"It's called the Blackwood Project."
McCall watched the macabre interaction unfolding between the two men. One of them was a stranger, but the other, he was a different catch all together.
Mickey Kostmeyer's gaze flickered from the pair to McCall. "Aliens?" he mouthed silently, then shook his head. Robert tilted a shoulder in reply.
Well, Mickey thought, nothing about this assignment has been normal; why should this be any different?
McCall watched the younger man, wishing Kostmeyer knew what he did. Then he might believe. McCall had been at home the evening the call came, trying to put the last touches to the seafood quiche he was preparing. The tone of the woman's panicked voice on the answering machine made him pick up the phone.
"It's all right, now. Just calm down and tell me what's happened," he instructed her.
"It's my husband," the caller replied, choking back a sob. "He's been missing now for over a month. I knew he was alive, but they won't help me find him. But now—" She broke off. "I— I can't believe—"
McCall was confused. Whatever was going on, it was clear that the woman on the other end of the line needed help, maybe what he could offer, or perhaps another kind, but he felt compelled to see her and determine that for himself. "Can I meet you?"
"Yes, please. You have to help me, you're all I have left. I saw the ad… please?"
"Where can I meet you?"
"At— At my home, that would be fine."
Robert removed a pen from the sandstone cup his son Scott had picked up for him while vacationing in the Southwest. "Tell me where you are," he said calmly. The woman gave him her address, begging him to hurry. "I'll be right over," he told her. "Just try to relax."
The talk had been most disconcerting for the ex-operative. The woman was a well known local psychic, the police having utilized her talents on several publicized occasions. Through her involvement she had met, fallen in love with, and married a New York detective. According to Mrs. Loren Rivers, her husband, detective sergeant Michael Rivers, had disappeared three and a half weeks earlier. Loren had gone to the police, explaining that she knew Mike was still alive, but very afraid. She thought it must have something to do with a case, but they assured her that he wasn't working on anything that would put him in that kind of danger.
What followed was a three week long fight between the department and Mrs. Rivers. Loren continued having dreams. In them she could see her husband, locked in a small cage with several other people. They were in a dark place, old and run down. Vague figures moved around on the other side of the bars, but she couldn't make out their features well enough to sketch them. Her frustration already climbing due to the department's apparent lack of activity, the final blow came when she had the nightmare two nights earlier.
In the mini-horror that unfolded in her sleep, Loren saw a monster come for her husband. As tall as Mike, the creature had greenish-brown skin, three arms, and a single Cyclops eye. She remembered vividly the three long digits with their suction cup tips that hung from the monster's arms – the same three fingers that reached inside Mike's body, killing him, but not completely. She witnessed the detective's take-over by the monster, saw the flicker of the man's soul retreat as far as possible, then turn and beg her for release. There was nothing she could do.
The creature was after someone, someone named Quinn, but Loren didn't know anyone by that name, nor had Michael spoken about any cases involving a Quinn.
"I don't really know how to explain this to you, Mr. McCall. I know it all sounds crazy, but something terrible is going to happen."
"Tell me what you think is going to happen," he prompted her.
She nodded and launched into a halting description of the images she was getting about Mike. The creature in control inside of him was chasing an older man, distinguished looking with gray-black hair and a matching beard. A new figure was also present in the dream. He was tall, with curly brown hair and bright blue eyes. Loren didn't recognize the newcomer, either. These two men were in a large building. It was filled with lights, sounds, and images that she couldn't understand but found compelling. There was a fight.
"I— I know Mike is going to die," she said softly, her hands squeezing the hem of her baggy T-shirt. "I felt him go. He was… happy… free… I can't stop that from happening. I know that. It wouldn't be fair. He's in such… agony. But I want to understand, Mr. McCall." Her imploring green eyes sought out his. "I want to know what's happened. Why won't the police help me?"
She stood and paced in the small but neat living room. "I know they're going to call and tell me that they'd found Mike's identification at the site of some kind of shooting, where the light and sounds were, but they didn't find his body." Loren stopped and straightened a photo of she and Mike in Wyoming. "In the dreams I feel his body melt…" She turned abruptly to stare at McCall. "How can that happen?"
The older man shrugged. It was a fantastic story, to say the least. "Mrs. Rivers, are you sure this isn't stress-related?" he asked. "There's no other—"
It was a simple statement of fact, and McCall found that he believed it. There was something very stable about the woman despite her anxiety.
Loren tucked a stray strand of her shoulder-length blonde hair behind her ear and tried to smile. "Mr. McCall, I've been a psychic all my life. I went to school to learn more about it, and I've been tested and probed and researched by more institutions and doctors than I care to remember." A heavy sigh accompanied her drop back into the recliner. "What I saw was real. And I am going to find out what happened to Mike, one way or another."
McCall thought for a moment, then nodded. "All right, I'll see what I can find out from the police department. You have the name Quinn, do you know if it's a first name or a last?"
She shook her head, saying, "I don't know, but the younger man who was with Quinn, he called out something when he was scared. I think it was iron horse, but that doesn't make a lot of sense, either."
McCall's eyebrows shot up and he sat up straighter. "Maybe more than you think."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
McCall wasn't sure what he'd expected from the New York police department, but it was more – much more – than what he received. After pressing Lt. Jeff Burnett for over an hour, the black officer finally admitted that the government had dropped a blanket over the entire affair. If McCall wanted answers he was going to have to try another source.
Control had been nearly as bad as Burnett, but at least the operative explained that the whole incident was under the umbrella of 'national security.'
"A dead policeman is national security?" McCall challenged. "Come on, Control, we both know that's a smoke screen. What the devil's going on here?"
Control leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "I can't tell you, Robert, because, quite frankly, I haven't been told. Now, please, just let this thing go. I'm sure there are plenty of people you can help—"
"I wish it were that simple," the ex-operative said. "But there's a young women out there who desperately wants to know what's happened to her husband." A sly smile formed on McCall's face. "And I'd like to know just what could be so important that even you aren't informed."
Control's shoulder's rose in frustration. "Officially I can't help you, Robert," he stated carefully.
"I don't recall you helping me, officially, in quite a while," was the wry response.
Control conceded the point with a nod. "However, I think it might be time for a drink. How would you like to meet me at O'Phelan's? Say around seven?"
McCall's eyes twinkled. Control was also upset at being closed out, and it was clear that he'd done some checking on his own. Even better, he was going to pass that information along. "I think that sounds like a splendid idea."
"I thought you might."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"It's called The Blackwood Project," Control began after taking a sip of the private stock that Pete kept for him and McCall. "There are three civilians involved: Dr. Harrison Blackwood; a Norton Drake, who's a rather talented computer hacker; Dr. Suzanne McCullough, a microbiologist who was working for the Cistron group in Ohio – until she found out where her work was going. After that she left for the New Pacific Institute of Technology near San Francisco."
"Cistron is still operating?" McCall asked, his glass contacting soundly with the top of the bar. "Those bastards are more dangerous than the fanatics out there."
Control chucked softly and shook his head. "Not to worry, Robert, they are out of business. That whole Y-Fever disaster, and some related incident on the Ohio Polytechnical Institute campus – also involving the Blackwood Project, I might add – shut the whole operation down. The Phoenix Mountain Project tried to set up shop in Houston, but they were closed down by the Vigil."
"And a damned lucky thing they were, too." McCall shook his head in disgust. "Watchers watching watchers. Shadow governments shadowing other shadow governments, no wonder the world's the way it is. At least I trust the Vigil and they knew enough to stop Cistron before they created Armageddon."
Control shrugged. He'd been a part of that shadowy world too long to worry about the players who came and went.
"Who's this Blackwood character?" McCall finally asked, taking another sip of the smooth liquor.
"Dr. Harrison Blackwood," Control repeated, turning his glass in circles on the small napkin. "His parents were members of the Pacific Institute staff in the late 40s and early 50s. They were killed in 1953, and young Harrison was raised by a Dr. Clayton Forrester. Also an Institute member."
"1953," McCall mused. "Clayton Forrester… why does that sound familiar?"
"I don't know, but it struck me the same way," Control admitted, shifting slightly on the chair. "I remember meeting Dr. Forester several times in Washington DC. In those days he was visiting for closed-door sessions at the Pentagon or the White House. In a few years it seemed like he'd just dropped out of sight."
McCall felt his curiosity rising. "What was he working on?"
"I don't know," Control admitted. "And before you ask, the files are sealed – Presidential priority."
Robert sipped his brandy and contemplated that piece of information. "There's something more going on here. We both know that, don't we."
"I agree, old sport, but whatever it is, it's being protected at the highest levels. But, I was able to do a little peripheral digging. Dr. Blackwood, Dr. McCullough, and Mr. Drake all left the Institute in 1988. They were moved to a government safe house, but I don't know why, or where, exactly. They are, however, getting mail at a post office box in the San Francisco area. After their move, everything is locked up tighter than a steel drum."
A shiver passed over McCall, but he shook it off, unable to uncover a reason.
"There's one more element to this," Control said, sliding his empty glass and used napkin away.
"The Army's in charge of protecting the Blackwood Project. There's a hand-picked, highly trained Special Forces unit involved, part of Delta Force. The man who's in charge of those troops is Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse."
McCall nodded. That confirmed part of Loren's story. "Ironhorse. I had hoped to run into the man again."
Control's bushy gray eyebrows rose. "You know this Ironhorse?"
Robert smiled thinly. "You might say we crossed paths."
"Should I ask?"
It was McCall's turn to smile. "That, Control, is, as the good Colonel would put it, need to know."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"We're looking for green, three-armed monsters from outer space, with no backup, because the whole thing's under some sort of government rug?" He leaned back against the corner of McCall's couch and folded his arms across his chest.
"That's about the whole of it, Mickey," McCall said, trying not to smile at the expression on the younger man's face. He'd asked Kostmeyer to do some crazy things before, but never with such an insane explanation. Still, the man deserved to know what they might be getting into, even if McCall was having a hard time believing it himself.
"Great. This is just great…" Mickey's eyes narrowed. "McCall, you sure you're feelin' okay?"
Robert stood and headed for the kitchen. "Oh, and there's more good news."
"I don't know if I'm up to it," Kostmeyer muttered.
"Paul Ironhorse is involved."
"Ironhorse?" Mickey echoed, straining to see over his shoulder and into the kitchen where Mccall had disappeared. He broke into a huge smile. "Well, if that's the case, count me in."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It took McCall and Kostmeyer three days to get a productive lead from their expansive network of sources. They had found that Quinn was a artist – unconventional, but very successful. However, locating anyone directly involved in the man's career was much more difficult. When McCall and Mickey had found out that there was one gallery owner who had supposedly met the man in person, they jumped at the opportunity to speak to the woman.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Arriving at the up-town studio they found it ringed by patrol cars. Nearby sat an ambulance, and a black coroner's station wagon.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Mickey prophesied as they walked along the taped off area.
McCall nodded and made his way over to a middle-aged man who looked like he was about to collapse. "Excuse me," Robert said, gaining the man's attention. "I'm looking for Margo Tennison."
"Oh-oh-oh, dear. It's awful, just awful. She was such an attractive woman. So sweet, so talented. Margo could spot talent that—"
"Has she been hurt?" McCall asked, already knowing he had lost the opportunity to speak to the woman.
"She's dead," a voice announced.
The two operatives turned to find Lt. Burnett standing, his hands on his hips. "McCall, what are you doing here?" he demanded. "Do you know something about this?"
"I was just looking for a Ms. Margo Tennison," the ex-operative explained innocently.
Burnett shook his head, knowing the man was more involved than he was letting on. "Adding to your art collection?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact, I was," Robert lied smoothly.
"You know anything I should?" the lieutenant asked, raising the police tape so the two men could duck under.
"I don't think so," Robert hedged. He wasn't sure he believed what he knew himself. "How did it happen?"
Burnett lead the way past the crime scene detectives. "No idea. I've never seen anything quite like it."
"Can we take a look?" Mickey asked, then shrugged when the detective shot him a disgusted look.
With a shrug, the black officer motioned for them to follow. "Why not?"
McCall caught sight of the woman's body as they adjusted her arm into the black coroner's body bag resting on a gurney. Stepping closer, McCall and Mickey both noticed the three finger-sized holes in the woman's temple.
Robert stared at the wounds, Loren's description of the alien monster echoing in his mind – brown-green, Cyclops eye and three digit appendages… He quickly looked away.
"Yo, McCall, let's move," Mickey said.
"What is it?" Robert asked, already following Kostmeyer out of the gallery and toward the spot where they'd left the black Jaguar parked and watched over by three small Latino boys.
"I got a beep," the younger man explained, pulling a pager from the pocket of the frayed field jacket he favored. "One of my sniffers. He'll have something. The guy's amazing."
Sliding into the car, Mickey grabbed up the mobile phone and punched in the number while McCall rewarded the boys for their vigilance.
"Digs, whatcha got for me?" Kostmeyer listened for a moment, then smiled. "Great! I owe you one, man… Yeah, yeah, I owe you a few more than that. Put it on my tab." He hung up the receiver and nodded at McCall as he slid in behind the wheel. "The UN. Ironhorse's there with some of his people and a handful of cops."
"What are they doing?" McCall asked, starting the engine and easing out into traffic.
"Don't know. Something about security for a UN meeting."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
By the time they arrived at the United Nations the building was ringed by security people, all dressed in civilian clothes. Despite the suits, McCall knew that many of the men were military. Special Forces, no doubt. It took the two men several minutes to circle around the building and find an entrance being watched by the less well trained local police. McCall felt slightly guilty as they slipped into the dark service corridor. Some cop was going to get into a deep well of trouble for having allowed the pair inside, but then, he and Mickey weren't exactly civilians.
Once inside the pair made their way through the building, careful to avoid the military and police patrols alike. An occasional puddle of steaming, frothing slim dotted the otherwise immaculate halls of the building's food service sector. Loren's description: "I feel his body melt…" played over and over in McCall's mind, and he forcefully rejected the impulse to examine the material closer. What if the women was right? What if there were aliens on earth and they were taking over human bodies?
"Over here," Mickey whispered, veering off to turn down a well lit hallway that carried them toward the main offices and meeting rooms. The pair stopped short, watching as Ironhorse disappeared around a corner. They followed, almost losing the soldier before they saw him duck into what looked like an air handling duct feeding the underground service and mechanical areas. They followed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ironhorse, then McCall and Kostmeyer, finally exited into the labyrinth of an unused section of the New York City subway system. Careful not to alert the soldier, McCall set a pace well behind Ironhorse. It was clear the Special Forces officer was completely absorbed in searching for something, or someone. McCall considered that information. It had to be critical, or there was no possible way the Army officer would have missed him and Mickey trailing him. Ironhorse was simply too good. McCall felt a cold knot settle into the pit of his stomach. If it could shake Ironhorse's generally uncanny abilities, it was bad.
Reaching out, McCall snagged the shoulder of Mickey's field jacket and pulled him back into the shadows just as the soldier backtracked and nearly cut their path. Again they followed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Voices slowed McCall, and he and Mickey crept up on the unfolding scene. A tall, curly-haired man stood with his back to Ironhorse. Harrison Blackwood, McCall was sure.
Ironhorse held his M-9 steadily leveled on the man.
"Colonel, I am not an alien."
McCall's sense of unity wavered. Aliens… Good, God, it was true. He studied Ironhorse's face and shivered as he realized the soldier was deciding whether or not to shoot what amounted to his boss. This was serious, deadly serious… Aliens who could step into human bodies, and obviously well enough to fool friends and acquaintances.
After a moment Ironhorse slowly lowered the weapon and Blackwood relaxed a fraction. "Thank you, Colonel. I really do hate the sight of blood, especially my own."
The right side of Ironhorse's mouth tilted into the familiar crooked smile. "I'm just glad you're all right, Doctor. Now, I have to get you back—" He stopped short, spinning around to face McCall and Kostmeyer, the M-9 once again ready.
The pair raised their hands away from their bodies, palms out. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but before you leave, I'd like to ask you a few questions," McCall said, trying to at least sound calm even if he didn't feel that way at all.
A flash of recognition registered on Ironhorse's face, but the weapon remained poised. Mickey shifted uncomfortably under the threat. "Come on, Chief, put the gun down."
"In my coat pocket, Doctor. There's a Geiger counter."
Blackwood stepped forward and fished the device out. "Planning on using this on me, Colonel?"
"Planned to, yes," was the humorless reply. "But I didn't get the opportunity." He waited while the astrophysicist tested the two men.
"They look fine…" Harrison trailed off, his voice skeptical.
"But?" the Paul questioned, catching the unspoken concern.
"But after Quinn, we can't be completely certain until Suzanne's had a poke at them. I take it you know these men, Colonel?"
"Dr. Harrison Blackwood, Robert McCall and Mickey Kostmeyer. They work for the Company."
"Oh?" The scientist's eyebrows rose. So, they were CIA, and they knew Ironhorse. Another mysterious facet of the colonel's past had fallen neatly into Blackwood's lap. Now, if he could only find a way to pursue it.
"That's not exactly accurate, Doctor," McCall said, his tone something between friendly and amused. "I've retired."
"I don't know what you're doing here, McCall," Ironhorse said, "but I'm afraid what the Doctor and I are working on is classified. Strictly need to know."
Robert took a deep breath, then said, "I can understand how aliens might fall under that heading."
"You know about the aliens?" Blackwood snapped.
"Doctor!" Ironhorse bit out. McCall had baited them and the scientist had fallen for it. The triumphant expression on Kostmeyer's face told the colonel that McCall was guessing. Still, something had tipped him off, and given the man's abilities, natural curiosity, and level of clearance the only thing to do now was explain.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Mickey stuck the tip of his finger in his mouth and scowled at Ironhorse while Suzanne ran her check on the drawn blood sample. "They're all fine," she announced, smiling at Blackwood, who was also sucking on his finger.
Harrison gave her a hug and then sat down on one of the UN's comfortable chairs.
The Blackwood Project was a close knit group, McCall observed. But then, if they were fighting aliens in a covert war – and it was certainly covert or he would have heard about it – then they'd have developed that closeness out of necessity.
"So, what is it, Ironhorse, Colonel?"
"Lt. Colonel," the officer corrected. "And, before anyone says anything else, I have to contact my commander."
McCall nodded. Ironhorse excused himself and left to make his call from a secured line.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Seated at the small, raised table, Blackwood, McCullough, and Ironhorse addressed the National Security council, explaining their ongoing fight with the invaders from Mor'tax.
Mickey, wisely deciding that he'd prefer not knowing about anything as weird as aliens, waited outside, exchanging small talk with the security force.
McCall, however, was another matter. Unobserved in the translator's booth, he listened. The fantastic story the three were presenting to the members of the UN's Security Council forced McCall to fight back a growing feeling of foreboding. The images Loren had described overlapped with the diagrams Dr. McCullough used in her discussion. Once the meeting was over, he would introduce the threesome to the young woman whose dreams had involved him in the first place.
He leaned forward, listening more intently as Suzanne began describing how the aliens took over and possessed human bodies. "My God," Robert breathed into the soundproofed silence. It was incredible, too incredible.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Loren Rivers, these are the people I told you about," McCall said as he guided the young woman into his apartment and over to the assembled Project members seated in his living room.
"Hello," she said nervously, her eyes resting briefly on Suzanne and Ironhorse, but fixing at last on Blackwood.
"Mrs. Rivers," Harrison said, as he and the colonel stood. "I am very sorry about your husband."
Loren nodded, taking a seat across from the threesome in an antique, hand-stitched Victorian chair. "Can you explain to me what happened to Mike?"
Ironhorse looked at McCall. What had the man promised? He knew the Project was classified.
Loren shifted in the comfortable chair her gaze going to the unused fireplace. "I know it has something to do with aliens," she finished matter-of-factly.
Blackwood leaned forward in his chair. "Why do you say that?" he asked.
She looked back at the scientist through her blonde bangs. He was the man from her dreams, and something inside told her she could trust him, trust all of them. "Look, I don't know if you're going to believe this, and I really don't care anymore, but I'm a psychic. I've helped the police and that's where I met Mike. After he disappeared I started having dreams…" It took her several minutes to explain in the detail they requested all the aspects of her nightmares, but when it was over Loren knew by their expressions that every moment was true. "But they changed now," she told them.
"Changed? How?" Blackwood prodded, his attention completely fixed on the young woman. A soft voice in his mind whispered that she looked like Karen McKinney.
"I saw this… monster, force itself into Mike's body. He was still alive, but he was… was—" She shook her head and shivered, her hands coming up to hug her shoulders. "I don't think I can explain it," she told them, her eyes vacant as relived the memory.
Abruptly, her head snapped up and she fixed the pale green eyes on Blackwood. "I saw you," Loren said. "You were with an older man. He's like the thing that took Mike's body, but not exactly. I mean, he looks human, but he isn't. There was some shooting, and Mike was hit." She looked away, interlacing her fingers and squeezing hard enough to turn them white as she continued to try and drive the visions out of her head. "The thing, melted. But Mike was free. I know that." She looked back at the three Project members. "Tell me what killed my husband."
Harrison glanced at Ironhorse. He knew the colonel's passion for security, but this woman had a right to know what had happened. Besides, she already knew the details. The soldier nodded, briefly, and Blackwood explained.
"McCall," Ironhorse said, extending his hand. "I'm sure I don't have to remind you about keeping this under wraps."
Robert nodded seriously. "I understand, believe me. But I might be of some help to you. I'll be keeping an eye out for this Quinn character. If he stays in New York, sooner or later one of my people will find him. It might be useful information, later on."
"Just be careful," Blackwood cautioned. "Quinn's brilliant, but he's mad."
"I know how to watch my back, Doctor," McCall assured with a slight hike of his eyebrows.
"And what about Mrs. Rivers?" Suzanne asked, nodding across the room where Loren was still seated in the chair, sorting through what they had told her.
"I have a friend who might be able to help her," McCall assured. "Dr. Amelia Poe. She's cleared through the Pentagon to handle classified information for the Company. I'm sure they could extend that to cover this material."
"Good enough," Blackwood said. "As long as our General agrees, it should be fine." His face became more serious. "There's another psychic we've worked with who might be able to help…" Fishing into his pockets, he pulled out a pen and a small notebook that he scribbled a name and address on. "If she wants to, I'm sure Dr. Ridge would be happy to speak to her." His eyes drifted back to the woman. "I hope she finds some peace."
McCall nodded, accepting the paper. "I hope so, Doctor. I most certainly hope so."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Harrison smiled and shook hands with the last of the UN Security Council members, fervently hoping that they'd really listened to what he, Suzanne, and Ironhorse were proposing. There was no way the aliens would be defeated with just the five of them waging the fight. The Project's suggestions were well thought out, reasonable and, in Harrison's opinion, absolutely necessary.
The first priority they'd established was to ascertain, by whatever means, the location of all sites where alien remains had been stored around the world. Second, other teams like the Blackwood Project would have to be created in other countries, especially those where suspected alien activity had already begun. Their efforts would be coordinated through a liaison appointed by General Wilson, the Joint Chiefs, and the President – the Blackwood Project would have a say in the final selection as well – and that individual would work closely with Ironhorse coordinating any international military actions that might arise.
For added security, Ironhorse asked that he be allowed to hand-pick, train, and command a highly specialized assault unit. The forty man unit would be chosen from the ranks of Delta Force, the Navy SEALs and the Air Forces Special Operations red berets. After the proposed Omega Squad was operational, other parallel units would be necessary to protect the second aspect of the U.S. plan – small research groups, established to expand the scientific base. Each of these scientific teams – drawn from both academic, business and military personnel – would be dedicated to work on specific alien-related problems, with Blackwood and McCullough coordinating the efforts of these secret labs. Units of the elite military personnel would be housed at each facility to ensure the participants' safety.
The final request the Blackwood Project members had presented was for a meeting to be held several months after the establishment of the international Projects. At this meeting, the leaders of the various Blackwood Project analogs would meet and discuss their present situations, progress, and problems.
General Wilson smiled thinly and nodded at the end of the presentation. They had done an excellent job.
Noting the impressed looks on Wilson and the council members' faces, Blackwood sighed softly, wishing his adoptive father, Clayton Forrester had been able to see it. Standing, he had shaken hands with the participants and walked outside into the wide hallway to collect his thoughts.
"Excuse me, Dr. Blackwood?"
Harrison looked up, blinking to refocus. He recognized the Delta Force soldier. Suzanne had told him how the sergeant had questioned Ironhorse about the astrophysicist's status while he was still Quinn's prisoner. After all, Sgt. Sanchez had only been told that terrorists were in the UN building and that they might have brainwashed Blackwood. "Yes, Sergeant?"
"Sir, there's a call for you, a Mr. Robert McCall," the soldier explained, pointing to a phone across the hall.
Blackwood nodded and strode over to the dull red set sitting along a narrow counter. It was a secured line. "Blackwood," he said into the receiver.
"Doctor," came McCall's voice. "I was wondering if we could meet. It seems Mrs. Rivers is having more dreams. Something that might concern you and your team."
"Where and when?" was Harrison's immediate reply. He straightened, feeling a vague sense of foreboding settle over him like a wet shroud.
"This evening, at her home," McCall replied, then gave Blackwood the address. "I'm sure Colonel Ironhorse will know where it is."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Colonel?" Blackwood said as they drove to the meeting with McCall and the psychic.
"Yes, Doctor?" Ironhorse replied, guessing what Harrison's question was going to be before he even voiced it. The man was extremely predictable in some things.
"McCall said you'd know where this house is, and you obviously do… so I'm curious. How did you get so familiar with New York?"
Suzanne smiled in the back seat, but leaned forward so she could hear the answer. Blackwood's curiosity was a bottomless well, and the elusive Colonel was always a target of the man's investigation.
"Four years at West Point, Doctor. It's only fifty miles north of the city. Mrs. Rivers' home in Newburgh is about twelve miles south of the Point."
"Ah," the scientist responded. "Did you get into the city often then?"
"Often enough," was Ironhorse's evasive reply.
"Is that where you met McCall?" Suzanne asked from the back seat.
Ironhorse snorted. "Not hardly."
"Okay, where did you meet him, Paul?" Suzanne pressed. "He's a very… impressive man," she concluded.
"I'm afraid that's classified, Suzanne. But, let's just say that Mr. McCall and I crossed paths while he was working for the Company."
Blackwood glanced over his shoulder and she shrugged slightly. It had been a good try. One of these days Ironhorse was actually going to open up and tell them something about his mysterious past.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Pulling into a tree-lined drive along a quiet residential street, Ironhorse parked behind a shiny black Jaguar and climbed out. His eyes expertly scanned the area, and he nodded to Mickey, who was watching them from behind a window. The door opened and McCall invited them in.
The first thing they each noticed was Loren. The woman looked much worse than she had at McCall's townhome; her bright blonde hair dull and flat, and her pale green eyes rimmed by black smudges that testified to a severe lack of sleep. Loren's hands shook, and she held her coffee cup with both palms wrapped around the smooth ceramic surface.
Blackwood and Suzanne sat down on the couch across from the young woman while Ironhorse chose to stand. Mickey stepped outside to keep an eye on things as they spoke.
Loren looked up at the people across from her, gaze resting on Blackwood. "You've got to help me," she said in a tight whisper. "The dreams won't stop. They're out there, so many of them… they hate us so much… I— I can't get them out of my head."
Images of Sylvia van Buren raced through Blackwood's mind. She had been Clayton Forrester's fiancée, but the alien attack of 1953 had driven her over the edge. Sylvia was hospitalized, but pulled herself out of the madness, more committed than ever to Clayton and his work. Side by side they'd studied the aliens that had fallen victim to Earth's bacteria, but were not decomposing. Clayton argued with the military and most of the scientific community that the creatures weren't dead. He warned that they might wake up again. Sylvia stood beside Forrester while the rest of the world ridiculed or ignored him, but then the changes began. Too long exposed to irradiated alien tissue, Sylvia began to have her own dreams and premonitions, and slowly she slipped into madness again.
For thirty years Sylvia had been a resident of the Whitewood Mental Institution. And, when the aliens finally woke, as Clayton warned they would, so too did Sylvia's awareness of them. The madness became hysteria.
"Mrs. Rivers," Blackwood said, trying to sound confident and assuring like he did when he visited Sylvia. "I don't know what we can do, but there is a woman who—"
"You have to be careful," she interrupted. "I see you, all of you, and others, in danger."
"What kind of danger?" Suzanne asked, hoping if she could direct the woman to specifics it might help alleviate Loren's fear.
"I'm not sure. There's an older man, he's at an airport. You're all there… people are running… it's so confused…" She stopped, trying to calm her breathing. "There's some shooting. I see a man, big, blond. And there's one of the alien's hands reaching out of his chest. It closes over someone's face…"
Shaking her head from side to side in a manner more like Sylvia than Blackwood cared to contemplate, he and the others waited uncomfortably for her to continue.
"We fight," she said, slipping further into the vision. "But we can't break free." Loren sobbed. "Oh, God, it's like when they took Mike… the pain."
Blackwood stood and moved to the side of the chair. Reaching out, he took the shaking cup from her hands, then covered them with his own. "Do you know which airport it is?"
Loren shook her head.
"Who is the alien taking over?"
"I don't know. One of you, I think."
Blackwood glanced across at Ironhorse. The Colonel looked concerned, but there was precious little they could do without details. "The older man, was it Quinn?"
"No," she said, clinging to Harrison's hands for strength.
Blackwood looked to McCall. "I'm not sure what we can do. We haven't run into anything quite like this."
"You're the experts, Doctor," the ex-operative said, the frustration clear in his voice. He didn't like seeing the woman suffer any more than they did. "What would you suggest?"
Blackwood felt a deep panic wrap around his chest and squeeze. He wanted to help the young woman. He wanted to pull her into his arms and soothe away the fear and the horror, but he couldn't. It was too real. But she'd suffered enough at the hands of the aliens. There had to be something he could do… But there was too much they didn't know, had no idea how to respond to—
"There's a Pentagon physician," Ironhorse started softly.
"I don't need a doctor," Loren snapped, her hands clamping painfully on Blackwood's. "A doctor can't take this out of my head!"
"It's the best we can do," Blackwood told her softly.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
McCall was angry. Loren Rivers was a bright, articulate, beautiful young woman, and now she was gone. He'd returned home from his visit with her and the Blackwood Project members to find a message waiting on his machine. "I can't stand this," she sobbed into the receiver. "I have to leave. I have to try and get away from these dreams. I just wanted to thank you for helping me find out about Mike."
"Damn," Robert breathed, reaching out to angrily stab the button on the machine. Reaching out, he dialed Mickey's number.
"Yeah?" the young man said sleepily.
He must have been napping. "Mickey. I want you to see if you can track down Mrs. Rivers. She's left town and I want to know where she's gone."
"I'm on it. Oh, but if I'm going to do this, can you pick up Control at LaGuardia? He's supposed to fly in from a meeting in Seattle. Some hush-hush thing, you know. I was supposed to pick him up at, uh, two this afternoon."
"LaGuardia?" Robert asked, the pieces falling into place like an avalanche.
"Yeah, where all the planes are?" the younger man replied.
"Never mind, Mickey, just meet me there as quickly as you can."
"No time, Mickey. Get moving."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
McCall and Mickey slid past the crowded doors, and into the busy airport. Deep in his gut McCall knew Control was the target of the alien takeover Loren had seen in her latest nightmares. "Which gate?" he asked Kostmeyer.
"Company's usual—" Mickey started to explain, but then had to veer around a slow moving family as McCall abruptly shifted course and headed for the private gate. Catching up, he leveled his companion with a frustrated glare. "You want to warn a guy when you're going to do that? What's the rush, he's not due for…" He glanced at his watch. "…another fifteen minutes."
"Keep an eye out for anyone you don't recognize around the gate," McCall instructed the younger man as they drew closer.
"Does this have something to do with Ironhorse and his merry band of civilians?"
"Something like that," was the vague reply.
"Right." Christ, Mickey thought. Aliens. ET's. Alf's. Shit, I've gotta be nuts to— "Hey, over there," he said, reaching out to tap the older man's arm and nodding to where the Blackwood Project sat, waiting for their flight at one of the National Guard gates. "Lookie who else is here."
McCall shifted direction a second time, but Mickey was ready for him this time, and followed in his wake.
"Colonel," McCall said as he joined them. The officer was already slipping the hand-held Geiger counter back into his pocket.
"I think Mrs. River's nightmare is going to be played out, right here."
"Who?" Blackwood asked, rising from the padded plastic seat. Suzanne and the Colonel followed suit.
"A friend of mine. He's due in any time now," was the explanation.
Ironhorse nodded. "Where?"
"This way," McCall said, motioning for them to follow him.
"Stay here, people," Ironhorse commanded the two civilians and stalking after the ex-operative.
"Not a chance, Colonel," was Blackwood's immediate response.
The stifled curse was choked back and the soldier nodded. "But stay close."
Together the group proceeded to the private gate, reaching the area just as a Leer taxied to a stop outside.
"We have to get in there," Ironhorse said, reaching the door that opened to the ramp leading to the plane. "If there's someone waiting it'll be over before he even gets here."
McCall knew the action would set off internal alarms, but at this point he didn't care. Mickey could take care of the personnel who would converge on the gate. "Wait here," he told Kostmeyer. "Keep everyone out until we get back with Control."
"You got it," Mickey said, jerking the door open for them.
Ironhorse led the way, and for the first time McCall wondered if the Colonel was armed. The ex-operative had left his weapon in the car, knowing he couldn't afford the time it would take to contact the airport authorities for clearance.
The narrow corridor was empty, and they reached the end as crewmen opened the door on the private jet. "Who are you?" he asked suspiciously. McCall knew the young man would be signaling the rest of the crew that there was something up. Two larger men stepped in behind the crewman, their suits not quite concealing the weapons they carried in shoulder holsters.
McCall noticed that Suzanne was checking the Geiger counter as Ironhorse carefully fished his identification out of his pocket and handed it over to the crewman.
"This is top priority," he stated crisply.
"We need to speak to Control," McCall explained.
"Couldn't it wait a few more minutes, Robert," was the wry response before an older man stepped out to join them.
"I'm afraid not," McCall countered. "Come on, I'll explain on the way, but the sooner you're out of here the sooner I can relax."
Control noted the tense expressions on each of the faces, and nodded, stepping past the security guards to join them. "All right, let's go."
Ironhorse waited for Control to step past them, then turned his attention to the two security agents. "Stay here, and keep an eye out for any unauthorized personnel. Nobody leaves the plane for fifteen minutes, and no ground crew use this gate. Clear?"
The larger of the two men nodded.
Ironhorse trotted to catch up with the rest as they neared the exit. They could hear Mickey engaged in an escalating verbal confrontation with airport security. Paul pushed past the foursome and led the way out, McCall and Blackwood flanking Control while Suzanne followed him. Upon seeing Control, the airport people pulled back, unhappy, but knowing that it was futile to try arguing with the feds.
"I appreciate this, Robert," Control said as they headed directly toward the exit. "Even if I don't understand what it's all about." He waited a moment and when no one seemed willing to explain, he added, "Would anyone here like to tell me why I have this entourage?"
Before McCall could finish his comment a scream echoed out of the crowds of people waiting for flights at the nearby gates. A tall blond man was stalking through the crowd, individuals caught in his way being rudely tossed aside. Before him a very frightened Loren Rivers was cutting through the crowd.
McCall felt Ironhorse and Mickey moving before he saw them go. They worked toward the woman from two sides, Mickey actually reaching her first. Grabbing an arm to stop her forward momentum, he pulled her into his side and circled back to join the waiting group.
"Clear the area," Blackwood called in a powerful voice, and the crowd pulled back.
Control turned to the security people who had followed them from the gate. They looked confused. "Get these people out of here and keep them out," he ordered. "Now!" he added for emphasis. It was clear that the blond meant trouble and the officers rushed to clear everyone from the area.
Ironhorse settled into a slight crouch and waited for the man – an alien-blended man – to reach the clearing between two sets of padded seats that were now empty. The blond stopped, his eyes looking past the human blocking his way to Control.
Mickey, McCall and the Blackwood Project members fanned out, hoping to protect themselves and the few remaining people who were trapped behind them and unable to leave with the rest of the crowd that the security officers had forced out of the area.
Ironhorse let his attention fall on the small group. More than likely, there were two other aliens in human hosts among them. But who?
With a sputtering of alien-speak, the blond stepped forward.
Ironhorse held his ground. "Stop," he commanded the invader. "Right there." The M-9 slipped into his hand, drawing a scream from a woman who was watching.
"Out of the way, human," was the ugly snarled reply.
From the small group of milling, confused patrons, two more men emerged, both heading for the unarmed group. Ironhorse pulled the M-9, setting off another series of screams. In the distance he could hear the airport security alarm sound. "Bunch up!" Blackwood commanded, pulling the group together.
Control felt his stomach lurch. He was in the middle of an alien attack of some kind. He looked to McCall, who was happily accepting a second Beretta from Dr. McCullough.
"You're probably a better shot than I am," she said, adding. "You better be."
The two approaching figures paused, catching sight of the newly armed man and Blackwood's belligerent glare as he extended a Geiger counter their direction. "There!" Harrison shouted, pointing to one of the blended humans.
McCall didn't hesitate. Shooting the man Blackwood had indicated he watched it fall and begin to dissolve. The second lunged for cover but was too slow, the ex-operative getting off a second round that dropped him as well.
"Look!" Loren gasped, drawing their attention back to the Colonel who had somehow ended up in the middle of a hand to hand fight with the taller blond. A grisly tearing sound echoed across the space, followed by the being's third arm springing out of its chest, the three digits latching onto the soldier's face.
Ironhorse yelled, struggling to get the M-9 up for a clear shot.
"Oh, God," Loren moaned, sinking down to her knees. "It hurts…"
Suzanne wrapped her arms around the woman's shoulders to keep her from falling over.
"Colonel!" Blackwood yelled, starting forward only to be grabbed by McCall.
"Doctor, no!" he snapped.
"Let go of me, he—"
A third shot exploded, and the blond staggered back, the fingers on its third arm uselessly combing through the air. The Mor'taxan fell to its knees, then pitched forward and began to froth.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Well, it has certainly been… interesting," McCall said, extending his hand to shake Blackwood's.
"Thank you," the astrophysicist said. "And we appreciate your help. I hope you're able to identify why the aliens targeted Mr. Control."
McCall nodded, amused with Control's newly acquired title, but saddened by the realization that he had somehow gotten himself involved in yet another dirty war. "I'm sure we'll come up with something."
"And are you going to be all right?" Blackwood asked Loren, as she looked nervously around the airport.
"I think so. I'm going to California, to see a friend of mine." She shook her head. "Anything to get away from all this."
"That sounds like the best thing," Suzanne told her.
Blackwood nodded. "There's a woman out there, she's a psychic, too. I gave Mr. McCall the information. She knows about the aliens. Maybe you could talk to her," he suggested. "Dr. Cedar Ridge, she's at—"
Loren laughed, then wrapped Harrison in a tight hug. He looked startled, but returned the gesture. "That's who I was going to see," Loren explained. "Chen and I were tested at Duke together back in 1978. We've been friends ever since."
Harrison grinned, and forced the warm feeling he felt for the woman away. Now was not the time.
"I'm just glad you're all okay," Loren said.
"Us, too," Suzanne reassured her, looking at Ironhorse. He was sporting bruises from where the alien's hand had attached itself to his face, and his color still wasn't back to normal, but he was growling at them about fussing over him, so he was going to be fine.
"People, we have a plane to catch, and it's time we let Mr. McCall get on with his life, I'm sure—"
"Colonel," Blackwood interrupted, his arm still draped around Loren's shoulder. "You never did tell us where you and Mr. McCall met."
Robert stifled a soft chuckle and forced the smile off his face as best he could. "He didn't, did he?"
"Well, he did say that it was classified," Suzanne corrected.
"Classified?" McCall's eyebrows rose. "Well, I suppose that's true from his perspective, but I can tell you, the first time I met Captain Ironhorse was when we ran into each other in Africa, quite literally. Destroyed both jeeps and stranded us in the middle of hostile territory. It was quite a trip walking out, I might add. Dandy little jaunt."
"Oh?" Blackwood asked, his curiosity gearing up to a fever pitch. "That sounds like quite a story, Colonel."
Ironhorse allowed his eyes to slip closed for a fraction of a second, and issued a heavy sigh. It was going to be a long flight home. "One you're not gonna hear, Blackwood."