During the entire drive to Judge Harry Webber's house, Sam was frantically scanning technical manuals. He didn't notice either the increasingly ritzy tone of the neighborhoods zipping past the squad car windows, or the odd looks he earned from Honey's team-mates, but if he had noticed, he wouldn't have cared. Survival was more important.
Maybe his earlier guess hadn't been too far off the mark. Maybe Honey Zuckerman had died during this car bomb incident, and Sam had Leaped into her to change that history. If so, Whoever controlled his Leaps must not have expected Al and Ziggy to be held incommunicado. Without their help, Honey's body could still end up being turned into confetti. Yet, if he backed down now, Sam might ruin any chance for her to bond with her co-workers.
Even when Al and Ziggy insist their ideas are better, I've disagreed with them and gone with my instincts before. That's what I have to do this time, Sam decided, and went on reading.
"Hey, Zuckerman, I thought you were the big whiz, with all that fancy training."
"Refreshing your memory never hurts," Sam said mildly, but closed the book as the car stopped in front of what appeared to be a huge Alpine mansion.
There was a major media blitz going on, with the judge's home engulfed by vans, cars, floodlights, a virtual pasta of extension cords, men with cameras, and no less than three television reporters, microphone in hand, earnestly delivering `exclusive' reports to the television cameras. It looked like the Second Coming of Christ, or at least a rerun of the Marines landing in Somalia only to be overwhelmed by eager reporters.
"Oh, wonderful. A circus," Ernie grunted, shutting off the siren and flashers.
"Nothing like a little extra pressure."
"Here comes Captain Hartman. You like extra pressure? Get ready for another ton or two."
Sam got out of the car and squinted. Hartman turned out to be a slender man with grey-highlighted black curls, crooked teeth, and the haunted expression of an exorcist suffering from burn-out.
"What's the story, Don?"
Some of the media drifted closer, scenting information the way sharks smell blood. Hartman threw an anxious look over one raised shoulder, then spoke in a low-voiced rush.
"The judge recently released a skinhead who allegedly killed a convenience store clerk, an Arab."
Ernie slapped his forehead. "Jeez, I remember that case. Jerk was as guilty as sin, and he walked out grinning and saluting Der Fuhrer."
"He was found innocent in a court of law," Hartman reminded him. "But the Arab community has been up in arms ever since. Judge Webber got all sorts of phone threats, here and at the courthouse. So when his wife looked out the living room window and spotted a dark-complexioned man running from the driveway, they dialed 911."
Matt's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Was he wearing a burnoose?"
"Look, we have to take this seriously. Even if it wasn't an angry Arab, right now Judge Webber's sitting on a messy divorce and custody fight for a possible Mob figure. You get the picture?"
"Everyone knows how swarthy them Eyties are."
Hartman shot him an irked look, and Ernie tried, with little success, to look abashed. "The point is, this might be a hoax, but it might be the real thing. We can't afford to take chances, either way."
"Okay. So we slap a remote starter on and see if anything explodes when the engine turns over."
Hartman shook his head. "No can do, boys. The car's a Silver Cloud Rolls Royce, worth a fortune-and-a-half, and it's the judge's pride and joy. He doesn't even want to take a chance on scratching it."
"Whereas who cares what happens to a few police officers, right?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Fine. Zuckerman, you go soothe the Judge. Pat his hand. Promise we'll take good care of his baby. Read him your fancy resume--that'll impress him."
"No. I'm coming with you."
"Suit yourself. Maybe you'll learn something."
"Maybe we both will."
Grimacing, Matt threw open the trunk of the car and began hauling out equipment, while Sam, following Ernie's lead, donned a Kevlar shirt and pants. If they did accidently trigger a real bomb, the outfit would be no more effective than a suit of Kleenex, but it would help shield anyone who got to stand on the sidelines and watch. Sam had sort of pictured a metal suit of armor that covered the head and hands, too, but when he thought about how cumbersome that would be, he realized it would make delicate work nearly impossible.
While Ernie and the captain moved the crowd further back, Matt and Sam walked to the car, shining so proudly in the afternoon sunlight that it seemed too angelic to be a threat.
First, Matt stretched out on his back and wriggled underneath the car to survey the underside, while Sam crouched on the driver's side, watching him. Nothing seemed unusual there. Grunting, Matt crawled back out, dusted off his legs, and bent over the hood, careful not to touch anything, running his eyes along the crack between the hood and the car frame. When that didn't produce any useful information, he went high tech.
The thin, flexible rubber tubing Matt painstakingly eased through the crack at the front edge of the hood carried a tiny camera in the end. Like a surgeon taking a look at a cardiac patient's heart, Matt flexed and turned the tubing, scanning the car's engine, and kept his eyes locked on the resulting images broadcast on a small black-and-white monitor.
"Bingo. There it is."
Sam twisted around to nod and flap his hands at Ernie, who promptly began driving the media people back to the street, off Webber's property.
"Doesn't seem to be attached to the hood. I'm going to open her."
With excruciating slowness, he eased the hood up. Simultaneously, both men let out their breath in a small puff of relief when the hood stood upright without transforming the car into a million well-polished paperclips.
Nestled comfortably in the center of an engine so gleamingly clean that Sam suspected it had been polished at the same as the flawless exterior, and with as much love, sat a bundle made up of orange plastique blocks, colored wires, and a digital screen. Sam swallowed hard.
"This is no time to be sightseeing, Zuckerman. Go over there by Ernie, where it's safe."
"I have faith in your skills. It'll be safe here."
"Then make yourself useful. Hand me the wirecutters."
Even though the day was chilly, with a sharp breeze that whipped around the corner of the ornate house to slap anyone in the driveway, sweat was beading on Matt's forehead. Just as the remote camera had reminded Sam of surgery, he now felt an urge to play scrub nurse and blot his partner's forehead. One drop of sweat stinging his eyes at the wrong moment could mean catastrophe for them both.
Despite the sweat, Matt's hands were steady as he eased the wire clippers onto a single blue wire and snipped it in half. Nothing happened. He paused to mop his face on his right forearm, then slid the clippers around an orange wire.
"Not that one!"
"Go back to the sidelines, Zuckerman."
Sam gripped his wrist hard. "Not the orange wire, Matt. In a few rare cases, where auxiliary leads--like that green one over there--are attached, cutting the ignition wire triggers the explosion. You can't cut the orange one until you detach the green."
"I'm telling you, I can see that diagram in my mind, right now, just as clear as I see your face." Matt didn't move, though his wrist tensed in Sam's fingers. Urgently, Sam told him, "Here's your chance to prove how macho you really are. Do you have the guts to take a chance that all my special training actually paid off? Or are you so afraid I'll make you look bad that you'd rather die than trust me?"
"If you're wrong--"
"We'll never know it." He knew he was right, knew that if he didn't stop Matt now, Matt and Honey would both be obliterated, so he locked onto Matt's blue eyes. "If you're afraid, go join Ernie on the sidelines. I'll remove the green wire."
Matt pulled the wire-cutters back, and reached for the green wire, instead. Even though he was absolutely certain that this was the right choice, Sam crossed the fingers of both hands. In what seemed to be slow motion, Matt pulled the green wire free, then cut the orange wire leading to the ignition. The digital screen went blank. Sam sagged against the car.
I was right! We didn't blow up!
"Ernie! Scoop this baby up for carry-out, and start dusting for prints!"
Ernie whooped, clasping his hands over his head in a triumphant gesture. Wearily, Matt gathered up the tools, as the media converged on them.
"Was the bomb live? Real, or fake?"
"Arab, or Italian?"
"Hey! Ms. Zuckerman! Tell our viewers how it feels!"
How he felt at the moment was like vomiting, but somehow Sam doubted that saying so would do Honey's career any good. Instead, he smiled bashfully at the myriad cameras pointed at his face. "My partner successfully defused the bomb and saved Judge Webber's life. Now we're going to search the grounds for any other incendiary devices, and I'm sure the station will have a statement for you later. Maybe you should talk to the real hero. Matt?"
Matt gave him a startled look as the cameras swiveled to spotlight him.
Sam glanced at his watch. There should be just enough time, when the hoopla died down, for him to join his team-mates at the inevitable bar. The first round would be on Honey, and should seal her relationship with her partners.
So. He had kept Matt from killing them both, and presumably earned her more acceptance from her co-workers. Why wasn't he Leaping? What more could he possibly have to do?
While he blindly fumbled around in the past, trying to figure out what he had to do to Leap, what was happening to Al, his best friend and partner?
The least You could do is drop me a hint....
Verbena Beeks forced the fingers curled around the I.V. pole to uncurl, one hand at a time, and wiped the sweaty palms on her skirt. Once she had seen a television clip in which a man wound a squirming Chihuahua's tail around his finger, then set the dog on the floor. The tiny canine spun itself in endless little circles, like a tightly wound spring finally released. Right now, she had a feeling that if any of these crooks laid a hand on her, she would start whirling madly in place, just like that Chihuahua.
There were approximately two hundred thirty-two questions demanding immediate answers that she couldn't give. Were the Special Forces troops going to attack? How many personnel had been wounded? How badly? How many were dead? Did the child care staff get the children out safely? Would Al recover from quickie surgery without complications? What was happening to poor Sam, alone in the past? What did `Rick' intend to do to his hostages? Were they all going to die? What was that odd green box doing, sitting on the floor near the elevator bank? Was--
With an effort, she slammed a wall down in her mind, shutting out the anxieties clamoring for her attention.
As they reached the elevator, she said, "Why don't you send Dr. Atobe to be locked up with Security? I can take care of Admiral Calavicci myself."
Robinson cocked an eyebrow at her. "Just let him wander around the place on his own? Yeah, right."
"We could drop him off on the way."
"Rick's already p.o.'d at how long this is taking. Open the door, Doc."
Al shifted position in the wheelchair, making a face. "Gomez, you sure you sewed me up tight? Something feels funny."
Verbena triggered the door and pushed the I.V. pole inside, her mouth dry, her mind flipping through persuasive technique possibilities. "Why don't we get some sandwiches for Rick and the others? I'm sure everyone's hungry, after all this time, and food can be very calming as well as a source of--"
"Shut up, okay?"
No use. No use. She blinked hard as the glowing digital numbers over the elevator door began to change, and hoped Al's acting skills wouldn't fail him now.
Right on cue, he groaned and bent over his folded arms. "Oh, man, it feels like I've been stabbed."
One eye on the changing numbers, Gomez asked, "What is it, Al?"
"Kinda a tearing feeling."
"Stop!" George barked.
The elevator paused, murmuring, "Fifth floor. Doors are sealed."
"Let me see your side. Easy, now."
Verbena, like the two crooks, leaned over to watch. Her heart lurched when she saw blood oozing down the white bandages. Did he break open the stitches just to give his story credibility? She wouldn't put it past him. No, wait, that wasn't blood. Iodine? Did Gomez slip it to him, or did he somehow pick it up in the clinic?
What difference does it make, anyway? Clear your head, girl!
Times like this--times when she was really frightened or struggling under too much stress--her admonishing inner voice sounded just like Mama, weary and exasperated and utterly practical. And nearly always right.
"The stitches have burst," Gomez said in the deep bass he affected at parties when he and Al did a Righteous Brothers imitation. "We need to stretch him out on some sort of table. This way. Hurry!"
"Rick will kill us all if we don't do something!" Verbena added.
"Doors are open," the elevator announced serenely.
Al moaned and rocked in the wheelchair as if in the grip of overwhelming pain, yet he managed not to lose his grip on his cigar. Apparently their captors didn't notice; at least, Robinson didn't object when George and Verbena shoved him through the doors.
Despite his bulk, Gomez pushed the wheelchair down the corridor at a pace so fast that keeping up left her breathless. If Al really had torn his stitches, this jolting would be contraindicated, but given the way he zoomed around the desert in his red sports car, he was probably enjoying this. He leaned far to the right as Gomez whipped the wheelchair around the corner, and nearly lost the I.V. altogether.
One guard was on his feet, his gun drawn, waiting for them, no doubt alerted by the rattling metal and squealing tires. Another, plopped on the floor by a heap of armaments, blearily fired at them. Yelping, Atobe spun the chair around, so Al was shielded by the metal back, and ducked. The seated guard squeezed off another shot, impaling the I.V. bag with a tranquilizer dart, before his partner kicked the gun from his hand.
"Wilson's still kinda groggy from whatever they shot 'em with," the heavyset man explained. His skin color was what Mama used to call `high yaller.' "What's up?"
"This man needs immediate medical attention." Verbena cupped her hand under the bag to catch some of the glucose mix oozing out around the dart. "One side, please."
"And give those assholes inside a chance to rush us? Hell, no."
"Rick killed Bruce for shooting this man in the first place. What do you suppose will happen to you if he bleeds to death in this chair?"
"Anybody tries to get out, I'll tackle him," George offered, flexing his muscles.
The man hesitated, so Al clinched things by moaning and holding up a red-stained hand. The guard stepped aside, and George slapped his palm on the sensor, then thrust the wheelchair into the cafeteria, blocking sudden lunges from the four Marines waiting there.
"Back off! Wounded man here."
"It's the Admiral!"
"I heard he was dead!"
Al flipped them a cocky salute, made less military by the fact that he was still holding the cigar between his fingers. "Not quite yet, fellas."
Ike, Turner, and Robinson stayed huddled together by the door, guns drawn, giving Verbena time for a quick study of the cafeteria. Some of the captured personnel were tending the wounded, who were laid out in the southeast corner; some were eating; and judging from the pair of legs she saw vanish into the ceiling like spaghetti strands being sucked up, some were escaping through the ceiling ducts, as Tamika had done. In fact, quite a number of them seemed to have already left. She hoped the fake Navy men didn't notice the cafeteria was so sparsely occupied.
George snatched his emergency bag from the handles of the wheelchair and darted toward the makeshift infirmary, completely forgetting Al's imaginary lost stitches. Since this was exactly what she would like to do, she could hardly blame him--the wounded came first--but there was no way she could lift Albert by herself.
Seeing his chance, Turner moved in, that thin shark's smile creasing his face as he grabbed Al's armpits and yanked up.
"Lieutenant, get the Admiral on that table. You--drop him!" Verbena snapped.
Wonder of wonders, she must have sounded a lot more in control than she felt, for two of the Project officers jumped to rescue Al, who squawked and clutched his wounded side when Turner dumped him back into the seat as if he were unwanted groceries.
"He hit me in the ribs, on purpose!"
Turner grinned again. "I was just trying to help."
"Mr. Robinson, do you think you can control your partner, or are you planning to explain to your boss just why the Admiral is hemorrhaging?"
Robinson gave her a dirty look, but shoved Turner toward the door, which meant neither of them had a clear view of Al's supposedly ruptured stitches. Verbena bent over Albert and fumbled with her medical bag, looking for scissors. The lieutenant, a blond who looked barely old enough to shave, hesitated.
"Is he badly hurt, ma'am?"
"You! Get away from there! All of you, back away from that table!"
"He's fine, Lieutenant. Go on. I'll take care of him." On second thought, she called after him, "Pack up some sandwiches for us to take to the Control Room."
"I don't think feeding Rick's gonna make him any nicer," Al muttered.
"It can't hurt. Lie still."
Careful not to dislodge the hidden tracking device, Verbena cut out the iodine-stained bandages and dropped them on the floor. Mercifully, Turner's idea of fun hadn't made the lie about broken stitches turn into reality. Before pulling out a fresh roll of gauze, she found tape, jerked the tranquilizer dart from the I.V. bag, and covered up the hole, cutting off the leak. No point in dripping glucose solution all over the building.
At least keeping busy kept her from being frightened.
Al murmured, "Is it my imagination, or are we short about half a shift in here?"
"I'm just thankful they didn't line everyone up and shoot them. That's what I expected to happen."
"It would make better sense, strategically," Al agreed, frowning. "Wish I knew what Fish-Face has planned. He's too smug, like he's got some big surprise waiting."
"Hurry up!" Robinson ordered from the doorway, still keeping his gun on the rest of the room.
Verbena taped the gauze in place, then helped Al sit up. "That should hold him. Lieutenant, if you'd help--? Thanks."
Together, they eased him back into the wheelchair, then while Al fussed with his shirt, she stuffed sandwiches into her bag, tossing the last one onto his lap.
"Eat. You need it for strength." She gripped the handles firmly, before Turner could volunteer his services and try ramming the chair into walls or spilling Al onto the floor. That left him stuck with the I.V. pole, and grumbling in Spanish. "We're ready."
"Hold it. Where's the fat guy?"
"Dr. Atobe? It's all right, you don't need him. You already have plenty of hostages, and I can take of Admiral Calavicci myself."
Robinson scanned the cafeteria, scowling, but Security kept milling around, making the place seem more crowded than it was, and George Atobe seemed to have disappeared into the background. "Get him back here, bitch. Now."
"Why? Leaving him here makes one less body for you to worry about." She smiled tartly. "Or are you afraid Rick won't like you making any decisions on your own?"
"Shit!" Turner howled and began sucking on the edge of his hand, distracting them both.
Al said innocently, "Oh, did my cigar accidentally brush your hand? Gee, sorry. You shouldn't get the I.V. so close."
Turner lunged at Al, who brandished his lit cigar like a laser. Robinson shouldered his partner back, and apparently gave up Gomez as a lost cause.
"You hurt him, you answer to Rick. You got that?" Turner glared sullenly at Al, but nodded. Rick released him and pointed toward the door with his gun. "So let's get moving. We're running late as it is."
Al munched on his egg salad sandwich with a contented smile, flicking cigar ashes in the direction of the I.V. pole as Verbena pushed the wheelchair through the door.
We got the bullet out. He's still alive. We got medical help for Security. Now, if we could just figure out a way to get the Special Forces troops inside. . . .
Enter the Accelerator and Leap to Chapter Fifteen & Sixteen.
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