It had been nearly twenty-four hours since Steve’s sudden disappearance. After being denied a vacation, he took off without so much of a goodbye or a note. All search had come to a naught much to Oscar’s chagrin.
The next afternoon, Callahan was typing a letter at her desk when Oscar walked out of his office with a folder in hand.
“Callahan, would you file this for me?” he asked as he handed her the dossier.
“No problem, Mr. Goldman.”
“Say, any luck on locating Colonel Austin?”
“No sir. I tried everywhere I could think of.”
“Did he mention anything to you regarding a vacation?”
“As a matter of fact, he said something about going to the Caribbean,” she said with a shrug.
Oscar’s face lit up at this information. “Thank you Callahan.” He went back into his office to get on the phone with one of his top agents. He asked to obtain a passenger manifest for all planes leaving for the Caribbean islands in the last twenty-four hours.
Again, no luck. Oscar suspected Steve must have used an alias, one he could easily recognize by skimming through the lists himself. Therefore he asked that copies of all manifests be faxed to his office as soon as possible. The NSB was breathing down his neck about Steve’s next assignment and had given him 72 hours to locate him, after which they would take matters into their own hands.
After work, Callahan drove back to her apartment. After bolting the door with her numerous locks, she went to her bedroom and knocked in code on her closet door. She waited to hear the counter knocks before she opened the door.
“The coast is clear, Steve.”
She held out his hand to assist him out from behind the boxes where he’d been hiding for a good fifteen minutes.
“How were things at the office today?”
“Tense. Mr. Goldman has been on the phone all day trying to locate you. He even asked me if you mentioned something to me about a vacation.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I think I bought you some more time. I sent him a wild goose chase to the Caribbean Islands.”
“Good girl,” Steve enthused with a grateful smile. He walked her back to the livingroom with an arm wrapped around her shoulder.
“I brought you what you asked me.” She handed him her shopping bag. “It’s all in there. I hope it’ll be to your liking?” She sat next to Steve on the couch with wide expectant eyes.
Steve rummaged through the bag and pulled out the items that he laid on the coffee table. “Wig, moustache, contact lenses, false teeth and eyelashes, artificial moll…this is perfect.”
“With that you’ll be hardly recognizable.”
“Completely unrecognizable is what I’m aiming for, so I can freely walk the streets. I did promise you a dinner at Albert’s to thank you for what you’re doing for me”
“Steve, you don’t need to do that. It’s my pleasure to help. I’m pleased that you came to me.”
“I trust you to keep a secret, but I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble with Oscar. That’s why with this disguise, I’ll be able to move to a hotel room.”
“You can stay here. I know the couch is not that comfortable, but at least here you’re safe.”
“I can’t impose on you, Callahan.”
“Steve, it’s my pleasure, believe me. Besides, I enjoy your company. If Mr. Goldman’s men are staking out my apartment, they’ll see my boyfriend and not you.”
He gazed at her with a smile and brushed his thumb against her chin. “You’re sweet.”
She locked onto his stare and froze in time. He breath caught in her throat as the mesmerizing blue met her dark brown. She felt her heart begin to pound hard in her chest as their stare lingered. She dared not blink, afraid to sever the thin thread upon which her heart was hanging. She heard him heaved a heavy sigh before he lowered his head in embarrassment. The heavenly moment was forever gone.
The next day at the office, Callahan was fixing Oscar a cup a coffee when he received a call from the head of the NSB. He raved and ranted at the man’s threats to deploy his own big canons in order to locate the missing agent. She began to fear for Steve’s safety when she heard Oscar speak of using guns against the fugitive. She swallowed hard and strained a smile before she walked over to his desk to bring him his coffee.
“Thank you, Callahan,” Oscar said while rubbing his eyes.
“Problems in locating Steve?”
“Yes and time is running out.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“That was General Schaeffer on the phone, the new head of the NSB. He threatened to employ the heavy artillery in order to smoke Steve out and bring him back to serve his sentence, so to speak.”
“Hea…heavy artillery, what…what does that mean, sir?” she stammered.
“Any conceivable means: drugs, gas, even guns.”
She gulped down the lump growing in her throat and breathed deeply to recover her composure. “Oh my”
“You see why I have to find him quick?”
“Yes sir, I do.”
He stood from his desk and thrust his hands into his pants pockets. He then rounded the corner to stand by her side. “By the way congratulations!” he said smilingly.
“On your new boyfriend. One of our men saw you last night at Albert’s in charming company.”
“Albert’s? My goodness, sir, am I being watched?” she asked hysterically.
“Relax Callahan. Of course you’re not. Alan Pearson was at the restaurant with his wife last night and happened to spot you and your gentleman friend.”
“Oh.” She heaved a long sigh of relief and attempted to regain her poise. “You had me worried there for a minute.”
“Why do you think we would be tailing you?” Oscar asked curiously.
“I remember the last time with Gene.”
“Oh, that was different. We had a major security leak at the office. Ease up, Callahan. You’re not under surveillance. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“No sir. I guess I’m a little paranoid,” she said nervously, feeling the blood throb at her neck. She strived to keep a straight face to avoid giving cause for Oscar to doubt her word. “Well, I guess I’ll return to my desk now. I have a lot of filing to do.”
She exited the office on a brisk pace and closed the door behind her. She walked to her desk and picked up the phone to call Steve. She stopped in mid dial, afraid that her phone might be tapped. She decided to wait till lunchtime to go warn Steve of the storm brewing over at the NSB.
“Steve, why are you leaving? You’re safe here.” Callahan asked, puzzled and somewhat saddened at Steve’s decision to move out.
“I can’t risk you being caught with me. Do you know what the penalty is for harbouring an operative on the run?”
Her answer came in the form of a restrained silence and a dejected expression.
“Look, I’m not leaving Washington. I’ll rent a room at the Hotel Four Star. We can continue to see each other. I’ll still be wearing this disguise since they already think this gorgeous guy’s your boyfriend,” he assured her with a friendly wink that wrung a flicker of a smile out of her. “I just don’t want you to be caught in the middle, in case it gets messy.”
“Why not just come back?”
“I could, but I want to make them sweat a little before I show myself. See how long I can fool them.”
“You are wicked, Steve Austin.”
“And don’t you ever forget it Peggy Callahan.” He grabbed his suitcase and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek before crossing to the door.
“Steve, be careful,” she said on a solemn tone.
He smiled and stroked her cheek. “I will.”
A few days later, Steve unwillingly broke all contact with Callahan as the NSB watchdogs spied the secretary’s every move. Oscar found peculiar the fact that her boyfriend should have suddenly left the country. When he secretly enquired about this mysterious Craig Hooligan, he came up empty.
One morning, he called her in into his office to discuss that dubious matter.
“That was Steve, wasn’t it?” Oscar asked curtly, though his voice carried a certain admiration for her fortitude, not to mention her abiding loyalty to a friend.
Caught with her hand in the cookie jar, Callahan had little choice but to reveal the truth. She was prepared to take any punishment he deemed proper under the circumstances. “May I point out that if I had to do it all over again tomorrow for Colonel Austin, I wouldn’t hesitate, sir.”
He chuckled at her forthrightness, knowing she meant every word. “I would too, Callahan.” He stood from his desk and went over to her chair. “For that I admire you and I’m sure Steve does too.”
“Thank you, sir.” She broke into an elated smile.
“But next time, let me know what Steve is up to. He’s not always aware of the trouble he can get himself into. I’m not his foe; I’m his friend. I’m trying my best to protect him from the pack of wolves.”
“Yes sir. I will. Thank you.”
As she walked back out of the office, she was relieved that he hadn’t questioned her about Steve’s new whereabouts. However, she was certain that he must have switched guise and checked out of his hotel by now.
One month passed and Steve was still on the loose. Oscar marvelled at his friend’s ability to elude the NSB elite team spread all across the country. Much as he admired Steve’s style, he worried that his eventual return to the fold might land him into hot water with the government. He pledged to stand by his friend’s side no matter the consequences.
One morning, Steve showed us at the OSI in his latest disguise much to Callahan’s surprise and Oscar’s relief.
“How did you get past security?” Oscar queried.
“Oscar, I know every trick in the book,” Steve answered with a sneer.
“Where have you been?” Oscar asked with an edge of cynicism.
“Oh, around,” Steve answered nonchalantly as he took a seat in front to Oscar’s desk.
“Do you realize the NSB bloodhounds are hunting you down at this very moment?”
“I know. Fooled them, didn’t I?”
“Steve, I advise you never to pull a stunt like that again.”
“Sorry Oscar, can’t do. I needed a vacation desperately and they didn’t want to give it to me. So I took it. I knew they’d be after me, so what? I managed to elude them.”
“What if you’d fail?”
“If I fail, I fail.” He shrugged. “What are they going to do, shoot me? Nah! Come on, Oscar. I’m worth too much. They want me back for other missions. For this, they need me alive and well. They can’t send a dead man, now can they?” Steve explained with a composed stance.
“You’ve got a point there,” Oscar conceded. “Say that beard looks great on you.”
“Thanks. Now if you’ll excuse me,” he rose out of the chair, “I’m going to enjoy my last day of freedom with a pretty little lady without whose help, I might have ended up in the loony bin. Care to join us?”
“No, you go right ahead…Peter.” Oscar said with an elfish wink.
Steve turned to him with eyes widened in shock. “You knew?”
“Of course. You learned from the master, Little One.” He put his glasses on and leaned against the back of his chair with a satisfied grin.