New to Quest Five?
The stories are best enjoyed when read in order beginning with May 1, 2009.

Welcome To Quest Five
Allison Beaumont is having trouble finding a job after college until one day the wealthy and powerful Joseph Candle offers her a job at his rather unusual corporation, where mistakes can lead to bare bottomed spankings. Adopting the alias of Virginia West, she joins four highly skilled colleagues, racing around the globe in search of mysterious treasures, but wherever she goes, trouble is sure to follow.
Note: Some stories contain scenes of a sexual nature, corporal punishment, non-consensual corporal punishment, and strong language which some reader's may find offensive. If you feel this material might be inappropriate for you please move on to another blog by clicking the next blog link at the top of the page.

February 28, 2010

Choosing Corners: Blaze Of Glory

My eyes snapped open to the sound of voices carried on the wind. I was sitting in the middle of the jungle, a small clearing overlooking a camp that was too large for the name but too small to be anything else. Shaking off disorientation, I crawled to my knees and peered through foliage at the camp and the people wandering inside of it. Blinking I recalled an old woman with long white hair and silver eyes, but it felt like a dream from a long time ago. Had she snapped her fingers and brought me to Olivia's camp or had I walked, deliriously through the jungle, finding my way by the grace of fate and a blatant trail easily followed by the blind?

The gun still rested in my hand and my last two extra clips remained tucked in the waistband of my ragged skirt. Looking down at myself, I was a mess. Dry cleaning probably was not going to cut it, but what do you expect when you go hiking in the jungle wearing business clothes? I pulled my tangled hair back and retied it behind me, watching the camp and wondering what I was going to do.

Olivia was definitely waiting for me to make an attempt to free my friends. The question was what did she expect me to do? That meant I needed a plan and then I needed a plan that made it looked like I was following my plan while actually doing something different. Complicated? No, not at all. It ought to be a walk in the park, or jungle if you prefer. I prefer the park, I think. Yeah, parks are much nicer, plus they do not usually have armed guards. Well unless you are in New York, but that's a whole other story.

What would Olivia expect me to do? Walk in the front gate? Okay, it is not really a gate but whatever you want to call the entrance. Probably not exactly what she would be expecting, but would she buy it? Right up until, things started going wrong, I guess. What could possibly go wrong if I walked in the front? I mean for her, not for me. Obviously, being a painted target in the middle of everyone's gun sight would be a problem for me that could go wrong seven ways from Sunday. Yeah, walking in the front sounds pretty dumb.

Let us see here, I know; What would Tom do? Call in an air strike and blow everything up. Yep, that sounds about like Tom. Casualties? Acceptable losses. On the plus side, with Jack gone, I would be team leader. I wonder if that would put an end to my probation? Knowing Mrs. Anderson, probably not. Besides, the lack of major benefits, there is also the problem, I do not have anyway to call in the air strike, nor would I even know how if I did have the capability. I guess that will not work.

"Inventory," I said to myself. Twenty-four bullets, one handgun, one ruined business suit, a pair of muddy heels, one semi-functional, but filthy body, a rubber band holding hair out of the way, and a pair of earrings. Patting myself down to make sure I had not forgot anything, I discovered a book of matches which were mostly soaked. If I was lucky I might get a spark out of one of them, but I would not want to bet my life on it. Unless, I was missing something big, I did not have the tools necessary to mount a two front assault.

It is simple I guess. Obviously, I need to acquire more inventory. So, what kind of things would it be nice to have? A tank, definitely tops the list, but I think it might take awhile to get one. A platoon of trained soldiers, would be nice also, but yeah, not too likely in this life. Grenades, now there is something those guards have on them, that I could really use. How do I get what they have? Oh yeah, simple, I take it from them. I am sure if I explain my need, they will be happy to hand the stuff over. Okay, I might have to be a little more persuasive, or damn near lethal, but let us not talk about that possibility.

Other things I need then; A knife might come in handy, a few extra rounds for my gun, maybe another gun or two, something in the fully automatic family would be nice, and a better idea of how that camp is laid out. Yeah that ought to do it. The biggest obstacle is actually the fact Olivia knows I am coming. As soon things get started, she will know it is me and be waiting. No matter how much I plan and project, her plan would still be in place and she would probably be thinking a few steps ahead of me because as she said herself, she had all the cards.

Nodding to myself in the darkness, I got my feet under me and started moving around the perimeter of the camp. It was on the edge of a ravine, far below a river ran through it. The camp had three primary structures, all portable and all large enough to hold twenty to thirty people. The outside perimeter was guarded by a roving patrol of four guards. Each guard had a belt with three grenades, an automatic rifle with a spare clip, a handgun with a spare clip and a flashlight.

Watching the three tents, I quickly noted that two of them had people coming and going freely from them while the third had two guards posted at the entrance and nobody was coming or going. It seemed the obvious location of my friends, but with Olivia, it could easily be a ruse meant to draw me into an ambush. I needed to confirm their location before moving in on the camp, but I was at a loss as to how to do it.

The guards' patrol route overlapped leaving no part of the perimeter unprotected for more than a few seconds and even in those seconds it was possible to be seen if the flashlight were directed properly. In order to confirm my suspicions, I would have to take out two guards in silence and even then it would leave with me hardly anytime to readjust if I was wrong. No, I needed another way.

Returning to the small clearing, I considered the possibilities once again. There were just simply too many of them. I could not possibly take on an army and expect to come out victorious. Maybe with Tom or Jack at my side, it would be different, but on my own I was out matched and there was no point in denying it. I might as well pull out and go home because anything else was just... Wait a second. Pull out. That sounds promising.

I grabbed the book of matches and stared at them as a real plan started to form inside my head. Finding dry brush in a jungle is like finding water in a desert, but if you know where to look, well it is just like finding that water. I gathered, twigs and dead grass into a pile in the middle of my clearing. A spark was all I needed by the matches were not in the best of shape after the last couple of days and I knew exactly how they felt. "All or nothing," I said and grabbed all the matches into a bundle, ripping them along the striking surface. Nothing happened. I took a deep breath and tried once more.

Three sparks flew from the matches onto the grass and with some careful huffing a fire began to burn. I eject the mostly spent clip from my gun and dropped it in the middle of my flammable pile. Slapping a fresh clip into the gun, I moved quickly off to the side of the camp before the smoke and light attracted attention from the guards. I waited impatiently near the back of the tent I suspected held my friends and hoped I would be lucky enough to be right.

One of the guards on the other side of the perimeter started shouting and point at the fire I had started. A moment later, all but one of the guards on the perimeter were heading out to the fire and a group of men stood waiting at the entrance into the camp. They knew it was me of course, but they could not possibly know what I had planned. I hoped that was the case at least. As the guards approached the fire, it finally got hot enough to explode the bullets I had left behind. Just like I planned it, every man at the entrance of the camp went running to join their comrades at the fire, assuming I was there somewhere in the foliage, shooting at them. I smiled.

It was working perfectly until I noticed the remaining perimeter guard had not followed everyone else. He was in fact, staring at me, nearly face to face with me as I moved toward the tent. I almost froze, but he opened his mouth to yell and I could not possibly allow him to do that. Reflexes took control and I slammed my shoulder into his midsection as hard as I could, knocking the wind from him. As he doubled over, gasping for air, I swung the butt of my gun into the back of his head, dropping him to the ground, out cold.

Nervously, I glanced around wondering if anyone else was lurking nearby. Seeing no one, I took his grenades, knife, gun and spare clip. The rifle might have been helpful but it was too bulky and it would only slow me down when I needed speed. I ran to the tent and sliced a peek hole into the back of it. Inside, I saw Jack, Gina, and Brian, all tied up and under the supervision of a single guard. At last, something was going right.

For a half second I considered slicing a door and going straight in, but I realized it would take very little for the guard inside to have a lot more goons on us and I could not guarantee silencing him fast enough. I shook my head as I realized what I had to do. Ridiculous, ironic, stupid, whatever you call it, I was going to enter right through the front. I glanced in the distance, confirming the bulk of the goons were still searching the far off clearing and surrounding area for me. Walking quickly I rounded the side and entered the camp, shooting at the two guards still at the door of the tent holding my friends. The scrambled for cover diving behind nearby supply crates.

Hearing commotion from the large tent on my other side, I pulled the pin from the first grenade and tossed it at the tent's doorway. The explosion sent a wave of heat through the air, kissing my cheek as I kept walking toward my goal. The tent collapsed and its material caught fire, causing those inside to panic and try to get out anyway they could. The door to the tent holding my friend flapped open and the inside guard stuck his head out the opening. Quickening my pace, I readjusted my grip on my gun and introduced it to the guard's nose.

He fell backward, stumbling away from me with a bloody nose. I pushed my way through the opening and kicked him hard where it counts. He dropped to his knees, shock in his eyes, not much different than Gina or Jack's who were watching me. Swinging the gun again, I knocked him out cold with a slap to the side of the head. An instant later I had the knife in my hand and cut the ropes off Jack and Gina, followed by Brian.

"About time you got here," Brian said, admiring my handiwork on the floor.

"Sorry, I was a little delayed by the weather," I said with a smile. "We need to get out of here, because there are a lot more guards on their way back here right now."

They all nodded and Jack grabbed the rifle from his formed guard and passed the handgun and spare clip to Gina. I handed Brian my extra gun and a spare clip. Jack said, "What's your plan?"

"There are two jeeps just outside," I said. "We take one and disable the other, but we've got to move quick."

Jack said, "Right," And headed out the door. The rest of us followed as Jack cleared the way with cover fire, keeping the few goons who realized where we were at bay. Brian moved to check the jeeps quickly and called out, "We'll take this one."

I nodded to him and moved to the other jeep. "I'll take care of this one," I said. Brian jumped behind the wheel of the one we were taking and turned the ignition. Gina slipped in the seat next to him keeping her eyes on the surrounding area. Jack kept firing in short spurts, conserving ammo and keeping the goons pinned down. I slipped behind my wheel and turned ignition. A quick search lent me a crowbar which I jammed the accelerator down with and then I slipped the jeep into gear, aiming toward the third large tent and consequently the ravine beyond. As it moved, I jumped out and rolled on the ground.

The jeep drove itself straight into the tent, but it seemed it was mostly empty. I turned back to the others and ran toward them when Olivia appeared in front of them with a gun in each hand, one pointed at Brian and the other at Jack. She looked pissed and that is to say more so than normal. I guess turning her camp into a campfire was not exactly the kind of trap she had in mind for me.

Jack dove behind the jeep as she pulled her triggers. Dust floated in the air where he had been and her bullet whizzed through it into the darkness and beyond. Brian ducked into Gina's lap causing her to drop her gun as Olivia's other bullet shattered the jeep's windshield. Brian shifted the jeep into gear and drove it blindly at Olivia, but she jumped out of the way without much effort.

The absence of the jeep left Jack in the open with Olivia taking double aim at him. Jack scrambled on top of the fallen and burning tent disappearing into smoke and flames. Being out of her direct line, Olivia glared at me a moment before running off to find Jack. Obviously, she considered him the biggest threat, but she should have known I would not just leave him to her.

I ran after her, noticing the goons who had stupidly ran to my little fire were starting to realize they were needed back at their camp. Time was running out and if we did not get out soon, we never would. I round the outer edge of the camp and found Olivia with Jack in her sights. He was dropping his rifle because she had him and there was nothing he could do. I raised my gun and aimed at her. "Drop it," I said.

Olivia turned her head to me and said, "I can't do that. Put your gun down or I'll put Jack down for good. That is the only way this is going to happen."

Jack started to go for his rifle again with her attention on me, but she caught his movement out of the corner of her eye and she spun back on him. She was going to kill him and there was only one thing I could do to stop her. My breath caught in my chest as shadowy advice from dreams or somewhere beyond echoed in my ears. Make a choice, even not choosing was choosing and so I chose. My finger squeezed the trigger and Olivia spun away from Jack and back toward me, her mouth open, as the impact of the bullet ripped through her body. She fell down on one knee, blinking at me and then, with great effort, she pushed herself back up on her feet and brought her guns swinging toward me. I pulled the trigger again and once again send her reeling backward, teetering on the edge of the ravine. A moment later she was gone, slipped off the edge and all that remained was Jack and I.

I stared numbly at the empty space where Olivia had been. The gun still rested firmly in my grip, as the scene replayed itself in my mind. There had been no other choice, she had left me no options, her or Jack, kill or be killed. The look in her eyes was not what I expected, no evil glare or hatred beaming through to calm soul, nothing but pure and total shock. Jack's hand gripped my shoulder, shaking me from the moment back into the now.

"We have to go," He said. There was sympathy in his tone, understanding in his voice. Can a choice be both right and wrong?

Brian and Gina arrived with the jeep, spinning it around directly in front of us and beckoning us aboard. We ran and jumped into the back as an army of goons ran toward us. Jack stood up, bracing himself between the back of Gina's seat and the safety roll bars while sending a spray of bullets into the oncoming army. The scattered like roaches, diving back into the crevices from which they had come.

Miles away, the sun rising on a new day, Jack rested a hand on my knee and offered a smile. Brian had pulled over to rest for a few minutes while he studied the map to set our direction. "I hid the codex before they got to me," He said. "I memorized the GPS coordinates and if this map is accurate I think I can get us there by tomorrow nightfall."

I nodded. "Tomorrow is good enough," I said.

"We could all use a little rest before moving on," Jack said. Brian and Gina nodded and moved off from the jeep a short distance. I started to get up and stretch myself, but Jack's hand held me back. He said, "She didn't give you a choice."

"I know," I said, faking a smile.

"Gene will understand," He said looking into my eyes, "I'll make sure of it."

"You know about them?" I said, surprised because I thought Dr. Michaels was too embarrassed to admit it to anyone else unless I forced it.

"He told us," Jack said, "He wanted his daughter back, but he knew the risks and he knew she wouldn't make it easy."

I blinked. The world suddenly turned upside down as Jack's statement filtered its way through my brain. His daughter. Dr. Michaels' daughter. Olivia was his daughter. I killed Olivia. I killed Dr. Michaels' daughter. Tears spilled onto my cheeks and Jack pulled me to him, but I was alone.

February 25, 2010

Choosing Corners: Before The Storm

Wind rushed through my hair as I fell. The feeling of utter freedom washed over me as adrenaline pumped through my veins. In another life I would have closed my eyes and waited for the end of everything to splash over me. I was no long that person though, and I faced my future with eyes wide open and no intention of waiting for anything. My hand caught hold of the vine I had spotted from above and grasped it tight enough to slow my descent.

Feeling the rubbery plant begin to burn the skin in my hand I released and kicked against the rocks beside the waterfall, sending me into the branches of a waiting tree and clutching its trunk, dangling far above the ground, but safely alive. Holding tight, I watched my gun tumble and fall to a stop on the ground far below. Looking up, I saw a shocked Olivia looking down at me and shaking her head in disbelief.

"She's alive," Olivia shouted, "Find me another way down there, now!"

I smiled feeling almost impressed with myself. Patting myself on the back would have to wait for another time because as much as I wanted to rest, Olivia was not about to give up. Careful not to fall, I wormed my way down the tree until I was standing on solid ground once more. My gun lay on the other side of the raging river and after a moment's consideration I decided it was important enough to go after. I was already soaked anyway, so what is a little more water?

I looked down the river a little ways and spotted just what I needed; A fallen tree, bridging the two sides. Hurrying along, I tried to recall the map of the region to decide where to head next. Jack had apparently escaped as well, which meant he would be making his own way toward our rendezvous, at least if he was doing as we planned. There was still the slight possibility he would see this SNAFU as a good reason to bail out and head home. He certainly did not believe Brian was an innocent in everything.

Cautiously, I tight walked across the slippery trunk over the raging river enjoying its cool spray against my skin. The humid climate of the jungle was enough to make me daydream of deserts. My clothes were soaked through and through but even before that, they had been stuck to my skin like tack paper. In the distance, I could hear the sound of engines roaring as jeeps raced to find a way down to my location. With any luck, one of them was Jack, but I could not count on it. I grabbed my gun and tucked it back into my waistband after checking the clip and engaging the safety.

Getting my bearings, I realized it was still morning and that meant the sun was to the east. Heading east would bring me back to the road and the road was the only sure way I had of not getting lost. Of course, it was also the easiest way to be found by Olivia and her goons. The river was heading east and fast, but without a boat it was risky to attempt using it. Listening to the engines getting closer, I knew I had to make a decision. The river called to me like a siren as I stared at it, wishing I had a raft, or even a rubber donut.

I needed another option. The river or the jungle was just not much of a choice. Either too slow or too fast and even though I was crazy enough to jump off the edge of a cliff, I was not really into death defying stunts. My eyes turned toward the splash of the waterfall and then I looked up to see there was no longer anyone watching me. Walking on the edge of the river, I approached the sheet of falling water, squinting to see beyond it as I recalled the water inside Fu Xi's vault. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and stepped through the water.

Not really expecting to find anything but solid rock behind the fall, I was surprised when my head found open space. I opened my eyes and discovered a small cave above four feet above the bottom of the river. Quickly I pulled myself up the ledge and out of the water into the narrow tunnel. There was light coming from inside someplace, flickering like a fire on the walls. The waterfall completely hid it all from the outside world. The light could mean I was not alone, but the cave seemed my best chance to avoid Olivia and she would most likely think I had used the river to head back toward the main road. If I waited long enough, I could catch up with them and they would be looking in all the wrong places for me.

I backed away from the water making sure I was far enough away that some stray glance into the fall would not reveal me hiding. The roar of the waterfall was almost all I could hear at first, but as I became accustomed to the cave's echoes, I could hear the engine sounds once more. They stopped close by and I could hear the trampling of goons, searching the local area for any signs of me or where I had gone. I held my breath, hoping they would make the assumption I needed them to make.

"What have you found," Olivia said, apparently arriving late to the scene.

"Nothing," A man replied.

"There has to be something," Olivia said.

"Maybe she used the river," Another man said.

"Possible, but unlikely," Olivia said. "She only takes risks she can control."

"You're not going to find her," Gina said, a taunting to her tone that made me smile.

"I think she crossed here," A man said.

"Going where?" Olivia asked.

"Back toward where you are," He said.

Olivia said, "To retrieve her weapon. Then where did she go?"

"Into the water," Another man said.

"I don't buy it," Olivia said. "The river's a bad option. Too many variables and not enough control."

"She was scared and running," A man said, "Maybe she thought the risk was her only option."

Gina laughed. "She set you up. She was better than you at camp and she's still better than you now," She said.

"None of you," Olivia said, "You most of all, know what you're involved in."

"Just knowing it vexes you is good enough for me," Gina said.

"Obviously, she had a plan," Olivia said, "And you know at least some of it."

"Yeah, it involved pissing you off," Gina said, "I think she succeeded on that point already, and then rescuing Brian from your evil clutches."

"If you knew the difference between good and evil, you'd be rooting for me to find Virginia before it's too late," Olivia said.

"I don't think Tanya would agree," Gina said.

"That was an unfortunate mistake," Olivia said.

"Because it proved who you are?" Gina said.

"No," Olivia said, "Because it cast doubt on what we are."

A radio squawked and Olivia said, "Stratford here, go ahead."

"We've got Barker," The radio voice said.

"Alive?" Olivia said.

"He unconscious, but he'll live," The radio responded.

"Excellent work," Olivia said. "Head back to camp."

The radio said, "Copy that."

"Everybody pack it up," Olivia ordered.

"What about West?" A man said.

"We're holding all the cards," Olivia said. "She'll come to us."

Moments later the engines roared back to life and then began to fade in the distance as they drove away. I remained huddled in my cave, hugging my knees to my chest. Focusing on breathing, I considered the situation carefully. Jack was either free and waiting for me at the rendezvous, meaning Olivia suspected I was nearby and did her little radio show for my benefit or he had been captured and incapacitated. Heading to the rendezvous point myself was either a waste of time, a trap, or the only way I was going to get any help. The last possibility was good, but the other two were less than exciting.

Olivia was right, I would come to them. I could not easily leave the jungle and get help, a general lack of transportation being the first obstacle and time being the second. She would leave and easy to track trail, but if I did not show quickly, it would lead to nowhere. I closed my eyes trying to force new possibilities to open themselves up to my mind. Every direction seemed like a sure way to lose and this was a battle I could not afford to lose. Maybe my grandmother had been right when she told me to turn back and forget about Brian. It was beginning to look more and more like the trap had been laid very carefully with me in mind and if Brian was not a willing participant he was close enough to it, that it might not matter in the end.

The sound of a pebble falling, echoed within the cave and snapped my eyes back open. I looked back into the depth of the cave and stared once more at the flickering light. Maybe there was another possibility and maybe it was with the light. Pulling out my gun, I began the slow process of crawling down the tunnel toward the light and its unknown source. Every movement I made seemed to echo louder and louder the farther I went, but if someone was paying attention they gave me no sign.

At the end of the tunnel, the cave opened into a larger chamber, not huge, but large enough to stand upright. In the center of the room a small camp fire burning, ventilated by a stone window into the jungle on the other side of the cave. Sitting next to the fire, an old woman sat quietly warming her hands by the fire. Her long white hair draped over her like a dress falling to the floor. I stepped into the opening and she smiled up at me with silver eyes that seemed to reflect the firelight straight into me.

"I didn't mean to startle you," I said, doubting she would even understand me.

"I was beginning to think you would never come inside," She said, her voice raspy as if she had smoked her whole life.

"You speak English," I said.

"As do you," She said with a laugh.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, although a hundred other questions were floating in my head as well.

"I could well ask you the same," She said, gesturing for me to join her by the fire. "It matters little though, our journeys have brought us here and that is sufficient."

I hesitated a moment and then shrugged. She was no stranger than Joseph Candle in her responses and something told me, she was no threat to me. It was even possible she might be able to help. I sat down, cross-legged next to her. The warmth I expected to overwhelm me from the fire was strikingly absent and instead I found myself feeling cooler and more comfortable instead of less.

"You are lost," She said and I raised an eyebrow wondering if I was supposed react in awe at her conclusion. She laughed and said, "Not in the jungle, but inside yourself. You are trapped on the way from the person you were to the person you are supposed to become."

"What do you know of me?" I asked, not certain I truly wished to know.

"You have yet to choose your path," She said.

"My friends are in danger, I should go," I said.

She said, "There are indeed, but more than your friends are at stake. The path you choose will effect all those who came before and all those yet to come."

The words sounded familiar. She looked nothing like my ethereal grandmother, but her words were as cryptic and the subject seemed much the same. Remembering the crystal and its ability to alter her appearance in variations of its light, I wondered if this was another apparition of her, acting as if she were a convenient guide with knowledge to help me, but shrouded in mystery. She saw the thoughts in my eyes and shook her head ever so slightly.

"In the end it is only you who can decide. I am not the one of whom you think, but we have met before and we will again. Time is short though and I cannot risk helping you more," She said and the fire crackled as her finger snapped. The cave and the fire disappeared and we were sitting in the jungle, the sun setting on the horizon and darkness falling around us.

She said, "You must choose a path and do it quickly because not deciding is a choice as well."

"Who are you?" I asked, wondering if I could believe my eyes or ears or if sanity had snapped from my head entirely.

"It's only natural you should stumble on your journey, but if you remain true to yourself, you will find your way," She said and disappeared into the darkness, leaving me alone.

February 22, 2010

Choosing Corners: Bound For A Fall

The plan was to wait. It was simple, so simple it should have been easy to stick with, but I should have known better. When was the last time things went the way they were supposed to go? I might have to go as far back as the fifth grade to answer that one, but being covered in jungle foliage and mud, trips down memory lane will just have to wait. They had Gina which was fine, I mean that was just part of the plan. Ben pointing out Jack's general location on the hillside opposite me, was not.

It started with a dozen of Olivia's goons sweeping toward the slope. I expected Jack would just quietly slip away, crawling through undergrowth until he was far enough away, no one would believe he had ever been close at all. Instead, Jack waiting until they were almost on top of his location and then he started shooting. How he managed to take ten of them out before they even knew he was there, particularly since they were looking for him, I do not know. Watching from my vantage, I realized when it came to Jack, I did not really know anything about his past. It was intertwined with Tom's in some manner and Tom was a military man through and through, but what did the make Jack? Dangerous, but what kind of dangerous?

The thoughts were running through my head, watching Jack run, exchanging fire with the two goons remaining. They were probably outmatched by Jack, but they did have the advantage of numbers, and he was on the run up the hill with limited hard cover. A sound of twigs and crisp leaves crunching caught my attention and I suddenly became aware I was being stalked myself. It was too late of course, but I was beginning to think I should have let Jack cut out Ben's eyes at the very least.

I rolled over in my dirt bed just in time to find a rifle barrel in my face. I could smell the faint remains of alcohol from it's last cleaning as it wavered in front of my nose. The man holding it seemed to want me to do something. I was not listening though. Jack would have liked that at least. Without thinking, I kicked my legs underneath alcohol, rifle goon and sent him rolling down hill. I did not wait to see where he landed.

Running uphill is a little like waving a flag and asking to be shot. Jack might have had a chance going up and away but my only chance was straight or down and I was at least bright enough to know it. I caught sight of another goon ahead and to my left as I leapt from my hiding place. He was a little slow noticing me, but I will bet he got a good look as I ran passed while he rolled into that giant tree trunk with a new hole in his leg. Obviously, I did not stick around to know for certain.

There was a cave at the end of the valley with a stream running through it. I remembered it from the map, it was one of the reasons Jack liked the location. The cave opened out on the other side to a waterfall dumping into a river. In the event things went bad, it was an alternate escape route with a way of covering a lot of territory quickly. Granted, river rafting without a raft can be a little difficult, but it sure beats the odds of living with an extra hole in the head.

My single gunshot seemed to attract goons to me like moths to a flickering blue light. Too bad I am not quite as lethal to goons as that light is to moths, but I was not ready to throw in the towel. Bullets whizzed passed my head as I took a sudden turn down hill. Okay, fine, I stumbled with fortunate results, but I will not be admitting it later. I tumbled down the side of the slope barely managing to get my feet under me again as I came to a sliding stop a few feet above the valley floor and the trickle of creek water running toward the cave.

The slip put me ahead of the goons and I ran like the wind to stay ahead. More like a gentle breeze I guess, but they were not any faster, I swear. I squeezed off blind rounds at the jungle behind me. Those aloe plants and banana trees will not ever hurt anyone again.

Nearing the cave, I ran the last few feet to the valley floor at an angle and jumped the creek to the other side. The rocks beneath my feet were wet and smooth, but I kept my balance by moving quickly on my toes. Rustling on the slope, turned my head to watch one of the goons sliding down the slope on his back, shooting wildly in my direction. Bullets splashed all around me and bounced on rocks at my feet as I kept going.

The entrance to the cave was small and only traversable though the creek. It was not my first choice to get soaked to the skin without a change of clothes, but it seemed a bit more rational than waiting around to get shot. I fired a wild shot behind me that somehow sent wild slide goon crashing into the creek, his gun dropped into the water. Wading through the water I disappeared into the cave and hoped we were too far north for piranhas as unseen things brushed passed my legs.

I should have suspected, it's not like the creek made sense as the source for a massive waterfall, but I was still a bit surprised to find a rushing river joining with my creek in the middle of the cave. The joining of the two waters nearly threw me from my feet. I grabbed hold of rocks along the wall of the cave to steady myself. Behind me I heard the splash of water signifying the pursuit of more than a single goon and they were getting closer. Up ahead I could see daylight and I pushed on toward it, hoping there would be a safe way down which would offer me a secure place to avoid my pursuers or at least hold them at bay until I came up with a better plan than running away.

Reaching the end of the cave, I held onto the rock and stared in disbelief. The water flowed straight out of the cave and dropped straight down to a raging river far below. I will not bother estimating the height because the lush greenery and splashing water created an illusion making everything seem much better. The splashing behind me slowed and I knew I was out of options.

I turned around to find Olivia smugly smiling at me. Her gun was not even pointed at me, just threatening the water. We stood perfectly still, her goons stopped and waiting a few feet behind her. She shook her head and said, "It doesn't have to be this way."

"You cheated me," I said, glancing back behind me.

She laughed and said, "You never expected me to bring Brian out here. I know you aren't that foolish."

"Maybe," I said. "Maybe I wanted to give you one last chance to prove you are better than you seem."

Olivia took a step closer to me, the sunlight illuminating her in the water like a silver spotlight. My gun followed her movement, my finger quivering on the trigger as instinct and morality fought a battle for my soul. I wanted to hate her, hate everything about her, but she was more complicated than that. Much as I did not want to admit it, she scared me. My psyche understood, the differences between us were not as great as I wished and the circumstances leading us to opposite side could have easily led us to the same place and even friendship, or at least mutual respect.

"You're not a killer," She said, nodding at my gun.

"But you are," I said.

She shook her head and said, "No. If we wanted you dead, we could have killed you a long time ago."

"What do you want with me?" I asked, knowing the answer I wanted would never come from her lips.

"Not what Joey wants," She said.

Looking down the waterfall and then back at Olivia, I said, "How do you know what Joey wants?"

"Put the gun away and come with me," She said, "He'll explain everything."

"Who?" I asked, although I suspected I already knew.

"We weren't sure about you before, after Bad Land," She said.

"You tried to kill me," I said.

"I can understand how you might see it that way," Olivia said, taking another step closer to me.

I had no place to go. The gun wavered in my hand, a part of me wanted to trust her and forget the past. It was possible we had simply misunderstood each other, but the rest of me knew that was just an excuse to take the easy way out. I knew there were gaps in my understanding of the world we were dancing in, but I also knew she was dangerous and half truths were her way of taking the lead.

"Another step and my finger's going to squeeze on this trigger," I said.

"No, it won't," She said, but she stopped anyway.

"If you expect me to trust you, I'm going to need a little more than cryptic answers and warnings," I said.

"They aren't mine to give," Olivia said. "I know you have no reason to believe me, but I've been in your shoes. The hardest thing to do is trust someone, when everything that's happened to you has only proven you can only trust yourself."

"I've already given you all the chances I can afford to give," I said, "But I'll give you one last chance, tell me where you're keeping Brian."

"I'll take you to him," Olivia said, holding out her hand to me, "You can keep your gun if it makes you feel safer. You've got no place else to go."

"I tell you what," I said wondering if she might be sincere, "You send your goons away and you, me and Gina will all go together. Just the three of us. If you are telling the truth you have my word that I'll listen to anything you have to say."

Olivia looked behind her at the men at her back. The look in her eyes suggested she was actually considering my proposal, a possibility I had not really expected. She thought she knew me, knew what I would do, what I was capable of doing and she was weighing that knowledge against herself and her agenda. She asked me to trust her, but when I asked her to trust me, she was hesitant. It was all I really needed to see to know she was not completely on the level with me. She believed what she was doing was right, but she also believed I would have a difference of opinion with her when faced with the full disclosure. It was written pure as daylight on her face.

"What about Jack?" Olivia said.

I shook my head and said, "What about him?"

"What will he do if he sees you with me? Will he ambush us on the road?" Olivia said looking pointedly at my gun, "Will you do what it takes to stop him if he won't cooperate?"

"So he got away," I said, feeling a little relieved that there was still a chance he might save me.

"Did you really expect anything else?" She said.

"He does always seem to escape you, doesn't he?" I said.

She nodded. "He's a shark, in or out of water," She said.

"If you're on the level, I can get him to play along," I said.

Olivia laughed, her amusement echoing in the cave like a choir to the singing of rushing water. She said, "You've been at odds with Jack Barker since the day you met him and no matter what you do or say, you will never, ever influence him to do anything he does not already want to do."

"So he's your excuse?" I said, shaking my head.

"I don't need an excuse," Olivia said, "You're going to have to make a choice, trust me or don't. We aren't going to do this halfway. I don't have to be your enemy, but only you can decide which way it's going to be."

"Give me a good reason to trust you and I will," I said, gripping tight to the rock as the water seemed to increase it's downward flow.

Olivia steadied herself against the opposite edge as well. Her eyes looked out the cave to the jungle beyond before settling back on me. "I could have shot you instead of talking," She said as if the single action were proof her intentions had always been positive. "This would all be over with and I certainly would not be giving you the chance to kill me."

I felt the weight of the gun in my hand at her words. She was right when she said I was not a killer. It had happened in the course of events, but even with survival as justification the ghosts still haunted me. I could no more simply shoot her for standing in my way than I could shoot myself. She knew me too well and I realized that was the problem, that was the reason I was trapped.

"You aren't really trusting me," I said looking at the men behind her, "You are following orders you don't understand anymore than I do. We're on opposite sides of the river and there are no bridges between us."

"We can build one," She said. "Trust me, nothing is as it seems."

I smiled and nodded. "You're right," I said and then I did what she never could have anticipated, I turned and jumped.

February 19, 2010

Choosing Corners: Bitter Agreement

Morning sunlight glimmered through the dense foliage of the jungle around us. We spent the night taking turns sleeping in the jeep with two of us always awake, and keeping guard. The trade with Olivia was all set and we were waiting on the edge of the valley, Jack had picked. I did not expect she would play fair of course, but there was the minute chance she would bring Brian with her and if so, it was worth every bit of the risk. Jack might not agree, but as we both knew, I was long passed the point of caring.

"Anyone?" I asked as Jack scanned the area with binoculars.

Without pausing in his search, he said, "Nothing yet."

Behind us, Gina yawned and rolled out of the jeep onto the dirt. Our captive was loosely cuffed by a single wrist to the back of the jeep and other than a few glances here and there, her remained quiet. Gina disappeared behind the far side of the jeep for a minute before rejoining us. She said, "You don't really expect this is going to work do you?"

Jack laughed. I shook my head and said, "The point was to get her to a place of our choosing. If she actually plays it straight I'll go along, but I'm betting she won't."

"I take it you have a plan?" Gina said.

Looking at me, Jack said, "You can bet I do, provided we actually make it out of this mess."

Ignoring Jack, I said, "I'm still working on it."

"You're running out of time,"Gina said glancing at her watch.

I nodded. "How much do you trust me?" I asked her.

"No more than an inch or two from my knee," Jack said.

Gina said, "What are you thinking?"

"Olivia will do whatever it takes to get her hands on me, but I don't think she cares a thing about either of you," I said.

"We're collateral," Jack said dryly, "She'll capture or kill us, whichever is easier."

"I still don't get why she wants you?" Gina said, looking at me.

"She has a knack for solving the crazy puzzles," Jack said.

"Make things seem really upside down doesn't it?" I said shaking my head at Jack. "Here I am trying to share my skills with people that don't want to listen and running for my life from the people that do."

"Hey now!" Jack said twisting to glare at me, "I listen to every member of my team. Just because I don't blindly run after you, doesn't mean I'm not paying attention."

"Right," I said nodding my head, "If I hadn't gone out on my own and found the stupid compasses in Italy, you would still be following Dr. Michaels all over Europe looking for them."

Jack said, "You know what's really sad? You were supposed to learn a lesson back in Italy and despite everything I've done to teach it to you, you still haven't learned it."

"Swatting my ass doesn't replace honest conversation," I said.

"If that's all you took away from the experience then you really don't listen to anything I say," Jack said.

"You got something to say?" I said cocking my head at him, "I'm all ears."

"Yeah," Jack said hunching back on his ankles, "We get back to L.A. and we're going to find out which is more unbreakable; Your butt or a Lexan paddle."

"What's the matter?" I said boldly, "Not man enough to test me against your own hand?"

"You want a go against my hand," Jack said, "Let's do it right here, right now."

"That's real smart," I said, "I'm sure you can't wait to get your hands on my ass again, but are you really dumb enough to do it here and now so that Olivia and her goons can just follow the noise right to us?"

"Afraid I'll make you squeal?" Jack said.

"I'm sure a hand job from you isn't close to being up to the task," I said.

"Only one way to find out," Jack said, his face embarrassingly close to my own.

"Ain't that the truth," Gina said, "You two need to get a room and work out all that tension."

"In his very wet dreams," I said, staring right into his eyes barely a nose away from my own.

"I've already seen everything you got," Jack said, staring right back, "And it's not all that."

"And yet every chance you get, you keep coming back to see it all again," I said.

"More like you make sure to take every chance you can to show it to me," Jack said.

"You guys do realize, she'll be here any minute and we still need a plan?" Gina said struggling between laughing at us and scolding us.

"Right," I said leaning back from Jack and looking between the two of them. "It's simple really. Gina will take Ben there, into the open and conduct the trade, while we cover from here and here." I pointed out the locations on the map Jack had used to select the location.

"Why me?" Gina asked, obviously not excited to have the job.

"Because you won't be perceived as a threat and you aren't her primary target," Jack said, catching on.

I said, "If she brings Brian and does things straight, everyone is happy. If not, she'll likely take you prisoner, but Jack and I should be able to avoid her goons and track you back to wherever they are keeping Brian."

"Won't she expect that?" Gina said.

"I would," Jack said.

"Yes, which means she'll set a trap for us at her base," I said.

"And how are you going to avoid it?" Gina asked.

Jack shook his head looking at me as I shrugged. He said, "Very carefully."

"As long as we have a plan," Gina said, rolling her eyes to heaven.

"Trust me," I said, "I won't leave you behind and Olivia isn't really interested in you."

"At worst she'll torture you a little to find out what you know about us and our plans," Jack said.

"Tell her what you know, because you really don't know anything valuable and holding back won't be pleasant," I said.

"Hold a little back, so she can feel secure that she has broken you when you give it," Jack said.

"Better not to wait for her to start the torturing," I said, "She'll know you don't know anything useful from the start and not waste her time with you."

"Trust me, she'll waste her time or someone else's," Jack said, "Without a bit of torture she won't be sure whether you know anything more than your saying or not."

I glared at Jack and said, "Trust me, if you hold anything back she'll assume you're holding even more back. Just be honest with her from the start."

"Do you think you two could be anymore confusing?" Gina asked.

"I'm sure we could try," I said smiling at her and Jack.

Jack nodded and said, "I'm fairly certain we could manage it if you like."

"What if I say no?" Gina asked.

"No to Olivia or No to V?" Jack asked.

"Either," Gina said.

"Well Olivia will probably make you wish she had ripped your tongue out," Jack said.

"I'll just roll you down the hill with Ben and pretend I didn't hear you," I said.

"So you're saying I don't really have a choice?" Gina asked.

"I don't think she said that," Jack said looking questioningly at me, "Did you say that?"

I said, "I don't think so. I'm pretty sure I didn't."

"You know the two of you are insane?" Gina said looking back and forth between us.

Jack and I looked at each smiling for a moment and then we shrugged and said, "Yeah, probably."

A noise in the distance caught our attention and Jack picked up the binoculars again to look. After a tense minute of waiting he turned back to me and said, "They're here." I nodded and Gina swallowed, still not certain she wanted to be bait.

"Any sign of Brian?" I asked. Jack shrugged and offered me the binoculars. He said, "I'm not really sure what he looks like and in their fatigues, all her people look more or less the same."

I slowly looked through the trees and studied the shapes of our adversaries. None of them looked quite like Brian, but Jack was right. He could have been right in front of me and looking like everyone else, I could not be sure I would notice. I handed the binoculars back to Jack and stood up, dusting dirt and mud off my knees.

"Give Jack and I five minutes to get in position and then take Ben down into the valley," I said to Gina.

She nodded nervously looking at Ben and me. I smiled sympathetically and said, "You'll be fine. I promise."

She smiled and said, "Let me down and I'll personally hold you down while he busts your butt with that paddle."

"Sounds like a deal to me," Jack said checking his gun and extra ammo.

I grabbed the three extra clips we took off Ben and tucked them into my waistband. I kept the gun in my hand with the safety still on and headed off through the foliage. Jack did likewise and that left Gina to do her part. I hoped I was not asking too much of her, but short of putting holes in Ben, I saw no other solution. Once I reached my destination, I carefully dug myself in, making sure I could hold my position without moving or making noise for a good long while.

It was not long before I was watching Gina escort Ben down the narrow path into the valley. From the other side, Olivia started down the path as well with a man beside her. He was a big guy, like Brian, and his head was covered by a hood, but from the way he moved and the set of his shoulders I knew it was not Brian. I wish I could say I was disappointed, but I had not really expected Olivia to play it straight. She was out for blood and that meant I was going to have to play extra smart or risk ending up back in the same place I was in Chile.

Gina and Olivia made the exchange in the middle of the valley just as planned. Ben was back with his beloved commander, but Brian remained missing. As soon as the hooded man was close enough he grabbed Gina and pulled her into him as a shield. A second later he had her disarmed and they were all spinning around looking through the foliage for Jack and I.

"If you want to see your Brian, you might as well just come on down," Olivia said turning around in a circle. "Nobody needs to get hurt and we can all go see him together."

February 16, 2010

Choosing Corners: Boys With Toys

Running footsteps echoed between the walls in the alley. In the near distance we could hear the screeching of tires as cars raced to intercept our escape. We ran as a group, keeping to the shadows as we zigged between buildings. The flash of headlights in front of us, brought a hesitation to our running as Jack and looked for another way out. My eyes fell up on dumpster and Gina caught the look, moving to the side of the dumpster without waiting for me to say a word.

Hardly missing a step, I rammed my shoulder into the metal garbage can on wheels. Gina followed suit and a moment later, Jack joined us, the dumpster rolling along the uneven pavement, rumbling louder and louder in protest as it picked up speed. A jeep swerved into view directly in front of us and two men jumped out before realizing they were in the path of a half ton of garbage. As the the dumpster slammed into the jeep and sent one of the men sprawling on the ground, Jack took out the other man with a single shot to the head.

Gina kicked the gun away from the man on the ground and I grabbed him by the collar, yanking him back to his feet with my gun pressed against the side of his head. Jack stripped the dead man of his weapon and extra ammunition, it felt cold and cruel, but there was no time to think about it. I took a set of handcuffs from the man in front of me and handed them to Gina for her to lock on his wrists. His hands secured, I stripped him of two knives and three 9mm clips, before tossing him in the back of the jeep. Gina jumped in the back with our captive and Jack settled in behind the wheel with me sitting next to him.

We sped off, heading out of the city without any of us saying a word. Gina found a roll of duct tape and used a piece to place over our captives mouth. She handed his radio up to me and I turned the volume up so we could listen to Olivia ordering her troops around in their frantic search to find us. They were understandably pissed when they discovered we had wheels, especially since it came at the expense of two of their people. Soon after, Olivia came on the channel and told us we would pay for killing her man and then ordered the radio channel changed, leaving us in the dark once more.

The city long behind us and jungle all around, Jack pulled off the main road onto a dirt path and then brought the jeep to a stop. He shut off the ignition and turned around to look at the man in the back. A singled nod to Gina and she ripped the tape of the man's face. He remained impassive, waiting for us to do something. I looked in his eyes and wished I had not. He expected we would kill him and he had already accepted it, as if there was no possibility we would do anything else.

"I'm going to ask you a few questions," Jack said, resting his hands on the back of his seat. "The sooner you answer them, the sooner this can be over with."

The man laughed and spit at Jack. "What makes you think I'm in hurry?" He said.

Jack ignored the spit and the question as if neither were relevant enough to acknowledge. He said, "We'll start with something simple. What's your name?"

"Fuck you," He replied.

Jack said, "Well you see Fuck, can I call you Fuck or do you prefer Mr. You?"

The man remained silent, obviously not amused. I could hardly blame him, we had just killed his partner, possibly his friend and while it was not as if they had given us much choice it really was not a good place to be starting from. Jack's attempt to lighten the situation probably seemed cold, calloused and near evil to the man, but that seemed to be the problem. The bad guys never really think they are bad.

"You see, your boss has kidnapped and probably tortured, a good friend of theirs," Jack said, nodding to Gina and I in turn. "We want to find him and save him from that fate. I'm sure you can understand that."

The man said nothing. His blank stare invited a bullet or at least a slap, but I could tell none of that was going to get through to him. He genuinely believed his side, his cause, was the just one. We were the devils and using violence was only going to convince him all the more. His eyes locked with mine and I nodded, deciding we need to try things a different way.

"Take the cuffs off," I said to Gina.

Jack twisted to me and said, "Whoa! Hang on a second there. What are you thinking?"

Gina looked between the two of us, uncertain whom to side with although her instincts seemed to be more inclined to join Jack than me. I nodded for Gina to wait, relieving her of the difficult choice and then I turned to Jack. "He thinks we're going to kill him," I said.

Jack said, "Maybe he's right."

"Very funny," I said, "We aren't the bad guys here, but he's never going to believe that if you don't give the tough guy shit a break."

"I thought we were going to do this my way," Jack said.

"As long as your way is my way, we don't have a problem," I said.

"If you want Brian back, we're going to have to lean on this guy," Jack said, impatience tugging at his tone. "Trust me, they won't hesitate to do worse to us or him."

"Maybe you're right, but he's not them," I said, gesturing to the man, "He's just a guy caught on the wrong side of the line and threatening him isn't going to change anything."

"Neither is letting him go," Jack said. "He is part of Stratford's team and that means he knows things we need to know if we're going to get your friend back. Personally, I'd just as soon let them keep him and head home."

"I'm not leaving Brian with them," I said, glaring at Jack.

"Then let me do what I need to do," Jack said.

Gina rested her hand on my arm from the backseat and gave me a gentle squeeze. Glancing toward her I caught a supportive smile as she said, "He's right V. You don't have to like it, but they aren't going to just let Brian go and we can't just let this guy go."

I shook my head not agreeing with either of them, but realizing I could not stop them. We were down a road with no way back and the way forward was not a trip I ever wanted to take. Maybe someday, I will look back and see it was all for the best, but in the moment all I could hear was the haunting voice of Joseph Candle in my nightmare. I closed my eyes and made the choice not to make one.

Jack grabbed the man out of the back of the jeep and dragged him to the middle of the dirt road next to the jeep. He pulled his gun from its holster and aimed it casually at the man on his knees. Jack said, "Where's you base of operations?"

The man remained silent and steadfastly stared at Jack. Tears stung at my eyes and I turned away from the scene playing out before me. Gina rested her hand on my shoulder and I could feel her silent strength passing over to me. Jack said, "Where are your people holding Brian Osterman?"

The click of Jack's safety echoed in my head. "I'm not going to ask nicely again," Jack said. In that moment I hated Jack Barker. There had to be another way, a way that did not make us as bad as those we were fighting against. In the end, I could not justify keeping my silence, not for Brian Osterman, not for anyone. I said, "Stop."

My own safety clicked off with an echo in the trees around us. Jack turned toward me, surprise in his eyes. I leveled my aim on him, my finger resting against the trigger. Gina gawked at me like I had lost my mind. I said, "We're not doing it this way."

"We've already been through this," Jack said.

My mind was made up and I said, "Put your gun away, Jack."

"You are seriously threatening me are you?" Jack said.

"You don't want to test me," I said.

Jack said, "You would shoot me rather than harm a hair on this man's head to save your friend?"

"It's not like that unless you make it that way," I said and his gun hand began to waver back toward me. "Put it away," I said.

The glare in his eyes assured me there would come a reckoning for the moment, but his thumb locked the safety back in place. Slowly, he holstered the gun and backed away from the man on his knees. Cautiously, I stepped out of the jeep, trying to keep an eye on everyone. It was impossible and I realized I was going to have to trust someone other than myself.

The man looked up at me and said, "What are you doing with these people?"

"I could ask you the same of the people you chose to keep company," I said.

He said, "If we have your friend, I can promise you he is safe."

I nodded and said, "You work for Olivia Stratford?"

"She commands my unit," He said.

"What does she want with me?" I asked.

"I don't know," He said.

I said, "Did you know she has tried to kill me twice?"

"No, she wouldn't," He said.

I said, "I'm sure you believe that, but I was there."

"She would never kill anyone, unlike your friends," He said, spitting in Jack's direction.

I said, "I don't want anyone to get hurt or killed. I just want to get my friend back."

He nodded at me, "I believe you. I probably shouldn't, but I do."

"If I give you the radio, will you do me the favor of asking her to arrange a meeting?" I asked.

"I will try, but I can't promise she will agree," He said.

I said, "I know, but if she's the person you think she is, she'll be willing to take some small risk to get you back safely." I turned to Gina, still sitting in the jeep looking uncomfortably torn between helping me and trusting her instincts, which sided with Jack. "Bring me the radio," I said.

She looked to Jack and then back to me, before getting up and grabbing the radio from the dash. I kept an eye on Jack as she walked over to me, but he was clearly washing his hands of the whole affair. There would be a conversation about it later, I had no doubt, but even Jack knew this was neither the time nor the place for it. Whatever he thought of it, he was just going to have to accept the fact there are lines I will not cross at any price.

Taking the radio from Gina I said, "Uncuff him."

She hesitated a moment, but this time she did my bidding without protest. Proving my instincts correct, he stayed where he was, massaging his wrists in front of him and remaining as non-threatening as a man can probably ever get. Gina backed away, clearly not trusting the situation. I stepped forward and handed him the radio and then took two steps back. If I was wrong, I wanted to be sure I had time to react before things really got out of control.

He adjusted the frequency and then made the call. Olivia's voice squawked, "Ben!" and I snatched the radio from his hands. "Are you alright?" Olivia's concerned voice asked.

"He's fine," I said.

"Maybe you do have a conscience," She said.

"We didn't want to hurt anyone but your man gave us no choice," I said.

"There are always choices," Olivia said, "You just keep making the wrong ones."

"You said you wanted to talk," I said.

"Yes," She said. "I want my man back as well."

"That can be arranged," I said. "I want Brian."

"Just tell me when and where," Olivia said.

I looked at Jack, he was shaking his head at me. He did not like my way of doing things, but his way was just going to end up with a lot of dead bodies. Keeping my finger off the transmit button, I said, "Will you help me?"

Jack frowned for a long moment, making sure I had no doubts about his displeasure. He said, "What do you need?"

I smiled and resumed my conversation with Olivia. "I'll transmit time and coordinates for a meeting on this channel in one hour," I said checking my watch. "Bring Brian, I'll bring Ben."

February 13, 2010

Choosing Corners: Better On Top

"Not exactly what I'd call a brilliant plan," Jack said.

We were sitting on a rooftop three buildings East of the hotel, watching smoke rise as firefighters soaked the building. The street was packed with emergency workers and onlookers providing all the confusion one could ask for if they were trying to sneak off unnoticed. Knowing Olivia though, I figured we were safer to stay close. She would not expect me to exercise patience and it was far from easy for me.

"We're safe and we're free," I said.

"We should have grabbed some supplies at least on the way out," Jack said.

"If we had, she would notice and then she would know we went up instead of out,"I said.

Jack said, "They'll figure it out eventually anyway."

"I get that we're waiting for dark, but what's the plan after that?" Gina asked.

Jack gestured toward me and said, "Ask the genius."

Gina's eyebrows raised and I rolled my eyes, shaking my head at Jack. "Olivia has people scouring the area, looking for us," I said. "Eventually some of them are going to be pulled out of the area when she determines we've left the city."

"Why would she determine that, when we haven't?" Jack said.

"Because we are going to," I said.

"That's the best idea you've had all day," Jack said with a touch of sarcasm slipping out, "When do we leave?"

"After dark," Gina said.

"Some of them will pull back to wherever they are keeping Brian. If we keep our heads, we should be able to follow them right to him," I said.

Gina nodded and said, "I'm in."

Jack said, "No. You two don't get it do you? Your trusted friend just sold us out and if you go in to rescue him, you're going to wind up right where Stratford wants you."

"Brian is not with them," I said and Gina nodded her head in total agreement. She said, "And if he is then we're on the wrong side."

"They're killers," Jack said.

"Then you've got nothing to worry about," Gina said.

"We're not going after him," Jack said looking between Gina and I, "As soon as night comes, we're heading for the airport and flying home."

"Call me crazy," Gina said laying a patronizing hand on Jack's knee, "But if I were Olivia, the airport would be the first place I'd secure."

I said, "You can run home if you want, I never asked you to come along in the first place, but I'm staying. My friend is in trouble and he called me for help. With or without you, I'm going to do what I can."

Jack sighed, shaking his head in frustration. He said, "Isn't it obvious this entire thing was a setup to get you down here and vulnerable? Stratford and her boss, want to get their hands on you."

Gina's eyes wavered back and forth in her head as she processed information and made conclusions. "Why her?" She said, almost more to herself than to us, "What's so special about V?"

Jack shrugged and I sat still, not reacting externally at all. I knew the answer to her question or at least I thought I did. The problem was I would not mind discussing it with Gina in some ways but nothing you tell a reporter ever remains confidential and then there was Jack. I am completely conflicted when it comes to the man, I do not trust him completely, but I do not distrust him completely either. Telling him the things I know would feel good, but there was no telling how he would react and even if he had similarly valuable information to reveal, I doubt he would be inspired to share it with me. Without knowing exactly where he stands, there is no way to determine whether his knowing would be good or bad for me.

In the wake of Gina's apt question silence fell on our rooftop. Jack removed his jacket and folded it up to rest beneath his head as he settled back to nap. There was nothing to be done until night anyway. Gina and I exchanged sympathetic smiles and then we each picked a side of Jack and joined him, laying down. It was going to be a long day, but at least we were not hanging from rafters being tortured.

I closed my eyes and slipped from the rooftop back into the nightmares plaguing me. Rain pelted down on me and the sounds of jungle life echoed in every direction. I could feel the warmth of fire on my legs and arms, but my breath was cold like ice. The world was frozen in a single moment and there was a jagged fracture running through it. Split into two, right and wrong were no longer clear choices, but muddled decisions without any indicators. On each side of me, a version of my ethereal grandmother stood, each urging me to follow a different path and I remained trapped in the middle, split in half, my instincts pulling me in opposite directions.

Olivia stood before me, laughing and smiling, taunting and beckoning, threatening and befriending. A gun flickered in and out of her hand, aimed at me and away from me. I had to decide what was real and what was not, but there was nothing beyond my instincts to tell me which was which. Hesitation held me paralyzed within the paradox and then Joseph Candle appeared before me, standing in the way. He smiled and frowned.

"Not deciding is a decision too," He said.

I jerked awake to sound of tropical rain falling on the rooftop. Disoriented and sensing danger I grabbed the gun tucked into my waistband and rolled onto my knees. It was dark and we were still on a rooftop, but at first I could not locate Jack or Gina. I could feel eyes on my back and I spun around to find the source.

"Whoa," Jack said as the barrel came to rest against his midsection. "Easy there, V."

I blinked, shaking off the disorientation. A moment later I lowered the gun, re-engaging the safety before slipping it back into my waistband. "Sorry," I said, feeling foolish but unable to completely push away the sensations of impending danger.

"Bad dream?" Gina asked from the other side of the rooftop where she was crouched to look out over the street.

I nodded and said, "You could say that." Keeping low, I moved across the roof to join her. Jack continued on his way to check out the back alley.

"Tried to wake you about an hour ago, but you would have nothing to do with the real world then," Gina said, smiling.

"Any signs of our friends?" I asked.

"You mean your friends?" Gina said, looking back to the street below, "I personally don't keep friends that try to kill me."

I said, "Lucky you," And scanned the world below, noticing it was disquietingly vacant.

"It would appear they've given up," Gina said.

"Only Olivia isn't the type to do that," I said, looking toward the other buildings and wondering if we were being watched from inside a dark window.

Gina said, "Especially after you humiliated her like that. She'll want to get even."

"And here I thought we were finally even," I said with a rueful smile.

"I take it you've had some run ins with her since camp, before today?" Gina said.

Jack joined us, kneeling down behind between us and said, "Last time she nearly killed Tom Clark and had V tortured for hours."

"The time before that," I said, "She tried to send me on a 32 story plunge."

"You still hell bent on going after this Brian?" Jack asked.

I glanced at him and said, "Yes, although I wouldn't qualify my position as hell bent."

"Surely, you can't still trust this guy?" Jack said.

I said, "I promise you, Brian did not set us up."

"Our current situation suggests otherwise," Jack said.

"Except that Gina is here," I said.

"What do I have to do with anything?" Gina said.

I said, "Brian might set me up if the situation was just right, but there is no way he'd call you into the middle of it. The simple fact he called both of us proves he had every intention of meeting us here."

"That's some rather twisted logic," Jack said.

"Think about it," I said, looking him in the eye, "Why would he call Gina in the first place? She's not going to help him fight off attackers."

"Hey," Gina said, "Push comes to shove, I'm not a pushover."

"No offense, Gina," Jack said, "But she's right, if he called you, he probably wanted you for journalistic reasons."

I said, "I'm guessing he figured if whatever he found gets out into the public eye, the threat would disappear."

"It usually isn't that simple," Gina said.

"No, but I have a feeling Brian didn't really understand what he'd stumbled into," I said.

"I'm willing to go along with you for now," Jack said, "But on one condition, we do this my way."

Gina smiled at me and said, "Alright Jack, what's your way?"

Jack said, "V?" I turned to him and nodded my head and said, "I can live with that."

"First, we need to get off this roof," Jack said.

A click behind him, made Jack turn around as Gina and I stared into the darkness, searching for the source. My hand found the handle of my gun again, but I hesitated a moment before pulling it out. Jack held a hand up for quiet and Gina and I waited. The only sound seemed to be the raindrops falling and then a series of clicks and scuffling footsteps roared out of the night.

"Nobody move," A gruff voice ordered, stepping from the shadows into the dim light. He was accompanied by five others, all pointing the business end of their weapons in our direction. The man who spoked grabbed a radio from his belt and spoke into it. He said, "We've got them, Ma'am."

I kept my hand poised on my gun, behind my back and looked to Jack, hoping he had a plan to get us off the roof. Gina was looking between the two of us uncertain which of us she should be taking cues from. One thing was certain though, none of us were ready to give up just because a few guys were pointing guns at us.

Glancing over the edge of the building, I noted the fire escape switch backing down to the street. It was unlikely to be a clean escape, but it would get us moving safely for a little bit at least. With my eyes, I made the suggestion to Jack and after a raised eyebrow, he shrugged as if to say, "What the hell."

Slowly, I rose to my feet attracting the attention of all six guns. The leader of the group said, "I could have sworn I told you not to move." Jack laughed causing barrels to swing back in his direction and he said, "I keep telling people, but nobody seems to believe me. She has a real problem listening."

"Oh, I believe you," Gina said, pushing herself up to sit on the ledge.

"The next person who moves is going to get shot," The gruff man said.

"Does that include your people too?" I asked.

"Shut up," He ordered.

"Because there are a lot of people around and I'm sure several have moved since your threat but unless I'm wrong and Jack thinks I'm wrong a lot, but—

The gruff man pointed his gun at the sky firing a round and shouted, "SHUT UP!"

It was the distraction we had been waiting for and none of us wasted a second. Gina was over the ledge dropping to the fire escape while Jack and I drew our guns and rolled for cover while shooting at our distracted captors. They scrambled for cover, giving us a clear run for the edge and we took it, leaping down to the fire escape. Gina led the way, kicking free the ladders and sliding down level after level until we landed in the alley between buildings.