Terror Firma

Chapter 4

Bill Donahue reported for work on that Friday afternoon one minute late. After his hesitant start from home, his journey was further delayed by the fact that there had been a nasty accident on Mulholland Drive. Not that old Bullfrog would have been likely to accept that as an excuse. Unless you had personally lost at least one limb in the crash, you'd be expected to report for duty as required.

Bill had seen Frank's Pickup at the edge of the crash site. He felt guilty that he hadn't stopped to help, be sure that his friend was unhurt, but he daren't be late, and he didn't want to add to the congestion. Everything had seemed to be under control, the paramedics had arrived; the fire department had quenched the flaming vehicles.

Bill couldn't be sure, but he imagined he'd seen David Beckett by the side of the road. The guy looked shaken and white as a sheet.

Donahue made himself a mental note to call Frank at the end of the shift, see if everything was okay. Frank was a good man and a close family friend; he was genuinely concerned. If everything was fine, perhaps he could also find out some more about Beckett from Frank, who'd spent more time with him than Bill.

Oh, they had spoken on a number of occasions and the brainiac had always been very friendly – he'd even helped Bill get his truck going once when it had broken down- but it wouldn't hurt to know as much as possible about the man before he committed himself to discussing his worries with him. He had thought about confiding in Frank, he knew he could trust him, but Mary was expecting a couple of weeks after Cat, he didn't want them anxious too. If that had been Beckett on the road with Frank, it could be the opening he needed to get into conversation.

Bill found himself wishing it were Saturday, so that he could get the Press Conference over, get together with Beckett, do something. He wondered why he was attaching so much importance to Beckett. Yesterday, it would never have occurred to him to involve the computer expert, yet today… He couldn't explain it, but the more he thought about it the more he had an unshakable conviction that sharing his burden with David Beckett would somehow make everything all right. The time dragged.

He knew they couldn't find out much until after the Press Conference, too many people around, too much security. All he could do was rehearse in his mind what he would say when the opportunity finally came. Meanwhile, he went about his job diligently, and tried not to draw attention to himself.

He kept hoping that some other explanation would present itself.

That he had heard wrong before.

That he was imagining things.

It wasn't as if he had gone looking for trouble after all. He liked his job. He liked to believe the best of people too. But he had heard something, and now he was suspicious. He didn't think he was a coward. He could hold his own with the best of them, had fought his share of barroom brawls in his single days, he knew how to stand up for himself. But this was different; this was scary.

A little over half way through his shift, Bill got the feeling that he was being watched, but when he looked around he couldn't see anyone. The feeling persisted. Every move he made, it was as if someone was looking over his shoulder, studying him. It was unnerving.

'Snap out of it,' he told himself, 'you're getting paranoid.'

Yet still the feeling persisted, and he found himself trying to catch someone out, looking around suddenly, casting surreptitious glances out of the corner of his eye.

'Jeez, this guy is really spooked,' observed Al, to no one at all.

After his heart-rending visit with Sam at David's pad, he'd decided that this time there had to be something more positive he could do, something he could find out that would help his friend. He didn't like the feel of this Leap one bit.

So, he'd had Gushie center him on Bill Donahue, the guy Ziggy maintained Sam was here to help. He hoped that he might get a hint as to why the man should disappear at such a crucial time to his family.

He'd found him hard at work.

Al had heard him exchange pleasantries with the one or two other men working around the site. He'd been polite and reserved with the foreman, a huge ape of a man called Bull. He'd told another worker that his wife was fine, thanks for asking, and they were all looking forward to the birth with great excitement. And yes, he would certainly be inviting all his colleagues for a drink to wet the baby's head when the time came. No problems there. Bill Donahue seemed to be your ordinary, average, everyday construction worker stroke family man. (He reminded Al in some ways of his own father, who would have liked to be a typical family man, if circumstances had been kinder, and who had worked hard on construction sites the world over in an effort to provide for his children.)

Al liked Donahue.

He seemed a bit distracted perhaps, but that could be easily explained. Expectant fathers often had that air. Al was glad that he'd never got tangled up in that side of things. He congratulated himself that throughout the course of five marriages he had consistently managed to avoid the complication of offspring. It never once occurred to him to wonder if any of his wives would have seen them that way.

Now, the longer Al studied Bill Donahue; the stranger his behavior appeared. He was getting nervous, agitated. He looked around as if he had a guilty secret. Perhaps he was ripping off his bosses somehow. Al looked for any signs that he was skimming off materials, or even stealing from his work mates. Anything. But he came up empty.

He was just about to give up, punch up his door and head back to HQ to change for his quiet, romantic meal with Tina, when he saw that Bill was himself trying to do some discreet observing.

Two young men had emerged from the office building and were heading for the computer complex. They wore expensive Italian suits, white silk shirts, wine colored ties bearing the same gold logo as the carpet in reception, and as on the heavy signet rings they sported on thick fingers. Gucci shoes.

They skirted round the site, trying to keep the pristine appearance from being tarnished. They looked out of place - as if they had just stepped off a movie set. But the thing which struck Al most about these two men was the fact that he thought he was seeing double.

He would have blamed the booze – if he still drank.

He rubbed his eyes and looked again. They were not just alike, nor even just like normal identical twins, who usually have several individual features if you know where to look for them. These two were more like clones, reproduced in minute detail from a single blueprint.

Both were in excess of 6'5" tall, must have weighed at least 255lbs, and were as broad shouldered as a quarterback in pads. The word stocky sprang naturally to Al's mind, and his slight frame moved aside as they passed, as if he felt that he could be knocked down by their very wake. Not that it would have ruffled a hair on his head if they had barreled straight through him, of course. It was just that they were very intimidating.

Even to a hologram.

They had close cropped, jet black hair, and steely grey eyes set deep beneath thick bushy eyebrows, which met in the middle over their broad noses. Their skin had an olive tinge to it. The lips were thin and cruel. Definitely not a pretty sight. Al found himself profoundly relieved that Sam had not Leaped into one of these goons. We must be grateful for small mercies, he thought. And that brought him sharply back to the fact that Sam was here, and they had to find out why.

Al turned his attention back to Donahue, wondering what his interest was in these two. He would have liked to eavesdrop on their conversation, but their jaws were set tight. They weren't giving anything away. Donahue seemed annoyed by this too, as he tried to melt into the background. Al didn't blame him. He reckoned that these two wouldn't react too kindly to being spied on.

Al debated with himself whether to follow the gruesome twosome, or stick with Donahue, or call it quits and go back to Tina. At that moment a voice like a foghorn made him jump.

"Donahue! What you doin' over there, boy?"

Donahue started guiltily and looked around at the foreman, muttering something about checking supplies, and hurrying back to where he was obviously meant to be.

Al thought he had the look of a kid who'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"Whatever it is, you are in way over your head, kid." Al said to him. He had an uneasy feeling that Donahue was not going to 'disappear' willingly, and it was more than an even bet that the terrible twins and/or the load mouthed foreman could be implicated. Al wouldn't trust any of them to sell him a used car.

He decided to ask Ziggy if she could come up with anything on them, and punched up his doorway. He figured Donahue would be lying low for a while and unlikely to be worth watching any longer. Besides, he had a hot date with the lovely Tina, and he didn't want a repeat performance of the scene she'd created last time he had kept her waiting. Both for the sake of Al's love life, and for Sam's sake (since they relied on Tina's technical expertise to keep Ziggy functional), it paid to keep Tina sweet.

Back in his room, he interrogated Ziggy while rifling through his wardrobe for the right outfit to suit his mood. It was useful that the computer was not confined to the room in which the actual hardware was housed, but could be voice linked anywhere in the complex. Dr Beckett had thought of almost everything when designing this project. (Except how to get himself home!)

Al took out an electric blue suit and laid it neatly on the bed. He still kept to precise naval ways, even if the mode of his attire had altered diametrically. Everything in the room – apart from the contents of his wardrobe – was uncompromisingly utilitarian, precise, orderly, and shipshape.

Old habits died hard.

He sorted through the silk ties, rejecting them all in favor of a mock ivory steer's head on a leathery thong (he was too much the conservationist to condone wearing the real thing). It perfectly complemented the cowboy theme of the shirt, which was emblazoned with golden horseshoes and branding irons. A synthetic blue snakeskin belt and a neon-lit Sheriff's badge completed the effect.

Ziggy, as ever, was not as forthcoming as Al would have wished. It appeared that the foreman, one Clifford Bull, had a police record for assault following an argument over a woman back in '86. The fight did not surprise Al, although he raised an eyebrow that any woman would see anything in the ape in the first place. No accounting for taste. Aside from that, there was nothing remarkable in the man's history. He had held his present job for the past two years.

The clones turned out to be Ruggiero's identical twin sons - Guido and Marco. Even their parents had trouble telling them apart. They got their size from their late mother's side of the family. They towered head and shoulders over their father. They'd been raised with every advantage, and groomed to inherit the family business. A close-knit Italian/American family: affluent and influential.

The construction company was the first to use the sophisticated automation system, and the current project was the original. It was to be followed by three others by the end of the century. A mixture of shopping malls; office blocks and luxury housing.

David Beckett had been recruited for his design skills. He was evidently the genius behind the new earthquake-proof brick, which he had designed on his computer, having got the idea from an old movie. Al made himself a note to impart that piece of trivia to Sam. He thought his friend might appreciate it. He also hoped that Sam could bone up on the design before the Press Conference next day. He may well be required to talk knowledgeably on the subject.

By this time Al had had his wash and brush up and was freshly attired. He opened the box on his bedside cabinet and selected a fresh cigar. Giving himself one last preen, peacock fashion, in the wardrobe mirror, he commanded Ziggy to "keep digging" and strode out to knock Tina's socks off.

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