Part 2

After a pleasant hour at Salvatore's discussing many things other than court cases, bombers, and embezzlers, Robert and Ann took a cab to Schaeffer and Marshall. The guard at the door, in the best after the horses are gone tradition, checked a list for their names, searched Ann's purse and briefcase, and poked cautiously at her laptop.

"What, no metal detector?" Robert asked.

"No, sir, too many people carrying computer bits," the guard explained.

Ann shuddered. "My poor little laptop would have a seizure. Can we go?"

The guard waved them on. Robert thought it was just as well that there was no metal detector Better that the Marshalls didn't know he was carrying a gun on their premises.

"Hi, Cousin Mark," Ann greeted the man standing in the foyer of the fourth floor.

"Hello, Ann. That's right, Nate did say you were coming in."

"Cousin Mark, this is Robert McCall. Robert, Mark Schaeffer."

The two men shook hands, and, taking their cues from the minimal introductions, didn't say much beyond politeness.

"How long do you think you'll be?" Mark Schaeffer asked.

"Gosh, hours. Nate wants a scan of the tree for those missing files of his, and I'm just idling my life away, he says. You spend a couple of months getting a consulting business on line, and your brother thinks all you're good for is tracking down his lost appointment list."

Mark followed as Ann started down a side corridor. "We could have done it for him, and we wouldn't charge consultant fees."

"Oh, I'm not here as Cyber Solutions, I'm here as the person who still owes him for paying my car repair bills in college when I'd tapped out my allowance."

"Where are you going to be working?"

"I thought the server room." She saw a disapproving glace from Mark at Robert. "Nate's already cleared it," she added, a touch of steel entering her voice.

"But if you're looking for missing files, wouldn't it be best to look where they were lost?"

"You know files, Mark," she said easily. "One slip of the finger, and they can end up in another person's dump file."

They stared at each other, then Mark shrugged. "How were you planning on getting into the server room?"

"Nate lent me his pass card."

"He's not supposed to do that."

"Uncle Andrew said it wasn't a problem since I'm a director."

Mark Schaeffer's tone was definitely chilly. "Then I guess I'll leave you to it." He nodded to Robert and left.

"All right," Robert said, "what was that all about?"

Ann looked unhappy as she led the way to a heavy door with a scan plate next to it. "I didn't used to be so rude to my relatives."

"Why not? He was rude to you."

She glanced at him. "You picked that up, too, huh? Cousin Mark is the IS chief. He knows his stuff, I guess, but he's more manager than computer jockey."

"I remember you complaining about him to your Uncle. You were fairly blunt."

"If his last name wasn't Schaeffer, he'd never have gotten the job."

The door opened, and a man came out. "Uh, hi," he said, apparently taken aback at seeing them. Ann caught the door and gestured Robert in ahead of her.

"Just this once," she grinned as he balked at her usurpation of chivalric duties. "I want to make sure the door catches behind us."

"All right, this once," he said, mock grudging, and went in.

The man who had come out took a couple of steps away, then hesitated. "Uh, you going to be in there long?"

"Probably," Ann replied. "Why?"

"Um, no reason."

She grinned. "Sorry, no six-station, big screen Warcraft games tonight." She went inside and pulled the door closed.

It was cold in the server room, with many air conditioners noisily whirring away, competing with the fans of the ranks of computers.

"Is it supposed to be this loud?" Robert asked.

"If it was quiet, then something would be very wrong."

Ann looked for a workstation she could co-opt. Robert glanced around at the dozens of screens, wondering what it all meant.

"This is probably going to be very boring for you," Ann commented.

"I like watching you work. And I'm curious how one goes about tracking computer fraud inside the system. I've felt myself in danger of being out-of-date. The basics are easy, see who's spending more money than they should. But I know tracks are more easily covered with a computer."

"Which makes it odd that we should have spotted them. It's easy to jigger the formulas. But what can be hard is finding all the places impinged by that formula."

"Is that what happened here?"

"Probably. The bomb must have knocked out a device that was part of the cover-up, and with that gone the numbers are showing tampering." Ann plugged in her laptop and started the workstation's boot-up. She stopped it part way to examine its hardware set-up.

Robert chuckled as she subsided into arcane mutters. He began another, more purposeful wander of the room, looking at the various screens to see what he could deduce. He watched the international stock market monitors for a few minutes, wondering why the yen and the pound should both have taken identical, simultaneous one-and-three-quarter-percent jumps.

One set of screens showed accounts and what looked like trading orders. The next screen was urgently blinking a message: "To continue, press F1."

"Ann, should this be doing this?"

"Hm?" She came over to look at the screen of data. "Looks like someone's been messing with the cables and didn't get everything seated before the reboot." She went around to the other side of the rack to peer at the back of the computers. "Oh, my fucking God."

He hurried around to look. "Dear Christ."

Five sticks of dynamite were wired to the back of the computer. Smothered in duct tape was a clock with the hands snapped off.

Robert grabbed Ann's arm and headed for the door. She woke from her shock halfway. "We need the card to get out. Hang on."

"Hurry," he snapped, cold terror ripping his stomach.

Ann grabbed the card from the counter and started to disconnect her laptop.

"Leave it! We have to get out of here."

Fear began sinking in. "But we've been bombed already," she protested, knowing she was babbling and unable to stop.

Robert pushed her to the scan plate, keeping himself between her and the bomb. "What's taking so long?"

Ann placed the card very carefully on the plate again, moving it around and trying the door. The latch refused to disengage. "Robert, it's not working."

He grabbed the handle and rattled the door. "There must be an override!"

"It's connected to the emergency monitoring systems. Idiot!" She ran for the phone. "I'll call Security." She snatched up the receiver, reached for the buttons, then froze. Her eyes were huge and horrified as, tapping the cradle switch, she turned to Robert.

Fear drained from him at the materialization of personalized danger. Without hesitation, he went back to the bomb. "Can I move these racks?"

Only the desire to appear at least half as cool as he let her answer calmly. "Yes, they're on wheels. Let me help."

"You go over there by the door and get down, preferably behind something."

She started to obey, then paused. "Would it help?"

Robert looked at the bomb rather than at her. "It might," he hedged. "Please," he added softly. Ann nodded and moved away.

A simple, basic bomb. He was proud that his hands didn't shake at all as he pulled out his glasses to study the thing. Take your time, look for trouble, you can be in more trouble by hurrying and making a mistake than by using the time you've got.

"Can you talk and do that?" Ann asked from the other side of the room.

"Yes. It doesn't look difficult." He kept most of his attention for tracing the wires with his eyes.

"Truth?"

Robert smiled faintly. "Truth, my own." Just because she'd obeyed him didn't mean she liked being protected. Was that--yes, a decoy wire, leading from the clock, around Robin Hood's Barn, then ending in nothing. "I've made more complicated bombs than this myself." Her silence made him realize what he'd said. Just as well she knew his history, he didn't have time to watch his tongue. "What tools are around here?"

"Do you want me to look?"

Five sticks of dynamite would cause enough damage that hiding in a corner wouldn't help. He sighed to himself. "If you would. I need wire cutters."

Ann was thankful for a reason to stop watching her watch. She wanted to ask how much time they had but figured the answer would not be reassuring.

"We keep the tools in the supply closet outside, but maybe--wait." She went for her purse and yanked out her car keys. "The Swiss Army knife on the key ring, the little scissors. I've used them on wire. Will they do?" She detached the knife and brought it to him.

Robert took it and unfolded the scissors. "Remind me never to laugh at your purse again." He isolated the first wire. If cutting it worked, then the rest of the job was simple. If not-. He hesitated and glanced at Ann.

"I'd rather stay here," she whispered.

He smiled as well as he could. "All right."

Ann made sure to stay out of his light and whispered prayers. Robert hoped the bomber was not the clever sort to have rigged an extra switch, then took a deep breath and cut the wire.

Nothing happened.

"Is that good?" Ann whispered.

"Yes, darling," Robert said in a shaky voice, "that's very good." Carefully, but not dawdling, he snipped the other wires. As he checked to make sure he hadn't missed any, the clock buzzed.

Ann jumped and squeaked. Robert froze. As the alarm continued without effect, he slowly backed away and pulled Ann into his arms.

After several seconds well-earned reaction, they addressed the problem of getting out. Ann decided to hack into her brother's email and send an urgent message to the security desk.

While she was busy, Robert studied the bomb and thought. He understood disabling the door, but why the phone? Most terrorists understood the PR importance of minimizing casualties. A disabled phone only served the purpose of endangering anyone trying to get out. And how had the bomber gotten into one of the most secure rooms in the building?

"Well, it's through," Ann said. "Now it just remains to see how long it takes for a response. Sweetheart, what's wrong?"

"That man you talked to when we came in here, did you recognize him?"

"No . . . " Her logic caught up with his. "Oh, god, Robert, you mean . . ."

He nodded. "That was probably the bomber."

"I talked to the Broadcast Bomber?"

"Not him, no. This doesn't fit that MO at all." The door rattled. "Thank God."

 

 

"It looks like something from the Boys' Big Book of Bombs," Timothy Bryson said, peering at the bomb, still in situ. "Thank heaven you knew how to disarm the thing."

Robert, finishing his second cup of coffee, nodded. "I was afraid its simplicity was a blind. All I could think of were hidden switches and traps. Does anyone use analog timing devices anymore?"

"Some old-fashioned diehards in the IRA refuse to go digital." The ATF man bit back on his outrage that Robert had dealt with the bomb himself instead of waiting for experts. It wasn't like he'd had a choice. "It's a good thing you came in here with your lady." Out of the corner of his eye he saw the hand that held the paper coffee cup shake slightly. "Sorry, that already occurred to you."

"Yes," Robert said quietly.

"But it's just coincidence that you and the bomb were here together--isn't it?"

"I wish I knew." Robert glanced around, then gave Bryson a quick summary on why he and Ann were there.

"Oh, so," Bryson muttered. "We have cause. Now we need opportunity, access, and knowledge." The bomb disposal team showed up with their heavy padding and massive boxes, followed by a woman in an ATF windbreaker.

"We've got the floor cleared, boss. The woman's giving a statement on the perp down in the command truck. Oh, and the news goons are here."

"Good, let them get shots of the bomb being taken out. Tell everybody we're on NCND regarding the Broadcast Bomber."

"Right. The doughnuts are here."

"Sadie, I don't like sprinkles."

"Six French crullers just for you." Sadie headed out.

Bryson tugged Robert's arm to follow. "You were supposed to have been evacuated with the others anyway. Look, are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"

"What might that be?"

"That this bomb was set just now for the purpose of wrecking the computers and your Ms. Marshall."

"That occurred to me, too. Several people knew she was coming in tonight to look at the computers and why."

"What I said before holds true. Tell us what you find. All bombers are my turf."

The cameras were swarming again in the street in front of the Schaeffer Building. Bryson led the way quickly to a big van with ATF on the side.

"What's NCND?" Robert asked.

"Neither confirm nor deny. If they ask about the Broadcast, we'll let them think it. Your guy may want to hide in his shadow."

Inside the van, Ann was still talking to a pair of ATF agents. A city cop stood in a corner looking disgruntled.

"We're bringing the thing out now," crackled a voice over a radio. "It's thoroughly disarmed, but clear the road anyway. Over."

"Roger, over."

"You want a job?" Bryson asked Robert.

"I lost my taste for a steady diet of bombs long ago." He looked over at Ann, who was making no pretense about watching him as she finished her statement. "Excuse me, Timothy." Bryson grinned and went to talk to his team.

Ann took the hand he held out to her. "Did you find anything while I was closeted in here?"

"Just confirmation that it really was a simple bomb. How much longer for you?"

"They want me to look at some pictures. I'm trying to decide if I want to do it now or tomorrow."

"It's fresh in your mind now."

She glanced at the New York cop and lowered her voice. "There are also some jurisdictional disputes going on. It seems I'm something of a commodity."

"I'll stay close. I wish I'd gotten a good look at him."

The radio crackled. "Bomb secure. Beginning transport, disassembly and pictures."

"You know what's really annoying?" Ann said. "I never did get close to the embezzler. Nate was counting on getting some leads tonight."

"That may have been part of the point. Who knew you were coming in tonight?" He squeezed her hand at her look of shock. "I'm sorry, love, it's obvious to both Timothy and me."

Ann had to take a moment or two. She hadn't thought of the bomb as being aimed at her. Robert wished they had a little more privacy so he could put his arms around her.

Bryson came over. "Interesting bit of news. HQ got a call ten minutes ago from someone claiming to be the Broadcast Bomber. He didn't use any of the ID codes, and he said the bomb had already gone off."

"So he wasn't in the area," Robert commented. "Or the caller wasn't the one who planted the bomb, which fits our theory."

"Ms. Marshall, I'm afraid our next venue is headquarters for pictures and whatnot. You can tell us who knew you were going to be in there, too. Oh, and who is this Isaac Schaeffer who keeps calling my people?"

Ann's eyes got big. "Uncle Isaac is involved? Wow."

"'Uncle' Isaac?"

"Great-uncle, really, he married my grandfather's youngest sister."

"Who is he other than a name on the Christmas card list?"

She blinked. "CEO and chairman of the board of Schaeffer & Marshall, and president pro-tem of the company."

"I thought that was your brother," Robert said.

"Nate's not old enough yet. He's executive vice-president. Uncle Isaac became president when Dad died."

"Ah, Regent."

"Essentially."

Bryson did his best not to look impressed and succeeded in looking grouchy. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a civilian who's harassing my team. It's not like it's his building."

"Uh . . . "

"So it says Schaeffer on the front, big deal."

Ann fought shock at the lese majeste. "He holds the deed personally. It's his youngest daughter's dowry."

Robert looked offended. "Why does she get a piece of prime Manhattan real estate while you only got a directorship?"

"Only? Robert, that board controls four finance companies and two real estate management firms. Besides, Esther's a Schaeffer, I'm a Marshall. Schaeffers believe in real property, not things on paper."

Bryson's grouchiness became more pronounced. "I thought we held a Revolution to get rid of royal families. I suppose I'm going to have some suit from Washington coming in to take over to keep the rich folk happy."

"Not if I have any say," Ann said. "You know what's going on."

He relaxed and smiled. "Thank you, Ms. Marshall." He looked over his shoulder. "Sadie, is the bomb truck secure?"

"Affirmative."

"Then we ride. Tell up front. Robert, tell me what you saw."

At the New York HQ of BATF, several people were waiting when Bryson and his entourage debarked from the elevator from the basement garage.

"The press wants a statement, Lieutenant," said the intense little woman who kept up easily with Bryson's long strides.

"No, I'm not going live for the news. I'll make one when I have one. Did we get a trace on the bomber's call?"

"No, sir. We do have a tape."

"Pictures?"

"Ready."

"Washington?"

"Still asleep."

"Bomb?"

"In the lab."

"Conclusions?"

"None except that it's not the Broadcast."

"We knew that. Miscellaneous?"

"The president of the company is here, wanting answers."

"Hell." Bryson glared at Ann.

"I didn't call him," she protested. "He makes me nervous."

"Where is he, Ginny?"

"Your office. He bribed the receptionist. She's on report."

"Good. Well, gird the loins."

Isaac Schaeffer was easily six-two in height even with the cane. He'd personally tried to bribe Himmler's staff to get Jewish relatives out of Poland and succeeded to a fair degree until he was thrown out of Germany. He'd faced down with equal determination Joseph McCarthy, Black Panthers, and his nephews on the board.

Bryson didn't hesitate on seeing the slender old man. "Mr. Schaeffer, I understand your concern, but I don't have time to talk to you."

"I understand. But I want some answers, and answers will be where you are. As well as my grandniece. Hello, young Anastasia."

Ann had to clear her throat. "Hello, Great-Uncle Isaac. How's the lumbago?"

"Persistent. I'm told you were in the middle of all this."

"Mr. Schaeffer," Bryson interrupted, "I'm afraid--"

The old man peered at him. "I'm not allowed to speak to my own grandniece?"

"Not when she's a material witness whose help I need to forward the investigation."

Mr. Schaeffer nodded thoughtfully, and his eyes fell on Robert. "Then while you're talking to my grandniece, I'll speak to Mr. McCall here." He glanced at Bryson. "Unless you need them both at the same time," he added mildly. "I would like to find out what happened to my building so I can take these old bones home to bed. Mr. McCall?"

Bryson shrugged in defeat. Ann gave Robert a nervous look as Isaac Schaeffer swept off, tapping Robert peremptorily on the arm. Bryson likewise took Ann's elbow to show her to a chair.

Two silent young men, one in a finely embroidered yarmulke, came to attention as the old man came into the lobby. Robert noticed how large they were and noted the slight bulges under their jackets.

"I'll be over here, boys," Isaac said to them, gesturing at two chairs in a corner. "Good boys, both of them," he added, turning to Robert. "Sit down, please."

ATF didn't seem to mind that their facilities were being commandeered. Robert waited for Ann's great-uncle to sit first. The cane was used mostly for balance, but Isaac moved with a deliberateness that said the old man was aware of creeping frailty. They looked at each other for several moments, Robert seeing lively intelligence and polite curiosity.

"Mr. Schaeffer, how did you know my name?" Robert asked, giving in to that ancient patience.

"I like to keep track of what my relatives are up to. I was pleased to hear that young Anastasia had put aside her retirement. You've incited a bit of interest in the family." He smiled with sympathetic humor. "There are those who'd hoped she'd stay in seclusion if she wouldn't be guided by older and hopefully wiser heads."

"Yes," Robert said dryly, "she mentioned the flattering attentions of your grandson."

Isaac chuckled. "I only wish to see her with someone devoted to her and her interests and who is strong enough to prevent evil things from happening to her." Immense sadness darkened the old eyes. "She's had more than her share."

"It is my privilege to protect her--as much as she'll let me. I will let nothing evil happen to her that I can in any way prevent."

"And I imagine you're able to prevent quite a bit."

Robert looked at him very carefully, suspicious of that knowing tone of voice. The old man was smiling faintly. Something in his eyes didn't quite dare Robert to challenge the knowledge being hinted at.

Isaac shifted uncomfortably on his seat. "Old bones. Mr. McCall, please tell me all you can about this second bomb in my building and how you and Anastasia became involved."

Robert tried to keep the telling brief, but insightful questions pulled information out. Isaac proved to be up-to-date on the embezzler situation and showed no dismay that Robert was aware of the bank's vulnerability.

"Mr. McCall," he said finally, "I will be candid. I know of your current profession--"

"My 'current' profession?"

"Let's not quibble, it's too far past my bedtime. Some of the interest you generated was less than subtle, but as far as I know--and I know nearly everything at Schaeffer & Marshall--only I have managed to discover anything significant. The others are either too willing to accept plausible stories or are sadly lacking in effective sources. I've maintained my contacts with various friends of the war years. Put not your faith in princes."

"I rarely do."

Isaac nodded. "Someday I will tell you what I know, if only to put you at ease. Suffice for now that I see no bearing of the past on the current situation. What does interest me is that you are in a unique position to aid me in discovering the source of these threats to my company."

Anger woke in the old man's faded eyes. "It is only the luck of timing that kept the entire building's workforce from danger. It is only the luck of your presence that kept catastrophe from falling. This person has threatened my family. I will not allow this. Mr. McCall, I formally ask you to investigate this matter, both for myself and for the entire Schaeffer & Marshall clan. What say you?"

"I say that you don't need to ask. I believe that bomb was aimed as much at Ann as at your company. I will not allow such threats to stand."

Isaac nodded slowly. "We understand each other. Too many of my family find my sense of clan quaint and anachronistic."

"No one who remembers the war would dismiss it."

"It's a relief to deal with someone forthright. I look forward to dealing with you. Anastasia is in good hands." He got slowly to his feet, waving away Robert's offer of help. The Mossad farm team moved in, and the tired old man made his way out.

Robert went to find Ann. She was ensconced in a corner of Bryson's office, surrounded by picture books. An Identikit artist with a laptop sat near her, working up a composite.

"Did you send the geezer home?" Bryson asked from his desk. He had a phone in each hand and preliminary schematics in front of him.

"That 'geezer', Timothy, is very powerful, very rich, and very clever. I've been given the official Schaeffer frank to investigate the matter."

"What, he doesn't think we can do it?"

"I got the impression that he wants someone with a more--shall we say--eclectic background to look into matters that affect his clan."

Bryson raised an eyebrow. "Oh, so. A bit of genteel blackmail?"

"Far from it. How is she doing?"

"We've got a white male perp, mid-thirties, no obvious marks. By the composite we're building, I've got tentative IDs for about half a dozen guys."

"Sir?" the artist piped up, "we're done."

"OK, let's see it."

As Bryson went to look at the computer screen, Robert sat near Ann. "I believe your great-uncle approves of me, darling."

"Really? That's nice. Why?"

"Oh, you're not going to credit it to personality and winning ways?"

"Not where Uncle Isaac's concerned."

"Ms. Marshall," Bryson interrupted, "you're satisfied with this picture? Robert, what do you think?"

"I caught only a glimpse, but it could well be him."

Bryson smiled. "Hand me the green book." He flipped the pages, then turned it around to show them. "Joey Ferlazzo. What do you think?"

Ann looked over the pictures. "Yes, I'd call that a match. So who is he and why would he be planting bombs in my family's bank?"

"He's a bomber for hire, he doesn't have causes. And he's old fashioned. He's been in stir, but he got out nine months ago. Bombing computers is a violation of his parole. Back to the big house for him."

"It might not be him," Ann temporized, reluctant to finger a man who might be trying to make a new start.

"Don't waste your sympathy on him, Ms. Marshall. He's got enough electrical engineering background to do pretty well for himself. He just likes this way of making a living. Sadie! We've got an ID!"

Robert rubbed Ann's neck as law enforcement wheels began turning. "Hopefully this will be the end of it. I think it's time to take you home."

"Home, bed, call Nate in the morning and say 'Sorry, no go.' Maybe I can give it another try tomorrow."

"Don't give them as much notice this time. Timothy, what news?"

"We'll be picking him up for questioning. Take the lady home, we'll get back to you. Shoo."

 

 

The next afternoon, Ann went to Nate's house to use his computer's links into the Schaeffer & Marshall system.

"Dammit," she muttered after a few hours.

"What's wrong?" Nate's wife, Abigail, asked from where she sat knitting on the other side of her husband's home office.

"Stuff's changed since last night. He's been in here."

"Who, Nate?"

"No, the siphon. He took advantage of the reprieve and decided to cover his tracks better. Bloody."

"Ann," Abby tsked genially. "Delicate ears."

"Whose, yours? I've heard you at the Ivy League games."

"No, baby's." She rested a fond hand on her barely bulging abdomen.

"Oh, sorry, baby."

"Did you know you're starting to pick up faint traces of a British accent?"

"Am not."

"Well, then, a British vocabulary."

Ann started to protest, then grinned sheepishly. She liked her sister-in-law. Abby had the rare gift of knowing how to tease without hurting any feelings, even unintentionally. Her teases were on subjects her targets enjoyed talking about.

"I'm also learning how to make a proper cup of tea."

"Always useful. I have some excellent recipes for toad in the hole, bubble & squeak, and shepherd's pie if you want."

"Bubble & squeak?"

"Don't ask me, I've never eaten the thing, I just have the recipes." The phone on the desk rang. "Marshall residence. Just a minute, please." She pushed the hold button. "Are you in to a man with a British accent who says your name with a distinct note of affection?"

"So long as it's Robert, yes." She took the phone and grinned at Abby as her sister-in-law gathered her knitting and left. "Hello?"

"Hello, darling. How is it going?"

"Poorly, I'm afraid. The jerk took advantage of last night's confusion to clean stuff out. It'd take massive program analysis to find him now, not without better clues. How goes it with the bomber?"

"Just as poorly. They found Joey Ferlazzo easily enough, but he has an alibi for last night. It seems to check out."

"Seems?"

"He says he was at a bar on Long Island last night. The people there are the sort who'd give Jack the Ripper an alibi if it would hamper the police."

"The police must know that."

"Indeed, but it's bad form to use force to challenge an alibi. It gets the police all the wrong sorts of publicity."

"But someone other than the police . . . "

There was a knowing silence on the other end. "You do know me."

"What kind of bar, other than scuzzy?"

"It's called Beetles, and it's the sort of anarchistic beer-swilling place that has brawls every hour and a speed-dial to ambulance services."

"Sounds like fun. A biker bar?"

"Of a sort. My love, I worry about your ideas of fun."

"Considering how many of them you've taught me . . . You're going there, aren't you."

"Yes. If we can break his alibi, the police can grab him. At the least, perhaps I can find out if he is our man and who hired him."

"What kind of cover are you going to use that will get you into a biker bar?"

"I'm not certain yet. I may just walk in as a man looking to hire a bomber."

"Let me help."

"Ann --"

"I don't like the idea of you going in alone. Besides, I've been in a lot of scuzzy bars."

"So have I. Rather more than you, I hope."

"Only because you've been at this longer than I have. If you're thinking about my tender sensibilities, you needn't."

"A lady always has tender sensibilities, even in biker bars. But still --"

"And I'm the one who saw him. I can make a positive ID."

"Blast."

Ann didn't press the point but let him think it out.

"You're right. But surely I don't need to say that letting you help makes me obscenely nervous."

"No. I understand. But I'm not proposing this for a casual evening's amusement. There's nothing to stop him from setting more bombs."

"No, there isn't. It makes all the sense in the world. That doesn't mean I have to like it."

"I know." She knew better than to gloat. "Can we meet at my place?"

"Certainly. Can you be ready at ten?"

"Um, I'll be taking my own vehicle."

"The van? Darling, a VW microbus with Grateful Dead stickers might not be the most appropriate --"

"Trust me," she finally managed to interrupt. "If you don't approve I won't take it. All right?"

"All right. I love you, you maddening woman."

"And I love you, you stubborn man. Bye-bye."

"Bye."

It was starting to drizzle when Robert pulled up at Ann's house. She opened the door quickly. "Ye God," he gasped.

Full black riding leathers and a black t-shirt under the jacket. The high boots were scuffed, the tight leather pants showed a neatly mended tear in the right knee, and the chains on the jacket were real steel, not light metal jewelry. Deep scratches in the right shoulder loops showed violent contact with something rough.

Ann pulled the long braid of her hair out from under the jacket. "Well?" she asked, a little nervously.

"More remnants of a wild youth?"

"Mostly the remnants of periodic fits of restless insanity."

Robert fingered the chains with the gouges. "What happened here?"

"A cab with an attitude. I had right of way."

"What were you driving?" he asked cautiously.

"Come see."

She led the way to the garage and a corner Robert had assumed contained nothing but paint cans and a broken chair. A tarp covered something behind the chair.

"I should throw this out," she muttered as she moved the chair. "Robert, meet Cynthia." She yanked off the tarp.

It was larger than any motorcycle Robert had ever ridden, red fibreglass and chromed pipes, and a tasteful BMW emblem on the gas tank.

"Cynthia," he repeated.

"Cynthia. I told my father I was buying a BMW. He was pleased, until he saw her. What do you think?"

"She's very big."

"1500 cc's. The only ones I could reach the ground on were this and a 250. A wimp's bike."

Robert stared at her, amazed. He never would have expected this from the quiet computer geek he'd met. But he wasn't surprised, not after having seen her play the blues. "You weren't sure you should show this to me, were you."

She polished a smudge off the handlebars. "No, I wasn't," she admitted. "I wasn't sure how much eccentricity you approved of in a woman."

"My love, I've known far more eccentric women than you. You don't have a prison record you haven't mentioned, have you?"

"No."

"Then you are well within previously accepted eccentric bounds." He looked the bike over. "Why are there no scratches on her?"

"Oh, she went to the shop to get them fixed. I needed a whole new front fairing and right foot peg, but she's as good as new. So what's the plan?"

"I should ask you that, easy rider."

She laughed at his smile and kissed him. "Well, I thought I could go in first and scout the place."

He made himself think about it. "See if Ferlazzo's in there. I will not be far behind."

"Robert, I can handle myself for twenty minutes."

"That's nice. At the most I'll be ten minutes behind."

She grimaced and gave in. "You still going to be a man looking for a bomber?"

"Yes. I have enough information to make it plausible that I'd find him." He hesitated, then sighed. "We should go. Stay close till we hit the Island."

"All right."

The windows of Beetle's were plexiglass in pop-out frames. The bikes out front were about half Harleys, with several big Hondas etc. Ann parked Cynthia near the end of the row, just to be on the safe side. She was pleased to see the clientele leaned more toward rockabilly rebel than serious biker. She could deal with Hell's Angels when needed, but the night was going to be weird enough.

A bunch of hairy specimens examining each other's bikes watched her take off her helmet. "Hey, honey," one called, "helmets are for babies."

"Scars are for masochists," she called back, locking the helmet and heading for the door.

The one who had spoken sauntered her way. "Yeah, it would be a pity for that pretty face to get messed up. What's your name?"

"Annie." Having an escort through the door was better than walking into the meat market alone.

"I'm Mel. Can I buy you a drink, Annie?"

"Sure, but I'm just passing through. I've got someplace I have to be in a couple of hours." How odd to be pursued again, odd and flattering.

"Well, maybe next time you come through you can stay a while. Reg, two beers."

Ann took a stool at Mel's side and looked over the room. The jukebox was playing "Take This Job & Shove It." The people by the pool table were singing along with feeling. Down the bar, several people were arguing over the fire bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia. A hooker was advocating the complete deregulation of commerce while negotiating her fee. The man she was negotiating with settled at forty bucks and left his discussion of the benefits of a military invasion of the old Soviet Union and the forcible imposition of the capitalist system.

One of the men talking was Joey Ferlazzo.

Ann looked away quickly, laughed at Mel's joke, and studied Ferlazzo in the mirror. Yes, that was the man she'd seen. She fought down the urge to go kick him.

The door opened again, and Robert walked in, followed by more of the people who had been lurking outside. They nudged each other and pointed at the guy who looked like he'd lost his way to the country club.

Robert glanced around cooly, not the least dismayed by the suspicious looks. He met Ann's eyes in the mirror, and she turned on her stool. "I don't know, Mel. I don't follow politics much." She sipped her beer and nodded at Ferlazzo's table. Robert glanced that way, then nodded faintly in return. "Do you think the Knicks have a prayer this year?"

With Ferlazzo identified, Robert wanted to order Ann out of this place. She looked far too comfortable lounging on that bar stool. To work, McCall. He walked to the table. "Joey Ferlazzo?"

Ferlazzo continued drinking his beer for a moment, then glanced up. "Yeah?"

"Louis Greenbaum told me I could find you here."

"Louis, huh? Now, why would he tell you that?"

"He thought you might be interested in a business opportunity I have."

"Uh huh."

Robert sat down across from him. "It's a real estate problem."

"Take it to Century 21." Ferlazzo drained his beer, then looked pointedly at Robert, who signaled the bartender. Ferlazzo continued to stare silently.

Robert sighed. "I have a building in an inconvenient location. Its absence would be more profitable than its presence."

"Too bad." The beer arrived. Ferlazzo took a big swig and looked bored.

Robert forced himself to drink. Budweiser, ugh. "I keep hoping a lightning strike or careless smoker will solve my problem for me. I'm beginning to think I need to help the process along."

"Arson is a felony."

"Messy, as well. I was thinking something on the line of undermining the supports, making the thing uninhabitable."

Ferlazzo leaned forward. "Say it straight, mister. I'm not putting words in your mouth, and I won't have you putting them in mine. I know how you rich guys get lawyers to twist things around."

Robert sighed again. Good thing he wasn't a cop, this would certainly be called entrapment. "I'm looking for someone to sabotage this building. Louis Greenbaum told me to look you up as a man who could do the job."

"How'd you find Louis?"

"None of your business. Are you interested?"

Ferlazzo leaned back with his beer. "You ever been inside? No," he corrected himself, "men like you never see the backside of a row of bars. You get guys like me to take the fall. It'd take a lot to make me risk going back in."

"How much?"

"A million."

"I beg your pardon!" Robert forgot the deal was an act for a moment, shocked by the gall of the man.

"You're the one with the problem. Me, I can just sit here drinking beer."

"I could do it myself."

"What do you know about explosives? You've got all your fingers."

"So do you."

"The military trains their people right."

Robert hid a smile. The CIA trained them better.

"And what would I get for the price?" he asked.

"What do you want?" Ferlazzo was still curious. "What kind of building is it?"

"An apartment--"

"People in it? I'm not going near a building with people in it."

Robert fought back a remark about the Schaeffer building. "Louis didn't say you were squeamish."

"I went up on an incendiary device charge, not attempted manslaughter." Ferlazzo took a deep drink. "I don't want to hurt nobody."

"Difficult to be sure of, in your line of work."

Ferlazzo glared at Robert, then cocked his head. "I've seen you somewhere before."

Robert tensed as subtly as he could. "I can't imagine where."

"I know I have. Something to do with computers." Ferlazzo paled. "Last night--" He jumped to his feet.

"Mr. Ferlazzo--"

"Is there a problem, Joey?" A new voice behind Robert asked.

Ferlazzo grinned. "I think we got somebody too nosy for his own good, Billy."

Robert loosened his shoulders as he stood. "I was just asking about a job."

Billy, his greasy clothes showing his mechanics' trade, cracked his knuckles. "Should've tried the want ads."

Reg the bartender started stowing glassware below the bar. "The back door's this way," Mel said to Ann as he slid off his stool. "We'd better go."

"Thanks, Mel, but I think I'm going to be needed over there."

Mel stared at her. "Well, shit." He scurried for the back door.

"We don't like nosy people around here," Billy continued. Four large men joined him. The rest of the crowd drained out of the bar.

Robert glanced around, gauging his best route to the door. As he turned his head, one of the men snatched a pool cue off a table and drew back to swing.

"Oh, no, you don't!" yelled a woman, and black leather swung a roundhouse kick into the back of the thug with the pool cue. He dropped with a screech.

Robert blinked along with everyone else. Good lord, he'd forgotten Ann was still here. "Are you insane?" he demanded as she hurried to his side. "Get the hell out of here."

"Not while there are people in here who want to inflict damage on you." She glared at the surrounding hoods.

Robert tried to feel disapproving at her presence at his side. But the toughs pulled back just a little at the arrival of reinforcements.

"Get out of there, girl," Billy said, "or you'll get hurt."

"That's very considerate, but I'll stay, thank you."

Robert made sure Ann was close, counted the opponents one more time, then started to reach under his jacket.

"I wouldn't do that, old man," one of the others grinned, slapping another pool cue in his hand. "We've got 'em, too, and there's more of us."

"True enough," Robert said easily. "I'll just take your weapon."

"You think so?" The man charged, swinging.

Ann started to intercept, but Robert stepped forward, caught the descending wrist to redirect the blow, kicked the supporting knee out of the way, and yanked the pull cue out of the thug's hand as he fell. Robert clubbed him lightly in the kidneys for good measure to convince him to stay down.

The others paused again, looking uneasily at each other before starting to egg each other on again.

"We could still end this easily," Robert offered. A growl answered him. "Darling, this pool cue comes apart, do you want half?"

"Uh, no thanks, I'm fine."

"If you wanted to make a break for it, I think I could cover you."

"I leave with you."

He shouldn't have been pleased at those words. He put his back to hers as the toughs reached critical mass.

"Right," Billy said. "Do what you want with the girl, the geezer's mine." He led the charge in.

Robert ducked the haymaker and swung with the pool cue. Billy dodged and started to circle around. Over his shoulder, Robert saw Ann grab the arm of a grinning thug and execute a neat hip toss of the thug into a companion. She knocked aside an incoming fist and kicked the man in the stomach.

Billy picked up a nearby chair and started swinging. Robert caught the downswing on the pool cue braced across both hands, then kicked Billy in the crotch. He paid for his concentration when a billiard ball impacted against his left hip.

Ann glanced over at her lover's gasp of pain, then looked for the person responsible. Some Big League wanna-be was winding up with a cue ball in his hand. Her yell as she started her move distracted him, and her fist in his stomach put him on the floor.

"Ann, behind you!" Robert shouted.

She ducked the chair leg aimed at her head, but caught a kick in the shoulder. In the midst of her wince, she saw Robert break the pool cue across the man's kidneys.

Robert looked around: everyone was on the floor or sneaking out. He reached down to pull Ann from the floor.

"Are you all right?" they asked each other. Ann started to look Robert over, but he gently batted her hands away.

"Get ready to move," he said, "Ferlazzo sneaked out in the middle of everything."

"You kept track of him in all of that? How?"

"Practice." He fished out his wallet and grabbed several large bills. "For the damages," he told the barkeep crouched behind the bar. The barkeep smiled and waved good-bye with the shotgun in his hand.

Ann led the way out. Ferlazzo was nowhere in sight. "Can you tell which bikes are missing?" Robert asked.

"Black one from the end--there he is! Just leaving the light."

At the end of the block, a black motorcycle was cruising through the intersection, Ferlazzo apparently in no hurry.

Ann ran for Cynthia, just ahead of Robert's reaching hand. She jumped onto her motorcycle, shoved the helmet on her head, and punched the electric starter. Robert ducked as her rear wheel threw gravel, swore briefly, and ran for his car.

Traffic was still heavy at this hour. Ann swerved around an angry taxi and got into the flow three cars behind Ferlazzo. Robert, still swearing under his breath, hauled his big car into the hole created by the hard-braking taxi.

Ann saw the Jaguar in her rearview mirrors and smiled faintly, but she also kept an eye on Ferlazzo. He was still riding easily down the street, apparently content that trouble had been left behind. The next light turned red, and he coasted to a halt.

Robert saw Ann crouch on her seat as the car in front of her slowed to make a turn. "Ann, no!" he yelled, wishing he could get his hands on her. As the car turned, she swung the bike around the rear, almost catching the bumper. Robert stomped on the accelerator as soon as his path was clear.

Ann gained half a block, but Ferlazzo's light turned green. The cars ahead of her clung stubbornly to the speed limit, and a delivery truck ground its slow way towards her in the other lane. She swung to the right, and the car ahead of her drifted over to block her way.

"Oh, god," Robert muttered, watching the maneuvers. His car phone chose that moment to beep. "I'm busy!"

Ann swung back and forth two more times, watching the truck and the car's driver. She swung to the left as the truck closed, pulling the car over to block her. The truck sounded its airhorn, and the car moved back to the right quickly.

Ann gunned her powerful bike into the gap between the truck and the car. She cleared them by inches. The last car between her and Ferlazzo pulled to the right, wanting no part of the insane maneuvers. Ann had a clear street for the block between herself and her quarry.

"When I get my hands on you," Robert muttered. He thumped on his horn as the car Ann had sneaked past turned stubborn in front of him. He gritted his teeth and hopped the curb to go around on the right. He didn't want to think what was happening to his undercarriage and vowed to send Ann the repair bill.

Seeing another maniac in the rearview mirror, the last car pulled over completely to let the Jaguar by.

Ferlazzo must have just then noticed the commotion behind him: he suddenly squealed rubber and wove through the crossing traffic to the other side of the intersection. Ann gunned her powerful bike after him as the light turned in her favor, twisting her powerful bike behind a cab that had cut the yellow light too close. She saw nothing but clear road between herself and her quarry.

Robert, stuck behind a stubborn sedan and a semi making a left turn, had a perfect view. He saw Ferlazzo twist to look behind. But whatever he was riding was not in the same league as Ann's BMW.

A Honda, Ann was close enough to see, a big one. But not quite big enough. Except now she was wondering how to end this. Sure, she could catch him, but then what?

Irate honking broke out behind. In her mirrors she saw the Jaguar roar around the sedan and start closing up the distance.

Ferlazzo started weaving all over the road, getting in Ann's way as she tried to pass to bracket him between herself and Robert. They were in an industrial section now, empty with fewer cars on the road.

Robert beeped twice as he came up on the two motorcycles. Ann pulled to the right. He swung around and sped up, determined to force Ferlazzo to stop or go off the road.

His car phone rang again. "I'm busy, I'm sorry!"

Ferlazzo glanced over his shoulder at the sudden roar of a very big engine, swerved out of the way as the Jaguar charged past. As Robert heeled the wheel over to block the road, Ferlazzo gunned his bike and screeched by between the car and the chain link fence around a warehouse, his foot peg scraping sparks off the Jag's bumper.

Ann, too close to stop, put the bike down, riding it into the chain link fence, then bouncing off and rolling.

Robert stalled his engine out and dove from the car. "Ann!"

Once the universe stopped spinning, Ann did a quick mental scan. Nothing broken, a few bruises. But her arms didn't want to get under her to push herself up.

Robert dropped down beside her. "Darling, are you all right?"

"Yeah, I think--where is he?"

"Halfway to Montauk Point." He helped her to sit, took the helmet from her shaking hands, and stared into her eyes, checking for concussion. When she recovered enough to smile weakly, he took a deep breath. "What the hell were you doing! This isn't a Steve McQueen movie! You could have been killed a dozen times over!"

"I was trying to catch him!"

"Of all the idiotic, half-assed--" He broke off to help her stand and held her up until she got her equilibrium back. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Just shaken up. This is why I wear leather and a helmet. Oh, god, Cynthia." She stumbled over to her motorcycle.

"Here, let me help. You'll never lift it."

They wrestled the bike onto the stand, and Ann began cataloging the damage.

"Another new fairing, new footpeg, new side pipes--oh, lord, the seat . . . "

"Not to mention my suspension," Robert added dryly.

"Oh, yeah. Well, let's see if she'll turn over." She straddled the bike and fiddled with the ignition.

Once again, Robert's car phone rang. "Oh, all right," he muttered, heading over. "Don't go anywhere," he ordered Ann.

"That may not be a problem," she muttered, checking wires. After a couple adjustments, the engine roared into life. "And a tune-up. She's alive," she called to Robert as he stepped back out of his car. Then she saw his face. "What's wrong?"

He didn't answer until he had his hands on her shoulders. "Darling, your brother's in the hospital. That was Becky. A letter bomb went off in his house."

She could only gape in horror for several seconds. "What hospital?" she demanded, reaching for Cynthia's ignition switch.

"No, ride with me. You're not up to it."

"I'm not leaving her! What hospital, damn it? How bad?" She fought back tears. "Jesus Christ, a letter bomb? Ferlazzo?"

Robert wrapped his arms around her. "We couldn't have stopped it, we didn't know." He pulled back and looked at her. "All right, take the bike. Mercy in Brooklyn Heights. But stay behind me. I promise I won't dawdle."

"All right."

 

 

Robert studied her as she got off the bike at the ER entrance. Ann leaned on him briefly, then drug her will up by the throat.

"You going to make it?" he asked.

"Do I have a choice?"

"One never does."

The Marshall contingent was a quiet huddle of women in one corner of the emergency waiting room. Nate's wife, Abigail, wrung a handkerchief as she sat next to her mother-in-law, Sylvia Marshall. Ann's younger sister, Becky, paced back and forth, keeping the entrance to the surgical suite under observation.

Ann thought they looked terribly out of place and defenseless, three well-heeled women thrown precipitously into the dark dangers of the night.

Becky recognized her sister first, but she hesitated and stared at the black leather. "Annie? Where on earth have you been?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." She hugged her sister. "How is he?" Becky shrugged in frustration. Ann crouched down in front of Abigail. "You OK, Abby?"

"Oh, Ann . . . " Abigail didn't care how her sister-in-law looked. "It was a special messenger. I carried it in to Nate's office. If little Nate hadn't started crying just then I'd have been in there when he opened it." She held her hand protectively over her pregnant abdomen.

Ann glanced up at Robert, who shared her grim expression. "When was this, Abby?" she asked.

"Barely an--an hour ago. They took him straight into surgery, they've been in there all this time. Oh, Annie, there was so much blood . . . "

Ann held Abby against her shoulder for a moment, trying to be careful about the chains on the jacket.

"There's been no word?" Robert asked.

Abby looked up at him, tears starting again. "They just told us to wait."

"I don't wait well," Robert said. "I'll get you some answers."

Ann started to follow Robert, but her mother's significant look stopped her. It was the same look used in childhood to alert a child that something needed dealt with immediately.

"Ann, what is the meaning of this?" Sylvia asked, looking severe.

"Mom, you're asking me why a bomb went off in Nate's office?"

"What? Not at all." Mrs. Marshall looked her daughter up and down disapprovingly. "Where did you get those--those clothes? Is this something Robert--"

"Mom, you can't blame Robert for the parts of me you disapprove of. I've had these clothes for years. And you wouldn't believe the kinds of places I've worn them in."

Mrs. Marshall started to take a deep breath to argue, but Robert's return stopped her. He noted the tense body language between Ann and her mother but made no comment. "They apologize profusely for not getting back to you sooner, but it's been a busy night. Nate should be out of surgery in just a few minutes. His wounds were relatively minor. He'll be all right."

Abby burst into relieved tears, and Becky leaned over to put her arms around her.

Robert tapped Ann on the shoulder. "Bryson's here," he said softly. "We need to talk to him. Or would you rather stay here with your family?"

Ann glanced at the seated women, especially her mother. "I'll come with you."

"Ann," Mrs. Marshall protested, then she glanced at Robert, who retreated.

"Mom, what? I have things I need to do to try and find out what's going on."

"That's not your job, Ann," her mother said sternly. "We were told to stay here and wait. We shouldn't interfere."

Be good, Ann heard the voice of all her conventional ancestors tell her. Do what you're told, mind your place.

She noticed the reflection of herself and her mother in a nearby vending machine. Her mother was an indistinct image in muted, respectable clothes, a restrained woman keeping to the straight-and-narrow. But the woman across from her was a dark, glittering presence from a different world. In that world, people who carefully followed the rules were the anomaly. Things had to be done that were best not considered by the old rules.

"Feel free to stay here and wait, Mom," she said, trying not to be too abrupt. "But I'm going that way." She leaned down to kiss the disapproving cheek, then squeezed Abby's hand, murmuring comfort. Becky gave her sister a curious, knowing look.

"I'll look after them," Becky said softly. "Go do--whatever."

"Thanks. I'll make it up to you." Ann went to join Robert on the other side of the room. "They wouldn't get it, would they?"

"That some people are not meant to just sit and wait?" he asked knowingly. "No, they wouldn't."

They went to a nearby office, where Bryson worked the phones. "Ah, the night shift," the ATF man said, looking up. "Ms. Marshall, we have to stop meeting like this. My condolences on your brother, how is he?"

"They say he'll be OK. What is this about a letter bomb?"

"It was in one of those next-day air things, according to Mrs. Marshall." Bryson lost his cheerfulness. "I hate letter bombs. They're for nothing but killing people."

Robert put a hand on Ann's quivering shoulder. "So it was attempted murder," he said bluntly.

"It wasn't an invitation to a tea dance." He glared at the pair of them. "Stay away from that bar."

Robert and Ann glanced at each other. "What bar?" Robert asked.

"Oh, don't. Ferlazzo picked up a speeding ticket on the Island, and if it weren't for the report of a large black car and a red motorcycle being most involved, he'd have been charged with the reported reckless endangerment I've heard about. Beetle's apparently had another brawl. You two cut a wide swath, don't you."

"He admitted he was at Schaeffer & Marshall," Robert pointed out. "I'll testify to that."

Bryson raised an eyebrow. "I don't want to know how you got that."

"No, you don't. Pull him in and we can deal with him."

"Robert, unlike you, I need a warrant."

"Where's he live?" Ann asked. "If I were him, I'd be packing up to leave."

"Ms. Marshall, don't make me a party to assault & battery."

Ann leaned on the desk. "He tried to kill my brother. I want his ass."

"Citizen's arrest is better than nothing," Robert added.

Bryson looked at them. "All right. But both of you sit down for a bit first. You looked hammered."

Robert looked at Ann pointedly. "You're not used to this."

"What, being up all night or being in bar brawls and dumping my bike? It reminds me of college." She smiled at his grimace and sat down.

Bryson went through files. "Ferlazzo's just a cog. He's got no reason to go after your bank, least of all your brother. We need the guy behind him. Don't accept any unexpected packages," he said flatly to Ann. She swallowed.

"Why go after Nate?" Robert mused. "If the point of the exercise is to stop the investigation into the embezzlement, Ann is the logical target." He put a protective hand on his lover's shoulder.

"Unless the perp thinks she's only working under orders from the bank," Bryson said. "Nate Marshall was the instigating force in your involvement, wasn't he?"

Ann nodded. "Is Ferlazzo the letter bomb type?"

"He didn't use to be. Bombers don't change their MO's often. So our mastermind either knows the stuff himself or has some interesting names in his Rolodex."

"Could be a her," Ann pointed out.

Robert chuckled. "Equal opportunities for female offenders."

"I'd rather face a male perp than a female perp any day," Bryson commented. "Women are vicious, sneaky, and cold-blooded."

"Thank you," Ann grinned.

They got Ferlazzo's address and headed back into the night. Nate was out of surgery, and a brief peek into his cubicle in Intensive Care satisfied Ann that he was all right. Becky was the only one to notice Ann hovering on the sidelines.

"Be careful, Annie," she whispered into her sister's ear as she hugged her. "Only one Marshall in the hospital at a time, and you've had your turn this year."

"I'm always careful. Look after them for me."

"I will." Becky studied Ann & Robert, wondering where they'd been that they'd be dressed so differently from each other. And why had they spent so long with that Fed who had only spared a few minutes for the Marshall women? She watched the pair consult quietly on something. Becky had always wondered where Ann had gotten those killer leathers and why. And why didn't Robert care?

Ann looked over and saw her sister's thoughtful look. Becky did that a lot, went quiet and watched the world, and one never knew what she was thinking. "We're headed out, Beck. Call Robert's car phone if you need me."

Becky nodded silently, feeling a little again like that adolescent girl watching her older sister get ready to go out into the night. But she headed back to her mother and brother, reminding herself that they also serve who stand and wait.

"She thinks too much," Robert mused. "Such women are dangerous."

Out in the parking lot, he put a hand on Ann's arm just before she swung onto Cynthia. "I think you should go home, love."

"What? Robert, if this is another damned protective, knee-jerk reaction--"

He put a finger against her lips, then brushed her cheek. "I've been very good in not having hysterics on how badly you could have been hurt tonight. I'm doing the best I can. But I think you should let me deal with this because you're too angry."

She glared at him in disbelief. "My brother has tubes in him. Yes, I'm angry."

"He'll be all right, though."

"Robert, what if Abigail had been in the room? Or Little Nate? Or Elizabeth? What would it have done to a little kid?" She shook a little inside as Robert's face confirmed her fears. "What if he tries again?"

"I'll stop him."

She squeezed his hand. "I know. But I have to be a part of it."

He finally nodded. "But leave the bike. She's acting up, and I don't know if you can tell or not, but your eyes are crossing." She blinked furiously, annoyed that her weariness was showing. "I won't make you sit this out. But don't take foolish chances, please? One has to keep one's wits in this kind of work."

Ann nodded. "Thank you for asking me to go home and not telling me."

"I can't help wanting to keep you tucked safely away."

"I know." She turned to Cynthia and secured her helmet and the ignition. She looked at him sheepishly as she followed him to the car. "It's just as well, I guess. I pulled something in my hip when I put the bike down."

"Yes, I saw you limping," Robert muttered. "I'd like to point out that I didn't demand you see a doctor."

"Poor Robert." She kissed him as he opened her door. "I'm not trying to drive you to distraction."

"I'm sorry, my love, but you did that weeks ago."

 

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