Steve Rossellini was again parked across from McGinty’s. Angel was at the payphone down the street rescheduling the meeting with their client. Steve was sure he was less than pleased that they had not shown last night. There was just no way he was going to ignore a summons from Uncle Vinnie. Not while any of his brain cells were still functioning. There were worse ways to die than a bullet to the head. And Vinnie had people who knew all of them. So far, their only clue to this Tony look-alike was that he worked at this bar. Sooner or later, he would have to come back to work. Speak of the devil. Angel saw him too, and came rushing back to the car.
“Don’t let him get away this time!” she snapped. “If we don’t meet our client by ten o’clock, we lose the hit.”
“If he would stop running for more than a minute, I’d cut him off,” Steve growled back. “But I can’t fight traffic and watch him too. If only we could figure out his pattern!”
“He’s not running now,” Angel observed as their target started punching buttons on a nearby payphone. “Why doesn’t he use the phone in the bar?” she wondered.
“Maybe it’s personal call,” Steve shrugged. “Or maybe he didn’t want anyone listening in. Whoever he’s talking to is sure getting an earful.”
The man they were following was talking hurriedly and gesticulating wildly. As they watched, he slammed the phone back on it’s hook, leaning his head against the device with an air of frustration. Then, glancing at his watch, the dark-haired young man took off down the street.
They followed their prey to a nearby fast food place that had just opened for breakfast. They watched as he ducked inside. He was in there less than five minutes before he came running back out, just as a police cruiser squealed to a halt in front of the place. Both cops ran up with guns drawn. They spoke with the target for a moment, then went rushing into the diner. From where they sat, it was hard to make out what was said, but the cops seemed to know the man fairly well. They even seemed to be on pretty good terms.
“Could he be an informant?” Steve wondered aloud. “Is that why he couldn’t kill you? He was a cop all along?”
“He was no cop,” Angel snorted. “He was an idiot. Can you imagine proposing marriage after trying to kill me? Stupid fool.”
“He also saved your life,” Steve reminded her as he pulled back into traffic. “He called to warn you we were coming. And he shot me before I could shoot you. I’d have to say the guy was serious about you. And, did it ever occur to you that what you did was almost as dumb? I was the one with a gun to your head, after all.”
“Actually,” she shrugged, “it was the other way around. We had to do some serious negotiations, as I recall. What’s he doing now? Has he got a phone fetish, or something? This guy makes no sense! He’s just running from place to place with no pattern! See? He‘s off again!” They followed him to a coffee shop, where they were forced to wait until their target reappeared less than a minute later. He was holding a newspaper in his right hand. The left was still hidden in his pocket. “Look! He’s going back the way he came! What is with this guy?”
They lost him ten minutes later when he ducked down an alley, only to pick him up again two blocks away at another payphone. Steve considered grabbing the guy off the street. Angel, however, had other ideas. She opened her door and drew her gun. As their unsuspecting target paused to glance at his newspaper, she took careful aim over the hood.
“You gotta listen to me,” Gary was pleading into the receiver. “I know what I sound like, but this isn’t a crank call. No, I can’t leave my name. Look, you have to evacuate the Pentagon! There’s going to be an attack in the next . . . No! Don’t put me on . . . hold.” He cursed vociferously and with feeling as elevator music poured out of the earpiece. This was getting him nowhere! He had to . . . A chill ran up his spine as he pulled the phone away from his ear. Something was . . . On impulse, Gary turned to look at the car parked across the street.
Suddenly the man they had been pursuing was staring straight back at her with a stunned expression. Angel quickly squeezed the trigger only to have the bullet shatter the earpiece as he jerked his head back. Without so much as a glance in her direction, he dropped the ruined instrument and disappeared down a nearby alley. With a hissing curse, she was after him. When she got to the alley, however, there was no sign of her quarry. The narrow passage was completely empty except for a few cardboard boxes and an overturned dumpster. She ran to the end of the alley, looking both ways down the empty street. No sign of him. Angel angrily kicked aside every box and even looked behind the dumpster. Several times, she walked over a loose manhole cover, paying no attention as it rattled slightly under her feet. No luck. Spitting curses her father would have been shocked she even knew, Angel returned to the car.
“That is not Tony,” she snarled. “He knew, Steve. He looked right at me because he knew we were here! I had you and Tony both in my sights for more than ten minutes and you never knew until I started shooting. This guy spots me before I finish aiming! Do you see a difference there?”
“Yeah,” Rossellini sighed. “He’s better than we are. We’d better report to Uncle Vinnie. By the time he gets through carving off his pound of flesh, it’ll be time to go meet our client.”
Gary followed the storm drain for several blocks before finally daring to climb through the manhole less than a block from McGinty’s. Still shaking from his close call, and gasping for breath from the renewed pain in his ribs from lifting the heavy manhole covers, he slipped quietly into the back door and up to his apartment. To his relief and consternation, both his guests were still sound asleep. At least they had stopped snoring.
He sat down on the bed as he picked up the phone. It had been his intention to try the Pentagon one more time. He’d already been hung up on twice by the WTC security, and had been on the phone with the FBI when that psycho had started shooting at him. And what had that been about?
Glancing at the clock, Gary saw that he had spent too much time evading his pursuers. Turning on the TV, volume low, he watched the news reports with a sinking heart. Dear God! What, or who, could be behind such a heinous act? There had to have been something he could’ve done to stop this! What about whoever was covering New York now? Had Joey Clams even been replaced? And did Boston have a Guardian? What about Washington? Surely a city as important as the United States capitol had to have its own Guardian! Why had this been allowed to happen?
Feeling numb and helpless, Gary realized he still had to report the shooting, but who should he call? Toni would be all over him to go into ‘protective’ custody. A polite way of saying he would be watched like a hawk. ‘No thank you,’ he thought ruefully. And, after that confession the other night, could he really trust Paul? Gary decided he would have to trust one of them. He was in no shape to handle this alone. He also had to think of his guests. What if one of them was to be hurt by mistake? Could he ever forgive himself for letting something happen to either of them?
Gary was saved from his indecision by a knock on the door. Stifling a groan, he pushed himself up, flicking off the TV and sparing a glance towards his ‘roomies.’ Still out. Hugging his injured side, Gary slowly crossed the short distance to the door. Damn! He must’ve popped something loose when he yanked so hard on that manhole cover! He was still amazed that he had been able to lift it with one hand. Talk about your adrenaline rush!
The knock was repeated just as he approached the door. Shooting another glance at the two sleeping men, he softly called out, “I’m coming. Just hold your horses.”
The rippled glass made it hard for Gary to make out the face on the other side of the door, but he could make out enough to recognize Detective Armstrong. With a martyred sigh, he opened the door just enough to slip out onto the landing.
“Hi, Paul.” He greeted the big detective in a glum, quiet voice. “For once, I’m glad to see you. Saved me a phone call.”
Armstrong craned his neck in an attempt to see whatever it was Gary was trying to keep him from seeing. “You got company?”
“Yes,” Gary told him. “And they’re asleep right now. So whatever you came to see me about, we can talk it over in my office.” He led the way downstairs, making sure his parents were not within earshot. “Would you like some coffee?” he asked as he reached for the pot behind his desk. Paul shook his head, so Gary went ahead and poured himself a cup, adding a little cream and sugar. “I really need this,” he sighed as he savored that first sip. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“Are you alright?” the detective asked in genuine concern. “You seem . . . preoccupied.”
“Haven’t you heard the news this morning?” Gary asked by way of reply. His coffee suddenly tasted like bile. “About the Trade Center, the Pentagon, all those . . . Christ, Armstrong! How can something like that happen? Anywhere, not just here.”
“You’re asking me?” the big detective snorted. “I still haven’t figured you out! What happened in New York and Washington . . . That . . . I don’t have any answers. And I can’t lock myself into a round of ‘if only,’ or ‘what could I have done different?’ That’s a long spiral down the road to madness.”
Gary shot the detective a startled look. “Philosophy?” he chuckled dryly. “From you? The world is full of surprises today.” He pushed his half-cooled cup to the side. “So, answer the question. What can I do for you?”
“You can tell me about those two at the hospital last night,” Armstrong eyeing him curiously. “We had that woman, Polly Gannon, downtown all morning giving a statement and going through mug shots. She’s with the sketch artist right now.”
“Aw, Christ, Paul!” Gary protested. “She was working a double shift last night! Leave her alone!”
“Can’t,” he replied with another headshake. “She’s our only eyewitness. Besides, she threatened to castrate the officer who let anything happen to you. Seems you have a fan,” he added with a wry smile.
“We’ve gotten to be pretty good friends,” Gary admitted with a lopsided grin. “I think she wants to adopt me. As to last night, I heard two voices, a man and a woman, and a few gunshots. And that woman had a mouth on her! Last time I heard language like . . . I don’t think I’ve ever heard filth like that come from a woman!”
“You lead a sheltered life, then,” Armstrong mumbled. “Have you received any threats, or warnings?”
Gary picked up a pen and began rolling it between his thumb and forefinger, using the time to marshal his thoughts. “That’s what I was about to call you about,” he finally admitted. “I didn’t see those two last night, but I may have seen the woman this morning.” Without explaining why he was where he was, Gary told Paul about the shooting. “I don’t know how they found me,” he continued, “and I wasn’t gonna wait around to ask. As soon as I saw that gun aimed in my direction, I was gone. The shape I’m in, I didn’t think I could outrun her. Not for very long, anyway. So I, um, ducked into the storm drains. Th-that’s how I got home. Through the drains.”
“How . . .how did you get the cover off in time?” Paul asked, amazed. “Those things are a hernia waiting to happen! You‘d need a crowbar and an extra pair of hands to lift one!”
“Try doing it one-handed with a killer on your heels,” Gary replied distractedly. “I have no earthly idea. I just . . . did it. Anyway, I didn’t see the driver, but the woman was . . .” He paused as an image flashed through his mind. An image from his dream. “Oh my Lord.” he whispered, stunned. “It was her.” Suddenly, he was finding it hard to breathe. He stood up abruptly and began pacing in the limited space behind his desk. He raised his right hand to his lips, then lowered it, making agitated little gestures. A pattern he repeated over and over as he paced. “I’ve been so . . . so focused on this thing in New York, I almost forgot. I, ahm. I had this . . . this dream last night. It was so weird. I was some . . .somebody else. Not me, if that makes any sense. And . . . and she was there, too. The . . . the woman who shot . . .This other person, the one I was . . . wasn’t . . . God! This doesn’t make any sense! I . . . he . . . saved her life! Shot someone to . . . to protect her! I c-could feel the gun in my . . . Paul, I hate guns! I’ve only fired a gun once in my life! I’ve only touched one a few times! The . . . the first time . . .” ‘No,’ he thought. ‘Don’t even go there!’ “There that one time to save Crumb and the damned thing fell apart in my hand! And you . . . you remember . . . Savalas,” he finished in a strained whisper.
Paul stood up and circled the desk to place himself in Gary’s path. He grabbed the frantically pacing man by both shoulders and held him still by force. Gary met his gaze with eyes on the verge of panic. “Stand still and get hold of yourself, Hobson!” he snapped. “Describe the woman. Both in your dream and on the street.”
With a shuddering sigh, Gary sat back down. As precisely as possible, he described the woman’s physical features as he saw her that morning. Then, he described the dream woman. This time, he went past the physical features, and into the soul of the woman.
“She seems lost, at first,” he said. “Sorta . . . childlike. Sad. Ready to die. Then, everything shifts, and she’s this hard, cold person. She goes from redhead to blonde and back like a . . . a chameleon. And her eyes are . . . are green. And very . . . intense. Almost . . .hypnotic, I guess. This . . . person that I am . . . in the dream, that is. He feels responsible, somehow, for what she’s become. God! It was just a dream!” he finished, rubbing his good hand nervously over his mouth and chin. “But it was still the same woman who shot at me this morning. I’m certain of it.”
“So why would she be after you?” Paul asked. “Do you think she was hired by Sung?”
“It’s a possibility, I guess,” Gary sighed. “But why would I be dreaming about her before I ever laid eyes on her?”
“I can’t believe I’m asking this,” the big cop sighed, running a hand over his shaved head. “I don’t even believe in it myself. Is it possible that you have some kind of . . . precognitive abilities?”
Gary sat back, giving Paul a look that said, for once, it was the cop who was talking crazy.
“You gotta be kidding,” he responded. "This from the guy who called me delusional?”
“Then tell me how you do it,” Paul insisted. “Tell me how you always seem to know when trouble is about to happen! How you always get there first?”
Without thinking, Gary sprang to his feet again, almost doubling over when his ribs registered a protest at the sudden movement. Breathless, he waved Paul back to his seat when the detective rose to help him. “S’okay,” he gasped. “J-just moved too . . . too quick.” He paused a moment to catch his breath before continuing. “Wh-what is it with you and secrets? You’ve been after me on this since the day we met. Can’t you just trust me to know what I’m doing . . . usually?”
“Perhaps,” Armstrong replied acidly. “If I had some idea of exactly what it is you actually do.”
“Isn’t it enough to know I’m one of the good guys?” Gary sighed, still gripping his side. He leaned against the wall, propped up by his injured arm. “I’ve always tried to be straight with you, Armstrong. Or at least as straight as I can.” He paused as a grimace of pain flitted across his face. “Christ! This hurts! Do you believe in God?”
“Say what?” Paul asked, surprised at the sudden change in topic.
“It’s a simple enough question,” Gary stated. “Yes or no. Are you a believer?”
Armstrong sat back as he considered the question. “I would have to say . . . I have my doubts,” he finally replied. “There’s too much wrong with this world for me too say yes. And too much right with it to say no. So . . . I have doubts. I guess . . . if there were some kind of proof . . . or even some evidence. . .”
“Like a miracle?” Gary chuckled. He shook his head sadly. “I used to be like that. Look at me, Paul. Just the fact I’m alive is miracle enough for me. How many times since you’ve known me have I been close to death? R-remember when I did die? When that doctor told me it was a ’miracle’ that I still had any brain function at all? Hell, I’m beating the odds just by walking! How . . . how many times have I thrown the odds right out the window? Can you . . . can you even count them? I gave up on . . . on that a long time ago. All I can do . . . do now is ride with it a-and . . . see where it takes me. The only control I have over . . . over any of . . . this is to try t-to stop the bad things that will happen if I sit back and do n-nothing.” He closed his eyes as another spasm of pain shot through his chest. It was getting harder and harder to take in a breath. Slowly, he eased himself back down in his seat. “This is . . . not good,” he gasped.
“You’re white as a sheet, Hobson,” Armstrong observed, rising quickly. “You need another trip to the ER. Then we need to see about protective custody.”
Gary shook his head, gritting his teeth against the pain. “Not un . . . unless you . . . you include m-my two h-house . . . houseguests,” he stammered. “Th-they’re in as m . . . much d-danger . . . God! C-can’t . . . b-breathe!”
Paul grabbed the phone off the desk and dialed 911. He quickly explained the situation, requesting an ambulance ASAP. Then he helped Gary lower himself to the floor, where they quickly learned that lying flat only made it worse. Sitting with his back against the wall proved better, but not by much.
“G-go upstairs,” Gary pleaded. “Tell B-Buddy . . . they n-need to s-stay put . . . ’til I . . . get back. Please! I d-don’t . . .don’t want anymore b-blood on my hands!”
Moments later, a worried Lois led a pair of EMTs into the office. They quickly assessed the situation, doing everything they could to ease Gary’s labored breathing. Nothing seemed to help, and his lips started to turn blue as he slipped in unconsciousness.
“No breath sounds on the left,” the first medic, who had introduced himself as Johnny, reported. “You said he broke some ribs recently, ma’am?”
“Yesterday,” Lois responded absently, unable to take her eyes off the pallid features of her son. “A steamer trunk fell on him. They said it contained books. Lots of books. What’s wrong with him?”
“Hard to say, ma’am,” he replied coolly. “O2 sat and BP are bottoming out. Tell them we need to get this guy some relief now!”
“They say it could be a pneumo, and suggest a chest tube,” the second medic, Chet, relayed. “Doc doesn’t think we can wait to transport. He wants it done STAT.”
Without another word, Johnny started laying out an array of tubes and bottles. He looked up at Lois. “You might want to step out, ma’am,” he told her. “This ain’t pretty.”
“No way,” Lois replied. “Just do it.”
With a nod, he motioned for Paul and Chet to hold the faintly struggling patient still. One held his legs down, while the other kept his shoulders pinned. Quickly cutting away the shirt and a layer of bandages, Johnny swabbed a spot on Gary’s side just about six inches below his armpit. Then he took a sharply pointed, hollow metal instrument and set it next to Gary. Next he pulled out a piece of rubber tubing about four feet long and as big around as his thumb, and quickly attached a container of sterile water to one end of the tube. Another, shorter piece of tubing also stuck out of the top of the bottle. With a quick, upward jab which elicited a painful grunt from the nearly unconscious man, he slid the metal tube between Gary’s ribs. Johnny removed the bloody instrument and slid over a foot of the tubing into the resulting orifice. The results were immediate. A steady stream of bubbles roiled through the container, as Gary took in a huge breath. After that his breathing gradually became less labored, settling down to a more normal rate. Johnny quickly taped a gauze pad saturated with sterile petroleum jelly over the incision and around the tube, making an airtight seal. With each rise and fall of Gary’s chest, another rush of air burbled through the container.
Lois sat down in Gary’s chair, her knees suddenly weak. “Th-that wasn’t so bad,” she said with a wan little smile. “He looks better already.”
“We’ll be taking him to Cook County,” Chet informed her and Paul as they loaded Gary’s semi-conscious form onto the gurney. “You can meet us there.”
“M’m?” A weak, clammy hand clutched convulsively at hers.
“Right here, sweetie,” she quickly assured him, taking his hand. “You’re going to be fine. These nice young men are going to take you to the hospital, now.”
Lois patted his hand with a strained laugh. “Yes, Gary. Again. Now, just relax and let them do their job.”
“W-wait,” he moaned. “T-tell Buddy and C-Clay . . . d-don’t go out. S-stay put . . . ‘til I . . . ‘til I get back.”
“Sweetie,” Lois sighed, “you’re going to be in the hospital for a few days, at least. They can’t stay shut in that long without knowing why.”
“P-Paul can . . .” his throat crackled as he swallowed past the sudden dryness. “Paul knows,” he whispered as exhaustion took its toll. His hand went limp as he once again passed out. Lois shot the EMTs a worried look.
“He’s just worn out,” Johnny reassured her. “His color is better already, and he’s breathing easier. The docs can tell you more once they’ve run some tests. Now, we really need to get going with him.”
“Of course,” she quickly agreed. As they left, she turned to the big cop. “Paul, Gary said you need to talk to his two guests. I don’t know if they’re awake yet. He said they were up talking all night. Just go on up anyway. You do remember Buddy Jackson from the hospital last week, don’t you?”
“Ah! Of course!” He slapped his forehead. “That’s what he’s worried about. He doesn’t want Buddy getting hurt by mistake!”
“I’m sure you can explain that remark later,” Lois observed dryly, as she headed for the door. “However, you should know that there’s someone else upstairs, too. His name is Clay Treyton and . . . never mind. You’ll just have to see for yourself. I have to go. If you see Bernie, tell him to meet me at Cook County. At this rate, Gary needs to buy stock in the place.”
“Better get a lot of it,” Armstrong grinned. “It’s the only way he’ll break even.”
“Amen to that!” Lois sighed. “Oh, tell Marissa I’ll check in with her as soon as I know anything. Bye.” She tossed him a wave as the door closed behind her.
Suddenly finding himself alone, Armstrong decided that Hobson was probably right. Buddy looked enough like him to be just as valid a target as Gary himself. So, with a martyred sigh, he climbed the stairs to Gary’s loft. The two men inside must have been sound asleep for it took a lot of pounding to get a muffled response. A moment later the door opened to reveal sleep-swollen, muddy green eyes.
“It’s me, Detective Armstrong,” he replied. “We met at the hospital last week. When you first met Gary? We need to talk, Mr. Jackson.”
The other man just backed up and opened the door wider to admit the big cop. He was bare-chested, wearing a pair of blue sweatpants. “Buddy, it’s somebody to see you,” he called out as he plopped onto the sofa.
“Just a minute,” a voice from the bathroom replied.
Puzzled, Paul looked at the man on the sofa. “Aren’t you Buddy Jackson?”
“Nope,” came the mumbled reply. “Name’s Treyton. Clay to muh friends. Buddy won the toss for the shower. Be out in a minute.”
About that time, Buddy emerged from the bathroom wearing Gary’s bathrobe and toweling his hair dry.
“Armstrong, isn’t it?” the robed figure asked. “What’s all the noise downstairs? Is someone hurt?”
Paul looked from him to the man lazing on the sofa and back again, his jaw dropping in amazement. Slowly he backed up until his spine was pressed against the wall.
“Oh . . . my . . . God,” he moaned as he slid down to the floor. He placed his elbows on his knees and hid his face in his hands. “Not this. Please not this! One is bad enough! I don‘t know if I can handle three of him!”
“This is beyond weird,” Rossellini sighed. They were once more parked near McGinty’s. This time, just halfway down the block from the front door. Which gave them a ringside seat as their target was loaded into yet another ambulance. “We finally know for a fact that this guy is not Tony Greco,” he continued, “only to be hired to off him anyway.” He turned to face his partner. “This guy is worse than Tony! Everybody wants ‘im dead!”
“Well, at least this client has a reason,” Angel sighed, snuggling deeper into her new fur coat. “It did sort of bother me to know that we were trying to snuff someone just because he looked like someone else.” She watched as the ambulance pulled away. “Of course, we could always just sit back and let Hobson do himself in. Poor sap sure seems to have a lot of accidents. Wonder what happened this time?”
“The ‘Barfly From Hell’?” Steve said with a shrug. “Who knows? Hey! While we’re in the neighborhood, you still wanna take a crack at that broad in x-ray?”
“Oh, yes,” his deadly partner purred. “I really want that southern-fried hussy. We almost got caught because of her.”
“Consider her a gift then,” Rossellini said with an elaborate gesture. “She probably works the night shift, though. We might need to make two trips.”
Gary sat back with a sigh. Dr. Carter set aside his stethoscope as he continued to rattle off a countdown of things his patient should not do with two broken, and two cracked ribs.
“And number one is lifting manhole covers one handed,” he finished. “Wasn’t there anything else you could’ve done?”
“Yeah,” Gary grunted. “Coulda let ‘er shoot me. How s-soon . . . can I go home?”
“A few days,” Carter replied as he made notes on Gary’s chart. “You have a collapsed lung, Gary. That doesn’t go away overnight. I’ve known them to hang in there for weeks. Why? You in a hurry to go someplace?”
“Home! No offense, Doc,” the impatient patient began, “but I just got out of here a coupla days ago.”
“Should have thought of that before lifting that metal lid,” the young doctor grumbled. “You collapsed, Gary, because you had so much air between your left lung and your chest wall, it was shoving everything over to the right. You had almost no room for your right lung to expand. Even your heart barely had enough room to beat! You were suffocating, Gary! As in dying! Again! You are being admitted as we speak. This is not open for discussion. You will remain glued to that bed for at least three days. At which time the tube will be clamped off so that we may see if your lung intends to remain inflated. If it does for at least twenty-four hours, the tube will be removed. If everything goes well for another twenty-four hours, then and only then, will you be allowed to go home. With instructions to remain in bed for at least another forty-eight hours. You will obey these instructions. To the letter. If you end up in my treatment room one more time this month . . .”
“It wasn’t my fault!” Gary protested in a strained voice. “She was . . . was shooting . . . Crap! Still hurts.” He lay back and just concentrated on breathing for a moment. “I guess I wasn’t th-thinking,” he finally gasped. “There wasn’t . . . wasn’t time . . . for plan B.”
“Plan B?” Carter asked, curious. “What was plan B?”
“Don’t know,” Gary said with a tired smile. “Plan A w-worked.”
Dr. Carter closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh of frustration. “What am I gonna do with you, Gary?” he moaned. “Plan A almost did the job for them! Do you have any idea how much damage the jagged edge of a broken bone can do to soft tissue, such as lungs, spleen, even kidney? You’re lucky you didn’t tear another artery!”
“About as much d-damage as . . . as a bullet?”
That stopped him. Carter looked closely at the semi-reclining form of his patient. Gary’s grim expression belied his frivolous tone. He could see that the other man was, indeed, aware of the seriousness of his situation.
“Someone is trying to kill me,” Gary told him calmly, his voice low and raspy. He sounded tired. Which was understandable, given the circumstances. “And I almost killed myself getting away from them,” he added. “N-not that I had a lot of . . . of options. I’ll promise to be-behave, but I can’t speak for ‘Annie O-Oakley.’ She seemed pretty determined.”
“Which is why you will have a uniformed officer with you 24/7 until we catch her.” Gary looked over to the treatment room door to see Paul entering with Officer Tate. “You remember your friend from yesterday? John is going to be your roommate tonight. Another officer will be stationed at your door. Ah! Don’t even try to refuse. It’s either this or you can explain it to that tech who has such a thing for you. We just passed her in the hall.”
Gary winced as he pictured her reaction. Polly could be . . . opinionated, to put it nicely. She could also skin a man alive from ten paces using just her voice. “Got a little . . . vocal, I take it?”
“The atom bomb was a firecracker compared to her temper,” Tate grimaced. “She wants to take your shooter down to oncology and see how much cobalt it takes to fry a bleached blonde. I’m not sure if she was kidding! I wanna be there when those two butt heads. It’ll be the cat-fight to beat all cat-fights.”
“My money’s on the tech,” Paul grinned.
“Good bet,” Carter commented with a matching grin. “Someone actually did threaten one of her patients in front of her a couple of months ago. What made Polly even madder, she had to x-ray the jerk when she was through with him!”
“Don’t!” Gary pleaded as he hugged his injured side. “Oh, man! Please don’t! It h-hurts to laugh! How bad d-did she hurt him?”
“About two weeks worth,” the young physician deadpanned.
“Two weeks?” Tate asked, puzzled. “Two weeks worth of . . .?”
“That was how long it was before he could stand upright without moaning in agony,” he explained dryly. “She almost emasculated him with the corner of a cassette. Ms. Gannon does not pull her punches!” He looked up from Gary’s chart to find all three men looking at him in disbelief. “She had a good reason!”
Every male in the room winced in sympathy. Message received. Do not underestimate one middle-aged, countrified tech!
“Speaking of tough ladies,” Gary gulped, “could I have a few minutes w-with Mom before . . . before you pack me upstairs? There’s some . . . some things she’ll have to take care of for me.”
“No problem,” Carter grinned as he finished his notes, flipping the chart closed with a snap. “It’ll be a little while before they have your room ready, anyhow. Take your time.”
“Oh, Paul! What about . . .?”
“They’re fine,” Armstrong hastened to say. “They’ve agreed to protective custody at you’re place until you’re able to come home. And, do not ever spring a surprise like that on me again!”
“No promises,” Gary said with a wan smile. “But I’ll try.”
A few minutes later, Lois and Gary had their heads together over the paper. They had to talk in whispers so that Tate could not overhear them from his station by the door. Gary asked again if he could speak with his mother privately, but the young officer shook his head stubbornly.
“Not a chance,” he said. “After what we just heard, no way am I letting you out of my sight until I’m relieved! I don’t want to be the next trophy on Ms. Gannon’s wall.”
“I’ll explain later, Mom,” Gary promised. “Trust me, you’ll love it.”
“I can hardly wait,” Lois murmured softly. “So, a two-car accident at 6:43 tonight because one of them is talking to his girl on his cell-phone and not paying attention. Before that, we have the little girl at the zoo who crawls into the water-buffalo enclosure after a toy she drops. Anything else?” Gary shook his head without meeting her eyes. “Gary? What aren’t you telling me?”
Gary studied her determined expression from the corner of his eye. Seeing that she was not going to relent, he handed her the paper with a sigh. With some trepidation, Lois opened it to the front page. There, at the top of the page, she read: ‘Two Slain In Local Hospital!’ The article went on to describe how two armed assailants managed to sneak past security and shoot one Gary Hobson, aged 35, and Pauline Gannon, aged 47. Both victims died instantly. The only witness, a police officer who had been stationed in Mr. Hobson’s room at the time of the shooting, was still in critical condition.
“I’m the only one who can stop this one, Mom,” Gary told her in a near whisper. “It won’t be hard to keep Tate on his toes. He seems to take his job real serious. But I can’t guarantee seeing Polly in time tonight. They won’t let me out of bed for anything!”
Lois read the article carefully, trying to come up with an answer for her distraught son.
“Would they require an x-ray if you took a turn for the worse?”
“Maybe,” Gary mused. “Or they might take me straight to surgery. I’d be okay for a while. That would still leave Polly out in the cold, though. Look, it doesn’t happen until almost 6:20. It’s just a little after one now. She doesn’t go on duty until 2:30, but Paul said he passed her in the hall earlier. I, um, I think she’s watching out for me,” he added, his face coloring from embarrassment. “A-anyway, could you leave word at the x-ray department for her? Just say that I need to see her before she goes on duty. I’ll think of something to tell her by then. Or, better yet, just have her paged. The quicker the better.”
“Let’s just hope she’s still here,” Lois mumbled almost too softly for Gary to hear.
“She’s got to be, Mom,” he sighed. “Polly’s . . . well, Polly. I don’t think you’ve met her, yet. She doesn’t go out of her way to meet people. Not that she’s . . . She’s nice, but tough. She was the one who did most of my x-rays after my accident last May. And she’s been here almost every other time I’ve come in.”
“Sounds like you have a ‘thing’ for her,” his mother teased.
“No! Mom!” Gary snorted, wincing at the resulting spasm of pain. “Please! She’s a f-friend! Can’t a man and woman . . . be friends without that becoming an issue? From my own mother, yet!” He laid his head back and closed his eyes with a sigh. “When are you going to stop treating me like a kid?” he asked tiredly.
“When I’m dead, Sweetie” Lois smiled, brushing at the hair that had become sweat-plastered to his forehead. “I’ll go find Ms Gannon. You concentrate on getting some rest.” She paused as Gary laid the Paper in his lap with a tired sigh. “Something else is bothering you, isn’t it?”
Gary turned his head just enough to meet her eyes. Wordlessly, he showed her the front page. Her heart broke in sympathy with his as she read the one headline he had been unable to change. “Oh dear,” she murmured. Looking, she could almost feel the pain that showed so clearly on his tired features. “How long have you known?”
“Since last night,” Gary told her in a despondent tone. “There must’ve been a special edition. I tried, Mom,” he added, fighting back tears of frustration and grief. “I called every number on my list. Twice. Then I called the airport in Boston. Some wouldn’t even listen. The ones that did . . . it didn’t make any difference. I couldn’t . . . couldn’t stop it.”
“You tried, Gary,” Lois told him, gently cupping his cheek. “I know you did everything you could. It’s just that . . . sometimes, our best isn’t good enough. That doesn’t mean you should give up.”
“I didn’t say I was giving up, Mom,” the injured man sighed. “It’s just . . . what good are all these high level contacts if everyone still treats me like a crackpot? All it means is . . . they’ll think I had something to do with it! Why did I even bother.”
“Because you cared enough to take the risk,” Lois told him. “As bad as you feel now, after trying everything in your power, think how bad you’d have felt if you hadn’t tried at all?”
Gary turned his head toward the wall as he mulled over what she had said. His mother was right. At least he could honestly tell himself he had tried, even if it meant he would be dragged through another FBI or Secret Service witch hunt. With everything else he had going on, that seemed the least of his worries.
It was much later that evening when Angel and Stevie made their move. It had taken little effort to learn what floor Hobson was on, and a guard stationed outside was a given. Stevie already had his diversion planned. As for Angel, she was planning on a little trip to x-ray. If all went well, both targets would die at the same time.
Rossellini ducked into a linen closet and quickly donned a set of scrubs. A pair of latex gloves and a filter mask completed his disguise. It was an old ruse, but one that seemed to work every time. In a supply closet just around the corner from Hobson’s room, he stuffed a bunch of towels and paper into a wastebasket and dropped a lit match into it. As soon as his little diversion was smoldering nicely, he checked to see if the hall was clear, then proceeded toward his target.
Sure enough, the moment the smoke was noticed, the officer in the hall jumped to grab a fire extinguisher and rushed to the scene. Chortling to himself as to the gullibility of cops, Stevie ducked into Hobson’s room. The poor kid was lying back, the head of the bed half raised. His hands twitched spasmodically as he moaned in his sleep. He seemed to be in the midst of a bad dream, and from the look on his face, it was a doozy. It still unnerved him a little just how much this boy resembled Tony Greco, the kid he had spent weeks getting to know, only to end up partnered with his killer. It seemed wrong somehow. Like pulling the trigger on his own kid, almost. Still, a job was a job. With luck, the poor sap would never know what hit him.
The wily assassin quietly drew his gun as he approached the bed, grabbing a towel off the foot of the bed by the door to muffle the noise. This was going to be almost too easy!
Hobson’s eyes snapped open with a loud cry. “Angel! No!”
Startled, Rossellini stepped back, pausing just long enough for the bathroom door to slam him halfway back into the hall. Dazed, he barely caught a glimpse of the officer’s blue uniform before he turned and sped out the door. Damn! Since when did they start posting guards inside the rooms?
Gary was sitting straight up in the bed, his eyes wide and staring at nothing. His breath was coming in short, rapid little gasps. The panicked look on his face was the same as when Tate had first stopped him in the street the day before. The monitor over his head was showing an alarmingly fast heart rate. Tate was torn. Should he go after the assassin, or stay with Hobson? One look at the man on the bed made the decision for him. He holstered his gun and turned to help the man he was charged with protecting.
“Easy there, Hobson,” he reassured the injured man. “It’s all over. He’s gone. Just lie back and relax.”
“Hunh? What? Who’s . . .? Stevie?” From the glazed look in Hobson’s eyes, Tate figured he was still in the grip of a nightmare. Didn’t this man ever have any good dreams? “H-he’s going to . . . I can’t . . . can’t let him!” Tate looked with growing alarm at the monitors. He would be the first to admit that he knew next to nothing about the damned things, but what little he did said that this was not good! “Don’t hurt her!” Hobson cried. He tried to push the officer’s hands away and get out of the bed.
“Hobson! Gary! Wake up, man! It’s just a dream!” he shouted. Where was a nurse when you needed one? As if on cue, two nurses burst through the door. They immediately tried to calm their patient with little effect. He continued to call for ’Stevie’ and ’Angel’, all the while struggling to get free. One of the nurses hit the call button.
“We need that sedative in here, STAT!” she snapped. Less than a minute later, a third nurse entered with a syringe. As Tate and the first two put all their strength into holding onto the struggling man, she swabbed down the IV port and slid the needle in. At first it seemed to have no effect at all. Finally, however, Gary stopped fighting them. His eyes began to close, and his breathing returned almost to normal. Subsequently, so did his heart rate. A moment later, Gary was drifting back towards sleep once more.
“Wh-what . . . what happened?” he asked drowsily. “Y’okay?”
“I’m fine,” Tate responded. He decided all his questions could wait for later. He was dying to know why Hobson had been so insistent that he be waiting in the bathroom at that particular time, ‘no matter what!’ It was a request that had given him the element of surprise at a critical moment “You just had a bad dream,” he added. “Go back to sleep.”
“W-wait,” he gasped weakly. “P-Polly. They’re after Polly, too. Y-you have to . . . to check on her. Please!”
Polly had been catching up on her paperwork when the fire code was announced. For some reason, it reminded her of that cryptic warning Gary’s mother had delivered earlier that afternoon. Polly’s face split into an evil grin as she pictured more than one use for a fire extinguisher.
Stevie barely made it back to the car two steps ahead of a soaking wet and spluttering Angel.
“What the hell happened to you?” he asked.
“That corn-fed b----h was waiting for me,” she snapped. “Got me with the fire extinguisher as I came around the corner, then she turned the hose on me. Said something about me keeping my cotton-picking hands to myself.” She wiped at the water that was dripping down her face from her hair. “I really, really want that broad, Stevie. I want her so bad.” As she slid into the passenger seat she asked, “Hobson?”
Rossellini shook his head in disgust. “This is really beginning to bug me,” he snapped. “Either this guy has some top-notch protection, or he’s got an ‘in’ with God!”
“Well, I’m going to clip the wings on his guardian angel,” Chaste grumbled as Stevie started the car. “Damn! I don’t even know what her face looks like!”
Stevie shot her a startled look as he sped out of the parking lot. “You didn’t see who . . .?”
“No. I just got a glimpse of some big, blonde woman in dark green before I got a face full of foam,” she reluctantly admitted. “But I’ll recognize that accent anywhere.”
“You wanted to see me, Sugar?”
Gary pried open drug laden eyes at the sound of the familiar drawl. It took a little effort to focus on the source. ‘What did they give me?’ he wondered. “Polly?”
“In the flesh, Sweetie,” she replied with a wry smile. “Heard you had a little excitement up here.”
“Y-yeah,” Gary murmured drowsily. “Bad dream, I think. You . . . Y’okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Hmm? Not sure anymore. Tired,” he mumbled. “Sure you’re okay?”
“I’m just fine, Gary,” Polly smiled. “Now you get on back to sleep and let the rest of us do the worryin’. Go on. Close those eyes.” The motherly tech smiled as he obediently drifted back to sleep. She turned to go, flipping Tate a jaunty little wave. He just smiled in return.
“Thanks, Polly,” the nurse sighed as Polly closed the door behind her. “For some reason, he was frantic about you. Just would not rest unless we let him talk to you himself!”
“Gary spends too much time frettin’ over things,” the easy-going tech shrugged. She started walking down the corridor, headed back to radiology.
“Oh! What was all the excitement down in x-ray?” the young nurse asked. “They said security was all over the place.”
“Nothin’ much,” Polly drawled. “Somebody broke in an’ some water got spilt. They were lookin’ for the vandals while housekeepin’ cleaned up. You tell Gary I’ll be back to see him in the mornin’.” Polly saw no reason to worry anyone else about her visitor. Between security and the police, the situation was pretty well covered. As she continued back to her department, a frown crossed her time worn features. She hoped no more attempts would be made on the young man she had grown so fond of. He had suffered enough just in the year or so that she had known him. If, however, those two were so foolish as to make another try while he was still within her ‘territory’, she would make them regret the day they first drew breath on this earth!
It was still dark when Gary woke up the next morning to find a familiar orange tabby nuzzling his right hand. His mind was still fighting the drugs from last night, so it was a moment before he realized where he was. Alarmed, Gary sat up a little too quickly, causing a sharp, stabbing pain in his left side. With a muffled groan, he lay back, then raised his head just enough to look around for the object of his concern. Gary let his breath out with a relieved ’whoosh!’ when he spotted the Paper on the foot of his bed. He saw Tate sleeping in a chair that he had placed against the door. Well, that was one way to insure against intruders! Looking at the cat, he waved one hand at the Paper.
“I don’t suppose you could just . . .?”
The cat just looked at him and purred.
“Have I ever told you how much I like dogs?”
The cat responded by turning his back on the offending human as he set about grooming his fur. With a martyred sigh, something he had been doing a lot lately, Gary carefully reached down and retrieved the Paper.
“I’d have been happy to hand you that.”
Startled, Gary almost dropped the Paper as he clutched at his chest again. “Jesus, Tate!” he gasped. “Don’t do that! Make a little noise first, or something!” He tried to still the trembling in his hands, only to have the tell-tale rustling of the Paper betray him as he flipped it open.
“Still a little shaky from last night?” the young officer asked quietly as he moved his chair closer to the bed.
Gary glanced up from the Paper, giving Tate a puzzled look. “Last night? What happened last night?”
Tate gave a dry little laugh, thinking that Gary was being sarcastic. When Gary continued to look at him strangely, he suddenly felt unsure. “You really don’t remember?”
“Now, if I remembered,” Gary said with a grimace, “would I be asking? C’mon. Give. What happened?”
Feeling a little puzzled himself now, Tate related the events of the night before. Starting with Gary telling him to go into the bathroom at a certain time, and how insistent he had been about it. Gary admitted to recalling that much, but had no recollection at all of any nightmare. Nor of anything else for the rest of the night, other than a vague feeling of unease about Polly Gannon.
“Is . . . is she okay?”
“Okay! That woman kicked butt last night!” Tate told him with a huge grin. “They caught it on the new security cameras this time. Polly got her with the fire extinguisher the second she rounded the corner. When that ran out, she had the fire hose ready. It was awesome!” He held up a video cassette. “I got you a copy. Maybe we can get someone to bring us a VCR later.”
Gary lay back with a sigh of relief, the Paper still clutched in his hands. ‘Thank God!’ he thought. ‘No one was hurt!’ His brow furrowed as something else Tate had said pushed its way to the front of his mind. “You said I was yelling something?” The officer nodded solemnly. “Did I seem . . . awake . . . when I did this?”
“Not entirely,” Tate admitted. “A little . . . spacey. Who are Stevie and Angel?”
Gary shook his head, a bemused look on his face. “Damned if I know,” he replied. “Hunh! Doesn’t ring any bells at all.” He was pleased to notice that his hands were no longer shaking as he lifted the Paper once more. Nothing much going on, it seemed. Headlines about the World Trade Center still dominated the front page. Gary couldn’t suppress a pang of guilt every time he saw the pictures of horrifying death and destruction. What more could he have done? Why had no one listened to him? Was this another one of those things that was beyond his scope as a ’Guardian?’ Sadly, he turned the page, choosing not to dwell on what he could no longer prevent.
Another purse snatcher was haunting Lake Shore Park. And a brown-out would cause traffic signals to be fouled up for a few minutes, causing several minor fender benders. Nothing that needed his personal attention. And the Bulls were going to beat the Magics by six. That was good to know. He’d let his dad handle the purse snatcher, and let Mom handle Dad.
“I know several Steve’s,” Gary mused, more to himself than to Tate. “None of them go by ‘Stevie’ though. And I don’t know anyone named ‘Angel,’ period. Used to know an Angela. But no one dared call her ‘Angel’! Not to her face, anyway. What exactly did I say about ‘em?”
Tate shook his head as he answered. “I’m not really sure. You seemed to be warning Angel about Stevie and begging Stevie not to hurt Angel. After they gave you that shot and Ms Gannon came by, you settled down for a couple of hours. Then, somewhere around midnight, you started mumbling in your sleep.” The young officer looked away nervously. “You, um, you were talking to Angel . . . asking her . . . something”
A chill ran up Gary’s spine as he waited for Tate to finish. The other man seemed to find something absolutely fascinating going on just outside the window. “John?” he finally ventured. “What was I asking her?”
John seemed to notice the cat for the first time. “Hey! Where’d this little guy come from?”
“PetSmart,” Gary quipped. “Forget the cat, Tate. What was I asking her?”
“Should he be in here?” the officer asked, obviously stalling for time.
“You were asking why she shot you! Why she . . . she, um, killed you.”
A big, big chill ran up Gary’s spine. He could feel the hair standing up along the back of his neck and arms as his hands clenched tighter around the pages. “Whoa!” he whispered. Why would he be asking anyone a question like that?
“That’s not all.”
Gary slowly lay the Paper on his lap. “What else, exactly, did I say?”
“You kept calling yourself Tony,” John sighed. “And apologizing for trying to kill her! Saying something like . . . it’s nothing personal.”
“Nothing . . .! How personal can it get!” Gary let his head fall back against the pillow as his mind digested what Tate had thrown at him. “This is too weird. I’ve got two assassins after me and I’m dreaming about committing murder!”
“Not quite,” John told him. “You were also apologizing to Stevie and your Uncle Vinnie for not being able to kill Angel. Seems you were screwed no matter which way you turned.”
“Now there’s an Uncle Vinnie,” Gary sighed. “Too bad I can’t remember anything. Sounds like I had quite a party going on.”
“He knew your name,” Rossellini mused.
“When I got to his room,” Stevie explained, “he was asleep. Having some kind of nightmare. Anyway, I’m just past the bathroom door, grabbing a towel to use as a silencer, and bam! The kid’s sitting straight up, eyes wide open and screaming your name!”
The two were sitting in a tiny restaurant less than a mile from the hospital. A late night meeting with their client had not gone well, so they were now trying to come up with a new plan of action.
“How could he know my name?” Angel wondered. “I don’t even have a police record! I’ve never been fingerprinted, booked, or even suspected! There’s no way he can ID me!”
“Well, sweetheart, he shouted your name loud and clear,” Stevie told her with a sad shake of his head. “Hell of it is, as I was getting away, I thought I heard him shout my name, too. There is something so weird about this guy! He always seems to know when we’re close. He has no behavior pattern at all, that I can see, other than that bar. And we don’t know if he works there or just hangs out so much he’s part of the scenery. I mean, he comes and goes too much to be a regular employee, and he doesn’t act like he owns the place, either. I just don’t see where he fits! And, now, he’s shouting our names in his sleep!”
“We need to do a little more research,” Angel suggested. “I mean, we came into this all wrong. First of all, we knew next to nothing about this guy from the outset. We saw him, thought he was Tony, and panicked. Uncle Vinnie did the same thing. None of us took the time to think this through. Now, at least we know that he is not the same guy we both knew as Tony Greco, and that some guy named Sung wants him dead. We know that he managed to stay one step ahead of the best ‘mechanics’ Chicago has to offer. And there is a possibility that he actually lives here. Other than that . . .zip.”
“And his name,” Rossellini reminded her. “Gary Hobson. Okay, so we need to know more about our target. We start with the newspaper morgues and police records.” Angel gave him a questioning look. “I have contacts,” he assured her. “Actually, I know this hacker. He can get into any system on earth. Trust me, by this time tomorrow, we’ll know things about Hobson he doesn’t even know himself.”
Stirring fitfully, Gary struggled to fight off the effects of the latest dose of painkillers. As bad as his ribs hurt, he was tempted to refuse the next round so that he could keep his head clear. He turned to look at the two men standing next to Tate as they repeated his name.
“Tha’s me,” he murmured groggily. “How c’n I he’p you?”
“You can tell us what you know of the terrorist attacks this morning,” the nearest man replied. He flipped open a notebook, evidently with the intent of rattling off a list of questions, when his partner nudged him in the ribs. The other man cast a sidelong glance at the uniformed officer. “Could we have some privacy?” the first man asked. “This falls under national security.”
“My job is his security,” Tate replied stubbornly. “If you don’t want me to hear, write your questions down. But I’m staying.”
“S’cuse me,” Gary murmured, still struggling to focus his drugged senses. “Who’re you and why should I talk to you?”
“I’m Agent Pritchett,” the first man replied, flashing a badge in front of Gary’s face. “This is Agent Dobbs. We’re with . . . Mr. Hobson? Is something wrong?”
At mention of the second agent’s name, all the blood had drained from Gary’s face and he seemed to be having trouble breathing. He had never seen the real Agent Dobbs, not alive anyway, but he knew this man was much too young to have been the same agent who’d been slain by J. T. Marley. The coincidence of the names, however, was more than a little unnerving.
“I, ahm, I’m okay,” he stammered. “Wh-who’d you say you were with?”
“National Security Agency,” Dobbs told him. He shot Officer Tate a baleful glare. “You made a number of phone calls the night before last, Mr. Hobson, to report a series of hijackings and a terrorist threat. Specifically to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Those buildings were subsequently attacked yesterday morning at precisely the times you reported.”
“Yeah,” Gary mumbled despondently, turning his face to the window. “Fat lot of good it did. No one would listen. No one.”
“Then you admit to knowing of the attacks prior to the news reports?” Pritchett asked.
“Not in the way you’re thinking,” Gary sighed. “I wasn’t involved in what happened. I just . . . Look, go talk to General George Hammond, Cheyenne Mountain Reserve in Colorado. Whatever he tells you is all you’ll get. Besides, I thought you guys had orders to lay offa me.”
“Not that we’re aware of, sir. Is General Hammond the one who gave you this list of numbers?” Dobbs asked. “And this code phrase?”
“No,” Gary snorted. “Not on his own authority, anyway. He cleared it with the Pentagon and President Tyson first. ‘In case you can be of any further service to your country.’ Some service,” he added bitterly. “I called every number on that list. Some of them twice! The nicest thing that happened was being put on hold. That was when I wasn’t being hung up on, or laughed at. Evidently, my ’service’ isn’t required by this administration.”
“And just what, exactly, would this service consist of, Mr. Hobson?” Dobbs asked. “Are you psychic? Do you . . .?”
Gary turned a heated glare on the NSA agent. “If you say one thing about visions or voices,” he warned him, his voice low and dangerous, “chest tube or not, I’ll get out of this bed and kick your sorry . . .!”
“I think that’s enough, gentlemen,” Tate interceded quickly, taking the two agents by the elbows and turning them toward the door. “His doctor will hand me my head if I let you upset his patient any further. Mr. Hobson has given you all the information he intends to, so go back to your superiors and tell them you’ll have to come back when he’s feeling better.”
“We have a lot more questions, Officer . . .” Pritchett began indignantly.
“Take it up with his doctor,” Tate replied grimly. “Seems to me, if someone had listened, you’d be pinning a medal on him right about now. You want someone to blame? Check out the people that hung up on ‘im. Find out why he wasn’t put through to someone that would listen.” With that, he shoved the two agents out the door, closing it on their protests. “Self righteous jerks,” the young cop grumbled.
“Thanks,” Gary sighed. “I really wasn’t up for this, I guess.”
“I dunno,” Tate remarked as he settled back in his chair by the door. “You seemed to be standing your ground pretty good, there. I take it you’ve been through something like this before?”
“Once or twice,” the young bar owner nodded glumly. “I just . . . just wish they’d listened. That I could’ve made a difference.”
“Don’t we all,” Tate murmured sadly. “Don’t we all . . .”
Gary was dozing fitfully later that evening when his mother showed up. The young officer who had relieved Tate that morning told her that his charge had been mumbling and groaning softly for the past hour. So, of course, the first thing she did was check him for a fever.
The moment he felt the cool touch of her hand to his cheek, Gary’s eyes fluttered open.
“Hmm? Oh, hi Mom,” he mumbled drowsily. “How . . .?”
“Just a few minutes, dear,” she answered his half formed question. “How do you feel?”
“Loopy,” he replied honestly. “Wish they’d ease off on the pain meds, a little. Don’t need enough to knock out a horse.”
“I’ll talk to your doctor about it,” Lois promised. Lowering her voice, she continued. “Everything went well at the park,” she told him. “Your dad caught the man in the act, and he’s at the station giving a statement, now. Things went well last night, I hear.”
“Um hmm. Polly was awesome, or so they tell me,” Gary grinned, still half under the influence. “Got pictures ‘n’ everything. Gonna try to . . . to ID the woman from that.” He frowned as another thought occurred to him. “They’re dangerous, Mom. You ‘n’ Dad be careful.”
“This from the man with a reserved suite in the Trauma Center?”
“Ha ha.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Th’others okay?”
“Everyone’s fine, dear,” his mom sighed. “You’re the one to worry about. Are you running a fever? You feel a little warm.”
“Little one,” he admitted. “They’ve got me on . . . on anti . . . anti . . . something or other.” He tried, and failed, to suppress a cavernous yawn. “Sorry. Gave me . . . the good stuff, I guess.”
“They must have,” Lois agreed softly. “I’ll let you get some rest, dear.” She started to rise, but Gary grasped her hand.
“No. Don’t go, yet,” he pleaded drowsily. “Stay. Please?”
Concerned, Lois sat back down. “Sure, Gary. Is something wrong?”
“No. N-not really,” her son replied hesitantly. “Strange dreams. Weird. Like . . . it’s me . . .
and not me. Names . . . faces . . . strangers, but . . . I know ‘em . . . somehow. Scary. Need . . .
need someone . . . familiar . . . real . . . God! I can’t think straight! An anchor, I guess. Will you stay, just a little while? Keep me grounded?”
Lois moved the chair a little closer to the bed, taking his hand in both of hers. “Of course I will,” she told her son. “Just close your eyes, sweetie. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
With a relieved sigh, Gary did as he was told. Seconds later, he was sound asleep, making soft little snoring noises. Lois wondered if they should consider getting him a bed like this for his apartment. He always seemed to sleep a little more soundly, and with a lot less sound, than in his usual bed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before,” a voice commented from the doorway.
Lois turned in her seat to spy a tall, dark haired young man in a white coat.
“You’ve never seen a mother sitting with her son before?” she asked.
“Actually, I was referring to the fact that he recognized the need for support,” the young man replied, “and could put his ego aside long enough to ask for it. I’m Dr. Lucas, by the way. I’ve been assigned to your son, this time. He’s been in and out a lot, recently. Is he accident prone, or something?”
Lois eyed the young doctor closely. Something in his tone rankled her maternal instincts. “You’re new here, aren’t you?” It was more a statement than a question.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “I just started this week.”
“Then you’re unaware that my son is a witness in a multiple murder case,” she informed him. “He’s been shot, beaten, shot again, kidnapped, chased all over the city by hit men, who have made two attempts right here in your own hospital. He is here because of a collapsed lung he acquired while escaping from some woman who was taking pot shots at him in the streets yesterday. At no time will I ever hear the words ‘accident prone’ escape your mouth again in my presence again. Do you understand?”
“Ahm, no, ma’am, you won’t,” a thoroughly chastened Dr. Lucas replied.
“She put him in his place in a heartbeat,” Officer Phillips was telling his relief. “No way was she letting him talk down to her!”
Tate smiled at the image. He had heard about the new doctor. A real condescending . . . fellow. To hear that his first run-in with one of ‘Gary’s Angels’, as his mother and Ms Gannon were jokingly called, had sent Dr. Lucas packing with his tail between his legs was welcome news. He wondered if the good doctor had met the other half of the team yet?
“So, how’s he doing today?” Tate inquired. “Any more nightmares?”
“Every time he closes his eyes,” the other man sighed. “I don’t know who this ‘Angel’ or ‘Stevie’ are, but they’ve been giving this poor guy hell. And he’s started mumbling about some others, too. Someone named ‘Nicky’ and another, ‘Pauly’ something or other. Oh, and ‘Uncle Vinnie’ was back. His mom has been with him for the last couple of hours, and that seems to help some.”
“I wish I could remember why that last name sounds so familiar,” Tate grumbled, half to himself. “That’s been bugging me all day.”
“And those NSA agents were back,” the other man sighed. “Hobson wouldn’t even speak to ‘em. Every time you mention the attack, he clams up. It’s almost . . . almost like he feels personally responsible. But that’s impossible, isn’t it?”
“From what I’ve seen of Hobson,” Officer Tate replied grimly, “he’s incapable of even being involved in something like that! Besides, he’d just gotten out of the hospital a few days before the attack. Where he’d been for a week or so, as I recall. He’d only been out a couple of days when I first met him. Before that, he was under police protection. When did he have time to meet up with any terrorists? Just the same, he seems to feel he could’ve stopped it if he’d done something . . . different.”
“But how did he know?” Phillips asked. “How does he always know?”
“I couldn‘t tell you,” Tate shrugged, “and he won’t say.”
“Well, he’s all yours, now,” the other cop said with a weary grin. “Johnson’ll relieve you in the morning. I have to be at my brother’s wedding.”
Not sure what to expect, Tate cautiously entered the room. He found Lois Hobson with her head resting on the bed, one hand loosely covering one of Gary’s. The man he was there to protect was apparently sleeping, if you could call it that. He was tossing fitfully, twisting one way only to be brought up short by the tube in his side. Turning the other only to have that same tube stop him with a painful jab. Each time, his eyes would flutter as if he were trying to wake, only to be pulled down into unconsciousness once more.
“He’s been like that most of the day,” Lois Hobson murmured. “His fever keeps going up and down like a yoyo.” She raised her head, wiping sleep from her eyes. “They’re still not sure if it’s from his collapsed lung or if he picked up something in the storm drains. I’m afraid if they take anymore blood, he won’t have any left.”
“The docs are doing everything they can, Mrs. Hobson,” Tate assured her. “After that run in with Lucas, I doubt he’ll do anything less. Bill said you chewed him up one side and down the other.”
Lois smiled at the implied compliment. She knew she was starting to get a reputation as being tougher than a she-bear in any matter that dealt with her son. Good. Whatever it took to keep her boy safe.
It was the same dream as before. Gary was in the storeroom/warehouse(?), standing before the two people who had come to feature so strongly in his waking nightmares as well. Stevie stood over Angel, a gun to her head. He couldn’t hear what the other man was saying, but he knew it was not good for the woman. He looked down at the gun in his hand. Gary knew what he had to do. Slowly, he raised the gun. Aimed . . . The gun bucked in his hand . . . and Gary felt his mouth stretch in a silent scream. This was wrong! It wasn’t him doing this! It couldn’t be!
His eyelids fluttered or a moment as he tried to wake up, only to be drawn back into the dream world once more. This time he was chasing Angel with a silenced gun in his hands as she ran from the stacks in a library. He pursued her past a frightened librarian and down a flight of stairs, where he shot her . . . in the back!
A low moan escaped his lips as he tried once more to flee his Morphean prison. Someone was saying, ‘Can’t they do something? He’s burning up!’ Then he was spiraling down into himself once more. Only it wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. He would never be standing outside anyone’s window with a rifle, let alone aiming it at the person standing within. And he would never, ever shoot . . . Dear God! He did! He shot the bottle right out of her hand! No!
With a Herculean effort, he forced his eyes open. Everything was blurry, but real. Still, why was it so hot?
“S’hot,” he murmured softly. “M-mom? S’hot.” He was rewarded with a spoonful of ice chips. Gary held them in his mouth as long as he could, savoring the cold against the dryness and the heat radiating from every inch of his body. “M-more, please?”
“Sure, Sweetie,” Lois Hobson replied as she placed another helping in his mouth. “How are you feeling, Gary?”
“Hot, tired,” he mumbled. “More?” Lois obediently spooned more ice in. For some reason, the image of a mother bird feeding her chick flitted across her mind. Gary opened fever-glazed eyes and noticed the fleeting little smile that played across her face. “What?”
“Nothing, dear,” she replied, dishing out more ice.
Gary’s fever finally broke that evening, allowing him to slip into a restful sleep. When he woke the next morning, he felt better than he had in days. The first thing he noticed was that his mother’s place had been taken by Marissa. His blind friend was quietly reading a Braille novel, putting it aside the moment he looked her way.
“Hi,” he murmured around a small yawn. “Whatcha reading’?”
“North And South: Book III,” she told him. “Almost finished, too. Excellent story. Charles Main reminds me of you for some reason.”
“Hmm. Never read it,” Gary mumbled with a tiny smile. “Been here long?”
“Long enough,” his friend smiled. “How are you feeling?”
“Better. Where’s Mom?”
Marissa reached up and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. A gesture so familiar, it brought a bigger smile to his pale features.
“I meant my other mom,” he joked. He was rewarded by a playful slap. “Ow! Stop! I’m a sick man! You see that?” he called out in a weak voice to the officer by the door. “You’re supposed to be protecting me!”
“Can’t protect you from your own mouth,” Tate remarked with a grin. “Nobody’s that good.”
“Tha’s cruel,” the patient mumbled pitifully. “My best friend and the man I’m trustin’ with my life gangin’ up on me. That . . . that’s so cruel.” He closed his eyes momentarily, still feeling a little drained. “Seriously, Marissa, where’s Mom?”
“She waited until the . . . um, she had to take the cat back home,” Marissa finally told him. Gary mouthed a quiet ‘oh’ as he got the message. “She said to tell you that she’ll be back tonight.”
Gary frowned at the idea of his mother spending all her free time looking after him. The last thing he wanted was for her to work herself into a state of exhaustion.
“Would you give her a message for me?” he asked his partner. “Tell her to take a day off. Go see a movie or something. When . . . when I asked her to stay, I didn’t mean for the duration.”
“Gary,” Marissa said with a smile, “you’re sick, and injured. The U.S. Marines couldn’t keep her away for long.”
“Umm. Pro’bly right,” Gary sighed. “I just hate to see her wearing herself out over this. Clay ‘n’ Buddy doin’ okay?”
“Just fine,” she assured him. “Except for a touch of cabin fever. They send their regards. Any more dreams?”
“Loads,” the young patient grumbled. “I just can’t make any sense of ‘em.”
“Tell me about them. Maybe I can help.”
Gary stared at the ceiling for a moment as he tried to organize what he could recall of his nightmares.
“It’s all kinda jumbled,” he told her. “And I can only remember bits and pieces. The woman is there. I think her name is. . . ‘Angel’. Then there’s this guy. Kinda stocky, average height, with dark hair and a . . . a roundish sorta face. ‘Stevie’. . . I kept calling him ‘Stevie’. Another guy, shorter than me, with blondish hair. That . . . that was ‘Nicky’? We . . . Stevie and . . . we were trying to . . . to ki-kill this woman. Angel. But . . . I don’t know why!”
“You’re right,” Marissa mused. “That doesn’t make any sense. Especially you trying to kill someone.”
“B-but then I was trying to save her!” he continued with a frustrated moan.
“That makes sense!”
“No! I shot Stevie, my friend, to save her,” Gary tried to explained. “A woman I didn’t even know! God, help me! I hate guns! They’ve never been anything but bad news for me. Why would I . . .” he paused to reconsider. “Because I’ve been shot at so much, lately, do you think? Is this one of those Freudian things you keep tellin’ me about?”
“Gary,” his friend said with a tiny laugh, “Freud would have nightmares trying to figure out your ‘normal’ dreams!”
Gary made a face. “That’s a big help.”
“I’m serious!” she went on. “Things happen to you and around you that science just cannot explain! Even experts in the paranormal haven’t come up with a category that you’d fit in! You are totally outside the box!” She fell silent, tapping her lower lip in concentration.
“You’ve thought of something,” Gary said. “What?”
“Claire! The psychic who helped you find that baby! Maybe she could help you!”
“Please!” he groaned, laying his head back. “She thinks I’m psychic, too. I still get calls from her wanting to team up for a stage act. I think she’s joking though.”
“What have you got to lose?” Marissa asked reasonably.
“Other than my sanity? Not much,” Gary said with a shrug. “And since I’m hanging on to that by my fingernails right now, I’ll take whatever help I can get. I’ll give her a call, I guess,” he conceded with a tired sigh. “God! I’m so tired of people trying to kill me. I’d really like to go to sleep and wake up in my own bed and know that I was safe there. Lately, it seems the whole world wants to carve off little pieces of me.”
“Speaking of which,” Marissa sighed, “guess who’s sitting in the waiting room? Those two, um, ‘gentlemen’ from the NSA.”
“Again?” Gary groaned. “Just what part of ‘no’ are they having problems with?”
The day Carter promised the tube would come out finally arrived. Gary lay there, perfectly still, trying not to shudder as he felt the long piece of plastic slide out from between his ribs. God, that felt weird! He looked over at the bloody object the nurse was putting into a red bag. At least six inches of it was coated in his blood! Ee-yew! Fascinated by the sight, it was all he could do to suppress a yelp when he felt a sharp pain in his side, followed by a burning sensation. Startled, he looked down to see a tiny syringe being withdrawn from a spot just below the incision.
“Just a little xylocaine,” Carter assured him. “Useless you’d rather we sew you up without it.”
“No-no-no!” Gary insisted. “That’s okay! Just warn me next time? I take it that it’s not a good idea to jump with sharp objects stickin’ in ya?”
“Not really, no,” Carter agreed, disposing of the syringe in a ‘sharps’ container. “We’ll give that a couple of minutes to take affect then finish up. It only needs a couple of stitches. Feeling okay? No trouble breathing?”
Gary drew in a slow, deep breath, still acutely aware of the hole in his side. “Feels good,” he reported. “No pain, no pressure. Does this mean I get to go home soon?”
“If you’re still feeling this good in the morning,” the young doctor promised. “Happy birthday, by the way.”
Carter’s off hand remark caught Gary by surprise. He had been so used to looking a day ahead, he had to think back to the day of the WTC tragedy to figure that day’s date. “Hunh! I guess it is,” he murmured. “Thanks, Doc.”
“Still having those dreams?”
Gary gave him an exasperated look. “Does everyone know about that?” he asked ruefully. “Yeah, every night since I’ve been in here. Got anything that’ll stop ‘em?”
“Sorry,” Carter replied with a shake of his head. He prodded the incision with a pair of hemostats. When Gary didn’t react, he used the same instrument to pick up the suture needle. “I could have one of the shrinks come by, if you like. Although, from the sound of it, maybe you need us to call the X-Files.”
“C-cute, Doc” Gary grunted as Carter tugged to tighten the first stitch. “Should we have the ‘Exorcist’ on stand-by?”
“Nah, that only works if you’re possessed. Too specialized. No, for your hauntings, nightly visitations, and general weirdness, it’s either the X-Files, or Poltergeist: The Legacy. Want me to make the call?”
“You’ve been talking to Marissa, haven’t you,” Gary muttered, a little fed up with the teasing. “You know, I don’t wish this on anybody else,” he added bitterly, “but I’d like to see how you guys would handle waking up night after night from someone else’s nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, Doc. I’m really happy that you guys are getting so much entertainment from this, but I’d settle for a decent night’s sleep!”
Carter tied off the last stitch and set down his instruments, eyeing Gary with genuine concern. “I didn’t mean to make fun of you, Gary,” he apologized. “Just trying to lighten the mood a little. This really has you bugged, hasn’t it?”
“Yes. Think about it,” Gary sighed. “By day I have this team of hit-men trying to collect my head. Then I have one of them haunting my dreams every night. Only, I think I’m seeing her through somebody else’s eyes. Toss in the fact I’ve got two guys in my loft who look enough like me to be me, and I feel like someone’s doing a crossover episode of every weird show in the history of television! And I’m the star!” He looked down at the neat row of stitches. Carter was covering it with a thin sheet of clear bandage. “Does that mean I can take a shower now?” At Carter’s nod, Gary reached for a towel. “Then I’d better hurry. The way things ‘ve been going, Kirk and Spock could beam down any minute.”
It felt so good to have the hot, steamy water streaming down his body, Gary thought to himself. He was tempted to stay in the shower until the hot water ran out. As it was, when he finally wrapped a large towel around his waist and stepped out, it was into a thick cloud of steam. Feeling better than he had in days, Gary started setting up his shaving gear. Clearing just enough of the mirror’s surface to do the job, he set to work.
A few minutes later, as he was wiping the last traces of lather from his chin, Gary felt a distinct chill in the foggy air. ‘Did someone open a door?’ he wondered, looking around. Not seeing anyone, he shrugged and turned back to his gear. Reaching a hand out to pick up his lotion, Gary paused as he felt a ‘crawling’ sensation on his arms and chest. Looking down, he was startled to see every hair on his arm rising to attention. He was actually breaking out in goose bumps! A chill breath sent a shiver up his spine as he spun around, seeking the elusive source. ‘What the hell is going on here?’ he wondered when his search revealed nothing but a fog-shrouded bathroom. He’d turned the shower off nearly twenty minutes before. Why was it still so foggy?
Puzzled, he once more reached for his shaving lotion. Awkwardly splashing a little into his palm, he set the bottle down. He gave the cast on his left arm a rueful look. Carter promised it would be off in another couple of weeks. In the meantime, it made shaving a royal pain. Rubbing the fingers of his left hand briskly against the palm of the right, he turned back to the mirror and began to apply the soothing lotion to his freshly shaved skin. He froze, both hands to his cheeks, like that kid in ‘Home Alone.’ There, looking back at him over his right shoulder, was himself. Or, at least, a foggy image of himself. ‘Is there another mirror in here?’ He couldn’t remember seeing one. And, if there was, wouldn’t he be seeing the back of his head? Gary stared in amazement at the apparition. It looked just like him, except for a round mark just above the bridge of his nose. Stunned, and a little frightened, Gary dropped his hands from his face and spun around once more to face . . . nothing. There was no one there.
“What is this?” he asked angrily. “What do you want with me?” No answer. “Then . . . just go away and leave me alone!”
He turned back to gather his things off the sink . . . and there he was. The ‘other him’ was much closer this time. Close enough to reach out a spectral hand and place it on Gary’s bare shoulder.
It was like an electrical shock coursing throughout his body! Every nerve, every atom, screamed in pain as image after image assailed his mind! All his nightmares of the past week came hurtling back in a kaleidoscope of color and sound! Frozen and helpless, unable even to breathe, all Gary could do was endure the avalanche of raw emotion that accompanied each new assault. So much pain! Confusion! At last, his body already weakened by injury and illness, Gary could take no more. He had a vague impression of the floor rushing up to meet him, then . . .
“Gary? Gary, can you hear me? Do you know where you are?” The voice had a tinny quality, as if it were coming from a great distance. It seemed to be heading in his direction, though. “C’mon, Gary. Talk to us!” Carter? Hadn’t he just left?
“Umm? Wha . . .what happened?” Gary mumbled groggily. “Wh-where ‘m I?” He pried his eyes open to see a pair of blurry, but concerned faces bending over him. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, Gary started to raise his head. He gasped, squeezing his eyes shut as a stabbing pain sent him flopping back. It felt like someone had driven a spike between his eyes! “Ah, man! What was that? What happened?”
“We were hoping you could tell us,” Carter remarked. “Your parents found you collapsed in the bathroom about ten minutes ago. Do you remember anything?”
Gary rubbed at his temples, trying to massage the pain away, as he attempted to marshal his thoughts. “I remember a nice, hot shower,” he sighed. “And shaving. Thinking about this blasted cast. Then . . . cold. I-it was so cold, all of a sudden. I had goose bumps, it was so cold! A-after that . . . it got weird. Man! What hit me?”
“I have no idea . . . yet,” Carter confessed. “We’re going to run a few tests, see what we can find out. In the meantime, don’t even attempt to get out of this bed!” He turned to the other two occupants of the room. “Sit on him if you have to, but keep him quiet. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
As the young doctor grabbed Gary’s chart and turned to go, Lois Hobson quickly took his place at Gary’s bedside. She folded a wet washcloth and placed it over his eyes. The sudden darkness combined with the coolness helped to ease the pain . . . a little. He still felt like a jackhammer was pounding away at his skull, though.
“It scared me to death, finding you like that!” Lois moaned. “All curled up on the floor, barely breathing . . . I-we thought you were dying!”
“Sorry, Mom,” Gary murmured through the pain in his head. “Don’t know what happened. So weird. Saw . . . saw this face . . . in the mirror.”
“Someone was in the bathroom with you?” Bernie’s voice asked from somewhere near his feet.
“Y-yes. No. So weird! Maybe this double/triple thing is getting to me,” Gary mumbled. “M-maybe I got the water too hot and . . . maybe I hallucinated or . . . or something. Y-you didn‘t see some tall guy with pointed ears . . .did you?”
“Gary, you’re babbling,” Bernie told his son. “Calm down and try to make sense.”
“That’s just it, Dad! It doesn’t make any sense!” Gary retorted. “I thought I saw . . . me . . . looking over my . . . own . . . Don’t give me that look!”
“What look? Your eyes are covered!” Bernie protested. “How do you know what kind of look I’m giving you?”
“I’ve been taking lessons from Marissa,” Gary quipped. “And you’ve got that ‘It’s time for the rubber room’ look. I’m not crazy! Yet.” He rubbed a little harder at his temples. This headache was a killer! He could feel his stomach muscles tighten as the pain triggered a bout of nausea. Gary swallowed convulsively, trying to head it off. No way was he going to throw . . .!
Gary just had time to mumble “Oh, Lord!“ before he lurched up from the bed. His dad held him upright as his mother pressed a plastic ‘convenience’ bag to his face. Soon Gary was rid of his lunch, breakfast, and possibly last night’s supper. When there was nothing left but dry heaves, a cup of water was pressed to his mouth. Gary used the first mouthful to rinse the foul taste from his mouth. The next he swallowed to ease the burning in his throat. Not too much, or it would start all over again. Exhausted, Gary let his father ease him back down onto the bed, only to shoot back up for another round. The cycle repeated itself several more times. At some point, Gary felt a sharp prick in his arm and a warm, fuzzy sensation washed over him. A couple of eternities passed before the medicine kicked in, leaving him feeling drained and limp.
“This is the pits,” he mumbled drowsily.
“How’s the head, now, Gary?” Lois asked, brushing at the hair on his forehead. She had always loved playing with his hair. “Any better?”
“Still hurts,” he admitted. “What’s goin’ on, Mom? What’s happenin’ to me?”
“I wish I knew, sweetie,” Lois sighed. “I wish I knew.”
“Happy birthday, son,” Bernie murmured quietly as the younger Hobson drifted off to sleep.
“There is no way I’m going to let you talk with my patient,” Dr. Lucas told the two agents. “He’s suffered some type of seizure and is in no condition for another interrogation. We’ve already shown you his admission records and the police reports. There is no possible way for him to have been involved with the events of September eleventh.”
“Then how did he know about it?” Dobbs asked. “We’ve already identified three of the hijackers and have traced their movements enough to rule out Hobson as a known associate. So how did he learn of the attack at least twelve hours before it happened?”
“You can ask him when his condition has improved,” Dr. Lucas informed them. “That’s not to say he’ll give you any answers. Evidently, you failed to impress him with your authority.”
“I have got to get outta here,” Clay growled. “I’m getting’ the world’s worst case o’ cabin fever.”
Buddy was bent over Gary’s kitchen table, scribbling furiously on a sheet of paper. “Ya oughta get yourself a hobby,” he commented distractedly. “Somethin’ ya can do indoors.”
Clay continued tossing wadded up sheets of newspaper into a wastebasket. “Not the indoor type, brother,” he drawled. “I need open air and a good horse. Y’know, Gary looks like he could sit a horse pretty good. Think he’d give it a try?”
“Won’t know ‘til ya ask,” his twin murmured. “See what ya think of this? I’m tryin’ to write a song about that lady cousin Gary keeps dreamin’ about.”
The cowboy removed his feet from the coffee table with a ‘thump.’ He half-turned to face the kitchenette where his twin sat, working on his song.
“I’ve been meanin’ to ask, how come you keep callin’ him ‘cuz’? Do you know, for sure, that he’s kin to us?”
“If he ain’t,” Buddy drawled, “he oughta be.” He lifted the sheet of paper and began reading. “Just got the chorus so far. Here goes:
She has nerves of steel and a heart of ice
She can blow you away and not think twice
A one-way ticket to Paradise,
That pistol packin’ Angel of mine.”
He turned so that he could see his brother’s reaction. “Think it’ll fly?”
“Give it a good beat,” Clay remarked with a lazy grin, “and it might limp, but I dunno about flyin’. Why’d you wanna write about a killer for, anyway?”
“I dunno,” Buddy sighed, tossing the paper back on the table. “The way he talked about her, I guess. Or the way that detective said he talked about her, anyhow.” He leaped to his feet and started pacing. “Damn! I need to talk to Gary. If he can give me a better feel for her, I can do this!”
“Well, you know what hospital he’s in,” Clay drawled, as he leaned back once more. “Why not give him a call?”
“Tried that.” It was Buddy’s turn to grumble and growl. “They won’t let anyone talk to ‘im. Makes sense, if ya think on it. What if I was the killer, tryin’ to find ‘im? Why make it easy for ‘em?”
The ringing of the phone by Gary’s bed interrupted whatever reply Clay was going to make. Having been warned against answering, they waited until the answering machine had delivered its message.
“Gary?” a familiar voice spoke up. “This is Dusty. Thought I’d let you know Lula’s got us booked for another concert up your way in a coupla weeks. Have you been thinkin’ over my offer? Call me back at . . .”
Buddy snatched up the phone. “Dusty! This is Buddy. What offer?” He listened for a moment. “I dunno, he seems a little skittish.” Another pause. “He’s back in the hospital. No, a big ol’ piece o’ luggage fell on ‘im, broke some ribs. Naw, it was later . . . when his lung collapsed . . . Because of him havin’ to lift the cover on that storm drain. To get away from the people . . . No, not the same . . .Yeah, for such a nice fella, he’s got an awful lotta people out for his hide. Naw, turned out Gary wasn’t . . . but get this, Gary found my real . . .! Yeah! I’m a twin! Oh, yeah! Totally blew me away!” Another pause, longer this time. “Two weeks, Union Center. How come so soon . . .? Uh huh.” A slow smile crossed Buddy’s face as his mind began to race. “Listen, Dusty, Gary’s in a real mess of trouble here. How far are you willin’ to go to help ‘im out?”
Steve Rossellini leafed through the mass of information his hacker friend had gathered about their target. It made no sense! Just a few years ago, the guy was invisible. A nobody! Just another dime-a-dozen, mediocre stockbroker, plodding along through life without a care in the world! Not so much as an unpaid traffic fine! Then, BAM! he was either being arrested or commended almost on a daily basis! What had happened? The kid was a little young for a mid-life crisis.
Angel was going through every old article they could find in the newspaper archives that mentioned anyone by the name of Hobson. There were plenty. Most of them were just small references that he was somehow involved in one thing or another. She read a few that chronicled a short term on the city council. It seemed he had joined to accomplish something, then resigned once he had succeeded! The most interesting items, though, had to be the ones that dealt with the death of that reporter, Frank Scanlon. Hobson was arrested on suspicion, but escaped on his way to be arraigned. He led the Chicago PD a merry chase until he helped to capture the real killer.
Both killers sat back at almost the same moment, giving vent to twin sighs of frustration.
“I just don’t get this guy,” Stevie complained. “Just when I think I’ve got a handle on how his mind works, I find him doing the complete opposite of what it seems he should be doing! He’s accused of this, but he was really doing that. The police think he’s crazy, but they sit up and listen when he calls.” He threw his hands up in surrender. “He’s nothing but contradictions! Nothing about this guy makes sense!”
“Ditto,” Angel sighed, rubbing at tired eyes. “There’s no pattern here. We need to get to know this guy better. By that, I mean him! We need to start where he lives, and follow him through at least one day, maybe two. Get a real feel for the guy that we can’t get from this,” she added, giving the stack of papers a flip. “And, for that, we have to wait ‘til he gets out of the freakin’ hospital!”
‘She’s so beautiful,’ the voice murmured. ‘And so sad! Why is she sad? Why is she alone? A pretty woman like her should have men falling all over her. I’ve looked for someone like her all my life. Why does she have to die? Why do I have to be the one to kill her? My Angel.’
Gary turned his head, trying to block out the low, sad whispers. It was no use. They echoed through the vaults of his mind like the persistent hum of a mosquito. Angel. Her name was Angel. The beautiful killer with the haunting green eyes. He had loved her. Had turned against everything he knew . . . for her. Betrayed loyalties that could mean a slow, horrible death . . . for him. All because he could not bring himself to snuff out the light behind those beautiful, intense green eyes.
She shimmered before him in a luminous haze, long red hair cascading down her back. She looked lost and innocent, like a child left all alone to face a cold, cruel world. Then her hair changed. As did she. It became short, straight, and blonde. Her whole demeanor was cold, calculating. Soft warm eyes had become hard chips of green ice. The soft face of a sorrowing angel was now a devil, set in stone. She raised her right hand to reveal a pistol, aiming it straight and true. The gun coughed once . . . twice . . .
Gary shot up from the bed, eyes wide, then squeezing shut as he clutched at his chest! God! The pain! Gritting his teeth to keep from crying out, he groped blindly for the call button. A hand came from out of nowhere, trying to push him back down. No! He couldn’t breathe! He must have managed to communicate that, somehow, because the head of the bed met him halfway. A mask was placed over his nose and mouth, feeding him cool, pure oxygen. Someone lifted the mask just long enough to place something, a pill, under his tongue. Nitroglycerin? Was he having a heart attack? If so, the medication wasn’t helping! It felt as if someone had slammed a sledgehammer into his ribs! And his head! Twin spikes of agony that threatened to tear him to shreds! Even with his eyes closed, Gary could feel the room spinning in a devilish dance. ’Oh, God!’ he thought. ’Not again!’
The mask was whisked away as he lurched forward, making gagging noises deep in his throat. Once again, he found his face buried in a plastic bag. This time, his sore, abused stomach had nothing left to contribute. Minutes later, exhausted, he allowed firm but gentle hands to guide him back onto the bed, and for the oxygen mask to be replaced. He peeled open his eyes, squinting into, what was to him, harsh light, to see a nurse inserting a syringe into his IV. The now familiar feeling of warm fuzziness crept over him as more medication was pumped into his veins. Several more minutes passed before he felt any significant lessening of the pain in either chest or head.
At last the pain abated somewhat and his breathing returned to something close to normal. His chest and head felt sore, tender. As if he had been the recipient of a couple of really devastating blows.
“Gary? Can you hear me?”
Gary pried his right eye open to see Dr. Lucas bending over him, looking concerned. “Umm,” he mumbled in reply. “Hurts.” The mask muffled his words to an almost incoherent jumble of noise. He reached up to remove it, only to have cool hands push his back down. Too weak to resist, Gary turned his head to look at the owner of those hands. A young woman was pushing buttons on a machine which had wires running to a bunch of tiny patches stuck all over Gary’s chest. Puzzled, Gary turned his head to give Dr. Lucas a questioning look.
“We’re running an ECG on you,” the physician explained. “An electrocardiogram. You’re a little young for a heart attack, and, aside from your injuries, in excellent health. So, I don’t really expect to find anything. Still, it’s best not to take chances. Dr. Carter tells me you passed out in your bathroom shortly after he removed your chest tube. How are you feeling now?”
Gary started to respond, only to have the technician place a warning finger over his mask covered lips. He shot her an exasperated look as the little machine began to whir. A second later, she began ripping off the tiny adhesive patches, along with what felt like a fair amount of hide. Trying not to wince, Gary waited until she was finished and Dr. Lucas was pouring over the print out she had given him, before reaching up once more to remove the mask.
“You really should try to keep that on,” Dr. Lucas admonished. “You were having some difficulty breathing.”
“I’m having ‘difficulty’ talking with it on,” Gary grumbled, his voice hoarse and raspy. “My chest feels like someone’s been driving railroad spikes through it, and my head feels about the same. I think there’s a revolving door in my stomach, too. Can’t keep anything down. Other than that, I’m just dandy.”
Dr. Lucas made notes on Gary’s chart, being careful to keep a straight face. He didn’t want to chance another run-in with his patient’s mother. “Well, this says there’s nothing wrong with your heart. Still, we’ll get a cardiac enzyme, just to be sure. Can you remember anything about your blackout episode?”
Gary thought back, trying to recall what he had told his parents. Something about a face . . .? “I’d just taken a shower,” he replied. “And was . . . no, I was through shaving. Just finishing up with the lotion, when I felt this . . . chill come over me. Like a wave. So cold all of a sudden! Then . . . something, I dunno, brushed against me? It was like touching a live wire! I could feel everything, every muscle just . . . seize up! The next thing I recall was waking up to a killer headache. And losing everything I’ve eaten since Christmas.”
It was Dr. Lucas’s turn to give him a look. “It’s not even . . . oh. Never mind, I get your point,” he added with a pained expression.
“I kinda thought you would,” Gary murmured, his eyes starting to grow heavy. The medicine must still be fighting its way through his system. “So, what can you tell me? What kinda tests ‘ve ya done?”
“MRI and EEG,” the doctor told his patient. He ran a hand over his face, sighing in frustration. “Preliminary reports show no brain lesions, bleeds, or clots on the MRI. The EEG is . . . inconclusive.”
That got Gary’s attention. “You found something?”
Dr. Lucas flipped open his patient’s chart, scribbling furiously. “I’d like to run another series of tests in the morning, if you’re up to it,” he replied, avoiding Gary’s question. “The EEG, in particular. And possibly a SPECT scan. We’ll also do a complete blood work-up . . .”
“You found something,” Gary repeated. It wasn’t a question this time.
The young doctor closed the chart with a sigh, laying it on the bedside table. “We compared it with one taken when you had a head injury a few years ago,” he told Gary. “It didn’t . . . quite match.”
Gary leaned forward, propped on his elbows, not exactly sure he was hearing correctly. “S’cuse me?” he asked. “Are you saying . . . I’m not . . . me?”
“Not . . . entirely,” Lucas hedged nervously. He hated being on uncertain ground. “It matches in some areas and not . . .others. It may have been because the type of injury was different from your previous head trauma. Or because you were still unconscious when this one was run. Or a power fluctuation from a passing UFO! I won’t know until we do a few more tests.” He looked away, unable to meet the questioning, fearful look in Gary’s eyes. “I’m afraid you’ll need to stick around a while longer.”
Flopping back with a tired sigh, Gary mumbled, “How did I know you were gonna say that?”
“I’m not going to tell you again!” Dr. Lucas insisted. “He’s in no shape for you people to go in throwing a pile of baseless accusations at him! The man is seriously ill and we don’t know what’s causing his symptoms.”
The two agents exchanged worried looks. “Are these symptoms consistent with anthrax?” Pritchett asked guardedly.
“No,” the young physician sighed. “They seem to be of a neurological nature. He’s having chest pains, seizures, headaches. No fevers or congestion since the first few days. Nor has he exhibited any lesions that could be associated with the skin form of anthrax. Look, you said yourself that the man is no longer a suspect. Why are you hounding him?”
“Because we still have too many unanswered questions, doctor,” Dobbs told him. “Please advise your patient that we will be speaking with him again.” With that the two men turned and strode back toward the elevators.
“Not if I can help it,” Dr. Lucas murmured to their retreating backs.
Continue to Installment 3
Email the author: Polgana54@cs.com