“What do you mean you can’t find him?” Oscar raged on the phone. “Try harder. He has to be somewhere.”
“Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Callahan groaned, pounding her fist on the intercom button as Cassie pushed her way into the reception area.
“Uh oh! Did I come at a bad time?”
“I’m sorry. I had to let it out,” she grounded out between clenched teeth.
“Who else? He’s on my case because I can’t locate Colonel Austin.”
Callahan nodded. “He had an appointment early this morning but no one’s seen or heard from him. I called his house and every places I could think he could be, nothing.”
Cassie frowned with worry, knowing it was unlike Steve to disappear without leaving word, especially to her. “Is it safe to go in?” Cassie asked, motioning to Oscar’s office.
“It’s at your own risk,” Callahan joked.
Cassie flashed a sympathetic smile and entered the office where she found a seething Oscar pouring himself a drink. “Callahan tells me that Steve’s missing?”
“He’s not missing,” he snapped, angrily plonking his glass onto the counter. “He hated this assignment and he’s laying low until I find someone else for the job.”
“Come on Oscar that’s unlike Steve and you know it,” she chided, offended by the allegation. “Besides if he wanted to play this stunt on you he would have discussed it with me first and he didn’t”
“You haven’t heard from him either?” Cassie shook her head. “You would tell me?”
“Last night Steve came over to my house for dinner and left early because he said he had to catch a goodnight sleep to be ready for the meeting in the morning. Granted he didn’t appear enthusiastic about the idea but he didn’t look like a man who was planning to ditch you either.”
One heavy sigh later Oscar silently walked back to his desk.
“I know that look, Oscar. What is it? Tell me. Is Steve in danger?”
“I hope not but with the information I just received…” he paused to weight the consequences of his next words. “We got word that two exiled scientists have managed to foil customs and we are now unable to locate them.”
“Who are they?”
“Dr. Thomas Jenkins and Dr. Craig Brown are two authorities in the field of cybernetics. Rudy worked with them during his medical residency. They got word of Rudy’s achievement, namely Steve, and they have been seeking him ever since.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this?” Cassie condemned icily.
“Because I didn’t know about it till this morning,” Oscar defended sternly.
“And you fear that they might have gotten to Steve?”
“Would you?” Oscar sneered.
“I guess, but I wouldn’t go flying off the handle. It could be a coincidence. Steve might have had car trouble or forgotten to set up the alarm,” Cassie tried to minimize, though unconvincingly.
“Wouldn’t he have had the courtesy to phone in to let us know?” Oscar countered incredulously.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Cassie conceded. “I just didn’t want to consider your option, or worse.”
“An accident?” Oscar asked, getting a grim nod in reply. Quickly he got on the phone to Callahan. “Callahan, get me Russ on the phone.”
“Right away, Sir.”
“You might want to apologize to Callahan for your rudeness.”
“Oscar. You can be a real pain in the butt when you’re sick with worry. You treated Callahan as though she was responsible for Steve’s disappearance.”
“Maybe you’re right. I’ll apologize on my way out.”
“In the meantime I’ll start looking for him from my end. I’ll keep you posted.”
He groaned awake; his body aching all over. He reached for his forehead and found traces of caked blood. He tried to sit but a debilitating dizzy spell prompted him to ease his head back onto the ground. He squinted against the glare from the scorching hot sun that burned right through his eyelids. He lay there motionless, trying to assess his condition. He drew in a few deep breaths to regain his bearings and risked another attempt at sitting. He hissed as the searing pain coursed through his body. He held his head ringing a thousand bells and waited for the dizziness to dispel before hazarding a peak at his surroundings.
‘Where am I?’ he whispered to himself as he scanned the area through a slit. To his left sat the carcass of his wrecked car, smoke still bellowing from the engine. As he lifted up his eyes at the hill before him, the horrific vision of his plunge some hundred feet into the ravine came to memory.
He cudgelled his brains trying to recall the minutes leading up to this accident but came up empty. He rolled over to his stomach and pushed his way up with his arms. One held his weight while the left collapse under the strain. He crawled over to a larger boulder and tried hoisting himself up against it. He managed to stand, but quickly leaned against the rock for support while he caught his breath.
He started wandering through the woods hoping to find some hint as to his location. He stumbled along the way, exacerbating his injuries, but pressed on as night slowly descended upon the city.
One hour of walking took its toll on Steve’s aching body and he collapsed face down in the dead leaves. He tried pushing himself up but to no avail. Gradually the energy drained out of him and he lapsed into unconsciousness.
Before long a lone figure hovered over the listless body sprawled on the ground. One cursory once-over later, the strange character squatted down to check Steve’s pulse before assessing the extent of his injuries.
“Poor man, what has happened to you?” he wondered out loud as he tried to rouse the motionless man with a light nudge on his shoulder. Scanning the surroundings to spot any prying eyes lurking nearby, he proceeded to sling Steve over his shoulder. The heavy hoist up and abrupt landing caused a small groan to escaped Steve’s lips, but the man was too far gone to emerge from darkness. With his load, our character began walking away from the site.
Barely ten minutes later, he reached the boarded up entrance of an abandoned mine. With one hand he pulled on the makeshift door and closed it behind him. He then followed the main shaft down to a well lit furnished room, very conveniently hidden behind a thick wall of rocks. After easing down his bundle on a bed, he busied himself removing the tattered clothes and mantled the hypothermic body with two warm blankets.
“Don’t worry Mister. Your injuries are not life threatening. I’ll take care of you,” he assured the defenceless man lying on the bed with a compassionate smile before tending to Steve’s wounds.
Early the next morning, Steve emerged from unconsciousness with aching muscles that sent pangs of pain radiating through his entire body. He groaned his discomfort as he vainly tried to find a soothing position.
“Easy there, Mister,” alleviated the soft voice that prompted Steve to force open his eyes.
“What…,” he breathed out, wincing as another twinge hit him. His hand reached for his forehead and fingered the bandage.
“Here, drink some water.” The character sat on the edge of the bed and assisted Steve in drinking a few sips from a glass. “Not too fast now. That’s it,” he continued to coach before easing the heavy pounding head down on the pillow. “How are you feeling?”
“I feel like hell,” Steve managed to slur between spasms of pain. “What happened?”
“I was hoping you could tell me. I found you unconscious on the ground nearby and brought you here. You were worse for wear but I managed to patch some of the wounds,” he said with a tinge of humour.
“Where am I?” he asked bemused, as he turned to focus on the smiling face of his saviour. “Who are you?”
“My name is of no consequence. In fact the less you know about me, the better you’ll be.”
“I don’t understand. You saved my life. I want to be able to repay you and for that I need to know who you are.” Suddenly it dawned on him that he had no memory of his own name. “I think I should start by knowing my own name.”
“Amnesia. You were bound to suffer from it. Don’t worry. I would assume it’s a temporary condition.”
“Oh? And how would you know that? Are you a doctor,” Steve asked rather sarcastically as he fought a wave of nauseas.
“As a matter of fact I am.” The character paused to ponder the consequences of revealing his name. “ I’m Dr. Helena Cordova at your service.”
“Nice to meet you. Where are we?” he queried as he warily scanned the surroundings.
“You are safe. That’s what matters,” came the curt reply that disturbed Steve to some degree. He saw the forty-something woman stood from the bed and walk over to a counter where she replenished Steve’s glass with fresh water.
“That doesn’t tell me much.”
“You’re not very talkative either, Mister,” she countered amicably, flashing a teasing grin. “All I can say is that you are in South Carolina in a small town called Barnwell.”
“How did I get here?”
“You’re asking me?”
“Did I have any identification on me, like a wallet or something?” Steve continued to probe in a desperate attempt to jog his memory.
“No. Nothing,” she answered straightforwardly, though not convincingly enough for Steve who shot her a distrustful stare. “Look, I found you near death, face down on a bed of leaves. You obviously had been through an ordeal, perhaps an accident I couldn’t tell. My guess is that you’d been wandering aimlessly through the woods until you collapsed. You were lucky I found you when I did. You were suffering from hypothermia and some deep gashes were oozing blood.”
Steve drew in a deep breath to quell the pain as he attempted to ease himself into a sitting position. “Perhaps…” he hissed at the searing twinge that struck him. He relaxed his heavy weight on his elbows and waited for the smart to subside before continuing, “perhaps you should take me to the authorities. They might know who I am.” His suggestion was met with reticence. “What?”
“I wouldn’t advise it.”
“Why not?” Steve asked suspiciously.
“Who’s to say you’re not a fugitive from justice. If I take you to the police they might arrest you. Then again you might be running from criminals who wanted you dead. They could have tried to kill you in an accident. If they discover that their plan failed, they could strike again without your knowledge. You are very vulnerable at the moment. I propose we wait until you regain some speck of memory.”
“Don’t ask me why but I trust you,” Steve’s heartfelt confession brought a smile to her face and a light in her heart. “I feel I know you from some place and yet I don’t.”
“You’re still confused and that’s understandable.” She walked over to him and assisted him in taking another few sips of water. “Now you get some rest.” Steve simply nodded and surrendered to his leaden eyelids. Within seconds he was drifting in the land of Nod.
“Don’t worry Steve. You’re in good hands. I’ll protect you,” she vowed as she gently caressed his cheek.
“What do you mean you lost him?” raged Dr. Jenkins to his partner Dr. Brown. “How can you lose him? You said you were tailing him.”
“I was, but my guess is that he suspected he was being followed and put the pedal to the metal. Then…”
“I saw his car skid off the road and plunge down a ravine. I’m afraid he’s dead.”
“Dead? Are you sure?”
“No doubt about it. No one could have survived that fall.”
“You forget Austin is no ordinary man.”
“But most of him is human. The impact was too great. I checked atop the cliff and there was no movement. The wreckage was starting to smoke. He must have burnt.”
“A lot of suppositions on you part, dear colleague,” Jenkins sneered. “You and I both know that the human body can withstand tremendous traumas and still survive.”
“Okay, so what do you suggest we do?” Brown snapped, annoyed at Jenkins venting his frustration on him. “Go back to the scene of the accident and check if indeed he died in that crash? We know we can’t afford to be seen. Besides I’m sure the OSI must have reported him missing and the authorities will be crawling all over the area looking for him.”
“You’re right. We can’t take that chance. Besides he didn’t see you, did he? He can’t identify you?”
“No he didn’t see me,” an exasperated Brown assured his flustered partner. “Relax Jenkins.”
“Relax? We jeopardized our freedom and perhaps our very own existence sneaking into this country to get Austin. And now he’s dead. The boss is going to have a fit.”
“Hey! It’s not our fault if Austin decided to take a leap to his death? Surely he’s not going to hold us liable for that?”
Jenkins slouched over to his desk and flumped down in the chair. Running a hand across his face to wipe the anxiety creases, he stared blankly at Brown and said, “What do we do now?”
Back at the OSI Cassie made her way to Oscar’s office to hand over her report on the search for Steve.
She nodded dejectedly and joined him at the bar for a stiffener. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. I drove down possible itineraries he might have taken but didn’t find any trace of him nor his car.” She took a sip of the drink Oscar poured for her and ambled her way to the sofa. “I’m getting worried here. Something bad happened, I can feel it.”
“You’re not the only one,” Oscar sympathized as he returned to his desk. “I have my team combing the city. I also got the local police to join the search. I have a sneak suspicion that he might have fallen into enemy hands.”
“Those two scientists you were telling me about?”
Oscar nodded affirmatively as he took a sip. “Exactly. We have yet to locate them but my hunch is that they got to Steve. How else can we explain his disappearance?”
“Perhaps a freak accident? He’s lying injured somewhere, probably dying,” Cassie dramatized, the very notion sending shivers coursing through her body. She quaffed her drink, plonked the glass down on the coffee table and stood. “I’m going back out there.”
“Cassandra, let the authorities handle it. You don’t know where to look for him. You’ll only be driving around in circles.”
“Oh and sitting idly by is a better alternative?” she responded icily, eyes shooting daggers at Oscar. One cleansing heave later she said calmly, “Okay, I’ll go by his house to see if I can find a clue as to where he was headed last. That could provide us with a solid lead.”
“Good idea,” Oscar approved. “Keep in touch.”
Meanwhile, somewhere in the wilds of Barnwell, South Carolina….
“Here, drink this. It’s chicken broth. It’ll help you keep your strength up,” Helena encouraged, waving a bowl of hot broth under Steve’s nose.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold it down,” a feeble Steve breathed out, already gagging at the smell.
“Try a few sips and see how it goes.” She assisted her patient in hoisting himself up and after fluffing up his pillows, she eased his head down and proceeded to spoon feed him. “So where were we?”
“You were telling me how they threw you out of the medical profession,” Steve reminded as he carefully swallowed the spoonfuls of broth.
“Oh yes,” she answered distractedly as she took another spoonful of broth and raised it to Steve’s lips. “I was an authority in the field of microbiology. I was a local celebrity in my department at Columbia University. One of my experiments on strain of viruses resistant to antibiotics attracted our government who approached me on a project called: Medusa.”
“It was. Top secret. I agreed to discuss the project up to a point when I discovered I was to help develop a biological weapon. I was shocked and I flatly rejected their offer, wanting no part of it. But it was too late. I knew too much. They threatened me to accept or else. So one night I packed a few belongings and fled. You might say I didn’t go very far but out here I’m safe. I found this old mine and did a bit of remodelling,” she explained as her eyes roamed over the grotto. “It’s not fancy, in fact it’s appalling, but it’s home. I’m no criminal. I’m merely not fond of the idea of being used as a pawn in their war game.”
“So you’ve been a fugitive for how long?”
“Going on five years now I have to believe that they’ve finally classified me as dead, but I’m not taking any chances.”
“Perhaps that’s what I am too; a fugitive from justice,” Steve wondered with a certain anguish. “I’ll take your advice and wait for my memory to return before I got out there to seek my identity.”
“Sound decision.” She smiled at the drooping eyelids before her. She took the bowl aside and wiped Steve’s mouth with a napkin. “You’ve had enough for today. You look like you could use a few more Zs.”
“I feel so weak,” Steve whispered as he surrendered to sleep.
Helena flashed a sly smile as she pulled the blanket to Steve’s shoulders. “And I will keep you a weak kitten, my dear agent friend,” she slurred maliciously while gazing at the sleeping form before her. “They may have found my trace but they won’t find yours, ever.”
No sooner had Steve’s wrecked car had been located by the authorities that Oscar, Rudy and Cassie were on the scene. Each sifted through the debris hoping to find the tinniest clue as to what happened to the injured party.
“There’s no sign of him, Oscar,” Rudy informed upon returning from his search. He squatted down by the spot of crushed grass where Steve laid unconscious and ran his fingers over the stain of caked blood. “My guess is he must have laid here unconscious and perhaps someone spotted him and took him to a medical facility.”
“But where? My men have been calling every hospital and clinic in the vicinity. No one has a patient under the name of Steve Austin.”
“Perhaps they checked him in under a different name. Did they ask if they had a John Doe?”
Oscar nodded affirmatively. “They did. I sent the men to flash his picture around to see if anyone recognizes him.”
“Oscar! Rudy! Over here!” Cassie shouted from afar. “I found something.”
Both men hurried toward the anxious voice to find Cassie kneeling on the ground. “What did you find?” Oscar asked.
“Blood,” she said, pointing to the smeared blades of grass. “It means he’s alive. He made it this far. But he’s hurt bad I can tell,” she quavered; her worry evident in her moist eyes.
“He must be around here somewhere. We need to spread out,” Oscar wasted no time giving out instructions to his selected crew, both of whom acknowledged by heading in the chosen direction.
A sighing moan heralded the rousing of Helena’s patient following a long drug-induced slumber. She poured a glass of water and went to sit by Steve’s bed waiting for him to fully awake.
“Welcome back, Sleepy Head,” she greeted softly with a beaming smile.
“How…how long,” Steve muttered groggily, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
“How have you been asleep?” she finished, getting a nod in return. “About four hours. You needed the rest.”
“Then why do I still feel like hell?” he lamented, his face grimacing in pain.
Helena rubbed a soothing hand on his shoulder. “You are bound to feel weak seeing how you are still recovering from your injuries. Here,” she said, holding the glass in front of him. “Take a few sips.” She assisted him in elbowing himself up as she raised the glass to his lips. Once the task performed, she eased his head down on the pillow. “You’re looking better.”
“Yeah?” he replied sceptically. “There’s no match between the look and the feel I tell ya.”
Helena chuckled at the subtle humour she’s come to enjoy in the short time spent with Steve. She refused to lend credence to the likely notion that he was assigned to smoke her out and drag her back to face trial. Granting him the benefit of the doubt proved hard under the circumstances. His amnesia presented a challenge to gather crucial information without jogging his memory back to full drive. She needed to maintain his present state of mind intact during her investigation of his background and the reason for his being in Barnwell.
Later that day while her patient slept peacefully, Helena donned a disguise and slipped out of hiding to go run errands. At the general store she caught glimpse of Oscar flashing a picture of Steve to the store manager and some of his employees. She inconspicuously sidled her way to the adjacent aisle to eavesdrop on the conversation.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the manager expressed, shaking his head negatively. “His face doesn’t ring a bell.” He turned to his employees standing nearby who offered the same answer.
“Well if you should see him, please give me a call,” Oscar asked, handing a business card to the manager.
“Will do, Mister Goldman,” the manager assured as he stuffed the card in his breast pocket.
Helena quickened the pace toward Oscar as he neared the exit. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing .You are looking for a missing person?”
“That’s right.” Oscar’s wrinkled brow ironed out at the prospect of a fresh new lead. He produced another picture of Steve from his jacket pocket and handed it to her. “Have you seen this man in the vicinity?”
Helena feigned studying the facial features as if seeing the face for the first time. “No. Can’t say that I have,” she fibbed convincingly. “But can I keep the picture just in case?”
“Sure, go right ahead.” Oscar reached into his breast pocket to take out a business card that he handed over to Helena. “My business card. Call me any time.”
“May I ask who is this man?” she probed very casually so not to draw suspicion on herself.
“His name’s Steve Austin.”
“What’s he doing in Barnwell, South Carolina?”
“That is rather intricate to explain, Miss. We just need to locate him.”
“Is he in any trouble with the law?” she prodded further, stubbornly refusing to release her hold on him until he enlightened her on Steve’s purpose in this town.
“No nothing like that. He’s a friend of ours and we’d like to find him. He may be hurt and in need of medical attention,” Oscar explained evasively, a bit troubled by the woman’s obtrusive questions.
She gave the card a cursory glance. “You’re from Washington.”
“A long way from home?!” she observed sarcastically.
“We will remain in the area until we can locate Mister Austin. Please call me if you see him.”
“I will, Mister Goldman.” Helena assured with a sneer that was lost of Oscar. She headed toward the exit where she crossed path with Cassie entering the store.
“I’m sorry,” Helena apologized as she bumped into Cassie on her way out.
“S’all right,” Cassie assured, first dismissing the woman as a simple customer, then frowning at the familiar features in spite of the clever disguise.
“Cassandra, something wrong?” Oscar asked upon noticing the concerned expression displayed on the agent’s face.
“No, no. Everything’s fine,” Cassie replied distractedly while keeping her eyes on the woman she saw stepping into a taxi.
“Euh… you go back to the hotel and I’ll meet you there.”
“You’re not coming with us?”
“Later Oscar. I have something to do first.”
“What?” Oscar insisted, growing annoyed by her evasiveness.
“I’ll explain later.” She hurried out to her car and followed the taxi.
Cassie drove for what appeared a lifetime and wondered whether the woman suspected she was being followed and therefore was leading her on a wild goose chase. As she prepared to take a turn left, the taxi stopped in front of a hardware store. She parked alongside the curb a few feet away and sank into her seat to avoid being seen. Over the rim of the steering wheel she watched the woman walk up the driveway and disappear inside.
Helena hurried up to the counter where the manager was finishing with a customer. “Pete, I think I picked up a tail. Can you handle her for me? She’s got long brown hair. I seem to recall her working for the government.”
“I’ll take care of her,” he assured as he led her down the basement stairs and closed the door behind her.
Soon after, Cassie entered the store and began scanning the customers’ faces.
“Something I can help you with, ma’am?” the manager offered to stall while his friend escaped through the trap door.
“I was looking for someone but obviously I have the wrong store.”
“Well maybe if you described her for me. I might be able to help you.”
“Her?” Cassie frowned suspiciously. “I don’t recall mentioning my friend was a she.”
“I…I just assume she was. I took a wild guess,” the man stumbled on his blunder and strove to keep a straight face.
“I suppose,” Cassie smirked, smiling wryly at the man. “Sorry to have bothered you. Thank you”
“No bother at all. I hope you find him or her.”
“Thank you.” As she turned toward the exit, a sidelong glance spotted a door with the sign: authorized personnel. Halfway to her car she stopped. “Something’s not right,” she speculated, her gut feeling urging her to follow through on her hunch. “Trust your instincts, girl. What have you got to lose?” She retraced her steps to the store, keeping low and out of sight as she took a turn to head out to the yard where she hoped to find a backdoor.
She noticed a trap door leading to the basement. She pulled open the flap and headed down the ladder to step in total darkness, save for the dim light filtering through the ground window. With a wary step she fumbled her way around the room to flip the light switch on.
She let her sixth sense be her guide as she searched the room for another trap door through which the woman she saw entering the store a while ago could have disappeared. A sudden noise from above sent her scurrying in a corner to hide. She waited for the manager to pick up a broom and turn off the lights, after which she grabbed the flashlight on the table and continued her search.
“What am I doing?” she chided herself. “This is breaking an entering. She’s obviously not here.” She shook her head in dismissal of the absurdity of her hunch. She was starting up the ladder when she noticed a chunk of brown hair stuck to a nail. She picked it up and studied its artificial texture. She then continued up the ladder and once outside, she scanned the surroundings. Lowering her eyes to the ground she noticed fresh footprints leading to the woods. Her intuition spurred her onwards.
She followed the tracks to a small clearing where the footprints disappeared on the hard ground. She huffed out a frustrated sigh and stopped. Hands on hips she studied the area, while picturing the woman’s face in her mind. “I know I’ve seen that face before, but where? Where?” She pounded repeatedly; refusing to recognize that her hunch might have been a hoax.
She voided her mind of all conjectures and trusted her intuition. Her decision paid off when suddenly the footprints reappeared on a softer ground. She followed them to a small rocky hill where she noticed the entrance of a cave partially hidden by thick brush. As she risked a peak inside her head exploded.
“Always been a nosy body Miss Miller,” Helena leered over the unconscious body. “Well I’m make sure you don’t bother anyone ever again” She bent down and grabbed a hold of Cassie’s arms. She dragged her bodily over to the riverbank and dumped her body into the water.
With a malicious grin plastered on her face Helena watched the body float down the river until it disappeared around the bend. She returned to her hideout satisfied of the results, unaware that Cassie’s body caught in a branch inches away from the rapids.
As she took a breath, the water filled her lungs causing her to rouse with a start. A bout of coughing hindered her movements as she tried to reach the shore, but managed to swim her way to solid ground where she expelled the last of the water from her lungs in a coughing fit. Exhausted from the strain, she allowed the tension to leave her body before teetering to her feet.
She grabbed the back of head, her face distorting from the excruciating pain. “What the heck happened?” she wondered to herself. She closed her eyes in an attempt to recollect the event prior to her rousing in the water but came up blank. She slouched her way to a nearby shrubbery where she lost balance and fell to the ground, aggravating her head injury. Taking a few deep breaths to quell the pain, she then rolled over to her side to get the leverage she needed to rise to her feet. As she hoisted herself again a boulder she caught glimpse of a small opening in the rocks. Squinting against the light to establish a clear view, she edged her way to her discovery and began removing the branches.
She succeeded in clearing the entrance to the cave and started down the main shaft, heedful to avoid stepping on twigs that would alert the occupant, human or otherwise.
Her stomach twisted in knots as she proceeded down the tunnel, her instincts telling her she was on the right track. Suddenly a muffled voice wafted in the dark. She stopped and pricked her ears to make out the fuzzy conversation. She inched her way toward the sound and stopped abruptly at the sight of Helena stirring a pot over a fire.
Cassie stood hidden behind the wall, intently observing the woman’s every move. She moved further away from sight as Helena stood with the pot in hand and walked over to a counter where she poured two plates full of stew. Cassie could make out a form lying on the cot but as hard as she tried to identify the lump, she couldn’t. She strained to get a better view of what she believed was a man. When Helena brought the two plates over to her guest, Cassie’s eyes widened in horror.
“Steve!” she gasped in total shock, slapping a hand over her mouth. “My God!” She leaned against the wall in complete despair. He eyes swayed back and forth as she strove to recall the woman’s voice that registered as one she distinctly heard in the past.
With light steps she retraced the path outside where she ran to her car and put the pedal to the metal toward the hotel.
“What are you saying?” a dumbfounded Oscar exclaimed at the news.
“I saw him. He’s alive. That woman has him hidden inside a cave. I should be grateful to her for probably saving his life, but the question is why hasn’t she reported him to the authorities? Amnesia or no amnesia, she should have brought him to a clinic or at least go to the police.”
“Could be that she’s keeping him against his will?” Rudy surmised.
“I couldn’t see very well in the dim light but I don’t believe he was tied up or anything.”
“Maybe she’s keeping him on drugs to prevent him from escaping.”
“But who is she?” Oscar asked in frustration.
“I think we’ll have plenty of time to sort that out later. Right now we must move in and fast. I think she’s the one who knocked me over the head and dumped me in the river. She saw me snooping and wanted me out of the way. She might feel threatened and may be trying to move Steve to another location as we speak.”
“All right. I’ll alert the men and we’ll get Steve out of there.”
“Hold on Oscar,” Cassie warned. “I’d hate for her to do something drastic if we surprise her. Let me go in first. I’ll assess the situation before I give you the ok to charge in. We don’t know what state Steve’s in. For aught we know he could be siding with her against us.”
“Could be a possibility.”
Albeit with some reservations, Oscar adopted Cassie’s tactics to release Steve from his captor.
Soon Oscar’s men were stationed at strategic spots around the entrance to the cave, guns drawn at the ready as they watched Cassie make her way inside the opening.
Slowly she made her way down the shaft to the end room where she stopped and watched the woman pulled the blankets over a slumbering Steve. Cassie’s eyes shot out of their sockets the second she set sight on Helena’s face. “I don’t believe it! Helena Cordova.” She exclaimed out loud, causing Helena to swirl on her heels.
“Well, well, well Cassie Miller,” she sneered, as her eyes discreetly roamed the room in search of her rifle. “My girl, you have nine lives.”
“I say eight now, no thanks to you,” Cassie sassed back. “What are you doing with him?”
“Who?” Helena asked innocently.
“That man, there. You do know who he is, don’t you?”
“Maybe I do.”
“I should ask why you haven’t reported him to the authorities but I figure you didn’t want to reveal your identity.”
“You’ve always been keen at riddles, Miss Miller.”
“Why Helena? Why did you disappear? You could have just said no when they asked you to be part of the project.”
“Easier said than done. There was no way out but to die. And I did. That is for you guys.”
Cassie scanned the room in disgust. “For this?”
“I like I here,” she said calmly as she turned to the sleeping form on the cot, “and so does he?”
“Told you, did he? Or did you sway his choice with the help of a small miracle drug?” Cassie quipped, further enraging Helena who marched towards her with a menacing glare.
“Perhaps he just likes it here. Like me he wishes to break free from Washington’s tentacles.”
“Well, let’s ask him right now,” Cassie suggested as she stepped up to the cot only to have Helena grabbed her arm.
“I’m afraid you can’t.”
“What do you mean by that?” Cassie gulped, going numbed at the worse possible thought to cross her mind.
“What do you think I mean?” Helena replied maliciously.
Cassie dove to her knees and grabbed Steve’s by the shoulders. “Steve! Steve! Come on wake up!” she yelled, shaking him frantically. “Come on 34, open those blue eyes of yours.” She swirled around to burn Helena with a scorching glare. “What’d you give him? ANSWER ME?”
“Just a strong sedative,” Helena shrugged.
“You’re lying!” Cassie reached for Steve’s neck and heaved a loud sigh of relief. “Thank God he’s still alive.”
“Of course he’s alive,” Helena scorned. “What did you think? That I’d kill him?”
Cassie bolted upright and clawed at Helena’s wrist that she swiftly twisted behind her back. “What were you doing with him? He’s been missing for several days. Why didn’t you report him to the authorities.”
Irked by Cassie’s insinuation, Helena flung her arm free from the tigress’s grip and turned to face her square in the eyes. “I didn’t say anything because like me he’s running away from the establishment.”
Cassie flinched at the statement. “What? Did he tell you that?”
“Not in so many words. He has amnesia.”
“Then how would you know what he wants?”
“I recalled him saying so a while back when I was working at the OSI. He was fed up and ready to call it quits.”
“He says that on a weekly basis but he doesn’t mean it,” Cassie snapped. “He loves his job but on occasions yes, I admit, he does want to drop everything and flee. But we all have those days. I often do myself.”
“Then why don’t you quit?”
“Look, I didn’t come here to debate whether or not I want to quit my job. I came to get Steve back home.”
“I can’t let you do that,” Helena threatened.
“You’re going to stop me?” Cassie countered back defiantly.
“If I have to.”
Cassie shook her head in disbelief. “What’s happened to you, Helena? You were such a brilliant scientist.”
“I opened my eyes.”
“Or rather you closed them.” Cassie gainsaid.
“Do you plan to turn me in?”
“I already gave your location to Oscar Goldman. He has men stationed in the woods waiting for my signal.”
“I won’t go back, Cassie,” Helena warned with a voice cracking with emotions. “I’d rather die.”
“Don’t be silly,” Cassie dismissed.
“I mean it.” Helena quickly grabbed the gun on the counter and aimed it at Cassie. “I’ll kill us all.”
“No you won’t,” Cassie tried to reasoned while inching toward the mad woman to disarm her.
“Drop it, Dr. Cordova,” ordered the grave voice from behind Cassie.
“Why Oscar Goldman. Long time no see,” Helena quipped as she slowly bent down to place the gun on the ground. “How have you been?”
An icy glare was Oscar’s answer as he stepped up to Helena to search her for concealed weapon. He glanced down at the sleeping form. “Is he all right?”
“Yeah. He’s just sleeping,” Cassie assured. “But I’d have Rudy check him out just the same.”
Oscar turned to Russ and instructed him to return outside to advise the men of the arrest. “They can retreat and wait for us in the cars. We’ll bring her with us.”
Russ acknowledged and disappeared down the dark tunnel.
“Can you keep an eye on Steve while I escort her outside?” Oscar asked Cassie who smiled obligingly.
Oscar waved his gun toward the exit. “Go on. You go first.”
“You don’t need the gun, Oscar. I’ll go peacefully.”
“Allow me to doubt your word, Dr. Cordova,” Oscar replied sarcastically, giving her a light shove to start her down the tunnel.
A small groan caught their attention. All eyes turned on Steve who slowly roused out of sleep. With a wide beam on her face, Cassie sat next to him and lovingly brushed the hair back on his forehead.
“Welcome back, Blue Eyes. You had us all worried.”
Steve blinked away the fog to stare quizzically at the lady smiling at him. “Who…who are you?”
Cassie shrunk back at the question. She turned to Oscar with a troubled expression then back to Steve who continued to eye her suspiciously. “I’m Cassie. Don’t you remember me?”
Steve shook his head negatively. “No, I don’t.” Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of the gun aimed at Helena. Overcome with rage he swiftly sprung up and pounced at Oscar, knocking him to the ground.
Steve sat dumbfounded at the sudden attack on the stranger while Cassie lunged at Helena to pry her away from Oscar. Her vice-like grip was no match for the enraged woman who eventually conceded defeat and lay down her arms.
Oscar teetered to his feet and brushed himself off, trying to recover his composure. He picked up the gun and thrust it at Helena. “Now we either do this calmly or the official way.” Helena nodded and placidly turned toward the exit.
“Wait! Steve hailed as Oscar and Helena started down the tunnel. “You can’t take her.”
“Steve, she’s wanted by the FBI,” Cassie explained.
“I don’t care. She saved my life. Doesn’t that count?” Steve lashed out.
Both Oscar and Cassie exchanged questioning looks, obviously caught between a rock and a hard place.
“We’ll take her back to our headquarters for questioning. Come with us,” Oscar invited so that Steve would follow willingly. Once at the OSI, Rudy would take over and tone him down if needed be until he was fully recovered.
To Cassie and Oscar’s relief, Steve agreed, rather insisted to accompany Helena. He stuck close to her, whispering words of encouragement, much to Cassie’s despair.
Noticing the beaten expression on Cassie’s face, Oscar pulled her aside and offered a few bolstering words of his own. “Don’t forget he has amnesia. Once in familiar surroundings it might spark his memory back. If not Rudy will take care of him. Don’t worry.”
She strained a curl of the lip and sighed wistfully, “I try not to. What’s important is that we found him alive.”
Helena was escorted down to the holding area and confined to a room under heavy guard. Steve insisted on keeping her company, refusing to be examined without her present, to which Rudy complied without argument. All treatments were to be given down in the holding area where he could keep an eye on Helena and ensure her safety. He was adamant about being kept abreast of any new development in her case.
“He won’t leave her out of his sight,” Rudy informed the two concerned friends. “He sticks to her like burr. I tried reasoning with him but he won’t truest any of us. We’re strangers to him.”
“There has to be a way we cane jog his memory back?” Cassie asked.
“The best medicine against amnesia is to soak the patient in familiar surroundings. The holding area won’t do the job since he’s hardly been down there in all his years at the OSI.”
“What I we brought him and Helena in Oscar’s office,” Cassie suggested. “Might do the trick?”
Rudy winced at the suggestion. “I couldn’t hurt but I doubt it’ll work. It might have the opposite effect.”
“What do mean?” a perplexed Oscar queried.
“Well…euh…,” Rudy hemmed and hawed as he strove to phrase his next words in the most delicate way. “Your office is where you usually debrief Steve on assignments and where you’ve had your numerous disagreements.” Cassie’s chuckle at the statement earned her a glare from Oscar.
“Well, Rudy’s speaking the truth,” she defended in a bantering tone. “What about his house?
“It could, but we’d have to bring Helena with him.”
“No!” Oscar interjected.
“Yes!” Cassie countered back. “We tell him that Helena will live with him pending her case in court. We station a few agents to guard the house and wait for the medicine to take effect.”
“You realize that there are no guarantees that this will spur his memory back,” Rudy warned the curb some of the enthusiasm.
“Yes I’m aware of that, but I say this is our best shot.” She turned to Oscar and pled her case. “Oscar, we have to try. Or we might just lose him forever. Okay with you?”
The heavy sigh was the green light they needed to proceed with the plan.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Cassie and Oscar accompanied Helena and Steve to his house where they helped them settled in their respective rooms. Cassie would focus on Steve’s every facial expression as he studied the area, hoping to discern a speck of recollection in his eyes.
“Do you remember anything, Steve?” she probed while guiding him though every apartment in the house.
Steve closed his eyes to cudgel his brain. “I’m sorry,” he said shaking his head in dejection. “I can’t.”
She nudged him toward the living room and brought him to a wall of impressive diplomas. On the counter below were displayed many prizes and model airplanes. “And that?” she asked waving her hand at the memorabilia. “You’ve worked your butt off to earn those diplomas. Don’t tell me you don’t remember?” she asked somehow insolently, her implying tone ruffling Steve’s feathers to the brink of frustration.
“No I don’t! Okay? Just leave me alone,” he snapped and fled out to escape the rushing flow of emotions overwhelming him.
In the hush of night, Steve was sleeping soundly when a crashing noise started him out of his slumber. Eyes popped open and his heart raced at the exploding sound. He flung the covers aside and rushed to the living room. Horror seized him at the sight of bright flames licking the curtains.
As he rushed to extinguish the raging fire, he stubbed his toe against a chair, causing him to stumble and hit his head against the coffee table. Dazed he slowly lifted his head to stare vacuously into the taunting fire spreading across the ceiling. Moaning in pain he tired pushing his way up but dizziness soon plunged him back into darkness.
Soon as the flames became visible from outside, the agents posted around the house sounded the alarm and contacted the fire department. While waiting for their arrival, they dove into the blazing inferno in search of the two occupants.
“Here he is!” cried one man over the raging fire. “I’ll take him. You find the woman.” Coughing and panting, the agent grabbed a hold of Steve’s legs and unceremoniously dragged him bodily across the floor to the door, where he slung him over his shoulder and carried him down to his car.
He was placing the oxygen mask over Steve’s nose when his partner rushed out of the house yelling. ”I can’t find her! I can’t find her!”
“Have looked in the bedrooms?”
“Yes,” replied the puffing man who took a breather on the driver seat. He coughed his lungs out before drawing another deep breath. “She’s not there.”
“She has to be.”
“I told you I searched ever room in the house before the fire go too intense. She’s not there,” the man insisted angrily, offended by his partner’s implying tone.
“Okay, okay, I believe you. Then she must have gotten out before the fire started.”
“How? We would have seen her?” he coughed. “Wait, you don’t think she could have started the fire to create a diversion?”
“That’s my guess.”
Steve was still unconscious when the ambulance and fire trucks converged to he scene. After checking his vital signs and securing him on a stretcher, they carried Steve aboard the vehicle and put the pedal to the metal to the Medical Center.
Having been notified of their arrival, Rudy met them at the hospital and rushed Steve to ER. Thanks to Rudy’s ministrations it wasn’t long before the victim coughed his way back to consciousness.
In a panic, Steve abruptly removed his oxygen mask and stared wide-eyes at Rudy. “Rudy? What happened?” he wheezed through his smoke-filled lungs.
“Take it easy, Steve,” Rudy mollified, forcing the mask back onto the patient’s nose. “You were in fire. You inhaled a lot of smoke, but you should be all right.”
Steve’s knitted eyebrows conveyed his question to Rudy.
“At your house.”
Steve shut his eyes tight to summon the images of the incident. He removed his mask and spoke, “All I remember is a waking up to a loud noise. When I went to check it out…,” his eyes widened in shock.
“I know. Calm down.” Again he placed the mask back onto Steve’s nose and held it there. Then it suddenly dawned on him that Steve had called him by his first name. Could it be? “Steve, you called me by my first name.”
Steve nodded and shrugged. This time it was Rudy who removed the oxygen mask. “Do you remember me?”
“Of course I do. Why shouldn’t I?”
Rudy’s pearls of laughter pricked Steve’s curiosity. “What’s so funny?”
“Do you recall a woman by the name of Helena Cordova?”
Steve frowned at the name. “Her name sounds familiar. Is she an agent?”
“So you don’t have an recollection of meeting her in the last few days?”
Again Steve shrugged at the question. “Did I? I don’t remember,” he said, coughing the last remnant of smoke caught in his lungs.
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll discuss it in the morning. Right now you need to rest. I’m going to set you up in intensive care so we can keep an eye on you for the next twenty-four hours.”
“Rudy, tell me. Was the fire deliberate or did I cause it by some bionic malfunction. I just can’t remember where I was or what I did in the last few days,” he quavered in a complete fluster.
“It’s okay, Steve. Take it easy. We don’t know what or who caused the fire. Oscar will have his team investigating in the morning.”
“I want to be there.”
“No chance. I want you in bed for at least the next forty-eight hours,” Rudy insisted with a menacing glare that Steve cowered under. “And to ensure your obedience I’ll have Cassie sit with you.”
Steve cringed at the thought. “That is cruel, doc.”
Rudy flashed a contented smile, pleased of having won the argument.
“Wipe that smug off your face, Rudy. I’ll get you for that one.”
Early next morning, while Cassie kept Steve company and answered his questions to the best of her knowledge, Oscar and the coroner were on the scene sifting through the smouldering rubbles.
“We combed every inch of the perimeter. There’s no evidence of a person perishing in the flames. Even if her body had been consumed to ashes, we would have found some bone fragments.”
“So you mean to tell me that Steve Austin was the only one in the house when it burned to the ground?”
“I tend to concur.”
“Sir, Mister Goldman,” summoned one of the agents on guard duty that night. “It’s possible she set that fire to create a diversion. She could have escaped through the back while we were busy saving Colonel Austin.”
“Damn!” Oscar cursed. “Then we’re back to square one. We had her! If it hadn’t been for Steve’s amnesia and his infatuation with that woman we would have nailed her. Damn!” He took a few seconds to collect his thoughts and one deep breath later, instructed the men to continue the work while he drove to the hospital.
As he stepped into his car and sped away a lone figure emerged from the bushes and fashioned a malevolent grin. “I’ll be back to get him.”