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A BOY'S BEST FRIEND IS HIS HOLOGRAM

by

Jane A. Leavell

CHAPTER SEVEN

(Almost three hours late. Logos will have a fit.) Glancing at himself in the car's rearview mirror, Sam Beckett let a grin spread across his face, the mocking grin that wasn't quite a sneer and drove his newest colleagues right up the wall. (Tough shit.)

Needling Lothos was entertaining, but not as much fun as spending the night boffing the pert redheaded physicist working on that new D.O.D. project, and then microfilming her notes while she was sleeping. The goodies in his briefcase now would more than make up for his late return.

The silver Porsche veered a little as it rounded the spiraling curves ascending Devil's Mountain, and Sam forced his attention back to the road. Doing roughly double the speed limit was, according to his ex- partner, the next best thing to flying, but it wasn't exactly safe.

Still, Sam let the grin widen. Too bad he couldn't swing by Project Quantum Leap and see Calavicci's expression. The little guy would give his eyeteeth for an elegant masterpiece like this, equipped with more high-tech wonders than all the James Bond movies put together. He was so pleased with his car-phone with video monitor and computer link--it'd kill Al to see the long-range radar, fully stocked refrigerator and bar, color mini-TV and stereo CD system, and the computer that offered maps steering you away from cruising police cars or current roadwork or traffic jams. Hell, this computer was so sophisticated it could steer the car itself if you got absorbed in a scientific paper and didn't want to bother. The only thing the Porsche lacked was a cellular phone, which pissed Lothos off, but Sam refused to install one. That would make it all too easy for Lothos to nag him, interrupting pleasurable moments like this. Dr. Samuel Beckett, holder of seven degrees, didn't leave PQL to be ordered around or denied his freedom.

(Control. That's all life is, taking control of your life and those around you before someone else does it to you.) His fingers squeezed the steering wheel. (No one's ever going to be in a position to hurt me again. No one.)

Sam made himself shake off the abrupt dark memories that thought called up, determined to let nothing interfere with his current exuberance. He was incredibly wealthy, incredibly intelligent, and damn good-looking; what more could a man ask for?

A doe and a gangling half-grown fawn burst out of the trees half a mile ahead, and he coaxed a burst of speed from the purring engine, but they made it across and into the woods before he got there. Shrugging, Sam threw them a grudging salute as he whipped past.

Lothos, at least, should know better than to think manipulating Sam would work. The whole Lothos Project, unlike the idealists at PQL, viewed life clearly, the way it really was.

Sam made a face. It was still hard to believe how naive his partner had turned out to be. Somehow he expected Al, of all people, to understand how things worked. He'd been on the streets, been a prisoner of war trapped in a tiger cage for most of six years, been tortured, for Christ's sake--he of all people should've known survival means looking out for Number One, because no one else will do it for you. Nobody makes it to the top ranks in the Navy, or to control of a $2.4 billion government project for that matter, without mastering political sabotage, sneakiness, and creative backstabbing, right? Yet Al acted personally offended when he found out Sam was skimming off funds and getting his rocks off on Leaps.

(Too bad, really. Partying with Al was terrific, but the way he carries a grudge, it'll never happen again. And nobody in the Lothos Project has a sense of humor, dammit.)

Right now, he was busy upgrading the hardware, because Lothos, starting up so many years later than PQL, had some serious catching up to do. But at least he knew the right shortcuts to take now, and he still had chances to observe an occasional Leap. Once the neurons and mesons he donated were woven into the improved computer system, Sam would Leap again. One of these days, there was a definite chance he would come up against Rear Admiral Albert Calavicci.

It would be a shame to have to kill him.

Sam was so deep in thought that he almost missed the musical chime from the car computer as it picked up the signals from the Project. Tires squealing, he yanked hard on the wheel, driving the Porsche right into the rock-strewn side of the mountain. The holographic image of solid rock melted around him, leaving him in the parking deck. Although Sam nodded at the armed guards, they seemed edgier than usual, trailing him with their laser guns as he rounded the floor to the next level.

(They won't shoot. Lothos doesn't dare harm a hair on my head.)

Just the same, that hair was prickling as he parked, locked up the Porsche, and entered the elevator.

The lights on the control panel, and overhead, kept flickering, as if there were some sort of power outtage running through the complex, and when the elevator car settled on the tenth floor, he could hear alarms blaring even through the closed doors.

(This better be some sort of drill.)

Even before the doors grudgingly jerked open, filling the elevator with greasy smoke, he knew it was all too real.

"Oh, boy," Sam snarled, and stepped into chaos.

When he opened his eyes, Al was relieved not to see red-hot fire pits, horned demons, and pitchforks. What with five marriages, adulteries, drinking, and the assurances he'd received from various nuns in his childhood, the most he'd ever hoped for was half an eternity or so in Purgatory, which would be fine. He'd always figured he'd run into a lot of old girlfriends, ex-wives, and buddies here. The only downer was that his very best friend ever was a shoo-in for Heaven, but maybe angels could get visiting privileges and drop in now and then. On the whole, atoning for his sins in Purgatory wouldn't be half bad. Especially compared to the alternative.

Probably there would be teachers coming along soon to make him go to Good Citizen classes. He'd put his money on them being nuns. So, okay, he'd get his knuckles rapped with rulers--it was still better than pitchfork jabs in the butt.

He opened his eyes, and there was a gorgeous blonde nymph of an angel gazing back at him. (Somebody goofed! I'm in Heaven!) In an automatic response to such nubile charm, he winked.

The angel winked back.

(No way! Angels don't give you lascivious looks.)

He squinted for a better look, and the angel squinched up her blue eyes, too. That was no angel--that was his own reflection in a plate glass window.

"Oh, boy, I'm a girl," he moaned.

He must be in Hell after all. This was his punishment for all that womanizing.

(No, wait, dummy, if this was Hell, there'd be demons here raping you or something. You've been reincarnated as a woman. Bad karma or something.)

But that didn't make sense, either. He wasn't up to speed on karma, but he was pretty sure you got reincarnated as a newborn baby, not a teenager with more curves than a college prof's grade book.

(So if I'm not in Purgatory or Hell, and I'm not reincarnated, why am I female? One thing I know for sure, I'm a man. My name is--is--oh, hell. I'm a girl with amnesia who thinks she's a boy.) He had a really bad headache, too. (And I'm dead. I got electrocuted and cut in half by a laser, and maybe had a heart attack, too, which is pretty permanent, taken altogether. But here I am.)

Fretfully, he rubbed his forehead with both hands, then gave the right hand a disconcerted look. Didn't he lose that a minute ago?

(Not that I'm complaining. Oh, boy, do I need a cigar. Maybe I'm like a ghost, and if I concentrate real hard, I can create a cigar, or trade these gazongas for my old equipment.)

He scrunched his eyes shut, rolled his fingers into fists, and wished very hard for a cigar, figuring it would be easier to create than genitalia. A mistake in imagining a cigar might stick him with a cigarette, but a mistake with genitalia would be a disaster.

When he risked peeking with one eye, he didn't see a cigar, just smoke. On closer scrutiny, it wasn't smoke, it was a cloud of grey static in a roughly man-like outline. Another ghost, forming right before his eye? He opened his other eye to watch in stereo.

"Albert, are you all right?" a harried British tenor asked. The head outline swung toward him. "You Leaped! Without permission! Without planning!"

"My name is Albert," he discovered. It felt right. "Al."

"Oh, dear. Your memory is--"

"--magnafoozled. Looks that way."

The man-like shape looked over one shoulder at what seemed to be a crosswalk. "Lt. Gutierrez, this is the worst linkage since we first began this Project. Can't you and Alpha clear this up at all?"

Although no one seemed to be standing in the crosswalk, his image did clarify into that of a short, slender, greying man in a tailored suit. The image wavered, now vivid, now almost invisible.

"Well, that's better. Admiral, do you know who I am?"

"I'm an Admiral? Do I have a boat?"

"I'm afraid not. You do have a plane, though, if that's any comfort. Admiral Calavicci, I'm Edward St. John, co-director of the Project, and your Observer. Do you understand?"

Al crossed his arms over his--her--chest. "You're some sort of a Peeping Tom?"

"Good heavens, no. For some inexplicable purpose of your own, without bothering to notify anyone or go through official channels, in the very middle of an important meeting, you chose to Leap from the Quantum Leap project. As a result, you've been missing for several days. Alpha was finally able to lock onto your coordinates--"

"Ziggy."

"I beg your pardon?"

Nebulous memories were forming at the edges of his awareness, where he couldn't quite put a finger on them. "Ziggy. The computer."

"Alpha," St. John said firmly. He shook his head, as if this wasn't important. "You appear to have suffered serious side-effects from this ill-considered excursion of yours, and I must ask you to return to the base at once."

"You can't call me back with this Ziggy?"

"Ziggy says--" St. John rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Alpha says you are blocking it because there's something you have to do."

That, too, sounded right. "So what is it?"

"We don't know! All Alpha will say is that it somehow involves Samuel Beckett. General Ross and I postulate that Beckett has somehow forced you into this Leap--which would explain this distressing memory loss--but Dr. Fuller disagrees."

That definitely struck a chord. "Sammy Jo?"

"Precisely. I didn't think you would forget her. You two always joined up against the mature, logical voices on this team."

His memory felt more connected now, certainly more solid than St. John's dissolving image. Al felt ire rising. This was--what? His third bout with amnesia in a week? Plus he got tortured, then he got killed-- messily--and now he had to put with a pantywaist partner who should only have been the back-up Observer in the first place.

"You know why Ziggy can't link us up good? You talk too much. And you're not Sam Beckett."

"Well, of course I'm not. Why would I want to be a vicious, thieving, rapist--"

Looking offended, St. John disappeared. Most likely Lt. Gutierrez had lost the tenuous link between them, because Edward would never willingly pass up the chance to lecture him.

Scowling, Al re-examined his reflection in the plate-glass window to Langdon Hall. Not only was he an amnesiac, he was a pedophile, drooling over a baby, one of Sammy's classmates, Alyson somebody-or- other, who was probably young enough to be his grandchild.

A closer look made him feel slightly better. She might be sixteen, but tonight she looked at least three years older. Of course, in 1963 that still wasn't legally an adult, but you couldn't blame a man for admiring a woman who had dressed up to elicit exactly that response, could you?

Instead of the towering beehives some other women on campus still sported, she had her hair in a "bubble," slightly teased, about the size of a football helmet, with the sides sweeping down in front of the ears to form wispy little curls that were glued in place with clear nail polish, and a perky white bow was clipped on one side over the temple. Her outfit was daring, for this early in the Sixties: short white tasseled go-go boots, polka-dot stretch knit hose, a thigh-high white vinyl skirt, and a deep purple poor-boy sweater.

Tentatively, still staring at her image, he reached up to touch her casabas, and freaked out.

(Jesus Christ on a crutch, I'm a girl! With melons! How am I supposed to be a girl?)

Hadn't this Leap been a big enough disaster already? All he was supposed to do was jump back in time to save Sam, maybe do a little James Bond-style stuff finding and stopping the Evil Leapers. Instead, he blundered around out of his head, helping the scumbags scare the kid. And in the process, he got shoved around by everyone from Lothos to God. Maybe he was supposed to be grateful to be alive in any shape or form, when Thames was undoubtedly barbecued meat?

Al raised his fists to the sky and howled, "But a girl? WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE A GIRL?"

God probably thought this was funny. (Well, excuse me for not laughing. I'm a man. That's what I always wanted to be. I do man things. I box. I joined the Navy. I fly jets and rockets--phallic things. I DO NOT PAINT MY NAILS!) But in the reflection, he was sporting bubblegum pink manicured nails, and there was a heavy scent of lemon perfume in the air around him. (I don't know how to be a girl. Oh, geez, what if she's having her period?)

Just the thought of such a horror made his head swim, and he nearly passed out. If there was some way to cut a deal with God or Time or Fate or Whatever played with him and Sam as if they were G.I. Joe dolls, he'd do it. If it meant losing Ruthie again, or living through the gooks running him through the Fanbelt at the Hanoi Hilton, or seeing Chip get shot down over Hanoi, fine, he could deal with that. (Make me live through coming home to find out Beth divorced me for that shyster, if you have to. But don't make me be a girl!)

The reflection didn't even waver. Her face was pale, though, as if she--he--was going into shock.

"It's not fair!"

With an effort, Al forced himself to turn away from the window. All around the campus, lights were twinkling on in the twilight. What was Alyson doing out here? Wasn't there some sort of curfew for these kids?

(Don't tell me I'm a girl who's a slut!)

"A plan," Al muttered, trying to get a grip on things. "I have to make a plan!"

There was no Project yet, neither Quantum Leap nor Lothos, so he couldn't try to find someone to change him back. Should he hunt down Zoe and try to eavesdrop on her? As Thames, he could've flat out asked her what she was plotting, but she'd never give anything away to Alyson. Could be she and R.J. phased out when the computer died, anyway. How would he know? From the sound of things, the real Miss Fritz was sexually molesting students, too.

It didn't help matters any that he couldn't be sure his memory wasn't still termite-ridden. Suppose he had lost the memory of a sixth marriage--how would he know that he'd forgotten it? What if he was forgetting something he had to know to finish this Leap successfully? Would he be stuck living as a girl for the rest of his natural life? Would he--God forbid--get pregnant?

"I need a drink. But nobody's gonna give a teenybopper a stiff drink around here."

The sound of that voice, a clear soprano with a New York accent, gave him the chills. He much preferred his own raspy tones.

Determined to face this like a man, no matter how inappropriate that might be, Al tried to move away from Langdon Hall at a brisk business-like pace, only to discover that walking with a manly stride is impossible in a tight skirt. In addition, the boots felt too high, and the heels were too narrow. Taking a couple deep breaths, Al tottered off painfully, trying to mince like Tina. He could feel himself blushing. Now he had more sympathy for Sam, that time he was trying to cope with being Miss Sugar Belle. Good thing Sam wasn't here to laugh at the way their usual situation got reversed.

(Sam! I gotta find Sam! Lothos was right--if wrecking the 'puter didn't snap Zoe and R.J. back to their own time, they could still hurt Sammy. God must know it, too, because He brought me back to finish the mission.) Al directed his fiercest glare at the overcast evening sky. (You better help me do this. Sam's suffered a lot, doing Your work for You. You owe him, big time.)

The sound of a Joan Baez record helped explain what Alyson was out here for. They were having some sort of record hop in the courtyard, a mix of college-age students and genius youngsters uneasily sticking to opposite sides of the courtyard, with a stereo record player on an extension cord and strings of paper- covered lightbulbs outlining the 'dance floor.' Only the older kids were dancing. The three or four pint-sized girl brains were staring longingly at the twenty little boys, who either stuck out their tongues or turned their backs and talked nervously to their buddies, depending on their ages. As a social event, this dance was clearly a flop. Even the teachers chaperoning the event looked bored.

Spotting 'Alyson,' the girls stampeded over, cooing over the clothes and new hairdo, asking questions he couldn't possibly answer.

If he had to be a girl, he wasn't going to be a wallflower. "'Scuse me, I'm dying for a drink. Which way to the punchbowl?"

"Oh, ich, Alyson, it tastes yucky."

"Carole says that Randy says that one of the Engineering students spiked it!"

(You can always count on Engineering students. Where the hell is that punchbowl?)

One of Alyson's classmates snared his elbow. "Come on, Allie, let's go to the ladies' room and touch up our makeup."

"No!"

"We'll fill you in on the latest gossip. You missed all the good stuff, coming so late."

Yeah, wait 'til you hear about Carl and Mary!"

Through stiff lips, he grated, "Maybe later. After I've had a drink." Or maybe five or six.

Sneaking into a ladies' room as a hologram was one thing. Trying to cope with it while wondering whether he'd see His or Her equipment when he pulled down her hose was quite another.

Ignoring the other girls' protests, Al started wending his way across the pavement as a Bobbie Rydell 45 dropped onto the turntable.

"Hi, cutie-pie, wanna dance?"

"Get away from me, you homo."

The college kid gaped. "What'd you call me?"

"You heard me."

"But--you're a girl."

"Then you're a lech," Al decided, and socked him on the jaw. He was pleased to note that at least some of his strength and skill bled through this feminine aura. Sam wouldn't approve of his politically incorrect attitude to homosexuality--never had--but old habits were hard to break.

Circling the courtyard in search of the punch, he instead ran into the jittery pre-teens and early teens who were trying to pretend the girls their age didn't exist. One of them was Sam Beckett.

(No. I can't do it. Right now, I'm just an older woman to him, but in the future, if this works, he'll be grown up, and he'll razz me about doing this.) But a career Naval officer learns early to do his duty, to shoulder responsibilities no matter how grim they may be. He felt sick. (I'll do it, but I won't enjoy it.)

Al swallowed hard, but forced the words out. "Sam. Sam, uh, wanna dance?"

"No way!" Sam blurted, backing away from his as if he'd suggested eating boogers.

"Good." Upon reflection, though, Al decided he had been insulted. "Why not? Aren't I good-looking enough for you?"

"You're a girl!" Sam pointed out, looking disgusted.

"You'd rather dance with a boy?" (That could be arranged easier than you suspect, too.)

The kid's face bore a hunted expression. "I mean, you're lots older than I am. I'm a kid. I don't even know how to dance."

"There's not a whole lot of steps to memorize in the Twist." Wait a minute--why was he arguing over good fortune? If he didn't shut up, he might end up having to dance with his best friend. Al tried to jam his hands into his pockets, realized he didn't have any, and clasped his hands behind his back. "So if you're not going to dance, what are you doing here? Why aren't you home watching the Smothers Brothers?"

"Hootenanny isn't on 'til Sunday," Sam said, puzzled. "Anyway, the R.A. says social events are good for us. Besides, Arnie made me come."

"I thought I told--I mean, I thought you weren't hanging out with Arnie anymore. That's what I heard, anyway."

Sam shrugged. Well, it must be hard for a genius to make friends, like being the sole unicorn in a herd of donkeys. Once you found someone willing to spend time with you and treat you like an ordinary person, you wouldn't want to give him up, especially on orders from an 'optical delusion.' Sam always wanted everyone to like him. Al had never known what it was like to be 'normal,' not stuck in an orphanage, so he didn't yearn for it; and by the time he enlisted in the Navy, between street smarts and a season in summer stock, he knew how to blend in when he had to. Sam hadn't picked up that skill yet.

"Look, you wanna go for a walk?"

Sam cast a worried glance at the other girl-haters, who all avoided his gaze. "What for?"

"So we don't have to shout over the music."

"Shout about what?"

That's right. Ten year olds don't bum around with sixteen year olds, especially not members of the opposite sex. "Homework," Al said, inspired. "I'm having trouble with Latin class."

Regardless of age, Sam Beckett loved helping other people. That's how they got in this mess in the first place, Sam being the perfect candidate for Cosmic Fixer-Upper. "Okay."

The other munchkins were nudging each other and exchanging excited whispers. Once they walked into the darkness just outside the string of lightbulbs, Sam was going to find himself with a reputation as a stud, although he obviously didn't have a clue. Maybe it would help him make new friends.

(So what do I tell him? Do I steal a ticket from Zoe and tell him I'm a psychic, I know all about the 'ghost' and can help him? I can't tell him about his own future, because who knows what that might do to the timeline. Sheesh. This Leaping stuff is even harder than it looks.)

"So what's the problem?" Sam asked as Frankie Avalon's latest faded to a bearable level.

"Huh? Oh, the Latin." Boy, could he use Ziggy's help right now. "She--er--she wrote 'lege et lacrima' on my last paper."

"'Read it and weep,'" Sam translated promptly. He gave Al a sidelong glance. "You must not have gotten a good grade on that one."

Al hitched his shoulder purse strap up again. How did women keep these things up, anyway? Struck by inspiration, he slung it around his neck and over one arm, so the strap ran between his breasts. This made the breasts jut out more noticeably, but so what?

As he was getting the dumb purse anchored, a '62 Falcon, one of the robin's egg blue one, glided up to the curb. Meeting Zoe's eyes, he smiled sweetly, giving her a little fingertip wave. "Hi, Miss Fritz."

"Alyson. What are you doing here?"

(Ah-hah. Arnie was probably supposed to herd Sam out here for you.) Watching Zoe struggle to wipe the irritation from her face was amusing, but he had to play it innocent.

"We're just talking. What are you doing here?"

With an effort, she squeezed out a gracious smile. "I was working late, but I'm on my way home now. Can I give you a lift? Both of you?"

(Two for the price of one, eh? And I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that Alyson, sweet sixteen and never been--uh--'kissed,' would make a great 'donation' for some sort of ceremony to get Sam stuck with the Bad Guys permanently. Well, watch me stick a screwdriver in the works.)

"Gee, Miss Fritz, we were looking for you." He batted the long false eyelashes at her. "Arnie told us you'd give us a ride, and we told Professor Daly that, but he wants us to stick around for the dance contest, and then he'll take us home. We didn't want you to wait around, wondering where we were."

"How thoughtful," Zoe said, in tones that could have frozen boiling water.

"That's us. All around nice guys."

Sam piped up, "Professor Daly didn't--"

Al elbowed his ribs, and Sam fell silent, taken aback. Zoe's smile looked as if it hurt her lips. "Maybe next time, then."

They watched her pull the Falcon into a staff parking space in the lot by Hartman Hall and emerge, slamming the driver's door hard.

"I thought she was going home."

Al said absently, "Nah, now she has to get up an alibi, show people she wasn't with us and doesn't know where we've gone. That, and give Arnie a hard time for screwing up."

"An alibi? For what?"

"For when we disappear."

Sam's voice sounded very small. "Why would we disappear?"

He watched Zoe stalk into the crowd of dancers. (Because Zoe hasn't seen Thames in a long time, and she's worried, and going to cut her losses by kidnapping Sam. Once she's got her claws into him, she can use sensory deprivation, drugs, hypnosis, whatever it takes to remake him in Lothos's image. But I'm not about to say that to a ten year old boy.)

"It's...a long story, Sammy. Right now, we have to find a pay phone so you can call your parents to come get you."

"No! How would I explain it? They'll think I'm a coward, that I'm giving up. Tom'll say I was too homesick to even study."

"The one thing you are not, Sam Beckett," Al said with great fondness, "is a coward. And you're not giving up. You can stay here at school and finish out the program. Miss Fritz is a--she's a real bad human being. You and me are gonna expose her."

"Huh?"

"You'll tell your parents Miss Fritz was coming on to you, and I'll back you up. She's been dating other students, too. When they hear that, your parents will show up and raise a stink, and you'll be safe."

"Safe from what?"

Al gazed down into Sam's earnest face. "Never mind that. You're just a kid, you wouldn't understand. Come on."

He held out one hand, but Sam backed away from him. "What is it about this place? How come everybody I know--Arnie, Miss Fritz, now you--is all of a sudden acting so weird? It's like you're all different people all of a sudden. I hate it!"

"It's the weather," Al said promptly, with great assurance. "You know how weather gives people sinus headaches, or makes them sluggish when it's hot? Well, this summer the humidity got out of hand. That, and pollution. A couple weeks from now--even a couple days from now--the barometer'll shift, and we'll be the way we used to be. We may not even remember this stuff happening in the first place."

"I never heard of weather doing this."

"Well, you know, you're not in Indiana anymore. Weather's different in different parts of the country."

Sam's eyes narrowed. "I don't believe you."

Al shrugged. "You have a better explanation?"

"No. But that doesn't mean yours makes any sense."

(Smart kid. But I'm not about to say we're pod people, and get you started on a UFO kick this early.)

"Look at it this way: things are getting scary here. When you don't kow how to deal with what's happening to you, you turn to your parents for help. That's what they're there for. You want to call them. I want you to call them. They would want you to call them. So call them. Maybe they can make sense of this."

Sam considered this while Al fidgeted, keeping one eye on the lights of the courtyard in case R.J. or Zoe came back. One of them was bound to, sooner or later. Finally Sam said, "I don't have any money with me. I spent my allowance on books."

"Maybe I have money." Grimacing, Al opened Alyson's purse. Women's purses always reminded him of Felix the Cat's magic bag, seeming to hold far more than could possibly be concealed in such a small space. Near the top, under some makeup and a few snapshots, was a blue coin purse. "Yeah, I've got change. So let's find a phone."

Sam gave him the same earnest thinking-it-over study that he gave--would give--Al decades from now, just before offering to share his ideas about the nature of time, then nodded. Although he didn't look happy about it, he had decided to trust Alyson, despite her odd behavior. It was a trust Al hoped to keep.

(Too bad Alyson doesn't have a gun in this purse. And a rat-tail comb isn't as good as a switchblade, either.)

It wasn't going to take Zoe long to hook up with Arnie. While she was making herself visible, or hunting down Daly to prove she had nothing to do with Sam's eventual disappearance, R.J. might well be in charge to making Sam disappear. Even in a teenage girl's form, Al could handle R.J.; for one thing, he knew lightweight boxing techniques that didn't require a lot of muscle to pull off successfully. But if Zoe came after them...the woman was pure evil, and smart to boot. Zoe worried him.

"There's a phone on the corner." Al poured change into Sam's hand. "Can you reach the slots yourself?"

"I'm not a baby."

"Sorry. It's just hard to get used to being taller than you." (Oh, great, confuse him some more, why don't you?) "Do you know what to say?"

"Miss Fritz was holding my hands, and telling me how handsome I am, and asking me to have private tutoring with her, and she scares me."

Al goggled at him. He had never imagined Sam could lie so readily. Why would a man hide such a useful talent? "Did you make that all up yourself?"

"It's all true," Sam said stiffly.

That was a relief. Al was the one who was supposed to be a fluent on-the-spot storyteller, not Sam the Good.

"Okay. And tell them she's been meeting other boys at night at her house, and making them cry. If they ask you a lot of questions about it, let me talk to 'em. I saw it myself, and I can explain it so they understand. They have to get here right away." He held the boy's eyes until he was sure Sam knew how important it was. "I'll stand right here and keep an eye on things, just in case."

Sam carefully pulled the folding glass door closed behind him. Al figured he'd need some privacy. When he looked back once, there were tears glistening on the boy's cheeks. That made his own heart ache, but it was good that Sam was crying; that would get his parents here quicker. John and Thelma Beckett could protect their son; he'd bet on them against Zoe any day. John died when Sam was young, so Al only saw him the time Sam leaped into his high school self, but he had been with Thelma Beckett many times. She was a nurturing, loving woman with enough room in her heart for both her own brood and a scalawag stray her son had adopted into the family. Some of the vacations he told Sam were spent on wild Las Vegas parties were actually spent in Hawaii, fleeting trips home, with Thelma bristling at any Navy officer foolish enough to try bringing him work when she felt he should be resting. Get John and Thelma Beckett here, and half this Leap would be accomplished.

If the authorities seemed to be closing in on Miss Fritz, Zoe would Leap to avoid a trial and jail term, unless the Project's damage made that impossible. He hoped it was possible, because while the real teacher might deserve whatever she got, the real-life Arnie, presumably imprisoned in Lothos' warped version of a Waiting Room, was an innocent victim.

(If this works out, Sammy's safe. But I don't see Zoe being patient enough to leave us alone until the Becketts get here. We're not that lucky. I'm not that lucky.)

Behind him, the phone booth door scraped open. "They want to talk to you." Sam said, and sniffled. "I think I'm getting a cold."

(Oh, boy. Now I have to make like I'm a weepy teenaged girl.)

Summer stock didn't begin to prepare a guy for a stretch like this. Al ended up turning his back on Sam, curling up around the receiver, and imitating wives #4 and 5 at their most lachrymose, describing how Miss Fritz seduced poor Matt, and how everyone was scared Matt would do something drastic, and how 'she' was, like, afraid that mean old biddy was, like, going to start in on Sam now, so could you please, please, please come help? Assured that the Becketts would get here if they had to hijack a plane to do it, Al mopped up his face, losing one of the big false eyelashes, which came off in his hand like a giant bug and nearly gave him a heart attack. He shook the eyelash onto the floor and opened the door.

"They'll be here in a couple of hours. All we have to do is hold on until then." Picturing Zoe running up against gruff, enraged John Beckett as he protected his younger son, Al grinned. "So now we gotta find someplace to hide."

"We could go back to my dorm. That's where my Mom and Dad will go."

"It's also the first place Miss Fritz will look. How about the library?"

Sam just blinked at him. "It's closed."

Al figured he could pick the lock, but that would outrage young Sam, and blow whatever trust they'd established between each other. That meant all those nice dark labs and classrooms were ruled out, too. Too bad.

Sam touched his arm. "I found this on the sidewalk."

"My comb." Al stuck it back in the purse. "Thanks, I guess I dropped it."

"It's awful sharp. Don't you cut yourself reaching for it in your purse?"

"Not so far." Al didn't add that he had only whetted the rat-tail on the wall after Sam entered the phone booth. It still wouldn't replace a good switchblade knife. "Do you know where the police station is?"

"Uh-uh. Could we wait in a restaurant or something?"

"The police station would be better. If Miss Fritz told the restaurant people we were runaways, they'd let her take us away." Al flipped through the phone book in search of the address. Good thing this was '63; a few years from now, and the phone booths would mostly have lost their books to thieves. "Here it is. Do you know where 4th Street is?"

Sam looked blank. Well, never mind, how hard could it be? Once they found a street sign with a number, they'd work left or right to the correct street. The only problem with that was that even in the sweet early Sixties, two youngsters alone on dark streets were at risk from your ordinary everyday child molester, it just didn't get talked about as much back then.

"We could just call and have the cops pick us up here, but I don't want to stay this close to the dance any longer than we have to," Al said, thinking aloud. "Besides, if we start babbling on the phone, they're liable to contact the school first. With my luck, they'd send Miss Fritz to chaperone us."

"Even if you said she's been acting so funny?"

"Absolutely. They'd want us to talk out our differences. Cops always believe adults over kids. Believe me, I know." He thought it over carefully. "No, we find the police station, we tell 'em we're waiting for your parents to pick us up, and we say we were too scared to wait in the dorm because most of the kids are at the dance and the dorm seems spooky at night. That'll work."

"Can we go now? It's...well, it's getting cold out."

Al knew the goosebumps on the boy's arms didn't come from the cold, not with the temperature in the lower eighties, but he said, "Yeah, that's a pretty stiff breeze for this time of year. Let's get going. Walking will warm you up."

"You're walking funny."

"Oh, I forgot." He swung his hips like Tina showing off a new cocktail dress. "Better?"

Sam's eyes were owl-like. "Do girls have to think about walking?"

"Some of it's genetic, but yeah, at slumber parties they practice walking sexy and talking to boys, stuff like that."

"Boys don't do that." Sam was positive.

"No. It puts guys at a disadvantage, too. Oh, geez."

"What?"

Al rubbed his legs together. "I have to, uh, powder my nose."

"Now? There's not even a mirror out here. Nobody's gonna see your face in the dark anyway."

"Sam, 'powder my nose' is girl code for, uh, urinating."

Together, they looked up and down the street. There were streetlights. There were car headlights. There were dark campus buildings. There were no restrooms in sight.

"Can you hold it 'til we get somewhere?"

"No," Al groaned. "Turn around and watch the street, okay? And don't look, you got that?"

"You're going to do it right here?" Sam was scandalized. "In public?"

"I'm not gonna send out press releases, I'll hide in the bushes. Don't try and tell me you never did it in the barn, or out in the cow pasture. Now turn around."

"But you're a girl."

"You'd be surprised."

"Huh?"

"I'm powdering my nose. Now shut up."

Mortally embarrassed, Al bulldozed his way into the bushes and tried to figure out the quickest way to manage this. Was he supposed to unfasten the skirt and take it off, or just roll it up and haul down the tights? All the women he ever knew went to bathrooms in groups--was it to help each other with problems like this? Maybe they helped dress each other again afterward.

What if St. John chose this moment to come back and Observe? Wouldn't he get an eyeful? The thought gave him an instant attack of shy bladder. Now he had to pee so badly that it made his belly ache, yet nothing happened.

"Alyson!" Sam hissed. "Alyson, somebody's coming!"

"Oh, boy." Al crouched even lower.

Sam's voice rose. "I think it's Arnie!"

The frozen muscles instantly reacted. Panting, Al struggled to get all the clothes back in place and bolted from the bushes, scratched and disheveled. "Give me your hand. We'll run for the dance, lose him in the crowd, and then find the cops."

Stumbling after him, Sam craned his head around. "Your skirt is stuck in your tights."

"Tough," Al gritted. What really bothered him was the prickle of a twig caught in the frilly lace underpants, but there wasn't time to deal with that either. "Run!"


Fire up the Accelerator Chamber for Chapter 8.

Take me to Jane Leavell's Story Page, because I've got a hot date with Al Calavicci in another story.

I want to Leap to the main page to complain to the author .

Copyright 1999 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.