Santiago's mumbled apology irritated Steve until he noticed the scarcely concealed panic on the bodyguard's face. Annoyance faded into sympathetic understanding. Oscar was doing it again. Steve focused his bionic eye on the crowd and carefully searched for the OSI director, finally locating him after a good two minutes of study.
"Over there." Steve directed the agent, who was looking distinctly ill. "He's standing in front of the piller."
Santiago peered in the direction Steve indicated. "I don't see him."
Steve nodded sagely. "You won't. Just follow me."
Trailed by the overly muscular, and now overly nervous rookie agent, Steve made his way over to the Director of the OSI, who,by all indications, was carefully studying a cup of tea. . Steve didn't let his boss out of his sight for an instant, knowing Oscar would likely vanish again and the whole scenario would have to be repeated. Steve had no idea how a man standing 6'3 could fade into the background so completely, but Oscar had an uncanny knack for doing just that.
Steve had once spent a frantic five minutes minutely examining every face in an Arabian marketplace only to discover his missing boss standing two feet away from him. The same thing had happened at embassy balls, crowded airports, hostile mob scenes and-in one memorable instance-an isolated village in Africa, where they were the only white men around for miles. In each case Oscar showed a chameleon like ability to blend into a crowd. It was a talent that drove his bodyguards to near despair.
Steve had even had a conversation with Rudy about the topic once.
"There's a problem with my bionic eye, Doc."
Rudy had been concerned. "What kind of problem?"
"Well, it seems to be a blind spot, or failure to register objects. It comes and goes. I just..I don't SEE things."
"Your bionic eye goes blind?"
"No, No. It doesn't go blind...the vision is there. It's just that I fail to see certain ...people... I sort of ...lose them and uh- "
"Wait a minute," Rudy looked like a lightbulb just went off. "Is it Oscar? Are you losing Oscar?"
"Constantly." Steve confessed.
"Oh." Rudy had sighed with relief. "Your eye is fine. Everyone loses Oscar."
Steve blinked. "They do?"
"Oh yeah, all the time. It's a gift he has."
A few casually placed questions had confirmed Rudys' statement: Everybody lost Oscar. Body Guards, Scientists, trained agents..all had been victimized by the lanky OSI chief's cheshire cat routine. Callahan was the only person Steve knew who could locate Oscar in a crowded room without any problem. After watching her walk into a room and zero in on her boss immediately, Steve had asked her how she did it.
"Just look for the spot where he doesn't seem to be and that's where is he." Callahan had answered.
Steve had never successfully translated her advice into a useful guideline.
Part of Oscar's habit of disappearing could be due to his dislike of bodyguards in general, which is why the agents who passed their training with the lowest scores got assigned the duty. Oscar tended to think of them as being all brawn and no brain; not an entirely fair assessment, Steve felt, but they generally did seem to excel at the muscle jobs.
Oscar glanced up casually as they approached, and got to his feet.
"Oh, there you two are." He said it as if he'd been searching for them instead of vice versa. "Let's get back to the airport."
"Mr Goldman," Santiago almost panted as he glued himself to Oscar's shoulder, doubtless fearing if he lost sight of his boss he'd never see him again. "Mr Goldman, we need to talk, sir."
Oscar paused on the sidewalk. "We do?"
"Yes sir." Santiago planted himself doggedly in front of the taller man and took a deep breath. "Mr Goldman sir....Sir you shouldn't be doing that."
Oscar gave him a blank stare. "Doing what?"
"Trying to lose me." Oscar lifted his eyebrows in surprise and Steve gave the kid points for guts. Oscar's assigned bodyguards did a lot of private grumbling but this was the first time one had actually bearded him about the subject. "I'm supposed to be looking after you sir. You know valuable information about national security that a lot of people would like to get. Endangering yourself by ditching me....that's just not right, sir. You're not just risking your life, Mr Goldman, you're risking a bunch of other people lives too. You shouldn't be....well, you shouldn't be...." Santiago trailed off, looking miserable and Steve wondered just how much damage the kid had done to his career.
Oscar studied the agent silently for a moment.
"Mr Santiago," he said evenly. "You're right."
"I...huh?" From Santiago's expression he'd been expecting to be fired.
"You're absolutely correct. I won't do that to you again."
"Uhhh..." Santaigo was staring at Oscar with a sort of slack jawed surprise.
"Close your mouth, Santiago. The flies will get in."
'Yes Sir!. I mean No sir. I will. I...let me get the car door for you, sir."
Santiago was hopelessly rattled, covering it up by opening the limosine door and standing at near attention mode, before sliding into the driver's seat for the ride back. Oscar waited until the car had gone about a block before bringing up the subject again.
"I do sincerely apologize, Santiago. It's sort of a habit. I hadn't realized I had become so proficient at not being seen."
"Oh, yes sir, you are really good at that. Any one who's been your bodyguard complains..mentions it."
"Oh, well. Nice to know all those hours studying with MPFC paid off." Oscar mumbled.
"Sir?" Santiago asked, confused.
"Uh..MPFC that's uh-"
"It that a foreign intellegence organization, sir?"
Oscar blinked. "Of a sort. Honestly, I would be surprised if you know anything about them."
Santiago's eyes gleamed. "Are they a top secret group, sir?"
"I don't know that you could say that..."
"MP...they must be british, right sir?" Steve could just see the wheels in Santiago's head spinning.
"Well done, Santiago. Yes, they are UK. A very eclectic group, very creative thinkers with an astonishing body of work to their credit."
"Are they associated with M13?"
"Um...I think they have the same basic source of funding."
Steve eyed his boss suspiciously.
"We didn't study them in training, I'm certain of it." Plainly, Santiago was intrigued.
"No, you didn't." Oscar agreed. "In fact, I think you're the first agent I've mentioned it to. There isn't any real organized information about them in the OSI so we can't really do any training on them-"
"I can gather information on them, sir!" Santiago was starting to look excited.
Oscar looked doubtful. "That would require a lot of research, Santiago. That's honestly not your strong point."
"I can do it, Mr Goldman." Santiago was focused so intently on his boss that Steve worried they'd drive off the road.
"Please sir? I really want to do this!"
Oscar considered the request carefully as they pulled into the airport parking lot.
"All right, Santiago. I'll tell you what. You write a report on the MPFC, and once I'm satisfied you've gathered all the salient information about them, I'll make you a field agent. Agreed?"
Santiago literally bounced. "Yes sir! I'll get right to work on it! I won't let you down, Mr Goldman!"
Steve bit his tongue. He had his suspicions but he wasn't one hundred percent sure. As they boarded the plane, though, Col Austin decided he would keep a careful on Santiago. He didn't want the boy disappointed.
Steve paused as he walked to the doorway of Oscar Goldman's office. Santiago was fidgeting in a nearby chair, a folder thick with pages clutched in his hands.
"What's up, Santiago?'
The bodyguard smiled excitedly. "I've come to show Mr Goldman my research on.." He glanced at Callahan working nearby and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "....the MPFC."
"Oh?" Steve wondered if he'd been wrong. "You found out everything about them?"
Santiago's smile faltered a little. "Well, no. I have dug up information from our files and I've cross referenced it with M13 records where there may be a connection. It's really difficult, Colonel. There's just not a lot of information about them. I can't find anything solid. I'm hoping that what I have will be enough for Mr Goldman to..ya know.?"
"Promote you to field agent." As always, Steve felt like patting the agent on the head. He really did remind Steve of a hopelessly eager puppy dog. "Well, why don't you come in with me and see what Oscar says?"
"Really sir? You don't mind?"
"Not at all, Santiago. Go on in." Steve followed the young man into the office, hoping that he was wrong.
"Sorry Santiago." Oscar said, after reviewing the file. "You've done a lot of research, and I'm impressed, but...no."
Santiago deflated like a balloon stuck with a pin. "No?"
"Oh, it's excellent work." Oscar assured the young man. "You're research is organized, it's cross referenced, it's very complete....you have some things in here about M13 I didn't know about. But, you're still not telling me who the MPFC is."
Santiago stared unhappily at the floor. "No sir, I guess I'm not."
'That SOB.' Steve thought, resentfully. Oscar was playing a sadistic game with Santiago and Steve had just about had enough.
"Santiago, stick with it a little bit longer." Oscar sounded genuinely encouraging. "This is great work. It really is. Just cast your net a little bit wider and keep an open mind. You're very close. Okay?"
Santiago cheered up a bit. "Yes Sir. I'll keep at it, Mr Goldman."
Steve considered strangulation as Oscar returned to his paperwork and Santiago closed the door behind him. Steve waited until the latch clicked shut before confronting his boss.
"You're a jerk."
"Excuse me?" Oscar looked surprised.
"I know what you're doing with that poor kid."
"I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about."
"Oh come on, the importance of not being seen? The MPFC?" Oscar gave him a blank look, which only irritated Steve further."Monty Python's Flying Circus?"
Oscar studied Steve gravely. "Oh dear, I think my cover has been blown."
"You've got Santiago running in circles, wasting his time trying to dig up information on an intellegence organization that doesn't exist. Do you know how much time he's spent in the last month researching this? What kind of twisted enjoyment are you getting out of this?"
Oscar initialed the papers in front of him, not at all disturbed by Steve's outburst. "Do you know why Santiago is a bodyguard?"
Steve glared at him. "Mean spiritedness?"
Oscar was unruffled. "His research skills weren't good enough to be a field agent. He simply didn't the experience to be able to find information that was already out there and piece it together. He also tends to think in a straight line rather than laterally. After two months of digging, his research skills are 100 percent better. He's managed to turn up almost everything I've planted in the records. The day he can tell me who the MPFC is, I'll know he's ready."
Steve blinked, feeling foolish. "So this whole thing is just a training exercise?"
Oscar shrugged. "One must seize what has been offered. I just glad it was the importance of not being seen and not dead parrots. Or the rabbit with large pointy teeth.'"
Steve stared at the OSI director and felt an unexpected sensation in his chest. He was chuckling. No, he was laughing and to his utter shock, Oscar was too. The whole ridiculous conversation, the unexpected glimpse into an engagingly silly sense of humor that he would have sworn Oscar Goldman didn't have, the idea of the director of the OSI sneaking into the agency library at night to plant false leads about Dead Parrots and rabbits with large pointy teeth simply was too much to hold in at one time and Steve found himself gasping for breath between bouts of laughter.
"I suppose..I suppose you don't want me to tip off Santiago?" He finally managed to get the question out by holding his aching sides.
"I'd prefer he find out for himself." Oscar had a little more control and was back to his usual bland expression with only the amusement dancing in his eyes giving him away. "He's a smart fellow; he'll pick it up quickly."
"Ah." Steve nodded, before something occurred to him and he walked over to the bookshelf, pulling out an unlabeled video he had seen Oscar carefully place there several times before. "Let me guess: Monty Python and the Holy Grail?"
Oscar peered at it for a second. "I think that's "The Life of Brian."
Santiago was up to something. Steve wasn't sure just what, but the bodyguard had the smug look of someone who has a secret as he held the car door open for Oscar.
"Here you go sir."
"Thank you Santiago." Oscar got into the back seat and immediately started pulling out reports that needed to be read.
"Would you care for some music, Mr Goldman?" Santiago asked as he started the car.
"No thank you."
"Oh I think you'll like this number, Mr Goldman. I got it just for you."
Santiago slipped a tape into the car deck and as the car pulled away Steve heard two surprising things from the rolled down window of the limousine: One was the jaunty strains an english marching tune that heralded Monty Python's Flying Circus. The other was Oscar Goldman laughing out loud.