Across the country, in the Common Room, Jay tore his eyes from the monitors. "How do you know these messages are for us?" he asked, pointing to the digital photographs. "There's no way--"
Jack waved his hand impatiently, cutting off the question. He nodded to the screen.
"It fits the pattern of Alpha the puzzlemaker, doesn't it?" Jack's face was turning red. "John Alpha--or whoever he NEPTH-charged into these men's heads--is talking to us. Damn it!"
"It means more than that," Kilroy2.0 said quietly. Now submerged in his element, deep-diving in conspiracy, his words came out easily, measured. "These messages, whatever they mean, imply that Alpha knew we'd be looking for him--and he knew it long before we were ever brought together. These messages were written five months ago. That was before the president was murdered, before Dania Sheridan--Mom--was kidnapped."
Kilroy2.0 tapped the screen. "This was orchestrated." He gave a low, appreciative chuckle. "This was planned. Alpha knew we'd eventually be called to hunt him down. So he planted some evidence for us to find. This presumable puzzle. Probably the first puzzle he made . . . but not the first puzzle we would solve."
"The Morse-code bit," Jay marveled. "With the song--that was the first puzzle we encountered. But that was planted three weeks ago, when Mom was kidnapped."
"As I said," Kilroy replied. "Orchestrated."
"He's playing with us," Jack said. "He knew he'd get to play with us. But how?"
Kilroy2.0 offered a grim smile. "He created the game, Jack. Remember the Fowler boy? Yes? The one who killed the president? Yes? Now, remember the clue. What clue did Alpha leave that he knew would alert the right people that he was behind it?"
"The tattoo," Jay said, nodding. "The tattoo in the ear."
Jack scratched his beard. His eyes were wide. "Let me get this straight. Alpha deliberately puts the tattoo in the kid's ear because he knows that Kleinman--or someone else at 7th Son--will spot it and know what it means. And Alpha, in turn, also knows Kleinman will bring us together to stop him. So he plants these messages months before he NEPTH-charges the Fowler boy to show us how smart he is. That's what you're saying? Unbelievable."
Kilroy raised his eyebrows. His eyes turned slowly to the photos on the screens.
"Okay," Jack said, sighing. "Let's say you're right. Alpha's given us a shout-out from the past. He's telling us that he knows we're trying to find him--and the mere existence of the photos tells us he's been plotting for at least five months."
"At least," Kilroy said.
Jay leaned forward, toward the monitors. "Let's see what else we can glean from this."
They stared at the screen. It was filled with nonsense words: vowels and consonants tossed into a maddening mishmash.
Jack shook his head. "We should write these down, download them or something. We only have about an hour and a half before Kilroy's army stops clogging up the bandwidth."
Jay snatched the pen and pocket notebook from the table and began scribbling. Kilroy2.0 downloaded the pictures on the screen. He then began downloading the images of the victim's necks, and the strange letter/number combinations tattooed on them.
"One last photograph we haven't looked at," Kilroy said, circling an on-screen link with his mouse: Attached image 24 of 24: nu4446-ot-898vf-24.jpg. "This must be the dog-tag necklace the dead men were wearing."
"As if we didn't have enough to digest," Jack said. "Go ahead, click it."
The photograph popped up in a separate window. Just as the CDC report said, the necklace was engraved with an unidentifiable symbol. It was triangular, a vaguely satanic-looking thing, with hooked barbs curling outward from its three points.
"What in the hell is that?" Jack asked.
No one had a reply.
* * *
The words echoed in his mind as Father Thomas instinctively clutched at his rosary.
"Army is a strong word, Thomas." Sheridan pulled himself from the comfy chair and stood. The apartment spotlight above made him look like a wraith. "But you're partially right."
As the old man stretched and stepped around the efficiency apartment, he told Thomas to consider the possibilities of such a group of men. Their common childhood experiences would be a built-in cohesive, and they would bond more quickly than strangers in similar circumstances, thanks to those shared memories. As living "variations on a theme," their body language would be similar, as would their references and conversational shorthand. They would communicate far more effectively than a team of strangers.
These clones would react better as a unit, Sheridan said. They would be personally invested in the team, whatever the team's mission might be. And they would each bring a similar yet viably different perspective to a problem.
"I'm telling you that 7th Son was designed to build teams of men--brilliant men in their respective fields--and bring them together in times of crisis. The perfect team, unified emotionally and mentally at its core. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Thomas fleetingly replayed the past day. He and the other Beta clones had swapped memories, stories. We did bond, he realized. Tossed out details that only we/I thought we/I had. And we worked pretty well together when we cracked John Alpha's message. It works. God help me--no, God help us--it really works.
"Yeah. I understand." Thomas placed his head between his knees. "So what are we then? Michael, John, Jack, me, and the rest of the Beta clones?"
"You're the dry run. The lab rats. The first tentative step in a long-term project exploring the viability of this, ah, technique of team creation. We never planned to bring you seven together--you were supposed to live out your LTPs, retire, and die, blissfully unaware that you were clones. Meanwhile, 7th Son would have a wealth of data to apply to the next stage of the project. The growth-accelerant serum, for instance, has already been improved for the next generation of clones. What we grew in years would now only take months. From what I understand, the next stage of the experiment is to begin by the end of the decade . . . with a new Alpha and new Betas. But this Alpha apparently had other ideas."
Thomas lifted his head. "Revenge."
"That's right. And he's invited his 'children' to stop him. Whatever he's planned, you and the rest of the Betas apparently play a pivotal role."
Thomas shook his head. He looked down. His hands were trembling again.
"Come on, Thomas. Walk with me. You probably need it more than I do."
The door to Sheridan's apartment whooshed open, and Thomas nodded to Lieutenant Stone as they stepped into the hallway.
"Where are we going?" Thomas asked.
"I haven't been here in years," Sheridan replied. "Let me follow my bliss."
The priest nodded.
"You do have an edge," Sheridan said as they strode down the halls of Level Fourteen. "Against Alpha, I mean. Your childhood is his childhood and that might help. But to be honest, I'm not sure how much. While you and the Betas woke up to your new lives all those years ago, John Alpha lived and worked here at 7th Son. He watched each of you. He studied each of you."
The man stopped now and stared into Thomas's eyes. "And he took lessons from one of the greatest predators who has ever lived in this century."
"I don't . . ."
Sheridan began to chuckle again as he raised his arms to the ceiling. The old man's eyes glinted in the darkness. His voice was cold, damned. "The great creator of this place."
The clone blinked. "Are you talking about Frank Berman?"
"That's not his name," Sheridan spat, lowering his arms. "That's the name Kleinman gave you in that conference room, another revision of 7th Son's history. Why? Probably to bluff the geneticist and the conspiratorial hacker; they might have recognized his real name. The man's name was Klaus Bregner. He was the lost Teufels-Chirurg. Do you know the phrase?"
Thomas shook his head.
"You shouldn't. Not many do, not anymore. It's German. A literal translation would be 'devil surgeon.' He was a Nazi, Thomas. A Nazi doctor."
Thomas felt his body stiffen. He hadn't heard the phrase Nazi doctor in a long time. That was dark stuff. Bad mojo.
"Of course not," Sheridan replied. "You do know what I mean when I say 'Nazi doctor,' don't you?"
"Yeah." Thomas made an effort to catch up with Sheridan, who'd already resumed his trek. "Human experimentation in the concentration camps, right? Vivisection. Exposing Jews to everything from the plague to compression chambers. Mengele. Experiments on twins. Marathon Man. The Boys from Bra--" Thomas looked at Sheridan, his mouth agape. Finally: "Not really. Not for real."
"Bregner was the head of a Nazi project code-named Doppeln," Sheridan said. "It was composed of biologists. Germany's elite, naturally. A very small group; by Bregner's accounts, only five scientists ever contributed directly to the project. Only a precious few knew of its existence. It was clandestine and well funded. Bregner reported to Hitler himself, if that gives you an inkling of its sensitivity."
"Do you speak German?" Sheridan asked. "No. That's the other one--the UN man, the lovebird. Doppeln is a verb. It means 'to double.' That was what Hitler wanted. Duplicates. Not of himself, but of the Reich's Überkrieger--its so-called superwarriors. The Überkrieger were the SS's upper crust. The elite's elite, top-drawer men. Given what you've learned in the past two days, the goal of the Doppeln project should be obvious."
Sheridan paused. He lit his cigarette and watched the smoke tendrils float skyward. Thomas waited in silence. He was beyond questions now.
"The Nazi doctors you've heard about . . . Josef Mengele, Clauberg, Oberheuser . . . they all had a tenuous connection to the Doppeln project," Sheridan said finally. "The thanatology experiments at Auschwitz and other camps were never performed to satisfy some professional or medical curiosity, as the world has been told. Nor were they the inexplicable actions of men consumed by power and madness. The findings of their experiments were compiled and forwarded in secret to Bregner and the Doppeln project. It was organized, Thomas. All those terrible experiments you've ever heard of were ordered from on high. The beast had a brain. Bregner."
Sheridan turned a corner, and Thomas followed. The old man's face was pale, haggard. His blue eyes were looking at something far, far away. He was walking on autopilot; a kind of muscle memory, if that made sense.
"Not all of the Nazi elite escaped Germany, like Mengele," he said, shaking his head slowly. "Most of them were captured. And nearly all of the doctors tried at Nuremberg committed suicide, were imprisoned, or swung from the gallows. But not Bregner. He vanished. Rumors of his actions have made a few history books--secrets of the Reich don't stay secret forever, after all. But Bregner, the true mastermind behind the Nazi experiments, only scores a sentence in most history books, if that. He's a mere footnote of a footnote in the annals of Nazi history."
"Extreme secrecy or sheer disbelief, mostly. But I assume it's something else, as well. Bregner's Doppeln project didn't use the death-camp Jews as its test subjects. No, the Doppeln scientists experimented upon members of the very Überkrieger they were trying to replicate. The Reich's most cunning wolves were sacrificed to further the Great Cause. To re-create the perfection of a brilliant Aryan, one must plumb its pure source, no? Let the Mengeles cut open the filthy Jews and send back their reports. But only Bregner and his conspirators would touch pure Aryan blood. That was the logic behind the Doppeln experiments. And in the eyes of the historians who might actually believe this history, Nazis cutting open Nazis isn't an atrocity. It's poetic justice. Hence, no mention in the books.
"When the Allies took the southern-German mining town of Merkers in 1945, they discovered enormous caches of art and money hidden in its salt mines. They also found the country villa which housed the Doppeln project. Did Kleinman mention he was a part of that team? It's true. They captured Bregner; in fact, he was the only Doppeln scientist who hadn't gobbled his cyanide capsule when Joe came crashing through the gates. He was held in secret for more than a year. After the Nuremberg trials were over, his new life began. His life here in America."
Sheridan looked into Thomas's eyes again. "Have you ever heard of something called Operation Paperclip?"
"No," Thomas whispered.
"Created by the United States government after World War Two. From the mid-1940s to the late fifties, hundreds of former Nazi scientists emigrated to America. Their accumulated military and scientific knowledge was what our government craved, particularly since the Red Menace was looming on the horizon. These Nazis were given a deal: in exchange for amnesty and the acquittal of war crimes, they would divulge their wartime secrets and help build America into a superpower. Nazis helped make our bombs bigger, our planes faster. They got our asses into outer space. Not many people know that former Nazis contributed to the success of the U.S. space program."
Thomas was about to admit his ignorance, too, but Sheridan absently waved his hands.
"It doesn't matter. What does matter is that Klaus Bregner was brought to this country to continue his research, albeit in a much more, ah, supervised setting. And thus endeth the tale of the lost Teufels-Chirurg--and the beginning of Project 7th Son. Bregner was never formally in charge of this experiment, and he had no official power or policy-making ability. But he was its driving force from the beginning. In exchange for his survival, Bregner lived here in the complex, a slave to the research. He was never permitted to go topside. From the time he came here until his death four years ago, Bregner never left this facility. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, he was dead.
"When John Alpha was brought to this facility after the fictional car accident and was explained the truth behind 7th Son, he and Bregner bonded. Despite the age difference, they became good friends. Bregner was a grandfather, a teacher. Alpha and Bregner avidly followed the progress of you Beta clones. As I said before, they studied you. When John Alpha escaped from the facility, Bregner became depressed. The more sentimental staff members here said the old man was suffering from a broken heart. Appropriately enough, Bregner committed suicide by overdosing on his heart medication just months after Alpha left. Dania and I were divorced by then, and she was long gone. But I wasn't. I was still here. The staff had always thought he was a nice man--friendly, forthcoming. But I said good riddance when I learned of his death."
"Once a Nazi, always a Nazi," Thomas said.
"My sentiments exactly. Perhaps the roots of Alpha's betrayal can be found in the lessons Bregner taught him those years ago. I've been wondering about that lately. Old habits and old beliefs die hard, especially when there's a new generation with which to share them. Perhaps Bregner did just that. Perhaps he didn't."
Thomas nodded. They walked together, in silence.
So that begins to explain it, Thomas thought. The roots of this place. The need for secrecy, no outside involvement. No wonder Alpha ran. No wonder he's scheming for revenge against this country, against us. He was taught by a caged animal. A caged animal teaching another caged animal how to survive.
And what does a caged animal pine for most? To be free.
Finally, Thomas spoke.
"So tell me how Dania Sheridan fits into all this. And why John Alpha has kidnapped her."
John silently wished Michael good luck as he saw the marine dash into the void beneath Folie á Deux. Then he reached forward, his fingers spider-crawling against the inside wall, searching for the light switch. He felt the rough cinder-block walls, a small metal box protruding . . . there. He snapped the switch upward.
The cellar's fluorescent lights hummed like houseflies in a jar, then sputtered to life. It was the storeroom, just as he remembered from the blueprints. John held his gun outward, sweeping it left and right as his eyes adjusted to the illumination. No one was in here. Just an empty room filled with memories of what Folie á Deux once was.
It was all familiar to the bartender. There, in a far corner: old boxes, stacked nearly to the ceiling, of Grey Goose, Maker's Mark, Absolut, Southern Comfort. Directly in front of him was the stainless-steel door of a walk-in refrigerator. Another corner was dedicated to mops, buckets, bags filled with sawdust. A utility dolly lay on its side, just by the door. John could smell the ghosts of broken liquor bottles and tapped kegs.
He holstered his pistol. There's nothing here. That means I shouldn't be here. I should be running after Michael. Alpha's back there, in the tunnel. Mom's back there.
Nodding to himself, John turned to leave the room. And that's when he spotted the chair. There was nothing special about it; just a dark wooden chair left leaning carelessly against the wall. But the wall just beyond the chair, that was the curious thing. A Jackson Pollock wannabe had splattered reddish brown paint all over it.
A chill snaked its way down John's back, then through his arms.
He gazed down at the floor, and at the dotted-line trail of paint drops--blood drops--that began from the chair resting cockeyed against the wall.
They ended at the door to the walk-in refrigerator.
"Mom?" John whispered.
Trembling, he began to walk toward the glinting steel door. He did not draw his pistol.
* * *
Michael trotted down the carved stone passageway, toward the dim light ahead, trying to keep his breathing measured, shallow. The dust and grit from the freshly cut rock was almost a mist in this cramped space; it fought into Michael's nostrils and eyes.
Alpha was back here, running from him, scrambling deeper into the rathole he'd made for himself. Fine. Run. I'll catch you.
The tunnel turned steadily to the left . . . then another straightaway. Michael considered the path of the tunnel against the layout of the club. We're double-backing toward the club proper. I'm probably somewhere beneath the dance floor now. Does he have a tunnel leading out to the sewer lines beneath Sunset Boulevard? Is he going to worm out of this?
Wait. Another smell through the fog of stone-stink. Cologne. I'm catching up.
The light was growing brighter as he neared the end of the tunnel. Directly ahead now. Light shining not from above, but from nearly eye level. A construction work light. Michael stopped running and squinted through the glare. A shadow moving, up ahead. Stepping in front of the light.
The silhouette raised its hands.
"Don't shoot!" a voice cried. Panting. Panicked. Male. Alpha's voice. My voice.
"GET ON THE GROUND!" Michael screamed. "DO IT NOW!"
The shadow-Alpha shook its head. "I've got a bomb." Voice nearly tittering now. "You really don't want to--"
Michael pulled the XM8's trigger. Three rounds sprayed forth, strobe-lighting the tunnel walls. The light behind John Alpha burst open in a shower of sparks and glass. Alpha was flung backward by two invisible punches and crashed onto the floor. He screamed.
The marine slung the machine gun to his back and sprinted the remaining thirty feet. He reached into a pouch on the backside of his belt and yanked out a signal flare. These flares were worthless during the mission--the need for stealth upstairs was critical, both before and after the ambush. They were for signaling the choppers.
He popped off the flare cap as he covered the last twenty feet. The tunnel exploded into a manic light show of bright crimson and dancing shadow. John Alpha lay on the floor, bleeding . . . and laughing.
"That's--that's just like you, Michael," Alpha said, grinning maniacally. His teeth were slick with blood. It looked black in the flare light. "Shoot 'em all, and let God sort 'em ou--"
He coughed a mouthful of blood onto his shirt. Michael's eyes flitted over the body: one bullet in the shoulder, one in the gut.
"Brilliant shooting," Alpha said. His body was trembling from the shock now. "Lucky, too."
Alpha pointed behind himself, to where the tunnel dead-ended. Michael followed the path with his eyes--then saw it. Saw them. Saw all of them.
Metal barrels, at least a dozen, flickering in the flare's sputtering light. Each had the same words painted on its side, in bright orange letters.
Rookman Oil Inc.--JP-8 Aircraft Fuel
"I told you I had a bomb," Alpha whispered.
* * *
John wrapped his fingers around the refrigerator door's silver handle. It was cold. Everything was cold now. That was his mother's blood splattered against the wall. Was she dead? Didn't John Alpha say something about her being alive? Was any of it true?
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his other hand. He just couldn't seem to let go of the handle. She's in there. No. She isn't. It's a lie. It's--
The door vibrated outward. John screamed. His eyes flashed from the handle to the dull silver surface of the door before him. His blurry reflection gawked back, wide-eyed, petrified--
A person was in there, wanting to get out. I thought she was dead for more than half of my life and she's just beyond this door, a prisoner, and I'm too scared, 'cause what if it isn't, what if it's something else, something wicked, something
John closed his eyes and yanked the handle. A blast of cold vapor swirled around him, conjuring gooseflesh. He heard the faraway whir of the refrigeration unit, the thud of the walk-in's door as it slammed against the wall . . . and a voice saying nothing, just grunting, pleading, trapped inside itself.
John opened his eyes. Tears began to form.
The woman was lying on the metal floor, her hands and legs tied together. She had been gagged; two pieces of duct tape splayed across her mouth in an X. Dried blood covered her face, her scalp, her shoulders. Gashes were along her bare arms. A crimson-stained bandage covered her right hand . . . only the tips of her thumb, ring finger, and pinkie poked through the gauze. Her long skirt had been cut in several places, her yellow blouse was stiff with dried blood. Some of her hair was gray, presumably her natural color. The rest was red.
Blood leaked from the soles of her bare feet. The thunks had been her kicks against the inside of the door.
Dania Sheridan writhed on the floor. Her voice, bouncing inside her mouth, begged him to free her. John looked at her face, her high cheekbones, her brilliant green eyes. This was not his mother. It could not be his mother. His mother was dead. This woman was worse than dead.
But it was. It was.
"Mom," he said, and rushed to her. She was nodding furiously now, and John could see that under her duct-tape gag, Dania Sheridan was smiling.
* * *
Michael punched John Alpha in the face a second time. Then a third. The signal flare hissed on the ground nearby; Alpha's eyes glittered pink in the light. He was laughing again.
"Hoo-aah, marine!" Alpha cried, spraying blood through his teeth. "I bet this takes you back to the good old days! Before the order crushed the chaos! Remember those days, boy?"
Alpha closed his eyes and cackled. It echoed against the walls, the floor, the barrels of jet fuel behind him. Electrical wires crisscrossed over the surfaces of the barrels of JP-8, all converging into a shoebox-size metal case resting near Alpha's body. A single red light blinked from its side like a stoplight.
"Where's the switch?" Michael demanded. He squatted next to Alpha's trembling body. He grabbed the lapels of John Alpha's suit jacket, lifted him upward, slammed him onto the ground. Alpha groaned. "I see the rig you've got here," Michael barked. "So where's the detonator switch?!"
Alpha's head lolled to and fro; he was trying to shake his head.
"I bet the others have no idea who you were . . . before," Alpha muttered. "But I do. I watched you from the belly of 7th Son, since the Womb. Had the haint all over you in the beginning, Michael. Inhuman bastard, you were."
Shut up. Shut up. I'm not--
"I'm not that man anymore and you know it," Michael snarled. There wasn't much time before the choppers arrived now. So stop wasting time, he thought. Get the answers you need. Now.
Michael hands raced over Alpha's body, through his jacket pockets, over his legs, ankles . . . nothing. No remote control device to detonate the bomb.
"You were nothing, Michael. Trash. Detritus. Deadwood."
Michael punched Alpha in the jaw. More blood sprayed into the dark. Alpha coughed and spit out a molar. It skipped across his chest and fell into the shadows.
"Careful! I need those!" Alpha cried. His voice was high, goading. A sneer curled on his lips. "A man needs his choppers, Michael. You know that. I bet this really takes you back. Remember the Banetti job, back when you were eighteen--or rather, when you thought you were eighteen? Got thirty bucks for every tooth you brought back on that job. You made almost two hundred bucks that night . . . all because the guy couldn't pay his bookie. You were the mob's whore."
That was before. Before I picked myself up. Before drill. Before Force Recon. Before my love, my improbable love, my Gabriel. That was a long, long time ago. I'm a better man now--
This is exactly what he wants. End it!
"I'm not going to ask you again," Michael said. The lion inside was ravenous. It was tired of asking questions.
Alpha lay his head against the ground. Beside him, the box's red light blinked on and off. The barrels loomed in the darkness.
"I don't have it," Alpha muttered. "Dropped the remote upstairs, when I was running away from that explosive turn of events. That John is quicker than he looks."
Michael smiled. "So am I." He punched Alpha one last time. His enemy's head rocked from the impact, and that was all. Alpha was unconscious. The perfect state, Michael reasoned, in which to be during a helicopter evac.
Michael glanced at the canisters of jet fuel, then to the wires, then to the blinking box. There's no way he could defuse the thing.
He grabbed Alpha's arms, then heaved the body over his shoulder.
"I got you, fucker," he said, and ran back toward the entrance of the tunnel.
* * *
Somewhere under all that blood was Mom. Somewhere.
Using the knife from his chest harness, John cut the ropes from Dania Sheridan's quivering wrists and ankles. He pulled the duct tape from her mouth.
Dania winced from the sting, but the movements in her eyes were measured, decisive. Under control. Whatever horrors Alpha had done to her, he hadn't slain her spirit. John could see that right away. Spend enough pouring drinks for dead-enders and you know what a crushed soul looks like. Dania Sheridan didn't have that look.
She reached up and placed her trembling hands on his face. She smiled, her swollen lips spreading across bloodstained teeth. But somewhere in that smile--and in John's memories--he saw the smile of his mother. She kissed him on the forehead.
"Which one are you?" Her voice was hoarse.
"I'm John. I'm the--"
"The musician," Dania said, nodding. "I remember you. I . . . never thought I'd ever meet you. Any of you."
And I never thought I'd see you again. And here I am, seeing you for the first time. Seeing you again.
"If we don't get out of here, I'll be the only one of us you ever meet," John said. "There are choppers coming for us. Can you stand? We have to move."
She nodded. He pulled her upward, and Dania cried out as she put her full weight on her bloodied feet.
"No. I'm the one who's sorry. Thank you, John."
He shook his head--later, let's do this later--and guided her out of the frigid chamber, out of the storage room, into the hallway. As they limped up the incline toward the ground floor of Folie á Deux, John thought of Michael and the passageway.
Is he okay?
As John kicked open the doors at the top of the hall, he found the answer to his question: Michael was already up here.
* * *
"Careful!" Michael screamed to the pair as they emerged from the hall and stood on the dance floor. Several lit signal flares were on the floor; they hissed their red light into the gloom. John saw the limp body of Alpha lying facedown on the floor beside the marine.
As Michael stepped up to the pair, John glanced upward, at the ruined skylight hole. Two rappelling ropes still dangled from above. His eyes flitted around the club. The place was a splintered, shattered wreck . . . but something was different. The realization made him cringe: the bodies were missing. Bodies of the 7th Son recruits. Even the Vaporwear shades were gone. It's a cover-up. This is the proverbial china shop . . .
John heard the wail of police sirens--much closer now--and the roar of approaching helicopters.
. . . and the bull has a getaway car.
"There's a bomb beneath us," Michael said as he hoisted Dania Sheridan's other arm around his shoulder. "Alpha's rigged a roomful of jet fuel to a detonator. He dropped the controller switch up here, so watch your step." They moved toward the rappelling ropes.
"You believe him?" John asked.
"I searched him. And with half the LAPD heading this way, we don't have time to look for it."
"How much time?" They were at the ropes now.
"Evac ETA, three minutes." Michael waved his free arm to the soldiers who were peering through the skylight from the roof. "Everything accounted for?"
Rubenstein waved back. "Affirmative. All guns, gear, and armor were retrieved. And the KIAs. We scooped up as many shells as we could. But we've got a problem up here."
Michael grunted. "What?"
"The sniper you shot. He's still alive. Says he's got a suicide pill inside his mouth. Wants to speak to one of you."
Michael glanced to John, who appeared equally mystified, and muttered, "What a fucking mess." Then, to Rubenstein: "Keep watching him. We'll be up soon. We've got what we came for. Drop me two EEHs."
Two beltlike nylon harnesses fell from the sky. Michael caught one of them before it hit the ground. He turned and for the first time acknowledged Dania Sheridan.
"Hi, Mom." He grinned. He didn't flinch from the gore on her face, didn't bat an eye. "Good to see you again."
Dania Sheridan smiled back weakly. "Are you Michael?"
"Yeah." He adjusted the straps on the harness. "One of the few, the proud. We don't have time to chat, Mom. Big reunion happens later. I'm gonna put this harness on you, then you're going up."
Dania Sheridan nodded. John stepped back as Michael slipped the harness over her chest. "This might hurt," Michael said, and tugged two straps dangling from her shoulders. The harness pulled taut across her chest. Dania Sheridan winced.
Michael pulled the rappelling rope close to his mother. At the base of the rope rested a black contraption that bore an undeniable resemblance to Pac-Man; the rope snaked through its pie-wedge-shaped mouth and continued through a small hole on the opposite end. A carabiner dangled from the device. Michael clipped the carabiner through a metal ring on Dania Sheridan's harness.
"The ride's quick," he said. "Just let them take care of you when you get to the top."
"Michael. Why? Why did you come for me?"
The marine's chiseled features warmed for an instant. "It's how you raised us, Mom."
Michael pressed the round button on the device. It whined for a few seconds, as if something inside were whirring in a centrifuge, then it shot up the rope, lifting Dania Sheridan along with it. Her body rose through forty feet of space, then stopped at the roof. Rubenstein and the remaining soldiers pulled her through the skylight. The Pac-Man device slid back down the rope.
One of the choppers was overhead now. A spotlight lanced into the club, then flitted away. The helicopter wouldn't be able to land on the roof--Folie á Deux's couldn't hold the weight--but it could hover just above it. That's what the chopper pilot was doing now. The downdraft from the rotor blades roared through the skylight, creating a gale of broken metal, glass, and wood.
The clones turned to John Alpha. "He's unconscious, so this shouldn't take long," Michael said. He picked up the second harness and slipped Alpha's arms through it. He rolled Alpha's body over to tighten the straps.
John grimaced. Alpha's face was covered in blood. His nose had been broken. His bottom lip was split. Fresh splotches of purple bruises were already appearing on his face.
Michael did this.
Alpha opened his eyes.
"You should really talk to that man on the roof, John." Alpha grinned. "I'm certain he wants to confess his sins. As does Michael. Isn't that right, Michael? You've lived a very sinful life."
"Shut up," Michael said. He secured the harness clasps and pulled the straps taught. Alpha howled. The marine pulled a pair of plastic flex-cuffs from one of his vest pockets and slipped them over Alpha's wrists. Michael grabbed the collar of John Alpha's suit and dragged him over to the other rappelling rope.
"He lives in sin! He bathes in it!" Alpha screamed as Michael connected the harness to the Pac-Man device. The downdraft was a hurricane here, blowing Alpha's once well-coiffed hair about his face. "Ask him! Ask the great archangel Michael about his lover! Ask him about Gabriel!"
Michael jabbed the device's button and John Alpha shot skyward. A moment passed, and the rope-climbing machine slid back to the floor.
John looked at Michael. Even through the whipping winds around them, Michael didn't blink. "I'm a good man."
"I know," John said.
They attached the rope-climbers to their belts and zipped upward together, to the roof, to their mother and brother.
* * *
It was a spectacle worthy of a Hollywood action picture. One Black Hawk was hovering less than ten feet above Folie á Deux's roof, its rotors spinning precariously close to the abandoned office building next to the club. Another was flying in a holding pattern, scorching a path above Sunset Boulevard. Below, on the street, police cars were screeching up to the front of the club, their alert lights casting blue- and red-colored strobes across the confused faces of pedestrians and commuters. LAPD officers were trying to block the streets and sidewalks, pressing the mass of stunned bystanders away from the scene.
Michael and John climbed onto the roof and disengaged the Pac-Man climbers. Those left of the 7th Son squadron were crouching near the skylight. Dr. Mike, Dania Sheridan, and John Alpha were with them. Beyond them was the Vaporwear sniper, lying in a pool of blood. And beyond the sniper, the hovering chopper awaited, its side cargo door open and waiting.
"The KIAs are in there," Rubenstein shouted over the din, nodding to the helicopter. "There's still room for two more. You want to take the prisoner here?"
Michael nodded. "Let's stick to the plan. Alpha and I will take this ride, but only after you all have loaded up in the other bird. Radio the chopper. Tell it to move back and hold position--then get everyone else on the second one when it moves up. This one will come back for us."
"What?" John said. "No! Go now! Take Alpha with you! We'll be fine!"
Michael shook his head. "I'm not leaving anyone behind," he cried. "I'm the first to go in and the last to leave: that's how it works, and that's how I want it. My word is law, remember?" He turned to Rubenstein. "Do it."
The soldier began barking orders into his headset. The hovering chopper rose upward, then banked away from the buildings. The crowd below on Sunset Boulevard gaped and gasped.
"And find the police band on your radio," Michael screamed to Rubenstein. "Tell them to pull back, pull everyone back. There's a tanker's worth of JP-8 under the building rigged to explode."
As the second helicopter swung into position, Michael grabbed John's shoulder and pointed to the bleeding sniper. The man's Vaporwear face mask had been removed; he was pale, wheezing, no longer a threat. He was young. A kid, really.
"Go on and see what he has to say," Michael said. "I'll cover you."
Michael unholstered his Beretta and drew back the slide. John considered this, then walked over to the sniper. He went to one knee, struck by the killer's age. So young. No more than seventeen. What happened to make him homeless? He wondered how Alpha had found this boy and administered the NEPTH-charge. John exhaled. Whoever he was, he's gone now. You're not speaking to a child. You're speaking to whoever Alpha zapped into the boy's brain. An assassin.
"You wanted to talk to me," John said.
The sniper nodded and pulled his lips apart into a grin. A white, triangular capsule was clenched between his front teeth. The suicide pill.
"You don't need that. We aren't going to hurt you."
The sniper placed the tip of his tongue behind the pill and maneuvered it over, so it was placed between his molars.
"Jesus, it's over," John said. "We can take you back alive, give you medical attention. Do you understand?"
The boy/not-boy chuckled, the pill still between his teeth. "I don't want a doctor; I'm dead already. I want you to listen. I have a message--a very important message."
John stood up.
The sniper grinned. "It's the voice of the demon. My voice. The voice of Legion, the one who was many. Don't you want to know my last words to the world?"
John took a step backward, pale. "No."
The sniper laughed, cocked his head to one side, and chomped down on the fang-shaped pill. His body jittered into immediate convulsions.
"Go fuck your mother!" he cried through clenched teeth. The boy/not-boy doubled over, arms slamming onto the roof, foam and spittle running from his mouth. Then it was over. John shuddered, wanting to scream.
"Come on," Michael said, gently pushing John away, toward the hovering chopper. The other 7th Son soldiers--and Dr. Mike and Dania Sheridan--were already aboard. Only Michael, John, John Alpha, and the dead sniper remained on the roof.
"Go," the marine said. "I'll take both of them on the other chopper. It's doubling back now."
John nodded numbly and ran to the helicopter. He glanced out toward Sunset Boulevard. The police cars were pulling away; cops were waving back the pedestrians, most of whom were running down the block now. The bomb report had everyone backing off.
John climbed into the Black Hawk and sat in the seat next to a bloody, beaten Dr. Mike. John looked back at Michael. He waved once. Then one of the soldiers inside slammed the cargo door shut.
"Buckle the fuck up, kemo sabe," Dr. Mike said, his voice a stoned slur. "Your in-flight drinks will be served shortly. I heartily recommend the morphine."
John nodded, but wasn't listening. He was hearing the echoing voice of the sniper.
* * *
Michael quickly conducted an inventory of the situation: The helicopter filled with survivors swooped upward and outward, then hovered several hundred yards away. It would wait there for the second chopper to pick up Michael and John Alpha on the roof, then both helicopters would arc northeast. Back toward Edwards Air Force Base. Michael peered down to the street. The once-gawking bystanders were bolting away from Folie á Deux, the cops waving them away. Good. The second chopper was moving into position now. Also good.
He turned his attention to John Alpha, who lay on the roof, grinning up at him.
"All alone again," Alpha said. "You going to pull another Rodney King while everyone's looking the other way?"
"You're getting everything you deserve." The second chopper was now hovering over the roof. Its downdraft rushed across Michael's face. He walked over to John Alpha and again grabbed the man's suit jacket, dragging him across the tar-covered roof toward the helicopter. Alpha didn't struggle.
They passed the body of the NEPTH-charged sniper.
John Alpha laughed. "He didn't make it, huh?" he screamed hysterically. "But then again, he was going to die anyway. My assassins have a very short shelf life."
Michael released Alpha's jacket; the villain's torso flopped onto the roof. "We know all about it," Michael said as he walked over to the sniper's body. He grabbed the sniper's wrists and pulled the body closer to where the chopper was hovering. "You did this to a four-year-old boy, too. Don't think you're not going to pay for that."
The helicopter was now floating just feet above the roof. Its rotors were almost deafening, its downdraft ripping through their bodies. Michael picked up the sniper's body, carried it over to the chopper, and threw it into the cargo hold. He strode back to John Alpha.
Almost done now. Almost home.
"You're over and done, and you know it," Michael said, yanking Alpha to his feet. He pushed Alpha toward the open cargo door.
"It's never over. Have you even considered--"
Michael grabbed Alpha's handcuffed body and heaved him into the helicopter's cargo hold. Alpha slammed onto the metal floor, next to the sniper's body.
Michael climbed into the chopper. As he reached for the door, he glanced around the cramped space. It reeked of burned flesh and blood. He was surrounded by the bodies of the Vaporwear shades, the 7th Son soldiers. Durbin, Andrade, Travieso, Fleming, Tomasello . . . Don't think about it, not now, not yet. The helicopter swayed in midair, the pilot waiting for Michael to close the cargo door.
"I was saying something to you, Michael," Alpha shouted.
"Shut up." Michael grabbed the door handle.
"Amazing, that boy's suicide pill," Alpha said conversationally. "Shaped like a tooth, implanted into his gum. Just one good crunch is all it takes. You can put all kinds of things inside a fake tooth, Michael. Like I told you, a man needs his choppers--"
Michael whirled around. The helicopter swayed again.
"What are you talking about?" Michael roared, dashing toward Alpha. Alpha turned his head toward the dead sniper beside him and laughed.
It was the high-pitched laughter of the damned.
"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?" Michael screamed. "TELL ME!"
John Alpha raised his eyebrows as if to say, You poor thing. "You can put all kinds of things inside a fake tooth. Like a radio transmitter. A transmitter to detonate a bomb."
Michael reached outward, trying to grab Alpha's face.
You're too slow. You'll never make it. He's done you in, hoss.
"Never over," he said.
John Alpha clenched his jaw, and Michael closed his eyes.
* * *
The outer walls of Folie á Deux trembled for a nanosecond, then blew outward, flinging flaming splinters of steel, plaster, and brick onto Sunset Boulevard, into neighboring buildings, into the night sky. Liquid fire soared across Sunset Boulevard like napalm, exploding streetlights, incinerating bystanders. Another explosion from deep within the club launched the charred, warped remains of Folie á Deux's thirty-foot-tall, centerpiece statue through the roof like a cannonball.
John, Dr. Mike, Dania Sheridan, and the 7th Son soldiers watched this through the portholes of their helicopter. They gazed, horrified, as the explosions consumed the helicopter hovering over the club. Michael's helicopter.
Michael's chopper was pushed upward from the blast. It tipped wildly on its right axis . . . struggled to regain its altitude and control . . . then plummeted nose-first toward the street. Its top rotor blades sawed across the fiery asphalt, crumpling, breaking away from the engine. The rotors sliced through the sky like mad boomerangs. One skewered a police car straight through its engine block. Another whizzed down the street, slicing a flaming palm tree in half.
The helicopter smashed onto Sunset Boulevard and exploded.
Flying away from the growing blaze in West Hollywood, the surviving Black Hawk soared back toward the San Gabriel Mountains, toward Edwards Air Force Base.
The mission was over.