"Son of a bitch!" Mickey Kostmayer banged the steering wheel in frustration and pulled the van over to the side of the road again. He dug the map out of the door pocket and studied it. He couldn't believe this; he had been trained to find his way around the world with nothing more than a wristwatch, a compass, and the sun, and here he was less than fifty miles from Boston and he was lost. Totally, completely and utterly lost. Something really screwy was going on here; he told himself.
When he had run low on gas he had followed a sign from the Interstate. He had now travelled at least ten miles further and there was still no trace of the gas station. The roads had all looked the same, for the past twenty minutes, narrow and winding and he hadn't seen another road sign or vehicle since he'd left the highway. On top of everything, the mist that had been barely visible on the highway was now much thicker, making it harder than ever to see where he was going forcing him to travel more slowly. He should have been sitting in a cosy cabin after a good dinner, with a beer in hand. Instead, he was hungry, tired, stranded and lost.
Grabbing the cell phone, he decided first to call McCall and let him know he had been delayed. After all the years he had known Robert, Mickey still looked on his fatherly concern with good humor. Next, he would try to find someone to bring him some gas or arrange a tow truck to get him to a gas station. He cursed again when he found the phone wouldn't work; the battery was fine, but there was no signal.
"This must be in a dead spot or something. I knew these stupid things were over-rated," he muttered. Fuming, he tossed the errant mobile phone onto the seat beside him, then killed the sputtering engine and headlights. He climbed into the back of the van after turning on the dome light, and dug out a flashlight and sleeping bag, opening the bag out.
Kostmayer checked his watch. It had stopped at 10:27, and Mickey shook his head. He was definitely out of luck with mechanical things today. His internal clock told him it was much later.
Deciding that he needed to attend to a call of nature before he turned in for the night he pulled the zipper of his coat all the way up as he climbed out of the van. He looked around carefully, if anything the mist was thicker now, and the air was even colder. Clutching his flashlight, he jogged across the road and into a clump of trees. He was just heading back to the van when a sudden and inexplicable gust of wind blew away the mist, and he was surprised to spot some lights away to his left through the trees. By the time the mist returned, thicker than ever, he had the position marked in his mind. He considered his options-he could go back to the van and pass a cold and uncomfortable night or he could check out the lights. It might be a house and maybe the people there would let him use the phone to get help.
Humming softly to himself, Robert McCall made his way along the hospital corridor to Kostmayer's room. As the police and Company investigations had turned up nothing suspicious, the agent on guard had been removed; Control now felt that the whole thing had been unrelated to Mickey's employment. As much as Robert still felt uneasy about the events of 31st October, there was nothing concrete on which to base his reservations. A local reporter had caused McCall's main headache; for two days she had dogged his steps, trying to get information about Mickey and the accident for an article on the area. McCall had had the devil of a job keeping some pictures she'd taken of Mickey at the scene of the accident, out of the press. He hoped some other local event had now superseded interest in a simple traffic accident. Mickey's government connections disallowed any close association of the operative with the news media.
Robert McCall knocked gently on the door of the private hospital room; upon hearing no words of warning denying him entrance, he walked in. He smiled when he saw the sleeping figure in the high bed; as usual, Mickey was curled up comfortably. Kostmayer always looked so much younger and innocent-Robert chuckled silently at the thought-when his face was relaxed in slumber. McCall had once asked Mickey about his ability to store up his rest time, because while off duty, Kostmayer would often stay in bed for ten to twelve hours a night. The younger man had claimed it was the reason he could go without sleep for protracted periods when he was working.
Mickey was probably one of the most lethal individuals McCall had come across, but it never ceased to impress Robert how deceptive Kostmayer's appearance could be. It was undoubtedly the reason Kostmayer's career in intelligence had been so successful; the opposition, to their cost, continually underestimated him. Kostmayer's week in the hospital had been tough on Robert, who had developed an abiding fondness for his one-time protégé, but he could now finally enjoy the fact that Mickey was safe and well, and was being allowed to go home today.
The nightmare had begun on a Saturday evening, a little over a week before. Robert had been expecting Mickey to join him for a short fishing holiday on the Massachusetts coast, but when the younger man hadn't arrived as scheduled the retired CIA operative hadn't been unduly worried. He'd been vindicated in his confidence when Kostmayer had called him on his cellular phone within the hour. It had been a terrible connection, but Robert had just been able to make out, around the colorful expletives and crackling static, that Mickey had run out of gas and was lost in the fog somewhere outside of Boston.
An hour later, when McCall had heard nothing more, he turned in for the night, fully expecting a cold, hungry and thoroughly disgruntled Mickey Kostmayer to show up early the next morning. Instead he had been woken, while it was still dark, by a call from Control telling him that Kostmayer had been involved in a car accident and that he had been taken to a hospital in nearby Salem. Robert's anxiety had not been helped when Control hadn't been able to give him any details of either the accident or of Mickey's injuries. It hadn't been difficult for Control to persuade Robert to take charge of Mickey's security at the hospital, and to act as liaison between the Company and the local police.
It had taken only a short time for Robert to close up the rented cabin and get on the road. Early on a Sunday morning, the roads had been clear and he had reached the hospital in good time. At the emergency room reception desk, the clerk on duty had checked and then informed him that Mickey was in X-ray. She had then directed him to a waiting area just down the corridor, promising someone would come and see him as soon as possible.
The waiting room was similar to the dozens of other hospital waiting rooms where he had spent too much time in the past. Featureless walls, a machine dispensing awful coffee in cardboard cups, and magazines that were months out of date. Robert sat in the usual hard plastic chair, his thoughts wandering after the concentration of the drive to the hospital. Now that he had the time to run through the events of last night, it occurred to him that something didn't add up.
How could the van have crashed if it had run out of gas, as Mickey had said? Mickey was too good a driver to have an accident, even in fog, unless someone or something else was involved. Maybe the van had been run off the road by another car? In that case, had it been an assassination attempt that had gone wrong? Robert rapidly became irritated; all his speculation was getting him nowhere fast because the only one to know what had really happened was Mickey.
Responsible for Mickey's safety and concerned for his well-being, both out of friendship and duty, Robert refused to resign himself to a long wait. He was on his way to demand admittance when a nurse opened the door between the waiting room and the emergency treatment area, and called his name.
In the wee hours of Sunday Morning, Dr. John Adams had been just coming on duty when the car accident victim had been brought in. He'd begun the exam of the unconscious man, while nurses called the emergency number in the man's wallet. Immediately after, the doctor had been informed that this man was a special case, a government agent whose employers had made it clear that his safety was a priority. Hospital security was holding his weapon and identification. To Adams' annoyance, he had also been informed that a specialist was being sent in from Washington to take over the case, and that someone local would be arriving to coordinate everything.
The doctor ran his hand through his dark hair, trying to push it back from his face; it had already been a busy night in the emergency room and the last thing he needed was this bureaucratic bullshit. He looked up as one of the nurses brought someone up to him.
"This is Mr. McCall. He's here for Mr. Kostmayer," the woman said, before hurrying off.
Dr. Adams was surprised by the government man's appearance; maybe in his late fifties, heavily built, and with grey hair, the man also had startling clear eyes and an air of confident power about him. The doctor had expected someone younger, and more furtive looking, perhaps. From his appearance, the doctor guessed that this man was probably someone who worked behind a desk doing research and planning. Michael Kostmayer, on the other hand, had neatly fitted into Adams' stereotypical image of a government agent and, from the scars he carried, Adams surmised the patient had spent a number of years in his dangerous line of work.
"Can you tell me how Mickey is?"
"Mickey?" Dr. Adam's confusion was genuine.
"I'm sorry, I should have said Michael, Michael Kostmayer. I believe you were told to expect me."
The doctor's response was terse and barely civil. The impending arrival of an unnamed specialist was not setting well with him, implying as it did that his own expertise was not considered sufficient to the task of caring for one government agent. "We were very concerned at first, as he was extremely disoriented and couldn't talk for most of the period it took to cut him out of the wreck. He had a mild convulsion during the ambulance trip bringing him in. As yet, we don't know why it happened, and the results of the tests we've run so far have come back normal. He was awake for a short time, but was very confused and distressed. We have given him a mild sedative. He's been admitted, and per your organization's instructions, is in a private room with one of your people outside. I expect your specialist, when he arrives, will recommend that Mr. Kostmayer stay for, at least, a few more days for more tests and further observation."
Mr. McCall's eyes narrowed minutely, and his jaw tightened, but he didn't respond to the doctor's less than cordial tone. Instead, he said, "I'd like to see him now."
"Of course. There'll be paperwork to sign, if you'll stop in Admissions. They can give you his room number. Through those doors, up to the first floor and turn left." His job finished, Adams put the injured government man, and all the bureaucratic nonsense his presence had caused, out of his mind.
A few minutes later, Robert was following a young nurse down a hallway on the second floor. Robert spotted the room before he reached it; it was the only one with a guard sitting outside. As he closed the distance between them, Robert realized the tall, thin man was familiar; he searched his memory and eventually came up with a name, Andrew Wright. He remembered that Wright had worked with Mickey and himself nearly five years before in Europe, and as a consequence Andrew was well aware of the bond between the two men. Wright's solid presence was very reassuring to the retired agent.
The tall operative rose as McCall approached, watched the pretty nurse walk by, then looked back at the retired agent. "Robert, nice to see you."
Robert met Wright's gaze and smiled a greeting; they shook hands. "Andrew, how are you? It must be years since I saw you last."
"That's right, Robert, Yugoslavia if I recall correctly." Seeing McCall's barely hidden impatience, Wright pushed open the door to Mickey's room. "Go on inside and reassure yourself that he's still breathing. We can reminisce later."
Quietly thanking the operative for his intuitive understanding, Robert entered the dimly lit room, approaching the bed where his friend was lying. Mickey, at least superficially, didn't appear to be badly hurt. The only visible signs of the accident were a small cut beside his left eye, now neatly sutured, and bruising to his face and chest. The bruises on the left side of his face extended from his hairline to his jawbone; those on his chest, just visible through the gapping front opening of the hospital gown, covered the left side of his chest from his armpit to just below his waist.
The patient's condition was being monitored continually via the contacts attached to his chest, neck and temples. The readings of heartbeat, respiration and other vital signs appeared on screens on the wall behind the bed, and while most of them meant nothing to Robert, those he could understand seemed normal. A feeling that he had missed something obvious made Robert look at Mickey more closely; then he spotted the incongruity.
There were some strange scratches on Mickey's chest. They were too regular to have got there in the accident; McCall made a mental note to ask about them later.
As he looked on, he became mindful of a difference in Mickey's breathing. Mickey's eyes flicked open; Robert was relieved, at first, because he assumed that his friend was now conscious. But when Robert tried to speak to him, he saw that the familiar hazel eyes were unfocused and unseeing. The younger man began to shake, his whole posture displaying abject horror of something that only he could see. Small, whimpering noises came from his throat.
At first, they sounded to Robert like the inarticulate sounds of terror that a person would make during a nightmare. When the volume of the cries increased, Robert was able to make out some of the words torn from his friend.
"No, no please, I can't do it. I don't want to do it, please don't make me. Please!"
Worried by the sudden apparent deterioration of his friend's condition and the accelerated beeping from the monitors as Mickey's vital signs began to fluctuate wildly, Robert tried to calm Mickey by talking to him, but to no avail. Fighting his unseen demons, Mickey began to toss and turn violently. Worried that he might do further damage to himself Robert tried to hold him still; instead of calming him, McCall's touch seemed to further inflame him and Mickey fought harder. His panicked cries cut Robert to the quick.
In the past, Robert had seen Kostmayer withstand and live to walk away from situations that would have made the bravest of men give up and go home. Quite simply, Kostmayer was one of the most courageous people that Robert had ever known; to see him this way was devastating. Robert took a step back and looked on helplessly as a nurse, with the name Standish on her identity tag, came in and attempted to fasten soft restraints around Mickey's wrists. Even with Robert's help they were unable to overcome Mickey's terrified thrashing, and Standish pressed the call button to summon help. It wasn't until a second nurse, a young man, answered the summons that they managed to pin Mickey down long enough for Nurse Standish to fasten the straps around Mickey's wrists, arms, chest and legs.
Despite the restraints, the injured man continued to struggle and it tested McCall's resolve to stand by and do nothing. A man close to Robert's age, distinguished looking and well-dressed, hurried into the room, and once more, recognition lurked at the edge of Robert's mind. More perturbed by Mickey's plight than the puzzle of where he'd seen the newcomer's face before, McCall filed the question of identity away for another time. It was not the face of an enemy, that much he knew for certain.
The man issued instructions in a quiet, calm voice, and Nurse Standish left the room, returning shortly with a syringe containing a clear liquid, which the doctor-it was now obvious he was a physician, even without a white hospital coat-then introduced slowly into Mickey's IV line. Saddened by his friend's suffering, Robert watched in relief as Mickey began to quiet down, and after a few more minutes, the younger man lapsed into a fitful sleep.
Letting out the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding, Robert looked at the older man; his name came suddenly to mind. "It's William Gregory, isn't' it?" McCall asked. He remembered then that he had met the senior Company doctor a couple of times over the years.
Raising an eyebrow, the doctor said, "That's right, Robert. Control said you'd be here. He also told me that Kostmayer is a friend of yours and that I should take good care of him."
"Why has Control sent you? The emergency room doctor said there was nothing to worry about, that Mickey was going to be all right."
"As far as the preliminary test results go he should be," Gregory responded thoughtfully. McCall immediately recognized the evasiveness of the reply.
"What aren't you saying? I heard he had some sort of seizure on the way here; was it the same as this one?" McCall waved his hand toward the bed; he couldn't bring himself to look too closely at Mickey, sedated and restrained. It was so undignified, and demeaning.
Dr. Gregory frowned for a moment, obviously organizing his thoughts. "According to the reports I've been able to glance through, something similar did happen in the ambulance. I don't know yet exactly what is causing the seizures. On the purely physical side, he is suffering from bruised ribs and a fairly serious blow on the head; neither of which should be causing the disturbances he is experiencing, though head trauma is unpredictable. The toxicology results aren't back yet, but there is a slight suspicion that he might be under the influence of some outside substance."
"What!?" Robert was stunned; quickly and vehemently he went to his friend's defense. "You can't mean drugs. Let me tell you, I have known Mickey Kostmayer for nearly twenty years and have never known him to use any drugs, recreational or otherwise, in all that time, except the occasional asprin or with specific doctors' orders. Which he usually protested. If Mickey is under the influence of anything, it was given to him without his knowledge or consent."
"Hold on, Robert. I'm not accusing Kostmayer of taking drugs knowingly or willingly. I studied his file on the way here and I think I understand him well enough now not to jump to hasty conclusions. At present, I am simply trying to examine any possible explanation for his condition. So, before you get angry with me, hear me out, please. I have been given some workspace here in the hospital. I'm going there now to review all the data I have; I promise you I will try my damnedest to figure out what is wrong with our colleague. Ideally, we'll find that these symptoms have been caused by the bang on the head he received when the van rolled over, and they'll stop soon." Dr Gregory moved toward the door, but stopped when he heard Robert's voice.
"What if the situation isn't ideal? What then?" Robert asked the question reluctantly, not entirely sure that he wanted to know the answer if it wasn't good.
"Then, all we can do is wait." Gregory answered softly, obviously sympathetic to Robert's clear concern for a close friend.
With Mickey's convulsive attack, the pattern had been set for the next two days. When the sedatives wore off, Mickey would be subject to convulsions and hallucinations similar to the one that Robert had witnessed. It would then take an increasingly large dose of sedative to calm him again. In the end, Dr. Gregory had made the decision to keep him more lightly but constantly sedated. The benefit, he had explained to McCall, was that he could use a lower overall dosage because the effects were maintained.
While Dr. Gregory searched for clues to what was wrong with the injured CIA operative, Robert had updated Control on Mickey's condition, arranged a schedule of guard duty with Andrew and another operative, spoken to the police officers investigating the accident and the vehicle, and then suffered along with his friend. McCall hated to see Mickey so helpless or in the thrall of something he apparently found so terrifying. The retired operative felt impotent. If there had been a man or woman involved, he could have taken steps to remove the threat to Mickey, but there was, apparently, no one he could fight and nothing he could do except wait.
Like Kostmayer, Robert wasn't particularly happy about waiting.
Worn down by worry and frustration that there had been little or no progress in Kostmayer's case, Robert was spoiling for a fight. Coming into the hospital shortly after breakfast, he quickly found his way to the office William Gregory was using as his base and when the senior Company doctor greeted Robert in his usual calm manner, the doctor became the target of that frustration.
"Listen to me," McCall thundered. "I have had enough of this bloody messing about. I want to know what you are doing for Mickey. He can't live the rest of his life under sedation, being fed through a bloody tube. When are you going to find out what the hell is actually wrong with him?"
"Robert, I understand your worries. Please sit down and relax for a moment." Gregory's voice was calm as always.
"Relax! Don't you dare tell me to relax," Robert snapped. "Someone I care about is lying in a hospital bed and when he isn't drugged out of his senses, he is scared out of his wits. I want to know, right now, what you are going to do about it." McCall collapsed into a chair; his normal sense of fairness quickly reasserting itself. He knew that Gregory was doing his best for Mickey; it was just taking so long. He thanked God that Nicholas Kostmayer was in Rome at the moment, because his distress at his brother's condition would be more than Robert could stand.
Dr. Gregory smiled gently. "I'm glad you're here. I may have some answers for you. I thought I recognized this combination of symptoms. My diagnosis has now been confirmed by the result of the analysis of some odd substances we found in Mickey's original blood tests. We've identified traces of ergot and two other naturally occurring hallucinogens."
Robert wrinkled his forehead; the headache that had tormented him for the past three days was making thinking difficult. He thought he had heard of ergot before, but he couldn't place the reference. "I suppose you will deign to tell me, in your own time, what this has to do with Mickey's problems?" he asked testily.
"Ergot is a disease that attacks rye and other grasses, it's a type of fungus. It can cause hallucinations, and in the past larger doses were used to bring an end to unwanted pregnancies. Incidentally, there is an interesting bit of local history here; it was rumored that most of the original hysteria of the Salem witchhunts might have been caused by hallucinations due to eating bread made with infected grain. Modern medicine has found a few uses for medicinals made from ergot."
"You are telling me that this fungus is why Mickey is still behaving so strangely?"
"It's a strong possibility, and unfortunately, the only one we have to go on at present. In normal circumstances, I would've expected it to have left his system by now, but reactions to such things vary from individual to individual."
"What are you going to do?" Robert snapped angrily.
"I'm going to give him something to counteract the worst effects, let him come off the sedatives slowly, and then wait and see. At the moment, this is our best, or should I say only, course of action."
To Robert's immense relief the treatment proved to be a turning point and from then on, things improved rapidly. As promised, the sedation was decreased, slowly at first, but when it became clear that the antidote had worked, it was withdrawn completely. Mickey still slept for long periods and had no memory of the accident or of the immediate events leading up to it, nor could he explain the pattern of scratches on his chest, but Gregory did not find that so unusual. Temporary memory loss was more common after a trauma than lay people often realized, although Mickey had made it clear he found the gap in his recollections disturbing. The last thing he told Robert he remembered before he woke in the hospital was turning off the highway to find a gas station.
Relieved beyond measure that his friend and one-time protégé was recovering, and having uncovered no reason for keeping Kostmayer under guard, especially now that he was in a better position to defend himself, Robert went back to New York to take care of some other matters that had come up in his absence. He spoke to Mickey twice a day, and from Kostmayer's continual complaints McCall was soon well aware of the younger man's impatience to be out of the hospital. According to Kostmayer, his physical condition didn't warrant him being there any longer; even his bruises were fading nicely, though he was still sore if he moved too quickly.
Robert had been daydreaming, but he came back to the present with a bump when he heard the familiar voice growling, "Hey, McCall, have you finally brought me my clothes? I swear it's the only way you've managed to keep me in here for so long."
"Do stop complaining, Mickey. You know I'm here to take you home, so trying to make me feel guilty won't have any effect at all." While he spoke, Robert placed a holdall bag on the bed. "Your clothes are in there. I had to get fresh ones from your apartment, as those that you were wearing at the time of the accident were ruined."
Unselfconsciously throwing back the covers, Mickey climbed out of the bed, and pulled off the hospital gown. Opening the bag, he pulled out his clothes and began to dress. "Guess you're right, McCall; I'm going stir crazy. I can't wait to get outta here."
"Really, Mickey? You do surprise me." Robert pretended to study the view from the window to avoid the glare Kostmayer aimed at him for his sarcasm.
When a number of attractive nurses dropped in to say goodbye to Mickey, delaying their departure for nearly an hour; McCall smiled to himself. Kostmayer may have lost a bit of his memory, but he certainly hadn't lost any of his appeal for the opposite sex.
Mickey sighed with relief as he closed the door to his small, untidy apartment. Spending too long in the perpetually clean and tidy hospital room had unnerved him. Because he could, he dumped his bag on the floor and left it there; then he wandered into the kitchen and took a bottle of beer from the refrigerator. He opened it, walked back into the living room and collapsed onto the worn couch. Flicking through television channels with the remote control, he found a station showing a hockey game and with a sigh of pleasure settled down to watch.
He awoke when the phone rang and estimated he must have slept for a couple of hours, the TV now supplied the only light inside the apartment. He answered around an only partially suppressed yawn.
"Ah, Mickey," said a familiar, British-accented voice. "I wondered if you wanted to come over for dinner this evening."
Mickey quickly ran through the contents of his refrigerator in his mind: two eggs, four bottles of beer, something that might have been edible once but was now auditioning for the title role in the latest remake of The Blob. "Yeah, McCall, that would be great. What time?"
"I'll be there." Pushing himself off the couch, Mickey glanced at his watch; he had just enough time to take a quick shower before he had to leave. As he ambled into the bathroom, it suddenly struck him that his watch was working again. Why did he remember that it had stopped? Shrugging the thought away, he turned on the water. As he stripped off his clothes, his attention was caught by the marks on his chest, now nearly healed. He still couldn't remember how they had gotten there.
Oh well, he thought, no point in worrying about it now. It was certain to come back to him eventually, so he climbed into the shower.
Robert heard the knock at the door just as he was about to put the pasta into the boiling water. "Who is it?"
"It's me. Who do you think it is?" came the growl from the other side of the wood barrier. Mickey's release from his enforced stay in the hospital obviously hadn't done anything to improve his temper.
Opening the door, Robert headed straight back to the kitchen, calling, "Make yourself useful and open the wine," over his shoulder as he poured the pasta into the pan. Giving it a quick stir, he got two glasses from the cupboard and put them on the counter, studying Mickey carefully while the younger man wrestled with the wine bottle. Kostmayer looked rested, the bruises on his face had almost disappeared, and apart from a slight wince every now and then as his ribs apparently gave him a twinge, he seemed to be healing well.
Robert served portions of the pasta with his own special recipe sauce onto warm plates, and then carried them through into the living room. Sitting down in the easy chair, he helped himself to a glass of red wine then started eating. Apart from a muttered, "Food's great," Mickey ate in silence, as usual. He enjoyed Robert's cooking but would eat almost anything. To Kostmayer, food mostly was a means to avoid starvation, not the oft-times sensual pleasure that it represented to Robert. The silence between them was companionable and did not worry either man. The retired agent was certain Mickey's loss of memory was playing on the younger man's mind, but Robert knew, also, that Mickey would talk about it if and when he felt the need.
Pushing his empty plate away a short time later, Mickey relaxed back against the cushions on the couch, his hands behind his head. He gazed thoughtfully at Robert for a minute or two before he said, "Okay, McCall, why the dinner invitation?"
Robert was taken aback for a moment by Mickey's directness. "My dear fellow, what makes you think there is any reason for the invitation?"
"First, I've known you for too long. Second, besides Control, you can be the most devious person I know. You've got something on your mind, so spill it." The familiar grin dispelled any annoyance Robert might have felt. It seemed, though, that Kostmayer was getting better at seeing through Robert's schemes; McCall filed that information away for future reference.
"You do know me too well my friend. I admit I'm still concerned about you and I wanted to make sure you were all right." Robert stacked the plates together as he spoke
"I'm fine, Robert. You were there. The doctors gave me a clean bill of health."
Robert sighed heavily, his concern still showing in his blue eyes."I know, Mickey, but there is just something that doesn't feel right about your accident and everything that came after."
Mickey tried to lighten the atmosphere; Robert knew he hated it when McCall got serious about him. "Hey, I thought it was my job to get bad feelings about things. Stop worrying. I'm fine. Really."
"I know, I'm behaving like a mother hen." As he spoke, McCall made a decision. "Tell me, do you feel up to coming to see someone with me tomorrow?"
The Morris' message had been on McCall's answering machine and he had contacted them when he'd returned from Boston that afternoon. He wasn't sure that there was much of a case for the Equalizer, but maybe he could find something for Mickey to do that would keep him out of trouble for a few days, and enable Robert to watch him more closely. Mickey's seizures had frightened McCall badly and he was anxious that they didn't reoccur.
"Yeah, sure. Who is it?" Undoubtedly bored out of his mind in the hospital, and sidelined for, at least, a few more days by Control, Mickey was certainly itching for a little action. Anything, even a baby-sitting job, would be a welcome diversion, McCall knew.
"A couple called Morris; they're worried about their eighteen-year-old daughter." Mickey brightened visibly, and wasn't put off when Robert scowled at him "The girl won't be at home tomorrow; she'll be in school." Eighteen was far too young for Mickey's tastes, but he did love giving McCall a hard time. Robert just gave him a disgusted look.
"So, what's their problem?"
"I'm not really sure; they seemed a bit reluctant to discuss it over the phone. I got the feeling they are somehow embarrassed. Never the less, they do seem convinced that she is in some sort of danger."
"No problem, McCall; always glad to help. What time do you want me to be ready?" Mickey asked as he stood, picked up the dirty plates and carried them into the kitchen.
"I'll drive over and pick you up at ten-thirty."
"Okay. I'll be ready." Kostmayer's reply was muffled by the walls. Mickey declined Robert's offer of desert or coffee; instead, he picked up his jacket and headed for the door. Robert had the idea that he was still feeling under the weather, but was too proud and stubborn to let on. "Thanks for the dinner, McCall; I'll see you tomorrow."
It was raining heavily as McCall drew level with the entrance to Mickey's ancient apartment building. The rain had slowed the traffic and he was already fifteen minutes late; he double-parked hoping that Mickey was ready to go. Before he could get out of the car to ring the buzzer, a camouflage jacketed figure hurtled out of the doorway and into the rain. Seconds later, the car door opened, and a damp and slightly breathless Kostmayer fell into the passenger seat of the sleek black car.
"Well, you seem to be back to your old self this morning," Robert commented dryly.
Figuring he didn't really need to answer, Mickey asked a question instead. "So, where are we headed?"
"It's not too far, they live in Brooklyn." Robert handed Mickey a computer print out with barely five lines of print on it before putting the car in gear and pulling away from the curb. "I got Jonah to do a bit of checking, and as you can see the Morrises are Mr. and Mrs. Average. There are no records of any problems, financial or with the police; there doesn't even seem to have ever been a traffic ticket issued. He works in a bank as a manager, and she helps part-time in a school for special needs children. They have just the one daughter, Chloe, who attends the local high school."
The front door of the Morris' house opened as soon as McCall stopped the car outside; the occupants had obviously been looking for them. The house and the front yard were tidy and well kept. While making their way to the house, McCall studied the man at the door. He was in his late fifties, of average height and build; his hair was grey and thinning. Mrs. Morris came to stand beside her husband; she was about ten years younger than her husband, but she too, was unremarkably average. Reaching the doorstep, McCall held out his hand
"Hello, I'm Robert McCall, and this is my associate." The mischief-maker in Mickey prompted him to greet the Morris with one of his patented, Don't worry, I'm only your friendly, neighbourhood psychopath smiles. Robert watched his prospective clients' reaction to Mickey with little amusement; John Morris was so obviously completely at a loss what to make of the younger man.
Gritting his teeth, Morris replied, "Thank you for coming, Mr. McCall. Please come in. I'm John and this is my wife, Helen." Robert nodded a greeting at the woman.
Apparently overwhelmed by two such disparate two visitors, Mrs. Morris fell back on good manners, "Can I get you some coffee, Mr. McCall, or you, Mr...er ...?" Helen Morris regarded Mickey as one might a starving lion that had escaped from the zoo and had somehow found its way into her living room.
"That would be fine, thank you." McCall addressed himself to her husband. "I wondered if you could tell me more about your problem. You were rather vague on the phone."
John Morris began haltingly, with only the occasional worried glance in Kostmayer's direction. "It's our daughter, Chloe. She's begun acting strangely and we're worried about her. Until recently, she was a model student with good grades and lots of friends. Two weeks ago, a new student joined her class and since then, everything has changed. We contacted her teachers, and they acknowledge that there is a problem with her work, but can't seem to offer any explanation. We've spoken to several other parents with students in the same class, but they haven't noticed any changes in their children. We suspect that it might be something to do with the new boy."
"Mr. Morris, you keep alluding to a problem but as yet, you haven't said what it is or why you think you daughter is in danger."
"I'm sorry, Mr. McCall, you're right. We know this must sound improbable, but we think our daughter has become involved in witchcraft."
"Witchcraft! What leads you to that conclusion?" McCall fixed Mickey with a hard stare; the last thing he needed was for Kostmayer to make a smart comment and further upset the Morrises. They were rattled enough as it was. Their concerns were genuine even if Robert wasn't too sure how much credence he should give to the witchcraft theory. He had to look away when Kostmayer gave him his best innocent look in return. One of the benefits of his long association with the younger man was the way they could understand each other without the need for words.
Dragging the story bit by bit from John Morris was wearing down McCall's patience. It was also giving him second thoughts, and he hoped the man's reticence wasn't a cover for something more sinister and that he and Mickey were being set up.
Morris began his explanation. "It's almost as though she has been possessed, she's changed so much and so quickly. She is convinced that she's going to die. She won't tell us much more, except that she has a part to play in some supernatural rite and that her death is likely. She has told us not to go into her room any more; she doesn't eat with us and will not attend church any more. She said that God has abandoned her. When we said that we wanted to help her, she told us that we couldn't, whatever she was facing is too powerful for mere mortals. I don't know what to do, Mr McCall. In the cold light of day it sounds so silly, but Chloe is terrified."
"Do you not think it strange then, that she has still gone to school today?"
"Yes, it is strange. We tried to make her stay at home and told her that we would contact the police. It only made her angry. She is very frightened of this new boy; he has threatened that we will be in danger if anything happens to upset his plans. She believes him implicitly and refuses to co-operate with any action that we might take."
"Has she told you when and where this ceremony is supposed to take place?"
"Only when. Tonight. We told her not to go anywhere, but she says that when she's summoned, she won't be able to resist. Mr. McCall, she's drawn some mysterious symbols on the wall in her room, but she won't say what they're for."
"Purely on the basis of staying out at night and not wanting to attend church, almost every teenager in New York could be suspected as involved in witchcraft. I am really most concerned that she believes that her life is in danger. You are aware, I hope, that there is the possibility she might be involved with drugs. All the behavior patterns you've told me about could be interpreted in that way."
"Never. Chloe is far too sensible to get involved with drugs." The father was vehemently certain.
"Why did you call me, Mr. Morris? What do you want me to do?" Robert turned, as Mrs. Morris came back into the room with a tray of cups, to include her in the question; she looked uncomfortable for a moment and Robert got the distinct impression that calling him in hadn't been her idea.
Her husband ignored her as Helen began to hand out the cups of coffee, speaking quietly. "To be honest, I don't know why we called you, Mr. McCall, except an associate at the bank has been a client of yours and he was very impressed with the way you solved his problem. We don't know where else to turn."
Taking a sip of the hot liquid, Robert asked, "Mrs. Morris would it be possible for my associate and I to take a look at Chloe's room and the drawings we heard about?" Robert decided to direct the questions at the mother, her lack of confidence could make her more likely to slip up if the Morrises had anything at all to hide. Mickey shook his head when she offered him a cup.
"I'm not sure if that would be possible. When John asked Chloe about them she became angry, violently so, and now she keeps the door locked and has requested us not to go in there."
Despite himself, Robert was interested by this case. A sceptic from way back, he had never found any proof of the existence of witches-beyond the Wiccan religion, which was an altogether different matter- or anything else the occult practitioners claimed existed. "If you don't have the key, my associate can deal with the lock. You really must decide if you want me to help your daughter, or if you wish to allow her to let herself go into danger, possibly die." Annoyed by their concern more for a headstrong young woman's pride than for her safety, Robert spoke sharply.
Checking first with her husband for his approval she said, "I'll show you the way." Putting down their coffee cups, McCall and the girl's father followed Mrs. Morris up a flight of stairs, and they all stopped at the second doorway along the hall. "This is Chloe's room."
McCall examined the door and doorway carefully, looking for, but not expecting to find, any traps or telltales that Chloe might have set to see if the door had been opened in her absence. Satisfied that the door was clean, he stood back to allow Kostmayer, who had followed John Morris, access to the lock.
While the Morrises looked on, Mickey produced a small wallet from one of the many pockets in his jacket. With their curious eyes on him, he extracted a pick and with minimal effort opened the lock. Turning the handle, he pushed the door open; the room inside was pitch black. He felt around for the light switch, flicked it up and the room was instantly bathed in light.
The first thing Robert noticed were the heavy black curtains covering the window and then the small altar set up opposite the bed. Absolutely nothing in the room seemed out of place. Turning his attention to the designs painted onto the walls, Robert took the small camera he used for copying documents from his pocket and carefully recorded the details of the four designs, one adorning each wall. After a quick glance, he decided that, for the moment, there was nothing else to see.
Leaving Mickey to close up behind them, Robert urged his clients downstairs. "If you could let me have the name and address of this new student that you believe is behind the trouble, I'll do some checking today, and I'll investigate these designs. My associate will keep an eye on Chloe, for now, so don't be alarmed if you see him hanging around. He is extremely good at this sort of thing. Do you have an up-to-date photograph of your daughter that I might borrow?" He waited patiently while Mrs. Morris went and rummaged through an album, finally producing a small formal portrait of a pleasant-looking, dark-haired young woman. McCall put it into his coat pocket.
"The new student's name is Samuel Parris, we don't know his address." Mr. Morris added helpfully.
"Thank you. I'm sure we can turn up something. Don't say anything to Chloe about our visit and if we find anything of interest I'll let you know at once. Goodbye for now." Robert waited at the door as Mickey came downstairs; he saw the slight nod from the younger man and knew that Mickey had understood his intent. In the minute or so that Robert had been downstairs with the Morrises, Mickey would have searched Chloe's room for any sign of drugs or anything similar that might be causing her strange behavior.
A silent and enigmatic Kostmayer followed Robert from the house and waited until they were back at the Jaguar before he asked, "So what do you think? Is it witchcraft, drugs, or is Chloe Morris having delusions?"
"That depends; did you find anything of interest to us?"
"There were a couple of books on black magic, but that was it." Mickey passed McCall a small slip of paper and took the picture in return. "Old publication dates, leather bindings. I got the titles." A jerk of his head indicated the piece of paper McCall was glancing over.
"Good work. To answer your question, I honestly don't know what's going on, Mickey. There is something strange happening in the Morris house, though." He pondered for a moment. "You know, it is almost as though we are the ones being manipulated, and I don't like that one bit."
Mickey slid into the car and waited in silence until Robert had settled himself in the driver's seat. "Did you recognize any of the symbols on the walls?"
The query surprised McCall. He certainly hadn't recognized any of the symbols but from his subdued tone Robert suspected that Kostmayer had. "No, did you?"
"One of them was very familiar." Kostmayer was giving nothing away, his face was as expressionless as ever. Robert considered that there were definitely times when he wanted nothing more than to give Mickey a bloody good shake. He was feeling too old and tired to play this sort of game.
"So, are you going to tell me where and when you have seen it before or are you going to make me guess?" For once, Mickey totally ignored the touch of asperity in McCall's voice.
A ghost of a smile touched Mickey's mouth before he rearranged his features into their normal, guarded look. "You're not going to believe it, McCall, but I see it everyday when I take a shower. It looked a lot like the scratch marks on my chest after the accident."
"My God..." Robert was going to say more, but stopped himself, remembering what the marks had looked like when he'd first seen them. Even though they'd been partially covered by the hospital gown, the image, in recollection, did match the pattern of one of the designs on Chloe Morris' wall. Which made McCall wonder anew what was going on, and also, how could Mickey possibly be involved?
Mickey was still claiming that the fact that he was unable to remember anything that had happened, during the ten-hour period he was missing, didn't worry him overly much. Robert was convinced now that that wasn't the case. In that instant, when Mickey had asked about the symbol, he had let his barriers down, and Robert had seen the man inside and now appreciated the extent of Mickey's distress. Kostmayer probably thought that by losing his memory he had failed in some way, and that was something he found terribly hard to live with. Robert silently cursed the younger man for being so bloody good at hiding his feelings so much of the time.
"What do we do now?"
Although he noticed the attempt to change the subject, Robert thought it best not to mention it now. Instead, he made plans. "If I drop you at the Company now, can you get another van?"
"No sweat. I'm supposed to be off duty but I'm sure I can think of something."
"Good. I would like you to start at the school, see what you can find out about this boy, then keep an eye on Chloe until she gets home. Can you do that?"
"Sure. I slept late this morning and I'm feeling good; so quit worrying."
"I'll get the film developed and then go and talk to Munson. He should have some idea what these symbols mean."
Two hours later, Robert McCall climbed tiredly back into the Jaguar. He had found some answers but had discovered a lot more questions. It had also taken twenty minutes of cajoling to persuade Munson to co-operate with him. Apparently, Luther-another contact from Robert's Company days-and Kostmayer had fallen out the last time they had seen each other, and the man had vowed that he would never help Kostmayer, and by association McCall, again. Eventually, McCall had smoothed his ruffled feather and prised the answers from him, but the information had only increased Robert's confusion. Luther had identified the symbols but he could offer no explanation why one of them had been scratched on Mickey's chest, especially at a car accident. As he told McCall candidly, he also didn't care; it was just a shame that it hadn't been carved on Kostmayer's heart. 'Not that he believed Kostmayer had ever had one,' Munson had added snidely.
Wearily, McCall rubbed his eyes, sifting the facts from Munson's ranting had given him a headache, and McCall was absolutely sure that Munson had only cooperated in the end because he had wanted to show off. He eventually deigned to tell McCall that the symbols represented four archangels: St. Michael the Defender, St. Raphael the Healer, St. Gabriel the Herald, St. Urial the Angel of Death. He had added that the symbols were used in both black, or satanic, and white, or wiccan, magic rituals, mostly for protection. The information hadn't done anything to reassure McCall in the slightest.
Feeling drained, Robert drove straight back to the Morris' house. Mickey's newly acquired, Company van was parked a few houses down on the opposite side of the road. Robert parked a bit further on and walked casually back to the van, habitually scanning the area. He had a further look around before he opened the door and climbed into the driver's seat. Mickey was sitting by the back window, binoculars, camera and other surveillance equipment close to hand.
"How's it going?" Robert asked, turning as far as he could.
"Boring. I had a look around at the school, and saw Chloe and this Parris guy, and they seemed to be friendly enough. I followed her home, got here about five and nothing has happened since. I managed to fix a tap on the phone line, but there haven't been any interesting calls."
Robert pulled a package of photos out of his pocket. He shuffled through them and gave one to Mickey. "Recognize this?"
"Yeah, how did you know?"
"I saw your scratches the morning after the accident. Luther identified the pictures. They are symbols that represent four archangels in ritual magic. That one," he paused and tapped the picture with his glasses, "represents Michael the Defender, also known as the Keeper of the Gates."
Mickey laughed, "Jeez, McCall, I don't know what that has to do with me. I'm one hell of a long way from being an angel."
"I know, Mickey, I know. I just wish you could remember something from that accident. I have the strongest feeling that it's significant." The instant the words had left him Robert wanted to bite his tongue; he had said the very thing that would remind Mickey of his failure to remember. Outside the steel walls of the van, the last rays of the sun had faded, and it was now dark.
Mickey's sudden interjection interrupted his thoughts. "There goes our target." Robert spotted Chloe Morris at once; she had just left the house and was running along the street, heading toward them. They could see her mother standing helplessly on the front porch watching. Dressed all in black, the girl was hard to follow, in the dark. Mickey used the image intensifying equipment sparingly. He knew several agents who had damaged their eyes using them in the city.
As they watched, Chloe moved past the van. A black car drew up beside her and without any hesitation, she got into the front seat. The driver was hidden in the shadows inside the car. McCall moved to the passenger side, as Mickey scrambled up front and started the motor, then pulled out a safe tailing distance behind.
It was relatively easy to follow the car undetected to an old abandoned warehouse in the docks. Parking a safe distance from the target, McCall and Mickey conferred briefly and then headed separately toward the building.
Mickey took the stairs that wound up the outside of the building for twenty feet before ending at a doorway that led inside. Cautiously, he let himself in and made his way along the metal walkways near the ceiling, working his way down. After a couple of false starts, he finally reached ground level.
The building had been divided into two units at some time in the past and it wasn't long before he heard sounds coming from the other side of the dividing wall. Weaving around stacks of crates, Kostmayer eventually found a door into the other unit. It wasn't closed tightly, and he waited, listening for signs of the whereabouts of anyone on the other side of the wall. Hearing nothing close by, Mickey risked a glance into the room, and seeing nothing, he slipped around the doorframe, stopping behind a row of crates. All he needed to do now was wait for McCall.
Making his way cautiously through the piles of crates abandoned along with the warehouse, McCall easily spotted the small figure of Chloe Morris as she was led along by the taller broader figure of, he guessed, Samuel Parris. The only light in the warehouse was cast by the flickering light of candle flames. The candles, all black, were grouped around the center area and showed Parris dressed in a black cloak, as were the several other people in the warehouse. The black robes were inconvenient; they hid the wearer's gender and left question marks whether any of them were armed. In a fight of six against two, assuming Chloe was a non-combatant, any information could be crucial to the outcome.
Robert had no doubt that Kostmayer was waiting for the action to start; the younger man was one of the best at what he did and breaking into a building and finding somewhere to observe the occupants would be ridiculously easy for him.
Keeping part of his attention on the group in the middle of the room, Robert made his way carefully around walls. He wasn't surprised when Mickey materialized out of the gloom beside him and guided the older man to his observation post.
The familiar shape of a pentagram had been drawn on the floor of the warehouse, and unlit, tall, thick black candles stood at each of the five points of the pentagram. The group, in what seemed to McCall to be carefully choreographed movements, paused near the star. Five of the figures made their way to the points of the star, while Parris and Chloe remained at what was, apparently, the head of the shape.
Still not sure of Chloe's apparent compliance with the events that were unfolding, McCall watched as Parris began to make signs, with his hands, in the air in front of him. The shapes began to glow and the lines denoting the shape on the ground began to pulsate. Suddenly, the candles' wicks sprang into flaming life. Involuntarily, McCall stepped backwards, colliding lightly with Mickey. He turned toward the younger man, but the words he had been going to say died on his lips. Mickey's face was very pale, and Robert could easily see the consternation in his eyes. "What's the matter, Mickey?" he more mouthed than said aloud.
"It's all this stuff," Kostmayer whispered. "I've seen it, or something a lot like it, before. It's where or why that I can't remember."
A sound emanating from the group increased in strength, and McCall and Mickey watched in some scepticism as the five robed figures began to pace around the pentagram on the floor. They chanted words neither observer understood and made signs in the air that left more strange glowing trails. Robert noticed that the room was becoming very cold and the flames of the candles had begun to splutter, as though a wind was blowing, but they didn't go out. He glanced once more at Mickey and was very surprised by the scared look on the younger man's face. "Are you all right?"
"McCall, I've been here before. I'm beginning to remember bits and pieces and it's all to do with this weird shit that's going on here."
"What do you mean?"
"This devil worship stuff. I think I got caught up in one of their meetings before, somewhere."
Parris gestured and the other five grabbed Chloe, pinning her unresisting form to the floor. While they chained her to rings already set into the floor Mickey drew his automatic; his instincts telling him to grab the girl and get the hell away from here. With a whisper to McCall to cover him, he crept closer. The participants were so involved with what they were doing that he managed to get within ten feet of them before Parris sensed his presence and turned, throwing back the hood that had shadowed his face.
Mickey could see the familiar, unholy light in his eyes. Knowing it was probably hopeless, but equally knowing he had to try, Mickey said, "Let her up," aiming his weapon at Parris. Instead of complying, the man just threw back his head and laughed; it sounded like someone scraping fingernails down a blackboard.
The laughing continued, and at the same time, Parris underwent a metamorphosis. His body changed, stretching and growing taller, and his face altered. When the entity threw off the black cloak, it looked to be male; there was certainly no beauty or softness in its features. Its skin was pale and dead looking and two horns grew from the creature's head. The eyes staring at Mickey were blood red. He suddenly remembered his nightmares, brought back to him by the voice hissing at him.
"Michael, we meet again."
Trying hard to control the trembling in his limbs, Mickey met the demon's challenge and stared back defiantly, his gun tight in his hands.
"Very good, Michael. I see you're feeling much braver this time."
"Maybe so, but I still won't do what you want me to do. I won't kill anyone for you."
Behind his friend, Robert climbed stiffly to his feet. "Do you have any idea what is going on here, Mickey?"
"I don't remember everything yet, but I think he wants me to kill the girl. They need a sacrifice for whatever they're doing, but it has to be done by someone from outside. He tried to make do it me before, but I wouldn't."
Azal-the name came to Mickey from somewhere in his mind-laughed as he listened to Mickey's hurried explanation. "You don't understand what is happening here, do you? You have no choice in this; your role was preordained before you were even born. I'll remind you what happened before, Michael. You will accept that you have a part to play, and you'll understand the futility of trying to resist me."
Shining the flashlight in front of him, Kostmayer strode through the trees, slowly becoming aware of a feeling of unease, as though he was being watched. He had had a vague feeling of something not quiet right since this afternoon, when he had left New York. Two voices were now warring in his head. There was the sensible one telling him not to be paranoid and to stop imagining things; the other was telling him to listen to the inner warning and that ignoring it would be a really bad idea. Blaming his indecision on the Halloween stories he had listened to on the radio, he shrugged and moved on. He figured he had far more to fear from real live spies and potential assassins than from any ghosts or ghouls created by his over active imagination.
Lost in thought, he missed his footing and went sprawling, luckily, instinct and training kicked in and he tucked himself into a ball, rolling back up and onto his feet effortlessly. The fall had reminded him of the phone in his pocket and he pulled it out to check that it was undamaged. He dialed McCall's number and the speed of Robert's answer indicated the growing concern he must be feeling at Mickey's whereabouts. It was a bad connection, though, and Kostmayer could barely make out the words from the other end. Hoping that McCall could hear and understand him, Mickey outlined briefly the problem and told Robert he would contact him again in the morning when he had some idea of what he was going to do. What sounded like agreement came crackling from the earpiece and Mickey closed the phone, tucking it carefully back into his inside pocket.
Several hundred yards further on there was a natural depression, about one hundred feet across, almost like a crater from a meteor and he was standing on one edge. Looking down he could see clearly that some sort of gathering was taking place. The site was well illuminated, there were flaming torches stuck in the ground at close intervals and in the center of the circular clearing there was a huge bonfire. He counted around twenty people in the group beside the fire; he couldn't decide whether they were male or female. They were all wearing similar black cloaks with hoods that covered them from head to foot.
Initially, the intense heat from the bonfire had warmed his quivering body, but now he shivered, not from the cold, his feeling of disquiet had come stampeding back. The fire was no longer giving out any heat; it was as though any heat was being drawn inwards, the energy being channelled for another purpose. The group had gathered closer together and were chanting. He couldn't understand any of the words, which was unusual. Mickey only spoke four languages fluently but he had a working knowledge of many others however; this one was unlike anything he had heard before.
He flinched when the fire roared higher and then, in front of Mickey's incredulous eyes, something slowly began to take shape in the centre of the blaze. Bit by bit the outline solidified and a short time later, an inhuman figure stepped out of the flames. At once, the people milling about in front of the fire threw themselves to their knees and cowered down before the monster. He couldn't tell if it was male or female.
Mickey began to edge slowly backwards, heading for the cover of the trees. He hadn't moved more than a foot and he knew he hadn't made any noise, when the creature turned its head and looked directly at him. Mickey froze, maybe it was his imagination and the thing was only looking in his direction, but he saw the creature was pointing in Mickey's direction. He watched, rooted to the spot as a ball of fire left the demon's hand and headed straight towards him. At the last second, he ducked and the fireball hit a tree close by; there was an explosion of sound and a branch was torn from the main trunk. It hit the ground with an enormous crash.
When he risked another brief look he saw a group of the robed followers were headed his way. Giving in to the compulsion to flee he leapt to his feet and bolted down the slope into the mist. Much too late, he saw the branch sticking out at head height. He collided with the branch and was knocked onto his back with stunning force. Bright lights floated sickeningly around him, strong hands pushed him down again and held him motionless, the faces that he could see were obviously still human but they looked different, lit from within by an eerie glow that disturbed him profoundly.
Several of them came and crouched beside him, stroking and touching, each point of contact made his skin crawl. He felt one remove his gun from its holster, under his jacket as another ran an exploratory finger through the blood trickling down his face from the cut on his head. A sudden blast of much colder air heralded the arrival of the demon.
Calling on any courage he still possessed Mickey turned to face the awful sight. The vile and depraved individuals he had come across in the past twenty years were mere amateurs in comparison to this; what he saw now was the embodiment of evil. Mickey frantically searched his memory for long forgotten childhood prayers, anything to keep this malevolent being at bay. In a moment of perfect clarity he knew it would be of no use, this thing was too powerful for a simple lapsed believer like him.
The creature's laugh, when it came, made his blood run cold. He was trapped, pinned down by the awful stare as the demon studied him. The horrible apparition nodded in approval, apparently he had found what he was looking for in Mickey.
Summoning all his nerve Mickey whispered, his voice faint with fear, "What do you want with me?"
"Want with you, Michael? I'll tell you. I have a job for you, a very important job."
"Job? I don't understand?" His head swam with the effort to make sense of the demon's words.
"Of course you don't. You are a mere mortal and the games that I, Azal, choose to play are beyond your understanding." As he spoke he put out his hand and Mickey saw with alarm that each finger ended in the longest, sharpest claws he had ever seen. Before he could move a muscle, a claw hooked into his jacket and pulled him easily to his feet. Mickey was of average height but he had to crane his neck to look at Azal's face; the demon must have been seven feet tall.
With a commanding look at his followers Azal led the way back to the clearing. They gathered closely around Mickey, preventing him from escaping and then escorted him to the bonfire. "I need your help with a ceremony my servants and I wish to perform," Azal said.
"Are you crazy? I'll never do it," Mickey vowed, hoping against hope that he would be able to keep his promise.
"Foolish little man; of course you will. Otherwise, the rite will not work. I can compel you, you know; your puny will is no match for mine." Azal suddenly loomed closer, his eyes boring into Mickey's frightened hazel ones. "Of course, you could try to resist me if you wish. You would fail in the end, but it would be an amusing diversion."
"I'm not afraid to die," Mickey insisted stubbornly.
Azal looked thoughtfully at Kostmayer, "I can see that. Unfortunately for you, that leaves even greater terrors for me to draw on. I could destroy your mind, your body, or even your soul."
"No matter what you do to me, I won't help you." Mickey whispered, overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness.
"What is your difficulty, Michael? This isn't anything you haven't done before."
"Killing, Michael. I know you have killed before, many times. I know everything about you."
Azal waved his hand, and a girl was led toward them. She only appeared about sixteen years old, and was wearing a flimsy white dress. Completely unafraid or unaware of her predicament, Mickey thought perhaps she was drugged.
"I won't do it. Let her go."
Azal laughed. "Of course, in your ridiculous sense of right and wrong, it is fine for you to slaughter those you consider to be wrong or evil, but not this female. What gives you the right to sit in judgement on your fellows; to decide who lives or dies?"
A large ornate dagger appeared in his hand. Mickey stared at it with horror and, for a few moments, he found himself admiring the sharpness of the blade and its balance before he dropped the weapon on the ground.
"Pick it up now," Azal growled. He towered over Mickey, the aura of evil surrounding him making Mickey feel dizzy.
Filled with despair, Mickey knew he had to find an answer quickly; if he waited for much longer he would be confused enough to do what they wanted. He had a sudden insight, and the more he thought about the conclusion he had reached the more he realized he was correct. However much Azal might threaten him, the demon couldn't use his greater power to compel him to perform the sacrifice, because then it still wouldn't accomplish its purpose. But Azal possibly could bewilder his sense enough that Mickey would kill this child without realizing it; he enormity of that idea made Mickey contemplate what he saw as his only viable option.
Mickey had long since made his peace with his God; he had lived with the thought of death, both his and that of others, for a long time now and he had little real fear of dying. It was the manner of his death that concerned him. As he saw it, he now had no alternative; these evil creatures needed him to perform their sacrifice in order for it to be successful and that was something he was not willing to do. He had done many things that were against the teachings of the church and each time it had been a conscious decision. On every occasion, he had weighed the cost of his actions against the cost of inaction. He had never shirked his responsibilities and would not do so this time.
Putting his trust in the understanding and compassion of the Almighty, and before his resolve weakened, he steadied the dagger and, with one swift movement, plunged it into his own chest, aiming unerringly for his heart. Reading his intention, one of Azal's followers leapt forward and tried to stop him. Mickey registered that the thrust hadn't been instantly fatal, as he had hoped.
It took a few moments for the pain to come but when the lance of white-hot agony coursed through him, his knees buckled and he sank to the ground. Looking down he could just see the dagger hilt protruding from his body. Now as the pain and his awareness receded quickly he knew he had accomplished his goal, he was dying. With howl of rage Azal, rushed to his side and pulled at the knife. It glittered in the firelight, and from what seemed a great distance, Mickey noticed the blood staining the blade, his blood, now soaking into the ground beneath him. Mickey was only vaguely aware of the demon's anger and an increasing coldness as his lifeblood slowly ebbed away.
Throwing the dagger aside with a curse, Azal's fist tangled into the remains of Mickey's shirt and the demon lifted the limp body effortlessly. Barely alive, the helpless agent hung there in the demon's grasp while familiar sounds and images began to loop and spin around him. Beyond any torment at last, Mickey let himself begin the descent into the waiting oblivion. As his head tipped forward and his eyes closed for the last time, he heard Azal whisper, "You haven't escaped me yet, little one."
Staggering as the images invading his mind ceased, Mickey opened fire at the grotesque figure, emptying the clip of his automatic, Robert following suit, the sound of the gunfire echoing around the cavernous warehouse. When the noise died away the huge figure stood there untouched.
Turning to face McCall, the demon put out his hand, saying, "You have played your part in this little drama and now, you are no longer necessary to the plan."
Somehow, with some knowledge he could not explain, Mickey knew what was coming; with a cry of warning he threw himself at Robert to move the older man out of the way. As fast as Kostmayer's reactions were, this time they were not fast enough; the bolt of fire that came from Azal's hand hit Mickey, adding to his momentum, so that he crashed into Robert, bowling them both over. They skidded to a halt with Robert underneath the younger, lighter man. When he had gotten his breath back, Robert eased Mickey's limp form off himself.
Dreading what he would find, Robert crouched down beside his friend. There was a large scorch mark on the back of Mickey's jacket, and when Robert carefully rolled the limp body over, there was a matching mark on his light colored shirt. Expecting the worst, Robert reached for the pulse point at Mickey's throat and as he had feared, there was nothing to find. No faint throb of life beat under his searching fingers.
From the instant that Mickey had thrown himself in front of Robert to protect him, Robert had known the outcome. McCall studied his friend, Mickey's eyes were closed and he looked peaceful, almost as though he were only asleep. For one of the few times in his life completely at a loss, Robert stared, desperately trying to convince himself that this was just a very bad dream. The monster's next statement brought him back to reality with a jolt.
"You can't escape me, Michael. I can bring you back as often as it takes until you perform the task I have for you. I said I could destroy your soul. I can also make your life hell on earth."
As McCall watched in amazement, Mickey's body began to glow, the outline became blurred and less substantial; another transformation was taking place. A shining figure, as massive as the demon, rose up and stood over Mickey's motionless form. With a single step it strode over and stood face to face with the horned demon. In Robert's mind, the new apparition resembled a warrior from an ancient civilization; it was clad armor and carried a sword and shield.
The demon's howl of rage was deafening and Robert cringed. For the first time, it seemed worried or even frightened. Unable to move, whether through fear or magic, Robert watched the two figures. A glance to his left confirmed that the black robed followers were similarly affected. Some silent challenge having been given and accepted, a sword and shield appeared in the demon's massive hand and the two titans circled each other warily, searching for an advantage. Robert's experienced eyes could pick out the mock attacks and feints but they happened at a speed that he could never have matched, even in his prime.
"So, Michael, you have decided finally to confront me yourself and not rely on intermediaries," the demon rumbled.
"It was necessary, Azal," the shining warrior replied. "You cannot be trusted. When you and others of your kind were sent into exile aeons ago we permitted you to return periodically to test these mortals."
"That is what I have done."
"You have overstepped what is permitted, and innocent people have died purely for your enjoyment. Your pursuit of this man has been beyond all bounds. Even with my sign of protection on him, you continued. Humans are not playthings expressly for your entertainment." The angel-if Azal was a demon, then surely, Robert considered, this warrior was his opposite-scolded angrily.
"The fate of such insignificant insects means nothing to me. Even your chosen one wasn't a worthy challenge."
Robert was sure he saw love and pride in the glance that the warrior Michael directed towards the spot where Mickey lay. "He has shown great courage in the manner in which he faced you Azal, he has been willing to lay down his life to save his friend and to prevent you completing your ritual. He did this despite his belief that he was endangering his soul. I am proud of him. By his actions, I am convinced that the human race is still capable of courage, compassion and selflessness."
With a shout of defiance, Azal attacked the being called Michael. The air rang with the cataclysmic forces that were unleashed as the battle between good and evil unfolded. While the two titanic figures fought, their attentions focussed solely on each other, Robert crawled over to Chloe and after loosening her bonds, he helped her to a more sheltered position behind some crates.
As the energy at work grew stronger, the wind tugging at them increased, soon, demon and angel couldn't make themselves heard even by shouting above the noise howling around them. The whirlpool of power expanded, sweeping up debris and people with ease. A quick glance told Robert, that Mickey's body and Azal's acolytes were gone, then seconds later Robert and Chloe, too, were overwhelmed, swept up by the maelstrom that surged around them.
Robert slowly became aware of the cold damp floor of the warehouse under his cheek, carefully he hoisted himself into a sitting position and looked around. He quickly discovered aches and pains in muscles he had forgotten he possessed. The memory of what had transpired came to him in a flash and he looked around, fearful of what he might find. Chloe Morris lay a few feet away, but he noticed thankfully she was beginning to stir.
Praying that his memory was faulty he continued to scan the area looking for a miracle; a huddled shape came into focus about twenty feet away and ignoring the protests from his aching body, he stumbled hurriedly over to the still figure. Mickey lay on his back, unchanged from when Robert had last seen him, the burn mark still visible on his chest. Falling to his knees, Robert reached once more to Mickey's neck, hoping that this time there would be an answering pulse under his fingertips. No reassuring throb met his touch and a fist as cold as ice closed around his heart. Weighed down with his grief, he bowed his head and let the tears flow.
Almost from the beginning of their relationship he had known that Mickey was special, the tough exterior hid gentleness and true generosity of spirit. Robert had never doubted that if the occasion arose and Mickey considered the cause worthwhile, he would willingly make the ultimate sacrifice. The knowledge that the one to benefit had been Robert, himself, was, at this moment, too much for McCall to bear.
How long he knelt there, with his grief, he wasn't sure, it was only when the numbness began to creep into his arms as well as his legs that Robert became aware of his surroundings once more. There were words filling his mind, telling him that Mickey's sacrifice hadn't been in vain, that his courage and unselfishness in the presence of such overwhelming odds had helped to win a great victory against the powers of darkness. Desolate, Robert wanted to scream that it wasn't enough, that Mickey shouldn't have to die for the victory. If it had been possible he would have given his life in exchange for Mickey's without a second thought. Suddenly, Robert was conscious of a presence surrounding and infusing his every thought, a presence that was filled with love and compassion.
Coming back to reality with a mental bump, his mind now silent, the grieving man sensed a difference in the body before him. Fingers tested for a pulse, and Robert's joy was unbounded when he realized that the younger man's heart was now beating strongly, Mickey was breathing and seemingly on the verge of waking. As the retired operative watched, the marks on Mickey's face and body faded and then vanished completely. Minutes later, Mickey was awake and on his feet, totally unaffected by his ordeal.
Fortunately for everyone, Chloe remembered very little of the events of the evening. As Robert had suspected, Parris had drugged her. Without any conscious agreement McCall and Kostmayer didn't discuss the night's events in Chloe's presence. It would save a lot of explanation if she simply believed that Parris had drugged her and had wanted her to take part in some mysterious rite, and that McCall and Mickey had been on hand to rescue her. After arranging to meet Mickey later at O'Phelan's, Robert helped Chloe into the Jaguar.
She said little during the ride home and McCall had barely stopped the van outside the Morris house when the front door flew open and her parents rushed out. After arranging to meet Mickey later at O'Phelan's, Robert guided Chloe and her parents back to their house, offering a brief explanation that in no way covered all the events that had taken place that evening. When he told them that Samuel Parris would no longer be a problem they were extremely grateful, and Chloe gave every indication of having learned the value of listening to parental advice. Refusing their offers of recompense he finally escaped back to the peace of his car.
After a shower and change of clothes, Robert made his way to O'Phelan's. As he had expected, Kostmayer was already there at the bar, nursing a bottle of beer and talking to Pete and Jeremy. It was very late and to McCall's relief the normal evening rush had dissipated. Patting Mickey fondly on the shoulder, Robert hoisted himself onto a stool beside the younger man. A glass of pure malt was put in front of him before he even asked for it, and when he looked at Pete in surprise she offered, "Mickey said you had had a rough evening."
"You could say that, Pete, you could say that." Robert gratefully sipped his drink.
"So, are you going to tell me what happened? Mickey says he can't remember anything."
Robert glanced at Mickey; the haunted look that surfaced briefly in the younger man's eyes was eloquent. No, my friend, he thought, it's not that you don't remember. I don't think you want to remember; and if I were in your position I don't think I would want to remember what you went through either.
"Well, it's very simple. Evil and good faced each other on the battlefield. Good prevailed. Mickey helped, and I had nothing to do with it." With a slight smile, McCall took another sip of his malt liquor.
Pete looked from one to the other of the men. Mickey's expression was blandly innocent, Robert's genially neutral. The woman shook her head.
"Fine," she snorted as she walked away. "Don't tell me."