September, 2000 Santa Fe, NM Senator Franklin studied the woman in front of him. "Who?" Zoe smiled and leaned forward, her short dark hair brushing against her cheeks. "Admiral Calavicci." "Here?" Her eyes narrowed slightly and she raised an eyebrow. "Send him in." Al sauntered calmly in through the door seconds later, his ease serving to irritate if not surprise the senator. Al stopped serveral paces in the room and looked evenly at the senator. "Bastard." A sly smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Such harsh words. You took quite a risk coming here, Admiral." Al sat across from him. "Not really. Anything happens to me, Project Quantum Leap comes to a grinding halt and then what's to stop anyone from exposing you?" He nodded slowly. "True, true. But you were tailed all the way here. Do you really trust that we won't cause your ex-wife to become...distressed?" He added a sneer to the words. Al shrugged noncommittedly. "I wouldn't trust you half as far as I could throw you, no." The senator smiled wider in spite of the warning bell he heard in his own mind. Something wasn't right with this picture; somehow the admiral had one-upped him, but he had no idea how. He lifted the phone and dialed a four digit number. "Thames, bring Ms. Ingalls up here, will you?" "Oh, I wouldn't do that if I were you." He crossed his legs, waiting for the senator to ask. He had grasped the upper hand and he knew it bothered the other man that thus far he didn't even know how he had managed it. "And why do you say that?" Al leaned forward and lifted a small glass sculpture from his desk, pretending to examine it. "Because there is a direct link-up from the project to the car to here and I've got someone with a finger on the button. You go out there and we can destroy your project." "Impossible," the senator scoffed. "You're bluffing." The admiral raised an eyebrow. "You sure?" Abruptly the lights in the room dimmed slightly and then rose back to full power. "Finger on the button, senator." Franklin studied him carefully. "What do you want?" ^----^----^----^----^ April, 1985 Simpsonville, SC Sam watched "his" daughter with a slight smile on his face. She was about six or seven by his estimate and she was just the most darling thing he had ever seen. It was such a wonderful change to be with a loving family, safe and secure, that he had to keep reminding himself that disaster loomed just around the corner. At that moment she was sitting on his lap while he watched football. Her face reminded him slightly of Katie, which only strenghtened his already firm resolve to keep her from harm. "Daddy?" she asked, lifting her head off his chest. Her dark hair tumbled haphazardly over her face. He laughed lightly and brushed her hair back. "Yes, Ashley?" She shifted, her knee digging painfully into his leg until he shifted her onto his knee. "Can I go to Sarah's tonight?" "Not tonight, dear." *Please, not tonight,* he thought, wondering if that's all it would take to change her fate. If so, it would be easy. She would stay here, and he could make up some excuse to go by the church and save whoever it was who was in there at the time. Simple, right? The mere thought that it could be that straightforward made him uneasy. Ashley's lower lip stuck out. "Please," she pleaded, a bit of a whine slipping into her tone. "You don't have to do anything, daddy. Sarah's mother already said it was okay." "You have school tomorrow," Sam improvised. "No, I don't. It's a holiday. Ple-ase?" Her question was drawn out into a long, ear-splitting cry and Sam winced. He felt a tantrum coming along. "Ashley, I said no," he stated as firmly as he could. That seemed to forestall the fit, but she slid off his lap and stomped out of the room. If Sam hadn't been so anxious about her safetly, he would have laughed at her exaggerated movements. That was taken care of, anyway. He had until the time of the fire, 11:30 PM, to think up a good excuse and he was home free. ^----^----^----^----^ September, 2000 Santa Fe, NM Beth listened to the conversation going on inside, wishing momentarily that she hadn't agreed to do this. If she hadn't still been angry at Al, she might not have been as anxious to volunteer. Al's laptop sat open and gleaming from its own power in her lap. She saw at least two people about 200 yards from the locked car. Her knuckles were white where they clenched at the edges of the computer and a prayer ran through her mind. She hadn't bothered to ask Al why on earth he had a wire in his car, but goodness only knew what he carried around with himself on a regular basis. There was probably a gun, too, and if he hadn't known that she would never use it, he would undoubtedly have shown her where it was. Unless he had it on him. She listened as Al manuvered Franklin right into the trap he had set out from the beginning. Finally, frusturated and uncertain, his captive asked, "what do you want?" She could practically hear Al's satisfied grin. "You want me to shut down this project, don't you?" "I would never trust your word on that. No, I want what you can give me right now." "And that would be....?" There was a pause and Beth leaned forward, concerned that the wire had gone dead. "The retrieval program," Al finally said. There was a harsh laugh and Beth shivered, recalling both of her encounters with him. There was still a bruise on her cheek where he had hit her. "We give you that and, assuming it works, he's been gone a little longer than our calculated window, you know," he said, interrupting himself. "Assuming it works, your project ends and so does ours." "Well, it's either a sure thing now or a possibility later. You take your pick." No sound, not even that of movement, came for at least five minutes. Then, abruptly, the screen in front of her flooded with information. She lifted the cellular phone to her ear, waiting for the okay to call Al. "Gooshie?" she said tightly, "today please. I'm not all that comfortable with-" "That's it!" he cried out. "It could take some effort to impliment, but it could work...." Gooshie continued with his ramblings, never even realizing that she had cut him off. She phoned Al's beeper, the pre-determined signal that she had Goohie's seal of approval. Then she waited. "Always a pleasure doing business with you, Admiral," Franklin cooed sarcastically. "Right." Al's tone matched his. "But let me make one thing very, very clear. You have not heard the last of this; this project will be shut down one way or another." "Of course." His voice indicated he expected no less of his adversary. "Oh, and one more thing. You lay one hand on _her_ again and you'll be eating your last meal through a tube." Franklin didn't respond. The moments passed slowly and finally, he emerged from the building. He refrained from speaking until they were out on the road, but his posture indicated his relief that it was over. And his hope that the program he had risked everything for would work. "Are you okay?" he asked her gently, pulling out onto the dirt road that led the rest of the way out of Santa Fe. "I'm fine, Al." She reached out a reassuring hand, but then thought the better of it. "So, did you get what you needed?" His laugh was nervous. "I certainly hope so." "Me too," she said after a moment and he smiled at her. "I was bluffing," he said carefully. Her startled expression told him he had done a good job of it, too. She let out a slow, shaky breath. "Thanks for telling me afterwards," she muttered and he laughed. ^----^----^----^----^ April, 1985 Simpsonville, SC 11:00 PM was drawing near and Sam sought out his "wife", Sharon. He had found compositions written by Stephen McNeill by the piano and from this information, had developed an adequate reason for going to the church this late at night. Sharon was just settling into bed. "Sharon?" he asked, looking into the room. "Yes?" She favored him with a bright smile. "I need to run by the church." The smile disappeared and she sat up in the bed. "Steve, what for?" "Oh, I need to get some music I had left there. I was just gonna look in on Ashley and run there and back. It shouldn't take long." She didn't look very happy with the idea, but she nodded slowly. "Alright, but Ashley's not here." Panic set in. "What? Where is she?" "Oh, she went to Sarah's." Upon seeing his expression, she added, "it's just a couple houses down, Steve. What's wrong?" "I already told her she couldn't go," he choked out. She looked distinctly angry. "That girl! This isn't the first time she's pulled that. Well, we'll talk with her tomorrow." But Sam was no longer listening. "Where's Sarah's house?" "What?" Sharon asked, confused. "Where's her house?" he demanded, on the verge of yelling. "Two houses to the left, number 506," Al's voice from behind prompted him. "We're trying to get a lock right now." Sam turned and dashed out of the room, ignoring the blank expression on Sharon's face. After a stunned silence, she got up and dressed to go after him. Sam was talking with Sarah's mother, who was insisting that she just assumed Ashley couldn't come over. "She never called one way or the other, so we thought she wasn't coming," she said, concern evident in her eyes. "It's just two houses down, what could have happened?" "Sam, we got a lock, but you've got to hurry, the fire's going to start in twenty-five minutes and you still have to get there!" "Where is she?" he gasped out. Sarah's mother bit her lip. "I wish I knew...." "She's about a mile down the road and it doesn't look good. I'll be back in a minute." Al vanished, reappearing next to a man and the little girl that he had not thus far even seen. He eyed the handlink and then groaned. "Thanks for the information, Ziggy. Your timing, as always, leaves much to be desired."