As the final shot rang out, Steve plastered himself against the wall, waiting. He carefully peered around the corner, checking for the henchman’s location. Ascertaining the distance and time it will take to cover the distance, Steve bolted from his cover, taking the henchman by surprise.
With the man pinned to the ground, Steve muttered, “I need a vacation. Soon.”
Once the authorities arrived, Steve turned his prisoners over and left the scene. He had dispatched 17 men over the course of the afternoon, only to find the boss had fled. Steve was very unhappy and planned on telling Oscar about it.
Hiding out in Rudy’s office, Steve put together his report.
Rudy walked in, surprised to see Steve. “When did you get back?” He seated himself on the couch.
“A couple of hours ago,” Steve replied while putting the papers in order. Although he wasn’t too fond of his assignments, he hated the paperwork even more.
“I take it Oscar doesn’t know you’re back,” Rudy commented. He had just left Oscar’s office, and Oscar hadn’t mentioned a word of Steve’s return.
“Nope.” Steve finished assembling the package. “Sorry to type and run, Rudy, but I want to get this to Oscar and head on home before he finds something else for me to do.”
In the midst of reading a report, Oscar was startled when Steve strode into the office, dropped his paperwork on the desk and bolted out the door.
Oscar leaned forward, picking up the packet. An attached note read, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” Oscar shook his head, chuckling. He set aside the packet for later.
Steve put his plan into effect. He quickly packed an array of clothing into duffle bags and nap sacks, grabbed a stash of cash he kept for emergencies, and wrote out all his bills, paying them several months in advance.
His last task was to drop off the rent check at the Landlord’s apartment. Steve explained he would be away for a while, and asked if she would keep an eye on the place. She readily agreed.
Whistling a happy tune, Steve bounded down the steps to his car, heading for parts unknown.
Steve decided to drive until dark, finding an out of the way hotel to spend the night. He made plans to have his car towed back to D.C. and would obtain another means of transportation. Steve knew he had to outwit Oscar if he planned on having any sort of vacation. He figured Oscar wouldn’t miss him until the following day, so he needed to put as much distance between him and Oscar during that time.
Steve settled into bed for a good night’s sleep. Prior to nodding off, he formulated his plan. As he fell asleep, Steve still had a smile on his face, thinking of his newfound freedom, even if it would be for a short period of time.
The following morning, Steve had a good breakfast, and then set his plan into motion. He located an interstate towing company and paid them cash for taking his car to D.C. Steve put in a bonus for them to keep their mouths shut if questioned regarding Steve’s whereabouts.
Steve called a cab, loaded his stuff into the trunk and instructed the driver to take him to the nearest commercial airport. The driver obliged, knowing the trip will make for a good fair, and hopefully a good tip.
At the airport, Steve stood studying the airline departures. Reaching his destination would require two connecting flights and one four-hour layover. He approached the airline counter and paid cash for the one-way tickets, booking them under the name of “Francis Walters”, a friend of his.
Steve boarded the flight with a sense of satisfaction. He knew Oscar would be furious, but Steve didn’t care. He wanted a vacation.
Around midnight Steve had reached his destination. His first task was to get a good night’s sleep. The next morning he would go into town and obtain the necessary equipment for surviving in the Alaskan wilderness.
Oscar sat in his chair, feet on the desk, reading a report. By mid-morning, Steve had not checked in, which was odd.
Oscar never concerned himself when Steve was absent the day after he returned from a mission, but this is the second day back.
Oscar sat up in the chair and dropped the report on the desk. He dialed Steve’s number and waited for an answer. After about 15 rings, he hung up the phone and buzzed for Callahan.
“Yes, Mr. Goldman?” came the voice from the box.
“Miss Callahan, have you seen or heard from Colonel Austin this morning?” Oscar questioned.
“No sir, I haven’t. Last time I saw him was a couple of days ago when he dropped off his report,” she replied.
“Thank you. Let me know if you hear from him,” Oscar asked, flipping off the switch on the intercom.
Deciding to check with Rudy, Oscar left the office in search of the Doctor.
Looking up from the microscope, Rudy said “Morning Oscar.” He returned his attention to the scope.
“Morning. Have you seen or heard from Steve today?” Oscar asked.
Without looking up, “No, I haven’t. Why?”
Oscar seated himself on a stool. “He hasn’t checked in today.”
Rudy scribbled a few notes, turned off the microscope and turned his attention to Oscar. “He’s overdue for a vacation, Oscar. Cut him some slack.” Rudy had always looked out for Steve’s best interest, both physical and psychological. Rudy often bumped heads with Oscar when it came to vacation time for Steve.
“Yes, he’s due, but…”
“No buts, Oscar. Give him a break. You’ve run him ragged for the past five months. A couple of days without him isn’t going to kill you,” Rudy insisted.
Oscar sighed. Knowing he wouldn’t win the argument, but get his way in the end, he said his goodbyes and returned to the office. By mid-afternoon, his schedule permitted him to leave the office for a while. Oscar headed to Steve’s apartment.
The old lady looked out the window when she heard knocking on the door across from her.
She opened her door, “He’s not home.”
Oscar whipped around and looked down at the woman. “Excuse me?”
“He’s not home. Colonel Austin. Gone. Looks like he planned on being gone for a while. Took duffle bags and knapsacks,” she replied.
Putting on the Goldman charm, he smiled. “You must be Mrs. Connelly. Steve said you keep an eye on the place while he travels.”
The woman looked him up and down. “Goldman. Humph. He said if he ever decided to take off you would come looking for him. Well. He’s not home. Go away.” She slammed the door behind her, returning to her position behind the curtains.
Oscar turned to the door, pulled out a key and opened it, all the while chuckling to himself.
Once inside Steve’s apartment, he looked around for signs of Steve’s departure. Sure enough, Oscar noticed Steve’s Air Force duffle bags were missing, along with most of the outdoors clothing.
Oscar wandered through the apartment, looking for any sign of where Steve might have gone. The only thing he found was a note taped to the bathroom mirror.
Oscar ripped it off and read it aloud, “Hey Tom, catch me if you can. Signed Jerry.” Oscar folded the note and left the apartment. On his way back to the office, he muttered, “Steve, what are you up to now?”
Rudy entered the office to find Oscar pacing the floor, screaming into the phone. He seated himself on the couch, waiting for the tirade to subside. Oscar tossed the note in the Doctor’s direction. Rudy caught and read the note, then started chuckling.
Oscar slammed down the phone. “And just what are you laughing at, Dr. Wells?”
Rudy continued laughing. “You brought this on yourself, Oscar.”
“What the heck is he referring to in the note?” Oscar questioned, furious.
Rudy continued laughing. “You are kidding, right? No, of course you’re not. Tom & Jerry? They are cartoon characters. Cat and mouse. Steve’s disappeared and if you need him, you’ll have to find him.” Rudy tried to stop laughing, and managed to bring it down to a low chuckle.
“Cat and mouse? He thinks this is a game?” Oscar bellowed.
Rudy shook his head. “No, Oscar, that’s not the point. He thinks that this,” Rudy swept his arm around the office, “is the game. I’ve tried to tell you in the past not to push him too hard, but you never listen.””
Oscar glared at Rudy. “Go ahead. Say it.”
Rudy smiled. “I told you so.”
While Oscar continued his tirade in Washington, Steve woke to a beautiful sunny day.
He ventured out for a good breakfast, found a couple of outdoors shops where he purchased his equipment and received some valuable advice from the locals.
“If you see an area that appears muddy, stay away from it. It’s quicksand. People have lost limbs and lives when they got caught in it,” one old-timer instructed him.
He returned to the hotel, gathered his belongings, checked out and tossed them into the Jeep he rented.
With the map spread out on the hood of the vehicle, Steve plotted his course. He noticed an Air Force base just a short distance from Anchorage, so he decided to go in the opposite direction.
“No need to make it too easy for Oscar to find me,” he muttered to himself.
Steve put the Jeep into gear and headed off toward a park where camping is permitted.
By mid-afternoon, Steve had found the perfect spot by the river. He checked out the nearby cave for visitors; finding it empty, he moved into it.
The location would provide him with a perfect place to kick back and rest, away from society.
Come early evening, a roaring campfire illuminated the cave. Steve was fortunate to notice the hole in the roof so he could have an indoor fire as well as outdoor. After cooking and eating his dinner, Steve leaned back against the wall with a book in hand.
“This is the life,” he muttered, smiling to himself.
A week had passed since Steve’s disappearance. After the initial shock that Steve would pull such a stunt, Oscar backed off and decided to give Steve a few days, hoping he’d eventually check in just to say he’s okay.
Oscar now paced the floor, talking with an agent in the field, one of many assigned to find Steve.
Rudy sat on the couch, waiting. He wasn’t concerned by Steve’s absence, and silently cheered his friend for managing to escape the real world for a while.
Oscar hung up the phone. Turning to Rudy, “It’s like he’s fallen off the face of the Earth.” He returned to his desk, plopping into the chair.
“You trained him well,” Rudy commented. “No leads at all?”
Oscar fiddled with a paperclip. “None at all,” he replied. “He’s got to be in the wilderness somewhere. He knows there’s too much of it to search.”
“And apparently he made a clean break by paying cash for everything,” Rudy commented. “The reports on credit card activity have come back negative.” Rudy had been reluctantly drawn into the search.
Oscar dropped the paperclip, and left his desk to stare at the map on the wall. Rudy stood by him a moment later.
“He could be anywhere,” Rudy commented.
Oscar agreed, trying to think of what states would appeal to Steve. “I think we can rule out the mid-West or South. He likes the mountains.”
“That still leaves us with a lot of territory, including Canada and Alaska,” Rudy added.
Oscar shook his head. “We’ve already checked with the border authorities. The only way he could be in Canada is if he slipped through the border. And Alaska would be too cold.”
“Not at this time of year,” Rudy commented. “It’s summer, remember? They may not get as warm as the lower 48 states, but they do have a few months of nice weather. I doubt he’s there anyway. There are plenty of places in the West alone that he could enjoy,” Rudy said. In the back of his mind, he remembered Steve talking about Alaska one time, but Rudy wasn’t about to give up the information. He really didn’t believe Steve would have ventured that far North, but just in case he did, Rudy didn’t want to jeopardize Steve’s vacation.
Steve woke to a bright sunny morning. After a month in the wilderness, he decided it was time to move to his next destination. Given the time he was gone, Steve knew Oscar would be close to finding him.
Steve now sported a full beard and mustache, which he intended on keeping until he arrived in Hawaii. After packing his gear, he headed into town to return the jeep. Returning to the store he purchased his gear, Steve managed to dump all his gear on an old-timer whose grandson was in need of fishing gear.
Once at the airport, he studied the flights, settling on a direct flight to Los Angeles, then on to Hawaii. Knowing Oscar would probably check the airport, Steve opted to use yet another name. He also dropped a letter off at the carrier he first arrived upon. Slipping the manager a one hundred dollar bill assured him the letter would be delivered, but no knowledge of the person who left it behind would be divulged.
By late evening, Steve was safely tucked away in a hotel room on the Big Island, as the locals call it. He busied himself by shaving and taking a long hot shower. Once out of the shower, he watched the local news and then hit the sack, smiling. He’d love to see Oscar’s face when he reads the letter.
The following morning, O.S.I. 1 settled on the runway of the Anchorage airport. Oscar departed, with Rudy in tow. Rudy insisted on tagging along so he could prevent Steve from ripping Oscar apart in the event they actually found him.
Oscar made inquiries at all of the airlines. As luck has it, at the final airline, he struck gold.
“I don’t know about the person you’re referring to, but there is a letter here addressed to you,” the counter manager said. He retrieved the envelope from the safe and handed it to Oscar.
Oscar thanked the man and strode away to a quiet corner where he ripped open the envelope.
Rudy looked on over Oscar’s shoulder, stifling his laughter.
Oscar read aloud, “Tom – The game continues, and you’re currently losing. Roll the dice and take chance. – Jerry P.S. Tell Doc I feel better now than I have in a long time.” Disgusted, Oscar crumbled the paper and tossed it and the envelope in the nearest trashcan.
“Doesn’t he realize this is not a game,” Oscar said gruffly.
“It’s only a game because you’ve turned it into one,” Rudy said. “He needed time off and the only way he could get it was to disappear. I really don’t think Steve cares one way or another if you find him. He’ll return to Washington in his own time,” Rudy explained.
“And how many months will that be?” Oscar questioned, heading for the airport exist. “I’ve needed him three times in the past month.”
“And each time you’ve managed to get someone else to handle the assignment,” Rudy finished. “Let’s face it Oscar, you depend on him too much.”
Oscar glared at Rudy for a moment, turned on his heel and boarded the plane. Rudy followed, figuring it would be an uncomfortable flight to Ojai. Oscar wanted to check with Steve’s parents and Jamie, unannounced.
Jamie, outside playing with Max, heard a car coming down the road. She turned to watch and was surprised to see it turn into the drive. A moment later, her two favorite men got out of the car.
“Hi guys,” she said, hugging both men. “What brings you out here?”
Max padded up beside Jamie for a moment, checked out Rudy and Oscar, and then bounded off to the barn.
“He looks well,” Rudy commented as Oscar guided them to the house.
“He’s a big, spoiled dog,” Jamie said, “and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Once inside, Jamie retrieved a couple of sodas from the fridge, and then seated herself at the table.
Oscar and Rudy took seats across from her. “Where are Helen and Jim?” Oscar asked.
“On vacation,” Jamie replied. “They are visiting friends in Maine. Why do you ask?”
“Jamie, have you heard from Steve recently, like within the past month?” Rudy questioned.
“No, can’t say that I have. Why?” Jamie asked, concerned.
“He’s missing,” Oscar said.
“Not actually missing,” Rudy corrected. “He took it upon himself to take vacation time. At the end of his last mission, a little over a month ago, he up and disappeared. We know he was in Alaska, because of a letter he left for Oscar. Where he is now, we haven’t a clue.”
“Do you have any idea where he could have gone?” Oscar questioned.
Jamie sat quietly, thinking. She didn’t want to help Oscar locate Steve, but she also felt she still owed Oscar a debt. “Alaska you said?”
Jamie sat thinking. “Well, I can’t speak for Steve, but I know if I were in his situation, after a month in the wilderness, I’d find some out of the way place in civilization. Someplace off the beaten path, but close to the amenities of a town or city,” she said. Jamie finished the soda and tossed it into the trashcan.
“Unfortunately, that could be anywhere,” Oscar said. “I’ve already got agents out in the field again, looking for clues of his whereabouts. I guess we’ll go back to Washington and wait for another clue to emerge.”
“Oscar, don’t you think Steve needs some time off?” Jamie questioned.
Oscar just closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “Jamie…”
Rudy interrupted, “Having time off is one thing, disappearing altogether is another. What if something happened to him and he couldn’t communicate his needs?” Rudy wasn’t trying to side with Oscar, only trying to keep Oscar from exploding once again.
“Exactly,” Oscar agreed, standing to get the phone.
While he called the base to arrange flight plans back to Washington, Rudy and Jamie chatted idly. They went out to find Max, and to talk.
Leaning against the fence, “Oscar has been a bear for the past month,” Rudy explained. “Steve has made a game of this and Oscar is not amused.”
“He really needs to lighten up,” Jamie commented. “If he’d give Steve a break every now and then, this wouldn’t happen. I can’t blame Steve for running off. If I were in his position, I’d probably do the same thing.” Jamie had come close to disappearing on numerous occasions, but Rudy had stepped in at the right time to force Oscar to back off.
Oscar emerged from the house and called for Rudy.
“Take care of yourself, and for heaven’s sake, don’t cross Oscar,” Rudy warned, giving Jamie a hug and a kiss.
Oscar waited impatiently in the car, wanting to get one the road. Rudy finally climbed into the back seat.
“Another dead end,” Oscar announced.
The driver quickly turned the car around and headed for the base. Within the hour, the two men were heading back to Washington.
Steve sat at the ocean’s edge, soaking up the sun. He found an isolated beach near the hotel and spent a few hours there each day. Another two weeks had passed when he had the urge to relocate. He knew Oscar would be doing everything in his power to locate him.
Steve sat contemplating his next move while watching the sunset.
“Under his nose,” Steve muttered. “That’s where I need to be next, right under his nose.” He sat a while longer as the sun began to fade, a smile playing on his face. “Of course.” He said, climbing to his feet.
By late the following morning, Steve was on a plane, destination Colorado. The Lab was tucked neatly into the Rocky Mountains, not far from NORAD or the Air Force Academy. The mountains behind the lab would prove to be a perfect hideout for the next phase of his vacation. Knowing where the security boundaries ended and the wilderness began, Steve figured he could camp out a couple of miles up the mountainside and still be able to keep an eye out on the lab.
He arrived in Colorado Springs, the closest city to the Lab, in late afternoon, keeping as low a profile as possible. The last thing he needed was to be spotted by one of the Lab Rats, as he liked to refer to the employees of the Lab.
He grabbed a cab into town and managed to his a sporting goods store shortly before closing.
The cabbie waited patiently for his passenger, who exited the store weighed down with gear. The cabbie helped his passenger load the gear in the trunk, and then headed off toward abandoned park on the outskirts of town.
As Steve paid the cabbie, he was offered the following advice, “Don’t go too much farther east of here. There’s some sort of government installation with guards who shoot first and ask questions later, so I’ve been told.”
Steve thanked the man for the advice, chuckling inwardly. He watched the car drive off, and then carefully picked his way up the mountainside, using infrared all the way. Traveling about an hour got him up as far as he needed. He quickly set up camp for the night and turned in, planning to scope out the area the following morning to determine if he needed to move on or stay put.
“I think we’ve got him,” Ross announced, bursting into Oscar’s office. “And you’re not going to believe where.”
It had now been two months since Steve’s disappearance, and Oscar was fit to be tied.
“Where?” Oscar demanded, in no mood for games.
“Colorado Springs,” Ross replied. “One of our contacts happened to talk to a cabbie who mentioned dropping off a guy at a closed park near the Lab. Our contact had the cabbie describe the guy, and the description fits Steve.”
Oscar grabbed the phone, calling Andrews Air Force Base. “I want the plane ready to take off as soon as I get there.” He then called Rudy, instructing him to be in the garage in 5 minutes. “You’re coming too,” he said, grabbing Ross by the arm and hauling him out the door.
Steve had kept a close eye on the Lab for the past few days, not quite sure what to make of the activity. This particular morning, he didn’t like what he saw. “Time to go home,” he muttered. Gathering what gear he’d be able to take with him, he left just enough behind to make it appear he was still in the area. “This ought to keep them busy for a while.”
Steve found a different way off the mountain, away from the Lab. He eventually made it into the city, catching another cab.
“How much do you want to take me to Boulder?” Steve questioned.
The cabbie turned around and stared at his passenger. “Boulder? You’re kidding, right?”
“Your tip alone will be one hundred dollars. What about the fair?” Steve urged.
The cab driver’s eyebrows shot up. “Hey, I’ll just charge you the normal rate to Boulder and then double it for my return trip. Sound fair to you?”
Steve agreed. A couple of hours later, he instructed the driver to drop him off at the Boulder Municipal Airport. Steve paid the agreed price, plus the tip.
“Hey man, thanks!” said the driver. “If there is anything else I can do for you,” the driver trailed off.
“There is one thing,” Steve said. “If anyone should ask about me, you didn’t see me.”
“Sure thing,” the driver replied.
Steve watched the cab driver depart, and then entered the airport in search of a flight to Washington. He knew the direct route wouldn’t be the smartest, so he opted for a multi-leg trip, which would put him at an airport well out of the city. He paid cash, using yet another alias. The flight was scheduled to leave within the hour, so he found a quiet, out of the way place to spend the time.
While Steve sat waiting for his plane, Oscar and Rudy arrived at the Lab. They went searching for the head of security, finding him talking to a group of his men.
“Captain Peterson,” Oscar said, interrupting the conversation.
“Mr. Goldman, Dr. Wells,” Peterson replied.
“What’s the word?” Oscar said impatiently.
“My men found what looks like a campsite. It doesn’t look deserted, just empty for the moment. Another team of my men are searching the area for any clues,” Peterson replied.
“How far from here,” Rudy questioned.
“About 2 miles from Sector 12’s back gate. It’s rough terrain. Took my men a couple of hours to get up there.”
“Is there anyplace for a chopper to land?” Oscar questioned. He wanted to get up there as soon as possible.
“Yes sir, about a half mile from the site, on the other side. It should be an easy walk down to the camp,” Peterson replied. Much to his dismay, they had located the chopper-friendly site after spending all the time hiking up the mountain.
“Get a chopper ready. I want to leave in 10 minutes,” Oscar instructed, turning and walking away. Rudy and Ross followed close at his heals.
“Oscar, what are you going to do if you catch up with him?” Rudy questioned. He was not looking forward to a confrontation between the two men.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” Oscar replied grimly.
Within 30 minutes the trio disembarked from the chopper. A member of the security team patiently waited outside of the rotors reach.
“This way, Mr. Goldman,” the man said, leading Oscar, Rudy and Ross down a winding path. It took another 30 minutes before the entered the camp.
Oscar stood in the middle, slowly turning in a circle, taking in all the details. In the meantime, Rudy and Ross scoured the area for any sign that Steve might still be nearby.
Oscar spotted what appeared to be an envelope sticking out from under a rock. Stooping to move the rock, he picked up the envelope and leaned against a nearby boulder.
“Another letter?” Rudy questioned, seeing Oscar holding something white in his hands.
Oscar didn’t answer. The envelope was addressed to ‘Tom’. He opened it and read the contents aloud.
“Jerry – 3, Tom – 0. Tell Doc the security at the Lab needs to be beefed up. The back 40 is easily penetrated.”
“What?” Ross asked.
“I have a sneaking suspicion that Steve’s been in and out of the Lab without having been seen. We’ll have to check the security tapes,” Rudy said, concerned of a possible security breach.
Humorlessly, “Let’s go.” Oscar strode off toward the chopper, knowing that Steve was not in the area.
They returned to the Lab and had Security go over the tapes from the past week. Sure enough, Steve had wandered onto the property a couple of times, raiding the refrigerator in the nurse’s lounge.
“How the hell did he go unseen?” Oscar demanded.
“Oscar, Steve was here for almost a year. He knows this place in and out. He also knows that third shift is a skeleton crew within the building. All he had to do was avoid security and he could wander around all he wants,” Rudy explained. During the time that Steve became mobile, but wasn’t quite ready for discharge, Rudy had a devil of a time keeping up with him. Steve would find ways off the property without being seen, returning just as mysteriously.
“Damn,” Oscar said, pounding his fist on the table. “I can’t take much more of this.”
They spent the night at a hotel in Colorado Springs, and then returned to Washington the following morning.
Steve had arrived in Washington shortly after dark. He waited until late night to return to his apartment. Once inside, he kept the lights off until he assured himself the shades were drawn.
He put away a few groceries purchased at a convenience store down the street, then unpacked his belongings. Climbing into bed, Steve wondered how much longer he could avoid Oscar.
For the next couple of days, he laid low, opting to stay in the apartment, reading books and relaxing. He was amazed no one was watching the apartment.
Picking up the phone, he called Rudy.
“Wells,” the voice said.
“You alone?” Steve questioned.
“Steve? Yes, yes, I’m alone. Where are you? Hold on a second.” Rudy stood and closed the office door, first informing his secretary he didn’t want to be disturbed. He seated himself once again, picking up the phone.
“Where are you Steve? Oscar has gone ballistic looking for you.”
Steve laughed. “I really don’t care, Rudy. What is he going to do, fire me? Put me on administrative leave? Dock my paycheck? Other than losing his temper and yelling at me, there is nothing Oscar can do,” Steve retorted. “And he obviously isn’t looking to hard. I’ve been in my apartment for the past couple of days.”
Rudy started chuckling. “Well, to be honest, I hoped he wouldn’t find you until you were ready to return. Oh, I had to explain the Tom and Jerry reference.”
“You’re kidding,” Steve said. “It just shows you how limited a life he’s led.”
“Are you going to let Oscar know you’re back, or are you going to let him stew a little longer,” Rudy questioned. He knew Oscar had started another search.
“I’ve considered just walking into his office,” Steve said. “Let’s face it, he is in a no-win situation. Either he lets me have time off or I take it on my own terms, which he obviously doesn’t like.”
“You are right of course, which is probably why he’s so upset. He’s a control freak and you are a wild card,” Rudy said. Noticing Oscar just outside the office, “Got to go, he’s here.” Rudy hung up the phone as Oscar walked into the office.
Steve laid low until the following Monday, occasionally chatting with Rudy in the evening.
Early Monday morning, Steve drove into the office, managing to keep people quiet as he headed to see Oscar. Speechless, Callahan motioned Steve to go on into Oscar’s office. Steve quietly opened the door, knowing Rudy would already be there. Oscar was staring out the window, yelling into the phone. Steve shut the door behind him, and seated himself next to Rudy, waiting.
Minutes later, Oscar turned and slammed the phone on the cradle, then stopped in his tracks when he spotted Steve sitting on the couch.
“Hey Oscar, what’s up?” Steve said.
Oscar stood staring at his friend, unable to think of what to say. He knew there was nothing he could do to Steve without letting Steve have his way.
Rudy waited for the explosion; he wasn’t disappointed.
“What the hell were you thinking, Col. Austin? Disappearing? Spending more than two months on your own without anyone knowing your whereabouts?” Oscar rounded the desk to stand in front of him. “Personal safety aside, do you know what kind of trouble I could have been in if the N.S.B. discovered you were gone? They would have been after you as well, and wouldn’t have been as forgiving if they had caught up with you.”
“You finished?” Steve said, not bothered by the tirade.
“Dammit Steve, it was irresponsible of you to pull a stunt like this. I know you needed a vacation, dammit, but you know damn good and well that what we want and what we get are two different things. You just can’t take things into your own hands.”
Steve glanced to Rudy for a moment, and then stood to face Oscar. “Yes, I can, and yes, I will if you don’t cooperate with me. I’ve told you time and time again, I am not your robot. I am my own person. My contract stipulates 4 weeks off a year. I haven’t had a proper, uninterrupted vacation in three years, which means I have another 4 to go for this year alone. Now unless you want me to disappear again, you will honor my wish for a full, uninterrupted month off later this year. If not, we can play yet another game where you will lose.” Steve kept his calm the entire time, not willing to be baited into a heated argument with Oscar.
Oscar stood, staring at Steve. “Fine. We’ll discuss your time off at another time. Just don’t ever pull a stunt like that again.”
Oscar returned to his desk without saying another word. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few calls to make to call off the search for you, and then paperwork to catch up on, which piled up while I searched for you.”
Rudy and Steve stood to leave. As Steve started to close the door he heard “Steve?”
He turned to Oscar, not answering.
“Welcome back,” Oscar said without looking up from his desk.
Steve smiled, closing the door behind him.