After fussing and fretting the first few miles, the children had finally fallen asleep in the back seat of the minivan. Liz slipped into the front seat beside Wheeler.
"So how did you..." she began, but the agent raised her hand for silence as an object on the side of the road came into view.
Before Liz could really even make out what it was ahead of them, Wheeler screamed "Get down!" The minivan spun around in the road with a squeal of tires worthy of 'The Dukes of Hazzard.' Muttering a string of curses, the agent fumbled for her handhold radio, and was shouting into it by the time the van was straight again.
"Raff, get the hell out! Unit 1 down! Repeat, Unit 1 down! Going to plan C."
She threw the radio down and reached for a cell phone. She punched a few buttons, and repeated to whomever answered that Unit 1 was down, and gave the location.
Liz, bent over below window level, craned her neck to see the agent. "What happened to plan B?" she asked.
"Switek and Roundtree knew about it," the marshall replied, looking in the rear view mirror.
Liz took a deep breath, and forced herself to voice the other question. "What about Jon and Neal?"
Wheeler sighed. "We can't afford to check on them, but the agency will have someone there in minutes. I won't try to hide anything from you. It doesn't look good."
A thought apparently occurring to her, Wheeler picked up the cell phone again and punched redial. "Get somebody on Valory right away."
"What..." Jon trailed off, unable to comprehend the night's events.
"The choice is, do we take our lives back, or do we spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders, worrying ourselves sick every time our families are out of sight?" Neal's eyes narrowed, and Jon didn't even want to contemplate the thoughts behind them.
"You're talking about...killing people?" Jon was shaken to the core.
"It's like this. Them or you. Who deserves to buy the farm?" Steve fidgeted absently with the gun. "You gonna make them go away and leave you alone, or you gonna hide behind a desk in Buffalo? You got three kids under four years old. They should have long lives ahead of them, not having to up and move every time there might be a leak. But one day, somebody will find you. Did you see, oh what the hell was the name of the movie about the male and female
hitmen? They weren't kidding when they said that the bad guys would find you eventually, no matter where you are. If you're lucky, they'll just pull the trigger and make it quick. But I've heard of too many times it wasn't pretty or painless."
Jon was hyperventilating again.
Neal shook his head at Steve. "This is all too much. He's still in shock. Hell, I'm still in shock."
Steve gestured at the gym bag he had brought in. "There's some brandy in there. See if it'll calm you two down. Just calm. Not buzzed. We'll let it drop for a while."
At a hotel room several hours away, Wheeler was in almost the same position: facing the door, gun in her lap. Liz tried playing with the children to keep them distracted, while the other agent they had met pretended to be interested in something on TV. Everyone jumped when the cell phone rang.
"Wheeler," the agent identified herself. "Yeah, give me a second."
She stood, and waved to the other agent to take her seat. She quickly crossed the room, locked herself in the bathroom, and turned on the shower.
"Okay, whatcha got?" she asked.
"Roundtree got his face blown off in the car, apparently by Switek's service gun. We found partial footprints, indicating that he had marched Cain and Schon out into the desert. Here's where it gets interesting. Somebody took Switek down, left his body out there, and marched Cain and Schon back out. We got tire tracks. Expensive performance tire, fits several high end
cars. No other signs of Cain and Schon anywhere around. We brought out the dogs. Apparently, they left alive in the car."
"Valory?" Wheeler suggested.
"Nah, he was home asleep when the agents got there. Tire tracks and shoe prints are nowhere close. My guess is that Switek was the leak, and someone ambushed him to keep him quiet. Whoever it was took Cain and Schon to dispose of them elsewhere. It'll be years, if we ever find the bodies."
The female agent drummed her fingers against the tile wall. "How many agents did you have work the scene?"
"Well, Anderson and the chief went to the scene immediately. They called out a couple of forensic guys to work the scene, and once everything was cleaned up and it was daylight, then we brought in about a dozen or so local cops with dogs to look for Cain and Schon. What are you thinking?"
"How secure is Anderson?"
"She's as dedicated as you can get. She grew up in the program. They were found once; her mom was tortured, killed, and dumped on the front lawn to make a point. She'll protect a witness with her life."
"I might be crazy, but just play a hunch with me here. Let's shake the bad guys up by _not_ finding Switek's body. That way, whoever took him down has to worry about possibly being identified, either by Switek himself, or whoever removed his body before we got there. And if there's any possibility that Cain and Schon got away alive, we're buying them a little breathing
"No, you're not crazy," Raff answered, actually sounding a little relieved. "The thought was niggling in the back of my mind, but it's such a long shot I didn't want to get anyone's hopes up."
"Those two are pretty smart, but more than that, they're incredibly damn lucky. I agree with you, the chances are a million to one, but I would be the first to believe that they're alive somewhere." Wheeler sighed. "We're going to have to tell their families they're not."
"What the department can't handle, I've got a connection with the CIA who can. Switek's body is going to disappear. We're going to find Schon's and Cain's." Raff paused. "Anything else? How are the wife and kids doing?"
"About like you'd expect. Another hunch, but I really don't think we were seen. There's been nothing at all to signal that we were. Besides, if whoever was smart, the first thing they'd have done is run like a bat outta hell."
"Yeah," the male agent answered. "Well, break the news gently. I'll see you in Kansas City."
Wheeler flipped the phone closed, turned off the water, and took several deep breaths. Then she went to tell Liz that Jon and Neal were dead.
Ross checked the caller ID when the phone rang. *Great, a payphone.* He hesitated. It could be whoever had killed Jon and Neal, or it could be completely innocent. The phone rang exactly four times, and then stopped. A moment later, it began to ring again. Still a payphone. Something, however, told Ross to answer it.
"Save the Whale!" a familiar voice replied. A click signaled that the connection had ended.
*Perry? What the hell?*
Ross grinned to himself. He didn't know what was going on, but he understood the message. The funerals were premature.
Exhausted physically and emotionally, Jon had finally dozed off. Neal, for all his bravado, was soon snoring as well. Steve remained at his post until they awoke.
Jon sat up slowly, looking around cautiously.
"The bad news is, it really did happen," Steve said softly. "The good news is, we're still safe for now."
"Oh, shit!" Jon suddenly came full upright. "If they've found us, what about Stacy?"
His exclamation woke Neal. "What about Stacy?" he asked sleepily.
"I can try to find out," Steve answered calmly.
Neal went to the sink and splashed water on his face. Steve stood and stretched.
"Naptime?" Neal indicated the bed he had just vacated.
"Nah, I'm fine. Now you know how I spent a lot of nights away from you guys." He stretched again, turning his head from side to side. "I'm gonna go make a couple phone calls, pick up some breakfast." He handed Neal the gun. "Make sure it's me and I'm alone before you open the door. And if, for any reason, you have to let Barney Fife here," he pointed at Jon. "hold the gun, make him take the bullets out and put them in his pocket."
Neal laughed, and for the first time in a long time, Steve joined in.
Steve first stopped in the Waffle House next door, placing a takeout order. Telling the waitress he'd be back, he stepped out to the payphone. Ross should be home, but there was no telling whether a tap had been placed on his phone yet. He dialed the number, holding his watch in front of him. After four rings, he hung up. Steve had played this game for too many years; he
knew exactly how much time he had before the call could be traced. He counted to ten before dialing again. This time, Ross answered on the second ring.
"Save the Whale!" There, that should thoroughly confuse anyone who might be listening.
He hung up before Ross could respond. Counting to ten again, he picked up the receiver a third time, but dialed a different number.
"It's me," he found himself involuntarily looking over his shoulder. "Can you talk?"
"Wait a second." There was a muffled voice, apparently, saying something to the person with her hand over the phone. "Steve, what the hell is going on?"
"I need to know if Stacy Aaron is ok. If they found Jon and Neal, did they find her too?"
"Where you the one on the side of the road with them? Are they alive?"
"They died out there in the desert." Steve kicked absently at an empty paper cup. "The department should have known better than to try to put rock stars in the program. Now, did they get Stacy or not?"
"I have no idea. She's out of this region's hands. I'd be raising a lot of suspicions to look for her. Speaking of which, I can't believe that no one's connected your being in the office last week with what's going on with Cain and Schon. You'd better lay low for a while."
He laughed softly. "Well, what good would it do me to hang around the office if you're in the field? You're the only one who will look out the window while I look at her computer."
"I'm doing what I have to do," he answered, is voice full of determination. "You of all people should understand. They're my friends. Not matter what has gone down in the past few years, I certainly don't want either of them dead. And I'm not going to see those kids grow up like we did. So I color outside the lines."
"Is there anything I can say to stop you?" she sighed.
"No." His answer was calm and matter-of-fact.
"Then be careful," she warned.
Anderson gave the password for Raff to let her back into the hotel room. Dina was apparently in the bathroom.
"Perry," Anderson held up her cell phone. "He's assigned to me. He's paranoid, calls me at least once a week convinced someone's following him or something." She sat down on the bed. "But it did make me think of something. Wasn't there a third witness tied in with this case with Schon and Cain? Was she found too?"
Raff nodded. "Yeah, we need to check that angle."
Steve didn't have a free hand to knock, so he called for Neal as loudly as he dared. Neal opened the door, and took the tray of coffee cups from Steve's hand. The singer deposited three styrofoam boxes on the table.
"In the shower," Neal gestured over his shoulder. "Whadda we got?"
"Multiple choice breakfast. You want grease, eggs, and sausage, grease, eggs, and bacon, or a waffle?"
"Give me the sausage," Neal found it in the second box he opened. "What did you find out?"
Steve took a sip of coffee before answering. "Well, the bad news is, my buddy in the department is in the field, so she can't get anything on Stacy without raising some eyebrows. The good news is, she's guarding Dina, so we know your family's okay."
Neal's shoulders slumped in relief. "She told you that?"
"No, I don't ask about any other witnesses, and she doesn't volunteer any information. Keeps everybody safer that way. But when she answered her cell phone, I heard Dina talking to Sarah in the background."
"Now," Steve said, taking another sip of coffee. "We need to start making some plans to get your lives back before our conscience gets out of the shower."
* * *
_Dear Liz and Dina,
I hope the feds keep their promise to deliver this letter, and that they don't censor any of it. It seems that the world has gone crazy, and I know the two of you feel the same. It's just so hard for me to believe all of what's happened, and that Jon and Neal are gone. Just when we were going to tour again. Steve, Smitty, and I have decided Journey will not go on without them; we're going to retire the band. I can't begin to tell you what
they meant to me. They were like family. Of course, the two of you also are very dear to Mary and myself. My FIRST thoughts when I received a phone call with the news was for you and the kids. Jon and Neal will live on through the children. I wish that we could talk. A visit or phone call would allow us a chance to share our memories. It's so hard for me to believe it all.
You are in our thoughts until we meet again.
Ross and Mary_
Ross stared at the paper for several long moments before folding it and placing it in the envelope. He could only hope that Liz or Dina would see the message, and the marshalls wouldn't.
* * *
Neal stared at him without offering anything, and Steve raised his eyebrows. "Don't get to thinking in normal terms again," he said.
"Kind of hard, with you killin' folks and running around like James fucking Bond," Neal said. "We didn't know you very well, did we." He popped the styrofoam container open and tried not to be judgmental about its contents.
"I'm a good liar," Steve said. "You know that. Being impossible is always a good cover, keeps everyone at a distance. And sooner or later, someone was gonna try and pop me on stage. I'm not coming back to Journey. You know that, don't you."
Neal nodded without looking up.
"I'm surprised no one tried it, all these years. But they're mad enough now that they might."
"You been pissin' 'em off?" Neal said. When Steve didn't answer, he looked up, and grinned at the expression on Steve's face. "That's what I thought. That's not all, though, is it. Someone else probably tried."
"Yeah. Do you remember North Carolina, on the Frontiers tour? Some asshole hit you with a bottle while the lights were down. The first thing I saw when they came back up was you, stumbling around, bleeding from the head. I thought, 'no one heard the shot over the crowd', and it scared the hell out of me. I would have been pissed over someone throwing stuff at us. But it scared me enough that I came unglued in front of about 23,000 people. We're not here to worry about who's chasing me, though. We're gonna solve your problem."
"You mind telling me how?" Neal snapped. "You've been running since you were eight, and you're still at it. What the hell are you gonna do about this, when you can't get anyone off yourself?"
Steve smiled without letting it reach his eyes, and Neal took an involuntary step away from him. He didn't recognize this version of someone he thought he'd known for twenty years, and for just a moment, wasn't sure they were any safer where they were.
"Listen," Steve said, "the only way to get people like this off you is to do one of two things: deal, and pray to whoever you pray to that they'll stick with it. Or you make such a mess of them that they decide it would be in their best interests to leave you the hell alone. I'm not talking about the 'impression' I was mentioning earlier. I did get them off me, after that, for a long time. Then I decided I wasn't through. They've been running from _me_. They're so pissed now that they're trying to pop me out of self defense. That's why I'm not going back on stage again. There's nothing wrong with my goddamn hip."
Neal tried to keep his gaze level, and failed. "Then--"
"_Then_, we have a different situation here. There's no deal to be made. They've got you guys so scared you can't do anything but stand around and wait for them to shoot you. What we need is for one of them to accidentally 'find' us, so I can make a real visible example out of them."
Neal tried to swallow, couldn't. The contents of the styrofoam container began to congeal while he stood and contemplated murder. "When did you get this bad?" he whispered. "When did this get easy to you?"
"It's not," Steve said. "You want this? You wanna be here, looking at it like I do, from the backside? You wanna spend the rest of your life trying to avenge your family, avenge Jon? It's better to strike first. You guys run now, you'll be running forever, and then one day someone slips, and there's one less of you. If we have to kill them all, fine. I'm not about to let this happen to you guys. Decide now, or walk the hell out of here, and good luck to you."
Neal shook his head. "We don't know how to do this."
"You don't have to. Can you actually handle a gun, or have you been watching cop shows?"
Neal smirked. "No cowboy shit. I know how to handle a piece."
Steve mirrored Neal's expression. "We'll see." They both heard the shower stop running, and the humor dropped from Steve's face. "There's only one rule, here," he said. "And it's nonnegotiable. Jon makes it out of this, even if it means we don't."
Neal nodded. "And he doesn't see more than he has to. He's solid. But he isn't built for this."
Steve held a hand out abruptly, and Neal nearly startled away from it. Then he relented, and they shook on it.
When Jon reemerged, he eyed them both with open suspicion, but didn't say anything. He honestly didn't want to know.
"First thing you guys are gonna do," Steve said, "is tell me your version of everything. From the beginning."
* * *
Liz went on staring at Rhonda Wheeler with affronted determination. She'd known long enough to let the shock wear off into something bitter, and still denounced it. It wasn't denial of the unthinkable. It was the truth as she knew it. Jonathan was alive.
"I would know," she repeated deliberately. "I would know, if he was gone. I don't know how, but he's alive."
Marshall Wheeler felt as tired as she looked. The facade of strict matronism had softened to something a little more sympathetic by then, and she shook her head. "I'm not lying to you. You have to accept it."
"Nothing to accept," Liz said, keeping her voice low. The kids were napping in the other room. Wheeler had waited on purpose, so that Liz wouldn't have to be stoic in front of her children. But that was all she'd gotten, regardless. "This isn't the first sign of grief. I'm not wallowing in denial. He's alive. I feel it. Until you show me his body, I'm calling you a liar."
Wheeler sighed and looked away.
* * *
One thing they could say for certain about mornings in the program: they were boring.
Jon flipped channels for awhile, didn't see anything he could pay attention to. He was doing it just to hear noise, to absorb the false, contrived cheeriness that was daytime TV. Just before noon, Steve went out long enough to look for a late edition paper, handing Neal the gun again and managing not to make the same joke. Neal meant to say something about the fact that every time Steve left, he was disarming himself. He decided not to. Steve could obviously take care of himself.
When he returned, he let Neal know it was him the same way he had before, casually, like nothing was going on.
Steve opened the paper, looked, looked again. On his third flip through, he found what he'd hoped not to, and cursed aloud.
"What," Neal said immediately, wary.
Steve drew a finger down the lines of text, warding Neal off for a moment by holding his other hand out. Neither Jon or Neal dared to try and read over his shoulder.
"I guess you're dead," he said finally. "Bad car accident, you two were apparently on your way somewhere together, like usual, and got forced off the road. They're making your funerals public. In two days. Sunset Hills cemetery, in Novato. Page three. Jay, looks like your family decided not to ship you back home. This doesn't look authorized. Some idiot overheard something, called the mortuary, and confirmed the burials. And the goddamn feds couldn't shut this down?"
"Does everyone think we're dead, then?" Jon said.
"Because of this, they do. I don't think they meant for it to get out this far," Steve said. "Page two has a story about the discovery of a federal agent in an abandoned car, evidence of foul play. Do you guys see what this means?"
"Circus," Neal said.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Ross is gonna have to stand graveside and try to keep a straight face."
"Then he--" Jon began.
"The Whale Protection Society strikes again," Steve said, then laughed. Jon and Neal traded glances, looked uneasy. Seeing it, Steve said, "He knows you're alive. And if there's anyone on the outside of this who can help, it's him. Problem is, they should've only let enough out to make the whole thing look legit. At this rate, we'll have fans making pilgrimages. And all your old bandmates should, by rights, show up to pay their last respects. When I don't show, it's gonna be obvious."
"Since when do you care what the press thinks?" Neal said, incredulous that Steve was even mentioning something so unnecessary.
Steve fixed him with that look again, the one he'd seen only a handful of times in the last twenty years but twice already that day. The one that made him back away.
"Your leak in the program," Steve said, biting the words off. "Think about it. That same leak is gonna know I'm in the program, if they aren't thinking about it already. If I don't show, it'll all point straight to me. They'll put it together enough to know you're with me, and I won't be able to scout the office to find out anything else." He paused. "I'd hoped for a little more room than that. But two days'll have to be enough. After that, I'll just have to 'accidentally' let them know where we are."
"Jesus," Jon said. "What the hell for? What are you doing?"
Neal shook his head. "Doesn't matter."
"The hell it doesn't. You can't go screwing with our lives without giving us a chance to say something about it."
Steve tilted his head, looking deceptively bored. "I'll need someone to tell me something," he said. "And since I won't be hacking it out of the office, it might as well come straight from the source. One or several of your 'friends' will poke their heads in and lose them. Two birds, one stone, and with any luck they make themselves useful first. Saves me a trip over to Bayside Family Holdings."
"Since when are you a goddamn commando?" Jon said.
Steve smiled at Jon, and it was genuine this time. "There's only one way to handle a leak, Jon," he said.
"Plug it," Neal said. "Permanently. And if we're lucky, we can do that and get these clowns off us at the same time."
"There's a connection here somewhere," Steve said. "Switek won't have been the actual leak. We need to trace him back, see where he got his info. Real interesting, how Roundtree's body was still there. But no mention of Switek's."
"You sure he was dead?" Neal said.
Steve shrugged. "No. But I'm sure he was shot. So why print a blurb about the mysterious death of a federal agent in the desert, but not mention how his partner was shot in the process? No mention of the body, no mention of anyone recovering in the hospital. Just vanished. Someone hauled off with the body. No way of knowing if it was the good guys, or the bad guys cleaning up." He paused, then laughed. "Sorry. I forgot to mention in all this that we don't have bad guys and good guys. In real life, they're all varying shades of gray. I meant to say, 'the light gray guys, or the dark gray guys'." He laughed again.
"Either way, it buys us time," Neal said. "Do we wanna be checking the hospitals for this guy?"
Steve shook his head. "I like the way you think, but no. No point. He wouldn't be under his own name--if Switek was his name. Nah, I think he's dead. They've just conveniently misplaced the body to try and make a few folks nervous. They don't know I have you yet, and by now they know Ross doesn't. They're hoping it'll give you time to get further away if you're alive. And if you aren't, they're hoping it'll flush someone out."
"The dark gray guys must really be confused," Jon said. "The light gray guys, too. Screw it, so am I. After the funerals, someone will put it together, though, like you said. So what are we gonna do in the meantime? Sit here and worry about it?"
Steve shook his head. "I'm gonna have to do some scouting, see what else I can find out. Hopefully your families are pretty close to where they should be. You guys are gonna rest and hang out for at least today, and I'm gonna stay as indoors as possible. We just need to let things settle, wait to see what happens."
* * *
The day played out uneventfully, and Steve spent part of it asleep, finally. Neal kept watch while he did, watching Jon pass the time by doing pushups on the floor. Close to dinner time, Steve awoke and vanished again to scare something up, returning with cheeseburgers and a variety of snack foods so they'd be able to lay low for another day. There was also a deck of cards.
Neal rolled his eyes. "I don't remember how to play anything," he said.
"Well," Steve said, "it's that and TV, or you'll have to start quoting from the Bible in the drawer. I strongly suggest you don't choose that last option."
They ate and talked, purposely trying to stay off their current situation, dragging up a few memories from the lives they'd had thus far. Neal and Jon turned in late, and Steve watched the door again with all the lights off.
Steve napped again the next morning, then announced he'd be back in awhile.
"No cowboy shit," Neal said.
"No, no cowboy shit. I'm gonna check in with my friend in the department."
"You haven't gotten around to explaining that, I noticed," Jon said.
"And I won't," Steve said, grinning. "Lock the door. And if you guys behave, I'll bring you back some coloring books or something."
He chose a different payphone this time, not wanting to have any obvious patterns, walking a half a block to do it. He hated leaving them alone, but there was no way he was making any calls from the room. Something else was going on, beyond the thing with Bayside. He had a feeling those guys weren't alone in the whole thing. When Jon had told him about the folder titled _Journey_, he'd begun to wonder what else was happening in addition to the mob not wanting Jon and Neal on the stand. He didn't believe it was only the live stuff they hadn't put out. And with lawyers like they had, who cared what a couple of rock stars--less than ideal citizens, in the public's eye--had to say? Easier to find a legal loophole, then kill them later, when it had all died down. No, they weren't going the easy way. And it made him nervous as hell when anyone went to this kind of trouble.
There was more to it, and he couldn't see it yet.
He took a furtive glance around. There was sporadic traffic, and no one had passed him on foot. He cut through a parking lot and found a payphone next to a 7-11--something the locals referred to fondly as a 'stop-and-rob'. He dug around for change as he approached the booth, cursing again that calls were 35 cents, requiring two coins instead of one. Pain in the ass. But wasn't everything, sooner or later?
He reached for the receiver, bringing the coins up to the slot with the other, and startled when something hard--the size and shape of a gun barrel--was jammed into his ribcage. He froze.
"I never did like 80's music," a low voice said close to his ear.