Part 2

 

An hour and a half later, as Ann walked out of the building with Sam Brewster ten feet behind her, she silently repeated Robert McCall's reassurances like a good luck charm. Brewster had appeared outside her office about two minutes after she'd returned from the phone call, and hadn't moved. She'd shut her door to block the staring eyes and resisted the temptation to go peek out. Only the fear of being in the building after everyone had left had made her gather her things and open the door to leave.

The street was full as usual, and the bus stop packed. She made it with her usual fifteen minutes to spare. Brewster took up his position slightly behind her and five feet away. Ann noticed he wasn't letting the shift and flow of people move him from his spot. She wondered what had happened to Paula.

Look as she might, she couldn't spot anyone else who was watching her. Smiley was nowhere around, and she hadn't thought to ask what McCall's look-out looked like.

Another herd of buses arrived, Blue 14 second in the line. Ann started working her way through the crowd to the doors. Brewster was three people behind her.

Native wiliness told her to stay on her feet, not to sit down where she could be cornered. She grabbed one of the overhead straps. Another man grabbed the last one behind her, just before Brewster could. He was forced to the back of the bus and another set of straps.

The bus started with a lurch that caught Ann by surprise, and she almost fell into the man behind her.

He braced her with a hand in her back. "Be careful," he said softly. "McCall won't be happy if I don't deliver you in good shape."

Ann froze. "McCall? And you are?"

"Mickey Kostmayer. I was sitting next to McCall last night when you turned off some lights to peek outside." Her shoulders relaxed, but she didn't turn around. Mickey chuckled to himself at her inherent sneakiness.

"Then you're the one he told me about," she said. "So what's the plan?"

"Get off at 42nd Street. McCall's there with his car. I'll slow down anybody who tries to stop you."

"Speaking of which, the man whose grab you beat out for that strap is the chief of my worries."

"Damn, I didn't get that good a look at him. He went to the back, right?"

"Yes."

"Then when we hit the stop, you go out the front and I'll see what I can do about slowing down the back. Just keep moving when we get there, and I'll watch your back."

Ann nodded. Her stomach was too tense to allow herself to speak.

The bus jostled its slow way down Manhattan. Mickey kept his ears on the back of the bus, but didn't glance back. He didn't want anyone back there to think he was taking too much interest.

As they approached 42nd Street and the big transfer point, several people began gathering their things and making a general bustle.

Mickey leaned closer to Ann. "You ready?" She nodded.

Ann shifted her feet nervously, loosening her knees for quick movement, and scanned the streets outside for sign of Robert McCall. As the bus began slowing for the stop, she spotted him.

He was parked on the side street nearest the bus stop. Both front car doors were partially open, and McCall stood by the driver's door, calmly watching the bus and the street.

Mickey leaned towards Ann again as the bus began braking, causing people to sway. "Run when you get out there. It's too late for subtlety."

"Right."

The bus stopped and the doors opened. Ann took a deep breath and headed for the front door. She didn't look back towards Brewster, trusting Mickey to do the job he'd said he would. But the people were so slow; a man with a huge backpack was taking forever to get down the stairs.

She made the steps and glanced back into the bus. Brewster was fighting his way through the crowd to get to the back doors. Mickey stood at the head of the stairs, letting people go in front of him and blocking those behind.

"Come on, come on," she muttered as the woman ahead of her stepped slowly down to the street.

The woman glared at her. "You'll be my age some day."

"Only if I'm lucky," Ann snarled, and she shoved her way past and jumped to the street.

Robert saw her get off the bus and straightened quickly, waiting to see if she'd spotted him.

Ann pushed her way through the crowds, ignoring curses. She felt like she was moving through mud. She barely cleared the back doors of the bus when Mickey came stumbling down the steps, Brewster close behind.

Terror gave strength to her shoves. McCall slipped into the driver's seat of his car, started the engine and leaned over to push the passenger door open a little wider.

The big construction worker Ann pushed by wasn't amused. "Watch it, lady!" he snapped. Ann didn't pause to apologize.

Brewster untangled himself from Mickey and ran after Ann, snaking through the path she left in the crowd.

The construction worker was less pleased to be shoved by Brewster. "Look where you're going, jerk!" He shoved Brewster in return.

Brewster reached under his jacket and yanked out a pistol.

"Jesus!" the construction worker yelled and jumped back, knocking over the woman behind him.

Two other people made it a priority to be elsewhere as Brewster leveled the gun at Ann's back.

Robert started to reach for his own gun, but too many people were moving around.

"Ann! Get down!"

She took it on faith, tucked her head, and hit the pavement.

Brewster's shot ricocheted off the roof of McCall's car, and the screaming started.

Mickey tried to fight his way through the scattering people to Brewster. Too many civilians to think of pulling his own piece. At least the jerk isn't on automatic. Where's the girl, where's the girl? I saw her go down, but was it before or after--oh, shit, I know this guy--

Brewster had counted on his first shot doing the job. Now the jostling, shrieking crowd was spoiling both his aim and his chance of escape. He started to edge through the crowd, looking for an out or another clear shot at Ann Marshall, whichever came first.

Her sensei would have called the shoulder roll clumsy and criticized her for holding on to the briefcase. But, to the best of Ann's knowledge, Sensei had never been shot at. She stumbled on getting to her feet but threw herself at the Jaguar's open door. She hit the seat backwards, and gravity slammed the door as McCall popped the brake and peeled rubber away from the curb.

"Hang on," he said curtly as he slewed the big car through a little hole in the rush hour traffic. He took a right into the next alley he saw, scared the hell out of a wino searching a dumpster, turned left into another alley, then made a hard right into a cul-de-sac and hit the brakes. Fighting adrenal withdrawal, he switched off the engine.

"Are you all right?" he asked his passenger.

Ann clung to the seatback. Her stomach couldn't decide which way to protest, and terror had shut down most of the voluntary systems. Finally, slowly, she relaxed her grip and turned around to sit down properly.

Robert studied her closely. She didn't act like she'd been hurt, but shock could do that. "Ann, are you all right?"

"Yeah," she whispered. She raised a shaky hand to her head. "Oh, god." It was starting to hit her. "How close did that bullet come?"

Robert had to swallow. "If you hadn't hit the sidewalk when you did..."

Ann looked at him and saw her answer in his eyes. "It's become something to kill over, then."

"Yes, it has. I'm sorry, I had no idea--"

"Well, neither did I." She held out her hand and watched it shake with interest. "If I didn't know better, I'd say I was thirty seconds from embarrassing hysterics."

"If you feel you must, go ahead. In the meantime, it's time to go to ground and compare notes."

Ann felt her mind sub-divide into several shrieking pieces and one coherent section as he started the engine. "Where are we going?"

"My apartment. Mickey will meet us there."

He backed the car out cautiously, then threaded his way through the alleys to a cross-street. An odd noise caught his attention. Ann was fidgeting with the catches of her briefcase, opening them, catching them with her thumbs, then closing them again. He started to ask her to stop, but then he saw she wasn't really there. She was staring at a spot on the dashboard, and she wasn't blinking.

At the next light, he put his hand on her shoulder. "It's all right," he said softly. She jerked back from wherever it was she'd been and stared at him. "You're allowed to be frightened."

Ann took a deep, shaky breath. "Mr. McCall--"

"Robert, please." The light turned green, and they started moving. "I've always considered flying bullets to constitute a proper introduction," he continued.

He was pleased to see a faint smile appear. "You may be right," she answered.

"Now, just sit back and relax as much as you can. This may be the last chance you get in a while."

Ann took his advice, closing her eyes and refusing to listen to the hysterical gremlins trying to get her brain's attention.

It was a nice neighborhood they finally pulled up in. Not, Ann noticed forgivingly, quite as nice as hers, but then, very few were. As Robert held the car door for her, she saw he was looking around with a faint frown.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"I don't see Mickey's van. He was supposed to meet us here."

"Could something have happened to him back there?"

"I don't think so, but I was too busy driving to see."

Ann made a face. "And I never thought to look. I'm sorry."

"My dear, you had other things to worry about." He sighed. "Well, he knows how to take care of himself. Shall we?"

Robert's apartment was behind a door with an impressive set of locks. Ann studied the place, looking for those clues a home held to a person's personality. The place was comfortable and understated. Nothing flashy, but attractive nonetheless. Ann restrained her urge to study his books. She saw a small kitchen and a corridor leading off to the rest of the place.

Robert noticed her interest. "Not as impressive as a four-story brownstone to oneself, but it suits me."

"It's probably cheaper to heat, too."

He showed her to a seat, then, after a quick assessment of the state of her nerves, went to his small bar. He returned with two glasses of sherry.

"Thank you, no, not for me," Ann said quickly. But the strain was beginning to show.

"I'm afraid I must insist," Robert said with a smile. "Your hands are still shaking, and I don't think you're normally so pale. Besides, I was properly raised, and I can't have the drink I need unless you at least accept one."

She hesitated, then sighed and took a glass. "My grandmother would be pleased that the etiquette lessons took so well." She looked at the drink ruefully. "But I was taught that a strong character could withstand anything without the need for crutches."

"One glass of sherry will not ruin your character."

He waited pointedly until she acquiesced and took a sip, then he drank half his own glass. Despite his familiarity with violence, he never got used to being shot at, and he had butterflies that needed settling. He watched his client out of the corner of his eye. She continued to take ladylike sips of her sherry. Her color was better, but her hands still trembled. She still held on to her calm, but it was a fingernail grip. Her strength was undeniable, but was it resilient or brittle? Better to deal with it now then have her suddenly collapse under the strain.

"So who was that who tried to kill you?" he asked calmly. "I didn't get that good a look at him."

"Brewster, the vice-president--" Suddenly it flashed back to her, Robert's warning, the duck, the sound of the bullet as it passed over her in the space where her head used to be, the look in Robert's eyes that told her how close it had been--her resolve cracked, and the screams grabbed her soul.

At the first choked sob, Robert put down his glass, sat beside her, and pulled her into his arms.

Ann tired to pull away. "I'm sor-sorry..."

"Stop apologizing for being human. Someone tried to kill you. It's supposed to upset you."

His matter-of-fact acceptance of her distress melted the last of her restraint. She cried out her terror against his shoulder.

Robert let her tears serve as the vent for some of his own anger. People under his protection were not supposed to come so close to the Reaper. If she hadn't moved so quickly--what were they keeping secret that was worth killing over?

Ann let herself cry enough to feel better but not so much as to embarrass herself. As she began to straighten, Robert pulled his arms away and sat back.

"Feeling better?" he asked.

Ann nodded. "I've soaked your shoulder," she said ruefully.

"Cotton washes beautifully." He presented her with his handkerchief.

She only wiped away the last tears, not being the sort who could blow her nose in a handkerchief then give it back to its owner. She found it very hard to meet Robert's eyes.

"You're allowed to be upset," he repeated, beginning to be annoyed with her. "I don't think any less of you for giving in to a few well-deserved tears."

Ann grimaced in annoyance. "It just seems such a namby-pamby female thing to do," she blurted.

"I've seen big tough men react the same way the first time they've been shot at. I'm assuming this is the first time you've been shot at."

"Been shot at? Oh. Yes, it is." Something cold and distant entered her voice that puzzled him, but he didn't have a chance to investigate. "May I use your bathroom?" she asked.

"Certainly. It's just through there, first door on the right."

Robert's musings were interrupted by a knock on the door. A check through the peephole showed Mickey, and he opened the door with relief.

"There you are. I was beginning to worry."

Mickey was uncharacteristically grim. "I'm fine, but keep worrying."

"What's wrong?"

Mickey glanced around. "Where is she?"

"In the bathroom. Delayed stress reaction."

"Yeah. Did you see the shooter?"

"Not clearly. Ann says it was Brewster, the v-p for special operations."

Mickey's eyes narrowed. "You and I know him better as Mark Cochran."

"Oh, my god." Robert looked around the room, trying to sort it out. "What's an ex-Company target man doing as a computer executive?"

"Besides arranging hits on the middle managers, you mean? I called Control, that's what took me so long." Mickey nodded towards the bathroom. "Better get the lady out here, it just got real messy."

Robert nodded, but he tracked down the other half of his sherry first. Cochran had been one of the Company's instruments of less-than-honorable use. Only rarely, though, had he been required to kill someone. His primary work had been the assessment of vulnerabilities. There'd been suspicion of independent operation. Nothing had been proven, but he'd been let go all the same.

Ann opened the door before Robert got there. She looked more her old self. "You're all right," she said upon seeing Mickey. "Thank you for helping me get out of there."

"Yeah, you're welcome. Did you hit the dirt willingly?"

"Yes, I did. So now what?"

"Now we talk," Robert said. "And I think we'd better sit down."

Mickey accepted his own drink from Robert. "What are you going to tell her?" he asked softly.

"Don't worry, I won't let anything slip."

Ann watched the interplay curiously. "What's up?"

Robert glanced at Mickey reassuringly. "My colleague here says he knows who Brewster is."

"And?"

"It seems your vice-president of special operations used to be--well, a hit man."

Her mouth opened, but nothing came out. For a moment she stopped breathing, then it came out in an explosive curse. "What the fucking hell is Dushenko up to!"

Admirably succinct, Robert thought as Ann launched herself from her chair and began pacing rapidly around the room.

She stopped dead in front of the kitchen counter, stared at the formica surface, then turned. "I'm going to find out what's in that system."

"That would seem to be the next logical step," Robert said. He saw Mickey give a sigh of relief that she wasn't asking difficult questions. But she would, eventually. He'd better have answers ready. "How do we do it?"

Ann stared at one of the pictures on the wall. A tremor of fear shook her but there was really only one answer. "I have to go back in."

"What!" Mickey snapped. "Lady, I didn't get pushed down a flight of steps so you could give these guys a second chance."

"The idea doesn't excite me much, either, but there's no other way."

"There has to be," Robert insisted. "You said a modem was connected to that section. Can't you go through that?"

Ann wearily shook her head. "I'm going to have to crack the password, and our modem software is all geared to shut out more than three attempts at a password. I set it up that way myself. No, the only way to do it is from inside."

Robert frowned, wishing he knew more about computers. Perhaps Jonah at the company could be persuaded to take a try at it.

"It's going to have to be soon," Ann added softly. "After this afternoon they're going to know they can't trust me. They might be dumping it right now."

Robert stared at her unhappily. She was right, damn it all. "I'll go in with you."

"You can't."

"I beg your pardon?"

Ann cringed slightly at the snap in his voice. "There are security desks at each floor. The guards know me, I work a lot of overtime, but visitors after hours are discouraged. I've got to go alone."

"But not without back-up," Mickey said.

"It's not your fight," Ann pointed out. "And Brewster's already shown he's willing to kill."

"You can't tell me anything about that guy I don't already know. Besides," he added with a reluctant smile, "McCall's been a bad influence on me, with running around pulling people's butts out of the fire. He's got me being noble too."

She sighed a little shakily. "Thank you. I really hated the idea of going back in without any help."

Robert gave her an offended look. "My dear girl, you asked me to help you find out what's going on. That job isn't done yet." His voice dropped into a very serious register. "And no one shoots at my clients and gets away with it."

Ann felt a sort of uneasy relief, as if a brand-new, understated security system came equipped with the private phone number of the 82nd Airborne. She wondered just who these two men were, but by now she didn't care. She only hoped she could match their nonchalance.

"Well," she said, checking her watch, "if I'm going to do some illegal entry, I'm going to need my dinner. I know a good Chinese place that delivers. Dinner's on me."

 

 

Two hours later, the sweet and sour chicken was a cold lump in her stomach as they drove into the basement garage of the Prodigal building.

The closest parking spot Robert could find to the elevator was six stalls away. The silence echoed when he turned off the engine.

You don't have to do this, Ann told herself. Let them clean out the system, call it a loss. You're still alive. Stay that way.

But what if they don't call it a loss? Mere suspicion had brought a hit man down on her. Her only protection was information. She had to find out what was in that system that people thought worth her life.

She took a deep, shaky breath. "Well, I guess it's time."

"You don't have to do this," Robert told her.

"Yes, I do. I want to know what so damned important to them."

Robert nodded. "In that case I want you to take something with you. Mickey?"

From the back seat, Mickey handed him a small walky-talky, which he then handed to Ann. She took it uncertainly.

"Don't change the frequency," Robert warned her. "I have the other one. I want you to call me every few minutes to let us know how you're doing. I really don't like the idea of you going up there alone."

"They may not even be up there," she said hopefully.

"Always a possibility, but let's not take any chances." He looked at his watch. "Nine o'clock. There shouldn't be many people around. What floor are you going to?"

"My office is on the 24th. That's my first choice, but I might try engineering on the 23rd." One final deep breath, then she unfastened her seatbelt and opened the door.

"Be careful," Robert told her. "It's not worth getting hurt over."

"Hopefully being a brown belt will count for something."

"Belts don't stop bullets," Mickey commented from the back.

Ann glanced at him, meeting his level gaze. "Sensei keeps saying that." She got out of the car.

They watched her walk to the elevator. Mickey leaned over the back of the front seat. "I see why you like her. Pure guts, that one."

Robert was too preoccupied to deal with the concept of liking. "Something smells very bad about this, Mickey. I don't think Cochran is up to anything small. We should have called Jonah instead of letting her go back inside."

"He'd probably say what she did, that it has to be done from inside."

"Probably," Robert sighed.

At the elevator, Ann waited with twisting stomach for the car to arrive. She resisted the temptation to look back at where her allies waited. They couldn't help with this.

The doors of the elevator opened. She breathed a sigh of relief that no one was inside and got in. Her hand, she noticed with some pride, didn't shake as she pushed the button for the 24th floor. As the elevator rose, she looked at the walky-talky. Why not? She pushed the transmit button. "Hello?"

"McCall here," came the quick reply. "Is something wrong?"

"No, just wanted to make sure this thing works."

"Good idea."

"I guess I'll call you when I get settled somewhere. Out."

"Out."

"Sounds like a damned spy movie," she muttered.

The elevator ride was long enough for fear to mutate to boredom and back again. The muscles in her neck started crawling as she passed the twentieth floor. Now came the danger of her enemies waiting on any floor, at any door.

21...22...23...

Ann took a deep breath, rapidly reviewed the parts of a sidekick and neck chop, and forced herself to look casual.

A quick scan as the elevator doors opened showed the foyer was empty. She strolled out with every show of confidence and walked without hesitation to the security desk.

"Evening, Miss Marshall," the guard said casually as he pushed the after-hours sign-in log towards her.

"Evening, Phil." Is he being overly casual? Ann asked herself as she signed. Or am I just paranoid?

"You work too many late nights. You ought to get yourself a man and stay home evenings." Phil tossed the clipboard onto the desk behind the counter.

Ann forced herself to walk naturally to the glass doors leading to the rest of the floor. "You're probably right." But Phil's attention had already gone back to the screens on his desk, one of which showed the Mets game. Ann put her security card to the scan plate on the doors, then walked through. She felt a trap snap as the doors closed and locked behind her.

The big IS room was dark except for the glow of occasional screensavers on the monitors. Ann paused in the doorway to scan for movement or untoward sounds. Had it been only four hours ago that she'd left here, heart in her throat, to make her escape? She'd never thought she'd be looking at this room she spent so much time in as enemy territory.

The room was still, the quiet broken only by the hum of cooling fans in the processor boxes. Ann walked as quietly as she could towards her office door. She approached from the side opposite the narrow window by the door, just in case. A quick glance when she was in range showed Paula's cubicle was empty. No light showed from Ann's office, but her imagination peopled it with a silent circle of waiting enemies. She'd locked the door when she'd left, but locks were no barrier to people with master keys.

She hesitated when she reached for the doorknob. But cowardice would be no use now. Besides, she was still balanced to deliver that side kick.

The door was still locked. Not that that meant anything either. Her hands didn't even shake as she put in the key and turned the lock. She threw open the door, just in case.

Her office was empty, but it hadn't been left alone. The papers on her desk were rearranged. Quickly she closed and locked the door behind her and went to check her desk. Her box of personal disks was gone. Muttering obscenities, she fired up the computer. As it ran through the login procedure, she pulled out the walky-talky.

"This is Ann, are you there?"

Robert made a quick noise of relief. "McCall here, what took so long?"

"Hasn't seemed long to me. I wanted to make sure no one was around. I'm in my office. They've searched it and taken the disks I keep my hacking programs on."

"Does that mean you can't do it?" Robert was willing to order her out.

"No, those were only the back-ups. I've got spares in a corner of the network that nobody but me can get to. Do you want me to call back when I get into the section?"

Robert was getting remarkably nervous about having her so far out of reach. "No, leave it on. There's a switch on the side to set it to voice-activated operation."

"Right. Well, time to start hacking. I talk to myself when I do this, so you can ignore most of what I say. And if I start questioning something's intelligence, I'm not talking to you."

"As you will." Robert placed the walky-talky on the dashboard and sat back, chewing his thumbnail. Mickey didn't comment from where he hung on the back of the front seat; he had a bad premonition himself.

Ann copied the programs she'd need onto a spare floppy and headed into the network. She started the back-up computer on the side table and ran a monitoring protocol on the section of the network server she was looking at. If someone else started moving through the system, she wanted to know about it.

Finally she reached the locked-off section.

"Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends," she muttered. "Fire one." She started the simple randomized password cracker.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Mickey asked Robert softly, so as not to activate the walky-talky.

"Generally."

Mickey heard the tension in his friend's voice and nodded. "With Cochran involved, it's got to have agency ties. What are we going to tell her?"

"The truth has a novel sound."

"What a thought."

Ann watched both monitors carefully. So far so good. Abruptly the password program stopped, and she held her breath, waiting for the security protocols to lock her up. Then the screen cleared and a large directory started scrolling.

"My god, I'm in. What a pathetic system."

Robert grabbed the radio. "Did you say you were in?"

"Yeah. God, I wasn't even halfway through the program." She scanned the listings in the directory. "Yeah, this is graphics based. They're not even using half of this memory, the greedy beasts. Where's the executable? Ah, there we go."

Mickey shook his head. "I hate feeling out-of-date."

Robert didn't say anything.

Ann set up the graphics front-end and started a thorough check of the files. "The title of this mess is the International Independent Security Access Database," she said for the benefit of her audience. "I'm looking at a menu that gives you the option of bidding for information, offering new inventory, checking your account, or exiting. I wonder what they bid on."

Robert and Mickey looked at each other uneasily.

"Good lord, these are names," Ann said after a moment. She started paging through the list. "Ashkenazy, Cole, Cruz, Da'ud, Hsing--very multi-ethnic--Jones, Jones, a lot of Joneses. My word, Kostmayer."

"Jesus," Mickey muttered. "Stop her, McCall."

Robert had already grabbed the walky-talky. "Ann, I think we've seen enough."

She wasn't listening. She had hesitated briefly on seeing "Kostmayer, M.", and afterwards she was never really certain why she went looking for the Mc's.

No Marshalls, a couple of Maxwells, one M'benga, then McAdams. She hesitated again, then paged down one more time.

McArgan, MacAdder, McBain--McCall, R.

"Ann," Robert tried again.

Don't do it, said the still small voice, but the mouse was already moving.

The menu disappeared, then a picture appeared and a text block started filling. The picture was of Robert McCall, but grainy and blurry. Badly scanned, the technician in Ann's mind commented. Her eyes went to the text block, but she froze after the first sentence.

"Oh, shit," she said softly. She cleared her throat with difficulty. "Robert? You're in here, and I don't think you wanted me to see this."

"Mother of God," Mickey growled, falling back against his seat.

Robert closed his eyes and thought ungentlemanly things. She sounded upset, and he wondered what was in the file. "How much is there?"

"You want me to read this?"

"You mean you haven't?"

"Look, the first sentence about you being retired from--well, I don't think it's any of my business, so I stopped." Since she wasn't being scolded, she had a thousand nosy questions born of too many movies. But she had a knot of fear in her stomach about what might happen to her now that she had seen this information. "I suppose you're angry with me."

"Not with you. Only that such information is on someone else's computer." He stopped, horrified. "Ann, you said there was a modem connected to this."

"Jesus Christ," Ann gasped and started working the mouse. "Oh, lord, they've got a place to add and access information off the modem. And they've got a rate card that looks like some damned home shopping network."

"Who can get to this?" Mickey asked.

"Anybody with the phone number and the password. I see at least twelve active accounts."

Mickey covered the pick-up to speak privately to Robert. "There's been rumors of an intelligence brokerage ring that will deal with anybody. I think we've found it."

Robert nodded but was cut off by Ann's nervous voice.

"Guys," she said slowly, "there's a section marked Special Services, and I've read enough spy novels to know what extreme prejudice means."

"Cochran," Mickey muttered.

"Ann, get out of there," Robert ordered.

She started to shut down the system, but hesitated. "Do you want a copy of this?" She was already shoving a blank disk in the drive.

"We could use it," Mickey said.

"She's a civilian, we can't risk it," Robert said. "Don't do it, Ann."

"Too late, it's started."

The look on Robert's face would have made Mickey laugh in a different situation. Robert McCall wasn't used to being defied.

Ann was busy marking files. "I'm only copying raw data. Most of the memory is taken up with the graphics, billing, and routing. I suppose you'll want the names of the active accounts."

"How long is this going to take?" Robert asked.

"Halfway done." She changed disks and started the final few files copying. She had a fast machine, and the last of the active accounts was going on the disk when the process suddenly slowed way down.

"Oh, god, no, not a server crash, not now." She turned to the second computer. Her stomach grabbed her heart and squeezed. "Oh, no."

"What's wrong?" Robert demanded.

"Somebody else is trying to get into this directory. They had the sense to limit it to one connection at a time, and since I'm already in here--"

"They're on to you. Get out of there, now. Forget the copies."

Ann looked at her first system. It had hung up partway through the next to last file. This time prudence had the upper hand. She opened the disk drive, ruining the file in progress, yanked out the disk, grabbed the other one and headed for the door.

She didn't bother to lock her office. Pausing in the dark IS room, she spoke softly into the walky-talky. "I'm headed out. I'll call when I'm clear."

"Right." Robert reached for the car door.

Mickey grabbed him. "You try and hook up with her and you'll both just miss each other in the maze. It's a big building."

"Blast, you're right."

Ann crept toward the security desk, waited a moment, then walked through the glass doors with as much bravado as she could muster.

Phil looked up. "Oh, Ms. Marshall, Mr. Brewster just called looking for you. He said if I saw you I should get you to wait for him."

She was breathless with terror for a moment. "He's coming down here?"

"That's what he said."

She started towards the elevator. "Well, give him my apologies, but I've got too much to do tonight to wait." She reached for the button, but stopped. Brewster was coming down. The next elevator due on this floor would have him in it. "On second thought, I'll take the stairs. It's only 20 some floors down."

Phil only shook his head. "Health nuts. God made elevators for a reason."

Ann pushed the crash bar on the stairwell door and slipped through, then she started to run.

Three floors down, she pulled out the walky-talky. "I'm in the stairs headed down. Brewster's coming. I don't know how far behind." A door opened above her, and she shoved away from the wall. "I think he's behind me."

"You're driving," Robert ordered as he threw open the car door. Mickey didn't answer, busy bailing out of his side and coming around the car.

Robert looked around for the door to the stairwell. He ran to it and yanked on the handle. The door was locked. He kicked the door in frustration.

Ann passed the door for the seventeenth floor. Brewster, if that was who it was, was only two floors behind her. On the sixteenth floor, she tried the stairwell door. Locked, and Brewster gained half a floor. Fifteen floors and the garage to go. She wasn't going to make it. She was in good shape, thanks to Sensei Rayburn, but Brewster was stronger and bigger than she. She had to take a chance.

Trying not to think of the eighteen-inch gap and the hundred-plus-foot drop, she swung herself up and over the handrails in the middle of the stairwell. She stumbled on landing but gained a half-floor lead. Hope flared, and she jumped for the rails again.

She paused after two more jumps. The pounding footsteps above her kept coming for a few moments, then stopped. Ann stared up, wondering if he was still coming but quietly, or if he was listening too. She glanced at the walky-talky in her hand, but she didn't dare give away her position by speaking. A squeak like a shoe on a stair came from above. She got her breath back and dove for the railings again. With a bang and a crack, a bullet ricocheted off the handrail next to her head.

"Jesus!" she shrieked and kept to the stairs.

Robert heard the echoes of the shot. The only thing keeping him from the elevators was he had no idea what floor she was on. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Mickey had the car turned around and pointed towards the exit. But without a passenger... Robert rattled the door handle and cursed.

Terror was sapping her strength. She reached the 9th floor and almost dropped. More than halfway, but nowhere near far enough. Maybe he'd given up. He couldn't be in any better shape than she was. She toyed with the idea of standing her ground and taking her chances. Then she remembered the gun. Brewster wouldn't give her time to make a stand. She had no choice. Praying for more reserves than she'd ever needed before, she pulled herself around the next bend and continued down.

Mickey stepped partway out the car door. "Where is she?" he yelled across the roof at Robert.

"I don't know! I heard a shot, but the door's locked!"

A premonition curdled in Mickey's stomach. Once Cochran was on the trail, he wasn't known to give up.

Her ankle had twisted on the fifth floor and she could hear him behind her now. He hadn't slowed down. She wanted to call ahead to make sure Robert was waiting but couldn't spare the breath. Second floor. So close.

A sound caught Robert's attention. "In the car!" he shouted at Mickey, who dove behind the wheel. Robert pulled his gun and worked the action to put a round under the pin.

Ann crashed through the door, stumbling on the threshold. Robert grabbed her and hauled her towards the car. "Are you all right!"

She nodded, trying to catch her breath to warn him.

Robert yanked on the handle of the back door. "How far behind--"

"Look out!" Mickey yelled.

The stairwell door crashed open again, and the Vice-President for Special Operations charged out. His gun was already leveled.

Ann cried out and started to fall as the shot exploded. Robert caught her in one arm as he fired back at Cochran. The man staggered back into the stairwell, and Robert shoved Ann into the car. Mickey didn't wait for orders. The tires screamed as the big engine caught.

"Stay with us, Ann," Robert ordered.

"How bad?" Mickey asked as he negotiated the ramps to the street.

"Left arm. Not too bad, I guess, it looks like he's still using .32s."

"He always was a neat bastard. Bump!" he warned.

Robert braced Ann as well as he could as Mickey half-hopped the curb leaving the garage. But she gave a choked gasp at the jostling. "You'll be all right," he told her. "It's just your arm."

"Just," she whispered. Her whole shoulder was in flames, and something hot crawled from a well of agony in her arm.

"Want a hospital?" Mickey asked.

Robert hesitated. "Not a bad idea."

Mickey caught the worried note in his partner's voice. "Which one? St. Vincent's closest."

"They'll look there first. What's next?" He yanked off his tie.

"Lady of Consolation."

"Good enough." There was always so much blood, hot and sticky. The smell turned his stomach, but he'd learned a long time ago how to fight it down. He pulled out his handkerchief and folded it quickly. "How are you doing, Ann?"

"How should I be?" she gasped. What a stupid question. She had a hole in her. The smell of the blood was a taste in her mouth, and she remembered other times of pain. The blood slid down her side like a warm worm, turning her green shirt red and sticking it to her skin and the car seat. Oh, god, leather seats. She started to lean forward.

Her movement made more blood flow. "Relax," Robert told her tensely, seeing a pulse in the flow that said an artery had given way.

"I'm bleeding all over your upholstery," she protested weakly.

For a half-second he could only stare at her. "Bugger the upholstery! Now sit back."

Mickey glanced in the rearview mirror, surprised. That wasn't a word McCall used a lot.

Robert put the folded handkerchief over the exit wound in the front of her arm. "Can you hold that there?"

She reached a shaky hand over. Touching that arm was like throwing gasoline on flames. "What are you doing?"

"Pressure bandage," he answered, trying not to jostle her too much in getting the tie around her arm. "You're bleeding a bit more than I like."

Mickey pushed the gas pedal down a little further and cut the red light too close.

"It's more than I like," Ann managed.

Robert had the first knot ready. "This is going to hurt a lot," he warned. "Are you ready?" She clenched her jaw and nodded. He snugged the knot tight against her arm.

Her throat ached and back arched with the effort of keeping the scream silent, but a strangled gasp escaped. Pain ripped through her mind with white and yellow flashes and a bass guitar's growl.

Robert quickly put in another knot to keep the bandage secure. One longish foray through hell was better than having to go back in.

"It's done," he told her. He grabbed her free hand, which was trying to decide if it should claw at him, and squeezed it. "You're allowed to scream."

"No," she denied in a ragged voice. "No one's ever been able to make me scream."

"Mickey, how far?"

"Six blocks."

Ann reached painfully into her right breast pocket and pulled out two computer disks. "Here. I guess you'll know what to do with these."

"Not bad," Mickey commented, slowing down a little as a cop car pulled in ahead of them. "Tougher folk than her haven't been able to hang on to what they went in for."

Robert wiped his hands as well as he could before taking the disks and passing them to the front seat. "Here, you'd better take custody of them. I'm going to be busy with her."

"Right. I'll drop you off at the hospital and deliver these."

"What do we tell them?" Ann whispered.

"Excuse me?" Robert asked. "What do we tell whom?"

She fought to keep her thoughts straight. "Cops, emergency room. Have to report gunshot wounds."

"The lady's right," Mickey said.

Robert thought quickly. "A mugger ambushed us as we were leaving a restaurant. He was nervous and his gun went off and he ran away as I was taking care of you."

"What restaurant?" Ann opened her eyes and focused on the roof liner. The roof light kept moving. "In case they ask me. What restaurant?"

"La Poisson's near the hospital."

"OK, French. Too bad I can't remember what I had."

"You're a very devious woman," Robert commented.

"Thank you." She got her head up and sort of steady. "Is my briefcase still in here?"

"Yes, what do you need?"

"Insurance card. Next of kin. The combination's 269." The car hit a pot hole, and her arm gave an electric throb. "Oh, Christ," she whimpered.

"Sorry," Mickey said. "Your tax dollars at work."

"My mother," Ann gasped. It was getting harder to hold onto sense.

"What about her?" Robert asked absently, feeling her clammy forehead. She was going into shock.

"What are you going to tell her?" She focused in with an effort. "She'll want to know who you are. She will ask."

"The truth?" Mickey hazarded.

"She'd go nuts," Ann whispered.

"All right, then," Robert decided, "part of the truth. We met at the zoo. I'll try to avoid anything more in depth."

"Two blocks to go," Mickey announced.

"Take the car," Robert told him. "I'll tell the police a Samaritan who didn't want to get involved dropped us off."

"Cool. How's the lady?"

"Looks shocky," Robert said tensely. "She's mostly out of it."

"To be expected, man." The emergency room sign appeared ahead.

"A few inches the other way... The bastard's aim is improving."

Mickey hadn't heard that much fury in McCall's voice in a long time. "We'll just make sure he doesn't get another shot. OK, get your story straight, we're here."

They pulled to a stop near the ER doors. Mickey jumped out to snag a wheelchair, while Robert cajoled Ann into focusing enough to get out of the car. A passing orderly saw the bloody woman and ran to help. Just before Robert followed the wheelchair in, Mickey handed him her briefcase.

"I'm getting out of here," Mickey said. "I'll bring back the car if I can."

"Right, go."

It's good to work with a professional, Robert thought, hurrying through the ER doors. A nurse grabbed his arm.

"Sir, are you all right? Your arm--"

"What? No, that's not mine." But he felt queasy as he looked down at his jacket. The right sleeve was dark with blood and starting to stiffen; the left front had smears from where Ann had fallen against him. He shoved down old memories and forced himself to deal with the present. "The woman who was just brought in, where is she?"

"She's being taken care of," the nurse responded. "Can you give Admissions the information we need?"

Robert pulled out the persona he used at times like this, a rather absent-minded, ineffectual old idiot created from too many encounters with a certain uncle. "Oh, goodness, yes, of course." He fumbled with the briefcase. "She said she had her insurance card in here."

The nurse smiled and patted his arm. "Just go over to that desk and they'll take care of everything." The scream of an incoming siren wiped off her smile. "Oh, god, summer in the city." She hurried off.

Robert looked at his hands and decided to wash up before anything else. Besides, his jacket was ruined, and taking it off in front of authority figures was not a good idea, not with a belt holster on underneath it. True, he had a permit for it, but why invite questions?

Blood had seeped through to his shirt, but he didn't stop to worry about that. He quickly pulled out the holster and stashed it in Ann's briefcase after he pulled out a leather ID folder. He spared a moment to glance at the other contents. There were several computer disks, a programming magazine, three chocolate chip granola bars, a set of keys, and a paperback romance novel with an improbable cover. Shaking his head, he closed the case and spun the locks.

Outside the bathroom, the area around Admissions was filled with several people screaming in Spanish, including a few police officers trying to keep order. One policewoman spotted Robert.

"You the guy who brought in the gunshot wound?" she demanded.

He blinked at her in benign befuddlement. "I think so. A young lady with a dreadful hole in her arm?"

"Yeah. You need to file a report."

"The, um, nurse told me to see Admissions first." He pointed uncertainly toward the mass of gesticulating people.

The policewoman made a face. "They've got enough to deal with. Hell, your friend's still waiting to see a doctor, the bureaucracy can wait."

"What do you mean, she hasn't seen a doctor yet!" he demanded, the duffer persona slipping.

"Hey, man, Monday night at the fights. There's a ruptured spleen, a knifed gut, and two other gunshots ahead of her. A little hole in the arm's gotta take a number."

"My god," he muttered, both in disbelief and sympathy.

"So let's just you and me go over there and do the paperwork," the cop continued, nodding at two unoccupied chairs next to a drooling bag person.

"There's little to tell," he said as he sat down. "Ann and I were leaving the restaurant and strolling along when a young man appeared from an alley waving a gun."

The policewoman nodded. "Where was this?"

"La Poisson, not far from here."

She hesitated and stared at him. "You were walking there? At this hour?"

"Oh, is that not a good idea?"

Pure dismay went over her face, followed by a native New Yorker's condescension. "Are you on vacation here?"

"No, I live over on the West Side. This was such a nice town when I moved here," he added plaintively.

"Yeah. So what did this guy look like?"

"Well, he was about your height, fair-skinned--dreadful case of blemishes--trying to grow a beard. I'm sorry, I didn't get that good a look at him," he apologized. "I'm afraid the gun rather shook me." He reminded himself to share this performance with Mickey.

"It happens," the policewoman said, taking notes. "The victim's name?"

"Ann Marshall."

"Address? Yours, too."

As Robert answered, he looked around at the room. The Hispanic group had moved away, and a policeman stood near the door. Robert almost decided to drop the act to request protection for Ann, but a call to Prodigal Systems would most likely result in charges of unlawful entry and industrial espionage.

"Look" he said, interrupting the officer's writing, "I need to see Admissions, then I have to call my friend's family. Is this almost over?"

"Yeah, that should be enough. We'll call you if we need anything else. You can go."

Robert stood and left quickly. He was too tense to sit quietly.

The man at the Admissions desk looked bored. "Patient's name?"

"Ann Marshall."

"Is she insured?" he asked as he typed on the computer keyboard with one hand.

"I assume that's what this means." Robert handed him Ann's insurance card.

"First one all night," he muttered, and started pushing buttons.

Robert looked through the other cards in the folder, searching for numbers for her family. The American Express platinum card caught his eye. He only had a gold card. That appeared to be the only credit card except for a gas card and a phone card. Then again, with a platinum card, what else did you need?

"Here you go," the receptionist said absently, handing Robert the insurance card. He took it and left the desk to find a phone.

Two numbers were listed as emergency contacts. Sylvia Marshall lived in the expensive section of Brooklyn, but a Susan Johnson lived much closer, in Greenwich Village. 10 o'clock on a Monday evening, someone should be home.

The phone was answered on the third ring. "Hello?" said a young woman's voice.

"Ms. Johnson?"

"Yes, who is this?"

"My name is Robert McCall, I'm a friend of Ann Marshall's."

"Oh, god, what's happened."

"She's been hurt, she's in the hospital. It's not serious," he added quickly, hearing the gasp of horror.

"What happened," Susan Johnson asked faintly.

"Well, not to put too fine a point on it, we were mugged coming out of a restaurant. Ann was shot in the arm, and I brought her here to Our Lady of Consolation."

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. "She was mugged?" Susan repeated in disbelief. "What hospital did you say?"

"Our Lady of Consolation, near Washington Square. Ms. Johnson, I called you first because you're closer, and also, I don't know what to say to her family. Would you be so kind..."

"Yeah, I'll call Sylvia and the rest of them. You said it wasn't serious?"

Robert's batty uncle would have been all atwitter over a paper cut, but Robert wasn't going to let Ann's family get into a panic. "The doctors say it's not. Apparently a hole in the arm is minor league around here."

"Then I'll try to keep Sylvia from driving all the way in. But I'm coming down there."

"As you will. I'll be here."

"Good. I want to hear more about this...mugging."

As he hung up, Robert wondered at her tone of voice. What did she know?

He walked into the emergency room proper and looked around. The Spanish speakers had migrated in here, and the police and orderlies were trying to shoo them out. Robert heard several references to unmarried parents and unnatural dealings between siblings.

A nurse bustled up to him. "If you're not bleeding, you shouldn't be in here."

"I'm looking for Ann Marshall. Gunshot wound to the left arm."

She glared at him. "You a relative?"

"Yes."

She didn't look like she believed him, but she checked the roster. "Treatment room 6. But you can't go in there."

"All right." He headed for the door, waiting for another flare-up from the Hispanics. An insult about somebody's mother was screamed, and the shoving started all over. The entire room's attention was pulled to that side, and Robert slipped around the nurse's station.

Treatment room 6 was a curtained alcove, and Ann was the only one there. She looked asleep.

Robert walked to her side quietly. "Ann?"

Her eyes flew open. "Oh. Hi. No doctor yet?"

"Apparently not." The bandage he'd put on her arm was still in place.

"They put me in here and gave me a shot of something. I'm seeing pink clouds," she complained. "I hate painkillers."

He patted her right hand. "So do I."

A man in a white coat peeked in. "Ann Marshall?"

"Yeah," she answered woozily. "You the doctor?"

"Yes, I'm Dr. Kitchner. Let's see what you've done to your arm here." He studied the bandage. "Whose work?"

"Mine," Robert answered.

Kitchner grinned at him. "You probably shouldn't be in here, you know."

"I know." He took a firmer hold on Ann's hand.

Kitchner shrugged. "Well, just stay over there. Nice work, this." His glance invited comment, but Robert didn't oblige. The doctor shrugged and picked up some scissors.

"I called Susan Johnson," Robert said to Ann to distract her from what the doctor was about to do. "She said she was coming down."

"Oh, good. Did you call my mother?"

"No, Susan said she would."

"Good--" Her eyes went very wide as Kitchner slid the scissors under the bandage. "Oh, my god," she whispered.

"Sorry 'bout that," the doctor said, continuing his work. "Ties don't cut easily."

The painkiller might as well have been sugar water, and Ann had no choice but to let it happen.

"Want another shot?" Kitchner asked. "We can knock you out so far this'll feel like powder puffs."

"No," she grated. "It may be hell, but at least it's real." The bandage came free, and she couldn't bite back the whimper as feeling returned to the rest of her arm.

"We know you're brave," Robert said in some exasperation. "Masochism impresses no one." She muttered something. "I speak French, and where did you learn that?"

"Exchange student--oh, god..." Kitchner had peeled off the handkerchief. Ann squeezed Robert's hand hard.

"Yep, that's a mess," the doctor said. "Gonna have to put some stitches in that. And you're getting some morphine."

"No morphine," Ann said as firmly as she could with tears in her eyes.

"Yes, morphine. Unless you want to fight off the nurse."

"I could. I'm a 2nd dan brown belt."

"Morphine," Kitchner replied. "I'm not having a patient break my nose again. And you, sir, are going to have to leave," he added to Robert as he left.

Robert looked rebellious, and Ann said, "Please, get out of here. I don't care if they see me like this, but I'd rather not embarrass myself in front of you."

"I dare say I've seen more than my share of people being patched up."

"But not me." A green wave went through the pink clouds she saw. "Please. And Suzy's coming."

"Blast. All right." He glanced the way Kitchner had gone. "I've talked to the police. I told them the mugger was a small white kid with a scruffy beard."

"Whatever. I didn't see him that well." Kitchner came back, followed by a nurse. "Please go."

Robert nodded, giving her hand a final pat.

"You're not supposed to be here," the nurse protested.

"I was just leaving."

 

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