"So, how are you feeling today, Ruben?" Sean inquired.
Ruben smiled. "Ready to get back to work."
Sean smiled back. "Good. Well, I'll get Jay to have a doctor examine you. Then we'll see."
"Good enough for me," Ruben agreed, laying back in his bed.
Sean nodded and left the infirmary. He went to the communications room, where Jay was on duty. "Jay!"
"Get a hookup with St. James Hospital and try to see if Ruben's feeling well enough to come back on duty."
Jay nodded as he stood. "Are you going to take over for me?"
Jay rose and left the room. Sean took his seat. Even though he had just gotten off of eight hours of monitor duty a couple of hours before, he always liked to keep on top of what was going on. He made a quick systems check, then reclined in his seat, waiting for the first trouble spot to appear. As he looked at the tracker on the huge map of Kewanee, Sean discerned that Beta Squad was in the Green Rock district, in the northwestern area of Kewanee, right near the border to Moline. There were a few trouble spots in town: in Peoria, Galesburg, and Osceola, but Beta was too far away to do anything about them.
Sean let his mind wander as he methodically searched the map with his eyes. Specifically, his mind wandered to what had happened to Ruben less than a week before. The security on this place was near impenetrable. Or was supposed to be, anyway. Evidently, though, Marksman had gotten into the crime lab through a locked window and the silent alarm had gone unnoticed, which should never have happened. In the future I'll have to make sure that the windows are not so easily opened.
But the bad part was not that Sean's life had been placed in jeopardy. That had happened enough times before. The problem was that Ruben had almost been killed; he had been right near the line between life and death-too near. Marksman had done his job well. And the last that Sean had heard, Marksman was widely considered to be the best bounty hunter in America, possibly even the world. It was only a fluke that Sean and Ruben both hadn't been killed.
And then there was Michele Jones, a.k.a. Bounty. Sean was forced to equate her arrival with that of Marksman. It was surely no coincidence; they had to have been sent by the same person. The only person that I can think of that wants me dead that badly is . . . . Sean's mind trailed off. But it's been two years. I would have been surprised that he cared so much.
So Sean could understand attempts on his life. But he couldn't tolerate the rest of his team being in danger. That elevated this dispute to another level. Sean couldn't ignore the past any longer; it had finally caught up with him. And before the third time became the charm, Sean had to take matters into his own hands.
And the proof's in the pudding. Bounty could only have been sent by the same person that sent Marksman. Sean had had an idea of who sent Bounty, but any shadow of a doubt was cleared away now that Marksman had arrived and departed. After all, who's Marksman's employer? There's no reason to assume that he would let the best bounty hunter in the country go, and three years ago Marksman had been in the employ of Michael . . . .
Sean grabbed the microphone. "Beta, this is base."
"Beta here," came Karl's voice over the communications linkup.
"I show an armed robbery on the screen here just six blocks from your present location. At 15640 167th Avenue, in Orion."
"We're on it. Beta out." The connection was broken, so Sean toggled the microphone off. He again relaxed in his chair. He glanced at the clock and noticed that fifteen minutes had gone by since he took over from Jay. So any time now, Jay should be coming through the door with the doctor's results.
As if on cue, the door to the communications room opened, admitting Jay and Ruben. "The doctor certified him fit as a fiddle," Jay called across the room as he shut the door.
"Well, those weren't his exact words," Ruben clarified as he walked toward Sean. "But he said I'm more than ready to be placed on active status."
"Glad to hear it," Sean said as he stood to let Jay take his seat. "Oh, and Jay?"
"At two o'clock sharp, I want a full meeting in the conference room."
"Yessir," Jay said with a mock salute.
Sean then backed out the door. As he climbed the stairs to his room, he considered what he would tell them. Everything, I suppose. What went on in New York, who the bounty hunters were, why they were here, who sent them, and what we're going to do next.
After I take a nap.
Sean admired the efficiency of his organization.
His alarm had gone off at precisely one forty-five. Allowing himself seven minutes to prepare himself and actually arrive, Sean had expected to be one of the first there.
As he opened the door to the conference room, he was slightly surprised to see the rest of the team already in assemblance. Ryan and Tyler were up on the balcony, in their respective chairs. Sean quickly climbed the three steps and sat in his own chair. He made a quick visual check to assure himself that all were present, noting Jenkins slip into the room and sit near the back, then prepared himself for his speech. "You're all no doubt wondering why I assembled this meeting."
Various nods of assent were seen all over the room. As usual, both Jay and Ruben shook their heads. "And I know for a fact," Sean continued, "that you have all wondered at one time or another what, exactly, I was doing in New York three years ago." Anyone whose attention may not have been fully on Sean was now riveted on him. "And exactly why Bounty and Marksman would want to kill me." This time, every head was nodding.
Sean took a deep breath. "I have intentionally kept what happened a secret, mainly to protect all of you. But now, not to tell you would harm more than help. So, here goes."
"How long will you be gone?" Jay asked.
Sean shrugged. "I don't know. I'm leaving it up in the air. A few years, maybe longer. We'll see."
"Are you coming back?" Ryan asked.
Sean looked at his second-in-command for several seconds, then smiled. "I honestly don't know. I need to expand my horizons; I need to give myself a chance to grow up."
"Well," Ruben said, conveying the mood of the group, "have fun!"
"I will," Sean said with a smile, nodding. There wasn't much else to say. They'd already said their goodbyes at the going-away party, and he'd promised not to make this any more protracted than it had to be. He took a look around the garage that had served as the Wolf Club headquarters for several years. He took a deep breath and, with a wave, stepped out the door and into a waiting taxi.
With a final wave, the taxi pulled away from the curb and drove toward the airport.
New York City's a big place, Sean thought. Of course, Kewanee's much bigger, he reminded himself. But at least in Kewanee we're not crammed onto a few small islands. He had enough money to rent a place for a while here, but he would still need to find employment as soon as possible. Sean quickly scanned the nearest New York Times, in the classifieds, and found the cheapest apartment he could. He went there and was moved in within the day. It was cheap, but at least it wasn't a squalid, rat-infested apartment building.
The next day, Sean made a trip to One Police Plaza, figuring to start right at the head of the whole thing. He didn't necessarily want to be a beat cop, but the inquiries he had made while still in Kewanee had informed him that would be the best route to take toward his ultimate goal: that of being a detective. However, his initial inquiries left him somewhat dismayed. He had known that it would be time-consuming to work his way up through the police department; he just hadn't realized that it would take years before he would be able to make the jump to detective, and Sean wasn't sure he was willing to put that much time in.
Upon returning to his apartment, Sean dropped into a chair. What have I gotten myself into? he asked himself. He still wanted to try to be a detective; it was a part of his work that his father had always spoken fondly of. Furthermore, Sean's own experiences working with the Wolf Club had taught him that helping people in distress was a worthwhile occupation. But how can I do Wolf Club-like work here? he wondered. His eyes caught the Times, lying mostly crumpled on the floor next to the bed. He picked it up, turned back to the classifieds, and scanned the listings. He found what he was looking for: a private investigation service. He called the number, asking the man who answered on the other end whether he needed any assistance, a co-worker. The investigator refused Sean's offer, but directed him to another agency, one run by a detective that had decades of experience, a man by the name of William Puckett.
Puckett, as it turned out, was more than eager to have some assistance, to take Sean under his wing, as it were. For several months, Sean worked with Puckett on one case after another, learning the tools of the trade, learning to spot the most minor of clues, learning to piece together evidence.
Sean was a quick study. It wasn't long before Sean was doing most of the work, making most of the deductions, while Puckett sat around and counted his money, taking all of the credit. It also wasn't long before Sean realized this, and an even shorter time after that before Sean realized that he had learned all he could from Puckett. At the start of the new year, Sean tendered his resignation, rented a small office, hung a sign, and placed his own ad in the Times.
His first case came within the first week, a married woman wanting to find out if her husband was cheating on her. Much as Sean loathed that type of work, he had known beforehand that he would have to do this type of thing to start out with, until he made a name for himself, a name not contingent upon Puckett's reputation. Which he strove to do for the next two months. He succeeded. Every case he handled he solved quickly. He became more and more well-known, nicknamed "The Newcomer" by several of the other veteran detectives. Sean was firmly ensconced in the top five of New York detectives in just nine weeks. Meanwhile, he also finished several classes and courses in the martial arts, as well as other fighting techniques.
Then his biggest case came down the pike. Evidently the city government had been infiltrated by a drug dealer, selling a "fun" drug, one that caused people to become lighter than air for short periods of time, enabling them to fly. Sean started investigating, teaming up with Andrew Bartman, considered by many to be one of the best detectives in the city. The two worked night and day on the problem, but weren't getting anywhere. Then, over the next week, strange edicts began being issued from city government. Sean went undercover and discovered that whoever the drug dealer was had now supplied many of them with a mind control drug, controlling their actions.
Sean and Andrew decided that this was too big for them to handle by themselves, and contacted the NYPD. After convincing the brass of their value in this work, they were assigned to work on the case with one Lieutenant Morrison and his detective squad. Morrison was young for a lieutenant, not even thirty yet, but was willing to work with the freelancers, sharing information with them. In many ways, it was a dream come true for Sean. The lieutenant's squad had been working on the case, as well, but Sean and Andrew had gotten further, discovered more, and with the extensive resources of the NYPD behind them, Andrew and Sean were able to trace the drugs back to the dealer himself, a man that had reappeared on the scene after several years in hiding, namely, Awe.
The final showdown was in Awe's palatial penthouse suite. Sean and Andrew had no trouble taking Awe out, but he escaped before being taken into prison, flying off into the air. Sean and Andrew left on amicable terms, vowing to work together again sometime. The incident involving Awe, particularly the complexity and difficulty of the case, skyrocketed Sean's reputation among his peers, leaving him perched at the top among the private investigator power structure in New York City.
Following the high-profile Awe case, Sean further solidified his stature as the preeminent detective in the city, his reputation growing with each successful investigation completed. With his growing reputation came a growing income, as well, but Sean continued to charge reasonable fees and work out of a modest office by himself, only hiring a receptionist after the number of incoming calls and cases proved too much to sort through on his own and investing some of his hard-earned money in different types of gadgetry to further his investigative work. But Sean wasn't in this business to be rich; he never lost track of the pure reason, the love, for what he was doing, the responsibility that he felt to help the less-fortunate.
Two and a half years later, while investigating some wrongdoing at Sahara Industries, a fledgling company under the direction of Michael Belsky V, Sean discovered some things about Belsky's recent past, namely, how he came into his money. He checked with some federal agencies into what he could do about this. Their first answer was that since Sean had no substantiation, they couldn't do anything. Their second was that, if the murders had happened, they were in another country, so get proof and get back to us.
Sean went back to get the proof, which he hadn't had the time to procure before, along with Drake Richards, the best computer hacker in the city. He got back inside the Sahara building, but the details had been erased from the computer's memory. In actuality, they hadn't been erased so much as they had been replaced; all of the proof that Sean had seen now pointed to other people or had been deleted completely, zeroed out. Drake tried everything in his bag of tricks to get back the information that Sean had seen, but couldn't. After Drake left, Sean marched straight up to Belsky's office. He informed Belsky that the culprits behind the crimes being committed in his company had been tracked down, handing him a disk with all of the appropriate information on it. Belsky accepted graciously and Sean left, saying farewell with a precise choice of words and a certain undercurrent in his voice to let Belsky know that Sean knew more than he could prove.
Belsky had an odd look on his face as Sean shut the door, a look that Sean had an opportunity to see one other time several months later. Sean didn't, however, have the opportunity to make friends with the billionaire.
One day, a couple of years after the first run-in with Belsky, Sean's phone rang. His receptionist, Camilla, informed him that he had a strange caller. Sean smiled, thinking of the number of times she had used that phrase with regard to Sean's clients. "Sean Matts."
"Yes, I have reason to believe that there are shady dealings going on high up at Davidson," the caller said without prelude.
"Oh, really?" Sean said. Started twenty years before by young upstart Michael Davidson, Davidson Incorporated had grown to become the third largest corporation in the country. "Who is this?"
A pause. "I can't say. But if you meet me at the north end of the Pond in Central Park at four this afternoon, I'll bring you what information I have."
"All right," Sean said as he heard a click at the other end. He checked his watch as he hung up the phone. It was three already. I'd better get going.
Fifty-five minutes later, Sean was gazing into the Central Park Pond. He had his hands jammed into his jacket pockets. Leaves swirled all around him as the wind blew.
He then felt a hand on his shoulder. He spun around and found himself facing a man slightly taller and heavier than himself. "Sean Matts?" the man asked from behind the scarf that obscured most of his face. He had a device on that altered his voice as well. What have I gotten myself into this time? Sean asked himself.
"Here's the information I have." He handed Sean a box, about a foot square and three inches thick. "I suspect that in the upper ranks of the corporation there has been stealing of various corporation funds, links to mob rackets, extortion, and even murder."
Sean looked up, raising an eyebrow. "Murder?"
The man nodded. "Everything else is in this box," he said, patting it.
Sean looked down at it. "Thank you," he said as he looked up to see that the man was gone. Sean shrugged and headed home.
After he had a chance, he found that what the man had said was just scratching the surface of what was going on inside of Davidson, Inc., and was nothing short of astounding. How this could be covered up, he didn't know, unless the proper authorities were being paid off to be quiet about it. That would also explain why the man had come to Sean rather than going to the police. Whatever else it was, this case was big, certainly as big as Belsky, maybe even moreso.
Sean didn't want to touch this one alone. As he reached for his phone to call Andrew, it rang. "Hello?" he said, picking it up.
"This is Davidson Incorporated. We're interested in hiring you on, for your investigation services."
"Really," Sean said, more a statement than a question, thinking, How convenient. "Why me?"
"We hear you're the best." I can't refute that, Sean thought. "Can you come in to our main office tomorrow morning at nine?"
Sean thought briefly. This would enable him to get concrete proof about all of these accusations. "I'll be there."
Six weeks later, Sean was on the phone with Andrew Bartman, telling him all about the case he was close to cracking. "This is way too big, Sean. Maybe you should back off."
"This is too important, Andy."
"Why not call the cops?"
"I don't think that would work," Sean explained. "There's no way Davidson could have gotten away with all of this without paying off some dirty cops."
"It's too dangerous, Sean."
"By myself, yeah," Sean said. "I wanted your help. I've got a high-level security clearance, but I need your innate knowledge of security systems to help get me in and out undetected."
Andrew took a deep breath. "All right. I'm in. How are you transporting the information in and out?"
Andrew was silent for a moment. "I have a suggestion."
"Why don't you call in Drake Richards, too? He's a computer whiz."
"Hurry up," Andrew said, glancing at his chronometer. "We've only got another five minutes left in our window."
"Don't pressure me, Bartman," Drake said. "I need to think to get past all of these password subroutines."
"Sorry," Andrew said. "Just hurry."
A few seconds of silence passed. "Got it!" Drake exclaimed.
"All right," Sean said. "Let's get out of here."
The trio thundered down the stairwell, headed for the side exit.
"Stop, stop, stop!" Andrew said, holding up his hands. "Somebody's coming!" he whispered.
They turned and ran back up the stairs, Andrew urging them on. They came to the top of the stairwell and exited onto the top floor. "What now, Andrew?" Sean asked.
"I don't know. Every man for himself, I guess."
Sean nodded. "Take this disk, Andy," Sean said, flipping him a copy of the information. "You go that way," he said, pointing north along the corridor. "Drake, go that way," he said, indicating the south.
Drake sprinted off.
Andrew turned to Sean. "What about you?"
"I'll get out," Sean said. "Don't worry about me. Just make sure that disk gets to the authorities."
Andrew nodded and ran off.
Sean continued along the corridor until he came to a door. Cautiously he opened it. He was in a spacious office. He carefully crossed the room, headed for the windows. Suddenly, the lights were switched on. Sean froze. Standing before him was Michael Davidson himself, CEO of Davidson, Inc. To his side was a person that Sean only knew from pictures, as the number one bounty hunter in the country, Marksman.
"So nice of you to join us, Mr. Matts," Davidson said. "Won't you have a seat?"
Marksman pushed him down forcefully into the chair.
"I knew you were behind all of this," Davidson began. "Why do you think we hired you?"
Sean didn't answer. He had realized going in that it might be a trap.
"What did you hope to accomplish?"
Sean remained silent.
Davidson nodded. "All right, then. Have it your way. You should have known, though, that there was no way you can bring me down," he said, placing his fingertips on his chest. "I'm above all of that."
Sean nodded. "Sure."
"Even now, your two friends have been taken down."
Sean's heart caught in his chest. "What do you mean, 'taken down'?"
Davidson simply smiled.
Sean pulled out a gun.
Davidson stopped smiling.
"Not a move, Marksman," Sean said as he noticed Marksman reaching for a weapon of his own. "You can't draw faster than my trigger finger." Marksman stayed motionless. "You, either, Davidson. Hands above your head." Davidson complied.
"You're dead, Matts," Davidson said through gritted teeth. "I don't care who you are. You are dead."
"Not yet, rich boy." Sean backed for the door. "Not yet." He opened it and sprinted down the corridor. He reached the staircase and ran down, taking the stairs six at a time. After he was down two flights, Marksman appeared at the top of the stairwell and started firing. Sean ducked and ran.
After going down all thirteen flights of stairs, Sean burst into the darkened main lobby. "Freeze!" someone behind him yelled.
Sean spun. He sprinted the other way, gunfire ricocheting off of the walls. Sean stopped cold as he saw a shadow lurking against the wall. He stepped forward cautiously. It suddenly pitched forward. Sean felt a sticky fluid running down his arm. Blood. This person was dead. A flashlight shone down the corridor. Sean recognized the person he was holding. "Drake," Sean whispered, his heart lurching into his throat.
A gunshot was fired, knocking plaster from the wall behind Sean's head. His heart hammered in his chest. He was forced to abandon Drake and run. He ran and ran, until he came to the side door. He exited the building and sprinted down the street, dodging pedestrians. He felt for the disk. It was gone. Marksman must have taken it when pushing Sean down. He ran.
Davidson's last words echoed through Sean's head. "You're dead. You are dead." Dead. Dead.
"And that's when I came back here," Sean finished.
"Because you were in danger of your life," Clayton said.
Sean nodded. "And because at least one man died because of me."
"There was nothing else you could've done, Sean," Ryan said.
"I realize that," Sean said. "Here, anyway," he said, touching his head. "It's a bit harder to believe it inside, though."
There was a moment of silence.
"What about Davidson?" Jay asked. "Did Andrew get the disk out?"
Sean shook his head. "Evidently not, because Davidson's still there, still trying to hunt me down. I don't know what happened to Andrew; I can't even be sure he made it out alive."
"So what now?" Tyler asked.
Sean smiled grimly. "I thought that if I stayed away from Davidson, he would forget all about me eventually; I didn't realize that it was so personal. Now that Checkwolf has become rather well-known, I've evidently attracted his attention, and now he's gunning for me. I can stand being in danger of my life, but not anyone else's. And I know Davidson will keep trying until I'm dead, without caring how many others he takes with me. So I'm going to New York to take care of him once and for all." He looked around. "This is a strictly volunteer mission and you could very well get killed. I'll understand if no one comes." He took a breath. "Any volunteers?"
Everyone's hand went up.
"This is going to be harder than I thought," Sean said, smiling.
"Break out the straws," Jay exclaimed.
"No, not that way, Jay," Sean said. "Ryan and Tyler, you're with me. And let's get one Bishop, one Knight, and one Rook."
"James," Tyler said.
"Clayton," Ryan stated.
Sean nodded. "And Jay. Now, this is no slight on the rest of you, but we need some people here to keep Checkwolf operating, okay?" He received reluctant nods from everybody. "Okay. At noon tomorrow, we'll board a flight to New York City. Dismissed."
Jay and Ruben came up to Sean. "So you told us where you met Belsky, Awe, and Marksman," Jay said.
"Is that everything?" Ruben asked.
Sean just smiled.
"What?" Jay said. "That's not everything?"
"That's the important stuff, anyway," Sean said.
"Whatever," Ruben said with a grin, leaving with Jay.
The smile slid from Sean's face as he looked to Jenkins, who had remained behind. He waited.
"What do you think you're doing?" Jenkins asked in a quiet, harsh voice, barely containing his anger.
"I'm going to New York. You heard the reasons. I've got a responsibility."
"You have a responsibility here!" Jenkins exclaimed, pointing forcefully.
"That's what I mean," Sean said, not backing down. "First and foremost, I have a responsibility to my team. I would be shirking that responsibility if I allowed their lives to be in danger because of me. It has to stop. And it will."
"First class!" Jay exclaimed.
"We're traveling in style now," Clayton said, agreeing. They had just boarded the airplane and were now taking their seats in the first class section. Tyler, Ryan, Jay, and Clayton sat together near the front of the cabin, while James secluded himself in the rear. He had told the others that he would guard the exit. Sean had decided to accompany him.
"Please fasten your safety belts," came the announcement over the intercom. They all did so. After they had risen to twenty-five thousand feet and leveled off, they all unfastened their belts.
"So what's our inflight movie?" Jay asked.
A nearby stewardess came over. "I'm sorry; I didn't hear your question, sir."
Ever heard of a rhetorical question? Jay thought while keeping a smile on his face. "I was just wondering what our inflight movie would be."
"Oh," she said with a smile. "This flight isn't long enough for an inflight movie."
"I know," Jay said. "It was supposed to be a joke."
"Oh," the stewardess said again. She then turned around and walked away.
Jay rolled his eyes after she left. "I think she brings new meaning to the phrase 'ditzy blond'."
"I would tend to agree with you," Clayton said from his seat next to Jay. "But . . . "
Jay held up his hands and cut him off before he could say anything. "I know what you're going to say. 'But she was really cute, wasn't she?' Yes, she was. Okay?" After a mock exasperated sigh, Jay continued. "I swear, that's the only thing you ever notice about women."
Clayton grinned and shrugged his shoulders. "So sue me."
"I mean, really," Jay continued, "that's probably what you noticed about Bounty first off. You were probably thinking--"
"Shut up," Clayton said, quietly, intensely.
Startled, Jay looked askance at his companion. "What did I say?"
Clayton looked into Jay's eyes, with a cold, silencing gaze. "I said, shut up."
Jay nodded. "Okay. Sorry."
"So how are you planning to take this guy down? Kill him?" James asked.
"No, James," Sean replied, a little disappointed that James didn't know him better than that. "I'm going to get back the evidence that I lost two years ago and send Davidson up the river."
"How are you going to do that?" James asked.
"As quickly and as quietly as possible," Sean said. When James didn't respond, Sean turned to look at him. "I'm still working out the details."
James nodded. "I thought we would kill him. Much cleaner."
Sean raised an eyebrow in surprise, wondering if he knew James as well as he thought.
"I'm thinking of a number between one and a hundred."
"I'm not in the mood for games right now, Tyler."
"Come on, it'll be something to pass the time."
Ryan sighed. "Okay. Fifty."
Tyler paused. "Uh, lower."
Ryan turned in his seat to face Tyler. "Higher than seventy-five, but lower than seventy-six?"
Tyler nodded uncomfortably.
"Now landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport," the voice over the intercom announced. "Please fasten your safety belts."
All six of the passengers in the first-class compartment buckled their seatbelts. The airplane gently touched down on the runway. "Thank you for riding American Airlines."
"And exit slowly down the ramp," Jay said quietly as he stood. They all followed Sean out and down the stairs to the ground below.
"First, we need a rental car," Sean stated. "Taxis are quite high-priced."
"No joke," Tyler said.
Sean went to the rental car area with the other five in tow and they quickly got ahold of a car. "Now we need a hotel. Preferably one near the Davidson Building."
Sean negotiated the rushhour traffic in downtown Queens. A couple of hours, and a couple of bridges, later they had found a low-rent hotel within walking distance of the Davidson Building. They got two connecting rooms and began to formulate their plans.
They would divide up into two groups. Ryan, Clayton, and James would go in first and secure the route to the computer core. Sean, Jay, and Tyler would follow a few minutes later. This time, it would be up to Jay to get the information out of the computer. Sean had no doubts that he would be able to. Then, Jay would make two copies; Sean's group would take one, Ryan's group would take the other and they would get out as fast as they could.
"How does that sound?" Sean asked in conclusion.
Jay spoke up. "Why can't we just get this stuff from here?" he asked, indicating his laptop.
"It's in an archive computer."
"Ah. No linkup to the 'Net."
Sean nodded. "Right."
Ryan, with a toothpick dangling out of his mouth and his feet up on the bed, raised his hand. "Question."
"What kind of security do they have in this place?"
"Good question," Sean said. "Heavy security. Ryan's group will have the toughest and most delicate job: that is, not only infiltrating and securing the place, but doing so quietly."
"Goody," said Clayton. "When do we go?"
"First thing tomorrow morning."
"Wouldn't it be better to do this at night?" James asked.
Sean shook his head. "It really doesn't matter. The security is the same, night or day. And this way, we won't look so suspicious."
"Any other questions?" Sean asked, looking around. "All right, then. Everybody get some rest."
The ringing of the phone awoke Sean shortly before five in the morning, an hour before sunrise. He picked it up. "Hello?" he said, no hint of sleep in his voice.
"I have a message for The Newcomer," said a female voice. "'Meet me under the Manhattan-side tower of the Brooklyn Bridge at noon." A sharp click indicated the termination of the message.
Sean replaced the phone in the cradle, then laid back down again. He laced his fingers together behind his head and took a deep breath. Who could it be? he wondered.
Sean walked above the heavy lunch hour traffic, looking down at the East River as he did so. Within minutes, the sun was blocked by the shadow of one of the support towers of the bridge. He looked around, his eyes readjusting from the bright glare of the noonday sun. Somebody tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around.
Standing right next to him, smiling, was an attractive woman. Attractive, yes; normal-looking, no, with her short blonde hair, dyed obviously, standing in stark contrast to her dark brown skin. She wore leather pants despite the heat of the day, topping everything off with a silver stud in her nose. Despite all of this, there was very little to distinguish her from most of the other denizens of New York. "Matts?" she said, her harsh voice the same one that he had heard on the phone, an abrasive contrast to the smile she wore on her face. She obviously perceived herself to be undercover.
Sean nodded. "You said you had a message."
The woman nodded, producing a diskette from a pocket on her top. Sean recognized it instantly as one of the disks that he had used to try to smuggle the documents out of Davidson's building. The wear and tear on it served as abundant evidence that this was Andrew Bartman's copyexcept for one thing.
"If he had the disk, why didn't he do something with it?"
The woman nodded, her eyes unfocused; clearly, she had been briefed for this question. "All of the exits had magnetic fields activated at them. This disk has been wiped clean."
"Need some help?" the woman asked.
Sean smiled slightly. "You mentioned that you had a message."
The woman nodded. She replaced the disk, though so quickly that Sean couldn't tell where. Then she extended her hand. "Cali."
Sean shook her hand, nodding.
"Rabbit noticed that you'd gotten into town," Cali said. "He wanted me to ask you if you needed any help."
Ever since receiving her phone call earlier that morning, Sean's first instinct was that it had been Andrew contacting him. Sean smiled inwardly at the name that Andrew was now evidently going by, a nickname that was a throwback to his military career. "That would be appreciated."
Cali nodded. "What do you need?" she asked, casually looking over the traffic flow.
Sean hesitated. "I need his help to finish a job we started some time ago."
Cali looked askance at Sean. Sean could see several questions bubbling just beneath the surface, but she asked none of them. Instead, she just nodded. "He thought you might ask that. His answer is yes."
"Meet me at the Palms Hotel, downtown Manhattan, at eight tomorrow morning."
Cali nodded and turned, starting to leave. Then she stopped and looked back at him. "We'll be bringing one more friend," she said. Then she grinned. "No comments about the way he looks, okay?"
"So, when's this bunny dude gonna be here?" Tyler asked.
"His name's Rabbit," Sean corrected. "And he'll be here any minute." At that moment, Rabbit, Cali, and their third companion appeared, coming around the corner.
"How does he do that?" Jay asked Clayton. Clayton shrugged.
Sean watched as the odd trio walked up. What he could discern about Rabbit, his height and build, was the same as Sean remembered from before. The most obvious change was the face mask that he was wearing, which completely altered his appearance. Cali stood several inches shorter, also wearing a face-concealing mask today, which also covered her hair, and had a slim, athletic build.
Their third companion, on the other hand, really stood out from the group. He was over seven feet tall, looking very strange, beastlike, with short black fur covering his entire body, apparently. He had haunting eyes, looking just like cats' eyes. He had fangs, though they were somewhat crooked, unnatural, and claws at the end of his fingers. Definitely a character I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, Sean thought. Sean carefully avoided making any comments about his appearance. "Rabbit! Nice to see you again."
"You too, Sean." Sean immediately noticed that Rabbit was speaking through a voicebox on his mask, which explained not only why his voice was nearly an octave deeper, but also why the mask jutted out so far from his face.
Sean left unsaid much of what he wanted to express toward Andrew, or rather, Rabbit, in view of his attempts to hide his actual identity. Just from the secrecy, though, it was obvious that he had had a tough time following their exploits, as well.
Rabbit gestured toward his accomplices. "Meet Jake and Cali," Rabbit said, motioning to the mutant and the woman respectively.
Sean inclined his head. "Nice to meet you." Then turning to his group, he introduced them. "Ryan and Tyler Spencer, Jay Wayne, Clayton Lee, and James Washburn." They all nodded in turn. Turning to Rabbit, Sean asked, "Do you have any weapons?"
Rabbit glanced over at Jake and Cali, then shook his head. "Not yet. We're with the OCP, and we're training without for the time being."
Sean nodded. "The OCP, huh?"
Rabbit nodded. "Have you ever thought about it?"
"I've thought about it," Sean replied. "But I have some misgivings about them. They didn't leave any favorable impressions." I'd have to be desperate to ever work with them, Sean thought. He didn't say so out loud because obviously Rabbit had been desperate. "Are we ready to go?"
Rabbit nodded. "I think so. What's the plan?"
"Stupid plan," Cali muttered.
Rabbit quieted her with a wave of his hand. He, Cali, and Clayton led the first branch of the group. Sean's plan was to use two groups to secure two separate routes to the archive room of the Davidson Building. The other consisted of Ryan, James, and Jake, the mutant. Then they would radio back to Sean which route was the safest and his group would take that way.
"Just wait here, and watch," Rabbit told Cali. She nodded. Rabbit motioned again with his hand, this time a beckoning motion. Clayton followed him. After going a couple of more minutes, Rabbit stationed Clayton in a side corridor, out of sight. He then continued on to the archive room, where he waited for Ryan.
"Wait here, Jake," Ryan said as he kept an eye out for anybody walking by.
Jake nodded. "All right."
Ryan looked back at him. "No offense, but be careful to keep yourself hidden."
"C'mon, James," Ryan said, leading James forward. A little further on, he indicated a spot for James to wait. James hid himself so quickly and so well that Ryan couldn't even see where he went. He raised an eyebrow in approval, then continued on to the archive room, where Rabbit was already waiting. "All set?"
Ryan lifted his walkie-talkie. "Sean? Ryan here."
"Go ahead," came Sean's reply.
Ryan glanced at Rabbit, who shrugged.
"Mine," Ryan said.
Sean entered the Davidson Building confidently, Tyler and Jay in tow. All three wore business suits; Tyler and Jay also had dark sunglasses on. Sean strode directly toward the archives, where he was confident he would find the proof of Davidson's activities: all of the connections to the underworld, illegal goings-on, and everything else that Davidson was involved in, including, most recently, a couple more charges of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
Out of the corner of his eye, as he walked, Sean saw Jake hovering in a corner nearby, concealing himself rather well. Jake nodded, indicating that everything was fine. Sean saw him raise his walkie-talkie to his mouth to inform Ryan of their progress.
"Sean," Tyler said from behind him.
"Do you see any security cameras?"
Sean looked around, moving only his eyes and keeping his head still. "No."
"Doesn't that seem odd?"
"Very," Jay said. "But maybe they're just hidden."
Sean nodded. "It'll be okay."
Several minutes later, they arrived at the archive room. Rabbit and Ryan stepped out of hiding. "So far, so good," Ryan said.
Sean nodded. "Watch the door; we'll be inside. And if anyone comes, save yourselves."
"All right," Ryan said, though his face held an expression that indicated he was thinking, "Not likely."
Sean, Tyler, and Jay stepped through the door into the archive room. A man stood there. "Hey, what are you doing?" he asked as he reached for the button to call for security. He then paused. "Sean Matts?" he asked, incredulous.
Tyler punched him. The man slumped to the floor, unconscious.
Jay had already moved over to the main archive computer. "Great," he muttered. "Password screen."
"Can you get around it?" Sean asked.
"If it's typical of most computer systems," Jay said as he tapped several keys in rapid combination, "yes." The message Password Accepted appeared on the screen. Jay grinned. "Simplicity itself."
"Keep going," Sean said as he watched. "I want the highest-level information you can get me."
Tyler tapped him on the shoulder.
"What?" Sean asked.
Tyler pointed at the security camera pointed directly at them.
Sean stifled a curse. He turned around. "Hurry, Jay."
"Hey, Sean," Jay said as he worked, "these things take time."
"We don't have it."
Jay nodded. "I understand." His fingers flew even faster over the keyboard as he penetrated deep into the most top secret area of the entire computer core, gaining the highest security clearance possible. He then stood, motioning for Sean to sit. "Batter up."
Sean quickly located all of the information he needed. In the past two years, even more had happened concerning Davidson, illegal activities and the like. He gathered it all together, then relinquished the computer to Jay. Jay quickly collected the information together, burning a CD of it while dumping several copies onto portable flash drives.
Tyler grabbed the drives as soon as they were done. He handed one to Sean, then ran to the door, giving one to Ryan, who immediately sprinted off, tucking it into a protective case, and the other to Rabbit, who quickly ran away as well. They both knew the drill. Get the information to the authorities at all costs. Jay grabbed the final copy, the compact disc, and shut down the computer. He stood. "Let's get out of here."
The door to the archive room burst open. Five security guards with heavy-duty weapons stood there, the barrels pointed directly at the three Checkwolf members. "Hands up."
"You should be going to jail, but somebody wants to see you first," said the one in the lead. "Come with us."
Ryan sprinted down the hallway. He ran past James' hiding spot, and instantly James was beside him, running as well. Before they came to Jake, though, an alarm began to ring throughout the building. A voice came over the intercom: "Please, everybody stay calm and stay where you are. All of the exits have been sealed. There is a group of corporate raiders in the building. For your own protection, stay wherever you are, until the situation is resolved. Thank you."
As soon as the message had ended, a bullet ricocheted off the ceiling above Ryan's head. He spun. Behind him was a squad of security personnel, eight people. Ryan immediately drew his stun pistol, a nonlethal weapon that operates on the same principles as a taser, though the Checkwolf stun weapons are quicker to fire, potentially more powerful, usable over longer distances, and completely nondependent on wires of any kind. They are designed to emit a brief, potent burst of electrical energy and temporarily shut down the human nervous system. Running, Ryan fired several times. Two of his shots connected. Spasming, those two security guards went down. James also took out two before they got to where Jake was in hiding.
"Not good," Jake said.
"No kidding," Ryan affirmed, looking up to him.
"How are we going to get out of here?" James asked.
Ryan was still looking up, past Jake's head. "Jake, do you think you could move that vent?"
Jake looked up. "I can try." He reached over his head and with superhuman strength budged it, then moved it entirely.
"Take a look up there, James," Ryan said, as Jake lifted James up. Ryan covered them. He was firing off bursts occasionally at the security team, holding them at bay. Evidently another group had joined them. Ryan checked the power level on his pistol. He was getting low. He readied a backup battery, to replenish the power.
"Ryan!" James yelled over the racket of firing guns.
"I think we can go through here."
"But go where?" Jake asked.
"We'll find that out later," Ryan said. "We're sitting ducks here. Go, James!" Then Ryan stopped firing. "Boost me up, Jake." Jake easily did so. Then he pulled himself up as well. They quickly moved the panel back into place.
"What-?" James started.
Ryan quieted him.
Below them, the firing had stopped. The security personnel were directly below them.
"Where'd they go?" one asked.
"I don't know," another answered. "Jackson, take your group that way. The rest of you come with me."
"What now?" James whispered.
They were in a darkened heating duct between floors. Ryan flashed on his penlight. "Which way's the heat coming from?"
James licked his index finger and raised it into the air. "This way," he said, pointing behind him.
"Then we'll go this way," Ryan said, pointing in the opposite direction. "Maybe we can find another vent, leading outside." Ryan turned to Jake. "Are you going to be able to maneuver through here?"
Jake nodded. "Yeah, just barely. Let's get going, though, before I get claustrophobic."
Rabbit and Clayton came to Cali as soon as the message terminated. "Great," Cali said. "Just what we needed."
"So how do we get out?" Clayton asked.
"I don't know," Rabbit said, shrugging. "Maybe if we can get down into the basement we can get out through a sewer line."
"Nasty," Cali said, her voice betraying the fact that her nose was wrinkling up in distaste. "Isn't there something else we could do?"
Rabbit looked at her through his fearsome mask, which, with its concealing visor and voicebox, gave no indication as to what the wearer looked like. Cali's mask was much the same, with the exception that she had no voicebox. "You think of something, then."
Cali stood motionless for a moment. "Okay. Where's the basement?"
"I have no idea," Rabbit admitted.
"Guys, we've got to get moving," Clayton said.
"Okay," Cali said. "How 'bout this way?"
A bullet spanged off of her mask. She was instantly flat against the wall. "Bad choice," she whispered.
Clayton took out his stun pistol and started firing, nailing a security guard with every shot. A whole contingent had evidently come on their position in the time that they had been talking. "Singlemindedness is a virtue," Clayton commented as person after person fell to his pistol. He calmly squeezed off shot after shot, only missing twice.
Until his battery ran out.
"Why'd you stop?" Rabbit asked.
"Too late," Rabbit said. Three security personnel had their weapons pointed directly at the trio.
"Hands in the air," one commanded.
"Sure thing," Clayton said with a grin. He lashed backwards with a kick, taking one man by surprise with a foot in his gut. He flew backwards, sliding across the corridor and into the wall. Just as quickly, Rabbit and Cali leapt into action, taking the other two security guards down quickly.
Clayton replaced the charge in his pistol while Rabbit and Cali relieved the other two of their weapons. "Ooh, guns!" Cali exclaimed.
"Remember, Cali, no killing," Rabbit cautioned.
"Right. Aim high."
"Air Force," Clayton muttered.
"Nothing. Let's go."
The security team took Sean, Tyler, and Jay into Davidson's office.
"Sean Matts," Davidson said with a smile. "How are you?"
Sean remained silent.
"Dead?" Davidson asked. "You will be soon. What made you come back here? Especially when you had no chance of touching me, just like before? Are you really that stupid?"
"I'm here to take you in," Sean said simply.
"I don't think you're in any position to be making such statements, Matts." Davidson paused, then sat on the edge of his desk. "And besides, you can't prove anything."
"That's where you're wrong, Davidson," Sean stated. "This time we can. No matter what happens to me, you'll go down, deep into the darkest depths of . . . prison."
"Ah, how poetic," Davidson said, smiling, as he spread his arms wide in an expansive gesture. Suddenly a gun was in his hand. "But at least you die. You'll go down, deep into the darkest depths of the earth."
Sean smiled. "We'll see." Suddenly, he dropped to the ground, somersaulted, rolled, and jumped back to his feet, ending up with Davidson in a headlock, all in under four seconds. "Drop the guns, boys."
Davidson's security personnel complied.
"Attack!" Davidson yelled as he reversed Sean's grip.
The five security men and women moved in on Tyler and Jay. One of Tyler's legs shot upwards. His nearest attacker quickly ducked to one side to avoid the kick and in so doing came into contact with Tyler's right fist, which was following closely behind. He fell in a heap. At the same time, Jay kicked out, whipping the nearest guard's head to the left. Her body followed behind as she lay still on the ground.
Two more moved in on Tyler. He attacked one, taking her down, but the other enforcer jumped him and connected three blows to Tyler's head, two to the chin and one to the temple. Tyler collapsed from the rapidity of the blows.
Jay kept his mind separated from what had just happened to Tyler as he tried to keep tabs of what was happening to him. He was being caged in by two of the biggest security men. He backed up.
Sean knocked the gun from Davidson's hand, broke his grip, and threw him over the desk. Davidson rolled easily to the wall, then stood up, his hands out, ready for battle. Sean forced himself to ignore the various grunts and thuds coming from behind him, hoping that Tyler and Jay could handle themselves. If not, he was dead.
Sean hurdled the desk and went for Davidson's throat. Davidson held him off and the two grappled. "You scum," Sean said.
"Matts! Over there!" Davidson exclaimed, looking past Sean.
"How stupid do you really think I am?"
"Stupid enough to think you could take me in two years ago. Stupid enough to think you could take me in today. Stupid enough to fall for this," Davidson finished as a gun slid out of his sleeve, into his hand. He pressed the cold metal against Sean's temple. "Let me go," Davidson ordered.
Sean did so. "Here's your chance. You've been trying to kill me for months. Pull the trigger."
Jay couldn't move back any further; he was against the wall. He lashed out with his feet, trying to keep the two men at bay. But they overwhelmed him. One moved in, diving for his feet right after Jay kicked. Jay lost his balance and fell right for the second guard, who instantly punched him in the face. Jay was unconscious before he hit the floor.
Sean heard Jay fall to the floor. "There goes your last line of defense, Matts. Even as we speak, my men are rounding up yours." He paused. "I won't kill you just yet, though. First, I'll call the police and have them take you in for attempted murder, sabotage, breaking and entering, and robbery." His lips formed a humorless smile. "The good guys never win. You should have learned that by now."
"How much longer?" James asked.
Ryan shrugged as he crawled along in front of Jake and James. "It's hard to say."
"I didn't think that we were this far in," Jake commented.
"Well, we've made several twists and turns," Ryan said, explaining. "After all, this is a heating duct." Ryan fell silent as he crawled across a corridor. The metal squeaked and groaned a little as he went across it. "Jake!" he whispered.
"Be careful going across here. It seems weak."
As soon as Jake got to that section of ductwork, though, it started creaking loudly and noticeably. Then, Jake started sinking. "Uh-oh." All of a sudden, he fell through the bottom of the duct, through the ceiling below him, and landed heavily on the floor below. Ryan and James overstressed the nearby areas of the duct and fell through as well, Ryan landing beside, James on top of Jake.
They were almost instantaneously surrounded by a security team of six, all toting guns.
"What is that thing?" one of them mumbled.
"It's a freakin' monster!" the other exclaimed.
Jake suddenly jumped up, howling with rage.
"It's gone nutso!" another shouted. "Kill it!"
Ryan and James dove for cover as they watched Jake launch into a furious rampage. Two bullets impacted against his tough skin, but appeared to do no damage. He was a whirlwind as he threw the security personnel all around the corridor, smashing them against walls, doors, each other, or whatever else was convenient. In a matter of seconds, he was the only one remaining conscious.
Ryan and James stepped away from the doorway they had been cowering in. "Are you all right?" Ryan asked.
Jake nodded, taking deep breaths, trying to calm himself.
Rabbit did say that he was touchy about his appearance, Ryan remembered. "When you get angry, you're like a fury, aren't you?" Ryan asked.
"A fury, huh?" Jake said, pondering. "I like that. You," he said, pointing at Ryan, "can call me Fury. It seems fitting, somehow." He turned and faced Ryan and James. "What do you think?"
They nodded. Whatever you say, sir, Ryan thought.
"Fury it is, then."
"Okay," Ryan said as he looked around. "Let's get out of here." They cautiously headed for the front door, since that's the one they were closest to. When they got there, they found that it was still locked.
"What now?" James asked.
A woman behind them screamed at the sight of Fury, punching a button to call security.
Fury turned to her, his anger rising.
Before he could totally lose control of his senses, Ryan put a hand on his arm. "Fury!" Fury looked at him, rage building. "The door! We have to get out of here!"
Fury turned toward the door, then lost it. He started in on the door. It didn't take long; with one punch the inner double doors flew off their hinges, taking the outside doors with them.
Ryan ran past Fury. "Come on!" he called. James and Fury followed.
"Hold up, hold up," Clayton called.
"Here's an access to the basement," Cali called at the same time.
"This is more important," Clayton said.
"What is it?" Rabbit asked.
One of the rooms Clayton had checked was a security room, with views from the cameras from all over the building. One of the views showed Michael Davidson's office. Sean, Jay, and Tyler had just been taken there forcibly. "Sean's in trouble!" Clayton exclaimed.
"So which is more important?" Cali asked as she came up behind them. "Getting this information to the cops or saving your buddy?"
Rabbit and Clayton looked at each other. The answer was obvious. They headed for an elevator.
"Insanity," Cali muttered.
"Or, maybe I should just kill you right now," Davidson said to Sean as his security men handcuffed Tyler and Jay. "Blame it on someone else, maybe."
"Can you?" Sean asked tauntingly. "Do you have it in you?"
Davidson's lip curled in a snarl.
At that moment, Clayton, Rabbit, and Cali burst into the room. Rabbit and Cali fired their guns over everybody's heads, while Clayton took advantage of the distraction to fire his pistol six times. Six shots; six unconscious people.
Meanwhile, Sean also took advantage of the opportunity. He knocked Davidson's gun from his hand in the brief amount of time that Davidson was startled. Behind them, the firing stopped. "Stay back," Sean said as he and Davidson cautiously circled each other. "You don't seriously think that you can beat me in a fair fight, do you?" Sean asked.
"Don't patronize me," Davidson said as his right foot came up toward Sean's face in a high kick. Sean hadn't expected that, hadn't had time to block, and the blow connected. Sean stumbled backwards, stopping when he came to the window.
Sean held his head, which seemed to be throbbing out of control. He barely dodged Davidson's next kick, then avoided a roundhouse. Sean dropped to the floor and swung his leg in a low roundhouse, a sweep kick. Davidson dropped heavily to the floor, but instantly was back on his feet. The pain in Sean's head was dying down ever so slightly. He lashed out with a quick punch to Davidson's face, which Davidson blocked. Sean then followed that up with a punch in the gut. When Davidson doubled over, Sean brought his knee up into Davidson's face.
Davidson stumbled backward, blood dripping from his nose. Davidson's back was now to the window, toward downtown New York. "You've hurt me, Matts," Davidson said in a low voice. "You'll pay for that."
"Maybe so," Sean said. "But not today." As Davidson came toward him, Sean balled up his right hand into a fist and swung toward Davidson, throwing all of his weight into the punch. He connected with Davidson's face and sent him reeling backward, against the window. He smashed into it, sending a crack all the way up to the top of the window frame. The window then began spiderwebbing. Davidson slumped to the floor, unconscious.
"All right, Sean!" Clayton whooped.
"Good job, Sean," came Rabbit's deep, distorted voice from directly behind him. "You finally got him. Ryan just called from the police station. They're on their way to pick up Davidson."
Sean nodded, his adrenaline flowing, trying to calm down. "It's finally over."
Rabbit just stood and listened.
"Two years now, I've been dealing with the pain, with the guilt of leading Drake to his death. Thinking I led you to your death, too."
"It wasn't your fault, Sean," Rabbit said.
"All the people whose lives have been messed up because they came between Davidson and me," Sean said. "And now it's all over between us." He turned to Rabbit. "Thanks for your help, Rabbit."
The window over Davidson shattered, cascading glass down on top of him.
"After a controversial one week case, Michael Davidson of Davidson Incorporated changed his plea from not guilty to guilty, in view of the overwhelming evidence against him. He has been convicted on five counts of extortion, one count of money laundering, four counts of conspiracy to commit murder, two counts of first-degree murder, as well as three other felony and misdemeanor counts. Mr. Davidson's lawyer had this to say-"
Sean shut off the small, portable television and sat back in his seat. It's finally over. The guilt, the pain, everything. He paused in thought for a moment, looking out of the airplane window at the evening sky. The sun had just gone down, but its effect was still obvious. The entire western sky was bathed in gorgeous reds, oranges, and every other color of the rainbow, shining through and around the sparse cloud cover. Rabbit's help was a real asset. Perhaps I should have brought other Checkwolf members with me. Sean remembered Ryan's relating of what Fury did to those security guards. It would sure be nice to have someone with that kind of strength on the team. An idea formed in Sean's head.
The airplane continued through the air, as the evening sky changed into night.