Hunter Healer [Sequel to The Society]Lilith Saintcrow
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Copyright ©2005 by Lilith Saintcrow
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Amor animi arbitrio sumitur, non ponitur.
Kick. Another kick. Knee. Solid contact. Move in. Move in, get going, do it faster, faster, precise, put your weight behind it, sweetheart! Do it. Punch. Ouch, don't flex your wrist, throw an elbow, keep going, stitch in side. Move. Move. MOVE!
Rowan Price, Society operative and psion, stood shaking and sweating, her head hanging. Her hair fell on both sides of her face, curtaining her off from the outside world. The punching bag swayed, its chain creaking. Her hands burned. The CD player set on the chair by the door gave out a throbbing bass beat. She threw another punch, unwinding all the way from the hip, then moved in. Her fists almost seemed to blur. Good solid strikes thudding into the heavy bag, hands numb, arms on fire, shoulders jolting with pain.
He'd be proud.
"Ro?” Cath called over the music.
Rowan dropped her head even further, hunched her shoulders, and drove another punch into the bag. Another. Another. Low and dirty, the way Justin had taught her.
Don't. Don't think about it.
Another flurry of punches. Elbows smacking the bag as if it had personally offended her.
"Jump-off in thirty,” Cath finally called. “Henderson needs you in fifteen."
Rowan turned away from the bag and met Cath's eyes. Her cheeks were wet, her shoulders dotted with beads of sweat. The sports bra was damn near soaked through, and the waistband of her shorts chafed a thin line into her back and belly.
"Ro?” Catherine, her hair cut short in an inky black pixie instead of a punked-out blue Mohawk, reached down and turned the CD player off. The silence was instant and shocking. Cath was plump-cheeked and pretty, or would have been if not for the sheer amount of metal on her face. Nose rings, earrings marching up the curve of each ear, pierced lip, and pierced eyebrow. Rowan didn't want to know about any of the other piercings. And of course, she wore a shoulder holster, the butt of a Glock snug under her left arm. Cath also usually wore a boot knife and a stiletto up her sleeve. For a Society operative, that was damn close to lightly armed.
Especially considering current events.
Rowan's ribs heaved with deep controlled breaths. A thin trickle of sweat slid chill and tickling down her back. She swiped a few damp tendrils of hair back from her forehead. “I'll be there. Thanks, Cath.” It was an effort to be polite, to keep her voice toneless.
"You're being a real bitch lately,” Cath informed her tightly, crossing her arms as if in self-defense. Sometimes she really did appear very young, despite her shell of prickly confidence.
Pot calling the kettle black, anyone? Rowan sighed, blew the tension out between pursed lips. “Sorry.” I don't sound sorry at all. “Really, Cath. I am."
The short, muscled girl shrugged, the chain at her belt jingling. Her violet eyes turned cool. “You're worrying about him again, aren't you?"
Well, you get the grand prize for stating the obvious. But guilt pricked at her. Cath didn't deserve her ire. “Shouldn't I? It's been three months.” Rowan stripped her gloves off, tossed them down on the CD player. “He's trapped somewhere, Cath. Sigma's got him."
"He'll come back for you.” The girl sounded certain. “I mean, he said he would, didn't he?"
Don't remind me, Rowan thought, and set her jaw. “I'm sorry,” she repeated. “I'd better get cleaned up if Henderson wants me. Thanks for telling me."
"There, that's the Ro I know.” Cath grinned. The change was startling, a flash of how she would look without all the metal. “I'll meet you for jump-off. Cool?"
I'm not cool at all, Cath. I'm about two steps away from very, very uncool. “Chilly cool."
The girl bounced out of the small room. Rowan looked down at the futon folded in the corner. No books and no plants, because they had to move every few weeks. Nothing but her kitbag and some clothes, and the never-ending tension. And Sigma always yapping at their heels.
Rowan sighed, shutting her eyes. Her hands hurt inside the padded gloves, her shoulders twinged, her legs and lungs burned both from the side kicks she'd been practicing and her morning bout on the treadmill. The place where Justin should be inside her head was empty and aching, and her mind kept circling it like a tongue poking at a toothache. A phantom limb, phantom pain. If he was able to come back, he would have by now.
She tossed the gloves over on the futon and worked the ponytail holder free of her wet, clinging hair. I'd better get cleaned up, Henderson wants me. Probably to try and talk me out of it. She headed for the bathroom, rubbing under her sweat-soaked hair and grimacing. She should have dyed it. The ash-blond mane was too distinctive by far. Even Cath had gotten rid of her trademark Mohawk, but Rowan couldn't bring herself to dye her hair.
That would be like admitting Justin was really gone. Like admitting she was on her own. As if I'm some idiot of a fainting maiden who keeps waiting for her man to come back. He cometh not, she said wearily, as she looked from her tower window.
Her mood was getting worse and worse; she was even irritating herself. She kept breathing, deep down into her stomach, trying for calm.
The shower warmed up quickly, and she ducked under the water and started scrubbing. She only had a few minutes before the General wanted her. No time to luxuriate in the hot water.
Ten minutes later, she pulled the white cotton tank top down and zipped up her jeans, tossing her wet hair back over her shoulder. She'd braid it in the comm room. She attached her shoulder holster, checked her Glock, and shrugged on her hip-length leather coat. The knife went in her boot, and she scooped up her kitbag, the canvas messenger bag that held an operative's toys and tricks, settling it so the strap ran diagonally across her body. She turned the CD player off and paused, looking around the bare white room.
If Justin was here, he'd stop by the door and smile at me, ask if I was ready. She shivered, gooseflesh rising on her skin. Maybe Cath's right. Or maybe he's dead. Maybe they killed him and I'm going to waste my life on a wild goose chase.
But it just didn't feel right. She would know if he was dead. Wouldn't she? Sigma hadn't killed him. They needed to use him against the Society. He was alive, and if he was alive he would come back to her. He'd promised.
And of course I believe him, don't I?
Rowan swore, threw one last punch at the heavy bag, and left as it creaked back and forth on its hook sunk into a stud in the ceiling. This house was nice, and they'd been able to stay here for a little while. But soon enough Sigma would close in with uncanny accuracy, and they'd be on the run again. It was as if the Sigma psions had suddenly gotten better...
...or as if someone was helping them.
She didn't want to think about that, either.
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Henderson pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up, his sharp nose wrinkling slightly. “Morning, Rowan.” he said. “You ready?” The patch of white hair at his temple had grown in the last three months, but his steel-colored eyes were still bright and interested, and he moved with the same fluid precision as always. She understood why t
hey called him “the General.” His air of command and cool confidence was almost archetypical in its depth.
"Ready as I'll ever be,” she replied, glancing down at the table and collating the maps with a swift glance. He was going over the layouts of the building again, each exit, the city in a few blocks in either direction, and routes out of the metropolis. She knew he probably had everything memorized, but Henderson's innate precision wouldn't take “already memorized” for an answer. Not when it had to be perfect, and an operative's life was on the line.
Her life, today. She might have cause to thank him for being anal-retentive before sundown.
Her fingers flicked as she finished braiding her hair back, tied the thick rope off with an elastic band. “What's the chatter?"
"They've scheduled the move-in for 1600 when he gets home from work. They're planning on a primary penetration unit and a net.” Henderson tapped a printout with one blunt, callused finger. Before Headquarters had been destroyed he'd been the chief of covert operations for the Society. Now that the handful of psions fighting Sigma had been scattered, he was the closest to a leader they had. Rowan had never really found out just who was the actual leader of the Society, but she suspected Henderson's name would have been on the list of candidates. “With you to get in and get close, we should get him around 1100 at work. Is he ready?"
She nodded. “It was the file that convinced him. And the reporter that died of a ‘heart attack.'” Her lip curled. I told Lewis it would happen. Then again, I wouldn't have believed it either when I was a civilian. Her throat closed. Another life ended by the monsters who had killed her father.
And was Rowan responsible because she'd initiated contact with Lewis?
She tried not to think about that, either. “Sigma's pushed him right into our hands.” Just like they pushed me.
"They have a habit of doing that. It'll be nice to have another precog. Eleanor will like training him."
Rowan cleared her throat a little uncertainly. “General?"
He knew what she was going to ask. The comm room was deserted—Yoshi's laptop sat on a desk and Cath's Dr. Who scarf was draped across an ergonomic chair. Henderson started rolling up the maps. “I can't send you to Vegas, Rowan. I need you too much. You're my second."
Now that Justin's gone? Hot anger flooded her. I'm not qualified for this, General. You know that. “I'm not a replacement."
"No,” he agreed. “You're not. But you've stepped into the breach admirably. You're cool under fire, you're competent and talented, and you got us all out of the disaster at Headquarters."
I didn't “get us out.” I nearly got us trapped and stuffed. “All except Justin,” she reminded him.
Henderson moved with exacting slowness, his hands steady. “Just be patient, Rowan. He'll come back."
"It's been three months.” She swallowed, her voice husky. I never used to get angry. The very idea of getting this angry used to be foreign to me. What happened?
She knew what had happened. Sigma. They had stolen everything from her. Her father, her best friend—and Justin.
"He'll come back.” Henderson's voice was the epitome of calm faith. “I can't send you to Vegas."
You aren't listening. Just like Dad, set on your own opinion. “We need the money,” she pointed out, pitching her voice low and reasonable. “We've only got another eight weeks of operating funds, less if we're unlucky. Until we get the new Headquarters fully up and running and drain the old resource net, we're going to burn our budget down to the bone. I'm going to Vegas, Henderson. Send Cath with me, if you're so worried. Or Yoshi. Either of them will be able to help."
"You just don't give up, do you?” Henderson arched a dark eyebrow. “I don't want to lose you, Rowan."
But you're okay with losing Justin? That was unfair, she told herself. Unfair. But she still thought it. “You won't,” she assured him. “But we need the money, and Cath and I are the best bet. You know that."
A slight scuffing sound from the hallway alerted her. Yoshi appeared. “It's showtime,” he said, flashing her a quick grin and scooping up his laptop. The slim Japanese man wore a blue cable-knit sweater and jeans despite the scorching summer heat outside. Maybe his sandaled feet made up for it. Then again, he'd be in an air-conditioned van unless something went terribly, dreadfully wrong. “Everyone's waiting for Cinderella."
Rowan's eyes met Henderson's. She hadn't known him too well before, but now she could read the faint iron smile he wore. She'd won the argument with cold logic, it seemed.
"All right,” Henderson barked. “Let's get moving. And, Yoshi, do a workup for a Vegas run for Rowan while we're waiting, all right?"
"Love to.” Yoshi's dark eyes sparkled. He'd already done the workup a week ago, at Rowan's quiet request. “Gonna play the horses, Ro?"
"You bet. Right after Cath makes us rich at roulette,” she answered, and felt her pulse rise slightly. Adrenaline began to tang copper in her mouth, she lowered her respiration and pulse with a few moments of attention. She couldn't afford to get nervous now. “Thank you, General."
"Don't thank me,” he growled, sliding the maps into his battered olive-green map bag. “It's dangerous, and Del would have my hide."
"He's not here to protest,” Rowan said flatly, and followed Yoshi out of the room.
Green eyes, wide and dark, she stood with Andrews's hand around her upper arm. Motionless, she was too sedated to recognize the danger, trusting Delgado completely.
He wasn't ready for that.
Pale hair, lying damp and dark against her forehead. More rain kissing her skin and sliding into Del's eyes. Stay still, he thought. Just stay still. Moving, every muscle strained, every nerve screaming. Stay still until I can get to you.
Andrews sneering, certain he had both of them—but Delgado whirled, throwing the knife. His other hand came up, the weight of the gun strangely familiar. The bullet took out the other Sig as the knife buried itself in Andrews's shoulder with a meaty thunk. Rowan made a thin noise and swayed again.
He caught her arm. “Are you all right? Rowan? Goddammit, Rowan, talk to me."
Agent Breaker woke up, his arm flung across his face and the dream fading into unreality. Again. The metal shelf was hard beneath him, and he strained as he did every morning to remember.
It didn't work. Whatever he'd done to himself seemed permanent. Even the Colonel's star psions couldn't reverse it, and the Colonel seemed a little upset. This Price girl, whoever she was, managed to hop one step ahead of every Sigma trick. They seemed to blame Del for that too.
If he'd trained her, he'd done it well.
The door to the concrete cube they called a room slid aside and Del curled up to sit on the bed, a hand closing around a knife hilt. It was damp and chilly down here, but he didn't care. The bed was a single metal shelf, the cube had a drain in one corner, and two blankets and a bare light bulb were recently accorded luxuries. The single metal bar for exercise—pull-ups, inverts, and the like—sliced across the cell, low enough that he had to duck to avoid it. This room wasn't made for comfort.
Not like a room he remembered with scarves scattered over the bedstead, books stacked on shelves, and a clean warm perfume in the air. Sunlight fell through the window and French door of that room in the most secret corner of his mind. Del had the idea that if he waited long enough, was still and silent enough, he might catch a glimpse of whoever owned that room—maybe the woman they were so eager to find. It never happened, but that room had held him during the worst of the beatings and the deepest of the drug-induced questioning sessions.
That room had saved his sanity.
Andrews leaned against the doorjamb, without Jilssen for once. “Hey.” His deceptively-sleepy blue eyes, under short wheat-gold hair, moved over the concrete cube, as if Del was holding contraband in some corner.
He was, but he wasn't about to let the Colonel's second-in-command know it. “Hey,” he returned, the knife lifting a little, playing t
hrough the sequence that would end with it whipping through the air and burying itself in the lean man's throat. It would be immensely satisfying to see Andrews's eyes bug out and hear him choking on steel, maybe with his fingers scrabbling at the hilt while Del moved in on him. Del could strip him of weapons and grab his magkey, but there were armed guards at either end of every corridor, as well as the security net. And the trackers.
Don't forget the trackers. Wait for your time, Agent Breaker. Just wait.
Where was Jilssen? The traitorous doctor who had allowed Sigma to take Society Headquarters had been coming around less and less—maybe because of the way Del stared at him, aching to tear the man's throat out. It didn't matter—Jilssen was a small problem in the scheme of things. Sooner or later Del would have his opportunity, of that he was sure. Patience brought a man everything he needed, especially when there was nothing left but endurance and the dream of revenge.
Andrews shrugged under the supple, oiled leather of his rig. Del had copied the Sigma rig pattern for the Society. He could remember that clearly. He'd altered them to make them easier and lighter, a few material adjustments. He could even remember buckling a rig on someone, testing it. She'd been a little shorter than the usual woman and her nearness had made his hands shake imperceptibly.
Who? He shook the memory away. His hair was cut short now, none of the longhair crap the Society let its members indulge in. Del had never gone in for that, but his hair had been longer when he'd come in. He remembered that, remembered the click and buzz of the electric razor against his scalp. So he'd been growing it out, he guessed. Something to do with the hole in his memory.
His arm itched, the creeping fire of Zed wearing off. They'd drugged him hard, always asking the same question.
Where is Rowan Price? Whoever she was, they wanted her badly.
That was enough to make Del hope they didn't find her.
"We've got jump-off in forty. Get your ass up, you're coming topside with me. We've got a snatch and grab to do."