Edwin trudged behind Billy, the two of them still tramping through the woods as the late morning sun filtered through the treetops. They’d managed to find a small clearing that was well concealed by thick brush to spend the rest of the night, the Marine insisting that they take turns on watch. They had slept late into the morning before moving out, eventually finding themselves traveling parallel to what looked like a highway, although the passing traffic was rather light. Their breakfast had consisted of water and half of an energy bar each that the medic had found in the bottom of his duffel bag.
As they had walked, Lifeline filled Billy in on the Crimson Guard and Cobra – well, as much as he was allowed to barring anything that was considered top secret information. The Marine already had a basic idea of who Cobra was, which had made things much easier. Edwin still couldn’t guess what the Crimson Guard had been doing there – he doubted very seriously that they had been looking for him – and it still puzzled him.
When Lifeline was done telling his tale, they walked on in silence. Billy slowly let his mind process everything he'd been told. "So...were they after you, then?"
Edwin shook his head, his face marred by a slight frown. “I don’t think so – I mean, why? What would be the point? If they were going after Joes then why not go after somebody more important, like General Hawk or Duke? And why send the Crimson Guard? Usually they’d just send out some grunts or B.A.T.s. No . . . I think they were after somebody else, but us running out of that motel must have caught their attention so they came after us.”
Something clicked in Billy's mind, the realization stopping the Marine dead in his tracks. "You wondered before who could have helped a civilian organization stage a full-blown court martial..."
Lifeline almost bumped into the Marine, as he stopped abruptly. “Cobra?” His voice held the same tone of disbelief as the look on his face.
"Umbrella specializes in bio-weapons....Tyrants would have a tremendous military application, just as soon as they're easier to control.... For a group of folks trying to take over the world, it would give 'em a definite advantage."
Edwin frowned, his mind swirling with implications he didn’t like. “Cobra isn’t above human experimentation, as Iceberg found out when they injected him with killer whale DNA, but it was never anything on the scale of that thing last night.” Lifeline fell silent as he thought, his dark brows furrowing a bit more before he looked back at Billy. “Umbrella is a private corporation?”
"Far as I know, yeah.....Killer whale DNA?"
“A long story . . .” The medic said with small smile that was gone just as quickly as it appeared. “Cobra supposedly has ties to a multi-national holding company called Extensive Enterprises. Supposedly the two brothers who run it are also the captains of the Crimson Guard.”
“If Cobra has some kind of interest in Umbrella, then it would stand to reason that they’d be the one’s handling it.” Edwin looked at Billy, “Which means that they might have been after you and not me.”
"Fuck...." Billy shook his head. "Then we need to get you somewhere safe as quick as possible..."
Lifeline nodded his dark head. “And I need to contact headquarters and let them know what’s going on.”
That said, the Marine fell into thought again, trying to figure out just where he ought to go once Edwin was taken care of.
“Once Duke hears your story and we can corroborate it, then I’m sure all that stuff with Regarthon can get cleared up.”
"It's not that simple. Your boys might listen to me, but for all I know, going into a base with you may land me right back in a military prison...or worse."
“But if we can stop Cobra and Umbrella, then you’d be a hero with a clean record – maybe even a commendation.” Edwin’s tone was earnest. “Who knows, maybe they’d even offer you a job with the Joes.”
"And if not?"
“And if not, what?” Lifeline asked.
Billy sighed. "Nevermind."
“I saw that thing, too, Billy. Even if no one else believes us, I know that General Hawk and Duke would. They’ve seen too many strange things associated with Cobra not to at least think it’s possible. Once they hear what Mainframe found out, then I know they wouldn’t let you get railroaded.”
"Let's just worry about getting you somewhere safe first. We'll worry about the rest later."
Edwin signed wearily and closed his eyes for a moment before slowly nodding his head. Arguing with Billy was obviously pointless, the Marine was just as stubborn as any he had ever met during his tenure with the Joes. Must be something in the water at boot camp, he thought to himself.
own brain was spinning. He needed to get the hell away from Edwin and
fast. The medic seemed like a nice enough guy, but he didn't really
have a good grasp on the scale of the risk Billy would be taking, and
Billy didn't relish the idea of prison or more time in a padded cell. And
there has to be records somewhere...I didn't imagine that time in the
Adjusting the straps of the duffel bag a bit, Edwin stepped around Billy and resumed walking. “C’mon, maybe we can find someplace to get something to eat, I’ve got some cash on me.”
Billy followed along silently, although he couldn't help but smile a bit. "All right."
Edwin stepped out of the shower stall, one towel wrapped around his hips while he used another to rub at his wet dark hair. He and Billy had lucked out and come across the truck stop just as his stomach was really starting to growl with hunger. Gratefully, it didn’t seem to be too busy and there had been showers available for long distance haulers which Edwin had seized upon almost immediately. With a grateful sigh, he sat down on the bench in the small locker room next to where he had left his clothes.
Billy was a few steps behind, glancing about a little nervously before stepping out and toweling his own hair. He had very few identifying features, but the tattoo that covered his arm from shoulder to wrist was hard to hide. It made him all the more grateful for the clean clothing Edwin had been able to provide for him, which included a long-sleeved plaid shirt.
Lifeline ran his hand through his towel-dried hair, ruffling it a bit before his hand slid down to his chin, feeling the stubble there. He glanced up when Billy joined him, squinting a little as he peered at the other man. Reaching for his glasses, he settled them on his face and took another look at Billy, his dark eyes going to the tribal style tattoo.
Feeling eyes on him, Billy's eyes flicked over to the medic. "What do you think?"
“It’s quite a tattoo,” Edwin replied, tilting his head slightly so that he could read the lettering. “Mother Love?”
"Yep. Got it not long after I joined the Corps."
“Must be a Marine thing,” the medic said with a chuckle.
"What's a Marine thing?"
“Tattoos,” Edwin replied. “I think every Marine I’ve ever met had at least one. Gung Ho has the Marine insignia right across his chest,” he said indicating the middle of his chest with his hand. “Of course his chest is five times the size of mine,” Lifeline added with a chuckle.
Billy chuckled. "At least his is easier to hide." He shook his head. "I don't remember what the hell I was thinking, having it put on my arm."
"I don't really regret it..." Billy started dressing slowly, doing his best not to aggravate his injuries. He'd need to replace the dressings later, or have Lifeline do it. But there was nothing to do about it at the moment.
Edwin rose to his feet and started to dress as well. “There was a guy that was with us for a while who was in the Navy that had a lot of tattoos. He’d gotten most of them in places that he’d been to, and had a couple he wished he’d never gotten. One of them was this huge dragon that took up most of his back. It was a beautiful piece of work, but it took forever to heal up.”
"I can only imagine. I know mine took forever to heal, and it itched like crazy. But no one really noticed, since it was hidden under my BDUs. I didn't take that jacket off unless I absolutely had to."
Lifeline chuckled a little. “He used to have somebody cover his with plastic and tape in the morning so it didn’t rub on his white shirt.”
"Thankfully, I could do that on my own," Billy replied with a laugh, then gripped his hip with a wince.
Edwin was just getting ready to slip his t-shirt over his head when he noticed the wince. Closing the short distance between them, he immediately went to Billy’s side. “What is it?”
Billy kept his hand tightly over the wound. "Just pulled the gash the wrong way...I'll be fine."
Lifeline frowned a little, his dark eyes going to Billy’s bandages for a few moments. “Those dressings need to be changed.”
"Yeah, probably. But I don't want to stay here too long."
Edwin nodded, “Just long enough to get something to eat and then I’ll call in.”
Pulling the t-shirt over his head, Edwin moved back towards where his remaining clothes were and finished dressing. Billy continued to dress, hampered a little by the renewed pain, but not much. Once he was fully clothed again, he turned toward Edwin. "Bout ready?"
Lifeline looked up as he finished tying his shoes, “All set.” Rising to his feet, he picked up the used towels and tossed them towards the bin in the corner.
"Then let's get moving."
“Yes, Sir” the medic said with a smile as he grabbed his duffel bag and headed towards the door with Billy.
Chuckling, Billy fell into step with Lifeline. "No sirs. You outrank me, Sir," he said with a grin.
“Then let’s pick up the pace, soldier, this officer is starving.”
The diner was a nice, comfortable place. It reminded Billy of a few of the ones he'd been to with his father when he was young. Good quality diners were the same everywhere, and there was a kind of universal familiarity that came with the clatter of plates and dishes, and the waitresses who were either bubbly and sweet, or so jaded you couldn't help but find them endearing anyway.
Edwin had the fork in his hand as soon as the plate hit the table in front of him. The only real meal he’d eaten in the past twenty-four hours had been breakfast the day before. He hadn’t bothered to stop for lunch, instead quickly swallowing down a couple of nutrition bars while he drove, intending to find a place for dinner later on. Finding Billy had changed all that. The medic couldn’t help but take an appreciative sniff, the smell of mashed potatoes and meatloaf making his mouth almost water.
Billy was feeling almost the same way, although his appetite was being more fickle. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been able to sit down to a decent meal, and decided it didn't matter. As long as he took the meal slowly, it shouldn't really make a difference, he knew.
Lifeline tucked into his meal, smiling a little as he chewed a mouthful of meatloaf, his eyes glancing up at the television over the counter noticing that the local news was on. The anchor was a petite blond woman whose face was grave as a tiny headline reading "Will the bloodbath begin again?" flashed across the screen. The story was succinct and to the point. A former Marine, convicted of the slayings of 23 people, his own unit among them, was on the loose, and had taken a hostage. The Marine was considered armed and extremely dangerous, and people were urged to call into their local law enforcement agencies if the man or his hostage were spotted.
Edwin stopped in mid-chew as he listened, his dark eyes riveted to the screen along with those belonging to several others in the diner. The newswoman continued on, giving a brief overview of where the Marine had last been sighted and what he was wearing. She then gave a brief description of the alleged hostage, “who has been identified as Edwin Steen of Seattle, Washington. Authorities believe that Steen had been traveling through the area when he somehow encountered Coen and was taken hostage. Steen’s wrecked vehicle was found . . .”
Edwin felt as if his heart was going to beat right out of his chest.
“Here are photos of both Coen and his hostage. If you have seen either one of these men, please do not try to apprehend them yourself and contact law enforcement officials immediately.” The screen quickly flicked to side by side pictures of both he and Billy. His looked like it was taken from his driver’s license, and Billy’s an apparent mug shot, complete with name and serial number.
Although Billy hadn't heard most of the story, he'd clued in damn fast at the sound of his own name, and paled considerably. Never had he been so glad he'd taken the time to put Edwin’s jacket on before they'd come in. Between it and the facial stubble, Billy blended in somewhat. He looked at the medic quickly. "We need to get the hell out of here....now," he hissed lowly.
Without a word, Lifeline nodded his assent and put the fork down. Digging into his pocket, he quickly tossed out more than enough to cover their meals and grabbed his duffel bag which had been on the seat next to him.
Billy's movements were deliberately casual; a layman wouldn't have noticed anything out of place. But anyone who knew just a little more would see that the Marine was thoroughly shaken and the look in his eyes resembled that of a cornered beast, bordering on a kind of all-consuming panic. The expression was gone as quickly as it had appeared, however, and Billy tilted his head slightly toward the door, turning silently and walking toward it.
Edwin slid out of the booth, trying to keep his eyes straight ahead instead of glancing at the other diners. He tried to follow Billy’s lead and look casual, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that every eye in the place was on the two of them and he tensed up, waiting for somebody to recognize them and shout.
No one did. A few people looked up, irritated the two men were interfering with their ability to listen to the story, the Anchor still giving some background on Billy, stressing not only caution because of his prison time, but due to his time institutionalized as well. "Just what we need," one of the patrons remarked. "Another deranged psycho-killer running around..."
It was the last thing Billy heard before he stepped out on the street. The sunlight striking his vision hit him like a physical blow, and he felt both dizzy and nauseous. Taking a deep breath, he tried to shake the two feelings as he waited for Edwin to join him.
Lifeline was only a few steps behind the other man, joining him in just seconds later. The medic’s face also looked a little pale, the transitional lenses of his glasses darkening to hide his eyes from view. Just then a police car turned into the parking lot, pulling into one of the empty slots out front. As the officer climbed out, he waved to several people milling near the gas pumps and was greeted in return.
"This way," Billy hissed, moving casually away from the diner, feeling somewhat dazed, putting his back to the officer and feeling his stomach lurch with the looming, and wholly irrational, certainty he was somehow carrying a big target on his back.
Edwin automatically followed Billy, once again trying to adopt his casual gait and not glance back at the police car. Any minute he knew, someone would raise an alarm, flooding the area with police and other law enforcement officers. As soon as a small side alley presented itself, Billy stepped into it, sagging against the building. "Fuck...fuckfuckfuck...." he hissed softly to himself.
Lifeline slid around the corner and pressed his back against the wall next to Billy, as he closed his eyes and tilted his head back. His hand immediately went to his chest, feeling his heart as it hammered in his chest. “God, what’re we going to do now?”