Grey clouds darkened this already gloomy day as grieving son and his father stood by their loved one’s grave at the cemetery. With heads bowed and eyes closed they listened with inner stillness to the preacher’s eulogy of the dearly departed. Words of compassion sliced through their hearts and left a sinking void within their souls. Both laboured to suppress an overwhelming urge to release the flow of stinging tears. The bereaved entwined their arms to offer mutual support as each began to sway dizzily to the mounting grief that this somber occasion was generating.
Once the eulogy over, a procession of well-wishers lined up to offer their condolences to husband and son, soon followed by friends and relatives who joined in the wishes of sympathy.
“She was a great woman,” one woman mused Jim as she hugged him.
“Thank you,” he choked out between sobs.
“We will never forget her,” chimed in her husband, shaking Jim’s hand while his wife went to embrace Steve. She felt him tense up in her arms and was evidently unforthcoming in reciprocating the gesture so she didn’t insist. “Your father is going to need you to take care of him now.”
“I’ll be there for him. Don’t worry,” he replied rather harshly, having deciphered the meaning behind her statement. He recalled his mother griping about her meddling sister interfering in her life; advising her how to raise her son; debasing her first husband Carl for leaving her alone with a child on the way. Steve winced at the thought of her trying to worm her way into his and father’s life. Nevertheless he put up a brave front so not to create a scene, today of all days.
“That means moving to Ojai,” she hinted to his nephew who viewed the intrusive suggestion with a scornful eye.
“I’ll talk to dad. We’ll decide what’s best,” he snapped boldly, tabling the discussion. He was glad when she caught on and pulled her husband away from Jim.
“God I despise her,” Steve mumbled under his breath, loud enough for Jim to hear.
“She’ll be gone tomorrow, son.”
“That’s not soon enough.”
Oscar and Rudy waited for the gathering to disperse before edging up to the bereaved.
“If there’s anything we can do,” Oscar offered solemnly, tapping Steve’s shoulder in sympathy.
“Thanks, Oscar,” Steve sniffed, biting his upper lip as he felt a gush of tears rushing to his eyes. “Dad and I will be all right,” he affected with a strain smile, one that failed to convince Oscar.
“Rudy has to return to Washington but I intend to remain in Ojai a day or two.”
Steve shook his head. “You don’t have to. We’ll be fine…really.” The quaver in his voice and his haggard expression clearly belied his true emotions.
“My hotel is booked for three days anyway. Better make the most of it,” Oscar jested, hoping to elicit a grateful curl of the lip.
“Thank you,” Jim replied for his choked up son. He then wrapped a fatherly arm around Steve’s shoulders. “Come on, son. Let’s go home.”
“Are you sure you want to go back to the house?” Steve asked his father, dreading the haunting memories awaiting them there. “Would you rather spend the night at a hotel?”
“Do you?” Jim asked, wondering whether Steve was the one reluctant to return to the house.
“If you don’t mind?” he appealed through bleary eyes that answered Jim’s suspicion.
“Of course not. It’s too soon anyway. And who knows? We might even get a good night sleep.”
They followed Oscar and Rudy to the awaiting limo, oblivious of the figure lurking nearby with eyes locked on the grieving pair.
In town, Oscar offered Steve and Jim an all-expense paid suite at the Grand Hotel Physically and emotionally spend, father and son lay in their respective bed and gradually descended upon memory lane.
“I recall when you were seven and came home with pockets full of frogs. You came into the house covered with dirt, the frogs leaping out of your overhauls and bouncing all over the house.”
Steve laughed at the fond memory. “I especially remember mom’s face. She was livid. I thought for sure I’d get whipped.”
“No, on the contrary she thought it was cute, but she wasn’t about to let you know; otherwise it would have encouraged you to repeat the exploit.”
Steve turned to his father and grinned mischievously. “As I recall, I did.”
“You were a little rascal. But your mother nevertheless adored you. Not a day went by that she didn’t think about you. She often voiced her fears to me about your line of work and dreaded a phone call from Oscar informing her that,” A remorse-fraught sigh curtailed the sentence. Jim turned to his son to notice tears welling up in his eyes. He stood from the bed and stepped over to sit by Steve’s side. With a pang in his heart and a compassionate hand on Steve’s shoulder, he emboldened, “Son, let it out. It’s not good keeping it all penned up inside.”
“I should have visited more often,” he quavered with a timid voice broken with sobs. “She asked and I would just say that I had work to do.”
“Steve, she understood that you couldn’t simply tell Oscar off and go.”
“Still, I don’t think I tried hard enough,” he deplored in a heavy sigh.
“Don’t do this to yourself.”
Steve tossed his head aside to avert from his father’s gaze as he felt himself about to burst. He got up and went to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Downstairs to get some antacid. My stomach’s acting up,” he stated as a motive to leave the room. “I won’t be long.”
“Want me to come with you?”
“It’s okay, dad. I can manage.” He left Jim with a reassuring grin that failed to convince the concerned father. Once outside the room, Steve lost all countenance. He leaned against the wall and slumped down to the floor as he dissolved tears. The elevator bell yanked him out of his throes of despair and quickly hoisted himself up against the wall and sniffed back the tears. He wiped his bedewed cheeks with the back of his hands, taking a few deep breaths to recover his composure before moving down to the elevator hall.
He wandered aimlessly out of the hotel and across the street to a quiet park. Away from prying eyes he sat on a bench and buried his head in his hands in sank into a slough of despond.
“You look like you could use a friend,” came the soothing voice from above. Steve looked up to see an old man smiling at him.
“I’d rather have a miracle,” Steve choked out.
“Your mother passed away?”
Eyes squinted warily at the man. “How would you know that?”
“Your eyes, son. They are deeply saddened.” Judging that his presence wasn’t deemed an intrusion of privacy, he sat next to Steve and cautiously proceeded to ask the nature of her death with hopes to engage a conversation.
“Car accident.” Steve shook his head dejectedly. “A drunk driver swirled out of his lane and smashed into her car head on. They say she died on impact.”
“It’s a tragic lost. I know I’ve been there.” Steve turned to him with a bemused expression asking to elaborate. “I lost my son during the war.”
“I’m sorry,” was Steve’s somber reply, somewhat comforted by the fact that the old man shared his grief. Then his brow furrowed as he took one good look at the man’s face. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“You just look familiar to me,” Steve said, scanning the man’s features.
“A lot of people tell me that. Guess I have this ‘grandpa’ face.”
Steve smiled thoughtfully. “It’s a nice face.”
“Thank you. Chin up, son,” The man bolstered with a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “The hurt will eventually fade away making way for the good memories. It’s bleak right now but it’ll get better.”
“I hope so,” Steve sighed sorrowfully.
“Take care, Steve.” Steve simply nodded and hung his head as the old man walked away.
Seconds later, it dawned on Steve that this stranger called him by his name. “Hey wait a minute,” he exclaimed in turmoil, turning to where the man was seen walking away. “How did he know my name?”
The search for the mystery man yielding no result, Steve returned to the hotel to find his restless father with the phone in his hand.
“I just calling downstairs to see where you were. What happened?”
“Sorry dad. Guess I wandered off,” Steve offered impassively.
“Are you okay?” When no answer came, Jim rolled his eyes. “I know, stupid question.”
“I went to the park to clear the cobwebs and I met an old man there. He looked awfully familiar to me. He knew my name.”
“Before I could ask he was gone.”
“Perhaps he recognized you from the media. Steve Austin is a household name in case you’ve forgotten.”
“But he didn’t call me Colonel or Mister Austin, but Steve, like…like he knew me personally.” Steve spoke with a blank expression while his mind roved back to that meeting to retrieve the image of the man’s face.
“It’s troubling you, isn’t it?”
“Yes and no. Troubling in the sense that I feel like I know the man and yet I don’t.”
“Maybe it’s just your imagination.”
“Maybe,” Steve dismissed, but still entertained a lingering doubt.
“Why don’t you have a nice shower? Better yet a warm bath. It’ll relax you before we go down to dinner. I made reservations.”
Steve offered no objection. He simply nodded and slouched to the bathroom with a grimace that masked an array of emotions.
Later that night following a cleansing conversation, father and son dozed off in the wee hours of the morning. Whereas Jim found restful slumber, Steve’s was agitated. He tossed and turned in bed to finally spring into bed with a loud gasp. Pausing to catch his breath, he then hauled himself out of bed to go pour a drink of water. In a brief glance into the mirror the figure of the old man appeared. Startled by the apparition, Steve dropped the glass in the sink and swirled round to face the man, but no one was there.
Steve dismissed the vision as hallucination, the result of a fitful slumber. He splashed cold water on his face, all the while keeping a wary eye on the spot the man was seen standing. Why was the old man haunting his mind so? He’s only met him a few minutes but his face was seared on his brain. Impossible to peel it off.
The next morning, Steve and Jim mutually decided to return to the house. Barely had they stepped inside that memories seized them in an icy clutch of anguish. They indulged their grievance for a short spell before taking the bull by the horn and settling to work on putting away Helen’s belongings.
The chore underway, Steve stumbled upon an old photo album at the bottom of a drawer. He and Jim took a respite to sit on the bed and peruse the family pictures that provided a small peaceful oasis in the midst of turmoil. Some were fraught with bitter memories, other blissful. One picture in particular caught Steve’s eye.
“My God!” he exclaimed in shock. “That’s the man I saw in the park yesterday,” he asserted, pointing to a picture of a young Helen posing with her husband Carl, Steve’s father, on their wedding day. They were flanked by a woman and a man.
“That’s your father Carl Austin.”
“That man to his left. That’s the face I saw.”
“He’s your grandfather. Helen told me he died from grief shortly following your father’s death.”
“I’m sure it was him,” Steve insisted. “That would explain why he knew my name.”
“Steve, are you sure it was him?”
“I’m positive. He’s much older. A few many wrinkles here and there with salt-and-pepper hair but I recognize the eyes.”
“Then why didn’t he say anything to you?”
“I don’t know but I aim to find out.” With stanch determination Steve snatched the photograph off the album and slipped it inside his shirt pocket.
“What are you going to do?” Jim ventured to asked, a deep frown wrinkling his brow at the dreaded answer.
“Find that man.”
“How? You don’t know anything about him.”
“I’ll go back to where I first met him. Perhaps he’ll show up again.”
“Want me to go with you?”
“I’d rather not. Maybe he won’t show up if he sees me with someone.”
Jim placed a fatherly hand on his overzealous son’s shoulder to curb some his fervor. “Be careful Steve. For aught we know he could be sent to hurt you.”
Steve smiled, grateful for the compassion. “I will dad. Will you be all right alone here?”
“I’ll manage, son. You go.”
Steve drove to the park and sat on the same park bench. Two hours elapsed with no sign of the man. Dejectedly he walked back to his car and left the park. On the road back he was seized by a smarting urge to take a left and head for the cemetery. There, he spotted the old man hunched down by Helen’s and Carl’s grave. He parked the car somewhere inconspicuous and walked the rest of the way.
“You’re my grandfather, aren’t you? Alfred Austin?” Steve blurted out with a defiance stance, defying the old man to refute the allegation.
Caught unawares, the old man rose to his feet and smiled concededly “How did you know?”
“I saw a wedding picture of my parents. You were in it.”
“I’d assume there wouldn’t be much resemblance.”
Steve carefully edged up to the man so not to frighten him away. “It’s your eyes that gave you away. You may think you’re older but your features are still very much the same.” Steve stopped inches in front of him and stared in bewilderment, “Why? Why didn’t you tell me at the park? Why have you let us believe you were dead? Mom could have used your support after her husband died.”
“I know and that’s why I decided it best to disappear.” As expected Steve frowned quizzically. Al smiled knowingly and conceded, “I assume I have a lot of explaining to do, don’t I?” he jested, getting a nod in return.
The old man spotted a bench and invited Steve to join him. He paused to gather his thoughts and ponder on the best place to start. “I was still mourning your grandma’s death when I learned of your father’s a few months later. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back you could say. I was already distraught and Carl’s tragic demise just pushed me over the edge. I wasn’t strong enough to face your mother. I knew she needed me but I was too messed up emotionally to help anyone. If anything I would have brought her down with me.”
“But why fake your death?”
“I didn’t. I did board the plane that went down, but I survived the crash. Lived up on a tiny island that I managed to swim to. I didn’t send any signals for help. I just wanted to be left alone to nurse my wounds. When I felt strong enough to rejoin civilization I lit a fire every night until a plane spotted me. Then I decided to lay low and not give word to the family that I was alive. It was best for everyone.”
“You think so?” Steve scoffed skeptically.
“People already thought I was dead. I’m sure some of them grieved for me. I wasn’t about to twist the knife in the wound by reappearing two years later.”
“Two years? You spend two years on that island?”
“Give or take a few days.”
“My father died a few weeks before I was born,” Steve related dismally, his head hanging low with sorrow. “But I do remember in later years my mom crying in the middle of the night. I was just a toddler, but I distinctly remember the sobbing,” Steve recalled painfully. “She was crying for the both of you.”
“I don’t blame you for being angry at me, but it was the best thing to do for everyone involved.”
“You were selfish,” Steve snarled.
“Maybe. But it’s over. No sense dwelling on it now. I had no intention of making myself known to you. I thought you’d never recognize me. I just saw you looking so dejected that I had to do something.”
“You did. Your words comforted me. But I guess if it had been anyone else it wouldn’t have made such an impact.”
Alfred drew in a deep breath and stood from the bench. “I’m sorry I showed us, Steve. Like I said I never wanted you to see me.”
Steve stood and looked him straight in the eyes imploringly. “But now that I have, you will stay?”
“I can’t. I’m not strong enough.”
“We’ll help each other,” Steve insisted with dewy eyes. “I want to know my grandfather.”
“Believe Steve you don’t want me in your life.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that.”
“You don’t need me messing up your reputation.”
“How do you mean.”
He paused to garner the courage to utter the words. “I’m a wanted man.”
Steve recoiled in shock. “Wanted man? In what?”
“Conspiracy. I didn’t just disappear because I wanted to. I needed to.”
“Let me help you.”
“I have contacts in high places. I’m sure they can clear you of any charges that weigh against you.”
“You don’t even know what they are. Besides who says I’m not guilty?”
That statement took Steve aback. Once he recovered his bearings, he spoke assertively. “I don’t believe you can be guilty of anything, except perhaps deserting your family.” Albert sighed in exasperation at Steve’s bullheadedness and averted from his gaze. “Please, let me help you. We’ll deal with this as a family.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “You are just like your father. One stubborn burrow.”
“It runs in the family,” Steve admitted, flashing a mischievous grin. “What do you say?”
“On one condition only.”
“You don’t say anything to anyone about my presence in Washington. I don’t mind you doing your little investigation, but don’t let word out that I’m in town or that I’m even alive. You might be sorry.”
“What is it that you did, Grandfather?” Steve was worried that this sordid affair of treason was far more complex than he was led to believe.
“I trust you’ll soon discover once you speak with Oscar Goldman.”
“Oscar? You know about Oscar Goldman?”
“I know about his brother Sam who died during the raid at Pearl Harbor. Ask him about me. He’ll tell you everything you want to know.” He turned and left Steve on that staggering information.
“Hey wait!” Steve hailed after him. “Where will you be?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll contact you. I’ll be Al so Jim won’t know it’s me.” He walked away leaving a dumbfounded Steve in his wake.
“Steve?” Oscar exclaimed upon opening the door to his hotel room. “Something wrong?”
“Can I come in?” With an acquiescing nod, Oscar widened the door and bade Steve enter. “Something is wrong?” he observed from the pinched expression.
“Oscar I need information about an Albert Austin.”
Oscar’s head snapped up at the name. “Why?”
“You know he was my grandfather?”
“The name does sound familiar,” came the cautious answer with a deep frown.
“Can you find out everything about him?”
“Please Oscar, I just need to know if what they say was true.”
“That he was involved in some sort of conspiracy?” Oscar’s silence pricked Steve’s curiosity. “Oscar? You know something I don’t, don’t you?”
“Yes Pal, I do.” Oscar wandered away to collect his thoughts that the name littered all over the place ‘Why is he asking me about him now?’ he thought, closing his eyes in despair at what Steve had unknowingly unearthed. “Why you’re coming to me with this? And especially now.”
“About my grandfather?” Oscar nodded. “I heard somewhere that he’d been accused of treason just like my father was,” Steve explained evasively, proceeding cautiously so not to arouse suspicion. “I clear Carl Austin of those charges so I’m hoping to exonerate my grandfather as well.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Why? What did he do that was so terrible? Or shall I say what the charges against him were?”
“He had my brother killed.”
Steve’s jaw dropped to the floor. “What did you just say?”
“You heard me.”
“I distinctly recall you saying your brother was killed during the raid on Pearl Harbor?”
“He was, so we thought.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“I learned not long ago that someone had him killed a few hours before the raid. He apparently knew about your grandfather’s plans to overthrow the American government. Lucky for him the raid occurred and my brother was written off as a casualty of war.”
“Those are serious accusations, Oscar. I hope you have solid proof of those allegations?”
“There’s a huge file on your grandfather’s activities before he vanished at the FBI. It’s highly confidential.”
“Can you retrieve it?”
“I could, but I won’t.”
“I’m asking you to.”
“Steve, let it go,” Oscar waved off in exasperation only to be gripped by the arm and swirled around to face a steely stare.
“You know I won’t,” Steve threatened.
“I know,” Oscar conceded. “Okay, Pal, you win. How much do you know so far?”
“He told me that…I mean I was told he died two years after my father’s death in a plane crash.”
“So we all thought. The FBI is still looking for him. They were reports of a castaway that was rescued from an island and the fisherman who found him identified him from still pictures.”
“How come this wasn’t in the news?”
“Apparently he asked his savior not to breathe a word of it and paid him handsomely to keep his mouth shut.”
“But obviously someone loosened his tongue.” Oscar nodded in affirmation. “If he is still alive he must be over eighty by now.”
“I see. So when were you going to tell me?” Steve quipped.
“This doesn’t concern you.”
“The hell it doesn’t!” Steve lashed out. “He was my grandfather. You recall my own father was branded a traitor too until I proved to the contrary. If I can do the same for my grandfather…”
“You might not like what you find.”
“That’s what I do for a living, remember,” Steve reminded with a friendly wink.
Oscar strained a smile and sighed in defeat. “All right. I’ll try to get you the file when I return to Washington. But I can’t make any promises. I’ll be in touch with you.”
“Thanks Oscar.” Oscar’s halfhearted smile put somewhat of a damper on Steve’s gushing appreciation.
Steve drove back home to find his restless father’s nose glued to the window. At first glimpse of Steve’s car, he opened the door and anxiously waited on the threshold.
“There you are son. I was worried about you.”
“Sorry dad. I wandered off again.”
“Everything okay?” He asked worriedly as he closed the front door behind him.
“Yeah dad. Everything’s fine,” Steve answered evasively, heedful not to make eye contact with his dad.
“Did you find him?”
“Euh no,” Steve wavered rather convincingly. “Well, it was one in a million shot that he would show up again. But it was worth the try.”
Jim arched an eyebrow at his son’s aloofness and slowly stepped up to him. “Steve, I know you. You’re not going to let it go that easily.”
“Perhaps I am, dad.” He flumped down on the sofa and leaned back. “Maybe I shouldn’t be chasing shadows.” Steve’s explanation failed to convince Jim who came to sit by his troubled son to stare him square in the eyes.
“I don’t believe you and neither do you.”
Steve flashed an amused grin at his father’s insight. “You know me so well.”
“I’ll help you any way I can.”
“I’ve asked Oscar to dig up information regarding Albert Austin. He’s flying back to Washington tomorrow. He’ll get in touch with soon as he has anything substantial.”
“Because…” Steve faltered at the blunder he was about to commit. “Grandfather was apparently involved with the US government.”
“Helen said he was Captain in the Navy but that’s about as far as it goes.”
“Maybe that’s all there was,” Steve sighed dejectedly, sinking further into the cushions.
“What d’you say we go out for dinner? Jim swiftly veered off subject to dispel the gloominess running rampant in the room. “Get our minds of….you know?”
“I’d rather stay in and order out if you don’t mind? Got a lot on my mind and to be honest, I don’t feel like going out in public just yet.”
“That suits me fine. Anything you want.”
Steve hauled himself out of the sofa and slouched toward the staircase. “I’ll go up to my room to change and then I’ll come down to help you with mom’s things.”
“Don’t bother. They are all packed in boxes. I did it while you were away.”
“Sorry I wasn’t there,” Steve repented.
“Don’t be sorry, son. Maybe it was for the best.”
Steve nodded weakly. “I’ll go change now.”
“Oh Steve, wait up!” Jim pulled out a folded paper from his breast pocket and handed it over to Steve. “I forgot to tell you. You had a phone call while you were away. A man named Al.”
“I know him. What did he want?”
“Just to give you his number so you can call him back,” he said pointing to the note.
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
“Is he a friend?”
“More like a business associate. Works at the OSI.”
“I see. I’ll leave you alone, then.”
“Thanks.” Steve headed up the stairs to his bedroom and closed the door. He sat on the bed, picked up the phone and dialed the number on the note. “Hi, it’s Steve. I got your message. We really need to talk.”
“I thought you might ask. I’ll meet you in the cemetery in an hour. How’s that?”
“I’ll be there.” Steve quickly contrived an excuse to leave the house to meet with Albert without arousing his dad’s suspicions.
“Dad, do you mind if we ordered Chinese tonight? I’ll go pick it up myself.”
“I can have it delivered.”
“They don’t deliver at Sam Chi. It’s the only place that whips up the most delicious chop suey.”
“All right.” His son’s unusual request pricked his curiosity but chose not to probe any deeper as he might sever the delicate emotional thread upon which Steve was walking. He took the orders and called the restaurant as Steve grabbed his car keys and headed to his car.
Soon he arrived at the cemetery and met with Alfred at Helen’s grave.
“I just spoke with Oscar Goldman.”
“So I take it you know what I’m accused of?”
“You apparently gave orders to have Sam Goldman killed?” Steve implied, though not convincingly.
“It was necessary,” Al said matter-of-factly without reservations.
Steve staggered back in utter shock. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You?”
“Understand that it was matter of national security. He was going to blow the whistle on our organization.”
“What organization? One that planned to overthrow the government?” Steve implied witheringly.
“Steve you weren’t there. You don’t know what went on. We were at war.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Steve deplored, shaking his head in dismay. “Here I was ready to defend you; to exonerate you of all reproach and you tell me this is all true?” Shame-faced, Al hung his head. “I’m sorry but I’ll have to bring you in.” Steve reluctantly stood his ground.
“I thought you might say that.” Al produced a gun from out of his pocket. “I’m sorry Steve but I lived this long trouble free. I’m not about to change that now. Not even for you. I knew it was a mistake to come here but I had to say goodbye to your mother. Despite it all she was very special to me.”
“And I’m supposed to believe that after what you told me was a lie? The plane crash and all?”
“Leave it be Steve. You were better off not knowing.”
“You killed my best friend’s brother. My own grandfather!” Steve lashed out, loathing the very thought of it. “I’m sorry but…” his words were cut short by the pricking sensation in the back of his neck. His hand went to pull out the tiny dart that he stared at with horror as he slowly felt his knees buckle and his vision go blur. He threw a leer at Al before crumbling to the ground.
“Be gentle with him,” a relatively remorseful Al instructed to the two men emerging from behind a thicket.
“Of course we will,” sniggered of the men. “He’s valuable merchandise. Besides we won’t have to lay a hand on him with what we’ve given him. He’ll be out like a light for a good twelve hours.” He beckoned his cohort to help him heft the heavy weight to carry to their awaiting van.
“I want to go with him.”
“Suit yourself, Old Man.”
Al kept a wary eye on the two men as they lay Steve in a gurney at the back of the van. He hopped inside to sit across his grandson as the men took seat in front to drive away to the airport.
“I’m so sorry, boy. I truly am,” a guilty conscience confided to the unconscious man. “You have to believe me I never wanted anything like this to happen, but…but you see they conned me into it. They threatened to blow the whistle on me if I didn’t help them. Somehow you are highly valuable to them but they wouldn’t tell me why. It couldn’t just be on account that you’re a famous personality. There has to be more than that. Maybe you can enlighten me as to the reason they are willing to kill to deliver you abroad.” A sigh fraught with remorse escaped his lips as he reflected on his actions thus far. He needed a friend in Steve; not an enemy.
At the airport the van headed toward an isolated hangar. The passengers met with a tall imposing figure that ordered them to unload the precious cargo and prep him for the trip down to Sao Paulo in South America. The plan was to pass Steve off as a terminally ill patient in dire need of a heart transplant, which delicate procedure was to be undertaken in a specialized medical facility. The airport intendant verified the information with the alleged Dr. Paulino, which in reality was a stand in for the real McCoy. The phone number given reached a fake doctor at a small business office rented for the occasion to cover their tracks.
Jim drew the curtains for the umpteenth times, his nerves raw from Steve’s lateness at returning with the order. Unable to wait much longer he grabbed the phone and called Oscar’s hotel room. “Oscar, it’s Jim. I’m sorry to bother you so late but I was wondering if Steve was with you by any chance?”
“No he’s not. He did come by late this afternoon.”
“He said he was going out to get some take outs but it’s been two hours.”
“Perhaps he met with an acquaintance and they are out reminiscing,” Oscar mitigated, though his instincts were telling him otherwise.
“He would have called to say he’d be late.”
“That’s true. Okay, I’ll come right over.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
Oscar twitched a jacket off the bedpost and slipped it on but as he headed toward the door, the phone rang. He retraced his steps and answered. “Yes, thank you. I’ll be here when he comes deliver it.”
“You understand Mister Goldman that the documents are for your eyes only,” warned the FBI officer.
“May I enquire as to the reason for your requesting them?”
“Let’s just say I might have a lead on where Albert Austin could be hiding, but I need more information about the man and his previous activities.”
“Very well. The messenger should be at your hotel at precisely ten o’clock.”
“I’ll be there. I am to fly back to Washington tomorrow morning. I’ll bring them with me.
“Make sure you do. We’ll be looking forward to your report.”
Back at the airport, Steve was all prepped up to board the Sao Paulo-bound 747 for the journey down to the foreign spy ring to which Albert Austin once adhered. He was now under their yoke and contravening any given order was signing his own death warrant. Although once a ruthless corrupted officer, he long since reacquainted with his inner soul; an essence that was overshadowing his dark past and brought forth the decency and righteousness that he once knew as a young adult. Caught between right and wrong, Albert pondered his next move carefully as to whether hitch along for the ride or try to cut loose and save his grandson from a fate he suspected was worse than death.
“Now that we’re here, mind telling me what you plan to do with him?” Albert spoke with grave deliberation, intent on getting to the truth prior to boarding that plane.
“Why do you care?” One man hissed, annoyed by the old man’s constant nagging. “You had your orders and you fulfilled them. We’ll leave you alone now.”
“I want to see HIM!” he insisted with a steely glare that failed to impress the two thugs.
“He ain’t here,” hurled the second man.
“Yes I am,” boomed the voice from behind. With a wave of the hand he dismissed the two aides and stepped up to Albert with a daunting poise. “What’s on your mind, Austin? Don’t tell me you’re suddenly having second thoughts because I won’t have it,” he warned.
“I’m not. I performed my part of the bargain now it’s your turn.”
“My turn? For what?”
“I want to know where you’re taking my grandson.”
“Why to Sao Paulo, of course,” the boss mocked.
“You know what I mean.”
“Why do you concern yourself with trivialities? Do you actually care what happens to him?”
“Well, what do we attribute this sudden change of attitude toward a man just a few days ago you couldn’t care less about?”
“That’s not true,” Albert fiercely defended. “Granted I was apathetic to whatever fate awaited a complete stranger but he’s not anymore and I want to know where exactly you intent to do with him.”
The boss smirked. “I’ve been offered ten million dollar for Steve Austin. My client is interested in studying him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t? Surely you’re aware your grandson is the world first bionic man?” Albert shocked expression was self-explanatory. “You really didn’t know?” Bewildered, Albert shook his head. “He’s Dr. Rudy Well’s achievement. Part human, part machine. Besides knowing what he does about you all the better that he should disappear. You’re anonymity will be intact.”
“What you meant about studying him,” Albert ventured to ask, “what exactly does that imply?”
The man shrugged, “Who cares? All I want is the money.”
“This is where we part, Austin. You’re free to go.” He stepped up to Albert, deep in thoughts about his next move and spoke threateningly, “I wouldn’t advise you to go spill your guts to the nearest sympathetic ear about our little arrangement or you won’t see your next birthday, old man.”
“I won’t. I’m not suicidal,” Albert fibbed rather convincingly.
Once the boss out of the room, Al left the hangar and headed straight for the airport terminal. There he found a secluded phone booth and dialed the OSI number.
“I need to speak to Oscar Goldman. It’s urgent!”
“May I ask who’s calling, please?” Callahan probed, doubtful this caller was legitimate.
“I can’t. Just tell him it’s about Steve Austin.”
“I’m sorry but Mister Goldman is away right now.”
“Where is he?”
“In Ojai, California.”
“Give me the number where I can reach him.” Sensing panic in the man’s voice, Callahan quickly passed the hotel number and gave Jim’s number as well in case Oscar should be at his house. Albert thanked her and dialed the hotel’s number. No answer. Then he tried his luck with Jim Elgin’s.
“Hello,” Jim answered.
“Is Oscar Goldman there? I need to speak to him. It’s urgent.”
“Sure,” Jim glanced up at Oscar and handed him over the receiver. “It’s for you.”
“Mister Goldman, you don’t know me but I want you to listen very carefully.”
“You need to go to Los Angeles Airport right away. Take a back up along to hangar number 3. There you’ll find Steve Austin.”
“Steve? Why? What’s happened to him?”
“He’s been kidnapped and they intent to fly down to South America with him to be delivered to Sao Paulo. I was told there’s a client who is willing to pay ten million dollars for him.”
“Where do you hold this information?”
“Let’s just say I was an unwilling partner in this transaction and I wish to reverse the process. I can’t make a move or they’ll kill me.”
“All right. You say hangar 3?” Oscar scribbled down the information on a pad.
“That’s right. They’ve administered him a strong sedative to keep him unconscious during the trip. They’re going to pass him as an ill patient traveling to Sao Paulo to get a heart transplant. They will be loading him onto the Northwest nine-thirty flight 232. Hurry, or it’ll be too late.”
“We’ll ground all the planes until we find him. Thank you for the information.”
“And when you get to him, tell him…well tell him I’m sorry and that I never meant for things to go this far.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He’ll know,” Albert quavered, quickly hanging up before Oscar could ask him to elaborate.
“Oscar, what is it? What about Steve,” Jim asked worriedly.
“Steve’s been kidnapped.”
“Just got an anonymous tip that he’s being carried aboard a plane bound for South America.” He picked up the phone again and dialed the OSI branch in LA. After instructing his men to meet him at the airport, he grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.
“I’m going with you.”
“No Jim. I’d rather you stay here.”
“Try and stop me!” Jim warned with a scorching stare that told Oscar of the futility of his arguments.
At the airport, concealed behind a newspaper Albert watched helplessly as they carried Steve aboard the plane through the main gate. He nervously scanned the airport for any sign of Oscar and a team of agents swarming the place but so far nothing. ‘Don’t tell me they got stuck in traffic?’ Albert wondered to himself.
He recalled Oscar assuring him that he would order the planes to be grounded but had the instructions been relayed? He bit his lip until it bled, pondering whether he should undertake the delicate task of revealing the plot and risk innocent lives?
“Hold it!” he hailed to the custom guards who allowed the patient and the two pseudo doctors to pass through. “It’s a kidnapping.”
“Sir, what are you talking about?” asked one of the guards with one hand on his gun holster.
“This fake patient is famous astronaut Steve Austin. He’s being taken against his will.”
The second guard went to study Steve’s features and confirmed the identity. “We were told Thomas Cunningham was the patient.”
“Why you bastard!” cursed one of the ‘doctors’ as he whipped a revolver from under his smock and aimed it at Albert’s head.
The gate guards were unfortunately no matches for the bullet’s speed that hit its target, thrusting the old man backwards. The two men were quickly subdued while the gun report yanked Steve out of unconsciousness. He blinked open his eyes and tried to focus on his surroundings. Oscar’s face was the first one to clearly come into view.
“Hey, Pal. You okay?”
“Oscar?” Steve croaked, swallowing hard to moisten his parched throat. “What…what’s… where am I?”
“LA Airport.” Oscar informed as he undid the restraints around Steve’s prone body.
“What?” a bemused Steve asked.
Oscar assisted his groggy friend to sit on the gurney. “You came close to flying down to South America.”
Baffled, Steve ran a hand over his face to shake the cobwebs away. “South America? What for?”
Before Oscar could elaborate, Russ walked over to them. “Steve, your grandfather wants to speak with you.”
“Grandfather? Where is he?”
Russ motioned to the two medical orderlies prepping the victim for transport. Steve’s eyes bulged out of their socket as he identified the man lying on the floor. He leapt out of the gurney and dashed over to his grandfather.
“I’m….I’m sorry Steve,” Al breathed out, cracking a weak smile. “I never wanted this, believe me.”
“They found where…where I was hiding and blackmailed me.”
“Said if…if I didn’t….didn’t cooperate, they’d,” he coughed, “ they’d go to the FBI. I didn’t think they’d want to…to hurt you.”
“Hurt me? What are you talking about?” Steve insisted, more in the dark than ever.
“They drugged you and planned to fly down to South America to…” Albert faltered as he winced in pain.
“You’re safe now. Glad I prevented it. Don’t resent me too much. I swear…I swear to you, boy. I never wanted thisssssssss.” The voice trailed off as the life ebbed away.
“No!” Steve cried, his numbed mind still trying to grasp at the reality of the moment. “Don’t leave me, now. You can’t do this!”
Oscar edged up to Steve and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. Angry and confused, Steve slapped it away and bolted to his feet to glower at Oscar. “Dammit Oscar, will you tell me what’s going on? Why was he shot?”
“Come on, Steve. Let’s go somewhere private.”
“No! I don’t want to leave him.”
“Alright,” Oscar conceded, risking a hand on his friend’s shoulder and relieved to find the gesture was now welcomed.
The next day, Oscar drove to the Elgin farm to check on Steve before flying down to Washington.
Jim welcomed him at the door and bade him enter. “I’m catching a flight to Washington in an hour. I came by to see if you and Steve needed anything.”
“We’ll be fine, Oscar. We’ll muddle through somehow. We have to. Thanks for offering, though.”
“Is Steve around?”
“No, he needed some time to himself.”
“Where is he?” Oscar asked worriedly.
Jim shrugged. “He didn’t say. But I have a pretty good idea. He often goes to his favorite spot by the lake when he needs to collect his thoughts.”
“Thanks,” Oscar said obligingly with a knowing smile.
“Go easy on him. He took it rough.”
Oscar patted Jim’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. I will.”
Oscar walked down to the lake out back where he found Steve sitting on the grass, idly throwing pebbles into the water. He stopped, dithering whether he should intrude on his friend’s privacy. He watched as Steve wrapped his arms around his bent knees and buried his face in his legs. Oscar stared down at his feet, his eyes welling up with tears at the thought of his friend ravaged by grief. He drew in a few deep breaths, sniffed back the tears and walked up to the bereaved man.
“Mind if I sit down?”
Startled, Steve’s head shot back and red-puffy eyes began focusing on the figure before him. “I won’t be good company.”
Oscar construed the answer as a yes and bent down to sit by Steve. “I’m leaving for Washington today. I came by to see how you were holding up.”
“Two deaths in the family in less than a month. I expect it’ll take some time to get my bearings back.”
“That’s understandable.” A silence fell between the two men before Oscar spoke again, “For all it’s worth Steve, he did save your life.”
“And that’s supposed to make up for what he did to your brother?” Steve quipped with a tinge of cynicism.
“No, it doesn’t. I can never forgive him for that, but…”
“But what? I’m supposed to sweep everything under the carpet? Don’t ask me to do that Oscar because I can’t. Not now anyway. What he did to my mother and to you is inexcusable.”
“He had his reasons.”
“Are you defending him?” Steve asked with disgust.
“I stopped resenting him long ago because it was killing me, not him. You’ll learn to bury it in the recesses of your mind without necessarily absolving him of his crime. You and I both can’t condone what he did but we can’t go on nurturing a hate that will eventually consume us.”
Steve stood and brushed the bits of dirt off his pants. “I can’t right now. The hurt is too raw.”
In turn, Oscar rose to his feet and reached inside his breast pocket to pull out an envelope. “He had this on him when they threw away his clothes at the hospital. It’s addressed to you.”
Steve frowned. “What does it say?”
“I didn’t open it.” He handed it over to Steve. “By the way I have the FBI file on your grandfather’s activities during World War II.”
“I’m not interested anymore.”
“All right. I’ll take it back with me. Take care of yourself, Pal. I’ll see you back in Washington.” Steve gave a weak nod of the head. “If there’s anything you need, you know where to find me.” He gave Steve a heartening pat on the shoulder and walked away, leaving Steve alone with his thoughts.
A few cleansing breaths later Steve found the courage to rip open the envelope to pull out a letter that he unfolded and read with a heavy heart:
What a great joy it was for me to see you after all these years. I’d followed your exploits in the media and felt so proud of my little boy. You were just like your father. When I heard about your terrible accident I wanted to pick up the phone and call your mother to offer my help and support but I figured I’d better leave things the way they were or it might have caused more harm than good. She certainly didn’t need me to stir up the past.
Then the former enemy organization I worked for during World War II located me and coerced me to make contact with you. They explained that they merely wanted to speak to you about a project that apparently the OSI was involved in. I didn’t see any harm in that at first. Then I realized just how twisted their scheme was and I couldn’t go through with it.
I’m sitting at the airport, watching their every move, hoping that your boss Oscar Goldman will arrive before they carry you aboard the plane. I cannot allow them to take you down to South America for what I was told would be a gruesome experiment on your bionic parts.
Steve reacted at the news that his grandfather knew about his special nature. He swallowed hard and read on.
I know that if I have to stop them myself I may not come out of this alive, hence the reason for this letter. I ask you not to hate me, although I’ve giving you reasons to. Call me a fool, a traitor, a murder…take your pick. I’m not asking you to condone my actions because even I can’t bring myself to reconcile with what I did. I’m just asking you not to nourish hatred and let it fester inside. Your father needs you to be strong for him. I’ve made my peace, so should you.
“Damn you!” Steve cried out, crumbling the letter in his hand and throwing it into the water. He then crumbled to his knees and dissolved into tears.