Tina Backus stood outside the television studios, looking up at the moon while she waited for her lift home. Another job completed successfully and another social evening ruined. She sighed heavily; she loved her job, but hated that she couldn't remember the last time she hadn't been called away from an evening out, or an evening in, as the case may have been, by a call from Malone or one of her other colleagues on his behalf.
"Boo!" a familiar voice whispered, blowing warm air over her ear, tickling.
"Sam!" she turned, slapping him playfully. "Don't you know that it's not polite to make a lady jump like that?"
"Show me a lady and I'll - ouch!"
Backup pinched his arm hard. "You were saying?" she asked innocently, struggling to keep a straight face.
"That, er, you looked absolutely ravishing tonight? Before we all jumped into SWAT gear, I mean."
Sam was giving her his most charming smile, illuminating his face far brighter than the moon ever could. She wondered for a fleeting moment if he was trying to say anything more to her than just joking banter. She couldn't tell, so she took his words at face value. "Get over it, Sam," she said, and with her nose purposefully in the air, marched off towards the car. But, knowing that Sam couldn't see her with her back to him, she allowed herself a broad grin as her ego swelled with the compliment.
Sam watched Backup walking away and sighed regretfully. He really did like Tina, but both of them were too professional to allow themselves to be more than good friends.
Sam turned as Chris slapped him lightly on the shoulder as he walked past a little stiffly.
"'Night!" Sam replied, then added, frowning slightly. "Chris, you all right?"
"Fine, Sam," Keel smiled back at him, pausing on the steps. "Just a couple of bruises, nothing a hot shower and nice massage won't cure."
Sam chuckled lightly. "Monique waiting up for you, is she?"
Chris shrugged, "She was pissed with me when I abandoned her this evening, but she's kinda getting used to it, so I'll give her a call and see if she's forgiven me yet."
"Good luck, mate," Sam grinned back at him, knowing only too well the rapid turnover of dates they all had due entirely to the job. He wished he had someone who might just forgive him enough to provide a massage. He wondered if Backup might oblige, and grinning with that thought, he jogged to catch her up and take her home.
The Minister switched off her PC and rubbed at tired eyes as she contemplated the call of her bed. After a moment, she rose and moved into the living room to find a cognac to take with her.
As she sipped, appreciating the melting heat slipping down her throat, the phone rang. She picked up the handset from the cradle and listened. When the caller had finished she stared into space, pale and shocked.
Then she dialled. When the man at the other end answered, she spoke.
"Malone? We have a situation..."
Chris threw his keys on the table and wandered habitually to the fridge, searching for a Bud. Opening one of the bottles, he retrieved the handset of his cordless phone from under the Yucca plant where he'd left it and dialled Monique's number. It was ringing when he noticed that the light on his answering machine was flashing; it was usually flashing, but this time some sixth sense made him hang up and play the messages before talking to the singer.
There was only one message, and sure enough that was from Monique; she didn't think it was working between them, and he shouldn't call her any more.
Chris chugged his beer and scowled. That was Monique all over when it came to business, cold and efficient. Why have a scene when a dozen words would do the job on a tape? He had thought she'd been a bit off this evening, not the usual bubbly self that she became when she relaxed. Maybe he should introduce her to Sam; they could blow hot and cold together.
Tossing the empty bottle in the bin, Chris headed for his nice hot shower that with a bit of luck would ease out the stiffness and swelling that had begun to settle in the bruising to his gut and face. There was nothing serious, just a little soreness along with the depressing realities of yet another ruined evening and yet another ruined relationship.
Tina was grinning broadly as she let herself into her apartment. Laughing and joking with Sam always left her on a high, especially when she got the last word.
She made herself a hot chocolate while she ran the tub, eagerly anticipating the nice long soak she would have before retiring to her once again empty bed. She had briefly considered phoning Angela to see if she and the boys were still at the boat or had gone on somewhere else where she could catch up, but had then dismissed that idea; she was too exhausted to play nice.
Putting the mug on the side of the bath Tina undressed slowly, stretching out tense muscles as she went. She turned the tap off and lifted a foot, testing the water with her toe. Perfect.
The phone rang.
Tina stared at her bubble-clad toe and considered the ringing. She waited patiently for her answer machine to pick up and, when she heard the voice leaving its message, lifted her foot delicately from the bath and dried it. Her face carefully expressionless she then let the water out, tipped the chocolate down after it and went to make a cup of coffee.
Standing in the kitchen wrapped in a towel and waiting for the kettle boil, she finally decided that her temper had simmered for quite long enough.
Sam had only just got in after dropping Backup off, and was selecting a bottle of wine from his rack when the phone rang.
He picked it up, ready with a quick line, thinking that it was either Chris wanting to share a Bud or Backup having left something his car. At this moment either would be a welcome relief from facing another lonely night.
The words stuck in his throat as he heard the voice at the other end.
As he put the phone down he rolled his eyes and picked up his jacket, his face abruptly as hard as granite, and made his way to his car.
Chris lay happily on the couch clad only in boxer shorts, another Bud in one hand, day old pizza in the other, and after only two minutes of channel surfing he found that the Paramount Channel was re-running Cheers. Again.
Who needed a hot date and a massage?
The phone interrupted and he answered with his mouth full of not quite stale pizza.
When he hung up he threw the handset at the Yucca plant, washed down the pizza with the rest of the Bud and got dressed, all with a hard calmness and coolness that Sam would have been proud of.
The underground car park that belonged to CI5 was unusually quiet. Just a handful of cars were parked there, indicating only a skeleton staff on duty.
The silence was abruptly torn apart by the squeal of tires and burning rubber as a silver Lotus and a black Nissan Coupe turned into the garage simultaneously, both going too fast and riding the gears to enable sharp turns and fast acceleration.
As they came to a synchronised halt, a blue Ford Puma pulled elegantly up between them.
Backup climbed out of the Puma and looked at Sam and Chris, both exiting their own cars, the looks on their faces echoing her own feelings. "If this is a joke," she began calmly.
But Chris interrupted her with equal calmness, "Then I'm going to hunt down whoever is responsible and - "
"And take great pleasure in feeding Malone his - "
"His what, Mr Curtis?" came Harry Malone's voice from behind a column as he stepped out. Evidently the CI5 chief himself had only just arrived. "I can assure you, gentlemen, Miss Backus, that I am no more amused by this than you. Now, I suggest that we go and find out exactly what's happening, don't you?"
Chris glared with utter disbelief at the two men they were supposed to be working with. They both returned his look with heated anger blazing in their eyes.
Malone, Sam and Backup looked puzzled at the obvious tension in the room while the Superintendent smirked in his corner.
"Mr Keel, do you have a problem?" Malone asked waspishly.
"No, sir," Chris replied, without shifting his gaze from the two men.
"I'm glad to hear it. Superintendent?"
"It seems my lads have something to prove," the Superintendent said, still sneering. "Thought they deserved the chance." He moved forward and indicated each man in turn. "Craig McLean and Keith Hackett. Two of my best officers."
"They're not that good," muttered Chris and the two officers scowled.
"Mr Keel!" Malone snapped.
"Sir," Chris acknowledged, dragging his glare away from the two men.
"If we can please get on? I'm sure we could all do with some rest, but this situation cannot wait. As we must apparently work together, I expect us," Malone swept his gaze over all of them, including the Superintendent, "all of us, to put our differences aside for the duration."
There were reluctant mutterings of agreement all round, except for Keel and Hackett who simply glowered. Chris felt Sam's supportive hand on his shoulder and added his own unenthusiastic agreement while Hackett received a prod from McLean and grunted his assent too.
"What was that all about?" asked Sam as he and Chris went to get their kit.
"What? Those two jerks we're supposed to be working with?" Chris asked, anger apparent in his voice.
"Yes, those two officers we will be working with?"
Chris scowled and rubbed at his bruised jaw. "They're the clowns that jumped me on the roof tonight."
"And your problem would be...?"
"They jumped me! What other problem is there?"
"And you dealt with them."
Chris spun and stopped Sam in his tracks. "Curtis, we're not talking secure and store here. They got the jump on me and then tried to beat the crap out of me! That isn't something you do when you're supposed to be on the same side!"
Sam stared hard at him. "You're just in a strop because they took you by surprise." The American flushed almost scarlet and Sam knew that he was at least in part right.
"Am not!" Chris protested hotly, then sighed and calmed down a little, rubbing at his eyes tiredly. "Well, okay, maybe a little. I was distracted by one of Panos' mob and those two clowns took advantage. But that's no excuse. I should have known they were there."
"Chris, you're not super-human, you can't have eyes and ears everywhere - "
"I know that Curtis! And I dealt with it. But apart from all that they still laid into me. I don't trust them."
"Can't you put it down to Inter-departmental enthusiasm?" Sam smiled encouragingly.
Chris returned the smile humourlessly, "No."
"Well, you're going to have to," Sam told him sharply. "At least for the next few hours, because in the name of interdepartmental political relations we're lumbered with them."
"Yeah right." Chris brushed past Sam, and the Englishman suddenly had the awful feeling that he could well end up spending most of this assignment playing mediator or referee between his partner and the Met.
"What do you think the chances are?" Backup asked her passengers as she drove the Terrano towards their destination, a brand new office block in a brand new business centre that had not yet been occupied.
"What, of two hostage situations in one night?" asked Sam from the back seat. "If I had luck like this in the lottery, I'd be living it up in Monte Carlo."
"You call this lucky?" grumbled Chris from next to Backup. "I'd settle for one Saturday night without getting the call from the old man. Now that would be lucky."
"You're just tetchy, Chris, because you managed to get yourself beaten up agai - " Backup cut herself off at the glower she saw Hackett direct at her in the rear-view mirror. "Oops."
"And you're not?" Chris retorted sourly, "I saw your face in the car park. Interrupt another hot date, did he?"
"At least I had a hot date," Backup replied sweetly. "Unlike some people." She directed her comment at Sam.
"I was just getting ready to go out," Sam protested, feeling just a little left out.
"Sure you were!" Chris and Backup chorused, and laughed, exchanging a high five.
"In that case, I'm glad I'm not one of your dates, Sam," Backup said. "Being taken out on the town with a man in smelly, sweaty sweats isn't my idea of a hot date."
"For your information, Backup, a lot of women find the primal masculine scent of a hard workout exciting," replied Sam, with a knowing smirk.
"That's after the sex, Sam," replied Backup smoothly. "Beforehand, it's just plain old BO."
McLean snorted with laughter. "God, I love 'em feisty!" he said and leaned forward to speak into Backup's ear. "You doing anything later, sweetheart?"
"Sure," she replied brightly. "I'll be cleaning my bowie knife after I've used it to castrate you." Without waiting for a reply other than a smirk from Chris, she pulled over and announced, "We're here!"
Malone and the Superintendent sat in the back of the Mondeo, parked behind the Terrano. In the front, Spencer had booted up the laptop and was keeping track of where the other five agents were via the headsets.
The CI5 chief had a headache coming on, but refused to show weakness in front of the Metropolitan officer. He really had no idea why the Minister had insisted that they work with the police on this situation, but had resigned himself to simply dealing with it, too tired to really argue over something so petty.
Somewhere in the office block, there were apparently at least four men holding a board of directors' hostage. The directors had each been taken captive separately, brought here to this new block and held with no apparent demands made on anyone, just an anonymous call alerting the Minister. Their company, Citraine plc, was a large conglomerate with so many connections worldwide, both above and below board, that it was anyone's guess as to what this situation was all about.
Malone hated having so little information, so he had sent the team in to reconnoitre in the first place and then make recommendations on how to proceed.
Keel and Hackett were taking the fire escapes up either side of the building to the roof, while Curtis and McLean investigated the fire exits and Backus took the ground section of the ventilation system.
The Superintendent was studying the laptop over Spencer's shoulder with an expression of awe on his face. Malone leaned back in his seat and allowed himself a private smile at the implicit superiority that CI5 had with its technology. But he also knew that, despite whatever the Superintendent might think, that superiority could only work well if the agents that worked with it were themselves a cut above the rest.
Backup rubbed her nose in an effort to stop the itching from the fine dust that seemed to coat the metal ventilation ducts. She wriggled through, trying to find a grille that would give her an exit well away from any potential threats.
It was strange, though, that there seemed to be nothing. The information they had been given intimated that the place would be guarded, yet she had seen and heard no one.
Having found a suitable room, a storage cupboard by the looks of it, with its door slightly ajar, Backup removed the metal grille and lowered herself quietly to the floor. She went to the door and looked out into the corridor, trying to orient herself before she then reported in.
A small crashing sound, like something being knocked over, came from behind a partly open door opposite and she froze in her cupboard, waiting to see whether anyone would emerge. No one did, so she crept over to the other room and peered carefully inside. It seemed to be set up as a lab with workbenches, although there was no equipment there, and equally she couldn't see any sign of life.
She pushed further into the room, but heard the scuff of someone behind her. She turned in time to see the flash of a black clad body before something hit her hard on the side of the head. A brilliant explosion of light through her skull was abruptly eclipsed by suffocating darkness.
After twelve stories of fire escape Chris finally climbed onto the roof, breathless and sweating a little. He was infinitely glad that he'd had time for a hot shower before being called out again, because he knew from experience that his bruised stomach muscles would otherwise be locking up painfully by now instead of just aching dully.
He scanned the dark roof, searching the shadows for any sign of movement. Satisfied that for now the way was clear he checked in with Malone, reporting his position and his intention. Constantly scanning, Chris made his way to the metal door that would give them access to the lift shaft and used his electronic lock-pick to unlock and open them.
Some sixth sense started the hairs on the back of his neck prickling and he turned to glimpse a dark clad man, gun glinting in his hand as he made to swing at Keel's head. But Chris was there first, kicking out and catching the other man's gun hand as he doubled over, using his opponent's own weight and momentum to propel him over and on to his back. Except the lift shaft was there and Chris' opponent started sliding helplessly into it.
The moonlight bathed the man's face clearly for the first time, and Chris saw with horror that it was Keith Hackett. With no time to think twice, he grabbed the flailing man across the chest and hauled him back, wincing at the strain.
When both men were lying on the roof, panting, Keel ignored Malone's demands for an update on their position and laid into Hackett. "What in the hell did you think you were doing?" he asked incredulously. "You could have killed both of us!"
"I thought you were one of the bad guys!" Hackett snarled defensively. "How was I supposed to know it was you sneaking around here?"
"That's what the headsets are for! If you'd been listening, you'd have heard me call in! Which is what you should have done when you'd cleared the roof!"
"Well, I'm sorry, hotshot," snapped Hackett heatedly, "but all I got was an earful of static coming over the roof. And I did call in. It's not my fault if it didn't get through, and besides, if you ha -!"
"Mr Keel! Mr Hackett!" Malone's sharp voice virtually speared through their headsets and both men bit back their words, jaws clenching, glaring at each other.
"Let's just get this job over with," Keel growled.
"Quicker the better," agreed Hackett, restrained anger and shock from his recent close call clear in his face.
Sam grinned at the earful his partner and the policeman were getting from Malone as he stalked through the building, working his way through the ground floor towards the stairs. He heard McLean reporting his position immediately before he reported his own, and figured that he would probably meet the officer at the stairwell.
His grin disappeared to be replaced be a frown as Malone tried, and failed, to get a response from Backup. He was about to volunteer to go and look for her when he heard a low moan coming from a door marked 'WC'.
Cautiously he opened the door, keeping a wary eye out for possible ambush from inside. The small cubicle was empty though, apart from Backup lying curled around the base of the toilet. He immediately knelt down next to her and started to roll her over.
He caught sight of something flashing from the corner of his eye and started to roll out of the way. Restricted by the small space he couldn't move far enough, and a sudden explosion of pain announced the heavy impact of a gun against his head. He blinked back stars and tried to turn and defend himself, but again the space was too small and he was hit again, harder this time, the impact vibrating through his skull in agonising waves. He tried desperately to pick himself up, but his limbs turned to jelly and he found himself spiralling down into pain filled darkness even as the gun struck again. The last thing he saw as his vision failed, was a pair of highly polished black boots.
Although he would never show it, Malone was becoming increasingly uncomfortable under the growing, shark-like smile of the Superintendent. Curtis and Backus were both failing to respond to his hails, while McLean was reporting in with unerring efficiency. Keel and Hackett, though, seemed to be working together without any further aggravation since that infantile little scene on the roof. In fact, they almost seemed to be trying to outdo each other in terms of efficiency and enthusiasm.
Keel, as expected, had expressed his concern over Curtis and Backus, but had reacted with a professionalism only slightly marred by an insolent undertone.
"4-5 to Sunray," Keel's low voice came over the headsets.
"Go ahead 4-5," Malone responded, his tone clipped.
"The party's on the eighth floor, south-west corner. It's like Grand Central Station in here. I thought there were only supposed to be four hostiles?"
Hackett's voice answered, cutting over the top of Keel's. "Four armed guards patrolling, sir. We only have a limited view through the door to the conference room where they're holding the directors, but there seem to be six hostages and three hostiles inside."
"Four hostiles inside," Keel corrected. "One behind the door."
"Agreed, four," said Hackett, after a slight hesitation.
"Plus possibly at least one floating in the lower levels," said Malone, thinking of Curtis and Backus.
"It's all been clear so far," McLean interjected. "I'm on the fifth and working my way up. No sign of Cur - 3-7, 5-3 or any hostiles."
"Carry on, Mr McLean. Mr Keel, Mr Hackett, is there any possibility of getting a better look inside that conference room?"
"That's a negative, sir," replied Hackett, once again overriding Keel.
"I disagree, sir," Keel's voice followed on the heels of Hackett. "The patrolling hostiles are not in contact with those inside the room, beyond passing the doorway. Once McLean's here we can take the four patrolling guards down cleanly, giving us almost free access."
Malone hesitated. If that had been Curtis and Backus up there with Keel, he would have had no problem with that course of action. But he didn't know Hackett and McLean. He glanced at the Superintendent who smiled slyly.
"Your boys not used to bashing a few heads without the aid of fancy technology and pyrotechnic explosions, Malone?" he asked, his deep voice syrupy sweet. "Mine do this sort of thing every day."
"I'm quite sure that Mr Hackett and Mr McLean could keep up with Mr Keel," Malone replied with quiet confidence. "But as my agents are both trained and licensed to kill, I must take due consideration before allowing them into a situation where they might be forced to do so."
"What a wonderful excuse for prevarication," replied the Superintendent snidely.
Malone ignored him and spoke into his headset. "Go ahead as you see fit, Mr Keel."
"Thank you, sir. There's something else, though," Keel sounded puzzled.
"Yes? What is it?" asked Malone.
"The men we've seen are all wearing plain silver collars. Think it could be some kind of cult or uniform? Maybe identification?"
"I'll have Mr Spencer check on that. Thank you, Mr Keel." Malone smiled grimly at the Superintendent who scowled in return.
Backup groaned as the thumping in her head refused to let up. Disoriented, she tried to roll over onto her back, but a heavy weight prevented her from movement. As her senses came back to her, she realised that she was pinned between a warm body and the hard enamel of a toilet pedestal.
Gathering her strength she made a concerted effort to free herself, and with much grunting and twisting managed to pull herself to her feet, the walls lurching wildly around her for a moment. Her heart lurched as she recognised the limp figure as Sam, blood trickling down the side of his pale face.
Sitting on the lid of the toilet seat to give herself enough room to manoeuvre, she rolled Sam onto his back as best she could, though having to leave his legs at an uncomfortable angle against the wall, and felt for a pulse. It was strong and steady, and she breathed a sigh of relief as she rubbed at her temples trying to will her headache away.
Her first instinct was to call Malone, but her headset was gone, as was Sam's, along with their mobiles and guns. She tried to unlock the door but it was jammed from the outside, and with Sam in the way she didn't have the leverage to try and force it open.
The Englishman groaned and Tina tapped his face lightly in an attempt to bring him round. His eyelids fluttered slightly, giving her a glimpse of glazed silver eyes before closing again. She fished around in her pockets until she found a clean hanky, and ran it under the cold tap of the tiny sink before using it to gently wipe away some of the blood.
Sam had a couple of large reddening bruises and a nasty swollen gash at his temple, and Tina was fairly sure that he had to have at least a minor concussion. Her suspicion was confirmed when he finally opened his eyes to gaze around vaguely, muttering incoherently.
"Sam, Sam? Look at me Sam," she tried to get a reaction from him and smiled when, with some effort, he focussed on her.
"Hello, beautiful," he muttered, and flashed a weak version of one of his charming half-smiles at her.
"You," she told him, "are definitely concussed. How many fingers?" She held up three in front of his face.
"What fingers?" he asked innocently and she froze. "Only joking. Three, I think," he said, squinting.
Tina breathed a sigh of relief and punched him lightly. "Bastard."
"So, can we get out of here?" Sam asked, eyeing the door. "Much as I love the idea of being trapped in a small confined space with you, a toilet cubicle doesn't really appeal."
"If sir would care to get himself off his backside, we might be able to open the door." Backup suggested with gentle sarcasm.
"Well then, sir will do his utmost to oblige," Sam said, trying to get to his feet, although Backup could see that he was still shaken and dizzy.
Chris was getting impatient waiting for McLean to arrive, though he knew that the policeman had to clear each of the three floors below before coming up. It was only a moment after McLean reported that he had entered the seventh floor, however, that Hackett nudged him.
He looked over and frowned as he saw McLean peering around a corner, showing a thumbs up; the officer must have decided that the seventh didn't bear investigating for some reason. Chris nodded and held three fingers up as a patrolling guard passed them by. He used them to count down, three, two, one, then pounced on the nearest guard, throwing an arm around the unfortunate man's throat and cutting off his air until he passed out.
As he was lowering the man to floor something hard hit him on the joint of his left shoulder, numbing the entire arm as he heard Hackett cry out "Wait!" He spun and fell, tripping over the prone man as the other three guards piled on top of him, hitting with their guns and kicking with booted feet.
As Chris lashed out with both feet, trying to create some space where he could stand up, he saw Hackett and McLean disappearing through the door to the stairwell. Chris rolled to his feet, ducking a blow to his head and punching one of the guards below the belt.
McLean's voice in his headset announcing that he had cleared the seventh floor and was about to climb the stairs to the eighth distracted him for one stunned instant. What was McLean playing at?
Someone grabbed his still shocked left arm and yanked it behind him and up, shoving him to his knees as a boot connected with his right kidney. The pain shot through his side, making him cry out as he arched away and jolting his firmly held shoulder. More boots and rifle butts joined in and though he still continued to defend himself with his flailing right fist, it was a losing battle. One of the rifles hit him again in the shoulder, and the squelch he felt as his shoulder popped out gave him only a split seconds warning before the agony ripped through him.
Malone tried to make sense of what was happening. He plainly heard Hackett's surprised 'Wait!' preceding the sounds of a fight, but McLean was still on the seventh floor.
"Report!" he snapped.
Hackett answered, sounding breathless. "Sir! I don't know why, but Keel decided not to wait and took action without warning. I'm sorry sir, but with the noise some of the hostiles came out of the conference room and there were just too many of them. There was nothing I could do for Keel - he's down - so I thought the best action was to retreat. I'm in the stairwell with McLean now."
"Very well. Take cover and await further instruction," Malone said tightly as the Superintendent smirked.
"I can't say I'm impressed, Malone," he sneered. "Looks like it's down to my two lads, then."
"So it seems," Malone said thoughtfully, "so it seems." Something didn't sit right with him though and he was worried. Keel might be a little hotheaded at times, but when it came to the crunch he could be relied upon to get the job done quickly and smoothly. For him to get into a fight without a reason, albeit not always a good one, was not like him. He could only think that Keel must have seen something that Hackett hadn't.
Backup pressed herself tightly into the corner of the cubicle as Sam threw his full weight against the door. Whatever was blocking it gave a little and the Englishman put more force behind his efforts. There was no scope to be quiet about what he was doing, and they just had to hope that no one who might be unfriendly heard them. Although there had so far been no sign of anyone else.
Eventually Sam had forced a gap wide enough for Backup to slip through and remove the chair that had been jammed under the door handle. When Sam staggered out into the corridor Backup worried at his pale, sweating countenance but kept a lookout while her colleague leant against the wall, rubbing at his head and looking almost surprised at the blood on his hand from the still sluggishly trickling gash.
She gave him a few seconds to collect himself and then asked if he was ready to go, ignoring the throbbing waves that were assaulting her own skull.
"Where?" he asked, and Backup frowned.
"To find Malone?" she replied.
Sam shook his head and winced. "We should go up. Finish what we started."
"Without communications and unarmed?" Backup replied incredulously. "Come on, Sam, we don't know what's happening. Malone and the others will be working on the assumption that we're out of the picture -"
"Exactly," interrupted Sam. "And that gives us the advantage of surprise. If we can find Chris, he always carries a spare gun, and one of us can use his mobile."
"That still leaves one of us unarmed and one of us out of contact. And..." Backup paused as Sam's words registered. "Why would we need an advantage?"
But Sam ignored her last question. "You're right. You go and tell Malone that we're okay. He should probably know that we're back in the picture. I'll go and find Chris."
"Sam, you can't do this by yourself, you can barely stand up straight - "
"And you've got a black eye any panda would be proud of, and top of that... "
"What, Sam?" asked Backup as the Englishman trailed off.
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a few seconds. "On top of that, I'm inclined to think that Chris may have been right."
"Right about what?" Backup asked, frustration edging her tone.
"He didn't trust Hackett and McLean, and I'm beginning to think that it wasn't just sour grapes."
"Why would you think that?" she asked faintly, even as the image of a black clad figure wavered in her mind's eye.
"I can't be sure, but I think it might have been McLean that clobbered me. Whoever it was had black clothing and highly polished boots. Like the police do."
Backup stared at him, "But... what would they, he, have to gain by getting us out of the way?" she asked.
Sam shrugged. "Kudos? Who knows? I could be wrong, though."
"But if you're not..."
Sam nodded, "Chris could be in trouble too - they have more of a vendetta against him, and they weren't exactly gentle with us."
"Upstairs we go then," Backup said firmly. "Both of us."
Sam smiled wearily, and together they headed for the stairwell.
While Chris never really passed out his grip on reality was tenuous at best, sound and vision passing him by in a chaotic mess that his brain, too shocked with the pain, couldn't translate.
He was gulping air in an effort to bring it all under control, the splintered agony in his dislocated shoulder drowning out everything else. As time passed though, it slowly subsided to a barely manageable level as his other aches and pains made themselves known.
Tentatively flexing limbs and muscles he found nothing else that seemed any more serious, although his movement was severely restricted by coarse ropes. He was sitting on the carpet-tiled floor of the conference room by a window and, as best he could make out, he was bound hand and foot. There was a rope around his neck, uncomfortable, though not tight unless he tried to move. It seemed that the noose had been threaded through the ropes binding his wrists, keeping his arms twisted painfully up his back, and then affixed to the window somehow. Which would be why his shoulder was hurting so much.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Chris forced himself to look further outwards. He was being ignored for now, and used the time to try and get a handle on the situation.
The six subdued directors, all middle-aged men in pinstriped suits, were sitting round a plain boardroom table, their hands and feet tied to their chairs. Four men with guns lounged around the room, reading adult magazines or smoking, none of them seeming the least bit worried although they all looked frail and sickly. They were dressed casually, jeans and t-shirts, no organisation apparent among them. But what was noticeable was that everyone, including the directors, all wore the narrow silver bands about their throats.
It suddenly occurred to Chris that, despite having thoroughly hogtied him, these men were taking very little in the way of defensive precautions. His gun was in its holster at his side in plain view and he still wore his headset. He swallowed as he considered speaking, letting Malone know that he was still around, but he didn't know that he would still be around if he did so.
One of them, a tall, slim, blond young man, noticed that Chris was awake and crouched in front of him, rifle slung casually over his back.
"So, who are you then?" he asked in a middle-class southern English accent.
Chris considered, unsure how much he should say. If in doubt, say nothing, but this was an opportunity to contact the others.
The blond man smiled at Chris' hesitation and as if reading his mind said, "Don't worry, I know about your earpiece, and you can tell whoever's at the other end - your boss? - whatever you like. It's not going to make any difference, and could be useful. So, are you going to tell me who you are?"
Chris gazed into the light brown, slightly fevered eyes of the young man and was taken aback by the sincere, if guarded, friendliness he saw there.
"4-5," he said, his dry throat croaking. Instantly, Malone's voice came through the headset.
"4-5? Where are you?"
The blond man produced a small bottle of mineral water and held it for the American, who took a couple of cautious sips, enough to re-hydrate his throat.
He heard Hackett and McLean both talking at once, and decided to talk to the young man in front of him, ignoring Malone and the others, to see what information he could glean before someone decided to get rid of either him or his headset.
The two previously ultra-professional police officers were talking over each other, both with important opinions that suddenly couldn't wait.
"Mr Hackett! Mr McLean!" Malone spoke sharply, "You will maintain radio-silence Do I make myself clear? Communications from Mr Keel will take full priority until further notice." He waited a moment while the air cleared, and then spoke again quietly. "Mr Keel, we are listening."
"So, forty-five," began the blond man, wrinkling his nose in disgust. "Don't you have another name? Something more... human?"
"Chris," the American answered. "What about you?"
"Dennis," the blond smiled almost shyly, and then frowned. "We don't really want to hurt anyone, can you tell your boss that? But we will if we have to."
"You're close enough that my boss can hear you," Chris replied, biting back a groan as he tried to shift his cramped arms and only succeeded in generating another wave of pain from his shoulder. After he had regained his equilibrium he asked, "What are you trying to do? You haven't made any demands..."
Dennis nodded sadly. "We have, but they won't be met and we're all going to die."
"You're willing to die for this?"
The gold-brown eyes were wide and round in their innocence as they gazed at Keel. "Oh, yes. All of us here, well, except you and the directors, have more to die for than to live for."
Chris smiled slightly, thinking that it wasn't so long ago that he had felt exactly the same way, but for the opposite reasons. "What is it that means so much to you?"
Dennis sighed, "Germ warfare. Nasty diseases that the government aren't supposed to have. We don't really want them handed over to us, just for them to admit that they exist."
"Then why keep it all so quiet? I'd have thought you'd be wanting press, TV cameras, the works..."
Dennis shook his head. "No, that would scare the public, and we're not into scare-mongering. We just want the people in power who can do something about it to know. We don't have solid proof to hand over, but some of have seen, some of us are even infected."
"Infected with what?"
Dennis shook his head and lowered his eyes. "I can't say."
"How are you going to do this, then? Bombs under the building?"
"No!" Dennis laughed, "Nothing so crude, or dangerous to the general public. You'll have noticed the chokers?" He fingered the silver band around his own neck and continued when Chris nodded. "Poison. Not sure which one, though. Strychnine, cyanide..." he shrugged, then reached into a box and rummaged around, producing an open choker. He pointed to a short needle that jutted out from the inside of the collar. "That sticks in the jugular, it's not even uncomfortable after the first minute or two." Chris could see a narrow clear window running round the inside of the band, filled with a liquid. "An electronic signal opens the gate to the needle and it works on a vacuum, all sucked out into the blood stream."
Chris took a deep breath, his aching body taking a back seat as he assimilated the information. "Where does the signal come from?" he asked softly.
Dennis shrugged, "Two ways. Leave this room and they blow. That's why the guys patrolling outside haven't come in yet. They will when its time, but once you're in there's no leaving. It's just a way of making sure we're not stopped by any well-meaning persons such as yourself. Alternatively someone outside, our negotiator, presses a button."
"I don't know. That's down to the negotiator. She'll call us when its time."
Chris studied the collar as best he could from where he was, and could see no obvious identifying marks on it. "Where did you get these collars?" he asked.
With a knowing smile, Dennis replied, "Now that would be telling. We paid good money for them, and we've tested them so we know they work."
"Was the poison included in the price?"
Dennis shook his head, "Nic - our negotiator sorted that out for us. She filled them up too." His face and voice became wistful. "I'm going to miss her."
Chris studied the man. He had the feeling that Dennis and his pals were really not the murdering type. "What about me?" he asked, softly. "Am I supposed to just sit here and watch you all die?"
Dennis smiled brightly, "Oh no, I was hoping you'd ask. You can join us."
"Why?" Chris asked, pulling back ineffectively as Dennis moved to put the choker around his neck.
Shrugging again, Dennis carefully placed the silver band around Chris' throat above the noose, the American wincing very slightly as the needle pierced his skin. "The more the merrier, Chris Forty-Five. You'll be an innocent in all this, maybe give your boss something to think about. Maybe make the aftermath a little trickier to cover up." Then he grew serious. "You're dying anyway," he said regretfully, "we all are. The disease is contagious and you were probably infected the moment you attacked Floyd. If you'd seen what it does, you'd be only too happy to take this way out too."
One of the other men called to Dennis and he stood, saying, "There's no way of getting that choker off. Any flame hot enough would take your head right off with it. We can't lose."
Left to himself Chris started to lean back against the wall, but his shoulder protested loudly at even this small movement. He grimaced, closing his eyes in a futile attempt to block out the pain and wondered what the hell had happened to Sam and Backup.
Hugging the walls and feeling naked and vulnerable without a weapon, Sam led Backup up the stairwell. They had no way of knowing which floor or floors the action was taking place on, and so they'd had to make a fast reconnaissance at each level.
It had occurred to Sam that perhaps it might all be over, but a quick glance out of the window to see the Mondeo and the Terrano still parked quietly, combined with his firm belief that Malone would have had the building thoroughly searched for them, had negated that idea.
He was still periodically dizzy, especially when climbing the stairs, and found his vision blurring every once in a while. Every time he rubbed his eyes or shook his head trying to clear it, he would see Backup staring at him, her expression full of concern even through the blackened eye that was rapidly swelling shut. He would smile at her reassuringly each time, and each time she would roll her eyes in exasperation but voice no protest.
Going back to the stairwell on the fifth floor the corridor tilted alarmingly for Sam and he stumbled against the wall, his head pounding as a wave of nausea overtook him, sweat trickling down his face. He felt Backup grip his arm, comforting as well as supporting, as he tried to hold it all in and regain control. Just as the floor started to stabilise his stomach gave up and, with a crash that reverberated around his skull, he fell to the floor, doubling up as he was violently sick.
"Mr Keel," Malone repeated patiently. "Are you still with us?" He glanced over at the Superintendent who was staring stony-faced out of the window. It was obvious that the tall man had the same doubts as himself about Hackett and McLean.
"Sir..." Keel's pain-filled voice, kept low, finally answered the CI5 chief's summons.
"Is there anything else that might help us?"
"No, I don't... wait." There was a few seconds pause before the American continued, sounding slightly strangled and out of breath. "I can see a report... might not be relevant... Project.... Project Talex, I think."
"Talex?" Malone considered that, even as Spencer typed it into the laptop. "Not something I'm familiar with. Is there anything else, Mr Keel?"
"Is there any way you can get yourself out of there?"
What sounded like a hiccup of laughter exploded through the headset before Keel replied, "No, sir. Even if I could, I've got one of these damned chokers on."
"Very well, sit tight, there could be an advantage in having you on the inside. Keep me updated."
"Oh, and Mr Keel? Exactly how many men did you engage in that little altercation of yours?"
"Four, sir. One was out and the other three jumped me when Mc - "
"Thank you, Mr Keel," Malone cut him off sharply. "That's quite enough information."
Malone switched his transmitter on mute and turned to the Superintendent. "Well?" he asked, softly.
The big man clenched his jaw, the muscles twitching. "I'm sure I don't know what you're referring to."
"Come on, Superintendent. Hackett's excuse of static on the roof was highly unlikely given the sophistication of these headsets. You must know that from the clarity we had at the television studios with the satellite dishes right on top of us."
"Unlikely," the man admitted sourly, "but possible."
"Quite. And is Mr Hackett prone to exaggeration?"
The superintendent glowered, knowing exactly where this was leading. "No, he is not, at least not while on duty."
"So, assuming that you would doubt Mr Keel's validation, you would still say that Mr Hackett's claim that some of the men came out of the conference room to heavily outnumber them was accurate? Given that no one in that room can apparently leave without killing themselves?"
"Dennis could have been lying."
"Which would make Mr Keel a liar too."
"And why not? As we seem to be - "
"The question, Superintendent, has to be 'why?'" interrupted Malone. "Why would Keel lie? To cover up his own actions? He certainly has faults, like any other human being, but he admits to his failings all too quickly sometimes. It would be completely out of character. And why would Dennis lie? He has no reason to - "
"Unless this is all just a bluff," suggested the Superintendent. "To put us off track. Maybe there is a bomb, and he's throwing a red herring to stall us from searching? Or perhaps there is no other threat at all and they're simply planning to shoot the hostages."
"A valid point, Superintendent, and one not to be taken lightly," Malone nodded. "Now, why would Hackett lie about the men coming out of that room?"
The Superintendent had the grace to look abashed, "You may not be aware that McLean and Hackett were the two that your man left on the roof of the studio. They're both very competitive, and I will admit that that has probably been the cause of some friction, but they're both professionals and I have every faith that they reported the facts as they saw them."
"Indeed," replied Malone, realising that that was as close to an admission that he was ever likely to get from the man that his people may not be quite as perfect as he made them out to be. But, whatever his faults, the Superintendent backed his men to the hilt, and Malone could not hold that against him. "And finally, I have to ask myself, whatever happened to Miss Backus and Mr Curtis?
The Superintendent had no answer to that either, and both men sat in silence as they waited for Spencer to finish his research.
Backup pulled Sam shakily to his feet. "You really should get out of here, Sam," she said gently. "You need to see a doctor. A concussion is not something to be taken lightly."
"I will," he promised her, feeling better although a little light-headed. "Just as soon as we get the job done."
Backup pursed her lips in disapproval but didn't argue. She did stay by his side, however, ready to support him at any given moment.
Back in the stairwell they climbed to the sixth floor, but shuffling noises from above stopped them as they were about to go into that level. Creeping up the steps to level seven, Sam caught sight of two hats with black and white police bands showing over the railings of level eight. He pushed Backup back down and they went through the door on level six, checking to make sure it was empty before discussing their next move.
The Minister sat in her office, gazing thoughtfully into space. She couldn't allow the Talex project to come under close scrutiny by anyone other than those already involved. She herself had denied its existence to the Prime Minister, but felt that it was a necessary evil to protect her country.
If Malone didn't pull this off she, along with several other people in a position of power, would be at best forced out of her position, and she honestly believed that despite the lies and deceptions she could do more good by staying.
But if CI5 failed, then she couldn't win. She would have to give the - what could you call them? Terrorists? - what they wanted, which would expose the project and it would be closed down. Yet she couldn't allow the directors to die either, at least not all of them. Because not only would their deaths provoke both media and political investigation, given the power that each one of those men held both inside and out of Talex, but the project itself would be compromised in more ways than she cared to think about.
The other problem of course was CI5 itself. They had to succeed, but not too well. Malone was not stupid and neither were his staff. She only hoped that by insisting that they work with their known rivals at the Met, both CI5 and the Met would be too blinded by their own bickering to see the full story.
And if that didn't work? Then she would have to deal with Malone, and his agents if it came to that, subtly and permanently.
Sam stumbled up the stairs towards Hackett and McLean. He heard the safeties of their guns being cocked and saw them move to cover him.
"Shit!" swore Hackett as he saw Curtis. "What the hell happened to -?"
"How do you get -?" began McLean, before biting his tongue.
"How did we get out?" Sam finished, favouring him with a glacial glare. "Teamwork."
McLean met Sam's stare and held it defiantly, while Hackett scowled belligerently.
"What did you think you were playing at?" Sam asked in a soft, deadly tone, ignoring the fact that he was weapon-less while the two officers were armed. Still, Backup was ready with a diversion should he need it.
The two men clenched their jaws and Sam stepped backwards, out of the limited range of the headsets. "Trying to show that you could handle this by yourselves? That you didn't need us? That we aren't as good as you? Revenge? Or something else?" he asked in a low voice.
"Don't you -!" Hackett began stubbornly, fire in his eyes, but his partner held him back.
"All of the above," replied McLean, bitterly. "It's our turn to shine."
"Then shine," replied Sam, "And stop being so bloody childish about it."
McLean opened his mouth to answer, but a voice on their headsets interrupted. Instead, he replied to the voice, "Sir, 3-7's arrived... and 5-3," he added, as Backup came up the stairs at Sam's signal.
Hackett took his headset off and passed it to Sam.
"Report, Mr Curtis?" came Malone's voice.
Sam hesitated a moment and studied the two officers in front of him. Coming to a decision he said, "Backup and I were taken out by assailant or assailants unknown, sir, but we're all right."
"Good. The situation has changed and I want all four of you back down here now."
"Four...? Where's Keel?"
"McLean and Hackett can update you on your way down."
Chris' whole body seemed to be clenched in agony as the cramps assaulted his arms and especially his shoulder. He felt as if he was looking at everything through a hazy veil in his efforts to control it, and could only hope that numbness might settle in sooner or later.
The ringing of a mobile permeated the veil though and he tried to focus on the conversation. There really wasn't that much to hear, just an affirmation to an unknown question. Then Dennis raised his voice, a little shaky, to the room.
"Gentlemen, as expected our demands will not be met. We have exactly... fifty-eight minutes to enjoy the rest of our lives."
Chris' stomach lurched as he willed Malone to get his butt in gear, then realised that the old man probably hadn't heard. "Fifty-eight minutes until we all die," he whispered, unable to recognise his own voice.
Malone said something but he didn't hear, his mind a panicked chaos at the thought of his own execution in less than an hour. He quickly regained control and calmed himself down. He'd certainly been in worse situations, though he couldn't think of one off the top of his head.
Looking around the room he saw the six directors, pale and miserable, one of them shaking violently as they contemplated the next... fifty-seven minutes.
Dennis called the four men outside, and they each entered without hesitation. They threw their guns out into the corridor, Dennis relieving Chris of his and adding it to the pile. Then Floyd closed and locked the door, stuffing the key in his pocket.
Chris watched in amazement as they began to untie the directors, even taking time to help massage the circulation back into numbed hands. Floyd came over to Chris and undid ropes around his ankles.
"Are you ready for this?" the bearded, middle-aged man asked with concern in his voice, indicating the noose, and as he nodded Chris noticed the fine sheen of sweat over the man's face.
Floyd held on to the rope at the American's wrists to keep the limbs as still as possible while he used his other hand to undo the noose. Then he worked on the ropes binding the agent's hands, apologising every time Chris cried out as his shoulder was jolted.
Once the ropes were dispatched Floyd took every care to lower Chris' arms gently, supporting him as the pain grew to overwhelming proportions, sending the American into a pain-fogged stupor, his breath coming in short gasps as he rode it out.
By the time he had brought himself back under control, Chris found his injured arm resting snugly in a sling made of two tea towels and Floyd studying him.
"So, what happens now?" asked Chris breathlessly.
"We have champagne, a gift from Dennis' girlfriend. Do what you like - you have forty-six minutes to make your peace, get completely plastered or do absolutely nothing. You can even take us all prisoner if it'll make you feel better. No one will argue; there's no way out."
Chris leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes and forcing himself to relax as once again he mentally goaded Malone into action. He listened to what was happening outside the room and his heart leaped as he heard Sam's voice, tired, but alive and well.
Somehow he felt better knowing that Sam was on the case and he even managed a small smile.
Malone contemplated the information that Spencer had found as he awaited Richards' arrival with the special equipment.
There was precious little, only that Talex was a private sector research centre, though there seemed to be an alarming amount of government money going into it via the back door.
He glanced at the Superintendent who, in the glow of a streetlamp, was an interesting shade of puce as he had words with Hackett and McLean.
Finally Richards arrived and he, along with Spencer, Backus, Curtis and the two Met officers donned the fully protective clothing, right down to gloves, oxygen masks and visors. With the news of a contagious disease floating about they could take no chances. And even though Keel had reported that they were all unarmed in the conference room, Malone still made sure that his people carried full assault gear.
While awaiting Spencer, Malone and the Superintendent had managed a remote scan of the building and concluded that it was unlikely to be wired to explode, though the area had been sealed just in case. With no civilians in the business centre, it had been remarkably easy to keep it all low-key so far.
Malone regarded his people thoughtfully. Curtis was definitely walking wounded, but he was functioning efficiently and Malone had reluctantly capitulated to his arguments for going back inside. But he had insisted that Backus at least clean him up and ordered that she remain with him at all times, securing him if necessary should he become unable to function. Having said that, he wasn't entirely convinced that Backus feeling one hundred percent herself given the swollen state of her eye.
Hackett and McLean had insisted on joining the team, despite Malone's assertion that the Met were not paid take risks such as this, that they'd done too much already. To his surprise, Curtis had recommended that the two Met officers be allowed to join the assault team, and again the CI5 chief capitulated to him.
An ambulance was already on its way, just in case, along with a quarantine squad specialising in infectious diseases, organised by the Minister.
With twenty-two minutes to go, Malone sent Spencer and Richards up to the roof, rappelling equipment in tow. The other four agents went in at the same time, using the fire exits that Curtis and McLean had used earlier.
Malone watched them go with every confidence that they would succeed. He refused to accept any other alternative.
Chris stalked around the room, examining the door along with the windows, trying to find out a little more about the devices that would set the collars off. Through the thick double-glazing he could just about see two small black boxes attached to the wall above and to one side of each window and relayed the information to Malone.
He turned his attention to the men sitting, or pacing the room, each with his own despair, almost tangible, and quiet restrained anger that most of them felt, including their captors. Chris though, was relatively calm. He was confident that his colleagues would get them out here and could hear them moving into place. He didn't allow himself to think about the disease that Dennis had mentioned; it wasn't an immediate threat and he would deal with that if and when the time came for it.
He thought about getting the door unlocked; it could save Sam and the others precious seconds. But he recalled something that Dennis had said earlier. If they unlocked the door, what were the chances of at least one of the directors killing themselves by making a break for it? He decided to stay near Floyd and make a grab for the key when the action started. It wasn't even that necessary an action with the electronic lock pick that Sam would be carrying, but it made Chris feel like he was doing something to help.
Sam shook away the blurriness and ignored the darkness that continually wavered at the edge of his vision as he held his position in the stairwell. Hackett and McLean were ahead, while Backup remained at his side.
When he was ready to go he signalled to Backup, and they moved forward to join Hackett and McLean outside the door to the conference room and wait for Richards and Spencer to get ready.
They had six minutes to go, the quarantine squad waiting on the seventh floor, ready to move the instant the eighth was clear.
Then Keel's voice came over the headset, echoing hollowly round Sam's skull.
"Fuck! It's too early...!"
The slight click that Chris felt more than heard sounded as his death knell as a cool tingling liquid rushed into his blood stream, almost immediately banishing the pain from his bruises and dislocated shoulder.
From an increasing distance he saw Dennis and Floyd and the others giving in gratefully and willingly to the poison flooding their systems. The suits became manic, crying out their terror as they fought it, attacking their own throats, attacking their captors until the effort was too much.
For himself, Chris was surprised that it didn't hurt and wondered distractedly what poison had been used. There were no convulsions, no screaming agony, just an inevitable slide into an eternal sleep.
His thought processes slowing, Chris had the notion that he should be doing something, though wasn't sure what. It came to him sluggishly as bodies crumpled around him that unlocking the door might be good, though he recalled regarding that task as unnecessary at some point before he started dying. He stumbled then crawled over to Floyd, retrieving key from the other man's pocket even as everything blurred. The door suddenly seemed a very long way along the wall, and Chris used that wall to help him on his way.
"Chris!" Sam called, panicked, listening intently as the sounds of men screaming could be heard, erratic thumps and harsh sobs filtering through the headset.
"They're all falling down..." Keel said harshly, "Gotta unlock the door..."
"Mr Spencer, report." Malone's voice could be heard filtering through the noise, and Sam gritted his teeth as he fought with himself not to go charging in.
Spencer replied immediately, an urgency underpinning his calm voice. "We're ready to go, sir."
"Mr Curtis, take your team in now." The CI5 chief's voice was calming, even as he issued orders. "Mr Keel, stay with us! What's happening?"
Chris' voice replied, sounding slurred and achingly tired. "Too early... can't... see y'in hell..."
Chris' eyelids drooped, his fading willpower insufficient to keep them open. As he slumped against the wall he saw that he was the last to fall, but he never stopped reaching for the door even when he slid peacefully into the bottomless abyss.
Sam eased the electronic lock pick into the door and cursed as it seemed to take an age to find the appropriate configuration. Finally it clicked, the noise loud in the silence and he froze.
He heard the sound of smashing glass even as he barrelled into the room with Backup and the Met officers hard on his heels. As he looked around, no danger apparent though he didn't relax his guard, the wavering darkness at the edge of his vision threatened to rise up and swallow him whole as the full horror struck him.
Spencer and Richards were both pale and stunned even through their facemasks as they stood with glass littering their dark clothing by the window, and Sam could hear Backup's whispered oath beside him along with those of Hackett and McLean.
The floor was littered with bodies, silent and unmoving. Some of the pinstriped directors had fallen with their hands clutching at the silver chokers, a couple of others had fallen on top of their captors, one having his hands wrapped around a bearded man's throat. Every one of the casually dressed terrorists had variations of a serene expression that contrasted with their captives fear and anguish locked faces. And a familiar black clad figure lay face down next to the wall, the key to the door lying by his outstretched right hand.
Sam swayed as he stared at Chris, unable to believe that they hadn't been in time, hadn't been able to pull it off, that they'd - he'd - failed. He tried to report into Malone, but the words wouldn't come.
At the corner of his vision he saw Backup check the nearest body, a director with gouge marks at his neck from his own fingers, using a mirror to check for breath, unable to touch.
"He's alive," she whispered, then a little louder, "He's still alive!"
Her words galvanised the others into action and they checked each and every body in the same manner, securing each man that was still breathing. Sam checked Chris himself with shaking hands, and the relief when he saw the American's shallow breath mist the glass was overwhelming, colliding with the darkness as consciousness finally gave out.
Throbbing darkness eventually gave way to thundering light as Sam came round to find the wavering image of Backup leaning over him.
"You had me worried there, Curtis," she said, her expressive brown eyes showing exactly how worried.
"Have to give you something to be worried about." Sam looked about him and frowned as he realised that they were shut in an office along with Spencer and McLean, both of who looked sick with worry. And further, that they were all dressed in green scrubs. He wondered who had undressed him. "What's going on?" he asked, levering himself up.
Backup gave harsh laugh, blinking back tears. "It's like Star Trek out there. They've brought in all these experts from Citraine to try and find out if any of us are contaminated with the disease that the terrorists were carrying. They don't think that Floyd and Dennis are going to live much longer - apparently, there's no cure for whatever it is, just a long, painful death."
"What about the others? Chris?"
"Richards and Hackett have already been cleared," she replied, wiping at her nose with a tissue and chewing at her lower lip. "We're just waiting for our results. But it's already been confirmed that all the terrorists were infected - they all have the symptoms. It's also been confirmed that all the hostages have been contaminated, and yes, that does include Chris."
"There's still hope, Sam." Backup sounded as if she was trying to convince herself as much as Sam. "Just because they've been exposed to it doesn't mean they're necessarily going to die. It doesn't incubate in everyone. They said there's a slim chance that the bacteria could be eradicated from someone's system. They have to do tests... they won't know if Chris... if any of them are clear for another three days."
Sam's headache, if possible, got abruptly worse and with a groan he lay back against the pillow of his cot.
"And when we get out of here," Backup told him, sniffing slightly, "You are going straight to the hospital. There's an ambulance waiting for us downstairs."
"I don't need - "
"Yes, you do." Sam opened his eyes at the new voice, McLean, whose eyes were full of guilt as well as fear. The Met officer looked away, "None of you deserve all this and we could have prevented it. Stupid, stupid pr-"
"Hey," muttered Sam. "You know for next time, all right?"
McLean gave a short nod, then frowned slightly. "Does anyone else here think that it's a bit odd that these Citraine bods seem to know an awful lot about this supposedly unknown disease?"
Sam looked at him sharply. "What do you mean?"
"Well, they already know what to look for to see if we're contaminated, they know almost exactly how slim the chances are of surviving after exposure. And not only that. I went to the loo a little while back and overheard a couple of them talking. They even have a name for it; Talex."
Backup glanced between the two men. "You know Sam, he's got a point - that was the name Chris saw."
"Yeah, he does," agreed the Englishman, wincing as little lightning bolts danced in front of his eyes. "But there's sod all we can do about it until we get out of here."
The Minister breathed a deep sigh of relief. Although the hostages and their captors had only been deeply sedated instead of poisoned, the terrorists were saying nothing. The media had been kept out of the picture, and those who might have instigated political investigation were laughing it off as a hoax, unaware that there was still every possibility that the hostages would die.
Some of the terrorists had certainly been found to be suffering from the as-yet unidentified disease, and the Minister had taken steps to ensure that it remained unidentified, granting the remaining sufferers a comfortable end to their lives in a private, secluded clinic. It only remained to be seen how many, if any, of the hostages had managed to elude the deadly disease. She only needed one to survive for the project to survive relatively unscathed.
Malone sat at his desk, deep in thought.
His team's observations, combined with the Minister's actions in procuring the overly knowledgeable quarantine team from Citraine, had possible ramifications that he did not want to contemplate too deeply. But he had to.
One other interesting point was the terrorists themselves. None of them were known terrorists at all. In fact, on the contrary, Dennis Boyard and Floyd Anson were campaigners for peace, along with their known associate, Nicola Bates. There was no knowing how the eight so-called terrorists had caught the disease, and Malone suspected that he would never find out.
He had yet to get Keel's formal account before taking any action, but it was inevitable that he would have to confront the Minister. He considered himself fortunate in that he saw the world in shades of grey rather than black and white, and determined that should Project Talex be a light enough shade of grey then there may be a way to turn it to his advantage without incurring the wrath of the Minister. The challenge would test his diplomatic skills, of that he was sure.
Chris had fully expected to be dead. So strong was that belief that the small burning pain at his throat that woke him was a shattering shock that left him stunned and confused.
"Keep still!" A hard female voice commanded and Chris, ever contrary, tried to move away. Something wet spilled on the skin of his neck that quickly turned into a sharp burning, eating at his skin. The woman swore and Chris felt something wipe it off, but the burning stayed until a cooling gel was applied.
Chris tried to blink the blurriness from his eyes and the suffocating fogginess from his brain. For a brief moment he almost found himself believing that aliens had abducted him. But the all too human face inside what he quickly recognised as a contamination suit put his mind at rest on that score.
He was lying on a small, hard army cot in a tiny plastic cell. The cell was made up of a metal frame bolted to a wall at the back and thick transparent plastic covered it on all sides including the floor and ceiling. There was even a machine that collected the air from the cell.
He became aware that the woman was saying something and had to concentrate to work out what it was she was telling him. It sounded like she was telling him that he was dying again and he took that news with dazed indifference, his confused mind still trying to work out what was happening.
She fiddled with some sort of strapping at his shoulder and it came to him that his shoulder wasn't hurting anymore. At least not nearly as much as it had done, the pain reduced to a constant ache, and he figured that someone must have put his shoulder back in its socket while he was asleep.
Too lethargic still to do anything, he lay on his cot and watched her disappear from his cell, fastening the plastic behind her then stepping into the exit of what he now saw was a series of cells, each containing a man. She stood there for a moment while red lights flashed around her, then departed.
The moaning of men prevented any sleep Chris might have gained that night. Some were hysterical from the fear of dying again, others deep in the throes of fever.
But one stood out over the rest, crying out in agony. From where he was Chris had a good view of Floyd thrashing on the floor, rumpling the plastic, the cot too small to have held him. He watched as Floyd gouged at his own arms, legs, face and torso, raising welts where the green scrubs didn't cover him, welts that showed even above the crawling rashes that ate away at his skin.
He watched as blood started to seep from the man's nose and ears to coagulate in his beard and hair, while screaming sobs wracked his fevered body. He watched as red tears mingled with the salty tears to run pinkly down Floyd's face.
He watched as, with a final great spasm and strangled cry of interminable agony, Floyd lost his hold on life with a violent geyser of blood from his mouth that splattered over the plastic wall.
He watched as the woman and two of her cohorts appeared only seconds later to wrap the still warm corpse in a sealed body bag and plonk it on the cot, leaving it there like so much trash for the remaining thirteen men to think about.
Chris turned his head into the thin pillow and struggled to hold back the harsh sob that shock was trying to draw out of him. That death was what awaited them all. With only a slim chance that even one would make it out of here alive and well, the full horror of what he could otherwise expect dawned on him. He heard some of the others whimper as they too realised what was to come.
He finally understood what Dennis had meant, and right now he deeply regretted that the chokers had not contained poison.
The Minister terminated the video link to Malone and leaned back in her chair. She felt confident that Malone would take what he had no further, but equally had no doubt that he would research the matter to death and, if he felt it necessary, use any information he had to gain her co-operation in some matter at some indeterminate point in the future.
She could live with that for the time being. How she would deal with it when the time came remained to be seen.
The most important thing was that, with Hammond still on the board at Citraine, Project Talex was safe.
And so was she.
Sam looked up at the office building, a cold, dead monolith standing lifeless in the bright afternoon sunlight. He had spent a night in hospital, discharging himself in the morning despite Backup's angry protests and spent the last couple of days resting uneasily for no other reason than they wouldn't let him go and see Chris. But he had to see for himself, had to reassure himself that Chris was okay and his nagging had finally paid off.
Sam wondered how the American was handling it; the isolated waiting was not something that Chris would be happy with to say the least.
Swallowing an aspirin to ease his headache, Sam decided to go and find out. He knew that he should be home resting - he had a nasty concussion after all, but he was confident that it was nothing to worry about so long as he took it easy.
Near the entrance, outside the taped barricade, a lone figure stood gazing up at the building. She was blond and attractive, with an air of sadness about her.
"Can I help you, miss?" Sam asked, curious as to why this woman was here.
She looked at him, a faint bitter-sweet smile on her face. "Is Dennis in there?" she asked. Sam couldn't answer the question with the order of silence that Malone had issued, and she seemed to read something of that in his face. "You're going inside aren't you?"
"Yes, yes I am," he replied.
"Tell Dennis, tell him I'm - that Nicola's sorry, that she couldn't do it. She could never have done it. Could never have poisoned anyone. Tell him that she's sorry that he didn't seem to know that." With tears springing to her eyes, she turned to walk rapidly away down the road.
Sam stared after her, a part of him realising that he should bring her back for questioning. But the main part of him couldn't quite manage to bring himself to do it and he turned and walked purposefully into the building.
The lift was working now and Sam took it gratefully - he hadn't looked forward to trekking up the stairs. The second he stepped out on the eighth floor, he was pounced upon by two men in contamination suits and taken into the next room where he was instructed to put one on himself.
It was explained to him that they did not know how the disease was spread so full quarantine precautions had to be taken. Sam was led through swathes of clear plastic sheets with anonymous people busy doing unknown things, partly obscured through the translucent plastic. In the centre of the floor, compartmentalised into tiny individual transparent cells, the afflicted, wearing the same uniform of green scrubs, were kept in isolation from each other and the rest of the world.
Sam was left in the middle of them. The blond terrorist that he recognised from the CI5 files as Dennis Boyard was the nearest to him, shuddering and convulsing on the little cot, and by the greyness of his skin, Sam guessed that his time had nearly come. Another man sat on the floor of his cell meditating, another was praying and yet another paced his small space like a trapped animal, though most appeared to be sleeping. Sam had the creepy feeling that he was witnessing a clinical, alien version of death row.
Sam spotted Chris lying asleep on his side, his shoulder heavily strapped and his face bruised, and made his way over to the plastic curtain. Chris seemed to sense his presence and opened tired blue eyes as he approached, rolling with a slight wince off his cot and limping the two paces to the curtain.
"How are you holding up?" Sam asked.
"Could be worse I guess," Chris said, his voice muffled through the plastic and Sam's own contamination suit, glancing over at Boyard. He turned back. "You been head-butting walls again?" he asked as he took in the white bandage and livid bruises that adorned the Englishman's forehead, visible even through the layers of plastic.
Sam smiled, happy that his partner's sense of humour was still intact. "Your friend McLean."
Chris scowled, "Idiots."
"Hey, be nice. Once they stopped playing silly buggers they were damned good."
"If they hadn't played silly buggers in the first place, I wouldn't be stuck in here. "
Sam paused. "Do you know when they'll have the results?"
Chris shook his head. "They're starting to come in, though." He indicated the empty cell next to him. "They cleared the guy in there, Hammond, one of the Talex directors, this morning. He was practically delirious with relief and they had to sedate him to get him out. But two of the others have the disease." Chris nodded at the man praying and at one of those that appeared to be sleeping.
Even as he spoke a white suited woman came into the area. All of those that were awake watched her with fear and trepidation including, Sam noted, Chris.
The woman glanced at her clipboard and approached the man that had been pacing. They exchanged a few quiet words then the man stumbled back, falling heavily to his cot, shaking his head in denial, wrapping his arms about himself, tears starting to trickle down his face.
Chris turned away from the man, looking at Sam and swallowing hard. "Three of us left, Sam, what are the odds?" he whispered. "Think Hammond took the chances for the rest of us from slim down to none. And we all know it."
The Englishman could see that the emotional strain was taking it's toll on his partner and wished that he could just put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, something, anything to show his support.
Shaking his head, Chris looked at the floor and took a deep breath. "Sorry Sam, it's just... having to watch Dennis and... Floyd died yesterday and it wasn't fun... And when she comes in it's like... I don't know whether I want to know or not... when she picks someone else, it's relief that it's not me... then guilt because of it... then she goes and it only feels like a stay of execution... like next time it's my turn... or not..."
"Hey, I know it's hard, you've been through an emotional hell these last few days." Sam watched Chris rub at his neck, just a small red patch visible where the acid they'd used to burn through the collar had spilt. "Just... keep smiling, okay?" he said, not knowing what else there was to say.
"Yeah, I'm trying, Sam... " Chris trailed off, and Sam followed his apprehensive gaze to see the woman enter the area again, studying the clipboard. She looked up and Chris visibly paled beneath his bruises as she approached him.
Sam stepped back as the woman spoke quietly with his partner and observed the other two men obviously awaiting their results as each harboured the same expressions of relief, guilt and trepidation that his partner had displayed.
He took the time to relay Nicola's message to Dennis, but with the fevered glaze in the dying man's eyes he couldn't be sure that the man heard him.
The woman left and Sam felt his heart sink as Chris stood with bowed head, trembling a little as he supported himself on the plastic covered frame that the with his good hand.
"Chris?" Sam asked softly, although in his gut he was sure that he already knew the answer. He waited patiently as his partner drew in a shuddering breath and pulled himself upright, unshed tears and high emotion making his eyes brighter than usual.
"I - " Chris gulped a shaky breath. "It's over. I can go."
Sam stared at Chris, who ran an unsteady hand through his hair. "You mean -?"
Chris nodded, the beginnings of a weak smile breaking through. "As soon as they can find me a contamination suit, I'm getting out."
"You wait right here," Sam told him, elation chasing away the remnants of his headache. "Let me get out of this one and I'll see you downstairs."
Sam and Tina sat around a table at one of the top Italian restaurants in the city after a long day of paperwork, and studied their menus while they waited for Chris.
"Sam, you're staring," Tina chided and Sam snapped his attention away from the low neckline of the little black number she was wearing.
"Sorry," he beamed, not sounding in the least bit apologetic. "I don't often get to appreciate such a - stunning view."
"Sam..." her voice was low and warning, but the glint in her eye bespoke mischief and possibilities.
The Englishman was about to say something further, but changed his mind when Chris materialised. "Sorry I'm late. Did I miss anything?"
"No," said Sam, studying the menu intently.
"We only just got here ourselves," remarked Tina absently, seemingly engrossed in her own menu and playing with her hair with one hand.
"Ri-ght," Chris glanced at them both as he sat down,manoeuvring the chair with his right hand as the other was still held immobile in a sling, looking for an answer to the suddenly awkward atmosphere. Seeing as none was forthcoming, he discarded his own menu without looking at it and leaned back in his chair, snagging a passing waiter. "What do you have in the way of pizza?" he asked, grinning broadly as Backup and Sam hid in embarrassment behind their menus.
With an indulgent look, the waiter said nothing but picked up Chris' menu and opened it, pointing to a long list and the American's eyes lit up. As the waiter left, Sam and Tina burst into muffled giggles and Chris felt the atmosphere relax even as the emotional strain he had been struggling to contain seemed to lift and dissipate.
The drinks arrived and the food was ordered, the three of them gossiping and joking as close friends would.
A mobile phone rang and the table went silent. Sam fished his out and looked at the display, his expression carefully blank. Without drama, he switched it off and promptly immersed it in Chris' beer.
A moment later, as the soup was arriving, Tina's mobile rang and, glancing at the display, she too switched hers off and with delicate precision managed to squeeze it into Chris' beer glass next to Sam's. Chris fished one-handedly for own mobile, fumbling it a little, waiting for the inevitable ring and frowned at Tina and Sam's too small wine glasses.
And ring it did, the display popping up the caller ID 'Old Windbag'. Glancing at both Tina and Sam's faces as they waited to see what he would do, he let it ring and placed it face down in Sam's soup where it gurgled to its death.
Laughter rang around the restaurant and three people made the most of the time they had left before Malone inevitably tracked them down.
Summary: Point-to-point for Hostage. Same night, different hostage situation.