"Steve! Wake up!"
Steve bolted upright, best he could since he was trapped in a sleeping bag. As the last wisp of sleep drifted from his brain, he glanced around for the source of the voice. He noticed Rudy leaning against a boulder, waiting impatiently.
"Are you just going to sit there on your tin butt all day or are we going to fish?" Rudy questioned. It had taken a bit of effort, but he finally convinced Oscar that Steve needed a break; a fishing trip would do the trick. Rudy decided to drag Steve up into the Montana mountains, away from civilization. All methods of outside communications were left back at the lab.
"Yeah, yeah," Steve replied while fighting with the zipper. He heard Rudy chuckling at his dilemma. "How the heck…" The zipper finally broke loose. Steve cast off the bag and scrambled to his feet. He cast a dirty look at the doctor while rolling up his bedding.
In the meantime, Rudy poured coffee for both of them and seated himself in front of the fire, offering a cup to Steve.
Steve reached across the fire, accepted the cup, then seated himself. "Thanks," he replied before taking a sip. He was still trying to relax after having spent a week in the mountains. The peace and quiet is what he needed, but he was becoming a bit antsy.
After several minutes of silence, Steve said "I hope you don't mind, Rudy, but I'm going to give the fish a chance to live another day."
Rudy finished off his coffee and put the cup down. "What do you have planned?" Rudy suspected that Steve was getting restless when he started pacing through the campsite the other evening.
"See that mountain?" Steve questioned, pointing to the looming peak behind Rudy.
Rudy glanced behind him briefly. "You're going to climb it?"
"It's there to be climbed, so that I'll do."
"As long as you stay out of trouble, fine with me. That will just mean there will be more fish for me to catch." Rudy replied.
Steve laughed. "Right…"
Rudy just rolled his eyes. This was a long standing argument… who's the better fisherman. "Be back in time for dinner," he said while gathering his fishing gear.
"Will do." Steve started off at a slow jog toward the tree line.
By noon Steve had made it about a quarter of a way up the mountain. He found a ledge to sit on, wanting to enjoy the view before needing to head back down to camp.
Minutes later, Steve thought he heard the sound of a twin engine plane. Looking around, he spotted the small plane flying just above the tree line, much too low to clear the mountain top. Using his zoom, he noticed the plane carried two, maybe three occupants. He decided that if there were a third occupant, it must be a child. Steve stood and watched in horror as the plane smashed into the trees, crashing to the floor below.
Rudy who was fishing alongside the riverbank, lifted his eyes skywards at the humming sound to see the aircraft plummeting to the ground with a loud thud. He reeled in his line and hurried back to the campsite.
Meanwhile, Steve had already engaged in a bionic scuttle down to the smoldering wreck. He plowed his way through the thick foliage to reach the aircraft. Flames were licking at the mangled frame as he rushed to the cockpit to check on the unconscious pilot’s condition. Still strapped in his seat, he was hunched over the instrument panel with a deep head gash. Steve stretched out his arm to grope his neck in search of a palpable pulse. In the absence of one, Steve assumed he died on impact. He promptly rounded to the side of the plane and with one bionic pull, he tore the hatch open and hurled it aside before hopping inside the cabin to find and unconscious young boy slumped over in his chair. As he yanked the seatbelt off, a man emerged from the baggage hold at the end tail with a briefcase in hand.
“Austin!” the man exclaimed in surprise. He whipped out his gun tucked inside his belt and fired one bullet into Steve’s chest, sending him jerking backward. The man breathed away a fainting spell before jumping down the plane.
Steve’s world swayed around him as he strived to catch his breath. His labored respiration was indicative that the bullet had perforated a lung, but his main concern was to save the boy from the ticking time bomb. He painfully elbowed himself up and lunged at the eight-year-old to sling him over his shoulder. He leapt off the plane and staggered away before the imminent explosion.
They were a few feet away when the deflagration caused Steve to drop his load and propelled him against a tree trunk, rendering him senseless. The force of the impact against the ground shook the boy awake. He groaned as he slowly rolled onto his back, eyes widening in horror at the roaring inferno dancing before his eyes. As he glanced around to establish his surroundings, a wheezing sound drew him to look to his right where Steve laid prone, gasping for air like a fish out of water.
He crawled over to Steve and shook him frantically. “Mister, please wake up! I don’t know what to do,” he sniveled. “Please, wake up!” he pleaded once more before pushing Steve onto his back. He gasped in horror at the large bloodstain on his shirt. “Oh no!” he wailed, his eyes raking the ground maniacally in search of a piece of cloth that he could use to stem the hemorrhage. He untied Steve’s bandana around his neck and balled it up to apply against the bleeding wound.
Although they had both agreed on no means of communication during this trip, Rudy had nonetheless concealed a radio transmitter in his kit bag. Knowing Steve and his stunts, he had a feeling he’d be needing it. As soon as the plane crashed, Rudy contacted Oscar who was attending a meeting in town at the Regency Hotel. He jumped into his car and notified the airbase to dispatch two helicopters.
After spotting the burning wreckage and the two survivors below, the pilot swept the crash site to locate a small clearing where he landed the chopper smoothly on the ground. Oscar and a medic hopped down and headed towards the woods with a portable stretcher. They scrambled their way through the thick vegetation to reach Steve and the boy.
“Steve!” Oscar shouted as he hurtled his way to his injured friend lying on the ground. He dropped to his knees to check his pulse.
“He’s still alive, mister, but his breathing is bubbly. I don’t think it’s good,” the boy surmised, crinkling his nose at the blood-drenched rag he was still pressing against Steve’s chest.
Oscar’s terrorized eyes traveled up the arm that applied pressure onto the wound to look at the boy’s face “You’re Eric Carter, Senator Carter’s son?”
“You know my daddy?”
“Yes. He’s been worried sick about you, boy.”
“These bad men came to my bedroom one night and took me away.”
“We know. These men, were they with you on the plane?”
“One was. I don’t know what happened after the plane went down. I banged my head and fell asleep.”
Oscar turned to the medic who was finishing binding Steve’s head gash. “How is he, Frank?”
“Not good. But I expect he’ll survive the trip to the hospital. Let’s lift him onto the stretcher, gently.”
Frank slid his hands underneath Steve’s arms while Oscar grabbed a firm hold of his legs. Once they laid the moribund man onto the backboard, Frank secured his limp body firmly in place with straps before they carried him back to the chopper, with Oscar keeping a watchful eye on Eric following close behind.
Much to Oscar’s dismay, Steve remained unconscious during the flight to the hospital. He sat across the stretcher, smiling at the boy’s effusive compassion for his new friend, beseeching him to hang on while he held his hand.
Rudy was notified of Steve’s grievous condition when the second helicopter picked him up at the feet of the mountain. His chopper landed on the hospital roof minutes before the medivac came into view.
While Steve was in surgery, Oscar wore a hole in the floor, waiting for the doctors to give Eric a clean bill of health. He was anxious to question the boy on his abductors, but Eric was able to provide little information on their names, whereabouts or the motive behind their actions. His father may be a powerful statesman, though the reason behind the kidnapping remained a mystery.
Oscar intended to pursue this investigation at all cost. First order of business was to have the boy possibly identify his abductors from FBI snapshots. Failing that, he counted on Steve to regain consciousness long enough to provide him with a description of his assailant.
Several hours later, Senator Carter arrived at the hospital with his entourage. When he walked past the waiting room, Eric jumped off the couch and ran to his father.
Carter hunched down with outstretched arms, welcoming his son in a warm embrace. “Eric, are you alright?” he asked as he pulled the boy back from the clench to give him a cursory examination.
“I’m fine, dad. A nice man rescued me from the plane on fire.” His father lifted him in his arms just as Oscar stepped over to them. “This is my friend, Oscar.”
“Oscar Goldman. How do you do, Senator?” Oscar greeted with a handshake.
“Much better now that I know my boy’s alive. What happened?”
“Like I explained, the small jet carrying your son and his abductor crashed into the Montana mountains. Luckily one of our agents was camping nearby and showed up in time to save your son before the plane exploded.”
Carter turned his bleary eyes to his son while rubbing a hand against his back. “Thank Heaven. I would like to speak with your agent to offer my sincere gratitude for saving my son.”
In a sidelong glance, Oscar caught glimpse of Rudy rounding a corner. “Hopefully, you will. That’s his doctor over there,” he motioned to Rudy before they both met him halfway down the corridor. Carter put his son down on the floor as he neared the weary man.
“Rudy,” Oscar motioned to his right,” this is Senator Carter. Senator, Dr. Rudy Wells.”
“You’re the boy’s father?”
“Rudy, how’s Steve?”
“He’s holding his own. I managed to extract the bullet lodged in his left lung. Another inch to the left and it would have gone through his heart.”
“He was shot?” Carter exclaimed in consternation, then turned to Oscar with a puzzling look on his face. “I thought you said it was a plane crash?”
“It was. We assumed your son’s abductor must have tried to silence him when he got a look at his face.”
“Oh my God!”
“He also has two fractured ribs, which are making it worse for him to breathe. We’re also concerned about a head concussion,” Rudy finished on a portentous tone.
“Is he going to make it?”
“At this point, it’s fifty-fifty. We’ll know more when or if he regains consciousness.”
“Tell me, what’s the name of this agent?” Carter asked.
“Colonel Steve Austin.”
The statesman’s eyes shot wide at the mention of the name that struck an all too familiar chord. “Colonel Austin, you say? The famous astronaut?”
“That’s right.” Oscar frowned at the troubled expression crossing the senator’s face. “Something wrong?”
“No, no. Nothing’s wrong,” he replied waveringly. “Can I see him? I want to thank him personally.”
“He’s unconscious at the moment. I estimate perhaps another few hours before he awakes. Then again, with the head trauma, no one can predict when that will be for sure.”
“Senator, I suggest you take your son home and we’ll notify you of any change in Colonel Austin’s condition.”
Thank you Mister Goldman. I think I will. It’s been a long, trying day.” He tugged at his son’s sleeve. “Come on Eric. Let’s go home.”
“We’ll be in touch with you tomorrow regarding the investigation of the kidnapping. We’ll need Eric to try and identify his abductors.”
“Call my secretary. She’ll put you through to my office.”
With their brows knitted in suspicion, Oscar and Rudy watched father and son walked toward the exit.
“Did you note his expression when you mentioned Steve’s name?” Rudy remarked to Oscar.
“What do you suppose that means?”
Oscar shook his head and thrust his hands into his pants pockets. “I have no idea…yet”
In mid morning the next day, the attending nurse was checking on Steve’s IV bag when she noted a slight rise in his heartbeat. She promptly paged Rudy who came rushing into the room with Oscar in tow.
“I think our patient is coming around, Doctor.”
“Finally!” Rudy glimpsed at the heart monitor before bending over Steve. “Steve! Steve, can you hear me?” he coaxed while he raised the right eyelid with his thumb to check the corneal reflex.
Steve’s eyes roamed underneath his eyelids as he tried to open them. His vacuous stare tarried on the ceiling before it lazily traveled down to the two blurry figures standing to his left.
“Steve, can you hear me good?”
Steve blinked heavily and gave a faint nod of the head. His face twisted in agony as he tried to inhale deeply.
Rudy applied a soothing hand onto his chest. “I know it hurts. I removed a bullet from your lung. It’ll be sore for awhile. Don’t try to move and it’ll be okay.”
Steve acknowledged with a nod.
“Okay, I’m going to ask you a few easy questions, I want you to answer with a slight nod or shake of the head. You are not to talk, is that understood?”
Steve nodded feebly.
“Okay. Do you remember what happened?”
Steve mouthed the word ‘plane’.
“Don’t talk. There was a plane crash, that’s right.”
Steve mouthed the word ‘boy.’
“The boy? He’s fine.”
“He’s Senator Carter’s son who went missing three days ago,” Oscar piped up. “The boy said he was traveling with one of his abductors.”
Steve’s eyes widened in alarm. He frantically mouthed the word ‘shot’.
“Is he the one who shot you?”
Steve managed to utter a whispering ‘yes’ before his chest was stricken with a second painful smart.
“Easy Steve!” Rudy said on a mollifying tone, putting a hand on his forehead to steady him. “Breathe slowly. That’s it.”
“One more question.”
“Oscar, that’s enough for now,” Rudy said authoritatively. “He’s in pain?”
“It’s important, Rudy.” Oscar had no choice but to pull rank on the doctor. “I need to know who shot him” He looked at Steve who was straining to utter the name of his attacker. Oscar put his ear closer to Steve’s mouth to hear him whisper the name of ‘Jack Campbell’. Oscar jerked his head back up. “Jack Campbell? Down at computer programming?”
“That explains why he hasn’t reported for work in over a week.”
Steve’s face puckered up from the pain his last effort caused.
“Oscar I must insist you go now. He needs to rest,” Rudy ordered bitterly. “Steve relax. I’m going to administer you something for the pain.”
Later that afternoon, Senator Carter’s secretary buzzed his desk.
“Senator, there’s a man on line one who insists on speaking with you.”
“Is it Mister Goldman?”
“He refused to state his name, sir. But he stressed that it was urgent. It’s in regard to your son’s kidnapping.”
Carter eyed the phone warily before taking a deep breath. “I’ll take it Susan. Thank you.” He paused briefly to summon up the courage to pick up the receiver. “Senator Carter. What can I do for you?”
“Plenty, Senator. You can do plenty for us,” the sarcastic voice taunted.
“Who are you?”
“My name is of no consequence. But what I have might interest you.”
“I have here documents that prove beyond any doubt that a famous American astronaut is the biological father of your darling little boy
“What do you mean by ‘was’?”
“We’ve heard that your son and Colonel Austin were the victims of an unfortunate plane crash,” he said with a voice dripping with spite.
“Well you heard wrong,” Carter replied on a biting tone. “My son’s doing fine and Colonel Austin’s at the hospital.”
The man glowered at his assistant standing by his side. “Is that so?”
“Yes. You’re the one who abducted my son, aren’t you?”
“Now, now, Senator. You don’t know that.”
“What do you want?”
“I believe a meager five million dollars in unmarked bills will buy our silence about your wife’s affair with a well-known astronaut.”
“We weren’t married then.”
“No but you were engaged. Besides I’m sure your readers will be more interested in knowing the reason why you concealed the truth of your son’s birth. Now Senator, can you picture the headlines?” he spoke scathingly.
“Alright. How can I get in touch with you?”
“You don’t. We’ll get in touch with you. And Senator, no funny business now. We’re still in possession of the incriminating evidence. And the bills better be unmarked. We have ways to detect to worthless paper, believe me.” The man hung up the phone and glared up at his assistant, Jack Campbell.
“You fool! Austin’s alive!”
“What? That’s impossible! I shot him in the chest. Left him there with the boy. The plane exploded a minute after.”
The enraged man sprung up from his chair and paced the floor nervously. “Well obviously you missed. You should have checked that he was dead.”
“Oh well, I’m so sorry, Pete,” he replied sarcastically. “ But I had to scampered out of there before the plane blew up. I didn’t think of checking the pulse of a man I’d just shot in the heart.”
“The boy’s alive too. That means he can identify you.”
“Austin too. He saw my face, that’s why I shot him in the first place.”
“I’ll have to lay low for awhile before I can buy myself an new identity.”
“I’m beginning to think we should have asked for ten million instead.”
“We’re holding the aces, Jack.”
“I’m going to make the Senator know that we hold copies of those documents just in case he should feel the urge to give us away to the authorities.”
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”
Two days later, Oscar welcomed Sam Carter into his hotel room to discuss the situation at hand. After enquiring about Steve’s condition, which was now deemed satisfactory, Carter started to expound the matter they needed to address before word got out.
“Colonel Austin is the Father?” Oscar exclaimed in shock.
“That’s what my late wife told me. She found out she was with child four weeks before our wedding. When Eric was born, we took a blood test and sure enough, the kid wasn’t mine. We swore her obgyn to secrecy, but I suspect either he was threatened or offered a substantial sum of money to divulge the truth.”
“Or maybe someone with a high security clearance to gain access to those files.”
“That doesn’t narrow down the list of suspects.”
“Oh yes it does. I think we have our prime suspect. Jack Campbell. He’s a computer technician at the OSI. He failed to report for work in the last week. Colonel Austin positively identified him as the man who was in the plane with your son.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive! Don’t worry Senator. I’ll put my men on the case and we’ll nail those blackmailers. We’ll need to set a trap.”
“I sincerely appreciate your assistance in this matter, Mr. Goldman. I know that if I give in, those bastards will only ask for more and I fear that the secret will eventually be blurted out one way or the other. I only wish to protect my son and by the same occasion, Colonel Austin’s reputation.”
“Does Colonel Austin know?”
Carter shook his head. “Only three people know: myself my late wife and her doctor.”
“You realize he’ll need to be told?”
“Does he? Why complicate matters any?”
“I might not require him to go after Campbell. There’s no telling how he’ll react if this bombshell drops on him unexpectedly.”
“Do whatever you think is best.” Carter rose to his feet and left Oscar with this friendly warning. “I will not give up my son. I raised him as mine all these years and I’ll fight to the death before I let the biological father or anyone else take him away.”
“I understand your concern Senator, but you needn’t worry about Colonel Austin,” Oscar assured as he ushered the Senator out the door.
“I have your word on that?”
“You do, Senator.”
The two men shook hands.
“We’ll be in touch.”
An hour later, Oscar drove to the hospital with a heavy conscience, his mind still reeling from the Senator’s startling statement that Steve was Eric’s father. He pondered whether or not there was an immediate need to inform Steve of Eric Carter’s paternity. Aside from rehashing old memories and feeding him false hope, what purpose would it serve?
As he waited at the intersection for the light to turn green, Oscar’s mind wandered back on the day Steve took cognizance of Barney Miller, the seven-million-dollar-man, built without his knowledge. Worse was the day he discovered the truth behind Jaime’s miraculous recovery.
Oscar swore that never again, under any circumstances, he’d jeopardize his abiding friendship by betraying that implicit trust between he and Steve. In all good conscience, he had to tell him.
He arrived at the hospital to find Steve sitting in bed, his back comfortably propped up against a heap of pillows. He was sipping his orange juice when he walked into the room.”
“Hey pal! Look like you’re feeling a lot better?” he enthused.
“Yeah,” Steve rasped out. “Still a bit sore but our good doctor says I’ll be ready to jump this place in a day or two.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“You’re not back in Washington?”
“Got a few things to settle here. Besides I was hoping we’d go back together and looks like we will.”
“How’s the investigation coming along? Any leads on Campbell?”
“Not yet. However, light was just shed on the reason for the kidnapping.”
“What is it?”
Oscar gripped the bedrail and stared down at his feet. “Steve I need to ask you a very personal question, to which you might be inclined not to answer but I really need to know.”
“What is it, Oscar?” Steve asked with a worried frown.
“Were you at any time intimate with Katherine Carter?”
“Senator Carter’s late wife?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because it’s been recently brought to my attention that you are Eric Carter’s biological father. The boy’s kidnappers apparently have in their possession incriminating evidence that proves the veracity of those allegations. They’re blackmailing Senator Carter with it.”
“They can’t prove a thing Oscar because it’s not true. Sure Katherine and I went out a few times, but romantic candle-lit suppers and friendly conversations was all there was to it.”
“Then why would she tell her husband she was pregnant with your child?”
Steve shook his head and shrugged. “Search me. If you don’t believe me, I’d be willing to submit to a paternity test.”
“You don’t need to convince me Steve, but it may come to that in order to call the blackmailers’ bluff.” Oscar stared Steve in the eyes. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“Of course I am. I’m a grown boy. I know about the birds and the bees,” Steve answered with a yawn and sagging eyelids.
“I’ll go back to the hotel and try to unravel the mystery. In the meantime, get some rest.”
“Oscar, keep me informed, will you? I want to know why my name is involved in this.”
“Sure thing, pal.” Oscar tapped Steve on the shoulder and watched him wiggle under the covers and close his eyes before he slipped out of the room.
Two days later, Steve was discharged from the hospital with strict instructions to ease off the workload for the next few days and get plenty of rest. Before Steve left, Rudy was happy to present him with the results of his paternity test that proved beyond any doubt that he was not Eric Carter’s father.
Steve and Oscar drove to the senator’s office to bring forward the evidence. Carter had been instructed on how to proceed with the drop off. Undercover OSI agents were already posted in strategic areas in the park to spot whoever would be picking up the briefcase that Carter was to leave under a bench in less than three hours.
All three drove to Katherine Carter’s obgyn to question him with regard to the fake birth certificate. Threatened with a prison sentence for doctoring legal documents, Dr. Carlson confessed:
“Your wife was raped, Senator.”
“A month before you were married, she came to me for an exam saying she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to make sure she wasn’t with child. She told she’d been raped.”
“Who? Who raped her?”
“She wouldn’t tell me his name, only that he’s one of your trusted cabinet member.”
“He could still be working for me,” Carter remarked with disgust. He flumped himself down into an armchair in complete prostration.
“Seeing how you and your wife never had any sexual intercourse before marriage, we could safely rule out the possibility that the baby was yours. Taking into account her relationship with Colonel Austin, she asked me to list him as the father.
“What about that birth certificate? How did it get out?” Steve queried.
The doctor shook his head. “I have no idea, Colonel. I for one would never betray the confidence Katherine entrusted in me. She was a good friend. Known her for fifteen years before she passed on.”
“Not even for money?” Carter said with a tinge of cynicism.
“No Senator. I run an earnest medical practice, one I wouldn’t jeopardize for fifty thousand.?”
“Fifty thousand? How do you know that’s what they would offer?” a suspicious Oscar asked.
“Because he came to me and I said no.”
“Him? Do you have a description?”
“Mister Goldman, I only talked with him on the phone, never in person.”
“Someone obviously got to those files. What about a secretary or an assistant?” Oscar probed.
“I doubt it, but you’re welcomed to question any of them.”
Carter heaved himself out of his chair and ran a hand over his face. “Whoever it is, it’s too late to do anything about it now. Those gold diggers got the proof. I have to make the drop off in an hour.”
“All our agents are in place. They will follow whoever picks up the briefcase and nab him,” Oscar assured to the despondent man.
“Mister Goldman, if word gets out it will create a national incident. I’m not concerned about my position at the senate, I couldn’t care less, it’s my son I’m worried about. How this will affect him?”
“We will stifle the affair before it ever gets out, Senator.”
“I hope so.” Carter heaved a shivering breath before crossing to the door.
Oscar turned to the doctor “We’ll be in touch,” he said as he put on his sunglasses and followed Carter and Steve out the door.
At the park, the pick up was made on schedule. The undercover agents relayed the description of the man to Oscar’s team who quickly apprehended him. The patsy agreed to turn states evidence for a new identity. Once they obtained the address, they converged on the blackmailers’ hideout where they proceeded to cuff Peter and Campbell and retrieve the documents.
A week later, still feeling a bit troubled by the recent events, Steve decided to take a cleansing walk through the park to allay his gloominess. He sat at a picnic table across a tennis court and stared vacantly at the four players as his mind roamed into a future he imagined for himself. He was so lost in his thoughts that he never heard Oscar slowly walking up to him.
“Oscar?” he answered a bit startled.
“I thought I might find you here.”
“You wanted to see me?”
“No, I’m just worried about you. I haven’t heard from you in the last three days. Something wrong?”
Steve rested his elbow against the table and propped his head in the palm of his hand. “No, I was just thinking.”
A smile crossed Oscar’s face at the thought of his friend finally settling down. “Do you regret knowing that Eric Carter isn’t your son?” he asked as he sat next to Steve.
“Of course not. But the whole incident arouse some paternal feelings.”
“I happen to know a bunch of ladies who would jump at the chance of becoming Mrs. Steve Austin.”
“They’re just casual acquaintances, none I’d want to be the mother of my children.”
“What about Jaime?”
“She’s not interested in me anymore.”
“That’s not so. She does often ask about you.”
“Uhn uhn. Just yesterday, she phoned me from Belgium where she is on assignment and asked how you were, what you’ve been doing and such.”
“She did” Steve asked a bit surprised.
“Why don’t you give her a call. I’m sure she’d like to hear from you.”
Steve smiled reminiscently. “Maybe I will.”