Alternate Escape, part 2
(c)2000-2001 KSH, BS

"First of all, we can pass messages through hidden channels better than the feds can," Ross handed Neal a scrap of paper. "I've got a third cousin twice removed, or something like that, in DC. He's distant enough not to be traced to you two, but close enough to me to do favors without asking questions. He's willing to get the mail out of that post office box, put it in another envelope, and forward it to me. Because you know if we try to send messages through the official channels, they're going to censor anything they don't want us talking about."

Neal looked down at the address in his hand. "'The Whale Protection Society'?" he laughed.

Ross grinned. "Well, that's what I'm going to be for now. At least until we get it smuggled back to its rightful owner."

"So how about my bike and Jon's suburban? You willing to take custody of them for now too?"

"Oh, yeah, Ross is a great friend, we'll let him pay our car taxes and insurance." Ross rolled his eyes.

"For the record, I fully intend for us to resurrect ourselves after the trial." Neal said. "There's only so much the government can ask us to put up with. Selling Saturns, for Christ's sake!"

"Well, I can picture you as a used car salesman. Jon, a desk jockey for Victoria's Secret? I don't think so." Ross smiled, and then shook his head. "No, I won't even say it. I'll give you a week before one of you blows your cover."

"Remember, you know nothing," Neal emphasized. "Raff would have my head if he knew I had said anything."

"I know nothing," Ross repeated. "So what are we going to do about this?"

* * *

Neal and Ross emerged from the studio nearly an hour later. The grins on their faces alarmed Jon more than serious looks would have.

"Hey, Jay," Ross sounded as if nothing in the world were out of the ordinary. "The Whale's gonna have to have a new identity, too. We could paint it gray and call it the Elephant."

"Or white, and call it the Polar Bear," Neal suggested.

"Or purple, and call it the Grape Ape," Ross continued. "Or green and..."

"Enough," Jon didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Liz's entrance saved him from having to do either.

"Are you sure you're not coming to see my folks?" she asked softly.

He couldn't, even though he knew he should. They were his family, too, they had told him many times through the years. He just couldn't face them, with the guilt eating away at him that he was taking their daughter and grandchildren away, never to be seen again. "I'll call them in a little
while. I've got a lot to do before dark."

She nodded, understanding what he couldn't say.

"I'm gonna help get the kids in the car," Jon told Ross and Neal. "Don't either one of you move until I get back."

They were still in place, talking softly between themselves when Jon passed through again, a twin on one arm and a diaper bag on the other. Seeing that Liz behind him also had her hands full, Neal reached over to open the door. Raff and a woman stood at the door as if they had been about to knock.

"Mind if we come in?" Raff stepped through the entrance without waiting for an invitation.

The woman came in and looked around. Something about her immediately put Jon and Neal on edge.

"This is Marshall Rhonda Wheeler," Raff introduced the gray haired woman. "She's out of the office that serves Bu..." he broke off when he saw Ross.
"your new area, so she'll be going with you when you go."

"Jonathan Cain," Jon began, holding out his hand.

"Not any more," Marshall Wheeler replied sternly. "You've got to remember that."

"Give him a break," Neal snorted. "Until tonight, he is still Jonathan Cain."

"Will you excuse us?" Marshall Wheeler looked pointedly at Ross.

"Sure, I guess I can go, uh, inventory the studio or something." Ross headed out the door.

"Have you figured out what you're going to do about the kids?" Raff asked as soon as Ross was gone.

"We're not leaving anyone behind. We already established that." Neal's voice was calm, but full of hostility.

"Well, what if Ryan had a teenager or two, from his first marriage?" the male agent suggested.

"Oh, God," Jon groaned. "Don't even go there."

Raff smiled. "Remember, you won't have the same ex-wife anymore."

Jon paused to consider that. Neal rolled his eyes at him.

Liz shook her head. "Raff, it's bad enough that we have to put our own kids in the program. I don't like the idea of putting other children in this situation, too."

"That one, dye her hair red," The older woman pointed to Madison. "Send the boy to the Palmieris, and their girl can come to the Emersons. It'll be a set of girl-girl twins."

Liz whirled on the woman. "Not no, but hell no!"

"Look, _Kathleen_," the agent purposely stressed the new name. "We will change your birthdays. We have to change appearances to some extent. It would be easier if at least a couple of you had blue eyes to begin with. But we're not going to put you into the program when you're all just sitting ducks. I've got to answer for the safety of my agents. The bad guys don't care who's in the way when they find you. Either you can give us a little cooperation, the families can be moved to different locations, and you never see each other again, or you can all just stay here and wait for the guys in the trenchcoats. They _will_ come. Those are your choices."

Liz did not back down an inch. "I am not giving up any of my kids. No matter what."

"Then I hope your life insurance is paid up," the woman said coldly. She turned and headed for the door. "I'm going out for a smoke."

The door slammed behind her.

Raff shrugged. "She's one of the best agents, but she's awfully, uh, abrupt. Not to hound you, but you really do need to decide something quickly. We've got to have time to create documentation for the kids, make any moves we need to, stuff like that. We don't like to keep people in
safehouses any longer than we have to before the placement in their new lives. The safehouses are the time when we have the most people get antsy and blow it."

Jon nodded. "We'll figure something out. Just give us a couple hours."

Once Liz and the kids had left, Ross excused himself to run a few errands. Neal led Jon to the kitchen table and laid a sandwich in front of him.

"You haven't eaten all day," Neal reminded him, taking the chair to Jon's left. "Right now, we can't afford any mistakes, so we don't need you to get lightheaded or nothing."

Jon picked up the sandwich, peeked between the slices of bread, and sighing, sat it back down. "We really have got to figure out what we're going to do about the kids."

"I know, you keep Madison, we'll keep Sarah, and the twins can alternate weeks between us. We'll tell everyone that we have to have joint custody because they're really my kids." Neal laughed at the look on Jon's face. "Well, then you think of something."

"_Just_ a thought here, but don't you think it would be easier to pull off for Liz and Dina to be sisters than us to be brothers?" Jon suggested, finally taking a bite of the sandwich.

"Duh," Neal smacked himself on the forehead. "I'll go mention it to Raff. Be right back."

Neal came back a few moments later. "The iron maiden out there already thought of it," he announced, sitting back down. "It's a done deal."

Raff stuck his head in the doorway. "By the way, Ryan, you're originally from St. Louis, and Darren's from Miami. You went to Duke on a football scholarship, but hurt your knee your sophomore year. You changed to an academic scholarship and finished school. Darren, you didn't go to college, but you spent two years in the Marines. Kathleen and Kristin are originally
from Phoenix. Kathleen went to William and Mary, Kris went to Arizona State. When you've got all that memorized, we'll work on how all of you met. And I'm still waiting on the kids."

"Wait," Jon called as he started to leave. "Shouldn't this stuff be a little more obscure, harder to verify?"

"Computers are amazing things. Records can be inserted nearly anywhere, and the fake ones are really hard to find if someone knows what they're doing."
Raff shrugged. "We're good at what we do."

"What if someone who follows Duke's football team doesn't remember Ryan Emerson?" Jon persisted.

Raff rolled his eyes. "Trust me, _no one_ keeps up with Duke's football team. They're a basketball school. And for the record, there was a Ryan Emerson who was red-shirted his freshman year, played three games his sophomore year, and blew out his knee."

A chill suddenly passed over Jon. "What happened to the real Ryan Emerson?"

"I can't tell you, but you don't have to worry about running into him." Raff left before they could ask anymore questions.

Neal shifted in his seat, a smile playing around his lips.

"What have you and Ross got cooked up?" Jon narrowed his eyes at his friend.

The smile broke out then, a ten thousand watt grin that guaranteed prudence had been long forgotten.

"We've solved all the world's problems." Neal stood and began walking around the kitchen. "But I'm not telling you a thing until the feds back off. You'll blow it." He opened the refrigerator door. "You're out of milk. But I don't guess you have to go get any."

Jon crossed his arms, tilted his head, and stared at Neal, who laughed.

"Not gonna work, Cain. But don't worry about anything. Ross and I have it all under control."

"Oh, God, we're in trouble," Jon moaned, covering his face with his hands.

* * *

Jon spent the afternoon saying his goodbyes. Most had to be done by phone; there just wasn't time to see everyone in person.

He hung up the phone after twenty rings. Either Steve wasn't home, or he _really_ didn't want to talk to anyone. Jon had called around, but no one knew of anywhere the singer could be reached. He sighed, unsure of how he felt about it. How could he leave without saying goodbye? On the other hand, what would he have said?

He walked through the house aimlessly. In each room, there were more reminders of things that needed done before they left, but he just couldn't bring himself to do any of them.

He found himself sitting in front of the Whale, almost without knowing how he had gotten there. *This is where I belong.* he thought to himself. *Not in Buffalo, not behind a desk, not...* There were no more words, in this world that no longer made sense.

He played a handful of notes, something he made up as he went, but it was more than he could bear. Shutting the piano almost reverently, he laid his head over, resting his forehead on the cool surface. He tried to think about a future he couldn't imagine: no more music, never seeing his brothers again, giving up all of his dreams...

Journey's reunion was over almost before it began.

Liz found him there when she returned. She sat down beside him, slipping her arms around him and resting her head on his shoulder. Neither of them spoke. They didn't have to.

After several long moments, she raised her head and smoothed back his hair. "We've got to come upstairs." He sat up as he heard her voice start to break. She took a few deep breaths, willing back the tears. "Rhonda, Marshall Wheeler, rode over to Mom's with me. She's really not so bad, just...she doesn't like the whole situation, and she's not good at...compromise. We think we've come up with more or less a plan. Neal and Dina are here, so we need to go over everything and make sure everyone agrees. We don't have much time."

Neal, Dina, Raff, and Marshall Wheeler were waiting in the living room. The female agent had several piles of paper neatly stacked on the coffee table. She looked at Jon as a judge would look at an attorney arriving late for court. She said nothing, but motioned for him to be seated.

"All right, first of all, we're going to have to make some changes to your appearances. You're a little more high profile than the average witnesses we place. Ryan, get a haircut. And stop covering up the gray." She ignored Jon's look, but scowled at Neal's suppressed laughter. "Darren, grow a beard. You're getting colored contacts, too. Kathleen and Kristine are going to have some auburn highlights put in their hair. Madison is now Holly, and we're going to lighten her hair. She's also going to be eight months older, as far as anyone knows. Liza is now Angela, and she's going to be a couple months older. Weston is no longer your son. He's your nephew Tyler, son of Kathleen and Kristine's late sister Karen. The Emersons will have custody, but he'll
also spend a lot of time with the Palmieris. He's getting younger. But you'll still have a son." Jon did a double take. "We have an agent in another part of New York state who's very young looking, and looks enough like Ryan to be his son. So he's going to be Ryan's son, off at college at Syracuse, who comes home for the weekend occasionally. Sarah's now going to be Allison.
We're only moving her birthday by a few weeks. As far as anyone knows, you don't have any other children, so we'll give you a cover story for when you go to see Miles and Elizabeth. We'll get into more detail about that later. But for now, it's starting to get dark, so it's time to go. When we get to the safehouse, we can discuss more details."

* * *

The fake UPS truck was not made for bouncing down rough back roads. Raff dodged as many potholes as he could, but traveling in the dark made it hard to see the road. They already knew that turning on the high beams would draw attention that they didn't need.

Finally, after a trip down a gravel road that appeared to lead nowhere, the truck shuddered to a stop. The Spanish style house had probably been luxurious in its heyday, but it appeared to have been long abandoned. The few weeds that dared to grow in the heat and abandon were nearly chest high. Several windows had been broken, and the rusty courtyard gates hung crookedly
on their hinges.

Raff lead the group gingerly up the remains of the front walk. "Welcome to the Rattlesnake Inn," he gestured. Seeing alarm on several faces, he hurried to add "That's just a code name. We have the place exterminated to make sure there are no snakes or rodents." He unlocked the door, shining his flashlight inside before stepping back so the others could enter.

The entry hall was dusty and full of cobwebs, like anyone would expect a house empty twenty years to look. A thin line of light came from under one of the interior doors. Neal opened the door, and found a clean, modern kitchen, with several pots simmering on the stove. When everyone was in the kitchen, Raff closed and locked the door. Wheeler handed him a rolled towel, which he placed against the bottom edge of the door.

"Agents Switek and Roundtree have secured the property, and started supper for us. They're stationed a little down the road. That's the only way in, other than through the desert. We've got another agent on the roof, just in case anyone were to try to come in that way. Just to make sure, though, we're going to be confined to the center of the house and the basement so the
lights can't be seen from outside."

In addition to the kitchen, there was also a sitting room and bedroom on the ground floor, and two more bedrooms and a rec room in the basement. Cribs had been set up in the downstairs bedrooms. Apparently the agents had been busy that afternoon as well.

After supper, Wheeler, Liz, Dina, and Madison disappeared into the downstairs bathroom to start what Dina called 'the dye party.' Neal challenged Jon to a game of pool, while Raff flopped into the recliner with a magazine. Halfway through the second game of pool, an urgent voice came across Raff's handhold radio.

"Raff! We've got someone coming up the road!"

The agent immediately leaped from his chair, throwing the magazine in his haste. With amazing speed for someone of his age and size, he ran to a closet door, opened it, and threw the switch to kill the generator. Almost simultaneously, Wheeler and the women bolted out of the bathroom.

"Get down!" Raff hissed. He switched on a flashlight for Madison, who was whimpering, before bringing the radio to his face. "Switek, check them out. Anderson, do you see anything else?"

A female voice came across the radio. "There's nothing in any other direction. The car on the road is still far enough off I can't see it."

A male voice followed. "Small car, probably an Escort. Looks like two people inside. I'm going to talk to them. I'll leave the radio on."

Jon punched Neal on the shoulder and whispered something no one else could make out. Neal shook his head, his eyes wide.

Across the radio, came sounds of a vehicle starting up, bouncing a short distance across the rough ground, and coming to a stop again. A car door opened and closed. Footsteps.

"Ford Escort, approximately a '92 model. California plates."

Jon reached for Liz's hand as the agent read off the tag number. He realized it was much too quiet in the room, probably because everyone was holding their breath.

"Good evening folks. Mind if I ask what you're doing out here?"

"Uh...uh," the voice sounded like a teenage boy. "We were just, I mean, um, we..."

"You were looking for a place to be alone?" the agent supplied for him, a smile evident in his voice.

"Yes sir," a young girl's voice answered meekly.

"Well, you'll have to look someplace else. This is private property. And, we've had reports of illegal hunting up here, so a few other game wardens and I have the place staked out. Not much privacy."

"Um, uh, you aren't gonna call our parents or anything?" the boy asked.

"No, I'll just warn you to be careful. If you're looking for someplace to park, stay closer to town. You never know who you might run into out here."

The group heaved a collective sigh of relief as the agent directed the teenagers in turning their car around.

"I looked around the inside of the car, Raff," the voice on the radio said again. "Nothing. It was just a couple of high school kids wanting to get romantic."

"Thanks, Switek," Raff turned the generator back on. "Appreciate the cover. Back to your post. Over and out."

Wheeler looked at the other women and Madison. "You guys had better get that stuff rinsed out of your hair. I'll be back in there in a second."

As soon as the bathroom door closed behind them, the female agent turned to Neal. "All right, wiseass, I want to know exactly what you told, and exactly who you told it to. Don't give me a bunch of shit. That could just as well have been two hitmen disguised as teenagers, which would have put you, your family, your friends, and five federal agents at risk."

Before Neal could answer, Raff added, "We didn't want to scare you two, but Tim knocked off two protected witnesses. The department is investigating the possibility of a leak, which means we're already having to be double careful with this case. If anyone on the outside knows any detail, no matter how small, it could blow everything."

Jon looked at the floor, knowing better than to meet the gaze of the two agents. Neal was the better liar. Realizing it was up to him to answer, Neal scowled at Wheeler.

"Fine, here it is," he shot. "I told Ross that I was going to be a car salesman, but that was it. I also said that after the trial, when things died down, I would get in touch with him, so not to sell our stuff yet. Now don't give _me_ a bunch of shit that our lives are in danger because of that. I've
known Ross well over twenty five years, and I trust him with my life. Which is obviously better than I can do with your agents, if you've already lost two witnesses."

Wheeler shot him a sour look. "Number one, the alternative is pretty undesirable. Number guys are the worst liars I've ever seen. It's less in the tone of voice than it is in the body language. Work on your technique later, and tell me what Valory actually knows _now_."

Neal just shook his head. "You didn't wanna scare us," he said. "Too late, sweetie. Doesn't matter."

Wheeler shared a glance with Raff that said _why bother?_ before turning and following the other women back downstairs.

Raff tried to stare Neal down, changed his mind and looked at Jonathan. After a moment he shrugged, wanting to say all the typical, textbook things he should have, but decided it was too movie-of-the-week for him. "I'm getting too old for this," he said, "and I intend to be a hell of a lot older. Don't contact him again. I don't care how long you've known him. Look at it this way: don't put him in a position where he might _have_ to tell someone things he doesn't want to."

Neal and Jon shared a furtive glance, and Jon sighed. There was no way Neal was going to come clean about what was going on with Ross. They had to have a card tucked away somewhere that was only theirs.

"Yes Dad," Neal said sarcastically.

* * *

It got quiet after that.

And went on for a week.

The kids got bored and begged to play outside, which was out of the question. The basement was as much room as they got, and screaming wasn't allowed at any time. Playing quietly got old fast among that group, and combined with the obvious tension they were feeling from the adults, it kept them cranky and on edge.

The adults weren't much better off. Surrounded by armed federal agents and cut off from the world as they'd known it, it took conscious effort to keep from snapping at one another. There was too much time to reflect on what had been--or could be--lost. But they did better than most, according to Raff. And 'better than he'd expected rock stars to behave'.

It was little consolation.

On the eighth day, Raff awoke them with the news that it was time to move on.

"The details have been squared away," the agent said, sounding and looking energized. They gathered in the kitchen for breakfast, which Jon opted to cook while the kids played downstairs under the watchful eyes of Marshall Wheeler. He'd gotten in the habit of it, not liking the idea of someone doing _everything_ for his family. Roundtree made killer enchiladas, true, and there was a growing camaraderie between the protectors and the protected. But Jon needed to be useful somehow. It seemed to be all the control they had, by then.

"We needed time to get things in place, and I hear it's done as of last night. All that's missing is you guys."

"Saturn, here I come," Neal said under his breath, and Dina stepped on a laugh. Of anyone who found it all ironic, Dina got the most humor out of Neal's occupation. The first thing she had asked had been what he intended to do once he got fired. She had predicted it would happen the first time he slammed someone face first onto the hood of one of the cars he was trying to sell. _And thank goodness for the side impact door beams_, she's said, laughing. Neal was grateful for the way she'd taken things. _I can take anything_, she'd said. _I married you, didn't I?_

And she'd been the one to come up with the excuse for seeing Miles and Elizabeth. He would be 'having an affair' with their mother. He would have laughed, if he'd been able to find it funny.

Raff raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. "When we move, it'll have to be fast. Right after midnight tonight, we'll be going back out the way we came. But we're gonna have to temporarily separate you all."

Jon tensed visibly, and Raff added, "You know that makes sense. Think about it. One car with everyone you love inside? One car?"

Still tense, Jon nodded. "Okay. How, then?"

"Three cars. You and Darren with Switek and Roundtree; Kathleen and her kids with Marshall Wheeler, and Katherine and Allison with me."

"How come we get two?" Neal said, then put his hands up. "Dumb question. Never mind. You really think someone'll come after us first?"

"All they need is you," Raff said.

"You really expect trouble, then," Jon said.

Raff sighed. "I always expect trouble. It's my job. Now before we get any more cliche', let me remind you guys to get all the rest you can today, because it's about a six hour flight between here and Chicago. We'll have to lay over for about a half hour, then it's another hour into Buffalo International. We'll be--"

"Wait," Jon said. "We _are_ gonna pass through Chicago, then?" There was a moment of hope; he might actually get a chance to see his mom before--

"No," Raff said. "I'm talking a half hour or less in O' Hare. That's what I meant by getting some rest; it's the layovers that are tense. We tried to avoid any hang time, but when you're dealing with commercial airlines, you're screwed. We can't risk any side trips. Sorry, kid."

Jon felt disappointment but tried not to show it.

"You'll be coming in on three different flights, too," Raff continued. "So you won't all see each other again until Buffalo. You'll be stationed at another safehouse until everyone is accounted for, where we'll go back over your identities, get the last of the paperwork filed. You'll have a chance to meet the agent who'll be Ryan's son--he's in Jamestown now, southwest of Buffalo, where the safehouse is. Then you'll be moving into your new homes, starting your jobs, and living the American dream."

Neal barely restrained himself from a snort of derision. Raff's self-depricating grin made up for it, but just barely.

"You guys should advertise," Neal said. "Kinda like Slim-Fast. 'Give us a week, we'll fuck up your life.'"

Raff nodded, gesturing at Neal's seven day growth of beard. "When we go public, I'll consult you first, as the before-and-after poster boy."

Jon grinned despite himself. They were all together, and would stay that way. Everything else had to take care of itself.

* * *

When night fell, Raff's prediction about the tension proved to be true.

It was exhausting. It didn't make any difference that the day had been quiet, that they'd spent most of it napping. Everyone was jumpy. At some point during the day, Switek had vanished to obtain one of the three vehicles needed. Awhile after that, Roundtree had done the same.

It was moonless and overcast, which they were grateful for. After tense farewells, Neal and Jon were the first to leave. It was close to midnight, and the roads would be quiet. They would be leaving in two hour intervals, no matter what happened; Raff had explained that if anything went wrong, their wives and kids would be moved somewhere undisclosed, and a hell of a lot quicker. There would be no checking in, because of the risk of a leak. They hated the sound of it, but the fact that their families would be cared for, no matter what, was a macabre comfort. There would still be an agent on the roof, and two others had arrived to pick up the slack Switek and Roundtree would be leaving.

The agents went first. The cars had been watched since their arrival, but they were checked over one last time before Jon and Neal were ushered out of the house and into the back seat of a dark colored Accord with tinted rear windows. Roundtree admonished them to keep low even though the chances of being seen were minimal. Jon didn't feel panic until they were on the open road. The disconnection from sane, everyday life hadn't been as plain to him as it was right then, with his family out of his sight and rapidly receding into the distance behind him. Neal dropped a hand on his shoulder and left it there.

Roundtree tried a couple of times to lighten the situation with conversation before giving up and turning the radio on, low. Something innocuous and top forty. It was only twenty miles of dark, desert highway until they hit the nearest civilization. And maybe another half an hour after that until the airport. They could handle it.

They never made it.

Ten miles into the trip, Switek suddenly pumped the breaks. "Shit," he said.

"You see something?" Roundtree said.

"No, man, the breaks are screwed. Hold on, I might have to put us in the bushes."

The car slid to a stop nearly 300 yards later on the side of the road, up against some scrub and a telephone pole. No more than jostled, the men inside glanced at each other with a mixture of relief and nervousness.

"Coincidence?" Switek said, one eyebrow cocked.

"I think not," Roundtree said.

Jon opened his mouth to say, 'what now', but in that space of time Switek had drawn his 9 mm and pulled the trigger inches from Roundtree's face, obliterating the other agents' features and blowing the glass out of the passenger side window.

The sound of the shot was unbelievably huge in that confined space, and both musicians recoiled without a sound from the glass, noise and shock. Neal reached for the handle of his door, his other hand full of the back of Jon's shirt, trying to ignore the fact that stuff had hit him from the front seat, intending to haul them both out into the darkness. The 9 mm came right over the back of the seat, though, about the same time Neal discovered that the automatic locks had been engaged.

"Not yet," Switek shouted. They were all slightly deaf from the report. "The upholstery is already fucked up, but you guys aren't getting it here. Unless you really want it."

He withdrew the gun and opened his door, leaving it open when he stepped out onto the side of the road. "Out. Both of you. Or you _will_ be getting it in there."

Neal finished unlocking his door, unable to let go of Jon, who was hyperventilating. He hauled Jon out behind him, head buzzing with adrenaline and the noise of the shot.

"Close the door," Switek said. Neal did as he was told. Lightheaded, Jon had leaned over and braced his hands on his knees to keep from passing out. Switek had the gun leveled at them over the top of the Accord. The headlights made an eerie dent in the darkness in front of the car. The internal light automatically shut itself off after a moment, but the insistent _ding_ telling them the driver's side door was open went on and on, a sing-song mockery. Neal hazarded a glance in each direction, realizing they hadn't passed any traffic since leaving the safe house. There was little chance anyone would be coming along. And he didn't think it would matter much, even if they did. They were at the thinning edge of the desert; more scrub and trees. Enough to hide bodies in. There was enough roadside cover to keep onlookers from being a possibility, and the streetlights were few and far between out there. They'd passed a solitary sodium vapor, and its light barely reached them. It was enough to make out the basics of their surroundings, but little else.

"I'm changing the plan, a little," Switek said, withdrawing a flashlight from his jacket. "Into the bushes, both of you."

Neal planted his feet. "What's the point?"

Switek came around the front of the car, the gun at arm's length and centered on Jon. "Here's the point. He goes first, right here in front of you, and I make you drag him into the bushes and bury him yourself. Or you can both walk into the desert now, and I won't make you choose who goes first."

Neal's knees had finally begun to shake in reaction to the unused adrenaline. His hand ached from the convulsive grip he had on the back of Jon's shirt. But he could move, if he had to. He shook Jon a little, and the keyboardist straightened slowly. They were both breathing hard, and traded glances. On stage, it had meant something different than it did then. Jon shook his head a little. Neal meant for Jon to take off while he had a crack at Switek, and Jon refused to participate. They walked out together, or no one did.

"Move," Switek said.

They did. They made it around the thinning edge of the scrub the car had slid into, and it broke open into desert. Switek walked silently behind them at enough of a distance that removed all risk of one of the musicians turning on him suddenly. Their options were running out. But there had to be a way....

Roughly two hundred yards out into the desert, Switek said, "This'll do."

Neal turned, keeping Jon slightly behind him. "Aren't you gonna do the typical movie bad guy thing? Tell us how you did it, tell us the rest of your plan?"

Switek kept the flashlight on them with one hand, the gun with the other. "No. Turn around and drop to your knees, 'Darren'."


Switek shrugged, barely visible to them. "Fine." He raised the gun a little higher.

The shot wasn't nearly as loud, that time; the open night let the sound ricochet away. Neal flinched, briefly conscious of Jon's hand on his elbow, feeling nothing. The moment hung there, drawing out into the darkness while Switek lowered his arm. Then the flashlight hit the cracked, sand-littered ground with a dull thud and rolled. Switek slumped after it and remained still.

Neal and Jon stood frozen, convinced it was another trick, unconvinced they were both unhurt.

There was movement and a shuffle of footsteps when a figure came out of the scrub to their left. There was no way Roundtree had survived; it was another agent who'd followed at a distance, or--

The shadow approached and still they didn't move. Relatively certain he could trust his voice, Neal said, "You better be the fuckin' cavalry."

The shadow bent to pick up the flashlight, held it loosely for a moment. "Now, that's the most civil you've been in a while, Neal. I can't tell you what it means."

Neal felt Jon's shoulders slump, knew it was the same reaction he was having. They knew the voice. "I don't believe this," Neal said. "No, no way.."

Steve held the flashlight up to his own face, lighting it from beneath. "We need to stop meeting like this," he said.

* * *

Neal did something not even he expected; he burst out laughing. "_Perry?_ Jesus, I really did get shot. I'm hallucinating."

"Keep wishing," Steve said, flipping the flashlight off and leaving them in darkness. "Sooner or later someone's gonna come by on this road. We need to move, fast."

"Where the hell did you come from?" Neal said.

"I've known where you fools are for the last week. I knew you'd leave eventually, so I've been behind at a distance with all my lights off. I never did like Switek. Roundtree..." He paused. "He was a nice guy, though. Damn shame." He turned and walked away. "Come on, let's get the hell out of here. I'm about a quarter mile down."

After a moment, Jon fell into step behind, and Neal trailed along after, too stunned by the last ten minutes to do anything else. He wasn't sure, but he thought he heard Steve mumble something about trusting an accountant named Leroy.

They found Steve's car, just within sight of the Accord. Jon paused to stare. "What about--"

"No what about," Steve said. "Get in the car. You guys died out here tonight. Let it buy you some time."

Jon got in the passenger side, and Neal slid in the back after staring hard at Steve for a moment. They passed the Accord, and Jon tried not to look at it, or think how close they'd come to dying in it. Several minutes of silence passed.

Then Neal said, "Start talking."

Steve laughed.

"We gotta go back to the safe house," Jon said. "Make sure everyone's--"

"Are you listening?" Steve cut in. "No. You're gonna get everyone killed, if you show up back there. They need to get where they're going first. We need the bad guys to think you've been handled. That'll cause them to ignore your families for awhile. You guys are gonna hang out with me for a day."

"But when we don't show up," Neal said, "they'll the hell are we gonna let anyone know we're okay?"

"That's my problem," Steve said.

"Who the hell are you?" Neal said, and he asked in all seriousness.

Steve laughed again. "Sometimes, I ask myself the same thing."

* * *

It was just after 2 a.m. when they checked into a Motel 6; Jon wasn't sure what town they were in, and didn't ask. He didn't care. Steve paid with cash, and the night clerk didn't look at them twice.

When the door to their room was locked behind them, Steve moved a chair away from the window and sat facing the door, pulling his gun back out of his jacket and laying it across one knee. Neal vanished to wash up after realizing he was still splattered with God knew what. Jon sat on the edge of one of the twin beds, white faced, still in shock.

"Just tell yourself you're on tour," Steve said.

Jon startled at the sound of his voice. "You don't have to explain anything," he said. "You just have to promise me our families are okay."

Steve blinked. "With you supposedly laid out in the desert, yeah. They're okay, for now."

They sat in silence until Neal returned and threw himself on the other bed, wearing a sweat suit Steve had had in the trunk of his car. 'For just such emergencies', he'd said.

"Lucy," Neal said, glancing at the gun, "you got some 'splainin' to do."

Steve nodded. "Where do you guys wanna start?"

"With the real Steve Perry, you evil clone," Neal said.

"Do you guys really think my name is Steve Perry?" Steve said. "Sure. Just as much as you guys are 'Ryan' and 'Darren'."

Jon half-rose off the bed. "How do you--"

Steve held a hand out, and Jon sank back onto the bed. "My parents were put into WITSEC--the wonderful program you guys have found yourselves in--when I was eight. My family name wasn't Perrera. Most of everything I've ever said to you guys has been a lie. Pretty ironic that I went on to a public life, huh? The feds pitched a fit. My dad wasn't a singer. He didn't leave us because of his career! He left to protect us. He was in the fucking loan sharking business. I had an older brother who was sent back to the Azores. So if it seems like I've backtracked and changed stories all over, well, let's see what Miles has to say in about ten years."

Jon gaped at him in horror. "How'd you find us?"

Steve grinned. "When you grow up in 'the program', as we long timers call it, it ends up being kind of like when adopted folks try to find their birth parents. Actually, it's harder to find your birth parents. I pulled some strings, that's all. When you vanished like that...left almost everything behind and vanished...well, let's say I'm familiar with the scenario. When Dad decided to turn state's evidence on his boss, we had to drop everything and vanish, too."

"Ever see you brother again?" Neal said.


"You couldn't find him?" Jon said, hushed.

"No," Steve said flatly. "He went to live with an aunt, instead of coming with us. They found him. He died along with that aunt and a few cousins in a 'mysterious' house fire. How do you like that?" He met Neal's eyes and nodded. "Right. Nobody puts rock stars into WITSEC. I guess we'll have to try something else."

Neal swallowed hard. "You thinkin' along the same lines I am, then?"

Steve nodded and purposely jostled the gun on his knee.

"You guys," Jon said, "no way. We're not...we're just..." He threw his hands up angrily. "_Goddamnit!_ What are we supposed to do!"

"Jonathan," Steve said softly, "they found me, too, just after you joined the band. Somebody said something, somewhere. There are leaks in the system, kid."

"Jesus, what the hell did you do?" Neal said. "Where--"

"We were on the road," Steve said. "I'd been kind of waiting, you know? You wouldn't think, all those years later, that anybody would care. But they do. You're never safe. My parents were still alive, and more often than not they'll go for the kids first, for revenge, no matter how old they are. 'Escape' had just gone into the top ten. We were in Houston. You guys never saw me before the show, if you remember. Not at sound check, either, and I skipped two interviews. Everybody was seriously pissed, and I never explained. Nothin' else to say, except there're two less assholes in the world."

"Shit," Neal said. "What the hell did you do, with--"

Steve cut Neal off. "Does it matter?"

Shaking, Jon said, "You went on stage, after--"

"Yeah," Steve said. "I did. Sometimes, you gotta make an impression on someone, that's what I'm trying to tell you. Christ, do you think I like it? It's them or your kids. I say no one's got the right to have you runnin' scared your whole life, when you done nothin' but what you should. I say I should help you take care of a few things."

Jon shook his head. "I don't believe this. I don't believe _you_."

Steve's voice was suddenly hard. "Sooner or later, you're gonna lose _something_, doing this. You gotta decide what that is. It'll be _your_ decision. You want it to be your family? Music? Or your goddamn sense of fairness?"

Jon's expression was murderous.

Steve nodded, glancing at Neal, who was watching Jon with open worry on his features. "I'm sorry if you don't like the fact that 'right' comes in more than one color," he said. "So make up your mind, Jonathan. Oh, I'm sorry--_Ryan_. You've already let someone change your goddamn identity. I guess that's okay. Bottom line is, it's all about what _you're_ willing to do, or allow."

* * *