Alternate Ending part 15
(c)2000-2001 KSH/BS

Amazingly, everyone but Jon was able to take a nap, reassured by the fact that they were in the safest place they had been in the past two weeks, and that everyone not present except Mugs was safe as well.

About 8:00, Brian's cell phone rang, and he gave someone directions from the former barn to the ruined house where they were hidden. "Stacy's on the way," he announced. "I'm going above to meet her."

Jon and Neal exchanged looks, both realizing for the first time that something was wrong if Stacy was not in her new identity far away.

A few minutes later, Stacy preceded her brother into the bomb shelter. Her hair was now blond, the same color as her brother's, and over her t-shirt she wore a gun in a shoulder holster.

Jon and Neal were both temporarily stunned, which gave her the opportunity to speak first. "Well, I don't know whether to hug you two or kick your asses for letting me think you were dead."

"'re..uh...a federal agent, too?" Jon stammered.

"Well, technically, I'm a Marine." She grinned at their confusion.

Neal shook his head. "_That_ was the last answer I expected. Were you ever really in any danger, or was the whole thing a setup?"

"Sit down, guys, I have a feeling there's going to be a lot of questions." Stacy plucked the bottle of water Aug held out and flopped down on the nearest chair. "I really did date Tim. At the beginning of the relationship, I thought he was just a cop, and he thought I was just a civilian working for the Marines on base. I had an idea of what he was doing, and backed the relationship off so that I could, well, investigate him. He figured it out and was trying to kill me. I don't think he ever knew who I was, he just thought I was an amateur wannabe cop, since I've got several cops and agents of various types in my family. I was hiding out from him in another safehouse. When we found out what was going on with Neal, that he was up there in the woods somewhere, I moved to the safehouse up there to keep an eye on things. If anything had gone like it was supposed to, you two would have never known any of this, you would have just thought that I was a scared civilian who stayed alive by sheer luck. But of course, as we all know, _nothing_ has gone like it was supposed to."

Jon and Neal had been exchanging glances all through her story. "Who _are_ you?" Jon finally asked.

Stacy grinned, almost laughed before answering. "Part of a covert special investigations team. Raff is my boss."

Neal startled everyone with an impressive string of curses. "That son of a bitch is playing both sides. He was setting us up!"

Stacy shook her head calmly, apparently used to outbursts like that. "No, actually he wasn't. He's probably the only one who's always been on _your_ side, not on the Family's side or the government's side." She held up a hand to ward off Neal's protests. "He never would have let anything happen to Dina and the baby. He's been trying to fight the government and the Family to keep you all safe. There was a lot of collusion between the sides. There were too many feds gone bad who were willing to let the Family have you. And there's something going on that both parties are trying to protect. I don't know much, other than it goes back to way back when, back in Journey's heyday, and somehow ties in to Steve's real identity."

Jon winced; although he knew that Journey had been extinct for many years, he still hated to be reminded of the fact. "You mean Steve was setting us up?" he asked incredulously.

"No, I mean that someone was aware of the fact that Steve was a WITSEC, and was using the fact to their advantage. Whatever the band was being used as a cover for, local or federal law enforcement tried to move in, the agency would shut them down, because it could blow Steve's identity, or at least that was their official story."

Jon and Neal looked at each other for a long time before either spoke. "You know, Ross and I suspected that maybe a couple of the roadies were running drugs or something during the Escape tour, because there were some things that didn't make a whole lot of sense unless something like that was going on. But we never said anything because we didn't want the bad publicity or to jeopardize the tour or anything." Neal stared into space, remembering as he spoke. "We mentioned to each other once that we thought maybe Steve was suspicious, too, but I don't remember why we never discussed it with him."

Jon nodded. "Liz said that she had put together that the band was being used as a cover for smuggling, money laundering, and whatever. I really didn't believe at first it could have been going on without any of us being aware of it, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I remember that were a few odd instances that I, well, I wasn't sure what was going on, but I really didn't want to know. I sure didn't want anything to jeopardize the band and being a part of it and all that. So maybe each of us did know something, we just never put it all together for our own reasons." His eyes widened as a thought occurred to him. "Do you think Steve knew what was going on, but they were using his status as a protected witness to blackmail him?"

Neal put his feet up on the coffee table. "Then why would he have been running around knocking off wiseguys before shows if they were blackmailing him?" He inclined his head and frowned. "Then again, why would they have been following the tour? Then again, why has Steve ever done _anything_?"

Brian looked at his watch. "Well, gang, I hate to break up the party, but we're looking at a five hour ride, so we'd better continue this conversation on the road."

"Five hour ride?" Jon and Neal chorused. "Where are we going?" Neal added.

"Little town outside Reno." Aug was already heading up the ladder.

"What the hell is in Reno?" Jon asked.

"Duh. The other copy of Steve's evidence." Stacy was looking around for a trash can to toss her water bottle. "But at least we can be a little more comfortable on this trip."

They got above ground to find that Stacy had driven Jon's suburban. He turned to her, mouth open, trying to phrase a question, but too surprised. Stacy grinned again.

"Marines are incredibly resourceful."

"Yeah, well if you were that resourceful, the piano would have been in the back." Neal teased.

"You joke about that," Stacy shot back. "But it could have happened. Up until this morning, I was watching Ross. Raff figured that since no one had bothered him yet, I ought to get after you two instead. God knows you need all the help you can get."

"I'm driving," Jon announced.

"Not, you're not," Brian held his hand out for the keys. "First of all, you don't know where we're going. Secondly, if we got into a pursuit situation, you don't know how to get us out of it without rolling this thing. Not my choice of a getaway vehicle with the high center of gravity and all, but it seats five adults comfortably."

Jon hung his head and climbed into the backseat with Stacy and Neal. "Where's Steve?" he asked.

"Raff's with him at the base hospital at Camp Pendleton. _If_ anyone can find out they're on the base, they would have to get in there, and then locate them on the base. Of course, Steve is not officially a patient, and he's not in an area of the hospital that there's easy public access. It's not as easy as it sounds, even for the Family."

"Speaking of Raff, since when do the Marines let one of their own get so out of shape?" Neal asked.

"It's good for his cover as a donut eating cop." Stacy joked.

* * *

Almost three hours later, they parked next to a stone wall surrounding a cemetery. Stacy got several flashlights out of the back of the suburban, passing them around, and handed a backpack to Brian.

Aug handed his flashlight to Neal. "Hold this for a minute." The singer/agent quickly climbed the wall and asked Neal to toss the flashlight.

Jon eyed the five foot wall uncertainly. "How about if I wait in the truck?" he asked.

"What was it Mugs said about the guy who stayed in the truck always being the one who got killed?" Aug teased, and was instantly sorry for the look on Jon's face.

Jon began climbing the wall without another word.

"Can you call Raff and see if you can get someone looking for his brother?" Neal whispered. Stacy nodded and stepped away from the group to make the call.

Neal scaled the wall next, and then held the backpack Brian handed over while the agent climbed the wall. Aug was already walking toward the center of the cemetery, so the others hurried to catch up with him.

He stopped in front of a row of headstones, shining his flashlight on them. A large, heart shaped one bearing the names Cristoforo and Rosamaria Morandini, and two lamb shaped ones beside it with the names Michael and Matthew. All had the same date of death.

"Oh my God," Jon gasped, realizing what they were looking at. "It's Steve's grave."

"Officially, yes," Aug answered. "But there's actually four unclaimed John Does buried there."

"Michael Morandini..." Neal read aloud, frowning.

"Mickey Morandini is a professional baseball player," Brian supplied. "The agency likes to recycle names."

Jon and Neal once again looked at him in shock.

Aug took the backpack from Brian and began to open it. "Now, keep an eye out, because grave desecration is a federal offense."

Before they could ask Aug what he meant by "grave desecration," Stacy hurried to join them.

"I got good news and bad news," she said as loudly as she dared. "Mugs is with Hal, and they're both fine. But Mary Valory reported her husband missing a few hours ago. He went to pick up a loaf of bread at lunchtime and never came home."

* * *

Jon sighed, torn between relief and anxiety, and heard Neal say, "Then it's bad."

"I didn't--" Stacy began.

"Hey," Neal said, "when they don't give a guy 24 hours to show back up, it's bad. What're our chances?"

"Better, if we jump the gun before they do," Aug said. "Start digging, before they start guilt trippin' you guys into doing who knows what."

"We can't just--" Neal said.

"Dig someone up?" Aug said. "C'mon, Neal. You're not afraid of dead folks, are you? They're not afraid of you."

Once, Neal would have thought the whole scene was the pinnacle of insanity. But he'd seen too much else to really find any of it strange. Aug opened the backpack and quietly began laying a variety of hand picks and folding shovels on the ground in front of the stones.

"Start with Matt's," Aug said.

"Is a little kid really buried there?" Jon said.

"People abandon their kids all the time, Jay," Stacy said softly, patting his shoulder. "It's probably a much better burial than he would've gotten, otherwise."

They started digging, and had been at it for a good fifteen minutes in silence when Neal said, "How come the birth dates on the kids are the same?" The dates of death, he understood. Both kids were supposed to perish in the fire. But the birth dates matched, too, and he didn't think it was a misprint. Not etched in granite.

Aug shone the flashlight on the stones again. "Yeah, how 'bout that?"

Neal had the strangest flash of deja'-vue when Aug turned back to him, but only said, "Yeah, I thought Michael was the older brother."

"He tell you that?"

Neal felt his shovel slam against a rock and paused. "Yeah, now are you gonna quit fuckin' around, and tell me?"

"Neal needs to hear the obvious," Stacy said.

"Twins," Aug said.

"Bullshit," Jon said. "Now come on. I thought he had an older brother."

"How much did you think you could really believe?" Aug said. "Guy's spent his life covering his tracks, and all of his career trying to keep you guys out of it. After making a reflex out of it for so long, you really think he's gonna tell you guys stuff you're probably better off not knowing?"

"Shit," Neal said, and started to dig again.

"What about Houston?" Jon said.

"What about it?" Aug said. "It happened. More than once. There were at least three shows where he ended up arguing the merits of leaving you guys alone with some amateur who couldn't grasp the concept. The last one was right about the time his mom died, and I won't bore you with the messy details. He was kind of angry."

"Was?" Jon muttered.

"Less talk, you guys," Brian said softly. "Voices carry."

Stacy began humming the 80's tune of the same name under her breath, hearing Brian sigh.

"Whatever happened to Aimee Mann?" Jon said.

"Is she in the fucking program too?" Neal said. Then his shovel hit something besides dirt, and he froze. "Should there still be wood, after all this time?"

"It's not an ancient burial ground," Brian said. "The coffins might've caved a little, but they should all still be intact."

"The stuff we're looking for isn't inside one of 'em, is it?" Jon said nervously.

"Should be inside Steve's," Aug said. "That's why we're really only diggin' up the one. For now."

Brian stepped in, telling Stacy to take Jon and watch the gate for any sign of visitors. He took Neal's shovel, and helped Aug finish uncovering the top of the coffin beneath. They began digging more around the periphery of the top so they'd have room to pry it open.

Brian fished a crowbar out of the backpack and looked at Neal. "You wanna see this?"

Neal said, "Almost everybody here's got kids, you know?"

Brian said, "Yeah. See that mausoleum, over there?" He pointed to a squat, foreboding little structure barely 50 yards away and well within sight, even in the dark. "Stand right over there and watch the road, would you? We can't just watch the entrance."

Neal nodded and set off between the stones, careful not to step directly in front of any of them.

Brian said, "Next time bring the dry ice and the peeled grapes, huh? This is fuckin' macabre."

Aug shrugged. "Not a lot of guys got the cajones to dig around a cemetery. Most of us nice Italian boys were raised to be superstitious."

Brian snorted. "Gotta love this job." He hopped down into the hole, mindful of how loose the rain-soaked earth was, and set the crowbar into the lid.

Neal kept walking, kept his eyes on the mausoleum, and got to wondering what the hell folks were thinking when they asked to be put in a drawer aboveground. Which begged the question about how some cultures didn't bury their dead or put them in drawers at all, and some folks in Italy dried their relatives in volcanic ash for a year before digging them back up and interning them in the family vault...

He almost didn't see the hole.

There was a fresh grave waiting for a service, covered by a temporary tent that had kept the rain off. Neal had been paying too much attention to the mausoleum and had walked under the tent. He caught himself at the edge, a bare six inches from it, and looked down into absolute blackness. It looked like it went on forever.

He backed away from it and stepped onto the incline toward the mausoleum, figuring the hole did go on forever, in a way. The rain-slick grass gave under his tennishoes, and he gasped, the shout he'd meant to voice torn away when he slammed to earth and slid.

Right for the hole.

He paused at the edge of it, legs dangling over, and he twisted in a panic to dig his hands in the grass. It worked, it stopped him from going in, and on a dry day he would have had a chance. But the muddy edge of it gave under his hands and went in with him, his momentum catapulting him into the back of the grave, six feet down.

* * *

Steve heard a phone ring somewhere and let it wake him.

He opened his eyes and was disoriented again for a minute, finally realizing he was still on the military base. He was alone this time; either Raff had better things to do, or posting a guy at the door was enough. The phone in question was Steve's, piled with the rest of his stuff--minus his gun--that he had come in there with, on a table next to where Raff had been sitting.

He struggled to sit up, and made it. He threw the coverlet off and swung his legs over the side, amazed at what it took to do it. Luckily the phone was still ringing by the time he got to it. Whoever was on the other end was either persistent, or knew he'd pick it up eventually.

And when the hell had the battery been recharged?


"You left someone where I could get to them," Azoff said.

"Irving," Steve said, trying not to gasp from the long walk across all eight feet of floor, "you're gettin' on my nerves."

"Valory knows where the piano is," Azoff said.

Steve sighed. "So what," he said. "You gonna take up lessons?"

"He's not ready to tell us, yet," Azoff said. "But I think he will be. I told him I'd call you and give you a shot at turning yourself in before we go back to his house and get his wife to convince him."

Steve didn't bother launching into the string of threats he would have normally. He didn't have the breath. He didn't bother demanding to have Ross put on the phone, either. Ross had been watched, but not as carefully as anyone else, and they'd left him open. Steve wasn't really surprised.

"You," Azoff said, "and the piano. And that's it. Then we call it even."

"You stupid fuck," Steve said. "You had a million chances at the piano, before now, and you're tellin' me you just now figured it out?"

"Twenty-four hours," Azoff said. "The Plant, in LA. That should be just enough time. Just you, and what's in the piano." Then he hung up.

The Plant. They'd recorded most of ROR there, had had the master tapes confiscated by the feds when the owner had been tagged for drug running. God, but they'd been off the mark. And they'd had no idea. It'd been a bad time. The guys still didn't know what they'd been doing by asking Steve to produce that album...

He didn't have much time to get himself off a military base and figure out how to turn the whole thing around. Somehow, Azoff had found out about the Whale.

* * *

Mugs had been careful to make sure he wasn't seen. He'd seen them grab Ross, right in the goddamn parking lot of the Thriftway. How he hadn't been seen, he didn't know. He'd just finished talking to Ross, had gotten back in his own car, and had seen the whole thing in his rearview mirror.

He'd agreed to meet Ross to see if they had enough between them to piece some things together.

His first impulse had been to jump back into it.

But then he'd realized he could find out a lot more if he tagged along.

He'd seen enough movies and read enough books to figure he knew how to tail someone who wasn't expecting it, but he didn't realize how goddamn hard it was. He hung about two cars back on the average, changing lanes when he could. They were headed into Sausalito, which meant traffic moved at a maximum speed of twenty-five mph most of the time. It helped, but Mugs expected to be seen at any time. Steve was right, he'd forgotten how much he looked like Jon.

It was dark before they got into Sausalito, and Mugs lost them three turns off the freeway. But the block they were on was too much for coincidence; he'd played too many sessions in the area over the years. The Plant.

He had to get to a phone. He needed Hal to cover for him, and to figure out who would be able to back him up.

* * *

Stunned, at first Neal only sat there in the pitch black and tried to catch his breath. There was no way he'd just fallen into an open grave, because if he had, he'd be losing his mind in a matter of seconds and they'd be hauling his drooling, catatonic ass into Bellevue. So he sat and breathed the cool air that reeked of damp earth, keeping his eyes closed, finally letting go of the double-handful he'd brought down with him. Then he opened his eyes and looked up. There was a rectangle of lesser darkness above him, three feet wide and six feet long, with a tarp suspended over it.

I fell into the fucking hole!

He scrambled up, wincing at a cramp in his lower back, and realized that when he stood, the rim was only about three inches above his head. All he had to do was get a good grip, and...

Frantic, he made a leap for the narrower opposite side, and only brought more earth down on himself. He stood, breathing hard, deciding he should shout for help. It didn't matter if they laughed, he wanted out of there. Being shot at, fine. Tied up and almost blown up, okay. Chased and threatened he could handle, but dark holes in the ground, no. He took a breath and opened his mouth to shout, then let the breath out just as quickly. Voices carry.

Was he ready to blow the whole thing, and announce them all to whoever else might be out there, because he'd been dumb enough to fall in a...

an OPEN GRAVE, Neal! There's dead people right on either side of you!


He could get himself out. He had to. He turned and reached for the other short side, bracing a foot against the wall of earth to his left, ignoring the fact that he was light-headed from hyperventilating. The mental image of his foot punching through the damp earth and encountering anything made him pause again, and he stood indecisive and shivering in the center of the hole.

* * *