Robert stopped the Jag outside the apartment building. Something felt very wrong. With his sense of dread increasing he forced himself across the snowy sidewalk, inside the building and up the stairs.
Heart pounding, he reached the top of the second flight of steps. The voice in his head was telling him that Mickey was the best and could handle anything, when he heard raised voices from down the hallway. Increasing his speed he was ten yards from apartment 204 when he heard a shot ring out. Damn! Before the echoes died away a woman began screaming.
"Mickey!" He heard himself bellow though he hadn't intended to give away his presence. Some instinct told him that it was much too late for secrecy. A second shot sounded as he reached the doorway.
Inside the room it was carnage. Mickey was kneeling in front of the doorway, blood dripping from between the fingers he held pressed against his chest. His automatic was still in his other hand. Before Robert could reach him, he muttered, "Friendly fire, McCall," and collapsed onto the floor in an untidy heap. Robert saw blood pooling under Mickey's body.
On the other side of the doorway his client, Sara Noble was kneeling beside her estranged husband sobbing hysterically, a gun clenched in her hand. Lester Noble was lying on his back and from the wound in his chest right over his heart, Robert knew he wasn't going to get up again. His professionalism kicked in, he snatched the gun out of Sara's hand and hurried over to dial the Company’s Emergency Situation Number.
"What on earth happened here?" he called out to the weeping woman.
"He killed him! The bastard!"
"What?" Robert didn’t try to hide his confusion.
He heard the operator pick up. "Problem?"
"Critical. Agent down, off job, call locals, apartment 204," He hung up.
His client was still crying over her deceased husband. "You mean he shot Mickey?" He couldn't believe it would be that easy to take down Kostmayer.
Sara had now lost all control, her face was smeared with make up and spittle dripped from her lips. She answered savagely, "No! That bastard there," she pointed at Mickey, "he killed my Lester."
Numb, Robert McCall stood outside the ER cubicle while the doctors inside worked frenetically on his friend.
"If only I had returned sooner." He spoke aloud but there was no one to hear his words of regret. Despite the glass partition between him and the room where the doctors were fighting for Mickey's life, he could still hear the frantic instructions and orders. Sickened by the sounds that told him Mickey was slipping away, he turned aside, looking for somewhere to hide.
Not knowing what else to do he found a phone and called Alice Shepherd. He needed to know if she had learned anything while questioning Sara Noble.
"Robert! How's Mickey?"
"Not good." He swallowed hard to keep his voice level. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, he needed to know what had happened, how a simple case had gone so wrong. "What can you tell me, Alice? Has Sara Noble said anything?"
He heard Alice sigh, "She's told me everything. In fact I had trouble stopping her talking. She's admitted that she shot Mickey."
"Why? He was trying to protect her."
"I did some checking over at the sixteenth precinct, I spoke to a Detective Bishop and she told me all about Sara Noble. The woman is a nutcase, she and Lester have been fighting for the past five years and she calls the cops regularly. She charges him with harassment at least once every three months and the charges are dropped before we get to court. I guess you could say they have a mutually abusive relationship."
"Why did she call me?"
"She saw your ad and because the sixteenth had become wise to her, she needed someone else to plead to for help. So she turned her attention to you. She’s crazy enough to believe that 'the odds are against her'."
"Why did Lester arrive carrying a weapon? And how did he know where to find her?"
He heard Alice snort at the other end of the phone, "That woman’s so screwed up that she called him. She waited until Mickey was busy, snuck to the phone and told her ex where to find her. She even told him that there was an armed man keeping her there against her will!"
"Yep. The problem was that Mickey was too good. She wanted Lester to kill him and rescue her under some delusion that it would be romantic. Lester waited in the hallway until Sara let him into the apartment when Mickey was in the bathroom. Mickey reacted more quickly than they expected when he saw Lester grappling with her. The husband raised his gun, and, because there were no other options, Mickey fired. When he went over to check on his target, he didn't see Sara pick up the gun. Before he could defend himself she shot him."
Robert suddenly remembered Mickey's last words before he passed out, 'friendly fire'.
"Thank you, Alice."
"Don't worry, Robert, she’ll do time for shooting Mickey and I’m sure we can do something to tie in the death of her husband. She was responsible for that too."
"Some Christmas huh? You'll let me know how Mickey is?"
"Of course." Robert just wanted to get off the phone to find out Mickey's condition but his muscles were like lead. The feeling that it was all his fault weighed on him. If only he'd realized that the woman had been obsessed about her ex, Mickey would be all right. He'd overlooked the obvious… And if the worst happened he didn’t think he would ever forgive himself…
By the time Robert returned to Mickey’s ER cubicle he had already been taken away. He rushed to the nurse’s station.
"The man in that room, where is he?" Robert barked at the woman at the desk, afraid of the response.
Behind the Christmas cards and sparkling tinsel the nurse looked taken aback at the authority in his voice. "He’s in surgery now. He’s still critical and as far as we know his condition’s unchanged, sir. We won’t know anything for a while until the doctors tell us."
In surgery? All right. There was nothing to do now but wait.
Turning away from the sympathetic face of the nurse and unable to rest, he started to prowl the corridors of the hospital.
His wandering brought him to the entrance of the hospital chapel and, seeking some sort of refuge, he opened the door. Inside it was dimly lit, with votive candles supplying some extra illumination. The solace of the place washed over his jagged nerves. He stumbled to the nearest pew and fell onto the wooden seat.
He wanted to pray – but how could he? He who had done so many terrible things. He who was just beginning to seek redemption for past sins. Could he dare to ask God for help? Even for someone else?
He let his eyes close for a moment but he could still see the flickering of the candlelight behind his lids and it mesmerized him. Using the light as a focus and letting himself drift, he thought of Mickey and offered up a plea that he would pull through. Robert had too few friends to lose even one.
He had lost track of time when he sensed someone sitting down nearby. Lost in his quiet contemplation, it took some time for him to open his eyes and look at the other man. When he did, he was struck dumb.
Mickey Kostmayer was sitting there, his legs stretched out in front of him, slouched against the wooden back of the pew. He was looking around him with interest.
"Mickey? What are you doing here? You were hurt." A thought struck him, "Oh God, this doesn’t mean…?"
Mickey turned to face him and Robert could see that the shirt, which had been torn and soaked through with blood, was now intact and unstained.
"No." He smiled, and the sight of the familiar grin made Robert's heart ache, "At least not yet."
"Will you pull through?" Robert took a mental step back. How could he carry on a conversation with his dying friend and make it all sound so commonplace? "Do you know if you’ll be all right?"
Mickey appeared to think for a moment. "I don't know." He laughed, appearing unconcerned, "Maybe it's like the Company, they don't tell you unless you need to know."
Robert knew he should try to snap out of whatever trance he seemed to have fallen into, but he wanted to be able to see and talk to Mickey. He needed to tell him some important things – just in case. But where to begin?
"How am I able to see you?"
Mickey shook his head and the gesture was so normal that Robert wanted to pinch himself. How could this be happening?
"Beats me, McCall."
"So why are you here?"
Mickey frowned for a moment, "I think I'm supposed to tell you something. But then you would have some idea about that, having been this way yourself, before. Remember Angola."
Robert recalled too much about the events in Angola and had chosen to push them to the back of his mind long ago. He had never told a living soul what he had seen during the fifteen minutes when he had no pulse. It occurred to him now that perhaps he wouldn't ever need to tell Mickey anything about it, because, if he made it, his friend would have the same mental scars himself.
"Perhaps I do have some valid experience of the time between life and death." He took a breath to calm himself, "But now, while I have the chance, I want to tell you how much I have valued our friendship, Mickey. You have been the most loyal companion I could have wished for. We have been friends for a long time and I don't want to lose you."
"I know, McCall." Mickey looked thoughtful. "But I can tell you that it won't be the first time, or the last that we’ve taken leave of each other."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"That one of us has usually gone on ahead. Think, McCall. Remember. You can if you try. You need to work some of this out for yourself."
Robert sat for a moment trying to understand what his friend was saying. Mickey was right, it did seem somehow familiar, but he could swear that he had never been into this chapel before.
Then a glimpse of a distant memory stirred within him and, with a sudden and shocking rush, he relived the moment he found his father’s body. "My father? But that was in Egypt, in 1952." He heard the words even though he hadn't intended to speak them.
"Right 1952. And me, I was born late that same year in December."
"What?" Robert couldn't keep the shock out of his voice. "What are you saying?
"Remember when the KGB kidnapped and brainwashed me at the Intangible Plastics building? When I was about to kill you, you reminded me that we were friends. You said that our friendship was the most important thing, that we had fought in a dozen wars side by side and saved each other countless times. It was the right thing to say then, but now I’ve been shown just how much more there is to our friendship. We haven't just fought in wars together in this lifetime, Robert, we have fought together over many lifetimes."
"What?" The question came out in a croak. He couldn't let himself believe any of this was real.
"We’ve spent hundreds of years, both of us, trying to find the right path and searching for forgiveness."
"You're talking about past lives and reincarnation?" This was madness, he knew Mickey was a lapsed Catholic and he himself didn't have any strong religious beliefs – but then – they had both seen too much, particularly in the east to pooh-pooh any possibility.
Mickey spoke slowly, as if he wasn't completely sure he understood what he was saying. "Those are the labels that men put on it. I’m talking about the power of the spirit and how we choose our paths in life. Haven't you ever wondered why you decided to get me out of Leavenworth?"
"You were innocent – I proved it."
"Yeah I know that, but why did you bother? I was nothing to you, just a swabbie who'd messed up. Why should you care?"
Robert thought back. Mickey was right. Why had he taken on the case? It was after their first meeting that he'd decided he believed the younger man and that he had to do something. Though neither of them had mentioned it there had been some form of recognition that sparked between them. At the time Robert had put it down to them both being the same kind of man.
Curious in spite of his concern, Robert let his mind wander again. Conscious control over his thoughts washed away and he waited. Soon, misty images went whirling through his mind. There were battles, some large and some small. For most, the recollection was gone in a moment, but for others he could recognize the uniforms or the weapons.
He concentrated on one particularly vivid scene and suddenly he was there, in person. He could feel the appalling heat and the horse moving restlessly under him.
Where was he?
He tried to wipe the sweat out of his eyes but lifting his arm was hindered by the weight of the suit of mail he was wearing. He looked down and the mail was covered with a white mantle with a red cross emblazoned on the left breast. In his right hand he held a sword made of finest Toledo steel. The sword glistened in the sunlight and, as he looked around, he saw others on horseback, garbed like him, waiting for battle.
In the distance he could see a city, sheltered behind thick walls. Jerusalem! He was fighting in the Crusades! A war that took place nearly a thousand years before he was born.
His shock must have communicated itself to the horse beneath him because, already skittish with waiting, it plunged to one side, knocking into the knight mounted beside him. Robert settled the horse and turned to apologize. The bearded face of the man next to him was completely unfamiliar but when he smiled in understanding, Robert's eyes met his.
Mickey! It was Mickey! Chilled, despite the heat, he pulled on the reins and made his horse stumble again. The eyes are mirrors to the soul – he'd heard that saying before but had never thought to see the truth of it. He settled the horse once more and waited, his mind whirling at top speed.
Abruptly, the signal for battle was given and they charged. Faster and faster, heading for the enemy through an endless rain of arrows, fired from the city fortified walls. Many of their number never reached the walls, tumbling from their horses to be trampled under the hooves of those following behind.
Swept along, Robert found himself exulting in the power of the charge and the feeling of brotherhood with those around him.
Suddenly something hit him with a powerful blow to the torso and he couldn't breathe. Pain radiated out from his chest. Looking down he saw an arrow sticking out of his body, the shaft protruding from the center of the red eight-pointed cross he wore. The wound was mortal – somehow he knew that at once. Before he could fall, the knight who was Mickey appeared from out of the chaos, cutting his way to Robert's side, steadying him on his horse and taking the reins that had dropped from his nerveless hands.
Through the pain he could see Mickey's mouth moving and his face filled with a deep sorrow, but the words were too far away to make any sense. The smell of blood and the screams of the dying were making the horses panic. Almost unconscious from pain and shock, Robert focused on the red eight-pointed cross adorning his friend's body and forced himself to stay mounted.
Then Mickey's horse tripped and went down, throwing him onto the sandy ground. Before Mickey he could regain his feet, three arrows pierced his back, cutting through his mail shirt as though it were paper.
Unendurable grief joined the pain exploding inside Robert.
With no one to stop it, the horse underneath him bolted. Unable to keep his seat, he fell off before it had taken more than two strides. Through the fog of agony he saw that he had landed beside Mickey, their spilled blood mingling before soaking into the sand. Unable to do more than rest his hand on that of his brother-in-arms, Robert found himself whispering in Latin, "Into thy hands Lord, we commend our spirits." There was a flash of bright light and then he found himself back in the chapel, Mickey still sitting at his side.
"How…? Did we really fight in the Crusades?" Robert heard his words tumbling over themselves trying to get out. "You tried to save me and died."
"I know," Mickey nodded.
"But you were killed because of me. You shouldn't have attempted…"
"It was my choice…"
Robert wanted to explain that he wasn't worthy of the sacrifice but before he could marshal his arguments, Mickey's voice grew fainter before fading into the distance. The mists engulfed him once more.
His next memory was of tremendous cold. He was lying on a narrow bunk in a rectangular tent. The temperature was so low that he could see ice crystals on the inside of the canvas.
He tried to move and realized that another person's feet were pressing into his chest. They were sharing a bed, lying top to tail. His movement must have jarred the other occupant because he began moaning in pain. Though weakened himself, Robert managed to sit up. In the dim light of an oil lantern he saw that the other man's face was covered with scabs and pitted scars. Smallpox!
Robert lifted his hand and looked at it carefully. His skin was covered in healing scars too, but he would recover – unlike the poor soul whose bed he was sharing. Robert's best estimate was that he would be dead before morning.
It was an effort, but he managed to roll out onto the ground and, still too weak to stand, he crawled over and touched the other man's shoulder, "Easy. Take it easy."
The other man? He was little more than a boy, seventeen at the most. Robert took in the long matted hair and the downy whiskers on the boy's disfigured face – too young. Dammit, he was too young to die here in this squalor! The boy's uniform identified him to Robert as being from the Twelfth regiment of the North Carolina brigade, who served under General R D Johnson.
He recalled that the Twelfth had fought at Spottsylvania Courthouse in Virginia in May of 1864. They had lost many men and many more had been captured after the fighting. Most of the prisoners had been transferred to Elmyra barracks in northern New York State. But right now he didn't know if they were prisoners or free – either way they were in a smallpox camp. In the cold winter months the disease spread like wildfire and both Confederate and Union armies had long realized that the only way to stop its spread was to isolate the sick.
"Water." The word was gasped and faint but he understood.
Seeing a water bottle a couple of feet away Robert tried to reach out for it but he was still too weak. "Hello!" His own voice was reed thin but he hoped it would carry. "Help me."
The youngster didn't have long, Robert had seen cases of smallpox before and he knew how virulent it was. In this life he must have contracted the disease himself but somehow survived.
Robert called out again. "Help me!" And this time was rewarded with the sound of footsteps drawing closer.
The tent flap was thrown back and a tall, thin man with the most intense blue eyes he had ever seen crouched and came into the tent and looked straight at him, "Brent?"
Oh! My name is Brent here, Robert realized.
"You're feeling better? Thank God. I had to go and take care of some of the other men. They aren't doing very well."
The man went over and turned the boy's head towards the meager light, "Damn! I’m afraid young Jonas will be gone by morning." All this was delivered in a cultured voice. Even in this place of horror and death, the breeding of a fine Carolina gentleman showed itself.
"He asked for some water and I couldn't get it for him." Robert pointed at the water bottle. There was something more than familiar about the way the older man looked at him and moved. The truth hit – Control! His oldest friend!
Robert gave himself a mental shake. If what Mickey had told him was true then it stood to reason that the agency chief had been a friend for a long time too.
Oh my Lord! Then Jonas, the youngster dying on the bunk, must be Mickey.
"I'll get it." With rough care the gentleman lifted the boy's head and allowed a trickle of water to run down his throat. He stroked the boy's forehead, "Come on, cousin, your brother's recovering and I pulled through last month. It's your turn now."
Robert felt his heart stop – they were all related in this incarnation?
The liquid seemed to revive the boy, because he spoke again. His voice sounding as dry as sandpaper, but with the same southern accent. "Brother? You there?"
"Yes, I'm here." Still too weak to rise to his feet, he crawled over to the head of the bunk and knelt there. The cold from the ground spread and bit into his knees and lower legs, but he could not, would not, change his position. His little brother needed him and that was all that mattered…
Jonas's eyes opened and he stared into his. Robert held back a cry of anguish, because he recognized the hazel eyes, despite the pain that filled them.
"You're not sick any more." the boy spoke with effort.
"Apparently not. I still feel like hell, but not as bad as you must be suffering." Robert tried to smile but he couldn't bear the thought of watching Mickey die for the second time in the space of a couple of minutes. This was torture of the cruelest kind.
Closing his eyes, Jonas squeezed his hand and whispered, "I'm gonna die, aren't I, brother?"
"Of course not. Don't be ridiculous. You just need some time." Robert lied.
"It's too late for falsehoods now. You can't protect me forever."
His heart began to break into smaller pieces. He loved this man - whichever body he inhabited - with all his soul and now he was slipping away through his fingers.
Robert felt Control's alter ego sit down beside him and rest his hand on his shoulder. "I'll stay. In case you need me."
Jonas opened his eyes, "Brent?"
He took Jonas’s hand in his again and was aghast at the dry heat coming off it. "I’m here."
"Brother?" His voice was so weak Robert had to put his ear close to his mouth to hear. "I'm scared of dying."
With a lump in this throat that threatened to choke him, Robert replied, "Don't worry. It'll be just like going to sleep, little brother." He drew closer to the bed and lifted Jonas into his arms, cradling him. "How many times have I held you like this when you were little and frightened because you'd had a nightmare? It’ll be like then, I promise. Don’t be afraid, I'll be with you. I’m here."
As the boy's breathing grew more ragged, Robert prayed as hard as he could that he might live. It didn't help, shortly before dawn Jonas died in his arms.
"Oh God! No more, please. No more." The weight of the body was suddenly gone from his arms and Robert could hear himself repeating the litany over and over.
Slowly his surroundings came into focus and he was back in the chapel with Mickey.
When he was in control enough to speak he asked, "Why am I being allowed to see all this now?"
Mickey turned and propped his head on his hand, resting his elbow on the back of the seat, "I think it’s to show you that you’re on the right path. And that if I die it won’t be the end of our friendship."
Robert moved closer and touched Mickey's arm, astonished that he could. "I still don't want to lose you."
"I know, but I have a road of my own to follow. I have to make my own choices too." Mickey grinned, "And I'm getting there. With some help…"
They sat together in silence for a while.
A thought struck Robert, "Will I remember all of this?"
"If you want to. If you’re willing to use the information wisely."
"But it was so awful. I saw you killed in the first vision and held you in my arms while you died in the second."
"No one ever claimed the path was easy, McCall."
Robert nodded, feeling exhausted. Closing his eyes, but still aware of Mickey's comforting presence beside him, Robert felt himself slip into a light doze. As he relaxed he heard Mickey's voice in his mind, "I have to go now but I think it's going to work out okay this time."
Robert tried to respond but he was too weighed down by sleep.
The door to the chapel banged back against the wall and he woke with a start. His eyes moved instinctively to the place where Mickey had been sitting and saw it was empty.
"Please let it be true," he let out a hurried plea.
Control rushed into the chapel, "I've got some news."
Robert nodded and took a last look at the altar and the image of Christ hanging beside a large golden cross, "I know. He's going to be fine."
Control rested a hand on his shoulder, "I think we just got the best Christmas present we could have wished for, old son."
"Yes. Thank you."
Only Robert knew that his thanks were not directed at the man standing next to him.