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A TASTE OF HONEY

by Jane Leavell

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Huddled over her knees, Honey was torn between studying the hand-link and studying Rick. He seemed to find having to negotiate with the Special Forces commander humiliating; apparently it had never occurred to him that his plan to kidnap the Admiral and Beckett might fail. Just how much detail work had gone into this plan? From the little he'd said to the Admiral, she couldn't decide whether he hadn't ever arranged for selling or using his captives once he had them, or was just playing his cards close to his chest.

Seething with frustration, Rick stormed across the room to rip another sheet of computer paper from the wall slot and try to start a third pile. The other two piles were each two feet high, and the output showed no signs of slowing.

"How am I supposed to carry all of this? This is absurd!" No one seemed inclined to argue with his observation. He spun around, leveling a finger at Gooshie. "You! Put this on computer disks, for God's sake!"

"If I stop it now, Ziggy will have to start the program all over from the very beginning," Gooshman quavered.

Tina looked up from checking on the wounded Security officer. "Can't you, like, do both?"

He gave Rick a wide-eyed, pleading look, like an Irish setter expecting a reprimand. "The hard copy is a good back-up, just in case there isn't time for the disk transfer."

"Why didn't you do it on disks in the first place?"

"You didn't ask," Gooshman pointed out, as if it were obvious.

Honey held her breath, half-expecting Rick to simply shoot the man. He wasn't reacting well to being frustrated. Instead, he closed in on the programmer, who leaned so far back to avoid him that he was nearly bent in half. Very softly, Rick asked, "Did you deliberately try to sabotage my orders? Or are you just very stupid?"

Tina bounced to her feet, dropping the poor guard's head to the floor. "You leave him alone! How was he supposed to know what you wanted? He's not a mind-reader, you know!"

"Shut up."

Her lip trembled and she tossed her head, but she didn't answer, which was probably the best response she could have made.

Rick scowled into space, and said quietly, almost as if talking to himself, "This should have gone so easily. I studied the people involved. We shadowed Calavicci hundreds of times--on his dates, when he testified, everywhere. When I realized that Beckett never left the Project, I found people who could tell me about this base and its physical layout. And it worked!" He flung both arms wide, as if expecting an ovation. "We got inside a top-security government installation, something that everyone said couldn't be done. All we had to do was walk up to Calavicci or Beckett, quietly show him our guns, hunt down the partner, and stroll out. Nothing could go wrong." Slowly, he swiveled on his heel, glowering at the hostages. "But everything did. And now it's all falling apart around my ears. It's like you're all conspiring to ruin everything for me, whispering, twisting my orders around, arguing with me--"

"We're not doing it on purpose," Gooshman said humbly. "We're scared."

Rick's lip curled. "You should be."

Honey started to climb to her feet, but Rick turned away, dismissing Gooshman, and stalked back to the telephone. Once she was sure he was going to negotiate with the Army again--which on this end seemed to consist mostly of snarling--she made herself relax and stare at the hand-link again.

What should she have done in this situation? She wasn't sure whether to try placating him, or try adding to his irritation in an effort to break him.

Honey scowled at the tiny screen on the hand-link. If Beckett was going to steal a cop's body, why couldn't he have chosen a SWAT team member, someone used to dealing with hostage situations?

The computer paper continued to pile up in lengthy white folds. They had weathered yet another in an unending series of mini-crises.

Sure was taking them a long time to operate on the Admiral. While it wasn't a flesh wound, his bullet wound couldn't be all that bad, or he never would've stayed on his feet so long. Maybe this wasn't a long time to be in surgery; she wasn't a nurse, so how would she know?

And what was going on back home, in her own time? Was Dr. Beckett screwing up her life? Who asked for some time-traveling yente to interfere, anyway? She had her life under control. If she needed advice, she'd write to Dear Abby, or let Mama have free rein.

Now, there was a thought. Assuming all this was really happening--and after all these hours, she had given up hoping it was some sort of hallucination--when they traded bodies, she got stuck with these armed kidnappers, and Sam Beckett got stuck with Mama.

Honey bit back a grin. Seemed like a fair trade to her, actually.

"Officious twit!" Rick snarled into the telephone, and slammed the receiver down, making everyone in the Control Room twitch. Even Ziggy's oval sparkled fleetingly.

Striding across the room, he snatched up the briefcase one of his aides had set by the door, and rummaged inside it. What he took out was a dull green, rectangular, metal casing about the size of Honey's jewelry box back home. Sweat broke out on her hands so fast that the hand-link almost shot out of her fingers into the air. Rick set the box down at the end of the control console, then turned to glare at the rest of the room.

"What are you all staring at?"

Guiltily, she looked back at her lap. One at a time, she wiped her hands on her thighs, then began whispering to Ziggy again. Too bad the hand-link didn't have a recognizable keyboard she could use. The Admiral apparently used some sort of code, like a computer shorthand, that involved punching the colored blocks in combinations, as Gooshie did with the control console, and it made no sense at all to her.

If it wasn't for Flynn and me getting drunk together after the last lesson, he never would've shown me the latest twist in high-tech bombs, and I wouldn't be this scared right now, she reflected grimly. Now, if Ziggy can only do what I need, at least that box can be turned off. Otherwise, once he activates the motion sensors tucked inside, the folks in here will set off the mother of all explosions when they run for the exit.

Rick's eyes scoured the room. "Who is that whispering? It's you, isn't it?"

Honey reluctantly gazed up at him, biting her lip, wishing she didn't look so damn guilty. "I was...talking to myself. It helps me think. You know. It's kind of a scientist thing."

"What's that in your hand?"

Honey held up her empty left hand. "Nothing."

Rick glowered. "The other hand. What is that? Some sort of communication device?"

"Oh, this. No, no, it's just a toy. One of those hand-held video games. It relaxes me."

Menacingly, he stalked toward her, seeming to grow even taller the nearer he came. "Hand it over. Now."

Reluctantly, Honey extended her hand, willing it not to shake. Rick snatched the hand-link away. When he poked one of the cherry-colored blocks, the hand-link obligingly piped up with the familiar Pac-Man theme. Startled, Honey craned her neck for a closer look, and saw a tiny golden Pac-Man dart across the screen, pursued by three ghosts.

Bless you, Ziggy, you clever bitch. And bless the genius who invented you.

Seeming disgruntled to find it so innocuous, Rick pocketed the hand-link. "I'll just keep this safe for you, shall I? Move away from there. Pickett, keep a close eye on him."

Shit! Now what? I can't handle this, not all by myself!

Rick raised his suddenly silken voice, addressing the rest of the room. "That government-issue idiot doesn't seem to want to take us seriously. He's stalling. We haven't time to play games like that." He bared his teeth in a humorless grin. "We'll have to get his attention. I believe that can be satisfactorily accomplished by tossing a hostage or two from the roof."

The computer technician who'd been singled out earlier began vomiting in the corner again.

"Me, I think you're over-reacting," a gravelly New York voice observed calmly.

Honey felt her heart Leap in relief. She didn't have to handle this alone; the Admiral was back. Slouched in a wheelchair pushed by Dr. Beeks, he was hooked up to an I.V., but he was smoking a cigar and seemed alert and reassuringly confident. When she got closer, however, she realized his eyes were too bright, the pupils constricted, and she shot an accusing glare at the doctor, who shrugged one shoulder and looked away.

Doped to the gills, dammit.

"Tina. Bring me the phone."

Nervously skirting Rick, and walking backward to keep an eye on him, Tina obediently presented him with the phone. In the process, she bent over low, so that her semi-exposed breasts were practically smacking his nose. "Al, sweetie, I'm so sorry--"

"Yeah, yeah. I'm sure you'll be very happy together. You can count on me for a gallon of Listerine at the wedding. Hello? Paul. No, I'm not dead yet, sorry if you're disappointed." He rolled his eyes, with the expression of a man biting into a lemon. "Paul, I thought we were friends, so why are you trying to get me and Sam killed? What? Come on, I already told you, these guys are Looney Tunes. You can't reason with a cartoon. Just give 'em what they want, before they start setting up firing squads. They've already knocked off one guy in here....So tell 'em I gave the orders, and it's off your shoulders. Yeah." Switching off the remote phone, he told Rick, "Your chopper lands on the roof in 15 minutes. Your `borrowed' Navy bus can leave then, too. Five minutes later, Ironhorse's men enter the building."

"That will do nicely. Charles, tell Ike to secure the lounge and leave. Ray and Wilson are to go with him, per the plan." Rick opened the briefcase again, reaching inside for something. "Quite impressive, Admiral. I must say, if we weren't on opposite sides at the moment, I'd quite like you. You'd certainly make a much more efficient, reliable partner than my late brother-in-law did."

Only Beeks' sculpted nails digging into his right shoulder kept the Admiral in the wheelchair. Through gritted teeth, he said, "Thanks. You can't imagine how that makes me feel."

Verbena announced, "I have sandwiches, if anyone's hungry." She opened her black doctor's bag. "Egg salad, mostly, but--"

Rick cut her off. "We don't have time for a sit-down tea. Willis. Robinson. Turner. Take the Admiral, Dr. Beckett, and that well-endowed young lady to the roof. And don't forget that computer print-out."

Recognizing her description, Tina wailed and ran back behind the console, clutching at Gooshie's shoulders.

The doctor passed her bag to Honey, who took out an egg salad and began unwrapping it. This was scary, but she was starving, and while she couldn't do anything about being scared, she could at least stop the hunger pangs. Beeks straightened up.

"No. I'm going, not Tina."

"The hell you are!"

"Shut up, Admiral Calavicci, and let me do my job." Beeks spared him a brief, ironic smile. "Yell at me later, when you've got time enough to do it justice."

"Touche," Honey murmured.

Rick made a face, squinting at Verbena as if she were a slab of meat for sale, then looking back at Tina for comparison. "I've really had my heart set on developing an intimate relationship with the Admiral's girlfriend. After all this time, I feel almost as though I know her."

Tina's weeping grew stronger. Gooshman looked terrified.

Lifting her head, the doctor addressed her calm argument to Rick. "I'm a Project administrator, not a mere Pulse Communications Technician. I'm less likely to become hysterical. As the Project Psychiatrist, I can provide insight into Dr. Beckett's present condition. Most important of all, I have a medical degree and can keep the Admiral alive for you. I'm sure you can see that I'm the intelligent choice."

He held up both hands and bowed graciously. One hand was holding something resembling a TV remote control. "You're welcome to join us, of course."

Dr. Beeks pushed the fuming Admiral toward the exit, with Willis close behind, gun in hand. That left Turner and Charles to stagger under the weight of at least one hundred pounds of computer paper.

"As for the rest of you, sit here and don't move for...oh, the next twenty minutes." He kicked one last time at the body of the late Bruce. "Remember what happens to people who don't do as they're told, won't you?" He beamed, stroking his mustache, when the Control Room crew looked suitably cowed.

Honey hung back, letting the others pass through the electronic door first, until only her guard and Rick were left. Sure enough, Rick casually clicked the remote control at the green box on the floor, which began to glow and hum a hushed warning. Pickett shoved at her spine with the plastic muzzle of his gun, but she reminded herself that he wouldn't dare shoot Beckett after seeing Bruce's punishment for wounding Calavicci. Bracing one hand on either side of the doorway, she said rapidly, "Ziggy, give me a steady electromagnetic pulse of 7,500 megahertz."

Rick whirled around, snatching her by the collar of Beckett's jogging suit and yanking her into the hallway, an inch or two from his face. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Hey, Sam, it's okay, Gooshie knows how to unlock the doors to the roof without your help." The Admiral, his voice amused, gave Rick a superior look that invited the kidnapper to join him in laughing at Beckett's eccentricity. "He's obsessive, thinks he has to do everybody's job for 'em. Sam, why don't you give 'Bena a break and push this chair for me? I think I'm heavier than she expected."

For an eternity, she didn't think it would work, then, one by one, Rick uncurled his fingers and thrust her toward the wheelchair, almost impaling her on one arm. The Admiral reached up to pat her hand. Very softly, from the corner of his mouth, he asked, "What the hell was that all about?"

Feeling Rick's gaze searing a hole in the back of Beckett's head, she could only grimace helplessly and start pushing the wheelchair forward.

Shit, I hope I didn't screw up. This isn't some high-tech training exercise where I get to try again if I don't like my score. I was pretty drunk when Flynn taught me that shit, and I never expected to use it.

A vaguely science-fictional elevator took them most of the way up the building, saying, "Top floor, everyone out," in dulcet tones that sounded a lot like Ziggy's voice. From there, they walked to another electronic door. When Dr. Beeks put her hand palm-down on a recessed green square, it lit up, and the door slid open, evidently recognizing her palm-print. One of the terrorists braced the door open while the doctor disconnected the I.V., taping a cotton ball on the puncture wound.

"Dr. Beckett, could you help Admiral Calavicci up the stairs?" she suggested.

The Admiral, in the middle of shrugging into a zipper-studded black leather jacket, looked up irritably. "I can walk. He shot me in my side, not my legs."

Verbena quelled him in mid-grumble with a patient, long-suffering gaze, like a mother enduring a weary child's temper tantrum. Grudgingly, he accepted Honey's help. By the time they reached the roof, he was leaning heavily on her. She didn't mind a bit. After all, he'd taken that bullet shielding her from the guns.

The heat of the day was dissipating as the sun neared the horizon, so the roof felt no hotter than eighty-five or ninety degrees Fahrenheit. Ringed in by false sailors, Honey braced Al up and studied her surroundings.

It was a breathtaking experience. As far as she could tell from up here, the place was disguised as a small rust-colored mountain instead of a government office building. They were on the peak, overlooking miles and miles of desert, and from here the soldiers ringing the place down below were barely visible. What's more, the mountain was haloed by phosphorescent blue bands of some sort of energy crackling all around it. This wasn't just any mountain; it was a nuclear-powered super-sized Space Mountain fancier than anything dreamed of at Disneyworld.

"It's awesome," she breathed.

"Sure is," the Admiral said proudly.

"Take a last look," Rick advised. "I believe I hear our ride approaching."

She could feel Al's body stiffen, and smoke puffed from his cigar like steam from a dragon's nostrils. "So? How far do you think you'll get? The Colonel will be right on your tail."

"No doubt he'll try. That's why I'm giving him the bus to play with. Our naive associates will get themselves caught within twenty miles, and they'll claim we were striking a blow for Puerto Rico's freedom, because that's what they believe. We, in the meantime, will fly in another direction, below any radar; change vehicles a few times; and end up someplace nowhere near Puerto Rico." His last gloating phrases had to be shouted to carry over the clacking of the helicopter blades.

Buffeted by the wind, Honey leaned close to the Admiral's ear, knowing Rick was too absorbed in his victory to notice. "There's no problem in my life to be fixed. I was here to fix your problem!"

The Admiral twisted around to stare at her, baffled. "What?"

"Bomb Squad, remember?" she yelled.

By now, it was impossible to hear anything over the engine's roar, but from the way his lips moved, she thought he groaned something like "Oh, boy," which was probably an understatement.

Right about then, Honey began feeling this bizarre sort of tingling and stretching, like she was a piece of paper being run through a photocopier. She gazed down at her hand, and blinked.

She was turning blue, and sparkling like sunlight on the ocean.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Usually it was Al who enjoyed springing outrageous surprises on his more staid partner. As he watched expressions of shock, disgust, and disbelief flit from face to face around the baronial dining room table, Sam relished his new role as perpetrator, not victim. Was this how Al felt when he strolled unexpectedly through a solid wall or dropped another tidbit about his unlikely sexual escapades? It was almost as exhilerating as making a new scientific breakthrough.

"More dressing, Mr.--er--Elmo?" Mama offered bravely.

He speared four big slices from the platter. "Awesome."

Watching him shovel the food in his mouth until both cheeks puffed out, like a squirrel stocking up on nuts, she winced. It was delicious food, and what he did to it was an atrocity. Sam pitied her, but obligingly handed Elmo the catsup bottle.

"Elmo, did I tell you my brother Johnny is a writer? I bet he'd love to interview you after supper." To the rest of the table, sitting in flabbergasted silence, he explained, "Elmo is a professional."

"Really? Professional what?"

"Hit-man," Elmo volunteered, and belched. "'Scuse me."

Mama choked. Kim solicitously pounded her back.

Elmo was eager to reassure her. "Oh, you don't have to worry, ma'am. I promise, I won't never do any of the family, no matter how much I'm offered. Word of honor." He paused to consider this, frowned a little, and gave Mama a worried look. "Unless you want me to." His face brightened as a way out of this dilemma occurred to him. "And then I'll offer you a cut-rate deal, 'cause you're family."

Mama was choking again.

Bo raised an eyebrow. "If Errol tries to pressure me into one more money-making scheme, I just might take you up on that. Got a business card?"

His wife thumped him on the shoulder. "Humphrey! That's not funny!"

"I don't, like, advertise, but I do a real good job. Most every unsolved murder you hear about, I did it." This might have been easier to believe if he didn't have a milk ring around his mouth and a spot of catsup, like a broken pimple, on his chin. "If I don't off the right guy, you get double your money back. 'Course, you still gotta cover my expenses outta that."

"It's a shame, the way inflation jacks up bullet prices," Cliff commiserated. His black eyes were sparkling, as if Elmo's presence was making the black holes release their trapped light. "So tell me, Elmo, this is just a just a wild guess, but are you by any chance from an Arab background? Or interested in Islam?"

Elmo blinked. Sam was about to helpfully explain the question, but something clicked. "Nope, I'm a reformed Methodist, but I trained in Palestine. It was great. The PLO taught me all sorts of good stuff."

Katie gasped. Mama's face was stiff and waxy in color, as if she were about to slip into shock.

"Why am I not surprised?" Cliff grinned at Sam, shaking his head. "Honey, this time, I must admit you've impressed me." Elmo preened, taking the words at face value and evidently believing he was fitting right in with the family. "I thought arresting the last one was good, but now you've gone on the offensive--and I do mean offensive."

Mary Lynn kept her eyes on the table and her hands balled up on her lap, probably wishing she had nerve enough to slap his arm the way Kim did to Bo. Bo was chortling. The chiropractor, who didn't appear to notice he was being two-timed by his date, was the only one other than Sam who still had an appetite. Too bad; Mama Zuckerman was quite a good cook.

Mama pushed her chair back. "Honey, would you please join me in the kitchen?"

"Better take Katie," Cliff advised. "Honey's the only one at the table who can burn water. Unless--tell me, Elmo, how are you at cooking?"

Bo's chortles turned into a delighted guffaw.

"Excuse me." Biting back a grin, Sam obediently followed Mama's straight-backed, dignified exit.

James, John, his wife, and Katie's husband scuttled back to their respective seats at the kitchen table and tried to pretend they hadn't been eavesdropping on the other room. Mama took one look at the row of cherubic faces and stalked on to the next room without missing a beat. As Sam trailed after her, Jimmy gave him a thumb's up.

Mama shut the bevelled glass door to the family room and snapped, "This isn't funny!"

"I know. It's not."

"Honey, how could you? You're not seriously going to marry that--that creature, are you?"

"I had to find some way to get your attention."

"Well, you've got it. Now what?"

With her arms folded across her chest and her lips thinned, Mama was going to be hard to budge, but he gave it his best effort. Keeping his voice soft, Sam said, "Now I remind you that my love-life is my own, and I want to keep it that way. Jimmy and I are all grown up now. We can take care of ourselves."

"You think the day you turned eighteen, I stopped being your mother, is that it?"

"No, you're still our mother, but let's face it, some of this matchmaking is for you, not us. You're the one who wants us married off. It's not as if none of your children are married, or as if you didn't have any grandchildren. You have Bo's children; Josh and Rachel--"

"That's not it. It's not that I want more grandchildren--although that would be wonderful. All I want is for my children, all my children, to be happy. The way I was."

"We're not happy when you keep nagging at us."

"Have you forgotten your Papa already? How very, very happy we were together?"

"Believe me, I will never forget my father, or stop loving him," Sam said, and he meant it from the heart, because he missed his late father very much. He stopped and swallowed hard before making himself go on. "What you had with Papa was a beautiful thing, to be cherished, because it's so rare. Look at Bo--he married, and it didn't work out."

"That wasn't his fault! She cheated on him! She drank!"

"No, it wasn't his fault. Maybe if you gave us all a little space, and the time to look, we could find someone worth loving for a lifetime, like Papa. But frankly, I don't think Roger Thurman is it. Meanwhile, we are happy. Can't you see that?"

"I see that you're all alone, in a terrible dangerous job."

"And I'm happy being single. I can come and go when I want to, I can spend all my money on myself, and I really enjoy my job." She was giving him a moist-eyed droopy look, as if she would crumple into tears at any second, so Sam hugged her and said teasingly, "Mama, I swear, if you don't ease up, I'll bring a black female fiance to the next party and really embarrass you."

"You wouldn't."

"Well, no. I'd bring a black male transvestite, actually."

The doorbell chimed, and Mama rolled her eyes, her tears forgotten. "Now what? Honestly, can't we sit done and have a quiet, friendly, uninterrupted family meal for once?"

"I guess not."

Grimacing, she flung open the door--luckily the glass was too thick to chip easily--and marched to the living room. Sam decided he was glad he had Leaped into Honey Zuckerman. Coming from a group as lively and feisty as this one, she would probably find dealing with kidnappers easier than dealing with her own family. Some of the people he had Leaped into before would flinch in the face of danger, but Honey should be able to help Al until Sam could get there himself. It was a comforting thought.

That brief feeling of reassurance evaporated when, over Mama's shoulder, he spotted the visitor in the living room.

"--trade cars so I can fix that bad muffler," he was telling Mary Lynn, then he focused on Honey, and his jaw dropped. "What are you doing here?"

"She's my daughter," Mama snapped. "And you are--?"

"My brother," Mary Lynn explained, pinkening.

"You never told me you were dating Honey Zuckerman's brother!"

"I did, too, you just never listen to me. I told you Cliff's name when we started dating, I just don't go around referring to him as `my boyfriend Cliff Zuckerman, Honey's brother' every time I mention his name."

"You said Cliff Tucker."

"See? You weren't paying attention, just nodding your head and grunting, the way you always do, while you watched the ball game on TV. Hold on, I'll get my keys."

Matt stared at Sam, as goggle-eyed as a goldfish peering out of its bowl at an approaching cat. From the dry feeling around the edges of his own eyeballs, Sam judged he bore a similar expression.

"You two know each other?" Mama asked.

"I, uh, share an office with Matt. Matt, this is my mother."

"Oh, that's right! I saw you on the television!"

"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Zuckerman."

"Call me Ruth. We're practically family, after all. Imagine. The nice young man who saved Honey's life is our Mary Lynn's big brother!"

Sam had a sinking feeling that Mama was already planning the music to be played at their wedding. "Why don't you go sit down before your food gets cold, Mama, and I'll keep Matt entertained until Mary Lynn comes back."

"Would you care to join us? There's plenty of food, believe me."

That made Matt even more antsy. "No, thanks. I, uh, really have to get to work on that car."

"Your guests are waiting, Mama."

Reminded of her social duties, and probably hoping Matt would sweep Honey off her feet if they were left alone together, Mama hurried back to the dining room. Matt cleared his throat.

"You didn't tell her, huh?"

"Even if I had, it wouldn't make a difference. Mama wants to see me as a clinging vine being shielded by a big strong man, and you fit the bill."

"I woulda figured you'd jump at the chance to show me up."

"Matt, I didn't join the squad to humiliate you. You see, I've had a partnership that really worked. We meshed." Sam joined his hands together. "We were total opposites, so we each gave the other something--he made me learn to laugh, and I made him seriously commit himself to something. We've both laid our lives on the line for our partner, more than once. So you see, I know what a good partnership is like. It's greater than the sum of its parts. And that's what I want for our team. Today, I took the first step. Will you meet me halfway?"

He hunched his shoulders, first one side, then the other. "I don't like mushy stuff, Zuckerman." After a guick sideways glance at Sam, he concentrated on the doorway, clearly praying his sister would hurry up. "Look, I can't throw my life in your hands just like that. But I'll give you a chance. No more dumb practical jokes, as long as you don't screw up."

"I'll do my best."

"Okay, then. We'll give it a try."

Mary Lynn returned with the car keys, relieving them both. Matt gruffly promised to return her car once he got the muffler adjusted, and fled. The brief heart-to-heart talk had unnerved him far more than defusing a live bomb did.

As Sam returned to the dining room, he heard Katie saying anxiously, "--be sick or something. I mean, it's unnatural. She's being nice all of a sudden, and that's not Honey."

Noting Sam's arrival, Bo clanged his butter knife against his half-empty crystal water goblet. "Round Two!"

"Can we come in and watch?" Jimmy yelled.

"No!"

"Then at least talk louder, so Jack can get all this written down!"

Mama closed her eyes. "Mary Lynn must think I've raised a pack of barbarians."

"Oh, no!" she blurted. "It's not your fault! I mean--uh--"

"Your brother seems like such a nice man. I'm sure he would never be a smart-mouth, like most of my children seem to be." Mama poked at cold sweet potatoes with her fork, then set it down, giving up dinner as a lost cost. "So, I noticed he wasn't wearing a ring. Is he married?"

Sam told his plate, "Not everyone wants to be married."

"Married people live longer," Mama retorted. "It's a proven medical fact. I read just the other day in Reader's Digest--"

Sam stood up. "Excuse me. I'd like to make a toast."

"In the middle of the meal?"

"Yes." He tilted his head toward the silver-haired little woman, smiling affectionately down at her. "To Mama, and to her long, loving, very happy marriage to our father."

Honey's siblings pounded on the table, startling Elmo, who dropped his dinner roll. He picked it up, flicked some dirt off the jelly, added a pinch of jelly scraped off the carpet, and crammed the entire roll into his mouth just as everyone else raised their glasses. As a result, he ended up bumping his empty hand against Roger's wine glass.

Sitting down, Sam leaned over to address Mama directly. "Yours was a marriage made in Heaven, a one-in-a-thousand success story. We all loved our father, but you loved him most of all, and when we lost him, you lost the meaning to your life."

Mama protested, "I still have seven beautiful children."

"It's not enough for a vibrant, still-young woman. You've done a good job of raising us, but we're all grown now. Besides, it's greedy on our part to monopolize all your time. You have your own life to lead."

"But I--"

He wouldn't give her the chance to interrupt. "We've all had the advantage of seeing first-hand how wonderful a good marriage can be, but there are a lot of lonely people out there who don't even know where to start looking. With your experience, and your love of people, you're a natural socializer. Why not put your ability to good use?"

"Why, whatever do you mean?"

"A matchmaker!" Errol practically fell off his chair. "Honey's right. You're always hooking people up with dates; why not get paid for it?"

Dazed, Mama protested feebly, "I don't know anything about running a business."

"I can take care of that, for a slight consulting fee. I can help you get a license and incorporate, the whole bit."

"Jack can write your ads."

"I know Josh would be glad to help you set up a computer database to list your clients and their dates," Katie agreed.

Despite herself, Mrs. Zuckerman was beginning to be seduced by the idea. "I do know a lot of people...."

Sam cautioned her, "Of course, once you're a business, you'll have to harden your heart. No more freebies for any of us, no matter what. If, say, Jimmy wants a date, he'll have to pay the fee and fill out an application, just like everyone else. Otherwise, with a family this size, you'd go broke."

"Oh, now, wait a minute," Cliff objected. "If Elmo can offer us a discount, that's the least Ma can do for you and Jimmy."

Through teeth gritted into a smile, Sam muttered, "Stay out of this."

Elmo was looking puzzled. "Detective Zuckerman? Our engagement's still on, right?"

"Wrong."

Elmo's lip trembled, until Roger tugged on his arm and offered him a reduced rate on a spinal alignment, pointing out how important good muscular condition was for a professional assassin. Their conversation was drowned out by Zuckermans pestering their mother with suggestions.

"Call it `Rent a Yente'!"

"No, `Love's Link.'"

"`Heart Help.'"

"They'll think she's a cardiac surgeon, you moron."

"Hey, Jack, bring some paper and pens in here. We gotta write this stuff down before we forget."

In all the excitement, no one noticed when Sam quietly eased away from the table and out the back door. With the setting of the sun, the garden had become distinctly chilly, but he didn't want to risk going back for a jacket. If he did, he'd get sucked into the Zuckerman hysteria just as surely as sailors were sucked into the propellers of sinking ships. Instead, he slapped his upper arms and started walking down the winding wood chip bark path.

It had been--what?--ten hours since he saw Al in the Imaging Chamber, making light of his bullet wound? Ten hours with no contact, no clue as to Al's condition. Sam glared fiercely up at the half-moon peeking through the branches of the weeping willow.

"I helped defuse a bomb. I made friends with Honey's co-workers. I gave Jack a book idea. I gave Mama a new career that'll keep her out of her children's hair. And I did it all without any help from You. Enough is enough. Until I know Al is all right, I'm not doing any more for You. I'll settle in and live the rest of my life as someone else, no matter how messed up the next Leap is--I'll go out of my way not to fix any more lives. Do you hear me? You owe me, and You owe Al!"

Maybe Whatever had taken control of his Leaps agreed.

The world around him turned blue.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Holding Tina's gorgeous body against his for so many hours was a thrilling experience, and having their love publicly acknowledged was a relief, but at this point Dr. Gooshman could only describe himself as `stressed-out.' He was a computer programmer, an overgrown hacker, not a heroic figure like Admiral Calavicci, who was always willing to rush off, gun in hand, to save the day. His idea of excitement was testing a new function for Ziggy, not being held at gunpoint by murderous thugs for hour after hour after hour.

It didn't help that he spent most of that time, when he wasn't practically wetting his pants with terror, brooding about his guilt feelings. He and Tina had agreed that it would be cruel for her to break up with the Admiral when she was his only comfort during Sam's Leaps. Later, when Sam was safely home and Admiral Calavicci wasn't under such crushing pressure, they could proclaim their love. But now the Admiral had gotten himself shot. There was still a crusted-over brown puddle where he'd bled on the floor by the console. Gooshie kept staring at that stain and mentally kicking himself for adding to the Admiral's misery.

How did things keep getting messed up this way? This morning, he had been eagerly looking forward to running that new program through Ziggy in an attempt to gather Dr. Beckett's stray mesons and neurons into a bundle and magnetically draw them back to his own body, and now the day was over, and he still hadn't begun installing the program. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't work now, not with a dead body in the way, and the Admiral and Dr. Beeks gone, and no way of knowing what was happening to Dr. Beckett.

Things would be so much easier if he could just work with computers, without people getting in the way all the time. People just weren't logical.

Still, despite guilt and fear and frustration, when the electronic door slid down behind the killers, he felt a surge of relief. They were free!

"I wouldn't move, if I were you," Ziggy said cryptically. "Assuming I could, that is."

"What?"

"Suit yourself. But there's a motion detector in that box, and more throughout the complex, and if you all start moving around, you could set the bomb off nine point eight minutes before the programmed detonation time."

"A BOMB?"

Tina's eyes rolled up and she swooned, her weight knocking him to the floor. He held his breath, but nothing exploded. His voice muffled beneath Tina's hair, Gooshie asked plaintively, "Ziggy, what is going on?"

Ziggy's voice module emitted an audible sniff. "Fortunately, it appears that the electromagnetic pulse wall I am maintaining in this room will block the motion sensor. In the event of an emergency, I have been instructed by the person currently inhabiting Dr. Beckett's body in the use of lasers to defuse the bomb, but I'd prefer to wait for the Bomb Squad. It really isn't a job for amateurs. It's so difficult to correctly identify the components of a bomb without a diagram or visual aid, and she didn't have any idea how to input data for my memory banks. Whispering is no way to accurately share data."

Gooshie spit out a mouthful of hair and sat up. "But--I--what--"

The computer said severely, "Really, Dr. Gooshman, in my creator's absence you've been remiss in not inputting bomb and weapon defense techniques to my data banks along with all this boring historical data."

"Ziggy--" he said helplessly, patting Tina's cheeks. "Tina, honey, please wake up!"

"Aren't you going to check the rest of the building? You aren't being very efficient this afternoon, Dr. Gooshman. A scan of the main entrance banks suggests at least 25 people have entered the base in the last hour, and even more have left. If all these people are walking by bombs with motion detectors in them, like this one, we could be in big trouble."

"Ziggy, please. I've got a terrible headache."

"Perhaps that's a side effect from the ultrasonic pulse wall I am emitting. If Dr. Beeks were here, we could ask her." Ziggy sounded more intrigued than concerned. "Shouldn't you warn all those people on the other floors to stop moving? Or tell me to expand the ultrasonic disruption to the rest of the base?"

Gooshie blinked. His head felt like it was imploding. "This is all so confusing--please, Tina!"

Ziggy's voice hardened. "I believe taking care of human units is Dr. Atobe's job. Your job is to look after me, a job which you don't seem to be doing very well. In fact, if it were not for Dr. Beckett's current inhabitant giving me the necessary wavelengths," she pointed out righteously, "I and the contents of this room would be paper clips in six point two minutes."

Tina, dazed, had just begun to sit up. Hearing this ominous proclamation, she moaned and collapsed on top of him again. Gooshie could only grunt.

It really had been an awful day.


Enter the Accelerator and Leap to the conclusion.

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.

Copyright 1992 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.