Jagged Little Angels – Chapter 2
"No Place Like Home"
Leigh studied the decrepit looking building in front of them. Weathered and time-worn, it looked like a single good, strong gust of wind could knock it over.
But it felt empty, at least. Dawn was only a few hours away, and they needed to treat their wounded and resupply. The safe house would have medical weapons, clothing, guns and ammo. They might finally be able to rest and get some info.
She nodded at Rhys, and he slowly pulled forward, the SUV pitching from side to side as it navigated the pitted and pot-marked drive.
Rhys turned the SUV until it was faced outward again, to make it easier to move Nora in from the cargo hold.
And to make a quicker escape if necessary.
She'd heard Cooper and Rhys discuss the possibility that the safe houses might be compromised. She was glad Rhys had chosen such an unlikely position. Looking at it now, she had to give the Archers credit, nothing about the structure gave it away as a top secret safe house for a secret supernatural crime-fighting organization.
It looked haunted, but when she reached out with her senses, it still felt empty, which it the safest place in the world for them right now.
The events of the night, the explosions and fire, the nerve-wrecking drive to the safe house were all battling back and forth in her mind.
The place she and Dom had called home for two years was gone.
Perhaps their old lives with it.
They entered slowly, on the way there they had decided to take the security offline when they entered.
It would stop anyone who might have hacked the Archer computer systems from being able to track them, but also made them more vulnerable to attack.
Rhys was counting on their out-of-the-way location to protect them, and Cooper only hoped he was right. He hadn't risked using his cell phone on the drive here, too busy watching to see if they were being followed.
He looked up at Regan as she winced, trying his best to tug the last of her stitches tight as gently as possible. She'd yet to complain, but he knew how bad it sucked to get stitches without pain medicine. She had declined the meds, as they all probably would, until they knew for sure they were safe.
It was hard to shoot straight all hoped up on morphine, after all.
"Are you allergic to anything? We usually do a pretty strong antibiotic combo whenever we field dress a gunshot." He said, gesturing to the small kit in front of him where the safe house's liquid medicines and pain killers were stored. Cooper had been afraid the small size of the safe house would mean the medical supplies cached there would also be subpar, but on that count, at least, they'd done alright. Though their clothing options were somewhat limited (and they all now looked like they shopped at a military surplus store), they no longer wore clothes that stank of smoke.
They hadn't been able to shower, but they'd done their best in the sink in the kitchen. Their faces were no longer soot stained, and Regan was the last one to get her stitches done.
"Hit me." Regan said, looking away as he administered the medicine, still turning her phone restlessly around and around in her fingers.
"So, you said your last name was Michaels?" Cooper said, trying to fill the awkward silence. "There's a family of free-lance hunters up north, near the border named Michaels."
She studied him warily for a moment before apparently deciding to trust him. "Yeah. Mal and his daughter Saskia. They're cousins. More or less."
He nodded, filing the information away. Many hunters had convoluted family situations, even the first generation ones.
"Hell of a first day contracting with the Archer family." He offered. "We never even got around to finding your first job. Do you specialize or do hunts in general?"
Most Archers were trained to be top to bottom hunters, ghosts, vampires and everything in between. Anything but demons, of course. The Vatican had its own army of Exorcists, and its own specialized branch of hunters, the War Priests.
"Uhh, S & D." She said, looking up from her phone distractedly as he smoothed a bandage over her stitches to help keep them clean. He noticed the long scar curving from her back to her side, but he knew better to ask about another hunter's scars.
There wasn't really a happy reason for a hunter to have a scar, after all.
"What's that mean?" Barnes said from the doorway. Cooper started, he hadn't realized the tall man had come in, but Regan seemed unfazed and he wondered if she had known he had come into the room.
"Summon and Dispel. Ghosts, Spirits, Poltergeists, Death-Echoes, Death Loops, that kind of thing. I worked in Recon and Dispatch." Cooper offered, watching Barnes's dispassionate face. Though he appreciated what the guy had done for Nora, he still hadn't gotten a good feel for the taciturn hunter.
"So, a ghostbuster?" Barnes said finally, referring to the common nick name for a specialized S&D.
Regan nodded. "I've done a few other things once or twice, when I was staying at Mal's place, but that's my main game. What about you?"
"Cursebreaker." He said tersely, confirming Cooper's earlier suspicions. Now that he could think clearer, he'd heard others in dispatch talk about Barnes.
He wasn't an family, he was a free-lance hunter who came from overseas. Ireland, if Cooper had to guess from the faint trace of accent. Word was, he was a decent Cursebreaker, with a good level of knowledge and experience.
He'd also heard he hated working in groups or pairs, and was capable of being of first class ass, according to Lori.
Thinking of Lori made his heart hurt, visions of her sightless eyes rising up before him.
Not everyone had made it out. Lori had been caught up in one of the original explosions, a piece of shrapnel severing her femoral artery. She'd bled out before Cooper had even been able to get the wreckage off her. If Regan hadn't come along then, he probably would have stayed frozen there in horror as the building burned down around him.
"What about the others? Angry chic, quiet girl, and whoever Hercules in there is?" Regan said, breaking Cooper's reverie.
"Uh, yeah. Okay. The big guy's Dom. He's an Archer, but only barely. A pretty distant branch. He and Leigh grew up together, they're cousins or something. Orphans. They both wear amulets, but I'm not sure they could trigger the wards themselves, or the magic is simply reactive in their case. Sometimes the basic protections work for faint blood relatives, even if they can't channel the magic themselves. They were trained to hunt anything, like Nora and Rhys, but while Dom's pretty decent, Leigh's more useful for her psychic abilities." Cooper knew he was babbling, but the events of the night were slowly starting to catch up with him.
"She's a medium?" Regan asked, an intent look on her face as she stood, tentatively stretching and replacing her gun in the shoulder holster she'd thrown on until her wound was healed enough to make her back holster suitable again.
"Well, she wasn't trained that way, per se. She usually works with Dom or some of our Dispeller teams as a Summoner." Cooper acknowledged. "She's good at sensing entities and stuff, but she's only learned to do it in the past few years."
"And the 'angry girl'" Barnes asked, using Regan's nickname for Carly.
"TTB, as she puts it." Cooper offered, thinking about the arrogant, irritating, brash, beautiful girl he'd been in love with since she rolled in to town a year and a half ago. She wasn't an Archer either, but she'd trained like one. Her family had held a long standing contract and she'd grown up traveling from one compound to another.
"I don't know that term." Regan said simply, as if it were a test in school. Cooper smiled a little despite himself, she was a strange mix of ignorant and knowledgeable.
"Things that bleed." Carly answered from the doorway, and again Cooper cursed himself from being the only one who appeared startled.
Carly sauntered in, obviously enjoying being the center of attention, beautiful despite her sling and surplus clothes. She was gorgeous and she knew it, wielding her beauty the same way she did her sword.
"Vamps, Zombies, Ghouls, Werewolves, you name it. If it bleeds, I rectify the situation." She said, sitting at the table and kicking her feet up on the table where Cooper had been working. The table jerked, and Cooper busied himself replacing the vials of antibiotics and rolling the case back up, stashing it in his bag.
"My job involves a little more than salt and sage." She finished, cutting her eyes to the other two.
Neither Barnes nor Regan rose to the bait however. Barnes simply watched her dispassionately, and Regan instead turned to Cooper. "I know you guys are thinking your systems hacked or something, but my phone isn't on the Archer system. Any reason I can't call my people?"
"Your family up north?" he said, thinking it over. Barnes hadn't moved to call anyone, and he knew Carly was also an orphan. But if she had family, it made sense for her to check in. Perhaps she could gather some intel they could use.
Cooper shook his head, watching as she rose and walked outside.
"Any reason to think she's actually a good guy?" Carly said idly, fiddling with the strap on the sling Rhys had fitted her with.
Leigh joined them quietly. "I don't think she had anything to do with the attack. She didn't have to go after Nora and Barnes but…" She trailed off in that whispery way she had when she was trying to decipher what her other senses were telling her.
"But?" Barnes said, eyes narrowed. Around the table, the other hunters looked up at her also. Finally, Leigh just shook her head.
"She's really dangerous." Leigh said quietly. "I think she's the most dangerous person I've ever met."
She had spent the better part of an hour deciphering Saskia's cryptic text.
'Lock it down, cuz. Stay Safe.'
Even if it hadn't included code phrases, she'd have known something was up. Any text from Saskia that didn't include at least two curse words was probably a code of some sort.
'Lock it Down'.
Okay, that was straight Mal-speak, his way of saying to 'get your head in the game'.
Referring to Regan as her cousin was another code, though not an unfamiliar one. They'd pretended many times to be related, which is why Regan had an ID in her wallet even now that referred to her as "Regan Michaels". The question was, why Saskia thought Regan needed to use a name other than her normal alias.
"Stay Safe" was the simplest, yet most confusing. "Stay Safe" meant that Saskia knew Regan had been in danger, and that the earlier instruction, to use her Michaels alias, was her best bet to do so.
But how had Saskia known of the attack, and why would it matter which alias she used?
She'd waited until she could be alone to call her.
"S, what's up?" Regan said without preamble, eyes scanning the tree line. The sun was finally starting to come up, the faintest traces of dawn breaking on the far horizon.
"Holy shit girl, I thought for sure you were FUCKED!" Saskia's voice was laced with genuine concern.
"What the hell's happening, S? Are you okay? How did you know about the attack?" Regan said, firing off the questions quickly, unsure of how much time she had. The others could come out on the porch any moment now, and this was obviously a conversation she needed to have alone.
"Attacks." Saskia corrected. "As in, multiple. The whole world's gone to shit the last six hours. Every Archer compound was hit. ALL OF THEM. Even the overseas ones. The grapevine's estimating sixty-seventy percent fatalities."
"The strike teams-" Regan started to argue, knowing that the majority of the Archer fighting forces wouldn't have even been in the compounds at the time of the attacks.
"Gone. Or nearly. It was a trap, and a good one. Hardly any of them made it out. At the same time, they struck the compounds." Saskia said, speaking quickly.
"They were understaffed." Regan said, closing her eyes as she tried to think through the ramifications of Saskia's words.
"Full of kids and researchers and a few hundred free-lance hunters who didn't know the terrain. It was a massacre. They didn't just gut the Archer family, they hobbled the free-lance hunter community at the same time. No one's ever taken out this many hunters at once." Saskia agreed.
"What about your dad?" Regan asked, bracing herself for the worst.
"He was supposed to meet some friends for a gig at the Atlanta compound, but he twisted his ankle in a sink hole last night in a cemetery. He and I have been running intelligence from the cabin." Saskia informed her. "Now, listen, this is important, Regan."
"What?" Regan said sharply. She was scanning the tree line again at the same time, the tiny hairs on the back of her neck rising, but it could just be her exhaustion, the cold, blood loss….
There was a pause before Saskia spoke, obviously reluctantly. "The intel the strike teams were using for the coordinated attacks came from Rome."
"The Vatican?" Regan said as an entirely different kind of cold washed through her body.
"Yes. Not all of it. But enough that some of the hunters are saying it was a Vatican setup." Saskia said in a rush. Regan could hear other phones ringing in the background.
"What? Why? The hunters do the dirty work Rome isn't interested in." Regan said in confusion. There was no rivalry she knew of. The Vatican and the Archers weren't overly fond of each other, but they'd never fought before either.
"I know, Regan. I know. But they're saying the Vatican was threatened by how powerful the Archers had become. The whole community is reeling, everyone lost someone tonight and people are looking for someone to blame. After the attacks began, the Vatican locked down tight." Saskia said.
"Standard procedure." Regan agreed. "They don't want the enemy to know their losses. It makes them look weak."
"But it also makes them look hella guilty. I've already heard of two churches being burned down in retaliation, and half a dozen Vatican trained hunters and exorcists being attacked by vigilantes. It's ugly, Regan. If anyone finds out who you are, WHERE you're from, you could be in serious danger. Where are you now? Who are you with?" Saskia demanded.
"Oh, you. Half a dozen Archers. The usual." Regan said with tired sarcasm. "We're at an out of the way safe house?"
"Get out! Regan, get out now. They safe houses aren't safe. They're finding them! We've been getting reports all night! Whoever they are, they're still coming!" Saskia's voice was alarmed.
Regan let the phone drop slowly to her side as she pivoted to the sound she had heard from the underbrush.
"GET DOWN!" She screamed, dropping to the wooden slats of the porch as a torrent of bullets rained over her head.
Rhys stared at his phone dully. He'd been forced to finally break radio silence, worried if they were needed somewhere else, and just plain desperate for information.
He hadn't been able to reach Headquarters, or any of the other compounds. He hadn't been able to reach his brother Cal, out with the strike teams, and he tried to tell himself that was normal, the strike teams were in almost constant motion.
But no one was trying to contact him either, which boded very, very badly.
If he didn't know better, he'd think they were the only ones left, but that was impossible. The Archer family was massive, numbering in the thousands. They contracted with several hundred independent hunters.
Finally, he received one dire text from Nika.
"Nearly drove into an ambush. Safe houses aren't safe. Implementing Autumn Wind."
Autumn Wind was worst case scenario, assuming all intel and safe houses were compromised.
It meant no further contact from any other group of survivors until certain codes were released from HQ.
It meant gather everything you could carry, dump it into a car, and start driving until you ran out of gas, and then steal another car and do it again.
It meant everyone was suspect.
Nika implementing it with a carful of kids made sense, he supposed, they couldn't really fight back, but it would be hard for her to go to ground while providing for that many. He wished he could help somehow, but he knew she wouldn't allow any further contact between them, had probably already ditched her phone.
They'd already loaded the SUV, Dom and Barnes helping Rhys while Cooper worked on the injured. The SUV had as much ammo, weapons and gear as they could scavenge from the seldom used safe house. They all had somewhat well-fitting clothing and bags for the rest. Regan and Rhys had swapped back guns and grabbed extras from the cache, same as the others.
They even had a few thousand cash from the safe, though it wouldn't last long with eight people to feed and clothe, not to mention the crowded SUV was now even more crowded.
They could certainly implement Autumn Wind, though Barnes and Regan could opt out. The Archer compound had been the one attacked, though the number of free-lance hunters killed wasn't something anyone could easily ignore. It was doubtful anyone who wanted the Archers dead hoped for good things for the rest of them.
Still, Regan and Barnes might decide they wanted to be dropped off at the nearest town to try their own luck. Carly was unlikely to, she was an Archer in all but blood.
No matter what, though, they'd need to steal a car to divide the load.
"What's the word, Chief?" Nora said with a tired grin from the doorway. She was still pallid and tired looking, but her leg had been much better than Cooper originally fears. Several stitches and a pair of crutches had put her back on her feet, to a degree.
He swallowed, looking up at her slowly. "There isn't." He opened his hands helplessly.
Her eyes widened, her mind going over the logical possibilities. "Are you talking about….?"
"Autumn Wind. Duck and Cover. Stay lost until we're recalled." Rhys said slowly, standing indecisively.
"What about the other survivors? What about Abigail and Cal and the rest of the strike teams?" Nora said, alarm lighting her features.
"I don't know. But no one's answering, no one's CALLING. So either they're dead, or they've already implemented Autumn Wind. And no matter what, we have to leave. We have to assume this location is comprom-"
That was when he heard Regan call out, the words muffled by the walls.
The sounds of gunshots were more distinct, however.