“Good morning Callahan,” Steve greeted cheerfully upon entering the OSI reception area.
“Good morning Colonel. Ready for your next assignment?”
“Not particularly. Usually after a three-week vacation Oscar has me thrown into the dragon’s lair. He figures I’ve replenished enough energy to wrestle the demons,” he joked before joining the pretty secretary in a giggle. “Is he here?”
“Yes. Go right ahead.”
“Thanks.” He cast a smile and a friendly wink at Callahan before entering Oscar’s office.
“Steve! Come on in!” Oscar waved from behind his desk. He casually leaned back in his leather chair with a broad devilish smile on his face. “How was Cancun?”
Steve pulled up a seat in front of Oscar’s desk and made himself comfortable by crossing one leg over the other. “It was heaven!”
“Yeah? Any new conquest?”
“Not really.” Steve heaved out in despair. “So in what kind of jungle are you sending me next?”
Oscar’s smirk widened. “Funny you should mention jungle, because you are going to march into one.”
“Uh-oh!” Steve frowned at the news.
Oscar spun his chair around and bounced to his feet. He rounded the corner of the desk to stand beside Steve. “You’ve been asked to be a judge at the next Miss America Pageant.”
Steve shot Oscar a look of bewilderment. “Come again?”
“You heard me, Pal.” Oscar laughed, tapping Steve’s shoulder. “I figure this is one jungle you’ll manage to handle without any weapon, except perhaps for your natural charisma? Oscar teased.
“Wait a minute! There must be a catch. I’m going undercover, right? To uncloak the identity of a suspected spy or something?”
“There’s no catch.” Oscar ambled back to his desk. “They want famous American astronaut Steve Austin to sit on the panel of judges.” He leisurely leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “All expenses paid by the pageant since this is not OSI business. You’ll be staying at the Ambassador hotel in Atlanta for an entire week.”
Steve’s toothy grin broadened from ear to ear at the thought of threading across that jungle of purring tigresses.
“Only one rule, though: you can’t fraternize with any of the contestants until after the winner is declared or you’ll automatically be dismissed.”
“I understand,” Steve nodded thoughtfully.
Oscar reached into his desktop drawer to retrieve the plane ticket that he handed to Steve. “Here is your plane ticket. The hotel reservations have already been made in your name. After checking in you might want to swing by the Malthorne Auditorium to speak with a Miss Sarah Johnson. She’s in charge of the pageant. She’ll provide you all the information you require to proceed with your,” Oscar hawked, “shall we say…suicide mission,” he teased with a knowing wink.
“Those are my kind of suicide missions.” Steve rose from his chair and shook Oscar’s hand. “I’ll remember that one come Christmas.”
“I need a new watch. Mine’s about to give out on me,” Oscar reminded with teasing wink. “Have fun, Pal, but don’t get lost. I might need you for a real suicide mission.”
“Please Oscar don’t ruin my fun.” Steve walked over to the door and winked back at the boss before exiting the office.
Steve’s flight landed safely at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, after which he drove his rental car to the Ambassador Hotel and checked in. He took an hour to freshen up before leaving for the Malthorne Auditorium to meet with Miss Johnson.
He entered through the main entrance and walked down the aisle to the stage where preparations were already underway for the ceremony on Sunday.
“Euh excuse me. Do you know where I can find Sarah Johnson?” Steve asked one of the attendants.
“Yes,” he motioned to a redheaded woman, “that’s her right over there.”
Steve stepped on stage and walked over to the busy bee guiding the lighting man above on the right projector angle. “A little over to the right, Jerry. No, that’s too much. Yeah that’s it. Let’s try the other one.”
“Excuse me Miss Johnson?”
“Yes?” As she turned to face Steve her eyes lit up with ecstasy. “Colonel Steve Austin!” she gushed, clasping his hand in a hearty handshake. “It’s an honour to meet you, sir. I’m so thrilled you accepted to be a judge on our panel.”
“I’m happy you asked me in the first place.”
“We needed a well-renowned personality beside actors and musicians. It’ll enhance the pageant’s prestige.”
“Well thank you very much,” Steve replied, trying hard to retain the blood from mantling over his cheek.
“Have you checked in to your hotel?”
“Yes I did before coming here.”
“I trust everything is satisfactory?”
“It is. Thank you.”
“Let’s go into my office and I’ll fill you in on the details.” Sarah glanced up at Jerry carefully treading on a beam above the stage. “Jerry, take a break. I’ll be back in about twenty minutes.”
“Okay.” He shouted back.
Both crossed paths with a curvaceous blond as they headed toward Sarah’s backstage office. The hot number caught Steve’s eyes as she slightly brushed against him on her way to the stage. She glanced back at him and shyly returned his smile.
“That’s my assistant Melissa Northridge,” Sarah informed on an implying tone. “Sorry Colonel, she’s engaged.”
Steve cringed at his transparency. “Right. Off limits.”
“I’m sure you’ve been advised to remain within a reasonable distance of our candidates throughout the pageant?” she asked sternly.
“Please call me Steve and yes I’m aware of the rules.”
“Good!” She twitched the office doorknob and ushered Steve inside.
The thirty-minute-long meeting left Steve with the unmistaken impression that Sarah Johnson was a woman not to be trifled with. In her case, appearances were highly deceiving. She was definitely out of Steve’s league. He had no designs on her and certainly had no intention to wander on her side of the fence.
It was late in the afternoon when Steve decided to do some window-shopping for Oscar’s Christmas gift. He wandered into a shopping mall and stopped at a small jewellery store to browse through the selections of watches. A drone of giggles caught his attention. He walked back out of the store to see where the sound was coming from and saw the fifty-one beautiful candidates parading in the mall as part of a publicity ad for the pageant. His eyes widened with delight at the bunch of slender-looking women greeting the shoppers under the camera lens capturing their every move.
He noted that Miss Tennessee was lagging behind the group and appeared to be scanning the crowd for someone in particular. He focused his attention on that one candidate until he saw her smile and nod to a man clad in a business suit standing by a soft drink dispenser.
Steve wrinkled his brow at that peculiar exchange. He wanted to shrug it off as a possible signal to meet later for a covert romantic rendezvous, but some nagging feeling urged him to keep on it.
Two days later, Steve was walking on air as he spruced himself up for his meeting with the lovely candidates. His heart was beating up a storm and his pulse raced at the thought of being thrust in the midst of fifty-one eligible bachelorettes. He was wise to the fact that many were hair-brained Barbie dolls but was nevertheless anxious to make each and everyone’s acquaintance in order to test their degree of intelligence and responsiveness to his alluring charm.
It was one rush of blood to his cheek after the other as each candidate took turn at shaking is hand, some going as far as leaving him with a come-hither wink. Steve took silent deep breaths to quell the rise of lumps to his constricted throat. He chose not to speak for fear to commit a blunder.
Miss Tennessee’s attitude towards him was rather icy; for that reason he kept a furtive eye on her every move in sidelong glances while he finished meeting the other candidates.
The procession over, Sarah led him to the panel board in the audience where she motioned him to take a seat at his reserved place in order to explain the voting process. All the while he kept glancing up at Miss Tennessee whom he saw disappearing backstage. He zoomed in on a tiny opening in the curtains to spot the same businessman handing her a large manila envelope. Steve made a mental note to contact Oscar later with regard to the dubious exchange.
“Give this to her. She has to code them by tomorrow” the businessman said to Miss Tennessee.
“All right. What about my money?”
“I’m not the one to ask. See the brain of this outfit, she’ll tell you,” he spoke with a light exasperated tone. “Anything else to report?”
“No. Everything is proceeding according to plan.”
“Good. I’ll see you both on Sunday after the pageant.”
The man left by the backdoor while the young go-between rejoined the group on stage. All waited patiently for Sarah to finish giving Steve his instructions.
When the rehearsals broke for lunch, Steve drove to a roadside diner to grab a quick bite to eat. After ordering, he stepped up to a phone and dialled Oscar’s private number in Washington.
“Steve! You’re still alive?” Oscar teased.
“Hum very funny.”
“How’s it going so far?”
“No bad. Say Oscar can you check into Miss Tennessee’s background?”
Oscar’s face broke into a smug at the request. “Why Steve Austin, I was under the impression you preferred doing your own enquiry?” he joked at what he thought was an infatuation with the pretty woman.
“Oscar I’m serious,” Steve retorted. “It may be nothing but I saw something disturbing backstage. A man clad in a business suit handed her an envelope.”
“What’s so suspicious about that?”
“I don’t know. Call it a gut instinct but I can shake the feeling that I’ve seen that man before.”
“That’s just it I can’t recall, but his face registered as one I’ve crossed paths with. Is there any shady activity going on at the OSI right now?”
“No, not to my knowledge. Only that The National Defense suspects a breach of confidentiality and asked us and the FBI to put our elite agents on the case. So far nothing turned up”
“What kind of breach?”
“They have reason to believe that someone is leaking confidential information about a new hush-hush government project that’s being held incommunicado. They’re looking into possible suspects as to who might be pulling the strings.”
A short silence ensued as Steve rummaged through his photographic memory. “That’s it!” he exclaimed. “Oscar, that man is Dwayne Prescott.”
“Dwayne Prescott? The FBI’s top operative? Steve, are you sure?”
“Positive. I remember our meeting five months ago. Same features.”
“What would he be doing at the Miss America Pageant? I’ll contact the director to verify Prescott’s assignment sheet for the week. Who knows? Maybe he’s following a lead.”
“If he is a double agent, we might have a serious problem. He knows me. He might think I was sent here on purpose to spy on his whereabouts.”
“Can you keep a low profile until I check him out?”
“That might be a little hard under the circumstances but I’ll do my best.”
“Call me back in early evening. I should have the information by then.”
“All right. In the meantime I’ll try to find out what’s in that envelope.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I’ll try to search her dressing room. She’s bound to have it hidden somewhere.”
“If this wasn’t serious business I’d make a joke about what you just said.”
“I know you would have.”
“Now are you alluding to Prescott or Miss Tennessee?” Steve teased.
“Both,” Oscar reciprocated.
Steve returned to the auditorium in early afternoon. While Sarah was busy taking the contestants through their routine, Steve snuck backstage to find Miss Tennessee’s dressing room. As he rounded a corner, he saw the woman exiting the room with the envelope. Swiftly he retreated behind the wall and observed her moves out of the corner of his eye. He discreetly followed her down the corridor all the way to Sarah’s office. He was surprised to see her walk back out without the envelope.
He waited until she was out of sight before squeezing the doorknob and making his way inside. Quietly he closed the door and moved to the desk to search for the envelope. He opened one drawer after the next, forcing open the bolted top left one. He rummaged through the sheets of paper until he found what he was looking for. He slid the documents out and studied them briefly before stuffing them back into the envelope and placing it back to its original position inside the drawer.
He surreptitiously stepped out of the office, heedful to close the door behind him and then made his way back to the auditorium with no one being none the wiser, or so he thought. As he walked back on stage, Prescott spotted him. His eyes widened in shock at the man he recognized as the top OSI operative.
Steve observed Miss Tennessee giving Sarah a slight nod of the head. It was obvious those two were acting in connivance with Prescott. In the middle of the routine, Sarah proposed a fifteen-minute respite much to the contestants’ relief. Steve seized the opportunity to go out and contact Oscar at the nearest payphone while Prescott followed Sarah into her office.
“Prescott!” Sarah scorned upon seeing the man burst into her office. “We’re not supposed to be seen together.”
“What’s Austin doing here?” he asked on a scathing tone.
“Colonel Steve Austin?” she asked innocently. “He’s on the panel of judges.”
“He’s an OSI agent.”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t know?”
“As a matter of fact I didn’t.”
“Dammit! He must be on to us.” He started pacing the floor nervously while wringing his hands.
“I doubt it.”
“Then why is he here?”
“The committee invited him. They wanted a well-known celebrity on the panel and he graciously accepted the invitation.”
Prescott heaved a shuddering breath fraught with terror. “He knows me. If he sees me here he’s liable to report my presence to Goldman and it’s more than likely the FBI will be informed of my whereabouts.”
“What do you intend to do?”
“We still have important files to code. We can’t stop now or the deal is off. But we certainly can’t proceed accordingly with Austin in the vicinity.”
“He’ll be here for another two days just until the pageant on Sunday. Surely we can wait this long?”
“Can’t take any chances. We’ve come too far to jeopardize everything. We’ll have to get rid of him.”
“How are you going to do that without attracting more attention to yourself?”
“It’s too risky Dwayne. I suggest we wait two days. I’m sure the boss will understand once I explain the problem. Better safe than sorry.”
Prescott shook his head. “No. He has to be dealt with tonight. Do you have his hotel address?”
“He’s staying at the Ambassador Hotel, room 127.” She walked up to him and gripped his shoulder. “Are you sure it’s the right thing to do?”
“Yeah. Just get busy on that file. I need it back by tomorrow.”
Later in the afternoon, while Prescott was driving to the hotel, Steve was on the phone with his boss to report his findings and enquire about the background checks.
“I checked with the FBI. Dwayne Prescott is leading the team of investigators in the alleged leak at the National Defense.”
“How convenient. It means he can have access to the documents as he pleases.”
“Prescott was assigned after the breach was suspected. That means someone on the inside must be in on it. So far of the files turned up negative for fingerprints. They’re all neatly tucked in their vault except for the one you reported seeing in Sarah Johnson’s office.
“Okay so what now?”
“You do nothing other than the job you were sent to do. The FBI is dispatching two undercover agents to spy on them. They’ll handle the traitors, not you. You’ve done your part.”
A knock at the door interrupted the conversation. “Who is it?” Steve asked.
“Room service,” came the muffled reply from behind the door.
“Oscar I’ve got to go. My dinner’s here. You keep me posted?”
“You bet. Bon appetit.”
“Thanks.” Steve hung up the phone and walked up to the door. His face dropped at the sight of Prescott training a gun on him.
“Colonel Austin, we meet again,” Prescott sneered. He pushed the dinner cart inside the room and closed the door behind him, his eyes never leaving his intended victim.
“I’ll need to have a word with the hotel management on their lousy choice of waiters,” Steve said sarcastically.
“I’ll save you the trouble. Once I get rid of you I’ll be on my way.”
“Get rid of me? Why?”
“Security measure. You might stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Ah, you mean the file you stole from the National Defense.”
“So you know? Technically I don’t steal them. I merely borrow the documents to have my lovely assistant code the data before sending them to our boss.”
“And who’s your boss?” Steve asked innocently.
“I was just curious as to the identity of the person who wanted me dead.”
“I want you dead. Go on, walk over to the balcony,” Prescott ordered with a wave of the gun.
Steve slowly turned around and stepped up to the panoramic doors. “You won’t get away with it, Prescott. The FBI’s already on to you. I told Goldman all about your little backstage meeting with Miss Tennessee. I followed her to Sarah Johnson’s office where I found the file.
“Well thank you for the information, Austin. I’ll be sure to advise my collaborator to be on her guard and stash the file. The FBI can’t do anything without the evidence.”
Stepping onto the balcony, Steve looked down at the alley about a hundred feet below. A sly lopsided grin flickered on his lips as he figured he could easily make the jump without breaking any bone.
“Step over that railing. Make it fast.”
“Why don’t you just shoot me and be done with it?”
“It has to look like an accident.”
“I doubt anyone will believe I accidentally straddled the railing and fell down. Besides why kill me now? You’ll only attract more suspicion on you.”
“I want you out of the way ‘cause you’re the only thorn at my side. The rest I can deal with. I’m aware of how the FBI operates. I know every trick in the book.” He pressed the barrel of his gun in Steve’s back to nudge him forward. “Go on, jump.”
“Don’t I get a last wish?” Steve teased before readying himself for the jump. Unfortunately his equation didn’t include the solid blow on the head that Prescott gave him seconds before he made the giant leap down to the alley. Losing consciousness instantly, Steve’s his limp body came crashing down in a trashcan with a muffled thud.
Barely fifteen minutes later, Steve stirred among the smelly garbage bags that luckily had broken his fall. Aside from a splitting headache and a few scratches and bruises he was unscathed. He cringed at the nauseating stench as he hoisted himself on to the wall of the trashcan. He took a few seconds to breathe away the dizziness before he climbed out of the dump.
He staggered to the nearest pay phone to report the incident to Oscar. As he dialed up the number another fainting spell crept over him. He lowered his head and took a few lungful of air while he waited for Oscar to answer. “Oscar, Prescott spotted me,” Steve rasped. He shut his eyes and gulped hard to quell the wave of nauseas rising to his throat.
“Steve, are you alright?” Oscar asked worriedly at the sound of his friend’s voice.
“Yeah,” he heaved out “I fell down my balcony into a trashcan below. Luckily the garbage broke my fall,” he joked on a light-hearted tone.
“I had a little help from Prescott. Oscar he wanted me out of the way. I told him the FBI was on to him. He’s gone back to the auditorium to bury the evidence.”
“The agents are already in place. If he does they’ll nail him.”
“Good. I’ll go back there.”
“You most certainly will not!” Oscar spat authoritatively. “If Prescott sees that you’re alive he might panic and run the other way. Besides from the sound of you you’re in no shape to play hero. No, you go back to your room and lie down; stay out of sight. I’ll catch a flight and meet you there in about two hours. Will you be alright?”
“Of course I’ll be alright.”
“And Steve, remember…you are not to leave your hotel until you hear from me, got it?” Oscar ordered on a biting tone.
Steve heaved a loud aggravated sigh.
“Yeah, yeah alright. I’ll be a good boy.”
“See that you do.”
Back at the auditorium, Prescott’s trained eye was quick to spot the undercover agents. Two of them posed as backstage attendants and was apparent they had their sights set on Sarah. He had to figure out a way to reach her without bringing attention to himself. He walked back out of the auditorium and sat in his car to concoct a plan.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a van driving to the backdoor entrance. Out came the lighting director who moved to the back to haul out some cables. An idea sparked into Prescott’s mind. He stepped out of his car and hastened the pace toward the man. “Excuse me sir, do you know a Miss Sarah Johnson?”
“Yeah. I’m her lighting director for the pageant.”
“Good. I’m her brother and I’d be grateful if you could deliver an urgent message from me. Tell her that out mother’s dying and she needs to call me right away. Be sure she contacts me at my house long distance.”
“Got it. I’ll tell her.”
“Thanks.” Prescott gave a friendly clap on Jerry’s back before returning to his car.
On stage, Sarah was busy teaching the girls the proper stance to adopt as they walk down the aisle to strut their stuff when Jerry walked up to her to deliver Prescott’s message. Both were unaware that an undercover agent was standing nearby, listening in.
To Sarah the message was a code telling her that the Feds were swarming around and that she needed to distance herself from the auditorium to make the call. She thanked Jerry and addressed the candidates on the situation. She stated the reason of her mother’s illness to cancel the rehearsals for the afternoon.
All expressed their sorrow for Sarah and waved goodbye as she made her way backstage to her office to grab her purse before leaving the auditorium through the backstage entrance.
The operative privy to the conversation retreated in a corner to pull out a small walkie-talkie. “Lighting One to Lightning Speed, do you read me?”
The agent stationed in the car parked across the auditorium parking lot answered. “Go ahead Lighting One.”
“Just heard that Johnson is on her way out to see her sick mother. Don’t know if it’s legit but you better tail her just to make sure.”
“Got it. I have her in view.”
No sooner had Sarah’s car whizzed by that the agent put on the ignition and tailed the suspect’s vehicle down the main road for five miles. He discreetly parked his car alongside the pavement a few yard behind Sarah’s. His eyes remained fastened on the woman he saw walking up to a phone booth.
In his hotel room, Prescott jumped at the sound of the phone ringing. He waited for the code. Sarah rang twice then hung up. She called back and let it ring three times before hanging up again. He breathed a sigh of relief as he waited for the next ring. “Sarah?”
“Yes. Dwayne what’s going on?”
“I just came back from Austin’s hotel. Before I did him in he told me that the Feds were on to us. And sure enough I spotted two working undercover as backstage attendants. Is the envelope still in your office?”
“Don’t be silly. I couldn’t take the risk especially with an OSI agent snooping around. I stashed it somewhere safe.”
“Great! You’ll have to retrieve and bring it to me as soon as you can. We’re in the clear as long as they don’t catch us with the evidence.”
“What do you intend to do with it?”
“Just bring it to me. Make sure you’re not followed. The two new guys working on the cables dressed in black overalls, they have their eye on you so be sure you lose them before you get to that envelope.”
“Alright. Give me time to work out an excuse for coming back to the auditorium in case someone sees me and I’ll see you at your hotel.” She hung up the phone and returned to her car. While the agent tailed her back to the auditorium, he contacted his superior to have a trace on the call made from the specific phone booth. As he saw her entering the backstage entrance he contacted the third agent codename: Broom, posing as a janitor, to be on the lookout for the suspect.
Broom rounded a corner of the corridor and plastered his back to the wall as he saw the edgy Sarah circumspectly making her way to the broom closet. Seconds later, she exited with the envelope and hurried back out. He relayed the information to his contact who immediately called for backup. He broke into a wide satisfied grin as he once again picked up her tail. “That’s it genie, take us to your master,” he mumbled maliciously under his breath.
A cold damp towel was gently applied to Steve’s forehead causing him to stir a little in his slumber and let out a long sigh. The caretaker smiled, grateful not to have disturbed his sleep. With a soft touch, she continued to clean the scratches on his cheeks.
She cringed and jumped on the phone at first ring to stop the deafening noise from breaking into her friend’s deep sleep. “Hello,” she whispered. “No, he’s still asleep,” she saw Steve blink open his eyes, “or maybe not.” He frowned quizzically after establishing focus on his friend Agent 35. “Alright I’ll tell him. We’ll see you later.” She hung up the phone and removed the damp towel from Steve’s forehead. “Hi Blue Eyes. How are you feeling?”
“Cassie? What…what are you doing here?”
“Oscar asked me to tag along in order to make sure you don’t stray from this hotel room.”
“What time is it?”
Steve sprung up in bed and swung his legs onto the floor. “Hey what do you think you’re doing?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose when a sudden wave of dizziness washed over him.
“Lie down, 34. You are not leaving this bed until Rudy gets here. He should be here in about an hour.” Steve offered little resistance to Cassie as she laid his head back onto his pillows. “Want some water?”
He moistened his parched lips and nodded. She poured him a glass and handed it over to him. He greedily drank the content. “Thanks.”
“That was Oscar on the phone. They caught Sarah Johnson and brought Miss Tennessee in for questioning.”
“What about Prescott?”
“Sarah was supposed to meet him at his hotel to deliver the documents but when she got there he was gone. He probably got scared and fled the coop before the Feds swarmed the establishment.”
“So he’s still at large,” Steve groaned, a tiny bit sore at the fact that he hadn’t got to him first. “I should have been there.”
“What would you have done?”
He shook his head dejectedly. “I don’t know.”
“There’ll be other bad guys,” Cassie teased to allay her friend’s sullenness. “Besides this wasn’t your call. You stumbled upon it by accident and thanks to your keen sense of observation you contributed in patching the huge spill that could have led to a major international disaster.” She leaned in closer to him and crinkled her nose in a funny face. “That’s another notch in your belt, 34. You’re getting better than me.”
“35 I’m way better than you are,” he teased back.
She playfully swatted him on the arm with the hand towel. “Owwwwwww!” he groaned
“I guess this means the pageant’s off.”
“What are you talking about? The ceremony will go on as scheduled on Sunday without Sarah Johnson. Miss Tennessee was disqualified but her runner-up will be taking her place. Oscar, Rudy and I will be sitting in the audience enjoying the show. While they get an eyeful and drool all over their suits during the bikini contest, I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on judge number 10’s marks to see which of the candidates you’ve set you cap on,” she teased with a wink.
“It’s definitely Miss California. She’s got the legs,” he mused in a long wistful sigh.
“Hummmm you men never forget a face, do you?”
“No need to be jealous, 35. You’ll always remain my number one…”
“Watch it!” she warned good-naturedly with an arched eyebrow.
“I was going to say Lady.”
“That’s better,” she smiled mischievously and leaned in to give him a kiss on the forehead. She stood to go to the bathroom and just before closing the door, she peeked her head out. “Oh by the way, I’ve learned she’s the only candidate who’s engaged,” she teased before breaking into a giggle.