Following an exhausting mission, Steve drove to his house with intent to soak in a hot bath before diving into bed to sleep through the weekend. As he entered, horror struck him. The living room was a complete shambles.
He treaded warily across the room, striding over objects scattered on the floor to make his way down the corridor leading to the bedrooms. He scanned each one from ceiling to floor, checking every closet for anyone hidden. When he opened the guest bedroom…
“What th…” Steve gasped, gawking at the jumble. He strode over drawers and clothes strewn all over the floor to inspect the damages. At first glance his priceless heirlooms appeared to be intact. Nothing of value had been stolen or destroyed, which brought Steve to only obvious conclusion. “Someone is after the file,” he smirked to himself, pleased to see that the confidential information his friend had entrusted in him was secured.
A creaking in the floor swiftly caught his attention. Carefully he stepped over to the closet and yanked the door open.
“Steve,” came to voice from behind, causing him to jump ten feet in the air.
“God,” he gasped, holding his hand to his pounding heart, “you scared me to death! Do you know what happened?”
“No, I came by to see you and when I knocked, the front door was open.”
“Whoever did this must have been after the file.”
“Who beside you and me knows that it’s here?”
He quickly pondered over his visitor’s question but could only answer with a shrug. “I don’t know but I’ll be sure to find out.”
“In the meantime, I need the file. It’s urgent.”
“Don’t you have a copy?” Steve asked dubiously.
“I do but it’s in a safe place and I don’t have time to go retrieve it now.”
“All right.” Steve walked over to his dresser and picked up a screwdriver. “I don’t know why you need it right this minute.”
“I wish to add something that’s been swimming in my mind for quite some time.”
“I don’t understand. Why use my copy? Couldn’t you jog it down on a piece of paper until you could retrieve yours?” Steve continued to probe, spurred on by his gut instincts warning him of something amiss.
“Don’t ask question, Steve and hand me over the file,” the visitor urged on an imperious tone that made Steve bristle up. He unscrewed the side panel of the dresser and took out the file wedged in between two wooden boards. “Here you go. Mind telling me what’s it all about?”
The man fashioned a smirk at his feat, then pulled out a gun from his belt and aimed it at Steve. “No,” he replied curtly before shooting the shocked man in the head.
Steve stumbled backwards at the impact of the bullet entering his skull. He stared wide-eyed at his assailant, his eyes registering bewilderment and fear. A second shot in the chest brought him down to his knees to finally fall face down on the floor.
Cassie had barely put the phone receiver down that she grabbed her car keys and dashed out of her apartment. She put the pedal to the metal, whizzing by like a lunatic on the freeway to arrive in record time at the Medical Center.
Breezing into the building, she went straight to the Nurses’ station where a surgical-gown-clad Rudy was perusing Steve’s medical chart. “Rudy, please tell me he’s alive,” she beseeched in one single pant.
Rudy’s haggard expression send a jolt of adrenalin coursing through her body. Blood rushed to her ears; its humming sound, deafening. Her heart leaping down her throat, narrowing her airways. She was flabbergasted. The good doctor needed not utter a single word for the devastating news was evident on his face. He heaved out a shuddering breath and took her by the arm to lead her to the waiting room.
“Please, Rudy, tell me.”
“Sit down Cassie.”
The bleak expression on Rudy’s face shattered her world apart. “Oh God! He’s dead, isn’t he?”
“No, but he’s very close. He was shot in the head and a second bullet…”
“A second bullet?” she interrupted with eyes bulging out of their sockets.
Rudy laid a hand on her shoulder to settle her nerves. “The second bullet came inches from his heart. Luckily it didn’t cause any major damage.”
“He was shot in the head. That means...,” she inhaled deeply to collect her thoughts and suppress her emotions before continuing, “that means brain damage.”
“That’s to be expected. We’ll be able to measure the breadth of the damage once he regains consciousness, if ever,”
“Who did this to him, Rudy?” she queried, her neck breaking out in livid ridges. Tell me so I can tear him apart limb by limb,” she grounded out between clenched teeth, with dark eyes shooting daggers.
“We don’t know. Oscar and his men are out at Steve’s house to investigate.”
“Can I see him?”
“I’d rather you wait until we have stabilized his condition. You’d only be in the way. I suggest you drive out to Steve’s house and lend Oscar a hand with the search. Perhaps you might stumble onto a clue.”
“I’ll do that. I’ll be back within hour.”
“I’ll be here. I’m not planning on leaving the hospital tonight.”
“What have you got, Russ?” Oscar asked his assistant studying the front door lock.
“There’s no sign of a break in and yet the place looks like a tornado blew in. Which could mean that Steve knew his assailant? He let him in willingly,” Russ surmised.
“Or he had a key.”
“That’s another possibility.”
“What was he looking for is what I want to know. If he had been hankering after Steve and the secret of bionics, logically he would have kidnapped him and not have shot him and left him for dead.”
“Maybe he did find what he came here for and shot the nuisance so he wouldn’t talk.”
“That’s a whole lot of ifs. We’re getting nowhere.”
“The way I see it Steve is the only one who can tell us what happened and he’s in a coma.”
“And Rudy is not optimistic about his chances of survival.”
“Maybe we’ll find a set of finger prints we can use.”
“Oscar!” Cassie called out upon gusting inside Steve’s house. “Oscar, you here?” One of the forensic men pointed to the bedroom. “Thanks. What happened here?
“Ask the boss?”
In her mad dash for the bedroom Cassie accidentally entangled her shoe in a wire lying on the floor. “Watch it!” warned the officer whose quick intervention prevented a fall.
“Thanks.” Looking down at her shoe, she noticed a tiny heap of facial hair lying on the floor. She bent down to pick it up and studied its shape. The sticky substance left on her fingers was evidence that the hair made up one half of a fake mustache. “Do you have a plastic bag to spare?”
“Sure.” He handed her over a small one, curious as to the use she had in mind. “What’s that?”
“I’m not sure yet, but I will hang on to it for now.” She stuck the bag in her coat pocket as she made her way down to Steve’s bedroom. “Boss, how it going?”
“Cassandra, what are you doing here?” Oscar asked offhandedly.
“As if you had to ask?” Cassie countered back curtly. “Find anything yet?”
“No, aside from the fact that there’s no evidence of a burglary.”
“No evidence!” Cassie snorted. “Look around you.”
“I know what it looks like,” Oscar defended, miffed by Cassie’s insolence. “But there’s nothing missing and there’s no sign of a break-in either.”
“We assume Steve knew his assailant,” Russ joined in.
“That doesn’t narrow down our list of suspects much. From the looks of this place it’s safe to assume someone was looking for something. But what?”
Days wore on with the investigators no closer to finding any clue. Their last resort was Steve. Although he remained in a coma, his condition had slightly improved. He was now breathing without any mechanical assistance and his vital signs had stabilized. Though the vitallium plates in his head had taken the brunt of the blow, thus minimizing the damages to his brain, Rudy remained cautious on his prognosis. Time would tell.
It was late in the evening when Cassie resumed her seat by Steve’s bedside. After perusing files on possible suspects tied to the incident, she decided to go stretch her legs for a few minutes. Glassy blues greeted her upon her return into the room. A gasp of joy escaped her lips at the sight for sore eyes. She put her cup of coffee on the table and pulled down the bed rail to lean over the patient.
“Welcome back, Blue Eyes.” she said with a heart brimming over with glee and a beam as wide and bright as a flowery meadow. She searched Steve’s eyes for a speck of acknowledgement, but his impassive expression was self-explanatory. Her once shiny beam quickly faded into a contrived smile as she strained to suppress the emotions gushing to her throat. “Do you remember me?” Heavy blinks were her only answer. “Look at me real hard and tell me you know who I am. Blink once for no and twice for yes.” An eternity elapsed before Steve finally acknowledged with two blinks.
A shuddering sigh of relief filled the room. Shivers coursed through her body, causing her hands to tremble as she reached for Steve’s. “Do you know where you are?” Steve’s bemused eyes swept the room before they came to rest upon her friend’s to give her his answer in a single blink. “You’re in the hospital. You were shot.” Steve’s brows quickly knitted at the news. “I imagine you don’t remember?” Cassie didn’t bother pausing to allow Steve to blink his answer before adding, “One bullet came inches from your heart and the second entered your brain, but luckily you have a think skull,” she ended on a light-hearted tone with an elfish smile to boot. “Rudy was worried about brain damage but obviously you…,” her words caught in her throat at the distressing sight before her. “Steve, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?” Steve’s face became distorted by excruciating pain. He strove to voice his fear but couldn’t utter a single syllable. Cassie dashed out of the room and down to the nurse’s station to urge the nurse on duty to notify Rudy at once.
She hurried back to Steve’s room to calm him down. She was bursting at the seams at her inability to appease his shivers. At last resort she leaned her ear near Steve’s mouth hoping to catch a whisper of what he was visibly trying to tell her. “Take a deep breath and tell me,” she egged on, closing her eyes to focus on each breath.
Rudy breezed into the room with a nurse holding a syringe. “What happened?”
“He awoke a few minutes ago and started asking him questions to see how much he remembered then his face started twisting in pain and he kept wanting to talk.”
Rudy beckoned the nurse to hand him over the syringe full of sedative that he injected in the IV line. Cassie breathed a sigh of relief as she saw Steve’s convulsing body slowly slacking. She caught his pleading eyes as they slowly closed.
“We’ll let him rest now.” Rudy took Cassie by the arm and led her out of the room.
“It was too soon, wasn’t it?” Cassie repented, her head bowed in shame of having provoked this attack.
“What did you ask him?”
“If he knew who I was and he blinked yes. He remembered me. Guess I should have kept at that.”
“What was your next question?”
“It wasn’t a question actually it was more of a description of what happened. I assume that was the triggering element? I’m sorry Rudy.”
“Don’t be. In fact I would have done the same thing. We need to know the extent of the damage. Now that he’s out of the coma we have to stimulate his brain or he’ll lapse into a depression.”
“Am I still allowed in his room?”
“Of course you are,” Rudy chuckled, giving Cassie a reassuring pat on the arm. “I’m sure Steve wants it that way.”
“I’ll go back and sit with him.”
“Maybe you should go down to the cafeteria and grab a bite to eat. It’s unlikely he’ll wake up for another good five to six hours. You have plenty of time to even go out and get yourself a good dinner.”
“I think I will. I won’t stray far. Just across the street.”
“I promise to send someone over should there be any change.”
“Thanks Rudy.” Cassie returned to Steve’s room to pick up her files. She gazed at the patient sleeping soundly but with a frown on his face that troubled her. She leaned in to place a feathery kiss on his forehead and brushed back a lock of hair. “I’m not giving up on you, Blue Eyes,” she whispered softly into his ear. “You know you did this to you, don’t you?” Her jaw clenched at the very thought. “I’ll be back later and we’ll talk some more. I promise we’ll get him.”
As promised, Cassie returned to Steve’s bedside in the late evening. In the wee hours of the night, she surrendered to her sagging eyelids and propped her head on the pillow next to Steve’s, her hand resting on his shoulder.
Dawn’s first sunrays filtered through the crack in the blinds, shining into the dim-lit room, goading the patient to pry open his eyelids. As he established focus a wave of panic crept over him at the familiar surrounding, but the presence of Cassie by his side quickly dispelled the numbing fear. His lips curled up slightly at the unwavering solicitude.
He puffed out a loud breath hoping the sound would wake her. When that failed, he tried again, only this time the sharp exhale caused him to wince in pain, but thankfully it paid off. Cassie moaned and slowly raised her head up. Once the stretch and yawn out of the way she turned her attention to the patient she thought was still slumbering peacefully. She was more than pleasantly surprised when two blue eyes greeted her.
She shifted position to sit on the edge of the bed, facing Steve. “Hey Blue Eyes. Still remember me?” Steve nodded weakly. “That’s good.” She brushed a finger against his cheek as she smiled her heart’s delight.
Steve strained to vocalize his fears but all attempts to articulate properly came to a naught. “Steve, don’t this. You’re hurting.” She placed a hand on his chest, gently massaging it around the bandage to alleviate the some of the pain he was experiencing. Steve was determined to get his message across and therefore made another go at it.
Cassie shook her head in disbelief at the stubbornness displayed and leaned in close to Steve’s mouth. “Whisper it to me.”
“Rudy?” he head shot up at the name. “What about Rudy?” She frowned quizzically at Steve who obviously had more to say. She pricked up her ear once more to make out the stuttering whispers. “Sh…sh…shot…shot meeeeeeeeee.”
“What?” She exclaimed in utter shock.
Exhausted from the strain, Steve closed his eyes and nodded.
“Steve, you’re not making any sense. Rudy is incapable of that. He loves you like a brother. I believe it.”
“Looking for a file?” Steve confirmed with a nod. “What file?”
“Pro…project. On..on…only two c…copies.”
“So that’s why your house was ransacked.” Again Steve nodded. “Steve, you were shot in the head. Obviously you’re not thinking straight.”
Steve’s eyes shot open; a terrorized expression etched on his face. “It was…was him. I saw…saw him.” He paused to catch his breath before pleading with Cassie to prevent Rudy from coming near him. “Please, w…wants me...me dead.”
“Okay, okay,” she pacified with a gentle rub up and down his arm. “I still don’t believe it but I’ll make sure he doesn’t come near you. I’ll ask Oscar to replace him.”
“T…th...thanks.” He smiled weakly.
While holding Steve’s hand, she reached out for the phone and dialed Oscar’s private number. “Just get here as fast as you can. I’ll explain everything. By the way is Dr. Marchetti in Washington?”
“I know he was at the Colorado complex last week. I’ll have to ask Rudy.”
“No!” she shouted through the phone, taking Oscar aback. “Don’t talk to Rudy. It’s a very delicate matter, Oscar. You’ll understand once I explain it.”
Although disturbed by his agent’s reaction, Oscar decided best not to push the issue on the phone. He hung up, grabbed his jacket and headed out of the office.
“What did he say?” Oscar cried out.
“Oscar!” Cassie admonished, “Keep your voice down. We don’t want everyone to hear.” She gave the waiting room a quick glance to spot anyone spying about.
“Maybe Steve dreamed it and woke up with the notion that Rudy was his assailant.”
“Oscar, you should have seen the look in his eyes. He is genuinely terrified. He won’t have Rudy come near him.”
“Maybe. But until we get to the bottom of this mystery I suggest you temporary replace Rudy. That’s why I asked about Michael Marchetti.”
“Do you know what you’re asking me to do? Rudy’s a friend.”
“Do you want him to upset Steve? In the state he’s in the shock could kill him. Look it’s just temporary until we straighten this out. I’m sure it’s a mistake but for Steve’s sake, keep him aside.”
“If he did do this, which I doubt with every fiber of my being, I can’t just cast him aside. I have to remove him from his functions.” Silence filled the room as heads hung in dismay. “I’ll get in touch with Dr. Marchetti and explain the situation to Rudy. I hope he understands and doesn’t jump down my throat.”
“If he does, you send him to me. After all I’m the one who asked you to replace him.”
“I’m sure you can handle him better than I can,” Oscar said with a hint of tease.
“I can try. Steve’s health comes first. When he’s better we can begin looking for the real assailant, because like you I don’t believe Rudy is capable of shooting Steve in cold blood.”
“Did he tell you what he was doing in his house?”
“Steve mentioned something about a file.”
“He didn’t say. He has trouble speaking. It took all of his energy just to whisper Rudy’s name.”
“Question is did he find it?”
At a lost for answers, Cassie simply shrugged. “Can’t say but I found this at Steve’s apartment.” She produced the piece of mustache from her pocket. “I assume the intruder accidentally dropped it when he left the house. That might prove it was a Rudy Wells look-alike.”
“I’ll sent it down to the lab to see if they can come up with something.”
“I’m going back to Steve. Please let me know when it’s done.”
“Sure thing.” Oscar made his way to the nurses’ station to inquire about Marchetti’s whereabouts. Unable to comply with his request, the head nurse suggested asking Rudy Wells; the one alternative Oscar was hoping to avoid at all cost. He drew in a deep breath to garner his courage to march down Rudy’s office to spring the news on him.
“Oscar, that’s ludicrous,” Rudy mocked. “Me, shooting Steve?”
“I’m aware it is but Cassie said…”
“Apparently Steve remembered you pointing a gun at him.”
“Oscar, Steve just came out of a deep coma after being shot in the head. The head, Oscar. You know what that means?” Rudy emphasized on a sardonic tone.
“Don’t you think I know how absurd this is?” Oscar defended. “But until we can get to the bottom of this I ask that you temporary step down as Steve’s personal physician and let Dr. Marchetti fill in.”
He was raring to breeze out of his office to go knock some sense into his patient’s head but instead, Rudy willingly acceded to Oscar’s wish, aware that his current situation allowed no room for argument. He huffed out a chortle, shaking in head in utter disbelief at the inanity. “Okay, I’ll get in touch with him. You’re in luck, he’s in Washington for a seminar. I’ll ask him to take over.”
“Thanks Rudy. As I said, it’s only temporary until Steve regains his senses.”
Steve managed, albeit with difficulty, to fill Cassie in on the special project file that he and Rudy had been collaborating on without entering into details. Cassie understood enough to want to smother the whole affair until she and Oscar finished their investigation. On her advice Steve feigned amnesia when questioned about the shooting. The two NSB inspectors assigned to the case were grasping at straws and desperate for clues.
“Colonel it’s very important. Should you recall anything, however flimsy a detail you believe it might be, you call me, or have your partner call me. Rest assured we’re doing everything in our power to nail whoever did this to you.”
Steve smiled his gratitude. “I w…will,” he breathed out in a stutter.
No sooner had the investigators left the room that Cassie snuck in. She padded up to the bed and let her gaze wandered over the angelic face taking a respite from the physically-draining interrogation.
“I….I….di…didn’t say…say any…anyth…any…thing,” he heaved out with eyes closed.
She perched herself on the edge of the mattress and gently tapped his hand. “That’s good. They’re from the NSB; therefore I don’t trust their integrity. They’d jump at the chance to put the blame on an innocent soul just so they can wrap up the case in a hurry.”
“Y…you don… don…don’t be…be..believe me, do…do you?”
“Let’s just say we’re skeptical. You did make a serious accusation towards a life-long trusted friend. We can’t be jumping the gun here. Anyway until we can shed some light on this mystery Michael Marchetti will be taking over as your doctor.” Steve swallowed hard and nodded in gratitude.
Later that day. Dr. Marchetti performed a battery of tests on Steve, mostly concentrating in the area of motor and speech skills. The results showed that the patient was suffering from a mild aphasia that, in his professional opinion, was only temporary. “Encourage him to speak. Even if he gets frustrated, you keep at him.”
“Don’t worry I will. He knows better than to argue with me,” Cassie said.
“So I heard,” he mocked. “If anyone can get Steve back on his feet, it’s you.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, doctor, but I’m not infallible. Steve can be pretty stubborn at times.”
“Don’t I know it!”
“Say, would you be privy to a special project Rudy and Steve were collaborating on?”
“I know Rudy is toying with several. What’s it about?”
“I don’t have all the details yet. Steve merely said that Rudy turned his house into a shambles looking for a file and thereafter he shot him.”
“I can’t fathom Rudy Wells shooting Steve over something as trivial as a file.”
“I can’t believe Rudy would shoot Steve, period!”
“You must understand that Steve was shot in the head, now that implies that…”
“I know, I know,” Cassie interrupted before Michael could finish the thought she had already deciphered. “Steve mentioned there were only two copies of the file and that he and Rudy were the only ones working on the project.”
“My guess is someone else might have gotten wind of it,” Michael surmised.
“Yeah, but that still doesn’t explain why Steve says he saw Rudy pulling a gun on him.”
“Could be that his mind associated the documents with Rudy.”
“Yeah, that’s plausible. The brain is an intricate piece of machinery that can play tricks on you, even if you’re all there.”
“Okay thanks doctor. And please, keep this under your hat for now. We don’t want the NSB getting wind of this obvious mistaken identity.”
“Count on me.” He walked her to the office door. “I’ll be by to check on Steve in the evening. I expect you’ll be with him?”
“If there’s anything you need, just let the nurse know and she’ll page me.”
“Thank you.” Cassie smiled as she exited the office. She paused by the door, pondering Michael’s assumption about the word association that in spite of its tangibility, her instincts was prompting her to think otherwise.
With Cassie’s teaching and moral support Steve made remarkable progress and by the end of the week was nearly back to his old self. A small stutter subsisted but it was a drop in the bucket that he intended to lick very quickly.
One afternoon Cassie decided to wheel Steve out to the hospital park to soak up some sun. She sat beside him on a bench and gradually broached the subject of the shooting. She hated having to rub salt in a wound barely healing but a friend’s reputation was at stake and therefore needed more clues to unravel the mystery.
“I’m seeing him as clearly as I’m seeing you,” Steve affirmed, his mind locking on the face of his assailant though his heart endeavored to dismiss it as a nightmare. An amused chuckle escaped his lips at Cassie’s worried frown. “I know what you’re thinking. Blue Eyes’s not all there. He’s imagining things. Don’t you think I wish I was?” he raised an octave, visibly upset by this awkward situation. “I won’t admit that the man who has been my friend and mentor since I first enrolled in the Space Program could ever turn on me with a gun? I can’t. But it was him, Cassie.”
“Was he wearing gloves?”
“Gloves? The afternoon of the shooting, when he thrust that gun at you, do you recall him wearing gloves?”
Steve shut his eyes to channel all of his concentration on the hand that held the weapon. He shook his head in dejection as he failed to bring an image into mind. “I don’t remember anything but his face. Besides whether or not he was wearing gloves Rudy’s been at my house many times. It’s likely you’ll find his fingerprints.”
“They did and collected a few dozens of others as well, which doesn’t narrow down our list of suspects.”
“What’s going to happen to him?” Steve queried with a genuine concern.
“For now, nothing, as long as you keep quiet. The police don’t have any leads. At the moment they are just fishing for clues. Rudy has agreed to leave you alone until the matter is settled.”
“And I will hold my promise just as soon as I get an answer to only one question,” came the voice from behind.
Troubled by this inauspicious visit, Steve swiveled his head the opposite way, turning his chin over his shoulder to avoid making eye contact with Rudy who came to squat before him.
“Steve, look me. I ask that you look into my eyes and swear that it was me you saw pulling the trigger.” Seeing how Steve refused to accede to his demand, he stood and grabbed him by the shoulders to impel him to lock onto his stare. “Steve!”
Cassie leapt out of her seat to prevent Rudy from aggravating his situation. “Rudy, please. Can’t you see he’s upset?”
“And I’m not?” he lashed out in spite of himself. “My reputation, everything I’ve worked for can come tumbling down on a single mistake. Because it is a gross mistake. I know I don’t have an alibi for that afternoon. I was at home, sleeping off what I thought was an indigestion, but since there were no witnesses, it’s my word against yours.” He waited for Steve to show a hint of remorse. “Dammit Steve! Look at me!” Steve angrily tossed his head toward him, his smoldering glare boring a hole into his pleading eyes. “You know I could never, never intentionally hurt you. Please say you believe me,” he beseeched with tears clouding his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Steve breathed out, his quavering voice barely above a whisper. “I can’t.”
Rudy’s head dropped to his chest. “This can’t be,” he deplored shaking his head in disbelief. “I would never, never hurt you.”
“I want to believe it, Rudy…”
“Then do! You must have seen someone who looked like me,” Rudy insisted notwithstanding Steve’s obvious discomfort.
“Cassie, I’d like to go back to my room now.”
“Sure thing, Steve.” Cassie took the handles and wheeled the chair around. She cast one last glance at Rudy and gave him an uplifting smile. “Leave it for now. We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise.”
Rudy rose to his feet and walked away with a sense of doom, aware this mistaken identity could cost him everything. He decided then to take matters into his own hands. ‘I’ll find out who set me up,” he grounded out between clenched teeth.
“That wasn’t his voice,” Steve stated matter-of-factly while Cassie was assisting him back into his bed.
“What d’you say?”
“His voice, Rudy’s voice. It was a little croaky. I remember thinking to myself he must be coming down with a cold.”
“When?” she asked as she pulled the blanket up to Steve’s chest.
“At the house, just before he shot me.”
She perched herself on the edge of the mattress and pondered Steve’s statement. “I was thinking. Do you recall the incident with Johnny Dine? You know the boxer who looked like you? Fooled everyone including Oscar?”
“What if Rudy wasn’t Rudy but someone who was after the file?”
“But who? No one aside Rudy and myself know about the project’s existence.”
“And you discussed it only in private?”
“Not always. We often exchanged views on it in the lab but there was usually no one around except maybe…,” Steve stared saucer-eyed at Cassie. “Michael.”
“He must have gotten wind of our conversations, though we tried to hold back divulging any detail in his presence.” He then shook his head to cast aside that preposterous notion aside. “No, that can’t be. He didn’t have enough to go on.”
“There’s another possibility,” she hinted to Steve who readily picked up its meaning.
“A bug?” Cassie nodded. “Where? At the lab?”
“Or maybe at Rudy’s house or even at your own. Michael’s been to both.”
“You think he’s the one who planted there?”
“We have to consider it. Steve, you realize Michael is your physician? What if he was indeed smitten by the enemy and that they order him to finish the job they started?” Cassie reached for the phone and dialed Oscar’s personal line.
“Who are you calling?” he asked, puzzled.
“The boss. If our hunch is right then Michael poses a threat. We can’t have him near you.”
Steve gently pushed her arm down and removed the receiver from her hand. “No. That’s what we don’t want to do, arouse his suspicions. He can’t feel threatened otherwise he’ll flee and we’ll lose any chance of finding out who’s behind this.”
“Steve, we don’t know what he’s capable of.”
“First of all we may be barking up at the wrong tree. We have no proof that Michael Marchetti is involved and secondly, I’m stronger now and better equipped to deal with whatever he might try to throw my way.”
“Including a lethal injection while you’re sleeping?”
“I always sleep with one eye open anyway.”
“This is serious Steve. Your life may be in danger.”
“If Michael had orders to kill me he would have done so earlier.”
“Nevertheless, Oscar should be notified.”
“Steve!” Cassie insisted.
“Cassie, the first thing he’ll do is ask the guard posted at my door to search him whenever he comes into my room. That will really set Michael off. No we need to be discreet about it.”
“Okay then, what about Rudy? Do we let him in on it?”
“I think we should. He could help us nail the real culprit,” he agreed.
“Oscar is going to have a fit when he hears we’ve kept this from him.”
Steve reached for Cassie hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Then I’ll call on my little Brown-Eyed spitfire to tame the ornery bull.” He winked. “Oscar’s afraid of you.”
“And he’d better be. That does feel good to have the boss cower before you,” she boasted with a mocking grin.
“Michael?” Rudy exclaimed. “You’re wrong. Michael is my most trusted associate. I won’t believe he’s involved.”
“Rudy we’re not saying he was but at the moment he’s our primary suspect,” Cassie explained calmly while glancing around the park to spot prying eyes. “If he did pass along information to the enemy we don’t believe he expected they would try to kill Steve, ergo the reason why they sent a look-alike to Steve’s house.”
“So that if he was seen before he had a chance to eliminate me, we would have blamed you.” Steve added as he shifted uncomfortably in his wheelchair. “That way we don’t step in their yard, knowing we have our man at home.” A noticeable twitch crossed his face.
“Yeah Rudy, I’m fine. Just a little stiff, that’s all.”
“We’d better head back,” Cassie suggested, rising from her bench to step up to the wheelchair. “It might look suspicious if we’re seen together for a long stretch of time.” She swirled the chair around and looked at Rudy. “I’ll be in touch.”
“You do that. In the meantime I’ll conduct my own investigation from my end. See what I can find out.”
“Be discreet about it. Remember Oscar can’t get wind of this, not yet anyway.”
Meanwhile at enemy headquarters…
“Anton just told me that Austin’s alive,” informed one of the henchmen to his boss sitting behind his giant oak desk admiring a priceless heirloom.
“No fear,” answered the man with a disarmingly composed demeanor. “Anton may have omitted to tell you he was shot in the head? No doubt Austin’s in a vegetative state.”
“No he’s not. Anton was at the hospital today. Austin may be in a wheelchair but he’s talking and even remembering details about the shooting.”
The imposing figure slowly rose from his seat and glared at his right-handed man. “That can’t be. How did he get that information?”
“With the amplifier, sir. He parked across from the hospital backyard where Austin, Rudy Wells and a woman were discussing the shooting. They suspect Marchetti planted a bug and they plan to investigate.”
In a fit of fury the man slammed his fist against the desk. “Dammit! This was the perfect scheme. No chance of it backfiring on us.”
“What do you want us to do?”
“Get Marchetti on the phone. Ask him to meet you at the regular place.”
“Sir, he’s likely to pick up a tail.”
“If so, ask A.J. to handle it.”
Michael hung up his smock on the coat rack and bid Rudy’s secretary Linda farewell for the day. Outside, he scanned the parking lot for anyone spying on his move as he walked to his car. Giving the area one last glance he got behind the wheel and put on the ignition.
Arriving at destination, he parked alongside the curb and entered the crowded snackbar. Behind him a taxi cab pulled over and out came Rudy in a disguise. After paying the driver he snuck into the restaurant, incognito, and sat at the counter to spy on the two men sitting at a corner table. Unfortunately their voices blended with the background noise, making it impossible for Rudy to make out their conversation.
“You removed the bugs like we instructed to?” the stranger asked Michael.
“Yeah. They’re all gone. I was told no one would get hurt.”
“It couldn’t be helped. Austin’s untimely return took Jake by surprise. He did what he had to do under the circumstances.”
The young physician stared pleadingly into his contact’s eyes and sighed heavily, “I want out.”
“Sorry, no can do.”
“I won’t be a party to murder. I just don’t want my sister hurt. I never meant for things to go this far.”
“Mister Cunningham keeps his promises. You will be let off the hook just as soon as the hurdles are dealt with.”
Mike’s brows furrowed. “What does that mean, ‘dealt with’?”
“You just do as you’re asked and we’ll handle the rest. You’ll keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for your sister. One phone call from us and the little unsuspected Director of Marketing for Cunningham Enterprises will disappear under mysterious circumstances, including her brother.”
“You son of a bitch!” Mike spat, prompting a few heads to turn his way.
The man stood and left Mike with one last warning, “Eight o’clock tonight, your apartment. You be there or else.” He adjusted his jacket and casually exited the restaurant leaving a dazed Michael in his wake.
Luckily Rudy had managed to strain his ear enough to discern the words ‘eight o’clock’ and “apartment”. He put down his menu and followed the man outside to memorize his license plate as he drove away. He then made his way to a public phone booth and dialed Steve’s room knowing Cassie would probably pick up.
“Hello,” Steve answered.
“Steve, it’s Rudy. Is Cassie there with you?”
“She went out to get a cup of coffee, why?”
“I was able to follow Michael to a restaurant where he met with his contact. I couldn’t make out what they were saying only that he was told to be at his apartment tonight at eight.”
“Did he see you?”
“No chance of that. I wore a rather inventive disguise and altered my poise so he wouldn’t suspect. I also got the stranger’s license plate number.”
“You’re getting to be a regular Dick Tracy,” Steve joked as Cassie returned to the room.
“Who are you talking to?”
Steve threw her a knowing wink. “Our man on the field,” he hinted.
“What’s up?” she asked Rudy.
“You have a pen and paper? I have a license number I need to check out.”
Cassie reached for the items in question and jogged down the information. “I’ll have Danny on it. And Sherlock, enough for today. Hang your coat and hat for now. We’ll take over.”
“It appeared as though Michael was threatened. His face was livid as a sheet. No doubt they are blackmailing him.”
“We’ll get to the bottom of this before anyone else gets hurt,” Cassie assured as she handed the paper over to Steve. “And I mean it! You get out of circulation before anyone finds out you’ve been playing detective.”
“Will do, boss,” Rudy teased.
Once the phone back in its cradle she turned to notice a troubled frown creasing Steve’s brow. “What the matter?”
“This is a number for a rented car. No doubt the man provided the company with a fake name and address.”
“Leave it to me, Blue Eyes. You just rest and I’ll be back with the info this afternoon.”
“Rest, rest, rest!” Steve grumbled, crossing his arms in protest. “All I do is rest. I want to get out there and nail those guys.”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk, my, are we in a foul mood today,” she mocked. “Your impetuousness will only get us in trouble. Now, you’ll be a good boy or do I have to tie you to the bed WITH,” she quickly added before Steve could retort, “magnetic induction coils?”
“You wouldn’t because you know I’m still tender.”
“You want to bet?” she challenged with a raised eyebrow, warning Steve not to press the issue.
“That’s my boy.” She leaned in to plant a smacking kiss on his cheek. With a tender gaze into his baby blues, she smiled gratefully and reminded, “Steve, you’re alive. Let’s keep it that way.”
Steve cracked a lopsided grin and sighed in resignation. “Okay. I’ll be a good boy. But don’t dawdle getting back here.”
It wasn’t long before Cassie returned with the information.
“The car is registered to a Donovan Wheeler of Cunningham Industries,” she told Steve and Rudy.
“Cunningham Industries. Michael’s sister Joanne works for that company.” Rudy said. “She’s the Director of Marketing.”
“That could explain why Mike is involved. My guess is that they’re threatening to hurt his sister if he doesn’t do what they want,” Cassie surmised.
“Why didn’t he come to me in private? I could have easily falsified the documents without their knowledge.”
“I don’t think he could afford to take a chance on anyone knowing about it.”
“His silence almost got Steve killed,” Rudy raged.
“Between your sister and a friend, who would you choose?” Cassie quizzed both men whose answer came as a whispering sigh of defeat.
“Now is the time to let the boss in on it. We’ve got our men,” Cassie said resolutely.
“They can’t be charging in there. They need proof.” Steve pointed out.
“Michael can give it to us.”
“That is if he cooperates?”
Cassie turned to Rudy with a knowing smile. “Rudy, can you convince your assistant to spill the beans?”
“This time, I’m coming with you,” Steve said as he hauled himself into a sitting position. “I might want to get me a piece of the scum that shot me.”
“You do no such thing,” Cassie chided gently pushing him down on his pillows. “Look at my eyes, what are they doing?”
“And what does that mean?”
“That I’ll be singing soprano if I don’t watch me step?”
“You got it.”
Rudy had to stifle a laugh at the joyful bantering between his two friends.
“You see what I have to put up with?” Steve complained to Rudy hoping to gain sympathy.
“And you love it, don’t you?”
Steve’s feigned pout was self-explanatory.
“We’ll see you later, Blue Eyes. And remember, you be a good boy.” She bent down to give him a kiss on the cheek.
“You’re going to have all the fun,” he whined, his arms firmly crossed against his chest.
“I’ll bring back some candy,” Cassie humoured.
“Don’t patronize me, 34! Go on! Get out of here! You’d better be careful or else!”
As predicted Oscar was annoyed by having been kept in the dark, but he grudgingly accepted Cassie’s explanation of the cloak-and-dagger to avoid any further deaths.
Incensed by Michael’s involvement in Steve shooting, however indirectly, Oscar marched out of his office with eyes ablaze ready to confront the traitor.
“That’s the last thing you’d want to do, Oscar,” Cassie hissed. “Let Rudy handle that part. Hopefully he’ll convince Michael to tell us everything; we need proof that Cunningham and his men were involved. All we have now is hearsay.”
Oscar huffed out his anger and nodded in acquiescence. “You’re right. But what if he won’t talk?”
“Then I’ll let you lose on him,” Cassie teased. “You can be awfully scary when you want to. Even worse than me.”
Rudy’s steps faltered as he neared the lab. From his vantage point behind the glass door he observed Michael thumbing through some files, wondering what he was looking for. He decided to step inside and surprise him.
“Something I can help you with?” Rudy said with a hint of sarcasm.
“Oh Rudy! You frightened me.”
“What are you doing here? Won’t they arrest you if they see you on the premises?”
“Who’s going to tell? You?”
Rudy picked up the phone and handed it over to Michael. “Go ahead, report me. And while you’re at it why not call your friends to let them know we’re on to them.”
“What are you talking about?”
Rudy smashed the receiver down in its cradle and edge up to Michael with a menacing glare. “Harry Cunningham. He’s the one who sent a Rudy look-alike to Steve’s house to retrieve the file, didn’t he?”
“I…I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Michael stuttered, returning his attention to his file.
“Yes, you do. They threatened to kill your sister who works for the company if you refused to comply with their demands, am I right? I’m getting warmer, aren’t I?”
“You have no proof of what you’re saying,” Michael retorted defiantly.
“Oh yes I do. I followed you to the restaurant when you met with that man. I overheard part of your conversation and also noticed how uncomfortable and livid you looked.” A silence of defeat lingered before Rudy stepped up to the shame-faced man. “I understand why you did it, believe me. I don’t condone it but I’m sensitive to the fact that you were caught between a rock and a hard place. We all agree not to press charges against you in exchange for your information.”
“I can’t. If I snitch on them they’ll kill Joanne.”
“You call her and ask to meet you for lunch. We’ll get you both in a safe place.”
“All they wanted was your project.”
“What for? It’s mere theory. We are far from the acid tests. Besides the notes are coded. Steve and I are they only ones who can decipher the content. It’s a personalized cryptogram system.”
“They’ll find a way believe me, even if they have to kidnap one of you.”
“I suspect as much. And who do you think will be threatened into carrying out the assignment?” Rudy asked rhetorically, the answer obvious in his sarcastic tone. “Side with us, Michael, before it’s too late. You don’t belong with that bunch. We’ll protect you and Joanne. If you don’t sever your association with them now, they’ll take advantage of you until your services will no longer required and then they’ll have no hesitation in killing you both.”
The choice was easy; yet Michael wavered. “I don’t know much, just that they wanted the files. I told them about the two copies. One in the vault and the other in Steve’s home. They figured it was easier to break into his house and search for it there. Believe me Rudy, I never suspected they would hurt Steve. They asked me how long he would be gone. It’s obvious they didn’t want anyone surprising them.”
“But Steve did. The guy got caught unawares and decided to get rid of the witness.”
“Rudy, I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am,” Michael cried apologetically in hopes his mentor would sweep the matter under the carpet.
“I know you are, but until you agree to divulge everything you know I can’t trust you.”
“I will go to Oscar, but only in exchange for his guarantee to get those scums behind bars; otherwise they’ll hunt us down.”
“I’m sure Oscar can work it out,” Rudy assured with an obliging smile. “One thing that puzzles me. That afternoon when I went home on account of a stomachache…”
“I slipped something in your coffee to make you ill, just enough for you to return home in the event their fake Rudy would have been spotted. They couldn’t have two Rudy’s in different places at the same time.
“Clever. And since I was at home and not at the lab I didn’t have any alibi to argue the evidence.”
“I’ll call Joanne. Let her know I want to meet for dinner. Let’s hope she’s not working overtime tonight. I can’t really tip her off on the phone.” He began dialing her work number. “What if she can’t get away?”
“You’ll catch her when she gets home tonight.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Michael confessed, his skin breaking out in gooseflesh.
Rudy nodded a greeting to the guard posted at Steve’s door as he entered the room with a medical chart. He edged up to the bed, heedful to avoid rousing the slumbering patient. He glanced back at the door to ensure the coast was clear before carefully pulling out a syringe from his smock pocket.
Down the hall, a second Rudy Wells caught the guard’s attention. He shook his head in disbelief, thinking he was hallucinating. “Dr. Wells?”
“But you’re in there.” Two pair of eyes widened in fear at the thought that instantly crossed their minds. The guard rapidly unsheathed his gun and breezed into the room.
“Hold it right there, Mister!” he ordered the impostor whose hand froze on the IV line.
Rudy pounced on his nemesis and grabbed his wrist to peel the syringe from his fingers. “What’s in this?” The man remained silent, a sneer crossing his lips. “You don’t have to tell me. I have hunch what it is.” With the officer’s gun securely trained on the impostor, Rudy removed the IV needle from Steve’s arm for precautionary measures, after which he picked up the phone to summon Oscar and his men to the room.
“Oscar, Rudy. I think you’d better come to the hospital right away. We caught ourselves a look-alike. They did an amazing job on him,” Rudy marveled, scanning the man from head to toe.
“Is Steve all right?”
Rudy glanced down at the patient wearing a serene look on his face. “I think so,” Rudy informed, though a doubt lingered. “He’s out like a log. This man tried to inject him with poison. I’m going to draw a blood sample to have analyzed just in case.”
“I’m on my way.” Oscar dropped the phone back in its cradle and flew out of his chair. He twitched his jacket off the coat rack and hurried out the door.
He drove to the Medical Center in record time. Russ and his men followed close behind and were first on the scene to apprehend the impostor.
“He won’t talk, Oscar,” Rudy informed. “We tried but to no avail.”
“It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference,” Oscar observed in total awe, his eyes darting from one face to the other in utter bewilderment. “What did the blood test show?”
“The preliminary tests show no trace of foreign substances. It’s safe to assume we caught him just in time.”
“Russ, take him into custody. Save him for me. I want to relish the pleasure of interrogating him myself,” Oscar scorned with a Machiavellian look glinting in his eyes. “Is Cassie around?”
“No. In fact I thought she was with you,” Rudy answered a bit puzzled.
“Did she say anything to you?”
“No. She must be following a lead.”
Across town Cassie was indeed hot on the trail of the man who met with Michael at the restaurant. From a safe distance she tailed him to a local grocery store and parked her car across the street. Twenty minutes elapsed and still no sign of the man. Her instincts warned her of a subterfuge. The store was obviously fronting a secret headquarters.
She decided to conduct an investigation of the disappearing act without arousing suspicion. She casually entered the store and browsed through the alleys, looking for no item in particular as she stole glimpses of the place. She found it dubious for a customer to come out of the beer storage room without any bottles or case. Smiling inwardly, she picked up a can of tuna of the shelf and made her way to the cash register to pay, all the while keeping an eye on the shady character who marched out the door. She hurried to her car to start tailing him to his next hideout, only this time he stopped in front of a four-storey apartment building and went in.
Cassie doubled back to the hospital where she met with Oscar and Rudy in Steve’s room.
“You missed all the action, 35,” Steve announced as she approached his bed.
“What did I miss?” she asked innocently.
“My nemesis tried to kill Steve right here,” Rudy informed.
“Blue Eyes, are you okay?”
“No harm done. It’s a good chance that Rudy showed up when he did. He was in the process of injecting me with a deadly drug. And I was out like a light. Didn’t hear him creep into the room”
“He must have been a carbon copy of you, Rudy, to confuse the guard.”
“He was, believe me. It was so eerie seeing yourself through the looking glass.”
Cassie breathed out a sigh of relief and perched herself on the edge of the mattress. “Did he say anything?”
“No. Nothing. But I’ll have me a conversation with him down at headquarters. It’s just a matter of time before he spills the beans, seeing how Michael Marchetti has agreed to tell us everything he knows,” Oscar said.
“That’s great. Well, I may have some helpful bits of information of my own,” she boasted. “I followed the man you,” she motioned to Rudy,” said met with Michael at the restaurant.”
“And?” Oscar asked expectantly.
“I think I might have stumbled upon their secret headquarters.”
“A small grocery store on Checkers Street, called The Market Shack.”
“Yeah I know where that is.”
“Strange occurrences happening inside, mainly people going in and out of a cold storage room and not buying anything.”
“We’ll get the truth out of our man. Should he not cooperate we’ll do our own investigation. Good work, 35” Oscar blurted out, the slip-up winning him a round of baffled stares. “What?”
“Only I call her 35,” Steve chided good-naturedly.
“Sorry,” Oscar repented, flashing an embarrassing smile.
All had a good laugh at Oscar’s expense. “I see I’m the brunt of the joke once again,” Oscar exasperated. “I assume this is my cue to leave. I’ll see you all later at the office. I’m sure by then we’ll have some answers. And Marchetti,” Oscar singled out, “you come with me. I’ll need all the information you can provide.”
“I have to meet with my sister first. Make sure she’s safe.”
“Sure, but not without backup.” Michael nodded in agreement and both men left the room.
“So? When can I get out of here, Doc?” Steve asked.
“Why are so raring to be discharged? I figured after all the commotion you’d want to stay longer to get some rest.”
“Rest. It’s been anything but rest since I’ve been here. I’m safer at home, believe me.”
Rudy and Cassie exchanged amused glances. “For once he’s right. I won’t argue with him there,” Cassie admitted.
“What do you mean ‘for once’?” Steve squeaked, breaking into a teasing grin. “Welcome back, Rudy.”
“It was close. Real close.”
“Eventually the truth would have come out. No one believed you could have done this,” Cassie assured.
“Yeah and I’m sorry for thinking you would shoot me in cold blood,” Steve apologized, sinking deeper into his pillow as an attempt to hide his shame.
“Don’t worry about it. I might have thought the same had I been in your place. Hopefully this will be behind us once Oscar gets his men.”
“Incidentally what IS that project?” Cassie queried, her eyes shifting from one mischievous grin to the other. “You won’t tell me, is that it?” The two men remained tight-lipped. “All right, I understand,” she said, feigning a sulk. “But know this 34,” she jabbed her finger into his shoulder. “I have ways to wring the truth out of you.”
With a nervous gulp and small curl of the lip, Steve sank into his pillows and pulled the blanket to his neck. “Doc, on second thought I might take you up on your offer to stay at the hospital.”