The next time Gary woke up, it was to the murmur of voices outside his
head, which he found to be a welcome relief. Turning his head, he
saw Armstrong and Brigatti talking with Officer Tate. Didn’t that
guy ever take time off? Wait, what were they saying about . . . Angel?
Gary tried to speak, only to find that his throat was too dry to make more than a weak croaking sound. Christ! How long had he been out this time? Looking around, he spotted a cup and pitcher on his table. Hands shaking slightly, he managed to pour a little water into the cup without spilling it. Taking a few sips, he cleared his throat and tried again.
“Hi.” Oh, yes. Much better. They actually heard him this time. All three heads turned to find him waving a hand. “Mind if I join in?”
“Not at all,” Brigatti responded with a tight-lipped grin. “How’s your head, handsome?”
“Ask me later,” he murmured, his voice husky. “How long was I out this time?”
“Long enough to miss seeing your mother and that damned cat of yours,” the pretty detective snorted. “How does that thing always know where you are?”
“Asking the wrong person,” Gary replied with a tired grin. “Don’t know how he found me in the first place.” He looked past her to Armstrong. “Hey, Paul. Everything okay at home?”
The big detective leaned forward in his seat, the better to meet Gary’s bleary-eyed gaze. “Pretty much,” he answered with a tiny half-smile. “Treyton is ready to climb the walls, and Jackson is trying to write a song about your mysterious ‘Angel.’ He’s been begging me for days to sneak him in here so he can pick your brain about her.”
“Speaking of whom . . .” Toni remarked in a warning tone.
“I’ve never even spoken to her,” Gary told the fiery Italian. “How can I have something going on with someone I haven’t even met yet?”
“What makes you think I care if you have anything going on with anyone?” Toni asked in an arch tone. “Your social life is none of my concern.”
“What social life?” Gary grumbled under his breath. To Toni, he replied, “It could have something to do with the third degree you give me every time I so much as . . . never mind.”
“Oh, speaking of a third degree,” Tate commented, “the ‘Bobbsey Twins’ were back this morning.”
“Again?” Gary sighed. “Don’t these guys have a life to get back to or something?”
“Apparently not,” Brigatti grinned, enjoying his discomfort. “They still want to know how you knew so much about what was going to happen. Something the rest of us have been wondering for years.”
“Well they can keep on wondering,” the young patient grumbled. “I’ve got problems enough without those two.”
Armstrong riffled the pages of a thick file he was holding in his hands. “I’ll say,” he commented with a shake of his head. “We were talking about your girlfriend and her partner.”
“Look,” Gary sighed, “the only time I’ve even seen this woman face-to-face, she was shooting at me . . . Don’t say it! I already know you’ve considered it. More than once, I’m sure. Have you guys been able to dig up anything about those two?”
It was Tate’s turn to speak up. “We think so,” he said. “I finally remembered why the name ‘Uncle Vinnie’ kept sticking in my head. Have you ever heard of the Perelli family?”
Perelli. Perelli. Where had he heard . . .? “Wait a minute.” Gary’s eyes grew wide and he tried to sit up as memory returned. “Any relation to Frank Perelli? The guy who . . .? Because she was gonna . . .? He’s part of that family? I’ve been dreaming about that Uncle Vinnie?” He plopped back with a groan. “Just great!” he muttered. “Mixed up with the Mob . . . again! What about the other two? Angel and Stevie. We know Angel is a killer. Is Stevie her partner?”
“Steve Rossellini,” Armstrong replied, tossing a file in Gary’s lap. “Also known as ‘The Rose’. Wanted in almost every state, and more than one foreign country, for murder. One of the top ten assassins in the world! And he’s hunting you.”
Gary looked at the file as if it were a rattlesnake ready to strike. Top ten. In the whole world. Wonderful. “And, umm, Angel?”
“That one’s a puzzle,” Toni Brigatti fumed. “Our only report on her indicates that Rossellini was trying to kill her a couple of years ago. Him and some young buck he was supposed to be training for Perelli. Then she disappears, and everyone assumes that Rossellini caught up with her. But Pirelli’s nephew, Nicky, turns up dead along with his regular entourage. And the mysterious young protégé is never seen again.” She tossed another folder on top of the Rossellini file. “Meet Angel Chaste.”
Hands trembling more than a little now, Gary reached down and flipped open the top file. There, staring up at him from a color glossy, were the intense green eyes from his nightmares.
“She’s, um, not . . . not missing anymore,” he gulped. “That’s . . . that’s the one who shot at me a few days ago.” Closing the folder and laying it aside, he picked up the one beneath it. Opening it slowly, he peered at the picture inside. He had not seen the driver, or the intruder in his room that first night, but he had seen this face before. “And, um, this is the guy fr-from . . . Th-that‘s Stevie, alright.”
“Bingo,” Toni remarked acidly. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Hobson.”
“It’ll work!” Buddy was saying as Bernie walked in with their lunch. “We can get these guys so confused they won’t know which way to duck!”
“I dunno,” Clay drawled. “Gary seems a little . . . Don’t get me wrong, Buddy. He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met, but he’s real high-strung. Are you sure he won’t freeze-up on us?”
Buddy was pacing energetically in the open space between the bed and the sofa. He was so excited, he was practically bouncing on his toes. “Don’t worry,” he grinned. “I heard the tape Dusty was tellin’ me about. Cuz has a great voice. He just needs a little push.”
“Are you guys talkin’ about Gary?” Bernie asked as he set the tray down.
“Sure,” Buddy replied. “If this works out, he could have a whole new career as a country singer.”
“My Gary?” Bernie asked skeptically. “Mr. ‘I don’t even sing in the shower’ Hobson? Are you nuts? He gets stage-fright singing Christmas carols!”
“Well, maybe he’s gotten over that,” Buddy persisted. “That Crumb fella said he did real good in some play a while back.”
“That’s apples and oranges,” the elder Hobson snorted. “He was one of a whole cast of amateurs just out to stretch their wings a little. It’s something else entirely to get up there by yourself with a whole crowd of people starin’ atcha. He’d choke for sure. Besides, he doesn’t dare show his face, right now. Not with those two killers out there.”
Buddy stopped his pacing to face Bernie, an excited gleam in his eyes. “That’s the whole point!” he said. “We want to draw these jokers out. The only way to do that is with real good bait. Now, Clay and I’ve been cooped up here for the past week, and we’re getting a little stir crazy. What I’m suggesting is that we let ourselves be seen in different parts of town at the same time. Someone can sneak us out of here and we can hide on the back floorboard of their car until we’re well away from here. Doing something to attract these guys attention. Something that would make these guys think Gary was out of the hospital and on the prowl, so to speak.”
“Ya know,” Clay murmured, almost to himself, “that could work. Both of us dressed just alike, seen on opposite sides of town . . . We could have them chasin’ their own tails. They won’t know what to expect from ‘im. Then we give ‘em a time and place where they know he’ll be, and they have to go for it.”
“Exactly!” Buddy exclaimed enthusiastically. “It’ll be the only time they can be sure of gettin’ a clear shot at ‘im! Only, they won’t be able to get near ‘im! Not with thousands of people around as witnesses!”
“Not to mention half a dozen police bodyguards,” Clay reminded his brother. “He’ll be watched over better than the President.”
Dazed, Bernie eased down on the sofa next to Clay. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “You two want to set yourselves up as decoys to get those killers all worked up so you can use Gary as bait to flush ‘em out. Is that right?” Both men nodded. “And where, exactly, did you plan to spring this little surprise, and what has it got to do with Gary’s singing debut?”
Buddy and Clay exchanged tight little grins, then Buddy turned back to Bernie, a wicked gleam in his eye.
“That’s the best part.”
He quickly explained the rest of his plan. Bernie listened intently, still skeptical, at first, but with growing interest. It was crazy, he decided. Just crazy enough to work. Possibly. They would have to convince Brigatti and Armstrong. Bernie didn’t really see that as being much of a problem. The hard part would be convincing Lois. She would have a fit at the very idea. Even harder, though, would be getting Gary to go along.
“I’d rather be shot!”
Gary was sitting straight up in bed, staring at his father in horrified fascination. Was he really suggesting that he . . . That they . . .? Was he seriously . . .?
“Dad, please tell me you’re joking,” he begged. “That you’re not even considering . . . Would you really want me to do something like this?”
“It makes sense, Gar,” his dad argued. “In a crazy sorta way. Get these characters off base, and then throw ‘em a curve! It’s perfect!”
“Define ‘perfect’!” Gary grumbled. “I let them wander around Chicago, in hopes that someone starts taking pot-shots at ‘em? No way!”
“But Gary,” Bernie replied with an evil grin, “they don’t know we have three of you! I’ve talked with the Doc. He says they can hide you away in the Sleep Disorder Lab until you’re well enough to go home. Meanwhile, we’re rockin’ the boat under these yahoos until they’re ready to shoot each other. Then, POW! we hit ‘em with the grand slam!”
“Announcing to the whole world that I’ll be at a certain place, at a certain time,” Gary finished for him. “With a bull’s eye on my back and a sign saying ‘Here I am. Shoot me!’ And they want me to sing on top of that? In public? Couldn’t I just take an ad in the paper? ‘Dear Angel and Stevie, I’ll save you the trouble and kill myself before my family and friends humiliate me to death!’”
Brigatti and Winslow had been listening with growing interest.
“I dunno,” the blonde cop grinned. “It has potential. If you get the right song, you could end up with a record deal.”
“I don’t want . . .!” Gary shot them a pained look as he realized he was being baited. “Very funny. Ha ha. You do realize, of course, that someone could end up dead? Or seriously injured? Not to mention that I was brought in here with a collapsed lung! Should I be trying to sing after that?” He directed his last question at Dr. Lucas, who was just walking in the door. ‘Please say no,’ he prayed. ‘Please please please!’
To his disappointment, the tall doctor just shrugged and said, “No reason why you can’t. From what they tell me, you have a little over a week to recuperate before you have to perform.”
“Isn’t anyone willing to see my side in this?” he asked plaintively.
“Apparently not,” Brigatti remarked with a grin of her own. “Personally, I’m dying to find out if you can sing as well when you’re sober as you could when you were delirious.”
“It’s only because I was delirious that I was singing at all!” the patient protested, burying his face in his hands. “C’mon, guys! Have a heart! Don’t make me do this!”
Bernie patted his son gently on the shoulder. “Sorry, kiddo,” he replied, “but as they always usta say in Vaudeville, the show must go on.”
Gary lowered his hands and fixed his dad with a steady look. Before he could come up with a suitably scathing remark, Dr. Lucas spoke up.
“Your lungs aren’t going to be your biggest problem,” he told Gary. “Nor will your ribs, which should be mostly healed by then. My concern is these blackouts and headaches you’ve been having. Not to mention that episode of chest pain. Which, by the way, we still haven’t found a reason for.” He reached down and tilted Gary’s head up to the light. “How long have you had this?” he asked with a puzzled frown.
“Had what?” Gary asked sullenly. Sing. They wanted him to sing! In public no less!
“This red patch on your forehead,” the doctor explained. “It wasn’t there when I examined you last evening. Have you hit your head since then?”
“Until about an hour ago, Doc,” Gary sighed, “I’ve been asleep since the last time I saw you. What mark?”
Wordlessly, Dr. Lucas held up a small hand mirror. Puzzled, Gary looked at his reflection. There, just above the bridge of his nose, was the exact same mark he had seen on his doppelganger. He reached a slightly trembling hand up to touch his forehead and felt a small, flat circle of raised, very tender flesh. ‘Oh my God,’ he thought. ‘It was me in the mirror, looking over my own shoulder?’
“That wasn’t there when we came in,” Brigatti observed. “And he hasn’t been out of bed without an escort, I assure you.” She gingerly touched the reddened mark, causing Gary to flinch. “My, aren’t we touchy!”
“Sorry,” Gary mumbled. “Every time it’s touched, I get this . . . pain . . . shooting all the way to the back of my skull.” Nervously, he wiped his good hand on the front of his gown, only to stop, wincing as he felt another sharp pain. Startled, he gave the doctor a fearful look before lifting the neck of his gown and peering underneath.
“Let me see,” Lucas insisted gently. He pulled the top of the gown off to reveal a similar lesion just to the left of Gary’s breastbone. A gentle touch brought a hiss of pain from his patient. The young doctor looked up into frightened, muddy-green eyes. “I think we need to run a few more tests.”
The next five days were consumed with test after test. Gary was positive that he had lain in every kind of machine the hospital had available. He had been scanned, poked, prodded, and probed in ways he had never imagined before. They had run probes over him, under him . . . and into him in places he didn’t even want to think about! He had spent hours hooked up to machines that recorded every blink of his eyes, it seemed. By the time Armstrong had managed to slip Buddy in to see him in his new quarters, Gary was too exhausted to worry about the up-coming concert.
“You look like hell, Cuz,” Buddy observed sympathetically. “Are you up to this?”
“Sure,” Gary murmured tiredly. “Let’s get this over with. Ask your questions.”
Buddy scribbled furiously as Gary described, in detail, everything he could remember about the mysterious ‘Angel’ from his dreams. The way her looks changed, like a chameleon. Her innocence and her evil. How she went from warm and frightened to hard and cold almost in the same breath. He also described how she was hunted, only to turn the tables and become the hunter. The cold, efficient way she dispatched the men who had her cornered. The flame of passion in her eyes as she pulled the trigger, sending a bullet into his heart.
“And the head,” he mumbled, rubbing at his right temple. “Don’t forget the head. She . . . she seems to come alive when she’s killing someone. Kinda like it’s a turn on for her.”
“Sounds like a serious head-case to me, Cuz,” Buddy remarked with a shudder. “This chick needs to be taken off the streets any way possible.”
“I know,” Gary sighed. “but I don’t understand why I have this feeling of . . . guilt whenever I have those dreams. Like I’m responsible for her being this way.”
Buddy tapped his pen against his lower lip as he concentrated on an idea. “Since Angel and Stevie are real,” he suggested, “then so must this dude she shot. The one you keep looking out of while all this stuff is happenin’. Does he have a name?”
Gary ran over everything he remembered from the dreams in his mind. A name. He couldn’t seem to recall . . . Wait! What had Tate said after that first night?
“Tony,” he replied. “I think his first name was Tony. At least, that’s a name I’m supposed to ‘ve called out that doesn’t seem to fit anyone else. He . . . he loved her. Was asking her to marry him when she . . . And she smiled when she did it! Like he was giving her the most wonderful gift in the world by dying! Man, she was cold!”
“Poor guy probably never stood a chance with her,” Buddy mumbled, shaking his head. He closed his notebook and took a good look at his twin. “Seriously, cuz, what‘ve they been doin’ to ya? You look terrible.”
“Trust me, Buddy,” Gary sighed. “You really don’t wanna know. I don’t think they have a single machine left I haven’t seen the inside of. Or hasn’t seen the inside of me! They‘ve taken skin samples, hair samples, stool, urine and blood samples. They’ve even drilled holes to take bone marrow samples. Even my . . . my sperm! And I don’t even wanna talk about how they got that!”
Buddy couldn’t hide a grin. “That one musta been the easiest, Gary,” he chuckled. “All you had to do was . . .” He stopped at the look on Gary’s face. “You couldn’t . . .?”
“No,” Gary murmured, his face almost glowing a bright red. “I was so embarrassed when they told me what they wanted . . . and it was right after they’d stuck that light up my . . . I couldn’t even . . . So they called in a specialist and . . . and God! Who thinks up this stuff? Prisoners of war ‘ve been treated better! I’m sore in places I didn’t even know I had, and others I don’t wanna think about. I almost wish Angel and Stevie would come along and put me out of my misery. Did you know they had to clean you out for some of these tests? And I mean really clean you out! This is one time in my life when no one can accuse me of being full of anything!”
“This is ridiculous,” Rossellini grumbled. He was pouring over a stack of reports from Uncle Vinnie’s network of informants. The more he read, the more confusing the picture became. “No one can possibly be in that many places in so little time.” He shoved a piece of paper in front of Angel. “Seven A.M. he’s stopping a traffic accident on West Elm, near Seward Park.” He covered the first paper with a second scrap. “Five minutes later, he’s over at Comiskey Park, buying a corndog!” Another scrap joined the first two. “Ten AM. Adams Park in Little Italy. And on the Navy Pier at the exact same time!” He tossed down another sheet. “Plus he was seen entering a bank in the financial district, apparently having had enough time to change into a suit and tie! And let us not forget his best trick! At nine PM, he was seen going into a TV studio on West Taylor, eating a hotdog at Wrigley Field, going into a restaurant on West Hubbard with some skinny broad, and the Broadcast Museum on East Washington! Now, can someone please . . . tell me how one man can be in four places at the same . . . freaking . . . time?”
He empathized his plea by slapping the desk with the remaining papers. Angel looked down at a jumble of conflicting reports. According to these sightings, Hobson could not be from this planet!
“We ask for a pattern,” she sneered, “and we get science fiction? Where did Uncle Vinnie get these bozos? I can’t believe . . .!”
Whatever she was about to say was lost as one of Uncle Vinnie’s flunkies came running in waving a newspaper in one hand.
“Uncle Vinnie thought you might like this,” he said, tossing the tabloid on the desk. “Check out the entertainment section.”
Steve snatched the paper up, shooting the flunky a harsh look. Turning to the page in question, he quickly scanned the articles until he hit on one that caught his interest. Smiling broadly, he handed the paper to Angel.
“Oh, this is perfect,” she purred. Then her brow creased as a thought occurred to her. “Too perfect. You don’t really think this guy could be so stupid, do you? It has to be a trap.”
“Of course it’s a trap,” Rossellini grinned. “We’ll just have to be sure the bait gets caught instead of us.”
Dr. Lucas stood outside Gary’s room, working up the courage for what he had to tell his patient. They had run almost every test they could possibly justify . . . some of them twice. Now . . . Well, now he had to tell Hobson that some of them would have to be repeated . . .again. The SPECT and PET scans had been especially puzzling. The echocardiogram and gallium scan had yielded unusual results, also. Hesitantly, he pushed the door open.
Gary was sitting up in a chair, reading a newspaper. Where that paper came from was anybody’s guess. In spite of a twenty-four hour police guard, no one ever saw the paper delivered, yet he had one every morning. The doctor made a slight throat-clearing noise so as not to startle his patient. Hobson was touchy enough without putting him on the defensive.
“Good morning,” Gary mumbled without looking up. He wrote something on a pad in his lap, then lay the paper aside. Finally looking up, he frowned when he saw the doctor’s expression. “Why do I get the feeling this isn’t good news?”
“Your, um, your test results are back,” Lucas informed him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Officer Tate sitting forward at this statement. “Most of them came back perfectly normal. All your CT scans, MRIs, the barium studies, and most of the ultrasounds. The, um, the ones dealing with the . . . the functioning areas of your brain, however, are . . . well, we need to repeat those. Also the scans of your heart.”
“You found something.” It was not a question.
“Yeah-sorta,” the doctor hedged. “There are some . . . questionable areas that I’d like clarified,” he explained. With a sigh, he perched on the side of Gary’s bed. “The SPECT and PET scans show areas of . . . artifact. We think that a glitch in the computer merged your scan with someone else’s. Also, the echocardiogram came back normal, but the gallium scan, which is also of the heart, shows major trauma. Which is impossible. Both scans can’t be right. And there’s also this . . . odd pattern on your EEG. So we really need to repeat these studies as soon as we have the equipment checked for malfunctions.”
“Ma-major . . .Wh-what kind of ‘trauma’?” Gary stammered nervously.
The fact that the physician couldn’t meet his eyes did nothing to allay Gary’s apprehension.
“The . . . pattern . . . is consistent with,” he attempted to explain, “that is, the only time I’ve ever seen that kind of damage, was when we . . . we autopsied a man who . . . he’d been shot!”
“Sh-shot. As in . . .?” He rubbed a hand over his chest.
“Right through the pump,” Lucas nodded. “All the . . . anomalies showing up on your tests . . . it’s as if they’re getting you confused with someone who had been shot twice. Once in the heart, and, um . . . ”
“. . . Once in the head,” Gary finished as a chill ran up his spine. What in hell was going on here? He repeatedly wiped his hands on his robe as he digested this new information. “So, um, those . . . they’re the only ones you need over?”
“And . . . one more,” Lucas said, still not meeting his troubled gaze. “We need to . . . get a closer look at your heart with the ultrasound.”
Gary squinted his eyes, giving the young physician a suspicious look. “How close?”
“We need to insert a probe down your throat and . . . “
Gary just buried his face in his hands and moaned.
“Mr. Hobson has just completed an exhaustive round of tests,” Dr. Lucas told the two agents. “He’s really not up to receiving visitors right now.”
“What kind of tests?” Pritchett asked. “Anything to do with the current situation?”
“If you mean are we testing for biological agents,” the doctor sighed, “then the answer is ‘no.’ Mr. Hobson is simply not in any condition, or mood, to entertain guests at this time. As I have told you repeatedly, I will let you know when he is ready to talk to you. Until then, please leave the man alone. He has enough problems!”
Dobbs leafed through a very thick file folder, apparently impressed by the variety of incidents that it contained. “Your Mr. Hobson has been a very busy boy,” he observed. “He has records not only with your local police, FBI, and Justice Department, but with the State Department and our own Secret Service. We even dug up a reference to him in a case run by the CIA. He’s been instrumental in preventing robberies, murders, runaways and suicides. The man is an enigma. We cannot tolerate enigmas.”
“Well this ‘enigma’ happens to be my patient,” Dr. Lucas snapped. “He’s also a very sick man with a team of assassins trying to make sure he doesn’t get any better. Judging from what you’ve just told me he’s a good man, with good intentions. If he survives the next few weeks, I’m sure he’ll be so relieved that he’ll be more than happy to talk with you. That’s no guarantee that you’ll be anymore successful in getting answers than I’ve been, so far, but you can try. Good day, sirs.”
Two days later, Gary was watching as Dr. Lucas finally sawed through that blasted cast! As the two halves were broken away, he had to fight the urge to scratch his arm raw. And the smell! That dry, sharp, musty odor of dead skin and stale sweat. Someone handed him a wet washcloth, which he applied vigorously to his dry, itchy skin. God! What a relief!
“Oh, man!” he sighed. “That feels great!” He wiggled his fingers around, then flexed his wrist experimentally. There was a little stiffness, and the muscles of his forearm felt sore but overall, it felt pretty good. A nurse asked him to hold out his hand, depositing a dollop of lotion in his palm. Taking the hint, Gary smeared it liberally over his newly freed arm. Almost instantly, the last faint itchiness subsided, although there wasn’t anything he could do about how pale the extremity had become. “First good thing that’s happened the last two months,” he murmured.
“Judging by your chart,” Dr. Lucas remarked, “I’d have to agree. Have you always been this . . . unlucky?”
“Not always,” Gary murmured. “Just lately. So, what did our latest torture session reveal? Am I gonna live?”
Dr. Lucas gave his patient a sideways look of amusement. “As far as I can determine,” he replied, “yes. But every one of them came back with the same garbled results as before. It’s as if we were scanning two people at once. And there was absolutely nothing wrong with any of the equipment. I can’t explain it.”
“Maybe I should call Claire after all,” Gary sighed. “I mean, if science can’t explain it, what harm can it do?”
“A psychic,” Gary sighed. “Seriously, I’ve seen her at work. She’s the real article.”
The look he got this time said that Dr. Lucas had some serious doubts about his sanity.
“A psychic?” he exclaimed. “You’re joking!”
“No,” Gary replied with a shrug. “I’ve got to find out what’s going on here, Doc,” he added grimly. “Something is messing with my mind, and it’s screwing up my body in the process. Ever since I passed out, I’ve had frequent migraines, chest pains, and nightmares. And I mean really vivid, clear as crystal, honest-to-God nightmares. The kind that you wake up from and wonder what’s real and what isn’t. I need help. And if I have to find it in a cup of tea leaves or a crystal ball, then I’ll start drinking tea and collecting paperweights!”
He was running again. Behind him was the rapid sound of approaching footsteps. They were getting closer! Ducking into the alley, he almost bumped into a gun-wielding figure in a ski mask! With an inarticulate cry, he kicked out, catching the figure in the chest! Ducking around the fallen shape, he sprinted down the alley.
The alley became a maze of winding passages and blind curves. He ran blindly, praying for a way out, only to meet one dead-end after another! He wanted out! Needed to get out! Exhausted, he leaned against the wall; his breath coming in short, ragged gasps. ‘Please, God!’ he prayed. ’Help me!’ He jumped as a hand fell on his shoulder . . .
. . . and Gary sat straight up in bed, his body bathed in sweat, breath still coming in rapid, shuddering gasps. Eyes still a little wild and unfocused, he looked around for whatever had awakened him.
“Wow, Hobson,” the short, sturdy woman at his bedside exclaimed quietly, “you really are a wreck! What on earth have you gotten yourself into?”
“C-Claire?” he gasped, still only half-awake. “H-how long . . . how long have you been here?”
“Just long enough, honey,” she replied with a worried frown. “Answer my question. What’s been going on with you that’s got you leaving messages like that on my machine? ’Please, Claire. No one else can help me.’ Like I’m your last resort?”
Lying back with a relieved sigh, Gary told her, “You pretty much are. Although, if I’d known what they had in store, trust me, I’d have called you first!” He quickly explained about the first round of nightmares, the figure in the mirror, passing out, and all the other weird things that had happened since.
The canny psychic sat back, listening without comment until he had finished his narrative. While he talked, she observed the way he moved, the tone of his voice, the odd stigmata on his forehead, as well as his overall appearance. At some point, she opened up her other senses, looking deeper. When he was finished, she stood up and stepped closer to the bed. Taking his chin in one hand, she turned his head from side to side, getting a better look at his face. He looked a lot thinner and paler than the last time she had seen him.
“What you’ve just described,” she told him, “is classic for a doppelganger.”
“A doppelganger,” she repeated, sitting. “A mirror image. Some . . . kindred spirit is looking for help. Maybe it has some mission, or unresolved issues with someone still living. From what you’ve told me, and what I can see, he may have died suddenly, by violence. Also, I could sense that you’ve crossed paths with those who brought about his death. Except . . . I’m getting mixed signals here. It’s like . . . like he’s not completely dead. He still has ties with the living world, and he can’t let go until this is settled.”
“That’s just great,” Gary moaned. “I’m possessed by someone who isn’t even dead! How is that possible?”
Claire shrugged as she tried to fathom an answer. “He could be lying in a coma somewhere,” she replied. “Maybe just this side of true death. He can actually feel death reaching out for him! Maybe he’s even seen the ‘bright light at the end of the tunnel’. Who knows? This is uncharted territory, hon.”
“So, can you at least tell me how to get rid of him?” Gary pleaded. “Or how to ask him what he wants with me?”
“Talking to him shouldn’t be too hard. Just listen to your dreams,” she told him.. “He’s been trying to talk to you from the beginning. Getting rid of him? That could be tricky. If he were truly dead, you’d do an exorcism. Which is really hard to do these days, because hardly anyone remembers the rituals. In this case, however, you need to find his physical body and wake him up. Reunite body and spirit.”
That didn’t sound too hard! All he needed was to . . . Oh.
“H-how would I go about doing that?” he asked cautiously. “Finding his, um, his body, that is?”
“Why not start here?”
Gary gave her a puzzled look. “Here? As in . . . this room? Or this hospital?”
“Both,” she replied with another shrug. “You can let me put you in a light trance and see if he’ll tell me anything. Failing that, we can check to see if there are any patients in comas who fit your description.”
Gary looked over at the young officer sitting in Tate’s usual place by the door. He was apparently reading a magazine, not really paying attention to what was being said. If so, he was either a very slow reader, or it was one darned interesting article! He hadn’t turned a page since Gary and Claire had begun their discussion. Gary looked at his watch. Tate would be back on duty in a couple of hours. For some reason, he was reluctant to have someone he barely knew around while he was in such a vulnerable position. He and John had gotten to know each other fairly well, and he felt the young cop would be less likely to ridicule him than this guy who was so clumsy at concealing his curiosity. Also, he wanted a couple of more witnesses.
Turning back to Claire, he asked, “Are you doing anything this afternoon?”
“I’ve checked Intensive Care,” Carter assured him. “Also Long Term Care, and all the local hospices. No one matching your description has been admitted to any of those places, other than yourself. We’re asking around to some of the other hospitals, nursing homes, what-have-you. If this . . . other . . . double of yours is in Chicago, we’ll find him.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Gary sighed drowsily. He had been given a light hypnotic drug just moments before. Wires ran from electrodes stuck to his head and chest to an array of monitors situated above the head of his bed. He blinked owlishly at the other people in the room. There was Dr. Carter, of course. Dr. Lucas and his mom were there, too. Dad was busy with an ‘errand’. John Tate and Paul Armstrong were standing near the door. He had asked for Brigatti, but she’d had family obligations and couldn’t make it. Claire, sitting in a chair next to his bed, patted his hand reassuringly.
“We ready?” he murmured. It was getting so hard to keep his eyes open!
“Just waiting for you to quit fighting the drugs,” Claire told him. “Close your eyes, sweetie. That’s good,” she crooned in a soothing voice. “Now, imagine that you’re standing at the top of a long flight of stairs. Can you see it?” Gary nodded once. “Good. Now, start walking down those steps, slowly, counting each one in your mind. When you get to twenty, I want you to stop.”
In the surreal world of his subconscious mind, Gary found himself standing on a narrow landing, facing a bright green door. The color of the door disturbed him for some reason. Hesitantly, he reached out and grasped the knob. Following Claire’s instructions, he opened the door and went in.
He found himself in a scene from his nightmares. A large room. A storeroom, maybe. There were several stacks of cardboard boxes, with many more broken open and scattered about the room. A sprawled body lay among the jumbled debris, while another figure knelt beside it, openly weeping.
“I’m sorry, Nicky,” he was sobbing in hollow, echoing tones. “I c-couldn’t let you kill her.”
Gary eased into the room, slowly approaching the kneeling figure. He was immediately struck by the uncanny resemblance to himself. How could there possibly be so many people who looked so much alike?
“T-Tony?” he asked timorously. “Are . . . are you Tony?”
“Yes,” the other ‘him’ sighed. “I’m Tony Greco.” He looked up at Gary with eyes so full of pain and sorrow, Gary felt like crying along with him. “They told him I killed Nicky!” he moaned. “How could he believe that? Nicky was more than my boss! We grew up together! He was my friend! The only reason he was here was to help me!”
“Who did kill him?” Gary asked.
“She did,” Tony sighed. “Angel. I warned her they were coming. Told her to run. She was only defending herself, Gary!”
“How do you know my name?”
The other figure laughed tearfully. “How do you think?” he replied sadly. “I’m inside your mind. I know everything about you. All your secrets.” He nodded at Gary’s stunned expression. “Yes. Even that.”
“H-how did you . . . I mean . . .”
“I couldn’t make him hear me,” he sighed. “Couldn’t make him listen! He believed the lies! Believed that I killed Nicky! When you saved him, I felt . . . drawn to you. And I could feel his anger . . . at you. He thinks . . . or thought . . . you were me.”
“What do you want from me?”
“You have to stop her,” Tony sniffed. “She’s become everything they wanted me to be. And more. At first, she killed to survive. But when she shot me, it was just because I bugged her. I wasn’t a threat to her anymore! Now, she kills for more than just money. She loves it. She feeds on the power it gives her. Soon, she’ll start killing just for the sake of killing.”
“She’s already selected her next target,” another voice spoke up. Gary spun around to find that the door he had entered through was gone. In its place was a brilliant, blinding light. As he watched, a familiar figure stepped through. A youngish man dressed in white, his narrow features arranged in an expression of peace . . . and sadness. “Your friend Polly. Unless you stop Angel, and soon, she will succeed in killing her.”
“I know you!” Gary whispered. “Last year! I was . . . I was dying. And you said something about . . . about it not being my time.” He stepped closer. “Andrew?” Gary looked back at Tony. “Is he . . . dead?”
“Not yet,” Andrew sighed. “But soon. Tony carries a terrible burden of guilt. He’s blaming himself for everything that’s happened. For the death of his friend, for what Angel has become, and for what she will become. He refuses to see that Angel Chaste turned her face from God a long time before they met. The only way he can let go, and find peace, is in knowing that she can’t hurt anyone else.”
Horrified, Gary looked away from the heavenly messenger. “Y-you want me to . . . to kill her,” he stammered. “I can’t . . .”
“No!” Andrew exclaimed. “All you have to do is draw her out! With any luck, she’ll be captured unharmed.”
“Luck!” Gary squeaked. “Do you know what they want me to do? Knowing that she’s gonna be in the audience? With a gun!”
“You’ll do fine, Gary,” the Angel of Death chuckled. “God gave you a wonderful voice.”
“Yeah? Well, he forgot to give me the cajones to use it,” Gary mumbled. He looked around, alarmed. “Can everyone hear what I’m saying?”
“No,” Andrew assured him. “You slipped into a deeper trance than they anticipated. In fact, they’re starting to get a little worried. We’ll have to let you wake up in a moment. But first, I have to tell you what’s needed of you. First and foremost, stop Angel. She has the potential to become the worst multiple murderer in modern history. Second, Tony’s soul must be reunited with his body or the two of you will be locked together until you die.”
“Ho, boy,” Gary sighed. “Now there’s a cheery thought.”
“He’s coming around! Gary? Gary, can you hear me?”
Dr. Carter’s voice was coming at him as if from a tremendous distance. Gary felt as if he were swimming against a strong current. Gradually, he fought his way back to something close to full consciousness.
“Gary,” Carter repeated, “can you hear me?”
“Um,” Gary mumbled. “I’m awake . . . sorta. Wha’ happened? Wha’d I say?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Claire sighed. “You started describing a room, where you met Tony. Then you slipped under so deep, we couldn’t wake you. That was almost twenty minutes ago. Did you learn anything?”
“Yeah,” Gary sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “I learned that I need to get ready for my big debut.”
They kept Gary sequestered in the sleep lab until the day before the concert. Brigatti and Winslow hid him in the trunk of an unmarked car, sneaking him in through the back door of McGinty’s late that afternoon. He was immediately taken upstairs where Clay and Buddy started drilling him on his part in the trap. As well as helping him rehearse ‘his’ song. Gary had to recite the words to the song Buddy had written over and over. Then, with Buddy and Clay both accompanying him on guitars, he practiced putting it to music.
It was after three in the morning when, pleading exhaustion, Gary finally persuaded them to call it a night. He accomplished this by the simple method of collapsing onto the bed and refusing to budge. Soon he was sound asleep.
“I don’t know if they’ll be awake yet,” Lois was telling Detectives Armstrong and Winslow. “They were still practicing when we went to bed. Poor Gary. This has him scared to death!”
Winslow was leading the way up the stairs as they talked. “What?” he joked. “The assassins or the concert?”
“Actually,” Lois giggled, “I think it’s the concert that’s getting to him the worst. All you have to do is say the word and watch all the blood drain from his face. I just hope he doesn’t freeze up on stage.”
“He’ll do fine,” Armstrong assured her, trying not to break out with a grin of his own. “I sat in on one of their rehearsals last night. Can’t say much for the song, I’m a rhythm and blues fan myself. But Gary has a pretty good voice and great timing. What is that noise!”
‘Oh, dear!’ Lois thought. Having slept in the same room with Bernie for almost thirty-seven years, not to mention having gone in to wake up her son on many occasions, she recognized that God-awful racket right away. He had never been this loud before!
Reaching the head of the stairs, Lois hurried to be the first to open the door, only to have Winslow beat her to it. He flung open the portal, intending to startle the sleepers into wakefulness. Instead, he staggered back as his eardrums were assaulted by a loud, rumbling noise that would have done justice to an avalanche or a freight train! Covering his ears, the blonde detective bravely ventured into the cacophony. What he saw was three identical figures sprawled in various positions about the room. Gary, or the one he thought must be Gary, by the pallor of his left arm, was flat on his back on the bed. A second ‘Gary’ was stretched out on the couch, also flat on his back. The third ‘Gary’ was draped over the armchair, head back and mouth wide open. It was from these separate, but identical, sources that the horrific noise was emanating! As they watched, fascinated, Gary number one rolled over, hugging his pillow. The noise level immediately dropped a notch.
“Let’s wake Buddy and Clay up first,” Lois suggested, raising her voice in order to be heard. “Gary needs his rest.”
“Anyone who can snore like that,” Armstrong remarked, “has slept long enough! Let’s get everybody up.” He reached over to shake Gary awake, only to draw back as Hobson flipped over on his back once more. The room suddenly fell silent as the other two were awakened at almost the same moment, making it easier to hear Gary’s incoherent mumblings. Paul tried again, actually placing his hand on Gary’s shoulder. Suddenly, the sleeping man sprang up, a look of panic on his face!
“Angel . . .!” He stopped abruptly, wide-awake. Looking around at the five anxious faces, two of them his own, Gary realized that he had been dreaming . . . again. “Um, hi? A-anybody put the coffee on?”
“Triplets?” Dobbs murmured in consternation. The two agents were waiting outside the Union Center auditorium. They had been unable to procure tickets. Evidently, Dusty Wyatt had a large following in the Windy City. “Triplets! How the hell do you figure triplets into this mess?”
“Do we know anything about the movements of the other two prior to 9/11?” Pritchett asked.
“Jackson is a songwriter whose movements are well documented as he’s been plugging a song of his that hit the top ten on the country charts,” the other man sighed. “As well as two songs that won awards for best soundtrack on some movie. Treyton has been going hot and heavy on the rodeo circuit. Both men are very successful at what they do, which doesn’t leave them any time for terrorist activities. And no ties at all with the Taliban or bin Laden.”
“So, we’re back to square one,” Pritchett sighed. “How in the living hell did Hobson know?”
“I can do this. I can do this,” Gary kept mumbling to himself as he paced the narrow confines of the dressing room. “I know I can do this! Aw, Christ! Who’m I tryin’ to kid? I’m dead!”
“You’ll do fine, cuz,” Buddy chuckled. “Just remember to let the bass set your timin’ and let the music take you where it will.”
“Where it’ll take me is a nervous breakdown,” Gary muttered, almost to himself. He plopped down into the nearest chair. “I’m gonna choke. I just know it.” He looked over at the twins. It had been Buddy’s idea to dress them in identical outfits. From the black Stetsons down to the snakeskin boots, they were absolutely identical in every detail. “This is easy for you two. You’re used to being in front of an audience! I’m more the backstage type. L-let someone else have all the credit. You’ve got me headlining with Dusty Wyatt Chandler!” he exclaimed, making expressive gestures with his hands. “Headlining! ‘Introducing Gary Hobson.’ And an article in the Sun-Times! I’ve already had calls from Mollie Green and Miguel Diaz, wanting interviews! How can I go back to just being a barkeeper after all this?” He leaned forward, burying his face in his hands. “I’m a dead man.”
Clay sat twirling his hat on his right hand. He seemed to be the calmest of the three. But then, he didn’t have to get up and sing in front of a few thousand people. Nor had he written the song. His part in the evenings activities would most likely occur later, when all hell broke loose.
“Don’t sweat it, Gary,” he drawled lazily. “The worst that can happen is getting shot. And you already know what that’s like.”
“I know what dying is like, too,” Gary grumbled. “That doesn’t mean I want to do it again.”
A stagehand knocked on the door, saying, “You’re on in five, Mr. Hobson!”
“And dead in six,” Gary sighed.
Angel and Stevie eased back into their seats after the brief intermission. Both were almost totally unrecognizable from their pictures. Rossellini had streaked his hair with gray, and wore a goatee. This new look was topped off with a tan Stetson, and a brightly patterned Western jacket. Ms. Chaste had changed her hair to strawberry blonde. She was also dressed for the occasion in jeans and boots. It had been ridiculously simple to slip past security.
They had sat through the first half of the show, and even found themselves enjoying the music. but they’d been unable to slip backstage to find Hobson. Unlike the guards out front, these were very serious about their job. No one got past them without either a badge or a pass. And they had several computer generated ‘photographs’ showing Angel and Stevie with different hairstyles and colors, as well as in various disguises. Going backstage became a non-option in a hurry.
“Can you hit him from here?” Stevie asked in a barely audible whisper.
“No problem,” Angel replied, never losing her relaxed smile. “And I just spotted a bonus. Check out front row center. Look familiar?”
Without turning his head, Steve looked at the seat out of the corners of his eyes. All he could see was the back of a head of very thick dark blonde hair, pulled back in a ponytail. “The tech?” he asked. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes,” she purred. “I heard her talking as she walked past us. I will never forget that voice. I’ve got to find some way to get her before we leave. I owe her.”
Armstrong and Winslow stood on either side of Gary as he nervously awaited his cue. They were still a little worried that he might bolt, which was an option that Gary was seriously considering at the moment. He kept bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet and rubbing his hands together, as if to restore circulation.
“Just take some deep breaths,” Winslow advised him. “In and out, real slow. That’s it. We’ll be right here, covering your back.”
“It’s not my back I’m worried about,” Gary confessed. “It’s what’s in front of me. Did you see that crowd? And those are serious fans! What if I choke? What if I forget the words? What if they start shooting?”
“We’ve got men stationed in the audience,” Paul assured him for the hundredth time. “We’ll spot Stevie and Angel the second they make their move.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Almost forgot about them,” Gary winced. “I was talkin’ about the rest of the audience.”
Dusty finished his current set, and started a glowing introduction for his new ‘discovery.’
“He’s a little shy, folks,” he concluded with a big smile, “so let’s be gentle with him. Here he is for his singin’ debut. Chicago’s own . . . Gary Hobson!”
This was it! Hesitantly, Gary stepped through the curtains. One look at the audience, and he turned to run, only to be pushed back onstage by the two detectives. Two of Dusty’s band spun him around, grabbed him by the elbows, and ‘escorted’ him to center stage beside Dusty.
“Feelin’ a little nervous, son?” the veteran singer asked kindly, to the general amusement of the audience.
“N-not,” he squeaked. Gary cleared his throat and tried again, attempting a casual tone. “Not so’s you’d notice.”
That brought another smattering of laughter. Gary used the diversion to scan the sea of faces before him. They had to be here! If he went through all this for nothing . . .!
“Are you ready?”
“N-not really,” Gary stammered into the mike. “but, um, this friend wrote a . . . a little song about this girl. She . . . she’s a very . . . unusual girl. Her name is Angel.” There! Fifth row, just three seats left of center. She looked him right in the eye just as the band started up a lively tempo. Gary waited for his cue, then . . .
“Hair of red with the soul of a child
All alone in a world gone wild
Spent her days with her Daddy who wasn’t right in the head
At night she went to work preparin’ the dead.”
Because he was watching her, Gary saw her beautiful face freeze in shock. Encouraged, he started to loosen up, getting into the swing of the music.
“Into her town came a handsome guy
To try to take her life, she didn’t know why
She wasn’t takin’ this one lyin’ down
He’d regret the day he came into her town!”
She turned to the man next to her, saying something in hissing tones. Oops! The song must be getting under her skin! Good! Gary continued with a little more confidence.
“She went and changed her hair to silver fire
To match a lonely soul full of burning desire.
That pretty little lady so lost and alone
Turned her blood to ice and her heart to stone!”
Her face was twisted into a vicious snarl as she reached a hand into her vest. Whoa! Showtime! He pointed a finger straight at the duo in a pre-arranged signal. ‘There they are!’ he thought. ‘Get ‘em!’ He and Dusty swung into the chorus together.
“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 pretty little Angel of mine!”
Gary took the mike to the edge of the stage, his eyes locked with the woman who had haunted his nightmares these past few weeks. The woman who was here to take his life!
“They hunted her out both night and day
But Angel was ahead each step of the way
She finally turned the tables on that handsome man
And had his heart in the palm of her hand”
Angel looked as if she were having trouble breathing. The man beside her was trying to drag her attention back to the present. He had both hands on the arm she had stuck inside her vest, speaking in low, urgent tones. Gary deliberately cut his eyes away, his part done. He moved his eyes over the rest of the audience, as if presenting a case in court.
“He told her that he loved her, she set his soul afire
With a flame so hot, like a funeral pyre
She smiled so sweet, and then knocked him dead
With one to the heart and one to the head!”
Dusty again joined in for the rest of the song.
“Now Angel has a new life, no longer alone
That woman’s livin’ large and close to the bone
A stone cold killer with innocent eyes
Let me give you all a word to the wise
She has nerves of steel and a heart of ice
She’ll blow you away and not think twice
A one way ticket to paradi-i-ise!”
“She’s one of a kind,” Gary said in his normal voice, then once again joined with Dusty to finish.
“That pistol packin’ Angel of mine!”
The audience roared its approval of the unusual, fast-beat tune, as Gary stepped back, returning the mike to Dusty. Sweating, the young barkeep gave the crowd a nervous smile as he continued to edge toward the curtains.
He was looking right at her once more, otherwise he might not have acted in time. As Angel pushed Stevie away, she pulled out what looked like a large handgun and aimed it straight at Gary! Alarmed, the crowd trampled all over each other in their haste to flee from her immediate vicinity, leaving her a clear shot.
Gary’s eyes grew wide and he dove for the stage floor as the weapon spat out its silenced message of death! Something plucked at the sleeve of his shirt as he hit the hardwood. Another ‘phfft!’ and the tinkle of glass shattering was heard as one of the spotlights winked out! Dusty called out something to Gary as one of the stagehands dragged the star to safety. The rest of the band was less than a step behind. Someone tried to pull on Gary’s arm, only to jump back themselves as another bullet whizzed past.
So long as Angel was surrounded by innocent bystanders, the police could not shoot back. That left it up to Gary. Cautiously raising his head, he was forced to duck again as something whistled past his left ear. He tried again and saw Angel scrambling over the seats in her haste to get a better shot at him. To his horror, he also spotted a familiar face rise up in front of her! Polly? What the . . .? Without thinking, he rolled off the stage and grabbed the irate tech as she was about to swing at the assassin. Dragging her behind him, he ran all out for the stairs leading back up to the stage, as another projectile went whizzing past. He was not surprised to find that everyone else had fled. That was pretty high on his list of priorities, too. Still clutching Polly’s arm, Gary ducked into the backstage area, almost bowling over Detective Winslow.
“This way,” the blonde cop hissed. “We have to get you out of sight. What’s she doing here?”
“I was . . . just about to . . . to ask her,” Gary panted. He looked at his friend, eyes asking the questions he was too winded to voice.
“I’m a Dusty Wyatt fan,” she shrugged. “Love your voice, by the way. Plannin’ a new career?”
“No,” Gary replied quickly, as they followed Winslow. “Just trolling for hit men. We’ve gotta get her outta here,” he said to the detective. “She’s in as much danger as I am. Angel’s got some kinda grudge against her.”
“That’s ‘cause I kicked her butt,” Polly snorted. “What’s the plan?”
“The plan is for you to go into that dressing room,” Gary told her, “and lock the door. Don’t come out until I tell you to.” As he spoke, he was pushing her towards the door. “I’m serious, Polly. These guys are not here for the show!”
“Kinda figured that,” she grumbled. With a sigh of frustration, Polly started into the room. “You’d best recall where you left me, sweetie,” she added as she closed and locked the door.
“That sounded like a pretty good plan for yourself,” Winslow commented. “Why don’t you join Ms. Gannon until we round these two up?”
“If there were just the two of them, I would,” was Gary’s nervous response. “but while I was grabbing Polly, I saw that Rossellini character talking to a bunch of guys, and they didn’t look like cops! We’re about to have a bloodbath on our hands if we don’t wind this up quick!” He ducked his head and cast a nervous glance back at the curtains. Angel could be coming through any second! “What happened to all the men you have in the audience?”
“I don’t know,” the blonde cop grumbled as he led Gary into a narrow hallway, past more dressing rooms. “They were supposed to block the exits and surround Rossellini and Chaste. Best I can figure is, someone got their wires crossed and all our people are outside. Whoa!”
Both men ducked as something ricocheted off the wall next to Gary’s head! Stone chips left stinging welts on the exposed areas of Gary’s skin! Picking up his pace, the young barkeep couldn’t suppress a feeling of déjà vu. Hadn’t he already been this route?
The two NSA agents jumped out of their vehicle as people poured out of the auditorium. What the hell was going on inside? In vain, they pushed their way through the crowd, only to have the doors slam shut in their faces at the last second. By the time they reached the doors, they had been bolted from the inside. Pritchett let out with a string of curses that could have blistered the paint off the wall.
“Now what?” he growled. “What more trouble can this guy get into?”
“With Hobson,” Dobbs huffed, “who knows?”
Clay Treyton poked his head out the door leading to right-hand backstage hall. There he was, the man Armstrong claimed was one of the top ten hit men in the world. Clay watched as Steve Rossellini sent men up on the stage to the other backstage door and to the various exits. The veteran assassin then turned towards Clay’s hiding place. Easing back, the young cowboy let the door swing closed as he formulated a plan of his own. He ran to the first bend in the hallway and stopped, waiting.
Rossellini flung the door open, checking to make sure it was safe before entering the hallway. As soon as he saw the man he thought was his target, he fired off a silenced round, only to give vent to a string of curses when his shot missed. He immediately gave chase as the young man ducked around the corner. Again, he checked before exposing himself to possible attack. What he saw almost made him laugh!
Hobson was standing in the middle of the empty hall, both hands wrapped around a large automatic pistol. ‘Who’s he trying to kid?’ Stevie thought. He stepped boldly into the middle of the hallway, his own gun dangling by his side.
“I know all about you, Hobson,” he said with a dry chuckle. “You hate guns. You couldn’t pull that trigger if your life depended on it. Which it does, by the way. Now, Tony, this old friend of mine you just . . . happen to look like; he could pull that trigger. But his heart really wasn’t in it. He was a damned good shot and could do some damage! But he just wasn‘t a killer.” He raised his gun and took careful aim. “And you’re not Tony!”
A loud report rang out and, with a strangled cry of pain and surprise, Rossellini grasped his shattered hand, sinking to his knees. The remains of his pistol clattered to the floor as the young man he had been taunting lowered his gun.
Clay walked up to the assassin and yanked him to his feet. Pulling Rossellini in until their noses almost touched, he said, “Just so’s you know, sport, I ain’t Gary, either.” He then pulled back his fist and turned the lights out on one of the top ten assassins . . . in the whole world.
Winslow herded his charge toward the back door as they attempted to elude the enraged woman hot on their heels. ‘Where the hell did all our men get to?’ the blonde detective wondered. He yanked Gary through a set of double doors as another shot ricocheted less than six inches from the young barkeep’s head. They found themselves in a large, heavily cluttered storeroom. Props of every size, shape, and description lay about in stacks and heaps. Gary tugged urgently on Winslow’s arm and pointed out a large, freestanding wardrobe with louvered doors over in the right-hand corner. It was big enough to hold at least one of them, and had ample space between it and the back wall to conceal the other.
“Take your pick,” Gary whispered. “In or out?”
“Out,” was the detective’s quick reply. “Not crazy about small spaces.”
“Me, neither,” Gary sighed, “but you have the gun. Let’s hurry!”
Each man took his chosen position just seconds before they heard the faint but steady ‘crriick’ of one of the double doors easing open. Squeezing himself into the cramped space, Gary positioned himself so that he could peer out through the tiny slit created by a missing slat. He watched as Angel and two men entered the room, guns ready. With quick, sharp gestures, she sent them to search opposite sides of the room while she eased down the center. With the same kind of fascination of the mouse for the snake, Gary watched her slow progress. Part of him was mesmerized by her graceful movements . . . the way the dim illumination played with the highlights of her hair, the planes and shadows of her face.
Another part of him, the part that was him, told Tony to back off and leave him alone. This was most definitely not the time! She was close enough for him to catch a faint whiff of her perfume!
The two gunmen were forced to go more slowly, pausing to search every shadowed area large enough to hide a grown man. When she was less than five feet from the back wall, she turned so that her back was to him, keeping her gun trained so that it covered the way she had come. Stepping back, she kept looking to each side. If anything moved, she was going to see it. In just another minute, she’d be able to see Winslow! And he wouldn’t see her until it was too late!
Torn between his instinct to survive and the need to protect, Gary could only wait breathlessly as the assassins drew closer to their hiding place. As the woman of Tony’s dreams reached for the wardrobe door, Gary made his move. With a savage cry of fear and defiance, he slammed the door open as hard as he could! At the same instant, he shot both hands up, grasped the top edge of the opening and kicked out with both feet, catching her square in the chest!
Before either of the other two could react, Gary had followed through on the impetus of his surprise attack and launched himself over the nearest pile of clutter. He hit the floor running, getting halfway to the door before they could get off a shot. Dodging like a broken field runner, Gary made it to the beckoning portal just as one of them found his mark.
Pain seared Gary’s right arm as he dashed through the opening and into the hall, almost plowing into a third gunman. Without slowing, Gary straight-armed the man and ran right over him. He could hear Angel’s strident cursing as she railed at the thugs to give chase. Good! If they were chasing him, then Winslow was safe. He hoped.
The blonde detective cursed silently as he tried to extricate himself from his hiding place before the last gunman disappeared out the door. Angel was already racing down the corridor after Hobson. Why couldn’t that man stay put? Moving silently, Winslow hurried up behind the thug, who had paused to check that the hallway was clear. He tapped the man on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” he said. When the thug spun around, Winslow brought the butt of his gun against the man’s head. As the gunman collapsed in a heap, he added, “You forgot your pass.”
Winslow quickly confiscated the gun and cuffed the thug to a metal shelf. Closing the door carefully behind him, he tried to intuit which way Hobson would’ve run. “Yeah, right,” he grumbled. “Go chase the wind, why don’t cha?” And headed down what he hoped was the right direction.
From her listening post at the dressing room door, Polly heard the sound of a single pair of booted feet running past. Shortly after that came what sounded like a small stampede, with a familiar female voice snapping orders. That didn’t sound good for Gary. Cautiously, she eased the door open, just in time to see a dark-suited figure disappear around the corner. Damned if she was going to just stand there while they gunned her friend down! Looking around, she couldn’t see anything that she could use for a weapon. Maybe on stage . . .
Gary started back for the front of the auditorium, only to detour down a side corridor when he saw two men with guns standing by the main entrance. Having no idea whose side they were on, he decided not to press the issue. He ducked into an empty office just as Angel and her entourage came galloping up, pausing at the intersection. She quickly proved the wisdom of his decision by calling out, asking if the two men had seen him. He began easing the door shut, only to have her turn suddenly and look straight at him. Slamming and locking the door, he looked around frantically for some kind . . . any kind of concealment! The best he could see was either behind an old metal desk, or a metal cabinet with double doors. “I’m dead,” he murmured to himself. “But Lord, if I do get out of this alive, I’m never even gonna sing ‘Happy Birthday!’” he vowed.
A shot rang out on the other side of the door, followed by a loud ‘bam!’ as someone kicked the door! Out of options, Gary headed for the desk. He froze, however, when another kick sent the door flying open with a bang! Turning slowly, he faced the trio standing just inside the door. As he turned, Gary brought both hands up even with his shoulders.
“Y-you don’t need to do this,” he told them nervously. “I-I’m no threat to you. And it’ll only get Sung the death penalty!”
“This isn’t about Sung anymore, Tony,” Angel replied in a sultry purr. “It’s about unfinished business. I don’t know how you survived, but it’s time to put an end to your interference.”
“T-Tony?” Gary gave her a puzzled look. “I’m not . . . Why would you think . . . ?”
“That damned song, for one,” she told him with a malicious grin. “Only three people were there when I shot you. Myself, Steve Rossellini, and you. Now, I know Steve wouldn’t go writing a song about a murder, and I certainly didn’t. That left you, lover. Then there’s that scar on your forehead. In the exact same spot my bullet hit you over four years ago. That’s a bit much for a coincidence, don’t you think?”
Angel was so wrapped up in her monologue, she didn’t hear a muffled grunt behind her as one of her henchmen disappeared. Neither did the other man, who never let his gun waver from Gary’s chest.
“I’m not . . . I’m not Tony,” Gary tried to assure her. “I’m j-just me, G-Gary Hobson. I run this little bar on Illinois and Franklin. Th-that’s all I do! I was just . . . just in the wrong place at the wrong time! A guy shouldn’t have to die for that!”
“Save it, Greco,” she snapped, eyes suddenly hard, like green ice. “I know it’s you!” Angel stepped in closer, backing him against the wall. As Gary watched, fascinated, her expression became soft, seductive. “That first time, when I caught you coming out of the shower,” she whispered, stroking the barrel of the gun down his left cheek, “I almost killed you right there. Then you said you loved me! No one’s ever said that to me before. Or since. Later, at the mortuary, you said it again, and I thought, ‘How sweet! He really means it!’ That’s when I knew,” she murmured huskily, her lips almost brushing his.
Bright lights flashed through Gary’s head as she knocked him to his knees! Dazed, he pressed his hand against the deep cut on his left cheek and jaw where the gun-sight had left its mark. Vainly, he tried to stop the bleeding.
“I knew I had to kill you,” she snarled, bringing the gun to bear against his left temple. “What you were offering, it wasn’t what I wanted anymore, lover. I wanted . . . needed power! And I have it! The power of life and death!”
Her remaining henchman was mesmerized by the tableau before him. He’d never seen anyone like this Angel broad! Not even Rossellini was this cold! This poor sap wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance!
The man Angel had felled took a slow, shuddering breath. His shoulders sagged, as if in acceptance of his imminent death. He dropped the hand pressed against his cheek and turned to meet her frozen glare with a look of such sorrow and compassion, it startled the hit-woman into taking a step backwards. Slowly, carefully, he rose to his feet and faced her.
“You keep calling me ‘lover,’” he sighed in a hollow voice. “We were never lovers except in my dreams. I saw something in you, Angel. I saw an innocence, a need . . . a need for understanding, for acceptance that no one else could give you. I saw all this because I had the same needs, the same desire for a normal life. I wasn’t allowed to choose my path, so my innocence was lost before I even knew it was there. And I forced that loss on you.” He reached out to gently stroke her cheek with his bloodstained hand. “For that, I’m sorry.”
Her face a study of pain and confusion, Angel turned her head until his hand was cupping her cheek. Her eyes took on a glazed, dreamy look as he leaned in as if to kiss her. With a sharp cry of fear and surprise, she broke his spell and shoved him back! The sound of his back slamming against the wall covered a soft thud as her remaining henchman crumpled to the floor. Angel’s attention was still riveted on the man sliding down the wall before her, rather than what was going on behind her back.
Dazed, Gary snapped back from wherever it was he had been sent while Tony made his plea to Angel. He looked up in confusion to see insane green eyes glaring at him over the barrel of her gun.
“It’s too late for ‘sorry,’ Tony,” she hissed, her finger beginning to tighten on the trigger. “It was too late the moment you shot that bottle of pills from my hand.”
“Sweetie,” an all too familiar voice drawled as a hand grabbed her shoulder and spun her around, “it’s time to correct that mistake.”
Angel only had time for a brief glimpse of a towel-wrapped object just before it connected, sending her reeling into oblivion.
“I tol’ ya’ll to keep yer cotton-pickin’ mitts offa my fella!” Polly growled as the hit-woman hit the floor. She turned quickly at the sound of running feet, her makeshift club ready for action.
“Whoa!” Buddy exclaimed, looking down at the three still figures. “What hit them?”
“Me,” Polly grunted as she turned back to her injured friend. She quickly unwrapped the towel from around the huge pipe wrench she had found in the utility closet and tore it in half lengthwise. She used one piece to apply pressure to the still oozing gash on Gary’s cheek. He was looking at her as if he had never seen her before.
“In the flesh, sugar,” she grinned. “Think you can stand?”
“Um, ye-yeah,” Gary mumbled. “Why?”
“Cause I didn’t hit the b---h hard enough to kill her,” she told him grimly. “And I don’t have anything to tie her up with.”
Gary and Polly looked up to see Buddy and Clay dragging Polly’s first victim into the tiny office. Clay quickly snapped one end of a pair of cuffs on the man’s left wrist, fed it around the leg of the desk, then snapped it on his right. Buddy was doing the same to the second man.
“That Winslow fella gave us these,” the songwriter explained. “He’s right . . . “
He was cut off by the blonde detective’s surprised exclamation.
“. . .behind us.”
“They said you were tough,” he remarked to the wily tech as he snapped a third set of cuffs on the unconscious assassin, “but wow!” He looked from the two identical figures who were kneeling to help the third to his feet. “Who’s hurt?”
“Gary,” the one he assumed was Clay drawled. “Sleeping Beauty there pistol-whipped him just before Belle Starr cold-cocked ‘er.” He turned to his twin with a lopsided grin, nodding his head at the tech. “Maybe I need to write a song about her!” Nope, it was Buddy. Would he ever get those two straight?
“No biggie,” Polly shrugged as they helped Gary stretch out on the floor next to the desk. “The two morons were so wrapped up in watching her play ‘cat and mouse’ with Gary, it was easy to drop ‘em where they stood. And what was the deal with you talkin’ like you knew her?” she asked Gary. “You got all strange there for a coupla minutes.”
“Stranger than usual?” Winslow mumbled.
“I heard that,” was Gary’s muffled reply. He was now holding the folded towel against his wounded face himself, as Polly bound up the wound in his right arm with the rest of the towel.. “I honestly have no idea what happened. Or what I said.” He looked over at what he could see of the three people on the floor. “Is that the last of them?”
“I think so,” Winslow told them. “I found Clay sitting on Rossellini in another office around the corner. Two more chased Buddy, here, right into Armstrong and Brigatti. And there’s one more in that storeroom we left.”
“There should be . . . one, no, two more,” Gary mumbled. His face was really beginning to throb, now. So was his head. “I think I saw them by the front entrance.” He began rubbing his chest as if it, too, were beginning to hurt. “Um, m-maybe they ran. Is . . . is everyone . . . okay?” he asked.
“Everyone but you, sugar,” Polly observed clinically. “You’ve got six shades of pale goin’ on here.” She turned to the other three. “We need to get him back to the hospital. Now.”
Pritchett and Dobbs finally got into the auditorium just as the ambulance pulled up. They followed the EMTs into the building, not really surprised to find to find that Hobson was the object of their concern. His condition had deteriorated rapidly. Gary had gone from merely being weak and pale to agitated and almost incoherent. The young tavern owner was thrashing about feebly, breathing in short gasps.
“What’s wrong with him?” Dobbs asked in barely concealed alarm. “Is this a result of his injuries?”
“Not exactly,” Polly huffed. “If we told you, you’d never believe us. Let’s just say he’s dyin’ and leave it at that.” She helped the EMTs load her friend onto the gurney and strap him in. “I’ve heard of you two,” she told them angrily. “You’d think that the government would have better things for its agents to do than to hound one man who’s never harmed another livin’ soul. What does it matter how he knows anything? Gary’s a good man. Leave ‘im alone.” Having said her piece, she followed as the gurney containing her young friend was taken to the ambulance.
Dobbs and Pritchett were left flatfooted and openmouthed. They watched as the subject of their inquiry was whisked out the door, then turned to face each other.
“I think it’s time we dropped this line of investigation,” Dobbs sighed. “I seriously doubt we’ll learn anything useful from Hobson anyway.”
“I have to agree,” Pritchett sighed. “Still, you have to wonder.”
Once more, Gary found himself in the ER, hooked up to an IV pump and a bank of monitors. Both wrists were bound by soft, leather straps because he had been thrashing about in agony. What made it even worse, this time, he felt himself growing too weak to care. His chest was hurting again, as was his head. It was a deep, throbbing pain that shot straight through him. Just breathing seemed to take all his strength!
“Wh-what’s happening . . . to me?” he asked Dr. Carter. “C-can’t . . .”
“I know, Gary,” Carter assured him. “Just take it easy. We’re doing everything humanly possible for you.” He checked Gary’s vital signs once more before going out to talk with the group waiting expectantly for word of his condition.
He met Dr. Lucas coming down the corridor, also headed for the waiting room. “What is it with this guy?” Lucas muttered heatedly. “Has the universe got a spite for him, or something?”
“Damned if I know,” Carter sighed. “He’s certainly had more bad luck lately than most people do in a lifetime. What did his labs show?”
“Normal,” the taller man, grumbled. “Straight down the line, textbook normal. His EEG, however, shows that anomalous brainwave pattern is getting stronger, while his normal pattern is barely hanging in there. PET and SPECT scans are again showing garbled brain and heart function results. While the CT and MRI are normal! None of this makes any sense!”
Carter stopped abruptly, turning to place a hand on Dr. Lucas’ chest. “You need to dig a little deeper into his records,” he suggested. “You’re talking about a man who literally came back from the dead last year. I could make a career of writing about this guy, and never have to work again. But he’s a good man, who’s not afraid to put his life on the line for anyone. Even a total stranger. So, let’s try whatever it takes to make this make sense! If those people waiting out there can come up with any suggestions, anything at all, don’t just dismiss it as unconventional or preposterous. At this point I’m ready to break out the Ouija board!”
They found the waiting room crowded with people concerned about a certain sad-eyed tavern owner. Lois and Bernie were there, of course, along with detectives Armstrong, Brigatti, and Winslow. They were gathered around Polly Gannon, plying her with questions. Marissa Clark had just arrived on the arm of Zeke Crumb. Claire, the psychic, was also present, as were Dusty, Buddy, and Clay. All conversation stopped as the two doctors walked in. Carter hesitantly approached Gary’s parents.
“He’s getting worse,” he admitted quietly. “Same symptoms as before, just . . . worse. The pain has gotten so bad that we can’t touch it with anything we currently have available. Not without taking a serious chance of killing him. He’s having trouble breathing. His heart rate is . . . is incredibly high and erratic. Even dim light hurts his eyes so bad he can’t open them. Those strange marks on his head and chest have started bleeding and nothing we’ve tried can stop it! To top it off, we can’t find a physical cause!”
“Are you saying this is mental?” Lois asked tensely.
“No!” Dr. Lucas quickly assured her. “Not at all! It’s just . . . there’s no rational explanation for what’s happening to him. Dr. Carter told me that Gary has an . . . unusual history of beating the odds. If anyone has any ideas, no matter how far outside the box, we’re open for suggestions.”
“We have to find Tony,” Clare spoke up quickly. “That’s his only chance. Look,” she added as they all stared at her, “we already know that Tony’s consciousness is inside Gary’s body. It’s possible that he sees this as a second chance at life, not realizing that he’s still dying and taking Gary with him!”
“But where do we look?” Lois asked anxiously. “We’ve already contacted every hospital, hospice, and nursing home in the tri-state area! All we know is that he was injured in Los Angeles . . . “
“And brought here,” Crumb spoke up. “He’s right upstairs in your long term care unit.”
Every eye turned to stare at the ex-cop turned detective. “What?” he said to their stunned faces. “You didn’t know? Tony Greco, AKA Paul Martin. Room 733. Been there in a coma for the last four years!”
Lois stood looking down at the still, pale features of the man on the bed. If her Gary lost sixty pounds and never stepped out into the sunlight again, they would be twins. She glanced up at the monitors that recorded each breath; each heartbeat.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered in a tight voice to the dark haired woman who sat by his side. “This must be so hard on you, watching . . . waiting . . . without hope.”
“There is always hope,” Mrs. Greco sighed. “It comes down to what you’re hoping for. My Tony, he’s suffered enough. Whatever sins he has committed, I feel that he has made his peace with God. Now it is time for him to let go and pass on. But he cannot. We turned off the machines keeping him alive two weeks ago and he started breathing on his own. Still, I feel that his time grows short,” she shrugged.
Lois sat down next to the quietly grieving mother and took her hand.
“We need to talk.”
They had to move Tony into a room large enough to accommodate the extra bed. Gary, still in incredible pain, was only dimly aware that something was going on. In the past few hours since the concert, he had grown too weak to even need the mild restraints they had used in the ER.
Clare sat down next to Gary as the others looked on expectantly. She took his hand in hers and began to talk to him in the same low, even tones she had used before. Once more, she had him standing on the stairway, walking down one slow step at a time.
The door was white this time. The same glimmering white as the light Andrew, the Angel Of Death, had previously emerged from. That disturbed Gary somewhat. He wasn’t ready to die just yet. Still, if he wanted to live, he had to trust that Andrew was right. Tony had to move on. Reaching out a trembling hand, Gary pushed the door open.
Tony was all alone in a room that looked a lot like Gary’s old bedroom back in Hickory. There were differences, of course. Tony had liked baseball more than hockey. He had liked Italian opera and rock and roll, whereas Gary leaned more toward country and R&B.
“I can’t leave her,” he sighed. “First Dad, then me. Who’ll look after her?”
“Your mom’s a tough lady,” Gary replied. “She’s taken care of you all your life. Protected you from your dad the best she could. What makes you think she needs looking after?”
“But she’ll be all alone!”
“No. She won’t. She still has family, friends,” Gary reminded him. “Once you’re gone and she can accept that, then she can get on with her own life. She’s a strong woman, with an unshakable faith in God’s love. Don’t make her question that by extending your own suffering.”
“But I don’t have to suffer,” Tony pleaded. “If you and I . . . if we stay joined like this . . .”
“Then we both die,” Gary told him flatly. “I’m already slipping into a coma. Just like you. Don’t you see, Tony? It’s time for you to let go! To move on to the next level, or whatever. But you and I, we can’t stay like this!”
“Then you go on and let me stay here!” he demanded. “I just need more time! I just . . . I just don’t want to die!”
“And neither does Gary,” Andrew responded. The Angel of Death stepped into the room through the wall. “He still has many, many tasks ahead of him before he can rest. Would you be willing to take up his burden? To set aside your own needs and desires for the sake of people you don’t even know? For some that you may never meet face-to-face? With no thought of reward or gratitude? Are you ready for such a huge responsibility?”
Defeated, Tony sat on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands. “Wh-what about Angel?” he asked quietly. “Will she be okay?”
“Only God knows the answer to that,” Andrew told him sadly. “She has a chance, now. A chance to get the help she needs, but she has to find her way back to God on her own. Once she takes that first step, we can help her, but we can’t put her feet on that path for her.”
The young ‘soldier’ looked up, tears rolling gently down his cheeks.
“Can I at least say good-bye to Momma?” he pleaded. “Let her know . . . how much I love her?”
Smiling sadly, Andrew held out his hand. “I think we can arrange that.”
Gary’s eyes fluttered open to see Claire gazing down at him with a concerned expression. He carefully turned his head, surprised when the pain did not return. His mother’s worried frown swam into view as things started to come back into focus.
“It worked?” he murmured softly. “I’m . . . I’m okay?”
Dr. Carter turned from watching a monitor that was located out of sight over Gary’s head. “Your EEG is back to normal,” he reported in a relieved tone. “And I suspect that all your other tests will come back ‘normal’ tomorrow, also. How do you feel?”
“Tired,” Gary sighed. “Really . . . really tired.” He had to fight to keep his eyes from sliding shut. “W-wait. Tony?”
“He woke up just before you did,” Lois told him, wiping her eyes and sniffling. “He . . . he asked to . . . to speak to his mother. They’re . . . “
The monitors over Tony’s bed gave out a low, mournful, keening sound as all the little lines and squiggles went flat. It was as if they, too, felt the pain and sorrow as another soul passed from this plane of existence and into the next. Mrs. Greco patted her son’s hand gently as she dried the tears from her cheeks.
“He is gone,” she sighed. “But he spoke to me one . . . one last time. He said . . . he said to tell Gary that he was grateful for the time you gave him, and that he was sorry for the pain you suffered on his behalf. He wanted me to say, ‘Thank you.’ Then . . . then he said he loved me!” The grieving mother collapsed, sobbing, into Lois and Bernie Hobson’s embrace.
“So much like my Tony!” a gentle voice crooned. “You must be very proud of him.”
These were the first words Gary heard as he fought his way back to consciousness. Something softly brushed his uninjured cheek. Restlessly, he turned his head into the gentle touch. “M-mom?” he murmured.
“Over here, sweetie.” Her voice was coming from somewhere to his left.
Gary blinked several times, trying to get his bleary eyes to stay open. Slowly, he began to focus on the gently smiling face of a woman he didn’t know. She had thick, dark hair streaked with gray, and rich brown eyes. “Do I know you?” he murmured softly.
Still smiling, the strange woman shook her head. “No, Gary Hobson,” she sighed. “But I wish my son had known you. Perhaps his life would have been different.” She closed her eyes briefly and nodded in a little half-shrug. “Perhaps he would still be alive. But . . . at least he has found peace now, thanks to you.”
“You’re welcome,” he whispered. He cautiously turned his head to look for his own mother. She smiled down at him from the other side of the bed. “Y’okay?” he mumbled.
“Why do you keep asking that?” she sighed. “I’m fine, Gary. Your dad is fine, and so is everyone else. The only one injured was you. How do you feel?”
“Tired,” he admitted, letting his eyes close for a moment. He raised a hand to gently probe the bandage covering the left side of his face. “Hurts.”
“The arm, too, I imagine,” Lois sympathized. His only answer was a slow nod. “They tell me the one on your face took about twelve stitches, but shouldn’t leave a scar. The other was mostly just torn muscle. You’ll have a scar from that one, but no permanent damage.”
“Good,” Gary mumbled. “Startin’ to look like a road map.” He blinked owlishly at his mother, trying to keep her in focus. “What ‘bout Angel ‘n’ Stevie?”
“They’re both downstairs,” she told him. “They had to treat Rossellini for a gunshot wound to the hand,” Lois explained, “courtesy of one Clay Treyton. Angel and two of her thugs are being treated for head injuries. It’s a good thing Polly is still off-duty,” she added with a giggle. “She wanted to do the CT scan on Ms. Chaste herself. Said she’d keep at it ‘til she got it right. Even if she had to keep her in there all night.”
Gary had to smile at that, grimacing as it pulled at his stitches. “Don’t think Polly likes her much,” he murmured drowsily. “I’m a little tired. S’okay if I ‘sleep in’ today?”
“Yes, dear,” Lois Hobson murmured, as she gently brushed the hair from his forehead. “You go back to sleep. We can talk later.” Gary obediently closed his eyes and was soon sound asleep once more.
“Such a nice boy,” Mrs. Greco said, smiling sadly. “He must be a source of great joy to you.”
“And great sorrow,” Lois sighed in answer. “He’s been through so much. And we’ve come this close to losing him so many times.”
“I am not putting possession down as a diagnosis!” Dr. Lucas exclaimed as he and Carter entered the room. “No way! I’ll be laughed right out of the medical community!”
“Then what are you going to say?” the young ER physician asked, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “Oh! Hi, Mrs. Hobson. Mrs. Greco. How’s our patient?”
“Still drifting in and out,” Lois reported. “Some pain, but not enough to keep him awake. What are you two arguing about?”
Dr. Lucas shot his colleague a rueful look. “Dr. Carter thinks I should document this as a case of possession,” he grumbled. “I’d look like a complete and utter fool! No, I’m just going on the record with his injuries, his symptoms, an adverse reaction to some of the medication, and . . . and anomalous test results! Under no circumstances will I admit to consulting a psychic, or anything even resembling a paranormal explanation!”
“You do not believe in God, Dr. Lucas?” Mrs. Greco asked stiffly.
“As a matter of fact,” the doctor replied, “I’m Catholic. Why?”
“Because He is the ultimate ‘paranormal explanation,’ Doctor,” she replied archly. “All miracles flow from His hand. Whether directly or through His agents here on earth. My son woke up and spoke just before he died. That, to me, is all the proof I will ever need of God’s love. And to know that there are others out there who wear Tony’s face, speak with his voice, it is as if some part of him still lives.” She turned to Lois with a sorrowful smile. “And thank you for warning me. If I had seen so many wearing my son’s face at one time, it might have stopped my heart. It must have been quite a shock for you as well.”
“I was lucky,” Lois sighed, unable to keep her hand from playing with her son’s hair. “We got hit by it one at a time.” Smiling mischievously, she tickled the tip of Gary’s nose with the corner of her handkerchief. He mumbled something too low for them to hear, making a swatting gesture and turning his head to the side. “I think it bothered him more than us,” she added. “He gets flustered so easy.”
“How does he feel about instant wealth?” a voice asked from the door. Lois looked up to see Detectives Brigatti and Winslow entering the suddenly crowded room. It was Winslow who had spoken.
“What do you mean?” Lois asked.
“It seems that over a dozen countries have rewards out for the capture and conviction of one Steve Rossellini and a mysterious woman partner,” Brigatti spoke up. “Including the good ol’ US of A. After they were arrested for trying to kill Gary, we had enough probable cause to search their hotel, and to have Rossellini’s place in LA gone over with a fine-tooth comb. Can you believe they kept photographic records of their hits?”
“We’ve so much evidence on them,” Winslow gloated, “they’ll never see daylight again! And everyone’s in agreement on who gets the reward. Buddy Jackson, Clay Treyton, Ms. Gannon, and the boy wonder there. Without their little ’triple play,’ we never could’ve flushed them out.”
“And Ms. Gannon put that Angel . . . person down for the count,” Brigatti grinned. She turned to her partner with a puzzled frown. “That reminds me. Who won the pool?”
“Jerry in Admissions,” Winslow told her. “They were taking bets on how long before those two butted heads again,” he explained, “and who would come out on top. Angel was given the edge because she was a pro.” He shot his partner a smug look.
“Jerry‘s probably buying a new car with his winnings,” Toni admitted with a grimace. “Most of us just figured, ‘Hey, beginner’s luck.’ Who’d have guessed Gannon’d find a pipe wrench!”
“A quarter million?” Gary exclaimed quietly. “Each? Wow!”
“Those two have been busy little beavers,” Brigatti grinned. “Thirty-two major hits in the last four years. Everything from protected witnesses to political figures. The money is coming from so many different sources they had to pool it into a Swiss account. This is just an advance check as a reward for their capture. The bulk of it will be distributed if they’re convicted.”
“Practically a foregone conclusion,” Winslow added. “The DA is on cloud nine. Said he’ll never get this lucky again if he lives forever.”
Gary looked again at the check in his hand. One million dollars issued on a major financial institution right in Chicago. It was made out to the four of them. Two hundred and fifty thousand. Each. And that was just the ‘finder’s fee’, so to speak!
“H-how much is the bulk of the reward?” he asked hesitantly. Brigatti named a sum that almost gave him a real heart attack! “Oh . . . my . . . Lord!” he responded breathlessly. “I can’t accept this! I was just trying to stay alive!”
“I don’t mind being independently wealthy,” Buddy murmured. “That’s what I’ve fought for most of my life. But this is ridiculous!”
“I have to agree,” Clay nodded. “It kinda takes all the fun out of the chase to just have it handed to ya. Couldn’t we just keep what we need and do somethin’ . . . positive with the rest of it?”
Polly was sitting on a barstool in McGinty’s the day after Gary had been released from the hospital. For the final time, she hoped. She had been promised a face-to-face meeting with Dusty Wyatt. Nothing had been said about this!
“I could retire early,” she sighed, “but I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. There are so many ways we can put this to better use!”
Buddy and Clay looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. “Child Find,” they murmured simultaneously.
“Pardon me?” Brigatti asked.
“A program that helps reunite families,” Gary responded, understanding instantly. Adjusting the sling on his right arm, he raised up from where he had been leaning on the bar. “You want to give the bulk of it to them?”
“Or start our own foundation,” Buddy replied thoughtfully. “It could serve a double purpose. Help adopted children find their real families, and . . .”
“Identify possible blood and organ donors,” Polly chimed in. “There’s so many people out there who can’t give complete family medical histories just because they don’t know who their families are! People with hidden genetic disorders that could someday become a matter of life and death. The two projects go practically hand-in-hand.”
Clay was still looking at his twin, remembering the months . . . years of frustration before he had chanced on the lead that had finally reunited them. From the look on Buddy’s face, he was remembering similar experiences.
“I wouldn’t know how to even begin something like that,” Clay admitted. “You used to be a stockbroker, Gary. Any ideas?”
“Yeah,” he nodded absently. “We find a good investment banker who’ll make it his business to get the most out of our money. See to it that it’s spent wisely, not wasted. I still know a few people in the market. Let me put out a few feelers. See who they recommend.” He looked up at the TV, which was showing the latest images of what was once the World Trade Center. “Let’s send a hefty chunk to the Red Cross,” he murmured.
That suggestion received a unanimous vote.
“Personally,” Crumb grumbled from his place behind the bar, “I’d buy a cabin by the lake and go fishing for the rest of my life, but that’s just me.”
“Yeah, right!” Gary snorted. “You’d start your own business, or something. That reminds me. How did you know where Tony was? No one else knew he was even in Chicago!”
The crusty ex-cop just shrugged. “Your mom sent me looking for a link between the three of you,” he replied. “The investigation took me to several places in Texas and California. While I was doing some research in Los Angeles, a friend of mine saw your picture and asked what I was doing with a picture of his protected witness! So I let him think I knew more than I did and he let it slip that Greco was here under an alias, in the hopes that he’d wake up and spill the beans on his boss, Vincent Perillo. After that, it was a piece of cake to find out where he was.”
“So,” Buddy drawled, “it was part luck, part fox. Did . . . did you find out anything . . . about us?” he asked, indicating himself and Clay.
Crumb nodded as he sipped at his beer. “Your mother was Virginia Metcalf from River Run, Ohio. Your dad was a low life named Barry Ross who died in a bar fight two years after you two were born. Did you guys know you were all born in the same month? September of ‘65. So was Greco. Anyway, your grandparents, Jeff and Ginger Metcalf, are still living in Ohio. They asked me to give you a message. They’d like to meet you and find out anything you can tell them about their daughter. See, they never heard from her again after she ran off.”
Buddy and Clay exchanged a hopeful look. Grandparents? Another link to their mutual past.
Lois Hobson came in carrying a tray of chicken wings just in time to hear the last half of Crumbs statement. As she set the tray on the counter, she turned to the detective with a thoughtful look.
“Metcalf, you said?” she murmured. “My mother was a Metcalf, and she had a brother, Steven, who lived in River Run. He died before WWII, but he left behind two sons and a daughter. I believe one of them, the youngest, was named Jeff. Yes! Played right field for the Cleveland Indians for ten years before he retired and went into broadcasting! And his wife did a ‘home show’ for the local television station, WREO, or something like that. Oh, the whole family was absolutely devastated when their little girl ran off with some gambler! They spent a fortune on private investigators, trying to find her and bring her home. I think they lost the trail somewhere in New Mexico or Nevada.”
“Where Ross changed both their names to Corbitt and took off for Texas,” Crumb concluded. “It took a lot of backtracking and talking to a bunch of old geezers in nursing homes to find that out, but they remembered her. She was a real knockout, to hear them tell it.”
The twins looked at Gary and smiled.
“So, we really are cousins,” Buddy commented dryly. “Welcome to the family, cuz.”
“Oh, this is wonderful!” Lois exclaimed, giving the twins a big hug. “Just wait ‘til the next family reunion! We are going to blow minds right and left! Oh, I have to tell your father! This is . . . Oh!” She gave them another squeeze before releasing them and practically running for the office.
The front door swung open at that moment, admitting a familiar figure in a black Stetson. Polly happened to glance up at that moment and her face split into a wide grin. “Hallelujah!” she sighed. “There is a God!”
Dusty sauntered in and took a seat next to the star-struck tech. She looked like she had died and gone to Heaven. He smiled at her, reaching over to take her hand. Polly, that no-nonsense, hard-as-nails Southerner, could feel her bones turning to Jell-O.
“You must be Polly,” he drawled. “Hear you swing one hell of a pipe wrench.”
“Oh, yes,” she sighed, a slow flush crawling up her face. “A very handy tool. I cannot believe I’m sittin’ here, actually talkin’ to Dusty Wyatt Chandler!”
“I can’t believe I’m actually seeing you blush!” Gary commented with a grin. “This calls for drinks on the house!”
“Soda for you, Bucko,” Polly reminded him pointedly. “I’m not that calf-eyed!”
“Yes’m,” Gary grinned, his hand going automatically to the bandage on his cheek. Trust Polly to keep her mind on business, even while ‘off-duty’! He poured drinks for his guests, with Brigatti and Winslow going for the less intoxicating option, also.
“I can’t stay long,” Dusty chuckled, to Polly’s obvious disappointment. “We’re on our way to Nashville for the Grand Ol’ Opry. Just stopped by to pay my respects to the ladies and to drop off these backstage passes for a new sit-com that’s filmin’ here in Chicago. ‘What About Joan,’ I think it’s called. I’ve got a cousin on the show that I haven’t seen since we were kids. His name is Kyle. He heard I was in town and sent me these passes for Friday night‘s filming, but I’m not gonna be able to make it. He said I could come tomorrow evening, but . . .” he said with a shrug. “Anyway, would any of ya’ll be willin’ to go and give him my apologies?”
“I’d love to,” Polly sighed, “but I’m on duty both nights.”
“Same here,” Brigatti shrugged. “We’re supposed to be teaming up with the Justice Department for some kind of sting operation.”
“And I have a dinner date,” Crumb shrugged. “So that lets me out.”
“I guess that leaves us,” Buddy replied, picking up the three passes. “I’m not doin’ anything tomorrow night. How ‘bout you, Clay?”
“I’m free,” the cowboy shrugged. “Gary?”
“I’ll have to let you know,” he hedged. “How’s about I meet you there?”
Clay turned away with an amused gleam in his eyes. It didn’t take much to get ‘cousin’ Gary flummoxed. His gaze strayed across an array of photos behind the main bar. One, in particular, caught his eye. It had a whole crowd of people standing around a man seated in what looked like . . . It was! He got up from his stool and walked around the bar. Taking down the picture, he looked closer; then handed it to his twin without saying a word.
Puzzled, Buddy glanced at the picture, then back to his brother, not understanding at first. Clay reached over and tapped a finger on the seated figure. The young songwriter’s eyes widened as he recognized the nervously smiling figure.
“Whatcha got there?” Crumb asked. He took the picture from Buddy’s hand. “Oh, that was taken last September. Kind of a combination ‘birthday/welcome home’ party. How long had you been in the hospital that time, Hobson?”
Gary glanced at the picture and quickly turned away, barely suppressing a shiver. “About four months,” he mumbled. “And another four in that wheelchair.”
“And two more before you could toss the canes,” Polly nodded solemnly. “I think you were going for a record on ‘Near Death Experiences.’ How many was it? Four that first night.”
“Then the near drowning after Savalas tried to kill you,” Crumb added. “Then almost freezing to death saving that lost kid during that blizzard. Wasn’t there one more?”
“Yeah, almost,” Gary murmured in a barely audible voice. “At that camp. Could we talk about something else, please? Two thousand wasn’t a very good year for me.”
Crumb looked over at his miserable young friend. “Ya think?”
Continue to Epilogue
Email the author: Polgana54@cs.com