CHAPTER ELEVEN "Hey, Helen. Have you been to see 'Star Wars' yet?" Sam was flicking through the 'Charlottesville Herald' at the kitchen table and the movie theater guide had caught his eye. "No," came a muffled reply. Helen emerged from the store-cupboard carrying a packet of pasta. "What's 'Star Wars'? A movie?" An image of Hollywood's finest hammering the hell out of each other flitted across her mind. He blinked. "You haven't heard of 'Star Wars'? But it says here the last show's on Saturday, so it must have been around for a while." "I haven't exactly been taking a lot of notice of what's been going on lately." She came over to see what he was looking at. "Oh, it IS a movie." "It's fantastic. Sci-fi. 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'. Goodies and baddies in space, with robots and aliens. You'd love it. Can we go see it?" Helen shrugged. "Okay, I don't see why not. It sounds like a cross between 'Star Trek' and 'Lost In Space' so I'll probably enjoy it." "No-o, not really. More like 'Star Trek' and King Arthur." "Even better. We can go tomorrow night." Her face lit with a sudden smile. "Hey, Sam, it'll be a date - our very first date. Will you buy me popcorn and try to kiss me in the car?" "Kiss? On the first date? Absolutely not!" Helen pulled a face. "But I'll buy you popcorn - a whole bucketful!" "You better - and ice-cream! Now, put the paper away so we can set the table. Time's getting on." * * * * * Buttoning up yet another of Brian Palmer's loud shirts, Sam walked into the kitchen. The shirt felt tight. He pulled at the fabric where it constricted his chest, grumbling, "Isn't there anything better than this for me to wear tonight?" Helen deftly placed the last slice of lemon on her dessert and wiped her hands. "What's wrong with it?" she asked, surprised at Sam's scowl. "You look very nice. Sexy." He made a face and tugged at the shirt again. "I just wish there was something other than jeans and these hideous shirts." "They're not hideous, they're fashionable. And what's the matter with jeans?" She looked down at her own. "Don't tell me you don't like jeans. You old square!" "Of course I like jeans - I love them." He lifted a foot and waved it impatiently. The wide leg of the jeans flapped. "I just think these flares look so - so - so SEVENTIES!" Helen frowned. "Though you look really great in them," he added quickly. She did, too. Over the faded jeans she wore a soft, blue, long-sleeved top. It was loose, falling in gentle pleats from smocking across the chest, ending in a long fringe half-way down her thighs. With the long, silver filigree earrings and bare feet, she looked more like someone from the Sixties than Seventies, though she wouldn't have appeared out of place in any era following that he remembered. "In fact, you look beautiful." Helen pulled a face and put the dessert in the refrigerator. "You do. You're all dressed up and the table's all dressed up." He indicated the kitchen table cloaked in white damask, resplendent with polished, silver-plated cutlery, her mother's best, delicate, bone china and crystal wineglasses. "So I feel I ought to be dressed up, too." She waved an indifferent hand at the table. "That's different. That's presenting food well - and I'm not dressed up. It's only David." She suddenly felt the presence of the Observer and smiled around the room. "Hi, Al." Al stood at the far side of the table, nattily attired in a dark blue suit, offset by a geometric, silver pin on one lapel, the palest of pale blue shirts and a narrow, silver tie. He smiled at Helen. "She used to dress up for me." He noticed the exquisitely set table. "Wow! Look at this. Special dinner tonight, huh, Sam? You lucky dog!" Sam had caught the look Al had given Helen and completely misinterpreted it. He stuck his fists on his hips in disgust. "I knew I could count on you to come out with the obvious dirty remark." "What dirty remark?" asked Al, genuinely puzzled. They had been innocent enough comments. He reviewed what he had said, and it was his turn to look disgusted. Walking quickly through the silverware and crystal, he growled into Sam's face, "I meant when we went OUT. She used to dress up for me when we went OUT. Jeez, Sam, you're getting a dirty mind!" "Oh." Sam backed off, squirming in embarrassment. "Sorry, Al. I thought you meant - you meant... Well, that's what you usually mean!" "Yes, I know what you thought. Perhaps I don't have as dirty a mind as you think, Sam Beckett," Al said loftily. "At least," he added in a mutter, "not where she's concerned." Helen had her head on one side, listening to Sam curiously. "What's Al saying?" Sam adjusted minutely the position of one gleaming fork. "Oh, er - he, er - he said you used to dress up for him - w - when he took you out." He shook his head and corrected himself. "I - I mean you WILL dress up for him." Helen's eyes narrowed. "Somehow, I don't think you repeated word for word - and I don't 'dress up' for anyone except myself." She turned away to check the various pots and pans on the stove. "You should have seen her when I took her to the Christmas Ball at the Air Base, Sam," said Al dreamily, puffing on his cigar, gazing at Helen's back as she busily stirred this and that. "She put her hair up and wore a dark, holly-green velvet gown. God, I'll never forget the look on everyone's faces when I walked in with her on my arm. If the President had made the call on his little red telephone, I don't think one jet jock from Truro Base would have got his craft in the air. They were too busy watching her dance all night with a Navy pilot. She didn't dance with anyone else." He heaved a contented sigh before giving a sudden crack of laughter. "Apart from the shyest kid in the place. He thought all his holidays had come at once and walked around afterwards lit up like a Christmas tree." "Yeah, I can just imagine." Sam leaned on the back of a chair. His eyes flicked from Al to Helen. She'd have been boosting more than one ego that night. Helen swung around from the stove. "Sam, could you grab -" She saw the big grin on his face. "What?" She looked down at herself. "Why are you laughing at me? I thought you said I looked nice." He shook his head. "I didn't say you looked 'nice', I said you looked beautiful. YOU said I looked nice. But I don't, do I, Al?" he appealed to the Observer, flapping the jeans, tugging at the shirt. Al walked around him, sucking thoughtfully on the cigar. He shrugged, "You look fine - for the Seventies." Helen left her precious pots and pans and came over to Sam. She laid her hands on the sleeves of the hated shirt. "I also said you look sexy." Al gave Sam a critical once-over. He raised an indifferent eyebrow. When Sam didn't smile Helen's brows knotted. "Will you stop worrying about how you look, Sam? Relax. David will probably wear jeans and arrive on his Harley. He usually does. He likes to get away from the smart, 'business' image when he can. That's why he enjoys coming here, so he can escape all that. Just be yourself tonight." She ran her hands up the sleeves of the shirt. "You really do look nice - and you feel nice, too." She reached up and pulled his head down so she could sniff his hair appreciatively. "You even smell nice." She sniffed again, let go of him abruptly and almost ran back to the stove. "Oh shoot! I nearly forgot the rolls. I only wanted them warm." Snatching the ovenmitts, she opened the oven door, filling the kitchen with the aroma of fresh bread, and rescued the dinner rolls. "Grab the bread basket for me quick, Sam, these are HOT!" He hastened to comply, grinning once more. Practical Helen was back. Al came over and poked his nose inquisitively at the pots and pans on the stove. "You lucky devil, Sam, this all looks great." He sniffed, then pulled a face. "I wish I could smell it. I bet it smells DIVINE! Her food always does - did. Has she made you tacos yet? She makes 'em real hot - just the way I like 'em." Sam set the bread basket, now filled with crisp, golden rolls, on the table. "Al says he likes your tacos, Helen." "Does he?" muttered Helen absently, her attention on the serving dish she was extracting from the oven. "I'll make sure I make them for him, then." She lifted the foil from the dish and a cloud of steam arose. She gave the kitchen clock an annoyed glance. "David's late. If he's not here soon this will be ruined." The doorbell chimed melodiously. "And about time, too." Helen re-covered the dish with the foil and pushed it back in the oven. "Let him in please, Sam. I need to get the pasta going now he's arrived." "Sure." He threw Al a meaningful look. The Observer was still hanging around the stove, the light of hunger in his eye, looking like one of Pavlov's dogs. "Come on, Al. Let's go let David in." Sam gestured urgently. "Come ON!" Al reluctantly tore himself away and followed Sam out of the kitchen, grumbling, "Whaddya need me for? Can't you open the door on your own?" "What's David like?" Sam demanded in a whisper, coming to a halt halfway across the living room. "David who?" asked Al, his mind still in the kitchen. "Oh, you must mean Helen's guardian, David Pendrick. Is that who's coming to dinner?" He pulled the handlink out of his pants pocket. He hadn't expected to need it; this was merely a social visit. He tapped at the buttons. "He's one of the richest men in the country, a brilliant businessman and investor." His eyes nearly popped out of his head as he read the zeros on the display. "Holy mackerel! I wonder if Helen knows how much he's worth. He's a self-made billionaire, though he comes from old Virginian stock. His father lost-" "Yes, yes, I know all that. But what's he LIKE? What did you think of him when you met him?" Al blinked. "I didn't meet him." "But surely you-" "No, he was away on business in…in Paris, I think. Yes, that's right. Helen was disappointed he couldn't get home for Thanksgiving and Christmas." Al hadn't been disappointed. It meant he had Helen and her son all to himself. "Why are you so concerned about this guy?" He eyed Sam shrewdly. "Are you worried he's going to come the 'heavy father' on you? Oh, puh-lease! How old are you?" "I don't know how old I am, you won't tell me!" snapped Sam. "Of course I'm not worried, even if Helen does keep on about the 'Spanish Inquisition'. I don't give a dime whether he approves of me or not. I don't suppose I'm going to be here long enough for it to matter, anyway." Eagle's talons tore him at the thought and he caught his breath. Patent disbelief at his denial was written all over Al's face. "Oh, never mind," said Sam irritably. "It doesn't matter. Let's just open the darn door and get it over with." He took a deep breath, plastered a welcoming smile on his face, and opened the front door. Al shook his head at Sam's juvenile nervousness, then dismissed it and looked with interest at the figure on the doorstep. The man was elegantly clad in a mid-grey, fine wool suit, dark enough to give his form an air of authority, light enough not to be somber. His silk shirt was pearl-grey and his grey silk tie, admittedly a rather wide tie by Al's standards, perfectly matched his socks and the handkerchief that peeped coyly from his breast pocket. His shoes were dark grey, italian leather. He stood a little crookedly, the long forefinger of one hand poked out at a difficult angle, arrested about half an inch from the doorbell. The other hand held a large bunch of deep yellow roses and each arm tenderly cradled a bottle of wine. He was staring at Sam with mildly surprised blue eyes. "Nice suit," murmured Al. "Hi," said Sam, extending his hand. *Jeans and a Harley. Yeah, right.* "I'm Brian Palmer." The man altered his expression to an affable smile as smoothly as a politician on the campaign trail. He straightened and grew about six inches. "Sorry, Mr Palmer." He glanced down at the wine. "It's a little difficult with these. David Pendrick. We met at Logres." "Yes, of course," said Sam awkwardly, putting his hand away. "Please, call me Brian." "And I'm David." The two men curved their mouths into smiles while their eyes assessed each other, like a pair of dogs sniffing warily. Something behind David caught Al's eye. His jaw dropped. "And even nicer car!" he breathed. Sam followed his gaze. A vision of sophisticated automotive engineering gleamed in the drive, the sleek, silver vehicle looking decidedly out of place behind staid, old Mrs Murray. Al floated in a trance through David and down the porch steps. He positively drooled over the car, looking even more like one of Pavlov's dogs. Sam was sure he could see his tongue hanging out. "I don't believe it! It's a Jag! A 1964 E-type Jaguar Series 1 roadster. Man-oh-man! I always wanted one of these. She is GORGEOUS! A true lady of the road." His head disappeared from Sam's view as he poked it through the side window. His head apparently being cut off at the neck by the window did not, however, diminish the volume of his eulogies. "Four speed manual transmission... All synchromesh gearbox and brake servo - so she must be a 4.2, not a 3.8... This baby's got the lot... 150 miles per hour maximum speed..." He withdrew his head and moved around to the long, powerful-looking hood. Bending, he put his face through the gleaming metal. "Oh, Sam! You should see this, she's immaculate! A straight Six V-twelve engine that looks as clean as the day it left the factory. Yep, she's definitely a 4.2. This little lady can churn out 265 bhp, zero to sixty in 7.1 seconds. Boy, I'd give my right arm for one of these!" "Nice car," Sam remarked to David. David turned and followed his gaze. "Yes, she's a pleasant, smooth ride. Do you drive, Brian?" There had been a licence in Brian's wallet. "Yes, but I prefer other methods of transportation." "You must take her for a cruise some time, let her show you her paces." "Thanks, I'd enjoy that." A faint crease appeared between David's brows as Sam remained blocking his entrance. He lifted the bottles in his arms a little. "If you'll just let me in, the white needs to go in the refrigerator and the red needs to breathe." "Oh, sorry." Sam jumped to one side of the doorway. "Please, come in. Helen's in the kitchen." He closed the door behind David, leaving Al to salivate over the Jaguar in peace. He was far more interested in the Jag's owner than the car. He lagged a little behind the tall man, wanting to see how he greeted Helen. David didn't get the chance. "You're late - and why are you dressed so smart?" demanded Helen in an accusing tone as soon as she caught sight of the older man. She continued stirring her sauce. David carefully set down the red wine on the table and whisked the white into the refrigerator before advancing on her with the roses and a smile. "Hello, my darling, it's lovely to see you, too." Helen ignored the roses and merely looked at him, stirring her sauce. David glanced down at himself. "I am dressed 'so smart' in honor of the occasion. It's not every day I get to meet your boyfriend." "You mean, it's not every day you get to try to intimidate my boy- friend. Well, I wish you'd worn your jeans like you normally do and not that - that STUFFY suit." She turned away and gave the sauce her full attention. David's smile broadened. He slipped a familiar arm around her waist and bent his grey head very close to her red one. "And how are you, Helen?" The wooden spoon continued to draw circles in the pan. "I'm fine, thanks, David," she replied stiffly. Holding the determined chin in his fingers, he turned her head. Sam held his breath, waiting for David to make some disapproving comment about her 'boyfriend'. "Now tell me how you REALLY are," David said, regarding her closely. Sam detected real concern in his voice. Helen relented. She let go of the spoon and tipped up her face, giving him her complete attention. "I'm fine," she repeated. She laid her hand on his jacket. "Truly, I am." The tall man searched her face a moment longer, then hugged her to him. "I'm glad, Helen." He patted her cheek. "It's good to see you so happy." Holding her face gently in both hands, he bent his head and kissed her lightly on the forehead. Sam relaxed a little. Here was a father figure truly concerned with his 'adopted' daughter's welfare. Helen's eyes misted at the older man's silent benediction. She kissed his cheek. "Thank you," she said softly. David offered the roses again and this time she accepted them, burying her nose in their upturned faces. "Mmm. Their perfume is heavenly! I'm so glad you brought yellow ones." David pulled a corkscrew and penknife out of his jacket pocket and turned to the table. "Now, what culinary delights do you have to go with the best my cellar has to offer?" He deftly ran the knife around the cap of the wine bottle before expertly inserting the corkscrew. "Guess," said Helen, filling a vase with water. She grinned at Sam leaning on the door-frame. "David's nose is legendary throughout Virginia. It's said he can distinguish at twenty feet between a chicken that's been fed exclusively on corn and one that hasn't, when they've both been stuffed with garlic, thyme and parsley, and roasted." "That's not true," refuted David as he drew the cork with a small pop. "Don't take any notice of her, Brian. She exaggerates." Helen winced as David called Sam 'Brian'. She hurriedly placed the roses in the vase to cover her shock, telling herself to get used to it. He'd have to be 'Brian' all night. "It's only ten feet," David continued, "without the thyme and parsley! Now, I wonder what my poor olfactory organ can discern." He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Al appeared beside Sam, finally having had his fill of David's Jaguar. He was feeling frustrated. What was the use of having such a beautiful piece of machinery parked in the driveway if he couldn't actually drive it? One of the disadvantages - the many disadvantages - of being a hologram. He sighed. The Jag's lucky driver was talking - and sniffing. "Hmm. Fish. Smoked salmon, I think - yes, definitely smoked salmon. Cooked." David opened his eyes and looked at Helen. "That means you're making spaghetti with smoked salmon, cream and black pepper for the first course." Having recovered her composure, Helen nodded. "To go with the white wine - except it's spaghetTINI, not spaghetti." She placed the roses on the windowsill and checked on the salmon and cream. Al's mouth began to water. "Yumola!" "You can't expect me to detect the thickness of the spaghetti with my nose - and it's Hochheimer Kirkenstuck Riesling Spatlese '97, not just 'white wine'," David ad-monished her. "Which reminds me, it needs opening, too." He opened the refrigerator and removed the bottle. "My apologies to your nose - and your Riesling," said Helen, her eyes dancing. She gave a little bow and flourished her wooden spoon. "Do go on." "Ah, yes. The entree." David inhaled again as he uncorked the wine. "I think I detect mushrooms and pork. There's something else, too." Helen opened her mouth, but he waved her silent. "No, don't tell me. Just a minute. I've got it! Port. You've made escalopes of pork fillet in cream, port and mushroom sauce!" "This guy has all the luck," groaned Al. "First he owns that gorgeous lady parked out front and now he's smelling food I can't!" Fascinated by David's olfactory performance, Sam shushed him quiet. "You've got it exactly," said Helen to David. "The escalopes will be okay with the red wine, won't they?" "With Chateauneuf-du-Pape they will be perfect." David turned to Sam suddenly. "I hope you don't object to red wine with white meat, Brian?" "Who? Me? No. I don't think it matters whether wine is white or red, as long as it complements the dish it's being drunk with." David nodded approvingly at Sam's answer, however inelegantly expressed. Helen smiled at Sam from behind David's back. "And for dessert?" she asked. "Dessert. Well, you're pushing the cream a little with your first two dishes." Helen pulled a face. "So it will have to be something nice and tangy, not too rich." David gave her a speculative look. "Citrus. Orange sorbet?" She shook her head. "Lemon, then?" Her eyes sparkled. Thrusting his hands into his pants' pockets, he relaxed back against the table. "Fresh lemon mousse." Helen put one forefinger on her nose and pointed at him with the other. "Bingo!" She turned back to the stove, saying over her shoulder, "And yes, I have made the mousse nice and sharp to cut through the richness!" Al opened The Door, startling Sam. "Where are you going?" he hissed. "For dinner. I'm starving! You don't need me. What's he going to do to you? Eat you?" "Probably." Al shut down The Door, muttering to himself, "I wonder what Sammy- boy's brought in tonight?" Sam turned his attention back to David. "That was incredible!" David shrugged. "It's a good party trick. It isn't really a fair test with Helen's cooking because I know which dishes she's likely to choose, so a lot of it's guess work. Helen knows that. We've played this game since she was small. I use every means I can to make it seem miraculous," he indicated the port bottle next to the vase on the window-sill, "the same as any other con artist." He paused. "What is it exactly that you do, Brian?" Before Sam had the chance to reply, Helen came over to the table, carrying a large platter piled high with steaming pasta strands coated with glistening cream, studded with pale pink pieces of salmon and a sprinkle of black pepper. "Okay, guys. This needs to be eaten straight away so let's sit." Perhaps the evening is going to be a little difficult after all, thought Sam. However, to his surprise, he rather enjoyed dinner. David made no further insinuations about Brian's character, quite the reverse. He went to great lengths to make Sam feel comfortable and relaxed. The man was an excellent dinner guest - charming, urbane, sophisticated, obviously well read and travelled. He had a fund of amusing stories and Sam laughed as much as Helen at his tales of experiences abroad. He didn't, however, monopolise the conversation, but ensured both Helen and Sam had ample opportunities to talk. Sam remained fairly quiet in the early part of the evening, not through shyness he told himself, but because he wanted to watch the interaction between Helen and David. He wasn't allowed to remain silent for long as David took a great deal of time and effort to draw him out. He asked them both about their time at the lake, then smoothly turned the talk to food and wine. Sam bristled at his comment that, although she was good, Helen would never be as inspired a cook as her mother. Helen and David both laughed at his indignant reaction. As the evening wore on Helen deliberately joined in less and less, being content to sit back and listen first to one man then the other as their talk flowed back and forth. Sipping her wine, she divorced herself from their discussions, though sometimes she itched to join in. David was coming out with the same old, cynical arguments he always did - only he called it being realistic - while Sam was taking a more hopeful view of the world. She smiled to herself as Sam more than held his own against David, he was debating well. David was impressed but there was a faint crease between his brows; he obviously hadn't expected 'Brian' to be so articulate. Her smile broadened. Their debate widened to include world politics, making Sam thankful he had boned up on the thinking of the day in the 'Post. David was particularly interested in his comments concerning South Africa's problems; the recent death in custody of South African black activist Steve Biko and the snap decision of Prime Minister Vorster to hold early elections. Sam asserted the world would condemn the white regime in South Africa to such an extent, beginning with trade and other sanctions, that a changeover to black majority rule was inevitable. David disagreed, stating the whites would never let the blacks take over and that, if the blacks tried, the whole country would become a blood-bath. He stabbed the table with his finger, the light catching on the gold of his Rolex. His jacket and tie had been discarded long ago and the elegant silk shirt was open at the collar, its sleeves hastily rolled back at the wrists, diamond cuff-links having been thrust deep into a pants' pocket. At one of Sam's comments he laughed aloud, saying that Nelson Mandela was a forgotten man who'd be lucky to get out of prison alive, let alone become the country's first black president. As Sam flatly contradicted him, he frowned, narrowing his blue eyes. Amongst the debris of dessert, the talk turned, inevitably, to Vietnam. David relaxed back in his chair, twirling his wine glass, as he listened to Sam emphatically call America's involvement in 'Nam a lost cause, in which too many lives were wasted for no real reason. Al stepped through The Door just in time to catch Sam's comments. "I wouldn't have put it quite like that, Sam," he growled. Sam grimaced rather apologetically at him. Helen's eyes gleamed and she smiled around the kitchen in acknowledgment of Al's presence. Suddenly, David leaned across the table, his blue eyes no longer friendly but challenging. "And what did YOU do in 'Nam, Brian? Or didn't you go? I bet you stayed at home yelling, 'Hell no, we won't go', with the rest of the hippies and the draft dodgers." "David!" Helen reached for Sam's hand as she stared at the older man, outraged at his question and the sudden change in his manner. Al scowled. "Why, you pompous nozzle! I bet you never saw any action. You'd have been too young for World War Two and too damn old to be drafted for 'Nam! Well, Sam was too YOUNG for 'Nam - or he'd have been there, fighting, even if he did think it a lost cause." "Well, Brian?" Al quickly tapped the handlink. "Ziggy says Brian failed the medical - flat feet." But Sam had straightened in his chair. "I did my bit for God and country." "Sa-am," Al warned. "But you ca-" Helen stopped at the sudden pressure of Sam's hand on hers. "I had one tour, as a signalman, second class, with a SEAL squad," said Sam steadily, staring into the now cold eyes across the table. "Really?" drawled the smooth voice. "A SEAL squad?" "You shouldn't be telling him this," said Al, torn between trying to keep Sam in the persona of Brian and wanting to knock David's teeth down his smug throat. His eyes narrowed. "Just - just POP him one instead, that'll shut him up!" Sam ignored him. "Yes. They - my buddies - they were the best," he stated emphatically. "My last mission with them may not have been classed as successful, but I'm more proud of being part of Bravo squad than anything I've ever done." "Not successful? You surprise me," mocked the voice. "Do tell what happened." "That's enough, David!" snapped Helen angrily. "Reach over and pop him one, Sam," Al fumed, miming punches. "Right on the nose!" "It's okay," Sam calmed them, both Helen and Al, his eyes flicking from one angry face to the other. He looked back at David, his own face as hard as granite. "Our mission was to rescue a couple of POWs from a hooch in a village about ten klicks away from our camp, but we were betrayed by the choo hoy who was taking us there. A choo hoy is what we called a VC guerrilla who assisted our side -" "I know what a choo hoy is!" interrupted David, with a flicker of annoyance. "Go on." Sam smiled slightly. His eyes bored into David's, defying him to ridicule what happened. "We didn't get the prisoners out. They were moved before we got there. The choo hoy led us straight into an ambush." David was startled at the intensity he discerned in eyes he'd once thought shy and nervous. "I shot her. I shot the choo hoy," said Sam sternly. "She was going to shoot Tom, my br-lieutenant - but I stopped her - I stopped it from happening." He had changed history, saved his big brother's life, given him back to his parents and sister, given him back to his younger self. But in the process he'd caused the death of someone else, exchanged a life for a life. David was impressed, though no-one around the table would have known by his expression. This was not what he'd expected from the mild- faced young man opposite. "Someone else died, too," Sam continued softly, regretful. "A photo journalist. I'll never forget her. Maggie Dawson." Beautiful, sexy Maggie, with her husky voice and ever-ready camera. "She was blown up in a booby trap. I shouldn't - she shouldn't even have been there. I couldn't help her." "She knew what she was doing, Sam," said Al. "Her death wasn't your fault. She'd been ordered to stay in the chopper - you know that. She knew the risk she was taking to get that picture." Sam bowed his head in acknowledgment of the truth. Maggie had given her soul for a photo. But it still twisted his guts, knowing he hadn't been able to save her. Why couldn't he have saved her? She didn't deserve to die, either. Why could he only help some and not others? "Maggie Dawson." David frowned. "I remember her. She won a Pulitzer for a picture of-" "- of a POW being dragged away by the VC!" Helen finished in a rush as realisation hit her with the force of a semi-trailer. She'd seen that picture, too. The face of the prisoner in the photo was the face of the man with the silver jacket under the apple tree. The eyes filled with such terror, which the camera had caught in a split-second, were the same eyes that had smiled so gently that day in the garden. And at the cabin, where she'd first heard this story, she'd been so wrapped up in Sam she hadn't even given his best friend, the friend who had suffered so much, a second thought. "Oh God - THAT was Al?" "What?" asked David, confused. "That - that must have been Hell," amended Helen, eyes wide with horror, still asking Sam her original question. "Did you have to tell her, Sam?" growled Al. "Was that really necessary?" "Yes, it was," said Sam to them both. He hadn't told her, she had worked it out for herself. But he was glad she had. Perhaps now she would accept Al's apparently cynical and cocky character with a little more understanding when she actually met the real man. Knowing Helen, she'd probably see right through Al anyway, but it didn't hurt to make sure. He gave her hand a squeeze of reassurance, then stood abruptly, saying to David, "My tour ended and I came back here. I never went back." He turned away. "The music's finished. I'll put some more on." Al silently followed him, walking through the wall. A confusing mix of emotions filled Helen as she watched Sam go. Pity and compassion for a man she'd met for only a few moments when she was a child and all she realised he had endured in Vietnam, compassion and love for the man who'd wanted so desperately to save Maggie Dawson as well as his brother. But rapidly drowning the other feelings in a tidal wave was anger. Anger for the man who'd brought the old, dead look back to Sam's face. She turned on David, hissing fiercely, "Why did you come out with that crack about being a hippy? You told me you thought Vietnam was a military exercise in futility!" "Calm down, Helen," replied David. She seethed at his patronising attitude. "I only wanted to see what he's made of. He might not look much but that display was quite impressive." He nodded approvingly. "I think he'll do." "He'll do!" Helen's eyes blazed. "I knew you'd be sizing him up tonight but I don't believe what you just did, implying he was a coward! Couldn't you see how terrible you made him feel, dragging Vietnam up like that? Godammit, David! How dare you behave like that just to - to TEST him!" "Now just a minute, Helen," replied David, nettled. "This guy suddenly appears out of nowhere and you're all over him. You know hardly anything about him." He shook his finger at her. "And don't try and tell me you met him at school because you never mentioned him before. Do you really think I bought that line at Logres? Taking him to the cabin is one thing but now he's living here. Of course I want to find out what he's like." David glowered at the youthful figure opposite. She was sitting bolt upright, hackles raised, almost audibly fizzing and spitting like a demented kitten. His anger and annoyance melted and suddenly he felt very old. He sighed. "You're still young, Helen. You've no idea what people - men - can be like." Helen's eyes glittered. "And YOU have no idea what HE'S like!" She stabbed at him with one ferocious forefinger. "You are not my father, David, so don't try and behave like him!" Trembling with passion, she stood, shoving her chair away so violently it screeched along the floor. "I don't need you to take care of me - I can take care of myself!" She stormed out of the kitchen. "Helen!" David called after her, half-rising out of his chair. But he knew it was useless and sank back again. "I just don't want you to be hurt," he said softly. William sat in his favourite chair, green eyes staring at Al in rapt fascination. Al was peering over Sam's shoulder as Sam knelt, looking through LPs and cassettes. Helen rushed across and knelt by Sam's side, nearly bowling him over. She threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly. "I'm sorry. I know I joked about the Spanish Inquisition but needling you about 'Nam was despicable!" "Hey, hey! Calm down," said Sam, loosening the choke-hold from around his neck. "It's okay." He stroked her hair. "I'M okay. David's only trying to look after you." "But he needn't have spoken to you like that!" "You got that right, kid," chimed in Al. "You should have popped him one, Sam!" Sam threw him an annoyed glance as he saw the stormy look on Helen's face. He caught hold of her arms. "Look, Helen, don't be mad at him. He loves you. He wants to make sure you're not falling for someone who's a complete creep." "I know that, Sam, I'm not stupid!" She gestured heavenward angrily. Why is everyone treating me as though I'm ten years old! I expected him to size you up, but it's the WAY he did it. He was so nice and you were getting on so well - I KNOW he likes you - and then he turns round and TAUNTS you like that, almost calling you a coward - and you're not - you're not!" She dashed away hot tears with an impatient hand. Sam's heart swelled at her impassioned defense of him, although he also found it absurd. She was barely out of her teens, ready to fight tooth and nail for someone who'd watched out for himself for a very long time, who'd been in far more difficult or dangerous situations than this. No, it wasn't absurd, it was staggeringly wonderful! His heart threatened to burst, but he merely said, "Okay, okay. Maybe pushing so hard about 'Nam wasn't the best way to go about sizing me up, but he cares about you. I'd probably have done something similar in his shoes." Al made a rude noise. Sam ignored him. He had to knock down the wall of anger that Helen had built, shutting out the man who was the nearest thing she had to a father. She would need David after he had Leaped. "He isn't calling ME a coward. You forget he sees me as someone who's twenty years his junior, leaves his room looking as though it's been hit by a twister and writes crappy detective novels for a living." He picked up a shiny record sleeve and held it in front of his face. "And who looks like THAT!" Brian's meek reflection stared earnestly at him, its chin clean-shaven but still weak and ineffectual. "And to top it all I'm sleeping with you in your Mom's house!" Helen looked at the reflection. She sighed. "I guess you're right. I forget who other people see." Sam rubbed her arms encouragingly. "That's better. Now, go apologise to him for flaring up like that." "Me! Apologise to him?" He nodded. Helen looked rebellious and he raised an amused eyebrow. "You're behaving like a typical teenager - obnoxious and rude!" She opened her mouth to protest, then changed her mind. "Oh, all right," she muttered ungraciously. Sam watched as she went slowly back to the kitchen. "I'm glad I never met him," declared Al. "If he'd said anything like that to me I'd have punched him on the nose - the pompous nozzle!" Sam picked up a cassette of Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' and popped it into the stereo. "Did you do that to the father figure in the life of every girl you slept with?" "No-o. Only two. One was the lion tamer at the circus I joined. His daughter wore leopard skin underwear and PURRRED like a big cat. The family were Jewish and - can you believe it, Sam - he wanted to see if I was circumcised or not! The other was the brother of the beautiful blonde waitress at the joint where I got my burgers in Pensacola. Actually, she served me with a lot more than just burgers and -" Sam walked away, shaking his head. In the kitchen, Helen and David were amicably clearing the table of the dirty dessert plates. Sam picked up the last piece of dirty crockery and took it over to the sink, which Helen was filling with water. "Leave that. I'll do it later. Come and enjoy your coffee." He picked up the coffee pot and carried it to the table. Al appeared through the wall and William skittered through the doorway after him. David brought over coffee cups. "Helen tells me you tried to teach her chess at the cabin. I could have told you she was hopeless." He grinned at Helen who, much to Sam's relief, grinned back. David went on casually, "I can give you a game, if you like. Would you like to play now? That is, if you don't mind, Helen?" "No, that's okay. It's about time Dad's chessmen were used again. They'd like to be played with. All the poor things do is gather dust on the shelf." "That'd be great," said Sam, his eyes gleaming. "I'll go get the board." Al smirked. "Ooh. This is gonna be much better than popping him one!" He thrust his face into David's. "Prepare to be annihilated." "I hope he beats you hollow," Helen whispered to David as they sat down. "We'll see," said David with a smug look, as he moved the cups to one side. Sam set the chessboard down carefully, so the carved and polished pieces wouldn't fall. "I haven't played in I don't know how long, so you'll have to excuse me if I'm a bit rusty." "Don't worry, it'll all come back to you. It's like riding a bicycle, you never forget once you've learned. I can give you a pawn, though, if you like?" "No, that's okay," replied Sam quickly. "Let's see how we measure up against each other first." Helen picked up one white pawn and one black and held them behind her back for a moment. She extended her fists to Sam, saying with a smile, "I used to do this for Dad and David." Sam tapped her left hand and she opened it to reveal the white pawn. He took it and the black pawn from her and replaced them on the board while David swivelled it around so the black pieces were lined up in front of him, facing Sam and their white opponents. Sam glanced up to see if David was ready, then made his opening move. Helen pulled her chair nearer to his, making it obvious where her allegiance lay. She leaned so close he could smell the faint citrus of her soap and hear her earrings' soft tinkle. Al consulted Ziggy via the handlink, oblivious to William, who was twisting around his ankles. The cat meowed plaintively, trying to get Al's attention so the hologram would stroke him in the wonderful way he had before. "That's the opening Fischer used against Spassky, World Championships, 1972," said Al. "Good move, Sam." Irritated by his interruption, Sam glared at him while David made his move. As Sam was about to make his second move, Helen shifted in her chair, settling even closer, and he felt her hand on his knee. With Helen on one side and Al leaning over him on the other, he began to feel crowded. David was regarding him with a slightly superior, amused expression he was beginning to find very annoying, even though he knew it was a deliberate pose designed to make him feel ill at ease. He removed Helen's hand, saying firmly, "How about you go find some inspirational music for us?" Adding with a smile when he saw the hurt look in her eyes, "Your presence is VERY distracting." William chose that moment to decide he had a better chance of gaining Al's attention if he was closer to his face. He jumped onto Sam's knee and thence to the table where he meowed at Al, tail waving, threatening to knock over the chessmen. Sam grabbed him quickly, just in time to save a rook from imminent destruction. He dumped the surprised cat into Helen's arms. "Why don't you BOTH go." He looked meaningfully at Al. "I can fight THIS battle on my own." "Yes, do go away, Helen," chipped in David, "and take that damned animal with you before he ruins the game." Helen stood, William squirming in her arms. "Just like old times. 'Run away and play, Helen. Daddy and David are busy'." She gave a resigned sigh. "It's okay, I know when I'm not wanted. Come on, William, let's go see what we can find that's 'inspirational'." The two men turned their attention back to the chessboard. Sam realised Al was still watching. He scowled at him. "You better look at what you're supposed to be doing, Sam," Al reminded him. "It's your move." "Go away!" mouthed Sam silently. "Okay, okay, I'm going!" Al backed off, through the wall to the living room. Suddenly, his head appeared on the wall like some game hunter's trophy. "Just make sure I'm in on the kill." He threw David a gloating look. Sam stared at him through narrowed eyes until he disappeared again. "Are you quite ready, Brian?" asked David, a touch impatiently. "It's your move." "Sorry. Just trying to collect my thoughts." Sam gave his full attention to the chessmen and settled down to enjoy the game. Helen wandered over to her LPs, feeling excluded and slightly lonely. "It feels weird, Sam being here and us not doing something together." She rubbed her cheek in William's soft fur. "Oh, William, I'm so glad he was able to save his brother - even if he did have to kill that - that 'choo hoy'." She looked back through the doorway at Sam. He was hunched over the chess-board, completely absorbed in the game. As she watched he moved a pawn decisively, before glancing across at his opponent, obviously waiting for him to make his move. "I wish I had learned chess properly so I could have a game with him," she told the cat, "but I don't think I'll ever understand it." She considered. "I don't think I want to learn, really. I don't know how you can let the pieces be taken, even if it does mean you win in the end. It's so cold and calculating. I guess I just don't have what it takes to be a general. I don't know how Sam does it either, do you, Cat? He cares so much about people." She hugged William again. "Wasn't what he said about South Africa fantastic? That must be what's going to happen. Did you see the way his eyes were shining? Yet he's still able to play a cold, logical game like chess." She shook her head, frowning. "Sam's very good at putting himself in someone else's shoes," remarked Al, who had come up behind her, "be it a brass hat or a grunt. That's why he's so good at Leaping. He understands what makes people tick, how they think. He NEEDS the logic to hold back his emotions, so he doesn't get too involved." He grimaced. "Though he does have a bad habit of letting his feelings run away with him and he's nearly come unstuck once or twice." His tone became mildly exasperated. "He always wants to do more than is absolutely necessary for him to Leap, make things turn out even better than they're supposed to. Maybe that's why he came so close to burning himself out - from trying TOO hard." Aware Al was close by, Helen said, "You got banished too, huh, Al?" Her eyes searched the room. She sighed. "I feel so stupid talking to an empty room. I wish I knew EXACTLY where you were, Al. I know you're here somewhere but I don't know where. I'm not even sure if I'm facing the right way." "If you'd tell me HOW you know," said Al sardonically, "I might be able to help you to at least get the direction right." He stepped from side to side, trying to stay in her line of sight as she turned her head this way and that, conning the room. "Keep your head still, kid. This is worse than trying to square dance!" William jumped out of Helen's arms, startling her, and began walking back and forth close to Al's ankles, purring. Al looked down at the cat. "Now here's a way maybe." He hunkered down and placed his hand as close to the cat as he could, moving it in long, smooth strokes just above the animal's back. William responded by arching his back and purring even louder. Helen stared in astonishment at the cat's strange behavior. Then her face broke into a delighted smile. "Oh, you clever cat! You've found Al, haven't you?" She sat beside the now recumbent animal, which had been reduced to a state of complete idiocy by the hologrammatic stroking. "At least now I have some idea where you are, Al." She tickled William under the chin and closed her eyes. "This helps, too. Now I can imagine you really being here." And there he was. She could see him so clearly. Down on one knee, rubbing behind the ears of the cat, the silver jacket catching the light as his arm moved, the neon badge glowing pink. The lights on the odd, vaguely rectangular object - no, the HANDLINK, that's what it was - the lights on the handlink flashing, illuminating his hand and the cigar he also held, turning them strange shades of green, blue, pink. She inhaled deeply. Such a wonderful, fragrant, tobacco-y aroma surrounded him, wreathing his crisp, dark hair in a perfumed cloud. She saw the grey at his temples, the lines etched by love and war into his forehead and around the smiling brown eyes. "Al," she said softly, eyes still closed. "At the cabin, Sam told me a little about how you helped him in his Leap to Vietnam. He said that if you'd told him, he could have freed you - saved you from all those years as a prisoner - but that you chose to help him find his brother instead, so he could stop him from being killed." And, from what Sam had said, at the time Al had made that choice he'd known his wife would not wait long enough for him to come home, he'd known she would marry someone else. But Helen knew she couldn't mention that, Sam had said Al no longer remembered it. She knew how difficult Al's choice must have been, much harder than her own. She had not known of the bond that would join her and Sam when she made the decision to follow the path laid down for her. She knew now that part of her would be torn away with him when he Leaped. And he would Leap, however much she wished he could stay. She had no choice in the matter. For Al to make the choice of leaving his life unchanged with full knowledge of what would follow, of the long years of torture he would endure, of the even longer years of loneliness - ah, now that took real courage and valor. She reached out her hand. "That was so wonderful of you, Al! Thank you, thank you so much for giving Sam his brother. It must have been so HARD to decide what to do." And she silently thanked Sam for changing his friend's life and ensuring Al's wife would wait. Helen opened her eyes and Al saw they were glistening with tears. One salty drop trickled slowly down her cheek. He lifted his hand to wipe it away - then stopped as he remembered he couldn't. "You don't need to cry for me, kid." The gravelly voice was very soft. "It wasn't meant to be. I had my way to go, the same as you have yours. If nothing else 'Nam taught me to get my priorities right. It made me realise that Beth came first, before everything else. D'you know, when I was finally released, I was terrified I'd get home and find she'd given up on me and found someone else. Stupid, huh? Though it took a final kick in the butt from you to make me come out and tell her how much I loved her. I guess meeting you was something that WAS meant to be." William realised he was no longer being stroked and meowed indignantly, startling the two humans, breaking the spell. Helen giggled. "Boy, you sure know how to shatter a mood, Cat!" She sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Come on, we were supposed to be finding music." She got to her knees. "Now, what would Sam consider inspirational? Hmm, classical? Beethoven? Bach? 'Man of La Mancha' maybe?" Al winced. "No." William jumped up at his voice. "I think we wore that one out last night. I know exactly what Sam would like." He looked speculatively at the cat. "I wonder if...? Hey, William, come over here." He clicked his fingers, then waggled them in front of a particular group of LPs. William padded silently over. He batted at the fingers playfully with his paw, tapping the LPs as he did so. "Yeah, that's it." "Oh, you want one from there, don't you, Al?" Helen pulled out one of the LPs the cat had tapped. "Is this it?" "Nope, not quite." He made William tap the records again. "Try again." Helen pulled out another LP. "Is this right?" "Yeah, that's it." This time he made the cat tap the LP Helen was holding. She looked at the cover. "How appropriate after all that 'discussion' about 'Nam and South Africa." She put the LP on the turn- table. "I bet the first track is Sam's favorite." "It sure is, kid." John Lennon's voice came over the speakers. "Imagine there's no heaven..." * * * * * "Checkmate." "That," said David, "was the toughest, most enjoyable game I've had in a long while. Congratulations on a well-deserved victory." Sam grasped the hand he proffered and gave it a firm shake. "Thanks. Helen was right when she said you were a good player. You nearly had me once or twice." "Liar!" declared Al, from his position behind Sam's chair. "You just let him THINK he was going to win. Why didn't you go all out and crush the knucklenose, like he deserved?" "You used some unorthodox moves I hadn't come across before," said David. "Maybe you could teach them to me some time." He stood, lifted his jacket from the back of the chair and shrugged himself into it. "However, it'll have to wait for another day. I'm flying out to London tomorrow." He glanced at the Rolex and grimaced. "Or rather, today. I'll be gone for at least a week. Perhaps we could have a return match sometime after that?" "Yes, sure," replied Sam. *If I'm still here.* "I'd enjoy that." He followed the older man into the living room. Helen was fast asleep, curled up on the couch, her cheek pillowed peacefully on her hand. In the faded jeans and soft blue top, her hair tumbled about her face, she looked about fourteen. David looked down at her tenderly. "She's a lovely girl. You're very lucky." Sam nodded. "Yes." The two men walked to the door. Al remained gazing down at Helen. "She gets even lovelier," he murmured. David shook Sam's hand again. "I enjoyed myself this evening. I'm glad I had the chance to meet you before my trip, Brian. There's a lot more to you than meets the eye." His grip hardened. "You know, don't you, how fond I am of Helen? If anyone ever hurt her, they just might find living a little difficult." Sam looked directly into the ice-blue eyes. "Yes, I do know. If anything I do makes her unhappy, it'll be due to circumstances beyond my control. I would never deliberately hurt her, David. She means too much to me - far too much." The other man nodded, released Sam's hand and, without a backward glance, was gone. Sam watched the sleek, silver car purr away into the night, wondering if he would ever see its driver again. He closed the door on his thought and the chill night air. Unfortunately, he closed the door a fraction too quickly to see red and white light blaze through the windows of the Jaguar just before it reached the end of the street. The car swerved, then shuddered to a halt. A couple of seconds later, it slowly turned and crept quietly back up the road to the little house. "HE may have thought you played well," declared Al, "but Bobby would have been disgusted with your game. Darn it, Sam - you're a Grand Master! You should have annihilated him." "Bobby?" queried Sam, frowning. "Yeah, Bobby Fischer. He's the one who taught you those 'unorthodox moves'." Sam's brow cleared and he snapped his fingers. "I got it! Bobby Fischer. World Chess Champion 1972 to '75. I met Bobby Fischer!" He frowned again. "But I don't think it was in the Seventies. I remember being older..." "You were. It was in '92 when he had his rematch with Spassky. You took a couple of days off from putting Ziggy together - and left Gushie and Tina high and dry, wondering how to deal with a six-month-old version of the Tin Man, whose equivalent of teething was to turn the air conditioning up so high everyone had to wear thermal longjohns. Then he turned the conditioning off completely, leaving us all sweltering in the desert heat." Al's expression changed into a lascivious smile. "Mind you, it was great helping Beth take off her thermal undies in the med- store when the temperature went up. And, wow, didn't the temperature go up!" He saw the look on Sam's face. "Yeah, well, you went racing off, just to watch Bobby Fischer play. When you came back you bored everyone out of their minds, going over every move he'd made. He'd actually given you a game, and crushed you - the way you should have crushed HIM tonight." "I couldn't 'crush' him. You told me Ziggy said I mustn't change anything for Brian, so I couldn't play like a Grand Master, could I? David knows enough about chess to be able to tell how good his opponent is. If I'd played really well, he'd have known. Being brilliant at chess doesn't exactly fit what we know about Brian, does it?" "Neither does being in a SEAL squad." "Yeah, well, I suppose not," admitted Sam, a little shamefaced. "I know I shouldn't have told David about that but he made me so mad. He softened me up really well before he went for the kill." He gave a short laugh. "I wouldn't like to be on the other side of the table when he's doing business. I wasn't expecting him to ask what Brian did in 'Nam. I'd forgotten how polarised everyone's views still were in '77." "Yeah, well you should have expected it, Sam. Brian was the right age to be drafted. Some of us only got back in '75. That was only two years before - or had you forgotten that, too?" "No, I hadn't forgotten." Sam gave his friend an apologetic smile. "You know, Al," he went on thoughtfully, a little surprised, "I really liked David. I'm glad he keeps an eye on Helen. At least she'll have someone to look out for her the way you look out for me." "Yeah, he's okay, I suppose," agreed Al grudgingly. *As a guard dog! Good thing he was away when I met her - I'd never have got anywhere near her!* Sam lifted Helen from the couch into his arms. "Come on, sleepyhead. Time for bed." She roused enough to slide her arms around his neck and mumble, "Did you beat him, my general?" "Yes, of course I beat him," Sam replied, carrying her towards the bedroom. Al remained where he was, watching them go. "Good," came the sleepy voice. "He shouldn't have cast nasturtiums on your character." Al heard Sam laugh. Helen's voice drifted down the hall, "G'night Al." "Good night, Helen. 'Night Sam." There was no reply. He opened The Door, then tapped the handlink again as he stepped through. "Nasturtiums? What's a flower got to do with anything?" He squinted at the handlink. "Oh, I get it. It's a malapropism. Nasturtiums - aspersions." He shut down The Door, still muttering.