Spoilers: Just about everything, but primarily for "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face" and "The Eggman Cometh." (NOTE: Ignores Michael's 11-story drop and subsequent recovery in "The Bugmeister, Part Bee" for plausibility purposes.) This opens right where "The Eggman Cometh" left off.
* * * * *
"Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong."
* * * * *
Suburban New York
"No," Roger Bender finally managed. "No, no, I, uh, I can't do this."
"You waited til now to say that?"
"I mean it, Janet. No. This is ridiculous."
"Roger... It's going to take me forever to get my hose back on."
Roger sat up, pulling away. "Well, uh, you can go without. It's a nice day."
Janet sat up as well as Roger hastily pulled on his jacket, ignoring his tie. "We came all the way out here to--"
"To look at a house," Roger finished. "I - ah - Janet, it's not that I'm not attracted to you, far from it, I find you very attractive--"
"Uh-huh. Got to admit, that's a pickup line I haven't heard before."
"Look, I just got separated," Roger tried. "My daughter doesn't even know about it yet - unless, of course, Ruth went and told her, which means I've got two of them to deal with now. Oh, God."
"Roger?" Janet asked. "Is this going somewhere?"
Roger sighed. "The point is, I just got out of a twenty-year marriage. I need to get back on my feet, which includes finding someplace to stay other than a hotel or a friend's couch."
Janet nodded and studied her nails. "Mm-hmm. I see."
"If - when I do get settled," Roger continued, "you'll be the first person I'll call."
"Oh." Janet stuffed the hose into her purse and snatched up her earrings. "So... what do you think of the house?"
"Now that you mention it," Roger admitted, "it's a little too big for my tastes."
"Should have started with something smaller?" Janet suggested, putting her earrings back on and getting up. "Well, I've got some more stuff to show you back at the office."
"No, no, that's all right," Roger protested. "I, um, I think you'd better just drop me off at Lisa's. I'll get my car out of the lot tomorrow."
"My, my, Roger," Janet quipped, "you do know just what to say to a girl."
* * * * *
New Rochelle, NY
Ruth Bender was not having a very good day.
Truth to tell, the past few weeks had been fairly lousy, but today was worse than usual. Her lawyer would not return her calls, being preoccupied with some massive lawsuit he was devoting all his time to. She had to cancel her appointment at the spa to finally "fit herself in" to his schedule - something that NEVER happened to her.
Then Amanda had called. She'd just found out from a chat online with one of their neighbors about Roger's idiocy. And who did she scream at? Ruth. Not Roger. In a week, Amanda would be coming home from a year studying abroad in England. And now with an angry daughter breathing down her neck, Ruth realized she had no choice but to swallow her pride and break the silence herself. After the kind of day she'd had, nothing worse could happen.
So when she rounded the corner to see the six police cars and the SWAT team smashing in the windows of the Wiseman's house, something inside Ruth snapped.
* * * * *
"What in the HELL is going on here??"
The shrill demand was loud and clear even over the sounds of the dogs barking and the team searching the Wiseman's house. Morris turned just in time to see the owner of the voice striding towards him. Two agents moved to intercept her, but she smacked one with her purse and shoved the other one aside without even mussing the purple designer suit she was wearing. "Hands off!"
Sensing an impending storm, Morris approached her before she could do any damage. "Ma'am, this is none of your concern."
"It most certainly is my concern! I come to visit some of my best friends and I find you smashing in their windows. And you say it's none of my concern?"
Several of the neighbors had come out to see what was going on, and the irate woman's arrival was drawing more attention. A crowd was gathering at the police line. "I don't have time for this," Morris growled, turning to the nearest agents. "Get her out of here!"
"What? The hell you will! I am not leaving until you tell me what you're doing here and what's happened to Lisa Wiseman!" As the two men grabbed her by the arms, the woman started screaming and fighting back. "Get your hands off me!"
Morris turned away, satisfied that the conflict was taken care of. He was wrong.
The two agents started dragging her off, but the woman fought back like a mad cat. Special Agent #1 let out a yell as her acrylic nails slashed his cheek, and #2 howled as her foot connected solidly with his groin. The woman made a run for it, but #1 was faster, grabbing her by the arm. The crowd assembled started shouting in protest as she shrieked and struggled. When she tried to claw his eyes out, he grabbed for her other arm, but she spun around and lashed out at him again. She missed, and he grabbed her by the waist, throwing her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
Around them, the shouts of protest grew louder, and suddenly someone broke through the police line and punched out one of the cops. Other neighbors and onlookers followed suit.
Within seconds, all hell broke loose on the Wiseman's lawn.
* * * * *
"What on earth is going on?"
From a safe distance, Roger and Janet watched the riot break out in front of the Wiseman residence. "I have no idea," Roger replied as he stared at the crowd. For some reason, the presence of Dr. Theodore Morris in the middle of the melee did not surprise him that much.
What did startle him was the sight of two agents dragging a screaming and kicking woman into a van. A very angry and very familiar woman who would find some way to blame this on him. "Oh, no."
He turned back to Janet. "Maybe we should go back to your office."
* * * * *
Michael had run through the scenario millions of times in his mind. Whenever he was alone and missing Lisa, doing 100 miles on the treadmill, lying in his room counting and recounting ceiling tiles, he had plotted out the best route of escape through his neighborhood, through the interconnecting back yards that kept them out of sight of the main roads. Like an actuary, he'd made a habit of running through possible scenarios.
He'd hoped that he'd never have to put this particular one to use.
"Where are we going?" Heather cried as they finally dashed into the woods. Guiltily, Michael realized that he was practically dragging Lisa and Heather along. But it was the only way he could make sure they kept pace with him short of carrying them both himself.
"I'm not too sure, but we can't stop!" Michael insisted as they continued to run, crossing over the small brook and heading deeper into the trees.
"This is your way of 'taking care of it?'" Lisa gasped.
"I'll explain later," Michael muttered as they climbed up the embankment and reached Foxhurst Road. At least that's what Michael thought it was; the high school was a few miles away.
Just as they reached the road, a black sedan rounded the corner, screeching to a stop in front of them. Startled, Lisa jumped back and nearly fell down the embankment. Michael shot out an arm and caught her just in time.
The passenger window rolled down to reveal a smug and familiar face. "Mrs. Wiseman. Mr. Newman. Fancy meeting you here."
Heather stared. Michael blinked. Lisa gaped in shock. "You - you - you--" she stammered.
Bernard Leflin Jr., otherwise known as Isley, smiled. "Need a lift?"
* * * * *
"A lift? A lift?" Lisa echoed. "I'd rather walk!"
Leflin sighed. "Mrs. Wiseman, that's no way to talk to an old friend."
"Old friend? There is NO way I am getting in a car with this man again!" Lisa snapped.
"What are you doing here?" Michael asked suspiciously.
"Passing through the neighborhood," Leflin answered. "Of course, I had reason to believe you'd need my help."
"Your idea of 'help' was to send a bunch of yellow suits with machine guns after me," Michael said. "I think we'll pass."
"Yellow suits?" Lisa stared at Michael.
Ack. He wasn't supposed to know about that. "Yeah, this lunatic set a squad of them out to get me a few months back," Michael replied quickly.
"Excuse me? Hello?" Heather cried. "I hate to break this up, but am I the only one who remembers we've got a SWAT team or something chasing us?"
"Smart girl," Leflin observed. "You should listen to her more often. Besides, it's me or them. It's not as if you have a lot of options."
Michael frowned. Leflin had a point. He glanced at Heather, who shrugged. Lisa was still glaring at Leflin angrily, but after a moment she sighed in defeat.
Michael turned back to Leflin. "I know I'm gonna regret this."
* * * * *
Salzburg and Rogeilla Real Estate
"Look who's finally back," Carla observed as Janet led Roger into the office. "I was just about to close up shop. Did we make a sale?"
"Uh, almost," Roger said uncomfortably.
Janet sighed. "No kidding. Lisa ever get back from that long lunch she took?"
"Yeah. She left a while ago." Carla frowned. "She didn't look so good when she came back, though. I was kind of worried about her." She glanced at the clock. "Anyway, I've got to get moving. Promised Nick I'd be home ten minutes ago."
"Night." Janet waved at her friend half-heartedly as Carla left the office.
"Long lunch?" Roger asked. "You said you didn't know where she was."
"I didn't," Janet replied, sitting down. "She got this phone call from that Bernstadt character again this afternoon."
"That lawyer? What'd he want?"
"Don't look at me. Whatever he said to her, she almost fell over in shock. Then she takes a long break and runs out of here without saying a word." Janet narrowed her eyes. "You know, I think something big is going on. I mean, she gets these strange calls from this lawyer and then there's a riot on her front lawn that evening?"
"It was about Michael," Roger murmured softly.
"Michael. Her husband." Roger shook his head. "This lawyer's been calling her insisting the hospital lied about his condition when he had his accident. Spooked her something awful. I don't know why that would bring a SWAT team to her door. But then that Morris character was there--"
Janet's juicy gossip radar was on full alert. "Morris?"
Roger caught himself. "I don't know. Never mind." He sighed. "I think I'm going to have to get some sleep and think this through. Although I guess I won't be on Lisa's couch."
"I do have a guest room, you know."
"Uh, no offense, Janet, but I - think I'll check into a hotel. I'm, uh, not quite ready for that yet."
* * * * *
Route 295 South
"What do you want from us?" Lisa demanded, breaking the silence that had lasted for several miles.
"Oh, I don't want anything from you, Mrs. Wiseman," Leflin replied coolly. "Nor do I require anything from your daughter. Mr. Newman, on the other hand, might be able to assist me."
"Like I'd want to do that," Michael muttered, his mind racing. There had to be a way out of this.
Heather coughed. "For those of us who came in late..."
Leflin chuckled and reached up to put the window between them and the driver up. "Several months ago, my father heard this rather implausible story from a friend of his in the Pentagon. Being at death's door, he jumped at the chance the story offered - the chance to live again. To that end, he hired some people out to contact Mr. Newman and his employer, the latter of whom we thought could help us."
"You mean 'kidnap,'" Michael snapped.
"Suffice to say, we discovered that the story we were told was a fabrication, completely inaccurate," Leflin continued, ignoring Michael. "The people we sought to get information from - yourself and your friend Mr. Bender - didn't know a thing. The people we thought could help us denied it to the point where it could not be true. Unfortunately, in the end, my father decided to take matters into his own hands."
Lisa blinked. "I don't understand."
Leflin looked away. "My father decided that the only course of action was to kill himself." Michael flinched at the memory.
"Okay," Heather said after a long silence. "So what does that have to do with us?"
"A few months ago, I got to thinking," Leflin answered. "Namely, that while the story I'd been told was untrue, there might be something behind it all. The truth might have been hidden beneath a fantastic story. After everything we had put you through, Mrs. Wiseman, Mr. Newman, I decided to find some way to make it up to you both."
Michael tensed. No. He can't know. He can't. "What are you talking about?"
"After the disaster that our last fact-finding mission caused, I resorted to a more subtle approach. Namely, I had some people keeping an eye on the two of you, since I was convinced that there was still something going on. When Dr. Morris - for whatever reason - sent the cavalry after you, how could I sit back and do nothing?"
"Oh, and you just happened to know where we were," Heather muttered. "Kind of convenient, don't you think?"
"With the kind of money I pay my people, nothing is convenient." Leflin sighed, dropping his smug facade. "I'm trying to offer you someplace safe to stay until we can get everything sorted out. All I ask in return is your cooperation."
Michael exchanged looks with Lisa, who didn't look convinced. Neither was he, but for now, all they could do was wait. Hopefully, he'd have a chance to get Lisa and Heather alone.
Of course, he was still working on what he was going to tell them...
* * * * *
New Rochelle, NY
Dr. Morris pressed the icepack harder against his temple, willing the painful bump on his head to go numb. The knock on the doorframe seemed to be pounding at his temples, but he forced himself to ignore it and turn to face his visitor.
When he saw who it was, he couldn't suppress a smirk. Special Agent #1 was sporting a bandage on his cheek and looking none too happy about it. "What do you have for me?"
"Team 3 picked up a scent heading out of the development into the woods due east," the agent sighed. "Unfortunately, the scent was gone the moment they hit Foxhurst Road. We've checked out the entire area, but we've found nothing."
Morris sat back in his chair, closing his eyes - partially to clear his mind and partially to stave off his pounding headache. "How far away were they from the house when their scent vanished?"
"About five or six miles, sir. We'd have caught them if not for that, um, situation."
Morris groaned. That situation had lost them precious time. "What is the story with that?"
"Not good. You know the woman who started it all?"
"Mrs. Bender? Not personally, and I'm now very glad I don't."
The agent blinked. "That's Bender's wife?" Morris nodded. "Explains a lot."
"You were saying?"
"Yes, sir. She was allowed to make her one phone call. Unfortunately, her one phone call was made to her uncle." As Morris glared at him, the agent added, "Her uncle just happens to be Senator Bellingham. He's not too happy his niece is locked up."
"Bellingham?" Morris repeated. "James Bellingham? The same man who helped fund this project when it was in the initial stages?" As the agent nodded, Morris groaned again. "Good God. This is just getting worse and worse."
"You don't know the half of it."
At the sound of the voice - a decidedly female voice - Morris looked up to see the woman who had just entered. She was in her late thirties, medium height, plain, with an uneven white streak in her shoulder-length black hair. "It's good to see you again, Dr. Morris. I wish it would have been under better circumstances."
"Dr. Ross." Morris was too tired to feign pleasure at her arrival. "Forgive me if I don't get up."
Lydia Ross smirked. "That's the least you have to answer for, believe me."
Special Agent #1 glanced at Lydia, glanced at Morris, then made the wisest decision he could. Without a word, he left, closing the door behind him.
Seeing his right-hand man's retreat, Morris sighed. "Don't tell me. News travels fast in the Pentagon."
"The Pentagon has yet to hear of this one, actually. But I've been keeping tabs on the project for a while now."
"Just tell me what you want. Or just say 'I told you so' already. I don't have time for this."
She set her briefcase down on the desk, that infuriating smile still on her face. "Oh, I'm not going to say that. Tempting, but I won't. I'm here to keep you from making one hell of a mistake."
"And what mistake is that?"
"Let me put it this way." She sat down across from him, leaning over the desk. "You're all hot to trot on catching Michael Wiseman. But you need to stop and also consider why he ran."
* * * * *
Somewhere in Manhattan
"Should've got a ride," Kyle Barnes muttered for the fifth time as he walked along the street, trying his damnedest to look inconspicuous - and, more importantly, like a man who wasn't carrying $200 in cash. Annie was right, of course; she was always right. She said this kind of job was dangerous, she said it was just asking for trouble. But she was gone now, probably moving in with her Ma like she'd threatened to do. And he was good at what he did. If he hadn't gone and ticked Mickey off, though, he wouldn't be out here alone.
It was then that he saw the short, stooped old man trudging along a few paces ahead of him. Kyle couldn't believe he hadn't noticed him earlier. He was a perfect target, and all alone. Maybe this night wasn't going to be as bad as he'd thought.
He came alongside the man just as they neared the mouth of the nearby alley. Kyle whipped out the switchblade, holding it so that the man could see it, but not so it was obvious. "Get moving, Grandpa." The man just blinked at him, and Kyle seethed. "I said move, midget. In the alley. Or else."
Calmly, the old man glanced at the knife, glanced at Kyle's face, and then obediently retreated into the alleyway. Grinning, Kyle slipped into the shadows as well. This was gonna be fun.
The little man was cowering at the end of the dead end that Kyle knew was there. Chuckling, Kyle advanced on his prey. He didn't need Mickey and those other losers. He could do this all on his own. Everything was going just as expected.
But he didn't expect the hulking mass that erupted from the trashcans beside him, nor did he expect the beefy hand that twisted the knife from his grip. Kyle opened his mouth to shout, but he didn't get the chance as his assailant's hands wrapped around his throat, crushing his larynx and cutting off his oxygen. Panicked, Kyle gasped for air, uselessly pawing at the huge arms like tree trunks. Black spots danced before his vision.
The last thing Kyle saw was the little old man watching with interest as his partner squeezed the life out of him.
* * * * *
"If this is a guest room," Heather muttered, "I don't even want to see the master bedroom."
The room that Leflin had showed them to was about the size of Lisa's living room; along with the bed in one corner, there was an adjoining bathroom and an armchair and sofa. It was apparently one of many, Leflin had informed them, offering to show Michael and Heather separate rooms. But Michael - and Lisa, surprisingly - had refused.
Michael shut and locked the bedroom door, somewhat relieved that it locked from the inside. "They're gone. It's just us."
"All right, that's it," Lisa snapped. "I want to know what's going on, right now!"
"You think this place could be bugged?" Heather wondered.
"Lisa," Michael began, "it's not that easy to explain--"
"Try me! You said you'd take care of it! And look where we are now!"
Heather peered under the coffee table. "They might have hidden cameras or something."
"I didn't know the Doc saw us then!" Michael exclaimed, and Lisa abruptly fell silent. "He knew you were there. He - he actually thought I told you something. I tried to tell him the truth, but he wasn't listening!"
Heather looked up. "Mom?"
"Tried? Tried? One minute I'm sitting down to dinner with my daughter, the next I'm being chased by men with guns and dogs!" Lisa exploded.
Heather opened her mouth again to speak, but then closed it. She stared at the two adults, weighing her options, and finally decided to retreat to the sofa and stay safely on the sidelines.
"What would you have wanted me to do?" Michael cried, frustrated. "I wasn't just going to take off and not try to warn you! No matter what I did, they would have come after you!"
"Who? Who would come after me?" Lisa demanded, grabbing him by the collar of his jacket. Stunned, Michael was at a loss to reply. After a moment, Lisa let go of his coat and stalked away. "I don't believe this. I just don't believe this. I have to be at work tomorrow morning. Heather has band practice all this week. I actually had a client lined up. And I can't even get within sight of my home!"
"Neither can I!"
"So? I wouldn't be surprised if you got us into this mess in the first place!" Lisa snapped. "I don't know what you're up to, Mr. Newman, but all I wanted was the truth. All I wanted was to find out what happened to my husband!"
"It's not about your husband!" The words skipped his brain and went right out of his mouth. But somehow, they silenced Lisa. "It's not about your husband," Michael added more quietly, frantically trying to figure out where he was going with this.
"Hey!" Heather took the risk of speaking up. "What's this got to do with Daddy?"
Michael looked over at Heather and sighed. Sitting in the center of the plush sofa, she looked smaller than usual and even more confused than Lisa. The only thing that kept him from going over there and hugging his little girl was - well, he didn't know what it was. "Mom?" Heather asked as Lisa looked away. The scared look in her eyes faded as they narrowed suspiciously. "Mom, what's going on?"
For answer, Lisa groaned and sank down to sit on the edge of the bed, burying her face in her hands. Slowly, trying not to spook her, Michael sat down next to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Lisa. At least tell me what happened. I'll tell you what I can." She didn't move. "Please."
Still no response. Sighing, Heather got up and sat down on the other side of Lisa. The scared child was gone, and the teenager was all business. "Mom, what happened?" Lisa didn't respond. "I'm missing out on microwaved sushi for this. You owe me an explanation."
Despite herself, Lisa couldn't stifle a chuckle at that. Taking a deep breath, she sat up, brushing her hair out of her face and wiping her eyes. "I guess I do, don't I?" She reached over and squeezed Heather's hand before starting. "Whole thing started when I got a call from this lawyer..."
* * * * *
New Rochelle, NY
"Finally decided to listen to me?" Lydia asked as Morris and Special Agent #1 entered the office. "It's not like you to admit you made a mistake."
"I did not make a mistake," Morris snapped. "But our search has yielded nothing but an irate Senator and a miniature riot, and you insisted on gracing us with your presence."
"Oh, yes, Bellingham. Heard he was furious. Shame you had to resort to these methods." The smirk faded abruptly as she continued. "I've been keeping track of your project for the past four months, and I've noticed a few details that you have neglected."
"'Keeping track?' Isn't that your phrase for 'spying?'" Morris replied.
"Not when it's sanctioned by the Pentagon. They didn't have a problem with it, seeing as how I was supposed to be involved in the project from the beginning. As you well know."
Special Agent #1 blinked. "I'm sorry?"
Morris sighed. "Dr. Ross was originally a member of the team when the project was in the initial research and development stage - her background in neuropsychology and sociology was indispensable to us."
"Until I made the fatal mistake of disagreeing with our all-seeing project coordinator over here," Lydia added. "Next thing I know, I'm reassigned to an army base in Wyoming."
"They specifically requested you," Morris pointed out.
"And you were all too eager to let me go," Lydia countered. "Despite knowing that I had invested quite a bit of time and effort into your work."
"Still not the type to hold grudges, I see."
The bald agent looked puzzled. "If I'm not mistaken, you specifically said you've been investigating for only four months. The project was initiated over eighteen months ago. Why wait so long?"
"I actually didn't intend to stick my nose into things at first," Lydia admitted. "But in January, I had the fortune to meet a Lieutenant Erica Taylor. It seems that since I also had clearance for the project she had just been assigned to, she was sent to me. And she told me some very interesting things." Lydia folded her arms. "I thought you could be devious, Dr. Morris, but I had no idea how far you would go."
"Get to the point," Morris growled.
"All right." She stood up. "Gentlemen, the reason the Pentagon does not know of this is because I have yet to tell them. Lately, it's been my job to send coordinating reports to the Pentagon on your progress just to make sure you haven't dropped the ball."
"You're investigating us?" Morris snapped. "We already have our funding--"
"But there are still people who want to shut you down," Lydia replied. "What they don't know is that I'm not one of them. And if you swallow your pride long enough to listen to me, they're not going to hear about this any time soon."
The Doc did not reply for several seconds. "What 'details' are you talking about?"
"Don't you find it odd that after all this time - and now, only when Mr. Wiseman did not have a tracking device - that his wife finally found something out?"
Special Agent #1 shrugged. "Well, you've heard of Murphy's Law."
"Not to this extent," Lydia continued. "Mrs. Wiseman got your name and number from Manhattan General, am I correct?"
"So far," Morris answered.
"I did some checking around. Interestingly enough, someone else was asking questions about Michael Wiseman's accident - the very same night that she called you."
Morris sat up. "Who else?"
Lydia smiled, gratified that she had his attention. "A lawyer by the name of Edward Bernstadt. Seems he also got his grubby little paws on the ambulance records from Mr. Wiseman's accident - records with your signature on them."
"What?" Morris exclaimed. "That's impossible. He couldn't have possibly gotten that information!"
* * * * *
"Wait a minute. This lawyer just got his hands on ambulance records?" Michael asked. "Just like that?"
"That's - that's what he told me," Lisa replied. "Why?"
"Uh, I'm no expert," Michael said quickly, "but I know the hospital won't give out those kind of records without the consent of immediate family members. They're legally bound to withhold them from anyone else."
* * * * *
"Those were classified records," Morris growled. "The only reason for their existence was proof to the Pentagon that the operation was not handled illegally. No matter how high-paid, a lawyer can't just waltz in and snatch them up."
"Unless someone pulled a few strings for him," Special Agent #1 realized suddenly.
Lydia nodded. "That's what I was thinking."
* * * * *
"But why would someone do that?" Lisa wondered. "Who would?"
"I don't know," Michael admitted. "I guess someone wanted to throw a wrench into the project the Doc was working on."
"What is this project?" Lisa demanded. "And what does it have to do with Michael?"
"Nothing!" Michael lied desperately. "Look. I don't know much about the business with - with your husband and the Doc, but you've got to believe me when I tell you there's something bigger going on behind this. There are people willing to kill to keep it under wraps." Lisa flinched, but didn't press further. "Why did he say he got his hands on them?"
* * * * *
"He was supposedly collecting information for a lawsuit about faulty respirators," Lydia replied. "The resident on duty couldn't give me a lot of details, but it sounded like a cover."
"I'm not so sure," Morris mused. "I'm fully aware that we have opponents in the Pentagon, but I can't see how it would benefit any of them to jeopardize the project in this manner."
"If you give me time to investigate further," Lydia countered, "I'm willing to bet I can dig up an answer to that one."
Special Agent #1 looked confused. "Who would endanger security like that, though? It's one thing to cut funding, but this... I don't think anyone from Washington would stoop so low."
"Tell me you haven't forgotten Howard Irving already."
Both men flinched at her words. Irving's treason had shaken up a lot of things at the Pentagon; the fact that Michael had foiled his attempt was the only reason their funding wasn't revoked or re-reviewed.
Lydia raised an eyebrow. "I'll take that as a 'no.'"
* * * * *
"The hospital told me he died instantly," Lisa explained. "But according to this Bernstadt character, he was on life-support when they reached the hospital. He said - he said that there was a flaw in the respirator, that Michael might have lived had it been working properly."
Stunned, Michael turned away. "He - he might have survived?"
"Well, that's what the man told me. Of course, he was trying to sue the company." Lisa hesitated. "You didn't know about that?"
Michael shook his head. "No. No, I didn't. Not about that."
"You said you'd sue the bastards, aren't you?" Heather asked. "I mean, come on, Mom!"
"I didn't exactly get that far," Lisa sighed. "I-I don't know. I'm confused, I'm tired, and I don't know what to do."
"Maybe we ought to get some sleep," Michael suggested. As Lisa stared at him, he added. "I'll take the chair."
"No, I mean - can we sleep? Do you trust this Isley, or Leflin, or whatever his name is?"
"No," Michael admitted. "But I don't know what else to do right now."
Heather hopped up and bounded over to the sofa. "I call dibs on the couch."
"Heather," Lisa sighed, "you can have the bed."
"Mom, I can fit on the couch, okay?"
Lisa smiled, then turned back to Michael. "All right, Mr. Newman. I guess we're staying here tonight."
* * * * *
"So you think someone set this up," Morris said. "How should this affect our search for Mr. Wiseman?"
"Again, you should consider why he ran," Lydia answered. "He had ten days in which he could have escaped easily. Maybe in the middle of the night, when you weren't there. Or even at the bookstore you took him to. On the way back. In that museum right after you removed it. But only when he thought his wife and daughter were in danger--"
"Enough," Morris sighed. "You've done your homework, I see."
Before he could continue, his cellphone rang. Sighing, he retrieved it and opened the phone. "Yes?" He froze, listening to the voice on the other end. "What happened?" Pause. "Are you sure it was the same man?" From the expression on his face, the answer was clearly in the affirmative. "How long ago?" Another pause. "Damn. Yes, I'll be right there."
He closed the phone and put it away, standing up. "You'll have to continue this without me."
"What is it?" Lydia asked.
"Another possible complication." To Special Agent #1, he added, "You're to assist Dr. Ross in her investigations - within reason. Be sure to report to me if anything turns up."
Morris turned to go, but the agent followed him into the hall, pulling him aside. "Sir, are you positive about this? We can't afford to be sidetracked."
"We've already been sidetracked," Morris told him quietly. "Let me tell you something. Dr. Ross may be infuriating, manipulative, stubborn, outspoken--" He caught himself. "But that woman is also someone that we want on our side."
The bald agent stared at his boss. "This is serious, isn't it?"
Morris nodded solemnly. "Murphy's Law. In spades."
* * * * *
For once, Michael couldn't sleep. And it wasn't just because his leather jacket made a lousy pillow.
He sat there in the armchair, staring blankly at the door. He had turned the chair towards the door in the faint hope that he might stay awake long enough to keep watch. It hadn't occurred to him that sleep tonight would be utterly impossible.
Lisa and Heather, at least, weren't suffering from the same affliction; Lisa had kicked her shoes off and snuggled up in the bed, while Heather was curled up on the sofa, dead to the world. Michael smiled, glad to see that they were at least resting. They needed it as much as he did. While he wasn't physically exhausted, emotionally he was drained. In the course of an afternoon, he'd kissed Lisa, punched out the Doc, hustled his family out of the house on a mad dash, and then gone and lied to them. Lied to Lisa.
That was what really hurt.
Rarely had he ever been able to lie to her, and whenever he did, it hurt. He'd done it fairly well, too, which only made it worse. While he regretted punching the Doc, just lying to Lisa was as bad as a hundred blows to the face. He remembered holding her in the bookstore, savoring the scent of her hair and the feel of her cheek against his while fearing for her life at the same time. If not for that threat, if not for the fear...
"It's not about your husband" - the words still tasted bitter in his mouth.
The clock struck eleven, and Michael sighed, briefly thinking of the lights that were automatically shutting off and the curtains that were closing in his bedroom. He wasn't anywhere near the townhouse, but this still felt like just as much of a prison.
He'd been truthful when he told Lisa that he didn't trust Leflin. Whatever the man wanted out of this, it wasn't anything good. But for the moment, there was nowhere else to turn. No one else they could even pretend to trust. Well, there was probably one person, but if PFC Foster had any sense he'd be out of the country by now.
Michael gave up on sleep for the moment. Slowly, quietly, he moved to the bathroom, trying not to disturb Lisa or Heather. Lisa rolled over, but did not stir. Heather didn't move a muscle as Michael turned the bathroom light on, closing the door behind him.
He washed his hands and splashed his face with cold water, trying to think. What could he tell them? Snatching a towel from the rack, he wiped his face dry, staring at his reflection in the mirror. For the nth time in the past year, a stranger stared back at him. It wasn't even his reflection, but a borrowed face and body. And it always would be. Sure, he knew better. He knew that underneath it all, he was still the same person - whether Dr. Morris liked it or not.
But how could he tell Lisa and Heather that?
The twentysomething in the mirror stared back at Michael sorrowfully as the reality of his situation hit him. He'd come so close to telling them. The words had been on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't force them out of his mouth. As much as it hurt him to lie to them, he couldn't tell them the truth. He couldn't.
A strange, muffled sound was coming through the door. Worried, Michael hastily finished washing up and slipped back into the bedroom to see what it was.
"No, wait... please..." he heard his wife moan as he shut the bathroom light off. Lisa had progressed from rolling over to thrashing around wildly in her sleep, in the throes of a nightmare. "No! Michael! I... no... Michael, Michael... help..."
Heather was still fast asleep. Moving as quickly as he could without making noise, Michael dashed over to the bed, shaking Lisa gently. "Lisa!" he whispered. "Lisa! Wake up!"
"... no, no, NO!" She woke up with a start, lashing out wildly and clawing at the air.
Anyone else might have been injured, but Michael was quick enough to catch her by the wrists before she could do some damage. "Lisa. It's okay. It's me."
She realized where she was and stopped. "M-Mr. Newman?"
Mr. Newman. That's who she thinks I am. "Yeah. I'm here. It's all right."
"But - Heather--"
Michael turned to one side, sitting down on the edge of the bed so she had a clear view of the sofa. "Is somehow sleeping like a log." He released her wrists as she sat up, shaking. "You were having a nightmare."
"Oh, God." She covered her face with her hands. "Oh, God. It was - it was awful. I saw Michael, and he was there and then he was dead... and there were people with guns... Heather was gone... and you..." She couldn't finish, unable to suppress her sobs.
Michael couldn't bear it anymore. "Oh, God, Lisie," he murmured. She didn't resist as he pulled her into his arms. So distressed was she that she didn't seem to notice his slip as Michael held her. "Lisa, I'm so sorry."
Reflexively, she hugged him back, and they remained like that for several moments, clinging to one another. "I-I almost hoped I'd wake up in my own bed and this would all be a dream," Lisa moaned.
"I'm sorry," Michael whispered into her hair. "I'm going to fix this. I don't know how, but I'm gonna make things right. I promise."
Lisa lifted her head to look at him, pulling away. "Why? Why do you care?"
"Because I can't - I won't let anything happen to you." He took a deep breath, thinking for a second. "Lisa, I'm serious. There's a lot more to this thing than a bunch of ambulance records, but - but my boss thinks you know more than that."
"The I.R.S. is willing to kill to keep its business secret nowadays, huh?" Lisa said sarcastically. Michael winced at the bitterness in her tone. "Oh, come on, Mr. Newman, I'm not stupid. I know that I.R.S. story you told me was just a story. A lie."
"I never lied to you about that."
"Of course you did! The--"
"The Doc told you that," Michael corrected. "I - I just had to go along with it. I didn't have a choice."
"What are you talking about?"
Michael sighed, suddenly getting a flash of inspiration. "About a year or so ago, I kind of ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I, uh, I found out some stuff I shouldn't have. That's how I got wrapped up in all of this."
Lisa cocked her head, looking at him thoughtfully. "A year ago?" Michael nodded. "Did that have anything to do with you running around Manhattan with the 'no shirt, no shoes, no service' motif?"
Despite himself, Michael had to smile. "Yeah, that had a little to do with it." He became serious again. "I'm telling you, though, that you can't keep - investigating. It's too dangerous, and it's not worth it."
"I'm convinced of that already," Lisa sighed. "But what about my husband? What did they do to Michael?"
"Nothing," Michael insisted, taking her hands in his. "Lisa, I swear to God, no one 'did anything' to your husband. Nothing unethical was involved." Well, the Doc did ask permission. And I'd be dead otherwise. "You have to believe me."
She was silent for a moment, looking away. "I don't know who to believe anymore."
"I don't blame you," Michael sighed.
"But, you know, you were right about something," Lisa added.
"You, Mr. Newman, are most certainly not what I thought you were."
"Thanks. I think."
Lisa looked up, managing a small smile. "I do know one thing, though. This is one promise that I am definitely holding you to."
* * * * *
Outside New York State Penitentiary
"My God," Dr. Morris murmured as he flipped through the digital photos, each one showing a different wing, room, cell of the penitentiary. The scene was always the same, showing bodies lying in puddles of blood. The entire penitentiary - prisoners and guards alike - had been wiped out by the toxin. The teams that had already arrived had set up camp around the building's perimeter, and Morris was currently in the back of an FBI surveillance van, which was almost as well equipped as the "TOYS B FUN" truck. Almost.
He set the photos down and sighed, removing his glasses briefly to rub the bridge of his nose. "Has the toxin been contained?"
The FBI agent, a narrow-faced woman in her mid-thirties, nodded. "We sealed off the building several hours ago. All of the prisoners and guards have been accounted for, with two exceptions."
Morris looked up. "Two?"
"Both of them prisoners." The agent opened a laptop, typing in a series of commands as she accessed prison records. She brought up a file, and the face that appeared on the screen belonged to a burly, bearded man with a nest of curly brown hair. "Charlie Smalls. Name's misleading as hell; the man is built like a tank. This was his second time in the pen. First time, he was convicted on assault and battery as well as two counts of robbery. Got out on good behavior, but then came right back in with larceny, three counts of battery and one count of attempted murder and manslaughter."
"Not someone I'd want to meet on a bad day."
"You wouldn't know it the way he acted. Never started a fight, never talked back, got a relatively cushy job in the kitchen as a result. The security tapes showed him and his cellmate walking right out of here when everyone else was keeling over."
The face that came with the next file was the one that Morris expected; a wispy, elderly Asian man with a serenely calm expression on his face. Only someone who knew better would guess at the menace behind that unassuming exterior. "I assume you know this man, of course. Like Smalls, he wasn't considered a major threat. Couple months into his imprisonment, he was diagnosed with emphysema and has been hooked up to an oxygen tank for several months. Same M.O. as before - the HAZMAT team that went in first discovered the broken egg at the center of the concentration."
Morris nodded. "What I don't understand is why, exactly, I was contacted about this. We know who he is this time, and we know how he does it."
"Well, your... ah, your prototype was the one who caught him in the first place." Morris glowered at the mention of Michael, and the agent retrieved a plastic evidence bag from a drawer. "And after this was found, we suspected we might need your services again."
Confused, Morris took the bag from her. Inside was a shred of paper, with Chinese characters scribbled on it. "What is this?"
"That note was found lying on Smalls' bunk," the woman replied.
"There's only one word on the note," she continued. "Loosely translated, it means 'revenge.'"
* * * * *
New Rochelle, NY
Who needed sleep when one had caffeine?
Dr. Lydia Ross took a long swig of coffee, making a face. It wasn't the best coffee she'd had - far from it - but it was the only thing keeping her awake.
She'd managed to get as much information as possible on the civil suit filed by Bernstadt. It was legit, and all twenty-seven plaintiffs and their claims were very real. What was interesting, however, was that Bernstadt had been trying to get the case to court since November 1999, and Espotek had finally - out of the blue - stopped stalling only a month ago.
She continued skimming through the info on Espotek Industries. As far as possibly corrupt (read: there was no proof) medical corporations went, it was fairly common. Operating since 1975, distributed to almost all the hospitals in the state and beyond. Bought out in 1983 and became a subsidiary of a corporation called...
Wait a minute. Lydia stopped and stared as warning bells went off in her head. Why on earth would they be getting involved?
* * * * *
"So who's this guy you want to get back at so badly?" Charlie asked as he laid out the equipment on the bed, whistling at the amount of equipment they'd been able to obtain. Fake ID's, fake papers, even a laptop - if you knew how to get it, you could get anything in this particular neighborhood. It was nice to know that it hadn't changed much since he'd been in the pen.
The Eggman did not respond. He was sitting at a desk, hunched over his work, carefully injecting eggs and placing them in a case. Charlie knew this sort of silence meant that the man was not up to answering questions. Which meant that Charlie would have to deduce the answers for himself. "He the one that screwed things up for you?"
That got the old man's attention. He set the syringe down, still holding up the egg, before turning to Charlie, nodding solemnly. "Yeah, that makes sense," Charlie added. "I've been there before. You have this huge job all set up, all figured out - and then some loser gets lucky and trashes everything for you. Am I right?" Another nod, but the egg was still being held up. "How much you lose out on?"
It was a second or two before the Eggman responded. "Ten million."
"Ten million bucks?" Charlie echoed, impressed. "Damn, I can't blame you. Can't blame you at all."
The Eggman studied him for a moment before setting the egg in its case. Charlie relaxed. As weird as the old man was, Charlie was not going to get on his bad side.
Suddenly, someone started pounding on the door. Several someones. "Hey! Kyle! Open the damn door!"
The Eggman reached into his duffel bag, and, to Charlie's relief, pulled out two gas masks. He passed one to Charlie, who grinned. "I'll get it."
The two boys pounding on the door were understandably stunned as it opened to reveal the hulking figure in the gas mask. "Kyle doesn't live here anymore."
The egg dropped to the floor.
* * * * *
Somewhere in the Upper West Side
As she sat up sleepily, it took Heather a second to realize that she was not in her room back at home. She sat there for a few moments, unsure how to react, before getting up and plodding into the bathroom. After washing up, she was awake enough to hear the faint sound of voices down the hall. Curious, she moved to the door and pressed her ear against it. After a moment or two, she unlocked the door and opened it a crack.
The hallway was empty. Heather hesitated, then slipped out into the hall. For a place in the middle of town, this was a pretty big townhouse. Maybe there was a kitchen or someplace where she could get something to eat. As she made her way down the hallway, she approached the source of the voices she'd heard earlier. Around the corner, one of the doors was ajar, and she could hear two men arguing. Heather moved closer to the door, flattening herself against the wall like they always did in movies.
"I'm not entirely sure this is wise, sir."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, for one thing, this isn't your show. If Mr. Leflin finds out--"
"He's not about to find out. He moves so slow we'll have what we want before he knows it."
"You actually think they'll just give you the information?"
"They won't. He will. Don't tell me you're bailing out."
"I can't be a part of this. Why force anything out of him?"
"I'm not going to invest in anything other than a sure thing."
"You can't be sure he'll just give up the details of the project. He certainly didn't before."
"Well, this time we have the proper... leverage."
Heather had heard enough. She somehow managed to slip back into the guest room undetected, closing and locking the doors behind her. "Mom!" She rushed to the bed, intending to shake her mother awake - and stopped dead when she got a good look at who was lying there.
Michael was also curled up on the bed, his arm draped over Lisa as she snuggled up against him. Both were smiling in their sleep. Although they still had all their clothes on - and Heather knew her mother too well to assume that anything had happened - it was hard to resist torturing them. "Oh, Moooommm..."
Lisa stirred and opened her eyes, blinking sleepily and yawning as she shifted her weight. The movement caused Michael to wake up as well, and both adults froze in place as they realized just what position they were in. Both pairs of eyes turned to see Heather, who was grinning cheerfully. "Good morning."
"Says you," Michael murmured, trying to cover his pleasure with a show of embarrassment.
Lisa groaned. "This is not what it looks like."
Reluctantly, Michael pulled his arm away, rolling onto his back to give Lisa space before sitting up. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"
"No, it's all right, it's all right." Lisa yawned again. "My God, what time is it? The sun's not up yet."
Heather abruptly remembered the conversation. "I know, I'm sorry, but I heard these two creepy guys out there talking. One of them was talking about getting information and leverage, and I don't know what they meant but I didn't like how it sounded, and I've seen enough movies to know it's not good."
"What?" Lisa asked, worried.
"I don't know! They didn't sound like they were good guys or anything. I know it's nuts, but it was like those conversations you overhear in those Lethal Weapon movies when the bad guys are up to something and--"
Michael swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Heather, calm down. Stop to breathe." As she did so, he seated himself on the edge of the bed and caught her gently by the shoulders. "Do you remember what they said?"
She nodded and proceeded to relate what she'd heard. As she finished, Lisa looked even more concerned, and Michael's expression was grim.
"You're not nuts, Heather," Michael assured his daughter before turning back to Lisa. "I don't like the sound of that either."
* * * * *
New Rochelle, NY
"Dr. Ross?" Special Agent #1 stepped into the silent, dimly lit office. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he spotted Lydia slumped by the computer, a cup of coffee clenched in her left hand as her head rested on the desk by the machine. "Dr. Ross!"
She jerked up wildly, like a puppet on strings or a body shocked by a thousand volts. "What? Oh. Damn. What time is it?"
"Quarter to six." He tried not to laugh as she straightened up, brushing her hair out of her face. "Dr. Morris hasn't returned yet."
"Well, I got about an hour of sleep," Lydia groaned. "How's the search coming?"
"Nothing's been turned up." He hesitated. "I was about to ask you the same question."
She nodded absently, focused on the screen. "I've been checking up on Bernstadt and Associates and this supposed respirator case, and it doesn't add up. I wouldn't have noticed this if a name or two hadn't popped out at me."
"What do you mean?"
Lydia sat back in her chair. "The lawsuit's legitimate, I can tell you that. But the fact that Bernstadt is handling it is bizarre beyond belief given the specific company that's being sued."
"Espotek? Why would you say that?"
"Well, Bernstadt's firm has taken on cases like this before," Lydia admitted. "But this firm is owned by the same corporation that Espotek is a subsidiary of. Not technically 'owned,' that is, but Bernstadt and Associates handles all of the parent corporation's cases. Now why on earth would the corporation allow Bernstadt to make such a massive claim - with a huge number of clients - against one of its own subsidiaries?"
"I suppose it depends," the agent replied. "What corporation is this?"
Lydia shrugged. "Bernstadt's number one client is none other than a Bernard Leflin, Jr... CEO of Leflin Industries."
* * * * *
Bernard Leflin, Jr. watched the security tapes with his usual deceptive calmness, an unsettling ability that he had inherited from his father. The tapes showed first Heather Wiseman sneaking out and listening to a conversation, then bolting back to her room - then, twenty minutes later, all three of his guests slipped out the door, down the hall and down the back stairs.
He sighed and turned back to his associates, especially the two men in the center of the office. "I have to say, I'm extremely disappointed."
"Bernard," one of them began, "I can explain--"
"I don't want to hear it, Wallace." Leflin addressed one of the security guards. "See them into the drawing room; I'll deal with them later." As the two men were escorted out, Leflin turned to the head of security. "How did they get out?"
"Service entrance, sir. They went through the kitchen and must have slipped out as the cleaning staff came in."
Leflin nodded. "And of course, the cleaning people weren't told about our guests. Not their fault."
"Sir? Should we attempt pursuit?"
"No. Track them, shadow them, report their progress to me, but in no way are you to engage them unless absolutely necessary." The industrialist gazed thoughtfully up at the portrait of his father. "More than anything right now, we need their trust."
* * * * *
New Rochelle, NY
"Leflin?" Special Agent #1 echoed. "Did you say Leflin?"
Lydia frowned. "Yes, of course."
He backed away, suddenly agitated. "I need to make a phone call."
"Wait a minute," Lydia snapped, standing up. "What is so important about Leflin Industries?"
Her eyes narrowed. "I sincerely doubt that. What aren't you telling me?"
"I assure you, Dr. Ross," Special Agent #1 said, reaching for the door, "it's completely irrelevant."
She practically leapt out of her chair and had his arm in an iron grip a second later. "Hold it right there, Q-Ball."
Special Agent #1 stared at Lydia; for a half-awake woman in her mid-forties, she moved pretty quickly. And she had a hell of a grip. "Excuse me?"
"Do I have your attention now?" As he nodded and turned back to face her, Lydia released him. "Thank you. If you want my cooperation, you have to give me some in return. Now I know there's a connection here, and you're going to tell me what it is. Now."
Despite himself, the agent gulped. What was it with vicious females lately?
* * * * *
Dr. Morris was tired, frustrated, and was not in the mood for surprises. So when he dialed up Special Agent #1, he was understandably discomfited when a female voice answered. "Ross here."
It took him a second to place who it was. "Dr. Ross? Where's--"
"Fending off the media and rounding up the troops," Lydia replied tiredly. "So what's the situation?"
Part of him didn't even want to tell her, but Morris was too tired to withhold information. "Our old friend, the 'Eggman' as the media nicknamed him, is on the loose. Along with another convict, Charlie Smalls. He broke out of prison yesterday and already they've taken out a housing project in Queens."
"The 'Eggman?'" Lydia repeated. "Mr. Wiseman's first assignment, I presume, which is why you were contacted."
"The same," Morris informed her. "The FBI agent I spoke to believes that he may be out for revenge."
There was a long pause on her end. "You haven't told the Pentagon about Wiseman's disappearance yet. And you didn't tell the FBI either."
Maybe it was because he already thought she was obnoxious, or maybe it was because he was running on two hours' sleep, but she sounded far too smug for his tastes. "They didn't ask," Morris responded. "Put Special Agent #1 on the line."
"Sir, I did dig up something relevant on that Bernstadt character that you might be interested in."
"I don't give a damn about Bernstadt," Morris growled.
"But it's important--"
"Put Special Agent #1 on. Now."
"Dr. Morris, you authorized me to investigate this, and if you would just listen--"
He somehow restrained himself from telling her just what he thought of her investigations. "You follow whatever leads you may think are relevant. Right now, there is a terrorist loose in the city, and finding him and the man who can stop him is my highest priority. Not to mention that I have barely had two hours of sleep. I do not want anyone interfering." Morris took a deep breath. "Now put him on the phone."
Another long silence ensued, and then Lydia sighed. "Have it your way."
* * * * *
It took her a minute or two to find the man in question, and that was only because the shaved head was easy to spot. As she tapped him on the shoulder, Special Agent #1 turned, surprised, as Lydia handed him the cellphone. "It's for you, Q-Ball. Dr. Morris."
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't call me that."
She handed him a slip of paper along with the phone. "I prefer referring to people by names rather than numbers."
He didn't answer, and unfolded the paper curiously. "My cell number," Lydia explained. "In case Dr. Morris happens to need my interference." With that, she smiled and turned away.
"Where are you going?" the agent demanded.
"To follow some leads."
* * * * *
Tick Tock Diner
34th and 8th Street
Roger Bender decided that he was going to be late for work.
He'd had a lousy night, and all the way back he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being followed - and after the incident at the Wiseman's house, it didn't seem like such a ludicrous idea. He'd even parked elsewhere and walked six blocks to check into a different hotel than the one he'd stayed in before. It wasn't nearly as lavish as the Peninsula, but Roger wasn't feeling very picky at the moment. He hadn't stayed in the New Yorker in years, but the room he picked was just fine for what he had in mind. Plus, there was something amusing about having a view of the Empire State Building from one's bathroom window.
But his primary reason for that decision had been the heavenly smell from the adjacent diner - which immediately reminded him just how hungry he was. It was one of those 50's style diners that still believed in good breakfast food, and Roger was starving. He made a beeline for the diner, briefcase in hand and stomach growling as he sat down at the first empty booth he could find. Setting down his briefcase, he fished around for his wallet before calling the waitress over just to be sure he could afford a croissant.
"Hi, Uncle Roger."
Forgetting about breakfast, Roger jerked up to stare at the three people sitting in the booth adjacent to his. Heather was leaning over the back of the seat, and Lisa and that Newman character were sitting across from her, finishing off their breakfast. "What are you doing here?"
"Actually," Lisa admitted, "we were looking for you."
"That, and we haven't eaten since lunch yesterday," Heather added.
Roger stared at Mr. Newman, utterly confused. The young man smiled through a mouthful of food. "Try the bacon. It's not bad."
* * * * *
Upper West Side
"My God," Special Agent #1 murmured, staring at the black and white photos in his hands. Each one, taken from the crime scene in Queens, depicted bodies lying in blood. When he reached a photo of a five-year-old child, the agent set the photographs down and turned away.
"The epicenter of the attack was an apartment belonging to a Kyle Barnes," Morris said. "Apparently, that apartment may have contained a good amount of computer equipment - Barnes was suspected in illegally obtaining electronics and software - but none of it was found at the scene."
"Why give away their location like that?" Special Agent #1 wondered.
"The FBI seems to believe that the Eggman, at least, is out for revenge," Morris added. "And I tend to agree."
The agent's eyes grew wide. "You don't think that Mr. Wiseman--"
"Perhaps." Morris stood up. "At any rate, the Mayor's office has yet to receive any sort of clear and solid threat. But I expect one will come soon, and both City Hall and the FBI has asked for our help if it does. I said yes. Tentatively."
"You what? Sir, without Mr. Wiseman, how could we help in this situation?"
"The media's got their hands on this story, right?" The agent nodded. "Good. Let them all get their fair share of details. I want to make sure Mr. Wiseman hears about this."
* * * * *
New Yorker Hotel
"How much longer is she going to spend in there?" Roger muttered, glaring at the bathroom door balefully. Heather, and now Lisa, had prevailed upon Roger to let them use the shower in the hotel room.
Michael was lying flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling. "It's only been fifteen minutes."
"Feels like fifty," Roger answered nervously. Heather was ignoring the two of them, her attention focused on the TV set. "Why did you have to come after me?"
"It was Lisa's idea to find you, Roger," Michael sighed, sitting up. "We honestly didn't have anywhere else to go."
"Of course not," Roger snapped, leaning forward and lowering his voice to a whisper as the shower shut off. "You're probably responsible for that SWAT team--"
"Roger, the same thing happened at my place," Michael interrupted. "Look, these people are after all three of us. Now you can help me keep Lisa and Heather out of danger or you can sit here and complain."
"Well, you can't stay here forever," Roger pointed out in a normal tone as the bathroom door opened and Lisa stepped out, fully dressed and drying her hair with a towel. "I could have sworn I was being followed on the way back into the city. I parked in a garage and walked eight blocks just to be sure."
Michael sighed. "I know. I'm just not sure what to do."
"Hey, keep it down!" Heather said, turning the volume up a notch. "I'm trying to listen!"
"Listen to what?" Lisa asked, moving to look at what Heather was watching. Curious, Michael followed, and Roger just lay back on the bed with a groan.
There was a news broadcast playing on the TV. "...18 people killed by the release of a bio-chemical agent in Queens early this morning," the reporter was saying. "Details are sketchy, but according to our sources, this attack was most likely the work of the same terrorist who was responsible for the deaths at the Petrie Hotel last spring."
Horrified, Michael slowly sat down, his gaze riveted to the television. "Wow," Heather said.
"Dubbed the 'Eggman' by much of the media, this man apparently escaped from New York State Penitentiary yesterday afternoon and has been at large ever since," the reporter continued. "The agent has been contained at this time, and officials are baffled--"
"What?" Lisa asked, seeing the stricken look on Michael's face. "What's wrong?"
"Believe me," Michael murmured, unable to tear his eyes away from the screen, "you don't want to know."
* * * * *
The secretary's voice was even more nasal coming through the speaker phone. "Mr. Leflin, there's someone here to see you."
Leflin sighed. "Tell them to take a seat."
"It's a little too late for that, sir--"
The secretary didn't get a chance to finish as Leflin switched the line off and turned back to his current meeting. "Any progress on our guests?"
"They've hooked up with that insurance guy. We did manage to get our competitor off his tail. Temporarily, anyway."
"Good. I'd like them to come back on their own."
"So you've finally discovered that most dates don't like being dragged kicking and screaming?" a female voice interrupted. "Good, because that approach was not doing wonders for your love life."
Hearing that, the three men turned to see that someone had entered the office unnoticed, a middle-aged woman with a jagged streak of white in her dark hair. "How did you get in here?" Leflin's security head demanded, reaching for his radio.
"It's all right, Walters," Leflin said quickly, stepping around the desk to greet the new arrival. "Lydia. It's been a long time."
"Hello, Bernie." Lydia Ross smiled. "We need to talk."
* * * * *
The New Yorker Hotel
"Hey, I want to know!" Heather insisted. "What, you don't happen to know this Egg guy or anything?" When Michael didn't answer, she added, "You do know this guy?"
Michael was tired of lying. "Yeah, well," he admitted, "I'm kind of the one who got him in prison in the first place."
"Well, he's not there anymore," Heather observed.
"A terrorist and a tax evader to boot," Roger muttered.
Michael closed his eyes, leaning back into the couch. "God," he murmured under his breath. "When it rains, it freakin' monsoons."
* * * * *
Madison Square Garden
It was a little early for a janitor to be roaming the halls, but no one questioned the wispy little man in the janitor's uniform. No one noticed that the uniform was just a tad too big for him.
No one questioned as he headed for the lower levels to the basement, and no one noticed his unscheduled stop in the boiler room.
No one realized that he'd left a little surprise behind.
* * * * *
"I suppose we do," Leflin agreed, turning to Walters. "Did your men report where Bender is staying?"
Walters opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it, still staring at Lydia. "Like I said, it's all right," Leflin added.
"Hotel right outside the Garment District, sir. The one across from Madison Square Garden," Walters replied uneasily. "He parked several blocks away; I think he knew he was being followed."
"Good. Make sure that we're the only ones following him." Leflin hesitated. "Would you gentlemen mind stepping out for a moment?"
Uncertain, but knowing not to question their employer, Walters and the other men assembled filed out of the office. "I heard about your father," Lydia began once they were alone. "If I hadn't been stuck out in the middle of nowhere, I--"
"No, no, don't apologize. Your letter was very touching." There was a tray sitting on his desk with a steaming pot and several mugs. "Coffee?"
"Please. The usual - black with enough sugar to cause a stroke." He chuckled at that as he poured two cups and handed one to her. "Sorry to barge in on you like this, but it's been a hell of a night."
"Tell me about it." Leflin studied her thoughtfully as he stirred his coffee. "I was hoping that it would be you. I wasn't sure, of course, but I hoped."
Lydia took a sip of her coffee. "Hmm?"
"You are my source, aren't you?"
"Would I be here if I wasn't? Besides, I've done you favors before." She set the mug down, carefully choosing her words. "I'm just... this has escalated to a point where I'm wondering where you intend to go with this operation. After what happened to your father, I'd think you wouldn't want any part of it."
"Dad... Dad was desperate," Leflin said after a moment. "Not that I could blame him. He was in an unbearable amount of pain. But he was also on to something. Maybe the specifics were incorrect, but the general idea was right on the money."
"You've completely lost me."
"Some of my men reported seeing this 'Mr. Newman' bend a machine gun like taffy, and then leap off a banister and charge right through a police station like a linebacker." When Lydia didn't look impressed, he added, "Throwing cops left and right."
"But what are you trying to accomplish?" Lydia insisted. "I'm asking, Bernie, because you're getting sloppy. And your 'competitor' just found a reason to double up on the search."
"Think about it, Lydia. Successful brain transplants, artificial organs, giving someone a second chance to live - the possibility that the technology exists is too good to pass up. While the government wastes money for military purposes, why can't the common man benefit?"
Lydia sighed. "Oh, God. All this for a damn business deal?"
"No. For a vision. Dad's vision, specifically."
"Well, you'd better get cracking on realizing this vision," Lydia pointed out. "Especially since it didn't work before."
"Because Dad relied on threats," Leflin finished. "I intend to gain their trust."
She stared at him for a long moment before downing the last of her coffee in one swig. "All right. Have it your way. I need to get going."
As she stood and moved to the door, Leflin stood up as well. "Now, wait, Lydia, you just got here."
She paused with her hand on the doorknob. "Don't argue with me; I've had about an hour of sleep. If you want to continue like this, I can't sit around here. I need to make some calls and do some creative lying." Lydia smiled. "See you around."
With that, she was gone. Sighing, Leflin sat back down behind his desk. "Hasn't changed a bit."
* * * * *
The New Yorker Hotel
"There's got to be something we can do," Lisa said for the third time as she paced back and forth. "I mean, isn't there someone we can trust? The police?"
"I hate to be the pessimist here," Roger interrupted, "but a number of the men who raided your house looked deceptively like police officers."
"God, I don't believe this," Lisa went on, hardly missing a beat as she stalked back and forth. Roger and Heather were sitting on the couch, watching her warily. Michael was standing by the window, staring blankly at the street below. "We have to do something."
"I think we should stay here for a little while," Heather suggested. "Or go see what that Leflin guy wanted. I mean, he's better than the militia."
Michael finally turned away from the window, shaking his head. "No. He's got some kind of agenda." He took a deep, shaky breath. "I don't know. I really don't know what to do right now. It's like - no matter how bad it seems to get, there's always another thing, you know?"
Roger stared at Michael as a long-forgotten bar conversation popped into his mind. "What did you say?"
"Nothing. Never mind." Michael frowned. "Look, Roger, I'm sorry to do this to you, but - we need someplace to lie low. At least until we can figure out what to do."
"We keep running, we're gonna eventually run out of places to run to," Heather pointed out.
Lisa ceased to pace. "Fine. Let's stay here. For a little while at least."
Defeated, Roger sighed. "I'll get the second key."
* * * * *
"You have to hand it to this guy," Special Agent #1 said as Morris studied the printout. "He's one prompt terrorist."
Morris nodded absently. He paused for a moment before reluctantly pulling out his cellphone and a scrap of paper before starting to dial. "Dr. Ross. Found any leads?"
Special Agent #1 whirled to stare at his boss. What are you doing? he mouthed. Morris gestured for him to be silent.
"Maybe," Lydia replied. "Why are you so cheerful?"
"The Mayor's office received a threat this morning," Morris informed her. "Guess who it was from."
"So you do need me interfering after all."
"Actually, we believed it was probably less dangerous to keep you informed," Morris countered.
Lydia snorted. She was standing beside a newsstand on 8th Street, not far from the New Yorker. The attack in Queens was plastered all over the front pages of the newspapers. "Me and the rest of the world, I see. What did it say?"
It took Morris a second to follow her train of thought. "It's actually a bit more complicated than his last series of demands. He wants Mr. Wiseman and $15 million at Grand Central Station at 6:00 tonight. Sent us a key to a locker for Mr. Wiseman to open and to follow the instructions inside."
"Sounds a little extreme," Lydia observed. "What's the threat?"
"The note implied that once he has the man and the money, the Mayor's office will receive instructions on how to stop several thousand people from 'going out with a bang' exactly at 7:30 pm."
"I take it you've called the bomb squad already."
"Yes, but we have yet to figure out where the target is. Now have you turned up anything?" Morris asked. "Found any leads, as you so eloquently put it?"
She ignored the sarcasm. "Hmmm." Lydia looked down at the copy of the Times she was holding, then stared at the hotel thoughtfully. "I think I might be on to something, but I need... confirmation."
"Confirmation? I don't like the sound of that."
"You don't have to like it," Lydia said absently, pulling a pen and a pad out of her purse. "What's your direct line?"
* * * * *
The New Yorker Hotel
"For someone who insisted so fervently that she wasn't tired," Lisa observed, "she's out like a light."
Michael glanced over at Heather, smiling slightly at the sight of his little girl curled up on the couch. "You look like you need to get some sleep too."
"I'm too nervous to sleep." She took a seat across from him at the small table beside the window. "You have any idea what to do next?"
"Not really," Michael admitted. "Wish I could talk some sense into my boss, but he's probably not in the mood to even listen."
He shrugged. "Well, when he started with the threats and didn't seem to believe me, I - um - kind of decked him and made a break for it," Michael finished, embarrassed.
Lisa stared at him for a moment before managing a wry chuckle. "I suppose that wouldn't put him in a good mood." Michael couldn't help but smile a bit, and a comfortable silence settled between them. "Mr. Newman? I know this sounds strange, but... do you have a first name?"
Hesitant, Michael opened his mouth to reply. Before he could get a sound out, there was a sharp knock on the door. The two of them froze. "Room service!" a female voice shouted.
"I didn't order anything," Lisa whispered.
"Me neither," Michael whispered. "Let's just wait until they go away."
The knocking became more insistent, then finally stopped. Something was shoved beneath the door, followed by the sound of retreating footsteps. After a moment or two, Michael got up and carefully moved to the door, snatching the object up. Nothing happened, and he looked down at the folded newspaper section he was holding. "What is it?" Lisa asked.
"It's a section of the Times," Michael replied, sitting down at the table again and unfolding it. The headline story was about the deaths in Queens - but that wasn't what caught Michael's attention. There was a note folded in the paper. Curious, he unfolded it and read silently to himself. "Stay here."
"Where are you going?" Lisa hissed as Michael hopped up, still clutching the note in his hand.
"To try and catch the messenger," Michael replied as he slipped out the door.
He practically flew down the hallways, and reached the elevators in time to see a figure in dark red darting inside. But he wasn't in time to catch her before the doors slid shut. Michael was about to go for one himself, but then he remembered - whoever it was would have to change elevators once they hit the twentieth floor. That might be enough of a lag for him to catch up, so he turned and headed for the stairwell. Once there were five flights between him and the bottom, he jumped over the railing, landing solidly on his feet. Michael winced at the shock, his knees threatening to buckle before he recovered and dashed out the side door.
The gift shop was right outside, and Michael realized he'd bypassed the first floor and come out in the basement instead. Cursing, he sprinted up the escalator to the main lobby just in time to see a woman heading for the exit, her back to him, wearing a blouse of the same dark red shade he'd seen going into an elevator. He tried to overtake her, but there was a fair-sized crowd in the lobby, and his usual speed would draw too much attention. As he dodged people, she passed through the revolving doors out into the street. The wind tossed her hair about, revealing a jagged streak of white amongst the black before she disappeared into the crowd.
Michael stopped, realizing that he'd probably draw too much attention to himself if he went rushing out there to find her. He looked down at the note still clutched in his hand before turning and heading for the elevators.
He suddenly had a lot to think about.
* * * * *
"Mom, will you knock it off?" Heather sighed. "That's really annoying."
Lisa stopped pacing and sat down on the couch. "I'm sorry. But what if someone sees him? What if they send a bunch of men with guns in? What if there's already a bunch of them waiting for him down there already?"
Heather turned away from the window. "Wasn't this your idea? Mom, you sound like me." She stopped, processing that bit of information. "God, what if I've just been turning into you all this time and didn't even know it??"
"Heather," Lisa snapped sharply. "I know, I know, it was my idea, but I don't know... every time we turn around, something else happens. And we've stayed in the same place so long I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop."
"That's why he's checking it out," Heather assured her, leaving her perch by the window and sitting down beside Lisa. "We get a break dropped into our laps, so we might as well check it out before we take it."
Lisa smiled a bit at that, hugging Heather. "I guess you're right." She released her daughter and leaned forward to pluck something off the coffee table. On top of the New York Times was a piece of folded yellow paper with a handwritten note. It read:
HE WANTS MONEY TONIGHT, AND ONLY YOU CAN MAKE THE DROP. MORRIS' HANDS ARE TIED, AND YOU HAVE ALL THE CARDS. HE MIGHT BE WILLING TO LISTEN THIS TIME. 6 P.M. GRAND CENTRAL. CALL THIS NUMBER FIRST.
Below was a cellphone number and an extension. The note was signed "A FRIEND."
Lisa sighed and folded the note again. "If you can call that a break."
* * * * *
Michael emerged from the diner, somewhat disappointed. None of the waitresses at the Tick Tock Diner had recalled seeing the woman in question, and the person who was handling the front desk when she'd come in was on early lunch break. The cashier at the gift shop hadn't seen anyone like that either.
As he started towards the elevators, he nearly collided with someone carrying two plastic cups of coffee. The smell reminded Michael of how tired he was, and he glanced around. There was an expresso bar adjacent to the other side of the lobby. A cup of coffee would be great, if only he had the cash.
Michael stopped. If he hadn't had much sleep, Morris' team wouldn't have either. And if that woman was working for the Doc...
It was a silly idea, but the last lead he had left.
* * * * *
Grand Empire Insurance
As Roger had hoped, no one commented when he was late for work. Spence didn't really care either way; the little bastard was still trying to wrap up some loose ends left over from the S.E.C. investigation. While he hadn't been charged with anything, the scuttlebutt was that the investigation had turned up a thing or two that might interest the Insurance Commission. Roger's secretary didn't even notice he was late, but then again, she paid more attention to her nail polish than her work.
Roger was only somewhat relieved. That whole bizarre business with the Wisemans and that Newman character had him on edge. What was all that about, anyway?
Any further thoughts on the matter were cut short by the insistent beep of his speaker phone. "What is it, Janice?" he demanded, trying to sound irritated and not like he'd just jumped three feet.
"There's a call for you on line 1," the secretary informed him. "It's the police department or something."
"The police?" Roger repeated, stunned. His first instinct was to tell her to pretend he wasn't in, but he didn't trust her to do that. Besides, it would look suspicious. "All-all right," he stammered after a moment. "Put it through."
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before picking up the receiver. "Roger Bender," he answered weakly. "Yes, officer, I'm her husband." Unfortunately. "What can I do for you?"
It took him a second or two to process the reply he received. "She what? When? Is this some kind of joke? No, officer, I'm not trying to be insulting, but this does not sound like--" Roger paused, listening to the explanation that confirmed his suspicions from the previous evening. "All right, that does sound like Ruth."
The next question required quite a bit of thought, and Roger toyed with the golf ball on his desk for a few moments, considering his options. "Well, of course I will, officer, but I really can't go anywhere right now." A fairly evil thought came to him. "But I could swing by after work."
* * * * *
The New Yorker Hotel
"What can I get you?" the man behind the bar asked as Michael sat down at the counter.
"Actually, I'm looking for someone. Did you happen to see a woman with dark hair come in here? She's got a white streak in it?"
"I might have," the cashier said suspiciously. He was an older man with white hair and a thick mustache. "It's against policy to go and talk about customers. You a cop?"
"No, I just need--" Michael was cut off by a burst of raucous laughter nearby. Three clearly inebriated young men in their early twenties were howling over something or other. The cashier sighed and turned his eyes skyward in frustration. "Uh, you don't serve alcohol here too?"
"No, but that didn't stop them. Those morons brought their own." The cashier scowled, and then caught himself. "Sorry. They've been scaring customers away for the past hour."
"Why don't you just call the cops?"
"You see that one?" the cashier said, pointing to the biggest of the three, a broad-shouldered blond kid. "His father owns one of the big corporations that's sponsoring some convention here this weekend. We mess with him, Daddy dear pulls his sponsorship. Tried to tell them this was the wrong bar, but they just tried to get me to arm-wrestle."
Michael snorted. "Arm-wrestle?"
"Yeah, they've challenged everyone who's walked in. The few who tried got beat and had to shell out money. Those three have made more today by arm-wrestling than I've been able to make in tips. They've been getting so cocky they've started to tell people they won't leave til someone beats them."
"Really?" Michael was starting to get an idea. "If I get them out of here, could you make an exception to that policy?"
* * * * *
Lydia followed the two men down the street carefully, trying to stay far enough back so that they wouldn't catch on to her but close enough so that she wouldn't lose them in the crowd. She'd seen them lounging outside the McDonald's across the street from the hotel, and had immediately realized they were keeping tabs on the building. What she couldn't figure out was how they'd managed to keep Morris' team off the scent. So when they finally started moving, she'd taken a taxi around in a circle and followed them. The driver hadn't complained; she'd given him a big tip for his trouble.
They were ambling, stopping to look in shop windows, and generally taking their time, but it was obviously an act. They had a destination in mind. She kept pace with them, putting on a similar facade but being far more subtle with it than they.
She followed them for two blocks before they finally ducked into a small bookshop. Lydia counted to ten before entering as well, letting a family of four go in first. The two men retreated to the back of the store, and Lydia followed. When they stopped, she immediately turned to the closest rack and snatched up a book, thumbing through it and slipping behind a shelf out of sight.
As she peered around the corner of the shelf, the two men stood in a corner, waiting. Five seconds later, a man in a dark suit came up to them. Lydia couldn't hear what they were saying, but she saw the suit nod, and she definitely saw the money they handed him. He turned and walked in her direction, and Lydia flattened herself against the shelf, burying her face in the book.
Thankfully, he didn't see her as he passed. He stopped beneath one of the overhead lights and turned slightly, giving Lydia a fairly good glimpse of his profile before he turned and left the shop. Shocked, Lydia stifled a gasp and covered it by turning away and coughing.
She remained where she was, pretending to be completely engrossed in her reading, as the other two men finally left via a different route. Alone, Lydia lowered the book and tried to slow her heart rate back down. She hadn't seen that one coming, but now it all made sense. How else could Leflin keep Morris' team off the scent if he didn't have one of the agents in his pocket?
Putting the book away, she finally straightened up and headed out of the shop, looking for a quiet place to make a call. Several people would be very interested to know what Special Agent #2 was doing with his time.
* * * * *
The New Yorker Hotel
"Lemme get this straight," the blond slurred, looking Michael up and down. He was easily a head taller and several inches broader than Michael, but that was owing equally to fat and muscle. "You want to arm wrestle me."
"You heard me right the first time," Michael answered. The three men burst out laughing.
Blondie elbowed the man sitting next to him. "Hear that, Bobby? He wants to arm-wrestle." They laughed even harder, and then he seemed to come back into focus all of a sudden. "So, uh, what do you get if I win?" He stopped, realizing that he hadn't phrased that correctly.
Michael was starting to remember why he'd told Spence he didn't drink anymore. He pointed to the pile of dollar bills sitting on the counter beside Bobby's elbow. "I win, I get the pot, and you guys get out of here."
"The pot and we leave?" Bobby echoed. "That's not fair."
"Okay, I'll beat all of you."
That brought on an even louder and longer surge of laughter. "What if we win?" the third guy asked. Michael shrugged.
Blondie took a swig of beer. "Nice jacket you got there."
Michael looked down. "This?" He shrugged the leather jacket off. "You win, you can have it. It's all I've got." He doubted it would fit any of them, but details probably didn't matter to them in their drunken states.
"All right," Blondie decided after a moment, propping an arm up on the bar. "Let's go. One arm, no cheating."
Michael sat down at the bar and propped his arm up as well. "Count of three," Bobby said. "One, two... three!"
Blondie immediately began to struggle. Michael locked his elbow and simply sat there while the other man put all his strength into it. His arm didn't even budge. The cashier gaped in shock, and the other two just stared. After several seconds, Michael sighed. "You know what? This is taking too long."
With that, he slammed the other man's arm down on the bar. Blondie sat back, rubbing his sore hand and shoulder. "Sorry," Michael said. "Didn't hurt you, did I?" Blondie shook his head. "Who's next?"
Bobby tried next, and Michael beat him just as easily. The third guy went down in two seconds. "Two out of three!" Blondie exclaimed, jumping up and even trying with both hands. Michael rolled his eyes and won again.
There was a long moment of silence after that. "Three out of five?" Michael suggested. "Or you guys want to leave?"
They stared at him for a moment before Bobby dumped the "pot" of dollar bills on the counter in front of him. The three men picked up their bottles of beer and shuffled out, rubbing sore shoulders and mumbling to themselves.
Michael turned back to the cashier, who continued to stare in amazement. "So, you mind telling me about this woman?"
The old man chuckled. "Hell, I'll buy you a drink myself."
* * * * *
4th and 8th Street
"Come on, dammit!" Lydia snapped as yet another cab sped by her. "What do I have to do, wave my wallet in the air?" As a third taxi passed her by, she seriously considered stepping out into the lane to force traffic to stop. She threw up her hands and started walking. Maybe she'd have better luck farther into the theatre district. But she'd only gone a few steps when the van pulled up to the curb.
Two men in suits stepped out. Lydia recognized one of them as Walters, Leflin's security chief. "Dr. Ross. Mr. Leflin sent us to pick you up."
"I appreciate the thought, but I'd rather take a taxi." She started to back away.
Walters' smile hardened. "This isn't a request."
* * * * *
The New Yorker Hotel
"Hey, Mom?" Heather asked. "What did that lady look like again? Red outfit, white stripe in the hair?"
Lisa looked up. "Yes, why?"
Heather was staring out the window. "I think she pissed somebody off."
"What?" Lisa ran to the window to see what Heather was looking at. Down near Madison Square Garden, a woman in a red top was being hustled into a black van by two men in suits. Even from that height, Lisa could see the white streak in her hair. "Oh my God."
* * * * *
"Will you stop dragging me and explain yourselves!" Lydia snapped as she struggled in the two men's grip. "You don't need to drag me off, for God's sake!"
"Then get in the van," Walters ordered her.
She shook off their restraining arms and got into the van, glaring balefully at Walters as one of the men got in and shut the door. Lydia sighed as Walters gestured, and reluctantly handed over her purse. As the van drove away, she failed to notice the sign advertising the off-season charity basketball game for that evening.
* * * * *
The knock on the door caused both Lisa and Heather to jump. "Lisa! Heather! It's me!" a familiar voice called. "Open up!"
Relieved, Lisa hurried to the door, checking at the peephole before unlocking it and letting Michael hurry in. "Did you find out anything?"
"A little. The guy at the coffee bar said she chugged a double expresso and left. She was all by herself, and wrote the note at the bar - although that really doesn't tell us anything," Michael gasped in one breath. He noticed the looks on their faces. "What?"
"She's not all by herself now," Heather answered.
* * * * *
The elevator doors opened on the bottom floor, and Michael, Lisa, and Heather hurried out. They headed up the escalator, but Heather came to an abrupt stop as she spotted two men entering the lobby. "Uh-oh."
"What?" Lisa asked.
"Those guys. I saw the tall one at Mr. Leflin's place."
"Come on," Michael muttered, steering them back towards the stairs.
As they passed the restrooms, Michael almost walked smack into the man coming out of the men's room. "Sorry about that," he said automatically before he realized who it was.
"No problem," the cashier replied, seeing the expressions on their faces. "Something wrong?"
Michael glanced back at the two men, who were checking at the front desk. "Is there a back door we could use?"
* * * * *
"Friend of yours?" Lisa asked three minutes later.
Michael smiled as the three fugitives slipped out of the service entrance in the back of the hotel. "He owed me a favor."
* * * * *
63rd and Madison
"Have they found anything?" Morris asked, leaning back in his chair. Through the glass partition between the bedroom and the pool, he could see the FBI agents sitting with his own men, presumably discussing strategy. He had adjourned to the bedroom to make a few private calls.
Right now, Special Agent #1 was on the other end, and the background noise on his end made it difficult to hear the reply. "Nothing out of the ordinary, sir. The locker's there, but we haven't made any attempts to open it."
"Good. Leave it be." Morris thought for a moment. "He must have set this up ahead of time. Anonymity won't work this time around, so he won't do anything last-minute."
"Speaking of last minute, I'm guessing there's no news on Mr. Wiseman."
"No. Special Agent #2 reported in. His team hasn't picked anything up. As for Dr. Ross, well, she may actually have a lead, but she hasn't been answering her cellphone."
There was a long pause on the other end. "Sir, I think I know what she was referring to. She looked up Bernstadt and found--" The rest was obscured by static.
Morris scowled. "I didn't get that."
"He works for--" More static blocked off whatever Special Agent #1 was trying to say. Morris cursed and hung up the phone.
Ten seconds later, it rang again, and Morris snatched it up. "This had better be good news."
"Kind of depends on what you consider good news," a familiar voice replied. Morris nearly dropped the phone. "Sounds like you got about as much sleep as I did."
The tall scientist rose to his feet, moving slowly, as if Michael would somehow pick up on any sudden movements through the phone. "How did you get this number?"
Michael hesitated before answering. "From 'a friend.' Guess you don't know anything about that either."
"Where are you?" Morris asked.
"New Jersey." The answer was so prompt that it couldn't be true. "Look, Doc, I just got a note that said you need me to make a delivery. Tonight. Grand Central Station. Six o'clock. Does that ring any bells?"
"Mr. Wiseman, if you have a point, it would be wise to get around to it sometime soon."
Michael sighed. "Fine. I want to make a trade. Me for Lisa and Heather."
It wasn't the time to be flippant, but Morris felt like it. "Talk English."
"I turn myself in, give the guy the money, and you let Lisa and Heather get on with their lives. Is that plain enough for you?"
"As plain as the bump on the head I recently received."
"I'm sorry about that. But I had to."
"I fail to see why. You made a deal, Mr. Wiseman, and you should have honored that deal--"
"Why? So you could - you could do to me what you did to Dr. Lizzard?"
Morris froze. "What?"
"You didn't think I remembered that, did you?" Michael's voice was shaking. "I wasn't completely out cold, Doc. I heard everything. I know exactly what you did."
"You were under heavy sedation," Morris protested, moving towards the door. Perhaps the agents would be able to get a trace even with the cellphone. "You might have imagined things."
"I had to listen to him die!" Michael cried. "I couldn't do anything about it! What did you expect me to do, just lie there while you got rid of my family?"
Morris glowered. "Has it occurred to you that I didn't exactly enjoy that, Mr. Wiseman? Have you stopped to consider my reasons for doing what I did?"
There was no answer on the other end. Morris opened his mouth to speak, but stopped as his own words came back to haunt him.
You need to stop and consider why he ran, Dr. Ross had said.
Up until now, he really hadn't thought about that. And what with Ross's disappearance and Special Agent #1's attempt to tell him who Bernstadt worked for, Morris was starting to suspect that the security leak just might not have been Michael Wiseman's fault. If someone had pointed that lawyer in Mrs. Wiseman's direction for a reason, there was more going on here than he'd originally thought. As much as he hated to admit it, Dr. Ross might have been right.
Damn that woman.
"All right," the tall scientist said after a moment. "How do you want to play this?"
* * * * *
Bored, bored, bored.
Lydia sat down on the edge of the secretary's desk with a sigh, glaring balefully at the locked doors in front of her. After almost two straight hours locked in one of the empty offices adjacent to Leflin's conference room, her already diminishing patience was nearly gone. Even pacing back and forth had become boring in and of itself. Her attempts at reasoning with the security staff - first calmly, and then in a manner which involved a lot of screaming - had been ignored. The only explanation she'd received was that Leflin was "in a meeting."
She hadn't known Bernard Leflin Jr. too well, since she'd only known him through her father's business contact with Leflin Sr. But Lydia knew that this was not his M.O. Had he truly wished her picked up, he'd have come to see her to deliver some kind of explanation. Naturally, the explanation would be complete bullshit, but he'd make the effort. Lydia was starting to suspect that Walters himself had simply acted on his own suspicions. The shifty-eyed security chief didn't like anyone horning in on his territory, and he was ultimately suspicious of anyone who tried.
His suspicions were well-founded in this case, but she was still pissed off.
Bored, she examined the desk. Nothing special; papers, more papers, photos of the secretary's family, and a ceramic statue that looked simply out of place. It was a cartoon dog in golf pants and shirt, swinging a golf club. She reached over to pick it up, and was surprised when it didn't budge. Lydia tugged, and the figurine jerked to the side like a lever. A panel opened in the top of the desk, and a small black box with a series of switches rose up.
As she peered at the switches, the sound of voices startled her. It took Lydia a moment to realize that they were coming from the vent in the ceiling. Whoever was speaking was talking so loudly that she didn't even need to put an ear to the vent to hear exactly what was being said.
"...you realize, Wallace, if anyone sees us talking, you and I are both in serious trouble. You more than me."
Walters. She recognized the voice immediately.
"I'm already up to my neck in it. Listen, if you keep messing around like this, we'll never get our hands on the Wisemans."
"We will. We just need to be sure that Leflin doesn't know about it."
So Walters was doublecrossing his employer. Lydia glanced down at the switches on the desk in front of her again. One in particular caught her eye - the one marked "INTERCOM - CONFERENCE ROOM."
Dr. Lydia Ross smiled.
* * * * *
"As I wa saying," Leflin continued smoothly, "once we have the man in question, I believe it will be simple to extract whatever information he knows."
The older man shifted uncomfortably. "Now wait a moment, Bernard. I've done business with your father for years, and never once have I stooped to the kind of coercion you're talking about."
"Not coercion. A trade." Leflin smiled. "If our information is right, we can simply offer this man freedom and safety for him and his family. I have enough resources at my command to ensure that they can all disappear and live quite happily."
The intercom suddenly crackled to life. "--need to get a hold of the Wisemans now," a voice was saying. "If we continue to dawdle like this, Mr. Leflin will beat us to the punch."
Leflin stopped, signaling to his business partner to be silent as he continued to listen. Another voice chuckled. "Leflin wouldn't be able to find his own ass if it wasn't attached to him. Don't worry about a thing, Wallace."
"If that Ross character interferes again, we might be in trouble. I don't trust her, Walters."
"Neither do I. Why do you think I had her locked up?"
Leflin hesitated, listening. "There's an echo," he muttered. "Could be coming through the vent..." He turned to his business partner. "Greenberg, I'm afraid that I have to cut this meeting short." He glanced up at the intercom. "It sounds as if we might have a new problem."
* * * * *
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lisa Wiseman stared blankly at the costumes in the case in front of her, not really seeing the display. She was more interested in the reflection in the back wall of the case, which confirmed her suspicions that she looked as tired as she felt. It also gave her a decent glimpse of the crowd around her without having to turn around.
Besides, if she chose to focus on the Beatles memorabilia instead, that would just make her feel old. She actually had a copy of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" somewhere in the house, and it was a little disconcerting to see those four technicolor uniforms in a museum display case. Of course, she had only been seven or eight when the album first came out, but still...
"Mom, I'm not three," Heather snapped from beside her. "You can let go of the death grip on my hand."
"I don't need to remind you what happened the last time you were allowed to wander a museum by yourself," Lisa replied.
Heather mumbled something that sounded less than apologetic, but Lisa didn't choose to pursue it as someone familiar elbowed his way through the crowd to stand beside her. "So did you call that number?" she asked quietly, keeping her eyes on the display.
"Yep." Michael bit his lip. "The Doc didn't expect me to call." He was silent for a few moments before adding, "I'm turning myself in."
At that, Lisa turned to glare at him. "You did what?" she hissed.
"Just me. No one else." Michael sighed. "Lisa, I've got to put a stop to this somehow. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
"Haven't I heard that line someplace before? From someone barging into my Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps?"
Heather coughed loudly to get their attention. "Yeah, Mom, and we all remember what happened afterwards."
Lisa opened her mouth to retort, then shut it again. She turned away from Heather to look at Michael, who was looking at her with what could only be described as a puppy-dog expression on his face. Which only made it worse. Lisa had always been a sucker for that sort of look, and Michael knew exactly how to pull that off to his advantage.
Besides, as infuriating as the man could be, he was really the only one they could trust right now. Finally, she let out an exasperated sigh. "All right, all right. I still think you're crazy, Mr. Newman, but right now I don't have any better ideas."
Michael smiled, relieved. "Thanks. I think."
As they made their way through the crush of people, Lisa eyed a female mannequin sporting a bizarre, overly revealing getup. "But this had better not involve either of us standing in for some of those mannequins."
"Don't worry," Michael assured her. "I'm not that deranged."
* * * * *
63rd and Madison
The FBI agents were packing their things as Special Agent #1 entered. Morris nodded to him, and the two of them moved into the bedroom, going out on the balcony to talk. "I came as soon as the word got to us."
"You have someone handling surveillance?" Morris asked quietly.
The bald agent nodded. "Special Agent #2 is in the truck. How long ago did he make the call?"
"About an hour ago," Morris informed him.
"So what did you tell the FBI?"
"Nothing," Morris said. "Aside from the fact that our boy would be ready to go at six."
"That's it? How can you be sure that Mr. Wiseman will come?"
Morris smiled, turning to look at the view from the balcony. "He'll be there."
Special Agent #1 shook his head. "I don't recall you ever giving him the number."
"He apparently got the number from 'a friend.'"
"Any ideas on who that 'friend' would be?"
Morris walked to the edge of the balcony, putting his hands on the brick wall that served as a railing. "Dr. Ross seems to be the most likely suspect, wherever she is."
"That's the other reason I'm here." Special Agent #1 walked over to stand beside his boss. "She found out who Edward Bernstadt works for. Leflin Incorporated."
Dr. Morris whirled, staring at him in shock. "What?"
* * * * *
Penn Station was busy as usual, swarming with people pushing and shoving in every direction. Lisa had Heather's hand in a death grip as they made it through the doors, squeezing past people who were going the wrong way or were inconsiderate enough to stand and talk in the middle of traffic. The crush of people made it extremely difficult to find anyone, let alone be quite sure of where you were. Lisa had to admit, it was a perfect place to blend in.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Michael was there, helping steer through the crowd. Lisa's first impulse was to shrug the hand off, but there was something comforting about his touch. Besides, it was probably a good idea to stay together in this crowd.
They eventually made it out, moving to stand near a wall out of the flow of traffic. Lisa leaned against the wall with a sigh, and Heather was relieved to pull her wrist free from Lisa's grip. "God, Mom, you were cutting off my circulation."
"You're complaining, so you're fine," Lisa deduced before turning back to Michael. "Now what? Is this the new hideout?"
"I'm supposed to meet the Doc before six," Michael told her. "But I'm going alone."
Heather looked confused and a little annoyed. "What, you're just going to leave us here?"
Shaking his head, Michael reached into his pocket and retrieved a large wad of dollar bills. "No, I'm giving you a chance to get out of town." He pressed the money into Lisa's hands.
"What?" Stunned, Lisa flipped through the handful of cash. "There's more than three hundred dollars here! Where did you get this?"
"Drunks shouldn't make bets," Michael said by way of explanation. "Lisa, I don't know exactly what's going to happen tonight. If - if things don't work out, I want to be sure you're out of danger. There's more than enough here for you both to get a ticket anywhere you want."
Lisa shook her head. "Mr. Newman, I can't accept this."
"Mom, he just handed you a big wad of cash," Heather pointed out. "Now is not the time to complain."
"And don't tell me where you're going," Michael continued. "Pick someplace that most people wouldn't think of. Someplace that wouldn't pop up in records."
Lisa didn't answer. She stared at the money that was still clenched in her hand. "Please," Michael added. "It's the only way." When she still didn't say anything, he sighed, reluctantly turning away.
"What's your name?"
Surprised, Michael turned back. "Huh?"
Lisa held out the money towards him. "Tell me your name and I'll take the money."
"Mom," Heather muttered, "what are you doing?"
"Tell me your name and I'll take the money," Lisa repeated, shaking the wad of cash at Michael. "Mr. Newman, I still don't have a clue what's going on. Maybe I'm better off not knowing. But I'm sick and tired of not knowing anything! I've been chased from my house, I've spent the last twenty-four hours running all over the city with a crazy man--"
"Lisa," Michael began, but she kept on going.
"--not that I'm not grateful for some of the things you have done for us, but that doesn't change the fact that you are the strangest person I've ever met," Lisa amended, not missing a beat. "I don't even know what or who I'm running from, why I'm running, anything. Right now I'd settle for knowing your first name!"
He stared at her for a moment, fighting the urge to pull her into his arms right then and there. Although in her present state of mind, that might not be a good idea. Lisa stood there, defiantly holding out the money and waiting for an answer. Something told him that she would be perfectly willing to throw all three hundred dollars in his face if he didn't tell her what she'd asked. It was an answer, at least. He owed her that much.
And this time, it wouldn't be a lie.
"Michael." The one word brought relief and fear at the same time. Relief to have that, at least, out in the open, and fear that it might lead to more trouble.
Lisa blinked, unsure if she'd heard him correctly. "What?"
"Michael." He said it louder, keeping his voice steady. "That's my name."
It was obvious from the look on her face that she really didn't know how to react to that, wavering between suspicion and dismissal for several seconds before putting the money in her pocket. "All right," she said finally. "You'd - you'd better get going."
Michael didn't move immediately. He stood there for a second, looking at them as if he was trying to seal a last look in his memory. Impulsively, he reached out and took Lisa's hand in his, squeezing it reassuringly, before he finally stepped back into the crowd. In a few seconds, he disappeared in the sea of people.
As soon as he was gone, Lisa took a deep breath and shook herself out of whatever trance had held her. Turning, she saw that Heather, who had been watching the entire scene with great interest, was grinning. "What?"
"Oh, nothing," Heather replied with feigned innocence. "So where are we going?"
Lisa glanced up at the list of arrivals and departures. She scanned the cities and times, considering and discarding friends and relatives as potential sources of sanctuary. Most were either too obvious or would ask too many questions. What they really needed, she realized wryly, was someone desperate enough for company that they would take them in without questioning--
Wait a minute.
"Boston," Lisa decided. "There's a 5:30 train to Boston."
"Boston?" Heather repeated. "Why there?"
"I know someone who might let us stay," Lisa answered, taking her daughter's hand and heading towards the Amtrak ticket counter. "Remind me again, Heather - you're not allergic to cats, are you?"
* * * * *
Grand Empire Insurance
"Sign and date, sign and date, sign and date," Roger Bender murmured as he signed the report and the two copies on his desk, gleefully date-stamping the last one. "Ta-da! Done on time!"
Grinning with pride, he put the pen and the date stamper away and began gathering his things. It was a rare occasion when he finished up any report before the deadline, and a miracle that he'd done so after having come into work late. But leaving it to his secretary had not been an option; he really didn't trust her to handle it. Not with Spence so completely on edge with the SEC investigation.
Well, Spence could go to hell. Roger began whistling in spite of himself as he finished packing up his briefcase, pausing to grab his suit jacket and keys. As he turned towards the door, he nearly dropped his jacket mid-whistle.
Spence was standing in the doorway. He still looked frazzled, but there was a wicked gleam in his eye that hadn't been there for a while. "Heading home, Bender? Don't you owe me a report?"
Roger regained his composure faster than usual; he was prepared for this situation. He smoothly retrieved the three copies from his desk. "Oh, this one? It's all done."
"Are you sure?" Spence asked, taking a copy and flipping through it, searching for any errors he could spot on the fly. "Proofed? Copied? Dated? You referenced everything this time?"
"Every word," Roger said proudly. "Look, Craig, I'd love to stay and chat, but I need to pick up my wife--"
Spence was reading through the report, surprised and pleased. "This is excellent."
Roger hesitated. "Really?"
"Indeed it is," Spence said. "And since you've done such a good job with this report, I think you might want to have a go at editing this draft Ross gave me for tomorrow morning." He produced a huge stack of paper seemingly from thin air. "I'd do it myself, but it's a real mess, and I think it should be handled by an old pro."
Roger was stunned as the report was shoved into his hands. "But - but - but--"
"I knew you'd feel that way," Spence replied, patting him on the shoulder. "Take one for the team, Bender." He started off down the hall, turning back to add, "Your wife will just have to take a taxi."
Roger watched him go, then trudged back into his office, throwing his jacket back on the chair. "Bastard."
* * * * *
Salzburg and Rogeilla Real Estate
Janet jumped in surprise as the phone rang, nearly knocking her now-empty coffee mug off of the desk. She'd been so engrossed in trying to get some last-minute paperwork done that the sudden intrusion startled her. At least there was no one here to see her; Bill and Carla had both left early. And Lisa hadn't shown up at all, a fact that had been bothering Janet all day.
She composed herself and picked up the receiver on the third ring. "Salzburg and Rogeilla."
"Janet, thank God you're still there. It's Lisa."
"Lisa!" Janet exclaimed, doubly glad that she was the only one in the office. "Where on earth have you been? I tried you at home, but--"
"I'm fine, Janet," Lisa interrupted. "Listen, I'm going to be out for a few days. I've, uh, got a family emergency."
"Family emergency? Lisa, there was a SWAT team on your front lawn last night!"
"How did you know about that?"
"I had to give Roger a ride," Janet replied, hesitating as the double entendre hit her. "In my car, that is. Where are you?"
Lisa paused. "I can't tell you, but I'm okay and Heather's with me. If you see Roger, tell him not to worry, all right?"
"All right," Janet agreed reluctantly. "But can't you tell me--"
But Lisa had already hung up.
* * * * *
Lisa hurried back to the line at the ticket booth, where Heather was holding their place. She got back just in time to make it to the booth, pulling out the money that Michael had given her. "Two for the 5:30 to Boston," she said, hoping to God that they could get on the train.
The ticket agent took a look at the disheveled pair, then the wad of cash Lisa was counting out. "You're in luck," he informed them. "We still have several seats available."
Heather punched the air triumphantly. "Yes!"
Lisa sighed in relief as she counted out the money, smiling at her daughter's antics.
* * * * *
Special Agent #2 had been listening intently to phone conversations for a few hours. His body language gave no indication that he was listening to anything important, since he remained in the same relaxed position that he'd been in since he first put the headphones on. But his eyes flicked back and forth intently, narrowing in suspicion.
No one noticed his agitation, and no one noticed his haste to delete the recording from the tape. They were all too busy with other matters, and since the phone taps hadn't yielded any information so far, didn't have surveillance as a high priority. It was fortunate that they had thought to put a tap on the real estate office's phone.
He got up, asked one of the agents to take his place, and slipped out of the van. He had a few calls to make.
* * * * *
Outside Grand Central Station
"We're all set up," Special Agent #1 informed Morris, who looked around at the scattering of police cars and the unmarked cars in the area. The black FBI van was parked on the other side of the street from the station entrance. "We've got choppers in the air and plainclothes agents inside. Bomb squad's on alert and we have a HAZMAT team standing by."
"Good," Morris said as they walked over to the FBI van. "No chance of blocking off traffic?"
"Here? Now? Are you kidding?"
"Wishful thinking. What about the money?"
The back of the van opened up, and they stepped inside. One of the agents handed Morris a metal suitcase. "$15 million in bearer bonds," the agent said as Morris cast a perfunctory glance inside and shut it again, shaking off the peculiar sense of deja vu he was getting.
He turned back to his right-hand man. "Can we spare any men to check out Leflin Incorporated?"
Special Agent #1 nodded. "Special Agent #2 is looking into it. Unfortunately, the terrorist threat is our main concern right now."
Morris shook his head. "If I didn't know better, I'd say they timed this."
* * * * *
"Hey, this is pretty nice," Heather observed, examining the empty compartment that she and Lisa had all to themselves. "We didn't do too badly, did we?"
Lisa leaned back in her seat. "I don't know. I can't help feeling that I'm missing something."
"Relax, Mom," Heather assured her. "We got seats at the last minute at a good price. We're on a train out of town and we've got plenty of cash left."
"That's what bothers me."
Heather sighed as the train began to move. "Knock it off, Mom. I'm supposed to be the pessimist here."
* * * * *
The phone on Bernard Leflin Jr's desk rang. With an irritated sigh, he checked the number on the display and flicked on the speaker. "Go ahead."
"We just received a lead on one of the traces," a male voice responded. Lydia didn't recognize the voice, but she had a feeling she knew who it was anyway. "Mrs. Wiseman called her office a little over half an hour ago. We traced the call to Penn Station."
"And you waited that long to call me?"
"Long enough to find out where she was headed," the voice replied quickly. "She bought two tickets for a 5:30 train to Boston. Amtrak, train number 563."
Leflin nodded, a satisfied smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he took the number down. "Very good." He straightened up. "Don't trouble yourself with retrieval. We'll handle it here. Stay with the competition and keep me posted."
"Yes, sir." The man on the other end hung up.
Lydia raised an eyebrow. "'The competition?'"
"Appropriate, actually," Leflin replied coolly, standing up. "Get the car ready," he told the others. "We're all going on a train ride."
"You're dragging me along?" Lydia asked. "Bernie, have you lost your mind?"
He smiled. "Walters is convinced I can't trust you. Of course, I can't trust him, but recent events have spun too far out of my control to trust anyone at this point. Besides, what else should I do with you?"
Her purse was sitting on the table outside the office. "You could let me make a stop in the ladies' room."
"Fair enough." He gestured for her to lead him out.
As she walked into the hall, she stopped and reached for her purse, only to have the gorilla guarding it grab her wrist. "You don't need that."
"Oh yes, I do," she replied, pulling her hand free. "I've got a bit of a problem I need to attend to." At his blank stare, she sighed. "Do I need to spell it out for you? Or would you like to go in there and search for it yourself?"
The big man paled and thrust the bag towards her, holding it away from him as though it were a live cobra. The other security guards chuckled as Lydia took the purse and started rummaging through it. As she shifted things around, she caught hold of her cellphone, slipping it into a small makeup bag. Having done that, she pulled the bag out of the purse. "Here it is."
"Wonderful," Leflin said uncomfortably. He turned to one of the other guards. "Escort her to the ladies' room, if you please."
* * * * *
Outside Grand Central Station
Michael stayed in the center of the rush-hour crowds, moving along with the flow of human traffic as he approached the entrance to Grand Central Station, staying on the other side of the street. He could see a few police cars, but he was sure there were plenty of unmarked vehicles in the area. That black van on the corner looked particularly suspicious.
Maybe a different route would be a good idea.
* * * * *
The two security guards stood outside the ladies' restroom, waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
"Are you done yet, Dr. Ross?" one of them shouted.
"Just five more minutes!" Lydia called back, fumbling with the cellphone. Now if I could just remember that number...
* * * * *
Outside Grand Central Station
If there was one thing Dr. Theodore Morris hated, it was waiting. He paced back and forth in the small space behind the van in frustration.
"He's not coming," the bald agent said.
Waiting was bad enough, but waiting with a complete pessimist was worse. "How do you figure that?" Morris growled.
His second-in-command was unfazed by Morris' foul mood. "It's ten of six. If he was coming, he'd be here by now."
"Thank you for the vote of confidence." Morris turned his attention to the traffic, watching car after car slowly pass by. There was the occasional speed demon, but traffic was typical for rush hour. A large green van passed in front of the station, taking its time and blocking Morris' view of the entrance.
The entrance to the station was clear of people. In the next second, as the van passed by, someone appeared in front of the entrance. Michael Wiseman stood there, looking right at him and waiting. Morris started slightly, impressed. He hadn't even seen the man approach. Well, at least that showed that he had indeed paid attention to his training.
"Sir!" a voice barked through Morris' headset, startling him. "Wiseman was just seen--"
"I know," Morris snapped. "Hold your positions. I'm going out to meet him." He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out his cellphone and a small black box. "Not coming?"
Special Agent #1 shrugged. "So I was wrong."
Morris took the suitcase of money from a nearby FBI agent, tossing the cellphone to Special Agent #1. "Make yourself useful. Take my calls."
With that, he turned and started for the crosswalk, heading across the street. For once, things were going according to plan.
* * * * *
As soon as Dr. Morris spotted him, Michael knew there was no turning back. The tall scientist ducked back behind the black van and appeared a few seconds later with a metal briefcase in one hand. He chucked a small black object at Special Agent #1, who looked utterly nonplussed as he caught it. Michael forced himself not to smile, almost wishing he could hear what the Doc had said. Then again, it felt better to have some distance between himself and the Doc for the time being.
Michael shifted his weight, unable and unwilling to relax. The Doc seemed to be taking forever. He glanced down the street, gauging the distance between himself and the unmarked van he'd literally vaulted over a few minutes ago. If he made a break for it now, he might just make it.
But, he knew, it was too late for that. He took a deep breath and steeled himself as Dr. Morris came up to him. The Doc was keeping a little more distance than usual between them. Seeing the cut on Morris' lip, Michael realized why.
The two men stared at each other for a few seconds. "It's about time," Morris said flatly. "Didn't think you'd come."
"Yeah, well, you know me," Michael sighed. "I'm a sucker for punishment." Morris looked at him oddly, but did not reply. "How's the lip?"
"Healing," Morris answered. "How's the wife?"
Michael set his jaw. "She doesn't know anything, Doc. You've got to believe me."
"Give me one good reason to trust you now."
"I came back, didn't I?"
The tall scientist said nothing for several seconds, but the barely perceptible nod and the slight softening in his eyes was all the response that was needed.
* * * * *
Dr. Morris had only made it halfway across the street when his cellphone rang. It took Special Agent #1 a moment or two to realize that the ringing was coming from his suit pocket. He retrieved the phone and turned it on. "Hello?"
There was a pause on the other end before a familiar voice spoke. "Who is this?"
Special Agent #1 sighed. Talk about lousy timing. "I'd tell you my name, but you don't like referring to people by numbers."
"Very funny. Where's Dr. Morris?"
"He's otherwise occupied. Told me to hold the phone," Special Agent #1 replied curtly. "Where the hell have you been?"
* * * * *
"Fifteen million dollars in bearer bonds," Morris said, handing the suitcase to Michael. "Don't lose it."
He opened the small black box in his free hand. Michael took the transmitter and receiver without a word, putting them respectively under his shirt and in his ear.
Morris reached into his pocket and retrieved a small plastic bag. Inside was a key. "The locker number is 1469," he informed Michael. "You go in, head straight for the locker, and open it up. There are several plainclothes agents watching the lockers in case anything happens."
"Yeah, like a bomb blowing up in my face," Michael muttered.
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that."
* * * * *
"I don't have time to explain, but I think I found your mole," Lydia said. "I saw a couple of Leflin's people paying off your number-two man. Slicked-back black hair, six foot one - ring any bells?"
The bald agent blinked. "Special Agent #2?" he asked, incredulous.
"Talk about your uncreative codenames. But if that's the man I just described, yes."
"Impossible," the agent said scornfully.
Lydia forced herself to keep her voice down despite her irritation. "How else would Leflin have been able to keep your team off of the Wisemans' scent so easily? Pay a man on the inside to take charge of the search, spread false reports, ignore a few details. It happens."
Special Agent #1 inhaled deeply, trying to get his thoughts in order. "You're positive about this."
"I'd stake my career on it."
Nodding, Dr. Morris' right-hand man lowered the phone and glanced over to where another group of suits were positioned behind a police car. The man in question was not among them. His gaze traveled over to the fringe of the crowd before he spotted a familiar figure talking quietly into a cellphone. Special Agent #1 narrowed his eyes. "All right. Call back in ten minutes."
"I'll try, but - oh, hell. Got to go!" With that, she hung up abruptly.
* * * * *
Michael didn't smile, pocketing the key and looking up again. "Were you really going to put it back in? That's all?"
"You should know the answer to that by now."
"You sound like my sixth-grade math teacher, Doc."
Morris checked his watch. "5:52 p.m. If I were you, I'd be heading into the station right now."
Michael glanced over at the entrance apprehensively. "Guess I don't have a choice, do I?" He took a deep breath and turned away, pausing for a moment before he finally started down into the station.
The Doc watched him go. "Actually, Mr. Wiseman," he murmured, "you did."
* * * * *
Lydia managed to shove the cellphone back into the small makeup bag as the guards entered the bathroom. "Do you mind?" she snapped at them as they practically dragged her into the hallway. "Bernie, your father must have told you about respecting others' privacy."
"We don't have time for privacy, I'm afraid," Leflin replied. He had his cellphone pressed to his ear, listening to someone on the other end. For a moment, Lydia was afraid he might have tuned in to her recent conversation. "He did? Damn. We'll take care of it. See if you can't arrange a diversion after the fact. I'm implementing Plan C." With that, he hung up the phone.
Lydia sighed. "Do I even want to know what Plan C is?"
He folded his cellphone and put it in his breast pocket. "Trust has failed, so I'm going to have to do this the old-fashioned way."
* * * * *
Grand Central Station
At least they'd given him change for the turnstile this time. The note hadn't said anything about the subway, but it was always good to be prepared.
Michael stayed with the flow of traffic, looking around the station. Where were the lockers again?
"Mr. Wiseman." The Doc's voice in his ear nearly made him jump in surprise. "Have you found the locker yet?"
"I'm getting there, Doc," Michael muttered, shoving through the streams of people who all happened to be going in the opposite direction before he finally broke free and approached the lockers. "Okay. 1067... 1338... 1425... uh-oh."
"What do you mean, 'uh-oh?' Is there something wrong with the locker?"
To be honest, locker number 1469 was fine. It was the one above it that he was worried about. More specifically, Michael was worried about the man built like a tank trying to shove a huge bag into locker number 1468. He had to be seven feet tall at least, Michael realized, and he was pissed off. Not only that, he was blocking the locker Michael had to get to.
"Mr. Wiseman, answer me! Do we have a problem?"
"Oh, yeah," Michael replied. "About three hundred pounds' worth."
* * * * *
Special Agent #2 hit the "End" key on the cellphone, privately pleased with himself. Before he could put the phone away, however, a pair of strong hands grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him against the side of one of the vans. He blinked, dazed, staring into the face of his superior. "Sir, what--"
"Who were you talking to?" Special Agent #1 demanded. Two more members of Morris' team were also present and glaring at their traitorous comrade coldly.
"No one," Special Agent #2 protested.
The cellphone was snatched from his hand. "No one?" the bald agent echoed, punching up a series of keystrokes that brought up a calling history. "This doesn't look like 'no one.' It doesn't even look like an authorized call."
"I was calling for backup--"
"Backup? From Leflin Incorporated?"
When the color drained from the other agent's face, Special Agent #1's suspicions were confirmed. He grabbed the dark-haired agent by the collar, pinning him against the van. "All right. Where are they?"
* * * * *
Grand Central Station
"Excuse me," Michael said for the third time. "Could you move for a second?"
The giant blocking his way had ignored the first two attempts, but this time he glanced over at Michael. "Move me yourself."
Michael considered that, then shrugged and grabbed the other man's arm. The burly man turned, but before he could retaliate, Michael had already flipped him over his shoulder onto the concrete. He lay there, blinking up in confusion at Michael. "Sorry," Michael apologized, not entirely contrite.
The man said nothing, staring for a few seconds at the man who was half his size, then taking into account the distance he'd been thrown. He jumped to his feet, turned, and ran for it.
"Hey, you forgot your bag!" Michael called after him, but the man was still running. He shrugged and turned back to locker number 1469. Not surprisingly, the key fit in the lock. "All right, Doc, the key fits."
"It's one minute til six, Mr. Wiseman. Go ahead."
"I was afraid you were gonna say that."
Michael stared at the locker for a second before turning the key in the lock. He took a deep breath and held it, squeezing his eyes shut and steeling himself for the worst as he opened the door.
Nothing happened. Michael opened his eyes. The locker was empty - except for a folded piece of paper. Exhaling in relief, Michael took the paper and unfolded it. "There's a note, Doc."
"That's all? Read it."
He scanned the contents. "Says to take the 6:05 up to 145th and look for a purple tie-dyed shirt."
"145th Street," Morris repeated. "We'll see if we can't get a couple of teams up to Lenox. I'll stay in contact with you til then."
"What? That's it? Can't you get some plainclothes agents on the car with me?"
"We'll try, but I doubt it," Morris said. "It's almost six o'clock. You had better get moving, Mr. Wiseman."
* * * * *
Outside Grand Central Station
"The route goes up through Hartford," Special Agent #1 told the five remaining members of his team. The sixth was currently in custody. "He'll be most likely to try to board about thirty miles south of there, because there's a fairly well-traveled intersection. If the train's going to stop prematurely, it'll be there. Leflin will have time to engineer some sort of accident to guarantee that."
"Would he go to those lengths?" an agent asked.
"He's already pulled some ridiculous stunts already, and he's one of the richest men in the world. Yes." Special Agent #1 turned back to the map. "But we can cut them off ten miles later. There's a road that runs parallel to the tracks for a good six or seven miles, and we might not have to stop the train to board - which would tip Leflin off anyway. It'll take us approximately forty-five minutes to get there. Any more questions?"
Another agent cleared his throat. "Have you informed Dr. Morris?"
"Only that there was a security leak we had to take care of. He won't stop long enough to listen anyway, he's too busy trying to get the HAZMAT teams on the move. Besides, do you want to tell him we pulled agents away at a time like this and then come up empty-handed?"
There were no more questions.
* * * * *
Somewhere outside Hartford
"There it is," Leflin said, pointing down at the dimly-lit gray ribbons that traced through the blackness below that was supposed to be Connecticut. "Amtrak number 563. Right on schedule."
Lydia glanced dispassionately out of the helicopter window, more interested in their mode of transportation than anything else. "Mmm-hmm. Mind if I ask where you got the stealth helicopter?"
"We've taken on some government contracts. This one isn't due for a week. They won't miss it."
She turned and stared at him. "We're taking a stealth helicopter to stop a train and pick up a pair of civilians who have no clue what's going on." He nodded. "Am I the only one here who sees just how ridiculous this is? What, exactly, do you intend to accomplish here?"
He did not look at her, keeping his gaze fixed straight ahead. "I already told you that."
"Bullshit. You're bordering on fanatical, Bernie. This isn't about business anymore."
Leflin tensed at that, and she could see the muscles working in his jaw as he tried to formulate a calm answer. "My father devoted his last remaining years to the pursuit of life," he said after a moment. "His own life, and perhaps eventually the ability to prolong others' lives as well."
She hesitated before replying, slipping into psychiatrist mode. Now was not the time to be blunt. "What happened to him, Bernie - he made his own decision. I don't agree with it, but do you really want events to repeat themselves?"
He shrugged. "I'm just trying to finish what he started."
Sighing, Lydia sat back in her chair. Neither one spoke for several seconds. "It wasn't your fault," Lydia finally said.
At that, Leflin did turn and look at her, but Lydia had already turned back to the window.
* * * * *
Reluctantly, Lisa stirred from her sleep, blinking tiredly at her daughter. "It's a four-hour ride, Heather. Nothing you say or do will change that."
"I know, Mom, that's not what I meant. Is there a stop in the middle of nowhere?"
Lisa sat up, shaking her head briefly to clear out the last dregs of sleep. "Of course not. Why do you ask?"
Heather was staring out the window, trying to get a glimpse of something up ahead. "Because we're stopping."
* * * * *
New York City
The subway ride seemed to be taking forever. True, it wasn't a short jaunt - he was going halfway across Manhattan - but to Michael it seemed like eternity. He checked the watch that the Doc had given him and winced; he only had an hour til the deadline. Not that it meant anything. He still hadn't seen a purple tie-dyed shirt.
He forced himself to stay alert, shifting the briefcase to his left hand, glancing around the subway car apprehensively. "Mr. Wiseman," Morris barked through the earpiece, jolting him into full alertness. "Any changes?"
"Hmm? No, nothing yet," Michael murmured, trying to keep his voice low. Even in New York, talking to oneself in a crowded space wasn't the best way to stay inconspicuous. "My stop's coming up, though."
"All right. Whoever the messenger is, stall him. We're trying to move a HAZMAT team and some units up there without drawing too much attention."
Michael nodded as the train began to slow. "You got it."
He was relieved to be able to exit with the flow of traffic as the train stopped and the doors slid open. Clutching the briefcase tightly, Michael elbowed his way onto the platform with the rest of the departing horde. Rush hour was dying down, and the majority of the traffic was getting off.
Stepping out of the flow of traffic, Michael scanned the area, seeing nothing but dull and muted colors, and not a hint of purple. "Anything?" the Doc asked.
"Don't see it yet," Michael muttered, moving to the other side of the support beam to get a better look. As the crowds began to thin out, he suddenly caught a flash of bright purple near the street entrance. Michael started moving towards it, hoping to get a better look. As he crossed the platform, he got a look at the owner of the shirt and stopped, surprised.
"Do you see him?" Morris demanded.
"Well," Michael replied, "I see her."
The girl was probably in her late teens or early twenties, a few years older than his daughter. She was Asian, her black hair cut short and intentionally uneven, with a purple streak in it that matched the neon purple tie-dyed tank top that she was wearing along with ratty jeans and black boots. She paid no attention to Michael, bobbing her head and chewing her gum in time with the music coming through the headphones she was wearing. "Her?" Morris echoed. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, that shirt could be seen a mile away," Michael replied, resuming his course towards the girl.
She remained oblivious as he approached, but suddenly caught sight of him mid-bob and stopped, pulling her headphones down to hang around her neck. The head-bobbing ceased, but the gum-chewing did not. "So you're the guy?" she asked, looking him up and down appraisingly. "He didn't say you were cute."
Michael rolled his eyes. The past twenty-four hours were bad enough without being hit on by someone not much older than his daughter. Then something else dawned on him. "Who didn't say that?"
The girl looked at him, then at the briefcase, as it dawned on her that something serious was going on. "Nobody," she replied, backing away. "Listen, I got to go--"
Before she could take another step, Michael grabbed her by the arm, making sure his grip was gentle. She opened her mouth to scream, but then stopped, looking at him. There was no anger or malice in his eyes, just frustration and concern. "Just tell me," Michael said quietly.
She nodded, and he released her. "Look, I don't know who," she said, reaching into her back pocket and pulling out a folded slip of paper. "This big guy just gave me fifty bucks to give you this. That's it. I swear."
Michael took the slip from her, unfolded it, and sighed. There was an address written on the paper. "Let her go, Mr. Wiseman," Morris told him, much to Michael's relief. "We don't have time for this."
"Thanks," Michael told the girl. She didn't move, and he gestured with his head. "Get out of here. Go."
She looked at him oddly before turning and scurrying up the stairs to the street level. "Got an address, Doc," Michael said. "Some office building a few blocks from here."
"Give me the address," Morris replied. "And get moving."
"You're starting to sound like a broken record, Doc."
* * * * *
Somewhere outside Hartford
The caravan of freight trucks finished passing through the intersection, despite the fact that four of them should have stopped for the train that was sitting and waiting for them to pass. The driver was so infuriated at the traffic slowing him up that he didn't notice the vehicle pulling alongside the train.
"Huh," Heather said as the train began to move again. "Thought we were going to make a real stop. Not like there's anyplace to stop around here, but still."
"Sorry to disappoint you," Lisa said tiredly. "Maybe you might want to try to get some sleep."
Heather shook her head. "I tried. I don't know, Mom - I've just got this feeling. Like we're not out of the woods yet. Something's gonna happen, I know it."
Lisa looked at her sympathetically before sitting up and scooting over. "Come here, you." As Heather scooted into the seat beside her, Lisa put an arm around her daughter. "Heather, we're going to be fine. I can work things out when we get to Boston. Besides, I really don't think Claire will turn down the opportunity for company."
Heather smiled at that, leaning against Lisa with a sigh. "Does she really have fourteen cats?"
Lisa smiled. "Maybe they'll make good pillows."
As Heather laughed, the door slid open. "I'm afraid," Leflin said, "that you won't be needing to worry about cats where we're going." He stepped into the car, dragging a very pissed-off looking and familiar woman behind him. "Mind if we sit down?"
"Yes," the woman said acidly, glaring at Leflin.
He smirked as two dark-suited men stepped up to guard the door. "I wasn't talking to you, my dear."
* * * * *
"This is the place," Michael told the Doc quietly as he stood in front of the building. It was about six stories, nondescript, gray, with the interior lights dimmed. It didn't look like anyone was there.
"Well, stop standing there and go on in."
"Are you sure? Maybe I could just ring the doorbell and wait outside."
"Mr. Wiseman." There was no mistaking that tone. Michael sighed and grabbed the door handle, silently hoping that it was locked.
To his disappointment, the door slid open at his touch. Michael swallowed before stepping into the clean, dim, and silent lobby. "Hello?" he called. No one answered. "Honey, I'm home!" Still no reply. Michael stood in the center of the lobby for a few moments, considering his options and waiting for something to happen. Nothing did.
"Guess no one's here," Michael said, more to the Doc than himself. "Oh, well."
He started to turn away, but a familiar ding broke through the silence. Michael turned back towards the elevators at the far end of the lobby. The floor numbers were lighting up, marking the progress of the elevator coming closer and closer to the bottom floor. It finally reached the lobby, and the doors slid open to reveal... an empty elevator. Cautiously, Michael approached the elevator, peering in.
The only thing inside was a yellow Post-It with two words in block letters: GET IN.
"No, this isn't a trap," Michael muttered, looking apprehensively at the elevator. But it seemed that he didn't have a choice in the matter. Taking a deep breath, he stepped inside, and the doors slid shut behind him.
* * * * *
Somewhere outside Hartford
"Just who do you think you are?" Lisa exploded as Leflin sat down across from her and Heather, shoving Lydia into the seat beside him. One hand pinned her arm down, and the other was pressing something cold, hard, and small against her back. It probably wasn't a gun - he personally hated them - but Lydia decided she wasn't going to take that chance.
Not yet, anyway.
Leflin smiled tightly. "I'm a man of many means. That's all you need to know."
"Thank you, Mr. Cryptic," Lydia murmured. Leflin tightened his grip on her arm so much it was painful.
"It most certainly is not!" Lisa snapped.
"Mrs. Wiseman," Leflin said, "please keep your voice down."
There was a slight edge to his voice that hadn't been there before. Lovely, Lydia thought. Now he decides to unravel.
"Why? So maybe someone will notice we're being held hostage?"
"Keep it down, Mom," Heather muttered through clenched teeth. Her eyes were fixed on the armed goons in the doorway. Lisa was glaring at Leflin, who seemed visibly uncomfortable. Lydia, for once, did not notice; her attention was drawn to the darkness outside. Was it her imagination, or were those sets of headlights moving down the nearby highway getting closer? As if they were keeping pace with the train?
Leflin cleared his throat. "Mrs. Wiseman--"
Lisa barreled on, heedless of Heather's nails digging into her arm. "I am sick and tired of this cloak-and-dagger shit! I want answers!"
"Mom!" Heather exclaimed, shocked. Lydia reluctantly turned away from the window, visibly impressed.
Oddly enough, this burst of fury did not eliminate Leflin's calm. He seemed to relax at that final outburst, his discomfort fading. "You want answers? Very well." He leaned forward, still pressing the cold, hard object against Lydia's back. "There's a very good reason for all the inconsistent reports. No, your husband did not die the moment the train hit him. And no, he did not die when he reached the hospital. The doctors, nurses, scientists and bureaucrats have been withholding the truth from you, with good reason."
He paused for several seconds, just for dramatic effect. "You see, Mrs. Wiseman, your husband is alive."
* * * * *
New York City
It seemed like the elevator was taking forever. Michael stood there, nervously scanning the floor, walls and ceiling for the entrance of a toxic egg. He'd seen plenty of movies where the good guys were knocked out or killed by gas in an elevator. And why else would the Eggman pick such an empty, out-of-the-way spot for the drop? He could just kill me and take the money...
No. Michael forced back the wave of panic, trying to think. If the Eggman wanted the cash that badly, he would have to be sure that Michael was actually carrying it. He was all right for now.
The elevator finally stopped at the fifth floor, and the doors slid open. Cautiously, Michael stepped into the empty, dimly-lit hallway. Not a soul was in sight. The elevator doors slid shut behind him with a whisper. Michael stood there for a moment, waiting. "Hello?"
A dry cough pierced the silence, and Michael turned to see an eerily familiar figure standing at the end of the hallway. The little man had made almost no sound; Michael hadn't heard him approach. Holding up the egg so that Michael could see it, the Eggman beckoned.
* * * * *
Somewhere outside Hartford
"You see, Mrs. Wiseman, your husband is alive."
There was a long pause. A very long pause. "What?" Lisa whispered almost inaudibly, shocked. Heather was staring at Leflin as though the man had grown a second head.
Lydia froze for a second, her mind racing. Then the panic faded away to be replaced by an expression of total scorn. "Oh, for the love of - Bernie, of all the stupid, half-assed ideas you could have gotten into your head!"
"I don't appreciate your tone," Leflin informed her coldly.
"Tough," Lydia snapped. "You know, I figured you'd fallen for some kind of cockamamie story, but this just takes the cake! What, was your 'source' completely drunk out of his mind?"
The shock on the Wisemans' faces was turning quickly into doubt. "Are you calling me a liar?" Leflin demanded.
"No, but you're misinformed as hell." Lydia shook her head, sighing with frustration. "I don't believe this. I really don't believe this. I haul my sorry ass all the way out here from Denver to check out a security leak, get one hour of sleep, try to deal with the most stubborn SOB the Pentagon has ever hired, nearly get killed - and because someone's been telling you fairy tales!"
* * * * *
"Coming up to the drop-off point!" the driver announced as the black SUVs sped down the highway, trying to keep pace with the train. "We'll hit the patch in about a minute!"
Special Agent #1 checked his gear. "All right. Try to get us in line with the entrance to the third car from the front." He turned back to the other three agents who had volunteered to board the train. "They're in compartment C15. Probably under guard. I want this done quickly and quietly. Ross may or may not be with them. The Wisemans are NOT to be harmed." He paused. "Any questions?"
There were none. "Anyone feel like talking me out of this?"
The others exchanged glances. "No," Special Agent #3 said with a grin.
* * * * *
Grand Empire Insurance
New York City
The office secretary was packing up to leave. Roger Bender could hear her shuffling papers and reports, putting things in order before escaping their mutual prison. He glared at the report in front of him, then looked out at the quiet hallway. Most of the lights had been shut off. He heard a sigh, the sound of a briefcase zipping up, and finally the click of heels getting fainter and fainter as she headed for the elevators. Well, now it was official; he was the only one there. No one was around to see him working diligently at a report that wasn't even his responsibility. No one was around to point fingers if he left before they did.
If he left now, he could get to the police station before eight. Then he could get Ruth home in time for "Everybody Loves Raymond." Then she just might let him live.
Roger stuffed the report in a folder with disgust and grabbed his coat. There were far more terrifying things in his life than Craig Spence.
* * * * *
"Where's the bomb?" Michael asked.
The Eggman shook his head, pointing at the satchel in Michael's hand. "It's all here. Fifteen million." Michael patted the satchel, keeping his eyes fixed on the egg. "The bomb. Where is it, and how do I stop it?"
Shrugging, the Asian man reached into his pocket with his free hand. He never lowered the egg, nor did he take his eyes off Michael as he retrieved a folded piece of paper. "Here. Access code."
"Toss it over here."
"Uh-uh, there's no way," Michael protested. "Not while you've got the Chicken Embryo of Death right there. You give me the paper, then I slide you the money."
After a moment's hesitation, the Eggman slowly nodded. He dropped the paper to the floor and kicked it over to Michael. His aim was good, for the paper bounced against Michael's shoes. Slowly, Michael knelt down to pick up the paper, never letting his gaze stray from the little man. He straightened again just as slowly, unable to get rid of the sense of dread that was building and building. Somehow, he was forgetting something.
Just as Michael realized what he'd overlooked, the Eggman dropped the egg.
"Doc, he's dropping it!" Michael yelled, gulping in clean air and holding it just before the egg hit the ground. He dived to catch it, but he was too late.
* * * * *
"Mr. Wiseman!" Morris shouted into the headset. "Mr. Wiseman!" No answer. "Damn it."
He immediately checked his watch, noting the exact second and minute before turning and yelling at the head of the HAZMAT team. "The agent's been released!"
"We've got the building sealed, sir," the technician assured him. "Did Mr. Wiseman--"
Morris looked past the sea of police and emergency vehicles at the office building. "Have a team ready. We'll know in six minutes."
* * * * *
The two guards posted outside the compartment door were alert and ready for whatever trouble they might expect on a train such as curious passengers or suspicious conductors. But they weren't exactly prepared for the armed team of agents that appeared out of nowhere.
They were smart enough to know when to cooperate.
* * * * *
As Lydia paused in her ranting, Leflin relaxed the pressure on her back, and she shifted ever so slightly. Not enough to get his attention, but enough to realize that there was no way that Leflin had a firearm back there. The other two men were another matter, but it still freed up her options.
She paused only to take a breath before launching back into her tirade. "Do you have any idea how much trouble you've caused for everyone? How much money and time this has wasted? Your father at least had the sense to know when he was going too far!"
"And then he killed himself, in case you've forgotten," Leflin snapped, his cool demeanor finally fading. "I know exactly what I'm doing."
"Yeah, kidnapping," Heather interrupted. "That's got to look great on your resume." Lisa elbowed her sharply.
Leflin glared at her for a moment before slipping back into an unsettling calm, leaning back unconsciously. "What do you propose to do about it?"
For answer, she suddenly leaned forward and slammed her elbow back into his face.
About a second later, chaos officially erupted.
* * * * *
Still holding his breath, Michael jumped to his feet, the satchel momentarily forgotten. The Eggman was hastily backing away, out of his reach. Before Michael could make a move to capture him, thick arms wrapped around his neck, squeezing his larynx like a vise. He was literally lifted off his feet. Fighting against the instinct to gasp for air, Michael kicked futilely and grabbed the arms holding him, trying to pull them apart.
But for all his strength, he couldn't get them to budge. Holding his breath at the same time made it even more difficult, and he couldn't get any traction on the floor. As he struggled furiously, he could hear a deep chuckle in his ear.
"Surprise," Charlie Smalls grunted through the gas mask he was wearing. "Superman, my ass."
* * * * *
Leflin's howl of pain told Lydia that she had hit home as she pulled herself free from his grip without any trouble, scrambling to her feet and moving out of his reach. The billionaire didn't notice. He was too preoccupied with his discomfort, doubled over with both hands covering his bloody nose. The two guards started in surprise, looking from their boss to Lydia with confusion. They weren't exactly prepared for this contingency.
Still covering his face, Leflin glared at them. "Stop staring at me and get some ice!"
The guard nearest the door nodded, stood, and left the compartment. As he closed the door behind him, he heard the unmistakable click of a safety being turned off. He turned around slowly to see several guns pointed at him.
Special Agent #1 regarded him coldly. "Two down. How many more to go?"
* * * * *
After over a year of tedious and constant training - even though he hadn't been all that attentive - Michael knew exactly what to do if someone grabbed him from behind and tried to cut off his air supply. He even knew what to do if his feet were lifted off the floor.
But none of his training had taught him what to do if he had to hold his breath at the same time.
Smalls didn't have that problem. Without loosening his choke hold, the huge man slammed Michael into the wall, putting all of his weight into it. It was all Michael could do to keep from gasping in pain as the plaster cracked from the impact. He bit his lip to keep from crying out - too hard. Immediately, Michael tasted blood. He'd forgotten that his enhanced strength extended to every muscle - even his jaw.
As Smalls pulled back, Michael jabbed his elbow back blindly, hoping to connect. His aim was wide, and he connected with the big man's side. Smalls grunted. "You want more? Fine by me."
Finding a fresh section of wall, he repeated the procedure, leaving another Michael-shaped dent in the plaster where the first one had been. The angle was different, and his head took more of the impact this time. Michael was vaguely aware of the Eggman shuffling past them to pick up the satchel as Smalls went back to crushing his windpipe.
No! Michael couldn't believe this. After everything he'd been through, this psychopath couldn't just walk away. Then again, he wasn't having much luck with the giant who was attacking him. The metallic taste of blood in his mouth gave him an idea. Maybe fighting back wasn't the way to deal with this guy.
His struggles grew weaker, and after a second or two he went limp in Charlie's arms.
* * * * *
Lydia bent down to pick up the small metal object that Leflin had dropped. Lisa and Heather stared at it. "A cigarette lighter?" Lisa asked in disbelief.
Leflin shrugged as best he could. "I had to improvise."
"Wow," Heather said. "You really are a loser."
Anything Leflin could have said in response was cut off by a polite knock on the door. "Get that," he said to the last remaining guard.
The man obeyed. As soon as he saw who was standing out there, he reached for his gun. He wasn't quick enough, and the next thing anyone in the compartment knew, the door was kicked open and several men with guns blocked the threshold. "Freeze! Federal agents!"
Lisa yelped in surprise, and the remaining guard took one look at what he was facing and dropped his gun. "Hands on your head," Special Agent #1 ordered.
"My hero," Lydia said wryly.
"Don't even go there, Dr. Ross."
As the last of Leflin's guards was hustled out of the compartment and handcuffed, Lydia remained in the corner with Lisa and Heather, surreptitiously placing herself between them and the agents.
The bald agent stared at Leflin, who was still hunched over in pain, then looked back at Lydia again.
Lydia shrugged. "He pissed me off."
Heather grinned wickedly, and Lisa tried not to laugh.
* * * * *
"Just where do you think you're going?" Charlie demanded as he let the limp body fall to the floor.
The Eggman looked up from his inspection of the satchel as he stood in front of the elevator, waiting for it to open. Charlie stepped over Michael's body to confront the little man. "You're not leaving without me, are you? I did my part."
For answer, Charlie turned the body over for the Eggman to see. Michael's eyes were closed, but there was blood trickling from the corners of his mouth. "Looks like it." The Eggman said nothing. "I thought we were partners, old man. Did you get the money?" The old man nodded. "Well, show me."
Hesitating for a moment, the Eggman passed the satchel to Charlie. The burly man crouched down beside Michael and unlatched the case, letting out a low whistle as he flipped through the contents. "I've got to hand it to you," he said. "This was worth all the hassle--"
Suddenly, Michael's arm shot out and knocked the satchel out of Charlie's hands. It flew into the far wall, and the contents spilled in every direction. Charlie cried out with shock as Michael jumped to his feet, shoving the big man to the floor. He took a step towards the Eggman, but Charlie recovered enough to grab his opponent's leg and yank Michael down to the floor. Again the big man wrapped his hands around Michael's neck, but Michael shoved his fists up between Charlie's arms, pushing outwards with all his strength. They were fairly evenly matched; Michael was stronger than Charlie, but the convict had the extra advantage of being able to breathe. As the two men struggled, the Eggman glanced at the spilt money and sighed as the elevator doors opened.
Michael finally pried Charlie's hands off his neck and punched the big man in the face. It was an ill-aimed punch; the gas mask made it difficult, and his attention was suddenly directed elsewhere. He glanced up to see the Eggman getting into the elevator only a few feet away.
"Bye-bye," the Eggman said as the doors slid shut.
Desperately, Michael lunged for the elevator, but Charlie took advantage of the distraction and grabbed his opponent by his collar, scrambling to his feet as he threw Michael into the wall. To Charlie's surprise, the smaller man was on his feet in a second and charging. Catching the convict off guard, Michael plowed headlong into him, slamming Charlie into the wall. But Charlie was ready for something like that, and before Michael could pull back, grabbed him in a headlock.
Gritting his teeth, Michael planted his feet, trying to flip Charlie over his shoulder. Instead, he managed to send both of them crashing to the floor.
Dazed, Michael barely managed to catch the punches Charlie threw at him in midair, desperately grappling with the convict. His lungs were starting to burn, and Michael realized that he wasn't going to be able to duke it out with Charlie indefinitely. As the big man pinned him down, Michael grabbed wildly at his head. Charlie howled as Michael's fingers pulled his hair. Again Michael grabbed, and was gratified to find the edge of the gas mask.
Sorry, Michael thought as he grasped the rubber strap and yanked with all his might. At the same time, he kneed his opponent in the groin. Charlie cried out in pain, rolling off of Michael.
The gas mask remained in Michael's hand. As Charlie sat up, he suddenly realized what had happened, but it was too late. The big man opened his mouth in terror, convulsing as the toxin bombarded his system. Scrambling to his feet, Michael backed away in horror, letting the gas mask slip from nerveless fingers.
"Mr. Wiseman!" Michael almost jumped a foot as Dr. Morris shouted into his ear; he'd forgotten about the earpiece. "I know you can't respond, but if you can hear me, head for the front entrance! We have a HAZMAT team in place!"
A familiar scrap of white paper was lying a few feet away. Michael snatched the paper up, unfolding it to see an address and a series of numbers. The second he read the address, he bolted for the stairwell.
There was still time to win this one.
* * * * *
"I'm telling you, I was set up!" Leflin was yelling. "I was told that I was exposing a conspiracy!"
"I'm sure you were," Special Agent #1 said mildly as the millionaire was hustled into a black van along with his men. "You should have checked your sources."
Leflin managed to push partially free of his captors. Despite the bandage that was covering his nose, the controlled fury in his eyes was patently dangerous. "What are you going to tell the courts? You can't prove anything without exposing yourselves."
"Let me see," Lydia said, coming up to stand beside the bald agent. "We can prove kidnapping, misappropriation of government property - that's the helicopter, of course - and the fact that you deliberately attempted to sabotage a legitimate government project is certainly going to thrill a judge."
He glared at her. "I trusted you, Lydia. I thought you were a friend."
"I could say the same for you, Bernie," she said sadly. Turning away, she ignored his angry shouts as he was shoved into the van.
As she walked back towards the string of police cars, Special Agent #1 came up beside her. "What next?" she asked.
"We'll have to question him," he informed her. "See what he knows."
"Mmm-hmm. And the charges?"
"Going to be hard to bring up given the circumstances. If he's cooperative, he'll just disappear from the public eye and split up his fortune to his investors."
Lydia chuckled in spite of herself. "He's just going to hate that." She frowned. "But that's not what I asked."
He blinked in confusion as they approached the nearest open van. Lisa and Heather were sitting in the back of the van, being checked out by one of the agents who knew first aid. They were more or less unharmed, albeit fairly shaken up. Lisa was squeezing her daughter's hand so tightly that her knuckles were white, but Heather wasn't complaining. "So what happens now?" Lisa asked as they approached.
Lydia folded her arms and gave the bald agent a meaningful look. "You know, Q-ball, that's a very good question."
Special Agent #1 closed his eyes. "Don't call me that."
* * * * *
The building was completely sealed off as Dr. Morris approached the front entrance. Extending from the front doors was a heavy plastic chamber, which had air filtering equipment on the right and left to clear the toxins from the chamber. The back was opened up to allow access from the building.
"How much more time?" one of the technicians asked.
Morris checked his watch. "One minute."
* * * * *
Michael grasped the handle of the stairwell door and was less than pleased to discover that it was locked. He backed up a few steps and threw all of his weight into the door. The hinges snapped and the door practically buckled as Michael tumbled through the threshold, door and all. He stumbled to his feet and bolted down a flight of steps - then got a better idea. Vaulting neatly over the railing, he dropped three floors and landed rather painfully on his feet. He winced at the landing, stumbled, and charged for the lobby.
* * * * *
Seven minutes had passed. And Michael Wiseman had yet to emerge. Dr. Morris stared sadly at the front doors of the building, then sighed and started to turn away.
A sudden whump caused him to whirl around. Michael had come charging out of the front doors and slammed headlong into the plastic. Realizing just what was going on, he'd managed to brake just in time to keep from tearing right through the protective sheet.
"Get him out of there!" Morris shouted, moving to stand beside the technician working on the air filtering system. "Are you sure this will work?"
The tech handling the controls sighed, his voice distorted by the bio-suit filter. "Our instrumentation should be able to pick up most known toxins, and this time we know what we're looking for."
Morris spoke into the earpiece again. "Mr. Wiseman, you'll have to hold on for a second or two. We have to make sure the toxin is filtered out."
Michael nodded, closing his eyes and desperately trying to hold his breath a few more seconds. It felt like his lungs would explode at any moment. He was feeling light-headed, and crumpled to his knees, barely noticing as the two men in biohazard suits caught him before he could crash to the ground. But he did hear a hissing sound and felt the rush of circulating air as the toxic air was sucked out of the chamber.
A green light on a nearby panel switched on, accompanied by a shrill beep. "We're clear!" the tech shouted.
Unable to take it any more, Michael exhaled with a gasp. To his surprise, something plastic was shoved against his nose and mouth. Opening his eyes, Michael put a hand over the oxygen mask, holding onto it as he sucked in a deep breath of air. He was relieved to discover that it was indeed an oxygen tank that the mask was connected to.
At a signal from Dr. Morris, a flap in the chamber was opened, and the two men in yellow suits helped Michael stagger to his feet. Too tired to argue, he allowed them to support him on both sides, hauling him through the sea of flickering red-and-blue lights. Michael kept his head down, watching the asphalt instead of the lights; he hadn't taken his medication, and was taking no chances.
Predictably enough, Morris was waiting for them at the ambulance as Michael was hauled into the back. "I hope you have good news."
Michael tried to speak, but his chest hurt too much. With shaking hands, he handed Morris the note. The Doc unfolded it, reading over the contents as Michael took another gulp of air from the oxygen tank. He glanced up. "A bomb?" Michael nodded. "This series of numbers?"
"Code," Michael gasped, finally finding his voice. "Eggman... said something... about an access code."
Morris nodded and opened his cellphone. "We've got a location. Madison Square Garden." A pause. "You heard me. The bomb's right across the goddamn street from you. I have an access code here. Take it down." He read from the note. "3-5-7-2-5-9-5-3-0-7-8-1-1-6-6-5-7-4-2. Tell the bomb squad they've got thirty minutes at the most."
He hung up the phone. "What about our friends in there?"
"Eggman went down the elevator. Didn't see him get off at the lobby, so he could still be in there." Michael paused for a moment, breathing heavily. His chest still hurt.
"We'll check that out," Morris said. "Smalls?"
Michael didn't reply immediately. He looked down at his hands. "He's - he's dead." He looked pained, the realization of what he'd just done sinking in. Absently, he added, "The money - uh, the money's actually spread out all over the fifth floor."
When the Doc did not reply, Michael looked up to see that Morris was standing there, fixing the Look on him. It wasn't just the Look that Michael had become used to. Dr. Morris seemed to be trying to bore a hole through Michael's skull with that glare. And it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what he really wanted to know.
"Doc," Michael said, "she doesn't know anything. Okay, maybe she doesn't buy the I.R.S. cover anymore, but she still thinks I'm just some crazy SOB who works for the government."
"Do you know how close we came to having the security of this project utterly blown?" Morris demanded.
Michael dismissed the impending string of questions with a wave. "We didn't. Besides, Doc, she doesn't want to know. Not if it's gonna endanger her - or Heather." He took another gulp of air from the tank. "You can do what you want to me, but leave them alone. They're not a security risk."
"I'm positive." Michael shielded his eyes with a hand. "You mind closing the door or getting me some shades?"
Dr. Morris glowered - for about five seconds. He turned to watch the flashing lights of the squad cars and emergency vehicles that were already pulling out into traffic, headed towards a bomb that they just might be able to stop, and hundreds of people that they just might be able to save. He turned to look at the man sitting on the gurney in the ambulance, a man who had risked his freedom, his life, and his family's lives to make it possible.
"Lie down, Mr. Wiseman." Groaning, Michael obeyed as Morris' cellphone rang. "Morris here." The tall scientist frowned. "Where are you?" He paused, listening. "Yes, that sounds exactly like something she'd do."
He stopped and looked at Michael thoughtfully for several moments. "I'm afraid that I'll have to agree with Dr. Ross for once." There was a rather long pause. "I don't have the time or the inclination to explain myself. Meet us at 34th and 4th after 7:30. Yes, bring all three of them."
Nodding, he shut off the phone. "Feel like taking a trip?"
"Depends where we're going."
"To see if this," Morris replied, shaking the scrap of paper, "is telling the truth."
* * * * *
Somewhere outside Hartford
"What do you mean, a change of plan?" Lydia demanded as Special Agent #1 finished instructing the helicopter pilot and sat back in his seat. Also piled into the helicopter were Lisa and Heather, since Lydia had refused to let either one of them out of her sight.
"We're going back into the city," the agent replied.
Lisa leaned forward. "WHERE in the city??"
He looked uncomfortable. "Couple blocks from Madison Square Garden."
"What?" Heather echoed. "Why?"
Special Agent #1 shook his head helplessly. "Beats me."
Both Lisa and Heather turned to stare at Lydia. The psychologist shrugged.
* * * * *
"Can't this thing go any faster?" Michael groused as the limo sped down the parkway, pressing an icepack to his head. He was breathing easier now, but he was still sore from being bashed into the walls repeatedly. There was a small cut on his forehead from where his head had hit the wall the second time, and it was covered with a gauze bandage. The bruising around it was still visible. Morris had been quite impressed, estimating that he'd been hit hard enough to cause a skull fracture in a normal human being. Michael had just been anxious to get bandaged up and get moving. He'd suffered a fair share of cuts and bruises from the altercation. Most were minor, but Morris had insisted on bandaging some of the larger ones so bystanders wouldn't be able to see them healing.
Dr. Morris didn't reply, listening intently to his cellphone. A good portion of the teams had been left in the vicinity of Grand Central Station - including the bomb squad. Which meant that calling them in was not as difficult as it would have been otherwise. The HAZMAT teams had remained to decontaminate the building and search for the Eggman. "Hm." He shut the cellphone off. "They've actually got most of the arena evacuated."
Michael nearly dropped the icepack into his lap. "You're kidding? Already? During a game?"
"It was an off-season charity game," Morris replied. "Turnout wasn't as high as it might have been for, say, the NBA All-Star Game."
"But still, the whole arena--"
Morris smirked. "Apparently, the Knicks were losing. Badly. People were already walking out."
Michael stared at him for a few more seconds in utter disbelief. "Uh-huh. What about the bomb?"
"There's a team searching the lower levels right now."
"So what are we supposed to do?"
Morris put the phone back into his coat pocket. "We wait and see."
* * * * *
Madison Square Garden
When the dead janitor was found stuffed inside a storage closet, the agents searching the halls knew they were on the right track. Consequently, it was not a great surprise when a bomb was discovered hooked to one of the generators not far away from the body.
The sheer amount of homemade explosive wired to its control box was.
The officer in charge switched on his radio. "Lieutenant, I think we've got something. How much left to evacuate?"
"We're herding out one of the concert stages now," crackled a response. "Other one's still left, the lowest level. Are you positive this is it?"
"Oh, yeah. Bastard's got it hooked up to a generator. Something tells me cutting the power is a bad idea."
"Is there an input screen?"
There was a computer keyboard hooked up to the thing, with a small monitor. The cursor blinked expectantly. "Yep, we got an interface. This guy's set up plenty of decoys, though. Cutting wires isn't going to help. Timer says we've got 10 minutes."
"Our orders are to disarm that damn thing and to use the access code first. Put it in and see what happens. We'll keep trying to get people out. If you can't shut it off in seven minutes, get the hell out of there."
"Yes, sir." Switching off his radio, the officer retrieved a printout from the pocket of his vest. "Clear this floor. Get the dogs out of here, get the staff out of here, no one but essential personnel. Be ready to seal off and contain the blast on my order." And pray while you're at it, he added silently.
Taking a deep breath, he turned to the keyboard and slowly began to type.
* * * * *
Like a large portion of New York City drivers, Roger subscribed to the school of thought that if you leaned on your horn long enough and cursed loudly enough, you would somehow move deadlocked downtown traffic. Sometimes, the theory actually worked.
This, however, was not one of those times.
Traffic had been relatively tolerable until he'd neared Madison Square Garden, and then everything had ground to a dead stop. No amount of cursing or honking or prayer would get it to move. Groaning, Roger rested his head against the steering wheel. "Should have taken the subway," he muttered to no one in particular.
The unmistakable sound of sirens made him lift his head and listen. It wasn't just one or two sirens, but several, coming from all directions. Curious, Roger shut off the ignition and got out of the Mercedes, taking his keys with him and turning on the automatic door lock and car alarm as he did so. He checked to make sure that he had the key chain with the pepper spray before shutting the car door and peering over the tops of cars. Other motorists were following suit.
He could see the Garden a block away, and he could also see that the entire intersection was blocked off. The caravan of emergency vehicles told Roger that something was going on. Something decidedly unpleasant.
Roger wondered just what he was going to tell Ruth.
* * * * *
Madison Square Garden
The officer tapped in the last two characters of the code. "Here goes nothing," he muttered as he pressed the ENTER key.
There was a high-pitched beep, and the screen went blank. The officer jumped to his feet, but stopped as a new message popped up on the screen.
CORRECT ACCESS CODE
To his immense relief, the timer stopped moving. The screen shut off, and the lights on the control box dimmed. He switched on his radio. "I think I've got some good news here."
* * * * *
34th and 7th St.
"It's after 7:30," Michael said. "I didn't hear anything explode."
Morris nodded, finishing up his cellphone conversation. "Seems the Eggman was good as his word. Then again, he probably didn't want to risk the manhunt that would ensue if he got the money, got away and let the Garden blow sky-high."
Michael snorted. "Forget the FBI. He'd have to deal with rabid Knicks fans." He paused. "The code worked?"
"The code worked. The bomb squad disarmed the bomb and they're running a sweep of the building to make sure they got everything. There's a very large crowd of disgruntled patrons outside, but at least they're not dead." He smiled - a tight, small smile, but a smile nonetheless. "Good work, Mr. Wiseman."
"Thanks," Michael said distantly. "What about them, Doc? What are you going to do about my family?"
"Actually--" Morris began, but he was interrupted by a tapping sound. Startled, he rolled down the window to see who it was.
Lydia brushed her hair out of her face. "Dr. Morris. Fancy meeting you here."
"Dr. Ross," Morris said calmly. "I trust everything is in hand?"
"More or less. Your lackey is keeping an eye on things." She gestured towards the black SUV that had pulled up at the curb behind them. "Let's save the introductions and excuses for later. I've got fifteen minutes to get our stories straight."
* * * * *
The power had been cut to the building, and it took a crowbar for the team investigating the aftermath of the standoff to pry open the elevator doors on the first floor. Half an hour had passed, and the Eggman had not emerged from the building. No one was sure if he was dead or alive.
Finally, the doors slid open.
The elevator was empty save for a cryptic note on a piece of yellow paper:
There was no sign of the Eggman.
* * * * *
34th and 7th
Michael hated waiting.
He was standing outside the limo with Special Agent #1. Inside the limo, Dr. Morris was talking on his cellphone, in the midst of a private conversation. And in the black SUV nearby, Dr. Ross was talking to Lisa and Heather, telling them a story that - he hoped - would straighten things out.
Leaning against the limo, Michael glanced at the bandage on the other man's cheek. "So what happened to you?"
Special Agent #1 turned and glared at him. His gaze flickered to Michael's elbow resting on the limo. Sighing, Michael straightened up again. Things were starting to get back to normal.
* * * * *
"So all this - was a hoax?" Lisa said in disbelief.
Lydia took a deep breath. She, Lisa, and Heather were sitting alone in the SUV, while Lydia nursed a fresh cup of coffee. "Yes and no. First off, the ambulance records you received must have been forgeries. There's no way that the hospital would have released actual records to anyone but your husband's immediate family. It's against policy, and they'd be looking at serious liability issues - especially the way the White House has been trying to push medical privacy legislation."
"Then why would a man pretending to be Dr. Morris show up at my door?"
"You weren't the only one getting fed false information." Lydia pursed her lips, thinking. "Much of the project in question is classified, so I can't give you hard details. What I can tell you is that your husband was listed as an organ donor, and as such he was a legitimate participant."
"I can't tell you that." Before Lisa could start ranting, Lydia added, "Because, in spite of all the frustration this must be causing, the Pentagon funded some of the research we were doing - some of it highly sensitive."
"Uh-huh," Heather said in disbelief. "What about Mr. Newman?"
Lydia was ready for this, having compared stories with Michael. "Mr. Newman actually did work for the I.R.S. a few years back before he came to work for us. Dr. Morris has continually found that amusing for some reason, so I'm not surprised he told you that just to annoy Newman."
Heather frowned, but Lisa's eyes lit up with understanding. "So then why all this cloak-and-dagger crap?" Heather asked.
"That's what we're trying to figure out," Lydia replied. "Sometime in December, Dr. Morris disappeared and Mr. Newman's apartment was broken into. Turns out that someone in the Pentagon had fed some misleading information to a Bernard Leflin Sr., telling him a ridiculous story that unfortunately caused Leflin to go after both Morris and Newman. When Leflin discovered he'd been lied to, he committed suicide."
She took a drink of coffee before continuing. "Leflin Incorporated has a number of government contracts, and a lot of connections. My father happened to be great friends with Leflin Sr., and I knew his son personally. Bernie Leflin could never just let something go."
"So he came after us," Lisa finished.
"Not quite. We think he had a source deliberately feeding him, and you, misleading information. Leflin Incorporated practically owns Edward Bernstadt's law firm. And while all you received was a bunch of ambulance records, Morris was tricked into believing that someone had leaked the exact details of the research to you. Possibly because it indirectly pertained to your husband's organ donation."
"What organs did he donate anyway?" Heather muttered. "Geez."
"Heather," Lisa said warningly.
Lydia looked pained. "I'm not sure of that; I'd have to check the actual records. What I can tell you is that most of this insanity is a result of several gross misunderstandings. Someone was trying to give the impression of a major security leak in order to halt the entire project without actually disclosing information - and framed Mr. Newman. He caught on to Dr. Morris' suspicions too late to persuade him otherwise."
"Well, if it wasn't disclosing information, then why did he panic when I mentioned my husband?"
"Probably thought you were referring to something more than forged ambulance records. From what I've heard, Morris was going nuts over the supposed leaks - and the real leak was planting evidence that pointed towards you."
"Why us?" Lisa exploded. "We haven't done anything! I knew Michael was listed as an organ donor, for crying out loud!"
"That's what we're trying to figure out." Lydia scowled. "We've caught the leak, and when I get my hands on him--" She paused, taking a second to compose herself. But the moment of anger had actually helped; Lisa and Heather seemed to soften, at least towards her. "I suppose the main reason you were wrapped up in this is because of Leflin Senior's mistaken crusade. That whole misunderstanding must have pointed him towards Leflin and the Espotek lawsuit."
Lisa was silent for several seconds, thinking. Lydia took another gulp of coffee, watching the other woman carefully. "Is there anything else you want to know?"
"What's going to happen to us?" Heather blurted out.
"You're going to get a ride home, and if my guess is right, Morris is on the horn trying to see about getting your front door and a couple windows replaced. That's all." Lydia sighed. "Believe me, we want to put this mess behind us as much as you do."
Lisa stared out the window, peering at the limo. "What about Mr. Newman?"
"Well, after Morris rants at him for a solid hour, I assume he'll be back to work." Lydia set the almost-empty coffee cup in a holder and folded her hands in her lap. "Mrs. Wiseman, let me assure you - this project is classified not because of some ominous threat or the machinations of a bunch of men in black. We're involved in highly sensitive research and investigation that could benefit a lot of people some day - and to keep our funding intact, the security of the project has to be also. We also have to be contracted out to handle some bizarre problems from time to time to keep our funding," she added off-handedly. "The minute a major security breach happens, the funding is gone. But here, that didn't occur. You haven't been told anything true that you weren't aware of already, and I'll make a point of that when I submit my report on the mass chaos of these past 36 hours. Right now, there's no point in holding you here or disrupting your lives any more than they have been already. I admit that there's nothing we can do about frayed nerves--" Lisa managed a small smile at that-- "but we can at least replace your windows and make a few calls to calm down some people. You're free to go... unless you actually want to hang around here."
Lisa didn't respond immediately. She continued staring out the window, thinking. Lydia bit her lip, praying that the woman would be satisfied, that Lisa Wiseman was as sick of the insanity as she was. "All right," Lisa finally sighed, throwing up her hands. "I just want to get out of here."
Lydia smiled. "I'll see if I can't get an agent to drive--"
"But," Lisa interrupted sharply, "I want to talk to Mr. Newman first."
* * * * *
Curiosity was a dangerous tendency, but Roger's day couldn't get any worse than it already was. So once he was sure that traffic wasn't going anywhere - and that the car alarm was indeed turned on - he wandered down the rows of cars, trying to get a glimpse of the action.
It was obviously centered around Madison Square Garden. There was a huge crowd blocking the intersection; the sheer numbers of people were making it impossible for traffic to get through. A block or so behind him, Roger could see movement; the police were taking it upon themselves to herd the motorists around a detour route before they could start rioting.
As he scanned the scene, something caught his attention. There was a pair of dark vehicles pulled up at the curb of one of the intersecting streets - and while there were no other cars on that block, it was cordoned off. Now why block off a perfectly good outlet?
As Roger approached, he realized why; the street was one-way, and led towards the sea of blocked traffic. Obviously, they were trying to keep anyone else from adding to the gridlock. He was about to turn and go back to guarding his Mercedes when he suddenly saw a familiar face near one of the black cars. Was that Mr. Newman?
Instinct told him to go hide in the car. But for once, Roger told his flight instinct to shove off.
* * * * *
The window of the limo rolled down to reveal a very grim-looking Dr. Morris. He cleared his throat loudly, and Michael and Special Agent #1 broke off their glaring contest and stood at attention - or something close to it. "The HAZMAT team did a clean sweep of the office building. They found Charlie Smalls, but not the mastermind of this whole scheme."
Michael groaned and closed his eyes. "What about the money?" Special Agent #1 asked.
"The $15 billion was accounted for. It was strewn across a corridor, but it was all accounted for," Morris replied. "Apparently, there was an exit through an unused portion of the city sewer system. Fortunately, the toxin's been contained."
"So what now?" Michael asked, dreading the answer.
"Right now, there are several teams sweeping the area in search of the Eggman. But our part in this whole fiasco, I'm pleased to say, is done. The ransom money is accounted for, and the immediate threat has been neutralized." He stared levelly at Michael. "Your part in the matter is complete. And you did very well, Mr. Wiseman. For now, we will leave the capture of the Eggman to the FBI."
"Speaking of neutralizing threats," Lydia said, coming up to them, "Mrs. Wiseman is perfectly amenable to pretending this never happened - provided we repair her door, windows, replace any broken or damaged furniture, and make a few calls to relieve her of the burden of irate employers or school administrators."
"That sounds reasonable," Morris said.
"However," Lydia continued, "she wants to speak to Mr. Wiseman privately."
Morris glowered. "I'm not sure that would be advisable."
"Doc," Michael groaned. "For the last time, she doesn't know anything. And I'm not going to do anything that'll get her and Heather in danger if I can help it. You know that."
Morris was silent for a few seconds, thinking. "Are you still wearing the mike and earpiece?" Michael nodded. "Keep them on. I want to listen in to be sure you don't let anything slip."
Sighing, Michael conceded. "All right, all right." He turned to where Lisa and Heather were standing beside the van, heading towards them.
Lydia watched them go, then opened the limo door and sat down beside Dr. Morris. "In the meantime, you and I have some matters to discuss."
"For one thing, the matter of payment." She grinned as the window rolled up. "What, you thought I did this out of the goodness of my heart?"
* * * * *
34th and 7th St.
When Michael reached Lisa, he wanted to say something profound, something that would express what he was feeling without giving everything away. "Hi," he managed instead.
She looked him up and down, noticing the bandages on his hands and his forehead. "Hi."
He noticed that she was nervous, more so than he'd expected. "What's wrong? Um, aside from the obvious."
"We're supposed to be getting driven home by an agent," Lisa told him. "Are you sure that's safe?"
"Well, I--" Michael hesitated, unsure what to say. Lisa's gaze flicked past his shoulder, and she stopped, staring at something behind him. Grateful for the interruption, Michael turned around.
Special Agent #1 noticed Roger's approach at about the same time. He was striding forward purposefully, with the look of a man who for once had his cowardice in check and was desperately trying to keep it at bay. "Excuse me!"
Of course, when two burly agents blocked his path, some of the cowardice leaked through. "I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to move along," one of them said, grabbing Roger's arm. "Traffic will be moving at any moment."
"I'm - I'm sure it will," Roger said sarcastically, glancing back at the unmoving lines of cars. "Listen, there's just someone I need to talk to back there."
Michael glanced at Roger, then at Lisa, as an idea popped into his head. "Let him through!" he shouted.
The agents stopped and stared at him, and Special Agent #1 glared. "Trust me," Michael told him quietly.
After a moment, the bald agent nodded, and the agents released Roger. "That's better," Roger muttered, brushing his jacket off and striding towards Michael and Lisa. "Where on earth have you been?" he demanded of Lisa.
"Amtrak number 563," Heather replied. Lisa elbowed her. "What?"
"Hey, I've got an idea," Michael said as if it had just occurred to him. "Why don't you go home with Roger?"
Roger closed and opened his mouth like a fish, but no sound came out. Special Agent #1 raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. Lisa looked at Michael with dawning comprehension and relief.
"I mean, if you're both headed the same way, it makes sense," Michael continued. "And if you get an escort, you'll get a shortcut out of the traffic."
Lisa shot him a grateful smile. "Would you, Roger?"
"Well, of course, I--" Roger broke off and grabbed Michael's arm, pulling him aside. "What did I miss here? Weren't you just running from these people?"
"Everything's fine now, Roj," Michael reassured him. "Whole thing was a misunderstanding - a really big misunderstanding," he amended. "But it's more or less straightened out now."
"Uh-huh." Roger noticed the bandages. "What happened to you?"
Michael touched the fading bruise on his forehead, wincing a bit; it was a lot better than it had been an hour ago, but it still stung. "Had my head slammed into a wall." At Roger's skeptical look, he added, "Big misunderstanding."
Roger stared at him for a second, then looked out at the traffic nearby. "So... we could get an escort."
"Well, then, why not?" Roger was suddenly at ease again, his mood lifted by the prospect of staving off Ruth's fury.
"Not right this second," Lisa interrupted. "Mr. Newman, I still have to talk to you."
Special Agent #1 scowled, but reluctantly conceded. "Pull your car onto this block," he told Roger. "We'll open up the roadblock for you."
"Fair enough," Roger answered, looking at the agent suspiciously. "I suppose." He leaned towards Lisa. "Don't take too long. You never know."
"Thank you, Roger," Lisa said sincerely.
"You're welcome." Roger gave Michael a Please-Don't-Do-Anything-Stupid look before hurrying back to the immobile sea of cars. Special Agent #1 sighed and walked back to discuss something with the other agents, leaving Michael alone with his wife and daughter.
Lisa was silent for a moment before turning to Heather. "Heather, get in the car, please?"
"Mom!" Heather complained.
"Get. In. The. Car."
Heather didn't need any further prompting. She knew that tone too well. Michael smiled as his daughter sullenly climbed into the SUV, slamming the door behind her. He and Lisa were abruptly left alone together, with the semblance of privacy - the mike beneath his shirt was what separated it from the real thing. Michael had removed the earpiece, not wanting Morris to distract him, but he had kept the mike on.
No one spoke for a few seconds as they both stared at each other, studying each other: Lisa looking at the bandages, at the bruise that was still visible on his forehead, trying to make sense of the situation, Michael taking in every detail of Lisa's face, determined to affix it to his memory for when Morris inevitably shipped him off to Antarctica or someplace like that.
He finally broke the silence. "Uh, the Doc said you wanted to talk to me." At her puzzled look, he added, "Why?"
"I don't know," Lisa murmured, looking away. "I've had things explained to me - sort of. Some things. A lot of things still don't make sense, but - was that really your name?" She hesitated. "Michael, I mean?"
"Yeah," Michael replied, trying to sound nonchalant. "Yeah, it is."
Lisa nodded, absently brushing a strand of hair out of her face before finally looking him in the eyes. And then she slapped him.
But there was almost no force behind it, no anger, and instead of the sharp smack of palm against cheek, the sound was softer, more muted. It was more of a stage slap than the real thing, like swatting a fly. As Michael stood there, puzzled, Lisa frowned. "Well, I didn't think I could really do it."
Frustrated, she combed her hair back with her fingers, looking around for a moment. "You know, I should be angry. Sure, I got an explanation, sure, we're fine now, but none of this explains your earlier behavior. The date you never showed up for. The flowers. That thing at Thanksgiving. Showing up at that party. Getting shot."
She stopped, looking at him, as if that had just occurred to her - that three months after the shooting, he was perfectly fine. Lisa shook herself and continued with her rant. "I can't figure you out. I can't figure me out. I don't know why I haven't found a cop and gotten a restraining order right now. I ought to be furious with you, Mr. Newman, but I'm not."
Michael realized that he'd been holding his breath, and let it out in a sigh of relief. "You're--" He had to subdue the hope in his voice. "You're not?"
Lisa looked down at her hands, clutching the hem of her blouse. "Not as much as I ought to be." She met his gaze. "But you did get us out of this mess as far as I can tell. You did help us out at Thanksgiving. And you did save my life."
"So..." Michael wasn't sure where this was going.
"Mich--" She caught herself. "Mr. Newman, I'm asking you to stay out of my life."
"Okay. I'm completely confused."
Lisa smiled a bit at that. "I'm not angry. And I am grateful. And I suppose that you just happened to be at that party when Roger and I were there. But it would be safer for Heather and me - safer for all of us - if you tried to stay away as much as possible."
"Yeah, I guess so." Michael looked down at the pavement.
"I'm not saying I never want to see you again--" Lisa began, and Michael abruptly looked up. Realizing how that had sounded, she collected her thoughts. "I have been furious with you, and then I've been grateful, and then furious again. Let's just say they've balanced each other out. I just - I have to get back to a normal life. Get Heather back to a normal life. Every time you show up, things just get crazy."
"You don't know the half of it," Michael sighed, and Lisa chuckled. Encouraged, he went on. "When you say 'try,' do you mean you won't get mad if it's by accident?" Lisa looked at him oddly, trying to conceal her amusement. "Say, if the Doc's car breaks down in your neighborhood again, or we get on the same bus, or if we get stuck in heavy traffic--"
He didn't get a chance to finish before Lisa leaned in and kissed him.
To the observer, it wasn't much of a kiss. Lisa simply leaned in and pressed her lips to his, a brief, gentle kiss that lasted only a second or two. But it effectively silenced Michael. "That," Lisa said quietly, "was for keeping your promise."
Dazed, Michael blinked, unable to recall just what he wanted to say. He couldn't seem to get the words out.
A horn honked. Roger's Mercedes was pulling up to the curb, and Heather was getting out of the SUV. "Goodbye, Mr. Newman," Lisa said before turning and walking away.
Michael still couldn't say anything. He watched her go, watched Heather glance over at him with a knowing grin - she'd probably seen the whole thing - before hurrying after Lisa, ready to tease her mother to no end. He barely noticed Dr. Morris coming up beside him.
"Eight o'clock," the doctor observed, "and all's well."
"Uh-huh," Michael replied, not really listening.
"It seems things are going back to normal."
"Your family will be fine, Mr. Wiseman," Morris assured him. When Michael didn't answer, he glanced over to see the dazed expression on the other man's face. Morris stifled a laugh before nudging Michael in the shoulder. "Let's get going."
"Going?" Michael jolted back to reality. "Where?"
"Home, of course," Morris replied as he headed back to the limo and opened the door. "With a quick stop by an operating table first."
"No whining," Morris scolded him as Michael reluctantly climbed into the limo. "When I said things are going back to normal, I meant *everything.*"
"You really know how to take the fun out of everything."
"I take pride in that ability."
The limo drove away.
* * * * *
New Rochelle, NY
When Ruth Bender had first been brought in for disturbing the peace, her reaction was to scream and threaten everyone she could with bloody murder. It was infuriating the way she'd been treated, and the looks on the officers' faces when she'd made her one phone call to a United States Senator were perversely satisfying. Unfortunately, Uncle Jimmy hadn't been able to get her out since he was tied up with other things, and Ruth had returned to screaming.
That had gotten old after about four hours. She'd moved on to muttering to herself and pacing the cell, glaring balefully at the other overnights behind bars. They would flinch, having learned that the psycho in the designer suit was best left alone. After a few hours of pacing in her stockinged feet - heels weren't made for pacing - she'd had to sit down.
Now she was sitting on the bench, back against the wall, staring dully at the floor. She had been thinking, since there hadn't been much else to do. Unfortunately, her thoughts had turned to Roger. And despite her best efforts, there was this nagging little voice that insisted that he had a point as well, even if he was lousy at making it.
God, she was tired. Tired of fighting, of screaming. She'd be on the receiving end of that when Amanda came home. At first, she'd wanted to make Roger crawl... but he did that all the time. Right now, all Ruth wanted was for it to be over. Would she agree to sell the house? Probably not. Unless Roger found an alternative that was to her tastes. Ten thousand up front was quite a good offer.
But that would be letting him win.
There was a creak and the sound of footsteps. Ruth didn't look up at first. She'd probably be there for the rest of the night. To her surprise, though, the feet stopped in front of her cell. Ruth looked up. She was actually glad to see him for once.
Roger shifted uncomfortably. "Ruth."
He looked around, at the drab walls, at the empty cells, and, most importantly, at the iron bars separating her from him. "We need to talk."
Three days later
63rd and Madison
New York City
"Start spreading the news
"You're leaving today
"I want to be a part of it
"New York, New York..."
The fact that Dr. Theodore Morris was breaking into song even before he reached the townhouse was an indication of the irrationally good mood he was in. All things considered, however, he had a right to be cheerful. The fiasco of the past few days could have ended far worse than it had. Even Dr. Ross's demands hadn't been quite as bad as he'd expected.
"I want to wake up
"In that city that doesn't sleep..."
He punched in the code and smiled as the door slid open, continuing to sing as he entered the townhouse.
"And find I'm king of the hill
"Top of the list
"End of the line
"King of the hill..."
Crossing the pool area, he launched into the final verses. Ross's final report to the Pentagon had been generally favorable, and she had skillfully diverted any fallout that could have resulted from Michael's escape - by not mentioning that part. She instead focused on Leflin's sabotage attempts.
"These little-town lows
"They have all melted away
"And I'm gonna make a brand new start of it
"Right there in old New York..."
The downside was that neither Leflin nor Special Agent #2 had been aware of the identity of their "source." But the attempt had failed, and the project was still in good standing. Which was all Morris cared about for the moment.
"You always make it there..." He trotted up the steps to Michael's bedroom. "You make it anywhere..." Opening the door, he entered just as the curtains slid open, spreading his arms wide for the big finale. "Come on, come through... New York, New York!"
He dropped his arms as it became apparent that his audience was conspicuously absent. "Mr. Wiseman?"
"In here, Doc!" someone shouted from behind the closed bathroom door. Morris relaxed, suddenly realizing that the shower was running. The water shut off, and a few minutes later, Michael emerged, dressed and drying his hair with a towel.
Morris smirked. "Have we suddenly become a morning person?"
"Don't bet on it." Michael hung up the towel and snagged a pair of clean socks from the dresser. "Didn't sleep too well, anyway. Figured I'd get some privacy for a change."
"I thought you'd be interested to know that Bernard Leflin Jr. is taking an extended vacation - for health reasons," Morris informed him as Michael sat down on the bed and pulled on the socks. "In his absence, the major stockholders are running things."
"An extended vacation?"
"An enforced vacation. He's lucky."
"What about that lawyer?"
"Not quite so lucky." Morris sighed. "Seems Mr. Bernstadt had been involved with some questionable dealings and had to leave the country. One of his victims, however, may have discovered his whereabouts."
Michael snorted. "That's real convenient."
"If it makes you feel any better, the Espotek lawsuit is still going forward as planned. Your family, naturally, will not be among the plaintiffs, but the numbers are still sizeable enough to have Espotek worried."
Michael tied his shoes and looked up. "So was it just a faulty respirator? Why I'm here instead of--"
"Doc." Michael stared at him, all traces of his usual levity gone. "I need to know."
Morris sighed. "Had the respirator worked, Mr. Wiseman, you would have had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving." Michael continued to stare at him. "But at best - from what I saw -you would have been a vegetable. The damage to your spinal cord..." He trailed off, unable to continue. He couldn't think of a way to say it.
But Michael got the gist of it. "You're sure."
Slowly, Morris nodded.
Michael was silent, digesting that information, possibly comparing his current state to the possibility that the Doc had just laid before him. After a moment, he sighed and stood up. "All right, General Patton, what's on the list for today?"
"Breakfast and your morning workout," the scientist replied, and Michael sighed. "Cheer up, Mr. Wiseman. I have a surprise for you."
"A surprise." Michael gave him a suspicious look. "As long as it doesn't involve eggs, I'm game."
Morris chuckled and headed off to the kitchen. Yes, things were starting to get back to normal.
* * * * *
New Rochelle, NY
Thank God it was Saturday.
Normally, Heather slept in til noon, so Lisa was surprised to come downstairs to find her daughter sprawled on the couch in front of the television, watching cartoons. Beside her was a box of cereal, which Heather was dipping into like a bag of popcorn in a movie theater. She was still wearing her pajamas, and looked thoroughly satisfied.
Lisa chuckled, and Heather looked up. "Aren't you just the picture of contentment."
"Had nothing better to do." Heather shrugged. "I don't know, I just felt like getting up." She grinned. "It's nice. The peace and quiet. No Uncle Roger."
"Oh, come on, Mom. Admit it. He was getting to you, too." She sat up. "Besides, it was about time he had it out with Aunt Ruth."
"I just hope that's working out," Lisa sighed absently. "Pick up the mess when you're done, okay?" She pointed to the bits of cereal that Heather had dropped on the carpet.
"There's only a few crumbs," Heather muttered.
"What-ev-er." The doorbell rang, saving Lisa from trying to reason with her teenage daughter. "Pick them up before someone steps on them. I'll get that." She could hear Heather groan as she went into the foyer, drawing her bathrobe closer around her before she opened the front door.
"Aunt Lisa, I will clean for you, I will mow your lawn, I will sleep on the floor, I will pay you rent if you give me asylum!"
Lisa sighed. "Hello, Amanda."
Amanda Bender tried to look as pathetic as possible while clutching two hastily-packed suitcases. "Please. I'm begging you. I can't take the two of them anymore!"
"'Manda?" Seeing just who it was, Heather hurried over. "What are they doing now?"
"The usual. I almost forgot why I decided to study abroad." She looked back at Lisa. "Please?"
Lisa glanced over at Heather, and could see the "please" mirrored in her own daughter's eyes. "Oh, all right. Heather, you want to help her with her bags?"
Heather didn't need to be told twice as she and Amanda hurried up the steps, chattering all the way. "So what'd I miss?" Amanda said.
"Well..." Heather opened her mouth, but paused at the look Lisa was giving her. "Same old, same old."
Amanda snorted. "It's got to be better than my first three hours back in the States." Heather started laughing. "What's so funny?"
"You'd never believe it," Heather told her as they disappeared around the corner. "It all started with this hottie..."
Closing the front door, Lisa leaned against it with a sigh, smiling. Yes, things were getting back to normal.
* * * * *
63rd and Madison
"This afternoon," Morris said pleasantly, "you'll be starting some defensive training with an old friend of mine. It was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but fortunately he was understanding enough to shift around his busy schedule."
"You're never gonna let me live this one down, are you?" Michael sighed as he pulled on his jacket.
Special Agent #1 smirked. "No."
"And afterwards, you will spend an hour in counseling," Morris continued. Michael groaned. "Mr. Wiseman, while the events of the past week have proved that you can be trustworthy - when it counts - I am concerned that you are not emotionally adjusting to your second life as well as we had hoped."
"What gave you that idea?" Michael muttered sarcastically. He saw the look on Morris' face and sighed. "Sorry, Doc. Just kind of hoped never to see Dr. Davis again."
"You're not having a session with Davis," another voice replied. The three men turned to see Lydia enter the pool room, crossing briskly to meet them. "I'm taking over that department."
The smirk melted off of Special Agent #1's face. Michael frowned, confused. "What's going on here?"
"Dr. Ross was originally supposed to be a member of my team," Morris explained. "Circumstances thwarted that when we initiated the project." He ignored Lydia's derisive snort. "However, Dr. Ross will be joining us as a consultant - seeing as how her background in neuropsychology and her ability to smooth things over have proved very useful."
Special Agent #1 looked extremely uncomfortable. "Sir, I have to protest. Dr. Ross is completely unorthodox and might jeopardize the security of the project."
"Oh, really?" Lydia raised an eyebrow. "Well, if you feel that way, I'll just march right back to the Pentagon and give General Roskin a new report."
"General Roskin?" the agent asked, surprised.
"Who do you think really sent me down here?" Lydia asked. "Roskin's no fool. She knew something more was going on."
"There's also the matter of Leflin's mysterious source," Morris continued. "Neither Special Agent #2 nor Bernard Leflin knew the identity of the insider who fed them the information in the first place. There is someone in the Pentagon who's actively trying to sabotage this project, and I need someone to play both sides to find out who it is."
Michael looked baffled. "Most of the people who requested that I keep tabs on this project opposed it to begin with," Lydia explained. "It still hasn't occurred to some of those blowhards that I don't share their opinions."
"As much as I would like to continue this conversation indefinitely," Morris said, checking his watch, "we need to get moving. There's an office on the third floor, Dr. Ross. Make yourself comfortable."
With that, he started for the exit. Michael paused for a second, still confused, before shrugging it off and following the scientist out. "Hey, Doc, you think I'm trustworthy enough for a trip to McDonald's?"
The negative response was drowned out by the slamming of the front door.
Special Agent #1 stood there, stunned, trying to absorb this new bit of information. "You're part of his team, now," he echoed, spitting out the word "team" in disgust.
"Seems like it."
"Is this a permanent position?"
Lydia patted him on the shoulder and started towards the office. "Like it or not, Q-Ball, you're stuck with me."
"Don't. Call. Me. That."
* * * * *
Somewhere in the Caribbean
It was almost dawn. The sky in the east was becoming lighter, the darkness of night blending into blue, then gray, then a pale yellow nimbus that precluded the rising sun. Alone on the deck, the little man watched expectantly, as if the sun might not decide to rise if there was no one there to see it. Such wonders deserved an audience.
He took a sip of water, stifling a slight pang of regret. For the second time, all that planning had gone to waste. Almost everything had worked out as he'd anticipated; the super man had taken the bait, brought the money, and he had escaped while his erstwhile partner had it out with the fool. The only flaw was the loss of the money, scattered across the plaster-spattered floor of the office building.
Ah, well. At least he hadn't gotten away completely empty-handed.
Smalls had proved useful. The man's connections had yielded a great deal of hidden assets; despite his conviction, he'd been able to put the money he'd stolen to good use. It wasn't $15 million, true, but Smalls had quite a nest egg. With one of the many aliases the man had, it was no trouble getting out of the country. The United States was not all it was cracked up to be, and he'd spent far too much time there. There was so much more out there than the U.S. had to offer. Although, he had to admit, some of their cruise lines were almost worth the money. Flying was overrated.
He reached into his satchel, pulling out an egg. Studying the pristine, perfect surface, he reviewed his equally perfect plan. What had gone wrong? Well, that was simple: Smalls had been too quick to judge. The man had been bleeding from the mouth, but not the eyes. Of course, he should have noticed that. Had the man, indeed, perished? Had he at least achieved his revenge?
Strangely enough, he found that it didn't quite matter. Perhaps he hadn't come out of it with his vengeance or the money, but he was content. For one thing, his accommodations were far better here than they had been in prison. And he didn't have to share a bunk with Charlie. The super man had played the game with honor, and won fairly. The fault was his for making a mistake.
But he was free. And he had all the time in the world.
Chuckling, the Eggman tossed the egg in the air, catching it again neatly in his palm. He placed it back in his satchel and stood up, shuffling down the deck as the sun finally broke over the horizon, illuminating a brand new day.
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