Deception

Control set the phone down. He slid even lower in his seat, resting his elbows on the arms of his chair and his chin on his hands. He faced the window of his office, but he did not see the view. The whole twisted scenario of this latest scheme involving McCall had his full concentration.

It was really the only way to protect Robert in the long run - that is if he survived the immediate future. It was also the only way that Kostmayer would be safe from the group of self-appointed guardians of the Company. How scum always rose to the top never ceased to surprise him.

He knew that whatever the outcome, there was a fifty-fifty chance that he could lose Robert as a friend this time. He had made peace with the results of his role as a manipulator of situations; he had lost a lot over his lifetime because of it, but he never really dropped that feeling of regret that accompanied those empty spaces. Losing Robert after all these years would take its toll on him he knew, but nature hates a vacuum, and if he wasn't there to oversee all the machinations at the Company, someone else would be at the helm in his place. It was best that he be the one in charge of other people's lives. He was pretty sure of that. But...

He stood up, walked to the window and looked out. It was raining again.

Robert got back into his car and sat for a moment, deep in thought. He dialed and checked for messages. There had been no more calls since the ones he had picked up on his last stop. He shook his head, in the past few hours he had learned so much and so little. That Mickey was in trouble wasn't in doubt, but what that trouble was he didn't know. He had tantalizing snippets of information and wild guesses but no real facts to work with. He had spoken to everyone he could locate, that knew Kostmayer, to try to find out what was going on. Everyone agreed that Kostmayer was acting strangely but said they didn't know why. Jimmy was sure that Mickey's problem concerned a previous mission. Sterno had hinted that he thought a woman was involved. Brock had told Robert that he was sure it was something to do with the Middle East.

Robert knew Mickey too well, the more serious the problem, the less likely he would be to come to him for help. Mickey would convince himself that he could handle whatever was wrong.

Robert tapped the car phone thoughtfully. Calling Control would be a waste of time; he had made it clear that Robert shouldn't contact him. There was nothing else for it, he would have to confront Mickey directly. It was late and maybe if Kostmayer was rattled enough he would make a mistake and let something slip...

Mickey couldn't see clearly. It wasn't much farther to the pickup point, he knew that. But it was getting harder to keep moving, especially at the pace they had set. He looked over his shoulder, Robert was there, moving carefully, continually checking the trail behind them. He felt uneasy. Looking forward again, Mickey could see the clearing now. If only the chopper was waiting for them, he would be able to breathe easily.

At the edge of the clearing he hunkered down and looked around. Shit! No sign of the chopper. He checked his watch, it was okay - they were early, the rendezvous wasn't for another fifteen minutes. Robert arrived then and sprawled beside him. He wiped a grimy hand over his sweat-streaked forehead. "What do you think, Mickey?"

"Looks clear to me, McCall. But you never can tell."

Mickey tensed, he could hear the sound of rotors. The chopper was on its way in. He tapped Robert on the shoulder and when he had his attention, he pointed to his ear. Robert nodded; he had heard it too.

Ducking their heads against the dust and stones thrown up by the machine's arrival, they waited until the camouflaged aircraft had settled to the ground. Mickey climbed to his feet and looked around once more, it looked quiet - too quiet. His instincts were screaming at him, something was wrong, very wrong. It had to be an ambush. But they had no options left; they were almost out of ammunition and water. They had to leave now.

With another quick glance around, Mickey sprinted towards the chopper. He fully expected a burst of gunfire to greet him as he left the cover of the trees. Breathing heavily, he waited at the cargo door for McCall. The older man appeared from the undergrowth and ran towards him. Mickey relaxed. Ten more yards and that was it, they were on their way home.

When the hail of bullets exploded around them, it took a moment for Mickey to grasp what was happening. Survival instincts kicked in and he hit the ground as he looked around urgently for McCall. There he was! A crumpled body, oozing blood!

With a cry, Mickey woke up. He fought his way out of the sheets tangled around his naked body. The room was overheated, but that wasn't the reason he was covered in sweat. Breathing deeply, trying to calm his pounding heart, he looked at the clock. It was after two am. He shook his head, he hadn't dreamt about Angola in years.

Uttering profanities, Mickey threw back the sheet and sat up in bed. He had known when he woke, more than thirty minutes ago, that he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep straight away. That dream had always left him shaken and wondering what might have been. The truth had been bad enough. At the time, he hadn't been aware of running to Robert's side, heaving his inert body over his shoulder and carrying him back to the chopper.

It had only been his extensive SEAL medical training that had kept McCall alive until they reached the field hospital. Mickey had waited, covered in Robert's blood, for nearly two hours until the surgeon had appeared and told him that Robert would live. A decade later, he wasn't surprised he still had nightmares in which McCall didn't make it.

He got out of bed and pulled on an old pair of shorts before opening one of the windows. Winter had been mild this year, but the night's cold braced him. He took a deep breath of the chilled air. As he stood by the open window there was a loud knocking on the door. Mickey was only slightly reassured by the thought that the bad guys would be unlikely to knock! Feeling naked, he pulled his automatic from its place under his pillow. His bare feet made no sound as he went to the door and asked quietly, "Who's there?"

"It's me, Mickey. Let me in." Slipping off the bolts he unlocked the door and stood to one side to let Robert in.

Robert walked through into the small, untidy living room; Mickey followed him and put his gun down on the table. "What are you doing here, McCall? It's nearly three in the morning."

"I'm worried about you, Mickey. I'm your friend and if you are in trouble, I want to help you." Without waiting for an invitation, Robert pushed a collection of fishing magazines to one side and sat down on the old couch.

Uncomfortable with McCall's scrutiny, Mickey wandered over to the window and looked out. When he spoke again his voice was muffled. "There is nothing wrong, McCall."

"Come off it, Mickey. I wasn't born yesterday, I did some checking around."

Mickey allowed some of the anger he felt against the higher ups in the Company that had arranged this 'test' to enter his voice. "You've been checking up on me?"

Robert stayed calm, "Yes I have. I have heard rumors that you have a problem and that there is a woman involved. Why don't you tell me what is wrong and let me help you?"

"Look, I don't need or want your help. Just butt out, McCall. It's better for both of us if you stay out of it."

"I can't do that, Mickey, and you know it. I stood by last time and watched you suffer after Serena was killed. I'm not going to stand by and see you destroy yourself."

"There isn't anything you can do." Mickey hated himself for doing this. If only there was a way to avoid lying to Robert. Mickey knew him too well, he would help and in doing so would find himself stuck on the horns of a very unpleasant dilemma. Mickey was already there and he didn't find it at all pleasing.

Robert's voice was harsh, "Let me be the judge of that, Mickey. Just tell me what is going on."

"For the last time, McCall, butt out! I don't need any help, especially yours!"

Robert stood and faced him angrily. Raising his voice he shouted, "Fine! If that's the way you want to play it, it's your business. But just remember, if you get yourself killed, how is Nick going to feel? How is he going to take your death?"

"That's a low blow, McCall! You think I haven't thought it through?" Mickey was shouting now too.

Suddenly there was a pounding on the wall from the next door apartment and they both heard a voice yell, "It's three o'clock in the damn morning! Are you guys going to hold it down or do I call the cops?"

With a deliberate effort, Robert calmed himself. "If you've thought it through, Mickey, then you know you have to tell me what is going on."

"Jesus, McCall, you're not going to let this go are you?"

"No, I'm not. So unless you want to fight some more and unless you want our friend next door to call the cops, you had better tell me what is going on."

Mickey floundered for a moment, this was it, the moment of truth. Did he toe the Company line and go through with the lie or did he gamble everything on Robert and he being able to beat the Company at its own game. Eventually, he opted for what seemed to be the safest option; he would go along with the scheme for now. "Okay, I'll tell you. Three months ago, I was sent to Iraq. It was meant to be a simple job. A week maximum. As usual, it all went to hell and I ended up stuck there for six weeks." He took a deep breath before continuing, "The bomb we were setting went off prematurely and I got hurt. My contact was killed but his sister helped me. I guess you could say she saved my life."

"What else happened?"

"I was out of it for a couple of days so she looked after me and after a week or so we realized we were attracted to each other."

"Good God, Mickey, did you sleep with her?"

"Yeah." Mickey looked away, he couldn't stand to see the disappointment in Robert's eyes. It was one of the first lessons McCall had striven to teach him. Never get personally involved.

"What else?"

"We were in love. We were going to get married and I was going to bring her out with me but I couldn't get the forged papers in time. In the end she told me to leave and to go back for her. The police had begun to narrow down the possibilities and it was only a matter of time before they found me, so I left."

The room went quiet as Robert took all of the information in. "Do you want my help to get her out?" he asked quietly.

"It's no use, McCall." Mickey didn't need to fake his misery, he had gone past hating himself and was well on the way to loathing now. "One of her family informed on her. I heard three days ago that the police had picked her up. Dammit, Robert! One of her family!"

"How did you find out?"

"I got a visit from one of the people from their UN embassy here. He told me Naima is under arrest, and being held in Abu Ghraib prison." Mickey sighed, he promised himself that he would never be drawn into lying to Robert again, for whatever the reason. The temptation to blow that smug asshole Bryan, the head of 'Review', away, right now, was overwhelming. "She's carrying my child, McCall."

"What? Oh, Mickey..."

"Don't say it!" Mickey interrupted. "I know I was stupid, but it's too late to change things now."

Robert sighed deeply, "What happens now?"

"The guy who visited me contacted me again a day later. He told me there is a file that they want. They say that if I get it for them, they will release her and let her leave the country." Mickey ran a shaking hand over his face. Making McCall believe the story had been easier than he had expected. "I don't know what to do. They want me to turn traitor and I don't know that I can do it. But I can't sentence Naima and our baby to death either. It's killing me, Robert." Mickey knew that there was more truth than anyone could guess in the last words he had spoken. "I need to ask you, as a friend, to stay out of it. There is a chance I am going to have to turn traitor and I don't want to involve you."

Robert stood wearily, "I don't like it but I'll do as you want and keep out of it - for the time being. But remember, Mickey, I'm here if you need me. You only have to say and I'll do whatever I can to help."

Mickey followed him to the door and waited while Robert opened it. The older man left the apartment and stood in the hallway outside. "I mean it, Mickey, anything at all."

"Yeah, I know." Robert turned to leave, "McCall..."

"Yes?"

"Thanks."

Robert walked over to the sink and carefully put his empty coffee cup down. He had lost count of the number of cups of coffee he had drunk since the early hours. Sleep had been elusive and he had lain awake for a long time before giving in to the inevitable and getting out of bed.

His mind was still in a whirl with the information he had gleaned from Mickey. The woman must have been very special to make Mickey lose his professionalism so easily. Finding out that the police had picked her up must be like a knife in the gut for him. Added to that, the news that she was pregnant; Robert shook his head, it was too much to take in at once.

Mickey had let slip, shortly after Robert had told him that Yvette was his daughter, that it was one of the things that had bothered him about his time in the Navy. There had been a lot of women, in a lot of ports, and he had tried his damnedest to make sure that none of them had been left with a permanent reminder of his visit some nine months later. Mickey as a father, Robert shook his head. That concept would take as much getting used to as Mickey as a married man would.

The more Robert thought about the problems facing Mickey, the more he was sure that, were the positions reversed, Mickey would be beating down his door wanting to know what he could do to help.

He waited until seven o'clock before calling, in the hope that Mickey had managed to get another few hours of sleep. He knew the hope was unfounded when Mickey answered the phone on the first ring. "Kostmayer." Robert could hear the tiredness in his voice.

"Mickey, it's Robert."

"Hell. What do you want now, McCall?"

"I've been thinking, I couldn't sleep."

"You too, huh?"

"Listen to me, Mickey. I have been thinking about the things you said, and I can't let it go. We are friends, in the field we watched each other's back and helped each other. I can't ignore your troubles now."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that I am involved and either you let me help, or I'll go it alone."

"It's too dangerous, Robert. You don't know what you would be up against."

"After thirty years in this business, I know very well what I would be up against. I am your friend and that is the end of it." Silence greeted his statement. "Mickey, with or without you I am going to look into this case. I would prefer it to be with you, but I can work alone if need be. It's your choice."

Robert could hear the sigh of resignation even down the phone, "Okay, McCall, you win. What do you want me to do?"

"Get over here as soon as you can. I want to talk through our options and then make some plans."

"All right. I'll get there as soon as I can."

Mickey and Robert were just getting down to specifics when the outside door buzzer sounded. A wave of annoyance crossed over Robert's face as he pressed the intercom button. "Yes?" he asked.

"Hellooo, Robert." A voice called out. "It's me. Brahms. Ring the buzzer, let me in already."

"Brahms?" Robert muttered to himself, "I haven't seen him in years..."

"Hello? Hello? Robert? Did you ring it yet? I can't open it." Brahms was calling out, his voice cracking with frustration.

"Yes, of course. Come right in." He looked at Mickey and shrugged, "I don't know why he's here." Robert heard something heavy banging on the walls of the staircase as Brahms made his way up.

Brahms finally made it to Robert's floor. He was still short and broad but his hair had quite a bit of grey in it now. He was bundled up in a heavy overcoat, carrying two large suitcases.

"OY," he puffed for air, "If I didn't have a heart attack carrying these heavy bags, I'm not going to have one so fast." He smiled at Robert. "Hellooo, Robert." He dropped his burdens and put a hand out for Robert to shake.

"How have you been?" Robert shook Brahms hand warmly, "How long has...."

"I've done it." Brahms interrupted, "I've left Mildred."

"What?" Robert asked incredulously.

"I need a place to stay until my son, the big shot movie producer, gets back to LA from his vacation in Cancun. I can't get in touch with him until he gets back in a few days." He looked at Robert expectantly, " So, is your word good?"

"Excuse me?" Robert asked.

"You said, and I quote 'Brahms, anytime you need anything just ask.' That's what you said," Brahms looked up into Robert's face. "You did mean it didn't you?"

"Yes, yes of course my friend, I can get you a lovely place in which to reside until your son gets back."

"No, I won't take charity, McCall, you know that. I'll just stay here with you, until my Benny can send me a ticket to LA. Having a houseguest is not like giving charity. Giving a place to stay is what friends do." He waved his hand in the air, "You'll never even know I'm here."

He pushed past Robert into the livingroom. Then he spotted Mickey. He smiled broadly, and pointed a stubby finger at him," Hey, I remember you," he walked to Mickey and said, "Kostmayer, I remember. Hello again, I'm Brahms."

Mickey stood up, "Yeah, I remember." He looked at Robert, "Maybe I should go. We can discuss this later.."

"No," Robert and Brahms said at the same time.

"Look," Brahms said, "I know when to get lost. I'll just put my suitcases in the back room, I remember where it is, and rest for a while." He patted his chest and looked at Mickey, "That's why the Company pushed me out - bad ticker. I gotta go lie down now." He looked at Robert as he picked up the suitcases. "You won't even know I'm here," he whispered. "Thank you, Robert, I had nowhere else to go."

Mickey made a move to take the bags from his hands. "No," Brahms said, "I can handle it. But thanks," he looked into Mickey's eyes, "you were always a good kid, I remember now." He walked to the backroom.

Robert stared at Brahms until he had gone into the room and closed the door. "I can't understand that. He's been married to his wife for forty years. I'll call Mildred later and clear this up. I'll let him rest for a while." He turned to Mickey, "Now, where were we?"

It was nice here, standing deep in the stacks in the large library, surrounded by hundreds of books. He was thinking about that wonderful episode of the "Twilight Zone," where the guy, Burgess Meredith - yeah, that was the actor - broke his glasses just when he had all the time in the world to read after the bomb went off.

The bomb would have to destroy the world for him to have time to himself to read. But then, Control scoffed to himself, he knew that if the bomb ever did go off, it would be a result of a mistake of his and he probably wouldn't be in any mood to read. He closed a book with a puff of dust and sat down by a very dirty window.

The door to this section of the room opened slowly and Brahms stuck his head in. When he saw Control he grinned. "I got lost," he said, panting from exertion, "and no one even remembered that there were rooms up here." He walked through the door and set his book filled shopping bag down. He swabbed the sweat from his face and put his handkerchief away before he shook Control's hand. "Long time no see, Control."

"Good to see you, Brahms."

"Before we get started, I'd just like to thank you for thinking of me for this job," he smiled.

"Well, Brahms..."

"Wait. I'm not finished yet. I'm honored that you called me in when you needed a good job done."

"Really, Brahms, it's not necessary..." Control started.

"No," He put both of his hands up to stop Control from speaking. "Let me finish, Control. I want to thank you for remembering that I was the best you had," his voice had become loud and harsh. "You gonif! Stealing my job away from me, pushing me out..."

"Brahms, I didn't have a choice when I had you retire." Control was frowning, his lush eyebrows knitted in anger. " Look, we don't have all day,"

"We have enough time if I say we do, Mister." Brahms smiled broadly and happily, "You know, it's nice to be a civilian. I can talk back to you now."

"Whenever didn't you tell me what was on your mind?"

"This is true. I respected you too much not to be honest with you." Brahms pulled a chair out and sat by the other side of the window. "I've been working hard on our 'problem', doing research. The big bosses of 'Review' including the head if it, our Mr. Bryan, haven't been as goody two-shoes as they claim they are."

Control sat quietly, he didn't dare speak, it might set Brahms off on another tangent. Brahms was one of the old guard in the Company. He was also one of the oldest surviving field agents and one of the best. It had been a tough decision forcing him into retirement.

"I've found a lead on a secret bank account in Bryan's wife's grandmother's name. It just took in a big cash deposit. That doesn't make sense because the old lady's in a home in Oregon."

Control wiped his mouth and smiled behind his hand. "How in the world did you find that out?"

"I've got a mind like a steel trap." Brahms pointed his finger toward his forehead, "Nothing ever gets out once it gets inside here. Bryan complained to me once, years ago, about his mother-in-law. He said he hoped his wife turned out to be like her grandmother and not her mom. I remembered the grandmother's name and started from there. She's over ninety now."

Control shook his head, " I don't know how I get along without you." He pursed his lips and asked gently, "How's Mildred taking all of this?"

"Me doing you and McCall a favor?"

"Yes. As I recall," Control half smiled, "Mildred isn't the sort of person one would want as an enemy."

Brahms chortled, "That's putting it mildly. Like she could ever stay angry at you. I swear, she had a crush on you," Brahms frowned in thought. "You know, I think she's still got a soft spot for you. Naw," He leaned forward and tapped Control on the hand, "I'll tell you, she's only too happy to get me out of the house. And now she gets to help McCall too. She's in heaven." Brahms wagged his finger at Control, "I warn you, she's gonna invite you two over for dinner when this is all finished. She's got a couple of women for you both to meet." He suddenly grinned mischievously, "And I will enjoy every minute of your squirming."

Control shifted in his chair, "Brahms, what about the other members of 'Review'? Anything on anyone else?"

"I've got some leads, but we are still gonna have to find if the money is dirty and how it's connected to 'Review'."

Control leaned back, "It's dirty all right. I can smell it. I just need to find that one crack in their security, no matter how small." He smiled, "And there always is a crack, isn't there?"

Brahms raised his brows, "And we are just the men to find that crack."

"I hope so, for Robert's and for Kostmayer's sakes." He squinted at Brahms, "and if we're found out, for our sakes as well."

"Understood." Brahms sighed, "Business as usual, in this game."

Mickey quickly looked around The Bethesda Fountain. At three in the afternoon, on a warm winter's day, the sun was pale yellow in a sky that held a few wisps of cloud. People were relaxing and talking all around the area. It was never deserted and Mickey was once more overcome with anger and disgust for the incompetence of his so called boss.

"Mickey!" He turned around at the sound of his name being called out in a cheery voice. Damn. There was Jason, sitting surrounded by two girls, who looked like they were in their very early twenties. Jason grinned at Mickey and beckoned him over. Mickey looked around through low hooded eyes and ambled towards Jason.

Jason was eating a thick, hot pretzel, as were the two girls. "That's my pal," he said. Jason beamed at him and licked the salt from his fingers. "His name is Mickey. Hi Mickey," Jason smiled. "This is Amber," he pointed to the brunette, "and this is..."

"I don't give a rat's ass who she is, get rid of them." Mickey grumbled in his most ominous voice.

The two girls, though stupid enough to spend time with Jason, were able to recognize danger when they felt it; and Mickey was giving off enough menacing vibrations to scare most living creatures.

Jason frowned as the girls got up and scurried away. "Bye ladies." he called after them. He looked up at Mickey, "I had those two eating out of my hand. We could have had a good time with both of them, but you scared them off." Jason shook his head dramatically, "Now that wasn't nice, Mickey old friend."

"Cut the garbage," Mickey sneered, "You called me here for an update on my mission, not to play with you and a couple of teeny boppers. Let me report and go. It's too damn crowded here for my taste."

Jason sighed and tossed the remainder of his pretzel down on the pavement. He brushed his hands off and indicated that Mickey sit next to him. "You're not doing yourself any good, Mickey-boy. You're gonna need friends in the Company. A man needs contacts to ever get ahead."

Mickey sat down and made a point of not looking directly at Jason. "I'm working," Mickey spat out. "I'm not here to Dear Abby with you."

Jason sighed. "Fine." His voice became hard. "Report. Did McCall take the bait?"

"Yes, McCall believes everything I've told him. He believes every stinking lie I've fed him and he is desperately trying to help me to solve 'my problem'." Mickey felt angrier by the second. Bile seemed to be rising in his chest and he knew that he'd better find a way to burn off some of this tension or he would be getting drunk and picking fights in some bar tonight.

Jason smiled. "Good work, Kostmayer. You might not realize it, but McCall is still a source of worry within the Company." He smirked, "I don't see it though, myself. Old Granddad like that, but that's the sorry fact. He knows too much." Jason stood up. "You know, Kostmayer, maybe you should see a doctor. You're not looking very well." Jason hesitated, then he chuckled, "Maybe you could get some sleeping pills or something." He turned his back and walked away.

Mickey took a deep breath, he stared at Jason's retreating figure. "Sonofa..." The company had bugged his apartment too!

Mickey got up and started to jog across the park. The whole damn world was upside down, and he honestly didn't know if he had the heart to finish what he had started.

Still smarting from his meeting with Jason, Mickey pounded loudly on the apartment door. McCall stood back out of the way to let him in and Mickey spotted the concerned look on Robert's face. He hated this assignment. He was giving serious consideration to telling McCall the truth. If it meant the two of them alone against the Company, then so be it. This sort of crap wasn't the reason he had joined.

Mickey stalked over to the refrigerator. He pulled a bottle of beer out and twisted off the cap. He drank deeply and before he came to where Robert had sat down, he had finished the first bottle and was opening a second. "Sorry, did you want one of these?" He waved the bottle about and saw Robert cringe at the thought of spilled beer all over the expensive rug.

"No, not just now. I'd like to talk to you though, Mickey."

"What is it?"

"I've been forced into thinking about family and friends. I wanted you to know that I am going to do my damnedest to get your family out of Iraq. I don't want to reveal secrets pertinent to national security, but I am going to help you."

Shit! He was going to do it. Mickey cursed himself for being far too convincing. He didn't want McCall to agree to hand over the file. Remembering the bugs in the apartment, Mickey knew he couldn't tell Robert the truth.

Not noticing Mickey's introspection, Robert continued. "I know I made a lot of mistakes in my marriage, Mickey. I don't think Kay ever really understood my motivation for what I did. On balance though perhaps I didn't explain it very well either. Have you given any thought to what you are going to do when Naima gets to this country? Do you intend to get married?"

"I don't know anything, Robert. I haven't thought it through yet, I just need to get her to safety and I am going to do that anyway I can."

"You can count on me. You know that don't you?" Robert's eyes searched Mickey's face, and Mickey worked hard not to let anything be read on it.

"Yes I do." Okay that was it. Mickey couldn't do this anymore. He couldn't sit here and let his best friend, a man who was closer to him than any other, commit suicide. He was going to tell him the truth and damn the consequences. Quickly, trying to think up an excuse to get them out of the apartment, he got to his feet. "I need to check out something, I want to see if I can get a friend of mine to hack into the Company computers, and copy the file that way. Will you come with me?"

"Of course, I'll get my coat and car keys."

Great, now I just have to persuade him to leave the car at home, he doesn't know that's bugged too.

Outside they were lucky and a cab appeared almost at once. Mickey stuck out his hand and the driver pulled over. "Let's take a cab this time, McCall."

"But why?"

"I'll explain when we get there. Just trust me, it's better this way."

Looking puzzled, Robert got into the cab and after a quick scan of the street Mickey followed.

The journey to the World Trade Center was made in almost total silence, each man occupied with his own thoughts. Mickey had decided to tell McCall everything. It was completely alien to his character to play these games on Robert.

Mickey paid the cab driver and motioned for Robert to follow him. He led Robert across the plaza to the fountain. He was sure that it would be impossible for the Company to overhear anything they might say there.

Mickey descended the two steps to the bench around the fountain and sat down, his back to the water. Robert sat beside him, still looking puzzled as to why they were here. There were lots of people around the fountain, enjoying the view of the Trade Center.

Mickey sat and stared at his feet for a moment, he didn't know which he was dreading more, telling Robert he had lied to him or the certainty of losing his friendship. Mickey wouldn't blame Robert for cutting him off; he had betrayed his trust.

"I've got something important to tell you, McCall, and you won't like it." Mickey spoke quietly, knowing their voices wouldn't be overheard because of the din around them.

"What is it?"

Taking a deep breath Mickey began to explain. "I'm sorry, Robert, but I've been lying to you for the past two days."

"I don't understand, Mickey. Why would you lie to me?" Robert looked confused and Mickey felt like the lowest form of life.

He went on miserably, "I don't have a lover in prison in Iraq. The whole scheme was cooked up to test your loyalty to the Company."

"A test? But why?"

"By 'Review'. They are still worried that you are outside the Company and still healthy. They wanted to test you, to find out if you would put our friendship before your oath of allegiance to the Company."

"Our friendship? Are you telling me you went along with them?" Mickey could see the beginning of another McCall outburst and he tried to head him off. The last thing they needed was a public confrontation.

"I'm sorry, Robert, I had no choice." Mickey's heart sank, this was it. He'd be lucky if McCall even looked at him again, let alone talked to him.

"Don't give me that - you always have a choice." Robert snapped.

"If I hadn't gone along they would have terminated you straight away. Bryan is the head of this 'Review', but the particulars of this test were Jason's idea. He told me I would have to kill you myself if I didn't help them test your loyalty."

"Alright, Mickey, I'll concede that this time you didn't have a choice. But why are you telling me this now?"

Mickey stood up abruptly and paced away from Robert, the tension in the air was making him restless. He returned and put his foot up on the bench beside Robert, and bent down until they were face to face. "I couldn't go through with it. I hated myself for lying and I hated myself for allowing them to turn me into a performing seal. If that is the way they are going to do business in future - I am going to quit the Company."

Mickey straightened up again and looked around, he was certain they hadn't been followed and that they weren't being overheard, but he had not lived this long by taking chances.

"You know what happens if you quit. They will come after you."

"Probably, but I couldn't live with myself if I went through with their plan."

"Hmm, I might have know Jason would have his mucky paws in this morass."

"He told me he had bugged my apartment so they don't trust me either. I can't work for people like that. I will go up against the Company if necessary, if they are going to sink to such depths."

Robert turned his face away from Mickey and stayed that way for a long time. Mickey felt as if his oldest and closest friend had dismissed him. He started to walk away. "Just a minute," Mickey could almost see the wheels in Robert's head grinding away when he saw his face again. "I might have an idea how we can turn the tables on our friends in 'Review'. It will be risky, and if we fail it may cost us our lives."

"I don't care. I've come to realize that honor is important. If I can't live with myself, there isn't much point is there?"

Robert stood then and putting an arm across Mickey's shoulder he guided him back to the curb. "Good lad, I think you made the right decision. Let's go back to my place, I need to check a few things and we need to talk to Brahms."

Mickey smiled with relief, "There's just one thing, McCall."

"What's that, Mickey?"

"Don't call me lad." They both smiled, at ease with each other once more.

They had gone to the apartment and invited Brahms to dinner. The invitation had been gladly accepted.

At seven in the evening, the family style, Italian restaurant was almost full and the tables surrounding them were filled with loud talkers. No one was paying any attention to them at all. Brahms was sitting opposite Robert and Mickey. After their food was served, Robert had told Brahms about the Company's idea of a fair test of his loyalty.

Brahms shook his head sadly over his plate. He looked at Mickey. "So against strict orders, upon pain of death, you still told Robert the truth? Loyalty and friendship is as important to you as your life, Kostmayer?"

Mickey looked down, his face was impassive, unreadable, "I never thought of it like that, but yeah, I guess it is."

"I knew I liked you, kid." Brahms then looked at Robert, "So you're going up against the Company, and you want me to help you, Robert?"

With a small smile playing his lips Robert said, "I would like to use your expertise, Brahms. I would have you as a consultant. I don't want to put you at risk."

"I seem to remember my putting you at risk a number of times over the years."

Robert chortled, "I also seem to remember having this conversation with you before, my friend."

"When you first set up shop as 'The Equalizer'." Brahms nibbled on a breadstick, "How stupid are those guys in 'Review' anyway?"

"Plenty stupid, " Mickey muttered.

"Hummm..." Brahms finished the breadstick, "Well, Robert," he sat back in his seat, putting both of his hands on the table, "I suppose it's time that I confess too."

Mickey and Robert stared at Brahms. "I didn't leave Mildred. I couldn't have. She'd kill me if I ever tried. No boys, the Big Cheese sent me in to watch you for him."

Robert's face reflected his anger. "He what?"

"What? I don't follow." Mickey said.

"He called upon you to spy on me?" Robert's hands clenched onto fists. "the effrontery of that man!" Robert stopped speaking. He began to think, "Was it Control who ordered the bugs planted in my apartment?"

"You knew about those?" Mickey blurted out.

"I still sweep for bugs once a week Mickey, I rather think I will never become as complacent as to stop doing that. I found them a few days ago."

"Jason," Brahms said. "He was the one who ordered all the bugs, including the ones on your phone."

"Idiot!" Robert spat.

"Control called me in so he could know how you were holding up. You know 'Review' ordered him to stay away from you. I'm also doing a little snooping around for him. I've found a few interesting items on our Mister Bryan, the head of 'Review'. He's dirty. He's been taking money from an unknown source. I've found that a few other 'Review' members have also received a big cash windfall. But so far, I can't find who gave it to them or what it might mean."

Robert sat still for a moment. "Does Control think that the payments to 'Review' members are directly connected to me? Here and now?"

'It's a good guess," Mickey spoke up, "why else would 'Review' even think of you now? You haven't done anything to go against the Company for a while. Either it's personal or it's someone with a long memory."

"Or both," Robert said, "let's finish the meal. By then I think we three can put together a response to their test that will teach them a damn good lesson. Are you willing to help put 'Review' through a test of its own Brahms?"

"I signed up to do just that, Robert. What do you have in mind?"

Robert picked up his fork and tasted his dinner. He smiled, "And, I would like for this to be just between us three." He chuckled evilly, "Control didn't inform me about this test. He simply took it upon himself to try and influence its outcome. I would like him to taste what it is like not to be in control - if only for a while. Would you be willing to put Control through a few paces of his own, Brahms? Mickey?"

Mickey smiled crookedly. The look of darkness that had been evident on his face for the past few days was almost completely gone. He picked up his fork and loaded it with food. "My pleasure, McCall." He stuffed his mouth and chewed happily.

"Not tell Control?" Brahms sighed, "Well, I guess he can't touch my pension," he shrugged, "If we close 'Review' down, I guess he can't complain, I would have fulfilled my mission. Sounds like fun, McCall. What are going to do?"

"I am going to teach all involved, that Robert McCall does not play at tests of any kind - given by anybody." He picked up his small glass of red wine and the two other men did likewise. They touched their glasses together in a silent toast to the endeavor.

Robert stood in front of his door in the hallway and winked at the other two men. He turned the key in the lock and swept into the room.

"I have a plan and it will bloody well work out, I vow to that."

"But, Robert," Brahms said stiltedly, as he took off his coat, "how might I be of help to you?"

Robert smiled and patted Brahms on the back, "Calm down," he said gently, "I have an idea."

Mickey sat on the couch. "Thanks for the meal, Robert, but I still want to get to my friend. He still might be in and I want to see if he can get a copy of the file I need."

"Forget that file, Mickey. You are no traitor - just as I am no traitor. We are, we three - men of action. Men who cut our eye-teeth on danger and intrigue."

Brahms tried to suppress a chuckle and motioned with his hand for Robert to tone it down. Robert raised his eyebrows in a question and then he shrugged and sighed.

"What I mean, Mickey, is that we have over eighty years of experience between the three of us. We have enough experience and contacts to be able to use an option that very few other people in the world have. We can mount a raid on Abu Ghraib Prison, west of Baghdad. Brahms has been there and still has a few usable contacts - as I have. Mickey, you have remained in contact with Major Shaharabany, haven't you?"

"But he's retired from the military, Robert." Mickey said, now wrapped up in McCall's charade.

"That's why I mentioned him." Robert said. "He was damn good as a commando and I think that a retired man traveling would appear less suspect. I want you to get in touch with him. Get him on a plane to Paris by tomorrow morning, and don't tell him much. We will fill him in when we get there. I'll start contacting some people who have knowledge that will help us get in and out of Iraq neatly. Brahms, put together a report on Abu Ghraib. I want your memories of it and I want the latest blueprints."

Robert rubbed his hands together. "We will get your Naima and unborn child out to safety, Mickey, never doubt that. Once she is here, I shall arrange for her papers. It will be my wedding gift to you."

"But, Robert," Mickey sounded very sincere, "I can't ask you to risk your life. It won't be easy getting her out of there."

"I know it won't be easy, and it isn't something I would suggest lightly. I have some good men in mind to help us and I already have an idea of how to blame the whole debacle on the French government. If I can get the people I need to help us, I estimate our chance of success to be around ninety percent."

"That sure?" Mickey asked.

"Mickey, Mickey, have you ever known me to overestimate mission success?"

"I haven't." Brahms said.

"Me neither." Mickey agreed.

"If all goes as planned, you shall have your family safely here by next week." Robert looked at his watch, "I suggest we all get down to work. I suspect that we shall be very busy for the next couple of hours."

Jason was hurrying out of the door when he collided with Control. "Why don't you watch where you're going?" Jason shouted rudely.

Control stood in front of Jason and put his right arm up to lean against the doorframe. Since he was about six inches taller than Jason, he seemed to tower over him. Jason tried to look casual as Control leaned his body closer to him.

"Tell me what's going on, Jason." Control looked around the hallway, "No one is saying a word and everyone, including you, seems to be very jumpy."

Jason looked up at Control. He tried to act as if he was in control of the situation, "Out of the loop are you, Control?"

Control set his hawk-like gaze on Jason who suddenly started to look like a mouse cornered by a very angry cat. With some difficulty, Jason spread a tight smile on his face. "I suppose you'll find out sooner or later. 'Review' is very unhappy with your old pal McCall."

Control looked away and took a deep breath, he found he was actually physically repulsed by Jason. "And? Is that news?" Control again set his icy eyes onto Jason's watery ones.

"McCall is preparing a commando raid on the prison in Iraq where we said the woman is being held." Jason made a noise somewhere between a hiccup and a laugh. "And 'Review' is nervous because it looks like he just might be able to pull it off." He twisted his way out from under Control's arm. "I've got calls to make. I'm too busy to bring you up to speed on your job now."

Control grabbed Jason by the back of his sweater and easily lifted him into a corner of the hallway. He slammed him, none too gently, against the wall. The Company personnel passing around them in the hallway made a point of averting their eyes. None of them wanted to be in a position to see anything that might happen between two high ranking members of the Company.

"What is Bryan doing about this problem?" Control had bent down and was staring into Jason's face.

"He's calling a special meeting of 'Review'," Jason tried to shake Control off him but it was an iron grip that held his sweater, "look, I've got calls to make to get the members here and I've got to get in touch with Kostmayer." He tried to look at his watch, "I've got a call coming in from Franklyn Fitzgerald and I'm gonna miss it if you don't let me go." His voice had become a whine.

Control let Jason go, and made a point of smoothing the wool of his sweater.

"Why is Frankie Fitzgerald calling you? And how? He's doing ten to twenty-five in Sing Sing."

Jason looked confused, "He's been doing some sort of job for the Company. He's been calling Bryan for months now." Jason bit his lower lip in an imitation of distress for Control. "No, you must be having an attack of Alzheimer's old man. He's involved with 'Review' in some way."

Abruptly Control turned away from Jason and walked to his office and locked the door.

By four, Brahms was already in a chair in the small auditorium. He heard Control walk in and rose to greet him. "It's been such a long time since I've been to a concert here." He offered his hand to Control to shake. "I think it was a recital by my friend Casollas, about ten years ago. He wanted to say he played Carnegie Hall, but he just made it as far as the recital hall."

Control had already sat down, his brows were knitted in anger. "I can only stay a moment. All hell is breaking loose at Headquarters. Why didn't you report to me immediately when you found out Robert was putting together a commando raid on Iraq?"

"I tried. I just found out after midnight, last night. Robert wouldn't let me go out by myself so late and I had to wait until I was able to get you." Brahms seemed to be weighing each word, "Control, maybe I should tell him what's really going on? This is getting out of hand. Robert is one of the few men alive who could actually pull off a raid on Abu Ghraib prison. You know I had to help him set it up. I know that place inside out."

Control sat looking at his hands. He picked at his nails. "No, don't say a word to him. I'll handle it all myself. I've got a lead on who's behind this whole 'test.' Do you remember Fitzgerald, the munitions manufacturer?"

"Frankie boy?" Brahms snorted, "That multimillionaire munitions manufacturer? What's he got to do with this?"

"I found out that he has been in touch with Bryan and different members of 'Review' for a couple of months."

"Yeah? So that's what he does, he talks people in the Company into buying his guns and rockets. His factory makes a nice grenade and a fine hand-held missile launcher."

"Well, he doesn't run his company anymore. Hasn't for three years, and won't for the next ten - at least. Robert, or should I say 'The Equalizer' helped put him away for murdering his mistress."

Brahms raised his eyebrows in surprise. "And he's been in contact with members of 'Review'? That must be where all the money has come from that has lined their pockets!"

Control looked directly at Brahms, "I can work on 'Review' to stop their testing of Robert. The threat of an enormous international incident if Robert actually breaks into an Iraqi prison, will frighten them into calling a halt to the 'test'."

He got up quickly and paced up and down the aisle, "This has blown up in their faces, and scattered manure all over everything. It's worse than just a bunch of incompetents playing at intrigue." He shoved both of his hands deep into his trouser pockets and shook his head sadly, "Now it's become a matter of Company personnel taking bribes and using Company agents and resources to carry out a personal vendetta." He took a deep breath, "Fitzgerald must be the one behind this all. He has the motive and he has the means."

Brahms went to Control and peered up at him, "Let me tell Robert the truth. He will stop the commando raid and we can all take on 'Review' together."

"NO!" Control ordered. "The truth has very little to do with my job, you know that, Brahms. I can't deal in sharing truths now. I need to stop this whole fiasco from taking the Company down the drain." Control undid his bow tie and opened the top two buttons of his shirt. "Uncovering inside corruption is never done outright; I'll need to find a way to root out those corrupt members of 'Review' quietly. I can't trust Robert to keep all of this under wraps. He would want it all to be aired and the rotten people ousted as a warning to all. I'm interested in damage control now. I am not interested in truth."

"Not interested in the truth here, huh?" Brahms made a point of catching Control's eye, "I'll remind you that you said that, Control."

Control half sat on the arm of a seat, "I'll arrange a meeting of 'Review'. We will need to defuse Robert before everything gets to the critical state. A raid in Iraq!" Control smiled, "He certainly scared the beejesus out of those dolts. I have to hand it to him, Robert is a resourceful man."

He was quiet for a moment as he concentrated, "Kostmayer will have to tell Robert that he has received proof that the woman is dead. That way Robert will call it all off. Then I will force the fact that Robert McCall has been found to be a zero security risk to be read into the official record. That will tie the problem up nicely." He looked to Brahms, "Do you think that you can dig up enough background on these bribes to 'Review' so that I could blackmail them into obeying my orders?"

"I will do my best, Control, although I can't guarantee anything, it's a big job."

Control visibly slumped. "I'm getting too old to juggle so many plates at once. How the hell did everything come to a head so quickly? I thought I had more time to work everything out." He looked very tired.

Brahms patted Control on the back. "Maybe you should re-evaluate your priorities. Some things might be more important than the job, old man."

Control suddenly stood erect, and began to walk toward the exit. "I really don't know what you mean," he muttered over his shoulder at Brahms.

"More's the pity." Brahms sighed.

Two days later

Mickey paced outside the conference room and manfully tried to smother a wicked grin. He was looking forward to showing the idiots on the 'Review' committee that they shouldn't have tried to mess with Robert McCall.

He was especially looking forward to putting Jason on a plane to somewhere hot and dusty - Mickey's choice would be Beirut - Jason would feel right at home there. He hadn't made any compromise either in his choice of clothes. The Company used him because he was good and because sometimes his methods were unorthodox, so they could put up with his unorthodox dress as well. Instead of the expected suit and tie, Mickey was wearing a white shirt and black jeans with a relatively new black jacket. His gun fit snugly into the shoulder holster under the jacket.

He tapped the microphone taped to his chest and Robert's reply came loud and clear through the miniature ear-piece in his left ear. The committee had kept him waiting for thirty minutes now and Mickey was seriously considering whether he should go to the cafeteria and get a cup of coffee. He knew keeping him waiting was deliberate; they were trying to intimidate him.

One of the double doors to the big conference room opened and an unremarkable man in a dark suit looked out and waved at him. Mickey looked back at the man and didn't move. He waved again, "You want me?" Mickey asked.

"Yes, of course. Who else would I be waving at?"

Mickey closed the gap between them and in a dark and dangerous voice he said, "I asked because I was wondering if you understood how rude it is to wave at people like that. You could have called me by name. In fact, it would be kinda nice to hear you call me Mr. Kostmayer. You wouldn't mind, would you?" Mickey showed the hapless functionary his best predatory smile and the man took an involuntary step backwards.

"Of course not, Mr. Kostmayer. Would you be so kind as to follow me please. The committee is waiting to speak to you."

"No problem, " Mickey replied as he entered the room.

The first thing Mickey saw was a large wooden table where six men in suits were seated. Control and Jason sat facing him as he came through the door. The man sent to summon him hurried past and sat at the end of the table. Obviously a secretary, Mickey thought. There was nowhere for him to sit so Mickey stood comfortably at ease and waited.

After fifteen minutes of questions Mickey was feeling great. He alone knew what was going to happen. And he couldn't wait to see the look on everyone's face when McCall walked in with the evidence that they were crooked. They were so worried, that McCall would stir up an international incident, with the French, with his proposed commando raid, that it was pathetic. Mickey answered their questions easily, never offering more information than necessary.

Overhearing McCall's comments via the bugs in his apartment about not betraying his country had forced the committee to admit that McCall wasn't going to be a threat to national security. Control had brought the committee to a standstill until that fact had been read into the permanent official record of the meeting.

Mickey heard a noise outside the door and he turned as McCall and Brahms came into the room. With a grin that was in danger of splitting his face, Mickey said, "If you have any more questions about this whole thing then I guess you should ask Robert McCall himself."

More than one of the committee members rose in their chairs when the name McCall was mentioned. Supremely confident of his position, Bryan stayed seated. Mickey saw the look of hatred that Bryan directed towards him. He saw something else too, just for a second - fear! Yes! Bryan was worried. Mickey glanced over at Control and as he had expected his boss' face could have been carved from stone. Not a muscle moved in that granite visage.

Robert broke into Mickey's thoughts, "Yes, gentlemen, I would be only too pleased to answer your questions. Perhaps more to the point though, is I feel you should answer some of mine."

"Don't be ridiculous - we are not answerable to you, McCall." Bryan spoke harshly.

"Maybe not to me personally - but to me as a tax payer you are. At the end of the day I pay your salary and if you choose not to listen to what I have to say, I'm sure the press would have a field day with the revelations I would share with them."

Control interjected, "I'm sure it won't come to that. Ask your questions and let us all hear the answers." Mickey guessed that, as usual, Control had already deduced what Robert was going to do.

Looking around carefully, Mickey could see that all the attention was focused on McCall. He moved to a better position to cover the room. Moving slowly and casually and he noted that Brahms was doing something similar on the other side of the room. Field agents, he grinned to himself, you never lose the instincts.

Robert spoke clearly and carefully, wanting everything he said to go down in the record of this meeting. He didn't want to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. He also wanted to safeguard Mickey, who had taken a big risk telling Robert everything, once more demonstrating his loyalty and courage. Having a record of this meeting was the only way to accomplish both.

"I would like to tell you of some things I have discovered in the past few days." He pointed at Bryan, "Your esteemed leader, Mitchell Bryan, has some very strange friends. He has been in frequent contact with Franklyn Fitzgerald. As most of you are aware Fitzgerald is spending at least the next ten years as a guest of the government in Sing Sing prison. What you might not know is that I supplied the evidence that put Fitzgerald in prison for the murder of his mistress. He had to give up his very profitable business and he has long threatened revenge. It seems that this committee has been his means of achieving that revenge."

Robert saw that four of the committee members, including Bryan, had gone very pale, while the others were reacting with outrage. To his surprise, Jason wasn't among those looking guilty. Control's face was still a mask, giving nothing away. "I have also discovered that there have been a number of very large deposits in certain bank accounts held in the Cayman Islands for a number of you. I can trace those payments back to Fitzgerald." Robert thought for a moment, "I think that pretty much sums it up. Can you offer an explanation for any of this, Mr. Bryan?"

Bryan - ever the mystery man, the man who disappears into the shadows after setting up difficult situations - tried to whip up some enraged indignation. "Don't be ridiculous, McCall, I don't have to explain myself to you."

"No, you don't," interrupted Control. "But you do need to offer an explanation to the Director in Washington. I feel sure he will be waiting for that with bated breath."

Bryan swallowed his next comment, he was beaten and he knew it. Robert made a small hand signal to Mickey, sure it wasn't necessary but nevertheless, warning him to be ready. Cornering a corrupt boss was more dangerous than cornering a mad dog.

"You are talking unsubstantiated nonsense, McCall. You have no real proof of any misconduct. We in 'Review' stand on our exemplary record of service to the Company and to our country. We stand as one. "

"That is the main difference between you desk jockeys and the men in the field, Bryan. In the field you learn to survive, very quickly. You also learn who to trust and who your friends are. Brahms, Kostmayer and I have shed blood across every continent for the Company separately, and together. It is a dubious conjecture to think that the members of 'Review', who accepted that dirty money, will remain true to you. I doubt any one of them would accept a stint in prison rather than make a deal to escape the punishment that, I guarantee, is coming."

Control stood abruptly, he looked at Mickey, "Will you get some security up here now? Our friends need to answer some more questions."

"Sure." Mickey crossed to the door and left the room. He was back almost immediately, closely followed by five security guards. The guilty parties were ushered out of the room and Control dismissed the remaining members with a wave of his hand. "I'll need to speak to you later, wait in your offices."

Control sat down again and looked at Mickey, "I'm sorry you had to go through this, Mickey, but I have to admit you were right. No one else could have done a better job."

"I know that but it doesn't mean I liked it." Mickey spat. He turned pointedly away from his boss and looked at Robert, "I'll see you later? If you're still talking to me that is."

"Of course, Mickey. We can have dinner at Pete's, say seven-thirty? We can really celebrate your birthday this time."

"Yeah, that'll be good. Later, McCall. Be seeing you around Brahms."

"Tell you what, Mickey," Brahms took another quick look at the faces of Control and Robert, "I'll walk out with you. I think these two have things to discuss."

Control glared at Brahms, "Not so fast, I want to talk to you. Obviously you didn't report to me, everything that was going on."

Brahms grinned, "Okay we'll talk. Be at my house tomorrow night at seven. Mildred will want to talk to you too." He motioned Mickey toward the door and whispered in his ear, "Heaven help him."

 

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