In Oscar’s office, Steve stood proudly in his army uniform in front of the mirror to straighten his tie. In less than an hour he and Oscar were to drive to Camp David to meet with US President Douglas Corley and his British counterpart Prime Minister David Moore. The main topic on the agenda was NASA’s costly project to enable men to walk on the surface of the Red Planet and eventually erect a base where people could reside in the event of a global warfare on earth. Both elected officials were pleased to form a political alliance with regard to this project that groups of activists vehemently opposed in both countries.
Owing to the constant threats running rampant, the US government provided additional security in and around the compound to allow for contingencies. The vigilance committee stood on high alert, sweeping every inch of the property to ensure the two leaders’ safety.
President Corley and his spouse at Camp David welcomed the Prime Minister and his wife. Following a brief exchange of mutual congratulations on their respective daughter’s marriages, the two men were led inside the compound under heavy escort. It wasn’t long before Oscar’s black limousine pulled at the gates. Once he and Steve cleared for access to the grounds, they drove to the main house where they were met by the head of the National Security Council who briefed them on the security measures implemented before walking inside to meet with the two statesmen.
“Colonel Austin. It is honor to finally shake your hand,” The Prime Minister enthused. “I am a great admirer of your achievements in outer space and proud to number you among the top scientists involved in this special project.”
“Thank you, sir,” Steve replied bashfully with a nod of the head.
“I’d like you to meet my wife, Mara Louise.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Colonel Austin, ” she said, presenting her hand for him to clasp it.
“Pleasure’s all mine, ma’am.” Steve gallantly placed a light kiss on the back of her hand, which made her blush slightly.
Once all the introductions were dispensed, the President requested of his butler to show Steve and Oscar to their room to allow them to settled in and freshen up before the meeting. Thirty minutes later they both headed down to the main conference room where the project discussion was to take place. There in attendance were NASA’s head of the Special Programs Division, the Secretary of Defence and delegates from both countries.
Outside the compound a small white van with the logo Deluxe Catering painted on each side made its way to the main entrance gates. Two officers proceeded to inspect the back of the vehicle for any concealed weapons. All they found were baskets of culinary delicacies to be prepared for the brunch tomorrow. The driver was authorized to pass and instructed to report to John Nexus, the chief of security personnel. The man followed instructions to the letter so not to arise any suspicion among the security officers standing guard.
Nexus beckoned two of his men to lend a hand in carrying the items inside. Minutes later the driver cleared the back of the last box of canned goods and closed the doors, purposely leaving them unlocked before heading to the kitchen to settle to work on tonight’s dinner.
The meeting of the minds closed on an encouraging note. Both heads of states exited the room confident they could reach an agreement that would benefit both countries. NASA’s Wind Walker Project was to set their budgets back a few billions but its feasibility convinced both men that the risks were worth taking.
After partaking of a sumptuous lobster dinner, women and men adjourned to the grand parlour for some R & R. In the course of the evening the topic of conversation veered around the disagreement issues both governments faced with regard to the Wind Walker Project. The activists had been adamantly opposed to the project stating gross misuse of money.
“They protest against our willingness to release funds for the project when the country is in poor shape environmentally and financially,” the Prime Minister explained.
“In a way they’re right,” The President argued. “But at this point were in too deep to expect to get the country back on its two feet. The economy is sagging; the poors are piling up; the environment is dire need of a major clean up. They don’t seem to realize that should this project succeed, it could allow us to address some of those urgent problems.”
“If we do make some significant headway during the first launch, I expect it will take time to actually reap the fruits of our labour,” Steve stated matter-of-factly so not to allow the two statesmen to rejoice prematurely.
“Have you received any threat with regard to the project?” Oscar asked.
“Just the usual idle threats of this and that,” the President stated disinterestedly.
“Our people are keeping a close watch on their daily activities just in case they decide to overstep their boundaries.” He waved the empty bottle of cognac in the air and asked, “Anyone for another glass of Napoleon?
“None for me, Doug,” The Prime Minister answered. “It’s late and I’m bushed. I think the wife and I will hit the hay.”
“Yes. That’s a good idea. I’m rather tired myself,” Steve seconded as he stood from his chair and turned to Oscar to see if the boss would follow his lead.
Oscar nodded and soon the company present bid their goodnights and headed to their respective rooms.
While walking down to his bedroom alongside Steve, Oscar couldn’t help but observe a glint of worry in his friend’s eyes. “Steve, something wrong?”
“I don’t know. Just a gut feeling.”
“May I enquire about what subject?”
“The activists the President and Prime Minister mentioned,” Steve answered almost absentmindedly as he kept his concentration focused on the potential scenarios his mind was conceiving.
“What about them?”
“Just how far are they willing to go to thwart this project?”
“From what I gathered from the President and the Prime Minister they are mostly talk and no action.”
“Maybe that’s what they want them to think.” He stopped at his bedroom door, still deep in thought.
“You don’t imagine they’d try something foolish here with an army of security agents swarming the premises?” Steve shook his head unconvincingly, his gut feeling urging him to follow the dictates of his conscience. “Steve?”
“No of course not, Oscar,” he replied with a strained smile. “Well, goodnight.” Steve turned the doorknob and entered his room.
“Goodnight,” Oscar said to the retreating back. Once the door closed he stood with a wrinkled brow, pondering Steve’s suspicion of the activists’ true intentions. He finally shrugged it off and walked up to the adjacent bedroom.
In the bewitching hour, not a creature was stirring save for the security guards patrolling the property. Inside the van, four men crawled out from their place of concealment underneath the false bottom floor. They changed into their officer’s uniform and put on their facial masks to resemble four of the guards inside the house with whom they intended to switch place. Having studied the patrol’s turnaround, they pinpointed the safest time to sneak inside through the kitchen door. A coded knock on was the signal for the chef to unbolt the door and let them in.
“Is the coast clear?” enquired the chief of the outfit.
“Everyone’s fast asleep, except for the security guards posted on the main floor and upstairs,” informed their comrade in arms.
“Good. You’ve got the stuff for tomorrow’s banquet?”
“In the cupboard.”
“Okay where are we located exactly?” the chief asked, referring to their counterparts. The chef unfurled a blueprint of the apartments and pointed to where each of the four targets was stationed.
“Making the switch shouldn’t be a problem since they are standing alone in each corridor. We just need to heed the surveillance camera. We’ll have to momentarily distract them and wait until they’re out of frame to jump them. Thereafter we assume their original position. Remember to adopt the voice, not just the posture,” the leader instructed to his three soldiers who nodded in acknowledgment. “Everyone ready?” Again all nodded and followed the leader while the chef discreetly returned to his bedroom.
The four comrades in arms proceeded up the stairs, carefully navigating around the surveillance cameras to reach their quarries. One after the other the guards stationed in each corridor were temporarily lured away from their post by a suspicious sound. Once out of the camera frame, they were chloroformed and injected a powerful sedative to plunge them into a deep sleep for the next sixteen hours. The four disposed of their burdens in linen closets, heedful to conceal their bodies behind a heap of blankets so not to risk the maid finding them before they could properly execute the job. Phase one of the plan was now in effect. Whether their flawless disguises would fool everyone remained to be seen.
The four intruders followed instructions to the letter to avoid arousing the tinniest suspicion. So far so good. At eleven hundred hours the chief of security ordered two of them down to the first floor to watch over the dining room during brunch.
Before the guests arrived to partake in the gourmet feast, the head chef instructed his helpers on the proper display for each dish. With no one being the wiser, he gave a discreet nod of the head to the leader standing guard by the door who nodded back in acknowledgment.
The President and his guests of honour proceeded to the dining room as the clock chimed in noon.
“I trust you slept well Colonel Austin?” The President asked as he led him and Oscar to their buffet table.
“Like a baby, Mister President. Those a very comfortable beds and the room decor is a delight to the eyes.”
“My wife did the decorating and she insists on the best bed mattresses around. They cost a pretty penny but they are worth it.” He waited for Steve and Oscar to each pick up a plate before helping himself with the food. “Try the caviar. It’s divine.”
“I don’t have much of an appetite for anything fancy. I’ll just be contended with a slice of roast beef and a few crudités,” Steve replied sheepishly so not to offend his host.
“You don’t know what you’re missing, pal,” Oscar said as he helped himself with three healthy spoonfuls of caviar. Steve stood transfixed with astonishment watching Oscar fill his plate.
“Oscar, are you eating for two?” Steve teased.
“That’s pretty obvious.”
“Too greedy, huh?”
Steve nodded in agreement. “A bit. Leave some for the other guests.”
“There’s plenty. I want my share. I’ll just ask for a doggy bag. ”
“Oscar!” Steve chided, then broke into a giggle over his boss’s atypical table manners.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’ve never known that side of you before.”
“I’ve never been invited to Camp David before either. This is new to me. I want to make the most of my stay.” He nudged Steve toward the salmon. “Come on, try it.”
“I’m not hungry, Oscar, but by all means,” he motioned to the plate with a wave of the hand, “be my guest.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Oscar drooled, licking his lips in anticipation.
“I can’t take you anywhere,” he sighed, shaking his head in utter disbelief at what he was witnessing.
In mid afternoon, the President and Prime Minister took their leave from the guests to drive to the Andrews Air Base where they would board Air Force One. Next on the agenda was a meeting with British scientists to iron out the details of the Wind Walker Project. As it was, the infiltrators were instructed to take part of the squad under which the leaders’ limousine was to be escorted to the airfield. So far the plan was proceeding accordingly.
They arrived at Andrews where the President, the Prime Minister, their spouses and their immediate entourage boarded Air Force One with two of the military impersonators. The President’s wife was slightly disturbed by the sudden change of flight staff, wondering to her husband if this switch was customary in flights over seas. He turned to his British counterpart for a confirmation that his people had ordered the change in flight personnel. The Prime Minister shrugged, saying he was not informed of any modification and figured the order came from the US side.
Wary of the situation, the President shared his concern with his chief of security John Nexus who immediately asked for everyone’s ID cards. When his ulcer started acting up, a sign that all was not as it should be, John made his way to the cockpit to check with the pilot. Before he could rap on the door, a man smacked him on the back of the head, instantly sending him crumbling to the floor, unconscious.
“Tie him up and gag him,” instructed the leader of the group to a male flight attendant. “Then shoved him down in the baggage hold. We don’t want him under foot.”
“Guess this means we’ll have to show ourselves before we’re airborne?”
“It don’t matter as long as the pilots don’t suspect a thing. You make sure of that.” He watched his man dragged the body across the floor to the pantry, out of everyone’s sight, before making his way to the members of his group to inform them on the change of plans. “Nexus is on to us. We had to knock him out. We don’t have any choice. We need to move in now. Grab your weapons and follow me.”
Once the troop was in gear, they sprung forth in the back of the plane, brandishing their weapons in front of the stunned passengers.
“Sit down everyone,” ordered the leader. “No one will get hurt if you cooperate.”
“What do you want?” gulped the President, clasping his wife’s trembling hand.
“Haven’t you figured it out yet, Mister President?” he said caustically. “We’re your worse nightmare.” He swayed his automatic rifle dangerously in front of the Mrs. “Sit down!” he shouted angrily, the power of his threat sending the couple flumping down on the couch. He turned to the Prime Minister clinging to his flustered wife. “You too. Sit! They both did as instructed.
“You won’t get away with this,” The President spat. “They’ll dispatch an armada of planes the minute we get off course.”
“Who says we’re going off course?” the leader sneered. “No yet anyway. We will enjoy a nice flight over the Atlantic Ocean before we veer off to our destination in Akureyri in Iceland. We found a deserted airfield, peaceful and quiet. Very convenient to conduct some serious discussion away from prying ears and eyes.”
“The radar will pick us up.”
“Not if we’re flying below a certain altitude. I will be taking over command of this plane once we near our destination.”
“Our people will move heaven and earth to find us.”
“I’m sure they will and it won’t be hard to locate us eventually but it might be too late. In the meantime don’t worry, you’re in good hands,” the leader assured with sarcasm. He dipped into his jacket pocket to retrieve a bottle of pills. He popped open the lid and trickled out two tablets. “Here. You take these pills.”
“What are they, poison?”
“No. You already ingested the poison. This is the antidote so you and your charming wife won’t keel over before we finish conducting our business. Here, take them.”
The President handed out his hand to take the pills offered. He eyed them suspiciously before giving one to his wife. “You poisoned us?”
“We did. Our chef laced the food of the banquet with a powerful experimental deadly chemical that our group of dedicated scientists concocted for us. They alone know its composition and how to develop an antidote.”
“The food?” The Prime Minister exclaimed, suddenly seized by an icy clutch of dread. “That means…”
The leader nodded. “Exactly. In seventy-two hours all of your guests will start dropping like ninepins, unless we reach an agreement on the Wind Walker Project. Then we’ll send word to our members to drop off the antidote at a convenient location so your doctors can administer it to the victims. You both have the power to save those poor misfortunate souls,” he affected with a dejected expression.
“The Wind Walker Project. Is that what this is all about?”
“That’s right, Mister President. We repeatedly tried to warn you and the Prime Minister here to drop the costly project. Your people desperately need that money to survive in a dying nation, not to throw away on some Mars exploration nonsense.”
“Perhaps if you were given an opportunity to pore over the details of the project you might feel differently,” The Prime Minister argued his view.
“I doubt it. You won’t ever convince me that pouring taxpayer’s money into space exploration programs is beneficial for the people. It’s all poppy cock. You have enough pressing matters to attend on earth without having to engender more in outer space.” His eyes darted between the two leaders hesitating in swallowing the pill. “I’d take those pills if I were you or you’ll wind up with a mighty big tummy ache. Those are the first symptoms.”
A worried glance flew between the two men, each seeking the other’s approbation to take the step. Both simultaneously popped the pills into their mouth, nodding their encouragement to their wives and entourage to follow suit. Their thoughts went to the people back in Washington unaware of the fate awaiting them.
While the hostages were cudgelling their brains as to their abductors’ true identities underneath their facial masks, back in Washington Oscar was attending a small intimate gathering with NASA’s assistant director and the head of the Special Programs Division, the Secretary of Defence and three other delegates, all of which had reasons to celebrate following the fruitful meeting at Camp David. During the course of the evening four men were suddenly taken ill and taken to the National Medical Center. It wasn’t long before Oscar and NASA’s head of the space programs were stricken with cold sweats and searing stomach cramps.
Meanwhile in another part of town, Steve and Cassie were enjoying a quiet dinner at her apartment. Steve could hardly contain his excitement at the prospect of participating in the Wind Walker Project, which was likely to materialize sooner than anticipated. She was unable to get a word in edgewise as he expatiated on the subject with a sustained ebullience. She was amused by his enflamed enthusiasm and exhilaration, much like a child at Christmas. She listened with absorbed interest, notwithstanding the fact that most of his intricate descriptions went past her head.
Later in the evening, they adjourned to the living room to get comfortable on the sofa with a cup of steamy hot Irish coffee from her new machine that she received as a gift from her mother. As the conversation progressed Cassie couldn’t help but notice beads of perspiration pearling down Steve’s temples, and it disturbed her to some degree to see him constantly rubbing his stomach.
“Something wrong, Steve?”
“Just a little upset stomach,” he breathed out with his face puckered up, evidence that he was in greater pain than he was willing to admit.
“I hope it wasn’t my cooking?” she cracked to allay the tension but seeing how her joke failed to elicit an amused grin out of Steve, she feared the worse. “I’ll get you something to calm that aching belly.” She stood and made her way to the bathroom to fix him a glass of Seltzer. She returned a minute later to find Steve doubled over the kitchen sink, throwing up.
“Steve, how long have your been feeling queasy?” she queried worriedly while feeling his forehead for any sign of a fever.
“Just after I had dessert. It suddenly gripped me but it was a light pain. Nothing like this,” he explained with a slight quivering voice. Cassie rubbing a soothing hand on his back didn’t bring the relief anticipated as he gave one powerful retch to empty the content of his stomach.
“I’ll call Rudy.”
“No!” he clawed at her arm as she turned to cross to the living room. “I’ll be okay. Just something I ate that didn’t agree with me. I bet it was that salmon,” he surmised while wiping the sweat off his brow.
“You mean the food at Camp David?” Steve nodded, taking the glass of water that Cassie handed him to rinse his mouth. “Steve hasn’t it ever occurred to you that it could be food poisoning?”
“Cassie, it’s Camp David,” Steve said condescendingly. “Everything passes inspection.” He inhaled deeply to quell another wave of nausea rising to his throat. “My stomach is angrily reminding me that I’m not particularly fond of salmon, though I never had this bad a reaction before.”
“I don’t care what you say, I’m calling Rudy.” Before Steve could complain she hurried the pace to the living room to contact the physician. Getting no answer at his house, she tried the lab. Again no answer. As she stared at Steve still doubled over at the sink, she thought of dialling the Medical Center. Rudy was walking out of Oscar’s room when the nurse hailed him to the station.
“What are his symptoms?” Rudy asked while skimming through his friend’s medical chart.
“Painful stomach cramps and he’s sweating profusely. He vomited twice and says it’s not getting any better. My bet is it’s food poisoning.”
“Your hunch is correct. Oscar and five other men who were at Camp David today fell ill this evening. Can you bring him here?”
“Absolutely. We’ll be there in a jiffy. In the meantime is there anything I can give him to ease his pain?”
“Make him drink lots of water. It will calm it some and dilute the injected food to make it easier to pump.”
Cassie cringed at the word. She knew first hand how traumatic an experience it was to have her stomach pumped. “Okay. We’re on our way.” Putting the receiver back in its cradle she heard one more heave from the kitchen that made her heart leap down her throat. Breathing away her concern, she grabbed her coat from the closet; then went to fetch her purse in her bedroom before making her way to Steve. “Come on, Blue Eyes. We’re going to the medical center. Apparently Oscar and five other men came down with the same symptoms. Rudy said it’s likely a case of food poisoning.”
“Oh no. I don’t want to have my stomach pumped,” he lamented like a helpless child. He wiped his mouth clean while Cassie took the vomit bowl from under the sink.
She escorted his feverish friend out the door and to the car. She assisted him in the passenger seat, ensuring that his seatbelt was secured before taking the wheel and opening full throttle toward the hospital.
Cassie kept a vigil on a slumbering Steve, thankful that he had managed to fall asleep after the unpleasant procedure. She hoped the rest would help ease some of the pain before he awakened. Looming in the doorway was Rudy who beckoned her out of the room.
“We have a critical situation. We were just informed that Air Force One disappeared off the radars above the Atlantic Ocean. It’s already all over the news. At Camp David they found four security officers in closets. They’d been drugged.” Cassie’s reaction was of bewilderment. She was stock-still, distraught at the news. Rudy continued, “They suspect four terrorists switched places with them during the meeting at Camp David. They don’t have all the details yet but they think the President and British Prime Minister might have been killed.”
“The tainted food wasn’t an accident then?”
“Oscar and the five other patients are not doing any better. In fact their condition has worsened in the last hour. I have the lab team doing a series of blood tests. My best bet is that they were poisoned.”
Cassie’s eyes popped out of their sockets in horror. “How…how long do they have?”
“That I can’t answer. We must first find traces of the poison in the blood cells, then analyse its components and finally elaborate any antidote. All could take a few days and I don’t know if they have that much time,” he ended on a grim tone.
Cassie brought her hand up to lay on the woeful doctor’s shoulder. “Do your best, Rudy. That’s all we ask.” She returned to the room with Rudy and glanced up at the television set to notice a special bulletin on the President’s plane. “Look…they’re talking about Air Force One.”
“I’ll turn it up.”
They listened intently to the report of the missing plane that mysteriously went off the radar over the Atlantic Ocean and the startling discovery of four drugged officers at Camp David, throwing each other occasional worried stares before turning their attention to the moans coming from the bed. They each went to one side of the bed to watch the patient coming to life.
“Welcome back, Blue Eyes.” Cassie’s beam lit up the room.
“How are you feeling, Steve?” Rudy asked, though Steve’s puckered face was self-explanatory.
“Lousy,” Steve breathed out weakly. He moistened his parched lips before continuing, “Did you get it all?” He frowned at the forlorn expression etched on both his caretakers’ faces. “No? What? What is it? Is it Oscar? How is he?”
“Oscar’s holding his own.”
“What does that means? I know he ate more than I did, but…Rudy?”
“Steve,” Rudy leaned closer to his patient, casting a fleeting glance up at Cassie before staring Steve in the eyes. “There’s a strong possibility that you’ve all been poisoned.”
“Obviously a slow acting chemical or you would all be dead by now.”
“But who, why?” Before Rudy could answer Steve caught sight of the television report on the two leaders’ disappearance. “What’s happening? Somebody tell me what’s happening” Steve asked with a voice growing husky with emotion.
“We don’t have all the details yet,” Cassie explained. “If you want my opinion it’s an elaborate conspiracy. Whoever they are were able to switch places with four security officers on the compound with no one being the wiser. They found them in closets. They’d been drugged.”
“What about the food?”
“NASA and the President’s staff were informed of their men’s hospitalization at the medical center. We were told others who were at Camp David earlier today also came down with the same symptoms. I expect they’ll be combing the kitchen for scraps of food left from the banquet to have analysed. It will hasten the process of finding an antidote.”
“What if they can’t find any?”
“Then our lab teams will need to figure one out from the blood analysis.”
“What about…what about the President and…” Steve’s voice faltered as his strength waned.
“Air Force One disappeared off the radar over the Atlantic Ocean. They’re combing the area as we speak,” Cassie said.
“Seems a likely scenario, but we won’t know for sure until they locate the plane or piece of its fuselage.”
“I wanna….I wanna hel….” Steve could barely finish his sentence that another painful stomach cramp seized him. Cassie cringed at the sight of his friend in the throes of agony, feeling helpless as to how to allay his suffering, while Rudy poured a glass of water and assisted the patient in drinking.
“Drink a bit.” Rudy held the glass to Steve’s lips and urged him to take a few sips. “That’s it. Feel better?” When Steve nodded, Rudy eased his head back onto the pillow. Sighing inwardly he threw Cassie a rueful glance that made her flesh creep. With a discreet toss of the head he beckoned her outside the room.
“I’ll be right back, Steve.” He acknowledged with a weak nod of the head. She could sense he was still in pain from the sight of his hand rubbing his stomach. She slipped away quietly and joined Rudy outside the room. “Rudy can’t you give him something for the pain?”
“I wish I could but until we know what sort of poison he ingested I can’t take the chance of the medication speeding up its action.”
“I can’t just sit idly by and watch him agonize to death. I have to do something. I’ll contact the NSB to find out what progress they’ve made so far. The news report said that they had yet to find any evidence that the plane crashed in the ocean.”
“How else could they explain its disappearance off the radar?”
“Steve once told me that radars are likely to lose track of an aircraft flying below a certain altitude. If the conspirators were aboard then chances are they didn’t crash the plane and veered it off somewhere before they reached the European coast. But where?”
“Iceland would be my best bet.”
“It’s worth the shot. They must undoubtedly have the antidote with them. What I can’t figure out is why did they poison the food? I don’t see the logic in that if they only wanted the kidnap the President and Prime Minister?”
Rudy shook his head. He was equally perplexed as to the hidden agenda behind this conspiracy. Cassie walked up to the nurses’ station to pick up the phone. As she began dialling Hanson’s office at the NSB, a nurse frantically called out to Rudy.
“Dr. Wells come quick!”
Rudy and Cassie breezed inside the room down the hall to find Frank Tracy, NASA Special Program Director, in cardiac arrest. Despite several attempts to revive him, the monitor still registered a flat line. In a rueful sigh Rudy called the time of death and pulled the blanket over the man’s face. He then turned to the nurse for a description of the symptoms she observed before the patient crashed.
“I came into the room to check the patient’s vitals. I noticed his temperature was alarmingly high and I was about to come and get you when Mister Tracy went into convulsions. Seconds later his heart gave out.”
“I want you to check the other five patients’ vitals every fifteen minutes. You notify me if their fevers rise beyond 103 degrees.”
“I will Dr. Wells.”
Once the nurse out of the room Rudy glanced forlornly at a concerned Cassie. “Tracy was suffering from a congenital heart disease. My guess is it couldn’t take the strain anymore. Luckily Oscar, Steve and the four other victims are all good health. Let’s hope their strong constitutions buy them time. There’s no doubt in my mind now that they were poisoned”
“I’m on my way to the Tactical Centre to meet with Hansen. You keep me abreast of any change in their conditions?”
“Of course I will.”
“I’ll go say goodbye to Steve and I’ll be on my way.” After receiving a consenting nod from Rudy Cassie made her way to Steve’s room. She padded up to the bed to gaze at the dozing patient. “Blue Eyes, you awake?” she asked in a hushed tone.
Steve slowly peeled his eyelids apart and smiled weakly. “Yeah,” he breathed out.
“I’m going to the NBS to meet with Hansen and get briefed on the situation. I intend to do everything in my power to bring the culprits to justice and get that antidote.”
“Be…be careful. It’s obvious these people mean business.”
Cassie flinched slightly at the heat burning through her skin as she brushed back the lock of hair hanging loose on Steve’s forehead. Already his respiration was rapid and shallow and the wrinkled brow told of the agonizing pain constantly present.
Cassie Miller drove to the NSB Tactical Centre and marched right inside demanding to speak with Hansen. She was a determined woman not to be trifled with. Hansen wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having a woman on the tactical team but knew Cassie wouldn’t relent in her request to take part in the search. He wouldn’t admit that she was intimidating and that she could often cow him into submission. For his own safety he chose best to let her join the group.
While Hansen’s men described the current situation with the coast guard and Army planes, a special news breaking report came on the TV screen. While some officers remained at their posts, others listened intently to the anchorman outlining the video they were about to broadcast worldwide. Seconds later the President and Prime Minister were seen seated together at a desk in a room with no windows or identification marks whatsoever.
As the President spoke for his stoic counterpart of their captors’ demands, Cassie focused on the man’s hands. She frowned in puzzlement at the active fingers that seemed to be gesturing a code. Being an expert in sign language she instantly picked up part of the message. Once the video over, she asked Hansen to play the tape. She explained that the President had been gesturing the location of where they were being held and that the poisoned victims had less than forty-eight hours to live without the counter poison that the extremists had in their possession.
Without a moment’s hesitation Hansen dispatched the information to the coast guards and military jets hovering over the Atlantic, ordering them to remain on standby until further instructions. Cassie insisted to be part of the rescue team that were to descend upon the island where the two leaders were being held.
In the meantime, The President and Prime Minister had no other alternative but to sign the letter of agreement stating that they were to drop the Wind Walker Project on account of the astronomical cost.
“We signed your damn paper,” the President hissed. “Now deliver the antidote out to our people.”
“We will,” the leader lied with a smirk on his face. “All in due time.”
“Now! Before they die.”
“I will phone my contact in Washington and instruct him to drop off the counter poison at the hospital but before I do,” he neatly foldeded it over to his henchman, “I want extra insurance that once both on your homeland you won’t try to veto that agreement.”
Incensed the Prime Minister sprung from his seat and jumped the man. In the scuffle, he ripped off the mask to reveal the leader’s true identity. “Ivan Radichowski,” he exclaimed in shock before the man backhanded him, sending him to the floor with a bloody lip. His wife stood and rushed to his side to dab at the blood with her handkerchief.
“Bad move Prime Minister,” he seethed with teeth set in anger. Now I’m going to have to withhold the antidote and let these people die.”
“No!” The President cried out. “They are innocent souls. Please give them the antidote and we’ll,” he glanced at his counterpart staggering to his feet “and we’ll do as you ask.”
“Sorry. No deal. He should have thought of that before he jumped me.” He peeled off the remaining plastic strips from his face as he made his way out of the room. “Keep an eye on them,” he instructed the guards posted outside the iron door.
“Sorry Doug,” the Prime Minister repented. “I just lost my nerves when he said he’d be taking our wives as security.”
“Don’t,” the President comforted with a hand on his shoulder. “If you hadn’t done it I probably would have. Besides it won’t be long before they find us.”
“How do you figure that?”
“The video that we did.”
“What about it?”
“As I read the speech I subtly gestured a message in sign language with my fingers.”
“I never noticed”
“That’s good. Neither did they. I just hope that a keen eye has caught it back in Washington.”
“And if no one did?”
The President gazed down at his worried wife and sighed heavily. “Then I’m afraid these people will die, including us.”
Back at the Medical Centre, the patients’ conditions were worsening. Oscar and the four other men lapsed into comas while Steve still hung his own, though by a thin thread. His organs were gradually shutting down in spite of the medication that Rudy deemed necessary to administer in order to keep him from sinking further. He feared that the treatment may be a catalyst for the poison, but he had no choice than to try to prevent the patients’ decline.
Glassy blue eyes welcomed the doctor as he made his round to check on the vital signs. “Ru…Rudy,” Steve wheezed out. Rudy leaned over him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Os..Os..Oscar?”
“He’s in a coma.”
Steve’s respiration grew erratic at the news. Rudy took a hold of his shoulders and shook him lightly to snap him out of his hysteria. “Steve, take it easy. He’s still alive. Take deep breaths. Take it. Calm down. Easy,” he coached successfully until Steve’s breathing evened out.
“She’s leading the team on their way to rescue the President and Prime Minister”
“They…they know where they are?”
Rudy nodded affirmatively. “Apparently she was able to decipher a coded message that The President gestured with his fingers. They are somewhere in Iceland. And the antidote is there. It won’t be long now.”
A flicker of a smile danced on Steve’s lips at his Brown-Eyed Girl’s prowess. “That’s my…that’s my girl,” he rasped out in a single wheezing breath. “Rudy. Do me...do me a favour?”
“If I should,” he moistened his lips and took a lungful of air to continue his thought, “if I should go before she gets back.”
“You won’t Steve,” Rudy interrupted sternly.
“You…you don’t know that. Please, if that happens…tell her,” Again he drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes to squeeze out the tears, “Tell her that I love her so much and…that…”
“And that you have for a very long time,” Rudy finished Steve’s thought, much to the patient’s puzzlement. “We all knew that Steve. And I believe she does too. You’ll tell her yourself, pal.”
“If I can’t.”
“You have my promise.”
Steve smiled obligingly at his friend before he slowly drifted off.
“Hang on, Steve. It won’t be long now. Hang on.”
Despite Hansen’s argument that a man would be better suited to lead the search and rescue team, the FBI director put Cassie at the helm after taking into account her extensive work in the field.
The group moved in stealthily on the premises, heedful to avoid the surveillance cameras scattered all over the compound. They had no intention of losing that element of surprise crucial to the success of the mission. Scanning the area from her vantage point Cassie could see the few guards posted outside the main entrance.
“Oh Blue Eyes. I wish you were with me right this minute,” Cassie wished to herself as she sidled her way to a barred window. She pulled out her blowtorch from her backpack and buckled down to the task at hand while her comrades in arms busied themselves surrounding the compound to disarm the watchdogs. Once the job down, Cassie squeezed herself between the remaining bars and slithered inside the empty room. She glanced down at a miniature map of the building taped to her wrist before proceeding down the corridor to neutralize the first hurdle. She fired a tranquilizer dart at the guard who dropped to the floor within seconds. ‘This is too easy,’ she thought to herself.
She then unscrewed the venting duct net and wedged her way in. She crawled down the shaft to find the room where the two leaders were being held. Once she hit jackpot, she ensured the coast was clear before she whistled to get their attention.
“Mister President, I suppose?” Cassie joked in a whisper.
“Who are you?”
“I’m one of the good guys. I got your message in the video. Very astute.”
“Thank you. I was beginning to fear no one saw it.”
“Lucky for you I knew sign language. Do you know if the guards posted outside your room have a timetable?”
“They usually come in to give us our meals.”
Cassie glanced down at her wristwatch. “I figure another hour before they show up. That gives us plenty of time to get you out of here. I’m afraid you’ll have to crawl down the venting shafts to do it. The compound has been surrounded but the men have orders to remain on standby until you are safely out of the building.”
“We understand,” The President acknowledged with a grateful grin. He took the screwdriver Cassie handed him with instructions to unscrew the net. Once done, Cassie jumped down and helped the President give his wife a hoist up so she could squeeze herself inside the shaft. She waited for the Prime Minister’s wife to join her before slithering further down the duct to give room for the two men. The Prime Minister clasped Cassie’s hand to pull her up the opening of the shaft and once everyone was out of the room they followed Cassie’s directive. Soon they reached the empty room and made their way out through the window.
Once phase one was accomplished and the world leaders and their spouses were safely escorted out of the premises, Cassie and five of her men proceeded to move in on the extremists and their top honcho in order to get their hands on the precious antidote. The element of surprise was still in their favour. They burst into the room with guns drawn.
“Freeze!” Cassie shouted her order with an icy glare.
“Who the hell are you?” questioned the stunned leader.
“Your worse nightmare,” she said sarcastically. She beckoned the men to frisk everyone in the room to search for concealed weapons on their person. “We’re from the US government.”
“How did you find us?”
“Oh a little President told me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t give a damn,” she replied offhandedly. “Now, where’s the antidote?”
A taunting smirk crossed the leader’s face at her question. “You look for it. You’re so smart. I’m not going to help you.” His eyes motioned to a liquor cabinet inside which were two dozens vials. “Take your pick. But choose the right one,” he crowed sardonically.
“I don’t have time for games,” Cassie spat. “I’ll just take them all.”
“Fine. Then maybe it’s not there,” the man teased the exasperated woman whose patience was reaching a boiling point.
The G-men observed their leader’s expression turned deadly as she stepped up to the man and pressed the barrel of her gun against his forehead, relishing in the fear mirroring in his eyes. “You’d better tell me now or I’ll blow your brains out. “She emphasized her threat by pulling the hammer back, which elicited a nervous gulp from the man.
“Go ahead. Kill me. Then you’ll never know and your people will drop like ninepins.” He turned to her with a maniacal leer.
“We’ll search the house and take everything we find.” She instructed her team to proceed accordingly. “Put them on ice first. We don’t want them to be under foot.”
Three men escorted the prisoners out of the building while Cassie and the remaining agents began scouring the house for concealed flasks.
Minutes later one of the men returned to Cassie with a vial in hand. “We found this one on the leader’s person. He had it in one of his socks. I’m positive it’s the antidote.”
Cassie clasped the small contained firmly in both hands, clinging to it as if her life depended on it. “Good job, Bob. So to be sure we’ll grab all the vials we find. We can’t afford to leave anything behind. Let’s just hope we’re not too late.”
Back in Washington a careworn Rudy was reaching the end of his emotional and physical tether. In the past few hours two other men had succumbed to the poison. Autopsies were already being performed in hopes to obtain more information on the components of this intricate deadly chemical to thus elaborate an antidote. Time however was running out for the remaining patients, including Oscar and Steve whose lives were hanging by a thread.
Cassie and her team broke records in getting to Washington. The driver of the car waiting at the airport opened throttle towards the medical center where she gave Rudy the vials that he, in turn, rushed to the lab for a quick analysis in order to determine the real antidote.
“How are they?” Cassie asked apprehensively, wincing at the forlorn expression etched on Rudy’s face.
“Not good. Two more died while you were away. Oscar and Steve are knocking on death’s door. Their vital organs are gradually shutting down and there isn’t a damn thing I can do to stop it,” he ended on a frustrated tone. He looked downcast and sighed heavily. “Even if we administer the antidote now I’m afraid…” His voice trailed off as tears began clouding up his eyes.”
Cassie laid a comforting hand on his arm to will his eyes to hers. “Do your best, Rudy. That’ll all anyone can ask.” Rudy strained a smile and nodded. “Can I see Steve?”
Rudy smiled responsively and put a hand on the small of Cassie back to lead her down to the ICU. Her step faltered and she gasped inwardly at the death mask Steve wore on his face. He heart caught in her throat at the thought of her friend knocking on death’s door. Rudy gave her a friendly shove onward, nodding his consent at her request to hold Steve’s hand.
“It can’t hurt to feel you’re there with him.”
“That gurgling sound?” she asked, referring to the constant wheezing.
“His kidneys are gradually shutting down and as a result his lungs are filling up with fluids. Basically, he’s drowning.”
Her eyes dropped like lead at the news. She drew in a few deep breaths to recover her composure before she sat on the edge of the mattress to hold her dying friend’s hand. Much as she tried she couldn’t swallow hard enough to dislodge the emotional lump caught in her throat. “Is he in any pain?”
“No,” Rudy assured with a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll leave you with him while I go down to the lab. If there’s anything you need, call the nurse.”
Rudy started for the door when he remembered his promise to Steve. He retraced his step and came to stand beside Cassie. “Before lapsing into a coma, Steve made me a promise. I wanted him to tell you but given the circumstances…”
“What is it, Rudy?”
“He asked me to tell you that you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him. You’re the best friend he’s ever had and that…that he loves you very much.”
Cassie’s emotions soared; her heart set aflutter by this revelation. “Thanks,” she quavered in a whisper.
“I’ll be back in a while.”
Cassie squeezed Rudy’s hand and nodded. She waited for him to walk out of the room and then returned her gaze to the patient “What Rudy said...well I feel the same way. I expect you to get better so you can tell me yourself.” She briefly averted her gaze from Steve, sickened by the appalling sight and constant wheezing ringing in her head. She allowed the dam to open up on her tears and all came gushing forth in a raging torrent. One tear dribbled down on Steve’s cheek as she leaned forward to brush a light kiss on his forehead. She wiped it dry with her thumb and gasped at what she believed was a response to her touch. Her eyes lit up at the audible sigh, but quickly lost their glow when she realized it was an involuntary reflex. She flattened his hand between hers and closed her eyes to send a silent prayer to the heavens.
Half an hour later, Rudy irrupted in the room with a wide beam plastered on his face. His ecstasy could not be contained. The lab had singled out the antidote from the two dozens vials. After administering it to the other patients, including Oscar, it was Steve’s turn to receive the injection. Albeit excited about his finding, Rudy remained sceptical about Steve’s chances of survival. As for her Cassie refused to nurture any pessimism despite the odds.
She kept a vigil on her friend all through the night. Exhaustion snuck up on her in the wee hours of the morning and she drifted off to sleep with her head on the mattress, still holding Steve’s hand.
Damn was pearling up in the sky when Steve struggled to open his eyes; the mere task sapping the little energy he had. As he was about to surrender to his leaden eyelids he caught a blurry glimpse at a tuff of hair by the side of the bed. He strained to wipe the fog from his glassy eyes in order to establish clear focus. He garnered up the last ounce of strength to squeeze Cassie’s hand, hoping she would wake before he dozed off again. His first attempt failed but the second had Cassie startled awake and jerk her head up, her attention instantly turning to the patient who greeted her with a weak smile and a heavy blink.
“Oh dear God!” Cassie exclaimed; her heart soaring to new heights. “Blue Eyes, you’re awake.”
“Bar…barely,” he breathed out feebly.
“How are you feeling?” she asked softly with a hand brushing back the loose lock of hair on his forehead.
“Drained. But…but the stomach ache’s gone.”
“You gave us quite a scare.”
“That close, huh?”
“Yeah. We administered it to you and the others in the nick of time.”
“I knew…I knew you’d get it.” He closed his eyes and licked his lips. “No doubt you would succeed.”
“Being thrown in an Iraqi prison camp would have been a walk in the park compared to this. I was so frightened of losing you.” As she locked stares with Steve she felt a tingling sensation running down her spine all the way down to her toes.
An amused Rudy who hawked his presence in the room interrupted the bewitching moment.
“Look who’s up?”
“You and all the others,” Rudy happily announced.
“He’s doing fine. A little groggy but already he’s asking for caviar. That’s definitely a good sign.”
“After what happened I would think he’d be forever disgusted of those fish eggs,” Steve commented with a faint wink at Cassie.
“And how are you doing?” Rudy asked while checking Steve’s vitals.
“You tell me? I do feel a little better than I remembered. Am I out of the woods, doc?”
“I’d say you’re definitely on the outskirts of it. We’ll monitor your condition in the next few days; conduct a series of tests to ensure your blood is poison free.”
“Bummer,” Steve said with a mock pout. “And here I was anxious to waltz out of here for the weekend.”
“Sorry, buddy. You’ll have to do your dancing here for the moment.”
Steve turned to Cassie and threw her a suggestive wink. “How about it? Got any plans for the weekend?”
She glanced up at an amused Rudy. “Will he be able to eat solid food by then?”
“Barring complications I don’t see why not.”
“What would you like, Blue Eyes?”
The intense gaze between the two was Rudy’s cue to leave. There would be plenty of time to inform Steve of Frank’s death among other bad news. What he needed now was a lot of tender ministrations and he knew Cassie was the best ‘man’ for the job. “I’ll check back in fifteen minutes.”
Both nodded their acknowledgment and waited for Rudy to exit the room before recapturing their gazes.
“I can never repay you for what you did. I don’t have all the details yet but I suspect it was no walk in the park.”
“I was running on adrenalin the whole time, thinking about you, Oscar and those men that needed the antidote. I don’t recall much of it, only that it was a success. My reward is having those bright, fetching blue eyes of yours smiling at me.”
“Did…did Rudy…tell you about…?” Steve stammered nervously, searching Cassie’s eyes for a clue as to what she felt about his confession.
She smiled and leaned forward to place a tender kiss on Steve’s forehead. “He did. And I feel the same. Once you get out of this bed you and me have some dating to do.”
Steve’s heart soared at Cassie’s willingness to give a romance a try. His hand slowly crept up her shoulder and let it rest on her arm. “I’ll be out of here before you know it.”
She leaned forward and brushed her lips against his. “I’ll hold you to that.”