Part 3

Out in the reception area, Robert glanced around. The screaming people from ER were clustered in one corner, some of the women saying the rosary. A young black woman stood at the Admissions desk. The receptionist pointed at Robert, and the woman walked over to him.

"Robert McCall?" she asked.

"Yes, you must be Susan Johnson."

"Yeah." She shook his hand absently. "Where's Annie?"

"In there, being stitched up.

She flinched. "She's still OK?"

"I just left her. She was trying to talk them out of giving her a shot of morphine."

"Ooh, she hates morphine. She gets nasty hallucinations. She'd rather chew her leg off than have painkillers."

"How often does she need them?"

Susan studied him. "Not often," she said easily. "So what happened?"

As Robert told the edited tale, he got the distinct feeling he wasn't being believed. She looked like she wanted to challenge him but didn't quite dare. Robert wondered if he could confide in her, but he'd have to check with Ann first.

When he was done, Susan nodded. "It's enough to go on. I'll go talk to a nurse or someone so I can give Sylvia a report."

"They won't talk to you unless you're a relative," he warned.

Susan grinned. "Oh, I'm worse than that. I'm Annie's lawyer." She headed into ER.

Robert stared after her, then the evening abruptly caught up with him. He went to find the quietest chair he could.

 

 

Three hours later, Mickey found him asleep next to a mumbling bag lady. "McCall, wake up," he said from out of arm's reach. When McCall was on combat footing, waking him up by grabbing his shoulder could lose you precious body parts.

Robert's eyes flew open and quickly scanned the room. He fixed on Mickey and relaxed. "You're back."

"I'm back. You're a mess."

"So kind, as always. What's that?" He nodded at the bundle Mickey carried.

"I saw what a mess your jacket was and thought you might want a replacement."

Robert rubbed his face, trying to get some sense back into his head. "Thank you, Mickey." He looked at his watch. "My god, 2 AM. So what happened when you made the delivery?" He set Ann's briefcase on his knees and opened it.

"I don't like seeing my boss shocked," Mickey said. He moved to stand between Robert and the nurse's station as Robert quickly pulled out his holster, shoved it into his waistband and put on the jacket. "It took Jonah about ten minutes to figure out how Cochran put the system together," he continued. "I think what upsets the powers most is how simple all this was. Jonah said something about an Internet connection, and Control started swearing in Arabic."

"Oh, dear." Robert stood and buttoned his jacket, feeling much more in charge of the situation. "What are they doing?"

"Prodigal Systems will not be open for business tomorrow. And I'd advise your lady friend to dump her stock options. Jonah was taking a team in before I left. Whether they find anything or not, I don't know. My boss wants you to call him."

"I imagine I should." Robert saw Susan Johnson come out of the ER doors. "Concerned civilian approaching."

"So you're finally awake," Susan said when she got in earshot. "Every time I've come out, you've been in dreamland." She looked at Mickey pointedly.

"Ms. Johnson, Mickey Kostmayer, a friend of mine. Mickey, Susan Johnson, Ann's lawyer."

"And best friend," Susan added as she shook Mickey's hand.

"How is she?" Mickey asked.

"They say OK, but they've decided to admit her for the night. She's so hopped up she needs somebody looking after her."

"Is she awake?" Robert asked.

Susan snorted. "She's off where the little birdies sing. I got to see her for thirty seconds and didn't get a lick of sense out of her."

Mickey looked Susan over carefully. He wasn't a fan of lawyers, with their ill-timed demands for information they had no right to in the name of Constitutional liberties. Mickey certainly believed in the Constitution, he'd bled enough for it over the years. He just didn't agree with some people's interpretations.

"What kind of lawyer are you?" he asked.

Susan looked at him curiously. "Estate. Wills and trusts. I work for Wilcox, Jones & Monroe," she added almost defensively.

Robert was impressed. WJM made Rockefellers wait for appointments. "You must be good."

She shrugged. "When they hire tokens, they hire the best."

"They weren't that blatant, were they?" Mickey asked.

"They didn't have to be. I've got eyes. Not that I mind too much. I own a condo in Greenwich and I'm sponsoring three kids at a high school in Harlem."

They all stared at each other, wondering what and who to trust. The tension broke when Susan yawned.

"Oh, god, and I've got a meeting with a client at ten. Annie's got to start scheduling her crises better. I'm out of here." She held her hand out to Robert. "Nice to meet you, Mr. McCall."

"And you, Ms. Johnson."

One more uncertain look at Mickey, then Susan left.

"I wonder what she knows," Mickey said.

"Hopefully we'll find out in the morning." Robert stretched. "Maybe I am getting old. Three hours sleep in a chair used to be enough."

"Yeah. Remember Quang Tri?"

"Oh, yes."

"It was only 'cause you outranked me that you got that chair. I had to make do with ammo boxes."

"Are you still holding that against me?"

 

 

Ann knew it was time to wake up when the lamb she was snuggled next to started claiming to be Hermann Goring and that she was a traitor to the Fatherland. Actually opening her eyes, however, was not much of an improvement. Another fucking hospital bed. Why was she here this time? She tried to stretch and remembered when her left arm exploded.

The night before came back to her in all its gruesome glory. She vaguely remembered seeing Susan in the midst of everything, so her family at least knew where she was. What to tell them, what to tell them? Had she told Robert to let Suzy in on the situation or not? God, morphine hangovers were the worst.

A candy-striper poked her bleached blonde head in. "Good morning," she chirped.

"May all your fingernails break," Ann snarled.

The candy-striper blinked, then recovered her poise. "Is it hunger or pain?" she asked understandingly.

Ann had to think. "Food would probably help. And can I have a couple of Tylenol 3's?"

"I'll send your breakfast in and ask the nurse. Toodles." The door closed behind her, then swung open again. "Oh, and there's this sexy grey-haired guy out here who sounds like Richard Burton. He says he's a relative and wants to see you. Should I let him in?"

Sexy grey-haired--? "Robert McCall?"

"Something like that."

"Yeah, send him in." Hell, she'd bled all over him, she could stand to let him see her hung over.

She closed her eyes, but the sound of sheep speaking German started fading in, so she reluctantly re-embraced consciousness. When she opened her eyes, Robert sat next to the bed. "How did you get here?"

"I've been sitting here for ten minutes. The candy-striper said you were only partly awake." He looked at her closely. "Morphine hangover?"

"God, yes. And my arm feels like a ham. So what's going on?"

"Some former associates of mine express their thanks for the information. They moved on Prodigal last night."

Ann heaved a sigh of relief. "So it's over."

"Not quite," Robert said reluctantly.

She stared at him unhappily. "What does that mean?"

They were interrupted by the candy-striper and a nurse.

"Good morning," the nurse said. "Cindy has your breakfast, and I've brought something for the discomfort."

Ann raised an eyebrow. Yeah, discomfort. She heard Robert's noise of derision.

The nurse handed her a paper cup with two pills. "What are they?" Ann asked.

"Demerol."

Ann handed the cup back. "No, thank you. I asked for Tylenol 3's, not Demerol."

"It's all right. Dr. Kitchner authorized it."

"I imagine he did. But I don't want Demerol. I don't like what it does to my head." The nurse glared. "Look, just take the damn things and give me my breakfast."

"I'll have to talk to your doctor."

"Fine, you do that. Cindy, give me the food."

Cindy obeyed quickly, trying not to grin. The nurse harumphed and shepherded Cindy out ahead of her.

Ann shook her head as she lifted the lid on her breakfast. "Oh, boy, sausage. I smell Suzy's hand in this." She reached for the fork and jostled her left arm. She bit her tongue and drove the fork into the mattress.

Robert watched her with patient resignation and reached into his jacket pocket. He put a small pill bottle on her table.

"What's that?" she asked blearily.

"Codeine. Yes, it's potentially addictive, but you won't have hallucinations."

"Bless you. Oh, it doesn't even have an adult-proof cap."

"I'd take two if I were you."

Ann obeyed and wondered where he'd gotten his pharmacological knowledge. Or maybe she didn't wonder. With a sense of unreality, she remembered the file she'd seen. Retired from the CIA. There'd been something about bureau chief and a coordination position, but terror had made her avert her eyes. He didn't seem to hold it against her that she'd seen this information, but she couldn't help wondering about possible repercussions to her discovery. "Yes, I am a spy," said a dozen movie villains, "and now that you know that, I have to kill you."

"Your friend Susan didn't believe the mugging story," Robert said. He pulled the fork out of the mattress for her.

"I'm not surprised. I told her there was trouble going on. She knows I called you, but I haven't told her anything about you."

"Which explains the calculating looks. How much can we trust her with?"

"Most everything, I think." She sighed in relief as the pain started ebbing, then she started eating. "I don't think former employers need to be brought up." She veered away from that subject. "You said it wasn't over yet."

Robert sighed. "Dushenko and Cochran got away, and the computers were empty when my former colleagues arrived."

"Who's Cochran?"

"You know him as Brewster."

"Brewster?" She thought a moment. "You said he was a hit man. What's he doing tied up with that stuff in the computer?" She saw the discomfort on his face. "Oh, I think I can guess. Never mind. So now what? Are they going to be after me?"

"It depends on if they're smart or foolish."

"Smart would be to run for it?" Robert nodded. "You said the computer was empty," she said slowly. "That means you guys didn't get any more information than what I pulled off. Do you think Dushenko and Brew--Cochran know I got a copy?"

Robert looked grim. "I don't know. I have to be honest with you, they may come looking for you to find out."

Ann took a deep breath. "I thought as much. So once again, now what?"

"Now we get you out of here, back to your house and your security system, and Mickey and I take turns watching over you until Dushenko and Cochran are tracked down. Mickey will be here soon to keep an eye on you here."

"In the hospital?" Suddenly breakfast didn't sit too well. "They could try something here?"

"It's not likely, but one doesn't get anywhere by ignoring long shots."

"How long is this going to take?"

"I honestly don't know. This sort of information is very time sensitive, though. If they don't move soon, we should be safe in assuming they've cut their losses and run."

"Not like I was going anywhere, I guess."

 

 

A knock on the door heralded Suzy poking her head in. "Hey, girlfriend, you're awake."

"Hey, yourself," Ann answered. "Suzy, you've met Robert McCall, right?"

"Yeah, last night." Suzy looked like she was about to demand explanations, but she peeked over her shoulder and down the hall. "Your mother's right behind me."

"Damn," Ann muttered. She looked at Robert. "Do you want to be here for this?"

"It would look odd to scuttle away." He stood, preparing to be polite.

Suzy scurried to the other side of the room as a well-bred dynamo swept into the room. "Ann, darling, are you all right?"

"Yes, Mom, I'm fine." She accepted her mother's careful hug.

Sylvia Marshall had accepted aging, but she did all things gracefully. Her hair was no longer the shade of her daughter's, but neither did it have the amount of grey it was entitled to. As always, she had dressed with taste and precision, in a designer summer suit. When she pulled back to examine her injured daughter, her frown of concern showed the lines she was only now beginning to worry about.

"Darling, how many times have I told you, it's dangerous in Manhattan."

"Mom, there are muggers in Brooklyn, too. That's just life in the big city." Over her mother's shoulder, Ann saw Suzy's eyebrows go up in reaction to their age-old code phrase that not all of a story was being told.

"Still..." Sylvia glanced over at Robert, then back at Ann pointedly.

"Mom, may I introduce Robert McCall. Robert, my mother, Sylvia Marshall."

Sylvia held her hand out to Robert. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. McCall. Susan tells me you were with Ann when this unpleasantness occurred." The faintest note of accusation was in her voice.

"My apologies, Mrs. Marshall." Robert let some of his harmless persona slip back in. "I never dreamed there'd be such danger in a simple stroll after dinner."

Suzy maneuvered closer to Ann, watching Robert suspiciously. This was a different man from the one she'd met last night. "Which is the act, sis?"

"This," Ann whispered back.

Sylvia was quickly relaxing. Robert McCall obviously posed no threat to her daughter's virtue. "Such a dangerous city. Decent people aren't safe."

"They haven't been for quite a while, I fear."

Ann smothered a giggle.

Robert glanced at his watch. "Ann, forgive me, but I must be going. Make sure I know when you're released." He gave her a significant look.

"I will. See you later."

"Mrs. Marshall, a pleasure."

"Indeed, Mr. McCall." Sylvia waited till the door closed behind him. "So, Anastasia, who is that?"

"Just a man I met, Mom."

"Indeed. Isn't he a bit old for you?"

Oh, lord, time to head of that line of thought. "Mom, we had dinner, you don't have to worry about what you're worrying about." Intriguing thought, though, but very irrelevant.

"So what does he do? Where did you meet him? And when?"

"Well, Grand Inquisitor, I met him Sunday at the zoo, and I really don't know what he does. He took early retirement from somewhere, and we didn't really talk about it."

"What did you talk about?"

"Mother!"

"All right, all right, I'm sorry." She leaned down to kiss her daughter. "I worry about you, I do. Men in whose company you get shot make me nervous."

Ann bit back the six dozen remarks that came flying to her lips. "It's probably just as well."

Sylvia glanced surreptitiously at her own watch, then smiled when she saw she'd been caught. "I said I'd help plan the debutante ball this season, and the preliminary meeting is in Southampton this afternoon. But you, my dear, take precedence."

"I'm fine, Mom, really. Go to your meeting."

Sylvia hesitated, then kissed Ann again. "All right. Take care, my dear, and call me when they let you out."

"I will. Bye-bye."

"Bye-bye. Take care, Suzy dear."

"You, too, Sylvia. Drive carefully."

The two young women held their breath as the door settled into its frame, then Suzy yanked a chair up beside the bed. "OK, girlfriend, talk. Why do you have a hole in you and who is that silver fox?"

"Suzy!"

"Annie! He came over all swishy at your mother, but I saw him and his friend last night, and both of them looked like the kind of people who take out muggers and don't worry about it."

"OK, OK. Remember the ad in the paper?"

"Uh huh." After a pointed moment, she squeaked, "Him?!"

"Yeah."

Terror went across Suzy's face. "Oh, Annie, you got shot over it?" Ann nodded. "Tell me the worst, sis."

With suitable editing, she did.

 

 

Robert strolled the paths of Central Park with a sense of deja vu. Finally he sat down on a bench. A man sat on the other end reading a Daily News.

"And here I always thought you were a New York Times man," Robert said.

"I'm a man of parts," Control answered, turning a page. "But they need Page 3 girls. So is your lady innocent or guilty?"

"Of what?"

"Conspiracy. She got that information very easily."

"She's a hacker. Mickey says Jonah thought it was a childishly simple system. And Ann helped set up Prodigal's systems. Of course it was easy for her."

"I've been running some checks on Ms. Marshall. Cum laude at MIT. Member of something called the Geek Squad, a bunch of hackers notorious for routing city officials' phone calls through massage parlors and other such things. Interesting family background. Want to hear it?"

"Not particularly. All I want to hear is that you've caught Cochran and Dushenko."

"Not yet, but we will. You should be more concerned about Ms. Marshall, though. Certain entities find her very suspicious. Is it coincidence that she called you or did she have prior knowledge of the contents of those files? Enquiring minds want to know."

"You didn't used to have this appalling taste in puns."

"And you like this girl."

"Why does everyone keep saying that so childishly?" Robert burst out. "Yes, I like her. I always like courageous, smart people. Am I supposed to dislike her?"

Control raised an eyebrow. "So did she know what was in there beforehand or not? Could she be a former partner in the enterprise who got cut out of the money? Any ideas?"

"She says she didn't know. And I don't think she needs the money."

"Not normally, not with her family. But stranger things have happened."

"True enough," Robert admitted. "So is the company going to go after her?"

"Probably not, too many dicey connections. But keep in mind, Robert, that she's compromised, at the least, you and Kostmayer. We don't know who else she saw."

After a moment, Robert asked, "So can you bust this ring?"

"If we want to, yes."

Robert looked at his old boss and friend. "Were you involved in this set-up?"

"Please, Robert, you know better than that. I don't answer yes-no questions."

"When it suits you, you do. I ask just in case Cochran is sanctioned or something. If he shows up to try and kill Ann again, I'm going to have to stop him. He's oh-for-two, his professional pride must be hurting."

Control studied him for a moment. "If you have to use extreme measures in defense of your client, no one on my end will blame you."

"Good. Is there any progress at all at catching them?"

"A bit. I'll make sure you find out when we get them. And despite your suspicions, the company does not approve of entrepreneurs."

Robert smiled slightly. He and Control understood one another. "In case you're wondering, she hasn't asked any impertinent questions that I'd have to brush off."

"An intelligent person wouldn't, and of everyone involved in this, she seems to have the most brains. Maybe she's actually the ring leader."

"Then Cochran would be in a great deal of trouble for shooting his boss."

Control was silent a moment. "Robert, Mark Cochran is not known for letting his targets survive. As you said, he's 0-for-2. Just a thought." He began folding his paper. "By the way, Harvey Giberto was picked up at Kennedy. He's not talking. And Paula Creer is apparently the computer operator of the ring. We're closing in on her." He stood, and three people feeding the ducks started moving his way. "Give my best to your client."

He walked away, leaving Robert in anxious thought.

 

 

When Suzy left to go back to work, Ann lay in bed for quite a while, shuttling through the soap operas and talk shows on TV and trying not to think how scared she was. The man who had twice tried to kill her was still out there.

She flinched slightly at the knock on the door. "Come in."

Instead of Cindy the Candy Striper, Mickey Kostmayer came in, carrying a large flower arrangement.

"Oh, that's right," Ann said. "Robert told me you were coming."

"Yep. I'll see you home once the doctors say you can go. Oh, and the flowers are from McCall." He rummaged among the zinnias and pulled out a card, which he handed to Ann.

"Do what Mickey tells you," she read. "And call me when you're released." She chuckled. "He's being very emphatic."

"I think he got the impression that you might try to run off on your own." Mickey looked for a place to put the vase. "Who sent the African violet?" he asked, nudging the small pot to one side on the table.

"My brother. He would have brought it himself but he had a meeting with some gnomes."

"With some what?"

"Oh, sorry. Swiss bankers."

Mickey pulled up a chair. "The Gnomes of Zurich, huh?"

"Yes." But Ann was distracted, looking at the plant and thinking of the lies she'd told her family. As well as her brother, her sister had checked in from the theater between rehearsals. They both had breezily commiserated with her becoming a crime statistic, and she's had to bite back her terror and match their sophisticated New Yorker nonchalance. The truth would never have served, but she didn't know how well she could keep up the lie.

She looked over at her guard. "Do you know how close they are to catching Dushenko and Brewster--I mean, Cochran?"

"Sorry, no. Not my part of the operation." Mickey didn't think he'd tell her even if he did know. He was dealing with dueling loyalties, to McCall and to his employers. McCall's priorities would be to reassure the scared woman, but the Company most definitely did not want Ann Marshall any closer to their operations than she already was. But that was genuine fear in her eyes, no matter how well masked by training. "We are looking for them, I promise. We want them more than you do."

That 'we' made Ann antsy. "Am I in trouble because of this?"

"You mean, other than having people shoot you?" Mickey asked with a grin.

"Yes."

"Well, you didn't break any laws--except for conspiring to submit a false crime report about a mugging and all that. Nobody's pleased that you saw that stuff, but they're not going to prosecute or anything."

"Well, I guess that's something. So we just sit and wait?"

Mickey shifted around in the chair till he was comfortable and facing the TV. "We sit. Do they have cable here?"

Halfway through Oprah, Dr. Kitchner arrived, accompanied by a nurse to help him change the dressing on Ann's arm. Mickey retreated to let Ann have privacy for her grimaces of pain.

"There," Kitchner finally said. "That'll hold you. The entry wound shouldn't give you much problem after a couple of days, but don't get the other side wet for about a week. Check with your regular doctor."

Ann was absolutely unable to help herself. "Doc, will I be able to play the piano?"

Kitchner stared at her balefully.

"I play the blues," she added.

He grimaced. "I don't believe you asked me that. Yes, in a couple of weeks it should be getting back to normal. Now about the discomfort."

"The pain. Discomfort is cramps. This is not cramps."

"You don't know my wife. I've written a prescription for Demerol, but Nurse Correo says you won't take it."

"Nope. Ever see lamps bleed? I have, on that stuff. Tylenol 4's if I'm absolutely desperate, but that's it. Tylenol 3's by preference."

"It might not be enough."

"It'll do."

Kitchner shrugged and pulled out a prescription pad. "Braver man than I am, Gunga Din."

"So can I get out of here now?"

"What, not even going to stay for lunch?"

"Doctor, I've eaten at Le Cirque. Your kitchen is not theirs."

"Sorry, I can't tell you. I don't move in those circles. But sure, when you're ready to leave, go to the nurses' station. Any other questions?"

She folded her prescription. "No, that should do it. Thanks for everything."

"Take it easy for the next few days. You lost a good bit of blood. Don't skip meals."

"Right."

"Then hopefully I won't see you later."

"Hope not," she grinned and shook his hand.

Mickey poked his head in after Dr. Kitchener left. "How'd it go?"

"I'm free to go as soon as I sign some paperwork."

"Great, I'll call McCall." Mickey headed for the phone.

"Uh, can I change my clothes first?"

"Oh, yeah, right." Ann looked at him pointedly until Mickey got the hint. "Oh, right. I'll be outside. Call me when you're done."

"Thank you."

Suzy had brought a nice loose sleeveless tank top for her, and she only had to stop to get her stomach back once while putting it on. Her jeans were a challenge. When Ann saw the dark spots on the left leg, she wished Suzy had thought to bring a fresh pair. But she thanked God she wore loose jeans, not fashionably blood-constricting ones. As for the shoes, she decided to go for the rap singer look and leave them untied.

Finally she sat on the bed and got her breath back. Shrugging, she decided to call Robert herself. The card that had come with the flowers had a number on it she didn't recognize. The short beeps of a cellular phone were followed by a click. "McCall."

The relief she felt at hearing his voice disturbed her. "Hello, it's Ann. Your card was emphatic about calling you."

He chuckled. "So you're being released. Where's Mickey?"

"I threw him out so I could change clothes. All I have to do is sign some paperwork and I'm out of here."

"Good, I was on my way over there anyway. Give me fifteen minutes."

"OK. I'll be at the nurse's station--" A movement in the doorway caught her eye. "Oh, my god."

"What's wrong?" Robert asked sharply.

Adam Dushenko closed the door behind him and smiled. He gestured for Ann to hang up.

"Gotta go, Mom," she said calmly. "My boss, Mr. Dushenko, just showed up."

"Damn," Robert snapped, and his phone cut off.

"Bye," Ann said, hearing her voice from a distance, and she gently hung up the phone.

"I'm very disappointed in you, Ann," Dushenko said. "Industrial espionage, tsk, tsk."

"How did you find me?"

"Paula's a brilliant girl. She looked in the hospital computers until she found your insurance number. Something about a network between the hospitals and the insurer. But I'm an idea man, I don't need to know that technical stuff."

"Paula's your sysop? No wonder it was such a pathetic set up."

Dushenko's smile turned to a snarl. "Yes, you got in and out of there far too easily. We need to chat about that." He pulled a small pistol from his pocket. "I borrowed this from Sam, but I know how to use it. Shall we?"

Ann got to her feet slowly. "People know where I am."

"Not for long." He opened the door, peeked out, and gestured for her to precede him. She considered several karate moves, but her balance was off with her arm in a sling, and Dushenko was staying out of arm's reach. A chat with sensei was in order--if she got out of this.

She looked around for Mickey out in the hall. He was leaning against the wall near the nurse's station, a cell phone to his ear. By the tense way he held himself, Ann guessed it was Robert on the other end of the connection. He looked at Ann, then scanned the hallway. Orderlies wheeled a bed into another room three doors down, and several patients were moving slowly about, trundling IV stands with them. Too many innocent, vulnerable people around to make a move. He met Ann's eyes as she went past and shook his head very slightly.

Dushenko solicitously held her right arm as they passed the nurse's station. Cindy was just disappearing into a rear room, and the nurses were too busy to notice two more people in street clothes pass by.

"They're headed for the elevator," Mickey snapped into the phone. "There's too many people around."

"Where the hell were you when he showed up, Mickey?" Robert pounded the horn at a taxi that was attempting to outrun the Jaguar to a light.

"If someone had ever bothered to tell me what Dushenko looked like, I might have realized that the guy who showed up was someone to worry about! I was expecting Cochran!"

"So was I," Robert said grimly. "And they knew we would be. Damn it. Meet me out front."

"Right." Mickey pocketed the phone and ran for the stairs.

 

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