Friday September 14th, 13:05
On this bright and sunny Friday morning, Steve was busy packing up for his holiday getaway in the Carribeans. With much persuasion, he had managed to convince Oscar to allow him some time off between assignments in order to replenish his energy. Jaime accepted his invitation to join him on this trip. Since regaining her memory, she was longing to rekindle their romance and St-Thomas was the perfect setting for the two lovebirds to get ...reacquainted.
As Steve closed his last suitcase, the phone rang. Thinking it might be Jaime, he answered with a lopsided smile.
“All packed up and ready to go?”
His beaming expression swiftly turned aghast as he heard an all too familiar voice. Steve had a gnawing feeling this wasn’t a social call wishing him a safe flight.
“Oscar...the answer is no!” Steve answered curtly.
“No!” In less than four hours, I’m flying down to St-Thomas and nor rain, snow, hail, sleet and particularly Oscar Goldman is going to prevent me from boarding that plane on schedule.”
“Steve, I need to talk to you.”
“Not on the phone.”
“Please, you won’t miss your flight, I promise. It’s only a matter of an hour at the most.”
“Why are you doing this to me, today of all days? What have I done to you to deserve that?” Steve whined.
“I wouldn’t ask had it not been of prime importance.”
Steve heaved a long-drawn sigh. “One hour?”
“Be right there.”
Steve hung up, grabbed his jacket and keys.
“I’m going to regret this,” he mumbled to himself. He glanced at his watch that indicate 13:17. He was steadfast in his refusal to allow Oscar inveigle him into a last-minute assignment.
Steve arrived at OSI Headquarters and found Callahan on the phone with her mother.
Upon seeing Steve through the glass doors, she greeted him with a broad smile and quickly put an end to an endless conversation about her latest failed romance.
“Your mom?” Steve asked light-heartedly
“Yeah,” she goggled, slightly embarrassed.
“You didn’t have to cut your conversation short on my account.”
“I had to hang up, otherwise she would have kept me on the phone all afternoon.”
Steve fashioned a kind-hearted smile. Is Oscar in his office?”
“Yes, he’s waiting for you, Colonel Austin. Go right in.”
“Hummmm, we’re going to have remedy this Colonel Austin nonsense. How long have we known each other?”
“Close to a year.”
“Don’t you think it’s about time you start calling me Steve?”
“Okay...Steve.” Callahan was taken aback, blushing with delight. She had been infatuated with the handsome astronaut for quite some time and always felt awkward addressing him by his first name. A kind, gentlemanly, dashing heartthrob... the perfect man to have in my life, she mused in silence. She woolgathered about spending a heavenly evening, warmly nestled in his protective arms in front of a crackling fire. She was floating on cloud nine until Jaime popped into the picture, sending her crashing down to earth. Both Steve and Jaime were her dearest friends and would not jeopardize their friendship for a girlish fantasy.
Steve opened the door to Oscar’s office. On the phone, Oscar beckoned him to come in and close the door.
“You make sure Tanner awaits my instructions before going in,” Oscar warned to his agent on the other end, “otherwise he’s liable to confound our plans. We require more detailed information on the man before we nail him and dismantle his network.” He sighed in frustration as he hung up.
“Dare I say what was that all about?” Steve asked cautiously.
“You can since this concerns you.”
“In what way?”
“Steve, I need you help,” Oscar said with an earnest tone, one that never fails to entangle our bionic man into some web of conspiracy or espionage.
“Ha, ha...stop right there. I’m warning you, Oscar. You have exactly,” Steve looked down at his watch, “ fifty-nine minutes and twenty-seconds, not a minute more. Then I’m driving down to the airport to meet with Jaime and we’re off to St-Thomas on a romantic, long overdue, and I do emphasize on the word, vacation.”
“I mean it, Oscar! Any last-minute assignment you might have planned for me...forget it!”
“Do you remember Harrison Connelly?”
“Harry? Of course I remember him.”
“Less than a year ago, he was recruited by the OSI to work on the covert “Iraida” project.”
“Iraida? Wasn’t that the doomed project during which the scientists involved were all killed in a lab explosion?”
Save one. Connelly was late reporting for work that morning.”
“Lucky for him.”
“That blast was no accident. It was deliberate. We outlined a list of possible suspects and narrowed it down to five, all part of the same organization. However we hold no proof of their involvement but Connelly does.”
“He knows who did it?”
“He says he does, and on tape. He was recently approached by the ring leader who offered him sanctuary in exchange for his crucial notes. Connelly has graciously agreed to divulge their names and the location of their compound to us and that’s where you come in.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Get Connelly’s information.”
“Why me in particular? Why not send another agent?”
“He specifically requested you. He won’t trust anyone else. He’s become paranoid, convinced that we’re all conspiring against him. He’s afraid to set foot outside his apartment. He said he’d hand over the incriminating evidence to you only.”
“Oscar, I’m leaving on vacation,” Steve lamented.
“Connelly’s apartment is a mere ten-minute drive. You get the documents, bring them back to me and we’ll do the rest. Then you can be on your way.”
With a tightened fist over his mouth, Steve pondered Oscar’s request.
Disquiet given Steve’s bodeful silence, Oscar walked over to him and rested his hand on his shoulder. “Please, Steve...I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t imperative. Connelly’s file is crucial in our bringing down the entire ring of operation.”
Steve shut his eyes and in a sigh of despair said, “What’s the address?”
Relieved by Steve answer, Oscar fashioned a grateful smile and went to his desk to pick up a piece of paper that he handed over to Steve.
“There it is”
“Okay, I’ll do this. Thereafter, I do not want to hear your voice for the next two weeks.”
Steve started for the door.
“And Steve...thank you.”
“You owe me big, Oscar.” Steve stressed, jabbing his finger at him.
“I’ll make it up to you, my friend.”
“I’ll hold you to that promise.” Steve said, throwing a jesting wink at Oscar.
September 14th, 14:35
Steve pulled up in front of a modern five-storey apartment building. Children were frolicking in a nearby playground. One of them threw a ball out of range and it landed at Steve’s feet as he was walking up the driveway. He stopped, bent over to pick the ball up and threw it back at the kids.
Steve gazed at them, their sounds of merriment echoing in his mind, stirring an emotion he had deadened following his near-fatal accident. Burying himself in his work to shun the reality of what he had become, he had discarded the notion of parenthood. He was now pushing thirty-five and the thought of romping around with his own child was beginning to prick at him.
Entering the building, Steve was nearly run over by a ten-year-old boy dashing outside to join his friends.
“Sorry, mister,” apologized the shy boy.
“It’s okay,” Steve replied, easing his mind.
Steve watched the lad scoot out of the building with a wistful smile. He stood there for a brief moment, reflecting upon his life. Then, he climbed up to Harry’s second-floor apartment.
Inside, Harry Connelly was nervously wearing a hole in the rug, pacing back and forth, wriggling his moist hands. A knock at the door caused the jittery man to jump twenty feet in the air. He went to the door and looked through the peephole.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, Steve Austin.”
“Tell me the password so I can be sure you’re the real Steve Austin.”
“The brightest star shines only at the right of the left moon and to see it, you need to stand on the left of the right river bank.”
Harry hacked a cough of relief. He unlocked the door.
“Come in, quick!” he said, grabbing Steve by the arm and yanking him inside.
Harry bolted the door behind him.
“No doubt you’re the real McCoy. Only the genuine Steve Austin could articulate that sentence in a single breath without stumbling.”
“You’re lucky I remembered it at all! Harry, why all the cloak-and-dagger?”
“Didn’t Oscar fill you in?”
“He mentioned something about paranoia.”
“I have good reasons.”
Harry reached under the sofa for an attaché-case. “Here it is.” He held it in front of Steve. “All the incriminating evidence the government needs to indict Sam Clout and send that bastard rot in jail for the rest of his life.”
“Sam Clout?” Steve exclaimed, staggered.
“Yes, sir. He knows I hold substantial proof of his involvement in the murder of the eminent scientists working on the “Iraida” project, among others. Now you understand why I must flee the country?”
“What about a Federal Witness Protection Program?”
Harry raised his eyebrows and stared at Steve in disbelief. “Steve, buddy, come on! Be serious! Why not sign my dead certificate while I’m at it!”
“Sam Clout has connections all over the world. Do you honestly believe you can elude him indefinitely?”
“What other choices do I have?”
“I could probably put you up...”
“Forget it, Steve!” Harry coldly interjected, grabbing his suitcase. “ I don’t want to involve you.”
“Here’s a news flash for you, pal...I’m already neck deep.”
“I’ve got to go.”
“How can I get in touch with you?”
Harry opened the door and quickened the pace down to the elevator.
“Goodbye, my friend.”
“Good luck, Harry.”
Both men exchanged a sturdy handshake before parting ways. As the elevator door slid shut, Steve returned to Harry’s apartment to get the documents.
The phone caught his attention and he decided to give Oscar a call before heading back to OSI HQ. Steve casually rummaged through the neatly filed papers inside labelled folders.
“Oscar, it’ Steve. I have the files.”
“Guess who’s the mastermind behind this brainchild?”
“He was our prime suspect.”
“Harry had compiled tons of....”
Steve’s voice was abruptly silenced.
“Steve! Steve are you there?” Oscar shouted. The line was completely dead...no dial tone.
Troubled by this sudden interruption, Oscar dialled an inside line.
“Yes, Paul, Oscar Goldman here. I was just on the phone with Colonel Austin and we were cut off. Can you trace the number of that call and its location? (...) Thanks.”
A ear-splitting detonation shattered windows of surrounding buildings and houses and shook the ground. A huge ball of flames emerged from the barely-standing structure. Quickly, curious onlookers began flooding the streets. Men, in a heroic deed, braved the intense braze in hopes to rescue some poor souls trapped inside.
A few feet away, careering along the boulevard, Harry’s car screeched to a halt. He looked in his rear-view mirror to see the thick cloud of smoke twirling up in the sky. He craned his neck to the back, the dancing flames mirrored in his terrorized eyes. He instantly broke into a cold sweat, his body racked with shivers. A deliberate act, he thought, an indication that the enemy was closing in on him. Five more minutes and it would have been curtains.
Panic-stricken, Harry thought of Steve. Was he inside the building when it blew up? The man was in turmoil. He closed his eyes and neatly folded his hands underneath his chin, sending a silent prayer to his friend. Then, he speeded away.