She mouthed Joe? and he shook his head, gestured sharply, and headed back toward where they’d parked.
Bryn had an urge to yell, but she was sensible enough to know it was not a good idea, not here. Besides, the speed with which he was moving was telling.
When he was off the dock and onto the dirty gravel beyond, he broke into a full run, and she had to work to keep up with the sprint…but it didn’t last long. Pat skidded to a stop, and drew his sidearm at the same time. Not the shotgun, which was in a canvas holster on his back. He had a steady aim almost before his feet stopped sliding.
Bryn pulled her gun as well, though she had no idea what she’d be aiming for…
…until she saw Joe Fideli, on his knees, hands laced on his bare, bloodied head.
With his P90 pointed at his skull.
Fast Freddy Watson, former embalmer for Fairview Mortuary, stood there with his finger on the trigger. He bared his teeth at Bryn. It was his version of a winning smile, and she supposed if she hadn’t been acquainted with him, it would have had a charming quality to it. He was a good-looking man, but there was something base and rotten behind the candy coating. Something truly awful that the nanites had enabled to be even worse, somehow. Whatever shreds of decency he’d ever had were long, long gone.
“Hello, friends,” he said, and pressed the P90’s blunt barrel to Joe’s head. “Drop ’em if you want Daddy here to see his kids again—”
Bryn let her weapon fall.
It hadn’t hit the ground before Patrick took the shot. No hesitation at all. The bullet hit Freddy in the exact center of his pale forehead. Freddy stumbled back, and his finger spasmed on the trigger once before the gun fell out of his hand to hit the gravel. The round went wild, spanging off the metal of the nearby transformer casing, and disappearing into the night.
Joe pitched forward onto the gravel and rolled. “Jesus Christ, Pat!” he yelped, and got to his feet as he wiped blood from his eyes. “Little warning next time?”
“He’d have killed you the second I disarmed,” Pat said. He sounded steady. He looked steady. “It was the best chance I had to save your life. The odds were bad either way. And since when do you get sucker punched?”
“Since I met you.” Joe bent down and picked up the P90.
He was in the act of putting the sling back over his neck when Annie’s voice said, softly, “Bryn?”
Bryn spun around, reaching blindly for the gun at her side, but that was instinct, and the weapon was still lying on the gravel at her feet. No time to get it, and when she saw her sister, the gun was the last thing on her mind.
Annie was dying. Worse than that. She was dead, dead and rotting and still standing. Bryn froze, unable to move, unable to think. She just stared, drenched in a cold, drowning horror. Annie’s eyes were cloudy, her face gray and wet, her hair in matted, thin clumps. There was something so wrong in the way her skin hung loose over her muscles.
The wind shifted, and the smell of death made Bryn choke.
“Bryn,” Pat said softly. “Don’t move. Stay where you are.”
She didn’t think she could move. There was something gut-deep wrong, seeing her little sister like this—sweet, vibrant, laughing Annie. This was nightmare Annie, bathed in stark moonlight and black shadows. Something no one who loved her should ever, ever see.
“Annie,” Pat said, and came a step closer. “Annie, we can help you. Where’s Mercer?” He didn’t bother to ask Is he here? because Fast Freddy went nowhere without his master. Mercer was here, somewhere. Watching.
She didn’t seem to hear him for a long moment. Bryn knew, with sickening certainty, how slowly Annie’s brain would be processing things—how hard it would be to put together concepts and understand questions. Decomposing like this was like being lost in the dark, fumbling for a doorknob on a door that might not even exist.
“Here,” she finally said. It came out a bare thread of sound. “He’s here.…”
Regardless, Mercer didn’t show himself. Pat continued his slow, steady progress to Annie, and Bryn didn’t understand why he was going so slowly, so carefully…until she saw what Annie was holding in her hand.
It was a grenade.
“Supposed to…” Annie froze up again, then slowly stuttered on. “Drop it. Next to you.”
Pat reached out and squeezed Annie’s hand tightly closed, then took away the grenade. “The pin’s out,” he said.
“Does she have it?”
“Do you want to search her?” Pat asked. “Joe, your throwing arm’s better than mine. Go.”
“Bad idea, man. We’re going to wake up the neighbors.”
“I’m pretty sure shooting Fast Freddy already rang the alarm clock.”
Joe carefully took command of the grenade, and ran to the docks, as far as he could get toward the ocean. Then he shouted, “Fire in the hole!” and threw the explosive out into the water. It hit, sank, and a second later erupted in a geyser of smoke and shrapnel.
Someone from a nearby boat fired on him.
Joe dropped and rolled, bringing up the P90; he returned fire, and Pat joined him, concentrating on the boat where the muzzle flash had appeared.
Bryn dashed past him to take Annie’s arm.
“I was supposed…to…do something.” Annie frowned, or at least that was what Bryn thought she was trying to do. “Drop it. I was supposed to drop it when he was close.”
He. Mercer hadn’t set this up to get Bryn. He’d set it up to kill Pat McCallister. To rob her of her support and leave her alone and vulnerable. Bonus points—he’d almost gotten Joe as well. The grenade probably wouldn’t have killed her, but it would have destroyed them.
“Pat!” Bryn said sharply. “Pat, we need to go, now!” Whatever else Mercer had in his bag of tricks, they didn’t need to stick around for the full show.
Pat nodded and poured a white-hot stream of bullets into the boat, allowing Joe to get to his feet and make it to cover, then zigzag his way back. Other boats were showing activity now; there were people in several of the larger boats, and Bryn was sure they were all armed to the teeth.
Joe made it back and said, “That was fun. Next time, you get to throw the grenade while people shoot at you.” He was panting, and favoring one side; Bryn saw a hole in his flak vest. He’d taken a round, but as soon as she noticed it, he was shaking his head. “I’m okay. The guy got in a lucky first shot, but the vest took the round. I’m just bruised.”
“I need to do something,” Annie said, with that same deliberate pace, and an edge of panic in her voice. “Something…It’s important.…”
“Hush, baby, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay,” Bryn said. She wanted to hug her sister, but she couldn’t, not when she was…like this. Fragile and rotten and falling to pieces. Dear God, please help us. Help…“We have to get her out of here, Pat!”
“I know,” he said. “Joe. Truck bed.”
Joe nodded and slammed down the gate, then jumped up on the raised surface. He crouched to present a smaller target, but the truth was the gunfire had died down. Whoever was out there couldn’t see the parking lot well, if at all, and they were more interested in taking their boats (and cargo) out of danger. One by one, the engines were starting up, revving noisily.
Pat took Annie by the waist and lifted her straight up. Joe took her in his arms and crab-walked back, laying her down flat once her legs were in. “Bryn,” Joe said. “Better ride with her. Watch out, she may forget where she is and try to get out.” He swung over the side and into the truck through the open window, a move he’d obviously practiced. “Meet you back at your house,” he said to Pat, who nodded. “Watch your ass, man. I mean it.”
“Pat!” Bryn called, as Joe started the engine. “I need the syringes!”
He unhooked the canvas bag from his belt hook and tossed it to her just as Joe put the truck in reverse.
Bryn braced herself against the wheel well and unzipped the case. There were three preloaded shots. She uncapped the first with her teeth as she ripped Annie’s sleeve open one-handed, and then drove the needle home into the graying, slippery flesh. Don’t think about it, she told herself grimly. Annie was watching her with haunting, clouded eyes. She looked afraid. “It’s okay,” she told her sister. “It’ll make you better again. It’s okay, Annie. You’re safe now. We’ve got you.”
“Have to do something,” Annie said again. She shut her eyes. “Have to.”
Bryn dropped the empty syringe and repeated the process with a second, then after a moment added the third shot. It’d make her very sick, most likely, but there was no telling how long Annie had been missing shots. Days, certainly. Or Mercer was giving her haphazard treatments, just enough to keep her ambulatory, trapped in a living hell. It was hard to tell, and Annie certainly couldn’t make much sense right now.
Bryn smoothed the damp, limp hair back from her sister’s face and held on to her as the truck bounced and swerved around corners. The cool night air masked the smell of decomposition, which was a blessing. Bryn turned her face toward the rushing wind and breathed deeply. Annie didn’t move, didn’t speak, but by the time the truck began to slow down and head toward the McCallister estate, she seemed to be looking better. That might have been wishful thinking, but the alternatives were grim. There were, Bryn knew, limits to what the nanites could do, and there was no real proof of how long the drug could continue to do its work. Everything failed, eventually. What if Annie was just unlucky? Developed a sudden resistance to the therapy? What if she just…wore out?
Don’t think that way, Bryn told herself. Face what’s in front of you.
What was in front of her was that she had her sister back. Maybe Returné-addicted, maybe fragile, maybe not the same person she’d been…but back. Surviving.
Annie whimpered a little. The repair process hurt—Bryn knew that. Annie’s nerves were coming back online. That would get worse; as the nervous system was reconnected properly, she would feel as though she were burning alive, at least for a few moments. She knew all the steps, the stages, the pain.