SATURDAY FEB 23 1325 HRS - WASHINGTON, DC
The tall, athletic figure checked his watch for the third time in the last twenty minutes. The cut of his clothes, his relaxed, yet ramrod straight posture, and overall air of alertness practically shouted ‘military’ to even the untrained observer. His lean, dusky features attracted a lot of attention from some of the younger . . . female . . . passersby. Which secretly pleased Commander Craig Donovan. Still, if they missed that train, Talmadge would have them both up on charges! Where the hell was Parker?
At the precise moment that he was about to alert security, Craig looked up to see Frank Parker, his friend and teammate, waving at him from the other end of the platform. He was almost a head shorter than Donovan, and about fifty pounds lighter. His face was lean with dark eyes that seemed to take in everything at once.
“Sorry, Donovan,” Frank huffed as he hurried the last few yards to join his companion. “Jimmy’s school play ran into some snags. Curtain was delayed almost half an hour. Then two of the kids got sick, one of the mothers went into labor . . . They finally canceled it when the star broke out in hives. I tried to call. Is your cell phone working?”
“Of course it’s working,” Craig grumbled, pulling the object in question from the breast pocket of his windbreaker. He was about to deliver a cutting remark when he noticed the LCD readout. “Or it would be if I’d remembered to charge it this morning. Sorry, Frank. So the trip was a bust?”
“Not entirely,” Frank chuckled. “Patricia and Jimmy are looking good. Her new husband’s treatin’ ‘em right. I can’t ask for more than . . . well, I could, but . . .” His voice got quieter as something behind Donovan caught his eye. “Jesus Christ! Craig, call an ambulance!”
Before Commander Donovan could get a single word out, Frank Parker had pushed past him, leaping off the end of the platform at a dead run. Turning to follow, Craig saw the object of his friend’s alarm.
A bloody, ragged figure was shuffling . . . staggering, really, from one support to the next. He was dragging his left leg behind him, as if it were unable to bear his weight. His thick, dark hair was matted with blood, a good measure of which also covered the right side of his face. As Donovan reached for his cell phone, forgetting for the moment that it was dead, the gruesome figure collapsed into Frank’s arms. With a cry, Craig rushed forward, snatching Frank’s phone from his outstretched hand.
Frank used his handkerchief to try to stop the bleeding from a cut over the stranger’s right eye, which was swollen shut. More blood trickled from the corner of his mouth in a bloody froth, a sure sign of serious internal injuries. As Frank tried to comfort the injured man, he felt a tug on his sleeve as the other man seized it with a strength born of desperation. One mud puddle green eye met his, pleading in pain and anguish.
“Please,” the battered figure groaned in a barely audible whisper. “Th-the switch. I h-have to . . . switch the lines. P-please. H-help me. T-trains. Gonna . . . gonna w-wreck.”
“Take it easy, pal,” Frank murmured. “Help’s on its way. Just try not to move. Craig, someone’s beat the crap outta this guy! I think they pulverized his ribs. Hold still, fella,” he urged as the man tried to pull himself up using Parker as support.
“N-no,” he gasped. “W-wreck! H-hafta . . . hafta s-stop it! Please!”
At that moment, an approaching train gave a loud blast of its horn. From somewhere farther down, another horn blared. From that point on, Frank Parker would remember the horror that followed as if it had happened in slow motion. The two behemoths never slowed. They tried. The shrill squeal of breaks gave evidence for everyone to hear. But it was too little too late. Even at just twenty-five miles per hour, several tons of solid metal had too much inertia to stop in such a short distance. They hit each other almost head on, one coming in at an angle from another track. Both engines came off the track, plowing into another train sitting empty on a nearby siding. This was the beginning of a veritable avalanche of metal as the two passenger trains forcibly merged into one tangled mass. The air was thick with the dust kicked up as the mangled wreckage continued its relentless advance, accompanied by the tortured screech of metal on metal.
One of the cars flipped into the air, coming to earth on their side of the wreck. It slid/rolled directly toward them! The two men grabbed the battered figure and ran for the platform. A second car was hurled from the holocaust, ramming into the first with an earsplitting crash. Both cars came to rest less than six feet from the platform.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity in Hell, the twisted wreckage ground to a halt. Then the nightmare began in earnest. The shocked silence lasted only a moment before the first pitiful cries for help arose from somewhere within.
Stunned, it was a moment before Frank Parker recalled the bloody shape he still cradled in his arms. Hearing muffled sobs, he looked down to see that battered visage pressed against the front of his jacket, his shoulders shaking with uncontrollable grief.
“Sorry,” the figure sobbed. “T-tried . . . tried . . . s-stop . . . F-four men . . .d-don’t know . . . G-God! ‘M sorry. S-sorry.” His voice faded as he, at last, slipped into unconsciousness.
“He knew,” Frank murmured. “He knew it was gonna happen.” Parker turned his incredulous gaze up to meet his friend’s equally stunned look. “He was trying to stop it, but someone stopped him, first. Craig, he has to know who was behind this!”
“His name is Gary Hobson,” Nate Ramsey, Chief of Security for Project Back Step, reported later that evening. He was talking to Frank on his secure cell phone. “He runs a bar in downtown Chicago. We had to ID ‘im from his prints. Whoever beat him also took everything but his clothes. The guy has a weird history.”
“Weirder than mine?” Frank chuckled grimly.
“Believe it or not,” was Ramsey’s surprising reply, “yes. We investigated him in regard to that 9/11 fiasco last year.” Only someone like Nathan Ramsey could refer to the deaths of over five thousand people and the destruction of a national landmark as a ‘fiasco.’ “He was calling everybody and their grandmother to warn ‘em that it was gonna happen, but he couldn’t get through to anyone that’d take him seriously. The guy was in the hospital when our boys tried to talk with ‘im, and we never got any clear answers. All we can say for sure is, he was not at any time in contact with anyone even remotely involved with what happened. He has been accused, and then later cleared of the murder of a reporter for the Sun-Times. Spent the better part of a year recovering from some kinda accident that put him in a wheelchair a few months later, has twice been involved in some top secret project in Colorado, although he seldom leaves the Tri-state area, and just recently was instrumental in the capture of two of the highest paid assassins in the world. Which is why he was in the hospital on the day of the WTC disaster. They had been hired by a high-ranking leader of one of the local Tongs, who Hobson was set to testify against. And that’s just what he’s been up to over the last coupla years. He’s been a busy man. Oh, and they say he‘s got a hell of a singin’ voice.”
“Come again?” Frank asked, not sure he’d heard the man right. “He sings, too?”
“Just that one time,” Ramsey said with a verbal shrug. “He was talked into doing a concert with Dusty Wyatt in order to draw out the hit men. They say he did pretty good, in spite o’ just bein’ outta the hospital, but was injured in the fracas and put right back in. From what I’ve read on ‘im so far, he should own Cook County Hospital by now. Any chance you can talk to ‘im? Find out what he knows about the wreck?”
“Not much,” Frank sighed. “They had him in surgery for more than eight hours. They had to take out about half his vital organs, and the other half ain’t lookin’ too good. If he makes it through the night, it’ll be six kinds of miracles. Whatever he knew, though, he was killin’ himself to try and stop it. Any word on the casualties?”
“Yeah,” was the grim reply. “You and Donovan need to get your butts back here ASAP. A Back Step has been authorized.”
“Whoa! Wait a minute!” Frank quickly checked that no one was in earshot, before continuing in a harsh whisper. “The Panel okayed a Back Step for this, but not the thousands that died in the Trade Center? Who was on that train?”
“The Vice President,” Ramsey grumbled dismally. “His whole family, six members of the cabinet, and the Speaker of the House. It took them less than five minutes to give the green light. Talk to Hobson, if you can. So far, he‘s our only lead.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Parker,” the doctor told him when he returned to the Intensive Care Unit. Her voice sounded tired and dispirited as she read the chart in her hands. “He hasn’t regained consciousness. Honestly, we don’t expect him to.”
“Any possibility of me just . . . waiting in there on the chance that he does?” Frank asked. He looked up as three more people hurried down the hall. “I can’t tell you how important it is that I talk to him.”
“Mr. Parker . . .” Whatever the woman was going to say was cut off as the petite blonde woman, who arrived two steps ahead of her escort, tugged on her jacket.
“Gary Hobson,” she said without preamble. “I’m his mother. They said I’d find him here. Please, let me see him!”
“Of course, Mrs. Hobson,” the physician said with a compassionate smile. “I have to warn you, though, this isn’t going to be pretty. We had to remove his spleen and left kidney, and a portion of his liver. His right kidney is barely functioning, so he’ll need dialysis. If he survives. All of his ribs were broken, and his lungs were punctured. His heart was also damaged. As I was trying to tell this gentleman, the only thing keeping him alive right now, is the ventilator. We don’t expect him to regain consciousness at all. We’ve only been trying to keep him alive long enough to give you a chance to see him. As I said, at this point, the machines are doing all the work. You two are going to be faced with a hard decision. Do you want to keep things as they are . . . or let him go?”
Frank watched in morbid fascination, and a large measure of sympathy, as the woman and her husband fought to present a brave front, even though he could see that each word was cutting the heart out of them. In Lois Hobson’s white-knuckled grasp was a newspaper. The Chicago Sun-Times. It was tattered in places where she had twisted it back and forth, obviously taking the brunt of her nervous hand wringing.
“We’ve been through this before,” the man with her murmured, a pleasant faced sort with a thick shock of salt and pepper hair. Bernie Hobson gently took his wife by the elbow as they entered the Unit. “We know the drill,” he added dismally. He looked back at Parker and Donovan. “You might as well come, too,” he added to Frank. “You won’t learn anymore than we’ve already told him,” he added with a nod at Craig, “but it can’t hurt to try.”
Even knowing what to expect, it was a shock to see the pathetic, bandage swathed figure that inhabited the bed. The right side of his face was covered in a thick layer of gauze through which blood was already seeping, as was most of his head. Drainage tubes ran from his left side to sealed, accordion-like receptacles on the floor. More tubes emerged from each side of his chest, carrying blood and other fluids from his damaged lungs. At the head of his bed, on the left, was the machine that pumped air into his chest, which rose and fell in time with the artificial rhythm of the ventilator.
On a shelf above his head was a bank of monitors. By now, Lois was well versed in the function of each one of them. There was the one that measured his heart rate, oxygen levels, and blood pressure. Another recorded brain activity. None of the readings gave her much hope. Her son was dying. Something she had known ever since that second Paper had shown up at their door that afternoon. The same Paper she was now twisting to shreds in her anxiety. This couldn’t be happening! Not to her son! Her baby! It had to be wrong! It had to be!
Hesitantly, Lois stepped up to the bed, her hand automatically reaching out to take the pale, almost bloodless one lying atop the blanket. The tracings on the EEG jumped slightly, then settled back to its former, barely perceptible pattern. Seeing that, Lois knew he was aware of her presence, and that he was fighting to hang on. A fight he was losing.
“It‘s okay, sweetie,” she crooned tearfully. “It’s okay. Momma’s here. You . . . you go ahead and rest, now. We’ll look after Lindsay, see that she doesn’t . . . doesn’t get in over her head. And, um, and we’ll . . . we’ll take care of things u-until Marissa and Emmett get back. You gave it your best shot, baby. It’s . . . it’s time to let someone else take over. We . . . we love you, Gary,” she sobbed, her voice breaking. “Y-you go to sleep, now. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“Let go, Gary,” Bernie murmured, placing his hand over his wife’s. He gave both hers and Gary’s a gentle squeeze. “It’s time to move on, son. Your mother and I can handle things for a while.” He paused to wipe at his own eyes before continuing in a strained voice. “We love you, Gary, and we’ll miss you. Now, don’t hang in there just for our sake. Let go, son. You’ve earned the rest.”
“He’s right, Gary,” a soft voice murmured. “It’s time to move on.”
Hesitantly, a spectral hand emerged from the shattered body on the bed, reaching out blindly toward the voice. A shimmering hand grasped his and pulled Gary Hobson from his hopelessly battered frame.
“Lord!” Gary exclaimed with a shiver. “That was so weird! Kinda creeps me out.” He looked over at the bandage swathed figure on the bed, down at his undamaged astral self, glad to see he was dressed in his usual jeans, flannel shirt, and jacket. He then looked up to face the radiant figure before him. Peering closely, he jerked back with a start of recognition. “A-Andrew?”
“You remember?” the angel chuckled.
“You think it’d be hard to forget a visit from the Angel of Death?” Gary murmured. “Twice, wasn’t? But I seemed to ‘ve managed somehow.” He looked over to the scene around the bed. the sight of his grieving parents like a knife twisting in his heart. “Are they gonna be okay?”
“Not right away,” Andrew sighed. “Eventually, yes, but not right away.”
Even as they watched, horrified, saddened, the EEG tracings became less pronounced. Finally, there was a faint, keening wail as the light measuring Gary’s brainwaves flattened out to a straight line. Lois turned and buried her tear-streaked face against Bernie’s jacket. Her heartbreaking sobs of grief echoed in the sudden stillness as the doctor switched off the ventilator and the monitors. Her child, her baby, was gone, and there would be no miraculous return, this time.
The Paper had said so.
The doctor looked up at the clock hanging over the Unit desk. “Time of death: 2352 Feb 23rd.,” she reported sadly. She put her arm around the sobbing woman’s shoulders as she fought back tears of her own.
“Did they have to see that?” Gary murmured. He was sitting on the sink counter, one knee drawn up to his chin. “I mean, wasn’t once enough?”
“They had to let you go,” Andrew told him kindly. “So long as anyone held out any hope for your recovery, that wasn’t going to happen.”
Gary watched as his mother wept with great, heart wrenching sobs into his father’s jacket. It was tearing him apart to see them like this, knowing that they couldn’t see him, only the empty husk that he no longer wore. He wanted to tell them that it was okay, that he wasn’t in any pain. Not anymore. He wanted to tell them that he loved them. He wanted that more than anything else in the world. They couldn’t hear him, though. He knew, because he had been through this once before. He couldn’t shout loud enough to penetrate the wall of their grief.
“So what happens, now?” he asked. “Do you take me the rest of the way? Or do I wait around to help Lindsay? She’s a little young for something like this, ya know?”
“It’s not that simple in your case, Gary,” Andrew sighed. “You see those two men by the door? The big one is Commander Craig Donovan. The other is Lt. Commander Frank Parker. They’re with the NSA.”
“So?” Gary shrugged, unable to take his eyes from the scene by the bed. “It’s a little late for them to do any good, isn’t it? It’s not like I can tell them what I know, because I don‘t really know anything. I got hit over the head and woke up in Hell.”
Andrew followed the other man’s gaze as he searched for a way to explain what was going to happen. It wasn’t hard to see where his heart lay.
“Mr. Parker is going to undo everything,” he finally said.
That got his attention. Gary’s head jerked up and he shot Andrew a disbelieving look.
“S’cuse me?” he said. “Did I just hear you right? He’s gonna ‘undo’ everything that just happened? I won’t be dead? A-all those other people, they won’t be dead, either?”
“No,” Andrew replied, a sad smile turning up the corners of his mouth. “None of this will have happened if Mr. Parker is successful.”
“H-how’s he gonna do that?” Gary asked curiously. He was trying not to sound too hopeful, but Andrew knew how badly he wanted to spare his mother and father the pain they were feeling at that moment.
“Why don’t we stick around for a while and find out?”
SUNDAY FEB 24 0600 HRS - NEVER-NEVER LAND
Gary and Andrew were in a small conference room, already seated at the table as the other seven people filed in. He immediately recognized Parker and Donovan from the hospital. Three of the other four men were somewhat older, one of them at least in his late sixties. The fourth looked like he had just graduated high school. The fifth stranger was a strikingly beautiful redhead.
“These are the people who’re gonna bring back the dead?” Gary asked his guide.
“In a manner of speaking,” Andrew grinned. “Just be patient and listen. Remember that Mr. Parker is the key to all of this.”
Andrew arose from his seat and stepped over to a spot by the door. Gary stayed where he was, wondering why the angel had moved, when the youngest member of the group sat down in the chair that Gary, himself, was occupying! With a startled cry, Gary leaped from the chair and joined a chuckling Andrew by the counter.
“Whoa!” Gary exclaimed with a shiver. “Why didn’t you warn me that could happen?”
“What did you expect?” Andrew chuckled. “They can’t see us, remember?”
“Is something wrong with the air conditioning?” Andrew Owlsley, nicknamed Hooter, asked, looking around. “Did you guys feel the chill that just passed through here?”
No one seemed to be listening to the younger man. Frank was still seeing the look on Lois Hobson’s face as her husband had tried to comfort her, to no avail. Gary Hobson, thirty-six year old tavern keeper from Chicago, Illinois, had died in a hospital just outside of Washington, DC from injuries sustained in one of the most savage beatings Frank Parker had ever seen anyone endure. Almost every bone in his body had been broken, every organ ruptured or damaged. In spite of his organ donor status, there had been nothing left to salvage except the cornea of his left eye.
“What could anyone have done to deserve that?” he mumbled to himself.
“Something you’d like to share with the rest of us, Frank?” Bradley Talmadge asked from his seat at the head of the conference table.
“Just thinkin’ about that Hobson guy,” he murmured, leaning back in his chair with a sigh. “I’ve seen some pretty nasty beatings, fellas, and been on the receiving end of most of ‘em. What they did to Hobson, though . . . He’d said there were four of them. To Craig, or me that’s a fair fight. Hobson wasn’t trained for anything like that! It was a slaughter! These bozos coulda just roughed him up enough to stop him, locked him in a trunk or something, and just walked away. No. They had to beat him so bad, they knew he wouldn’t have a chance in Hell of surviving, then left him to die by inches. I want those bastards, Talmadge. I want to do to them what they did to Hobson.”
“You ‘n’ me both, pal,” Gary murmured.
“You don’t really mean that, Gary,” Andrew admonished.
Gary shrugged, grinning sheepishly. “Well, it woulda been nice to’ve at least been able to fight back.”
“Better yet,” Bradley told him, “you’re getting a chance to prevent it from happening in the first place. The only thing we know for sure is that Hobson knew about the wreck before it happened. We still don’t know if it was a computer glitch or cyber sabotage. Unless someone comes forward to claim responsibility, we can only guess. But Hobson knew. All the way out in Chicago, he knew far enough in advance to charter a plane that morning and be in D.C. three hours before it happened. We need to find out how he knew, and why he didn’t simply try to warn someone.”
“You’ve gotta be kiddin’!” Gary snorted.
“After September 11th, you have to ask that?” Ramsey snorted, almost as if he had heard the specter’s retort. “The man was making phone calls starting the evening of the 10th. No one would listen. He was laughed at, put on hold, or just plain ignored. Personally, I think he’s a mole that someone forgot about.”
“What’s a mole?” Gary asked, curious.
“Well, at least he got the rest of it right.”
“This goes completely against everything I’ve ever believed about you, Nate,” Frank grinned, “but you could be right. Not about Hobson being a mole,” he hastened to add. “He just wasn’t taking any chances on being ignored, this time. And he paid a heavy price for going in without back up.”
Talmadge closed the thick file before him with a decisive thump. “Well, you’ll have about four and a half days to get to know Mr. Hobson, Frank,” he said. “Find out how he knows about these things so far in advance, and if there isn’t some way he could be of use to this project. If there is, we’ll see what it will take to sign him on. That’s a direct order from the Panel. If Gary Hobson has some way of seeing the future accurately enough to know the exact time and nature of a disaster, they want him brought in. One way or the other.”
Frank wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that. From the tone of his voice, neither had Talmadge.
“I don’t think I like those ‘panel’ guys,” Gary was saying as he and the Angel of Death walked through the wall of the conference room. “What did they mean by ‘one way or the other?’ As in ‘dead or alive?’ I’m already dead, for cryin’ out loud! And how is this Parker guy supposed to keep me from being killed? Isn’t it a little late for that?”
“Not with these people,” Andrew chuckled. “They’ve learned to do some amazing things in this place. Well, you’ve got a whole day to kill. Sorry,” he grimaced at Gary’s pained expression. “Poor choice of words. What would you like to do?”
“I want to see how the others are holding up,” was Gary’s quick response. “I mean, I know they still have a lot of . . . of things they have to do to get . . . ready. Are they gonna be okay?”
“Let’s go find out.”
SUNDAY FEB 24 0900 - CHICAGO ILLINOIS
“Oh, dear God,” Marissa sobbed. “This can’t be real! It can’t be! H-he just w-walked me down the aisle ten days ago!”
Emmett Brown gathered his grief-stricken bride into his arms and said nothing. What could he say? That it would be all right? How could something like this ever be ‘all right?’ From what Lois and Bernie had told them, Gary had been beaten beyond recognition. The authorities had been forced to go by fingerprint identification alone until the Hobsons could be flown in. And to get there just moments before he died! Dear Lord!
They were all sitting around in the main barroom of McGinty’s. A sign on the front door informed the general public that the bar was closed until further notice due to ‘a death in the family.’ The sign was tacked onto a large black wreath. Everyone was there, all of his employees, family, and closest friends. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
“This royally sucks,” Polly Gannon muttered, her voice thick with emotion. “After everything he’s been through, you’d think the Good Lord would cut ‘im a little slack.”
“Things just never seem to work that way for Hobson,” Crumb sighed. “I swear, the universe must have a spite out for that kid.”
“I didn’t think there’d be so many,” Gary murmured miserably, looking around at the crowded bar. “Even Crumb is here! And Brigatti!”
“People cared about you, Gary,” Andrew told him. “Didn’t you know that?”
“I knew some did,” he sighed. “Mom, Dad, Marissa. I thought the others just sorta . . . tolerated me. I figured Armstrong and Brigatti would be relieved to see me outta their hair.”
“That’s unkind, Gary,” Andrew gently scolded him. “Even they loved you to a certain extent. It’s just not easy for some people to show how much they care for someone else.”
“They, um, they said that . . . that they have to do a-an autopsy,” Bernie murmured dismally. He seemed to have aged overnight. That youthful, humorous gleam which had always lurked in the corner of his eye was gone. “That we can’t bury him until they . . . they complete their investigation.” He turned to Crumb with a haggard look. “How long are we talkin’ about?”
“A week at the most, I would think,” the ex-cop sighed. “I don’t know what all kinds of tests they might have to do, but surely no more than a week.”
“That will give us time to make decent arrangements,” Lois sighed. She had cried herself hoarse the day before. Now, she wasn’t sure she had any tears left to shed. She looked . . . numb. “We have to get in touch with the twins. I think they were still somewhere in New Mexico or Oklahoma. A-and Jake’s offered to deliver the eulogy. Oh! The service! Who should we get to conduct the service? And sh-should we take him back to Hickory? After the way they treated him, I don’t know if he’d want that. I-I don’t know if I could bear it i-if they started in w-with anymore gossip about him.”
“Wh-what about Chuck,” Marissa sniffed. “D-did anyone c-call Chuck? H-he’ll want to be here.”
“We called him right after we called you, hon,” Bernie told her. “They’ll be here sometime early tomorrow. It’s not easy getting last minute connections these days.”
All eyes turned at a tentative knock on the front door. There was a heart stopping moment of recognition as the young man stepped hesitantly through the opening. He was dressed in a dark overcoat, suit and tie, a familiar leather jacket draped over his left arm.
Seeing him, standing in front of the door, Lois was suddenly overcome by a surge of hope. An unrealistic hope, she realized a heartbeat later. This wasn’t her son, no matter how strongly he might resemble him physically. Jake was a wonderful young man in his own right, but he just wasn’t . . .
“G-Gary?” Robin whispered.
Hearing that, the young man gave a sad smile and a shake of his head. He was watching Lois and Bernie with concern. In many ways Jake had pitied Gary’s consistent runs of bad luck and personal injury. But the banker had envied the barkeep for the closeness he had enjoyed with his parents. A closeness that Jake had found lacking in his own. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, starting to back away. “I shouldn’t ‘ve come. I-it’s too soon.”
“No, it’s not,” Lois said. Rising, she walked up and wrapped her arms around his waist in a warm embrace. Hesitantly, at first, then with almost as much desperation as she, he returned that embrace. Even though they had known each other such a short time, Jake had come to love Gary as the brother he’d always wanted and never had. Lois knew that Gary had felt the same way. Looking up into mud puddle green eyes, so much like Gary’s, she automatically reached up to brush a stray lock of dark hair from Jake’s forehead, catching herself just in time.
Looking down at the distraught woman, Jake could see her hand trembling, as if aching to do something comforting and familiar. “Go ahead,” he murmured softly. “I don’t think he’d mind.”
Tentatively, Lois reached up and brushed the lock back from Jake’s forehead, then leaned her head against his chest as she fought not to cry. Not here. Not now. Lois was never one for public displays of grief. Grief was something to be endured only with your family and a few really close friends, not a crowd as large as this! With a sigh that was almost half sob, Lois straightened up and took Jake’s arm, leading him to where she had been seated at the bar.
“Are you two doin’ okay?” Jake asked as he took his place on one of the stools. “Anything I can do to help . . . w-with the arrangements or . . . or whatever?”
“I always knew there was something I liked about that guy,” Gary murmured. “Besides his good looks, that is,” he added with a sad smile.
“Behave yourself, Gary,” Andrew chided.
“You got enough to do with writing that eulogy,” Crumb mumbled. “You and the twins are gonna be half the pallbearers, too. That’s gonna turn a few heads,” he added with a dry chuckle.
Jake gave the ex-cop an odd look. It still unnerved him a little just how much this man, a total stranger until a few days ago, looked like his father, Howard Evans. It gave him some idea of what Lois and Bernie must have felt seeing so many new ‘Garys’ show up at their door, so to speak.
“Does anyone know what he was doing in Washington?” Jake asked as he laid the leather jacket on the bar. “He was in such a hurry when he called, it was hard to make sense of what he wanted.”
Lois and Bernie exchanged closed looks. They had a pretty good idea as to why he had gone to the capitol city, but they could not place such a burden on the young banker. No matter how much he might look like their son, he was not Gary. The same pretty much went for the twins, Buddy Jackson and Clay Treyton, when they returned from out west.
“He called you?” Armstrong asked, surprised at this revelation. “What did he say?”
The handsome young banker could only shrug in bewilderment as he replied. “He just wanted me to release enough money from the Foundation accounts to charter a plane. Said he had to be somewhere PDQ. When I tried to press for details, he just said it was urgent. A matter of . . . of life or death.”
“He called me that morning,” Peter Cain murmured distractedly, sipping at his coffee. He’d wanted something stronger, but it was Sunday. Besides, it just didn’t seem appropriate for some reason. “Told me he was going out of town for the day. Asked me to . . . to look after things for him. Christ! He planned on being back in time to . . . to take everyone out to dinner. Even had me make reservations!”
Lois couldn’t take her eyes from the faded leather jacket Jake had laid so carefully on the counter. She recalled how handsome Gary had looked in it that morning as he’d jumped into the cab and sped off to the airport. He had been so sure of having plenty of time to stop the tragedy before it could occur. Her hand moved as if of its own accord to stroke the soft leather, seeing once more the way he had smiled and told her not to worry. That everything was going to be fine. All he had to do was . . . was throw one lousy switch!
“The charter service called me last night,” Jake told her gently. “The pilot found it on the tarmac not far from the plane. He must’ve dropped it as he ran for the terminal. His wallet and keys are still in there. My name was on the insurance form so, when they heard what happened, they . . . they thought it would be better to call me th-than to intrude, you know?”
“Th-that was kind of them,” Lois murmured. “I-I’d better take it upstairs. Put it w-with his things. This . . . this was his favorite. Wore it almost everyday. I-it was such a pretty day f-for February.” She wiped at her eyes as she took the jacket and hugged it to her chest. “Oh! Oh! We have to . . . to lay out his clothes! The ones he’ll wear for . . . for . . .”
Bernie gently took her by the elbow and led her toward the back. “Why don’t we go do that now, honey?” he suggested kindly. “Nothing too fancy. You know how he hated to dress up.”
“But he looked so good when he . . .”
“It’s not what he wanted, Lo,” Bernie reminded her. He looked at the others over his shoulder as he led his distraught wife from the room. “Make yourselves at home,” he said. “We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“This is killing them,” Gary protested. “Isn’t there something I can do? Anything to make this easier for them?”
“It’s never that simple,” Andrew told him gently. “Losing someone, especially in such a violent manner, hurts. It’s a pain more of the heart and soul than of the body. Those wounds never heal completely. They just grow a scar to cover the pain.”
The office was just as he’d left it the night before. Unfinished paperwork was neatly stacked to one side, some of it still awaiting his signature. A half empty coffee cup attested to a late night getting his books in order for the coming week. On the otherwise tidy blotter were the inventory sheets, with penciled-in notations on what they needed to restock and a few things they should increase orders on. It looked as if he could be back any moment.
The worst place was the door leading to the stairwell going up to his loft. Lois vividly recalled rushing in, finding him lying in twin pools of his own blood. Although much of the wooden landing, and some of the steps, had been replaced, she could still sense the exact spot where she had cradled his bleeding head. Could still feel that moment of panic as she began to breathe life into him that first time when his heart had stopped. That heart twisting moment at the hospital when the doctor came out, his face telling her what she had most dreaded to hear before he ever opened his mouth.
“Please, Andrew,” Gary begged. “There’s got to be something I can do for them! Isn’t there some way I can talk to them? Let ‘em . . . let ’em know I’m not in any pain?”
“I’m sorry, Gary,” Andrew sighed, sounding genuinely distressed. “Things are a little complicated where you’re concerned.”
“Complicated how?” Gary asked angrily. “You let other people run around in my head to wrap up unfinished business. Why can’t I be allowed the same privilege?”
Andrew looked at his charge thoughtfully.
“C’mon, honey,” Bernie murmured, gently tugging her elbow.
Lois led the way into the loft, going straight to the wardrobe. She took out a hanger, carefully arranging the folds of the jacket before returning it to the free-standing closet. Looking around, she saw that Gary’s bed was still unmade, the covers tossed to one side and hanging almost to the floor. Instinctively, Lois began straightening the bed, fluffing and arranging the pillows as if she expected him to stumble in the door after an exhausting day with the Paper and fling himself onto it for a quick nap.
“We . . . we should look through his things,” she murmured distractedly. “Try to pick out something nice, but casual. You’re right. He hated to get dressed up. I thought, that jacket, maybe. He loved that jacket. A-and his blue shirt. The flannel one. Oh, dear! I just thought. Will we even be able to . . . to have an open casket? The way he w-was . . . It hardly looked like Gary at all!” She turned a tormented gaze on her husband. “I don’t want anyone else to see him like that! I-it was . . . “
Bernie gathered her in his arms as the dam finally burst. She leaned her head into his chest and released the tears she had been unable to shed downstairs. Her tears mingled with his as they gave vent to the grief that could no longer be contained. For what seemed like an eternity they stood there, intertwined in their shared torment as they rode out the worst of the storm, each leaning on the other for the strength to endure this latest trial.
It was a tentative knock on the door that finally dragged them from their tumultuous flood of emotions. Drying his eyes on a sleeve, Bernie released Lois long enough to answer that hesitant call.
“I-I’m sorry to intrude again,” Jake said, “but I have to meet Joan at the airport in a little while, and I didn’t want to leave w-without . . . y-you know.”
“That’s okay, Jake,” Lois sniffled. “H-have you ever seen Gary’s place? You two hadn’t known each other very long b-before . . . um, come in! Come in. Please.”
Hesitantly, Jake stepped the rest of the way into the loft, closing the door behind him. Following the bereaved couple, he got his first good look at his cousin’s home. It still seemed odd to think of Gary as his cousin. They hadn’t even known they were related at all until that disastrous ‘vacation’ the twins had talked them into last year. Jake had joined them out in Las Vegas just in time to help drive off two men intent on maiming, then killing the hapless barkeep. They had come a little too close to succeeding.
“Oh, dear,” Lois murmured. She had stopped next to a basket of clothes. “He forgot to put these away. And he was wearing this one just the other night,” she added, picking up a rumpled shirt from atop the neatly folded ones. She held it up to her face, breathing in the scent of his fabric softener and . . . something else. Just the faintest scent of his cologne, and his own personal aroma. A combination of scents that was exclusively him.
As her face twisted in a renewed flood of grief, Bernie and Jake both wrapped her in a protective wall of flesh, their own faces mirroring the pain that was too big for one heart to contain.
“Go on,” the angel sighed. “But only for a minute. He’s not you, and he can’t handle more then that.”
“Thank you!” Gary almost sobbed. “A minute’s all I’ll need.”
Still clinging to each other, they felt Jake suddenly stiffen as a chill passed through all three of them. Alarmed, Lois and Bernie looked up into the young banker’s eyes. He looked back with a depth of warmth and love that seemed bottomless, even compared to the grief that had been there just a second before.
“I love you both very much,” he said in a tone so much like Gary’s it was frightening! “I know that my birth was not in your plans. That you could have taken the ‘easy’ way out, but chose, instead, to have me and to love me. For that, I thank you. Just know that your son loves you, has always loved you, and will continue to love you . . . forever.”
Stunned, Lois and Bernie almost didn’t react in time as Jake’s eyes rolled up and he collapsed in their arms. Bernie helped him to the sofa as Lois hurried to the kitchenette for a glass of water.
“Wh-what the hell was that?” Jake murmured as he pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. “Whoa! For just a second or two I was . . . That was so weird!”
“I think you just gave us a message from Gary,” Lois told him, her lips curving up in a trembling smile as she pressed the glass of water into his hand and encouraged him to drink. She still had that note. The one in Gary’s handwriting that he told her couldn’t be real . . . because he had written it in a dream. She turned to see Bernie looking just as puzzled as Jake. “I’ll explain later, sweetie. The important thing is, he’s okay. Our baby’s okay,” she finished in a tight voice.
“Wh-what about the reunion?” Jake murmured softly, still feeling a little dazed. “Th-that’s one of the things I wanted to ask you. A-are you still gonna have that? Gary was the one stuck with all the arrangements, a-and I know he worked hard on that family tree, and the presentation on Captain Chandler. It’d be a shame to waste all his hard work.”
“Don’t do that to her, Jake,” Gary pleaded, having once more taken his place beside Andrew. “Can’t you see she can’t worry about that now?”
“I think he’d like that,” Lois replied with a wistful smile. “It’d be kind of like he was there with us, don’t you think?”
“I am here, Mom,” Gary told her, even though he knew none of them could hear him, now. “I’ll always be here when you need me.”
“Not this time,” the Angel of Death reminded him. “I’m afraid we have to go now, Gary. We have other plans, remember?”
MONDAY FEB 25 0500 HRS - NEVER-NEVER LAND
“Why are we back here?” Gary asked as they strode into the locker room. “What’s gonna happen, now?”
“Now comes the really amazing part,” Andrew assured him. “Just watch.”
Frank adjusted his bright orange flight suit, making sure his cell phone was safely fastened in its zippered pocket. He always felt a little silly in the garish, insulated, snugly fitting outfit, but it provided a certain amount of protection from the incredible G-forces involved in back stepping. Not enough to keep him from feeling like he had been put through a runaway cement mixer, but it was better than nothing. Tucking the white helmet under his arm with a sigh, Frank slammed his locker closed and headed for the launch pad, totally unaware of the spectral figures in his wake.
Dr. Olga Vukavitch almost ran into him as he stepped from the locker room. The slender redhead gave him a tentative smile as she fell in step at his side. She cleared her throat nervously, quickly looking down as if to check some figures on her clipboard.
“I think she likes him,” Gary chuckled.
“Like you’d know,” Andrew snorted.
“Are you all right, Mr. Parker?” she asked him. “You seemed distracted at the briefing yesterday.”
“I’m fine, Olga,” Frank sighed. “I just can’t get that poor bastard out of my head. I keep hearing him pleading, begging me to stop those trains. He didn’t ask for a doctor, a medic, or even a bandaid for himself. He was dying, and his only concern was for the people on those trains. When it happened, he just . . . caved. It’s like the only thing keeping him alive was the need to stop that wreck from happening. It was kinda . . . I dunno, humbling.”
“You make him sound like a saint,” the Russian physicist mused. “I’m certain that, once you get to know him, Mr. Hobson will prove to be just another stubborn, opinionated, chauvinistic, arrogant American male.”
“Are you sure we’ve never met before?” Gary asked. “She seems to know me pretty good. Except for that arrogant part. Do I seem arrogant to you?”
“A little self-centered at times,” Andrew shrugged with a waggle of his hand. “Nothing major.” He fought to suppress a smile at Gary’s insulted look.
“You need to bone up on your Bible studies,” Frank grinned. “Every one of the saints were just ordinary men who found God in their own way. Even Jesus had a hell of a temper. Or did you skip the part where he drove the moneylenders from the temple? No, Hobson’s not a saint. Not yet. Maybe in twenty, thirty years. Or maybe never. He just didn’t deserve what happened to him. Even serial killers are granted a ‘humane’ execution. Why beat a man like that? Why make him suffer a slow, agonizing death, just to steal his watch and wallet?”
“You don’t know the half of it, pal,” Gary shuddered. “And they missed the wallet.”
“We don’t know for certain that that is what happened,” Olga shrugged. “He may have been involved in what was about to happen and had a change of heart. Perhaps the thought of all those deaths weighed too heavily on his conscience.”
“Hate to disappoint you, sister,” Gary snorted, “but you’re only half right.”
“How are you going to find out anything if you don’t listen?” Andrew sighed.
“I’m listening!” Gary assured him. “I can’t put in my two cents worth?”
“You wouldn’t think that if you’d seen him, Olga,” Parker sighed. “He cried. Not because of what was done to him, but because he couldn’t stop those two trains from colliding. I keep hearing him apologizing, over and over, for not having the strength to throw that damned switch!”
Gary slowed his step, falling behind as a wave of memory washed over him. Andrew paused, eyeing him with concern.
“It’s just memories, Gary,” he assured the tormented soul. “You don’t have to take them with you if you don’t want to.”
“Good,” Gary replied with a shudder, hastening to regain lost ground.
At that point they emerged from the long corridor and into the launch bay. Olga gave Frank an encouraging smile as she excused herself and headed for the control room.
“I still think she likes him,” Gary insisted.
“Qui-et!” Andrew muttered, fighting back a smile.
“Whoa!” Gary exclaimed. “What the heck is that!”
“Your ticket back to the land of the living,” Andrew replied.
Even after more than four years and more missions than he wanted to count, Frank always got a chill whenever he saw the ‘Sphere.’ A huge, faceted ball, light blue in color, and about twenty feet in diameter. It sat in the framework of a large scaffold. Conduits, hoses, and cables created a web work that only added to its eerie appearance. There was an air of ‘otherworldliness’ about it. Justifiably so, since it was powered by an alien fuel source. When Frank Parker had been ‘rescued’ from the mental ward of Hansen Island, and drafted into the Back-Step program, he learned that the reports of an extraterrestrial spacecraft crashing in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, had been true. The wreck had been salvaged and, over the years, had yielded some amazing discoveries. The Backstep Program was the result of one of them.
As Frank approached the device, Ramsey and Donovan fell in on either side of him. Ramsey handed the chrononaut a very thick, bound report, while Craig helped Frank secure his helmet.
“That’s everything we could find on Hobson,” Ramsey said, almost shouting to be heard over the ambient noises of the launch bay. “What I gave you this morning just scrapes the surface. There’s definitely somethin’ strange goin’ on with this guy. He’s been mixed up in all kinds o’ trouble over the last five, almost six years, now. And I mean all kinds. He’s been hunted all over the Tri-state area twice by the police, and once by the Tong. There’s police records in there, along with medical records, psych profiles, and . . . and his autopsy. From the bruise patterns, he was beaten with fists and blunt instruments. Clubs of some kind. There are abrasions on his wrists and ankles, but none on his hands. There were also a lot of shallow cuts and burn marks. Whoever did this to him, they weren’t just out to kill him. That man was tortured.” Nate handed over another sheet of paper. “The small airfield he landed in was just five minutes from the station. Where was he for the other one hundred and seventy-five?”
“You really don’t want to know the answer to that,” Gary grumbled, suppressing another shudder. He looked over the security chief’s shoulder at the photos taken at the autopsy and the shudder broke free. “Please tell me my parents won’t ever see these!”
“They won’t,” Andrew assured him.
Frank shuddered as he pictured what those missing hours must have been like for Gary Hobson. Bound hand and foot, possibly gagged to muffle the screams of pain. The lack of abrasions on his hands meant that he was not even given the chance to defend himself. The burn marks . . . were they questioning him? Trying to wring information out of him about the upcoming wreck? It was beginning to smell more and more like sabotage. And murder.
“Kinda rules out your garden variety mugging, doesn’t it?” he murmured as he leafed through the report. “You expect me to memorize all this before lift-off?”
“Talmadge said to take it with you,” was Craig’s surprising answer. “The panel approved it. They think that, in order to recruit Hobson, you may have to tell him about the project. He’ll think you’re nuts, of course . . .”
“Like he’s got room to talk?” Frank chuckled as he read about an incident involving a stolen mattress costume. “Have you read this? Is there anything this guy wasn’t into? Oh, wait! I gotta read this! How do you get excused from jury duty for life? And get this. He was ‘pantsed!’ In public, no less! Is that a tattoo?” he asked, taking a closer look at the picture.
“Aw, man!” Gary groaned. “Couldn’t they leave me a little dignity?”
“You haven’t exactly led a normal life, lately,” Andrew remarked with a wry grin.
Gary shot the angel a sarcastic look that spoke volumes. “Like I asked for any of this?”
“Anyway,” Craig sighed, “they think he might need some convincing. If you think it’s necessary, you’re to show him that. And, if that doesn’t do the trick, this should.” He handed the chrononaut a folded newspaper.
His first glance at the front page was like an ice bath, completely wiping away all traces of humor. It was a copy of Sunday morning’s Chicago Sun-Times with the story of the train wreck on page one. In the bottom corner of page three was a smaller headline, circled in red, with a photograph of the dead man. It showed a youngish man with a thick shock of dark hair and a ready smile that reached all the way to his eyes. A youthful, all-American face that practically screamed ‘Mom and apple pie.’ A face that belonged on a billboard, or a movie screen, not in the obituaries. He was the quintessential ‘boy next door.’ So what was he doing getting himself tortured and murdered by terrorists? For Frank thoroughly believed that that was what had happened.
On page six was an article detailing Hobson’s death at the hands of unknown assailants. There was a picture with this, also. A picture that was already burned into his brain. It had been taken at the train station just minutes after the derailment, while they were still waiting for the rescue crews to arrive. It showed Parker and Donovan cradling the battered, bloody figure that was still, barely, recognizable as having once been a human being.
“God!” he murmured dismally. “I hope his parents didn’t see this.”
“That makes two of us.”
“If that doesn’t convince him,” Craig was saying, “I don’t know what will. I mean, how often do you get tomorrow’s newspaper?”
“Oh, brother,” Gary chuckled. “If you only knew!”
“Let’s go, gentlemen,” a voice boomed over the intercom. “The clock is ticking!”
Parker clambered up the metal steps with a sigh. It was time to ride the cement mixer.
Gary watched as Parker entered the giant sphere. After what seemed an indeterminable amount of time, the countdown began. The air seemed supercharged with energy as someone, the woman, started calling out power levels. Cables started falling away until only the ones feeding it power remained. He stood on the gantry, looking in at the man who was going to undo what he had been unable to prevent. A blindingly blue flash of energy washed over him and Gary saw Parker’s eyes widen. As the world dissolved into a swirling limbo, Gary was almost certain that the time pilot had seen him.
TUESDAY FEB 19 0500 HRS - CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
Gary sank down on his bed with an explosive sigh. Looking at the clock, he wondered if it was worth the effort to even get undressed. The Paper had sent him all the way up to Skokie to stop two men from killing each other in a barroom brawl over, of all things, who was going to take the new waitress home. Gary had solved her problem by letting her take his cab, and paying the fare. Which had left him at the not so tender mercies of the two drunks. He still wasn’t clear on the details after that first punch, but he had somehow managed to avoid a second, and ran like a rabbit. At least the headline had disappeared, to be replaced by an advertisement for acid relief.
He pressed a bag of frozen peas to his left eye, hoping to keep the swelling down. Still, he was going to have another shiner to explain the next day. Maybe he should take Peter up on that offer of self-defense classes? Either that, or strap his hockey stick to one hip. ‘Naw,’ he decided. ‘That wouldn’t do. I’d be trippin’ over it every time I turned around.’
Gary had just about decided to try for that one blessed hour of sleep when he saw the streak of light flash across the glittering skyline. It was followed a second later by a muffled ’whumph!’ At almost the same instant, a strange . . . jolt shuddered through his athletic frame. He jumped to his feet in alarm. What the heck was that? The Paper hadn’t said anything about a plane crash! Or was it something else? Whatever it was had gone by so fast, his mind hadn’t really been able to register any details. Was it a meteor? Or maybe a piece of a satellite whose orbit had decayed? Whatever it was seemed to have landed somewhere to the north. Maybe Lincoln Park?
The amateur astronomer in Gary was instantly intrigued, banishing his fatigue. Traffic was light at this hour. If he took the van, he could be there in just a few minutes. He took a second to toss the bag of peas back into the freezer before snatching his keys from the top of the dresser and bolting out the door.
Frank Parker pushed the hatch open with a groan. As usual, he felt as if every muscle and bone in his body had been used for a quick game of racquetball. It was only his unusually high pain threshold that allowed him to move as if he had endured nothing worse than a bad night on a lumpy mattress. Quickly stripping off his flight suit, Frank pulled out the carryall holding the Hobson dossier, the paper, and his favorite jacket. Before locking the hatch, he retrieved the cell phone from his flight suit, hitting the speed dial as he turned and walked away from the sphere.
“Conundrum,” he said as soon as the switchboard answered. This got him patched through to Bradley Talmadge’s secure line. As succinctly as possible, he relayed the events leading up to the back-step. “Hobson’s the only lead we had,” he concluded, “but he died before he could tell us anything. I’m supposed to get close to him and find out what he knows,” he added evasively.
“We’ll get busy on our end,” Bradley assured him. “Ramsey will find out everything there is to know about your Mr. Hobson and Craig will hand deliver it by tomorrow afternoon.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Frank told his superior. “I’ve got a complete dossier with me. Hobson isn’t behind this. That’s one thing I’m sure of.” He ducked into a clump of bushes as he saw someone approaching the landing site at a slow jog. “I’ll explain later,” he whispered. “Gotta go.”
Pocketing the phone, Parker watched as the figure passed through the radiance of a streetlamp. To his astonishment, a very alert, very alive Gary Hobson ran past, heading in the general direction of the sphere. What was the guy doing up at this hour? Frank watched as the tavern keeper caught sight of the still smoking time ship.
With a wide-eyed look of wonder, Gary Hobson walked completely around the vessel, staying well out of arm’s reach. As he circled back into the light, Frank could hear him muttering to himself. He had to bite his lip to keep from chuckling at the way Hobson was answering his own questions.
“A satellite, maybe?” Hobson murmured excitedly. “No, couldn’t be. This was a controlled landing. Military experiment? Maybe. Manned or remote controlled? Manned, probably. So, where’s the pilot? Musta gone somewhere to call in the recovery crew. Where are the engines? What kinda power source does it use? This is . . . Man!”
Frank Parker shook his head in wry amusement. Hobson was grinning like a kid on his first trip to Disneyland. The NSA agent just could not see this wide-eyed innocent as having anything to do with the horror to come. Hobson certainly didn’t seem the type to warrant even half the violence done to him!
Finally, Hobson straightened with a wistful sigh. He still had not tried to touch the sphere, or even approach too closely. Now he started backing away, unable to take his eyes from the bizarre object until he was almost level with Frank’s hiding place. Glancing at his watch, which was affixed to what looked like a leather wrist brace, Hobson gave one more sigh and turned back the way he had come. A couple of minutes later, Frank heard a car engine start up and drive away. Only then did he emerge from his concealment.
“So, that’s the real you, huh, Mr. Hobson?” Parker murmured. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you.”
By the time Gary returned to the loft, he had just enough time for a quick shower and shave before the Paper arrived. Wiping the last bit of lather from his face, he opened the door to allow the cat to saunter in like visiting royalty. Gary bent down and scooped the Paper up, quickly skimming through the headlines as he closed the door and headed back toward the kitchenette. He popped open the can of Fancy Feast with one hand and dumped it into the cat’s dish, never taking his eyes from the Paper as he broke the clump up with a fork. Setting the dish down in front of the patient feline, he wandered back into the living area, finally taking a seat on the sofa as he continued to read.
So far, the day didn’t look too bad. A few of the inevitable traffic accidents, a miming incident, and choking by . . . bagpipe? How the heck . . .? The article told of a street performer who accidentally swallowed his mouthpiece when knocked down by a bike courier. Oookay!.
Looking at his watch, Gary saw that he had time for a decent breakfast and to go over yesterday’s receipts before the first traffic fatality was due to occur. If he ate fast, he might even have time for a second cup of coffee! With Marissa away on her honeymoon, all the paperwork fell back on him. Along with the day-to-day business of running the bar. Add that to his ‘other activities,’ and it added up to a lot of work and very little free time.
Normally, his parents would come over to help with the bar, but they had finally closed on a house in the suburbs after more than a year of searching for the ‘right one.’ Today they had to supervise the delivery of all their furniture and appliances.
The staff started showing up around ten o’clock to help get things ready for the lunch hour. Dave, his head chef, was quick to get the kitchen in gear, preparing a few staple dishes in advance. Robin and Vadim helped Gary set out bowls of various snack foods, recheck the stock, and carry out a supply of clean glassware. By eleven o’clock, everything was ready.
By eleven fifteen, Gary had stopped Natalya Kirillova from being hit by an overworked cabbie. An hour later, Brian Youngblood was doing the ‘walking against a strong wind’ skit in his mime routine, unmindful of the open storm drain behind him. Gary dropped a sheet of plywood over the gaping manhole just in the nick of time. Three blocks away, Donald Stewart was saved from asphyxiation when Gary stepped in front of the distracted courier. Gary was knocked to the sidewalk, but got right back up. And no one else was hurt, which was the important thing.
By six o’clock, Gary had finished for the day. Which was a huge relief. It looked like he might get to bed at a decent hour for once. As he wearily dragged himself home, he kept rubbing at the back of his neck with his left hand. He’d had the strangest feeling all day. A kind of persistent itch, as if someone were watching him. Even now, he couldn’t shake that odd, tingling sensation. Several times, he had turned suddenly, hoping to catch someone staring. He had yet to see the same face twice.
He limped into McGinty’s around six thirty, his left hip still sore from the tumble he’d taken in saving Stewart. The dinner crowd was good tonight, and not too rowdy. He spotted a couple of teenagers trying to pass as being of legal age and signaled Gene with a shake of his head. Three guys who had obviously reached their limit were singing off key at one of the back tables. Gary pulled Karen aside and told her to call them a cab. He then sat down with the jovial trio, keeping them distracted and learning where they lived. When the cab arrived, he and Karen helped to load them into the vehicle. Gary even gave the driver enough money to cover the fare and a good tip.
“That was generous of you.”
Gary turned to find a lean-faced man sitting at the bar, sipping on a glass of draft beer. He seemed to be shorter than Gary, with thick dark hair. He was dressed in a dark t-shirt, faded jeans, and a dark leather jacket. Bird-like eyes studied him over the rim of the glass. Although the man seemed to be totally relaxed, Gary had the feeling that this man never really let his guard down. For some reason, the man seemed strangely familiar.
“Not really,” Gary told him. “Places like this thrive on return visits. Those guys can’t come back if they get themselves killed.” He stuck his hand out. “Gary Hobson. I‘m, um, I’m afraid I sorta co-own this place.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hobson,” the man replied with a quick grin and a handshake. “Frank Parker. I wish more barkeeps had your concern for their customer’s safety. Think how much safer the roads would be.”
Gary eased himself onto the neighboring barstool with a grimace. ‘That hip’s gonna give me hell tonight,’ he sighed to himself. “I don’t remember seeing you in here before,” he grunted. “Do you live in Chicago?”
Frank shook his head as he sipped at his beer. “Just visiting for a few days,” he replied. “What’s wrong with your leg? You’ve been limping ever since you got here.”
“Little biking accident,” Gary shrugged. “Y-you got a place to stay, yet?”
“The Best Western River North on Ohio,” Frank replied with a grin. Hobson was pumping him for information! This was a game Parker had played many times before, this mental fencing. He had been watching Hobson all morning without the other man seeing him. Although it had been close a couple of times. Twice, Frank had barely managed to duck out of sight as Hobson spun around to ‘check his six.’ And what a chase they’d had! The man had pretty much led Frank on a tour of the city! From his count, at least six people owed their lives to the poor guy. Nine if he counted the Off-Key Trio. He was more and more convinced that Hobson was no threat to National Security. “There’s a lot to see in your city,” Frank commented, trying to keep it casual. “Any suggestions on where I should start?”
The corner of Gary’s mouth twitched into a sort of half-smile as he rattled off some of his favorite places, as well as a few ethnic restaurants that weren’t mentioned in the tourist guides. He still seemed a little on edge, though, so Frank decided to rattle his chain a little.
“Did you hear that sonic boom this morning?” Parker asked innocently. “I thought jets weren’t allowed to fly that fast over the city!”
It was like a shutter being closed. Gary was instantly on the alert.
“I heard something,” he murmured cautiously. “I-it was real early. D-don’t . . . don’t know what it was, though.”
“But you don’t think it was a jet,” Frank observed. The guy was a terrible liar. Frank leaned over toward his host and asked in a conspiratorial whisper, “Was it a UFO?”
The look Hobson gave him was one Parker had seen many times, usually aimed in his direction. A look that seriously questioned how many bricks shy of a full load he might be.
“You’ve been watching too much TV,” he said. “You need to get out more.”
Before Parker could reply, one of the waitresses dropped a tray of glasses as a rough looking man tried to pull her into his lap.
“Hey!” Gary snapped. “This ain’t ‘Roadhouse,’ Mac. We don’t manhandle the ladies, here,” he added as he limped over to rescue Karen. He had only taken a few steps when the man let go of the young woman and stood to his full height.
The guy was a behemoth! He towered a good six inches over Hobson, with shoulders that made Parker wonder how he’d ever fit through the front door! The giant took a step forward, grabbing Hobson by the front of his jacket, lifting him until his feet barely touched the floor. “What if I say different?” he growled.
To his credit, the barkeep never backed down. He lost a little color, and Parker could see his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed convulsively, but he stood his ground, looking the bully straight in the eye.
“Then I’ll have to ask you to leave,” Gary replied softly, his voice strained but steady. “There are people here with small kids, mister. Do you really want to start something in front of them? We both know you can take me apart without breaking a sweat. But what would it prove? Do you want to show everyone what a big man you are by giving little children nightmares?”
The big guy looked around uncertainly to see a mother holding a wide-eyed little girl close to her side. Next to her was a young boy just a year or two older than the girl. All three were staring at him in shocked silence.
“Do you have kids?” Gary asked, keeping his voice low. “Would you want them watching you beat up on someone half your size? Think about it. Is the thrill worth the price?”
Apparently not. Slowly, the giant lowered the barkeep to the floor and released his hold on the leather jacket. He then backed away, his bearded face flushed with embarrassment. “Sorry, mister,” he grumbled. “I guess I sorta lost my head.”
“No problem,” Gary assured him. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you behave yourself. Just please remember that these young ladies have to work for a living the same as you do. That entitles them to the same measure of respect, don’t you think?”
The big man just nodded as he took his seat, unable to meet Gary’s eyes. He mumbled an apology to Karen as he returned to his meal. Gary gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze then turned back to the bar.
“Show’s over, people,” he said with a shaky grin. “Enjoy your meals and have a drink and dessert on the house.” As everyone cheered and turned to their menus, the giant flashed Gary a grateful smile. He no longer had to endure the fascinated stares of the other patrons.
“That was impressive,” Frank remarked with a tight-lipped grin. It had been all he could do not to jump to Hobson’s defense. He had to remind himself that Hobson was not going to die tonight. “You have to do that a lot?”
“No, thank God,” Gary sighed. He started to pick up the beer Gene had set in front of him, only to find that his hands were shaking too bad.
A fact that didn’t escape Parker. “You were scared to death!” he murmured softly. “That guy scared the living crap outta you, and you still . . . He coulda killed you!”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Gary replied in a tremulous voice. “I thought I was gonna have an accident back there. Of both kinds!” He cupped both hands over his mouth and heaved a deep sigh of relief. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’m gonna have to call it a night. Gene, would you mind closing up?”
“No problem,” the sandy haired bartender replied, solicitously. “You look beat! Lock up at the usual time?”
“Earlier if things slow down,” Gary nodded wearily. He finally took a swig of his beer, then set the mug aside. “Nice meeting you, Mr. Parker. Come see us again while you’re in town.”
“I’ll do that,” Frank promised. As he watched Hobson limp toward the back rooms, he added a mental note to himself. ‘You can bet the farm I’ll be back, Gary Hobson. I’ve got way too many questions. And the answers keep raising more questions!’
Gary tested the water in the Jacuzzi with his hand as he finished getting undressed. Sliding into the swirling water, he breathed a sigh of relief. God! That felt good! As the barrage of bubbles massaged his aching muscles, he could feel the tension starting to ease. He leaned back with another sigh. Of all the changes wrought when Kovaleski had made his loft ’user friendly’ after his accident, this had to be the best.
As the water lulled him into a lethargic half doze, Gary kept thinking about the thing he had seen that morning in Lincoln Park. He couldn’t have been the only one to have seen that bright flash! And why had no one else reported hearing the impact? Surely those living closer to the park than he did would’ve been rocked right out of their beds! It was strange that there was nothing about it in any of the papers or the TV news. Which only served to confirm his theory that it was a top-secret military device. They must’ve been tracking it pretty close to have covered it up so fast. He wondered at the purpose of such a machine.
Maybe he should call General Hammond? See if it was related to whatever they were working on in Cheyenne Mountain. ‘Nah,’ he decided. ’Best to stay out of it. I’ve had enough weirdness from that place.’
Which led his mind to the weird feeling he’d had all day. Like eyes drilling into the back of his neck. What was that all about? And why did he feel that this Parker guy was mixed up in all of this somehow? Gary knew that he had never seen the man before that night. So why did Parker look so familiar? Could he be connected to that thing in the park? Did he know Gary had seen the device, been checking it out? Was that why he mentioned it, to see how the barkeep would react? Gary sat straight up in the water as a chilling thought occurred to him.
What if Parker had been the pilot? He could’ve been hiding somewhere close by, watching to make sure no one messed with the sphere. Had he followed Gary? Watched him to see if he told anyone else what he’d seen? If so, what did he make of the fact that Gary had made no such move? Was he relieved, or did he think it suspicious? Christ! What had Parker seen?
Twice before, Gary had had this uncomfortable feeling of being watched. The first time had been little Henry Paget, Erica’s son. He had stumbled onto one of Gary’s more unusual rescues and gotten curious, ultimately leading to his discovery of the Paper. A discovery that had almost proved fatal for Henry’s father. The second time had been when Gary’s best friend, Chuck Fishman, had returned from Los Angeles and tried to get film of Gary in action in order to pitch an idea for a new TV series. An act of betrayal that had led to Gary embarrassing himself on the Jerry Springer show, almost gotten Chuck killed, and saved a group of cheerleaders from a fiery plane crash. Which, in turn, had led to Chuck producing a TV series about cheerleaders.
Sometimes, the twists and turns his life kept taking left Gary feeling like a rat in an ever-changing maze. Just when he thought he had a lock on the situation, the rules changed and he was back to square one, usually with a humongous headache.
Finally, more than thirty-six hours without sleep had taken its toll. Gary felt his eyes grow heavy as a wave of exhaustion threatened to pull him under. Literally. Deciding he’d be better off sleeping on his mattress rather than in the tub, he reluctantly let the water drain as he toweled himself off and got ready for bed. Tomorrow was another day, and there was no telling what the cat might drag in.
Parker had remained in the bar until he was certain Hobson had truly retired for the night. It had only taken a few idle questions to learn that he lived in a loft above the bar. With, of all things, a cat. He would’ve figured a guy with Hobson’s looks, and owning his own business, to be married or at least have a steady girlfriend. But he had been told that the poor guy’s social life was, and this half joking remark had sent a chill up Parker’s spine, a train wreck. The cat had arrived with Gary when he took over the bar. Frank wondered if it were the same orange feline that had sat watching him for over an hour.
Frank had finally finished the beer he’d been nursing for the past hour and left. He’d then watched from across the street until the lights had gone out in the window upstairs. He found himself wondering what life was like for this man.
Ever since joining Project Backstep, Frank had chaffed at being constantly watched. He’d wanted nothing more than to be left alone. Then he’d met Olga Vukavitch. The lovely redheaded physicist had captured his heart from the moment he’d first laid eyes on her. In that original timeline, they had started something. Something special. Then he had been sent back to stop a terrorist attack on the Capitol that would have killed more than just the President, his cabinet, and everyone else in the Whitehouse. The lethal nerve gas would also have slain all the children in a pre-school field trip. His son, Jimmy, was among those children.
When Parker had successfully completed the mission, saved the country from the turmoil of being politically leaderless, captured or killed the terrorists, and given his son a big hug, he had found Olga to be . . . different. She was colder and more distant. It had taken him a while to realize what had happened. The Russian beauty believed that he was merely using his knowledge of the future to ‘push her buttons.’ She was determined not to be just another ‘notch on his bedpost.’
It had taken time, and quite often, Frank had been forced to start from scratch, but they now had a relationship built on mutual respect, trust, and a measure of physical attraction. He was also able to admit that he loved her. He couldn’t imagine living his life without her.
Hobson’s dossier mentioned that he had been married once, and that it had broken up shortly before he quit his job at a prominent brokerage firm. What had happened there? Had he been unable to climb the ladder of success fast enough to suit her needs? And why quit his job? How had he supported himself between leaving Strauss and Associates, and obtaining the title to McGinty’s? That was another thing that bothered Frank. The way the bar, which at one point was scheduled for demolition, had just been handed to Hobson less than a week after he had been left homeless by a fire in his hotel.
The reports didn’t go into any real depths as far as Hobson’s social life went, and Frank had to wonder who Lindsay was. A steady girl or an ex? The NSA agent might never know. One thing he did know for sure, Hobson was no terrorist. The man had spent half the day saving other people from harm. That just did not fit with the sort of mindset that would bring about the kind of devastation that Frank was there to prevent. In fact, Gary Hobson had to be one of the nicest guys Frank had ever met.
“The Panel has made its decision, Frank,” Talmadge told him when he reported in. “Find out everything you can about Hobson, especially how he’s able to predict these events so accurately. If he can be of any service to the program, they want him brought into the fold. One way or another.”
Frank sank back against the headboard with a sigh of resignation. He’d hoped to avoid this by deliberately downplaying Hobson’s role in the earlier report, but he was already on record in regards to September 11th.
“I take it that means we aren’t going to warn anyone about the train wreck,” he grumbled.
“That’s correct,” Talmadge sighed. “I know it’s taking a big risk, Frank, but we have to be able to track Hobson’s actions leading up to that event. We have to know how it happened, and how he knew it was going to happen.”
“But you weren’t there, Bradley,” Parker pointed out. “You didn’t see what those bastards did to him. And that was hours before the wreck! I don’t want to take a chance of losing sight of him. Is Craig on his way, yet?”
“He leaves first thing in the morning,” was the welcome reply.
“Great,” Frank sighed. “I need him to bring me some things. And, if the Panel wants Hobson so bad, they’d better okay the expense. The man is no good to anyone if he’s dead.”
WEDNESDAY FEB 20 0630 HRS - CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
Gary rolled over and slapped the snooze button on the clock/radio in the middle of the traffic report. Odds were he’d end up either walking, running, or taking the EL anyway.
Frank found a position from which he could watch both exits from the bar, and enjoy his espresso as he waited for Hobson to make his first appearance of the day. He had no idea what to expect, so he had been waiting patiently since dawn and needed the caffeine to stay awake.
His vigilance paid off as Hobson came out the front door at a brisk walk. He had a newspaper in his hands that he kept glancing at from time to time as he hurried down the street. After the first couple of blocks, he rolled it up and stuck it inside his jacket. Tossing his empty cup into a nearby trashcan, Frank followed no more than half a block behind, but not so close that his quarry would be able to spot him right away.
Gary had to hurry to get to the school crossing before little Jessica Barclay stepped off the curb. He snagged her by the strap of her backpack just as the delivery van came barreling around the corner. The driver looked up from his radio dial at that precise moment and slammed on his brakes! He screeched to a halt two feet past the white lines of the school crossing. Little Jessica would’ve been toast!
As Jessica’s friends crowded around her, oo-ing and ah-ing at her brush with death, and the driver jumped out to assure himself that she was all right, Gary quietly faded into the background. The child was safe, and she seemed more excited about what had happened than frightened. His presence was no longer necessary.
Gary couldn’t help lingering a moment, only turning away when someone finally recalled the hand that had seemingly come out of nowhere to snatch the child from the brink of disaster. He stuck both hands in his pockets and hurried back the way he had come.
Frank watched Hobson watching the children. The look on his face was one of such longing! It was a look that Parker imagined he himself wore those times he could only watch his child from a distance. The reports mentioned nothing about children. Was that one of Hobson’s dreams? To be a father and a family man? What was stopping him?
Ducking out of sight, Parker watched as the object of his surveillance turned and strolled back the way he had come. He was in no hurry, now, and not really watching where he was going. Hobson stopped to watch a couple holding hands as they gazed through the window of a jewelry store. Without saying a word, or indicating in any way that he knew them, he stuck his hands in his pockets and walked on. A few minutes later, he returned through the front door of McGinty’s.
Frank could not recall ever having seen anyone look so . . . alone.
Parker jumped as his reverie was interrupted by a trilling chirrup. Cursing softly, he pulled out his cell phone. He’d forgotten to set it on vibrate. Good thing it hadn’t gone off while he’d been trailing Hobson.
“Frank? It’s Craig,” the voice at the other end identified itself. “Where are you?”
“Half a block north of Illinois and Franklin,” Frank murmured softly. “Hobson just got back from taking a walk. You?”
“Just leaving O’Hare. I’ve got everything you asked for,” was the welcome report. “The big shots must want this guy bad. They flew me first class,” he added with a dry chuckle. “You will tell me what this is all about when I get there, right?”
“Talmadge or Ramsey didn’t tell you?” Frank asked, surprised. It wasn’t like them to keep any of the team in the dark about a mission.
“Not a word,” Donovan sighed. “They said you’d fill me in when we meet up.”
Frank glanced over at the door to McGinty’s with a sigh of frustration. He was going to have to break off his surveillance for now.
“Pick me up at the corner of Ohio and Franklin,” he said. “There’re some things I left at the hotel you’ll need to see.”
Frank tossed the newspaper on the bed, the front page showing a horrifying picture of the coming tragedy.
“Over two hundred and fifty people will die,” Parker told his friend. “Sixty more will be maimed for life. Two people in the very last car of the regular passenger train will escape unharmed. Everyone in the Vice Presidential train will die. Hobson will collapse in my arms before the trains even hit.” He turned to page six and the gruesome photo. “He dies later that evening, from injuries he apparently received in a ‘mugging.’” He went on to describe Hobson’s bizarre behavior, his incoherent ramblings as he slipped into unconsciousness. “The big brass thinks that he’s either connected with the people behind it somehow, or he had some kind of . . . premonition.”
“And you don’t go with the terrorist theory,” Donovan nodded.
“Nothing about the guy fits that scenario,” the chrononaut sighed. “I mean, look at this picture,” he added, turning to the obituaries. “Everything about it screams ‘boy scout.’ He stood up to a bully nearly twice his size last night, and made the guy back down. When it was over, his hands were shaking so bad he couldn’t pick up a beer mug. I watched him save over half a dozen people from death or serious injury yesterday, and at least one more today. God only knows what he’s doing as we speak. And . . . God! Craig, I just . . .” He jumped up and started pacing the narrow space between the bed and dresser. “This is so weird, ‘cause you were right there a-and you weren’t. You don’t remember the way he was begging us to stop what was about to happen. The way he . . . he cried, just broke down and cried like a baby, because he was too late. Does that sound like a cold-blooded terrorist to you?”
Craig sank onto the bed with a sigh, unable to take his eyes from the paper. He kept flipping the pages back and forth between Hobson smiling, and Hobson dying. The contrast was heart wrenching.
“No, it doesn’t,” he murmured. “So what’s his tie-in with these people? If they weren’t behind the wreck, why this? Why kill a man in this manner? Also, if Hobson isn’t connected to these people, how did he know about the wreck to begin with? None of this makes any sense!”
Gary stretched out on his sofa with a weary sigh. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was just a little before noon. After saving little Jessica, he’d had time for a quick shower and a cup of coffee on the fly before having to tear over to Michigan Avenue to stop a construction worker from falling ten floors onto a mound of debris, then to run six more blocks to keep Dan Puckett from being mauled by his neighbor’s dog. Shortly after that, Gary was hanging onto Joey Hancock for dear life as they dangled from the ledge of a derelict apartment building. The ten year old runaway was now safely in the hands of Social Services. And Gary was beat. In between these ‘high points,’ had been the usual assortment of ‘minor’ incidents.
Actually they’d been tragic accidents that were so easily prevented that it was pathetic. Grabbing a guy by the elbow to keep him from walking through a pane of plate glass about to be installed in a department store window. Covering an open manhole before the skater, who was watching the slender brunette with the dazzling smile, could fall in and break his neck. Playing traffic cop for a few minutes to quell a case of ‘road rage.’ The guy had no idea how lucky he was. That tiny blonde would’ve kicked his butt all the way to Intensive Care! Then had been the choking incident at the Starbuck’s a few blocks away. Didn’t anyone take time to chew their food anymore? Granted, bagels could be a little tough . . .
It all added up to an exhausting morning. At least he hadn’t been plagued with that persistent ‘itch’ at the back of his neck since right after saving little Jessica. And he had been too distracted, then, to pay it any mind. Just the sight of children, lately, left him with a feeling of . . . melancholy, for want of a better word. One of the dreams he had nurtured during his brief marriage had been to have kids. Just a couple would’ve been fine, but he’d have been just as happy with a houseful. Now, he knew it would be unfair to impose his erratic lifestyle on a wife and children. But, the dream was one that did not easily let go.
Gary turned his head just enough to look at the animal perched on the coffee table out of the corner of his eye.
“Don’t I even get lunch?” he grumbled.
The cat leaped onto Gary’s stomach and began pawing at the paper sticking out of his jacket. Sitting up with a low growl of frustration, Gary pulled out the mystic periodical and began skimming the headlines. There was still more than two hours before he had to stop that fire in Greektown. There was nothing he could do about the stalled elevator until just before it happened, and that wasn’t going to be until 4:45 PM! In fact, the only thing he had before two-thirty was . . . Gary looked at the article about the runaway horse in Lincoln Park. It reminded him of that weird sphere he’d seen the morning before. And that reminded him of Parker for some reason. Why could he not shake the feeling that he knew Frank Parker from somewhere? And what was his connection to that blue sphere? What was his interest in Gary?
Gary rubbed at the back of his neck with one hand as he felt the first signs of a headache coming on. And it promised to be a doozy!
Washing down a couple of aspirin with a swig of soda, Gary took one bite of his sandwich and headed for the door. The Paper had added a hit and run just three blocks away. A metallic blue Toyota Corolla was going to strike an, as yet, unidentified African-American male in his mid-thirties. Gary had less than ten minutes to get to the scene. Why did the article not show up earlier, before he’d started fixing a meal which was now left sitting on his counter? Gary had a sneaking suspicion the cat was taking advantage of him. He had noticed that the orange tabby was starting to look a little chunky, lately.
Taking the stairs a lot faster than he considered safe, Gary bolted through the kitchen and out of the back door of McGinty’s. In his haste, he failed to notice Frank Parker lounging on a bench in front of the restaurant across the street.
The NSA agent had a good view of both the front door and the alley behind the bar from that position. The instant Hobson burst out of the back door, Parker leaped to his feet and hurried after his quarry. He spotted Hobson ducking into the alley running north toward West Grand, barely keeping him in sight as the barkeep made a quick right, then dashed across the street at the corner, still heading east. Parker had to wait for a break in the traffic before he could cross, almost losing sight of his target. He watched as Hobson made a quick left, running north on LaSalle. Was he heading toward the hotel? Frank recalled telling him where he was staying. But why the urgency?
Gary was running all out, now. He made the turn onto Ohio without falling only by grabbing onto the lamppost at the corner. Chest heaving, he looked around for someone who fit the description of the man in the Paper. There! A tall, athletic-looking black man was just coming out of the hotel. He paused, looked around, then started toward the far corner. Gary ran to catch up with him. As he watched, the man stepped up to the corner, looked both ways, and stepped into the street. He was apparently headed for the Rainforest Café.
The metallic blue car came barreling around the corner on two wheels! Gary poured everything he had into a burst of speed, at the same time screaming out a warning at the top of his lungs! As the car drew closer, Gary launched himself at the man, tackling him hard enough to send both of them rolling out of the way of the speeding car. Seconds later, a police cruiser, sirens blaring, came speeding around the same corner as the Toyota.
Frank came on the scene just as the two men went rolling across the pavement, out of harm’s way. Hobson had, in effect, wrapped himself protectively around the other man, taking the brunt of the damage as they tumbled into the curb. Dazed, Gary lay where he had fallen, moving his arms and legs gingerly. The man Hobson had just rescued was the first to sit up. Shaking his head, Craig Donovan reached down to help a breathless Hobson to his feet. The barkeep sat up on his own, waving the hand away as he tried to catch his breath.
“Are you okay?” Donovan was asking as Frank ran up to join them.
“F-fine,” Gary wheezed. “Y-you?”
“Man, you just saved my life!” Donovan replied, shaking his head in astonishment. “I didn’t even see it coming!”
“That was incredible!” Frank said as he ran up. “I saw the whole . . . It was awesome! Are you okay, Donovan? Man, Hobson! How did you know? I mean . . . how could you know?”
Still winded from the mad dash to get there, Gary stared at Parker.
“Wh-what . . . what’re you . . .?” He looked up at the marquee of the hotel, comprehension penetrating his oxygen starved brain. “Y-you’re staying . . . here?”
“Um, yeah,” Parker admitted. “I told you that, remember?”
“G-guess I f-forgot,” Gary panted. He started to get to his feet, wincing as a spasm of pain shot up his spine. “Aw, crap!” he hissed, rubbing at his lower back. “I don’t seem to b-bounce as well as I used to. I guess I c-could use that hand, now,” he added, reaching out to Donovan.
Parker took his other hand and, between them, they managed to help Hobson to his feet without too much stress on his aching back. Gary stood there, leaning against a parking meter as he fought to get his breathing under control.
“How’d you know?” Parker asked again. “There’s no way you coulda seen it coming. You came running from the south. That car came around the corner from the north! How did you know?”
Gary just looked at the two men helplessly. There was no way he could answer that. Not without telling them about the Paper. And he wasn’t about to do that. Glancing at his watch, Gary saw he still had more than an hour before he needed to go to Lincoln Park. He glanced over at the place where the man he’d just saved had been headed, then back to the others.
“I haven’t had lunch, yet,” he said. “You guys hungry?”
“I saw you running like a bat outta hell over a block away,” Parker told the man seated before him. “On Grand, which is a block in the other direction! How could you know that car was coming, or that it would come barreling around the corner as my friend was crossing the street?”
Gary settled back with a sigh, grimacing as his sore back came in contact with the wicker seat. He was still trying to come up with a plausible explanation for what he had just done. The trouble was, he couldn’t think of anything even remotely feasible! If Parker hadn’t seen him running and followed him, Gary would have tried his usual ‘right place, right time,’ shtick. But Parker had seen him, so that was out. Finally, he just threw up his hands in surrender.
“I don’t know how to explain it.” At least that much was the truth. “I just . . . Wh-what would you guys like? My treat. The chicken fried steak is pretty good. O-or the fish. Th-they have great fish sandwiches, here.”
“Leave the man alone, Frank,” Donovan chuckled. “He just saved my life! Don’t you think it’s a little rude to interrogate him? And lunch is my treat. I insist.” It was hard not to notice how tense Hobson got anytime they broached the subject of that miraculous rescue. The guy cringed every time Frank brought it up.
The waiter came, took their orders, and the three of them suddenly found themselves with nothing to talk about.
“S-so,” Gary finally stammered after a long minute of silence. “Wh-where are you guys from? I-I’m from Indiana, myself. A, ahm, a little place called Hickory.”
“Philadelphia,” Frank nodded. “Born and bred. So, how did you end up with your own bar at your age? Win the lottery, or something?”
“I-it’s a long story,” Gary murmured uncomfortably. “I-I guess you could say I made a few good investments. Y-you gonna be in town long? The Bulls are playing the Lakers this weekend.”
Donovan shook his head with a grin at Parker’s crestfallen look. “We have to be in D.C. Saturday morning. Parker’s son is in his first pageant. We’re hoping no emergencies crop up in the meantime.”
“E-emergencies?” Gary asked. “Are you guys doctors or something?”
“Nnno,” Donovan chuckled. “We’re security consultants. We help develop better mousetraps. They call us every time one of our systems gets breeched. Last week we were called all the way to L.A. because a mouse chewed through one of the circuits and shorted out the whole system.”
“I-is that why you’re in Chicago?” Gary asked, trying to sound casual. “Business?”
“Partly,” Frank admitted. Might as well mix at least a grain of truth in with the lie. “Our company decided to give us a treat and hold one of those ‘empowerment’ seminars during Chinese New Year, so that we could mix a little pleasure into the deal. Which works out great for me, as it puts me just a coupla hours by plane away from my kid.”
As soon as Donovan had first mentioned that Parker had a son, Frank had noticed that wistful look in the barkeep’s eyes. He could see that Hobson was dying to ask about the boy. It seemed only natural for a proud father to want to share his joy, so Frank pulled out the latest pictures Patricia had given him just before the pageant that never happened. Which was a little disconcerting as he had yet to see her and obtain the photos.
Gary studied the photos with a mixed look of pain and amusement at the candid antics of the child.
“He looks like a great kid,” he murmured, handing back the photos. “You must be really proud. Do you get to see him much?”
“Not as much as I’d like,” Frank admitted. “His mother and I are divorced. Are you married? Any kids?”
“No and no,” Gary shrugged, shifting his napkin around with the tip of his finger. “I was, then I came home on our anniversary and found the locks had been changed. The next thing I know, I’m dodging suitcases. Mine. So much for my fixing a romantic dinner. I even brought roses.”
“Ouch!” Donovan winced sympathetically. “And you thought it was bad when Patricia told you she was going home to mother,” he added to Frank. “At least you had a little warning. So she let you keep the bar?” he added, turning back to face Hobson.
“I didn’t luck into that ‘til a year or so later,” Gary admitted. “I just . . . None of it meant anything without her so, I let her have everything. I mean, yeah, I coulda contested the divorce. Her grounds were totally . . . ‘irreconcilable differences,’ my great aunt’s fanny! The first I know we have any differences is when she’s getting ready to marry my ex-boss! Then she decides we need to talk! I-I guess I’ve been a little gun-shy ever since.”
The waiter brought their lunches, and the three men swapped a little more small talk, with Gary continuously steering the conversation away from the rescue. Frank had to bite his lip a few times to keep from laughing at his clumsy attempts at misdirection. The guy had to be the absolute worst liar he’d ever met!
Shortly after their dishes were cleared, Gary glanced at his watch. With a start, he realized he only had twenty minutes to get all the way to the lower end of Lincoln Park! Still staring at the dial of his watch, Gary got up from the table, almost knocking his chair over in the process.
“Um, s’cuse me, guys,” he said. “I, um, I hate to eat and run, b-but I have this . . . this . . . I have to see a lady about a horse. Bye.”
With that, he grabbed his jacket and scrambled for the exit. While Donovan paid the check, Frank hurried after Hobson. He got out the door just as the other man was hailing a cab. Parker was just close enough to hear Hobson tell the cabbie he needed to be at the junction of LaSalle and Clark in Lincoln Park in less than fifteen minutes. As the cab drove out of sight, Frank managed to flag another one just as Craig joined him.
“What could be so urgent at Lincoln Park?” Frank murmured softly, well aware that the cabbie could hear everything they might say. “The clean-up crew did a thorough job yesterday. You can‘t even find a divot missing from the lawn.”
“It may not have anything to do with that,” Donovan reminded him. “I’d like to know why he never mentioned it to anyone. You said he was curious enough to look it over as close as he dared. Why not try to find out who it belonged to?”
“The man does know how to keep secrets,” Frank admitted with open admiration. “And he should try out for the Olympics! It was all I could do to keep up with him earlier! Look! There he is!” He told the cab to pull over and paid the fare. Then the two of them ran to catch up with their prey.
Gary was running up to a young man leading a group of student riders along one of the bridle paths. He said something, money changed hands, and the instructor slid to the ground and handed Gary the reins to his horse. In one smooth motion, Hobson swung into the saddle, slid his feet into the stirrups and flicked the reins. The horse took off like Secretariat from the starting gate!
Frank spotted a couple of guys on motorcycles and waved his badge at them. After only token resistance, one of them handed over his bike, doubling up with his friend. Frank drove, while Donovan rode pillion, and they took off after the rapidly disappearing horse. They lost sight of him, temporarily, when he jumped the horse over a wide ditch, clearing it with deceptive ease.
Less than five minutes later, they spotted him racing beside another horse. The rider, a slender blonde, was hanging on to the saddle horn for dear life! The horse was obviously out of control. Hobson maneuvered his horse as close as he could, reached down and snagged the wildly flopping rein. Straightening up, he eased back on his own reins, gradually slowing both horses. As the two agents continued to hang back, he brought them to a halt and dismounted. Hobson helped the terrified woman to do the same, then held her as she clung to him for support. When she could stand on her own, he checked her horse over, removed something from under the back of the saddle and showed it to her. Neither Parker nor Donovan could hear a word they said, but they saw the woman give Hobson a peck on the cheek. She then took her reins and led the sweat soaked roan back the way she had come. Hobson remounted and headed back toward the hidden agents.
Frank backed the motorcycle farther into a copse of trees, staying out of sight. When Hobson was no longer in sight, they left the bike and ran after the woman.
“Lady,” Frank gasped as they caught up with her. “We just saw what happened. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” the woman assured them. “My horse just got a twig from one of my own rose bushes caught under the saddle pad, and I lost control when he bolted. If that nice man hadn’t ‘ve happened along when he did, I could’ve fallen and been seriously injured. I hope he didn‘t hurt himself. He seemed to be in a lot of pain.”
Frank and Craig exchanged disbelieving glances.
“Do you need someone to walk you home?” Donovan asked.
“Oh, no,” the woman smiled. “Thank you for offering, but as I told the man who saved me, I just live across the street. Thank God he showed up when he did. I could’ve broken my neck if we’d made it into those trees! Well, I have to go finish my laundry and get dinner ready. You gentlemen have a nice day, and thank you for your concern.” With that she hurriedly led her horse away.
As the woman hurried on her way, the two agents let their eyes trail from the area she had indicated to the spot where Hobson had intersected her.
“She couldn’t have been on that horse more than four or five minutes,” Donovan murmured. “Hobson knew about it for at least twenty. Frank, I’m getting a headache.”
“C’mon,” Parker sighed, leading his friend back to the motorcycle. “We can go break out a bottle of Tylenol. Maximum strength.”
After returning the horse to the riding instructor, Gary caught a cab and sped to Greektown, where it only took a moment to extinguish a kitchen fire in a little ‘Mom and Pop’ restaurant. That left him with almost two hours before he had to be at the Randolph Building. That gave him a little time to do something about his aching back.
Laying a towel over the layer of ice bags, Gary turned and eased down onto the sofa with a sigh of relief. Ten minutes or so ought to do it, he hoped. That wild tumble he’d taken to rescue Donovan had really hurt! It’d taken a lot out of him to sit through lunch as if nothing was wrong. Then had come that jolting ride through the park. He had come within an ace of passing out when he’d leaned over to grasp those reins!
In just a few minutes Gary could feel a big difference in the level of pain radiating down to his legs. Ever since that tumble he had taken down his stairs almost two years ago, he had been warned not to put any undue stress on his spine. An order easier to give than it was to obey. Many times since, literally, getting back on his feet, Gary had been put through a great deal of ‘undue stress,’ including getting the crap beat out of him by an escaped con just a few months before. More than once, actually. The first time he’d been dumped in a stall with a frightened horse, who had done a real number on his back. He’d also been shot several times in the past year, broken both arms, had recently recovered from pneumonia, and even had the chicken pox! So far, he was still mobile, but he had to wonder how long his luck would hold.
A loud, rattling knock on the door interrupted Gary’s painful reminiscing. With a sigh, he rolled off of his jerry-rigged therapy bed, and struggled to his feet. He looked toward the door and hung his head with a groan of frustration. It was Parker and Donovan. What did they want?
Stifling another groan, Gary limped to the door and opened it just a crack. The two men stood there, smiling hesitantly. Parker kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he waited for Gary to say something.
“C-can I help you guys?” Gary stammered.
“We just came by to see how you were doing,” Parker shrugged. “You were lookin’ a little green when you ran out. Is your leg still bothering you?”
“No,” Gary sighed. “I-I just have a-a little problem with my back now and then. I-I’m okay. Sorry if . . . if I messed up your lunch, b-but I had this . . . this thing I had t-to take care of.”
“Uh-huh,” Donovan nodded with a tight-lipped smile. “Something about a lady and a horse?”
“Um, yeah,” Gary murmured, stepping aside to let them in. “C’mon in a-and have a seat,” he told them. He quickly hobbled over to gather up the bags of half melted ice from the sofa. “S-sorry about this,” he mumbled. “Ice i-is good for the swelling. C-can I get you anything? S-something to drink, maybe?”
“We’re fine,” Donovan shrugged as he strolled in behind their host. Looking around, his eyes narrowed at something he spied near the wall opposite the bed. Giving Frank a nudge in the ribs, he pointed at the items with his chin. “Nice treadmill,” he said aloud. “Get a lot of use out of it?”
“N-not so much, lately,” Gary winced as he gingerly lowered himself into his easy chair. “Just when it rains, mostly. H-helps to . . . to keep me in shape.”
“And the wheelchair?” Frank asked. “That’s a street model. It’s made for people who . . . well, who use ‘em on a permanent basis.”
Gary looked over at the object in question with a barely concealed shudder. “Th-that was . . . I-I had an accident a coupla years ago,” he admitted. “You guys didn’t come up here just to ask about my health and get a medical history, did you? ‘Cause I’m fine, honest. Th-the wheelchair is . . . it’s ancient history.”
“Say that without biting your lower lip,” Frank commented dryly, “and I might believe you. How long you been outta the chair?”
“Almost a year,” Gary grumbled. “L-look, is there something specific I can help you with? ‘Cause I got places I need to be soon.”
“Anything we can help you with?” Craig asked.
Gary started to reply with a firm ‘no’ before a thought occurred to him.
“Do either of you know anything about elevators?”
Continued in Installment 2
Email the author: Polgana54@cs.com