Chapter 11 Having a retarded little sister, Al had quickly learned how to fight to defend her when some of the neighborhood kids would tease and pick on her. Often when the teasing was subtle, Trudy would just laugh along with her tormentors, not understanding their cruelty or why her big 'bruver' got so mad. But on the few occasions when the cruel words managed to filter through the cloudiness of her mind, he'd seen her cry as if her heart were breaking because she couldn't understand why she was being hurt. And always, before the first tears had trickled down Trudy's plump cheeks, the skinny little Italian boy with smouldering dark eyes would jump to her defense. But the time Al would never forget happened one July evening the summer he turned seven. It was the night that his Calavicci temper was well and fully roused for the first time. He learned his first lesson that night of what it meant to fight for those unable to defend themselves, without hesitation or thought for what might happen to him. After supper that evening, Al and Trudy had gone outside to play for a while before it was time for baths and bed. When a firefly lit up in front of her face, Trudy had squealed delightedly. His own childish laughter mingled with hers as he tried to teach her how to catch the fireflies just beginning to dot the dusky purplish sky of early twilight. He had enjoying chasing the fireflies almost as much as Trudy. So much so, that when he ran toward the corner after a particularly elusive firefly, he hadn't seen the shadows cast on the sidewalk by the streetlight at the corner. Shadows of figures hiding behind the big bush near the corner of the O'Briens' house. Shadows of trouble spoiling for a place to happen. And, just as Al had cupped his hands and caught the elusive firefly, twelve year old Jack Rontinelli, his younger brother, Philo, and four or five other boys surged out and ambushed him. They had dragged him into a narrow alley nearby and beat him up. But that hadn't been enough. A couple of the boys dragged him to the opening of the alley and held him, forcing him to watch while Jack and Philo had picked on Trudy, poking at her, teasing, and repeatedly pushing her down. When he heard Trudy's first wail, seven-year-old Albert had struggled even harder, bucking and twisting and kicking. Once he bit down hard on the hand that had been clamped over his mouth to muffle his angry shouts. It seemed like Trudy's frightened wails had filled the evening air forever when he at last heard a screen door slam close by. Then an angry adult male voice...Mr. O'Brien's voice .... shouted, "What's goin' on out here?" Then, "Stop that, you misbegotten pack of hooligans! Stop it or they'll hear ye in Dublin before I'm finished with ye!" More screen doors slammed in the warm summer evening as more of the neighbors came outside to investigate the commotion. Jack abruptly fled into the darkness. The boys hanging onto Al dropped him like a hot potato and ran. Jack's mean laughter filled the air as he and his cronies made their escape. All except Philo. By the time Nick Calavicci had coming tearing out into the yard to see what the commotion was about, Albert, his nose bleeding and his left eye already sporting the start of a shiner, had tackled Philo and had the older boy on the ground. Nick had to dodge his son's flying fists as young Albert continued to land punches on any part of Philo's body that he could reach. "Bastardo!" Albert had shrieked as his father pulled him off of the now blubbering and bloodied Philo Rontinelli, who was in the beefy grip of Mr. O'Brien. "Albert!" Nick said sharply, setting his son down abruptly. "Mind your mouth!" The coarse Italian swear words that Albert spat at Philo earned him two stinging swats on the seat of his pants; he barely felt them. He was about to spit more curses when his father's voice spoke above him. "Not another word, Albert, or you and I will be going down to the basement tonight," Nick warned. The eyes of the father, like those of the son, spoke volumes. Albert knew what that meant. It wasn't a threat; it was a promise. He could almost feel the sting of Papa's belt across his behind as he considered the familiar warning. Glancing around, he saw his mother leading Trudy inside. After another minute, he grudgingly swallowed the words, settling for the meanest glare he could muster, letting his eyes burn as he stared the other..older...boy into fidgeting. Half an hour later, cleaned up and his scrapes attended to, he crawled, exhausted, into bed. He looked up when his father came into his room and sat down on the edge of the bed. "You know I don't approve of you fighting, mio." "Yes, Papa," Albert said quietly. He wasn't sure about Papa's tone of voice. It could mean another lecture about fighting. Or it could mean that he was going to get a spanking tonight, anyway, even though he had obeyed. Then, he felt his heart swell when he heard his father say softly, "But I am also very proud of you for standing up for your sister." Nick stroked a couple of wayward curls off his son's forehead. "Don't ever go looking for fights, Albert," he said. "But don't be afraid to fight when you have to." "Yes, Papa," he said with a wide smile as he felt his father's kiss on his forehead. "I'll remember." Turning his face slightly, Albert brushed a kiss against his father's unshaven cheek. "Good night, Papa." Settling back into his pillow, the little boy who would one day be a high ranking Admiral who would defend and fight for a friend with the same selflessness as he had for his sister, closed his eyes and fell into an exhausted sleep. Nick Calavicci watched his son sleep for a few minutes, then leaned down to touch another kiss on Albert's dark curls. "Sogni d'oro, mio piccolo uomo," ("Sweet dreams, my little man") he whispered softly, then got up and quietly left the room. A little more than sixty years later, as Al finally walked out of the Imaging Chamber his physical exhaustion reminded him of that fight on that summer night so long ago; only now, the adrenaline was still running at full surge. Though physically tired, the Observer was mentally and emotionally psyched up, having spent the last six hours being Sam's "ace in the hole" and morale booster -- coaching, guarding and backing up his friend during the tense confrontation when Derek had slammed into the house twenty minutes after Sam had hung up on him. That had been followed by the more than three hours he stayed with Sam and Derek at the hospital. And finally, the silent trip back to the house, and waiting until Sam at last fell asleep on the couch. Now he dropped the handlink on the control panel near Gooshie, and headed for the door. "I'm gonna get some coffee," he said, and was gone. In the hall Verbena had to sidestep when the Control Room door opened, narrowly avoiding running into Al...literally. Seeing his intense expression, she immediately fell into step beside him. Al never broke his stride. "Whatever it is, it can wait," he said abruptly. Over the years the Project's chief psychiatrist had gotten used to checking Al's pulse on the move. "Don't!" she warned when the Observer started to shake her hand off. By the time the elevator doors closed a minute later, her fingers still firmly on the pulse in his wrist, she had confirmation of her suspicion. "Your pulse is doing the jitterbug," she said, unruffled when her patient snatched his arm away. "The last thing you need right now is that 'rocket fuel' the cafeteria serves." "Tough," Al snapped. The elevator doors were barely open on the eleventh floor when he slipped between them, moving quickly down the hall. He was already in the cafeteria and pouring his coffee when Verbena ran in. Giving her a defiant glance he took a long sip. Sputtering, he barely managed to swallow the too hot brew without spewing it all over. "Serves you right," Verbena said unsympathetically. Taking the cup from him, she poured it out in the nearest trash bin before the Observer could say anything. Getting a cup of water from the bottled water dispenser, Al took several swallows, letting the cool liquid soothe his burned tongue and throat. Refilling his cup, he sat down at the nearest table. Putting his elbows on the table, he dropped his face into his hands, and let out a prolonged sigh. His shoulders drooped a bit, the only sign that a tiny bit of the pent up tension had been released. Verbena sat down across from him. "What took so long?" Without lifting his head, Al said, "What do you want first? The good news or the bad news?" The psychiatrist settled on the former. "The good news. How's Sam?" she asked. "Okay," Al said, straightening up with a weary sigh. "The good news. Sam's okay. Right now he's asleep on the couch." Arching his back slightly to work out a little of the stiffness, the Observer then closed his eyes as he slowly rolled his head. "Considering what he's been through the last six hours, I'm surprised he didn't collapse at the hospital." "What?" Verbena demanded, her full attention triggered by the words "collapse" and... "Hospital? Al, what happened?" When he didn't respond instantly to her question, she demanded again, "What happened?" "We were at the house, in the kitchen, and..." "And...what?" concern sharpened her tone, crowding him impatiently. Al shot a look at her that said 'Gimme-a-chance-and-I'll -tell-you-what-happened'. "I'm sorry," Verbena apologized. "Go ahead." Getting to his feet, the Observer went to the soft drink machine next to the coffee counter. He considered getting a Coke, but as the last coin dropped, he punched the button for a fruit punch drink. Popping the tab, he took a long swallow then went back to the table. Sitting down, he saw the approval in Verbena's eyes. "Don't push it," he warned softly then took another swallow. "I almost got the Coke. But," he glanced at the cold drink before meeting her gaze again. "I figured you'd probably toss it in the trash, too." "You're right," she agreed. Al studied her for a moment. "It's a good thing we're friends, otherwise I'd have matched you best two out of three for the Coke." Lifting the can to take another swallow, he paused. "And I would've won, too." Verbena chuckled, as she watched him chug down the rest of the punch. "That's what my older brother, Hamilton, always thought, too." She grinned a bit wider at his look of mild surprise. But her focus shifted back to Sam when Al began to speak again. "Like I said," Al began again, "Sam and I were in the kitchen when Derek kicked in the front door, screaming for Tommie." He kept his eyes on hers as he continued. "Sam was standing by the counter," he said, "and a damned good thing, too. He found a carving knife in one of the drawers.." "What?!" Verbena gasped. Al nodded. "That psychotic bastard stormed into the kitchen, and started tossing the table and chairs around so he could get to Sam. If Sam hadn't had that knife.." he drew a slow, shuddering breath. "What happened?" It seemed to Verbena that she'd asked that question at least six times in the last ten minutes. Al shrugged. "When he lunged to grab the knife, Sam swiped him with it." Again he nodded at Verbena's expression. "Laid the palm of his left hand wide open. That's the primary reason I was in the Imaging Chamber so long. We spent almost four hours at the Emergency Room waiting to get that bum's hand sewed up. Ziggy was right. It took nineteen stitches to close it." He paused to take another deep, slow breath. "Then, when we got back to the house..." "What about Derek?" Verbena interrupted. "No problem," he told her. "The shot they gave him for pain turned his lights out. He was knocked out like a rat the last time I checked on him. No," Al said, his lip curling derisively, " Mr. Emerson, will probably be circling the moon until at least noon tomorrow, if not longer." Picking up the empty soft drink can, Al rolled it slowly between his hands. "Then I stayed another hour and half till Sam could go to sleep." "He was that wound up?" Al shook his head. "Yes and no. When he went to the doctor this morning, he had a mild concussion thanks to that maniac. Anyway, Tommie's doctor told him not go to sleep until at least nine p.m. Then, when you add that to the showdown in the kitchen and then the trip to the hospital..." He paused, shaking his head slowly as he saw Sam again, in his mind's eye, when he'd finally dropped onto the couch. "The kid was running on fumes by the time we got back to the house. But," he sighed softly as he got up to put the empty drink can in a recycle bin beside the drink machine. "You know 'Mr-Do-It-By-The-Rules'. It was closer to nine thirty when I checked on Derek the last time. By the time I got back to Sam, he had finally fallen asleep." Dropping back down in his chair, Al met Verbena's eyes. "And that brings us back to the moment." After a minute or so of silence, Verbena asked quietly, "And the bad news?" Seeing the way the line of Al's jaw tightened, she steeled herself to hear the worst. The Observer didn't try to blunt his reply, maintaining unwavering eye contact with Verbena. "When Gooshie centered me on Derek after telling me his brain waves were going wild, I had to stand there and watch that bastard kill another woman." He nodded when the psychiatrist gasped. "He snapped her neck like a dry twig." "Who was she?" "According to the information Ziggy came up with when calculating Derek's coordinates, she was a very spoiled, very wealthy member of the New Orleans upper crust." "How did it happen? Where?" Before Al could answer further, Ziggy joined the conversation. "Allison Kent, age twenty-six was killed April 7, 1987 on the small private golf course on her estate just outside of New Orleans." "You mean murdered..." Verbena began. "No, Doctor Beeks, I mean killed," Ziggy corrected. A fresh surge of adrenaline sent the Observer's temper soaring for the boiling point. "I don't know what happened before I got there," Al snapped sharply, "but I _was_ there! I watched him kill her! She was murdered..." He, too was cut off. "The official cause of death listed on Miss Kent's death certificate was animal attack." Psychiatrist and Observer both stared upward, their expressions surprised. "Would you mind explaining how they came up with that?" Al demanded. "According to an article printed in the local paper on April 10, 1987," Ziggy continued, "..."the severely mutilated body of wealthy young socialite, Allison Kent was found in the water near the bank of the Petit Lis Bayou that ran across the back of her estate." "You mean that little creek?" Al asked. "Not creek, Admiral," Ziggy corrected. "In Louisiana such a body of water is called a "bayou". And to answer your question, yes, that is where the body was discovered." "What kind of wild animal...." Verbena began. "Alligator," Ziggy finished for her. "They are common in Louisiana, though they tend to stay away from habitated areas. Attacks on humans are not common, but they are known to happen." "What did the autopsy show?" Al asked. "Very little. According to the medical examiner's records, the left side of her upper body and most of her face were destroyed in the attack." The Observer's face darkened as Ziggy's words made only one conclusion possible. "He must've thrown her body in the water after I left to find Sam," he said. "The perfect cover. With most of her upper body and face destroyed, any broken bones..." "...which would include a broken neck..." Verbena added. "...would be attributed to the attack," Al said bluntly. "Which lets him off scott free to go out and do it again." "He's got to be stopped!" Verbena then added, her tone even more urgent, "You've got to tell Sam!" "No shinola!" Al said sharply, his dark eyes almost forbidding as he stared back her. "And, for your information," he went on, a tinge of acid in his voice, "I was just about to tell Sam about it when Derek kicked in the door!" He took a quick breath then added, "This bastard is just what his wife said -- he's insane. "There are varying degrees of insanity..." Slamming the palm of his hand down on the table, Al cut the psychiatrist off. "Verbena," he snapped. "The man's got a chip on his shoulder the size of Mt. Rushmore, and, considering what he's done.." "Allegedly done..." Verbena began, then paused to take a quick breath. Judging by the look on Al's face, she was going to need it to steady her when the blast came. She figured about five seconds; it came in three. Rising from his seat, Al leaned slightly across the table and stared into the eyes of the handsome black woman. "Don't give me that psychiatric, legalist double talk, doctor!" he snapped vehemently. "I know what I saw!" He leaned a bit closer, almost nose to nose with her. Verbena, to her credit, didn't budge or even blink. "I went into that Imaging Chamber a little over six hours ago, and had to stand there and watch that psychotic bastard very deliberately break Allison Kent's neck! And then watch him come stampeding into the house not too long after that, and get too damned close to getting his hands on Sam again! There was nothing *alleged* about either incident!" Pulling back, he sat down again and took a deep, slow breath, but his eyes never strayed from hers. "For whatever reason," he said as calmly as he could though his dark eyes continued to flash. "That man hates women with a passion second to none." Al paused a second, then said firmly, his tone not as sharp but just as resolute. "I'm telling you, Doctor Beeks," he retreated momentarily into formality, "that nitroglycerin is more stable than Derek Emerson." A less confident person, male or female, would have wilted under Al's authoritative and vehement point of view. But the Project's chief psychiatrist took it all in stride. By no stretch of the imagination was this the first time she had butted heads and swapped semantics with the Project's co-director and chief Observer. They sat in silence for a couple minutes; it was Al who finally broke it. His tone and manner were decidedly calmer, but there was no apology in his eyes or on his lips as he met Verbena's patient gaze. He didn't realize that his passionate outburst had revealed more of the very private side of himself to the psychiatrist than he would have been comfortable knowing. "Ziggy told me you sedated Tommie," he began. "How's she doing?" He took a sip of water, watching her. "Considering what she went through just before Sam leaped into her, she's doing good," Verbena replied. "I gave her two ccs of Valium to calm her down and, at the moment she's sleeping quietly. I've got one of the female nurses sitting with her." Folding her arms on the table top she studied the Observer as she told him what all she'd done, including the removal of the reflective table, and how long it had taken to get Tommie to her present state of calm. Focusing on and listening to the recitation from the psychiatrist, Al's impassioned attitude eased and gradually dissipated. As Verbena wound up the briefing, all he could do was shake his head wearily. When she finally finished, he sat quietly, looking into her eyes, studying her face. "So, what can you do?" he asked. "Well, when she wakes up, and after Dr. Sanderson checks her out," Verbena said. "I'm going to have a long talk with her." She studied Al's face a moment. "I can't let this leap end with her going back without knowing that she knows she doesn't have to stay with Derek. That she can have a life totally free and independent of him, and that she can survive without him." Al pushed his luck. "Can I talk to her when she wakes up?" The look on Verbena's face was his answer. But still he pressed the point. "Look, at some time during this leap, and it's got to be sooner rather than later, I've got to spend a few minutes with her. You know that, Bena," he said, his voice firm but not harsh. "I know," she said. "But not before I talk to her," the psychiatrist was quite firm about that point. "Well, when will that be?" Verbena studied the Observer's intense expression for a moment, noting just exactly how focused he was on her and whatever answer she would give. She understood his need for information from the leapee, but she also knew that for the time being, Tommie Emerson needed to be cared for very carefully. Even as she considered that, her thoughts went back several years to a cousin of hers who had gone through a similar situation; only Tonia's husband hadn't ever beaten her like Derek Emerson had his wife. It had taken nearly a year of intensive sessions before Tonia had accepted that she didn't deserve the abuse. That she did, in fact, have the inner strength to have a life without her husband, and that she was quite capable of taking care of herself. But Verbena knew that she didn't have a year to counsel Tommie. In fact she wasn't sure that she had the week that Ziggy had predicted Sam had to prove and link Derek to the murders so he could leap. There were so many variables... Derek being the primary one...that could change things suddenly. Any unforeseen variable cropping up, would mean that the very real possibility existed that Sam could literally leap out of Tommie's life at any moment. No, she had to take whatever unknown span of time this leap would encompass to try and get through to the abused woman sleeping in the Waiting Room. Get through to her in such a way that she at least would have a fighting chance of getting away from Derek before she also became one of the victims of his unreasonable rage and hatred. "Verbena?" The Observer's voice pierced her thoughtful reverie. "Hmm?" she said, blinking as she focused on the man across the table from her. "What did you say?" "How long before I can talk to Tommie?" Al repeated. "You okay? For a minute it looked like you'd checked out and didn't leave a forwarding address." Verbena smiled sheepishly. "Let me spend an hour with her after she wakes up," Verbena responded firmly. "After that I'll let you come in and talk with her." Al's expression became hopeful. "Does that mean she's awake?" "It means that when she wakes up...of her own accord," she clarified. "I want to spend an hour with her before you so much as darken the doorway of the Waiting Room. Clear?" Al sighed, but nodded, running a hand through his hair as he considered everything he and Verbena had just discussed ...and the possible consequences if something in this leap didn't 'give' pretty soon and swing it in Sam's favor. After a couple of minutes, he said aloud, "Ziggy, dig into Derek's background..." "Already done, Admiral," Ziggy purred. "Well don't be greedy!" he snapped. "Share the wealth!" There was a distinctive 'pout' in the computer's voice as she said, "Ask me nicely." "Ziggy!" Al gritted warningly. "That's better," the computer responded, almost cheerfully. Al closed his eyes and slapped a hand to his forehead, muttering under his breath. He didn't even open his eyes, when he felt Verbena's hand on his. But when she said, a soft lilt of laughter in her voice, "You two play off each other so beautifully," and he fixed her with a beady-eyed stare, she just chuckled. "I call 'em as I see 'em." "If you are ready..." Ziggy said loftily, interjecting herself into the conversation again. "We're ready, Ziggy," Verbena said quickly, figuring by the look on Al's face that a less aggressive response would get the information recited more quickly and with a lot less verbal sparring. All that Ziggy's recitation of facts did for Al was add to his gut-knawing concern for Sam's safety. It also poured a fresh surge of adrenaline into his bloodstream, almost positively guaranteeing that he wasn't going to get to sleep for a good long while.