Sam was working his way through his third book when someone tapped on the open door. He wasn't so much reading the books as mentally photographing them, complete with indices, so that he could mentally `grab a book' and look up data if he actually got stuck with real field work. It gave him something constructive to do while waiting for someone from the Project to appear, or for this day to end.
The man at the door cleared his throat. Sam dropped a Bic pen in the book, to mark his page, and looked up. His visitor was a man in his late twenties, with curly dark blond hair in need of cutting, sly hazel eyes, and lips that seemed permanently set in a crooked, boyish grin. Based on his running shoes, faded blue jeans, and blue flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he could he anybody. A chronic confessor, like Elmo, looking for a friendly ear? A lost civilian? A fellow cop? The face did look familiar. Sam settled for a pleasant smile and a neutral question. "Can I help you?"
"My, aren't we formal. When did I get on your shit list, Sis?"
Oops. It's one of `my' brothers. Which one?
"Sorry. I'm having a bad day."
Honey's brother grabbed Matt's wheeled chair, spun it around, and sat in it backwards, dangling his hands down the back. "Too bad. I keep telling you, kid, you picked the wrong line of work. I bet Errol'd hire you as a salesperson in a flash, if you asked."
"I guess I like being a police officer, even if it is a little depressing sometimes."
The young man shrugged. "It's your life."
A brief silence fell, while Sam tried to figure out which sibling he was talking to. A younger one, apparently, but not much younger.
The blond twisted the steno chair back and forth, seeming to find the roller action fascinating.
"My office mates will be back soon," Sam said finally.
The slanted eyes gleamed up through tousled hair. "Are you going to the party tonight?"
"Me, too." His seat went on waltzing, more-or-less on automatic pilot. "Would you do me a favor?"
"Maybe," he replied, not wanting to commit himself to anything unreasonable.
"Would you talk to Ma?"
"What else? Her matchmaking."
"Oh, I intend to. Believe me."
The chair stilled. "It's just, she's always on my back, nagging me to bring my girlfriends over, or tying to hook me up with one of her mah-jongg buddies' daughters."
"Me, too. With men, I mean. I hear there's a blind date for me coming tonight. Believe me, I understand what you're going through."
"Um, maybe not. See...sometimes I'm going with girls, and I wouldn't have a problem with bringing them over to see Ma, but...." He lifted his head, flipping back the unruly curls. "Right now, I'm seeing a nice guy. A dancer. And I'm pretty sure Mama would have a problem with me bringing Davy over."
Just from the sudden warmth, Sam knew his face must be as red as Honey Zuckerman's hair. "I already intended to talk to her about easing up on the romance angle. I'll take care of it."
"Thanks. I mean, I know Bo and Cliff and Errol never had any luck stopping her, and Katie just went along with it, and Johnny just laughs, but I think maybe you're gonna be the Zuckerman who can make Ma listen." He spun in a complete circle in the chair, suddenly exhilerated. "Hey, Sis, if your blind date turns out to be any good, maybe I'll take him off your hands. She usually picks doctors for you, right? Or lawyers? Gotta be better than the spinsters and divorcees she pushes on me!"
Before Sam could figure out how to reply to the offer, Earl came into the office, casting him a somewhat apologetic glance as if trying to gauge his mood. Honey's brother stood up, deftly sweeping the chair back in place under Matt's desk.
"I'll see you tonight, Sis. Any hints about what Bo's getting for his birthday?"
"It's a secret," Sam said firmly, since he didn't have the slightest idea. Good thing he had remembered to mail the card. "What did you get him?"
"A bottle of hair tonic and a gift certifcate from Tommy's Toupees." He flashed her a full smile. "I plan to be out of town when he opens it. Later, Sis."
He faded into the hallway. Since he named Humphrey Bogart, Heathcliff, Errol--probably named Errol Flynn Zuckerman, unless Sam missed his guess--Katie, and John F. Kennedy, he must be...James Dean Zuckerman. Got it. Three down, and three more to go.
Ernie plopped in his own chair, which groaned in protest. Sam turned back to his manual, but he heard the chair squeak as Ernie turned around, and could feel the man sneaking looks at his face. Finally Ernie coughed, and Sam looked up, keeping his face expressionless.
"Uh, one of your brothers, right?"
"Right. That's why he called me Sis."
"I heard you have a lot of 'em."
"Oh." In a rush, as if trying to get the words out before he changed his mind, Ernie said, "Look, Honey, don't take what happened in the locker room the wrong way."
"What way is that?"
"It was just a practical joke, okay? A little crude, yeah, but no different than the dumb stuff I went through when I started out. My bomb was in my desk, and it sprayed liquid cow manure all over the office, and I hadda clean it up afterward. Put me off my feed for two days."
"You couldn't even eat doughnuts?" Sam asked in mock horror.
Ernie looked at the doughnut in his hand as if surprised to see it there, and laughed. "Give me a break, Zuckerman, I'm trying to give up smoking. The point is, you gotta take this the right way."
"Grin and bear it?"
"Yeah. Think of it as your baptism by fire."
"You think if I show I can take it, Matt will accept me, is that it?"
Ernie made a helpless face. "Who knows? The thing about Matt is, you two are too much alike. You're both young, both good-looking, both out to prove you're the best in the field."
"And because I'm a woman, I should step back and let him win?"
"I didn't say that!"
"If I was dumber, or did worse at my job, he'd accept me?"
"Well, no. He'd wanna kick you off the squad for incompetence. I don't know what to tell you, Honey. Just hang in there."
More problems. Am I here to help Honey get along with Matt? To help her brother with his love life? To get her mother to give up Romance with a capital R? Al, where are you when I need you?
Of course, Sam knew very well where Al was. A prisoner, with a bullet in his side, waiting for Sam or someone to rescue him. And here sat the big hero, completely at a loss. If he couldn't figure out what he was here to fix, he couldn't fix it and Leap into someone else closer to Al's time.
Matt bounced into the room, whistling. "Hey, Zuckerman, I like that new face powder on you. How'd the lecture go?"
With an effort, Sam kept his temper. "They were pretty tough kids, actually. I ended up confiscating all sorts of weapons. Here, take a look--this one really floored me. Can you believe it?"
Pushing the book aside, Sam rummaged through one of the deeper desk drawers and stood up, holding a grenade. The silver firing pin fell out and tumbled into the open desk drawer.
"Oh, my God! It's live! It's armed!" Sam yelled, his eyes widening until they felt like ping-pong balls.
"Don't panic, Zuckerman," Matt commanded, full of contempt. "Just put the pin back in. Careful! Don't let go of the handle, for God's sake!"
Desperate, Sam stirred up the contents of the drawer with his free hand. "I can't find it!" he shrieked. "Oh, God, it's gonna explode!"
A crowd was forming by the office door, drawn by his shouts. As those in front saw what he was waving in his right hand, they tried to back-pedal, but their escape was blocked by other nosy people coming up behind them.
"Here, Matt! Help me!"
Utterly panic-stricken, Sam tossed the grenade to his office-mate. Yelping, Matt scrambled under his desk, as Ernie stood stock-still with his arms wrapped around his head, holding his breath.
As if being played out in slow motion, the grenade landed on Matt's desk, rolled, made a fading mournful whistle, and fell open, spilling a handful of chocolate drops across the files on the desk top.
"Gee, Matt, if you'd tried, you might've caught the handle before it exploded and killed us all," Sam said innocently. "At least I tried to save us all by disarming the bomb in my locker."
The rest of the room erupted in gales of relieved laughter. Sam smiled, flicking one of the chocolate drops across the desk and onto Matt's perfectly coiffed hair. Slowly, with infinite dignity, Matt dragged himself out from beneath his desk.
"She got you that time, Matt!"
"Way to go, Honey!"
"I suppose you think this is funny," he said stiffly, ignoring the taunts from the audience.
"Don't you? After all, you started it. What's the matter, Matt? You can dish it out, but you can't take it?"
"You haven't proven anything, Zuckerman."
"So give me a chance to prove myself. That's all I ask." He half-turned, addressing the men outside the door as well as Matt and Ernie. "I guess I've shown I have the guts to take a practical joke and pay it back in kind. Now give me a chance to prove I have the guts and brains to be an equal member of this squad."
The phone on Honey's desk was ringing. Still looking sheepish, Ernie picked up the receiver, then stiffened, plugging his free ear with one finger. "Right. We're on our way." He hung up and gave Sam a sober appraisal. "Looks like you may have that chance sooner than you expected, Honey. We've got a possible car bomb at Judge Webber's house."
Sam swallowed hard. "Oh, boy."
The playroom set up to house Project employees' children was empty.
Tamika did her best to concentrate on staying alive and unnoticed, but it wasn't easy, because the bleak image of the empty playroom, with toys scattered along the floor where they had been dropped, kept pushing to the front, obliterating the hallways she was trying to scan.
Some people were queasy about keeping little kids in a mountain complex that also housed a nuclear power plant and an experimental scientific project that wasn't exactly under control, but when your baby's selfish prick of a father has walked out on you and laughed at the idea of child support payments, the on-site day care center was a blessing. Especially since the Project was out in the middle of nowhere. Babysitters were few and far between in this part of New Mexico, and who had the money to spare? This way, you could eat lunch with your little girl during the workday, and check up on her at odd moments. If she was sick, you brought her to work with you anyway, because there were doctors and nurses and a clinic right here to heal her. More than one staff member must agree with Tamika's feelings about the day care center, because there had been ten other kids sharing milk and cookies when she dropped off Jessica this morning.
Did she hear voices up ahead? Tamika triggered the door to Medical Records, so she could duck inside if necessary, but the voices didn't come any closer. As far as she could tell, there'd only been a handful of invaders, and most of them had taken over the Control Room. Corso, the head of Security, wanted to try taking them out by gassing the Control Room, but nobody was sure what that might do with Beckett in the middle of a Leap, and Al rumored to be wounded.
The chances of her running into gun-men on this floor were infinitesimal. After a breath or two, Tamika closed the door and moved on.
When she searched the nursery area, she hadn't found Baby Bonita, Jessica's battered but much loved Cabbage Patch doll. Jessica dragged it everywhere, so it was dirty, but when she ran Baby Bonita through the washer, Bonita's bald head developed these brown speckles that were probably mold. She offered to replace Baby Bonita with something--anything--better, but Jessica refused. Every now and then she would tenderly nurse Baby Bonita through her "measles attack." If Jessica had time to grab Baby Bonita, she'd probably been evacuated per the emergency plans, not taken hostage by invaders.
At least, that's what Tamika kept telling herself.
She walked on the balls of her feet, with her gun drawn, half hoping she'd get a chance to use it. If these invaders had been using trank guns instead of real bullets, this attack might actually be a good thing for Quantum Leap. For sure, it had exposed every shortcoming in the system. Last month, when that serial killer in Beckett's body escaped from the Waiting Room and walked out of the base as easy as you please, should've shown them Security was undermanned and under-funded, but apparently it took a major catastrophe to start people paying attention. Okay, so after that the Admiral ordered trank guns so no trigger-happy Marine could accidently shoot Beckett's body if it ever started wandering again, but he didn't give the entire security force the shakedown it really needed, did he?
Beckett and Al were nice guys, yeah, but so liberal and unmilitary that they spent all their time on other things--like the day care center--and let Security get lax. Now they had to pay the price, and it was damned expensive.
Speakers crackled overhead, making Tamika jump convulsively. Guess she wasn't as tough as she thought. Geez, give me a heart attack!
"This is Dr. Samuel Beckett. I want all security guards in the building to meet in the cafeteria on the fifth floor. Leave your weapons outside the cafeteria. We're surrendering."
Tamika snorted. Yeah, right.
The voice was familiar, but ain't no way that was Sam Beckett; that was whoever had traded places with him this time, and sometimes they were real low-lives, like Mafia hit men. Who'd wanna take advice from them?
Still, it was a smart move on the invaders' part. Some of those Marines were so trained to take orders instantly that they would probably obey.
Okay, fine. So now she knew where to find replacements if her trank gun ran out. Just swing by the cafeteria.
Grinning, she kept right on sneaking. O'Toole said he heard the Admiral was spotted at the entrance with blood on one side, so that gave her a destination to work toward. She planned to check out Sickbay. If Calavicci wasn't there, his medical records might be, so she could figure out who was in charge now: him, or Dr. Beeks.
Better be the Admiral. He's not very military, but he's better trained to deal with this than the Doc is.
Just walking up and opening the door didn't seem like a smart idea, so when she was two doors away, Tamika slipped inside the psych library, where they kept magazines, books, and disks for the headshrinkers to research so they didn't screw up the heads of the folks who landed in the Waiting Room during Leaps.
People thought of the complex as a solid mountain, forgetting that when the base was built into the honeycomb of caves already here or added by Army engineers, extra crawlspace had to be allotted, or how could electricians fix wiring problems? Between each floor was a tunnel that provided air and repair space. It was also going to provide her with a safe way into Sickbay.
Tamika stood on tiptoe on the circular wooden table to pry tiles out of the ceiling, then climbed down long enough to turn off the lights. No sense advertising someone had been in here.
The air duct was tighter than she expected, and completely dark. Thank the Blessed Virgin her daughter had bought her a present at the school's Christmas shopping fair, a cheap plastic penlight that said "Number One Mom" in red letters on one side. Its tiny beam didn't do a whole lot of good, but it made her feel better.
Crawling in the narrow passageway wasn't easy. Her hands were scraping on something gritty, like sand. Noises swirled around her: the hum of distant fans, scurrying sounds from rats or lizards, stray voices from personnel sealed in when Security shut down the building. Wind buffeted her, chapping her lips and slowing her crawl.
Tamika had never had problems with small, closed-in spaces, which was a good thing, considering the size of her apartment. Coming from a huge family, she was used to sleeping crammed in one room with four sisters and her grandmother. But she had always slept with light available. Grandmother lit candles. These days, Tamika just plugged a nightlight in the wall. As she wriggled through the tight duct, she kept her eyes locked on that precious finger-thin trail of light playing off the walls ahead of her.
Thank you, Jessie. Best present I ever got, outside of that worthless deadbeat knocking me up with you that Christmas Eve.
As she tried to wrap her body around a sharp turn in the airway, the light flickered, then began to dim. Sharply, she banged her wrist against the wall, and the beam came back, then faded again. This time, it didn't return.
Well, what did you expect? It cost $1.98, and you never bothered to put in new batteries.
Never needed it, until now.
To add to her problems, she seemed to be stuck in mid-turn. Maybe her clothes had gotten snagged on something. All she knew for sure was that she couldn't move forward, and she couldn't back up.
The dark seemed to become a solid thing, weighing her down, as if she was a small chameleon caught in the road as the truck spread hot tar that pinned her there, suffocating her.
Rocking back and forth didn't free her. Out of breath, she finally rested, sagging on her belly, her face wet. Her grandmother's spooky stories, whispered in a creaking voice late at night when they should have been sleeping, returned to haunt her, taking on new life.
That noise behind her? Could be it wasn't just rats or lizards. Could be it was the gentle flap of wings. Bat wings. And while she was lying here, trapped, that bat might be landing silently behind her, leaning forward to lick her ankle with a tongue so skilled it would feel like a drop of sweat trickling down, but it would numb the skin, so she wouldn't feel the fangs slice into the vein as it began to slurp up her blood, just like in Grandmother's stories....
How long had she been cowering in the darkness? One hour? More?
The thing was, Tamika Lopez was nobody's fool, and she didn't believe in fairy tales like vampire bats, or Prince Charming, or the check is in the mail.
If you didn't let yourself be blinded by your own terror, if you opened your eyes and looked around, the dark wasn't absolute. Light creeped through the tiles from occupied rooms, turning the blackness around her to a dingy grey. That could be Sickbay, there beyond the turn, where the grey was lightest.
Tamika was a mother now, not a frightened child. She had dealt with abandonment, poverty, single parenting, and prejudice in her day, and had beaten them all. No stupid ghost stories were going to reduce her to sniveling in the dark, not when she had a missing daughter to find or avenge.
With a single furious bellow, she kicked her heels and thrust her arms before her like a swimmer, sucking in her breath. She scraped off enough skin that the blood acted as a lubricant, and she slithered around the corner toward the cloudy grey light.
Yup. That was Sickbay. Shoving her face against the ceiling screen that let the air flow into the clinic below, she found she was positioned right over the operating table. Rumor had been right, for a change. That was Admiral Calavicci himself lying there, mid-section swathed in bandages, right arm hooked to an I.V. But he was awake. In fact, she saw his eyes widen as he spotted her gazing down. Frowning, he tilted his head, then spoke so softly she could barely pick up the words.
"Verbena, see if you can distract that nozzle at the door. Don't let him get a good look at me."
Another figure moved into her line of vision, a black woman in a magenta blouse and grey angora skirt. Good. The doc made it to Sickbay after all. In an intensely worried voice, she protested, "Albert, you can't get up--"
"I won't move. Just stay between him and me for a few minutes, okay? And talk loud." He paused as the woman moved away, then lifted his eyes to the ceiling again. "Okay. Report."
"Ahern thought they were Nelson's party and let them in. The weapons didn't register on the detectors. After the alert, they got around the seals by dragging Johanson along and putting his hand on the door sensors to key them open."
"Where's Johanson now?"
Calavicci looked pained, as if it was his fault somehow. Hey, at least he spotted the ringers, which was more than Security did. He glanced away for an instant, making sure the doc still had the guard or guards distracted. Tamika resumed her whispered report.
"Some of the guys in Security got wounded and need medical help. Some personnel evacuated. I'm pretty sure the nursery made it. Probably. Most of the others are stuck in their sections, but the invaders don't seem interested in them. It's been a fairly bloodless invasion."
"Except for Johanson," he muttered.
What had she been thinking of, giving a wounded man bad news right after surgery? Time to change the subject. "Pretty sure some of 'em are PRs. Puerto Ricans. I heard 'em talking. And on every floor I've hit, I'm finding at least one rectangular box, dull green, metal, about twelve inches by six inches."
He scowled. "What's in 'em?"
She tried to shrug, but the close walls hemmed her in, so she just made a face. "Don't know. Haven't had time to check." He coughed a couple times, but she couldn't tell if it was to cover her voice from the guards, or a real cough. "I figure most of Security turned themselves in. Marden probably didn't; last I saw, he was headed for the Motor Pool to slice tires or remove parts on as many trucks as he could."
"They're trying to land a chopper," the Admiral murmured. The trick was to keep her eyes on his lips, so she could maybe lip-read what he said too softly to hear. "But it couldn't hurt. There's only one guard on the front door now, and Special Forces waiting outside. If you could get 'em inside. . . ." He broke off with another cough.
"I can take care of one guard. No problem."
"Show Colonel Ironhorse where the trank guns are, and tell him I've got a tracking device in the bandages, so he can find us. Avoid gunplay, Lopez. If you're spotted--" Someone walked to the bottom of the table, but it must have been Dr. Beeks, because he repeated, "If you're spotted, just surrender. Better yet, don't get spotted."
"Want me to get you outta here?" He shook his head. "Hey, I can take these suckers, easy."
"Rick'd kill Tina and Gooshie. No."
She hesitated, kind of embarrassed to ask, but she had to know. "Is this something to do with Leaping? I mean, did somebody kinda opposite to Dr. Beckett Leap into somebody to mess us up again?"
He looked blank for a moment, squinting hard, then grimaced. "Naw. Just your garden-variety psychopath and his band of not-so-merry men."
Dr. Beeks moved to the side of the table, fussing with the I.V. tubing. "Someone's coming."
"Sheesh!" a new voice cried. "What a pushy guy!" Another figure stumbled into her line of vision. "Okay, Al, this probably won't hurt, but I gotta unwrap you to seal those stitches with the magnetic stitch sealer," Dr. Atobe announced, in that genial booming voice. Even before the party got rolling, Gomez always sounded stoked. From the ceiling, all she could see was his broad back as he bent over the Admiral, inserting something under layers of gauze. Must be the tracker the Admiral mentioned, 'cause who ever heard of a magnetic stitch sealer? "There. Comfy?"
He rasped, "Yeah, I always try to get shot when I think I need a vacation, like last month with the serial killer. Feels great, and I get to meet all those cute nurses."
"You can't fool me. You did it so you could get drugs for free, you addict, you. Here, I'll put the jacket on the back of your wheels for later. Verbena can undo the I.V. to dress you."
"No, I like the I.V."
"See? I told you you were a druggie."
Tamika lost sight of Atobe as he walked away from the table. Al whispered, "No, wheeling me in hooked to lots of gizmos'd make me look sick. Might come in useful."
"You are sick," Dr. Beeks observed, pulling a black shirt over his head. "Raise your arm. No, your other arm. Nice chest. I'd like to see it without bandages on for a change."
Tamika craned her head. Was he blushing? He wasn't, was he? That was a rare sight. Even that time she used the judo throw on him, he got up embarrassed, but he didn't turn this cute shade of pink. And this was a doctor, for God's sake! What could he be thinking of?
"Hurry up over there!"
"See?" Dr. Atobe said. "Pushy."
"Gomez? There could be wounded guys in the cafeteria."
"Oh. Okay. I'll make up another emergency kit, but I'm not sure Sweetness and Light over there will let me stop."
"So we make 'em. If we haveta, we'll claim I busted a stitch just as we reach that floor, and you can wheel me in there for patch-up work."
"And get me a cigar."
"Uh, Al, listen--"
"It's all right," Dr. Beeks said, sounding exactly the way Tamika figured she sounded after Jessica demanded cookies for the fiftieth time in one day. "Just one."
The black shirt turned out to have a little red howling wolf on the pocket instead of an alligator. Nothing like advertising your basic nature, right? It was an awfully plain outfit for the Admiral, who usually dressed like some kind of Las Vegas showman, but with the bandages covered up, he looked healthier, even though he was still hooked to an I.V. When Atobe blocked the guards' view, Al winked up Tamika, knowing he was safely out of reach of any indignant response like a swat to the face. She'd do it, too, and he knew it; he was too short and too old for her taste.
Together, the two doctors eased Calavicci into a sitting position, slid his legs over the table edge, and lowered him into the wheelchair, making it look effortless.
"Okay, we're ready," Atobe called. "You happy now?"
Apparently unfazed by the rebuff, Atobe told the Admiral, "Hang on. I'm a reckless driver. But you won't mind--I've seen the way you drive that souped-up red sports car of yours."
"I'll get the I.V., you handle the chair," Dr. Beeks suggested.
The door swooshed shut behind them, but they left the lights on. Now she knew the Admiral was in control, and she had a viable plan of action.
The tricky part, though, was going to be getting out of this air duct. . . .
Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapter Fourteen.
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.