Rating: R (language and sexual situations)
Author: morgan72uk and rogoblue
Summary: Laurence Dominic, Adelle DeWitt and Topher Brink find a place of relative safety but their stay is sadly shortlived.
Laurence Dominic breathed a sigh of relief when the security gate hove into view. He’d had more than his fill of evading the moonlit tower brigade, hiding from butchers, avoiding dumb shows and intimidating anyone else they came across. “There,” he murmured, pointing to the eight foot high, reinforced concrete barricade.
“Who is inside?” Adelle asked.
“Army.” Scanning the area, Dominic shrugged. “Unless things have changed since I last contacted the NSA.”
“Are they going to shoot us?” Topher asked. To Dominic’s incredulous look, he said, “That’s what an army does. Shoots people.”
“They might shoot you, if you keep talking nonsense,” Dominic said. “Damn it. Don’t do that,” he said, after catching Topher before the neuroscientist ran ten steps. “I didn’t mean that … um … literally.” Determinedly not looking at Adelle, he said, “I just forgot … how things are for you now, Topher. My bad.”
Topher stared at Dominic for a long moment. “Ok,” he said, returning to where Adelle stood. “Ok.”
“Stay with me,” Dominic said, crossing the street to the gate, opening a red code box. “Draw your weapon, Ms. DeWitt. This takes a little time.” He rapidly typed a complex series of numbers on a keypad. A series of clicks sounded. The numbers on the keypad converted into letters and he typed in a letter code. Soft piano notes played. Symbols replaced the numbers and Dominic entered that code as well. With a low grinding noise, the gate swung open. Four armed men faced them. Dominic held out his hand. Adelle put her weapon in it. He tossed it to the ground in front of them.
“Name,” demanded a medium height, dark haired young man.
“Laurence Dominic,” he said, stepping into the enclosure, motioning for his companions to follow. “We have information for your CO and need a place to be for a few hours.”
“Identification,” the man said.
Movements slow and careful, Dominic pulled a card out of the interior breast pocket of his leather jacket and offered it for inspection.
“NSA,” the man muttered. “Why not take your intel to your own guys?”
“That bunker is too far out of my way,” Dominic said. “That’s it, until I see the CO.”
“I’m the CO,” said a man who looked about three days older than the one who originally addressed him. Offering his hand, he said, “I’m Junior, Mr. Dominic.”
“Lose the Mr., Junior.” Not in the mood to be politic, Dominic asked, “What happened to your CO?”
“I was the highest ranking officer on duty when everything went to hell, Dominic.”
Hence the nickname. Hearing the defensiveness in Junior’s tone, Dominic said, “Understood. No disrespect intended, Junior. Can we go down? We’ve had a time of it over the last 24 hours or so.”
“Sure,” Junior said, holstering his sidearm. Gesturing sharply for his men to do the same, Junior led the way down into the bunker. Dominic fell in step beside him after retrieving Adelle’s weapon. Adelle and Topher followed, flanked by two of Junior’s men. Dominic sighed at the determined maneuvering among the three in order to be the one flanking Adelle.
“Are you hungry?” Junior asked. “We have decent rations and a cook who knows what to do with them.”
“I’d like to get business out of the way first,” Dominic said.
“I’m starving,” Topher whined, his intonation more of a six year old child than a genius neuroscientist. Former genius neuroscientist, Dominic corrected himself.
“I’ll take the lovely lady and her ravenous friend to the mess, Junior,” said the inordinately tall blonde who’d won the coveted position next to DeWitt.
Dominic met Adelle’s eyes. The caution in them spoke to him. “Won’t hurt to eat first,” Dominic said, the blonde’s obvious disappointment improving his mood substantially. Taking in every detail of his surroundings as they walked to the mess, Dominic listened to the blonde babble to Adelle about this, that and the other thing, amused that she had declined to tell the jerk her name. When they arrived at their destination, Junior made for the head of a long table. Indicating the seat to his right, he said, “Dominic.” To the one on his left, he said, “Miss.”
“Adelle DeWitt,” she said, offering her hand and a slight smile to Junior, undoubtedly aware of the frown she’d put on her blonde admirer’s face. “This,” she said, drawing the neuroscientist forward, “is Topher Brink.”
Dominic felt certain he was the only one who sensed Adelle’s relief that their names garnered no appreciable reaction from the army men. In stark contrast, she openly displayed her amusement that everyone remained standing because she’d not yet sat down, even as she rectified the situation. When the blonde bastard settled in next to her, Topher looked lost. Dominic leaned over to Junior. “Topher sits next to Adelle.”
To Dominic’s surprise, the lieutenant looked disconcerted. “Sure,” he muttered, making to stand.
Catching his arm, Dominic said. “Not you. Him.”
“Daniels,” Junior barked, pointing at Topher. “Make room for him.”
“There’s space down there,” Daniels said, laconic tone suggesting to Dominic that Daniels was routinely a pain in Junior’s ass.
Let’s see what kind of spine the kid has.
“Move,” Junior said, tone firm, no nonsense. “Now.”
Eyes moving from Adelle to Junior and back, Daniels said, “Or what?”
Junior should never play poker. The young CO’s expression revised Dominic’s assessment of Daniels. Pain in the ass, many times before, but the insubordination is new, most likely the result of exposing a beautiful woman to a group of men that doesn’t get out much.
“I’ll move your lily white ass for you,” said a large, well muscled black man sitting to Dominic’s right. Thumb extended in Dominic’s direction, he added, “Or he will.”
Daniels’ smug smile and failure to move sent tension skyrocketing. “Shift over one,” Dominic muttered to the black man.
Seeing something he understood in Dominic’s expressionless face, he said, “Sure.”
“Topher,” Dominic said, pointing to the vacated chair. The neuroscientist practically pounced on it. Standing, Dominic met Adelle’s eyes, pleased to see wariness rather than amusement. “If you would, Ms. DeWitt,” he said, pulling back his own chair. Moving with the effortless grace he’d always admired, Adelle changed her seat and allowed Dominic to push in her chair for her.
“Thank you, Mr. Dominic,” she murmured.
“Laurence Dominic, right?” asked the black man. Dominic nodded. The man regained his feet and offered his hand. “Pleased to finally meet you, sir. Devon Tate.” He smiled. “You probably don’t remember, but I was with—.”
“Browning when we went after The King.”
Adelle seemed intrigued by the smile that lit Tate’s face, but Dominic wasn’t sure why. Thinking hard and fast, Dominic took the seat Adelle had relinquished.
“When you went AWOL for a few days during a recon sweep, Tate,” Daniels commented. “Naughty, naughty.”
Tate flipped Daniels off without looking at him. “That op was sweet and tight,” Tate said, “but it all rested on you, sir.”
Dominic shrugged, muttering thanks to the young soldier who put a plate of excellent smelling pasta in front of him. “I did my bit.”
“You took the shot,” Tate said.
Someone from the far end of the table said, “Putting that fucking bastard out of commission is one of the few good things to happen since the big bad.”
Focusing on his linguine in clam sauce, Dominic was glad the army guys had access to canned clams and carried the conversation, even if they were talking about him like he was some kind of hero. Feeling watched, he looked up and wished he hadn’t. Adelle DeWitt’s small mysterious smile was reflected in the green eyes that had done something he hadn’t thought possible to him not long ago. They’d made him forget a fundamental truth. Adelle DeWitt has no interest in me beyond my use as a tool. Never has. Never will.
* * *
Adelle was more amused than she cared to admit at the sight of Laurence Dominic doggedly ignoring the tales of his exploits and the all too evident hero-worship that went with them.
He'd never struck her as particularly modest and at times she'd believed his aggression to be combined with more than a healthy dose of arrogance. The reminder that she had not really known him then held a tinge of bitterness but his determined efforts not to boast, or even enjoy the admiration he apparently deserved were charming enough to dispel the unpleasant memories.
She watched for a little while longer before deciding to offer him some assistance. It was all too easy to play a greater role in the conversation, to draw out these young men. When she made Junior smile she couldn't help but wonder how long it had been since he'd had a reason to smile about anything.
She didn't flirt, had no intention of doing so, but they responded readily and happily to her attention and she was relatively careful to bestow it equally.
Something loosened inside her as the atmosphere lightened, making her realise how she'd carried the sting of humiliation around with her since her last encounter with Roger. When even the man specifically designed to desire you had wanted someone else your vanity and confidence do not easily recover and hers had taken a journey a long way down the path of destruction.
But this admiration wasn't a construct and while the men here were sorely in need of some female companionship she didn't think she was being particularly self-deluding in believing that this reaction was a response to her as a person, not just to the fact that she was a woman.
Her mind, inconveniently as it happened, made the leap from this situation to the one with the pheromonals. If she could feel flattered and enriched by this genuine admiration why was she so determined to believe that what had almost happened with Mr. Dominic was entirely the product of proximity and pheromones? Why did he not warrant exactly the same latitude?
“Did I do this?” The bowl crashed to the floor, the mood shattered – Topher stared at his shaking hands in horror.
She recognised the signs of one of his attacks though she had never been able to completely isolate what set him off. On some occasions it was a sound or a smell, but often it seemed to be nothing external; leaving her to conclude that some shard of his fractured mind had slid into place giving him a few, terrifying moments of lucidity. Whatever the cause – the result was never good.
“Topher,” she reached for him but he slipped from her grasp, diving under the table. His low moans grew in volume and the very last thing he needed was to have an audience for his collapse.
“Everyone out!” She commanded, ignoring the fact that this was not her facility and these were not her men. “Now!” She added, her tone enough draw most of them to their feet in response.
Distantly she heard the sounds of their retreat but she was focused on Topher now and as long as they had heeded her wish for privacy she really didn't care what they were doing.
“I did this. Did I do this?” He asked plaintively as she joined him under the table.
“No,” she told him, as she always did, “this wasn't you.” Haunted eyes stared back at her and she doubted that he believed her.
“I can't make it right, the pieces are there - they must be there – but they won't fit together. Why won't they fit together?”
“Perhaps you're tired?” She suggested, smoothing down an unruly segment of his hair as she spoke, though it made very little difference. “You've had a long day.”
“We were bad, weren't we? And then we were good, but not really. Are we bad again?”
“I don't know sweetheart.”
“But you have to know,” he frowned, his fingertips brushing over her cheeks as he leaned closer to her. “You always know.”
“Not always.” He buried his head in his hands, breath coming in short pants and she fervently hoped he wasn't working himself up to a fully-fledged panic attack.
“It's important to know if you're good or bad,” he told her, “or else how will you know what to do? I used to know what to do.” He peeked up at her, “I feel safe when you're here.”
“That's good,” she whispered, barely keeping the sob at bay – because really she was the last person who should make anyone feel safe.
Normally after such an incident she would have spent the night beside his sleeping pod – but she doubted that anyone would appreciate their remaining under a table in the mess hall. So, when he was calmer she carefully and cautiously coaxed him out.
“Ma'am.” The man who had recognised Dominic offered her a hand as she emerged from beneath the table. Topher whimpered slightly but didn't resist her effort to pull him up with her. “Junior asked me to escourt you to the sleeping areas.”
“Thank you,” she smiled – grateful that he hadn't as much as looked in Topher's direction. “Corporal Tate, isn't it?”
“Yes ma'am.” She slid an arm around Topher, keeping him close as she guided him from the room, unwilling to let the silence put the focus back on her charge.
“I understand you and Mr. Dominic were part of the same operation?” She thought she detected a smile at her determined use of 'Mr.' – but there were some standards that she was unwilling to relinquish. “Someone who had set himself up as a 'King' of sorts?”
Nasty piece of work, taking him out and crushing his operation was a public service.” His unbridled enthusiasm was a reminder that for these men being mostly confined here would not be easy. Their families and friends had remained on the surface, none of them would know what became of them. Leading them would require skill, intelligence and imagination. “Do you know Dominic well ma'am?”
The answer to that question came far too easily and the issues it raised were disquieting. “No, not well at all.”
* * *
Trying to bend his mind around the fact that it might have been all right to leave Adelle and Topher with Devon Tate, Laurence Dominic followed Junior to a small, pathologically neat office. Adelle’s transformation from life of the party to Topher’s fierce protector had been amazingly abrupt and he’d enjoyed watching the group of kids they found themselves among trying to reconcile the two. It had been easier for Dominic, because he’d seen Adelle’s shift to protective mode several times before, just never from such a relaxed space. That’s no surprise. It’s not like she’s going to flirt with Topher or me.
Taking Junior’s sit down gesture to heart, Dominic rolled his head in an effort to release some tension in his neck muscles and tried to recall the last time he’d taken a booster. Junior placed a glass of amber colored liquid in front of Dominic. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Single barrel bourbon,” Junior said.
“No shit,” Dominic muttered, grabbing the glass with an eagerness he’d have been ashamed of not too terribly long ago. Junior held out his glass. Dominic touched the rim of his to Junior’s.
“What’s your mission?” Junior demanded.
To Dominic’s mind, an unwillingness to lie didn’t preclude misdirection or other conversational misadventure. However, in this case, he couldn’t fathom a reasonable alternative scenario that would instill the proper level of caution into Junior. “I’m going to deliver Topher and Adelle to a safe place well to the south without losing anyone to Rossum.”
“Rossum is tracking you?” Junior nearly squeaked, propelling his desk chair away from Dominic with both feet.
“They will be.” He sighed at the fear now emanating from the younger man even though he understood it perfectly. “Which is why I have to take Topher and that impossible woman the long way.”
“You blithely brought Rossum to my doorstep!” Junior shouted. “Are you just an idiot or something far worse?”
A flash of memory surged to the fore—blue light, a struggle for a gun, pain—incredible pain and an NSA desk job. Until Arcane came into his life, anyway. I’d have to go with something far worse, Junior. Shaking his head to dispel the vision and attendant black mood, Dominic regretted the motion immediately as pain flared where his right shoulder met his neck. “They aren’t tracking us yet,” Dominic said, a fundamental weariness descending upon him. “But it’s only a matter of time, and not much of it, so I wouldn’t mind some help getting to my Jeep. I’d like a head start on whoever Rossum sends, but I’ll do without if your men won’t take orders without hesitation.”
“From you, they will,” Junior murmured, staring into his bourbon.
“I won’t be giving the orders,” Dominic said, sipping his beverage reverently. “You will.” Not bothering to beat around the bush, particularly since Junior hadn’t when he started the conversation, he asked, “So what’s up with you and Daniels?”
“He’s an ass, but he’s a popular competent ass,” Junior said.
“And you’re a popular competent what?” Dominic asked.
“Here’s your issue, Junior,” Dominic said, gesturing to the younger man with his glass. “Forget fucking popular. You aren’t their friend. You’re their CO. They don’t have to like you, but they need to respect you.” Sipping his drink, Dominic asked, “What are you going to do about Daniels?”
“I … I don’t know.” Junior regarded Dominic closely. “Any ideas?”
“Have Tate kick the living shit out of Daniels and make it clear to him that he’s either your bitch or that’s going to be a twice daily occurrence.” Dominic almost laughed at the shock and satisfaction at odds on Junior’s face.
“But shouldn’t I … you know … do it?” Junior asked.
“You’re the CO. Send the grunts you trust to bring the grunts you don’t into line.”
Junior drained his bourbon and retrieved the bottle. “Thanks. I think I just might do that. Let me return the favour.”
Dominic watched the younger man pour for the both of them. “Ok. I have to haul a mentally impaired genius and his stunning, frighteningly intelligent, pain in the ass handler a lot of miles, dodging the usual suspects plus whatever Rossum throws at me. Any help you can give me with respect to getting out of LA wouldn’t go amiss.” Unable to interpret Junior’s expression, Dominic said, “What?”
“Dude,” Junior said, sliding Dominic’s bourbon across the desk. “No one here is going to have any sympathy for you having to take the long way home with a seriously hot woman who has a drill sergeant streak. No one.”
“That’s because you don’t know her,” Dominic said.
“I know a few things,” Junior countered. “You got your back up the instant Daniels laid eyes on her. And didn’t like his posturing in the mess at all. You were aware of the amount and type of attention she paid to each of us when she decided to wade into the conversation to deflect the focus you didn’t seem to want from you.”
“That’s not why she—.”
“Of course it is,” Junior said, smiling, leaning back in his chair. “She’d been watching you stare at your dlate and listening to the monosyllable responses the guys dragged from you before deciding to bail you out.”
Adelle DeWitt is not making a habit of bailing me out.
“On top of all of that, you immediately lent your authority to her order to evacuate the mess. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two people react to a situation in concert so effectively.”
Rolling his eyes, Dominic said, “And all this proves what?”
“That you aren’t exactly going to mind travelling however slowly with your green eyed lady, so stop bitching about it.”
Grin tugging at his lips, despite his unease, Dominic said, “But I like bitching about it.”
Junior laughed. “I have 42 guys here who will take their shot at ripping you new orifices if you keep it up.”
“Bring them on,” Dominic said.
“Why don’t we talk about how we can get you to your vehicle instead?” Junior countered. “Since I’m serving the good stuff, I’d like to think it’s in the interest of making progress.”
“Fine,” Dominic said, hoping he hadn’t made a mistake and that Topher and Adelle were all right, wondering how seriously full of shit Junior was, realizing he was going to have to devote time to contemplating the emergence of a protective side to Adelle DeWitt. If I can play to that somehow, I might be able to get all of us to Safe Haven in one piece.
* * *
The sleeping areas were not exactly salubrious but they were private, clean and quiet. She settled Topher, who was exhausted enough to fall asleep quickly and though not so fortunate she did manage to drift off for an hour or so.
When she awoke her immediate concern was Dominic's absence and though she doubted that he would abandon them there was no question that she felt safer when she knew where he was.
“Ma'am,” she hadn't taken more than half a dozen steps from the room when Junior arrived – bearing two mugs. “I wanted to know how Mr. Brink was?” He asked, handing over one of the mugs.
“He's resting. Is that tea?”
“The accent,” he shrugged, “I took a shot.”
“Very perceptive.” His smile was broad and he fell into step with her.
“I also wanted to apologise, in case any of my men made you feel uncomfortable. You may have noticed we're a little out of practice in responding to members of the opposite sex.”
“There's nothing to apologise for.”
“Used to causing a stir?” The quip made her laugh.
“Hardly.” She looked sideways at him, assessing what he'd told her. “Should I assume that Mr. Daniels is being reprimanded?”
“Dominic said I should have Tate kick the er... physically chastise him.”
“And you're inclined to follow his advice?”
“It's not the worst idea I've ever heard.” She was almost sorry she'd missed that conversation.
“Indeed, but if I may – you should be present for the, chastisement.”
“I should? Just to watch?”
“You want Mr. Daniels to know that you're not afraid to give the order, he needs to know that you've seen him humiliated and you have to tell him never to disobey an order from you again, while he's still bleeding.”
Junior looked somewhat startled by her instructions but he observed thoughtfully, “you sound like you know what you're talking about.”
“I know quite a bit about fear and pain.”
“Well in that case, any other advice?” It wasn't the response she expected and she sipped her tea as she considered her answer.
“All cities that ever, at any time, have been ruled by an absolute prince, by aristocrats, or by the people, have had for their protection force combined with prudence.” At his somewhat stunned expression she added, “16th century Italian philosophers knew a little about power and politics.”
“One other thing,” she didn't regret the decisions she'd made, the past was a different country after all. But, she had a feeling Junior could use all the help he could get. “There will be some people you trust more than others; instinctively perhaps, or because of shared experiences. Listen to those instincts – the situation you find yourself in will challenge them and remember; force combined with prudence.” She finished her tea, “do I even want to know what Mr. Dominic is up to while you are distracting me?” This time his smile was distinctly rueful.
“He did say you were frighteningly intelligent.”
“I'm sure he did,” she raised an eyebrow – preferring not to dwell on Mr. Dominic using the term frightening in connection with her. “Where is he?”
“A little reconnaissance with Tate. He wants to head out as soon as he gets back.”
“I'll wake Topher in a few minutes – he isn't exactly a morning person.”
“Dominic'll get you to safety you know, you couldn't have a better guide.” The certainty in his tone made her smile but something made her correct him.
“Topher's the one who needs to be moved to a safe location, I'm just along for the ride.”
“If you'll forgive my saying so ma'am – that's not the way Dominic sees it and neither should you.”
* * *
Laurence Dominic and Devon Tate lifted the garage door, a task of not insignificant difficulty—devices designed to be automated worked sluggishly at best when operated manually. Smiling, Dominic breathed a sigh of relief and ran a hand along the front, driver’s side quarter panel of his Jeep. “Thank Christ,” he whispered.
“Sir,” Devon began, “I’d like to come with you.”
“I know,” Dominic said, continuing his visual and tactile inspection of his vehicle. “But I think Junior needs you more than I do.”
“I’ll go bat shit stir crazy if I sit in that bunker much longer,” Tate said. “I’m seasoned, sir. I won’t slow you down.”
“I know.” Facing Tate, Dominic said, “Next time, I’ll spring you. Help Junior establish control over that ragtag bunch and when I get back to town I’ll pull you out. Junior needs someone he trusts to do his dirty work right now.”
“With all due respect, sir, what you face—.”
“I’ve faced before,” Dominic said. “And worse.” Closing his eyes, wishing for the oblivion of unconsciousness he routinely denied himself, Dominic said, “And I sense there are some things I have to deal with this time around that additional personnel would make more difficult.” Dominic didn’t follow Tate’s eyes when they slid to where Adelle waited with Topher, Junior and the rear guard. “I trusted you with the both of them on the basis of a few minutes conversation, Tate,” he said. “If that doesn’t speak to you, nothing will.”
“Next time, Dominic?”
“You have my word.” The two men shook hands.
Grinning, Tate said, “Make sure there is a next time, sir.”
“I’ll do my best, Corporal.” Dominic opened the driver’s side door and took a breath. “Go on and bring my passengers over, Tate.”
“You got it.” The soldier jogged back toward the other group. A glint of metal drove Dominic into motion. Without thought, instinct and intuition ruling his body, Dominic threw himself to the ground and scattered covering fire in the direction of the metal he’d seen. Tate dropped, rolled, kept low and made his way to Junior. Dominic didn’t stop firing.
Who the fuck is out there and how am I going to reel in Adelle and Topher? Around a bend in the road marched a group of people in gray jumpsuits. Dominic stood, shouted and pointed. Junior pivoted and directed his men to fan out. Tate took Adelle’s arm, waited for her to secure Topher and shoved the two before him in Dominic’s direction. Junior’s men opened fire. Moonlit tower people fell like bowling pins, but another group emerged from the shadows. And another. And another. Tate shoved Adelle into Dominic’s arms and maneuvered Topher toward the backseat of the Jeep. “Are you ok?” Dominic asked. Adelle nodded before whirling to run to the passenger door of the Jeep. “Tate,” Dominic muttered, grabbing the man as he rushed past. “Use grenades. Those patrols will probably keep on coming. Try and take a few prisoners, find out who in the hell they are and get that information to the NSA.”
“Yes, sir,” Tate panted before heading out.
Swinging himself into the driver’s seat, Dominic jammed the key into the ignition. The engine roared into life. “Hold on,” he instructed as he shot out into the street in reverse. Deciding to do Junior, Tate and company a good turn, Dominic took out most of a moonlit tower patrol with his Jeep before turning toward the east and heading out of town. Swerving his way through obstacles that hadn’t been there the last time he’d left this way, Dominic wondered what Adelle was thinking and how long it had been since she’d been away from Los Angeles. Getting all four wheels of the Jeep airborne three times, he slalomed his way through east LA. When Dominic made it to the highway he sought, he pressed the pedal to the floor and took a breath.
Looking through the rear view mirror, Dominic saw Topher staring out of the window with abject fascination. In contrast, Adelle gazed straight ahead, hand clutched in a death grip on the armrest. No one spoke for quite some time. Dominic drove fast and well. As he came around a curve, he swerved to avoid a tree strewn across the road. Keeping his foot pressed firmly downward, he went off of the road and circumnavigated the tree at decent speed, easily outrunning the butchers who’d arranged the ambush.
“Is … is that a common tactic?” Adelle asked.
“Yeah,” Dominic responded, careening around a hairpin turn. “They aren’t what you’d term creative.”
“Where are we going, Mr. Dominic?”
“A safe place.” He took another sharp turn going far too fast. “Relatively speaking, anyway.” The road straightened out and Dominic took a deep and decidedly relieved breath. “Hopefully, we’re well ahead of whoever Rossum sent. If we’re not, we’ll have to make up the time.” Glancing into the rear view mirror, he asked, “Is he going to be ok by himself back there?”
“Perhaps,” Adelle said, weariness creeping into her tone. “Perhaps not.”
“Is there anything we can do to move toward the perhaps side of the ledger?”
“What?” Dominic asked, giving an abandoned vehicle a wide berth.
“He’s soothed by voices, unless they’re raised in anger,” Adelle said. “If you want him calm, we should talk.”
“About what?” he asked.
“Tell me about The King,” she said.
“Shortly after you … sent for me, I made contact with a small militia group who had identified a target that seemed worth eliminating.” Dominic shifted in his seat to relieve pressure on his lower back. “The King took advantage of the chaos of the imprint burst to carve out a domain. He enslaved dumb shows, who will do anything asked of them if the request is posed properly. He also used butchers like attack dogs. The King trained them, organized them into packs, taught them various fighting techniques and only fed them when they did well in whatever he assigned them. Everyone else within the area he’d selected was expendable. Since The King aspired to some of the most affluent neighborhoods in LA, intervention was inevitable. Even in these times, those with economic pull get the attention of what passes for authority.”
“How did you become involved?” Adelle asked, turning those damn green eyes on him.
“A few people I knew from the NSA were involved, but they didn’t have enough sharpshooters.” He shrugged. “That’s not my usual thing, but I’m not half bad with a good rifle.” He met her eyes. “I took a position along the most likely escape route and got my opportunity. As you’ve undoubtedly figured out, I didn’t miss.” Glancing sidelong at her again, he said, “My turn. What happened with Topher? When you sent for me, he was freaked out and upset but … nothing like he is now. What went wrong?”
* * *
That question wasn't as easy to answer as he seemed to imagine and she took a moment to collect her thoughts before she made the attempt. She glanced over her shoulder to see if Topher was listening, he wasn't – well, perhaps only to the mixture of their voices and the car's engine. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be humming.
“He wasn't like this at first,” she acknowledged, “shocked, frightened yes – but more or less in control.” She closed her eyes, remembering those chaotic days; the panic, the anger, the recriminations. “He thought, we all did, that there would be a way to reverse the effects of the imprint burst. But he withdrew; stopped sleeping and eating, he became increasingly strange and eventually incoherent. By the time we realised he wasn't going to be able to pull the veritable rabbit out of the hat his mind was, well – not what it once was.” She sighed, “we should have realised, I should have realised, the seeds of this destruction were sown earlier.”
“And you're the only one he'll let near him?” It wasn't a sarcastic question, though it easily could have been. She quite understood that she wasn't anyone's idea of a natural carer.
“I think, in his mind, I was the only one he hadn't hurt.”
“You always protected him.”
“Not always.” She turned her head away so he couldn't see the sheen of tears that appeared in her eyes; focusing on the shapes and blurry faces that they sped past until she had regained control. “How are the others?” She wasn’t sure that was the question he’d been expecting her to ask.
“All right, I guess. Surviving. Caroline and Ballard are fighting Rossum, Priya and Anthony are fighting each other. Juliet's little girl was starting to crawl the last time I was there – she called her India, after, well, you know.”
“And Safe Haven is actually safe?”
“Relatively,” he replied, offering a quick glance in her direction before returning his gaze to the road. “You wouldn't be thinking of leaving Topher there, would you?”
“We've barely left LA,” she replied, “It's somewhat premature to start discussing what will happen at the end of our journey.”
* * *
The sharp edge in Adelle’s tone probably still meant she wanted the subject closed. As he’d done in the past, Dominic ignored the signal when he deemed the action warranted. “If you are planning to leave him,” he said, “you need to start laying the groundwork. Otherwise, he might retreat so far into himself at the news that no one will be able to reach him, including you should you change your mind.”
She said nothing. He hadn’t expected her to respond. Faced with a tunelessly humming neuroscientist and a silent, pensive and increasingly tense woman, Dominic searched for a topic. “We’re heading nearly due east,” he said. “This is one of three, maybe four routes out of LA that’s reasonably passable. The others are closed off by butchers, militants, gangs or tech-heads.” He paused, trying to recall and failing. “Stop me if I’ve told you this before. Anyway, our route will take us in a wide loop and we’ll arrive at Safe Haven travelling northwest. That should allow us to lose any trackers from Rossum.”
Topher’s humming decreased in volume. Adelle nodded but didn’t look in Dominic’s or Topher’s direction. “We’ll stop at safe locations as much as possible.” When Adelle looked at him with interest, Dominic continued. “The first is a cabin located in woods bordering on a National Forest. It’s off by itself, but there are a few other inhabited cabins about a mile away. The people are friendly. We trade with them for fresh food. Gasoline and propane, mostly.” Nodding toward the back of the Jeep, he said, “That’s what the big propane canisters are for. We trade other stuff too. Clothing and such that we scavenge or obtain as payment for services rendered or in trade.” He sighed. “A conversation typically requires more than one participant, Adelle.” She didn’t take his suggestion, but he sensed a slight decrease in her tension and took that as a positive sign.
“We’ll eat pretty well at our first stop. Kelly makes amazing bread and there’s always fresh eggs and some kind of meat. Do you like rabbit?”
Wearing an expression he couldn’t interpret, Adelle asked, “Will Kelly be disappointed you aren’t travelling alone?”
“What?” She arched an eyebrow at him. “Why would that matter?” he asked.
“No reason at all, Mr. Dominic,” Adelle said in a tone that clearly implied otherwise. “I was merely endeavoring to make conversation as you requested.”
“Does Kelly smell nice?” Topher asked, the sigh audible in his voice. “Like Mia.”
“No,” Dominic said. “She’s not a pheremonal.” He glanced sidelong at Adelle. “And she’s definitely not interested in me or anyone else who uses the cabin.” Laughing and yawning at the same time, he mumbled, “Kelly’s too busy having Craig’s babies.” Deciding she’d find out soon enough, he said, “They’re nice kids. I found some toys in an apartment I used on the way up. I figured they might like them.” Feeling Adelle’s gaze on him, but unsure whether he wanted to know what she thought of his last disclosure, Dominic focused his attention on the road.
* * *
She tried, she really did try, to keep the dark thoughts at bay – but they washed over her anyway. She was grateful for the silence that descended over the car, punctuated only by Topher's humming. Before, when these feelings had threatened to overwhelm her, she'd run – as though the guilt and the responsibility were things she could sprint away from on a running machine. But there was nowhere to run to now – ironic to be out in the open and to feel more trapped than ever.
Topher started to fret and she realised that the silence wasn't helping him. A glance over at Dominic showed that he was concentrating on driving – she gathered that it was her turn to continue the conversation. “You said, 'we' earlier,” she was pleased that her voice sounded more or less normal. “I don't exactly understand who you work for?”
“I don't 'work for' anyone. If I'm anything I'm a sort of liaison between various groups.”
“Yeah – but she isn't the only one trying to stop things going even more to hell. I move around a lot, share intelligence, co-ordinate operations if need be. The safe houses are useful and once you get out of the city there are more places where the signal didn't penetrate – the benefits of having lousy cell phone reception, I guess. People are trying to live their lives as best they can.”
“And I'm sure they're grateful for your help.” This time she knew she hadn't successfully kept the waver out of her voice.
“The fact that people are, surviving - despite the signal, the butchers and whatever else is out here is not much in the way of compensation.” She closed her eyes as a hand reached from the back seat to awkwardly pat her shoulder. “Damn,” she breathed as Topher tried to comfort her in his own unique fashion. But apparently he wasn't the only one who wanted to help.
“It means they haven't won,” Dominic said, “haven't destroyed everything. That has to count for something.” She felt his gaze on her, but couldn't bring herself to turn to look at him; she wasn't ready to see the expression in his eyes. Quietly, almost under his breath he added, “This wasn't your fault.”
* * *
“Rossum went rogue, as the NSA thought it might,” Dominic began, feeling his way cautiously through the mine field of blame. “That’s a hell of a lot of people, not just you. And I can’t help but notice that you aren’t sitting in Tucson, sipping a cocktail and selecting your next body.” He smiled at her, not caring if she didn’t look. “I know you loathe Arizona, but this is taking an aversion to dry heat too far.”
He rolled his shoulders and contemplated taking a booster. “You want to consider other suspects, you need look no further than this vehicle. Topher played his part and I played mine. Hell, I was sent to stop exactly what happened. I got made. I couldn’t take the mainframe off line for more than thirty one minutes, despite numerous attempts that cost lives each time. Not mine, though. I wasn’t that lucky. I had to wander around the Attic trying to gather enough minds to try again. That became my fucking nightmare.”
Headlights appeared in his rear view mirror. “But … Rossum hasn’t won and so long as we have him.” He gestured toward the back seat. “We have a shot. That’s what I think is behind this effort of Rossum’s. To lock in the status quo by eliminating Topher or bending what’s left of his mind to their will.” Resting a hand lightly on Adelle’s shoulder, he said, “Topher won’t recover enough to take them on without you. I think you know that.” Squeezing her shoulder in an effort to draw her attention, he said, “I won’t say you bear no responsibility. I’m sure you do, even if I don’t know exactly how it all went down.” To her look of stunned surprise, he said, “I can’t get a consistent story. Caroline has her spin, but it doesn’t mesh with what Ballard and Priya say and Tony’s is a bit different from either.” He shrugged. “The point is, you don’t bear all of the blame. Not by a long way.”
Speaking of not by a long way, that vehicle is closing fast. “You kept me on plan when we met the pheromonals. According to Junior, you flirted with the twenty somethings to spare me more ‘My hero,’ bullshit. Let me return the favor. Let me help you.” He risked a small smile. “I hate being in debt, especially to a beautiful woman.” Dominic froze, mind catching up to his mouth. You did not just say that, Dom. Christ!
Thinking it would be unwise to lapse into silence at this juncture failed to inspire Dominic. He couldn’t think of a single thing to say other than, “Fuck me!” when the larger SUV that had overtaken them rammed their vehicle from behind. Pushing the pedal to the floor, Dominic shouted, “Topher, get down on the floor.” Meeting wide eyes in the rearview mirror, Dominic groaned, “Please.”
“Topher, do as Mr. Dominic asks, won’t you?” Adelle said, turning around, miming undoing a seatbelt.
As Topher complied, Dominic said, “Move your seat all the way back, ma’am. Take your gun and two spare clips and kneel or sit on the floor, whichever works better for you. Then—.”
“Works better for what?” she asked.
“Blowing a hole in anyone who might approach the Jeep that you and Topher are not to leave,” he muttered, instinctively meeting the other vehicle half way when it came even with them to sideswipe the Jeep. The thud of impact immediately preceded the sharp screech of dense metal sliding against dense metal. Dominic fought for control of the Jeep. “I’ll knock on the quarter panel on your side five times fast when I come back, so you won’t put a bullet in me.” Knowing his engine couldn’t match the power of the much newer vehicle, Dominic said, “I’m going to stand on the brakes. Brace yourselves in three, two, one.” He slammed on the brakes. The press of the other vehicle against theirs drove them onto the shoulder. Even before the Jeep came to a complete stop, Dominic leapt out, relaxing his body into a roll to the left. Coming up to a crouch, he ran to the Jeep, shut the driver’s side door, went around the back and jumped into the ditch alongside the road.
The other vehicle stopped and the driver began to back up toward the Jeep. Jogging parallel to the road, Dominic couldn’t decide whether that was a smart move on his opponent’s part or not. On the one hand, the vehicle offered protection and the closer it was to the Jeep, the less distance they would have to haul Topher. On the other hand, Dominic knew exactly where they were and they didn’t know where he was. Unless there’s more than one of them. Dominic dropped and strained his ears to listen. He heard nothing but his instincts were screaming that he wasn’t alone. There was no cover other than the ditch. He’d be exposed when he took out the driver. Well, you live once. Half rising, Dominic waited for the SUV to pass his position, hoping whoever else might be out there expected him to shoot when it came alongside. Dominic put two bullets into the driver, dropped and rolled away from the vehicle. Risking raising his head, Dominic saw the driver stagger out of the SUV and bring a rifle to bear on the Jeep.
Surging to his feet, Dominic rushed the driver, putting him down with his third shot, diving for cover behind the SUV as shots were fired at him from somewhere off road. Crawling over to the driver, Dominic took the rifle and searched the man quickly. He took the man’s wallet and smashed a small device from his pocket beneath his boot. Dominic peeked around the rear end of the SUV. Seeing nothing, wanting to prevent whoever was out there from reaching Adelle and Topher, Dominic eased his way along the back bumper. Reaching the far end, Dominic raised the rifle and scanned the roadside with the scope. Still seeing nothing, he took a deep breath and eased around to the passenger side of the SUV.
Movement drew his eye toward the Jeep. Dominic put two bullets into the man who had seemingly appeared within ten feet of it. He hadn’t even breathed a sigh of relief when someone landed on his back, both feet driving into Dominic’s left thigh. Where in the hell did you come from? The top of the SUV? Raising the barrel of the rifle to where his assailant’s chest had to be, Dominic fired twice. The scream of pain as the weight fell from his back sounded female. A glance confirmed the second man hadn’t moved from his prone position near the Jeep. Dominic spun toward the woman who stared up at him with frantic eyes. “Who sent you?” he demanded.
“Dominic?” she said.
He no longer needed an answer to his question. Hannah Cartwright was Rossum security. “How many?” he demanded.
“Three,” she whispered, holding her hands to her chest in an effort to staunch the blood flow.
“I mean total,” he said.
“Not just your team, Hannah. The entire group.”
Her smile didn’t improve his mood. “Too many.”
Dominic shot her in the knee with his rifle. When the screams subsided a little, he asked, “How many is too many?”
“Shall I fetch you a scalpel, Mr. Dominic?” Adelle DeWitt asked, leaning against the side of the Jeep, gun in a ready position.
“No,” Hannah whispered, eyeing Adelle with a mixture of fear and respect. “Please, no. Eight, Dominic. We sent eight.”
“Why three of you along this route?” he demanded.
She tried to laugh. It was a depressing sound. “The three of us were out east, as they say. It made sense for us to rendezvous here.”
”How did you pick us up?” he said, tone more conversational. “How did you track us?”
For a moment, Hannnah looked as though she’d balk and force him to hurt her again. “We have a Topher Finder.”
“A what?” he asked.
“Cute little piece of tech programmed with his image, retinal scans, fingerprints and other identifiers that pings at a range of a quarter mile.” Hannah coughed up blood. “We picked you up about 35 miles back but didn’t want to move until you were further from LA. I wanted to wait and see where you stopped. Carlyle got impatient.”
“Did you report back or tell any of the others you were tracking us?” Adelle asked. Hannah stared at her for a long moment, then shrugged.
“Answer the damn question,” Dominic snarled.
“I did,” she said. “I didn’t alert anyone, but I don’t know if either of the others did.”
Not satisfied but unwilling to waste more time, Dominic shot Hannah in the chest. “I thought I told you to stay in the car,” he muttered without looking at Adelle.
“I did until you began to interrogate her,” Adelle said. “I felt it safe to assume you wouldn’t have done so if we were still at immediate risk.”
“Fine,” he muttered, kneeling to search Hannah. “See if the guy by the Jeep has an ID or anything else useful on him. Take his weapon too.” After he finished with Hannah, Dominic lurched to his feet, wincing at the intense pain in his thigh. He felt Adelle watch him limp back to the Jeep.
“What’s wrong with your leg?” she asked.
“Bruised thigh,” he murmured, leaning on the hood of the Jeep for a moment. “I ought to be grateful Hannah wasn’t taller. That kind of force would’ve blown out my knee or broken at least one of the two bones in my lower leg.”
“Perhaps I should drive,” Adelle said.
“I’ll be fine. I don’t need my left leg for anything other than the clutch.” Dominic climbed into the driver’s seat. Maybe she didn’t notice the beautiful woman thing in all of the excitement.