A TASTE OF HONEY

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER TEN

Al tried to swim back to consciousness, because he knew there were many important things he needed to do, but the black waves washed him too far back.

There was something about Sister Fulgentia, wasn't there? She was a real sweetheart. It just about broke her heart when she found out about him and Minnie Santangelo. That was a great time in his life. He was only twelve or thirteen, and in love with Minnie, but boys weren't allowed on the girls' side of the orphanage, so they used to slide down the laundry chutes and meet in the basement for a late night tryst. Whenever he remembered Minnie, Al smelled the fresh, clean scent of bleach.

Then he took off on one of his periodic AWOLs, fed up with institutional living, searching for God knows what--maybe a real family--and the social worker didn't haul him back for several weeks. At dinner time, he almost didn't recognize his old flame, because a few weeks can be a long time for a girl in puberty, but there was no mistaking the invitation in those black eyes when their gazes met from across the crowded cafeteria. That night, he slid down the boys' side laundry chute with no problem, but Minnie got stuck halfway down, because during his absence she'd grown a good-sized bosom, and a gorgeous one it was, too. During dinner, he had envisioned pillowing his head on those budding breasts, but once she started screaming and kicking against the metal chute, his plans for the evening were shot.

Thinking about how it must have been for Minnie, trapped in the narrow metal chute, writhing and pounding on the walls that held her prisoner, made him feel uncomfortable. He wanted to wake up, to escape, but the black waves were rushing over his head, swamping him, and he was back in the orphanage again.

That creepy old retired nun with the rheumy face of a Martian had locked him in a closet in the basement. At first he treated it as a joke, but after a few hours alone in the dark, he got disoriented. The growls and bangs from the furnace started to sound scary, and he was cold, and hungry. He didn't know how to pick locks yet--he was still just a little kid--so he was stuck. After awhile, he began to believe that the old bat had forgotten him. Everybody else would just figure Calavicci had run away again. It could be weeks before anybody bothered to open this musty, bug-filled closet, and by then he'd have starved to death. Al began yelling and banging on the door, but no one could hear him over the furnace. Then there was somebody pounding on the other side of the door, and a garbled wail that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Trudy. Trudy had noticed he wasn't at lunch, and came looking for him. His sister had a bad case of Downs' Syndrome, and she couldn't get the door open, and wouldn't leave to get help. Her hysteria was so bad that he forgot his own fear, trying to calm her. In the end they each got on the floor and touched fingertips through the crack at the bottom of the door, falling asleep that way. In a few more hours, the janitor let him out.

But no janitor was releasing him from this darkness. Al was trapped.

The memories came faster, bombarding him. He was crouched in a cage during a thunderstorm, soaking wet, unable to sit or lie down, with a leash running from his neck to a stake in the ground. Only the occasional flashes of lightning gave him any light at all. No, he wasn't in the jungle any longer, he was in a tomb in Egypt, and the walls were closing in around him, and in a little while the mummified corpse of Ptah-Hotep was going to rise and start tearing that chubby murderer limb from limb. No, wait, it wasn't a prettily-painted tomb, it was Hoa Loa prison, the Hanoi Hilton. They had dragged him into the meathook room for another interrogation, and the gooks were trussing him up, yanking the ropes so tight that his whole body seemed to be wrapped in a tourniquet. Knowing what would be coming next, Al started to struggle, trying to tear loose and break out of the darkness before the torture could begin.

When he couldn't escape, he began screaming, even before the guards started hauling both his shoulders out of their sockets, but then he broke off when he realized he was no longer alone in the night.

There wasn't anybody present that he could see or feel, exactly. It was more a sense of love and tenderness wrapping around him like a quilt. Lying there, surrounded by warmth, was sort of like making love to Beth the first night after six months of sea duty, full of laughter and romance and tears.

Al fought that, too. He couldn't relax, couldn't enjoy this, no matter how wonderful it was. There wasn't time. He had to protect 'Bena and Honey, because that snake of a terrorist was dangerous, and he had to help Sam, who was trapped in the past with no one to help him.

Waves of reassurance washed over him, and he seemed to hear a Voice. Sam wasn't in danger. Verbena and Honey would be all right when he woke up. He had all the time in the world.

Al mumbled, "Where've You been?" Then, with a flash of indignation; "It's about time!"

He thought he heard the Voice laughing, and that was all right, too.

%%%%%%%%%

Once back at the police station, Sam made a more in-depth search of Honey's files, just in case his mission this time didn't involve either getting her co-workers to accept her or getting her mother to stop nagging her about marriage.

He spotted no indications of corruption. No one offered him any bribes. When he pulled out old cases, looking for possible errors he might be here to correct, they seemed fine. In fact, Honey's grammar and spelling were better than that found in the average police report. As far as Sam could tell, she seemed to be a good, somewhat overworked police officer. There were certificates from a special training center in Langley; if she had been trained by the CIA, she probably knew more about explosive devices than anyone else in the state, even if she didn't yet have much experience on the job.

On the other hand, let's not forget the CIA thought making Fidel Castro's beard fall off was a good, solid military ploy.

Sam groaned softly, leaning forward to rest his forehead on one hand. At this point, if Al were here, he'd even ask if Ziggy had any data suggesting Elmo might really be a murderer. He was that desperate. Without access to Ziggy's collection of data through his own time, how was he ever going to figure out what he must do? Even without the link to Ziggy, Al could be a sounding board, so they could bounce ideas back and forth. Right now, he felt incredibly alone.

Switching the computer off, he was struck by a sudden idea. At this very moment, out at Stallion's Gate, New Mexico, Project Quantum Leap was in operation. He was Leaping in and out of other people's lives, Al was Observing, and Ziggy was fully functional. This was only an in-house computer, but with access to something more powerful and a modem, he could contact Ziggy and ask for background info on the Zuckermans, Elmo, and his co-workers. She couldn't give him information about what would happen in the next three years, but it would still be a help.

Better yet, he could call and warn Al about what was going to happen! If Al knew some sort of armed terrorists were going to attack three years from now, he could be waiting for them. They'd never get inside, and Al wouldn't be shot!

The phone call was the most important thing, obviously. He'd worry about computer access later.

Sam reached for the phone, and paused. Searching his memory, he realized with mounting dismay that he didn't remember the phone number. Perhaps that was part of the Leap Effect, but more likely the problem was that he seldom needed to call, certainly not in the last four years. Furthermore, a top secret government installation buried ten floors below a remote mountain for privacy wasn't likely to be listed in a phone directory.

No, wait. Photographic memory, remember? Just picture the back cover of your phone book in the apartment in town, where you write all your important numbers. Sam visualized the page with no problem, and ran his mind's eye down the list scribbled in various shades of ink. Mom...Tom...Katie...Al. Got it!

He punched the numbers on the touch-tone face of the phone and waited a small eternity for it to go through. That was Al's direct office line, bypassing the switchboard. Since he wasn't picking it up right away, he was either involved in a Leap, or--if this was one of those periods between Leaps--he was in Las Vegas, picking up showgirls After several fruitless rings, the call was transferred to Al's aide.

"Good afternoon. This is Lt. Gunaldsen; may I help you?"

"Gunny, this is a Code Zero. I have to talk to Al, now."

"I. . .just a moment, sir. I'll put you through."

Again he sat listening while the phone rang interminably. Had his voice sounded familiar to Gunny? That didn't make sense; he would sound like Honey Zuckerman. Yet something about his request seemed to have bothered her.

"Hello?" a woman's voice said in his ear, with a cracking noise like gum popping.

"This is a Code Zero request. I have to talk to Al."

"A what? Listen, I'm, like, really sorry, but Al can't come to the phone right now, all right? He's, you know, real busy."

"Tina? Tina, this is Sam."

"Ha! Can't be. You're a woman."

"I've Leaped into the body of a woman," he said patiently.

"Oh, yeah? Well, I happen to know that Sam just Leaped into the body of a really cute football player, so you can't fool me. Besides, Code Zero is, like, an outdated code. We changed those ages ago."

"You did? I mean, how would I know that? I've been Leaping. When I link with Al, we always have more important things to talk about than changing the security codes!" Sam made himself stop, hearing his voice turn shrill. "Tina, never mind that, just listen to me. It's very important."

"Who is this really?"

"It doesn't matter. You have to warn Al that the Project is going to be taken over."

"By the Foundation? Do you work for Weitzman or something?"

"No, you're going to be invaded by some sort of terrorists, and Al will be shot, so it's important that you don't let them get inside."

"Them who?" she asked, sounding confused.

That was a good question. He really didn't know. "Well, the leader is a `William F. Buckley clone'--I don't know if that means he looks like Buckley, or is very conservative, or just talks funny. He calls himself Rick. They'll get inside by posing as Naval officers coming for a tour."

"Yeah, right, so what am I supposed to do, not let Navy officers in any more? That cuts Al right outta the Project! Who is this really? Don't you know better than to play dumb jokes when we're in the middle of a Leap? Sheesh! You're lucky I picked this up. If Dr. Beeks knew you were fooling around with the phones during serious stuff like Leaping--"

"Tina, this isn't a joke! It's going to happen in--uh--three years. I guess I don't know the exact date. You have to believe me!"

"Is this Charlie? From the Motor Pool? It is, isn't it?"

"I'm Sam Beckett!"

"Oh, yeah? Then tell me something only Dr. Beckett would know."

He searched his memory frantically, but hit only blanks. "My memory was Swiss-cheesed by the Leaps, you know that."

"So does Charlie from the Motor Pool. Look, I don't have time for this."

"Wait! You have a pet crocodile. You have your name tattooed in an intimate place. You always thought I was cute. And, um, you like to have your ears licked."

She gasped in outrage. "Who told you that? Al? Gooshie? It was Gooshie, wasn't it? Gooshie, you blabbermouth, come back here this instant--"

The phone went dead.

Telling her those last details had been a mistake. They weren't things he personally knew--he had never nibbled her earlobes in his life--but juicy items Al casually mentioned during various Leaps. Instead of convincing Tina that she was talking to Sam Beckett, those tidbits had distracted her into a major temper tantrum.

Even though he had a sinking feeling that it was futile, he sat there for a few minutes, hoping against hope that all of today's events would be wiped out of reality and he would find himself here in the office at the start of the day, with an unhurt Al explaining the purpose of this Leap.

When nothing happened, Sam knew the warning had failed. Either Tina never mentioned the call to Al at all, or he had forgotten the `prank call' by the time three years had passed, even assuming she didn't get the message garbled in the re-telling.

Sam was still on his own.

Grimly, he picked up a manual on defusing explosive devices and began to skim through it, just in case.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Easing the cannula out of Verbena's arm, George Atobe pressed a cotton ball over the cut and bent her forearm up to hold it in place. "Let me get a Bandaid and a glass of juice, and you'll be back in service. That's us: Speedy Sickbay--Service with a Smile."

"Mmhmm," she said vaguely. Her eyes were on Albert's face.

"Too bad this didn't happen tomorrow, when the blood drive for the Red Cross starts. Today, the cupboard's bare. Good thing you two have the same blood type."

He had slipped from consciousness an hour ago, but it seemed to be a healing sleep. There was color in his face again, and the grim lines had eased away. Sleeping, his guards were down and he looked younger, vulnerable.

Robinson left the door to lean over the table, apparently not as repulsed by the gory mess as his partner clearly was. "He gonna make it?"

"What do you care?" Verbena snapped.

He stared at her. "He represents one hell of a chunk of money for me. Believe me, I care a lot."

"Well, tell your wallet to stop worrying. If you two will stay out of our way, he'll probably make it."

"Hey, if that's the way you want it, that's cool. Just don't pull anything funny."

"I was planning to do a few lines from Moms Mabley's act in a few minutes, but I guess I won't," she said acidly.

He sauntered back to the door, rolling his eyes at his partner. Gomez went on working, as if there'd never been an interruption.

"Let's leave the I.V. going. A little more fluids and electrolytes would be a good idea, and I want to get some antibiotics in him, just in case." George taped the cotton ball down and handed her a glass. "He'll be fine, Verbena. Drink this."

"You'd better prepare a stimulant, too."

He paused, those bulging black eyes eminently scrutable. "I don't think that's a good idea, Dr. Beeks."

"I don't, either. But I don't feel like arguing with him."

"Right now, he can't argue. He's unconscious, and no wonder."

She had to admit that pumping Al full of sedatives so he could get some rest was a very tempting idea. Every professional instinct fought against the idea of giving a wounded man stimulants, and if George hadn't protested, she would have fired him. Regretfully, Verbena shook her head. "You have to understand. He's a survivor, George. Whatever life has thrown at him, he's always come through with flying colors. Now, we're in the middle of a crisis, and the middle of a Leap. Dr. Beckett can't help us. If there's any way to talk these maniacs out of killing us all, I trust Albert to find it. So we give him the energy to keep him alert, and when this is over, he'll crash, and we can stick him in a bed, with armed guards to keep him there. Male," she added on reflection, since the point was to make sure he got some rest, not indulged in bedroom acrobatics.

George glanced toward the guards at the door. "You think they'll kill us?"

"The leader shot one of them. We could identify the body with fingerprints or whatever, and he even bragged that it was his brother-in-law. Clearly, he isn't worried about anyone surviving to identify him."

"Bummer."

"Very professional diagnosis, Doctor. Why did we hire an overweight Valley Dude, anyway?"

"Because I harmonized so well with Al on the theme from The Addams Family during my interview, I suspect," Atobe offered, rummaging through a cabinet. "Sam felt I looked more like Peter Lorre, but since I never saw any of his movies, I couldn't do a good imitation, so I figure Sam probably voted against me. Good thing you liked my credentials, huh?"

"Oh, the vote was unanimous, I think," she said absently. "Set up an emergency medical bag for me, would you? And see if you can borrow a wheelchair from Shelly or Ken. He didn't evacuate, did he?"

"Nope. He's penned up in the lounge with the rest of the folks on this floor who got sealed in by the Red Alert."

Finishing the orange juice, Verbena set the glass down and took Al's hand again.

"When we heard Al got shot, we almost had a riot on our hands. Half the women there freaked out. A squad of 'em grabbed some chairs and were gonna brain the bad guys with 'em." He shook his head, remembering. "Heavy scene, man."

Her attention had drifted back to Albert. Instead of struggling and moaning, as he had been earlier, he was smiling in his sleep, no doubt deep in an erotic dream involving his dalliance with a harem of beautiful young women.

He really was the most infuriating man. It had taken months of deflecting outrageous flirtation and ignoring truly convoluted and imaginative lies before she could get him to stop performing, trust her, and begin to work on his Delayed Stress Syndrome problems. Then he seemed to decide that Verbena Beeks was a Mommy Figure, and came running to her for reassurance whenever he had a nightmare or Sam Leaped into a pretty woman, like a little boy wanting her to kiss a scraped elbow and make it better. Of the two behaviors, the flirting--though insincere--was much more fun.

It still astounded her how much she'd come to care for Albert Calavicci. There was no denying that he was selfish and self-centered, yet he would make any sacrifice for Sam Beckett. He presented himself as obsessed with sexual conquest, yet paradoxically treated his myriad women with so much sensitivity and kindness that most ended up feeling loved, not used. As military as could be in his role as "the Admiral," he became eccentric, free-spirited, and creative the instant he shed the uniform, as if two different men inhabited the different wardrobes. Strong enough to survive repeated abandonment and torture, he was vulnerable enough to be hurt by a cross word from Sam.

One reason Verbena had gone into psychiatry was her love for solving complex puzzles. She could spend a lifetime with this man, and still be constantly surprised.

God, let it be possible. Letting those scum take him would be such a waste.

"Here's the med bag. How's his pulse?" Atobe asked.

Her hand shifted to Al's wrist. She could feel her lips thinning. "Quit faking, Albert. What are you doing, hoping you'll overhear some good secrets, or maybe a compliment or two?"

Al cracked open one eyelid. "I was resting," he informed her with dignity. "So, Gomez, am I gonna live?"

"Unfortunately, yes. No, don't try to get up yet. You'll undo all my good work. You keel over, you'll make me look bad in front of my supervisor. I'm on my way to get you a set of wheels. Yo! You! The dude with the plastic squirt gun. Come watch me hunt up a wheelchair."

"Get some warm clothes for him, too, George," Verbena called, and Atobe nodded, leading Turner out of the clinic. Good. She really didn't like the way he kept grinning at Albert. She had him pegged as a probable bully who got his jollies from abusing people who couldn't fight back, like gunshot victims.

Al smiled, then focused on her Bandaid, his eyes narrowing. "What happened? Are you hurt?"

"I donated blood." She grinned down at him. "Guess that makes you a homeboy now."

"Already was, and I can prove it. Come to my place tomorrow and I'll whip up the best batch of collard greens you've ever eaten."

"Huh. No honky Italian can make decent collard greens."

"Chitlins, too. You'll see. If you don't love my cooking, I'll--I promise I'll give every drop of your blood back." His smile faded as he glanced at the sole guard still by the door. "So. Think we can take him?"

"No. And we're not going to try. Lie back and look ill. Rick has been calling down here, getting antsy." Time to get down to business. "You're walking a fine line with him, Admiral. I'm not asking you to suck up to him--no one would believe it--but remember your time stationed in Japan. If he thinks he's `losing face,' he's insecure enough to kill you just to prove he has power over you, and to hell with the consequences."

"He's a pompous ass," Al growled.

"Yes. And needling keeps him on edge, stops him from thinking too deeply, which can work in our favor. But don't push him too far." Lounging against the door, Robinson didn't look interested, but she lowered her voice anyway. "You have a loose cannon on deck, too: Honey Zuckerman."

He closed his eyes, frowning a little. "Seems like a nice kid. Spunky."

"We don't really know anything about her, or why Sam Leaped into her."

"She's a cop on some Bomb Squad somewhere. Red hair, freckles, green eyes, legs that don't quit. Dunno why Sam Leaped in. She made a damn quick recovery to it, though, didn't she?"

Trust Al to pay more attention to her looks than to anything else. Verbena crossed and uncrossed her own legs, considering it. Like many Leapees, Zuckerman had taken to Al right away, which showed good taste, if nothing else. The more people looking after this scamp, the better--assuming they could be trusted. "Can you use the hand-link to quiz Ziggy on her past?"

"Uh-uh. Gave her the hand-link."

She felt a brief surge of panic. "You what? Why, for God's sake?"

The lines between his eyes deepened. "I dunno, I was starting to get groggy already, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Why don't we use the computer terminal here to query Ziggy?"

"Because Homer and Jethro there said they'll shoot Thing if either of us goes near it again."

"Oh." Al closed his eyes again, but he didn't seem to be asleep.

There was some sort of distant thumping noise overhead. A gunfight? Had the Army stupidly decided to over-run the base, no matter how many hostages got hurt? Verbena glanced anxiously at Robinson, the black gun-man lounging against the door, but he didn't seem to notice anything.

Al didn't open his eyes again until George and the second terrorist returned with the wheelchair, but his breathing and pulse were good, and he seemed alert enough when George plopped his bulk into the wheelchair and rode it toward them.

"Al, my man, I got you that black leather jacket with all the zippers, and your black silk shirt, and clean pants. You'll look studly. Best-dressed hostage in captivity."

Al chuckled. "Hey, Gomez. Think you can come up with a way to dope these terrorists? Maybe even douse the whole Project, so Ironhorse's men can come in without a fight?"

"This isn't a CIA lab, Al. The only sedatives I have on hand have to be either injected, or swallowed. Want me to offer 'em all a martini?"

"Shaken, not stirred. Okay, then how about a tracking device, so you guys can follow me?"

"Maybe 007 has microscopic bugs that can be swallowed, but the only bugs around here are staphylococci."

Al rolled his eyes. "What about the little tracker Logan was working on just before Sam Leaped, to follow him with? It's small enough you could tuck it inside my bandages."

Verbena asked sensibly, "And what if they have some kind of bug detector?"

"Then I act extra weak, and all he can do is holler at me. Believe me, my feelings won't be hurt. Go on, Gomez. Tell those nozzles you gotta get a special magnet to hold my staples in or something, and dig that tracker outta the storeroom." He scowled at a sudden anxiety. "Sure hope those R & D nuts didn't get it out to play with some more."

Sighing, George heaved his pear-shaped body out of the borrowed wheelchair. "If I was a great actor, I'd be a con-man, not a doctor, but I'll try."

"Uh, Verbena, listen, I know you're gonna give me a hard time about this, but I'm gonna need a little speed to--"

"It's a done deal, Al. Why do you think you're so chipper this soon after surgery?"

"I thought it was just the old Calavicci stamina."

She said severely, "It's a chemically induced energy, and you're going to pay dearly for it when it wears off. Make the most of it."

Al nodded thoughtfully. "Thanks. Tell Ironhorse about the tracker, okay? I knew him in 'Nam. He's all Army, but a good man. If anyone can stop these bozos, it's the Chief." He slid those dark eyes toward her, full of winsome appeal. "I could really use a good cigar right now," he said hopefully.

"Absolutely not."

"Aw, come on, 'Bena. I've had a rough day. Sam Leaped early, I'm being kidnapped by terrorists, I found out Tina's cheating on me with that corpse-breath Gooshman, and I got shot. If that's not enough to earn me a smoke, what is? Nuclear holocaust?"

Here she'd just finished begging God to let this man live, and she knew very well that puffing on carcinogenic tobacco leaves was no way to ensure long life, but he was staring wistfully at her with those round, dark, Dondi eyes. Despite herself, she could feel her resolve crumbling. "Albert, you know I don't have any cigars."

A beatific smile lit up his face. "Me and Gomez smoke the same brand. When he lit up that rich Cuban stogie, I knew it was a sign from God to hire him, and now it's finally gonna pay off."

"How I ever let you talk me into hiring a doctor who actually smokes those killers--" She shook her head. "All right, when George comes back, you can have one. Only one."

Strangely, he didn't seem as happy as she expected. In fact, he had his head tilted and was frowning. Softly, his lips barely moving, he told her, "Verbena, see if you can distract that nozzle at the door. Don't let him get a good look at me."

"Albert, you can't get up--"

"I won't move. Just stay between him and me for a few minutes, okay? And talk loud."

She was puzzled, but he had shifted into his military mode, so she didn't argue. "What did Rick call you? Robinson?"

"Yeah. What do you want now?"

She walked toward him, very casual. "I was just wondering how you got involved in a mess like this."

"It didn't start out to be a mess."

"Your boss is a poor planner. Anyone can make a plan. The trick is to be prepared for all the unexpected glitches. Right now, he seems to be floundering."

"Give it time, sister. Give it time."

"Why do you toady to that arrogant fool?"

His teeth flashed, very white against his skin. "Why do you take orders from all these white folk?"

"I don't. I'm the number three person in a 2.4 billion dollar project; with Dr. Beckett incapacitated, I'm number two, right after the Admiral. If you paid attention on your way through this base, you must've noticed we're racially and sexually mixed. We don't just hire minorities and the handicapped, we actively look for them, and we pay very, very well. And you? You're a flunky. Your boss is white. His right-hand man, Charles, is white. The Hispanics, and you, are doing the shit work, facing the danger, while they huddle in the Control Room."

"I can put up with a lot of bowing and scraping for a cut in a 2.4 billion dollar haul, and that's about what he figures we can get."

"That was before you found out Dr. Beckett was basically worthless to you, and before you wounded Admiral Calavicci. You profits are going to be considerably lower."

"Maybe. I reckon there'll still be enough to live on."

"If you didn't get killed first. Like Bruce." She held his eyes with hers. "I'm a psychiatrist, Mr. Robinson, and I can tell you that your boss is a certifiable psychopath. If he killed one of his own people, he can just as easily kill you."

"You worrying about me, sister? Don't. I can look after myself."

"I doubt that Bruce intended to make any mistakes, either, and look what happened to him. You're a black man. The next time he needs someone to blame for something not going the way he planned, who do you think he's going to pick?"

"Drop the black act, lady. You ain't black. You're an ice cream sandwich: black on the outside, all white inside. You got nothing to say to me."

The pneumatic door whooshed open again, and she backed away, hoping she'd bought Albert enough time for whatever lunatic scheme he was hatching this time. Whether or not it was enough, it was going to have to do.


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapters Twelve & Thirteen.

Colonel Paul Ironhorse orders you to report to Jane Leavell's Fan Fiction Page for a little more quantum exposure.

Verbena Beeks thinks you should show emotional support for the author with a little feedback.

You may not catch Gooshie & Tina in a clinch, but you could see links by going here.

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