Chapter 1

"I don't know what you want with that pile of rocks out on Leonard Road, but if you want it I am sure Avery will sell it to you. Course ain't nobody in their right mind gonna finance it." My older brother was his usual supportive self that day.

"Well Fred, you know I am something of a history buff. The place was an old ore house for a Spanish gold mine."

"That is just the BS that the old men around here tell. I expect it was some kind of church or something. Might have been the main house in a fort."

"Well don't matter none it is old as hell and I like that, and I already bought it from Avery. With the mill closed, he was happy to be rid of it I expect."

"Well Jake, it is good to have you home even if you did buy a white elephant. You been gone way too long."

"I know Fred, I missed a lot these last fifteen years but I am home now."

"So what you gonna do now?" Fred looked concerned. The fact that I might not need to do anything but vegetate never occurred to him. It had to do with the way we were all raised. In our neighborhood you worked or you were a bum period. I never quite figured that out because over the years I am told several people made a lot of money but none retired early at least not to our part of town.

"Oh hell I don't know. I might just take a long vacation."

"From what? I mean we don't have any idea what you have been doing over the last ten years."

"Oh working here and there. Mostly security work for foreign nationals." I saw his curious look. "Most of them didn't know all the things that were available to protect them. I helped them figure it out." What I didn't tell him was that they figured it out because of me all right but it was after I had a pretty good size chunk of their illegal cash.

That was later of course. I started out all full of honesty and courage. Protect the weak kind of thing. You know that youthful zeal. In the end it got to be, do what was best for me and the devil take the rest of them.

"It must have paid well for you to buy that pile of stones. I know you couldn't get a loan on it. At least not much of one."

"It paid okay, but the pile of stones is mortgaged to the hilt." In spite of what you think I found an off shore bank to loan me the money." I did too, of course it was my money that secured the loan. It was kind of a hand washing thing, not to mention money laundering thing.

"Why in hell would they do that?" Fred was pretty well versed in investments. At least that is what I had been told by him.

"I had a good business plan?" I smiled at him to let him know there was no answer required.

"What business do you have in mind?"

"I'm going to turn it into a tourist attraction. You know one of those medieval castles, complete with serving wenches and all." I smiled again. It was beginning to be fun watching him think about it.

"That is a pretty big gamble." I could see that he was secretly hoping I would fail.

"I suppose so, but I have to live somewhere anyway."

"The renovations on that place are going to kill you. It hasn't been anything since the mill stopped using it to store raw cotton." I was surprised that he knew so much about the old place.

"That's been almost twenty years now they tell me. The roof leaked all that time and has pretty much taken the floors down. Nothing much left but the walls. Those looked to be in pretty good shape. The mortar is in good shape and the pockets are there for the floor joists. It shouldn't be much trouble to fix it. The damn walls are over a foot thick so I am not expecting all that much trouble."

"No, it just going to cost you a fortune." Fred seemed almost pleased at the image of me going broke. It wasn't likely to happen but he did look smug.

"Don't matter much now Fred, I am committed to it. Matter of fact Uncle Slocum is coming over tomorrow to do the estimate."

"Slocum is a thief and furthermore not related to us at all. I think he knew dad from his drinking days. They both quit at the same time I think."

"It doesn't matter he and his son Ernest are coming first think in the morning. I have a bid from the real estate people to do the work so I will see how his bid is."

"You picked the two worst people to bid. A realtor who thinks you don't know anyone, and a bigger thief than Willie Sutton."

"Willie Sutton, god Fred you just dated us both. You for using that name and me for knowing who it is." I smiled at him so he would know that it was a joke. "Well I need to move from the motel and I need to do it today. So are you gonna loan me the tent or not?"

"Hell Jake, you can have the damn tent. I haven't used it in years, it is too heavy to back pack and the wife gave up camping. You can have all that gear."

"In that case let me buy it. I would feel better if I paid for it."

"No hell, I will not help send you to the poor house. You save your money or credit for the Castle."

"Okay, so when do I come back for it?"

"Come on pull around to the gray storage building and I will load up your little Jap Jeep."

We did just that, I drove around and we both loaded up the little Tracker. When my bother finished the jeep was stuffed to the canvas top. "Fred, I didn't plan on all this."

"You are going to need it all, but let me tell you, this is all summer gear. If you don't have that place ready by winter you are gonna freeze your ass off out there."

"I have to admit I have become used to the heat, but I have been cold a few times in the last ten years. I can make do."

"Well if you need a hot meal and a warm bed you can come visit."

"Visit being the operative word." Fred's wife didn't exactly love me like a brother. Hell maybe she did at that.

"Trust me Jake you wouldn't be happy here more than a day or two." I nodded my understanding then drove the Tracker away.

When I bought the older tracker, it had been abused badly. It smoked, the rust and paint spots held the body together, the interior carpet and pads were all gone. It had pretty much been stripped back to what the real jeeps must have been like in World War Two. I owned it for exactly one day when I decided that it was crap and not worth spending money on.

I did change the oil and added a can of oil treatment. Then I bought a pack of sandpaper, some rust remover and five spray cans of olive drab green enamel paint. On the second day it smoked less, and the rust was hidden by the old style paint job. The top was a leaky rag, so I worked on it during day two. I removed the harp which held it up and built a frame from PVC pipes. Once I had a frame that was reasonably solid, I had some particle board cut to use as a roof under the canvas. With that in place I painted the roof with a black sealer paint. it looked like crap but it didn't leak, well not more than was bearable anyway. That was the condition of the Tracker when Fred and I filled it with camping gear.

After I pitched the tent I was too exhausted to do anything else. I was covered in sweat when I sat side saddle in the baby jeep's front seat. It wasn't the sick sweat I had been feeling recently it was just a sweat from overdoing it.

I looked back and found that the red tent looked pretty good to me. It sagged in only the right places so I was satisfied. When my breath stopped ripping in my chest, I moved to put the bedding inside the tent. All the cook gear was inside a large plastic storage box which I was told could double for a table, but only if I sat on the floor of the tent.

With the tent full, I went looking for ice and something to keep cool. The closest convenience store had the ice and about enough food for a night and day. I figured real quick that I needed a better system. The almost ten bucks that I paid was the determining factor. I put those thoughts on hold awaiting the contractor's estimates.

"Well Mr Burke, the place needs a lot of work. I came by to look at it when you called last week. We have been working on a rough estimate ever since. Best we can figure it is gonna run about two hundred thousand to fix up."

"You did understand I wanted a rough repair." I asked it because I couldn't believe the cost.

"Of course a really classy finish would be twice that. Let me detail what we have in mind." In spite of myself I let the builder walk me through it. The work sounded pretty good but the price sure as hell didn't. The builder recommended by the realtor disappeared about two hours after he arrived. He should have felt pretty sure that I wasn't going to be using him. If he didn't he was a fool because my heart wasn't in the tour.

Uncle Simon and Ernie showed up after lunch. Instead of the fancy new pick up of the first builder, they came in a one ton flatbed with wooden sides.

"Jake, I thought you was dead," Ernie declared.

"I was Ernie." I took his hand while his dad looked on. "Howdy Slocum."

"Jake, I was sorry to hear about your dad. He was a fine man." He looked down at the ground when he added, "We missed you at the funeral."

"I was overseas Slocum, I just couldn't get back." I was actually in a small African country trying to rescue some Dutch Missionaries. Before anyone gets the idea I was still a do gooder, the church paid me well. Me and a small band of other idiots managed to slip them over the border into a still friendly country. Snatched them from the jaws of death, the church representative said as he paid me my fee. The praise was nice but the money was what inspired me.

"So Slocum you been here to look it over?" He didn't answer instead he took a legal pad and began walking around making notes. He obviously hadn't bothered to do a real estimate.

"You know Jake, I had forgotten this place was out here. We used to fish in that pond. God it is smaller than I remember. It must had been twice that big."

"Always been that size son, you just got bigger." Slocum said that as he wrote a note on the pad.

The old man was right of course the building didn't look nearly as imposing as it had when I was twelve sneaking over the fence to catch the yellow bellied bream that hid under the muddy water.

"Damn building has really been gutted. Old man Avery never did know how to take care of nothing." Slocum mumbled that as he moved about. "See that Jake, they added those posts so they could turn this high ceiling room into two rooms for storage. You don't see no timber pockets in the stone just them old posts there. Now back here you see the floor joists. This part was always two stories. That big room out there was just one high ceiling ed mother. Must have been a chapel or something once."

"They say this was an ore house for an old Spanish mill."

"Bullshit, it was a mill of some kind. See the floor joist pockets. the are over a wet basement. That basement had a hole in the stone foundation once. See the blocks there in the foundation those are crap. That little stream went under this place and turned a wheel of some kind. Now I ain't saying that it didn't grind ore but it wasn't no storage building. This high ceiling room was some kind of chapel or maybe meeting room. Back there was the grinder."

"So what is the easiest and cheapest thing to do with it. I want to keep the price down and I want it to look like a castle."

"Jake how much money you got son?"

"Why Slocum?"

"Cause ain't no sense startin' this less you can get your hands on a hundred grand at least. And that is just to put the structure back."

"How about just to do the roof and floors."

"Don't you want no wiring, plumbing, or interior walls?"

"Frankly Slocum I am not sure that I can afford them. What I want first is to make the place livable, sort of anyway."

"Well Jake your timing is good anyway. Old man Griffin is demolishing several of the mills. There are some timbers around that will come close to matching the pockets. I can fill in any voids with some of the stones from the slag heap in back."

"Is that what that mound is back there? I thought it was just a hill of some kind."

"It is, it is a dirt covered hill of stones from this place. there is probably an inch of dirt over the stones but that is all. I am not going to need much to fill those voids anyway. the beams should be close."

"So how much for the roof?"

"Got to do the floor so I can do the roof. That wet basement is too low for the scaffolds."

"Okay how much?"

"Fifty but that is just the floor beams and the cover and the roof beams and deck. You gonna have to get your own roofer." He paused a minute before he continued. "Jake, you gonna need to get the plumbing and heating done at the same time before they pour the roof. You don't want to be cutting no vent holes in after it is poured. If you do it will leak sure as hell."

"Okay Slocum, I am gonna trust you and Earnie not to get over on me. When can you start?"

"Within ten days from the date you hand me a check for half." He looked like a man not expecting it to happen.

Maybe to impress him, or to just get the thing started I wrote him a check for all the money. When I handed it to him, he asked, "When will it be good."

"It is good now." I said it not bothering to explain about my letter of credit from the off shore account.

"That your tent out there?" Ernie asked that one.

"Yeah, borrowed it from Fred."

"Okay, I am gonna have a crew out measuring the place, so don't go shootin none of my men." Slocum smiled letting me know dad had told him some about me.

"Tell them, if they aren't working in ten days, they might need to get a new boss. Otherwise everything is fine." Slocum lost his good humor. Slocum that check is for the full amount. I don't need to hold any back because I trust you, and you obviously know me.

"We will be here."

When the electric company's representative arrived to put in what he called a saw service, I had him add enough for a refrig and small heater against the night chill. While uncle Slocum worked on the castle I planned to read and maybe even get drunk a few times. I should have learned form fifteen years on the sword's edge not to make silly plans.

Slocum was a week into the restoration when the call came on my cell phone. It was from the man who would have been my agent, if I had been a rock star. His company was called the International Security Company. ISC sold, installed, maintained, and tested security systems mostly as a cover. The less profitable but more interesting business was in guarding foreign nationals when they traveled about. They provided some very hard men who spoke the language and knew the customs of countries around the world... I joined his little band of cut throats after all the profitable wars ended. In exchange for the boring work, I got a lot of intel. Some of it had even led to profitable, off the books, ventures for my own little band of merry men. ISC knew enough about me and the others to leave us pretty much alone as long as we didn't turn on any of their clients. Besides, having a handle on the men who could kill just might be an edge one day in keeping their clients alive.

"Jake, how is retirement?" The voice belonged to Simon Goldburg. As the name implied, Simon was a Jew from Israel. The company had its offices in New York but it had strong ties to the Mosad. I never questioned their roots since they worked for Israelis and Arabs alike. My only requirements were that they pay me and treat me with respect.

"How would I know? If you are calling me, I guess I am not retired."

"Not sure you are going to be interested. It is a rush job and not clean or simple. The one is a smash and grab."

"Simon, if you want somebody grabbed to change a government, you know we don't have the firepower for that kind of thing. You need somebody's special forces for that."

"Well this one is not that easy. Do you know what Doctor's without borders is?"

"Never heard of it," I admitted.

"I'm not surprised. I never heard of them till an hour ago. I got this call from a European ministry official. The UN has a team of Doctors in a so called civilized member country. Some kind of Militia made up of religious zealots has grabbed them. The country is on the verge of civil war anyway so they don't want US Ranger or even so called UN Commandos in there. Those guys have to have all this prep work which just might cause the pot to boil over. They want a quick snatch and grab not a military incursion.

"Simon, this smacks of another of your high risk low pay jobs."

"High risk no doubt but you are going to have lots of intel. That might make a big difference. The pay this time isn't all that bad, the Doctors are way over funded. They have been tweaking the collective consciences of their rich med school classmates for years. The medical profession raised three quarters of a mil in two days. So, you want a half mil for you band of merry men?"

"No but I will take six hundred K and give it a shot."

"Done," he replied much too easily.

"And Simon, if that intel is crap, you are a dead man."

"Of course, I wouldn't have it any other way." He knew the score. If any of us survived an ambush, he wouldn't.

He gave me twenty four hours to assemble the merry men at an air base outside London. I burned up the phone lines. I contacted all five other members of the group, then made a flight reservation for an evening flight.

"Slocum," I said to my 'sort of' uncle. "If I'm not back when you finished the work I already paid for, you might want to rethink working for me."

Tossing clothes into a bag was easy since I couldn't carry anything really useful onto a plane. Simon should have everything we needed waiting at the abandoned airfield. The Merry Men had used that particular field before, so there wasn't going to be any excuse for anyone or anything getting lost.

Simon had me met at the airport south of London by a woman. It was pretty much standard for us to be met by one of his under secretaries, or whatever he called them. I guessed that she was more a coordinator than anything else. I expected that she had the stored equipment loaded onto a truck, the sent along for us while we winged our way onto the island country. Looking at the air field, last officially used during world war two, I again realized how much England had been an anchored air craft carrier during the big war. I had it on good authority, there are abandoned fields just like ours all over England. Most had been converted to housing developments but some still remained usable.

I knew that there would be two small cube vans parked beside the landing strip when we arrived. The one outfitted with a door which resembled a camper or mobile home would be used as a staging area. How many of those vans ISC had around the world I had no idea. Hell that one might be the only one. I suppose it could be flown all over the world on a moment's notice.

"Jake," the woman said as I approached her inside the terminal of the civilian airport. ""Nice to see you again."

"Always good to see you Rebecca," We all called her Rebecca because we couldn't pronounce her real name. Rebecca was from Egypt which led me to believe that the country to be infiltrated might be located somewhere in the middle east.

On the drive to the airfield, she colored in the outline Simon had given me. According to Becca, if the medical team was being held in an urban area, a different team would have been called in. The terrain was rugged and the compound was hard to reach. On the up side, it was lightly defended because it was almost impossible to reach.

Inside the van I was told that the compound held not only the terrorist team, but also a spy who had given the information to his CIA handler the day before. I agreed that the intel should be good since it was fresh. I was also informed that a predator had kept the mountain top under watch ever since and there had been no trucks leaving the compound though there had been a couple entering.

Again, according to the spy the camp had almost no defense at night. They counted on enough warning for the half dozen sentries to wake the others in time. The compound was too small for a halo jump. Just a few inches of error to the east would put us in a very famous river which ran below the mountain. Those same inches to the west, would send up into a very unfriendly town.

"What would you suggest?" the briefer asked. I had met him a dozen times and no one ever used his name. He was simply the briefer. I expected that he was CIA but I never asked.

"Ultra lights from the desert, then cut the engines and glide into the compound. Kill everybody, then go out in a truck. Get to the desert by sunup and you pick us up." It was the best I could do on short notice.

"Jake, you always amaze me. I think you have a spy in my office."

"No Briefer, it is the only way to get enough supplies in there accurately and quietly." I smiled knowing he had spent hours on the plan only to have me outline it in a couple of minutes. It was the reason they hired me. I could plan and re plan in minutes. When the first man hit the ground, the plan would change from details to broad strokes as things began to happen. Modifying the plan would be crucial and doing it without radios. All communications with the mountain top would be jammed before we arrived. It had to do with their ability to get help up the mountain. There was little if any need to jam the radar. We were pretty much invisible to it, there was very little real metal in one of their ultra lights. The rifles might send back a tiny bounce, so they were inside duffle bags until the last possible minute. With just the tiniest amount of luck, first thing the guards would know of their impending death would be the dull thud of the slug hitting them.

The Briefer didn't like it, but he gave the same briefing to each man. On the second hearing someone would ask questions overlooked on the first hearing of it. By the time it had been told six times, we had the plan pretty well set.

Two hours after the last man arrived on the metal mats used as a runway, the cargo plane touched down. The plane bore the markings of the flying tiger freight line. I thought they were defunct but then what do I know. We were sitting in the belly of the plane with boxes of supplies in the spaces between the canvas seats, when I appraised the group.

We had been tagged the Merry men because of our ragtag looks, and the several different characters who made up the group. The second in command, if you called what we had a command structure, was Jonathan Eaves AKA little John. His name came not from any resemblance to the legendary figure, but because he was indeed small of statue. Eaves could not have gone more than a hundred and fifty pounds in full battle dress. He was so small that on a forced march we tried to keep his pack lightened down. Jon never knew that, or he might have shot one of us. He was only small in body, his heart was as big as any one of us. He was also the most remorseless killer in a band of professional killers. The British Royal Marine Sargent major retired was the most soldier like of us all.

If you have a little John then you have to assemble the whole band of Sherwood Forest band of Ruffians. Will the Scarlet was a gypsy from somewhere in middle Europe. When the need to blend into the night ended, a red scarf would appear from somewhere and he would be himself again. The good Friar was our own concept of a Jesuit priest turned killer. Friar Edgar was the only name I knew him by. I had no idea what his real name or his real background was and no one else did either. We picked him up on a snatch and grab in South America. Someone wanted ISC to convince a certain drug lord that he was not impervious to assassination. The snatch and grab was one of those changes to the plan I mentioned earlier. We voted ourselves a little bonus for the terrorizing of the drug lord. The large amount of money in his den, turned vault, was just a bonus we felt we deserved for our assistance in the war on drugs.

The good Friar had helped us move the money from the jungle to an abandoned church. It sat there till we could get back to it a few months later. In exchange we took the Friar with us before we left the country. Hell, it was either that or kill him. He became part of the band of merry men because he was a first rate user of edged instruments. In other words he could cut a man's throat and not get a drop of blood on himself. If you don't think that is important, ask O. J. Simpson. On second thought don't bother, he wouldn't know.

We had our own wandering minstrel of sorts. We dubbed him Allen but his real name was Vladimir. How the hell he could have wound up with us was a mystery. Allen, when he was Vlad, was a PHD guest lecturer at a couple of different Universities in Russia. He wasn't really a singer, He was a poet, a classical Russian poet no less. Which meant he was a drunk, he had to be watched before and after a job. When bullets flew, if he was sober, he could carry and fire just about any heavy weapon found on the battleground. A very useful man to have when you can't carry all that much fire power into a battle. Allen would take it away from the bad guys and shove it up their asses.

The strangest, of a truly strange lot, was Maid Marian of course. Maid Marian was a woman from God only knew where. She was one of Simon's finds. Whenever we returned from a job, she disappeared. None of us was ever told where she went. Little John asked once and she told him to mind his own business. She was a Eurasian for sure or maybe even an Amerasian, I couldn't tell nor could anyone else.

Since I was the sort of strategist, I got to play Robin. I thought it made me sound faggy, but it was decided by the group. So I became code named Robin. It is what the group wanted and that is what happened. From the moment the plane took off till it landed, and we were back in our respective real lives, I would be Robin. I really didn't mind much. I was amazed how, to a man or woman, they all fell asleep as soon as the plane was airborne. Yes, I let the sound of the props on the turbo jet lull me to sleep as well, but it took longer.

Marian awoke me as we began our decent into the desert. The plane had flown all night just to get us to a particular flat spot on the desert floor just after noon of the second day. The Load Master pushed our pallet of supplies out the rear door of the plane. The plane immediately taxied off leaving us stranded. We should have rested but instead we began work. The assembling of the ultra light aircraft, complete with their lawn mower engines, was a job that required us to work more carefully than quickly.

The Friar cleaned and packed the weapons while the rest of us pitched in to assemble the aircraft such as they were. The three aircraft were made of nylon covered composition frames were tested and retested before Marian, who had the final approval for some reason, deemed them ready. The two slings under the wings allowed for a pilot and gunner, though we all hoped to get down without the need of one.

Everybody did a complete weapons check at least three times before ten p.m. The night was bright and we all cursed, but knew there was nothing we could do about the timing. The dark of the moon was the best for us. The rescue just couldn't be put off.

At ten we slipped into the black jump suits, then fired up the motors on our fragile aircraft. After a very short warm up we began to run down sand that we jokingly called a runway. When there was enough lift, we swung our feet into the harness and began a forty-five minute flight. It was a good thing we had studied our plan as often as possible before we left. The wind and the small engine made it impossible to speak.

We cut the engines high above the mountain top, then drifted in circles down to the compound. The compound was some old fortification or maybe a walled house of some kind. It made no difference since the courtyard was barely large enough to land. It was going to be 'sail low over it' then spill the air from the para wing. The final few feet were going to be a dead drop of five feet or more. It was a dangerous move,. I supposed even then that it was why we were being paid so well.

The guards were way to easy to take. It was so easy that it worried the hell out of me, as I am sure it did the others. The black birds swooped down on the compound and found the guards standing in the two guard stations on top of the walls. The walls were never designed for defense from the air. Instead they were there for siege protection or maybe to prevent a disgruntled peasant from tossing a rock over. The towers which were obviously an after thought allowed only a unrestricted view of the road and of the fields approaching the compound. I suppose, if a guard raised an alarm the others planned to go out to meet the threat. I never was sure what their plan was, but it never got a chance to be implemented. The guards in the towers died in a hail of silenced gunfire.

When the ultra lights turned gliders landed, the one with Friar and Maid Marian crashed into a wall with them still attached. Even they had no idea what had happened. Then Allen stopped to help while little John and I secured the courtyard. He and I waited to see if anyone would come from the building. The vicious attack outside had hardly made a sound. A sleeping enemy might have missed it entirely, which appeared to be the case.

"Robin, Marian is fine but the Friar has a nasty broken leg." The voice belonged to Allen.

"Prop him against the wall with a m60 and let him guard our rear, then lets get into the building." We had been down only a couple of minutes but it already seemed like hours. The doors were unlocked, since they hadn't expected any unannounced visitor. We went quietly into the building. The intel map was wrong of course. We swept each room on the way to the top of the building. We found a room full of troops on the first floor. I motioned for Allen to bring the canister of gas. We used the same gas that the Russians had used on the Opera House Rebels as they had become known. It was a fast acting and rapidly dissipating gas. Only a small breathing apparatus was needed and then only for a couple of minutes.

We piped the gas into the room, then looked in to make certain that it had worked before we moved on. It was working like the proverbial charm when we began the climb to the second floor. Half way up the quiet night changed to pandemonium. I began having difficulty breathing just as the sound of gunfire erupted.

"You are bleeding," Marian said to me. I looked down to my hand. I saw before I felt the blood flowing into my hand. I wasn't sure where it came from or why I was having difficulty breathing. At that moment there was no pain to give me a clue.

"How many," I asked of them both. Little John and Allen came running. They had been checking the rooms on the lower floor, and the basement.

"One, probably the guard on their door." Allen was looking at me when he said it. "Are you okay? You don't look so good."

"Toss a couple of frags?" Little John suggested ignoring Allen's comments. Little John knew there was no time for anything but the fire fight.

"No we can't take a chance. I will draw a little fire while you guys toss the flash bangs. It that doesn't work, we blow his ass up." They nodded.

"How about that hand?" Marian was our medic of sorts.

"Must be a scratch, I don't feel a thing." She nodded but still looked worried.

I went about half way up the stairs while being very careful and gasping with every step... When I heard the sound of his AK47, I went down the steps quickly, but only after three flash bangs went over my head.

"Good think these guys are such lousy shots?" I said. Before I could say anything the three of them were following the flashbangs with heavy gunfire as they went up the steps. They waited for me before we kicked the door, where the medical staff was supposed to be held prisoner.

First there was the sound of the door giving way, then a voice spoke in British english, "Doctors and Nurses, we are here to rescue you get down." Then Little John took a good look around. Nobody was standing but no one was speaking either. I scanned the room carefully. One of the women cut her eyes to a metal cabinet, it was the kind which held clothes or office supplies depending on the inside configuration. I didn't bother to open the door, instead I emptied the silenced ten millimeter pistol into the thin metal cabinet. When the cabinet fell over, the noise level suddenly increased.

"Get the hell down those stairs, now." It was me shouting but I hadn't planned it. Even before the rest of us made it down the stairs, Allen was in the courtyard picking out the best of the trucks.

We had everyone loaded when the woman came to me. The woman was tiny, no more than five feet maybe even a little less. Her hair was stringy. I would never have thought of hair that short being stringy, but it was clumped together. It was also red from what had to have been an old rinse, since the tips were redder than the roots. Her body was hidden under the loose fitting robe which all the nurses wore. Those had to have been provided by their captors.

"There is a doctor buried behind this building. He was killed on the first day."

"Can you show us where?" I asked it without giving any thought at all to leaving the body. The images of the helicopter pilot in Simolia still haunted my sleep. I wondered if they also haunted the man who had sent them to die, then ordered them to run away from the fight. Those thoughts slipped through my mind as I followed the pixie trapped in hell, to the rear of the building. I was more than a little surprised to find Maid Marion beside me as I began digging with a scrap of wood. I might have had to search for a shovel if the yard hadn't be loose sand. I got most of the way into the make shift grave before the sudden chest pain knocked me over.

Marian shouted for help, the others came running. They tried to help me up. "Leave me alone and dig. We have to get the hell out of here." I noted with satisfaction that some of the freed prisoners dug with their hands right beside Marion and Little John. I have no idea how long it took, or how many helped or even who carried the body of the doctor. The stench was bearable but just, I thought as I tried to stand. I had been resting against a tree. When I got almost to my feet, I was again doubled over by the pain in my chest. I couldn't figure out how I had been shot. Since I couldn't find any blood, I forced myself erect. The Friar was beside me.

"Lean on me Robin, we have to get moving." I nodded as we headed to the truck.

The truck was running when we arrived. Little John drove down the mountain way too fast for my taste, but I knew he was going to make it. He drove like that over every kind of road devised by man and we always made it out. We found the pickup site and keyed the mike four times in a broken pattern, it was the signal for the choppers to come in.

The third chopper was redundant, we could have squeezed into two of them. Hell, if worse came to worse a couple of the nurses could have sat on my lap. It was too bad that worse didn't come to worse. Then again maybe it was a good thing since the pain in my chest was a steady burning. I just couldn't find a position that didn't hurt.

The extraction went perfectly. All in all except for the pain in my chest the whole thing had gone perfectly. When we arrived at the temporary helo pad in a neighboring country, everybody quickly transferred to a private jet. The jet took of from a small airport on some deserted military base somewhere in the middle east. At that moment it was home to a group of U.N. peace keepers.

"Must be a staging area," Marion said. Looking at all the activity below us.

"Beats me," I replied. We didn't even have enough time on the ground to ask. Before I knew it the Jet was in the air. I had noticed its lack of markings before we loaded, I wasn't at all surprised.

The plane was just big enough for everyone to have two seats in which to stretch out. I was trying to get comfortable which proved to be impossible... It was difficult since the bee sting I picked up during the short fire fight had begun to throb as well as the burning pain in my chest had returned with a vengeance. The pressure bandage over the deep scratch was also covered with dried blood. I was more than a little surprised to find that the ISC hadn't supplied a medic for the flight. I suppose they got the report that all was well, or maybe they just decided that we had a plane full of doctors. It was just a little too bad if that were the reason, since they were all in one state of shock or another.

Marion was our designated paramedic. She slipped in beside me. "So Robin, how is the arm?"

"I think we can save it." I grinned over at her. At that very moment another shooting chest pain made me gasp.

"What is it Robin?" She looked really concerned.

"I would say the odds are that I am having a heart attack."

"Are you kidding? You are not kidding. God damnit, we are in a plane loaded with doctors and nurses, not one has offered to help." I didn't much like the look on her face. It could well lead either to a tongue lashing or a murder.

"Easy wench," I smiled at her since she hated being called that. "They haven't been to club med you know."

"Let me look at that arm." She removed the bandage before she said. "That thing is still oozing blood. How much have you lost?" She looked lost as she went through the motions. I think she was denying my chest pain as much as I was trying to deny it.

"Not too much, since I am still with you."

"Well you have ruined the seat of this plane." She grinned knowing that no one would dare ask us to pay the damages. "You could use a stitch or it is gonna scar. You ain't never gonna be in no beauty contests with that scar."

Marion could do almost any accent she had ever heard. She did the southern redneck well enough to pass that morning. "Well there goes my dreams of Hollywood." At that moment I doubled over in the seat and began to drip sweat from my forehead.

"Fuck this," she said standing. She walked to the front of the plane. I was gripped by the pain to the point that I lost contact with my surroundings. I was just trying to survive the pain.

"How do you feel?" A woman asked taking my hand. I recognized her a the pixie from hell.

"Been worse, but been a whole lot better too."

"You go forward and get the oxygen bottle from the pilot. Tell him it is an emergency. He might not want to give it up otherwise." Marian walked toward the pilot's cabin. I hoped for his sake that he gave her the bottle without question. Marian had the look which crossed her face just before someone died.

I slipped not into blackness but into grayness. It had to do with pain and the impossibility of finding any relief. I heard someone say, "Hang in there, don't you give up on me damn it."

The mask covered my mouth. I immediately began to breath easier. It surprised me that I had still been gasping before. I hadn't realized it till I could breath easier. I noticed the pixie bring a syringe toward me. "No," I said through the mask.

"Sleep Robin the fight is over for now," It should have been Marian but it was the Pixie.

What I didn't hear was Marian talking to the Doctor. "Is it a heart attack?"

"Yes, there is nothing we can do till we get him to a hospital. We should divert to the closest one."

"Wait," Marian said going to find Little John. She came back with Allen instead.

"How is he?" Allen asked of the Pixie.

"He needs to be in a hospital. It is probably too late to prevent any damage but if he survived this long it must not be a main artery. He still needs to have treatment as soon as possible to prevent another one."

"Can he survive a couple of hours more?" Allen asked it with murder in his eye I am told.

"I suppose so, but the damage is worse every minute we wait."

"Lady Doctor, in some of those countries down there," he said waving his arm at the windows. "There is a price on our heads. If he can hold on a few hours we will be home free."

"You are risking his life," the pixie informed him.

"Our way is a gamble, your way may be worse than a gamble. We fly to New York." Little John spoke for the first time. "Now is there anything we can do for him or you?"

"He is going to need more morphine." She said it knowing there would be morphine in the first aid kits we carried. "I need a drink."

"Morphine we can do, sorry no alcohol for you Doc." Marian said it while looking at the others. She was daring anyone to contradict her.

"Then this better be a damned short flight." The pixie looked pissed but she also recognized the lack of her usual godly position. The people standing over her were not impressed with her degrees.

"Don't worry, we are being met. He will get plenty of care in a couple of hours or so."

"Plane full of doctors and nobody is doing anything," Allen said with his Russian accent.

"There isn't anything they can do. They don't have an operating room or even a drugstore you know." It was the pixie in a rush to defend her fellow professionals.

"Ah, well that certainly makes all the difference to me." Vald didn't sound believable I am told.

The next thing I recognized was a white slow spinning ceiling fan. I thought that I must be in a remake of an old movie. I tried to raise my head but it didn't do anything but give me a headache.

"So you are back with us?" The nurse looked as though she had been spending all her time sitting by my bed but I knew better. She had awaken me with something which she had done to me. I saw the hypo in her hand and knew it was the shot.

"Water," I groaned.

"I expect you are dehydrated. You have been asleep for a couple of days now."

"What happened?"

"Your doctor will be in to talk to you in a bit."

"So where am I?" I asked taking the water from her. I fought to hold my head up while I drank it.

"Take it easy on that water for a while. You are in St Jermain hospital."

"Never heard of it," I replied.

"Well it isn't the Mayo Clinic but we do a good enough job for the likes of you." She was smiling from ear to ear. I could almost believe that she cared that I was awake.

"St. Jemain, does that make you a nun?" I noticed for the first time the unconventional headpiece.

"Give the man a cigar," she smiled.

"Lord do they have me in the wrong hospital, and I'll take that cigar now."

"Look in your bedside drawer," she demanded.

"Don't have to, there is one very large cigar there. If I am not terribly mistaken, it is Cuban at that."

"Some kind of ritual the two of them said. Well you certainly can't smoke it in here."

"Which two?" I asked.

"From the sound of them a Russian and a Brit."

"Ah yes, is there a two visitor at a time rule here?"

"There is indeed."

"Then the others were in the lobby," I smiled at her curious look. I also did not explain. What I did do was go back to sleep. I hadn't even noticed the wad of wires attached to my chest.

I slept off and on for the next four, days. I wasn't even close to being back to normal when they told me to get out of the hospital. I was expecting to take a cab to the airport then a flight home. It was a pretty good plan, at least I thought so. I planned to buy my ticket at the airport. Flying without a reservation would be risky, but I just didn't have a way to make a reservation.

The Dachau thin blonde looked familiar. I could only suppose that ISC had sent her to drive me before. She did seem all wrong for it but I was far to weak to question it. If she was an assassin, sent by some former client to off me, so be it. I didn't have the strength to stop even the almost middle-aged waif.

She loaded my bags even though I made a half hearted attempt to load them myself. "Take your hand off that bag," she demanded. "Didn't they tell you that you had a heart attack." The look she gave me withered me a little.

"Hey you are kinda bossy for a limo driver."

"Limo driver my ass, I came here to drive you alright but not for money."

"Then what are you driving me for?" I became just a little suspicious.

"I don't know anymore, since they tell me you wont be any good for sex for at least a week." She shook her head, she was trying to be a good actress.

It was at that moment that I placed her. "So what are we to do in the meantime?" I asked of the pixie with the new hair color.

"Well Robin, I am going to take you home and cook for you." She paused a moment then corrected herself. "I am going to take you home and order takeout for you for a week. Then when I am sure it won't kill you, I am going to screw your brains out." The grin was on her face again.

I was suspicious since that kind of thing never happened to me, but I was just too tired to call her bluff. I fell asleep in the car as we drove to her apartment. Actually we drove to her parking garage. I did remember her when the noise and exhaust fumes of the parking garage woke me... The young woman had not only treated me and possibly saved me, she had also been with the Doctors Without Borders crowd. That said good things about her.

She carried my bag to the elevator even though I tried to take it away from her. The bag wasn't all that much so I didn't mind as much as I pretended.

"I should have picked you up in a cab, it would have been easier."

"Then why didn't you?" I asked.

"If you aren't a native New Yorker, you cant get used to the idea of being hauled around by a person cursing in a foreign language. I figured to let you hear me curse in English."

"I don't think I would have known even if you were cursing me. I fell asleep when I hit the seat. By the way that is one comfortable car."

"You really are weak. That is a five year old Ford for God's sake."

"Not to change the subject but do the others know where I am?"

"They know you are with me, and that I have a phone number. I didn't give them the address. Your cardiologist said you needed to rest."

I smiled.

"Okay Robin what do you know that I don't?"

"Those people are highly trained professionals. If they want, there will be a man standing on the street corner watching this place. Your only hope is that I haven't pissed off the wrong people."

"From the looks of that house, where we were kept, after you finished, I would say pissing you off would be worse than you pissing them off."

"That was just business, nothing personal at all."

"You don't mind if I take it personal do you? I've never had a white knight drop out of the sky to save my skinny ass before."

"You can take it anyway you want., but the truth is I was paid to take the Docs home. You just happen to be with them." I looked about the small but tasteful apartment. "Do you happen to have a place I can lie down?"

"Sure but if you can wait a couple of minutes I will fix lunch."

"I think I would just as soon hold off till dinner." I said that because I was about to pass out. She must have noticed because she quickly led me to the only bedroom. On another day when I felt better, I might have asked whose bed it was but on that day I just fell gratefully onto it.

I have no idea how long I slept, but it was dead dark when I awoke. I felt much better and convinced myself that the drive had knocked me out not the heart damage. I went to the bathroom, then into the living room of the small apartment. I found the pixie watching TV on a set with the sound turned so low I could barely hear it. Since I have a substantial hearing loss, I wasn't sure if the Pixie could hear it or not.

After I took in the baggy slacks and sweater, I took a quick look about the place. I noticed with something between alarm and simple concern that her blinds were open. I moved to look out of them onto the street below. I didn't notice anything remiss, but then I wouldn't see them. Them being the people who either watched over an injured operative, or those having a more sinister purpose. Either way, I was going to have to trust my luck for a while. I wasn't up to even the most basic of survival moves.

"Now, I feel almost human," I said to the dozing Autumn.

"Are you up to a shower?" Autumn asked it playfully.

"Not a kinky one, but I might could wash the hospital stink off me."

"Honey, that ain't hospital stink on you." She giggled.

"Then I most definitely am going to take a shower."

"I would sit you in a tub and wash you myself, but this place only has a shower. Not a tub in the whole damn building."

"Is there any chance I can get you to send out for some food while I am in the shower?" I asked that because I was suddenly very hungry.

"What do you have in mind?" She was smiling at me while she spoke.

"Truth is, if I had my choice it would be scrambled eggs with bacon and toast."

"Hell Robin, you just named the only thing I can cook. Any particular instructions on the eggs?"

"Nothing green in them is all." I said that smiling at her. I did it because I was sure she was the green pepper type. She just reeked of that health food aura.

"Okay, how about cheese and onion can you do that?"

"That I can most definitely do," I replied smiling.

The shower took my breath away, but it didn't kick my ass, so I thought I might be on the mend.

I ate my eggs and toast in front of the TV set. I convinced her to let me watch the news, even though she was against it. I think it had a little to do with not upsetting me, but more to do with not upsetting her. The Doctor was very outspoken.

She kept up a running commentary on the commentaries. I had a feeling that she was positive that there were at least a dozen of JFK's killers still out there somewhere. She was like an authority on the vast right wing conspiracy. Everything had a twist but it was her very own twists, not the media or the present political spin. She saw thing with the most liberal bent I had ever encountered, but then I had pretty much been with like thinking people for the last fifteen years of my life.

She was a totally new twist. I only wished that I had been up to doing battle with her. But alas the best I could manage was a smile. The smile infuriated her by the way. Somehow she saw the smile as condescending. Which I assure you it wasn't.

I wasn't really sick when I allowed her to drive me to her house, but I was weak. I slept all of that first night without even moving in the bed. When I awoke the next morning I was embarrassed to bump into a woman in the hall whose name I didn't remember. I had gone the whole night before in her car, in her apartment, on her sofa trying like hell to remember the name of the woman who most likely saved my life or at least tried.

"I have something really awful to admit," I said over a repeat of the meal from the night before.

"Don't tell me you have killed someone," She smiled because she knew that I had killed a lot of someones.

"No, I can't remember your name. You can blame it on the drugs if you want."

"How about I blame it on the fact that I didn't make much of an impression on you, or that I didn't come see you in the hospital, or allow anyone to tell you that I called twice a day to check up on you."

"One thing at a time, what is your name please?" I noticed that she fidgeted, but I couldn't tell just why.

"I am Doctor Daze," she replied.

"I am sleeping in one of your beds Doc, surely you don't expect me to call you Doctor Daze?"

"My friends, of whom there are few, call me Autumn." She said it with an almost defiant glower.

"I am tempted to call you Dazy, but certainly not dizzy." The Autumn Daze was not lost on me. I didn't make the common joke that I am sure everyone else made. I expect that if her parents had known she would be a doctor they might not have named her Autumn.

"Thanks for not thinking of me dizzy, although bringing a stranger into my house is pretty radical for me."

"So you are not in the habit of rescuing injured puppies?"

"No, but it is not everyday that a man who just pulled my skinny ass out of a jail has a heart attack in my lap either."

"I grant you that is a first for me too."

"They tell me you refused a bypass why is that?"

"Do you know anything about real life Autumn?"

"I think so, it is why we are staying in a borrowed apartment. Also why I didn't come for you in a Mercedes, or for that matter why we met at all."

"The Doc promises me a forty-second death, probably within ten years. Now my alternative is a death that will take years and years. Possibly cancer killing me over a couple of painful years. Maybe wearing a diaper from Senility, I can't see me doing that. I can't even see me living those ten years without doing what I do." I noticed her look of concern. "Don't worry I got the word from ISC in a letter hand delivered by one of the Secretaries. I have a job as a security consultant just as long as I want it." I paused a moment for another cup of coffee. "I just don't think I will make a good burglar alarm salesman."

"So what are you going to do?"

"First, I am going home to finish my house, then I am going to live in it."

"They told me you lived somewhere in the southern part of the United States." She looked a little lost.

"I do, I live in North Carolina but I am also restoring a house there."

"Can you afford that?"

"I couldn't really afford it last week, but now it is something I have to do." I noted her look of bewilderment. "I want to do something positive before it is all over for me. The Place down there will do that I hope." I wasn't sure what I was talking about, but I knew I felt a compulsion to finish it.

"I guess I understand. It seems a bit futile though. I mean, if you refuse to live long enough to enjoy it."

"One thing at a time. I can always do the bypass if I change my mind."

"If you don't die first."

"Just gonna roll the dice and let it play itself out." I smiled at her with what I hoped was a charming smile. It probably looked like the smile of a fool to her. "I expect that all Doctors believe in fixing everything just because they can. A fact, denoted by the number of people on ventilators for years. I have been offered a chance to go out like I lived and I am going to take it. I am going to do what I like right up until the minute I die."

"Well, I don't agree but then I couldn't. It is my job to keep people alive."

"Ah but our definition of life is not the same. Breathing is yours, living is mine."

"Drink your coffee and shut up," she was smiling broadly up at me.

"Yes Doctor," I replied lifting the cup to her in a mock salute. I waited a moment then asked, "So what is next for you?"

"Funny you should ask, this was waiting in my mailbox when I returned."

The brochure she handed me was a recruiting poster of sorts. I looked it over before I asked, "Why is that funny? I would think that you get recruited all the time. It seems I heard there is a shortage of doctors in small towns all over America."

"Oh yes, every time I turn around someone is forwarding a brochure like that to me. Aren't you curious though since it is for a provider in your state. Doesn't that strike you as a sign from God." The laugh she showed me was steeped in sarcasm

"Do you believe in God?" I asked it because I was curious. I did not intend to start a religious discussion.

"Not for a long time," she answered.

"So you think of yourself as a humanist?" My drug recovering mind was running in circles.

"Yes, it is the kind of thinking that makes my job bearable. You can't see what I see and believe in fairy tales." She paused in thought a moment, "Well, I can't anyway."

"So rural medicine suddenly appeals to you?"

"Okay, let's get it out in the open. First of all Robin, I find that a stupid name." She switched from her serious look to one of complete lunacy.

"I agree, and it isn't my name. I am Jake Burke." I wasn't sure exactly what the prodigal was for a name exchange under those circumstances so I just smiled. It seemed to fill most awkward spots just fine.

"I like your real name." Autumn smiled before going on. "Now, I am thirty-five years old and do not have a life other than my work. I gather that you didn't either." She saw my amused look. "No Jake, I am not a virgin. I just haven't found a man I wanted to wake up beside more than five times."

"I know that feeling," I replied.

"Shut up Jake, I have the floor." She wasn't smiling that time. "Mom always said, when I met the right guy I would know it. If I had met you at twenty-five, I would have let you decide what to do. If you had gone home, I would have cried but gotten over it. I am thirty-five and I was knocked to my knees when you walked into that stinking room. You were the only one I saw, so I am not going to let you go. You Jake, now have a groupie or a stalker. I suppose it depends on how you look at it."

"I don't live in a small town. Where I live, we have all the doctors anyone could ever need." I was trying to think. Autumn had dropped a bomb on me. I didn't mind living alone, at least I hadn't up to that point. I was dancing around it and Autumn knew it.

"Don't worry Jake, I haven't planned to tie you up. I just plan to be around until you realize that you cant live without me." She smiled at me again.

"Well, I certainly don't mind having you around until you discover that I am not what you really want." I paused for a few seconds to let her think. "So what is the plan for today."

"The plan for today is for you to do absolutely nothing. I have about a dozen things to do. I wont be back until late, can you fend for yourself?"

"That's maybe the one thing I do best. I need to make a few calls. Is there a phone here?"

"No, this is a loaner apartment. You are going to have to use my cell phone."

"I can't use one of those things. The buttons are too small. Besides, it's like talking into a spoon."

"Then you are out of luck."

"Okay, how long before I can go home?" I knew that I could, and probably would be leaving by the end of the week. I didn't really need anyone's permission.

"If you are hot to get back, we can leave after tomorrow. I need that much time to clean up some things. Also like it or not, we have to go to Mom's for dinner tomorrow night."

"Isn't it a little soon to be meeting the family?" I grinned.

"It is always too soon to meet my mom," she said seriously. I couldn't get a read on her so I let it go without asking her to explain herself.

The next battle came when she showed me the pills I was supposed to take. "How many pills am I supposed to take?"

"Six in the morning and Three at night," she informed me.

"No, that is not acceptable. You go through them and cut it down to two in the morning and two at night. Otherwise, I will just not take any of them."

"Your doctor thinks you need all of them Jake. If you don't take them I will call him myself."

"Then call the sob. I am not going to take a handful of pills every morning. I will take two in the morning and two at night, period. As soon as I leave here I will probably stop those."

"Well, we will see. Let me do some research."

"Do it quick, because I am not taking anything until you and I come to an understanding. If you need the doctor's permission to feel good with it call him but I don't need it. He and I are through."

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Romantic /