Terror Firma

Chapter 16

By the time Frank had driven him home in the T-bird, Sam had to confess he was extremely tired, even if this journey was mercifully uneventful. Frank had been nervous about volunteering to drive David home, unsure if the younger man would feel safe with him behind the wheel after his experience that last time. Sam had reassured him that it had been quite natural for him to freeze in the circumstances. It could have happened to anyone. He was confident that Frank was not a reckless driver and was happy to place himself in the Texan's hands. Sam didn't feel that he should drive himself just yet, especially as the collar restricted his movements and his field of vision. He was grateful for the offer of a chauffeur for the trip. Sam knew that Frank was finding it hard to get back 'in the saddle' as it were. He had the impression that when they had visited him over the past week, either Mary or Bill had done most of the driving.

Frank needn't have worried. He drove impeccably.

When they arrived, Frank carried in a small hold-all and put it down on the computer chair. It contained all the things Sam had been brought during his sojourn in hospital, including pajamas, get well cards, computer magazines (which he'd browsed through but hadn't been in the mood to study) and a thick, well illustrated book on photography, which he'd asked to borrow from Bill, but only half read. Bill had assured him that he was unconcerned about the date of its return. "Hang on to it as long as you like. Enjoy. Perhaps we can go shoot some pictures together when you're fit?" Sam hoped that he or David would do just that at some stage.

Mary fussed round when Sam unpacked the bag, putting everything in its proper place, nagging him to ease up. She bullied him into sitting down while she made him a coffee, and stood over him till he drank it. (He took it black, and found it eased his breathing.) She sounded like his mother. She sounded like Everybody's Mother. He appreciated her concern, but felt somewhat smothered by it. He was pleased he had left the place in apple-pie order before going out on that fateful Sunday night. At least she had no excuse to change the bed-linen or spend ages washing dishes, tutting all the while about how men needed looking after, being hopeless at managing on their own. She conceded that he did pretty well- 'for a bachelor'.

He didn't quite manage to stifle a yawn. Frank noticed and ushered his wife to the door, telling Mary she should let David take her advice and have a rest, which he could achieve more easily if left alone. She elicited a promise that he would call if there was 'any little thing' he needed, as a condition of her departure.

Alone at last, Sam reveled in the solitude for once. The chance to do nothing, and not feel guilty or frustrated by the inactivity. This was the longest Leap he could remember, and normally he was impatient to get it over with and move on, ever hopeful that he was getting nearer to going Home. This Leap, he was glad of the time: time to literally get his breath back.

The peace didn't last long. An hour or so later, Sam was dozing when he was disturbed by a loud banging on his door. It sounded as if someone was trying to kick it in. He rose stiffly and went to answer it, hoping against hope that he wasn't going to have to defend himself yet again, but poised in readiness. His neck ached.

He wasn't expecting company. He certainly wasn't expecting the sight that greeted him as he opened the door.

He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't still dreaming.

All that was immediately visible was the most humungous Ali Baba basket of oranges Sam could imagine, wrapped in cellophane and tied with a huge bow of yellow ribbon. It had a pair of bandy legs sticking out of the bottom, two arms barely holding it around, and a head perched on top like a ripe pineapple.

The head belonged to Clifford Bull, the Bullfrog foreman from the building site.

Sam's jaw dropped in astonishment. It was all he could do not to burst out laughing at the ridiculous spectacle.

"Begging your pardon, son, were you asleep?" the voice boomed. The man couldn't whisper if his life depended on it.

"No problem." Sam managed, half wanting to add facetiously, 'I had to get up to answer the door anyway.'

"Well, then, are you gonna let me in, or are you waiting for me to take root and grow a few more?"

Sam chuckled. "Sorry. Come in, that looks heavy."

He stepped aside to give Bull room to pass. The foreman staggered in and deposited the basket on the table with a huge sigh of relief.

"Not a case of Greeks bearing gifts, I hope?" Sam pretended he was joking, but the hope was a fervent one. He indicated the offering on the table and looked at Bull; the last person he would have expected as a well-wisher.

The ape looked completely vacant, but then Sam supposed he was not the type to be well versed in Greek legends, even one as famous as the Wooden Horse of Troy.

"Never mind. Take a seat. This is a pleasant surprise."

'At least, I hope it is pleasant.' He added silently. He could not be completely sure that Bull was not mixed up with the drugs operation and had somehow avoided being implicated. In which case he could be here to make sure David would never testify.

Perhaps the fruit was indeed a Trojan Horse. Containing what?

Poison injected into some of the oranges, deadly but untraceable? A venomous spider nesting in the bottom of the basket waiting to pounce? Or something less subtle, like a bomb hidden among the fruits?

Sam's smile was friendly, but he was alert, watching Bull closely for any sign as to his true intent.

Bull accepted the proffered chair. His face was red from the strain of hauling the weight, and he was sweating profusely. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his brow.

"Can I get you something? A coffee, glass of water?" Sam was naturally hospitable.

"I don't want to be no bother to you, boy. I'm supposed to be visiting the sick after all. But a glass of water would go down a treat, if it ain't too much trouble."

Sam went to the kitchen cupboard and took out two tall glasses, which he filled from a pitcher kept in the fridge. He was careful not to turn his back on the gorilla. Then he sat down opposite Bull and they both took a long draught of the cool liquid.

"That sure hits the spot." Bull smacked his lips and wiped his mouth with the back of his hairy hand. "You're looking tired, boy. How you doing?" he sounded genuine, but was he?

"Not so bad, thanks. I can't complain." Sam started hoping Al would pop in, just in case.

"This here," Bull indicated the mountain he'd delivered, "is from all the guys from the site. We got together, but couldn't agree what to get you. In the end, we came up with this." He paused.

He looked at Sam. "You do eat oranges, don't you?"

Suddenly, Bull looked vulnerable, almost pathetic. Beneath the bluff and bluster beat a heart of gold. (Rather like someone else Sam knew!) Bull really wanted to make a good-will gesture and was suddenly afraid that it could be monumentally inappropriate.

Sam bit back a self-conscious snigger. He relaxed.

"How can anyone live in sunny California and not like oranges?" He countered. "Thank you, all of you." He unwrapped the basket and took one of the oranges from the top of the precarious pile. As he peeled it, he motioned to Bull to help himself.

"I'll never get through all these by myself, though. It'll be freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast from now on, that's for sure."

Bull took an orange and they ate in silence for a while.

"These are real good." Sam said at last. "What'd I do to deserve the five star treatment?"

"You kiddin'? When we heard from Donahue and Bannerman what you'd done, why we couldn't hardly credit it. How you'd taken it on yourself to stop those drugs getting onto the streets. I tell you, boy, there wasn't one of us who didn't admire you for it. We were real impressed you got that scum caught. Mind you, you should've come to us. We would all have been behind you, all the way. We could have gone in there together, given you back up. Maybe saved you a lot of grief."

"Yeah, right. Don't I wish." Said Sam, with the benefit of hindsight. "Trouble was, no offense, but we weren't exactly sure who we could trust." He admitted.

"Hey, I guess I can understand that." Conceded the Bullfrog.

Sam was seeing the man in an entirely new light, and he liked what he saw. It just went to prove that you couldn't judge a book by its cover. Sam had begun rubbing his collarbone absently; the aching in his neck caused his muscles to tense. He rotated his shoulders to try and ease the stiffness, feeling the joints creak.

"Here, let me get that for you." Bull saw the gesture and stood up. He went round behind Sam and began massaging his shoulders. When Sam expressed amazement that he should possess such a skill, Bull explained:

"I used to give boxing lessons at a Youth Center many years ago. This sorta went with the territory.""Mmmm, that feels great, thanks." Sam relaxed under the expert touch. He closed his eyes. "You're full of surprises today, Mr. Bull."

"Call me Cliff, boy. We ain't at work now." He snorted, as if he'd made a bad joke. "That reminds me. The other reason for the oranges…""There's another reason?"

"The guys wanted you to know that there are no hard feelings."

"Say what?" Sam had lost the thread of the conversation.

"They don't blame you for losing their jobs."

It was one of those moments where events take an unexpected turn and things get crazy. As Bull said the word 'blame', Al's door opened and he sauntered into the room. Sam hadn't noticed - his eyes were still shut, and he was concentrating on trying to make sense of his guest's bombshell.

Al was dressed in a light brown mottled shirt, tortoiseshell braces holding up mahogany colored trousers. The tie was narrow, and patterned with cornstalks. The smile he wore quickly turned to a look of horror. From where he stood, he saw Sam, sitting in a chair with his eyes closed, seemingly unaware of Al, or anything else. Was he unconscious? Was he already dead?

Standing over him, trying to strangle him despite the now familiar collar, was the ape, Bull, who was shouting something about Sam being held responsible for somebody losing their jobs.

"Sam? Sa-am! Wake up! You gotta fight back, buddy."

Sam's eyes snapped open.

"What on earth are you talking about?" Sam was talking to both men simultaneously, not sure which one was raving most.

"Look out, Sam. He's behind you." Now Al sounded like he was in a pantomime. Only he wasn't acting. He was taking this seriously.

At the same time, the foreman said:

"You telling me you didn't know?" Bull was genuinely shocked.

"Don't just sit there, Sam…" Al wondered if Sam had been drugged, paralyzed. He was showing no indication of even trying to defend himself.

Al started button bashing again – looking for something, anything that would help Sam out of his latest predicament.

Sam was trying not to laugh at Al's misconception. He didn't want Bull to misinterpret it. He tried to think of a way to reassure his friend, without the other man thinking he was an off-ramp short of a freeway. It was a common occurrence. He decided Al would just have to sweat it out a bit longer. He was more anxious to find out what Bull was talking about.

"I assumed somebody'd told you, boy. Jeez, now I feel bad."

Al was confused. Sam was alternately smiling and looking bemused, and now the ape was all apologetic.

"I wish SOMEBODY would tell me. Now." Sam didn't care which listener obliged, man or hologram, as long as he started getting some answers. The confusion was making his head spin.

"You're tensing up again, boy. Relax." Bull's big hands were remarkably soothing as he concentrated on the massage again.

Al's face lit up with the dawning of comprehension.

"A massage? And I thought…Well, ain't that a kick in the butt!" Al was laughing at himself now, realizing the absurdity of the situation.

"It doesn't pay to Leap to conclusions."

Sam teased him, grinning broadly. Al shot him a look.

Behind him, Bull stiffened.

"I guess I'd better explain…" he began.

Al's COM link flashed and squealed. "Oh boy, Sam, we never thought of that!" Sam's look said 'Don't you start. That's my line!'

Now, he got his explanation – in stereo – from in front and behind, man and mirage speaking together:

"RSC's a family business, right?" opened Al.

"The cops arrested everyone involved in the drug operation." Began Bull. "We were all questioned, but they were satisfied that us 'ordinary' workers were all ignorant about what was going on under our noses, so to speak."

Sam cringed, remembering how the smell of Rapture had haunted him.

"All the bad guys were members of the Board, Sam, or should I say all the Board members were bad guys."

"The site was sealed for a while, when they were gathering evidence, but after it was released, there was no-one to authorize a return to work."

Sam was engaging in mental arithmetic again. "No bosses, so no pay checks, huh?" Sam filled in the bottom line.

"Got it in one."

"That's about the size of it."

Sam recalled ironically how he'd assumed that he hadn't Leaped in to get David on the unemployment line. 'Oh, my prophetic soul!' he quoted silently, though for the life of him he could not remember the source of the quotation. He'd achieved exactly that, and for a good many more people as well, including his newfound friends, Bill and Frank. But they hadn't said a word, not a single reproach. All Bill had talked about was how lucky they were, because the quake hadn't caused any major structural damage to their home. No mention of the fact that they had no means to pay the rent. How were they going to cope?

"I'm so sorry. I had no idea." He said to Bull, his shock registering in his voice.

He added, to Al. "There must be something I can do?" his tone was almost pleading. He didn't like leaving loose ends, especially catastrophic ones like this.

"Don't see what, boy. It's not your problem. I told you, the guys all agree you did the only thing you could. We wouldn't have it any other way."

Al was concentrating on Ziggy's hand-link, he appeared to be listening intently, and his furrowed brow gradually smoothed.

His face broke into a grin.

"It might just work, Sam. I think you could pull it off. Ziggy says odds are eighty-nine per cent in your favor."

Sam looked at him quizzically; it was rare to hear him, or Ziggy, being so positive. But Sam wasn't complaining. To the foreman he said:

"Leave it with me, Cliff. In my experience, things often have a habit of turning out for the best." He winked at Al.

Bull gave his shoulders a gentle squeeze, and then moved round to face him, passing through Al, who pretended to flinch.

"You're old beyond your years, boy." He told David, looking Sam straight in the eye. "But I ain't gonna make the mistake of underestimating you again. City Hall's put the contract out to tender, but they don't seem in any hurry. If you reckon you can pull some deal out of the hat to save us, good luck to you. Only no Lone Ranger heroics this time, huh? You need any help, you call on us, and we'll form a posse. Okay?"

"Gotcha," Sam smiled at him, "and thanks – for everything." He pointed to the heap of oranges. "Pass my thanks on to the guys, too." Sam instructed him.

Bull took his leave then, apologizing again for disturbing David's sleep, and for being the bearer of bad tidings, and wishing him a speedy recovery. Sam shut the door behind him and turned back to Al, who was examining the large basket of oranges intently, as if it were the archaeological find of the century.

"Oh, boy, Al, if you could have seen your face…" Sam laughed as heartily as he dared. ""Look out, Sam, he's behind you!" I ask you…" he mimicked Al's warning tone with uncanny accuracy.

"Not another word." Cautioned Al, without looking up. "Not one more word, or I'm outa here, and you can go figure out for yourself how to get everyone out of the mess you've gotten them into."

"Ouch, kinda touchy, aren't we?" Sam moved round into Al's line of vision, no longer smiling. That last remark had struck a little too close to the truth for comfort. Al realized he'd gone too far, wounding his friend's feelings unnecessarily, and he was contrite.

"So? What've I gotta do, then? Rob a bank?" in other words:

'You're forgiven, Al. Back to business as usual.' Sam sat down on the bed wearily.

"Nothing so dishonest, or risky." Al countered. "In fact, it couldn't be simpler. That's the beauty of it."

"Spill the beans, Al."

"Okay, okay, keep your shirt on." Al walked round the table and struck up a grand pose. He was determined to milk this for all it was worth.

"Ziggy says there's this big Kahuna in the City. One James Anthony Reynolds. Owns a huge conglomerate – into shipping, oil, real estate, you name it: worth Mega-Bucks. And word is that he's in the market for some new investments!" Al was waving his cigar around, making expansive gestures and generally being theatrical. Sam was trying hard to look unimpressed.

"So all I gotta do is walk up to this total stranger and talk him into setting up his own construction company, so he can take on the entire workforce of Ruggiero and Sons, huh? Sure, piece of cake."

"No way. You go to one of the Company Directors." Al said it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, which to him it was. He was smiling mischievously.

"Wanna run that by me again? I must be missing something."

"Are you just playing dumb, or is your head bothering you again, Sam?" Al's smile vanished. He was concerned. Sam usually picked up clues a lot quicker than this. His friend still looked pale, and bone-weary. It was, after all expecting too much to think that anyone, even Sam, could get completely back up to scratch so soon after such a debilitating experience.

Al was used to thinking of his friend as invincible, leading a charmed life. He reminded himself sharply that Sam was only human after all. Ziggy had predicted that it would take about six weeks for the broken bones to knit and for all trace of the other symptoms to dissipate fully.

"Let's just say it's been a long day, okay?" Sam had experienced many longer days, and more challenging ones, both physically and mentally, yet this one had been strangely draining. Since his youth, he had thrived on very little sleep. He was adept at burning the candle from both ends, virtually hyperactive. He found it frustrating to have to accept how quickly he became worn out these last few days - how difficult it was to concentrate on anything for long. Al was right, he had developed another splitting headache, but he had no intention of whining about it. He rubbed his temples.

"You feel like spelling it out for me, Al?"

"The Company Director just happens to be the boss's daughter."

Al wasn't going to insult Sam's intelligence by handing him the solution on a plate. Sam would get there, in the end, given time.

To give him an even bigger hint, Al wandered around the room, pausing by the bookshelf where Sam had placed Bill's photography manual. Sam had inserted a piece of card to mark his place, and it stood out.

"Good book, is it?" Al nodded to it, and reached out as if he would have taken it from the shelf. Sam got up and joined him. If Al wasn't changing the subject, then he was making a point. As his eyes fell on the bookmark, realization dawned with infinite clarity, but he decided not to let on. Not quite yet.

"What was the name of this mogul again?"

Al humored him.

"James. Anthony. Reynolds." He said, slowly and deliberately, stabbing the air with his cigar to lend further emphasis to each word. Sam reached for the book.

"Bingo!" he pulled out the card with all the flourish of a magician producing a rabbit from a hat. It was an embossed calling card, with lettering in gold leaf, bearing the name of the company director daughter, who had told Sam that if there was ever anything else she could do for him, he need only ask. Sam ran his fingers over the letters, and looked at Al.

"I guess it's time to find out how sincere she was when she gave me this."

Sam made himself comfortable and picked up the phone. He looked again at the card, and punched in the numbers.

In her summer residence overlooking the beach, Sally Reynolds stepped out of her Jacuzzi. She put on a soft toweling bathrobe in a delicate shade of peach, and wrapped a matching towel, turban style, around her dripping wet hair. Then she picked up her martini and took it out onto the balcony to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine. Lucky padded out behind her, and lay down with her head on her front paws. Sally was reclining on her sun-lounger, humming softly to herself, when the telephone rang.

Lucky pricked up her ears. She stood up and trotted back through the open glass sliding doors, into the house. She jumped up onto the coffee table, resting her front paws on the edge while she removed the cordless phone from its base unit. She returned to the patio with it held gently between her teeth, whereupon she laid it carefully in her mistress' lap. Sally lazily picked up the receiver with one hand, while the other tickled the back of Lucky's neck.

"Good girl."

The Afghan lay down again.

"Sally Reynolds here. Who's calling?""Sorry to trouble you, Miss Reynolds," began Sam politely, "its David Beckett. I'm the…"

"Mr. Beckett!" she interrupted, "How lovely to hear from you. What a wonderful surprise. How are you today? Feeling stronger, I trust?"

She sounded genuinely pleased that he had called. Sam felt optimistic. Perhaps this would be as easy as Ziggy predicted after all.

"They let me out of the hospital this afternoon. I'm getting better day by day, thank you for asking."

""Every day, and in every way, I'm getting better and better."" mocked Al, affecting a maniacal twitch of which Herbert Lom would have been proud. Sam gave him a withering stare and tried hard not to laugh. The effort nearly choked him, and he covered his mouth as he coughed.

"Sounds like you still have a way to go." Sally sympathized. "Any problems, you get yourself back to that hospital toot sweet, you hear? Send the bill to me." She stroked Lucky's head, smiling to herself.

"That's very generous of you, ma'am."

"No worries. I didn't save your life just to have you expire due to neglect. I told you, any time you need something, you only gotta say the word."

"I was kinda counting on you still feeling that way, Miss Reynolds, cos, boy, have I got a favor and a half to ask of you."

She sat bolt upright, intrigued.

"Go on. And call me Sally."

So Sam explained the situation, and his own feeling of responsibility. He told her that every single one of the men was hardworking, decent and honest, and didn't deserve such bad luck, just because they had unknowingly worked for crooks. He told her especially about Frank and Bill and how their families would suffer with no wages coming in. He apologized for presuming upon her generosity, but he had nowhere else to turn, and if she refused him, as she had every right to, at least he would know he had tried. He figured he had nothing to lose.

As she listened, interjecting an occasional question, she stood up and walked back inside. Again the faithful Lucky followed.

Sally paced the floor, her bare feet sinking into the deep pile of her rich sapphire colored carpet.

Finally, Sam finished, breathless. Sally emptied her martini glass and put it down on her smoked glass cocktail bar.

"So you think I should use my influence to persuade Daddy that he ought to take on the contract for the Court House?"

"I've done some research." Sam looked at Al and the ubiquitous hand-link. "Rumor has it Mr. Reynolds is looking for new projects. And I honestly believe this would be a good investment for him. I wouldn't dream of asking otherwise."

Sally laughed softly then.

'That's it,' thought Sam, 'she thinks the idea is outrageous. I've blown it.'

He was about to apologize for wasting her time and hang up when she spoke.

"Daddy was right about you, Mr. Beckett."

"H-he was?"

"We've done some research of our own. We've found out all about this brick of yours, and the computer set-up you helped design.

Matter of fact, Daddy had already decided to try and poach you. He likes your ideas and he likes your attitude. Rest assured, such uncommon zeal shall not go unrewarded, Mr. Beckett. If he has to take on the whole crew in order to get you onto our payroll, I reckon Daddy will call it money well spent."

She laughed again.

It was music to Sam's ears.

"That's very flattering, Miss Reynolds."

"You're blushing, Sam," observed Al, with his usual flair for stating the obvious. Sam glared at him again. He kept his embarrassment in check by reminding himself that David had earned the greater part of her praise before his interference.

"Not in the least." Sally insisted. "Listen. I'm gonna call Daddy right now. You tell your friends their vacation is nearly over. Give me a couple of days to set things up and then I'll get back to you. Where can I reach you?"

Sam gave her David's number, and thanked her wholeheartedly, telling her he was once again deeply in her debt.

"Now don't you worry about a thing, Mr. Beckett. You did right to call me. I think we're all gonna come out of this as winners, don't you?"

Sam gave Al a questioning look. The COM link chirped and Al raised a thumb. It was all the confirmation he needed. "It's sure starting to look that way, Miss Reynolds."

"Sally," she corrected, "Now you get yourself an early night, you hear? If I'm fixing you all up with jobs, you can repay me by getting yourself fit for work just as soon as ever you can. Deal?"

"Sounds like a very fair deal to me, Miss uh, Sally. Good night."

"Good night, David Beckett." She disconnected the call, then immediately dialed her father, as promised.

Sam replaced his receiver and smiled broadly at Al. Then he stood up, curled his hand into a fist and punched the air above his head triumphantly. "Yesss!"

"You did it, Sam! This is the start of a long and successful association for the Reynolds Consortium and the workers from the site. They all get good jobs: every one of them, Sam, and a raise in salary. Things are looking up, pal." Al beamed.

"Thanks to your tip-off, Al. Sorry I made it such heavy going. I guess I'm still not firing on all six cylinders again yet."

He masked a yawn with his hand. Al gave him an understanding smile.

"I'll leave you to re-charge your batteries." Al indicated the bed.

It was almost an order.

Then he summoned up his door, "Good night, Sam, Sleep well."

"Good night, John-Boy!" laughed Sam, tossing an orange playfully at Al as his friend disappeared.

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