Chapter 1: All Dressed Up
Swept up in the happy babble of voices around them, everyone excited and having a great day at the convention, fans of all ages mingled and shared their love of all things fandom. Cosplayers wandered in smaller groups, showing off their hours and weeks of hard work to create beautiful costumes of all styles. Kids scampered around their parents, carrying goodie bags and laughing in delight.
Right in the middle of it all, wearing full costumes with one notable exception, Aloysius Knight and his close friend Rufus made the rounds through the crowds. Most of the fans were great, politely asking for photos with them and complimenting their outfits. There were a few assholes in the mix, but they soon realised it wasn't worth bothering them. Usually a growl from Rufus had them backing off. After all, most Star Wars fans knew better than to piss off a wookiee.
Spotting a young boy sitting in a wheelchair nearby, Aloysius picked his way through the group to talk to the youngster. He always tried to encourage those with a disability, knowing full well how tough life could be if you weren't like everyone else. He looked to be around eight or nine, chair decorated to look like a snowspeeder to compliment the rebel issue flight suit he was wearing.
'Ready for battle kid?' he asked, taking a knee beside the youngster.
'Yes sir, Mr Solo.' the youngster nodded, offering his hand. 'I'm James.'
'Pleasure to meet you James.' Aloysius grinned, shaking hands quickly. 'Just Han is fine.'
'Why are you wearing your sunglasses inside?' James asked, fiddling with the helmet in his lap.
'My eyes don't work properly, so I need these special glasses.' Aloysius explained, glancing over to check Rufus was okay.
'Oh, just like me and my chair.' James nodded, smile growing as he reached out to Aloysius again.
'That's right.' Aloysius chuckled, welcoming James' grip around his fingers. 'Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't reach your goals, James. Whatever you want to achieve, chase it with all your strength.'
'You really mean that?' James asked' looking up as a youngish couple approached them. 'Look mom, he's got a disability like me.'
'Shoot for the moon, kid. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.' Aloysius encouraged, getting to his feet. 'You have a wonderful son.'
'We are blessed to have him.' she replied, glancing at her husband. 'Thank you for taking the time to encourage him.'
'ma'am, I know what it's like to live with a disability. I never got a lot of encouragement when I was young, so I do what I can for the next generation.' Aloysius shrugged, looking down at James. 'With your support, there's no reason he can't achieve anything he wants. The world is far kinder to people like us now then it was when I was a kid.'
'I fail to see how working here can be seen as a goal.' the man remarked, keeping his distance from Aloysius.
'This is what I do in my free time, sir. I recently retired from the US Army. Now I work in security. Between jobs, I do the rounds with the legion, bringing smiles to young faces and raising funds for various charities.' Aloysius corrected, shaking his head lightly. 'Being in a wheelchair won't stop James. Just look at what Stephen Hawking did for the world.'
Looking back as Rufus rumbled low, Aloysius grinned and nodded then turned his attention back to James. He could only hope that this brief meeting was enough to inspire the youngster to become the very best person he could be.
'I gotta keep moving kid, Chewie's getting impatient.' he grinned, resting on hand on James' helmet. 'You're gonna go far kid, I just know it.'
'Before you go, is it okay to ask for a hug?' James asked, glancing back towards his mother.
'Sure kid, anything for a fellow pilot.' Aloysius chuckled, also glancing towards James' mother before leaning in to hug the boy.
Releasing James and standing, Aloysius reached into a pocket hidden inside his vest and plucked out the small deck of trading cards he always carried. Slipping two out, he handed them to James and watched his eyes light up again. Tapping two fingers to his forehead in a lazy salute, he turned and headed back to where Rufus was waiting patiently for him. A growl, a laugh and they wandered off again, totally in harmony as they plunged back into the crowd.
Idly taking note of some of the other fandoms represented out on the floor this year, Aloysius had to admit that some of the costumes were exceptionally well made. Some he recognised from various movies, comics and video games. Others he didn't know, likely from anime or other such sources. Looking up when Rufus nudged him, he whistled low at another pair walking towards them. Someone had put some serious effort into making those two outfits.
They had taken their inspiration from Overwatch; the taller one in the full armour plate of Reinhardt and the other wearing the leathers of Soldier:76. The armour was a masterpiece; bearing the look of real steel but far lighter judging by the way the wearer was moving.
'Knight, is that you?' "Soldier" asked, resting his prop rifle on one shoulder.
'Huh? Sorry, do I know you?' Aloysius asked, dropping one hand to his pistol.
'You should.' "Reinhardt" scoffed, setting his hammer down.
'RRWWWGG?' Rufus growled, watching the pair closely.
'Now that's impressive.' "Soldier" Commented, looking up at Rufus.
Blinking dumbly as "Reinhardt" lifted their helmet off, Aloysius sniggered as he recognised the face underneath. Even with the makeup, wig and fake beard, there was no mistaking Mother Newman. Beside her, Shane Schofield popped his mask free and lifted his gaze. His makeup job was pretty good too, thick scars drawing attention away from the smaller ones across his eyes.
'Well I'll be damned, never expected you would be into cosplay.' Aloysius chuckled, gaze sweeping over the pair again. 'That said, I'm impressed by the quality of these.'
'I could say the same of you, Aloysius. Considering your day job and all.' Shane remarked, looking up at Rufus. 'How did you even find the time?'
'That's the good thing about working on a contract basis. We decide when we want to work.' Aloysius shrugged, nudging Rufus lightly. 'You good?'
Reaching into the pouch at his side, Rufus pulled out a small remote and flipped the main switch before tucking it away. Shaking his head quickly, he settled again and chuckled softly. Most people didn't realise how complex his suit was, the carefully made fur outer layer hiding a full animatronic mask. It also included a full library of wookiee vocalisations, keyed off by motions of his mouth and jaw.
'Yeah, I'm good. This new system is a big improvement.' he nodded, letting his weight drop a little. 'It's good to see you two are doing well.'
'Buck is around somewhere too, he's not wearing a costume. Couldn't decide who he wanted to be.' Shane added, looking around for a moment.
'Understandable. It's not always easy picking a good one.' Aloysius agreed, looking down at his own outfit. 'This was obvious, but the next pair we're working on is a little more obscure.'
'You did an amazing job with that armour, Mother. What'd you use for it?' Rufus asked, shifting his weight a little.
'Aluminium sheeting for the most part, padded with foam to protect the edges.' Mother replied, offering out her hand so he could inspect her gauntlet.
'So how long have you been doing this?' Shane asked, looking up at Aloysius with a grin. 'I get the feeling this isn't your first cosplay.'
'We've been doing it for a few years now. Rufus has been Chewie from the start; I've had a few different costumes over the years. Started with Commander Gree in jungle armour, then I got bored of being in a helmet all the time and switched to Han. It's nice to be able to do some good in between jobs. Even if all we can manage is a brief trip through a ward of sick kids.' Aloysius explained, waving to another gaggle of people all wearing Star Wars shirts. 'Today it's all about raising funds for a local hospital.'
Turning to look when Rufus subtly hinted behind them, Aloysius sighed and straightened. One hand up to forestall any comments, he turned to the young girl coming towards them and frowned. Moments like this made him really regret putting so much work into being a convincing Han Solo. She couldn't have been more than sixteen, striding through a crowd of total strangers in the infamous Leia slave bikini.
'No, absolutely not. I am not posing for photos with you in that outfit.' Aloysius stated, meeting her gaze and shifting his weight back.
'Why not? I paid good money to get in here.' she questioned, stopping short of the group.
'Answer me this then; how old are you?' Aloysius continued, motioning for Shane to stay back.
'18…' she countered, dropping her gaze. 'Fifteen.'
'That's about what I suspected.' Aloysius confirmed, looking around briefly. 'Look, I'm not here to tell you how to dress but that costume isn't really appropriate. I put a hand on you, even just on your shoulder for a photo, I'm liable to get in trouble for it.'
'But I put so much effort into making this.' she whined, brushing her touch against the collar around her throat.
'I know, we all put a lot of work into our costumes but you made the wrong choice this time. There are so many other great Leia costumes, why did you pick that one?' Aloysius asked, handing Shane a few folded bills. 'There's a stall selling Jedi robes over there, go get her one.'
'On it.' Shane nodded, pocketing the cash and walking away.
'I just wanted my classmates to accept me. Some of them are here, I saw them earlier.' she admitted, shoulders rounding as she spoke. 'They just laughed at me though. I was hoping that getting photos with some of the other Cosplayers would help sell my story back at school.'
'There's nothing wrong with being an introvert, little one. When I was in school, I was the wallflower, the bullied kid, the introvert.' Rufus weighed in, crouching down to her level. 'But I turned out okay and you will too. Follow your heart and don't let anyone else ever tell you how to be you.'
'Here you go, this should work.' Shane offered, draping the soft brown robe over her shoulders.
Motioning the young girl towards them once she was wrapped up in the new robe, the quartet huddled around her for a selfie, all smiles and bright eyes. A few photos couldn't really fix the hurt in her, she would struggle for a while yet but at least now she had something to keep as a talisman against those bullies.
'You do you, no one else has the right to make you change who you are.' Rufus repeated, handing her a pair of trading cards. 'I suggest you look into finding some better clothes to change into, before anyone gets the wrong idea about you.'
'I will. I saw some clothing stalls earlier.' she nodded, tucking the cards into her bra for lack of pockets. 'Where can I find you to return this robe?'
'Keep it, princess. Maybe it'll be the inspiration for your next look.' Aloysius grinned, shaking his head lightly.
'Yeah, I think it will.' she agreed, drawing up the hood with one hand. 'Thank you so much.'
Shaking his head slowly as they watched her walk away, Aloysius sighed softly as he scrubbed one hand through his hair. Every time they came out to one of these events, they had to deal with a victim of peer pressure and bullying. They always tried to set things right but honestly; he was starting to lose hope. Kids were just plain cruel when they wanted to be.
'Hang in there kid, it gets better.' He uttered, kicking at the floor.
'Yeah, it really does.' Rufus agreed, one hand landing on Aloysius' shoulder. 'You good?'
'I will be.' Aloysius nodded, fingers briefly entwining with Rufus'. 'I just…'
'Kids can be cruel.' Rufus sighed; tugging Aloysius back into him and ruffling his hair.
'I'm alright Chewie, I'm alright.' Aloysius grinned, tugging Rufus' hand out of his hair.
'Good, because I am not taking your spot on the dance floor later.' Rufus remarked, letting Aloysius go again. 'Remember the last time?'
'Relax buddy, I wouldn't do that to you. But we'd better get a move on or we'll never make the full circuit.' Aloysius grinned, attention shifting back to the Marines with them. 'We do a charity dance off between the different official cosplay groups that come out to the events. It's just a bit of fun really, most don't take it too seriously and it's good for the charities we support.'
'You dance? Now that I have to see.' Mother smirked, adjusting her wig quickly.
'Sure, we'll be over near the main legion stands. About an hour I'd say, you'll hear the music anyway. Listen for the cantina band.' Aloysius nodded, motioning towards his left.
'We'll see you over there a little later.' Rufus added, nudging the lower jaw of his mask back into place and triggering the system again.
'Come on Chewie, I want another try against Fett.' Aloysius grinned, turning and weaving back into the crowd.
Chapter 2: Kick Off
Coming down off the stage after his fourth set, Aloysius noticed the small knot of people standing nearby, talking quietly among themselves. Sure, there were other similar groups in sight but something about those five that didn't seem quite right. Accepting the towel from one of the support team, he made an effort to dry some of the sweat from his hair.
'Hey Chewie, what do you make of those five over there?' He asked, subtly hinting towards the grouping.
'WRRGG.' Rufus replied, shaking his head slightly. He didn't trust them either.
'Fierfek, now we've got a problem.' Aloysius muttered, keeping an eye on the group. 'Keep an eye on them; I'll go warn the others.'
Spotting Mother towards the back of the slowly dispersing crowd, Aloysius headed towards her as he scanned the gathering for anyone else that looked like those five he didn't like. There were a couple of other potential trouble makers in the distance but Aloysius wasn't quite as worried about them.
Just as he drew level with the veteran Marine, one of the potential trouble makers made their move. Pulling her jacket open with her left hand, she raised an MP5 with her right and turned to shoot the security guard moving towards her. Instant panic all around them. People screaming and running for cover. The bogies disappearing into the mass of human flesh, scattering before anyone else could do anything.
Spotting the first shooter again, Aloysius twisted and drew his prop sidearm. Snapping off the barrel blocker, he raised his aim and led the target for a second before squeezing the trigger. Another scream from the crowd. The stampede moving away from him. The first shooter went down hard, a neat hole bored through her forehead.
'Mother, crowd control! Don't care how, just get it sorted!' He barked, pistol raised to his shoulder as he scanned for the next threat.
'Fuck…I'm on it.' Mother nodded, drawing a Colt .45 from inside her chestplate. 'Don't get killed.'
'Copy that.' Aloysius confirmed, turning away from her and starting to hunt.
Reacting with a speed few knew he possessed, Rufus drew a well loved Colt 1911 from his ammo pouch and spun, dropping one of the gunmen with a neat shot through the heart before she'd even managed to bring her weapon to bear. Aim jumping, he fired again. Left hand dropping, he shut off his translator again, knowing full communication would be essential to their survival.
A halo of blood as a young man dropped his semi-auto and collapsed.
More screaming. People pushing and shoving to find safe places to hide in the madness.
'Han! Help me!' a little boy's voice, ringing out with terror.
'James!' Aloysius replied, fighting the crowd to reach the boy. 'Shit. Chewie!'
'I got him!' Rufus confirmed; turning and starting to push his way through the crowd.
Hitting the deck at the sound of someone else opening fire behind him, Rufus hissed and tried not to swear as something wet ran down his back under his costume. Now wasn't the time to check it out. He needed to move.
Scrambling up, he dropped to the floor again as another wave of gunfire cut through the screaming. Almost instantly the stampede changed direction again, crashing around Rufus' position with a wild heave. Trying to send the panicked crowd in another direction, Rufus shoved some of them towards another set of doors further back.
'Quick, go cut 'em off! The infidels must die!' A young voice, cracking on every third word.
Breaking through the crowd at last, Rufus found young James sprawled on the floor at the mercy of the crowd. The rush had toppled his chair, scattering his belongings under the feet of the stampede. Moving fast, Rufus used his own body to shield the young boy as yet more gunfire sent the mass of people fleeing in yet another direction.
'You're safe now James. I've got you.' Rufus soothed, gathering the terrified boy to his chest.
'You mean that?' James asked, pressing as close as he could get. 'Thanks Chewie.'
'I know a secret spot where you can hide.' Rufus nodded, rocking to one knee and lifting his pistol. 'I need cover!'
'Go! I've got your back!' Mother barked, firing across the moving crowd and dropping yet another terrorist.
Bolting to his feet, Rufus used his bulk to push through the crowd, yelling for people to move or hit the floor. Vaulting over a few that did choose to kiss the deck; he blew straight past Mother and into a small offshoot room that wasn't marked on any of the public maps. It was strictly for the professional Cosplayers to use as a staging room.
Setting James down in one corner, Rufus moved a couple of hard cases to form a protective wall around the boy. It wasn't much but hopefully it would keep anyone from noticing the fact James was hiding in here. Dragging another bag into place to finish the wall, Rufus crouched and reached out to lightly ruffle James' hair.
'You'll be okay in here, James. If you get scared, you can cuddle with this.' Rufus guided, digging a plush wookiee out of the bag beside him. 'Just remember to stay super quiet.'
'Okay, I can do that.' James nodded, accepting the toy and hugging it close. 'You'll find my mom and dad, won't you?'
'Count on it, kid.' Rufus promised, ruffling his hair again. 'I'll make sure Han knows to keep an eye out for them too.'
Listening at the door for a moment, Rufus slipped back out into the chaos of the main hall as more gunfire burst above his head. Shit, he'd totally forgotten about the mezzanine level.
Crouching behind an apparently life-sized figure from some anime he'd never heard of before, Shane risked another look out and swore under his breath. Most of the innocents up here were on the floor, cowering from the patrolling gunmen. Those that had tried for the stairwells lay where they had fallen, many of them with holes in their backs. The wounded tried to stay silent, fearful of drawing the wrath of the gunmen.
Swearing under his breath, Shane looked around again, searching for the knock off camo shirt Buck had been wearing. It was a bit of a running joke, the soft greens and greys shaped like bulldogs. Fingers tightening around his sidearm, he leaned out a little more and swore quietly again.
Buck lay right in the middle of a group of wounded civilians, his shirt soaked with blood. From this angle Shane couldn't tell if the blood was his or from the civilians around him. At least he was moving, so there was still hope that he would survive this. Buck had already been through hell, it seemed stupid that he would die on American soil.
Brilliant mind spinning into action, he tracked the patrols of the six mobile gunmen and frowned. They were just too far apart, he would have a hard time just dealing with these six, much less the other four that were standing guard by the stairs and lifts heading down to the main floor. Gaze drifting towards Buck again, he relaxed a little at the sight of the other man moving slowly, curling up to protect his gut. Okay, so he wasn't totally alone up here, First step, get a rifle for Buck. After that…well he'd worry about that once he'd passed Step 1.
Tracking the moving gunmen, studying their patterns, Shane tried to ignore the chaos beneath his feet. He couldn't help those people. His responsibilities were up here, the wounded needed him to act.
'All infidels must die!'
Attention snapping across the hall, Shane barely had a second to interpret what he was seeing before he raised his pistol. Across the hall, one of the gunman dangled a small child over the balustrade, MP5 pointed at a distraught young woman reaching desperately for the child.
Drawing aim carefully, Shane loosed a single round across the hall, the deep crack of his favoured Desert Eagle partly drowned out by the screaming below. Across the room, the gunman's head snapped back from the force of the bullet, spraying bone and brain matter across the people cowering against the wall.
'My baby!' the terrified woman screamed, helpless as her precious child plummeted out of her reach.
'Shit.' Shane breathed, ducking back as a wave of gunfire tore into the wall beside him.
'Catch the kid!' Mother's voice rang out, bringing hope back to the moment.
'Got her!' Aloysius replied between bursts of gunfire.
Dismissing the child from his thoughts, Shane refocused on the gunmen still patrolling the mezzanine. The sudden loss of one had rattled the rest, bringing the four guards up from their positions and into Shane's view. In amidst the screaming, he picked out a few words of Farsi, mostly anti-American insults.
Three near identical gory halos as three of the nearer gunmen went down in quick succession with bloody holes in their faces. Shane just couldn't risk body shots in case these assholes were wearing Kevlar.
'Get that pig!' a young woman barked, stitching the wall behind Shane with yet more holes.
'Go, I'll cover!' Buck called, rising up onto one knee with a pilfered MP5 in his hands.
Bursting out from behind the statue, Shane fired across the open space again, tracking two of the distant shooters. He clipped one, but the other was fast enough to duck down the stairwell out of his range. Dropping to his knees, he skidded past a group of terrified civilians as Buck dropped out the empty magazine and quickly reloaded.
'You okay?' Shane asked, turning to Buck for a moment.
'Yeah, most of it ain't mine. Tried to save a couple lives before one of them shot me.' Buck nodded, lifting his shirt to reveal a graze across his stomach. 'What the fuck is going on?'
'Not sure. We've got gunmen running wild, that's about all I know. Heard a couple of them speaking Farsi, so I'm thinking domestic terrorists.' Shane replied, wincing as the woman beside him screamed even louder.
'ma'am, screaming will not help. We are Marines; we'll get this under control shortly. Just be still and quiet, you'll draw less attention and thus, be less likely to get shot.' Buck guided, looking towards her for a moment.
'Death to the infidels!' a woman cried, opening fire on the crowd again.
'Fuck that.' Shane growled, firing through the glass balustrade.
His round took the active shooter in the throat, hitting the button at the base of her skull and dropping her to the floor. Bounding to his feet, he sighted and fired again as one of the terrorists sighted on him. Bullets crossed paths, dropping both shooters with matching blood sprays splattering the walls behind them.
Chapter 3: Shifting Focus
Springing up from behind an overturned table, Rufus nailed three gunmen who were dumb enough to stand close together. The fourth shot went wide, adding to the wild scatter of holes in the walls and displays. Diving full stretch, he hit the floor and skidded behind another overturned display.
Sitting up, he reloaded before turning his attention to the burning sensation in his leg. About half way down his right calf, the fur of his suit was starting to turn blood red. Pulling the loose outer layer up, he winced at the sight of a neat hole drilled right through the muscle. Digging in his bandolier pouch again, he wrapped a linen strip around the wound and tugged his fur suit back over it. That would have to do until the battle was over.
Staying low, he crawled along the row of overturned displays and scattered merchandise, trying his best to recall his training on urban ground combat. He was a pilot, ground ops weren't his thing. Shaking his head quickly, he paused behind one of the big displays to catch his breath. Listening for threats, he felt a definite chill in his blood as he overheard a brief conversation in Farsi. His understanding wasn't the best; he'd never really needed to know more than the absolute basics.
Pausing a heartbeat for the talking pair to get closer, he burst out of hiding and lunged. Grabbing the scrawny young man by the back of his shirt, Rufus heaved back hard and sent the little bastard flying. He made an ugly wet cracking noise as he collided head first with the brick wall behind them.
Reaching out again, he snagged the hooded woman that had been talking with him and wrapped one hand around her throat. Twisting to avoid a blow to the knee, he turned his pistol and cracked her at the base of the spine. She instantly went limp, semi-auto dropping to the floor beside her.
'Boss! Tick-Tick!' He roared; dropping the woman and diving clear as yet another terrorist took a shot towards him.
Across the hall, Aloysius yanked his boot knife and let fly, sending it spinning across to slam to the hilt in the eye of the bitch trying to shoot Rufus. This situation was already out of hand, the latest warning from Rufus just made it even worse. He just hoped that the bomb was down on the ground floor. If not…well best not to think about that too much.
From above came another wave of gunfire, punctuated by the deeper bass of Schofield's Eagle. With a choked scream, a woman smashed through the glass balustrade above and landed with an ugly splat. That of course caused the nearest civilians to start screaming again, pushing and shoving to get away from the grizzly scene.
'Knight, down!' Mother barked, levelling her Colt in his direction.
Flipping over, pistol pointing between his feet, Aloysius witnessed the last seconds as another pair of crazed terrorists crashed to the floor. One had a hole where his nose had been. The other had a double tap straight to the heart. Scrambling up, he hustled across to stand back to back with Mother.
'Any idea if Scarecrow did any EOD training?'
'Not that I know of. Why?'
'Now I know you aren't dumb, Mother. You heard Rufus' call surely.'
It took a few seconds before Mother swore softly and turned her attention up towards the mezzanine where Buck and Scarecrow were still doing battle with these nutcases. Pushing Aloysius towards cover, she started her own sweep of the crowd.
'Scarecrow, there's an eraser.' She called, confident he'd understand.
'Shit!' Scarecrow responded; voice tinted with pain.
Still putting the pieces together in her head, Mother spotted another with an MP5 in his hands and charged. Dropping one shoulder, she collected the hapless terrorist and kept going. With a sickening thud, she smashed him into the very same brick wall Rufus had used to kill one of his targets. Backing off and watching him fall, she turned back to the crowd and groaned.
'I'll feel that in the morning.' She groaned, stretching her back carefully.
Distracted by his search for the bomb, Aloysius went down with a roar of pain, blood rapidly spreading across his shirt from two ugly wounds in his right shoulder and bicep. Flipping over, he returned fire up towards the mezzanine, missing one asshole and dropping the second with a near perfect headshot.
'Boss!' Rufus called, briefly sticking his head up again.
'I'm good, just a wing.' Aloysius confirmed, sitting up slowly. 'Any sighting?'
'Negative, still searching.' Rufus answered, shrinking back behind cover.
Rocking up onto one knee, Aloysius holstered his sidearm and pressed against the wound to his shoulder. Teeth grit, he heaved up onto his feet and drew his pistol again. Surely they were getting close to eliminating all the terrorists in here. Moving through the cowering crowd, he went back to searching for the bomb but this time he made sure to scan for enemy gunmen as well.
Moving through the crowd slowly, doing his best to reassure everyone that the situation was under control, Aloysius spotted one of the other Cosplayers reaching for a dropped MP5. Closing the distance in two strides, he put one foot on the weapon and shook his head.
'I may know you Rich, but in the heat of the moment, I cannot guarantee your safety. Just stay down until this is over.' He warned, glancing up quickly.
With a choked scream, another terrorist crashed through the glass and splattered down near the woman who had gone flying earlier. This one had a k-bar imbedded in the throat from the left side. Briefly wondering who had made that kill, he flicked his attention back to Rich on the floor. He'd taken the smart option, withdrawing his hand and turning his focus back to the people around him.
'You're a good man Rich; I don't want you hurt in all this.' Aloysius nodded, moving past the older man in his slightly bedraggled Lando costume.
'Check the east pillars. Thought I saw something over there.' Rich guided, scooting over to offer comfort to a terrified young woman and her son.
Reorienting in the room, Aloysius glanced up to check for any more falling bodies before hustling toward the eastern end of the room. This was getting a little too close to where Rufus had stashed James when the shit hit the fan. Breathing past the pain building in his chest, he holstered his pistol awkwardly and stooped to pluck his boot knife from the cooling body it had taken down.
Coming back to the stage where he'd been dancing earlier, he spotted an abandoned bag leaning against one of the decorated pillars supporting the mezzanine level. Trusting his friends to watch his back, he headed for it and hoped that it wasn't going to be overly complex. Careful not to jolt it, just in case there was a hidden pressure switch, he checked for wires or any other external clues before starting to cautiously open the bag.
'Han, behind you!' a young voice shattered his focus.
Spinning and diving to the right, Aloysius automatically started scanning for the newest threat. Only to see Mother bring her hammer down on the exposed back of yet another terrorist with an ugly, wet snapping noise. Nodding his thanks, he shifted his attention back to the bomb by his side. Pausing for a moment to let the adrenaline dissipate, he opened the bag and gulped.
'Cover me! I need to focus!' He barked, trusting his allies to get the message.
'Make it fast!' Shane called from above.
'I can do fast or safe.' Aloysius countered, grip shifting on his knife.
Folding back the open flaps, he swallowed heavily as he examined the device. He recognised some of the components from his training but he'd never seen them put together in this fashion. Multiple blocks of C4, rigged together with a rainbow of wires and a couple of nasty surprises. Pushing the flaps open a little more, he made another attempt to sort out which wires connected to the tilt switch mounted on the side of the device.
In a rare moment of near silence, he heard the distinct sound of ticking. Checking again, he swore under his breath. He couldn't see the damned clock anywhere. What he did spot was another trap in this nightmare. Right down the bottom, easily ignored if not for the way the overhead light shone past his shoulder, what appeared to be a pressure plate under the entire device.
Rocking back on his heels, he paused a moment to steady his breath and stop his hands from shaking again. In that moment, the pain from his wounds seemed minor. Swallowing hard and swiping at the sweat beading on his forehead, he set his knife down and flexed his hands. His right arm felt heavy and weak, fingers slick with a mix of sweat and blood.
Plan solidifying in his mind, he cautiously steadied the whole device with his right hand and used his left to sort through the wild network of wires leading every which way. Best guess, the red wires were attached to the pressure plate and the green ones were likely for the tilt switch. Either the white or yellow wires were connected to the timer, wherever the hell that was in the mess. That left the blue wires leading from a hidden power pack to the C4 blocks. Wiping his left hand on the seat of his pants, he started easing the first detonators out of the blocks. It wasn't much of a plan but right now, he didn't have many options.
Letting out a shaky breath, Aloysius eased his hands off the bomb and just stared at it as he tried to will his heart to calm. He was certain he'd flinched from those last two gunshots, he had no idea who had fired or where they'd been aiming. Concentrating on his breathing, he waited precious minutes for his hands to steady and his breathing to level. That had been far too close for comfort.
Getting to his feet slowly, right hand wrapped over the bullet wound in his left trapezius, Shane looked around slowly at the chaos they'd been part of this time. All around him people were gradually lifting their heads, swapping terrified looks and reaching out to reassure one another. Strangers leaning on each other as they wept in relief as others scrambled to try and help the wounded.
Wiping his bloodied hand on his pants, Shane popped his mask off and stuffed it in his jacket safely. For a moment he focused on keeping his breath steady, trying to swallow past the lump in his throat. Deep down, he felt sick. This had been intended as a day off for them all, not a blood bath.
'You good?' Buck asked, left hand pressed to his gut as he stood.
'Not really.' Shane admitted, shaking his head briefly. 'This wasn't meant to happen.'
'You gonna reassure 'em or should I?' Buck grinned, trying to distract Shane's thoughts.
'I'm the senior officer, it's my responsibility.' Shane sighed, looking across the frightened people again. 'Mother, you clear?'
'Not yet, Knight is still clearing the eraser.' She replied, stepping into view below them. 'I'll let you know when he's done.'
'Ladies and gentlemen, I am Captain Shane Schofield, USMC. I know this has been a horrific experience for everyone involved but right now I must ask you to remain calm. Rest assured, the authorities are aware of the situation and are standing by to assist. As this is now an active crime scene, I ask that you do not touch any weapons that you find laying about. Please be patient, we will start the evacuation once the ground floor is clear of threats.' He called, pushing aside his exhaustion for the moment.
'What about my child?' a woman called, stumbling to her feet. 'She fell over the railing when you shot that man.'
'Your daughter is safe, ma'am.' Aloysius replied, walking into view below them.
Easing closer to the edge, Shane looked down to be sure Aloysius was okay. He looked like hell, shirt stained red and half hidden under a short brown cloak someone had handed him. He cradled the little girl on his left, shielding her from the worst of the gore around them. Aside from some dried blood on her back, she seemed unharmed by the whole mess.
'Alright folks, I need everyone listening to me now. If you follow my directions, there's a good chance no one else will get hurt today. It is on every one of you to help the wounded, the paramedics will not enter the building until it has been rendered safe by SWAT so it falls to us to take the wounded outside. Use the eastern stairwells and make your way out to the forecourt.' Aloysius continued, calm and in complete control to the casual observer.
Doing his best to protect James from the carnage around them, Rufus cradled the scared youngster against his chest as he led another group of survivors out of the convention centre. At his side, a shell shocked teen girl pushed James' wheelchair, currently occupied by an older man with at least three bullets in his belly. On his other side, two teenaged boys practically carried a heavily pregnant woman, uttering reassurances as she wept for her husband, killed in the crossfire.
Outside was controlled chaos, emergency personnel and support teams vying for space on the forecourt. Volunteers from a dozen organisations came forward to assist in whatever way they could. Medical teams took the wounded away to the triage area set up nearer the street. Some came around with blankets and reassuring words. Others were focused on reuniting terrified children with their families in the chaos.
Adjusting his hold on James and reaching out to snag his wheelchair before someone else borrowed it, Rufus made his way off to the side to a bench that was miraculously empty. Setting James down in his chair safely, he plopped down and peeled off the heavy fur hood with a groan. Disconnecting the control wires, he lifted the headpiece off and set it in his lap.
'Oh, so that's what you look like under the mask.' James grinned, looking up at him.
'Yeah, though I probably look a mess. Gets real hot under all this.' Rufus nodded, running one hand through his sweat soaked hair.
'Here, you need this more than I do.' James offered, holding out a water bottle. 'Then maybe we can find my parents.'
'Thanks James. You doin' okay after all that?' Rufus asked, accepting the bottle gratefully. 'Don't worry, we'll find your parents. Just gonna take a little break.'
'I'm still scared. But I'm not hurt, at least not that I can feel.' James uttered, looking down at his legs. 'Why did they do it?'
'We'll never know, James. That's the worst part of massacres like this, we'll never know why those people decided to unleash their evil today and here.' Rufus shrugged, reaching out to rest one hand on James' shoulder. 'I know it's tough but try not to think about the why too much.'
'James! Thank God you're safe!'
'Momma!' James cried, brightening up as the bloodied woman ran to him.
Carefully folding the fur up and under the complex mask, Rufus tucked the headpiece into his satchel and stood. As much as he wanted to find a shady spot and peel off his furred shirt, he knew there were people that still needed help. He settled for opening the top two fasteners and snagging a cold drink from one of the support teams. His comfort could wait, these innocent civilians had to take preference right now.
'Rufus, over here!' Shane called from the wide stairs leading up to the convention centre.
Manoeuvring through the thinning crowd, helping the lost find where they needed to go, Rufus really did try to hide his growing limp, shifting his weight a little and hoped no one noticed. Sending another woman towards the coffee van set up in one corner of the forecourt, he hurried up and took a knee beside the woman Shane was currently tending.
'This is Susan Broadhurst, age 26. Currently nine months pregnant, her due date is next week. The stress of the shooting induced her though. I've tried flagging down one of the medical teams but they're all focused on the seriously wounded.' Shane briefed, voice a little shaky as he spoke.
'Hi Susan, I'm Rufus. You're in good hands, I'm trained as an emergency midwife…I know, I don't seem the type. Do you think you can hold on long enough to reach the medical tents or are you having your baby right now?' Rufus soothed, all business as he tugged off his furred gloves and tucked them into his satchel.
'He's coming now. I can feel him moving down. I need to push.' she panted, grabbing his hand in a vice grip.
'Shane, go find one of the blanket groups and get at least three of their softest blankets. We'll need a few clean towels too, ask around the catering teams to see what can be found. I'll need a bucket of warm water, cord and scissors. Oh and a clean plastic bag of some sort.' Rufus directed, giving Susan a grin.
'I'll see what I can come up with.' Shane nodded, getting up and taking off at a steady lope.
Chapter 4: Clean Up
Discarding parts of her costume to make her life easier, Mother took a few moments to look across the crowd to see where she could best help out. The mood in general was definitely calmer as teams of people went around offering hot drinks and light meals to help settle the crowd further. Teams of people with therapy animals were also doing the rounds, giving everyone a chance to get to know the dogs and miniature horses doing the rounds.
Wiping the sweat from her head, she slapped on a smile and shifted her attention to providing reassurance to those around her. She needed an easier task, something that wouldn't require grand words or gestures. That was the Scarecrow's realm.
'Have you seen my little boy?' a young woman asked, eyes wide with fear. 'His name is Travis. He's seven and wearing a batman costume.'
'Just stay calm, ma'am, we'll find your little boy.' Mother promised, trying to recall if she'd seen a little batman anywhere in the chaos.
'I hope he is alright. We got separated when those men started shooting.' she continued, wringing her hands fretfully.
'Ma'am, relax. If your son was on his own, I'm sure one of my fellow service members would have scooped him up. He'll be around somewhere. We'll find him together.' Mother promised, gently taking the woman by the hand. 'I'm Gunnery Sergeant Gena Newman, USMC.'
Struggling to find the right words, Mother let her presence reassure the woman by her side. So many families had been affected, adults and children alike exposed to horrific scenes and ripped away from loved ones. So many innocents dragged into the war without expecting it. Damn those goat fuckers for spreading this hate.
'Momma!' a little boy cried, racing towards them with his arms outstretched.
'Travis!' Janice replied, darting forward and scooping him up. 'I was so worried.'
'Mr Knight kept me safe, momma.' Travis grinned, clinging tightly to his mother. 'He got me an ice cream while we were looking for you.'
'After a fright like that, I figure everyone could use a little sweet treat.' Aloysius offered, trailing behind young Travis.
'Well, that's done it. Your tough guy reputation is shot.' Mother chuckled.
'A minor price to pay really.' Aloysius grinned, adjusting the sling he was sporting. 'it'll be a while before law enforcement lets these people go so I made sure there would be plenty of basic comforts to keep everyone calm until we're cleared to leave.'
'I would have thought you'd be sent straight to hospital.' Janice remarked, motioning to the blood on Aloysius' shirt.
'Ma'am, I signed a contract to this country and even though I got a medical discharge, I still stand by my service oath. I'll get treatment for my wounds once all the civilians have been cared for. A couple of bullet wounds is a small price to pay to see so many survivors.' Aloysius nodded, giving her a tired smile.
'Heads up, we've got reporters inbound.' Mother warned, spotting the gaggle of fancy folk coming their way.
'I'll handle the reporters. Mother, would you mind taking over the lost kids over by the ice cream truck. The auxiliary ladies will watch them, you just need to take a couple out and find their families in the crowd.' Aloysius briefed, attention drifting between the reporters and the lost kids.
'Yeah, I can handle that. But what do I do if there's no one here for them?' Mother asked, looking across towards the ice cream truck.
'Keep them by the truck, we'll have to make special arrangements for them when things calm down a bit.' Aloysius guided.
'I'll take care of them.' Mother confirmed, grabbing her gear and heading toward the ice cream truck.
Rallying his strength as he turned, Aloysius squared his shoulders and headed towards the reporters. Most of them were sticking together, holding back as their cameramen took wide vistas across the traumatised crowd. The dogfight would start soon as each reporter tried to get the scoop on their competition, all from the blood and tears of these innocent people.
Accepting a fresh coffee from one of the auxiliary ladies doing the rounds, he stopped in front of the reports and cleared his throat. Some of them he recognised from various meetings, but there were a few new faces in the mix.
'Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. For those of you who do not know me, I am Aloysius Knight, owner and CEO of A New Dawn Consolidated Military Support Services. As of this moment, I am the spokesman for the innocent people affected by this horrific terrorist attack.' he announced, voice full of confidence and power.
'And what makes you qualified to talk for these people?'
'I did eight years service in the US Army, five of those in Special Forces. I specialised in counter terrorism and urban warfare. I put that training to good use today, defending these civilians from a large number of enemy agents.' Aloysius replied, meeting the reporter head on.
'What can you tell us about the situation?' one of the women asked, holding her microphone out to him.
'At around 2:30 pm, just as the charity dance off was winding down, myself and Gunnery Sergeant Newman witnessed two young women acting strangely near the performance stage. Both were armed with MP5 automatic rifles and opened fire on the crowd. One gunned down an approaching security guard as the other strafed a group of children. This caused an instant panic, sending the crowd into a wild stampede to escape.' Aloysius offered, totally focused on her.
Attention shifting when one of the reporters tried to wander off and talk to some of the traumatised victims, Aloysius whistled and pointed him out to the police doing the rounds of the scene. They quickly herded the wandering reporter back to the group and stuck around just in case anyone else got the idea to wander.
Giving the facts and glossing over the bloodiest parts, he put all the facts out there for the world to hear. He made no secret of his disgust for the terrorists and their actions. He praised the civilians that stepped up in the aftermath, putting aside their fear to help the wounded. Bowing his head for a moment, he offered his deepest sympathies to the families who had lost loved ones in the madness, though he was careful not to identify anyone.
Pausing a moment, he drew breath and drained his coffee, letting the cameras record the way his hands were shaking after his ordeal. Shaking his head slowly, he returned his attention to the cameras and sighed softly. He was so tired, but the job wasn't done yet.
'Surely stricter gun control…'
'Sir, I'm not sure what world you live in but here on earth, criminals don't obey gun laws. If anything, stricter gun laws would have resulted in even more deaths. Stricter laws would have prevented myself and my fellow soldier and marines from defending these innocents. If not for us, these terrorists could have killed everyone in the centre.' Aloysius cut him off, refusing to even entertain such thoughts.
'Captain Knight?' another voice, drawing him out of his thoughts and away from the cameras.
Off to the right of the huddle of cameramen, three guys in police uniform stood waiting with a little bomb disposal robot ready for action. Pausing for a moment, gears turning, he cracked his first genuine smile since the shooting started. The one in the middle was familiar, the same laughing grey eyes and strawberry blond hair. He'd put on a little weight and now wore his hair longer but there was no mistaking it. At least some of his old Delta friends didn't immediately hate him.
'Well I'll be…good to see you again Sergeant Wallace.' He chuckled, offering his hand. 'Nice to know some things haven't changed.'
'Never believed it, just so you know.' Stephen replied, shaking his hand warmly. 'So what's the situation inside?'
'South west corner of the ground floor. Black and silver backpack against the corner pillar. No visible external wires or components. Inside, it's a monster of a device. Multiple C4 blocks, tilt switch, pressure plate and timer. There could be a shrapnel packet in the middle, I couldn't see into the heart of the device. I rendered it safe by removing the detonators and using the front flap to separate them from the explosives.' He briefed, ignoring the questions from the reporters.
'Shite, these bastards ain't playing. Is the building clear?' Stephen paled, glancing down at the robot. 'We only just got little Squeaky, I'd hate to lose him to that beast.'
'Far as I know the building is clear. Best to check with SWAT though, they went in as we were coming out with the crowd.' Aloysius shrugged, looking down at the robot as well. 'If the worst happens, I'm sure A New Dawn will sponsor a replacement robot.'
'Right, I'll let you get back to the reporters. Stay sharp Captain, the world needs men like us.' Stephen nodded, shaking his hand again.
Waiting his turn with one of the doctors doing the rounds, Buck shifted uncomfortably on the low stretcher he'd been guided onto. This wasn't how he'd planned on spending the day. It was meant to be a day off for them all, a chance to unwind and relax after a few rough weeks. He certainly wasn't meant to end up with lead in his gut. He most definitely shouldn't have been forced to pick up a weapon and kill in a crowd of civilians.
Eyes falling closed again, he tried to tune out the pained sounds from the other wounded still waiting to be checked over. What the hell had those kids been thinking when they decided to shoot up a convention? Security was meant to be heightened, but they still got a bomb into the venue along with all their weapons.
'Hey, make a hole. This lady needs priority care.' Rufus called, drawing Buck out of his thoughts.
'What makes her so special?' someone else scoffed.
'Hey dickhead, this lady just gave birth on the steps of the centre because no one thought to check on her. Just because someone ain't bleeding don't mean they're okay.' Rufus snapped, drawing even more attention.
'Here, set her down here.' Buck offered, sitting up with a groan. 'I can wait.'
'What is it about you lot? Scarecrow's refusing treatment too.' Rufus chuckled, shaking his head fondly. 'Rest Marine, I've got the watch.'
'If I have to rest, so do you. I know you caught a round or two.' Buck countered, pressing one hand to his stomach.
Finding an empty cot in the back row, Rufus padded over and sunk to one knee. Gentle as could be, he eased Susan down and smoothed out the blankets around her. Safe in her arms, her precious baby boy slept peacefully, blissfully unaware of the disaster he'd survived.
'I think I'll call him Michael.' she smiled, looking up at Rufus proudly.
'A good name for such a little fighter.' Rufus agreed, still a little amazed that the labour had gone so smoothly.
'Fits big fighters too, It's Scarecrow's second name.' Buck remarked, watching the pair with a grin.
'Yeah, I know. It's my third, how's that for a coincidence.' Rufus chuckled, lightly running one finger over baby Michael's head. 'I'll check in with you later Susan. There's still people that need help out there.'
'Of course. Thank you again Rufus, I don't know what would have happened without your skilled hands.' Susan smiled, looking down at her son.
Shaking his head slowly as he picked his way back through the chaos, Rufus caught Buck's reaching arm and eased him back onto his feet. Making use of the supplies scattered around the area, he added an extra layer of dressing over the bloody wound in Buck's gut.
'I know of four, but three got tangled up in my under layers. Took out my hydration and cooling systems. It's an oven in this fur but the civilians have to take priority.' Rufus shrugged, tying off the replacement bandage quickly.
'Well then, let's get back out there and let them know we're taking their safety seriously.' Buck grinned, looking down at the state of his shirt. 'Well, this is one gag gift I'll never have to wear again.'
'We might have some stuff that'll get the blood out. At the very least, it won't look like a horror story when you toss it.' Rufus offered, keeping one hand on Buck's shoulder as they left the medical zone.
It was still chaotic beyond the hastily erected marquees, parents and kids calling out for their families as emergency personnel and auxiliary ladies did their best to reunite everyone. Mother wandered past with three scared kids clinging to her for security. Shane stood off to the side, chatting to the bomb squad, their little robot looking a little worse for wear. Aloysius talking to a group of reporters, swaying a little as he spoke.
'Momma!' a little girl cried, racing past Buck and heading towards the reporters.
A neatly dressed redheaded reporter handed her microphone to one of the cameramen and crouched, gathering the frightened little girl to her chest. Standing slowly, she looked around in shock, one hand cradling little Hailey's head to her shoulder securely. Little Hailey was a mess, splattered with blood all down her left side but thankfully none of it was hers. At worst, she'd have a few bruises from being knocked to the floor.
'Martin! Oh god, Martin!' she called, turning awkwardly. 'Where's your daddy, honey?'
'Your husband has been rushed to hospital, listed as critical but stable. He was shot several times in the abdomen during the terrorist attack, trying to shield Hailey from the gunmen. I also witnessed him shield another little boy who got separated from his family.' Rufus offered, stepping forward to meet the shocked mother.
'Ex-husband actually. Though that does sound exactly like Martin. Forgive me, I'm Rachael Morgan.' she nodded, looking up at Rufus slowly. 'Do you know which hospital?'
'I don't sorry, but I'm sure if you speak to the folk in the medical tent someone will be able to point you in the right direction. But I strongly suggest your cameraman stays out here. Just think how you would feel to find out your loved one is hurt by seeing it on the evening news.' Rufus guided, eyeing the cameramen again.
'Of course, I understand completely. Brad, wait out here until I get back. I need to know where Martin is.' Rachael directed, looking to her cameraman for a moment.
'Sure thing Rachael. Go find out where he is and I'll take you to him.' Brad replied, lowering his camera respectfully. 'What a mess.'
'The true nature of people really comes out in situations like this. I already knew people could be violent, I did my time in the army and saw it all. But here today, I saw the kinder side of humanity too. Teenaged boys carrying a pregnant woman to safety. A young woman, barely an adult herself, dragging a leather clad man to safety. Parents taking care of unfamiliar children.' Rufus continued, attention shifting to the rest of the reporters.
'While in the medical tent, I saw a new mother stop and nurse another woman's child. Total strangers, drawn together by their instinct to care for the next generation. Stop giving attention to the bastards that did this and look at the stories of heroism and compassion in the aftermath. Give respect to the people who deserve it, not the cowards who gunned down children for fun.' Buck added, sounding so very tired.
Reacting fast, Rufus twisted on his bloody leg and reached out to grab Aloysius before he went down hard. Weight shifting to compensate, Rufus groaned softly in pain and looked down at his best friend.
'You okay Boss?' he asked, regretting that he hadn't really been paying attention.
'I'm totally fine. I'm good, it's all good. Totally fine.' Aloysius uttered, shifting against Rufus' grip slowly. 'Nothing to worry about, I'm just fine.'
'You sure? You're repeating your words, look pale and you keep swaying like a drunk.' Rufus sighed, tightening his grip a little more.
'Okay, maybe not so fine.' Aloysius admitted, lifting his head slowly. 'Christopher should be in the rear lot by now, loading our gear.'
Making his way over to join the group, Shane slumped a little more as exhaustion really set in. he could go for hours when there was something else to keep him focused, but when it came to cleaning up after a battle, he just felt tired. Today had turned into a total clusterfuck and no one had any answers.
'I just spoke to the officers in charge of the scene. We're clear to head out and seek medical treatment. We have to stay close though, they'll want to talk to us about the situation. At this point, I'm not sure they know how to deal with the mess. Oh, and the bomb guys said New Dawn owes them for repairs to their bomb bot. Whatever that means.'
'I know what that means. Don't worry about it, I'll make sure it's dealt with.' Rufus grinned, waving toward the bomb techs briefly. 'Grab your team Schofield, let's get out of here. We've got a place where the reporters won't be able to follow us. I figure we could all use some time away from the spotlight to get our heads together.'
'Sounds good to me, buddy.' Shane nodded, scanning the crowd slowly. 'Mother! C'mon, we're leaving.'
Stepping out into the back parking lot, Shane's jaw dropped at the sight of a gleaming blue stretch Hummer and a smartly dressed older man waiting beside it. Of course he knew Knight had cash to spare, he still clearly remembered the price that had been on his head. 18.6 million could buy a guy a fairly nice lifestyle. He probably should have realised that Knight would have something like this.
'Everything is ready for your arrival, Aloysius. The medical team is standing by and Tamika is preparing a place for your friends.' he explained, stepping forward to help the team.
'Thanks Christopher.' Aloysius nodded, fiddling with his sling again. 'You might wanna give them a rundown. These three Marines only know half the story.'
'Of course.' Christopher smiled, gaze shifting towards the three marines. 'I am Christopher Richards, I've been Aloysius' personal chauffeur since he was just a boy. Before coming into his service, I served with distinction in the Royal Marines and trained in the art of defensive driving. Now, I promise to give you a full story but we really should get moving. No telling when those reporters will catch up.'
Loading their hard cases in the rear cargo section, the marines were all quite impressed with the comfort inside the stretched vehicle. Even with Mother still wearing some pieces of her armour suit, there was still room enough for everyone to relax and spread out a bit. As a last touch, Christopher took a few moments to tend to their various injuries before closing up and climbing in behind the wheel.
'So, a stretch hummer?' Buck questioned, settling back in his seat.
'I pass it off as a work expense. When I'm not in town, the local New Dawn team uses it to do the rounds and collect any homeless veterans in need of help. My father started A New Dawn, trying to help America's veterans then I took it over when he passed.' Aloysius explained, opening one of the hidden compartments and handing around chilled water bottles.
'You do good work. I've made use of New Dawn services in the past.' Mother nodded, plucking off her wig with a groan.
'I don't do much of the daily business anymore. Mostly I'm there to control the purse and make sure the boards don't cut programs without my approval. They eventually learn not to try anything, especially when they realise I slipped a sneaky clause into their contracts. If they cut programs without my authorisation, I can legally take the cost of reinstating said program from their annual salary and keep them at that lower pay rate permanently.' Aloysius smirked, still proud of that little clause.
'So I take it this is not a business friendship?' Christopher asked respectfully.
'Mhmm, yes and no.' Rufus replied, watching Aloysius for a moment. 'It's a friendship forged under fire as part of our other business.'
'Ah, say no more. I still have no wish to know about that other business.' Christopher nodded, glancing in the mirror. 'Just hold on a little longer. The team is standing by to take care of you all.'
'Good, I'm dying in this fur.' Rufus grumbled, tugging at his collar restlessly. 'Really hope I don't need to replace the whole cooling system.'
'We'll worry about that tomorrow.' Aloysius suggested, shifting to curl into Rufus' side a little more.
Falling silent, the exhausted team watched the world pass by and tried not to think about the horror they had just survived. Split second decisions that could have been fatal. Lives forever changed by the actions of a small group of brainwashed fools. There was every chance of more cells out there, just waiting to unleash their terror on innocent people. So much had come down to sheer luck or chance, a stray round could have killed any one of them…or the bomb could have gone off when the crowd was right there around it.
Nudging his glasses up to wipe his eyes, Aloysius couldn't quite hide the tremors in his hands. He was used to close calls, he'd had more than his fair share of them but today was a nightmare. Even something as basic as a sneeze at the wrong time could have set that device off. He could have been responsible for dozens of deaths, it was pure luck they'd come through relatively unharmed.
'You did good, Alloy. When the dust settles, folks will remember the brave heroes that stood up against evil. They will speak of you proudly, even if they don't know your name. Those kids will remember the soldier that stood up for them and perhaps make the choice to follow in your footsteps one day.' Christopher spoke gently, still focused on the street ahead.
Sitting up a little more, Rufus sighed and tucked Aloysius in closer, whispering calming reassurances into his hair to help Aloysius through the post mission jitters. It wasn't a constant issue, but sometimes a job would get under Aloysius' skin and leave him edgy and anxious for a day or two. This one would likely haunt him for a lot longer.
'I'm not done with those assholes. I'll have to talk to my lawyers to figure out the best way to proceed. Even if I stand alone, I'll take the families of the gunmen to court and see they're held accountable for the deeds of their children.' Aloysius insisted, voice so tired but his words were strong.
Pulling up at a side entrance to the New Dawn facility, the exhausted quintet headed straight inside and up to the medical floor. Christopher promised to take care of their baggage, including the dinged armour panels Mother left behind. Without prompting, staff and clients moved in to assist, offering their shoulders to ease the burden. No one mentioned the attack or offered sympathy for what had happened. That would come later, once the weary and blood soaked team were patched up and feeling more human.
Chapter 5: Epilogue
A week after the attack and people were still angry it had even happened. Every news channel was asking the same questions, chasing information around in circles while the politicians stood back and did nothing. On the steps outside the centre, a sea of tributes had been lovingly placed in vague rows. Hand written letters, soft toys and flowers in every colour of the rainbow.
Hoping to ease the fears of the people, A New Dawn provided a protection detail around the memorial. Eight veterans in uniform, each one armed with a Colt 1911, holding a respectful vigil in shifts. Everyone hoped that they wouldn't need their pistols and many felt that it was a deterrent just to see the proud veterans carrying openly.
Much as Christopher had predicted, many of the people who gave interviews about their experience in the convention centre did speak of the five gun-wielding heroes who had risked so much during the attack. Most didn't know any names, identifying their protectors by the costumes they wore throughout the attack.
Returning to the scene ten days after the shooting, the five friends made for quite a sight as they approached the still growing memorial. Dressed in full uniform and each carrying a bright bouquet to add to the display, they made their way slowly toward the stairs. People naturally stopped and watched, an eerie hush falling across the site out of respect.
Stopping at the base of the massed display, they came to attention as one, an action mirrored by the veterans on vigil. Then one by one, they stepped forward to place their gifts among so many messages of support, love and respect.
First Buck, repeating his mother's favourite prayer for peace as he laid out a bouquet of red roses and carnations, white stock, snapdragons and chrysanthemums, blue hydrangea and delphinium.
Aloysius went next, a couple of stray tears slipping from behind his glasses as he lay out his flowers, fingers lightly brushing yellow zinnias for daily remembrance and cypress for sorrow.
Mother, showing a softer side rarely seen in public placed a sweeping bouquet of blue hydrangea and delphinium, white roses and Asiatic lilies, tropical ferns and leaves.
Wincing a little in pain, Rufus abandoned his cane and knelt, cradling a larger bouquet of pure white oriental lilies, gladioli, carnations and fragrant greens. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a little white teddy and nestled it in among the flowers safely.
Last to take a knee, Shane briefly rested his forehead against the fragrant rosemary crowning his bouquet of orange Asiatic lilies, red gladioli, green carnations, peach hypericum, emerald palm and red ti leaves.
Ignoring the crowd and cameras around them, they straightened and saluted, not a dry eye among them as they gazed across the sea of tributes. Hands lowering slowly, they stepped back and turned as one, smiles growing as the crowd broke out into scattered applause. Maintaining their slow step, the group headed back to the waiting car, still planning ahead and preparing for the next step in their grand plan.
Two weeks after the shooting, Aloysius fronted the cameras again. He stood tall in his business suit, his friends at his back and a promise to the victims of these domestic terrorists. Out of his own pocket, he agreed to pay for a crack team of lawyers, the best in the business, to create a class action lawsuit against the families of the 25 dead terrorists. He encouraged the families who had been caught up in the nightmare to add their names to the list of aggrieved parties and band together in this time of pain.
Together they would hold the parents of domestic terrorists accountable for their actions.
No more could parents plead they didn't know.
This would be a wake up call to parents across America to watch for the signs and try to head off another mass shooting.
Only time would tell if the cry would be heard and accepted across the nation.