Alternate Ending, part 16
(c)2000-2001 KSH/BS

"That's it," Brian said, handing Aug the sealed bag after thumping the damaged coffin lid closed again. They'd had to shine the flashlight in to see what they'd been looking for, trying to ignore the collapsed skeleton within, keeping the collars of their shirts pulled up over their mouths and noses. The item had been taped to the inside of the lid. Aug helped Brian out of the hole, and they began filling it back in wordlessly, trying to keep it quiet. When they were nearly done, Jon and Stacy returned.

"All quiet out there," Stacy said. "What'd you do with Neal?"

"He's up watching the road," Aug said, pointing toward the mausoleum. He turned to look back up there.

"I don't see anybody up there," Jon said, and his tone of voice said oh shit. He began walking in that direction, and Aug grabbed him.

"Hold on. We'll go." He pitched his shovel so that it stood upright in the ground, and walked ahead of Jon toward the incline.

Stacy took the shovel and helped Brian finish smoothing the earth over and tamping down the strip of sod they'd displaced. "There's no way," she said aloud. "Has to be a false alarm."

"With these guys," her brother said, "I'd believe goddamn near anything, by now."

Jon and Aug passed the tent with a wide berth, walking up the incline and circling the mausoleum. Aug had his gun out and kept it out. They had a good view of the lower road in from there. Nothing moved among the stones, or on the road below.

"Neal," Jon stage-whispered. Then aloud, he said, "Fuck it, I don't care who's out here. Neal!"

"Jonathan?"

It was a small, shaken voice, sounding distant. Both men ran back down the incline, and Jon shouted for Neal again.

"Down here."

Jon looked over at the hole they hadn't paid attention to the first time, and cursed aloud. He shone the flashlight on the ground, let the light spill over into the gaping wound in the earth.

Neal put a hand up to shield his eyes, and said, "Can you guys maybe get me out, now? Please?"

* * *

Steve got dressed as quickly as he could, not wanting to think about the times Corey had asked him if he dressed in the dark, and fought against both the pain medication he was on and how damn tired he was. He waited until he hadn't seen anyone move in the corridor outside for a good ten minutes before braving the door.

Not locked from the inside. And no one standing guard.

Careless? Or thinking he was in worse shape than he was?

Any other time, he might have examined the circumstances with a warier eye. But pain medication did wonders for your outlook on life. And his outlook was awfully damn good right about then.

He let himself out and proceeded to walk down the corridor like he owned it. Or at least like he knew exactly which way was out. It had to be the right way, because he ended up passing an open doorway with the only light on that wasn't for security. A table sat in front of it, holding a phone and a scattering of notebooks that looked like field logs. A young uniformed man stepped out of the door way and looked at him. "Leaving, sir?"

"Yes," Steve said, and began walking by.

"Visiting hours have been over for several hours, sir," he said, and reached for the phone. "Let me call this in, so--"

"No, let me do it," Steve said, slamming his hand down over the receiver. "Just give me your commanding officer's number. I'm sure he'll love hearing what kind of numb-nuts bullshit you wannabe Mission Impossible snapperheads are pulling down here. Did you enjoy boot camp, son? Because you'll be peeling potatoes with the wrong side of your ass for the rest of the millennium, and it'll make your mama cry. Don't ask, don't tell, right?"

The corporal looked at him in stunned silence, and Steve thought, what the fuck did I really just say? What the hell was in my I.V.?

"Don't make me say it again," Steve said. "Please don't. Because I'll be saying it straight to Howling Mad Hannibal, which is what we used to call your commanding officer on the lines, and let me tell you about how pissed he gets when you wake him up in the middle of the night for shit like this, where it isn't necessary and a perfectly reasonable veteran of Desert Storm should be able to come and go off a low security pissant base!" He paused long enough to take a long overdue breath and said, "Name and rank, son."

"Why don't you just go on through," the corporal said. "Seeing as you're leaving, and all."

"Thank you," Steve said, and walked out of the checkpoint thinking he should stop with the A-Team references, because he was beginning to get them mixed up. And maybe he'd overreacted, a little. But he hadn't had the clipboard this time, and there was no sense taking chances.

When he got outside, he found Raff's car and thought about ignoring it for maybe 10 seconds. Not because he was afraid he'd been tracked down too easily. He'd dump it in the nearest rest stop and snag another Honda Accord, which everyone stole anyway. He was mainly worried about the fact that he was goddamn stoned.

One stoned, double secret non-agent ex lead singer for Journey, loose on the highway. He laughed aloud and tried to keep a lid on it. "Where's my designated driver? Where is a boy scout when I need one?" Then he tried all the doors, finding the passenger side still unlocked. Because, after all, Raff was careless, wasn't he? Yes. Careless enough to leave a service weapon under the front seat, too. Steve slid across and hotwired the car, rolling the windows down to try and get some air, hoping it would wake him up. He drove cautiously, hoping it was in the right goddamn direction.

* * *

They headed into San Francisco first thing the next morning with the evidence they'd unearthed ("Try not to use that particular fucking pun again, okay?" Neal had told Aug), repackaged. It had turned out to be microfilm, which had held up remarkably well for however long it had been underground. It wasn't what Steve had described to them; it made Aug wonder what the hell had really been in that safe deposit box. Because this was much older. It also made Aug wonder about the scene at the bank.

The first thing they did was take it to the library and use a viewer from an older part of the building to see what was on it. Lists of numbers, and none of them looking like accounting ledger entries. They made copies anyway.

Aug had known which reporter at the Chronicle Steve had been referencing when he'd said he owed the guy; apparently it had something to do with how Steve and Aug had met. Aug still refused to give particulars on it.

"Gotta be drunk, to hear it," Aug said. "I gotta be drunk to tell it, too. When this is over, we'll make a bonfire out of Departure albums in Jon's backyard, have S'mores, alphebetize his CD's."

Jon was ignoring him, staring out the window at the buildings. His inattention was genuine, so Aug let it pass.

They pulled up in front of the address they were looking for, and Aug said. "We don't wanna scare these guys too much, but I want it clear they need to take us seriously."

"The press is used to being leaned on," Stacy said. "Just you and me will go in. I've got scary credentials, and you're cute. We got all the bases covered that way."

Aug grinned and got out of the car.

To Brian, Stacy said, "I think the parking garage is out of the question."

Brian snorted and waved her off. She got out of the car with the package tucked in her jacket and followed Aug, jaywalking across traffic to the three story building that housed the Chronicle.

As they walked away, Brian's cell phone rang, and he identified himself into it.

"Dead man walking," Raff said, then hung up.

Brian sighed heavily and tucked the phone away again.

"What," Neal said.

"Proof that chaos theory is a known quantity," Brian said angrily.

Aug and Stacy strolled into the lobby like they worked there. There was a disinterested guard across a low mahogany desk who was eyeing them with a look that said what the hell is it now?

"We need to speak to Joel Shearer," Stacy said.

The guard leaned forward and punched a few numbers into his phone. Then he mumbled something into it they didn't hear, even though they strained to. He hung up and nodded to them, indicating they could wait in the lobby.

They strolled a few feet away from the desk, pretending to look at the bank-quality, pointless art on the walls.

"I don't like this," Aug said. "And I don't mean that in a 'that's Mikey, he hates everything' kind of way."

Stacy shrugged. "Ride it out, for now. See where it goes. We have other options."

Aug made a noncommittal sound but kept the rest of his reservations to himself. He kept a watchful gaze on the elevators and the double swinging doors. No one else came or went during the time they waited. Several minutes later, the elevators opened and a man with a narrow face and blond, thinning hair and jittery motions came toward them. He approached without greeting, offering neither a hand or name.

"Joel's not here, any longer," the man said without preamble.

"And you would be...?" Stacy said.

"You can hand the package to me, though, and I'll make sure Joel gets it."

"No," Stacy said, and Aug found himself turning enough that he could watch their backs in his peripheral vision. Stacy still had the package tucked under her jacket; it wasn't visible. They'd screwed themselves blue, and he didn't understand how it'd happened so easily. Stacy knew it too, he could tell by her posture and the tone of her voice even though he hadn't known her very long. "That's okay," she said. "Can you tell me how I can get hold of Joel?"

The man smiled, and Stacy felt her stomach plummet. They had to get out of there. "Never mind," she said. "Thanks for your--"

"You've got copies with you in the car, don't you," he said. "There's no way you guys walked in here without a backup plan. Thing is, you've got all your cards in one place, and I don't think Brian is going to be able to watch all sides at once. Do you?"

Aug said, "You sonofabitch."

"Perry steered you wrong," he said. "Now hand over the package. And what's in the car, too. Or Valory'll be playing that big gig in the sky."

"Not a chance," Aug said. "There's no way in hell I believe you have Valory."

As if he hadn't heard him, the man said, "And by what's in the car, I mean Cain, too. Or there'll be crossfire. Be a shame to lose everyone like that, not to mention bystanders."

"No," Stacy said. "We have no proof."

"It'll be proof when your brother gets surrounded out there and tries to shoot his way out," the reporter said.

"C'mon," Aug said, pulling Stacy away. "This is bullshit. This guy's blowing smoke."

They walked out of the building unhampered, tense. Brian and the Suburban were nowhere in sight.

"If Brian saw something he didn't like, he's gone," Stacy said. "He'll hole up, if he has to."

"Think it'd be too obvious for us to stake this place out, see what develops, see who we can follow home?" Aug said, tucking his hands in his pockets to keep them closer to his gun.

"Yes. But I don't care," Stacy said. "If they know about Valory, then it's a fair shot he wasn't lying. But that was pretty goddamn heavy handed, so he was small time, trying to get a jump on something for the higher ups."

"Lap dog?" Aug said.

"Yeah," Stacy said. "And a clumsy one."

"I hope that was a bluff," Aug said.

"It was. Or it was a smokescreen. C'mon, Aug, 'big gig in the sky'? Who the hell talks like that? I'd even go so far as to say maybe he wants us to hang around so he can get us to follow a false trail." She handed the rolled up package to him.

"And in the meantime, we need to find a way around," Aug said, tucking it away. "We still got info we need someone to look at. If not Shearer, then there's gotta be someone a little closer to home who'd love this stuff. Someone still chasing the mob who hasn't been bought."

They paused to wait for another light, and the Suburban suddenly pulled up to the curb. Aug hopped into the passenger side, and Stacy opened the door to get into the back.

"Hey baby," Neal said, "how much?"

"You better be talking to Aug, ass-clown," Stacy said, slamming the door behind herself. "Because my brother is a hell of a lot bigger than you." To Brian, she said, "This is ridiculous. What'd you guys see?"

"Somebody crossed over toward us like they were gonna tell us we were parked illegally," Brian said. "But nobody short of a cop--or an amature--would be stupid enough to walk over and hassle a guy my size in a car this size. And guess what: Perry is loose."

Aug frowned, then turned to look at Neal and Jon. "The guy we were supposed to hand off to is gone. And the guy in his place knew about Ross."

Jon cursed, sat back in his seat.

Neal said, "You don't think he's already--"

"Nobody knows," Aug said quickly. "They would need him alive, to bargain with."

"They didn't do much bargaining with you just now," Jon said. "You guys gotta quit treating us like kids. I'd apologize for bein' civilian, but I can't seem to help it."

Silence followed that. Then Aug said, "I'm gonna stake the place. If nothing else, I'll get a bead on the guy who tried to shake us down, just now."

"Sooner or later Steve'll find us, and all hell will break loose again," Jon said. "This'll all just keep going around, without anyone getting anywhere, and after awhile we'll all get so tired that we'll get picked off."

"Jon," Stacy began. "We--"

"Bullshit!" Jon shouted, startling them. "We dug up a dead child for nothing!"

Neal grabbed him then, winding an arm in his, and said, "Everybody is still okay."

Jon looked at the ceiling of the Suburban and took several slow, deep breaths.

After a moment, Aug said, "Lemme out. I'm gonna hoof it back and make sure these assholes don't see me comin'."

Brian pulled into a McDonald's parking lot approximately four blocks away, and Aug vanished into the morning.

* * *

The Plant wasn't that big, but the rooms were numbered; even the storage rooms. Mugs had found a park and ride and ditched his car for the time being while he watched the building. At first he'd watched it from across the street in his car, until that one close call. Someone had pulled out of the underground parking at about 8 am, and looked right at him, then looked at him again before moving on. He didn't need any mistaken identity. So he ditched the car and waited in the office building across the way, the type of setup that had waiting areas at the end of each hallway from floor to floor. He moved between two of those floors regularly, a lawyer's suite and a dentist's office, pretending he was waiting for a friend. He didn't have to pretend hard.

You needed a security card to get into the underground parking; hell, to get into the building. They didn't let just anybody wander one of the biggest recording studios in the Bay Area. But he'd played enough sessions that the staff would recognize him. He still called one of the onsite techs every so often to shoot the shit. So the fact that he didn't have a current card wouldn't really matter, if he wanted in.

He just had to figure out what the hell was going on, before he did that.

And maybe get himself a clipboard.

At 9:30, three people came out and walked to a car parked next to the building. Even from there, he recognized Irving Azoff.

At quarter to ten, he wandered back down to the street and went back to his car, getting a pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap out of the back. Then he went back to the studio and walked in.

* * *

Aug's cell phone rang, and he reached into his jacket for it. The number on the display was Steve's. "What the fuck are you doing?" he said into it as soon as he'd hit the talk button. "Brian said you're up and around."

"What the fuck are you doing?" Steve said. "Azoff has Ross, at the Plant, for Christ's sake. You guys can't pay attention to anything long enough for me to come down from my meds?"

"How do you know it's Azoff?" Aug said.

"Because the bastard called me last night. I couldn't get hold of you. Where the hell were you guys?"

"Getting the extra copy, like you said," Aug said. "And it sure as hell doesn't look like anything I expected, Steve."

"Jesus Christ," Steve said. "Which set are you talking about?"

Aug paused, beginning to realize he might have jumped a gun somewhere. "The cemetery."

There was brief silence on the other end. "You're fuckin' kidding me. Please tell me you guys didn't go diggin' around the goddamn cemetery."

Aug didn't answer.

"You can't tell me you didn't know what I was talking about," Steve said. "You remembered the cemetery, but not the--"

"Cell phone, Steve," Aug said, cutting him off. "Unsecure analog."

"I wasn't talking about the cemetery when I told you where the other set of stuff was," Steve said. "But hell, why not. It's come to the point where I need that, anyway."

"What the hell is it?" Aug said.

"Cell phone," Steve mimicked. "No, I'm not telling you. That's between me and God, who is gonna be pissed when he sees me. I need to meet you and snag that thing off you before you all get killed carrying it around. Jesus, who knows you have that?"

"What are you gonna do with it?" Aug said.

"Something I should have done when this all started with the band," Steve said. "Somethin' I've been tryin' my whole life not to do." He paused. "Did you guys make it to the Chronicle?"

Aug filled him in on what had happened, and Steve cursed. "It's a good goddamn thing you guys didn't run into the real thing. And I'll just bet you're trying to follow what you think is a lead by waiting for these amateurs to show their hand, aren't you."

Aug sighed.

"Stay where you are," Steve said. "I'll find you. You guys can't have gotten that far. You're alone, aren't you."

Aug sighed again.

"Uh huh," Steve said. "Don't go into town, Tonto. You'll get your ass kicked every time. You know your version of the Family, like Cor knows her version of the feds. Every unified front's got factions no one sees." Then he was gone, and Aug tucked his phone away.

* * *

Mugs walked in the front door and grinned at the receptionist, sliding the shades down on his nose so he was looking over the tops of them.

"Wiseass," the receptionist said, a woman in her twenties with a shock of auburn hair and a penchant for wearing too-bright shades of lipstick and little else. "Where've you been? Too cool to do sessions over here anymore?"

"Still trying to live the whole Michael Bolton thing down," Mugs said. "I don't suppose Ronnie is here, yet."

"Yeah, well, almost everyone's gone this week. Some bigwigs in from out of town are doing some kind of private session. I haven't seen him since yesterday. But Ronnie's got no life."

"I'll bet he's down in 3-A, then, sleepin', since no true wannabe musician is awake before 1pm," Mugs said. "Let me surprise him."

"You let your damn card expire again, didn't you," she said.

Mugs shrugged. "Who's it gonna kill?"

She laughed. "Go ahead. But I didn't let you in, if anyone sees you."

"Right. Anyone comes looking for me, tell 'em I was here about the borrowed bass." He tipped his hat at her and walked through the main lobby, taking the elevator down to the below-level warm up rooms.

He left the shades on, counting on the non-music types to ignore yet another half-baked blond musician wandering the halls after another night of supposed debauchery. They hadn't bothered to install metal detectors, so the gun in the waistband of his jeans was never a consideration. Using it, though, was probably another thing. Shooting a guy with a vest had been scary enough. He wasn't making a point, anymore, and what the hell he'd do with Ross--if the bassist was even there--would take a little more thought. He had no idea where the hell anyone else was, anymore, didn't know the first thing about running. Or hiding. Not from the kind of guys he was dealing with now. His only warmup for this had been hide-and-go-seek as a child, and he hadn't even been good at that. He'd have to count on Ross for a few tricks.

The doors opened on a narrow hall with the same cheesy discount orange carpeting it'd always had. The execs never came down there anyway, what was the point of changing it?

Some bigwigs from out of town. Christ. Where the hell would they be squirreling him away, if not down here where no one one but the techs and the session players roamed between takes?

There were seven doors in all, not evenly spaced, looking random. There were still numbers on all but one door, and that one had it's designation scratched into the wood with a pen knife. 3-A. Jokingly called a studio because it had the most stuff in it. At the far end was a door larger than most, spanning the hallway itself.

He didn't hear anything, and knew it didn't have anything to do with soundproofing, because no one bothered with that down there. He put his ear to the door, and tried it after hearing nothing. It was locked.

Looking around, he dug into a pocket and came up with a thin, flat piece of metal. The doors were old, knob locks only, and using a credit card generally left half the card in the door, which ID'd you later. He slid the metal between the jam and the knob, hearing the telltale click of the lock giving. He pocketed the metal again and turned the knob slowly, trying to avoid any unnecessary noise.

The interior lights were off, so he slid in through the half-open door without turning them on and closed it behind himself. The room itself wasn't that big, maybe 15' x 10', enough to hold equipment and maybe an impromptu jam session.

He flipped the lights on and discovered it held a lot more.

He'd known Ronnie since the days when he'd been trying to make it as a drummer, when he and Jon had moved out there from Chicago. That was a hell of a lot of time, and now the sometime roadie, sometime studio drum tech was flat on the floor, staring sightlessly at the ceiling with a dark, final hole through the center of his forehead.

He hadn't been dead that long, maybe since the night before.

Mugs backed quickly out of the room, shutting the lights off and closing the door. Trying not to hyperventilate, he leaned against the wall.

Ross. Get Ross and get the hell out!

It was a difficult choice, to stay there and keep looking for the bassist, when all he wanted to do was run. For all he knew, Ross was already dead...

* * *

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