In the Beginning

 

 

SEAL Team One moved through the jungle with great skill born of excellent training and much experience. They were returning from a mission across enemy lines which was, as usual, a resounding success. They were members of an elite group who's success depended on very careful planning and precise execution of those plans. Everything was covered down to the routes they would take and the marching order. While all that planning served the SEAL team well, it also made the job of the man watching from the underbrush a lot easier.

Suddenly there was an explosion that sent the team scattering into the brush on either side of the path. The men waited there, their weapons at the ready, to see what further assault was to come. This attack was especially surprising to the team as it came so close their base camp. After several minutes, with no more activity in the area, the team leader signaled his men to reform. The group investigated the site of the disturbance and discovered that the lead man, Lt. Woolery, had been killed in the explosion. The death of a team member affected all the men. They recovered his body and returned to base.

Walter Nasmith, the man who had observed the incident, smiled to himself. Chalk up one more successful job to his credit. His mission had been to plug the leak of classified military information that was plaguing this sector of the Viet Nam war. The leak had been traced to this particular SEAL team; a hard concept for his superiors to accept. Nasmith had been given a week to find the responsible party or parties and eliminate them. It had taken him only two days to conclude that a lieutenant named Woolery was the guilty one. What he couldn't determine was whether the man's partner, a kid named Kostmayer, was also involved. Since he didn't have the time to do a complete check, he arranged for the death of Woolery to look like an execution carried out by Kostmayer. Nasmith's personal philosophy dictated that it was better to be safe than sorry. He estimated that in just a few hours, the kid would be arrested for the kill.

The fact that Kostmayer was in charge of the explosives inventory for the team had determined the means of Woolery's death. But guarding those explosives was a job the kid took very seriously. Finding it impossible to get at the explosives directly, Nasmith had tried to obtain more of the same type with which to set his trap and alter the explosives inventory instead. To his dismay, he could not get enough of the specialized explosive the SEAL team used. He had to settle for using a Soviet-made substitute for the bulk of the trap. He carefully placed the few pieces of SEAL-type explosive so that sufficient evidence would be found after the explosion to lead an investigator to the desired conclusion. It wasn't perfect, but he didn't expect a detailed examination this close to the war. What seemed obvious would be accepted as fact. That was usually the way. Add to that the fight he had incited two nights before between Kostmayer and Woolery, a very public fight, and the frame was fairly complete. Tough break for the kid if he was innocent but, those were the fortunes of war. Nasmith melted into the jungle, on his way to his next assignment in Cambodia, feeling very good about a job well done.

 

 

Several hours after the incident, Mickey Kostmayer sat in the central clearing of the SEAL camp surrounded by a number of his team mates. They were discussing the recent loss of his partner. Or, his mates were discussing it. He was just sitting there, listening with a part of his attention, while the rest of him was in a mild state of shock. Woolery had taken Kostmayer under his wing when he had first come on active duty. He had completed Mickey's training by supplying the practical, on the job, element that could only be learned in actual combat. Kostmayer had looked up to the man and was closer to him than to any other member of the team. He was having a hard time accepting that Woolery was gone.

"Kostmayer." The team leader came into the clearing. "Hey, Kostmayer."

One of his teammates gave him a shove. "The Sarge wants you."

Mickey looked up dully. He took a second to orient himself. "Yeah Sarge. What's up?"

"The C.O. wants to see ya. On the double!"

"Right." Mickey got up, collected his gear and headed up to the command tent.

When he entered, he found the C.O. and three of his top officers in conversation. All talk ceased as soon they noticed him. Mickey stood at attention and saluted. The C.O., Captain Joe Murphy, returned the salute. "At ease, Kostmayer."

Mickey relaxed his stance but was anything but relaxed. He didn't like the feel of the situation. He had been in trouble more than enough times to know that this was another one of those situations. He just couldn't remember what he had done to merit censure this time. He didn't have to wait long to find out.

"Mr. Kostmayer, can you tell me what this is?" Murphy asked, handing him a file.

Mickey glanced at it. "Sir, this is the explosives inventory."

"And who has access to this inventory?"

"Only I do, sir. I keep it locked up in my quarters."

"Yes, we had to break the lock to get it. And is this record accurate?"

"Yes sir!" Mickey was confused. He was very careful to keep those records accurate and up to date. He couldn't imagine what he could have done with the records that would get him into trouble. And he was more than a little miffed at the mention of breaking his lock.

"And who has access to the explosives locker?"

"I have one key, sir. You have the other. I am unaware of any other keys." *Oh shit,* he thought, *I do not like the way this is going.*

"And if I were to tell you that there is a discrepancy between the inventory records and the actual inventory, how would you explain that?"

"Sir, I would have to say that it was not possible. I am certain that the records are correct and that they agree with the inventory." Even as he said it, he knew it must not be true, else they would not be having this conversation. He just couldn't figure out how. *This can't be happening! First Woolery, now this. This is not my day.*

"I see," Captain Murphy continued. "Sargent, may have that please?"

Mickey was surprised to see that his Sargent had entered behind him. He hadn't heard him come in. A plastic bag was handed to the Captain. "Now, Mr. Kostmayer, can you tell me what this is?" He was handed to bag.

Mickey examined it carefully. The bag contained pieces of explosive. A partial label indicated that it was the same type of explosive that had been the topic of conversation. "Sir, it appears to be fragments of explosives."

"The same explosives that are in your care?"

"Yes sir."

"And what would you say if I were to tell you that these fragments were recovered from the site of the explosion that killed your partner?"

"Sir, I..." Mickey felt like he had just been kicked in the stomach. He finally saw where this whole interrogation was leading. *This can't be happening!*

"Well, Mr. Kostmayer. We're waiting."

"Sir, I can't explain it. Surely you can't believe I'm responsible for Woolery's death. He was my partner!"

"Yes, well, stranger things have been known to happen. You did have a rather public fight with Woolery the other night. did you not? And it took three men to break it up?"

Mickey could only nod his head. *This CANNOT be happening!*

"Sargent, please place Mr. Kostmayer under arrest. The charge is premeditated murder."

 

 

It had been a very bad two weeks. This close to the front, justice was swift. There wasn't a lot of time wasted on the niceties of a civilian court or even of a military court stateside. The relevant facts had been reviewed by the C.O. and the other top officers. They had unanimously recommended a court-martial. The appropriate JAG officers had shown up a few days later. Mickey had spent all of three hours with his defense attorney before his trial began. While he had maintained his innocence to the end, all of the facts pointed directly at him and no one else. In the end, he had been convicted of murder, been awarded a dishonorable discharge and sentenced to ten years hard labor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Mickey felt like his whole world had come to an end. As a kid, growing up in Texas and later in New York City, he had been a bit if a screw-up. He was always getting into trouble. He would do almost anything on a dare and if there was a fight, he could always be found right in the middle of it. When he had joined the Navy and been accepted into the SEALs, all that changed. He had finally found something he could do really well and was proud to be a part of. He had worked hard to make the grade and be an asset to his team. He had taken the philosophies of the SEALs to heart and tried to live up to expectations, And where had it all gotten him? Stuck in prison for something he hadn't done. Ten years! It might as well be a lifetime, viewed from the beginning of the sentence. And there was to be no possibility of parole either. He was sullen and bitter and saw absolutely no hope. *This really sucks!* he thought but could see nothing he could do about it. Now he had to write his brother, Nick, and try to explain it all to him. He wasn't sure how since he didn't quite understand it himself.

 

 

Robert McCall made his way through the crowded restaurant to a small table in the rear. Already seated at the table was Captain Joe Murphy. He and Joe went way back. They had met when they were both new to the military; McCall with the British army and Joe with the US navy. They had both been chosen for a special assignment, the details of which were still top secret. During the course of that mission they had become fast friends. Later Joe had joined the SEALs and McCall had been recruited into the Company. But they had always kept in touch, and saw each other when they could. Therefore, when McCall had gotten the phone call this afternoon, inviting him to dinner, he was only too happy to accept.

As he approached the table, Murphy rose and extended his hand. McCall warmly shook it as the two of them sat down.

"Hello Robert. Good to see you again."

"Hello Joe. I must say you're looking quite well. Active duty seems to agree with you." McCall was referring to Murphy's current assignment as C.O of SEAL Team One in Viet Nam. "What brings you to Washington anyway?"

"Reassignment. I'm just in Washington long enough to be briefed and then I off, back to Nam and the war."

"Well, you never did let grass grow under your feet." McCall smiled at his friend and signaled for the waiter.

The two enjoyed a very pleasant dinner and conversation which ranged in topics from old friends to current occupations. Due to the nature of their work, the latter was brief and very general As they were enjoying an after dinner brandy, Murphy finally broached the topic that had prompted him to look up McCall.

"Robert, I'd like to ask you to do me a big favor."

McCall studied his friend over the rim of his glass. "Of course I'll help you, if I can, but first I need to know how I can help you."

Murphy smiled. "Always the cautious one, Robert. OK let me tell you what happened. It's about one of my men in Nam. Young kid by the name of Kostmayer." He proceeded to relate the story of how Woolery had been killed and how Kostmayer had been convicted of the crime. "The problem is, Robert, I don't think the kid did it. Sure, he is definitely capable of doing it, wouldn't be a SEAL if he wasn't, but I don't think he did. Call it a gut feeling, if you want. Unfortunately all of the evidence points right at him. Almost as if he were framed, if you get my drift. Would you look into it for me?"

"I can't promise anything, Joe but I will look into it. Happens, I have some free time at the moment. I assume I can find Mr. Kostmayer in Leavenworth?"

"Yeah, that's right. Listen Robert, don't let your first impressions color your assessment of the kid. He's kinda bitter about what has happened. You're likely to find a very sullen, uncooperative young man. But, I assure you, the kid is worth your time. He's got a lot of potential!"

"Well, if your suspicions are correct, then he has a right to be a little bitter. Can't say I wouldn't feel the same under similar circumstances. Don't worry, I'll give him a chance."

That settled, the conversation once again drifted onto other topics. It was a long and very pleasant evening.

 

 

It had taken a while for McCall to make his way to Kansas, and the military prison there. Before he left Washington, he had spent several days looking over the available records on Mr. Kostmayer and the transcripts of his court-martial. McCall was struck by how cut and dried the whole court-martial proceeding had been. From long experience, Robert tended to be suspicious of situations that were that pat. He began to understand why Joe Murphy had doubts about Kostmayer's guilt.

As he waited in the visitor's room, he reviewed all he knew about the man he was about to meet. Mickey Kostmayer was an intelligent, talented, if somewhat aggressive individual who had proven himself to be an excellent team player. He made a very good soldier and, by all reports, thrived in that type of environment. Prison was definitely not the place for someone like him.

The door to the visitors' room opened and McCall got his first look at Kostmayer as he was escorted in by two guards. What struck him most was the hostile look in the young man's eyes. McCall signaled the guards to remove the manacles from Kostmayer's wrists and leave them. Once alone, Mickey started to pace the small room. *Like a caged animal,* McCall thought. He sat and watched for a while, saying nothing.

McCall finally interrupted the silence. "When you're finished prowling about we can talk."

Kostmayer paused. "I've got nothing to say to you. Who are you, anyway?" He resumed his pacing.

"A friend. My name is Robert McCall." He got no reaction from the younger man. "I was asked to look into your case to see if I can help you. But first, you've got to sit down. You're making me tired just watching you."

Again Mickey paused. His eyes were hooded and Robert had a hard time reading them. What he thought he saw there was not hopeful. "A friend, huh. I don't have any friends."

McCall was prepared for this attitude. He didn't blame Kostmayer for feeling this way but he knew that he needed to turn that attitude around, and soon. If he couldn't, the man before him could well be lost in a world of self pity and bitterness that was more difficult to escape from, the longer one was there. Some men never did.

"Oh, but you have more friends than you think. Myself, for one. Joe Murphy for another."

"Murphy? My C.O.? Some friend he is!" He growled out the words, his anger and hurt very evident. "He's the one who recommended me for court-martial. If you're a friend of his, you're no friend of mine! I don't need your help." Kostmayer dismissed the man and resumed his pacing wishing McCall would just go away and leave him alone.

McCall reached out and grabbed Mickey's arm, stopping him in his tracks. "Given the evidence, he had no choice but to recommend you for court-martial. It was his duty. But he never really believed you were guilty. As soon as he could, he contacted me and asked that I try to help you."

Kostmayer glared at McCall. "And who the hell are you? Superman?"

Robert showed a small smile. This was better. At least he had the young man talking, even if it was only insults and skepticism. "Superman! Heavens no. I'd look terrible in blue tights and a cape! Doubt I'd have the nerve to appear in public dressed like that."

Mickey snorted. "Bet you've got the balls to do a helluva lot more than that," he mumbled under his breath.

McCall pretended not to have heard. "I'm simply someone with a lot of contacts. Contacts who may very well enable me to clear your name. But first you must calm down and talk to me." He was now using his most soothing voice, trying to take advantage of the opening he had created. "Now why don't you just sit down here and tell me what happened from your perspective. I've read the transcript of your court-martial but there didn't seem to be much information there about your side of the story."

Mickey stood there for several minutes deliberating what he should do. Finally he shrugged and sat across from the older man. What the hell, he thought. What have I got to lose? Just maybe the old man can help.

 

 

Kostmayer had nothing much to add to what Robert already knew of the case. He seemed to be totally mystified as to why or how things had happened. Robert believed him. As they talked, McCall found himself beginning to like the young man. He was a little rough around the edges but it wouldn't take much to turn him into a passable operative. He stored that idea away for consideration at a later time. Right now he had to try to get Kostmayer cleared.

As for his partner, Mickey really didn't seem to know much about him. Harry Woolery was a bit of a loner. He was friendly enough with his teammates, but never talked about himself. In fact, Mickey wasn't even sure where the man was from. All he really knew was that the man had been friendly and helpful to him when he had first arrived and had been a more than acceptable partner for the last year. Not much to go on, but McCall had worked with less.

Returning to the Company's New York headquarters, McCall spent time going over the files he had the research people pull up for him. Trying to track down concrete information on Woolery proved to be an impossible task. The harder he looked, the less he found. For all he could tell, Harry Woolery did not exist before he enlisted in the Navy!

McCall tried to reason through the puzzle. Why would anyone hide their past? A police record? Woolery had none. McCall had his prints checked. Alright then, maybe a family history he didn't want known. Or maybe he was just running away from a past he wanted to forget. Robert could understand that. One thing was certain, this appeared to be an unproductive line of investigation.

Well, if he could get nowhere looking at the victim, what about the reason he was killed? Did he have any enemy's on the team? McCall spent three full days examining files on all the other members of SEAL Team One. At the end of that time he knew more than he wanted about each member of that team but was no closer to an idea as to why the man had been killed.

Late one afternoon he was sitting in the office he had commandeered for his work, going over the files yet again when there was a knock on the door. Looking up he recognized Control lounging against the door jamb.

"Tell me something, Robert. Why is it that one of my best agents is spending his time off, time off for which he made a great deal of noise I might add, pestering my research people and locked up in an office reviewing files? What's up, Robert?" He entered the office and made himself comfortable in the chair next to the desk.

"Hello Control. I've been expecting you. Frankly I didn't think it would take you this long to come around asking questions." Robert sat back in his chair and rolled his shoulders, trying to ease some of the strain that had built there. "What I am doing is a favor for a friend."

"You know the Company frowns on the use of its resources for private purposes. Just what sort of favor are we talking about?"

"You remember Joe Murphy?" Control nodded. He had joined Robert and Joe Murphy on a number of enjoyable evenings over the years. "Well I had dinner with him a few weeks ago while I was in Washington. He asked me to look into some trouble one of his SEALs got himself into. A kid who was convicted of a murder he didn't commit."

"You're so sure he's innocent, are you?" Control had an odd look on his face.

The small hairs on the back of Robert's neck stood up. *He knows something.* "Joe Murphy is. And I've met the young man. I believe his story. Just what do you know about all this?"

"Me? Nothing. I don't even know who we're talking about." It was a poor attempt at feigned ignorance at best. It was almost as if Control was baiting him. McCall was growing tired of this game.

"Oh, come on, come on. You know I have been accessing the files. I'll even bet you know what files and I bet you know a whole lot more about this whole situation than you're letting on. So why don't we stop this verbal fencing and get down to it. Who killed Harry Woolery?"

"The records show that Michael Kostmayer did. His partner, I believe."

"Control, we both know he didn't do it. What I don't know, and I believe you do, is who did kill Woolery and why. Why don't you save me a lot of time and trouble and the need to keep bothering your research people and using up precious Company resources and just tell me who it is?"

"I can't do that Robert. That information is 'need to know' and you don't need to know." Control was obviously enjoying himself. It was equally obvious that Robert was not.

"Bloody hell Control! There is a young man who's life is being ruined because he's been framed for a murder he didn't commit. Don't tell me I don't have a need to know!"

"Calm down Old Son, calm down." A small smile crept over his face. "I said I couldn't tell you who did it. I didn't say I couldn't tell you where to look. It's not my fault if you just 'happen' on the information while going through the files. Is It?"

"Yes, yes. Well that is true." A smile found its way onto McCall's face as well. This was more like it. Control could be reasonable at times "So where do I look?"

"Well, mind you, you didn't hear it from me, but if I were you I'd look into the activities of the covert military intel boys. They were into a few things in that part of Nam at about the right time. But remember, you didn't hear it from me."

"If questioned, I will dutifully report that you firmly reprimanded me for personal use of Company resources."

"I hope we need not have another conversation on this topic." Control rose and started to leave.

McCall rose as well. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it. I mean that" With that, Control left.

 

 

Once he knew where to look, it had been relatively easy for McCall to piece together what had really happened to Woolery. It took his top security clearance to view the appropriate records, but they revealed the details of Walter Nasmith's mission in Viet Nam and his report, filed a few weeks later.

Clearly Kostmayer was as innocent as he proclaimed to be. Of course, even if the records hadn't spelled that out, McCall would still have known. Nasmith was as nasty and dirty as they came. The problem was how to prove the young man's innocent to the proper authorities. Given the top secret nature of the information, he couldn't simply trot out the files and free the kid. It would take more finesse than that. Maybe if he could talk to Nasmith.... He put out an inquiry as to Nasmith's current whereabouts and sat back to see what came back.

About two hours later the phone rang.

"McCall? What the hell is up that you feel free to make inquiries about me? I don't like it when people nose into my activities."

McCall suppressed the urge to respond with a few choice words. He had dealt with Nasmith before. He still had a bad taste in his mouth from their last encounter and that had been three years earlier. Instead, he remained calm and assumed the air of perfect reason.

"Mr. Nasmith, I presume. How kind of you to get in touch with me. I'd like to have a few words with you. In person. Would now be a good time?"

"Damnit McCall what kind of game are you playing?" The voice on the other end of the phone was cold and angry.

*Good,* McCall thought *Keep him off balance and on the defensive. All the better to get what I need*

"As I said, Mr. Nasmith, I want a few words with you. When can we meet?"

"Stay put. I'll be there when I get there." With that the line went dead.

 

 

Almost an hour later the door to McCall's office opened with a crash and Walter Nasmith stormed in. "OK McCall, I'm here. Start talking and make it good!"

"Mr. Nasmith, how good of you to come. Won't you come in and have a seat?" McCall was using all his will power to stay calm and cool.

"Look McCall, I don't have time for games. And I don't intend to be here long enough to need a seat. Out with it!"

"If you insist. I want to talk to you about Michael Kostmayer."

"Don't know anyone by that name. You've wasted my time for nothing"

"Think again. Viet Nam. SEAL Team One. Woolery. Ring any bells?"

"Yea, Yea I remember that stuff. But who's Kostmayer?" Nasmith leaned indolently against the door jamb, a sneer on his face.

"The young man you framed for the hit." McCall was beginning to lose patience.

"Oh yeah, the kid. Not a bad job if I do say so myself. And I do. Wasn't sure if the kid was involved or not so I took care of him too, just in case. Pretty slick, huh?" He was obviously proud of his accomplishment.

McCall came around from behind the desk, grabbed Nasmith by the arm and spun him around, slamming him into a chair. At the same time he closed the office door. He leaned over the hapless agent, one hand braced on each arm of the chair and his face only inches away from Nasmith's. He spoke softly and slowly and there was absolutely no doubt of the menace behind his words.

"Your 'slick trick' has destroyed that young man's life. For you see, he was totally innocent. Exactly what are you going to do to correct that error?"

Nasmith fought hard not to squirm in the chair. He didn't like McCall but he knew the man's reputation. McCall could be deadly when provoked and it was not wise to cross him. Cooperation was the key to living through this experience and Nasmith knew it. His mind raced, trying to come up with something, anything, to placate McCall.

"Woolery was working for the communists. I proved that and took him out."

"I know that," McCall snapped impatiently. "It doesn't help Kostmayer. Give me something I can use to overturn his conviction, or, so help me, I'll give them you!"

"OK, OK! The bomb only contained a little of the SEAL explosive. The rest was Russian. Run a detailed analysis on the evidence and you should be able to prove it easily enough. The Russian stuff has a different chemical signature. I doctored the explosives inventory to make it look like the kid had taken enough for the bomb. That's all I can give you" Nasmith sank back in the chair. He was sweating and his breathing was rapid and shallow. If McCall didn't accept it he was doomed.

"The hell it is!" Nasmith paled. "We can use the chemical analysis only providing the evidence is still around. I doubt that will be the case. I want a signed deposition from you attesting to all the facts and most especially to Kostmayer's innocence."

"McCall, I can't do that! That mission was top secret. You saw the files." Nasmith was afraid of McCall but he was even more afraid of what his superiors would do if he complied with McCall. "Sorry, no way!"

"Wrong Mr. Nasmith. You are dead wrong!" Nasmith blanched and sank deeper into the chair. The use of the word 'dead' was a little more than he could take. "You will give me that deposition before you leave this office, or you will not leave under your own power." McCall straightened up and returned around the desk to his chair. "Look Nasmith, I am not an unreasonable man. Give me the deposition. I will mask the signature when it is used and make sure it cannot be traced back to you or your superiors. But I will have that deposition."

Twenty minutes later a much subdued Walter Nasmith left McCall's office. Ten minutes after that Robert McCall left with the deposition in hand to store it in a safe place until he could put it to use.

 

 

Three days later, Robert McCall found himself in Washington at a meeting with some of the top brass from the Navy. Joe Murphy was also there. He had carefully laid the groundwork for this meeting, calling in a lot of markers to make it work. He took his time reemphasizing to the attendees the top secret nature of the information he had to present and then slowly and methodically introduced the facts. Joe Murphy backed him up wherever possible. At the end of the marathon four hour session, McCall and Murphy emerged from the conference room with a full pardon and honorable discharge for Mickey Kostmayer. Both men were well pleased with the result and treated themselves to a fine dinner at a five star restaurant. As Murphy pointed out, the project started over dinner, it was only right that it should end there as well.

The next day McCall headed for Kansas the break the news to Kostmayer. That was one of the provisions he had stipulated to the military board. He wanted to personally see the look on the young man's face when he got the news.

 

 

McCall was sitting in the same visitor's room where he had met Mickey Kostmayer a few weeks earlier. Once again the guards brought the young man in secured with manacles. But this time he was also in leg chains. He looked... well wild was the only term Robert could think of. Evidently Kostmayer had expressed his displeasure with his situation in a very physical way. McCall indicated to the guards that all restraints should be removed.

"Are you sure, sir?" one of the guards asked. "He can be pretty violent." He had been told to give McCall anything he wanted, but he frankly couldn't see the older man as much of a match for Kostmayer should he try to bolt. He didn't relish the thought of trying to subdue the ex-SEAL, he had to do that twice already. Putting Kostmayer in the position of having a hostage was certainly not good practice, in his opinion.

McCall smiled at the guard. "Yes, young man, I am quite sure. Mr. Kostmayer is a friend. We'll get along fine, I assure you." Seeing the doubt clearly written in the guards face he added, "You can wait just outside the door if you wish. That way I can summon you immediately should there be a reason." That appeared to satisfy the guard and soon Mickey was freed.

Once again, after the guards left, Kostmayer started pacing the room. The feeling that he was watching a trapped animal was even stronger than before. McCall was glad his news was good. He was certain that if Mickey had to spend much more time in prison, he would be lost. As it was, he thought it would probably take time before the young man would trust anyone again.

He allowed Mickey a few more minutes to pace off some of his pent up energy before he tried to talk. "Mickey, they do call you Mickey don't they?" Kostmayer just glared. He didn't slow his pace at all. "Mickey, come sit down. I've been very busy on your behalf since I last saw you. I'd like to bring you up to date. Now come on, come on, sit down." McCall indicated the seat across from him and smiled at the young man.

Slowly, Kostmayer stopped pacing and took the indicated seat. He glared across the table at McCall. "Go ahead, I can take it. You couldn't do anything could you? I'm stuck here for the full ten years, right? That's OK. It's nothing more than I expected. I can take it." The look on his face and the slight quaver in his voice belied his words.

McCall just looked at him. "Well now. That was a very pretty speech. But you'll have to do a little more work on the delivery. I'm afraid you'd have quite a hard time convincing anyone that you really meant it without some work." He smiled gently to take some of the sting out of his words. Before Mickey could reply, he continued.

"As a matter of fact I was able to do something for you. You may not think it's very much, but it really is the best I could do under the circumstances." With that, Robert passed the pardon and discharge papers to Mickey for his inspection. He couldn't help but smile.

Kostmayer quickly looked through the papers without reaction. He then looked again, much more slowly this time. His expression never changed. McCall was a little disappointed. He had expected at least some indication that the young man understood the meaning of the papers he was examining. Instead he just sat and stared at the writing.

Robert waited as long as he could but finally his curiosity got the better of him and he just had to ask. "Well?"

Kostmayer slowly lifted his gaze from the papers to McCall's face. His stare was blank and unreadable. Finally he broke into a lopsided grim. "I think this is probably the single greatest thing anyone's ever done for me. Thanks." He resisted the urge to embrace the older man and instead stood and shook his hand.

Mickey held on to McCall's hand longer than necessary and instead of freeing it, tightened his grip and pulled the older man closer so that Robert had to lean over the table. Bringing his face close to McCall's he looked the agent directly in the eyes. "So what did you think of my delivery that time? Any better?"

Realizing he'd been had, McCall broke the grip and began to laugh. "You do like to live dangerously don't you, young man?"

"Well, at least it's never boring." Mickey shrugged and sat back down, leaning back in the chair. He was starting to relax for the first time in quite a while. He liked McCall. The older man seemed to really care and that was something Mickey needed just then. But he wasn't fooled. He was well aware that McCall could be very dangerous. Mickey could sense it in his manner and bearing. That just made the older man more interesting as far as Mickey was concerned.

"The warden is finishing up the paperwork now. You should be free within the hour. Any idea where you're headed?"

A puzzled look came over Mickey's face. He shrugged. "Don't know. I've got some family in Texas and some in New York. But I really don't think I want to see any of them. Not now. Besides I'm really not close to any of them." Mickey sat there looking a little lost.

"Well than, if you don't know where you want to go, maybe you have some idea of what you want to do." McCall had a definite idea of what he would like to see Mickey do, but he didn't want to push. Kostmayer was the ideal candidate for a field position with the Company. But McCall wanted to be sure it was something the kid would want before he mentioned it.

"Never thought much about it before. I mean, I liked the Navy. I was kind of thinking about making a career of it. But I guess they wouldn't want me now. I really don't want them either any more. But there's not much else I can do." Mickey stopped and thought for a minute and then shrugged. "I could become a mercenary, I guess. Actually that might not be such a bad idea." McCall was encouraged to see that the thought held some appeal to the young man.

"Really? Well, if you are undecided, I might have something you'd be interested in. I'm headed back to New York. Care to join me? We can talk about it on the way. I can even put you up for a few days while you think it over." McCall extended his hand. "What do you say?"

Kostmayer considered the offer. The grin returned. "I say why not? It never hurts to listen. Besides, I have nothing else pressing." He shook McCall's hand. "Let's go."

 

 

During the flight back to New York, Robert gave Mickey a thumbnail sketch of the Company and its activities without giving away too much information, just in case the young man decided to pass on the offer. Kostmayer asked many astute questions, some of which McCall freely answered, some on which he let pass. It appeared that the points at which there was not ready information intrigued Mickey as much, if not more, than the things he could be told. By the end of the flight, Robert thought he had a new recruit on his hands. But he didn't push.

When they arrived in New York, McCall got Mickey settled in his guest room and then they went out on the town for a good meal to celebrate Mickey's new-found freedom. The evening lasted much longer than either man expected. The more time they spent in each other's company, the more the bond between them grew. While they really had nothing in common, they still had some very interesting conversations. Mickey greatly pleased Robert with his ability to absorb ideas readily and be able to apply them to different situations. There was obviously a keen intelligence behind that deceptively mild exterior. For his part, Mickey liked the fact that Robert treated him like an equal and did not talk down to him even though Mickey was very well aware that McCall was vastly more experienced. They drank and talked into the wee hours of the morning.

They arose the next morning (actually later the same morning) much later than was McCall's habit. They had celebrated a little too much and were suffering the consequences. But a few aspirins helped alleviate the more painful effects. They just had to be patient while time erased the rest of the symptoms.

Mickey was left to his own devices, which included shopping for some new clothes, while Robert reported in to Company headquarters. He made his way directly to Control's office and was pleased to find that his superior was both in his office and alone. He knocked on the door and entered.

"Morning Control," he mumbled, taking a seat.

"Good afternoon, Robert. You look like hell. Having a problem?" Control sat behind his desk, grinning mischievously. He had seen McCall in the aftermath of more than enough celebrations to know why his top agent was under the weather. But since he had not been invited to this particular celebration, he felt no qualms about rubbing it in.

"Ha. Ha," was McCall's sour reply

"Really old son, it is bad form to return from a vacation in worse shape than you left." Control was enjoying himself too much, McCall thought. "By the way, how did that business with that SEAL go? Did you manage to help the young man?"

"Actually, that's why I'm here. Several days early, I must point out. My vacation isn't officially over till next Monday." Robert really hated it when Control teased. Especially when he wasn't felling well.

"Now Robert," Control shot back, the smile leaving his face completely. "I thought we agreed that I couldn't help you any further. Remember? I gave you all the help I could already."

"Yes, yes, I understood all that. I'm not here to ask for help. I've already managed to take care of the situation on my own. Full pardon and an honorable discharge." That McCall was quite pleased with himself was obvious. "In fact, he is the reason I'm in this rather, eh, delicate condition. We were out celebrating last night."

"Last night? You mean he's here in New York?"

"Yes. I brought him home with me. Control, I really believe this young man has all the makings of a fine field agent. He certainly has the right background and training. He is a good team player, seems to be able to think on his feet and..."

"And you are fond of him, like a stray puppy." Control finished for him.

McCall glared at him. "Really Control, if you persist in this verbal abuse I shall leave and come back another time when you are feeling a little less playful." *Just my luck to find him in one of his moods,* McCall thought to himself. *I'm just not up to this today.*

"All right Robert, I'm sorry. So you really think he has potential? What does he think?"

"Well I haven't put the question to him yet. I've just been whetting his appetite. I thought I'd obtain official sanction before asking him. But if you're not interested...."

"No, no not at all. Robert, you have a sixth sense about this sort of thing. If you think he's got what it takes, go right ahead and make the offer. I gather you have the feeling he will accept?"

"Oh yes, I believe he will. He really has nothing else to go to. His training is suitable for private security work, but his temperament in definitely not. He'd make a lousy police officer. Again, wrong temperament. He has considered becoming a mercenary for which he is eminently suited, but it would be such a waste. I think he'll bite. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he has already figured out what I've been hinting at for the last day and just waiting for me to ask the question."

"Good. We have a new training class beginning in just a few weeks. I'll slot him in."

"No. He's mine. I'll train this one myself, thank you."

"My, my Robert. I was only kidding earlier with that comment about the stray puppy. Do you really intend to keep him as a pet?"

No. This one's special. I don't know, I just see incredible potential in this young man. I want to be sure he's trained right. Consider him my protégé, if you will, but I will undertake his training myself."

Control knew when to step back. McCall had brought more than a few new agents into the Company. Some of them were quite good. For him to want to personally train this one spoke volumes about his opinion of the young man. He was looking forward to meeting Mr. Kostmayer.

"All right Robert, have it your way. Bring him in once he agrees. We'll take care of the paperwork and then he's all yours." Control resolved to review the young man's file before McCall had the chance to bring him in.

 

 

Mickey Kostmayer cautiously followed the woman from across the street. At this time of day, there was not much foot traffic and he did not want to be discovered. When she turned down a small side street, he had no choice but to cross the street and follow. He turned the corner only to find that she had disappeared from sight. He knew a moment of panic. *Damn,* he thought, *McCall is gonna kill me if I lose her.* There was no obvious place where she could have gone. He picked up his pace and carefully scanned both sides of the street.

He came to an alley and cautiously peered around the corner. It was a typical city alley and he saw no place where someone could go. He spied an alley on the other side of the street and crossed to check it out. Again, no place to hide. He continued down the street checking alleys and doorways with no results. He had almost reached the end of the block when he heard a sound from behind. He silently cursed himself. Obviously he had missed something crucial. Turning, he saw the woman he had been following. She had a smile on her face and a gun leveled at his chest. He went for his own gun, but before he had made more than a motion, she pulled the trigger. He felt the slug hit his chest. The last thing he saw before he fell was the grin on her face. *Damn!* he thought.

The next thing he knew, she was offering him her hand to help him up. That grin was still plastered across her face. He looked down, fully expecting to see dark red blood pumping out of his chest. Instead, he saw a large splotch of bright orange paint. *A paint gun?! That McCall sure has a warped sense of humor!*

"Come on, honey. You're not really hurt. At least nothing is seriously hurt but your pride." She easily pulled him to his feet. "Don't feel bad. I was painted at least ten times before I learned. Believe me, there are worse colors than orange. Tell Robert I said hello and thanks for letting me get back some of my own pride." She winked at Mickey and walked away.

Mickey could do nothing more than stand there and stare at her as she moved away. He finally shook himself and centered on the present. "Oh man," he mumbled to himself, "That McCall is one hard dude. He's gonna eat me alive." He slowly turned and headed back to McCall's apartment. He knew it was useless to try to hide the result of the day's activities. He had been set up. By the best, he had to conclude, but set up none the less. He had bragged about his training and abilities and scoffed at the idea that, just maybe, he had a lot to learn. He now had to admit that the training that applied to the jungle was a lot different than the skills needed to work in the urban environment. He was now ready to go back to McCall and listen to the bits of advice and wisdom, if he could use that term, that the older man had to give him.

 

 

It had been four months since that very bad day when Mickey had been 'painted' on the surveillance assignment. Since that time he had worked hard and had to admit that there was a lot he had needed to learn. Not only skills for the field but also world politics, history and the structure of the various national and international intelligence agencies had to be mastered. It had been hard work. There was more than once when he had almost bolted. Each time, as if McCall had read his mind, the pace would change and his attention would, once more, be assured. He was secretly proud to say that he had not been 'painted' once since that first time, although there had been a few close calls. Finally he felt that maybe he was ready to do some real work. There was still a lot more to learn. Mickey realized this clearly. But he now knew enough to put his training to use. McCall agreed.

They had taken a night flight out of New York, and via a round-about route, had wound up in Romania two days later. Their mission was to help a Russian diplomat and his family to escape. The diplomat had, over the last five years, leaked a large amount of very sensitive and helpful information to the West. He was now in possession of some extremely critical documents. But he had upped the ante. In return for the information, he wanted help getting himself and his family to the West. It was up to McCall and Kostmayer to get them out.

The basic idea was to sneak the diplomat and his family, a wife and 16 year old daughter, out of the consulate in the middle of the night when security would be at its lightest. It was no surprise to Mickey to learn that Robert was already familiar with the layout of the consulate. By this point in their relationship he had come to realize just how experienced, and dangerous, his mentor really was. He was proud to have been recruited by him and even more amazed that McCall was willing to take such a personal interest in his 'education'. Over the past months he had become aware of how truly unusual that was.

They laid their plans carefully and Mickey had spent hours memorizing the blueprints of the building. More hours had been spent observing the pattern of the guards who patrolled the grounds of the consulate. They needed to have that information to time their moves both in and out to avoid detection.

The night for the escape was chosen because there was a new moon. Earlier in the day they had succeeded in getting word to the diplomat, Sergi Vilanov, to have his family all in the designated room and ready to go. At the appointed time, Mickey and Robert made their way silently onto the grounds of the consulate. The only people stirring were the two guards who patrolled the grounds. Security inside the consulate was limited to one guard, posted in the entry hall. The agents made their way into the building by the kitchen door, crept quietly up the back staircase to the second floor and quickly moved down the hallway to the suite McCall had identified as the Vilanov quarters. They gained entrance to the suite without mishap.

Inside the room they found the family tensely waiting, their few bags packed and ready by the door but out of sight of casual observation. Nadia Vilanov, an attractive girl of sixteen, sat in a chair by the heavily draped window. She was pretending to read a book by the light of a small table lamp but couldn't seem to get the words to register. She looked up quickly as the door opened. Sergi sat on the bed, one arm around his wife and the other holding a very efficient-looking gun pointed at the newcomers. McCall stopped dead in his tracks.

"Sergi Vilanov? Uncle Pasha sent us." On hearing the code phrase, the family visibly relaxed. McCall and Mickey stepped farther into the room. "If you are ready to go we'll be on our way." McCall cautiously eyed the weapon. "Do you know how to use that?" he asked. If Vilanov could use the gun, that might come in handy in the event gunplay was necessary.

"I am an expert marksman. I assure you, I can and have used it quite effectively." Sergi regarded the gun for a moment and then tucked it into his waistband at the small of his back. He helped his wife to her feet and they crossed the room. He paused as they passed McCall. "We are all armed. The women both know how to use their guns but have no actual experience. In my position I have taken all the precautions I can."

"A wise decision," McCall agreed. Privately he was not totally comfortable with the idea. He studied the two women. Irenia Vilanov looked like a sensible woman who could handle almost any situation. The perfect diplomat's wife. When he looked into her eyes he saw a clam acceptance of the situation and a determination to succeed, regardless of the odds. He didn't think she would be any trouble. The daughter, on the other hand, was nervous and, he suspected, more than a little scared, very young and inexperienced. Definitely not the sort of person he would arm.

As the couple proceeded to collect their bags, McCall turned to Mickey. He kept his voice low so that he couldn't be overheard. "Stick close to the girl. She's armed and scared, a dangerous mix. Turn on the charm and try to get her to relax."

"Right." Mickey crossed to the girl and offered her one of his best smiles. "Ready to go Ms. Vilanov?"

"Please don't call me that. My name in Nadia. I would prefer if you use that name."

"OK, Nadia." Mickey offered her his arm. "Shall we go?" She regarded him shyly, never quite looking him in the eye, and hooked her hand in the crook of his arm. They crossed to the door and Mickey picked up the remaining bag and handed it to Nadia.

"Right," McCall collected them all together. "Stay close to my colleague, Ms. Vilanov. He'll see that you are safe." He smiled at the girl and was rewarded with the slightest of smiles in return.

*Good,* he thought, * if we can just keep her relaxed. We may get out of here unscathed.*

McCall checked his watch to see where in their rounds the guards would be. The timetable he and Mickey had constructed from their long nights of observation told him that both of the guards patrolling the premises would be headed away from the rear entrance. Satisfied, he herded his group back down the hall and down the stairs to the kitchen. They were almost to the rear exit when a noise came from across the kitchen. Everyone froze. A guard emerged from one of the pantries, a late night snack in hand. McCall felt sure they would still have gone undetected as the guard was more intent on his sandwich than his surroundings, but Nadia panicked and began to scream. Mickey grabbed the girl and tried to silence her with a hand over her mouth. The guard dropped his food and reached for his gun but before he could draw, McCall's weapon fired. The guard slowly sank to the floor, a bright red stain spreading across his chest.

"We better move fast," he told the others. If they were lucky enough, the sentries outside would have been at their farthest points from the building. There was no chance that the noise would have gone unnoticed. Nadia's screams had been loud and shrill and McCall's gun was not equipped with a silencer. But at least they would have some distance to travel to be on top of the escaping party.

"Mr. Vilanov, please take charge of your daughter and keep her quiet. Mrs. Vilanov, stay close to your husband. I'll take the lead. Mickey, cover the rear."

McCall opened the kitchen door a crack and peered out. There was no sign of either guard.

"Right. I'll go first. Wait till I get to cover and signal you. Move as quickly and quietly as possible."

He opened the door farther and, sighting the best cover he could, moved quickly to the spot. When all remained quiet he signaled for the family to follow. Mickey was just about to join the others when there was a sound behind him. He was certain the man McCall had shot was dead so this must be someone else. He ducked quickly behind the nearest counter. As he hit the floor, a bullet sliced through the air where he had just stood.

*Damn,* he thought, *I thought the guy McCall got was the lobby guard. It must have been one of the outside guards instead. This guy had to have come from inside the building.*

He peered over the top of the counter just as the guard shot again. This time the bullet splintered the countertop inches away from the agent's face. Mickey took a deep breath and quickly popped up from behind the counter and fired twice. He first shot was a little wide but the second found its mark and the guard fell over backwards and did not move.

Mickey hastily retreated from the building and caught up with the rest of the group who, by that time, had made it half way across the back garden. Just as Mickey joined them, the remaining guard opened fire on the group. Both McCall and Vilanov had their weapons ready and returned fire. Mickey got a good idea of the man's location from the muzzle flash and worked he way around till he had the guard flanked. As the guard rose to fire again, Mickey shot once, and the guard went down.

McCall rose from his cover. "Lets get out of here while we can." He lead the way to the hedgerow that formed the back border. A break in the hedge gave them access to the street that ran behind the consulate.

 

 

The five piled into a car that McCall and Kostmayer had left on the street for their getaway. They could hear the wail of approaching sirens. Obviously they had made enough noise to wake the other occupants of the consulate who had, in turn, called for reinforcements. They made their way cautiously through the city in the direction opposite from the increasing commotion. Eventually they found their way to a small deserted farmhouse about 20 miles outside the city. The plan was to lay low there until the next evening when transportation would be available to get them all out of the country. This was not the original arrangement McCall had made, but a last minute hitch in the transportation situation caused a 24 hour delay. The farmhouse had been a hastily added provision to the plan. As such, McCall felt at least comfortable that the opposition could not anticipate the arrangement.

They made themselves as comfortable as possible in the old building that was half in ruins. It was dirty and cold and there were no provisions for a fire or other means of heating or cooking. Everyone was so tired by that time that the surroundings did not provide an obstacle to the rest that they all needed.

While the family slept, McCall and Kostmayer kept watch. They were out in the countryside with nothing within a mile but trees and grass. While nothing stirred, both agents were uneasy. The overwhelming feeling that something unpleasant was going to happen was affecting both men.

After about an hour of silence, McCall approached Mickey and clapped him on the shoulder. "That was nice work back there, young man. I would have sworn the guard I got in the kitchen was the inside man. Good thing you stayed so alert."

"A holdover from my training and experience in jungle warfare. You've convinced me that kind of training alone is not enough for this work, but it sure comes in handy." Mickey was privately pleased at the praise from his mentor but couldn't resist pointing out the usefulness of his SEAL training. It was an accomplishment of which he was very proud.

"Yes, indeed. I never for one second doubted that your special training would come in handy, Mr. Kostmayer. You will find that in this line of work, any and all training will have its uses. Never the less, well done." Giving the younger man's shoulder a squeeze, McCall returned to his post.

It was late afternoon when the family finally awoke. Earlier, Mickey and Robert had taken turns getting a brief hour nap so both were feeling a little better by the time their charges stirred. They made the best meal they could from provisions the agents had brought along in the car. But the day was raw and the afternoon brought a cold, soaking rain. With a roof that was missing in spots and leaking in others and with no source of heat, everyone was thoroughly miserable.

Mickey and Robert were both relieved when the time came for their transportation to arrive. The old truck pulled up in front of the building. As McCall herded his charges towards the exit, a half dozen Romanian troops exploded from the back of the vehicle and started firing at the house.

The agents got the family back into the recesses of the building and under the best cover they could find. Sergi Vilanov and his wife took positions from which they could return fire while still being fairly well protected. Nadia huddled in a corner, too scared to do much of anything.

Mickey returned to the front of the building to observe the positioning of the troops. They had distributed themselves fairly evenly around the front yard making use of all the available cover. Then he spotted a familiar face in the cab of the truck.

"McCall," he hissed. "Come look at this." McCall was at his side in a minute and gave a low whistle.

"Well that explains why our friends are here." The man in the truck was a member of the underground that was helping the group to escape. This was the man, McCall recalled, who had suggested they use the farmhouse while they waited for transportation.

The pair had to duck as the fire from the soldiers came close to their position. They returned fire but really weren't trying to do more than get the troops to stay under cover.

"Come on, Mickey. We can't do anything from here. Let's go out the back." The two made their way through the building. They paused where the Vilanov family had taken cover.

"That's good. Just keep them busy. We'll go out the back and take them from the sides." McCall was surprised, but pleased to note that Nadia had pulled herself together and was crouched near her mother firing in the general direction of the soldiers. While she wasn't really doing anything effective, at least she had managed to overcome her fear enough to function. He would have to rethink his opinion of the young lady. She seemed to be more like her mother than he thought.

Robert and Mickey went out the back door and made their way towards the front of the building. The troops were concentrating their fire on the interior of the building and the two agents were able to take out two of them before the rest got a fix on their position.

They split up and, taking advantage of the available cover, started to work their way to opposite sides of the front yard. They would either spilt the opposition, making each part weaker and easier to defeat, or they would draw all fire to one side, leaving the other agent free to attack from the rear.

Two of the remaining soldiers concentrated on McCall. The other two went after Mickey. Kostmayer easily took out one of his pursuers and, after a few anxious moments, was equally successful with the second. Finding himself free, he concentrated on the action on the other side of the yard.

McCall had managed to account for one of his assailants almost immediately. He thought the second one would easily follow the first when he tripped over an exposed tree root and fell to the ground, sliding in the mud. The wind was knocked out of him and it took a few seconds for him to recover. In that time, the remaining assailant was able to gain a position of advantage. McCall looked up into the barrel of his opponents weapon.

*Well McCall,* he thought to himself, "You've had a long run but this just may be it. But don't go easily!* He made a motion towards his weapon which he had dropped as he fell. But since he had slid several feet in the mud when he went down, the weapon was well out of easy reach. The soldier, a major in the Romanian army, anticipated the move and blocked it with his gun. The major barked an order at McCall which, although he didn't speak the language, McCall understood as an order to freeze. He slowly brought his hand back close to his body. While he was contemplating what to do next, he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.

Kostmayer took only a few seconds to assess the situation on the other side of the yard. McCall was definitely in trouble. He moved to a position where he had a clear shot at the soldier without risk of hitting McCall and took aim. His first shot knocked the gun out of the major's hands so he couldn't shoot McCall. His second took the man out. He then ran over to help his mentor up.

Mickey looked around the yard. There was no sign of any more resistance. The traitor from the resistance cell had run away when it was clear that the fight was not going as anticipated. No matter. McCall would see to it that the cell was informed. They had ways of taking care of traitors.

Suddenly, they heard another vehicle approach. The two agents crouched behind a row of bushes and waited to see what was next. To their relief, the truck that entered the yard was the one they had originally expected. They quickly got the Vilanov family into the truck and were on their way.

 

 

Two days later, Robert McCall and Mickey Kostmayer sat in a small restaurant, preparing to enjoy their first real meal since the mission had begun. The Vilanov family had been delivered safely to Western authorities; not without a sigh of relief on the part of the two agents. The mission was complete and they had two more days before they were due back in New York. McCall had suggested the restaurant as one he remembered fondly from other trips to that part of the world. When they arrived, he had ordered a bottle of fine scotch and two glasses and the two proceeded to lubricate their appetites.

"Mr. Kostmayer," McCall began, after drinking in silence for a few minutes. "I don't believe I have had the opportunity to thank you for disposing of that Romanian Major. That was well done, Lad. Thank you."

"Don't mention it." Mickey was both pleased and embarrassed.

"I also want to tell you that you did a splendid job all around. For your first real assignment, you acquitted yourself quite well. I'm glad I wasn't wrong about you. I think we will get along just fine."

Mickey was at a loss for words. This kind of praise from Robert McCall meant a lot to him. Noticing his discomfort McCall just smiled and topped off both their glasses.

"Allow me to propose a toast," he said lifting his glass. "May your career be long and distinguished. May your colleagues be both skilled and congenial. And may we work many more successful missions together." Mickey lifted his drink and touched it to Robert's. Then, without another word, the two drained their glasses.

Fin

 

 

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