Disclaimer: The characters and universe that follow do not belong to me. Am not entirely sure I'd know what to do with them if they did. Kudos to the actors, writers, CBS and associated copyright holders. No infringement is intended. They tell me imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The sun had long ago set over the city, and a light mist was falling. A young man with a purposeful stride made his way beneath the neon lights with occasional glances from the building fronts to a folded newsprint. His presence sparked curious looks from the other, more surreptitious, occupants of the street - most keeping their heads low, either in paper clad bottles or ducking into the gaily lit buildings. He ignored them all, his scowl evidence of his discomfort at the type of establishments that occupied that particular avenue. Still, he continued onward, drawn along his path. He would do what he'd set out to do.
He hesitated at one building, squinted a moment on the flashing red neon letters. R.I. . . K.O..S J.O.I.N.T. Several of the letters were no longer lit, which had caused him momentary confusion. This was the place. He consulted his newspaper again. No change. Some time between 10 and 10:30, a young woman would be beaten and left for dead behind this night club. One more glance at his watch before entering: 9:55
The air inside was smoky and stale with the scent of human bodies and beer. Something with an erotic drum beat echoed from the sound system. And a scantily clad figure gyrated on a stage to the obvious pleasure of the clientele seated front row. Gary's first impulse was to turn around and leave.
To his relief, the music ended and an announcer stepped onto the stage and begged a round of applause for Candy Cane, and then introduced another. Gary tuned the announcer out, and scanned the room in search of a back door. None was immediately apparent. He turned, and prepared to try to find another way, when a voice caught his attention.
The song wasn't any he'd ever heard before, but the voice was captivating. The woman on the stage was equally shocking. Subtract a couple layers of make-up, add a bit more clothing and she'd be the woman whose picture accompanied the article in the paper. His heart dropped to his stomach.
Urging his brain to get his feet moving, he stumbled out the door and in search of a way around the building. The echo of her song haunted him as he found the alley at the end of that block of buildings which lead to a large back lot. Several cars were parked haphazardly along the dark stretch, some closer to the buildings, some out a way. Dumpsters and weak lighting were behind some of the businesses, illuminating handwritten placards announcing name and ownership. Others were completely darkened. Nearer the buildings, the smell was a magnified version of what he'd smelled inside with the accompaniment of urine. Gary decided to choose a path that lead him further away from the smellier of the buildings.
As he arrived at the back of what he guessed was Rickko's Joint, he heard a door opening and a woman calling softly to another. "Tell Jerry I had to go! Tell him I was sick or something, okay?"
"All right, honey! Just go. Take care of yourself!" Another woman whispered back. There was creaking as the door was pushed shut.
Gary stood at a distance, in the shadow of an old Chevy truck as a slim figure moved quickly away from a building two doors further down. Well, he hadn't gotten it exactly right. But he was close. He began to move closer, but heard the sounds of men laughing. He froze, and so did the woman.
The men saw her, laughed, and made a few comments in her general direction. Gary noticed that the voices of a couple women had joined in with the men's. Obviously this was a party. They continued laughing and passed the woman by. She continued on toward a vehicle near the middle of Rikko's lot, which barely caught the edges of the light that shone from a neighboring establishment. .
Suddenly, a man appeared so quickly from behind a car that even Gary startled. The woman's scream was choked off as the man put a leather-gloved hand over her mouth. Gary couldn't make out what the man was saying, but he could tell that he was speaking in a very menacing whisper into the woman's ear. From the looks of it, his grip was none-too-gentle.
The truck was situated at a point slightly behind the man, and Gary used that to his advantage. He crept as quickly as he could along the back of the lot hoping to get close enough to stop the man from doing anything worse to the young woman. Stooping, his got his hand around a long-necked beer bottle.
Closer, Gary could hear the evil intent in the man's voice. "Tell me where it is..." His voice was soft, well spoken. Eerie. "I assure you I can get it out of you. One way or another." He trailed a hand along one of her cheeks and over the delicate points of her neck where he slowly began to apply pressure. After a few heart stopping moments, which left the woman gasping for air, he released the pressure. That's when Gary made his move.
Moving quickly, he rushed toward the man, bottle raised. In a shockingly fast motion, the man turned throwing his aim off. The bottle sailed harmlessly by the man, and clattered to the ground. Both Gary and the man tumbled sideways into a nearby vehicle.
Gary struggled to use his greater weight against the man, but somehow the man used his momentum to carry him over and around and to the ground. The soft snict of a switchblade captured all of Gary's attention, even before the shining blade appeared before his face. The man smiled evily, allowing the moon to play against its surface before his face hardened.
The hollow echo of a bottle being broken over the man's head was a welcome reprieve.
Gary gazed up at the woman who stood staring down at him. "Thank you," he breathed, pushing himself from beneath the semi-conscious man. "I don't think he's going to be down for long. I suggest we get out of here."
The woman nodded, curly hair bobbing as she stared stunned at the man. "I've never..."
"Come on!" Gary urged, grasping her hand and dragging her along the alley. They ran along several streets until he found his way to the el. The young woman collapsed against a plexi-glass wall, trembling.
"You gonna be all right?" Gary asked her, his concern over-riding fear. Though he glanced around the empty terminal for evidence that her attacker had found them.
"Yeah," she breathed heavily, taking deep breaths, obviously struggling to get herself under control. "I'm okay." Then suddenly, her face crumbled and she ran a hand through her hair. "No...no, I'm not okay," She backed away, fighting tears, managing to look both vulnerable and street-wise. Straightening herself, the latter won out. "Who are you, anyway?" she demanded.
"Me? Oh, Gary - Gary Hobson." Gary nodded his head in the affirmative as if to back up his words. The nod was quickly followed by a scowl. "I just saved your life, if you remember? And nearly got myself killed in the process."
The young woman halted, if possible, looking even more miserable than before. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, stepping hesitantly closer, her voice rising as she went. "I guess I deserved that. It's just that I don't know who I can trust. I didn't know if you were one of them. But, you look trustworthy. Only, Angie said that your kind was the kind you really had to look out for and that it was one of your kind that got her in this trouble..."
Gary stared down at her in askance as she began to bubble forth with more explanation that he'd been expecting. He raised a hand as if to fend off the diatribe. As far as he could tell, someone named Angie would be the only one who could explain it. "Just a...W-What's your name?" he asked the young woman, hoping to stave off what looked like was leading up to something he really didn't think he could handle.
It worked. She stopped, took a breath. "Elizabeth. Sorens." Wiping at her eyes with one hand, and extending the other, "Glad to meet you." She smiled a quick apologetic smile. "Sorry."
Gary returned the smile hesitantly, then glanced distractedly around the station. "W-Where's Angie? Can she come pick you up? Or ..."
"That's kind of a problem," Elizabeth began. "She's out of town right now. She left me a message at the club and told me that she was out of town for a couple days and that I should leave too. She sounded scared. I was just trying to leave."
"Oh," Gary nodded, trying not to notice that though she wore a long overcoat, she was still dressed in the skimpy outfit from the club. "O-Okay." The rumble of the train intruded and he gestured over his shoulder. "That's my train. You-you sure you don't want...?" He left the question hanging. She looked so lost and alone standing on the platform. The fact that the wind took that moment to kick up, accentuating the cool dampness of the night, only added to his reluctance at leaving her.
Coming to a decision, he stepped closer to her. "Look. I-I know how this sounds, but I have a spare couch...a-and if.."
"I'll take it," she said, smiling belatedly at his surprise. "I don't
know anyone here," she explained. "No matter what Angie says, I think I can
trust you, Gary Hobson."
Gary managed to wake up moments before his alarm went off. Quickly stifling the sound, he sat up and made his way quietly across the darkened room. His guest was still sleeping, lost amid a bundle of blankets and pillows. Only half of her face and a thick wave of dark hair was visible.
Even the cat seemed intent on being quiet: The newspaper hit with its customary slap, but the cat only scratched lightly at the door. With a surprised lift of his brows, Gary went to see what new surprises were in store for him. As the door opened, the cat made its usual aristocratic way in, weaving its body around Gary's ankles. Gary wondered at that small show of affection as he leaned down to retrieve the paper, still wrapped in plastic. There were a few drops of residual moisture still clinging to its surface.
Yawning broadly, Gary padded down the stairs in his stocking feet, deciding to read in the office so as not to awaken his guest. As a second yawn took him, he decided also that coffee could only be a good thing. Of course the cat had followed him. Milk was a good thing, too.
Minutes later, settled comfortably behind his desk, the warm glow of the lamp mingling with the satisfying aroma from his coffee mug, Gary opened the paper. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual car-jackings, a fire in which no one would be hurt, and several attempted robberies. He had until nearly noon before his services would be required. He glanced over at Cat, who was happily lapping from his bowl. "Thanks."
He was, of course, completely ignored.
* * *
Gary shot upright, immediately awake, if not alert. The pounding along the staircase was at odds with the startled pounding of his heart.
"Wha-a... What? What?!" He muttered dazedly, nearly knocking over his, now cool, mug of coffee. He nearly came out of his chair as Chuck burst into the office, sending the door slamming back on its hinges.
"There's a ... naked stripper in your room...." Chuck mumbled, grabbing his friend by the shoulders. "Gary, do you hear me? There's a naked stripper in your room? Gary!"
Gary blinked. "Huh? Chuck? What? Oh..." Then he remembered, took a deep breath and struggled to reassure his partner. "Ah... Chuck. That's just Elizabeth. From last night."
"What?!" Chuck's eyes saucered. "You brought home a stripper?! Gary? Are you nuts?!"
"No, I'm not nuts. She had no place else to go. A..and she's not naked!"
Chuck shot him a look. "Oh? I beg to differ, my friend."
Gary did a double take, then waved the thought off. It was probably just her costume. "She'll probably need some clothes."
"Uh...yeah," Chuck agreed heartily. "And you need..."
"No, listen to me, Chuck," Gary lowered his voice. "It's nothing like that. The paper sent me to her. Some guy was going to beat her up and leave her for dead. And then, after we got away from him, it was late, and she doesn't know anyone and she didn't have any place to go."
Chuck eyed him. "This is just like you, Gare. What was he, her pimp? Did you ever stop to think that he's probably going to come looking for her? Here? At McGinty's?"
Gary thought about that. "I don't think he was her pimp, Chuck. And she's not a prostitute. She's a singer."
"A singer, huh?" Chuck was doubtful. "What does she sing?"
"Songs," Gary replied defensively.
Chuck shrugged in defeat. "I sure hope you know what you're doing, Gary. My first suggestion to you buddy: Check your wallet!"
Gary shot Chuck an irritated look and headed out of the office. Sometimes... His train of thought was cut off when his eyes fell on the thin figure sidling as quietly as possible down the stairs. The long coat from the night before was belted tightly, almost painfully, around her thin waist.
"Elizabeth? I-I'm sorry about that. My partner didn't know you were here."
Wide eyes shot up to meet his. "I..It's okay," she said, with a small tight smile, squaring her shoulders beneath the jacket. "I don't want to cause you any problems. You did a lot just giving me a place for the night without any strings attached. I appreciate that."
Gary stared at her, not sure what to say.
The corners of her mouth curved into a wry smile, and she shrugged. "Thanks." Hunching deeper into her coat, she made a motion to move passed him.
"Umm..." Gary found his voice. "B-breakfast. Are you hungry?" He really wanted her to stay. There had been nothing else in the paper about her. But something deep inside told him that his acquaintance with this woman was not ended.
She glanced back over her shoulder, this time giving him a real smile. "You really are a Sir Galahad, aren't you? Sure your friend won't mind?"
Gary's brow wrinkled in embarrassment, and he cleared his throat. "Chuck? He's all right. Kitchen's this way."
As it turned out, Chuck agreed to make them breakfast. He was surprisingly
cordial with Elizabeth, only casting suspicious glances when she wasn't
looking. Gary was thankful for that small gesture. When he and Elizabeth
had done eating, Gary told him so.
Chuck shrugged it off. "So what are you gonna do, old buddy?"
Gary settled the plates into the a smaller sink and started the water running. "She doesn't know if this guy is still after her or not. She was staying with her cousin Angie since she moved here a couple months ago. She wants to go back there, get some clothes, and maybe head back to her aunt's in Virginia."
"Virginia?" Chuck's brows raised at that, and he waved his friend off the dishes, buried his hands in the suds. "Any idea why this guy is after her?"
Gary shook his head. "No. Probably something to do with Angie."
"What about the police?"
"She doesn't want to go. Doesn't really know anything."
"So you're driving her back to her apartment?" It wasn't really a question.
Gary eyed his friend. "Yeah, and seeing her to the train station. I'll take the van."
Chuck nodded. "What about the paper?"
"First job isn't till noon." Gary glanced at the wall clock. 08:30. It was still early by most standards. Marissa would be in soon. He'd better get started. Chuck stopped him when he turned away.
"Be careful, Gare."
* * *
Outside, the weather had taken a definite down turn. The temperature was dropping, and what had started out as rain was making a strong showing as sleet. Gary wished he'd taken the time to look at *today's* weather report yesterday.
"Ugh, it's awful out," Elizabeth commented as they climbed into McGinty's van. She sat with her arms tightly around herself in an attempt to preserve her body's heat. Beneath her coat, the minuscule skirt and haltered shirt provided little warmth. And the van's heating system seemed in no hurry to kick in to warm the vehicle's chilly confines.
"Yeah," Gary agreed, throwing her a look. Reaching back behind the driver's seat, he grabbed a thick coverlet that was normally used to keep food containers warm and handed it to Elizabeth. She gratefully wrapped her bare legs and gestured Gary along a side street that would take them to Angie's apartment.
The final turn was along a broad street, partial residential, partial business. On one side of the road sat a high-rise that stood out against the overcast morning sky, seeming to tower over its lower neighbors. Something about the image clicked in Gary's mind, causing him to do a double take on the large letters plastered along the front of the building.
Elizabeth caught the undercurrent. "Is something wrong?" she asked, fear hiding in the back of her searching gaze.
"I...ah... I," Gary searched for an answer, and then pulling into the parking lot and into the nearest space, shook his head. "Nothing." He urged her quickly into the building, shielding both their heads with the coverlet from the now driving sleet.
As soon as they were in the building, and in the elevator he pulled the paper from his inner jacket.
"What're you doing?" Elizabeth asked, curious.
"Oh..ah, the paper." Gary paused.
Her brow furrowed at that oddity. "You know, if you need to be someplace... I could find my own way to the train station. You've done so much already." There was a soft ding as the elevator arrived at the fourth floor.
Gary slowly lowered the paper to his side. "Uh, no. I want to help," he managed. "I just...like to keep informed."
Elizabeth nodded mutely and led him toward Angie's apartment. She went straight back toward a bedroom area, gesturing that Gary make himself at home.
Gary wasted no time in riffling through the newsprint in search of the picture he'd only glanced at earlier. He found it buried near the back beside an add for rental property. The headline that he'd paid little heed earlier, now jumped out at him:
FIRE AT BELMENT ARBOR APARTMENTS CAUSES MINOR DAMAGE; NO INJURES
As he watched, the words blurred and changed.
FIRE AT BELMENT ARBOR APARTMENTS CAUSES MINOR DAMAGE; TWO DEAD
Gary's eyes quickly scanned the article. The Fire Marshall was still investigating the cause of the fire that appeared to have started at approximately 9 o'clock. He saw nothing else of the article, but stuffed the paper into his pocket and made ready to call for Elizabeth. An odd sound brought him up short. He turned startled eyes toward the door - the knob was turning.
Gary's eyes widened in fright, and he gave the room a quick once-over in search of a possible weapon. The room was tastefully decorated in muted tones; a row of delicate statues sat on a crystal shelf and a large porcelain vase sat near the door. Nothing he wanted to have to replace - dancing obviously paid well. Brushing aside that stray thought he moved quickly toward the back of the apartment calling Elizabeth's name in a frantic stage whisper.
The door to her bedroom wasn't quite closed, and revealed the corner of a bed draped with a comforter in pastel geometrics. "Elizabeth!" He tapped agitatedly at the door, glancing back along the hall toward the livingroom. Whomever was at the door was obviously working at the lock. "Elizabeth!"
Elizabeth snatched open the door. "What is it? What's going on?!"
"I...It's..." Gary murmured, eyes intently focused on the front door as he made vague gestures toward the livingroom. It was several moments before he realized that Elizabeth was still dressed in the outfit from the previous evening. "Uh...We've gotta get out of here!"
"Okay. Yeah? What do you think I'm trying to --"
"No. Now! Somebody's trying to break in!"
Near panic shot across her features as she raced about the room stuffing items into the duffel she'd obviously been packing. The last item was a small stuffed bear. Then shoving her arms back into her coat while sliding her feet, still clad in black fishnet, into a pair tennis shoes, she made a dash for the window.
Gary was right behind her. Elizabeth climbed out first, and moved surprisingly quickly down the fire escape. Gary took a moment to push the window back down. A movement in the room caught his eye. It was the man from the night before, and this time he had a gun. The glass of the window shattered overhead as Gary started down the escape after Elizabeth, skipping more steps than he took.
They hit the ground running. "This way!" Elizabeth gestured toward a gated alley. The back of the building faced away from the street and contained a number of small storage bins bordered by a fence that led to the back of a restaurant and a laundry.
Elizabeth fumbled with the gate a moment before Gary stepped in to assist. The wood groaned, but the gate slid slowly open. There was no time to discover what was holding the thing because the sound of footfalls against cracking ice caught their attention.
"This way!" a voice shouted from the opposite end of the alley before another shot rang out. Gary shoved the gate back hard and jammed the flimsy sliding lock shut before following Elizabeth toward one of the storage bins. She was up and over the fence before he'd crossed the yard. He was half over the fence when his trouser leg caught on one of the wires. The jagged edge scratched at the flesh of his ankle as he struggled.
Elizabeth did a frantic dance beneath him, trying to direct him as to how to untangle himself while simultaneously trying to keep her sleet wet hair out of her eyes. Both stiffened when they heard someone attempting to break down the wooden gate at the alley. It was obvious that the flimsy lock wouldn't hold for very long.
"Run!" he muttered to her, threw her the keys. "I'll catch up to you!"
"Go! I'll catch up..." She deliberated half-a-second more before she grabbed the keys and set off around the laundry mat.
The gate opened with an angry splintering and a resounding crash. An infuriated glare settled on Gary as another man, whom he quickly identified as the man from the previous night, rushed out of the alley. The second man gestured that the first man search the alley, while he leveled his weapon on a Gary who had little option but to cling to the cold, slippery fence. The situation would have been highly embarrassing, perhaps even funny, if he wasn't scared half to death.
"All right. Where is she?" The second man, whom Gary pegged as the brains of the operation, asked, taking an ominous step closer. The way he sighted along the weapon convinced Gary that should this man choose to pull the trigger, he would not miss.
Gary flinched, but held the man's gaze. "I don't know. She got away!"
The first man, obviously the brawn, stormed over to the nearer storage bin and dragged Gary down. The material of his pants simply gave out and he fell in an ungamely heap atop the flat plastic lid of the bin before toppling over to the ground behind it. The man jumped down after him, and yanked him to his feet.
"My friend here asked you a question. We'd like an answer that makes us happy. Understand?"
Gary looked between the two men, hoping for a clue of how he might talk his way out of this situation. None was forthcoming, both men looked positively determined to get whatever they were after.
"I said: 'Understand?'!" the man tightened his grip on the collar of Gary's shirt.
"Y-yes," Gary nodded hurriedly. "But it would help if we knew what you wanted. You see, w-we don't and as long as you go around chasing people with guns it isn't going to make anyone want to help you find this whatever you're looking for."
The men shared a look before the brawn burst into laughter. "He's useless," he said, his face turning suddenly serious, all laughter gone. He reached into his jacket and retrieved a gun, pointed it to the side of Gary's head. "I say we waste him."
"No. No." The brain slowly, calculatingly, shook his head. "I have a better idea. I say we give him a little incentive."
Turning his dark gaze on Gary, "Una Palabra. That's what we want. You have twenty-four hours and then we come looking for *you*." He made a small gesture toward the other man.
"Huh?" Gary's brow's went up in confusion as he began to realize the man's intent. "Hey! I don't know any--oof!" The first blow to his stomach took all of the breath out of him. The second to his jaw landed him on the ground. The third, fourth and fifth passed in a painful blur. The sixth was replaced by the sound of someone yelling, retreating footsteps and the horrible vertigo of the ground rushing up to meet him.
What was perhaps seconds, but felt like hours later, Gary pushed himself into a standing position. The yelling sound, his brain began to sort out, had been a woman several floors up threatening to call the police. She asked if he were okay, and if he wanted her to follow through on the threat. Leaning heavily against the storage bin, he forced his eyes to focus more clearly, then told her no.
He was just catching his breath when he saw McGinty's van pull up behind the laundry.
"I'll be downstairs if you need anything," Gary said, pushing open his apartment door to allow the woman at his side to enter. "Shower's in the back. Towels're in the cupboard."
Elizabeth looked up at him, her eyes settled briefly on the hand that clutched a cloth to an eye. She sighed heavily. "You know I'm never going to be ever to repay you for all that you've done for me."
Gary shifted uncomfortably, inadvertently brushing his injured ankle. He covered the wince with a half smile and a nod. "We'll be right downstairs."
Elizabeth returned the smiled, then nodded, a knowing look in her eyes. "I caught that." Expression turning serious, she continued, heartfelt, "Thank you, Gary."
"You're welcome," Gary murmured, backing away from the door. He pointed vaguely over his shoulder.
Elizabeth nodded, and went into the apartment.
Gary turned away grumbling beneath his breath. He hadn't precisely carried that one off with aplomb. He took the stairs a bit slower than normal.
He and Elizabeth had been back at McGinty's for thirty minutes. Half of that time had been spent convincing Marissa, Elizabeth and Chuck that he was okay and didn't need to go to the hospital. Then Chuck had mentioned that Gary was going to have one helluva shiner.
Marissa had then mentioned something about hearing that steak was good for a black eye. Gary'd said that he thought it was in fact the tenderizer that did the trick. Chuck had begun a rant about that merits of quality meat and why it wouldn't need tenderizer. The tenderizer rant somehow melded into an argument of why if Gary had gone to the police in the first place he wouldn't be needing tenderizer.
Elizabeth had ended it by asking Chuck whether or not he had tenderizer and a clean cloth in his kitchen. Chuck had answered off-handedly, suspiciously following her motions as she went quietly to the sink and dampened a cloth with cold water mixed with a little tenderizer. She'd then ordered Gary to lie back as she placed it carefully over his eye.
Marissa had folded her arms, a pleased smile on her face, and announced that she had her own methods of research to pursue.
Elizabeth had stated that she was sick of the clothes she was wearing, and asked if it were possible for her to have a shower. Gary'd obligingly lead her up to his rooms. Chuck had been left standing speechless in the center of the room.
Gary entered the office to the sounds of Marissa tapping at her computer keyboard and Chuck telling some story about a Spanish uncle.
"Find anything?" he asked as he settled carefully into a seat.
"Only about 6,000 possibles," Chuck said. "All in Spanish! Lucky for us, that's one of my languages."
"Lucky for us the search engine has a translation utility," Marissa said smoothly.
"Fine if you want to trust technology..."
Marissa didn't answer the question verbally, but her expressive face spoke volumes. Then, changing the subject. "Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be anything so far that's helpful. Any idea what you're gonna do next?"
Gary sighed and closed both eyes. His head was pounding. "I dunno," he answered quietly. "The paper sent her to me, and in a round-about way it did mention the fire in Angie's apartment. I just hope it's a bit more clear when it comes to ways to fix the rest of it."
"Maybe it figures you'll just do the smart thing and go to the cops," Chuck suggested.
"I've been thinking about that," Gary admitted. "Thought about calling Crumb."
"And?" Chuck urged him along when it seemed he was going too slowly.
"And I started thinking about what I'd have to tell him: 'Hey, Crumb. It's me, Gary. Yeah, the crazy kid. Some guys said they're going to kill me and this night club singer if I can't give them Una Palabra by tomorrow. No, no idea what Una Palabra is or who the guys are. Think you can help me?' And then you know what he's gonna do? I'll tell ya what he's gonna do. He's gonna laugh himself silly and then after that maybe have me locked up for harassment or stalking or acting like a lunatic or something."
"Well at least if you're locked up the Terminators can't kill you!"
Gary would have glared but found himself wincing in pain instead. "Do we have any aspirin around here?" The pain level in his skull had suddenly increased.
"Are you sure you don't need to see a doctor?" Marissa asked worriedly.
"I'm sure," Gary muttered, not missing Chuck's pointed look before he went in search of the requested medicine.
"Chuck does have a point, Gary," Marissa spoke up softly. "I mean, are you sure that giving these guys what they want is the right thing to do? They might just try to kill you anyway."
"I'm not sure of anything right now, Marissa," Gary said. "All I know is that what started out as a slow day paper wise has turned into something else entirely. The apartment fire wasn't even something I was going to try to prevent. The paper originally said that no one was hurt."
"Well, what's in the paper now?" she asked.
Gary laid the steak back on a plate and pulled out the paper. Chuck approached with a bottle of aspirin as he began to sort. "Here's something that wasn't there before," Gary said.
"Franklin Bernard Shaw, 37, was found floating in Lake Michigan early yesterday evening. Initial reports suggest that the man has been dead for 48 hours..."
**In his mind's eye, Gary pictured a body floating on the chill waters of Lake Michigan as a ferry passed nearby. A woman standing along the railing paused in her perusal of the Chicago coast as something in the water caught her eye. Pointing frantically she began to scream...**
"That's strange," Gary said when he was done reading. "If Franklin Shaw was killed sometime before this morning, why would the paper not tell me about it until now. He's probably already dead. There's nothing I can do to save him now."
"Maybe it's a sign. Telling you that you need to go to the police before you end up like Frank Bernard Shaw here." Chuck put in.
There was a gasp from the doorway. All eyes turned and focused on Elizabeth. Her eyes were rounded in shock. "What did you say?" she asked.
Chuck looked between his friends, and repeated his last sentence.
Elizabeth gasped again, this time putting her hands over her mouth. She settled weakly into a chair before she spoke again. "Oh my God, has something happened to Frank?"
Is he...dead?" The solemn gazes that met hers seemed to answer the question. "What happened?"
Chuck's mouth clamped shut, and he looked meaningfully Gary's direction, obviously having no desire to attempt to sort this one out. Elizabeth followed Chuck's gaze, her worried eyes begging Gary to answer her question. Gary stared back, trying to think of a way that wouldn't reveal the nature of his information.
"Gary?" Elizabeth's distressed whispered penetrated his stupor.
"Oh... um, the paper. I saw it in the newspaper. Say's he's found in the lake," he stumbled over the words in his haste to get them out. Then, hoping to divert the way she was suddenly focusing on the newsprint that was still clutched in his hands, "H-how did you know him?"
The ploy worked, she turned away from the paper and buried her face in her hands. She took in and released an audible breath before looking up again, appearing slightly more composed. Though there was a slightly nervous tremor to her voice. "He was Angie's boyfriend. I didn't really like him, but he was good to her." Then as a sudden thought occurred to her, "What about Angie? Does it say anything about Angie?!" She moved as if to take the paper.
"I'll read it to you!" Gary said, a bit sharper than necessary and gestured her back to the chair. When she'd settled, and after an internal sigh of half-relief, he began to read the article, careful to leave out details regarding the date.
When he was done, he looked toward Elizabeth, who had settled, pale-faced, back into her chair. "The paper says that Frank had been dead two days. You talked to Angie last night. She's probably okay," Gary tried to reassure her.
"This is really serious Gary. What if the guys who beat you up killed Frank? What if they want to kill Angie? I think we have to go to the police, now."
"I don't think that's a good idea just yet," Gary said, his eye catching the wall clock. The paper would be requiring his time very soon. He'd have to put what little he had to good use. "I think what we need to do - right now, is to get you out to Virginia."
"No," Elizabeth shook her head. "No way. I can't just leave now."
"You heard what the paper said about Angie's friend," Gary said. "You could end up next."
"So could you," she replied, reasonably. "I won't just lay my problems on you, a man I haven't even known 24 hours, and just leave them. We're both in this together, Gary."
Gary wanted to argue more, to get her out of town as fast as he could, but the street-wise toughness from the night before had returned - in spades. And he knew that any attempts to convince her that his way was the best way would be a waste of breath. But there might be something he could do.
"All right, fine," he said, meeting her gaze determinedly. "Since you want to stick around, Marissa is looking for information on Una Palabra. Why don't you work with her and see if any of it looks familiar."
She agreed quickly, but jerked with mild alarm as he moved toward the door. "What are you gonna do?"
"I've got some errands to run," he said, tucking the paper in his jacket.
Elizabeth gave him an odd look. "What about the police?"
"I know a detective," Gary said, ignoring Chuck's quiet cheer. "I'm going to call him after I get back."
"Well, why can't you call him now?" Elizabeth wanted to know.
"Because he works undercover a lot," Chuck spoke up. "He's sort of outta reach right now."
"Oh," Elizabeth nodded her understanding.
Gary threw Chuck a look before walking out of the room.
"He doesn't like anyone to know," he heard Chuck say in a whisper behind him. The sounds of Chuck's continued explanation echoed behind him until he entered the entry foyer and headed out.
* * *
The streets were damp, and the weather was still cold, but at least the rain and sleet had stopped. Gary was glad for that, because the young pregnant mother who would have choked on a pickle had chosen to have a snack on a bench in front of the half empty ice arena.
She hadn't appreciated Gary's urging that she remove the stem from her pickle, suggesting that she might choke if she didn't. She stood in the cold air and argued with him as she devoured first one and then defiantly reached into her bag for a second. Having survived the first pickle, she tore into the second one more furiously as she continued to argue with him.
A crowd was beginning to gather. She was so intent on devouring it that she didn't notice the offending stem at the base of the pickle. Gary, at his wits end, and determined to save the woman, resorted to the only effective tactic left to him. He snatched the thing out of her hand, and displayed the stem for her benefit.
The woman wasn't appreciative. And that fact that Gary's 'rescue' hadn't gone over very well at all was quite obvious. Shoving the remains of the pickle, now minus stem, into the woman's hand, Gary made every effort to flee the scene.
One ear still rung where she'd struck him with her heavy bag.
* * *
Gary rubbed absently at his ear as he reread his next planned stop. A purse snatching would become a life-threatening situation when a woman's purse was snatched on board the ferry. The woman, an asthmatic, would have an attach, but without her inhaler would be without access to lifesaving medicines. Gary frowned when he turned to page 7, where he'd originally seen the story. It wasn't there.
He flipped through the surrounding pages, then at loss, he began to go through each page of the tabloid in search of the missing rescue. How had saving a pregnant woman from a pickle prevented the woman's purse from being snatched - unless the pregnant woman was the snatcher... somehow he didn't quite believe that one.
He turned again through the articles, this time scanning the stories. It was during his perusal of the death of Frank Shaw that he found something odd. The time had changed. The body would be discovered two hours earlier.
Gary was stunned as he noticed what would happen to the woman who discovered the body. An asthmatic...
Shoving the newspaper inside his jacket, he set off for the ferry.
* * *
Gary looked around the shuttle in search of the woman who'd been pictured next to the article. Her name had been withheld, but the image had been of a woman in her early forties, with dark hair.
The deck was fairly bustling with the bodies of people during the midday rush. He had to practically force his way to the section of the boat mentioned in the article.
Then he saw her face in profile. She was leaning near the railing, looking backward along the boat's path. Judging from the coat she wore, and the way she carried herself, she was used to the expensive things in life. Gary noticed that she'd set her purse on a little bench beside her. It had to be hers, it had an expensive look about it just like she did.
Gary's face twisted in irritation as he set out in her direction. His steady motion through the crowd became more frantic as he noticed a figure slinking up alongside her. "Hey!" Gary yelled. "Stop! Thief!"
He pushed his way through the rest of the milling body of humanity to reach the woman's side. The would-be purse snatcher vanished into the crowd, and the woman's purse remained unmolested. But, having sensed what might have happened, she grabbed it to her breast before turning in Gary's direction.
The rest of the crowd had focused on him momentarily and then went back to their own concerns, having been unable to find anything of interest in the dark-haired young man moving frantically passed them.
The woman's eyes settled on him. "Something almost happened, didn't it?" she asked, worry evident in her every motion.
Gary nodded hesitantly. The woman really didn't look as if she needed any more stress. "I think someone was trying to steal your purse," he said. "You really shouldn't put it down in the city," he said gently. "Sometimes even good people can be tempted."
The woman nodded her acceptance of his advice. "Thank you very much, Mr..."
"Hobson. Gary Hobson," he filled in the blank and even shook the black leather-gloved hand the woman offered. He would have made his excuses and left at that point, but someone along the edge of the boat screamed.
All eyes shot in the direction of the scream, to the young man pointing frantically toward the cold waters below. The body of Frank Shaw floated face down atop the waters.
There was a swift flow of bodies as some people moved away from the sight of the body, gathering their children to them. Others moved in for a better view. Gary looked on in macabre fascination as some produced cameras and began flashing pictures. His attention was drawn back to the woman, however, when her breath began to come in rasps. He suddenly remembered her asthma.
Her dropped purse had been kicked away by the bustle of the crowd. Gary, tried his best to seat her on the bench while he went after the purse trapped amongst the sea of legs.
Moments later, he crawled out, holding the dark object like a trophy. Unfortunately, the woman looked like she was in real trouble. Pushing aside his feelings of discomfort, he opened her purse and grabbed out her inhaler.
Gratitude shown in her panicked gaze as he handed it to her. By the time she was breathing more easily, police were arriving and the boat was coming into dock.
* * *
Gary helped the woman, whose name he'd discovered was Rebecca Stanton, from the cab. As he did so, he allowed his eyes to take in the fancy high-rise apartment behind him. He could almost hear the low whistle Chuck would have made had he been there.
He would have left her with the doorman, but Rebecca seemed very weak, and on some level he felt responsible for her. Even before her attack, she'd seemed as if something were bothering her. He didn't know that he could help her with that. But at least he could walk her to her door.
He wasn't surprised that their destination was the penthouse.
The elevator doors opened, and a frantic man met them in the hallway. He stood a head shorter than Gary, and was dressed in a suit that was probably one of a kind.
"Becky, are you all right?" He asked, enfolding the woman in an embrace. She sagged against him, nodding mutely. Then, as if obeying some inner protocol, she turned and introduced Gary to her brother, Steven Holcombe.
Steven shook Gary's hand and thanked him for helping his sister. He then reached into a pocket as if to offer a tip.
Gary shook his head, "No, thank you. Uh...that's not necessary. I was glad to help." Gesturing toward the elevator, he took a step backward. "The cab is probably still waiting for me downstairs. I should go."
He glanced at his watch. It was after two. It had taken a while to get off the ferry, and then to find a cab. Not to mention figuring out how to keep two very unfriendly guys from killing him in the morning. He wondered how Elizabeth was making out with Chuck and Marissa.
His thoughts were interrupted by Steven insisting that the least he could do was to offer him something to drink.
Gary thanked him, but countered that his friends were waiting for him. Steven suggested that he call them. Gary thought to refuse, but a sound and a flash from the corner of his eye stopped him.
"Do you have a cat?" he asked.
Steven and Rebecca looked surprised. "No, why do you ask?"
Gary shook his head. "Never mind. I'd like to use your phone, thanks. And then I'll be on my way."
* * *
Elizabeth glanced at the wall clock, making a concerted effort to avoid looking at the man behind the bar. It was approaching two-thirty and still Gary hadn't returned. She and Marissa had gone through as many of the references as they could before the lunch rush hit. Chuck had been at his wits end as one of his waitresses had called in sick. Elizabeth had felt that helping was the least she could do.
During the mad hustle and bustle of getting food and drinks to the lunch crowd, there had been little time breathe, let alone think about her problems. But now that the crowd was non-existent, her fears were returning with a vengeance.
She turned her eyes away from the clock, and looked toward the office. Chuck and Marissa were there, busy arguing over some bit of restaurant business. When she turned from the office, she caught Geno, the man in the corner, quickly looking away. He'd been casting her curious looks since Chuck had brought her out to help. She hadn't worried about it too much before, thinking he might have frequented Rikko's at one time or another. But now, her mind not so occupied with fish platters and pasta salads, she began to wonder if he might not have more insidious reasons for watching her.
Determined not to allow the situation to get to her, she squared her shoulders and moved toward the man. The way she saw it, she had two choices: Confront the man, or leave the room.
"Is it usually this busy?" she asked.
Geno jerked as if he hadn't seen her coming. "Uh, yeah. This was a typical day as far as the midday crowd goes. But, then I've only been here a couple weeks - temp, while the regular guy is away." Though he answered her questions evenly, it was obvious that there was something else on his mind.
"I hope you don't take offense to this," he began, "but have you ever heard of a place called Rikko's?"
Elizabeth began to laugh, relieved. "Yeah, I know the place."
Geno relaxed then. "You have the most wonderful voice," he said. "There was something familiar about you, but it didn't hit me till you started humming."
"Thank you," she smiled. "I was beginning to wonder if I'd grown a third head or something."
"No," Geno answered belatedly. He'd focused another of his intent looks on her. "I hope you don't think I'm one of those types of guys who... who..."
Elizabeth smiled bemusedly. Geno was hardly the plotting bad guy she'd nearly made him out to be. In fact after a minute talking to him, the over-riding personality trait she picked up was shyness.
"No, I don't think you're one of those guys..." she assured him.
"Good," he said, looking uncomfortable again. His next words came out in a rush, and his face reddened slightly. "I write songs." Then talking even more quickly. "I wrote one that I think would be great with your voice. It's just a hobby, and I'm probably not very good, but if you're interested..."
Elizabeth's face fell. She didn't think she was in any position to make any long term plans. "I don't know... I kinda...I might be leaving town..."
"I have some stuff out in the car..." he suggested.
Elizabeth acquiesced. "All right, Geno."
"Good," he gave her a relieved smile. "I'll be right back."
Elizabeth barely had time to wonder what Geno would bring in before he entered the room out-of-breath. With a purposeful stride, he crossed to a dark corner of the bar where an old piano sat. Elizabeth had thought it was more for atmosphere than use.
Geno, pulled out a folder stuffed with a surprisingly thick sheaf of papers with lines and notes dancing across the topmost pages. Selecting several sheets, he settled on the bench. Elizabeth liked the gentle melody almost immediately.
"I sometimes have a guitar accompaniment," he said. "You don't quite get the full effect with the piano." As the appropriate point in the music came, he began to sing.
His voice wasn't half bad, and Elizabeth could imagine the type of accompaniment that would work with the song. Both she and Angie had learned to play when they were still in single digit years. If Geno was half as good with the guitar as he was with the slightly out-of-tune piano, he was very talented indeed.
When he was finished, Elizabeth applauded and a flush of pleasure spread across Geno's cheeks.
He smiled mischievously and began to pick out a familiar tune on the piano. Elizabeth smiled with pleasure as she recognized her own song. At silent prodding from Geno, she began to sing.
When the song ended, it was Geno who clapped for her, joined by a couple other pairs of hands behind them. She hadn't heard Chuck and Marissa come in, obviously neither had Geno. He jerked in surprise and spilled his folder of music to the floor.
Elizabeth and Chuck had bent to help collect the scattered papers when Elizabeth noted something across the front of Geno's folder. Her fingers froze, and an icy chill pierced her heart.
Turning frightened eyes toward Chuck who was making surprised noises about Geno's talent, Elizabeth wondered what she should do. Could he be in on it? What about Gary? She turned then toward Marissa. The blind woman, of course, didn't look back at her, but her head suddenly tilted slightly as if she'd sensed that something was wrong.
The phone rang, adding to her sense of foreboding. She had to get out
* * *
Gary couldn't help but admire the furnishings of the Holcombe penthouse. Though it was precisely the type of place in which he wouldn't want to live. Steven led him along a corridor flanked by two pedestals containing statues that looked like something out of a museum. A room to the right led to the phone.
Chuck picked up on the third ring.
Gary could barely get a word in as Chuck went on about Elizabeth and Geno singing. Geno was a surprise, but he could agree with him on Elizabeth.
"Yeah, I agree, Chuck, she's got an incredible voice. I..I know... Chuck, listen to me...Well, maybe you should check with her before you go planning her singing career... Chuck..."
He rolled his eyes as Chuck continued. He should have asked to speak to Marissa. A large framed lithograph near the phone caught his eye. In small ornate letters near its bottom were the words 'Una Palabra'.
"Chuck, I'll call you back," he spoke, ignoring his friend's ramblings
and hung up the phone.
Gary strode along the streets toward McGinty's. He was still no closer to finding Una Palabra, but at least he knew what it was. Steven Holcombe, who he'd discovered, was, among other things, an art collector. And he'd been very forthcoming with information concerning Una Palabra.
Una Palabra was a guitar, a very old guitar. One of a kind. It was rumored to have been made by a famous artist for his love. Unfortunately, the object of his desire had not returned his affection and the story became a tragic one. The guitar was called One Word, representative of the one thing the old artist could not get from one of his desire: Love. He died shortly thereafter. It was said to have been from a broken heart.
Gary wasn't so sure about the story, but the fact that guitar was worth upwards of five million dollars explained the men's desire to have it. Steven had wanted to know why Gary was so interested in it. He'd replied that it was just curiosity. He didn't think that Steven really believed him. But he didn't really think that mattered in the grand scheme of things.
As he walked in the front door, Chuck grabbed him by the arms. "She's gone!"
"Elizabeth! She's gone, and I think I know why." Chuck threw a suspicious glance around the restaurant before hurrying toward the office.
Gary followed. "By the way, I found out what Una Palabra is..."
"It's a guitar," Chuck said, stealing his thunder. "Look." he held up a folder, stuffed with sheet music. On the cover was a picture similar to the one he'd seen in the Holcombe residence.
"We think she saw this and ran," Chuck added as Marissa came up alongside him.
"We've gotta find her," Gary insisted, remembering the image of Frank Shaw floating in the Lake.
"Does the paper have any suggestions?" Marissa asked.
Gary pulled it out of his jacket. The front page story told of a young woman who would be killed at the train station. With a yell toward Marissa to call the police, he and Chuck headed for the door.
Gary nearly collided with a man as they exited the front door. He froze in recognition of the face of Steven Holcombe.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Uh... I apologize, but..."
"Look we really don't have a lot of time here," Gary said, moving on past the man toward Chuck's car.
Steven Holcombe followed and continued to talk. "Listen...I..."
Gary settled into the passenger seat, while Chuck moved into the drivers seat and started the engine. "Mr. Holcombe...another time..." And then Chuck hit the gas and Gary's door closed.
"Hey Gare," Chuck spoke after a few blocks. "I think that guy is following us."
* * *
Elizabeth settled, stunned into the seat. She didn't know who to trust anymore. A news reporter on one of the local radio stations was speaking live from the scene where the body of a man was being pulled from the Lake. The body had been found near one o' clock that afternoon. There would be more details as they were made available.
Gary had told her about Frank's death that morning. He was in on it, too. She wondered if he'd killed Frank himself.
Moaning, she buried her face in her hands. Angie had been right, it was the innocent-looking ones that did it to you. All she wanted to do was to get home to Virginia where she could at least be sure no one was trying to trick her, or kill her. She'd been silly for thinking she had any further as a singer, anyway. It was time to go home.
Reaching into her bag, she did something she hadn't done in a long time: she grabbed the little bear that her mother had given her when she was a smile child and clutched it herself. It had always comforted her, made her feel as if her mother was giving her one of her special hugs.
As she clutched the little bear, she felt something firm against her palm. Curious, she looked down at the bear. It was clad in a dark vest that tied at the front with small leather strappings. There was something attached to the underside of the vest.
A feeling of trepidation flowed through her as she undid the straps. A small red-topped key fell into her hand. 437G was stenciled along its side.
She rose to her feet, still gazing in disbelief at the metal object. She was drawn toward the row of lockers she'd passed on her way in. As she looked up, her eyes met with those of the man from the parking lot.
With her breath in her throat, she turned and ran.
* * *
Gary skidded to a halt in the front foyer of the train station. Steven Holcombe was no longer making any pretense at not following them. Gary tapped the first security guard he came to, pointing back the way he'd come. "You see that man? He's harassing us," he said when Steven came into view.
The guard assumed an ominous stance as Gary and Chuck continued on their way.
Chuck spotted her first. "There she is," he cried.
"And there he is," Gary said, pointing toward the guy who'd caught up to her.
"And who is *this*?" Chuck gestured toward the man who'd stepped up to them and poked a gun in his side.
"Oh, that would be the brawn," Gary said in dismay.
The man sneered at him, and gestured that they move in the direction the other man had taken.
They found themselves against a wall in a dim service corridor near the
track. Both men stood facing them. Both were aiming lethal looking weapons.
"Where is it?"
"You're working for them, aren't you!" Elizabeth yelled at Gary. "You might as well give up this innocent act."
"Huh?" Gary wondered if she'd slipped over the edge.
"I can't believe I was such an idiot to believe you," she said. "You killed Frank, and you're probably going to kill me, too."
The brawn looked confused, and the brain began to chuckle. "Although I'm finding this conversation very interesting. I really don't have the time for it. *I* killed Frank young lady, and I'm going to kill your friends here one at a time if you don't tell me where my boss's stuff is."
He aimed his gun at Gary's head, his eyes never leaving hers.
Gary flinched, and Elizabeth cringed. She practically threw the key toward the man before moving back to Gary's side.
The man smiled wickedly. "Thank you. Very much." He turned and walked away. His companion remained, wearing an ominous expression. When the other man was out of sight, he raised his gun in Elizabeth's direction.
Gary acted. He threw his body against the man. The gun went off, echoing deafeningly in the hollow area. As Gary tried to get the man down, Elizabeth kicked the gun away. Without his weapon, the brawn was formidable. Gary was not winning this fight.
Chuck had gone for reinforcements.
"Freeze!" Two policemen, flanked by several security guards and Mr. Steven Holcombe appeared.
Moments later, the brawn was in handcuffs and the whole group was led to the lobby area where the brain was also handcuffed. A police officer remained near him, holding an ornate guitar case.
As Gary, Chuck and Elizabeth stood by, Elizabeth turned to them. After first apologizing for accusing them of being in cohorts with the bad guys, she asked a question.
"How did you know about Frank?"
"Huh?" Gary was uncomfortable.
"I heard it on the news live, this evening. How did you know about it this morning?"
"Oh, uh, I must have gotten an early edition," he murmured.
* * *
The halls were dimmed, and the thick carpeting muted their steps. Two men, a blind woman and her dog made their way along the corridors in search of the room to which they'd been directed.
Some watched the trio oddly as they passed, but then continued on with their duties. They were all very busy, and they'd seen stranger things in those halls.
The taller man hesitated in front of a door. "I think this is it," he said, gesturing. He opened the door and the trio slipped in. They were greeted by the warm tones of the voice of Elizabeth Sorens.
She was beyond the clear window of the sound studio, her eyes covered with headphones as she sang a song that none of them had heard before. Two other young women accompanied her. One of whom was Angie.
Steven Holcombe stood away from the wall and greeted them. "Thank you for coming," he said. "And once again, thank you for returning our property. Its been in our family for a very long time. Turns out, our bad guys had ties to a smuggling ring. Frank Shaw broke into one of our interim storage facilities. Instead of turning Una Palabra over to his bosses, he decided to give it to Angie since she loved to play. She says he told her to hide it when he found out that his bosses were on to him. But it all turned out, thanks to you all." Steven smiled warmly at the trio before gazing into the sound room.
"There were some benefits," he continued. "Who would ever have thought that having our property stolen could lead to meeting this remarkable young woman?"
Everyone smiled, but weren't sure what to say to that remark. It was obvious that Steven Holcombe was a bit smitten with Elizabeth. He didn't seem to notice the silence.
"She's got the most remarkable voice," he said. "Oh, by the way." He reached into a box and handed each of them a compact disk. "Her new single. Can you believe she wants to donate half the proceeds to charity? The J. Snow fund for juvenile diabetes, I think it was."
Chuck and Gary shared a quick look, then shook their heads. It couldn't
be. Marissa simply smiled placidly.
The End.Author's note: Forgive for the piano? I'm going to just imagine it's there.
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