Chapter 11 We Gather Once More, Part One

San Francisco, Friday 4:35 A.M.

The darkness embraced the headquarters. It spread its soft cloak over everything within it except the sharply illuminated computer screens where John Henry sat and the small night light placed near the cots filled with sleeping children. John Henry could hear their breathing. He could even distinguish one from another.

Savannah had resisted sleep for the longest time and now her released fatigue had carried her to a deep, undisturbed slumber. Little Allison had also found her way to the guiltless rest that awaits the innocent. Only Marissa's breathing sounded labored and erratic. She had journeyed to a realm of dreams where not all visions brought childish delight.

John Henry stepped away from his computers and softly walked toward the far corner of the room where the girls slept. Rationally, he knew that this was a pointless exercise. Visually checking on the children could serve no useful purpose. Yet, he felt the irresistible urge to dojust that. The promise to John had been unequivocal."I will protect the children."

At this moment, protecting also meant watching over. He felt the compelling need to see with his own eyes, to know beyond question that all was well. Or at least as well as it could be.

The three cots were arranged side by side, each adjoining another. Allison had been placed in the middle with the older girls on each side so that the littlest member of the Connor family couldn't fall out of bed. Looking down, John Henry could see that Allison had rolled out of her original position and was now curled tightly against Marissa. Without waking, Marissa had spread her arm over the smaller girl and held her close.

John had once explained how he and Cameron had rescued the girls from the chaos at the Mitchell house in Los Angeles. He had smiled when he describedMarissa's defiantly protective attitude as she tried to shield Allison from the threat of "bad men." As John had said proudly, "She's so young, so little, but so very brave."

John Henry wondered if Marissa was reliving that moment now. Had the unconscious thoughts that were so obviously troubling her sleep returned her to those terrifying minutes before John had entered her life?Kneeling byher cot John Henry gently pulled up the blanket that had slipped away and spread it over Marissa's shoulder. Then hesitantly, uncertain if this was the way it was supposed to be done, he lightly brushed the hair back from her forehead.

With that touch, that cautious caress, the rhythm of Marissa's breathing changed. If there had been a bad dream, it faded away. She was no longer an anonymous foster child bouncing from house to house. She was home--her home--with her little sister beside her and her best friend a few feet away. She had a family. She was protected. She was loved.

John Henry rose to his feet. Looking down at the sleeping children, he realized that here in microcosm were the reasons John Connor fought. These were the infinitely precious lives John had placed in his hands. "I trust no one more," he had said.

Contrary to all rational thought processes John Henry experienced a warm surge of pride. Then turning away he walked with renewed resolution back to his computers. There was still work to do.

********

Cayman Islands, Friday6:45 A.M., Cayman Standard Time

The morning sea breeze ruffled the curtains by the glass door leading to the balcony. The man who called himself Alastair Culhane raised up in bed and looked out toward the ocean. Another day in paradise, he thought. That impression was immediately enhanced as his companion moaned slightly in her sleep. He reached over and pulled the sheet away from her nude body. Long legs, long blond hair, a light golden tan spread evenly over a perfectly toned body. The perfect package.

Cathy or was it Chrissy? No, it was Cathy. Chrissy had been from the night before last. Either way they were the best money could buy. Both were young, vivacious, and athletic in all the ways that mattered. Thank God for Viagra, he chuckled to himself.

Sliding quietly out of bed he retrieved his silk robe from the chair where it was draped. As he ambled toward the doors to the balcony he smiled at his image reflected in the mirror. You are still a handsome devil, he thought. That distinguished high forehead, long aquiline nose and pale blue eyes combined into an image of refined elegance. No wonder the young women still lusted after him. Well, he conceded to himself, the money did help. Wealth could be a powerful aphrodisiac.

On the balcony, he allowed his gaze to wander up and down the sugary white sand beach. He loved the early morning sight of the quiet vista outside his beach house. Later when his serving staff arrived they would set up a leisurely breakfast out here that he could share with his charming companion. Then after he had sent her on her way he might wander into the Better Destiny offices just long enough to distress the clerical staff.

"Alastair?" The voice, throaty and inviting, came from the bedroom. Time for one last round. It was so good to be on the winning side.

******

Outside Davisville, California,Friday 8:45 A.M.

Sarah intently studied the facility, again training her binoculars on the employee parking lot as the last of the arriving workers strolled toward the main complex. How many would run? she wondered. How many would fight?How many would die?

She turned to look at Catherine crouched beside her on the ridge. Catherine had also been watching the factory with a sharply focused concentration.

"How many have gone inside?" Sarah asked.

"One hundred and four from the rear employee parking lot. Another twelve from the front who are probably executives or supervisors."

"Precise as always," Sarah responded with a faint undertone of sarcasm.

"If you would prefer some uncertainty, there are undoubtedly others inside who have been there all night. I cannot, therefore, offer you an exact total of those in the facility."

Sarah could not shake off the feeling that Catherine was having fun at her expense.

James Ellison lowered his binoculars. "It really doesn't matter what the total is."He glanced at his watch. "In thirteen minutes we are going in---no matter how many there are."

"I think you will find that my men can handle the situation, whatever the number."

Sarah looked at the mercenary leader who called himself Christian. He seemed wholly confident, totally certain that the outcome of the assault would be favorable. There is a thin line between optimism and arrogance, Sarah thought. If there was any metal active down there, Christian and his mercenaries would be facing something more deadly than they had ever seen before. Christian could ask Ellison about that.

"Where are your men?" Sarah inquired."I have been watching the perimeter for almost an hour and I haven't seen anyone."

"That's the idea isn't it?"Christian grinned. "When we hit the front gate, you will see them all."

Ellison checked his watch again. "I believe it’s time we get ready to do just that."

Christian nodded in agreement."Let's mount up."

They walked back in a group toward the two SUVs and the small moving van that awaited them. Christian hurried to the first vehicle which already held three of his men. Ellison walked around to the front passenger door of the second SUV, nodded at their driver and got in. Opening the back door, Sarah lifted out her Browning shotgun and quickly checked it.She patted the holster strapped to her belt taking reassurance from the hard feel of the Glock. On the other side of the vehicle Catherine seemed to be performing a similar ritual. For a brief second they made eye contact and an almost imperceptible flash of approval passed between them.

Ellison stuck his hand out the side window and made a quick wave. Instantly it was answered by Christian. The engines of the three vehicles growled into life and the small convoy began to move. Ellison looked at his watch one last time.

8:54 A.M. Right on schedule.

**********

Los Angeles, Friday8:57 A.M.

John slowed the car as he turned the corner. This would have to be it. If there was anyone in the building watching the outside, a car, especially one as noticeable as the Mercedes circling the block for a third time, might arouse suspicion. Even if they were a minute or so early, it would have to be this time.

"We’re going in," John said. "Now." The two young men in the back seat nodded. Cameron rapidly punched in the text message on the cell phone she held in her hand.

"Everyone is ready John."

There was nothing distinguished about the building. It was a simple four story brick structure sitting alone on the lot. A small parking area in the rear had only a few cars in it this morning.Except for a copper-hued plaque on the front door bearing the name Prestige Consulting Services nothing suggested the building had any commercial purpose. But this was where Carmondy Trucking made its deliveries. This was where a terminator had been programed to kill one of his little girls.

Someone in that building had ordered his mother's death. The people in that building were going to answer to John Connor.

John slowed the Mercedes a bit more as he approached the front of the brick structure. Down the street two gray sedans turned the far corner and came toward them. Emilio's timing was just as precise as he expected.

The Mercedes rolled to an abrupt stop as John jammed on the brakes. Instantly, the front passenger door sprang open and Cameron dashed toward the entrance. Drawing his pistol as he ran, John leaped from the car and raced after her. Behind him he could hear Hector and Joey K in an equally frenzied pursuit. The screech of brakes in the street announced the simultaneous arrival of Emilio and his crew. Timing was everything.

The front door was almost certainly locked. A speaker unit with a large signal button was mounted on the door frame. Overhead a surveillance camera was trained on the threshold. The attempt to restrict entry did not deter or even delay Cameron. She threw herself at the door driving the last step with all the force her legs could muster. The lock shattered and the door crashed open as Cameron rode her momentum into the room.

It was a simple unadorned reception area. A long, dark wooden counter stretched across the entrance to a hallway that ran toward the interior of the building. As he came through the door John had immediately, instinctively assessed the situation. Three men were behind the counter, two standing, one seated at what appeared to be a multi-screen console. Security guards--even as the thought passed through his mind the impression was confirmed. The two standing figures shook off their stunned immobility and reached for their weapons. It might have been wiser to run. But then that would have been futile as well.

John shot the one on his left, a single round squarely in the chest and he was slammed back against the wall before sliding down out of sight. His companion managed to clear his pistol from under his jacket before he was hit by multiple shots. Cameron had fired just as Hector squeezed off two rounds. The guard's pistol clattered to the floor rolling away from his dead hand.

The lights in the room began to flash on and off. A high pitched WHOOP, WHOOP, WHOOP echoed through the building alternating with a passionless voice loudly chanting Alarm, Alarm. The remaining security guard had ducked behind the counter but his hands were visible, frantically pushing buttons on the console keyboard. There was a blur of motion as Kenny J raced by John and dove headfirst over the counter. Two more shots rang out and the hands slipped away from the keyboard.

"Cameron, see if you can shut down that damn alarm."

Cameron reached across the counter, seized the computer console and ripped it loose from its moorings. As she hurled it across the room, Hector, who had not been fully informed about Cameron's abilities whistled in admiration.

The alarm stopped. The overhead lights flashed on and off before staying off. John whirled as he heard the footsteps behind him but then he relaxed. Emilio and Chola, followed by three of her hand-picked fighters came bounding through the door with guns drawn.

John was only slightly surprised to see Chola. Although he had initially thought of her as more of an organizer than a warrior, he had not missed her reactions whenever she came near Emilio Garza. Wherever he was, she would be as well.

John made eye contact with Cameron and smiled. He was rewarded with an expression that blended equal parts adoration and concern. In the midst of war, isn't love grand? he chuckled to himself.

"All right, let's get control of this floor. Start bringing the cans of fuel oil in."

Rolling down the hallway from the interior of the building came voices, a bubbling mixture of fear, terrified confusion, and resolve. A clatter of running feet was interrupted by gun fire and screams from somewhere in the rear. Someone had tried to get out the back door only to discover that there was no escape in that direction.

"Stay close to the wall. Move slowly and be ready." John's voice resonated with confident authority. They had split into two groups edging down both sides of the hallway. John led one group, Emilio the other. Cameron stayed directly behind John, every sensor she possessed on the highest level of sensitivity. She had tried to move in front of him but he had held out his arm blocking her path. He looked directly into her eyes and emphatically shook his head.NO!His meaning was no less clear simply because it was unspoken. He was the leader and he would lead. Cameron reluctantly accepted a fundamental truth. She could not protect the man she loved by undermining the core of what he was.John was the leader. He must lead.

Behind them on the wall above the door they had battered open, a large, old-fashioned analog clock clicked off the minutes.

Friday 9:09 A.M.

*****

San Francisco,Friday8:58 A.M.

The girls had finished their picnic style breakfast. The sound of laughter suggested that now they were enjoying the video game they were playing in the back of the headquarters. John Henry watched the computer screen as the time display in the corner counted down the seconds. Everything was in place, everything was prepared and yet he still felt a disquieting sense of apprehension. The time had almost come for him to play an active role in the day's events. So much of what John had planned depended upon what he was about to do. Nine seconds to go. Eight. Seven.

And then it was 9:00 A.M. John Henry's fingers danced across the keyboard with all the exuberant flair of a piano virtuoso. First up, the three accounts of the New Destiny Group in the RTFC Bank Limited, Cayman Islands Branch. With the passwords Mr. Ellison's organization had acquired and his special skills in cyber intrusion, the bank's internal security fell away. A few quick key strokes and millions of dollars fled the Caribbean. The treasure followed different routes but it would all end the day in secret repositories controlled by John Connor. The corporate accounts of the Kaleba Corporation, Burkes and Armes Securityand Cormandy Trucking were even easier to drain. Skynet's servants had just lost the ability to pay their bills.

Step two, copies of a detailed account of criminal activity by employees of Burkes and Armes Security, some real, some carefully fabricated, were simultaneously emailed to all major news outlets as well as the FBI, Los Angeles Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security. With no money to pay salary or lawyers, many of Skynet's bully boys would soon be running from the bright glare of publicity.

Step three--it was time to involve the blogosphere. The manifesto of the Liberty Rescue Alliance, a coalition of concerned citizens united against governmental corruption, environmental destruction, animal cruelty, excessive taxation, predatory lawyers, corporate greed and gun control was transmitted to a number of activist web sites. John Henry had labored long and hard on this one. The flavor of heart-felt sincerity and barely restrained fanaticism fueled a wide range of accusations against Kaleba, Better Destiny Investments and a certain law firm. As John said, it was not necessary that any of it be believed. It was enough that the rumors would spread.

Finally, the individual emails. Now the threats were clear and uncompromising. Everyone identified as an employee of a Skynet front company who had a computer received a chilling communication. Seek another job while you are still alive. John Henry had skillfully blended the unibomber with Michael Collins. John wanted a little terror. This should do it.

John Henry verified the time. 9:17 A.M.

Tapping the keyboard again, he opened his monitoring programs to the law enforcement channels. His only tasks now were to wait, to listen, to hope. "Good luck, John, Cameron, Catherine, Sarah. My friends, my family."

*******

Outside Davisville, California,Friday 8:58 A.M.

Big Jackie Califetti, the senior security guard at the main gate first saw three vehicles as they turned off the highway onto the service road. Watching as they approached, he glanced down at his check list. Nothing on the schedule before noon.

"Hey, Sammy," he called out to the other guard. "'Are we expecting any off schedule deliveries?"

"Nah."The second guard also looked at the SUVs as they neared the gate."Besides, deliveries are supposed to go to the back gate."

Califetti picked up the telephone in the guard booth. "Think I'll call inside and ask...."

9:00 A.M. Friday.

The pounding thunder of multiple explosions shattered the quiet morning. On each side of the complex large portions of the security fence vanished in a whirling dust storm.

"Jackie! Look!" Sammy pointed at the service road.The vehicles had accelerated. The two SUVs had swung off one to each side of the road as the truck moved up between them. They were racing three abreast directly at the gate.

Califetti counted himself as a brave man but suddenly staying at the gate seemed more suicidal than courageous.

"Run!" he shouted to his coworker as he turned toward the main building. He had covered only three strides when he realized they would never make it. The roar of massed gunfire had erupted out of the dusty maelstrom where the shattered fence had once stood. Armed men in desert camouflage uniforms were pouring onto the grounds like demons emerging from hell. Behind them, Califetti heard the grating tear of metal as the SUVs and the truck obliterated the front gate.

"Sammy, stop!" he yelled at his companion. "Put your hands up and turn around." There was no place to run. No way to fight and live. Mercy was their only hope.

Sarah jerked open the door of the SUV as it rolled to a stop. She leaped out, her shotgun at the ready, and found to her dismay that she was moving in slow motion. Christian and his men had already disarmed the two stunned guards while pushing toward the door of the main building. Maybe these guys are as good as they think they are, Sarah reluctantly concluded. Flanked by Catherine and Ellison, Sarah tried to catch up with an assault force that seemed to be proceeding quite effectively without her.

Inside the building, panic was in flower. Screams of horror, pleading, cries and indecipherable moans blended with sporadic gun fire and hoarsely shouted orders. Some of the employees were fleeing toward what Sarah assumed were exits. Others stood rooted in frozen immobility with deer in the headlights expressions of terror on their faces.

"Damn it to bloody hell!"she heard Christian curse. "Some of these imbeciles don't have enough sense to run even when we are trying to let them." Turning to two of his men he ordered them to move the inconvenient prisoners outside.

Sarah looked around the huge main room. It was starkly utilitarian--cement floors, a collection of cubicles in the middle and a number of spartanly simple offices lining the outer wall.

"Catherine," Sarah called out. "This is all administration. The construction must all be in the two outer buildings."

"I agree. The covered walkways are in that area." Weaver pointed toward the rear of the building. "We need to go that way."

Without waiting for Sarah's response, Catherine walked briskly in the direction she had indicated. Sarah, Ellison, and the young mercenary who had served as their driver trotted behind her. Back in the main area Christian and his men were still trying to clear their fear-stricken captives out of the building. As Catherine led them through the doors at the rear of the room Sarah saw the body sprawled on the floor. He wore a brown khaki uniform. The Burkes and Armes insignia above his shirt pocket was slowly being obscured by the blood seeping from his chest wound. He still held a pistol in his grasp but his lifeless eyes would never aim it again.

"If they fight, they die." That was John's order. This one had fought. He died.

At the far end of the building they reached a smaller service room. At each side of the room, one of the covered walkways that connected with the outer buildings lay behind double swinging doors.

"Mr. Ellison, you and your man take the one on the right. Sarah and I will go this way." With her evenly modulated voice Catherine might have been discussing the best route to the mall.

Ellison silently nodded but mouthed the admonition "Be Careful" to Sarah.

Catherine pushed open the swinging doors and started down the walkway. It felt to Sarah as if they were walking down a long tunnel. It seemed wider than it appeared in the photographs--wide enough to accommodate large forklifts. The lighting from multiple overhead fixtures was garishly harsh and at the far end Sarah could see the two bright red doors. Even at a distance the words "Restricted Access-Permit Only" were visible on the wall above the doors.

The noises from outside had diminished. It was now possible to hear the sound of their footsteps on the cement floor as they echoed back down the walkway. The red doors were less than twenty feet away when they burst open and Sarah's nightmare stepped through.

Cyborgs. Metal killers masquerading as human had long ago become a terrifyingly familiar threat in her life. She had fought them. She had fled from them. She had seen the sheen of metal gleam through when their skin was blasted away. But not since the night Kyle died had she seen the unadorned reality of pure metal. Death without illusion.Except in nightmares, she had not seen that again...until now.

It was big, well over six feet. Its skeletal structure glittered as if it had been carefully polished. The fiery red eyes seemed to stab into her body as the head turned in search of a target.And then it saw her. The machine raised the oversized assault weapon it had been cradling in its arms.

Sarah tried to point her shotgun while knowing it was too late, knowing it would be futile, knowing she was about to die. A staccato roar of automatic gunfire exploded in the confined area that amplified every sound. Any one of the shots would have killed Sarah but none struck her. The machine vanished behind a gray shield that appeared to leap out of Catherine Weaver's body. Sarah felt something like a large hand grasp her waist, lift her into the air and toss her back down the hall. She landed on her back almost twenty feet away sliding along the floor and crashing into the wall.

Sarah could not see Catherine Weaver cease to be Catherine. She dissolved into a gleaming liquid pool on the floor before congealing into a serpent like creature. She shot across the floor, instantly closing the distance to the terminator. The killer's CPU programmed to confront humans struggled to deal with this unexpected phenomenon. Catherine did not give it time to assimilate the new data. Suddenly she was Catherine again standing behind the metallic creature. She reached out with her hands and they became hard silver prongs. They drove into the machine as if they were cutting through cheap cloth. Inside the terminator's body her hands seized the power core and tore it loose. The light in the blood red eyes flickered and died.The machine tilted forward and collapsed.

Sarah tried to clear away the mental fog as she struggled to her feet. Her right knee that had slammed into the wall throbbed in pain. Her vision was still blurry when she looked down the hallway and saw Catherine standing triumphantly over the now immobile terminator. Sarah experienced a tidal wave of conflicting emotions. Relief, fear, gratitude, anger and jealousy blended into a pulsating witches brew.

"What the hell are you trying to do--kill me?!" Sarah shouted.

Catherine looked momentarily taken aback by Sarah's outburst. "I was under the impression that I was trying to save your life."

Sarah limped toward Catherine, the pain in her knee feeding her fury."By throwing me fifty feet down the hall so I'd break my neck?!"

Catherine still appeared surprised by Sarah's reaction. Her expression was also showing signs of a growing displeasure."It was no more than twenty feet and your neck does not appear injured."

"That's not the point, damn it! You didn't have to throw me like that."

"I suppose I could have allowed it to shoot you." Something in Catherine's voice suggested that she was actually weighing that possibility.

"I could have taken care of myself." Sarah realized that she was beginning to sound nonsensical. That made her angrier.

"You were doing a very poor job of it," Catherine snapped. "I would have thought that a little gratitude might be in order you...you..."

By this time Sarah was less than a foot away from Catherine and they were glaring furiously at each other.

"Gratitude!" Sarah spat out the word."Maybe when hell freezes over you...."

At that moment a synchronization that usually requires careful rehearsal produced a simultaneous shout from both Sarah and Catherine.

"*****!!"

The two women stood rigidly staring at each other as the seconds marched by.

And then Sarah began to laugh, a low chuckle that grew into a full throated gasping howl. Catherine looked down at the floor trying unsuccessfully to conceal her own expression of unrestrained amusement.

Bending over to pick up Sarah's shotgun Catherine regained her carefully balanced equanimity. Handing the weapon to her, Catherine said, "I suggest that we continue this discussion at some more appropriate time."

"I think that sounds like a good idea."

Sarah was still grinning as she moved toward the red doors. "Come on, Thelma. Let's go."

"Right behind you, Louise."

Damn, Sarah thought. She always has to get the last word.

********

Los Angeles, Friday 9:12 A.M.

John glared at the bank of elevators. "Are you sure?" he asked.

"Yes," Emilio responded."When the alarm went off they all dropped to the basement and locked down. We can't find an override switch."

"So the only way up is the stairwell?"

"Yes, and they are set up on the second floor landing. If we try to go up they will shoot us to pieces."

Cameron whispered into his ear. "John, I can go up the stairs."

Of course she could, John thought. The occupants of the building who had taken refuge on the upper floor couldn't stop a cyborg. But each shot that hit her would hurt her. She would be in pain. That was unacceptable. That was unthinkable.

"No," John said. "I've got a better idea." He turned to Garza. "Emilio, do we have all the cans of oil unloaded?"

"They are bringing in the last ones now."

"Okay, have your people start splashing it around. Get this floor ready to light. Put a couple of your shooters back by the entrance to the stairwell and tell them to fire some rounds into it. Keep the bastards' attention focused this way. Cam and I are going to get behind them."

Emilio actually looked surprised--a rare expression of spontaneous and uncontrolled emotion."How are you going to do that?"

"Watch," John replied with a thoroughly mischievous grin. Pulling his knife from his boot, he jammed it between the closed elevator doors.

"Give me hand, Cameron." Instantly she was at his side, her own knife inserted higher up on the doors. They pried at them until Cameron could slip her fingers into the gap. With an effortless jerk she pulled the doors open.

"We are going to do a little cable climbing."

Emilio shook his head."John, I am not certain that you are entirely sane."

John laughed."You aren't the first to notice that."

Turning away, John leaped into the shaft grabbing the elevator cables with both hands. For one sickening moment he felt as if the metallic ropes were going to slip through his fingers. It’s going to be really anticlimactic if I fall and break my neck, he thought. But then he caught himself and began to climb--hand over hand.

There was a slight vibration as Cameron seized the cable and moved below him.

"John, put your foot on my shoulder."

Doing as she asked John felt his position stabilize. He began to move up the cable more by being pushed than by climbing. Cameron literally propelled him upward until they reached the doors on the fourth floor.

Teetering together on the narrow ledge inside the shaft, they pried at the doors until Cameron could achieve her grasp. The doors squealed as she pulled them apart. John stepped into the hall and reached back to offer her the utterly unnecessary assistance of his hand. She took it anyway.

"You know I could have done that by myself," he whispered.

"I know you could John, but I assumed that you wanted it to happen today." Cameron's facial expression was completely blank.

"Sarcasm," John chuckled. "Sarcasm from the woman I love."

From some mystical place sunbeams appeared and danced across Cameron's face as she smiled broadly. "You can endure it."

The sound of gun fire echoed from their left.

"The stairway is over there."John gestured toward her. "Let's go, nice and easy."

They had made a mistake. Concentrating on the stairs, they had both forgotten that a threat might be behind them. In this instance the danger came from an unlikely source.

Clinton McBee had been cowering under his desk from the first moment the mix of gunfire and wailing alarm had rebounded through the building. He had a gun. Everyone in the building had a gun, it was a condition of employment. McBee had never expected to actually use it. He thought of himself only as a currency trader, not a fighter. He had not even fired his weapon in months. Perhaps it was time for a change.

McBee heard the harsh squeal as the elevator doors were forced open. Picking up his pistol from his desk, he tiptoed to his office door and peered through the narrowly open crack. He saw the man, athletic, fierce-looking with a scar on his face and a gun in his hand. The man helped a young woman out of the shaft. She was small, slightly built, almost delicate in her appearance--surely no threat there.

The two turned away from his office and started down the hall. Obviously these were some of the intruders who had broken into the building. Here was his chance. McBee stepped out into the hallway and aimed his pistol at the back of the man's head. He could deal with the girl after the man went down. He took a deep breath, held it, focused, and pulled his trigger.

*****

Cayman Islands, Friday 11:22 A.M., Cayman Standard Time

He sipped the Mimosa and watched the gentle morning surf roll across his beach. Cathy had just left. Presumably she was going to the gym to tone that lithe body before her afternoon shopping and dinner with him later in the day. Cathy's life was not particularly demanding, although, he thought happily, neither was his. Enjoy the rest of the morning, drive into down, a couple of hours of easy office work and then...."He was almost salivating over the possibilities of the "and then" when the insistent ringing of the cell phone interrupted his reverie.

Picking up the phone, he looked at the number of the incoming call and froze. It was the security number--the number that never called.

"Yes?" he said in a chokingly hoarse voice.

"Run." The voice at the other end was grating and insistent. "Go now." The connection was broken.

The man who called himself Culhane took the advice immediately. Racing to his bedroom, he pulled a packed suitcase out of his closet. Clothes, money, passport, it was all there. Changing quickly into casual slacks, a flowered tropical shirt and running shoes he retrieved his pistol from his dresser. With the gun tucked reassuringly in his waist band and the suitcase gripped tightly in his hand he hurried to his car.

It's almost noon, he thought. There were three flights out between 12 and 12:45. The Venezuela flight was probably the best. It would be easy to vanish into the crowd in Caracas.

The white Porsche gleamed brightly in the tropical sun. He tossed the suitcase in the back seat and leaped behind the wheel. As he slipped the key into the ignition he suddenly saw the envelope lying on the passenger seat. It looked like expensive stationery with no visible mark on the side he could see. With a suffocating sense of trepidation he picked up the envelope and turned it over. On the side that had been face down the words "General Allen Rankin" were spelled out in large block letters.

He felt his throat close, his heartbeat race. Against every instinct he possessed he found himself almost involuntarily opening the envelope. He pulled out two neatly folded sheets of writing paper. On the first, in beautifully formed cursive writing, were the words "To General Allen Rankin from Captain John Connor, Commanding Officer Company J, First Battalion, Army of the Resistance-----Greetings." He turned the page to the second sheet. The letters were in block form, large, black and irrevocably clear. They said only "AND FAREWELL".

Rankin hurled the letter away as if the paper had turned to acid. He reached for the ignition key and was about to start the car when the voice in his head screamed "NO!" He jerked his hands away from the key and seized the door handle instead. He pushed open the Porsche's driver side door. That was the mistake. Or more accurately that was the last mistake. Opening the door the first time had armed the bomb, opening itthe second time triggered it. There may have been a millisecond when Rankin realized his error but that thought was lost in the fireball that engulfed the automobile. Cathy would have to find another partner for dinner.

Across the road, Marcel Portier proudly relished the special quality of his work. Under most circumstances he would have preferred to have been far away at this point. The client, however, had requested special verification. He walked from his vantage point to a place as near the burning car as the heat would allow. If you peered closely into the flames it was possible to see a skeleton turning into blackened ash.

Portier opened his cell phone and pushed in the number. When the voice answered, he said only "The task is completed." He closed the phone and walked away down the beach.

*******

Los Angeles, Friday 9:20 A.M.

McBee had remembered much of his firearm instruction. Unfortunately, he had also forgotten a few key points. "Use your free hand to brace your wrist. Watch the recoil and don't aim for the head. It’s too small a target. Aim at the body." Those suggestions had all slipped his mind. The bill for memory loss now came due.

He pulled the trigger and the pistol jerked upward in his hand. The bullet he expected to strike the male intruder in the head sailed harmlessly into space. As he frantically adjusted his aim for a second shot, he saw the girl move with an inconceivably fluid speed. She whirled like a dancer spinning in an effort to get between McBee and his target. He pulled the trigger again and realized that his shot had struck her squarely in her lower back. She quivered from the impact but held her position shielding his target.

The advice about not aiming for the head had been offered for the inexperienced novice. John was neither a novice nor inexperienced. Aiming over Cameron's shoulder he squeezed off two rounds in rapid succession. Both struck McBee in the forehead. The light had left his eyes before his body reached the floor.

"Cameron?" The anguish caused John's voice to tremble. "Are you all right?"

Cameron's lips were locked together as if she were holding her breath. She shook her head to clear any disorientation.

"I am all right, John. It is painful but I have compensated. My functions are not impaired."

John touched her cheek with his left hand. "Love you," he whispered.

Cameron nodded her understanding before pointing at the stairwell."We have to move. Someone is coming up the stairs."

John ran toward the entrance to the stairwell with Cameron close on his heels. Reaching the landing, he could hear footsteps pounding up from below. The two men who came around the lower landing both wore the blazers with the Burkes and Armes insignia above the pocket. A look of stunned amazement crossed their faces as they saw John and Cameron waiting for them. The one in the lead managed to get off a shot, but firing uphill can cause a shooter to miss high. He did. John and Cameron did not miss.

The cries of pain and the thumping clatter of bodies rolling down the stairs were answered by shouts of panic.

"They're above us! We are caught in the middle! Run! Run!"

The gunfire from below surged with a new intensity. Emilio had heard the crackle of uncontrollable fear and he was pushing his men into the lower stairwell.

"We've got them now," John said with grim satisfaction. He looked at his watch. 9:26 A.M. This was taking too long. They were slipping behind schedule.



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