Terror Firma

Chapter 7

Sam made sure he got to the site early.

He'd showered and changed into a smart suit in honor of the occasion. He parked the T-bird in the spot which Frank's pick up had occupied the day before. The spaces weren't named, and there were more than enough to choose from, but he knew Frank wasn't coming, and if others had habitual spaces he didn't want to give himself away by encroaching. Attention to detail had often proved to be a saving grace.

He looked around. He seemed to be among the first to arrive, as he'd wanted. He hoped to spot the white Chevy truck he'd been told Bill drove the moment it arrived, giving him the greatest chance of engineering a conversation with the man. He opened the hood again, and pretended to tinker, so that he could watch each new arrival. It was a good spot for observation.

The first vehicle to arrive - A shining black Cadillac Seville with tinted windows and air-conditioning - didn't pull into the parking lot at all but drew up into a bay marked out by the office block. No prizes for guessing who is in there, thought Sam. Sure enough, the chauffeur emerged and opened the rear door for the shark Ruggiero, whom Sam had already had the misfortune of meeting, and his two unmistakable sons. Sam decided that Al had not exaggerated in his description after all. They marched purposefully into the office block, talking earnestly, with much expansive gesticulation, but were too far away for Sam to hear what they were discussing.

Next to turn up was the foreman, Bull. He acknowledged 'David' with a curt nod, then strode through the gates, put on his hardhat, and proceeded to make sure everything was in position for the grand unveiling.

A huge concrete foundation stone had been laid in a suitably prominent position, bearing a brass plaque to commemorate the occasion. It was shrouded in a copious heavy velvet curtain, deep burgundy in hue, and sporting, predictably, the golden logo with its RSC initials. It had been meticulously arranged, each pleat and fold exactly the same depth. The hem completely concealed the slab, but stopped just short of being marred by mud or dust. The whole thing was gathered on the top and fixed onto an enormous metallic ring placed neatly in the centre. The effect reminded him of the cover on a birdcage.

With a satisfied expression, Bull lifted the heavy ring and slipped it over a hook which hung suspended from a chain, attached to the giant crane. All lined up and ready. He stood back and examined the lay out, mentally projecting every movement, as it would occur.

Perfect.

As long as the computer buff had got his programming right, it would all go smoothly. Personally, he preferred the old fashioned way. He would have liked to be manning the crane himself. He neither understood nor trusted computers - but it was not his decision to make. He was paid to obey orders, and see that others did the same.

The parking lot was filling up now, as OB vans positioned themselves bearing cameras and sound equipment and transmission link ups. A long trailer took up residence, hosting make up crew. A catering truck set up, and immediately started serving coffee to harassed workers. Then came the cars of the TV personnel themselves – the journalists, sound engineers, cameramen, autocue operators, technicians, directors, gofers; the whole gamut. This was really going to be a major event. Sam hadn't fully appreciated the scale of it. He was starting to feel conspicuous. He decided he would have to abandon his ruse. As he lowered the hood, two vehicles pulled into the lot. One of them was his target, the white Chevy truck.

'This is it' thought Sam, trying to look casual. He strolled across the parking lot, hands in pockets, whistling nonchalantly, in a carefully prescribed arc, which would bring him right alongside the Chevy. He measured his pace, calculating that he would draw level just as Bill got out.

For his part, Bill had noticed with mounting hope that David was leaving his distinctive T-bird, and on his present course he would have to come right past him to get to the platform where their places were all marked out. He almost fell out of the truck in his haste to get out before David had moved on and he'd missed his chance. Another car had followed him into the lot and pulled in alongside his. As he locked his door and tried to catch David's eye, its driver got out and stood between them.

Today, Ms Krystal Fleisher had surpassed herself in sartorial elegance. All pretense at subtlety had been abandoned. The lightweight suit was black, superbly tailored to accentuate every lascivious curve. The skirt reached almost to her knees at the front, but had a seductive split center back, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of thigh. By way of contrast, the soft white blouse, low cut and silky, stopped the effect from becoming too somber. A triple row of beads led the eye from her neck to her ample bosom, a matching brooch sat neatly on her lapel. The rich auburn hair was piled high, not one strand out of place. The make up was again discreet, and the nails just the right shade. She'd spent all morning and the best part of her month's salary in the beauty parlor to achieve this look and she was going to make sure that everyone noticed it.

Especially the cameras.

She smiled at Bill. Not her professional smile, but a very alluring one. It was wasted on him, but you couldn't blame a girl for trying.

"And how is our proud father-to-be?" she inquired, batting her long (false as summer snow) eyelashes.

Bill was irritated. Not just by the blatant flirting, which always embarrassed him, but because she was in the way. Had he been less of a gentleman, he would have simply brushed her aside, but his Momma didn't raise him to be rude to a lady, even if she was a Man-Eater.

"I'm just fine, thank you, ma'am." He replied politely, trying to catch David's eye over her shoulder. The other man seemed to have slowed down, as if wanting to engage in conversation himself. Bill's heart leapt; he was sure Beckett was not looking to chat Krystal up. Now, if only the piranha would pick another prey. No such luck. She slipped her arm through his possessively and led him off, in a manner that left him no polite way to extricate himself. He found himself having to turn away from David and escort her to the platform.

Damn – later then.

So near, and yet so far, thought Sam, as Bill was propelled ahead of him. He'd managed no more contact than a brief smile, although it had looked for an instant almost as if Bill were as keen to talk to David, as Sam was to get close to him. He thought about catching them up and joining the group, but decided that the presence of the lovely Ms Fleischer would hinder meaningful conversation.

He did wonder briefly if these two were having an affair. Perhaps they were about to elope together. He glanced into both vehicles as he sauntered past, looking for signs of suitcases or such like. He found nothing. He made a mental note to have Al check with Ziggy if Ms Fleischer disappeared too, but deep down he knew already what the answer would be. While it may be wishful thinking on Krystal's part, he had seen enough in Bill's expression to believe that the attention was unwelcome. And affairs in the workplace are notoriously hard to keep secret. Surely David would have at least heard a rumor?

Al's liaison with Tina was common knowledge down every corridor at Quantum Leap Head Quarters.

Sam scolded himself for suspecting the big man. Frank obviously knew him very well, and painted him as the ideal family man. Everything pointed to him being solid and dependable. He didn't look like a man who would cheat on a pregnant wife with a bimbo, however willing she was. Which led him to wonder – what if she goes berserk at being rejected? They say Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and lookers like her can't believe that any man could resist them. Maybe she WAS the reason he vanished. Maybe she took her wounded pride and choked him to death with it.

Sam hastened his step, just a little, so that he could watch and listen, without her noticing him. As he listened, he wondered what he would do about it if his hunch proved to be correct. Bill was a big man, much bigger than his companion. If he couldn't stop her, what hope did Sam have? Was she carrying a weapon: Gun? Knife? Scissors?

Red alert.

Sam tensed his muscles, poised ready to spring if she made a move against Bill. Almost immediately, he relaxed again. He was being foolish, over-reacting. It was far too public here. Ziggy said Bill had disappeared. If it had been such an obvious case of murder there would be eyewitness reports. He began to regret his rendezvous with Frank. He may need to follow these two when they leave. Maybe she rammed his car off the road in some deserted spot, and that was why he was never found. He decided that if it came to a choice, he would just have to make his apologies to Frank at a later date. Or maybe David would be left to explain. Whatever.

Sam shook his head. There were altogether too many Maybes about this Leap, and precious little else. Now, as he listened, he thought he was letting his imagination run away with him. Krystal may be flirting outrageously, but she sounded harmless enough. He didn't let himself stand down beyond yellow alert though. It was still a possibility that she could be guilty. You never could tell with women what they were capable of. Sam had been one often enough to know that.

By this time they had reached the makeshift stage. The Bullfrog and the TV producer were arguing over who gave the orders, steering people here and there in semi-organized chaos. Cameras had been set up to capture the moment from every conceivable angle, and now the place was crawling with press photographers too. A liberal smattering of security guards had taken up positions around the perimeter, and around the platform itself.

The TV man was getting exasperated, begging somebody, anybody to get this oaf out of his way. Eventually, everything was more or less sorted out, and someone sent Bull to fetch Mr. Ruggiero, saying:

"The Mayor will be here in TEN minutes!"

So that was it. Now, Sam understood what all the fuss was about. He had known this was going to be a Municipal building of some sort, but he had not realized that the Mayor of LA herself was personally endorsing it. He found himself wondering why on earth he should remember that in 1995 the Mayor of Los Angeles had been a woman. How could his Swiss-cheesed brain forget vital pieces of personal history and vast amounts of accumulated knowledge relating to earth-shattering theorems, yet retain bit of utter trivia like that?

Taking his place on the stage, Sam noticed he was just about as far away from Bill Donahue as it was possible to get. He tilted his head backwards slightly and cast his eyes upward, his palms facing skyward in a gesture of supplication. He muttered:

"Oh, boy! Give me a break, huh?"

The next two hours or so felt more like days. Ruggiero made a rambling speech about how he'd got his company built up from nothing, and now it was the most revolutionary set up in the country, perhaps in the world. He went on and on about how wonderful the technique was, and the materials and he'd asked everyone to show their appreciation for the genius David Beckett who'd been responsible for so much of it. Sam hid behind David's natural modesty to keep his own speech short and to the point - factual, yet not too technical. He felt the eyes of the crowd and the many lenses focused on him. He felt aware of all the people watching on their TV screens. He felt he would have been enormously relieved if another earthquake would be kind enough to show up right now, open the ground and swallow him whole.

Then at last, he was able to melt into the background again, as Ruggiero told the crowd how special this day was. How he'd worked and planned for this day, and how he'd chosen this day, August 5th, so that he could dedicate his efforts and his success to his late wife, whose birthday this would have been. Sam was moved by that, and wondered if he had misjudged the man. Ruggiero introduced his sons, flanking him on either side. Sam observed that they were true mirror images. Marco, on his father's right, wore his signet ring on his right hand. Guido wore his on the left. Sam filed the information in his photographic memory for future reference.

Finally, it was time for the Mayor to do her part. She was strikingly attractive, with typical Afro-Caribbean features, bright eyes and a warm smile, revealing a perfect set of white teeth. She radiated honesty and enthusiasm, and it was easy to see why she had been chosen for office. Her speech was mildly political, without being too electioneering. She spoke of her pride in the spirit of the City and its people, and how grateful they should be to those who were rebuilding a new LA, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of disaster. She said that this new Court House would be a symbol of a physically and morally solid future for the Community.

Sam tried to relax and enjoy being part of history-in-the-making, but he kept glancing at Bill, trying to figure out how to get him talking, how to help him. Once or twice, he caught Bill casting a sideways look at him and he smiled. If he was right, and Bill was trying to get his attention, it could make his job that little bit easier. Of course, it could be another red herring. The situation struck him as almost farcical. Here were two people who, seemingly, were desperate to talk to each other, and who had been kept apart by circumstances for the better part of two days. And they were still no nearer to a meeting. Bother Frank and his beer, thought Sam again. Then he changed his mind and silently thanked the chatterbox. Of course, why not ask Bill to join them? He and Frank were already friends; it was perfectly natural - the ideal opening. Hope sprang in him anew, and Sam turned his attention back to the ceremony.

The Mayor was concluding her speech. That was his cue. He stepped forward and handed her a remote control device. It reminded him somewhat of Ziggy's hand link, and he wondered fleetingly what Al was up to back at base, and whether or not he would approve of it.

With a theatrical gesture for the benefit of the front pages, Mayor Carolyn Glover pressed the button that set all the gears in motion. The crane's winch started up, the steel chain became taught, and like an anchor being weighed, the ring began to rise up in the air, pulling the curtain with it. All eyes and all cameras focused on the foundation stone being revealed – panning to close ups of the plaque giving the date and details of this momentous event for all posterity to marvel at. There was much cheering and applause and the popping of champagne corks, as Mayor Glover and Luigi Ruggiero toasted each other for the cameras. Then everyone on the stage was given a glass, while reporters shot questions to the Mayor and the magnate. Finally, honored guests adjourned to the office block for the full-blown reception in the Conference Room.

Fortunately, Ms Fleischer was required to act as hostess, and so was prevented from intervening in Sam's efforts again. The Mayor was led away by the Ruggiero family, and the cameras followed. Those who were finished for the day hung back, waiting for the crowds to disperse before departing. One or two were commenting to 'David' on his speech and chatting good-naturedly. He tried to edge closer to Bill, but again others kept coming between them.

'I don't believe this,' thought Sam, 'it's a conspiracy!'

He completely lost sight of Donahue and began to despair of ever making contact, when suddenly a broad hand clasped him firmly on the shoulder, making him jump. A softly spoken voice, which belied the man's size said:

"Nice one, David."

Even before he turned to face the man, Sam knew this was the moment he had been waiting for.

'About time, too.' He thought.

"The speech, or the brick?" he asked, grinning modestly.

"Both, but actually I was thinking more about what happened yesterday. I saw the accident on my way in, and Frank told me all about it last night. You're a real dark horse. None of us knew you had it in you."

The twinkle left Sam's eyes and a dark cloud crossed his face, eclipsing the sunshine of his smile. Sam swallowed hard, at a loss for a suitable reply. He thought he had worked it out of his system, by talking to Al, by jogging hard early this morning, and by immersing himself in a study of David's ideas, but this sudden unwelcome reminder caught him completely off guard.

Bill saw his face fall and thought he'd blown it. David didn't seem so keen to talk to him anymore. He searched his brain for something to say to repair the damage before the younger man bolted out of reach again. It was not an auspicious start.

At least the rest of the crowd, although ignorant of the details, had melted away as the atmosphere tensed. Sam struggled to control his emotions; he could read Bill's expression and knew this was make-or-break time. If he let the man slip away now, he may not get another chance, it could mean total failure. He forced himself into a wry smile, although his voice was not as steady as he would have wished:

"I didn't for long." He said, making a pun of Bill's comment, "Frank must also have told you that I parted company with my breakfast afterwards." He could literally see the tension flow out of Bill's shoulders. They both pretended amusement that neither felt, but the contact had been made, and both men hoped that it would now progress in a more positive way.

They fell into step together, heading back through the gates towards the parking lot. For a while, they talked without really saying anything, each looking for an opening to get to what was really on his mind, before they reached their respective vehicles and lost the chance again.

Sam steered the conversation back to their mutual friend, Frank and his family, by asking when the two ladies were due to give birth. Then he mentioned, ever so casually, that Frank had offered to buy him a beer, and suggested that Bill should join them, he was sure that Frank wouldn't mind.

For a moment, Bill was tempted to agree. He wanted to get this whole thing out in the open. But he decided against it. He still didn't want to worry Frank. The bar was too public. What if they were overheard? And Cat would get panicky if he were late home. Yet still it gave him his lead.

"I'd love to, David, but Cat's expecting me home. She'll have dinner waiting for me. Tell you what, though, she'd love to meet you. Why don't you come round for lunch tomorrow? My Caitlin is a great cook. She makes the best Irish stew this side of the Big Pond. We can have a good meal and a proper chat."

Sam's face had fallen at the initial refusal, but he brightened visibly as Bill extended his 'impromptu' (yeah, right. Sam wasn't fooled) invitation. Things were looking up. He accepted with genuine enthusiasm. The further delay would be worth it for the prospect of having Bill relaxed on home ground, willing, even eager to talk. Also for the simple pleasure of a home cooked meal. Quid Pro Quo, he thought. He verified the address and the time he should arrive.

"I'm looking forward to it already." He said, with complete honesty, shaking William Donahue warmly by the hand.

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