Monsignor O'Reilly carefully considered the items to carry with him. With the Posleen rapidly approaching his small house in Arlington, he was rather certain that he would be on foot for the majority of the next several days.
There were so many things to choose from. His collection of books and manuscripts dating back to the twelfth century. His antiques and archaeological treasures gathered throughout the world. Complex electronics to decipher the secrets of ancient and modern times. On the other hand several of those would have to be thoroughly destroyed.
Finally, recognizing that the only true treasure to the cause resided in his cranium, he packed a bookbag with some socks, easy-to-prepare food and bottled water. He took a last look around the comfortable room, set the autodestruct sequence and walked out the front door. He didn't bother to lock it.
He debated whether to walk or drive the half mile to VA 123. He finally decided to drive. The traffic might have cleared and, if it had not, every little bit of energy savings would help. He shouldered the bag and started towards his late-model Buick, but froze as a dark-tinted Suburban with its lights off appeared out of the darkness and pulled up in front of his house.
He thought for a moment if there was anything incriminating in the house or on his person. He quickly decided that there was not and just as quickly decided that it probably wouldn't matter to his visitors. He braced himself for what would come next and barely flinched when the back door was flung back to reveal the Indowy Aelool and Paul des Jardins in the light from the interior.
"Get in," snapped Paul, all trace of the dapper dilettante vanished.
O'Reilly considered the situation for a moment—it was a common trap—then hurried over to the SUV. "Just because it's a tank doesn't mean you're going to be able to negotiate traffic." The heavyset driver pulled away without a word and headed away from VA 123.
"We have made arrangements," said the Indowy. "We will be picked up by a Himmit stealth ship along the Burke Run."
"There's another problem," said des Jardins, gesturing towards the Indowy with his chin and turning to look out the window. The large bag at his feet could only hold weapons and O'Reilly smiled gently. You could take the boy out of DGSE but you could never take DGSE out of the boy. The hand inside the fine Saville Row suit undoubtedly cradled some lethal bit of French hardware.
"Indeed," continued the little Indowy. "We intercepted a termination order originating from the Tir Dol Ron's office."
"Intercepted?" asked the Jesuit incredulously.
"The Bane Sidhe is very ancient and very well-represented among the Indowy," stated the diminutive alien. His batlike face wrinkled in a complicated fashion. Scholar or no, the expression was far too complex for O'Reilly to decipher. It seemed one part satisfaction and three parts exasperation. "Our ineffectiveness at direct action stems from many of the same sources as the Darhel's. And our response has ever mirrored theirs: Let humans do the dirty work."
The former DGSE agent snorted. "To our discredit."
"I am aware that the difference is often not one of execution but of goals," admitted O'Reilly, wryly. "However, how does this termination order effect us? Is it for a member of the Société? Or of the Franklins?"
"No," admitted the Indowy with another grimace. "The individual affected is unaware of the actions of the societies. However, the Bane Sidhe are in the individual's debt. Furthermore, we believe that the individual may represent a strong destabilizing factor to the Darhel."
"One individual is not worth risking the Société," stated the Monsignor definitively.
"Not normally. However, this individual has repeatedly demonstrated traits that make him outside the norm. And the Bane Sidhe ask it. We have aided the Société much. This is nothing compared to what we have done for the Société!"
"What about you, Paul?"
"All of our Marion teams are in the Northeast right now. Otherwise we would be handling it."
"So, you think it worth the risk. Where is it that you need help?" asked the Jesuit, warily.
"We need Team Conyers."
The monsignor smiled thinly and tried not to let the surprise show on his face. He hoped like hell the Darhel did not have the Mother Church so thoroughly penetrated.
* * *
The robe-clad monk knelt in the dirt of the well-tended vineyard and carefully tasted a grape. His mouth worked as he swirled the juices around, gathering every last nuance. The harvest would have to be gathered soon or there might not be one. The grape lacked that last bit of sweetness, but the lack might be to the good. Surely the wine of such a bitter time should not be sweet. The gentle wind of the night was a boon to his soul. The night was still the same, even as the world had come apart around them. The sheltering night had not changed.
He rose to his feet with the grace of a dancer as one of the senior brothers approached. The senior brother gestured for him to follow and headed towards one of the outbuildings of the monastery without a word. The monk saw others being gathered and realized that there must have been a special calling. The senior brother turned aside as he entered the building.
The assistant abbot would retire to his cell and pray continuously until the team returned. He remembered his own days on the teams and feared that many would not be at the next vespers. A call from the Société was so often a death sentence. They were like the French Foreign Legion in a way; the only thing that mattered to the Société was the mission and damn the casualties. To the Benedictines, the importance was the ritual and the art. That is why, contrary to popular myth, the special troops of the Catholic Church were not Jesuits. Shao-Lin did not own the monopoly they thought.
The monk perused the briefing under red "battle-lights" as his black- and gray-clad brothers assembled the instruments of their arts. The mission was complex but not terribly so. The gravest question was time. And of course going in with no communications and limited intelligence.
The monks had special dispensation to speak during briefings. There were, however, no questions. They took up their equipment, changed their clothes and loaded into the darkened vans without a word.
* * *
O'Neal stared at his opponent across the dimly lit green expanse. The next move would decide the outcome of the contest. The stakes were high, but Michael O'Neal, Senior had been in tougher spots. There was always a way out if you tried hard enough, thought about the situation and acted with precision and violence. But he usually had better cards.
"Raise you five," said Cally.
"Two pair, kings high."
"Damn!" said Papa O'Neal, throwing his cards down. The pair of aces lay forlornly on the table as if mocking his inability to win a simple hand of poker against an eight-year-old. It was well past midnight and he should have had her in bed long before. But with news coming in from the fighting and her father on his way to the front, Mike Senior was waiting for her to fall asleep naturally. So far she was showing all the stamina of a professional gambler.
"One more hand like that and you'll be doing the dishes for a month," Cally said with a laugh.
"Yeah, well . . ." He tried to think of a retort but just gave up. What could he say?
His pager went off and he pulled it off his belt. The device was hooked into the property sensors, not his phone; just because he was in his sixties didn't mean he couldn't use modern technology. And it showed that they had a visitor. First motion sensors and then metal sensors had detected movement on the long road into the farm. However, the device that monitored for subspace transmissions was quiescent.
So, not Posleen then. Maybe the sheriff coming up to make sure he wasn't making moonshine. Or at least not at the house where it might get found and be embarrassing. Best not to offer him a taste of the latest batch. Although it made little or no sense at this time of night.
"We've got a visitor," he said.
"Friend or foe?" Cally asked seriously. She tossed down the cards she had been shuffling.
"Don't know," he said. "I guess we ought to go look."
* * *
It was an unremarkable Ford Taurus. Probably a rental. The driver was a male. There wasn't much else Papa O'Neal could tell, even with the high-definition light-amplifying binoculars. He waited in the front room of the house, screened by the light curtains over the windows, until the car pulled up to the front and stopped.
The driver revealed in the glare of the security lights was a male, early twenties and alone. He looked faintly Hispanic—mostly because of his swarthy complexion—but could have been any of a hundred races and mixtures across the world. He was wearing an old and battered field jacket. It had a Special Forces patch on the right shoulder but was otherwise unadorned; "sterile" in the parlance of the special ops community. He also looked familiar, but O'Neal could not place the face.
Mike Senior opened the front door and stepped out, watching the stranger warily. There was no reason for a total stranger to come to the house. Come to think of it, he had never had an uninvited visitor. With the exception of the law. But it wasn't like he had much choice.
"Mike," the guy said on first sight and his face broke into a broad grin. "Long time, 'mano!"
Papa O'Neal's face creased in thought but his expression remained wary. "Do I know you?"
"Shit." The stranger shook his head in apparent chagrin. "How 'bout this: 'Sometimes you get the feathers, sometimes you get the bones.' "
Papa O'Neal tilted his head sideways and his mind wandered down a lot of years of memory. Then his eyes widened. "Harold?" he asked, incredulously.
* * *
"So that's the deal man. Got a new life, new identity and I've been workin' for the Man ever since. Just call me Lazarus," he ended with a lopsided grin.
"You work for the Company?" Mike asked, leaning back in his cowhide-covered chair.
"No," Harold said, with a shake of his head. "There really are groups nobody ever talks about." He suddenly leaned forward in his own chair. "You know what fucked us, man. It was the bean counters in the States. The peaceniks and the politicians in uniform that would never let us do our job the right way. You know man, you did the job we were supposed to do!"
"Sure, Harold," said Mike Senior soothingly. "But that was then, man. Different world. Different enemy."
"No," said the visitor with a shake of the head. "The enemy's still the same. The rear-echelon bastards that sit in their air-conditioned offices and fuck everything up for the poor bastards that have to do the job."
"Harold," said Mike Senior, with a gesture at Cally. She was on the other side of the room from him, behind the visitor's chair, trying to work the puzzle box. He was indicating that Harold might want to watch his language, but he also hoped it would calm him down. He did calm down, but something else happened and it snapped Mike's attention down to earth like a bolt of lightning. A sixth sense he had developed in more really bad places than he wanted to dwell on told him that something had changed in his visitor. And he didn't think it was for the good.
"Look, Mike," said Harold, leaning forward and his voice dropping, "there's a place for you." He nodded seriously, his eyes boring into the sergeant who had trained him so many years before. "These are the people who know how to get the job done. Sometimes there are problems, the REMFs that don't know when to crap or get off the pot. And sometimes they need a little lesson. You dig?"
"Harold," said Mike Senior, suddenly wishing that he knew what the hell was happening, "this is my place. I'm old, man. Real old."
"Don' matter, man. So am I," said the visitor, spreading his arms, "and look at me! They want experienced people. And with the call-up they are getting damned hard to find. Your name popped out of the computer and it was like a sign from God."
"I was wondering why you looked so good. Rejuv?" asked O'Neal.
"We got all the support anybody could want," said Harold. He leaned forward and swept his hands across in a negative gesture. "Whatever you want, we can get it. No questions. Whatever you want."
Mike nodded seriously and finally realized where they were in the conversation. This was not an offer that could be refused. Harold had told him that he was involved with a group that was outside constitutional bounds, had access to full Galactic medical technology and could obtain any weapon or support. The fact that nobody had ever had an inkling that such a group existed simply pointed out the fact that no one had ever talked about it. Ever.
Since he had no intention of joining such a group, it would require that he never be able to talk about it.
Leaving Cally in the room was a deft touch on the part of his former pupil. Harold assumed, perhaps correctly, that Mike would not want to kill him in front of the girl. Harold, on the other hand, would have no such qualms. One of the problems with being in the military is that you don't always get to choose your acquaintances or trainees. In the case of Harold, Mike Senior had always secretly despised him. The man was the Compleat Sociopath. If he shot a five-year-old girl by mistake the only thing he would feel was recoil.
This left Mike Senior in a bit of a pickle. And it was one he wasn't quite sure he was going to survive. Harold had just as much experience as he did and he was physiologically years younger. Since Harold knew that there was a chance Mike Senior would turn down the job, he was undoubtedly armed and prepared to kill Mike and Cally. He would also be prepared to ignore or end any distraction. If Mike even offered to get up it would probably terminate the interview. With prejudice.
The only thing that he could do was play along. Of course, Harold would suspect that he was playing along. That was what would make it so interesting.
"Well," said Papa O'Neal, steepling his fingers—the moment of thought had been a flash; there should have been nothing to betray his sudden insight—"That's an interesting offer." Just as he said it, his beeper went off. Again.
Harold leaned forward so fast it made a cobra look slow and his hand moved towards his side but Papa O'Neal simply sat very still and hoped for the best. When Harold also froze Mike smiled thinly. "Beeper."
Harold laughed. "Huh. Yeah. Yours?" The assassin leaned forward with his hands on his thighs.
The weapon was either on his side or in a skeleton holster on the back. And who the hell could be coming to call? Papa O'Neal lifted up his shirt, exposing the beeper. The gesture looked totally normal as he pulled it off his left side. He could only hope and pray that Harold still thought he was in the dark.
Harold's hands remained in sight on his thighs. Side then. Papa O'Neal made a show of checking the beeper. "It's my son," he lied. "He's on his way to rejoin his unit."
The sensors showed another vehicle. This one had a heavy metal signature. Either a large truck or a van with metal in it. The last time he had seen a signature like that was when he and his buddies came back from Dahlonega after a weekend shooting against the Rangers. It actually looked an awful lot like a van full of door-kickers. Since he didn't expect reinforcements, he had to assume that it was friends of his visitor come to ensure the real orders were carried out.
"As I said," Papa O'Neal continued, "that's a very interesting offer. Especially the rejuv. That is what we're talking about, right?"
"Yeah," said Harold relaxing ever so slightly. "That's part of the package."
"Well, God knows I've done some wet work in my time . . ." he said when Cally interrupted.
"Grandpa, did Daddy give you the key to this puzzle box?"
"No, honey," he snapped, not taking his attention away from the visitor. At normal speed the van would just about be clearing the woodline. They might unload under cover and try to sneak up. Or they might barrel-ass right up to the door. If the second, they would be here in less than a minute. Which meant that time was about over for the conversation. "Figure it out yourself."
"I'm kind of in a hurry," said Harold as if reading his mind. "I think I need a yes or no. Now." He leaned forward and his right hand drifted downward.
"Well, I never did like the balance on that Galactic piece of shit," Cally said to no one in particular. There was a sound of a slide drawing back.
Mike Senior closed his eyes just in time to block out the blood and brains from Harold Locke's head as an exploding .380 round from Cally's Walther PPK opened it up like a melon.
He wiped his eyes, lunged to his feet and spit the soft-boiled-egg-like brains out of his mouth. "Good work, girl, but we got company."
"I know," she said. "That's why I hurried. I was hoping he'd give some more away. Bunker?"
"Yeah." He paused for just a moment as she carefully safed the small pistol and started towards the command bunker. "How did you know?"
"Your right hand twitches when you've got losing cards. That and you lied about the beeper." She didn't mention her first reaction. Why she had started trying to open the puzzle box right after they came in. It was because the man had looked at her like Grandpa looked at a chicken he was about to harvest.
He nodded his head and smiled. "I don't think you learned that from your father, did you?"
"No," she said, thumbing towards the door out in obvious emphasis. "But Dad didn't teach me how to play cards. Mom did. Let's go."