Alternate Ending, part 17
(c)2000-2001 KSH/BS

Mugs went from door to door, listening, hearing nothing from the next four. The final door, the one closest to the elevators, yielded a momentary sound like the scraping of a chair. He paused there to listen for several more minutes, listening for the elevator, watching the door that led to the staircase. He felt almost hyper but settled at the same time, the world crystalline and slow in his vision.

He heard a low voice; a flat statement being made that he couldn't make out.

Then he took a deep breath and opened the door, discovering it wasn't locked.

There were two occupants; one he didn't recognize, a man in his mid-forties with dark hair and a careless posture sitting against the wall facing the door. The other was Ross Valory, handcuffed, sporting a black eye and split lip.

The dark haired man went for the gun in his lap when Mugs already had his up and pointing directly into the room. Mugs rethought his feelings on shooting someone who might not be wearing a vest, and tightened his finger on the trigger.

Nothing.

The fucking safety was still on.

The dark haired man squeezed a shot off at him, and Mugs was already ducking back into the hallway, simultaneously cursing himself and taking in the fact that the noise the shot made in that close hallway was enough to kill him by itself. He fell into the hallway, fumbling with his gun, trying to find the safety, which for some reason had become impossibly small. Ross was shouting, and Mugs heard the scrape of a chair again when the dark haired man rose to come after him.

He found the button above and behind the trigger guard, pushing it, imagining he could hear it click somewhere in his mind although he was too deaf to really hear it. He lifted his leaden arm and pointed the gun at the doorway, seeing the arm come around from inside the room and aim at him. He scrabbled away, getting off a shot and feeling the kickback of it. Wood splintered from the doorway, and from the paneling just above his head when the responding shot from the arm in the doorway shot back.

A shootout. In a goddamn recording studio. Over a bassist.

My memoirs, he thought crazily, trying to roll to his feet and get closer to the wall. Gonna live, to write my memoirs.

He got into a kneeling position by the time the dark haired man poked his head out to get a bead on him, and he took a wild shot. It was luck only; that, and Valory shoving the guy from behind into the hallway. The shot hit the dark haired man in the chest, and his forward momentum slammed him into the opposite wall. Mugs kept the gun trained on him until the guy slid to the floor, collapsing onto his back. Still breathing, still conscious, but basically out of commission.

"Jesus Christ," Ross said.

"Come on," Mugs said, stepping over the dark haired man and kicking his gun out of the way in the same motion. "Come on, we gotta get the hell out before we get any more attention."

Ross followed him to the elevators, and paused. "Up the stairs," he said, finding himself raising his voice to account for the ringing in his ears. "They can stop the elevator, if they catch on."

"No," Mugs said. "Out the back. There's a service entrance back here that comes out on a loading dock." He ran back down the hall, toward the door that spanned the end of the hallway, praying it wasn't locked from the inside.

It was.

"Fuck," Mugs said aloud, barely able to hear himself do it. he rattled the knob again, then took the metal back out of his pocket, handing Ross the gun.

"When did you become the gumshoe of this outfit?" Ross said.

Mugs slid the metal into the doorjamb.

The elevator dinged.

Mugs slid a step closer to hyperventilation, feeling the warm, stinging shock of too much adrenaline unloading into his system. Ross stood there calmly, holding the gun, unable to do much with it because of the handcuffs, watching Mugs wrestle with the door.

"You got it," Ross said, and for some reason that made all the difference. Mugs relaxed his hands enough to snap the lock back, and swung the door open. They stepped into it, and Mugs closed it softly behind them, locking it just as the elevator doors whooshed open.

They turned and walked quickly up the incline of the ramp, which was wide enough to back a truck down. Running would announce them to whoever was back there, so they kept walking. Mugs took the gun back from Ross, realizing his arms were finally shaking, that his legs were on springs. He'd shot a guy, and it didn't bother him nearly as much as the fact that someone had shot an old friend before he could get there. Ronnie had probably been shot while Mugs had been sitting out there trying to figure out where these bastards had taken Ross.

They made it to the top of the incline, and Mugs realized the roll top delivery door was down. it was an older model, though, the kind where you had to throw a bolt at the bottom that was set into the concrete to get it to stay down. He slid it back, trying to stay quiet, and together he and Ross got their hands under it and muscled it up just far enough to crawl under. Mugs got down on his belly and looked under, watching the alley outside and the street immediately beyond. There was no flurry of movement, no one shouting an alarm. There probably wouldn't be. No one wanted cops, not down there.

Mugs slid out first, taking a quick look around the alley. Then he leaned down and dragged Ross through, having a good look at the bassist in the daylight. "Nice," he said, relieved his voice wasn't as shaky as he felt. They began walking quickly to the street, taking a cursory look around the edge of the building. Nothing but typical morning traffic.

Ross tucked his hands out of sight, into his shirt, and they walked in a rapid but roundabout fashion back to where Mugs had parked his car.

* * *

Aug got on the phone to Stacy to tell her what was up without really saying anything; it disturbed him how good he was getting at that. Then he waited for more than an hour, keeping an uneasy eye on what he could see of the Chronicle building from the bus shelter across the way.

"Get a hobby," a voice said close to his ear, and he startled to his feet, spinning.

Steve grinned at him, even though he didn't feel like it; the meds had worn off by then, leaving him not only in pain but with a goddamn hangover.

"You look like hell," Aug said.

"So do you," Steve said, "but I'll look better with a little rest. No hope for you, I'm afraid."

"I've had way too much time to think," Aug said. "And I hate what I'm thinkin'."

"I probably hate it too," Steve said. "So hand over the film, and I'll go get this over with."

"They're not gonna let you walk out of there," Aug said, sitting down again. "Let me go with you."

"No," Steve said. "Lot of people already dead over this for no reason. Our father's side of the Family sold another side out at one point, and if I make amends now, I might be able to get us back under the umbrella. This'll let them all get back to hassling each other, instead of us, and get 'em to lean on the feds chasing the band. It won't take care of the whole problem. There's still the stuff the band was involved in that I gotta take care of. But it's an old grudge, Aug, the kind guys like this will go on for decades over."

"Corey is pregnant," Aug said.

Steve didn't move or say anything, just stood and stared at him, but Aug could tell that the dial had shifted over from offhanded bravado to panic.

"Tell me you're just sayin' that to get me to back down," Steve said.

"No," Aug said. "I'm not."

Steve sat down next to Aug on the bench. Nothing was said between them for several minutes. Then Steve straightened a little, and Aug handed the package over. Then he shook Steve's hand, and the singers parted, walking in different directions.

When he was sure Aug was long out of sight, Steve dialed a number he'd never intended to. When it was picked up on the other end, he said, "The last Morandini wants to come home."

* * *

Brian and Stacy argued in the front seat over a plan. Should they look for Steve, hook back up with Corey, hang around the area to back up Aug, or none of the above. Neal was just realizing that Jon was way too quiet when the keyboardist suddenly spoke.

"Can I borrow somebody's cell phone?"

Brian handed his over without taking his eyes off the traffic. Stacy looked back and raised her eyebrows at Neal, who shook his head and said nothing.

"Let me speak to Mugs," Jon said without preamble. While Hal stammered on the other end of the phone, Jon shoved his hand angrily through his hair. "Dammit, Harold, where is he? What do you mean you don't know?"

Neal reached over and pried the phone out of Jon's hand. "Hal, this is Neal. Has Mugs been there?" He held up a hand to ward of Jon, who was reaching for the phone again. "Do you even have to ask that question? We'll talk to you later." He flipped the phone closed and reached to hand it to Stacy, who was leaning around the front seat.

Something snapped within Jon. He grabbed Stacy's arm. "Who's got him?"

Neal looked hard at Jon for a minute, apparently recognizing something that the two agents did not. He signaled with his eyes to Jon , who dropped Stacy's arm and reached for the door handle as the suburban stopped for a traffic light.

Neal opened his door. "Answer the fuckin' question or this is where we get out to go look for him ourselves."

Stacy dropped the bravado and shook her head. "Just shut the door and we'll talk."

"Do you mean you're gong to start telling the truth now? Because I'm sick and tired of all the bullshit." Jon did not relax his grip on the door handle.

Stacy sighed. "I was just trying to keep you from freaking out. We had a tail on Mugs. Mugs met Valory at a store somewhere, they talked for a few minutes, and started to leave. Our guy saw Ross get grabbed. He tried to pursue, but ended up losing both Ross and Mugs before backup got there. As far as we know, Mugs got away, but he hasn't come home yet. He's probably hiding out somewhere." She patted Jon's knee.

Jon buried his face in his hands. "You don't know Mugs, do you?"

* * *

When he was sure Aug was long out of sight, Steve dialed a number he'd never intended to. When it was picked up on the other end, he said, "The last Morandini wants to come home."

There was silence on the phone, as the party on the other end of the line was not expecting the statement. Just as Steve was about to ask if he had been heard, the man finally spoke.

"Well, Matthew, it's so nice to hear from you after all these years. I'm surprised you were able to get my private number, but then, you've always been extremely resourceful, haven't you? Just a moment please, I very much want to talk to you." The phone was laid on the desk. "Senator Graham, you've raised some very interesting points. I'd like to discuss the matter further after I've had a chance to study your information. How about if I give you a call the first of the week?" Steve heard someone being shown out of the office before The Voice returned to the phone. "Well, Matthew, to what do I owe this pleasure?"

Steve sighed. "I'm tired. We've been playing these silly-assed games for 40 years. I just want it all over."

"I see. So why are you calling me?"

"Like I said, I just want it ended. I'll leave you guys alone, and I want my friends and family left alone. No one but me ever knew what was going on. The guys in the band thought it was drug running, for God's sake. They still don't know abut the piano." Steve paused and took a deep breath. "Just make sure they're safe. Please."

The Voice chuckled. "Matthew, I could ask you why the change of heart after so many years, but I know that you wouldn't answer. Why should..."

"I have the microfilm," Steve interrupted.

A low whistle was his answer. "You *are* resourceful, aren't you? *The* famous microfilm whose existence has been officially denied for all these years?"

"Ok, here's the deal," Steve continued. "I'll turn over the microfilm and what's in the piano. That gives you enough info on both halves of the mob to be the Grand Poobah. In return, you're going to make sure nothing happens to anyone in the band, Steve Augeri, or Corey Anderson. If anything happens to any of them, and I mean anything--so there better not be any accidents, either--'60 Minutes' is going to be in your office within the hour. Capiche?"

"Very well, Matthew. I can have the contracts involving your brother and Cain and Schon voided. Michelle Nilsson is another story. Her father..."

"And she's paid for it! She was seven years old when she found her mother's body! They split the family up, and she's never seen her father since. She was just a child, and she didn't do anything to anyone. Don't give me any bullshit! Between your political influence and the information I'm giving you, you'll be able to run the Western fucking Hemisphere. Six people go under your protection in exchange. I quit being a pain in the ass, keep my mouth shut, stay home, and live like the reclusive retired rock star I'm supposed to be. Are you on the next plane to California, or do I turn these things over to someone else?" Steve didn't realize that he was holding his breath until he heard the answer.

"I'll need a little time to clear my schedule. One of the drawbacks of my position is that I can't just drop everything and take off to Wal-mart at a moment's notice. But I will be there before midnight." A click signaled the end of the conversation.

Steve sighed, putting his phone back in his shirt pocket and staring at his hands for several minutes.

Finally he retrieved the phone and hit 2 on the speed dial.

"Anderson."

"You remember that you said you wondered what it would be like to live without having to look over your shoulder all the time?" Steve asked, staring into the sun.

"Yeah..." Corey answered warily.

"Well, now you'll find out." Steve flipped the phone closed before the conversation took avenues he wasn't up to exploring at the moment.

Now just to find one piano before midnight...

* * *

In another vehicle, Mugs and Ross were debating a plan of their own.

"I really should call someone to let Mary know I'm okay," Ross insisted.

"Not safe. We don't know who's got your phone bugged, and we don't want to tip off the cops or the mob yet. That way the cops will keep looking for you, and maybe they'll stumble across whatever they need to find. And hopefully the mob will leave Mary alone." Mugs shook his head, backing out of the parking space.

"So what do you suggest?" Ross looked around. He didn't see anything or anyone suspicious, but he slid down in the seat anyway.

"We've gotta find Steve."

"Uh-uh," Ross answered emphatically. "I want to help the guys, but I also would like to live to be very old and very gray."

Mugs snorted. "Okay, then what do *you* suggest?"

"We've got to get to the Whale."

"Why?" Mugs turned to look at Ross.

Ross gestured wildly and shouted "Look!"

Mugs turned back around and skidded to a stop just millimeters from the rear bumper of a Federal Express truck.

"Gimme a minute to slow my heart down," Ross said weakly. He took a deep breath. "The guys who grabbed me kept wanting to know where the piano was. The big red one. I wouldn't tell them, but there has to be some reason they're so wild about finding it."

Mugs started to answer, but was interrupted by the sound of sirens. "Shit, the police are coming to find the mess we left in that basement. We've got to get out of here."

Forcing himself to drive calmly, Mugs managed to get the two of them out of the area without raising any suspicions. A dozen or so blocks later, he pulled up in front of a military and police surplus store.

'What?" Ross asked.

"You've got to go in and get out of those handcuffs, unless you *want* to keep wearing them." Mugs rolled his eyes.

"I can't go in there!" Ross protested. "One look at me, and they'll call the police. You have to go in there."

'Do you know what they're going to think when they take one look at me buying a set of handcuffs?!" Mugs protested in return.

"We could always go in there together," Ross suggested.

They thought about that for a moment, and both burst into hysterical laughter, as much to burn off the excess adrenaline as from the thought of the clerk's reaction.

When the sobered, Mugs said "Of course, you could just stay in them, and we'll try to find a rock or something to break them with."

Ross just stared at him.

Mugs sighed. "Okay, but you are going to owe me *big time* for this."

* * *

The light turned green. Neal closed his door and allowed the suburban to proceed, but he discreetly kept one hand on the door handle and the other on Jon's shirt.

A cell phone rang.

"Hey, this is Stacy...What?!...Shit!...You got id's on 'em?...Well, I didn't ask you for their mothers' maiden names, I just wanna know...Okay, you got the scene? We'll check the area, see what we can find." She flipped the phone closed and turned toward Brian.

Jon and Neal's alarm had risen each time Stacy's voice had. "What's fallen apart now?" Neal asked before she could speak.

"Head toward The Plant, the recording studio," she instructed Brian. Jon and Neal turned to look at each other. She looked around the seat. "There were shots fired at The Plant. They've got two casualties in the basement. One's been dead overnight. The other is still alive, but critical with a shot to the chest. The receptionist said that Mugs Cain went down to the basement less than 5 minutes before the shooting started." Jon made a sound that was a combination of gasp, squeak, and smothered scream. Neal grabbed Jon's arm, but Stacy hurried to continue. "Neither one fits his description." At Neal's pointed look, she sighed and spoke again. "But there was blood on the floor that didn't appear to come from either of the gunshot victims. They *think* it's been there longer than the few minutes it's been since he went down there, but at this point they're not sure."

Jon closed his eyes for a moment, bracing himself to ask the question. "Was it Ross?"

Stacy swallowed. "I don't think so, but unless we go over there and look, we won't know for a few hours."

Neal was about to comment about the fact they had been stopped by every traffic light when a car crossing the intersection in front of them caught his attention. "Hey, was that Mugs?"

* * *

As Mugs sped through the yellow light, Ross pointed at a black suburban perpendicular in the intersection. "There's Jon's truck."

"Nah, there's a zillion of those things around," Mugs answered without looking.

"With a 'Frontiers' license plate on the front?" Ross turned to look behind them. "And the fact that it's now following us would be a pretty good indication..."

"We gotta lose him." Mugs looked in the rearview mirror and stepped harder on the accelerator. "He's gonna kick my ass."

Ross snickered.

"Yeah, well if anything happens to his piano, he's gonna have your head on a plate." Mugs retorted.

"What did I do? I just sent the piano to the shop!" Ross protested.

"Well, why does the mob want a big red piano?" Mugs made a sudden left turn.

"Still back there," Ross pronounced a moment later. "Hell if I know. Do you think they hid something in it sometime way back when?"

Mugs made another quick turn and ran a red light. "That stopped him. But Jon's had the piano in the shop since then. If the mob hid something in it, why hasn't anyone found it before? And why have they left it there all this time?" He turned once more to make sure they had lost the suburban.

"What do I look like, your Psychic Friend Connection?"

They rode for several minutes in near silence, with the only conversation being Ross giving the directions to the piano shop.

They pulled up in front of the shop, only to find the lights off and the 'Closed' sign displayed.

"Well, damn. Any more bright ideas?" Mugs asked.

"Something's wrong," Ross answered. "According to the sign they're open 9 to 5 every day but Sunday. Today is Monday, and it's nearly 10:15. And why would there be two cars parked in front of a closed business?"

Mugs got out of the car, tucking the gun back into the waistband of his jeans. "Let's see if we can go around back and find out."

* * *

::back::