangel cleared pilot.
Hawke, Stringfellow aircraft commander.
Wariness eased as he reached farther, identifying the low hum of circuitry and the creak of air over Airwolf's hull as readily as he had before Edwards. He felt steadied somehow. As if someone had given his senses a hurricane anchor.
Full link allows pilot monitoring, Airwolf informed him. Bethancourt protocols and psionic transceiver available. Buffers operative. Able to smooth PKE bursty transmissions, "sensory spikes".
It felt like flying. He could hear all the way into the wind outside, easily as reaching out his hand-
"You plannin' to quit playing possum anytime soon?"
String opened his eyes, caught a freckled grin from the front seat. "Monitors."
Caitlin wagged an admonishing finger. "Wasn't for them, I'd dump you on Winterhaven's roof." She glanced back at the white-clad form draped against the engineer's seat. "How is he?"
"Sleeping." He knew it, sure as he knew Airwolf's position in the air. It was... more subtle. Quieter. Easier to ignore. But no less real.
Part of him belonged to Airwolf. The rest - was Michael's.
Now how do I keep him from killing me?
"Wow." Grinning, Jack Kelso rolled into the shattered-glass wreckage that had been the Art Museum's Aztec exhibit. Yellow police tape was strewn at odd angles, massive holes made two straight lines across the center of the room, and smoke still rose from a dissolving lump under knotted cotton. Somewhere in the background, the museum curator was wailing inconsolably. "Now, this is how you bust up an evening."
Jim narrowed his gaze at the ex-spy. "What are you doing in the middle of my crime scene?"
"Crime scene?" The grin barely wavered. "Detective, you're not going to catch the guy who did this. Trust me."
Blair looked up from one of the nearer bullet holes. "Jack, this is a kidnapping! Whoever did this took Michael."
The professor blinked, smile fading. "Took him?"
"Stringfellow Hawke," Jim bit out. "Used to be a Night Stalker. Army Special Forces helicopter pilots," he filled in at Blair's questioning look. "Specialized in low-level and night flying. Only this one left after that mess in Mogadishu." The detective crossed his arms. "Some people I knew said he went mercenary. Others thought he was running drugs down in South America. And some - just some - thought he went to work for the CIA." Icy eyes narrowed. "I guess they were half right."
"Michael's thorn," Jack mused. "So he's still alive."
"Michael's thorn?" Blair approached the wheelchair.
"Company in-joke," the ex-agent shrugged. "Hawke's been a thorn in Michael's side for somewhere around... oh, I'd say fourteen years now. Ever since his brother went MIA. They've got a... working arrangement, you might call it. He flies for Michael, Michael keeps an ear to the ground for POW reports. No one I ever met could figure out why those two haven't killed each other." A wry smile tugged at his mouth. "Don't worry about calling in the FBI, Blair. If Hawke took Michael, he's safe."
"Safe?" Jim gestured at the wreckage. "Chain-guns, Kelso. Something - some kind of aircraft - that howled-" Something the sentinel hadn't caught so much as a glimpse of, peering into the night. It didn't make sense.
"Howled?" Kelso paled. Drew in a shaky breath, looking over the room with fresh eyes. "You sly, sneaky son-of-a-bitch," he said admiringly. "You did get her back."
"Her?" Blair pounced. He brandished his sketch of Hawke's shoulder patch; fangs and wings, asnarl and ready to pounce. "What's this mean?"
Deliberately, Kelso covered the wolf's head with his hand. "Nothing you need to worry about," the professor said firmly. "She's gone. Michael's safe. She won't be back."
PKE - psychokinetic energy.
Tulpa - a creature of psychic energy, usually created by a wizard.